New traditions

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On our street the old couple sets out their boxes of fruit and vegetables before we wake. Today there are passion fruits and cherries along with the standard oranges, apples, and pears. On the far side from our window there is lettuce, cabbage, mushrooms and potatoes. Next door the local restaurant does a brisk business in toast, eggs, fried pork and some noodles. Up and down the street chairs and tables are set out and proprietors take in the air. It is Christmas morning and the world is quiet, but not empty.

For the first time this pattern is familiar. Unlike the year before we do not hoard groceries before the two day holiday, Christmas and Boxing Day. We are comfortable that the grocery store and fruit stand will be open. In the afternoon our neighborhood is alive, someone somewhere hammering on a tin sheet trying to fix an awning. Mostly it is the foreigners that are quiet, not visible on rooftops, their apartment windows shaded and dark. Of our local establishments only the coffee shop is closed. I am glad that they get a break, the Australians and locals who run it. Outside, on it’s steps, a couple takes photos of their Akita, lush and happy in the cooler weather.

The weather is relative, of course. Twenty one C is not exactly cold, not to these children of Colorado and New York. Not, probably, to that dog bred for northern Japan. A balmy Christmas is still new to us, and for the week leading up to it we are uncertain of the season, busy with other pursuits. Finally, though, with the Christmas tree in the building lobby and carols sung by groups in Cantonese outside our train station, we acquiesce and agree. Far from family and with many friends traveling, we spend the days quiet, reading and chatting. These are always some of my favorite days, the quiet ones at end of one year and the beginning of the next. They are time for reflection and for planning, for taking stock of growth and remembering our hopes.

In these years we barely give presents. We share a few, with friends nearby and those we encounter on our travels, or those elsewhere when inspiration strikes. Mostly though we grin at each other, carrying fruit back to our apartment in the sunlight, lucky already with what we wanted most.

Passing through

In the foggy chill of a November San Francisco evening I head home to a place I’ve never lived. After a jet lagged day in the office, a round of mini golf with coworkers, and dinner with an old friend I am tired and full. Crossing Dolores I am also alone, in the strange way of San Francisco where ten pm sees all responsible individuals indoors save in a few tiny commercial strips. In Hong Kong there would be dozens of folk out of doors in all directions now, a level of activity not only explained by the weather.

I’m happy to be at home in the Castro this week, a neighborhood I haven’t frequented since our early years in the city a decade ago. On these recent trips I take advantage of friends’ generosity as both a cost saving measure for the current startup and a fringe benefit of the long flights. These evenings with people I now live too far from are quite a perk. We discuss old times, sharing memories of China and San Francisco in equal measure. I am often confused about bed times and vague about meals, but good conversation is not as vulnerable to displacement.

The sense of home, though, has gone. That is the starkest change, walking home across Church, or up Market past Safeway and the Churchill. I know these places, having bought thanksgiving dinner fixings at one and fancy cocktails at the other, but they are no longer part of my city. I spend a morning thinking about this as I ride Muni to work. It’s been so long that I try to swipe my Clipper card on the way out of the gates, like Bart, only to have the station attendant remind me that’s not necessary on Muni. It must have been five years since I rode it last.

And then suddenly in a text message it’s explained to me, obviously. Visiting San Francisco now is like returning to Shanghai in two thousand ten, two years or so after moving away. Everything is familiar, it still can feel like home, but it isn’t, and in some way it doesn’t. I’ll always be comfortable here, but probably never again a resident. Just like Shanghai. And the metro confusion of the Powell street Muni gates matches so well my lack of knowledge of line 10’s stops past Xujiahui in two thousand nine. These are places we know but have forgotten, or places that have changed.

On my way to the climbing gym this evening, to meet old friends and enjoy one of the largest bouldering gyms in the world for a couple of hours before my flight, I pass Chase Center, the Warriors new home. It’s a colossus, a sparkling modern money-printing facility. The last time I rode this street I could see straight through the structure. Only the girders were in place, phantoms of the future bleachers curves mirrored in their arcs.

Like all cities, San Francisco is changing. Like all people, we are changing. Many of my friends no longer live here, not in the city proper. It has only been a single year, and yet the pace of their evacuation is startling. The people I stayed with in September have fled north since that visit, a scant two months prior. I wonder how long I will have friends here at all. And then I arrive at the gym and find another friend sprawled on the mats unexpectedly. It will be a while, I realize. My five years of connections to Shanghai have still not faded, not fully. Nine years in SF will likewise not fade too fast. It’s just the sense of home that has moved on, to warmer and denser cities where my cat wanders the park and is taken out to dinner at the noodle shop.

Time now to get back there, again on this long commute.

Off hours

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

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

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

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

Shanghai again, together

We land at Terminal 2 some eleven years since our last shared departure. In between Shanghai has been a touch point and frequent destination, but only for myself.

Shanghai is a city of change, where the list of bars and restaurants that have closed is daunting. Most of the places we knew in two thousand seven and eight are gone. Most of the places that opened after we left have likewise disappeared. The subway has blossomed, from four incomplete lines to more than a dozen. Entire entertainment districts have grown, become popular, and then been closed by the government. Apartments have gotten more expensive but also more numerous, and there are new cool neighborhoods far beyond what was our circle of frequency.

I have been lucky, taking in these changes over the course of the intervening decade, on work trips that lasted days and weeks. Since two thousand eight I’ve been paid for probably four months of time in Shanghai, though none since 2016. There are still changes that surprise me, every time I land. Taking them all in at once is daunting, and I watch Tara wander, eyes wide with uncertainty. Is this the corner we walked to so frequently? Is this our grocery store? Which way did we go to get from one apartment to the other, in those early days?

There are moments of joy too, in this adventure. The stalls attached to Zhongshan Park station, which had always been a home of odds and ends, now feature local designers, and better food. The connecting Carrefour features the same broad array of goods but under better lighting and with a cleaner sense of organization. The old apartment building is still standing, and the convenience stores nearby are far better than the old Kwik. We eat dumplings and meat pancakes for $3, and wander the neighborhood in the morning heat. Zhongshan Park itself is pretty, and filled with dancers. Of the Faithless concert that brought us there together for the first time, well, we have memories.

