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Winter Survival Guide for the Warm Blooded

February 18, 2010

[Dedicated to Phil. For some reason, I think you might appreciate it.] 

Personally, I recommend scotch, Céline, and a cozy chair. You are welcome, of course, to insert your liquor of choice, and your book of choice. However, at some point (if you haven’t and even if you have) you need to spend some time reading Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan. Sure, sure; that J.K. Rowling is relaxing, escapist tripe and Dan Brown offends the nice ladies on the Church Prayer Committee; but Céline is good for your soul. And if you don’t believe in the soul, read him anyway. You won’t walk away feeling like you’ve suddenly sprouted a soul; but you will, if you have any heart at all, feel something. Besides, we’re way past Freedom Fries and it’s time to open ourselves to the marrow of world literature.

The cozy chair, however, is essential. And maybe your favorite blanket is, too.

In spite of my new surroundings, the season has been on the mild side. Yes, there’s snow on the ground, and there has been since the first week of December; but the old men at the bar I where I sometimes drink assure me this had been (so far) a mild winter. The snow hit early and seemed to hit heavy; but life has not stopped. One of the advantages of living in Northwest Illinois is that they take the roads seriously here; the DOT got out early and have kept all the main county roads salted and more or less clear; at least they do here in Carroll County. I know some friends and family in the Ohio Valley and Eastern Kentucky, and even my daughter in Norfolk Virginia (where it rarely really snows; that’s really more hurricane country than anything) have dealt with way more of the white stuff than anybody really wants. But in spite of the extreme climate shift from the desert to the tundra, we’ve gotten off pretty lucky – so long as we avoid traveling any further south than Freeport.

In general, people like snow as a concept; this neurosis is some malingering Rockwellian holdover tied up in memories of cancelled school, sled rides down pristine white hills, and (depending on where you’re from) fresh snow cream. Thinking back, I can only remember one or two winters in my childhood which were so extreme that school was cancelled. And while I can visualize sliding down the hill at my grandparents’ house on Bantam Road, I can also recall being yelled at for narrowly missing the creek and for potentially hurting myself. I realize there are places where it’s easier to get snowed in; but these places aren’t as common as they once were and they still exist only because there’s no larger interest in the geography. For example, you can still get snowed in living in Eastern Kentucky – but the only things the larger world really knows about Appalachia are overwrought hillbilly archetypes, coal (if they pay attention to shit that matters) or that Miley Cyrus’s dad is from the area (if they pay attention to shit that doesn’t matter.) A few people may be aware of UK basketball; but anybody native to Appalachia will tell you Lexington is Central Kentucky – and so will any Lexingtonian who’s afraid of being mistaken for Ma or Pa Kettle. And then there’s those folks from Louisville – they’d rather declare themselves and independent micro-state and avoid the Kentucky connection altogether. Generally, though, there’s no interest in Eastern Kentucky because most of the coal has been stripped and no corporate entity can think of a way to make any money out of it, except for clear cutting the trees. That means that you might actually get snowed in when a bad winter comes; but most of the time, winter is cold and gray and sunless – which calls for a nice bourbon, the cozy chair, and some non-ecumenical text.

The only people who really like snow beyond the concept are those people who ski or snow board – and most of them don’t actually live in the snow. Mostly they visit, do their thing, then fly back to the warm climate they live in and show pictures to their friends and neighbors – who will conceptualize snow and imagine some winter wonderland out of a It’s A Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story. Sometimes when the sun’s out, I walk down to the center of town – what all the touristy literature refers to as “the Historic Business Center” of Mt. Carroll – and go to the library. The library here is very small and has a limited number of titles worth reading. I go because they have comfortable chairs and a subscription to the Chicago Tribune; and while it’s not a great paper and I could read it online, I’m one of those who still likes to handle an actual newspaper sometimes – if only for the nostalgia of that ink smell that no longer exists because major metropolitan papers don’t use the same smudgy ink they used twenty years ago. But I like to sit and read the paper, and sometimes I’ll read the other area papers. Generally I have to stop when I get to the Letters and Editorial sections.

When I’m done there I go to the bar, have a few beers and get the real news. Even in a town as small as this one, the best place to learn what really goes on is at the bar. It’s cozy and cheap and they have cable television; so even if there’s nothing going on and no interesting conversations, there’s always the Weather Channel and Headline News – both of which I have to tune out after ten minutes. The Weather Channel is still the most boring station on television, and Headline News only demonstrates that major media outlets really are catering to the lowest common denominator. For example, the last time I was in the bar, the story on Headline News was “The Internet: Is It Good or Evil?” I swear to you friends, that was the TITLE of the story. The only people who insist on thinking in such inaccurate dichotomous terms are the religiously paranoid, the uninformed, or people over the age of 60 who haven’t at least learned to check their own email.

I also watch a lot of movies; and (oh yeah) I also write. Like I am now. At some point, though, I will return to my cozy chair and Céline – a volume I did NOT find at the public library. I once asked the librarian’s helper if they had any or if they might get one of his books in the future; the helper, a nice lady white haired, really – who is entirely too old to be wearing bright blue eye shadow and who, I suspect, maybe hasn’t been on a date since she was young enough to pull off the eye shadow – happily informed me they had just gotten some new Celine. I could find them, she told me in the Compact Discs. “And didn’t you just LOVE that movie?” she asked. “Oh, I just cried at the end of Titanic.”

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