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Among the Luftmenschen

by on September 30, 2020 5:00 AM

I think it was my mother who, seeing I had no head for business, law, medicine, or any practical pursuit whatsoever, first sized me up as a luftmensch, a person with his head in the clouds. The type who is more likely to become a Ph.D. than a CEO. 

She got that right.

When I became a reporter I tried like heck to become a hard-boiled type, but even after a baker’s dozen years at newspapers I never got any better done than soft-boiled. 

Along the way I learned that luftmensch doesn’t mean what I or my mom thought it meant. Turns out a luftmensch is not an airhead, but a person with no visible means of support – in other words, one without a steady job who lives by his wits and manages to just get by. 

Which isn’t quite me, at least not anymore (it perfectly describes my twenties).

But there’s one sense in which I have always literally been a luftmensch, and that has to do with the pleasure I get from lying on my back, outside, and gazing at the clouds. 

This year, my beloved took note of my cloudspotting proclivities. No, she didn’t kick me in the pants and demand that I do something useful. Au contraire. For my birthday she enrolled me in the Cloud Appreciation Society, headquartered in — where else? — England. 

I’m member number 52,451, which presumably means that there are 52,450 other members – more, probably, since it’s been a month since my birthday. 

When my membership certificate, enamel badge and Cloud Selector identification device arrived, I thought of G.R.O.S.S., which as any fan of the late lamented “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip knows, stands for Get Rid of Slimy Girls. Fond of females as I am (being the husband of one, father of two and grandfather of two more), I would never join Calvin’s club, but I immediately felt about my membership in the Cloud Appreciation Society the way he feels about G.R.O.S.S., and I quote: “Is this a great club, or what?”

Like any great club, the C.A.S. has a manifesto. Among its provisions: 

  • We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them. 

  • We think that they are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.

Now that I’m a member of C.A.S., a Cloud of the Day photo arrives in my in-box every morning. A typical entry: 

“Depending on your geekiness and your appetite, this cloud spectacle is either an Altocumulus lenticularis or a giant scoop of mango ice cream. It appeared at sunrise over Mount Shasta in northern California, US…”

Maybe you thought you knew the names of the different kinds of clouds: cumulus, stratus, cirrus, nimbus. Those, and their names in combination, i.e., cumulonimbus, are the ones I knew. Turns out that’s like being able to identify robins, cardinals, blue jays and crows and professing to know your birds.

Since joining C.A.S., I have learned about – ready? – lenticularis, radiatus, intortus, arcus, pannus, congestus, stratiformus, fluctus, vertebratus lacunosus, asperitas, undulatus, mamma, incus, capillatus, humilis, fractus, pileus, velum and distrail. 

Just don’t ask me to identify any of these beauties on the fly, at least not yet, and not without my Cloud Selector wheel. Here’s how it works: 

I look up. I see clouds. I compare what I see to the snapshots of the various types of clouds on my Cloud Selector wheel. That tells me the name — say, fluctus (my current favorite – looks like a decorative border of breaking waves). 

Little cut-out windows that line up with the fluctus tell me what to look for; typical altitudes; how rare it is; and what other kinds of clouds tend to accompany it. 

The Cloud Selector also crams in a few writerly quotations, like this one from Emerson: 

“The sky is the daily bread of the eyes.” 


Being a member of C.A.S. is not as luftmenschly a pastime as it may sound. My membership certificate charges me with this solemn responsibility: to “henceforth seek to persuade all who’ll listen of the wonder and beauty of clouds.”

Which is why I’m telling you about it. 

Perhaps you think it is frivolous to gaze at clouds in these troublous times – deadbeat in the White House, zombies in Congress; end of coronavirus and the scourge of racism nowhere in sight; weekly fires, weekly floods.

By way of response, I give you another line from the C.A.S. manifesto: 

  • We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save money on psychoanalysis bills.

If you know of a better way to stay sane, please share. If you want to join the noble order of cloudspotters, go to





A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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