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.