February: the 3 a.m. of the calendar

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Winter in Kansas now seems impossible. A sustained
winter that is, hard frozen, with layers of snow building
with the intermittent storms and to melt only a little,
enough to make way for an ice glaze or the hard sharp
clumps that turn to daytime slush under a pale sun.

Once we had a blizzard or two, or half a dozen if things
were truly bitter; in farm country they were measured
by the number of cattle frozen along a fence line and in
town, the number of days kept from the office, or shop.

For youngsters, winter meant snow days out of school – to
be reclaimed later, the depth of winter measured in warm
spring afternoons lost in the classroom.

No more. Autumn, once winter’s dependable predecessor,
is likely to welcome a swim in the lake or a day at the
beach – or bring an ice storm. Thanksgiving could mean
weather for the heaviest sweaters, or a string of shirtsleeve
days on the golf course. A snowy Christmas, even
the movie versions, was once quite possible. Nowadays a
December dusting is noteworthy. From the start of Advent
through St. Lucia and King Knut Day, the temperatures can
be brisk and even brutal, or mild and warm. Winter today is
noted mostly for its spurts and tantrums, and for the moisture
it no longer brings.

And now February, its occasional rawness, a month of
no use to anyone. February once packed a special, brutal
force: snow, wind, sometimes a long, ruthless freeze
sweeping over the unbroken northern plains on an Alberta
Clipper.

February’s cruelty lies in its promise retracted, that
spring is here but winter isn’t finished. It now arrives with
an early sun and September’s leftover wind. Joseph Wood
Krutch, the naturalist and critic, once said that “the most
serious charge which can be brought against New England
is not Puritanism but February.”

So it is with Kansas. If we had February, say, after
November, it might be easier to take. But coming as it
does, after December and January, it’s a bore and a bother.

February is much like a beautiful person, man or woman,
who persists in talking too much; any enchantment is temporary.

By February, whatever novelty there had been in
even the scent of pine − has faded. February, as Krutch had
it, “is the very 3 a.m. of the calendar.”

The one blessing in this misbegotten month is its brevity
– 28 days this leap year, then a countdown to spring on
March 20. In the meantime February remains barren and
dry, an aberrant cousin, the one who promises everything
and delivers only when inclined.

But this 3 a.m. of the calendar recalls those who do
deliver, city crews at the ready, determined to counter any
winter adversity that may yet strike, to clear the streets, to
conquer crippled power lines, busted poles and shattered
trees, among other menaces.

Alas, hope remains. We don’t wish for time to fly, only
for Krutch’s clock to pick it up a bit.

***

Predators, politics and the double standard

Litigation, outrage and anguish shroud the nation’s
unfolding shame of sexual harassment and abuse, but certain
offenders will resist accusation, no matter how vivid
the evidence or damning the facts. They will remain above
or beyond the law.

These rounders – they know who they are – will confront
any summons by shading history or hiding it. Bribes, hush
money, extortion and legal threats are among the arrows in
a degenerate’s quiver. Even the moral preening of a jilted
lover, or office worker, or neighbor, can be found in the
repertoire of a reprobate.

Washington, then, is a special kind of sewer tank when
it comes to sexual harassment or outright rape. By the
sheer size of it, the government harbors a breeding ground
for predators and prey. The District of Columbia and its
cozy neighbor, Virginia, are marked with the sprawl of
enormous buildings, their labyrinths of long corridors and
office warrens, dens of culture, tradition, purpose, efficiency
and, even, boredom. Some of them are managed by
men of outsize ego and fearsome reputation.

Within these great buildings are many of the young and
mostly innocent, strivers and achievers who hope to do
well and make good. The boss can help them along, show
them how to navigate the landscapes of regulation and
bureaucracy, their codes and traditions; these misty strictures
– laws of the office beyond laws of the land – have
braced life in government offices since Washington took
charge and Jefferson held the reins.

A woman can go a long way in Washington until she
can’t, because she won’t. Or because she complained or
because she refused, or because she thought she was in
love and had to walk away. Men, too, can be trapped in the
cross-currents of ambition and malice and lust, but their
predicament is far less sympathetic in today’s boundless
edition of sexual predation.

The Congress is long prominent in such scandal, tolerant
to the point of callous. A legislator caught with his lover
need only trot out the dutiful spouse at a press conference,
or confess to drunken sin, or vow to enter rehab, or
all three, and everything is forgiven, everyone reelected.

Others who preyed on the young and innocent staffer or
intern, who forced things or tried to, were often forgiven
not at a press conference but privately, quietly, cash off the
books but on the taxpayers’ ledger. Or allowed to resign as
quietly as possible, saving a lavish pension and benefits.

The pushback has begun. Women are saying, no more.
As dark landscapes are exposed and Washington’s predators
revealed, new strengths emerge, new questions roll
out – but not for some.

The White House maintains distance, a nervous aloofness
from the sordid sanctuary of executive privilege and
evasion. The boss is too busy to be bothered with his own
history and the 19 women who accuse him. Any legalities,
or social movements, or troubling questions are brushed
aside. He is above them all.

What to make of this? Bring the matter home and ask
again. Put those troubling questions to friends and neighbors.

What if the mayor had preyed sexually, if a commissioner,
the sheriff or school superintendent had groped or
harassed or worse? Put the issue before city hall, the courthouse,
the school board. What would be done about it?
A lot, no doubt.

We may be a nation of laws, a land of moral enlightenment
at least on the home front, but Washington continues
to hold higher the glories of evasion, pretense and the
double standard.

‒ JOHN MARSHALL

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