On Yueyang Lu we wander beneath the green leaves of Shanghai July, happy to see how much good the intervening decade has done for the foliage. These streets have always been a special part of Shanghai, a gift of foresight that keeps out the worst of the summer heat. Along Zhaojiabang Lu and throughout much of the city, efforts to spread the feeling of the French Concession’s tree-lined roads have paid off. The trees are so big now,” we remark to each other again and again. So often, in this greenest season, it’s impossible to see tall landmarks scant blocks away, not just in our old neighborhoods but all over the city.

Tree growth more than anything is the lingering lesson of these ten years. Buildings have gone up and become accepted. Businesses have come and gone. People too. Subways have been built so far out that the borders of the city are difficult to determine. All these efforts, though, are overshadowed by how green the city has become, at least in the summer. As we leave, walking up the stairway to our plane from the Pudong tarmac, we know the trees are what we will remember from this visit in twenty nineteen.

A decade is a long time to a person, or to a couple. A decade is a long time for our careers. Eleven years ago we knew so little of what we would become, and where that would take us. And we did not appreciate enough the small saplings being placed all over Shanghai.

A decade, it turns out, is a long time for the small trees planted along Zhaojiabang. Long enough to grow tall and dense, to separate one side of the street from the other, and to quiet the noise and improve the air. Long enough to make the city a better place.

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.

Eyes open heart wide

Moving means everything is new and of unknown interest. As a result I spend weeks wandering with my eyes and ears open. Exploring, in the tame urban sense of it. I look out of doors, in shops, up stairs, and around corners. More than a month in, Hong Kong is as full as I’d hoped and I have no sense of the limits. Learning a new place is best done by wandering without earbuds, and without goals. Tonight, sitting on the top level of the tram heading home at golden hour, every angle looked good. Every direction provided some new detail to absorb. Bamboo scaffolding. Laundry hanging out of windows. Purple neon in the top floor of busses. Commuters watching their phones. Commuters crossing the street. People in upper story windows just getting home, and people in shops picking up things for the weekend.  All these parts of the city convey the sense of motion and depth that I love so much. There are people everywhere.

The appeal of density is a difficult thing to explain. I’ve tried for years, thinking about why fleeing the dark of rural China for Shanghai’s lights feels better than anything. Last week, on a bus back from Zhuhai to Hong Kong, I felt that pull again, that desire to be where the lights and people are. And here, on Hong Kong Island, walking home from the tram, I have made it back once again. I feel as comfortable as I can, considering I can’t yet speak Cantonese.

My wanderings are one way to enjoy the density of this city, to appreciate the variety of life, of housing, of jobs being done. Taking new routes to familiar places is a way to immerse myself in this city, to absorb as much as I can of my new home. Because eventually, as with all things, I’ll be busier, and have less time for extra steps. I’ll be focused on other things, and not remember the city I chose to live in the way I thought of it before moving. I won’t remember the Hong Kong of the past few years, where I took Sundays off after long Dongguan weeks. I might not remember the Novotel breakfasts of my business trips. Instead this city will join San Francisco, Houston, Shanghai, Tokyo, New York, Boston, and all the places I’ve lived in my memories. It will be full of friendships and struggles, the ongoing geography of real life.

Today, though, on the tram home, Hong Kong was still firmly in the realm of places I have always wanted to spend more time. And by keeping my eyes open and my mind empty, I’m trying to keep it there for as long as life will let me.

Ease of operation

Looking out

We land in Hong Kong with nine checked bags, which is strangely the most efficient method of transporting the sum of our San Francisco years. Waiting for them I remember other moves, and the challenges of each. Where has the boy gone who left Tokyo with two suitcases, who did not know how to get a taxi or any RMB on landing in Shanghai? What of the boy who left Shanghai with those same two suitcases and two shipped boxes, put on 3 month China Post slow boats destined for Houston? And most of all, what does this mean for the man who has disembarked at this same gate a dozen times over the last two years, carrying a single duffel?

They are all here, these previous selves, well aware of the way we pack when trying to take everything we own on short notice. They are here, in an airport we know so well, watching me maneuver this very full cart down the slight ramp to the taxi stand. They are voices in my head asking how these bags will ever go in a small Hong Kong taxi trunk.

Moving is a test. We test our ability to let go in a way that is painful and educational. We have said goodbye to our friends, to our neighborhood, to our house, to our routines, and to our stuff. Bicycles have been moved, sold, and given away. Art, furniture, kitchen gear and more has been handed off to people who will be able to enjoy them without transporting them more than a few miles. Soon we will part with the car, the bed, and finally the apartment that we’ve loved for the past four years. Moving is an experience filled with sadness, and with uncertainty. By letting go of all these things we are able to make space for new ones, whether that means new apartments or new shoes. And by letting go of our country and our city, at least for now, we are able to discover.

In Hong Kong in early October the weather is beautiful. At seven am, as we struggle with the overloaded carts, it’s a balmy twenty eight C, the humidity not too high. Wearing pants still from the airplane we are already slightly sweaty but able to manage. And we are able to discover how our new home operates.

The fourth vehicle in the taxi queue is a van, and the driver enthusiastically helps us cram all our bags in, guitar and skateboard included. The process, which I’d been dreading since the night before, takes five minutes and then we’re on the road, both in the same car, on our way to the hotel. Having used two separate Lyft rides to get to SFO sharing the taxi is a treat. En route we realize, were we going the other way, Hong Kong to SFO, we could have checked all these bags at Central and ridden the train out to HKG with only our carry ons. From moment one Hong Kong impresses with functionality. All nine checked bags go on a cart at the hotel and are whisked away to a storage room. Moving, even with more stuff than we could carry, isn’t that bad. Two hours after landing we go for a swim in a pool overlooking the harbor, and begin to relax.

As an asthmatic one of the other challenges of moving is procuring medicine. In the US and in Japan inhalers have required a complicated dance of doctors and pharmacies. In China for so long they were available over the counter, only becoming prescription in two thousand seven. So it is with some slight trepidation that I set out to find one on our second day in Hong Kong.

