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.

Wake Me When It’s Over

hibernating

“Every winter,

When the great sun has turned his face away,

The earth goes down into a vale of grief,

And fasts, and weeps, and shrouds herself in sables,

Leaving her wedding-garlands to decay –

Then leaps in spring to his returning kisses”

–   Charles Kingsley

This first month of the Gregorian calendar is a time for reflection, self-flagellation and cynicism. It is the nadir of the solar year and the emotional equivalent of the basement level in the underground parking lot of life. January is named after a feckless Roman God named Janus – the God of all passages. Literally translated, he is the God of Doors and Gates. We essentially named the first month of the year after a guy who stands with a clipboard and velvet rope deciding which of us gets to go through into the new year. As jobs go on Mt Olympus, being an immortal doorman was not the best assignment.  You could be responsible for oceans like Poseiden or the underworld like Hades – where there were very good parties and no supervision. Personally, I admire the lesser known Gods like Lecheros who was the God of Greek fitness instructors.

Yet, I identify with Janus. I imagine him as class clown – overweight and acerbic sitting at the back of Zeus’ lectures as he wisecracked under his voice and passed notes to Aphrodite in hopes that she might go out on a date with him.  There were no mirrors in Janus’ house and he filled his garden with laughing hyenas.  He thought he was funny.  Perhaps after a tenth consecutive rejection from Aphrodite who was dating Apollo because he had biceps and a fast car, Janus snapped and made a flip remark about Zeus looking a little “prosperous” in his tunic.  “Has our divine father violated the laws of moderation or perhaps he has mistakenly sat on the empire of Gaul by mistake?“

The next thing he knows, Janus is passing out hand towels in the Mount Olympus executive bathroom.  After a millennia of squeezing soap into the hands of lesser Titans, Janus is finally promoted and immortalized as the Father of January responsible for the first 31 days of the year. In the Northern hemisphere, this assignment is clearly a punishment.  South of the equator, it is a pretty good gig especially January 1st in Rio.

A northern longitude January is not a time to be a mammal. As warm-blooded, propagating, card-carrying primates, we were designed to be dormant creatures in winter. It is our genetic predisposition to gorge on fatty, high carbohydrate foods, eat take out, and then root around for warm, dark places to hibernate. Some mammals choose to hibernate symbolically eschewing social engagements and hiding out under generous oversized winter clothing. Others retreat into mahogany cocoons of work.

It is a fact that our brain chemistry changes with the lack of winter light.  We become irritable and restless.  Sleep eludes us.  Our dopamine and serotonin receptors begin to flicker.  Our brains become a rolling brown out of highs and lows as we grow desperate for a 12 hour day of sun and the green grass of spring.

The first month of the year can be an endless squall line of Alberta clipper storm systems surging down from the Great Lakes that pull in moisture from the South – producing snow and myriad reasons to be lethargic.  Lethargy and self-pity are two overly maligned character defects that can turn even the most selfless among us turn into an effective whiner and complainer.  Janus intended that his month should have this effect on us. If he had to guard all doors and public bathrooms, no one was going to be very happy in his month.

He decided January would be a time for remorse, resolutions and a mounting physical and emotional pressure to change – preferably into a Greek God of War with a pimped out V12 car. It would be up to us as mere mortals to float above our weaknesses, fueled by the hot air and methane of good intentions, poor digestion and self-loathing.

A few brave souls seek to defy the laws of hibernation and embrace January.  They firmly rest their hands on their hips, throw their heads back and offer the God Janus their most indignant pirate laugh.  These mockers of the Janus own an entire super hero wardrobe of spandex, Gortex, okaytex, Underarmour, and polypro clothing.  They have snow shoes, ice axes, crampons, cross-country skis, snow skis, ice fishing shacks, snow sleds, snow mobiles and snow saws for building igloos. These hardy souls secretly want to hit a patch of black ice, skid into a ditch and use all their survival training until they are rescued and offered an opportunity to be featured on “I Shouldn’t Be Alive”. These winter-lovers are perpetually happy.   While you are scrawling “I hate winter” on the frosted mirror of your bathroom that never heats up, these psychotic winter sprites are outdoors shoveling snow or preparing for a Polar Bear plunge in Long Island Sound.

The Saxons referred to January as “Wulf-monath”, the month of the wolf.  Others considered it “the time of ice”.  The month has a bad track record in history.  Instead of just laying low, mortals feel the need to betray their natural instincts and crawl out of hibernation.  The need to get a head start on the Gregorian calendar has caused many well-intentioned world leaders to move across a denuded landscape of poor choices to attempt to influence the trajectory of a new year.

In 1644, Brit Guy Fawkes was convicted of attempting to blow up Parliament. It seems dissatisfaction with a two-party system and government waste traces its roots well beyond the 112th Congress. Fast forward to January, 1862, when the first income tax was proposed of 3% on incomes above $ 600 increasing up to 5% for incomes up to $ 10,000. I mean, really.  As if fighting the Civil War was not enough, the average American had to file their first income tax return.    In 1874, New York City annexed the Bronx.  Enough said. In 1899, the US liberated Cuba from Spain, presumably to gain access to some better public beaches.  However, they failed to outlaw bearded people wearing berets on the boardwalk which was our undoing.

Leaping ahead to 1945, January was the month where France was admitted to the United Nations to offset the heartburn of growing American hegemony.  France actually nominated Russia the following month but could not convince people that if allowed to join the UN the Russians would bathe more and only invade countries with names that ended in a vowel.

In 1946, Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced he was not a God.  He was actually a pauper named Ichiro Kawasaki who had agreed to switch places with the real Emperor who was determined to abdicate his royal role to open a sushi bar in Soho.

In 1950, Ho Chi Minh began a campaign to rid the French from Indochina. Earlier in the month, President Eisenhower, suffering from a prostate infection, is misunderstood during a meeting with the coalition French President, Georges Bidault. As Bidault presses Eisenhower to renege on our commitments to Ho Chi Minh (who fought side by side with us against the Japanese) and support reintroducing French colonialism back into Vietnam, Eisenhower confides to an aide that he must go “wee”.  Bidualt is overcome with gratitude assuming the American president has just consented, saying “oui”. The rest as they say is history.

In 1959, Fidel Castro leads Cuban revolutionaries to victory over Fulgencio Batista and closes all public beaches and mafia owned casinos.  The Kennedy family fumes over unreimbursed hotel deposits and vows revenge. In 1978, The Sex Pistols performed their last concert at Winterland in San Francisco.  History as we know it, essentially ended on that January when nihilistic Sid Vicious hung up his angry guitar. A year later he was dead of an overdose.

January has its high points with the Rose Parade in Pasadena ( isn’t California in the Southern hemisphere?) We do have football playoffs, the return of the pro bowling tour and the reconvening of Congress. In between bouts of the flu and a false positive in the stock market known as the “January Effect”, mankind looks ahead to Fortunate February – a month that arrives faithfully with perfumed promises of Valentines and better days ahead.

Personally, I think we should be allowed to sleep through the entire month of January. The Northern hemisphere world be better off and we would really save on our electricity bills.  Why not just deploy the old Vonnegut “night canopies”, hibernate and wait until longer days restore our sanity and replenish the chemicals that fire our neurotransmitters. A little dopamine and a little less dopiness could make all the difference in a flat, crowded and discombobulated world.

That’s it. Hold my calls. I’m going to go lie down.