This winter is one for the books. The usually jovial Al Roker has become a regular on the nightly news, frowning with grave tidings of clippers bearing down from Alberta and screamers screaming south from Saskatchewan. Here at home the snowpack is the deepest in 15 years. We built a snowman (really a snowmoose) in the back yard during Winter Storm Neptune. In lore, snow figures are always doomed to sorrowful dwindling with warming trends, but in this frigid season, ours was soon partly covered by Winter Storm Octavia, and then buried up to his antlers during Winter Storm Pandora.
In a keen marketing strategy, the Weather Channel has begun to name winter storms, and, as of this writing, the tally has passed onto Winter Storm Quantum, leaving us to wonder if it won’t be long before Remus blows in. Approaching snowstorms used to begin as rumors, but with minute-by-minute updates now, we don’t have long to wonder.
We’ve become experts at tracking the impending lake effect thanks to the tutelage. We expertly interpret the television graphics, the troughs in the jet stream, the “winds aloft,” and the border between snow and ice—like disaster planners, we know the colors that denote a “wintry mix.” We’re put on watch against Thruway pileups and water main breaks. And we’re given awful warnings against frostbite and overexertion. Jim Cantore, the on-air meteorologist who makes severe events his business, barely contains his glee.
Headline writers, too, are in raptures as they proclaim this season as “biting,” “bleak,” “brutal,” “bitter,” “crippling,” “dangerous,” “deadly,” “depressing,” “extreme,” “hard,” “intensifying,” “life-threatening,” “nasty,” “potentially historic,” and inevitably, “historic.”
Information is good, up to a point. But, in fact, it was a premature “historic” designation of that fizzled storm that earlier had missed New York City by 50 miles that pointed to something interesting. While news reports necessarily focus on disaster of the looming weather fronts, our lived experience and our memories tend to glide in a more positive track—not in fear, but in anticipation.
Friends of mine in “the City” expressed wistful disappointment that the noteworthy weather had bypassed them: “why should Buffalo have all the fun?” In fact, snowstorms do call up a raft of more optimistic images and upbeat descriptions. These are key to forging a more buoyant psychology of winter rooted in novelty and surprise.
Sometimes the reaction is keen aesthetic pleasure: snow can lay “deep, and crisp, and even” if you’ve a mind to appreciate the new contours. Or a storm can be about the suspension of routine. A “snow day” can be filled with sledding and snowball fights—surprises untainted with disaster. About 20 million Americans look forward more deliberately to playing in the snow on ski, snowboard, or snowshoe. Or a storm can make an excuse for a neighborhood party in front of the fireplace when—as one of our friends who braved this season’s drifts put it—it’s “blowing snow with a chance of wine.”
People in these parts remember the Blizzard of ’77 for the upwelling of gemütlichkeit and neighborliness as they pitched in to free snowbound cars. They remember getting stranded, with surprising good luck, at a well-stocked Mulligan’s. During one snow event here in Buffalo, I once packed a toboggan full of my daughters’ classmates who’d been stranded at our nearby grade school and pulled them home in a hilarious “rescue.” They took every happy opportunity to bounce off in a series of fortunate events.
This weekend I noted a defection from the media party line about winter. A young weathercaster, filling in, averred that “winter should be embraced” rather than bewailed. Perhaps “embraced” was the wrong word to use as the wind chill headed south of -25. But she had a point. Reframing disaster as pleasure is one of the oldest tricks in the psychotherapist’s book.
And so, after learning from news reports that “the eyes of the world” were on Niagara Falls for the winter phenomena called the “ice bridge” that at this time of year sometimes grows higher than the rim, we took the 15 minute drive north for a welcome little excursion outside. Instead of the desertion we expected at the brink, we found spectators numbering in the hundreds enjoying the sun, the rainbows, the berg-muffled thunder, and the freezing mist that had piled impossibly high in this memorable winter.
Spray from the cataract had made luge tracks of the winding park trails, too, and as we scrabbled around, my wife did a funny impersonation of a newscaster reporting on a group of tourists sliding into the abyss. But instead of calamity, we found at the edge one of those coin-op binoculars crusted in ice that looked very happy about it. The accidental sculpture extended a playful invitation to reframe winter as a reward, and rediscover its surprising opportunities for play.