Friday, December 26, 2014


Snow is a wonder of Nature, exquisitely beautiful from the detail of a single flake to its sparkling white accumulations.

Those of us fortunate enough to live in northern climes learn about snow from an early age. We learn that a single flake landing on your tongue is the most ephemeral of delights; that the joy derived from rolling in it is just barely worth the jolt of an occasional handful down your neck.

Not only is snow beautiful. Not only does it magically cleanse a graying winter landscape. Given the right conditions, it’s also plastic; you can make stuff with it. Snow angels, toboggan jumps, snowmen. You can build a fort or—a time honored tradition for the young and the young at heart in these parts—have a snowball fight.

    The more sensible your gloves the harder it is 
    to make the perfect snowball.

Here in Minnesota, many of our winter days are too cold to make snowballs— there’s just not enough free moisture in the snow for it all to stick together. But at 32 degrees Farenheit (0 celsius) and above, bring it on.

Conventional wisdom would say you must wear good gloves to make snowballs. I’ve done it in everything from the wispy woolens Aunt Elsa knit us for Christmas to those fabulous creamy-soft, golden, wool-lined leather choppers. And I’m here to tell you, the more sensible your gloves the harder it is to make the perfect snowball.

Once you accept the initial burn—and then the inevitable numbness—of your fingers, you’re good to go. Scoop up a double handful of nice damp snow—not too much; just enough so your hands wrap all the way around as your snowball takes shape.

A good maker develops a certain rhythm. Your first squeeze or two dispenses with any overage of material, which you unconsciously whisk off as you go.

After that first rough compression, you impel the clump about an inch upward, rotating it slightly, while at the same releasing your grip on it. This frees the mass to turn maybe 20 degrees and land back in your closing hands for your next press.

By the time you’re about eight, you’ve got this down to a science, effortlessly executing two or three of these lift/turn-release-squeeze cycles a second.

This repeated rotation is what gives the ball a nice round shape, something veteran snowball warriors appreciate both aerodynamically and esthetically. As you continue the forming, you learn to feel for high and low spots and compensate by tamping down or repositioning small amounts of your medium on the fly with a finger or thumb.

      Then there's the satisfaction of seeing 
      that sweet roundness explode into shivery 
      shrapnel as it hits home.

I’ve seen folks who think snowballs are more about quantity than quality. They slap together clumps of the white stuff that barely resemble balls. Worse yet, some don’t even bother with that, just grabbing and throwing hands-full. I've never quite understood this utter disrespect for the medium.

Me, I prefer quality. I know that the more perfectly spherical a ball is, the farther and truer it flies. And then there’s the perverse satisfaction of seeing that sweet roundness explode into shivery shrapnel as it hits home.

PHOTO: Chuck Kerr

No matter your work ethic, the side with the biggest arsenal often prevails—and it helps a lot if it’s all within arm’s reach. For as soon as you bend over to pick up more of your raw material for another ball, a crafty opponent will be all over you like…well…like the snow she dumps on your head.

There are a couple of unspoken rules about snowball fights. No throwing at the face—though this one walks a fine line, since handfuls of soft snow don’t count...and if I just compact it ever so slightly, who's to know?

Another rule is you can’t gang up on someone—unless, of course, that someone is an adult and you’re a bunch of kids. Hey, nobody said this was fair.

And finally, only the most malicious sort will craft a snowball that won’t disintegrate on impact. Like that hoodlum back in middle school who picked on the weak and timid, the one who just disappeared mysteriously from class one day—probably headed to reform school.

  The “cotton-to-cannonball” technique does for 
  a snowball what brass knuckles do for a fist.

Not that I would know first-hand, but I’ve heard there are basically two ways to design these deadly projectiles. First, there’s the “diamond” process, in which so much pressure is put on the damp snowballs that they take on the shiny surface and near-transparency of pure ice.

The second method produces an even denser missile. The “cotton-to-cannonball” technique does for a snowball what brass knuckles do for a fist. You take your “raw” snowballs, saturate them with cold water and then let them freeze solid.

One caveat here: you’d better really enjoy a snowball fight with such heavy weaponry, as it will likely be the last one you ever have. Even if you don’t end up in reform school with that now-aging fiend from middle school, no one will ever again accept your challenge.

If the simple act of making and hurling a snowball is somehow too much for you, there are a few clever devices out there that will do the job for you. One, a big plastic, scissor-like press with a hemispherical cup on each arm, takes a clump of snow and presses it into a near-perfect sphere. Another, shaped more or less like a jai-alai basket, throws a snowball with a quick flick of the wrist.

These devices are not fair. Besides, they completely miss the point. This is about children—and adults who are in touch with their child sides—interacting directly with Nature. Like splashing water in the summer, rolling in dry leaves in the fall or digging dirt, making something to play with out of snow is the most eloquent of expressions of a human being’s oneness with the natural world. Why would you want anything to insulate you from that essential connection?

Making snowballs is about the way your hands feel...and then don't. It’s about the smell and taste of snow. It's about everyone’s different idea of perfection—its shape, its texture, its heft.

And it’s about seeing and hearing that pristine white orb, the one with the ideal size and consistency, land, just between the shoulder blades of a stunned adversary—preferably an older one if you’re young; a younger one if you’re old—who never dreamed you had that kind of an arm.

PHOTO: Molly Redden, Georgetown Voice


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