Don't tell Alaskans about your frozen water pipes. Our psyches are being destroyed because it's been too warm here to ski.
As Washington shivered through the inaugural chill, Anchorage had to deal with the cancellation of the Palmer Classic sled dog race up in the Matanuska Valley last weekend. Not enough snow.
If you lived in Alaska, you'd know how to handle the cold weather. What you might not know is what to do with your goose-down parkas during this, Alaska's warmest winter in years.
It's easy to live in the cold, you see. Nothing to it.
I won't bother mentioning the electric heaters which we have built into our auto engines. There probably isn't anywhere to plug them at your shopping centers anyhow. You probably can't even buy thaw-line, the special electric cables with which we heat water pipes.
That's not important anyway. What you have to worry about is your mind.
It is not true that cold weather shrinks your brain. None of us here believes that. What it does is shrink your options, move them indoors and focus them on people, not places or machines. A good friends will prove far more reliable than a V-8.
The sociological theory currently in vogue holds that bitter weather "enforces a sense of community." For most of us, that means that it gets too cold to play outdoors and so somebody throws a party. There is a great comfort to be found in friends, fire-places and hot buttered rum when the weather is as cold as a bill collector's heart. You start by being glad to be indoors anywhere, and then begin to enjoy being indoors where you are.
That leads to another item, and the sad but provable statistic is this: alcoholism rates climb in rough proportion to the parallel of latitude; the farther north, the heavier the drinking. It is true in many Scandinavian countries, and it's true in Alaska. Although this state does not always lead the nation in per capital drinking, it's always close. And it is very consistent.
Bars in Anchorage and most other Alaska cities say open until 5 a.m. and reopen at 8. The old navy custom of abstaining until the sun is over the yardarm is a poor rule in a town where the sun sets at 3:30 p.m. in December.
But drinking need not be your only winter pursuit. Alaska is the only state to have legalized possession of marijuana in one's own home. The connection between the weed and the weather is conjectural, but it does reflect a northern belief that there is, in the words of a state supreme court justice, "a fundamental right to be left alone."
Another method of whiling away the winter is reflected in the statistics a leading Anchorage hospital compiled. Last September, nine months after the cold month of December, 139 babies were born. Nine months after August, the total was 98.
Even considering those alternatives, it is good to get outdoors as often as possible. Indoor recreation, while interesting, is limited.
Regardless of what your body tells you, you are unlikely to freeze to death walking around at 20 degrees. Learn to develop an "it's cold but I'm tough" attitude. There is a lot of machismo involved in cold weather survival.
There has to be in Fairbanks, where winter weather of 60 degrees below zero shatters car tires. If you start feeling really cold, think about that. Or pretend you're a Mt. KcKinley climber, where sudden summer temperatures of 20 below combine with bristling winds to make climbing axes splinter like icicles.
"We see a lot more use of all the anti-depressants [drugs] in the middle of the winter," said the manager of the pharmacy of the local Fred Meyer Discount Store, "and a lot more sinus problems, too, of course."
"Our heaviest runaway month is January," said the program director at an anchorage youth service bureau. "Kids don't run away in the summer. And this is a hell of a place to run away in in January."
When I was a boy here the house I considered running away from - but never did - was constructed more to Washington's standards than those of Anchorage. On the coldest night we turned off the heat in the living and dining rooms, hung blankets across the hallway and called the front bedroom "the parlor." Or we ate in the kitchen. And after all, it "enforces a sense of community."
On nights like that, look in the toy box or up on a shelf in the kid's room. A battered Monopoly set or Risk game can work wonders. Backgammon, of course, is not only entertaining, but chic. At least it's still chic in Anchorage.
You must understand of course, that in Alaska "Three-Dog Night" is not thought of as the name of a band. It refers to the number of huskies you invite up onto the bed to keep you warm. In such circumstances, even Backgammon is uptown.
Cabin fever is what it's called, and it may comfort you to know that even the heartiest homesteader and sturdiest sourdough fall prey to it. My best friend, an Alaska-born fisherman who built his home with a chain saw and an axe, spent last winter in Nicaragua. He is now in Ireland; no place on earth is "off season" to an Alaskan in January.
If nothing else helps, consider the plight of those Alaskan who long-planned vacations now are taking them south - to colder weather.
A change may be forced in the statistics the Anchorage suicide prevention center reports. Calls are up around Christmas, they say, but they are not generally higher in the winter than the summer.
"The increases come in the spring, when people see things don't get better even though it's warm," said a counselor.