It’s like that old cliché: when you run out of all other topics, the last resort of those trapped in an awkward conversation is to ask, “So, how about this weather we’ve been having?”
Usually, weather is the most mundane/ dull/ meaningless topic we can talk about, yet also the most accessible/ relatable/ universal topic. On one hand, it’s kind of idiotic to talk about the weather, because everyone around you is experiencing it just as you are and probably having the same reactions to it, and go ahead and look out the window and there it is, so what is there really to say about it? But, on the other hand, all of these same conceits make it one of the few things any two people can talk about. Most alternative topics (religion, politics, current events) are even more pointless and obscene.
However, when we become helpless spectators to amazing, destructive, or awesome (in the Merriam-Webster sense) weather, it becomes the only thing anyone can talk about. And it’s one of the rare times when you know that the biggest thing going on in your life is also the biggest thing going on in the lives of the people around you.
So, major weather events give us an opportunity to make small talk we actually care about.
Supposedly, the internet has brought us all closer together. Connectivity. Global village. Instant communication.
Okay, so I guess the internet has brought us all closer together. But it has also driven us further apart by enabling us to obsess over the narrow realm of our interests. In 1988, if you were a death metal fan or an alternative comedy aficionado or a foreign movie lover, you hung out around the record store or the comedy club or the art movie theater and hoped you’d meet like-minded people. Maybe you signed up for a newsletter or joined a club or something. In 2012, you’re the fucking expert on death metal or alternative comedy or foreign movies. You’ve checked out all the Related Videos on YouTube and read every applicable Wikipedia page. Our interests are more idiosyncratic and focused than ever.
What’s the point of instant connectivity and communication if we’ve nothing relevant to say to each other? If what’s important in your life doesn’t even register as minutia in mine?
When weather becomes more than white noise, when it demands our attention, it becomes a shared event. It’s not personal, like disease or death or injury. Rather it’s universal, communal. For once, everybody is talking about the same thing, and no one needs to feign interest or pretend their cell phone went off or make an excuse to walk away. We all need to talk about it because we’re worried and it’s cathartic, but also because we realize that we’re all in it together, that we’re all affected equally. It’s oddly comforting to know that we can truly share something with the people around us, even if what we’re sharing is frightening or destructive. It reminds us that we’re not alone, that there are still events with the power to bring us out of our isolation.
Major weather events are an opportunity for us to use terms like “mandatory evacuation,” “landfall,” and “category 3.” It allows us to pull up weather maps on our laptops and intone “Oh…my…God…” in a voice serious enough to convince our roommates to walk over and take a look. We become stock characters from disaster movies: Woman Stuck in Traffic on Crowded Bridge. Angry Evacuating Guy. Man Buying Batteries at Super Market.
Whether we choose to admit it or not, we have a perverse fascination with these storms; it’s possible to be absolutely empathetic and concerned about the people who might be harmed by them, the homes and businesses that may be damaged, and yet simultaneously feel drawn to their unbridled power. There’s a certain excitement to being on the verge of a destructive event; it’s an unhealthy excitement, to be sure, but so is the excitement of drinking yourself into oblivion, smoking cigarettes, abusing drugs, or getting into a fight. A hurricane is like your worst, most destructive binge-drinking weekend, but on a humongous scale. Property damage, frightened loved ones, blackouts — it’s all there.
There are reasons why our culture is so intrigued by disaster movies and zombie apocalypses and Mayan doomsday predictions. Partly, it’s therapeutic to see our fears harmlessly realized via film and TV, allowing us to process them from a safe distance. But there’s also a very real desire to see our own self-destructive nature reflected in the world around us. It’s that same connection with nature you feel when you happen to wake up in a great mood on a beautiful spring day, just completed inverted.
I’m not a complete pessimist, though — those self-destructive parts of our personalities are overwhelmed by our concern for others. We flirt with disaster, but we also crave protection and comfort. And we don’t want to see anyone get hurt (well, in some cases, no one but ourselves).
Be safe out there.