Lucky to be alive

Our lives are stories that we tell ourselves and tell each other. Our personal fiction, edited and self-controlled, takes different shapes depending on the audience and our mood. At work it gains a more serious tone than on the frisbee field, than at the beach. In one place our story is of physical prowess, in another of mental compentency. So often these are stories we act out rather than speak, reflecting ourselves to those surrounding us rather than espousing our roots.

We have two histories, I have written: a geographical one that must be teased out in stories and a topographical one that can be discerned through observation of our bodies. So to do we have a variety of explanations for our injuries, for our accomplishments, for our decisions.

In some stories our line of work is an accident. In some it is the clear result of a multi-year plan. Our facebook pages and linkedin profiles are but the most extreme versions of these variations, clearly targeted acts of self creation.

These varied explanations are not untrue, they are simply separate views of the interwoven events that have lead us from where we were born to where we are today.

In many of my tellings employment is a side effect, work history a result of where I’ve been and who I’ve known rather than a focused accomplishment. In these versions I moved to Shanghai because I was ready to leave Tokyo, because a friend was living in Anhui and wanted to move to the city. The jobs that followed were coincidental, the result of moving to the focal point of the global wave, a place at once both megacity and boom town. Likewise, years later, San Francisco was a compromise rather than a natural next step.

In some ways the direction of those connections is correct. In some of these tellings though there emerges another version, one I bring forth reluctantly. It is the story of a mind constantly filling, and the awareness of a variety of goals. It is the tale of a boy who wanted to see more than his home town, and the story of a man who wants to know how things are made. More than anything, it is the result of wanting to be comfortable anywhere.

From this angle, in these more cautious tellings, the jobs line up and are part of a progression from curiosity to knowledge, from office to factory, and from country to country.

Our stories are not fixed things of course. They depend on the teller, the audience, and a feel for the moment. Considering my own versions from a San Francisco window on a foggy summer afternoon, I’m reminded most of a truth first heard almost three years ago. A truth I have considered, if not articulated, on the edge of each major decision:

“The distance between who you are and who you might be is closing.”

Our stories do have a direction, and a pace. The latter, in my case, is no surprise. Each time I read that quote from Jan I hear a second sentence in my head, my own personal warning and guide:

Keep moving.

Injured travel

In a hotel room again he stretches before rising. These new actions have become a daily routine, the small pattern of curls and flexes that make standing without pain a possibility.

It is a Sunday in Dongguan, in Chang’an. In this hotel a week now he has become familiar to the staff, greeted no longer in the formal English of their training but in the Mandarin reserved for visitors from the north. They no longer try to stop him from taking coffee back to his room after breakfast. Like many foreigners here he is understood by his habits, a strange list. Cereal and coffee at breakfast. Then more coffee. Departs between nine and ten. Returns around 6. Laundry on alternate days.

In the afternoon he swims in the indoor pool, slow laps in a variety of strokes. Backstroke, measuring his place against the pool’s glass ceiling. Breast stroke, breathing out in small bubbles. Sidestroke, slowly, when his left arm is tired. Crawl only on the third day, gingerly. He moves cautiously, and holds his back frequently between lengths. Old, the lifeguard thinks, before returning to his other distractions.

Injured.

On other trips this man would have left, would have headed for Hong Kong on Saturday afternoon when work was finished. Would have spent the weekend in Shanghai with friends. Instead on Sunday he stays inside, stretches, swims, and drinks milk. Instead he is cautious with his body, avoids groups, does not drink alcohol in public.

These are the actions of recovery, of a human slowly remembering their abilities. In the morning he puts his shirt on backwards. Without pause he raises his arms, removes, reverses, and dons again. Only after does it strike him: a month ago he could not lift the left arm high enough to don t-shirts with both arms, nor bend it backwards to remove clothing.

All his small trials of stretching, swimming, and caution will one day pass. His body forgets quickly the limitations it learned reluctantly. Eventually he will have only vague memories of these days spent in Chang’an, too injured to adventure.

And scars.

Capital F future

Sitting in a luxury hotel in Chang’an Zhen, I am thinking about the future.

