Reprieve

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting times

Hospital view

From the hospital bed I can see the tops of towers. The dawn sun rises over the green hill behind them, a slow brightening of the world and my room. The view feels odd, perhaps due to the painkillers and lack of sleep, or perhaps due to the world. With little to do until the doctor’s rounds around nine, I work on relaxing each part of my body, starting with the lungs. This slowing of each portion is my way of putting myself back to sleep. It’s an ability formed in the childhood years of asthma attacks but not truly appreciated until years later, when healing other injuries. Now it is as comforting as anything, and I doze restlessly until seven, when the phone rings. My painkillers are on an eight am and eight pm cycle, at least the pill ones, and so by seven I’m beginning to miss them. The IV drip is noticeably not enough alone.

On the other end of the phone my boss is on his way home, in San Francisco. The all-encompassing virus is mandating work from home, and life, in his description, sounds even more surreal than I already feel. A few moments into our conversation, after the pleasantries, he lets me know it’s no longer an employer/ee relationship. The rest of the conversation is cordial, save for the growing ache in my shoulder. Eventually it ends, and I wait in the almost daylight for the nurse to bring relief. I have nothing else to do.

The end of things, I have written, comes suddenly, but without terrible surprise. So it feels this time, the echoes of one startup’s failure have lingered into the chances of the next in my mind, so that I am not surprised. In fact the similarities are so specific that that the differences are what disappear, and I feel uncertain of many things. Luckily I have little to do but breathe and try to sleep, and a shoulder worth of pain to distract my brain from deeper thoughts.

Fear not

In times of panic so too are there moments of clarity. In Hong Kong a run on face masks is underway. Queues form at the whisper of some for sale, and stretch in circles around entire blocks, until the store of rumored provisions is entirely hidden behind the line of people waiting to learn if it is true. Walking past, those who have not yet caught the fear are confused, wondering if a concert or some other promotion, a tax break, a refund or discount sale is occurring. Have they missed out?

They have missed out on fear, though fear is an easy companion to find. Fear, in this case, is born in a Chinese city and exported world-wide. Fear is a thing that will keep us apart, more than wars, poverty, or the fact that the act of travel destroys our environment. As governments have known for centuries, fear is a great human motivator. It also gets plenty of press, and so I try not to take notice, not to share. When asked if I am afraid, if living in Hong Kong is dangerous, is risky, is scary, makes me nervous, I reply it does not, it should not, it will not. A place like Hong Kong brings joy, brings adventure, brings friendship and a great sense of accomplishment, but it does not bring fear.

And so I do not queue for masks, nor toilet paper, trusting in the global supply chains I help build to recover faster without my additional pressure. Neither, though, do I mock those who do, because fear, once uncovered, is a difficult worry to shake. So to those sending their domestic helpers to stand in long queues for fear of missing out on some newly short commodity, I understand. Being trapped in an office and unable to respond makes us more eager to act and more vulnerable to the whimsy of social media shares. Unable to prove, from the confines of a desk, whether the world is really running out does create uncertainty, does give rise to fear.

If you are short TP I have extra,” reads the text from my friend, unasked for.

All we can do is take care of each other.

Waiting for the train

Unuma station

Standing on a train platform outside Gifu I take stock of how far we’ve come. Far not in the sense of two about to be three trains this morning from Nagoya airport, or even the one flight from HKG prior. Nor do I mean far in that this is our fourth trip to Japan in twenty nineteen. Far in the sense I meant when I volunteered to live in the happening world.

I’ve come to recognize the burst of confusion that comes with this heightened motion. After forgetting my Guandong hotel room number twice my first trip with my last job, a whirlwind tour of sixteen suppliers in four days, I’ve become more careful. I pack lighter, of course, and with more regular repetition, to ease the memory requirements. And I try, always, to require less.

On Saturdays the train we are waiting for comes every thirty minutes, so we have some time to think. We stand on the platform in the shade and eat bread from a shop at the last train station, washing it down with tea from a vending machine. There are a few locals also waiting, though most have read the train schedule and will walk up to the platform closer to the train’s arrival. This station is of an older era, where tickets can be bought en route in cash, not just by Suica at the upstairs gates. The station is quiet save for a through train that clatters past on the center tracks without slowing. This is a diesel line and the train’s exhaust doesn’t help the heat. Early September is still warm here, though nothing like the heat of August in Tokyo.

Landing this morning in Nagoya Tokyo felt like a long time ago. Thinking back to that rooftop in Hatsudai is what started this reflection on pace. Since we were in Tokyo, the last time I wrote here, I have been to Taiwan. It was my first time in the country, seeing a Taipei night market, having lunch in the mountains to the north, and then wandered Taichung the following evening. Since we were in Tokyo I have also spent most of a week working in San Francisco, riding Jump bikes to the office and climbing gym. Since Tokyo, I’ve spent five separate days in Shenzhen and Dongguan, days of walking borders and visiting suppliers. All these places, not yet correctly memorized or considered, I’ve seen since our trip to Tokyo that is both the prior post and exactly one month ago.

Cue the happening world.

These bursts of motion come with the start of new things. Since the last unexpected end I’ve been in motion more than not, leaving behind a list of adventures that seems absurd when recounted. As my first summer in Asia since two thousand eight, I’m enjoying the luxury of short flights and high speed train rides more than long trans-Pacific loops. Yet I’ve done those too, three times since June. As records go I can’t yet tell where twenty nineteen will end in places slept, but I know how it will feel: like the blur of motion.

I still love the Shinkansen. For this boy from New York, the first Shinkansen was a miracle, something pulled fully realized out of an alternate world. Riding the new high speed rail link between Kowloon and Shenzhen at least once a week now, I appreciate it just as much. Fifteen minutes to Shenzhen rather than the previous hour is quite a change. An hour and a half direct link to Shaoguan is amazing. The speed, ease, and comfort with which we transition from place to place remains the same kind of miracle it was at eighteen. In this way it has been a gift, these past weeks, to go on a small tour of the region’s high speed rail lines. I’ve ridden Taiwan’s line from Taipei to Taichung and back. I took the China high speed rail from Hong Kong to Shanghai, and the original Shinkansen line from Osaka to Tokyo, all since July. Finishing this piece in Osaka again, I can now add the Shinkansen from Nagoya to Osaka to the list, the same line as a month prior in the opposite direction.

As with many things, it turns out the alternate world that I discovered at eighteen wasn’t some fantasy place of imagination. It was simply a country that invested in non-car transportation infrastructure. To my delight there are several such places within easy reach of our new home.

Which is the largest change from earlier moments where I felt part of the happening world. I no longer bust down broken streets in LA in a borrowed Mini, nor do I drive hours along the border highway just east of Tijuana. Instead I walk down the dusty streets of Bao’an to the new line 11 metro stop, and then transfer at Futian to the high speed rail back to Hong Kong.

There are cars, of course, like the one that will retrieve me shortly for a visit to a factory outside Osaka. Cars have not disappeared, but their role has shrunk so much in this new life. They now serve as occasional connectors between rail and factory, factory and hotel.

Living, as we do, in a world where lists of places seen and slept are a bundle of cities that do not share countries, it’s the long-term trends that stand out, not each individual place. On my second visit to this Osaka hotel I know where the subway entrances are. This summer I have been to San Francisco three times and only in cars as a means of exiting the airport or crossing the Bay Bridge. Once again the metal chariot is not gone, the age of the automobile is not over. There is a different way, though, and we’re finding it, while remaining all the while in constant motion.

Cue again the happening world.

Worth remembering

Rooftop view

Tokyo,” I answer. The question was where I’d like to turn 40. Of course Tokyo.

Our lives are brief windows into the world, and we manage only a smidgeon of the possible. Places learned when young remain outsized in memory, our early experiences more important, larger, than recent events. So, of course, Tokyo.

The first time I saw it, the week before my 18th birthday, Tokyo was already changing my life. That trip, a gift from a family friend, was my first real glimpse of the world outside the US, and enabled me to say yes to the post-college move back, at 22.

Turning 40 is an excuse to gather people to a city I love, to celebrate something both personal and utterly universal. Mostly, it’s a way to remember that boy turning 18 here, reading the Stand and operating with limited language. A week in Tokyo without goals, with no objectives or destinations, is an invitation to the deluge of memories from birthdays in two thousand two and three, turning 23 and 24. I remember, scant days before arriving, how I used to give presents to those who came to my birthdays, Bilbo Baggins style. And so I do, picking out small things that I love about Japan for each guest. It’s an excuse to wander Tokyu Hands, to consider who is coming, and to consider where we are.

I am lucky this time, and so many people have agreed to join us, from San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, New York, and Singapore. As these friends gather to our rented apartment I am shocked at the joy each arrival brings. Shocked not because I didn’t expect to be joyful but because I hadn’t understood in the planning stages how much joy sharing Tokyo with these people would bring. For this boy born in the rural hills of the US North East, Tokyo remains the perfect city. It combines incredible transportation with utter foreignness, huge crowded centers with quiet side streets. More than any place I know, Tokyo rewards wandering, with small shops, shrines, and beauty scattered across an urban tapestry of such scale as to be infinite. Tokyo, in many ways, is proof of what humans can build, as opposed to what we so often do.

On this trip we rent bicycles for the first time and reap the rewards of this most human scale of transportation, meandering from Hatsudai to Naka Meguro on small streets and through new neighborhoods. We bike to Shimo Kitazawa and back and are immediately lost. These kind of odd adventures are enjoyable only on bicycle, with the ability to cover large distances, stop easily, and never be too tired to manage one more side street.

