Worth remembering

“Tokyo,” I answer. The question was where I’d like to turn 40. Of course Tokyo.

Our lives are brief windows into the world, and we manage only a smidgeon of the possible. Places learned when young remain outsized in memory, our early experiences more important, larger, than recent events. So, of course, Tokyo.

The first time I saw it, the week before my 18th birthday, Tokyo was already changing my life. That trip, a gift from a family friend, was my first real glimpse of the world outside the US, and enabled me to say yes to the post-college move back, at 22.

Turning 40 is an excuse to gather people to a city I love, to celebrate something both personal and utterly universal. Mostly, it’s a way to remember that boy turning 18 here, reading the Stand and operating with limited language. A week in Tokyo without goals, with no objectives or destinations, is an invitation to the deluge of memories from birthdays in two thousand two and three, turning 23 and 24. I remember, scant days before arriving, how I used to give presents to those who came to my birthdays, Bilbo Baggins style. And so I do, picking out small things that I love about Japan for each guest. It’s an excuse to wander Tokyu Hands, to consider who is coming, and to consider where we are.

I am lucky this time, and so many people have agreed to join us, from San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, New York, and Singapore. As these friends gather to our rented apartment I am shocked at the joy each arrival brings. Shocked not because I didn’t expect to be joyful but because I hadn’t understood in the planning stages how *much* joy sharing Tokyo with these people would bring. For this boy born in the rural hills of the US North East, Tokyo remains the perfect city. It combines incredible transportation with utter foreignness, huge crowded centers with quiet side streets. More than any place I know, Tokyo rewards wandering, with small shops, shrines, and beauty scattered across an urban tapestry of such scale as to be infinite. Tokyo, in many ways, is proof of what humans can build, as opposed to what we so often do.

On this trip we rent bicycles for the first time and reap the rewards of this most human scale of transportation, meandering from Hatsudai to Naka Meguro on small streets and through new neighborhoods. We bike to Shimo Kitazawa and back and are immediately lost. These kind of odd adventures are enjoyable only on bicycle, with the ability to cover large distances, stop easily, and never be too tired to manage one more side street.

As a way to welcome a new decade the week is perfect, filled with old friends and new memories. Seth takes us for whisky at the New York Bar that once housed Bill Murray, a foray inaccessible in our early twenties. A large group of us have drinks at the tiny 10cc, enjoying newfound comfort in a neighborhood that intimidated the younger version of myself. We stand on the rooftop of our apartment and watch Mt. Fuji as the sun sets. We take the Yurikamome line back over the rainbow bridge from Odaiba and Toyosu, artificial lands of the late boom now comfortably part of the present day. We eat in Ginza and Ikebukuro, in Harajuku and Hatsudai, together and separately. Some discover crem brûlée shaved ice and others revel in okonomiyaki, and no one goes hungry. Mostly we wander far and wide, on foot and by train, in the best fashion of unplanned vacation.

Watching my friends spend the week sharing their favorite parts of Tokyo and discovering new treasures is the best kind of present, one that makes my heart bigger. At the end of the week, on the Narita Express, I watch the skyline drift past and try to lock down all the memories, to remember each day, sure that I will forget the joy too quickly. Mostly though I think of the boy who once turned eighteen here, and who first took this train.

He would be so happy to know that at forty he will share Tokyo with his friends.

Upstate

From the balcony the world looks lush. Upstate New York is green and filled with trees. Layers of hills gradually recede in the distance. For this transplant to California’s drought, the sight of so much water and growth is a relief. My body lets out a sigh I didn’t know it’d been holding.

We are in the Catskills for the weekend, seven of us, to celebrate a friend’s impending marriage. Like all such adventures there is little sleep and much remembering. Collecting the past thirty six years of someone’s life takes a lot of hours and whisky. The stories alternate between the embarrassing and the hilarious, with the best managing both. We who began as brothers, high school friends, college friends, we are all now adult friends. As such we play lawn jenga and shoot arrows together late into the night. In some ways it’s a celebration of one person, but in others that of a group who have known each other for at least fifteen years now.

