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I wanted to make a movie list for Christmas, but not a list of Christmas movies, so I decided to zero in on something we often wish for but rarely get for Christmas in Texas where I live: snow. (Funnily enough, we might actually get it this year.) What follows is a chronological list of some of the most memorable moments in film where snow has made a cameo, whether it’s playing a key role or just hanging out in the background. Warning: may contain spoilers.

I should be in school right now, steeling my ear canals against a six-hour onslaught of Finnish verb conjugation, suffixal agglutination, and phonemic molestation. While there, I’d watch the sky go from black to leaden to wan and back again. I’d pour coffee in one end of my body and drain it out the other. I’d envy the reindeer begging for alms outside the nearby train station. I’d weep.

Four weeks ago I woke up in a cold sweat. By my fourth cup of coffee I’d broken into a hot sweat. And after pedaling myself over to a nondescript building near the railway station, I was glistening with a gooey, stinky sweat. It was, you see, my first day of Finnish school.

I locked my bike to the paw of a sleeping polar bear and sought out my classroom; it was empty, but students of all nationalities were waiting just outside the door. I assumed this was some sort of European thing. Being American, I went inside and chose the best desk and spread my belongings over a wide swath. I then marked my territory and drank some more hot caffeinated beverage. By the time the teacher showed up, I was panting heavily and stewing in a puddle of my own bodily fluids.

We didn’t actually learn any Finnish that first day, but we did learn not to wear perfume, and that our teacher is pregnant (which she conveyed to us by gesturing toward her nether regions while saying, “plop!”).

One month later, things are a little different: I can now say, in Finnish, how old I am. I can count to one hundred and I can tell time. Life is really progressing for me. This is exactly where I wanted to be at age 35.

I also now know that Finnish is not actually the most difficult language on the planet. It’s second, after Penguin. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of it all. Just trust me on this one. Finnish is mouth murder.*

Fortunately I’m not alone. I’ve got twenty-two courageous and fantastic classmates. In fact, the rapport between us is frighteningly cordial. We greet one another with “hyvää huomenta” (“good morning”), handshakes and even slappy-hug-but-not-quite-hug things, even though many of our countries are at war with one another.**

It’s almost creepy. I’ve never been that type of person – the type who gets along with other people. I’ve always seen classmates as an obstacle between myself and the bathroom. But this is Finland, where things are different. Immigration is a relatively new concept for Finns (who aren’t quite sure why anyone would move here), often leaving us foreigners as befuddled as drunken elk. We foreigners stick together because we’re engaged in war of our own against this nation’s violent, spasm-inducing language.

And our teachers? They’re the language’s ninjas – hefty, female, Caucasian ninjas who replace one another without warning. Some of these ninjas are old and mean and loud, while some are ancient and aloof and Magoo-eyed. Some charge one euro every time a cell phone rings, or when an English or Arabic phoneme leaks out, while others freely quote Sex and the City or Serpico.

But one thing is for sure: you don’t mess with ninjas, and you don’t mess with Finnish teachers. The teaching profession is, for Finns, as serious as swordplay. Teaching is not only an honor, it’s a highly competitive field that puts one in the realm of lawyers and politicians.

Despite all this, Finnish teachers are no better paid than in the U.S. and their jobs require half a lifetime of education and certification. For many, it’s simply an honor – an act of patriotism. Yes, Finnish teachers are somewhat bad-ass. Our main teacher, despite being close to plopping, rarely sits down, doesn’t fill our hours with busy work, and after class arms herself with a thick binder and yardstick and prevents Russian samurais from infiltrating the country.

Her main job, though, is to prepare us for our first real test, which takes place one month from now. If we do not pass this test, we will be cut from the class. If we are cut from the class, we may be cut from the labor market program that oversees our integration. If we are cut from the labor program, we will be left to wander for all of eternity on the frozen banks of a country where we have no idea what anyone is saying. (Plus we won’t get our 25 € per day stipend, which is about what Finnish teachers are paid.)

I shouldn’t be worried. I do my homework, study, and honor the ninjas for five hours a day. I’m learning so much Finnish that it gurgles in the back of my head like a sewage pipe. I should be able to make the grade. But throw in words like “suuryritysrypäs”*** or “epäjärjestelmällisyydellis tyttymättömyydellänsäkään,”**** and all bets are off. I might as well take up Penguin. At least they tell good knock-knock jokes.

Ninjas and tests aside, here’s the thing that you’ll never here me say out loud: although I rebelled and sweated and suffered an infarction or two, after a couple weeks the truth became as evident as a big fresh reindeer turd – I like learning Finnish, despite having to leave the house to do so. It’s nice, after being in this country for 14% of my life, to be able to understand the label on a can of beans (contents: beans). It’s nice to be able to swear at the kids who are using a stolen lawnmower as a bongo at 4 a.m. It’s nice to pretend I have a future in this strange arctic wonderland. I’ve always been a dreamer, and soon I’ll be able to delude myself in two languages. Wish me luck.

