I just finished a morning run, and as I entered the door to my apartment building a haggard-looking woman with a coat thrown over her pajamas stopped me in the hallway. She was eyeing the outdoors with fear in her eyes. ‘Is it icy out there?’ she asked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s not.’ ‘Not at all?’ she continued, suspiciously. ‘I just ran two miles,’ I said, ‘and I didn’t see any ice anywhere.’ I should have added that while there is a little drizzly rain, the temperature is above freezing. As I was walking towards the apartment building I heard birdsong, and I thought of spring. So no, there is no ice. ‘Well,’ the woman said, turning back towards her apartment, ‘I’m not crazy.’
I’m not sure what she meant by that. Maybe she’s one of those people who is often suspected of being crazy, and she wanted to let me know otherwise. She might have meant that she is not crazy enough to venture out on what’s supposed to be an icy morning, regardless of my assertions. But most likely she meant that she hadn’t made up the idea of ice: that there was truly, really, actually supposed to be ice out there. So where was it?
They called it Jupiter, an ice storm of such massive proportions that everyone was cautioned to stay off the roads and prepare to spend three or four days indoors. Stock up on food and buy extra batteries for flashlights, since there would be widespread power outages. Schools, churches, libraries, businesses all closed—long before a single raindrop fell.
At the height of the hysteria, Missouri’s new governor came on TV and told everyone that he would be mobilizing the National Guard in response to this emergency. That’s really the point when I yielded to the hysteria and closed the library where I work. My staff had been walking around in blackening dread, and I’m sure there was a whispering campaign conducted around the theme of how insane I was to even consider opening on the day of the climatic holocaust. I should have been smarter. I know that new governor is a GOP’er whose main credential to be our state executive is his experience as a Navy Seal, whose campaign ads featured him shooting firearms into various exploding objects (for readers not from Missouri, I swear I’m not making this up), and who clearly had a puerile, macho need to be seen hanging tough with the soldiery.
So Friday came. I was home, and called my mother, spoke with my brother, all of us checking on each other to be sure we were safe and making sound decisions in this time of impending doom. And then I sat all morning and afternoon watching while light occasional showers put down the tiniest film of ice on tree branches and car windows, but completely failed to glaze the streets or sidewalks. It was a complete bust, as far as I (or anyone who would take the time to step outside) could tell.
But the funny thing is that it didn’t change the frantic nature of the reporting on The Event. TV news reporters swarmed the region, letting us know where the worst icing was, where the roads were the most hazardous, where the emergency centers were. It was kind of sad watching a reporter who stood before a building in downtown St. Louis as he asked the cameraman to follow him to a little patch of ice he had discovered near a curb—he prodded it with his shoe and intoned ominously about its dangers. Late in the day came the news of the first death linked to the storm, someone out in one of our rural counties, though nobody mentioned the nature of the death or how it was ‘linked to the storm’—you could just tell the news teams were so overjoyed at being able to report a death that such details became immaterial. By evening I had given up on expecting the storm to make its mark today. Maybe on Saturday we would incur The Wrath of Jupiter.
But as Saturday dawned I came back to reality. The temperature was just above freezing, precipitation was minimal. I quipped that if they wanted to name this storm for a planet, it should be Pluto, the planet that turned out to be too small to deserve the name. I recollected once again that weather forecasts are, first and foremost, advertisements for television news. And for grocery stores. Wow, did our local stores sell out of stuff over the past few days! Even the National Weather Service did not seem to have a grip on things. One guy I work with mentioned on Thursday that after so many warm days in January the streets and sidewalks were likely too warm to ice over quickly. I had the same thought, especially since the temperatures were not exceptionally cold, hovering just around the freezing mark. If a couple of librarians could see that obvious point, couldn’t entire staffs of trained meteorologists figure that out?
The point I want to make is, get out there and see what’s happening. There is still, even in this time of computer modeling and Doppler radar and whatever other technological weather tracking, simply no substitute for going outside and seeing what it feels like it might do. If you hover indoors, staring at your local TV news coverage, you’ll never know anything that’s happening, only what they want to tell you. I know, it’s a sad irony but true, that watching the news will teach you almost nothing of importance. As Nobel Laureate Robert Zimmerman put it many years ago, ‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.’
Thinking back on it, I wish I had taken that woman in the hallway by the hand and led her outdoors. ‘Please,’ I would say, ‘just step out here and see. Birds are singing, there is a light breeze and a bit of mist in the air—and no ice.’ But I didn’t. I only watched her turn back to her apartment, likely to spend another day in her pajamas before the TV, shivering and worrying about whether her supply of Beef-a-Roni and canned tuna would hold out, muttering to herself or whoever she thinks might be listening that she is not crazy. No she is not. She is perfectly sane, in the exact same way all of us our perfectly sane.