A Californian in Winter

As Published in The Rye Record on February 20, 2015

Shoveling selfie.

No matter how long we’re away and how pale we become, there are subtle ways to spot a Californian. We say freeway instead of highway, we wait in line rather than on line. Pop quiz: do you happen to know the date of the Academy Awards this year? Yes? Then you’re a Californian. An even easier way to spot a Californian is to expose us to a little weather. We missed the childhood of snowmen and mittens. If we look a little baffled, it’s because we were not bred for these winters.

There is so much to know about snow. My Canadian husband throws around terms like “heavy snow” and “wet snow,” and my half-Canadian kids know which kind is good for snowmen. Apparently snow itself is not the enemy, unless it brings wind and becomes blizzard that will knock out your power lines. Then snow’s a big deal.

When the temperature warms a few degrees above freezing, I foolishly think things are getting better. But those in the know brace themselves for the mini-melt and subsequent re-freeze that will turn my driveway into an ice rink. My kids understand this process the way I grew up understanding why you turn your beach towel with the movement of the sun to avoid an imbalanced suntan. (This information has not proved to be valuable during the past few months.)

A Native New Yorker

I’ve learned that ice is worse than snow like the stomach flu is worse than a two hour massage. There’s something called ice rain, which can be explained to Californians in this way: it’s like if you opened your poolside ice maker and just started chucking the cubes around. But not as fun. It turns out ice can form in your pipes, freezing them until they burst. Oddly, the resulting flood comes out in liquid form rather than in cubes. Why isn’t it frozen? People from the northeast can explain this. They’re practically scientists.

Worse than regular ice is the sinister black ice, which is sneaky and invisible and so deadly that roads and schools shut down in fear. Black ice broke my babysitter’s wrist and she’s got 6 to 10 more weeks in a cast. I’ve recently learned the term “ice dam,” which is a catastrophe that elicits empathetic nods from people around here. It’s pretty much the worst thing that can happen to you, and there’s no cure for it. I think of an ice dam as the herpes of winter.

Explaining all of this to my friends and family in Los Angeles is a bit like explaining the plot of Star Wars to George Washington. It’s a different world with different rules and constraints, and, unless you’ve cruised in the Millennium Falcon, you can’t understand what it’s like. Why are your kids home from school again? What do you mean Tom’s car is “frozen-in”? It’s at times like this that I feel like California is light years away.

Hurricane Sandy, as seen from California

I’ve seen things from their side. Because I spent a past life rescuing kittens and caring for the elderly, I happened to be stranded in Los Angeles during Hurricane Sandy. And I hear it was a real whopper! I’d be sitting poolside, listening to my husband’s voice on the phone, “It’s 30 degrees in our house, a tree fell on our deck…” I’d think: That sounds terrible… wait, didn’t I ask for salt on this margarita? In defense of Californians, it’s incongruous to try to wrap your head around the freezing, wet horror when you smell like sunscreen. It almost sounded like they were making it up.

I am slowly learning my way around shoveling, de-icing and salting. I know the joy that comes from seeing the dry blacktop on my driveway. But here’s another phrase I never knew growing up: green shoots. The green shoots that poke out of the ground on the first warmish day of spring are the visual embodiment of hope. The exhilaration that they bring to our still-bundled selves is like a double paddle of the defibrillator, a small payback for winter. It’s a rhythm that mimics life, the dark days followed by the magnolia blossoms. And it’s almost worth it. Almost.