Cabin air

The view is panoramic.  Living in dense urban environments, I had forgotten the pleasure of watching weather patterns approach or sweep past.  Snow lingers on a hill several miles away, the dense air and thick gray clouds my indication.  On the other side of the valley the sun strikes a forest, and the plumes of melting snow that rise in the wind dwarf the trees themselves.  Blanching down they strike, these huge shafts of light, separating shadow and not across wide swaths of forest and field.

I have forgotten, my mind says, and should be awed by the vantage point afforded me from this cabin in the mountains of Colorado, two hours from the city I have been guesting in.  Skiing up the mile to its door, from the end of the county road where we left the jeep pulled over in a turn-out and locked to wait for our return, I should be awed by the landscape. Instead I am stuck trying to breathe.  There is majesty in the landscape, and there is the pain of my nose as it freezes.  These are competing senses, although both can be described with awe.  Pushing up the final hill I can at last appreciate the expanse of the view finally, both poles stuck in the snow. The dogs can too, having had their run. They are ready to head inside for warmth and the cabin’s restraint of the wind that tugs and pulls and mostly chills.

A map of the United States is a curious thing.  Without an overlay of population or a satellite picture of lights at night there is no sense of exactly how empty, exactly how open is the western expanse.  With one though there seems to be a huge gap, as though the progress westward had not been completed, as though humanity simply leapt towards the west coast.  Half of this country is truly empty in a way hard to remember for a boy from the east coast who has spent the past seven years in Asian metropolises of Tokyo and Shanghai.  In some ways this expanse of snow-swept reservoirs and mountains is overwhelming, something to be acknowledged and accepted rather than interwoven with my images of the wide world.  Over and over I wonder at the people who live up here, not visitors or retirees but children who play over these hills in their youth and herd cattle across them as teenagers, who build houses under the auspice of construction companies founded in these small towns by their uncles or fathers.  I can not comprehend the sense of ordinary they must have for these views, and, on the other end, how trapped they would have felt in Shanghai these past five years, watching the polluted air curtain off the city, particulate walls of white blocking the view after a half dozen blocks.  Would they feel as cut off and alone there as I do now, looking out at the snowstorms almost upon us and yet still ten miles to the south?

Somehow I doubt it, myself a child of the wilderness of the north east, which remains, despite the brilliance of its representation from satellite.  My house, the house my parents are selling even now, is one from which the stars can be seen.  Perhaps not with the same clarity as here, up nine thousand feet from the level of the sea. Yet from a hill in Lansing they are visible with the eye in a fashion impossible to imagine for a child of the sprawl of Yokohama-Tokyo-Chiba-Saitama.  As I type that my memory gives it lie, remembering walking home one night from the last train in Kawagoe, two thirty in the morning as I crossed a river, walking on the bridge’s wide rail above the water’s concrete bed.  The stars shone bright that night, one of summer’s warmest.  Here, in the dry height of Colorado, on the shortest days of the year, they do again, save when obscured by blowing snow.

It is peaceful here, and many things explain themselves to my brain in the ample time it has to consider ideas, bereft of internet and telephony.  With only word games and the printed page to occupy us we construct, knitting and writing, cooking and fire-building, until the dark has worn us down, and the idea of waking with the sun has more to offer than remaining upright.  These four days at the end of two thousand eight are respite from the constant chase of our urban lives, even from the holiday cheer of our visit to Colorado.  They are a chance, too rare and too often filled with gasps, to breathe deep and watch the way weather moves, and the speed with which we are overtaken.

Much of this article is informed by a view of the Earth at night from space, widely available on the internet.  One of the best views of it can be found in Google Earth, by checking the layer “Earth City Lights” under “NASA” in the Gallery section of the Layers sidebar.

Going somewhere

This fascination with motion is the central thing.  Travel and transit, the celebration is not of destination but of journey.  Whether on foot or on scooter, on bicycle, airplane or maglev, the undeniable appeal of going somewhere bonded with the desire to leave this place creates a sense of excitement rarely rivaled.  The main holidays, worldwide, involve some huge amount of travel, as most of the world goes to see people they are too far from the instant they are able.

Not strange then that we romanticize the means of transit, is it?  From America’s car stories to the long trail rides of cowboys, there is a love affair among us not only with the motion but with the vehicle or steed.  The spaceship, the rocket, the car, the train.

