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A mid-winter’s whine

Boston Winter 2

Ugh (Photo credit: DanielCon)

[WARNING: this post contains a Downton Abbey spoiler. I know it seems weird but it comes up. Thanks!]

I don’t care if that blasted groundhog saw his shadow and said that spring was coming. It’s not, OK? I can see well enough out my window, you wretched ball of fur, and here in New England we are still in the deep, bleak, midwinter. And I’m coming out of my own personal burrow, filled with muddy boots and half-heartedly made indoor crafts, to tell you: winter with little kids…sucks. I was trying to think of some other, more elegant way to say it, but it sucks. That’s what it does. So, Punxatawney Phil,  you can tell all those old dudes in top hats to just calm down. We’ve got a long way to go.

I know I’m stating the obvious, but can we just commiserate for a minute? Maybe five? Can I ask you to read a few of my invernal complaints? Before I became a mother I used to love winter. The silence of the falling snow, and how it looked blue in the dusk. Cozy evenings in front of the TV watching The Sopranos or whatever drama everyone used to carry on about at the time. I remember, one President’s Day in Cambridge, we got 27 inches of snow. That’s OK! we said, all rosy cheeked and cheery, and we put on our boots and marched out to dinner down the middle of the street. Throughout the harsh winter, our daily routine would just go on, with a little added inconvenience, maybe, and a lot of romance derived from gazing at hushed scenes of trees covered in white.

Now, even without 27 inches of snow, even on just an average winter day, having kids makes winter wickedly more complicated. For starters: tack an extra million minutes on to getting ready for school, or going anywhere, to pull on snow pants, boots, hats, mittens, and huge winter jackets. Remember the scene in A Christmas Story, in which the mother heaves and grimaces as she puts her five-year-old into snow gear? “You can put your arms down when you get to school!” All these years later, and even in these salad days of high-performance heavy weather gear, it’s still just as much of a grind. It’s like a full-on wrestling match before 8 am. And still the geniuses at all the gear companies that produce such beautiful catalogs cannot engineer a mitten that will stay on the mitts of a two-year-old who wants to eat an awful lot of filthy snow on the way to school drop-off.

Now tack on another million minutes, maybe more, for all the additional tantrums that winter brings. I’ve realized, after spending so much time indoors with two little boys in the cold and day-shortened dark, how much good it does them to spend their free hours out-of-doors, as they do the rest of the year. How good it is for their spirits to just throw on a pair of sneakers and run outside, unencumbered by layers of clothes, and patches of ice, and blistering wind that can knock a child down (and did, just yesterday). Plus, a poor two-year-old, no matter how much he wants to go outside and play in the snow, spends much more time out there on his face than romping around. So an intrepid expedition out into the snow, like the one we had this morning, is usually very short and cold and involves carrying a doubly-heavy toddler in boots up and down stairs and over snowbanks that he has just fallen into. Tiring. I may just have a tantrum myself. I wouldn’t put it past me.

Enough already.

Enough already.

Once indoors, and stir-crazy, we are scrapping over toys, doing crafts for five minutes before tossing them aside, or taking magic markers to walls, before it’s Movie Time! Somehow, letting your child watch TV for a while so you can get some peace or do some chores sounds less bad if you call it Movie Time! rather than Several Episodes of Max and Ruby Time! On the bill today, while the little one sleeps and I write this: The Empire Strikes Back. And by the way, I will say this to you since I can’t say it to my son, I SO DO NOT CARE what happens to whomever on the ice planet Hoth! I LIVE ON THE ICE PLANET HOTH and it sucks so I don’t need to hear any more lectures about it thank you.

So there’s the slog of coats and boots and falling over and buried cars and no parking and crowded supermarkets where everyone is shopping for Armageddon and school snow days and weeks on end where we pass the same colds around to each other and cancelled travel and playdates and weak sunshine and then Downton Abbey has to go and end and SPOILER ALERT Matthew up and dies so you have to transfer your crush to Dr Clarkson (you’re too good for her!) and it’s months until Breaking Bad starts again so there’s nothing on and I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE! Is it Easter yet?

