A black dog wearing a khaki dog coat

I put Ashley in her new coat, put on my Alaska Pipeline coat, and went out into the bitter, bitter cold. Ashley would have liked to come right back in, but I made her stay outside until she had accomplished a couple of very important tasks.

At the airport it’s currently -9°F, with a wind chill of -34°F (-37°C).

Jackie and I went out for a walk this morning, as we do. The double-digit negative windchill seemed to offer a bit in the way of bragging rights, even if it wasn’t nearly as cold as a year ago.

Me and Jackie one year ago, when the temperatures were -16℉

I’ve got a bit more in the way of clothing choices this year, having bought a bunch of cold weather gear for winter running, but I didn’t use much of the new stuff.

I wore my Alaska pipeline coat, of course. Under that I wore my Dale of Norway sweater that Barbara bought on her last trip to Antarctica. Under that I wore a silk mock-T base layer. For my lower body I wore my flannel-lined jeans, which were just the right weight by themselves. (I’ve got a pair of fleece-lined khakis a size larger, big enough to wear tights or something under, for when it’s really, really cold, but I didn’t need them today.) I wore silk sock liners under my usual wool/silk-blend socks, under my new waterproof Lems boulder boots. (I’m very pleased with these boots so far. All the minimal/barefoot features I want, waterproof, and warm enough for the bitter cold.)

The one imperfect thing about the Alaska pipeline coat is that the hood is hugely oversized (I assume so that it can go over a hardhat) and tends to slump down over my face, obstructing my vision. So to keep my head warm I wore the Khyber pass hat that Jackie made me. (If you remember the war in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance forces wore the same sort of hat. Very versatile—roll it up and it covers the top of your head to keep the sun off. Roll it down and you’ve got a thick wool hat you can pull down over your ears.)

All of that, except the bolder boots, was pretty much what I was wearing a year ago in the picture above, but this year I had one novel item: I wore a buff over my neck and the lower half of my face. It’s just a thin layer of microfiber, but over my beard it was dramatically warmer than just the uncovered beard. I’ve had buffs for years, but I mostly wear them in hot weather (to keep the sun off my neck), so I think of them as cooling rather than warming. It was amazing to find how much of a difference it made just to put a layer over my beard.

I was interested to read John Scalzi’s thoughts about his wardrobe in Why I Wear What I Do, because his thinking (although not his sartorial choice) mirrors my own. Like him, I’m very aware that any disadvantage that accrues to me from my choosing to dress down is going to be minor and temporary. Like him, I’m aware that this is a privilege that doesn’t apply to everybody.

Sometimes I get hit in the face with a reminder that this issue is real, even if it mostly doesn’t apply to me. A couple instances come to mind. One was being taken for a possible bicycle thief.

Bicycle thief

A couple of summers back, my brother was visiting, and he and I were out walking in the neighborhood of my apartment complex. Our route took us past a Wienerschnitzel fast-food restaurant. Outside the entrance, a bicycle had been left, unlocked, lying on the pavement.

The bicycle caught my eye because of the owner’s alternative to locking it up: He had removed the left pedal and taken it with him. I paused for a moment to think about that. It wouldn’t, I remember thinking, be effective against someone who showed up with a truck to haul off stolen bicycles, but it probably would be effective against the casual thief who simply wanted to ride a few blocks instead of walking. It’d not only be hard to ride, it would be hard even to mount—most people stand on the left pedal as they swing their right leg over the seat. It was a clever minimalist solution, that I wanted to stash in my brain for possible future use, if I needed to leave my bike unattended briefly and was unable to use my lock for some reason.

I’d only had a moment to think about it, when the owner came out of the restaurant, saw me looking at his bike, and began cursing me as a someone who was contemplating theft.

I saw no point in engaging with the guy, so I just walked on, expressing my amusement to my brother, who pointed out that my appearance might well have made me look like a possible thief. I was dressed down—I don’t remember what I was wearing, but it was almost certainly shorts and a t-shirt, possibly ragged. More to the point, I was on foot. (Anyone who isn’t in a car probably has something wrong with them—if they’re not alcoholics who have lost their driver’s license, they’re either poor or they’re some kind of weirdo. And I had to give him that one. I am some kind of weirdo, although not the bike-stealing kind.)

