Survival and madness in DC

Friday - 1/18/2013, 2:00am EST

No matter how winter-wise you are, something happens when you move to Washington. Tough, God-fearing people from Duluth and Detroit become jelly-like winter wimps once they settle in D.C., or the burbs of Reston or Silver Spring.

This collapse of moral fiber happens even if you, in your youth, walked 10 miles to school each way barefoot and carrying your little sister. Even if you didn't have a sister, there was definitely somebody! Even as wolves harassed, you and your hearty, well-bundled chums walked to schools that never closed. And all of this in below-zero weather with 60 mph horizontal winds. We've heard it all.

Maybe this transformation from tough Arctic survivor to D.C. winter wimp has something to do with the water. The Potomac. Maybe there is something in the air. Or could it be the humidity which — winter or summer — is murder on anyone from west of the Mississippi. Or it could be the hills (it's a river town). Or the high percentage of foreign diplomats, combined with our traffic circles.

Maybe it is the Congress itself, with all those people — from 535 different places — that people from Boise to Biloxi vote to send away from home, sometimes for decades. Our loss is their gain. Whatever...

Bottom line is that when it snows here, or even when we think it might snow, we go collectively nuts. Even former Maine lumberjacks and Colorado rock climbers succumb once here.

Stores are flooded with people who fill carts with D.C.'s standard survival gear (white bread, milk and toilet paper). I ran into a guy I know from Buffalo, N.Y., Monday evening. He was in the store buying you-know-what. He said back in the day, back in Buffalo, he would have been stocking up on beer and birth-control items. But he's gone native, stashing away Wonder Bread and squeezing the Charmin.

This is nothing new.

Years ago my boss at The Washington Post asked me to drive to National Airport and pick up a Canadian newspaper man. He worked for the Ottawa Citizen; I think the paper was going to launch a federal news column and wanted to see how it was done. He was to tag along with me for a week. The boss said I could take him to lunch every day and the company would pay. Say no more.

It was about this time of year, mid-January. Typical D.C. weather. He got off the plane dressed like a North Pole explorer. Between the terminal and my car (this was pre-subway days) he fell thrice (that's three times). I suspected some alcohol was involved. And was later proven correct.

But his main problem was the cold. He's from freakin' Ottawa, as in Canada, and he's down here below the Mason and Dixon line. But the cold was killing him. As people say in the summer, it wasn't the heat (or cold) it was the humidity. He never got warm and was constantly taking some sort of cough medicine to fight off our brutal mid-Atlantic winter.

The point is, something happens when people get here. Some congressmen, in fact a lot of them, become quirky. Some live, as well as work, in their offices leaving only for vacations. One took to emailing photographs of portions of his lower torso to people he presumed to be fans.

Maybe it's our special (often mild) winters that change people.

Whatever it is, the Office of Personnel Management seems to have finally — after decades of starts and stalls — got it right. Shortly after the first reports of snow heading our way materialized, OPM posted a notice that said feds could take unscheduled leave or telework Tuesday. No fuss. Just do it.

The first reports were a little shaky. They said the D.C. area could expect anywhere from a dusting to 6 inches of snow. That's quite a spread. And that it would be worse further south of the city. Go figure.

In the past, OPM has been criticized for bad weather calls contributing to the mother-of-all-traffic jams and, not long ago, 12 hour commutes for some people. It either let people go to soon or too late. Or brought them in only to send them home. It has happened over and over for years.

Now we are down to common sense. If you don't want to come in because of foul weather, don't. If you do, do!