* But let me bore you anyways: for starters, there are some 16 cases, which are all suffixal and conditional and constantly mutating according to context. The language is phonetic, meaning that one must pronounce each and every letter within a word. Finnish does not naturally use B, C, F, X, Q, W or Z, and A, E, I, O, U and Y (“eeyuu”) are all pronounced differently than English vowels (plus it contains Ä and Ö). Many words have double vowels and double consonants, and sometimes entire rows of these pairs are lined up just waiting to humiliate you. As well, the arrangement of letters within a word determines (in addition to the case!), what its respective suffix will be. IT’S F***ING INSANE.

** I suppose it’s more accurate to say that the U.S. is at war with their countries.

*** Pronounced something like soor-eeuw-reet-oos-reeuw-pass.

**** Seppuku is more preferable than trying to pronounce this, though it’s likely that any four-year-old Finnish child could tear through it with one eye closed.

I was finishing off a bowl of lingonberry porridge yesterday morning when a helicopter suddenly swooped past my window. As it hovered, sirens began to wail. Air horns blared. Whistles whistled. Itching to witness some good old-fashioned gore and violence, I grabbed my camera, favorite Batman blanket and matching gas mask, and sprinted to the normally serene river where I witnessed a scene of profoundly disturbing perversity:



















This was the annual Kaljakellunta or “Beer Float.” It has no official organization and doesn’t actually exist until the first raft hits the water. It’s illegal and theoretically dangerous as hell, since the point of the whole thing is to drink as much beer as possible while floating down a feces-hued river.

Sweating with delight, I sat and waited for the police to arrive and club a few revelers into sobriety. I waited. Then I waited some more. I fell asleep. Because the funniest thing happened: nothing. The floats floated and sank. Drunks imbibed and drank. People flocked and gawked. And the cops didn’t do anything except tell kids not to hurl themselves off the highway overpass (which they did anyway).

And yes, that is an open flame edging ever closer to the trees:








Whereas in the United States and other nations the National Guard would be summoned to corral, contain and eradicate the revelers, the peaceful Finns instead take the opposite tack. Instead of complaining about the trash generated by the ad hoc festival, they simply hire a fleet of dumpsters. Ambulances and medic boats idle by. Motorcycle cops roam the river banks making sure the hordes of tipsy girls are peeing in the grass and not in the middle of the bike paths.

Then everyone vanishes, leaving the riverbanks looking like an exploded carnival:







But volunteers will soon scoop up the aftermath. Because they know what summer is like in Finland: thoroughly unexciting. Finns also understand the best way to cope with hundreds of drunken youths celebrating the zenith of summer is by watching from afar and reminding themselves that in mere months all of Finland will look like this:








Though I’d personally rather give my pet polar bear an unanesthetized neutering than float down a sludgy, pissed-in and beer-stinking river, I enjoy witnessing things like Beer Float. It’s yet another reason why summer in the Republic of Finn is unlike anywhere else in the world.

Indeed, the point of summer here is that there is no point. It’s downright languorous. People take saunas and visit their cottages. Old men sunbathe beside the bike paths in pink undies or none at all. Children squish strawberries between their toes. Seagulls perch on your windowsill and belt out hour-long arias. If you want to entertain your partner with a sexy sunset dinner, you have six or seven hours in which to do so (and if you wait an hour you can cap off your date with a nice sunrise grope session.)

Of course with only a blip of quasi-darkness in the wee hours, summer is, for an insomniac such as myself, blurry and largely incoherent. And from what I gather – based on the ceaseless revving of scooters and smashing of bottles on our street – Finns generally don’t sleep much either. But that’s ok. We have winter for that. And then the drinking won’t be celebratory, but mournful, and the idea of sunburned kids on rafts will seem like nothing but a cruel, distant joke.

Not yet anteater boot-top-deep in suicide art and esophageal cathedral, the open rush of mole negro alley and chipped abalone shell catching the sun in its drying marine mitt, strange creams and Aztec knives—long-gone virginal—loved, hated, ignored, we ditch, thanks to Juan Pérez’s biscuit-faced generosity, our suitcases behind the Rioja’s front desk for the day—our flight to Oaxaca City only at 9:00pm tonight, and sup from Ciudad de México/Méjico/Distrito Federal, this triple-named beast of a metropolis, its belly heaving with street-scene and food and market and fake snow in 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and Juan Pérez’s patulous hugs (He actually runs his hands over the backs of our heads, kisses us on our cheeks, his lips warm and smooth, his face prickled with graying stubble, rife with effluvium—clove, citrus peel, musk, the back of a grandparent’s closet, the mothballs there and peeling floral shelfpaper, the spice of age and the uncontainable joy that can sometimes penetrate loneliness, calling to my own grandparents long-lost in their Long Island deathbed Yiddish mumblings and sweet neuroses bound to triple-checking the thermostat before bed, and Louisa’s, their quiet passings after being robbed in Johannesburg, handcuffed to their toilet), and stepping from the lobby, our ultra-temporary home, our one-night sanctuary and port in the educational protest deluge, we are naked and stuffed with beating hearts, two turkeys bloated with garlic and apple and breadcrumb and quick pace, heated demeanors, breasts drying out in this city-oven, juices running clear and exhilarated over the haldz and pupik of Avenida Cinco de Mayo and the corners we have yet to turn.

