Morning hours

From the window, coffee in hand, I look out onto the rooftops of Tai Hang and appreciate those who rose early. On three laundry is already hung, drifting in the eight am breeze. These are Hong Kong’s beauty days, when windows are open and the sky is clear. For a few weeks in November and most of March and April, the weather lingers on a setting between too hot and long sleeves but not much else required. It’s a time to do workouts on rooftops, or in parks, and to go on long hikes to explore abandoned villages. These pursuits will become unbearable in May, and remain so until almost the year’s end.

In these gifted weeks I try especially to rise early, to look out, and to enjoy the freedom of the weather. Squish joins me, watching pigeons and napping in the sunbeams. Soon those beams will be too hot and he will instead nap under sofas, pressed against the concrete. For now though we luxuriate in the open, and the fan blows fine fur in strange arcs as it oscillates. The sky is a clear blue, all the way to Shenzhen, a reminder of our horrid impact on it in better economic times. As always, I wish for the death of the automobile, partially for the view and partially for the noise. Seven stories up, windows open, I can hear people, their odd bangs and crashes as they open shops, unpack cartons, and unload trucks. But mostly what I hear is cars, trucks, and busses. They are wildly louder than all other activities, and a constant presence. One day children, when listening to a recording in a museum, will be astonished at the sound of internal combustion, and react in disbelief that our lives were full of such noise pollution. Until then I wait, and try to rise early to listen to the birds. Cities are full of life and animals, of course. They’re just hard to notice over the cars.

Between day and night

In the fall of two thousand four two foreign boys played hacky sack in Xujiahui Park most days. They were free from worry, barely employed and frequently lost amid the whirl of Shanghai’s boom years. In clothes they had owned for years, t-shirts still from college that ended at the turn of the century, they kicked a knitted ball back and forth for hours. Gradually, as with all things, they grew better, their bodies gathering memory. They learn stalls, and behind the back saves. They were able to play for longer at a time, to control the game so that passers by did not interrupt, that the odd pedestrian unaware of their connection did not block a return. Every day they moved around the park to avoid children on rollerblades who loved the circular areas, or couples on dates who liked the secluded bench spots. Frequently they ended up near the older folks who rested near the entrance in the afternoons, a wide spread of flagstone that was transformed into a dancefloor in the early evenings. These older folks, the retired workers of pre-boom Shanghai, who had seen things the two boys from the US could not imagine, were happy to share their space. They taught the boys Mandarin, word by word.

In twenty twenty, three foreigners played ping pong in Victoria Park on most afternoons in February and March. With schools closed and all three unemployed, the tables became a meeting ground. These three were frequently joined on the other table by a group of local children, and their parents. The kids rode scooters and practiced incredible spin serves, chased each other and played games on their phones. Occasionally, when other adults used one of the two tables, they played with the foreigners, in pairs of all combinations. As always, practice made everyone better, and the daily ritual gave some anchor in a world without timetables or meetings. Ping pong also brought laughter, of poor serves or incredible returns. Occasionally the children taught the foreigners Cantonese, one word at a time.

A decade and a half later our lives have not changed so much. The cities are different, the sports and languages vary, and we age as any other. Yet the peace of spending our afternoons unemployed and in the park in a country not our own has not lessened, and the joy of being welcomed, being part of a community has greatly grown. Habits like these, small bits of exercise in public, are some of the moments we remember longest, after new jobs have come and swept away our afternoons. We are lucky, then, to re-discover them, and lucky to have this break to make them new.

Long loops

Back to LA,” I answer, when asked where I’m heading. It’s where my loop is from.”

This answer, now given a half dozen times to friends, colleagues, and family, is a phrase not well understood. The loop is obvious in explanation, the HKG to LAX round trip that connects me to this continent and to my home. On one end America and the other my cat. It’s a good loop, at least some times. I imagine it like the old tow-style ski lifts, ropes drifting by on the snow, there for the grabbing, to be towed along to the next stop. The rope itself is always in motion, like the planes between Hong Kong and LA.

The best part of long loops like this, the trans-pacific ones, is their branching, the ability to add or subtract small loops and other destinations before the return. Writing this from an aisle seat thirty thousand feet up and heading south down the California coast line I am almost done, sub-loops soon complete. It’s an emotional space, the air over San Luis Obispo, a week and a half since leaving Hong Kong. For a loop that started with Throwback and a dozen plus of my old San Francisco frisbee friends I’ve done a lot. Spent the work week in the Bay and added in a car loop to visit family. Sub-loops are like that, purpose-built around jobs or distant relatives. This morning’s started with an ebike, a rental car, out to Sacramento and back. One day full of the most driving I’d done since June. As usual with these loops the people were the goal, cruising Interstate 80 in a large Jeep was just bonus. Or cost.

And now, like a boomerang, I am swooping back along the coast line to LA, a brief hitch in the homeward swing. Another sleep or two and I’ll be sitting in my office, watching the buildings across the street. Descending through clouds into Los Angeles that view feels a long way away, in hours and space.

In so many ways these loops are a tale of our lives, the distance both true and not.

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.

Fast or slow

It’s raining in Shenzhen,” my colleague’s text begins, probably also in Hong Kong”.

Like that the truth comes back to me. We did it. Texts guessing about the weather of our home town now speak of Hong Kong.

Out our Tokyo window the streets are chill and windy in the evening. Our hotel for the weekend is a luxury, new and relatively spacious, with an interesting design that combines the room’s cupboards with the bathroom sink and counter tops to create the illusion of an open area and usable space. Open only since July, it’s one of a plethora going up in this south eastern district in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Staring out the window while Tara fiddles with her demo unit for next week’s trade show and scans the hotel’s wifi, I am trying to determine what kind of a year we are in. The text, from a colleague with whom I will spend the following week traipsing around Guangdong province, pulls in both directions.

In my still-developing theory there are long years and short years, and it’s usually impossible to tell which is which from the inside. There are short years of starting new jobs, where time rushes past in the intense waves of learning new work environments, tools, industries, vocabularies, and colleagues. These gains come with long nights and early mornings, and the excitement to work through both. The challenge and the reason for the name, of course, is that these years can be hard to remember. Little happens outside of work, and even what does can be difficult to recall distinctly, the brain overburdened with gaining knowledge. Short years are busy ones, in some respects, but they are also inherently boring ones, where the next year is upon us before we have created any deep attachment to the current one. As noted, these distinctions come easiest in hindsight, in the struggle to recall what happened in twenty ten or twenty seventeen.

Long years seem to grow in our memories, and contain moments we will remember all our lives. Often they contain long vacations that didn’t involve laptops, like Singapore and Indonesia in twenty sixteen, like Paris, Copenhagen, and Norway in twenty fifteen. Sometimes they contain life events, like marriage, honeymoons, or time between jobs.

And yet neither of these categories are absolute, and neither clear. Twenty fourteen is both a blur of injuries and a new job and our wedding, somehow responsible for so many memories and so few. Twenty twelve springs back so frequently to mind due to a move and Mr. Squish’s arrival. The short years, which grow in number as we age, are difficult to even notice in these types of listings, and I wonder where I was, awake, asleep, or in transit?

Two thousand nineteen has opportunities for both types. Probably so do all years, in the first quarter. From Tokyo, where the weather is bracingly chill after Hong Kong’s temperate winter, I look out the window and wonder what we will remember.

Rituals reshaped

Mr. Squish watches me make coffee and tea from the corner of the counter. After the electric kettle is filled and the mugs prepared, he leans his head in to the thin drip of the faucet to drink. We share the kitchen comfortably in these early mornings, moving past each other with no sounds. My eyes are barely open as we start the processes.

On alternate days I grind coffee by hand, which takes some time, while he drinks. When he is done, front paws removed from the sink one after the other, I clean his automatic feeder, which holds two days of food. While the coffee drips and tea steeps I clean his litter box, turn on the light panels, and wash my face, eyes finally fully functional. These are the moments of variation, depending on the weather. Often he will leave the counter while I am gone, returning to the living room rug or sofa to relax. On days like today, though, he stays comfortable on the counter as I take tea to Tara and coffee to my office and begin to write. On rare mornings he is still there, in the again dark kitchen, when I return to check on the second cup and clean out the grounds, his eyes closed and muscles relaxed. I leave him there, water dripping, just in case.

