As I stepped outside the door into the garage this morning and put the door up, the shock of cold air on my face and the dim winter light felt almost like a time warp of sorts. It happens every year, but it felt especially strong today as I started the car and backed out of the driveway, the car’s metal creaking in the chill. It was a brittle cold, a Fargo sort of cold.
When I was a sophomore in college, I lived about 10 minutes from campus in a cheap apartment with a couple of girlfriends. I paid $225 a month for my room and use of the common area. We had a dumpster, and the water was paid, so all we had to worry about was the heating and cooling bill and the cable, which wasn’t so much split between the three of us. All three of us were studious, but we partied hard, too. We had a great time.
I don’t know if the infamous freshman 15 is still a thing, but I did the freshman 30. I put on a little bit more the first semester that school year, and I decided that I had to get it back off. I went on a strict liquid diet that winter – I love liquid diets, in case you were curious – and I lost all of the weight I’d put on since high school. I was constantly hungry, and I was cold. Anyone who has ever lost a significant amount of weight will mostly likely tell you that one of the results of this drastic body change is that you feel cold. I lost 145 pounds when I was in high school, and about 45 pounds in, I was freezing. I have long since gained the weight back, but I have never stopped being cold. I never warmed back up despite the reappearance of the blubber.
I took my heaviest course load of my college career during my sophomore year. The first semester, I took 20 hours of nothing but language and writing intensive courses. All I did was read books and write in the evenings, and all I did during the day was schlep around campus in the freezing cold, or so it felt. I literally had classes on opposite ends of the school, and Mizzou is big.
I will never forget walking around that winter. I was starving, and everything felt cold and brittle. I was a fairly heavy smoker back in those days, and I always had a pack of Camel Turkish Golds with me. I smoked constantly, and I joked to myself that smoking was the only thing that kept me even a little warm. The burning sensation in my windpipe and lungs was soothing, actually. I remember exhaling and wondering how much was smoke and how much was steam.
Also in my pocket was my first MP3 player. It was a tiny thing, and it looked almost like a beeper. It was made of cheap, white plastic, and it held maybe 50 songs. That seemed incredible in those days. Mine was populated with a curious mix of new wave, gangsta rap, techno, a few top 40 songs, and soundtrack music. I love instrumental soundtrack music, when it’s good.
My friends frequently told me that they never wanted to say hello to me on campus because I always looked so angry and, one or two of the closer ones confided in me, sort of nuts. I was nearly always dressed in black, not out of any particular devotion to the color but because I just tend to wear quite a bit of black, even now. They always told me that I was scowling, smoking, and almost invariably talking to myself and perhaps doing a funny thing with my hand. At that time I wouldn’t have dared to tell anyone, but ever since I can remember, I have had this habit of writing words in thin air when I’m deep in thought about something. Sometimes I think I fling my right hand and don’t know I’m doing it.
People familiar with autism will recognize it as a form of stimming – stimulation that is born of a need to self-soothe or to vent emotions. I don’t think that I’m genuinely autistic, although it wouldn’t shock me terribly to discover that I’m somewhere on the least severe end of the spectrum. I used to exhibit a lot more stimming behaviors when I was a kid. I rocked a lot when I was thinking about something, and until I was probably seven or eight, I would repeat the last word of my sentences several times, a tic known as palilalia. I replaced it with a nervous laugh that I held onto well into my twenties – maybe my thirties. If I still do it, I don’t notice it anymore. I still fling my hand when I get overstimulated about things, but I try to only do it when I’m alone because I know it makes people uncomfortable. I pace when I read, and I catch myself writing words and talking to myself, but I do try to keep a lid on it. If I am or ever was mildly autistic, I don’t see that a diagnosis would do anything for me at this age. Whatever inner demon causes these strange little compulsions, it’s not going anywhere, and so I have decided to embrace it as part of what makes the gears turn like they’re supposed to.
You have the picture, in any case. There I was, a college sophomore clad in black like an inverted Johnny Cash, huddled down in my North Face jacket, smoking cigarettes, a black North Face backpack on my back, my feet strapped into old German tanker boots. Exhaling a long stream of smoke as I jogged up the five stairs between the older part of campus, demarcated by red brick, and the newer portion of campus, which was all sandstone buildings. Right next to the education department. Back and forth across campus all day.
I would return to my apartment from campus. The sidewalks were never salted, and we never shoveled them. The apartment was poorly insulated, and after the initial feeling of warmth left me, I was cold again. I walked around in sweats and several shirts. I had an old TV in my room, along with my DVD collection, and among those titles was the eponymous Coen Brothers classic, Fargo. For some reason, I watched Fargo a lot that year.
I had seen it enough times that I could have it on in the background and not really watch it. I loved that movie the first time I saw it because I have known people from “up Brainerd.” My mom and my uncle both went to school in Bemidji, Minnesota, and my family has long had a particular affinity for the North Country. The quirkiness of the characters and the harshness of the Minnesota winter rang true for me. And during that seemingly frostier-than-normal winter, I felt some strange kinship with Fargo, so much so that I had the opening title track in my little MP3 player, and in between The Cure and Rammstein, the strains of the violin from Jerry Lundegard’s infamous drive from Minneapolis to Fargo rang out from my headphones.
