Revel in this perfect day

I posted on Facebook yesterday that there is a God because he/she/it gave us the perfect day yesterday. My crazy cousin Ken chimed in, “What about the crap days? Does that mean there is a Satan?” My response: “Either that or God is a schizophrenic.”

Whatever. When a perfect day comes along, you have to be outside so by midmorning I found my excuse to stop working (I was working from home) and walk through the neighborhood. The humidity was low. The skies were nearly clear with a deep shade of blue. There were pockets of puffed cumulus clouds here and there. The winds were moderate but not brisk allowing sweat, if there were to be any, to swiftly disappear. This has been a late spring for us, with a winter that seemed to refuse to quit. Usually by the end of May it feels pretty much like summer here in Northern Virginia. But yesterday and today as well, it feels very much like the perfect spring day I’ve always wanted but so rarely get around here.

The leaves are all out now, largely untouched by acid rain. There has been so much rain these last six weeks that the grass is thick and lush. The lawnmowers have been kept very busy. The highway department simply can’t keep up with the mowing. Most medians have grass nearly two feet high, in some cases blocking the views of incoming traffic. Many of the streambeds are eroded from all the rain, but the rain has subsided enough where nearby Horsepen Run Stream Valley Park was down to running gently, with just a ripple of current on its surface. Strangers on the path smiled and nodded as I passed them. Walking was invigorating. It was one of those days that you realize that makes up for all those other sub-optimal days. If every day could be like yesterday, I would be a happy man. In fact, it would be paradise.

Except, as I suggested on Facebook, God has a schizophrenic nature. Most days in Los Angeles are sunny and clear, perhaps with a heaping of haze and ozone, so how could they be that special? Here in Northern Virginia we tend to get real weather, in that it tends to change a lot. Summer is generally the exception. During the summer it tends to stay unremittingly hot and humid, sometimes dangerously so. Some weeks you don’t care venture outside because the air quality is so poor. There are times during July that you want to move to Miami to escape the heat. You wonder why we don’t have palm trees. Fortunately that season tends to last roughly two months: July and August. May and June tend to feel on the edge of summer, with many days drifting into summer. Our unusual winter though also produced an unusual spring that started later and reminded me of springs I knew when I lived in upstate New York. If the weather could reliably be like this during the spring I’d be happy not to move to more northern latitudes.

Perfect days are ephemeral and thus must be appreciated, and I certainly appreciated it yesterday. Even the pollen count was down, with just a tiny sheen of pollen on my windshield in the morning. It was a day to open the windows and feel connected to the planet. It meant hearing the wind for a change, the feet of the bird scampering across the roof of our deck as well as more manmade noises like airplanes taking flight from Dulles Airport a few miles to our west. It meant smelling the air, and the air was laced with a mixed floral scent that was intoxicating.

Yes, God probably is a schizophrenic, as our weather is such a mixed bag, much of it not optimal and most of it downright annoying. No wonder we tend to prefer to be inside. We get it all from 104 degree heat with killer air pollution to -1 degree bone chilling extreme winter days. We get tornadoes, regular thunderstorms (often severe) from spring through the fall, and sometimes in the winter. We even get hurricanes although by the time they make it this far inland they are usually downgraded to tropical storms, and the damage is usually from water instead of wind. God tends to be most destructive by hurling lines of thunderstorms at us, occasionally with a tornado or two thrown in. It brings down power lines, puts people in the dark and shuts off their air conditioning. God likes to tease us with snowstorms that usually devolve into snow showers that don’t even stick to the pavement. For humor every few years he will throw a massive snowstorm at us that will bury us in two or more feet of snow, sometimes back to back. If you live in the mid Atlantic area, change is likely to be your only constant weather pattern. The weather rarely stays the same for long, except in July and August, which simply must be endured, largely indoors. The more sanguine of us, particularly in neighborhoods where power lines are not buried underground, keep generators and ten gallons of gasoline in reserve to get through power outages. We Washingtonians really resent being uncomfortable.

But happily there are still days like yesterday when God gives you a delicious respite and reveals his majesty. You must take these days when they are given and spend them to the extent you can outside. You must give into its sensuality, knowing it will be short-lived. Find a shady spot under a tree facing into the wind, close your eyes and feel the steady wind course through your nostrils. Feel such an intimate tactile, olfactory and aural connection with your planet. Feel it, hold it in your memory and come back to it often on those days when nature is not so beneficent. It’s why it is good to be alive.

Snow rules for Washington D.C.

It’s snowing outside at my home here in Northern Virginia. It’s hard to measure the current amount of snow given the drifts, but I am guessing it is about a foot of snow and more is still falling. This makes it a major snow event for our area. This will likely the biggest such event since Snowpocalypse and Snowmageddon back in late 2009 and early 2010. With our power lines underground, we’re good.

Thanks to the polar vortex, snow has not been unknown this season, although it had not arrived in substantial quantities until last night. Mostly what we’ve known are well below freezing temperatures instead. I used to wear my parka a couple of times a year. For weeks I’ve worn nothing outside but my parka, and an insulated hat, and my warmest and thickest gloves and sometimes a scarf as well. In short, it’s been a real winter, of the sort I remember from my childhood in upstate New York. It shows no sign of leaving anytime soon. The polar vortex is quite happy where it is, thank you very much.

