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HOW'S THE WEATHER?


My son rolls his eyes up whenever I ask him how the weather is over there. He can't believe I reached a dead end in our phone conversation after not seeing one another for several months. He lives in Marseille, and I am here in Vermont during the winter. So he calls us now and then to check in on us, and shows us a few pictures of his kids, who never fail to elicit the usual grandparent oohs and ahs. Then I pop my favorite question when there is a pause in our talk. He takes a beat before answering, perhaps to keep himself from blurting out some little jab at my poor wit. But I ask him that question out of real curiosity. I want to know. I hope he will say lots of sun, a good warm breeze blowing in from the sea, short-sleeve weather even in March. That would cheer me. If he asks how my weather is, to be polite, I ignore the cool tone of his voice when I say, "Lots of snow this time of year. And some icy winds. Last night we heard the coyotes barking as they closed in on some hapless rabbit."

Part of my curiosity about weather is rooted in my skepticism about the age we live in. The utopian dream of technology is to control every possible variable in human existence, from mini cams to detect thieves creeping up on the porch to steal a FedEx package to remote control of a thermostat, to monitoring the temperature of the refrigerator or checking to see that the electric stove is turned off. You can do all that manipulating with a cell phone. If you're feeling lazy, you can tell your smart speaker to change channels, raise or lower the volume, call out for a pizza. You may not be the only one listening to your daily life, since these modern conveniences all come with vulnerable security that can easily be hacked by others, but you enjoy the feeling that you are living a safe, and secure life within limits. And it's a great feeling. I understand it, even if I don't invest in it. I like the retro feel of my house, with its manual thermostat, the buttons on the stove for turning off the heating coils. I don't mind getting up to do certain things, even if I do like the marvels of a remote control for my TV.

So when I ask my son about the weather, it's because it's the one thing not willed by us, but that confronts us by fiat of some other authority, a great power residing in the mysterious depths of nature. Maybe it's the sea, or the jet stream above, or the strange polar vortex that wobbles more and more each winter and sends down arctic deep freezes these days. And because this is a power that is not to be harnessed by technology, not yet, anyway, we are fascinated by it, maybe even mesmerized by it.

That must be the reason why weather reports are repeated ad nauseam on the radio each morning, and on the weather channel, which runs 24 hours a day, filled with glowing maps and flashing lights to indicate wind currents and shifting isobars as someone hurries through a weather summary between spates of ads. Technology is jealous of the weather; its godlike autonomy and power make it lust for some way to harness and tame it, to bring it down within reach of human will. But it continues to fly off to roll around in heaven and crash down on some coast with tons of cold rain, and mountains of late winter wind.

If you complain about the heat in Texas, someone will surely say, "Well, just wait a day or two, you'll get the opposite. This is Texas." I was surprised to learn that this same expression is used in Vermont whenever you grouse about the latest cold wave. "Just wait a while. This is Vermont." The uncertainty principle of weather has a metaphysical meaning to it. The question, "How's the weather" is really asking, how is the other side of reality unfolding its riddles these days? If you don't like discussing it, it might mean you don't like to think about a world that exists outside the curious illusion of the computer, which makes you think you can pretty much answer any question, perform any task, solve any problem by tapping on your keypad. My son is a whiz at making his fingers fly over the alphabet of his laptop; he might be on the phone talking to a client, patting the head of his son who has come over to hand him a broken toy for mending, answering a question from his wife, keeping me entertained with smiles and brief remarks on this and that, while performing magical acts of prestidigitation on his keyboard. Language piles up on his screen until whole glowing green paragraphs keep ascending out of the blank horizon as he conducts two or three or even four other activities. He's the Wizard of Oz, and his levers of power are these keys that he barely touches that leap to his orders like janizaries. (In case your dictionary isn't handy, those were the crisply disciplined guards of the Turkish Sultan, famous for the alacrity they showed in carrying out his orders.)

But if he should look up and see dark clouds boiling up over the roofs of the city, he might pause a moment and say, "There goes our swim this afternoon." The kids might hear him and echo his groan, and then retreat to their bedroom to find something to entertain them for the afternoon. The keyboard hasn't any connection to the sky, and in that moment, my son confronts the limits of his own wizardry and the magic carpet of technology in which he zooms around the human universe.

That may explain why I love the weather. I like getting up in the morning and staring down the little country road in front of the house to see what the sky is doing. I feel a special affinity to clouds and to the highly vocal winds that serenade us some nights. I'm illiterate when it comes to reading weather signs; I can feel the chill in the air and know it might be turning cold soon, but there are eyes all over the fields and forests here that are in continuous touch with this other, primal will. The birds disappear when a storm is about to brew; the woodchucks know exactly when it is prudent to climb up the side of our porch and enter by a secret doorway into the attic. They are just ahead of a serious cold snap, and their cheeks are swollen with nut meal for the night's provisions. Some animals can read the sky like a book; its characters are written on the trembling leaves of maple trees, or in the rattle of pine boughs; the verbs are dropped down by a few stray pellets of frozen rain. The earth's changing colors from winter drab to spring mud, tell the worms how deep to dig to keep from getting nipped by a frost. The frogs are masters of prediction and wallow in the soft mud of the creek banks. Fish are not easily worried about the sky's moods, but they do know when a hard rain might spoil their afternoon nap.

Not only is our technology naive and literal-minded, we wonder around in a mystical envelope of air that is a transparent diary to other animals. They're all graduates of the academy of the weather while we are in our diapers banging on the slats of our playpens whenever we hear the thunder. No wonder the most powerful gods of Greek and Roman mythology were the great lords of weather; practically all the mythologies of early religions were Zeus-like in their power over the sky. Look at the great god Thor, who controlled the thunder; Zeus who threw death-dealing lightning bolts; Odin, who hung upside down from his oak tree, Yggdrasil and merely thought of his wishes that nature carried out. Loki was the mischievous god who could upset any human plan by leaning on the clouds and blowing an ill wind out of his cheeks. Bravo to them all. And no one thought you could tell such gods what to do. They were frolicking in their awesome autonomy over the human world. It was that part of creation that couldn't be diluted by human agency.

So, when I step out in a few minutes, to get the mail from the little box on the road behind us, I will take a wary look around, grab the flaps of my jacket and hold them close, and dart down through the uncertainty of the elements to retrieve whatever bills and circulars have come my way. I will hurry back and pray that I didn't lock the door behind me. I will read the junk mail as if it were part of the tedious predictability of human desires, but keep an ear out for the first thud of raindrops. I consider the question, "How's the weather?" essential to my sense of freedom, the part of it that I can't weaken and domesticate to suit my needs.

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