We blow kisses to the Virgen de Guadalupe calendar, the nightstands that once, if only for a storied night, held our books and our beer. The courtyard inhales, inflates its ribcage and we stare upward to its lack of ceiling, the sky washed-out, pale and filthy. We slip sheets of yellow paper beneath our suitcase handles with our Mexican names: Mateo y Luisa Franco. Wheel them behind the front desk. Juan Pérez implores us with a string of ten cuidados, clapping the air between his thick hands in applause or prayer, we can’t tell. We assure him we will be careful, our breaths sick with cheap toothpaste, his with cigar tobacco, leaf-acrid and heady, and step in toward those celestial embraces. He will not be here when we return, his shift over, his forty-minute drive to his ample wife and one daughter who still lives at home (of his remaining seven children, only two reside in Mexico City, and one of them in Chicago! which injects our goodbye with the additional five minute fever of memory and a list of stateside Mexican restaurants; Juan Pérez tells us he has never traveled north to visit. Muy caro,” he laments, rubbing his fingers together, empty of the many dólares he would have to spend to get there, my hometown, his son’s apartment, the last place my parents will likely live). We will retrieve our bags from that reincarnated eagle of a front desk clerk we saw briefly last night. In Juan Pérez’s adiós, the weight of the caretaker world.

We step, again, into the street, carrying with us our own decades in the service industry—my sixteen years in the restaurant trade, my start at age eleven, washing dishes in a fast food chicken shack on the outskirts of Chicago, moving through the worlds of server, busboy, wine grape picker and cantina floor mopper in Italy, line cook, garde manger, sous chef, sommelier, manager, catering business owner; Louisa’s journey including much of the same, though peppered with au pair in Israel, counselor to teenage drug addicts and prostitutes in South Africa (which temporarily earned her the status of nun), laundress in Key West (where she and I met in a Latin jazz bar called Virgilio’s, indelibly earning her the status of Fallen Sister Louie); our lives now in academia and massage therapy and, in Mexico, wherein we step toward the Zócalo, Juan Pérez’s graciousness still clinging to our necks like barbate scarves.

He makes us miss the service industry. We talk of this as we walk, our pace enflamed with our forthcoming evening plane ride, how the past has its sneaky ways to force us to desire it, return to it, even though we know disappointment imminently looms.

“Human nature,” Louisa says, as we pass an old woman playing the xylophone at the street curb, “we always want to be what we’re not, sweeten the things we used to do.”

“Or where we used to be,” I say.

Chicago asserts itself in the distance—some prohibitive force, forever muy caro.

When we emerge from skinny side-street into the behemoth Zócalo, we see at its center, on this 80-degree day, a snow machine spewing its cold manufactured flakes into the air. A team of smocked employees works with inadequate gloves to mound the snow into piles from which children, for a few pesos can pack snowballs for the throwing. The line to do this is obscene and snaking, two hours long at least, but oh, sweet novelty! This is the white sand beach to Siberia! All we can do is stop to watch a seven-year-old girl finally reach the line’s front, fork over her mother’s coins, and build a pathetic eight-inch snowman with the aid of a rigid burlap mold, under the supervision of a beautiful red-vested employee with matching red Santa Claus barrettes.

To her mother’s snapping camera, the girl beams as the barretted employee supplies her with a small pieces of cork and a reusable string of carrot, mounted on a long pin to stick into the molded snow-dwarf’s face, machine-pumped flakes waltzing around her head, collecting like diamonds in her black hair. Though this world is melting quickly, and she’s already being ushered out to allow for the next child, her face, as if trapped in a mold of its own, will not lose its smile. This is a past that may not require sweetening. Louisa and I take each other’s sweating hands. It’s been a strange winter.

Dream Residue

By Uche Ogbuji

Poem

Can’t believe I stayed asleep to give
Honey slope après ski GPS,
Real life need-to-piss bringing the cock-block;
Her black greek letter accent fading fast
With harem eyes under bright bluebird skies
To duller daybreak wink of bluing chalk…
Damn! I planned to smash that like Thor’s hammer.
The ferry over cream slides cruel to dock.

Spring Feverish

By Tina Traster

Humor

Anyone who’s ever spent a winter week in Vermont or Canada’s Laurentian Mountains knows how easy it is to get swept up in the dreamy idyll of living in a “place like this” one day. There’s a perpetual blanket of snow. The glow of candles flickering in windows and fires blazing in brick hearths. A red cardinal made redder by a backdrop of stark whiteness.

I used to fantasize about living in a “place like this” every time I visited one. Now I know how it feels. Winter 2011 has given us nine storms and 63 inches of snow in the Hudson Valley so far.

My daughter’s school closed four times for snow days, and there have been several delayed openings and one early dismissal. I don’t think she had a full week of school during January.

We are toiling breathlessly to keep our six hens alive during our first winter of animal husbandry — jerry-rigging the coops with blankets, tarps and heating devices.

The locks on our old cars freeze constantly and the engines barely start. Power outages are frequent.

The front door shrinks when it’s below 20 degrees. So when we leave the house, the door must be slammed approximately 10 times before the latch catches. When we return, every picture on the wall is tilted, like in a funhouse.

Oh, and speaking of fun, have you heard about the newest extreme sport? Collecting the mail. Thanks to the plows, there has sometimes been a mound of frozen ice in front of the mailbox. To retrieve mail, one must stand in the road and drape one’s body over the igloo to reach inside the box. The consolation prizes? Scorching fuel bills and Lands’ End catalogs that make you fantasize about — what else? — living in Vermont.

