Friday, March 20, 2020

On Sharing Umbrellas

Sometimes I love a cloudburst. You're walking downtown. Suddenly the rain starts and you're under some random awning, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, sharing complaints and guesses about the weather. The rain eases a little, and the most hurried or the least concerned dash away, accepting wet faces and shoulders, while the more relaxed wait it out. I'm reminded of G.K. Chesterton's essay about the joy of chasing your hat when it's snatched by the wind "On Running After One's Hat" -- but a friendlier event, where people are thrown together instead of managing alone.

Last November, after a week of warm sunny weather here in southern California, a surprisingly rainy afternoon jumped on us. The first rain of the season is always fun, and I noticed students sharing umbrellas. Every umbrella, it seemed, had two or three students under it, some in coats, some in shorts -- sandals, boots, skirts, sweatshirts, flannel, summer dresses, all jumbled together, smiling and giggling.

Students and staff members sharing umbrellas seemed much liklier to be smiling than those walking solo. I put on my hat (no umbrella) and took a long stroll around campus in the rain, starting a count: student/non-student, umbrella/no umbrella, sharing/not sharing, smiling/not smiling, with a friend/alone. I developed a method and coding scheme on the fly. I chose observational subjects when I was behind them, not looking at their faces, to minimize experimenter bias, then somehow without seeming too weird or conspicuous I had to position myself to register, at a predetermined time, smile vs. no smile. I did a lot of speedwalking, corner cutting, and sprinting through the rain. The fairest comparison, I soon realized, would be groups of friends who all had umbrellas vs. groups of friends sharing umbrellas. After about forty minutes, I was thoroughly soaked (but having great time), and the rain let up.

I didn't yet have many good data points, since it could take sixty seconds to choose a group and position myself for an observation. Preliminary evidence suggested that my hypothesis would play out. I could see it in their faces. Being thrown together with a friend under an umbrella is one of the lovely little pleasures of life. There's the shoulder-bumping intimacy. How often are we so physically close with our friends? There's the novelty of the change of weather in dry California, which you can now jokingly grouse about together. There's a special pleasure, maybe too, in having something to offer a friend -- room under your umbrella -- which you can share without cost. It's a toy emergency: no real risk of harm, nothing serious at stake, but some of the same cooperative bonding as in real emergencies, some of the same intimacy, uncertainty, newness, lowered barriers.

After the rain stopped, I had only the beginning of a data set. No worries, I thought. I'll collect more data later, during the next unexpected rain. It didn't happen, though, in December, January, February. It had been a dry winter, and during the few rains, I didn't manage to find the time.

It's rainy again this week, after a warm February and early March. A wee bit of winter (SoCal style) is back. It would be a perfect time to don my hat and gather more data.

But of course, with the epidemic, no one was on campus this week. Wednesday was my last day to retrieve belongings from my office before complete lockdown through April. Campus was already looking a little dilapilated -- the paper and cardboard signs and flyers from a few weeks ago bent and weathered, abandoned, unreplaced. I saw only one person during my visit, someone in a winter jacket, turned away from me, head down, walking swiftly the other direction.

With the California governor's shelter-in-place order last night, sharing umbrellas with acquaintances, anywhere, is on pause -- one more small casualty of the pandemic.

So I'm sitting at home, staring through my window at the overcast sky while my wife and daughter sleep late. My son is self-quarantined on the other side of town after possible exposure during his truncated study abroad.

My umbrella research will wait til next year, I suppose, while I huddle with family, not knowing what kind of protection we might need, waiting out a different kind of storm.

[photo from Alamy, used with license]


P.D. Magnus said...

This is a lovely essay. It captures something universal, I think, while relying on specific details which make it something that nobody else could have written.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kind comment, PD!