Reprieve

Alone in the house on a Saturday I do laundry and putter. It is a beautiful day to this child of upstate New York, gray and intermittently rainy. I leave the air conditioner off for most of the afternoon and crack windows, a luxury in this Hong Kong summer. It is the first of August. The cat is as surprised at the noises of the outdoor world as at the humidity, having spent months now inside the purring bubble of dry air we maintain for him.

Weather has always been the most fascinating thing. The changes of season and time that happen suddenly are both a stark reminder that everything changes and an explanation of why the world, in its own way, will not remember. Any single moment will not be tethered, be stuck down to any particular feeling. After months of humid weather that makes the mask wearing reality of our current situation an exercise in patience, the typhoon blows in from Hainan and the south east suddenly. It is a reminder, delivered overnight, that pants will again be possible and hoodies, one day, will be more than a protection against sitting below the office AC unit. It is a reminder that the trickle of sweat that attaches mask to skin will one day disappear.

For as long as I can remember my body has been a poor historian, unable to recall what the weather felt like a day before, or last month. Now, with the windows open and the birds chirping I suddenly remember sweating in Tokyo this time last year. It is a feeling more than a memory, and soon gone. In today’s change I remember other moments, my brain aided by photography. Last year we stood under an awning as the typhoon drenched streets and battered shop signage, curtains of rain cutting off the view. In June and July that seemed impossible, every moment outdoors spent wiping sweat from our eyes, every ping pong game requiring a shower at it’s conclusion. For months our apartments were small capsules that mimicked the temperate climes of our youth and we wondered if we would always rely on these whirring dripping drying machines. A year ago tomorrow I walked under the Chiba monorail to meet a friend in a tree house. A year ago today I stood on a bridge in Osaka waiting for a man I know from college to take us clubbing to celebrate his birthday. The weather of those days, like the travel that enabled them, feels impossibly distant from the past three months of heat and sweat and bubbles.

And yet suddenly on August first I leave the windows open and dream of sleeping likewise.

Change will come, and our bodies forget. Our challenge is to embrace, and be able to move again.

Future imperfect

Apartments in North Point

During the last global crisis, the financial one, I took two years off and wrote a novel. The timing was luck, my own plans scheduled without advance knowledge of the rough stretch ahead. Regardless, I spent the first year of the economy’s downturn riding a bicycle around Houston, writing and living the simple life of one without worries or plans. The second year was harder, in San Francisco, the novel’s first draft complete and the need for future income growing clear. Doubling our rent in the move may have had something to do with the later.

The novel, still sitting unread on this hard drive, was about a world without air travel, and the story of a couple separated by the cessation. Like the years of my life that gave rise to the story, it was set half in China and half in the US. These last few weeks as the sound of an airplane overhead startles, for they have become rare, I am sucked back to those months of imagining such a world. Sitting on the terraces of Rice University I would linger on the idea, trying to deduce what else would struggle in a world without flights. Food supply chains would lurch inconsistently, I guessed, if flights were truly impossible. Air freight as a whole. The speed of things, of post and parcel and people all together would be reduced.

These were the guesses of a younger man, born of the peak oil debate and the belief in national selfishness once the end became apparent. They were made while riding a BMX to Fiesta to buy cheap produce, or beers for fifty cents at the student bar. They were guesses based on weeks spent in third and fourth tier cities in China while living in Shanghai. They were guesses based on lots of reading in a variety of directions. Fiction writing is like that, I think. It’s the act of putting together all the feelers we have out into the world, all the tingles about which way things might go, and telling a story based on living through them. It’s less about projecting the future than, for me, imagining what that future will do to what people care about.

