Posts Tagged ‘winter’

As I type this at the start of March, weather forecasters are tossing around phrases like “omega block,” “atmospheric bomb” and “monster” to describe a developing blizzard that has the potential to devastate a good chunk of the East Coast in five days or so.

By the time this post runs, we’ll know how accurate the predictions were.

(Edit: That storm, a few weeks ago, didn’t hit eastern Pennsylvania. But another one is bringing us two to four inches of snow today.)

It’s been a cold, gray, rainy, windy winter … and a long one, even by the standards of someone who considers himself alternately a Rust Belter or a New Englander at heart.

And I wish it would end now, if not sooner.

I do not know how to jump-start spring (or summer). Absent a candle, I open another can of beer and curse the darkness.

My grandfather seems to have had something that brought warm weather a little closer. And this was around the time of year he turned to it.

March 18, 1975.

March 18, 1975.

I’ve written before that tomatoes were a staple crop in my grandparents’ yard throughout my childhood. (If you missed that post last year, go read it now. It’s better than this one.)

I don’t remember my grandpa having growth lights in his basement. I’m guessing he coaxed his tomato seedlings out of the soil simply by putting them next to the sunniest window in the house and dosing them with Miracle-Gro.

But clearly, he wasn’t waiting for consistently warm weather to get his crop started.

Maybe he started his tomatoes the day after St. Patrick’s from some sense of tradition, or some old-timer’s knowledge of just the right time to do such things.

Or maybe, like me, he was fed up with winter and looking for any outlet he could find that would bring warmer weather closer.

If you can put seeds into soil and start getting them to sprout, you can feel reasonably confident that you’ll pluck ripe, warm fruit from them sometime, if not necessarily immediately.

(His calendar entries for April 3 and 4, 1975, show temps down to 30 degrees, 50-mph wind gusts, and a note about “winter’s last blast.” So he knew when he planted his tomatoes — presumably inside — that Stamford wasn’t immune to one last wintry spanking.)

April 3 and 4, 1975.

April 3 and 4, 1975. Gotta love the barometer reading. Now, that’s attention to detail.

I could stand a seedling or two right now to bring the promise of warmer weather. I should cut the top off this empty can of Genny Bock, fill it with soil and seeds, and park it by the window.

‘Tis better to light a candle, and all that business.

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February 2, 1969.

February 2, 1969.

Groundhog Day’s gotta be just about the dopiest thing ever conceived.

An overgrown rodent toddles out of its burrow and predicts the next six weeks of weather, based on whether or not it “sees its shadow” and skittles back in?

Sounds like something the German-American farmers of Lancaster County dreamed up after drinking too much bock.

Their first choice would doubtless have been to rout the grundsow out of their fields, not to dress up in top hats and celebrate it. But the groundhog — who is not only good at reproducing, but a mean bastard to boot — proved to be at least their equal in tenacity.

Then again, I suppose the groundhog is entitled to be good at something, because it’s not all that gifted when it comes to predicting the weather.

The Stormfax Weather Almanac website says Punxsutawney Phil — or, more accurately, the generations of groundhogs press-ganged into the spotlight as P.P. — has been right roughly 39 percent of the time.

That’s not much better than you’d get by simply flipping a pfennig every February and leaving the rodents out of it.

To make matters worse, the groundhog tradition commonly associated with Punxsutawney has apparently been co-opted by any number of other nondescript burgs.

Wikipedia’s list of groundhog predictions (yes, there is such a thing) cites the likes of Western Maryland Murray, Shubenacadie Sam, General Beauregard Lee (!) and Staten Island Chuck (!!!) among the ranks of animal prognosticators.

Having a groundhog ceremony if you’re not Punxsutawney is like playing “Sweet Caroline” if you’re not Fenway Park. It’s pretentious and unoriginal and lame and stolen and wrong. End of discussion.

But here’s the real reason I hate groundhogs:

The groundhog seems to be the spirit animal of eastern Pennsylvania. You see them all the time around here — especially in the spring, when they waddle hungrily out of hibernation. So familiar are they that the traditional Pennsylvania German men’s clubs in this part of the state are known as Grundsow Lodges.

