Let It Snow

This week started off with the promise of a bang. Unless you were living under a rock in the desert, you heard the proclamations of doom, destruction, and Snowmaggedon that, as of Monday, were supposedly bearing down on New York and its Northeast environs with all the force of Westeros (Note: Ask Scout if that’s an appropriate use of that reference. Also: Finally get around to watching Game of Thrones so as to get those references myself.). Workers rushed home early, residents stocked up on storm essentials (read: Whole Foods ran out of kale). In the truest mark of an impending urban catastrophe, the subway was shut down and, horror of horrors, the mayor confirmed New Yorkers’ worst fears: Food delivery bicycles would not be included among the emergency vehicles allowed to roam the roads. No Seamless tonight.

Don't. Panic.
Don’t. Panic.

Now the South gets a bad rap for its inability to handle what my grandfather used to call “that funny white stuff.” Just saying the word “flurry” can send people stampeding to the grocery store, relieving the shelves of enough non-perishable goods to withstand a minor nuclear apocalypse. Stampede is perhaps not the right word, since the whirling flakes can also have the effect of wiping people’s brains of all knowledge of how to operate a moving vehicle. Traffic slows to a crawl as people grip steering wheels with knuckles as white as the precipitation dusting the grass. One word of snow, and life as the South knows it comes crashing to a halt: schools closed, appointments cancelled, families gathered together with flashlights and hot cocoa as the unthinkable inches threaten to engulf their lawns.

Now my experiences with snow below the Mason-Dixon line were rarely this frenetic. I can count on one hand the number of times winter weather forced things to justifiably shut down: the Memphis Ice Storm of 2000, the Louisville Blizzard of ’08. On all other occasions, while the rest of the city freaked out — in Memphis, even a forecast of possible flurries was enough to bring the city to a screeching halt — my family remained relatively serene. My parents both grew up intimately acquainted with that funny white stuff: my mom in the hills of Pittsburgh and my dad among the pines of New England. Even my grandparents, the very ones who would threaten to cancel a visit if the forecast promised snow and declare conditions freezing if the temperature dipped below 70, were not unequipped to deal with winter weather: After 17 years in Pennsylvania, they had simply had quite enough of it. My grandmother was never a fan to begin with. She spent her childhood happily snow free in Atlanta, and so missed out on all the childhood delights that typically convert kids to snow worshippers. By the time she experienced the stuff as a young adult, there were no snow days, snowball fights, snowmen, or sledding expeditions of any kind. There were simply driveways to be shoveled and cars to defrost — not exactly the makings of a meteorological romance. Snow was an inconvenience to be dealt with as expediently as possible so as to move on with one’s life. She plowed through it for years, suffering (mostly) in silence, but as soon as the opportunity came to retire to a snow free clime, she and my grandfather jumped at the chance and never looked back.

Lee Harrow's feelings about winter weather, in a photo.
Lee Harrow’s feelings about winter weather, in a photo.

So as a kid, when snow came, I was taught to be, if not disillusioned, at least unfazed. Like every other kid in town, my siblings and I would camp out on our parents’ bed as school names scrolled by, granting our peers spontaneous holidays. We would watch the weather forecast like lottery numbers, waiting for those three magical words that would release us from alarm clocks and uniforms for one beautiful day: Louisville Collegiate School. And as we gabbled happily about accumulation and icy road conditions, my parents, without fail, would proceed to crush our dreams with a heavy dose of cold (if well-intentioned) reality. They would scoff at the one or two inches predicted, reminding us that this did not qualify as real snow. Unluckily for us and our classmates, our head of school agreed with them — a fellow Southern transplant from the oft-socked in state of Maine. And so time and again, while the rest of the city celebrated with snowmen (more brown than white), we would find ourselves stuck in geometry as our parents applauded Ms. Groves’s good sense. When she retired, we pressed our mom for details about the replacement candidates, wanting not educational backgrounds or previous positions held but hometowns. Please, we prayed to the recruiting gods, send us a head of school from Miami or Honolulu. A Georgian or Jamaican would do! We were elated when our queries were answered by a Louisvillian. Finally, we thought, somebody who understands the proper Southern reaction to snow! Imagine our dismay when he revealed that his last gig had been in Colorado, America’s Snow Playground, which had effectively conditioned him against Southern snow hysteria. And so, the streak continued.

