Places I slept, 2010

San Francisco, CA

Santa Monica, CA

Shanghai, China

Shaoxing, China

Cherry Hill, NJ

New York, NY

Seattle, WA

Sacramento, CA

Fort Collins, CO

Duluth, MN

Green Bay, WI

Chicago, IL

Manzanita, OR

Miami, FL

Clark, Philippines

Boracay, Phillippines

Houston, TX

Another good list, and a streak kept alive. I’ve been out of this country every year for a decade now. Here’s to saying the same for the next one.

Time to think

The sky in Houston is blue, with vague drifting layers of cloud. The freeways are empty and smooth, the buttresses adorned with the star of Texas. At two am we sit back in the cab, watching the city we used to know so well roll by. Christmas is coming, and the air’s humidity licks us through the open windows, borne on a warmer breeze than the one blowing fog past the windows of our San Francisco apartment.

With the gentle rolling up and down of 59 and then 45 we catch glimpses of our old neighborhood, passing under the bridges we used to bike across to the supermarket. The Sears building in midtown is still empty, still signed. I wonder how long it will stay that way, and who owns it. Theirs was a vast empire of real estate almost entirely disassembled. The tower in Chicago now bears another name, the huge flagship in Los Angeles is being converted to condos after years of an emptiness similar to that of this Houston store’s, sign lit but doors locked.

Further on, out west and headed south on 59, we pass one with the lights still on, the S alone the size of our taxi, a minivan. Modern and suburban, it is still retailing, but the shape of the building holds nothing of the company that built art-deco monuments to shoppers, built huge structures in the center of towns becoming cities.

We are in Texas for the holidays, staying with family, playing basketball in the drive, and relaxing. Taking time to think.

Thinking time is all too rare these days, coming mostly in commutes up and down the 101 to Petaluma. No surprise then that thoughts of automobiles, of the economy, of the cultural differences in driver’s education on the left and right coasts, and of abandoned buildings are foremost in my mind. No surprise that the Fit has become a touchstone for the later parts of twenty ten. Thinking time used to be something done in public, on trains, in airports and hotel rooms, in countries where I did not speak the language. Now it happens in a car without company. I spend more time on the phone.

The last week of the year holds as much time to think as I am capable of, offices lightly staffed or closed, friends out of town, gone home. The year unspools in reverse, accumulated memories flicked through, adventures ticked off on lists of beds and travel. Mostly though what looms is the difference from the start of twenty ten, where time to think was Monday morning, time to write an unavoidable aspect of the time everyone else spent in the office or commuting. Scattered moments, now, are spent editing and thinking. In the shower and at night I remember ideas and try to get them down before losing them to the office.

In twenty eleven I will make time again. Time to work out, time for friends, and time to think.

Get out of this country

“Without this trip I’d have broken my streak,” he says. We are standing barefoot on the world’s finest sand, Red Horse in hand, watching the sun light up the ocean and clouds as it sinks. I do not need the streak explained.

“How many years?” I ask.

“Five.” A good number, half of the last decade. We watch the sun set, toes sifting the beach. World’s finest, in this case, is not an abstract label of quality applied by the local tourism board. Rather it is a measure of size, grain for grain. Though this island may not truly be the world’s anything a survey of our group reveals experience on the beaches of five continents, and none finer. Surrounded by friends, a few steps from the shade of buildings and trees, we are wrapped in the color of the approaching evening. The water is warmer than the air and the days are still long at the beginning of December.

“What does this city have to offer me? Everyone else thinks it’s the bee’s knees.”

My friend does not mention that, in his streak of five years, he has learned a smattering of Mandarin and become fluent in German. He doesn’t mention that he has made hundreds of friends, or how these years have changed his approach to work, to housing, and to vacations. He doesn’t have to.

On the beach we toss a frisbee around without urgency. This white plastic disc has brought us all together, in Asia, in the US. It has kept us close through moves and new countries, jobs and relationships. Yet this week it is simply a toy, to be brought out and put away, to be organized around and kept track of. Because the people are here already, they do not need to be assembled. The people and the sunsets and the sand and the water, and life feels complete.

“Let’s hit the road dear friend of mine.”

Five years is enough time. It is time enough for our home nation to change presidents, for economic growth to reveal its cyclical nature, and for us all to settle down, at least a little. Five years ago we lived in the same city, and we played the same game. Years later we again live in the same city, and still play this game. Most everything else has changed. The language we speak daily has changed, as have our jobs. We’ve left behind belongings and gained new apartments, stomping grounds and teammates. We’ve left behind a lot of frisbees.

“Let’s get out of this country,”

she sings and we agree. At least once a year, for as long as we can manage it, for five years or ten. As twenty ten grows short we smile at each other, having kept our streaks alive. Over the ocean the sun drops into the water, leaving pink echoes in the sky. We are lucky to be sharing a city again in San Francisco, and lucky to be standing here again on Boracay.

Quoted lyrics from Camera Obscura’s “Let’s Get Out of This Country” off of the 2006 album of the same name

Mobile

In Pescadero, along the coast of the Pacific an hour south of San Francisco, the water and the sky are one. The sun has set and the lightning, when it breaks, blankets everything. The ocean, in the last light, was white and whipped with the onrushing storm.

In a parking lot a group of a dozen debate shelter. Possible permutations of bodies to fill four bunks and one queen are offered and countered. Camping, formerly the refuge of the rugged or underfunded, has become undesirable.

