The Landscape That Shapes You
I was about eight years old and had just gotten a new pair of snow pants, fortuitous because we were having the snowiest winter of my lifetime. This is saying something because we lived in the snowiest city in the continental United States: Syracuse, New York. Ten solid days of whiteout conditions left our world about four new new feet deeper in snow. My brother Ken, told to clear out the front door, took a shovel from the garage, marched to his bedroom (which overlooked that door) and jumped out the window. It was faster, he explained, than spending five hours shoveling a path from the garage, and he was right. My parents didn’t argue.
On the eleventh day the sun came out and the temperatures rocketed into the high thirties, melting the top foot of everything that had fallen in the preceding week. When night came and the temperature dropped again, the entire world turned into a skating rink. I was woken by my brother’s fingers sticking in my ribs–still so dark it could have been midnight. The moon was full and unobstructed, and though it was setting its light was strong enough to cast shadows. “Get up,” he said. He held my new snowpants, my coat, my mittens. Who could say no? And why should we wake our parents, who needed their rest, to tell them we were going out to skid around in the newly frozen landscape?
For drama’s sake he insisted we climb out a bedroom window, so we did. The snow reached to an inch below the sash, so it looked easy until we fell directly on our rear ends. The surface was as hard and reflective as glass. We skidded from house to house, stopping longer where pre-dawn risers had flipped on lights and offered voyeuristic distraction. The snow was still high enough that I could stop to rest on the top of a neighbor’s steel clothes hanger. In summer months the top of this structure was high enough that we could hang a tire swing from it. Now it poked about a foot above the glittering snow. When I stood up to leave there was a ripping sound and a cool breeze on my ass–the warmth of my body had frozen the pants to the steel bar and when I’d risen, the seat of the snow pants had stayed behind.
So of course we were caught–a hole in new snow pants was not going to go unnoticed even if you were strategic enough to have tossed all the wet things in a dryer when you crept back into the house and broke open the Monopoly board to make it look like you’d just gotten up, which is what Ken did. We were fined television for the day, but I didn’t care. I’d seen the most magical landscape I ever hope to see–in part because it was really magical, and the rest of the way because my big brother trusted me to keep my mouth shut and took me along on one of his adventures. That was the definition of heaven when I was eight years old, and it still stands up pretty well as the definition now.
Ken is an engineer now, like all my brothers, and he thinks of snow as that stuff that beats up his copper gutters; of wildly fluctuating temperatures as those things that challenge his insulation and HVAC system. Weather is just a problem–not a topic for conversation or source of wonder. But years before he sank into his architectural engineering persona. he’d turned me into somebody who would never think of weather as the thing that beat up gutters. The landscape you grow up in shapes you as surely as the brothers you grow up with–and I was lucky in both.