Waiting for the train

Standing on a train platform outside Gifu I take stock of how far we’ve come. Far not in the sense of two about to be three trains this morning from Nagoya airport, or even the one flight from HKG prior. Nor do I mean far in that this is our fourth trip to Japan in twenty nineteen. Far in the sense I meant when I volunteered to live in the happening world.

I’ve come to recognize the burst of confusion that comes with this heightened motion. After forgetting my Guandong hotel room number twice my first trip with my last job, a whirlwind tour of sixteen suppliers in four days, I’ve become more careful. I pack lighter, of course, and with more regular repetition, to ease the memory requirements. And I try, always, to require less.

On Saturdays the train we are waiting for comes every thirty minutes, so we have some time to think. We stand on the platform in the shade and eat bread from a shop at the last train station, washing it down with tea from a vending machine. There are a few locals also waiting, though most have read the train schedule and will walk up to the platform closer to the train’s arrival. This station is of an older era, where tickets can be bought en route in cash, not just by Suica at the upstairs gates. The station is quiet save for a through train that clatters past on the center tracks without slowing. This is a diesel line and the train’s exhaust doesn’t help the heat. Early September is still warm here, though nothing like the heat of August in Tokyo.

Landing this morning in Nagoya Tokyo felt like a long time ago. Thinking back to that rooftop in Hatsudai is what started this reflection on pace. Since we were in Tokyo, the last time I wrote here, I have been to Taiwan. It was my first time in the country, seeing a Taipei night market, having lunch in the mountains to the north, and then wandered Taichung the following evening. Since we were in Tokyo I have also spent most of a week working in San Francisco, riding Jump bikes to the office and climbing gym. Since Tokyo, I’ve spent five separate days in Shenzhen and Dongguan, days of walking borders and visiting suppliers. All these places, not yet correctly memorized or considered, I’ve seen since our trip to Tokyo that is both the prior post and exactly one month ago.

Cue the happening world.

These bursts of motion come with the start of new things. Since the last unexpected end I’ve been in motion more than not, leaving behind a list of adventures that seems absurd when recounted. As my first summer in Asia since two thousand eight, I’m enjoying the luxury of short flights and high speed train rides more than long trans-Pacific loops. Yet I’ve done those too, three times since June. As records go I can’t yet tell where twenty nineteen will end in places slept, but I know how it will feel: like the blur of motion.

I still love the Shinkansen. For this boy from New York, the first Shinkansen was a miracle, something pulled fully realized out of an alternate world. Riding the new high speed rail link between Kowloon and Shenzhen at least once a week now, I appreciate it just as much. Fifteen minutes to Shenzhen rather than the previous hour is quite a change. An hour and a half direct link to Shaoguan is amazing. The speed, ease, and comfort with which we transition from place to place remains the same kind of miracle it was at eighteen. In this way it has been a gift, these past weeks, to go on a small tour of the region’s high speed rail lines. I’ve ridden Taiwan’s line from Taipei to Taichung and back. I took the China high speed rail from Hong Kong to Shanghai, and the original Shinkansen line from Osaka to Tokyo, all since July. Finishing this piece in Osaka again, I can now add the Shinkansen from Nagoya to Osaka to the list, the same line as a month prior in the opposite direction.

As with many things, it turns out the alternate world that I discovered at eighteen wasn’t some fantasy place of imagination. It was simply a country that invested in non-car transportation infrastructure. To my delight there are several such places within easy reach of our new home.

Which is the largest change from earlier moments where I felt part of the happening world. I no longer bust down broken streets in LA in a borrowed Mini, nor do I drive hours along the border highway just east of Tijuana. Instead I walk down the dusty streets of Bao’an to the new line 11 metro stop, and then transfer at Futian to the high speed rail back to Hong Kong.

There are cars, of course, like the one that will retrieve me shortly for a visit to a factory outside Osaka. Cars have not disappeared, but their role has shrunk so much in this new life. They now serve as occasional connectors between rail and factory, factory and hotel.

Living, as we do, in a world where lists of places seen and slept are a bundle of cities that do not share countries, it’s the long-term trends that stand out, not each individual place. On my second visit to this Osaka hotel I know where the subway entrances are. This summer I have been to San Francisco three times and only in cars as a means of exiting the airport or crossing the Bay Bridge. Once again the metal chariot is not gone, the age of the automobile is not over. There is a different way, though, and we’re finding it, while remaining all the while in constant motion.

Cue again the happening world.

