When I was in elementary school, we used to play a game that was called “Would you prefer to be frozen or burned alive?” At the time, I always chose frozen. It seemed like it would be possible to just curl up in the snow and die, which I had read about in White Fang. Whereas with burning, what I really imagined was boiling—in a big pot.
But this, it seems, is our most likely fate: to live, expecting apocalypse, in perfectly temperate weather. I was awfully comfortable last week, walking out of the house in my summer jacket and at once imagining that the street would burst into flames. What I secretly hope for are dinosaurs, and also, not to become one.
Two images will begin to appear in newsprint in shorter intervals: the image of a beshorted jogger in Central Park in January, and that of a Thinsulated commuter braving a surprise blizzard on her cross-country skis.
The end of seasons was already prefigured in modern techniques of managing the built environment, in air conditioners and industrial greenhouses. Through interior climate control and rapid shipping, the Global North had already banished seasonal temporality from the minds of most of its citizen-consumers. Seasonal temporality has perished only to return in the very image of the global market—an endless series of crises without horizon to be managed and administered by experts. Even as the global market begins to take on the appearance of natural (economic) disasters in the minds of its managers, the natural world is beginning to reveal itself as man-made. The capricious logic of the market dictates that our crises happen weekly or daily. The weather will now come to resemble the infantile and transitory demands of the market even as the market turns towards the weather as another demand made on production. Companies can simultaneously stock shelves with skis and board shorts, fondue kits and avocados. Futures in all-weather neoprene look bright.
With the kind of blasé attitude of many baby boomers (so used to an admixture of comfort and remote concern) someone recently remarked, on hearing about the latest evidence of global warming, “Well, we sure have lived in interesting times.” It’s true, if one looks at things “philosophically,” and I mean that in the colloquial sense: aesthetically, amorally, without responsibility. The demise of winter—the demise of seasons in general—is an interesting phenomenon.
To those who will benefit from it, it is important that the death of winter not appear to be a crisis. As with any crisis, Capital will respond in its overly optimistic way. Radical weather fluctuations will supply a continuous procession of consumable stories in the news, and baby boomers will be able to consume according to the daily climate. Let there be everything, all at once, available on demand.
Whenever there was a bad snowstorm, my father would grow concerned about the driveway at the garage. He didn’t want the snow to get too high to plow easily in the morning, before he had to get his truck out and go pick up a load of bananas. My father owned and operated a small trucking company, and the garage—an aluminum-sided box big enough for four tractors—was a few towns away from our house. The drive to the garage was simple: turn left out of our driveway in Hopkinton, head south down Rt. 85 until you hit 495, just past the Hopkinton/Milford border, take 495 south to the Bellingham exit. The garage is a few miles down Rt. 126, past the Dairy Queen, on Mill Street. The drive took twenty minutes on a clear day, forty or so during a storm.
My father has always had a pickup. He’s that kind of guy—the kind you call to help you haul away a load of brush, move apartments, or plow your driveway when your wife is nine months pregnant in late December (back when it used to snow in December). On the nights my father drove his pickup out to the garage to plow his own driveway—to make sure he’d be able to get his truck out the next day and go to work—my mother sent me with him. This was when I was in high school and my father woke up not much later than I went to bed—two, three, four o’clock in the morning. He’d usually go to the garage to plow around 8 or 9 p.m., and I was sent along to talk to him, keep him company, make sure he didn’t fall asleep. This was in the late ’90s. My father was in his fifties. He’d been driving a truck for thirty years.
If you’ve never plowed before, you might not realize how much energy it takes. How you have to raise and lift the plow through a set of gears, how you feel the impact of the snow crashing into the snowbank, how you can barely see while you are doing this because all is white outside the windshield. My father could have plowed without me—and surely he did many times—and I could have stayed home and done my homework. But there was something I loved about sitting high above the growing snowdrifts in my father’s pickup, seeing nothing but white, while listening to the plow graze along the gravel of the driveway as it pushed another mountain of snow to its compact end, until, finally, the driveway was smooth and safe and we could go home.
A few years ago, my parents moved farther away from the garage to southern, coastal Massachusetts where it snows less, if it snows at all. This summer my father quit trucking. He’s slowly selling off his tractors, trailers, and, eventually, the garage. His new pickup doesn’t have a plow.
“Winter kept us warm….”: I get the old T. S. Eliot joke now. Or I’ve come to understand that it’s a joke, as I came to understand that 1984 and Brave New World were jokes, too. Laughter dreams, wrote Henri Bergson, “but it conjures up, in its dreams, visions that are at once accepted and understood by the whole of a social group.”
