Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Dec 25: Last Essay for the Calendar: Ander Monson on Adam Gopnik


“If winter is ours, who are we?” —Adam Gopnik, “Winter”

Is winter ours? Is it ours if we weather it, live in it or through it? Is it ours if we’re born to it, whether or not we live in it? Does it reside inside those of us who hail from the snow country but live away from it? Is it mostly in memory, in story, of the great winter of 1979-1979 that caved the barn?

What does it mean to be a winterlover? Do we deify the Christmas holiday, frozen outing, the family visitations, the brief returns to our former homes, trying on who we used to be when we lived in these places? Is the experience of winter automatically one of nostalgia?

Some of us are active winterlovers, disc golfers in the snowstorm (I’ll be playing with friends this week—the weather’s clear, with a predicted high of 16; plenty of snow on ground, of course), chilly distance runners, cross-country skiers, snowmobilers, hunters, snowshoers, avalanche data watchers, powder-chasers, at least by proxy. Some of us get off on others’ pleasure or haunting the interiors of our created spaces, hypershoppers, lightwatchers, barely-woken mallwalkers seeking smoothies. That’s a kind of winter too.

I am writing this from Minnesota, where I’m visiting my wife’s family for Christmas, up here from Tucson where we only recently acquired central heat after a standoff with the gas company. This week I am reacquainting myself with winter. Oh, winter is within reach in southern Arizona in the Swiss or Californian sense, as visual fact and recreational possibility: the Santa Catalinas are white-capped; they provide a continuous spectacle that, like most spectacles, you forget about after a couple days of exposure. And you can drive an hour up to Mount Lemmon and ski or just gape at the world gone winter there. I drove up with my dad last winter when he was in town from Upper Michigan. We made it halfway up, to Windy Point, the lookout above the snowline. I had made my point: we had winter too, here in Arizona, on demand. Snow behind us, kids chucking snowballs into passing traffic, the city at our feet: it was lovely. But let’s be honest, he was thinking: it wasn’t winter. I was thinking it too. My winter is unavoidable, a force to be suffered: it’s not an amuse bouche you can savor for a moment then swallow before dinner. It’s a white wall of frozen, silent fact. But I no longer live in a place where winter means.

With this in mind I’ve turned to Adam Gopnik, and his recent book-length essay, Winter—an extended meditation on the season adapted from a series of lectures commissioned by and radio broadcast in Canada. In it he tracks the idea of winter as seen through a series of historical lenses, mostly via art, literature, and music, performing close readings of the ways in which winter has been conceptualized in the last couple centuries.

Here’s one Romantic take on the season and its meaning: “Winter was the significant season, the X-ray time, when the green veil of warmth and verdure was stripped away and we saw the world bare, as it really was. But was it a place of order or a place of accident, made to look orderly only by our imaginations? Winter showed both, and you stood by the window to watch and choose.” As is often the case, human views of winter mostly transpose our human concerns onto the world, not necessarily revealing anything inherent about its mute chill. Instead, what we think of it tells us about us.

Gopnik notes the necessity of the window: only with the window can we get a comfortable remove from the elements; so only with the window, with central heat, is it easy to romanticize the season. In the window we see the beyond as well as the reflected within. Then he wonders about the meaning of our projections: “Do we project form and meaning onto something that is just an absence, a non-happening of the natural order of warmth and sunshine, or does winter offer some residual sign of divinity—perhaps in a piercing and haunting musical form, or, for that matter, etched on a window? If winter is ours, who are we?” (21).

For those of us who claim winter—in whatever form, however adulterated—as our own, who are we and what does this say about us? Do we get off on deprivation, the gloom of the short day and long night? Do we seek out the intimacies it offers us—requires of us, perhaps, for survival (or once did)? Or do we just find solace in silence


Flying into Minnesota a couple days ago now, I was surprised—again—how white and dark and wide and flat everything is. I’ve flown into the Minneapolis airport dozens of times, though my wife and I more often drove here. And when my wife and I lived in Alabama, we’d visit her folks, then brave the drive up to my home in Upper Michigan. Without fail we’d be snowblind by the point we crossed the border into Michigan, and again pressed under the weight of white. There’s a big difference between Minneapolis and Upper Michigander winters.

I do miss it, this weight, the claustrophobia of a darkened cabin, the woodstove just barely kicking out enough heat to keep the room alive, everyone huddled close. Or maybe I just miss the idea of it. I’ve romanticized it, allowed memory to have its way with it. It’s narrative now, experience processed and chained henceforth into memory.

A few years back, I spent the holiday with my brother and his family in Upper Michigan. It was his son’s first Christmas. Inevitably my brother wanted to recreate some ur-Xmas from his memory, one that never existed, to make it perfect for his son, Magnus. In this way my brother desires to terraform his life—my life—our lives—our worlds, separate and together, so as to provide a processed version for his son, one that’s been excised of the family drama and disconnections: the year I gave my dad two-year old JC Penney catalogs as his only Christmas gift (in my mind this is saved under Funny Story; my dad probably has it filed under Another Disappointment), the torments I inflicted on my family, and the torments they had in store for me. My brother wants none of that. Instead he remembers the easily-matted moments, the three of us (my mother had died when we were young) cutting down a spruce from our farm to adorn and serve as our yearly emblem, dragging it back to the farmhouse through the snow, erasing our footprints. So he wants to recreate them now, only better, bigger, more perfect.

