Thursday, January 19, 2012

Seattle Under the White Flag

This week, as has been noted elsewhere, Seattle had some snow. I first heard this winter's storm compared to the storm of 1996. The spring of 1997, my family moved to Montana, and this is my first winter back in the northwest. It seems the weather has followed me. This was my first winter as an adult noting the curious habits of Seattleites in the snow. Someone from the Northeast talked about how Northeasterners just carry on when the weather gets snowy or icy. I saw a youtube video where a Seattleite talked about how, every winter, there's someone from the Northeast talking about how things are handled back in the land of the hardy. We took our guesses on when the University would close operations. Then the University closed, and I've worked the past two days from home.

The slow, white flag descended upon Seattle. The city is eerily quiet. I accompanied my wife to the grocery store, and we compared the city to the landscape of an apocalypse. I think I saw a discarded Christmas wreath roll down the street like a tumbleweed. The mood was heightened by a woman who walked the other direction, singing tunelessly to herself. In GasWorks park, sledders slipped down the hills, as they did on the streets of Capitol and Queen Anne's hill. Even now, as I type from a second floor apartment above Brooklyn street, I can hardly hear a car. No trucks rumble by. It is strangely, beautifully silent.

Others make fun of Seattle's surrender to the snow. We are the French of winter weather. Rain on us all year, we carry on, but snow? There's ice on those hills! The Los Angeles Times called us Snow wimps. On a private note, it has always astounded me how little the home of Hollywood understands of irony. I, myself, respect Seattle's attitude toward the snow. It is something almost religious. I realize, as most Seattleites do, that we could carry on - that we could clear the streets, if we wish. We could go to work. We could put chains on our cars. We could open the office, we could leave the house. But there would be accidents. People would die.

What does it matter, you ask - they would die anyway. They die daily driving in the rain, they die from a thousand byproducts of progress and hard work, as in every major city. They die because they are driving to and from work, or because they work too hard, or spend too many hours at the desk to get exercise. Deaths are a byproduct of progress. But that is the beauty of the ritual of the Seattle snow day. Ritual always appears meaningless, and the best rituals hold a truth that is not immediately obvious. The truths of this ritual are deeply invested in Seattle. The first truth is an ancient one - that it should not be so. People should not be needlessly sacrificed in the name of progress or business.

    The first truth is moral, the second practical, but it is the same truth. Snow deaths in Seattle are meaningless. Seattle is a very technological city, and its technology has overcome weather, not through conquering the elements, but sailing upon their breeze. Seattlites work from home because - why shouldn't they? They'll get their work done by email, or they will go out sledding and do their work later. The knowledge economy has flexible hours. I worked today with a co-worker who answered emails on her phone while her power was out. Even the frailties of our technological culture are being overcome by more technology.

    Seattle, a city quiet under the silence of snow and ice, outwardly surrendering, is inwardly alive with six hundred and ten thousand fibers of the Internet, sharing a memo, or sharing a video of a bus being pushed up a hill by a truck. Seattle is a city that has decided, when "Snowmageddon" is come, not to go out with a bang or a whimper, but to stay home and laugh, mostly at itself.

1 comment:

  1. You make, as always, astute comments and descriptive word pictures. I would also add that maybe the Seattlelites are "smarter" in another sense: They see the value of not disturbing the peaceful blanket of snow with hustle and bustle and thus gain some inner peace. Snowbound days can be a restful respite, unless maybe you are in a house with five children :)