A Complicated Sky

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“Are you going to miss anything about Arizona?” a friend asked recently.

We were sitting on a patio, at a bar, on one of my last nights in Phoenix. I had lived in Arizona for two momentous years. I would miss a lot of things—people, mostly, but also hiking trails, sitting outside, well-paved asphalt, and all the cacti. I would miss the easygoing attitude and indifferent dress code. I would miss dust storms and real Mexican food. I would miss the life-changing opportunities the city had leant me.

“Anything you won’t miss?” asked my friend, helpfully adding: “The heat?”

“I don’t mind the heat,” I said, although the summer heat wave hadn’t yet descended on the Valley of the Sun, so I was still full of pro-summer bravado. “One thing I won’t miss—the sky.”

I will not recreate the conversation, because I didn’t explain it very well. Even if I wasn’t halfway through a bottle of Cabernet, I still wouldn’t have explained it very well. It’s not an easy thing to explain. But for me, it’s hard to write beneath a cloudless sky. I thought I loved the perfect opal heavens of Arizona. I thought I relished the ubiquitous sun. There was so much to love about our Southwestern lifestyle. Wasn’t the weather an essential ingredient?

And yet—I found myself missing the Northeastern overcast. Not the grisly gray sheet of Pittsburgh winter, which had caused me such seasonal doldrums. But I missed clouds. I missed weather. I thirsted for passing rainstorms, which hardly exist in Phoenix. For my first three decades, I had drawn inspiration from volatile skies. When the windows were dotted with droplets, when the trees bent, when leaves were ripped from their branches and sent swirling down the street, that was when I wrote my most passionate passages. How many stories had I dreamed up, walking down a Pittsburgh side-street subsumed in fog? How many stage plays were birthed on a dim afternoon, my laptop glowing in the dark living room, as Saturday thunder rumbled over the rain-slick rooftops?

In contrast, the Sonoran desert was peppy with sunlight. The air was so dry that I didn’t even sweat—which is incredible, because I sweat grotesquely in almost any other circumstance. All summer, the Phoenician heat lulled me into a zen state. The relentless sun whitewashed my vision. In winter, the atmosphere was absurdly sublime. Weeks passed, but the days were identical: open skies, 70 degrees, no precipitation. Even bugs didn’t bother me; unless I passed a well-watered lawn, I’d rarely see a mosquito. The desert has its cycles, but they’re slow and foreign to me; I never learned what to watch for, any more than I learned to identify varieties of cholla.

Indeed, the weather is so consistent that a friend of mine (who is otherwise rugged by nature) once confessed his hatred for wind. It never occurred to me that desert winds offer no relief, because no one is covered in a sheen of perspiration. If anything, desert winds kick up dust, choking the air with a yellow haze. Most of the time, the air is stagnant. I never realized this until my friend mentioned his aversion.

All of this was fine. My body embraced the perfection. But I couldn’t imagine myself becoming a true snowbird. I loved avoiding all the Polar Vortices, but surely I must suffer at some point. If not punishing Marches, then punishing Julys. If not blizzards, then temperatures so infernal you can fry an egg on the hood of your car.

Then my wife landed a new job, and we were headed to Boston.

Since arriving, I have worshipped this new sky. It is summer, the second-loveliest time in New England, when the rolling hills are bountiful with green foliage. I haven’t minded the slow and colicky cloudbursts. I have loved the robust breezes and the sound they make in the canopy, which the spines of my beloved cacti couldn’t possibly provide. When I drive with my three-year-old son, he giggles maniacally at the windshield wiper, because, during his formative months in Arizona, its blade was almost never called to action. And although I don’t like the humidity, I’m grateful for its oppression—a kind of masochism I never thought I’d feel.

I’ve learned that I need complicated skies. Without them, life doesn’t seem real. It’s occurred to me that many of the movies I most admire use climate to their advantage. (ChinatownThe Thin Red LineFargo). To write my best creative work, I rely on cloud patterns more than I ever realized, these cosmic mood-swings that reflect the changing temperament of the sentences. Even comedy requires some drama.

We’ll see how I enjoy Boston in December. I haven’t weathered a New England winter since 2002, and my memories are grim. But with grimness comes the truest work. When I mention winter to my son, he lights up. He can’t wait to build a snowman. And for the first time since I was his age, neither can I.


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