Chance meetings

I wait on an overhead walkway in the reflected lights of a Las Vegas evening for a friend. We live five hundred miles apart, and are lucky to be briefly so close. He is here with friends from high school, I with some from Houston, some from San Francisco. In a small bar we have a drink and he puts Johnny Cash on the record player. It’s a brief break from the rest of our weekends, which are a brief break from the rest of our lives.

Except in so many ways neither of these are a break, both of our lives are a mishmash of locations and people that we have somehow managed to keep up with for a decade or more. Thanks to jobs, education, and opportunities that take us from one place to another and to technology, from Instagram to Find my Friends, we’re in fact growing more connected to more people.

As we walk he mentions a mutual friend in New York: “Our TV tastes match very closely, so I listen to his recommendations.” After a decade of friendship we know more and more of the same people, regardless of how we first met.

When I return to the group I am staying with they ask after my meeting. In many ways this is the most unexpected and wonderful gift of our wedding last year. Friends from Shanghai, New York, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Tokyo all know each other, and have become connected in their own ways.

The week before I am in Shanghai for a weekend with a colleague. Lucky with a day off we have dinner with some of my old friends at a Xinjiang restaurant on Zhaojiabang Lu. In town but briefly I invite both who know each other well and those who have never met but have each known me for a decade. Watching them shake hands before we sit is a wonderful feeling. Late in the meal, after the restaurant’s dancers have tired, two friends who have each spent significant time in Tibet get to sharing stories of their adventures.

Watching them talk I’m reminded again that our relationships are the most precious things we acquire. The more scattered they are the more effort they takes to maintain, to pull groups together across physical space and personal time. Yet seeing old teammates, college friends, and former colleagues at the same table helps make sense of all this travel, of the busy-ness that fills so much of all our lives. And whether at dinner in Shanghai or over a drink in Las Vegas, introducing old friends to one another remains my favorite pleasure.

Weekends without hurry

On off weekends they rise late.

The cat, having long since missed weekday breakfast time, finally can wait no more. He climbs to the head of the bed and sniffs their sleeping faces, his nose close enough for each breath to have force. When even this close attention does not work he retreats and yeowls in the strained voice of a cat that does not meow. His short sounds wake the sleeping humans, and the ritual of coffee tea and kernels satisfies all three. It is almost noon, and they sit in the sun of open kitchen windows without talking, letting the last of Friday’s sleep fall away slowly. The cat, fed, covers his head in water from the dripping tub faucet and then watches pigeons across the street. He is content now that the people are awake and still home. These are his favorite days. He lies on the kitchen table, facing the window, his paws dangling off the edge. It is not the pose of a hunter.

They read and then write postcards to distant friends as a break from fiction, to free themselves from the worlds in their heads. Eventually she is hungry and eggs, homemade sauerkraut, and bagels follow. Somewhere in this process they move past the time for silence and into a quiet chatter about the neighborhood, potential plans, and the cats’ strange war cry upon sighting a fly. If able he will chase and consume, but more frequently after letting loose this strange vocal challenge he loses sight of the fly completely and wanders the small apartment confused until, bored, he returns to the table to watch the open windows from whence the fly first came.

Weekends that move this slowly are a gift. On mornings like these all three lounge without urgency, glad of the company, weather, and time.

Walking borders

I get out of the taxi on a highway offramp. The driver, from Dongguan, doesn’t want to be on the surface streets of Shenzhen. After a week on the road I don’t mind, and I shoulder my backpack and duffle. I weave through stopped traffic to the curb, following it down to ground level. The border is less than a hundred meters away, a large building that houses Chinese customs connected to a walking bridge across the river to another building that houses Hong Kong customs and the Lok Ma Chau train station.

I’ve walked further to borders.

Carrying gear through traffic on the surface street I pause on the dotted yellow as cars start to move and pass on either side. It’s an action that would cause problems in San Francisco or New York but here, like so much of the world, is simply part of crossing the street. Three cars later there is a gap and I am on the far sidewalk. Five minutes later I’m in line for exit customs. Five minutes after that I look at the river that separates Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Like always it makes me realize how small the differences are between places and how much impact they have on our lives.