Nothing, though, has tested our mettle more than the driveway — or what’s left of it. Normally, our long, skinny gravel driveway fits two cars side-by-side at the wider end. But after the post-Christmas Day blizzard, my husband and I did a do-si-do with our two cars, lining up one behind the other. Then an ice storm hit, and his economical but winter-challenged stick shift auto-froze in place. No amount of chipping away at ice or spinning tires nudged the car an inch.

For countless days, I offered him my all-wheel jalopy and experienced the life of a shut-in. Finally, a snow angel appeared just as my husband was once again urging his fossilized car to get a move on. A strapping guy — the kind who wears a T-shirt when it’s 15 degrees outside — stopped his pickup truck in front of our driveway and asked if we needed help. He got behind my husband’s car and successfully pushed it out of the driveway.

Everyone is in on this winter’s complaint-fest. But I had to laugh the other day when my mother, who lives on the Upper West Side, lamented over canceled bridge games and difficult journeys down to Lincoln Center.

“Bridge games,” I scoffed. “Right now, Ricky is in the basement using a blow-dryer to unfreeze our frozen water pipes! He has to bring hot water bottles out to Miracle [our hen] every few hours to keep her from freezing to death!”

“Well,” she responded with a sniff, “these are the choices you made.”

My mother has never understood why I bought an old farmhouse on a mountain road 25 miles from the city. To her way of thinking, I should have stayed in Manhattan, or at the very least, chosen a lovely groomed Westchester suburb.

But I have no regrets about moving to our rugged Hudson River town. When it’s all said and done, whatever wintry challenges we’ve muddled through have been offset by pleasure. Hunkering down as often as we have made us inventive: cooking soups and baking breads. Life slowed down, and our road became largely silent. We stayed in our pajamas all day. We drank hot chocolate and gazed out the windows, watching deer trudge in slow motion through deep snowdrifts. It’s made me nostalgic about childhood winters I seem to remember but probably never had.

Maybe Vermont would be manageable after all.

Read more about Tina Traster’s move from the city to a rural suburb in “Burb Appeal: The Collection,” now available on Amazon.com. E-mail: [email protected]

I have this sudden desire to make French toast. It’s 3:18 AM Central Standard Time on February 9, 2011, and I ate dinner hours ago, and more recently I prepared myself a late-night snack. But enjoying a full stomach very early on a Wednesday morning doesn’t make me crave the French toast any less. What matters is it’s 10 degrees outside, and the wind is howling at 35 miles per hour, and it’s snowing heavily.

Since it’s snowing, that means I need French toast. And I need it now.

But there’s a problem. When I go to the store, there’s no bread on the shelves. There are no eggs. I do find a few cartons of milk, but they aren’t really milk but almond milk, Silk-brand Pure Almond Dark Chocolate Milk with ExtraAntioxidants.

Actually, I’m lying about the bread. There’s one lonely loaf left, dressed up in a shiny blue bag, with the alliterative name Blueberry Breakfast Bread. I doubt it would taste very good as part of a ham sandwich, but I suppose it would make decent French toast. But I don’t really want to make French toast. I was lying about that, too, because I’m in the minority. Apparently, when it snows, the only thing people in Oklahoma can think about is their precious French toast. Although when I wander over to the baking aisle, I see no one has bothered to snatch up all the vanilla extract. Maybe people around here don’t make French toast with vanilla extract. They probably chicken fry it. (Actually my mom used to make French toast this way, by breading it. The first time I ever saw the more accepted recipe I had no idea what the hell it was.)

Anyway I do pick up plenty of other grocery items, like a ribeye steak and a package of chicken breasts and some ground turkey. In fact the entire meat section is fully stocked. Apparently no one feels like consuming protein when it’s cold outside. Just comforting, insulating carbs to help them stay warm inside their climate-controlled homes. I also grab some Yukon Gold potatoes, which are all that’s left of the potatoes, even though Yukon Golds taste better than the others. I always wondered why the store shelves the better-tasting potatoes over here in the corner and places the bland, bestselling Russets out front where everyone can find them. I suppose Russet pays a premium for those high traffic areas.

While I’m in line to pay for my precious groceries, some guy with an earnest voice gets on the PA system and announces that a batch of fresh French bread is now available in the bakery. No less than ten people sacrifice their places in line upon hearing the news. I can’t help but picture them at some later time, standing in their kitchens, slicing these loaves into little pieces, struggling with full-size lunch meats, frustrated at their incongruous sandwiches, at the injustice of it all.

What’s really funny is next door to the grocery store is a bakery. I pass this bakery on the way to the liquor store. When I go inside, the bakery is so full of bread you would think the loaves were self-replicating. They have every kind of bread you can imagine in there. I don’t understand why they don’t put some guy outside with a megaphone yelling, “FORGET ABOUT THE BLUEBERRY BREAKFAST BREAD. WE’RE SELLING REAL BREAD WE BAKED JUST NOW, YOU MYOPIC FOOLS.” On the other hand, the bakery doesn’t have very good signage. I didn’t know it was here until six months ago, and I’ve lived nearby for almost eleven years.

