31 December 2008

31 December 2008: winter wonderland

Some thoughts on precipitation:

Swimming in the rain is an amazing experience. Late-summer rains, the kind that close the beach, bring a silvery gray sheen to the horizon, as a background drape of light velvet, or chiffon. The water roils and bubbles, flat and viscous, metallic and dolphin-grey. In the altered, dull light, objects in the water seem perfectly outlined against the sky and sea, as paper cutouts on a single backing. A universe of no-glare, this strange oceanscape seems endless as one swims through it, becoming riddled with a driving rain and fog that obscures the shore and jetties. We swim in tight packs, bright caps cutting through the silver, and shout to keep track of one another. Sound seems to travel as if within a vaulted chamber, flat and hollow as a long-lost mountain cry.

But a swim in a snowstorm verges on surreal, as if the world might whirl into a snowdrift and disappear. Stripping on the beach feels like total madness. The ocean, thankfully, is more welcoming than the air. The snow and sand mix at the waterline, lace lines of snow flitting across the icy sand vacated by hissing waves. Snowflakes cover the water before the sandy scene. Like a sandstorm executed in snow, the whirling-white beach glitters, swirls and dips as the wind whips your ears. A deserted beach makes a true snowstorm. Being there feels like being in a blizzard at the end of the earth. The water is the warmest place to be, but the hands freeze into hard blocks and rectangles on contact with the air. The birds float serenely at the shoreline, or huddle flocked on the sand.

Spending ten minutes in this alternate world, green and brown water and Siberian chill, is but a tease, but we get out after a brief there-and-back to a pre-determined point along the shore. It's wiser, in this weather, to avoid frostbite.

The wind barely allows me to get my towel around my waist before I lose feeling in my hands, which feel brittle and prickly. I pull on my boots over metallic-feeling feet and throw my coat over my shoulders. Cristian manages to work his hands into the pockets of his parka, and we are walking within 15 seconds. I don't recall looking at anything on the walk back but my hands, which I cannot get into my pockets or my cuffs. I cross my arms against the storm.

When our hands have warmed up, we don't even shiver. What have we done to our bodies? This icy dip-and-sprint, potentially fatal for most, is a nice little bath for Cristian and me. Last weekend, the four of us (plus one on Sunday) stayed in for twenty minutes, shivering afterwards for real for the first time this year. But a short jaunt like this-- almost pointless in the below-zero windchill-- barely affects us. Somehow, we've acclimated our bodies to the cold. It fascinates me that these changes have lasted from last winter until now, that my body not only remembers how to behave in the cold, but seems to have evolved to better withstand it.

Last winter, the vagus nerve at the back of my neck would swell and burn, or so it felt, when I began to swim. This felt like an excruciating headache until I focused on my swimming, a small explosion in my spine, neck and sinuses. This year, it reacts with mild pleasure at the shock of the cold. The vagus nerve controls the communications between the brain stem and the chest organs; stimulation is said to be a balm for seizures, anxiety, dementia and other disorders. Could this explain our winter madness? What does it mean to reach another level? Cristian wonders whether our chests and heads will ever experience the pain we feel in our fingers and toes as they warm up. It's a good question. How much can our bodies endure, and will there always be pain to warn us that they are in danger? Or will we keep adapting and thriving in the cold until we become creatures of the winter? Do our bodies have the memory to change with the seasons?

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