Feels like the future

In the gravel parking lot of a factory across a river in Nanchang a man paces. He walks along the concrete barrier that edges the space, one foot in front of the other. Beneath the bike canopy to his left a half dozen scooters are scattered, some electric some gas. The sun smothers the courtyard, pressing down the plumes of pollution so that they stick to his skin in the humidity. With one hand held to his ear in the familiar pose, the humidity and dirt do not bother him. He is not distracted by the trucks that rumble along the rough gravel road outside the factory’s gate, and the smell of the nearby bathrooms, their waterless troughs open to the sky, does not slow his conversation.

At a bus stop beneath an overpass in San Rafael a man waits. In his white hood and black jeans he leans against the structure’s thin plastic wall, one hand in his pocket the other cupping a distant voice to his ear. The bus is late and the morning fog limits visibility. He does not seem to mind, smiling into the shrouded distance, his eyes picturing some other place.

These two men do not know each other, and will never meet. Their conversations do not intersect, and yet would not surprise. They are both calling someone to be free of where they are, to pass the time waiting.

In the parking lot in China the man is waiting for a sample run to dry, for screens to finish printing, for a washer that he has filled by hand with hot water to cycle down.

In Marin the man waiting for the bus is on his way to work, to a job too far away, in a city he can’t afford to live in. The phone call to a friend already on the road distracts them both.

The future is coming, we tell each other, searching movie star filmographies on our phones in a bar. One day we’ll be able to send each other live videos of our cats as they try to sit in ever-smaller boxes. One day we’ll be able to read Chinese with our phone.

Listing off milestones of future connectivity, possible abilities, we forget the parts that are here, the parts that have already changed the world. They are no longer startling. Sitting in a conference room a song begins. The half dozen people seated at the table or on the floor do not move, they are not surprised at this strange music. One man, typing something, reaches a hand into his bag, his other hand continuing the words, and fishes out a phone.

“Hello,” he says. “I’ll be downstairs in a minute.”

We are no longer surprised to hear from people we can not see.

In China, in the heat of Nanchang, the man does not pace all day. He sits and talks to the factory owner, and then the man who mixes color for the prints. He works with the ayi who washes the clothes and has volunteered her machine for his testing. He hangs the samples on bushes to dry. Sent here alone, far from home and without a plan to return to it, he is not afraid, nor will he be forgotten. His phone keeps him connected to colleagues in Shanghai, to colleagues in Los Angeles.

We spend every day with abilities unimaginable two hundred years before. The future is coming, surely, with cows tracked by satellites rather than dogs and refrigerators that order Coors Light long before the last one is opened. Yet the future is here, too, with the voices of our friends from other continents, the answers to our questions from other time zones. Stepping off the plane in Salt Lake or in Texas we are no longer alone. Were we ever? Did we really drive miles to pay phones?

On his drive home years later, through the fog of Marin, he sees a man leaning against the bus stop, alone in the evening light. A lonely place to wait, the driver thinks, and then he sees the laugh, the hand holding phone to ear, and smiles.

The phone tucked in the center console rings.

“Hello,” says the man driving home in Marin.

“Hello,” says his mother, on a beach in Jamaica.

Honda Fit thoughts, part 1

Next week will mark my fourth month with the 2010 Honda Fit Sport.  Like all items thoroughly researched online prior to purchase, I had expectations and opinions about it and cars like it long before I set foot in a dealer or got behind the wheel. 

Now, with the benefit of a few weeks behind the wheel, my opinions have been clarified with experience, and I can say something far too rare:

The Honda Fit consistently exceeds my expectations and surprises me with the consideration that went into it’s design. 

Named “the Mobile,” as it does not squire Batman, my Fit Sport has a range of options surprising both for breadth and specificity. There are 8+ cup holders. Paddle shifters. A USB port for the stereo. Tire air level indicators. Magic seats. A MPG read out. Seemingly every feature I envy on larger cars. And yet the list of features left out is striking too: automatic headlights, steering wheel volume controls, a temperature gauge, automatic seats, floor mats (which are optional).  Each of these represents a choice to meet a price, but more importantly to cater to a specific customer. And that customer, it seems, is me. The Mobile has everything I want and absolutely nothing I don’t.

The Fit is not a big car. Living in San Francisco, this is a major consideration, as parking is a challenge even in my neighborhood. Being able to park on my block, often in front of my house, because the Fit is small enough for the odd spaces that sit vacant, is a boon of startlingly large proportions.  This is why I was looking at hatchbacks.

