Sickness and work

October passes in fits of frisbee, sickness, and work. We see friends from distant cities and chase plastic in mud together. Weeks later the fields are still bumpy with the memories of our bids and cuts.

We are sick too, a common occurrence in the fall, especially after sharing water bottles and meals with dozens of friends from cities across Asia. We’re lucky in these illnesses, though we may have gotten them from Shanghai friends or given them to Tokyo friends. Hopefully the folks from Manila and Singapore went home without the horrible colds of the fall of 2019.

In between the high energy days of games and the low energy ones of frequent naps we work. In offices and factories we spent much of our weeks solving problems no one has had a chance to resolve before us. This is how it works in startups, every problem something no one has yet had time energy money or knowledge to fix. In our new roles we bring at least energy, and occasionally knowledge. It is the luxury of a decade in San Francisco.

These are good times, if blurry. I feel that I finally know what kind of year 2019 will be. I hope we will remember the best parts with enough details to grant it length, but am not optimistic. Some years are simply spent this way, building blocks for all of our lives.

Mostly, here in the first faint whispers of Hong Kong’s fall, I am glad to wear jeans for a trip to Shenzhen, the first time in six months I’ve contemplated denim. The seasons return, belatedly, long after we’ve forgotten their feel on our skin.

Off hours

The kind of quiet Monday I last enjoyed in the spring sneaks up on me. I rise early and make coffee, acknowledging the cat by leaving the sink tap dripping for a bit. He prefers to drink running water with quick laps of that tiny pink tongue, and I prefer to let him. In the dark of the kitchen we make space for each other, me pouring boiling water over grounds and him two paws down in the sink, two paws up on the counter, making tiny splashing sounds.

We retire to the office once the coffee is done, where I scrub emails and reach out to factory staff to plan visits later in the week. It’s too early for them to be on site yet, and in an hour I’ve accomplished enough to pause until they reply. The cat and I wake Tara with tea and move to the sunroom to read the news and lie on the rug until she arrives. We read and she plays the guitar for a bit until the neighborhood is fully risen. These minutes of morning together are likewise a gift of this kind of Monday, and we appreciate them. Quite often one or the other of us is traveling, is at the train station early or the airport even earlier, and there is none of this shared peace, reading while the children next door leave for school.

After a while the neighborhood is awake, children out and office workers likewise. The shops open and deliveries start to arrive, and Tara departs for work, a short bus ride or walk. Again this commute is a gift of our life here. No longer are the bus rides an hour plus of private shuttles down the peninsula. As she leaves I set the robot vacuum to work, appeasing the cat with a high perch safe from the trundling commotion. He accepts this reluctantly, and naps while I follow up with the responses arriving from factory staff and US teammates. These colleagues are conducting a ritual I know so well, that of the Sunday evening email scrub to prepare for the week. It’s a part of life I have left behind in my journey to the future. In return I now work Saturday mornings, a few hours of quiet catch up on the end of the US work week. These hours are a fair trade, as they overlap with some factories sixth working day. I’m happier with this schedule, trading Friday dinner time emails in the US for Saturday morning ones, letting Tara sleep in while I chase shipping documents and wire transfers. There’s an unspoken rule in this exchange, a pact we all mostly keep: one day a week without email. Saturday in the US and Sunday in Asia are sacred, a shared time for everything else in our lives. One day a week of peace. And as a result the last quarter of my weekend sometimes comes, strangely, on Mondays.

So it is that afternoons like this Monday, where replies trickle in and there is no specific urgency to any situation, sneak up on me, for they are not planned. Instead, upon realizing myself so gifted I head to the gym or to the grocery store. Occasionally I write, or nap with the cat. Days like this are rare. Last week on Monday I was on a 7 am flight to Taiwan. The week before I was already in Japan. The week before that I was already in San Francisco. More than a month, I think, since the last of these quiet mornings with the cat. And so I relax and appreciate the gift of living once again in the future, in UTC+8, and working at least partially in the past.

Waiting for the train

Unuma station

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.

Temporary crossings

Looking at the river

We have a gift, in technology, that is transforming our memories. When I began writing, years before this site, the idea of a personal photographic history was a distant vision. Digital cameras were a poorly performing luxury and cellular connections barely able to convey data. I would not own access to either for another half dozen years.

Unsurprisingly the memories of my first trip abroad have a vague feel and possibly apocryphal characteristics. Much of human history has the same quirks. I have always taken the year of my birth as a blessing, lucky to have grown up before self-documentation. Not before documentation, as parents still took photos and recorded far too many Christmas presents being opened, but before the constant self-editing of ones’ personal digital history. And yet cloud backups and quickly accessible photo streams are a gift of another kind, bringing our memories out of the fog of uncertainty and into the concrete in an entirely new way.

They do not, however, constitute the whole truth, something for which I am grateful. There will still be stories told without evidence, and poorly lit photos that do not clearly prove that we were there that night. At least not without consulting the location metadata.

What we do have is the ability to remember a specific day, return to it, and share the remnants of it with new people, or with old friends. We have the ability to instantly look up the last time we saw someone, or the last time we took a photo, at least.

And so it is that I can find the image I remember in a mater of moments. He stands on the deck of a ferry in the bright light of October sun. We are headed across the Yangtze river to a new factory. This was the good kind of trip, all of us excited to see what we would build together. The travel still felt exploratory and joyful. We all laughed and enjoyed the ferry that day, a place none of us had ever expected to see.

Three months later I would be back, on the worst kind of quick turn quality control visit. I would cross this river on this same ferry, or one of four identical vessels. I would spend several days in the cold of Yangzhou and then fly to Tokyo to present my solutions, to apologize, and to wear a suit. That would be the last time we met in person, me apologizing to him and then us both apologizing to a mutual customer. It was an unpleasant occasion at the end of the year. We were both tired, then, exhausted from the compromises of supporting a failing business model. A little more than a month into the new year I changed jobs, and left that industry and that world behind.

The truth is there aren’t many people to tell, few people I know who ever met him, and fewer still I still speak to. Instead I sift through photos of my times in Tokyo, of his trip to Petaluma, and of our factory visits in China. The best ones I send to his colleague, in case they capture moments he does not have. I share the memories I have available, especially of the good days. It’s all I can think of to do.

Slim hope

They promote from within,” my colleague says, and it is a statement of admiration in an afternoon of less pleasant observations. We are waiting on a factory line for it to re-start. The work we hoped to complete today, we have just learned, is to be spread over several, and we are trying to prevent this delay.

We are trying to prevent delay, so that we can leave.

