There are precisely three things in the entire world that can make cold weather tolerable:
- Electric blankets.
Fire is the elemental symbol of man’s dominance over nature. The proof of our ability to create order from chaos. The most fundamental and archetypal ingredient in the soup that has become our survival as a species. The ages of history are named for metals—bronze, iron, and so forth—but what’s behind all of those eras of human history is the power of fire, the of ingenuity our species in taking lumps of crusty ore and turning them into tools and weapons and objects of magnificent art.
Fire isn’t just a primordial one-hit-wonder, though. This is a technology with staying power. Fire is the one of the few things that, I’m quite sure, we couldn’t have our present civilization without. You could replace most tools and technologies with substitutes right back to our nomadic stone-age origins, but without fire I doubt we’d have gotten much of anywhere. Certainly the industrial revolution wouldn’t have happened without the massive coal-fires to fuel it. Indeed, even the electric-light magic of our present era might be said to contain a kind of fire; if not, then at the least we can still look to coal-burning power generators as the primary source for all of that magic.
What’s comforting about fire, though, isn’t the grand historical scale of the thing; it’s the unpretentious and down-home nature of a wood fire on the hearth. (Or, in my case, a fire fuelled by two years’ worth of now-worthless photocopies from literary theory publications.) The crackle and the flicker are irreplaceable on a cold winter evening—even if all you have is a paraffin candle, then at least it’s fire.
Of course, fire isn’t without its dangers. Don’t, for example, open a wood-burning stove that’s been burning hot but managed to seal itself shut with the vacuum created by consumption of oxygen and a lack of fresh airflow; at least, if you do open it, try to stand a little ways back.
More problematic still, for those lacking the intrepid spirit of our pioneer ancestors, is the problem of replenishing the supply of split logs that is supposed to fill the wood-box. (Photocopies and typing paper burn rather quickly, it seems.) Problematic especially at thirty below, when your ice-covered boots have only just begun to thaw and melt from the last time you had to go outside and trudge through the two-foot snowdrifts to retrieve books from your car.
The electric blanket, then, presents a more modern and civilized form of the same thermal energy. No need to labour in the cold and dark and play games with flammable materials in your home when all the work can be done at a safe distance by those monster dump-trucks and coal-burning power plants: just plug your electric blanket into the wall receptacle, and you’ve tamed the beast. If you’re really into that whole mood-lighting thing, there are some very clever electric lamps at the hardware store that can simulate even the flicker of firelight without all the smell and fuss and singed hair.
Yes, the fire has a spot in the heart of every romantic, but the electric blanket is what really makes the difference when it’s thirty-below and the wind is howling. The intrepid titan himself would have risked far more than eternal suffering for the convenience and simplicity of plug-in-powered warmth in the cold. (I’m not certain what more could be at stake than having one’s liver constantly eaten, regenerated and re-eaten by an eagle, all the while being chained to a mountainside… but I’m certain that it would be worth such a fate to introduce the wonders of electrical convenience to our modern homes.)
Indeed, there is nothing so relaxing as falling asleep under the warmth and comfort of an electric blanket. Even the water bottle falls short of this perfection: no water to boil, no plugs to lose, and no squishy, localized heat that might wake you with the sudden sensation that your bed has been invaded by a small, burning reptile.
It has even been reported to me (by sources who will remain anonymous) that the electric blanket is a more reliable source of wintertime comfort even than one’s spouse. The blanket, you see, will never steal the covers from you in the middle of the night. Nor will the blanket ever roll over; certainly it won’t have cold feet. The electric blanket is a constant source of nearly-instant heat on even the most bone-chilling nights.
It should be noted, however, that the electric blanket is not technically intended to be left on all night. If you read the instruction manual, it will likely tell you to use the blanket to heat the rest of your bedcovers, and then to turn off the electric heat. In theory, it seems, the blanket can become too hot if left on for an extended period of time. This theory has never, to my knowledge, been verified by any kind of fatal accident. The electric blanket presents far more risk of electric shock than of fire, and that is practically no risk at all compared with the practices of our grandparents of placing burning-hot lumps of brick or iron at the foot of the bed. Still, I have noticed that on some nights a constant, burning sensation can result from an extended period of sleep underneath the electric blanket. This is noted especially in warmer months, when the night air can bring a chill to the skin and drive one to the refuge of electrical heat, only to find an hour later that one wasn’t so cold as one thought—inspiring the removal of several layers of bedcovering, only to expose the skin to cross-breeze and begin the cycle again.
Let it be said, then, that the most essential quality of an electric blanket is an on/off switch that is not only easy to find among a tangle of bedsheets, but easy to see in the dark. (Unless, that is, you’re one of those poor unfortunate souls who can’t stand to see tiny glowing green eyes at the side of your bed when you’re trying in vain to fall sleep under your cozy-but-perhaps-slightly-too-warm electric blanket.)
Perhaps the most genuine, most unadulterated, most comforting bit of peace-of-mind that one might find in the middle of a January cold snap has nothing to do with Promethean fire. Maybe the best way to survive isn’t to flash technology in the face of oppressive nature, but to recognize that all life lives in response to an environment. Just as the geese migrate to escape bitter cold, human beings forced to live in the boreal regions must find a kind of equilibrium with their surroundings: rather than leaving, though, we have turned our survival instincts inward, toward the mind and the senses. Rather than pretending to be masters of our domain, but stopping short of a full retreat from the oppressive cold, we have made our space more comfortable by utilizing the amenities provided by the earth itself.
I am referring, here, to chocolate.
In whatever form it is consumed, chocolate represents most succinctly the ability of mankind to make the best of a bad situation. Whatever the conditions outside, when you’re inside with chocolate, things aren’t so bad. Chocolate contains many wonderful psychoactive compounds that chemists and neurobiologists would love to tell you about, but I’ve always found the philosophical nature of this treat to be the most significant: chocolate is harvested, extracted, blended with milk products (another product of near-symbiotic agrarian harmony), and prepared in a variety of forms suitable for every imaginable occasion. Perhaps the “Cup of Hot Cocoa” is preferred most often for a mid-winter evening; myself, I’ll take a small chunk from a bar of warm, smooth dark, chocolate.
Or I would, if I could keep the mice out of it.
Some days, you can’t win. So, you ignore the empty firewood box and turn up the gas-fired furnace, put on a comfortable T-Shirt, find whatever refined-sugar-and-tartrazine snacks are left in the cupboard untouched by your natural enemy, and pretend it’s mid-summer while you sit in the warm glow of a computer monitor with a keyboard in your lap.