If these events and cold weather go on long enough, it may actually change the snow culture of the Washington area. It hasn’t happened yet. There are rules and a protocol for dealing with snow that are generally unique to our area. If you are thinking of relocating to the Washington D.C. area, here is what to expect:

  • If there is a rumor of snow in the forecast, even if it is a week away, it will be Topic A around the office water cooler. It will send the local meteorologist wannabee in your office to find the most crazy and outlandish forecast, which will spread like wildfire. A chance of snow next Friday will morph into a killer supercell snowstorm because of some odd European forecast model, which professional meteorologists scorn. Guess which forecast your office-mates will believe?
  • Because of the above (or sometimes just the rumor that there might be snow in the next month) you are required to immediately rush to the store to buy milk and toilet paper. Everyone will get the same bright idea at once, which will mean that parking lots will be jammed, store shelves will empty and toilet paper and milk won’t be able to be found which will also be true of the snow. A true Washingtonian knows that even if you have a couple of months supply of toilet paper, and an extra refrigerator stashed with gallons of milk, you are still required to go buy more milk and toilet paper. It’s the rule! You can never possibly have enough, because it could be weeks before a snowplow gets to your street.
  • The federal government is required to dither about whether it will close its offices or not, leaving great uncertainty and confusion because most local governments, institutions and businesses will follow whatever the government does. The poor director of the Office of Personnel Management will get squeezed from both sides trying to call it. Taxpayers don’t like federal employees getting a paid day off and federal employees don’t like getting stuck in snowdrifts going to and from the office or for that matter, working. So the OPM chief is bound to make someone unhappy and upset. Congress will conveniently gavel their sessions to an early close so they can get out of town, while conducting hurried interviews on their way to the airport about the outrage of giving federal workers another day off with pay. In any event, there is a 50% chance the OPM director will call it wrong and a 100% chance that someone will be mortally offended and call for his removal.
  • Some Republican congressman will say that the snowstorm is proof positive that global warming is not happening. Actually, a half dozen or more of them will, but only one will make the papers.
  • The plowing rules are straightforward: when you don’t particularly need your street to be plowed it will be plowed. When you really need it, it won’t be. Our last three-incher brought the plow down our street twice during the night. Getting out of my driveway in the morning was not a problem and my street was nicely sanded with mostly bare pavement. This snowstorm likely means a couple of days before a plow arrives. They are too busy plowing the main roads that no one can get to than to bother with places where actual people live. In general, particularly in Virginia, the snow removal budget will always be underfunded assuming the most optimistic forecast for the winter and there will be great consternation when lots of snow arrives and there isn’t the money to remove the snow quickly. It’s the price of limited government and keeping taxes low.
  • Your local school district works just the opposite of the director of OPM. They want schools to close and actively look for reasons to shut the school down. No one complains except those whiny parents who probably have to work and can’t get childcare. No one in the school system gives a crap about them. A rumor of snow or ice a week away is sufficient to close schools. A temperature in the single digits, and sometimes in the teens, is a reason to close schools. Principles, teachers and students all expect lots of bogus snow days. When the year draws to an end and enough instruction days were not delivered, someone will waive the requirement to extend the school year because, duh, parents have vacation plans already!
  • Here is what you do if you see a snowflake: panic. It’s required. You are driving down a clear street and one stray flake falls from the sky. You must immediately scream and cause an accident. This is because even if you have lived in the area thirty years, you are not allowed to retain the memory of how to drive safely in snow. Even if you did somehow remember, your fellow commuters won’t, because most are newbies and previously lived in tropical environments. In any event it only takes one person who has never driven in snow before to thoroughly shut down a major artery, and it’s guaranteed that you will have plenty of those, so traffic will quickly gridlock. It will be hard to say if it is due to snow, since this is the way traffic is most of the time anyhow, but it is guaranteed if there is just a single snowflake.
  • You will eventually end up with spouse and kids all home together, and you are required to drive each other nuts. This is because it’s not normal to be all at home together at the same time.  You keep your sanity by being physically removed from each other most of the time by being at work, school, or at friends. Suddenly you are together 24/7 and you quickly will discover that while you love your family, you don’t like them. In fact, you secretly hate them, including your spouse. The longer you are housebound the worse it will get.
  • The rule on shoveling sidewalks is: every other walk is shoveled. Some will dutifully shovel in the midst of a snowstorm; some never will, including their driveway. If pressed people will create all sorts of reasons for not shoveling, including school kids will get better traction in the snow instead of on a cleared sidewalk. The lazy ones simply wait for nature to “shovel” the snow for them. Some will hope a kind neighbor to do it for them. The really clever ones keep a broken shovel as a ready excuse and, gosh darn, all the stores are closed so there is no way to get a new one.

That will do it for a starter. I am hoping to retire this year or next and we are likely to move further north. So I expect to see more snow but I also expect the streets will be plowed regularly. It will take some time to forget the Washington snow culture, but it will have me chuckling during each snowfall in retirement. Washington is a city full of eggheads who become vacuous blondes the moment a snowflake arrives. If it weren’t so frustrating, it would be very humorous.