This is all to say that, despite my Southern upbringing, I generally consider myself pretty level-headed when it comes to snow. Especially after spending my college years in Providence, Rhode Island, it takes a lot more than a flurry to send me into a frenzy. And I expected no less of my fellow New Yorkers, accustomed as they are to Northeast weather. So as the forecasts for this week first started to promise snow, I remained unperturbed. This was, after all, a city that dealt with winter weather on a regular basis. I had snow boots and a puffy coat, I didn’t have a car, I had survived the Polar Vortex intact. This should be no problem, I thought. But as the predictions started to take on a decidedly more doomsday tone and the city ground to a standstill, I started to wonder if I should be freaking out more than I was. Sunday evening, I roused myself from my cozy post-work Netflix nest in order to make a grocery run. I bought bread and milk, because apparently that is what one is supposed to buy before a storm. I made sure my various electronic devices were charged. I even filled up several water bottles, because that seemed like a storm preparation-y thing to do.

And so it begins: Monday evening, 5 p.m.
And so it begins: Monday evening, 5 p.m.

And then Juno descended. My roomie and I settled in with dinner and wine, and Frozen. We lit candles and read personal ads by people looking for a blizzard hook-up (a hilarious half hour before it started to feel creepy). I speculated about how I would get to work the next day (there are no snow days in the news biz) and when the subways would be running again. Every so often, we would peek cautious heads around curtains to survey the howling gusts and whiteout conditions the weathermen had promised. And each time, we were disappointed. We kept waiting for it all to start, finally going to sleep with visions of snow drifts dancing in our heads. But Tuesday, we and the rest of the city awoke to a measly 10 inches and a whole lot of frustrated commuters.

For as much media hooplah and hashtagged frenzy as preceded the storm, there has been an equal amount of post-storm outrage and mockery from people who feel the National Weather Service cried wolf and got them worked up for no reason: Newton’s Third Law of Social Media in action. The scientists tried to explain that meteorology is, at best, an inexact science — that their predictions were not as inaccurate as people are painting them to be, spouting off terminology about storm margins and pointing to the very real snowmaggedon that did affect the Boston area and Long Island. But New York, by and large, isn’t buying it.

via donuts741
Fool us once, shame on you. (via donuts741)

The problem, as I see it, is that as far as the reach of human technology has grown, Mother Nature is still unfathomably bigger. There are some things that cannot be quantified or simplified to an algorithm, and that makes people uncomfortable. In New York, this problem is magnified when a city that prides itself on being tough, unmoved by subway preachers or break dancers alike, completely loses its cool. And rather than admit that they got caught up in the snow frenzy, a trait they’re normally happy to ascribe to their simpleton neighbors to the South, they blame bad information and point fingers at the scientists who led them astray. In their hearts, New Yorkers aren’t any less freaked out by extreme weather than Southerners are: They’re just usually better at hiding it. The threshold for freak-out is higher here, true, but the emotions are the same. We don’t like to admit how vulnerable we are, that nature still has the power to scare us. It reminds us how small we are, how flimsy all this civilization that can be wiped clean in one fell storm. And New York, accustomed to being the biggest in most realms, doesn’t take kindly to that.

As for me, I’m happy to go back to being a snow worshipper. Juno robbed me of that for a moment, turning my friendly flakes into something to be feared. I lost touch with the joy my grandmother never understood, the hushed delight of watching an ordinary street be transformed into a white wonderland. Like Lorelai Gilmore, I am a firm believer that everything is magical when it snows. So let the ice coat my front step and the slush wash up against every corner: The snow never really bothered me anyway.

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