Twelve paws

For a few moments tonight, in the heat of a late San Francisco evening, our entire family was in the tub.

On hot days we fill it with cold water, just an inch or two to cool the feet. It’s a cheap means of refreshment. We leave it like this all day, and frequent it between projects. Sometimes we catch each other standing quietly in the tub in the dark reading something on our phones. This is modern life, combining fast internet and rising temperatures.

Today, relaxing at home on the first weekend of the off season, we taught Mr. Squish our trick. As cats go he’s comfortable in water, a result of taking baths twice a month since he was very small. In hot weather he minds them less, the drying process being a benefit rather than a hassle. Today he took a cold shower, a more recent discovery. He padded around in the simulated rain quite content for a full five minutes before deciding he was done.

And so this evening in our dark apartment, lit only by the purple LED christmas lights that we are certain cause no heat, we all stood for a few moments in the tub, twelve paws together in the cool water. The humans crouched to put their hands in too, and the cat sniffed at their faces. After a first aborted try Mr. Squish seemed to understand. He waited patiently with us until the chill seeped up his legs and into his body.

It’s a good way to spend a Sunday together, I think: lying on the floor in front of the fan and then standing in the bathtub. And then standing, slightly damp, in front of the fan, eight dripping sets of prints leading from one to the other.

The changing weather

In twenty fifteen the first week of September bakes San Francisco. Several days break 90 F and fans are out of stock. In the Mission temperatures close in on 100 in the late afternoon. At work in Oakland, which is hotter than SF, everyone complains, their houses not built for such temperatures. There are few wrap-around porches in Berkeley, less air conditioning in San Francisco. Heaters for the foggy summer were our primary concern when picking apartments. Heaters and windows, to let in the scant sun.

Instead we brainstorm ways to keep our apartment, picked for its long exposure to the afternoon sun, cool for Mr. Squish. Our first tries are not successful, and we come home to clouds of black fur drifting through the still air as he tries desperately to shed some insulation. On the hottest night we bathe him, and he lounges in the water. Afterwards he wanders the apartment contentedly, wet and dripping in the evening breeze. We sleep with every window open, happy to be part of the slowly cooling city.

On Wednesday, unwilling to leave him to bake, I take him to work. We drive together across the Bay bridge and lounge in the office’s air conditioning. He is a favorite there, drifting from room to room unnoticed until he leaps onto a colleague’s desk in search of snacks. As cats go he’s calm in the face of surprises, and welcomes the adventure.

In Tahoe the weekend before the low lake level was a constant presence. We had to swim or be ferried out to the boat, and most docks were constrained to shallow-drawing vessels. Watching their skeletal structures rise so high above the water I thought of the foresight to have built this far out in the first place, and of droughts that must have come before. I thought of Shasta, already low some four years ago, and wonder if house boating would be fun still. Could we enjoy an escape in an environment so obviously lacking sustenance, so clearly in need of water?

In Tahoe we could, relaxing in the breeze coming off the lake. In San Francisco, that first week of September, we cannot. In the western portions of the city this weather is less extreme, and the ocean provides some breeze. In the Mission, flat and rarely washed clean by rain or wind, heat that endures past dark is a rare feeling. Brooklyn, a few weeks ago, was both hotter and more humid, but the stick of an East Coast summer is to be expected, and evenings out of doors stretch late as the sky cools.

And yet how quickly all weather disappears. This morning, sitting with the windows open, San Francisco is a pleasant 61 F, and Mr. Squish joins me beneath the blanket I’ve spread over my feet, glad of the cover. Neither of us can remember the week prior and our reluctance to touch. Our bodies have forgotten, holding only what they can feel at the moment.

Capital F future

Sitting in a luxury hotel in Chang’an Zhen, I am thinking about the future.

Not the future as in my personal five year plan, though it may turn out that way. Nor the capital F future of living computers and jet packs, though it may turn out that way too. Instead I am thinking about our future, the shared strangeness that is both hard to see and probably already here, somewhere.

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about this future. Mostly from strange Chinese cities though not usually from luxury hotels. It’s a future that seems to slip into view when I’m walking home alone through the evening heat, past street stalls and electric bikes. I find it under neon offering nothing, the store fronts long closed and falsely alluring in the night. It’s a future that I see often after sitting in an Ajisen and eating cucumbers for a while, after drinking an Asahi by myself while reading Fallows and Paul Hawken, Chipchase and Posnanski.

I think about the heating planet and the bliss of air conditioning in Hong Kong this week. I think of the costs of oil, and my job making plastic. I think of those giving up air travel and look at my location. I think about my favorite writers and how frequently they fly. I think about how frequently I fly and whether I would care about flying, about all of this, if I’d never started.

