Sky Watcher

Rain must fall - but when?

Every morning I swivel the television to face the bathroom and watch the maps shift while I shave. I know the storms, their week-long lives before they slide from sight, dragging skirts of rain and snow off toward the Maritimes and Greenland. I do not know, nor want to know, the forecasters. I keep the volume down so that I'm not distracted.

I am fascinated by weather patterns.

Today, the dapples of white and the tight isobars look promising. Snow and wind would improve the day, any day. But the path of the low-pressure area, shuttled on by the jet stream, is worrisome: If only I could tug on the elbow of this track and drag it southeast to the coast, then we might have something. And then, just maybe, a blocking system out in the Atlantic might slow the storm, might stall the swirl of clouds off the south coast of Rhode Island. Then we'd really have something.

The noon map shows a splotch of rain trailing a warm front over New England. The cold is locked off to the West. I make plans again to move to Buffalo or Rochester, N.Y.; I'm envious of those cities that comb snow effortlessly from the simple combination of cold wind and expanses of open water.

But still I'm skeptical of the forecast. I await the radar. I want to get inside the storm. On the screen, a composite picture of light green, showing rain, colors New York State and infringes on Connecticut. Embedded rectangles of forest green - moderate rains - soak the Pennsylvania border. It all shifts northeast in little jerks like the flip-card drawings I made as a child. I'm wary, however, of being deceived by "phantom precip" that shows on the screen, but never reaches the ground. Not to mention "ground clutter," a fake shield of yellow indicating heavy rain that often surrounds major cities, even on clear days.

Occasionally, I'm asked about this fascination. There is certainly no illusion of control. And it's not a lame attempt to prep for conversations, to have something to say when all else fails. It comes in part, I suppose, from a family game of my childhood called "winning weather," a simple game that could be won with accurate predictions for backyard conditions or vacation-day forecasts. At breakfast, each of us was required to predict the day's weather, and, if rain or snow was expected, the time it would commence - to the minute. My father was the acknowledged champion, unless we were in Maine where fog banks confounded him, and my mother won smugly. At the evening meal, the winner got to explain exactly how it had happened - the hint of warming in the morning's hoar frost, or the thin veil of cirrus clouds noted through the bathroom window. I started trying to catch the radio forecast before others were up.

Years later, the unfurling of map after map, diagrammed stories full of minute variations and symbols, still draws me in. I imagine how it is elsewhere: the wind piles and scatters snow on the streets of Minneapolis; ice visits the rocky spine of Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia; rain changes to snow at 2,500 feet on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail in New Hampshire; fog closes Friendship Harbor in Maine.

And I delight at reported extremes: the temperature drops to minus 48 at Barrow, Alaska; the wind gusts to 138 miles per hour on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire; the town of Chelmsford, Mass., sits in the path of a storm that covers 20 states.

After each viewing, I go to the window. The particulars separate from the forecast - a shadow edges along the wall preserving a scrap of snow, a lone flake settles on the yew, the thermometer reads a few degrees higher, the wind shifts. I sense the drop in pressure and prepare, as people have for millennia, for a change.

In the late afternoon, I lace on my running shoes and press through the southwest wind. It's too mild. It won't snow. We're on the warm side of the storm. The tang in the air announces rain. I run on. I'm dressed for it.

When the rain comes, I check my watch and smile - only five minutes off.

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