For Seattle, this means a few inches of snow. Some areas have considerably more and some less, but all are in a state of paralysis that makes the rest of the country laugh. I come from the Midwest near the Canadian border, and the reaction amuses me–until I have to leave my house. Then I’m quickly reminded of the differences between here and there:
- Midwesterners plow their streets. And they believe in salt—lots of salt. It amazed me when I moved here that 20-year-old cars can exist with no rust. The cars of my youth only remained shiny for a couple years before they broke out in scaly, brownish-red patches. Here only the main roads get plowed—and that after a day or so. Various environmentally friendly de-icers are applied, but they don’t seem effective. Ask the last mayor, who was run out of town after failing to clear the city streets.
- There are fewer hills in the Midwest. You don’t realize how slanted the ground is here until you try to drive a stick shift or go out in the snow. Even the gentle slope of my driveway and the slight rise out to the main road seem as steep as Mount Rainier after a couple inches of ice.
- Seattle drivers don’t know how to get up hills in the snow. They timidly creep up at about five miles an hour, figuring they won’t slide if they go slow. Of course, this means they lose traction by the time they’re halfway up, and then they slip back down. They try an opposite tactic on level roads, speeding along without considering that they might need to stop or turn at some point. To go down hills, they creep along until they start to slide, at which point they slam on the brakes and twist the wheel in the opposite direction from the way they were traveling. This has the predictable result of sending them sideways down the hill.
- People in Seattle are eternally optimistic. Every time it snows they figure the roads won’t be that bad. Then they get stuck in the resulting gridlock on the freeways or on a hill or a side street and decide to abandon their cars. This of course means the plows can’t do their work.
- Snow in Seattle tends to be wet and heavy. It turns into slush during the day, then re-freezes into an icy mess at night. All this makes for beautiful snow-covered trees and great snowmen but difficult driving. And the weight tends to take out branches over the power lines, like now. I’m sitting here in my living room next to the glow of the wood stove as I write—at least until my laptop battery dies.
Because of all this, the citizens of Seattle freak out when snow is forecast. As I tell my kids, I used to walk five miles (it might have been closer to two, but don’t tell them that) in several feet of snow to get to school, which never closed in even the most raging blizzards. Here, the schools have been closed three days because of a couple inches of snow.
My point to all this is that you can’t judge Seattle for its lack of snow savvy. Even though I make fun of the news anchors breathlessly racing in their news vans to catch sight of a snowflake, it’s still true that I’m trapped in my house by two inches of snow. The hills and lack of snow removal equipment and inexperienced drivers make this a far different experience than winter in the Midwest.
I think this same principle applies to judgments about welfare. It’s easy to wonder why people can’t get a job or why they can’t stretch their food benefits to the end of the month. It’s easy to think they should be able to plan for crises like broken-down water heaters or getting the flu or a lack of day-care. But unless you’ve been in that situation you don’t know the truth of it. Perhaps they don’t have the same education or experiences that would enable them to cope. Perhaps some underlying problems keep them from reacting differently. Maybe they have their own hills or a lack of infrastructure or maybe they’re in a new situation. Maybe they’ve never been in a place where the people know how to manage.
They may be facing snow in Seattle.