Call of the snowbird

If you live in the United States or Canada, most likely it’s cold outside. Large parts of the country started the day in negative numbers of degrees Fahrenheit.

At 8 AM this morning it was 5.4 degrees here in Northern Virginia, which is relatively balmy, unless you were actually out in it, as I was. With ten mile an hour winds, the temperature felt like -3 degrees. In the thirty years I have lived here we have had colder days, but likely there were only a handful of these days. One of them was January 21, 1985, the day after Ronald Reagan was sworn in for his second term, when temperatures hit -4 degrees at National Airport. Reagan moved his inauguration indoors because of the extreme weather. I recall the heat going out in our apartment, forcing us to bundle up in coats inside it for a few hours until the super could get someone to restart our pilot light.

Global warming morons, of course, will point to this week as an example of why global warming is not happening. They will do this while of course ignoring the indisputable general trend that on average the planet’s atmosphere is heating up. Fox “News” will probably make this a feature today. There is little political news of interest otherwise, and certainly Fox News viewers don’t care about the one political issue of note today: extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. It’s not just the long-term unemployed that are suffering. It is also a lot of people losing heating assistance, as Congress also inconveniently cut LIHEAP, the Low Income Heating Assistance Program, before rushing out of Washington last month to enjoy the holidays with family in front of their own hearths.

Every extreme weather event has me scurrying to do something. I believe in energy efficiency, so these events suggest I need to do more to insulate our house. Our kitchen is colder than it should be, in part because the oven has a vent to the outside, and there is really no way to block that cold air. Some years back we put in a hanging planter box window over the kitchen sink. It’s nice for plants, but not nice during these severe cold snaps. So I invested a hundred bucks in a heavy duty vinyl blind to pull down just for these events. It keeps most of the cold from seeping through the window while letting some light through because it is translucent. The basement is now in good shape, as we replaced the ceiling windows with double-paned windows with argon gas between panes during the autumn. Our other windows were replaced in the mid-2000s and are similarly weather tight. Our doors are well weather stripped with one exception, part of the door to the deck where the weather stripping fell off. I applied some freezer tape to the gap last night as a temporary measure. Our heat pump though is still mostly on, in spite of our precautions, as was the extra blanket on the bed last night. The only good part of this cold snap is that natural gas is cheap, and Dominion Power is mostly using natural gas. So I am hoping that despite the cold snap the electric bill will come in at under three hundred dollars.

When the weather gets this cold, exercise takes a holiday. Only crazy people go outside for exercise on days like this, but there are a requisite number of crazy runners in our neighborhood so devoted to the cause that they will rise at four a.m. and go running anyhow. For me, my options are largely walking around the office during breaks, or walking the long corridor in the basement of the building during lunch.

I caught a little of the playoff game in Green Bay on television Sunday night and actually felt sorry for the 49’ers for having to play in the single digits. Crazily, their arms were exposed and some players like the quarterback were not even wearing gloves. Considering how much money they earn, I shouldn’t feel too sorry for them, but watching it from the warm sports bar where we were having dinner I felt cold anyhow, even if it was a sympathetic cold.

A number of people have been asking me why I want to live further north in retirement. Why endure more of weather like this, not to mention the hassle and inconvenience of driving in the snow and shoveling walks? This is best answered by donning the warm parka, scarf and hat I wore to and from work today. When it gets cold you can always bundle up. In other words, you can add layers and stay reasonably warm. When it is 104 degrees outside, which seems to happen routinely at least a few times during the summer in recent years, you are entirely reliant on air conditioning. While you could probably technically survive without air conditioning in this kind of weather, only those who can’t afford to will do so. In short, temperate zones are preferred but if you have to choose between the two, it is better to endure frozen winters up north than long summers with temperatures routinely popping 100 degrees, like in Phoenix.

Still, this is a logical reaction, not an emotional reaction. Like most aging Americans, as I age I find I prefer the climate a little warmer. It could be reduced metabolism. I wish it were due to reduced body fat. At some point, particularly during extreme weather events like the one we are currently enduring, migrating south seems quite attractive. Which is what these snowbirds will be doing soon.

The time to enjoy warm weather is when you don’t have it. Thanks to airplanes, cruise ships and comfortable bank accounts, you can escape for a while. January is the best time to escape to the Caribbean, which is where we will be starting a week from Friday. We will be on a Holland America cruise out of Fort Lauderdale with a destination of the southern Caribbean departing January 17 and returning January 27. When we come back all tanned and relaxed then perhaps we will appreciate cold weather again.

Right now, this extreme cold just feels a bit too much.

Hurricane Sandy reminds us why we need government

With the arrival of Hurricane Sandy here on the east coast yesterday, you got a timely reminder of why we need government. Yesterday was a day when you wanted to batten down the hatches and if you lived in certain areas also pray like hell. Unless you own a boat or ship you probably didn’t have to literally batten down any hatches, although I have to wonder if failure to do so lead to the sinking of the HMS Bounty during the storm.

