It would seem that the variability of the weather was purposely
devised to furnish mankind with unfailing material for conversation.
—Emily Post, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, 1922
It snowed this morning in northern Stout County. Two inches on the ground by daybreak, another four by noon. I know this not because I live in Stout County, north or south. I don’t. Nor do I plan to travel there soon. I won’t. Rather, I know it because my father lives in northern Stout County, and this is what we talk about.
“People probably aren’t taking it too hard,” he says. In March, the snow melts a little faster in northern Wisconsin. He pauses to consult the digital thermometer that I know rests on the scraped kitchen counter. The digital thermometer is his joy; it reports the temperature from a prudently placed thermometer just outside the old house, then the indoor temperature, and the humidity level. I have seen him glance at it the way commuters at a bus stop check their watches. He’s waiting for something, but I don’t know what.
“Twenty degrees,” he reports. “That’s up from nine at breakfast.” I picture him stirring the steel-cut oats, the blue-black of a winter night resolving itself into morning’s gray, steam from the wide saucepan smudging the kitchen window. I can see the anticipatory light in his eyes as he glances at the temperature before sitting down to eat. If my mother is in the room, he will announce it to her.
“How is it in the foothills?” he asks me now. “Are you really close to sixty?”
This is what we talk about. We have always talked about the weather. There are no impressionistic flourishes to our descriptions, no established code of double entendre. We exchange the facts of our respective weather systems like two farmers remarking on the crop report. Yet despite the spareness and regularity of these dispatches, there is an enthusiasm that enters my father’s voice when he begins his account of that week’s precipitation and temperature highs. In this respect, it seems that, for my father, there is always hope in the weather. It could always be warmer or sunnier next week, is the basic idea. A place like northern Stout County allows for that.
When I return the phone to its cradle on this early March evening, I am facing dusk in the Rockies. The temperature has dropped to near freezing, as it will do most any night here outside of deepest summer, and I have cloaked myself in an afghan during the course of my father’s Sunday night weather report. From the sliding window that my folding desk faces, I can just make out the peaks of the photo-stock mountain view this town boasts. The foothills have, relatively speaking, been a boon to our father-daughter conversations. Of all the places I have lived, this is the only one where that ubiquitous local assurance, Don’t like the weather? Wait a minute, is wholly accurate. The front range of a mountain system is something of a lightning rod for weather systems that are just passing through, for cold fronts and warm fronts that are otherwise too far beyond the sky for most peopled grounds to attract them. The front range, I have learned, is a mercurial host, coaxing bright warmth for an afternoon, only to dash it away with the next morning’s sleet and hard hail. My father has listened, interjecting low whistles, as I attest to what he’s read in the morning paper. Emily Post was not wrong. We have had a lot to talk about this year.
“What’s the weather supposed to do tomorrow?” Soon-Jin asks me at lunch, stabbing at the last of his cafeteria noodles, posing the question as if the weather were a lounge act whose next performances were subject to the whims of a diva. His expertly gelled hair glistens beneath the midday sunlight of a foothills sky.
“Overcast in the morning. Partly cloudy by noon. High near fifty.”
“No precipitation?” He licks his fork.
I shake my head. “No precipitation. Sixty percent chance later in the week.”
Soon-Jin loves asking me about the weather. He doesn’t particularly care about the forecast itself; he certainly is not as invested in it as my father or I. But he is perpetually amused by my up-to-the-minute weather intel. His post-doc appointment is in environmental policy, and he finds it quaint that elements of the natural world he and his colleagues regard mostly as data for official and technical legislation are actually encountered on a personal level by people who just live here.
When Soon-Jin and I first met, it was an uncharacteristically rainy fall day in the foothills. Soon-Jin was uncharacteristically glum. And as I tapped an unsatisfactory amount of salt and pepper onto my cafeteria egg salad (“Is it a concern for public health, an assumption of general preference, or simple economy, that makes institutional salt and pepper shakers so unforthcoming?” I asked first, but gained no reply), the etiquette of table sharing prompted me to ask if anything was the matter. When it turned out that the dullness in his eyes was due to what he guessed would be the cancellation of his five-year-old daughter’s T-ball championship game—which would make for a difficult night at home—I quickly reassured him that the rain would be only an overcast memory by four that afternoon. “It should even burn off enough,” I was able to tell him, “that the sunset will be just as visible as usual.” (I, for one, planned to watch it from the roof of Social Sciences.) Soon-Jin was, in a sort of desperate, temporary way, immensely grateful for my knowledge. In fact, he phoned his wife right there, from which I gleaned that something like a family crisis was averted. Then he asked me, mostly by way of shared-table etiquette, for what purpose I was so extremely well informed about the day’s conditions. I smiled, applying one last series of taps to the pepper shaker, watching three distinct black grains drift quietly toward my plate.
