Hello, I’m Tom Cooper

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My name is Tom Cooper. I am the director of a library in suburban St. Louis County. I have been writing for a long time. My publications to date include many book reviews in newspapers and magazines, chapters in books on library subjects, articles in library journals, and a book which I co-authored on the history of the town where I work. For most of my life I concentrated on writing fiction. Then it came to me several years ago that the only things I had ever published were works on non-fiction. I am not a fiction writer, I am a non-fiction writer.

I tell you all of this as a way of reintroducing myself, both to you and to me. For people who have read this blog regularly the arc of my life over the past several years is well-known. In 2012 I moved with my family from the suburbs, where we had long lived, to an 18-acre plot of land in rural Jefferson County. We had a barn and pastures for horses, large gardens, many fruit trees, and bee hives. It was a completely different lifestyle, one in which I spent most of my time working on one thing or another. When I wasn’t at my actual job I could be found cleaning horse stalls, mowing fields, weeding a garden, turning compost piles, or one of the thousand other jobs it takes to run a place like that. I learned as I went, I had triumphs and reverses. I found that the time one actually has to experience nature in that sort of environment is extremely limited. I found that I was right in my thesis that living on a farm, or a ranch, or whatever you want to call it, is not ‘getting back to nature’ in any real sense. Farming is a technology, it is not nature. That’s why the Garden of Eden, the oxymoronic garden with no effort, is a fantasy.

Then, beginning in early 2016, I experienced a crisis in my personal life. That is still ongoing, although one hopes for resolution soon. I now live in a small apartment in the city of St. Louis. I like the city, I like its vibrancy and the easy availability of interesting things. I have often said that I like city life and I like country life—it’s suburban life that  I find distasteful. But my appreciation for city life does little to ameliorate the stress of awaiting a settlement.

Amid all of this, both the endless round of work at the ranch and the anxiety of extreme life changes, I have lost my way in my writing. Many years ago, perhaps fifteen years or more, I conceived the idea for a book about the seasons. There were a variety of reasons I found the subject appealing. Finally, somewhere between 2010 to 2011, I started working in earnest on that book. I was making good progress on the research and the writing until we moved to High Ridge. At that time I was in the middle of the third chapter, the chapter about seasonal mythology. I spent the entire time I was there, nearly 3 ½ years, working on that chapter without finishing it. I made repeated attempts to revise the chapter into something manageable, I moved on to other chapters for a while, but the feeling grew that the entire work was stalled.

In the first several months after I moved from the ranch, I dithered and got nothing written. I could not concentrate, especially not on something that needed intense revision and good authorial insight. For a while I had been thinking about another project which grew out of my research on the seasons, namely a history of the New Year. I think it is a very interesting subject, drawing in more cultures and changes over time than many people know. I spoke with one of the co-authors I had worked with on the above-mentioned history book, and she was amenable to the idea of creating a book proposal. Both of us, I think, did good work on that proposal, but after most of a year, it is still not submitted.

Then I started working on a fiction project. I told myself nearly a decade ago that I am a non-fiction writer and began to focus on that, so why was I writing fiction again? Not only fiction, but a young adult novel with a science fiction theme. I don’t like and don’t read science fiction, so what’s the idea? This is when I knew that I was lost in my own work. Even my blog posts for a few years have been spotty, both in frequency and interest.

In the past week I have been rereading my early chapters on the seasons book, which bears the working title The Varied God, same as this blog. It comes from a poem by the 19th century Scottish poet James Thomson, in which he says the seasons are ‘the varied god,’ different manifestations of god throughout the year. I have a clearer idea of what I originally meant to do with the work, and I mean to get back to it. It will take deep cuts, deep revisions, and concentrated creativity. It is the kind of work that I think brings the work to life as well as the person doing the work. I think it is exactly what I need, and I only hope that I can do it.

 

Blaming the Victim

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I wonder if we’ll ever get two seasons back to back with no threatening weather. In the past few years we have had blizzard-like snow and dangerous freezes, windstorms that took the roofs off of houses, and persistent rains that took every local creek and river past the flood stage. These were interspersed with mild winters and mild summers, which seems wicked, like lulling us into a sense of comfort before another calamity strikes.

