The wind whipped the snow at my dog Max and me as we walked down a street in our neighborhood the other night. Max was in his glory, dusted with a half-inch of snow.
A stranger walked up to us, reaching to pet the dog.
"I know somebody who doesn't mind the cold," she said through a tightly wrapped scarf while she patted Max on the head. "Yes, you like the snow, don't you?" she cooed.
She had been walking home from her bus stop when she stopped to greet us. She didn't seem to mind the cold, either.
There's stillness and inevitability to any good snowfall that can deeply affect a person. The harsh conditions can close a person up, or they can put a person in an expansive mood.
As Max and I headed up the hill, the tree branches were topped with an inch of snow, giving a quiet appearance. The snow blowing in my face reminded me of earlier in the day, when I was in rush-hour traffic, taking an hour to travel three miles. In the midst of the gridlock, it occurred to me that nature was doing her thing, without regard for how it inconvenienced us. It almost seemed that she was not particularly pleased with our constant rushing about.
"Slow down," nature says to us in the wintertime.
Men shoveling their walks said "Hi" to Max and me as we passed. Max walked up to one older man as the man was finishing his driveway.
"He wants to say 'Hi,' " I said to the man. Max smiled charmingly at him.
"Hello, pup," the man said as he reached to pet Max. "You're all wet."
People know Max, and they know me by extension. He's easy to pick out, with the black, white and gray coat of an Australian cattle dog that he shows off, and his size and curly tail, which make him appear to be part Akita. My wife adopted him from the pound before I came along, and he has brought me some respectability in my neighborhood. Max is OK with people in the neighborhood, and so I'm OK, too.
But it's not just Max's impression on these folks that make them more sociable -- it's the season.
The combination of the snow, the cold, and Max has become an icebreaker with some of my neighbors.
Even in the cold and steady snow of a late winter storm, some of my lesser-known neighbors found time to chat a bit.
As the dog and I strolled at the neighborhood park on a Saturday afternoon, shrieks of laughter echoed up the valley from the nearby golf course.
Parents stood barehanded and grinning as they watched their young children sled shrieking down a hill. I thought about how when I was growing up, we would toboggan on the Highland Country Club golf course. It reminded me that some things are timeless.
The untrammeled snow in the park crunched satisfyingly under my boots. In the bright sunlight, the shadows from the bare trees in the woods that ring the park had a sharpened, charcoal-sketch look. The path through the woods was still packed with snow, though it is well traveled. Patches of moss poked through a few bare spots.
Nature is serene, knowing her time is always right. People are not always so tolerant.
A while back, during one of the first snowstorms of this winter, I was riding an elevator in a Downtown office building with a well-dressed businessman. Seeing the snow on my coat, he mentioned that it was coming down pretty hard.
"I like the snow -- it kind of makes everything slow down," I said.
"I hate it," the businessman said with a grimace as he got off at his floor.
In the wintertime, snow squalls shake us and hiss, "Easy there." Hailstorms say: "Watch your step."
Snow is physical, tangible, natural change. It reminds us of the season and promises that spring is coming. The layer of snow covering everything acts like a muffler, insulating and muting at the same time.
And when nature is dressed in her winter white, we sometimes approach her, and each other, a bit more respectfully.
This story originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It also was published in Gist Blackridge.