This is #26 in a series of month-end reflections on the state of the world, and other things that come to mind, as I walk, hike, and explore in my local community.
“Under the Umbrella”, by Midjourney AI; not my prompt
“My poetry took its voice from the rain.” — Pablo Neruda
“The rain began again. It fell heavily, easily, with no meaning or intention but the fulfilment of its own nature, which was to fall and fall.” — Helen Garner
Here on the Canadian west coast, we’re having the usual winter weather: The last 10 days have been rainy, and the next 10 are expected to be likewise. Most people, like most creatures apparently, don’t like rain much, and tend to scatter for cover when it rains (notable animal exceptions being elephants and deer).
So this month’s ‘cultural anthropology’ has been paying attention to who is out in the rain. My research has required almost daily trips to the local café to see who’s out and about — my sacrifice for science!
My first observation was that umbrellas are much commoner here in Asian-culture-inspired Coquitlam than in predominantly Anglo areas of Vancouver. The Japanese, I’ve learned, lead the world in use of umbrellas. When I asked people who didn’t use them, why they didn’t, the main answer was that it requires use of one hand all the time. So if you’re carrying bags or walking the dog, or in an insecure area, you need both hands, so umbrellas are suboptimal. Why hasn’t anyone invented an umbrella that doesn’t need hand-holding?
Mind you, since almost all ‘serious’ raincoats continue to use toxic, polluting ‘forever’ chemicals like PFAS, PFC and PVC, you’re not doing any favours using them instead. And more natural solutions like oiled silk, beeswax, waxed canvas and oilskin all have their problems (they can’t be washed, for a start).
In the café, most of the older customers have umbrellas, while most of the younger customers have hooded jackets, and are wet. Whether that’s obliviousness or stubbornness is your guess. Young wild creatures apparently like the rain better than their parents, so maybe we’re the same. But then wild creatures mostly have hair or fur that can be shaken to dry themselves quickly. I was surprised to learn that most animals have evolved the capacity to shake their bodies after getting wet — at precisely the optimal frequency to expel water fastest. (Yes, someone has actually measured these frequencies.) If you’ve ever been owned by a dog, you will know how effective this shaking is — for the dog.
Demographically, the crowd in the café looks younger today than it does on drier days. On the way over here I watched three dogs taking their people for walks in the downpour. They seemed ambivalent: the smells more intense, perhaps, but the sounds of rain a distraction for the smaller, warier pups, and the rain itself unpleasant on and in the eyes. Still, they looked much happier than the (umbrella-less) people they were walking.
There is a bit of a ritual in the café on heavy-rain days: First you must secure a table (harder to come by on rainy days), preferably by putting your wettest items on an empty table and chair to discourage others from trying to take it. The umbrella must be shaken outside before you come in, futile as that is on a day like today, so as not to sprinkle customers inside or make the floor even more slippery than it is. Then you put your coffee order in, and then you wipe down your table, which is inevitably still wet from the previous customer’s belongings.
For those (about half of the customers) with laptops or tablets, there is the usual fruitless casting around for an unused electrical outlet, followed by a sigh, and then the setting up of the equipment, which, here at least, seems to involve custom-made folding brackets and stands for tablets, phones and hard-copy materials. They don’t call it your ‘third place’ for nothing.
It would appear that puffer jackets are very much in style here. Even geezers are wearing them. They promise warmth, light weight, and dryness, but caveat emptor — almost none of them are vegan, and most contain PFAS. And the better-made ones suggest you hand-wash them in cold water with a special non-detergent cleaner, to avoid damaging the down, destroying its water-resistance, and reducing its thermal properties. And few of them are actually waterproof. What price fashion?
My next observation today is that there seems to be a point at about age 30 when people switch from backpacks to shoulder bags. The former almost all look badly worn and seem to have obligatory ‘designer’ labels on the outside, like underwear. I will never understand this. The latter are apparently always black, the designers apparently more than content to remain anonymous.
There are some women, usually middle-aged or older, who carry a kind of large structured handbag instead, kinda like an old-fashioned sewing or knitting basket. These seem enormously roomy: I watched a woman take at least 30 items out of her bag at the café, and it still looked full. The only drawback I could see is that these bags all seem to be hideously gaudy, as if you sewed it or knitted it yourself, perhaps. Still, they have possibilities. Whoever’s working on inventing a hands-free umbrella might take inspiration from these carry-alls.
