Rise above

When I was a child the Ramada Inn was one of the tallest buildings in Ithaca. Now called the Hotel Ithaca and a Holiday Inn in between, it’s a nondescript building in a city that’s gotten taller. In the early ‘90s though the tower stood out. The bulk of the hotel is a standard two story structure, but on Cayuga street there is a ten story tower with a great view of downtown. It also has a glass-walled elevator that facing north, towards the Commons and the heart of Ithaca.

Towards the end of high school I spent a lot of time in this elevator, usually late at night. As it rose above the second floor and the roofs around, Ithaca spread out. With hills and the towers of Cornell and IC on them, there are a lot of good views in Ithaca, but not many downtown or indoors. Or there didn’t used to be.

For a few years the comic book conventions were held at the Ramada, and so a couple of weekends a year I’d spend a lot of time there, helping out and wandering around. Somewhere in this time I learned about the elevator, and the view from the 10th floor. More importantly I learned that there was a side door to the tower and no one cared if I walked in and just rode the elevator up to watch the city.

So I did.

In that Chang’an hotel the first time I was surprised. From the lobby’s white lights and interior feel the change is sudden, especially at night. Glass backed, the elevator lifts through the atrium walls and out into the night. Dongguan spreads out to the hills and beyond, lit but muffled. Across the street the shopping center flashes neon and behind it apartment towers fill with the light of evening. Below, on the roof of the hotel’s lobby and restaurants, a curved pool shines from its own light. The unlit portion of the roof fades as the elevator continues upwards, immersed in the dark of the evening. Further out across the city other towers blink or beckon. Office towers darker, apartments bright, shopping brighter still. With rooms between the 10th and 15th floors, the ride is long enough to notice, and to enjoy.

Only the middle two elevators get the glass treatment. The others, for a repeat visitor, feel like a waste, metal boxes without any view. Returning, I’m glad when door 2 or 3 open. After a few days of this I tried to remember other glass elevators I know of. Long term parking at SFO. A hotel on Union Square. And that old Ramada. More, surely, but those are the ones that stand out immediately.

Wherever I go, indoors or out, I always want a better view or a higher perch. Elevators represent that, a chance for a better view, though usually not so literally as my Chang’an hotel’s four options and 50% chance. Even without a glass wall though, there’s a view implied by the building’s height, the buttons outlining just how high, a maximum number. While I’ve always wanted to check every floor, the highest one calls most clearly. I am not alone in this. Witness the world’s tallest bar, hotel, restaurant, deck, pool, and gym, each promising a view in addition to their primary function.

In Tokyo I used to enter office buildings at random, seeking ways up to a view of the city that I love. In Shanghai I started trying hotels, which often have a bar or deck at some height. The best moments, though, come with discovery of glass walls on the ride up, the feeling of leaving the earth behind.

Space elevators are going to be the most amazing things.

Downtown, by the train

For the first time in the United States we have the life we had in Asia. At great but worthwhile expense, we live downtown near the train. In San Francisco this means the Mission, and this means Bart.

Three years ago we lived in a studio in the Sunset, half a block from the N-Judah, a Muni above-ground train line. The studio was wonderful. Giant west-facing windows made for perfect light, and the neighborhood was comfortingly Asian. Rent was reasonable, even with parking, albeit double what we’d paid for a 1 bedroom in Houston scant months before. As for the train, well, proximity was often its best feature. Locals refer to the N jokingly, if at all, and avoid any reliance on it’s twisting route, which is often blocked by cars at 9th and Irving and delayed at the Duboce and Church switch to underground operation. We used it first frequently and then less so, moving to bicycle or car instead.

For years though we regretted leaving that studio, at least on Sundays. Our one bedroom in the Richmond faced east, and so lost the light early in the day. Coupled with the Cigarettes Cheaper crowd next door and the Walgreens loading bay across the street that apartment became exactly what we’d hoped to avoid: a large house with poor light, loud neighbors, and a two-car commute. Looking back now, only months removed, it seems impossible to imagine. Yet for three years we both drove an hour plus each way out of San Francisco. One north, one south, far enough to make most moves impossible for one commute or the other.

And so from the Richmond we took the bus downtown, and walked Fillmore in the night. We went to shows and to bars, but not as many. We took more cabs, and drove more often to friends’ houses.

Our move to the Richmond was built on two desires. Most importantly, a cat, which our Sunset landlord would not allow. Secondly, to have a spare room for guests, even though several had braved our studio, slept on couch or kitchen floor. The living room was useful, and allowed us to easily welcome guests from all over the world. That apartment gave us Mr. Squish, fulfilling our exact request for a cat.
As I write these words he is sprawled on the couch across from me, content in his new home, only the second he has known. He is happier, though that could be the Karlstad sofa he is lounging on, a wedding present to ourselves in a blue that matches our new house. Moving with a cat has long been a dream of ours. Taking him on our adventures, if not yet rock climbing, and watching him explore new spaces are some of our favorite moments.

Why is this apartment so much more welcoming than our old one?

The answers are easy: light, size, and location.

