Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Surviving a Storm: How Nanook is Saved by Mr. Snowman and a Few Jokes

The predicted January thaw sweeps onto our front yard and visits catastrophe upon our Mr. Snowman. White-white; packed solid, powerful body and bulked-up legs; completely vulnerable but fearless; smiling, oblivious to nature's murderous designs on him, his decline is not pretty.

First, the white, hard snow of his face turns to crystals and his features begin to disintegrate. He loses his long, carrot nose. Both of his pine-comb eyes fall out. After the very first afternoon of thaw, he is tipped forward precariously, ready to crash to the ground at any moment. His posture is that of a super-old man, which is what he has become in less than a day.

At this critical point, I go out to be with Mr. Snowman and to make life and death decisions. Should I let nature take it's course? Or should I intervene with existence-prolonging procedures?

Pondering, I look at what my Mr. Snowman has become. He has no face. His nose and eyes are on the ground. So is his greatest claim to dignity, his hat. His once big smile is now a piece of red cloth dangling from his blank, slushy face. He is about to topple over before my eyes and become an instant pile of snow.

I have my camera and point it at my fast-failing Mr. Snowman. If I want to get his picture before the end, I have to do it now. Composing the picture, I think: yeah, this is the end of something for sure, maybe even a kind of death that we don't understand. But ....

I put the camera down. I don't want to take the picture. I don't want to remember Mr. Snowman this way. Also, I am not prepared for him to die so soon. I expected him to live at least a week. I am not ready for him to live half as long, to leave me after only three days.

In other words, what matters now are my needs. All Mr. Snowman has to do is die. I have to live. Do three measly days with Mr. Snowman really matter? The answer is yes. At this stage in my life, rushing toward 70, every single day is important.

So I decide to intervene with extraordinary measures, as physicians say. I will play God or at least play a physician with a 95-year-old man whose major organs are rapidly shutting down. I brace myself in front of Mr. Snowman, put my arms around him, and shove. With some difficulty – he is still big and roly-poly -- I force him back into an upright position.

In the process, I open up gaping holes. Supporting Mr. Snowman with one hand, I scoop up snow and fill the holes enough for him to stand on his own. Then I gather up fast-melting snow and pack it into the breaches until Mr. Snowman is standing straight and rotund, structurally practically his old self.

I pick up his eyes and nose and reattach them. I fix his mouth into a big, wide, happy smile. I hand him his broom. As a final, crowning touch, I pick up his hat and put it on him at a devilish angle. I smile at him and he, truly, smiles back.

Mr. Snowman lives again!

Alas, only for a day, not the hoped-for extra three days. The January warmth intensifies and the unseasonable temperature hits the 50's. In a single afternoon, the heat wave turns into a rampaging White Death for snowmen. It is mass extermination, a snowman's worst nightmare.

Mr. Snowman, after living grand for a few extra hours goes on into eternity and I let him go. I let him go sadly, but not as sadly as if I had just stood by and done nothing. I gave him another day of existence and I gave myself another day of the pleasure of his company.

A few days after Mr. Snowman died, an Arctic front blows into New England and we get hit with another snowstorm. Quickly, his death bed and final resting place is covered in a pure white blanket of fresh snow. Nature has erased every trace of my Mr. Snowman. Now he exists only in this little blog.

A snowstorm is my cue to go out in it and out I go.

Another reason I want to go out into the snowstorm, is that I am full of anger -- and not because I have been abandoned by Mr. Snowman. The night before I had hung up on my son-in-law Ed. I ended the conversation with the words, "What are you accusing me of, for Chrissakes?" Click.

He called back immediately. I didn't pick up. He called again, this time leaving a message apologizing, saying that he wasn't accusing me of anything and that I had misunderstood him. He asked me to call him. He can go to hell, I thought as I went out the door. He is wrong and I'm going to make sure he knows it. Not only that, I'm going to make him pay.