There is flooding again now in much of Missouri. Every time this happens you see the news footage of people packing up their homes to get to higher ground, or of families sitting in high school gyms wrapped in Red Cross issue blankets. Inevitably someone will ask, why don’t they just move? How many times do they need to be flooded out before they realize they need to get out of the flood plain?

A friend of mine explained this to me a while back in stark terms. Okay, let’s move everyone who resides along a flood plain. That’s pretty much everybody along the Mississippi River system, the Missouri River system, the Tennessee River system, and perhaps dozens of others. But then what about tornadoes? Shouldn’t people in Tornado Alley also move? So let’s clear out everybody in north Texas, most of Oklahoma, portions of Kansas and of Missouri. And hurricanes? Okay, everyone along the east coast, from Florida to New York needs to move inland a hundred miles, and everybody along the Gulf Coast as well. Earthquakes? Let’s move everyone in southern California, and everyone in southeastern Missouri away from major fault lines. Wildfires? Again, we’re clearing out much of southern California and large stretches of other western states. Doesn’t leave much of the continental US, does it?

Yes, this is a kind of reductio ad absurdum, but it is an absurdity easily arrived at. There are many natural disasters, and given the climate change that is not happening, they are getting worse all the time. Everybody can’t move to the upper-central states. For now we are just lucky we have professional first responders, excellent relief agencies, and are resilient enough to recover again and again. Insisting that people affected by natural disasters should move is a blame the victim mentality.

Then again, there is another oft-noticed phenomenon. Whenever there is a flood or hurricane threatening, and evacuation of the area has commenced, you see interviews on the news with some old character who says something like, ‘I done lived here all my life, and ain’t no (flood, hurricane, etc.) done got me yet. I ain’t goin nowhere!’ Then, at the height of the disaster, emergency personnel risk life and limb to sweep in and rescue the idiot. This is the proper time to blame the victim.

Spring and Influenza

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I have been sick for several days now. My doctor says it’s a flu. On Wednesday she prescribed some medications—mostly ameliorative—and said that if I was not feeling better by Monday I should call her again. I laughed inwardly at that. Of course I’ll be better by Monday! Now it’s Saturday, and I’m not sure. I missed most of the week of work, the most I’ve ever missed work in my whole life.

Outside today is beautiful. The sun shines, the birds sing, the leaves on trees shiver in a light breeze. It is so unfair, after waiting so long for spring, to feel this poorly when it arrives. I hear again and again that this flu is ‘going around.’ This is something people always say. I swear that I could tell someone I had broken out in green boils that explode at random, and they would say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s going around.’

I don’t think the CDC had very good luck with its flu vaccine this year. It’s always largely guesswork on their part exactly what flu virus they’ll be fighting. There are many flu viruses, and due to something in their mitochondria, which I can’t remember well enough to explain and I’m too groggy with fever right now to research, they are fast-mutating. So the doctors at the CDC make an educated guess, produce several million doses, and then, as often as not, a different virus hits the population.

The added problem this year has been this very late emergence of a new flu virus. The causes for that are probably complex, bringing many factors into play, and will probably never be fully understood. So we blame the weather. That’s right. This second emergence of influenza is due to the fact that the weather has been so wonky. Cold one day, hot the next, et cetera, et cetera. Ascribing illness to the weather is as old as the study of medicine itself.

Hippocrates is known in history as the father of medicine. He was unique in his time for trying to discern the causes of illness, removed from common myth-making. Your cancer was not a curse from Hera, your leprosy was not the wrath of Poseidon made manifest. But Hippocrates did not have the benefit of the scientific method to work with. His ‘science’ was mostly what they used to call inductive philosophy: look at the symptom and think about it and try to figure out what causes it. This was a huge step in the right direction, but his conclusions were often little better than the traditional explanations of illness.

