Remembering Winter

by Akim Reinhardt

Tapping a Maple TreeIn an early episdoe of Mad Men, a character named Ken Cosgrove publishes a short story in the Atlantic Monthly. It'sentitled:

“Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning.”

That's just about pitch perfect for the American literary scene circa 1960. The coating of influential New England literati is so thick on the young author, you can practically see it glisten.

But the reason I recently remembered “Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning” had nothing to do with Mad Men or literature. Rather, it's because of late I've been remembering winter.

For much of the United States, including here in Maryland, it has been a particularly fierce winter. Not the snowiest necessarily, though there has certainly been snow. But long and cold.

This is my 13th consecutive winter in Maryland, and it's the first one that harkens back to my experience of onerous winters in harsher climes.

From the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, I toughed it out, spending the better part of seven winters in southeastern Michigan and another five in eastern Nebraska. These are serious winter places. They're not Siberia or Winnipeg, but they will punch you in the face, and you need to come to terms with that if you live there.

Southern Michigan winters, first and foremost, are just plain long. Snow usually begins falling in November and never quite goes away. Just when you think it might all melt off, boom! Another half foot covers everything. None of this March goes out like a lamb stuff. Every bit of March is winter. So is a chunk of April.

When will it end? you find yourself pleading aloud to no one in particular. It just goes and goes and goes. It grinds you down and forces you to get back up again. Every year you know what you're in for. Body blow after body blow. And you wonder to yourself how the people from northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, the ones who mock you for your soft, southern winters, how do they do it?

You have to find a way to adapt or you'll be downright miserable. I still remember the moment it happened for me. Sometimes I'm a slow learner. It wasn't until my fifth winter in Michigan. I had driven over to my friend Rae's house one night. And then the car died. That tan 1979 Dodge Dart with the cream interior. Thing never ran.

I no longer know why, as the details are long forgotten, but there was some reason why I had to hoof it back and forth I think we decided we needed something from my house, which was about a mile away. A bottle of booze, a record, something. So I geared up. Boots, coat, etc. I went out into the quiet night, flakes fluttering about, and muscled through the black of sky and white of snow. I got to my house, grabbed whatever it was we wanted, then turned around and headed back. I was jogging and clopping through the snow to make the trip go faster. And then my imagination took over.

I was a Viking. The Scandinavian wind and snow whipping through my beard. Furry boots laced up to my knees, carrying me to war, horns sounding, a broad sword waving in my hand. My slight frame and average height much bigger in my mind's eye, I was eager for battle, my iron ready to slice torsos and sever heads.Detroit River Ice Flows (Wikimedia)

Then all of a sudden, there I was, back at Rae's. Wow, I thought to myself, that went a lot faster than I expected.

I don't think I ever pretended to be a Viking after that, but I had learned the mental trick: embrace the winter. It's not going anywhere, so have fun with it. Own it. That's how you get through so thick a tome.

If Michigan's predictable, Nebraska's downright irrational. In every place I've ever lived (except for Arizona) people love to say: If you don't like the weather, just wait a half-hour, it'll change. But Nebraska's the only place I've ever been where that's actually true on a consistent basis.

Weather systems sweep across the Great Plains unimpeded. Like many a driver passing through on I-80, the jet stream caroms over the rolling landscape, racing eastward towards Chicago. And eastern Nebraska is also right about where the jet stream starts to bend, meaning you can be on either side of it in one of Mother Nature's heartbeats. If it dips below you, cold Arctic air. If it dances above you, warm breezes from the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, the Nebraska whether changes constantly, and the only reliable feature is the ceaseless wind.

One day the wind stopped blowing. All the chickens fell down.

That wind. It just ain't got no quit in it. And during the winter, that's not a good thing.

The only thing between you and the North Pole is a barbed wire fence.

The net effect of a jittery, fast-moving jet stream is micro-weather systems that often last about three days apiece. So the early part of the week could be sub-freezing while the back part of the week could be downright balmy.

I don't know how many times I've seen the thermometer rise or fall more than 50 degrees Fahrenheit in a 24 hour period. It's a good idea to keep a change of clothes in the trunk of your car.

I remember one year there was a massive blizzard in October. Not only hadn't the leaves fallen yet, they hadn't even turned. Big, broad green leafs caught a couple feet of snow. All night long the gun shot pop of snapping branches ricocheted through the air. The following April there was another blizzard, about a foot. But the nearly half-year between those two storms? Nary a flake.

I'd say that was atypical, but saying that would be redundant. Aside from the wind, there just isn't much that's typical about Nebraska weather.

When the cold weather does hit Nebraska, it's damn cold. Not cold like Minot, North Dakota or International Falls, Minnesota. But it's cold. When it comes, it comes. Sub-freezing goes without saying. Teens are common. But that single digit frigid is what really gets you. Once the mercury drops below 10F (that's about -13C), you really notice it. The quicksilver ain't so quick anymore. Add to it the incessant wind, and outside is not a pleasant a place to be. Best get your ass around the corner of a building to find a windbreak, maybe take a nip from a bottle. And let's not even think about the occasional sub-zero temps (0F = -17.7C).