These are the rituals of those comfortable in their space, and a few months in we three are indeed. Our actions are familiar enough that visitors from SF would recognize them, but reconfigured for our new apartment, our new tools, and our new schedule. There are no seven am bus rides to Palo Alto in this new life, though there can be seven am Zoom calls. Mostly the mornings are our quiet hours, and we try hard not to rush them. On the best days, like today, I return to my coffee and Squish to the bed where he curls back up on Tara’s legs and starts to knead. These are the moments without stress, without further chores or tasks, and without the buzz of messages from colleagues and friends that permeate our waking hours. For a few more minutes there is nowhere else to be.

Moving is a chance to change our lives. We suddenly can revisit not just in the biggest facts of location, language, and employment, but also the smallest ones like where the coffee grinder sits in the kitchen and whether it is electric or not. These mundane changes would seem to have been possible in our old environment, and they were, yet they faced the obstacles of good enough” and works for now”. Resistance, in our daily lives, isn’t a decision not to change but the gradual accumulation of not changing, day after day. As I wrote once long ago about the impetus for starting over, habits, rather than small patches of comfort against the wind became small fences of restraint against desire” As with so many things, the echoes of who we were are the best guide to who we will be.

And so, having moved, we are again building our lives with new furniture, new haunts, and new friends. Most importantly we are rebuilding our habits with each other, trying hard to write more, to play music more, and to walk more together. The goals are good, I think: to savor the simple hours together and minimize the stressed hours apart. Mr. Squish approves of these changes, and having traveled far himself is busily building his own set of patterns in our new surroundings, glad to have so many windows, sofas, and hours of company.

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.

Naps

When the sunlight comes in our west facing windows, if the house has been cleaned and the laundry done, and if our bodies have been exercised and fed, we nap. These are hours of contentment, after long workouts and good meals. They are fragile hours, and rare. Often there is an activity in the afternoon. Sometimes the house is not clean, or the laundry not done, and so those tasks or similar take up the hours that could be devoted to rest. Yet just frequently enough to be a habit, we nap.

It’s a luxury, of course, to be able to be so self-focused at thirty eight. To be able to rise, make coffee, write, work out, go eat, come home and sleep. It is a luxury have so few constraints, so few impositions, and so much personal space. A luxury to have a gym membership and a bicycle route to and from, to have money for coffee and lunch out, not to mention for an apartment in this ever-more-expensive city.

It is also a luxury to have a furry black cat to nap with, a creature so content in the sunbeams and so glad to have his humans at home. He loves being able to see both of us, or better yet to be touching one of us and in sight of the other. He can be ornery, just like us, and demanding, but his joy at cohabiting with two humans is something to appreciate. As I say often when people ask me about living with a cat, it’s like sharing a home with an alien. It is a creature we can only sort of understand, only sort of communicate with, but who has agreed to snuggle in cold weather. Both sides see benefit in that.

In these lazy post-nap evenings, when the sun still pours in as the days lengthen, life expands wonderfully. Tara makes art, or plays the guitar on the rooftop. I read, write, and mail letters. We plan for the future, with the slow determination it requires. Eventually we cook dinner and watch as the darkness settles on the city, the sun having already gone behind Twin Peaks and the Sutro Tower.

But first, in the afternoons when we are lucky, we nap.

Commuting lives

Vanmoof

Years ago I wrote about my commute, on electric scooter through the neighborhoods of Shanghai.

Once again I have a similar commute, by bicycle in downtown San Francisco. It is hard to overstate what an accomplishment this is in the United States in twenty seventeen.

As Mobike overtakes the Asian cities I love, San Francisco is still caught in the death throws of the private automobile. It’s common to hear conversations about autonomous vehicles, electric bicycles, or other means of transportation, and yet so much travel, so much of commuting life relies on the private car, even if employed via an app or treated as a shared resource.

For the past few years I’ve ridden Bart & biked to work, a lengthy combination made friendly by a wonderful bike shop in Fruitvale that housed my bike on weekday evenings. Now though I am finally free, able to bike or walk, Bart or bus as I feel the need. No option takes more than twenty minutes, door to door. It’s a glorious release, a freedom I haven’t felt since Shanghai, since those scooter rides through neighborhoods I still know well and still think of often.

And so my thought these last few weeks, made happy by this gift of geography: How much of our life is really our commute?”

Not where we work, but how we get there. Not who we work with, but who we travel along side. Not how much we are paid, but how much we pay to arrive at the office.

How much of our lives are we spending in transit, and how does it leave us?

This is the question that resonates as I pedal home down Howard Street, a decade after slipping quietly down Yongjia Lu on my electric scooter.

Free.

Pattern the mind

In the quiet mornings of a weekend alone I get up early and sit at the kitchen table to write. Keeping notebooks has been a habit since I was eighteen, but the focus on early mornings, on what I am thinking in the first half hour awake, is new. Part of that is fewer afternoon hours in coffee shops or leafy green spaces. Part of it is the plethora of distractions available as soon as I am willing. Mostly, though, it is the dedication to building a habit, to building a person.

We are on this planet scant years, exact number unknown. We have so many opportunities. The cumulative work of our species is maintained and built on to make our lives more free, more luxurious. Unlike my cat who relies, as I do, on human inventions to provide dripping water. No other cat has built him a series of pipes that will bring water up to our third floor apartment. He is alone in his quest for survival, aided once by family and now by the humans who have chosen to nurture him.

We humans are so lucky, to no longer have to farm, to no longer have to build most of the things that we own. I do not know how, a fact that brings both joy and shame. And so our question becomes not will we survive” but what will we do with our time?

I am working on small habits to answer that question. Making time to learn, and putting in effort with others to understand how to act better, singularly and as a group. Time spent these ways is of value, in that it will aid me and hopefully aid others. Writing is one of these habits, in that it makes a better human internally, and if that is successful perhaps externally as well.

And I spend time out of doors, looking at the sky. I think of my parents, who owned no TV, spent hours each day reading when they were able, and shooed their children out of doors as often as possible. They moved from the town to the country to raise children, believing it would be better, believing it would be worth all the time in the car. They were right, or at least I appreciate their decision. I am happy to know what it is like to build tree forts in woods no one will ever find; to be a person who has played war with other boys across acres of woods. Happy also to remember making log bridges and exploring river banks, to have floated both sticks and icebergs along pathways of water. Worthwhile, that move, to make me a boy who chased my cat through wild raspberry bushes to bring him back inside before dark.

Forcing ourselves into better habits is not easy, but it is worthwhile. In the fall of twenty sixteen I study for an exam, I work on opportunities near and far from home, and I try to build flexibility into my damaged core.

All these and more to make the next decade easier, to make myself healthier, happier, and better to live with. Because who knows what we will share our lives with, having already taken in this strange furry cat.

Teach a body

In the afternoons, after our team is done sprinting, we teach each other head stand technique. We learn to put our hands in a triangle behind our head and push up gracefully. Or we try to learn, waver, and collapse. After a while we move to hand stands until our shoulders are too tired to support our weight against gravity. Exhausted, we lie in the sun on our backs and laugh at each other.

These are the good days of summer. We run together and work on what our bodies can accomplish. In the space of a few months I learn better sprint starts, higher one-legged jumps, and get closer to hand stands. These are good things to practice at any age, let alone turning thirty seven. Together our group pushes each other to new levels of fitness and agility. We go climbing together, swimming together, and mostly, running together. Along the way we practice tricks. Some take up acro yoga and become adept at spinning each other. Some work on dynos at the local gym, practicing power moves until our shoulders and fingers are too sore to grip.

These hours spent training are the gifts of being able to live actively, with leisure time and in good weather. On a Saturday afternoon, biking no hands down Folsom to a baseball game, I think of how lucky we are. All these skills, learned over years that have been punctuated by injuries, are my lasting memory of San Francisco. These abilities gained on beaches and fields are a reminder that we live close to the ocean and in the gentle weather of the west coast. Here, where it is never too hot or too cold to go running, where bicycling is always an option, and where a group of friends will push me further than I would ever have pushed myself.

Coasting along like this I think of climbs I have not mastered and my still-imperfect hand stands, and tell my body we are not done. There are so many tricks we have not learned.

And miles to go before we sleep.

Always be holding

Cat watches

Travel in the modern world consists of a series of electronic notifications, an evening packing, a sad cat, a train ride and some time alone waiting. The process has become routine. Packing takes an hour. The train ride 40 minutes. The waiting time is peaceful, thinking time.

