Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The First Snow

Took a high-level class in meteorology in college, in which some brilliantly soul-stealing egghead sought to explain snow in terms of highs and lows and this and that kind of fronts, and dismantled the stuff into six sided molecules of perfectly explainable science.

As I walked out into the blue midnight last week and paused to take in the first big snowflakes of the season, alone in the silent cool of it, I am reminded just how wrong he was. Because, you see, snow is magic.

Ask a little child, whose guess is just as good as the most educated weatherman's - they may tell you it is pieces of sky, or space, or of heaven.

Science will never explain the look on a child's face when they make their first snow angel. Because a snow angel isn't made of snow; it's made of magic.

Oh, I could recite for you the whole meteorological hoo-ha about how snow is formed, but if you want the truth, weather is is a vast conspiracy of mystical moon shine, unfathomable tides in surging ebbs like the blood through your veins, the whims of the gods, fate, a cosmic game of chance, a bit of a heavenly giggle if you will.

Snow is a little reminder that we're not really as in-charge of our lives as we like to imagine. It will humble the most powerful aircraft we will ever build, and maliciously punk any particular plan we may make.

Snow - that big, wet, softly-falling kind of snow like this one, has an odd way of screwing around with your emotions.

For me, the first snow of the season always falls to the tune of the fragile opening notes of Bob Welch's old song "Sentimental Lady."

I have a vague memory of sitting on the cement of an empty parking lot, long-haired with a snow like this one falling on me and erasing my tracks, with that song happening to play on the tinny radio in the distance from my broken-down Mustang.

"You are here and warm, but I could look away and you'd be gone..."

I suspect I was lamenting the loss of some early teenage crush on that snowy night - if so, I've long since forgotten the girl, but the first snow even today brings back that notes from that song and a strange little twinge of bittersweet melancholy from some hidden place I can't define.

"Sentimental gentle wind, blowing through my life again..."

I would be curious to know - look up the song on YouTube, and listen to the first notes of the introduction for me, and see if it says snow to you... I kind of doubt it; I imagine we all have our own emotions connected to the stuff. So what's your snow song?

Does that first snowfall of the year bring a squall of memories filtering down on you? - warm evenings in front of a fireplace totally snowed in; the helplessness of being caught in a white out, or a first snowball fight and the way the red of a bloody nose looked dripping into the fresh white blanket? The first snowman we built with our first-born. The deliciously weightless split second as our sled hit the bump and became airborne. The smell of our mother's warm cookies in the oven. The numbness in our fingers and toes as we shoveled away at last year's six-foot drift that nearly gave us a heart attack, but we simply refused to be bested by. Tiny little white-lace-edged memories of people and times and feelings we may have lost, but the snow will not let us completely forget.

If you feel something in the first snow of the year, you're not alone. It is one of the most powerful forms of imagery, a veritable meterological metaphor.

Think Jimmy Stewart's George Baily reborn and running through the snow of Bedford Falls shouting "Merry Christmas" 'til his lungs burst. Or maybe you think of the storm in "Fargo" or James Bond's ski scenes or the suspense in "The Shining" or the romantic scenes in "Love Actually..."

I still remember the blizzard episode from "Little House on the Prairie" from when I was a kid. And the goodbye note left on the snowman for Ally McBeal to the tune of "Chances Are."

Hollywood fake or otherwise, the white stuff plays with us.

In music, think James Blunt shamelessly mining the snow emotion in the "You're Beautiful" video. Or the imagery in the Chili Peppers' song "Snow," or perhaps that heartbreaking final stanza of Dan Fogelberg's "Same Old Lang Syne:"

"She gave a kiss to me as I got out

And I watched her drive away.

Just for a moment I was back at school

And felt that old familiar pain

And as I turned to make my way back home

The snow turned into rain..."

My personal choice would be "Snow Days" by Trip Shakespeare (one again, you may find YouTube handy.)

Monet painted snow - a lot.

And poets have walked that snowy path long before us. Our bud Ralph Waldo described snow as "mad wind's night-work" mocking us.

Whittier writes of snow in more ominous fashion, " A hard, dull bitterness of cold, That checked, mid-vein, the circling race Of life-blood in the sharpened face, The coming of the snow-storm told."

Sweet Emmy Dickinson is downright playful in "Snow Flakes." "I counted till they danced so Their slippers leaped the town,

And then I took a pencil To note the rebels down. And then they grew so jolly

I did resign the prig, And ten of my once stately toes Are marshalled for a jig!"

No idea what all that means, though I think she's trying to tell you that you're not totally insane if you are moved to go dance in the snow.

Most often, snow is used as a metaphor for death - maybe that is what stirs us. The first snow ends our summer of beaches and sunshine, and signals the beginning of the winter of our discontent. The loss of light plays with our minds - even the scientists get that - just like the bitter winds disintegrate our lips and turn our skin to scar tissue.

The first snow is an undeniable symbol of the passing of time, another year soon gone. I don't know about you, but I'm a summer guy. Winter is survival mode at best. It saps my soul like marshmallows melting in the cocoa.

I soaked up this first snowy night, but soon enough, it will be the enemy.

Funny, how something as simple as a first snowfall can make us feel things - we probably don't tell anybody what it stirs in us; they would just look at us like we're nuts anyway. You know, kind of like you're, um, looking at me now...

So we go about our daily grind and ignore the primordial pull of the white stuff slowly filtering down outside our window. But during the first snow of the year, admit it, in our hearts, we are all out there, five years old again, making snow angels...