As a way to welcome a new decade the week is perfect, filled with old friends and new memories. Seth takes us for whisky at the New York Bar that once housed Bill Murray, a foray inaccessible in our early twenties. A large group of us have drinks at the tiny 10cc, enjoying newfound comfort in a neighborhood that intimidated the younger version of myself. We stand on the rooftop of our apartment and watch Mt. Fuji as the sun sets. We take the Yurikamome line back over the rainbow bridge from Odaiba and Toyosu, artificial lands of the late boom now comfortably part of the present day. We eat in Ginza and Ikebukuro, in Harajuku and Hatsudai, together and separately. Some discover crème brûlée shaved ice and others revel in okonomiyaki, and no one goes hungry. Mostly we wander far and wide, on foot and by train, in the best fashion of unplanned vacation.

Watching my friends spend the week sharing their favorite parts of Tokyo and discovering new treasures is the best kind of present, one that makes my heart bigger. At the end of the week, on the Narita Express, I watch the skyline drift past and try to lock down all the memories, to remember each day, sure that I will forget the joy too quickly. Mostly though I think of the boy who once turned eighteen here, and who first took this train.

He would be so happy to know that at forty he will share Tokyo with his friends.

The global language

Atletico Madrid, up 1-0 twenty six minutes in, is switched for Liverpool vs Bournemouth. The Premier League remains on top, at least in this craft beer pub in Hong Kong. Having no allegiance in either match I am happy to watch the world through football. My joy is for the game; I am glad to be back where a sports bar means the global football rather than the American one.


Fifteen years ago a boy who had weekdays rather than weekends off in Tokyo used to spend them in a used book store in Ebisu. Here, in the rain of Tokyo Novembers he would browse and feel at home. The store, since closed, was a treasure of second-hand English for a boy who could not read Japanese.

The comfort he found in Good Day Books was not just the bookstore joy of familiar titles and new discoveries. Instead it was the atmosphere, quiet save for BBC radio, which at his hours of visiting meant mostly traffic reporting of the London evening commute, a perfect sound for Tokyo mornings. In these hours of browsing he was no longer in Ebisu, no longer an English teacher with a Thursday off, but a solitary spirit in the global remnants of the British Empire.


In a Thai hotel years later he waits for his wife, arriving from Seoul a day later. The TV in the room they will share turns on at his entry, and so it lingers as he unpacks, displaying helpful information, local restaurants. After a while he changes the channel without purpose, stopping on the local weather. Local, in this multinational chain hotel, means regional, a map that covers Bangkok, Phuket, Chang Mai and also Singapore, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, and Sydney. The weather map is one of global cities of the eastern hemisphere, and he lets it be, watching tomorrow’s highs scroll through in a comforting fashion, no longer alone.


In two thousand fourteen he sits in a Japanese restaurant behind a Dongguan hotel on a Friday evening by himself. This is the middle of a work trip run long, a factory visit supposed to take one week that will now take several. A similar situation, he suspects, to the Japanese business men at the next table, who were the restaurant owner’s target market. Unlike them, he is alone, without colleagues to pour sake for. And so he watches the TV above the entrance while eating noodles. The small CRT is set to NHK, a muted loop of Tokyo’s local stories, weather, and traffic providing familiar background for owner and restaurant-goers alike. The solitary diner watches the news in Japanese with similar pleasure as he’d taken in the BBC traffic reports of two thousand two. It represents much the same: a bit of the wider world brought into this small establishment.


And so the comfort I take in Hong Kong at finding this pub and it’s channel-surfing bartender is of no surprise. Swapping La Liga for the EPL is a choice that I can understand, if not take sides on. The broadcast, without sound, is of the kind of global background noise that I love and have always loved, that reminds me I am no longer in America, no longer at home but always here.

Sounds relaxing

On calm weekends filled with rain we lie on the sofa and read. The cat alternates his snuggles, moving from one set of legs to the other and back. We do not try to determine his reasons, and instead build small blanket forts at varying intervals along the couch.

Rain in San Francisco is a treasure, a moment of pause. For a few days the city collectively relaxes. No one needs to compete with their Instagram hikes of Mt. Tam, nor their sunsets on Stinson. We, together, breathe out and do not judge. Epic West Wing marathons are held, and entire seasons of British baking shows are watched. Or so I suspect. For myself I nap in the afternoons, read graphic novels, and enjoy the space to think. In a year of pressure built by election season, by the news, and by our own age, the pause is beautiful.

The weekends of 2016 are busy. In the next several months we will see Los Angeles, Hawaii, San Diego, Portland, and Singapore. We will adventure, work, and adventure again. Our cat, a giant ball of fur, will be lonely and reside with friends.

Hopefully we will remember this weekend together, everyone asleep to the sound of the rain on these old windows. For a weekend, our adventures are in our dreams, and we are lucky to have this apartment, these windows, this weather.

Welcome, Fall, to San Francisco.

Carrying future

Trapped in a window seat, 53A, between Tokyo and Shanghai. Reading Gibson, brought with me as a talisman, a way of accessing a certain mind set. Few authors can pull my hopeful brain, my dreaming mind, up from the cover of organization and functionality that I have layered over it.

We move so freely, the few of us lucky to have been born into the rich countries and jobs of the late twentieth century business environment. We schedule calls and flights in varying time zones with such frequency that the ability becomes the important part, not the impressive part. We layer organization over the impressive moments in our lives: descending into Hong Kong at daybreak and seeing the islands, oceans, and ships with the first rays of sun splashed across the shallow green water. We sleep through the ascent out of Tokyo in the rain, neon splashed across the bay’s dark surface. All too often we stand in the courtyard of a remote factory or temple staring at our phones rather than at our surroundings.

Sometimes sleep is necessary. Frequently phones bring human connection with their distractions. The world is never as simple as we imagine, and we were never as free.

Reading fiction that is likewise trapped between the chance of the future and the truth of the present is a good way to spend these strange hours of international travel that themselves are both mundane and amazing. And books, like always, are a good reminder that writing is a good way to convey hope.

Life, interrupted

First, my apologies for the lengthy silence. While my schedule has varied over the years, I’ve never gone so long without an Inhabit post since I began writing the site in 2006. Eight years of monthly or twice-monthly posts is no great American novel, but it represents a dedication I hope to maintain. Since March, though, I’ve had a difficult time writing and often been less than eager to share what I have completed. In many ways the last two months have been some of the best of my life, and the most difficult. This, then, is something outside of the normal Inhabit posts, more personal and more difficult. Regular thoughts about cities, travel, and the strange adventures of life will resume shortly.

As an athletic child, I played soccer and baseball through high school, before switching to ultimate frisbee in college. I still play, at 34, on a co-ed club team that is competitive enough to go to regionals out of the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the world’s hotspots for ultimate talent. I begin with this as a point of reference, a way to explain how strange it has been, over the course of these past two months, to be at points unable to walk, to be still unable to run. I have struggled to lift things, to bathe myself, and to get out of bed unaided. As with all healing I am progressing, and I will be able to do these things again. Many of them I already can. My broken finger has healed enough that I can type all day again, and thus work. My ribs are healed enough that I can sit up without assistance, if not do sit ups. My lung enough so that I can fly. My vertebrae are healing, and the swelling around my spine decreasing, so that I can once again stand straight and walk without pain. The sciatic nerve pain that left me unable to walk for two weeks has disappeared, and I am again able to go places without stopping every block to squat until the pain subsides.

With an injury of this magnitude came two emotions I had not anticipated, and which have made it more difficult to write. First, from the ER, the immediate knowledge that no matter how hurt I was, no matter the pain, there were and are so many in worse condition, including at the time those to my immediate left or right. Second, the gratitude, embarrassing and real, to all those who took care of me, fed me, cared for me, and went out of their way to bring us clothes, to make us laugh, or to give us a place to sleep. I say us because, over the first two weeks in New York and the following months in San Francisco, we have both needed the support of our friends and the comfort of their kindness.

Being deeply aware of our luck, shockingly close to our mortality, and overwhelmed by the generosity of others is a strange situation. For a decade I have been most comfortable when self-sufficient. From the trains of Tokyo to the scooters of Shanghai I have been happy as an invisible part of the global megacity. Constantly on the move, a part of multinational supply chains and international sports teams, I have been rarely still, and never so forcedly so. I am no longer alone, and haven’t been, which has brought both great joy and the challenge of relying on someone, constantly inconveniencing another. From Shanghai to San Francisco we’ve grown more comfortable with both caring and being cared for. To have the balance so completely destroyed by injury just as we moved forward as a couple has been physically and emotionally taxing. Yet being able to handle such intense dependency has also made us stronger, and brought the simple joys of cohabitation to the surface again. As we recover and relax, we are working to maintain that joy. More importantly, we are working to express it.

As I said earlier, things that are hard to handle mentally are hard to write about publicly, hard to acknowledge. I notice this in small interactions, where the situation becomes a burden. When asked How are you?” I too often say how I feel,  sub-par, rather than how _I am_ which is lucky, loved, and alive.

Here then is to healing, to breathing deep, to saying thank you, and to moving on.

Walking the High Line

In New York for a week at the end of October we work from coffee shops and visit old friends in the dark. Breaks like these, weeks on other coasts and other shores, keep friendships and our feel for the country alive. Yet laptops in one city are much like those in any other, in fact the same. And so on Friday afternoon we put them down and head out to see something of New York.

We end up on the High Line, which neither of us have ever seen. On the first of November Manhattan is warm and welcoming, and the other tourists likewise calm. We walk and talk, take pictures and breath the air. Across the Hudson we can see Stevens, where a cousin went. I remember looking at this view from the other side on her graduation, an event that seems both recent and forever ago.

