A FEW MORE days and then summer is over and done, and good riddance, we can put away the humorous T-shirts and resume intelligent life on earth. I felt a hint of September in the air last Wednesday and it made me happy, like walking up the street and hearing the neighbor girl playing a Chopin étude instead of that dang Bach minuet. Finally, we’re getting somewhere.
Summer is nice for about a month and then it raises hopes of euphoria that cannot be met and it’s time to return to reality. Euphoria is available in pharmaceutical form but it’s nothing to base a life on. It tends to lead to stupidity.
I’m an old man, I didn’t just fall off the rutabaga wagon, so you have to listen to me. I look back on a lifetime of wretched vacation trips — the misery of canoeing the Boundary Waters wilderness in a cloud of mosquitoes — the week in Maine, listening to rain on the roof. And then there was Australia, 25 hours from Minnesota: either you fly first-class for the price of a three-bedroom home, or you fly steerage like a criminal in leg irons, and spend two weeks dreading the return. And there was Barbados, where a white man who lay on the beach for 10 minutes opened the door to a world of pain and spent a week trying to keep any material object from touching his skin.
The lesson here is simple: don’t vacate. It tends to make you feel vacant. Stay home and read a good book. If you need to travel, get a hotel room in Duluth and take the book with you. There’s a lake there that’s superior to any you’ve seen. It’s good enough.
The problem with summer is that you feel you’re missing something that they have in Paris or Aspen or New Zealand or Walden Pond, but in fact it’s right there in your own home, and the beauty of winter is that it’s all about getting home and staying there as the blizzard approaches and dire warnings are broadcast and when you arrive home after your heroic escape from the jaws of the storm, your children who’ve treated you with faint contempt for months throw their arms around you weeping in gratitude, orphanhood avoided. It’s the truth.
A good snowstorm gives us perspective. It makes us cheerful. Eight inches of snow, high winds, the mercury falling into nothingness, it’s an event that pulls people together. Everyone has a story about where they were when the storm hit and how they made it home, a story like Proust except funnier.
You don’t come home from Paris with a story. You come home with the knowledge that you’re not French. Winter is more interactive. The sidewalk is treacherous and that is a reality; you must walk slowly, flat-footed, or you may slip in an odd twisty way and wind up in rehab for six months with a unique injury that goes into orthopedic textbooks and is named for you.
And as you slip and feel yourself falling, you realize that even though you are a great author or a leading authority or a beloved teacher, the laws of physics apply to you just as they did to Saddam Hussein when the hangman kicked the trap. You are not in control here. And then you fall and you land in a snowbank. Snow is soft. God is merciful.
This sensation of being Out of Control lasts the evening as you come home to your weeping family. They bring you hot chocolate or a hot brandy, your choice. You tell about your drive home, the satisfaction of seeing CEOs in their limos in the ditch, waiting for a tow truck. The wind howls in the chimney, you put a log on the fire, the dog lies against your feet, children nestle against you, a quilt over your lap, and your spouse winks at you in a meaningful way. This is what it’s all about. The dog is optional, the fire can be a video image, but you need the cold to inspire the nestling and the wink.
Romance requires some snow.
I’d say 14 inches or so.
People aren’t ready
For love when they’re sweaty
Like they are when it’s 20 below.
It’s like the old man of Nantucket
Who slipped on the walk. Such bad luck, it
Was not his intention
But still — did I mention
His sweetheart was happy to see him.