Hippocrates believed there were four substances, or ‘humors’ in the body, which contributed to a person’s physical well-being: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. Imbalances in these humors, which were controlled by the seasons, led to illness and disease. Perhaps the idea of seasonal influence on health did not originate with Hippocrates. His contemporary, the somewhat older historian Herodotus, wrote of the Egyptians that they were the healthiest of people because they did not experience the seasonal influence. ‘For illnesses fall upon people when they experience changes of all kinds,’ he wrote in his Histories, ‘but especially changes of weather.’ The Christian scholar The Venerable Bede, writing over a thousand years later in The Reckoning of Time, still references these humors, calling man a microcosm, a small universe in himself and thus subject to seasonal variations in health.

And in case you think that we have lost this kind of fascination with the seasons as the cause of illness, let’s not forget there are still many people who believe that you can catch a cold by being cold. I mean, how many screwball comedies of the mid-twentieth century hung on the assumption that two people who get caught in the rain will be sneezing and coming down with colds in the next scene? (Oh dear, let’s get you out of those wet things!)

I guess when people are miserable it’s nice to be able to attach blame to something. Rather blame the weather than the co-worker who showed up to work with a cold and spread germs everywhere. Spring is supposed to be the season of blood, the humor which controls youth, vigor, and vitality. It’s not the season of phlegm, which is associated with common cold, allergy, and influenza. But when the seasons criss-cross, and you don’t know if it’s winter or spring, all the phlegmy humor gets mixed in with the bloody humor and watch out!

Brahms’ Fourth Symphony

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I have listened to classical music my whole life. Even in high school and college, when we were all listening to rock music, I also found time to play the occasional classical recording. I credit this taste to a few early teachers and also to my older brother, who likewise has long enjoyed classical music. I have a distinct memory of being at a party at his house when he was in college, and late in the evening a Led Zeppelin album coming off the turntable to be replaced by a recording of the William Tell Overture.

People will occasionally ask me for listening recommendations, often with the added clarification that they want to start learning about classical music. It’s a big order. How do you ‘start to learn?’ My first suggestion is usually not to recommend ten or twelve pieces people should be familiar with, because once you start down that road, where does it end? I always recommend that you become familiar with the various forms of classical music, and see which ones you prefer. Are you drawn to violin concertos? How about string quartets? Piano sonatas are often beautiful and restful, as are most sonatas. What about larger chamber pieces, like serenades for strings, or sextets or octets? Most composers who have written a lot of music have composed pieces in most, if not all of these forms. I think it is a more productive way to learn about music than to say, ‘Listen to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.’

But when I am recommending this course of action, the last form I suggest listening to is symphonies. I know this sounds strange. Symphonies are what comes to mind when anyone says classical music. Beethoven’s Fifth: dadadadaaaa . . . . But symphonies are long, complex, and often intimidating. As with any style of music you’re not familiar with, it all begins to run together in a kind of sonic sameness. Starting a person off on symphonies is like handing someone unfamiliar with great literature a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses, or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Just too much there. And indeed, you can listen to classical music all day every day and never hear a symphony. Of course symphonies are wonderful. It’s just a matter of developing the taste, the understanding, the appreciation of them. And Americans are notoriously short of the kind of patience that requires.

My patience has been severely tried the past several weeks while waiting for spring. The weather has been variable and unpredictable, unseasonably warm then dangerously cold. And once things started to warm up we had many days back to back of rainfall. One day last week we set the record rainfall amount for that day. Gloomy days, I’ll say. But yesterday and today have begun to feel very much like spring has arrived. You can delay the blessed season, but you can’t stop it. While we may know this, we become impatient with waiting. This is why there are so many springtime rituals in human culture—one of which we’ll be celebrating next weekend, though that one has gotten somewhat unmoored from its roots.

Spring has arrived. Perhaps that’s why, as I sat down this morning to think about what I might write, I was happy when the announcer on the radio said the next piece would be Brahms’ Fourth Symphony in E minor. This is a large, grand classical-romantic symphony, full of joy and bombast and one exquisite Brahmsian theme after another, and I was calm and happy and ready to hear it all. Yay, spring!