I love Ed as a son. I know where he comes from because I come from the same place: America's underclass. Make that under underclass. His father drank himself to death and died on the streets of Worcester. His mother was also an alcoholic who could not take care of herself, much less Ed. As a child, he raised himself. As an adult, he willed himself to remarkable success in life.

I was abandoned at age five and spent my childhood in foster homes, as did my four younger siblings. I also found my own way in the world without parents or family. So Ed and I are of the same breed.

We are both fighters and survivors. We both have a thin veneer of civilization and will not hesitate to fight when challenged or threatened or treated unjustly. The way I see it, Ed attacked me and I can't let him get away with it. I am in full warlike mode, flint-eyed, pulse racing.

It is Sunday, January 15, and I get into my human snowman outfit and head out on foot. It is about 7:00 A.M.. The snow is flying and I crunch, slide, and shlosh my way down my big hill.

With my mind on the conflict with Ed, I get to the White Hen convenience store in no time. I pick up the Times, my blankee, and go across the street to the donut shop, shown here.

When I walk in, the chairman is there entertaining as usual, though, this not being a work day, he has a smaller audience than usual. Breaking off from a story, he says, "Look who's here, Nanook!"

I have a name, evidently.

"Don't shoot."

"Don't worry," he says and goes back to talking.

I sit alone in the next section, far enough away to not be part of the group but close enough to hear everything. I order eggs over easy, raisin toast, and black coffee. I spread out the Times and begin fondling, reading, and taking in the morning entertainment next to me.

"I'm getting two MRIs next week, one for my neck and one for my brain," the chairman says.

"How come?" someone says.

"I got symptoms – headaches, dizziness. But I think they just want to make sure my brain is kosher."

I immediately think: benign positional vertigo, which may have been the cause of my near-fainting episode in Seattle a year ago. Of course, I know that there are many other possible causes of such symptoms, many of them far from benign. But I am thinking positive. I don't know this man but I like him and want his MRIs to be good.

Meanwhile, my order has arrived and I am diving in. "Hey, Nanook," the chairman says, looking over at me, "those egg yolks are bad for your cholesterol."

"It's all right," I say. "I never eat eggs. I only eat them during snowstorms when I come here."

"You're okay then. You can eat two or three eggs a week without getting into trouble."

Just as quickly as his attention came to me, it went away and he resumed talking, this time about religion. "Religion, oh did I have religion growing up," he tells the group "synogogue, Hebrew school, services, prayers, something four or five times a week. I got sick of it"

A man comes in and goes straight to the chairman and says, "Hey, corned beef and cabbage at 4:30 on Friday. You coming?"

The chairman takes out a little book. "Friday, the 20th?" The man nods. The chairman writes in the little book. "I'll be there. I'm part Irish, you know. You didn't know that I'm part Irish? If I die before Friday, put the meal in the hole with me. Make sure you put in carrots. I love carrots with corned beef and cabbage."

"Gotta go,"a member of the group says and gets up to leave.

"Hey, where you going?" the chairman says. "Where the hell else can you get free entertainment like this?" He looks at the group. "We don't accomplish anything but we have a lot of laughs, right?"

The group nods.

He looks at the man at the door. "Why are you leaving? You nuts or something?"

"Look at you," the man says. "You've done everything and now do you know what's going to happen? You're going to pay the price, that's what."

"Yeah, but I got the money to pay the price. When you got the money, it makes all the difference. Don't forget that."

The man leaves and the chairman looks over at me and says, "Hey, Nanook. What do you think about all this?"

"I think everybody is looking forward to seeing you put in a hole."

Everybody laughs, even the 16-year-old waitress the leader had been flirting with nonstop.

"Hey, Nanook," the chairman says. "Want to share blubber with me some time?"

"I don't eat blubber."

"Sure you do. But let me tell you something. Make sure your wife chews it first. That's the only way for a man to eat blubber."