For most of us storm preparation meant cleaning out gutters, removing chairs from our decks, testing the sump pump, stocking up on batteries, toilet paper and bottled water, and finding places for our automobiles away from trees. It worked for us here in Oak Hill, Virginia. Sandy dumped more rain than wind on us. Nearby Washington Dulles International Airport reported 5.4 inches of rain during the event, with peak sustained winds of 39 miles an hour, with gusts to 54 miles an hour. We also had a day of record low pressure, something I attribute to climate change. As hurricanes go this was a bizarre one. No tropical air and foggy windows this time, but cold air fed by a cold front on the other side of the Appalachians, driving rain for more than a day, and blustery winds yesterday afternoon and evening. Our house, windows and floorboards rattled from time to time, but the power and heat stayed on and we never lost Internet.

News reports indicated that millions of others are still without power. Sandy left much of New Jersey and lower Manhattan destroyed and/or underwater. I am monitoring my hometown of Binghamton, which likely has not seen the worst of Sandy yet. The area suffered two devastating floods in 2005 and 2010. This may be yet another one for that suffering area to endure. But its impact will be softened, thanks to local, state and federal emergency managers. Thanks should also be given to President Obama, who declared areas disaster areas before the storm hit, to speed aid and supplies.

The list of people and organizations to thank are immense. There is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which coordinates disaster relief and works intimately with the states to stage disaster relief supplies. There is the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center, which effectively tracked the storm and issued the correct warnings. There is the Coast Guard, various governors, state and local emergency responders, power crews, ambulance drivers and cops on the beat.

Some of the best results were things that did not happen. My roof did not blow off or collapse. This did not happen by magic, but was the result of building codes and building inspections. In 1985 when my house was constructed, Fairfax County sent out inspectors to make sure my house was constructed to a code that would allow it to endure major storms like Sandy. In 1999 we replaced our deck and enclosed it. “Big government” building inspectors took a look at the roof of our new deck and told the contractors it was not up to code. They were forced to add additional beams to support the roof.

There is more evidence of big government across the street from my house. There a large dry pond sits awaiting events like Hurricane Sandy. It safely collects backwater then funnels it into the nearby creek in a measured manner, minimizing flood damage. Even in the event that it overfilled the dry pond, the codes required the road to be graded in a certain way to keep the water flowing gently downhill, never leaving a spot on the road for water to accumulate. Before the community was even constructed, an engineering study was ordered to make sure no part of our community was in a flood zone. Had these safeguards not been in place, it is likely that we would have experienced some storm damage last night. Possibly me and some of my neighbors would be dislocated, injured or dead. Big government could not eliminate these risks, but through a planning and an impartial inspection process it minimized these risks. One of the reasons our power never went out is because power lines are underground in our neighborhood, another outcome of big government. Doubtless it would have been cheaper to plant telephone polls instead.

Much of the wheels of government work this way. It’s the things that you don’t see and take for granted that minimize losses and deaths during these natural events. All these services cost money, but they cost less because their costs are borne generally through taxes. The cost per capita for the National Weather Service is a couple of dollars per year.

FEMA is an example of the services that Mitt Romney plans to drastically cut if he is elected president. And yet many of these services are already chronically underfunded and if anything need more funds. Moreover, the cost of funding these arguably essential areas of government are a pittance compared to the cost of entitlements and defense. At least now Romney claims says he won’t cut FEMA. But clearly you cannot balance a budget and not raise taxes if you don’t cut something. If you won’t do much to cut entitlements and keep bloating the Defense Department’s budget, these essential government services must be drastically cut.

You can say, as many conservatives do, it is better to leave it to the states to handle these things. But hurricanes do not respect state boundaries. It makes no sense for each state to have a redundant weather service when it can be done nationally. The whole point of having a United States is to ensure that if some states have to deal with disaster, we can pick up their slack by everyone contributing aid through federal taxes. We need these services because we are all in this together. These services are not nice to have; they are essential. We are bigger than the sum of our parts because we are united and federated.

Also essential is the infrastructure that makes all this possible. We need the National Science Foundation to stimulate research in national areas of interest. We need my agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, to do seismological research, biodiversity estimates and to monitor the nation’s streams and groundwater, so the National Weather Service can make flood and drought forecasts. We need the FDA to make sure our drugs are safe, agricultural inspectors to make sure our food is safe, ICE to handle illegal and legal immigrants, and the FBI to investigate intrastate crimes. Maybe if push came to shove we can do without funding Big Bird or sending probes to Mars. These costs are mere pocket change in the federal budget.

As I have noted before, taxes are the price of civilization. If this is not clear to you, then elect Republicans and watch as our highways and bridges deteriorate, our children become unable to afford college, watch our food become impure, our drugs become adulterated and see legions of poor and starving people living on the streets because no one will house them or feed them. Expect that when some future Hurricane Sandy arrives, the size of the problem will needlessly mushroom simply because we as a society have decided we have stopped caring for anyone but ourselves.

It’s your choice. I understand if your ideology tells you to vote Republican regardless, but the next Hurricane Sandy won’t care about your philosophy and you and your family may be needless victims. God gave us brains. Let’s use them.

