I first learned about cloud lovers in a police report concerning a man who received a blowjob from a young woman and went mad. The man—let's call him Carl (police reports have the names of suspects and victims redacted)—was in his 40s, and the woman, let's call her Lisa, was almost 18. The two first met in the fall of 2003 at a local TV station that was holding a contest to find the best video footage of Northwest clouds.
According to the report, which was lost when I cleaned my messy desk in 2005 (I'm recalling all of this from an imperfect memory), Carl, who was married and well-to-do, fell in love with Lisa, whose family was not so well-off, upon seeing her for the first time. He had a videocassette in his hand; she had a videocassette in her hand. He showed his tape to the station's weatherman (sun, sky, clouds). She showed hers (clouds, sky, sun). During the contest, his eyes could not escape her beauty. After the contest, the impression she made on his mind intensified. That bewitching coin in the short story by Jorge Luis Borges, "The Zahir," comes to mind. If a person sees this coin only once, the memory of its image begins to more and more dominate his/her thoughts and dreams. Soon the coin becomes the mind's sole reality. Lisa's face was Carl's Zahir.
A month or so later, Carl saw his growing obsession at another weather-related event (the name of the event was redacted). He approached her and broke the ice with, of course, clouds. To Carl's surprise, Lisa was receptive and seemed to show some interest in him. They talked about clouds and other things. The following week, the two continued their conversation at a Capitol Hill cafe. In the months that followed, he began taking her out to dinner (he would pay for everything). Eventually, Lisa turned 18, left her parents' home, and moved into an apartment near 19th Avenue and Thomas Street with a friend. She had no money and no job, and her crushing poverty was relieved only on the nights Carl extravagantly wined and dined her. These dates, however, always ended with Lisa returning to her apartment and Carl returning to his wife. He didn't have the nerve to cross the border of their safe friendship and enter the danger zone of a kiss.
Let's for a moment imagine Carl's bedroom on a night after a date. He is in bed, his wife is sleeping next to him, the wine is still coursing through his body, his heart is beating, his cock is rock hard, and the Zahir is shining in the clear sky of his mind. Nights like this had become common in the two years he had known Lisa, and he expected to experience even more such nights in the years ahead. Then one day, Lisa called and invited him to her apartment. This came out of the blue. Not once had he asked or contrived a reason to visit her apartment. Now, all of a sudden, she wanted him to come over. Was she also secretly in love with him? Was he finally going to see her nipples? What would they be like? Very pink? Soft? Hard? Inverted? Would she take off all her clothes? Would he see her pubic hair? Would it be the same color as the hair on her head? Would she kiss him?
He found himself in her tiny kitchen, looking down at the hair on the top of Lisa's head. His cock was in her mouth. We know what he was feeling, but what might he have seen in that little kitchen? There was certainly a sink and a dish rack, maybe some plastic cups with the remains of cheap wine, and possibly a window that looked out at the about-to-fall, the falling, and fallen autumn leaves. And above it all, clouds. Clouds arriving from nowhere and going to nowhere.
He came. The stable world of his marriage, solid work ethic, and sound investments dissolved. He felt empty and free. He looked at the face that liberated him. She asked him for money to help pay for rent. She and her roommate were really hard up. He asked for her banking information. She gave it to him. He and she happened to share the same bank. All the better. He left her apartment, went right to the bank, and poured $40,000 into her account.
When Lisa went to withdraw money for rent, she could not believe the balance on her account. Was this money for real? The banker assured her it was. She requested a huge sum and, as if in a dream, the banker handed it to her, lick by lick. She settled her bills and took her roommate shopping.
Later that day, Carl's wife (let's call her Margaret) went to the bank and freaked out when she saw the balance on the account she shared with her husband: $40,000 missing! It must be a mistake. But the banker assured her it wasn't. Her husband had withdrawn the money and placed it into an account owned by a certain woman named Lisa.
Margaret confronted her husband: Why did he give 40 grand to this woman? But he would not give her a clear explanation. He was still lost in the moment he came in the kitchen. That moment divided his life into two distinct worlds that could never be reunited. He would never be the same again. Realizing that her husband had cracked, Margaret figured out where Lisa lived, went to her apartment, and ordered the little hussy to return all of the money. Lisa refused. It had been given to her, and that was that. The cops were called to resolve the crisis. The officers interviewed Carl, Lisa, Margaret, and the banker; gave out a case number; and filed a report. This was the report that first introduced me to the strange world of cloudspotters.