And in case you think I am being facile in moving this little essay from a discussion of symphonies to the beginning of spring, get this: Today is the birthday of famed conductor Antal Dorati. It was him conducting the Brahms piece, and when it ended a few minutes ago, they started another piece conducted by Dorati: Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Can you say synchronicity?

Anticipation

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Though I now live within the boundaries of a major city, I am fortunate in having a paved running path out in front of my apartment building. It is called the River des Peres Greenway, because for much of its length it hugs one of St. Louis’s well-known features. I am reluctant to say ‘geographical’ feature, or even ‘man-made’ feature, because it hovers somewhere in between. The River des Peres is not, contrary to reasonable expectation, a river. It is a drainage canal which human endeavor has enhanced with stone embankments and bridges across it, which in heavy rain handles most of the runoff for south St. Louis. ‘River des Peres,’ as someone once put it, is the fanciest name ever bestowed upon a sewer.

The Greenway is fairly new, and it gets plenty of bike traffic and many runners. I only cover a few miles of it and don’t really know how far it goes, but I am familiar with the plantings that civic planners incorporated into its design. There are long stretches of prairie style wildflower beds, which sprout black-eyed Susan and coneflower in summer. There are many kinds of trees, mostly too new to be impressive, but welcome just the same. At one end where I run (down by the Metrolink station) there are flowering crabapple trees, which are beautiful in spring. At the other end, where I turn around to head back home, there is a quiet (or nearly so) little hollow that is always wet, where ducks paddle and court, and where rows of cypresses are growing.

Cypresses, if you are unaware, are one of the few deciduous conifers. In summer they look mostly like pine trees, but they lose all their needles in winter and stand as bare as maple or oak trees. There was one lovely little cypress in the front yard at the ranch and I learned to look to it as an indicator of spring’s arrival—though it was a painful process. The tiny needles are not like leaves; they come slowly, and can be well developed before you notice they are there at all—especially if you’re running by. Then all of a sudden, boom!—there stands a lovely green cypress tree.

When I was in college I had a few different roommates, and one of them was a real trial. He spent most of his days drinking and ingesting any pharmaceutical or herbal products he could afford with his wages and tips from his job bussing tables. Though he had a renowned sense of humor and could be fun to spend time with, he also tended to exhibit unreasonable and sometimes offensive behavior. One day he was in an extended afternoon session with a few friends, and one guy said that he noticed that day that the grass had turned green. This was something he observed every year, he said, the day the grass was green and he knew spring had arrived. A nice observation, a reasonable person might think, but not my roommate. He jumped all over the guy. For one thing, the grass is always green—it’s grass! And for another, any getting greener as spring comes on is a gradual process; they don’t just make it green overnight! Seriously, this went on for a while, and developed into something of a tense debate, with the parties involved eventually retiring to separate rooms to cool off and talk trash about one another.

Of course my roommate was right, not that there was any reason to make a big deal of it. A reasonable person just appreciates a poetically expressed sentiment and leaves it at that. But yes, grass is always green, and it grows more lush and deeper green as spring grows warmer. Just like the cypress trees are gradually putting forth new needles until even a passing runner can see them and think spring has arrived.

I wonder if all people have certain things they look to in their anticipation of new seasons arriving. Anticipation or dread, perhaps, since we anticipate the blessings of our favorite times of year and dread the extremes of our least cherished seasons. Everyone talks about spring’s first crocus or daffodils, the brilliant and short-lived forsythia blooms or Bradford pear blossoms. Here in Missouri we love our flowering dogwood—our state tree. But there are subtler things, more personal clues, like my watch on the cypress needles, or my old friend’s green grass.

I wonder if any of these will still be relevant in another five years. Already the system is breaking down in our time of climate change. Robins seem to be here as early as January. Azaleas bloom in the first week of February and then get hit with a hard freeze. I told myself this morning that the next time I run out on the River des Peres Greenway, my row of cypress trees would appear lush and green. I hope I’m right, but I haven’t checked the forecast to see if another round of winter is expected in April.

Dancing Squirrels

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Yesterday morning I was writing at my desk, but distracted by squirrels running through the trees outside while the Swan Lake Waltz played on the radio. It didn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see a subtle choreography in their scrambling up and down tree trunks, back and forth over outstretched limbs. They all looked fat and healthy, and I thought, Ah Spring! Here at last!

