Open the door and get a jolt to the eyes from the unexpected, a vision of something askew, like that surprise party years ago, walking to the back of the restaurant with two friends and all of a sudden there’s the image of another friend, then another, not seen for how long, and for a few seconds you don’t know where you are. Surprise.

This time it’s opening a door out, not in, and the unfamiliar sight is white specks floating. What’s this, it can’t be, what day is this, it’s only … wait. Late November. How did that happen. 

Snow. The first of the season. It edges down like a curtain, closing one act, setting up another. 

Wait, you say. You’re not ready. You missed things. Go back. 

Like that’s an option. This show isn’t scripted, it’s improv. Get with it.

Back inside for gloves? Okay, if you had an hour to find them. Suddenly today the hall closet will be twice as big and dark. Besides, they might be in the car instead, or one of them might, underneath a seat or in the trunk. From now on you’ll keep them in a drawer, you tell yourself, and you would, if you habitually did things that make that much sense; or to put it more charitably, thought that much about such small matters. Maybe it’s time for a new pair anyway - when’s the last time you bought something at Agway? Probably this time last year.

At this time of year, among other surprises, scripts flip regarding residential locations in Ithaca. In other seasons suburbanites are the royalty of the hills, with privacy, space, landscapes and garages. Now the garages house the problems, the cars which are necessary for daily life among suburban hills, but incompatible with those hills when snow-laden.  

Downtown denizens are favored in winter, traveling level streets for their commutes and errands, while big outlier vehicles slide sideways down Route 79 or 96 or 13, or at least elicit entreaties to St. Christopher from helpless drivers in white-knuckled anticipation of it. How well you drive and maintain your car doesn’t fully matter when there’s always a chance of someone uphill from you with a hoopty with treadless tires and a cavalier attitude toward other cars and people.   

Of course snow requires care everywhere, even downtown, and soon this season you will remember, or think you do, the households that each season ignore the responsibilities of shoveling. This one, for instance, in the middle of the block next to yours. How do they get away with it year after year? Don’t the immediate neighbors say something? Or are the owners overtly antagonistic, not just passive aggressive or thoughtless, and confrontation, even neighborly, is risky? It’s too bad mayoral elections aren’t held in the winter, when candidates promising strict shoveling enforcement would win in avalanches. 

Meteorologists and almanacs mean nothing, because they describe the wrong things. Don’t tell me about polar blasts and jet streams, tell me how long it will take to dig my car out tomorrow. Twenty minutes is a severe storm, thirty minutes or more a blizzard. I remember maybe three such sessions last year, which means it was a mild winter no matter what other statistics say: sorry, National Weather Service.

Friends and family downstate check in with upstaters when they hear about snow storms here, because although they think of “upstate” as a region vast as the Yukon, they also construe the cities as being in a similar spot, or nowhere in particular, so Ithaca might be roughly adjacent to Syracuse or Buffalo, or both. 

They hear about lake effect snow and remember Ithaca is on a lake. They don’t realize the phenomenon refers to big lakes such as Erie and Ontario and the areas they’re near, like Buffalo, Rochester, and even Syracuse, 40 miles from Lake Ontario but on a particularly treacherous path of wind and weather.  

Under certain atmospheric conditions, cold air masses moving across the large lakes pick up excessive water vapor, which then freezes. When the system reaches land, with colder surface temperatures than the lakes, the system dumps the combined accumulation. 

In our region, the Finger Lakes are too slight to create lake effect. If anything, the eleven long,  narrow bodies, stretching as much as 40 miles north to south across an area of just 100 miles east to west, serve to break up massive movements of snow with brief but repeated interruptions of warmer air rising from higher surface temperatures. They also catch a lot of what actually falls.

A bona fide weather scientist might dispute this analysis. So might real estate agents in Trumansburg, on the west side of Cayuga Lake, but not in Lansing, on the east, respectively less and more protected in this depiction. In the middle, in Ithaca, we can be happy to dig our cars out only three times a season, whatever the reason.

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