Monday, December 15, 2008

Perspective: Use it or lose it

It's in the 20s here in the Portland area, with an eastern wind that knocks it down to around 10 degrees. TV reporters are standing around in brand-new parkas calling this "Arctic."

As I sit here in a coffee shop, I am struck by one thing: The sky is blue--beautiful, clear, gemlike, limitless blue. We don't often get cold or snow like this in this neck of the woods, but we don't get winter sky like that much either.

One of my favorite cities in America is Minneapolis, and I met it under what you'd think would be the worst imaginable conditions: It was very cold and snowy, and some friends and I had driven there on spring break from Penn State (yes, I know, that's a fundamental error in spring break navigation, but there were good reasons at the time), and I had accidentally left my Red Wing boots behind and had only the ratty low-cut sneakers that I wore to drive in.

But I fell in love with Minneapolis the first day there, because there's all that sun and blue sky, even in the dead of winter. (They probably don't even use the phrase "dead of winter" there, since their winters are alive and healthy.) They have skywalks connecting many of the buildings downtown, letting you get from A to B without getting out in the cold while still enjoying the sun. Add to that the fact that they've got more snow plows than Portland has TriMet buses, and you've got a city that knows how to handle winter.

A few years later, I lived in Wisconsin, not that far from the Twin Cities. As I was walking across campus toward my new office, on a pleasant September afternoon, I noticed that many of the cars had a heavy electrical cord and plug hanging out through the front grill. What's that? I asked a local walking beside me. She looked at me with a gently pitying smile--those were, as I later learned, the cords for the block heaters. Most newer apartments even came with an extra switch on the panel in the bathroom: It turned on the power to an outlet on a little post by your parking spot in the lot below. Plug in your block heater the night before, on those nights when it hits minus 20 (none of this 20-above wussiness!) and then flip the inside switch while you're brushing your teeth the next morning, so the engine block can thaw out by the time you're ready to start your car and go to work. And all this with as much nonchalance as a homeowner in Vermont owning a leaf rake.

Still, asking Portland to handle snow and cold with the casual indifference of Minneapolis would be like asking me to handle getting shot at with the same detachment as James Bond--it just doesn't happen to us enough that we'll ever get the chance to become good at it.

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