“I dream of touring like Duke Ellington
in my own railroad car,”

says Ani, and I know what she means.  Even on crowded Chinese trains, crammed in between cars and forced into standing with a half dozen smokers and a set of doors I’m not allowed to open there’s a beauty to train travel.  It is hard to write with all the rocking, though it’s possible to type, and the bathrooms overflow onto the floor. Still, if there’s somewhere I have to go domestically I’m in the queue at the station, looking for a ticket on those rails.

In Japan, I slept through my stop on the Saikyo dozens of times, one night walking home from Kawagoe, the end of the line, at almost two am.  I slipped in the door at four, glad to beat the rain, and willing to do it again the next day.  I loved living on the Saikyo line, despite its deserved notoriety for chikan and the evening salary-man-drunk-crushes.  I was happiest, in some ways, sipping canned whisky and water on the platform at Akabane, waiting for the nine twenty eight train home after a long Tuesday at work.  Five years later when I think of Tokyo I think of the trains and the views they afforded me, twenty two and curious.

The fascination with my electric scooter endured through hundreds of repairs, cracked casings, broke brakes, and pieces of it falling away month by month, exposing the bare metal beneath.  Despite being stranded one night after a dodgeball game, a mile or two from home in a strange part of town, stuck waiting on a curb in the heat of August for a man I’d woken from sleep to put in a new converter, I loved that scooter.

People asked me often, what’s it like, don’t you hate the battery, how long does it take to charge?  The answer always disappointed them: a long time, first six hours, then eight, by the end too hard to find a power outlet for that long without taking the battery out, all seventy five pounds of it, and carrying it up to my apartment, or office.  I loved it despite these things. Despite losing both rear view mirrors, cracking the headlight, destroying the sides.  Despite its horrible unwieldyness in rain, spilling me out onto the street on the white stripes of zebra crossings again and again.  Against all those things stood my freedom, the sense of wonder and invincibility, youth and daring, flying through Shanghai’s streets, staring up at buildings and pedestrians, dodging taxis and bicyclists, early in the morning for breakfast or a few beers in on the way home.  I love it, I’d answer, I can’t imagine living here without it.  And I couldn’t, the days before it a strange mishmash of other forms, all those hours crushed on the busses, or running for them.  Through all of my life in Shanghai two wheeled vehicles remain a high point. The various bicycles, Sanch’s oft-broken gas-powered scooter, and the two plastic electric ones together, granted me an entirely different city to explore.

There are similar stories, this one is not unique.  Friends who named their first cars, friends who have named their fourth, who care for them and relate tales of their personalities.  Of ships, named for as long as we can remember, with captains who would die with them, or at least consider it.  While we may be, as a culture, a people of intractability and motion, of discontent and the continual attempt at perfection, we are also a culture of worship, of object desire and anthropomorphism.  At thirteen, fresh returned from a trip to Telluride I spent all of the money in my savings, some hundreds of dollars intended for college or another grand idea, on a snowboard, fetishized and loved, given a bag hand-made for it, and stored reverently each time.  Covered in stickers and soon in scrapes and dings, the first purchase of any weight was, as it is for many of us, a means of transportation, even if a frivoulous one.

As many before I have noted, it’s not the destination but the journey that remains, years later.  I agree, even on a shrunken scale, to late night rides and complete disasters, to asking policemen for directions and pushing cars towards gas stations.

Quoted lyrics from Ani DiFranco’s ‘Self Evident’ off of her 2002 live compilation, So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter, used with appreciation.

Future positions

Part of the joy of travel, of moving, is learning a new common.  Moving to Shanghai and finding that bicycle traffic exceeds car.  Living there long enough to watch car start to gain, and the massive parking problem that change creates.  Moving to Houston and finding cars a minority, compared to SUVs, and the unique kind of common created by such large vehicles.  Watching young siblings of a friend play upon their parked vehicle, it affording an easier climb and better view than the purpose-built play structure in the yard.  Learning to navigate each one, until it is time to move on again, and the new place likewise surprises, lacking trains, or cars, or electric bicycles.  Realizing that what is comfortable now is not the original, but an amalgamation of each previous situation.

So often future predictions, or visions of such, are simply the application of what is already common in one place to another, with the twist of local restrictions or desires.  Cellphones are going to incorporate electronic payment systems, claims one, having been to Japan.  Transit cards will become electronic, removing the need to swipe a MetroCard in New York through the magnetic reader, claims another, having seen Hong Kong, or London, or Shanghai, or Tokyo, or…  Everyone will have a car, says the proud new Buick owner in Shanghai, knowing America.  Discerning between the potential and the possible, the future coming and the present not yet arrived, becomes an art of guessing what people want, what local infrastructure will support.

