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.

Squirrel tricks

There are two important parts of a home.  Having one, and what’s outside of it.  The saddest part of leaving Tokyo was not the actual leaving, but abandoning that home.  Knowing that the next time I landed in Narita two hours of train would not bring me to my doorstep makes me want to move back even now, five long years gone.  The loss of a home means not being able to welcome people to a foreign country, to an environment they know nothing about.  Finding friends at the train station, mouths agape, and leading them through winding streets to a balcony all our own is a joy that leaves uneasily.

In Shanghai these past years we welcomed guests through from all parts of the globe, travelers and those seeking homes of their own.  Some for weeks, some for scant hours until their flight out or train inwards. Simply having a space, being able to offer shelter and retreat to those far from theirs, rewards each month’s rent.  Feeling comfortable in a foreign place, be it Manhattan or Los Angeles, because someone has a place we can return to, has value without equal.

Yet it is the second aspect that draws me forward, into new cities and out of old comforts.  Sitting now facing down Rice’s manicured lawns, watching the trees sway outstretched in the sun, I am glad again of that pull.  Ensconced again in a city I was not born to the greatest gift is in each morning’s presentation of the world outside: the squirrel highway that runs past my window.  Gifts like these drive my apartment hunting mind.  Interior quality is of course preferred, but the essentials lie in window light, in vantage point, in relative location.

Like with all things, luck is of the greatest assistance.  A friend whose landlord owns another place, a relative who owns a building, a teammate’s relocation, these coincidences cannot be paid for, nor planned.  Still, their results can be evaluated by these same desires; like all homes they compete primarily on what can I walk to, what can I see.  These questions applied to the Saitama apartment of years before give out answers that reinforce my desire to return: an express stop on the Saikyo line and Mt. Fuji.  Those two things, one walkable, one seen, coupled with the ability to grant others a base from which to visit Japan, outweighed all negatives of expense and space.  In Shanghai other calculations won, usually the desire for an easy walk to anywhere overcoming view.  Too often in cities location becomes the dominant demand, the singular benefit of housing.  Too rarely does the view reward.  The squirrel highway does, with its multiple levels and fast-paced travelers.

On the second floor in a residential neighborhood, an apartment-wide swath of windows gives me panoramic views.  They are, for the most part, of trees and houses with limited sky.  I am sure they have not, despite their excellent light, entertained previous residents so much.  The property line, just behind my apartment, is demarcated by a wooden fence, some four meters tall, topped with a flat rail.  Another meter above it and parallel runs the phone line, thick tubed and taunt.  Slightly above that runs the power and cable, a weave of thinner wire and rubber that only the truly harried consider.  The top of the fence sits just above the baseline of my windows, the highest wires just below their top.  When traffic is heavy, lane changes are frequent, with those following the phone cabling often dropping down to the fence before continuing.  This highway supports a robust traffic in acorns, smaller nuts, and random bits of fruit, as well as the occasional high-speed chase.

The squirrel’s gift of full-field vision minimizes accidents, allowing for a more rapid pace than is perhaps strictly recommended at such a height.  The acrobatics involved in switching lanes are of an utterly untrained nature, and vary from the simple jump-and-hope to the more delicate hang-and-reach.  The traffic does not show any particular commuter pattern, lacking the to work and home again flows of human highways nearby.  Instead travelers scamper back and forth at all hours, often left and then right again in such quick succession that little, if anything, can have been accomplished on the tree just out of view at the edge of my property.  Perhaps the individuals are merely attempting to touch all the surfaces in a certain order and at a certain pace.  This would explain the oft-observed bound up onto the fence, sprint along its top, leap for the tree, run up and out a branch, spring for the telephone pole and dash back along the cabling to some invisible destination.

While the easy walk to campus and the convenience of other human habitats is not to be overlooked, it is safe to say that my favorite feature of this new home is the constant goings-on that occur just behind it, elevated perfectly to fit inside my wide bank of windows.  I appreciate the fence builder in a wonderful way.  The power company’s decision seems incredibly coherent, in contrast to so many of the random spools of wire nailed to posts and house corners throughout my neighborhood.  They were building a highway for squirrels, keeping them off the ground in a high-traffic area.

The best moments of this view come at off-peak hours.  While I sat quietly one September afternoon, a squirrel paused on the fence’s top board.  In no hurry he settled down, belly flat upon the wide wood.  And then, just to check, he dangled his legs and arms off of the side, paws swinging slightly in the sunlight.  Eyes watchful he lay there for a minute or more, before hopping up and sprinting off.  After several weeks of squirrel observation I laughed, amused at his peculiar antics, and returned to my work.

A few moments later motion again drew my eye, this time to the telephone line.  He was back, wiser and higher.  A moment later, in the middle of the cable’s span, he flopped down on his belly, legs out and swaying.  He lasted three minutes before another squirrel’s appearance in the tree made him scamper away.  Embarrassed to be caught relaxing in the middle of a work day.  Like myself, in so many ways, always watching this squirrel highway.