23 tagged with #winter

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i have this distinct memory of a long, blowing expanse of white ground under a grey sky. dark smudges lined the edges; pine trees, inky black against the snow. the sound of a plastic dish separating my puffy pants from the ice, a terrifying endless crunch. i was afraid to grab the sides, in case the rolled edge leaned over too far and trapped my mittened fingers against the ground. it hurt my cheeks, and my eyes, and small shreds of ice sprayed over my face and tunneled for the warmth of my neck under a scarf.

that scarf is still here. i keep it inside a table that stores all the things i don't feel like getting rid of, but also don't need to use ever again. i have two other scarves, and i still only wear one scarf, ever.

people say iowa is flat, with unbounded spreading cornfields, but i remember this hill, and other hills. i remember the hill from my house to the road, a long stretch of concrete that i was afraid to bike down for the first four years that i knew how to ride a bicycle. i remember a dense woodland where my neighbors would take me mushroom-picking, which ended at train tracks rumored to be haunted by all the ghosts of people who couldn't handle the slow, futureless daily turns of a mediocre life in the midwest.

in the second grade, we were obsessed with ghosts; a friend and i made up chants and rituals that would force ghosts to reveal themselves, and we tried them everywhere. 'chant green ghost until you see the green ghost appears, then you'll know how many times you have to say it,' was one of our experimental methods; the green ghost was a flicker of green that would appear on the screen of the old projector reel system our teacher used to show us films. i don't remember any of those films. 'ghosts come from people who died when they were sad or angry,' i whispered.

'oh, like my uncle gary!' he cheerfully responded. i only nodded; i didn't know his uncle gary, but i knew i was always helping to look for him. 'green ghost, green ghost, green ghost, green ghost, green ghost, green ghost,' he said, holding up another finger each time so he could keep track. when he exceeded ten, i started holding up my fingers to help. we got to fourteen counts before we saw the flicker again, and stifled our gasps so the teacher wouldn't hear us.

we tried fourteen as the magic number, but we never saw the ghost again that day.

once, we spotted a pair of boots sticking out from under the brush by the creek; we took a stick and moved the bushes, and saw that they ended in a pair of jeans, and then a tarp. the tarp looked long enough to cover a body. the boots didn't stir when we shouted, or when we nudged the toes.

'it's a body,' one of the other kids said. we ran away, screaming, and never told anyone else. i had this sense that people died in the woods all the time, from stories my mother told me of her childhood in far north china where wolves stole children and tornadoes picked grown men off mountains. sometimes, i walk in the woods and feel a pull, as if the earth has a memory that i released by stepping on the right rock, and i wonder how many bodies have passed by.

27 January 2018 18:21

how to bike on black ice

my bike creaks and rattles down the hallway; salt crust and dirt clogs the chain and builds up under the fenders. someone in a black university hoodie stays at the door when i'm on my way out, holding it open so i can scoot past.

'there you go, get on out!'

and at the second door, someone on their way in holds it open for me, too. 'nice, one shot to get through!' i laugh, and the first door-holder laughs with me. 'just the way i like it!'

i nearly splatter into the curb as soon as my tires hit the sidewalk; the world is an unexpected sheet of ice, with a fine dusting of powder on top. my shoes have no tread, but they miraculously balance on the ground as i pause to collect myself.

none of the cars are happy in this. for the most part, they tentatively creep along, but there's the occasional daredevil whose decided that maximum velocity through every intersection is the only way.

against all my expectations, i can creep slowly uphill. there's fresh powder in the bike lane, which gives me more traction than trying to ride on the tire-beaten slick ice that encases the road.

here's how you survive on black ice:

  • keep your center of gravity low; this means you should weight the pedals more, lifting yourself slightly off the seat.
  • go slow. expect to go slow. expect to be cold because you have to go slow.
  • do not brake. if you must brake, gently engage the rear brake, and only very tentatively feather the front brake if you somehow managed to go so fast that your rear brake is not enough to slow you down.
  • (if you lock your rear brake, that's okay; do not panic. ride out the skid. let the bike pick a direction to slide, and slide with it. do not lock your front brake. do not lock your front brake.)
  • if a car's windows are still snowed over, there's probably no one in it, and it's probably okay to ride in the door zone. at the door zone, there's more likely to be a sliver of snow covering the ice. this is a risk, because it encourages cars to pass you closely, but consider this risk against the cost of failure if you ride on a patch of ice, fall over, and are in front of a car that cannot easily stop.
  • dismount before you reach a tricky spot. if you need to dismount during a tricky spot, you will have a much harder time staying upright.

i hopped between spaces where parked cars had left; those dry squares became islands where it was safe for me to put down a foot. memories flooded my body, of other times when i needed to balance and control my motion. you have to be calm. you have to be quiet. you have to know that you've got it, and know when you don't got it. never move aggressively, never show off, never let hubris take over when you've successfully navigated six slippery intersections without a single wheelspin.

