Ode to Snow Days

Once upon a time there were special gifts called “snow days.”  On these special days no one was required to report to school or work.  It was a caesura to late capitalism, albeit a brief one, in which the forces of nature triumphed over making everyone “go out” to work or school.  The pandemic has, of course, eliminated snow days.  Never again will there be the excuse of “I left my laptop at the office,” or “the roads are unsafe.”  The evil monster that enslaved all mortals of a certain class had won.  No brave knight, wearing mittens or not, dared face this great beast, and so nobody lived happily ever after.

There is a moral to this story.  Well, not so much a moral as an addendum.  During snow days we had time for our civic duty of clearing sidewalks of snow.  I begin work before the sun comes up, and consequently I don’t stay awake very late.  Over the past few days we’ve had several inches of snow.  It began falling Sunday morning, and it fell through Tuesday morning.  I had to take time out of my usual work schedule to shovel in the morning.  By that point it was already six inches at least of the kind of snow that’s so heavy that it starts to turn blue beneath the surface.  I hurried back to work since I had a couple morning meetings.  The snow continued to fall.  I normally don’t take a lunch break, but I had to on Monday, just to stay ahead of the snow.  After work, just before dark, I was out in it again.

The snow day, in other words, isn’t just about time off from work.  It’s also about taking care of things that need to be done in a weather emergency.  The idea of remote work being work without ceasing has really caught on during the pandemic.  Without office walls to constrain it, capitalism is free to take over our private spaces—and our civic duties—as well.  The dearly departed snow day was more than just a lark.  For younger couples it meant being home to take care of the kids when school was cancelled.  In other words, it was a day to acknowledge that weather is still in control.  We do need that reminder once in a while.  The snow out there is pretty.  It’s also deep.  More than that, it is even a symbol.


The End of Snow Days

It’s a chilling thought.  An article in the New York Times said it, but we were all thinking it.  Snow days may well have become another victim of Covid-19.  No, it’s not snowing yet (but give climate change a chance!), but New York City schools have figured out that if students can learn from home then one of the truly treasured memories of our youth may no longer be necessary.  In fact, snow days ended for me when I began working remotely.  My supervisor had suggested, even before that, that I take my company laptop home daily, in case of inclement weather.  The idea of awaking, wonder-eyed, at the world covered in white—that cozy feeling of knowing you had no obligations for the day but to enjoy the pristine world out your window—is a thing of the past.

Technology has changed our lives, and some of it is even for the better.  It hasn’t made work easier for some of us, but has made it longer.  We used to talk about kids and their continuous partial attention, but now work is always at home with you and that time signature on your email says something about your work habits.  As the days are now shorter than the nights, as they will be for six more months, finding the time to do what you must outdoors (it may be cooler, but lawns still insist on growing) is always a bit more of a challenge.  And when the snow does fall you’ll still have to shovel the walk.  All time has become company time for a truly linked-in world.

The real victim here, it seems to me, is childhood.  Snow days were a reminder that no matter how strict, how Calvinistic our administrators wanted to be, the weather could still give us a smile now and then.  A legitimate excuse not to have to go to school and, if parents couldn’t get you to daycare, a day off for everyone.  The strict number of limited holidays allotted by HR had limited power in those days.  Although we all know that well-rested, happy workers tend to do better jobs than those who are constantly stressed out and who have trouble sleeping, we’ve now got the means to make the sameness of pandemic life the ennui of everyday life, in saecula saeculorum.  Thanks, internet.  At least now we work where we have a window and can look out on nature and can see what we’re missing.


Symbolic Delays

Weather affects more than the Psalms, of course.  With all the hype of the latest winter storm things were closed or delayed before any accumulation even started.  Now I’ll admit up front that I’m a fan of snow days; we dutifully trudge to our desk jobs as if we’re doing something vital when many of us are really just trying to make money for the man.  A snow day’s a little unplanned levity in our lives when staying off the roads seems like a good idea.  It’s one of life’s guilty pleasures.  Of course, the dreaded delayed opening brings its own set of issues.  You can’t sleep in unless it’s announced the night before, and once you’re up your mind heads to work anyway.  Working remotely, alas, means you have no excuse, no matter what the weather.

Snow is a great symbol.  I don’t mean its whiteness and purity—there are plenty of white things that aren’t pure.  No, I mean it’s a great symbol in its ability to control people.  We don’t like rain, although we understand its necessity.  Snow, however, fills us with a childlike wonder.  Anticipation.  Unlike a winter rain, it can be fun to play in.  It covers everything.  The suggestion of a blanket ironically makes us feel warm, even as the temperature dips below freezing.  But for me the most potent symbol is light.  I awake early, even on snow days.  As I make my way downstairs in the dark, it’s immediately evident when snow covers everything because the sky is lighter than it should be this time of day.  Whatever light’s trapped below the clouds reflects off the snow creating a luminosity that’s almost otherworldly in its calm.  It doesn’t last too long for the sun is rising earlier, at least it is until our pointless time change, but for a few hours we’re in the midst of an unnatural light.

Darkness is far too prevalent.  We know that someday even our mighty sun will use up all its fuel.  We crave the light for it’s limited.  Days are noticeably longer now than they were at the start of December.  Those few moments of serenity before the sun comes up, when the snow produces what seems like its own light, are among the most tranquil of life.  Before the plows begin scraping metal against asphalt, hoping for a snow day while wrapped in a fleece throw, face clouding the chilly window before it.  Yes, it’s a powerful symbol.  Even if the internet means work awaits just as usual.  


