The World Keeps Turning: Smiles, SAD, and sunshine


Published: 3/17/2023 3:26:36 PM

I realize I’ll never be known as Mr. Smiley-Face because of my thoughts, observations, or facial expressions. (Family members regularly laugh at my inability to summon a smile on command, as illustrated in my column photo.) If I consider America’s “damaged society” (see Jon Huer’s March 11 Recorder column), the wrinkles and frown get even worse.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that has been treated with artificial sunlight since 1984. Although I fall well outside the formal psychiatric definition, the months of least light (November-February) are my least favorite, while spring’s lengthening days prove, for me, Alexander Pope’s statement: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” A recent trip into the Southern sunshine found me smiling and laughing at a rare rate for February.

Many New Englanders (and others) experience some level of disorder when the sun stubbornly hides behind gray clouds or shines so weakly that it provides only a hint of heat and light. But my trip encouraged me to reconsider its power. Three examples stood out: one from nature, a second from our absurd American culture, and a third reflecting long-term hope.

Soon after arriving, we sat near the Gulf of Mexico, and I laughed out loud as the pelicans dived for dinner at dusk. They’re ungainly birds, at rest or cruising close to the water’s surface: beaks much too large and misshapen, smallish bodies that barely seem to support their impressive wings. But after years of watching, their kamikaze dives to snare a fish still amaze and delight me: a roller coaster ride down the steepest hill, and then, just before impact, wings suddenly pulled back to allow penetration deep enough to capture the unsuspecting fish. My laughter and joy are probably tinged with envy at their extraordinary abilities: eyesight keen enough to spot fish below the surface; algorithms that calculate the sudden climb and turn before the exhilarating, near-vertical descent; and the physical dexterity to retract their wings at just the right moment. I wish I could do that at every meal.

Another extended bout of laughter came as my mid-20s granddaughter and I made an evening supermarket run for ice cream the night before the Super Bowl. As we approached the freezers from the next aisle, I noticed an older woman (50-plus), well-dressed (clingy black dress, very high heels, jewelry, and makeup) perched atop a sale display of three cases of Ultra beer. An equally well-dressed and handsome man was studiously taking her picture with a cell phone. Naturally, I asked why she was posing in the beer aisle for a photo, and she answered with enthusiasm, “I’m in the Ultra ad during the Super Bowl tomorrow!”

Our faces must have registered skepticism since the man quickly confirmed her statement with a video of the ad (“leaked” ahead of time) in which a motley crowd cheers for tennis champ Serena Williams as she makes a golf putt in a simulation of Caddy Shack. She was the lady in the yellow coat and very large hat. We eagerly watched her the next day, too, and her performance, standing silently in the crowd, may be immortal, given the size of YouTube’s archives. It was a pop culture moment so absurd that I now wonder if I could gain some fame or fortune from it as some sort of influencer with only one degree of separation.

And finally, a contented smile rather than outright laughter. The Selby Public Library in Sarasota, Florida is a revelation in a state where the GOP is attempting to censor reading materials in schools and colleges. It opened in 1998, but appears newer, benefiting from a family’s endowment in the early 1900s. With a central rotunda providing light and space, it is both inviting and imposing, like the Boston Public Library’s reading room and courtyard. It encourages contemplation, imagination, and appreciation; it is filled with art; an aquarium framing the youth room entrance, and ... sunshine. It’s the most beautiful new library I’ve seen, and firmly situated in the city’s center. It feels like a fortress against the narrow sight of a zealous autocrat and his followers in Florida.

I’ll remember those smiles for a long time. It’s not a coincidence that all are bathed in winter sunlight and warmth, a force that can relieve mental, physical, and spiritual ills. I’m not sure the ancient sun-worshippers had it all wrong — at least until our climate-change summer sun fries us like fritters in a skillet.

Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary-era historical fiction novel “The Sword and Scabbard,” and Greenfield resident. His column appears regularly on a Saturday. Comments are welcome here or at


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