A Prism of More Than Frozen Water

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 6, 2007

How come snow never is what it is? It's always something else: magic, hassle, politics. The first snow of the year, especially, refuses to just lie there.

Early in the morning, everybody rushes to the window. "It's coming down strong!" says Iris, 3, who has nothing in her conscious memory with which to compare it. "It's everywhere."

She spies the Weber grill, a symmetrical black dome with a white pile in the middle on top, which, to any adult with the standard appreciation for doom that comes with age, resembles a black widow spider.

"The grill looks like a ladybug!" Iris says.

The first snow can turn a black-and-white landscape under an ashen sky into Technicolor. Metaphorically speaking.

Later, a class of preschoolers and their teachers hold mittened hands two-by-two and step down the sidewalk with snowflakes in their eyelashes, like fairy wings.

The adults at the window, what are they thinking? They remember the snows of yesteryear, a memory that stirs just once every year, and then -- blink! -- they're thinking about black ice.

So much nostalgia and meaning invested in what is, after all, nothing more than water crystallized, hexagonally, around bits of dust. Too much dread, too. Is there any other substance less metaphorically stable? Red wine, perhaps, or a split atom.

Snow begins as paranoid prophecy in Washington, ripe for self-fulfillment, beyond parody. Snow tracks on the highway in Prince William! Snow beginning to stick in Rockville!

At the Long Branch Community Center in Silver Spring, the county's two mobile medical vans arrive a little bit late to see patients. They were delayed, stuck in all the Beltway traffic, which is stuck behind he/she up there who did something stupid. Why?

We know why. It's the first snowfall, and other people need to get a grip. Snow is a test of competence, of carrying on, and many falter while the Minnesotans and Mainers among us harrumph. (Was campaigning halted these past few days in New Hampshire and Iowa? No, it was not.)

But sometimes, snow pushes people to achieve! Flotillas of buses from all the area's public schools set forth bravely. Even in Montgomery County!

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