Smithology: The art of bracing for the rain

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forest road drive pacific northwest
Unsplash/Joe Gardner

We lived in Seattle for five years, all of them happy. The plan was always to stay, and then, last year, the skyrocketing cost of living drove us out. Bemoaning this kind of change can make you feel better for a bit, but it’s ultimately unproductive. Housing markets and their knock-on effects are generally unpredictable by ordinary folk and about as tuneable as the weather. One of those signs that some parts of life are simply going to be out of reach, even if they seem already in hand.

So it goes, as Taylor Swift sang. Or maybe it was Billy Joel. Or Kurt Vonnegut, except he didn’t sing. He just ran a Saab dealership in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, in the 1950s, then wrote books that dented how we see the ineffable ridiculousness of the human condition.

I was always drawn to Vonnegut. Same reason I was drawn to Seattle—the idea that life is a series of trade-offs, embodied in both a city and the work of a genius humorist. That city being a place busting at the seams with mild weather and unspoiled nature, where the only trade-offs are high cost of living and a staggering amount of rain.

That last bit broke me. Like you break a horse, though. Not for the worse.

seattle building reflection puddle
Unsplash/Alek Kalinowski

Stereotype says the Northwest sees buckets of precipitation. In truth, the actual annual volume is less than in Nashville or Houston. The frequency is what gets you. One winter in our five-year stint, the Seattle office of the National Weather Service reported something like three full days of sunshine between the first of November and the first of March. Most of those days had rain, this spitty little drizzle that came and went. When we moved to town in 2015, in the warmth of an unseasonably early spring, I marveled at the sunlit tulips and evergreens. Around October, the city remembered itself, and I lost my mind. Blue sky seemed to hide behind a blanket until the Fourth of July.

If there was a silver living to that blanket, it would be found behind the wheel.

I never minded rain driving, in the same way that I didn’t mind my mother’s pot roast as a kid—always gray and apparently dead, not the end of the world but also not the sort of thing you seek out. In the same way, I’d get caught on some back road in a sudden storm and just be like, Oh, okay, fine, fun over. Patient waiting for the next, better thing.

pacific northwest winding foggy road
Unsplash/Karsten Winegeart

The shift in my thinking began on Sunday afternoons. I began taking long drives born of boredom, of missing the road and waiting for ostensibly nicer days. I’d leave the city and Puget Sound, heading east through the Cascades, looking for sun, one- or two-hundred-mile loops up to foggy elevation, cresting ridges and back down beneath tall cliffs, gone until well after dark. It was just one Sunday at first, for the hell of it, and then it became two, with the following weekend, and three, and more after that. The weather ran from light clouds and that same spitting rain to true mountain weather, the kind of sideways toad-drowner you only get up high, the road actually run through the clouds in places. After a bit—several weekends or a few months, I don’t remember how long—the trips became less a hunt for sun and more a search for something else.

You can probably see where this is going. I was just thick enough that the reason wasn’t immediately obvious.

The lessons can and have filled books: the stuff that wet pavement forces you to remember, the usual cliches about how smoothness and slow hands can take advantage of available grip, loading the nose and rear tires gently. How slick pavement forces you to back up and think more about what you’re doing, leaning less on muscle memory and more on attention. Modern tires will take heaps of lateral load in the wet, but you have to build to that point; surprise the carcass, they spit you loose well below the actual limit.

car tire rain droplets on rubber
Unsplash/Obi Onyeador

So much learning. Especially given my occupation, where the job sees you driving stacks of new cars every year, different engineering philosophies and blueprints. If you’re paying even a modicum of attention, you get object lessons in how tire compound and tread matter in standing water or on slicked pavement, how different types of asphalt feel when drenched and undrained versus simply glossed with water. How a tire can slide progressively, smooth as greased velvet, or simply break and grip in fitty snatches, independent of suspension tune or pavement quality. You come to respect and love the rubber and cars that treat grip like a rheostat versus the ones that BOOM-slip loose suddenly, harder to balance.

To say nothing of good software. Years ago, when computers were used solely to manage fuel injection and maybe the odd damper, who thought code blind spots would be a significant differentiator in the workings of hardware? That carmakers would eventually throw silicon at differentials and steering columns but occasionally miss a few steps?

My wife’s Volkswagen GTI, for example, has lively steering feel, not a world-beater but thoroughly alright. Except in the wet, where the wheel is a dead fish. As it turns out, modern electric-power-steering hardware dampens feedback as a byproduct of design and mass. Wheel feel thus hangs on what a team of engineers have told a piece of software to allow through to your hands, and a system dialed on dry pavement rarely equals dialed on wet. All of which means that, although technology has given us seemingly omniscient stability-control systems, you still need smooth inputs, hands that can gently ramp tires into load, a human who can sling a car into a corner quickly but without abrupt spikes in force. Lose those qualities, you’re less driver and more point-and-shoot monkey.

vw gti steering wheel
Unsplash/Raphael Gritschke

So many voices in the rain. Seattle tilted my ear. People who like driving but hate the wet say they miss the aggression of dry inputs and forces. In that first winter in Washington, that idea began to seem like missing a sandwich when all you have is a slice of pizza. What is pizza, if not also a hell of a lunch?

The philosophy stuck. You carry bits of your past everywhere you go, as Vonnegut said. Unsurprisingly, there’s a bit of Saab dealer in his work, everything from Timequake to Breakfast of Champions—this sense of reckoning necessary to existence, the acceptance that you have to pull what positives you can from the unexpected or absurd. Also the notion that most of life is unexpected or absurd. You could label that fact happy or crap, but in reality, it’s simply… present.

pikes place public market city fish
Unsplash/Andy Li

One of my favorite Vonnegut bits lives in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. A man named Billy Pilgrim is discussing time with an individual gifted with a better handle on the problem:

“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us, for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”

“Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.

“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

Trapped in the amber of the moment. What a piece of language.

You can read that section a few ways. I always saw it as yin to yang, the notion that up is as natural as down. A hint at tilting toward optimism—the notion that bad days exist to balance the good. You either revel in both or you miss the point.

I know a handful of ways to do the former. And if that particular angle on the world is the one free and lasting thing gifted to me by that wet and lovely old city on the coast, well, so be it. We weren’t able to keep a house there, but in the long run, that doesn’t really matter. We moved from one amber moment to the next and our spirits, like the rooftops of Seattle, were no more dampened than the national average, no matter how it felt at the time.

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