Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Snow Divide

The U.S., at least these days, people can choose their climate. Has there ever been a time or place where it was so easy for so many to suit themselves? We've got every climate available anywhere on the planet here in the U.S. and no government authority can step between an American and his or her choice of weather.

What this choice boils down to is, in one way or another, snow. Where do you stand on the snow question? Do you want lots? Some? None at all? Are you a case of "It's nice to visit but I wouldn't want to live there?"

It came to me recently, lying in bed in my Vermont home in the small hours of the morning, wondering for the umpteenth time what the snow situation would be when it was time for work and school in the morning, that my own family has basically been riven by the snow question. Snow is a wedge issue for us and it has driven us, in a literal sense and figuratively as well, far, far apart.

I live in the same climate, basically, in which I arrived back in the 1960s. I was born in Albany, New York, grew up entirely in upstate New York (suburbs of Syracuse followed by suburbs of Schenectady) like many a General Electric Brat before and since. When I got old enough to choose a place to go to college, I picked upstate New York (Binghamton). Then I chose again and picked Montreal. I caroomed for a few years like a pinball through the Champlain valley between the Albany area and Montreal and then settled, after finishing my education, over the line in Vermont. And here I have stayed. My own children were born here. Our flag is planted in snowy Vermont.

I, however, am only one of three children. My older sister, I'll call her Bea, lives now in Florida. She has been living in the south, (Texas before Florida), for about the same amount of time that I have been in Vermont - 15 years or so. My younger brother, "Duke," went off to Texas for law school when he was 21. He pulled a stint in Louisiana, working for a judge, and a couple of years in Virginia but has been back in Texas for more than ten years and is there to stay. My mother, who was herself born and raised in upstate New York - a place she hopscotched across in the cities along the Erie canal for her whole adult life - decamped from Schenectady more than 10 years ago. First stop, Atlanta. Next stop and apparent final destination, the west Coast of Florida.

Only my father and I of the original set of five remain in the northeast. He still works for GE and he and his wife and their two dogs are installed where they have been for more than 10 years in a little village in Albany county. They live now not 15 miles from the college he arrived at as an 18-year-old, fresh off his family's central New York dairy farm. If he has his way, they aren't going anywhere. At least not any time soon.

As you can imagine, we rarely all get together in one place. When a few of us are gathered, however, the talk inevitably turns to climate. My father and I (he less obnoxiously so than I) regard the north as the birthplace of valor, the country of worth. We aren't leaving except feet first in a box. How do they live without four seasons? We ask one another, collusively. My Dad told me once that when he was growing up in Oswego County, New York, (a place infamous for gigantic lake-effect snows -- the kind the bring TV crews from New York City every couple of years to stand with their microphones and parkas before mountains of snow) that he was taught in high school to pity American southerners. It was an official part of the civics curriculum. The south, he learned, was enervated by that heat. Their climate was to blame for their backward nature. He would never say so now, but I think he took that to heart.

My Texan brother is as down on the rust-belt state economic gestalt as he is on the weather up here. When he reappears in New York sometimes he'll own that it is "pretty" but he goes no further. During his visits north, every time he thumps over a pot hole or sees re-bar poking through a bridge abutment, or the talk turns to income taxes, he feels his discernment has been rewarded. Northerners are the left behind. He is no longer one of them.

My Florida relatives are a bit more nuanced. My mother would like to get out of Florida for the summers, but she informs me, after every phone conversation winter weather report, that she doesn't miss the snow. "I don't miss it." Hmmm. I wonder to myself. I have my suspicions. No one wants to drive through the dark in a sideways snow storm - me most of all - but if you were raised ice skating in a city park every day as a kid, can it be true that you don't miss winter? What about the sunny days after it snows? I don't ask her about that. It might sound like I didn't believe her.

As for my sister, cracks in her Florida devotion are showing. After years of singing the praises of Florida weather, beaches, entertainments etc. she lets slip from time to time that she is pining for a little cold air and a little northeastern blue state tolerance and east coast pointy headedness into the mix. (She's a teacher and all that tax cutting is getting to her). She is in her late 40s and now looking down the road to retirement - a road that might lead north.

I don't know, however, if she could take it now. Your blood gets thin down there. I will confess that as my 40s move on, I have wondered whether she and I might not wind up one day as seasonal housemates. I mean, a little sun in January wouldn't kill me.


R. Sherman said...

I find the older I get, the more ambivalent about snow and cold weather I become. My mountaineering past was born of a love for snow and ice, frigid winds, and frost on my beard and mustache in the morning. Of course, that's before I had to shovel the stuff to get to work in the morning.

The EMBLOS, Bavarian that she is, misses the snow terribly. Here in Missouri, we get cold winds and temps, but alas, the moisture has been sucked from them by time they reach us.

Bottom line, I think I'd like to live most of the time in the desert, but close enough to the mountains for a "snow fix" when I need it.