“You have no idea,” I said to him. “I check the forecast the way diabetics monitor their blood sugar levels.”
“And why is this?” Soon-Jin was genuinely intrigued. Now that his domestic affairs had been righted, he returned to the type of detached curiosity that (I gather) makes him such a fine scientist. It also makes him a fairly canny conversationalist, in that he doesn’t have to remind himself to act as if he’s interested in the other people at the cocktail party—he just is. Although his rounds of questioning occasionally reveal a level of detachment that is not the personal affect of interest most people would like to imagine they elicit from others, Soon-Jin does well at faculty mixers. For the most part, people just like to feel that someone is listening when they talk about themselves. This is, I think, one of the most significant reasons that I’ve eaten lunch with Soon-Jin almost every weekday since that rainy autumn one.
“Again,” I said, with a glance at the meagerly salted egg salad, “to return to the analogy of the diabetic: my moods require constant regulation. They fluctuate with the hours of visible sunlight in a given day. I have to be vigilant, be prepared for damage control should we have a run of overcast skies.”
“So you’re moody,” said Soon-Jin, who is not afraid to be blunt.
“I guess that’s the old-fashioned term for it,” I said.
He nodded. “And how do you work damage control?”
The rain pattered idly outside, and I began to explain to Soon-Jin the basics of damage control.
It’s 9 am, mountain standard time. Like the high-altitude weather systems that only front-range locations can catch, there is a space of time that occupies only a narrow range of North America; it is defined not by relative cardinal direction, but topography. I have been in this swath of time and weather for nearly eight months, but my need to relativize the time—to qualify it according to central or eastern—has not disappeared. This means, I suppose, that I am not entirely at home here.
I’m finishing my morning round of online weather forecasts, a practice that has acquired the reflex of muscle memory. I suspect that even if I wanted to, I couldn’t prevent the pad of my right index finger from drifting toward my electronic compendium of meteorological sites: accuweather.com for alleged precision, the National Weather Service for officiality, wunderground.com for the graphics, and the expansive colored vista of usatoday.com’s United States weather map. I always begin with accuweather.com, where the current conditions for my zip code materialize in their irreversible truth: temperature, precipitation, winds, humidity, dew point, pressure, visibility. AccuWeather offers something like a phenomenological approach to the weather, listing first the official, standardized temperature, and then posting below it their patented RealFeel. There is the true temperature, and then there is RealFeel. The first measurement apparently exists in isolation, like free fall in a vacuum, nuts in a vacuum-sealed can; the second is the man on the street’s best guess, arrived at by scientific calculation. I take special comfort in the RealFeel of extended forecasts, which allege to predict how I will feel when I leave my apartment at a precise time the next day, or even as far away as fifteen days from now. That way I can plan ahead.
My phone jangles digitally as I double tap on wunderground.com. It’s my mother. The Weather Underground graphics spread out before me like a fortune being told, the small suns and clouds and moons of its extended forecast panels arrayed like tarot cards.
“I don’t know where the time goes. The morning’s half over,” she begins, which is what she usually says when she calls at about this time from central standard. I half-resent this lament of hers; I’d like to think that my morning, an hour west and counter-clockwise of hers, is still relatively new and unacquainted with failure. This morning she sounds more defeated than usual in her refrain. I press the fading warmth of my ceramic coffee mug against my open palm. I click back to AccuWeather. The current outdoor temperature is 37 degrees Fahrenheit; the RealFeel is 42. I ask my mother if she’s okay. One-handed, I type in the zip code for my parents’ Stout County address. There is a long pause on my mother’s end of the line, which is very different from her typical, undirected conversational style, a monologue of domestic news that can so thoroughly wander from its point of origin that the occasional incidental backward glance never results in any twitch of recognition. The pause elongates into a full halt. The current outdoor temperature in northern Stout County is 12 degrees Fahrenheit; the RealFeel is 9.