Leaving the cat, watching him realize what is happening as the duffle bag hits the floor, is the hardest part, the saddest part. And yet he too knows that this is our life; that commuting across the Pacific is how we pay for that apartment in San Francisco.

His face this morning, sitting on a Japanese-style stool looking out our window at the street, was perfect. He knows, he has known, that it was time for me to go again. But rather than watch me pack, rather than huddle on the bed, he sat at the window watching the pigeons on the telephone line outside. He looked out, calm, from the seat purchased specifically to give him this view.

These three months of peace, the down time between November’s wrap and March’s new start, have gone quickly. We’ve enjoyed lazy weekends, sleeping in and walking to the coffee shop or waking early and sitting by the window together. We’ve enjoyed long naps in the sun after beach ultimate on Sundays, confident that there was no better use of time. For three months we’ve spent most of our evenings together, sprawled on the sofa, happy to be home.

But the world is big, and adventures call. He and I are both curious animals, and underneath the sadness is a certainty. It’s the same certainty that brings us to the window at 4 am when there is yelling outside on the street, that wakes us both from the bed in our deepest sleeps. We must go see. We can not be content to sit and wonder what the racket means.

I must know how our products are made. He must watch the pigeons each morning. We are creatures of habit, true, but we are also creatures of adventure.

Out again into the world I go. Shanghai this week, and then Tokyo, Las Vegas, and Colorado.

The last one he and I will do together, a visit to the mountains and distant family. The thought of traveling together is exciting.

Watching him sit by the window, almost four years old now, his eyes on the wire and his body still, I know that he isn’t aware of our upcoming adventure. And given the choice, he might not like to leave his comfortable apartment, his daily routine. But like myself he will be happy once we’re elsewhere, able to look out new windows at new things.

Spring is here, I tell him, putting my bag on my shoulders. It’s time to go. Again.

Weekends without hurry

On off weekends they rise late.

The cat, having long since missed weekday breakfast time, finally can wait no more. He climbs to the head of the bed and sniffs their sleeping faces, his nose close enough for each breath to have force. When even this close attention does not work he retreats and yeowls in the strained voice of a cat that does not meow. His short sounds wake the sleeping humans, and the ritual of coffee tea and kernels satisfies all three. It is almost noon, and they sit in the sun of open kitchen windows without talking, letting the last of Friday’s sleep fall away slowly. The cat, fed, covers his head in water from the dripping tub faucet and then watches pigeons across the street. He is content now that the people are awake and still home. These are his favorite days. He lies on the kitchen table, facing the window, his paws dangling off the edge. It is not the pose of a hunter.

They read and then write postcards to distant friends as a break from fiction, to free themselves from the worlds in their heads. Eventually she is hungry and eggs, homemade sauerkraut, and bagels follow. Somewhere in this process they move past the time for silence and into a quiet chatter about the neighborhood, potential plans, and the cats’ strange war cry upon sighting a fly. If able he will chase and consume, but more frequently after letting loose this strange vocal challenge he loses sight of the fly completely and wanders the small apartment confused until, bored, he returns to the table to watch the open windows from whence the fly first came.

Weekends that move this slowly are a gift. On mornings like these all three lounge without urgency, glad of the company, weather, and time.

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.

In cities we trust

Living tightly packed requires a certain trust unique to cities. In my rural home town no unfamiliar faces pull in to get gas at the Citgo. No strange children show up to play ball at the North Lansing Firehall. With an average grade of less than 100 children, everyone in the Lansing public school system knows each other, has a cousin in the grade ahead and a sister two grades below. People become part of the town’s tapestry, have kids in the school musical, coach each other’s children in little league and hang out at the lake together in the heat of August.

Living near each other in Tokyo requires forgetting where one person ends and the next begins, sacrificing self for the ability to return home on the last Saikyo line train. Stepping out in Yonohommachi in 2002 I remember most the first block, back along the train tracks, still wrapped in scents that were not my own. Beer. Sweat. Food I had not eaten. Perfume I did not purchase, or apply. For several blocks, until the streets became small and the crowds disappeared, until I passed the grapevines, I was not entirely myself, having given up my scent to the city of Tokyo.

In so many ways living in a city requires vigilance. In Ithaca in 1997 I used to leave the keys on the floor of my 1984 Volvo 240, windows rolled down to the summer heat. In San Francisco in 2014 strange sounds wake me in the night and my first instinct is to check on our Volvo, a 1997 model now, parked on the street outside. Our apartment doors, often open in Houston in 2009, are secured carefully in San Francisco, watched over by cats and by neighbors. Yet it is that trust of neighbors that persists, that grows. Because unlike in Lansing where I played ball or built tree forts with our neighbors, here we know little of each other’s lives, but watch each other’s doorways anyway. Here we are brought to trust by proximity rather than through history. We have the loose friendships of the city, temporary and without concern for the unknown. One neighbor receives keys to our apartment for a week, and we hers, on the basis of a single shared fact: that we each own a lonely feline. There is no elaborate period of getting to know each other, no shared holidays or family stories, just need, ability, and trust.

These are the relationships unique to dense urban environments, and the faith in each other I think of each time I pass my wallet and transit pass down the length of a crowded 38 bus so that someone unseen can swipe it and, hopefully, return card, wallet, and contents to me. It is the trust I repay in swiping some unseen person’s card on the panel in front of me, all of us twisted by the bus’ lurching into a human pretzel of shared motion.

The morning rush hour

Each morning on Clement the street wakes in a certain rhythm. The coffee shops open, first to walking traffic and then cars. The busses begin to run more frequently, passengers accumulating at each stop in waves to match their arrivals. Food trucks begin deliveries, first to super markets and corner stores, and then, a few hours later, to restaurants and cafes. At nine the meters turn on, and commerce commences, quarters deposited and spots filled in neat rows rather than parked across by trucks. The garbage has come and gone and now staff haul the empty bins back in to restaurants and start their prep work.

It is these early hours that fascinate with repetition, each day played out much the same, each morning an echo of those past. To return, after a year or two, would be to see the same folk, the same shops opened by the same staff. The man who delivers pigs, cut in half, to the Chinese grocery still hops from the tall truck with a hog on each shoulder, still swings them onto the tables with the same gusto. Before his arrival an old man sits on the bench in front of the restaurant next door, waiting and watching. Though a smoker he does not yet, as though still waking up. Instead he crosses his legs and uncrosses them, watching busses and cyclists pass between the steady stream of commuter cars. He lives on this street, in a house somewhere behind it, and spends each morning watching the progression of service vehicles to joggers, school children to shoppers. He watches my arrival, coffee purchase and departure. Clement street is part of his life, and he part of it, his patient eyes proof that not everyone need hurry.

On a brisk morning in late October another city hustles. Seven thirty on a Wednesday and Dunkin’ Donuts is packed. The man holding sway in the center is wearing a witch’s hat and a long wig. This is Chicago, on Halloween, and the wind is sharp but not blustery. The remnants of Hurricane Sandy stormed through the day before, chopping Lake Michigan into muddy froth near the shore. In the Loop, at the heart of down town, the sense of motion is energizing. In great coats and business attire each person on the street outside the hotel has purpose and the sense of urgency that comes with big city routine. These blocks are filled with overhead trains and the honking of taxis, and coffee shops on each corner do the brisk business of rush hour. This is their peak, unmatched by the ten am break or noon lunch. From seven to eight forty five there are lines to the door at the Starbucks, the Caribou, the Dunkin’ and the McDonald’s, all within one full block. This is urban America, and it shows, the chains dominating by prioritizing efficiency and recognition.

As an east coast native the pace is thrilling, and some part of me is excited by Dunkin’ Donuts, a chain that dominates New York but has no presence in California. The experience at seven thirty, all interactions precisely packaged and refined through endless repetition, bears just enough similarity to my normal routine on Clement to be understood: the act of buying coffee. Outside of the Blue Danube the Chinese man sits on the bench of Burma Superstar, waiting for his friend to arrive and offer him a cigarette. After that ritual they will chat and watch the grocery store’s opening, where the pigs are delivered, and then wander off down the block, disappearing from the street. In Chicago a city employee sweeps trash from the gutter, and workers in suits file in to tall office towers.