Not the future as in my personal five year plan, though it may turn out that way. Nor the capital F future of living computers and jet packs, though it may turn out that way too. Instead I am thinking about our future, the shared strangeness that is both hard to see and probably already here, somewhere.

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about this future. Mostly from strange Chinese cities though not usually from luxury hotels. It’s a future that seems to slip into view when I’m walking home alone through the evening heat, past street stalls and electric bikes. I find it under neon offering nothing, the store fronts long closed and falsely alluring in the night. It’s a future that I see often after sitting in an Ajisen and eating cucumbers for a while, after drinking an Asahi by myself while reading Fallows and Paul Hawken, Chipchase and Posnanski.

I think about the heating planet and the bliss of air conditioning in Hong Kong this week. I think of the costs of oil, and my job making plastic. I think of those giving up air travel and look at my location. I think about my favorite writers and how frequently they fly. I think about how frequently I fly and whether I would care about flying, about all of this, if I’d never started.

Would I care about the world this way without having sat in so many Ajisens in so many Chinese manufacturing cities, reading on paper and phones and drinking Japanese beer? Unlikely, I think. Without so many evenings watching the lights come on in Chinese apartment towers, how would I know to value all of us? Without watching the neon blink back and forth and eventually off, watching the parks fill with people enjoying the evening and then empty to silence, how would I have learned the size of cities? Without flying, how would I have met so many people, learned from so many places? Without the energy expenditure that damages it, how would I have ever understood our planet?

I watch two men honk as they scoot past on e-bikes, chatting as they disappear into the gathering dusk. I watch cars at the intersection, red lights hold them stationary, engines running. I wonder what makes so many people want to buy a car, and what would make them stop.

Mostly I think about the difference between making things and growing things, between working and building. After that I think about the difference between being alive, looking at the moon as it rises behind the skyscrapers , and not. It is a difference I only recently started to appreciate.

What will the world will look like when we are gone? Will we have left anything good behind, intentionally or no?

I haven’t yet given up flying. I’m here in Chang’an Zhen. I haven’t yet given up making things, I’m here visiting a factory for work. More importantly, I haven’t yet given up on anything. Walking back from Ajisen I wonder if I will, if the cumulative weight of the capital F future will change my life. I wonder what the next five years will bring, and ten. Whether we’ll all be living different lives, or still wondering. Will Chinese cities still feel like the future in this way on lonely evenings, an amazing combination of factories and urban density, of modern trains and hand-repaired motorcycles, of destroyed air? Or will the world have changed in all directions, become more evenly distributed, for better or worse. On evenings like this I can see both possibilities, a future here and yet often invisible .

Watching the two men on e-bikes fade into the darkness down the street I know one thing: even in the 90 degree F heat and 90% humidity of southern China, I’d rather we all biked than gave up airplanes, and each other.

Life, interrupted

First, my apologies for the lengthy silence. While my schedule has varied over the years, I’ve never gone so long without an Inhabit post since I began writing the site in 2006. Eight years of monthly or twice-monthly posts is no great American novel, but it represents a dedication I hope to maintain. Since March, though, I’ve had a difficult time writing and often been less than eager to share what I have completed. In many ways the last two months have been some of the best of my life, and the most difficult. This, then, is something outside of the normal Inhabit posts, more personal and more difficult. Regular thoughts about cities, travel, and the strange adventures of life will resume shortly.

As an athletic child, I played soccer and baseball through high school, before switching to ultimate frisbee in college. I still play, at 34, on a co-ed club team that is competitive enough to go to regionals out of the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the world’s hotspots for ultimate talent. I begin with this as a point of reference, a way to explain how strange it has been, over the course of these past two months, to be at points unable to walk, to be still unable to run. I have struggled to lift things, to bathe myself, and to get out of bed unaided. As with all healing I am progressing, and I will be able to do these things again. Many of them I already can. My broken finger has healed enough that I can type all day again, and thus work. My ribs are healed enough that I can sit up without assistance, if not do sit ups. My lung enough so that I can fly. My vertebrae are healing, and the swelling around my spine decreasing, so that I can once again stand straight and walk without pain. The sciatic nerve pain that left me unable to walk for two weeks has disappeared, and I am again able to go places without stopping every block to squat until the pain subsides.

