What freeze? Mossback's Seattle mythbusters

Are we really that soaked, nice, passive-aggressive, standoffish . . . and contradictory?
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Did the Northwest drive Meriwether Lewis to suicidal depression?

Are we really that soaked, nice, passive-aggressive, standoffish . . . and contradictory?

With winter here, a great indoor activity, for writers anyway, seems to be mythbusting. Get out the holiday decorations, and toss out the misconceptions about Seattle.

The big mythbuster of the week is University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass, whose blog (and book) do such a great job of 'splainin' stuff that goes on outside our windows. Cliff takes on Seattle rain with a recent post called "Does it REALLY Rain in Seattle All the Time?"

Lesser Seattleites say yes, of course it does; we've got 365 days a year of spirit-breaking weather misery. Those who know their history might cite some great Northwest historical facts. Like the fact that our regional winter weather seems to have played a role in inducing Captain Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis & Clark) to have a mental breakdown —  not surprising since his great triumph was reaching a place called Cape Disappointment.
Stationed at Fort Vancouver, the wars, rain, flood and damp are said to have helped driven Ulysses S. Grant to drink. Hey, and Seattle is the only city where an NBA basketball game has been called on account of rain inside the building. Yet another reason to love The Key.

But Mass is a man of science, and he takes on the always-rains myth. Here's what he found when he ran the numbers: "There is roughly a 50-70 percent chance from early November through April 1. So the odds are, if you stand out there all day, you will get wet. Duh!

"But you don't do you? You are only outside for a short errand or walk or run or whatever. So let's ask a more interesting and important question.  What is the chance you will get wet during a particular hour?

"Ready to be shocked and amazed?  According to a study by Professor Phil Church and Mark Albright (published in Weatherwise Magazine, December 1974) only 18 percent of the hours had measurable precipitation in November, 19 percent in January, and 15 percent in February.

"You heard it right. Even during our rainiest months, more than 80 percent of the hours are dry."

That's right, even in the season of heaviest rains, we're dry 80 percent of the time. It might be dark, cloudy, windy, gloomy or damp, but not raining measurably. Of course, we all know this. The UW football team used to be called the Sundodgers, but we're really rain-dodgers, meaning to live here happily you have to learn a couple of things.
One, don't let rain deter you from going outdoors, otherwise you'll wind up a permanent shut-in. Get wet, get used to it. Second, watch for the gaps between fronts, squalls, storms — we call them sun breaks — and get out and keep dry in those windows of non-precipitation.

It helps, of course, to have a flexible schedule and no fear of the dark (which, let's face it, comes around 3:30 p.m. on some winter days). You can and will live a full productive life if you get good at drop-dodging and, of course, assuming you also have a place to dry off. Like Palm Springs.

Another myth that bites the dust: that the "Seattle Freeze" phenomenon is the fault of one of our distinguished ethnic communities. Gene Balk at the Seattle Times tackles this myth in a post called, "The Seattle Freeze: Can we Blame it on the Norwegians." Of course, the answer is obvious: "No, but we can blame the Swedes!"

Balk reviews the census data and maps out this fact: that Seattle's Scandinavian community just ain't that bit. Even in Ballard (or, the more tony "Ball-ARD"). People of Nordic heritage make up only 7.4 percent of Seattle's overall population, and there are more Irish offspring in Ballard these days than Nordics. That is a Scando scandal. Who wants lutefisk with their Guinness? Of course, it was the Vikings that invented Dublin, so the two groups do have a lot in common.

Balk goes on to show that there are many parts of the city, especially the supposedly diverse zip codes south of the ship canal, where there are virtually no Nordies. That was certainly true in my experience. My Norwegian grandfather moved to Mt. Baker in the '20s to assimilate; if we wanted hang out with any other Knutes, we'd have to seek them out in Ballard. Also, in my experience, some of the most social, gregarious and friendly people ever are Norwegians, especially after a few drinks.

There are many "Freeze" theories: ethnicity, frontierism, the weather, etc. This chips away at the other myth, which is that we're nice people here. I've heard enough newcomers complain about the freeze that I'm sure they're talking about something real, and it's not limited to the Seattle city limits, like Balk's map. It extends to the Eastside, to Bainbridge, to Stanwood, and to the far reaches of Pugetopolis.
I doubt heritage is the issue. A better theory is that people who live here, old-timers and newcomers alike, are simply people who came here to get away from something (or someone), and each of us like to nest in our own condo/bungalow/box/apartment in our own self-sufficient little utopian experiments. I am pro-Freeze, by the way. A good neighbor is someone you only have to speak to once a year ("Hello, you!"). At least, that's the way I was raised. Still, how would we pass the winter if we didn't have Seattle freeze theories to exchange?

Another emerging myth I want to nip in the bud is the characterization of Lesser Seattle that shows up now and then, such as in a Slog post by Dominic Holden taking issue with a Seattle Times guest editorial by businessman Albert Shen (reportedly contemplating a run for mayor).
Dominic is right: Shen's column deserves to be whacked. Shen criticizes Seattle as a city that's bitten off more than it can chew with too many mega-projects. He then floats his own mega pet-project: the remaking of Seattle Center with private development (housing, hotels, retail). Shen, by the way, makes his living managing — guess what — mega-projects for clients like the Port of Seattle. Hmmm. Mega-projects are bad, unless they're his mega-project?

In his Slog post, Holden accuses Shen of representing the "the anti-transit, anti-tax, lesser Seattle vote." This is the typical Lesser straw man, which is that we're against everything.
I'd like to point out that, first, Shen's column reveals that he is no Lesser. Second, Lesser Seattleites are not by definition anti-transit or anti-tax. There are many flavors of Lessers. I consider myself one, but I also believe in taxes, transit, and sane density and scale.
In other words, if Shen is a Lesser, than Lesser Seattle's patron saint Emmett Watson —  who hated Chamber of Commerce pomposity and hype but in fact loved Seattle's urbanization —  is rolling in his grave. And if you're against Lessers, just remember that there's much Less to hate than you think!

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.