The Polar Embrace

The “Polar Embrace”, or "Nine Below Zero" progress report

By Bill Stork, DVM

Michael Perry is known for his surgical sense of humor. His novel, “Visiting Tom”, made it to number 21 on the New York Times best seller list. His heartland masterpiece, Population 485, has given birth to a culture, and is still going strong. Last year Mike expounded on a beautiful piece that he had written, re-written, edited and wrestled into place. He stepped back to admire the masterpiece. From the third person perspective came a realization: there was an element of familiarity to the article. Further research revealed he had written the same piece, word for word, comma for punctuation, three years prior.

Were it not for Mittsy introducing me to the “search document” function in Microsoft Word and the fact that, in sheer volume, I have written roughly the equivalent of an 8th grade book report (compared to Mike), I would have done the same thing today.

Redirecting, I sat down to expound on the intricacies of the seven-minute nap or my friend Dr. Myron Kebus. Before I could get the first paragraph fleshed out, I realized both are worthy of a novel unto themselves. Not to mention it’s less than eight hours before Packers vs. Cowboys. There are days for poetry, and there are days for playoff football at Lambeau Field.

Thus, I decided that today would be a fine day to revisit an experiment that began last December, and prove to Mittsy I could write a short article.

You may recall that last winter I made an executive decision: rather than hunker-down, hide and complain, I was going to celebrate, embrace and become one with the “Polar Vortex”. My dad always said, “Don’t let your mouth write a check that your (butt) can’t cash.” Midway through your second pint of Benji’s Smoked Chipotle Imperial Porter it’s as easy to say you're gonna buck the winter of 2013-14 into oblivion as “The Packers are going to beat Seattle and go to the Super Bowl.”

Well folks, fourteen months in, I’m here to report; mission accomplished and more.

By the first robin’s song of 2014. I had six cords of oak split and stacked next to the barn. The dead trees that had fallen on our fence-line in spring had been cleared and burned. There were 200 bales of hay in the mow, and another two loads on the ground. It would be just enough to get four quarter horses and Benny the 2-ton pasture pet through until first cutting hay and grazing.

The best part: all the tools you just prop up in a corner because it’s too cold to put them where they really belong, and you’ll do it when the weather breaks… were put away where they belong. When the weather broke, I went for a bike ride (while waiting for the manure pile to thaw so I could spread it).

The experiment worked better than I could have hoped. To the point there were whole new, I might say earth-shattering, realizations I could have never anticipated.

For my first 21 years as a “grown-up,” the onset of October meant fresh apples, pumpkin-spice everything, flannel shirts… and doom. 48 degrees F and overcast barely requires gloves, but is the ultimate indicator of what is to come. Under the influence of the “polar embrace”, I saw epic sunrises diffracted by puddles crunched meeting a chisel-plowed corn field at the horizon. I saw oak groves, leaves rustling, the color of Sheila’s auburn hair, piled around her face by her grandma’s knitted scarf.

My son was studying on the sun porch. He did not know I could look over his shoulder. In 10 random spot checks, he was sending text messages four times, watching ski videos twice and studying American History twice. The Wisconsin State Journal recently ran a photograph of people in long lines at the DMV; I found two people with their heads not buried in a smart phone. Every credible new source from The Wall Street Journal to Al Jazeera have published stories as to how technology is dumbing us down. Fox may have as well. Thanks to instant messaging, navigation, and 4-G, we are rapidly losing our way to plan ahead, commit, communicate, or find our way out of a broom closet.

Try and stand next to Kevin Griswold’s freestall barn last Wednesday morning and send a “selfie” of you and the cute Jersey. It was 12 below zero with a 15 mph prevailing NW wind. Before you could type “me and the girls lol”, the device would be frozen solid, your eyes teared up and your texting finger would fall off into the snow bank.

The Polar Vortex (PV) is the ideal antidote for technology.

Find yourself stripped to the waist replacing a left displaced abomasum in the middle of January. Your prevailing thought is, “How can I get the greater curvature of the abomasum sutured and my hands back in that hot bucket of water before the Steve Yohn opens the overhead door to take the bull calves to Equity?” “Damn I wonder if she sent a text to tell me she loves and misses me,” on hold until further notice.

Before we wrap up with final thoughts on the Polar Embrace, we take a break from the levity for a warning and acknowledgment: sub-zero temperatures and wind-chills are dangerous, if not life-threatening. I cleared fence and split wood for hours at a time. I was no more than 150 yards from a raging fire and a heated tack room.

There are those who have no home.

Tow truck operators, first responders, firemen, linesmen, plumbers and, of course, farmers often have no such luxuries. They are to be appreciated, respected, and thanked.

Clem “the friendly monster” Mess and I are in lock-step on at least two notions. One is the beauty of old-school country music. The other is the notion that we will not be seen between Halloween and Easter without a stocking hat on our heads, under any circumstances. Fifty years of Cradle Catholicism requires me to confess: just before sunset on a recent frigid early evening, I found myself 25 yards from the mailbox, without a toque.

Sure this was the day the big book deal or Oprah would come through, I consciously overpowered my obligation to brother Clem, and I made a “run” for it. What happened next I could never have anticipated: I stopped to acknowledge every nerve receptor on my bare skull.

Like the brush of a friend’s hand across the shoulder of a widower, it was a sensation I had forgotten, or never known.

It was then I realized I had the power to decide how cold feels on my skin.

I’ve chosen… peppermint.

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