Some of you are already aware that I made this trip to the grocery store on foot. The reason for this is because unlike a lot of these idiots, I live in a neighborhood with curvy streets and steep hills. When it snows a lot, or when there’s ice, I literally cannot drive up my street. Which is fine by me. When storms approach, I buy plenty of groceries in advance and plan to be stranded. I pretend like I’m camping. It’s fun. In fact the only reason I walked to the store at all is because I was bored, and because I wanted to eat a steak and enjoy a few cocktails while I watched the Super Bowl. But that doesn’t stop people, when they realize I’m walking to the store, from making brilliant comments like “I bet you wish you had a four-wheel drive truck right now!”

I get cabin fever like anyone does. Of course I do. But just because I’m cooped up in my house for a week doesn’t mean I wish I had leased a different vehicle for 36 months. 36 months equals 1,095 days, unless one of them is a leap month, in which case it equals 1096 days. I’m stranded at my house because of the weather for maybe ten of those days. That’s less than one percent of the time. I have nothing against SUVs and pickup trucks (that’s not true, I hate them), and I don’t mind if someone else wants to own one, but why on earth would I? I see these guys proudly driving around in their boxes on wheels, and for a moment I believe I’m telepathic, because I can actually hear their thoughts. You know what they’re thinking? They’re thinking, “Look at me! Today I put the truck in four-wheel drive! I’m a badass!”

But you know what? I can’t really make fun of that. The reason I can’t is because my car gets about the same gas mileage as a pickup or an SUV. Honestly I should be ashamed of myself. Whether or not the typical owner makes use of it, a pickup at least possesses the potential for utility. My car can make no such claim. In order to build a V6 engine with more than 300 horsepower, some concessions must be made, including fuel economy. But fuck it. I need that power. My car can hit nearly 160 mph, and that’s something I do on a daily basis: drive 100 mph over the speed limit. Why on earth would I go anywhere if I couldn’t do it at 160 miles per hour?

I could summarize this by declaring that people behave strangely. But that really isn’t true. What’s true is people behave differently than you expect them to or want them to. You think it’s silly that some people stock up on bread and milk and eggs before a big snowstorm, but they think you’re stupid for living in a hilly neighborhood when you don’t own a four-wheel drive vehicle. You think they’re wrong for living in an old, drafty house cursed with exposed pipes that freeze every time it gets cold, and they think you’re soulless because you live in a new house that possesses no character. You think they should dress with more style. They think you’re a hipster doofus.

Personally, I think everyone but me and maybe six other people in the world are idiots. But don’t be too angry with me. As I write this, it’s 4:12 in the morning, the wind chill is 15 below zero, and I’m about to go for a walk. My sister and I did this one time as kids, wandered around our snowy neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning, and now it’s like programming code I can’t erase. I do it every time there’s a big snowstorm. It doesn’t make any sense.

But honestly, what does?

Addendum: 5:53 AM. Just returned from walk. More than two inches of new snow since I left. Chanda, you should’ve been there. <3

If you discount the dodgy crosswind twin-prop landings, the post-lunch deep-sea swims, the near-misses out on the autoroute, the closest I ever came to dying was in deep midwinter at Sugarloaf Mountain in Kingfield, Maine. Every winter my family traveled there for a week-long ski vacation, and in my eleventh year we rented the holy grail of all condos: the slopeside villa.


Recently, while teaching my pet polar bear and two Insane Russian Dogs how to sculpt ice with a chainsaw, I spotted a young woman dragging a baby carriage through a foot of hateful, sludgy snow. She appeared flummoxed and frustrated, snow pouring over the tops of her Ugg (ugh!) boots, icicle towers crashing to the ground all around her. The baby carriage’s wheels soon clogged to the point of complete immobility, and when the woman stopped to dig through her purse for a spare ice axe, she let out an audible whimper.

Being a typical American afflicted with some innate savior-samaritan complex, I rushed over to help. But – perhaps because Finns are markedly tough and resourceful, or perhaps because my Insane Russian Dogs were snuffling at the little human covered in its own frozen drool – the woman presented me with an uncommonly horrified expression. Despite my offer in three different languages to assist, the woman simply said “no,” took out her cell phone, and presumably bided her time until the spring thaw. There was no: “Thank you, but I’m ok,” or “Be gone, creepy Yank.” Just a well-rehearsed turn of the shoulder and a brutally disdainful sideways glance. I was offended. And in the typical reaction of someone who judges that which he doesn’t understand, I stormed back inside and updated my Facebook status.

Not two days later the scene repeated itself. This time I was busy filling the neighbor’s mailbox with snow (we’re at war, it’s a long story) when another woman, mistaking me for a smart person, ventured into our yard to ask for directions. She also had a baby carriage in tow. Before she could hand over her map of Finland (a monstrous white sheet with a tiny “You Are Here” in the middle), her two-inch heels gave out and she and the baby carriage splashed into the snow. The dogs howled. The reindeer scattered. The polar bear strained at the end of his chain. The baby wailed with joy.

After we pried her carriage loose, the woman asked me how to get to a particular church. I’ve heard of these things called churches. I believe they’re the pointy white things on the horizon. I directed her toward the nearest one (which actually ended up being an electric tower) and made the sign of the cross. The woman thanked me, stepped out of the yard, and promptly vanished into a crevasse.

