Heavy Weather

Tonight the Weather Channel is tracking Carlos, the second storm of the 2009 Hurricane Season.

Also tonight, lots of unattached guys my age are getting ready for another spin through the single’s scene. In cosmopolitan Fort Payne, Alabama, there aren’t too many places where the ancient mating rituals of the Homo sapiens take place. After showering and splashing on handfuls of Obsession, it’s off to try one’s luck with the ladies…an obsession in its own right.

Sometimes it’s hard for my friends to understand why I’m totally uninterested in dating. Many of my oldest friends remember a time when I would have been the first one in the car, reeking of Drakkar and overdosing on testosterone. (NOTE: Drakkar is a kind of pre-Axe Body spray scent guys used to practically bathe in; think of it as the cologne the ‘A Night at the Roxbury’ characters—or ‘The Soprano’s’ Christopher Moltisante character—would have worn). I suspect some of my friends think I may be gay. Others are of the opinion that I’m simply too picky.

But the truth is, I’m too busy with my own obsessions to give a relationship the attention it deserves. If I put the kind of Herculean efforts into dating and an eventual relationship, I wouldn’t have the time (if possibly the inclination) to spend the same efforts on writing and my other artistic endeavors. But even above and beyond this reality is another: dating means my obsessions will suffer from my neglect.

Tonight, instead of slathering on cheap cologne, tucking away the “bad luck condom” in my wallet and driving an hour to buy ridiculously-overpriced bottom-shelf liquor for women I’ve never met while listening to horrid Eurodance neodisco, I’m watching Spike Lee’s ‘When The Levees Broke’ for the fourth time. (NOTE: the ‘bad luck condom’ is a quasi-mystical occurrence ensuring that, if you purposely take a condom along, it won’t leave your wallet).

Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling calls it ‘heavy weather’: ultraviolent storms that drive people like me to seek them out like a junky looking for his next fix. Thunderstorms, flash floods, tornados and hurricanes: these are dangerous drugs. Heavy weather is unique in that we can study weather patterns with scientific methods using the latest meteorological tools, but the storms themselves still have a primal sort of magic to them. Getting caught in a violent thunderstorm or taking refuge from a tornado under an Interstate overpass, it’s easy to see how our ancestors saw a supernatural power at work behind these events. Zeus flinging lightning bolts at hapless mortals or Poseidon drowning sailors in man-eating whirlpools are a colorful way to picture heavy weather—but the truth is much stranger (and stronger) than fiction.

Watching weather reports and disaster footage is akin to porn for a storm chaser. Watching documentaries like the Spike Lee film are a way to temper the heavy weather obsession. After all, it’s not the pain and suffering that is attractive. It’s the raw, undiluted power of nature that fuels our obsessions.

Usually, storm chasers obsess over one specific kind of heavy weather event. For me, it’s hurricanes and powerful storms (tropical depressions and tropical storms). Living in Florida for 25 years, I made it through countless storms and several powerful hurricanes.

The last storm I rode out was in 2005. My parents and my son evacuated to Georgia, while my brother and I battened down the family fortress and hoped for the best. When the storm hit, the sky turned a weird greenish color, which gradually darkened until it was fully dark in mid-afternoon. I went out in the yard, noticing a poisonous juvenile Coral snake making for the safety of some underground nest. Inside, our dogs (a basset hound and a lab mix) were whimpering, wandering about the house looking for a safe place to hole up, just like the snake. Animals can sense heavy storms—whether it’s the barometric pressure or some hindbrain reptilian sense at work, who can say? Perhaps the dogs and snakes were the smart ones—maybe my obsession stemmed from the lack of ancient instincts that tell saner people to duck-and-cover.

Outside, while the sky was darkening, everything became calm. The leaves stopped their rustlings, the afternoon opera of tree frogs and crickets fell silent; with most of the neighborhood evacuated, there were no lawn mowers, no children playing down the street…no nothing. Creepy.

But you could feel something: some indefinable sensation that walked up and down your spine until each nerve in your body seemed to sing. You could feel the growing sense of power, a collection of static electricity and pressurized atmosphere, a slightly-metallic smell, like shaved copper or blood. The lighter smell of rain, underneath everything else.

When the storm hit, palm trees snapped. Power lines went down, the air conditioning and cordless phones were useless. In a few short minutes we were back to medieval-era technology. Even our cell phones were useless, owing to the electrical characteristics of huge storm systems. Part of a large oak tree fell on our front yard, crushing my car and burying another underneath the foliage.

These storms are something I really miss about Florida. Though they are often incredibly destructive, the power they represent makes you feel…well, alive. Whenever I start feeling the urge to chase down another hurricane, I pop in Spike Lee’s documentary. As I said, it’s a way to keep my obsession in check. Of course, as Lee points out so succinctly, it wasn’t the hurricane that caused the majority of the suffering in New Orleans. The flooding from poorly planned and constructed levees did far more damage to people and property. Even though the clips from videotaped scenes as the hurricane caught New Orleans in its grip are scary, they do an admirable job of catching that feeling of unleashed natural fury quite well.

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