We are trying to prevent delay so that when we leave we have done what we need to, seen what we need to, and can take the samples to colleagues further away. Teasing out our true needs should not take three sentences. In this concrete room we are quite clear, and have had meetings outlining this schedule weekly for the past month. The room we stand in has hundreds of workers on a half dozen products, and is quite temperate. The comfort is a gift of the season. In August the weather will not be so gracious, and we will all be a little shorter tempered. For now we try to see the good, and to have patience. Nothing life-changing will happen today, one way or another. We are all still early enough in the production schedule to go home tomorrow regardless of specifics. At dinner, everyone will laugh. And so we are discussing the factory in more general terms, the good and bad that come with any human operation. My colleague’s observation, borne out of the production manager’s youth, is true. They do promote from within. When we started this project, several years before, he was an assistant who fetched and did not speak. Now he is constantly on the phone, which is how we find him, often on another task in a different building. He is still less than twenty five, but he knows where everything is in this sprawling complex, knows who everyone is.

This knowledge deserves promotion, and thus comes as no surprise. In so many ways he has grown up in this factory. He has grown up with us and others like us, in the good weather and the bad, working on products that did well and those never re-ordered. He has adapted, as we all have, to the changing trends and product requirements, and is still here. That alone is something of a success.

Flexibility is a quality we list on both sides of the ledger for this factory, when we are waiting and listing our thoughts. On days like today though, when the weather is good and the timeline sufficiently padded, we take it in the best way. On long afternoons where not all is ready we cut each other the slack of those who know July’s stress and heat well, and do not want to build up any frustrations in advance of the challenging times.

Today, we say to each other without words, everything is alright. Whatever that means.

Finding comfort

I am again in Hong Kong, briefly.

Over the past decade I’ve spent a dozen days like this, give or take. They’re days of freedom on either end of busy work travels. They’re days plucked from the vagaries of jetlag and airline schedules in an attempt to maximize time on the ground.

It’s not a common approach. Many try to minimize time in country, to avoid skipping a child’s soccer game or a Saturday morning breakfast. I have done that too frequently, and now my priorities are different, born of being a person who loves many places, rather than one. Luckily my family understands that I am better company returning from an extra day of quiet thinking than a tight Friday night rush to the airport from a factory in Dongguan. At least usually. Spending Friday evening exploring or at a dinner and then Saturday wandering leaves me with an impression of the world I want to return to, rather than viewing it as a place of work necessity. As always, I try to maintain that curiosity.

In this fashion I’ve spent a weekend in Changsha, doing research, and many weekends in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo, the loci of my global slingshot routes. And yet, despite years of practice, I’m still learning. I’m learning how to find special places, how to be a more adventurous visitor. Being a frequent visitor rather than a tourist should provide different opportunities, and does. Lately I’ve been visiting climbing gyms, small parks, and new neighborhoods. Mostly, as always, I walk long distances and speak little.

After several hours of wandering, after a day of looking down alleys and up stair cases, I find somewhere to get cheap noodles, maybe a local beer, and read some fiction. The novel lets me tune out the city I’ve worked so hard to focus in on. And eventually, calmer and ready for company, I head to the airport for my long commute back to our small apartment, to Mr. Squish and our four am jetlag mornings.

Winding roads

Idabashi view

In the month of March I am mostly confused about location.

In a Shanghai hotel room an old friend brings me medicine in between naps. His daughter laughs at her reflection in the mirror while we chat. I’ve been sick for days and seen little save this room in between factory visits. The company is welcome and the medicine better than my homemade solutions.

A few days later I see a super hero movie on the US naval base in Yokosuka. I’ve never been on base before and the experience is strange. Sitting in a theater having paid $2 for tickets feels both familiar and surreal. It is strange to be in Japan and yet surrounded by Americans, especially after two weeks in China. Afterwards, wandering around Idabashi with my friends, I am so grateful to be back in the suburban depths of Tokyo. Sub-urban is a claim that can only be applied to Idabashi when it is placed next to Shinjuku. In some ways the duplication of train stations, shops, conbinis and aparto towers feels like it’s own culture, a form of topography and living for which Americans have no language. Sub-urban then only in hierarchy not in density.

In Las Vegas a few days later I look out from the thirty third floor at empty patches in the city’s expansion. Whole blocks skipped, still raw desert, surrounded on all sides by cul-de-sac housing tracts. A depressing view of car culture and relative waste that I don’t know well enough to imagine living in. Or to imagine feeling trapped in.

Sitting at a bar in downtown Las Vegas arguing about transparency and expectations I realize how much of our conversations are also about location. Much of the conversation, scattered over several weeks and countries, is about cities, housing, variations of living. So too is much of our conversation about our hope for the future, and many of our questions are about how places shape people.

It is a perfect if confusing way to spend several weeks, well-suited to this site save for the lack of writing.

Repetition and growth

Beijing Apartments.JPG

In the summer of two thousand seven lives a boy I will remember forever.

In the echoes of experience lie good stories.

In my memory this boy boards the train to Beijing on a Friday evening. It is summer, closing in on his birthday, and the sleeper cars are mercifully air conditioned. This train was new when he first moved to China, the car interiors a spotless white. The first time he rode it, in summer of two thousand four, the twelve hour ride to Beijing was incredible, so fast. Three years later everything feels well-used, a patina of hand prints on each door handle and section of wall surrounding. This overnight train from Shanghai was an improvement on the fourteen plus hours and hard sleeper trains of prior years, the late nineties and early aughts. In the present day the speed is not impressive; the current high speed line runs Shanghai to Beijing in only six hours. In two thousand four twelve hours seemed fast, but by two thousand seven it had become routine, and whole new ways of life had been built around the overnight sleeper’s reliability. Families in Beijing could have one parent take a job in Shanghai, commute down Sunday night, head to work Monday morning, and run the reverse on Friday. They’d stay with friends or family on week nights and be home when the kids got up on Saturday.

We never know what kind of lives the future will support.

In two thousand seven the boy who boards this train to Beijing is preoccupied. He throws his backpack in his berth. When the older Chinese couple in his compartment asks if they can have the bottom bunk he acquiesces without thought. Foreigners prefer top bunks, they say, and he agrees. Foreigners do. They’re happiest when able to sleep. Chinese families prefer the bottom bunks in this small four bed compartment. More social, better for eating and chatting. The boy moves his bag up high and steps back into the hallway. There are small tables and seats at intervals that fold up against the wall when not in use. He squats at one, charging his phone off the outlet beneath.

We never know what kind of lives the future will support, he thinks, scrolling through email on his Blackberry. This is a new technology, his third smartphone” but the first one that supports work email, that is paid for by a company. He has had it since May, purchased in Los Angeles, and it is his favorite device ever. On this train though it will be a weight around his weekend adventure. He is heading north to see a friend from Hawaii who is in China taking classes for the summer. Despite the weight they will have an excellent weekend.