Still, as wearying and frustrating as winter is, I know that what we go through these days is nothing like what people once suffered before central heating and Patagonia puffer coats were invented. Times when winter meant an autumn of preparing and stockpiling food, which you hoped would last, and might not; when homes and lives were much more vulnerable to the cruel, harsh elements, and were often taken by the deep cold. It makes me think of the old poem Beowulf, which I love, and picture in my mind to be set in a perfectly dark world, where it’s always a cold night in the north of Europe. Where the only brightness comes from within the mead halls, glowing gold with fire and drink, yet still open to attack from beasts, like Grendel, from the edges of consciousness. In the poem, and in those dark days, lives were measured by winters survived. Life was harder. You think I’m in a bad mood? Just look at Grendel’s mother. And who could blame her?

Grendel's Den: now a pleasant watering hole in Harvard Square (Wikipedia)

Grendel’s Den: now a pleasant watering hole in Harvard Square (Wikipedia)

Now, we get through winter, wrapped in blankets of heat, and electricity, and TV weathermen who warn us, with great alarm and fancy graphics, to prepare for every inch of snow and gust of wind that might threaten our cocoons of comfortable existence. But even though that immediacy, that shivering rush for survival, is gone for most of us, winter still gets under our skin. No amount of Gore-Tex can change the fact that nature is still our master. It changes our moods, our outlook; it governs our daily lives. We’ve got cabinets of snacks to sustain us and can go buy watermelon once the winds let up, but those winters of old are still out there, they’re in our bones and the way we bristle at the weather report. With every ice dam or snow drift we battle, we are like the people of Beowulf, “deep in their hearts/they remembered hell.” Even if hell for us now might mean the cable going out.

I know what some of you might be thinking: “Why don’t you move to California or something if you hate winter so much?” No, I’m not doing that. Have you seen Annie Hall? And don’t worry, April and May will pass soon enough and I’ll be on to complaining about schlepping kids around in the heat.


As long as we don’t have to open any jars, we lefties can rule the world

Left hand writing the German word "Linksh...

Left hand writing the German word “Linkshänder.” (Wikipedia)

Hello. How are you today? Here’s my credit card. Thank you. Where should I sign? Of course. Sorry, I just have to turn the paper a bit…what? Yes, I am left-handed. Thank you. I know. It’s a gift.

Don’t be jealous. Being left-handed is special. You ninety-percenters, right-handers of the world, don’t get to have that constant reminder that we lefties have, every time we pull out a pencil or fail to open a can, that we are different. Rarified. No matter how mundane our days ever are, we can always hold on to that. And we often have to hold on to something, as we stumble our way through a mirror-image world.

Yes, I know how we suffer. It’s terribly difficult. Being left-handed lets you feel like a martyr without ever having to sacrifice anything significant. Except our life expectancy. There’s that, perhaps. O we rare, delicate birds.

But that’s not enough about how great it is to be left-handed. We keep the finest company. Though we only make up about one-tenth of the world population, a disproportionate number of our coterie have soared to great heights. Alexander the Great, famously. Joan of Arc, our patron saint! Now I know how Joan of Arc felt! Julius Caesar! Aristotle! Charlemagne! Napoleon! Queen Victoria! Prince William! Great leaders all! And four of the last seven U.S. presidents? Lefties. Five if you count Ronald Reagan who was ambidextrous. Which I don’t. They’re just right-handers trying to steal our thunder, these so-called “ambidextrous” types.

He's suffered ever so much.

He’s suffered ever so much.

Back to the real lefties: Paul McCartney and David Bowie. Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Bart Simpson! Chewbacca…BOTH Olsen twins. Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Tom Cruise! I could go on. OK, I will: Neil Armstrong, Jack the Ripper, Angelina Jolie! Is there any star left in the firmament? I think I’ve named them all.

So why is the world so against us? We are already a bit left out, as it were, when it comes to navigating the everyday world. Can’t open wine, sharpen a pencil, drive a car, use stairs, walk in a straight line…the list goes on. In some sports it’s an advantage to be a southpaw, sure, but I, personally, am still working on wounds received when I took Fencing for PE at college. The instructor, who had a Prince Valiant haircut in real life and claimed to be a member of a deposed Hungarian royal family, took one look at my grasp of a foil and gave up on me. He asked me to please stand to the side, and just observe. Infidel! I say!