Today, an airplane goes overhead and I stare up at it in wonder. The wonder isn’t new, I’ve been watching airplanes since I was a child in upstate New York, mowing lawns and wondering where those people overhead were going. Today the wonder is that people are going, that airplanes are flying. The sound has become a surprise and a reminder of something I love, of a world I adore. Airplanes, whose climate effects I worry about and work to offset in other ways, are still magical to me. They connect us across huge distances, across oceans and borders. Without air travel the world would be a worse place. Without going and seeing, without feeling, the world is a little harder to share, a little less likely to be understood. The internet can only bring us so close, and as today shows, once air travel is gone, the closing of a border is an easy move.

And so, here in the new crisis, in a time of deep uncertainty and tragedy, of death and eventually starvation, I hold out hope that we come through this, that we take care of each other. I hope that we build a better world out of the tragedies of the current one, and that we are one day again able to fly.

Seeing the future

We are rarely entirely new beings. Instead we are an echo of our parents and the examples set before us. We grow and change and age in patterns that seem unique individually but are quite in line with our species globally. We are children and then adults of a particular history, of a place and time.

I am reminded of this in the breakfast buffet of the Pullman hotel one morning in Shanghai in two thousand fifteen. A man walks past me in shorts and a black T-shirt, carrying a notebook and pen. He has a shaved head, and is perhaps forty five. I am thirty five, here for work, and still too concerned about appearances to wear T-shirts. The man wanders away though the buffet and I can barely avoid staring.

It’s rare to see one’s future self walk by so close.

He looks like I look. More, he looks like I will look, if I am still attending buffet breakfasts in Chinese hotels in ten years. The feeling of witnessing someone in the same place, with the same styles, mannerisms, and accouterment, is disconcerting. The first moments are of shock, an odd tickle on the back of the neck. After that comes a humbleness, the awareness of one’s lack of individuality. And finally, when I am standing in the elevator returning to my room, a desire to make contact, to have said something witty by way of introduction. A wish to have met myself, however strangely.


Three years later, at a breakfast in Dongguan, in black T-shirt with notebook, I have grown more comfortable. I no longer worry about the supplier I am going to meet in an hour. I have been swimming early in the morning, and will write a letter to a distant friend over coffee. I am more collected, more comfortable, and slightly older. My head is recently shaved, by a young man in a Shenzhen barber shop. If I encountered that future self again the recognition, I believe, would be mutual, and not just for the clothing, bald head, and habit of writing at breakfast, which I’ve possessed for years.

There is a certain comfort at being in China, at being at home on the road, that I’ve improved on these past three years. After so many trips full of urgent mornings rushing through breakfast to make the pick up schedule, after so many years of worry and email before bed, I feel more able to schedule rigorously and still breathe. It’s a skill I’ve always had but not always believed in, which led to unnecessary stress.

Since my injury in 2014 I am focused enough to rise early, to swim or exercise, and to eat little breakfast. I am able to relax enough to write at the breakfast table afterwards, and pack quickly for the scheduled departure. I am able to eat less at lunch and dinner, to work out in the evenings if that is the only option, and to make time for video calls with family.

I am older, and still on the road. Not yet forty five, but no longer thirty five. And on mornings like this one I wonder about that man in the Pullman in Shanghai. Is he still on the road as well, still meeting business partners and enjoying spartan hotel mornings?

Perhaps one day I’ll know.

Years go by

The city

On the end of a weekend I sit on our rooftop overlooking San Francisco. It’s a beautiful view. Behind me the Sutro tower stands clear of fog with the sun blinding as it sinks down the tower’s tiers. To my left the hills of Japan town and the flags of the Armory are visible, clear reminders of San Francisco’s beliefs. And in front, out over the corner of Soma and the Mission that is my home, the new towers of Mission Bay and lights of the ballpark glisten in the afternoon. Slightly further lights of cars heading in on the Bay bridge twinkle between the towers of the Financial district, and the newer towers of tech-fueled Soma growth. To my right the hills of Bernal and Potrero are visible, and the massive facade of the recently-renamed SF General Hospital. In all directions lie growth, beauty, and a sense of the distinct neighborhoods that make San Francisco a cluster of areas and a unique city.

