Make few plans

For the fourth time in the last seven months I leave the country on less than a week notice. So often am I here one day and gone the next that the cat and house grow used to, if not happy with, my abrupt exits. The strangeness of it sweeps over me in 14G on my way to Incheon. As with all work travel, being on the road so often creates a detachment from the rest of life. Enjoying this requires an ability to be comfortable in two places at the same time, frequently jet lagged and uncertain of the weather.

Sudden departures though require a different set of sacrifices. Mostly they require tolerance and a partner able to care for the cat. Given four days notice this time it’s no surprise that the bag and the clothes are the same as my last trip, two weeks ago. Remaining packed means I have put little thought into attire and less into arrangement of belongings. For only a week, everything can be shoved in any which way.

The tolerance of partners and pets is a gift that must be earned. What can be learned to ease leaving the country so quickly is simple: make few plans.

At lunch three days before I sat listening to conversations between colleagues. They made lunch dates for the coming week and discussed possible weekend adventures. I sat silently, thinking about the coming week. Lunches will be wherever the factory team takes me. Evenings, well, I am lucky, and will spend one evening at a bar that has indoor batting cages near Suzhou Creek. ‘Make few plans’ is in fact an incorrect presentation of the idea. I have many plans, just not in San Francisco, not in my house. And that, at last, is the central point.

Asiana 211 lands in Seoul over an hour late for a layover scheduled for one hour. I step off the gate into the humid Korean jetway air hunting for signs to indicate the next gates direction and am instead met with information. The onward flight will likewise be delayed, and the airline apologize for this, for the impact of a missed hour in Shanghai on a Tuesday night. I laugh. There’s a free dinner voucher and further apologies, to all of us.

Looking around near the gate I see few upset faces. There is little consternation among the waiting passengers, no uproar at the announcement. We are, as a group, content with this hour to eat, to walk, and to relax on the internet in one of the world’s best transfer airports.

Wandering up the automated walkways, at peace with the lack of urgency, I think of the group around that gate, waiting for the Shanghai flight. How many of us have no plans, to be so unconcerned? How many of us standing there in Seoul gave up all prior engagements before boarding some earlier flight countries back and days before?

Building forever

Landing in Tokyo at night, the city does not seem to end. From the air lights stretch away in all directions save where the sea still intrudes. In a bus from the airport this is reinforced, no suburban gap between airport and the city it serves. Neighborhoods change, the area around Haneda giving way to the denser residential sprawl of Tokyo proper, and then micro shifts as the gaps between train stations become the only visible breaks. Like interstate exits in the US, train stations represent the loci of Tokyo, clusters of shops, neon, and light that then spreads out, a subtle Doppler effect of dissipating commercial space, until the pace accelerates before the next station, another bunch of stores and people, taxis and signs. In this pattern we move on through the city in the night.

As many have written, Tokyo feels like the future. On this evening taxi ride, just arrived from Manila and another view of a possible future, I wonder why Tokyo, more than any other city, gets this designation.

The common reasons are obvious and true. It is clean, far more than any other city of size. Efficient too, in a way Germans and Swiss can enjoy. The city is polite in service and accommodating to foreigners, in a fashion that leaves visitors impressed and eager to return.

Our bus and then taxi each pass through separate construction areas, both calmly productive at one am on the morning of a national holiday. Lights are on, workers direct traffic, and the dirt of the digging is neatly contained by cones. Tokyo is, like New York, in constant repair. And yet there are no potholes, the average street seems five years old, and the sidewalk is level, blind strips and all. How can this city be so large and so well-maintained?

The smell, stepping out of the taxi, is what I remember most. Tokyo in the rain. So different than the smell of rain in Hong Kong, a few weeks back, or Bohol last week. So different than Shanghai, Dongguan, or San Francisco’s smells, the cities I now know well. The smell is clean, to my nose, lacking pollution and not quite of the ocean in the way Bohol was.

Now, a few days later, I think that the magic of Tokyo is not in just in the trains, or the organization, or the maintenance, but in all three. The magic is found in the attention to detail on all ends of the organism that is Tokyo. From construction to use to repair and replacement, the extra measure of care can seem robotic, idyllic. Especially after the vagaries of public transit in the Bay Area, after the impenetrable morass of Manila traffic, Tokyo’s mechanical functionality can seem impossible, the cleanliness obviously forced, drawing the inevitable comparisons to Disney or Singapore.

