Ice in Seattle

I guess Mother Nature doesn’t like to be mocked. No sooner had I posted “Snow in Seattle” making fun of our two inches of snow, than the real storm arrived with serious snow, followed by freezing rain, more snow and finally wind. After four days without power we’ve emerged to a landscape of split trees, fallen branches and crushed plants. As the ice formed, you could stand outside and hear the rifle-shot of branches crashing to the ground and watch the plumes of falling ice and snow. It left a beautiful landscape in its wake.

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Snow in Seattle

Snowmageddon has arrived!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

The Accidental Rutabaga

Something you do today may produce unexpected results. You may think you’ve failed. You may think your efforts were wasted. But weeks or months or years from now, you may harvest the reward.

I discovered this over the weekend as I worked to prepare the garden for a new growing season. Winter had brought us one of those pleasantly freakish days where the warm temperatures reminded me it’s time to start seeds for spring.

 We’re still eating frosted cabbage, carrots, beets, chard and kale from the garden, but as usual, I’m behind on cleaning up. The last of the fall crops that couldn’t survive the cold have become twisted black stalks, and the bare patches that didn’t get covered with leaves or hay have sprouted blankets of shot-weed. Uncollected seeds are scattered around the nasturtiums and calendula like chicken scratch.

As I cleared away the dead plants, I made an amazing discovery. A giant vegetable peeked out under the end of one slimy row. I bent closer. A large, tan bulb bulged out of the soil under a tall, green stalk. I decided it was a rogue beet. It sprouted near the beet patch and had months to grow with no competition, so what else could it be?

I hauled the big root home, and the next day my son came downstairs and spotted it. He has an anti-vegetable radar that instantly detects squash or beets. “Why did you have to grow a rutabaga?” he asked. Then it hit me. Months earlier, I had planted rutabagas in that very spot.

I’d never planted them before. I’d never eaten one. I just like the name. My dad used to make rutabaga jokes. But the crop failed. The seeds didn’t sprout, or if they did, I didn’t recognize them and weeded them out, something that’s easy to do when you’re fighting platoons of weeds. Or they may have fallen to the slugs that deploy in spring. I tried to replant, but somehow used the wrong seeds, resulting in a sunny bank of calendula.

Unknown to me, one of the rutabagas survived under the flowers. With no slug bait, or fertilizer or weeding, it grew to surprise me one winter morning. It was a reminder to me that when you plant a seed or send an email or help a friend, you don’t know what will result. Every action is a stone in a pond, sending out ripples. The payoff may not be what we expect. We might not recognize it at first. But it could be something beautiful, like a field of flowers. Or it could be a rutabaga.

Now if only I knew how to cook it.

Hey dudes, I’m Poor Now

I get junk mail, therefore I am.

I’m staring at my mail basket and thinking, “What the heck? When will these people get a clue?” In front of me sits the following:

Algarve coast

Image by MeckiMac via Flickr

  • A glossy 144-page magazine on “Virtuoso Life: The Traveler’s Guide to Inspired Pursuits,” graciously sent to me by an on-line travel service. This is the Europe issue, giving me the “50 Reasons to Go Now” and “Exploring Southern Portugal’s Algarve Coast.” Now trust me. I’d love to discover the Algarve Coast, but my plans this year are more in line with exploring beautiful, downtown Tacoma and convincing my kids that camping in our spider-infested tree house will be fun.
  • An invitation to the BMW Mission to Drive Sales Event. Apparently, now I can enjoy an “on-road combination of raw power, unrivaled efficiency and total refinement all at once.” Somehow that doesn’t sound like King County Transit. Or the ’88 Toyota pickup–although the screwdriver holding up the window adds a classy touch.
  • No fewer than three credit card offers. I’m tempted to send these in and list my food stamps as income. Or to fill one out for the dog and discover if she can get a credit card. I guess I should be glad our credit rating is intact, but these ads don’t reassure me the debt crisis is over.
  • Pleas for money from charities, magazines and  organizations like the Pacific Science Center, who wonder where we’ve gone. I regret dropping some of these. But they might need less money if they’d purge their mailing lists. We cut our magazine subscriptions and memberships three years ago, yet it’s a rare day when we don’t get mail or calls begging for us to come back. It’s like some horrible zombie movie with a horde of telemarketers pawing at the door with special return offers. Yesterday a Comcast dude knocked as I was writing. He asked me about our cable. I told him we didn’t miss it a bit. He stepped back and cleared his throat and asked about our long distance and Internet. I told him we were happy with our stripped-down service. In the end, we chatted about the pouring rain for a minute, and he shambled down the driveway. Now that I think about it, his arms were at an odd angle.
  • A catalog for sharmusic.com, my favorite on-line seller of stringed instruments. I took up violin for my mid-life crisis several years ago, and I buy my strings from Shar. But I haven’t played lately, because my daughter is using my bow until we can afford to replace hers. The dog howls less now, but I miss the music. And I can’t go play on the corner until I get that bow.
  • Next is a renewal offer from the AARP. My mid-life crisis notwithstanding, I have months until I qualify for AARP, and I want every one of them! Although the discounts might be good. But a renewal!! Not even the free insulated travel bag is worth the indignity.
  • And finally, my favorite of the day: the 2012 National Agricultural Classification Survey. This one may have come because of our food benefits, which also originate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Or because we live on an acre. The survey is used to “make policy, business and funding decisions affecting U.S. farming and ranching operations.” Participation is required by law. Do two goats and four chickens constitute ranching? The form asks for the largest numbers of layers, pullet and roosters in my flock at any one time. That number was six before the coyote incident. But then the survey asks what is the primary type of layer/pullet operation. There’s no check-off for “pets.” Nor do we have any bees, and we eat or donate all our crops. So in a few months or a year, you can feel good knowing your tax dollars went to inform you of the number of bee keepers in the country.

