At a time when decimals deeply mattered, I was a kid of 11.48 years bereft of everything I held dear. Some thirty years ago my parents moved us from Fairport, New York. It was situated outside of Rochester, an engine of industry right up till digital photography burned down Kodak in a green-flame heap of celluloid. But I digress. We moved form Fairport to a small town on the eastern edge of Finger Lakes appellation by the name of Skaneateles, a town of some seven-thousand inhabitants nestled amongst rolling hills at the northern end of a sixteen-mile long lake. Picturesque. Quaint. Charming. Everything you might want from a New England town. But for me, as a kid disoriented and feeling abandoned, it was a desert and I surrounded by philistines. I found myself in a school system where everyone knew everyone since kindergarten. I was a stranger, a ghost, a kid alone who did not have the social graces to fit in. Sure, I would eventually make friends. Kids do that. We bounce. But as was my wont, I was soon looking out to when I could rejoin civilization.
Civilization is filled with universities, libraries, museums and bookstores, or so I deemed as a kid. Nowadays I think about such things differently, but I am getting ahead of myself. But still, that story, the story of seeking civilization persisted with me for quite some time after my graduating class’ diasporas when we either went abroad or university or both. Still, as a kid I had an insatiable curiosity for knowledge. Skaneateles seemed the farthest thing from anything, my own Tatooine as it were. What I thought I needed was a world of knowledge and culture. As a means to that, I used to sneak on the Greyhound bus that stopped near our house in order to go into Syracuse, some forty-five minutes away, to visit the university library and read books. For those too young to know, I grew up in a time where inter-library loans controlled the flow of information, and online bulletin-board systems were still in their infancy, so getting your literal hands on books took a bit of adventure. And adventure it was! It would be seven more years, as a first year of undergraduate studies at Purdue University, that the World Wide Web would become a twinkle in the public eye … and everything with respect to the concentration of knowledge and wealth in city centers would start to be challenged. But that is a story still playing out, and it is, as they say, another story, even if it is nonetheless intertwined into this story.
Before I got to where I am sitting now, on a patio looking over the town of Chelan, Washington, let me mention another story. A year before moving to Skaneateles, I saw WarGames. It would be an understatement to say I idolized Matthew Broderick as computer-genius. I wanted to be him. I ached to be his character. It is likely I also was infatuated with Ally Sheedy who played his girlfriend in the film. When I saw him on a bike riding out into the Washington state pines of the Puget Sound, I felt an instant connection. Years later, much to my mother’s disbelief and likely heartbreak, I told her my destiny was to live on the West Coast. It would be decades later still before I finally understood my truer motives, but as a kid of ten I thought it was a sign, seeing those scenes of mountains and rolling greens telling me where I belonged. So when my path converged on the University of Washington graduate programs to study technical Japanese and computational fluid dynamics, it is not hard to imagine I thought Destiny had come to my door and knocked.
That was some seventeen years ago, and in that time I graduated, worked at three major hometown enterprises, bought a condo, and even got married three times, all while living in Seattle. I have been busy, what can I say. I was all about Seattle. I commuted through neighborhoods by the bus and by foot. I spent both my mornings and evenings at cafes reading books and doing artwork. Some days I quaffed up to sixteen shots of espresso, a poster-child of a Seattle hipster who was tens years too early to be of that generation. I spent summer weekends listening to Shakespeare in the Park, and my winters and springs at Benaroya Hall listening to symphonies and Nat Geo Live. I walked through museums with a sketchbook in hand, and through the zoo with a camera. I soaked in civilization. But then something happened. It waned. I found myself forever over-stimulated, the constant traffic and crush of people overwhelming. I could not breath, as it were. We were all strangers to each other. It is true I had found civilization, but discovered that what I — we — needed was community.
A little over three months ago we moved ourselves to Chelan, Washington. For over two decades I was chasing after civilization, only to end up in a town half the population of Skaneateles. Nor is it amongst the lush forests of western Washington, but instead nestled at a end of lake, much like Skaneateles, albeit surrounded by the high desert of central Washington. It is a town not unlike my adolescence. It has the same ebb and flow, the same energy and vitality and even socio-economic struggles. My spouse’s parents live just down the road, and I feel a bit rudderless if I do not see them at least once a week for dinner, watching TV together and just hanging out in each other’s presence. There is regret, too. I now recognize that the very same motivations that brought my parents and I to Skaneateles, are the same that bring me and my spouse to Chelan. I can, for the first time, see the virtues of the place my parents have now been at for some three decades. And to add to all of this, I am now of the same age my parents were when they moved to Skaneateles. I find myself suddenly in the shadow of my parents, and from that I now possess a key of sorts.
We have replaced the trappings of civilization for the comforts of community. My mornings no longer include a forty-five minute trot to get to a bus, but instead a stroll out amongst the hills and river that flow from the end of the lake. I have emptied my iPhone of my bus schedules, and rarely use it if at all. There is but a single cafe to choose from. A single bookstore, too. Sure, there is a town museum to visit, albeit it is not one where I’d take a sketchbook. The zoo has been replaced by yard goats and a rodeo down the road. When I go into town, I walk out the door with a single key around my neck and tucked under my shirt. I put on my headphones and jam to Daft Punk or listen to NPR … it depends on my mood and fickleness … something, I am told, that happens in your forties. I do not carry a wallet, cash or even a credit card since I can get everything I need from the local grocer on credit. I walk into town for yoga, or else get a crepe and coffee, or else stop into the local bookstore to make a new acquaintance. I carry a simple messenger bag to gather my groceries, and I avoid using my car except on stops to the recycling center at the edge of town. And I find myself singing “to da dump dump dump dump dump dump dump” in the vein of the Lone Ranger’s opening theme song, not so unlike my own father whenever we took the garbage to the Skaneateles Dump. I look upon all the tourists, and hope they enjoy the town and at the same time hope they do not change its sedate way of community. And I think more keenly and fondly on the town on the other side of the country where my parents still live. I get it now. I get what I missed some thirty years ago that only now I can start to appreciate. I am sorry, mom and dad, for not understanding nor appreciating what you trying to find and create. I feel the key now pressed into my palm. I turn it and something inside of me clicks, and a door long locked slowly parts. Thank you, even if it has taken me some thirty years to appreciate the gift. Thank you.