The Winter of Our Complete and Utter Despair

Disclaimer:  I don’t live in the city of Boston.  I don’t work full time and the hours I do work are completely flexible and totally at my discretion.  I don’t have to EVER leave my house if I don’t feel like it, and I have really not been inconvenienced in any way.  And yet…

This has been the kind of winter that makes grown women stand over the kitchen sink and eat Swiss Miss right out of the can, savagely crunching the tiny brittle marshmallows and gazing dully out at the snow from through drooping eyes they have not the energy to focus.  By March, you realize but do not care that your face has been dragged downward in folds and grooves and creases by the heavy gravity of February, that your features are drawn inward in a constant scowl; that all the muscles of your body are rigid against the cold even when you’re inside a warm house.  You are habitually hunched, bent forward in a posture safe for walking on ice, you are a scowling, bear shaped presence stalking menacingly about the house in the tartan flannel robe you have worn for weeks on end; it smells, and you do not care. You stop listening to music, because any kind of music, even that which you normally love, is irritating in the way that a TV blaring in the next room is irritating when you are not feeling well. It interrupts your misery and you resent it.

And when the sun comes out a little, and you think you might want to make a tiny effort to pull yourself together and so you do turn on the radio, you find that to add insult to injury WCRB has inexplicably taken to programming woodwind quintets with infuriating frequency. This may be a well-intentioned if misguided effort to cheer us all up, or they may just be deliberately tormenting us, because everyone knows that there’s only one time of year that that woodwind quintet music is tolerable and that is in the early spring time, just as you are beginning to see just a little tiny green fuzz on the branches and your heart is leaping with joy.  Perhaps it is appropriate at that time because all of nature then is a woodwind quintet — the woody sniff of earth and sap and new leaves, the chirp of birds and peep of ducklings like clarinets and oboes, the playful breezes like the trills of flutes, the froggy bassoon, the warm and sunny horn, the merry rush of meltwater like the spatter of five spit valves being blown out all at once.  Or perhaps it is that only when our hearts are already bursting with joy can we tolerate the sound of the woodwind quintet, in the way that even a screaming toddler probably wouldn’t spoil the moment when you’ve just found out you’ve won the lottery.   In any case, when you’re hunched over the wheel of a salt encrusted car, your face fixed in a menacing stare calculated to intimidate other drivers from turning into the street and blocking you, concentrating with clenched jaws on negotiating intersections rendered blind by overhanging seven foot snowbanks, this is not a good time to be presented with all that chirpiness, and so you have to swear and turn the radio off.

People whose forbears came from northern climes are at their best in winter, with their clear porcelain faces, their bright eyes, their rosy pink cheeks.  They look  happy and gorgeous, they even look beautiful shoveling snow; their eyes even brighter with exertion and their glowing cheeks so healthy and charming.  Those of us whose color indicates a Mediterranean origin fare a little differently this time of year.  The olive skin that we love so much in the summertime, that never burns, that glows without the application of makeup and that with care can even resist wrinkles, in the winter that olive skin fades to yellow tinged with grey and speckled with tiny brown spots we didn’t notice before.  Our lips turn white in the cold, and as the Vitamin D deprivation drags on and on we become foul tempered and evil spirited and we know without doubt that the whole world, especially the happy people of the world, but really just the whole world itself in general, is out to get us.

Here is an example of the spiteful hatred that the world has for me. The other day when the phone rang as I was reading I found that my glasses, which I cannot wear while reading but absolutely must wear for everything else, including walking around my own bedroom, had inexplicably disappeared even though I had not budged from my seat.  Enraged, I rose and stomped blindly around the room, tripping and groping; I picked up and flung down three pairs of the Patient Man’s reading glasses (Why does he have to have three pairs in one room?  Why?).  Then the ringing stopped.  I threw back my head to howl in fury and my glasses fell off my head and onto the floor behind me.  I jammed them onto my face and immediately jerked them off again to read the caller ID and found that I had gone to all this trouble for a telemarketer.  It’s probably as well that he had hung up by this point.  Now in summertime this would be actually kind of funny but in the grip of winter I know that it’s a sure sign that I am becoming demented and am about to die, probably in a completely stupid and infamous way like dislocating my neck by violent sneezing brought about by inhaling powdered Swiss Miss into my sinuses.