“I need to tell you something.”
I wait, eyeing the predicted cloud cover where she is. Still nothing from my mother’s end of the line. “Mom?”
“Your father has cancer of the prostate.”
And her voice is so patently marked by the twin tones of An Awareness that the Sober Nature of Her Message Must Be Communicated and An Attempt Not to Belie Her Belief that She Lacks the Authority to Adequately Communicate the Sober Nature of this Message, that at first I neglect the content of her message. I register only the two-pronged tone of this almost painfully self-conscious voice in which all of the officially serious news of our family life has been delivered. It was this voice that informed me of my ninety-nine-year-old grandfather’s death. It informed me of my former fifth-grade teacher’s recent arrest for inappropriate touch. It informed my voicemail that it would not stand for my inconsiderate silence during the three weeks, some years ago, that I would not attend to my phone or e-mail, so certain was I that I’d failed my comprehensive exams.
The voice repeats the news. And this time the content reaches me, but I have no idea what to say. And instead of the trio of Hello’s and Are-you-there’s and Can-you-hear-me’s that a silence on my end generally elicits, my mother says nothing, which is how I begin to comprehend that this is serious.
“I’m so sorry,” says Soon-Jin. As if it were impolite to chew and speak of morbidity at the same time, he lays down his knife and fork in mid-bite; they now form an accidental cross over the mound of egg salad on his plate. Although he has ignored the unforthcoming salt and pepper shakers, instead dousing his salad with Tabasco sauce, I am reminded of the first time we met.
I nod. It’s a sunny foothills afternoon.
“The thing is, they’ve known for months,” I say.
“But it’s a treatable disease,” Soon-Jin says in his very practical tone. “Maybe they’ve got it under control?”
“That’s the thing,” I say, my hands sliding the salt and pepper shakers in the overlapping circles of a shell game. “It was already at an advanced stage when they found it. It’s metastasized.”
“My father avoids doctors,” I explain. “It had been too long since he’d gone in for a physical.”
We have come to the cafeteria late in the lunch hour, and we sit as it empties out into quiet, as the general clatter separates into distinct voices and the recognizable chime of single forks on single plates, one chair scraped along the linoleum. Crowds thin to clusters and then pairs of people, the bleached table tops surfacing like the shore at low tide. I am thinking of the most recent conversation I had with my father.
I dredge from memory the sight of spring snowfall in Stout County, see the soft slush of it coating winter’s potholes and settling over brittle cornfields. Four inches by noon. Twenty degrees Fahrenheit at lunch. Did the covered sky increase or decrease the RealFeel? He’d known the entire time, during the whole of our last conversation, and the one before that, and before that, too. The crab of his cancer was crawling through lymph nodes and fastening on bone marrow while he reported inches of precipitation and wind chill.
All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterizes the “Pathetic Fallacy.”
—John Ruskin, “Of the Pathetic Fallacy,” 1856
Before damage control ever becomes necessary, there’s system maintenance. If damage control is just triage, system maintenance is preventive care.
“You may have noticed,” I explained to Soon-Jin, after roughly a month of shared cafeteria lunches, “I always arrive with my iPod plugged into my ears. I roam the campus with earbuds firmly planted.”
Soon-Jin nodded, unimpressed.
“Or you may not have,” I conceded. “Given that something like 90 percent of the undergrad population does the same thing.”
“But the fact is,” I said, chasing a fish oil capsule with a gulp of 1 percent milk, “It took me a long time to recognize the real preventive value of the personal soundtrack.” I gestured to the cafeteria at large. “I can’t pretend to speak for the average undergrad, but my understanding of the personal soundtrack is that it’s mood control. It’s distraction from the heavy and the tedious. It soothes. It’s a distraction from the often crushing realization that one doesn’t matter at all.”
Soon-Jin quoted from Animal House. “One tiny atom in the fingernail of some other giant being,” he said.