I’ve spent a lot of time on this rooftop over the last three years. A lot of evenings, mornings, and afternoons like this one. Sometimes with company, sometimes alone. Often with my furry cat, who likes to prowl around the edges and watch pigeons on the telephone wires. He also likes to get dirty in the planters that are now filled with only dirt but have housed strawberries, parsley, peppers, rhubarb, and more. It’s a gift, to be able to garden in the city, up high and in the sun. After our windy years in the Sunset and Richmond, where no plant can get enough sun to survive, this garden has brought great joy.

Combined with our garage, with the ability to store now six bicycles, one car, and a huge amount of camping, climbing, and sports gear, this apartment is far larger than it’s 500 square feet would indicate, far better suited to the life of a couple than any other place we’ve ever lived.

So I try to watch the city as often as possible, in the evening when the full moon rises and early before the neighborhood is awake. I try to capture as many memories of this city as I can, to take with me wherever is next.

Building forever

Landing in Tokyo at night the city does not seem to end. From the air lights stretch away in all directions save where the sea still intrudes. In a bus from the airport this is reinforced, no suburban gap between airport and the city it serves. Neighborhoods change, the area around Haneda giving way to the denser residential sprawl of Tokyo proper, and then micro shifts as the gaps between train stations become the only visible breaks. Like interstate exits in the US, train stations represent the loci of Tokyo, clusters of shops, neon, and light that then spreads out, a subtle Doppler effect of dissipating commercial space, until the pace accelerates before the next station, another bunch of stores and people, taxis and signs. In this pattern we move on through the city in the night.

As many have written, Tokyo feels like the future. On this evening taxi ride, just arrived from Manila and another view of a possible future, I wonder why Tokyo, more than any other city, gets this designation.

The common reasons are obvious and true. It is clean, far more than any other city of size. Efficient too, in a way Germans and Swiss can enjoy. The city is polite in service and accommodating to foreigners, in a fashion that leaves visitors impressed and eager to return.

Our bus and then taxi each pass through separate construction areas, both calmly productive at one am on the morning of a national holiday. Lights are on, workers direct traffic, and the dirt of the digging is neatly contained by cones. Tokyo is, like New York, in constant repair. And yet there are no potholes, the average street seems five years old, and the sidewalk is level, blind strips and all. How can this city be so large and so well-maintained?

The smell, stepping out of the taxi, is what I remember most. Tokyo in the rain. So different than the smell of rain in Hong Kong, a few weeks back, or Bohol last week. So different than Shanghai, Dongguan, or San Francisco’s smells, the cities I now know well. The smell is clean, to my nose, lacking pollution and not quite of the ocean in the way Bohol was.

Now, a few days later, I think that the magic of Tokyo is not in just in the trains, or the organization, or the maintenance, but in all three. The magic is found in the attention to detail on all ends of the organism that is Tokyo. From construction to use to repair and replacement, the extra measure of care can seem robotic or idyllic. Especially after the vagaries of public transit in the Bay Area, after the impenetrable morass of Manila traffic, Tokyo’s mechanical functionality can seem impossible, the cleanliness obviously forced, drawing the inevitable comparisons to Disney or Singapore.

Instead I think, it represents what could be, not what will be. It represents what people might build, if so determined as a large group. Manila and San Francisco, St. Louis and Dongguan do likewise. All that differs are the people, and the complex intermingling of abilities, desire, and willingness to work together.

In this view the future of Tokyo is both approachable and impossible, marvelous and out of reach. It’s a city to love, I think. More than anything it’s a wonderful place. Standing on the balcony of our rented apartment, looking out at the city and falling rain, it is a place I am so glad to see.

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.

Directing ourselves

At an old friend’s house for the weekend we enjoy the rare time to think together. In between adventures and barbecues we discuss our lives. Goals, hopes, and simple steps for self improvement fly back and forth. With days together there is no need for specific scope. We pause on new backpacks and suitcases before moving on to new houses, jobs, our families, and vacations. Books, movies, and funny videos found on the internet litter the three days of conversation. Towards the weekend’s end, with our enthusiasm tempered by the calm of long days together, the important topics return. Family, work, and hopes for both.