So I guess the mail does reflect my old life pretty well. What will I get in the future? Check cashing offers? Coupons for Tacoma? An offer for the dog? I can’t wait to find out.

Growth or Grim Times Ahead?

So last week’s survey asked if it’s ethical for those on food stamps to spend money on Christmas gifts. By a two-to-one margin, those responding okayed such spending. This isn’t entirely consistent with last week’s response that said recipients should use benefits only on healthy or basic foods. By that reasoning, if people have money for gifts, shouldn’t they spend it on food and ease the need for assistance? But this is another instance where my kids counted more than my ethics.

For today’s survey, I thought about discussing my New Year’s resolutions, but they’re too simple to sustain a blog: I hope to make enough money in the coming year so that I don’t have to sell my house, my body (which has dubious value), my kids or my dog. (Well, actually, I might entertain offers on that one. She’s a well-trained, six-year-old Black Lab with a tennis ball fetish.)

So instead I’ll ask readers a simple question: Do you think the economy in 2012 will be better or worse? Most experts agree conditions in the next 12 months will improve, with growth limping along at 2.4% GDP (up from 1.8% in 2011), unemployment at 8.8% (down slightly) and inflation at 1.9% (also down from 3.6%). (Research Department, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia Survey of Professional Forecasters Fourth Quarter 2011).

Dr. Nariman Behravesh, Chief Economist of IHS, a financial information provider, predicts sluggish growth between 1.5% and 2%. But he cautions that two big dangers could derail his forecast: a financial meltdown in the Eurozone and a sharp slowdown in China.

Scott J. Brown, Chief Economist at Raymond James & Associates, also sees Europe as a threat to the U.S. economy. “There is still hope for Europe,” he writes in his 2012 forecast, “but it’s not looking good. A more substantial meltdown would have a significant impact on the U.S.economy and long-term interest rates.”

A recent survey of chief financial officers from throughout the country by Bank of America Merrill Lynch also shows tempered optimism. About half of those surveyed say they expect their corporate revenues to grow, and only 7% expect further layoffs. But they worry the government won’t be up to the job of repairing the economy. “Senior financial executives are more concerned about more factors that could effect the economy than in any previous point in the CFO Outlook survey’s history,” says the study. “Heading into a critical election year, it’s telling that 70% of CFOs cited concern about the effectiveness of U.S. government leaders and 63% cited the U.S. budget deficit.”

While the majority of forecasts foresee slow growth and gradual improvement, some take the opposite view and say these gains will simply be the last gasps before a major downturn. One such cheery prognosticator is Robert Wiedemer, Managing Director at Absolute Investment Management, and co-author of “America’s Bubble Economy,” a book that accurately predicted the current downturn. In his follow-up work Aftershock: Protect Yourself and Profit in the Next Global Financial Meltdown,”  he warns that the dollars being pushed into the system now will lead to massive inflation, a collapsing dollar and skyrocketing unemployment.

If you ever feel like spending money on an extra latte, watch the upbeat video on the Aftershock website. Or for an even more fun time you can search “2012 Depression” and come up with any number of blood-curdling predictions about the coming collapse of the economy.

So what do you think? Will the economy improve in 2012? Limp along slowly or hurtle back into the black? Or we will see the next Great Depression? And please let me know if there are any good bids out there for the dog.