On a recent Saturday night in January, I hustled through the spiteful cold of a parking lot to the refuge of a nightclub. “Refuge” is not a word I typically associate with “nightclub,” and I chose it specifically so that you might understand just how cold the evening was. HOW COLD WAS IT? It was so cold that the chill didn’t bite or nibble at my cheeks, it full on slapped them while wearing leather gloves like a nineteenth century villain. That’s how cold it was. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway)—I did not appreciate this cold.
As I awkwardly walk-ran to the door, the noise and life inside leaked out to the sidewalk in a way that I interpreted to mean that the room would be sticky and humid in the distinctive way a few hundred people simultaneously seeking a hook-up can create. And while in normal circumstances this would trigger my gag and flight reflexes simultaneously, my cold little lizard brain also knew that this meant the place would be warm (if only to make the room comfortable for the wearing of a tank top in January). I gave thanks to the terrible, terrible gods of nightclubs when I crossed the threshold, but inside the door I entered not the warm and lively room, but the sad and (even sadder) still freezing vestibule where a bouncer moved through the dull routine of checking everyone’s identification.
Our little group had assembled for a 40th birthday party, most of us 15 to 20 years past the time when it might have been questionable as to whether we could legally walk into a bar, and I mistakenly assumed this would exempt us from the ID check. I hopefully balanced on tiptoes hoping to feel draft of warmth to heal my slap-stung cheeks, but the bouncer I saw waiting was dutiful in his demand and unhurried in his observation of each ID displayed in the splayed wallets of the early middle-aged.
When I stepped up for my inspection, I knew that my short stature, good skin, and relative youth in our group would likely mean that my entry into the hormonally-created tropical oasis would be delayed another five seconds in order to ensure I was of proper age. But I was surprised when he simply took me in from top to bottom, then from bottom to top again, then with eyes lingering the winter hat still upon my head said simply, “Go ahead.” It was a miracle, and I rushed into the hellfire of the club as if it were a cozy, comfortable hearth, inward congratulations rising in me for the selection of this particular hat.
Perhaps I should describe it.
But in order to describe this hat, I must also describe a dress that my daughter loved to wear when she was two and three years old. Its name was Cat Dress, and it was her favorite. But in order to describe Cat Dress, I must describe the misguided sentimental online shopping that brought such an item into our homes. And in order to describe this misguided sentimental shopping, I must tell you about my deep affection for certain contestants on a 1970s gameshow. So, here we go.
The winter of 2003 to 2004 found me like so many winters—cold and exhausted by the cold. A junior in college, I had to trudge the three blocks between my dorm room and classes daily (I know, an entirely epic struggle), and I found myself often weighing the consequences of just staying beneath the covers entirely. And once evening came, I voluntarily stranded myself in whatever location I had landed after supper, so as to avoid walking in the darkness and cold at the same time. (Because is there anything more offensive than cold and nighttime together? It’s like they team up solely to teach us how terrible and lonely the world is.)
Fortunately, I had started dating a person (now my spouse, who I will call JT…no I am not married to Justin Timberlake.) who loved nothing more than to snuggle up on a couch and to see what the world had in store to entertain us. This is how I wound up watching entire seasons’ worth of The Match Game—a gameshow which allied comedians of the day with everyday folks in an effort to come up with matching answers to fill-in-the-blank questions. That JT and I were (and still are) fans of the double entendre and loud plaids sealed our love for the show, and for our wintertime delight, the Game Show Network ran back to back episodes from the mid-1970s nightly. Yes, ours is a classic tale of romance.
Throughout the winter, we developed attachments to and affections for the comedians whose answers we giggled at most, whose persona shone brightest, and whose fashion sense inspired our jaws to drop. We had two favorites—Brett Somers, a 50-something actress whose largess with snark was matched only by one other contestant who was, without coincidence, our other favorite, Charles Nelson Reilly whose ascots were as brilliant as his dirty jokes. JT and I had no frame of reference for their fame, but their Match Game brilliance won our hearts. Both possessed an ability to simultaneously insult and ingratiate, and both displayed incredible feats of pattern, texture, and disregard for gravity through their clothing, hair, and accessories.
Most iconic to us were their giant glasses–masterful mid-century sculptures of molded plastic that elevated their faces from banal to caricature. To us, their glasses were their fame, and without them, Brett and Charles meant nothing to us. In fact, just now when I looked up how to spell Brett’s name and found a picture of her without her specs, I had to scroll to find a photo of her in gigantic frames before I was sure it was her and not just some lady with nice cheekbones (which, incidentally, I think had to develop like biceps in order to hold up her massive glasses). From that winter forward, large glasses brought back fond memories of Brett and Charles and with those memories, the sentimental longing for the joy of being warm and safe and silly with someone with whom you are falling in love.