I purchase one after five minutes of looking for a pharmacy in Mongkok, for $93 HKD, or $12 USD. In SF they have cost me $25 for the past two years, with good insurance. No one is quite sure how much extra the insurance company has to pay, on top of my $25. For the second time in two days I’m reminded of why we leave, why we move and challenge ourselves. Without those painful goodbyes, without the long days of packing and worrying, we would never have learned how easy moving can be, and how cheap medication can come.

These examples are mundane, and yet they’re a reminder that what seems daunting isn’t always so, and that taking risks is one way of discovering new joy.

Here then is to the next few months, which will be full of new neighborhoods and first time discoveries. They come at a high cost, one we’ve paid over years, and will bring benefits we have not yet learned to expect.

Get moving

There’s a common thread of conversation among thirty-somethings in San Francisco. It’s a string that connects housing costs, job opportunities, weather, family, and the wider world. Once that thread is found, all conversations head the same direction, to a longer-term plan.

These plans, for all but the most wealthy or locally born, do not involve living in San Francisco.

San Francisco, this city of wealth, tolerance, and beauty, will lose so many of us. This loss is not necessarily to the city’s detriment. It is, however, true, reflected in the recently published statistic on declining number of families with kids within city limits. The cost of housing is the central issue, a massive wealth transfer from those who do not own property to those who were here earlier, and so do. In another way the recurring conversations are hilarious in a sad way: these are conversations between people who have lucked in to hundreds of thousands of dollars but can not secure a place to live.

San Francisco is best thought of as a fountain for humans, in the way New York has been for so long. People come to it on the bottom, fresh out of school, looking for a chance and a career. They rise up and then leave, scattering out like droplets to Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake, Denver, Austin, Boise, and countless smaller or more distant locations. In so many ways the pump of this California fountain is transforming the entire west coast of the United States. The constant outbound migration of those with relative money is changing politics, policies, and, of course, home values. The earnings of California go a long way in Boise, even if the new salary is on a local scale.

None of this is news, none of this is fresh reporting. This is just a summary of every conversation between thirty year olds in San Francisco in the year 2018, where thousands sleep outside and dozens of millionaires are made every year.

And so, of course, the topic of our own plan comes up. Has come up. Has come up for years. Are we buying, are we leaving, where are we going? Nearer to family? Nearer to the mountains, or the forests, or another job? What are we looking for, and what escape route have we hatched in our one bedroom in the Mission, with poop and yelling outside and a furry cat inside?

As the title says, the only way to change is to pick up and start. So we pack, and sell, give away and store the accoutrement of this past decade in the United States. Eight bicycles need to be disposed of, plus sleeping bags, chairs, a climbing pad, and dozens of old ultimate jerseys. Eventually we are down to things like shelves, tables, chairs, the sofa, a rug, and the bed. These large physical elements were bought for this space, and will not go onward with us. They are, mostly, too big to move alone, and without enough clear value to post on craigslist. The obvious solution is to host, one last time, a gathering of humans in this space, to say goodbye to it, to them, and to hope they take some of our objects with them when they leave.

So, on a Saturday in September of twenty eighteen we vacuum and put away the few things we will ship, books, computers, and clothes. And then we throw open the doors and windows and turn up the music. The sun and the breeze pour in as we welcome those who have welcomed us here. As the apartment fills, we relax. So much of the work done, so many of the difficult questions from those frequent conversations have been answered. We no longer have to talk about what we might do, what plan we aspire to, what we are saving for. Instead we can hug our friends and pass on our belongings, certain of the distance between them and our next home.

It is as good a way as any to say goodbye.

Fur drifting

A new season has come to our San Francisco apartment. Like the cottonwood fluff of my childhood, cat fur drifts in small tufts, buffeted by the fan kept on at all hours. Truly warm weather is rare here, and I don’t expect it to stay much into June. Soon Mr. Squish will miss all that soft under fur he has left on the sofa, on the bed, and everywhere else he’s been this week.

Like most good memories of childhood, I’m not sure of the season of cottonwoods, though I remember mowing through grass covered enough to look like snowfall with their white spores. It’s a good memory, now, as I’m safely removed from allergies by time and distance. The cat fur not as much, and I pull it off of my shirt and out of my coffee. Mostly, though, I catch it drifting lazily by, held up by breeze and lingering feline magic. It’s the soft under-stuff that drifts like this, the kind of fur that makes people shocked when they pet Mr. Squish for the first time.

He’s so soft!” they all say. He is, though there are plenty of sharp bits.

Like a rabbit,” some note.

I agree. It’s a luxurious feeling, this cat of long fur that mingles into downy softness. He’s a strange cat, and the fur is definitely a contributor. As Tara says, he really has one job: turning kernels into fur. It’s a responsibility he takes very seriously.

Somehow though this drift doesn’t create much of a reaction in my sinuses, which is why we get along so well, and can share this very furry one bedroom apartment without issue. It’s luck, fate, and probably mostly strange genetics. The furriest cat I’ve ever lived with is also mostly nonallergic. And soft.

As I watch him in the morning, sitting on a stool in the kitchen sniffing the open window, I can see the wind ruffling his fur. Every once in a while the morning breeze causes some to separate, and flutter off out of the kitchen into the hallway. It’s a slow motion, appropriate to the cool San Francisco morning. In the heat of the afternoon he will nap in the sun, and the shedding will be much more active, an intentional reaction to the warm beams.

It’s almost time to vacuum.

Again.

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.

Years go by

The city

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

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

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

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

Trading neighbors

For years we live next to an empty building. It is not abandoned. The owners locked and secured it after having work crews strip out all interior fixtures and structure. As the sun sets over the Sutro we can see through it, just for a moment. The light comes cleanly through a space without doors or walls.

In San Francisco this kind of building is a lure, a place of few intrusions and no residents or office workers to complain. The same tents fill the sidewalk around this building for months at a time. A woman lives on a cooler in its shadow for over a year. Occasionally there are fights in front of it, or yelling matches. Low level harassment on walking by is a daily part of life. The children next door, who play on the street in the evening, do not go around the corner towards that building without larger family.

