Friday, February 1, 2008


On Sunday, we were blessed with five inches of snow. Overnight we had a fresh layer of an inch or so, and we've had the occasional flurry on Tuesday and Wednesday as well. At first, I thought "Score! This is the good part of living up north!" But the locals assure me, unfortunately, that this is far from typical. The paper said it's the most snow Eugene has seen since 1996. Oh well. I certainly lived it up.

While it lasted, it provided a strenuous round of brain yoga.

On Sunday, with a bunch of snow on the ground and a heavy fall still coming down, I had to drive to church. Now, I don't live anywhere near my church; on bone-dry ground, in broad daylight, with light traffic, it takes me fifteen minutes to make the trip. Sunday I drove like a little old lady, and I can proudly report that only once did my car even shimmy. The trip to church was a complete success, and I was giddy with my winter-survival beginner's luck.

Problem number one, the stealth ditch. The church has a nice, fairly large main parking lot that's paved and level and easily traversed, and then an overflow parking lot that amounts to gravel on a field. On Sundays I park in the overflow in order to maximize the availability of closer spaces for senior members, visitors, etc. I'm young and healthy and can walk a few extra feet with no stress. But between the overflow lot and the road, there's a fairly wide ditch, and the driveway into the lot is pretty narrow, so I have to watch and steer carefully in order to avoid the ditch. I've done it enough times that it's not a huge challenge, but the number of times I've done it also made me a bit hasty, and when it came time for me to leave, I didn't consider the possible difficulty of gauging the edge of the ditch by guesswork. It's easily spotted on a normal day, but not when it's filled up almost entirely with snow. I ballparked where it was, and my ballparking wasn't very good.

Thunk. My car lurched over at an alarming angle, half on the driveway and half in the ditch. This was not good. I gunned the car to try to pull out, and was reminded that if my Toyota Corolla ever decided to be a boxer, it could fight in the Hot Wheels division. It weighs about an ounce, and snow chains are something I read about in the paper but have never actually seen. Brilliant me, I thought I might have better luck if I put it in reverse and tried to back out. The laws of physics failed to miraculously repeal themselves for me on the basis of a gear shift movement, and I remained stuck. But one nice thing about the time right after a church service is the steady flow of people heading off in every direction, and our church, unusually, happens to have a whole lot of men in the membership. Three or four of them stepped right up and gave the car a push, and I was free. It probably didn't require all of them; any one of them probably could've picked the car up with one hand and spun it around on a fingertip, but I definitely appreciated the overkill. If they'd pushed any harder, they probably could've given me enough momentum to coast home.

Obstacle #1 down, I lurched ahead to obstacle #2: walking to work on Monday morning.

That wasn't as bad as I expected. The extra inch or two of snow on Sunday night meant I could crunch-crunch-crunch through new, fairly wet, powder, and I had plenty of purchase. The only alarming moments came when I tried to cross the street. The cars had melted the snow, and the streets looked pretty snow-free, but the air temperature was still below freezing, so the streets were actually the only slick part of the trip. This was a bit alarming when I got to ninth street, which is a huge intersection, and had to make it across in the twenty-eight seconds or so that the crosswalk allotted. On an ordinary day, I could hop across on one foot in that time, but this was no ordinary day. I was picking my feet up and putting them down most carefully, and the audible countdown was not helping my blood pressure at all. But Oregon drivers are fairly polite, and I was confident that if my time ran out and the light turned green while I was still in the street, someone in a nice, warm car would probably take pity on me and let me finish crossing without blowing their horn or squashing me like a grape. In other places I've lived, I would've had no such confidence, but here I think that confidence is pretty well merited.

Then came Tuesday.

The thing about Tuesday is that the rules reversed themselves. On Monday, sidewalks were okay, but streets were scary. Then, Monday afternoon, the sun came out and did some serious business, melting down almost all the snow. The problem is, it also rained part of the day, and there was a good deal of freezing rain overnight, so on Tuesday, the sidewalks suddenly became the hard part, and the car traffic managed to dry out the streets.

Another rule reversed itself, this one after a much longer run of unbroken reliability. Part of my walk to work takes me across the parking lot for the University of Oregon stadium. As with my church, the stadium has nice, paved, cement areas close up, and then graveled dirt further out. And since I first took the walk back in August, I've preferred the cement parts for reasons that a moment's reflection should make obvious: they're nice and level. Walking through gravel is a slightly less ankle-straining operation than walking on a beach; the purchase for each footstep is slightly different, so I have to make constant adjustments to step properly and not stumble or lose my balance. They aren't big adjustments, but they require about one scrap of attention, so they're annoying. For that reason, I've plotted a course through the unavoidable graveled stretch on one end of the parking lot that's been heavily traveled by the bikers, so a lot of the gravel has been knocked away, and there's a thin path of raw, packed dirt. I usually follow that, because it's as level as I'm going to get.

But on Tuesday morning, level was bad, because it provided a nice, clean platform for a lethal slick of ice to build itself up to several inches' thickness. The gravel was suddenly a blessing, because no matter how badly the ice wants to slick up the gravel and lie in wait to take my life, icy gravel is still gravel, and when I step on it, it crunches satisfyingly and gives me something under my feet that I can walk on without fear of falling.

The gravel, and the parts cars had driven over, were the only parts of the walk on which I could get a stride going and actually enjoy my typical traveling daydream. For the rest of it, I had to pick my way very carefully, lifting a foot and experimentally putting it down, monitoring its placement as I lifted the other foot and making lightning adjustments if I felt it start to slide. The one nifty thing about that is that walking turned into a mindfulness exercise. I teach mindfulness in a couple of communication classes: the idea is that we do too many things in our daily routine with our brains on autopilot, and this habit is one of the major roots of most people's difficulty in focusing, as well as a magnifier of stress, a concentrator of physical pain, etc. It's a most healthy thing to break out of routine and actually observe, moment by moment, things that we do. So, I managed to break out of my grouchiness and frustration at the slick walking conditions by thinking of it as a mindfulness workout.

Yesterday and today, the ground was back to normal. There's still one huge heap of snow in my apartment complex, where a couple of my neighbors made a gigantic snow sculpture. It was an arch, and it was taller than I was. And since there was so much snow, and it's stayed on the cold side every day since Sunday, the mass has refrigerated itself and refused to go away. I'm glad, because it was wonderful to see how the snow brought out the playful side in everyone. And I've always learned best by playing, so the lessons I learned from dealing with the snow were actually pretty satisfying in the end.

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