Thursday, September 13, 2007

On Umbrellas

I hate umbrellas. Really. To be more precise, umbrellas make me seriously irritated. Some people have noticed this firsthand, though I have adopted a modicum of control in the presence of strangers. My bias is chiefly to be observed from the fact that I shun umbrellas in wet weather. My repulsion doesn't prohibit me from handling an umbrella, but the lengths to which I will go to avoid it are often difficult to conceal. My forceful character helps me disguise my disdain in the form of jokes and distractions. I do not mistreat umbrellas purposely, but I have discovered the limits to my natural tolerance and under certain circumstances I am sorely tempted to acts of wanton destruction.

A closed umbrella is preferable to an open one. Dormant umbrellas can be handled and stored securely or even put out of sight. But if we are going to speak further about definite times and places, I have to say that an open umbrella in the house is seriously pushing the limit of my ability to contain hostility. I have destroyed numerous umbrellas in this most unnatural context. I have ended friendships with at least two people who had the habit of opening umbrellas indoors or leaving them open to dry inside. Fortunately, this is a comparatively rare form of fastidiousness and I have not had to shell out too much compensatory remuneration for 'accidentally suppressing' an open umbrella with a heavy coat (it looks more natural) or removing the offending contrivance to a position in which it sure to be damaged. Just in case you are questioning my tact, I submit that in one instance I made my objections plainly known in a polite manner and was rebuffed. In the other situation, my passion simply made itself the master before I could warn its owner.

I often have to endure the most awkward feelings when umbrellas are carried in what appears to be clement weather. This is further exaggerated if foul weather is not forecast and even further provoked when none appears. I cannot explain this feeling except in comparison to what a child might suffer when a stranger is familiar with his parents or when a comfortable environment is suddenly changed without warning or reason. It is to me a kind of superfluous bet hedging conditioned in certain people, the same type who buy insurance for their vacations and replace batteries with religious punctuality.

Broken umbrellas are more or less acceptable and I have generally more harmonious relations with the genus of these less pretentious specimens. A crippled umbrella still in use, even in the rain, evokes neither triumph nor humor, but rather a feeling of sober caution as its appendages remain unpredictable, however subdued through injury. My most passive stance is to an umbrella that is broken and closed. I have no problem in this situation.
Dead umbrellas in storage often look like sleeping ones, but the knowledge of their impotence is satisfactory enough. I make a point never to discuss the physiological state of an umbrella within earshot of its owner. Though I may seem unemotional in this regard, there is no small amount of calculation here. I see no sense in gloating over the death of an umbrella, natural or otherwise, but look to the safe and hygienic removal of the corpse lest there be a flurry of replacement purchases in response to excessive commentary. Let sleeping dogs lie, I say.

I have been known to take pleasure in the light mishandling of other people's umbrellas, though discreetly.
I do not use them as canes as I know only to well that they are unreliable in this application. My main abuse is to mislay them in coffee shops and offices. I never do this on purpose, but it is an autonomous subconscious reaction I have come to trust and for which I have not a shred of remorse. In the more explicit sphere of tactile abuse, I find that using slightly excessive force in drawing the small fabric strap used to gather the loose flesh of the umbrella closed provides satisfaction similar to the fantasized revenge of a well timed put-down. Accidentally ripping the strap from the umbrella in this process is titillating in the same way as suddenly discovering one doesn't have to go to school. Sword fighting and using an umbrella to ring doorbells - these antics are not my style.

The variety of attitudes towards umbrellas would suggest that I have an unusual amount of contact with umbrellas, which is not the case. I just remember umbrellas the way some people remember the names of streets in rarely visited towns. Ironically, I am probably more aware of the type and condition of umbrellas belonging to friends and regular clients at the onset of the rainy season than they are. I suppose it is unnecessary to mention that I do not own an umbrella and never have. I invite those who know me to reflect on this for a moment and you will see that it is true. I have borrowed umbrellas on occasion, of course, and I confess my guilt in perpetrating various insults. My wife is wise to my condition and never volunteers her own umbrella if there is an alternative. Anyway, I play down her knowledge of my weakness by refusing to use any from the squadron of umbrellas we have at home.

I have dwelt on the question of my umbrella 'thing' for some years now and I have tried to be honest in my assessment. While my approach is admittedly irrational, I can say with confidence that I do not fear umbrellas, which was my original suspicion. There was an unpleasant incident involving an umbrella in my youth that has stayed with me in an unusually fresh way. Yet I cannot tell if if this recollection is remains provocative because it is the cause or merely an object of my condition. There seems to be no parallel between the images in this memory and the reaction to specific umbrellas or their owners. I do not dream or have nightmares of umbrellas, at least not that I can remember. Of course, subjective analysis has its tricky features like flat out denial and so forth. I don't think I would be too presumptuous or self deluding in saying that seeking a therapeutic solution for my bumptious animosity to umbrellas sounds pretty silly. Irrational foible, yes. Debilitating character flaw - hardly. Yet I ponder
my foible openly with you, gentle reader, wearing the flimsiest of nervous grins. I am aware that people have been committed by their relatives for speaking as freely on less serious subjects.

