I’ve done this probably a gazillion times and if, like me, you live in a small New England town, I bet you have, too.
You’re stuck in line — at the post office, the credit union, the village store — and you’re sandwiched between familiar-looking people you don’t really know or folks you already know well enough to know that you share little in the way of common ground. But you want to be neighborly and polite. There’s no point in trying to talk about politics or religion, so what do we always fall back on?
It’s a no-brainer. Everyone experiences it and everyone has something to say about it without pushing anybody else’s buttons. We can all agree that yes, it’s really hot, or dang, it’s bitter cold. (We can, and do, argue over which is the more unbearable but it never comes to blows.) We can commiserate at length about how much rain we need or how we could all use a break from the temperature or humidity level. There’s absolutely no controversy about the weather. The closest we come — and I do this with close friends as well as complete strangers — is to compete in what I call the “Who’s Suffered the Most” Olympics.
Here’s how the competition works. I call my friend (who lives 3 miles away) and say, “Oh my God, it was 7 below when I got up this morning.” She replies, “Well, it was minus 11 when I got up.” She scores. I don’t. Same with snow totals. We all try to outdo one another in that department. I tell someone we got 18 inches at my house and he responds, “That’s nothing! We’ve got over 2 feet at my house.” Again, he wins. I lose. I am not the person Who Has Suffered the Most.
People everywhere talk about the weather but I think New Englanders are particularly adept at weather small talk. People from somewhere else often have the impression that we are an aloof and unfriendly breed. We’re not gushing charm like Southerners or overly perky like Midwesterners. And of course, the people who live in urban areas don’t even have to worry about making small talk. They simply avoid all eye contact and don’t open their mouths.
We New Englanders may be a tad taciturn, but we’re pretty good at not crossing boundaries. And that makes us friendly, in that we can count on each other both to mind our own business and to be there in time of need.
But lately there’s been an ominous cloud over the future of polite small talk about my favorite small-talk subject. I know there’s been a lot of water over the dam — literally and figuratively — since Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas and threatened the East Coast at the end of August. But all of a sudden, the weather became something to argue about. We spent nearly a week being enthralled (or nauseated) by the spectacle of the president of the United States waging an unrelenting war on … the National Weather Service.
Yep, with a wave of his tiny hand (or the swipe of a Sharpie) Donald Trump took to the land, sea and air in an attempt to convince the public that he was entirely correct in tweeting that Alabama might suffer devastating damage. The National Weather Service reacted by (correctly) assuring the residents of Alabama that the storm path was headed nowhere near them.
The president had several options. He could have admitted he was mistaken. (This, of course, would be followed by worldwide cardiac arrest; I’d be one of the first to crumple.) He could have said he was given outdated information from several days earlier. He could have blamed his aides. He could have just plain ignored it, since it was probably one of a score of tweets he fired off during those days.
But no. Instead, he started laying into the meteorologists who compile the storm warnings we all follow when something may hit our neck of the woods. Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty to criticize when it comes to weather forecasters. They spend an inordinate amount of time telling you what the day you just lived through was like. I mean, we were there. We don’t need to be told how it went. If they had been that detailed yesterday about today, it would have been a lot more helpful.
And yes, they do tend to become a bit hysterical when a storm is anywhere on the horizon, breaking in with storm watches, alerts and, when a big one hits, excruciatingly lengthy (sometimes all day) coverage of just how much snow has fallen (cue reporter with yardstick); how bad the driving is (switch to shot of car off the interstate); and what state troopers and snowplow drivers are saying (roads are snow-covered, stay home, slow down. Duh!).
But I digress. Just what do I do the next time I need to make polite small talk? I can’t avoid the post office forever. Do I dare to offer the comment that fall foliage was better this year than last, or that we haven’t gotten a killing frost yet? It may become a battle royale.
Maybe I should just talk about impeachment. It’s a safer topic.