>latest column for Paper Sky magazine.
I spend most of my time in cities – big ones. Mostly New York and Tokyo, the biggest in their respective countries, but also Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston, where my parents have a home. I have visited cities throughout Europe and Asia, and in Australia and South Africa. I have lived in London, San Francisco and Anchorage, Alaska.
In the 21st century, most cities share common elements: taxi and public transit systems, vast and anonymous airports, traffic jams, tall buildings, hotels, tony restaurants and cheap eateries. I often tell friends that there is less culture shock to be had in flying between megalopolises like Tokyo and New York, London, Singapore or Shanghai, then there is in driving from any of those cities a couple hundred miles into rural environs.
My life didn’t start with cities. Though I was born in one, I was raised in small towns in upstate New York and New England. When I first lived in Japan as a six year-old, I stayed with my grandparents in Iwate, on the outskirts of the relatively small northern city of Morioka. My childhood memories are of countryside exploits – netting insects in summer fields and yards, ice-skating on ponds and rivers, fishing still lakes, hearing raccoons and rabbits scurry beneath porches at night, June bugs and moths fluttering into screen doors, crickets, loons, and silence.
Earlier this year, I was invited to Toronto, Canada to give a weeklong series of lectures and readings at The Japan Foundation and York University. When I departed Tokyo, the weather had been flirting with a softer dampness, signaling winter’s retreat. But Toronto was in the deep freeze, as was much of the North American East Coast. As soon as I hit my hotel room, my wardrobe went from sweaters to layers of long underwear beneath sweaters, scarves, hats and gloves, and a much heavier overcoat.
Toronto is Canada’s most populous city, and it’s growing fast. As I was told several times by residents – Toronto has more condominiums in development than New York, Chicago and Los Angeles combined. Looking south toward Lake Ontario, you can see the scaffold hulks puncturing an otherwise low-slung skyline. They look self-important and vulgar, like exclamation points in a haiku poem.
Toronto’s residents are multi-ethnic and, superficially at least, placid. Walking the streets, I felt at ease even as I sidestepped patches of ice and snow, burrowing forward in a headlong crouch into frigid winds. (When I noticed that some of the locals – called ‘Torontonians,” I learned – were turning around to walk backward into the gusts, I quickly copied them.) People’s faces bore the calm, unhurried expressions I’m more accustomed to in warmer climes. The city’s café culture easily rivals that of San Francisco, for example, filled at midday with relaxed, slightly rumpled bohemians and laptop noodlers, but in temperatures a good 20C or more colder.
Compared with its equally winter-plagued US neighbors down the coast, Boston and New York, whose insistent airs and status-conscious playmaking can make daily grinds feel like grudge matches, Toronto seemed downright civilized. Brutally cold, yes, but not coldly brutal.
But Toronto has its internal strains. Its now-notorious crack-smoking mayor, Rob Ford, whose Falstaffian outbursts and misdeeds have garnered international infamy, is supported by suburban enclaves to the north, many of which house immigrants who feel left out of downtown’s burgeoning wealth and perceived arrogant intellectualism (yet another paradox of our benighted times). Ford promised them lower taxes and speaks their ‘language,’ with his unapologetically uneducated frat-boy discourse; they prefer his pragmatism and populism, whatever his personal faults, or perhaps because of them. He’s like us.
You go to another city, read its magazines and newspapers and become briefly embroiled in its local politics. Then you leave.
After my first three talks in Toronto, my good friend, Ted Goossen, translator of Japanese literature and professor at York University, drove me north to his country home in Hockley Valley. It was another blustery morning; I stepped in and out of the lobby several times awaiting his arrival. But the drive was liberating. In an hour or so the road expanded on either side into broad snow-covered plains and sloping hills bearing trees that tilted gently in the wind. Ted pointed out old lodges and diners along the way. We stopped at one for a burger and a pork gravy pot pie.
We arrived at the house, an elegant blue two-story colonial. Ted and I grabbed kindling, paper and misshapen logs to fire up the wood stove in the basement. We lit another in the ground-floor fireplace and settled in for an afternoon of reading. The sunlight reflecting against the snow cast a glow of lucid white. It was so easy to read.
It was so easy to read. It was quiet, aside from the whip-snap of the fire, and the wind, but that is not noise. That is an adjunct to quiet, its natural partner. I started reading one of my manuscripts, then I switched to James Salter’s latest novel. The writing in both works connected to me in ways I haven’t felt for a long time. I read in Tokyo, New York, Boston, and on airplanes, of course. But I don’t often feel that the writing is speaking to me.
Later in the afternoon, Ted said we should go for a walk. My city shoes were insufficient. He handed me some bent rubber boots, big gloves, and a woolen coat that looked like several blankets sewn together.
We trudged through snow till we hit the main road, which was plowed smooth. The sun on the snow was magnificent – holy light. Trees sawed against one another in cello moans. We saw an eagle. The wind bit so fierce we got chapped red cheeks and feared worse.
We turned back after ten minutes. When we got to Ted’s house, we poured cups of sake and smiled and sipped. Just ten minutes in that world felt like a reunion with silence.