May 21, 2010
The other day walking home from work I got caught in a sudden thunderstorm. I got off the bus and felt a single drop of rain and though, "Eh, I’ll probably make it home before it really starts to come down." And at that moment I learned that rain can actually read your mind because the next moment it felt like somebody’d dropped a water balloon on my head. So I started running and got under the closest tree, which was really helpful because any rain that was stopped by the leaves just accumulated on them then, as the pressure built up, fell on me. Then the lightning and thunder started. Some people are scared of lightning, but I’m not one of them. At least I’m not scared of lightning unless I’m actually out in it. I stood under the tree watching flashes of lightning and listening to the thunder and remembering the time when I was a kid and my parents taught me that if you count the number of seconds between the flash of lightning and the sound of the thunder you can tell that the storm is moving away as the number of seconds increases. And that’s comforting unless the number of seconds is actually going down, and it’s not comforting at all when you’re standing under a tree and before you can even count to one there’s a KABOOOM. Except it’s not really a noise like that. Thunder that close sounds like an egg cracking magnified by a billion, as though the air itself is a giant, fragile shell, which, technically, I suppose it is.
Anyway, as I was standing under that tree I remembered once hearing that you should never stand next to a tree in a thunderstorm because the tree is the tallest thing around and it’s bound to get hit. I’ve also heard that thousands of people survive being struck by lightning every year. Still, better the tree than me because lots of people also survive car crashes, shark attacks, and spending time with their in-laws every year, but that doesn’t mean anyone necessarily wants to experience those things. And lightning is a weird thing. I’ve heard of people being electrocuted while talking on the phone. And you’re not supposed to take a shower during a thunderstorm, although I suppose we came into the world naked, wet, and screaming, so going out the same way would have a certain poetic balance to it. Occasionally I’ve been washing dishes and a thunderstorm will come through and I’ll think, is it really a good idea to have my arms in a big metal tub full of water right now? Water, I’ve heard, is an excellent conductor of electricity, but I’ve always wondered how far an electric charge really will travel through water. I have distinct memories of being at the beach and seeing an offshore storm, like a blue slate Portuguese man-o’-war, and seeing twisted lines of bright light appear between the clouds and the ocean below. And at those times I’d think, is it really a good idea to be standing up to my knees in salt water? I also thought about Benjamin Franklin who all my teachers in school told me discovered electricity by flying a kite in a thunderstorm. Several of my teachers even suggested that I should try to recreate his experiment, but I never knew what the point of it was. Surely the guy who invented bifocals wasn’t so boneheaded he’d say, "Oh, look, lightning, I think I’ll go out and fly a kite, although, to be on the safe side, I’ll tie a metal key to the string. And then I’ll play a few rounds of golf." One night I saw a television program in which some people used a dummy, a kite, and a machine that would produce artificial lightning to recreate Franklin’s experiment. They discovered that if lightning hit the kite it would burst into flames and the electric shock would travel down the string and kill Franklin. I’m not sure what the point of demonstrating that was. If their point was that teachers lie that’s something I’d already figured out in sixth grade when my teacher would tell us "Don’t take drugs!" and then wash down a couple of valium with an Irish coffee, but that’s another story.
As I was standing under the tree getting only slightly less soaked than I would be if I were taking a shower with my clothes on, I thought about the number of times I’ve been about to leave work and thought about taking my umbrella only to decide that I’ll be fine, the rain will hold off. And of course it doesn’t. And I always think, if I’d brought my umbrella it would have held off and I’d be stuck carrying my umbrella home for nothing. And as I stood under the tree counting the seconds, the numbers getting higher and higher each time, I was glad I wasn’t carrying an umbrella, because in the middle of a thunderstorm nothing seems dumber than carrying around a big metal rod with a lot of little metal rods sticking out of the top.