Swimming Towards the Light

 pedestrians-falling-ice-new-york-cityWinter…was a purifying engine that ran unhindered over city and country, alerting the stars to sparkle violently and shower their silver light into the arms of bare upreaching trees. It was a mad and beautiful thing that scoured raw the souls of animals and man, driving them before it until they loved to run.  – Mark Helprin, Winters Tale

I am swimming through March like a hulking creature trapped under a layer of ice.  During this annual period of prolonged hibernation, I only move towards food and light.  I am restless, irritable and discontent.  If a scientist espousing the irrefutable evidence of global warming were to cross my cantankerous path, I would beat him with my snow shovel and bury him in a shallow grave filled with rock salt.

Each weekend, I don my running gear, desperate for exercise and dopamine.  On this particular Saturday, weak sunshine courses through the family room windows suggesting that spring has indeed arrived on the wings of red-breasted robins and lavender crocus

I open the front door to a blast of Alberta air that slashes my face and causes the dog to retreat into the foyer.  Brody, my fearless Aussie, looks up at me to gauge my resolve to exercise.  He seems to be suggesting that we stay home and forage for leftovers.  As it stands, we are already likely to be last to die in a famine.

It is 30F with a wind chill that has reduced the sun to a useless dead apricot in the sky.  It seems to have lost much of its potency after a prolonged stay in the Southern Hemisphere.  Clouds course overhead casting frigid shadows as they rush to the Northeast to deposit more snow.  The bloated pirate Winter mocks us, declaring us summer landlubbers, unfit for the brittle day that hangs like an icicle. Screw it.  We are going outside – even if one of us has to eat the other.  We brave four miles of northern wind and frozen inkblot ponds. Not a robin or crocus in sight.

We later retreat indoors while the persistent wind claws at our windows.  Heat courses out a decade of unattended cracks, broken weather stripping and an attic that could double as a meat locker. My front hallway has more cold spots than a haunted house.  Growing up in in Los Angeles, we opened the windows for air conditioning and closed them for heat.  It now costs me $100 a month for each precious degree I wish above 55F.

At this time of year, the dividends of four-season living elude me.  I don’t really mind the snow but temperatures under 20F really piss me off.  As a native Californian I know I have a choice to live here but my home state has changed. I am not sure I am attractive enough now to live in California.  I left the Golden State a svelte thirty-eight year old and now resemble a friendly manatee – a work out video’s permanent “before” photograph.

It hurts to know it is 80F in LA. Despite its fiscal woes, a recent 4.7 earthquake (we call these baby tremblers “jello-jigglers”), a 100-year drought and a few mudslides, it still looks pretty damn good.

I recall almost succumbing to the early March Lion just walking five blocks up 10th Avenue after a cab driver dropped me prematurely in ten-degree weather.  During my right-angle walk into a fierce headwind, I tried to speak to a mummified pedestrian who sounded like Kenny from South Park. I needed the shelter of a coffee shop.

“I…Cold…Coffee…What…So…Cold”

The faceless bundle of laundry pointed toward a brown awning whipping in the north wind.  I exploded into to the coffee shop on a jet stream of angry wind. The pierced, tattooed girl behind the counter considered me with classic militant disdain.  She looked uninterested as I struggled to recover the use of my face.

I sat in a corner and considered this subzero moment.  The City was now a clenched fist – – rigid, fighting to hold on to everything much like a hoarder refuses to part with any possession.  It will not release heat in the summer and clutches to its infertile chill in the winter.  We lunge down its streets and cut through its passages, tightening into pill bug pedestrians that hobble between cars and plumes of frozen air.

I enter the lobby of a building on Madison Avenue as a bitter gust courses through the revolving doors.  I take the elevator to my client’s floor.  It is now like a Native American sweat lodge.  I may soon discover my spirit animal as I almost pass out from the ninety-degree heat.  In the client’s foyer, I have a heat stroke vision of the great white manatee.  The aquatic behemoth moves nimbly under the water, twisting as he scours the ocean floor for turtle grass.  He turns and grins with his bizarre prehensile upper lip.  He has my eyes.  Opal blue optimism shines as he jerks to one side and disappears under a dust devil of underwater sand.

The winter daylight seems to last less than four hours before a purple twilight canopy is cloaked over the frigid boulevards. I exit the office to catch the 6:09 train only to slip on an agate piece of ice that causes my foot to shoot into the side of a fire hydrant. I can almost hear the salt pulverizing the leather of my shoes as I hop on one foot across 38th Street and stumble toward Grand Central.

