My new Vanmoof bicycle

Commuting lives

Years ago I wrote about my commute, on electric scooter through the neighborhoods of Shanghai.

Once again I have a similar commute, by bicycle in downtown San Francisco. It is hard to overstate what an accomplishment this is in the United States in twenty seventeen.

As Mobike overtakes the Asian cities I love, San Francisco is still caught in the death throws of the private automobile. It’s common to hear conversations about autonomous vehicles, electric bicycles, or other means of transportation, and yet so much travel, so much of commuting life relies on the private car, even if employed via an app or treated as a shared resource.

For the past few years I’ve ridden Bart & biked to work, a lengthy combination made friendly by a wonderful bike shop in Fruitvale that housed my bike on weekday evenings. Now though I am finally free, able to bike or walk, Bart or bus as I feel the need. No option takes more than twenty minutes, door to door. It’s a glorious release, a freedom I haven’t felt since Shanghai, since those scooter rides through neighborhoods I still know well and still think of often.

And so my thought these last few weeks, made happy by this gift of geography: “How much of our life is really our commute?”

Not where we work, but how we get there. Not who we work with, but who we travel along side. Not how much we are paid, but how much we pay to arrive at the office.

How much of our lives are we spending in transit, and how does it leave us?

This is the question that resonates as I pedal home down Howard Street, a decade after slipping quietly down Yongjia Lu on my electric scooter.

Free.

Across the city

On Sundays in San Francisco we bike to the beach. In earlier years it was a shorter ride, from the Sunset or Richmond. Now though we are distant enough from the ocean’s effects that the weather is unpredictable. I take long sleeves and a hat, and want both. Seven short miles, several elevation changes, and the variances of fog make for a strange ride.

At Baker Beach the fog swirls around the Golden Gate, hiding both it and Marin from view. We play at the water’s edge and enjoy the peace of the Pacific.

On the way home I pedal up through the Richmond to a coffee shop I used to frequent with the cat. The owner is happy to see me and I her, and we chat for a while while she closes up shop for the day. Leaving her I ride past our old house and see the new residents unpacking their car from a weekend away. I remember those days, two cars and so much time on the road.

Into Golden Gate Park and the scene changes, families on rollerblades and bicycles dominate the closed road. It’s a peaceful place, the car-free park on a Sunday, somewhere to exercise and wander without fear. Every time I am here I wonder what the entire city would be like without automobiles.

Down to the Panhandle I find at last the remenants of Bay to Breakers, the city-wide run turned street party. Hundreds of people in costumes fill the small stretch of park that reaches east into the city. They are drunk and celebrating, mostly oblivious to the bikers sliding past. I remember partying here, playing games with friends, cartwheels and rope climbing. Years ago now.

Out of the park and down into lower Haight I slide, finding more parents visiting their children, more folk walking their dogs. It’s a nice section of the city, Divisadero to Duboce Triangle, and I do not pedal hard, content to roll downhill and listen to snatches of conversations, slivers of people’s afternoons.

Out on to Market, into the heat of the eastern part of the city, and I am almost home. So many more cars, so much more traffic. Families now walk with coffee still, late in the day. Homeless people start to appear, wandering or pushing carts.

Down the side route by the 101 entrance I duck, and suddenly, after so long and so many different scenes, I am back in my own, on Valencia, past Zeitgeist, into the urban heat of the city. It’s comforting and less peaceful, an urban mishmash of Lyft drivers and those looking for fancy dinner spots.

Me? I slide through to my garage, to my windows that let in breeze on two sides of the house and my cat who naps in the sunbeams.

A city is best discovered on bike, and home again at last I think of all the different neighborhoods, all the different lives we’ve slipped through, me and my new Van Moof, on our trip to the ocean and back, taking in memories of this city that will hold us over till the next weekend.

Gaps between

Being unanchored in the world has been a gift. I’ve seen friends in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Portland. I never made it to the east coast, but I did make it across the Pacific.

Now though, after three months of small projects and peaceful days with my cat, it’s time to get back to it, to grow and learn and be part of a slightly larger team.

For the last few weeks I’ve woken early to make tea and then gone back to bed, reading or sleeping again with the cat snuggled tight against me. It’s been a peaceful life, transitioning between gym and study, nap and novel. It’s been exactly the kind of break I needed, and exactly what the cat hopes for. We’ve become accustomed to each other, and we’ve shared this small apartment in circles from chair to bed to kitchen to sofa, one of us following the other. It’s a routine we will both miss and seek to find again on suddenly valuable weekends. For now though, he will have the place to himself, able to relax wherever he desires. No one will disturb his nap with the vacuum at ten am on a Wednesday, nor with coffee grinding at two pm. I think he’ll miss the company anyway.

