Saturday, November 18, 2017

Holding up the sky

     My friend Rob in New York City first pointed them out to me, so I think of them as a Manhattan phenomenon. Maybe they are, though they're in Chicago now in numbers.
     "Power umbrellas," he called them—those jumbo, sidewalk-spanning circular awnings that a small but significant percentage of pedestrians downtown feel obligated to carry. Golf umbrellas, migrated from the links to the city. 
    Though lately, they seem even bigger—not golf umbrellas, but patio umbrellas, practically, reflecting the bottomless desire of those with much to get more, to manifest themselves and spread out into space, endlessly. Other people are free to get out of the way.
    That might just be my perception. With the election of a bully, liar and fraud to the presidency, whose values are a nauseating mash of vanity, money worship and empty status lust, I suppose it would be natural if I got a little touchy about my fellow man laying claim to more sidewalk than is his right. 
     What if we all carried these ludicrously huge umbrellas? There would be tangles, injuries, fights. Nobody would get anywhere. They're counting on most people being happy with what we have. They always do.
     I am late to this, I know. The alarming trend was pointed out exactly a decade ago in the New York Times, in a slyly-titled "The Collapsible Colossus." 
     Time was that the regular-size umbrella, 40 inches to 48 inches in diameter, ruled the market. Now, “everybody’s moved up to a 60 and 68,” said John W. Aycock, owner of
     The article, by Micah Cohen, quotes umbrella store owners saying men—and it is invariably men—come in asking for the biggest umbrella they've got. Carelessly wielded, they cause eye injuries beside a sense of economic inferiority. 
     Now "umbrella" is an odd word. I tried to imagine where it's from, and drew a blank—Dutch? Navajo?—which is embarrassing, because, as my handy Oxford reminded, it has a familiar root: "umbra," is Latin for shade. Of course, like "penumbra," the shadow between light and dark. I knew that.
    Interestingly, the first definition has to do, not with rain, but sun, reflecting its sunny Roman roots: "A light portable screen or shade, usually circular in form and supported by a central stick or staff, used in hot countries as a protection for the head or person against the sun." That goes back to 1611. The next definition has umbrellas as "a symbol of rank or state" in some Asian and African countries—makes sense, since the person with a servant holding an umbrella over their head, blocking the sun, must be a person of rank. Only the third definition holds umbrellas up as "a portable protection against bad weather," 
    Both Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary and Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary mention sun first, though Webster goes on to point out that they are made of whalebone.
    But are these capacious canopies rude? Earlier this year, Scientific American examined the entire umbrella manners question, with "The Complexities of Using an Umbrella in New York City," by Krystal D'Costa. Most of the article examined how passersby carrying umbrellas negotiate past each other on crowded city streets. Though giant umbrellas are addressed:
The size of one's umbrella matters too: it should be proportionate to the height of the person, unless you want to draw the ire of your fellow pedestrians. A shorter person carrying a golf umbrella occupies a greater radius on the sidewalk—which is a big deal when it’s raining and people are looking to move as quickly as possible to their destinations. They also make it difficult to adhere to the subconscious rules that guide umbrella encounters. Given the berth, a golf umbrella should be lifted above oncoming traffic as a courtesy, but it may be harder to do that for a shorter person in this instance. Honestly, golf umbrellas may just generally be problematic. Even if used by a taller person, they may wind up dripping on an unsuspecting person standing on the fringes of the umbrella’s radius.
    "Ire" seems the wrong word. When I see someone lofting one of these enormous false ceilings skyward, I do not feel anger so much as amazement and a kind of sorrow. Really? 
      Envy doesn't figure into it—I can buy a golf umbrella—but honestly, think about it. Lofting one of those monsters, you are holding up far more umbrella than you need to keep yourself dry. In a sense they are reverting to their original form, as markers of status, at least to the carrier. Though an umbrella is toted around closed far more than it is held open, and when not being used a large umbrella is just dead weight—a reminder that when you try to maximize your advantage beyond what is your due, and flaunt your status, the person often most inconvenienced is yourself. 
    The titan Atlas was punished, remember, not by being condemned to hold up the earth, as he is often depicted doing, but by being forced to hold up the sky. Why someone would voluntarily condemn himself to a similar fate is a mystery. 

Rockefeller Center, New York City



  1. Generally, big umbrella people lack spacial awareness. They suffer from a disability and polite society accommodates them. They're genuinely befuddled when they put your eye out with their enormous pointy tips. These are the same people who open their car doors into traffic and wonder at the sudden cacophony of horns. They're the same people who stop to get their bearings at the top of an escalator, and are surprised to be jostled by the "inconsiderate" people pushing past them. On the other hand, maybe they're just jerks, and if you know what's good for you, you'll stay out of their space.

  2. There are too many high wind spots in Chicago's downtown for a large umbrella to be practical. As a general rule I do not take joy in other people's misery, but there seems to be one exception. Whoosh an inverted biggy, ha what a pleasant sight.

  3. Holding up the sky, not the Earth. I won't forget that nugget of information.

    I was surprised that "umbrella" would be connected to protection from the sun, since we have a perfectly good word for that: parasol, whose origin is masked somewhat by its pronunciation in English. Para Sol, for [the] sun. I can attest to the use of the umbrella as an Asian status symbol. In Korean history dramas, one often sees the king parading forth with a beach-size umbrella held over his head by eunuchs or maid servants.
    Personally, I find it impractical (and irrationally consider it somewhat effeminate) to use an umbrella, especially on a crowded sidewalk. If there's any wind (which you find almost always in Chicago), the umbrella does no good whatsoever and soon reveals its inherent design flaws by flying away or collapsing, not to speak of poking someone's eye out.


    1. Did I not know which branch you were in I might think your anti-umbrella stance and attribution of effeminacy a relic of military service. Army uniform regulations forbid the carrying of umbrellas by male soldiers, but females are now allowed such protection from the elements in some circumstances. The Air Force and Navy, less hidebound, eliminated the proscription sometime in the 1980's. I believe the Jarheads, although organizationally part of the Navy continue to go unsheltered in the rain.

      Somehow, the topic brought to mind famous films. "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," of course. And a classic Hitchcock flic, I forget which one, opens with an aerial shot of a crowded piazza in the rain, nothing but glistening umbrellas. I misremembered the ending of "Miracle in Milan" having the abused poor people taking flight away from their emiseration mounted on umbrellas, but Mr. Google advises it was broomsticks.

      Anyway. A nice topic for a rainy day.


  4. I suspect another factor is commercialism. I see downtown establishments (e.g. Hannah’s Bretzel) with stands of these oversized umbrellas, colorfully branded, for customers to borrow, turning them into walking billboards. And with visual advertising, bigger is better. Same goes for umbrellas given away as promotions. Many of us would never buy one of these monstrosities, but if we got one for free….

  5. I had a Cinzano umbrellas. It was from the Vemouth company. I believe it was a golf type of umbrella. I don't think I was ever in a place where I used it where there were many people walking around. I usually used it when walking the dog or walking from the parking lot at Miller Park. It was great even in a pretty stiff win. I was really upset that I lost it somewhere.


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