The following is my most recent column appearing in the Claremont Courier. It is about going on a weekend trip to New Jersey last month, and it barely conveys what an eye-opening experience it was for me and how much it affected me. Yes, I saw how different things are here in sunny So. Cal. (No, as I see now, it's not just Palm Springs, with its green golf courses and cooled resort hotels out in the desert, that's like Disneyland!) More importantly, though, I saw how different and probably more difficult my life could have been. What’s more, I saw or was reminded that, if I want to, I can make my life different (but not more difficult and not necessarily by moving).
AN ICE-COLD LOOK AT LIVING IN CLAREMONT
Okay. I get it now.
I now get it why there are all those retired people with New York and Boston accents living in Florida. And the story about people on the east coast getting up late after New Year’s Eve on turning on the television to watch the fantastically bright and balmy Rose Parade in Pasadena and dream of moving to sunny So. Cal. (some allegedly decide to do just that) makes sense.
There was another story that I heard while I was growing up here. It was said that the colleges did their hiring in January and February, when the weather was mild and bright green trees hung heavy with bright oranges under crystal blue skies and with snow-capped mountains in the background. I get it now. (Never mind the rest of the story: that the professors were in despair when they moved here in August and found themselves, all the more so at the time, in a horribly hot and smoggy place.)
I get it when I’m out on a February evening, bundled up in a hoodie and maybe wearing long-johns, and see students meandering across the college campuses in shorts and tee-shirts. On a recent evening as I was going across the Pomona College campus, I saw a young man in this ensemble riding a skateboard barefooted. I get it now. To them, our chilly winter days and evenings are balmy. If not flat-out warm.
Why wouldn’t our 50-degree evenings be a walk or skateboard ride in the park after daytime temperatures in the teens or lower?
I had no idea. Really, I had no idea.
I found this out a few weekends ago when I attended a meeting in Burlington, New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia. I found out that I’m a true California boy. Make that a true So. Cal. Native. I was in fact worried about going there in February – was I crazy? I kept asking friends - but I really had no idea how different it is.
Of course, I have seen snow. As I write this, I see snow, but, as always, it is up there, over there, something pretty to look at. Snow has always been like an amusement park ride, something fun and romantic, an adventure for an afternoon or a weekend. Yes, I have seen snow falling, but it was the thrilling, lucky highlight of the weekend’s ride.
Snow has never been something to dread, something to fear. It has never meant more work – shoveling – or not being able to get somewhere. When the meeting I attended was over, many people rushed off, eager to drive home before the next storm arrived. I guess I was lucky that none of my flights, including in Chicago where I had a layover, were canceled.
It only snowed lightly – two or three inches – while I was in Burlington, but it was enough to shut down the town, more or less. No one was out having fun in the snow, and the few people who were out were in a hurry. This was very strange to me.
Then again, the few inches of snow was just the beginning, a detail. Each day, my friend and I – the crazy Californians – bundled up in everything we had and went out for a walk. This was lovely and fun, but on the second day, I barely got down the driveway when I said “Nope” and had to go back. The cold was like a knife and just hurt too much.
I understood why when I was happily able to go out for a walk with my friend on the last day and saw that most of the river two blocks over was frozen over. This was definitely like nothing I had ever seen, including during a year in England and another in Italy when I was growing up, and it certainly wasn’t like when I get excited about seeing a frozen puddle on the sidewalk after a particularly cold night here.
No, I wasn’t in Southern California anymore! It may well have been unusually cold, but no doubt this is far more likely to happen there than here.
I certainly saw that things are very different in that part of the country – I’ve been saying that it was another world. Not only is it cold, the cold had a major effect on life that I have never experienced. Furthermore, I was profoundly struck that my life as a person in a wheelchair would be much harder there.
Yes, I gripe sometimes about our mild, boring weather, and I hate it when a few hours of rain means that I need to ask for a ride or can’t go out, but, for the most part, I can go out and get around in my wheelchair, even on a “cold” night (along with the guys in shorts). It really hit me that this wouldn’t be the case if I live on the east coast – or many other places in the U.S. And not just because the chilly wind might hurt too much; driving a wheelchair through patches of snow and ice isn’t easy.
Then again, there are many people who don’t just put up with the freezing weather. Many Easterners claim to miss the change of seasons when they move here. And when I mentioned to one woman during my visit that I think I rather have earthquakes than snow, she laughed tartly and told me that I was welcome to go back home.
When I did return to California, it was downright bizarre when, upon arriving at LAX, it was balmy – no, warm – at 11:30 on a February night. It was enough, as if the previous three days in “another world” not so far away wasn’t, to leave me in a daze, marveling at my life in Claremont.
It wasn’t just the weather and the frozen river that made me feel like I had been in another world, far, far from Claremont, much closer, say, to England. It was also the cemeteries with the graves from the 1700’s (quite pretty in the snow), the house two doors down where a sign said U.S Grant’s family had lived and where he heard that Lincoln had been shot, another building a block away where another sign said that Ben Franklin had briefly worked, even as Claremont, with its palm trees and red tiles, is known and admired for being like a New England town. But that’s another story.