October 25, 2014

Head in the Clouds

I have a new hero in life. his name is Cloudman. actually, his name is John Day and he is 91 years old, but everyone calls him Cloudman. Even his Web site, the mark of who any of us are these days, is called www.cloudman.com. And I don't mind plugging it here because John Day probably knows more about those big puffy things that float around in the sky and make dreamers out of all of us than anyone on the planet.

This is of particular interest to all who call the Gulfshore home, since cloud-watching ought to be one of our prime spectator sports. We've got great clouds here. Just ask Cloudman.

"You've got air loaded with water vapor," he says. "And lots of convective activity."

I'm not quite sure what convective activity is, but if Cloudman says it's a good thing then that's all I need to know.

"Everyone where you live ought to be out watching clouds," he says.

Which is exactly what I was doing the other day at the beach. It was early afternoon and the sky was loaded with clouds. Some of them looked like pirate ships, some like bowls of buttered popcorn, and one of them in particular looked just like Ludwig van Beethoven. Or maybe it was Thomas Jefferson on a bad day, hard to tell. And it was morphing into hip-hop star Queen Latifah.

"What are you doing?" said my wife, who had just returned from a five-mile walk and who is not much one for sedentary moments.

"Sitting here, watching the clouds," I said.

"Figures," she said.

And then off she went, probably to walk another five miles, probably not even once paying attention to the sky. Poor thing.

Me, I went off to call the Cloudman. He lives in Oregon, a town called McMinnville. And he offered some solace.

"People who spend a lot of time watching clouds are often ridiculed," he said. "But it is the greatest free show on earth, and there is no better way to immediately connect with the world around you than by going out and watching clouds."

Trained in physics, Day got started watching clouds back in the 1930s, when he was a meteorologist for Pan American World Airways and his job was to determine which routes planes should take to avoid storms and bumpy flights. He went on to teach meteorology and physics, first at Oregon State University and then at Linfield College, where he was on the faculty until his retirement just last year.

Somewhere along the way, Day's scientific mind made room for an aesthetic appreciation of the wondrous formations he was seeing in the sky. Not only did Day become the world's leading proponent of cloud-watching, he became one of the most acclaimed cloud photographers, a rarified specialty indeed. He has co-authored two highly praised Peterson guides (A Field Guide to the Atmosphere and A Field Guide to Clouds and Weather), and his 2002 offering, The Book of Clouds, is a dazzling compilation of his photographs and an instruction manual for would-be cloud-watchers.

But it is Day's latest venture that piques my interest. As he closes in on his 92nd year, Day is getting ready to launch an online "Cloud School." It will be a nine-part series of lectures and guides aimed at teaching people how to more effectively study the wonders of the sky. It's free. And at the end of the course, graduates get a certificate signed by Cloudman himself.

"So if my wife ridicules me for sitting on the beach watching clouds, I can whip out my certificate and show her I am a certified professional cloud-watcher?" I asked him.

"Why, yes, I suppose you could do that," said Cloudman. "But then you should ask her sweetly to sit down and watch them with you."

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