After a pleasingly mild winter, this weekend we got slammed with all our winter weather at once. Winter storm Jonas walloped us over the weekend, dumping an incredible amount of snow in a short period of time. It is difficult to determine exactly how much snow we got in our neighbourhood – the blizzard’s winds created drifts a good few feet high in some places while other patches had under a foot – but I estimate we had over two feet of snow.
My brother-in-law was supposed to fly in to see us with his wife and son on Saturday. While he had to contend with the stress of cancellations and postponements and changed plans, we were thankfully all cosy and safe at home as the snow packed in around the house and made the street disappear. My husband did a power of work digging out the drive over and over and tunneling narrow pathways through the snow.
Rather than go sledding, the three younger boys decided they wanted to go for a walk through some nearby woods in the snow. They passed a man walking with snow shoes and using cross country ski sticks but they were undaunted. They were excited to spot animal tracks in the otherwise unblemished snow. Even more exciting was the news – delivered during post-walk hot chocolate – that there was no school on Monday. They have been hoping and yearning for a Snow Day all winter and they finally got one.
In addition to yesterday’s Snow Day, we also had a delayed arrival for school today. Not everyone has cleared their portion of the sidewalks and in some places the snow piles (an accumulation of snow drift and snow ploughing) are taller than I am but we had our snow boots on and trudged valiantly ever onwards. Since we had to walk in the road at points, I was glad of the two hour delay since it meant there were fewer cars to contend with. The kids, of course, would have rather had another Snow Day.
I am currently experiencing my first State of Emergency as a resident of the US. Governor Corbett declared that Pennsylvania was in a State of Emergency last night following an ice storm that has felled trees and taken down power lines. In my township, 88% of residents are still without electricity. We are very fortunate in that our power outage only lasted 24 hours, perhaps due to the fact that we live next door to an Elementary School which may place reconnecting our area to the grid as a high priority.
The snow was still thick on the ground yesterday when the ice storm came through. I am not sure anyone anticipated its severity given that the School District was initially just calling for a two hour delayed start. We then had a call not long after the alarm went off yesterday morning informing us that they had decided to make the day another snow day. My kids are now aware that all “free” snow days have been used up and that every day lost to weather now will have to be made up in the Summer. They were not happy bunnies. They actually want to be in school – which is a very good sign indeed. A few minutes after that call, the power went out. I often look like I got dressed in the dark but yesterday that was literally the case. Amazingly I looked no worse than usual.
The freezing rain came through during breakfast. The last time I experienced rain was when we were driving across the Erskine Bridge in Scotland. Seeing the windows of your house get speckled with icicles is much preferable to it happening to your car windscreen, to that I can testify. A thick layer of ice formed across the top of the crispy snow and soon everything was encased in a transparent sheath of glossy ice. Branches of trees started to groan and creek from the additional weight. A few in surrounding gardens sheared off the trunk and walloped to the ground below.
I experienced lots of power outages in my childhood. The late 1970s in Scotland were filled with power cuts for one reason or another and I actually have some very fond memories of the fun we used to have playing games and chatting by candlelight. The only downside I can recollect was that one year we got a bit short on candles and had to melt my birthday candle, which was a floppy-eared beagle dog wearing a party hat from which the wick protruded. I didn’t need therapy over it but the fact I can still picture the candle so vividly tells me I was not a happy pixie when he had to be sacrificed to the darkness. Of course, back then we were more used to making our own entertainment anyway. We had three TV channels and those did not broadcast all day every day, our phone was so prehistoric it was made of Bakelite and was a party line and I had never even heard of computers let alone game consoles.
My kids were, as children of the 21st century and fans of modern technology, not so impressed by the power outage. They kept thinking about TV and PS3s and even CDs – all while I couldn’t even make a phone call because our stupid house phones require the internet to function and our internet router needs electricity – and were frustrated that all they could play with were the hundreds of toys we had shipped over from Scotland. The poor wee mites. Thankfully the house we are renting has a gas hob so we could eat hot food. Unfortunately the hot air system requires electricity for the fans to disperse the heat so the house got increasingly colder as the day progressed and as it got gradually chillier we wore progressively more layers of clothes. Some of the kids even had a steaming hot lobster bath to get nice and warm.