This, my first uncut Finnish winter, has hosted many such events. While it hasn’t been particularly cold, the snow has been unholy and merciless. There’s so much that there’s really nowhere else to pile it. Neighbors can be seen tossing it back and forth over their fences in an infinite loop of futility. If you throw the snow into the street, the plow shoves it back into your yard. If you pile it against the house, the white stuff seeps into your basement and creeps up the stairs. Often you’ll be trudging to the store and will stumble over a shopping cart, an airplane wing, or the mail man.

Fortunately, the Finnish landscape is flat enough that we don’t get many avalanches. Unfortunately, the land is so flat that snow can’t be bothered to melt. Last year in Helsinki, the country’s southernmost city, the Municipal Snow Dump didn’t fall below the one-meter line until September 15th. All of Finland celebrated by peeling their snowsuits down to the waist, then got back to shoveling.

While the country may be big on snow, that’s about all that’s big here. Kitchens, roads, stores, sodas, stomachs, etc. are much more humble in volume. Even in the thick of winter, Finns drive around in cars not much bigger than a bicycle. (Often you’ll see forty or fifty clowns climbing out of them outside Alko, the state-run booze store.) SUVs are used as school buses and tow trucks. Houses that are large by Finnish standards would be considered foyers in the U.S.

Yes, Americans could learn a lot from Finland. Especially humility. But that’s not to say that Finland couldn’t learn a lot from the U.S.: the last time I was visiting my homeland, I stood in line queue behind a woman who wanted to know where she could throw out a coffee cup. Because she was above average in aesthetic pleasantness, an assortment of male courtesans appeared from the sky to assist her. None quite had a plan for the trash though, and the man who “won” it ended up shoving it in his coat pocket (perhaps to be used in future Voodoo rituals). Conversely, upon returning to Finland I saw a man try to help an old woman out of the path of an oncoming train. The woman spat, swung her handbag at him, and called him a “smelly c***.” And that was her being polite.

I guess in Finland being helped is ultimately a sign of weakness. It’s just not in their nature. Which is why I’m piling snow in the trunk of the neighbor’s car. I just can’t help myself.

 

 

 

 

 

“Oh my God,” I yelled, peering out the window. “Daddy’s had a heart attack. Wait here.”

I ran down the freshly paved path to the far end of my property where Ricky was lying face up, arms splayed, snow shovel at his side.

“What are you doing out here in pajamas?” he asked. “You’re going to get sick?”

“What the hell are you doing lying on the ground? I thought you had a heart attack.”

Soaked through his wool hat and down jacket, he looked like he’d been to a sweat lodge, not shoveling.

“I got tired. I’m taking a rest,” he added, laughing.

“Not funny.”

Marching back up the path I said to myself that’s it, next year we’re hiring a professional plowing service.

We live on a mountain precipice 500 feet above sea level. There are times when Nyack gets rain and we, high above it, get snow. Our property is a plowing nightmare. You need to walk roughly 40 feet along a stone path to get from our front door to the edge of the driveway. The driveway slopes westward, and precipitously downward. Last year we finally had it graded because it was nearly impossible to get cars out after a storm.

Our first winter here, a mortgage broker from the city came to our house (ah the good old days) to do a re-finance. It had snowed the day before. He walked up the path gingerly, wearing his pinstripe suit and laced-up brown leather shoes. “Welcome to the country,” we said. He thought it looked so charming — until he tried to get his car out of the driveway. After spinning his wheels, he and Ricky spent an hour digging him out.

“Let’s hire a professional plow company next year,” I’d said. “Don’t be ridiculous.” Ricky answered. “We’re rugged individualists. That’s why we live on this mountain.”

Winters two through four were pretty much the same. Not a terrible amount of snow, which made the job of plowing manageable

But 2010 was the year of the snow storm. By mid-February, I’d lost track of the inch/foot total.

We were woken at 4:40 am by a deafening scraping sound. Ricky flew out of bed and pulls up the shade. “Will you look at that?” he said, observing the McMansion across the street. “He’s got a plow service that comes in the middle of the night.”

At 5:30, more scraping. This time from the guy next to the McMansion, who has his own plow. Back and forth he goes, clearing snow, spitting gravel into the road.

By dawn, bzzzzzzzzz. Our neighbor who loves his power toys was blowing the snow.

“Hasn’t anybody around here heard of a shovel?” my husband grunts, unwilling to admit he has snow-removal envy.

A few weeks ago, I was home alone. Our path and driveway were an icy mess again from the most recent storm. Ricky had done a bit of plowing but I was afraid to go outside, let alone move the car. Looking out the window, I saw two men in sweatshirts carrying shovels over their shoulders. Either I was having a religious experience or this was my lucky day.

I ran out and asked if I could hire them to dig us out.

“Okay,” one said. “Forty dollar.”

I would have given him $50.

When Ricky came home that night he gave me a giant hug.

“Wow, sweatheart, thanks.”

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” I crowed.

Then the big one hit. 24 inches fell over 48 hours. It was paradise to behold. Julia said, “Mommy, it looks like the Nutcracker ballet out there,” and it did.

