When it comes to the relationship between Southern Californians and massive storms like Sandy, the conventional wisdom is that such weather (“such” meaning the kind not commonly found in Southern California) can give rise to just a tiny bit of gloating.
Think of it as stormenfreude. Were it a real word, “stormenfreude” might be defined as this: “Pleasure taken by those in temperate climates at the suffering of those in less temperate climates, especially in the wake of a storm that causes said temperate climate inhabitants to justify all the other miserable things about their region by asking, ‘Why would anyone live there?'“
In other words, Angelenos, we're supposed to feel bad for our fellow humans in the East, but we're also supposed to be following the news of the storm on our iPads while stretched out poolside, cursing the sunshine because it makes the screen so hard to read.
So why do I feel something very different? Why do I feel just a touch of weather envy?
In no way do I mean to downplay Sandy's devastating effects. Lives were lost and the economic costs are staggering. I've watched in horror as the television news played footage of the flooded streets, transformer explosions and those Chelsea apartments left exposed when the building facade simply peeled away.
But as glad as I was that the entire front of my house hadn't blown off, thereby allowing passersby to see me sitting on the couch obsessively watching Anderson Cooper report in his raincoat — and as much as I wouldn’t want Sandy to be replicated here or anywhere — I found myself feeling a little disappointed in California, at least from a meteorological standpoint.
In other words, our weather doesn't signify. We may have our tree-toppling windstorms and our occasional winter downpours. But our newscasts have little life-or-death use for elaborate storm tracking graphics. We rarely have to head en masse to Home Depot for batteries and plywood. We are unlikely to ever catch a glimpse of Anderson Cooper standing on our streets in his raincoat, drenched.
We think of these as items in the positive column of California living. It's why our cars don't rust and our skylights don't leak. It's payback for earthquakes, wildfires and landslides.
But on Monday night, as people up and down the East Coast checked out for the night like a giant, online multi-city Walton family — “Good night from D.C., power still on for now”; “Goodnight from Teaneck, lost a few roof shingles”; “Lighting candles and pouring tequila in Soho” (there was an impressive amount of tequila drinking going on, I noticed) — it struck me that bad weather is the ultimate community builder.
Sandy, of course, was much more than just bad weather. She was (and is) a crisis of the first order. But to monitor those Facebook posts going into Tuesday and Wednesday — “Heading down to the local shelter to serve coffee”; “Here's a list of local businesses hit especially hard; please give them your business!” — was to get the feeling that some communities are just better at this stuff than others. Communities in regions where nasty weather is a fact of life may be able to knit together faster than those (not naming names) in which a few drops of rain cause mass panic on the freeways.
And that's because the adage that it's possible to have too much of a good thing applies to weather too. Good weather makes us put on our sunglasses and avoid eye contact. Bad weather makes us huddle together under store awnings and share our umbrellas. Bad weather facilitates conversations between complete strangers. It forces us to stop life in its tracks, to declare a snow day, to drink that tequila, to just go to bed.
Oscar Wilde said, “Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” He had a point. But in California, the weather itself is unimaginative. It is too good for its own good, a straight-A student with no discernible personality. And although we build communities anyway — via kids and dogs and book clubs — I suspect we will never build them the way they get built in places where water falls from the sky on a regular basis.
We may barbecue with our neighbors all year round, but we will never be guilted into helping him dig his car out of the snow once a year. Life may get stopped in its tracks every now and then, but it's less likely due to a storm than a closure on the 405.
Sound like paradise? Maybe. But you know what they're thinking back East: Why would anyone live there?