Mornings, in cities, on week days, are studies in practice, in shared space and short time frames. Comfort comes in the form of a well-executed routine, a perfectly timed bus, a well-made coffee acquired with speed. The differences between places are not so vast, and yet, underneath, in the pace and dress is the place.

Clement’s feel, easy and welcoming, with random pedestrians and old residents, is that of home, of comfort and connection. Downtown Chicago’s rushed pace and commuter nature gives it the rare sense of the truly metropolitan, with no homes, few locals and small, pre-outlined exchanges done in incredible volume. More than anything it feels like New York, a rare thing in America. For a few days I’m glad to swap one routine for another, and even more to know both.

They know your name

After cleaning our old place we sit with our backs against the wall of our local bar, tacos on order and Tecates in hand. It won’t be our last trip here, the Taco Shop will remain just across the park, but it won’t be our closest option late at night, after ultimate or hard days. We won’t wander down at 5 on Fridays any more for happy hour, or watch games from the back tables on Saturday afternoons. The bar staff, who know our faces if not our names, are unaware of the reason for our strange faces. They smile when we sit down and treat us well, locals who live around the corner and come in often, never when the place is packed. This is what happens when we move. As a basketball game unwinds on the TV behind the bar I remember the early times, saying goodbye to places I once knew. Places I once was known.

For that boy the differences at first felt so small. Of course no one knew his name, in those new towns. At the laundromat he watched people for hours, sitting cross legged on top of a washing machine. In nineteen ninety eight Portsmouth didn’t feel that different from Ithaca. He would get a bagel in the morning, fresh off the boat in, and walk to the laundromat. His one day ashore would be spent reading, thinking, cleaning, and talking to almost no one.

Four years later and on a day off again he would walk out of the Ebisu train station in the rain. He stopped for coffee in a shop with an English menu. Ebisu is a quiet part of Tokyo, and after coffee he would head down small streets towards the used foreign book store. Mostly English, he perused for hours until it was time to take the train home to the suburbs of Saitama. He did buy books, but that was not why he loved this store. He loved it because the staff streamed British radio, Channel 4. Standing in the tiny aisles of this shop in Tokyo he listened to traffic reports of a place he had never been. Hearing of traffic conditions and the evening weather in England he no longer felt alone in the world. The foreign feeling that so surrounded him on those week day afternoons when all of Tokyo was at work and he, with no language, was free, faded for a bit. There are so many parts of the globe, said the radio, where we are out of place, where things feel like home but are strange.

In between these two moments he lived in Maryland and Boston, Pougkeepsie and New York. He would live in Tokyo without language for another year and then Shanghai with only fragments. In each of these places he was familiar few times. In each city he started over, found a coffee shop, a laundromat, a bagel place, a bar to frequent. And in each city, with time, the staff of some establishments remembered his face, his drink. They noted his odd habit of taking a corner table and pulling out a notebook, of reading the Economist over twelve kuai worth of dumplings and twelve kuai worth of beer. They saw him sleeping over his coffee late in the afternoon instead of eating lunch at noon with the crowd. Even less frequently they knew his name, and he theirs. Knew that he would, when asked, tell stories and bring friends, recommend dishes or specific seats.

In these quiet exchanges he built something and left it behind again with each move.

And after each new beginning he woke early on a Saturday and went looking for a coffee shop in which to write.

In the Richmond in twenty twelve I begin with Japonica, on California and 17th. Just to see, just to try. Maybe in a few weeks the owner and I will know each other by sight, if not by name. Maybe a few weeks after that I will be a regular again.

Habitats

I’m excited,” she says. We need change.” I agree, nodding as we look around at Irving wrapped in fog on a Tuesday night.

Learning a new neighborhood will be good for us,” I add.

Keep us interesting,” She says.

We both know what we mean. Too long in any one place and we become predictable. We begin to contemplate larger purchases and more stable travel patterns. We cease to learn with the voracious appetite of those who are confused by everything around them. And we grow complacent, headphones in as we walk to our favorite store rather than using all our senses to decide which shop to visit.

I’m tired of moving,” says a friend in Portland. As he’s just purchased a house, I think it’s a good position for him to take, and say nothing.

The first challenge with them,” says a friend in New York referring to mutual friends, is to figure out how the space was meant to be used.” In their apartment the bedroom is the living room, the mudroom has become the bedroom and so on, new visitors instantly disoriented by the abundance of empty space.

On the corner of Irving in San Francisco we discuss that.

What if we swap the bedroom and living room?” I ask. Or a futon that we fold up into the closet each morning?” I miss the ritual from my two years in Japan.

Instead we hide the fridge in a nook by the back door and resolve to buy less furniture, to hold off until accustomed to the space. I know the first challenges will not be large objects. They will be where to put cleats and bicycles, where to store the slack line and where to put the cat litter.

In the week of moving we go back and forth between nostalgia and excitement. I remember why most people aim to finish in a single day, so exhausted they can not give thought to loss or gain. Instead we wander both neighborhoods, eating in old favorites and entering new ones to look around and then leave.  We will be back, I tell the corner grocer, silently. We will come here often, I say to the small movie theater scant blocks from the new apartment.

I can not know if these promises are true. Our patterns will not become clear until we have spent hours at work and come home exhausted. Until we wake up late on a Saturday and desire bagels. Until we ride our bikes down each and every street, searching out treasures and listening to the wind.

As we walk the last block home, to our old home, to our soon to be not home, I look up at the fog whirling past the rooftops and across the moon.

Let’s live a little more like we want to be alive,” I say. She grins and we duck inside, to take everything off the walls and put the books in a bin.

Each bit of change starts from taking something old apart, each habit comes from exploration.

Unpacking ourselves

In the lukewarm dark of a Corte Madera evening we have a drink at a brewery down the street from his high school.  It is January, and where I am from the thermometer strains to reach twenty Fahrenheit.  It is January and where he lives pea coats are of necessity not fashion. In California we leave our jackets in the car.

We have but scant hours to cram years into. For some time our questions bounce back and forth at full speed, our minds most concerned with detail and the passage of time. Married now, he lives in a city close to my heart though not at all where we last met.

After a while we have enough to know that despite time and changes this is the same person sitting opposite. That we are the same friends who last spoke in a New York apartment, a Shanghai ferry boat, a Vassar auditorium. We are again comfortable and I remember lunches from years before. In a cafe in Hongqiao I would sit and write letters to far off friends, and open their letters after ordering, unfolding parts of their lives into my Chinese workday. His letters were meticulous, composed in those days at a grad school office or in an apartment overlooking Astoria Park. My responses often contained traces of my lunchtime location, coffee or soup, pastry crumbs or the tomato splatters of a Xinjiang restaurant I once favored.

In the bar now he tells me the kind of truth that only comes from good friends long absent.

We’ve lived together long enough that we’re not trying so hard to be together. We have relaxed a little, and feel comfortable enough to unpack parts of ourselves.”

I nod, the smile on my face growing large. I know exactly what he means. At the beginning of any relationship, nervous and eager, we are the best versions of ourselves we can be. Eventually, when this new experience has become daily life, we discover parts of ourselves put away in the eagerness and forgot. Tucked behind old jeans in the closet we now share, they are parts of ourselves we never meant to hide.

And slowly, miles from where we began, we unpack them. Gradually, because we are shy.

After our beers are done we head home, him to his folks for one more night in the house of his childhood, and me back up over the hill, across the bridge, and into the city.

It comes to me, on the bridge, the city laid out in front of me and full of light. Maybe this kind of meeting, stopping on the way home from work for a drink with a friend from long ago, maybe this is exactly what we meant, a part we never meant to put away.

The happening world

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

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

Around.”

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

Script cue: the happening world

-John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar

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

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

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

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

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

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

An escape from the happening world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cue the happening world.

To and fro

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

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

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

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

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

On brief vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Permanence

What do you still have from your childhood?” he asks her.

Earrings and things… jewelry from my family,” she answers, the hesitation brief. Things long kept come easily to mind, would come easily to hand in her home. She almost reaches for them here, walking under the stars of San Francisco.

Why?” That’s the question behind all things. He does not let it have space, following question with question. What of the things you have now will you still in ten years?” Without thinking he leads the conversation to the questions he asks himself.

He does not know where they will live in ten years. Neither does she, and were it to be the same place as today both would be surprised.

