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4. A Physical Sensation
By Gretchen Legler
Genre: Non-fiction
Year: 1997 Category: Student Examples

C-c-c-c-cold! It starts with a stinging, a burning around the edges of my fleece neck gaiter, around the edges of my goggles, in my fingertips. That's when I know the cold wind is hitting my skin. That's when I know I need to cover up. I might as well have my fingers in the flame of a candle, my face in the hot blast from an open oven door. The sensation is the same. How is it, I wonder, that freezing and burning can feel so much the same? Uncovered skin is a dangerous thing out here, where temperatures in September hover around minus 47 degrees Fahrenheit, not counting the extra chill caused by the wind. With a high wind blowing, you might as well be standing out in 100 below. A well-dressed AntarcticanAt the Scott Base store they sell pocket thermometers, the kind you can stick to your window, carry in your pocket, or attach to the zipper of your jacket. But none of them go low enough to be of any use. Out here, in the Antarctic early spring, the mercury would just sit there at the bottom, pooling in a red ball, trying to go lower, trying to sneak through the glass and drop, drop, drop. If I cover up quick enough, the burning, stinging on my cheeks, on my nose, on my fingertips, goes away and I'm left with a warm tingling feel, or later, a feeling like a mild sunburn. It is comfortable, in a way, but I also know my skin has been dried out, that the moisture has been sucked out of it, that I've been burned by the wind. Once I've covered my face with my neck gaiter, the inside of the fleece starts to frost up because of my breath and I feel a coolness around my mouth. My neck gaiter gets wet. I can feel frost start to form around the edges of the fleece, around the edges of my hat. My warm breath rising meets my eyelashes, which turn to lacy ice. When I blink, I can feel the coolness of the eyelash icicles against my skin, and little droplets form where the ice begins to melt. I look around me and all the faces I see are rimmed by frost. There are icicles hanging off mustaches and beards, frost forming misty white and thick on the edges of wool hats, and thin frosting over goggles and glasses. If I sweat, it is worse. If my feet have been hot before I go outside, if my socks have gotten the least bit moist, the moisture cools and my feet might as well be inside a refrigerator. If I've been walking, the heat builds up inside the layers of my clothing. I can feel the cool streak of sweat down the center of my back, dripping down over my tailbone. I feel it on my breastbone too, and building up at the back of my neck. I pull down my neck gaiter, unzip my parka, unzip my fleece layer, unzip the neck of my long johns, take off my hat and mittens. I imagine a great puff of steam escaping, whooosh! into the air. In minutes my exposed skin is burning again. I have to cover up. I wear thick wool socks and bunny boots. Bunny boots are huge rubber white boots. There is lots of room inside, lots of air space to warm. Tight shoes would be a bad idea here. But the drawback to bunny boots is that there is no way to let moisture out, so I have to carry extra socks and change them whenever my feet get moist. I wear long johns-preferably two pair, a light pair and a heavy pair. I wear fleece bottoms and a fleece top. Over that I wear a thick, black, wind-proof set of bib overalls. I wear a heavy red down parka, a balaclava-a fleece hood that slips over your head, like a Spiderman mask, and covers your head, the sides of your face and your neck. I wear a neck gaiter, usually just a piece of fleece that is open at both ends. You can pull it up to over your chin and nose, tuck it under the edge of your goggles for extra protection, or you can let it slide down in a warm folds around your neck. I wear my Alaskan beaver hat, with the ear flaps pulled down, and ski goggles. I pull my park hood up, yank the draw strings tight and pull the fur ruff over my face. Last of all, I have my mittens. When I walk all covered up like this every step seems like an enormous effort, and I long for just a pair of shorts, sandals, maybe even bare feet, and a T-shirt. I long to run, outside, with just a thin layer of clothes on. My feet feel like they weigh ten pounds each, as if with every step I am moving bricks. I take small steps and I walk slowly. I have never been so bundled up in my life. I have never had to wear so much to stay warm. I have never recognized so fully how vulnerable I am in my own flesh, how little my thin skin protects me against this kind of cold. There are two ways to be harmed by the cold. One is hypothermia-which is the lowering of the body's core temperature. The symptoms are fumbling, mumbling, confusion, shivering, grumpiness. The other is frostbite--when your skin actually freezes. I think of the apple that I had in my refrigerator , way at the back, under the ice box. It froze. It turned to mush. I think how easily my fingers could freeze. They tell us to watch each other, look at each other's faces every now and then to watch for white frosty patches. We are always turning to one another and asking, "How's my face?" If I let my feet get too cold, my toes being to feel like rocks in my boots, like they don't belong there, and I want to stop and take my boots off and shake them out. I can't move them. They ache and burn. When I pull my boots off, I feel that my sock is wet. I cup my toes in my hand. They feel so delicate, as if they might break off. I read in the book Endurance, about Ernest Shackleton's heroic journey to safety after being trapped in ice and having his ship wrecked in the Weddell Sea, that one of their party had frostbitten toes. The doctor of the group waited until they turned black then snipped them off. The dead toes fell into a pan below the makeshift operating table and made a loud clatter. I cup my toes in my hand, then test the heat of the stove gingerly with my fingers, checking to make sure it is not too hot to put my stockinged feet against. It is not too hot. I won't burn my socks, so I put my foot directly against the metal side of the stove, flat, and lean back. At first I feel nothing, just cold still, but after a while a slow warmth. If this warmth had a color it would be the color of butter--soothing, dense, thick warmth. As my toes awaken I can wiggle them all together, then one at a time. It seems they take shape again in my sock, they feel like toes again, like flesh, like part of me. How many times can they do this, I wonder, before I damage them? It must not be good for them to nearly freeze and then thaw so many times. After being so cold, then warming up again, I always feel sleepy. The cold wears me out. I could sit down anywhere, slump against a wall, and fall asleep. But usually, I take off my big clothes, leaving them in a pile on the floor, and take a long hot shower.


In this piece I tried to pay close attention to a physical sensation, in this case, cold. I tried to describe different stages of being cold, and compared being cold to being burned. I described what it was like to be so bundled up, what the sweat felt like inside my clothes, and what it felt like AFTERWARDS. Paying attention to what something feels like in your body is often very hard, because we often just are not aware enough to describe it. This exercise lets you focus on the very smallest details of physical sensation. For a writer, being able to describe physical sensation is important because it is one of the ways you engage a reader. Anyone who has been cold before will recognize what I am writing about and my story will trigger their memories of their own experience.

Writing Exercise:

Write about 250 words describing, in as much detail as possible, a physical sensation. It can be anything--the sensation of stretching in the morning, of looking at the sun, of sneezing, of an itch, of laughing, of being hugged, of being wet from swimming, or wet from the rain, of falling down, of flying, of putting your hands in the dirt in your garden. Pay very close attention to how the sensation starts in your body and trace its progress. Photo above right: A well-dressed Antarctican.
Copyright 11.24.97

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