i've had lessons in this before. a snowboarding instructor, trying to help me figure out how to straighten my legs easily enough so the edge of the board bit into the snow. a motorcycle instructor, constantly bellowing 'keep your head and eyes up', with reminders to look where you aspire to be, not where you wish you weren't. a surf instructor, who coached my timing because i didn't know it yet, but gave me the space to discover that when i stopped thinking about why something worked, it worked better.

the world is a mashup of anti-lock brakes firing, and i stare with disbelief that four blocks of rubber have enough friction to stop a minivan from sliding into me. other pedestrians share the look on my face, more than they usually do, of survival and worry for other people not in metal boxes or brick buildings. a pair of them come up behind me as i carefully remount at an intersection.

'oh, be careful,' one of them mother-hens at me.

'yeah. yeah, this is hard.'

'this is all ice,' the other one says as i gingerly walk my way across.

'yeah. i know.'

'just take the sidewalk,' he recommends. 'it's clearer up there.'

and i scoot past them, following one other set of bike tracks. the sidewalk is all snow, not yet packed, and i can hear the ice below it when my tires crush a pattern through it. two people walking out to their car in the parking lot, one of them inhales in shock. 'a cyclist!' she identifies. 'i can't believe it!'

she speaks in the tone of voice that motorists often do, that 'i am in an enclosed object and you cannot hear me, but even if you could hear me, i do not care, because soon i will be far away from you' declaration.

seeing is believing, ma'am, i say in my head. i'm safer biking than driving.

'but you could fall over!' i imagine her protesting, because her four wheels are certainly more stable than mine.

sure, but if i lose control, i'm much less likely to kill someone.

the conversation i wish i could have with everyone who chooses a car in these conditions. the hanging accusation that they are irresponsible for choosing their own comfort of being in a warm, four-wheeled object that will effortlessly transport them home, while overlooking the potential for harm that decision carries. every time they show concern for me, i wish they would acknowledge that they could be driving safer, they could be following the speed limit, they could be stopping at stop signs, they could be passing me with reasonable amounts of space.

a woman stands in the middle of the sidewalk, her back to me, texting. 'excuse me,' i chirp optimistically while i approach.

'whoa,' she turns, and she looks like she could be one of my aunts. 'be careful! don't fall down!' i laugh; i haven't fallen yet this season. i don't mind falling. it's the cars that might not stop for me that i mind.

it used to be hard for me to bike up this hill, in my city of hills. on a fair day with a freshly tuned bike, i'd struggle and stare down at my knees slowly bobbing up and down, because the sight of the endless slope rising above me would demoralize me. now, it's a gentle cruise with a week's worth of groceries on a grumpy frozen bike with questionable traction. this is how i know i've grown stronger, more stubborn, more experienced over the years.

this is how i know i exist.

24 January 2018 22:53


the roof heats up; all night long, we listened to the song of ice blocks freed from each other, gathering speed as they slide along the slots between tiles, sounding like large claws scraping across hollow scales, a hitch of breath as they launch over the gutter, an impact. sometimes, they shatter like a dropped pot on the brickwork; others, it's a dull thud into melted snow.

in the morning, the front step is littered with unmelted remnants; i listen for the ominous crack of another projectile being sloughed by the house before i step out from under the eaves. when i clear the threshold without getting pelted, i look back at the roof.

it's already dry.

21 January 2018 16:07

Every Day a Snow Day

I wish everyone moved as carefully and thoughtfully as they do on the first day of fresh snowfall. I wish every approached intersections with caution and attentiveness, made eye contact with others, negotiated paths of travel in a reasonable manner, understood that the world is dangerous but is navigable with some vigilance.


The rope is stiff and dries my hand as it slides over callouses not quite ready; even though I know I'm safe, the sound and tiny jolts that come from the knot settling into itself beat a moment of fear through me. Resting while dangling is not a rest when I can't relax my hands.

"Put your hands in your chalk bag," he orders me from the other end of the rope.

"No, it's terrifying."

"That's why I'm telling you to do it."

My hands reach behind me, almost without my permission, and tentatively search for the fleece pocket dangling from the base of my spine like a broken tail. The movement tips my balance, and I start spinning, gently. I close my eyes, so the slow oscillation as my face passes from light to shadow is my only cue for movement.

"Now get back on the rock."

I get back on the rock.

02 March 2014 17:29


My breath catches inside my balaclava and fills my hood; all I can hear is synthetic fibers rubbing against my head and the wind that whips by me. Others pass me in a blur, but I'm following a training plan that has me alternate between being cold and being colder, and I idly wonder if giving myself mild hypothermia three times a week is actually good for me.

I can run faster than this if I want.

26 February 2014 19:57

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