We have had two springs already this year, interspersed with two returns of winter. I have felt rather sad and uncertain about the future since last November, like we are living in the end times for our world: this strange weather does not bode well and feeds the uncertainty.

Human societies have always had tales of the end of the world, and they are so often climatic. There was the great flood of Sumerian literature, as told in Gilgamesh, which was copied and some interesting details added to become the great flood in the Hebrew Bible. Ragnarok–the twilight of the gods in Norse mythology–is preceded by fimbulwinter, an unrelenting three year winter. This all arises from an ancient sense that life on earth is uncertain and is destined to end. People who raised crops for a living came to depend on the cycle of the seasons, and if there was any tardiness or latency in the return of spring it caused anxiety of an existential nature. This anxiety was dealt with mostly by appeals to the god or gods who controlled the season.

Now we understand that the seasons are inevitable cycles of nature, but the thought that the world will end in climatic holocaust is embedded in many religions. The practitioners of those faiths, taken with their own florid scriptures, hold a calm acquiescence, perhaps even an eager anticipation of the end. Evangelical Christianity or some other form of very traditional faith goes hand-in-hand with the kind of conservative political leaning that denies climate change. I don’t know how much of that denial is, at root, a belief that any cataclysmic change to earth’s ecology is part of a long-ordained divine plan, but I do know that Americans decided last fall against a government that might address the impending threat to our planet.

Even though I anticipate the coming climatic holocaust with foreboding, I don’t really spend my days wallowing in dread about it. Not many people do, as far as I can tell. Kind of reminds me of the great book On the Beach, by Nevil Shute, which was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. It shows people in Australia, the last continent not affected by fallout from the recent nuclear war, going about their business as usual, rarely acknowledging their awareness that the end is coming soon. What else can you do? As the old saying goes, when you don’t know what to do, you do what you know.

And so I spend my time cooking, writing stories, writing new songs, doing the things I’ve always done. Public discourse continues to rant about tax cuts, health care, equal pay, and many other things that will simply not matter in another few years. I am aware that I started writing about the charming image of squirrels dancing in trees, and was quickly diverted to a diatribe on the end of the world.

What are you gonna do? I think it’s likely that the squirrels will survive the coming changes. I don’t think you or I will.

Coffee Coffee Coffee

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I spent the past week and a half on a road trip of several thousand miles that encompassed eight largely western states. Five of the eight I’d never seen before–I think I’ve previously noted here that I am not well-traveled. I am well read, so the things I see in new places, though I’m seeing them for the first time, serve as visual confirmation of what I often already know.

I have heard that the Texas Panhandle is one long stretch of wind farms, but until you see it, mile after mile of turbines turning lazily in the breeze, you don’t picture the extent of it. It sort of makes you reconsider your devotion to alternative energy, what a visual blight all those spinning blades are across the landscape; but of course our obsession with fossil fuels has ruined entire landscapes, leveled whole mountains, and done much worse to the environment.

I was mostly in New Mexico. I knew I would encounter different menu items at restaurants. I ate things like huevos rancheros and polenta con chorizo for breakfast. What I didn’t prepare for was being asked with each order whether I wanted green or red chili. I soon learned that red is usually milder–though it is an incremental distinction and not a comfort provided to Mid-westerners who are used to Cheerios and Pop Tarts on the breakfast table.

At a café in Chama, New Mexico I asked what was the soup of the day. It was chili, the waitress told me with only a hint of attitude, as if it would be anything else. I declined to order it, but she brought me a small bowl of it anyway, insisting I try it. It was delicious, but I still didn’t want chili for lunch. I probably didn’t make any friends in Chama that day.

I spent time in the area of the Four Corners, and I know that all these western states hold vast Native American Reservations. I passed through many, the Navajo being the largest, and the proliferation of casinos being the most notable sign that I was in Indian territory. In Santa Fe I saw scores of Native American craftspeople with their wares–mostly silver and turquoise jewelry–on display outside the Palace of the Governor. In Farmington I provisioned at a WalMart, where poor and unhealthy-looking Indian families thronged the aisles buying liters of Dr. Pepper, boxes of snack cakes, and frozen dinners.

