A great disappointment in high school1 was the pop debut of “I’m Only Happy When It Rains”. Not a bad song; released by Garbage, a fairly good next-gen-alt-pop-grunge band, if that’s what you like. It couldn’t be classified as honest to God goth rock because there wasn’t enough black associated with the band, but it was mostly a hot female singer being miserable about her love life, which hits some of the root notes in the tinker toy melodies of depressed high school girls not specifically swallowed by goth culture, and the depressed high school boys attempting to have sex with those girls; to whit, me.
The problem with this song having such a specific demographic was that our lonely and unfortunate demographic survived with a measure of adolescent, overeducated arrogance on the grounds that we hadn’t been labeled as a demographic. The closest approximation was “those kids in the back half of the art room”. Had my school been somewhere other than Downeast Maine, we would have been naturally absorbed by the goth culture, but at the time, the goth culture consisted of four guys with black trench coats, labeled “The Art Room Crows” and they were actually a subset of us, everyone being thankfully ignorant of the much larger collection of black-trench-coated malcontents. Without a strict dress code, we could unhappily thrive in the general context of being antisocial, yet still use the same drug dealers as everyone else.
Then comes music that fails the iron test of gothiness, yet pinpoints some of our basic mood preferences. Instantly overplayed on the radio, the song becomes “that song those people listen to” and is mocked out of style before it even gets in style. Those of us who liked rain suddenly found ourselves roped together under an assumed music preference, which during teenage years amounts to having a brand new personality taped together out of some Fox sitcoms and stapled to your back.
It’s fair to say that we got some conscious and unconscious satisfaction from the weather matching our moods. We got kicked up a notch just because everyone else got kicked down, and had to deal with the level of misery we dealt with every day. But that doesn’t explain a deeper contentment at facing a solid 24 hours of downpour, or why my most romantic daydreams involve thick clouds and drizzle.
I would be hard pressed to figure out why I get a kick out of rainy days. I like gray days, and dark days, but I believe the common connection is a rain association, because I feel a bit gypped when it’s gray all day with no rain. I usually need white noise to sleep, and rain is perfect for that, so I could assume that I’ve built of a reservoir of associations between rain and rest, but that doesn’t strike me as enough, since I get such a meditative endorphin kick out of rain that I often stay up later than I should just to listen to it. Childhood memories come up conflicting: I was as outdoorsy as any other kid, and rain usually meant I couldn’t do most of the things I wanted to do;2 on the other hand I was home schooled, so rain just meant more hot chocolate, as opposed to slogging through puddles to school. Still, there’s nothing in my conscious memories to explain the deep, peaceful yet excited contentment I get from rain. Genetically, my chronically pale norwegian skin burns like tissue paper, so a little cloud cover does me a favor, but as mentioned above, mere gray without rain is disappointing. Furthermore, I don’t actually like being wet; I dry myself to the point of skin irritation after every shower.
Whatever it is, New York has once again demonstrated the triumph of practicality over romanticism. I may still like to watch the rain, but I dread the rainy days. It’s not the slogging factor: I live right next to an elevated expressway, which runs directly to a subway stop. My entire morning commute only requires about three blocks worth of walking under open air, so I don’t get particularly wet.
But those three blocks are on busy midtown streets, and it’s pure terror.
The problem is height. I’m exactly six feet tall. The average person is about five eight and change. The average person also carries their umbrella so that the edges are about even with the top of their head, meaning that all the pointy metal bits around the rim of their umbrellas are exactly at eye level for me. Assume eight metal spikes per umbrella, and about one hundred people passing me between my stop and my office, multiplied by the standard New York dismissal of strangers, and that comes to about three billion opportunities for me to lose an eye.
Any place else it wouldn’t be a problem, because there’s room to give a wide berth to other people. However, the standard personal space you have on the side walk in Manhattan is just slightly less than the circumference of a standard umbrella, to say nothing of the people who insist on carrying a golf umbrella during rush hour.3 I have scratches on my glasses to prove that if I didn’t wear them, I would be typing this on a braille keyboard, and probably be using macros for expletives.
