Working to breathe

February 10th, 2014

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

In cities we trust

February 1st, 2014

Living tightly packed requires a certain trust unique to cities. In my rural home town no unfamiliar faces pull in to get gas at the Citgo. No strange children show up to play ball at the North Lansing Firehall. With an average grade of 300 children, everyone in the Lansing public school system knows each other, has a cousin in the grade ahead and a sister two grades below. People become part of the town’s tapestry, have kids in the school musical, coach each other’s children in little league and hang out at the lake together in the heat of August.

Living near each other in Tokyo requires forgetting where one person ends and the next begins, sacrificing self for the ability to return home on the last Saikyo line train. Stepping out in Yonohommachi in 2002 I remember most the first block, back along the train tracks, still wrapped in scents that were not my own. Beer. Sweat. Food I had not eaten. Perfume I did not purchase, or apply. For several blocks, until the streets became small and the crowds disappeared, until I passed the grapevines, I was not entirely myself, having given up my scent to the city of Tokyo.

In so many ways living in a city requires vigilance. In Ithaca in 1997 I used to leave the keys on the floor of my 1984 Volvo 240, windows rolled down to the summer heat. In San Francisco in 2014 strange sounds wake me in the night and my first instinct is to check on our Volvo, a 1997 model now, parked on the street outside. Our apartment doors, often open in Houston in 2009, are secured carefully in San Francisco, watched over by cats and by neighbors. Yet it is that trust of neighbors that persists, that grows. Because unlike in Lansing where I played ball or built tree forts with our neighbors, here we know little of each other’s lives, but watch each other’s doorways anyway. Here we are brought to trust by proximity rather than through history. We have the loose friendships of the city, temporary and without concern for the unknown. One neighbor receives keys to our apartment for a week, and we hers, on the basis of a single shared fact: that we each own a lonely feline. There is no elaborate period of getting to know each other, no shared holidays or family stories, just need, ability, and trust.

These are the relationships unique to dense urban environments, and the faith in each other I think of each time I pass my wallet and transit pass down the length of a crowded 38 bus so that someone unseen can swipe it and, hopefully, return card, wallet, and contents to me. It is the trust I repay in swiping some unseen person’s card on the panel in front of me, all of us twisted by the bus’ lurching into a human pretzel of shared motion.

The city enables

January 19th, 2014

In the past year I slept in thirty five different zip codes. At an average of one every ten days, not accounting for length of stay or multiple visits, the pace of life becomes clear. San Francisco may be my home, or more accurately it may be my home base.

Thirty five is by no means a record for humans. There are those who travel daily, who work or live on multiple continents. I also do not see this as a great gift. This number of beds simply reflects a job and a kind of life. This much travel certainly does affect my connection to any place, and would anyone’s. By changing how often we are home and what we think of home when we arrive, how much we value down time anywhere as opposed to down time somewhere. Unpacking this week I threw clothes on top of clothes and went off again, if only for hours. Today I will sort them, wash them, fold them and stow the memories of where we were last week, where we were the week before.

San Francisco has all the makings of a good home base. SFO is an excellent airport with non-stop connections domestically and internationally. Situated on the edge of a continent, and on the edge of a major economy, the city gives access both deeper in to the US and farther out, to Asia, Australia and beyond. By being a port it hosts not just airplanes, but boats, ships, and the occasional train. By being a center of innovation and corporate development it receives attention from the global media, communications companies, and infrastructure investments from service providers. Because it is in California, the weather is often fair and rarely horrible.

The downsides are usually a product of that success, and occasionally of the location. Because of the weather, fog sometimes shuts down the airport and often curtails the warmth of evenings. Because of the small size and popularity, rents range from expensive to outlandish, meaning even poor dwellings are hotly contested. Because of California’s strange government the public transit, safety, and education could all be better, while taxes are high, for the US. Because of the hills, walking and biking are harder than in many places, and the clique-like nature of the various neighborhoods is enhanced. Likewise, because of the hills, cellular service varies from excellent to non-existent within a span of blocks.

Yet in some ways San Francisco feels too easy, feels too comfortable. The weather does not threaten, and while earthquakes remain a danger they are too unpredictable to guide daily life. Seasons do not have the same urgency, with summer the gloomiest time of year. Likewise the affluence of young people in this startup-fueled culture gives much of the city a surreal air, with expensive restaurants featuring wait lists two days after opening.

Still, sitting down town in the rain, waiting for a meeting, I realize the benefits of being based here, in one of the major coastal cities in the US, with excellent food and transit links, with a massive base of capital and culture, education and talent. 

It’s a good place to live. As much as I’m here, anyway.

