I’m getting sick of shoveling snow.
I know, I know. The 18 or so inches we got between Christmas and New Year’s, which the TV meteorologists characterized as more or less apocalyptic (which it wasn’t), and its little brother last week, and a few other snowfalls so far have been nothing unusual. But just as one snowflake does not make a storm, it’s not this one winter that makes a grouch: They accumulate.
When you’re a kid snow has all kinds of good connotations. There’s the possibility of no school, of smooth sledding, of vanquishing your little brother with snowballs. Later, snow and ice become a chance to prove your New England hardihood, so you drive your car around without snow tires, help hapless motorists stuck side-ways in the road, wear your boots unlaced (or in recent years, Bermuda shorts with no boots at all — I wonder what percentage of those guys survive past March), and hurl shovelfuls of wet snow like a machine left and right around driveways.
After 35 or 40 winters, though — I can’t exactly remember back that far — snow ceases to be a lark and starts to look like the subject for a grudge. I get so tired of winter I become a torture myself. How many hours have I spent excavating paths from house to car to shed? Paths that, for one reason or another, disappear anyway. For several winters now I have clomped out onto the deck after snowfall, taken up the shovel and, before the first thrust, quickly calculated how soon this might melt. Which it is going to do sometime, so why not wait it out?
The trouble is, it won’t disappear anytime soon (see below) and my driveway twists up and down one of those Escher-like multi-incline Maine topographies which — when the temperature rises just enough to create a surface glaze — turns into a five-dimensional luge run. If I leave the snow to melt, we cannot access the cars except by figure skate. And all I have are hockey skates. So I grunt, and shovel. Then fling sand up and down the driveway.
I stop making regular excursions to the bird feeders at the edge of the woods when the 15-15 guideline kicks in: when the wind chill is less than 15 degrees and-or the accumulated snow depth is greater than 15 inches. This usually takes effect, like this year, by early January and remains through March. March is nowhere near as close as it seems, by the way. Complicated thermopsychal calculations developed by me over many frigid January mornings reveal that each 1 unit of time according to a winter calendar is equivalent to 18 units of time in your mental experience of it. So for example, the thermopsychal distance from Jan. 1 to April 1 is 4½ years. Spring will be here in approximately four years.*
Last weekend, when one of the 15s allowed, I scraped together enough sense of adventure to tack out to the bird feeders. Boots were sinking in only about 6 inches, so I did not have to set up a base camp (i.e., shovel snow) behind the old Mercedes buried in its seasonal igloo on the edge of the driveway. The chickadees took up positions in the sumac branches inches from my head and bullied the hell out of me — hurry up-up-up-up-up! In a few minutes came nuthatches, who bully chickadees. Afterward blue jays, who bully everybody.
The word “grouch” was first used by Americans around the year 1895. The etymologists are not sure how we came by it. It seems to be related to the archaic English word “grutch,” meaning “grudge” and “to make a jarring or grating sound.” Chaucer’s Middle English word “grucchen” (which froze onto my imagination when I first saw it one cold morning 30-odd years ago) meant “grumble.” This means grouching was an activity before it became a person. My guess is the first grouch lived in New England and had shoveled a lot of freaking snow.
*The thermopsychal effect is inverse in summer, when each 18 units of calendric time are equivalent to 1 unit of thermopsychal time. So the thermopsychal distance from June 1 to Sept. 1 is 5.1 days.
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