Borders are largely artificial. Yes, the river forms a nice demarcating line, like the Rio Grande between Texas and Mexico, but the differences in income, opportunity, language and safety are not caused by the river.

On the train into Hong Kong the air is already slightly better. Pollution does not respect borders, but the sources of it do. Hong Kong’s air has worsened over the last decade due to its proximity to Shenzhen, Dongguan, and he whole Guangzhou region, but it’s still better than those cities. So too is the food, Internet, and transit, not to mention salaries. The effects of man. Housing is more expensive though, so many Hong Kong residents have started living in Shenzhen, commuting across the border to take advantage of the artificial cost disparity.

Walking this border is new to me. I first crossed it on foot less than a year ago, though the lines and shops have grown familiar with frequent repetition. Without an electronic ID card I have to wait in line, unlike my commuter friends. It’s still an amazingly efficient border, on both sides. Hong Kong customs are rightfully considered a model, fast, well-organized, and simple to cross. Being a trading port and an international hub requires good customs, I think.

Less than one year. Surprising to me, as it feels like much longer. Fourteen times at least. First with others, colleagues and factory representatives. Then by myself, often met on one side or the other. And now, in a taxi I found, dropped on the off ramp from the highway.

The borders we cross say a lot about our lives. As a boy from upstate New York, the frequency with which I walk the Hong Kong Shenzhen border serves as a shorthand explanation of my job, checking factories and working on manufacturing problems. It also outlines another, more common border I frequent: that between San Francisco and Hong Kong, delineated by airports and the Pacific. This border, seemingly unremarkable, is of course the slowest to cross, and the most expensive. Impossible on foot, or as a daily commute.

Two years ago my border crossings were very different, the product of another job, another life.

In that life I stepped out of the minivan into the harsh light of a Juarez autumn. I carried less, just my backpack, and walked faster through traffic, uncertain of its comfort with mid-stream pedestrians. Hawkers on the corner offered beads and newspapers. The footbridge, a couple hundred meters ahead, arced up over to the U.S. border beside the bridge for cars, jammed and barely moving. Without me onboard my host could avoid this line, using his express pass to meet me on the other side. By walking four hundred meters I saved us each an hour or more. It was an easy trade.

That border changed my travel strategy, led me to the single backpack packing method I use everywhere now. It also taught me that the strangest feeling a border can bring is that of having to ask to be let back in to one’s own country.

So much easier, less stressful, and faster, to ask for permission to enter Hong Kong.

The walking borders of my life two years ago were all between Mexico and the U.S. Mostly El Paso and Juarez, but also Tijuana and San Diego, after long days on the road. Those trips, a staple of my 2012 existence, have disappeared from my life entirely, replaced by Shenzhen and Zhongshan, by so many evenings in Hong Kong. In some ways it’s a direct exchange. I have traded the hot summer afternoons in Mexico, the air dry, for Hong Kong’s humidity and Dongguan’s pollution. Walking back from where the car traffic became impenetrable, almost a mile from the border in Tijuana, to my rental car on the other side of the US border, heading to San Diego airport, flying back to SFO, all that has been replaced by a car ride to Lok Ma Chau, a walk across that bridge, a train ride to Yau Ma Tei, a train to HKG, a flight to SFO. Longer, but much the same. Travel necessitated by sprawling supply chains that are themselves created by the artificial borders I cross.

What would I have said, at twenty, if told that fifteen years later I’d walk the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong a dozen times a year? Would I have been more surprised to know that at thirty three I’d spent months in Juarez? I suspect that twenty year old would be surprised by both, and then by neither, because he too was always seeking adventure, seeking to understand new things and to learn new places. He would be surprised at the specifics, at this afternoon’s offramp stroll. The general picture, of a life on the go, crossing borders on foot for money, would seem entirely appropriate. Or perhaps that’s the present talking, aware of all the strange jobs and odd decisions that brought me here. Perhaps that boy of twenty would doubt this future’s existence entirely, knowing little of Mexican factories and less of Chinese customs.