The next morning, Ricky started plowing the path. It was like watching someone try to empty the ocean with a spoon. I left Julia behind to finish the snowman we were building and trudged through waist-deep snow to the top of our driveway. I flagged down a guy with a plow on his car and offered to pay him.

He pulled into the driveway, and when he tried to maneuver the shovel with the car, his wheels spun. He was stuck. He wasn’t going anywhere, and neither was the snow. For the next hour Ricky and he shoveled out his car – which only made a small dent of snow clearing at the end of the driveway.

That night Ricky soaked in the tub, complaining how much his knee hurt.

The next day I called someone who sent two guys to shovel us out. They did a stellar job.

“So are you ready to get a professional service next year?” I asked Ricky.

“Why don’t we get a heated driveway,” he suggested, a clearly reasonable alternative to my preposterous suggestion.

 

 



 

Whoops

By Kristen Elde

Essay

One Friday morning, I was running the streets of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood when I tripped on some garbage and fell, bracing my fall with… my chin.

The sound was the worst: the dull internal clatter as top teeth met bottom. After lying prostrate in the middle of the dusty street for a split second, I scrambled to right myself. I made it to a sitting position and my thoughts went instantly to my mouth. My teeth: were they all there? A quick once-over with my tongue suggested they were. At the same time I brought my hand to my chin—but not before a nice crossing guard thrust a stack of napkins beneath it, urging me to apply pressure. “You hit the ground hard, honey. There’s blood—a lot of it.”

Memory can be like a magician’s trick; part sleight of hand, part smoke and mirrors. It’s real but it’s not real. Sometimes you’ll catch a glimpse but you will never actually catch the trick.

So it is with music. There’s a song that I don’t know the name of, but if I hear even two bars of it – it reduces me to a quivering wreck.  It was the song that was playing on the radio when I found the lifeless body of my kitten that had been squashed flat by a gas tank. I was about eleven years old when this happened and despite the resulting trauma, I count myself lucky that that the song playing was an obscure electronica piece. I’d have been fucked if it had been something really popular like Spandau Ballet’s ‘True,’ which still gets a lot of airplay even now.

Music can ignite memory, but it’s scent that really burns you up.

I keep a tiny bottle of worn-out perfume in my secret drawer. I’m nearly twice as old as it is, but its musty smell holds my younger years hostage. It was the first perfume I bought with my own money. The name on the label has worn off but I think it was called something like Rampage or Tigress - whatever it was called, it was $6.95 worth of chic in a bottle.

I have to ration my smelling of it these days. The more air that gets in, the more the magic disappears. I take furtive sniffs of it and it’s like a fragrant time machine. It transports me straight back to 1988. The images flicker past me and in that tiny stolen second, I can actually taste that very first kiss I shared with Adrian Keeling on the school sports field. I can see the grass that is giving up its colour and turning a lazy shade of green, smell the almost bloody tang of the freshly upturned dirt, see his unlined face so very close to mine and inhale the aroma of his freshly laundered shirt as he leans in toward me.

You cannot really capture moments like this. Memory is just not enough to hold them. You can photograph a moment but the image only exists in your eyes, it doesn’t overwhelm your entire body. A photograph can capture an expression but rarely, an essence.

I have such a photo on my wall. It’s of the young man I kissed in that field. The camera has caught him in a half-turn. He is slightly unshaven, his hair is in his face and there’s a faraway look in his eye.

The portrait is a perfect moment in time. In this moment, he has his whole life ahead of him. He’s training to be a pilot. He’s been spending his weekends notching up the flight hours and he’s always careful not to get a speeding ticket when he drives his car, just in case it hurts his chances to get his stripes.

He’s serious about flying but he’s also one of the funniest people I know.

He gets drunk as often as he eats banana splits. He likes to tell the story of how his parents drove past him one night on their way home as he lay passed out in the gutter with just his green trench coat on.

They remarked to each other that the boy in the gutter looked a lot like Adrian. They had to reverse when they realised it was in fact, their only son. Together they lugged him into the car, furtively looking around in case the neighbours happened to be watching. He always laughs at this, no matter how many times he tells it.

Adrian has a particular way of speaking. He won’t call a bruise a bruise if he can get away with calling it a hematoma. He collects phrases like some people collect stamps. He’s mastered the art of the chuckle, showing off his dimples with a glint in his eye that you’re never quite sure of.

But his humour is always kind. He’s never quick to cut you down.

He hates Jethro Tull. He doesn’t liking visiting a good friend of ours because sometimes when she’s maudlin she will play the flute. He’d rather stay at home and watch Quadrophenia and recite all the lines. He wears his green trench coat in homage to the movie. I hate the film but I don’t tell him that.

He has a long standing joke with me. My family home is near the sea and the windows are always salt-crusted and smeary. They’re too high for me to clean. Adrian tells my mother that he will come around and clean the windows for her. He promises this every time we speak.

“Tell your mum, I’ll be round to clean the windows,” he says.

He went to Japan for a skiing holiday. He got homesick and called me up. We talked about the food and the language and at the end of the phone call he told me to tell my mother he’d be round to clean the windows as soon as he got back.

He got home, but the windows remained dirty.