These are new topics for us, though the seriousness of intent is old. For years we have focused on adventures and apartments, cars and sports. Smaller things that were big at the time. Now, with children at breakfast and wives who are not drinking at dinner we are more careful with our words, more aware of our ambitions. Cars seem like things again rather than signs of freedom. Houses feel more like homes and less like temporary parking spots. And our hopes for work are shifting, from fifteen hour work days to Friday afternoons at the beach with company from out of town.

Driving to the airport later I think of how fast these changes have happened: less than five years. An awareness of mortality, I think, and a belief in the importance of our time here. Part of this change is the joy at having friends who are likewise changing. Having old friends to talk to here in Los Angeles, at home in San Francisco, in Tokyo, London, Shanghai, Portland, and New York, makes each day in any of them feel precious. These friendships, more than anything, are the background against which our awareness and our changing selves becomes clear.

Days later a friend says he thinks of other people’s children as a reminder of his aging. In his words I recognize the same idea as the prior weekend’s conversation, that our view of others gives us a new sense of time. We are not aging faster because our friends have children, but we are more aware of each year as our friends take more permanent steps. At twenty five in our circle no one owned a house, few were married, and there were no children to plan around. Now breakfast with a stroller is not uncommon, and recent changes in mortgage rates are a conversational reference point. In some circles, at least. In others we spend time in the mountains, we dance, run, and climb. We commiserate via IM from New York to San Francisco about the fact that the phrase birthday party’ involves cake instead of wake boarding, balloons instead of pistols. And then we each close our laptops and head to dinner with another set of friends who have serious news.

We are aging, if not growing up. And in the hours in that Santa Monica back yard we talk for long enough to discover what this change means: it’s time for new projects, bigger and more permanent than what has come before.

Minds fill

We have but scant years on this planet, I am told. I hear and agree. We have but scant years to learn what we can of the world, in any fashion possible.

In every fashion possible.

We are always learning, absorbing, until one day we find ourselves dead, our minds no longer able to take in new, be it fact or fiction. Indeed, with every minute every single thing that enters our brains, our walking record of life on the planet, enters instead of some other thing that could have entered, that may still, that may never.

Every scar put on our body is in stead of some other, in place of alternate damage.

We are temporary, I have written.

We are physical, a collection of memories, and more than that a collection of accidents, coincidences far beyond our ability to plan. Each moment is another we will never get back, but that does not mean it was wasted, for something went in, even the casual absorption of vacancy.

We become the person we will be gradually. After university the adult we will become can be seen more and more frequently when the working day is done. Sitting on the couch, jogging in the park, playing sports, at a bar, on a bike or with friends, what starts as a single moment expands, as planned sections of time become self-determined.

Sitting in the office discussing project goals, sitting in the park watching the symphony play, or climbing in the rafters of a darkened theater, these are all steps on a path from who we were to who we are.

Minds fill says the headline, and they do, which should be no surprise. The trick is that they are never quiet, are never waiting to accept, waiting to be told to learn. Instead they are learning constantly, are adapting as we eat breakfast, as we sleep.

Our minds fill in between our choices, around our schooling and professional training, behind the math classes and the Spanish lessons, before we study Chinese, and after we study how to teach. They fill as we walk to school, as we ride the bus, smelling diesel fuel and horrible vinyl seating.

The man says, the distance between who you are and who you might be is closing.”

He’s right.

Where are we going?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the future.  I do this a lot, because much of the fiction I enjoy is Sci-Fi, or, to give it more specific labels, near-fi and space opera. These aren’t new fascinations, though I’ve now betrayed this entire blog, which will be discounted as yet more rantings of a whilte male sci-fi-loving web-based writer. 

