The Coldest Job in the Universe

January 8, 2008

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Well, the holidays are over. I don’t know about you, but I’m experiencing a bout of post-holiday blues; my cozy, pajamas-on-the-couch vacation is behind me and the long, cold winter stretches out ahead.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: coaching skating is a great gig, and there’s nothing else I’d rather do (well, besides cashing lottery checks and even if I did win, I’d probably still teach lessons). But the temperature of this profession from November through March can be more than a little problematic. Of course, in the summer, it’s a downright godsend, but that’s light years away, at this point, and not the focus of this discussion.

Allow me to clarify that there is a gigantic difference between skating in a cold environment and coaching in a cold environment. Even when you glide around with your students, you rarely generate enough body heat to have a real effect. The temperature is usually tolerable for the first hour or so, but once you get three or four hours in, you inevitably start to feel like an underdressed Eskimo.   

There are times, at the end of a workday, when I’m so cold I can hardly think, or I can only think about lasagna…diving into a large vat of it. There are times when my hands, my feet, and my face have gone beyond frozen to a scary state of numb. My shivering probably makes me look blurry to my students, as if I’m one big hummingbird wing. After my last lesson, I rush into my car and put the heat on full blast only to rediscover that it always starts off as an arctic wind far colder than air conditioning. While I wait for it to heat up, I worry that the violent chattering of my teeth could result in a jaw sprain or a cracked tooth. I wonder: when exactly does “hypothermia” set in?

A few years ago, I tried to comfort myself by making a list of careers that must be colder than ours. This is all I could come up with: 1. the foreman of an ice cream factory, 2. a roofer specializing in igloos,  3. a busker who plays guitar on Mt. Everest. Composing this list did not make me feel any warmer. In hindsight, perhaps burning it would have…

It could be that I’m particularly wimpy. I’m open to this theory because I am wimpy in many ways, however, I did grow up in Wisconsin in the years before global warming. (See prior installment – my father transformed our driveway into a rink with the simple spray of a garden hose.) In my formative years, on the rare days when I was not at an ice rink, I spent many an hour helping my brother construct sophisticated snow forts and extra-plump snowmen. I helped (okay lackadaisically, but still) my father shovel the driveway and helped my mother shovel our car out from various snowdrifts. So I’m no stranger to the cold.

It could be that the rinks I teach at are particularly chilly. You know how, when you come in from the cold, your face sometimes burns for a few moments? One night, when I came home from teaching at an outdoor rink, my face didn’t stop burning. I looked into the mirror to discover that my skin had become disturbingly splotchy and it stayed that way for hours. Those of you who know me are aware that I have an abnormal affection for polka dots – but not on my face! A call to my doctor the next day confirmed that I was probably going to live, but that I had contracted the very first stages of frostbite. I know a few coaches who have gotten more advanced frostbite in their toes, and this does not sound like a pleasant experience.

The temperature of indoor rinks varies. Ice surfaces apparently need to be somewhere between 24 to 28 degrees and the air is usually somewhere in the 50’s. Though, recently, at one of the rinks I teach at, an adult skater brought in a digital thermometer, just for kicks, and let’s just say that the reading was…well below the 50’s. It suddenly made perfect sense how, about a month ago, the ice pack I was using to nurse a shoulder injury was more frozen (rock solid!) at the end of my workday than at the beginning. Similarly, this New Year’s Eve, the rink nicely chilled a bottle of champagne I had tucked in my bag for later consumption.

Unsurprisingly, one of the most commonly uttered phrases in my work life is, “It’s so cold.” We coaches say this to each other as if it’s a revelation, as if it’s something new, as if we haven’t already mentioned it to each other four times that day and 65 times that week. Hearing the heartfelt, “I know,” in response, as your co-worker burrows further into her scarf, is comforting: at least we’re in this together. 

During the ice cuts, we purchase more coffee or tea, we blow on our hands (or run them under the hot water in the restroom.) We sit in the lobby commiserating and fantasizing. Our eyes gloss over as we talk about things like electric blankets, and heated vests. One of my friends enjoyed the benefits of this latter invention until it busted. The other day, someone was regaling us with a tale about a rink somewhere in Massachusetts where there are a series of heating panels installed behind the benches for the benefit of the coaches, which sounds to me like nirvana. My latest hair brain idea is to develop and bring into fashion a sort of “nose cozy,” perhaps knit in a variety of styles: an orange beak, a pink snout, or a red homage to Rudolph. What do you think?    

All of us have already devoted a lot of cognitive energy (and funds) to combating the cold.

