Huffing and puffing

Oregon, which I reckon I will always call home no matter how many caveats I add, might have relatively mild extremes of temperature as a rule… but the rest of its weather is not for the weak of heart.

People here in Kansas always ask me — isn’t it colder in Oregon? To those found wanting for geographical literacy, it’s a fair question; Portland’s 750 kilometers closer to the North Pole than Kansas City.

My answer to that question carries a bit of nuance. I say “well, the temperatures aren’t nearly as low… but think of the summer humidity here. Now imagine what that same smothering sensation would feel like at 35 or 40 degrees [F.], and that’s what winters are like in Portland.” Silence inevitably follows.

I’ve already referenced the visit I paid to my grandmother before I moved to Lawrence. One of the excursions we took was to Astoria, where she nicely insisted that I climb to the top of the Astoria Column by way of vicarious living all around.

On one of the commemorative plaques at the Column site is my favorite quote about Pacific Northwest weather. That passage was written by William Clark on 1 December 1805 shortly after the arrival of the Corps of Discovery at the western terminus of their journey, in what is now Clatsop County:

“The emence Seas and waves which breake on the rocks & Coasts to the S W. & N W roars like an emence fall at a distance, and this roaring has continued ever Since our arrival in the neighbourhood of the Sea Coast which has been 24 days Since we arrived in Sight of the Great Western (for I cannot Say Pacific) Ocian as I have not Seen one pacific day Since my arrival in its vicinity [emphasis mine —BMH], and its waters are forming and petially [perpetually] breake with emence waves on the Sands and rockey Coasts, tempestous and horiable. I have no account of Capt. Lewis Since he left me.”

When I first read that counterpoint — “for I cannot Say Pacific” — I giggled a bit, and it’s remained etched on my no-longer-steel-trap-like memory.

People go on about the wind in Kansas, but at least here it stops on occasion, even during the winter. Kansas summers want for breezes of any kind. In the lower Willamette Valley and on the Coast, however, the wind rarely stops — in the Valley only when the temperature differential disappears versus points due east and south, and on the Coast hardly ever.

I try to remember one time, during the uncounted days I’ve spent on the Coast, when there wasn’t at least a breeze… and I fail.

A different historical touchstone

Another point I like to make is that the Cuban Missile Crisis doesn’t really register in the memories of Oregonians, because they had more important things to worry about at the time.

In late October 1962, the Valley was digging its way from the destruction of the Columbus Day Storm, which fails to be designated a typhoon only because it wandered too far north. In its wake Portland was without electricity for something like a week, and without radio or television even longer since all of the transmission towers needed to be rebuilt from scratch. Salem and Eugene fared no better. Puget Sound got a big piece of it, too, though one gets the impression that their building codes were stiffer than Oregon’s at the time. Practically every anemometer on the Oregon and Washington coasts registered offscale high, and the peak gust on the Morrison Bridge in Portland — less than 100 feet above sea level — was measured at 116 miles per hour.

All of the infrastructure that was destroyed in the Columbus Day Storm was replaced with works engineered to withstand something similar, so that it would take wind more like Hurricane Camille to bring Northwest Oregon completely to its knees again.

Until I was well into grade school, oil lamps and pantries well-stocked with canned food ready-to-eat were standard supplies for every household of Portland natives who could afford them. Memories of the Columbus Day Storm are slow to fade. Where those trail off, thoughts of a Silver Thaw kick in… and those ice storms can hold their own against the ones here, where I actually saw utility poles lean into the road for the first time.

A little bit of everything

I am attached to Oregon in large part by its weather. Given a 4WD and a late spring day to myself, I can travel across extremes of temperature eighty degrees apart, from rainforest to desert.

In the interest of pedantry, it would be fit to note that Oregon’s wettest spots in Tillamook County are easily a ten-hour drive, mostly on backroads, to the driest valley in the High Desert.

I prefer sweaters to peacoats, and can in fact only imagine a peacoat as an accessory, for two reasons: I can't stand the feeling of nylon (the most common inner shell material for coats and jackets) against bare skin, and in June daily extremes of temperature in Portland have been known to lie fifty degrees apart. That's like travelling through multiple microclimates without traversing an inch, so you bring layers when you leave the house… or freeze your arse off the instant the sun goes down.

You don’t realize until you live there that Portland gets a stretch or two of triple-digit highs every summer, at least during dry phases of the ENSO. The first time I experienced that, I was suffering a chickenpox infection, and my fever peaked on the same afternoon that Portland’s official high was recorded at 100 degrees.

…But at least the yearly extremes aren’t so bad.

Since moving to Kansas, I pay a lot more attention to dew points, especially during the summer when they describe more about conditions than do temperatures. This is doubly true given my standing as a heavy smoker; an August climb up the Hill here means frequent stops, barring a willingness to take my life into my own hands.

You would need to offer me an awfully fat salary to live on the Gulf Coast, that’s for certain.

During my first winter in Lawrence I finally noticed that the discomfort from cold doesn’t really increase once the temperature drops below 15 degrees. Anything worse is owed entirely to wind, and that’s part of what makes hypothermia so dangerous.