Science fiction has, for much of my life, pointed the way towards a future.  Not the future, but some possible vision. As someone who is fascinated by people, by their variety and by the conditions which they thrive in, visions of a future are intruguing.  Answers to the question of how could people live” are almost as interesting as answers to how do people live?” As my writing on inhab.it attests, I’ve been fascinated by and gravitated towards cities for most of my life, because they provide a look at more people, in more different situations, than small towns and villages.

I begin with this because I want to explain the origin of this curiousity, in a fashion that won’t get subsumed by the specifics of the following.  

I’ve been thinking about the future a lot lately.  In some way, this piece clarified my thinking, in a way supported by the latest Gibson book.  Having stated that he is no longer as interested in far future, Gibson has moved towards illuminating the undiscovered in the present day.  These recent books are very entertaining, but, as Adam Greenfield says best, read as yarns told about people we (quite literally) already know.”  In some sense, the awe is gone.  

Stein postulates that he might simply be getting old, and that the nerd culture may have passed him by, that there may still be college kids developing things that beat whatever is popular today.  While he is speaking specifically of consumer hardware, the idea holds to the grander scale of a future, and of the newly-arrived fragility of any specific view of it that Greenfield mourns.  Cyberpunk once seemed convincing, but now seems mundane, says Greenfield.  And nothing so viscerally true seems to have emerged.  

As for Stein and the idea of aging out of the future?  He is most certainly right about aging, new things will inevitably be built by those younger and closer to the edge. Facebook is an immediate proof, built by youth and adopted by everyone.  But he is also not wrong about hardware, in that there is no obvious target for a vision of those new things.  Part of this is the specific choice of hardware.  Where will hardware be in a decade?  The evolution used to seem so hard to predict, at any distance. When the idea of everyone having a computer seemed fantastic, there was room to imagine what such a device might look like.  When there was no global network there was room for writers or engineers to imagine a fully interactive version.  

The future, in those specific terms, has been built, and, like always, it was built on the backs of what came before it, on the phone lines and the telegraph wires, much like the non-oil based transit industry is being built on the model of the combustion engine, on the public road system and the personal automobile.  It is not alluring in the way cyberspace was , or sketches of maglev trains strung out across the skies of cities are.  In fact the future-become-present seems boring, and even possible to ignore.

But I think that is unwise.  In this way I think Gibson is right.  The current world is more fascinating, because the variety of the possible is so large, and the ability to learn about it so much greater.  No longer do I have to dream about what it would be like to jump off of buildings in France.  I can see it done, and done well, better than I would be able to were I there.  

That’s not the future, but it’s fun.

Where then is that view of a future we so enjoyed?  I think the future, like everything, is in people.  The fascination with tools has lasted mankind a long time, from the first knife, probably, and there is no reason to believe it has stopped.  Phones, computers, cars, and the internet may no longer be advancing at the pace they once were, or towards the destinations they once seemed to be, but that simply means new things can be built on top of them as they become stable, evenly distributed.  Will we personally adopt what comes next, will we still be at the leading edge?  Probably not, because we will grow old, we will settle for using what we know rather than building something new, and eventually rather than learning something new.

But the future will still be out there.  Or rather, a future will be.  The only question is who will imagine it, write it down, and share it with the children most of us will be raising.

Expanding the city

In my absence, Shanghai has grown. To those familiar with the city this will not seem strange, it is the fastest-changing man-made place on earth, and home to some number of people between ten and twenty million.

Yet the Shanghai of two thousand three, and my arrival, was eminently walkable. Puxi, the true downtown, felt small, and Zhongshan Park or Hongqiao represented strangely distant areas discussed in curious tones.

We were looking at apartments near Zhongshan Park,” said my friend, in early two thousand four.

Wow. Zhongshan Park. Really?” we replied, the response one of perceived distance. Even then though Zhongshan Park was not far, the end of Line 2, one of the city’s pair of subways. Yet most of us lived on Line 1, and the single point of intersection was painfully crowded, avoided at all costs.

