Kage Baker had the metabolism of a salamander.
Not the terrestrial kind, that indulge in so many eccentricities of size and habitat – from the Chinese kind that are 7 feet long and look like bloated corpses; to those Lolita axolotls who’ve traded maturity for juvenile sex and gills like faerie endive. Not even the ordinary variety, that we hunted in Griffith Park and the Los Angeles River when we were kids.
No, Kage’s affinity was with the salamander of classical legend, the alchemist’s salamander. That little beastie lived in flames, and breathed them, too; it set fires, nested in the alembic fire-boxes of well-run distilleries, and was generally domesticated by reputable sorcerers to light their pipes and cigars. Kage would have enjoyed life as one of those; she often remarked wistfully how she’d have loved a flame shower, or a fire-pit as big as a hot tub, where she could loll happily while sipping flaming rum and lemon-flavoured lamp oil …
This was predicated on her being able to survive flames, of course. In her heart, she knew she was designed to do that; it was just frail human nature that made her more akin to bacon than to salamanders. She gave the fire-proofing – and the incendiary plumbing – to her Children of the Sun characters, the Calai, in a fit of wishful thinking. They can bathe in fire and sip exotic oils, just as Kage longed to do.
Especially this time of year, she longed to be able to do that. Christmas to Valentine’s Day, usually, are the coldest part of the California year even in Los Angeles. Not even sitting between the fireplace and the heater kept Kage warm enough then; she’d also be wrapped in down coverlets and wool blankets in her all-enveloping armchair. Meanwhile, across the room by the windows – where the frost struck through the glass – I’d be sitting in t-shirts and cotton jammy pants, barefoot and gently perspiring. The wars over the thermostat were vicious.
It helped a lot when we got an electric fireplace. Then Kage could toast her feet right up against the glass, and control the remote for the special-effects flames all on her own. At night, she’d be in her room with the heater vent blowing into it all night; I’d be in my room, door closed, with the windows open over my bed.
Kage used to wonder if we were really members of the same species. Some of that made it into her stories, too. “I write what I see,” she would pronounce, possibly from the depths of a down sleeping bag. “And what I see is that you have ice water in your veins!”
Ah, but I was tough once. These days, my ability to resist cold has fallen victim to age and illness; I wear socks quite willingly, and right now am spending my days (when out of bed at all) wrapped in a thermal blanket with Harry snuggled up to me. He has a fine appreciation of being warm, and quite prefers soft blankies to stand on; nor is it a hardship to have a cuddly bird snuggling under one’s ear – Harry is softer than lamb’s wool and even warmer.
And though I regret not being able to run about leaving naked footprints in the frost forming out on the grass – well, it makes for fewer arguments over the heater. Kimberly is another shoulda-been salamander, and now she doesn’t have to argue with me any more about keeping the heat on. Domestic tranquility, at least, has gotten a boost.
And yeah, I realize that those of you Dear Readers coping with actual snow and ice are laughing hysterically at my carrying on: all I have to deal with is a little frost maybe 5 weeks out of the year. Nights in the 40’s, days in the balmy 60’s. Hell, frost or no, the roses are still blooming in the front garden, and the lemon tree is flaunting flower and fruit on the same bough. But the phoebe is eating berries now, because all the insects have died; the frogs’ voices are stilled, and the gulls coming in for shelter from the sea are contesting the park lakes with the wintering geese.
So I’m wrapped up warm. I tell myself it’s not because I’m grown old myself – I’m doing it in honour of Kage, who did so hate to be cold …
Cold is, of course, a relative and subjective thing, involving many factors like, for example, physical activity. I can remember raising a sweat while shoveling the sidewalks and driveway of our Nebraska home, wind blown snow circling me and wind chill factor down around zero. Even though you were sweating, you still had to cover your ears, cheeks and nose, because frostbite was an omnipresent possibility. Odd thing to feel nostalgic about, to be sure.
Oh, and regarding Midwesterners’ contempt for our delicacy, it should be said that most Californians’ homes are not built to contain heat- at least, not the older ones. Our 110 year old cottage is sturdy enough to have swayed it’s way through countless earthquakes, with only omni-present cracks to show for it, but of insulation it has not a bit. When the temperature drops down into the 40s and below, we have only the heroic floor heater, pumping out the BTUs, just slightly faster than the many leaks in the house release them to the wild. And, yes, blankets and warm, woolly clothing items are the order of the day. Thankfully, I live with a knitter, who has gifted me with a half-dozen pairs of socks that I only wear at this time of year.
In any case, what ever our experience, Winter Solstice has come and gone. Light and warmth are returning. It’s just that we have a lot of cold, dark nights to survive, before the Maypole goes up.
Stay warm, all you good friends!
I love the variety. Year-round tropical airs or a taiga environment each would be boring – I like the occasional scramble to remind me I live in a real environment! And anyway, the determination of our “domestic” animals to live under our blankets is pretty funny. It’s pretty obvious who is the resource around here, and who is the user.
I suspect you need one of these…..
John is absolutely right. I grew up in San Francisco where we had one (1) day of snow that I can remember. It was a Sunday and was dirty slush by the time we got home from church. And Bang went the chance of a lifetime to play in snow in my own backyard.
What we have that Nebraska doesn’t is the ambient wet in the air from the ocean and bay. California is colder at 40 degrees than 40 degrees in most of the mid-west due to the humidity. Sometimes it’s hard to know if something is still wet or just cold; they tend to blend. And that’s a challenge when boxing up the costume department at the end of Dickens at the Cow Palace. Wash everything or pray that it’s just cold?
California houses aren’t built for extreme temperatures, even the good ones. I didn’t know a single person while growing up who had air conditioning; opening a window and using a hand fan was as good as it got.
Our ‘new’ house, built in 1912, is colder than blazes. There has been frost during the past two nights and our small movable heater just doesn’t do it, not even for one room. We slept under all our blankets (has never happened before) and were cold. I’m wearing a hat to bed tonight to see if it helps.
On the bright side, most of the rain that reached us in Northern California recently has happened during the night so travel during the day was fine and last-minute holiday shopping was dry.
Lynn, our floor heater was out of action a few weeks ago, just in time for a cold snap. We brought in one of those “radiant” oil radiator-type space heaters, putting an oscillating fan behind it, to distribute the heat. (I’m imagining owners of centrally heated houses, rolling their eyes at this.) Worked fairly well, as long as we kept the front two rooms closed off, but, Oh My, the PG&E bill! Never forget that, when it comes to heating (and, I suppose, cooking), electricity is much more expensive than natural gas. Had to be done, though.
You are so right, Buffalo. We’ve one electric heater, but the majority of the warming work is done better (and more cheaply) by the oven on low. Plus the propane heater set up in the fireplace – safe, tidy, and generates a lot of heat. California houses just do not keep heat in … and as much as I’m pleased by that in the summer, I miss it this time of year.
Sweaters, thermals, and lots of blankets – that’s the answer. And sleeping bags, because they make wonderful lap robes and comforters; all of mine are suitable for Faire, so they’re Arctic-rated down. A summer night on site is no worse than winter elsewhere!