Then the darkness fell and they were suddenly delighted. The darkness was exciting – so long as they were not alone in a distant corner of the house when it suddenly became intimidating and threatening. They played Hide and Seek which was even more challenging in the dark and allowed for some unusual hiding places, we ate by candlelight, played charades (the first time my kids have ever played charades – they don’t know how to be old school!) and read Scottish tales by the firelight for bed time. And the best bit was that they all fell asleep really quickly in the pitch dark.
One of my books which did not make the cut for being chosen to come to America with us was ‘The Blackout Book’, a collection of facsimile pages from texts that were distributed during the Second World War, each full of games and puzzles to keep people amused during the blackouts or when they were stuck in air raid shelters. That could have come in handy last night but thinking of it also puts this whole State of Emergency into perspective: the Luftwaffe are not dropping bombs on us after all. Of course, I say this in the light of being among the 12% who have had power restored within 24 hours. Things are quite difficult out there. This afternoon I attempted to take the smallest Pict to the birthday party of one of his preschool classmates. The venue was a few towns further north so we set off with plenty of time. However, every route I attempted to take, we had to divert because of fallen trees. My sat nav app was doing a great deal of recalculating along the way. Eventually it ran out of options that did not involve just bulldozing through tree trunks and I am not familiar enough with the area to attempt just navigating without assistance so I had no choice but to admit defeat and slowly wend my way back to the house. Hardly any traffic lights were functioning which meant that each junction, even of pretty major intersections, had become a four-way stop. Some of these had restricted vision in certain directions so I had to hold my breath and slowly edge out hoping that I would be seen by the traffic hurtling along on the perpendicular road. It’s definitely not pleasant out there. Although my 4 year old was sorely disappointed to have to miss the party and I was gutted for him, I felt quite relieved to pull into the driveway and get the kettle on for a warming cup of tea. Relieved and lucky.
I cannot get over the accuracy of the weather forecasting here. It’s almost like some sort of spooky precognition is at work. This is especially when compared to the type of weather forecasting I have lived with in Scotland which was more akin to just plucking some meteorological terms from a hat and hoping for the best.
A forecast for the West coast of Scotland, where we lived, would often be along the lines of, “Mostly sunny with periods of cloud and occasional showers, heavy at times.” That would be an example of covering all your bases and that is why we would often set out on day trips wearing shorts and t-shirts but with raincoats in backpacks, sunscreen and wellies, because preparing for all the possible seasons you might experience in one Scottish day means lugging enough equipment to require a sherpa. We wore a lot of layers which we would peel off and on with each hour that passed.
Then there was another type of weather forecasting statement: predictions based perhaps more on hope than accurate interpretation. A declaration of a sunny day. It would rain. Showers expected. It would lash with rain. A chance of light snow. It would be cold and rainy. It rains so much in Scotland that I am sometimes surprised that we have not begun to evolve gills. But then there would be some days when they would predict rain so we would set out wearing all of our waterproofing just to broil in our own sweat under the heat of the sun, the circumference of our wellies sticking and rubbing to our calves as we trudged along actually annoyed by a non-rainy day for a change. But those days were rare. Mostly it rained. But even the level of rainfall would be wrong. Light showers would in actuality be lashing rain and heavy showers would be torrential. Some Summers I wondered about getting a job lot of gopher wood.
Here in Pennsylvania, by comparison, the forecasting is mind-bogglingly accurate. It’s like magical divination. I can look at my Weather Channel app at even the 10 day forecast and be fairly certain that that is how the week ahead is going to look. If a snow blizzard is predicted to hit our particular county at 10am then wouldn’t you know it but the first flurries of snow start to settle at approximately 10am. It is a very odd experience for me to be able to plan ahead like this, to be able to set off from the house wearing just the exact number of layers required and without a backpack full of backup plan clothing. Of course, my weather neuroses still kicks in from time to time and, largely out of a habitual skepticism for weather forecasting, I will stow some waterproofing layers in the boot of the car, but I have never yet been proven right in doing so.
Even today, following a day long blizzard, on the umpteenth snow day of the season, as my kids play noisily in the adjacent room instead of being at school, I am prepared to declare that I like this climate.
I did just write an entry confessing to be obsessed with the weather. The weather phenomenon that prompted the epiphany that I was taking an abnormal interest in weather forecasts was this: the polar vortex.
I had never heard the phrase polar vortex before but suddenly it was appearing in newscasts and on my weather app so it was clearly something I had to pay attention to. It transpires that it is the label given to an Arctic cyclone and this particular Arctic cyclone had, as a result of the jet stream, shifted enough to create a severe cold front in parts of Canada and America, including Pennsylvania. As I type this, we are in the middle of it.