How's that for a lawyer answer?


KSV Woolfoot said...

Hey R - I hear that, about increasing ambivalence... It's a fine lawyerly answer.

Nan said...

I am quite sure the first posting I read of yours was about heading to Florida and your feelings about it. As you already know, I'm with you, only with no thought of evereverever going south. I love the winter beyond words, in a way most people would find irrational to say the least, and crazy to say the most. I dread summer. I get nervous with all that sun and heat. And I love the northern towns. I adore the movie Grumpy Old Men as much for the locale (Minnesota town) as the content. Those snowbanks, those great winter clothes, shoveling. Another one I haven't seen for ages but is set in a New York town, I think, is Nobody's Fool. Not as cheery as GOM, but still a great setting. Small towns to me are at their best in the winter. People slogging through slush, greeting one another, waving out the windshields at other vehicles we meet; all of us in on this great sharing of real weather. Gladys Taber talks quite a bit about winter and New Englanders, which really does include upstate New Yorkers and Quebecois. We all feel the same way. We should be one big state. It isn't even endurance. We seem to feel a real joy in the snow and cold. Who can explain it? I suppose southerners do feel the same way about their climates. I knew a woman in California who said she just wished it would rain so she didn't have to do stuff outdoors. She lives in NC now.
Great, great post. Merry Christmas to you and your family!

KSV Woolfoot said...

Nan - What a great comment. You're right that there's a je ne sais quoi that comes along with the annual freeze up and that makes life up here different all year - and which reflects a person's inner-life more accurately than less changeable places. And I hate the heat too - at least when it stifles. Still, my joints are (just) beginning to protest these days. Merry Christmas to you too. Thanks for coming by and such a thoughtful response...

J.G. said...

As a life-long Floridian, I'm living for the day I can leave. My first visit to New England showed me that I belonged there, and two years in New Hampshire were the happiest years of my life, weather-wise. Can't wait to get back there! Cast my vote for small towns, wool sweaters, and snow country.

SanDiegoTim said...

As a kid growing up in Syracuse, ignorance was bliss. I survived by not knowing any better ... not knowing that the sun can shine for days on end ... lifting the spirit ... making for friendlier people ... and allowing one to play outdoors 365 days a year.

I loved playing in the snow as a kid but now that I've left cold winters and humid summers, it would be very difficult to go back because I now know better.

KSV Woolfoot said...

J.G. Welcome to the choir and thanks for harmonizing. One of my favorite life stories involves my daughter's piano teacher who, as a 70-something, fled Pompano Beach for Vermont's northern-most small city. (Man bites dog...)?

See, for contrast, the comment of SanDiego Tim. Also thoughtful and speaking for a great many (did you see that recent census data about the booming growth of the West and the South and the anemic northern stats?). OK Tim. I'll grant that you have gone native in San Diego for good reasons. But having a little inside knowledge of your back story, I know that you once went a long way out of your way to go bob sledding down the Olympic run in Lake Placid. San Diego is lovely and the weather is great, but the bob sledding sucks ;-) And where would be without those Oswego county forebears and the way they were forged in the snow? I have been thinking tonight of a certain female relative of ours who now has three passports but once was just a girl on a dairy farm who thought nothing much of a four foot snowstorm. She was the one who got me thinking of our countrymen as "snow wimps".

On that note, as I write, the weather men have gone all apocalyptic on us (again)because it snowed 7 inches over the weekend in Raleigh, NC and 3 or so in Atlanta, Ga. and the sky is poised to fall next on Boston and New York. If I may, can I just say, People. Don't panic. A lot of our ancestors crossed the Atlantic in wooden boats. We will survive a snowstorm. Most of us will anyway.

Anonymous said...

The Mid-Atlantic states are a good choice for not-wanting-to-be-North-but-don't-want-to-live-in-Florida.
Beautiful mountains, great beaches, and enough snow, cold temps to somewhat satisfy that desire for winter.
Spring comes early - without the generous muck and refuse of Mud Season - Autumn stays long.
I spent over twenty years in the area and miss the diversity of culture, geography, and biology much too often!
Stay warm in the Last House! Are you not to Stowe this year?

SanDiegoTim said...

Ahhh. Bobsledding. What a great memory. Ironically, the Olympic Bobsledders train here at the U.S. Olympic Center in San Diego.

Unlike most people, I do miss the blizzard conditions. As a kid, I dreamed about being a weatherman and predicting that the biggest of all snow storms was heading to upstate NY with the largest lake effect snow we've ever seen.

As for Deborah's comment about the Mid-Atlantic. That is the area where I least enjoyed the weather. During winter, Syracuse has its beautiful snow and San Diego has its beautiful sunshine but all Delaware gets is freezing rain and sleet. I couldn't find much beauty in that. Maybe that's why the Mid-Atlantic has so many big cities with so much to keep people occupied and their minds off the weather.