The High Line, like the pedestrian sections of Broadway, gives me hope for cities. Gives me hope for American cities, at least, so long under siege from the automobile, the highway, the culture of divided lane no left turn. It is a small thing, this elevated railway line repurposed as a tourist path, an exploratory walkway. And yet, photographing construction from its glass sides, I think of the elevated path through Xujiahui Park, and the benefits of investing in comforts for people, rather than machines.

New York seems well, despite the challenges of being home to eight plus million. In the late fall of 2013 it seems like a city in growth mode, and the feeling of motion and life is a joy to be amidst.

Towards the end of the day we sit in a small park further south. I nap as my companion answers a work phone call. On other benches men read the newspaper and women listen to music. Despite the street and trucks scant feet away, we all relax and breathe in the last of the sunshine.

In Union Square we watch the sun set over the farmer’s market, taking pictures of the skyline. We are not alone, amidst a group of New Yorkers and tourists holding our phones skyward to capture the spectrum of colors that has stopped all of us in our tracks. The two of us are not comfortable as tourists by nature, and yet so often that is what we are, wandering through cities that are not our homes in search of new things. In a dozen trips to New York we have yet to climb the Empire State, or see the Statue of Liberty save from the plane. On this Friday, though, we wander enough to feel like visitors, mingle enough to feel at home, and are content. Lost amid the fruit stalls, hearing Chinese and French, the comfort is not of New York, but of people, of a city large enough to become lost in and large enough to produce beauty accidentally. Unbidden, I recall scooter rides through Shanghai on November Sundays six years ago. Like this we would then wander, out of doors in the sunshine with no specific destination or curfew. Those were some of our first adventures together, climbing abandoned buildings and exploring back alleys, zipping around turns on our electric scooter. There too we did not seek famous temples or specific buildings, content to wander as traffic took us, to turn where our eyes led us.

Maybe it is the smell of a city in fall, or the trees in Union Square, or the remove from the rest of our lives that brings those images back. Maybe it is simply watching each other relax and smile, or maybe it is our joy in exploration. No matter which, standing this afternoon on the deck of an old railroad above new construction, watching the workers below, we are happy and still for a moment in an otherwise well-scheduled trip.

After six years of taking our time, of exploring together, we will be married in the spring, adding one more set of promises to a long list of hopes. Standing in the New York sunshine with overlapping memories of all the cities we’ve seen together, the future looks promising.

Directing ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Once with effort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have energy and time.

Rest

From a comfortable chair in Colorado I watch the house fill and empty. Cousins enter the room, play, read, and leave. Aunts, uncles and parents call questions and advice from the kitchen. Groups bundle up and head out into the cold, to shop, play, walk the dogs and shovel snow.  These are good days, filled with long mornings and multiple pots of coffee shared by all. The dogs, happy to have attention from all fronts, spend the early hours sneaking from room to room and bed to bed, taking several minutes of snuggles from each occupant before moving on. Eventually they demand release into the yard, where they bound back and forth in the fresh powder, hide beneath the pine trees, and bark at passers-by. In good spirits we can not be too stern, and instead usher them back indoors with smiles, coffee in hand. For the first time in months good morning”, is an earnest welcome.

My hands are weak as of this writing, dry and cracked from the climbing gym and the mountains of Colorado. One new habit for twenty twelve and one family I’ve become comfortable with. The weakness and torn skin are a good feeling, a sacrifice I’m becoming used to.

In the span of a few days we ease into ourselves and into our families. Cousins sit on the same couch though they live thousands of miles apart. They relax with the comfort of having nowhere to be, no schoolwork to finish or reports to complete. These are the compromises of the holidays, a lack of privacy and a lack of urgency, the comfort of a warm home and the chill of the snow.

The gift of rest is that it comes in different ways to each. To the father napping in a chair near the fire while his children play cards, to the boy asleep on a bed in the afternoon sun while the house is quiet, all others having gone shopping. It comes to the younger cousins unbundling after building a snow fort for hours. To the same boy after an hour’s basketball at the chain-link netted courts of the local elementary school.

At the end of another year, in groups or families, by oceans and on ski lifts, quietly and with great laughter, we come together around the celebration of survival. For at its heart the ticking over of the calendar is a reminder that we are still here, still alive and awake. We will go farther, and make new memories, leaving behind this old year and those lost in it. For a few days though the holidays are a time to remember, and to let go.

Treat each other

A century on from its invention, air travel remains one of our greatest abilities. Flight grants mobility to that least mobile class of capitalism’s three, labor. By allowing us all to span continents it reduces our tendency to stereotype and dismiss those we have never seen. By encouraging quick visits home for holidays it enables family ties to stretch and thus daughters and sons to move further than they ever have. And, hundreds of years on, the magic of descending into Hong Kong as the dawn rises will still impress.

Yet air travel also reflects the stratification of society, the belief that not all people are created equal, and the separation of humans from one another. Waiting in LAX a few months ago a family seated near me was preparing their children for their first flight, reassuring the youngest and explaining which plane was likely theirs to the eldest. From the sound of it they were headed on vacation, to a new adventure.

Like many I can’t remember my first flight. I can guess, to Sacramento in the eighties, to see my grandparents. My parents might remember, such travel was rare enough then, planned for months and each trip separated from the next by a year or two. US Air, probably, one of the pre-bankruptcy incarnations. Definitely a layover, between Ithaca and Sacramento, possibly two. An easier security check though, fewer hassles than this family in LAX has had to endure. Especially at a small airport like Ithaca, like the old Ithaca, where there was only one gate and passengers mingled with those waiting for arrivals. It was no $16 flight up the west coast that Joan Didion remembers, but it was a simpler time.

And that brings me to LAX, to SFO, to HKG and JFK, and status clubs and priority boarding. That brings me to the striation of humanity inside one of the great engines of democratization. No longer is moving from California to New York a rare occurrence. Students from China can go to school in Boston and see their families on holidays. Cousins from Australia can visit upstate NY for the summer. And a boy from Ithaca can meet a girl from Colorado in Shanghai and move to Houston together.

Air travel is a great enabler. Along with the internet it has changed how fast, how often, and for what reasons we communicate, visit, and learn from each other. It is also, especially compared to the internet, an incredibly resource-intensive idea, burning fuel dug out of the ground to cross and re-cross the planet. Considered that way the idea of bachelor parties in Croatia and weekend trips to LA sound foolish, a waste of a shared resource for fleeting enjoyment. And yet what a glorious ability, to weekend elsewhere, to visit spontaneously for scant dollars.

This is the problem, of course. The democratization of air travel comes with a cost, and that cost is covered in a large part by the segregation of fliers, by the thousand dollar price difference between a seat in business class and economy on the same plane, leaving and departing at the same times from the same locations.

What is different then about those seats? How we treat each other. More money earns a nicer experience, free drinks, a courteous smile upon boarding, a newspaper. Most importantly more money earns a larger seat, more personal space.

These inventions should not surprise, and they don’t. Of course more money will buy a nicer version of something, whatever the thing may be. Of course those with are treated more preferentially than those without. That is the very basis of human economics, for better and worse, for thousands of years.

What is changing, what has changed, is the view from the bottom. Not only are those who pay more treated better, but that those who pay less are now treated slightly worse. Premium tickets bring additional benefits and economy tickets bring less and less. From paying for food to paying for legroom (Jet Blue, United, Virgin) to paying for TV (Frontier) to paying for boarding (Southwest, United, Virgin) there is no longer a sense of service with the ticket purchase. Overhead compartments have become a war zone due to checked fees and frequent travelers spend actual minutes of life learning the amount of bin space on different aircraft. The additional transactions, costs, and restrictions create small burdens on each of us until the very heart of flying, the joy of being airborne, has been whittled down. Until the child preparing for his first flight is cautioned with a thousand guidelines rather than encouraged in his excitement.

In short what was once a gift, a miraculous journey from New York to California, has been turned into a series of chores and of inconveniences. I do not say has become a series of chores” because that removes the reason for these changes and the responsibility for our worsening experiences. Checked bag fees did not come from the sky, but from the boardroom. Treating each economy customer slightly worse was not an accident but a calculated move. Adding on a few fees after ticket purchase, making travel worse in these small ways, one at a time, was a way to maximize profits at the expense of someone else.

Is a way.

That is why I was excited about Virgin America, and about Jet Blue and Southwest before that. About an airline that claimed to believe what we all know: good service and decent treatment should be the baseline, not an added fee. A reasonable seat, a clean plane, something to drink. This kind of company should be encouraged, should be recognized and aided. How much better must it be to work for a company that treats customers the way we would like to be treated? How much better is it to be proud of our employers, to be customers of our own products, willing passengers on our own airlines and happy diners in our own restaurants?

Treating each other better needs no limits. Airports could easily return to being enjoyable places, with less focus on security and fewer collisions between rollaboards. With faster checked luggage recovery, without so many fees, with only a little bit of better treatment, passengers could once again stroll through the airport rather than drag their possessions into cramped bathrooms and newspaper stands.

These ideas are not unachievable miracles, they are not irrational requests. They are simply how things used to work, and how they still could. These ideas are built on a belief that we can all treat each other better. And that how we treat each other in our jobs, in our companies, is how we treat each other. Hiding behind corporate declarations and revenue targets does not reduce our responsibility to each other. By making the collective experience of humans slightly worse we are worsening our own lives, no matter our income or status. In this specific case we are gradually reducing the pleasure of one of our most miraculous technologies.

By making air travel worse it is less likely that a boy and a girl will grow up to love airplanes. Less likely that they will love staring down at the world from above and up at the sky from below, less likely that they will travel so freely and with such joy. This vision is a sad one.

