For Wetter, For Drier — I’m Married to California

The hills of southern California on the Grapevine near Gorman are grey from drought. Photo by BF Newhall

Normally these slopes on the Grapevine near Gorman in Southern California would be a lush green from winter rains by now. Instead they are a spectral silver-grey with last year’s dead grass. Photo by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Note: This column first appeared in the Oakland Tribune on February 19, 1989, during a California drought. This year’s  droughtis far worse, Jon tells me.

Basically, there are two kinds of Californian. Those who are delighted by a sunny February day. And those who are dismayed.

Jon is one of the latter.

You can chart the weather by Jon’s moods.

The drier it is the crankier he gets.

“It feels wrong,” he frets, as January slides into February and the water in California’s reservoirs hovers at 6 million acre-feet below normal.

Jon studies the sparkling February sky and scowls. “Something’s wrong, terribly wrong.”

For Jon, a winter without rain is like St. Patrick’s Day without green beer. No, it’s worse than that. A winter without rain is like San Francisco without the Giants.

To Jon and his ilk, a California drought feels like the end of the world. “ . . . and, lo, the sun

A star magnolia tree blossoms in January 2014 in California, a couple of months early because of the drought. Photo by BF Newhall

Spring in January: Due to warm drought days, our magnolia bloomed disturbingly early this year, in January instead of March. Photo by BF Newhall

became black as sackcloth, and the moon became as blood, and no rain did fall upon California from Big Game Saturday unto opening day at Candlestick”

Jon was born and bred in California. He grew up in the Bay Area, and so did his father and grandfather before him.

Jon’s great-great grandfather came to California during the Gold Rush. He came from Massachusetts via sailing ship and the Isthmus of Panama.

He liked what he saw. He stayed.

My grandfather came cross-country to California from Scottville, Mich., at the turn of the century.

He turned around and went home.

The California weather cycle feels right to Jon. He likes California the way it is, the way it has always been. Rain in the winter, sun and fog in the summer.

If it rains on Halloween, and the five-year-old fairy princess comes home with wet ballet slippers and soggy Tootsie Rolls, Jon is pleased. “Good. Now we have four inches under our belts.”

If it rains on Thanksgiving, I attach drain pipes to the down spouts to keep the garden walk from washing out. Jon grows palpably cheerful. He makes frequent visits to the rain gauge nailed to the fence.

A palm tree in Southern California against a cloudless blue drought sky. Photo by BF Newhall

Los Angeles: Blue sky where we’d like rainclouds.

If it rains on Christmas, I think gloomy thoughts of mudslides and basement seep. Jon is giddy with the wetness of it all.

For Jon, winter rain and summer dryness are the way it’s supposed to be.

But I’m strictly nouveau Californian. I find the long, dry California summer with its brown hills less manageable than the occasion cool, dry California winter.

This is not the ecologically correct attitude, of course. But what do I know? I’ve only been here 20 years.

I grew up in that wide, humid glacial ditch known as Michigan, where it’s cloudy 6.5 days out of 10 and it rains 30 inches a year.

In Michigan, summer is the juicy season. Corn, cherries and blueberries await the plucking. It isn’t August if the peach juice doesn’t run down your chin.

You can tell I’m not a native Californian because I hang up damp towels. In Michigan, you can’t be too careful with a damp towel. Eight hours heaped on the bathroom floor and you get a funny smell. Twenty-four hours and your towel is colonizing something green. Five days and you need a shovel and a bucket.

You keep your cereal and cracker boxes sealed tight during a Michigan summer. But the Cheerios get soggy anyway.

Likewise, you keep your screen doors in good repair and closed tight against the dreaded mosquito, which breeds in the Michigan swamps and dive-bombs the populace, June to August.

But I’m married to California. For richer, for poorer. For wetter, for drier. I root for the Giants

Two children show off the buckets of blueberries they've picked in Michigan. Photo by BF Newhall

Michigan blueberries — in August. Photo by BF Newhall

and—when Jon is out of earshot—I boost the A’s. I even cheer a winter downpour.

In summer, Jon keeps me up on the interesting baseball stats. In winter, I get the precipitation rates.

And now, with California headed for a third consecutive year of drought—its first three-year drought in 400 years—Jon is worried.

“We need 125 percent of the normal rainfall for the rest of this year, just to catch up,” he fumes. “And already we’re two inches behind normal.”

As his wife, I do my active listening, and wonder how to soothe my poor, troubled husband. Should we move to the Michigan wetlands?

But it would never work. Jon doesn’t understand about screen doors and damp towels. He could never put up with soggy Cheerios, much less a cloudy summer day. He’s too hopelessly Californian.

And so, maybe, am I.

© 1989 The Oakland Tribune. Republished by permission.

Twenty-four years later, Jon still pours over the newspaper rainfall totals with the same attention he pays to the latest 49er and Giants stats. His drought worries run in the family, he says. “If we had months of dry weather and we finally got a light rainfall, my father would stand at the window and say,  ‘It’s not raining out there. That’s a fake rain.’”

Jon reports that this year’s  drought is the worst  since California began keeping track in 1885. Only 6.97 inches of rain fell between Feb. 1, 2013 and Jan. 30, 2014.  The annual normal is 23 inches.

The hills of California's Grapevine pass are dry and silvery gold in the drought winter of 2014. Photo by BF Newhall

Photo by BF Newhall




  1. I’m an environmental artist, I live in Alameda, teach art to kids and often show at Gray Gallery in Jingletown. I read your article “Is Oakland the new Brooklyn?” and loved it. You are hilarious.

    I’m doing a show next year on “Alameda: Island of Beaches/Island of Industry” at the K Gallery of Rhythmix. I want you to come and write about it because you are such a good writer and I want to meet you.

    It’ll be in March. Please come.

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Ginny. Sounds like my cup of tea. Please, please remind me of the show when the time comes. So many talented people in the Bay Area. I’m lucky to live here.

  2. Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

    It’s raining like mad here in California today. The trees outside my writing room are positively chartreuse with new growth. I’d love to know what’s happening right now on those forlorn, gray hills I photographed up on the Grapevine a month ago.

  3. Although I laughed out loud reading your column, I’m with Jon on this one.


  1. […] More Jon stories at “My Computer is Dead, Long Live My Omputer” and “For Wetter or Drier, I’m Married to California.” […]

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