In the photo insert for The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity, scientist James Lovelock has just such a joke, or dream vision: an image of dreary, copper-red crag-ridden terrain is accompanied by the deadpan, “Mars now—and what the earth will look like eventually.” Mars was once the province of dreamy science fiction. It sometimes still furnishes a home for our most bizarre fantasies about life elsewhere. Maybe there’s a life there; on Mars, we might emancipate ourselves from the imprisonment of the earth. “We do not know where this journey will end,” said George W. Bush, announcing an expansion of the space program, “yet we know this: human beings are headed into the cosmos.”
As our winters keep us warmer, those anomalous Martian blue polar ice caps, and those dry intimations of crevices and rivulets that people once dreamed held rushing water, begin to look more and more like the habitation we might have to flee, or whose intemperate meterological moods we will have to endure, as we now endure these bizarre reversals of the seasons, comic devastations of the sum of our visions.
As an indolent and self-conscious kid, I never much liked sledding. A decent hill meant stumbling back up for each ride, and I had to either wear a dorky snowsuit or endure cold sodden pants. Nor was I fond of the inevitable snowball fights—nothing but unjustly authorized violence, I still believe. I was really in it for the après-sled. The scene I remember is a moribund cliché of suburban New England childhood: socks on the radiator, hot cocoa prepared by my mother, a fire with a Duraflame log from Stop & Shop.
You have to be cold to get warm. These days, when snow seems quaint, I think of places whose tourism bureaus boast of “eternal spring.” Those climates miss the essence of the season: the first breeze that doesn’t cut, the first coatless outing after months of tedious bundling. My mother, who is a Unitarian, would attend rebirth rituals. In my own semi-ceremonial gesture, I’d throw out the snotty Kleenex that had been disintegrating in my pockets. Relief isn’t free. With this mutant January, we’ll never earn a real April.
I saw your note on the table: “Highs in the 70s, extended forecast…unseasonable mildness…” It’s not like you to send a note and not call. Not like you to stay away so long. I can’t get myself to believe it. I still carry my scarf with me, and then sweat builds under my clothes. The rain just stays wet, the trees send out silly, pretty blossoms. Yesterday, I sat outside and ate ice cream, but that was a poor attempt at consoling myself. Someone told me you’re out west. They’ve seen you all over Colorado.
I need you to respond to me: What did I do? Was it my stupid, stupid cold feet? I don’t have any hesitation now! Really, just forget all that crap I said about wishing you were gentler. I want to go back to how you used to shock me silly, crack my lips, and give me that damned Rudolph nose. I know I always complained—I was ungrateful. I couldn’t see how without you everything is loud and stark, and no one can sleep. Please, please just come back. I don’t think I can live through this perpetual summer.
I did not like winter very much. I was always cold, for one thing, to the point where people would say: “Aren’t you Russian? Shouldn’t you be used to it?” “But your blood temperature doesn’t change!” I’d say. I didn’t have a proper winter jacket—that is to say, my big red puffy jacket was out of fashion, in Manhattan. I had four right gloves and no left one. Because of this—my refusal to wear the big red puffy jacket, my lack of gloves—I was always catching cold, during winter.
What was winter to me but runny noses and chapped lips and also—I forgot to mention this—I’d started breaking out in this weird way when it was very cold. In graduate school, my car wouldn’t start; I had one very scratchy sweater, and no proper winter boots. So winter’s over now, forever, and that’s fine. But no one told the axis of the earth. It still gets dark at 4 p.m., and the human spirit—especially a human spirit that habitually wakes up late—can’t take it. Oh, I would trade those thirty degrees, those forty degrees, I’d trade it all for an extra hour of sun.
Saturday morning, January 6, I put on shorts and a T-shirt and headed to Prospect Park to play touch football. I do this every winter Saturday, always wearing the same light clothes, but usually, historically, the point has been to intimidate my opponents. It’s a tactic I learned from the Green Bay Packer teams of my youth. No matter how undermanned and poorly coached, those Packer squads were always tough to handle at Lambeau on a subzero day, and they always flaunted their hardiness by going bare-armed while their opponents bundled up. So, too, me, in Brooklyn, now. You, in the earmuffs—you dare run through the middle? You might wake up on your back in the snow.
But there was no snow, and we all wore T-shirts and sweated through them, negating my imagined edge. The temperature reached a record high, and the park was packed with joggers, babies, couples, cops. A feeling of loss crept in at the edges of the game, and not just for the losers. The loss of winter, yes—of ice-crusts crunched understep, of having the park to ourselves, of the pale imperious blue of a cold cold sky. But those pleasures will return, and winter reassert himself. Like an aging linebacker, he can still summon the old ferocity on occasion, even as his stats decline from one year to the next, and these El Niño seasons particularly give him fits.
