Monday, December 25, 2006

Season's Shelf Cloud

Christmas can be so wrong. Commercialism starting in October or earlier, consumerism covering the nation like sticky red and green paint, all leading up to a misbegotten Christian Saturnalia. In the end, store shelves are emptied of merchandise while residential cabinet, closet and garage shelves are full of new clutter and nothing has really changed.

But a few days ago a grand shelf cloud manifested itself over my part of Houston. It loomed to the south, a massive dark bank of cloud with an upper edge like a seam across the sky. Behind it slightly less gray clouds seethed with lightning. Christmas shoppers took one look, said "yipe!" and ran either into the store or out of the store to the car. Minutes later the storm behind the shelf cloud arrived, pouring out wind and ice water.

Shelf clouds are the visible gust front of a thunderstorm. Not the kind of weather you want to encounter while walking across a parking lot or driving your car, and deadly dangerous if you're in a small airplane. As meteorologist Jack Williams states in the December 2006 issue of the magazine Flight Training, "A shelf cloud is as good a sign as you can imagine for not even thinking of taking off or landing it it's within sight of the airport. The gust front will quickly change the speed and maybe the direction of the wind, and it's the last thing you want to encounter close to the ground."

What a wonderful thing to see on the brink of Christmas. Visible, electric change written across the sky. A reminder that discomfort and danger are more real than the artificial Christmas bubble. A storm in your personal life at Christmas doesn't mean coal in your existential stocking; it just means that your membership in life is paid in full and extended for another year. All plans and hopes are subject to forcible change in the winds of reality. Yet there are moments of sanctuary. I watched the shelf-cloud storm from a cheerily bustling Whole Foods store with my friend Eileen. We had a comfortable seat in a booth right by the window, two sacks of groceries (i.e., shopping mission accomplished), and cups of hot coffee. It was a good vantage point from which to contemplate the storm and Christmas.

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