The cold is getting old

Posted: February 14, 2014

MILE AFTER MILE they run in local gyms, going nowhere on the treadmill, staring blankly at a television, unable to outrun the icy doom we've come to call the winter of 2013-14.

And on that television, there's either a meteorologist pointing to some nightmarish vortex swirling around us, a reporter standing in a bread aisle as barren as our souls or a governor dishing out the latest state of emergency.

All the harbingers of spring - the Phillies' home opener, the yoga pants and bare midriffs in Fairmount Park, or even 50 degrees - seem so far away now, an oasis clouded by a haze of rock-salt grime no amount of windshield-wiper fluid can clear.

"I can't even get to the gym because going outside, with all the ice and snow, is miserable. I feel trapped. I feel trapped because of the weather," said Jaimi Gordon, a Wynnewood resident who works in public relations in Center City. "If I hear the words 'snow' or 'catastrophe' anymore, I'm going to pull my hair out. I think that groundhog ought to be skinned."

Skinning defenseless groundhogs. That's how bad it's gotten here, but experts say that's because we're not used to this prolonged cold, not accustomed to the rigorous demands of life in the icebox.

"I'm totally used to horrendous winters. After a while you adapt. You get used to it," said psychologist Frank Farley, a Temple University professor and former president of the American Psychological Association.

Farley is from northern Alberta, Canada. He once lived in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where it was 5 degrees below zero just before lunch yesterday, so he can only be sympathetic to a point. In fact, he's really trying to promote the "find the positive" side of this awful weather, an attitude that might prompt some Philadelphians to want to strangle him, if they could feel their hands.

"If it doesn't kill us, it makes us stronger. I think that saying can be an important attribute," Farley said. "It can strengthen us against the next storm."

Today's storm is named Pax, thanks to the Weather Channel, and if Pax dumps at least 6 inches on us today, this will be the first time in recorded history that Philadelphia has had four storms with a snowfall of 6 inches or more.

Forecasts are calling for anywhere from 5 to 12 inches, and it's really hard to believe it will make us stronger.

"This one could be the worst of the winter," said David Robinson, the state climatologist in New Jersey. "I think by this point of the winter, it's getting tough on the psyche."

Robinson isn't speaking for himself, though. He's one of those "snow" guys and it really bothers people, he said.

"I don't have to leave my house for that to happen," he said. "My son's in Virginia and he tells me, 'I'm tired of this.' I tell him to move farther south."

Today, we're dreaming of a balmy St. Patrick's Day. And for kids and teachers, the appeal of snow days is tempered by classes creeping toward July, the thrill of sledding now humdrum. Still, Farley said these moments, the power outages, the hours of snow shoveling and that plain, old cabin fever, can bring us together.

"The human race has risen to these challenges forever. It can bring us together and teach us a lot," he said.

So are humans adapting here in Philadelphia?

Philadelphia police couldn't provide immediate statistics on whether crime has risen or fallen during this winter's snowstorms, but many cities report lower crime rates during winter storms.

The number of cold-related deaths in Philadelphia is low this winter, according to the Medical Examiner's Office, with three in all of 2013 and none reported in 2014 as of Feb. 3. There were 20 cold-related deaths in 2010, which included Philadelphia's snowiest winter on record, 2009-10, during which the city endured 78.7 inches.

Before Pax, this winter was No. 10 for snowiest winters with 43.3 inches.

Emergency rooms at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania reported no upticks in visits during major storms, their spokeswoman said, although a spokeswoman for Virtua hospitals in South Jersey said she's seen an increase in visits up to 50 percent on days when roads and sidewalks have been particularly icy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide numbers actually rise during summer months, although a myth of suicide spikes during the holidays persists.

There is a type of depression associated with winter called seasonal affective disorder, and some of its symptoms - lack of energy and creativity, feeling down and an inability to control the appetite - would seem to apply to tens of thousands of people in the region right now.

"It really is a serious change in mood prompted by a change of the seasons. It can happen in the summertime, too," said Dr. Jennifer Caudle.

Although, if one has to look on the bright side of blizzards, there's often a reported increase in babies born nine months after major storms, so some people are trying to make the best of it.

Philadelphia will defrost, maybe in a month or so, and we will feel normal again, complaining about humidity and Shore traffic.

This frigid winter is not a sign that global warming is a hoax, experts said, but since we're so closely focused on our own weather here, it's easy to buy into the skepticism.

"You can't look at just one winter in one location. If you go out west, they've one of the warmest Januarys in a long time," said Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at Weather Underground.

Going out west or down south is exactly what some locals have in mind.

"Oh, yeah, I'm going to Florida," said Deborah Porter-Jones, a massage therapist from Wyncote. "I've got four more years till my daughter is out of school and then I'm out of this madness. I need the sun."

On Twitter: @JasonNark

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