Winter’s Tale

For the first 28 years of my life, the idea of seasons was completely foreign to me. I was born in Hong Kong, grew up in Southern California. It was 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit year round, just as the stereotypes would have you believe. I wore sweaters and jackets when it dipped into the low 60s or – god forbid – the 50s, and the only times I saw snow was when I left the city: a family trip to Reno and Tahoe, a ski vacation or two to Big Bear, a conference in Chicago. It was a comfortable existence, a warm existence, marked by t-shirts and shorts and flip-flops.

The culture of seasons, and specifically of people who had previously experienced seasons, was always striking to me. They spoke of snow days, of dealing with road closures and supply shortages, and they all remembered that one storm that left them trapped indoors for however the fuck many days. They raved about the majesty of a white Christmas, about never taking the appearance of the sun for granted, and about the beauty of autumn leaves – god, they wouldn’t shut up about the leaves. Southern California was great, they’d admit, but they missed having distinct seasons, and the character thereof.

Friends and acquaintances, especially transplants, reveled when told of my impending move to Boston in 2011. There was an interesting combination of sympathy and schadenfreude in their reactions, a genuine concern that couldn’t mask an obvious anticipation. Los Angeles exists outside reality in a lot of ways, I’m well aware, and I suppose I was kind of a poster child for Peter Pan syndrome when I left the bubble. I felt like a pledge at a fraternity house where everyone else had already been initiated. Sure, it was unfortunate, but better me than them – and deservedly so – is the general vibe that I got.

I cannot begin to overstate how much my life changed those two years in Boston, even with the first being one of the warmest on record. I learned about base layers and wool socks, about legitimate winter boots and down jackets, about electric blankets and ceramic heaters. I wore slippers indoors, slept in socks, put on long johns for the first time in my life. I shopped not just for scarves and gloves and beanies and balaclavas, the last of which sounds like a Russian snack, but for the right kind of scarves and gloves and beanies and balaclavas. I’d constantly read up about the proper attire for 50 degree weather, then 40, then 30, and so forth.*

*An all-time favorite review for a jacket began: “This is what a bear must feel like!”

But it wasn’t just the material necessities of winter I had to get used to. It was the very idea of winter, the psychological and physical effects accompanying winter. I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. I didn’t want to leave the house ever. I didn’t want to move from the confines of my warm car. Everything felt like an ordeal, every second outdoors a second I had to brace for and prepare for and bundle up for because I knew I wouldn’t be quite as warm, quite as comfortable. I was a doctoral student who only had to stroll into the office two or three times a week; I couldn’t imagine having to actually rough it every day.

Of course I enjoyed the presence of snow, the way anyone who isn’t completely dead inside would. It’s beautiful and fun and magical and everything else. But the novelty of snow wears thin, its beauty dissipating into the reality of dealing with snow. I have to wait until the city plow comes along before I can drive anywhere. I have to scrape ice off the car in order to see anything. I have to worry about how slippery the roads can be as the snow turns to ice. And I have to be careful about stepping anywhere because I don’t quite know what lies beneath. That’s winter. I have to fucking think about walking.

I never quite felt like myself in the winter either. Even when I was warm, after all, it was an unnatural warmth, either artificial or superficial or both. I was warm because of fumes blasting in my face from an electrical device. I was warm only as long as the length of the shower, as the size of the cup of tea or bowl of soup. I wasn’t breathing natural air, because I could only handle it for so long before I needed to be warm again – indoors, under the sheets. For months, I existed in a kind of haze, the days bleeding together, offering little to no reprieve.

It’s kind of amazing what people get used to. I remember being thankful when the weather rose above 50, whenever I saw the sun for more than a couple hours a day. I was like Oliver Twist asking – nay begging – for a little more gruel. I even changed my diet during those winter months, using the crockpot with regularity, making soups and stews and other heavy foods, again just to stave off the cold an extra hour or two. I came to understand the culture of seasons. I came to see and appreciate how people’s identities are intertwined with that city, with that region.

I’ve lived in Tokyo a year and a half now. It’s not as cold as Boston, but it too has distinct seasons. I sit here wearing “heattech” undergarments, with a carbon heater three feet away and soup on the stove. Tomorrow I’ll have to peel myself from under the comforter I ordered off the web. As in Boston, I cannot deny the breathtaking beauty of winter snow, of spring bloom, of autumn leaves. I enjoy having seasons, and there’s certainly a character to it. But then again, being miserable builds character too.* I’d happily take 75 year round.

*h/t Calvin & Hobbes

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