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My Weekly Post

"If you don't like the weather ---"

I’ve just been reading about the word "vorhret" in the Icelandic Review, which comes to me every morning in my e-mail. They offer a line-up of the latest news in Iceland, usually about seven headlines on happenings throughout the country. (Much of it lately has been about their ongoing economic crisis, about which, interestingly, the Icelandic people are allowed to vote, that is to say, they have a voice in how the government will handle the deep debt in which they find themselves following the crash in 2008.) In addition, there are columns by local writers which are more about the daily life in Iceland. This morning, they had video of the “terrible weather” they have been having (http://www.icelandreview.com). I watched it with interest. Apparently, early in March, trees in Reykjavik had begun to bud and crocuses had popped up – certainly an earlier emergence of spring than we have ever had. I hasten to tell you that Iceland really does have a milder climate than we do, mostly because of the Gulf Stream. (Most people can’t get past their name, finding it hard to believe a place called Iceland could be anything but 24/7 ice.) Actually, I should say not milder so much as less extreme: their winters rarely give them more than a few inches of snow and it almost never goes below zero. Their summers rarely get above 60 F. What they have in abundance is wind. In any case, after this March thaw, they were treated to fierce storms, which caused blackouts and stranded motorists in the outlands. This is what they call the "vorhret," a time of rough weather following a period of warmth. In the article that accompanied the video, they make this statement: “The weather in Iceland is notoriously interchangeable. They say: if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes.”

That is not an unfamiliar remark. Maybe the folks in Iceland have been saying that for as long as they have been a nation, which dates back to 837 a.d. So I don’t want to take that away from them but we do say that here in New England, all the time. “If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait five minutes and it will change,” is an oft-repeated phrase attributed to Mark Twain. Curious, I looked this up and found that he addressed the subject in a talk he gave at the New England Society's Seventy-First Annual Dinner in New York City on December 22, 1876. He started his lecture like this:

"I reverently believe that the Maker who made us all makes everything in New England but the weather. I don't know who makes that, but I think it must be raw apprentices in the weather-clerk's factory who experiment and learn how, in New England, for board and clothes, and then are promoted to make weather for countries that require a good article, and will take their custom elsewhere if they don't get it.
There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger's admiration -- and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go. But it gets through more business in spring than in any other season.

"In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four-and-twenty hours. It was I that made the fame and fortune of that man that had that marvelous collection of weather on exhibition at the Centennial, that so astounded the foreigners. He was going to travel all over the world and get specimens from all the climes. I said, "Don't you do it; you come to New England on a favorable spring day." I told him what we could do in the way of style, variety, and quantity. Well, he came and he made his collection in four days. As to variety, why, he confessed that he got hundreds of kinds of weather that he had never heard of before. And as to quantity -- well, after he had picked out and discarded all that was blemished in any way, he not only had weather enough, but weather to spare; weather to hire out; weather to sell; to deposit; weather to invest; weather to give to the poor."

Twain had a lot more to say as he addressed the gathering. Mark Twain could say anything better than anyone else and this was no exception.

I don’t really want to go head to head with Iceland on whose weather is more changeable. Or who has it worse. Or who said it first. We don’t have a word for when a promising start to spring ends in a snowstorm or worse, an ice storm. We have swears in response but we don’t have a word like "vorhret" that expresses that phenomenon.

I suppose Icelanders could claim also that those raw, unschooled apprentices practiced their weathermaking in Iceland and then moved on to other countries where the standards were higher. In essence, we, the human race, do like to complain about the weather. In fact, it’s something we all have in common, a condition we share as we share the planet with each other. Twain’s lecture could be delivered here today and it would be just as relevant – and just as humorous. Because there is one thing about the subject of changing weather that can be said without doubt: it never changes.
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To Pave or Not to Pave

Last week we had our annual town meeting here in this town of 885 registered voters. New England town meeting is often held up to be “America’s true form of democracy” – but it really isn’t anymore, at least not on any grand scale. Most of the important decisions about the way we live our lives or the way our tax money is spent are made now at the state or federal level. For instance, no one calls to meeting a vote on whether or not we should go to war in Iraq or on health care or whether we should still get the social security we worked so hard for all our lives. The issues we vote on have decidedly less impact. Some New England towns have even forsaken the whole idea of town meeting. Fortunately, our town has not. Each year we gather in the town’s elementary school cafeteria to look over the warrant articles presented to us for our approval or disapproval. If more than 200 people show up for town meeting (about 20% of the population), it means we have something important to decide, such as a new school or some other expensive need. This year, we had only twelve articles to consider, nothing huge, so there were chairs available. One of the articles on the warrant was the question of whether or not to spend $70,000 to reconstruct the one-half mile of road that passes by my house, the paved portion of which is about one mile in total. Indeed, the road which I believe was first paved in the 1960s and has only been repaved once since then, is downright hazardous. The section just east of my house is a confusion of dips, bumps, launch pads, and deep holes. I’ve mastered the dodge-and-weave necessary to navigate without breaking my axle but the surface of the road changes as the weather changes, making it hard to really know what I’ll encounter on this particular morning . A few hours before town meeting, I saw my good neighbor to the west walk down the road, wearing her orange reflective vest and carrying a yard stick and a pencil and paper. This made me curious.

When she got up at the meeting to speak in favor of the article, my curiosity was resolved. Apparently she had measured every hole and crack in the road. She inventoried eighteen different potholes and reported the exact measurement for each crater, some of which were a foot and a half in width and six inches deep. She also counted the cracks, which mimic seismic activity. She held the microphone firmly and spoke strongly in favor of having the road repaired as outlined by the article. I agreed the road needs repair but I was not so sure this should be done. Her house sits well back from the road but mine does not and, especially in the summer, I am constantly astonished at the speed at which some cars take this road. In spite of the holes (there’s a reason why they are called “frost heaves” – the frost in the ground heaves the pavement up and out and, for the most part, the thaw pulls it back together, as of the road truly breathes), cars hurtle past my house, some of them in excess of 50 or 60 miles per hour. I shudder for my little dogs who, in spite of my best efforts, are sometimes perilously close to the road. Just past my house, the road turns to dirt and I always listen for the sound of their tires hitting the dirt. It’s fairly profound.

The town’s proposal was not only to reconstruct the road but to do it in stages. They proposed to scrape up the old pavement, grind it, add culverts and then, over this road laid bare, compact a 12-inch layer of crushed stone – in the context of this town, a major highway project. And that would be the end of it for a while. Money for the pavement would be “addressed in a future year.” In other words, we would become a dirt road, at least until the town authorizes the application of new pavement. Times are tough. What if they never did?

Assuming the project made it through to completion, I had two worries, one was speed: if people go that fast on a badly decomposed paved road, how fast will they go on a nice new smooth stretch of pavement? And, for the time until the pavement would be approved, at least a year, maybe more, the dirt kicked up from the road would make quite a difference for me in the house cleaning department.

I spoke about my concerns, though not as passionately as my neighbor. But others voiced concerns as well. One wondered how many people ever use that road and another felt that spending money like that was foolish. When the question was raised by the moderator, a voice vote, aye or nay, delivered the decision: Nay. I felt relief.

It’s nice to know we have a little bit of say in some things. I'll continue to practice my dodge-and-weave. And I won't complain.
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