Instead I think, it represents what could be, not what will be. It represents what people might build, if so determined as a large group. Manila and San Francisco, St. Louis and Dongguan do likewise. All that differs are the people, and the complex intermingling of abilities, desire, and willingness to work together.

In this view the future of Tokyo is both approachable and impossible, marvelous and out of reach. It’s a city to love, I think. More than anything it’s a wonderful place. Standing on the balcony of our rented apartment, looking out at the city and falling rain, it is a place I am so glad to see.

Downtown, by the train

For the first time in the United States we have the life we had in Asia. At great but worthwhile expense, we live downtown near the train. In San Francisco this means the Mission, and this means Bart.

Three years ago we lived in a studio in the Sunset, half a block from the N-Judah, a Muni above-ground train line. The studio was wonderful. Giant west-facing windows made for perfect light, and the neighborhood was comfortingly Asian. Rent was reasonable, even with parking, albeit double what we’d paid for a 1 bedroom in Houston scant months before. As for the train, well, proximity was often its best feature. Locals refer to the N jokingly, if at all, and avoid any reliance on it’s twisting route, which is often blocked by cars at 9th and Irving and delayed at the Duboce and Church switch to underground operation. We used it first frequently and then less so, moving to bicycle or car instead.

For years though we regretted leaving that studio, at least on Sundays. Our one bedroom in the Richmond faced east, and so lost the light early in the day. Coupled with the Cigarettes Cheaper crowd next door and the Walgreens loading bay across the street that apartment became exactly what we’d hoped to avoid: a large house with poor light, loud neighbors, and a two-car commute. Looking back now, only months removed, it seems impossible to imagine. Yet for three years we both drove an hour plus each way out of San Francisco. One north, one south, far enough to make most moves impossible for one commute or the other.

And so from the Richmond we took the bus downtown, and walked Fillmore in the night. We went to shows and to bars, but not as many. We took more cabs, and drove more often to friends’ houses.

Our move to the Richmond was built on two desires. Most importantly, a cat, which our Sunset landlord would not allow. Secondly, to have a spare room for guests, even though several had braved our studio, slept on couch or kitchen floor. The living room was useful, and allowed us to easily welcome guests from all over the world. That apartment gave us Mr. Squish, fulfilling our exact request for a cat.

As I write these words he is sprawled on the couch across from me, content in his new home, only the second he has known. He is happier, though that could be the Karlstad sofa he is lounging on, a wedding present to ourselves in a blue that matches our new house. Moving with a cat has long been a dream of ours. Taking him on our adventures, if not yet rock climbing, and watching him explore new spaces are some of our favorite moments.

Why is this apartment so much more welcoming than our old one?

The answers are easy: light, size, and location.

In three months we’ve had friends come for dinner, colleagues bring lunch, and visitors crash on that couch. We’ve walked home from baseball games and taken the train to the airport. We’ve taken the train to brunch at friends’ houses in the East Bay and to work, novelties both. In the last week neither of us drove to work for two days in a row, the first time that has happened since we moved to San Francisco.

Why is this such a change, why did we ever forgo it, and how did we know we wanted it? These questions repeat themselves to me on my walks to Bart, on my train rides home.

This is such a change because we’ve each gained at a minimum two hours of mental time each day. Four hours multiplied by five days is twenty hours a week we gained as a couple with the move. Twenty hours a week, minimum, of additional thinking, reading, and working is time almost impossible to value. Another half a work week. Another two and a half days of paid working hours. Yes, rents are higher in the Mission. Yes, getting rid of one car helped keep our expenses within a similar range. But clearly, at twenty plus hours, we were undervaluing our time, undervaluing each other.

We gave up those hours initially because we had to. We’d gotten an apartment in the Sunset as the cheapest place we could find in San Francisco proper, and a good place to start our life here from. It was. We then got jobs out of the city, in opposite directions. They were good opportunities, and so we put up with the cost in cars and miles, knowing it would not be forever. When we moved to the Richmond, we shortened my commute at Tara’s expense. We balanced traffic and distance and the desire for a cat as best we could. And still we knew it would not be forever.

How did we know what we wanted? How did we know we’d be happier in a smaller apartment within walking distance of a train line, with only one car, in a more urban environment?

Shanghai.

We have lived in dense urban environments, ridden the subway or an electric scooter to work or to school, and commuted in the dense throngs of people rare for most Americans. We have lived in those environments and thrived. We have become comfortable with the benefits of dense living, of good transportation, and of shared public space rather than large private residences.

