The coldest winter? The snowiest winter . . . polar vortices . . . superlatives were abundantly overflowing this winter. Cold winters in New York are not unusual; mild ones are not anomalies either. One winter colder than another is unavoidable; but we do get ourselves worked up over the superlative degree: yes, the coldest, the windiest, the lowest, the most frigid. We love the superlative degree. For some of us, there’s a minor excitement in saying anything superlatively.
Whether it scares us or draws us nearer, we love to say something in the superlative degree, the best, the biggest, the lowest, the highest, the most of anything we might want to compare, but insist on there being no comparison. It is easier for us to handle thinking in the superlative degree. Comparatives require more articulation; superlatives suppress articulation. When we compare, we have to show contrast as well as what might be similar or even the same, but the distinction has to be drawn. It is not as if superlatives do not require support; it is merely the convention we have allowed to persist in the use of them.
We do not have to think–or we assume we do not have to think when we state something superlatively. We can allow ourselves simply to feel. So, what is there to say about this winter that I did not say about last winter? Cold, colder, coldest . . .was this winter the coldest . . . last winter? Colder than we remember, of course. Colder than recent memory? Surely. Yet, what was the coldest winter in New York City history?
I recall my father telling me about frigid winters in the early 1930s. I have checked the record of record lows and noted some winters at the turn of the twentieth century made the list, in fact, a few of the coldest temperatures for January or February, let’s say from among the top ten lowest temperatures for the City of New York, are from winters at the turn of the twentieth century. I myself recall a very frigid January in 1977, nearly two weeks of below freezing temperatures. Boston has just had its snowiest winter since records of snowfall have been kept. How long is that exactly, though? I keep recalling, the 1870s.
Yet, for all the superlatives we used this winter, the kind of winter we had this year and last are not anomalies in the pattern of weather for our region–no, not really–even though hyperbole and sensationalism reign on TV weather news, and it seems our thirst for the sensational drives our need for using the superlative degree instead of the comparative. But the temperatures were extreme, and extremes of any kind tend to pull us in the direction of the superlative. The temperatures were not so extreme that I did not recall similar or equal temperatures in the past, and I have a personal distaste for the superlative, so I have the tendency to draw anything expressed with the superlative degree back into one or another comparative. I have seen the Hudson frozen between Manhattan and Hoboken; one January–the frigid January above–I was in Hoboken, and while I was there, we were in the middle of ten days in a row when the weather did not go above freezing . . . was it ten days or was it more? The latter that pull toward the superlative I mentioned above.
Am I recollecting this correctly? Is there a correct or incorrect for memories about weather, memories about anything; memory having as much to do with fiction as it does with documentary. Even documentary has about it, something made. There is always a frame, always a context, always a choice, always some imposition in the representation. Re-presentation is not in itself presentation; presentation in itself not the thing or the event in itself.
I do recall wind-chill recordings around fifty below zero Fahrenheit one winter when the temperatures were around zero and the winds gusting over forty miles per hour; I think I can see the vacant streets in my neighborhood as I went out that night bundled as I imagine I have never been, not even for minus 16 Fahrenheit when I went into my Aunt Anna Mae’s backyard in Pittsfield Massachusetts in the Berkshires one winter when I was a small boy. From then I think I can see me in my snow suit, the one piece thermal suit my mother had bought for me to play in the snow. What then does this do for our discussion here about our most recent winter–here the superlative appropriately restricts the discussion.
Every several decades we get a string of years that are extremely frigid, or we get a string that is simply unseasonably low in temperatures, although not nearly as frigid as some of the days we had this winter. We occasionally get a string of years of a lot of snow fall and other strings where we get no snow, no rain–virtually nothing. We sometimes get a string of years where it is wet although mild, but with not much rain. There are other strings where we get a lot of rain as if it were summer; I recall one Christmas sweating in a wool suit as it poured nearly biblically. Also periodically, we have years in a row of mild or nearing more than mild, downright unseasonably very warm temperatures. I do recall weather sixty degrees Fahrenheit and above in January. We did play softball on New Year’s day I think in 1975, or am I mistaken about the year? I do not think so. Do you even care what I think?
What is an average temperature anyway for a city or a region, anywhere where people live . . . and over how many years is an average really normal. Usual and unusual? Within what time frame is what is important to note. Just how long have we been keeping weather records anyway? More than a hundred years, I know; nearing one-hundred and fifty? Yes, I think we have been keeping these records since the 1870s? Questions following questions–I could just check; I could go on the internet and look, but no . . .
I’d rather do what most of us do about the past–speculate or try to remember which is a kind of recollecting. They are not exactly the same, these synonyms, to remember, to recall, to recollect. I will not venture how to separate them; that would be another essay, another story,one kin d of telling or another and another creeping as I have said before in one type of petty pace, petty pace . . . you know that neither you nor I should ask for whom that bell is tolling, I hear it today, Saint Finbar’s is not that far, and church’s do not have real bells anymore, they do not ring real bells anymore, no bell ringers like Quasimodo, no.
What is normal for the earth in the matter of weather patterns is not necessarily the same for our current lifetime, for anyone’s lifetime. How long have you lived where you are living, and just what do you recollect about the weather in your time there? This is what I mean about articulating what we have had, what we have experienced, what we have recorded.
How long has the earth been having weather? Valid question. Since it has had an atmosphere, of course. How long has it had an atmosphere–Venus has an atmosphere comprised of quite a bit of ammonia and methane; it rains sulphuric acid on Venus. I prefer our last winter every winter to a winter of acid snow? Do you know that there have been centuries in the geologic record where it is evident that the average temperature of the earth had risen as much as nine degrees? It’s true. What then must we do with our hyperbole about climate and weather?
What I am saying is just what are we saying when we say what we do about the earth and about our weather patterns?But when will spring arrive is on many of our lips. It’s on mine. It has been several times this week. I know many people from Viet Nam or Burma or Syria or Egypt for whom winter is their favorite season. Many have never seen snow; many of them say they prefer snow to rain. I want spring to come; fall is really my favorite season, but not every fall here in New York. I love New England fall, fall in the Berkshires where my mother’s family is from; my mother’s mother’s family having come here as one of the famine Irish in the mid 1840s. Just what my family’s experience with New England weather is, I would like to know. I wish I had journals from their passage, from their early time in New England, from whomever must have served in the Union Army during the Civil War. I know that Pittsfield would feed our desire for superlatives about winter weather, and that is whether or not there were actual superlatives about temperature or snow. I do know that the average snow fall for Pittsfield is greater than Moscow’s. There is a comparative. There is, of course, the snowiest place on earth, as there is the windiest, the hottest, the rainiest, that is, the wettest, what else have we in the way weather and climate gets recorded?
Yes, when will spring arrive? I want to know when? I’m tired of this lingering winter. It was in the sixties a few days ago, and tonight it is dropping into the low thirties. Up and down; up and down. I just remembered today that three of New York’s biggest snow storms were in April. Yes, all three of them were in my lifetime, a lifetime of weather when in that very same month of April we have had beautiful warm and sunny Easters with lilies not wilting from frost. More to look forward to? Why do we waste hope on the weather, unless it’s the first vacation we have taken in decades and might not get another in our life and we hope it doesn’t rain on our only vacation; but then this is why I like to go to cities where there is something to do, somewhere to go, something to see rain or shine.