Monday, December 26, 2016
Winter is hard. The older you are, the harder it gets.
Winter is when history was invented. People stay indoors, huddled around fires, and make chronicles. The Plains Indians painted their history on buffalo hides – the so-called "Winter Count," pictures devised as a mnemonic so that the significant events of each year could be recalled. The Dakota and the old Anglo-Saxons counted years by "winters." Anyone can survive a Summer or Spring or Fall. It is an accomplishment to survive a Winter.
I developed a peculiar skill. Standing outdoors, I closed my eyes, felt the breeze on my skin, listened to the sounds around me, and, opened my mouth, to taste the air. The objective was to ascertain the temperature in degrees fahrenheit. After a minute or so, being careful not to overthink this, I would derive a temperature, imagine it in my mind, and, then, get into my car, start the engine and compare my impression with air temperature reading displayed on my console. Without any practice, I achieved uncanny accuracy – I had become, as it were, a human thermometer. If I registered the temperature as 13 degrees above zero, the display in my car confirmed this. My temperature-sensing capability was extraordinary, a gift from God.
There are many clues to the temperature. All senses participate in determining temperature except the eyes. The eyes grasp appearances and the cold is something more integral, more essential than what can be seen – a bright day with a cloudless sky full of sun may be, in fact, terribly cold. A grey murky evening in which even the trees seem to shudder may be warm, full of spring-like breezes. More accurate are the ears and tongue. Twenty-below zero is a terrifying silence riven with strange, remote fracturing sounds. The air tastes of acetylene and your teeth ring like bells. At zero, the breeze is warm and furry with wood smoke. Creatures are active under the snow: you can hear them burrowing. Twenty-five is moist, placid, conversational. You can smell dog excrement and worms.
It was 17 below zero when I nearly perished in my car. I had gone to work, a drive of a mere five blocks in my new Honda. Since my coat is bulky and makes it hard for me to fasten my seat-belt, I was wearing layers of clothing – a tee-shirt, shirt, another flannel shirt on top of that, then, a sweater, then, another sweater. The top layer sweater was bulky and had long sleeves dangling down below the tips of my fingers. At lunch time, I darted out to my car, feeling the crisp and deadly air all about me, pulled the car door shut hurriedly, and, then, drove back to my house where I planned to make myself a ham sandwich.
I drove into my driveway, pushed the button to stop my car, and, then, tried to open my door. The door didn’t respond. It was locked against me. I wondered if I had inadvertently triggered a child-lock. I pushed some buttons, caused the windows to rise and fall, and, then, tried the door again. It still wouldn’t open. This was odd and frustrating. I unlatched my seat-belt and threw my weight against the locked door, but it didn’t budge. It seemed that I was trapped in my car.
I pounded on my steering wheel with frustration and the cry of the horn, like a wounded animal, frightened me. But, then, I decided that I should calm myself and take objective stock of the situation. Feeling around the edges of the recalcitrant door, I discovered that about six inches of my bulky top-most sweater was caught between the door and its frame. Apparently, the door’s locking mechanism would not unlatch so long as part of my clothing was caught.
The portion of sweater that was trapped between door and frame was part of the sleeve over my left arm. An idea occurred to me: I would have to gnaw off my arm to escape. For a moment, the horror of the situation flooded me and I was drenched in sweat. Then I bent down and, gnashing my teeth, began to chew through the fleshy part of my left fore-arm. This was hard and painful work and, after a half-dozen bites, I paused and considered whether this was really the only way to escape the car. In fact, if I chewed off my arm, the sleeve would still be trapped in the door and the door would still not open and I would be in shock, sans hand and arm. So I decided to alter my course: by thrashing and writhing, I was able to wriggle out of the sweater. This maneuver required me to bend in places where I am not jointed and so my back and the flesh over my ribs went into a spasm. I twisted and wriggled like a fish out of water and, almost passed-out. When the darkness cleared, I found that I was holding my sweater on my lap. But the sweater was still pinned in the door. I pulled and pulled at the sweater but could get no purchase on the garment because the crimp was too close to me and I was applying force from a distance of six or eight inches – I couldn’t get back far enough away from the door to really pull hard on the trapped garment.