Hongqiao, further west still, was the province of Japanese companies and strange westerners, English teachers and the like.

I dated a girl in Hongqiao,” a boy once told me, more amazed, by his voice, at the location than the woman. So I spent a lot of time wandering around there trying out restaurants after work in the dark. I used to take the bus out to Hongqiao after school, 20 minutes or more, and wait for her to get off work.”

Even at the time of telling, in two thousand eight, his memory was of a distant place. Today Hongqiao, like Zhongshan Park, sits on Line 2, which has crept outwards to the airport on the city’s west side. Eastward too, though not completed yet, Line 2 is growing. The next time I am here it will reach Pudong’s airport, on the coast, as far east as it can go.

Shanghai has grown into itself. No longer do people cluster in the French Concession, around a handful of Line 1 stops. No longer do all my friends live within a fifteen minute walk. Instead they scatter to places I have never been, areas I never thought of as part of the city”. Yet they are, and were, filled with houses and shops, newly opened malls and supermarkets. Filled with newly opened metro stops.

Because what has grown in Shanghai, what has changed this city from a small sphere to an expansive metropolis, is not the influx of automobiles that crowd it’s tiny streets, but the completion of a metro system beneath them.

A friend asks if I can meet him on Sunday near his house, south west of Xu Jia Hui. I don’t know, I say, unsure of where he means.

For most of my five years in Shanghai Xu Jia Hui was the south west corner, the furthest point, a huge hub of roads and shopping malls that I lived just east of. On its opening in 2006 Shanghai South Railway Station became that point, past Xu Jia Hui down Line 1 . Occasionally I would wander the corridor of stops between those two spots, amazed at all the buildings and shops I’d never seen.

It’s easy,” my friend says of the path to his house, just take line 7 and 9, two stops west past Xu Jia Hui.”

What are lines 7 and 9, I ask, though I know there are now twelve in all.

Oh, there’s a site. Go check out www.exploreshanghai.com he replies. They have an iPhone app you should get.”  These are the kinds of things I would know, if I lived here.  This is the kind of knowledge I suddenly lack.

From the luxurious apartment I’m staying in, near Jing’an, to Guilin, I check. Up it comes, 19 minutes and 4 RMB. About $0.75.

That I can do,” I say.

Later on, walking through the streets near his home, which are filled with newly opened chain stores and old open-air markets, we talk about the changes, both of us here on and off since two thousand three.

Line 9 runs right along Zhao Jia Bang Lu,” he notes, a road we’ve both lived on at times. That would have been wonderful, life changing.”

And Line 7,” I add, is that north-south connection, between 1 and 2 that we always needed, rather than the bus!”

It’s amazing to realize. I’ve been gone a year and a half. When I left they’d just finished Line 6, which, like the G in New York, is the only line that never touches Puxi, winding through Pudong on the east side of the river. Line 4, the ring that encompasses the city’s center, was only a horseshoe, the result of a collapsed tunnel on the southern edge. Lines 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 were under construction. Shanghai was under construction. Whole streets were torn up and most major intersections given over to diggings. Believing that the cost, an entire decade of frantic physical revisions, would be worth while, we all struggled through crippled traffic and the constant dirt that comes with making huge holes in the ground at two block intervals.

It still is under construction, this city, and the air is often filled with dust. Yet it has grown up, grown into it’s people and it’s global prominence. Sitting in a subway station beneath Zhao Jia Bang Lu, two blocks from my old apartment, changing trains between two lines that didn’t exist when I lived here, I watch the people waiting with me. They don’t look impressed by the station’s existence, by the fact that the train’s clockwork arrival matches the countdowns displayed, or by the fact that their cell phones work in the tunnels, on the trains, under the river. Perhaps they shouldn’t be, having paid for these gifts with a decade of relocation and dirt.

