How soon things change. A few weeks ago I was high on the golden hog, and now it’s a struggle just to keep my eyes open amongst all the chill and gloom of August. If you're living in the United States, you probably have no idea what I mean unless you live in Alaska. Or San Francisco. Believe it or not, last week it was even colder here in SF than it was in Anchorage. The culprit: fog.
Sure, there is a certain beauty to the vaporous gatherings of the marine layer. The San Francisco Chronicle recounted environmentalist Harold Gilliam's picturesqe depiction of the many variations of Bay Area fog, including “wreaths and domes over Alcatraz; arches over the Golden Gate Bridge; eddies and fog falls that look like cascades over Twin Peaks in San Francisco and the Sausalito hills; surges and combers over the Peninsula and past the top of the hill in Daly City; rivers of fog at places like Candlestick Park; and the so-called fog decks, where fingers of fog skip over the bay and into Berkeley.” I’m certainly down with all of that. But that’s just it. I’m down!
Generally speaking, I’ve acclimated to the weather here more than I would have thought possible upon my initial arrival five years ago. I landed here in a July and spent the first six weeks in Pleasanton, across the Bay. The entire time I had to re-live the daily shock of leaving the house in the morning, say around 90°F and emerging from my 40-minute journey on the Bart to low 60s of San Francisco’s Financial District. It only got worse when I moved to the Oceanview and Richmond districts, where it was usually in the high 50s. I don’t think I saw the sun more than 10 days out of the six months each that I lived in those neighborhoods. In particular, mentioning the Richmond always makes people smile as they wax poetic about the bustle of Clement St. with its Asian and Russian vibes and about the proximity of Golden Gate Park. As charming as they are, those elements were not enough to keep me in what felt like a perpetual deep freeze. I maneuvered from living situation to living situation until I finally ensconced myself in the Mission and don’t think it was an accident. The Mission is one of the sunniest, warmest neighborhoods in the city, thanks to Twin Peaks, which serves as a kind of natural fence that the fog tends not to breach. But even here, we’ve been hard pressed to see the sun lately.
Of course fog forms in other parts of the country, and, in fact, the absolute foggiest spot in the nation, says the Chronicle, is “the aptly named Cape Disappointment at the mouth of the Columbia River in Washington state.” But San Francisco isn’t called “Fog City” for nothing. There’s some kind of science behind it, my understanding of which goes something like this: as the summer heat settles in the nearby Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, the warm air rises, creating changes in the atmospheric pressure. This produces winds, which push the warm air over the much cooler temperatures of the ocean surface and voila—fog. Maybe I only get partial credit on that answer. The important thing, as meteorologist Jan Null says, is that "you have to think of the air as a fluid, and that means it takes the path of least resistance.''
Gilliam again provides an apt description of the end results: “Fantastic fog forms may develop as the advancing white mass encounters obstacles. It may come in surges like a slow-motion surf, exploding into spray on the ridge at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge, forming a standing wave over Sausalito, whirling horizontally in eddies around promontories, and pouring over Twin Peaks and the Peninsula hills, where it forms fog falls and fog cascades down the leeward slopes. If it comes in low on the Bay surface, it is likely to billow in domes over Alcatraz and Angel islands. At times a fog deck will appear part way up the Berkeley Hills and build out toward the Bay."
With this river of fluid air weaving its way through and around all the 43 hills and valleys of a city surrounded by the bay on three sides, we’ve got microclimates up the wazoo. Even on the mornings where I’ve been lucky enough to see a hint of sunrise, by the time I travel to work in the Financial District, fuhgetaboutit. Sometimes we get a little burn off in the blocks around my office, but it remains nearly impossible to see the East Bay, which is ironic, because the sun is probably blazing there. On the reverse trip, I know I’ll see the sun for an hour or two, but by then who cares? I’ll be inside rustling up dinner or trying to decompress and by the time I get my druthers up to go back out, the grey will have us back in lock down.
Of course some people actually like the cool mist, or at least see some humor in it. Me, I’m just ready for the fog machine to wear itself out so I can quit having to wear garments that 30 years of living in Michigan has convinced me are only meant for winter. Groaan, this fog. God knows it can be beautiful, sweeping across the city like a ballerina with nimble feet, but that’s mostly when it’s in the distance. When it descends like a vulture and just sits there, I start to feel claustrophobic, like I’m one of Camus’s ill-fated characters. I notice I've been wringing my hands a lot lately and listening to melancholic "AM Gold" music, like Glen Campbell’s version of “The Wichita Lineman” and The Kink’s “Young and Innocent Days,” while having flashbacks to several of Andrei Tarkovsky’s pictures. I keep thinking about The Stalker, which I only saw once but which has stuck with me, lines like "My conscience wants vegetarianism to win over the world. And my subconscious is yearning for a piece of juicy meat. But what do I want?," sneaking up on me under cover of this pea soup weather. My mind likes especially to recall a poem used in The Stalker, one that Tarkovsky’s father wrote, of which I found a translation by Maria Pearse:
Now summer has passed,
As if it had never been.
It is warm in the sun.
But this isn’t enough.
All that might have been,
Like a five-cornered leaf
Fell right into my hands,
But this isn’t enough.
Neither evil nor good
Had vanished in vain,
It all burnt with white light,
But this isn’t enough.
Life took me under it’s wing.
Preserved and protected.
Indeed I have been lucky.
But this isn’t enough
Not a leaf had been scorched,
Not a branch broken off…
The day wiped clean as clear glass,
But this isn’t enough.
Not exactly uplifting I know. That’s just it: Like a friend who overstays the welcome, the fog discomfits me. I feel nostalgic, burnished (having recently lived golden) but burnt. It’s as if I have cotton between my ears and rustling tin cans where my heart should be. I alternate between feeling clammy or raw, and I can do nothing but retreat into my dreams. I fantasize about a different life, a life of sun and girls and evergreen nature. I spend more time in The Other World and consequently am easily startled out of a reverie madness into another of horns blaring, doors shuddering, pigeons fluttering too close, homeless people shouting at invisible enemies. The noise—everything hovers too close. I just wanna put on my chamois shirt w/ the hoody, retreat into myself, and come back out when the fog is elsewhere, where I can point to it in awe of Mother Nature’s artistic talents. That’s why I’m getting’ the hell out for a few days. Yosemite take me away! When I come back, either the fog will have dispensed or if not, perhaps I'll have refreshed my capacity to live amidst it and not be afraid.
Then again to human is to be fickle. I actually love the fog. It’s just that I’m satiated. Feast or famine. Always feast or famine.