I was gasping for air and, now, suffering pangs of terror. What if I had to spend the rest of the winter trapped in the car? What if the door would never open? Did that cramp in my stomach mean that I needed to have a bowel movement? I leaned to my right, stretching sideways, and was able to reach the right-hand passenger door with the tips of my fingers. Extending my body until my tendons and sinews began to snap, I was able to push open the door on the right side of the car. At least, the other doors didn’t share the obstinacy of the door with which I was battling. But, now, that I had the door open, what next? Somehow, I would have to crawl over the central console and the gear-shift to exit from the right front door. How would that be possible? I wriggled around some more, contorted myself into a ball, and tried to slip between the gear-shift lever and the steering wheel. But this only induced more flexion at places where I am not naturally jointed and so my muscles flared into a red spasm again and I collapsed into the seat defeated. If I tried to crawl over the console, undoubtedly, I would find myself impaled on the gear-shift – I would have the gear-shift’s wedge-shaped handle thrust up into my rectum and, in this undignified posture, the car would have to be towed to the emergency room and disbelieving ER doctors would have to somehow unscrew me from the car’s lever on which I was impaled. No one would believe that this had occurred by accident and I would be accused of all sorts of unnatural acts. It would be very much like the time that I accidentally sat on a pop bottle while buck-naked and had the narrow end of the vessel thrust up my ass to the point that a suction effect occurred and I was unable to remove the bottle without disemboweling myself. At the ER, no one was willing to give me the benefit of the doubt and, although the libel was never made explicit, I was thought to have been engaged in some kind of carnal exercise so as to result in the bottle becoming lodged in my fundament in that manner. No this wouldn’t do at all and so I decided that it would be fruitless to try to escape by crawling over the center console.
I decided to engage the mechanism to recline the front seat as much as possible. Perhaps, I could make the seat horizontal and, then, somehow push myself to the rear of the car with my heels, sliding on my shoulders and spine into the back seat from which I could extricate myself. But the seat declined only to about 45 degrees and this didn’t seem to give me enough space between the top of the neck-rest and the ceiling of the car to squeeze myself into the back seat. And, it seemed, very unlikely to me that I would be able to caterpillar myself over the seats and into the back of the car. So this plan, also, failed.
There was nothing for me to do but drive to my office and hope that someone could bring a sledge-hammer or a cutting torch to the door to rip me out of my metal prison. Uneasily, I drove my car to the office. It was the end of year and big farming families had gathered to divide the parcels of land owned by recently deceased patriarchs among themselves. Every single parking space outside the office was occupied with pick-up trucks or made-in-America Buicks and Chryslers. I circumnavigated the parking lot and watched the farmers trooping up the sidewalk to the reception lobby and it was obvious that there was no place to park close to the door or the windows of my office building. Tears blurred my vision. I pulled up in the alleyway and looked over the palisade of pick-up trucks and, then, I hit my horn, short dot-dash-dot honks to signify SOS. No one came to my rescue. I panicked and beat at the horn with my fists until they were bloody. The din was enough to raise the dead but it didn’t draw anyone from inside the office.
I drove away from my office, wiping the tears out of my eyes. My bladder felt full. Everywhere, Christmas decorations beckoned to me and the traffic on the roadways was bright and merry. But I was trapped in my car with no hope of escaping. And, so, the holiday decorations seemed to me nothing more than a bitter and cruel taunt.
Someone must have read poems to me when I was a small child. I don’t recall the voice that was reading or the occasion or any inflections in that reading. No visual memory remains – perhaps, I had my eyes closed when the verses were read to me. But I know that certain poems were read aloud to me because I have always known them, because they are integral to my thought and intertwined, in some way, with the genetic material of my imagination. One of these poems is a little verse by Shakespeare describing winter. When I thought of this poem, I had no idea, at first, where to locate the text. Then, it occurred to me that the verse was printed in Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s Understanding Poetry, a book that has also always somehow been known to me. (I think my father took a course in poetry when he was studying at Iowa State University in 1957 or 1958 – the text book for that course was a big grey volume incorporating two anthologies edited by Louis Untermeyer: Modern British Poetry and Modern American Poetry. However, my guess is that the Brooks and Warren volume was also required reading for the course.) My memory was correct and it’s my surmise that the Shakespeare poem about winter was read to me from Understanding Poetry.
Poems don’t format well in this blog and so must apologize that the verse, actually one of two seasonal poems concluding Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor Lost, will not look right on the computer:
When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in the pail,
When Blood is nipped and ways be foul.
Then nightly sings the staring owl.
Tu-whit, tu-who: a merry note
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian’s nose looks red and raw
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl.
Then nightly sings the staring owl.