The other instance springs from my habit of letting my beard grow in the winter, which I do because it keeps my face warm.

Taken for a homeless guy

Maybe three years ago, on the coldest evening of a cold winter, I was on my way home from my Esperanto group. Having gotten to the bus stop just after my usual bus home had departed, I decided to take the next bus to the station, so I could wait indoors for the next bus home.

While I was waiting for my bus, a group of volunteers from local non-profit service organizations came in offering hats, gloves, other winter gear, referrals to homeless shelters, and hot beverages. One of them, clearly taking me to be a homeless person, focused on me.

For some reason, I was unable to come up with a response. I mean, I clearly should have just told her that my cold weather ensemble was entirely up to the task, and that in any case I was wasn’t homeless and would be heading home on the next bus. But I couldn’t quite get it out. First, it took me several seconds to realize that she was talking to me in particular, and then several more seconds to understand that she really thought I was an obvious example of her target audience.

Only then did it occur to me what I looked like. It was a really cold day, so I was wearing my warmest coat:


More to the point, it was winter and I’d grown out my beard. The picture above shows me with my neatly trimmed spring beard. At the time of the incident I had grown my beard out to its full winter length, so it probably looked more like this:


So, you know, I can accept being mistaken for a homeless person.

Issue of privilege

In my case, neither of the incidents did me any harm, but either one could have. In the bicycle incident, if circumstances had been only a bit different, the police might have gotten involved. Probably not a problem for me—even dressed down, I’m a middle-aged white guy with an education and some capital—but any interaction with the police has the potential to go badly wrong.

The other incident could have been even more problematic. What if I’d missed the last bus, and decided that rather than call for help or take a taxi, I’d just walk home? That’s something I really might do, even at night, even in the cold. But a scruffy-looking guy out on foot in the bitter cold might well draw more insistent offers of help than those that had rendered me speechless. Maybe a ride to a homeless shelter. Or a psych ward.

By the way, another bit of the internal conflict that kept me from articulately assuring the social worker that I was fine and that she should go look for people who actually needed help was that I was wearing what is probably the warmest coat in the world. My heavy winter parka was designed for workers on the Alaska Pipeline. Purchased cheap when work on the pipeline wound down, it has lasted more than 30 years already, and I expect it will last the rest of my life. I was trying to come up with a polite way to say that what they had in the way of cold weather gear couldn’t possibly measure up to what I already had.

Scaliz’s post was a response to The Logic of Stupid Poor People, an excellent essay on just how subtle the trade-offs are for a poor person deciding what it’s worth spending money on. Having a keen eye for when the right status symbol will open a door that would otherwise be shut (or ensure that an interaction with the police is courteous rather than confrontational) is a third option that I failed to consider when I wrote Not Stupid—Hopeless.

By the way, I used to wear polo shirts a lot, for just the reasons that Scalzi mentions: The collar makes the shirt just dressy enough to raise you above the t-shirt wearing classes, without making it look like you’re trying too hard. At some point, I found that middle-ground was no longer working for me. If circumstances call for something nicer than a t-shirt, I’m more comfortable in a shirt that buttons all the way down the front. My 30-something self would have found that weird. Why, the past few years, I’ve even been known to wear a tie voluntarily! (For a lot of reasons, some very much related to these issues—to manipulate what people think of me when they see how I’m dressed, and to mock the fact that people think that way.)

It was on my first trip to England that I came to understand that what we think of as formal wear, business attire, and sports clothing was originally designed to be the most comfortable possible clothing for the circumstances. The circumstances in this case being the climate, technology, and infrastructure of England in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Without central heat interiors were going to be chilly, but even if you were quite frugal with your wood or coal they would not have to be really cold.

Given those indoor circumstances, and given that you had to make do with wool, silk, linen, and cotton (because there were no synthetic fibers), you would quite naturally end up with just the sort of garments that we now think of as being part of formal wear—wool coats and vests, silk bands to wrap around your neck, and so on. Sport clothing, of course, was for the sort of sports the English aristocracy engaged in: riding and shooting. Tweed and leather were very practical.

