Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Shaking off the Winter Blues

It's right about this time of year that some of us begin to wonder why we ever thought it was a good idea to live in Vermont in the first place: Three more months of wintry weather to come.

Couldn't God have just skipped January and February (and maybe November) and given us only the shocking green of spring, the lazy warmth of summer, and the gold of autumn?

Sure, we’ll take a few weeks of late winter thrown in there for good measure, complete with longer days and fresh maple syrup.

But as for January? A lot of us would just as soon hit the fast-forward button.

Do not despair. There are plenty of fun and rewarding things to do in January.

Just ask your friends. I did -- and here's what they suggested.

Eric Warren, science teacher at the North Branch School, says January is his favorite month and offers these ideas:
• Make a snow sculpture/building/igloo.
• If the snow (and ice) go away but the ground is still frozen, it makes for great biking. If you dress right, being out on a mountain bike on frozen ground is really fun.
• Make a fire. We recently made the observation in my house that it is really hard to get motivated to go outside and make a bonfire on a cold evening when the TV and computer seem so compelling. But staring into the hard-won fire that we are all huddled around is better than anything on YouTube! I think that deep down in our DNA, there is something that makes fire so intriguing to play with, to look at and to sit by.
• Cook over a fire. A woodstove, a fireplace and a barbecue all work great. It's a challenge, but food never tasted better that the half-blackened thing you succeed in making.
• Snow shovel paths. When my kids were little, I think I got as much out of the mazes of paths we would make as they did.
• Follow critter tracks. I love trying to figure out what creatures have come by in the snow and seeing where they've been or where they are going.
• Ice skating on a pond by torchlight.
• Snowball fights.

Fran Putnam suggests volunteer activities: "Check out the Volunteer Connection at the United Way. Or volunteer at the Community Lunch or Community Supper programs. Area schools like to have mentors who can read with children.”

She adds: “I also recommend getting onto the Middlebury College website and looking for interesting, often free lectures and concerts. There is always a lot more to do in this community than we have time to do!”

Author and climate change activist Bill McKibben reminds us how good it can be to be outside and skiing under our own power: "Get out to Breadloaf or Blueberry Hill. Cross-country skiing is by every measure the best exercise there is, easy on the joints and good for the heart. And by its very nature it takes you deep out into the woods, where you're reminded what a gorgeous season this is.

“If you want some company, check out the Frost Mountain Nordic club (frostmountainnordic.org), which has groups at every level from beginner to racer. Winter is the season when friction disappears--make the most of it!" (For more from McKibben on cross-country skiing, see his recently reissued book, “Long Distance.”)

Win Colwell puts in a plug for a return to the storytelling traditions of old: "Make it a mission that in January you will learn a new story to tell aloud. Start by reading lots of short pieces to find one that you love. It can be modern or of an old tradition, but one that really talks to you. Then read it several times, and practice speaking it well aloud -- so you are ready for the winter night, or the summer campfire, or the long car trip, when it's wonderful to share a good story, well told.”

If you're looking for quieter times than you might experience in a countryside that sometimes has roaring machines going by, one friend suggests that January is "a good time to stick pins in your voodoo snowmobile, right around the transmission."

Leslie Ellen Ray, a longtime friend of mine who lives in France and blogs about cooking at http://lafourchette.blogspot.com, reports “I make a lot of soups in January. In part to warm up in the frosty temps here, but also to clear out the foie gras and wine feasting that goes on in these parts, in the month preceding January.”

Susan Hong, an editor and writer who lives in Charlotte, has this to say: “In January I sleep deeply, stretch luxuriously, and wake up again to the lengthening light. The dark has been beaten back once more. I've finally made the commitment to layers of clothing and flannel sheets, and put up no more fight against the cold. Flip-flops are at the back of the closet and the Bean boots are dusted off.

“My husband tells me that being cold is merely a state of mind, and I start to believe him. The sun even comes out on occasion, and the snow is bright and squeaky. My giant dogs are magnificent as they play in the drifts, crashing their chests together like elk, rolling to make their own brand of snow angels.

“I even have time to take a little stock — to think about how I'd best spend those brand- spanking-new hours of 2011 that stretch out before me. New projects seem possible. I'm done spending money for awhile, and there's room for new habits, new thoughts, better ways of being. January is a welcome sigh: For me, it's all about the light.”

Middlebury College Prof. Pieter Broucke suggests we brighten this month by changing our routines: "Don't eat meat for two days in a row. Park in the farthest spot in the parking lot instead of in the nearest. Make it a point to use the ACTR bus, even if only once in a while. See all the exhibitions at the college museum and the Sheldon Museum. Go to a concert at the college’s Mahaney Center and take a youngster. Read a poem every week.”

Nancy Nagel, a Boston-area therapist who used to work at the Counseling Service of Addison County, has other ideas about how to make January newly involving:

• Maintain a bird and animal log for the month of Jan.
• Have a homemade pizza-making party.
• Start learning a new language; research where your next trip will be to use the language.
• Write a letter to a friend with whom you've lost touch.
• Spend a snowy day making homemade bread (no bread machines; the kneading is the best part!).
• Pick a political issue you don't know enough about and learn more.

Hugh Miner, my favorite high school teacher, views January as "forever a month when just maybe I will get organized. I see a new year stretching out before me and it becomes a time to consider how I might fine tune the family schedule, or at least mine. First, of course, I need to finish sending my Christmas cards and hopefully get that done before I work on income tax … I guess the bottom line is that, along with the Christmas tree, our season lasts well into January.”