I don’t know how Magnus will remember that Christmas. He won’t, I’m sure, not even being a year old, except that my brother will have regurgitated the memories and fed them into his gaping, hungry maw, so he’ll grow up on these chewed-on fantasies of what Christmas was like. Instagrammed digital photographs on Facebook’s timeline will tell the story to him on demand. Look, here’s everyone having fun. Everyone’s smiling. We must be happy. It must have been like that. Why would we remember it any other way?


All of us transplanted Midwesterners (or Mainers, in one instance, or Canadians, in another) complain about the cold in Arizona. We know we’re wussified, soft and mushy, in saying so, and some of us try harder not to voice our suffering. But it’s cold, y’all!

How much do we define ourselves by our ability—or willingness—to endure cold? When I lived in Michigan’s lower peninsula I pooh-poohed the snow. Oh, you think we get a lot of snow? A hundred inches a year? Girl, please. Let me tell you about my homeland and its thirty-foot snow dunes and the neverending uphill trek through blizzards [at this point I trail off, realizing no one’s listening]. In Alabama it was easy to mock the snowfearing godfearing and their panic induced by the mere threat of a chilly day. But in Arizona, getting your body ready for summer months of triple-digit sunblasted heat means that you adjust, as they say. We all adjust. Oh, it’s in the fifties. Better get out the coats. Well then, us. Does this then mean we are no longer who we thought we were? Are we less hardcore? Does it matter? Do our narratives about ourselves and how we live in a weathered world change according to our ability or willingness to endure its extremes? And what point is there in being on our high horse about this crap, anyhow? What kind of assholes are we, anyhow? Was that just an attempt to define ourselves in others’ terms? To create an edge by claiming difference?

After all we Tucsonans sneer at the Phoenician terraforming of nature (even as we do it ourselves on a small scale) a couple hours north, where they try to negate the desert and its deprivations. They live in the Matrix, we think to ourselves. We alone are alive and awake. Gopnik reminds us of how Caspar David Freidrich pictures winter in his painting, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog: “winter is the red pill of an awakened northern consciousness. Summer is the Matrix, the lie; winter is the truth. It might be bitter, but at least it’s real” (19).

We want to believe in the real and relegate others to the fantasy. I suppose it’s as human as anything else—as everything else. It’s of our making; all is art; all is artifice. We’re better off for understanding this and experiencing these successive versions slash visions of winter via Gopnik’s winter-filtering brain:

“The terror of winter is to recognize that these visions are just hallucinations, that mindless crystals have no meaning, that snowflakes can’t stand for souls, that ice comes not from God’s hand but from the broken mirror of the mind—from our will to invest the world with meanings of our own.


By the time you read this it’ll be Christmas, and you’ll be celebrating—or not—in whatever way you’re accustomed to and have chosen or had chosen for you. Is it real? Is it cold? Are you warm? What do you make of yourself and your interest or disinterest in the season?

Maybe you’ll have received some gifts, or money to buy your own in lieu of others’ tastes, or maybe you held back your cash for this very purpose, to fill that hole in your brain slash heart in the way you know you need to.

Sadly for a reader, I’m not good at gifting books. Either I try too hard to evangelize for an author I love and think the recipient should love too (because X is a genius!), and so inevitably they do not (thus making me wonder whether I’m the idiot, or the giftee is, or what accounts for our missed connection), or my predictions are too-blunt instruments and so my choices gravitate toward the lame or joking. Even receiving books is tricky. It takes real intellectual intimacy to get it right.

This year my father sent me four books for Christmas (I think—there was no gift note—and they weren’t wrapped; I thought for a moment that maybe I drunkenly ordered them and forgot in the haze of the next morning), two of which I already own. Gopnik’s book was one of them. The good news here is that my dad knows my taste (two books of essays! both great! well played, Dad). For winter denizens like us, anything about our visceral, cerebral season, even in absentia, is a good bet. So here I am, recommending Gopnik’s book to you.

Or perhaps, try another essayist. After all, our shared art, these occasional missives, are “how we speak to one another in print—caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter” (to quote Edward Hoagland’s introduction to the Best American Essays 1999). In our increasingly depersonalized age, I don’t know about you, but I gravitate toward the personal, the closest thing to a consciousness that we can read: an essay, an intelligence of artifice, an artificial intelligence.

To that end, in 2013 I’d recommend trying out books or essays by all our essayists here. Many have recent or forthcoming books (look out for Nicole Walker’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt from Zone 3 Press in March, for instance—it’s going to be hot). I invite you to come join us here in the new year. We plan on posting about every one or two weeks in 2013. If you’d like to post—on an essay/ist you’re interested in, or in whatever other capacity—drop me a line.

Let’s leave off with one more Gopnik quote, speaking to the necessity and loveliness of our shared work: "Art is a way of expanding our resonances, civilization our way of resonating to those expansions."


Ander Monson curates this space among some other things. He wishes you good reading and happy holidays.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this advent. It has been amazing. And I'm not just sucking up. It has been the high point of December by far.