“With the personalized soundtrack,” I continued, “one can select, arrange, and broadcast a constant stream of music that correlates almost perfectly with one’s desired mood. What the mix tape of yore or the iTunes playlist of today does is swaddle the hermetically headphoned within the emotional atmosphere of her choosing.”
I pried open a container of tryptophan-rich cashews. “It’s harder to feel blue when you’re walking in the sunlight of C major.”
Soon-Jin’s gaze traveled from my cashews to the lunchtime circulation of undergrads, their ubiquitous earbud wires dangling like strings from a marionette. The intermittent sunlight of a partly cloudy foothills day shone its momentary spotlight through the broad west windows, which is another reason we sit here. “I’m walkin’ on sunshine,” he remarked. “Woh-oh. I’m walkin’ on sunshine. And don’t it feel good.”
“That song’s actually in B-flat major,” I said. “But you get the idea. And according to Charpentier’s 1682 Règles de Composition, the key of B-flat major is ‘magnificent and joyful.’ The trick is major keys and up-tempo beats. C major, D major, A major, and B-flat major. One hundred and twenty beats or higher per minute. It’s sonic sunshine.”
“And a steady dosage is a preventive measure,” Soon-Jin summarized for me, which is another classic conversational skill of his that he may very well have cultivated in review sessions at Cal Tech, but which also works shiningly to demonstrate during everyday chitchat that one is listening.
“I really can’t go very long without it,” I admitted. I traced the white wires leading from iPod to ears. “It’s a kind of life support on days of over 40 percent cloud cover.” I patted the mid-level iPod in my coat pocket. “On days when I forget it at home, it’s the equivalent of constant drizzle. I can feel myself dragging: the world is inert and minor.”
Soon-Jin shook his head, not unkindly. “It’s like you’re from the planet Ork,” he said.
“Mork and Mindy references in Boulder are such low-hanging fruit.”
“I’m playing Orson to your Mork.” Soon-Jin poached a cashew from my container. “Keep the reports coming.”
I am the one who initiates the weekly phone call the next time. Usually it’s my father whose long-distance call seizes the phone with an obtuse regularity each Sunday. He calls out of the same rough sense of housekeeping with which he moves through his own home, dividing the day into chores to complete, clutter to order. Growing up, I would see him finish off the daily crossword in the evening as if he were tucking in the hospital corners of a bed, or whisking stray crumbs from the table into his palm. He would fill in those remaining boxes distractedly, still standing up, as if it were simply another chore to be taken care of before he refolded and relayered the morning paper into the order in which it had arrived, and hauled the whole affair to the designated recycling bin. I imagine him brushing off his short, rough hands after our weekly call.
Now, however, I break routine and call on a Thursday night. I call with an intention greater than an exchange of distant cold weather fronts and inches of precipitation. The telephone rings domestically, the generic spiral of sound transformed by my vision of the stout yellow cordless on the kitchen counter. I am surprised when it is my father who answers. I have alternated between picturing him already incapacitated, nauseated and patch-scalped from a course of chemotherapy—and then, unchanged and solid, as if my mother was mistaken.
His voice, conveyed across a half-continent of airwaves, is unremarkable. I can hear the flat landscape in it, the plain fields and low sky that have always delimited our conversations. How is it, I wonder, that our environment comes to inhabit our speech? In Stout County, fields of wheat and corn, planted uniformly, repeat themselves like one exhausted thought, unchanging beyond the horizon. Perhaps the mind, then, flattened, is conveyed through plain and stolid sounds.
“Mom told me,” I say to him. And then, “I’m sorry.” I’m suddenly conscious of my own lack of words.
The silence that weighs upon my single sentence is the dead air of unoccupied bandwidth, a thickness of remove. For large moments there is no circulation of breath or thought. Then there is a shift, like a house settling, and the loamy turn-over of my father clearing his throat.
“Well,” he says. “Did you get that snowfall they predicted?”
