Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Why Umbrellas Suck

We had a wet weekend here in New York City, with gray clouds hovering spitefully overhead for three days and occasionally spitting sheets of rain down at us. If you had to go out in that weather, you walked as quickly as you could, dodging the puddles pooling at the curbs, gritting your teeth against raindrops that seemed to be coming at you sideways, huddling under your umbrella and feeling, perhaps, like the hero of a Horatio Alger novel who has yet to climb the corporate ladder through hard work and ambition and is therefore still stuck selling newspapers in the cold, wet rain.

Then again, maybe you didn't feel so bad because you had an umbrella with you, keeping the rain off of your head like an ingenious portable roof. Did you know that the umbrella has been in use since ancient times in the Middle East? And that they are sometimes called “gamps” in England, after a Charles Dickens character? You should click the “Random Entry” button on Wikipedia more often! Then you would have found out that umbrellas throughout history have been more often used as status symbols or to protect against the sun's heat than they have been used against rain, the way you are doing right now.

If you're unlucky, a wind will pick up suddenly and you'll discover why your use of the umbrella is historically inaccurate. If yours is a sturdy umbrella, one with a sturdy “double-canopy” design and one that has been tested in wind-tunnel conditions—like this one—you'll have to grip it tightly to keep it from flying away, but nothing too terrible will happen as a result of a sudden gust. But if you're like me and aren't inclined to spend 30 dollars on an umbrella, your cheap drugstore-purchased gamp will pull away from you, the canopy will make that nasty fluttering sound, and then the whole contraption will turn inside-out, and the ribs will get bent out of place so the stupid fucking thing (which is what you call it) will never protect anything from getting wet ever again. You can try to get the umbrella to go back to the way it was, but you'll wind up feeling like the person at the black-and-white opening of an infomercial who is demonstrating the problems with a traditional knife or lawnmower. “Is your umbrella giving you problems?” the voiceover asks you. “Did the wind kill your umbrella yet again?”

There are no statistics on how often this umbrella homicide occurs (although there should be), but it happens a lot. Now that the rains had ended, there are dozens of piles of colored canvas and metal rods that were once umbrellas wedged in the gutters. Most of them were poorly manufactured, but some of them are the fancy umbrellas with the double-canopy designs or the endorsement of Rihanna. Umbrellas are the material embodiment of entropy. The clasp that keeps them tightly wrapped up breaks, then it gets harder to open the umbrella, then the metal ribs get bent, and eventually all umbrellas realize their ultimate destiny and become stupid fucking things one windy day or another. And when that destiny is realized and the unlucky umbrella owner is suddenly shelterless, you can bet that it's the sort of miserable day when the umbrella was needed the most.

Umbrellas break when they're needed, they can be cumbersome to open and close, they sometimes refuse to close altogether (an alternate route to stupid fucking thing status), they ensure that you won't have two hands free when it rains, and on a crowded sidewalk with a lot of umbrella-bearers they'll get in one another's way. Yet a great many people seem to think that they're the best way to shield themselves against the rain and I have no idea why this is. Is it an umbrella-industry conspiracy? Is it really good advertising? Is it a holdover from the days when rich society ladies would use umbrellas as a stylish accessory? Is it a Freudian phallic obsession? Or is it that Rihanna song?

Whatever the reason, I'm—as the kids say these days—over it. No more umbrellas for me. Yet I stayed relatively dry this weekend, and not because I sat inside all day eating donut holes. No, I had to go to the store to get those donut holes and my head stayed miraculously dry, thanks to that newfangled invention, the Jacket With a Hood.

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