Talk about the weather

Paul Constant

December 04, 2018

Regional gift shops tend to slap a popular phrase that's been commonly attributed to Mark Twain on their tourist-friendly merchandise: "If you don't like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes." There's no proof that the quote is actually from Twain, and it's not really New England-centric. In fact, I've seen the phrase used on overpriced crap in tourist traps ranging from Texas to Iceland and anywhere else the weather is unreliable and unpredictable.

One place that really shouldn't market the phrase is the Pacific Northwest. Sure, the weather will freak out in surprising ways every few months, but on the whole, it's pretty unremarkable here: a few months of nice sunny weather, followed by many more months of wet and gloom.

Sometimes it seems that meteorologists in the Pacific Northwest don't have to do much besides look at a calendar and then flip to the well-thumbed page for "rain" in the thesaurus. But we have our share of interesting weather-watchers in this part of the country. I used to be fascinated with Cliff Mass, for instance, before he revealed himself as a jackass on climate change and stumped against a carbon tax that would have moved Washington state toward a greener future. Now that I don't read Mass anymore, my favorite source for local meteorologist chatter is currently the Seattle Weather Blog's Twitter feed.

But there's more room in my heart for weather crushes, and I recently fell pretty hard for Marian Blue, the author of an odd little book with the clunky title Interpretative Guide to Western-Northwest Weather Forecasts.

To be clear, Blue is not an expert. The indicia of the book warns that it is intended as "a whimsical look" which is "not approved or condoned by any organization or individual," and that "exaggeration may exist." Still, Blue says she "believes Western-Northwestern forecasters demonstrate inspirational fortitude in weathering the complications of predicting this region's weather" and she promises to try to live up to their standard.

What Weather lacks in charts and graphs, it more than makes up for in verve and personality. Laid out in a dictionary format with entries for words like "Atmospheric River" and "Puddles," it's a personal account of the Northwestern climate, as told by a witty narrator.

Blue speaks in plain and understandable language about the problems with averages: "if I take all my weight averages each year since birth, add them up, and divide by my age, I can quit dieting." She parses the many fine distinctions meteorologists make in their forecasts. If a weatherperson promises "light spots in the overcast," for instance, Blue warns the reader not to "go out on a search for the light spots" and to "Keep the headlamp handy with, of course, all your rain gear." She reveals that "partly cloudy is a psychological ploy forecasters use" that suggests "a progression, an improvement" for purposes of "public morale."

Weather features a handy guide to the different types of clouds of the Northwest, including "The Big Dark," which refers to "a continuous cloud line 5,000 miles long that knocked at least one forecaster into incredulity." She explains the difference between scattered showers and flurries and cloudbursts with the gusto of an un-self-conscious nerd lost in the throes of her obsession.

It must be said that Weather's production design is a tad amateurish. It's packed cover-to-cover with beautiful full-color illustrations, but those images often interfere with the flow of text, breaking a reader's concentration as they struggle momentarily to figure out which paragraph to read next. Better graphic design might have turned a good reading experience into a great one.

The most cynical of you out there might be asking why anyone would need a nonscientific guide to the science of weather. To those cynics, I respond that it's simply a matter of tone. Blue is an ideal dinner party host, and Weather is a freewheeling guide to the complicated monotony that is weather in the Northwest. She fosters a stiff-upper-lip sense of comedy in her jokes about obtaining rubber life rafts and uncovering the scam at the heart of every Northwest weather report:

...forecasters who simply offer 'rain followed by rain' day after day lose followers; consequently, making forecasts interesting by varying the vocabulary is a good technique. Such variety gives the impression that the weather is constantly changing, so keeping tabs on it is a good idea although those changes may amount to no more than a 20-degree wind shift or 15 drops less rain per square foot.

The dry humor — that resignation at the inevitable, relentless gloom of the Northwest — is more than just a realistic appraisal of what we Seattleites have to deal with for more than half a year. It's also teaching by example how we survive the bleakness of winter: by keeping our wits about us, by finding novelty in decidedly un-novel weather patterns, and by always looking on the bright side of a dark grey cloud.

Books in this review:
  • Interpretative Guide to Western-Northwest Weather Forecasts
    by Marian Blue

    March 27, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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