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Cold Nights and Hot Chocolate
by Richard Saltus
The first leaves of autumn have been raked from Ralph Isberg's backyard, exposing a modest rectangle of scruffy grass dotted with bags, rakes, and a lonely barbecue grill evoking the bygone summer.
Looking out his kitchen window, Isberg imagines a livelier scene: A glistening oval of ice; shouting kids on skates passing the puck, their breath turning frosty in the air; a small table laden with hot chocolate and cookies.
It is still October, but the microbiologist's thoughts are on midwinter, when his home-built rink will open for its fourth season of skating.
“I try to get as much work done as I can before January,” says Isberg, an HHMI investigator at Tufts University School of Medicine, “because I don't get that much sleep in January and February.” Indeed, backyard rinks are best filled, watched over, and resurfaced in the dead of night when it's coldest. “We love single-digit weather,” he observes.
The main beneficiaries of his labor are his son, Max, 13, and daughter, Robyn, 10, both team hockey players. Ice time at public rinks is expensive and tough to get in hockey-mad New England. The family's frozen surface is also a Mecca for neighborhood kids, their parents, and members of Isberg's lab when he hosts winter parties.
“I really like having the kids come over—on Saturdays and Sundays they're here at all hours. I'd like to have even more,” he says. Turning to his laptop, the scientist pulls up numbers from a rink journal as precise and detailed as a lab notebook. “Last year we had 43 different people skating during the season,” he says. “My goal is to get 70 or 80.”
Illustration: Peter Arkle