The alternative is simple. We can treat each other better. We can build companies that do likewise. And instead of bin space we can focus on the wonder of air travel. We can help each other and support those who treat us better and those whose jobs are built on the idea.

And we can teach new fliers like that child in LAX the magic in my favorite phrase, a sentence that with every repetition excites me and suggests the future.

We will be on the ground shortly.”

Turning over

On my birthday the skies of San Francisco are clear. Mr. Squish and I open all our windows to this gift, the heavy fog of summer seemingly evaporated overnight.

All day not a single cloud dots the tiny patch of sky visible from our window. Mr. Squish sniffs and purrs without much disturbance. As is his wont he attacks the Lego he is now large enough to reach, and chases my pant legs as I walk from room to room. The cat and I are spending a quiet day together, celebrating my personal year in our new fashion.

From New York an old friend writes with thoughts that mirror my own. He has  just returned from six weeks abroad.

Not that I spend much time in my apartment anyway…” he begins.

We live in two of the world’s most expensive cities and yet inhabit our own apartments so rarely that a day at home has become a vacation.

The air here is clean, and the temperature far cooler than the record-breaking triple digits in Portland last weekend. Like age, the moderate temperatures of the Bay Area are probably weakening my body. After a future move to hotter climes I will most likely regret these years spent in a study of the gradients between 52 and 68 F.

My friend’s letter, though mailed from the US, was written in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Korea. Edited on a Japanese train and a Thai bus, it brings the feel of motion, if not the specifics. Like most correspondence it is concerned with relationships, with the play between people and the motion of time. He writes of the ease of travel, the challenges of learning a new place, and the enjoyment of labor. So to do these letters mention our aging, the growth of knowledge and the familiarity with the road.

Are we wiser, he asks, a decade later, when we are still moving, still looking?

How could we not be, I answer, reading in the breeze of San Francisco, in the calm of a day without destination.

This city is as Tokyo was, a new place to discover.  As Shanghai, Hong Kong, Houston, New York are and were. We are travelers not only when abroad, not only when unaware of local custom. After so long on the road, on the lookout for the new and different, I hope we will never awake in a city without wonder.

We grow older, I think, trying to answer his deeper question, not because the world is less interesting, nor because we are less spry, but because the things we see on occasion recall things we have already seen. We receive letters from friends we have heard from often, written from cities we can successfully imagine. Their words remind us of shared dinners, of train rides together through humid countrysides, of apartments we both once worked to afford.

Yet we still adventure. We do so without the sense of need that pushed us out of doors of a decade ago. Instead we adventure because it has become who we are. After a decade of correspondence, after cohabiting in upstate New York, in Japan, China, and Texas, the two of us are closer to who we wanted to be. Watchers and letter-writers, wanderers with jobs that span countries. My oft-mentioned goal of comfort in any city, any location, is no myth. Instead at the dawn of thirty three it is a comfort, a truth built on the friends gained at each stop along the way.

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.

Perfect city

In the fog Clement is welcoming. On Sunday morning the Blue Danube is full. On the couch a scruffy man in a well-worn Giants hoodie is slouched, deep in a book-sale copy of Notes from the Underground. The couples chattering at tables on either side do not disturb his focus. Coffee in hand I push the door open, heading back out into the mist. An old chinese woman reaches to catch it’s swing. On her hand cart she has boxes of bananas, apples, and other buried things I can not see. Perfect, I think, holding the door for her. This is the kind of city I want to live in, where coffee shops are filled with sports fans reading Dostoyevsky and fresh fruit is delivered by hand.

As I head downtown on Geary early in the morning, I think about this city I love, and the city I want. Late the night before we’d sat up in the dark, four of us, discussing places to live, in the future. Friends who’d first met in Shanghai, we’ve spent time on each other’s rooftops in Hong Kong, lived separately and together in Taiwan and Japan, and are happiest imagining. Perhaps because we are surprised to suddenly find ourselves residents of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Still we are curious, on the move, and consider Portland, Berkeley, and Seattle as immediate American alternatives. Housing, jobs, and the inevitable hope for cultural comfort are all mentioned as criteria. Transportation, I add, thinking of my electric scooter, of Tokyo’s trains.

Downtown the fog lingers even in SoMa and I think about those criteria again, parking on Minna. 6th and Natoma is a block filled with crack addicts and homeless people, artists and those just passing through. On Sunday morning it reeks of human excrement and a spilled bag of Cheetos. It is an interesting intersection to spend time on, which I do thanks to the Boxcar theater. It is not exactly what I meant when I said, just ten minutes earlier, that San Francisco was the kind of city I wanted.

The city I imagine is dense enough to be walkable, like SoMa and much of San Francisco. Like Shanghai, where even the furthest corners of downtown Puxi are within reach on foot, if need be. In the evenings of my imagined city, long after house lights have begun to go out, after the business districts have emptied and the restaurants closed, we are able to wander home without fear in less than an hour. This implies a great density of population or a small town, implies a level of public safety, implies housing of an affordable nature in the city center. It implies nightlife, businesses, and housing constructed within sight of each other. Hong Kong has much of it, and Shanghai. San Francisco, in parts, and New York, though more thinly spread. Ithaca has this, or much of it. Why not then the small town, I wonder, what is the fascination with the megalopolii of Asia?

The answer comes instantly to a child of upstate New York. This city of fantasy has jobs to attract us, we migrants of urban desire. It has companies that value youth, or the approximation of it as we age. As cities go it is no stickler for ties. The streets of my imaginary home are narrow and highly used, filled with electric bicycles and pedestrians. Trees and curved pathways that facilitate motion rather than constant stop signs weave between the skyscrapers of the downtown. Shops and offices fill the lower floors of buildings that open to the air and to the city, that approach the pathways rather than being set back from passers by.

I return to the first aspect I’d imagined. In the evening the streets are still busy. As the lights come on people return home, busses and subways empty, and restaurants fill. In each neighborhood different scents sit in the air, and grocery stores become hubs of pre-dinner planning.

Couples whisk by on silent scooters, their jokes covered by quickly fading laughter. Runners jog past, working off the pressures of the day solo or in pairs. As the air cools and the sky slides through blues towards black birds rustle in the trees and cats, having spent the day out on the city’s grassy patches, sneak homewards in search of food.

Above the streets the office towers slowly go dark, first single rooms and then whole floors. At their base food carts ply their trade, and vegetable stalls linger for those last customers. Arms laden the well-dressed workforce heads into the subway or down the block, the quick commute of the urban household.

In my dream house, much like the real one, the wood is soft and light good. Letting the cat back in I put out the milk bottles and mail for tomorrow’s rounds, glad again that the delivery man lives on my block and shares my coffee shop, with its book-lined walls and open air grill.

The city of my dreams exists, in places, in parts. It can be found on distant islands and countries whose borders do not touch my own. On foggy mornings and wind-swept afternoons I see it here, in San Francisco, waiting for me when I am half asleep. The question of this place, of where to find our own desires, is not of how long to look or far to travel. It is of how much to invest, how deep to sink our roots, and how much to try and build.

Wheels down

Heelys are wonderful things. Unfortunately I’ve been remiss updating on my actions in them. I’ve owned my current pair pretty much since my post three years ago. I’m less skilled in them than I was at twenty four. I also don’t wear them every day. I wish I were still so bold.

The shoes haven’t changed. They may be a bit bulkier, in more of a skater style. They may ride better, the bottoms more durable during braking. I may just not be riding them as hard. 

In our new neighborhood I wear them to get coffee on weekends. The clomp clomp doesn’t seem to wake Tara, though the wheels echo on the wooden floor. Once on the street though their versatility is on display. Step step push and I’m off, riding the solid sidewalks of the 17th Ave on their gentle slope down towards Clement and California. It’s nice, living somewhere with good sidewalks. This is why I loved these shoes in Japan, where everything is paved so perfectly. This is why I gave them up when moving to Shanghai. Houston was pretty good, flat and level. The Sunset for the last two years was too rough, slightly hilly, plus the three flights of stairs. 

This new house, in the Richmond, with the gentle slope to each street, seems perfect Heely territory. Walgreens across the street is big enough for the linoleum to really spread out before me. 

And always, the best part remains true. Walk past like anyone else, and then a quick hop, a slow whoosh, and away. Nothing beats Heelys for disguised travel. I was right at twenty four, and I am slowly regaining the skills. Next on the list is spinning in circles, ice skating style. 

Yes, this is something of a shoe blog. I’m realizing that slowly.

Wheels up.

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.

Minds fill

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

In every fashion possible.

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

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

We are temporary, I have written.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s right.

Adidas Marun

Between August 2005 and August 2008 I lived a strange life, working and living in Shanghai and spending several weeks a quarter in Los Angeles. On these brief sojourns across the Pacific I would see friends, do business, and shop. 

On one of these trips, which I know now to have been August 2007, I bought a pair of Adidas sneakers. 

Adidas Marun

I’ve worn Sambas since about age 4, and was looking for a new pair, ducking in to the Adidas Store on the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica. I bought these instead because they were the brightest thing on the shelf.

The above photo was taken today, 9/10/2011. They’ve held up remarkably well, despite the year of wearing them almost every day on the streets of Shanghai and factories of the greater eastern Chinese seaboard.

Astute readers have probably noticed the strange thing about these shoes. Unlike almost every pair of Adidas shoes in the world, they do not have a model name on the side, diagonally in line with the third stripe. 

