Dispatch from the Northern Front

Stop the presses! I went for a walk. Outside.

A polar vortex has hovered over Madison for a month or more. Last week it sagged south enough to humiliate the Lone Star State. Blasted with snow, ice, and temperatures in the 20s and 30s, the Texas power grid collapsed, causing several days of misery and danger for some three million Texans, including friends and relatives of mine. I hope and pray for their safety.

There is, believe me, no gloat in it when I say: Our snow is deeper, and our temperatures are colder. We in Wisconsin are better prepared for winter, that’s all, since we are blessed with so much of it every year. Still, the past month has been a trial, even for us. 

Our house

We’ve been continuously below freezing, below zero much of the time—rivaling the record winter of 1978-79. We’ve had forty inches of snow, which is only a little above average for this time of year. But most of it came in January and February, and during this long cold stretch practically none has melted. It towers up to four or five feet on both sides of every street and sidewalk. Even in the dead center of our yard, it’s probably two feet deep.

With day and night temperatures clustered around zero, I’ve chosen to huddle indoors. Even in my house it’s cold. But yesterday the mercury rose to nineteen degrees Fahrenheit, and the sun shone. It was past time to exercise my new hip, so I walked all the way around the block. 

A neighbor’s window sign exhorted me: FIND JOY.

My friend Bill Martinez once told me: “Even if an experience is not particularly enjoyable, or even if it’s perfectly miserable, we can still enjoy it.” I’ve thought about that for more than fifty and have concluded he is right. 

We enjoy something by taking joy in it. And the only way to take joy in something is to put joy into it. Joy comes from us, from within. It’s already there, a free gift from God. Use it or lose it. If you don’t exercise your joy muscle, it goes to flab. 

So my neighbor’s sign reminded me to work on that as I walked. I’ll admit there are circumstances under which it might be harder to find joy. But strolling yesterday through a snowcape with my face turning red from the cold was a piece of cake. Joy enough for anyone.

My neighbors had shoveled their sidewalks, making my trek easy. The new hip limbered up well. With my Duluth Trading Company jacket, my scarf, gloves, stocking cap, and my sunglasses against the snow-glare, I was the perfect neighborhood tourist. The scenes through which I passed made me proud to be a Madisonian.

Southerners see photos of snow-covered landscapes and marvel at the beauty. Northerners know that a day or two after it falls, the snow is gray-brown, dingy, slushy—befouled by man, machine, and pet. This month, however, is an exception. Our neighborhood really is beautiful.

Forty inches of snow has fallen two or four inches at a time, once or twice a week. With continuously low temperatures it does not melt. A weekly or semi-weekly dusting of new snow keeps our city decked out like a New England Christmas card.

I saw neither hide nor hair of my old school chum, Milo Bung. Too cold for him, no doubt.

The telltale cord.

A neighbor has a nifty black Ford F-150 pickup truck. It sits outdoors in his driveway. I suppose other things occupy his two-car garage. Still, no worries. An orange heavy-duty drop cord ran from under the garage door to the front of the truck. He has what we all had in the old days: An electric tank heater, dipstick heater, or lower radiator hose heater to make sure that warm water or oil circulates through the engine block and keeps the engine primed for a trouble-free winter start. Good man.

I rounded the corner near home, and boy, was it good to get back inside. Baby, it’s cold outside.

Mute appeal. Could this be Milo?

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Author

Alibi

Read Time: 1 minute

DEAR READER:

X-ray of hip replacement. Mikael Häggström. Public Domain.

Your New Favorite Writer will undergo hip replacement surgery Wednesday, January 13. It’s not that big a deal. I’ve been through it before, and my surgeon is first-rate. 

But there is a lot of folderol involved in preparing for, undergoing, and then recovering from this kind of an operation. It also involves the use of drugs that may conjure a state of confusion more pronounced than my usual state of confusion.

I was going to post a new short story this week, but what with everything else, I have not had time to finish it. So I have given you instead a sour commentary on the shenanigans in Washington and what they might signal as far as the rest of us are concerned. That will have to hold you for the time being.

WATCH THIS SPACE. I will be back before long (two weeks? a month?) with a new short story for your entertainment. In the meantime, feel free to peruse my other stories or my nonfiction commentaries.

See you on the other side.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

What Time Is It?

Read Time: 4 minutes

WHAT! 2021, ALREADY?

Swept up in the mad whirl of life, I did not see this coming.

It was Milo Bung who informed me. 

He stood on my front stoop in casual clothes and formal mask. Even Milo has learned to mask up. He shivered in the pool of arctic air we have lately inherited from the Canadians. “Well? You just going to stand there and let me freeze to death?” 

“Oops, sorry.” I opened the door and let him slip inside. 

He stamped his feet and adjusted his mask. That is to say, he took it off. He’s been in a bubble for months and so have I. We’re both of an age where we’ll be next in line for the vaccine.

“What’s got into you?” Milo demanded. “Did you actually not know last night was New Year’s Eve?”

“I slept through it, like most other things. To tell you the truth, I was preparing to suck the remaining joy out of 2020, but now you tell me the chance is gone.”

“Wake up and smell the coffee, pardner.” That was a hint.

François Villon. Public Domain.

“Come on, I’ll make some.” I led him into the kitchen and sat him down. “The years go by too fast. Où, I ask you,  sont les neiges d’antan?” This was a bit of Gallic ju-jitsu, intended to trap him into a long-winded discussion of an irrelevant subject. 

Dear Reader, perhaps I’ve neglected to mention that after his unfortunate stint in the Marine Corps, Milo picked up a master’s degree in French Medieval Literature. So he would know I merely meant to ask, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” But he would not be able to resist a mini-lecture on François Villon. That was my theory, you see.

Milo surprised me. “? I’ll tell you . They’ve been piling up around our ankles and knees for years. Now we’re up to our ribcages in them, and I can tell you, they’re going for the throat.” I had never seen such intensity from my old school chum. But I shared his concern.

Let me explain, Dear Reader, in case you, through no fault of your own, are among the metaphor-impaired. My old friend the French scholar was referring to years. The separate snowfalls are just harbingers of time. And indeed the years do pile up around one, just as successive snows will eventually swamp the hardiest mountain cabin.

Cabin in Snow. Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash.

I poured coffee and set it before him. “What do you propose we do about them, Milo—all these neiges?”

He took a sip, made a grateful face, and gave me a canny look. His eyes measured me, from the top of my snowy head to the gnarled hand resting on the curved handle of a cane, and on down to its rubber tip, planted on the linoleum near my questionable legs.

“You’ll be all right,” he said. “You’ve got baggage to throw overboard yet. Go up to the hospital in a couple of weeks, get that hip replaced, and by spring you’ll be good for another fifty thousand miles.”

I smiled. “It’s wonderful what they can do now, isn’t it?”

He frowned. “Me, I got nothing like that left to improve. I’ll just have to get by on sheer force of personality.”

“Gee, Milo, what if you run out?”

He scowled. “I’ll make up something else, you slippered old pantaloon.” 

I stared at him through the spectacles on the end of my nose. He had assured me of fifty thousand more miles, but from where I tottered, fifty thousand didn’t seem like all that many. 

Nonetheless, when he took his homeward way, I was cheered. After all, I had received encouragement from no less than Milo Bung, direct lineal descendant of Aethelred the Unready, and third cousin to Slats Grobnik.

Happy snowfalls to you all.

Larry F. Sommers,

Your new favorite writer