[Today’s Guest Blogger is Adam Kuhlmann, who has previously written other amazing guest pieces like Wanton Seagulls and Other Enduring Charms of Good Harbor and A Survival Guide to Running in Gloucester.]
While no one would ever mistake me for a tough guy, I like to think of myself as not altogether delicate. I take my whiskey neat. I run for long distances. I teach seventh grade, and in eleven years in the classroom I’ve used only one sick day—this despite the fact that, as far as disease vectors go, middle school children are second only to Victorian-era water pumps. But I have a confession, one that would shame my German forebears, who fought in foxholes and worked the railroads and engaged in all sorts of genuine hard-assery. The recent stretch of frigid temperatures and unrelenting snowfall has left me broken.
Yes, I mean physically. Last week, after a particularly grueling session with the snow shovel, I found that an obscure muscle in my left buttock had seized up. Apparently, this muscle is attached to other fibers and tendons in the leg and low back, which triggered a cascade of painful spasms. By the time I sought the comfort of my bed that night, I was forced to scrabble through my apartment on all fours. My wife told me that, stripped to my underwear, I looked like Gollum, a creature whose Vitamin D levels also matched my own. The next morning, for the first time in my life, I made an appointment with a massage therapist. She was a pleasant young woman—strong of grip and briskly competent, but not especially tactful. While she kneaded my ass like a 2-lb French boule, I asked her whether she’d tended to many other injured snow shovelers. “Oh, yes,” she laughed. Then, a beat later, she added, “But they were all quite a bit older than you.”
The Arctic weather has also taken a psychic toll. I’m an outdoors person. Generally, I approach winter as an opportunity to ensconce myself in down and roam about on snowshoes or cross-country skis. So when school is cancelled and I get trapped in a house that—with drifts gradually eclipsing the windows—has become a claustrophobic den of ice, I grow a little antsy. I can only read for so long. Cleaning the house proves a better distraction, but I’m not sure the wall plates of my electrical outlets need more than two coats of polish. When the storms finally break, I emerge like a hibernating bear, gulping fresh air and squinting at the dazzling whiteness of the world. Yet as much as I’d like to plunge into the muffled trails of Ravenswood or Dogtown, there is scarcely enough time to clear the driveway and wait in line at Market Basket before the next storm strikes. If winter is indeed an old man, why doesn’t he need a longer refractory period?
Here I am complaining about being cooped up, and I don’t even have kids. Yesterday, as I panted against my snow shovel, I watched a fellow my age trundle down the street carrying a toddler in his arms. Following at his heels were what appeared to be three pastel-colored trash bags—but what, upon closer inspection, turned out to be additional children under the age of eight. My God, I thought. This man had been responsible not only for feeding and cleaning his brood, but also for entertaining them—indoors—for three straight days. Sure, the first grader can be assigned to monitor carbon monoxide levels in the basement, but how do you occupy a four-year-old for that long?
Yet the mental strain is more than mere cabin fever. My brain is not its normal, free-ranging self. Just as mounds of snow have encroached on our roadways, giving streets the feel of a luge track, I have grown narrow in my interests and outlook. All I think about is snow. The browser history on my laptop is clogged with weather sites—and not just the typical clips from weather.com, in which paunchy white guys straddle plow mounds to add visual interest to their shouty reporting. I’m talking about esoteric shit from NOAA. One of my favorites, titled “Probabilistic Winter Precipitation Guidance,” allows me to watch colorful blobs of data crawl over maps of New England—and to remember why AP Statistics handed my ass to me in a wicker basket. In the evenings, I try to set aside the charts and graphs and relax with a glass of wine. But my thoughts curdle with anxiety as I await a call from my principal, bearing the fate of tomorrow’s school day. When the phone does ring, his recorded voice sounds tired, defeated. Primed by my hours of statistical study, I can’t help but compute the exact likelihood that he is currently fielding an irate call from a parent desperate to be rid of her children.
After several iterations of this same routine, I’ve found that commiserating with others does offer some relief. Yesterday, I helped a friend to excavate her heating vents, conveniently located at ground level. As we waded to our navels in one particularly majestic drift, she shouted to me above the swirling wind, “What about Canadians? Is this just their life?” “I guess so,” I said, my mouth filling with needles of snow. But Canadians signed up for this. Knowing it was a devil’s bargain, they accepted brutal winters in exchange for immaculately kept public spaces and deeply polite neighbors. Gloucesterites have signed no such contract. Yes, I know it’s the North. And, yes, I know there are plenty of perks to living here—among them, beaches, art, food, and the old-timer who looks like Santa. But the plagues of empty nip bottles and dysfunctional urban planning should be more than enough to keep from spoiling us. We don’t need 70 inches of snow to justify our charmed existence.
So, considering the unfairness of it all, I’ve been pretty impressed by our city’s resilience. Of course, there have been acts of wanton dickishness, like the private contractor who plows the snow from the driveway across the street directly into my own. But, for the most part, I have witnessed patience, generosity, and good cheer. I have a neighbor named Gary who owns a candy-apple red riding snowblower. It is the size of an industrial corn harvester, and where he stores it is a complete mystery. Wearing a smart matching red snowsuit and knit cap, he works his way from house to house, aiding the shovelers in their efforts. At first, the self-reliant side of me got a little puckered by Gary’s altruism, and I would try to finish before he pulled up alongside my place, flashing a grin beneath his trim, unironic mustache. But lately I’ve taken to sleeping in and flagging him down like those little guys standing by the gates at the airport.
I’ve also been impressed by the creativity of other neighbors, such as the gentleman in the adjacent house who has elected to clear his driveway with nothing more than the spade and pickaxe of your average gold prospector. Another resourceful fellow uses his battered Dodge truck. It’s not that the vehicle is fitted with a plow. Rather, he simply guns the engine until the cumulative heat of friction and exhaust melts the surrounding snow. Then, he slams the truck repeatedly forward and reverse, creating an ever-widening aperture. After an hour or so, he has successfully extricated himself, and he can proceed to Flanagan’s for more diesel.
More than anything, it’s this can-do Gloucester spirit that has ushered me through the darkest moments. Well, that and Maker’s Mark. And ibuprofen. But while I can’t claim to welcome the weatherman’s announcement that—unbelievably—more snow is on the way, neither do I feel irrevocably compelled to sink an icicle into his heart. Like me, he seems pretty tired. Alongside the burden of giving everyone around Boston the bad news, he probably has his own driveway to shovel.