[Abridged version: Stay indoors. Drink Scotch.]
Last week’s sub-zero temperatures across much of the continental United States were Big News. We all heard the reports and saw the pictures of children blowing bubbles that froze solid, polar bears sheltering inside their zoo houses, planes grounded due to freezing fuel, lighthouses covered in buttercream-thick ice, schools closed because of cold.
As most Vermonters are aware, however, last week was a fairly unremarkable week in our own state, as winter temperatures go; the temperature hovered between the single digits and teens, with one bizarre rainy thaw into the 30s.
Vermont’s own sub-zero temperatures came the week before the rest of the country: the first week of the New Year. The National Weather Service recorded negative temperatures in Middlebury every day between January 2 and 5; on January 3, the high was -3. I witnessed a -17 reading on our outdoor thermometer; one afternoon as I prepared to meet the school bus, I found myself thinking, “Oh, good, it’s warmed up to -5; otherwise, it’d be really cold out there!”
A local friend swears that 8 degrees is the cutoff beyond which it’s impossible to enjoy the outdoors; if he’s right, there was no enjoying the outdoors for an entire week. Our dog stood at the open porch door each morning, tentatively extended a paw, then gave up and collapsed by the woodstove. Our daughters were more daring, at one point begging to play outside in -11 temperatures; that lasted about five minutes. School wasn’t cancelled, but recess was, as were the girls’ Nordic skiing classes. My California-born husband made vague threats about moving to Florida, then took great delight in proclaiming, “It’s SO WARM!” when the temperature topped out at 18 degrees.
It was at 18 degrees that we attempted to enjoy the outdoors again; a decision that corresponded with an invitation from our friends Cris and Courtney to join them for an ice skating party on their pond. My husband doesn’t skate due to flat feet, and my youngest child doesn’t skate due to not walking, so I left them behind and headed to Cris and Courtney’s with our three oldest daughters and our skates.
Cris and Courtney’s pond is about 150 meters from their house, down a trail through the woods; for the average person, that’s a 6-minute walk. On this particular day, we walked through late-afternoon sun shining low between the evergreen trees and making the snow glow. We reached the frozen pond, which Courtney had cleared of snow. Cris started a small bonfire on the shore, we changed the kids from snow boots to skates, and settled in to enjoy some timeless winter fun.
This was my daughters’ first time skating on a pond; all of their previous skating has been on the rink at Middlebury’s Memorial Sports Center. The lovely thing about pond ice is that it’s easier to skate on for slip-prone children, because it’s rougher than rink ice. So the skating party got off to a rollicking start, with six children careening across the ice, staging races, attempting spins, crashing into snow banks, and laughing hysterically.
After about ten minutes, the boys decided they were cold and headed back to the house. The two mothers and four daughters remaining on the ice exalted in our “girl power.”
Ten minutes later, as the sun sank lower, the mood changed abruptly. My two youngest daughters left the ice to sit on buckets by the dying bonfire, where they whimpered about the cold. My oldest daughter, smiling only seconds before, suddenly burst into tears and cried, “I’m FREEZING!”
Clearly, it was time to return indoors. No problem; I had only to remove three pairs of skates from three completely unhelpful, hysterical children with my own frozen fingers. And then we all had to walk the 150 meters back to the house.
To give you a sense of perspective, the Bataan Death March was 128,000 meters, but I guarantee you that those poor POWs complained a whole lot less than my daughters. I carried my two-year-old the entire way. My six-year-old stopped 50 meters from the house and sobbed, “We’ll NEVER get there!” The prize goes to Courtney, who carried a backpack full of skates and my four-year-old atop her shoulders.
After mugs of hot chocolate with whipped cream, my daughters proclaimed the afternoon, “The best time EVER!”
Which reminded me that the key to enjoying freezing temperatures – and really any temperatures – with kids is: Embrace Brevity. Adults tend to think that quality and quantity are tied up together; that if an experience is over seconds after it’s begun, it’s somehow been a failure. That’s because we know the amount of effort required to create the experience: the hours selecting and wrapping the gifts that are torn apart in seconds, the amount of gear that had to be loaded into the car for 20 minutes of skiing. We see how quickly our children are growing, and we want to give them happy, memorable experiences before they’re gone. But how memorable are five minutes of happiness?
Very memorable, I think. Kid time isn’t like adult time; those five minutes of fun make up a much bigger proportion of their lives-to-date. Newness helps, too: Your first time skating on a pond is bound to be memorable, no matter how long it lasts. I’m also learning that kids are able to tune out things – like temper tantrums and hypothermia – that we adults consider fun-busters. They just don’t figure into the final equation, especially if followed by hot chocolate.
So, my advice for enjoying the cold with kids: Get out there. Have fun. Briefly.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.