Winterize your house, winterize your mind

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Winter is approaching here in the Hudson Valley. You must prepare your wardrobe, your furnace, your insulation – but also your mind. Others can help with the first three areas, but I am an expert on the fourth. Follow these 14 easy steps for mental winter preparation:


Become reacquainted with cold. Go to your refrigerator and take out an ice cube. Hold it in your left hand for 30 seconds. Then switch it to your right hand. Now place it in your mouth. Feel the Arctic on your tongue!

Start drying herbs now to drink as tea in the winter. Try mullein and peppermint leaves, chicory and burdock root.


If you have pets, now’s the time to flatter and bribe them. You’ll want their warm bodies next to you on the mattress nightly until Easter. If you’re single and have no bed-companion, this might be a good time to flatter and cajole an unattached human being.

Everything you procrastinate the rest of the year may be easily accomplished in winter. Why not get political? Call your elected representatives. If you’re a liberal, beg them to do something generous. If you’re a conservative, ask them to do something traditional. And if you’re a Situationist, demand a heroically absurd gesture (for example, insist that Senator Schumer ride into the Capitol building on a rhinoceros).

It is the birdlessness of winter that most disheartens me – perhaps because I myself am a bird, at least in name. Here is one solution: study the songs of autumn birds. (You may do this by clambering through the bosky forest, or by looking up “Northeastern Birdsong” on YouTube.) Learn these calls, and sing them to yourself in the January silence. Also, study the ravings of crows, whose strident calls will remain when all our other fine feathered friends have deserted us.

Check your floor and wooden furniture for splinters. It’s amusing to remove a splinter in August, but agonizing to do so deep in February.

Winter is the perfect time to light candles. The days are dim, the nights barren. Luckily, Woodstock is essentially a giant candle store. Consider scented candles. Did you know that wax tapers now exist that smell like Kentucky Fried Chicken and New York City pizza? I’m not making this up.

One traditional winter pastime is whittling. Our local forests can provide the soft wood that’s best for beginners: fir, cedar, spruce, pine. Use a pocketknife or a special whittling blade and spend a restful evening producing a tiny sailboat. The next day, paint it! For those of you with more contemporary tastes, whittle Styrofoam into images of iPhones, DVDs, earbuds. Now that’s bona fide 21st-century folk art!

Prepare your musical playlist for the frigid months. Here’s where most music-consumers make a big mistake. They listen to frenzied dance music in the summer, delicate string quartets in the winter. Just the opposite would be wise. The cool music of Erik Satie “air conditions” a sweaty August day – while the polyrhythmic sounds of R3HAB inspire dancing in the winter, which warms the body and flexes flaccid hibernal muscles.

It’s also useful to have an escape fantasy. Mine is to live in a hut on the edge of the sea in Sri Lanka. (I just looked on a map, and chose Trincomalee, on the eastern coast, as my precise location.) My hut will be bright purple, with a thatched roof of palm fronds and a handy 12’-hammock. Vividly picturing my beach cabin makes the infinite glassiness of January more bearable.

Last night, in a dream, I saw a winter coat – inside a boutique – composed of six layers of shirts, vests, jackets, all sewn together. It looked like the garb of a homeless person, only clean and stylish. If I were more entrepreneurial, I’d begin manufacturing them, but instead I’m passing the idea on to you – for free!

Find a penpal. I’m not kidding! I have a couple of friends I write to on actual paper, and this coming season is the perfect one to cultivate such empathetic Victorian pastimes.

I recently published an essay which included this passage:

We speak of our marriage, our career, our sex life, but never of our history as readers: our “book life.” Reading is just as essential as marrying or being a dentist, but we avoid mentioning it. The next time you see a friend, ask her, “How’s your book life?”

Now people sometimes inquire about my book life. Well, I’ll tell you one thing. My book life changes in winter.

In the summer, I can gaily read a juicy treatise like Children of the Matrix: How an Interdimensional Race Has Controlled the World for Thousands of Years – and Still Does by David Icke, but if I open such a book after November, I’ll sense a person in a gabardine coat standing behind me brandishing a revolver, in a reptilian claw. One of my worst novel-mistakes was reading the dispiriting Ethan Frome during one of my first Phoenician winters. My advice: spend your wintry nights reading happy books set in Bolivia.

When I first moved to the Catskills of 1998, people told me, “You’ll need a winter sport.” After years, I finally found one: Zen Buddhism. There is a delightfully authentic monastery in Mt. Tremper, just two miles from my home. You go there on a Sunday or Wednesday – for free – and sit in a chair (or crosslegged). Then you meditate. Here’s the method: as you breathe in, you count “one.” Then you breathe out, and count “two.” Your next inbreath is three. Your next outbreath is four. You continue till you reach ten, then start over. Meanwhile your eyes are half-lowered – not exactly open, not quite closed. You do this counting over and over, and an invisible key in your mind turns. After a half hour you feel clean and aware, like a pony racing through the hills of West Virginia. (In a sense, Zen really is a sport, because between meditations you do extremely slow walking, which is a fine training in torso-balance.)