For all that I’ve written here about Oregon and Kansas, my favorite weather anecdotes come from Central Missouri and San Diego, set a little less than two years apart. The first came in January 1996, when Missouri was pounded by one of the three really awful winter storms that I’ve experienced. I got cabin crazy, learned by telephone that the University campus was still open, and resolved to go there. On arrival I visited the National Weather Service site; at the time it published temperature maps for all of North America. That facility told me that it was colder in Columbia, Missouri, than in Churchill, Manitoba… which seems like just another datum until you realize than unlike Churchill, Columbia doesn’t sit astride a migration route for polar bears.

Polar bears, dammit.

By November of the following year I was living in San Diego, and experienced the singular pleasure of wearing nothing more than a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt on the Monday before Thanksgiving. That made up for my polar bear problem… mostly.

Music

Paul Simon, “The Boy in the Bubble”
@amazon
@allmusic

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Talking About the Weather

Talking About the Weather —by Ben Henick, 8 December 2010

All journal entries

  1. Talking About the Weather
  2. To the Rafters?
  3. Coming of Age with Killer Apps
  4. Race to the Bottom
  5. Meditations on Decay
  6. Net Neutrality, or the Lack Thereof
  7. Three Problems
  8. Post Mortem of a Book Project
  9. The Egg and the Chicken
  10. Yellow Dog
  11. Digging Through the Clutter
  12. Lessons from Mom
  13. Being Careful What You Wish For
  14. Out on a Limb
  15. Beliefs, No. 1
  16. Like a Chimney
  17. Does Not Compute
  18. Past Trends, Future Results
  19. Beyond These Four Walls
  20. Competence, Confidence, and Reality
  21. Anesthesia
  22. King of the Mountain
  23. “A Deer in the Headlights”

Disclaimer: This is definitely self-indulgent. If you don’t like it, read somebody else.

This nook of the Internet is my antidote for Twitter. ©2010 Ben Henick, all rights reserved.

Job, or hell?

Yesterday I happened on two links. (Good grief, I love the Web.) The first is an e-mail alideshow of sorts aimed at the guts of some hypocrite named Spencer, the author’s (erstwhile imaginary) boss. The second is an article in Slate discussing the (un-) desirability of low- to mid-level service jobs.

…And then there’s the story of the flight attendant who on Monday found a spectacular way to say “take this job and shove it” after being verbally assaulted at length by a passenger.

All three pieces are a kick. Reading them in rapid succession, as I did yesterday afternoon, is a kick in the guts. The article about jobs-in-general particularly evoked from me a visceral response.

Rich get richer, poor get poorer

The sense of entitlement to profit that I raised a few days ago is evident in every talk about compensation I’ve heard about, or participated in, in the past several years. It seems to me like the vast majority want labor for the cheapest they can possibly obtain, while remaining content to throw handfuls of money at senior management and holders of equity — even ones who, as it turns out, contribute little or nothing.

It always seems like the same old story: hire somebody with the basic minimum of proven ability in order to get away with paying them as little as possible, train them up to the minimum needed by the organization, fire the ones who don’t take comfortably to that scheme at the instant they’re identified, and work the others to the bone until they burn out.

I believe that on some level, most people recognize that this is going on. However, I struggle to understand why. It seems axiomatic to me that people who feel valued will work harder, yet the trend moves toward every possible effort to remind people that they’re replaceable and ought to get the best out of things while they can.

Compassion vs. sociopathy

The only fact that adequately explains this prevailing state of affairs is broad, unwitting subscription to the system cobbled together from the amoral rants of a mildly nutty Russian emigré. On balance that would not be so bad, except that like that ethos’ nemeses — Communism and Christianity — “Objectivism” works a hell of a lot better in theory than in practice.

I see two deep flaws with this ethos, deepening my my confusion. First, we can’t all be Howard Roark; lots of us lack the temperament requisite to that outcome. As much to the point, if we all could have and act upon that power, civilization as we know it would rapidly descend into barbarism. One man’s clear thinker is another’s cold-hearted sonofabitch, and the latter type is awfully good at inducing conflict.

Second, human beings possess and act upon compassion compulsively; the ones who habitually refuse or fail to do so are (rightly) called sociopaths. We all recognize that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and communities tend to raise the minimum when given the chance. Cutting loose that weak link instead… goes a bit far.

Meritocracy

The happy finish of the labor market’s neo-Nietzchean race to the botom can be found in two virtues that are compatible with all of the belief systems in play: honesty and fidelity.

As it stands, the realities of social (im-) mobility leave some with first-class tickets, and consign the rest to steerage barring both outstanding luck and superlative effort. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that anyone who manages to climb their way out of steerage won’t be shoved back down by some vindictive asshole.

Rewarding honesty and fidelity in the workplace — and penalizing those who lie, cheat, and habitually cover their asses — would go a long way toward making the labor market a better place for everybody.

We have the technological capacity to discover and promote out of steerage quickly the ones who’ve earned it, as a matter of course. We can do the reverse for those who feel most inclined to rest on their laurels. Why don’t we?

Music

Hey Lewis & The News, “Workin’ for a Livin’”
@amazon
@allmusic