From the country towards the city

One of the oldest story themes concerns differences between cities and the countryside.  My wife and I have been carving out a story on that ancient terrain over the past few weeks as we moved house from the small, very rural town of Ripton, Vermont to the urban and suburban zone of Manassas, Virginia, close by Washington, D.C.  The experience is weird, rich, frustrating, and ultimately very positive.  It feels in many ways like time travel.

leaving the house Logistically it’s been a complex and at times brutal process.  We spent days hauling stuff from the house to a row of U-Haul U-Boxes an hour away.  An interestingly low-tech innovation, those boxen: very simple, tall, deep plywood crates akin to shipping containers.  We rent them, and U-Haul ships them to our destination via truck and/or train.  So Ceredwyn and I, plus our son, Owain, dragged, stacked, covered, grunted, and generally schlepped furniture and boxes both plastic and cardboard, then let U-Haul begin the shipping.

Then delays struck.  A winter storm hit, plastering the roads precisely along our route and making the last bit of loading harder.  We learned at the last minute that we had to change up the house’s smoke and CO2 detectors.  Handing over materials (including the house keys!) almost failed when one office person went absent, the other was unprepared, and Vermont’s poor infrastructure nearly killed phone calls for help.  Paperwork surprises cropped up… but we hit the road with Ceredwyn at the wheel (she’s the best driver I know), me crammed into the passenger seat under piles of storage blankets, suitcases and boxes occupying every cubic inch in the Forester’s rear half, and three unhappy cats stacked carefully in the back seat.

The roads were bad in Vermont, New York, and Pennsylvania, covered with snow and ice.  This slowed and stressed us further.  The time for my class drew nigh, so we found a pet-friendly hotel near Albany and holed up for the night.  My students were entertained by my Zooming to them from yet another locale, then delighted when Hunter the cat climbed on top of my head.  Then we hit the road at 5 am the next morning, heading south so I could be in good broadband range for that week’s Future Trends Forum.  We did that at a friend’s apartment near our home.  For several days we were between homes.

Then we were in our new home!

Bryan_new house

We finally arrived, exhausted and a bit dizzy at the prospect.

The house is vast, compared with our previous one.  Its amenities and functions were confusing and surprising at first.  Most of my indoor habits misfired. I felt like a Soviet emigre in the United States, or a time traveler racing ahead from 1940 to 2020.

In the kitchen is an induction stovetop, controlled digitally, rather than a gas-fired unit, controlled by knobs.  Heat and air are smoothly provided by shiny machines in the basement and ducted quietly throughout the space, instead of by a wood-fired stove.  Locks are on all doors and some windows (we never needed locks in Ripton).  Plentiful electrical outlets dot every room.  There are smoothly plastered walls and ceilings.  Gentle carpets or shiny paneled floors underneath my feet.  I didn’t need to stoke or feed the fire, nor to bring in wood from outside. I feel like I fell asleep when Truman was president and just woke up.

Services changed as well.  Mail is delivered right to our door (in Ripton we drove about 4 miles to the community post office).  Trash and recycling are picked up (formerly, biweekly runs to the town trash/recycling depot).  Meal delivery is now a thing, and from a huge range of restaurants – we’d never experienced that in Ripton.

And my cell phone works at home!  Recall that Vermont had – has – at best “uneven” coverage.  I was never able to use my phone at home; it took a 25 minute drive to get bars.  The irony of this is that I’ve been keenly interested in mobile devices since 2000, when I connected with Howard Rheingold on his book Smartmobs, yet couldn’t actually use smartphones at home.  Now I have my Galaxy S8+ on or near my person 24/7.  I’m using it for more functions and more frequently – more Instagramming, for one.

It’s very odd not to have a land line.  We actually gave our stack of landline phones (including the one we reserved for power outages) to the new owner of the Ripton house, since we have no use of them now.  It’s also an improvement.  Today Ceredwyn and I realized that our house is quieter, because we’re not getting hit by waves of spam callers, like we used to get in Vermont.  I no longer have to share my cell number with the apology “I might not answer it if I’m home, because…”  Now I focus on one phone line instead of three.

Speaking of services, it took Verizon many days to figure out how to send a person to the house to turn FIOS on.  My shaming them on Twitter helped them get it done.  Then triumph followed.  Check out the speeds:

broadband blazing 2019 Feb

In contrast, in Ripton the best Consolidated could cough up was around 6.5 mbps down and 0.7 up.  “Your Internet speed is very fast” indeed!

I downloaded a 2 hour film from Archive.org in one minute.  Steam installed two big games in about that many minutes.  Uploaded attachments just work. I’ve played music from three tabs simultaneously and mixed them just because I could.  I’m starting to feel like this image Alan Levine made of me:

Bryan blown back

Other services: travel has become better, including air and rail.  Dulles airport is about 20 minutes away.  National, maybe 50.  Commuter rail into DC is 5 minutes away.  The nearest Metro line, about 20.  Traffic is higher, of course, so I’m learning times and itineraries.  The much lower cost and greater options for air routes is astonishing.  I easily find routes that cost one third of what I paid from Burlington, and take half to one quarter the time.