As the hail hits there comes agreement. Newly gifted with the ability, we withdraw our need from the group. For the remainder of the stormy evening, the Fit that brought us here will be our home. It’s rear seats folded flat and padded with zipped-down sleeping bags, the little car has ample room for two people who routinely claim 5’10”. With a bit of contortion I manage to stretch my legs straight, a blessing with hip joints that ache from a day spent running in wet sand.

This ability, to travel short distances to strange places on our own schedule, is not newly gained. For years now the trusty Volvo has been our steed, taking us across the western states with pace. The Fit would not win by any measure of speed or acceleration, but this new found capacity, to shelter, impresses greatly.

In the two months it has been with us the Fit has seen the Pacific from a wide range of angles. Manzanita, Oregon last month and Pescadero, California today represent but the end points. It crosses the Golden Gate daily, winding first through the Presidio and then up into Marin. It has seen Mount Shasta and driven the streets of Portland, not to mention Berkeley and San Mateo. Some day soon it will see Los Angeles, I imagine.

First though will come more days like today, random parking lots and stands of weeds made into them, near grass fields or beaches, with cleats and discs and water bottles filling the back seats. The mobile is good for that, with it’s small frame and seats for five it handles odd spaces without question.

And, as we woke this morning, we realized it could do so much more, having sheltered us comfortably through downpours while moving and now while asleep. Wiping condensation from the windshield’s interior with a t-shirt though it occurred to us exactly why door visors are an option. Sleeping with ventilation that did not also let in the weather would be an improvement.

Perhaps the mobile will get a Christmas present.

Bud Selig & the TSA

There are two things that make me very angry today.  They may seem to have nothing to do with each other.  Yet Bud Selig is exactly like the TSA.  They are both higher powers in the American landscape that are forcing their awful ideas on society.  Let me explain.

Bud Selig wants to put ten teams in the MLB playoffs, rather than the current eight, which is already an increase from the six that got in when he became Commissioner.  Six, eight, ten, why the big deal?  Mediocrity.  Baseball is the American pasttime.  It isn’t “the current American sport of the moment”, nor is it “something cool we made for TV”.  Baseball is tough.  The season is long.  The games are played in the sun of long summer afternoons.  Pitchers take forever.  Batters grab their crotches.  Baseball is awesome.  It’s also hard. And most teams don’t make the playoffs.  I don’t mean *half* the teams don’t make the playoffs.  I mean most.  As in, pre-Bud, less than one out of three. One per division.  That was awesome.

Bud Selig implemented the Wild Card, which is pretty solid, as things go, though it does occasionally lead to crazy math.  The idea behind the Wild Card was that teams who happened to have another very good team in their division could still make the playoffs.  This was called the “Yankee rule” or the “AL East rule”, because it gave Baltimore, Toronto, Tampa Bay and even Boston some hope that, in an era when the Yankees went to the post-season almost every year, they didn’t have to beat the Yankees to get in, they just had to be better than everyone else.

I love the Wild Card rule.  I think it’s very rewarding to say “hey, we didn’t win the division but we would have won most divisions, so we should keep playing.”  I like this sense of achievement.  Plus, the Cardinals won the WS as Wild Card entrants in 2006.  And the Marlins in 2003.  And 2007.  Wild Cards are good for baseball.  And eight out of thirty teams is still less than one third.  It’s still tough to get in to the playoffs in MLB.

Why is it good to have the playoffs be tough to get into? Because nothing is more disheartening than hearing a NFL fan say the following: “Our team is 4-6. Maybe if Buffalo loses to Tampa and Green Bay beats Seattle and we beat Chicago, we can make the playoffs!”

That is pathetic.  It’s demeaning to the fans, and to the game. Why? Because their team is simply not any good.  Good teams make the playoffs, bad teams don’t. That’s the whole idea!  If mediocre teams make the playoffs it’s called THE REGULAR SEASON.

But Bud thinks good teams aren’t making the playoffs.  Hence the whole ten teams instead of eight thing.  Wait. What? Did any good teams miss the playoffs in 2010?  The Padres?  Not a good team.  How do I know?  They didn’t make the playoffs.  Also, their run differential was +84.  This means they scored 84 more runs than they allowed, over the course of the 2010 season. Was this good?  Well, in a word, no. The eight teams that made the playoffs were between +163 (NYY) and +100 (Texas). No team had a +100 run differential and did not make the playoffs.  The Cardinals were the only ones even close, at +95 and no playoffs.  And we all know the Cardinals weren’t very good down the stretch.

In case that last paragraph contained too many ideas and failed attempts at humor, let me clarify:

In 2010, the best eight teams made the playoffs, and those eight teams were quite noticeably better than any of the other 22 teams.

Bud Selig is not helping the sport.  He may be helping someone.  That I won’t argue.

And how is Bud like the TSA?  Well the TSA may be helping someone, but they’re not helping passengers. They’re not helping airports.  They’re not improving security. They aren’t saving money. They’re not speeding up transit. They’re not making people’s days better.

What are they doing? Keeping everyone scared.  Remember, the threat is real, they say. The threat level is orange.

The threat level has *always been* orange.

Airplanes got blown up before 9/11. The TSA didn’t exist. Neither did naked scanners, shoe removal, pat downs, nail clipper confiscation, belt removal, or 2 hour security lines.

Are we safer? I guess that depends on us. All I know is that Bud isn’t making the sport I love better and the TSA isn’t making the experience I love (air travel) better.  They may be helping someone, but it’s not me. I love to fly and I love baseball.  Please, Bud Selig and faceless TSA boss, stop trying to change that.