We actually used to speak less often, my father and I. Growing up, I was more familiar with his uneasy presence in a room than I was with the sound of his voice. On an average morning, my mother could keep her chatter going in the kitchen for approximately the length of time it took my father to finish his coffee, his oatmeal, and the front-page section of the newspaper. He would grant me a nod when I entered the kitchen to pour myself a bowl of corn flakes, but that was about it. It was only when I went away to college, in another time zone, in a different climate, that we had something to talk about. On Sunday evenings, once my mother had passed the phone to him, my father would, inevitably, open the conversation by noting the forecast for Boston he’d read in the paper that morning. Expected to suddenly make small talk with his teenage daughter when his normal state was silence, he seized on the fact that the weather where I was now was different from where he was. And so I would, in response, elaborate on the weather in the Boston metro area, given that his intel was limited to the high and low temperatures and inches of expected precipitation that his local paper listed for all major cities. He could then compare the conditions in Stout County to the woman-on-the-street report I’d just relayed to him. We’d sign off by comparing notes on the extended forecast for our respective locations. And like that, the duties of the filial-paternal relationship were dispatched with for the week.
There was the time, my sophomore year of college, that I stopped going to classes and instead spent the better part of three weeks in bed, listening to the soundtrack from The Piano, over and over, on my headphones. After student wellness services intervened, I tried to tell my parents what had happened. My father, after a span of radio silence, cleared his throat and asked me what the weather was like there in Boston. This is how it is.
Sometimes I have wondered what my father and I would talk about if we didn’t talk about the weather. We might talk about sports, or the stock market, if either of us followed those things. There are endless topics out of which to squeeze a weak solvent of small talk. I am sure, too, that one could make small talk out of blood tests and chemo dosage. But that isn’t what I mean. And the question occurs to me again, now, with the phone pressed to my ear.
This evening, however, a narrow fifteen minutes pass: we have the fodder of forecasts past, present, and future to occupy us, well-maintained mental catalogues of the country in shades of temperature and pressure and bisected with the blunt red arrows and blue streamers of hot and cold fronts. We end, as always, with the worn refrain of tomorrow’s forecast, the station identification that never fails.
When I hang up, the predicted snowfall has begun.
The university has granted me a yearlong fellowship to work on a book. It is about the pathetic fallacy, Ruskin’s term for the human tendency to project our own emotional state onto the natural world. The library here in the foothills has an exquisite collection of early edition Ruskin essays; an interdisciplinary team of librarians has assembled not only a collection of folklore and mythology pertaining to the weather, but also a stack of monographs on chorography, the discipline of mapping a region and describing its people according to its local productions and climate; I may spend whole days considering frost in Coleridge and clouds in Stevens. And yet, the book might as well be a travel guide to an undiscovered solar system, for all that I’ve written of it. I have a small office with access to the Language Arts library, faculty lounge, microwave oven, and take-out menus, in exchange for making myself available to the larger conversation that is presumably always going on over at Language Arts. I cannot remember the last conversation I had in the Language Arts building.
In truth, what the fellowship allows me is regular monitoring of the weather. It affords me the time to observe the cloud formations, the slow progression of stratus to cumulus in the empty eastern sky. A foothills sky is a curious thing, one hemisphere of it spiked with solid mountain peaks, the other part as vacant as a lunar colony.
It’s the lunar colony that I’m most aware of after a snowstorm. When I look out the window this morning, after last night’s conversation with my father, what I see is an undifferentiated landscape of white fading into gray. There is no reason to go out. Theoretically, I can work just as well here as I can in any room of Language Arts. Which is to say, not at all. Instead, I spend the day wrapped in a blanket, watching episode after episode of a medical drama in which everyone’s emotional problems are externalized in the form of patients with heart conditions and bowel obstructions that can be fixed. The worst feeling is the moment just before one episode ends and the next begins. I sit with the rolling credits and the strangely ominous electronica of the theme song, like a binge drinker who knows that another round isn’t exactly good for her but that cutting herself off will feel even worse.
I fall asleep around four in the morning, wake at seven, lie there till possibly nine, and fall asleep again until 1 pm. The landscape, when I peer out the window, is the same dull color.
After a long weekend of this, having abandoned all system maintenance, I find myself on Sunday morning, unwashed, in the same pajamas I’ve worn since Thursday night. My hair is dark with grease. Nothing outside has lightened or lifted. I’m so far beyond system maintenance, at this point, that the only remaining option is damage control.
Damage control is like driving a car without power steering. Unlike system maintenance, which has simply become habit, damage control requires some more responsible part of myself to peel off from the dismal rest of me and begin to crank the wheel in the other direction.