Weather we like it or not

It’s only May 27th, but only seven deaths stand between 2011 and matching the number of the most people killed by tornadoes in a year since 1953. Given that tornado season has hardly started, it seems that in 2011 we might break the all time national grisly record of 794 people killed by tornados set in 1925.

Most of the carnage was directed at the Midwest and South. 132 people died in Joplin, Missouri on May 22nd. The tornado injured 750 others. With 156 people unaccounted for in Joplin, it seems likely that this number will climb. April tornadoes that devastated much of Alabama and Mississippi were just practice for the massive cyclone that hit Joplin five days ago. Tornadoes killed 321 people between April 25 and April 28.

The National Weather Service estimates there were 875 tornadoes in April, most of them on April 25. On April 26, around 11:30 p.m. a relatively weak tornado with eighty miles an hour winds struck nearby Reston, Virginia. It came within a hundred feet or so of hitting the Unitarian Universalist church I attend. Our minister was burning some midnight oil in her office when it hit but fortunately was unhurt. Our spanking brand new building addition that we just dedicated a couple months earlier might have been leveled. Fortunately it passed between our church and a local senior citizens housing complex a couple hundred feet away. It sheared a number of trees, including one that fell on our playground.

What’s to blame? Meteorology is not yet an exact science, but a phenomenon called La Niña is likely at least partially at fault. Tornadoes get their energy from the juxtaposition of hot and cold air. It’s hard for me not to attribute at least some of the magnitude and large numbers of these tornadoes to climate change, and its global warming aspect in particular. Of course, fatalities are likely to rise when tornadoes hit populated areas. With a hundred million more of us in the United States than there were just forty years ago, today’s tornadoes are likelier to inflict more damage and death.

I never really considered myself living in tornado country before. It is true that here in Northern Virginia we do get occasional tornado watches and warnings. They used to be an occasional thing: once a month or so during tornado season. In thirty years of living in this area, I can count on one hand the number of times a real tornado came within ten miles of my house. Now I feel sort of spooked. Lately there have been tornado watches a couple of times a week, and the one tornado that did strike near us nearly hit a building I attend regularly. Is all this random chance or am I witnessing the beginning of new and more dangerous weather patterns? If I were Spiderman, my spidey senses would be tingling. In fact, my senses are tingling all over, and I don’t think it’s due to electrostatic charges in the atmosphere.

Perhaps I would be less alarmed if I did not have a brother who is a meteorologist and a wife whose idea of fun is spending nights on the computer watching TornadoVideos.Net tracking severe storms. She seems to get happier the closer they get to us. I feel panicky. I want to run and hide in our basement bathroom. I used to tune out thunder. Now hearing thunder pumps the adrenaline. I now especially don’t like thunderstorms at night. At least during the day you can see them and maybe have some warning. At night tornados could catch me unaware.

I knew it was bothering me when the other day I found myself signing up on The Weather Channel’s web site for severe weather email alerts. So far though these emails only add to my sense of fear. I have localized weather alerts to my zip code, but most weeks I can count on getting severe weather alerts at least a couple of times during the week. Often it is nothing (“Coastal flood advisory”– when am I near a body of water?), more often it is flash flood warnings, but about ten percent of the time it is a TORNADO WATCH or even worse a TORNADO WARNING. That is when the adrenaline really starts pumping. Like now, for example. Within the last fifteen minutes I got three warnings, the latest that says:



Be prepared, is the Boy Scout motto. That was one of the few lessons I retained from my Boy Scout years. Forewarned is forearmed. What else can I reasonably do? The thought has occurred to me that I might not be near a computer when one of these tornado warnings arrives. Maybe what I need is a weather radio, one with a backup battery and a hand crank. This way if at 2 AM there is a tornado warning I will at least be aware of it, unless the Weather Radio tower was blown down by a tornado. I will also be something of an adrenaline-filled zombie as well, and unlikely to sleep the rest of the night.


Maybe it is too much. Maybe instead of email alerts and weather radios, I need to revel in ignorance again. Maybe what I really need in a fatalistic attitude and an emergency supply of Valium. My suspicion is unless I retire to an area far away from a tornado zone, I will be living on edge for the rest of my life, at least during tornado season.

The Rapture did not happen on May 21st, but the weather is getting freakier, and seemingly freakier every day.

I think I need that Valium. And maybe a Bible.

Some moderate weather, please

If I am sick of extremes in politics then I am also sick of extremes in temperature. Living as I do only some twenty miles from Capitol Hill, certainly the center of hot air in the United States, you would think some of that hot air would be headed my way right now. It might, you know, chase away this unwelcome winter that most of us east of the Mississippi are dealing with.

Too much. Too much hot air in Washington. Too much global warming (2010 was our hottest year in recorded memory, including here in the Washington D.C. area), too much extreme snowfall (Snowmageddon and Snowpocalypse, all within the last twelve months), too much extreme weather in general. Now this: days of unrelenting arctic weather and our first brush of snow for the season. Lots of hot air and lots of cold air, but I don’t recall too many days when things were just uniformly comfortable. Perhaps we had plenty of days like this in 2010, but my fading memory does not remember many of them.