In three months we’ve had friends come for dinner, colleagues bring lunch, and visitors crash on that couch. We’ve walked home from baseball games and taken the train to the airport. We’ve taken the train to brunch at friends’ houses in the East Bay and to work, novelties both. In the last week neither of us drove to work for two days in a row, the first time that has happened since we moved to San Francisco.

Why is this such a change, why did we ever forgo it, and how did we know we wanted it? These questions repeat themselves to me on my walks to Bart, on my train rides home.

This is such a change because we’ve each gained at a minimum two hours of mental time each day. Four hours multiplied by five days is twenty hours a week we gained as a couple with the move. Twenty hours a week, minimum, of additional thinking, reading, and working is time almost impossible to value. Another half a work week. Another two and a half days of paid working hours. Yes, rents are higher in the Mission. Yes, getting rid of one car helped keep our expenses within a similar range. But clearly, at twenty plus hours, we were undervaluing our time, undervaluing each other.

We gave up those hours initially because we had to. We’d gotten an apartment in the Sunset as the cheapest place we could find in San Francisco proper, and a good place to start our life here from. It was. We then got jobs out of the city, in opposite directions. They were good opportunities, and so we put up with the cost in cars and miles, knowing it would not be forever. When we moved to the Richmond, we shortened my commute at Tara’s expense. We balanced traffic and distance and the desire for a cat as best we could. And still we knew it would not be forever.

How did we know what we wanted? How did we know we’d be happier in a smaller apartment within walking distance of a train line, with only one car, in a more urban environment?

Shanghai.

We have lived in dense urban environments, ridden the subway or an electric scooter to work or to school, and commuted in the dense throngs of people rare for most Americans. We have lived in those environments and thrived. We have become comfortable with the benefits of dense living, of good transportation, and of shared public space rather than large private residences.

In America these lessons are difficult to learn. Apartments in dense areas with good public transit are expensive and restricted to a handful of cities. In many, like San Francisco, they are restricted to select neighborhoods in those cities. In Shanghai, in Tokyo, in Hong Kong, these lessons are simply life. They are learned on the train to grade school and in the tiny urban apartments of university. Density is not an option but the ground rule, public transportation not a luxury but the base layer of the urban environment.

We are lucky, in San Francisco, to live downtown near the train. In Shanghai it was the only place we could live, there was no other option. In Japan before that I lived in Saitama, outside of Tokyo proper, and yet on a line that ran directly into Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya. Out of the city and yet of the city in a way rare for Americans. Able to work and shop in the global megacity and still go for a run in the mornings along the Arakawa river.

In San Francisco, in the Mission, guests from out of town drop in for single night and leave early in the morning for meetings in the Financial District, or to tour the Embarcadero. What was once an hour away by bus is ten minutes by Bart. Waiting twenty minutes or more for the N has been replaced by taking any train out of dozens on a workday morning. We often do not drive for an entire weekend, and soon for an entire work week.

Yet in many ways this feels like avoiding the problems. The N still goes 30 minutes between trains on the weekends. The Richmond is still 40 minutes from Powell by bus, an hour twenty or more from the East Bay without free transfer. That we no longer care is a symptom of the problem, and a reason public transit remains a fractured experience. In Shanghai all the trains are run as one unit. In Japan a variety of companies with huge networks work together on train time tables and station infrastructure. In San Francisco there are only three stops on Bart in residential neighborhoods.

Yet 
I no longer complain about transit in San Francisco, instead promoting Bart to arriving guests. Limited, yes, but effective, and valuable, as was my line in Saitama. These visits and easier commutes, then, are the benefits of living here. And in many ways we are at last at home in San Francisco in a way we have not felt before.

Fireflies

Discussing housing around the office lunch table one afternoon he mentions friends who purchased their house primarily for the spacious kitchen and dining area, the ability to seat 12 easily.

“We have dinner parties almost every weekend”, a colleague says. She and her husband organize, she explains, their children and families from all over the neighborhood, on warm evenings in the heat of the East Bay summer. “My husband loves to cook,” she adds, with the smile of one who does not. Her colleague grins with understanding, having survived on Asian street food for most of a decade.

“Sounds like a good time,” he says, thinking of San Francisco’s fog and the brevity of outdoor gatherings.

“It is. It’s nice, everyone in the back yard eating, the children running wild. I have a huge costume box, a trampoline, and a sprinkler.” The images come easily to mind, an American childhood in a middle class neighborhood. “And sitting there, in the dark with all my friends,” she says, “having a glass of wine and talking after the children are asleep, I look around and think this, this is what I imagined being an adult would be like.”

This is what I imagined being an adult would be like, he repeats.

Not meetings and long evenings in the office or on Skype. Not driving between appointments, running late. Those weren’t even ideas, as a child.
What had he thought life would be like, as an adult?

Sitting around a table in the evening, with the lights low and the stars out.

Having a glass of wine with friends after the children had gone inside.

Watching for meteors and laughing about the day’s adventures.

Pretty accurate, he thinks. Seems pretty much what he’d have hoped for.
Save one thing.

“Just need some fireflies,” he says.

“What?”

“Fireflies. I really miss them.”

“Oh. Yeah. Me too.”

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.