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The other day my friend Dave and I were sitting outside at a Culver City café, watching the traffic lights change along Washington Boulevard, when he explained the trouble with modern life. All our problems, he said, stemmed from eliminating natural cycles. Electricity has eliminated night; air conditioning has eliminated summer; laptops have destroyed rest. We import food to obliterate growing seasons, and create pills to bring a halt to both boyish exuberance and women's menstruation. Lately, my G-d, even the concept of prime-time TV is being lost. "All this linear, 24/7 living," said Dave, "causes discontent in the human soul."
"Can you repeat that?" I yelled, because the light had changed, and a wave of traffic was roaring past.
"Discontent in the soul," he yelled back.
On my way home, however, I decided Dave was wrong. Okay, modern humans may no longer experience, like, weekends or seasons, but we've created our own rhythms: Billing cycles and news cycles, basketball finals and midterm-elections, summer sequels and periodic writer's strikes; not to mention the annual rise in health insurance premiums, halftimes at the Superbowl, and of course, the daily charging and discharging of our cell phones—all regular as clockwork, and surely just as good as anything Nature cooked up.
That very evening, I took my sleeping bag out to my backyard so I could fully experience the rhythm of a city night. It was just like when Henry David Thoreau went out to sleep by Walden Pond so he could get in touch with nature. Only me, I set up on the deck next to the pool.
Sure enough, as it grew dark, I tuned into secret urban cycles. Around 10, for example, the little waterfall in the neighbor's yard turned off, followed by the waterfall in mine. At 11:30 the volume rose on various TVs. Violent News. Late night laffs. A baby ceased crying. A dog ceased barking. Then came the nocturnal rustle of urban rats, urban cats, and urban possoms, not to mention sirens, copters, and what may have been a gunshot.
Only when these had quieted, did I become aware of the great hum. You know, that continuous, everpresent, background hum of L.A. If you listen carefully, you realize it comes in layers: At the top, there's the high-pitched whine of tires on distant freeways. Below that, the medium roar of surface streets and crackling jets, and in the bass, your occasional throaty downshifting trucks.
Around 1:30, clouds moved in to obscure the few wheeling stars, and the L.A. hum quieted to a comforting susseration.
Dave would argue that while I slept, the city did not. But isn't all sleep an illusion? I mean, the heart is always beating, the lungs always breathing, the head churning with dreams. In the same way, the arteries of the city flow just like blood, only white in one direction and red in the other. Me, I dreamt of late-shift janitors coming and going in tall office towers; I visualized bright packets of information beating at my DSL modem all night long—the same way waves keep pounding at a darkened shore.
Just like Thoreau, I was awakened before dawn by many birds—really an outrageous number of birds—only these were stationed in the well-watered trees outside a stretch of nearby McMansions. Little by little, the great L.A. hum grew in intensity until I could feel the life returning to my limbs just as if I had slept beside a high mountain lake, and had breathed, like, fresh air.
And lo, in my half-awake state, I knew the Urban Man had finally adapted, had finally evolved, had finally internalized the steely wheels of modern life.
In fact, when I happened to run into my friend a few days later, I greeted him with a cheery smile, and thought, "You don't have to worry about any discontent in my soul, brother."
Copyright © 2009 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
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