The train leaves promptly at seven oh five pm, and the phone starts ringing shortly after. It is a woman from Indonesia, someone he has never met. She wants him to guarantee a shipment of fabric from a Chinese factory that is sitting in port in Jakarta. The shipment is valued at fifty thousand dollars. And so they debate, on the phone, as the train moves out of Shanghai headed north. Through Jiangsu they debate who is to bear the responsibility if the fabric has an issue, and why the Chinese factory that made it can or can not be trusted. Fifty thousand dollars. The fabric is to be made into dresses, for delivery to his company in the United States. There is a deadline, a ship window, and he urges her to have faith, to make the order, to pay the Chinese supplier. Again and again she asks him to personally back the shipment. They have never met. In a year he will leave this job and return to the United States. They will never meet.

The phone call drops, it is two thousand seven and he is on a high speed train. Standing in the vibrating space between cars where he’s moved to have some privacy the boy stares out the window at the Chinese countryside. Already then he knows he will never forget this evening. A boy from upstate New York, not yet twenty eight, taking the overnight train from Shanghai to Beijing, spending the whole ride arguing with a woman in Jakarta over fifty thousand dollars. How did this become his life?

The phone rings.

In two thousand sixteen I stand outside a bar beneath a highway in San Francisco. It is eleven pm on a Wednesday. The phone number on the screen is long, international. I answer it.

On the other end is a man in India I will never meet. He wants me to guarantee some charges on a shipment. The container is sitting in the port in Mumbai. We debate dollars. Excuses are made. Clear the cargo, I ask. Send me receipts.

I start walking. Somewhere in the next two blocks we are cut off. For the length of one red light I stand on the corner of 14th and South Van Ness staring at the phone. I am thinking of that woman in Indonesia, fifty thousand dollars, and the train ride to Beijing in two thousand seven when the phone rings again.

Hello,” I say.

In some moments the future feels like the past, imperfectly recreated.

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?

Casual beauty

Descending through the clouds into Shenzhen on a Sunday afternoon, the gift of flight overwhelms me. In a window seat on the left side of the plane as we fly south my view is of the edge of the continent. As we descend into Shenzhen the circular approach route gives me a view of most of the city and some of Dongguan.

It is a flight I’ve done several times, and one of my favorites. The southern China coastline is a mishmash of islands and man-made structures, ports and refineries mixed with huge cities and apartment complexes. On a good day the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong comes in to view, as do some of the islands surrounding. Today, amid a gaggle of puffy white clouds, my view is clear, unobscured by the wing. I can see the sun’s reflection on the water and clouds, the scale of Chinese cities, and the ocean. As with all flight it’s a reminder of how small each of us are and how beautiful the world is.

As we turn and head west over Shenzhen, starting a loop that swings west, south, and finally east again for our landing on the southern edge of the city, I see Chang’an district below, and the hotel where I will spend the coming week. Our turn is quick at this altitude, and I cannot find the factory that brings me here. I see the complex in the hills that has no lights and mystifies me, but not long or well enough to discover its purpose. We pass directly above it.

Air travel is a gift, I have said, as have many others. Swinging low on this approach I remember another reason why: flight is a view of the world’s beauty that can be hard to see from the ground.

Torn between

On the road again life is a procession of transportation, offices, factories, and hotels. In between each new step is a moment of carrying gear, of lugging duffle bags out of taxi trunks and yanking them off of conveyor belts, of carrying samples up chill concrete stairs and sorting them into piles based on vendor on hotel beds. Re-packing after one night in a Dongguan hotel I realize how many of the possessions spread out around the room were bought specifically for this life. This bag, bought for carrying across the Mexican border with shoes inside. The other bag, bought to be a one bag carry all for a trip to Japan. This clothing specifically chosen for weight and the ability to wear it multiple times without attracting attention. Jeans for their comfort when slept in on trans-Pacific flights. Laptop charger combined with phone charger to minimize cabling, and the cabling itself extra long, to support strangely-located outlets in hotels and airports. A toiletry kit that does not get unpacked at home, in a light weight bag from Tokyu Hands. Click pens that do not explode when pressure changes, which have replaced the Uni-balls I used to carry. A custom-made wallet for passport and larger Chinese bills.

Standing nine stories up in Chang’an, packing at eight am after swimming, my focus on gear suddenly becomes clear. So much of my life is spent moving that I have re-configured almost everything around it, often without notice.

Later, in a hotel in Shanghai for most of a week, I begin to unpack into the life of a resident. I build small habits around the coffee shop, a breakfast spot, and the comfort of a fixed hotel room. Clothes are hung rather than draped on furniture. Shoes have a spot by the door. And the lights, music, and heat are all configured for residency rather than taking whatever comes in a more transient style. Here, finally, I do laundry, and I consider how few items have made this journey with me.

At home in San Francisco, in our one bedroom with it’s limited closet space, we debate furniture. More than a year now and still no table other than in the kitchen. We have a sofa, a large purchase by both standards, bought as a wedding gift to ourselves. We have a chair, and some lights. Plants. Art. Enough, really, to fill the small space. And yet often, lying jet-lagged on the bed, I wonder what we really need, what of these belongings we’ll take with us when we leave. The three legged chair, bought as a present a few years ago. Clothes, though not all of them. Bags. Electronics, in some minimal form. And books, letters, and art, the daily acquisitions of long distance friendships.

The balance is between a garden and a backpack, between a nice library of books and an iPad instead of a laptop, between pants for every day and an every day” pair of pants. In my desire to live with less, to travel more, is a limit on how many things I am willing to have at home, how much time and energy I have to build one.

Sitting on the roof of our apartment building a week later, as the sun sets behind the Sutro tower, I wonder if this debate is honest. Watching Tara play the guitar, watching Mr. Squish sniff the strawberries, would I really rather have less? Could I possibly handle any more time on the move?

And out of all this optimized carry is anything as important as these few minutes a day on this rooftop, watching each other relax as the sky goes orange?

The answer is obvious and demonstrates why I shouldn’t bother accumulating stuff in the first place. Living with less is just a matter of living where we are without concern for what might be, without investing emotions in belongings.

Because the people and the animals are more mobile than any minimal set of items, and they’re what I’ll be taking with me, wherever is next.

Industry worlds

Saying goodbye to a job so often means saying goodbye to a group of people, to factories, trade shows and entire industries. In one act, signing the next contract, I move from someone who flies southwest to El Paso several times a year to someone who will probably never do that again, who will soon go months without flying domestically. After spending the first week of August in Salt Lake for a couple of years I do not go, and only realize the change from a friend’s Instagram, viewed via VPN while in Dongguan. Unlike Salt Lake, Dongguan does not have an outdoor park concert series, where I lucked into the National in twenty thirteen.

As a teacher years ago my life was driven by students’ schedules, by my contracting company, and by the needs of other teachers. In Tokyo, as in Shanghai, these requirements represented both many of my waking hours and much of my mental processes. I learned to plan lessons, to trade classes, to pull forth answers from shy but eager children, and temper the rambunctious nature of 6th graders.

