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