On the defensive side of my story there is ample evidence that I suffer nothing more than normal human contempt for the near universal indifference to the iron fisted tyranny of petty convenience. I am not the macho type, but there is something unnaturally cat-like and, well, prissy about umbrellas. Coats have an earthy, serious feeling. There is not the least hint of anything affected, much less prissy, about a coat. Even pretty coats have an amazing balance between form and function, fashion and utility. Umbrellas, regardless of their antiquity - almost all ancient civilizations had parasols to protect against sun and wind - have only a superficial genetic pool. Like a race of inbred felines, they display the narrowest range of despotic features such as fickleness, protrusion and aloofness that only belie their supposed utility. Let's face it folks, coats don't break in a strong wind, they don't poke people in the eye and if they're dirty, you can wash them. The comparison between the two is simply untenable. And yet we have a global industry hell-bent on producing endless amounts of
these flapping plastic semi-caves and selling them to the masses as if a vital commodity were at stake, as if providing such a decadent and ineffectual luxury once reserved for demigods and rulers of the world to the millions of average Joes and Janes somehow laid the groundwork for true democracy. The umbrella is simply a joke when compared to other human gear like warm hats, scarves, gloves and water proof boots. Ordinarily we would never confuse these clearly essential things with populist foppery, but when were lump the umbrella in with them we do just that. It is an insult to decent apparel.

There is no serious social underpinning, no philosophical weight of reason, contrivance or even secondary causality to support the need, far less the universal production of the umbrella. A flimsy notion, the umbrella carries the rational sophistication of a party hat. At least our ancestors had the dignity to consider it as an ornament, whereas we practically concede it the same status as a safety helmet or a swiss army knife. There is something terrifyingly wrong with the invisible but pervasive Heideggerian determinism loaded into these piffling, brittle webbed sticks of false comfort. Yet we not only stand by, we aid and abet the confluence of absurdity with the nobility of man and his natural place in the elements. The lowly sock, a vital garment perhaps most victimized by man's powerlessness against his own biological processes, the subject of daily jokes and whose olfactory malfeasance in the service of man's comfort is rewarded with unceremonious tossing in the garbage and thankless replacement, where is the sock in ranking compared to the umbrella? In the Egyptian engravings of the Pharaohs, in the ancient temples of the Tibetan Lamas, among the Roman chariots and in the Greek forum there are umbrellas, but no socks. To what do we owe this disproportion that we so blindly support?

The extension of the comfort of the indoors to our outer world stirs the imagination with of ideas of progress and evolution. On the other hand, the conquest of nature for the sake of dry hair greatly defuses the proposition of mankind's superior rationality. Given the same specific aims, building an entire civilization completely underground makes more sense, once you think about it. Even if we set rationality aside and dwell in guileless simplicity on the superficial convenience and uncontroversial ubiquity of the umbrella, the zen-like beauty of its hapless form is fraught with spiny, inconvenient realities. Orbitofacial wounds and cerebral artery injuries caused by the needle sharp umbrella tips in the hands of careless pedestrians are a statistical fact right up there with skin cancer and the debilitating influenza, the latter two caused indirectly by our assumptions that umbrellas are a modern panacea. Umbrellas are useless in major storms. Where are all the testimonies of people who were saved by umbrellas in Katrina or any other hurricane? Why don't we hear about 'umbrella advisory warnings' during the monsoon season in Southeast Asia? In short, umbrellas are not only worthless, they are a danger and nuisance to any bottom-line real life approach to the pressing problems between man and nature.

It is raining outside now. I'm going to walk my dog. I'm going to wear my big, thick coat but I won't wear a hat. Living in a big city, rain is something I look forward to as an encounter with an ever receding horizon of natural events. When I get home, I'll warm up with a hot cup of tea or some mulled wine. The three umbrellas in our hall will sit and wait for a conventional person to take up their fool's proposition. Besides, I know what they look like on the inside. They're all skin and bones, malnourished flaps of flightless wonder. I won't even give them the time of day.


Sark said...

I have several umbrellas in good working order that I am sending you. I want you to take them inside and open them immediately.

Thomas said...

I cannot tell if you intend to mock me or if you are supplying me with a means of releasing tension through violent gratification.