Long before you begin to lose friends to the Grim Reaper, you lose them to the sunbelt.
Over the holidays old friends stopped by, bragging how in a week's time they'd be back in sunny Austin or mild San Francisco running around in their stocking feet. "Who needs four seasons?" they said. "One is plenty." My friend Karen told how she had to leave the Midwest, otherwise she might have stuck her head in the oven, and she didn't mean to check the roast. She simply couldn't take one more bleak, dreary Midwestern winter.
Winter can be a trial, no doubt about it. Especially this winter, which is shaping up to be the coldest since the Pleistocene epoch, and has even the most fervent environmentalist idling his Subaru in the driveway in the hope of hastening global warming. But winter also has its advantages, especially if you live in the city. The street out front of my girlfriend's house -- which all summer long resembles nothing less than Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro -- is wonderfully quiet now. We can walk up and down the strip in the evening without fear of being molested, since it is too cold even for the hardiest crack addicts and muggers. Wasn't it Shakespeare who said: "Winter tames man, woman and beast"? Anyway, it shuts them up for a few months. So we bundle up and stroll serenely down the sidewalks for a seasonal brew at one of the corner taverns.
On most days, my girlfriend is up before the sun baking like a madwoman, and winter is definitely the season for baking. Nothing beats apple strudel hot out of the oven on a frigid winter's morning. Fortified with a belly full of warm strudel we are able to make that long trudge ("every mile is two in winter") out to the driveway to jackhammer the ice and snow off our windshields. And when else can you lie around in bed on a Saturday afternoon and catch up on your reading and not feel guilty because you are not outside mowing the lawn or blowing leaves around your yard or whatever folks with vast suburban lawns do the rest of the year?
WINTER IS AN excellent time to get away. Best are the quick little weekend getaways to some riverside bed and breakfast. For longer trips, nothing compares to the seaside in winter, one of the perennial themes of Victorian essayists and other misanthropes. "[I]n the month of August [I could not have] relished so heartily as now the simple pleasures which the seaside always can afford. Everything is delightful. I look forward to everything," wrote Max Beerbohm many winters ago. Essayists seem to shun the seaside in season when it is noisy and crowded with drunken louts, or, if they are dragged there by their wives, they are not inspired enough to write about it. Dickens was the exception; he found the seaside in winter dull and unmoving: "Gloom reigns everywhere and the dullness is simply intolerable."
I don't know. At my age, I am kind of a fan of a contemplative dullness. Unfortunately, my girlfriend doesn't allow too much tedium to creep into my bones. Her cure for cabin fever is to take me ice-skating and hiking and dancing. I'm not sure what contra dancing is, but we're going this Sunday. I believe contra means "against," so I assume there will be a hall full of people who oppose dancing, sort of like the Rev. Shaw Moore in the movie Footloose. Sounds like my kind of people.
Surviving winter isn't the challenge it used to be. Today, most Americans have indoor plumbing, gas furnaces, and car heaters. (When the thermostat drops below ten degrees, I think about my Uncle Ray, then nine years old, who had to wake up before dawn in January and walk to school and shovel coal into the furnace so the classrooms would be toasty and warm by time the other kids arrived.) Even so, our winters are still too much for some. I suspect Florida and Texas and California are full of such transplanted softies looking for something else to complain about -- like the presence of too many old people, too many rednecks, and too many traffic jams.
I suppose the best thing about winter, though, is that -- here at least -- it only lasts three months. Three months is nothing. I can do that with my eyes closed -- in bed preferably, with lots of blankets. Three months is certainly no reason to up and move away from your friends and family. By April Fool's Day the crocuses will begin poking their heads up, the days will lengthen, the coats and gloves will come off, the high school baseball team will begin practicing -- out of doors, no less. Then the humidity will return and the streets will come alive, and we'll be kept up all hours by the noise and the music, and, before you know it, we'll be longing for the deep stillness of winter again.
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