We have been lucky to not have the temperature drop anywhere near as far as it has in other affected states but blooming heck it’s still bitterly cold. Seriously sub-zero. We had a power cut yesterday morning that had me a bit worried but power was restored after a few hours which was pretty impressive given the scale of the outage and the weather conditions. Our house, therefore, has remained a cosy haven. I have had cause to comment before that it is perishing outside or brass monkeys or a whole range of other phrases to describe a low temperature but I have never, ever experienced cold like this. Words are going to fail me. Which is a bit rubbish for a blog but never mind.
The wind last night was ferocious. The house rattled and thrummed as it was battered and bashed by gales, wind whistled through any small gap it could find, a proper banshee whistle. The howling and growling was the loudest I have ever heard. I am not a good sleeper at the best of times but, between the noise levels and my paranoid checking of the trampoline, I barely slept a wink last night. We live next door to the boys’ Elementary School so the whole round trip to drop them off took just five minutes but within that short space of time I had developed snotsicles. It’s not dignified nor is it feminine but the fact remains that moisture in my nostrils had turned to ice. That’s a first experience worth noting for posterity, don’t you think? The walk to take my youngest to preschool is just a little longer but this morning it involved facing into the wind. My lungs felt like they were struggling to inflate every time I gulped another breath of sharp, icy air and my cheeks were stinging and felt oddly flushed. I understood why there were warnings about frostbite from lengthy exposure to these temperatures, especially further north. The smallest Pict started wailing on the walk back home because his cheeks hurt so much from being battered by the frigid air. I was wearing at least four layers but the little bits of me that were exposed to the elements were pained. And I got frost on my spectacles, pretty ferns and fronds of ice creeping across the glass lenses. Beautiful, yes, but not very handy when trying to cross the road.
But for us, of course, this is a short-term thing and not something that occurs often. For us this is just a phenomenon, something we have to endure for a very brief period. Experiencing just a little of this fierce, biting cold, however, makes me thankful I don’t live in colder climes and makes me appreciate the fact we have shelter from the elements in terms of adequate clothing, a warm house and hot food to eat. Not everyone in the world has such basic sources of comfort. Not everyone in this country does.
So this is my first experience of a polar vortex; I am OK with it being my last.
According to national stereotyping, British people are supposedly obsessed with the weather. I confess that to be true by and large. It’s a rare conversation that doesn’t involve some mention of the weather. There are even people who claim they can predict the weather using their bunions and bladders. It’s an island thing I’m sure, borne out of earlier generations needing to know exactly what gust of wind was going to do what when.
However, as much as I was part of that British cultural phenomenon of talking about the weather even to random strangers, I was never as obsessive about the weather as I have become in the two and a half months I have lived in America. Not only do I now own a smartphone (a marvel for me in itself since I had the equivalent of a neanderthal mobile phone in Scotland) but I have weather apps on it. Yes, apps plural. Before October, I had heard of apps, got the concept but had never been near one. Almost the first thing I did when I had a smartphone in my mitts was download weather apps. I felt I needed more than one for verification purposes. That was the first sign that the obsession was taking hold.
My husband always talked about how, growing up in the Washington DC metro area, he and his brother would watch the Weather Channel. I always scoffed at this, judging it to be a lame use of time in the “paint drying” vein. My husband also likes to watch the map on flights, even when the little plane symbol is just slowly moving pixel by pixel across the ocean. I thought watching the weather channel was akin to that. But lo and behold I now have the weather channel app on my phone and I have found myself watching (just a couple of times mind) the actual channel. The obsession was taking root.
I think it is symptomatic of having moved here as Winter was coming (Mr Pict would say that in a Ned Stark voice) but I find myself checking for updates on the temperature and predicted precipitation and whether said precipitation will be in the form of rain or snow. We have also had a rash of weather warnings in the past few weeks linked to the snow fall, some freezing rain and, today, a warning of severe wind chills for the coming days. All those potential little “red alerts” just feed the growing obsession.
What the boys are obsessed about, of course, is snow days. They just want to know if the weather is going to be so bad that they get to stay tucked up cosy in bed past their usual “rise and shine” time and stay home playing instead of going to school. I have to admit to quite liking their snow days myself at the moment but perhaps that novelty will wear off. I prefer the snow days that are called the evening before rather than receiving a trio of phone calls (each of our cell phones plus the landline) at 4.30 in the morning.
