February 2007 Issue
Making it through February in Ohio takes forethought and hearty helpings of distractions such as "Blazing Saddles."
These are the days of gray-flannel skies, of curbside snow crowned by dark brows of spewn car exhaust. In the heart of a yawning winter we become hostages to the pronouncements of madmen, the practitioners of TV meteorology, "the baton twirling of journalism." Cheeriest of the blown-dry clones on the nightly news, they speak of arctic air masses and encroaching storm fronts as though they had a hand in nature's caprice. They promise the arrival of "white stuff" with such eager yearning that cokeheads twitch in anticipation.
Winter can be lovely when it arrives to the accompaniment of "Silver Bells." By January, it has worn out its welcome. By February, in Ohio, it has turned us morose and insular, made us hostages in our own homes. And like hostages, we become, by turns, either psychically paralyzed or ready to pounce. The edginess engendered by cabin fever reveals our dark-hearted side. In Raymond Chandler's Red Wind, the author reveals how the other end of the thermometer and the accompanying Santa Ana winds can do to Californians what a lingering Canadian air mass does to Ohioans:
Those hot dry winds that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks.
Anything can happen.
I make my home in the bull's-eye of the Buckeye State, the twice-glaciated billiard table that is Columbus. Like it or not, this time of year, with spring yet little more than a distant rumor, I am afflicted with cabin fever. It is a time when I must be mindful of even the most seemingly inconsequential of activities. I do not read Stephen King in February. If Misery were the only reading matter handy, I would instead rip out the pages and burn it for warmth. A year ago, I decided to revisit a classic of literature while housebound by the cold. If ever a book begged for a don't-do-this-at-home winter warning in the preface, it is surely Dickens' Bleak House. I made it halfway through the first chapter buoyed only by the likelihood that I couldn't locate the razor blades if I wanted to.
An annual hostage to cabin fever, I have embarked upon a course some might consider to be depressing: I am studying precisely what it is about February and the protracted waning of Ohio winters that brings me down.
Part of it, I know, is the absence of light.
"Some people are highly sensitive to it," I was told by Columbus clinical psychologist Karen Wasserman. "A person who requires more light may experience a sinking of their mood after only two days. They get less enjoyment out of daily activities and can hardly drag themselves out of bed.
"There is a certain constellation of symptoms that we see in people who have seasonal problems. They may have an intense craving for carbohydrates...eat a lot of pasta, a lot of rice, a lot of chocolate. People will start wearing all black. They may call off work more often. Their productivity is down."
Part of the problem resides in the simple fact, seldom pointed out by TV weather folk, that my pocket of Ohio experiences some of the gloomiest weather in the nation. Seattle is called "The London of the Pacific Northwest." But consider this: According to the office of the National Weather Service in Seattle, for the past century the city has enjoyed an average of only 69 clear days a year. Think of it. The skies are clear for little more than one day a week. I thought that statistic depressing until I telephoned the National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio, which keeps all the pertinent records for Columbus. In the capital city, the skies are clear a mere 72 days a year, or only for 72 hours more each year than in Seattle. Of course we get depressed. During February, that unidentified flying object moving across the Ohio skies is probably the sun.
When I was but an apprentice in my studies of cabin fever and its effects, I contacted the Byrd Polar Research Center at the Ohio State University. Many among the staff there are familiar with winters at the South Pole that last from February to November. They endure temperatures that sink to minus 100 degrees. Those who winter over must make it through weeks on end of total darkness.
"Their biological clocks get out of sync," former director of the Byrd Center David Elliot informed me. "They stay up half the night and go around looking haggard, with big bags under their eyes."
To stave off cabin fever, the research station at the South Pole offers two libraries, a collection of videos, a gym large enough to accommodate handball, and a pool table.
Psychological testing suggests that the person who is likely to have the easiest time wintering over at the pole is an individual who is self-sufficient and a little laid-back. Conversely, the gregarious animal ever in need of approval or an audience is going to have a rough time.
Winter turns us inward unto ourselves. Those who handle it best are people comfortable with their own solitude.
You don't have to be Dr. Phil to know that, during an Ohio winter, the grayer it gets the lighter you must keep your diversions. This is the time of year to avoid both The Brothers Karamazov and La BohÃ¨me. When it comes to reading, I steer clear of any writers native to countries where the bathing suits have zip-off parka hoods. My trips to the video store are for nothing but comedies.
I have lately been reading the newly published The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia. Although its 1,890 pages weigh in at almost 10 pounds, it is fascinating reading about the place we call home. It is the Grey's Anatomy of the body Ohio. It is a good book for winter because it can be sampled as one might canapÃ©s or cocktail nuts. Unfortunately, any definitive work on the Midwest must focus, at some point, on the weather. Sure enough, The American Midwest records that in one particular year (1936), the Dakotas experienced a 180-degree range in temperatures, featuring a summer during which the thermometer on the barn hit 120 and a winter that ushered in minus 60 degrees.
But, this monstrous volume - with 700 contributors and twice the number of words required to write the King James version of the Bible - contains many golden apples worth lingering over these winter days. For the profiles of the Midwest states, the book's editors chose Hoosier native Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. to write the essay on Indiana and the late R.W. "Johnny" Apple for its Ohio counterpart.
It pleased me to see that The American Midwest was both gracious and generous in its salute to Illinois' product Ray Bradbury. The great volume excerpts Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, though, during a Midwest February, it is not that particular work that draws me.
If you must know the secret to getting through winter in Ohio, you will find it on the shelf of most any public library or in an inexpensive paperback at the bookstore. It is Bradbury's tale of the 12th summer in the life of a Midwestern boy. It is, of course, Dandelion Wine. When dawdling winter refuses to go gently into the good night that is spring, I turn to that book. It is as close as prose comes to Prozac when I am fighting off cabin fever.
Face it. We are in the midst of the season about which William Carlos Williams wrote:
These are the desolate dark weeks,
The year plunges into night
And the heart plunges
Lower than night
"There is a certain slant of light, winter afternoons, that oppresses like the heft of cathedral tunes," wrote Emily Dickinson of this time.
So, it is now, in the dark heart of winter that I reach for light. My video lineup includes "Airplane," "Blazing Saddles," "The Producers," "Rat Race," "Raising Arizona" and "Talladega Nights." My reading fare includes a little of David Sedaris, a wonderful anthology of one liners titled The Comedy Thesaurus, along with John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and Michael J. Rosen's Mirth of a Nation.
When I have finished with all of that, I will lose myself in Dandelion Wine.
Though winter's winds rattle the panes and undulate dunes across the back yard as though winter's snow were Sahara's sands, I am somewhere else, lost in the warmth of a June night in the heart of the heartland:
The courthouse clock chimed seven times. The echoes of the chimes faded. Warm summer twilight here in upper Illinois country in this little town deep far away from everything, kept to itself by a river and a forest and a meadow and a lake...
And there were two moons: the clock moon with four faces in four night directions above the solemn dark courthouse, and the real moon rising in vanilla whiteness from the dark east.
Mike Harden is a nationally syndicated columnist for The Columbus Dispatch.