Pulsating clouds of black dots
In the cold gray sky
Pulsating clouds of black dots
In the cold gray sky
August 23, 1989 Taipei, Taiwan, ROC
An interesting set of people at the bus stop shared the thirty minute wait for the 0-East. One, of course, was a very poised woman. She smoked a cigarette, and once, when our eyes met, she smiled naturally and pleasantly. There was also this guy who I’d seen before. He had thick glasses and was kind of fish-eyed and muckle-mouthed, probably not very popular at school. I found myself trying to avoid looking in his direction, for some reason, until I noticed something unusual about his t-shirt. It was a political shirt, bearing the slogan, “You have the right to reject this Taipei.” Suddenly, I seemed to understand him, as though I recognized the same pattern in his life that I’ve seen in the States: Cast out of the crowd by forces not in anyone’s control, the outcast studies alienation itself, turning inward and moving out, trying to return to the scene armed with the ideas of exile. I lent him my umbrella.
The ensuing rain blossomed into a true thunderstorm while I sat in the front of the bus watching. It was a heaven-sent washing. Raindrops on the puddles in the street seemed to suggest a soft meadow. There was a mellowing of light and sound, under the auspices of a friendly patter of droplets, the splashing of tires, and the creaking of wipers. The rain tames us.
August 28, 1989 Taipei, Taiwan, ROC
I had an interesting experience today worthy of a French movie. As I hopped off the 0-East at the Nanchang Street stop, I noticed a high school girl in the green blouse of the elite First Northern Girls School, braving the first drops of a downpour. After the usual hesitation, I offered her my umbrella, and I found her to be both easygoing and serious. She said right away that she too had not eaten, and we soon found ourselves in a noodle shop, under the leering gazes of the cheap girlie posters that papered the walls, discussing history, Taipei, the USA, the mainland. There wasn’t any tension at all. I didn’t get her name.
I ran through a downpour, and chilly raindrops lighted on the back of my hand, each one making me shiver; but splashes from the steaming pavement lapped against my flip-flop sandaled feet, scalding me.
The rain does more than simply to eliminate glare, blare, and the stress that comes with them. It also adds something: a feeling of community that comes from the knowledge that everyone is under the same umbrella. When the rain comes, everyone stops doing his own thing and begins doing the same thing, dealing with the weather. Although I think of myself as an individualist, I must admit to taking comfort in the conforming, equalizing potential of a good shower.
One of my favorite activities is watching an approaching storm on the radar.
What a cure for loneliness! The front isn’t just advancing on me; it’s advancing on us. So there is an us, after all.
Of course, let’s hope none of us gets hurt or flooded out of his house; but, barring true disaster, it’s always fun to face inclement weather together. A lot of these feelings of excitement hark back to grade school “snow days” back home (in Baltimore, not Mobile), which involved such a consistent set of rituals – listening to the list of school closings on AM radio; jumping for joy when our school was announced; trying unsuccessfully to go back to sleep; marveling at the bluish-white hue of the daylight; rushing outside to play, build snowmen, and shovel the walk; soaking our gloves and socks – that they were virtually group activities, even though classmates rarely got together. Even without the snow, and well past childhood, the anticipation and experience of even a modest rainfall seems to invoke a sociable giddiness. “Well, here we go, dashing to our cars.” And then, off we go, dashing to our cars, separately yet similarly.
The limiting of experience to that which is predictably communal is an effect that can have many causes, not just the rain. National holidays serve the same purpose, especially Thanksgiving. We can assume that a great many people will be traveling on Wednesday (and I really like that everyone reading this sentence knows that “Wednesday” means “the day before Thanksgiving”), cooking and eating on Thursday, and (nowadays) maybe even going shopping on Friday. We’ve all done these things ourselves; so we know what people are going through. We can even call our friends to ask what time Grandma is coming and to check on the turkey.