It seems obvious now, but it was something of a revelation to me. When I was younger, I always thought of that sort of clothing as being uncomfortable.

Partially that’s because such clothing is only really comfortable if it really fits. You don’t need a bespoke suit for it to fit correctly; even today good men’s clothing is routinely altered to fit. But clothing purchased for a child will never fit for long (and often never fit at all, because the child knows neither how the garment is supposed to fit nor how to articulate any issues discovered during the fitting).

Perhaps more important, such clothing is only comfortable in the sort of very cool environment for which it was originally designed. If your interior temperatures are around 60°F, you will be more comfortable in a wool coat over a wool vest than you would be in shirtsleeves. At 70°F it will be the other way around.

My attitudes toward such things has also been influenced by Jackie’s work with fiber. In my youth, my experience with wool was that it was scratchy, uncomfortable stuff (totally aside from it being made into garments that didn’t fit and were wrong for the climate). Now I’ve learned about the many different kinds of wool—starting with merino, of course, but by no means ending there—that are not scratchy. Now I have wonderful vests and sweaters, made to fit, from premium materials.

Of course, the top layers are really the last thing to think about. Comfortable clothing begins with the base layer. There again, my experiences as a child turned me against a whole very useful category: long underwear. Any clothing that you’re going to put another layer of clothing on top of needs to fit exactly right. An outer layer that’s too loose can be tolerated. But a too-loose under layer is going to get bunched up and shifted away from where it needs to be: Intolerable.

The ill-fitting hand-me-down long underwear I got as a child turned me against a whole category of garments that doubtless have an important role to play in comfortable dressing. I’m only now, more than two decades after returning to the Midwest, beginning to accumulate items for an appropriate cold-weather base layer. (I’ve made do up to now by having a wide range of top-layer options: spring jackets, fall jackets, winter coats, parkas, my Alaska pipeline coat.)

As a young man, I think I’d have been perfectly happy to wear nothing but shorts and t-shirts, and simply crank up the heat to make up the difference. My attitude has changed. If I had the money, I’d be very pleased to get and wear wool coats and vests, silk cravats, smoking jackets, and the like. Not because of the fashion statement they’d make (which would be a rather silly statement, however much I’ve come to appreciate a fine tweed), but because they’d be very comfortable.

Still full dark yesterday morning when I ventured out in the bitter cold to make the pre-dawn drive to Normal to give an 8:00 AM presentation on Esperanto.

I dressed for the cold—wool socks, flannel-lined jeans, wool shirt under my Alaska pipeline surplus coat, hand-knit wool hat, scarf, and mittens—so I was comfortable enough. (And it was cold. Official temp when I headed out was just -6℉, but it kept dropping as I drove and was apparently -11℉ by the time I arrived.)

It was a rather pleasant drive. The roads were clear, so I was able to make good time. (When it’s that cold ice isn’t really very slippery anyway.) There was a nearly full moon high in the south-west, so bright I was glad it wasn’t any lower or more westerly—it would have made it hard to see the road. In the rear-view mirror I could see the sky behind me turn pink with the approaching dawn.

I’d been invited by John Baldwin to teach a little Esperanto to one of his classes. He’d just introduced the students to the topic of morphemes, which are hard to teach to native speakers of English. English has morphemes, of course, but they’re largely fossilized—artifacts of the history of the language, rather than active components that speakers use all the time to build words and sentences the way they are in Esperanto.

I taught them a little Esperanto through the direct method—teaching them “Mia nomo estas . . .” and “Mi havas ĉapelon.” Then I went over the grammar of the language, with an emphasis on the morphemes, and then we translated some sentences into and out of Esperanto. I had a good time. The students seemed engaged. The professor said he was pleased with how things went. So, it was all good.

Things wrapped up promptly at 8:50. I got back in my car and drove back home. Not a boring drive, because things looked quite different by daylight. I did some thinking about my next story.

It was warming up—about 0℉ by the time I got home.