Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Snow Like Ash

Note: I intended to post this on Tuesday but just didn't have the time. 

Last night it snowed. It was my perfect snow. I wait all winter, sometimes fruitlessly, for a snow like this.

It was the kind with the big fat blobby flakes, the one that look like mistakes from the snowflake factory. As if a few got stuck together on the assembly line and are just getting thrown out anyway, tossed overboard from the special effects catwalk in the sky no matter if they look like gobs of cotton. And they were in no hurry as they fell, floating down steadily, in that way where if you look up at the dark-gray sky, you can freeze-frame a whole segment of the drifting wads, and then look past those and find another frameful, and then beyond that one. Like the 360-degree camera introduced so dramatically in The Matrix, suddenly to life in snow.

I loathe winter. I hate being cold with something of a pathology. I abhor the whole season with an intensity I'm told is rather unmatched. I always feel such joy when the time comes to stop lumbering around with my heavy coat and garments, to let my skin breathe the free air again, to taste the sun on my collarbones. And the opposite thing, when it's time to protect that skin from the knifing cold, oh. Each year the hopeless feeling builds on last year's, a modest skyscraper of negativity at this point.

But I don't mind snow. I read once about how snow is created, the conditions that have to be present in the atmosphere for snow to form and fall, and I was kind of astonished that it ever happened at all. Because of that, it feels a little like a miracle to me.

I sometimes wish that we could have snow without winter, that we could have cool dry snow that fell and evaporated on streets warmed by summer sun. Or snow like ash, built up and swept away into nothing. I had this thought as I was driving home through the three-dimensional weather, sweeping cotton from my windshield, and I remembered the Uglies series of teen novels by a writer named Scott Westerfeld. It's set in the not-too-distant future, where everybody living in the central cities is subject to an operation upon reaching age 16, which renders them beautiful to a very specific standard. The beauty standard was scientifically determined, as I recall, to be as attractive to human eyes as possible. These superhuman beauties ("pretties") don't look much like our standard of beauty now, but more like baby animals.

If you're surprised when I tell you there's a dark side to this operation, you have never read a science fiction book before. There are multiple thought-provoking things about the series, and one of them is the very simple idea, seemingly impossible for humans to grasp on a cosmic level, that you can't have everything. A procedure that appears to put everyone on a level playing field in terms of appearance is going to have some serious drawbacks. As Eloi, you can play all day, but you're going to get eaten at night. An iPhone is going to have an expensive monthly service charge. It's just the way of things.

If I want my perfect snow, I have to live with the cold. Even Calvin accepts that.

My delight with last night's snow meant that I could ignore the cold, a little bit. Living in Maryland, I have the luxury to see snow less as a harbinger of death and mayhem than as a landscape enhancement. And certainly last night that's what it was. It was a marvel. I drove home wondering at it, watching it.

When I woke up this morning, it was all gone. There were white edgings on some of the roofs, but the frosting on the trees, the blanket on the ground, the mufflement of traffic and the inimitable cool stillness in the air--nothing remained.

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