They are, in fact, nameless. The name at the top of this post, Marun, comes from four hours of google searching for adidas sneaker” and various combinations of colors, and the numbers on the tongue tag, which are:

  • Fty No. PYV 702001  
  • Art No. 096903 08/07 
  • 9YSSDSBX00058 
  • Made in Vietnam

The Marun is no longer in production, which is a shame. Here’s the Google Image search results for Adidas Marun”. Take a second and look them over. 

Here’s the only for-sale versions I can find, at what might also be my favorite new shoe site ever. 

I post this because, after four hours of Google/shopping site scanning, during which I looked through thousands of images for a shoe that had no name, I wanted to unify the information. I also want to tell the world about my favorite pair of Adidas, which are dying, and of which I’d love another. 

This pair of shoes is also a good reminder that even in the age of mass-produced shoes, in the age of global business empires, things can and do disappear forever. The internet is a memory bank for our species, but only to the extent that we care to document.

Also, I’m a US 9.5. 

Any help?

HKIA

Hong Kong looks gorgeous as the sun rises. In early thanks to good wind and awake thanks to the ability to sleep anywhere, the mountains get my full attention as the light creeps down them.

People often tell me San Francisco is the most beautiful city they have ever seen. I ask them if they’ve seen Hong Kong. Because, liking one, with it’s bay and bridges, with the tricks of light from the constant clouds, with greenery plentiful and the water to reflect the sun, the other comes easily to mind. The mountains are vertiginous, rising behind the airport, rising from the sea on the smaller islands. The boats are scattered without pattern, across the water at odd distances. The buildings are tightly packed, and tall, allowing the narrow corridors of air so familiar to Asian cities, so distinctly rare elsewhere.

Hong Kong is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Three years since my last visit, I wonder why we left.

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.

Friends grow

We have known each other now long enough to miss change. In the odd hours of the morning in an Astoria diner the differences between two thousand one and two thousand eleven are difficult to pinpoint. I still open my creamer with my teeth, my companion still orders both pancakes and eggs, orange juice and coffee. We chatter about the events of the day and then wander home to sleep as the sky grows light. We are no longer amazed to be in New York, but to be in New York is still amazing. Like that truth the differences between twenty one and thirty one are from most angles difficult to see.

Sitting on floors these last few weeks, in kitchens on the Vassar campus, in living rooms of Brooklyn, and bedrooms of Santa Monica, I watch the people I have known now almost fifteen years and rejoice. For in the details of their expressions, in the things they known now instead of speculate on, and in the places they have been rather than dreamed of, they are precious to me.

At twenty two I told myself we all needed space, needed time, to develop individually. It was equal parts hope and fear, born of being so new to the world of adults. This past month, traveling through places of old memory and homes of those whose friendships have survived the space they were given, I am glad to be proven right, if not necessarily by myself. In some way we did, do all need time, out on our own with only the world to teach us. We need space in which to grow true, to become the people we would rather be.

Making these changes happen may not require the distance I gave us in my twenties, for the changes are gradual and easily dismissed, or simply unnoticed. More than degrees or jobs the ways people grow are small things of confidence and wisdom and they require patience to see, as well as time to make themselves known. Perhaps then what we need is trust in each other that we are trying to do better, and calm moments on the kitchen floor to become aware of how we have grown.

Cat variations

Coming home from the north I enter the courtyard along with the first shadows. Heading west, the sun has dropped beneath the roofline, our building’s three stories enough to provide shade. In this light, still bright but indirect, the courtyard is a peaceful place, ferns in the corners and small trees along the sides providing some measure of growing things against the concrete. Finally out of the car I can relax on entering, safe again in my own space.

From beneath the leaves of one potted plant she watches me, sitting delicately in her hunter’s pose. As I approach she says nothing, waiting patiently. As I pass she does not strike, letting out the faintest meow, saying hello and look at me, hiding in the shade of these leaves. I reach through, scratching behind the ears, shifting my bag to my other shoulder. Crouched down now, close enough to hear her purr, I coax her from behind the leaves. The sun is quickly leaving the courtyard, shifting towards the ocean though there is an hour of daylight left. Knowing her true goal I rise, keys jingling, and head up the back stairs three flights.

Chelsie lives down on the ground floor, her owner lets her roam in the afternoons, after work and before dinner. At first she lies in the sun, relishing the heated concrete. As it withdraws so too does she, to her spot beneath the leaves, to play at being a tiger in a jungle small but all her own.

Until I come home, and then she’s out again, following me up the stairs in swift strides, her body almost coasting upwards. I unlock the door and she brushes by me, purring, heading for the desk, the chairs, the window’s sun. For when her apartment and the courtyard are wrapped in shadows mine, high above on the north west corner, is filled with sun. At the top of the building, windows facing west to the Pacific, it gets warmth longer, holds the sun’s gaze later, than any other in our building. Chelsie knows this, used to visit the previous tenant, and staked out her claim to our floor, to the desk once it arrived, to a chair if there’s a cushion on it, as soon as we’d moved in. Her owner Peter knows exactly where she’s gone and comes knocking, the courtyard dark and dinner ready.

Is Chelsie here?” he asks, knowing full well she is curled in the last rays of warmth, purring loudly, clouds of fur everywhere around her.

Of course,” I say, and then Ok Chels, let’s go.”

She perks up, hopping off of the chair and prancing towards the door.

Thank you,” he says.

Not at all,” I answer, she’s welcome any time.”

In an apartment too small for animals, where the lease prohibits them anyway, Chelsie’s visits are like the sun itself, a gift in this land of fog and wind. The sneezing and the sweeping up of fur are an easy price to pay for this time cohabiting with an animal we do not need to feed or clean.

And, like the sun, when the fog is thick and heavy, Chelsie does not see the light of day, Peter’s door closed for weeks on end. So now, on days when I round the hills of Marin, head down to the Golden Gate, and see the city spread out before me with not a cloud around, I open the gate to our courtyard with a little grin, looking for the eyes beneath the bushes. Pink and grey in the strangest of shades, Chelsie waits for our apartment to be opened for her so she can lounge as she likes, cat not of one apartment but of them all in turn.

Unexpected life

I live up in the back,” he says, gesturing with the lit end of his cigarette towards the red awning of Northern Tiger Kenpo. Inside, through the plate windows that are remnants of the space’s commercial origin, a dozen ten year olds pivot and punch the air in unison. Their shouts are muffled from outside, and in the afternoon light we watch their practice for a while. Clad all in white, with their belts of differing colors, they are led by a man in his forties, with the kind of solid physique, the sense of density, so suited to a martial arts instructor.

I take care of the place, look out for it, and he lets me stay there.” His explanation comes with the self-deprecation of one who is not sure how they came to be where they are. We’ve been friends for years, he’s helping me out.” The last matter-of-factly, un-embroidered. It’s pretty quiet,” he tells me, cigarette almost finished. Except when they’re training…”

Right,” I say, as he rubs the butt out with his shoe, and picks it up again. When they’re training, from three pm to eleven or so, he is often outside, calmly watching the sidewalk here a few steps from Irving. We look to the corner, past the shoe repair and Chinese medicine place, to the corner stores and the frozen yogurt shops beyond. A young couple strolls, arm in arm, across 19th, heading east. They don’t look right to see us, one holding a cigarette butt, now crushed, and one holding two bags of groceries from 22nd Street Grocery, the Greek-owned store that sells many kinds of olives, cheese and fresh vegetables, but no meat. It is my favorite grocery store.

It’s a good neighborhood,” I say, trying to offer something up to the silence between us, a quiet penetrated only by the vague shouts of the practice in Northern Tiger and the slap of the Chinese men up the street putting down pieces in their never-ending Xiangqi game. He nods, following my gaze up to the folding metal table set up near the curb and the three men who surround it, one in plastic sandals and leather jacket, one in suspenders, all focused most furiously on the game. They speak Cantonese, I’ve discovered, and seem to play at least six hours a day, out on the sidewalk if the weather’s willing and in the open garage if the Sunset is threatening rain.

This is our block, me and my quiet apartment building where Chelsie the cat patrols the courtyard, Northern Tiger where classes of young girls, young boys, and older men learn how to defend themselves, and the game of Chinese Chess. The man standing before me, his hair slowly gowing gray, is a part of this block, a silent watching witness, someone who nods hello and recognizes everyone. I don’t know where he’s come from, prior to the strange loft at the back of Northern Tiger, it’s contents hidden by a sheet strung up as a curtain, separating it from the worn wooden floor of the training area.

A year and a half later I wonder one day if he’s moved on. Working far to the north I no longer spend afternoons wandering slowly up and down Irving, doing groceries or laundry, buying household supplies or wine. The game of Xiangqi continues I know, it’s members still outside on warm Saturdays, seemingly unchanged by the last year. The smoking man of Tiger Kenpo though may have moved on, his arrangement always felt short term, just for a while, in his own words. Where is he now, and what does he do, what did he do before moving into the dojo by himself?

And then one evening I am walking down Irving in the warmth of an April night and I see him, almost invisible in the dark. The door to Tiger Kenpo is propped open with a wooden wedge, and the interior dark. Were it not for this man, smoking without sound beside the parked cars of 19th, it would seem abandoned. As I turn the corner, on the far side of the street, he finishes and ducks back in, latching the glass and metal door behind him and disappearing into the dark.

Where did he come from, I wonder again, and what has he done this past year, while I’ve been away most days? What does he think about his life now, lonely after the students have come and gone, after the master has taught and then packed up, changed and gotten back in his car to return home. When they have all left and the place no longer rings with rythmic shouting, when he sweeps and turns off the lights and steps outside into the night to smoke, what does he think about this block, this city?