The party is breaking up. "Hey Nanook," the chairman says. "Do I have your permission to go?"



"Not until I take your picture. Do you mind if I take your picture?"

"Course not." He straightens his hat, strikes a pose, and smiles. "Go ahead."

"You don't care what I'm going to do with it?"


I take the picture and say, "Well, I'm going to tell you anyway. I'm taking pictures of neighborhood nuisances and I'm going to turn them over to the authorities."

"Good for you. How did it come out?"

I show him on my digital camera.

"Hey, came out good. Bring it in some time."

Then he is gone and so am I.

I trudge up the long, steep hill to our place, making my heart rev up, pumping the additional blood and oxygen my old body needs for the exertion. Once home, I shovel the driveway myself by hand and it takes close to an hour.

I am bacheloring it for a few days. Barbara is in Connecticut where our daughter Misha and her husband Ed have moved, just yesterday, after staying with us for three months. We have spent the last three days helping them move – and that's undoubtedly why all our nerves are frayed and tempers are short.

Without the move, Ed and I probably would not be fighting. For emotional trauma, moving ranks right up there with divorce. Just being around moving, which is the case with Barbara and me, is stressful.

When the driveway is finished, I take a break. I go over to the spot where Mr. Snowman lived and died (or, if you prefer not to engage your imagination, existed and then ceased to exist). He is gone. I do miss him.

Maybe, with this post drawing to a close, now would be a good time to loosen up a bit and put aside all those thoughts you have been having about how silly it is to think that a snowman can have meaning in the life of a human being. Not that those thoughts are not perfectly reasonable and shared by almost everybody.

Last winter, while I was building a snowman, an elderly (anyone older than I am) man drove by, saw what I was doing, and stopped. He rolled down the car window and said,"You know what I think? I think you have too much time on your hands."

Then he drove away. I had no idea who he was and still don't. But he made clear he thought I was a mockery of adulthood and probably a nut. What can I say, except to agree?

I believe that we need to be saved from too much sanity and building a snowman is one day to do it. It is also good for your health. It took a solid hour of shovelling, lifting, bending, and deep-breathing.

A snowman makes me forget about the bills and all the things all of us must do to keep the incredible complexity of a modern life going. It's a free prescription for relieving stress. Doctors should prescribe it. I also think that building a snowman will help keep me alive longer, though I can cite no study saying so.

Mr. Snowman made me feel good, it brought winter joy to two giggling little girls, and I dare to believe that some people driving buy saw it and felt an uplift or perhaps even smiled. I enjoyed everything about creating Mr. Snowman, and I miss him.

Soooo. Soooo. A comforting thought forms. I grab my shovel and start tossing snow into a pile. In a half hour, I have a chubby newborn with a cute little carrot nose, wide red, milk-cap eyes, a determined plastic clasp of a mouth, and a junior-sized cap.

Sorry, but I just think she's adorable. Yes, I know it's hard to tell, but she's a little girl, trust me. And now I have three granddaughters. How lucky can an old guy be?

I think Mr. Snowman would be proud, too. I know he would.

Straight from maternity-ward joy, I go into the house and there is a message from Misha. Sobbing, she says the thing between Ed and me is totally her fault. She tells me she loves me.

There are a couple of messages from Barbara saying she is worried about me. There are the two messages from Ed apologizing and saying it was all a misunderstanding.

By now, I am emptied of anger. The exhileration of being out in the storm, the laughter in the donut shop, the companionship of Mr. Snowman, the arrival of his new daughter, have all conspired to turn a man marching to war and damn the consequences into a peacemaker.

Also, I now see something I had not seen before and, I must say, it comes as something of a shock. Thanks to a good brain cleansing by Mr. Snowman and a few jokes and the clarity of thought that comes from being out in a snowstorm, I see that I have been acting like a jerk.

I pick up the phone. The conflict melts away like a snowman in an afternoon of January thaw.

Nanook of the North is saved from himself.

So long and keep moving.