The happening world

In a borrowed Mini I tear down Alameda and onto Washington. Los Angeles is hot and bright in the morning, and I squint. Without ever having lived here, the streets feel familiar, and the potholes are an entertaining obstacle course. The air is drier than San Francisco, but not as dry as Juarez. Nor as hot. The trucks that ruined these roads bounce around me, and I revel in the tiny size and excellent horsepower of this two door vehicle. Twice the tires squeal unintentionally as the light turns green.

“Where have you been?” a former colleague asks me later that evening, and I grin.

“Around.”

It is true. This is the busy season, the time of each year when everything accelerates towards the calendar’s end. In the last thirty days I have seen Shanghai, Hangzhou, New York, San Francisco, Juarez, and Los Angeles. Saturday I will see Chicago. In between, near home, I have danced in the park and drank wine beneath an aquarium. I have run on the fields of Stanford and watched the sun rise over Hong Kong. Behind these sights, behind the thrill of motion and the exhaustion of sickness, has lurked a single phrase, coined by a man I will never meet.

“Script cue: the happening world”
-John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar

It is Saturday, and the boat does not rock. Lake Shasta is far stiller than the lake of my childhood, Cayuga in upstate New York. Made by man behind the Shasta Dam in nineteen forty eight the lake winds through valleys, not having had time to wear them down and make them part of a single whole. The shore line is tumultuous, coves abound, and small points challenge those who have never boated very close to shore. On this house boat that is all but one of us. We crash twice, in the minor fashion of shallow board vehicles that move but slowly.

The first morning I sit on the bow and begin anew this book, first read in Japan in two thousand two, a gift from my then roommate. It has been out of print for the intervening almost-decade. At the above line on page two I look up and marvel at the distance we have come: from Chicago the weekend before, from San Francisco the day before, and from the dock in darkness the night now ending.

The sun peeks over the hills and scatters the last pieces of shadow. The water’s clarity is striking. Out a ways from the shore, where the depths of lake bottom should be difficult to judge, long dead trees poke their trunks upwards. These hulks, chewed through by woodpeckers and, without branches, resistant of wind, reach out to the sky. This was not always lake, they say, and in the mid-day we will swim to them, climb, perch, and jump.

Likewise from the houseboat’s third story roof we will fling ourselves, seeking moments in the air to anticipate the water’s chill. Like these leaps the weekend is an escape, a vacation.

An escape from what, I wonder, sipping coffee made on the boat’s stove and a French press remembered by someone more prepared than myself.

With my feet on the rail and Brunner’s book, newly re-published, on my lap, the answer is surprisingly clear.

An escape from the happening world.

An escape because our travel is not of distance any longer, the world a well-known sphere, but of pace. The borrowed Mini, a go kart-like mobile of power and short wheelbase, was a friend’s, and is now gone, will never be driven again.  It has been replaced by some far more elegant machine in the two weeks it has taken me to write this.

The week I spent in Juarez, prior to landing in Los Angeles to race its red frame up and down Fruitland Ave, its then-owner spent in Belize, mostly underwater.

Later in the afternoon I will swim out to the center of our current section of Lake Shasta, mostly underwater.

In between visits to each other’s neighborhoods my friend and I discuss possible futures, both short term and further afield, while in transit between San Francisco and Petaluma, between Santa Monica and Los Angeles. These journeys are carried out in vehicles both Brunner and I saw as temporary. Like the red Mini. These trips occur with such speed and rapidity that we do not consider them travels, having invented a separate and more boring word for daily excursions done in the name of employment.

The members of the Shanghai book club prepare to read Brunner’s book, at my urging. Strangely almost the entire group is now re-constituted in San Francisco. Somehow the founding circle has re-located without shared plan or even much communication to this city on the opposite side of the Pacific.

One of our six was in Chile for three weeks, the book assigned in his absence. Upon returning he discovers an empty house, save for the cat and some plants. His roommate, also a China hand, has left the country and will be in the Philippines for six weeks. At a brunch after his return friends compare stories of Dallas, visited recently, as well as New York, and share stories of the art movement re-districting Detroit. One guest has been on the road for a year. Much talk is of jobs and houses, of gardens and school districts. The motion does not indicate a lifestyle as much as the extremes of the world, the pace of our lives.

On this lazy Sunday we pilot the boat beneath the bridge of I-5, amazed at the train tracks that run beneath it. I lie on the roof, curious as to the empty rail cars and their destination, certainly far away and busier than this lazy waterway.

Their destination is the same as my own, once returned, later that afternoon, to my car and that same highway, to the Bay Area and the city.

Cue the happening world.