These questions fill me, heading home again with arms laden with dinner, and I peer inside as I pass by. There is nothing to see, no lights on even up in the loft at the back. When we first met I wondered if he trained at the dojo, and how he’d met the owner. Mostly, tonight, I am happy to see him, still a part of this neighborhood, and I hope he would agree.

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.”

Honda Fit thoughts, part 1

Next week will mark my fourth month with the 2010 Honda Fit Sport.  Like all items thoroughly researched online prior to purchase, I had expectations and opinions about it and cars like it long before I set foot in a dealer or got behind the wheel. 

Now, with the benefit of a few weeks behind the wheel, my opinions have been clarified with experience, and I can say something far too rare:

The Honda Fit consistently exceeds my expectations and surprises me with the consideration that went into it’s design. 

Named the Mobile,” as it does not squire Batman, my Fit Sport has a range of options surprising both for breadth and specificity. There are 8+ cup holders. Paddle shifters. A USB port for the stereo. Tire air level indicators. Magic seats. A MPG read out. Seemingly every feature I envy on larger cars. And yet the list of features left out is striking too: automatic headlights, steering wheel volume controls, a temperature gauge, automatic seats, floor mats (which are optional).  Each of these represents a choice to meet a price, but more importantly to cater to a specific customer. And that customer, it seems, is me. The Mobile has everything I want and absolutely nothing I don’t.

The Fit is not a big car. Living in San Francisco, this is a major consideration, as parking is a challenge even in my neighborhood. Being able to park on my block, often in front of my house, because the Fit is small enough for the odd spaces that sit vacant, is a boon of startlingly large proportions.  This is why I was looking at hatchbacks.

Yet, and this is the miracle of Honda’s design, the Fit feels full-sized from the inside.  Five adults fit without discomfort.  And the Magic Seat” touted by salesmen on both coasts is indeed magical, transforming the car that seems to have no depth to a hauler to rival small SUVs.  Does this miracle of engineering and optical trickery seem impossible to believe? It should. The proof however overwhelms the skepticism.  Consider the following list:

  • A Full size Ikea mattress
  • Four Workrite Sierra single table electric desks (unassembled)
  • Two 5’9″ humans, prone and asleep

All of those things have fit comfortably in the Fit with the seats flat.  Not at the same time, of course.

The last one is particularly impressive, given the car’s length and width, both of which are smaller than a standard family car.  Sleeping in it, I wondered if my legs would cramp.  Actually, no, because, with a slight bend at the waist, I could keep them straight.

While this doesn’t help the 6’5″ members of our community, it’s an impressive feature of a ~$17,000 car, options depending.

This post comes about because a woman, walking by while I was parking in an exceptionally small space directly across from my apartment building today, said I’m thinking of getting one of those.”

My response was simply that it was an outstanding automobile, and that I loved it more every day.

That’s a strong endorsement,” she said.

Which is true.

Limited visibility

The feet of the Sutro Tower are planted in the ground, its tips lost in the clouds.

I have limited visibility on this,” he says. His voice crackles with the static of a VoIP connection from an unnamed location. Looking out at the marina in the dense fog of a Petaluma morning, I nod. Limited visibility is something we’ve grown used to in Northern California.

Coming over the bridge in the morning the water is clear out to the horizon, towards Japan and Taiwan. To the right Angel Island and Alcatraz look like good spots for lunch, and I promise myself again to get to both of them. I will. They’re not far, just over the hill, out in the bay. From my house though they are invisible, beyond the park, beyond the hills. My house has limited visibility.

I only have another seventy years, at most,” she says, as we walk down Irving on the clearest of Sundays. On my tiptoes I could see the ocean. That’s all I’ll get to see,” she tells me. I want to see more of it, I want to see it all.” She is reading a book about the far future, where the phrase the world’ has to be clarified with a name, because there are many.

Limited visibility.” It comes out under my breath, lips almost unmoving.

I won’t ever know,” she says, and that ends the conversation the way only a horizon can.

What do you hear?” I ask my consultant, who could be in Panama, or Dubai. Sometimes he is, and sometimes he tells me so. Usually I don’t ask, because it’s better, in a world where I can’t see the highway that crosses the river just north of the marina, to pretend he’s in San Francisco high up on a hill. Nearby, with better visibility.

They have no schedule,” he says, and the fault is clean, not belonging to either of us. Like the fog.

When I drive north in the mornings, after the bridge, there is a clear spot, several miles of sunshine. I watch the oncoming traffic for headlights on or off that speak of Petaluma’s weather far ahead. By mile fifteen mine are often on too, an indication of how long I’ll be on this road, that the sunshine is not my destination.

I wonder at those who have fought, over years, for small changes. The right to serve without lying, the right to vote, the freedom to believe. The freedom to move, or to settle down and stay. I marvel again at the building of cathedrals, the dedication to any goal, real or ideal, that will only be true at the end of a lifetime.

Fighting like that, the gradual protest and continual argument that keeps those in power honest and allows, when the truth at last becomes obvious to all, the world to move forward, seems perhaps the hardest thing. This is the truth of the future though, and what growing up means: when the day comes, and it will, it will not be for us. The idea makes me weary.

This problem has continued for much of this decade,” an email I get about San Francisco transit problems begins, my eyes skimming as I delete it.

After less than two years here I have purchased a car. I did not fight for decades, though I still give money to the cause, still give time.

Perhaps I am yet fighting. Perhaps I will still be, at the end of this decade. Or maybe mass transit will have flourished here, and the future come. In Shanghai the subway now covers the city, and trains spread out to cover the country. These are my ways of saying the future does come, and is worth working towards. These are my ways of saying that we may not see what we so long to, but that isn’t all that matters.

These are ways of growing up.

Driving back across the bridge one afternoon, after giving my grandfather his first computer, the air is thick and the sun, setting over the hills by the ocean, litters everything with pink. That light might be made tangible by a place is an amazing idea, and is so much of this city. The Transamerica pyramid cuts through the mist, its sharp edges fighting to remain distinct.

On top of the hill the Sutro Tower’s base is shrouded in fog. Hundreds of feet up its points catch the last true rays of sun and leap forwards, shadows writ large on the pink clouds far out over the Castro.  Their streaks are colossal reminders of how much we can build, given time, and how beautiful it can be in the right weather.

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.

Where are we going?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s not the future, but it’s fun.

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

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

Places of passion

In the East Bay on a weekend, brewing beer in a backyard, the sky is blue. Next door the man keeps bees, and has a huge grill for turkey roasting.

We’ll miss this yard, when we move,” the brewer tells me, checking the mash’s temperature. We’ll have something, but nothing like this.”

The grass is a little downtrodden, but the space, filled by tables and chairs, dirt, a small tree, and the abandoned brickwork of a previous tenant’s patio improvement project, is a luxury. The constant cycle of movement, children to city, families to suburbs, is born of afternoons like this, sitting around in a yard with friends, brewing beer. In earlier stages of this churn we would examine each other’s TVs, computers, liquor cabinets, bookshelves. We still do, for those items remain the touchstones of an apartment, easy ways to understand whose house we are in, what kind of person resides where we now stand.

The back yard survey though is new. Our initial duck indoors for introductions is perfunctory, and after a moment of silence is followed by our real purpose.

So, do you want to see what I’ve been working on?”

Of course we do, and are soon standing in the sun discussing barley mills and temperatures, worts and the value of an art wholly encompassed by single syllable words. Brewing’s language is proof of its early invention, we surmise, back when simpler terms were still available for claiming, before our language had become stratified and new tasks had to be called time-sharing and bookkeeping. In the backyard we see his private passion flare, that same widening of eyes and pride in discovery we have found before with friends in places like Level 4 and a club called Yellow.

The shift in focus from late nights clubs and basements to back yards and sunny afternoons isn’t new, nor as sudden as it seems in Berkeley. For as long as I can remember my uncle has spent most of his free hours in the garage, in his shop, making one thing after another, sometimes for his own house and sometimes for others. Phone calls holidays and visitors pull him out, into the living room or yard, but his passion, the place where he teaches himself things, sits well known behind the parked cars.

This habit then, of self-education, has not changed, but our targets have, from virtual bosses conquered with friends and dance moves learned beneath strobe lights to things made with tools of our own, in spaces of our own. There is no better, or worse, in these shifts, merely the variance of age, and opportunity. The peak, in all cases, is getting to demonstrate what we have learned to our friends.

If that can be done in a sunny back yard, so much the better.

We are the world

Once every four years we remember what it is about other countries we so enjoy: beating them at something. People with no normally-visible national spirit suddenly wear flags and stay up all night hoping for the downfall of nations they know so very little about. Countries are categorized swiftly, and on the smallest of things, using words like rubbish” and gritty” that are either awkward or insightful. This is the World Cup, and it’s a wonderful time.

At seven am on a Saturday there is a man running the streets of North Beach. He is clad primarily in the English flag, St. George’s Cross, and a hat of the same colors. He leaps and yells, sprints and screams, and pauses occasionally to say Hello” to passing strangers. He poses for pictures, or at least pretends to, before dashing away. He is mad, or happy, or madly happy, and he elevates the entire neighborhood. It is seven am on a Saturday morning, and they were sleeping. The England v. USA game begins, in this time zone, at eleven, by which time he will be sweaty and flushed, and ready for the throng that greets his triumphant entrance into the pub.

That’s not a flag he’s wearing, it’s a proper cape!” says one of the onlookers, having caught quite a glimpse on the sidewalk. Indeed it is a cape, perhaps custom-made, and the construction earns him street cred from those wearing store-bought jerseys.

Inside the bar, waiting for pints and waiting for the match, their jerseys do draw comment, a display of camaraderie and knowledge.

