Sounds relaxing

On calm weekends filled with rain we lie on the sofa and read. The cat alternates his snuggles, moving from one set of legs to the other and back. We do not try to determine his reasons, and instead build small blanket forts at varying intervals along the couch.

Rain in San Francisco is a treasure, a moment of pause. For a few days the city collectively relaxes. No one needs to compete with their Instagram hikes of Mt. Tam, nor their sunsets on Stinson. We, together, breathe out and do not judge. Epic West Wing marathons are held, and entire seasons of British baking shows are watched. Or so I suspect. For myself I nap in the afternoons, read graphic novels, and enjoy the space to think. In a year of pressure built by election season, by the news, and by our own age, the pause is beautiful.

The weekends of 2016 are busy. In the next several months we will see Los Angeles, Hawaii, San Diego, Portland, and Singapore. We will adventure, work, and adventure again. Our cat, a giant ball of fur, will be lonely and reside with friends.

Hopefully we will remember this weekend together, everyone asleep to the sound of the rain on these old windows. For a weekend, our adventures are in our dreams, and we are lucky to have this apartment, these windows, this weather.

Welcome, Fall, to San Francisco.

Life, interrupted

First, my apologies for the lengthy silence. While my schedule has varied over the years, I’ve never gone so long without an Inhabit post since I began writing the site in 2006. Eight years of monthly or twice-monthly posts is no great American novel, but it represents a dedication I hope to maintain. Since March, though, I’ve had a difficult time writing and often been less than eager to share what I have completed. In many ways the last two months have been some of the best of my life, and the most difficult. This, then, is something outside of the normal Inhabit posts, more personal and more difficult. Regular thoughts about cities, travel, and the strange adventures of life will resume shortly.

As an athletic child, I played soccer and baseball through high school, before switching to ultimate frisbee in college. I still play, at 34, on a co-ed club team that is competitive enough to go to regionals out of the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the world’s hotspots for ultimate talent. I begin with this as a point of reference, a way to explain how strange it has been, over the course of these past two months, to be at points unable to walk, to be still unable to run. I have struggled to lift things, to bathe myself, and to get out of bed unaided. As with all healing I am progressing, and I will be able to do these things again. Many of them I already can. My broken finger has healed enough that I can type all day again, and thus work. My ribs are healed enough that I can sit up without assistance, if not do sit ups. My lung enough so that I can fly. My vertebrae are healing, and the swelling around my spine decreasing, so that I can once again stand straight and walk without pain. The sciatic nerve pain that left me unable to walk for two weeks has disappeared, and I am again able to go places without stopping every block to squat until the pain subsides.

With an injury of this magnitude came two emotions I had not anticipated, and which have made it more difficult to write. First, from the ER, the immediate knowledge that no matter how hurt I was, no matter the pain, there were and are so many in worse condition, including at the time those to my immediate left or right. Second, the gratitude, embarrassing and real, to all those who took care of me, fed me, cared for me, and went out of their way to bring us clothes, to make us laugh, or to give us a place to sleep. I say us because, over the first two weeks in New York and the following months in San Francisco, we have both needed the support of our friends and the comfort of their kindness.

Being deeply aware of our luck, shockingly close to our mortality, and overwhelmed by the generosity of others is a strange situation. For a decade I have been most comfortable when self-sufficient. From the trains of Tokyo to the scooters of Shanghai I have been happy as an invisible part of the global megacity. Constantly on the move, a part of multinational supply chains and international sports teams, I have been rarely still, and never so forcedly so. I am no longer alone, and haven’t been, which has brought both great joy and the challenge of relying on someone, constantly inconveniencing another. From Shanghai to San Francisco we’ve grown more comfortable with both caring and being cared for. To have the balance so completely destroyed by injury just as we moved forward as a couple has been physically and emotionally taxing. Yet being able to handle such intense dependency has also made us stronger, and brought the simple joys of cohabitation to the surface again. As we recover and relax, we are working to maintain that joy. More importantly, we are working to express it.

As I said earlier, things that are hard to handle mentally are hard to write about publicly, hard to acknowledge. I notice this in small interactions, where the situation becomes a burden. When asked “How are you?” I too often say how I feel,  sub-par, rather than how I am which is lucky, loved, and alive.

Here then is to healing, to breathing deep, to saying thank you, and to moving on.

Walking the High Line

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 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, amidst a group of New Yorkers and tourists holding our phones skyward to capture the spectrum of colors that has stopped all of us in our tracks. The two of us are not comfortable as tourists by nature, and yet so often that is what 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, 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 are 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.

Directing ourselves

At an old friend’s house for the weekend we enjoy the rare time to think together. In between adventures and barbecues we discuss our lives. Goals, hopes, and simple steps for self improvement fly back and forth. With days together there is no need for specific scope. We pause on new backpacks and suitcases before moving on to new houses, jobs, our families, and vacations. Books, movies, and funny videos found on the internet litter the three days of conversation. Towards the weekend’s end, with our enthusiasm tempered by the calm of long days together, the important topics return. Family, work, and hopes for both.

These are new topics for us, though the seriousness of intent is old. For years we have focused on adventures and apartments, cars and sports. Smaller things that were big at the time. Now, with children at breakfast and wives who are not drinking at dinner we are more careful with our words, more aware of our ambitions. Cars seem like things again rather than signs of freedom. Houses feel more like homes and less like temporary parking spots. And our hopes for work are shifting, from fifteen hour work days to Friday afternoons at the beach with company from out of town.