Weather Psalm

As the northeast coast digs out from yesterday’s nor’easter at least we can thank God that no business days were lost. At least none based on the status of New York City schools. Some NYC businesses base their decision on whether an adult snow day is in effect or not on the decision of whether or not to close the public schools. If kids are expected to make it to school, well, pull your socks up, thrash through the snow, and get some work done. I was fortunate enough to be able to work from home during the event that began like a snoreaster. By the time I would’ve usually been on the bus it wasn’t snowing. Roads were wet, but it seemed like a normal day. So it continued until about 10:00 a.m. Then it really did snow.

I’ve commuted long enough to know that, as grueling as getting up early and trying to get to the city may be, the evening commute is always worse. It may seem hard to believe that there are traffic jams before 7:00 a.m. most days, but around 5:00 p.m. all bets are off. The news vendors were lamenting the fate of those who had to find their way home in a foot of snow, even as it was still coming down swiftly. Nature doesn’t abide by our work schedules. Many companies don’t care if you can’t get out—you chose to work in the city. If it takes you three hours to get home, that’s not a work problem. It’s a personal thing. On personal time. Choose wisely.

All of this makes me reflect on the way we think of work these days. Commuting into the city shouldn’t be a dangerous job like being on an Alaskan fishing boat is. Chances are the actual daily work consists of sitting in a cubicle staring at a screen. Eye strain, carpal-tunnel syndrome, and boredom are the only real dangers here. Unless you’re taking the George Washington Bridge, carpool tunnel is a far more sinister threat. If you make it home in time to come back in tomorrow, then it’s all good. We do this so that we can earn money to spend, mostly online. We haven’t quite got to the point yet where we can wire our physical bodies to the internet so that we can stay at home and work 24/7. But it’s coming, just like the next nor’easter. In the meantime, I have a bus to catch.


Street Clearing

Not driving to work definitely has its advantages. Although studies suggest commuting takes a great toll on hapless riders, the stress of driving in traffic—more often just sitting in traffic—also takes its pound of flesh, and more. A recent snowstorm had me reflecting on this. Once in a while I like to demonstrate that the male of the species is worth keeping around, so after the Bomb Cyclone that closed schools and offices in the trial-state area a couple weeks back, I went out to brush off and start the cars. It’s not that women can’t do this, but it’s more the fact that nobody wants to do it that motivated me. Besides, I have a secretly fond memory of the years of enforced, Dr. Zhivago-esque labor on our Lake Erie snow-belt blessed driveway. My stepfather’s shack sat atop a long, unpaved driveway. Ironically, although he drove the borough snow plow, he insisted that we boys do the shoveling at home. Maybe that’s where I get it. A poor family, our winter coats were substandard and aching fingers and toes, not to mention frozen faces, were pretty typical. I hated every minute of it. Or did I?

Bundled up against the arctic winds that had brushed a noticeable breeze past my face the night before (in the present-day) when I climbed into bed, I stepped out in first light. Immediately the cold found the small gap between my gloves and sleeves and began to work it’s chilling magic. Before the powdery snow was even off the car my fingers were numb and painful, reminding me of an unfortunate frostbite episode as a child. Unconsciously I found myself smiling. I’m no longer forced to do this. Kindness is a far better motivator than hate. At least as a renter I didn’t have to shovel the drive.

Afterwards, inside an apartment that we all habitually decry as too cold, I quickly warmed up. There’s a pleasure in doing something so that someone else doesn’t have to. I miss that, working in New York City. Focused on getting to work, it’s far too easy to step past those for whom even a glance is a blessing. Those who sleep in cardboard boxes on nights like that through which I felt an annoying draft, although secure inside. I see the police “evicting” tenants of paperboard towns even as I glimpse Trump Tower in the distance. The storm they called a Bomb Cyclone. We clear the streets quickly so that we might get back to work and make more money for the one percent. Studies show commuting is killing us. It seems the cold is doing so as well.


Skynet

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Of cultural innovations, none rivals the internet. Engulfing the world in its wide web, the constant availability of signal has changed everything. In the past five years, civilization has become something that it was not. Take today’s northeast blizzard, for example. Apocalyptic meteorologists (are there any other kind?) are sincerely telling the camera that nothing like this has been seen in recorded history. Meanwhile, my wife’s company sends a Honeywell alert to our phone saying the offices will likely be closed, and please make arrangements to work from home. The snow day is dead. One of the simple joys of life, that delightful naughtiness of playing hooky, is now extinct. Work knows where you are at all times. You are being watched. Sound paranoid? I have known people who had firsthand knowledge of employers following them on Facebook to make sure they didn’t say anything that might make the company look bad. The world is not the same one into which I was born.

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I happened upon a web page the other day advertising for an Advanced Assistant Professor in Digital Shakespeare Studies. A poem by any other name we would tweet. So we have become part of this collective mind known as www dot. The internet is aware that it is still snowing, but only in an academic sense, since it’s not going anywhere. The internet has never had a three-and-a-half hour commute home because of an accident on a single highway in New Jersey. Oh, and don’t forget to check your work email when you get home. We may have sometime more for you to do once you’ve clocked out. Maybe I should see what my social network is up to.

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LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google +—they all suggest people that I might know. Someone I might rate, or like. The internet, after all, knows which of its myriad sites I’ve viewed, whom I’ve emailed, and what I’ve purchased. The ads from those companies show up on every website I visit from now on, world without end. ThinkGeek emails me every day. My new best friend. Google + is the more intellectual Facebook, I’m told. Whenever I log on, it tells me with whom I might want to connect. Just now Newt Gingrich showed up in my list. Should I add him to my circles? Or should I just venture out into this blizzard and hope I make it to New York City alive? To me, it seems, the odds are equally good in either case.