You don’t want to be seen pulling your laptop out of a tote-bag, however. Too flimsy, like an accident waiting to happen. Too easy for your laptop to fall out of and crash spectacularly to the café floor. And if it’s a branded department store tote, be prepared to have the socially conscious roll their eyes at your choice of bag, as it’s most likely advertising a chain they would never shop in, for various political, social, ecological and/or economic reasons.
Cultural anthropology is one of the shadier forms of voyeurism, and if you think you’re being subtle, you can rest assured you’re not. People know that you’re looking at them in the café even if they have their back constantly to you. They just know. You’re not fooling anyone with your spreadsheet on your Mac open in front of you. This eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head skill is something women apparently learn quite young, for their own defence. The quality of their radar is directly proportional to the age, unattractiveness and/or creepiness of the voyeur, and for perfectly good reasons. Some but not most men seem to have this same radar, but for different (and, um, sometimes ickier?) reasons.
I have learned to be discreet — staring is just rude, even in the interest of science — but I don’t pretend I am not glancing around the room looking for something interesting or amusing to write about on my month-end blog post. If someone catches me looking at them, I nod and acknowledge their attention, and then gently look away.
Since I recently caught myself smiling in the mirror of my apartment elevator, I no longer smile at strangers unless they smile at me first. For some reason, my self-initiated smiles just look disturbing, like grimaces, while those that are in response to others’ smiles seem natural and genuine. Not enough practice I guess, during all those long years of anxiety and depression.
When CoVid-19 ‘ended’, I was briefly astonished at the number of strangers who smiled at me on the street, apparently because, for the first time in years, they could see my whole face, and over the duration of the pandemic my expressions had seemingly become less guarded and perhaps more natural, thanks to the mask. Sadly, that tendency seems to have ended. Now, when strangers smile at me, it’s usually older women, and mostly when I have a bouquet of flowers in my hands.
So now I have to learn to smile all over again. I’ll let you know how that goes.
The rain has intensified outside, and I’ve taken a table that lets me see the people outside as well as here in the café. I have my list of favourite rain songs playing through my earphones.
One of the things my cultural anthropology has taught me is that most people, in their relationships of every kind — with family, friends, co-workers — are looking for attention, appreciation, and reassurance. I have my theories about why this is so, mostly arrived at from reading Gabor Maté on the importance of secure attachment and authenticity in early childhood. But at any rate it seems males tend to want more attention, while women tend to want more appreciation. Makes perfect sense, and not just for human animals.
And that is what is playing out in the café. There’s a man talking to a woman at one table, and he’s adamant about something while she seems disinterested or distracted. His answer, it seems, is to talk louder. I laugh into my latte.
I’ve written before about conversations where the man is talking, incessantly, mistaking the constant nods from the woman he is talking to (or more accurately talking at) for agreement and encouragement to continue talking, when her nods merely mean “yes I hear you and understand what you’re saying”, rather than agreement or encouragement, and she’s not responding only because she’s waiting for the insensate clod to STFU so she can get a word in. This was playing out yesterday at the corner table, where the woman was shrinking into the large comfy chair she was sitting in, as if wishing it could envelop her and whisk her away.
cartoon by the world’s most observant male, Will McPhail
At another table, two men, both working on their second large mugs of coffee, are engaged in what looks like an epic battle for airtime and oxygen. They keep interrupting each other, and it’s not to finish each other’s sentences. Their hand movements punctuate the conversation like visual carets, looking for a space in the conversation to add something before it’s lost, or em-dashes, separating thoughts without having to stop for a period and allowing the other guy to take control of the conversation again. It’s about getting rather than paying attention, not about comprehension, and the reassurance they’re both getting is from the sound of their own voices, not the confirmation of the other.
I gather all this despite the fact they are not speaking English. I may be reading it wrong. But I doubt it. Our cultures aren’t that different.
The next day, I watch two older women talking, one of whom has one of the hideously coloured but impossibly spacious ‘knitting baskets’ by her feet. Their nods are slower; they’re appreciating and reassuring, not just trying to keep up. There are actual pauses in the conversation during which they both just reflect and drink their coffees. Impossibly long pauses. But then I note that their hands and eyes and bodies are still talking with each other — an upturned palm, a shrug, a smile, a raised eyebrow, that ‘hmm’ expression where you scrunch your lips over to one side —”Not sure what to say”. It looks as if they are warming each other, without even having to say a word.
