Thursday, October 20, 2011

New England

[rough-cut of latest column for Paper Sky]
Traveling to New England

I have lived in cities as disparate and different as Tokyo, New York, Osaka, London, San Francisco and Anchorage, Alaska.  From each city I traveled regionally, exploring Asia from Japan, Europe from England, the native villages of St. Lawrence Island from Anchorage, and so on.  I have repeated some of those journeys later in life, but most of them I have taken only once.  While I’d love to return to Savoonga, Alaska, for example, a Yupik village of 600 or so in the Bering Sea, I’m not sure if or when I’ll have time to do so before I die.

My most frequent destination, however, has been the six-state northeastern region of the United States known as New England.  Aside from my birth and a few early years spent in New York, and one term attending kindergarten in Morioka, my Japanese grandparents’ home, the bulk of my childhood happened in New England. 

Like much of the US, New England is largely rural, hemmed in by minor mountains to the West, and to the East, the North Atlantic.  I grew up in towns near large grass fields rife with insects and muddy trails, silent chilly brown sands and dull family restaurants.  My parents were never rich, but they spent and saved wisely, and they gave me a childhood largely bereft of conflict.  I spent a lot of time outdoors in safe natural environs.

Two towns became my destinations after I left home for college and for good at age 18: Exeter, New Hampshire and Andover, Massachusetts—small, locally historical communities that boast two of America’s most famous private schools: Phillips Exeter Academy and Phillips Andover Academy, respectively.  While I attended Exeter for brief periods as a student, and taught there for stretches as a young adult, neither institution had a claim on my family’s residency.  My parents just happened to choose the towns as safe and secure havens for convenient commutes and stable child-rearing.

When I attended college in Ohio, an exotically flat and uncluttered landscape to me at the time, dominated by sky, my awareness of New England became equally exotic.  I began for the first time to see my childhood home as a distinctive place.  The classmates I got to know at Oberlin were from other parts of the US and the world.  They commented upon my accent (an ‘r-less’ New England dialect), my worldviews (provincial), and my tastes in clothing and food.  At Oberlin, many students were card-carrying hippies or hipsters, wearing tattered blue jeans and accelerating their used Volvos with bare feet.  I wore dinner jackets, a beret, and a heavy dark Pea Coat in the winter.  For me, England and Europe were the models of fashion—not the laid-back US West Coast—a stance I’d inherited from New England, though I didn’t know it then.

My father drove me the epic 12 hours from New Hampshire to Ohio and stayed for an overnight.  One of my female Korean-American classmates I'd just met packed him a lunch and several cans of Pepsi for his solo trip home.  When I saw him off, I felt the first sting of a loss and separation that would gradually pierce and infect my life.  I now realize that when I helped him into the driver's seat of the family's Toyota station wagon and watched him drive to the nearby intersection, signal for a left turn and disappear down the highway, it was the first time I felt worried about my father's stamina.  But I didn’t know that then.  I just knew that I’d be traveling back to New England for the winter holidays. I’d see him soon.

Since then, my route back to New England has taken different forms.  I remember catching Amtrak trains from Cleveland to Boston amid snowstorms and multiple delays, alighting in Boston to see my father on the platform, graying and wide-eyed.  Sometimes I flew (how I had the money, I have no idea). On one takeoff, the shuddering plane returned to the runway in Cleveland with an oil leak.  A renowned African-American Oberlin professor I didn't know personally sat next to me and gripped my hand as we chugged through the air, jerkily, then landed smoothly, fire trucks swarming.   I was scared but eerily calm. Potential tragedy, when you’re in your late teens, is entertaining.  What I learned then was that the same event for an older man hints at death. 

I moved to California right after graduation.  Things went downhill—I ran out of money in Berkeley, felt alienated in San Francisco, and got held-up at gunpoint working as a video rental clerk by drug-runners in Oakland.  I returned to New England by air near Christmas, landing amid a snowstorm. 

I returned to my parents’ home in New Hampshire, told them nothing of my travails, and went for a walk in the snow with the family dog, a Welsh terrier, in a nearby parking lot.  I held him close to me as we watched the flakes fall.  He didn't want to run or walk or move at all, excepting his tiny heart beating against my palms. 

Thereafter I moved to New York and graduate school at Columbia.  Traveling to New England became shorter, but no less complicated.  I took Amtrak trains from New York’s Penn Station to Boston’s South Station, eyeing my reflection in the window as we eased away from skyscrapers and into maples, pines and choppy harbors in Connecticut, the longest state en route, however comparatively small.  I felt a mixture of regret and glamour—a newly minted New Yorker still entrapped by his roots in the leafy suburbs up north, no wiser, no richer, but with a Manhattan zip code on his mail. Surely that was worth something?

When I opted for a year in Japan in 1998, I was making a break from my life’s continuum.  Again, I had no idea at the time.  I moved to Osaka to write a story on commission, meaning I’d get paid for writing, not teaching or renting videos.  I considered myself a proverbial New Yorker, and was worried that Japanese cities would be too conservative and too inconvenient for my habits. 

Osaka, and later, Tokyo, would prove me embarrassingly wrong.  To this day, nowhere I’ve been or lived is more urban or convenient than a Japanese city.  Forget New York’s claim to be the city that never sleeps; Japanese cities are simply always, effervescently awake.

Still, whether I’m flying to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Brisbane or Paris, the trek to New England remains my traveler’s cornerstone.  Now it involves a 4-hour road-trip or 5-hour train ride from New York (as domestic flights have become more expensive and less convenient), a 14-hour flight from Tokyo, or a hop-skip-jump itinerary from Sydney to Los Angeles, New York and Boston—and an additional train or bus ride to a tiny town called Ballardvale, which is close enough to my drive-wary retiree parents’ house in Andover. 

Wherever I am, I travel back to New England, its looming pines and dusky sands containing the memories, and the now aged man and woman, my parents, that will be the closest I will ever get to a hometown.


ym said...

very evocative. i remember that trip up north from nyc very well, having made it countless times myself by car, bus, and train. that trek can reveal stunning landscapes in any season, but what i now know--and what i think you imply--is that after a while, and for a variety of reasons, new england somehow burrows down deep into one's core and ends up as part of the landscape of one's imagination, whether one likes it or not.

you note that this is a rough cut. i hope that you will eventually post where we can read a final version. i know i'd enjoy that.

ArthurFrDent said...

It's a good read... an you'll understand soon enough how it is to look at all this through your father's eyes. Doesn't matter if you have a family to pass this on to yourself or not... things that you thought were different about the way you both looked at things will make more sense, and the places that bound you will be more precious.

Recently I realized that I've become the old man Neil Young spoke of, yet he is far older than me... how is he looking at all this?

It's interesting how the places we've been seem to have a hand in defining us, but it is always our reaction TO them that forms us. But then when you go back, you aren't the same person that left. So they affect you in yet a different way when you return.

To ourselves it doesn't feel like we've changed much. I'm still a really experienced 20 year old, and yet even to my children, I'm an old geezer that points out new buildings being built or the image of a distant lost time when everyone didn't have the entire internet in their pocket via smart phone.

Not going anyplace especial with this, just a reaction.