I remember the sounds, and I remember the feel of the cold wind on my face and my lips being chapped all the time, and I remember coming home and not being able to warm up. I remember drinking cold protein shakes and wishing like hell that I could have something to eat but knowing that if I ate, there would be no way I would fit into my skinny jeans again. So I suffered. I suffered down that long, drifted road to Fargo, shivering and cursing the ice underfoot and the snow falling from overhead.
I also remember the day that year when I came home and I smelled something in the air. I smelled that smell, and I knew spring was coming. A couple of days later, I heard geese flying north, and I was sure then that winter was almost over. I can’t think of too many instances in my life when I have been happier to know that spring was on its way.
I emerged from my black winter cocoon a much smaller person. I could fit into my skinny jeans again. I bought new clothes, and as soon as it was warm enough, I walked around campus in skirts and heels. I looked great, honestly, I felt like I had earned it after that frostbitten, starving winter. I hit the ground running that spring.
I have never been able to again achieve the sort of results that I had during that long winter. I have never had that same drive in any area of my life. It was during that hardest academic year that I came out with the best GPA – I was an A-student when I left for France – and the best body. I had great friends, and we had great times.
Whatever I had that winter, I lost in Germany, and I never got it back. I’m not sure what happened, exactly, other than things got hard – harder than I expected. I buckled, and I never quite stood up from it totally. I was thinking out loud to a friend today, and I realized that that winter was the last time that I truly had my shit together, that I was proud of who I was and what I was doing. It was the last time that my goals were 100% clear to me.
What was it about that winter that made me so resolute? What was it about those goals that was different? What is it about that time that causes my mind to return to it over and over again, year after year? It can’t just be the cycles of the year because I had plenty of other times in college that would be more logical to reference, in many ways.
I finally decided that my clarity of purpose and my decision to stand up to my baser self, and also my fearlessness in going after what I wanted, were the key factor. I was bold back then. I was my own hero. I tried back then. I gave a damn. And with just a reasonable amount of effort I dominated in everything I did. It wasn’t easy, hiking through the snow to all those classes, reading all those books, putting in all those hours at the library, and staying home instead of going out. It wasn’t exactly easy to stop eating, but I did. I did it, and I did great.
This morning, as my van creaked and groaned down the road towards work, I realized that those memories were made 15 years ago – half my lifetime now, nearly. And I have never gotten “it” back, whatever “it” was, and I said to myself, as I walked out to my car tonight at dusk, late for Shabbat, “That is some fucking bullshit!”
I have tried several times to get back on the weight loss train. I have goals, but I keep failing. It feels like the time in high school that I couldn’t right before I did it. That was a cold, cold winter, too. I felt so strongly then that whatever it was, I needed to get it back, and the best way to start would be to discipline myself.
Starting January 1st, I am going full Fargo mode. This winter is promising to be cold with consistent snow. It will be hard. It will be brittle. It won’t be as easy as it was before because I have to cook for my family. But I will persevere. I don’t even think that I will persevere because eventually I want to run ultras or because I want more dates or anything like that. No, I will persevere because I want to suffer through that winter again. I want the chance to run into the ghost of my old self, the self that I really, truly loved.
I have no doubt that she is still walking with her head down, cigarette to her chapped lips, mumbled words escaping from between it all. Her feet are still frozen, and her mind is full while her stomach stands resolutely empty. She just came from class. One of only two A’s out of a class of 45 and commended for consistent hard work and insightful commentary.
Perhaps Fargo isn’t the only movie that I need to reference. I was a comic book kid growing up. X-Men were always my favorite growing up, and G-d rest Stan Lee for giving them to this poor little outcast. Is it possible, as in Days of Future Past, to go back and set right something that went wrong decades ago? Well, at least for the time being, such things must remain in the realm of comic books and sci-fi features. I can’t go back and change missteps that I made along the way.
But what if I can send my own mind back to the point before things went wrong? What if I can actually have an encounter with that Margaret on the stairs. What if I can stop her, pull her headphones off, and say, “Come with me. I’ll explain when we get there”?
No doubt I will meet with some resistance, but it has became obvious to me now that I have to do something. The conditions are right now. The winter is hard, the air is dry, my lips are chapped, and the metal in the car feels like it will snap even as the heat from the engine block inside the car makes my eyes sting with its burning. I have to go back and convince her that I’m telling her the truth and that she has to come now. There is still time left to change the future, and I can’t do it alone. I need that presence of mind and strength of will.
So tonight I’m driving back to Fargo. Up north and across time. I know that she’s still there, and I know the time is upon us. I can’t wait to see her again. I have so much to tell her, and I know that she will hate most of it. But I also know that she would never shy away from the chance to save the future.
Stay warm tonight, kids.
**Note: No copyright infringement intended with the title photo. I wanted to reference this particular scene. No harm intended.