So we Long Islanders just made it through a record-breaking month: our coldest February. The coldest month on record, in fact.
Bravo for us.
It sure was freezing. But a record? Sorry.CartoonsCartoons: Storm Jonas and its aftermathCartoonMatt Davies' latest cartoon: HourglassCommentSubmit your letter
I'm not minimizing those 28 days. They were tough. A whole bunch of us are suffering from seasonal-affective disorder, a malady with the most appropriate acronym ever.
But what kind of record is it when the numbers date only to 1984, when they started writing 'em down at Long Island MacArthur Airport? And our other definitive set of weather records, kept at Brookhaven National Lab, only goes back to 1949. As it turns out, January of 1981 -- a mere three years before MacArthur started taking temps -- was colder. So much for our new "record."
All carping aside, we do love records. Of all types -- sports, economic, political and, yes, weather. Why?
I'm tempted to argue that perhaps it's the 24/7 news cycle and its thirst for breathless hype. But that doesn't get at the fact that mankind has always loved records.
Perhaps it has something to do with charting the boundaries of human accomplishment and forever pushing to exceed them. That's the philosophy of Ashrita Furman, the Queens man who has set more Guinness World Records than anyone. The purpose in setting those hundreds of marks, he says, is to demonstrate the limitless capacity of humans who believe in themselves. Which explains why he's skipped rope more times in one minute while jumping on a pogo stick than anyone.
Perhaps, as with the weather, records simply help us feel better about ourselves -- it was brutal, so brutal it's never happened before, we survived, that makes us special. Getting through a tough February is not as impressive as getting through the toughest February. But when the record-keeping only goes back 31 years, saying it was the coldest February ever is like saying, "Mom, that was the best apple pie ever."
Records make sense when it comes to iTunes downloads, movie box office openings and television ratings. We know the universe of numbers. Comparison is absolute.
That's why records work in sports, too. In fact, records are the essence of many sports. Often -- in the Olympics, especially -- they seem to take primacy over winning. When a swimmer grabs his or her third gold medal but fails to break the world record, there's a palpable disappointment.
A couple of careers ago, as a high school sportswriter in New York City, I often was called by a coach who said his or her team had just clinched its first-ever league title. The truth was that it was the first title since the coach had been at the school. My skepticism is hard-won.
I generally am leery of superlatives, or what I call "st" words -- first, most, best, longest, largest, smallest, least. They allow no room for error. Real firsts -- real records -- are to be prized.
But records with qualifiers -- first post-war president to be re-elected after his party lost more than 25 congressional seats in midterm elections in a year the economy grew more than 2 percent, unemployment declined and a team with an animal mascot won the NCAA men's basketball tournament -- yecchhhh.
Look, I love a good record as much as the next crank. I just want it to mean something.
We had a cold month. We got through it. Cool.
But someday, when the Russians or Chinese or North Koreans succeed in taking down the Internet, the coldest February ever will be the February of that year.
Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.