A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Weather or not

 “I can’t wait for snow!” 
Jay’s comment, made a few weeks ago while we were stealing a day of partial August sunshine at Chena Lakes, was made with the greatest of goodwill and enthusiasm. 
My response, I am ashamed to say, was not.
After my initial outburst left my husband looking shell-shocked and rightfully annoyed, I stumbled to explain.  “Some of us,” I said, “mourn the end of summer.”
Every year, I fight a mental battle against the fading fireweed and yellowing leaves.  This doesn’t exactly qualify as a unique idiosyncrasy. Fairbanks in August is full of people desperately trying to insulate partially-built houses, persuade tomatoes to ripen before they freeze, and split eight gazillion cords of firewood.  Railing against the onset of fall is so common that it didn’t occur to me that I needed to justify it – until Jay challenged my view of reality.
Winter, my husband maintained – honestly perplexed in the face of my vehement melancholy -- has a lot to offer. There’s so much cross-country skiing and snow-biking to be done!  There are miles of perfect trails right outside our doors.  There are winter races, and trips to remote cabins! 
He’s right, of course.  I enjoy all these things too.  I cast my mind forward to sometime around Valentine’s Day, when rapidly returning sunshine glitters on the snow, the ice park offers small children exhilarating ways to injure themselves, and Jay and I entertain ourselves with hundred-mile ski races and other light frivolity. March in Fairbanks may be one of Alaska’s best kept secrets.  Don’t let anyone know how nice it is, or we’ll be mobbed by tourists.
Other seasons are pretty high on the awesomeness scale, too.  The fantastic March fun lasts well into April.  Hard on its heels, May is like a can of sweetened condensed spring: in the space of 31 days, we go from slush puddles and bare branches to a lush green wonderland liberally splashed with the red-pink of wild roses.  Little reindeer calves stagger about on wobbly legs.  Everyone finds all the possessions they lost under the snow seven months previously.  By the end of the month, it’s summer.
Summers are great here – hot enough for all the hallmarks of the warmest season – sand castles, drippy ice cream cones, free Vitamin D -- but almost never sweaty enough to make me long for air conditioning, ice packs, or a ticket to Antarctica.  Between June and August we get everything we should – shorts, bike rides, lakeshores, butterflies, berry picking – with a few mosquitoes thrown in to remind us that life isn’t perfect. 
So what’s my problem?  What DO I want, climate-wise?   Not, I hasten to add, for the good of the planet.  My official opinion there is that we should stop screwing with the system, pronto, before all the SUV-exhaust and cattle-flatulence turns Earth into Venus’s sorry step-child.  But in the fantasy world inside my own head, in which I have the power to crown myself Grand High Weather Deity (aka Earl), what would the weather look like?
“Look!  The leaves are falling!  That’s why it’s fall!”  The kids are thrilled not only by the fluttering leaves, which they spectacularly fail to catch, but also by their attempt at a pun. I don’t break it to them that this in fact why Americans call the season by that name in the first place.  Fall, autumn – whichever it is, it’s at the height of its splendor.  Yellow birch leaves adorn every hillside, and the willows have turned every Crayola shade between burnt umber, tangerine, and crimson.  The mornings are lightly frosted, but by nine a.m. the sun has burnt away the chill and is promising an afternoon of playgrounds and bike riding.  Perversely, this season whose coming I fought against last month is one of my favorites.  September in Fairbanks is beyond reproach. 
Autumnal grouchiness notwithstanding, I know I don’t really want perpetual July.  Plenty of people yearn for a climate in which halter tops are year-round garb, but I’ve never been one of them.  I spent more than two years living in sunny Jamaica, and I know from experience that unrelenting heat makes me wilt with sweat and boredom.  I missed the sensation of sleeping snuggled under a blanket.  I wanted to eat steaming bowls of soup and drink mugs of cocoa.  I wanted to welcome -- rather than resent -- having a cat curl up in my lap.  I was in a Grinchy mood when I hung baubles on palm trees.  I was perpetually damp and sticky, my skin burned right through the congealing layers of ultra-sunblock, and I longed for a vicious cold snap to kill every creeping, buzzing cockroach and mosquito. 