A bike messenger screams at me as he tears through a red light dressed only in a cotton shirt and spandex pants.  He will most likely be dead in one hour but I respect his sartorial protest.  He probably thinks he is a snow leopard.   I am uplifted by his refusal to allow this frozen season to defeat him.  He yells into my face and races toward a different fate.

I am suddenly exhausted and crave caffeine, and carbohydrates.  I cannot think too far into the future.  I have already overdrawn my bank account of thoughts of warmer days and French jazz spilling out on to a café on the Champs D’Elysse.  I am frozen and pissed off.  It’s March, for God’s sake.  Until May, I will be crowded in a shadowed glen of denuded trees that slowly push buds toward the arching Southern light.  Spring cannot arrive too soon.  This manatee needs sun, warm water and a little turtle grass.

As I walk across 42nd , I am approached by a gray, shaggy oracle. He greets me in mid-sentence as if we are picking up on a conversation that had been cut short.  He is speaking a strange frozen gutter dialect.  We are having a NY moment.  Crazy always finds crazy.

This prophet speaks to me about the cold weather through a gray tangle of hair, inebriation and filth.  He is either asking me for some money or informing me that a group of trolls will begin hunting me tonight.   I have violated my Mother’s golden rule of never making eye contact with the insane. Our senses lock and he continues his three-tooth soliloquy that is unlike any language I have ever heard.  I am transfixed.  He senses my winter lunacy.  He has found a soul mate and I’m going to miss my train. I hand him a sawbuck and tumble inside the station.

Two things stay certain: it is still winter and crazy always finds crazy.

And A River Runs Through It

Icicles at Partnachklamm, Garmisch Partenkirch...
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Don’t knock the weather; nine-tenths of the people couldn’t start a conversation if it didn’t change once in a while. ~Kin Hubbard

I have a home that rests on the neck of a gentle slope in the deep New England winter woods.  It’s length faces north while its soft shoulders fall to the east and west.  A master bedroom window stands as a sentinel spying to the southwest across a fenced garden and a rectangle of boxwoods. Inside, an east/west beige wall separates the master from a living room that is warmed by soft, winter light. The wall stretches from a pinewood floor to an arching sapphire blue ceiling – and a river runs through it.

The Eskimo People have over fifty terms to describe “snow”. I am now fairly certain that thirty of them are curse words.  The past thirty days have conspired to entomb my entire world in a brittle, frozen coffin of ice.  My   holiday Dickens village needs to be updated to include new figurines of elderly who have fallen on skate rink sidewalks, roof ice and water removal men and unwitting commuters whose shoes have been eaten away by the leprosy of winter sidewalk salt.

As a native Californian, my eighth New England winter has been an arctic blast of humiliating reality.  When I first considered relocating to rural life, I envisioned low rock walls, ponds and Thoreau self-sufficiency. Instead I was forced to dig wells, manage septic tanks and depend on a fragile 220V kite string of electrical line. I recall Fairfield County friends lamenting to us that global warming had robbed Connecticut of its Currier and Ives winters and left in its wake a mild province of wintry mix nights and endless springtime mud.

On February 1st, while my basement ceiling was leaching water through the taped edges of its drywall edifice, I began to understand why northern longitude cultures have the highest suicide rate.  At the exact moment that a three-foot ice dam was redirecting snow melt under my roof shingles, through the attic, down my living room wall, through the ceiling to create a new tributary of the Rowayton River, I was worrying more of an oncoming Ice Age than a hot, flat and crowded world.

It is in these rare times of Man versus Wild, I am reminded that I am the useless descendent of a more self-reliant and practical line of survivalists and self-sufficient laborers.  I hail from a generation molded out of Play Dough, not forged from rich metal alloy. I can barely replace a smoke alarm battery. I am a member of a soft palmed, latter stage service-based Boomer Generation with a penchant for outsourcing everything — including manual and menial labor. When catastrophe strikes, I keep dialing until I can get through to someone who knows what the hell is going on at my house.