Yet, and this is the miracle of Honda’s design, the Fit feels full-sized from the inside.  Five adults fit without discomfort.  And the “Magic Seat” touted by salesmen on both coasts is indeed magical, transforming the car that seems to have no depth to a hauler to rival small SUV’s.  Does this miracle of engineering and optical trickery seem impossible to believe? It should. The proof however overwhelms the skepticism.  Consider the following list:

  • A Full size Ikea mattress
  • Four Workrite Sierra single table electric desks (unassembled)
  • Two 5’9" humans, prone and asleep

All of those things have fit comfortably in the Fit with the seats flat.  Not at the same time, of course.

The last one is particularly impressive, given the car’s length and width, both of which are smaller than a standard family car.  Sleeping in it, I wondered if my legs would cramp.  Actually, no, because, with a slight bend at the waist, I could keep them straight.

While this doesn’t help the 6’5" members of our community, it’s an impressive feature of a ~$17,000 car, options depending.

This post comes about because a woman, walking by while I was parking in an exceptionally small space directly across from my apartment building today, said “I’m thinking of getting one of those.”

My response was simply that it was an outstanding automobile, and that I loved it more every day.

“That’s a strong endorsement,” she said.

Which is true. 

Limited visibility

The feet of the Sutro Tower are planted in the ground, its tips lost in the clouds.

“I have limited visibility on this,” he says. His voice crackles with the static of a VoIP connection from an unnamed location. Looking out at the marina in the dense fog of a Petaluma morning, I nod. Limited visibility is something we’ve grown used to in Northern California.

Coming over the bridge in the morning the water is clear out to the horizon, towards Japan and Taiwan. To the right Angel Island and Alcatraz look like good spots for lunch, and I promise myself again to get to both of them. I will. They’re not far, just over the hill, out in the bay. From my house though they are invisible, beyond the park, beyond the hills. My house has limited visibility.

“I only have another seventy years, at most,” she says, as we walk down Irving on the clearest of Sundays. On my tiptoes I could see the ocean. “That’s all I’ll get to see,” she tells me. “I want to see more of it, I want to see it all.” She is reading a book about the far future, where the phrase ‘the world’ has to be clarified with a name, because there are many.

“Limited visibility.” It comes out under my breath, lips almost unmoving.

“I won’t ever know,” she says, and that ends the conversation the way only a horizon can.

“What do you hear?” I ask my consultant, who could be in Panama, or Dubai. Sometimes he is, and sometimes he tells me so. Usually I don’t ask, because it’s better, in a world where I can’t see the highway that crosses the river just north of the marina, to pretend he’s in San Francisco high up on a hill. Nearby, with better visibility.

“They have no schedule,” he says, and the fault is clean, not belonging to either of us. Like the fog.

When I drive north in the mornings, after the bridge, there is a clear spot, several miles of sunshine. I watch the oncoming traffic for headlights on or off that speak of Petaluma’s weather far ahead. By mile fifteen mine are often on too, an indication of how long I’ll be on this road, that the sunshine is not my destination.

I wonder at those who have fought, over years, for small changes. The right to serve without lying, the right to vote, the freedom to believe. The freedom to move, or to settle down and stay. I marvel again at the building of cathedrals, the dedication to any goal, real or ideal, that will only be true at the end of a lifetime.

Fighting like that, the gradual protest and continual argument that keeps those in power honest and allows, when the truth at last becomes obvious to all, the world to move forward, seems perhaps the hardest thing. This is the truth of the future though, and what growing up means: when the day comes, and it will, it will not be for us. The idea makes me weary.

“This problem has continued for much of this decade,” an email I get about San Francisco transit problems begins, my eyes skimming as I delete it.

After less than two years here I have purchased a car. I did not fight for decades, though I still give money to the cause, still give time.

Perhaps I am yet fighting. Perhaps I will still be, at the end of this decade. Or maybe mass transit will have flourished here, and the future come. In Shanghai the subway now covers the city, and trains spread out to cover the country. These are my ways of saying the future does come, and is worth working towards. These are my ways of saying that we may not see what we so long to, but that isn’t all that matters.

These are ways of growing up.

Driving back across the bridge one afternoon, after giving my grandfather his first computer, the air is thick and the sun, setting over the hills by the ocean, litters everything with pink. That light might be made tangible by a place is an amazing idea, and is so much of this city. The Transamerica pyramid cuts through the mist, its sharp edges fighting to remain distinct.

On top of the hill the Sutro Tower’s base is shrouded in fog. Hundreds of feet up its points catch the last true rays of sun and leap forwards, shadows writ large on the pink clouds far out over the Castro.  Their streaks are colossal reminders of how much we can build, given time, and how beautiful it can be in the right weather.