Sisyphean Snow Day

Any Milwaukee School of Engineering graduate can tell you this: MSOE never closes for winter-related weather issues. I’ve taught there since 1996, and although we closed early a few times (no classes after 3:00 p.m.), the only time I can actually remember closing for snow was after the blizzard that struck the day after New Year’s Day in 1999.

We’re closed today.

Snow began falling last night and it’s still falling now. It’s supposed to continue till around 7 p.m. tonight. We went out and did one round of shoveling for a few hours earlier today. Round two can wait until it has finally stopped snowing.

Here’s the radar around 3:30 p.m. Still lots of snow waiting to pass over us.


And here is the larger view, just to show the storm that has already passed eastward.

We live in an older inner-ring suburb of Milwaukee, a city originally settled almost two-hundred years ago and only gradually becoming a seamless part of the overall Milwaukee metro area. Lots are larger than Milwaukee’s city lots, but way smaller than newer suburban lots farther out. Our driveway is long, running beside our house from the street to the detached garage at the rear of our lot. Our yard is fenced (dogs) and a large gate crosses the driveway at the rear of our house. We have three vehicles in our family (mine, my husband’s, and my older daughter’s), none of which is ever parked in our one-car garage, mostly because opening and closing the gate is awkward and time consuming.

All of this is fine . . . until it snows. Then we have to clean off the cars, one by one, parking each in the street when it’s done so we can then back the next one down our long, skinny driveway to the sidewalk end, where we have enough room to brush the snow off. There’s no room farther up the driveway because it runs between our house and the neighbor’s garage.

And it’s not just brushing the snow off of each car. First we have to clear away the snow between the street and the closest vehicle. Then we back up that car and clear the snow. Put that car on the street (which hopefully has been plowed, and the city has been doing a great job of that in recent years, THANK YOU!!!) and then shovel between where the first car was and where the second car is. Back that car down the driveway to the sidewalk and brush it off. Put it on the street. Shovel our way back to the third car. Back that car to the sidewalk and brush it off. Pull all the cars back in, and now go around to the backyard to clear everything from the garage up to where the third car is parked.

Today my husband and daughter were shoveling and using the snowblower on the back end of this equation, while I worked alone out in front. Something about city lots that you might not think of if you’ve never had to do snow removal on one is that you quickly run out of places to put the snow. After the first snowfall, we’re fine. But after several significant storms, all the space near the driveway is taken up by ginormous snow mountains. So then we need to shovel or blow the snow up the sidewalk to the area of our yard farthest away from the drive.

And that’s where I was earlier today. I’d get a shovel full of snow from our driveway, then walk up our sidewalk about two-thirds of the way to the next house on the street. Dump the snow on our front yard there, where the snow piles haven’t yet grown into mountains. Turn, with the now-empty shovel carried loosely across my body, to stroll back down the sidewalk to our driveway, where I’d get another shovel full of snow and carry it up the sidewalk to dump into the emptier area of our front yard.

Those return strolls are peaceful. Because I’m not using a snowblower, there’s no noise. I can look around at the snow silently falling and appreciate how beautiful it looks covering the branches of our birch in silver-white strips or bowing with the weight of fluffy white the evergreen branches of the tall yew that anchors our front porch.

This afternoon the thought occurred to me during one of my return strolls that I was a lot like Camus’ Sisyphus. Have you ever read that essay? Here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry on it. Basically Camus uses the Greek myth of Sisyphus (and here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry on that myth) to make a point about the absurdity of life and what makes it worth living when it’s all so pointless. If Sisyphus spends an eternity pushing his rock up a hill for no reason, never getting anywhere, never accomplishing anything, then what’s the point of his life? Why continue living?

And Camus says: because after Sisyphus has reached the top of the mountain only to see his rock tumble back down to the bottom, he has to make a return trip to the foot of the mountain to start pushing the rock uphill again. And during that walk back down the mountain, Sisyphus is able to have some time to himself, temporarily released from the burden of his endless task and given a chance to reflect and enjoy his surroundings. He is at peace.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

The older I get, the less sustainable this snow-removal routine becomes. Plus, the day will come when neither daughter is here living with us to help out. I know something has to change. Maybe we need to replace our one-car garage (original to the nearly 100-year-old house) with a two-car garage. Maybe we need to move, either to a condo/apartment (with no shoveling needed) or to a house farther out (with loads of room on either side of the driveway to blow the snow; just zip, zip, zip up and back with a snowblower).

But for the moment, I try to remember Camus’ Sisyphus and use my return trips to be thankful for our home and for our vehicles and for the fact that I’m alive to enjoy the beauty of the falling snow 🙂

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Clipping a Snowbird’s Wings

Sometime last winter I began thinking about how nice it would be someday when I’m older to spend the colder months of the year in a warmer climate.

When I started casually thinking about where, I got it in my head that Flagstaff, Arizona, would be the perfect place. No logical reason, just the beautiful landscape and access to medical care and a college campus and other cool things like the Lowell Observatory. Arizona is warm, right? Don’t lots of people spend their winters there playing golf? Plus you can get to Flagstaff by Amtrak, and I’m a huge fan of rail travel.

So then I started following Flagstaff on Facebook and Twitter, etc. And guess what? It turns out that Flagstaff isn’t quite the “warmer climate” I envisioned.