These skills have come with me through the past decade to San Francisco. The people have not. Save a few, old roommates from Tokyo with whom I still adventure when able, and fellow contractors from Shanghai who likewise moved on from the profession, I no longer speak to anyone from those jobs. I do not know where those fifth or sixth graders are, who they have become. I hope amazing people, the foundation of modern Shanghai. They are after all twenty two.

Their teachers, my former colleagues, I wish well also, and hope they have received better working environments, more support, and an increase in wages. I remember wearing winter jackets in the the chill concrete rooms of that first Shanghai winter. We worked with sore fingers, all of our joints going numb as we filled out student evaluations, graded homework. From that year I have no contacts, and even the school addresses are fading, save for an elementary school on Sinan Lu.

More recently my clothing industry colleagues and vendors, from the first years of factories, remain on the periphery of life. Occasionally we find one another on LinkedIn, or in person, but mostly I walked out of that life when I moved back to the States, and my colleagues have remained where they were. The few I do keep track of have moved similarly to myself, from one industry to another until we are more at home in the strange international circle of Shanghai than in any particular company or factory. These friendships are the best parts of life, those who I have known for years and trust, whose recommendations I use in my more recent jobs. They’re who I have dinner with when alone in the city for the weekend, whose houses I stay at when booting up new production lines.

And this movement of professions continues. Just a year ago I worked closely with a man who ran an outdoor gear factory in a small Chinese city, with a metallizer outside of San Diego, and a family-run maquiladora in Juarez. In January of 2014 I spent several days measuring blankets on the floor of an Otay Mesa warehouse with a man close to my own age who had walked across the border to meet me. Each day we would have breakfast at IHOP, mostly coffee, and begin our measurements. One month later I had a new job, and our relationship passed on to a resume note, to a memory.

Moving from one city to another requires so much change. A new grocery store, a new ultimate team, a new apartment and neighborhood. Changing industries does much the same, removes the support network or renders it less valuable. By taking the new job or moving to the new town we so often say good bye to what we know and to the people we’ve worked so closely with. Passing through factory towns on my way to a new vendor in Ningbo last year I realized I probably couldn’t find the offices I used to visit in Shaoxing, Hangzhou, or Ningbo. Could no longer even recall all the products I’d come this far to source, all the weeks I had been on the road.

Crossing the Yangtze by ferry in December of twenty thirteen I knew it was probably the last time I would make that journey, and sat on the railing the whole time, trying to take it in. That’s the difference with these changes now, I remember the earlier ones and am more able to see them coming, to try and hold on to the feeling of each accidental place I will most likely never see again.

Walking borders

I get out of the taxi on a highway offramp. The driver, from Dongguan, doesn’t want to be on the surface streets of Shenzhen. After a week on the road I don’t mind, and I shoulder my backpack and duffle. I weave through stopped traffic to the curb, following it down to ground level. The border is less than a hundred meters away, a large building that houses Chinese customs connected to a walking bridge across the river to another building that houses Hong Kong customs and the Lok Ma Chau train station.

I’ve walked further to borders.

Carrying gear through traffic on the surface street I pause on the dotted yellow as cars start to move and pass on either side. It’s an action that would cause problems in San Francisco or New York but here, like so much of the world, is simply part of crossing the street. Three cars later there is a gap and I am on the far sidewalk. Five minutes later I’m in line for exit customs. Five minutes after that I look at the river that separates Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Like always it makes me realize how small the differences are between places and how much impact they have on our lives.

Borders are largely artificial. Yes, the river forms a nice demarcating line, like the Rio Grande between Texas and Mexico, but the differences in income, opportunity, language and safety are not caused by the river.

On the train into Hong Kong the air is already slightly better. Pollution does not respect borders, but the sources of it do. Hong Kong’s air has worsened over the last decade due to its proximity to Shenzhen, Dongguan, and the whole Guangzhou region, but it’s still better than those cities. So too is the food, Internet, and transit, not to mention salaries. The effects of man. Housing is more expensive though, so many Hong Kong residents have started living in Shenzhen, commuting across the border to take advantage of the artificial cost disparity.

Walking this border is new to me. I first crossed it on foot less than a year ago, though the lines and shops have grown familiar with frequent repetition. Without an electronic ID card I have to wait in line, unlike my commuter friends. It’s still an amazingly efficient border, on both sides. Hong Kong customs are rightfully considered a model, fast, well-organized, and simple to cross. Being a trading port and an international hub requires good customs, I think.

Less than one year. Surprising to me, as it feels like much longer. Fourteen times at least. First with others, colleagues and factory representatives. Then by myself, often met on one side or the other. And now, in a taxi I found, dropped on the off ramp from the highway.

The borders we cross say a lot about our lives. As a boy from upstate New York, the frequency with which I walk the Hong Kong Shenzhen border serves as a shorthand explanation of my job, checking factories and working on manufacturing problems. It also outlines another, more common border I frequent: that between San Francisco and Hong Kong, delineated by airports and the Pacific. This border, seemingly unremarkable, is of course the slowest to cross, and the most expensive. Impossible on foot, or as a daily commute.

Two years ago my border crossings were very different, the product of another job, another life.

In that life I stepped out of the minivan into the harsh light of a Juarez autumn. I carried less, just my backpack, and walked faster through traffic, uncertain of its comfort with mid-stream pedestrians. Hawkers on the corner offered beads and newspapers. The footbridge, a couple hundred meters ahead, arced up over to the U.S. border beside the bridge for cars, jammed and barely moving. Without me onboard my host could avoid this line, using his express pass to meet me on the other side. By walking four hundred meters I saved us each an hour or more. It was an easy trade.

That border changed my travel strategy, led me to the single backpack packing method I use everywhere now. It also taught me that the strangest feeling a border can bring is that of having to ask to be let back in to one’s own country.

So much easier, less stressful, and faster, to ask for permission to enter Hong Kong.

The walking borders of my life two years ago were all between Mexico and the U.S. Mostly El Paso and Juarez, but also Tijuana and San Diego, after long days on the road. Those trips, a staple of my 2012 existence, have disappeared from my life entirely, replaced by Shenzhen and Zhongshan, by so many evenings in Hong Kong. In some ways it’s a direct exchange. I have traded the hot summer afternoons in Mexico, the air dry, for Hong Kong’s humidity and Dongguan’s pollution. Walking back from where the car traffic became impenetrable, almost a mile from the border in Tijuana, to my rental car on the other side of the US border, heading to San Diego airport, flying back to SFO, all that has been replaced by a car ride to Lok Ma Chau, a walk across that bridge, a train ride to Yau Ma Tei, a train to HKG, a flight to SFO. Longer, but much the same. Travel necessitated by sprawling supply chains that are themselves created by the artificial borders I cross.

