Objectively speaking, autumn is probably the best season. Not cold like winter, stormy like spring, or hot like summer, autumn has great weather—totally aside from the pretty colors and Halloween (arguably the best holiday, albeit in a near tie with Groundhog’s Day).

For pretty much my entire adult life I’ve dreaded the cold dark days of winter, and among the many ways that Seasonal Affect Disorder affected my life in a negative way was that it ruined autumn. I could usually get past the summer solstice okay (although in the back of my head, I knew that the best day of the year had come and gone), and I could keep it together through July and August. But by the beginning of September I knew that winter was coming, and I’d spend the last months of nice weather steeling myself against the dark days to come.

It was the dark that bothered me, more than the cold. It’s easy to armor yourself against the cold—flannel, moleskin, fleece, wool, down—there are many ways to deal with cold. But even a Verilux light therapy lamp (which does help) does not solve the problem of the dark days of winter.

All of which is merely an introduction to saying: Last winter I did not suffer from SAD!

I had meant to write something at the time, but I didn’t want to speak too soon, and then once it was spring, it didn’t seem like the most important thing.

I don’t want to jinx anything, and I’m sure the right combination of stressors on top of the cold and dark could once again put me in a bad place, but something more important has changed than just a good year: I’m no longer afraid of the dark days. Maybe I’ll suffer from SAD again, and maybe I won’t, but at least the mere knowledge that the cold and dark is coming is not ruining my fall! In the back of my head I seem to have turned a corner and developed some confidence that I’ll be okay despite the season.

So what has helped?

First, not having to work a regular job. I’m sorry that I can’t recommend something more generally available, but that was the biggest thing that made a difference. Because I don’t have to be productive on a day-to-day basis, I avoid the depression-spiral that used to result from realizing that I wasn’t getting anything done, which made me anxious about losing my job and being unable to support my family, having the anxiety make me more depressed, and the depression making me even less productive. That used to be a killer. On top of that, because I don’t have to be in the office during any particular hours, I’m able to spend a few of the few non-dark hours of the day outdoors, taking advantage of what daylight there is (and making some outdoorphins).

Second, exercise. I always knew it was important, but I took things up a notch each of the last few years, and each new tick up turned out to provide an enormous improvement in my mood. In my experience, all kinds of exercise are good. Endurance exercise is good. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is good. Skill-based training—ballet, parkour, animal moves, taiji—is good. Resistance exercise (lifting) is perhaps best of all. Letting the dark days of winter compress you down into a lump that seeks (but never finds) cozy because you’re unable to move? That’s the worst.

Third, community. Granted this is not so easy during a pandemic, but even people that you only see on-line are still people you can have a connection with, and having connections is good.

Fourth, something to look forward to. It can be almost anything. Last year I was looking forward to having my family visit. Other years I’ve looked forward to taking a vacation somewhere warm. Even little things help me—ordering some fountain pen ink or cold-weather workout clothes and then looking forward to the package being delivered, and then looking forward to using the newly acquired item.

Fifth, a project that you can make progress on. Ideally something without a deadline—at least, no deadline during the dark days of winter—but a project that you care about. Something that you can spend a few minutes on every day and see some headway that brings you closer to completing it. Creative projects are good, but creativity isn’t as important as just having a thing that you’re working on, and making steady headway.

Not suffering from SAD, even if just for one year, has been wonderful. Having some confidence that things will be okay-enough this winter that I’m not spending all fall dreading it is even more wonderful-er.

The solstice snuck up on me this year. The calendar shows it as being today, which it is if you live east of the United States. But it was actually a few minutes before midnight on the east coast and more than an hour before midnight here.

Happily, Geoff Landis (one of my Clarion instructors) posted a “happy solstice” message on Facebook (with a link to an astronomy site with the details) a few hours before the event, so I was able to appreciate it prospectively.

The longest night of the year has come and gone. I’m glad that’s over.

Why, in just six weeks, it’ll be Groundhog’s Day! And once that happens, it’ll be time start looking for our early spring!

My friend Chuck​ likes to point out that we’ve already reached the worst of the winter darkness: Tomorrow the sun will set at 4:27 PM, and that’s as bad as it will get. As early as December 12th the sun won’t set until 4:28, and it just gets better from there.

For people working a regular job, a later sunset is a big deal (although it’s not really a big deal until January 24th, when sunset time is finally after 5:00 PM).

For me, though, it’s sunrise that really matters, and that keeps getting worse for a long while yet. We don’t hit our latest sunrise until December 30th when it’s not until 7:15 AM—and then it just stays there for almost two weeks. Things don’t really start getting better until January 12th, when the sun rises at 7:14.

So really, I should be luxuriating in the relatively early sunrise this morning. The sun will be up at 6:59 AM—before 7:00! Why, it won’t be this good again until February 5th! That’s after Groundhog’s Day!!!