Ours is a demographic that throws its backs out while sitting at desks, sneezing or putting on socks. After a childhood indentured to Silent Generation Sergeants who dealt out punitive chores and “because you live here” hard labor, many of us rebelled and purposely atrophied our fledgling do-it-yourself muscles. In doing so, we revived the handyman industry.  We secretly loathe household crises as they reveal our limitations. Despite a garage filled with power tools and promise, we simply cannot “ git ‘er done.” In a rare moment of reverse discrimination, women expect men to intuitively know how to battle Mother nature.  We are expected to vanquish the monsters of leaks, creaks and cracks.  “You are a guy – you are supposed to know how to fix stuff.” Ok, you are a woman, where is my chicken cordon bleu and my chocolate souffle? For God’s sake I got a C+ in wood shop!

I glance up at a seething frozen mass the size of the Khombu Ice Fall.  My wife suggests that I grab the ladder and chip away at the twelve-foot serpent of blue-gray glacier.  I would rather french kiss a cannibal than risk assaulting this Hillary Step of ice. “Sure. Just grab me the flame thrower from the basement.“ For a nanosecond, she believes me to be in earnest. She catches herself, briefly breaking eye contact with this icy sword of Damocles, smirking at my eye roll and crooked, half smile. Yes, I am a modern day disappointment.

I long to drill holes in these ice jams, insert M80 quarter sticks of dynamite and blow up the whole mess.  I secretly want to stand on the home’s prominent cupola – – hands on my hips, head back and project a deep manly laugh to the neighborhood as I display by snow-free roof.. Instead I skulk inside pacing – waiting like an expectant father for the snow removal guy with his legion of strong backs and canary yellow snow shovel attached to his 12 cylinder, 400hp truck.

Later in the day, insult is heaped upon injury.  In a haunted mansion moment, our electricity begins to flicker in perpetual brown out.  With only 120V powering our home, we have no heat, water or appliances. Yet, half power is just enough to preclude our expensive generator from kicking in.  We are in a twilight purgatory. I stare at the tangled guts of a fuse box.  “ My wife yells downstairs, asking me if I checked the circuit breaker.” I lie and shout back “of course!” I am too embarrassed to admit to having no clue where the breaker rests on this circuit board of confusion. I shake my head. How ironic that I should have a river in my walls but no water from my faucets.

I am stuck in a bad Ingmar Bergman film.  The stark white landscape, the nihilistic monotony of slate gray days and the slow erosion of our sanity from delays, disruptions and the creaking weight of 3 feet of ice and snow squatting on our home like a fat man, has me perpetually uneasy.

In the last 30 days my entire property has transformed into the Lake Placid Olympics complex.  To the east, there is an exciting luge run where one can buckle into one of three multi-ton automotive sleds and course out of control down a 30 degree pitch of ice hill.  The passengers often scream but are hard to hear over the drone of the nearby generator and industrial drying equipment perpetually blowing air into my now broken walls. The front yard is a world-class skating rink. I must now hire a phalanx of workers to clear my roof, chisel ice, open up walls, replace saturated insulation, aerate narrow spaces and dry out the soaked carpet and wood flooring.

Massive eight foot icicles hang like dragon’s fangs from fragile drains. Ice dams have formed between gabled windows and along the edges of the roof. They loom – sapphire blue clots that are pushing my home toward cardiac arrest. As is often the case, I leave it to my spouse to administer CPR and sneak away earlier than normal to an office with running water, adults and electricity.

We are not alone in our winter distress.  It has been a thankless month in Fairfield County.  After sending my spouse flowers for supervising a lifetime’s worth of repairs, I made dinner reservations. It was my fatted calf offering to my life partner and an Old Testament God who had chosen to test us with a biblical trifecta of ice storms, snow days and power outages.

At dinner, we run into some Kathy and Kevin. Kevin has also sent flowers and is now treating his better half to an evening out.  Kathy related the bitter epiphany of her week as she sat outside on battered knees chiseling frozen poopsicles that were conspicuously placed like Easter Island statues across a deck of snow.  As her children and animals watched her from a warm inside with blank, insouciant stares, she had her moment of clarity. “I have a freaking MBA and I am out here in a snow storm chipping dog poop out of ice with a screwdriver. I kept wondering, ‘where exactly did my train leave its tracks’?” She went on to describe an all too familiar set of January indignities – – a frigorific month of logistical chaos, icy roads and a house full of snow day teens that seemed to believe life was someone else’s responsibility.

It is a familiar prologue. In the southwest corner of her home, a warm, inviting living room looks across a southern frozen front lawn.  Yet its brow is furrowed.  The ceiling is clearly sagging under the weight of winter.  There is a narrow corridor between the roofline – a crawl space that rests above this popular common room – – and a river runs through it.