"We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them. We think that they are Nature's poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them. We pledge to fight 'blue-sky thinking' wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day." This is the opening of the Cloud Appreciation Society's manifesto. The organization emerged unexpectedly in 2004 (the year before I lost the remarkable police report) from a lecture delivered by Gavin Pretor-Pinney at a literary festival in Cornwall, England, entitled "The Inaugural Lecture of the Cloud Appreciation Society."
"Lots of people showed up for the talk," explains Pretor-Pinney in an e-mail, "and came up to me afterward to ask how they could join my society. So I put up a website and issued anyone who wanted to join with a badge and a certificate with their name on it... The membership just spread in the viral way that things can on the internet. We now have more than 27,500 members in 94 countries around the world." (Pretor-Pinney also published a book, The Cloud Collector's Handbook, that, when closed, fits snugly in your pocket and, when open, provides information for identifying and scoring clouds.)
The Cloud Appreciation Society website (www.cloudappreciationsociety.org) has several features, the best of which is a gallery of cloud photographs by members and nonmembers, professionals and amateurs, the young and old. Indeed, if Lisa and Carl are still lovers of clouds (she by now is in her late 20s and he in his late 40s), they are probably familiar with the pictures on this website. Some clouds are caught at dusk, others at dawn, others in the dead middle of the day. Some are reflected by a glassy sea, others cling to the tops of green trees, others rise over the glittering ice of Antarctica. One photo captures a god-mad cloud that threatens to smite some rural road in a god-fearing country. Another shows dusky clouds that are massively stacked in the sky above Singapore's port. One stunning photo, which was taken by Nick Lippert (a resident of Tumwater, Washington) at 7:40 a.m. on October 28, 2011, transports us to the place we expect to see when it is time to pay for sins: a hellish Mount Rainier casting a demon shadow on a soaring continent of blood-red clouds.
It's not surprising that Mount Rainier is the king of this collection of images. The volcano is world famous for the eerie, otherworldly clouds that form above it. "Those are mountain-wave clouds," explains Cliff Mass, a blogger, professor, and author of The Weather of the Pacific Northwest. "We are pretty good around here for that. The multilayered platelike look. That's primo cloud viewing." Mass holds the correct opinion that our region is generally poor for cloudspotting. The reason for this is not because we lack clouds, but that we have too much of the same type of cloud—the low, languid, darkish, and oppressive stratocumulus. This cloud shows us only its endless underside, when what we want to see are those magnificent cities of angels that are slowly journeying to the distant place where all of our happiest feelings originate. Mass notes: "We are one of the cloudiest places in the country. We have 230 cloudy days a year. New York has a 133. Miami 117. You can blame the Pacific for this. This moisture source is right off the shore and is relatively cold water. And so we get this low cloud deal that goes into the spring and early summer." In short, we do not see clouds as easily as other people do because we practically live in one.
Mount Rainier, however, often breaks with this monotony and produces world-class spectacles. "In fact, those clouds above the mountain began the UFO craze back in 1947," explains Mass. "And it's not an accident that the UFO craze began over Mount Rainier. A contemporary example of that craze is Dennis Kucinich. While he was visiting here and staying at Shirley MacLaine's house, which is in Graham, Washington, he thought he saw a UFO. Well, it's kind of funny that he saw one in the same place as the first UFO. It was probably a mountain-wave cloud."
The Cloud Appreciation Society's website also has poems ("Cloud Verse"), love letters to clouds, and short essays. Much of it is bad, and much of it is wonderfully bizarre. For example, one essay, "The Advantages of Watching the Cloud Channel," which was composed by one Andrea de Majewski, a Seattleite who currently lives in the Big Apple, loftily compares watching clouds to watching TV. In a million years of dreaming and thinking, I would never have seen this connection, never found this invisible thread that links the sky to the TV screen.
"The cloud channel has several advantages over regular TV," writes Majewski. "First off, you don't have to choose between rabbit ears or taking out a mortgage to fund a dish or cable package or whatever. It's free, and whether it's on or not is completely beyond your control. Here in Seattle, it's broadcast more often than many places. Move here if you want to watch a lot. If it's not on, you must do other things. The laundry, grocery shop, whatever. But if it's on, you can postpone chores and lie down and watch it.
"It's very relaxing. One reason for this is that there are no ads. Not even the things on public television that are just like ads except shorter and more boring. No one tries to sell you anything at all on the cloud channel." The impression one gets from the Cloud Appreciation Society's website is that cloud collectors are very dreamy people, utopians to the core, and extremely sensitive to the transience of life.