No, I am stuck in the misery of the present. Winter does not officially start for a week, but it arrived early nonetheless. The Midwest was largely shut down by a wayward mass of arctic air. A stadium’s roof collapses in Minneapolis from nearly two feet of white stuff. Here we have been dealing with nearly two weeks of continuously below freezing temperatures and brisk northwesterly winds. Maybe it’s not Chicago but that’s the point, it’s not Chicago. We deserve better than this.

We deserve better than cars that hesitate to start. We deserve better than, not just mere gusts of wind, but steady freezing winds of twenty to 30 miles an hour day and night, yet with occasional gusts wherein Mother Nature showed us her power. On our screened in porch, Mother Nature decided the door had to blow open twice. The darn thing is screened. The wind is supposed to blow through it.

I feel like Nanook of the North, just (until today) without the snow. Going outside is an act of courage. It involves donning my warmest, stuffed and fleece-filled coat, often with a sweater on underneath it, my thickest gloves that recede past my wrists toward my elbows, my warmest stocking gap and a scarf. It’s still not enough. Facing into the wind feels not just cold, it feels sadistic.

I enjoy a window facing office, but not so much in the winter. I arrive at work and my office is cold. There is a heater by the window that I immediately crank up. I also put on my extra sweater, which goes on top of my long sleeve shirt and undershirt. It is still not enough to feel warm. All morning the heat pours from the window heater but it is never enough until sometime in the afternoon when the sun finally shines through my window and the high outside makes it to 24 degrees. That seems to do the trick.

I am rethinking my notion of retiring in New England. Of course, I enjoy a brisk autumn day, but who needs their long and miserable winters? Who needs the constant snow shoveling? Maybe New Englanders, like Chicagoans, get used to it. I think I am too old. I don’t like heat. I don’t like extreme cold. Give me lots and lots of moderate and comfortable weather. Give me weather that is boring, but predictable. The lows might creep into the fifties and highs would rarely get much into the eighties. That is what I want now, even if I have to deal with long, dreary and wet days to get it.

Some place like Oregon, perhaps. We had close to a week in Oregon this summer, but we also spent a couple of days in the dreary Oregon coastal murk. However, it was a lovely dreary coastal murk. Back home, the ozone was at unhealthy levels, the heat was frequently reaching triple digits, massive thunderstorms were leaving tens of thousands without power and the humidity, when you ventured outside your air conditioned sanctum, caught itself in your lungs and oppressed you with its heaviness.

Someday I will escape it for good. I will retire somewhere where living is comfortable and I rarely need to either wear shorts or a coat. I’ll be like Mister Rogers and be content in a light cardigan sweater. I’ll feel mellow. If I never have to deal with a thunderstorm again, that will be fine. I’ve had my fill of them. In Oregon, thunderstorms are almost unheard of. They may have to deal with the occasional plume of volcanic ash or earthquake, but they happen very rarely when they happen at all. Weather fronts, when they decide to arrive, arrive slowly. You may not even know that they came. This would be fine with me.

No Sun Belt retirement for me. There will likely be no New England retirement for me either, although hopefully I can pay extended visits during the temperate times of the year. Instead, give me a home where the weather, like its people, is ordinary and moderate.


After nineteen inches or so of snow back on December 19-20 of last year, most of us Washingtonians had figured we had seen the last big snow dump for a while. Based on my experience we could expect to wait another five to eight years before we would get a snowstorm that would exceed a foot.

And here it is less than two months later and the snow is back, but even worse. I will let the meteorologists tell us what the official tally was. Based on trying to shovel out our driveway late this afternoon after the storm ended (and getting only about a third done) it is clear that this storm will exceed last December’s storm. Based on my shoveling, I’d say we received somewhere between twenty four and twenty seven inches of snow. Washington Dulles Airport (just a few miles away) reported received 32.4 inches of snow so maybe our actual total was higher. Areas north and east of us reportedly received more snow. So it is a good bet that this snowstorm will go in the record books, actually exceeding the crippling snowstorm that dumped twenty eight inches back in 1979 on Gaithersburg, Maryland, where I was living at the time.

As with the December storm, this one I got to ride out in the comfort of my house. Our electricity stayed on but many Washingtonians were not so lucky. No property damage for us, as best I can tell. Our next door neighbor’s purple plum tree though fell to the ground under the weight of the snow.

The storm was preceded by the usual frantic preparations that clogged roads and emptied store shelves. Friday found me nervous, because I was expected in Georgetown to have my sutures removed and the snow was to start around 10 a.m. Fortunately, we could be seen early and the snow when it did start came down wet and for some hours did not stick to the pavement. For a few hours, the storm actually made getting into and out of D.C. a breeze compared to a normal Friday. Most people just stayed home. We were able to buy food without too much trouble before the storm hit as well.

As usual, we expect it will be a few days before we see a snowplow on our street. More than likely they will do what they did last time: plow one lane and throw some sand down. This means of course that our driveway will temporarily extend six to twelve feet into the road, which we of course will have to shovel. Ah, the paradise of living in a low tax state! We are learning more of that good old American self reliance!

No question about it, it was a lot of snow and perhaps I will not live to witness a larger snowfall. Look at how the snow accumulated on our deck and you will get some idea of the volume of snow we received. I will let Mother Nature take care of the back deck. Hopefully it will be melted by spring.

