What am I doing here?

Image: Emily via Flickr

When you see me broadcasting live from the South Shore seawall you think, that poorsonofabitch. The snow lashes me horizontally. My words are thin puffs of breath stripped slashed away by the wind. Snowflakes alternate with slivers of sleet and peck my cheeks with a near digital hiss.

You think, I wonder what he does during the commercials.

Red and white numerals dance at the bottom of your tv screen indicating temperature, air pressure, and wind speed; there’s also a clip-art snowflake, cheerful and blue. But you don’t understand the numbers until somebody actually experiences that weather, so you stay in your chair, cozy with hot cocoa and pretzels. On one side of the screen, the storm pummels me; on the other side, stylized magnetic snowflakes ascend a stylized map of the state.

I’m a weatherman, but actually, I never predict, I’m the rugged correspondent, I get out of bed when the network calls, I don’t sit around and primp, I go. Very often I wear jeans. Weather happens, then I work, not the other way around. I don’t know how to predict anything, so don’t blame me if the sky clouds over your Sunday afternoon sail; I do know what a story is, which means I’m never wrong about the weather. People don’t hate me or make jokes about me, because I don’t represent to them the scientific sorcery of meteorology, trying to create order where it’s impossible. My wife, Carolyn, says I’m likeable because I have a sympathetic face. I like to think it’s more certain, my face, which is a geological kind of face, all its parts anchored together and slow to move, stable.

My network sends me towards disastrous weather and sometimes right into it, and in the thickness of the event and during the lulls and then afterwards, I interview the locals. I touch the human story at the center of the universe—that’s the reason, or so I tell Carolyn, for my popularity.

To do this job right, I drive towards the centers of hurricanes, fast. I don’t chase tornadoes, I play tag. I’m always on call. It’s lunacy, and Carolyn doesn’t like that I travel. Events, I like to call them. I love going to events. Every year the network buys me the best new rain gear there is. I never own a fleece long enough for it to burr. When I go to the outdoor gear stores, other customers sneer – what with my slack, untrained body have I done to deserve this parka, those boots, these gaiters? I don’t resent them, even though they think I’m a rich dilettante; in fact, I rather admire that they attempt to create stories of adventure and loss of their own wherever they can, on the faces of the local limestone cliffs or the bare rock trails of the state parks. What we do is the same, though it’s my work making possible their play.

My life, my eyesight, and my limbs are so heavily insured that a well-placed tree limb would care for Carolyn for the rest of her life. I find out how the men and women and children manage the aftermath, and how much insurance they carry. Actuarial tables make a story, and how. Do you know where I find these people? In grocery stores stocking up on supplies. The supplies seem short-sighted, Twinkies and hair dye and pickles and hemp yarn, but they are really the balms of our fear and the anchors of our boredom, and thus the foundations of our souls. I find these people wandering on the streets with nowhere to go, or looking for a party. In their backyards splitting firewood with rusty mauls. I find them weeping heaving traumatized in the wreckage of summer houses splintered by the wind and the water, their hands spilling over with what’s left of the Valium prescription from the sandy bathroom floor. The effects of the weather are so often the failure of human engineering; am I surprised? I find these people, my characters, in front of their shops so nervous they can hardly tape two straight lines together into x’s on their store’s front windows, a hurricane’s folk art, then I help them hang plywood over the open ruin, after their trashcans have done their damage against those x’s bull’s-eyes. I spread sand, I sling sandbags. I can’t stand by and watch dams crumble under rising waters, so I pitch in with two hands. I’ve forgotten maybe thousands of umbrellas in restaurants. I shovel snow and then batter kids playfully with snowballs. I fling sand, scrape ice. I break glass to rescue puppies. I wrap babies in blankets. I’m on the weather beat. This is what it means to me.

Anxiously, people often ask me, do you think we’ll be able to predict the weather someday? I try to set them straight: I’ve seen snowstorms, only on the North American continent; the network rarely lets me go farther. Control is not important, I tell them.

Yeah, but we can control the human genome.

A genome, I say, speaks a simple language, but the turbulent forces of weather? When a storm can coalesce around one lone spin-lattice of frozen water? When you stop your car and open the door at the moment you’re singing “Sweet Home Alabama” along with the radio, releasing a small volume of hot air which imperceptibly alters the barometric pressure, causes the mountain to lose its hold on the storm front, sending the sheets of ice wailing down? A million forms of death wait in the secret lives of infinitesimal spaces amid the integrity of structures and fluids’ swirling souls. No, you’re wrong, I say: predicting the weather is our next tower of Babel.