The final morning he and I spend snuggled in a new chair. I thought it a chair for one until his seventeen pounds landed on my lap, inbound via the sofa’s arm.

On the last Friday of my sojourn I read back through my notebooks to other times like this, to remember the challenge of being groundless and how these periods ended. Familiarity helps, reminding me that this time is not any different, and that each time the transition works out fine.

Yesterday I had lunch with an ex-colleague who had never quit a job before, never spent months in between. Over ramen I listen to her thoughts and challenges, some familiar some unique. At the end of my own holiday the feel of these gaps has become strangely comfortable. In some way I have become what I try to be, at home in uncertainty.

For a few months, anyway.

View of SF Bay towards Golden Gate Bridge

Sails raised

From the water all the stories seem true. San Francisco’s towers are a blend of new and old, and the bridges that link it to the surrounding hills are huge feats of engineering with graceful lines. On this Sunday the light and waves are perfect, neither dull nor overwhelming. We move at a good clip, up from the ballpark and around Treasure Island. On the north side, past Angel Island, there is a race on, a set of boats loosely grouped with similar sails raised. One of our companions, a racer himself, describes their paths and the rules as they tack around and farther from our view.

This short jaunt with new friends is educational. I learn about the wind’s two seasons, stronger summer and calmer winter. Our April Sunday feels like summer, with gusts pushing us south as soon as we pass the ballpark’s shelter. Our biggest shock comes in the missing Cape Horn, no longer tied alongside it’s companion the Cape Hudson. After ten years, the departure is a shock to seasoned sailors and city dwellers alike. Luckily we live in the age of curiosity, and it is quickly located via search, under power heading south down near Monterey. Why it is on the move remains a mystery that fuels much of our next half hour’s conversation.

Getting out on the water is one of the treasures of life here. With a bay large enough for container ships, ferries, cruise liners, and sailboats, it’s part of life in a different way than the waters near Shanghai, New York, or Tokyo. After eight years, I’m glad to be on a sailboat, grinding and tailing in turn as we make our way out and back. It’s a lucky coincidence, an invite we never expected, and we are happy to have said yes.

Sometime in the past few years yes became a goal. At least once a day, to something unplanned on waking. With a smile if at all possible, say yes once a day. It’s a small habit, a trick to play on my own nature to keep adventuring, to keep moving in new orbits and avoid the drag of laziness. Often I follow Tara, which counts. Often we follow someone entirely new, or old friends we did not plan to meet. In this way we end up at dance recitals and at track workouts, and learn in both cases.

Sometimes we end up out on the bay on a Sunday in April, watching the water and the land in equal measure, talking of ships and sails until we return to the dock and remember our knots.

Past waiting

Nine years ago I quit my job in Shanghai and began the process of moving back to the United States. I was excited.

I am again excited. What has changed in the past nine years? Looking around our small San Francisco apartment in the dark of four am the answers are obvious. The cat, currently curled inside his spherical palace, relies on us. That, and the pronoun in the previous sentence.

In Shanghai I had books, like the ones on these walls. They went into green boxes from China Post and then back, via scooter, one at a time to be shipped to the US, to an address in a city I barely knew.

In San Francisco I have books too. Two weeks ago we sorted them all, a pile to keep a pile to donate. The keep pile isn’t much larger than it was in Shanghai. Some of the Ondaatje and Gibson came to the US in those green boxes. Most were purchased here, replacing older versions pressed on friends. This is true for more than books. So much of what I loved and left behind in China I’ve re-purchased. Even the sofa I’m lying on now is the same. As Tara would say, that’s the beauty of the global megacity. IKEA and Kinokuniya everywhere.

Further surveying the apartment there are some differences. I definitely have more backpacks now. Or at least I think so. It’s hard to remember exactly what I moved with. A Tom Bihn bag I am sure of. The custom RELoad bag arrived in Houston. The Outlier, Goruck, Timbuk2 and Peak bags are San Francisco discoveries.

Mostly, though, we will pack light, taking as little as possible. And so, in these free weeks in the spring of twenty seventeen, I begin the process of disassembling our life, sorting through back up cables, back up bowls, and back up hoodies, and reducing in all directions.

In the afternoons I go to the bouldering gym, practicing a new skill with the same joy that I practiced slacklining in the grassy quad of Jiaotong University almost a decade ago. Being able to sit and think, to pack, and to work out in the freedom of the gym’s quiet hours are stranger abilities now than they seemed in two thousand eight, which makes me think of how our life has changed since.

Mostly I realize how lucky I am, to have been so free at twenty eight, and to be again so at thirty seven. And how lucky we are, to be able to consider so many options.

Including the cat, who loves the homebody I have become.