What’s gone and worth lamenting isn’t winter itself, but our old enjoyment of these warm winter days. They used to feel like getting away with something—winter, having left a few hours lying carelessly where we could reach them, would never get them back. We experienced the schoolkid thrill of an unearned, unsought, and therefore perfectly joyous furlough. But Saturday was different, and future unseasonable Saturdays will feel different, too. Furloughs are children’s pleasures, reserved for those whose sole duty is obedience, and we’re not nature’s children anymore, even if we still like football. We’re the grown-ups, we set the rules. Nature’s behavior—as the denialists rush to remind us—is fickle and fitful and not to be controlled. But so is that of children, especially when we’ve mistreated them too long.
January 5, 2007
Today, I went looking for New York and found myself in San Francisco, buildings buried in a few feet of fog, New Jersey as far away as the Pacific. I half-expected to catch a hint of jasmine or come across lemon trees in the West Village. I wasn’t that bothered, to be honest. It’s been seven years since I bought a new coat, and my sweaters have pilled or been shrunk or boast gaping holes. No, it’s good to walk in light wool through the dense steaming air and watch the droplets dance in the passing headlights, to feel a glacier’s last breath on my neck.
Arriving at the renovated piers, I walked on in the company of a few avidly circling gulls, and some truant kids swigging 40s from brown bags. At the rail, two figures stood by a bench, wrapped in mist. It was hard to make them out at first, or what they were doing there. They seemed stranded, as if waiting for a ship to carry them off, or, simply, for the weather to shift. As I got closer, they resolved themselves into a couple: she looked like a student of some kind, he could have been her brother, or her teacher, the overly well-meaning sort. Then they were seated, twisting to face each other, and then she bowed her head onto his chest as he wrapped her in his arms—May and August in a January that felt like March. They stayed this way a while, whether in protection or seduction, a long farewell or coming together for the first time, paralyzing grief or joy. Who knows? If the weather had been colder, they would already have been forced indoors, warming each other’s hands, beginning to strip off layers. Or maybe her ski trip would have gone through as planned, and he would have stayed in with a glass of wine, a novel, and internet porn. They would never have met at all. But why wish away the untimely fruits of the new season, or begrudge this pair a moment’s happiness that they already seem to know, at the core, can only be the first, soft hint of catastrophe?
On New Year’s Day, a member of the Brooklyn Polar Bears told a local news reporter: “I feel if I do this on the first day of the year, I can do anything the rest of the year.” It was rainy and in the fifties on January 1, though. Some unaffiliated folks I know summer skinny-dip in Lake Michigan when the water is a similar temperature—no big deal. Sorry to harsh on your accomplishment, Polar Bear, but your club and its namesake’s days are numbered.
Two days before that invigorating dip, Sunni Muslims celebrated ancient Isaac’s stay of execution. On the following Saturday, Christians remembered a longshot road trip made by some eastern astronomers. Thoughtful occasions, these festivals. Days for reckoning with near-misses and contending with illogical mysteries. But weatherwise, Epiphany day perfectly suited restless members of any tribe who wanted to fuck-off, carefree and spontaneous-like, to Coney Island. Except that what they really needed to do, and secretly wanted to do, was go to the laundromat, make soup, and take the pair of white shorts to Goodwill.
We humans will continue to mark festival days, in accordance with our calendars. Fair weather, this unpredictable girl-woman, this lascivious pubescent, this eerily pneumatic crone, will come and go at odd hours. Without seasons, without the yearly long petit mort of winter, we will become soft and inflexible, everything either too easy for us or impossible.
But yes, it will be cold again.
One mustn’t speak ill of the dead. The admonition is premised on there being something ill to say, as there is of us all. But I will say that I’ve always loved sun and warmth and shunned cold and dark. If the places that bask in sun and warmth all year round (the American ones anyway) hadn’t been made into sites of the direst cultural blight, and if I had even an ordinary store of personal initiative, I would have fled for one of those places a long time ago. Alas, there lurks a fatalist and a Puritan in me, and to be scourged by wind and snow and hail has always seemed a part of my own personal destiny. Not so long ago I set out to love all the things and people I hated; also to hate all the things and people I loved. I succeeded better at the second task than the first, as I suspected I might. I couldn’t, for instance, stop hating the winter. I remember it as a setting of misery and loneliness, of sickness and mental disintegration.
The thing about winter’s agony was that it ended. The other thing about winter’s agony was that it would recur. There are no lessons in life, only things that happen and others that don’t. Winter used to be one of the things that happened, and for all that you hated it, you had to contend with it every year, and even its bitterness and enmity was a kind of embrace. I would be glad to see it gone forever, if its departure weren’t also, as I’m afraid it is, a portent of our own looming demise.