As fast as possible

December 22nd, 2013

In the space of a week I go from Los Angeles and a pool to Petaluma, San Francisco, and Shanghai. Yangzhou, Changshu, and Tokyo follow before the string of airport initials and train station names reverses, leading me home in time for Christmas. With each step comes a greater sense of urgency, and a greater sense of exhaustion. Every vehicle and every contact is exhorted for speed. ASAP. Any phrase so often abused as to have a common acronym deserves consideration before use, in this case deserves preservation for the truly urgent moments.

How to tell what requires attention when everything is made to seem urgent?

Our lives are brief fragile things of scant import and dear value. They consist of years that can be counted with ease by children, of months tied together by weather, and of hours that seem to drift by with the Chinese countryside, in a state of waiting known as transit.

In the space of a week I spend forty one hours in motion and yet waiting, rushing and yet unable to move. In the space of a week I sleep in seven beds. At the end of it, waiting for the last plane, I try to clear my brain and add up the lessons from those miles, add up the value of the travel in a way other than the monetary cost or the hours.

I have had dinner with friends from all segments of life, from Tokyo ten years ago, Shanghai eight, Shanghai five, and San Francisco now. I have seen houses and children, girlfriends, and wives. In groups large and small, we have shared stories that will hold us together for another month, or year, or two, until somehow the world brings us to table again in the same city.

I have solved problems I am paid to solve, given support to those both up and down the chain of business from me. Listened to complaints, answered requests, provided explanations, outlined requirements. I have cleaned and trimmed and measured and folded and packed product in the kind of chill concrete building I try to avoid after Christmas 2007.

Do these things, done at questionable speed, make for a better life? They certainly do not help our shared environmental disaster. In fact, they are a direct cause, a product of the excesses of miscalculated transportation costs. What can I do to repair these damages? What can I do to make each hour both longer and shorter, both more memorable and less all-consuming? How can I continue to learn and work while allowing myself time for tasks that require mental focus and a single location?

These are good questions for a twelve hour flight from Seoul to San Francisco.

Walking the High Line

November 22nd, 2013

In New York for a week at the end of October we work from coffee shops and visit old friends in the dark. Breaks like these, weeks on other coasts and other shores, keep friendships alive and our feel for the country alive. Yet laptops in one city are much like those in any other, in fact the same. And so on Friday afternoon we put them down and head out to see something of New York.

We end up on the High Line, which neither of us have ever seen. On the first of November Manhattan is warm and welcoming, and the other tourists likewise calm. We walk and talk, take pictures and breath the air. Across the Hudson we can see Stevens, where a cousin went. I remember looking at this view from the other side on her graduation, an event that seems both recent and forever ago.

The High Line, like the pedestrian sections of Broadway, gives me hope for cities. Gives me hope for American cities, at least, so long under siege from the automobile, the highway, the culture of divided lane no left turn. It is a small thing, this elevated railway line repurposed as a tourist path, an exploratory walkway. And yet, photographing construction from its glass sides, I think of the elevated path through Xujiahui Park, and the benefits of investing in comforts for people, rather than machines.

New York seems well, despite the challenges of being home to eight plus million. In the late fall of 2013 it seems like a city in growth mode, and the feeling of motion and life is a joy to be amidst.

Towards the end of the day we sit in a small park further south. I nap as my companion answers a work phone call. On other benches men read the newspaper and women listen to music. Despite the street and trucks scant feet away, we all relax and breathe in the last of the sunshine.

In Union Square we watch the sun set over the farmer’s market, taking pictures of the skyline. We are not alone, a group of New Yorkers and tourists holding our phones skyward to capture the spectrum of colors that has stopped us in our tracks. We are not comfortable as tourists by nature, and yet so often we are, wandering through cities that are not our homes, in search of new things. In a dozen trips to New York we have yet to climb the Empire State, or see the Statue of Liberty save from the plane. On this Friday, though, we wander enough to feel like visitors and mingle enough to feel at home, and are content. Lost amid the fruit stalls, hearing Chinese and French, the comfort is not of New York, but of people, of a city large enough to become lost in and large enough to produce beauty accidentally. Unbidden, I recall scooter rides through Shanghai on November Sundays six years ago. Like this we would then wander, out of doors in the sunshine with no specific destination or curfew. Those were some of our first adventures together, climbing abandoned buildings and exploring back alleys, zipping around turns on our electric scooter. There too we did not seek famous temples or specific buildings, content to wander as traffic took us, to turn where our eyes led us.

Maybe it is the smell of a city in fall, or the trees in Union Square, or the remove from the rest of our lives that brings those images back. Maybe it is simply watching each other relax and smile, or maybe it is our joy in exploration. No matter which, standing this afternoon on the deck of an old railroad above new construction, watching the workers below, we were happy and still for a moment in an otherwise well-scheduled trip.

After six years of taking our time, of exploring together, we will be married in the spring, adding one more set of promises to a long list of hopes. Standing in the New York sunshine with overlapping memories of all the cities we’ve seen together, the future looks promising.