Shanghai has felt like the future for as long as I have known it, a mish-mash of brand new and well-lived-in. In March of two thousand ten it feels, like Gibson once said of Tokyo, as though the future is comfortably all around us. It’s a good feeling, and, waiting for the train, I am glad for those that will grow up knowing it.

Future positions

Part of the joy of travel, of moving, is learning a new common.  Moving to Shanghai and finding that bicycle traffic exceeds car.  Living there long enough to watch car start to gain, and the massive parking problem that change creates.  Moving to Houston and finding cars a minority, compared to SUVs, and the unique kind of common created by such large vehicles.  Watching young siblings of a friend play upon their parked vehicle, it affording an easier climb and better view than the purpose-built play structure in the yard.  Learning to navigate each one, until it is time to move on again, and the new place likewise surprises, lacking trains, or cars, or electric bicycles.  Realizing that what is comfortable now is not the original, but an amalgamation of each previous situation.

So often future predictions, or visions of such, are simply the application of what is already common in one place to another, with the twist of local restrictions or desires.  Cellphones are going to incorporate electronic payment systems, claims one, having been to Japan.  Transit cards will become electronic, removing the need to swipe a MetroCard in New York through the magnetic reader, claims another, having seen Hong Kong, or London, or Shanghai, or Tokyo, or…  Everyone will have a car, says the proud new Buick owner in Shanghai, knowing America.  Discerning between the potential and the possible, the future coming and the present not yet arrived, becomes an art of guessing what people want, what local infrastructure will support.

In every projection too there is the bias of personal desire.  Thus comes the vision of a wind-powered future from those with large investments in windmills.  Likewise those building massive databases of human activity suddenly see a future where every item of identification communicates location.  Passport, cell phone, car keys, payment cards, check.  There are those who seek support for admirable visions of electronic automobiles spread wide over the landscape, asking for them to be built by those who for the past seventy years have opposed such infrastructure.  But these are not the only futures built around the personal desires of those who espouse them.  There are the dreams of authors, in whose projections worlds overcrowded, over-governed, and over-built compete with those of space-faring societies that have escaped the resource limits of a single planet, of artificial intelligences that remove burdens of daily labor, and of a variety of governments that cater to a mobile population. These are all visions of a future coming, of a world we do not inhabit but should, or will, or might soon.

The beauty of these views is not that any one is perfect, or correct, or that any of them are.  The joy of learning what is common in a new place is finding fresh tools for a personal projection of what the future will hold, of where the world could be.  Because much of the future is made up of people, and the people are made up of what they imagine and desire, what they learn and acquire.  This message is paraded around by consumer advocacy groups, by giant corporations, by friends and neighbors in a variety of forms, and is true in all of them, if slightly minimized.  For the future is not a small thing, one life is not a small thing.  On moving to Japan, seven years ago, and being shown to an apartment smaller than any of the dorm rooms I had occupied the four years prior, being forced to revisit my needs and possessions, I found roommates, colleagues, friends in similar situations.

I like the way it’s done here,” they kept saying.  About refrigerators small enough to tuck into corners that then required more frequent re-filling, from similarly smaller shops within walking distance.  About beds that were rolled up and put away in closets in the mornings to provide space for a desk and a sense of cleanliness.  About balconies on every house, for drying clothing and watching Mt. Fuji in the evening.  All these people, each moved to a new location, each discovering that what was common in Tokyo, in Saitama, was something they could live with, appreciated, and would incorporate, if able, into their own future.

There are stories like this from everywhere I have ever lived, and they blur together into nothing more than personal history, exploration and discovery.  They provide the tapestry though, the background of things I know to be common, somewhere, and can easily apply to my vision of a future.

