New Yorkers dress in layers. We walk out the front door, prepared. We know we can’t escape the elements. This is why New Yorkers pay attention to the weather. This is different from how Texans orient themselves to the climate.
In Texas, you think less about the actual weather and more about temperature control — the air conditioning, in cars and buildings.
Manhattan in August feels like an armpit, whether you’re indoors or outdoors. It’s damp. It’s smelly. Wealthy people vacate the city for more hospitable vistas. Us commoners stay, like pathetic clumps of antiperspirant, slowly dissolving under the weight of a swinging bicep.
Perhaps people in big cities like Houston can relate, to some extent, but if you grew up in Austin, like me, you experienced a different heat. Direct sunlight blasted your skin, but only briefly. Only in parking lots or riverbeds. Otherwise, you found shade under trees.
Society has tried to shame people who talk about the weather. It’s boring. Oscar Wilde called weather talk “unimaginative.” Can’t we think of something better to talk about? Something a little more interesting?
We like “small talk,” though. We can’t help talking about the weather. It’s an ever-changing, daily topic, one that affects us all.
When lockdown began last March, a year ago, I stopped paying attention to my local weather forecast. I didn’t need to know how to dress for it. I wasn’t leaving the house.
Of course, temperatures fluctuate indoors. And I have limited control over the weather in my 1920s Brooklyn apartment. But at home, I didn’t need to prepare for anything. If I felt cold, I put on more clothes. If I felt hot, I felt hot.
Growing up in Texas, I wished for snow. Instead, we got ice. In January this year, friends and family in Austin sent me joyful videos of themselves and their pets, playing in actual snow. They were happy and excited.
Then, mid-February, horror stories. No power. No running water. Busted pipes. People stranded. People freezing to death. One friend said it was like camping, but not enjoyable. Another friend argued, No, definitely nothing like camping, “This is a shitshow.”
The snow on the ground was no longer used for making snow angels. Instead, people dumped the snow in their toilets, so they could flush. They boiled the snow. They got tired of the snow.
I’m not one of those people always looking for the positive side in a bad situation, but I thought it was interesting how my family described their experience. As frustrating as it was, they spent their evenings playing card games, by candlelight. They said it was peaceful, relaxing. Very different from sitting in front of the TV.
And then my sister told me a story about H-E-B. The grocery store had a blackout while their shop was full of patrons, their carts already stacked with goods. H-E-B could have told everyone, Sorry, our machines aren’t working. But that’s not what they did. H-E-B let their customers walk out with their food, for free.
The snowstorm garnered a lot of media attention in February. Winter weather swept the nation, but Texas stood out — because they were unprepared.
When Texas Governor Greg Abbott blamed the blackouts on renewable energy, Christopher Hooks, in Texas Monthly, characterized the response:
This was a lie. It was a convenient lie, because it slotted the disaster into a familiar front of the culture war — green energy versus fossil fuels, New York socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez versus Texas. This mess was environmentalists’ fault, somehow.
The real culprit? Deregulation.
I wonder, though, is anyone talking about how easy it is to fool ourselves into thinking we’re more insulated than we really are? Like, all of us, all the time.
Isn’t that what this awful pandemic has shown us? That we’re moving through life, constantly preoccupied by our own delusions and distractions? That actually, the weather isn’t boring at all.
The weather is the equalizer, the disruptor, the protagonist and antagonist. The weather is inside, outside, up and down. And most importantly, the weather is beyond our control.
It’s time to pay attention to the weather, not as a signal for how to dress or how to shield ourselves from the unpredictable nature of reality. It’s time to pay attention to the weather because it’s telling us what we need to change.
Sometimes, New Yorkers express a snobbish attitude toward Texans. They think the state is filled with dim-witted, backwards-thinking rednecks. In turn, Texans see New Yorkers as harsh, cold-blooded assholes. Neither view is accurate.
Texans and New Yorkers alike are smart and caring. But the lives we lead do damage to the Earth and to ourselves. Up here, we perpetuate a culture of workaholics and 24/7 light pollution. Down there, they choke the air with pickup exhaust and willful ignorance.
Why won’t people acknowledge climate change? If you agree there’s a problem, then you become complicit in a solution. And many Americans feel invested in their current lifestyle.
“What is power for?” Hooks asked in the TM article. Ultimately, for society, electricity provides opportunities and security. Great, but at what cost? How secure do we need to feel? How many opportunities do we need?
It’s one thing to raise people out of poverty; it’s another thing to allow individuals to feel so secure and so opportunistic, they can fly away from their problems (see: Ted Cruz).
In March 1973, a few years after the inception of Earth Day, E. B. White wrote:
Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.