When The Season Turns

Every autumn, it seems, a day comes when the weather changes abruptly. One day you’re standing outside a restaurant after a delightful dinner at about 10:30 p.m., perfectly comfortable wearing a sport coat and slacks with the temperature around 60 degrees, and the next morning you wake up to weather information on your phone that looks like this.

Don’t be fooled by the optimistic “possible light rain” statement on the weather app, either. When the weather change comes, and the season seems to shift in an eyeblink, the veteran Midwesterner ignores the rain forecast and scans the weather app for the dreaded snow icon. Let’s see . . . yes–there it is, lurking on and after 9 a.m. And because the snow is forecast to fall when the temperature is just under 40 degrees, it will be that kind of wet, sloppy, immediately melting snow that soaks everything–the kind of snow that slaps the innocents with brutal, cold reality and sends an unmistakable message that the delightful fall weather is officially over, When such a snow falls, you can only shake your head sadly and move the cold weather gear to the front of your closet.

It’s hard to complain, really, because this year we’ve had one of the nicest autumns you could possibly want, with warm temperatures and, especially, dry conditions. Now it’s time to recall those brilliant days with wistful pleasure as we slosh and slop and slip and slide into the pre-winter period.

Hoping For A Warm Winter

There are dire forecasts for the winter in Europe. The forecasts aren’t about the weather, specifically, but more about the ability of Europeans to stay warm and European factories to operate when the temperature drops and energy supply problems reach a crisis point.

An article recently published in Fortune outlines the issues. Many European countries made the decision to rely on Russian natural gas as one of their primary energy sources. When it invaded the Ukraine, Russia provided 40 percent of the natural gas for the 27 countries in the European Union. Some European countries then responded to the invasion by stopping purchases of Russian natural gas, while others were cut off by Vladimir Putin.

Obviously, losing 40 percent of a primary energy source–natural gas is the second most popular energy source in Europe behind oil–puts a dent in your energy policy. And, as the Starks are fond of saying, “winter is coming.” Prices have skyrocketed to historical record levels. The cost of electricity has already tripled in some places, and governments are scrambling to reopen coal-fired and nuclear power plants that were shuttered in moving toward “green” energy. The EU countries also are looking to other, non-Russian sources, but they don’t yet have the infrastructure, such as pipelines and processing terminals, needed to use the alternative suppliers. Building that infrastructure can’t happen overnight.

That means there is an immediate energy crunch, and the experts consulted by Fortune paint a bleak and alarming picture of what might happen when the snow falls. They say that world energy supplies are so precarious right now that any increase in demand could cause even bigger price spikes, mandatory rationing, and mass shutdowns of factories and businesses, “devastating European economies with a wave of unemployment, high prices, and in all likelihood public unrest and divisions between European nations.” That’s petty scary stuff. Some European factories have already stopped or reduced operations, and some countries have already instituted some energy conservation policies to try to preserve supplies in advance of the winter. The rubber won’t really meet the road, however, until the cold weather hits and energy demand increases in response.

So let’s all hope that the European winter is mild, and our friends overseas aren’t left to shiver in the cold and dark. But praying for warm weather isn’t exactly sound energy policy. What has happened in Europe should cause our government, and every government, to take a careful look at their energy policies and focus on making sure that energy supplies are secure. That means reducing dependence on unreliable energy sources–like Russia–and taking steps like building nuclear power plants and pipelines to provide domestic sources of energy that won’t be turned off when winter comes.

How Now, Snow Plow?

Walking to work during a Midwestern winter poses many challenges. Storms pelt the pedestrian with snow, sleet, and freezing rain, and frigid temperatures turn the precipitation into sheets of slippery ice ready to produce a fall.

But the most galling challenges of all are man made: the huge snow piles that are plowed into existence after a big storm like the one that hit Columbus last week. They are galling precisely because they demonstrate beyond dispute the second-class citizenship of the walker. The streets are cleared, to allow speedy passage of the almighty cars, buses, and even bicycles, and in so doing new and absurd obstacles are created for those who are hoofing it to work.

At intersections, the plows seem motivated by an evil, anti-walker animus, because they shove the snow into huge piles placed precisely at entrances to crosswalks–like the these piles at the intersection of Fourth and Main that I had to navigate yesterday. You almost need a sherpa to climb them and find just the right pass. And, as the snow piles melt and refreeze, ultimately turning black and filthy with cinders, asphalt pieces, and captured car exhaust, they will pose a new, ever-more disgusting impediment to safe passage for days to come.

