The Unhappiest City in America

To make a life in Portland – that is, to settle in here, to give yourself over fully to the place – you have to submit to the weather. You have to make peace with the 222 cloudy days each year, and find a kind of pensive beauty in the nine months of rain. You must adapt to the rhythms and eccentricities of the weather, and learn that the rhythms of temperature and cloud-cover and precipitation are themselves eccentric – like the way the sun comes out at 3 p.m. nearly every day, but only for an hour.

These things are not easy to do. Business Week recently named Portland the “unhappiest city” in America due to its high rates of depression, divorce, and suicide (respectively ranked 1, 4, and 12 nationally). According to the magazine, the high levels of unhappiness are due at least in part to “lousy weather.”

I happen to love the weather here. As a kid, I was convinced that all great adventures begin in the rain. And so Portland awakens youthful dreams of thrilling deeds (mostly laid away in books), while satisfying my grown-up conception of rain as a metaphor for renewal (itself a great adventure) and serving as the set and soundtrack for my carefully-cultivated melancholy.

Kate, on the other hand, has a harder time of it. The rain and the clouds, the cold, hail, ice, and snowstorms are personal affronts against her. The lack of sunshine inflames her eczema (and Molly’s too). Raised in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Northern California, she grew up tromping through the forests; given a choice, she might prefer to live in a tent and cook over an open fire. The last 18 months have been especially gloomy in Portland, and Kate has been kept too much inside.

To thrive in Portland, you also learn that weather like we’ve had since last Sunday – sunny skies, temperatures fifteen degrees above average – is an absolute gift. I’ve spent the last few days riding my bike and walking, driving with the windows down, making the transition from jeans and hoodies to shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops. Kate, who hurt her foot running last week, has been homebound, but she spends hours each day in the garden, or playing with Molly in the front yard, or reading on the lawn chair. The weather returns to normal tomorrow, with a twenty degree drop in temperature, clouds, and even rain on Thursday. But at this moment, this morning, the sunrise through my living room window is a revelation, and the sky is so blue it must be received like a blessing.


5 comments on “The Unhappiest City in America

  1. Oh baby, you speak the truth. And a blessing it is – every special, appreciated minute of it.

  2. Larry and I flirt with moving to Portland on a semi-regular basis. The recent heat wave in LA made pdx look even better. But my brother in law grew up in Auburn, CA and I spent Christmases there since I was 17. SO I know what your wife is adjusting to. The sierra foothills and the Willamette valley couldn’t be more different. Unless one was a fjord.

  3. I am quite happy here! It’s funny, because I never really get a general sense of unhappiness from the hundreds of people I see every day. Portlanders appreciate–and take advantage of–the good weather more than the people in any other place I’ve lived or spent time in–in the world. I love that about us. Yay, sun! I am so sad that Kate’s skin does not like it here as much as I do!

  4. There were afternoons in Portland that filled me with a sense of balance and perspective punctuated by lush, rounded, chewy golden sunsets that I still carry around. And then it would rain the next day…

  5. Today is one of the those weird weather days. Rainy one minute, and then the sun breaks through, and then it hails. Today the wind was so strong it blew over a tree in southwest Portland that landed on a car and killed a man. Right now, the sun is shining as it rains.

    Maya, I love your description of the chewy golden sunsets.

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