On Saturday we go swimming in a river down the hill. The water is cold but not painful, save for one of us who hates such things. We splash and swim with some locals and some other vacationers, no one in any hurry.
In good coincidence it is also my birthday. And so I turn thirty six in a river upstate, some hours from where I was born but not many, surrounded by friends from college. It’s a good reminder of how things change and do not, and how we make friends and maintain them. We meander between talk of childcare and investments, and pure joy at the toppling of a tower of two by fours. We manage to mix pleasure and laziness in good measure, without much excess or any physical damage.

Sitting on the balcony as Saturday fades I think of the places I’ve lived with the people in this house: Vassar, Shanghai, and Tokyo. The specifics aren’t important, just the distance, the sense of how far we’ve traveled together in our thirty six years.

Calm evenings

In between larger moves, we pick berries. On a friend’s farm outside Portland, in the afternoon sun, we gather hundreds of black berries in a white bucket to take back to friends in the city who had to work this afternoon. This is the relaxed part of summer, a breather between work, ultimate, and airports. In the last month we’ve swum in the Russian River, the Feather River, and now the Sandy. Living in a city where the months of July and August mean continual fog and a brisk sixty two degrees F, this feels like success.

The summer has come, and we make time to celebrate. In the background, on walks across the park to dinner at 9th and Irving, we discuss larger steps, more serious plans. Grad school, a wedding, and jobs, always jobs. At home we try and institute a time for art, try to make it to the gym before work or at lunch time.

We don’t always succeed. Some days we’re too tired after work, some days we play ultimate or meet friends in the evenings. We know though, that there are larger goals, and we have ideas for the people we want to be.

In the summer Mr. Squish gets fleas. We fight them with laundry and diatomaceous earth, with vacuuming, combs, and more laundry. With poison, when we’re tired of the bites. And with constant attention to our house and cat.

Swimming in the rivers these last few weeks I think mostly of how much their temperatures vary, how much warmer the Sandy is, outside of Portland, than the Feather in the Sierra Nevadas, fed by PG&E dams from the bottom of the reservoirs. How much more comfortable games are when the water’s as warm as the Russian River, and how in groups they are all delightful.

Summer in San Francisco consists of long walks late at night, awake because we should be, but wrapped in hoodies hats and fog, unable to see the sun set, unable to see the sky. It’s a decent home base, a city full of life, but it’s our adventures out that keep us aware of the seasons outside the bay.

We are planning larger changes, and we are working hard to be more capable. Some days though, we’re working on remembering the joys of our childhood, berries and floaties and friends all over the coast.

 

Happy birthday

From his spot atop my backpack Mr. Squish laps up the sun. He loves these hours with the bay windows in our Richmond apartment, when the morning light comes in thick and hot.

In the afternoon the space chills, and he seeks refuge on the furry blanket that is his favorite possession, that has been since his first days in this house. He stretches and turns and settles in, his head pressed deep into the fur and paws extended forward to knead the soft material. Purring loudly he shuts his eyes and begins a nap that ends only when we return from work.

Today however he has company, and sneaks up on my keyboard as I type, sniffing for the remnants of my bagel sandwich on the plate discarded after breakfast. Finding little he settles on a cushion in the window and watch for pigeons and Coca-Cola delivery trucks. The small fleet of police trikes that lead the street sweeper, giving tickets to parked cars, startles him with their strange speed and clustering. Occasionally the 38 hisses loudly as it brakes to a stop at the corner and he rises, fur on end, prepared to defend his home from the unknown.

Mostly he watches me, and naps, content in the knowledge that his people are near by.