The cops sweep the street once a month, pushing everyone a few blocks over, a few blocks down. These rotations are no solutions, but they do provide quiet for a week until people begin to drift back to this building that is so clearly ignored. More frequently on our block the DPW crews come, reliable and without complaint, to pick up and sweep away the furniture, bags, clothing, and destroyed bicycle parts that are left along the fence that protects the empty building’s parking lot. These piles of random city trash are a regular scene, but their appearance is sudden. I come home one evening to three chairs and half a tent. They disappear overnight, replaced by two unmatching shoes and half a shirt. These too vanish, and the street is clean for a while. Several days later a cooler, a bag of poop, and half of a VCR arrive. The cycle continues. Sometimes outside I can hear people arguing about one or the other of the items. Eventually, always, only the bag of poop remains.

Suddenly one day in the fall of twenty sixteen the work crews arrive. They drive the large trucks of American dreams and chat outside my window before heading in to the building for work at seven thirty. They are reliable, working six days a week. They wake me up in the morning and are gone before I am home from the office. Other than the jackhammer days and the cement truck days, they are the kind of loud we can accept.

After about a month I notice the secondary benefits of these large men in hard hats and reflective vests.

I hear the window smash while drinking coffee one morning. It’s a common sound that does not grow familiar. The surprising part is what follows: yelling.

Hey, get out of there.”

Get the fuck out of that car.”

Yeah you come back here.”

Hey call the cops.”

The last is followed by the sound of booted footsteps running.

I go outside. The workmen have chased off the would-be thief and retrieved the target, a duffel bag. The car, they tell me, did not belong to any of these workers. Of course not. It is a small Toyota. Patiently the workmen wait for the police and file a report. The cops are as surprised as I was at the situation.

Break-ins grow less common on this block, as do tents. The later has as much to do with the jackhammering as anything.

This is not a story of gentrification. It is instead a story born of being woken at seven on Saturday by the cement truck’s unceasing turn and being unable to sleep again.

These shifts are not a permanent change, of course. Eventually the residents of this block will change again, to what I can not say. For now though I appreciate this rotation.

Or try to, given the noise and the hour.

Moods of light

In December San Francisco feels like fall. The wind whips a little bit, leaves drift in small numbers, and the light fades too early for after-work gatherings in the park. In the north east October is my favorite month, brisk and full of the ending of things. Years since moving here I’ve come to understand December’s similar role in California.

More than wind or chilly weather the difference of the seasons can be felt in the light. San Francisco and the bay are often held up as places with great light, and these are true tales. Being on the edge of the continent, with only the Pacific beyond, grants spectacular sunsets. Being a place of fog gives the bay constant rainbows and lends the air a depth rare in human cities with air this clean. And being built on hills and peninsulas gives the area plenty of views, plenty of landmarks to watch and watch from. On our roof on wet evenings the cat and I sometimes watch all these elements combine, the Sutro tower fading into the oncoming fog while pink sunset lights the clouds above and the towers of the financial district reflect the colors back like mirrors. San Francisco is a beautiful city, and the bay an amazing gift.

In December, just returned home from Singapore and Indonesia, the fall weather is exciting. Leaves outside my office have changed colors and litter the walkway in golds and bronzed oranges. The constant drip of rain is a comfort, and the cold refreshes our bodies while never dipping below freezing or truly preventing activity. Yes, December is a lot like October in New York, and I am glad to feel it return, especially after the weeks of constant sweat near the equator.

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.

Making do

The best SF sunset

For years we have lived temporarily in our own home. The furniture we sat on, the dressers and containers that held our clothes, and the bed in which we slept all came from craigslist encounters or friends’ departures. Some of these items were acquired when we lived in the Sunset, from 2009 to 2012, and some in the Richmond from 2012 to 2014. Only a few were found for this small set of blue rooms in the Mission, our current space.

Having moved to San Francisco in the back of a car, we held on for years to the impermanence of our possessions. These things are not what we would have chosen, we said, if starting from scratch. And yet they were, as we had done exactly that. Our car, packed in 2009 from the remnants of our Houston apartment, contained scant items: mostly clothes, no furniture. Not even, as I was reminded for years, much in the way of cookware. Only the possessions we’d count on for travel, that we’d need on the road.

In two thousand sixteen we are again on the road, but with fewer and fewer of our belongings each time. Instead friends stay in our apartment and comfort our cat in our absences, and the house does not sit empty. The cat, we hope, appreciates these visitors. As for us, we are happy to house others and to share our space. The need to welcome drives us to clean up our belongings both before and after travel. I like to leave having hidden all signs of our daily lives in closets and cupboards. The memory of rolling my futon every day in Yonohommachi, so many years ago now, drives my rituals still.

And yet we are here in San Francisco more than ever too, in a city we chose and yet never discussed remaining. Assembling Ikea furniture late last week I looked around the house, covered with boxes and wooden pieces. Two years in this small apartment is quite definitely home. I wonder if this is how the cat, now almost four,  feels, or if he wants new places and things to explore.

All this is to say we have made changes, finally. After six years we have moved past making do into making, into decorating and designing for our space. This change is not only for ourselves. Much of it is for the most common resident, our furry companion. He has a new rug, larger than his old mat, and a new hideaway to enjoy. Some part of this final set of lamps and dressers is for him as well; they are taller and with better places to perch. I always worry he will tire of these four walls, of our small home, no matter how well-appointed. I catch him some times sniffing at the front door, longing, I imagine, for summer evenings on the rooftop as the sunset lingers and Tara sings.

Soon,” I tell him, a word that is both a promise and an acceptance of the speed of these years.

Twelve paws

For a few moments tonight, in the heat of a late San Francisco evening, our entire family was in the tub.

On hot days we fill it with cold water, just an inch or two to cool the feet. It’s a cheap means of refreshment. We leave it like this all day, and frequent it between projects. Sometimes we catch each other standing quietly in the tub in the dark reading something on our phones. This is modern life, combining fast internet and rising temperatures.