What would I have said, at twenty, if told that fifteen years later I’d walk the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong a dozen times a year? Would I have been more surprised to know that at thirty three I’d spent months in Juarez? I suspect that twenty year old would be surprised by both, and then by neither, because he too was always seeking adventure, seeking to understand new things and to learn new places. He would be surprised at the specifics, at this afternoon’s offramp stroll. The general picture, of a life on the go, crossing borders on foot for money, would seem entirely appropriate. Or perhaps that’s the present talking, aware of all the strange jobs and odd decisions that brought me here. Perhaps that boy of twenty would doubt this future’s existence entirely, knowing little of Mexican factories and less of Chinese customs.

Either way, I’m glad to be back in Hong Kong, one border closer to home.

Lucky to be alive

Our lives are stories that we tell ourselves and tell each other. Our personal fiction, edited and self-controlled, takes different shapes depending on the audience and our mood. At work it gains a more serious tone than on the frisbee field, than at the beach. In one place our story is of physical prowess, in another of mental competency. So often these are stories we act out rather than speak, reflecting ourselves to those surrounding us rather than espousing our roots.

We have two histories, I have written: a geographical one that must be teased out in stories and a topographical one that can be discerned through observation of our bodies. So to do we have a variety of explanations for our injuries, for our accomplishments, for our decisions.

In some stories our line of work is an accident. In some it is the clear result of a multi-year plan. Our facebook pages and linkedin profiles are but the most extreme versions of these variations, clearly targeted acts of self creation.

These varied explanations are not untrue, they are simply separate views of the interwoven events that have lead us from where we were born to where we are today.

In many of my tellings employment is a side effect, work history a result of where I’ve been and who I’ve known rather than a focused accomplishment. In these versions I moved to Shanghai because I was ready to leave Tokyo, because a friend was living in Anhui and wanted to move to the city. The jobs that followed were coincidental, the result of moving to the focal point of the global wave, a place at once both megacity and boom town. Likewise, years later, San Francisco was a compromise rather than a natural next step.

In some ways the direction of those connections is correct. In some of these tellings though there emerges another version, one I bring forth reluctantly. It is the story of a mind constantly filling, and the awareness of a variety of goals. It is the tale of a boy who wanted to see more than his home town, and the story of a man who wants to know how things are made. More than anything, it is the result of wanting to be comfortable anywhere.

From this angle, in these more cautious tellings, the jobs line up and are part of a progression from curiosity to knowledge, from office to factory, and from country to country.

Our stories are not fixed things of course. They depend on the teller, the audience, and a feel for the moment. Considering my own versions from a San Francisco window on a foggy summer afternoon, I’m reminded most of a truth first heard almost three years ago. A truth I have considered, if not articulated, on the edge of each major decision:

The distance between who you are and who you might be is closing.”

Our stories do have a direction, and a pace. The latter, in my case, is no surprise. Each time I read that quote from Jan I hear a second sentence in my head, my own personal warning and guide:

Keep moving.

Injured travel

In a hotel room again he stretches before rising. These new actions have become a daily routine, the small pattern of curls and flexes that make standing without pain a possibility.

It is a Sunday in Dongguan, in Chang’an. In this hotel a week now he has become familiar to the staff, greeted no longer in the formal English of their training but in the Mandarin reserved for visitors from the north. They no longer try to stop him from taking coffee back to his room after breakfast. Like many foreigners here he is understood by his habits, a strange list. Cereal and coffee at breakfast. Then more coffee. Departs between nine and ten. Returns around 6. Laundry on alternate days.

In the afternoon he swims in the indoor pool, slow laps in a variety of strokes. Backstroke, measuring his place against the pool’s glass ceiling. Breast stroke, breathing out in small bubbles. Sidestroke, slowly, when his left arm is tired. Crawl only on the third day, gingerly. He moves cautiously, and holds his back frequently between lengths. Old, the lifeguard thinks, before returning to his other distractions.

Injured.

On other trips this man would have left, would have headed for Hong Kong on Saturday afternoon when work was finished. Would have spent the weekend in Shanghai with friends. Instead on Sunday he stays inside, stretches, swims, and drinks milk. Instead he is cautious with his body, avoids groups, does not drink alcohol in public.

These are the actions of recovery, of a human slowly remembering their abilities. In the morning he puts his shirt on backwards. Without pause he raises his arms, removes, reverses, and dons again. Only after does it strike him: a month ago he could not lift the left arm high enough to don t-shirts with both arms, nor bend it backwards to remove clothing.

All his small trials of stretching, swimming, and caution will one day pass. His body forgets quickly the limitations it learned reluctantly. Eventually he will have only vague memories of these days spent in Chang’an, too injured to adventure.

And scars.

Capital F future

Sitting in a luxury hotel in Chang’an Zhen, I am thinking about the future.

Not the future as in my personal five year plan, though it may turn out that way. Nor the capital F future of living computers and jet packs, though it may turn out that way too. Instead I am thinking about our future, the shared strangeness that is both hard to see and probably already here, somewhere.

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about this future. Mostly from strange Chinese cities though not usually from luxury hotels. It’s a future that seems to slip into view when I’m walking home alone through the evening heat, past street stalls and electric bikes. I find it under neon offering nothing, the store fronts long closed and falsely alluring in the night. It’s a future that I see often after sitting in an Ajisen and eating cucumbers for a while, after drinking an Asahi by myself while reading Fallows and Paul Hawken, Chipchase and Posnanski.

I think about the heating planet and the bliss of air conditioning in Hong Kong this week. I think of the costs of oil, and my job making plastic. I think of those giving up air travel and look at my location. I think about my favorite writers and how frequently they fly. I think about how frequently I fly and whether I would care about flying, about all of this, if I’d never started.

Would I care about the world this way without having sat in so many Ajisens in so many Chinese manufacturing cities, reading on paper and phones and drinking Japanese beer? Unlikely, I think. Without so many evenings watching the lights come on in Chinese apartment towers, how would I know to value all of us? Without watching the neon blink back and forth and eventually off, watching the parks fill with people enjoying the evening and then empty to silence, how would I have learned the size of cities? Without flying, how would I have met so many people, learned from so many places? Without the energy expenditure that damages it, how would I have ever understood our planet?

I watch two men honk at one another, scooting past on e-bikes. They are chatting as they disappear side by side into the gathering dusk. I watch cars at the intersection, red lights hold them stationary, engines running. I wonder what makes so many people want to buy a car, and what would make them stop.

Mostly I think about the difference between making things and growing things, between working and building. After that I think about the difference between being alive, looking at the moon as it rises behind the skyscrapers , and not. It is a difference I only recently started to appreciate.

What will the world will look like when we are gone? Will we have left anything good behind, intentionally or no?

