Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Stranger's Top Clouds

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The clouds in Hayao Miyazaki’s movies, like these in My Neighbor Totoro, “take on an organic, intentional personality,” writes Matt Baume. HBO Max/My Neighbor Totoro

We listed our 2020 regrets last week, but we should confess there was one regret that was notably missing, which was that we never got around to Cloud Week. At the end of May, we planned on spending an entire week writing about clouds on Slog. Just clouds. Big ones, small ones, fake ones, real ones. COVID-19 had no end in sight, the pandemic trapped us in our little boxes, and we wanted to encourage the world to look up at the sky, if only for a week.

2020 had different plans for us this summer, especially this June. For most of the year, we referred to Cloud Week as if it was our Infrastructure Week, a thing that would be great to do but was never going to happen. We pushed the week back and back, but now, as we log off for the holidays only to return in 2021, we thought we’d eke out a last-minute eulogy to clouds.


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Why we get June Gloom. For Cloud Week (RIP) I called up Joseph Zagrodnik, an atmospheric scientist at Washington State University, and asked him why the monocloud sticks around all the way through June, darkening Seattle’s skies just as everyone else in the lower-48 starts filling their social media feeds with photos of their idiot-asses enjoying the summer sun.

The thing I described as the “dark monocloud,” Zagrodnik explained, is a collection of stratus and stratocumulus clouds that form easily in marine environments. High-pressure air offshore, created by the higher-angled June sun heating up the land more quickly than the water, drives all those clouds from the ocean over to the land. Around that same time, the midlatitude storm track that brings us the rain during the wet season moves north, which creates a stagnant weather pattern in our region. So the marine clouds just sort of hang around over the land and make us feel gloomy, at least until we open ourselves to the pleasures of cloudbathing. —Rich Smith


The only films I’ve spent more time watching on HBO Max than Cats (2019) are those in the Ghibli collection—and although they don’t have any lines of dialogue, my favorite characters across all of Miyazaki’s movies are the clouds. All of Miyazaki’s films feature flight in some way, and between the broomsticks and birds and biplanes the clouds take on an organic, intentional personality. The nocturnal clouds of Nausicaa streak fatally across the screen like poison; in Princess Mononoke, dingy human-made smoke chokes the natural white dandelion-puffs in the sky; the pastel sunset at the end of My Neighbor Totoro dissolves into night before our eyes, shadows growing longer and longer like age overtaking the childhood of the main characters. Plenty has been written about the living food, fauna, and folklore of Miyazaki’s films, but for me, it’s the sky that holds the most life. —Matt Baume


Nothing compares to the real thing, but when I think of Miyazaki’s clouds, I think of this Travel Oregon video. It’s so grand and sweet. —Chase Burns


Clouds make or break a sunset. I grew up in Los Angeles, which means I was raised on the myths that smog created particularly vibrant sunsets. In fact, that’s not true at all. Good air quality breeds better sunsets. Only pollutants like volcanic ash or wildfire smoke can dramatize a sunset and dye the sky red. One of the most important factors for a satisfactory sunset, though, are clouds. You need clouds to reflect the light.

You can anticipate a good sunset if it occurs in the aftermath of a storm and a calm wind is blowing. Also, it doesn’t hurt if it’s autumn. Apparently, because of the sun’s angle and lower humidity, Washington’s sunsets are the best in the autumn. I dunno, I’ve seen some absolute stunners in the summer. —Nathalie Graham


Clouds have a metaphysical value. Clouds are floating masses of water in the form of droplets and crystals. The emergence of these masses is for the most part caused by the rise of hot air to the cold regions of the sky. What results from this encounter between water-saturated warm air and cold air is a gorgeous zoo of clouds. Those that are high in the sky: cirrus, cirrostratus; those in the middle: altocumulus, nimbostratus; those on the down-low: stratus, stratocumulus. Next to the science of clouds, which is expertly described on Wikipedia, is the metaphysics of clouds, which is not discussed enough.

By metaphysics, I mean the essence of clouds that relates to the essence of being in the world, which for us, as living things, is the biosphere. Few natural phenomena capture the experience of biotic being better than clouds. What I’m getting at is better understood if we take an elevator down to the underground Beacon Hill Station.

North or south?

North or south? Charles Mudede

Often, when heading home from Capitol Hill or the International District, I deboard the Link train at this station and dash to the Red Apple supermarket to purchase items that are needed at home. I buy these things and return to the southbound platform. I’m home in 15 minutes. But there are the few times I visit the Red Apple on the way to the ID, or downtown, or Capitol Hill. I buy something, return to the station, go down the elevator, and make a left instead of the usual right. When I enter the northbound platform, my mind melts into a confusion that has existential pangs because it can’t believe I’m not in the southbound platform. The problem is that the two platforms are very much alike, and there are not enough distinct details to separate the two. The moment I enter the confusion, I enter the realm of the timeless. The past is identical to the future. The universe is symmetrical, and symmetry, time-invariance, is the horror of horrors.

What does this have to do with clouds? If I have to spell it out to you, I’m sorry. But here it goes: Clouds make sure that a day never feels and looks the same. Clouds are constantly changing by the mood of the morning, the afternoon, the evening. You can never be confused by a new day because it has so many different clouds. They are denser now, or they are thinner now, or they are higher now, or they are lower now; or they are blackish, or whitish, or grayish. Sometimes a rainbow falls from heaven. Nothing of the eternal can be drawn from clouds. Theirs is a philosophy of process, which happens not in the Platonic fiction but the timeless but in time, in the ever-changing. —Charles Mudede


I want to imprint photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s cloud series, Equivalents, on my soul. In the summer of 1922, the Granddaddy of Photography pointed his camera toward the sky and took photos of the clouds above him. Cirrus. Altocumulus. Nimbostratus. The images are dizzying and abstract. With each one, I’m never sure of the time of day or orientation of the horizon. Stieglitz’s photos reflected his emotions, which found their equivalents in the silent clouds drifting over his head. Over eight years, he captured more than 350 of these cloud studies.

