When the temperature hit -26 degrees on January 10 of 1982, I’d already been inside for two or three days, and was getting cabin fever. Even girlfriend company didn’t help. I was stir crazy and needed to get out for a run. I bundled up with everything I owned for winter gear. All that peeked out were my eyes. The wind chill was -81 degrees. I went for a run.
Within a half-mile, my eyelids froze shut. I stopped in a panic, and pressed my gloves against eyelashes trying to melt them down so I could see again. They were frozen with moisture from my breath coming up through the scarf wrapped around my face. “Alright,” I muttered through the layers wrapped around my face. “This was a stupid idea.” I ran back home.
I still wanted to get out of the house, so we started up my car and went for a drive. My Plymouth Arrow was a pretty faithful vehicle even though I’d accidentally crunched the front hood in mid-December by forgetting to put on the parking brake. We’d driven to a Christmas caroling party and I parked the Arrow on a slight downhill in front of the house, but forgot to apply the parking brake. That’s not a good thing with a stick-shift car, because I’d left it in neutral as well.
While we sang inside, the Arrow started rolling, gathering speed as it cruised a full block down the street before veering into a giant oak tree. If it hadn’t struck that tree, it likely would have plowed right through the wall of a house and landed in the living room.
When we came out from the caroling party a half-hour later, I looked everywhere for the car. Then some guy down the street yelled, “Hey, is this your car?”
I stood there aghast. My friends and I walked down to the scene of the accident. “My poor car,” I moaned.
“My poor tree!” the owner lamented. There was a big gouge in the bark where the bumper slammed into the trunk of the tree. Fortunately, it was not severe damage. I gave the guy $20 or something to satisfy his outrage. Then I drove the car away, and we rolled around town that night with the hood sticking up like the arched back of a dolphin. It depressed me to look at it, but my buddies round it hilarious.
I had the front end of the Arrow fixed a few weeks later, but even with the hood crunched, it still ran really well in cold weather. So Linda and I drove out of town to get out of the house and look at the snow-covered landscape. The winds were fierce, and everything looked upended or out of place. Sure enough, right at the corner of Main Street and Randall Road, we spotted a small flock of snow buntings feeding in a road scrape. Outside of town, huge pillars of wind-whipped snow rose in plumes, frozen ghosts rising and disappearing as fast as they formed. The whole scene felt like we’d slipped into an alternate universe.
Hooping it inside
So I gave up running that week and went to play basketball instead. I got banged up because the type of play that week was really rough. All the guys were grumpy and pent up from all the time indoors due to the weather. “Played a game of basketball at Geneva,” I wrote. “Some big jerk who knew bloody well all he had to do to score was push, did. He winged me so I glared at him. “If you can’t take it, get out,” he said. So I did. A little anger welled inside me, but constructively, I returned home unscathed.”
That afternoon, I received yet another letter from my college girlfriend. It was one of a series of intermittent communiques in which she challenged about this or that former relationship issue. She was now married to another man, but clearly felt that I’d let her down in some way. “Whatever-her-name-is-now sent me a letter yesterday,” I observed in my journal. “I sent a reply, short, but anything more I’ll say is going to sound urgent or self-effacing. Familiar scenes are never glamorous upon return. The fuzz wuz rubbed off that peach. Still, she got a rise out of me, I admit.”
The third week of January I went to a track meet at Chicago Stadium. My father came with me because he was bored as hell staying at home too. The weather was still freezing cold outside, but we humped on down to the city and sat in the stands together. That was fun, because other than a Chicago Bulls game when my dad took us all to watch the 1972 playoffs when the Bulls’ Artis Gilmore and Wilt Chamberlain of the Lakers faced off, my father and I had not done much watching of live pro sports.
The track meet felt like a real pro sporting event. I listed the athletes: “Track meet last night: Nehemiah, Foster, Ashford, Heikkenan, Stintzi, Jackson, Henderson, Maree, Bjorklund, Masback, Cheeseborough, McTeague, Floyd, Carl Lewis, James Robinson.”
I took photos of the meet with my newly purchased Pentax camera. I’d seen many world-class athletes at meets like the Drake Relays, and always loved watching the world’s best compete. Most of all, I loved watching the women run in their bun-hugger shorts. My father noticed my attentiveness to that detail, but said nothing. Like father, like son.
I ran just 100 miles for the month of January, but also did some cross country skiing on days when it wasn’t below zero, so my fitness still improved along with several long sessions of basketball. Typically I’d play for three to four hours. Sometimes I was joined by one or more of my brothers, whoever was in town.
But I kept feeling restless due to a persistent case of cabin fever. I likely had a fit of depression going on as well. So I jumped in my car the last weekend in January and drove to Decorah in an attempt to recover an inspiration of some sort. I’d already been up there for New Years with Linda, but this trip was different. I hung out with people that weren’t necessarily my closest friends, mostly out of a need for some sort of different stimulation. They half-understood, and shared some weed with me, and a few beers. One of those friends was in art classes with me at Luther, however, and she tore into my habit of painting birds. “It’s so provincial,” she sneered. I told her to fuck off.
So I turned around and drove back home. What I actually needed was the road time to shift my brain around and try to look beyond the oppressive darkness and cold of January. “Good ride,” I wrote on returning home. “One bald eagle ten miles north on Wisconsin 35. White head and tail. Got away for the weekend. Stayed with Chuck and Laura (college friends). Eerie Christ figure above Pulpit Rock. Calm Friday night.”
I’d befriended a Luther girl on one of my prior visits, and met up with her out of curiosity at a local pub. But this time around I was less impressed. “Underbite,” I cruelly noted. “Limited conversation.”
I opened the mail and received yet another letter from my former college girlfriend. She was not relenting on whatever issues and failures she still felt about our relationship. It made me wonder what she really wanted from me. I guess she felt the need to prove that she’d been right, about whatever.
Nothing was coming or going my way easily. “Money’s been bugging me all day,” I noted. “Nothing comes in order.” The wildlife art gallery where I showed my work was going under, so that source of extra money was going away. I was still trying to figure out what to buy to assuage my restless mind. “Aquarium? Nike Reflective jacket? Weights? Nautilus? Camera? Bills? Typewriter? Cockatiel? Art Gigantica?”
Like the main characters in the existential novel Candide, it all came down to a single phrase during the winter of my discontent.
“I can only paint to forget,” I wrote, “And run tonight.”
And by the way, I bought the Nike reflective jacket.