Of course, the snow plow operators aren’t motivated by hatred of walkers. Instead, they are oblivious to walkers, and simply don’t care that pedestrians might be inconvenienced by the plowed piles. That’s what makes the piles so galling. No one even thinks of the walkers.

It’s ironic when you think about it. Cities like Columbus make big shows of adopting “green” policies and creating bike lanes and other nods to environmentally conscious forms of transportation, yet at the same time they not only ignore the basic needs of those who commute by the most environmentally friendly method of all, but also create new and totally unnecessary obstacles for them. Columbus’ green policies would have a lot more credibility if snow plow drivers were simply instructed to not create ludicrous barriers at crosswalks.

Precarious Snowman

I’ve always been an admirer of a good snowman. Building an acceptable snowman takes patience, the fortitude to work in the cold, the right kind of good packing snow, a practicable giant snowball rolling technique, gentle assembly skills that allow you to stack the three balls into the classic snowman shape without splitting one of the balls, and then an artistic flair as you add the final facial decorations and other distinctive touches.

So I’ve really got to tip my cap to the anonymous snow artist who not only created a credible snowman, but also balanced it on the very tip of one of the stone fenceposts along the St. Mary’s School property, at the corner of our block. As feats of engineering go, that’s a pretty strong effort. And seeing a midair snowman can’t help but lift your spirits as you slog through the ice and snow and slush.

Thank you, anonymous snow artist!

The Single-Digit Days

We’ve been experiencing some very cold weather over the past few days in the Midwest, with the temperature falling to the single digits during significant chunks of the day. On many days, we go about our lives without really paying much attention to the weather. When the temperature falls into the single digits, however, there is no ignoring it: Mother Nature is demanding your serious and careful attention.

It’s amazing how physically invasive frigid weather can be. You can bundle up, wear multiple layers, don a scarf or two and your warmest wool cap, and scrunch up to protect your core from the cold, but after a few minutes outside, your most vulnerable spots have been identified and you notice that extreme cold seeping in. And don’t even think about removing your gloves to check your cell phone! If you do, your fingers will immediately feel like desensitized wood, and you will never get them warm again until you get back inside. In fact, if we wanted a surefire method to reduce cell phone usage by teenagers, we would insist that they go outside on the icy days. We would see an immediate drop in texting, Snapchatting, TikToking, and every other sign of cell phone use.

When you’re walking outside in the arctic chill, there’s no real opportunity for daydreaming, either. The cold is too immediate and intrusive to permit that. You feel the cold with every intake of breath, with every steamy cloud that appears when you exhale, with your face becoming stiff with cold, and with your fingers becoming numb inside those gloves. And if your walk requires you to take a turn into the wind, all you will be able to think about is how to get the heck out of the way of those icy blasts and back into a place that is reasonably warm. And even when you do, it takes a while for your fingers to thaw so that you can unlace your boots and remove all of those layers.

In the classic movie Groundhog Day, Phil Connors–the Bill Murray character–spent hundreds of lifetimes reexperiencing the same wintry Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He taught himself to speak French, mastered the keyboards, saved a falling child, helped old ladies, and learned everything there is to know about every person in town. In the process, he became so enlightened that he could even appreciate the dismal, cold weather, and speak movingly of a “long and lustrous winter.” In my view, that last change in the character’s outlook was the single most unbelievable part of the film. I’ll never reach the level of enlightenment needed to appreciate the single-digit days.

When The Weather Breaks

Yesterday winter’s hard stranglehold was finally broken. The temperature shot up to the mid-50s, we saw a huge snow melt that finally freed the streets and sidewalks from most of the snow and ice accumulation, and we got some very warm sunshine in the late afternoon. With patches of grass emerging after weeks of snow cover and our bushes showing their first, faint signs of green buds, it was hard not to feel a surge of optimism that spring might be not far away, after all.

The days when the weather breaks are special days, and I sat on our back porch to try to take it all in. We’ll still have some tough weather, of course, and some more snow and cold temperatures, but for now we’ll feel good that the worst of the winter may be behind us.

Walk/Don’t Walk

According to the trusty weather app, the prolonged frigid spell that has had Columbus in its icy grip is finally supposed to break this week. Today, for example, the temperature is supposed to briefly reach a point above freezing for the first time in weeks.

But this is no time to let down your guard, because we’re now entering the most treacherous period of all: when the snow and ice will melt, somewhat, during the day, but then freeze again overnight. The result of the melt/refreeze/melt/refreeze process is sidewalks that look like this one that I encountered on Third Street, on my way back from my morning walk around Schiller Park today. Try to navigate the icy patches, and you’re basically cruising for a (rear end) bruising in a fall. A good rule of thumb is to avoid stepping on any translucent area, and stick instead to the packed snow-covered segments. But soon, thanks to the melting and freezing, there won’t be any of those safety zones, and pedestrians will have to entrust their fates to the capricious whimsy of the winter gods.