We went to a party one night and he got bored and started doodling on a scrap of paper. He’d just turned twenty-three and was unsure what he might want to do next. He could either go back to flying school or spend the winter living at a local ski-field, working for his parents. He thinks he might like this. When he has finished talking, I take a look at what he’s drawn. It’s a picture of him driving a snow-groomer with an avalanche of snow coming down on him like a wave.

Some weeks after this, I walk downstairs in the early morning to collect the newspaper at the gate. There is a piece of paper lying in my path. It’s been blown in from the street. I pick it up and turn it over to read. It’s a homemade advertisement for a window cleaner.

‘Need your windows cleaned? Call 326 7901′

I think nothing of it.

Later, when the call comes telling me that Adrian has been killed in a freak snow-grooming accident on the ski-field, I think about that piece of junk advertising that somehow made its way onto my path. In all the years I have lived in that house, there’s never been a stray bit of paper that’s found its way past the heavy gates. I think it must have been Adrian, using his now not-needed breath to blow one last joke to me. I force myself to laugh in his honour, but I don’t really feel it.

I don’t want to see him dead, but his parents have taken his broken body and placed him in their sitting room where all his friends have gathered. I say that I want to remember him alive. Remember him soft and nervous, in that field where we first kissed. Or even bored and slightly drunk, at that party where he drew his own death. I don’t want to see him in his coffin.

But they tell me I should. For closure, they say. It will help me in the days ahead to accept that he’s really gone. I feel myself pulled along on a wave of well-meaning arms and I don’t resist until I’m standing over his body.

When I see him, I can’t help myself. I kneel down beside him and stroke his face with my forefinger. My body has stored the memory of how his skin felt and what I touch now – I don’t recognise. I make myself look at his face. It doesn’t look like Adrian. The undertakers have stitched up his skin with coarse black cotton. I think that they could have done a better job. The stitches are ugly and rough and I am angry they haven’t taken more care. He is wearing a baseball cap, which he never would have worn if he were alive. I suppose it’s to hide the injuries. This body that I once wrapped my arms around in the summer heat is now twisted from the impact of the winter snow that fell upon him and claimed him.

As I look at his body, I feel something rising up in me. It’s terror. I’m afraid for him, for what he may have felt in his last moments. I don’t want him to have been scared. I move my eyes from his freshly scarred face and they come to rest on his hands.

And they are perfect.

Icy cold, but perfect. I know these hands like the back of my own and there’s not a scratch or a bruise or a hematoma even, on them. Seeing his hands gives me immediate peace. He didn’t know what was coming. He didn’t have time to raise his arms and shield his beautiful face. He drew his death on a scrap of paper but it spared him having to look right at it when it came calling.

I’m grateful for this. It’s enough.

And I’m grateful for his picture that never ages on my wall. Inside his frame he remains forever twenty-three. I’m now fourteen years older than he’ll ever be and the nearest I can get to him is through a tiny bottle of perfume that belies its cheapness by holding something valuable and precious inside.

It’s the scent of youth. Of stolen kisses in an empty sports field. It’s the scent of a summer that will never give up its secrets to the coming winter chill.


The two teenagers are making out on the sofa to my left, not two feet away. They kiss, then speak to each other in Spanish. Fabiola, my 3rd grade student, sits at the table with me, to my right, hunched over a word search for ‘winter.’ She’s never seen snow, a blizzard, or sleet. I tell her about snow storms in Buffalo, and the ‘Zero Visibility’ ice-cream. Her friend, she answers, who moved to L.A. from Colorado, has seen hail the size of Chicken McNuggets. Which are Fabiola’s favorite food.

In Spanish, the boy asks, “Does he speak Spanish?”

“No,” I say, “but I’m not stupid.”

I don’t know if he is Fabiola’s brother, I haven’t been introduced to any of the family members who walk through the room in which I tutor, the first one you enter when you walk through the front door. There’s a back entrance, and it’s only me who comes in front. I’ve seen Fabiola’s mother in the driveway, but she never leaves the back of the apartment, doesn’t come out to greet me or even take a look at me. I haven’t shaken her hand. I’m dealing only with Fabiola’s stepfather, who keeps toy cars on the shelves in the living room. They are models of souped-up Hondas and Toyotas and they come in all sizes. The biggest is operated with a remote control and has big ‘Toyo Tires’ decals on the sides.

The boy grins now, the girl looks scared. This might be the living room or the dining room. There’s not much dining or living in it, this is the first time Fabiola and I are not alone. I’m 42 and have had three accidents in three months, and I don’t have collision, so I’ve tied the passenger door shut with some rope. I drink cheap red wine, eight dollars a 1.5 liter bottle at California Market, no vintage. My wife’s and my teeth are turning blue.

Fabiola asks if she can go to the restroom. She takes her time while the teenagers giggle again and kiss. The boy is squat and wears a white hat backwards, the girl is short and has the face of a china doll. The boy puts his hand in one pocket and extracts a condom in a red wrapper. He holds it out to the girl but she won’t touch it.

Fabiola comes back and resumes her work on gloves, mittens and snow. It’s January. Outside it’s 80 degrees, and soon the boy and girl leave, and Fabiola is moving on to word clusters with animal names. In front of our table is a small altar for La Flaca, Santa Muerte. The Skinny One smiles, her bones clad in a red robe. A candle burns behind her, a matchbox-sized Ford Mustang stands at her feet.