Altidore, nice,” we say on seeing Jozy’s 17, or Dempsey, looking for a goal from him today.” The US white jersey dominates, this being San Francisco and the US blue featuring a hideous bandolier-style white diagonal. The English supporters wear hats and homemade gear, though Rooney’s top-selling shirt floats around, worn by men who will be strangely quiet once the game begins. Yet in some way they will win this meeting, their language and descriptions dominating, their accents percolating through announcers to the mouths of the American fans. In the United States football may be the rest of the world’s sport, a minor thing, but the language of football is not global, it is English, in the same sense of the word as the man’s cape as he streaks by the window shouting unintelligible enthusiasm.

This is a funny time to be American, to be at home in America, for the oft-repeated notion that Americans are starting to pay attention to football.” By this is a funny time” I mean not this month bridging June and July in the northern hemisphere’s summer, but the World Cup. Similar statements were made in 2006, in 2002, in 1998, and in 1994, which is as far back as my memories stretch with accuracy. It is World Cup season, and we Americans are suddenly awake to the globe’s furor.

Yet we are not. In Berlin a friend tells me how as he sat watching the game last Saturday in an outdoor cafe every passer-by would stop to check the score, to ask who’d scored, or to comment on the quality of play. Grandparents, children, women with babies, people on bicycles, young friends, all wanted to know what was happening at that moment in South Africa where Australia was playing Ghana.

It’s amazing,” he says, of being in Europe for the World Cup, everyone cares.”

In Japan in 2002 I lived less than five miles from the stadium in Saitama, and remember most the feeling of being there. Matches were not just things to watch, but events, and the easiest way to understand was to go outside, to find a huge display, to find a crowd of cheering supporters. The streets of Tokyo were filled with crowds of cheering people sporting colors of nations they may or may not have been born in, a rare combination of accepted nationalism that fit so perfectly into the first dual-hosted World Cup.

Four years later, awake at odd hours to watch matches in Germany, a friend and I lamented our lack of foresight in being so distant. We should move every four years, even if only for the summer. It was absurd talk and a wonderful notion, forgotten in our planning after the tournament’s end.

Yet here we are, four years later, amid the greatest sporting event on the planet, he in Germany and I in San Francisco, only one of us in the proper time zone and neither of us in the correct country. With internet broadcasting, with bars that open early and fans that flash their colors regardless of their current city, we can still be caught up though, and run the streets in our flag. The crazed energy that comes from being on the streets outside the stadium, let alone at the matches themselves, can remain a goal for the future, about four years from now.

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.

Where you are

In the first week of May I am again fully focused, spending every waking hour on a single project. The old advice, long in mind but rarely in practice, returns to my thoughts: be where you are.” In the Exit Theater, putting up Giant Bones, I am. Email goes unread, phone calls unreturned save those from other crew members who call seeking lightbulbs, battery holders, wiring advice. They have been up for days. Together, in a single week, we erect a giant, hang curtains, wire chandeliers, hang them, position speakers, paint stairs and build puppets. As a theatrical load-in the week is both utterly standard and completely overwhelming. At eight each evening we stop, reluctantly, dirty and hungry, and watch as the cast responds to the space and our changes. Some days they are energized by the developments, excited by new scenery and costumes. Some days they are overwhelmed by the technical glitches, by the exhaustion, and by the unfinished props. Yet each evening, for two or three hours, we all believe, remembering why we are here, and have been.

When the run ends we resume work, we clean up, fix things, compare notes, and drive each other home. Some of us sleep in the theater, or don’t, working instead through the dark hours.

It is a tricky task, to be where we are. Often in life we are distracted by far away people and problems, disasters and politics. The challenge of remaining relentlessly focused and completely aware of our surroundings is too great, hence the element of mysticism associated with those who have mastered it. Sometimes though a constraint, a limited number of people and hours, a limited amount of space, can focus the mind and make magic. At sixteen and twenty that magic was my greatest love.

Wonderful, here at thirty, to have the feeling back again, if only for one week.

Childlike eyes

The sound of children playing does not change with their language. In Shaoxing last week, in San Francisco now, they scream and run in games I no longer get to play. Much of the nostalgia for childhood stems from that inability to join.  Easter egg hunts, bouncy castles, and no-touch-ground tag are forbidden pleasures. Hearing adults mourn the loss of youth, speed, and freedom I think that our desire is not just to escape current responsibilities but to return to a world where foursquare or tetherball were defining tests.

In fourth grade, at Waldorf school, the tetherball rankings went down into the thirties, with a complex system for challenging those above at morning break and recess, or before the busses after school. By sixth grade the scene had shifted and wall ball, played with a racquet ball against the school’s yellow rear, was the kingmaker.

In two thousand ten the children yell and run and I try to understand their games. Outside of the Shaoxing train station they play a strange version of freeze tag while I cart my suitcase up the low concrete stairs. The frozen child counts down and, if not re-touched, becomes the it”, the chaser. In San Francisco they streak down the sidewalk, an aunt or family friend repeating one line over and over without using either of their names. Do you see the sign,” she says of the red man blinking as they approach the intersection with eyes only on their race. Around the lamp post they spin and back again. I step aside, laughing. I am certain they do not see the sign. As they sprint back past her still warning form I wonder how long it would take them to join the Shaoxing game? Mere moments, probably. Children do not have the restraint that we do. And having it, we call it fear.

Could that be what we’re wanting, remembering youth so fondly? Not the game itself, but the lack of fear in challenging the eighth best tetherballer in school, a seventh grader, to a lunchtime battle? The lack of fear of injury, or humiliation. Indeed it’s opposite, eager acceptance, or perhaps total blindness to risk. Yet that is not true, and the humiliation of not scoring a point against an older student was well known. But the rewards for bravery were so tangible in the oral rankings every student knew.

This weekend I saw my cousin, six, on video chat. It was the first time she’d seen herself projected, or me. The first time she’d seen me at all in a year, more. Around her the adults watched, impressed by the technology.

I found a bunny in an egg this morning,” she told me.

Really?”

It’s orange and fuzzy.”

What’s it’s name?” I asked her as she raced off to find it.

Last year while he was bored at a reception I handed another boy my iPhone, which he’d never seen, a baseball game on the display. He grabbed it and sat down, experimenting with the tilt and tap controls. The timing took him several tries, but the understanding of what he needed to do barely a second. The context of my conversation with my cousin, or of the baseball game, mattered not at all. Were it in my power to place either of them amidst those Shaoxing children, or vice versa, would they be too stunned by context to absorb the games?

As I wandered Changsha’s back alleys last week, exploring half-abandoned railways, two girls playing some game of balance and chatter shouted at me, testing English words and my ability to respond. When I did so, in both English and Chinese, they turned away, back to their game. Their lack of surprise at my ability to speak Chinese, their entire manner of easy comprehension and acceptance shocked me because it seems globally so lacking in their elders. I think they would fit in well, those two girls in matching uniforms, at this street race in the Sunset. Indeed it is this comfort, this ease of exploration, pleasure at strange games, and quick acceptance of facts that I am often searching for with travel.

Perhaps it is not something that needs discovering, but remembering.

Title  from an Alphanumeric hoodie I once owned in Japan, whose tagline was For adults with childlike eyes,” a classification I aspire to.

Expanding the city

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That I can do,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comes an end

At the end of the year we look back, and tell stories. Often the stories are of people now distant or places we are far from. At the end of this year then, as the cat sits next to me, I will tell you two. Out the window to the right I can see the Marin Headland, and the tree in the back yard still has leaves. To a boy from New York, on the thirty first of December, this is worth noting. The ends of most years fade like most days, salvageable only with focus. Some though swim strangely before me, raised by music, perhaps, or phone calls, the voices of people involved.

In one of these memories a group of boys wander Shibuya, having taken the Saikyo line in from Saitama. They wear coats, for the weather is chilly, and have champagne in bottles in their bags, awaiting the midnight hour. Excited, they enter bars for brief moments, a single beer or a few songs on the dance floor. Occasionally they encounter familiar faces, and sometimes one or anther is left, engaged in conversation, while the rest spill back out onto the streets, where the real party is. They meet up in intersections, stairwells, and public spaces. They are not alone, the city is alive, from the video screens on famous buildings to the pulse of music from every doorway. These boys are young, and in love, in that way that young boys far from home can be, with Shibuya, with people everywhere, and with the evening. They cheer on strangers, and chat with bouncers who are likewise entertained by the celebration. They buy drinks in cheaper establishments and tend bar in fancier ones, as it is that kind of evening, people slipping in and out of roles and positions, gaining a phone number, a friend, or a bottle of gin. As midnight nears they re-unite, somehow coming close enough in the throng to pass champagne to each other, all part of a large circle of people they do not know. The Hachiko exit of the Shibuya station, made famous by countless movies, is an impassable mass of bodies, and the memory ends with the champagne.

Another year, another country, and the image I remember is of Huaihai, it’s lanes blocked by police for a show, a parade, and then fireworks. The year ending is celebrated by Chinese dance teams, by dragon costumes, and by the all-encompassing smoke of fireworks set off both in patterns and in fistfuls. A group of friends have wandered in from various edges of the crowd, working their way in one side street or another to try for a better view of the stage. This memory is from the years where Huahai at Huang Pi Nan Lu feels like the center of the city, before Shanghai sprawls out and becomes familiar. Zhongshan park is still unfathomably distant, and taxi rides avoided despite their scant cost. The parties of this winter are fueled by three kuai baijiu mixed with two kuai coke. But on this evening everything seems still, despite the throngs and the fireworks, the constructed stages and the pulsing lights. Even the crowds are patient with each other, at the end of the year. People wait, and help children up on to shoulders, they let old people to the front and climb phone booths carefully, concerned for the plastic and glass. It is a cold evening, and most have bundled up in hats save the construction workers, who watch from the edges hands in the pockets of their suits. After the show ends a couple walks home down the center of the street, holding hands as they step over the debris, broken costumes and expended fireworks. The crowd, which had filled seven blocks, is gone within thirty minutes, and, as they walk east, the street is given back over to cars by the elevated road, the new year already arrived, and the city returned to it’s plan.

