It irks me, the notion that winter is a dreadful tribulation.
Weather forecasts delivered in funereal tones as if two or three inches of snow were an outbreak of typhus, a front-page story about a snowstorm "lashing" New England. A whip lashes; snow falls gently to earth.
This bitter cold weather of the past two weeks has drawn many couples closer together, my wife and me included, and has bonded communities in wonderful ways and also raised the social status of plumbers.
In New York, a water main broke at 99th and Broadway, turning a main thoroughfare into a river, and city workers shut off water, fixed the main, and repaved the street in twenty-four hours. It's a neighborhood populated by expert complainers and lifelong grumblers, and in the cafes and coffee shops, you heard, for the first time since the Dutch ran the place, people talking with wonderment about municipal efficiency.
In winter, we learn once again that what it really comes down to is plumbing. Schools may close, shops, offices, but if your pipes freeze and the plumber is too busy with other people's frozen pipes to tend to yours, you are up the creek. Executive vice presidents can take the week off and nobody notices, but the plumber is crucial.
As for the closeness of couples in cold weather, it is a social phenomenon for which we lack accurate statistics -- the increased ratios of hugging to wind chill and of desire for skin-on-skin contact to the coldness of the night, and the subsequent rise of the birth rate in the fall months -- but a few minutes ago she walked in to where I am writing this column and said, "My back itches. Scratch the upper left quadrant."
So I did.
She said, "Scratch it hard. Use your fingernails." I heard murmurs of pleasure. Cold weather makes the skin dry and it feels good to be scratched. This is basic animal behavior; it's called "social grooming." Baboons do it, lions, horses, vampire bats. Why not us?
My wife and I are a mismatch --- she's restless and I'm a homebody, she's a near-vegan and I'm a carnivore, she goes to art museums, I go to hockey games, she works out daily and I occasionally get up and walk to the refrigerator. We could go into counseling and confront our issues, but for now, tactile spousal contact in that area between the shoulder blades seems to be the answer.
Silence is another winter benefit. The windows are closed, sound is muffled by snow, mouths are covered by scarves. I can hear the ticking of the big clock in our dining room, the soft ding of the hours. It is an 1830 clock, a grandfather clock that was thirty years old when my grandfather James was born.
My father loved that song: "Many years without slumbering, his life seconds numbering. And it stopped short, never to go again, when the old man died." This clock does not stop because I wind it every few days. To hear it ticking is to feel grateful for the basic fact of existence.
The main hazard of winter is not the lashing of snow but the danger of icy sidewalks, you creeping along penguin-like, and suddenly your arms fly up and your back twists and you enter a world of pain and the road to orthopedic surgery, all because your center of gravity is too high, you should've put rocks in your pockets, but the remedy is simple: stay home until the ice melts.
The beauty of winter, aside from aesthetics, is the fact that we go through it all together.
In Minnesota, where I live, it's universal. On a minus-forty day in Minneapolis, when I walk into the grocery store, I feel comradeship. The women pushing their carts down the aisles do not understand what a prostate biopsy feels like -- how can they? -- and the young people behind the deli counter cannot know what it was like trying to read a roadmap before GPS, and few in the store can appreciate the rigors of growing up fundamentalist, but by G od, we have all felt the wind in our face and ice underfoot and we look around with a sense of kinship.
We are citizens of winter. For all its faults, it has blessings to bestow. Praise G od.
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