California drives

On a Wednesday in November I drive north along the 101 in the middle of the day. It’s been years since I’ve seen the north bay during work hours. In Novato I get the car washed at a place I used to go only before 9 am, on my way in. The crowds surprise me, mostly older people chatting about books and signing cards for the troops. I am the only person under fifty not busy washing cars.

In Petaluma I drop the car off for brief repairs. I’m happy to see the town for a few hours. It’s a place I liked being familiar with. Of course things have changed, some for the better. There’s a combination roaster and coffee shop a block from the tire place, where before there was nothing. The clientele is young and engrossed in their work.

The Fit’s repairs are a minor thing, worth the adventure on this rare day off mid-week. The ride mostly makes me think of the three years of commuting, forty miles each way, from the western parts of San Francisco. Living downtown now heading north is far less convenient. So much of our life then was about proximity to the Golden Gate and comfort in the fog. The new zipper pylons on the bridge surprise me, though they shouldn’t. The truck that moves them was an internet sensation when it debuted, replacing the men leaning off the back of a pickup that had done the job for years. I was always impressed with their ability, slotting each pylon home while in motion, hanging down into traffic. I wonder what they do now. Their skill, calm coordination amidst moving automobiles, seems both widely applicable and of limited concrete value.

The passage of time is shocking at specific intervals. We purchased this Fit five years ago, for this specific commute. Five years, three of them making this drive, have passed since that first fall of automobile-based discovery. Owning a car was such a large step in becoming American, age 31, fourteen years after I’d sold my Volvo for spending money on my first trip to Japan.

Now, commuting by bicycle and train, I often comment on how glad I am not to drive every day, not to be stuck in traffic regularly. But this commute, forty miles up the 101, was how I learned to be American again. Seeing the dry hills on a Wednesday in November is a good way to keep hold of those memories.

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. 


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.

Future positions

Part of the joy of travel, of moving, is learning a new common.  Moving to Shanghai and finding that bicycle traffic exceeds car.  Living there long enough to watch car start to gain, and the massive parking problem that change creates.  Moving to Houston and finding cars a minority, compared to SUVs, and the unique kind of common created by such large vehicles.  Watching young siblings of a friend play upon their parked vehicle, it affording an easier climb and better view than the purpose-built play structure in the yard.  Learning to navigate each one, until it is time to move on again, and the new place likewise surprises, lacking trains, or cars, or electric bicycles.  Realizing that what is comfortable now is not the original, but an amalgamation of each previous situation.

So often future predictions, or visions of such, are simply the application of what is already common in one place to another, with the twist of local restrictions or desires.  Cellphones are going to incorporate electronic payment systems, claims one, having been to Japan.  Transit cards will become electronic, removing the need to swipe a MetroCard in New York through the magnetic reader, claims another, having seen Hong Kong, or London, or Shanghai, or Tokyo, or…  Everyone will have a car, says the proud new Buick owner in Shanghai, knowing America.  Discerning between the potential and the possible, the future coming and the present not yet arrived, becomes an art of guessing what people want, what local infrastructure will support.

In every projection too there is the bias of personal desire.  Thus comes the vision of a wind-powered future from those with large investments in windmills.  Likewise those building massive databases of human activity suddenly see a future where every item of identification communicates location.  Passport, cell phone, car keys, payment cards, check.  There are those who seek support for admirable visions of electronic automobiles spread wide over the landscape, asking for them to be built by those who for the past seventy years have opposed such infrastructure.  But these are not the only futures built around the personal desires of those who espouse them.  There are the dreams of authors, in whose projections worlds overcrowded, over-governed, and over-built compete with those of space-faring societies that have escaped the resource limits of a single planet, of artificial intelligences that remove burdens of daily labor, and of a variety of governments that cater to a mobile population. These are all visions of a future coming, of a world we do not inhabit but should, or will, or might soon.

The beauty of these views is not that any one is perfect, or correct, or that any of them are.  The joy of learning what is common in a new place is finding fresh tools for a personal projection of what the future will hold, of where the world could be.  Because much of the future is made up of people, and the people are made up of what they imagine and desire, what they learn and acquire.  This message is paraded around by consumer advocacy groups, by giant corporations, by friends and neighbors in a variety of forms, and is true in all of them, if slightly minimized.  For the future is not a small thing, one life is not a small thing.  On moving to Japan, seven years ago, and being shown to an apartment smaller than any of the dorm rooms I had occupied the four years prior, being forced to revisit my needs and possessions, I found roommates, colleagues, friends in similar situations.

“I like the way it’s done here,” they kept saying.  About refrigerators small enough to tuck into corners that then required more frequent re-filling, from similarly smaller shops within walking distance.  About beds that were rolled up and put away in closets in the mornings to provide space for a desk and a sense of cleanliness.  About balconies on every house, for drying clothing and watching Mt. Fuji in the evening.  All these people, each moved to a new location, each discovering that what was common in Tokyo, in Saitama, was something they could live with, appreciated, and would incorporate, if able, into their own future.

There are stories like this from everywhere I have ever lived, and they blur together into nothing more than personal history, exploration and discovery.  They provide the tapestry though, the background of things I know to be common, somewhere, and can easily apply to my vision of a future.

And so, on a sunny November day in Houston I ride my tiny bicycle down tree-lined streets, arms covered in a hoodie purchased in Shanghai for its utility against very similar weather on my way to an apartment fueled only by electricity, generated mainly from wind and solar sources.   I carry a bag hand-made in Philadelphia, which holds a computer made in Taiwan and China.  And while such a listing can be displayed as a consumer badge, and is, it is also a vision of the future, of my plan for it.  The world changes every day, and the older we get the faster it seems to go, a function of both personal aging and of the era we were born to.  There are crisis and inventions, as there have always been, and our future is probably none of the grand predictions, none of the brilliant novels or simple transpositions.  The future will probably be as fragmented as today, with massive cars and extreme poverty, with starvation and luxury ocean liners.  Our choice is what common we are aiming for, what personal collection of necessary and desirable we hold dear enough to work for.

So here I am, age twenty nine, transporting myself by bicycle and airplane, communicating with laptop, cell phone and postal service, learning to appreciate and cook food common to my new location.  Uncertain whether any of these is perfect; imagining a future finely balanced out of all the visions I have seen.