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Cold is a funny thing. It’s changeable. Tough to pin down. Mercurial, if you will. It’s cold, and sometimes not so cold. And sometimes it’s unbearably cold.

Way up here, we’re experts in cold. We know 20°, and we know -40°. We hail acquaintances with remarks on the cold.

“Whew, cold today!”

“Not so cold’s it was.”

“Be another cold one tomorrow.”

My first winter here, I analyzed the temperature, tuned into it, obsessed over it. I felt every fluctuation in my bones, it seemed. Full of false pride (and a little fear, I admit), I reported the temperatures to friends in less extreme climes.

“With the windchill, it’s 50 below,” I told my best friend in North Carolina. “The schools are all closed. It’s too cold.”

She immediately mailed me a down bathrobe. The best friend part makes sense, right?

That was nearly a decade ago.

At 5:30 this morning I stuffed bare feet in clogs, pulled on a coat, and dashed out to the car to retrieve the big boy’s library book. It was cold. Cold enough that the boards of the porch made cracking sounds under my feet. Cold enough that the snow squeaked as I hustled in and out. Cold, and dark, and still. But not too cold.

My husband looked up when I came in. “Cold out there,” I said.

“20 below,” he informed me.

20 below? Was it that cold? It hadn’t felt that cold, had it?

You see, cold’s a funny thing. Tough to pin down. Mercurial, if you will. That’s the secret we understand about cold.

People who really know cold know that a still -20° doesn’t feel that much colder than a blustery 10°. That wet cold seems colder than dry cold (which actually is colder, according to the thermometer). That a cold winter that brings 17 feet of snow is warmer than a cold winter with no snow. That a sunny day can be blindingly bright and so cold that it takes your breath away. That when it’s really cold, the trees crack as they deep freeze, and the ice on the lake moans like whale songs. That winter will last until it’s over–no more and no less.

And while it lasts, it’ll be cold.