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A pedestrian makes her way through the snow and slush in downtown Toronto, Feb, 2, 2011. (Darren Calabrese / CP/Darren Calabrese / CP)
A pedestrian makes her way through the snow and slush in downtown Toronto, Feb, 2, 2011. (Darren Calabrese / CP/Darren Calabrese / CP)

Elizabeth Renzetti

Cloudy, with a 99-per-cent chance of hysteria Add to ...

It seems this week that Toronto and points east were paralyzed: schools shut, university classes cancelled, garbage uncollected. People huddled, quaking, in their homes. I wondered, from thousands of kilometres away, what natural disaster could have befallen my beloved hometown. Did the CN Tower take a tumble, or Lake Ontario overflow its shores? Had all the hot air in Don Cherry escaped in one burst and laid waste to the land?

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It was so much worse than that: It snowed. In Canada, of all places. When England was crippled by 12.5 centimetres of snow in December, people were ashamed of bowing to such a puny foe and said: "You Canadians must really be laughing at us."

Well, no, because we're too busy weeping hysterically and wondering how long a snowbound family can survive on one can of tomato soup. I certainly wasn't going to tell anyone in England about community centres closing their doors or butch hockey players tweeting their woes from snowbound buses; here, a rugby match continues until the frozen earth is red with blood and all the players are without ears.

You could teach children to conjugate verbs by our weather. It snows, it always has snowed, it always will snow, it will be snowing when they put us in our cold graves. Still, it's easy to understand our collective obsession with weather, even when it turns out to wear dentures, not fangs: It's the one remaining thing that unites us, rich and poor, old and young. Marriage is in decline, religion polarizes, taxes can be avoided with an e-mail to the Caribbean. But we're all one under the weather. More important, we're all powerless before it; it is one of the few aspects of our lives that we can't obsessively control. Maybe the god-shaped hole in modern life is filled with a severe front sweeping in from Alaska.

Sometimes, alas, the weather unites in idiocy. There's nothing like a good snowstorm to draw the climate skeptics from their overheated, foil-lined rooms. "Why has southern New York turned into the tundra?" asked Fox's Bill O'Reilly, fresh from watching a legion of network minions puffing over their shovels. He planned to ask Al Gore.

Obligingly, Mr. Gore responded on his website, explaining that heavy snow was perfectly consistent with theories of global warming. He wrote, in part: "A rise in global temperature can create all sorts of havoc, ranging from hotter dry spells to colder winters." It reminded me of the meteorologist who appeared on the BBC during the mild December storms that turned the once-proud British lion into a housebound tabby. "Weather," he said in a voice that suggested he was trying not to scream, "is not the same as climate."

If there's one thing that bad weather demonstrates, it's that we no longer know how to be inconvenienced. When Heathrow grounded flights for several days over Christmas, travellers - understandably exhausted and disappointed - fell back on crazed rhetoric. "It's like the Third World here," they said, over and over. Actually, it wasn't. There were no outbreaks of cholera or yellow fever, no one had to tote drinking water three kilometres from the nearest Costa Coffee, and the shelves at W.H. Smith continued to groan under the weight of Twix bars.

Those poor travellers were goaded by the same sense of entitlement that unites everyone lucky enough to be in an airport at Christmas: We want our package holiday in Mallorca, and we want it now. But the weather, like any self-respecting deity, doesn't care about your plans or your desire to micromanage every minute of your day. Even ultra-rational Nobel laureates can lose the plot when things don't go their way: At the end of December, Paul Krugman complained about the New York mayor's handling of a snowstorm, calling it "Bloomberg's Katrina." Mr. Krugman subsequently apologized. The blizzard might have kept some New Yorkers from their restaurant reservations, but it didn't wipe out a city.

In the mid-1990s, I kept a front page pinned to my fridge that warned, in Jesus-is-returning-and-he's-wearing-a-purple-dress typeface, that we faced "The Storm of the Century." Oddly, the storm passed, the snow melted and we forgot about it until the next storm of the century darkened the sky. Then, as now, hysteria was widespread. We all had ink on our hands.

You've got to admire the people who refuse to flip out over a bit of weather, and who instead follow their best inclinations: The online wine company that e-mailed me this week to offer "free snow-day delivery," for example, or the heroic farmers and truckers who rescued people stuck in their cars during the terrible blizzards in Southwestern Ontario in December.

When life hands you a bunch of ice, you can trip over it and cry, or you can make some margaritas, and pass them around.

 

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