Monthly Archives: January 2014

Howlin’ mad


Today’s 4:45 a.m. wake up music was courtesy of a male northern cardinal. Northern cardinals are the opera singers of the bird world. They are rather small birds and look like the first barely noticeable breeze would blow them away much like a discarded fast food napkin. I have mentioned before how their songs can carry. Listening to one is similar to watching a reality singing show on television. One slightly built contestant comes out looking like she or he is barely capable of speaking louder than a whisper and then performs a song with unexpected power and ease. No matter how many times one experiences that performance, it is still amazing. A cardinal will put everything into its song, bobbing up and down with each tone, ensuring that song carries distantly.

Contrast today’s happy song with the sound the Twins Cities heard most of Sunday afternoon into Monday morning. Another round of unseasonably cold weather began its assault early in the afternoon after we enjoyed a comparatively balmy Friday and Saturday. Winter winds are not unusual, but Sunday’s blast was quite different. The wind started out with a low, guttural growl warning us that something unpleasant was imminent. The growl soon became a mad howl, and the wind-driven snow stung when striking exposed skin. It was punishment for enjoying a break from the cold, like a child having a major temper tantrum in a quiet public place; how dare anyone find relief from winter’s clutches!

The cardinal’s song was a defiant symbol of hope, that winter’s grip would soon release, and that the foot of snow on the ground will soon melt transforming the vista from white to green. It was -17°F (-27°C) this morning when I noticed the sound, and I had to chuckle. People have ventured out only when necessary this month, but today we hear “CHEER! CHEER! CHEER!” from a small creature sitting high atop a denuded tree and fully exposed to the biting cold. Today was not nearly as windy as Sunday and the sun shone brightly. At my latitude, we are gaining about 2½ minutes of daylight per day as the calendar progresses to spring. In the United States, Daylight Saving Time begins in less than five weeks, and the halfway point of winter is Sunday. Hope springs eternal and we hope spring arrives on time or, better yet, early.

We all go through rough stretches where it seems like the Universe behaves like Sunday’s wind. Seemingly unrelated events provide the growl, and misfortunes become the howling mad wind threatening to destroy our hopes and sting us with despair. Our situations do eventually get better. Pay close attention, and like the cardinal’s song from this morning, you will find a sign. Family and friends are a wonderful source of comfort and strength during adverse times. Perhaps you are the one who helps someone regain hope and rebuild the strength needed to persevere.

For those of you with a special someone close by, give that person a warm and meaningful hug. If he or she is having a bright and sunny day, your hug will improve it even more. Like the cardinal tells us, spread some “CHEER! CHEER! CHEER!” to your friends and family even if they might be howling mad at the world. The smiles you receive in return will warm you even on the coldest day. Unlike the flu, your compassion is something worth going viral!

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Bird brains

It is the middle of January, the dead of winter here in the Northern Hemisphere. When the cloud cover allows moonlight through, the snow-covered landscape takes on a grayish hue. On a still night, breathing creates a lingering fog, softening the view until the mist dissipates. Sounds carry farther because the air is denser. Many of the smaller mammals are holed up or hibernating, trying to retain precious body heat. Yet there are creatures stirring.

My neighborhood has had at least one barred owl claiming it as hunting territory since 2009. Starting in January through early March, Lucy and I would sometimes hear the local owl hooting to a distant owl, and it was worth losing 30 minutes of sleep to listen in awe. The hooting would last about 30 seconds with a several minute pause before starting again. Last night was probably the first night of a 4:15 a.m. solo. It was at least -10°F at the start of the hooting, but owls know how to stay warm. Owls are also smarter than we humans believe. On the other hand, some humans are bird brains and exhibit the intelligence of a rock with unintentionally hilarious results.

One person in the neighborhood took umbrage with the vocalizations and shouted at the owl to shut up, rather profanely I might add. Rather than the expected result of the owl either quieting down or flying away, the hooting continued after the usual several minute pause. This triggered a slightly longer epithet-laden response from over the fence. The next round of hoots was punctuated with a slamming door but no further response from the bird-brained human. By 4:45 a.m. the owls were done catching up, and now it was time for the cardinals, blue jays, and crows to start their days. Bird songs eventually gave way to opening garage doors and running engines as the sun timidly peeked over the horizon.