When I look at these photos, ecstatic energy bubbles up in me. Sometimes I try and imagine they are images of different things. Like the furry belly of a dog, or the waves of the ocean viewed from seafloor, or a puddle reflecting the night sky. But maybe the best way to view them is as containers for feelings. All you’ve got to do is look up to the sky—the feeling is all there. —Jasmyne Keimig


A few months ago I gradually awoke to the realization that overcast weather was affecting my mood more than I wanted it to, and so I resolved to capture and eat the clouds. My summer project was to build a rain barrel that could collect water when it rained, with a nozzle at the bottom attached to a hose to irrigate my tomato plants. I’ve never built anything remotely like this and I had no idea what I was doing, but resentment is a powerful motivator and I desperately craved revenge against the cruel, pretentious clouds that presumed to wield power over my mood.

It took a few trips to various home improvements stores (at one, I witnessed the most incredible mansplaining of my life when some guy, showing a woman where the potting soil was, asked “are you familiar with this product?” and she responded “are you asking me if I know what dirt is?”) but slowly a barrel took form with a funnel-shaped top and a silicon-sealed spigot at the bottom. Incredibly, it worked, and I was able to keep a few dozen small tomatoes watered with the help of some occasional precipitation. The salads tasted fine, as salads go, but the satisfaction of knowing that now the clouds work for me was delicious beyond measure. —Matt Baume

The clouds work for us now.

The clouds work for us now. MB


What do you know about cloud rap? The genre emerged around the late 2000s and early 2010s, characterized by New Age-y and dreamy beats with drawling, lo-fi vocals and esoteric lyrics laid over the top. According to internet lore, Lil B coined the term in a 2009 interview with music journalist Noz. The prolific Bay Area rapper showed the journalist a CGI image of a castle floating in the sky, saying, “That’s the kind of music I want to make.” Riffing off this observation, Main Attrakionz’s Squadda B called himself “the king of cloud rap” in a blog post in 2010. The term stuck.

Heavily influenced by Southern rap and trap, listening to a track like “I’m God” feels like watching a surreal but very loud infomercial after guzzling too much cough syrup. Most agree that cloud rap officially broke into the mainstream with A$AP Rocky’s “Peso” from his Live.Love.A$AP mixtape. While “cloud rap” has now been used to describe a wide variety of different genres, there’s nothing like smoking a joint, turning on Lil B, and watching the clouds pass you by. —Jasmyne Keimig


Speaking of clouds, how’s Cloud City Coffee in Maple Leaf doing? A very brief Q&A with Jill Killen, the woman who runs Cloud City Coffee. —Nathalie Graham

What is your favorite cloud?
Jill: My favorite cloud is lenticular. It looks like a weird UFO.

Incidentally, our name has a double meaning. My landlord’s last name is Londo, so it was a play on the mayor of Cloud City’s name, Lando. And, of course, the other meaning refers to our beautiful city.

How has Cloud City fared during the pandemic?
We did the usual precautions but took it further than most cafes. Once we let customers back inside we only let them order and then make them stand outside (covered). We use mobile ordering more than ever. We have plexi all the way around to protect staff and limit their time standing next to each other. If a staff member has any symptoms, you have to get a negative covid test plus be 72 hours post fever (if fever was previously present) to return. We have blue air filters in the back kitchen and break area. All of our doors are open so it’s also cold. Sounds fun, eh? Oh, we also limit hours and run fewer shifts.

Are you hopeful for the future?
I am hopeful. We started a hygiene station for unhoused folks and the response has been wonderful. Of course, I haven’t checked with NextDoor where I’m sure they would hate it. Our business is about 70% of what it was, which is pretty good considering. (And some days it almost hits pre-covid numbers).

This cloud city of ours.


When I think of skies, I think of big skies, and when I think of big skies, I think of Orville Peck’s song “Big Sky.” I also think of Goku’s Flying Nimbus. I lived in rural Idaho from 7 to 14 in little towns in Canyon County like Middleton and Notus. That means I spent a lot of time alone, literally out on the farm, looking up at the biggest skies. The only visitors who came to my home were clouds. I’d watch these monster things birth at the end of the big sky and then move, slowly, up and over and beyond. I loved them because they held the matter of somewhere and I was nowhere.

As a kid, I was obsessed with Goku’s Flying Nimbus, the magical yellow cloud that a master of martial arts gifted Goku, Dragon Ball‘s protagonist, after he saved the master’s giant sea turtle. It’s a cloud Goku can fly on, like a cuter magic carpet. To me, that Flying Nimbus represented a strange, enigmatic thing that I hoped would come to pull me out of Idaho’s brushland. Now, looking at those big skies only in retrospect, I also think of Orville Peck’s song “Big Sky,” which represents that rural longing feeling. It’s a feeling that good people will appear to you like clouds on the horizon, people you can hitch yourself to, just as Goku hitched himself to the Flying Nimbus. —Chase Burns

🎶 Big sky, big sky / I dont know why / Oh, big sky 🎶

🎶 Big sky, big sky / I don’t know why / Oh, big sky 🎶 Dragon Ball manga

This post was originally published on The Stranger

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