If all of this weren’t difficult enough for the walkers among us, the weather app reports that we’re supposed to get freezing rain tomorrow. The mind reels at what a dose of freezing rain will do to patches like the one shown above.

Fortunately, the temperature is supposed to shoot up to around 50 degrees on Wednesday, which should take care of most of the ice. It can’t get here soon enough.

Jack Frost’s Beard

Today is one of those days where it is just warm enough for snow to melt, but still cold enough that that melted snow isn’t going to get far before turning into ice. It’s ideal icicle weather, and we’ve got some impressive ones around German Village, including this specimen that formed on a bush on City Park.

My grandmother called these multi-icicle creations “Jack Frost’s beard,” in recognition of that wintry sprite. According to Grandma, the impish Mr. Frost not only nipped at your nose on cold mornings, he also was responsible for the icy etchings on windows that formed on super-cold days.

Snow Blow

On Game Of Thrones, the legendary saying of the Stark clan is: “Winter is coming.” In Columbus, winter isn’t coming: it’s here, in full force.

This central Ohio winter has been highly unusual by weather standards. There have been prolonged bouts with cold weather and lots of snow, without much melt. We got more snow last night and it is supposed to snow again this morning, and the snow mounds are really starting to pile up. And a glance at the cellphone weather app advises that there is no apparent relief in sight: temperatures are supposed to stay well below freezing as far as the app predicts, and there are multiple days with more snow in the forecast.

This is weird weather for Columbus. Normally we’ll get a few significant snowfalls and some cold days at different points during the winter, but with breaks of temperatures in the 40s when the snow melts. During this recent cold snap, we haven’t had any of those warm days to clear the streets and sidewalks. So the snow continues to pile up, snow shovels are getting more use than ever before, progressive layers of ice have sheathed the streets and the sidewalks, and the overall feel is a lot more like Winterfell than Columbus.

If you’re a cockeyed optimist trying to find a positive in all of this, here’s one: with many people continuing to work remotely, at least there are fewer people commuting to work in the morning and fewer traffic jams caused by snowy driving conditions. It’s a lot easier to find the negatives. If you’re a kid who is already taking remote classes, you’re not actually getting the benefit of those treasured snow days. And if you’re somebody who is heartily sick and tired of being cooped up in your house and are itching to get out and at least get some fresh air, the snow and the treacherous footing and driving conditions just accentuate that stifling shut-in and housebound feeling.

We’ve all had to endure a lot during this seemingly unending COVID period. A colder and snowier winter than normal just adds to the list.

Scarfed Up

It’s been cold here recently. So cold, in fact, that some Good Samaritan put a colorful scarf around the neck of the seated lady statue in the Peace Park at St. Mary’s church in our neighborhood.

Don’t be surprised if the statue gets some more donated winter garb this week, because the temperature is supposed to drop even farther in the next few days. February tends to be the bleakest month of the winter, but it is also frequently the coldest. It’s the month where you root around in your closet for the fur-lined Mad Bomber hat that would be too hot to wear when the temperature is in the 20s, and the ugly, bulky, scratchy scarves knitted for you years ago by your great aunt Gertrude, and every other layer you can add to protect against the chill. In February, fashion goes out the window. For the hardy Midwesterner, it’s all about holding on to every scrap of warmth and covering as much exposed skin as possible.

Bundle up, folks! We’re heading down to the teens and single digits.

The Shovelton Workout

We got a lot of snow overnight — by Columbus standards, at least — and walking was impracticable, so this morning’s exercise consisted of shoveling our front steps, the sidewalk, and the brick walkway to our backyard.

I’d be in much better shape if I had to shovel snow every day, although I’m certainly glad I don’t need to do so. It involves just about every form of exercise you can think of — bending, scraping, lifting, and then turning to hurl the snow from the shovel to your snow mound. And at our house you get your steps in, too, because there is only one plausible snow mound area and you end up lifting the snow on the shovel and carefully carrying it to that one accumulation point to be tossed onto the pile.

Why hasn’t somebody invented an exercise device that approximates shoveling snow? You could call it the Shovelton. Workout participants would don their winter coats, hats, and gloves, grab the Shovelton shovel, and shovel away. The screen could add urgency by showing an approaching garbage truck, requiring you to quickly clear a path to roll out your recycling bin, and you could up your workout by choosing the “plowed street” option, in which the snowplow has deposited huge mounds of snow and cinders that block your sidewalk and driveway and must be cleared away so you can get to work on time.