“Son of Polar Vortex” is engulfing the Upper Midwestern United States for the next several days. Like most sequels, this one does not seem to be living up to the original. One would be hard-pressed to find anyone complaining, however. Nearly five inches of snow fell before the onset of the deep freeze, which helped cover much of the dirty snow. Friday should see another quick warm up before temperatures plunge again, although not as sharply as before. Here’s hoping spring shows up early this year. Some of the bird brains are getting a bad case of cabin fever.

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“Sixteen Tons”

After a relatively balmy stretch, at least by mid-winter Minnesota standards, today’s snowfall created commuting problems. Three inches of snow for us is inconvenient but not insurmountable. I was quite puzzled when Bloomington Public Works dispatched a front-end loader and a dump truck to clear the end of the cul-de-sac. The chorus of “Sixteen Tons” popped into my head:

“You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt…”

It is probably true in more ways than one. Snow removal keeps my muscles in a regular state of short-term lactacid oxygen debt whether I use the snow thrower or a shovel. Gasoline for the snow thrower is an added expense. The people who feel “I owe my soul to the company store” endured slow travel and bone-headed drivers who think they have special dispensation from the laws of physics. Today’s snow was fine and granular, ideal for blowing and drifting. The forecast is for falling temperatures and gusty winds to replace moderate temperatures and snowfall later today. Many of the people who endured a tedious commute will need to find alternate parking because of the Snow Emergencies declared in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Even they will feel like they moved sixteen tons of something by bedtime this evening. I am sure that the “something” is not suitable for family friendly reading, but my Norwegian ancestors would probably start saying “fee-da” about now.

We are entering the “endurance” phase of winter. Groundhog’s Day (February 2nd) is exactly half-way between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, but the middle of January is when our average highs and lows are at their minimums. It can, and does, get beastly cold in February. Lucy’s birthday was February 5th and there were about as many -20°F days as +40°F days in the time I was with her, but the longer days helped make enduring the chill bearable. This year’s Polar Vortex adventure was, with luck, our coldest period of the year. We have had the first seasonal  January thaw and could see another by this time next week. Our temperature swings will make people more prone to upper respiratory infections and asthma attacks, so some parents add pediatrics duty at home to their work load. We just need to endure and spring will be here eventually, and hopefully not mercilessly waylaid like last year.

I have a friend who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which has the appropriate abbreviation SAD. Most of us can grumble about the weather and can “gut it out”; people afflicted with SAD can become moody and depressed. Being stuck in a windowless cubicle farm with the requisite yellow-green hued fluorescent lighting exacerbates the symptoms. The sunnier and warmer weather last weekend was a welcome break. Today’s snow, cloud cover, and wind chill not so much. Every day burdens become sixteen tons heavier with SAD. It pays for us to be nice to everyone, for we do not know who is battling a disorder.

Two quick lasts of arctic air might be on tap for this week, with snow and seasonal temperatures in between. Next week’s forecast hints at seasonal temperatures. There will be a couple of days of hot chocolate for me and ethanol-free gasoline for the snow thrower. Give your special someone a meaningful hug and feel your sixteen ton burden grow lighter. For my friends baking in Australia, I would be happy to send some of our -5°C weather your way in exchange for your +35°C weather. DHL still delivers Down Under, don’t they?

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Cabin fever

Our brush with the Polar Vortex of 2014 is finally behind us. Unseasonably cold weather coupled with unseasonably brisk winds created several days of people staying home, schools closing due to dangerous wind chill, disabled vehicles, black ice on roadways, frostbite injuries, and dozens of YouTube videos of people tossing boiling water into the frigid air creating instant clouds. Here in the Twin Cities, we were lucky that the temperature did not go as low as the early forecasts of -35°F. It was cold enough bottoming out at -22°F, especially with a wind chill of -45°F. The metro area was very cold, but it did not set a record low during the cold snap.