The compromises unthinkable for the last decade have become… acceptable,” a friend writes. He is speaking about relationships, the largest things anyone maintains for long. Having kept scant few from the three decades of their lives thus far the men on either end of that letter are each trying to understand what such permanence would require.

I guess the jewelry, my black & white shoes, that coat.” The answers are all things that have already survived long past the average lifespan of possessions.

I’ve gotten rid of everything I own,” a woman tells him, before abandoning her country.

Good,” he says. I try to do that every few years. Leaving the country’s the best way.” His advice is half cynical, the continual purging caused by the lack of permanent ties as much as any desire for monastic minimalism.

It is very freeing,” she replies. Two months later she is in a different country and her teenage home burns to the ground.

Without journals and books and clothes, things frequently consigned to others when fleeing the country, is she really now more at ease, able to move more freely?

Or does she miss most those mementos of visits home and memories?

I own a few books bought in Japan,” he says eventually, answering his own questions as they walk along. Justine, and some books from long before that, high school. That’s about all I can think of.” Fragile things of paper easily consumed by flame, how could they survive another decade?

You’re more settled now. In another decade you might still have things.” She is right, and yet the rate of wear does not seem to be reduced by locational stability.

I guess it depends what we try to end up with,” he says, as they cross 19th, hand in hand.

At least permanently.”

Time to think

The sky in Houston is blue, with vague drifting layers of cloud. The freeways are empty and smooth, the buttresses adorned with the star of Texas. At two am we sit back in the cab, watching the city we used to know so well roll by. Christmas is coming, and the air’s humidity licks us through the open windows, borne on a warmer breeze than the one blowing fog past the windows of our San Francisco apartment.

With the gentle rolling up and down of 59 and then 45 we catch glimpses of our old neighborhood, passing under the bridges we used to bike across to the supermarket. The Sears building in midtown is still empty, still signed. I wonder how long it will stay that way, and who owns it. Theirs was a vast empire of real estate almost entirely disassembled. The tower in Chicago now bears another name, the huge flagship in Los Angeles is being converted to condos after years of an emptiness similar to that of this Houston store’s, sign lit but doors locked.

Further on, out west and headed south on 59, we pass one with the lights still on, the S alone the size of our taxi, a minivan. Modern and suburban, it is still retailing, but the shape of the building holds nothing of the company that built art-deco monuments to shoppers, built huge structures in the center of towns becoming cities.

We are in Texas for the holidays, staying with family, playing basketball in the drive, and relaxing. Taking time to think.

Thinking time is all too rare these days, coming mostly in commutes up and down the 101 to Petaluma. No surprise then that thoughts of automobiles, of the economy, of the cultural differences in driver’s education on the left and right coasts, and of abandoned buildings are foremost in my mind. No surprise that the Fit has become a touchstone for the later parts of twenty ten. Thinking time used to be something done in public, on trains, in airports and hotel rooms, in countries where I did not speak the language. Now it happens in a car without company. I spend more time on the phone.

The last week of the year holds as much time to think as I am capable of, offices lightly staffed or closed, friends out of town, gone home. The year unspools in reverse, accumulated memories flicked through, adventures ticked off on lists of beds and travel. Mostly though what looms is the difference from the start of twenty ten, where time to think was Monday morning, time to write an unavoidable aspect of the time everyone else spent in the office or commuting. Scattered moments, now, are spent editing and thinking. In the shower and at night I remember ideas and try to get them down before losing them to the office.

In twenty eleven I will make time again. Time to work out, time for friends, and time to think.

Becoming American

For a long time most of my American experiences came in airports. Usually the international terminal at LAX, Tom Bradley, not widely considered among the world’s best. From this terminal, while JAL flights boarded for Tokyo and Indian families carried burdens large enough to share, I called grandparents, texted friends, and read magazine covers. These scant hours in America came on the tail end of business trips that had been filled with work and dinners, friends and traffic, but lacking in any sense of connection to the grander America. Perusing the kind of airport shops that in the tri-state area are called Hudson News, I read of television stars I did not know and movie releases I would later buy on Shanghai street corners for a dollar. I bought bubble gum and the Economist, and the people I reached on my soon-to-expire T-Mobile prepaid SIM seemed glad of the brief connections. Those conversations mostly centered on my impending leap, back out of the walls of the US, to a life difficult to recount while being constantly reminded to keep an eye on my luggage by pre-recorded voices.

In the past few years, again a resident of my home country, I have, I usually say, become more American, which is partially true. Some days the gulf has seemed huge, between what America looks like from a distance and what it can be in the day to day, both for better and worse. I have been back more than two years now and still the time away looms large in all recounting, in most introductions. People ask about China and Japan, though my life there, at seven years remove, is far further back than any moment of their own that enters the conversation. Without reason we do not discuss Houston, my home in 08 and 09. I wear my O’bama tee, sarcastically Irish, and try to recall that sense of possibility and elation, riding my BMX from West University to Midtown to call prospective voters in Missouri, in Virginia.

Until this week I have not felt truly at home here, in San Francisco, in America. I have wandered, watched, and written, I have driven much of this country and flown to far more, and I have made friends in Texas, in Colorado, in California and Oregon, but I have not been here, not fully.

The change is a series of anchors, tying me down, a series of possibilities, urging me on. I now have health care and an automobile, a purchase I forswore at twenty two. I have a loan, for the first time since university, and a commute, for the first time ever. After two years in my own country I have a job, which requires the above and promises to teach me things I do not know, to take me places I have not yet been.

Shaving in the early morning light on Wednesday, the newness of it becoming habit, I smile at the reflection, this person who lives in San Francisco, who works in Petaluma.

After all these years I have finally come home to a place I had never lived.

Gone running

In the spring of twenty ten I take up running in the mornings.

At work for much of the last two years on a novel that is taking its time, the chunks of story assembling like the preface to a giant Tetris game on my computer, in my notebook, waiting for the busts of inspiration that will fit them together without seams, I am restless.  Like Gibson, I force myself to turn up every day, in case the writing also decides to.”  Often it does not, and my body, unaware of our shared dedication to a craft that requires hours spent seated, grows antsy.  So, in the mornings, through Golden Gate Park on the edge of the Pacific, I run.

Only one other time have I run regularly, independent of sport. The two years of my life in Tokyo that were without Ultimate drove me to action, to waking up early on my days off and putting five kilometers under my feet before beginning anything else. Strangely those were productive days too, for the writing, and I wonder if Murakami is indeed on to something.

Living here, in the San Francisco of chilly mornings and fog-filled skies, I do not hesitate to challenge my body. The weather will not, an entirely predictable space of days that veer between fifty five and sixty eight without producing sunshine or true rain. At thirty I am slower than twenty two, a change that others have discovered before. Where once I would hurdle the obstacles that separated car traffic from pedestrians in quick repetition for several blocks as I wound my way around Yono Honmachi I now pant up the hills of the park, their dirt surfaces tricky on the ankles. The cold ambushes my lungs, and some days I walk a block or two on each end of the steeper sections, an acceptance of age I gave no thought to in Saitama. There are other things I do less frequently as well now, the climbing of water towers on apartment buildings, or light posts, or tiers of balconies. Yet slacklining has strengthened my ankles, and my throws are better, proof that not all things have been neglected. So too does the habit of jumping random object return, in opportune moments like New York afternoons or Shanghai evenings. But in San Francisco, in the early morning after lunches are made and carpools departed I put on shoes purchased in Los Angeles for this very purpose and wear my body down. Half an hour is sufficient, a fifteen block loop through foliage that sometimes contains cats and sometimes homeless people. Back in my house, face flushed at the sudden return of warmth, I celebrate with pull ups, jumping jacks, sit ups and a shower. It is not Murakami’s religious devotion to the road but it does seem to help.

With coffee fresh and mind full I then can sit at this window, looking out at the world, and compose, my mind awake and body stilled.

Quiet people

The summer is here, I am told. Out the window the fog swirls in solid grey, and the red leaves on the scraggly tree blow in the wind as they did in November, and March. The days are long, but there is little blue in the sky. Based on the view this could be Shanghai, though this gray is made of water and that of coal dust. From the middle the result is the same, opaqued horizons and indistinguishable hours. Yet Shanghai, like Tokyo and New York, has a summer built on human sweat, a constant stick and resulting search for showers.

I hear distant friends wish for air conditioners, tired of their summer’s humidity and temperature. These faint desires barely penetrate my house, where the windows remain closed to keep out the chill wind. They are the desires are of some other place, unfathomable in San Francisco.

