THIS IS THE time of year when winter's bareness becomes intolerable. Leafless trees that might have been picturesque back in November appear sinister now, as if they should have a buzzard on every branch. Without the cover of shrubs and grasses, every gully and vacant lot seems to be covered with oil cans and chunks of Styrofoam. The houses all appear to need paint jobs, and the cars are all dirty. Every stubborn patch of snow has an oily black border, and over all the land there is a film of road salt.

This is the Februarzation process. Part of it is in the mind. Things probably looked just about as bad in December, although minus the winter's accretion of oil cans and other junk. But in December, people were talking about bracing air, wood fires, snow and Christmas. By now they have stopped kidding themselves.

Those who can afford to do so leave town. The rest stay and look out the windows, all of which are dirty, and notice a funny thing: the days are getting a little longer. (The weatherman confirms this: the sun is shining, he says; it's just that you can't see it because of the fog.) People listen to water dripping from the rainspouts, all of which are clogged, and conclude that against all expectation a thaw is in progress.

Then one day there it is in the paper: "Conclusion to February Seen as Inevitable." "We are confident of a breakthrough," says a highly placed source with access to a calendar. "It's only a matter of days." In Las Vegas, however, they continue to give only 3 to 2 odds that this month will ever end.