Saturday, September 19, 2009

I like this passage from Jonathan Ames' "The Eleventh Commandment," published in Cabinet Magazine's 3rd issue, "The Weather," which came out in summer of 2001. I'm attracted to it in part because Ames' father and my own father share a predilection for dire weather reports; happily, my father's case is considerably milder than the elder Ames'. 
My father had a tremendous respect and terror for all things meteorological. He was a traveling salesman of textile chemicals and his livelihood depended on his ability to navigate, like a sailor but in a car, the roadways of the Eastern Corridor. Naturally, weather conditions were very important to him. So each night before retiring and then first thing in the morning upon awakening, he would listen to his special mustard-colored weather-radio. The thing was the size of a paperback novel and it possessed a twelve-inch antenna. It had no dials, you simply pressed a button and out came this staticky, nonsensical ticker-tape of weather conditions, read most likely by some rotating shift of prisoners at the white-collar federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

I make this conjecture because no person of their own volition could possibly want to read a weather report non-stop for hours at a time. Clearly, it was a depressing job—one could hardly understand what the announcer was saying, the voice was always so deadpan and defeated, though my father was enraptured by these broadcasts and would sit on the edge of his bed in an attentive stupor. I can tell you it wasn’t healthy for the young me to see my father like that all the time—children of alcoholics will appreciate, I believe, this kind of early wounding.

So because of his brainwashing at the hands of this weather-radio, my father, with great foreboding in his voice, would make announcements to the family, like, “It’s going to rain on Thursday!” This kind of thing would usually be stated on a Monday, and I—a mere child of four or five—would be frightfully agitated until that rainfall occurred three days later, by which time I would have learned from my father that “Temperatures are going to drop on Sunday!” There was never a calm moment. I grew up in a constant state of atmospheric peril. The women were telling me to cover my head and my father was telling me that the sky was falling. It did make for a nice synergy, though. It’s called anxiety.

So mine was clearly a sheltered upbringing. I didn’t know until I was in college that people drove in the rain. And even in the snow! To me, this was a revelation, and I became rather rebellious. My freshman year at Princeton, I purposely would go motoring at night during snow flurries. “I am not my father’s son!” I would think triumphantly, as the snowflakes fell like white stars from the black sky.

One night, though, during some heavy flurries (I wasn’t so rebellious that I’d go out in an actual storm), I did skid and damaged a parked car. I tried to escape, but was spotted by a man walking his dog. In snow flurries! He was obviously a hardy gentile. Police were involved. It cost me a lot of money in fines and reparations. So it just goes to show you that the sins of the father are visited on the sons. If I hadn’t been trying so hard not to be fearful like my dad, I wouldn’t have scratched that poor innocent parked car.

And I am still in a state of rebellion against my father. Whenever I go home for a visit (traveling by train from New York to New Jersey), I’ll call a few days beforehand, and I will say to my dad, “I’ll be home on Friday and head back Sunday.”

“They’re calling for freezing rain on Saturday,” he’ll say, with the utmost gravity, even though my travel days—by train!—are Friday and Sunday. But in his mind, damaged by that radio of his, any bad weather within 24 hours of travel is to be feared.

“Well, let’s start worrying about it now,” I’ll say snidely, rebelliously, and things will be bad between us before I’m even home.

As in so many "sins of the father" narratives, the father's obsession visits horrors upon the son, horrors which the son perpetuates even after he has left his parents' house and is no longer subjected daily to his father's grim forecasts. That Ames compares his own subjection to the suffering endured by "children of alcoholics" suggests that weather obsession is the stuff of domestic tragedy. But the "atmospheric peril" that renews itself day by day echoes the parable with which Ames' piece begins, the story of Moses' lost "eleventh commandment." (To wit: "Wear a hat!") The threat of rain or falling temperatures, through the lens of young Ames' "anxiety," comes to resemble the ever-impending conflagration promised by a wrathful and temperamental Old Testament God. Which in a way it is, for the descendants of Adam and Eve, condemned to suffer the seasons and the weather. So maybe this is, quite simply, a "sins of the father" story. But I have to say that I find Ames' characterization rather unfair, even if his exaggerations are meant to amuse. The suggestion that "no person of their own volition would possibly want to read a weather report non-stop for hours at a time" belies the experience of, say, reading Kenneth Goldsmith's beguiling "poem" The Weather, or even the modest delight of discussing the weather at length with a pleasant stranger with whom, for one reason or another, one is stuck for a while (Lisa Robertson calls this "the rhetoric of sincerity"). What Ames describes as his father's "brainwashing" by weather radio might as easily be read as an involvement and delight in weather's vagaries. For all the dire certainty of statements like "Temperatures are going to drop on Sunday!" there is the very real possibility that it won't come true. I know that my weather conscious father, for one, finds some enjoyment in weather's departures from our expectations, and in simply paying attention to how it changes daily.

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