I wonder if there is an app for overcoming Weather Addiction….
I just can’t get a handle on the climate here: last week it was so cold and the wind chill so bitter that ice crystals formed in our lungs, the kids had a delayed start and a snow day and we had a thick layer of snow that has still not thawed; today, just a few days before Christmas, I went walking wearing just a hoodie and gilet yet I felt perfectly warm.
I can’t get a handle on the climate here – but I like it!
M kids experienced their first ever snow day earlier this week.
They have had “bonus” days off school before, when we lived in Scotland, but those were down to high winds and power failures. This week was their first experience of being liberated from school because of snow.
The first day they just had a two hour delayed start but on the second day there was no school whatsoever. And lo there was much rejoicing in the Pict household as four boys got to stay home all day, building a snowman in the garden, having a snowball fight and then getting cosy indoors with hot chocolate. It was also special that Daddy did not go into work that day, also because of the snow, and worked from home which meant he was home to eat dinner with the rest of us. As a consequence, they are now hoping for more snow days – but not so many that they need to make up for lost time in the summer break.
For my part, I am impressed with the school district’s notification system. It is not especially pleasant to be woken by a phone call of a recorded message at 4.30am but at least it is adequate notice that there is no need to run around in a frenzy trying to get everyone ready for school on time (because we may live next door to the school but that does not eliminate the need for nagging and cajoling every morning). What was a bit annoying was that the home phone went, then my husband’s cell phone and then my cell phone, all staggered just enough to mean there was no chance of us nodding off back to sleep. But that was cool because at least, even wide awake early in the morning, we didn’t have to leap out of bed and start barking at our kids like a sheep dog herding a flock. And just in case we missed the phone calls, I also had an email telling me there was a phone message from the school district. They definitely wanted us to stay at home.
This Winter could prove to be very snowy indeed. What I am already appreciating about Winter here, however, is the light. Even now, in mid-December, the sunlight is strong and the skies are crisply blue and bright and the sunsets are spectacular. By now back in Scotland the days would be dark. I often remember one year when I was teaching in an internal classroom, with just a skylight, and I was travelling to work in the pitch dark and travelling home in the pitch dark so was going for five days straight without seeing daylight. It was horrible. I realised then that being a vampire would never be for me.
Winters where we moved from were harsh. We normally didn’t get much snow because of the salt air from the sea loch but what we did get was brutal winds, hail stones that could dent your skull and rain. Relentless rain. Rain so hard that the sky should have become parched like a prune. And then even more rain. Cold and rain is not a pleasant combination. Being soaked to the skin from freezing rain so that your skin is blue where it is not blotched with white is not a pleasant sensation. I would moan every single Winter about how hard the winters were there. So it will be interesting to see if I prefer this climate as we progress through the season. If the snow days keep up then the mini-Picts certainly will.
If I still lived in Scotland, this would not be worth noting. Yes, British people are obsessed with the weather, it’s true. We live on an island in the middle of a blustery ocean so it is in our cultural DNA to be acutely attuned to the weather. Even so, in Scotland in November some standard rainfall and a dull grey sky would not be worth conversing about. It’s notable here because this is my first murky, rainy day since I arrived in America three weeks ago.
Last weekend, I was so warm that I felt a bit too toasty just wearing one layer. On a daily basis here I am just wearing two layers. In November. Back in Scotland, by now I would be wearing at least three layers and possibly even thermal leggings underneath my jeans plus hat, scarf and gloves. I would be trundling back and forwards on the school run (a half hour walk each way) with my face being battered by the wind, ice crystals forming in my lungs with every gulp of breath and an ice cream headache caused by freezing, lashing rain.
Suffice to say, I am not missing the late Autumn-Winter weather in Scotland. We lived on the West Coast of Scotland and I found the winters there to be hard. The light levels move from pitch black to grey murk to dusk and back to pitch black again; it rain relentlessly; any snow that falls melts into grubby slush and then into a hard layer of ice that makes walking precarious; did I mention it rains relentlessly already? Biblical deluges.
So even though it is definitely chillier today and I could do with popping a cardigan on and even though the warm glow of the Autumn light has been replaced by a steely winter sky for today and even though it is actually raining during the day for the first time since my arrival, I can’t resent it because I know I could be experiencing far worse right now.
Of course, I’ve yet to experience my first Pennsylvanian Winter….