To my snobbish, Boston-educated brain, the groundhog is a symbol of all that is wrong with Pennsylvania. It is dumpy and stolid and provincial, and retreats quickly to familiar surroundings at the sign of challenge.

And yet, there are those who find great worth in the groundhog, just as there are many who love Pennsylvania.

Robert Frost’s poem “A Drumlin Woodchuck” artfully uses the groundhog as a metaphor for human social discomfort. (I had no idea until I wrote this post that woodchucks and groundhogs were the same animal. Whaddya know.)

And my grandpa seems to have been charmed by groundhogs, or at least by Groundhog Day, because he marked the occasion on his calendar just about every year with some sort of doodle or notation.

So, to counterbalance my acidity, here are some sweet — or at least creative — musings from my grandfather on the annual Celebration of the Rodent.

February 2, 1975.

February 2, 1975. Compare the arm-like paws to the more animalistic paws on the 1969 grundsow.

February 2, 1973.

February 2, 1973.

February 2, 1966

February 2, 1966.


February 2, 1965.

February 2, 1965. Interesting how the calendars render “Ground Hog Day” as three words.


February 2, 1964. I like the word-shadow thing, even if my aunt apparently wasn't too impressed.

February 2, 1964. I like the word-shadow thing, even if my aunt apparently wasn’t too impressed.

February 2, 1962. Note that "Ground Hog Day" (or any derivative spelling thereof) is not pre-printed on the calendar.

February 2, 1962. Note that “Ground Hog Day” (or any derivative spelling thereof) is not pre-printed on the calendar.


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We come to a time of fatigue, pain and fear.

This week brings the shortest days and longest nights of the year. These are the days when existence feels coldest; when the untamed threat of darkness feels strongest (in the dark, our primal inner voice reminds us, you can’t see the wolves); and when the force that gives all of us life feels palest and most remote.

It’s also a time when the calendar year grinds down to its nub end, which only reinforces the feeling that life is ebbing. Another year is past us, and here we are again, hurrying home in search of respite from the darkness.

This time of year gets harder to bear when there’s a tragedy to shoulder … as there was in my grandparents’ America of 1963, and as there is in our own America today.

December 21, 1963.

December 21, 1963.

Americans in 1963, at least, had some degree of distance from their national tragedy when the longest night of the year came.

It had been almost a full month since the assassination of John F. Kennedy — long enough for people to come to terms with the event, pass through the mourning phase and return to some degree of everyday life.

Still, when I saw “SUN SETS 4:29” and made the mental link to the recent assassination, I imagined a certain deepened amount of seasonal joylessness — literal dark days to follow figuratively dark days.

Maybe not at 1107 Hope Street, whose inhabitants tended to keep a stiff upper lip. But I could easily imagine the standard solstitial depression broadening for other Americans to include the recent loss of a beloved leader.

Early bedtime, an unsettled sleep, a harsh alarm giving way to pre-dawn blackness, and the slap of cold feet on the bedroom floor.

The start of another day’s hurry, leading to … what?

# # # # #

The people of Newtown, Connecticut, will not have the same emotional distance when the longest nights of the year arrive.

Newtown is in the same county as my grandparents’ home of Stamford, albeit on the other side. Google Maps suggests it’s just shy of an hour’s drive from one town to the other. I do not know whether my grandparents ever had call to go to Newtown, but it wouldn’t surprise me if something brought them through town over the years.

The winter solstice this year will arrive exactly one week after the school shootings that, in their own way, will become as indelible a national memory as the Kennedy assassination. If there is such a thing as solstitial depression — a sort of instinctive psychological recoil from all the darkness — it could not come at a worse time.

There are no words to either describe or soothe the pain that the people of Newtown are feeling, and will feel for years to come.

I can only hope that as time passes, and the days go back to being long and warm and welcoming, that everyone affected can find a path to at least some small place of peace and grace.

In the present dark, with our teeth rattling and our ears cocked for wolfsong, that is the best we can aspire to.

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