And once, in a neurologist’s office, as I was ticking boxes of known “diseases” in the family, I came across, listed alongside cancer and epilepsy and other actual conditions: LEFT-HANDEDNESS. Now, see here! Offense! It’s bad enough my mother had to write away to a shop in Boston when I was in first grade to get scissors that I could use without embarrassment!

two scissors for Left-hand and Right-hand. Cle...

I couldn’t use them never mind run with them at school. (Wikipedia)

Being left-handed may not be a bona-fide medical condition, but it is a mystery. No one really understands why a minority of people like me, and my younger son, and a few other excellent people I know, are left-handed. There have been theories of every variety: lefties killed a right-handed twin in the womb (If only! But debunked), or there is perhaps some sort of evolutionary advantage to right-hand dominance. But it’s never been truly understood. So that leaves only one explanation: lefties must be evil.

I don’t need to rehash all of the terms, in all of the languages, that equate left-handedness with being less-than, or worse. Maybe I do a little. Our word sinister come from the Latin term for left; today, in Italy, left is sinistra. And dexterity? Comes from dexter, the Latin for right. Do you want to be gauche, on the Left Bank or anywhere else? No, of course, it is right to be droit. Right? Right.

Left Handers' Day, August 13, 2002

Now that looks like a party. Left Handers’ Day in Leicester Sq, London, August 13.

And wasn’t it just a short time ago on Downton Abbey that the Earl of Grantham called Catholics “left-footers“? The Earl has been cocking things up royally lately, but he really, as they say in Hungary, bal lábbal kel fel, or got up with the left foot on this one (Am I right, Coach Valiant?). And besides, the Catholics don’t go in for lefties much either. My left-handed great-aunt told me she was struck on the hand with a ruler by nuns until she started writing with her right hand. But her penmanship was excellent, at least.

Fortunately for me and my son, we are free now to write left-handed, to turn our papers 90 degrees to the right so we don’t smudge all our words. These days, the malicious connotations of left-handedness can no longer harm us, like they did our aunt.

But, in a way, I love those cruel terms and backhanded compliments, because they have persisted so long. Thousands of years old by now, our attitude toward left-handers has become vestigial, no longer with any real meaning, but still present in our language, and in a world engineered under the assumption that right is still right.

Of course, other prejudices are just as old and still full of venom – those must go away. But for lefties, the wounds have healed over, and the scars just remind us of our older selves. They are palimpsests, old meanings smudged and written over with new hands. Like the groundhog peeking out from under the surface of the earth, on the old holy day of Imbolc, which we can no longer pronounce nor understand yet still celebrate. And today, Valentine’s Day: who knows what that is really about anymore, or how it began, but it still gets us through the long winter and lets chocolate shops and florists thrive. Then there’s King Richard III, palimpsest personified, recently uncovered in a churchyard in Leicester, now a parking lot, with his left arm now proven to be whole.

The discovery of the skeleton of Richard III is a reminder of how the past is really never put to rest. No king has had a legacy so cemented in infamy as he, with a great Shakespearean tragedy to back up his bad name to boot. But bones were uncovered, and the truth comes roaring back to life. Maybe, we realize centuries later, he was misunderstood.

King Richard III, by unknown artist. See sourc...

I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. From the National Portrait Gallery, London.

So, given that it takes centuries, or longer, for the truth to catch up with us, I’m going to start a new mythology of lefties, and I’ll be long gone once anyone figures it out. By then, this blog, the ur-text for this new story, will no longer be readable, just a lot of gibberish encoded on the future’s equivalent of a Betamax tape. So, ha ha.

Here goes: did you know that lefties are the descendants of an ancient line of Mesopotamian kings and queens, who are all beautiful and graceful, with perfect pitch and really good taste in clothes? And according to ancient legend, on St. Valentine’s Day, you should honor all lefties that you meet with a small bow, a few dance moves, a bouquet of peonies and some Cadbury chocolates? AND they are entitled to free drinks all the time, coffee, wine, or juice boxes, upon proof of penmanship? Well, now you know! So, go! The winter of our discontent? Is over!

Children's Valentine, 1940–1950

Thanks in advance! (Wikipedia)

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