COMMUNITY VOICES | In honor of a snowy forecast, May 1, 2013


Hello, stranger. After a flash of recognition, my brain flips through series of snapshots to identify you. The back of my mind has a habit of registering snapshots of people like drugstore passport photos and paper-clipping them to a place or a time or a routine. On days like today, another part of my brain takes over to sort through all of the possible contexts and open the right mental dossier. Do I know you from the coffee shop? The gym? Parent of a childhood friend? The bus? The search concludes almost as soon as it has started: I passed you on a North Loop sidewalk on my way to work about a week ago. Left shoulder to left shoulder, we glanced at each other with creased weekday morning eyes and then continued in opposite directions.

Now here we are, passing left shoulder to left shoulder once again. Like me, you must have sighed at the sight of our April 18th blizzard when you left your office at 5:00. At what point did you decide to forego fresh air and resign yourself to the Habitrail that winds through our fair city? For me it was when I stepped out onto Washington Avenue and my shoulders slid into their habitual winter hunch. I was almost prepared to soldier on when snowflakes the size of robins—a poor substitute for the real thing—looped their way around my glasses and pelted my eyeballs. It was no time to be a hero. I turned right on 3rd Avenue North and headed toward C Ramp and its benevolent skyway instead.

Seeing you here feels uncanny, like seeing a familiar character from your regular bus on a different route. Some chance encounters don’t feel so eerie. Running into my brother in the bathroom cleaner aisle at the Uptown Rainbow, for example, was an expected coincidence when we both lived in the neighborhood. The sight of one of my co-workers enjoying a stiff drink at the other end of my favorite bar is no surprise on a Thursday evening. These situations place a known person from one context in a tangentially but logically related one. Crossing your path this afternoon, though, is unnerving: we’ve already followed the same train of thought once as complete strangers, and now we’re doing it again. My brain is a pretty normal human one that searches for patterns, causes and effects, and this kind of synchrony triggers my instinct to explain. Why did I see you today?

Since you and I currently occupy the same physical space and appear to occupy a common mental one, I’d like to offer this: We live in a land of ruts and habit. All winter long we spin our tires in deep ruts of snow and ice. Each spring thaw leaves us with ruts in the road, long ribbons of warped, hilly asphalt. Our cars and buses and bikes and feet search them out by feel, so anxious to seek purchase and make headway. But no sooner do we grab hold than our control slips away, sliding with our wheels through grooves down the street. The same momentum and direction that we hope will help us reach our destination safely could just as easily send us sailing into a curb or parked car. Is the destination worth the risk that the well-traveled route might spit you into a dead end? And even if you manage to stay the course, is the destination really worth having forsaken adventure once you reach it? More than passive aggression, this careful weighing of ends and means and the bitter stagnation it so often yields might be the true Minnesota ethos.

Back to the skyway. This is a different route for me, and I assume it is for you as well. By contrast, the people who shuffle by with their chins buried in their chests and eyes and fingers flicking across a smartphone all seem to be on a quotidian path. They’re so busy staying connected to their personal lives that shut themselves off from the public one in front of them. But they must share with us the solid exasperation with this superfluous coating of snow. Like an overbearing mother smearing sunscreen onto our already-saturated pores, we simply cannot absorb much more of this, neither into the ground nor into our very souls. I bet we all want to shake loose. The irony is that instead of bringing us together in a moment of solidarity, skyway refugees amongst fellow skyway refugees, this collective frustration is turning us into psychic hermits.

It isn’t all doom and gloom, though. Recent scientific research suggests that our brains possess a remarkable and heretofore unimagined capacity to create new pathways, even after the age at which our minds are supposed to be sufficiently developed to make Serious Decisions, like join the army, drink booze, vote, or rent a car. As I understand it, scientists and self-help gurus alike have adopted the term “neuroplasticity” to describe this phenomenon, in which awareness, practice, and repetition re-wire our brains and enable us to learn new skills, adopt new habits, and reverse self-defeating thought patterns. Take special note of that last one. This blizzard doesn’t have to beat us down into submission, not if we don’t let it. It doesn’t have to drive us along our same old walking routes and deepen the same old tired neural networks of disappointment about not bucking tradition to go live in a warmer clime or more glamorous city. While seeing you on my alternate route was disconcerting, your open and apparatus-free face was also a relief. It derailed my weary train of thought and encouraged me to keep my head up and my eyes open to see the absurd beauty that is a snow storm in April, viewed from the shelter of a second-story walkway.

A new walking route affords new perspectives, but a location isn’t imbued with the magical power of granting people new insights simply by virtue of their being there. The skyway smartphone users are evidence enough of that; you can fall into ruts of habit just as easily inside as out. But you can make a choice: Do you block out the world, or do you lift your head up to recognize a stranger? Do you marvel at the 2nd story view of a warehouse’s back side and, with the city’s modern skyscrapers completely obscured, imagine what this city looked like 100 years ago? Today I’m astounded by the gorgeous long swath of letterbox-framed brick buildings, abstract and imposing through the skyway windows. This is what I choose to take with me on the rest of my way home, instead of hunched shoulders and resigned sighs.

I hope you’re taking something good home, too.