Car washes are quite busy today, even though the temperature is only 21°F (it started out at -13°F this morning). With the sun shining brightly, the ice on the roads is melting especially on the asphalt surfaces. I have fresh deer tracks in my front yard and earlier today a fox trotted across the street with a squirrel dangling from its mouth. The crows had another tussle with the barred owl that is becoming a semi-regular in the neighborhood and the cardinals are pairing up and eating the berries off the viburnum bushes. Even the critters get cabin fever.

The latest weather forecasts is another “good news/bad news” forecast. The good news is temperatures are to remain seasonal for the next week or so, giving furnaces and urgent care centers a reprieve. The bad news is there are several chances for either snow for freezing precipitation along with gusty winds. It remains to be seen if any significant precipitation occurs. Forecasts change quickly, and people’s attention spans are short enough to forget the inaccuracy of earlier predictions. Next week heralds in the lowest average temperatures of the year and the days are getting longer again. Winter could still be as lingering as last year, but for now we are all looking forward to warmer weather. Gardening catalogs are appearing more frequently in the mail. Baseball spring training begins in less than five weeks and we are under 90 days until the Twins home opener. A little hope goes a long way….well, the Twins are still going to have a losing season, but there may be improvement over the past three years of 95+ losses per season.

Try to get outdoors for a bit if your weather allows it. Both hemispheres are seeing some moderation from either bitter cold or blazing hot temperatures. The creatures are quite entertaining even if the humans are not. Give your special someone a meaningful hug or three and cure that cabin fever quickly!

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Out with the old, in with the new

The Gregorian calendar year reads 2014 rather than 2013. It has been unusually cold in the Twin Cities metro. Our high temperature yesterday was -1°F and that may also be today’s high as well. Slippery roads, wind chills colder than -25°F, drunken revelers weaving half-ton machines along the roads, shoulders, and medians, and risking the car not starting at the end of the party were reasons enough for some to stay home and enjoy the warmth.

In the United States, we have three major holiday celebrations within a five or six-week period: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. Thanksgiving gives us a reason to pause and remember all the people and things for which we are thankful, plus a feast and some sort of televised or streamed entertainment. Christmas is our time to celebrate giving and receiving and of being with loved ones when possible.

New Year’s is the odd duck holiday. It is a placeholder on a calendar system. For many it has become a bacchanalian excess, maybe with one being lucky to enough to get a New Year’s kiss, but oftentimes culminating in an epic hangover. Resolutions formulate and then dissipate nearly as quickly as common sense in a Congressional committee meeting. The novelty of newness wears off during the first back-to-work commute.

New Year’s placeholder status gives us an opportunity, should we accept it, to take a few moments and review last year’s events. We are all works in progress from the day we enter this life until the day we exit it. During the course of a year, we have good and bad experiences. Could those experiences teach us how to be a better person? Do not let them be “shoulda-woulda-coulda” moments since we cannot change the past. Even regrets become teaching moments if we choose to not let those regrets govern our lives. Allowing regrets to control us keeps us from moving forward and finding peace. Our good experiences should inspire us to do better, which in turn can inspire other to do better. We can influence today which in turn influences the future. Everyone can benefit from a better future.

Having a loving and supportive family along with some wonderful and amazing friends made 2013 a better year for me than 2012. I still miss Lucy and that will never change. There were fewer losses and more reasons to celebrate. Knowing people care enough about me to share their scarce free time, how their days went, and their worries, hopes, and dreams, is very humbling and satisfying. My hope is 2014 will be better than 2013, and as long as we have hope, we can move forward. These special people inspire me to keep moving forward and make my life so much better.

If you are lucky enough to have today off, enjoy the warmth and the company of love ones. Bask in the optimism of the new year and new beginnings, and give your special someone a meaningful hug. I have heard that hugs help cure hangovers. They definitely take the chill out of a winter day and brighten moods!

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