I haven’t yet given up flying. I’m here in Chang’an Zhen. I haven’t yet given up making things, I’m here visiting a factory for work. More importantly, I haven’t yet given up on anything. Walking back from Ajisen I wonder if I will, if the cumulative weight of the capital F future will change my life. I wonder what the next five years will bring, and ten. Whether we’ll all be living different lives, or still wondering. Will Chinese cities still feel like the future in this way on lonely evenings, an amazing combination of factories and urban density, of modern trains and hand-repaired motorcycles, of destroyed air? Or will the world have changed in all directions, become more evenly distributed, for better or worse. On evenings like this I can see both possibilities, a future here and yet often invisible .

Watching the two men on e-bikes fade into the darkness down the street I know one thing: even in the 90 degree F heat and 90% humidity of southern China, I’d rather we all biked than gave up airplanes, and each other.

As fast as possible

In the space of a week I go from Los Angeles and a pool to Petaluma, San Francisco, and Shanghai. Yangzhou, Changshu, and Tokyo follow before the string of airport initials and train station names reverses, leading me home in time for Christmas. With each step comes a greater sense of urgency, and a greater sense of exhaustion. Every vehicle and every contact is exhorted for speed. ASAP. Any phrase so often abused as to have a common acronym deserves consideration before use, in this case deserves preservation for the truly urgent moments.

How to tell what requires attention when everything is made to seem urgent?

Our lives are brief fragile things of scant import and dear value. They consist of years that can be counted with ease by children, of months tied together by weather, and of hours that seem to drift by with the Chinese countryside, in a state of waiting known as transit.

In the space of a week I spend forty one hours in motion and yet waiting, rushing and yet unable to move. In the space of a week I sleep in seven beds. At the end of it, waiting for the last plane, I try to clear my brain and add up the lessons from those miles, add up the value of the travel in a way other than the monetary cost or the hours.

I have had dinner with friends from all segments of life, from Tokyo ten years ago, Shanghai eight, Shanghai five, and San Francisco now. I have seen houses and children, girlfriends, and wives. In groups large and small, we have shared stories that will hold us together for another month, or year, or two, until somehow the world brings us to table again in the same city.

I have solved problems I am paid to solve, given support to those both up and down the chain of business from me. Listened to complaints, answered requests, provided explanations, outlined requirements. I have cleaned and trimmed and measured and folded and packed product in the kind of chill concrete building I try to avoid after Christmas 2007.

Do these things, done at questionable speed, make for a better life? They certainly do not help our shared environmental disaster. In fact, they are a direct cause, a product of the excesses of miscalculated transportation costs. What can I do to repair these damages? What can I do to make each hour both longer and shorter, both more memorable and less all-consuming? How can I continue to learn and work while allowing myself time for tasks that require mental focus and a single location?

These are good questions for a twelve hour flight from Seoul to San Francisco.

Once with effort

The rafters of the factory are open steel beams that support electrical cords for lighting and duct work for air conditioning. In Juarez the summer’s heat is oppressive, and I admire the size of the ventilation.

In a factory in Jinshan years ago, my dress clothes sticking to me in Shanghai’s miserable July, I worried about the workers spending most of their lives in a huge room cooled only by a half dozen refrigerator-sized units. During quality inspections our group would take turns standing in front of their whirring fans, visitors and managers alike. The sewers made no such moves, their bodies grown used to the weather.

The duct work in Juarez is a sign of care for employees, and an acknowledgment of the city’s position in the high desert. It is windy and cold in the winter and still and hot in the summer. Ventilation is a sign of corporate compassion. This factory’s concrete shell, handed down from company to company for decades, has been modified by each successive inhabitant to cope with the challenge of keeping many hands in motion regardless of season. In one corner of the ceiling, by the offices, colored fabric has been hung, green and blue nylon stretched between beams to create a false roof of bold shades. Years earlier, by the look of the fabric, bright but dusty. Dirt has settled around the holes where the edges are lashed to the rafters. These bold lengths of nylon were the start of a grand project never advanced, too expensive or otherwise unsuccessful.

Didn’t insulate well,” is the answer, when I ask. An idea now abandoned. A Saturday’s work still hanging there, no more and no less.

The feeling of nostalgia, of loss, and of having missed the moment of energy strikes me repeatedly in factories. So many of the places I see are not at their peak, will never again be. Buildings that once were new and well-maintained, filled with workers and a sense of energy, now have dirty floors and piles of discarded machinery and material along the sides. The detritus of daily operational demands so often overwhelms anyone’s ability to plan and to improve.

Sitting in an office above a different factory the sense of time passed is all around me. In one corner there’s a small bar custom-built for this space and used to entertain customers. It is covered with books and samples, and the wall paper on its front is peeling and dusty. In another corner a shirt and tie hang, the sign of a true workaholic, someone who slept at the office and needed a spare for the next day. Neither have been used in months, but hang anyway, a memory of hours no longer required. The memory of a younger man. I wish I’d seen that entertainer, that host. I wish I could see this office used in the way it was built to be.

All around us are reminders of projects done with purpose, accomplished by an effort no longer easy to imagine. In San Francisco the Sutro Baths are one such, ruined by fire and weather on the edge of the Pacific. Now the moss-covered foundation serves as a monument to what people were able to build at the turn of the last century.

In the rock gym hang pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge, or more specifically photos of men walking the clusters of cables that would become the bridge. They stand without safety gear, working high above the mouth of the bay in what must have been an incredibly cold and windy position. Outside the gym’s huge windows the bridge dominates the view, a structure of too large a scope to have been built by individual hands.

Our own houses have these remnants too, fixtures installed, cabinets built, labor invested. On moving out we realize these projects were done in the early days, before we became too busy and too tired, while we still had energy and hope for the new place. Sometimes they represent the work of inhabitants before us whose energies remain unknown. Who built this shelf, we ask, or why did they wall off the Murphy bed, the kitchen door? Likewise the gym’s carefully manufactured rock walls cling to the interior of a space built for the military a hundred years before. The repurposing of old structures built with effort long forgotten is easily visible in the Presidio, and yet continues everywhere.

Indoors at the back of another factory there is a cafe awning where workers were once served food. Long closed it is covered in dust and machinery blocks the entrance. On my visit the cafe is hard to spot. Workers avoid that end of the building, a sad reminder that the business is not what it was and that no one can return it to glory. Ducking through the plastic strips that line the shop floor’s entrance I wonder what this factory sounded like when the cafe was filled at lunch hour, when the dedicated cook served one and all.

This is the way of every life, I think, pulling away in my rental car. We build and hope, we give up, we create, and we abandon. It is the story of growing old, and a reminder that our actions are temporary, our energy finite, and our time brief.

On my next visit to Juarez the colored fabric is gone, and new white panelling reaches half way across the vast space. In my absence someone has restarted the project, has put new energy in to the old building. There is a future here, and room for growth. Here people are not yet abandoning, not yet growing old.

I smile as the owner shows me the new lunch room, built by hand off the back of the main floor from cinder block and concrete. Complete with its own AC and bright colored paint it is a sign to the workers that things are improving, that the future still shines. After so long seeing factories in gradual decline I am excited to be supporting this growth. The owner is loud and cheerful as he leads the tour. We are both happy to invest in these people, this place. We can build something here, we can make this small piece of the world better than before.