In every projection too there is the bias of personal desire.  Thus comes the vision of a wind-powered future from those with large investments in windmills.  Likewise those building massive databases of human activity suddenly see a future where every item of identification communicates location.  Passport, cell phone, car keys, payment cards, check.  There are those who seek support for admirable visions of electronic automobiles spread wide over the landscape, asking for them to be built by those who for the past seventy years have opposed such infrastructure.  But these are not the only futures built around the personal desires of those who espouse them.  There are the dreams of authors, in whose projections worlds overcrowded, over-governed, and over-built compete with those of space-faring societies that have escaped the resource limits of a single planet, of artificial intelligences that remove burdens of daily labor, and of a variety of governments that cater to a mobile population. These are all visions of a future coming, of a world we do not inhabit but should, or will, or might soon.

The beauty of these views is not that any one is perfect, or correct, or that any of them are.  The joy of learning what is common in a new place is finding fresh tools for a personal projection of what the future will hold, of where the world could be.  Because much of the future is made up of people, and the people are made up of what they imagine and desire, what they learn and acquire.  This message is paraded around by consumer advocacy groups, by giant corporations, by friends and neighbors in a variety of forms, and is true in all of them, if slightly minimized.  For the future is not a small thing, one life is not a small thing.  On moving to Japan, seven years ago, and being shown to an apartment smaller than any of the dorm rooms I had occupied the four years prior, being forced to revisit my needs and possessions, I found roommates, colleagues, friends in similar situations.

“I like the way it’s done here,” they kept saying.  About refrigerators small enough to tuck into corners that then required more frequent re-filling, from similarly smaller shops within walking distance.  About beds that were rolled up and put away in closets in the mornings to provide space for a desk and a sense of cleanliness.  About balconies on every house, for drying clothing and watching Mt. Fuji in the evening.  All these people, each moved to a new location, each discovering that what was common in Tokyo, in Saitama, was something they could live with, appreciated, and would incorporate, if able, into their own future.

There are stories like this from everywhere I have ever lived, and they blur together into nothing more than personal history, exploration and discovery.  They provide the tapestry though, the background of things I know to be common, somewhere, and can easily apply to my vision of a future.

And so, on a sunny November day in Houston I ride my tiny bicycle down tree-lined streets, arms covered in a hoodie purchased in Shanghai for its utility against very similar weather on my way to an apartment fueled only by electricity, generated mainly from wind and solar sources.   I carry a bag hand-made in Philadelphia, which holds a computer made in Taiwan and China.  And while such a listing can be displayed as a consumer badge, and is, it is also a vision of the future, of my plan for it.  The world changes every day, and the older we get the faster it seems to go, a function of both personal aging and of the era we were born to.  There are crisis and inventions, as there have always been, and our future is probably none of the grand predictions, none of the brilliant novels or simple transpositions.  The future will probably be as fragmented as today, with massive cars and extreme poverty, with starvation and luxury ocean liners.  Our choice is what common we are aiming for, what personal collection of necessary and desirable we hold dear enough to work for.

So here I am, age twenty nine, transporting myself by bicycle and airplane, communicating with laptop, cell phone and postal service, learning to appreciate and cook food common to my new location.  Uncertain whether any of these is perfect; imagining a future finely balanced out of all the visions I have seen.

A decade on

When counted as a stack of days, ten years is a long time.  In the history of a place, though, ten years depends entirely on when.  Lansing, small and rural, looked almost identical this August.  Ithaca has changed, with some new buildings, a Starbucks in Collegetown, a Walmart on Rte 13.  These are small shifts, though passionately fought against for years.  They are changes that do not disguise the place, save to those who have spent every day there.  All changes like that happened long before, in waves that have long left upstate New York.

Shanghai has become a creature completely unrecognizable to the countryside from whence it sprung, a decade earlier.  Those still able to find their way through the streets to their homes have mapped each change and watched their neighbors move on, move outwards, move up with the construction.  But it is not the larger places that have changed most these past ten years, New York and Tokyo still very similar to their counterparts of nineteen ninety eight.  Rather a decade’s worth of change is a matter of focus, a matter of effort.  Change is something that must be made, conscious and full-willing, despite the scale of time.

A decade is a long time to a person.  Or it can be.  People change by waking up and doing different, rather than simply as they have before.  People change by waking up and doing.  From nineteen to twenty nine seems long enough a corridor that memories from either end throw strange echoes off the wall.  Yet maybe from some greater remove of age the gap would not seem so great.  Or perhaps from a life with less motion, with less change in the same period, the similarities would shine through.

