A thousand words for snow

imagesWhat is the Eskimo word for “shitty slush?” A wintry mix of snow and ice that is wet and nasty to walk in occurs on a regular basis here in Manhattan. If Eskimos really do have a thousand words for snow, do they also have a word for “black ice?” Deceptively invisible patches of frozen blacktop that destabilize the most surefooted are fairly common here too. What is the Inuit word for “yellow snow?” It’s horrible to think about someone writing in the snow with his own pee even if it is rendered in beautiful calligraphic script. Even worse than that. Is there an Eskimo word for “brown snow?” I hope not. I cannot let myself contemplate it.

Snow is falling at this very moment in every New York City borough in this only slightly less than Arctic land under a Winter Storm Warning. It’s falling hard. Falling fast and deep. It’s coating everything. Covering it up like a second skin. It’s a fine white powdery snow that piles up fast. More snow is expected before we’re through. About five to ten inches of snow before it stops tomorrow morning with the temperature starting at 14 degrees with a brisk 30-mile an hour wind. The next day the temperature is predicted to dip down into the single digits.

How much snow is too much snow? I could never get enough snow as a child in Salisbury, North Carolina. School was cancelled if the word was mentioned as a vague possibility in the forecast. Nothing grinds to a halt here for snow, even copious amounts of it. Life grinds on. Schools stay open. A tremendous number of machines scrape snow and ice away from streets and sidewalks – 1,700 snow plows are expected to churn down the city streets, according to the radio. People put their heads down and hunch into the wind. Move forward.

Avery is having a hard time believing he may be tromping out into the snow in the morning, facing off against such a harsh wind on such a cold day. But the wonders of public transit are working against him.  School children in New York City commonly take the subway here far more than the school bus, and the subways are unaffected by the winter storm. Schools are to open at this point. No final decision is to be made until the morning.

When I lived in the South, I always knew exactly how many times it snowed each year. It might snow twice in a good year in Salisbury. I know this is at least the fifth snow this school year in New York City. But it could also be the eighth. I lost track of the snow three weeks ago.

I have always admired the fortitude of people from the North. I might have thought they were pushy or aggressive when I first met them, but over time I came to see them as determined and persistent. The environment here fosters those qualities. You cannot surrender to the elements. Giving in to the cold and the snow is not an option. Long hard winters seem to build character.

You have to really want to get somewhere to trudge through the snow. Push yourself to your destination through sheer will. The cold and the snow focus you. Make you prepare yourself in a way that warm weather doesn’t. If it’s hot out, you can slap on some shorts, flip flops and a T-shirt and you’re done. When it’s freezing out, you dress in layers with special boots, gloves, a hat, a scarf and a heavy coat.

I admit that the cold and snow make me sluggish. When I walk into a warm building after escaping from freezing winds outside, I tend to relax. I want to take a nap near the radiator. I like its hum. It’s trying to tell me something. I just need to listen hard to make out what it’s trying to say. I’m not alone in my sluggishness. When it’s very cold as it is today, I go to take the dog out for a walk. My dog Boo Radley regards me with slightly incredulous big brown eyes, not moving from his prone position as if to suggest I am mistaken about the whole notion of leaving the apartment.

We went ice skating last year during our first winter here. Skating rinks have been popping up all over the city as it’s grown colder. I see people twirling and racing around the ice. I don’t imagine joining them since I can barely roller skate properly. Robyn can twirl and glide around on ice with the best of them since she grew up with a frozen pond in her backyard in New Hampshire. Avery hugs the wall and makes a slow circuit around in that fashion. I am in between. Not hugging the wall. But not graceful. I barely have my balance, moving forward slowly and always feeling like I could fall at any moment.

Last year was our first year here – our first exercise in character building. It was a mild winter that seemed designed by way of meteorological apology for Super Storm Sandy that had shut down the power, heat and running water to our apartment for three weeks.

I am able to picture a solitary Eskimo writing on a giant blackboard as he thinks up words for snow. He has a huge bucket of chalk and a lot of time to kill. He’s thinking up beautiful words in a language that cannot be pronounced by anyone who did not grow up in a vast frozen land. Our tongues may try to form the words, but it’s useless.

Here’s an example of an Eskimo word for snow from an online Eskimo dictionary involving an extreme penchant for the letter “q.” Fallen snow floating on water is deemed “qanisqineq.” I’m not going to try to pronounce that. But I’m certain it would sound beautiful if I could.

Maybe it’s pronounced “kwaniskwineck.” Possibly.

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A thousand words for snow

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