So in the last year, many near misses have tipped the emotional balance, and I now dread the rain as much as anyone. Yet despite the personal fear of having my retinas popped off like bottle caps, I still get a sense of satisfaction on rainy days.
While everyone grabs umbrellas and huddles under overhangs, perhaps finding conversation, but forced to sacrifice even more inches of precious personal space, I can still think, “Can’t be worse than Maine”. And it’s true. The weather here can never be as bad as Maine. More to the point, the incredibly protective micro climate including underground transportation, which actually heats the pavement, is a short step away from getting around on in a cradle on wheels. The crowded subway is simply no match for a car breaking down five miles away from the nearest town. The inconvenience of ducking the rain and avoiding umbrella spikes for three blocks is nothing compared to driving through a rainstorm on frost-heaved roads among insane and often inebriated Maine drivers. The endless ease of navigating the city pulls the average inhabitant’s weather tolerance to almost nothing.
City dwellers are hardcore about business and people. There is no escape from people, and the skills for navigating strangers, friends, and acquaintances become razor sharp. The need for money is so desperate that the peddlers on the subway have more business savvy than many of my former employers in Maine. But the fact is, city folk are pussies about the weather. A Mainer will chop wood in four feet of snow at night at 20 below zero, but will feel socially helpless in a world where strangers don’t care.
I found it relieving to be actively screamed at by my boss everyday for six months. There was never any doubt about what I was supposed to be doing, and when I was supposed to be done. This is as opposed to the endless passive aggressive suggestions and comments from bosses in Portland, to which to never learned how to respond. Specifically, during the job from Hell, after weeks of trying to program an interactive quiz, one of my many, many bosses mentioned, in casual conversation of course, “You know, I asked my web guy about throwing up a quiz on my website, and he did it in just a couple days.”
I almost choked on my cigarette. My instinctual response would have been, “Well, I’m working on a multi-level, cross platform quiz, your boss told me I wasn’t allowed to use the one programming language made for this kind of thing, I have to deal with two committees of people with diametrically opposed aesthetic opinions, and I have to work with auto-timers, data storage, optimization, and your weaseling comments, whereas your web guy just found a quiz program online and popped in a few questions, and if it took him two days he’s a fucking moron.”
Since I wanted to keep my job, I just said, “Oh really?” and ignored him. It would have saved everyone a lot of aggravation if he’d just said, “you’re taking too long, find another option,” or even, “you’re taking too long, you’re fired.” He didn’t say it, because the media business in Portland is made up of broken artists and naive businessmen, who still believe a handshake is something besides a tool for measuring aggression. On the other hand, either of us would have merrily walked a mile through a blizzard if it was our turn to get coffee.
Despite the coffee, business in Maine was constant headache. Here everyone is very clear on the price of pissing in the wind, and people work well together. Things happen, things invariably move forward, and business rarely limps through the years on goodwill and pity. More likely to end with a suicide and quick renovation, forgotten by the weekend.
People become practical about the things they are forced to deal with. You can escape the weather in New York, you can escape people in Maine. But this practicality isn’t in conflict romanticized ideals; it’s encouraging them. The thrill of the city is dealing with people, the pride of Maine is surviving eight months of extreme weather warnings. Rain is a mild and pleasant escape compared to four feet of snow, and barely an annoyance compared to awkward teenage social fumbling. My people skills were just shy of autistic in my youth; rain was a problem everyone could agree on, and we could all cope with ease.
Until that fucking song. Without warning, our weather escape got shunted right back into the social melee, and guidance counselors had a new box to tick off when searching for suicide risks. Another innocence guillotined, now I think of rain as a small piece of how I establish personal dominance in the city. But, like most separative arrogance, it’s a dominance based on a fallacy, because in the end, when something unavoidable is bringing everyone down, everyone gets a little closer together.