I have so much to learn about the art of conversation.
As they leave, one of the women slides a stack of papers and books, along with her tablet and stand, into her knitting basket (I am sure it has room in it for the entire Canadian Archives), while the other, impressively, wipes and busses the table and slides their chairs back under it. She’s worked in the biz, for sure.
A few minutes later a young man arrives, looking very wet (hooded puffer, no umbrella), and as if he’s looking for someone, or has lost something. He sits at the vacated table looking nervous. He looks at his watch, and his phone.
A few minutes later a well-dressed young woman arrives, looking immaculate (umbrella, not a hair out of place), and looks uncertainly over at the recently-arrived guy, who now has slumped down in his chair, his legs stretched out, arms crossed. She goes over to his table and they talk. Blind date? Nope, they clearly know each other a bit by the way she lowers her shoulders to hug him. He doesn’t sit up straight until after she’s done so. Reunion after a disagreement or long separation? I don’t think so. There’s a certain formality to their body language. Second date, perhaps.
Yep, Will McPhail again. The guy’s just brilliant.
They’re fun to watch. Improv has nothing on these two. He’s sitting up straight now, and apparently trying to be charming. She’s doing her best not to let on that he isn’t. They are studying each other with their eyes, but in completely different ways. He’s looking at her body, but trying to not look too obvious. (“I’m appreciating you — what do you want?”). She is seemingly trying to figure out what he wants from her. I would have added ”…other than that…”, but the world is changing — some women today, it seems, aren’t averse to a purely physical relationship, if they can only find that one guy in a thousand who can actually pull that off, those rare few that don’t come laden with baggage and performance anxiety.
The performance playing out is, it seems to me, as transactional as if they were bargaining over an appropriate price for fruit hidden in an opaque container.
They’re both reasonably good-looking, but she knows it while his body language suggests he probably doesn’t — it’s awkward. She’s leaning forward, but not in the classic deference-attentiveness pose. She’s studying him. I imagine her trying to decide if he’s worth the investment. He’s leaning backwards, and it’s hard to say whether he’s trying to look nonchalant, or if he’s intimidated.
The conversation is mostly small-talk, but this woman is smart — she has a copy of Melissa Febos’ gut-wrenching, eye-opening memoir Girlhood on the table beside her coffee mug. I recognize it by the bright, fragmented cover, with the title sliding down into oblivion. She took this book out deliberately. Is it a statement? I wonder. Is she trying to get him to comment on it, or ask her about it?
The lilt of the conversation shifts to a familiar cadence that makes me sigh. She is asking him questions. Questions about him. He is answering, at length, and then, it seems, waiting for the next question. He does not seem to be asking her any questions about herself, or about anything for that matter. He does most of the talking. He has her attention, which, I am guessing, is what he wants. If she is getting his appreciation, other than for her appearance, non-verbally, it doesn’t show. Does it matter to her? Has she given up expecting it?
They are acting out their conditioning, and this is what the script called for. It may have been their second date. And then, I realize, to my dismay, that they may have been married for years. Same script.
Perhaps there is no such thing as improv.
A few minutes later, he looks at his watch, and they get up to leave. I’m not going to get to see the next scene in this drama. She slides Melissa’s tour de force into her bag. He does not appear to have noticed it. He takes her hand. She doesn’t resist. With only one hand free, she does not try to open her umbrella as she leaves the café.
They do not bus their table, which is wet, mostly on his side.
The rain has slowed, and my matcha is done. I clean up a bit, slide my chair under its table, say goodnight to the barista, and head out, looking up at the sky. Eyes suddenly drenched, I open my umbrella. When I get home, I locate my copy of Girlhood, and it doesn’t take me long to find the passage I’m looking for:
The self becomes a collaboration with other people, a series of fantasies that lead to “the armour of an alienating identity.” Have you seen a suit of armour? There are so many pieces. Here is where a strange man named me. Here is where the girls stared. Here is the school report card. The plates clink and move together like one. The self underneath is invisible to others.
We are completely alone inside ourselves.
That night I dream of happy people, people without baggage, drenched cats, little girls and joyful puppies running through puddles. And meeting a bookstore clerk whose favourite books speak the same, dark, endlessly amazed language as mine. In the dream, she sees the books I am buying, and the fact I am carrying an umbrella, and she smiles, wordlessly, and, finally, I am free to smile back.