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Why Do I Live Here? It’s Cold!

January 26, 2011

Ice falling on widget (Jan. 18, 2011)

Today it is cold in Washington. I have seen colder,1 but the memory of cold days elsewhere doesn’t make today any nicer. On the other hand, memories of warm days in warmer places do cause me trouble. I grew up in Los Angeles. You know: balmy weather, arid beaches, and fuzzy brown air you can cut and chew. I wore shorts and bicycled to school year-round. The sun roasted a permanent farmer’s tan into my skin. I was comfortable, I was naïve. I had no idea what it’s like to go outside after a shower and have your hair freeze. If I wanted to see snow, say to ski, I went to the mountains. An ice storm in L.A. would provoke terror, riots, and religious conversion. They don’t handle breaks in the routine very well.

It has been my 25-year education in the East. When I moved to Boston and real winters, I was astonished that routines went on after a meterologist’s chipper prediction of temperatures “in the single digits.” In winter I dutifully stomped to class in defiance of the season, snatching some paper napkins at breakfast so that I could drain my sinuses when I arrived. Harvard closes for nothing.2 I am convinced the Cambridge cab drivers swerve into the gutter slush to nail pedestrians. A few years later in Ithaca I slogged through three-foot blizzards and even more bitter cold. I remember the little rituals like stashing my gloves in my hat during class, and carrying a tube of vaseline so my lips wouldn’t crack. (There were occasional treats like tubing down Libe Slope at midnight without a paralyzing tree strike.)  In Chicago I staggered against the wind, my baby strapped to my chest under my oversize wilderness jacket. (Relax: He would be cozy in his Snugli and fall asleep promptly, cocooned in baby oblivion. Embracing that twenty-pound hot water bottle was also a plus.) I remember being surprised the car could start or run at twenty degrees below zero. But it was also an adventure. It made me feel alive. I had a great job, probably the best I ever will. A worthy sacrifice for my legal career, I reminded myself. Ah, to be young and stupid.

I am thankful that I am now in milder climes, though far from paradise. A week ago there was an ice storm, uncountable little pellets tapping at the buildings and earth (admittedly the hushed white all-but-silent sound was a pretty thing). Yesterday brought a slippery mess dithering between snow, sleet, and rain, and choosing all three. A ten-minute drive took nearly an hour, a very stimulating hour dodging hapless drivers either stalled or sliding.3 Inwardly, I find my changing reaction sobering: When snow goes from miraculous to irritating, you’ve lost part of your soul.

Snapshot near midnight

Last night's urban renewal, near midnight

Now, I believe it’s a fool who curses the storm. If you’re unhappy, move. So why don’t I? It’s not career that keeps me here. My work sadly has no relevance to my carefully chosen location a short subway ride from the nation’s capital, where I expected to work. It’s not the weather, albeit leavened by the seasonal things I love (see photo). (The summer is no treasure, either—someone said it is like walking into the breath a very large dog.) Then there’s what I don’t want to lose, such as the good schools—both boys are being treated well, and the youngest has seven years left. There’s also stability, something I never had before. Thirteen years here, twice as long as I’ve lived anywhere, provide part of the package I want to give my children. The community is solid, but also monochrome and often bread pudding bland. Discussion in the neighborhood easily turns to things like garage size, bingo night, and dog poop.4 It is not a bad thing, it’s just not my thing. I have not yet found a community that challenges me to think harder, to learn, to grow, even in impractical ways—compare Cambridge, aptly dubbed “a city surrounded on four sides by reality.” (Note to self: Certainly Washington fits that description, too.)

My conclusion is that this is all wonderful news: That I feel the cold, that I whine of my brain turning to mush, that I perceive the problems. In It’s A Wonderful Life the nuisances of life—the loose newel post knob—became delights when George Bailey saw the light. My discontent reflects that I’m healthy. The climate may not be what I want, but it is fine starting point, and it does ironically carry some fond memories of my warm baby and suicidal sledding. What comes next is up to me and not the rain. As I was before The Big Fall a dozen years ago, I am determined to be more than I am, no matter how cold the sleet, sharp the wind, or bitter the night. And that’s really cool.

1 Some readers have undoubtedly known much colder. No, I don’t need to hear from you. Just go ahead and be smug in your suffering.

2 I exaggerate not: “[F]ormer Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III told The Crimson in reference to a 1977 blizzard that ‘Harvard University will close only for an act of God, such as the end of the world.’” The Day the Sky Fell, June 4, 2003, The Harvard Crimson. That’s not all that’s irksome about Harvard, but it’s a nice example of pigheadedness.

3 Washington is a terrible place for snow. The effect on road safety and driver sanity of seven inches yesterday was that of Boston getting about a foot, or Buffalo getting thirty-seven. The schools are closed for two days, and a one-foot snowfall a few years ago closed them for a week.

4 Amazingly, listserv discussion of the President’s wonderful surprise visit to our elementary school last month was within nanoseconds hijacked by the recurring firefight over people not cleaning up their dog crap. As for bingo—if you knew me, you wouldn’t even ask.

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