Today Mr. Squish turns one. In his first year he has grown from a tiny ball of fluff with pale blue eyes to the king of the house, a cat of no small size or shedding power. His fur remains strangely soft, a single coat of fluff that he disperses widely and yet never seems to lack. Rather than an unknown creature of mystery he seems to be a specific breed, and a gentle one. He is not afraid of dogs or other cats, though the latter are not his biggest fans. At fourteen pounds he intimidates without meaning to, and is uncertain of the social mores surrounding cat-on-cat interactions.

His early life on the street, before the shelter and the foster family, left him with something of a wheeze, and he catches colds easily. Thus Mr. Squish is more like his owner than otherwise would seem, asthmatic and often sneezing. These ailments have not stopped his adventures, from frisbee field to wedding party to coffee shop. Today on his birthday he will see Golden Gate Park, Jenny’s Burger, and the Little Shamrock. Being a creature of San Francisco’s small apartments he is amazed at the variety of trees, birds and boxes in the wide world, but knows his own gate well and is always ready to return to the furry blanket.

In the last year Mr. Squish is not the only one who’s grown. Our lives have changed with his company, and with a creature at home we are more likely to leave early, or sleep in, content with his warm fur on foot or head. So too have we come to rely on friends for food and care on our frequent expeditions, for patience when we speak of his antics. Those who’ve visited have had to tolerate his nightly curiosity, and have benefited from his love for snuggles. This first year has been a happy one, and tonight we go to sleep hoping to wake to his sniffing for many more.

 

Turning over

On my birthday the skies of San Francisco are clear. Mr. Squish and I open all our windows to this gift, the heavy fog of summer seemingly evaporated overnight.

All day not a single cloud dots the tiny patch of sky visible from our window. Mr. Squish sniffs and purrs without much disturbance. As is his wont he attacks the Lego he is now large enough to reach, and chases my pant legs as I walk from room to room. The cat and I are spending a quiet day together, celebrating my personal year in our new fashion.

From New York an old friend writes with thoughts that mirror my own. He has  just returned from six weeks abroad.

“Not that I spend much time in my apartment anyway…” he begins.

We live in two of the world’s most expensive cities and yet inhabit our own apartments so rarely that a day at home has become a vacation.

The air here is clean, and the temperature far cooler than the record-breaking triple digits in Portland last weekend. Like age, the moderate temperatures of the Bay Area are probably weakening my body. After a future move to hotter climes I will most likely regret these years spent in a study of the gradients between 52 and 68 F.

My friend’s letter, though mailed from the US, was written in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Korea. Edited on a Japanese train and a Thai bus, it brings the feel of motion, if not the specifics. Like most correspondence it is concerned with relationships, with the play between people and the motion of time. He writes of the ease of travel, the challenges of learning a new place, and the enjoyment of labor. So to do these letters mention our aging, the growth of knowledge and the familiarity with the road.

Are we wiser, he asks, a decade later, when we are still moving, still looking?

How could we not be, I answer, reading in the breeze of San Francisco, in the calm of a day without destination.

This city is as Tokyo was, a new place to discover.  As Shanghai, Hong Kong, Houston, New York are and were. We are travelers not only when abroad, not only when unaware of local custom. After so long on the road, on the lookout for the new and different, I hope we will never awake in a city without wonder.

We grow older, I think, trying to answer his deeper question, not because the world is less interesting, nor because we are less spry, but because the things we see on occasion recall things we have already seen. We receive letters from friends we have heard from often, written from cities we can successfully imagine. Their words remind us of shared dinners, of train rides together through humid countrysides, of apartments we both once worked to afford.

Yet we still adventure. We do so without the sense of need that pushed us out of doors of a decade ago. Instead we adventure because it has become who we are. After a decade of correspondence, after cohabiting in upstate New York, in Japan, China, and Texas, the two of us are closer to who we wanted to be. Watchers and letter-writers, wanderers with jobs that span countries. My oft-mentioned goal of comfort in any city, any location, is no myth. Instead at the dawn of thirty three it is a comfort, a truth built on the friends gained at each stop along the way.