Let it snow, let it snow, let it slow

Yes, Portland's in the middle of a rare winter storm, and events are shutting down. Then again, it's a good time to slow down, take a break, reminisce and recharge.

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Gustaf Fjaestad, “Frosty Morning,” 1919; private collection. Painting of an outdoor scene by a pond, everything covered in frost and snow. Wikimedia Commons
Gustaf Fjaestad, “Frosty Morning,” 1919; private collection. Wikimedia Commons

… and so, early this morning, it finally came: the snow, with the temperature in the teens and the wind blowing like a freight train rattling over empty prairie, and predictions that flurries or sleetish stuff or more would continue through the day and the cold would last for several more.

Portland doesn’t get snow very often anymore (I remember in the 1970s and ’80s, when winter storms were routine and photographers from The Oregon Journal and The Oregonian trudged out the Gorge every January to snap shots of Multnomah Falls frozen over like an icy stairwell to the Snow Queen’s domain) so this was An Occasion. Alice, the family cat, made sure I knew about it right away, routing me out of bed at an unseemly hour and demanding to go out on the screened-in back porch, where she lasted approximately ninety seconds: Sometimes even a fur coat just isn’t enough.

Eventually, after coffee, I opened the blinds and looked out the front window. The sidewalks and street were gleaming with ice, and empty: no moving cars, no dogs walking their people, no kids with basketballs heading for the playground not far away. It was a good thing the morning newspapers hadn’t been delivered, because, no way was I going to go out and trudge down to get them at the far end of the front walk, where they usually land.

Online, reports of canceled or postponed events began trickling in. The Portland Art Museum and its Tomorrow Theater were locking their doors and calling it a day. The Broadway touring company of The Lion King canceled its Saturday shows at Keller Auditorium. BodyVox dance center called off classes. An interesting-looking poetry reading got shelved. Twilight Theater Company canceled Saturday evening’s annual Light Up the Stars Awards Gala, declaring regretfully that it would be announcing its winners during the day on its Facebook page instead. It almost goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: If you have tickets for a Saturday or Sunday event, check to make sure it’s still happening. Then, if it is, think hard about whether you want to go out on the roads, which will be slick, to attend. Discretion, as wily old Falstaff declares after faking his own death on the battlefield, is the better part of valor.

There was a time, of course, when valor told discretion to go jump in a snowbank. Whatcom County, Washington, got hit regularly with winter storms in the 1950s and early ’60s, often in the form of Northeasters, blowing in from Hudson’s Bay over the Canadian flatlands and down toward the Salish Sea and Strait of Juan de Fuca and out to the Pacific Ocean.

The storms brought winds and snow, and long sharp icicles to the eaves of our little box home, crystal knives that we could watch melt drip by drip as the sun came out, and then re-form overnight. Our next-door neighbors, the Jensens (one of whom grew up to be the town’s mayor), had a lovely hill perfect for sledding, and were remarkably accepting of all the neighborhood kids who came rushing over after a snow to scoot down the hill on anything available, from sheets of cardboard to garbage-can lids to actual sleds, then trudge back up the hill and slide down again.

There was something both fierce and calming about those storms. Our little house, which might rationally have been a good size for three or four people, eventually accommodated nine, and for a few years I slept on a fold-out bed on the narrow front porch, beneath a bank of small paned windows that on occasion were shattered by softballs sailing off-course from a front yard game in which a rock on the sidewalk sufficed for first base, the outfield was on the blacktop street, and any ball hit into the shrubbery of the neighbor on the other side was declared an emergency, with all hands rushing to retrieve it before the old woman, who had been a missionary in China during the Boxer Rebellion and knew a thing or two about what was right and what was wrong, appeared and began to shout angrily for you kids to show a little respect and keep that ball out of her yard. Large shrubs had been planted years earlier below the porch windows, and in the evenings during a good storm they would brush against the windows and the side of the house, making a soothing whoosh-whoosh sound that regulated the blowings of the wind and created a sonic cocoon, whispering me to sleep.

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The Jensens’ hill was right there, and oh so handy, but sometimes on a snowy day we’d go to our friends the Bartletts’, whose back yard had a smaller but sharper hill that went down to a small stream. It was a little more daring place to sled, a little tighter in the curves, but the stream would freeze over, allowing for a lovely landing pad.

And once I had the bitter pleasure of the perfect slide, everything in alignment, picking up speed, and going farther than anyone had — all the way past the Bartletts’ property and on down the frozen stream, still speeding, no longer in control, straight into a culvert that was as tight as a reveler on New Year’s Eve. I could hear the other kids shouting as I entered, and, miraculously, came out on the other side, unscathed. I was aware that a couple of inches to either side and I’d’ve been smashed to pieces, a little shard of sudden history to be mourned and then forgotten. Ah, and yet, somehow, I perfectly rode out the storm.

All of us that day knew that something had been averted, and also knew to keep our mouths shut. I did not, of course, mention anything to my parents, nor did any of my friends. It’s true that there is a conspiracy of the young against the old. Sometimes, that’s a good thing. All of which is to say, enjoy the storm, but be careful out there.

I am deeply and appreciatively aware that my comfort during this (at the moment, rather quiet) storm is thanks to a cadre of workers who are out in the weather, keeping the power grids going and repairing them when they go down, allowing me to stay warm and reminisce and tap away at leisure on my computer keyboard. To them, I owe great gratitude. To those performers and other artists whose best-laid plans have been upended by the weather, I extend my regrets. And to all who can, I wish a slowing-down, a rare stretch of leisure in the face of the storm, a chance to stop, breathe, reflect, and remember: The storm will pass. Life will move on.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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