In places with moderate winters, like New York City or Philadelphia, winter feels like a metaphor for Death. In places like Michigan and Nebraska, you feel like you need to stay on your toes or you might actually die.

I remember this one winter night in Nebraska. For whatever reason, I suddenly had an overwhelming sensation of not wanting to die like the stereotypical, mid-20th century urbanite, your neighbors starting to wonder because the milk bottles are lining up outside your apartment door.

So I got in my little Ford Escort wagon and drove around aimlessly. I eventually came to a big empty field and parked in the ruts of frozen mud. After sitting there a while, I got out and walked to the middle of the field. The starry sky was enormous and the wind and snow swirled about ferociously, creating a sense of overwhelming desolation that Hollywood tries to replicate sometimes but can never getNebraskaWeatherPhotos dot ORG right. I laid down on the brittle, frosty grass.

This is a good way to die, I thought to myself. A real way to die. No milk bottles. And if I just close my eyes and continue to lay here, I realized, I probably would die.

I laid there for about ten or fifteen minutes. Then I opened my eyes, got up, walked to my little red wagon with the roll down windows, and drove back to my apartment.

*

New York City is the most seasonal place I've ever lived. Not only does it have all four, but each of them is right about three months in length. You get a true sense of the earth's quarterly cycle in New York.

Growing up in Gotham, I knew winter and I didn't like it. Three months of mediocre winter is right in the sweet spot for complaining. Just enough to feel entitled. But five months of a Michigan winter? Or Lord knows how long on the circus wheel of a windy Nebraska winter? You don't really complain anymore. Not if you wanna be a happy person. There'd just be too much goddamn complaining. I bucked up.

After New York, the Midwest, and even a year of pure contrast in Phoenix, I was quick to assess the situation when I moved to Baltimore in 2001. Only 200 miles north, New York is the most obvious comparison. The winters in NYC are indeed a bit worse than Charm City, but not that much.

A Baltimore winter, I've often said, is a real winter, but it's a short one. There's snow every year. Sometimes quite a bit. We set a local record with more than 70 inches a few years ago, which is lurching towards southern Michigan totals. Then again, some years there's hardly enough snow to notice. But there's always at least some. And it does get cold. You're bound to have some sub-freezing temperatures, most often at night. Maybe just a few nights, but there can be a good spell of it, depending on the year. Maryland's the South, but just barely.

The actual duration of a Baltimore winter is pretty consistent. It usually doesn't begin until New Year. December is late autumn, drizzly instead of snowy, chilly instead of downright cold. For the most part, down here White Christmas is just an old Bing Crosby song. And by the second week of March, winter's done. Come the 8th or 9th, whatever icy grip the season had on you is broken, and there's no going back. Planting your hydrangeas might be a gamble at that point, but not a bad one.

[For the record, I don't know nothin' about gardening. Following my advice will probably get your plants dead fast, so don't do it.]

By my reckoning, a Maryland winter is about ten weeks in all. Not even a full season in the conventional sense, and patches of it here and there honestly feel more like fall.

I'm happy with that. When I moved here, having already been hardened by Michigan and Nebraska, I found they typical Maryland winter to be some weak-ass shit. And that was perfectly fine by me. I had built up a sturdy winter psychology during my years in the heartland, and was happy to ease into a shorter, softer version of long nights and low sun.

I do enjoy the change of seasons, and there are things I like about winter in particular. It's quiet. It's pretty. It adds an especial dimension to social interactions around a hearth or in a cozy bar. But a little goes a long way. I feel like I've done my time, gracefully, and ten weeks of half-assed winter is A-OK by me. So over the years I remained content and grateful, always remembering how longer, colder, and snowier it could be.

Or so I'd thought.

Skijoring competition in Whitefish, Montana (Reuters)Memory's a funny thing. Sometimes you think you remember. But then you realize you hadn't, really. Not until something visceral actually reminds you.

This winter made me really remember.

I remembered what a real winter is like. It started early. December was not merely autumnal; it was winter cold. The usual 10 weeks grew to more than 3 months. And too often this year, cold was cold. Not 30s and 40s, but lots of 20s and even 10s. Way too many nights in the 10s for my taste. And more than enough snow.

It made me remember.

I remembered how to get through it. I remembered what I don't like about it, and also its pleasantries. I remembered pretending to be a Viking, or enjoying jokes about chickens and barbed wire. I remembered being goddamned ready for it to be over already. And I'm beginning to remember a sincere yearning for the deep, melting joy of spring. The satisfaction that comes from shedding boots and coats, from sauntering about freely, and from finally feeling muscles loosened and shoulders relaxed by the sun's warm embrace.

As I sat writing this essay on March 5th, it was after yet another sub-freezing day with lows in the teens. After that, the days got a little better, although the lows continued to reside in the land of popsicles.

And then it broke. On Saturday the 8th, the first day of the second week of March, like clockwork, Old Man Winter heaved his death throes in Maryland as the thermometer cracked the 60 degree mark (about 15C).

I remember winter. I remember making peace with it. I remember loving it in ways both peculiar and joyous, engaging and resigned. And I remember having had enough of it.

Welcome, Spring. It's your turn to shine.

Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com. You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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