With an injury of this magnitude came two emotions I had not anticipated, and which have made it more difficult to write. First, from the ER, the immediate knowledge that no matter how hurt I was, no matter the pain, there were and are so many in worse condition, including at the time those to my immediate left or right. Second, the gratitude, embarrassing and real, to all those who took care of me, fed me, cared for me, and went out of their way to bring us clothes, to make us laugh, or to give us a place to sleep. I say us because, over the first two weeks in New York and the following months in San Francisco, we have both needed the support of our friends and the comfort of their kindness.

Being deeply aware of our luck, shockingly close to our mortality, and overwhelmed by the generosity of others is a strange situation. For a decade I have been most comfortable when self-sufficient. From the trains of Tokyo to the scooters of Shanghai I have been happy as an invisible part of the global megacity. Constantly on the move, a part of multinational supply chains and international sports teams, I have been rarely still, and never so forcedly so. I am no longer alone, and haven’t been, which has brought both great joy and the challenge of relying on someone, constantly inconveniencing another. From Shanghai to San Francisco we’ve grown more comfortable with both caring and being cared for. To have the balance so completely destroyed by injury just as we moved forward as a couple has been physically and emotionally taxing. Yet being able to handle such intense dependency has also made us stronger, and brought the simple joys of cohabitation to the surface again. As we recover and relax, we are working to maintain that joy. More importantly, we are working to express it.

As I said earlier, things that are hard to handle mentally are hard to write about publicly, hard to acknowledge. I notice this in small interactions, where the situation becomes a burden. When asked “How are you?” I too often say how I feel,  sub-par, rather than how I am which is lucky, loved, and alive.

Here then is to healing, to breathing deep, to saying thank you, and to moving on.

Working to breathe

Landing in Shanghai in December, in October, in March, the air looks as dangerous as it is.

“Shadows settle on the place that you left.”

The darkness comes with a tangible presence, the feel of coal ash and concrete dust that falls on everything left outside, that coats balconies and bicycles, grass and trees. In Shanghai my breathing fails quickly, and I become dependent on albuterol, on inhalators I can no longer buy without a doctor’s permission. For almost a decade they were easy to come by, seventy six RMB each. The women who sold them, at the Shanghai No.1 Dispensary on Nanjing East and then at the Shanghai Pharmacy on Huaihai and Maoming, would ask how many I’d like. Ten? Twenty?

“Our minds are troubled by the emptiness.”

In San Francisco my doctor will not issue a prescription for more than one inhaler. My asthma requires a control medicine, he says, a steroid. Another inhaler to rely on, two prescription drugs to carry and afford forever, neither a cure, neither making the other unnecessary. Instead creating a balancing act of renewals and office visits, emails and paperwork.

“And if you’re still breathing, you’re the lucky ones.”

I left Shanghai in 2008, partially because of the air. On my return visits I see how wise it was, to move on and stop breathing in the pollution. With limited life in my lungs adapting to reduce their workload seems the best path. More than a year ago I started acupuncture. More than a year ago I went a week without using my inhaler, for the first time in longer than I could remember. Years. Decades? When did I begin taking these drugs? I remember Quibron, a horrible liquid, and white pills that tasted likewise foul, their name forgotten. And then Albuterol, forever.

“‘Cause most of us are heaving through corrupted lungs.”

Acupuncture has changed my life, brought a strange surprise to the onset of an attack, brought a relaxed joy to awaking, once the worst of moments. Until two years ago I’d woken with shock and strain, lungs struggling to handle the change in my body’s oxygen needs. Visiting San Francisco for a few days my old Shanghai roommate notices the change and tells me “I always thought you might die.”

“Setting fire to our insides for fun.”

In December Shanghai’s AQI topped 450. The air does not clean itself in the face of our pollution. Our bodies do not get stronger without our effort and care. As my friends in Shanghai purchase filters at frantic rates, some hand-assembled from fans and charcoal paper blocks, I rest and calm my body with mental tricks learned slowly over many years. I watch the sky, I stay warm, I avoid smokers. As with canaries, those of us with weakened lungs are not the only ones burdened by the failing air.

“And you caused it,
And you caused it,
And you caused it.”

 

Quoted lyrics from Daughter’s ‘Youth’ off of the 2013 album If You Leave