As I say, none of this really surprised me, it only confirmed things I have read. But the most culturally striking event occurred the morning I left Hovenweep National Monument, where I had been camping. I had been unable to light my camp stove, and couldn’t make coffee that morning, so a stop at the first café offering breakfast was a necessity. It took an hour to reach a little town and find that café.

The place was busy, mostly with Indian families. The waiter was a polite young man who introduced himself as Corey and asked if I needed anything to drink. ‘Yes,’ I said, smiling, ‘Coffee! Lots of coffee!’ Corey did not smile back, and for quite a while the coffee did not come. When he finally produced a cup and poured me some coffee it was good and clearly freshly brewed. But a few moments later, when I had exhausted the contents of that cup, a refill was not forthcoming. I had to signal Corey to get him to produce the pot again. I found it odd that a place specializing in breakfast would be so stingy with the java.

Then I realized: I was in Utah. Looking around, I noticed that nobody else at any table had a coffee cup in front of them. I recalled that Mormons–the larger percentage of the population of the state, did not drink coffee. This to me was very odd. There was a table of four old guys, overalls and ball caps, just like a table of farmers you might see in Missouri, sitting there shooting the breeze, but not one of them had a coffee cup before him.

I have heard that this is because Mormons do not approve of the consumption of caffeine, but that can’t be true. In place of those coffee cups everyone had either a tall glass of iced tea or of soda, and while those drinks may hold a bit less caffeine than coffee, they are caffeinated beverages. I just found it so odd that people in Utah choose to get their caffeine from soda and iced tea instead of coffee in the morning. I continued to ponder it after I finally squeezed a few more cups out of Corey and hit the road towards Colorado.

 

Projecting

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I have a tendency—and I suspect many people do—to let my mind wander in stressful situations to some point at which the situation has been resolved, is over, or can be comfortably ignored. The first time I remember this happening was when I was ten years old, and I sustained a bad injury. As I was sitting in the kitchen with my mother holding me, waiting for the ambulance to arrive, my mind wandered from the pain and the fear of what had happened to later that evening, when I imagined my mother would make me tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. I saw myself sitting and eating my soup calmly, the injury bandaged, the pain a thing of the past.

I have been involved in a court proceeding lately, which is very stressful. I was sitting in the courthouse a while back waiting for my attorney to meet me and discuss the likelihood of making progress on the case that day. I projected myself forward to later that night, when I had plans to meet some friends for dinner. I heard the laughter of my friends, felt the warmth of the restaurant, and thought about what I might order. That filled a few lonely moments for me.

I think this is a good mechanism for shielding ourselves from too much stress. Why sit there stewing about the problem at hand if simply projecting our thoughts forward to a calmer time can help relieve the pain? But there is also the tendency, in the extremely artificial lives we lead, to project ourselves out of too much, and into later times, thus robbing ourselves of a good portion of life.

We inhabit a ‘living for the weekend’ culture. We spend 5/7 of our lives pining for the other 2/7 of it. Sure, there are some people who love their work, but it is still work, and can’t compare, for pure joy, to the freedom of the weekend. The irony is that many of us actually do more work on the weekends. I am a library director. People truly don’t understand what my work involves, but my to-do list on the average day includes 10 to 12 items of varying degrees of urgency. But it’s true, it’s mostly administrative, clerical, paperwork. Some of it is even creative work that can be very gratifying. When I lived on the ranch, my weekends were always 8 to 10 hour days of grass cutting, moving hay, turning manure piles, mending fences, tilling gardens, and much more. But still I pined for the weekend as much as a day laborer who would spend his Saturday and Sunday fishing a quiet stream.

We also wish away whole seasons. I really believe that in the most ancient times, humans hibernated, or did something close to it, when the weather got cold. Remember, the earliest Roman calendar didn’t even count the months of January and February, just skipping those days until spring arrived. But for many centuries now we have evolved a lifestyle in which we expect to be fully engaged every week of every month. But both the cold of winter and the heat of summer wear us down and make us weary and longing for something else.