Snow day

We have a foot of snow so far, and the snow is still coming down frantically. It is hard to see out my northern facing window. No plow has bothered to come down our street. Only a few cars are even bothering to try to drive through the snow, and they are only the ones with four-wheel drive. If I got a newspaper this morning, it is buried under the snow somewhere. I dug out one lane to the street and there was no newspaper to find. I guess I will have to read it online.

Blizzards do have certain advantages. They tend to focus the minds of us Northern Virginians, which means we make frantic dashes to stores to stock up on snow shovels, milk, bread and toilet paper. What’s with the toilet paper? Isn’t that why we invented Costcos, so we could stock up in bulk? I have enough in my basement to see me through February, at least. This focus on essentials of course meant gridlock in general yesterday, and this was before a flake of snow fell on the ground.

So the actual blizzard now underway is somewhat anticlimactic. Life becomes pretty simple. You stay indoors, hope the power stays on, and start digging out once the storm passes. All those busy plans I had for today are blown away. I was supposed to give a final exam today. The exam was all prepared, but I was unprepared for the campus closing. What do you do in this case? I wrote the dean, who said in her thirty-six years in academia she has never seen this happen. What you do is (with the dean’s permission) make up a policy on the spot. So I am giving my students the options of getting their grade based on their work so far (since grades are due by Tuesday) or taking the exam later and maybe getting an incomplete. If I know my students, they will all opt for skipping the exam altogether. This is fine with me. The end of the semester is always the hardest. Students want to begin recess. Professors like me are sick of our students and all their little quirks and hassles. These include disputes over grades and homework, belated requests to take quizzes later and dubious excuses like they had to go out of town because grandma or Uncle Fred passed away. It is all suddenly moot, thanks to the blizzard. Post some grades online and the semester is over. Let the holidays begin.

Except, of course, I am behind on holiday shopping and this blizzard puts me even further behind. The Christmas cards were frantically assembled yesterday. Now stamped, they have no place to go. Meanwhile, I try to think about what to give my wife and daughter, who have pretty much everything they could possibly want. How much better am I supposed to make life for them? But for a day or two, no worries. We will be landlocked and even the 7 Elevens will be closed. For the moment, worrying is moot. Instead, you sleep in late, eat leisurely breakfasts and have as sex with your middle aged spouse as frequently your middle aged bodies will allow.

Still, this blizzard is exciting because of its timing just six days before Christmas. It virtually guarantees a rarity here in Northern Virginia: a white Christmas. Bing Crosby was right: “Just like the ones I used to know”, but it was oh so long ago when I was living in upstate New York. Around here, a white Christmas is something you enjoy once a decade if you are fortunate. “White” counts if there is any snow on the ground, so some dirty and gunky snow in a parking lot counts, even if it is mostly melted. I have counted as “white” Christmases where there was just a dusting of snow on the grass. This one however will be truly white. There is no way that all this snow can melt before Christmas, not even with global warming. The ground will be solidly covered on Christmas Day. Considering what a crappy decade this was, thanks to Mother Nature we will be leaving it behind on a high note.

So instead of frantically grading exams and posting grades, I will help put up the artificial Christmas tree and assorted holiday decorations. Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire will go on the stereo to regale us while we hang the ornaments and string lights. One difference this year: we are having a more ecologically friendly Christmas. The incandescent light strings are out: the new very efficient LED light strings are in. They festoon our front porch and soon will adorn our Christmas tree as well.

Also later today will come the smell of frantic baking as my wife and daughter roll and bake gingerbread cookies. For me this is good news, as I don’t like gingerbread cookies, so I likely won’t eat any. This in turn is good for my waistline during this perilous gastronomic time of year. I may have time to wrap the few presents I have bought and place them under the Christmas tree as well. In addition, there is always belated vacuuming and bathroom cleaning to be done. For a day, I can be a domestic god.

We have tickets to see Young Frankenstein tomorrow at The Kennedy Center. It is unclear whether the roads will be passable enough to get there for our matinee show, or if it will be put on at all due to the weather. In any event, there is nothing that I can do about it. Mother Nature will decide. It has rendered all else moot.

Since our power lines are buried underground, I expect the power and the heat to stay on. This, the chance to blog and surf the web indiscriminately, and putting up some Christmas decorations will keep me happy. In fact, I will be much happier than if the blizzard had not arrived at all.

Let it snow.

Unnatural weather

The Great Flood must have started this way: huge dark rolling clouds skittering quickly across the sky, choking off the sun, and almost hugging the terrain. While outside, I felt an overwhelming stickiness all over my body, even though the temperature was in the low 70s. I also felt vaguely apprehensive, but did not know why. Then in the distance, I heard it: the first peal of thunder. At first, the rain was almost a mist, and then it spat droplets on my windshield. The thunder grew louder and sounds came closer together. I sensed lightning, but was not sure where it was coming from. Sometimes the bolts reached the ground, and at other times, they just illuminated the clouds. The droplets turned to drops, then came closer together, and then cascaded across the pavement. They seemed alive and anxious to leave the loud and turbulent troposphere where they have been hiding. Sheets of rain followed, hitting the ground with an unnatural intensity, splattered off the pavement and recoiling inches up into the air. The gutters were quickly overwhelmed. The dry pond filled up and threatened to overflow. Images of my basement flooding coursed through my mind. I wondered if the sump pump still worked.

