Thinking about the Weather

by soozkim

In 1994, Paul Auster gave Sophie Calle a six page guide entitled: The Gotham Handbook – Personal Instructions for S.C. On How to Improve Life in New York City (Because she asked ….)  Calle followed these instructions every day for a week.   She documented what she did and what happened and made an exhibit of it.

In 2013, I was in Hamburg, Germany and saw an exhibit of this project at the Hamburger Kunsthalle.  Auster’s Handbook is a beautiful and very humane piece of writing with four short suggestions:

  • Smiling
  • Talking to Strangers
  • Beggars and Homeless People
  • Cultivating a Spot

The part on Talking to Strangers has weighed on my mind for months now, to the point where I considered returning to Hamburg to see the piece again and copy down the exact text of the Handbook.  Fortunately, Sophie Calle published this project in a book called Sophie Calle: Double Game.  The Handbook is the closing section of the book.

In talking to strangers, Auster recommends talking about the weather.

If you find yourself running out of things to say, bring up the subject of the weather.  Cynics regard this as a banal topic, but the fact is that no subject gets people talking faster.  Stop and think about it for a moment, and you’ll begin to see a metaphysical, even religious quality to this preoccupation with wind-chill factors, and Central Park snowfall accumulations.  Weather is the great equalizer.  There is nothing anyone can do about it, and it affects us all in the same way–rich and poor, black and white, healthy and sick.  The weather makes no distinctions.  When it rains on me, it also rains on you.  Unlike most of the problems we face, it is not a condition created by man.  It comes from nature, or God, or whatever else you want to call the forces in the universe we cannot control.  To discuss the weather with a stranger is to shake hands and put aside your weapons.  It is a sign of good will, an acknowledgement of your common humanity with the person you are talking to.

-Paul Auster on Talking to Strangers from The Gotham Handbook (for Sophie Calle)

His discussion of the weather has rearranged some of the furniture in my brain.

Cloudy with a Chance of Rain
It had not occurred to me that the weather was a topic in need of defense or justification.  But I can think of many situations in which someone apologetically has brought up the topic.  In the past I have eschewed the topic of the weather, whenever possible.

A Cold Front
I am not good at talking to strangers.  I am not good at small talk.  I am never know what to say.   More and more it feels like I am having trouble talking to people in general.

Record High Temperatures
In light of Auster’s words, besides a reconsideration of the subject of the weather, I may have to rethink much of my understanding about what conversation is and what purpose it serves.  It’s possible that I have been doing it all wrong.

Tornado Watch
In the Handbook, Auster argues that “It doesn’t matter what you talk about.  The important thing is to give of yourself and see to it that some form of genuine contact is made.”

The Jetstream
My problem has been an expectation of giving and receiving new information and ideas.  This is rarely the point of a conversation.  I have been overly focused on the content of what I am offering and what other people are offering me.  Thus entirely missing the point of 99.9% of all conversation on the planet.

A Fog
While following the Handbook, Calle found it challenging to smile and talk to strangers.  I can only imagine that trying sincerely to make “genuine contact” with total strangers would be both intense and taxing.  But this is not to say that it is not also potentially meaningful and satisfying.  I ponder setting an intention to talk about the weather more often with everyone.  Perhaps it would facilitate more genuine contact.  Perhaps there is not enough of that in the world right now.