Sunday, November 25, 2007

cold observations

Randomata 1: A couple weekends ago, I mentioned a hike where the top of the mountain was swallowed by thick clouds, harsh wind and the first snow of the year. I didn't mention a strange part of that experience. At the top of the hike, a man was sitting on the ground, with his sweater stretched down and his arms around his bent legs. He was unsuccessfully attempting to start a fire with some pages torn out of a book he was holding. He was shivering. My friend and I had a quick snack, both quite confused about this man's behaviour, and prepared to head back down. But first we tried talking to the man, offering him some food, asking if he was all right, asking if he wanted to come back down with us. He was fine, he said. He didn't need anything, he said. Over all, he was extremely underprepared for the conditions. Yet, we could see that he had a toque and winter gloves, but for some reason he wasn't wearing them. Something seemed wrong about the whole thing. Unsure what to do, after repeated dismissals, my friend and I left. We asked another group who had seen him if they could call the authorities and explain the strange situation. Our biggest concern was that this man was attempting to hurt himself by staying in the cold, or worse, once he was alone, planning to kill himself. We couldn't stay any longer though, because the cold was already seeping into us.
Last year in Japan, according to a newspaper article in the Japan Times, suicide was the leading cause of death for people aged 20 to 39. A staggering 32,155 people killed themselves in Japan last year. Suicide has a long and powerful history in the country, with an ongoing resonance in modern culture. Hanging is the most common form of suicide, but jumping from high places is also among the leading methods. One friend told me that she lives near the cliff in Hokkaido where people might go for a dramatic suicide.
I don't know what happened to that man on the mountain. Perhaps a bit of discomfort and cold were helping him clear his thoughts in some way. Perhaps he came down after another ten minutes or so (though no car awaited him in the parking lot). Our fear was not entirely groundless, even though I hope it was unwarranted in this case.

Because I don't want to follow those thoughts with the trivial happenings of my day, I'll offer another observation instead.

Randomata 2: It's Friday night, 930pm, and you're heading out for the night. It's -3.5 celcius. On the way to the subway station, you hear the familiar clanging of hammers, and realise that the crew is still hard at work in that new apartment they are building. The building is completely enclosed by scaffolding and shrouded in a green netting, as all building construction sites seem to be, perhaps in order to prevent half-completed work from being witnessed by passersby. The shroud certainly adds no warmth, though, and the men must be feeling the biting cold, somewhere near the end of a ten hour shift. On top of that, it is a Friday night, almost 10pm now - you'd think they could call it a night early, maybe just once a week.

It's 3am, and you're leaving the bar to head home (earlier than most of the partiers). You hear a muffled jarring: the sound of concrete being broken up. Then you see the flood lights and cones redirecting traffic and the ubiquitous traffic control baton-weilders, as you walk by blocks of road repaving or tunnel construction. It's -5 celcius, there's a layer of snow, and it's 3am on a Friday night/Saturday morning. They will work from the evening and into the night - all night. That way, they minimize traffic disruption during the day, as they attempt to finish the job as fast as possible. You just wish they could have a night off, maybe just once a week.

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