But let’s talk about me: I report natural disasters, I don’t predict trends. Once I was secured onto that errant iceberg, G-13, off Long Island with ice climbing gear, ropes fastened with massive screws twisted deep into the cold glossy blue surface. Another time I floated down a Mississippi River swollen by floods into a vast inland lake. (Another reason to eschew control is how so few narrative opportunities it offers.) Nor’easters in Boston, hurricanes in the Caribbean. Freak hailstorms beating down verdant Midwestern fields with iceballs so big you could bowl with them. I narrate the poignant footage of Eastern foliage’s dying flame – the ordinary – and I’ve covered California windmills ripped from their moorings -the bizarre, the unthinkable. I report the mundane weather made extraordinary by circumstances, the innumerable freezes and frosts; I fill even sleet with meaning, as popes and presidents alike slosh through, bulletproof skirts raised. On the sunny side of solstices, I report heat waves that crush temperate regions with a viciousness that implies revenge. The morgues overflow, mostly with the pliant bodies of the elderly. I interview the officials who decided to pack the dead in the temporary democracy of dented refrigerated trucks. Such narrations as these are the most truthful way to control the last realm of earthly phenomena to resist us. Some people say, do you think the weather’s getting worse? I can’t say—I shrug—it’s all chaos, I tell them. I don’t make this stuff up.

Cut to me.

During the commercials I turn my face into the wind and think about the cherry blossoms in Tokyo. For a moment it distracts me, and I’m glad, because I’ve lost the feeling in my fingers; my boots are soaked through. Before the winter ends they’ll need resoling. There’s one more report before we pack up and go home so I don’t get in the van, I wait through the break and listen to the waves as the cameraman shouts technical advice into his headset. People always tell me, the numbers, they’re too abstract. One inch of rain is different if they are camping or sipping tea on their porches, they say, and thirty-two degrees freezes water but somehow the broccoli plants in the garden keep living even though I forgot to cover them, go figure. They seem to be saying that the climatological facts, the numbers and the glowing, pixellated radar stormclouds moving across mapscapes, dwarfs the human element in the weather.

That’s why you watch me battered by the wind, South Shore, Saturday evening. And watch. And watch.

Within the camera’s spotlight I am colored. Outside the light is a carousel of gray. Behind me you can see the waves smashing up on the seawall, like arms trying to reach over. And I am telling you how much the water’s risen in the last hour. How the beachfront residents, the stubborn and foolish ones, are facing down the storm. Cut to boarded windows. And the camera will focus past me on the waves hitting the wall again.

Cut, perhaps, to a National Guard truck being pushed out of an ice patch by men in olive parkas. Cut to parked cars disappearing under snow pluming off a plow blade. A blizzard takes cities by the throat. But humans can only thrust their hands into the wind and pretend that the contest is not null.

Cut to South Shore. I look down at the microphone cord that runs to an audio feed device that the cameraman wears on his belt, or I look at where the cord has sunk into the snow. I yank it. It surfaces, then disappears again. I’m sad to see it go. It’s not only pity for an old friend you feel when you see me out on the seawall one last time. He must be real goddamn cold out there. Because you also briefly anticipate, watching me, that something will go wrong. The possibility is your secret delight.

If it does not happen, it is my fault. I haven’t told the story well enough. Just as you blame the weatherman—the one who predicts—when it’s overcast, not sunny. That why you keep watching, isn’t it? For the failure?

This storm’s been plotted so well, it’s a known thing, not like the weather at all, but an encyclopedia entry. That’s why you hope for the weather to do something weatherlike. To open up the possibilities. To show you what you’ve never seen.

Perhaps an ice-burdened tree will collapse. Perhaps one of the waves will pile up so high and reach so far over the wall that its first fingers will grab my ankles and I will stumble back. You’re almost hoping for weather to triumph. Prime time, I was there. And you’re not afraid to see it. The spectacle of the storm.

The elbow of the wave will surge around my waist and crook me away—and for a moment, the cameraman will be left untouched and filming me grappling the water, screaming—and for a moment it will look like another news blooper, and you’ll laugh.

Then: the microphone cord between me and him, taut, then broken, slack.

And then the cameraman will be caught, and you’ll thrill to see with a short groping choke the camera’s serene steadiness broken.

The frame reels. It’s happening. Water splashes up and blurs the lens. The smeared eye takes in the world on a long oblique pan, twirling, twirling. A hand or a face appears in it, one you don’t recognize. A scream. Then some cord unplugs or some circuit shorts and the Live Weather Eye turns infinitely black.