In conversation today a friend mentioned how hard it was for him to make time to travel, to leave his normal routine. I agreed, being scarcely able to imagine other locations, much less see them. We are two people prone to settling in, I said, to routines that are of us rather than of the place we inhabit. In Beijing we did much the same thing as Shanghai, or as Tokyo. We did much the same as last month in New York. The idea that there is a global common of airports, cities, parks and restaurants, bicycle rides and museums, long postulated, is indeed true. We are wrapped up in our location and have trouble stepping quickly out of it, or even remembering that such steps are possible.

But we move, he shot back, we move more than anyone we know, up and down and around and around this blue planet, to strange cities and strange cultures, with jobs and without, before our friends and after them, until we have almost no home, no single place with any deep attachment. How then can we be simultaneously sedentary, so unaware of the possibilities of weekend travel, when we are vagrant, groundless?  He does not know.

From Vancouver I receive an emailed answer that penetrates the fog, which is also one.

China seems so long ago,” writes a friend from my first years there, like a dream, I wonder if that was me.”

Houston’s humidity, Tokyo’s hot concrete, even New York’s sweat-filled excursions of a scant month ago are hard to recall from the fog of July. I know them, from personal experience, but my body does not remember the heat, can not bring back the memories to my skin. We may move, all of us, in circles large or small, but where we are is what we see. My friend in New York, like myself, travels more than he admits, to Maine one weekend, to New Jersey the next. I do too, to Seattle, to Los Angeles. The problem is separate, and simple. From his air conditioned office and my socked in desk on a Tuesday these voyages are hard to remember, and our bodies are no help.

I’m living in my head,” my friend confides, like old times in China.”

We are half creatures of the world, exploring and learning as we can, and half reluctant cohabiters, uncertain of our joy in other’s company. The balance is a delicate thing, a scale fine enough to be tipped by weather.

Dreaming of a President

In an apartment in Venice four blocks from the Pacific I once knew a boy who fell asleep to The West Wing in the evenings.

I did too, on green couches whose supporting structure would poke at our ribs as we dozed. Those couches are long gone, and the apartment, with it’s drawbridge and fence, now houses people I do not know. Watching The West Wing again, four or five years later, the opening chords of the theme bring that scene back to me instantly. Those two boys were exhausted as they lay down, eyes closing almost before the DVD player could spin up. They had been working long days, from early light to well past dark. They had gone out too, with the exuberance of friends whose lives were usually separated by the Pacific. They were given only those scant hours between work and sleep to enjoy a decade’s worth of camaraderie, and the bar tab often showed their dedication, before the couches claimed their tired bodies as the TV panned over the White House.

This past week, with the DVDs freshly arrived from Los Angeles, we’ve spent hours inside that world, appreciating the acting and laughing at jokes written most of a decade ago. Yet the love for Charlie and Josh, the rueful awareness of my own personal Toby-esque nature, the support for CJ and Donna, these are not the first emotions that opening sequence calls forth.

That is strange because the emotions that return immediately, the deep hope and desire that are so strongly intertwined with those couches and long days in Los Angeles, no longer exist.

In two thousand five, two thousand six, those boys did not fall asleep to The West Wing simply because of exhaustion. Each morning those two boys would rise, perhaps having moved from couch to bed, perhaps still in their clothes, and head to work again. They would get coffee at Groundwork on Rose and discuss a television show neither of them had truly seen. Instead of the episode’s plot they would discus how pleasant it was, just for a moment as they woke in the morning, to believe Martin Sheen the President of the United States.

Habits are our ways of making peace with the world. By repeating small actions, by safeguarding our hopes with nightly support, we build structures capable of carrying us through disheartening turbulence. Between two thousand and two thousand eight I built a life on the other side of the planet to protect my hopes for this country. In Los Angeles for business I learned how my friend had handled the same challenge. He’d fallen asleep to The West Wing every night instead of the news.

In San Francisco now, we have a President who expects me to understand his arguments, if not Latin, and I still appreciate the show. The writing is deft and the characters nuanced despite the tiny snatches that an ensemble drama demands. But the magic and need that made its theme a daily habit is gone, and it is good, busy with new challenges and striving to protect different hopes, to remember how far we’ve come and how impossible such progress once looked.

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.

From far away

They arrive gradually. Each one in turn is slotted underneath a single magnet. Eventually more will be needed, to keep up with their flow. They go up backs face out, a collage of hand-printed lettering. Their fronts contain scenes from this country or others, strange photographs, or sketches made popular not by the artist’s fame but by their very printing.

The longer I inhabit this house the more crowded that space will be, on the freezer’s front. Eventually these first to arrive will be replaced, their pictures long forgotten. They will be read one last time, to revive the memories, and placed in a box that has come with me from Houston, from Shanghai. That box is filled with similar already, and though I can not remember from where, the list of from who comes easily to mind. These ones, fresh delivered to a mailbox I have owned but a month, are a good representation of whose handwriting might also be found in that box. Because, like all habits, that of postcards written and stamped is one born out of repetition, reinforced by reciprocation.

Turning them over now, a momentary cataloguing of their pictures presents me with the Potala Palace, proof that my friends, again, have been on journeys I meant to take myself and have so far not managed. The next is of Brandenburger Tor, ensuring that my catalogue of famous monuments enshrined on postcards continues to grow. It too is proof, though of a different kind: that friends from Shanghai were not as daunted by Europe’s expense and moved eastward. The lessons are similar though, that all of the places I wished to go, whether to visit or live, are as accessible now as they have ever been. Yet here I sit, receiving these in a city in the country of my birth, the borders of which I have not crossed for more than a year.

The last is of Old North Wharf on Nantucket, a beautiful shot of houses with their boats at anchor in place of a lawn. It is America, in the view of water and peace, something I appreciate, from my house mate in Shanghai, who is likewise learning a new coast. It has traveled long, chasing me here from Colorado, to which it was sent at the end of the summer as I fled westward.

As we settle so too do I send out these missives, currently featuring whimsical Japanese art, to the corners of these United States and a variety of countries. I must learn where the post office is, and mailboxes. These worthwhile efforts are fueled by our decorated freezer, and the envelopes of longer letters that lie in the phone nook. For the most part they are small stories of happiness, and share a sense of wonder. Because although we are not beyond our borders, we are exploring, learning a new city and state. And after so long parts of America are as foreign to me as anywhere, all the more so because they ought to seem natural.

I am grateful though for the reminders of places and people I always mean to see, and one day will be glad to.

Coming home

Those words, for anyone long removed from the later, are some of the strongest.  They bring instant emotion even on a smaller scale, the words of a father on the phone at the end of the workday.  Yet they can be tainted with nervousness at longer exposures, with an underlying uncertainty of what will have changed, and whether home as we remember it still exists.

These words have a new meaning to me, these past few days.  For the first time in several months they again represent a space of my own, of our own.  We no longer rely on the incredible generosity of our friends and families, whose spare rooms and couches,  pull-out mattresses, aerobeds, and attics have sheltered us so well this summer.  The door to this apartment is opened by keys only we possess, and the bathroom will be cleaned by no one else.  There are drawbacks, the shower head slightly too low, the cabinets that do not close on their own, but they are our problems, and I relish the walk to the hardware store that will fix them.

Having mentioned already the secrets each new house presents, the opportunities to re-establish old patterns and form new habits I will only say that, in their absence, I had much missed my house keys and a place to put them.

Circus of cats

A year ago I sat on a rooftop in Hong Kong and watched the cats roam Sheung Wan’s streets from far above as the day’s heat soaked back out of the concrete towers and into the sky.  In Houston this last month I have watched them again, how they prowl and play once evening approaches, content out of doors once the sun has fled.  In this complex of houses become apartments there are many, of all colors and temperaments.  With time, patience and an interest in their doings, we become familiar with one another.

Winnie, longer-haired orange and sleek, a rescue from Galveston who spent ten days on a rooftop post Hurricane Ike, is the new king.  The tufts of fur behind his ears attract attention, and he spends the evenings on his brick doorstep, content to watch others antics in the fading heat.

Magic, skinny young and short-haired black, chases a bullfrog into the shrubs, wild-eyed and bounding.  Winnie waits a moment and then ambles after, as though curious to see what Magic would do with this strange-sounding beast.  Unimpressed he slinks back to his stoop, and ten minutes later Magic is sitting on the wooden bench licking his paws, the bullfrog forgotten.