Cockroaches aren’t a problem in Fairbanks. Winter here starts in October, when the muddy trails freeze firm and the first flying flakes bring back memories of being a kid, Back then, at the first sign of dark gray winter clouds, I’d rush to tap the barometer and comb through the meteorological predictions.  “It’s snowing, it’s snowing!”  Radiators draped with sodden mittens were signs of great joy and contentment.  Even if the grownups felt otherwise, I hated the fact that in the greater New York area, snow turns to brown sludge and disappears within days.  
Fairbanks snow doesn’t disappear.  Here, November and December offer the sort of non-denominational picture-book holiday season that always seemed frustratingly elusive to me as a child.  Sleigh bells?  Sure, just hang some on the dog sled.  Jack Frost?   Yup.  Chestnuts roasting on an open fire?  Maybe a wood stove, but close enough.  White Yuletides are guaranteed.  The winter solstice is imbued with deep meaning to everyone, not just meteorologists and Wiccans.  Our property is almost entirely vegetated by Christmas trees.  My daily commute takes me past enough reindeer for Santa to field a full team, plus substitutes. 
Then the New Year arrives with a thud.  The holidays are over.  It is still woefully cold and dark, and the end is not in sight. In the depths of January, the weather is not just harsh, it’s downright mean.  There’s cold, and there’s nose-hair-crackling cold, and then there’s the sort of cold that makes any inch of exposed flesh try to turn itself inside out.  Last winter, a little boy at the twins’ preschool lost a substantial amount of tongue to the iron railing next to the playground steps.  I always thought this was something that occurred only in fiction, but a long-suffering preschool teacher assured me that in Fairbanks, this sort of thing passes for normal.  She’s thawed dozens of tongues.  Part of my brain, the not-very-nice part, was thinking, “At least it wasn’t my kid.”  Another part, the Eeyore part, was thinking, “See?  This place just isn’t fit for warm-blooded life-forms.”
The problem, I now realize, is not that I don’t appreciate fall, or that I don’t like winter.  The problem is that winter – cozy, snowy, enjoyable season that it is -- is interrupted by another season.  A season of blackness and numbness, of gelling fuel oil, cracking fingertips, and creeping torpor.  A season that steals away time from the other four fabulous quadrants of the year, leaving me with not quite enough beach time, too little photogenic foliage, inadequate bud-bursting springtime, and curtailed sledding.  What I’m dreading is a season called January. 
That day at the beach last month, I told Jay that I mourn the loss of summer because it’s too short, and winter is too long.  I claimed that although I like them both, I wish they were more evenly distributed around the calendar.  Under closer scrutiny, however, I have to admit that this argument is flawed. Winter is not too long.  It’s that other season.  Because, truth be told, January is much too long.  It’s at least thirty-one days too long – and generally more.  The groundhog doesn’t even bother to check for his shadow around here, because he leaves our entire ecosystem to his hardier marmot cousins.  Thus, belying math and logic, January is sometimes up to sixty days too long.
Knowing this doesn’t really change anything, of course, but it does perk me up enough to prevent me from further irritating my spouse. It solves half my problem in a single slice of logic. It’s not January now!  It’s only September, and I love September!  If I behave the way dogs and kids do, living in the moment, I can enjoy all the terrific seasons while they’re happening, without having to mope about what I’m losing or what comes next. 
And when January does arrive, I’m developing a multi-pronged strategy to deal with it, based on well-tested Fairbanks traditions.  The first option involves bundling up myself and my kids in so many clothes that we can be rolled around like beach balls, and pretending that we’re enjoying long jaunts by headlamp.  The second approach is creating an alternate reality in which we hang out in over-heated fluorescent-lit buildings wearing t-shirts and eating ice cream.  The third coping mechanism is boasting.  This involves posting weather reports to Facebook in order to prove that we are suffering more than anyone in Maine or Idaho or Saskatchewan, and are therefore superior, albeit in a fraternity-hazing-ritual kind of way.
I’ve also got a fourth strategy lined up for January.  Jay still doesn’t agree with my perspective, but he’s nice enough to play along.  This leaves me free to employ a tried-and-true method for dealing with at least one week of the unwanted month. That's right -- we’ve got plane tickets.

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