In America these lessons are difficult to learn. Apartments in dense areas with good public transit are expensive and restricted to a handful of cities. In many, like San Francisco, they are restricted to select neighborhoods in those cities. In Shanghai, in Tokyo, in Hong Kong, these lessons are simply life. They are learned on the train to grade school and in the tiny urban apartments of university. Density is not an option but the ground rule, public transportation not a luxury but the base layer of the urban environment.

We are lucky, in San Francisco, to live downtown near the train. In Shanghai it was the only place we could live, there was no other option. In Japan before that I lived in Saitama, outside of Tokyo proper, and yet on a line that ran directly into Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya. Out of the city and yet of the city in a way rare for Americans. Able to work and shop in the global megacity and still go for a run in the mornings along the Arakawa river.

In San Francisco, in the Mission, guests from out of town drop in for single night and leave early in the morning for meetings in the Financial District, or to tour the Embarcadero. What was once an hour away by bus is ten minutes by Bart. Waiting twenty minutes or more for the N has been replaced by taking any train out of dozens on a workday morning. We often do not drive for an entire weekend, and soon for an entire work week.

Yet in many ways this feels like avoiding the problems. The N still goes 30 minutes between trains on the weekends. The Richmond is still 40 minutes from Powell by bus, an hour twenty or more from the East Bay without free transfer. That we no longer care is a symptom of the problem, and a reason public transit remains a fractured experience. In Shanghai all the trains are run as one unit. In Japan a variety of companies with huge networks work together on train time tables and station infrastructure. In San Francisco there are only three stops on Bart in residential neighborhoods.

Yet 
I no longer complain about transit in San Francisco, instead promoting Bart to arriving guests. Limited, yes, but effective, and valuable, as was my line in Saitama. These visits and easier commutes, then, are the benefits of living here. And in many ways we are at last at home in San Francisco in a way we have not felt before.

In transit

Avoid dead time, the recommendations go. Time in airports, time in train stations. Spend that time adventuring, seeing one more temple, eating one more meal. Never eat on the plane. Never drink on the train. Spend the time walking, and then rush to the gate, to the platform. Be the last one on board. See more, and wait less.

This advice is not wrong. The airports of the world are more similar than the cities, the restaurants, the temples. Train platforms are empty things, born of functionality and passenger capacity. Security lines are massive multiplayer experiments in patience, and in humanity’s ability to trust the unseen. A single hour sitting in a Ho Chi Minh City food stall is worth a dozen in Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport Terminal 1. An hour in Edinburgh more valuable than a dozen in JFK’s Terminal 4. Time waiting can’t be reclaimed, and hours spent in the Shaoxing train station can never be turned into great stories.

Except for the arcade game in Shaoxing station, a drop the claw and pick up a prize style box, the glass enclosure filled not with plush toys but with foil-wrapped packs of cigarettes. Except for the hours spent with old men sitting in the halls of high speed trains, watching the Chinese countryside blur past. Except for the feeling of a long tail boat pushing off from an island beach in Thailand. Travel is dead time and it is watchful time.

In between our house and our office are two chapters of a novel read on the train, a podcast, a phone call, an album. In between where we are and where we are going are a couple of accidental interactions with people we had no intention of meeting. Multiplied by hundreds, thousands, and our lives are suddenly full of strangers, filled with observation and the opportunity to learn. Would we be richer without all our time in transit? When asked what super power I’d want, I immediately wish for teleportation; the ability to eat dinner with my grand parents and then watch the sun set on the Pacific, the chance to play ultimate with friends in all corners of the globe on the same day, and the opportunity to see hundreds of thousands of places I will probably never see specifically because of transit time. Until recently I have never considered what I’d be giving up.

Airports can be hassles, security mind-numbing. Busses can be too bouncy to read on, or smell of urine. Trains can be filled with people eating food on our seats and smoking cigarettes in our air space. And yet are we better off without that time? Are we better off without each other?

On a flight back from Haneda to SFO I look around at my fellow travelers, each with their own destination and their own purpose. We are crammed together in this flying tube far above the Pacific, uncertain of the hour or day, trusting our pilots, watching movies, and dreaming of places far away. For a few hours we are free from all interruptions from the world outside, obligated only to each other.

We could all do worse than these hours expended in motion.

 

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.