Here is a post-holiday column possibly welcome only to readers who spend inordinate amounts of time taking the rectal temperature of cats. It is about winter, after the holidays. There are other names for it; they don’t matter, deep into the earth such as it is. It needs some elusivity from the sun.
Less is more, and I’m going to aim for but never quite hit poetry. Likely between neither Tennyson, Eliot, nor cummings. And, of course, none.
What I would like to treat here are those days, weeks well into March in San Diego that are so subliminally abrasive, they eat at the soul during sunlight like no other time of year. I seem to learn in spring, everything from when certain sunflowers do not bloom, to (finally) algebra in summer school while studying katydids, or katykillers as we called them. I even learned about Vice President Nixon, who was two hours late for his speaking engagement at Lincoln Public School. I learned that summer had no end long before I saw that surf movie. Learned that Fridays are more important than other days.
Spring and summer are birth pangs; we learn that soon enough. But the days following New Year’s are a kind of dreary limbo. But then I am not the cheeriest of men. They are a grand time for reading the books you’ve acquired over Christmas and for weeding out the stupid but thoughtful records from your sister.
In January and February back East it is, course, far more pronounced. Slush, frozen mud, defrosting windshields. Here we do not suffer such indignity but a more pervasive turn of mind. It is primal. On some level, we truly do not believe the sun is coming back, the game will not return, and once, a friend or tribesman who did not come back to a hunting party or the campfire waited only by his frozen clone. A twin. If like Woody Allen I could dislodge Marshall McLuhan, instead producing Carl Jung, I suspect he would agree on the racial memory thing. Yes, my friend. All is at an end, you see? This final viewing of Triumph of the Will is no mistake.
The May gray or June gloom seem little compared to this. What we have is a confused sense of that supposedly endless summer. A kind of displacement we had not mis-arranged or left accounted for, a lapse in the “Have a nice day” mentality that remains only with the die-hard manic through March. This is surely exaggeration, a departure from measurable truth, and maybe only for the likes of me not only to take in stride but to take from it a certain grim satisfaction.
It may be because I was born and raised in Chicago that I consider these two months following December as emblematic, the very portrait of a working town once riddled with rail and stockyard, loading dock, and determined, seeming-soulless faces that seem to express “To hell with the wife, the boss, the kids...it’s a bitch.”
It would involve backlog memories of Christmas, I suppose, the memories of, as I was told, the birth of Christ/hope, Hannukah, vegetation…the others I’m embarrassed to be unable to call to mind and see us through these subcurrents of the racial memory. This was not because I have been deprived of holidays. I have had more shared and pleasant such seasons even as an adult.
Nothing can compare with this feeling I get most winter nights in the Southwest. The last extraordinary night would have been a Wednesday night in December on the alien surface of Otay Mesa. It was 1983; the day and date were posted at the shooting range: NIGHT SHOOT QUALIFY FOR.… The idea was, one had to run from a moving car after throwing it into park, then pitch-dark strike several pop-up targets. When I say pitch-dark, that is the definition of Otay Mesa with no illumination but starlight.
It was not the bang-bang, the contest, the uniformed men and women trailing steaming breath behind them, punctuated by .38 caliber discharges (live rounds) as doors were shut and opened. No. It was all taking place light years above their heads. It was the stars wheeling in clear indifference above an arbitrary border.
I was 33 years old on that night, researching a book about something else entirely and resolved to tell my son of the unfluoresced light and shadow, and that’s really why I was out there. I was looking at the majesty of starshot and the dimension at which we are truly seeing.
I grandly expected to write an epic science-fiction novel about it; I did, four or five years later. It was a paperback original, the kind you get at a drugstore; neither epic nor grand, though I thought it was all right.