I tell you all this so that you will understand why a decade later, while aimlessly browsing for spring clothing for my daughter in a sad little effort to hurry winter out the door, an item caught my eye: A simple sleeveless tunic dress that would twirl nicely (an important requirement for my toddler) with a colorful and over-sized polka dot pattern on a background the color of an orange marker that’s running out of ink, but still has enough coverage not to throw it away, but it makes you think it’s probably about time to get some new markers. Clicking the image for a closer view, I was blessed, truly blessed, to see that within the circle of the polka dot was a photorealistic depiction of very stern, very beautiful white and marmalade cat on a skyblue background, and that this very stern, very beautiful white and marmalade cat was wearing (YES) enormous sunglasses.
Oh you must know, then, that my heart sang within me. This dress! We must have it! This is how we will ensure that our child understands the complex balance of snark and whimsy that help my spouse and I to navigate this cold world, how we arm ourselves against the pains of life with joy and over-sized accessories! Surely, she would love the dress! And also through the dress, love her parents’ very strange way of living in this world! I immediately purchased it, and when my daughter debuted it for my spouse, I told him the cat was named Charles Nelson Meowly. And we both laughed and laughed, and my daughter laughed and laughed, and this probably cemented her attachment to the garment, whose name she quickly changed to Cat Dress (because Charles Nelson Meowly is just too difficult for a two year old).
Oh, she wore that dress everywhere, and the compliments she received for it affirmed the rightness of her adoration. Cat Dress was all she wanted to wear, regardless of its state of cleanliness or weather-appropriateness. She wore it in the warm summer months by itself, and when fall came, she layered a shirt beneath or a cardigan on top. Cat Dress was truly a garment for all seasons, just as giant sunglasses become any face. But as winter approached, I knew that Cat Dress’ days were numbered. Whether because of growth spurt or wearing out, Cat Dress was not an immortal being, and if I could delay the sad day when she must retire, I would.
I scoured the internet for a replacement Cat Dress in a larger size. And by scoured, I mean that I performed enough Google wizardry to find Cat Dress’ Japanese manufacturing company and to navigate the website sufficiently to find that Cat Dress was now a discontinued print in dresses. I despaired. But wait… what was this? The very same pattern stared out at me in the unlikely shape of winter cap! Made even more delightful by the white pompom sewed dignifiedly at its apex. Click and done! Winter Cat Dress crisis averted! Cat Hat would save the day.
Except that when it arrived, it was far too large for a two-year old’s head and my daughter hated it. HATED IT. It was an affront, this sad little replacement for the elegant refinement of Cat Dress. It was cheap and upsetting, and after offering it to her as an option for headgear on a near-daily basis that first winter, I packed it away come spring, hoping that another year might be the year when our child decided not to reject her inheritance of good humor and delight. But alas. Year after year, Cat Hat was dismissed all winter and sent back into the storage bin each spring.
Until this year. When, in the midst of the horrors of winter, I decided that Cat Hat would be worn. Oh yes. It would be worn. By me.
And so it was this magnificent hat that I wore atop my head, bright as a hunting cap and just as startling, when I walked into the nightclub. It was this incredible piece of art and hubris that communicated to the bouncer from its perch, “You don’t need to check her ID. She couldn’t possibly be an underaged person trying to sneak into a nightclub. She has clearly given up.” In that moment, the stern face of that beautiful cat told the bouncer all he needed to know about me—that the simple payoff of looking attractive is not enough for this woman, that I was unwilling to try in any way to be something other than I was at that moment: cold. The cat’s withering, bespectacled stare told of my desire for warmth at any cost, even at the cost of my own dignity. I marched into the nightclub, and I continued to wear that hat, Charles Nelson Meowly snarking sassily in my imagination. Oh, I wore that hat until I could wear it no more because my body temperature had risen to a high enough point that I could remove it comfortably. I. Was. Warm.
It is at about this point each winter that I begin to sincerely believe that spring will never come. It is an apathy and an atheism that I must overcome every year, some years more successfully than others. There have been years when I have done no better than to crawl through the chill of late winter one day at a time. But there have also been years when I have been able to keep the season from settling into my muscles and freezing me from the inside. And with time, I have come to understand that it is not warmth that has kept me alive—it is giving up. Each winter, I give up dignity and trade it for humor. I give up solemnity and seriousness and take up silliness in their place. I channel Brett and Charles and myself in a dorm room and my daughter twirling and the stern and beautiful cat wearing sunglasses and I thaw. I thaw to laughter and love and lightness and joy. And I survive the winter.
This is my strange little adaptation to survive life and all kinds of frigidity—those of winter or of loneliness, of uncertainty and drift—I look for strangeness and then I allow it to make me strange, too. I give in to the ridiculous and suffer the indignity of having given up on having any kind of style or grace. I allow myself to be loved for my strangeness, to be seen in my foolishness, to allow my impulse for weirdness to shine like a jewel. This is how I survive the cold.
That night, after 30 minutes of awkwardly standing in the nightclub, our group gathered to leave. And as we entered the cold and I pulled the hat on again, someone behind me said, “I wish I had brought a hat tonight.” Yes, I thought. This is the way of things. Foolishness always blossoms into wisdom. You just have to wait for it to get cold enough.