Today, relaxing at home on the first weekend of the off season, we taught Mr. Squish our trick. As cats go he’s comfortable in water, a result of taking baths twice a month since he was very small. In hot weather he minds them less, the drying process being a benefit rather than a hassle. Today he took a cold shower, a more recent discovery. He padded around in the simulated rain quite content for a full five minutes before deciding he was done.

And so this evening in our dark apartment, lit only by the purple LED christmas lights that we are certain cause no heat, we all stood for a few moments in the tub, twelve paws together in the cool water. We humans crouched to put our hands in too, and the cat sniffed our faces. After a first aborted try Mr. Squish seemed to understand. He waited patiently with us until the chill seeped up his legs and into his body.

It’s a good way to spend a Sunday together, I think: lying on the floor in front of the fan and then standing in the bathtub. And then standing, slightly damp, in front of the fan, eight dripping sets of prints leading from one to the other.

Weekends off

For the first time in two and a half months, Saturday is a quiet one that begins in my own bed. I wake late, fold laundry, buy groceries, and relax with the cat. San Francisco is beautiful today. The Sutro Tower is obscured by fog before noon.

In the afternoon I walk for an hour along Valencia, looking for nothing. Alone for the weekend I am trying to rebuild my sense of self after weeks on the road. Since the last quiet weekend post in March I’ve spent weeks as a ghost in hotels, visiting old friends on days off in Shanghai, and watching my cat on video chat instead of on the sofa.

It’s a strange life, being myself like that in the odd corners between hours of work, in odd locations between hours of travel. Now in one place for a few months I am trying to figure out how to be more Wil and less someone else, trying to remember what it is I like to do, when given free time. It’s a slow process.

As the sky darkens the fireworks begin. The Mission comes alive, people out on all corners with sparklers and small rockets. Feeling the blasts begin I think of Chinese New Year in two thousand five, and of the fourth in Colorado in two thousand nine.

In between fireworks I take the cat to the roof. He is curious, and loves the wind. It’s foggy, the fireworks dull pops of color against the murky sky. I love this weather. He sniffs the air and watches the flashes intently, not sure of their origin. How to explain fireworks to a cat? Flashes of light made by people, shot into the air for fun? A M80 goes off on our block, and his opinion changes instantly. Claws out wide and muscles tense he tries to jump out of my arms. I hold him tight to avoid scratches. Slowly I set him down, and he disappears into the stairwell, heading down. A moment later he re-appears, curiosity winning over fear, sniffing and looking out from the safety of the doorway.

Boom

He is gone. I find him a few minutes later, under the bed. He won’t come out for several hours, until the strange banging dies down and people go home.

Happy fourth of July Mr. Squish.

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.

Jet lag

Four am and my body is awake. Next door a small gathering is winding down, Saturday night enthusiasm giving slowly way to Sunday morning acceptance of the week to come. Laughter and chatter slip through the cracked window above my bed. Combined with the sense of Asian afternoon in my brain and there is no return to sleep. The cat is snuggled tight against my leg, so happy to have his people home again after almost a month abroad.

A month abroad. No wonder my soul has no roots. Eight border crossings in the first ten days. Four countries and seven cities, several of them multiple times. No surprise then as it starts to rain that my body does not know where we are. In the past month it has heard and felt rain in Hong Kong, in Bohol, in Dongguan, and in Tokyo. Now, hearing the patter on the same neighbor’s roof, I hear all of those cities, and feel at home in none.

Filling out customs forms a few weeks back, towards the end of the busiest portion of travel, I had to stop at the home address line and think carefully. Our address in San Francisco, this apartment I am in now, filled with the sound of neighbors and rain, with furry cat and wood floors, no longer came immediately to mind.

Small wonder that, another two weeks on, my soul has not yet found its way back across the Pacific to my body.

In the evenings here, after the sun has set so early, I sit and read for hours. Only after dinner, after cleaning up, feeding the cat and locking doors, do I suddenly wonder what the person who used to live here would have done on this Tuesday. The person who used to live here being myself, in July. Before travel, I almost write, but by July I’d spent three weeks abroad, post injury. Who would he call, this past self, for dinner or adventure? Where would he go after work, in the early hours of the evening? Wondering these things I go to sleep at nine thirty, at ten, to wake at four.

We haven’t seen you in forever,” say friends, when I remember to call those I used to share meals with, climb with, throw with, or watch baseball with. Their claims resonate and I struggle to remember our last conversations, apologize for my confusion, and relax into silence, letting others talk.

Yet in the past month I have not been alone. I have seen so many friends in so many places. I have eaten, drank, and played with friends first met in Tokyo in 2002, in Shanghai or Manila in 2004, and all over Asia in the years since. The world is rich for me, in all directions, but my vision is blurry. Jetlagged to the core I remember so many things, but can share little, save in these strange hours without sleep.

The city enables

In the past year I slept in thirty five different zip codes. At an average of one every ten days, not accounting for length of stay or multiple visits, the pace of life becomes clear. San Francisco may be my home, or more accurately it may be my home base.

Thirty five is by no means a record for humans. There are those who travel daily, who work or live on multiple continents. I also do not see this as a great gift. This number of beds simply reflects a job and a kind of life. This much travel certainly does affect my connection to any place, and would anyone’s. By changing how often we are home and what we think of home when we arrive, how much we value down time anywhere as opposed to down time somewhere. Unpacking this week I threw clothes on top of clothes and went off again, if only for hours. Today I will sort them, wash them, fold them and stow the memories of where we were last week, where we were the week before.

San Francisco has all the makings of a good home base. SFO is an excellent airport with non-stop connections domestically and internationally. Situated on the edge of a continent, and on the edge of a major economy, the city gives access both deeper in to the US and farther out, to Asia, Australia and beyond. By being a port it hosts not just airplanes, but boats, ships, and the occasional train. By being a center of innovation and corporate development it receives attention from the global media, communications companies, and infrastructure investments from service providers. Because it is in California, the weather is often fair and rarely horrible.

The downsides are usually a product of that success, and occasionally of the location. Because of the weather, fog sometimes shuts down the airport and often curtails the warmth of evenings. Because of the small size and popularity, rents range from expensive to outlandish, meaning even poor dwellings are hotly contested. Because of California’s strange government the public transit, safety, and education could all be better, while taxes are high, for the US. Because of the hills, walking and biking are harder than in many places, and the clique-like nature of the various neighborhoods is enhanced. Likewise, because of the hills, cellular service varies from excellent to non-existent within a span of blocks.