Flagstaff’s first snowfall of the season was October 7th, while Milwaukee’s first real snowfall this year (not just a few flakes in the air, but actual snow on the ground) didn’t come until the end of November. According to an article in the Arizona Republic, Flagstaff averages 101.7 inches of snow every year, while Milwaukee gets less than half of that (only 46.9 inches, according to the Midwestern Regional Climate Center). In fact, Flagstaff has had several snowstorms this season already, but Milwaukee has seen mostly rain. We have no snow on the ground in my neighborhood, and it’s raining today.

While at an academic conference in Chicago last week, I checked the local forecast to see if I needed to wear my scarf and gloves outside my hotel. On a whim, I also took a look at Flagstaff’s forecast.

Flagstaff was colder than Chicago! As proof, here are the screenshots from my phone last Friday.

The moral of my little story? Well, just this, I guess: It’s important to do your homework and NOT make big decisions on the basis of assumptions. I do look forward to spending time in Flagstaff at some point. But I don’t think it’s ever going to be my winter home 🙂

Posted in Life, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Saving the Environment

Two items seen in my hotel room (I’m attending an academic conference in Chicago). We humans are a remarkably flexible species. To wit:

I repeat:

So . . . an ethical dilemma. Chicago sits right on Lake Michigan, one of the largest sources of fresh water in the world. If I drink from the tap instead of this bottle shipped literally halfway around the world, is it okay for me to use a clean towel? 🙂

Posted in Life, Nature, Political Analysis, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Milwaukee’s Forecast: No change in view

The Wisconsin Gas Building’s flame was such a pretty shade of blue beneath the overcast sky this afternoon that I had to stop and take this picture.  The flame changes color to announce the weather forecast:

When the flame is red, there’s warm weather ahead!
When the flame is gold, watch out for cold!
When the flame is blue, there’s no change in view!
When there’s a flickering flame, expect snow or rain!

Today was gray, dry (after the morning snow fizzled out), and seasonably mild (highs in the low thirties). For a December day, that’s not bad. A little blah, but very livable. “No change in view” sounds good to me! 🙂

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Paw Paw Incident: James McCoy Deposition (1889)

Paw Paw Incident: James McCoy Deposition (1889)
— Read on

This is an eyewitness account of an incident related to the infamous feud between the Hatfields and McCoys. From Brandon Ray Kirk’s excellent blog, where he posts lots of primary source materials on West Virginia history.

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Little Free Library #10 – Samson & Delilah Salon

Stopped by Colectivo at 68th and Wells Streets today to pick up a latte and some of their fabulous Hot Cocoa Mix for home. (Truly, their cocoa is the BEST! And they don’t pay me for this endorsement😄) I was lucky to get a parking spot right across the street on Wells and noticed this Little Free Library box outside the Samson & Delilah Salon.

Isn’t it clever, the way the box mimics the architecture of its parent storefront?

And speaking of Little Free Libraries, it has been a while since I posted one of these photos. (Obviously, as this post is #10, there are nine others I’ve written about so far😄) Either I’m not noticing as many of them lately, or they’re not springing up as frequently as they once did. Anyway, a few weeks ago I saw that Todd Bol (the Hudson, Wisconsin, man who founded the movement in memory of his mother) had died. What a rich legacy he left behind for the world!

Posted in architecture, Art, Books and reading, Creativity, Life, Little Free Library, Milwaukee, Photography | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Michael Caine on life as a never-ending audition

While doing some background research for the academic article on movie trailers that I’m writing with a psychology professor in my department, I stumbled across a book by Michael Caine titled Acting in Film: An Actor’s Take on Movie Making (published in 2000, Amazon page here).

In its “Introduction,” Caine says that actors should always be auditioning. Every moment of their lives is basically a screen test, because you never know who in the film industry the people around you may be connected to. “If you wind up on the screen,” he says, “it’s because you’ve done something right since the cradle—and long before you ever made it to a producer’s office.” If you have a drink at a bar where no one has ever met you before, if you pass the “screen test,” the bartender may remember that some random guy who comes in on Tuesdays is married to a woman whose sister is a makeup artist on a sitcom. That kind of thing. Caine’s philosophy is that you need to be “on” all the time—even after you’ve “made it”— basically doing the right thing, being a nice person, and always finding a way to make some lemonade when life hands you lemons.

Then he recounts a story from his own life to illustrate the what-goes-around-comes-around karma of these random life encounters. I liked it and thought I’d share.

I remember doing a film with Shirley MacLaine: Gambit. A tour bus pulls up pretty smartly as the actors are crossing the studio lot. Fans come piling out of the bus. The driver is trying to corral the actors into signing autographs on our way in. Most of the actors escaped the crowd through a side door. I, on the other hand, knew the bus driver had a job to do, and I was going to make him look good. I signed every autograph on that bus. No big deal, right? Until I tell you that the young driver of that bus turned out to be Michael Ovitz. See what I mean?

Oh, yeah. Not only can I imagine Michael Ovitz never forgot that small act of kindness, but I also have no doubt that earning the lasting gratitude of a major Hollywood mover-and-shaker might give one’s acting career a boost.

I’ve always liked Caine as an actor. His book looks intriguing, and even though I have no plans to pursue an acting career, my “to read” list just got a little longer 🙂

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