Of course, the most important survival mechanism is strategic layering. For me, this starts with a layer of long johns and ends with a ball-gown length down-feather coat. It’s kind of a like a sleeping bag with arms. Of course, every time I want to demonstrate something, I have to hike it up to my waist like a bride walking through a puddle so that my students can actually see my feet and legs. The middle layers consist of a combination of fleece, wool, gore-tex…and, on the advice of a friend, I have recently discovered the thermal power of cashmere. I’ve always owned a few cashmere sweaters, but I’ve made the mistake of saving them for special occasions (a.k.a., when they could actually be seen, silly me). I didn’t realize, until now, that this luxuriously soft material is also quite practical. Snowpants are also a key ingredient. The few times I’ve tried to cut corners and teach just in my jeans, I might as well have been naked.

What you have to remember is to put on your skates before you apply your final layers because the bulk factor can make it difficult to bend forward. In fact, not being able to reach your feet is a good way of gauging whether or not you have enough layers on. Of course, once I have all my gear in place, I look about as large as a Kodiak bear. In the summer, it is common for skating parents who observe us coaches arriving at the rink in our shorts, to marvel at all the weight we’ve lost. Of course, in actuality, it’s just that they’re not used to seeing us in less than 44 layers.

Hats are a given, though your hair will pay the price, as it will look perpetually smooshed. I’ve found that mittens definitely trump gloves; it’s optimal for the fingers to huddle together. And, on the most extreme days, if you supplement with one of those handwarming pouches, it’s as if your fingers have all gathered around a virtual campfire. The downside with mittens is that they severely affect your dexterity: you have to take them off in order to write anything down or to play a CD. They also impact your ability to give your student the “peace sign”, the “okay sign”, or the “do two more sign” with your fingers. Fortunately, you can still give an effective thumbs-up, or thumbs-down, whichever the situation calls for. 

One thing that has helped me survive morning teaching (but just barely – see the installment entitled Morning Madness) is my own personal space heater, which is about the size of an eight-inch cube. Lots of fellow coaches have invested in these. The problem, which we have learned the hard way, is that you can only plug so many of them into a power strip before you blow a fuse.  

Sometimes, the only thing that will thaw you out this time of year is a long, scalding shower or a very hot dinner. For this reason, last week I implemented Project S.O.U.P..  I made three different kinds and I’m happy to report that my freezer is now stocked with 17 servings of liquid heat. Next, I’m going to purchase some boot covers, which many claim to be lifesavers, or toe savers, at least. All these methods will surely help with the winter blahs, but I know, as we dig deep into February, I’ll need to employ more extreme tactics. Specifically, I’ll have no choice but to board a plane to visit my oldest and dearest skating friend. She now lives in Puerto Rico.

                                                                       ***

If anyone has any other useful ideas or remedies on the topic of temperature, whether serious or facetious, please bring forth by clicking on “comment” below. And, I implore you, if I show up at the rink one day wearing a bank-robber style face mask or some kind of cashmere beak, please intervene. 

So the day I’m posting this missive, it is 65 degrees in New York. January 8. Go figure. 

Ha! A special thanks to Commenter #8 who has provided us with a link to a knitting website that includes an actual nosewarmer! That is just not something you see everyday… 

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9 Responses to “The Coldest Job in the Universe”

  1. Martina Says:

    If you accidentally leave your skates in your car overnight and find them frozen in the morning, a blow-dryer can work wonders.

  2. platogrande Says:

    Years of cycling in sub-freezing temps and yet I only discovered these a year or two ago:

    http://www.warmers.com/

  3. platogrande Says:

    Oh and don’t forget to layer a lot where your skin is thin and blood is near the surface, i.e. wrists and neck. Well-insulated wrists especially will make a big difference to your hands.

  4. sony Says:

    yes, keep those piggys warm. get boot cover if you are outside, the down kind if you can find them worked the best. i used the toe warmers that skiers use in their ski boots by putting them between the boot and the boot cover, it worked.

    more importantly if you’ve finally fallen in love w/ cashmere you shoud know it’s washable!

  5. lori lee Says:

    And a word of caution….the initial layer cannot be itchy! Itchy requires stripping and re-layering which can be very dangerous in those rink bathroom stalls (usually without a latch).

  6. BA Says:

    The only way I can think to keep your feet from freezing is to avoid putting your skates on altogether! If you can pull a coaching-from-the-boards once in a while, it’ll probably help since the metal from our blades tends to suck all the cold it possibly can from the ice itself. Good luck!

  7. Margaret Says:

    Sounds pretty cold to me! What an adorable picture of you skating in the driveway at Age 4! Margaret

  8. Jessi Says:

    Need a nosewarmer?
    http://www.knitty.com/ISSUEwinter02/PATTnosewarmer.html

    I can’t imagine coaching all day long- it must be freezing. 2 hours of LTS is enough for me to not be able to feel my feet anymore! Thankfully I skate in a warm rink!

  9. sony Says:

    oh my! loved that http://www.knitty.com if you get the pattern, i’ll get out my needles and knit you them from cashmere!!

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