Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Got Brolly?

I think there's something aesthetically sweet about umbrellas. For years I lived on a mountainside in Japan, and I loved the sight of umbrellas bobbing up and down, dotting the green slopes through the rain. There was also an intuitive etiquette to passing people with umbrellas on narrow, winding streets (you just tilt the umbrella in opposite directions). Ladies carried parasols on hot summer days to shade their skin from the sun, and although I never carried one, I liked how the assorted fabrics, frills, and patterns girl-ified the commercial, neon streets. One friend of mine had several parasols to coordinate with her outfits. High glam.

And this is where the recording of sweet nostalgia squeaks to a frozen frame. I spent piles of money on umbrellas in Japan, either because they broke in typhoon-speed gusts (work didn't stop for weather) or because they got accidentally swiped when I left them in the umbrella parking stands outside of restaurants, shops, financial institutions, lobbies of hotels, bars, schools...everyone had a strategy for dealing with umbrella chaos. I really do believe the lost brollies were the result of accidental mix-ups, but I never had the heart to just take someone else's in its place, which meant I often got drenched. I was savvy enough to buy a travel-sized umbrella to store my purse, but it just couldn't withstand the severe winds that tore through the city. Oh and if you ever went somewhere that didn't have an umbrella stand you were expected to wrap your brolly in what I always called "the umbrella condom," a long, thin, plastic bag designed to keep you from leaving umbrella puddles indoors. The cool thing about the condom dispensers was how they auto-wrapped your umbrella (another Japanese miracle of technology), but the unfortunate side of this was the plastic waste they encouraged.

Cut to the present: I love rain when I'm not stuck in it, and with all the public transportation-ing I tend to do, melting in the rain is par for the course. Sick of umbrellas that flip up in the wind leaving me soggy and streaky-faced for the rest of the day, I recently decided to buy a fancier, sportier umbrella from a camping co-op. This product promised to be wind tunnel tested, sturdy, and easy to fold to a transportable size. I ordered a large one (big IS beautiful and in this case practical) to increase coverage from the rain. The umbrella sucked, it flipped open within five minutes of use on a moderately windy day. I exchanged it for a smaller version that had great reviews, also holding the promise of resisting high winds (one reviewer claims to have used it with success in a Japanese typhoon). I have yet to test this one out...

I would never have thought to spend more than a few bucks on an umbrella, but getting to work drenched really got to me this fall and so, I gave myself this little present (Agent Cooper says to give yourself a present everyday). In my quest for this item of luxury, though, I came across blogs and rants and all kinds of forums about American umbrella etiquette. Just google it, you'll see. Some people have even come up with precise equations for "matching" umbrella diameter to the owner's height. Apparently it's rude and entirely unnecessary to carry a large "golf-size" umbrella if you're less than six feet tall. Other people vented about NYC umbrella feuds, scolding those who (again, apparently) use umbrellas to stake out more personal territory on busy sidewalks.

I even saw a demo of one person's invention: the "polite umbrella" (I think it was called). It comes with a cord you pull to make the umbrella do a droopy-shrinky thing if you're passing another umbrella on a narrow sidewalk, so as to avoid bumping brollies. This all sounds deliciously perverse, I know. Many people criticized the need to carry an umbrella in the first place, bragging about their own ability to get by with just a raincoat. Some cried, "it's only rain!" and chastised those of us who use umbrellas in anything but torrential downpour. I just had no idea umbrellas could cause such a stir.

I have my own practical reasons for using an umbrella. I don't like sloshing around in my shoes or having cold, wet skin and hair all day, especially in air conditioned buildings. Privileged? Sure. Weak? I don't think so. But beyond all of that I remain astonished that we have the technology to launch rockets into space while finding a sturdy, portable umbrella has turned out to be such a feat.