We have energy and time.

Cities of accident

Ciduad Juarez is dusty and chill. In the long sunlight of the middle of November I stand in the courtyard to warm myself. Behind a chain link fence topped with razor wire a small canal separates the yard from the street beyond and the houses that line it. The canal is built of cinder block, and the water that runs through it is a trickle winding its way through piles of leaves and rubbish. Off to the right it continues out of sight, running between the road and this strange strip of quiet land, behind factories and hotels. Left it ducks behind the concrete building I have emerged from and continues on to the main road, disappearing beneath it into a culvert.

The break yard has several beat up office chairs, two dusty concrete benches, and the remnants of someone’s lunch, a crumpled wrapper and a can of soda. In the lazy afternoon light it looks deserted for decades rather than hours.

Yangzhou looks like a Chinese city. The generalization is a particular one, born of identical train stations, hotels, party buildings and apartment blocks. The first groups of these towers, built five years ago, have terraces and are six stories high, walk ups with nice gardens now slowly being converted into parking. Row upon row of these, identical, were built all over China before each tenant had an automobile or aspired to one. The ponds were initially stocked with koi, a few of which remain. The leaves on the landscaped shrubs and trees are covered with the dirt that settles the air, coal dust carried for miles. Balconies likewise, which remind me of mine in Shanghai that had to be cleaned weekly to be habitable. The sidewalks that wind beside the buildings in each of these complexes are almost completely parked over with VWs and Audi’s, Buick’s and local brands, mostly black, mostly sedans. This is a Chinese city in two thousand twelve, new towers, new subways, new streets still rising while the old wear fast.

Yangzhou looks familiar after passing Wuxi, Suzhou, Changzhou, Zhenjiang on the train. I am here on a Friday morning, my second trip in a week. Across the Yangtze on a ferry from Zhenjiang, Yangzhou was probably a unique place when I first moved to this country.

These are the cities of accident. They are places I never intended to visit, let alone return to. They have renown spots and local problems, neither of which I will spend much time on. Instead I will visit rooms of concrete where large numbers of people gather to make physical objects for humans they will never meet. It is an odd trade at this level, the view of globalization both immediately present and impossible to understand, far beyond the horizon.

In the late summer the courtyard in Juarez has been spruced up, flowering trees and new chairs. Some space has been cleared beneath the largest tree for the lunch table, which looks both more recently wiped and more regularly used. The air still has the desert’s distinct dryness and the sun lurks overhead, ready to subordinate those out of doors too long. I am happy to see the changes, the growth that is born of daily efforts to improve rather than sudden wealth and dictated construction.

I wonder what Yangzhou will look like when I see it next. I do not know when that will be.  No matter the date there will not, I suspect, have been a change as great as that from bicycle to car, of a million people suddenly learning to drive. As far as China goes my time there was perfect, coincided with the wave. All else is bonus, extra time on set.

The ferry was a gift today, I tell myself in the mirror of the G train back to Shanghai. Until this week I had never been on a boat on the Yangtze. I had never been on a working boat in China, nor had it been on my list.

Sometimes the road, rather than the destination, is the day’s gift. Flowers in the Juarez break yard, road crews building by hand in Yangzhou. These are cities I am lucky to see, to know, and to watch change, even if only small patches in brief moments of time alone.

Replaceability

There is a feeling, which happens with greater and greater frequency as we age, that some product is perfect for us. That we will need no improvement, and that any future iteration will probably be worse.

We’d like to freeze time, to have whoever makes whatever it is continue, indefinitely.

Occasionally we are lucky, and the product is of such mass appeal that the company in question does continue to produce it, with alternate versions in addition to the key product, for decades.

Occasionally the jeans we wear are the 501, and will be available effectively forever.

Occasionally the shoes we wear are the Adidas Samba, and have been brought back by our love for them, become the uniform for thousands of men looking for flat leather sneakers that will look good with any outfit and be available for half a hundred dollars world wide.

Occasionally we are comfortable in Hanes underwear, with Dove soap, Budweiser beer, or Coca-cola.

Even then, the products will occasionally change beyond recognition, for no apparent reason, as we still purchase them in similar quantities as we have prior.

Because of these changes, because of our awareness of the temporary nature of mass production and the consumer culture, we find ourselves with a new kind of worry, a new sense of desire. Not for one of an object, a hat, a jacket, but for an infinite supply, for an immediate replacement should anything happen to our treasure.

We will wish for another Adidas Marun, and know that, were we smarter, had we more money and storage space, we would have purchased two pairs at the beginning, rather than one. We would have purchased a second, a back up, for each of these items we so love.

The idea that we should be prepared for loss, that we should no longer rely on brands or manufacturers, on stores or models, but should instead stockpile, is not crazy. In his biography we learn that Steve Jobs had hundreds of his specific mock turtleneck. This can be seen as obsession, but also as anticipation of change, and the desire to avoid it.

Is this good? Sustainable? Desirable? Should we shift tastes forever as we age, constantly accustomed to new products and new surroundings, or should, at some point, our tastes coalesce into the person we will be, and our desire to be constantly replacing things we once loved with new fade into the background, become less important than it was in our teenage years, in the years of our first job.

It’s a strange feeling, to discover a new thing and immediately be concerned with its replaceability.

When in clouds

Directions are meaningless without a view of the ground. They serve as only the end points of a journey, and the transition from Texas to Nevada is difficult to note without the details of terrain, without any sense of the obstacles crossed. In the dark Las Vegas looks like a place half built by fantastic creatures with wild minds and half built by the most boring of beige square-desiring late 20th century Americans. Despite our individual wants we cannot escape the habits of comfort and communal conformity. In the seat behind me a woman composes a presentation. To my left another reads a self-help book, part of a poorly named genre.

To my right the window looks out on the Pacific, another journey entirely. The water feels fresh and beckoning, like the edge of the world I know it not to be. The opposite side has seats facing the valley, facing the mountains and deserts beyond that. Each time I am offered the choice on a small screen filled with chairs I choose the ocean, never the land.

I grow older on these flights, and learn about the bible.

An hour outside of Texas a woman gives me her explanatory book, heavily annotated. I cannot bear to throw away her efforts and in turn carry it for weeks, looking for a home for this most worn of thin-paged texts. Twice I offer it up to others who take it in jest and then peruse in earnest, once even borrowing it for a week, but eventually it is returned.

We travel in circles, unable to see.