Would I care about the world this way without having sat in so many Ajisens in so many Chinese manufacturing cities, reading on paper and phones and drinking Japanese beer? Unlikely, I think. Without so many evenings watching the lights come on in Chinese apartment towers, how would I know to value all of us? Without watching the neon blink back and forth and eventually off, watching the parks fill with people enjoying the evening and then empty to silence, how would I have learned the size of cities? Without flying, how would I have met so many people, learned from so many places? Without the energy expenditure that damages it, how would I have ever understood our planet?

I watch two men honk as they scoot past on e-bikes, chatting as they disappear into the gathering dusk. I watch cars at the intersection, red lights hold them stationary, engines running. I wonder what makes so many people want to buy a car, and what would make them stop.

Mostly I think about the difference between making things and growing things, between working and building. After that I think about the difference between being alive, looking at the moon as it rises behind the skyscrapers , and not. It is a difference I only recently started to appreciate.

What will the world will look like when we are gone? Will we have left anything good behind, intentionally or no?

I haven’t yet given up flying. I’m here in Chang’an Zhen. I haven’t yet given up making things, I’m here visiting a factory for work. More importantly, I haven’t yet given up on anything. Walking back from Ajisen I wonder if I will, if the cumulative weight of the capital F future will change my life. I wonder what the next five years will bring, and ten. Whether we’ll all be living different lives, or still wondering. Will Chinese cities still feel like the future in this way on lonely evenings, an amazing combination of factories and urban density, of modern trains and hand-repaired motorcycles, of destroyed air? Or will the world have changed in all directions, become more evenly distributed, for better or worse. On evenings like this I can see both possibilities, a future here and yet often invisible .

Watching the two men on e-bikes fade into the darkness down the street I know one thing: even in the 90 degree F heat and 90% humidity of southern China, I’d rather we all biked than gave up airplanes, and each other.

Afloat

Stepping off the plane the weather is calm as always, by the beach and exceedingly early. I woke even earlier, to fog and a chill wind, my car covered with tiny droplets. Waiting for friends by the curb the clear skies and lack of humidity feel wonderful, a gentle weather that to me is Los Angeles.

Stepping out of the car some four hours later the heat assaults. Within seconds I begin to sweat and my companions make sounds of awe at the change. The amazement is not purely at the temperature, but at how great a change four hours could bring. Distance is a tricky thing, surprising when encountered suddenly. Our brains, I think, evolved to walk, to travel slowly through such shifts as I saw that morning. From fog, wind, and persistent damp to the relaxed 70° F of Southern California, to the open desert, the barren rock filled with heat accepted and re-radiated. Shorts, I think, and sandals. Both are in my shoulder bag, carried on to my morning flight in anticipation. They were too much to ask my brain at four am, waking chilly in the 52° F of San Francisco. We were born to acclimate gradually, to walk over a mountain range and see the sea rather than to land suddenly in the East Coast’s stifling humidity after a restless night’s sleep seated in an air conditioned tube of metal.

My companions are likewise overwhelmed, and we spend the afternoon, the two days following, alternating between AC and water. This seems to be how lives are lived in Arizona, as most vehicles tow boats and the lake, the Wal*Mart, are filled in the afternoon. Our home for the weekend, a sixty foot behemoth, offers us both air conditioning and water with ease if not grace. Trying to start the grill for an early dinner my friend is quickly drenched in his own sweat, his wool Dodgers cap a burden in its authenticity. Fire, while necessary for cooking beef, is not something to linger near when the ambient temperature ticks over 115° F.

For three days this lake is our playground, this boat our castle. Filled with food and friends from across the country, it is all we need. Together we float and swim. We learn, from each other and the world, how to drive large vehicles and leap from cliffs. We work together to tie up on beaches and dive through inner tubes. As the sky cools we are alone on the shore, and sit high on the boat watching the sun. It sets behind the mountains, splashing the lake with pinks and oranges as speedboats rip past heading home. Tied up on a small island we linger on the top deck, no longer forced into the AC or water. Our topics grow serious, brains finally cool enough to process. Business school and marriage, families, jobs and houses. Later, in the dark, we set off fireworks, spin fire, and tell stories. We speak of experiences we will never have again, of first encounters and the strange adventures that have brought us here, across miles and years. It is a weekend to celebrate our friend, his growth and a new phase we know he’s ready for. That we are ready for.

On our last morning, all of us slowly waking to the sun, I walk across our small island and swim to the shore. The cliffs, so inviting the day before, look wonderful in the fresh light. With a couple other early risers I climb, pause for the view, and jump.

Airborne for a full second not a single thought goes through my head. Below, having hit the deep cold water and pulled my way back up, I feel complete. My muscles and brain are weary, and awake. Finally, after hundreds of miles and hours of travel, I have removed myself from the world. Alone with this small circle of friends, on this small circle of water, there is nowhere more to go, nowhere else to be.

At least until after breakfast.