unSAD Climate

There are some human compulsions that I recognize and understand, but not entirely; how could I, given that I do not personally experience them. This includes the more extreme expressions of individual need, the many addictions and competitive excesses and manic drives, but I am not addressing those at this time, although I try to empathize with the victims of those as well. No, this essay is about one of the lesser compulsions, one that you might never notice unless you know a person well, the kind of thing that they themselves might not even recognize, or might not consider abnormal. This particular syndrome was first introduced to me through the actions of a person I shared an apartment with briefly after I graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz.

To understand this story you need to know that Santa Cruz suffers—or benefits, depending on your preferences—from atmospheric characteristics common to much of the coast of northern California. Frequently, in most months of each year, there are long periods of overcast; multiple days with gray mottled layers above, from the evergreen hills in the east to the flat ocean horizon to the west, and variable downpours reaching every surface below. In the summer months there are fewer overcast days, but most afternoons it is common for a thick bank of surface clouds to form off shore and gradually move inland, enclosing most of the city in a thin fog. Seattle may have earned infamy for lengthy periods of separation from direct sunlight, but it is far from being the only northwest coast city with that condition. It was an environmental condition familiar to me, as I had spent my entire life up to that point in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A well-known columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, Herb Caen, once wrote that it was common for summer tourists to arrive in the city and ask why there were no sidewalk cafés. He then noted that they tended to drop the question after they had experienced the almost inevitable appearance of the thick damp blanket of fog, and the accompanying drop in temperature, that would roll in almost every afternoon. In Santa Cruz there was a large pier reaching out westward into Monterey Bay, the perfect staging point for a fireworks display on the Fourth of July. Unfortunately, that annual event almost always had to be delayed for days because of the thick afternoon cloud cover, a condition that often remained in place until late in the night.

In 1972 in Santa Cruz I had a roommate, one of the four of us who shared a four-bedroom unit, who had a problematic relationship with clouds and fog. In his defense, he had grown up in the Los Angeles area, the very region that inspired the concept of “sunny California”. Santa Cruz was not the best environment for him. On the days when the sun rose into an empty blue sky he could be found reclining on the south-facing porch soaking up the warmth of unobstructed photons, while they remained available. At the time I hadn’t yet heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder, the depressive malady with the somewhat appropriate acronym SAD, but now I recognize that my roommate may have had a mild version. As I noted earlier, I sort of understood his compulsion to sunbathe, but not entirely.

Today, however, experience with very a very different climate has given me a greater empathy for my sun-deprived roommate. More than forty years ago, for a variety of reasons largely related to my career and marital choices, I relocated from central California to the great American Southwest, more specifically to the two border states at the southern end of the continental divide. This required a number of relatively minor adjustments, adaptations to different cultural norms and colder winters, to significantly higher altitudes and lower populations. On balance, after decades of self-imposed exile, I now view these as positive changes, an assessment that is largely reinforced whenever I revisit the cities by the bay in which I grew up.

Yet there is one element of my current life that does bother me intermittently, and it could be interpreted as a SAD-comparable mental condition. It is, however, a reversal of the problem my roommate experienced. In my case the problem is that my adopted state of New Mexico has an annual average precipitation rate of less than nine inches. The majority of that falling water comes in the summer months of July, August, and September; the rest of the months average less than half an inch each, most often provided by brief light drizzles produced by scattered clouds. Most of these minimal bouts of cloudfall would hardly count as rain by California coastal standards. Fog is virtually unheard of. California-style storms in which the entire sky is overcast for days at a time almost never occur in Albuquerque.

That is the problem, although it’s not really like a reversal of SAD. It’s not as if I get depressed or riddled with anxiety or desperation because the skies are endlessly an invariant shade of blue, horizon to horizon. And let’s face it, how could I seriously be upset that the sky is clear and the sun is visible for nearly eighty percent of all annual daylight hours? In my home town of Oakland the summers were like that, relatively hot and clear and dry day after day. The late-day fogs that so often covered much of San Francisco hardly ever reached all the way eastward across the bay. But the rest of Oakland’s year was much wetter, adding up to an average annual rainfall of nearly 25 inches, and there were many times when we didn’t see the sun for three or four days in a row. In fact, the December holiday season never seemed complete until I had walked around downtown Oakland on a night when the lights of the municipal street decorations and the store windows were enhanced by the added sparkle from thousands of droplets deposited by a cold light rain.

I really don’t, and shouldn’t, complain that our outdoor activities in Albuquerque are almost never interrupted or delayed by precipitation—at least not often. It’s a common assumption here that if it’s raining, we need only wait a few minutes to go outside. As if to verify such attitudes, any cloud producing even a heavy monsoon downpour will usually be only one of several, each surrounded by a visible azure background, and the heaviest rain can be soaking downtown Albuquerque while the trucks enjoy dry pavement on Interstate 40 only a couple of miles to the north. Wherever we are, very soon the rain moves on and we can continue whatever we were doing. In strictly personal terms I must admit that any unbroken run of blue skies, even weeks or months on end, doesn’t cause me any significant discomfort. I don’t feel deprived in any way waiting to see one of the rare overcast days. Or maybe I’m in denial. I must admit that when that uncommon stretch of cool gray hours arrives, those times when we can smell the rain from miles away, it does call me outside to walk around, to breathe deeply, and to revel in the feel of slightly-higher-than-average humidity and the tingle of drops hitting exposed skin. It is precisely those rare hours that tell me that I could be, indeed, just as much a product of my childhood experiences as my 1970s roommate.

Having said that, New Mexico’s sun-drenched climate is not anything that will cause me to abandon the many environmental and cultural benefits of living in Albuquerque for a cottage in Santa Cruz or Mendocino or Astoria, as much as I’ve enjoyed visiting all of those locations. That would be true even if I could get anywhere close to affording any kind of adequate lodging on the west coast. No, I’ll stay where I am and remind myself that there are advantages to a generally boring climate, and that I can travel elsewhere on occasion if I want to experience salt-infused fog or waves crashing against a rocky shoreline or thick conifer forests or snow that remains on the ground longer than three hours. It is a compromise I am happy to live with.

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