Static Atmosphere

Anything could fall out of the sky this month—snow, dairy cows or concert pianos.

Anything could fall out of the sky this month—snow, dairy cows or concert pianos.

City Sprawl February 2014
Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

By Susan Anspach  •  Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

Regular as the rising sun, every year at this time we get a weather forecast for the storm of the decade. I can live with the shock tactics—Bob Ryan’s only a man, a man who, like all men, must buy and break bread. He’s got a product to sell, and that product’s fear lacquered over with a blond bouffant and 20-tooth smile.

The problem’s us. We never learn.

My mother falls victim to snow fever each year. From the months of September through April, every email she sends me contains a play-by-play of the week’s forecast. Correspondence spikes December through March. In February, I get weather-only emails, and that’s when I know it’s serious. My brother and sister get them, too, and I’ve sat in the same room as my mother while she types her messages to them; each is composed with the urgency of a WWII telegram. Acknowledgement of receipt is appreciated so she knows we are not stranded without water or power, rendered helpless by a storm she may not have heard about but innately feels could have struck the plot of one of our houses or apartment buildings—perhaps only there, compensating for its compact nature with concentrated and sheer wrath.

Snow is the boogeyman of Northern Virginia. Ironically, its power lies in its scarcity. When Snowmageddon hit in 2010, our worst fears came true—stores stripped of quinoa! Four Beltway lanes reduced to three! Having to work from home for a week!—just like we always knew they would. It doesn’t matter that in 2009 we got seven total inches of snow, or that in 2011 we got 10. The year 2010 went to show that anything’s possible, if “anything” means enduring a third of the snowfall Canada gets every year. As a reminder, the stuff is a self-solving problem: It’s a stratospheric phenomenon whose effects literally evaporate into thin air.

Could it be we privately crave a little catastrophe? I’ve personally always relished the potential for “bad” weather. Growing up, my parents’ house had a hill behind it, and it was the largest hill in the neighborhood. This made our family popular three months out of the year, and I harnessed that popularity in the fashion of school-aged girls everywhere: with shrewd and manipulative cunning. Exploiting my position as keeper of the hill not only in winter months, but throughout the spring and fall, too, if conflict arose in the lunchroom or on the school bus, I would remind everyone of my slope-access privileges with no little fanfare. Mostly I used my power for good. Only Kelsie Carpenter received a ban for life, punishment for asking my best friend out in the fourth grade instead of me.

Snow days were big deals in my house growing up, a bigger deal than for most families because there are three kids in my family and my mom taught public school. She taught for Prince William County, though, while the three of us kids attended Manassas City schools. Since PWC has a far wider bus territory than that of Manassas, its schools often closed when ours did not. My mother would literally howl with glee upon hearing her announced closure, and offer nothing in the way of consolation or comfort when Manassas was not named. It only dawns on me now, having recently become a mother myself, why those particular days were such a triumph for her. What did she do, at home by herself, on those days? Polish her karaoke repertoire? Guzzle vodka martinis for lunch? Whatever it was, I’m sure she deserved it.

On the rare occasion Manassas did close, I remember spending hours building ice forts and snowmen and thrashing around in the powder like dogs do in dust. I would not go inside until the sun set and my mittens were weighted with tiny thrice-thick ice boulders and my parents dictated I absolutely had to. Why? And, physically, how? I don’t recall any discomfort whatsoever from spending eight consecutive hours exposed to the elements at age 6, yet these days if a late-spring breeze brushes my cheek, I further burrow my face into my cable-knit ski mask and hoof it for home.

During Snowmageddon, I didn’t step outside for six days. And what a six days they were! How rapidly the mood shifted from My, what a beautiful, delicate wonderland and is that Bambi I see traipsing across it? to I’ve got boiling water and a frying pan and I won’t stop short of throwing both at you if your car gets stuck in the tunnel I dug to the end of our street. The storm struck when I was in Maryland, stranded as much as a person could be. There were days it was outlawed in Maryland to drive on the roads. My front door opened on a four-foot wall of snow. People marked their parking spots with lawn furniture and actual furniture they pulled out of their houses. Better ruin your Ikea chaise-sofa, was the logic, than your chances at not having to carve out another small, car-shaped cave for yourself in the grizzly-size drifts. I let my car sit. By the end of the week my roommate and I were so parched for red wine we made a maybe-suicide pact to trudge to the nearest open liquor store, wherever that was to be. It’s the only walk in my life I’m convinced actually was uphill both ways.

I do not dread winter, however. I’m a terrible athlete but I’m the least bad at winter sports. I took ice-skating lessons in high school and worked out a pretty solid axel jump; I can tell you all the 8-year-olds in the class were super impressed. Children and I have always shared a special bond in the cold months; they are often the ones to pull me back to my feet after forward-tumbling halfway down the face of a mountain, somehow once managing to lose a ski and a boot on the way. Here’s a tip for anyone with a similar story from Wintergreen, or Massanutten: Do not travel to Europe to ski. French youth are far less supportive and kind. (I was in France when a student I met through my studies abroad invited me to her family’s chalet in the Alps, and it was there I found myself thigh-deep in powder, on the 40-degree black hill that served as the only conduit to and from the front door. To be clear, I am not one for risks—particularly risks for which there is no terrestrial equivalent in the United States; a black diamond in America comes nothing close to a black slope in Europe—but my friend insisted I leave the house each morning, so I did—to inch my way down on my buttocks and stress-stuff my face with fondue and gluhwein till it was time to catch the lift back.)

At heart, I’m an indoor cat. A lot of us are—my mother, my brother and sister, Bob Ryan, judging from the levels of care bestowed on that ‘do. Maybe we figure if we brace ourselves for the worst, there are more pitiful outcomes than clear roads, a healthy stock of red wine, and a weatherman with a selective memory and decidedly unapologetic coif. There’s no shame in it.

@CitySprawlNVMag spends her snow days on Twitter.

(February 2014)