Monday, October 08, 2007

A Good Winter

It is customary among some of us to wish one another "a good winter" on Shmini Atzeret - Simhat Torah. I can't get the words out of my mouth. For me there is no such thing as a good winter. Winter is unmitigatedly bad. As soon as the temperature dips below freezing my mood flies rapidly south. Every time I venture outside I am reminded that I am not where I should be, i.e. somewhere between Beersheva and Eilat where the temperature never gets below freezing. It's like a five-month-long tisha b'Av descends on me every year. I get home from work and I'm too depressed to leave my warm house to go to a shiur or anyplace else. Because my temperature is low and I have little heat-retaining body fat (see my previous post) I must put on an insulated vest even to take out the garbage. I know about seasonal affective disorder (SAD) but that is associated with light, or the lack of it. My problem is temperature. On mild days, and throughout the unusually warm first half of last winter, I'm okay. DSM IV (the mental-disorder guidebook) doesn't recognize a temperature-dependent variant of SAD, so I'm literally left out in the cold. I can't enjoy the flaming colors of autumn because I know what they portend - the leaves will fall and the trees will be covered with snow instead. Snow. It's beautiful when it falls and when it lies on the ground in its pristine state. But within minutes it becomes ugly. Car exhaust turns it grey to match the sky, not to mention what the dogs do. Many frum Jews in my community don't bother shoveling their snow, so it turns to ice and makes walking treacherous. The advent of spring brings little comfort. When temperatures climb into the forties and fifties, I'm hungry for sixty. When they hit the sixties, I'm impatient for 70 and 80. The pall finally lifts when I can break out my summer running outfits and show off my muscles, thanking God for giving me a little bit part in writing "finis" to Jewish weakness, and for making my son a star of the show. Winter wonderland? The Christians can keep it!

But there's hope on the horizon. The knight in shining armor is - global warming! The past decade has seen the warmest winters (and summers) in memory. A lot of ink is being spilled over the horrible future in store for us on a warmer planet. Glaciers will melt. Cold-adapted species will go extinct. Droughts, hurricanes, and so forth and so on. If I didn't know better, I'd think that the doomsayers are from the Elyashiv-Feinstein-Kotler Fantasyland where the earth was created in substantially its present form 5768 years ago and has not changed since. In reality, our planet has always been a changing entity. Continents drift, bump into one another and split apart. Episodes of climate change have always occurred, most of them long before we humans came on the scene. Extinction is also part of earth's story. It is estimated that 90-99% of all species that ever appeared on earth are now extinct. Again, most of them disappeared long before humans became a factor, falling victim to abrupt climate change or meteoritic impact. So call me selfish, but if I don't have to be profoundly depressed all winter long I will not lose sleep over polar bears becoming extinct.

Alas, it's not that simple. The changing climate will have profound and unpredictable effects, both good and bad. We all know the highly touted bad effects: Sea levels are expected to rise, inundating coastal areas (possibly including lower Manhattan) and obliterating some island nations. Severe storms will become more frequent and more severe. Droughts will increase and marginal agricultural land will become unsuitable for cultivation. The earth might become unable to support its current human population, let alone the projected increase. And what good might come of a warmer earth, besides curing my annual struggle with depression? Well, higher concentrations of carbon dioxide (the villain of the piece here, trapping heat and keeping it from escaping into space) might mean more photosynthesis, perhaps even another Carboniferous (the vegetation-rich geological period several hundred million years ago). We should be able to turn all that extra vegetation to our advantage, even if the earth's agricultural areas shift to higher latitudes. Right now, only a very few plant and animal species are domesticated and grown for food or fiber, and those are adapted to temperate climates. We might be able to domesticate more and better adapted species, thus expanding our food supply and discovering new drugs. Melting sea ice would mean year-round ice-free ports for northern countries (Russia's fondest dream and casus belli for centuries!) and a permanently navigable Northwest Passage, making international shipping much less expensive. Less ice on the roads translates into fewer automobile accidents, and warm-weather tourism gets a shot in the arm (ski resorts will have to adapt or perish). I think you get the drift by now. It will not be the end of the world, nor will it wipe out our species, but it will profoundly affect human civilization as we know it. God placed stewardship of the earth into our hands (v'khivshuha). We have to start planning for change before change overtakes us. If we don't, nature will certainly solve the problems, but we might not like its solutions.

In the meantime, I have one method of alleviating my frozen blues. Exercise, and running in particular, assuming that the streets are not slick with ice. The first steps out of the house are the most difficult, but once I'm under way I generate enough heat to lift my mood. I have to wear more clothes than most other runners (I get cold just looking at those hardy souls I see in shorts and tank tops on subway platforms traveling to winter races), so my times are not what they are in summer. But then, my race times fell precipitously following two knee surgeries, and my doctors are surprised that I can run at all. And I know that if I maintain my fitness during the winter, then when the holy month of Iyar comes body, mind and spirit will be on the same glorious page and I will be primed for some kickass runs. And that might be the next best thing to a good winter.

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Blogger Jeff Eyges said...

Dr. Stern, out of curiosity - if winter depresses you this much, have you thought about moving to Florida? The year-round Jewish community there consists of more than just the elderly now, and there are Jewish day schools. I'm sure they teach biology. Or do family ties keep you in NY?

Wed Oct 10, 02:38:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

Family and work ties. You don't just walk away from a NYC job and NYC benefits. Would any school district hire a 55-yr-old when they can get someone fresh out of college for half the salary, and boss him/her around to boot? Besides, in NYC public schools I can teach biology properly and without apologetics; that is not the case in the Bible Belt south.

Fri Oct 12, 01:56:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Jeff Eyges said...

Of course; I forgot about retirement benefits.

I agree completely about the South, but I was thinking about Jewish private schools, in the area ranging from Palm Beach down through Boca/Delray to Miami.

Fri Oct 12, 06:48:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

I wonder if a yeshiva teacher over there would be free to teach biology the way I was taught in Yeshivah of Flatbush. Matter-of-fact, totally without apologetics, if the limudei kodesh teachers had a problem with it they could (and did) address it in their classrooms.

Sat Oct 13, 10:23:00 PM EDT  

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