Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fire and Ice

by Drew Martin

My 12 year old daughter asked me last week if I would rather die by burning or freezing. I gave it a lot of thought, as if I needed to actually choose. Eventually, I offered that perhaps I would rather freeze because I heard that some people, when facing an extremely cold death, are actually overcome with a sensation of warmth and end up running around naked in their final moments with a festive mood of a spring awakening.

A day or two after my conclusion, I came down with the flu. Usually I am sick for a day and then fully recover but this has been a long and debilitating illness. I've lost weight and the recent 15 °F (-9 °C) mornings leave me uncontrollably shaking. I hate the cold. I am too skinny and it goes straight to my bones. The worst part of being sick in cold weather (for me) is walking home from the train station at night. On a steamy summer evening, it's a short, pleasant stroll but late a night with a winter chill, you feel like Ernest Shackleton crossing Elephant Island.

The other night, in my shivering misery, I noticed a young neighbor also getting home late. She had spent at least a year in blistering Dubai and her long-distance boyfriend is from sunny Zanzibar. We started talking on the final home stretch, which made me feel warmer. "Why did you come back?" I demanded. "It's so cold here." Then, a local barber, who lives across the street, pulled up to his parking spot as we passed. "And what is he doing here? He's from Iraq!" I exclaimed. It wasn't a discriminating comment at all...I was simply pondering how people from warm climates tolerate such cold.

Death by fire is pretty final. Matter is converted into energy. It's true of our mediated extensions: books are burned into oblivion, like sentenced witches; and, chemically precarious films a kind of self-immolation. That being said, fire is protest. Vietnam's Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, burned himself to death at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon, Vietnam, on June 11, 1963. He never moved a muscle, never cried out. He was bringing attention to the repressive policies of the Catholic Diem regime.

In 1968, Ryszard Siwiec, a Polish accountant and teacher, set himself on fire and staggered around a stadium with 100,000 spectators in Warsaw, in protest against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, an act that was followed by self-immolation of the Czechs Jan Palach, Jan Zajíc and Evžen Plocek.

There is little protest in freezing. I am not aware of anyone who has frozen himself to death in protest. In fact, the act of freezing has been a last resort to self-preservation with the potential of cryonics.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Robert Frost