How long do their memories last?” a friend wonders, sitting outside on the patio furniture watching a large orange and white cat flirt with Winnie, lured by his low profile and huge ear tufts.  Do they remember each other or just vague impressions, do they know people or just where they are fed?”  None of us know the answer, and in the perfect warmth of ten pm no one moves to discover it.  Instead we speculate on their behavior, watching Boo Boo, an indoors-only Siamese mix with light blue eyes who has come to the window, his fur pressing through the screen as he watches Winnie and these people.

Milo is the old man of the neighborhood, in time here if not in years.  His family has cut a cat door into the building entrance, dignifying his comings and goings beyond meowing for a helping hand.  Yet he is uneasy as the population swells, Winnie’s arrival followed by another smaller orange and white, and then a black and white hunter, a grey tiger indoor cat, and more.  Milo eyes them from a tree across the street that only he seems able to climb. Finding him there one evening I think he remembers a less-crowded block, where he could prowl behind shrubs by his lonesome.

How long is a cat’s memory, we asked. Packing this apartment, with it’s squirrel highway and it’s windows, with it’s odd hiding places, I wonder instead how long is the memory of a place?  Will Winnie remember us when we leave?  Milo?  This apartment?  How long until no one remembers us standing here in the fading light, seeking out the hunters where they stalked behind the bushes?

The black and white, name unknown, chases a lizard as we pack the car, dropping it’s squirming body from mouth to pavement only to bound upon it again as it races away across the pavement.  It is a favorite activity, the lizards numerous and slow in the morning heat before all things retreat to shade near noon.  They do not remember, I think, these small creatures that flee vertically, climbing the brick out of the reach of Milo’s claws.  This apartment has no memory, save that of holes and scrapes, of hangars left in closets and marks where the dresser touched the wall.  Like the lizards it will be here tomorrow, no outward sign of vacancy.

How long do even we remember, though, haughty in our questioning of cats?  Hong Kong, a year ago, has already begun to fade, and this apartment too will be shrunk down, condensed to a smattering of images, like those cats seen from rooftops and visits from old friends.  We move on, inhabiting one place after another, confident in our memories, though less durable than these walls and their scars.  Maybe Magic will wonder where we’ve gone, lying mid-driveway in the morning light where we used both to watch the mail arrive.

For a little while so will I.

Lived in bars

They have a good Texas jukebox,” she tells me, of the oldest bar in Houston.  And a table shaped like the state.”  The recommendation is enticing.  Sports are on TV, and a few old-timers at the bar when we wander in from the rain and out again soon after.

It’s the cheapest place in town, which is sad,” I’m told, not immediately sure where the sadness lies, in the bar’s mid-level prices or the fact that spots far dingier, bars with no building at all where the beer in coolers behind the counter and the seats under the stars or smog, have done it no better on cost.  Indoors in this cheapest of establishments a neon sign glows, bulbs along the edges blinking sporadically.  Cocktails, it says, the letters inside a giant curving arrow that points downwards and into a wall.  In the garden out back a five-foot cabbage patch kid is dwarfed by the Kool Aid Man, his body wider than I am tall.

It’s the talk of the town, that’s for sure,” a friend admits, and asks what I think.  It’s like the bars in LA I went to when I made money,” I offer.  She nods knowingly.  Well-designed, staffed by attractive people, a little industrial, big windows onto the street, not too much on the walls, no TVs.

Let’s go somewhere we can watch the game,” we say, after driving to Austin in the afternoon.  At tall wooden tables we stand, the walls open to the air, pitchers half-full, watching a few games, depending on our angle, long into the evening.

I am fond of all of these places in some way, glad they exist and happy to discover them as I re-discover America.  In Asia the very words are a concept, the American bar”.  In Shanghai they have Filipino waitresses, if one is lucky, and Chinese bartenders, and their food is mediocre and expensive.  In Tokyo they are chains, with laminated menus and soda fountains, competing with TGIF rather than local izakayas.

There are jewels everywhere, of course, and we grow fond of them in cycles, with certain groups.  In Omiya for a while there was a bar with exposed metal rafters and a cat who wandered them silently above our heads.  Eventually renovated it lost all character with the cat’s departure, and we followed the example.

Or the rocket ship, a concrete replica of a 1950’s Tom Swift craft, perched oddly atop an Omiya office building, home to a quiet space that held soft jazz and mid-90’s movie posters.  An excellent discovery, only ever occupied by the bartender and a friend of his, content to let us establish ourselves in a curve of the hull our last few months in the country.

There’s a room inside the old vault,” a friend says of a bar that was once a bank.  I am there, one chilly evening a few days later, secure in many ways.  Amid the plush leather furniture it’s easy to forget the bar’s unfinished wood and sawdust feel, or the copious amounts of vomit in the only urinal.

We’ve lived in bars and danced on tables,

Her voice is low and deep, not a thing of ambition but a fact of everywhere, played out in our lives and recommendations to new friends.

Quoted lyrics from Cat Power’s Lived in Bars’ off of 2006’s The Greatest

Summer ’99

In my memory Ocean City is a pretty lonely place.  Even though I was living with a friend, sharing a house with four other people, and working with a dozen more, the sharpest parts of that summer are ones I spent alone.  This is true of anywhere, and why solo travel is more revealing than group tourism.  Ocean City wasn’t either of those, though.  It was a place to live for a summer that fit all of my requirements and fell into my lap.  A house, they claimed, for little enough, a few blocks from the beach and the lively boardwalk that meant jobs aplenty.  I can still feel the house, that amazing blend of wood and carpet, sand and dust that comes from being near the ocean and open to the weather.  Some houses, too often boarded up against storms or families returning to their northern homes, claimed a different odor, that of disuse and neglect, of age and mildew, with the ocean’s presence as an afterthought, something to be sought out beyond the walls.  Not ours.  On Sparrow Lane, a little two-block curve of road between Bayshore and Robin, both of which ran along the inlet, it was a place that seemed to have no windows or doors, the air constantly suggesting the weather outside.  We added to this with our plethora of fans, seemingly the only furniture college students in the north east ever really own.

Ocean City, on a map, resembles nothing so much as an accident, a mistakenly placed label over a long sliver of land separated from the coast of Maryland and Delaware.  For most of it’s length the city manages no more than four blocks of width, from bay to ocean.  Save for odd protuberances, small peninsulas on the bay-ward side like the one formed by Bayshore and Robin, which stretch west an incredible additional four blocks from Ocean Highway, which, running north to south is two blocks from the boardwalk and, usually, equidistant from the bay.  Like most accidents, Ocean City has the feel of a place clinging to its name, and to life, with the manic rush of a really good party.  It is a vacation town, an east coast boardwalk town, and a college one at that.  Our house, filled with five mostly-impoverished students on break and holding down whatever jobs available, was by no means unique.  The houses on either side were similar, and the trash in the big plastic blue can that sat by the telephone pole demonstrated a diet of Bud Lite and pizza delivery.  A lot of OC survived on late-night pizza, which was good, because two of my roommates made it, often coming home at one or two with a pie they’d prepped for our house while they closed down the kitchen.  I don’t know what it’s like now, that house, with it’s two-storey living room, the stairway winding up one side to a balcony, but if it’s just the same I wouldn’t be surprised, empty in the winter, housing another bunch of hopeful and hopeless students for the summer.

This college vacation town didn’t seem lonely.  With groups of people on each porch, with games of drunken whiffle ball in the street, it had the constant late-night ruckus of a town built on the service industry, where no one got off work until ten o’clock.  It was a place where a night out started when a friend who’s bouncing got on shift at a club, where activities on off-days consisted of going to visit the roommate that worked at the mini-golf range and playing a few rounds gratis.  No, on the surface, or when somebody’s folks came to visit, it didn’t seem lonely at all, always bustling with people, always somebody on their day off going to the beach.  But under that busy summer feel there was a sense of just how empty this place would be, in a few months, and just how little any of the people who had rolled up for the summer with their beach chairs and their shades on really cared.

