This is the dead of winter.

Pale faces, bad hats, people wearing itchy Christmas-present scarves.

Dirty cars, dog-pee-in-the-footprint snow and trash blowing down the sidewalk. Newspaper pages twitch in shrubbery.

Then more snow falls. The TV weather "calls for" another 8, 12, 14 inches that turn the picnic table and the Sea-Doo into backyard loaves, which was pretty the first time but you don't take any pictures now.

Snow had fallen, snow on snow,

Snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter . . .

--Christina Rossetti

Snow shovels cough under hotel marquees. Salt stains your good shoes.

Sometimes the sun comes out and brightens things like a weak henna rinse, but then we're back to a mesh of black phone wires and trees where birds wait--once in a while, a tight little flock will rip across the park as if they think they're escaping something.

You see the tired but resolute faces of people who look as if they've spent all day trying not to cry.

You can't feel the days getting longer yet. That happens in February, along with crocuses, and the trees getting blurry with buds.

You see a forsythia bush that started to bloom in the recent but forgotten warm spell. Now the cold has left the buds puckered and flabby. Will they bloom at all?

No smell of wood smoke. Fires in the fireplace are fun on the first cold nights of fall, but now they're like just another cable channel on rerun.

You use words like "raw," "bitter" and "slush."

Existence in the dead of winter is a hangnail on the thumb of oblivion.

You're tired of putting on so many clothes. You don't have to worry whether you brought Kleenex because your coat pockets are full of it, some unused. It's like the world's hair is dirty; like getting up after sleeping with your clothes on; like a salesman just talked you into buying a car you don't want; like seeing guys standing around a barrel fire and knowing you could be one of them.

Some people still turn on their outdoor Christmas lights, as if they're trying to stretch Christmas till it connects with another holiday, but which? Valentine's Day with its thin disappointments? Groundhog Day? (Didn't the National Council of Smallish Mammals decide "groundhog" was demeaning, and demand the standardized use of "woodchuck"? Will this become an issue in the New Hampshire primary?)

Things are shabby and exhausting, like our endless electoral process or a gray stroll down the Atlantic City boardwalk, watching sea gulls rip corn dogs out of the hands of old couples who seem to be racing against windblown coffee cups, and losing badly.

This is the dead of winter.

CAPTION: In the hush of yesterday's snowfall, a solitary early morning commuter waits for a bus on Massachusetts Avenue.

CAPTION: Bundled against icy blasts of wind, Felice Robinson digs her way out of yesterday's snowstorm on Emerson Street NW.

CAPTION: An umbrella unfurls a touch of whimsy on a gray day in downtown Takoma Park.