Yet in some ways San Francisco feels too easy, feels too comfortable. The weather does not threaten, and while earthquakes remain a danger they are too unpredictable to guide daily life. Seasons do not have the same urgency, with summer the gloomiest time of year. Likewise the affluence of young people in this startup-fueled culture gives much of the city a surreal air, with expensive restaurants featuring wait lists two days after opening.

Still, sitting down town in the rain, waiting for a meeting, I realize the benefits of being based here, in one of the major coastal cities in the US, with excellent food and transit links, with a massive base of capital and culture, education and talent. 

It’s a good place to live. As much as I’m here, anyway.

Shanghai again, forever

Like that, I am back. After six months of travel, work, and daily life I board an airplane, transfer, and return to Shanghai. The ritual of packing, driving to SFO, boarding, and drifting through Asiana’s in-flight movies is strangely comforting, as is the coffee in Seoul early in the morning a day later. With fast internet and quick transfers, Incheon represents a stepping stone, a brief pause to consider my final destination. And to say goodbye to the unrestricted internet, to the wider world.

The first few days on the ground in Shanghai are always a blur. PVGs strangely dark carpets, the inspection line and HSBC ATM. Baggage and the first feel of local weather. The taxi’s new route, on the middle ring road that didn’t exist when I lived here. Flashing traffic cams and billboards. In the dust of evening the outline of Pudong’s towers. And then at last, after hours in the air and in Seoul, after the strange discomfort of sleeping in jeans while seated, the tight familiar streets of Puxi and real Shanghai. Baozi and soda water or gatorade and mi xian in my old neighborhood. A SIM card from the subway station shop and divestiture of bags in a waiting apartment. Eventually a walk to a bar with old friends.

Like everyone, I have fond memories of the places I grew up. Lansing. Vassar. Boston, where I lived in 2000. New York City, on longer and shorter stays of varying life impact. Tokyo. And Shanghai. More than any, Shanghai. At 33 here I am again. Here it seems I more than anywhere return, six times in the past five years. In this city I am content to anchor on, in visits and jobs, long after I’ve moved away. Shanghai again. Forever.

I wonder so often at those who have left and not returned, gone four, five, or ten years. What would they think of the city now? Where would they look to stay, again in this rebuilt metropolis? For me the memories are thick and yet too distant. I wish we could again bowl in that strange place north of Jing’An, that we could again find solace in cheap pints in the Hut.

Two weeks later I am leaving Shanghai again but not forever. In a few hours this trip will blur into others. It will become just one more strange variation, one more series of long evening walks and quiet train rides. As for the people here, we deal and live, trade stories of our time apart and move on. More than anything we become friends and say goodbye. Over and over, to old faces and new, for a decade now.

On this trip I’ve eaten noodles with friends and taxi drivers, wandered Puxi late at night, played frisbee and seen countless factories. I’ve remembered how much Chinese I know and how much I’ve forgotten. And now I will move on in the rush of a modern life, next Monday to Miami. Shanghai will recede and new objectives arise, but the few weeks here will serve as a reminder of how good life can be when cut free from the current of every day and anchored instead in a city of 20 million that I know so well. That we, collectively, have lived in and come home to for so long.

Writing these words I look around. Pudong airport is falling apart a bit, rotting in the concrete way, in the way of dirty air and humidity, of a lack of maintenance. I’ve been here dozens of times, on the top deck of T2, getting coffee in a tucked-away spot with a view. After napping in the taxi for 45 minutes on the ride out. Out till 3, up at 7, 8. Out of the apartment at 9 and in Pudong shortly later. Early, to have time to remember.

Two weeks later the sentences I wrote on arrival perform the same magic as always, the magic that makes me write. Boston is in the news. I am making plans to return to Tokyo. And the last night in Shanghai was spent in a new bar with old friends, folk who have like myself returned again.

The bar was new but the building old, familiar. The last establishment inside those walls was the Hut of this post’s opening. It was convenient in those years, the pub behind a good friend’s apartment and a block or two from mine. Now the two of us meet in Brooklyn and reminisce about its cheap drinks and over-ripe peanuts. On my last night the new name and fancier drinks could not disguise the location. Stories of the past decade came easily to all of us.

From the heat of Miami I try to recall my earlier visits to Shanghai, since leaving in two thousand eight. Being sent to a city in a country not my own for business is an incredible opportunity, something I have always wanted. Being able to stay with friends, being trusted to plan my own travel and produce my own results, those are the perks that make it better than I had imagined, better than I’d experienced before.

And landing in Shanghai may always feel like coming home.

Homes belonging

In a span of weeks I am in a variety of homes belonging to good friends rather than landlords, occupied by owners rather than tenants. It is an exhausting tour of small neighborhoods and cities I may one day inhabit. Returned at last to our apartment north of the park in San Francisco I think mostly of the difference between here and all of those homes.

In Santa Monica to begin I have a spare key, a room and seclusion from the week day bustle. From this cool comfort I work, computer on my lap, and give thanks for the privacy, the lack of a commute. Having a home in a city not one’s own is a key step for this would-be global wanderer. Having one well situated is an even greater boon, with coffee near at hand and the airport an affordable taxi. In Santa Monica when my hosts come home I close the laptop and prepare for dinner. My Haro, pulled from the rafters of their garage, needs air and dusting, and then we are off.  For both my belongings and my body their home is a quiet spot safe from all the city, traffic, and heat.

In Portland on a Monday the house sits on a corner lot, the mulch newly laid. Gorgeous in the long days of June it is a work in progress. The bathroom sink, I am told upon entering, does not work. The kitchen sink does, and we share it each morning in between teeth brushing and work. The hole in the wall between closet and kitchen is a visual problem my friend, an architect, assures me, not a usability one. I concur, and sleep well. Bus lines are close at hand, as is a coffee shop to work from. A spare bike caries me to dinner with a huge group of friends from China. Lingering downstairs in the evening he points out planned points of improvement, the next place to repair.