I used to get up early, around five, to work the breakfast shift, a pretty good job, around fifty dollars for the morning if the place was busy.  Funny to say, since I’d walked into the house at the last minute, the final roommate and the last person to arrive, but I had the best job of the house, which wasn’t as good as it sounds.  I worked at a surf n’ turf place, right on the boardwalk.  Attached to a hotel, and with a pool bar, we only did breakfast and dinner, which was a great gig, and the hotel meant plenty of people, even when the weather sucked and no one wanted to wander the boardwalk before dinner.  When I woke my roommates would be sprawled out from the night, having come home at two with a pie and a sixer and gotten loud right around when I needed to get to bed, which didn’t bother me.  At nineteen going on twenty I’d gone sober for the summer, and was up and unlocking my bike from the porch before the sun.  Looking back those rides are a lot of why Ocean City seems so quiet, so lonely.  Sure someone might be passed out on the lawn next door, but more often the road was empty, the city asleep, and the sun just beginning to climb.  I’d bike down Robin to Bayshore, a couple of blocks, across the highway and out to the boardwalk.  The buildings, mostly one or two storey, were all shuttered, locked and graffitied, concrete shops that in the evening would have tables out slinging barbecue or ice cream, with flocks of people eating, chatting, and roaring off again down the highway.  Two blocks of old wooden beach-side residential, looking the way rental houses look after fifty years of weather and wear, and then two more of modern brick and concrete squares designed to sell something cheap to a whole bunch of people who’d never be back.  Without the crowds, as the sun broke over the horizon, it wasn’t an inviting sight.  I’d always remember my head waitress’s words then, crossing the empty four lanes of the highway on my mountain bike.  In the winter,” she’d say, when we’d talk about how busy the boardwalk seemed, standing outside the restaurant just before opening in the evening, you can walk the length of Ocean Highway and not see a single car.”  At five am it felt like I could do the same, as though the season had changed while I slept.

Then I’d get to the boardwalk, sharing it for ten blocks with the other bikers and joggers, mostly old folk up to see the sunrise on vacation.  I wondered if they knew about the ruckus that went on, a few blocks behind their ocean-view rooms, until just about dawn every night.  I wondered if they realized that the people living on food taken from the shop in which they worked, who washed with towels they stole from their hotel jobs, were just a block or two behind them, passed out on the lawn, having spent their marginal wages on the cheapest beer they could find within walking distance.  And then I’d glide down the boardwalk, riding with no hands, and I’d watch the sunrise over the Atlantic, which, for all the Pacific says they’ve got, is a beautiful sight worth waking up for.  The sun came up on that city like a curtain of orange and then pink and then yellow and then white, pulled up over this pale light blue wash that covered the sky.  Everyone on the boardwalk, all hundred of us or so, spread out over the fifty blocks, would turn and watch, just stand real still in our own little worlds of amazement.  And when it got to a certain height we’d all turn back to our jog or our hotel room, and I’d pull that swinging screen door open and head into the darkened kitchen.

Personal geographic

Memories lie dormant all over this city. In Fuxing park, after years away, they return suddenly. A February afternoon, jacket collar up against the wind, slips over me despite the heat of May. A face I haven’t pictured in years comes back instantly, bringing with it hand-holding and small pleasantries I had thought ashes of personal history.

They fade, says a rumor of memories, are dulled by repetition and become faint traces barely accessible with conscious effort. This is true, in some way, as oft-recalled scenes are now at least part composition, part invention, rather than their original fact. Graduation day’s weather, easily confirmable through photographs and weather sites, is reassuringly mapped onto memories of that day. I do not believe I have any real ability to visualize the clouds, if clouds there were, puffy and scattered. Perhaps seeing the hill, the view of the lake through the trees would suddenly snap the sky into focus in my mind. Perhaps not, and that amphitheater would instead evoke other days, as the layers of personal history are deep there, the days set upon one another like palimpsests.

A small town can not hold as many of these ambushes. Each place has been too frequently visited to retain only a single moment. No place has been forgotten for long enough to shock. Thinking this I remember a bridge and a long-dead friend perched upon it’s girders, slung below the road surface yet high above the gorge. It is a place I haven’t visited in a decade, and I am chill at the memory. No, these mental ties to geography do not require size, not always.

Barefoot now and throwing a frisbee in the late afternoon sun amid a flock of kites the shape of eagles, my memories are of another evening, drinks outdoors in the garden visible beyond a hedge. The friends of that evening are not dead, thankfully, just far away. They have long since relocated to London, to Australia Boston New York Maine Hawaii Hong Kong, and they are only three people. Years gone now, my routine is of passing around this park but never through. The memories lie unmentioned, untouched, with their participants scattered.

Yet the size of a place does enable this forgetting, allowing frequented pathways to be forgotten by a change of job, a move several blocks north. A dumpling shop on Jianguo Lu closes for May holiday, three days. The owner purchases new chairs and tables in the interim. A crazy night there comes back to me, from years before at three am. Another expat in a three-piece suit and too drunk to see, ranting about something, his face familiar but name unknown. The winter of 03, perhaps. The day is not clear, the need for dumplings at such an hour even less so. Only that face, the suit, and the hour return upon re-entering this recently redecorated tiny restaurant.

Transitions

The weather breaks and he begins to move after months of planning. Habits are simple things, codified out of time and repetition. Their creation goes unnoticed, until a change of workplace, house, or partner forces home their shift. The boy who left Tokyo in one weekend of breakups and gift-giving, pieces of his life strewn on the street outside a Yono hommachi apartment block, stares at the rain sweeping across Shanghai. The windows are tinted gold, an attempt at fake glory that neither the view nor the windows have been able to maintain. The sky is grey and darkening, and the office lights begin to dim. He watches, waiting for a parcel from a factory. The phone rings, an apologetic and wet delivery driver, confirming address, hoping for the endless ringing of an evening reprieve. The phone says six forty five as he sets it down on the window sill. Marble, though the wall that supports it is concrete, painted white and slowly turning to dust. These evenings are comfortable moments, the staff gone, the building growing quiet. The phone blips with bars and dinners, none holding any sense of urgency against the darkening windows.

These Friday evenings of peace after the week’s hectic crush are habits that take effort to scatter. Their ritual encompass a host of others. His bed is waiting for him clean, sheets neatly turned down and clothes hung outside to dry, though they will not in the rain, by an ayi hired to accommodate the rush of busy weeks. On hearing of his plans the worry in her eyes will remind him of the destruction of this scattering. Moving on, he assures her he is not. Not yet, at any rate, not for several months. The sheets will still be cleaned, the bed made. The daily pattern will continue. Leaving for Hong Kong for a few weeks, he will return to familiar pillow covers, bought years ago upon moving in. Reassured she smiles, amazed at this man’s freedom to abandon employment.

Like freedom, scale stuns. Photography provides an example most easily, or most recently: five hundred thousand people crushed into a single train station in Guangzhou’s winter. The overwhelming realization of size new visitors have on seeing Shanghai’s skyline that first taxi ride in to the city at night, towers extending in every direction. Asked for the hundredth time the inevitable why’ he answers no longer in specifics but with the memory of that boy leaving Tokyo in a whirlwind:

I moved here on a whim.”

The question answered not at all, each side moves on to safer ground:  plans immediate, travel hopeful, the eventual expression of desire, or the jealousy of time. The ayi’s look of amazement at his freedom misses the scale, and thus the stun. To acquire the job he so casually concedes the man who employs her first had to abandon his family, his country, and his employment in some distant place of equal comfort.

Why’ lingers in his head long after each conversation as he seeks new answers for his own use on quiet scooter rides. Sometimes the moment is hard to spot, he thinks, the change a long time coming, wave-like from the sea. By the time it reaches land there’s no telling where the push arose. Change is a frightening thing, and yet empowering. This comfort with another culture, this industry mostly understood, they didn’t happen as tiers on a ladder, save for one of individual days assembled. There came a moment when what was was not enough, and habits, rather than small patches of comfort against the wind became small fences of restraint against desire. He wants to go, and to do so must disassemble all the things that hold him here. He is older, and has learned some things, no longer discarding books to re-purchase them again, now able to calculate shipping costs versus cover price. A gain not only of mathematics but of language, the post office understood rather than confounding. Some of these things and most of this learning he will take with him, and some of these habits he will re-assemble in distant locations, having learned their comfort in Shanghai.

For a few more months though he will greet the ayi in the mornings, pack bag with novel and notebook instead of folders and laptop, and set out on foot to remember this city, this country. To remember the habits of a boy curious and stunned, fresh off a plane at twenty four, and unemployed.

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.