What We Talk About When We Talk About Rainbows

I swear to bloggergod that I was going to post last week, but then last Monday kicked off like this:

March rainbow over Regent's Canal
March rainbow over Regent’s Canal

And not to get too “Vanessa Redgrave narration in Call the Midwife,” or anything, but after something like that, any words I could have written about London just felt superfluous.

Then I decided I could simply talk about the weather.

Become a parent, and you will suddenly care about the weather, whether you like it or not. Before I had children, I could have cared less about the forecast. Sure, snow days held a bit of magic, and I remember a hurricane day in Florida when the storm never came and I spent the day driving around town with the top down in my convertible. I remember the summer of 1995 in Chicago where the heat was like a suffocating blanket, and for weeks, the only place you could breathe was at the movies, so I saw EVERYTHING that came out that summer. (I saw the horrible horror/sci-fi film Species, for example.  Twice.)

But ultimately, weather was something that happened outside of me, in a necessary way sure, but something that impacted my life hardly at all. Like sleep, it only mattered when in extremes–otherwise, it was just background.

Once I had my daughter, weather suddenly was the over-the-fold headline in my personal imagined newspaper. Was it nice enough to go for a walk? Did I need the baby snowsuit AND a hat? Did I need the golf umbrella to cover me AND my manually powered all-terrain vehicle that masqueraded as a stroller? Would the stroller’s plastic cover be enough? Where is that plastic cover anyway? GOOD GOD! How is that I have six changing pads that match diaper bags I’VE NEVER OWNED, but I can’t find that plastic cover for the stroller amongst all these squeaky toys and bungee cords that have fallen to the bottom of the coat closet? WHY DO I OWN SO MANY BUNGEE CORDS?!

As my daughter got older, the weather forecast was really the playground report, as in: Can we go to the playground today? Will I need a towel to wipe the slides? (Because if there are wet slides, there will be tears. AVOID TEARS.)  Does she need wellies? What do you mean freezing rain AGAIN? For the second time in as many paragraphs, GOOD GOD! What do you do with a toddler all day in January? Why don’t they talk about this in birthing class? I BEG of you to raise my taxes and conjure me up an indoor playground immediately! Don’t make me go to the Livingston Mall again! The Livingston Mall is where mom dreams go to die! J’ACCUSE LIVINGSTON MALL!

In the city, too, regardless of whether or not you have children, you are forced to care deeply about the weather. This is because unless you are a movie star, a foreign princess or David Cameron, you walk a lot–even when you didn’t plan to in your diary. So your mornings are filled with questions that only the weather forecast is fit to answer: Do I need something with a hood? How many layers are required? What valued member of my boot team should I take out and about today? Do I need the long underwear TOP, as well as the bottoms? (You always need the bottoms, or at the very least wool tights under everything. If you think you can get away with neither, then you, dear reader, are freezing.) Do I need my umbrella? (Why am I even asking this question: YOU ALWAYS NEED AN UMBRELLA.)

There’s an interesting book about English culture by the social anthropologist Kate Fox called Watching the English. It’s full of “well that’s kind of ridiculous and somewhat obvious, that can’t be true and culturally specific. . . wait a minute: SHE’S RIGHT!” moments. It’s not a perfect book, but Fox talks about the weather as a vital part of social glue here in England. Discussion of the weather merits agreement, and agreement signals social cohesion.

I come from a land of crazy weather, but there, disagreement about the forecast and the battle of the worst snowstorm experience are contests that show state pride. Alternatively, in New Jersey, the currency of small talk is traffic–most importantly, any conversation about traffic is an invitation to compete as to who has it worse. Fox posits that the weather is the way to connect here in Britain, and the superficial connections of small talk are made here through agreement.

It must say something culturally about my experience as an American that even small talk is competitive. Even the ubiquitous American “get to know you” question (which is never asked here)–What do you do?–is underpinned by a sense of competition. Isn’t there always a hope that your answer will impress?

Here the generic “How are you?” is replaced with “Are you alright?” It’s a very British question that asks for agreement, rather than the American equivalent that asks for assessment.

So, I’m not saying that the weather is grey and rainy here because we all agree it’s grey and rainy, but I am saying that agreeing that it’s grey and rainy makes one British. To counter such an assessment with your own worst rainy day story makes one an American, which reminds me of THE MOST AMAZING RAINBOW PICTURE OF ALL TIME that kicked off this post.

The thing is that the more you examine another culture, the more you just end up revealing your own. So, our talk about the weather is really talk about our cultural biases, both of which are very difficult to control whether you’ve packed your umbrella–or your self-awareness–or not.

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