In New Jersey after a long drive the houses are also under construction. One has an addition growing beside it, about to break through, and in one the downstairs is in various stages of spackle, flooring, and paint.

Most of the electricity is done,” I’m told.

After this room is painted it’s basically finished.”

Tomorrow I’ll knock through the wall here for the duct work.”

These are the projects of my peers, the weekends and money sinks of couples already married, about to be, still tentative. We sit over dinner and discuss mortgages, we sit over wine and plan weddings, we bicycle to beers and talk furniture styles, long term commitments.

After this string of visits I fly home to my Fit and my kitten, to my apartment, ultimate team, and companion. In so many ways the two of us are part of the decisions of our age. We share solutions and discuss options with these friends and others, in Portland, in Montana, in St. Louis and New York.

Yet in this sphere of property, of homes belonging to those under forty we remain visitors, grateful for the spare bedrooms, bicycle options, and permanent addresses. As yet untethered by projects of such scope we elope on weekends to the Russian River, for weeks to Japan. We are settled and yet not fixed, comfortable but not permanent, and the ownership of property remains at a distance, with no clear path between.

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.

Unpacking and re

With each new home there come a hundred secrets: the ancient heater’s grate just wide enough for bathroom reading collections, the key to a gate never closed.  Like all those before it this apartment has a legacy of ghosts I do not know, people whose decisions painted these walls, put in this air conditioner, removed that socket.  Opening each closet and cupboard merely to discover their shape I can feel them a year from now, gradually giving up their contents to moving boxes.  There are so many versions of myself because there are so many houses to fill and empty.

In a box packed years before by a boy forced out of his home after graduation there lies a set of keys on a simple ring.  No label or familiar shape hints at their purpose, long abandoned and far off.  Vague recollections whisper of campus buildings and security doors, of late-night raids and back entrances.  That party thrown in a squash court, dj and tables smuggled in long after the staff had gone home, complete with disco ball and sock-footed dancers?  One of these keys, quite possibly.  Long evenings spent in offices of theaters now demolished or refurbished?  Perhaps some subset of these keys.  Missing are the electric cart keys, used one glorious night under the hot pursuit of campus security.  Those keys were singled out and passed down, so that the freedom and the danger they presented would remain available long after their original discoverer” had gone.  This ring of nameless keys could be anything, their possibilities suggested only by memories of past abilities long lost.  Perhaps instead they open houses since vacated in cities up and down the eastern seaboard.  Or bicycle locks long made pointless by more dedicated thieves.  Uncertain as to which of these sets of keys he holds, the man tasked with sorting out this box of remnants consigns them to the trash, their history invisible and gone.

The act of settling in is really two separate reconciliations, that of the un-needed and the now necessary.  A swipe card for Shanghai’s metro system, carried for years behind the driver license, is removed and consigned to a folder of remnants.  In its place goes a shoppers card for a grocery store with an unfamiliar name.  Sifting through that folder, that box, I discover remnants kept safe for so long because of the same words.  Maybe one day,” I say, pulling that Shanghai card from my wallet.  It settles beside my Suica from Tokyo, unused since 2003, and my gaijin card, kept as a memento rather than turned over to the authorities as I exited the country.  Sometimes I am smarter, and there is no card, my Octopus from Hong Kong passed on to a friend on his way there.  Bank cards, from Tokyo, Shanghai, Ithaca, airline cards from days of belief in frequent flier programs, bank books from countries where they mean everything, all these pieces of places have traveled with me to this new house, where they are unpacked into a dresser drawer and ignored for months.  In the summer I suspect I will pack them again, adding pieces acquired in Houston, in this apartment that shakes with the neighbors’ joy and fills with the breeze of oncoming storms.  There are badges, pins, free-drink punch cards and gift cards for coffee shops I used to bike to, or walk past, or work near.  These are replaced in my bag by the cardboard cup holders of Rice’s student Coffee house, cycled endlessly for $1 off my ninth drink.  When I leave I am sure there will be one half-punched, and one of the first decisions for the folder in our new home will be whether to keep it.

Houses hold each person’s secrets, comfortable with their inhabitants even for a short while.  The desk I write at, nailed to the wall at window height to provide a standing view, will be removed and the holes plastered over when we leave, the amount of time spent in this corner invisible to the next occupant.  Looking around, at our black chairs and wooden stools, I imagine a sofa, a television, the belongings of previous iterations.  Not particularly unique possessions to consider, yet odd uses there were, I am sure.  In this house I have secreted a pile of foreign currency, not for the financial stability but for the pleasure of discovering it when we depart, a roll of Philippine pesos, Thai baht and Korean won.  Did we pick the same hiding place for cash, those other tenants and I?  Hard to imagine, unless they too favored the spare towels closet.

Where do these choices come from, the places that feel right for each object?  Wanting them by the door I am forever moving the scissors from their home near the fridge.  When asked why I require cutting tools immediately accessible upon entry I have no answer, and they return, grudgingly, to the other drawer.  These curious habits that seem to have no ancestor may indeed be the apartment, or may be tied to some other similar kitchen I have lived in.  That idea appeals, that all these houses, which bear the marks of generations of use may likewise leave echoes on their tenants.  The secrets of each home accumulate in us, so that, moving constantly, we are shaped by the growing trail of places we no longer inhabit.

Moving

In the middle of January I return to Ithaca.  In the last year the flight has shrunk from a day to scant hours and there is no great lag, of time or spirit.  This is good, as I have come to carry heavy things, tables, books, and shelving.  The weather is of a degree I am not familiar with in recent years.  Shanghai freezes on occasion, but mostly it chills and drips, like Tokyo with worse insulation.  Houston, yesterday, touched seventy eight degrees in the scale of F, a temperature completely out of place next to the word January in the mind of a child from New York.  Still, I packed knowing the weather and am not surprised by it, shedding layers as I enter the house and pulling them on again to carry boxes and sofas out to waiting trucks and trailers.