Like the limiting of experience, the limiting of stimuli often produces communalizing effects; although rain might not necessarily be a factor, darkness, which accompanies rain, would seem to be essential. Sometimes, the exposure of different individuals to similar stimuli yields surprisingly resemblant reactions. One evening, for example, I was driving back home with my brother, after we’d both seen a movie together. A drizzle was falling, leaving little to see, aside from streetlights and traffic signals. Suddenly and simultaneously, we both blurted, “Bay-ah-beeee SNAAAYakes,” the first line of the Frank Zappa song “Baby Snakes.” Fairly freaked out, I broke off and started howling at the coincidence.
My brother, however, was quite nonchalant about it. “It’s not that extraordinary,” he said. “We’ve got similar brains, we just saw the same movie, we both like Zappa, and we’re looking at the same stuff. Naturally, we would respond to the environment in the same way.”
“With ‘Baby Snakes’?”
In fact, nighttime drives and daytime rains are interchangeable for purposes of this discussion, in that they work equally well to limit environmental stimuli and thus encourage shared reactions and a sense of togetherness. Nothing brings two minds closer together than the luminousness of the car dashboard at night. During a transcontinental drive, my friend Gene and I supped at a diner in Flagstaff and then drove off into the desert, en route to the Grand Canyon. It was pitch black – we might as well have been in outer space – save only for the dash. The audible world was likewise monopolized by the radio: A local station was broadcasting an old dramatization of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson (?), which, in the absence of anything else to listen to, was very absorbing; and Gene and I reacted to it with near uniformity (although we didn’t quite reach “Baby Snakes” territory). Between the glow of the dashboard and the roll call of votes to impeach (and, necessarily, nothing else), Gene and I must have been nearly of the same mind.
I am aware of the availability of sensory deprivation capsules and might like to try spending some time in one. However, two considerations dissuade me. First, it would feel too much like lying down in a coffin, and I’m not into that. Second, I would prefer some company in the capsule, or perhaps in a separate capsule, with identical simple images, like the moon or a car dashboard, projected inside, and the same Dvorak quartet or antique radio drama coming over the speakers.
Or I’ll just wait for the next rainy day.
When the rain actually starts, extraneous sounds are banished, along with excessive light. A heavy downpour produces a dynamic variety of white noise, which, unlike mere static, fluctuates in intensity, with each pelting sheet; while lighter rain serenades us with the patter of individual drops. In either case, the effect is calming: it muffles external clamor, and it also harmonizes us to more natural rhythms.
I remember when I was a boy, if ever we were out driving in the rain, upon our return home, Dad would turn off the engine, and the wipers and radio would fall silent, too. Before running for the house, we would always sit for a moment, listening to the gently drumming rain on the roof. Nothing else was of any concern, during that precious interval.
Is the rain a mantra or drone that, in focusing our attention upon it, diverts us from our travails and other vexations? If so, I can imagine nothing as efficacious.
Yuka says it’s because I have light-colored (green) eyes, but for whatever reason, I find glaring sunlight very oppressive, especially during the morning commute, with the sun just on the horizon and always in my face, slamming, boring into me. The southern haze is an all-subsuming intensity, light without color.
A cloudy sky can tame the sun’s tyranny, allowing all under its dominion to retain its natural shade. Perhaps it’s merely because the graininess of the air is removed as a factor (just as nighttime dispels the opaqueness of the atmosphere and permits us to see the heavens); perhaps it’s that everything we see is bathed, not drowned, in the light that remains; yet the world appears more clearly.
Though I’m no photographer, maybe all I’m talking about is the difference between an overexposed and a properly-exposed picture. Mellower light brings out subtlety, of hue and of texture. It makes our surroundings seem softer, more whole, and more interesting. I don’t think I’m exactly echoing Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, for he loved darkness for its capacity to conceal, and I, for its capacity to reveal. A better example from art would be Closely Watched Trains, a dark, black and white film, whose visual elements seem almost glowing, almost touchable.
Overcast itself can be beautifully marbled and inlaid, converting the overexposed world to a vast hall with an ornate ceiling. Like a soft, familiar blanket, it provides cover and comfort.
This old painting, from my parents’ house, perhaps illustrates what I’m trying to say about the glowing richness of subdued light.
It’s so hospitable and friendly (“lovely, dark, and deep”?). Harsh sunlight would wash it all away.