So much of this was and remains disorienting after living nearly 20 years semi-off-the-grid. For example, we now have neighbors. A lot of them, visible from the house in all directions. A good number of cars drive past. Country silence has been replaced by the soundscape of advanced industrial civilization. I’m half aware of a nearly continuous, uneven susurration of machinery.

A Facebook friend half-jokingly shared this story about impending loud noises, due to artillery tests in Quantico (20 miles away).  That reminded me not only of Vermont stillness, but also of how we grew accustomed to occasional gunfire.  That didn’t come from violent crime; instead it was hunters and people practicing their shooting.  Hearing gunfire here should have a very different meaning.

Others things are close by the house.  Many things.  Within a 10 minute drive are multiple grocery stores – from Ripton, it was 30 minutes to the nearest single one.  There are bookstores (3!) within that 10 minutes span, many restaurants, an industrial park, a coworking space, a tavern with board games (nice), a museum or three, a beauty salon, an assisted living facility, one public library, banks, barbers, pet suppliers, schools, drug stores, and… we’re still exploring, and are overwhelmed.  In contrast, within 10 minutes of our former house were some other houses, a spring, and many trees.

On foot we can largely reach other houses, since the immediate area is a residential tract.  There are some trees, but of course not like in Ripton.

Spider in a box

Cats love being in boxes wherever they are.  I think they enjoy the box aspect of moving.

There are a *lot* more people, and a different mix.  Within two days I found a science fiction club (never found one in Vermont in nearly 20 years).  Ceredwyn has been flabbergasted at the huge numbers of children.  Racially, the area is far more diverse than Ripton, with a large Latinx population, as well as plenty of other populations represented.

Culturally, we’re still learning.  There are very few signs of public religiosity.  Not much public art.  I’m getting the sense that people are very busy at work and caring for families.  Very busy – the coworking space has a wide range of presentations scheduled for the next month.  Much activity takes place in DC.

Foliage: we have a small, fenced-in yard and a lawn out stretching around the house.  We have been examining it carefully for planting purposes, watching when and when the light falls, observing some flowers peep forth (in February!).  I’ve gathered and stacked fallen sticks and tree limbs; I really can’t help myself.  We have to talk with the local housing authority to see what and where we can plant and compost.

Hunter and Ash in cat carrierOur cats were very confused at first. They hid in their carriers or sulked in a closet. Hunter actually growled at his siblings. It took days for them to feel bold enough to explore, then comfortable enough to lounge regally among the boxes and to sprawl benignly upon the carpets.  They now seem quite happy.

We won’t let them outside because of traffic.  Our back yard is fenced in, but the cats would likely find their way through it.  Until we perfect a way for them to be out without danger we have to be jailers.  So far the cats haven’t pressured us on this score.

At times I feel a different tempo.  It isn’t quite the frantic pace of New York life, but I am getting gradually used to doing more things with the outside world in a given day.  Put another way, life in the new home feels like the tempo of life when I travel, which is usually to cities or big towns.  I can get more done, partially due to having so many options physically nearby.

That’s all for now.  Any questions or observations, either from people who’ve made similar transitions or those who haven’t?

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5 Responses to From the country towards the city

  1. mkt42 says:

    The Civil War battlefield at Manassas is a must-see. It was the site of the First Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the Civil War — and one of the smallest. So you can walk the battlefield in a few hours, reading the signs or a tour pamphlet and see and walk over each section of the battlefield following the battle as it happened. The site is very well preserved (thanks to a fight against encroaching development a few decades ago) so you’re not walking past housing or looking over a modern town as at many other battlefields.

    The Second Battle of Bull Run was substantially larger so even though it’s one the same site you can’t really follow the action in person: too many things were happening in too many places across too much time. But the First Battle of Bull Run can be experienced historically to a better degree than most other battles.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      We are looking forward to both of those sites.
      Especially as archaeology is being done on at least one. Did you see the NPR piece about the “limb pit”?

  2. Sandy Brown Jensen says:

    Bryan,
    That was a fascinating compare/contrast. You don’t do anything by halves, do you? Both life styles are interestingly on either side of a spectrum from the suburban Willamette Valley where we have a whole lot more breathing room than in your version of suburban. I can’t believe you won’t long for wilderness, but maybe it’s the science fiction part of your personality that makes you so flexible.
    May you continue to explore and enjoy your Brave New World!

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Yes, I tend to do things epically. And thank you.

      I’m not sure what form that longing will take. I do find myself setting aside materials for kindling…

  3. Vanessa Vaile says:

    light pollution ~ you’ll miss the dark night skies. surely at least one student captured of your head of Hunter …

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