In older times, people had natural breaks in the year, times when activity slowed down. We still celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, both of which are simply modern takes on ancient harvest festivals. But we don’t understand or pay attention to what they are supposed to be about; they are reduced to special days. Even people who post the Jesus is the Reason for the Season signs miss the operative word in that phrase—the Season. It’s supposed to be a season, a time set aside, a time to rest, recuperate. Instead it’s just a holiday, and work resumes the next day.

But our constant activity wears us down. It does no good to rail that this is an effect of capitalist society—which of course it is; commerce must go on and take no breaks!—nothing will change. For one thing, the people who make out best within that capitalist society vacation in Florida and other warm places in winter, or find lakeside houses and other cool retreats at summer’s height. I know people who spend so much time in their Florida abodes that they have surrendered citizenship in their home state. But of course these are options unavailable to you and me, or to 99.9% of the human population, and the boss doesn’t care.

Is it a problem that we wish away the last several weeks of winter? Groundhog day finds even the most rational among us wondering if the damn rodent saw his shadow. Or that we wish away most of the month of August, pulling our sweaters out of storage the first day the high temperature doesn’t break the 70s? It’s all well and good for the mindfulness crowd to urge you to be present in every moment, or for someone like me who obsesses about the seasons to insist that you should experience every season for what it is: in the end, we are humans, mammals who evolved within the seasons on earth. We can adapt to extremes of heat and cold, but that doesn’t mean we like them.

Fortunately we are also the only animals with a brain large enough to permit special functions like daydreaming about better, more salubrious times. My court case will extend deep into spring. My work is full of special challenges at this moment. I am like all of us in wishing for some magical, blessed, almost definitely non-existent time when everything will be better. Maybe tomorrow, or the next day . . .

Feb-yoo-ary

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February is a mess, however you look at it—or should I say ‘feb-yoo-ary,’ since most people can’t even pronounce it correctly. That’s right, it’s the only month whose root word is not found in Latin, but in the old Sabine language. Long history.

The first Roman calendar was weird. It is reputed to have been the creation of Romulus, the legendary first king of Rome. Yes, ‘legendary,’ meaning probably didn’t exist, and you know how Western Civilization likes to blame all of its worst things on people who never existed. This first calendar only had ten months, and ran from March to December. I guess nobody did anything important for the next sixty days, so they just didn’t count them. After Romulus no Latin would step up to be the next king, so they forced the position on a Sabine fellow named Numa Pompilius, who didn’t really want it either, though he did a pretty good job. He added the extra months to the calendar, naming January after the god Janus, and February for the Sabine spring preparation ritual called februa. Note here that it was always a given that the year started in March—in spring. Mars, the god whose name is evoked in the month, used to be as much a god of agriculture as a god of war. But we forget that now, since we don’t start the year where we’re supposed to.

It was Julius Caesar whose calendar changed the year in 44 BC, adding the leap year, and starting the year in January. Historians have said he changed the new year for this reason, that reason, and the other reason. In the end I think he did it because he was Caesar and he could. This pestiferous nuisance of a new year has been with us ever since, and it makes things so confusing! February, with its short number of days, was always meant to be the last month, the tag-end, the makeup month. Caesar’s new calendar added the extra leap year day at the end of February, but then didn’t allow it to remain at the end of the year where it was supposed to be. It’s now the second month. This just makes no sense. Since March is now the third month, the last three months of the year are clearly mis-numbered and nobody is worried about correcting that.

In February we are far enough from the winter solstice that there is noticeably more sunlight and it lasts longer in the day, but it’s still cold. We had Groundhog Day this week, on a day when temperatures reached into the 50s (F), but this morning we’re hovering in the low 20s. With all that sunlight people like to think spring is in the air, but if it is, that air is as frigid as any we’ve known all winter. The whole groundhog phenomenon, as well as a raft of other animal-related prognostications cited throughout history, is about the optimism of springtime’s imminent return; but that optimism will be dashed time and again by the coldest days and largest snowfalls of the winter.