"We have a consciousness, but clouds have a consciousness, too. It's not a consciousness that is based on emotion, it's a consciousness that is purely and simply about being here," says Binky Walker, a local artist whose graphite drawings of clouds were linked on the Cloud Appreciation Society's website ("Cloud Art") in 2009. We are sitting in the middle of Top Pot Doughnuts on Summit Avenue. Night has just fallen, and wet leaves cover the sidewalk. Walker's shoulders are wrapped in a shawl. She is dressed for fall. She drinks tea. She holds the white cup with both hands and speaks between sips. And although she says the dreamiest things, she is very present, very much in the here and now. Not once do her dreamy thoughts drift away from our table to something pressing in the back of her mind. "The rock is in the same process as the clouds, and the clouds are in the same process as us. And the reason we so easily engage with clouds is because they make us aware of this process, of this passing through life. The rock is passing through the world, too, but very slowly, and so we do not engage with it as we do with clouds, which change at every moment."
Walker's drawings, which are represented by Cullom Gallery, capture this transience by presenting a single cloud in a three-panel sequence. Each panel has the same tone and mood as the others, but the shape and composition of the cloud is significantly different in each panel. The one and the many, the ephemeral and the eternal, difference and repetition, the primordial and the consequent. Drawing clouds has ultimately led Walker to the metaphysical conclusions of Whiteheadian process philosophy. "More than being matter, we are movement," she explains. "But that movement we are part of all the time is so beautiful that we want to hold on to it. But, also, it's so hard to hold on to it all of the time. We have to let go of it and return to the mundane. This is why my drawings are inspired by ukiyo-e," she says, referring to the genre of Japanese woodblocks and paintings. "With this Japanese tradition, what matters is the sorrowful beauty of the here, the floating world. This leaf, this stream—it's so beautiful, but we cannot get a hold of it. The cloud we see and love only happens once. Then it's gone. We will never see it again."
What Binky Walker intensely understands and feels is that the stable, the static, the permanent is the illusion; what's real is the process, the constant changing from one form to another, one now to another. The beauty of clouds is their coming and going. Their drifting by the window. Their thickening and thinning. Walker's drawings do not so much capture clouds in a moment as try to relate one cloud moment to another. This is Plato's vision of time. This is the moving image of eternity.
When we attempt to do the impossible, to hold on to a beautiful moment, we become as ugly and as dead as that old woman in the Japanese ghost story "A Tale of Ingwa," recounted by the great Lafcadio Hearn in the collection In Ghostly Japan, and which I will retell now with some minor adjustments.
Set in the house of a daimyo (a feudal ruler), the story concerned an old woman who was dying and a young woman who was taking care of her (both were married to the same man). After being ill for three years, the old woman (she is not named in the story) realized that the end had arrived, she was going to die at any moment. She called for the young woman (she is named Yukiko) and made a final request. The cherry tree in the garden was in full bloom and she wanted to see the flowers one last time. Yukiko, of course, agreed to fulfill the old woman's final wish. Pleased, the old woman asked Yukiko to turn around so that she could hold on to her back for support. Yukiko dutifully offered her back. The old woman then put her hands onto Yukiko's shoulders, rose up from the bed, and, step by slow step, was led to the tree in the garden.
But once there, the old woman did not look at the blossoms; she instead shoved her hands into Yukiko's kimono, grabbed her breasts, and yelled, "I have my wish for the cherry-bloom in the garden! Such a delight!" After that, she died. But when she died, her hands did not release Yukiko's breasts. The husband returned home and saw in the garden the dead old woman clinging to his young wife. He tried to remove the fingers, but each attempt drew blood.
A doctor was called to the house. He examined the hands and the breasts, and he saw that the old flesh had fused with the young flesh. The only thing he could do was cut the hands off at the wrist. The operation was difficult (the old woman's skin was rough and tough) and very messy (pus and blood spilled all over the floor).
But that was not the end or the worst of it. Yukiko not only had to spend the rest of her life with the darkened and dried hands on her breasts, but now and then they would come alive and squeeze her breasts in that calculating way a shopper squeezes ripe fruit in a grocery store. This happened sometimes in the morning and other times at night—these dead things drawing devilish delight from the living.
To conclude, when we see a beautiful cloud passing by, sometimes it is best just to live in and then leave that moment forever.