And then there’s the issue of having bulked up for winter with a protective layer of, well, you know, a protective layer, like bears do before they hibernate.  Of course bears bulk up and then don’t eat for the next six months, but whereas a lot of New Englanders, mostly those porcelain skinned chirpy ones, hear the word ‘blizzard’  and think Snowshoeing! Cross Country Skiing! Ice Skating! Winter Hiking! or at least Building Snowmen!…when I hear the word ‘blizzard’ I think Fire in the Woodstove!  Baking cookies! Eating Cookies in Front of the Fire in the Woodstove!*

So it happened that five blizzards’ worth of cookies into February I got an unexpected invitation to conduct.  What fun!  A bright spot in a gloomy season.  Mindful of the recent cookies, I went for my biggest black dress.  I shall draw a veil over what happened in the next few minutes but after that was over I went shopping.  That didn’t make it better, because in the dressing room I made a terrible discovery.  I don’t know exactly when it was that I went from an hourglass shape (albeit the shape of an hourglass well reinforced around the small part to keep it from breaking too easily) to the shape of a 55 gallon drum but I do know that it occurred since the last time I bought a dress.

I’ve known from experience since the age of 13 that savagely kicking all the dresses into the corner of the dressing room and then jumping up and down on them and then sitting down on them to weep does no good at all.  It does not summon the Size 2 Fairy (or even the Size 8 Fairy) (or even the Size 10 Fairy) who will wave a magic wand and make everything fit. I did consider punching the mirror, not out of temper but with the idea of rendering myself incapable of conducting by breaking my hand, but then in desperate rage I yanked one last dress off the hanger, a dress with such a youthful silhouette that I had decided not to bother with it, and in a furious spasm of self-punishment pulled it over my head anyway.

It fit.  It fit, and it looked good.  I practically wept.  Then I thought again.  I mean, it’s one thing to squeeze yourself into a dress and double check to be sure that the front view is nice and then take care to stand in a corner the whole time or wear a shawl or a sweater to disguise the back view.  It’s quite another thing to stand on the podium with your back to the audience and then lift your arms and wave them energetically in the air.  In that position you are kind of a focal point.  And at this juncture my very unkind former self came back to haunt me.  When I was young and perfect of shape and cruel of wit I played in a group whose director was a stocky woman — much like my present self  — who wore a shiny polyester sheath dress underlayered with various tight garments spaced in such a way that her back view reminded one of the Michelin Man dressed for a funeral. Believe me when I say that I am not making fun of this poor woman (anymore). I just have nightmares of accidentally dressing like that myself and then turning my back on an audience.

However, I couldn’t see my back view in the dressing room mirror.  I could see my side view, and I could see my mostly-back-but-craning-my-neck-to-see-over-my-shoulder view, but I needed to know that from straight on behind I wasn’t going to be distracting people from the beautiful music.  I did not feel that I could walk out into the store and ask strangers to look at my behind and tell me whether or not I looked like Michelin Man, so I decided to head over to the slimming garments section and pick up a little insurance.

Is there any feeling like that of a slimming garment under a silky, slinky dress with a gracefully small waist and an elegantly draping skirt?  You feel young, you feel fit, with tummy muscles taut and toned.  And when dressing for the concert you discover too late, having overlooked the stockings and the panel that was already built into the dress, that you are wearing not one but three slimming layers, you feel totally inflexible and also very fearful that soon you may not be able to breathe. In the car on the way to the concert, bent forcefully into the passenger seat, I summoned tiny gasps to tell The Patient Man that should I happen to pass out he should not waste money calling an ambulance but should instead just find a pair of scissors and cut through one or two $45 layers.  (I didn’t mention the price to him just then, though, because I knew that if the worst should happen he might spend valuable moments debating whether or not it was worth it, and I might actually die in the meantime.)

But all went well.  I moved with mincing steps to the podium, and knowing myself to be sleek if solid of body I raised my arms confidently, and it was only when the applause came that I realized that to turn around in a small space requires flexibility of the midsection.  I had to instead execute a series of rapid, tiny steps and thus I rotated stiffly and slowly in place to face an audience to which I then could not bow.  I nodded graciously instead.  If I could have, I would have breathed a sigh of relief.

So that has been my New England winter.


See you soon,



**Yes, I ski.  Downhill ski, which burns about twelve calories, because you ride uphill and ski downhill.  No effort at all, at least the way I do it.


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One Response to “The Winter of Our Complete and Utter Despair”

  1. Marlene Field Says:

    I am enjoying your view of things very much. 🙂

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