Thank goodness it's February! I realize that the usual translation of "TGIF" refers to the welcome arrival of Friday, bringing with it the end of another workweek. But I think February deserves equal celebration, as it brings the end of the beginning of the year.
January starts off with such promise, unless you awaken with a hangover from excess celebration on New Year's Eve. The first day of each new year tempts you to think that this year will be filled with roses and parades and, of course, football games. It's a holiday, too, so you're lulled into imagining this newborn year will be just one big, 365-day vacation.
Then there's the appeal of a clean slate. You make resolutions—this year (honest!) you'll quit smoking, cut back on the Cheetos and exercise every single day, or at least every other day (do weekends count?). Your financial records start anew, creating an annual opportunity to rebalance your portfolio (move that money from the piggy bank to under the mattress) and stop living on the razor's edge of IRS trouble.
But every day does not bring a rose parade, it turns out, and as the new year lengthens you grow only older, not thinner or wiser. The paradox of January is that it ushers in the bright promise of a new year with brittle, bitter weather, a long march of dreary workdays and a dull, dun-colored vista that can't possibly see spring soon enough. If this is the new year, let's turn back the calendar pages to the old one. Maybe it's not too late to get our money back. Honey, did you save the receipt for 2005?
We've lived in places where January was not merely blah but truly, life-threateningly horrendous. In Minnesota one year the governor closed all the schools—not because of snow but because of cold, fearing the school bus drivers would find little backpack-wearing popsicles standing at the bus stops. And when that joyfully received white Christmas turns into mounds of dirty January snow piled so high that the parking meters barely poke high enough to plug, any sane person's thoughts soon turn to escape to Bora Bora.
In northern climes, January becomes a test of willpower and endurance, man against the calendar. Lesser citizens break and bolt, moving to Florida for the gentler embrace of serial hurricanes. Only the strong and stubborn—mostly Scandinavians, who after all once freely chose to settle a place named "Iceland"—persevere, mostly by pretending to enjoy cross-country skiing and by spending a lot of time indoors in the artificial outdoors of shopping malls. (It's no coincidence that Minnesota gave birth to the nation's first shopping mall, Southdale, and the largest, the Mall of America.)
Here in the desert Southwest, of course, it's not so bad. Morning might bring a rime of frost on the sticks in the woodpile, or even a temporary crust of snow on the weeds that pass for our lawn. The quail huddle together under the scrub oaks until the afternoon sun thaws the landscape enough for a frantic, squawking scuttle to peck for sustenance. That's January in Silver City for you, and a good thing since the nearest shopping mall is nearly two hours away.
But still, the sun is fleeting. Its slow climb from the stygian depths of winter's official start is yet barely noticeable. The day ends before suppertime, and Brian Williams (in the old year we still had Tom Brokaw!) beams the latest bad news into a house lit—already, at only 5:30—by flickering fluorescent bulbs instead of slanting late-afternoon sun.
And what bad news there has been! Each day of this new year seemed to bring a further escalation in the death toll from the Asian tsunami, fresh horrors on the evening news. The casualties quickly exceeded comprehension, turning us numb with the numbers. 10,000 dead? 25,000? 150,000? Our capacity for shock and awe got exhausted at least one decimal place ago.
As the news media scrambled for fresh spins on the cataclysm, stories beyond body counts to fill the second and third weeks of unfolding awfulness, they turned at last to religious leaders to put the tsunami's toll in spiritual context. This is only the beginning, one minister warned—as God unlimbers His cosmic armory for the Apocalypse, there's plenty more hellfire and damnation where that came from. Another reverend intoned something about God being found in the response to the disaster, not in the earth-shaking that made the killer waves. None of the TV news correspondents or newspaper reporters had the blasphemous temerity to ask straight out, "Why did God let this happen?"
I liked best the explanation of a Buddhist leader interviewed in one of these stories. These things happen, the Buddhist sage said. The earthquake and killer tsunami carved tragedy across the face of the planet, he explained, "Just because."
That might indeed be the best way to cope with January's ordinary harsh introduction to the year, as well as this January's unusually tragic unhappy new year. Why isn't the whole month like New Year's Day, a logy day off enlivened by the yowl of football announcers and the march of parade floats crafted from roses, chrysanthemums and black sunflower seeds hand-plucked by Pasadenans with way too much time on their hands? Just because. That's the way it is, as my Scandinavian ancestors (who were perhaps unknowingly closet Buddhists) might have said, and you might as well get used to it.
The whole month of January might well be seen as a life lesson encapsulated in just 31 mostly dreary days. You're going to have your parades and bowl games and leftover champagne and eggnog, sure, but then it's back to work. It's cold outside and the daylight sputters out almost before it's begun. Somewhere in the world, truly terrible things are happening. Do what you can to help those poor souls, and be glad it's not you. Short, murky, hungover-feeling days? What have you got to complain about? At least a tsunami didn't roar through and wipe out everything and everyone you know. You've still got your health, unless of course you couldn't get a flu shot and so you come down with something.
It's January. What did you expect? Every day can't be Christmas Day, or even the glittery run-up to Christmas. That's why, surely, they put January on the calendar—all 31 endless days of it—right after Christmas, to bring us back down to earth. The presents are all unwrapped and nobody's bringing any more, not for another year. Life goes on. Get used to it. Why? Just because.
That paradoxical conflation of brand-spanking newness with harsh reality, the cliff-like dropoff from Christmas to scraping frost off your windshield so you can go back to work on Jan. 2, makes January exactly the cosmic joke we need. Have you ever heard anyone say, "Oh, January is my favorite month!"? Of course not. But maybe we do need January nonetheless. If you sailed through life thinking every day would be like Christmas and the Rose Parade rolled into one, how would you handle the reality of life's routine tsunamis? The check bounces, the fender gets bent, you catch the flu, the cat barfs on the white carpet. January teaches you that these things happen, that indeed they come hard on the heels of Santa Claus and BCS bowl games. Why? Just because. Time to take down the tree and put down the TV remote.
January even makes us appreciate February, which otherwise would seem like a pretty crummy month. The weather's not that much nicer, the days not that much longer, and, let's face it, Valentine's Day is a decidedly second-tier holiday. No one even gets the day off! Presidents' Day? Pure invention, substituting for genuine commemorations of Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays, two holidays rolled into one half-hearted gimmick. Nobody gets presents, and there aren't even fireworks.
But at least February is not January. Lesson learned for another year, thanks very much God, now let's move on. Tear off that calendar page—quick!—and consign it to the fireplace you won't need for that many more weeks, at least not all day long. In February you can glimpse spring just around the corner, if you crane your neck enough. Here in the Southwest, flowers will be popping up before we know it. Life goes on, if you're lucky enough to have made it this far.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.