That’s how it started last Friday night and except for a few couple hour breaks that’s how it has been here in the metropolitan Washington area ever since. I would like to say it feels like Oregon, but Oregon does not get thunderstorms, or so a resident who lives there told me. This is the rain we needed during the spring but mostly never received. It has arrived, finally. And yes basements were flooded, although mine was not. The low spot in my backyard, however, resembles something of a pond. Birds are enjoying playing in it. All over the metropolitan area there is flooding. Trees are down, including a large elm tree on the White House grounds. Storm waters lifted cars off the pavement on Constitution Avenue. Blocks were closed to traffic until the water could recede. In the building where I worked, the water covered the cafeteria. The janitorial staff worked overtime with the wet/dry vacuums during the weekend to remove the water. The tile floor looked scuffed and damaged.

Around midnight early Saturday a huge storm hit, keeping my wife and me up half the night. Even with my ears plugged with silicone, I could not tune it out. Saturday morning found me bleary eyed in the kitchen. The storm had receded for a few hours but it was soon back. Boom. BOOM. More shake, rattle and roll. The dry pond, which had nearly drained, was now close to overflowing again. More waves of rain danced for our amusement on the pavement in front of our house.

Sunday, it was more of the same. By Sunday, it was no longer fun. In fact, what we were experienced seemed unnatural. Having lived in Florida I knew my thunderstorms. At least they went away and disappeared until late in the afternoon the following day. There was some relief. Here in Northern Virginia, there was little in the way of relief. If you had to go somewhere, a sturdy umbrella was a prerequisite.

Today at work from my fifth floor office, I found it difficult to concentrate. My eyes kept being drawn outside the window. There were more very ominous clouds in the southwest. The rain for a while had receded, but there was no sunshine, just another ominous feeling again. Boom! Flashes of lightning. I am not sure where the wind came from, but somehow the flag in front of my building was moving in the wind, despite a torrential downpour. My boss stopped by my office to marvel at this long lasting natural oddity. Was that hail? No, they were just megadrops cascading off the roof, and dancing on the concrete ledge outside my office window. Even from five floors up, you could feel the intensity of the storm.

Water cooler conversation was dominated by the weather. Some federal buildings were shutting down. You know it is serious when the Office of Personnel Management is issuing statements that it is okay for employees to take unscheduled leave. The basement of the National Archives was flooded. Local news reported numerous stories of people stuck in surging waters, only to find themselves trapped. Fortunately, I have not yet heard any story of a fatality. However, there were reports of many rescues.

It is now Monday evening. For the first time in days, the pavement is beginning to look dry. The skies do not look so ominous. There is no peal of thunder in the air. Perhaps the worst is over. On the other hand, perhaps not. More showers and thunderstorms are forecast for tonight, as well as additional localized flooding. A flood watch remains in effect through tomorrow night. Showers and thunderstorms are expected tomorrow too. It is not until Wednesday that skies are forecast to clear, at least partially. Perhaps then, our umbrellas will have a chance to dry out. Perhaps I will sleep through the night again. Perhaps I will not need to build the ark in my backyard after all.

Snow what else is news?

Just for the record, it’s back! That white stuff. You know, snow!

The foolish around here thought that maybe after the blizzard a couple weeks back we were done. Since that time we’ve actually had a couple more snowfalls. Blissfully the first two didn’t amount to very much. Then there was the last couple of days. Two inches, then another four or so in the last 24 hours. This morning looked pretty nasty actually but 6 inches DOT can deal with, 18 they can’t. So the street was reasonably well plowed (but of course they never pushed the snow to the curbs … too much bother) and the big adventure was getting out of our driveway. And the main roads were spotty in places but driveable.

But of COURSE the schools were closed the last two days. Yesterday they could well have been open but the storm moved slower than expected so the two inches or so we got would have only slowed an arthritic school bus. But Wednesday night they were thinking it would move faster than it was did, so they closed schools on an expectation. Today of course schools were closed again. Terri and I made it to work okay. On the way home the snow had stopped, the roads were mostly just wet and things were just melting in general. By this evening with the sidewalks shoveled it was hard to understand what all the fuss was about this morning.

So Rosie was out of school ALL of last week and two days this week. There have been 3 or 4 other snow days during the year. And Monday school started two hours late and they sent the kids home around noon on Wednesday due to fears about that white stuff. At this rate she may be in school in July. However, our school board consists of a bunch of weenies. They won’t let it cut much into summer vacation. They’ll petition the state and the state will say, sure, why not. Who cares if an education is cut a bit short … we want to send these kids to camp instead!

Anyhow we are weary of the stuff around here. We’re just not used to this much snow. We were getting used to global warming. Now we long for Spring the way a sailor six months at sea longs for a port and a loose woman. But I have a feeling it will arrive late. There is still a lot of snow to melt first.