(All these dates and times local to Savoy, Illinois in 2015–2016. Ephemeris data for your location will vary. But if you live in the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, they won’t vary by enough.)

This tree, with some sort of little red fruits all covered in ice by a freezing fog, kinda looks sunrise pink. Maybe I could pretend it is the dawn. Of course, before dawn it’s too dark to see it.

Frosty pink

Despite my anticipatory angst, I’m actually holding up pretty well so far. I’m sure the extra time spent walking outdoors is helping. Yesterday, I walked to my taiji class, then walked around during the time between the two classes (with Jackie for the first half of her walk home, and then around playing Ingress), and then walked home again after my second class. It was just a little over 6 miles, but my longest walk in a good while. I’m sure the two hours of taiji helped as well.

We wanted to get a doormat in advance of our Groundhog’s Day Eve party.

Because we had left it so late, I had already resigned myself to getting a merely ordinary doormat. We had good intentions of getting a good doormat later, but I knew we’d almost certainly end up using the ordinary doormat for years. It would be “good enough” and there’s always too much important stuff to do to get to less urgent tasks.

Since we weren’t even going to try to get an excellent doormat, we went to Tuesday Morning, a shop in our old neighborhood that sells mostly surplus and discontinued stuff.

We get our cocktail napkins there, because they have odd, random, cocktail napkins for cheap. Most of the cocktail napkin designs are generic birds or flowers, but we can almost always find one or two packages with something funny or interesting.

We figured they’d have odd, random doormats, and that maybe we’d be able to find one that was funny or interesting.

The first few doormats were generic birds and flowers, but then, near the bottom, was an octopus doormat!

Octopus DoormatIs it not awesome? Is it not the best doormat you’ve ever seen? I mean, yes, a doormat featuring a hedgehog and a sloth might have been even better, and one featuring a groundhog would have been more topical for our party. But honestly, even including one of those, I can’t imagine a better doormat than the one we found.

I should also mention: the party invites have gone out. If you didn’t get one, it was purely an oversight on my part. Let me know (my email address is on my contact page), and I’ll get you the details of the party.

We have a bunch of things we’re hoping to do this year, and most of them require some amount of preparation—preparation which will have to occur in the winter and spring.

My plans stretch out to the end of July, because the last week of July I’ll be in Lille, France to attend the 100th Universala Kongreso de Esperanto.

As preparation for that, I really want to spend half an hour almost every day practicing my Esperanto. That should be plenty—I already read and write the language and I’ve attended international Esperanto gatherings in the past. But just a bit of practice listening to spoken Esperanto (podcasts and such) and a bit of practice actually conversing (with my local Esperanto group, and such other folks as I can find) will go a long way toward making attending this kongreso a rich and satisfying experience.

About a month before that will be the solstice, and right around then—second half of June or very early July—is the only good chance do the Kal-Haven trail walk that we’ve hoped to do each of the last two years. (In those weeks because only then are the days long enough to finish the walk in daylight.)

As preparation for that, we need to go on several walks each week, including a very long walk roughly every other week, working our way up to being able to walk the 33.5 mile trail.

Several months earlier—just one month from now—we’re going to have a little party for people to come see our townhouse. We’ve fixed the date as February 1st, and are thinking of it as a celebration of Groundhog’s Day Eve, or  Imbolc, if you prefer. Invitations are forthcoming. If you don’t get one, it is surely an oversight—let me know.

As preparation for that, we need to finish unpacking!

Without a specific deadline, but very soon now, I want to finish revising my novel so I can get it out to first readers.

As preparation for that, I need to spend an hour or two every morning writing.

Normally at this time of year we’d also be planning our garden, but Jackie has convinced me that working a garden plot this summer will be more than we can manage.

Weather is a local phenomenon. Oh, weather systems can cover half a continent, but the weather on the north edge of a huge weather system will be entirely different from the weather at the south edge. And any particular spot on the planet sees a unique sequence of weather systems, somewhat different from those seen by other nearby spots, and entirely different from those seen by more distant spots.

This is why I’ve always been completely baffled by celebrity groundhogs.

It makes no more sense to pay attention to the shadows of distant groundhogs than it makes to pay attention to the forecasts of distant meteorologists. In fact, it makes much less sense—a distant meteorologist has the skills and technology to produce a useful forecast for your local area. But I have no more interest in what some celebrity groundhog sees when he emerges from his burrow than I have in the local weather report for Hong Kong or Timbuktu.

What matters is what your local groundhog sees when he emerges from his burrow this morning! Pay no attention to the shadows of distant groundhogs, whatever their celebrity status!

Hereabouts, it’s rather foggy, assuring us of an early spring.