I last saw this house in summer, the lush green of August that allows the land to flourish.  It is a decade, more, since I lived here in the winter, and the hibernation of plants and people is one forgotten thing among many.  The others come to light in boxes and odd drawers that empty into piles: give away, trash, keep and store, keep and take.  The choices for each pile are not immediately obvious as books scrounged out of local sales over years go into a box destined for a similar sale.  This is not a new process, the gradual parceling out of my childhood possessions.  Every visit for the past five years has involved some small measure of re-evaluating and re-packing.  By the end of this visit I will be down to three boxes, four, that are too heavy to fly with.

Yet slimming down my childhood collections is not why I came.  The move is not mine, the boxes left in my closet are a tiny subset of what this house has stored for so long.  The room I left them in is no longer really mine either, though it once was.  The cat that prowls the halls late at night, asking for some favor of doors opened or closed, is not the one that I woke to on school mornings, rough tongue licking my face.  My brother’s dog still ambles around the property, and I watch his aching joints, slow on the snow and ice, wondering what he will think of his new urban home.  For, children grown, my parents have little need of this yard and stream, the rolling hills that surround, and the two cars that maintain this old schoolhouse in the countryside.  Grown myself, neither do I, though all of us take our time, these last few nights, to walk the dog slowly up the hill away from traffic and houses until the stars shine bright.  As we leave with a full trailer, probably my last visit, Orion sits above the roof, each point distinct, a level of crispness we will not have such easy access to again.

We can always drive out of town to see them, my father notes.  And in that sentence is the central point.  In many ways this is a move signaling the end of our automobiles.  It is not the end of the automobile, which will endure for quite some time, entrenched both in popular culture and our own lives.  But it is an example, just one point on a curve of human motion that is swinging back to smaller circles.  Premature, perhaps, to say that the suburbs are dead, that cities like Phoenix and Houston, massive car-driven sprawls, will not continue to thrive.  They will for many years, until the oil runs out, and perhaps beyond.  Many years, I say, meaning 2030, the end-of-oil date in recent BP projections.  Yet we do not pack this house as a means of defeating the automobile, or the mobile society it spawned.  We pack this house, books and artwork, quilts and old costumes, because life is a transient thing.  Despite feelings of permanence, people inhabit each space but briefly, even those who seem to have been here forever, old History professors and groundskeepers, families with ties to the Mayflower.  We are in motion, all of us, and this house which held one family for twenty plus years was a home, but only one, as the term reveals.

In the twelve years since seventeen I have lived in fourteen other rooms, houses, or apartments.  Some of them were but brief stops, some were places where I in turn welcomed scores of visitors over the years.  The house we are packing, built more than a century ago by fathers from the neighborhood to house their children’s school, has held only a handful of families in the years since its repurposing.  We are not the first and will not be the last.  This knowledge makes it easier for me, understanding our place in the structure’s history.  It is the only home my family ever knew, all of us together, and will remain so, my brother and I long since departed.

The new house welcomes, and friends arrive from all over to help settle my parents in.  Some of them recall helping on their earlier move, all those years before, to the countryside from an apartment only a few blocks from this new house.  I remember moving around Shanghai, my last apartment in 08 near enough my first in 04 that I could return to the dumpling shop I’d favored that first freezing winter.  Despite the decades between, my parents remember the neighborhood’s appeal, as I did a world away.  They return to it and are welcomed by a dozen friends who help unload, a good sign after so long.

We are all in motion, grateful for each home in turn.

Home again

Four years later, the house looks much the same.  There are numerous improvements, small patches and big repairs, redecorations and removed annoyances, but most of it remains.  Fewer trees in some directions and more in others.  The second red maple is almost as tall as the first, though not as full.  The white trees are almost gone, though a new one rises at the edge of the dog yard.  A huge stand of cottonwoods at the end of the lawn pitched over in the winter, the base eaten away by the creek.  The dog is older, a golden retriever going silver at the end of his life.  He sleeps most days on the grass outside the front door, content to be left alone in the sun.  The cat, a wild kitten in two thousand four, is a mature hunter, constantly depositing baby squirrels, mice, and birds on the back porch as trophies.  The neighborhood, blocked by August’s rich foliage, is much the same too, farm houses that have stood for a hundred years easily enduring my lifetime.

As always, the fast changing part is the people.  Marriages, births, deaths, and movings on.  Most of the people I knew haven’t lived here in a decade, the same as myself.  Yet at every corner I remember their lives.  A childhood playmate, a middle school battery mate, a teacher I had in high school.  Their houses, if not the people themselves, remind me of the place I lived, and the person I was.  Like Shanghai had begun to be, Lansing and Ithaca are filled with memories.

I take a longer route down to the inlet park, purely for the view, and remember leaning out of windows waving as others drove me similarly.  The choice is slightly dramatic, hundreds of other trips passed this way with little to recall them to me.  In that memory are people long gone, both from me and from this planet, and the air, hot at the end of August but with the slightest inkling of fall, is similar.  We were young, or younger, and still only half sure how brief our time would be.  A decade later I smile and admire the view our parents moved here after seeing.  Their choice is still a good one.

My friends are long gone, yet they return.  Like the rock that was a planet once, our orbits are eccentric, our distance from each other and this valley varies.  So on this August afternoon I find myself playing frisbee with one of my oldest friends, looking out at the inlet between points.  Across the way is a set of trees I used to climb in on Saturdays, at an age older than the children that inhabit them currently.  Walking out along the horizontal branches, balanced above the water, I would watch this shore, its flat green grass and jogging trails.

A week later I return, not to these fields or inlet but to the city, to the hills surrounding it.  Another friend, as if from the afternoon’s damp air, appears.   Four years are suddenly bridged, I am in for a single night, he only three, and both of us then away again.  Air travel grants the most mysterious meetings, Philadelphia Houston Massachusetts Hawaii and at the crossing point of those two paths our home town, for a beer at a bar far older than either of us.

Many things have changed, it’s true, and heading back is often deceiving.  The mall looks outwardly the same but contains so few stores half is roped off in the evening.  My parents house, the only one I ever knew, is fixed mostly for a move.  The people, though, who swing far out into seas and over them, who marry dance and die, they are not at such remove as that, and can occasionally be brought back.