Saturday, December 17, 2016

Thinking and Shoveling the Snow

I got a late start today.  It was 1:30 in the afternoon but the sun was already low in the sky.  That violates one of the cardinal rules of snow shoveling.  If you are  shoveling light snow  and can get most of it up off the concrete - the sun will do the rest of the work and melt it off.  If it is too cold to melt on a dark surface sublimation can occur and it will transition directly from a solid to a vapor.  At this temperature and sun angle - I would be lucky to get 2 hours of melting.

One of the other cardinal rules of snow shoveling is that timing is everything.  I was up briefly at 7AM today.  It was still dark out, but there was plenty of activity in the neighborhood.  People shoveling, snowblowing, and plowing.  It was still snowing lightly at the time.  If you clear off the snow too early, there will be another inch or two of snow on top of your concrete.  If that happens consistently you might not see concrete again until the spring thaw.  I looked around and that had happened to several neighbors.  I also noticed that one of my neighbors had cleared off about 90% of the heavy snow from my driveway with his snowplow.  I am very appreciative of that.  At a psychological level it is a mixed blessing.  In my 20s, 30s, 40s, and even 50s I was a snow shoveling machine.  I would attack any depth or distance of snow with a thin steel scoop shovel and dispatch it as fast as I could.  Now I am becoming the old guy down the street who might be overdoing it.  Maybe they are right - decreasing snow shoveling vigor may be just another sign of heading toward decrepitude.

I have the inevitable associations to learning how to shovel snow from my father.  The theory of extending the shoveled surface out onto the grass for an inch or two so that any run off does not pool on the concrete and freeze.  Today for the first time, I realized why we used steel scoop shovels with short handles.  These were the shovels my old man used to shovel coal into a steam engine locomotive boiler when he started out as a fireman on the railroad.  He let me watch him once in a switchyard near our house.  I was only 5 or 6 at the time, but he was shoveling coal the size of softballs into that boiler.  You could only do that job with a light steel short handled shovel.  I have the usual associations about knowing my father for only 16 years or less than half the time I knew my father-in-law.  Today I had the thought that all of my interactions with and reactions to my father were the product of a brain that was 10-15 years away from neuroanatomical maturity.  What would it have been to know him as a mature adult?  How has that affected me?  If I had a son myself - what would I try to pass on to him about snow shoveling?  At this point - not having a son I will never know.  The snow shoveling knowledge of the Dawson clan dies with me.  Even the most liberal college will probably not have a "Snow Shoveling 101" for the curious.

I drag out the snowblower and fire it up.  There is still an uneven 3 - 8 inches of snow to clear up.  The snowblower is about 20 years old.  It was a birthday present to my wife.  Believe it or not she requested it - but she might have not disclosed her real motive for that.  She was probably concerned about me throwing snow around with that scoop shovel like a blender and thought: "OK - how long can he keep doing that before something bad happens?"  She tells me to use the electric starter so it doesn't freeze up and I oblige.  I start snowblowing in an arc over 90 degrees back and forth blowing all of the snow to the eastern side of my driveway.  I realize that my driveway alone has more area than all of the concrete that my father and I used to shovel at the family home.  I wish that I knew more about graph theory.  The pattern that I use to shovel the driveway could probably be optimized by graph theory.

After that I get out a shovel.  It is no longer a scoop shovel.  It is an  all plastic shovel with a 90 degree bend in the middle.  They sell a lot of these shovels these days.  I am very skeptical of the  mechanical advantage, but it does allow a more erect posture in the process.  I am using it because I have to shovel on a textured concrete sidewalk and can't use steel shovel or a snowblower without scratching the surface.  I shovel a scoop wide margin up the right hand side of my walkway and then come back cross cutting the width of the side walk.  Swing the shovel from left to right and throwing the snow off the end - the same way my father used to shovel coal.  It takes 30 swipes and I am clear.  I check my heart rate and it hasn't budged.  The last time I shoveled a week ago it was up about 20%.  As I was shoveling I thought of an exercise device that would mimic snow shoveling.  In many ways it is a whole body work out.  Kind of like a kettle bell at the end of a longer handle.

I also fantasize about high tech approaches.  For some reason I have become more and more fascinated with tractors.  I was watching the Discovery Channel late one night and saw a small Swedish tractor that was designed to clear airport runways.  They were using it to build an ice castle.  It was designed to eject large amounts of snow directly over the front of the drivers cab.  I think about what a great time it would be to drive this tractor all day long - moving tons and tons of snow.  I conclude it is a narcissistic snow shoveling fantasy - a probable reaction to my concerns about becoming a less competent snow shoveler.  Still it would be nice to drive that tractor even for a day or two...

I come back to the main driveway and decide that I need to go over it with a shovel it see if I can expose more of the concrete surface to the sun.  This time I create several shovel widths down the west side and cross cut from west to east about 60 times.  I look at my activity monitor and notice that it has only taken about 3000 steps to do the entire job.  I have the thought that with the exception of some time I spent in East Africa, I have been shoveling snow for 50 years.  I also recall that in the famous Halloween blizzard/storm of the century my father-in-law and brother-in-law shoveled a foot of snow away from my old Chevy Chevette, crawled under it, and dropped in a new starter motor.  It was parked on the street at the time, it was nighttime, and it was 5 below.  They had to run a hundred yards of extension cord out to the street to do the work.                    

You might say that I am emotionally connected to the snow and shoveling it.  There is a lot of meaning there and in my 50th years of shoveling it - that meaning is not diminished.  It might explain why I have no interest in moving to warmer climates. Thinking a lot about things has always worked for me.  Shoveling snow is time to think and reflect.

I occasionally think of the limitations to all of this thinking.

Driving motorcycles is just one example.  I stay off of them.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

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