And so, on a sunny November day in Houston I ride my tiny bicycle down tree-lined streets, arms covered in a hoodie purchased in Shanghai for its utility against very similar weather on my way to an apartment fueled only by electricity, generated mainly from wind and solar sources.   I carry a bag hand-made in Philadelphia, which holds a computer made in Taiwan and China.  And while such a listing can be displayed as a consumer badge, and is, it is also a vision of the future, of my plan for it.  The world changes every day, and the older we get the faster it seems to go, a function of both personal aging and of the era we were born to.  There are crisis and inventions, as there have always been, and our future is probably none of the grand predictions, none of the brilliant novels or simple transpositions.  The future will probably be as fragmented as today, with massive cars and extreme poverty, with starvation and luxury ocean liners.  Our choice is what common we are aiming for, what personal collection of necessary and desirable we hold dear enough to work for.

So here I am, age twenty nine, transporting myself by bicycle and airplane, communicating with laptop, cell phone and postal service, learning to appreciate and cook food common to my new location.  Uncertain whether any of these is perfect; imagining a future finely balanced out of all the visions I have seen.

With wings

He leans against the curved hull, pillow stuffed into the window well. Mouth open and head back, he is asleep in 33A high above the Pacific. Time zones slip past, an oft-ignored creation of human-kind, organizing the world into segments. The plane shudders in the wind, buffeted by invisible currents. As it lands, sliding into the gate, the passengers rouse themselves, stretch. Phones blink to life, electronic cackles of welcome, connection, home and business. The arrival gate and it’s crowds of men with signs, of lovers desperate for the first glimpse, awaits.

Habit shifts can define generations as the rare becomes commonplace, the mythical ordinary. Mid-morning conversations with friends in New York as they settle in for sleep, detailed analysis of fauna found on a day’s excursion on an Australian island read over breakfast coffee in Los Angeles. The world shrinks, people say, as their habits change. As what was once extraordinary, the arrival of mail on horseback, becomes a daily ritual, and then scarce again. On a rural route outside of Ithaca the mailman pets the golden retriever through his jeep’s open door, knows the names of every family on his route, holds their letters when they travel. This integration seems mundane to those born a century after mail calls around campfires. Only a decade after that a single envelope hand-addressed is a cause for celebration, the personal effort touching. Stamps whose varied faces once hid beneath pens in every drawer become difficult to find, require lengthy waits in line to purchase. FedEx, revolutionary in it’s global reach and speed, becomes the province of companies, recedes from the individual. Our travels become electronic, or personal. The detailed letter from Thailand wilts under the weight of a thousand blog posts, of Flickr shots uploaded from dodgy connections at the beach.

These shifts, of distance and technology that become those of lifestyle, are not necessarily successful. The automobile created suburbs that became cities in an effort to avoid the use of the automobile that inspired them. The airplane becomes a cubicle with repetition, and the freedom of takeoff that so delighted little boys becomes a sleep trigger. No longer do the passengers peer out and down, watching cars fade into matchbox toys, wondering who all those people are, and where they are headed. The boy no longer looks up from his lawn mower, wondering where all those people are going, up so high in that silver sliver, trailing white across the sky.

The man in 33A boards patiently. He no longer seeks to be the first in line, no longer jumps at the anticipation of the flight attendant’s newspaper rack. He stows his luggage anywhere, comfortable with magazine and notebook. His movements, long practiced in these tubular confines, have gained an economy of motion, been minimized. Like all such travelers he knows the bathrooms, the coffee spots, and where wifi is at each and every airport. He no longer marvels at the numbers of people heading to Korea, to LA, to Chicago, to Singapore, to Mumbai at any hour of the day, at any time of year. This is how the world works, covered in people constantly re-arranging themselves. All sense of miracle at humanity’s frantic new habit has disappeared.

Perhaps he is correct in this. The technology amazes, as once did the wheel, the steam engine, the railroad, yet underneath the urge to leave, the desire to settle somewhere new, the possibility of better just out of sight has kept people moving for millennia. They have crossed valleys, rivers, oceans, often in no more than their skin, rarely with a plan grander than to go. He crosses the Pacific likewise, back and forth with little certainty, and less consideration. His nonchalance would be epic, save for the other two hundred passengers asleep around him.