I begin, bleary-eyed and greasy, by applying a warm compress to my face, the way one does at the point in a trans-Atlantic flight when the plane is nearing its destination. The pajamas are consigned to the hamper. The music is cued up, a sort of sonic resuscitation that consists almost wholly of disco in a major key, which reminds me of what must surely have been someone else’s happy youth. And then I begin the jumping jacks.
“You Should Be Dancing.” “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” “I Will Survive.” My arms flap up, my arms flap down. My legs follow the same movement. “Kung Fu Fighting.” “Stayin’ Alive.” My arms flap up, my arms flap down. The jumping jack, as an endorphin booster to be used in triage, is a form of movement that is more satisfying than the torpid jog in place or the up-and-down whiplash of burpees. In the jumping jack, I can almost achieve a sense of liftoff, my arms and legs reiterating the shape of a star, over and over. When “Dancing Queen” is playing and sweat is dripping from my temples like baptismal water, I can just about con myself into it.
After forty minutes of this, the playlist goes silent, and I collapse. The endorphin afterglow will usually last me until at least the next morning.
This time, though, the afterglow doesn’t last long. I wake at three in the morning. A flash of the porch light shows only the tundra of snow. I think of turning the resuscitation playlist back on again, but I know that won’t do anything.
When I come to again in the afternoon, after having fallen back to sleep around eight, I head straight for the website that offers the streaming medical drama.
There is, though, a new message in my inbox, which feels as unexpected as a sunbeam in a low-pressure area. The message is from my mother, who fills me in on fewer of her errands and household chores than usual. At the end of this recap, she has written, “Your father and I will drive downstate tomorrow for his first round of chemo. The roads should be fine.”
I am wrapped in the fuzzy afghan that needs washing. I consider the mounds of snow against the gray sky.
I know that the chemo is palliative, not curative. By now, the cancer has colonized too much of my father to cede much territory. The chemo will only prevent the cells from spreading further. It might lessen some of the ache in his bones. In this respect, I guess, the chemo is damage control.
What is there here but weather, what spirit
Have I except it comes from the sun?
—Wallace Stevens, “Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu”
When I call my father, after the last traces of light have left the sky, his voice sounds like it always does—plain and worn.
“I hear the roads should be fine for driving downstate tomorrow,” I say to him. And then I ask, “How are you feeling?”
There is maybe a five-second pause on my father’s end.
“I’m fine,” he says, the way you respond to a polite salutation. “The roads are fine. It’s been a week since the snow. Daily highs are holding steady at thirty-five. The highways are all clear.”
“That’s good to hear,” I say.
“But you,” he says, as if I’ve been keeping some important news from him. “I see you got walloped this weekend. How many inches total?”
I consider the mounds of snow against the gray sky.
“It was supposed to be two feet,” I say. “But I haven’t checked lately.”
I can hear the clatter and spray in the background that is my mother doing the dishes.
“We’ve got warmer weather coming up,” my father says. “Mid-week, highs should be close to forty-five.”
“That’s not bad,” I say.
“No, not bad for March,” he says.
I nod to myself. I listen to the faint sound of my mother doing the dishes. He’s waiting, I realize. This is the part of the conversation when I usually fill him in on the extended forecast where I am.
I think of the diagrams I’ve looked at online, of the way cancer of the prostate moves through other parts of the body. Arrows fanning out from the region of the groin hit more local areas first: the pelvis, the hipbones, then the spine. Then, traveling through the bloodstream like the warm current of the Gulf Stream, the cancer spreads to more distant regions: the ribs, perhaps the lungs. Possibly even the brain. These diagrams, I think, do not look so different from a weather map tracing the movements of a warm front from south to north.
I wonder about the prognosis my father has undoubtedly been given by his physician. Does he have a year? Does he have five?
I can still hear the clatter of my mother doing the washing up. In the winter they eat early, near five o’clock.
I stare at the neat layer of snow that has hardened on top of the porch railing.
“Well, what’s your forecast for the end of the week?” My father’s voice drifts from the phone. “Are you due for some warmer weather?”
This is what we talk about, my father and I. We will always talk about the weather.