As I was returning to my rental car last week after yet another trip to the massive Wegmans supermarket across the street from our hotel, I was delighted to see that the snow that had started falling a half hour earlier was really piling up, even on the well-salted asphalt of the parking lot. Although I may be closer to 50 than 5, my internal programming remains the same. No matter how much people may worry about having to navigate treacherous roads or complain about shoveling, deep down I still want any snowfall to stick.
I’m sure this desire is amplified by the fact that I live in a place where snow is rare and almost always gone within minutes of hitting the ground. But I know it would still surge up inside me if I lived in a less balmy clime. Because when snow builds up past the point of rapidly turning into sludge, it always feels like the natural world’s version of a revolutionary uprising. I know that the world beneath it still exists, waiting to reveal its everyday existence once normalcy is restored. However, for a brief spell – sometimes days, sometimes mere hours – the most mundane objects are transformed into sublime mysteries and stultifying routine, the activities that wear us down, gives way to adventure.
Unfortunately, though, we seem to be headed into a future where snow will stick less often and be gone much faster when it does manage to stay on the ground. Starving polar bears and newfound ways of traversing the Northwest Passage are making the rounds on news feeds again. And even those weather events that remind us of the harsh winters of childhood tend to be further signs that patterns we counted on for centuries are giving way to a dangerous instability. The excitement my inner child feels at the prospect of a snow day is clouded by the paradoxical realization that we promise to be in for a lot more “excitement” that we can handle in coming years. Soon, we may be confronting a future in which those aspects of everyday reality that we take for granted, those routines that bore us now, will feel a little miraculous wherever they persist, like those last mounds of snow that stubbornly resist the inexorable demands of sun and salt.
I have a confession to make. This started out as a typical end-of-year piece, reciting the music, films, and books that have moved me most over the past year. But I had a strange thought, as I was standing there in that parking lot in Hunt Valley, Maryland, trying to take selfies under a street lamp as snowflakes lingered in my beard: very little stuck. Although my own peculiar life circumstances certainly played a role in that perception – I simply haven’t had the time to keep track of culture the way I once did – I couldn’t help but feel that something deeper was at work. After all, numerous friends and acquaintances, including those who had been assigned the task of writing about the past year, had been confessing similar predicaments. Looking back over their logs, they could come up with dozens of things that had impressed them at the time, but few which had true staying power.
This phenomenon wasn’t reserved for been-there, done-that folks approaching the age when they can ask for a senior discount, either. I remember talking about it with my new media class in the spring. Some students worried that their capacity to remember had atrophied because of technology, so that the only way they could recall what had moved them recently was to go back and review the social media posts in which they documented having been moved. Others felt that, while this outsourcing of memory to the cloud was certainly a factor, the biggest problem was the news cycle itself. As one student put it, “For a week, all you hear about is this one crisis that is made to seem like the Biggest Problem Ever. And then it just vanishes utterly, so that, even if you do remember something about it, you have the sense that it might have happened in a dream.”
There is no doubt in my mind that Donald Trump, whether because he has a short attention span himself or has learned to rely on the short attention span of others, takes advantage of this failure to stick like no politician before him. These days, every week seems to begin with the prospect that he will be snowed under by bad news, only to find him standing yet again on a sun-lit patch of grass. As impressive or disturbing – it all depends on how you feel about the man – this remarkable capacity to steer clear of storms seems, it mostly testifies to good reflexes . Trump recognized years ago that the very ecology of our media was undergoing radical transformation and positioned himself to take advantage. In a sense, although everything his administration has done suggests that he either doesn’t believe in climate change or, more likely, doesn’t give a damn about its long-term effects, he has demonstrated a keen insight into the ways in which environmental destabilization seems to be mirrored by our social lives.
As it turned out, the weather conditions where we were staying in Maryland were bad enough that I didn’t feel comfortable doing the main task on my to-do list. The snow on major highways would, indeed, melt before too long, thanks to the massive amount of ice being applied to their surface. Yet temperatures descended low enough that all that meltwater turned to ice, making it difficult to walk, much less drive. Free of my family obligation and accompanied by a daughter who, after a brutal semester, mostly wanted to sleep, I could have passed my time trying to catch up with all the culture I’d missed over the past year.
I decided to begin by saving the end-of-year lists my friends were posting. Soon, though, even that task proved tedious. Pretending that something had stuck with me when it hadn’t seemed disingenuous. So I instead turned my focus back towards the weather. I ventured out across the freeway with a mind to take photographs of the snowy woods in Oregon Hill Park, but rapidly had to turn around because cars were skidding out left and right. I made it a point to head outside in the middle of the night to walk across the hotel parking lot with that special technique required for ice, where you lift your foot straight up after each step. And I laboriously navigated my way up the hill behind it to a not-yet-developed field overlooking the sort of water-carved ravine I spent my teenage years in Maryland exploring at great length, listening to the birds amid the muted sounds of falling snow.
Later, when my daughter was feeling better, I took her to the movie theater behind Wegmans to see The Last Jedi, the new Star Wars movie that both of us had been excited about for months. It struck me, afterwards, that the culture that does stick with me these days is mostly the culture that she talks about. Her approach to fandom ensures that she revisits the same limited number of texts over and over, finding new ways of breaking them apart and reassembling the pieces into different configurations. The book, film, television show, or even record – you should hear go on about The Beatles’ “white” album – she is focusing on at any given moment is never reducible to what is being sold in the marketplace. At most, it provides a basic structure, like those shapes you discern under a foot of snow. But it’s the snow that matters, even though it is probably going to melt away without leaving a mark.
There’s a scene in The Last Jedi — which I loved, if you’re interested, as any true Star Wars fan should – in which a major character deliberately disappears. It’s hard to watch, if you’re invested in the saga, but also a powerful reminder that we struggle to value the right things. The odds of a revolution resulting in permanent change are slim. The odds that it will be a positive change are slimmer still. But that brief window in which the world in temporarily transformed has the power to stick with us long after the restoration of everyday reality. We remember the snow precisely because we know it won’t last. Maybe that’s how we should start thinking about culture, too.
Let me explain. I’m not saying that we should do away with books, films, and records. They will continue to be a valuable repository for as long as human beings survive. What I am suggesting, rather, is that we shift our attention towards cultural experiences that can, by definition, never be repeated. We should welcome them, like unexpected snowfall. No, they won’t last. But we will remember them more vividly if we stop behaving as if they should.
Photoraphs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.