Either way, I’m glad to be back in Hong Kong, one border closer to home.

Listening after dark

Lying in bed at night I can hear so much. With eyes open after the lights are out, book down, and mind clear, I have nothing to do but listen. I hear cars on the 101, which is elevated a few blocks northeast. I hear the occasional cyclist on Minna, below my windows. The distant roar of a jet passing overhead after leaving SFO to the south. Closer, someone pushes a shopping cart down Minna, stopping every few houses. Hunting recycling. Someone yells something a block or two away, up Mission. There is no response. A siren moves, fading, in a more distant part of the city, SoMa maybe. And more 101 traffic. The aural landscape tonight is mostly highway. Mostly cars.

The light from the neighbors’ bathroom goes on, shining in through my bathroom window, both rooms sharing the same light well at the center of the building. More cars. Their light goes off. The family in the house next door is talking, a low murmur through the windows. Which stops. One person comes out into the tiny courtyard between our buildings. The thin door bangs behind them.

After a while they go back in side, having stood silently while out. Smoking? No click of lighter or sound of match.

The neighbors bathroom light goes on again. And off. Much shorter.

The cars continue on the 101 as the clock hits eleven pm. The calming background noises of the city as Wednesday ticks toward Thursday.

Time for bed.

Napping creatures

In the long rays of afternoon light on the last day of the year I read through words from the months past and stare out the window. On the sofa Mr. Squish sleeps with his face tucked against the blue cushions that were a gift to ourselves this past April, when we were in sore need of a space to lie down. Since then it has hosted friends from New York, from Denver, from San Diego, Detroit, and Portland. In 2015 hopefully many more will visit and find it welcoming. Today it is my home, at least until nap time.

In 2014 we mastered a new skill: napping. Whether from injury, exhaustion, jetlag, or illness, we were often forced to sleep when able rather than when dark, to rest when the day became quiet, even at 3 pm. And so we did, all three of us, with great frequency. Mr. Squish is pleased with this turn, as he misses my ritual of Thursdays at home from the two years previous, when I would avoid the commute to Petaluma and instead pace our bedroom on long phone calls as he slept on the bed in the slim beams of sun those east-facing windows provided. In those afternoons he would nap on the bay window seats above the floorboard heater as I sat nearby at the desk. In 2014 he has the luxury of our new sofa and an expanse of north and west facing windows perfect for a sun-loving cat. He is not alone in this love, and often times has to share the couch. It’s an arangement that suits everyone.

In these last short days of winter we have managed to wring from 2014 more of the smiles we had hoped for at the year’s start. A few days on the North California coast gave us sun and the sounds of the ocean. A few days in the mountains of Colorado gave us the peace of being snowed in beneath thousands of stars. And now, at the end of the year, we have some time at home to curl up and reflect, to make art and to sing. Buried in the joy of these early afternoons and short evenings is a lesson about hopes and expectations and the challenges that will fill the rest of our lives.

The year started with a new job, with a new house, and plans for a wedding. It ended with five weddings, four bachelor/bachelorette parties, a huge number of new destinations, new trips, and new experiences. Also the worst injury of each of our lives, the longest break from ultimate, and the most hours of work we’ve ever clocked. 2014 was grueling, swallowing us with the feeling that we could do nothing but grind, do nothing but heal, and do nothing but celebrate.

In between these moments it has been a year of naps. A skill once learned on Tokyo trains and long haul flights has been perfected in hospital chairs, airport lounges, and on this exact sofa.

So, after both lunch and work emails are finished, Mr. Squish and I retire to the bed. The house is finally warm, and the sun streams in the windows. Later we will rise, welcome Tara home, and prepare to celebrate with friends. For now we curl up tight together with a furry blanket and surrender again to sleep.