A decade ago prosperity seemed possible, democracy seemed casual, intelligence seemed valuable.  A decade ago growing old together seemed half madness, half obvious.  Growing old at nineteen an impossibility, a myth from those with no connection to the age.  May it always seem this way to those old enough to vote yet not to drink, and may they not always be given only one of those privileges.  Ten years ago the idea that the people I knew I would continue to was more basic a fact than gravity.  Friendships built in the fires of high school, of late night drives and semi-legal building climbs would endure anything.

A decade ago.  Yet here we stand, separated by every one of those stack of days.  Because there is another fact ignored in the belief stated above, that change comes from waking up and doing.  Sometimes change comes from not waking up, and not doing.  Ten years ago that seemed an impossible choice.  Today it seems even more so, reinforced by each decision I make, each place I see.  Of all the changes these years have brought, wars, jobs, friendships, travels, the one hardest to imagine is their lack.

Gary Snyder’s words linger as I type in a cafe in Houston, a city impossibly far from our high school plans. “Ten years and more have gone by, I’ve always known where you were.” And I have.  And each morning I get up and do, making changes that take me further and further away from this day ten years ago, in nineteen ninety eight.

The confluence of dates is simple coincidence, but I think you’d be grinning at the change we’ve been working on, given the decade that’s come and gone.  I think you’d want to celebrate, and climb things, and run around with that wild look in your eyes, just like I will, tonight.

And sometimes, for a matter of hours in the span of these years, the distance doesn’t seem so long.

Quoted line from Gary Snyder’s ‘December at Yase’, the final poem of his ‘Four Poems for Robin’ published in The Back Country (1968), No Nature (1992) and The Gary Snyder Reader (1999)

Home again

Four years later, the house looks much the same.  There are numerous improvements, small patches and big repairs, redecorations and removed annoyances, but most of it remains.  Fewer trees in some directions and more in others.  The second red maple is almost as tall as the first, though not as full.  The white trees are almost gone, though a new one rises at the edge of the dog yard.  A huge stand of cottonwoods at the end of the lawn pitched over in the winter, the base eaten away by the creek.  The dog is older, a golden retriever going silver at the end of his life.  He sleeps most days on the grass outside the front door, content to be left alone in the sun.  The cat, a wild kitten in two thousand four, is a mature hunter, constantly depositing baby squirrels, mice, and birds on the back porch as trophies.  The neighborhood, blocked by August’s rich foliage, is much the same too, farm houses that have stood for a hundred years easily enduring my lifetime.

As always, the fast changing part is the people.  Marriages, births, deaths, and movings on.  Most of the people I knew haven’t lived here in a decade, the same as myself.  Yet at every corner I remember their lives.  A childhood playmate, a middle school battery mate, a teacher I had in high school.  Their houses, if not the people themselves, remind me of the place I lived, and the person I was.  Like Shanghai had begun to be, Lansing and Ithaca are filled with memories.

I take a longer route down to the inlet park, purely for the view, and remember leaning out of windows waving as others drove me similarly.  The choice is slightly dramatic, hundreds of other trips passed this way with little to recall them to me.  In that memory are people long gone, both from me and from this planet, and the air, hot at the end of August but with the slightest inkling of fall, is similar.  We were young, or younger, and still only half sure how brief our time would be.  A decade later I smile and admire the view our parents moved here after seeing.  Their choice is still a good one.

My friends are long gone, yet they return.  Like the rock that was a planet once, our orbits are eccentric, our distance from each other and this valley varies.  So on this August afternoon I find myself playing frisbee with one of my oldest friends, looking out at the inlet between points.  Across the way is a set of trees I used to climb in on Saturdays, at an age older than the children that inhabit them currently.  Walking out along the horizontal branches, balanced above the water, I would watch this shore, its flat green grass and jogging trails.

A week later I return, not to these fields or inlet but to the city, to the hills surrounding it.  Another friend, as if from the afternoon’s damp air, appears.   Four years are suddenly bridged, I am in for a single night, he only three, and both of us then away again.  Air travel grants the most mysterious meetings, Philadelphia Houston Massachusetts Hawaii and at the crossing point of those two paths our home town, for a beer at a bar far older than either of us.

Many things have changed, it’s true, and heading back is often deceiving.  The mall looks outwardly the same but contains so few stores half is roped off in the evening.  My parents house, the only one I ever knew, is fixed mostly for a move.  The people, though, who swing far out into seas and over them, who marry dance and die, they are not at such remove as that, and can occasionally be brought back.