There comes a time

We shape places, I have written, as much as they shape us. In the summer months of two thousand nine I think the same is true of time. Turning thirty on a mountain in Colorado, with friends flown in from either coast, the talk is of the landscape, large themes and shared history. In America, later than in many places, these are the years of settling down, and friends from college, from Asia, from both and neither are moving with me through them.

This is the time of late night texts and early morning IMs informing me of good friends’ engagements to their partners of years. In the middle of this country and far from them, having once again driven enough of it’s spread to appreciate the distances, I am glad for each pair in turn. These tales are not just of impending marriage and rings. They are of a variety only distance can shrink to a pattern. Though I am physically closer to these friends than I have been in years I still watch the aggregate shape, aware of our age.

There are remnants of this current crop of decisions in our past, attempts to shape the age we were before the age we are became a shape of it’s own. A friend who now moves to New York to live with a woman once did so before, from Maine to Hawaii, to try to build a future on an island. A boy I once knew likewise moved back to Shanghai to live with a woman. A couple now engaged once moved into a two floor apartment together, a single bicycle their transportation to offices across town. A couple I knew shared a one bedroom in a Chinese apartment complex built years before, where the shower and the toilet were part of one unfinished concrete room and the price, economical to the extreme for a single inhabitant, became a joke with two incomes. The space itself became their burden, moving together to avoid collision, and they moved on, to another country where issues of lines on a map, visas, instead of physical space would push them forward.

Yes, these are not the first attempts, these synchronized decisions of the summer of oh nine. Neither are they an end, and in another decade they may look like a progression rather than an event. This summer though, as friends move from Boston to New York, move from New York to Boston, move from boyfriend to fiance, change coasts in each other’s company, the clustering of decisions is too much in tune to ignore. Our lives are reflected in the passage of years, and, having accumulated enough of them to weigh someone down with are all seeking people like papers seeking stone.

City sounds

Some time ago I wrote about smiles as a metric for comparing places. There are other ways, as I noted then, of evaluating cities, a skill I have been practicing. While smiles and population numbers, frequency of restaurants and friendliness to cyclists are counted by their occurrence, many things are noticeable most in absence. Sounds are one such, something I evaluate early on in any relationship, wandering with no iPod or phone, no companion or destination. The true sounds of a place, though, sneak up on the inhabitant until they are integral to the location, and can only be pointed out by their absurdity, by an unaccustomed observer, or by their sudden lack.

In Saitama I would wake to the sounds of campaign trucks carting advertisements and megaphones through voting neighborhoods. They cut through the dawn, blaring promises, slogans, and, most importantly, the candidates name. Like most, I found them harsh, and not likely to induce support. In Shanghai I woke to the call of the repair man pedaling past on his three-wheeled cart, ready to fix or recycle. TV, air conditioner, microwave, washing machine, he would cry, often via recording as well. His laundry list of products fixable was more gentle than the bullish Japanese projection. In terms of bullhorn use, of recordings made predictable by repetition, residential Japan wore worse on the ears, and on the hours of morning sleep.

Shanghai had more to battle with, noises unique and unexpected, incessant and startlingly odd. Many days I woke to sounds of neighbor’s squabbles, leaning out my balcony as they swelled into neighborhood entertainment, with ten to twenty people crowded around yelling their opinion until the police arrived, or did not. Shanghai countered also with construction, on the gigantic scale of skyscraper erection and the personal scale of toilet decimation. These intruded late at night, early in the morning, and all hours in between. With drilling, banging, pounding, yelling, and the occasional rooster placed outside my door, Shanghai took Saitama easily in the noise contest. Yet despite these chaotic interactions I had not yet learned how loud an intrusion neighbors could make, how constant the interruption. Houston taught me that, in a house set far from the street, and made me miss both Shanghai’s cycling recycler and Yono’s pre-paid campaign driver. For the first time I could tell the story of the rooster morning with a face that said, well, it wasn’t so bad.

Now, again alone in a house ten thousand feet up the mountains of Colorado, I wake to other sounds. Wind and birds dominate, the only other constant the fridge’s welcome hum, far louder than I would have guessed from my memories of houses with similar machines. In cities fridges are quiet things, not banging or barking, whizzing by with sirens or yelling at each other. In the wilderness, far removed from other humans, the fridge becomes a loud acknowledgment of electricity’s presence, of machinery and civilization’s reach. Here, the only things louder are the occasional bird crashing into the window, the even rarer ring of the telephone, and the bellows of the cows that graze the hill. The only noise to conquer the house from without comes in the storms that sweep over the mountains and across North Park, lighting everything with haphazard flashes. Their coming is both beautiful and easily anticipated, and they startle not my sleep. It is not a city, and the people nearby are few. Of all things that I notice, the absence of their sounds contrasts the most.

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.