Tu-whit, tu-who: a merry note
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
This poem seems to me beyond praise, something akin to Brueghel’s mysterious Hunters in the Snow, a wonderfully precise account that is somehow perfectly general and uniquely specific. The poet’s eye begins outside with icicles against a wall – not portrayed as something dangling or pendant from an eave, but rather an obstacle, a curtain that veils the building and, perhaps, obscures it’s door, perhaps, making it hard to come inside. We see those whose work requires that they be outside: Dick the shepherd blowing on his fingernails, Tom bringing in logs for a fire, the farmer delivering milk that is frozen – the inversion "milk comes frozen home", an oddity required by the poem’s ballad meter (four stresses per line) emphasizing the strangeness of the frozen milk and that fact it is the "coming", that is, the milk’s delivery through the icy landscape that has resulted in this curious state. After an abstract line about Blood being nipped and ways that are foul – again images that remain resolutely outside – we see the "staring" owl. Of course, we could not see the owl’s stare unless we were outside and, so, the poet has projected us into his frigid landscape. But, then, the owl, whose objective stare, I think, defines the poem, utters a challenge to the reader – sounds: "Who are you?", an inquiry that also means "where are you?" within the poem’s precise configuration of outside cold and inside warmth. And, then, the sound carries – it penetrates into the kitchen where we see the other central figure in the little community that the poem defines, "greasy Joan", the kitchen maid who is "keeling" a pot. The owl’s nocturnal cry, a sound that embodies the cold and loneliness of winter, bridges outside and inside. Presumably, Joan hears the owl’s cry as she skims grease, probably some kind of animal fat, from the boiling pot. At this point, the poem is enormous, as vast as all of winter – we see the hills where the shepherds abide, the icicles, the muddy and desolate roads, the vast eyes of the owl defining this landscape and we can smell the rank odor of animal fat being rendered, big mammals slaughtered in the winter-time so that their meat can be frozen.
The second stanza of the poem takes place mostly indoors. People have caught colds from their work outside and they are coughing violently – so much so that the tedious words of the preacher can’t be heard. People in the community have runny noses that look red and raw. A glance out the window shows little birds brooding in the snow. Crab apples are roasting in a bowl and the liquid in them, a distillation of Summer and Fall, hisses as it escapes and, then, again the sound of the owl, the poem’s central consciousness, the objective eye that beholds winter, penetrates the kitchen asking a question that no one can answer while "greasy Joan doth keel the pot." The owl’s enigmatic cry is "merry." Why? Because the poem pivots on the distinction between cold outside and steamy warmth inside – and we are inside, warm beside the hearth: hence, the cry of winter, the owl’s inquiry, is "merry" to us. It is like being warm under covers in bed and hearing the wind of the blizzard howl outside.
Great lyric poems swivel between opposing poles of meaning. It is cold outside and warm indoors and this is dramatized by Shakespeare’s lyric. The owl’s stare is objective, indifferent, general. This stare, signifying a portion of the poet’s perspective, contrasts with "greasy Joan" who seems blind, a figure bent over a steaming pot, greasy with rendered animal fat. But "greasy Joan" who is named like Dick and Tom and Marian define a specific community, real individuals in a real, intensely defined space. Thus, the poem whirls between extremes of indifferent objectivity, the outside defined by winter’s cold, and the subjective inside, the human world comprised by this tiny community of named individuals. Somehow the poem sutures together inside and outside, extreme cold with extreme heat (hissing crabs, the steam enveloping Joan and making her greasy), and, finally, the objective generality of the winter, the white season, and the subjective interior formed by the hamlet of people named by the poem.
Snow had fallen all day. And as the day lengthened, the temperature increased until now, an hour after sunset, it was about 33 degrees.
New-fallen snow conceals the odor-markers by which dogs navigate and my Labrador Retriever, Frieda, was confused and skittish. The familiar signposts in her landscape had been eradicated by the heavy, wet snow covering everything and, it seemed to me, that she was afraid that the dogs that we heard barking within houses might plunge forth and attack her. Accordingly, I led the dog on her leash and we walked gingerly between the heaps of snow cast-up by the snow-blowers and making trenches of the sidewalks. Sometimes, a small tree heavily laden with wet snow cast down wet clots onto my shoulders and the dog’s back.
It was two days before Christmas and the fresh-fallen snow smelled like a lake in early spring, wet and clean and inert. The snow was very white and it reflected the light from cars and front porches and street lamps so that the entire landscape was faintly phosphorescent, glowing with a blue-grey radiance. In the distance, storm clouds dipped over the lights downtown and caught a little of the faint tomato-colored radiance from them before ascending once more into the sky.
The dog was panting. The moist air seemed very warm. Music came from an alleyway – someone was playing Adestes Fidelis from within a garage or an enclosed porch. The tones wafted over the quiet streets and the snowy lawns.
I was wearing a warm cap and had on white athletic socks within my tennis shoes. With head and feet warm, I thought that it would be very comfortable to cast aside all the rest of my clothing and so clad only heel and skull, go naked through the winter. The tennis shoes would keep the cold off my feet and the smoke stack of my head would be capped by a furry and warm hat and the rest of my body would tingle like shaken jingle bells as I made my way through the melting snow.