My daughter has been talking to me about the temperature lately. She’s four years old and doesn’t like the cold. She knows that places like Los Angeles and Odessa, cities she’s visited, are warmer than Chicago. Of course, she has endless questions, including this one: “Can we move to California?”
Perhaps I’m the only parent I know who doesn’t completely (and I mean entirely and thoroughly) delight at her endless battery of “why”. All children are philosophers. It’s not stupid to wonder why there isn’t any grass under the evergreens or why one part of the world virtually never gets snow. She asks me why people begin as children and not the other way around. Why can’t we start as adults and get younger? (In other words, why can’t we be born allowed to do all the stuff she really wants to do?) Yesterday she asked me if we could Skype Charles Mingus. And she consistently asks about my childhood, though not only because she’s curious about me. At the end of a story, she’ll ask questions like this one: “And when you were fishing with your grandfather, where was I?”
Like her, I was insatiably curious as a child, and not merely about the things I saw in my world. My curiosity led to an identity as a bookworm; books, as we know, present ten new curiosities for every one they satisfy. So I had tons of questions, all of them impossible to answer. Many of my questions had to do with origin and the past. I rarely wanted to know how something functions, but I was always interested where it came from.
I was probably seven or eight years old when I asked an adult where the cold came from. I understood that heat came from things that burned. I knew that the sun, a star, was burning, and that gas flames in my childhood home heated the water that circulated through our radiators. But what generated the cold? Was cold just the standard state, the way things actually were when you removed all fire? If this was true, was it “more real” than heat? In other words, was heat artificial?
The adult told me that cold comes from the air. Air is cold. You can feel it if you stand in the wind. So when you have air, you have cold. And if you want air to warm up, you need fire.
Most adults in my childhood answered questions this way. He spoke authoritatively even though I knew he simply didn’t understand my question. By the time I was seven or eight, I had learned not to press on, to explain that this could not possibly be the answer. Air could not be the source of cold because air did not exist at the beginning of the universe. This was in all the books, even the Bible.
I tried to ask another adult, a teacher this time. She told me the cold doesn’t come from anywhere. Cold just is. But I didn’t believe this answer, mostly because I strongly believed a priest who had taught that everything had an origin someplace. If this were true, cold must have been created just as fire was created.
No book I could find in the library or in school helped me with my problem. The question remained unsolved until I learned about absolute zero in high school. My understanding was that the lowest possible temperature in reality actually couldn’t be reached. I interpreted this in a radical way: cold doesn’t exist. Every temperature is a measure of warmth, either some or a lot. While we feel uncomfortable in negative temperatures, it doesn’t mean we’re experiencing cold. What we’re really experiencing is a smaller amount of heat than we would like.
It strikes me now that this is a rather Zen-like way of understanding something. The teacher who had told me that “cold just is” had one way of looking at cold, but the truth was that “cold is just in your head.” Sure, certain temperatures will kill you. But “cold” is a concept, a construct. The origin of cold is the mind.
Cold is, therefore, a kind of poetry, brutal and hard-kicking, harsh on the skin. It retracts gonads and turns exhales into spectres. Seeing this poetry in action is no consolation to the freezing, perhaps, although I propose an experiment. Next time you’re waiting for a bus in an ice storm, see what happens if you think, “What a harsh poem I’m telling myself.” When you see how something functions, you often realize where it comes from.