February’s holidays are anomalies. Valentine’s Day is supposed to be all about love and romance, but I think we all know what it really is: the annual test of your ability to purchase the correct mementos verifying the scale and persistence of your affection. Or about feelings of suicide. There is a notable spike in calls to suicide hotlines on or around February 14. The severity of the ‘broken heart syndrome’ that besets so many people on this day is attested by the fact that it has its own technical name: takotsubo cardiomyopathy (first diagnosed in Japan, thus the name.) Whether one is single or paired up, Valentine’s Day usually ends up being the least romantic, most stressful date on the calendar. The other February holiday, President’s Day, is no better, usually falling on the birthday of no president. When I was a kid we had two presidents’ birthdays in February, but we can’t do that anymore! What? Two holidays in one month? There’s work to be done! So we have a federal holiday on a randomly selected Monday, where the accomplishments of the two greatest leaders in American history—George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—are honored with furniture sales. In fairness I should note that these are often really good sales, worthy of the name Presidents’ Day Blowout!—but still . . .

So the next  time you hear someone say ‘feb-yoo-ary’ and the grammar Nazi in you wants to gently correct them, I would advise letting it go. The month is altogether a lost cause. At least it’s a short month, so we can thank somebody for that.

January Snow

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This morning there were snowflakes in the air. Just a few, brushing past my face intermittently. I haven’t seen the forecast—not that I think it would tell me whether or not to expect snow. I wonder if there’s something on the way and I dread the possibility.

Snow is only magical at Christmastime. During the holidays, when the lights are up, when we are dashing about shopping and going to parties and buying the tree, snow on the ground completes the scene. It feels homey and nostalgic. Even if it’s a significant snow that closes schools and libraries and keeps everyone home for a day or two, there are fun and special things to fill that time. Trimming the tree can fill a wintry afternoon, and baking cookies can take a whole day. What better time for baking than when we’re stuck inside? Standing in the kitchen, watching the kids make a snowman in the backyard, pulling another tray of gingerbread men or snicker doodles out of the oven is like a small chunk of perfection, all brought  to you compliments of the season and the snowfall.

In January? Not so much. It’s just a snow storm. The joy of a special holiday is replaced with worry, since we likely used up too much vacation time in December. We need to make arrangements for childcare in case school is suddenly closed. We worry whether there’s enough windshield de-icer in our cars and salt in the garage. How many snow-shoveling induced heart attacks will we hear about? Is there enough wine and beer in the house to get through a day or two with the family?

Why is it so different? Why can’t we simply enjoy the beautiful snowfall and the sudden day off? For one thing there’s the expense. That unpaid time off or unanticipated childcare expense is hard, and for people whose jobs don’t even offer paid time off, it’s a cut in income. So is another round of paying for snowplowing and show shoveling. These expenses are the same in December, but in December we’re on a spending spree. We’re rolling up credit card debt at a rapid clip, turning a blind eye to the New Year when the bills come due. Once January comes and we sober up, tighten our belts and start to pay off the holiday bills, the last thing we want is more winter-related expense.

And frankly, snow in January fails to be lovely. There are no colored lights to brighten the mounds of white, no polystyrene reindeer pull sleighs through it. We miss the charming incongruity of Mary and Joseph, waist deep in snow, adoring their new-born babe. The treetops don’t glisten, they sag beneath the weight and threaten to snap. The snow plows lumber along the streets, hurling icy brown sludge to the curbs. Because January is colder than December the snow lingers, outstays its welcome, becomes sooty and muddy and gray. It is not a blanket but a pall.

Not only that, but snow in January reminds us of one inescapable fact about winter: February. With the rapidly building climate change, we get many unseasonably warm days in January (2016 was the warmest year on record for the third year in a row). It makes you forget you’re in the midst of winter and leads you to anticipate spring long before it has any chance of appearing–and we still have February to contend with.

I just checked the local forecast, which carries no prediction of snow. I also checked the National Weather Service Website, which carries the headline ‘Tranquil weather for most of the U.S. this weekend.’ Sounds reassuring.

I expect the worst.