Weather used to be a safe topic for conversation, as safe as sports scores, baby antics and celebrity gossip. Now, commenting on meteorological conditions is a potential social minefield. Whether you consider the current weather to be beautiful, disappointing or apocalyptic, someone else is almost certain to see your point of view as provocative.
In Montreal, last autumn went on and on: September was like August, October was like September and November resembled October. It was quite confusing – mothers didn't know how to dress their children for school, birds weren't sure whether they should bother flying south, and even the multihued leaves of deciduous trees seemed to be waiting for permission to fall to the ground.
One balmy November afternoon, while doing errands on Sherbrooke Street, I overheard a variety of comments about the weather.
"Isn't is lovely? Another perfect day," said an elderly woman while waving to someone across the street.
"Oh yes, gorgeous," said her friend. "My husband is out on the golf course. He said the golf season is getting longer every year – he's thrilled to bits."
Meanwhile, in a local dépanneur, I happened upon a different viewpoint.
"What do you think? It's pretty freaky isn't it?" a customer asked as he gathered up his purchases.
"Oh, it's just the weather. You never know what it will be," the dépanneur owner said.
Then an elderly customer chimed in. "But it's not a bit different than November used to be – it's completely different, isn't it? November is supposed to be the beginning of winter. I remember my kids playing in the snow in November."
Considering that many people were still wearing summer clothes, it was hard to imagine there had once been snowball fights in November.
Then it was December, and the balmy days came to an end. It was time, once again, for Montrealers to rummage through cupboards, searching for their tuques, gloves and scarves. It was cold enough for hot chocolate and marshmallows. But there was no snow, and the neighbourhood lawns were still green. Sometimes it rained. And when the rain stopped, the grass was an unearthly emerald shade.
Yet some people missed the snow. They missed the beauty of the snow. And, as they rushed around doing their Christmas shopping on dry downtown streets, wearing shoes and not cumbersome winter boots, they wondered whether there would be any snow for Christmas.
At parties across the city, I heard people talking about the dismal December weather.
"There is plenty of artificial snow on the ski hills. It's perfect. We have no snow to inconvenience us in the city but we have enough snow for skiing in the country."
"Rain on Dec. 22 is downright depressing. After all, snow is part of our cultural identity. Mon pays c'est l'hiver and all that."
"Big deal, it's a green Christmas. It's not the first time this has happened."
Yet many partygoers were reluctant to comment. Instead of agreeing or disagreeing, they would simply purse their lips and nod sympathetically, indicating that they understood the opinionated person's passion but they were not prepared to put forward their own thoughts.
One guest mentioned that the outdoor skating rink on a lake near their Laurentian cottage was not yet operational. Several revellers agreed that this was a real shame, for small children and hockey players alike. But nobody, absolutely nobody, wanted to discuss the (surprising) fact that the lake still was not frozen.
A remarkable number of guests were clearly uncomfortable when "the weather" topic came up in conversation. A few anecdotes later, I also began to feel uncomfortable as I realized that most people in the room were content to gloss over some clearly alarming phenomena. I have lived in Montreal my whole life and never seen a winter like this before.
When one guest mentioned that snowmaking operations were running full tilt at a popular ski resort because of the lack of natural snow, the ensuing conversation focused on Le Massif and other alternative ski resorts. The lack of natural snow was not a popular discussion topic.
Then I got it. Comments about wacky weather are ultimately a reflection of one's viewpoint regarding climate change. Is a modified climate the price we have to pay to fully exploit oil and gas resources? Or does climate change represent an unacceptable threat to life on Earth? Comments on the weather are no longer innocuous space-fillers; they are glimpses into your value system.
Weather used to be a safe topic because we, mere mortals, felt that we had no control over its vagaries. Commenting on the weather was akin to commenting on the blueness of the sky or the fullness of the moon.
Now that international scientists agree that human activities are slowly altering the Earth's climate, talking about the weather is risky business. There are dozens of radically different opinions on how we should respond to climate change, and so weather has joined the ranks of sex, religion, politics and other traditionally taboo subjects.
Megan Durnford lives in Montreal.