Cold Day Brunch

I associate wet, sloppy days with . . . pancakes. Back in the day, on Sundays in the winter, the Webners would eat pancakes by the dozen, and I was responsible for preparing the stacks of flapjacks on an electric grill. It was an awesome responsibility for a callow youth, but I enjoyed flicking water onto the grill and hearing it sizzle to make sure the surface was the right temperature, carefully spooning the pancake mixture out to maximize the number of pancakes that could be cooked at one time, watching the pancake batter bubble, and then using the spatula to deftly flip the pancakes over without having one pancake fall onto another. The electric grill is long gone, but I still enjoy the whole pancake process.

Today’s pancakes were served with sausage and scrambled eggs, and they really hit the spot. Now, it’s time to work off those calories by sinking onto the couch and binge-watching TV for the rest of the day.

A Photo’s Worth Of Sunshine

One of Rodney Dangerfield’s memorable lines went that his family was so poor that for his tenth birthday his Dad showed Rodney a picture of a birthday cake. Rodney then tugged at his tie and admitted that he then spent the whole day trying to blow out the candles.

Like Rodney, I think a photo can make a difference. So in the midst of this latest Columbus winter, when the days are unrelentingly bleak and drab and cloud-covered and cold and dank, I’m going to look at this photograph I took last summer in Maine when we were on a boat ride leaving North Haven on a brilliantly sunny, warm day — and I’m going to remember that the winter will end one of these days, the temperatures will rise, and the sun will shine brightly again. Photographs can really be helpful in that way.

Just looking at this picture brings a smile to my face and retrieves a pleasant memory of a fun summer day and how that brilliant sunshine felt against my face. I hope it works for you, too. And if it doesn’t, consider going through those photos on your cell phone and finding a photo from a summer’s day that does.

The Winter Warmer

The weather took a foul turn yesterday, even by the dismal, gray standards of a Columbus winter. We got freezing rain in the morning that turned the brick sidewalks of German Village into a treacherous skating rink, and then more freezing rain mixed with sleet as the day progressed.

When one must endure such a cold, dreary day, it helps to turn to old favorites in the hot nourishment category. So, last night I prepared grilled cheese sandwiches and Campbell’s tomato soup made with whole milk for us. I grilled the sandwiches on our big skillet, lightly buttering some flax bread to get a good crust and using Kraft American cheese for maximum meltiness. (Technically, the classic version of grilled cheese sandwiches requires Wonder Bread, but I haven’t consumed a slice of Wonder Bread since, like, 1974.)

The soup was piping hot and deliciously creamy, the grilled cheese had a good crunch and great gooiness, and I cut the sandwich diagonally to facilitate the required dipping of the sandwich halves into the soup — because even though the soup and sandwich were each tasty on their own, they only achieve maximum home cooking greatness when the soup directly infuses the crunchy bread and melted cheese. The combination was washed down with a glass of milk, and it definitely hit the spot on a gray winter’s day.

After eating my soup and sandwich and thinking about the countless grilled cheese and tomato soup family meals we enjoyed at our kitchen table when I was a kid, I felt better. Warmer, too.

The White Stuff

Yesterday we got hit with our first winter storm of the season. It started as rain, but as the termperature dropped it turned into a wet, heavy snow. After the ground cooled, the snow started to stick, and this morning when I looked outside I found that everything was coated in this cold, slippery, white stuff.

Snow is weird. You can live your entire life in the Midwest, and experience the inevitable snowy periods every winter, but the first snowfall of the winter is always kind of a shock. It’s as if the brain uses the warm months to try to wipe out the memory of snow, and erase all of the snow-related reflexes that people acquire during the snowy months — like the kind of duck-footed walk you develop to try to minimize the risk of slipping on snow-covered sidewalks, or the downcast tilt of your head as you walk into the teeth of a snowstorm, or the best personal layering and bundling techniques to shield yourself against the chill.

And don’t even mention the notion of driving in the snow for the first time after months of a snow-free existence. The fact that people have forgetten everything they learned last winter and drive like idiots when the first flakes fall is a perennial — and accurate — complaint here in the Midwest. The only good thing to say about the coronavirus is that, with more people working from home and therefore commuting less, the number of fender-benders is likely to be dramatically reduced this year.

Of course, the fundamental reality of the first snowfall is that the warm weather days are gone for now, and Old Man Winter is here in earnest. With the calendar page turning to December today, we should have realized that, but the snowfall gives us a tangible, physical reminder that we’re in for three months of cold, frozen slop, and we’d better brace ourselves and get used to the idea.