On adjusting to the cold and dark

After suffering from SAD for half my life, I’ve had it pretty good the past few years. Last year in particular was actually great—it was like I was a regular person.

This year has not gotten off to a good start, with gloom pressing in on me before we’d even reached Halloween.

With every year being an experiment with n=1 it’s hard to know what makes a difference and what doesn’t, but one thing that occurred to me right away was that last year I had gotten my mind right about the cold (in particular) early.

Two strong influences in the early fall last year were Jackie (who always enjoys the cold weather as an opportunity to wear her woollies) and Katy Bowman (who talks about cold as an opportunity for movement).

In particular, in the run-up to last winter, I came upon not just Katy Bowman but plenty of other natural-movement/ancestral-health folk talking about using cold as an appropriate stressor via cold training.

Many things that people do to induce healthful, adaptive changes in the body are stressors, and produce their beneficial effects precisely for that reason—because the body adapts to tolerate the stress by becoming stronger. Load-bearing exercise makes for stronger muscles and bones. Endurance exercise strengthens the cardiovascular system. Mechanical stresses make for tougher skin. Heat (as in a sauna, but also just from being active outdoors on a hot day) prompts the production of heat-shock proteins that have numerous protective effects at a cellular level, and it turns out that not just heat but all kinds of other stressors, including cold, cause the body to upregulate the production of those same proteins.

Anyway, my point is not that I need to jump into some Wim Hof-style cold training, but that there was a mental shift that I managed to make last year: to view cold as an appropriate stressor that I should revel in, rather than a source of unpleasantness that I should avoid.

This year I haven’t (yet) managed it. Partially I think it was just that the people I follow about this stuff probably feel like they’ve had their say about cold training and have moved on to other stuff, so I wasn’t hearing about it at exactly the right time. Partially I think it was because of the details of the change of seasons this year: We had hot summer weather right into October, then there was a week when it was very rainy, and then it changed to cold, late-fall weather.

Something about missing out on the transition from summer to fall meant that I was taken off-guard. I went from walking shirtless in the sun to wearing a winter coat with no transition except some days when it was too cloudy to get any sun anyway.

However, I am determined not to let this thwart me. It is not too late to get my mind right about the cold.

Feeling good

Most years, as the winter gloominess lifts, there comes a day when I think, “Hey! Things are just fine! I feel good!” Although I worry just a little that I’m being premature here—in Central Illinois it’s entirely possible to have a whole winter’s worth of snow and cold weather in the first month or two of spring—for me this year, that day was yesterday.

In fact, today I’m just a bit manic—enough that I think Jackie was finding me something of a pest, although she bore up well. (It’s worth mentioning here that my manic—as manic as I ever get—is really quite calm. Let me put it this way: an average person on a day with an ordinary mix of good and bad news probably goes through swings of emotion that cover my entire annual range.)

Jackie and I have been re-watching the TV series “Chuck,” and last night we got to the episode where Chuck and Sarah have finally gotten together—the episode that ends with Chuck suggesting that he’s found the song to be Sarah’s favorite, a song by Nina Simone. I don’t have a recording of her version, but I some years ago grabbed a recording posted by fellow occasional Wise Bread writer Nora Dunn performing “Feeling Good,” which is still there at Nora’s site, and which I commend to your attention.

 

Comfort activity (and a novel update)

A few years after we got married, Jackie and I planned a Key West vacation for February. I figured early-to-mid February would be perfect—we’d get to escape a week of winter weather, and when we got back in mid-to-late February it would be almost March and it would be safe to start looking forward to spring.

Probably most important—to my mind, more important than the vacation itself—was the anticipation of the vacation. My plan was that we’d spend all January looking forward to the vacation. We’d be kept busy with preparations and packing, we’d be researching things we might do in Key West and making plans. Looking forward to our vacation was supposed to make January zip by more quickly.

Unfortunately, that was the year the airline pilots threatened to go on strike, with the planned strike date the day before our flight to Key West. So, instead of spending all January looking forward to my vacation, I spent all January wondering if I’d spend my vacation in the airport, waiting on labor negotiations.

In the event the pilots did go on strike, but Bill Clinton ordered them back to work for a month, so we got to Key West and had our vacation as planned. It was a fine week in Key West, but a real dud of an anticipatory month of January. The experience strongly reinforced my view that the anticipation is worth as much as the vacation itself.

I mention all that because I’ve found our party preparations similarly diverting. We picked the date a couple of months back. (I’d proposed a New Year’s Eve party, a date Jackie rejected as too soon for us to be ready. She counter-proposed Groundhog’s Day, and then we settled on Groundhog’s Day Eve because it was a Sunday and we wanted to do an afternoon party.)

So we’ve had most of two months to anticipate our party. We would have been busy anyway—still unpacking from having moved, family visiting early in the new year, both on top of all our usual activities. With party preparations as well, we’ve been busy every minute.

All of which I figure is worth mentioning, because this was probably the best January I’ve had in about as long as I can remember.

I used to suffer from seasonal depression pretty routinely. It’s been better of late (probably helped by using my HappyLight™, by taking vitamin D, and by not working a regular job), but it’s never gone away. I still suffer from anxiety starting in early fall just from knowing that the days are going to get short. But this year has been great—and I think being busy with the activities of party preparation have been a big part of it.

Clearly it’s worth planning something for early February that I can spend January anticipating. I don’t know if it should be a party every year though. Perhaps a vacation that didn’t come with a month of worry about airline pilot’s strikes would be even better. (With the bonus of getting us someplace warm for a week.)

I did want to mention that progress on the novel proceeds apace. Despite being busy, I’ve managed to work on the novel very nearly every single day since the solstice.

As of just a few days ago, I’d made my way through the middle third—and I’m pretty pleased with it. As I feared, the final third is in rougher shape than I’d like. I’d gone through it once already, reworking it from a short story into the final third of a novel, but now that I’m here, I can see that there’s a lot left to do.

There’s also a good bit of new writing that needs to happen. The short story wrapped up with an explanation of why things were going to be okay. It didn’t quite work as a short story, which is part of what made me want to expand it to a novel. But as I pressed through the first two-thirds, I realized that what needs to happen is that events predicted in that explanation need to actually happen in full-blown scenes. And those scenes haven’t been written yet.

That’s okay, though. I’ve really enjoyed the bits here and there during the rewrite when I came upon a scene where, in the first draft, I’d said, “Since they’d remembered to do X . . .” and went back to write the scene where they did X. Now I’m looking forward to writing two or three or four scenes of additional climax and dénouement.

It’ll be great.

After the thaw is over

After the thaw is over

A week of warm weather melted almost all the snow. But now it’s back below freezing. The puddles are just starting to freeze, beginning with little rings of frost on and around individual blades of grass.

We had two January thaws this year, one in December and one in February.

The December one was pleasant, and not very dangerous. We could enjoy a few days of mild weather without any risk of thinking that we didn’t have a full three months of winter ahead of us.

When you get your January thaw in February, though, you have to be careful. It’s easy to hope that you have seen the last of the winter weather. But that hope is a dangerous one—the sort that’s all too prone to be crushed under ice and snow and brutal cold.

Preferring to keep my hopes uncrushed, I’m trying to remember that it’s still a month until spring.