I awake one morning in JFK with my best friend, and we have coffee without hurry at a place near the gate. He is sure this is the best the terminal has to offer, I am confused by the brief blast of humidity between jet and jetway and gate. A week later he will come home from work to find me reading on his sofa, us both within reach of the Pacific. In between he will see Vegas and I will see…

I stand on a mesa outside of a Mexican town famous only for its affordable beer. There is no sign of habitation save the road that stretches off in front of me, first down the hill and then out into the valley. In the distance other plateaus rise likewise from the rock, without vegetation or inhabitants. Across this vast expanse of land the weather varies but with enough visibility nothing it will bring can surprise.

Behind me stands a great mass of concrete and steel designed to keep men from their families, and from doing whatever they please. Ahead of me some few miles runs a strange fence, its individual panes the shade of rusted iron. It sways in the wind slightly, or seems to from a distance. From this side I do not approach it, tales of American vigilante posses too possible to tease me.

I do not quite grasp the language, but the motions for removing one’s belt and wallet seem to be a universal constant, and I leave the car with only my ID. It is worn and will be replaced in 2012 with one that bears a more passing likeness to me.

Where is that boy?” one of my companions says, when presented with that smiling picture.

It’s from a photo booth under the Saikyo line in Japan,” I say, as though that explains everything.

We walk in through scanners and detectors, with declarations and pat downs, to do the things we woke early in another country to do. And on the way out we stand quiet in the startling brightness, the sun in full reflection off the concrete and sand, and cover our eyes with our hands.

We do not speak about it, but we are trying to remember this landscape forever.

Invent better

This post by Marco suggests that there is nowhere to place blame for the current retail practice of destroying/returning unsold merchandise.

Stating that something is an industry-wide practice does not mean that it is acceptable, or excusable, or even understandable.  Manufacturers are not pushing risky” products on retailers, especially not at the WalMart size, who then require a return policy to safeguard their profitablity.  Far from it.  Major retailers assist in the design, down to color coordination across product lines, of the products they carry.  They demand pricing, guaranteed margins, and a wide variety of discounts.  They then* demand return policies on unsold goods.

This is a way of maintaining their margins.  It is not compensation for trying” new products on the store.  Rather it leads to extensive sales, because they can return what does not sell for guaranteed margin dollars, thus forcing the manufacturer to pay for retailers discounts.

While the practice is industry-wide, and in fact spans almost every kind of retail, it is not available to smaller stores in the same way as it is to big box stores like WalMart.  Therefore Marco is wrong, and WalMart is a fair target of the original NYT piece, because they are responsible (both through sheer volume and through relative influence with suppliers) for a disproportionate amount of the destruction of un-used, un-sold, un-flawed merchandise.  While they may not like it, being the biggest will always lead journalists to use Wal*Mart as an example.  Simply saying that other retailers do it too” is not a solution.

What is a solution?  Better inventory and customer interest models?  A return policy that does not re-imburse 100% and so encourages retailers to order only what they can sell, or to sell what they order, and thus puts a price on destruction?  Smaller stores?  More regionalization of products so that they are more likely to appeal to the customer?  I do not know for sure, but certainly there is a solution.

The idea that problems are everyone’s fault, and thus no one’s, is precisely wrong. When there is no current solution it is time not to shrug and move on but to invent one.

Three business tactics

Answering the phone while driving back from the factory to his office, weaving in and out of the oncoming lane to pass trucks and cyclists, his voice shifts. At thirty eight he is a man of no small stature, having already begun to gain the bulk of those well-fed into their later years. The change then, from light-toned questioning with the windows down to this deep-voiced adult, who refers to others as Little so-and-so, comes easily from his body. This voice, devised for business and for those unknown, is not a personal invention. It is a ritual, a method of establishing seniority, sincerity, importance. He questions the faceless caller without pause for several minutes, half in one lane half in another. As the phone clicks off he shifts back to a more gentle set of sounds, but the switch is not as quick. His first sentence begins severe, in this voice of habit, and then becomes a joke, a secret shared between friends.

It is this voice he will use the next day to tell me about the factory’s complaints, about the difficulties they face, and the strictness of my standards. His voice will tell me this is business, that it is his job to say these things, and I will nod, agreeing. Nothing will change.


Without words he pulls the pack, red with golden lettering, from his bag, slicing the plastic wrap from it with a long nail. As he pushes the top open he extends it, though he knows I do not smoke. As I dismiss the offer he swings around to its true target, the third party at our small lunch table, who accepts gladly. He then takes one himself, and procuring lighter from some pocket lights them both. As they inhale he sets them neatly on the table, lighter on top of cigarettes, a deftly handled social calling. He looks at me, then, slowly exhaling, before eyeing his cigarette carefully. The third man puffs away, grateful for the break in conversation.

You still don’t smoke,” he says.

No.”

Neither do I.”


This weekend we will go to a bar,” he says, it’s just that I’ve been so busy.” I nod. I’ve barely had any alcohol at all this week myself,” he continues, too much work, too tired.” I sympathize. The week has been long, lots of driving and meeting, waiting and watching, but that is not what we are talking about. We have spent hours together, driving around in the patchwork of our shared language, and they are long hours, filled with uncertainties and re-thought opinions. But I agree, if that’s how it happens. I haven’t been to a bar in so long,” he says. Two days before he’d admitted that he didn’t understand them, and never went. His wife, across the room, does not look enthusiastic.

Me neither,” I say. It’s true. We leave it like this, sipping tea and waiting for a phone call.

Do you even go to bars?” he asks after a minute, as though the idea were new.

Daegu lonely

The rain pours down, splashing off cars and sidewalks, dowsing Daegu liberally with cleanliness. The lightning slits apart the faint pulse of neon that lights the street, revealing small delivery trucks cowering at stop lights. The rain’s clatter does not find it’s way indoors, falling too vertical and fierce. Rooms remain muggy despite the faintest breeze, and when it passes, hours later, they will still stink of mid-day heat. The next morning the city will slowly start to bake again, stickiness clinging to everything, and by mid-afternoon the previous day’s shower will seem an impossibility, a night time dream of vast confusion. Business men will sweat through their couplets and shirts, pace outside restaurants in a struggle to remain in the shade, to smoke, and to avoid touching one another in these brief noontime moments of solitude.

And again as evening comes the clouds will gather, the sky darken, and at eleven the lightning, the thunder, the sudden drenching will return.

I imagine Daegu always this way, not seasonal as it must be, as it should be. My four days here are alike, each evening punctuated with sudden showers, violent in their suddenness, and baking days of sweat and sunshine that discourage the thought of their re-appearance. The heat licks around cars at 1 pm, making traffic a hellhole of exhaust and granting pedestrians the disgusting certainty of swallowing that which is not air. Windows go up, go down, go up and stay, as the cars cool, as the A/C that all rely on is first blessed and then exposed, a heat-exchanger of vile proportions, creating toxic streams along these concrete roadways that will desperately need their cleansing shower to enable the daily repeat. Commuting in a city trapped by hills, the air still, the pollution lingering, below a sign that says dye capital”, the air seems dead, though filled with energy. A combination not often found or championed.