16 December 2008

Notes From Siberia

It's probably my karma (now I know I've been in California too long) for complaining about the weather last week, when it was at least getting up near 60F (15C) during the daytime. It was still too cold, of course, getting down into the 30s and 40s at night, but now we're in the second or third day of a typical - at least it's happened most Decembers I can remember - California cold wave where we'd be thrilled if the temperature managed to make it out of the 40s.

This may seem like a minor inconvenience, or even a tropical heat wave, to those coping with blizzards and sub-zero temps out East or in the Great Plains, but what people often don't appreciate about the cold in California is a) it's a very damp, especially bone-chilling variety; and b) because Californians refuse to believe that they don't live on a perpetually sunlit Baywatch set, most houses are paper-thin, poorly insulated (if at all) and heated (if at all) by furnaces that are about as effective as an outsized hair dryer.

So while the cold back East can be wretched, even terrifying and life-threatening, it's usually only a matter of making it from the car or the subway back to your house or apartment where you can be snug and warm again. Whereas in California, you can do for days - weeks or months, even - never really getting warm.

Oh, it's not as though people of dying of exposure in their homes, although I suspect a fair few frail and elderly folks have been hastened to their demise by chronically underheated living conditions. It's more a case of chronic, low-grade misery from which there are few escapes. Some public buildings are adequately heated, of course, and if you've got the price of a ticket you can ride around all day on a warm BART train, but if for some reason you're stuck in the house, multiple sweaters and long underwear are the order of the day, and even then the cold air manages to creep in somehow.

Because of a project I'm working on, I've been shivering in front of the computer for most of the past week and a half, only occasionally venturing out to marvel at the nutty, no, let's be more precise, insane Californians who stroll the streets in t-shirts and shorts despite icicles threatening to form on their bright red ears and noses. I don't know if they are brazening things out for macho purposes, or if they are truly in denial - one such fellow that I saw at BART the other night was clearly drunk out of his mind, but this explanation can't apply to all of them - but they seem blithely unaware that everyone else around them is wrapped up in scarves, hats and winter jackets.

I know that if I stayed here long enough I would adapt to the weather, as I did when I previously lived in California. It took me about two years from the time I first moved here before I no longer felt it necessary to wear a heavy coat in June, and after a couple more years, I could be heard swearing that California weather, and specifically Bay Area weather, was the best in the world.

But ten years in England and two in New York have thoroughly disabused me of that notion. It's true that in New York we're far less likely to get those 70-degrees-in-January days that the Bay Area (very) occasionally enjoys, but on the other hand, we're far more likely to get summers where you can actually strip down to a swimming suit and jump in the ocean without risking hypothermia.

And more vitally, the East Coast seems to have a more realistic relationship with the weather. People know that it gets very cold in winter and very hot in summer, so they and the buildings they inhabit are prepared to cope. In California, they prefer to pretend that it's always good weather and when - as is often the case - it's not, to pretend harder.

Adding insult to injury, by the way, I note that at present it's a full 20 degrees warmer in New York than it is in San Francisco. An anomaly, true, and most likely it will be snowing or worse by tomorrow, but for right now, what I wouldn't give for an extra 20 degrees. Or just a steaming radiator and some snug-fitting storm windows.


Anonymous said...

I'm so glad that you made this post!! I've felt the same way for years (grew up in the Bay Area, went to school in Chicago, and am currently back in the Bay Area). While Chicago winters might be objectively "worse" in terms of the weather, I've always found CA winters much harder to handle for exactly the reasons you describe. I'm wearing layers right now because I live in a house where we can't get the temperature above the low to mid 60s even with heating. And without heat (like right now), the temperature hovers around the mid to high 50s. I did recently purchase a Presto Heatdish which seems to help a bit, but it seems like an awfully dangerous product.

Sweet Emotion! said...

goddamnit im gonna steal his hat (from the video)

Yeah, I'm a fourteen-year old living in the North Bay, and I have to wear three layers 24/7. It really sucks, especially in PE, because I have to wear my regular clothes under my PE shirt (it's gross, but the last time I didn't I got sick for two weeks). Yeah, Anonymous is about right.