The setting sun

From the rooftop we can see the edge of the continent. In the last light of Sunday it looks appropriately epic. We are quiet in the face of majesty, at least initially. I remember standing with friends on the rim of the Grand Canyon one morning in the year two thousand, all four of us silently willing our minds to process what our eyes were taking in. The task remains daunting even in my memory a decade later.

Few events require that kind of silence, the re-routing of all brain power from chatter and output to absorption of spectacle. The sunset this evening was that kind of thing, pink and gold and dusty rose and purple filling the sky and reflecting off of all the glass of the city’s windows behind us, up and down its hills, in between trees and large structures. The shifting clouds led the light inland and gave it the rippling texture of the wind.

I am obsessed with satellite imagery of our planet, of the surprising intricacies and overwhelming scale of this globe.  Photos, events, descriptions in books lead me inevitably to the true magic of our generation, the unstated masterpiece of our global connectivity thus far: the easily available view of our planet. No longer is knowledge of the world a challenge to obtain, no longer is a sense of geography the province of those who spend days outdoors or a life on the road. The world is a thing to be seen and the tools to do so can fit in our pockets, can take over our walls.

I wait eagerly for a multi-touch display the size of a Minority Report screen not to wave away dialogue boxes on, but to view the Maldives from a thousand meters up, to observe the east coast of the United States, where I grew up, from the spartan furnishings of whatever tiny Asian apartment I then inhabit.

Watching the sunset this evening, though, my desires are quieted and the vast list of adventures to plan, tickets to purchase, and accommodations to discover slide out of my brain along with all thoughts of technology. I do not even remember the camera, that falls to my companion, who hustles down the stairs and returns with image capturing equipment. Instead I turn my head from ocean to hills and stare. The light fades earlier these days, and is no less impressive for the arbitrary change in hour.

The year is coming to an end, surprisingly. It feels as though it just began, twenty eleven with its frantic pace. The colors that fill the sky tonight promise, like an afterthought on a gorgeous day, that all is not yet done.  Brief though are the remaining pauses where the eyes can overwhelm the brain’s thoughts of work and obligation.

Our minds finally still then, here in the last of the week’s light, we stand on a rooftop in San Francisco, gaze towards the ocean and feel the wind.

To and fro

From the edge of the Pacific, on his thirty second birthday, a man watches ships approach from China, their decks stacked high. With steel sides and huge size these vessels are proof again that something exists out beyond the waves, concealed by fog and distance. The beach is a windy place, and despite the coffee shop’s sign that says “we love the fog” along Judah, most seem content to stay indoors. It is a Monday in San Francisco, and, not having to work, he approaches the ocean alone, to check that both have survived the year.

At twenty eight he stood on the shores of this ocean, facing it from the other side. The South China Sea, specifically, though the bodies of water do not require fare at their borders. The waters instead leak back and forth, stirred by currents far larger than these boats, by motion on a scale beyond that of any one person. His visit to the ocean that day, in the back of a Buick, after a factory floor and before a seafood lunch that would make him sick, was due to a job he could not leave for celebration, had no need to escape at the moment.

In August San Francisco sees little of the world, is an island unto itself. As he drove north the weekend prior sunshine lingered on California hills. Covered in vines of grape and tall grass, they were a message so clearly of summer as to be painful for one who lives in the fog. Returned for the work week to the city of his current residence he wakes sore and sleeps restlessly, muscles tired and mind overcome. In the morning he lingers in the house, cleaning and re-arranging, thinking and remembering those far away.

The ocean swirls with colors deeper than blue, pulled from far below and reflected back by the low hanging clouds. A group of teenagers cavort at the water’s edge, and another man who looks more lost than most here sits on a log and talks to no one. Walking along the water’s edge, his red sneakers leaving brief impressions, he of thirty two says almost nothing, singing instead into the wind. From the ship growing larger to the shore the ocean is a turbulent mass of white, and the birds are constantly flapping away from the crash of the waves.

A week later and he again has tickets to cross it, has friends whose houses await and strange factories to visit. Purchasing flights once more is exciting, most of a decade after those first tickets to from Japan to Shanghai, ten exactly since he first felt this combination of uncertainty and joy. Of all the birthdays since then, twenty eight feels most real, standing on the shore of the sea, looking east towards Japan and California. By the count of years he is four older now, looking west from San Francisco. Yet with visas and tickets in hand, with the wind off the ocean and no idea where he is going, he feels much the same.

On brief vacation

“You are a creature of habit,” she says. “You like to have things that you do every weekend, and lots of space.”

“True.” Being habitual is not the whole of it. It is not the repeating of specific activities but the necessity of forming them, the comfort derived from having a plan, a pattern.

“I would wake up and go on adventures, but you want to do Saturday things.” Her voice is not accusing, rather it is the joy of knowing someone’s true self. The defensiveness in his response is the shame of being so easily understood.

“We go on adventures,” it begins, “look at where we are now.”

Outside it is dark, and the gardens watched over by only stars, and the moon. Inside the fire crackles, the wine sits on the mantle, and a man and woman sing of life and love on the stereo. The ocean is audible over their voices if not visible beyond the flowers.

“This was my idea,” she points out, and it was, he had taken no time to plan, despite desire. He’d been late from work, the calm delay of the one with no knowledge of schedule, with no responsibility for check in.

“I like new things,” he tries again, almost without energy. Almost conceding. To himself he is moving on, ready to acknowledge that he likes making new habits, likes learning a new place, learning how to replicate a love of coffee, wine, and tree climbing in new locations. Removing the fear that otherwise stirs in the unknown air.

“You like to learn new things, and new places, on your own time,” she says, smiling now. “So that when others want to explore you are already comfortable.” She is finished now, happy to have explained this without wounding him.

“We should go more places, do more.” This is no great admission. It is an attempt to combat his central fear, of seeing too little. That fear makes him survey the crowd at parties and wander constantly in cities.

“We should remember to explore,” she says. “We won’t always live here, and we need to learn to remember.”

He knows this too, for years later it is not the comfort of habits that remains in mind from previous houses and days spent in routine, but the exceptions, the impetuous variation from rituals, that live on in stories and in their lives.