Driving to the airport later I think of how fast these changes have happened: less than five years. An awareness of mortality, I think, and a belief in the importance of our time here. Part of this change is the joy at having friends who are likewise changing. Having old friends to talk to here in Los Angeles, at home in San Francisco, in Tokyo, London, Shanghai, Portland, and New York, makes each day in any of them feel precious. These friendships, more than anything, are the background against which our awareness and our changing selves becomes clear.

Days later a friend says he thinks of other people’s children as a reminder of his aging. In his words I recognize the same idea as the prior weekend’s conversation, that our view of others gives us a new sense of time. We are not aging faster because our friends have children, but we are more aware of each year as our friends take more permanent steps. At twenty five in our circle no one owned a house, few were married, and there were no children to plan around. Now breakfast with a stroller is not uncommon, and recent changes in mortgage rates are a conversational reference point. In some circles, at least. In others we spend time in the mountains, we dance, run, and climb. We commiserate via IM from New York to San Francisco about the fact that the phrase ‘birthday party’ involves cake instead of wake boarding, balloons instead of pistols. And then we each close our laptops and head to dinner with another set of friends who have serious news.

We are aging, if not growing up. And in the hours in that Santa Monica back yard we talk for long enough to discover what this change means: it’s time for new projects, bigger and more permanent than what has come before.

Shanghai again, forever

Like that, I am back. After six months of travel, work, and daily life I board an airplane, transfer, and return to Shanghai. The ritual of packing, driving to SFO, boarding, and drifting through Asiana’s in-flight movies is strangely comforting, as is the coffee in Seoul early in the morning a day later. With fast internet and quick transfers, Incheon represents a stepping stone, a brief pause to consider my final destination. And to say goodbye to the unrestricted internet, to the wider world.

The first few days on the ground in Shanghai are always a blur. PVG’s strangely dark carpets, the inspection line and HSBC ATM. Baggage and the first feel of local weather. The taxi’s new route, on the middle ring road that didn’t exist when I lived here. Flashing traffic cams and billboards. In the dust of evening the outline of Pudong’s towers. And then at last, after hours in the air and in Seoul, after the strange discomfort of sleeping in jeans while seated, the tight familiar streets of Puxi and real Shanghai. Baozi and soda water or gatorade and mi xian in my old neighborhood. A SIM card from the subway station shop and divestiture of bags in a waiting apartment. Eventually a walk to a bar with old friends.

Like everyone, I have fond memories of the places I grew up. Lansing. Vassar. Boston, where I lived in 2000. New York City, on longer and shorter stays of varying life impact. Tokyo. And Shanghai. More than any, Shanghai. At 33 here I am again. Here it seems I more than anywhere return, six times in the past five years. In this city I am content to anchor on, in visits and jobs, long after I’ve moved away. Shanghai again. Forever.

I wonder so often at those who have left and not returned, gone four, five, or ten years. What would they think of the city now? Where would they look to stay, again in this rebuilt metropolis? For me the memories are thick and yet too distant. I wish we could again bowl in that strange place north of Jing’An, that we could again find solace in cheap pints in the Hut.

Two weeks later I am leaving Shanghai again but not forever. In a few hours this trip will blur into others. It will become just one more strange variation, one more series of long evening walks and quiet train rides. As for the people here, we deal and live, trade stories of our time apart and move on. More than anything we become friends and say goodbye. Over and over, to old faces and new, for a decade now.

On this trip I’ve eaten noodles with friends and taxi drivers, wandered Puxi late at night, played frisbee and seen countless factories. I’ve remembered how much Chinese I know and how much I’ve forgotten. And now I will move on in the rush of a modern life, next Monday to Miami. Shanghai will recede and new objectives arise, but the few weeks here will serve as a reminder of how good life can be when cut free from the current of every day and anchored instead in a city of 20 million that I know so well. That we, collectively, have lived in and come home to for so long.

Writing these words I look around. Pudong airport is falling apart a bit, rotting in the concrete way, in the way of dirty air and humidity, of a lack of maintenance. I’ve been here dozens of times, on the top deck of T2, getting coffee in a tucked-away spot with a view. After napping in the taxi for 45 minutes on the ride out. Out till 3, up at 7, 8. Out of the apartment at 9 and in Pudong shortly later. Early, to have time to remember.

Two weeks later the sentences I wrote on arrival perform the same magic as always, the magic that makes me write. Boston is in the news. I am making plans to return to Tokyo. And the last night in Shanghai was spent in a new bar with old friends, folk who have like myself returned again.

The bar was new but the building old, familiar. The last establishment inside those walls was the Hut of this post’s opening. It was convenient in those years, the pub behind a good friend’s apartment and a block or two from mine. Now the two of us meet in Brooklyn and reminisce about its cheap drinks and over-ripe peanuts. On my last night the new name and fancier drinks could not disguise the location. Stories of the past decade came easily to all of us.

From the heat of Miami I try to recall my earlier visits to Shanghai, since leaving in two thousand eight. Being sent to a city in a country not my own for business is an incredible opportunity, something I have always wanted. Being able to stay with friends, being trusted to plan my own travel and produce my own results, those are the perks that make it better than I had imagined, better than I’d experienced before.

And landing in Shanghai may always feel like coming home.