Lauren Waite reminds us there are treasures to be found in the long dark. She urges us to one night “wake up at 2 a.m. (I’m too old to say ‘stay up’ until 2 a.m.) and look at the night sky -- amazing in January.”

Christine Fraioli sees this month as a time for clearing out the past and ushering in the future. Among her favorite things to do in January is to “totally clean every inch of my house and throw away all accumulated detritus. It helps clear and organize my brain so I can plan weekend trips to break up the winter months ahead, before the calendar fills up with work-related activities. This year I would like to drive to Boston and Philadelphia in March and April to see the flower shows in both those cities.”

Laura Asermily reminds everyone that the local Acorn Energy Co-op (www.acornenergycoop.com) can always use new members, to support its mission of helping transition the county from our near total dependence on fossil fuels to a greater reliance on affordable, renewable energy.

And last, this bit of advice from Dana Yeaton, a theater professor at Middlebury College:

“I say eat by candlelight. Even alone, with a bowl of ramen, a candle can raise the spirits. Plus it hides the wrinkles.”


Correcting a portion of my previous column on the Snow Bowl and “lost” ski areas, I need to note here that the reports of Ragged Mountain’s demise are greatly exaggerated. The resort in fact remains in operation.

On a related note, a couple of readers wrote me to report other “lost” slopes. The website www.nelsap.org says there was one in Lincoln, and Jay West adds: “Blueberry Hill had a ski area just above the Inn (powered by a jacked-up old Ford truck, which is still there rusting), and on Goat’s Knoll in Goshen you can see the traces of old ski trails above Goshen Four Corners. “

The Tracks of John Boehner's Tears

Pity the poor liberals. They spent decades convincing Americans that it was a good thing for women to be strong, high-profile leaders. So who comes along and grabs the mantle of the high-profile political woman? Not a liberal, but the dreaded Sarah Palin.

Then after years of creating space for men to be more in touch with their feelings, liberals have to watch the new Speaker of the House John Boehner -- he of the tough-guy politics and country club demeanor -- become the most emotive man in public life.

It's enough to make progressives want to go out and burn a bra.

In the meantime, the rest of the country is trying to figure out what it thinks about the new Weeper of the House.

Do Speaker Boehner’s tears – which flow with sentimental regularity -- reflect instability, or just someone who's not afraid to show his strong feelings about country and family?

Many Democrats are profoundly skeptical about his lachrymose behavior. They recall when the slightest suggestion of a tear in Ed Muskie’s eye sunk his 1972 presidential campaign.

They remember when a genuinely choked-up Hillary Clinton was accused during the 2008 primaries of crying crocodile tears for political advantage.

For former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, tears are pretty much off-limits.

“If I cry, it’s about the personal loss of a friend or something like that,” she said. “But when it comes to politics—no—I don’t cry.”

And imagine if Pelosi did shed public tears over a political matter. She’d be instantly derided by the Right.

We give our male sports heroes a break when they choke up over the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.

Moreover, we’re an era when bromances and male hugs are part of the culture. We’ve had a two-term Democratic president who felt our pain and regularly bit his lower lip to keep from crying.

But we remain ambivalent about how and when our political leaders shed their tears in public.

Elements of the mainstream media and political Left have been unable to resist taking a shot a Boehner, in spite of their own calls for a more humane politics.

"This guy has an emotional problem," Barbara Walters commented. "Every time he talks about anything that's not 'raise taxes,' he cries."

Samantha Bee went further on “The Daily Show,” saying Boehner was someone “who can go from zero to snot in 6.4 seconds.”

“The Republicans,” she intoned, “are in the hands of Captain Blubberpants.”

Beyond this mean-spirited humor, though, lies the genuinely important question of how OK it is for men to cry, in public or private.

“Telling a man not to cry is like telling someone not to go to the bathroom,” says author Warren Farrell. “Both serve the purpose of cleansing the system.”

We pay a huge price for this emotional constipation, Farrell adds: “Men's weakness is their facade of strength.”

Middlebury psychotherapist Thomas Jackson asserts that we teach boys at age 6 or 7 not to cry or show sadness – “one reason there’s a large amount of unacknowledged depression among American men.”

A symptom of that depression, Jackson says, is captured in the title of Terence Real’s seminal volume on male upbringing, “I Don’t Want to Talk About It.” (And, it goes without saying, men certainly don’t want to cry about it.)

Boehner’s tears are disconcerting for some people because it’s the first time they’ve studied him closely. We give more latitude to political figures we already know, such as both Presidents Bush, who were known to tear up from time to time.

As Warren Farrell notes, “If a man has proven his power already and then occasionally cries at a funeral or over his wife or children being sick or criticized, that can be a positive.”

No one would doubt, however, that when it comes to shedding a public tear, we’ve come a long way.

Even one of our most masculine public figures, Gulf War Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, has put in a good word for the benefits of male tears. “I don’t trust a man who doesn’t cry,” he once said.

Everyone will have a different opinion about Boehner's tears. As for myself, I believe that while his tears may be oddly frequent, they humanize the man and the public debate.

And yet.

I look at the politics of the speaker and his party, and I see them headed in a less-humanizing direction – away from equality and toward tax cuts for the rich; away from healthcare reform and back to a system that denies health insurance to the needy.

Deeply felt emotions – the tears that come from compassion, for example – are intrinsically a part of being human. And if our politics lack compassion, sometimes our tears come out in other ways.