At the end of the year we look back and we tell stories. Tonight, with some new friends and some old, we will go looking for celebrations, lucky to have had so many.

Welcoming others

In the fall of two thousand nine we welcome our first guests to San Francisco. We have lived here scant months, but feel ready. In many ways this is the true test of our comfort in a new place, the ability to show to others what we have built and discovered. Our house is not finished, lacking a desk by the window and a mirror on the wall, but it can be cleaned, the detritus of a life with regular jobs and ultimate games put away, and so it is. We have explored enough to have a coffee shop, a noodle joint, a burger place, and even a sushi restaurant for family outings. The tour of our neighborhood is small, but includes a secluded park on a hill tall enough to afford an incredible view, and Golden Gate Park, near enough for jogs as well as bird watching. We do not know everything, or even many things, but are comfortable with busses, paths by the ocean, and cooking dinner. Our house has but three chairs, yet we can manage to house a guest, and have spare keys.

This ability, to those long with it, seems no grand gift, no special acceptance of place and people. Yet to a transient person it is an achievement long sought. Not only are these four walls new, this specific place, but so too is this city, and state. This is the first lease I have signed in America this decade, possibly ever. Changing my bank’s address of record from my parent’s house I feel my life finally shifting west, belatedly acknowledging where it’s center of gravity has been for years. And after a summer of taking recommendations on cities and neighborhoods it is comforting to lead the way to a mid-morning bagel for a friend fresh off the plane from Shanghai via Beijing. We all rotate around, though, and he is familiar with this neighborhood, having lived here in 01, before heading to Taiwan, and from there to Shanghai, where we met.

In Los Angeles later, for a weekend, in the city that has been the nexus of my travels east and west, we think of all the other places we have seen together. Have I still been everywhere you have ever lived?” he asks, the two of us standing on the rooftop of his new house, looking out towards the Marina, and Venice, and the Pacific. Jets from LAX pass on the horizon. Yes, I say, save San Francisco. And San Francisco he will, for three months in we have begun to welcome visitors.

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.

Our time is short

Spring is a time of transitions.  Summer hours are posted on the student center doors, and there is talk of trailer sizes around the dinner table.  The leaves are blooming, but in Houston the humidity is becoming oppressive.  For the first time in months we close our windows despite the shrieking protests made by their tracks, dust-filled and weathered open.  Air conditioning returns, bringing memories of Shanghai’s summers, and the weeks spent entirely indoors.

It is not just Houston, though, that is in transition.  The city’s occupants, or those I have met, are thrust headlong into summer, their collegiate careers ended in a flourish of family and mortarboards.  Watching them, in bars with friends who will soon be distant, I can almost feel experience relaxing me.  As they sit on the floor, those who still have housing hosting those whose who do not, making art in the long afternoons of the comfortably unemployed, I smile, and head to work.  It is a stark reversal of the past few months, where I would linger over coffee in the mornings as they rushed to class or to the studio, prepped presentations or wrote finals.  It is a good exchange we have made, them content and constantly smiling and myself just barely busy, biking to work with no hands and home again for lunch with good company.

The gift of age, then, has descended on me, eight years removed from my own panicked post-graduation summer.  Don’t go home,” I can say with confidence to those debating their direction.  You can go anywhere for a while, and you’ll miss your friends dreadfully.  Stay here and see people until you’re ready to leave.”  The advice isn’t novel, nor particularly family-oriented, but it comes from observation rather than prediction.  You’ll get a job, you’ll still make art,” I offer, seeing nervous fears arise.  Somewhere in the future both are true, though difficult to keep in sight amidst a quest for housing and storage, for interviews and incomes.

Houston is a different city in the summer than the late winter and early spring, which were beyond treasure, and I understand at last some advice that was offered me a month before.  The woman had asked where I was from, the north east, and my opinion of my new home.  I was pleasantly surprised, I said, and am, and remarked at the glory of a February spent in sandals and jeans.  I would be moving on, I told her, but was happy for the months here.

Then it’s time to go,” she said, before the summer gets here.  Leave while you’ve got a good impression.”

We laughed, and two weeks ago some friends took her advice, departing post-haste almost without pulling off their gowns, their lives boxed and packed before the ceremony, apartments emptied and bare.

Yet here I sit, on the floor of my apartment while those who remain tell stories and grow closer over tattoos and adventures, and I am glad of it.  The month may have given me a taste of humid weather, but it has also given me a sense of time and composure, both good things to take from this city on our approaching homeless tour of the west coast.

And of Houston, like my own graduation years before, I still have fond memories.

Talking about the future

Ethan arrives in town, my second visitor in a month, attending a conference at Rice while the undergrads are on break.  We meet after his session is over, on the grass in Houston’s sunshine.  It is seventy degrees, and he, coming from Wyoming, is in shorts and t-shirt, rejoicing at the freedom.  It has been years since last we met, on an evening in Shanghai when he had likewise, without direct intention, arrived in the city I inhabited.

Encountering friends from previous ages, from far away places like college, high school, or Tokyo, we drift in two ways.  Either meeting becomes more and more an act of presentation, of accounting for the time spent apart, or it is approximately as it ever was, and the conversations gain from the separately gathered wisdom.  A teacher now, I do not know what he will appear as, and, biking up on my Haro in sandals and shades, I thrill to see him, unshaven and care-free, his back against a brick wall, sneakers crossed, the New York Times on his lap.  He pushes his shades up on his baseball cap and gets up, the Ethan I knew, and we go forward, rather than explaining.

Visits from friends of the second kind, who need no introduction and require no apprehension, are necessary.  Planning our lives, in the largest sense of destinations, aspirations and occupations, requires conversation, or is better for it.  Speaking of things that are far from now, or may never become real, is an art, that of conjuring a future for ourselves.  Out of these conversations come goals, followed by struggle and possibly success.  A matter of shaping the future, and one that depends on who we can work with, and talk to.  With an ever-expanding circle of friends, well-known and just met, the gift of a few hours with one from years prior is just that, and we sit in the sun outside Valhalla.  The beers are ninety five cents, the sun warm, and the conversation of jobs, and purchases, of the cost of things, and living with no income.  We talk of girlfriends and travels, of the freedom to go and the reasons to stay.  He mentions hand-crafted skis, I show him my hand-crafted bag, and we go round again through teaching and life lessons.

Gifts like these, arrivals of friends from experiences long since past, are the best parts of living so often so far from anything I know.  Friday afternoons on grass in the sun with people who are often likewise give us some space to toss around ideas and histories until it is time again to separate.  Four years ago the gift was Shanghai’s streets, this week Rice’s empty campus.  Our lives happen in between, built out of the hopes first voiced in these discussions.

Transient in all ways

The air is what changes with seasons.  Hot and muggy in the summer, chill and dry in the winter, or hot and dry and cold and wet, the air is more than temperature, it is feel.  Sometimes these seasonal shifts bring unwelcome days spent indoors sheltering.  Sometimes they bring days with scant light, or with an abundance.  At an ultimate tournament in Copenhagen two years ago the sun set near eleven, and players lingered outside long into the evening, marveling at the gift.  In the winter the same climes are less inviting, and so, creatures of this mobile world, we depart for places less socked in with snow and ice.

It is February, the calendar tells me, though the February of my childhood memories bears no relation to these days of lively air, of sun and wind and a hint of rain, off in the distance.  It is not dry, nor hot, neither chilly nor muggy.  For these weeks Houston glows, and we take any excuse for long walks, evening strolls, and afternoons spent lazing with the windows open.  Houston may be horrible in the summer as locals claim, muggy and hot with air still and sitting on the city.  Shanghai is, five almost unbearable summers proved that, and all those with the ability flee to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Europe, North America.

An hour of flying has the carbon footprint of driving for a year, I hear.  Car-less, then, I am still no more removed from our planet’s doom than anyone else.  Let’s move to somewhere we can walk, I say, let’s move somewhere we don’t have to sit in traffic.  Let’s fly somewhere, for vacation, I say.  Let’s fly somewhere to see the world, and the hypocrisy, if true, is staggering.  Reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking a year ago, I marveled at their use of air travel.  Her story of loss, brilliant in its clarity, was for me as much a commentary on air travel, and our shifting abilities.  She speaks of hopping up and down the California coast for dinner, on the PSA, an airline that no longer exists.  Fascinated, I look them up, finding hijackings and crashes, joy and marketing all gradually subsumed into now-bankrupt nationwide carriers.  Her stories, and their $13.50 aisle seats, belong to a different era, where airlines flew when they wanted to, or when they were full, like Chinese mini-busses do now, circling the train stations in search of passengers.

Playing ultimate yesterday with the wind blowing and sun shining, a woman told me of playing on similar days in Northern Europe.  She mentioned living in Korea, and  I told her of the tournament held yearly in Jeju, on practice fields built for the 2002 World Cup, and how the wind there blows off the ocean that lies just over the cliffs.  All our travels are comparable through wind, and all were brought back to us standing amid yesterday’s gusts.

Coming home today, I stand outside and watch this day unfold.  It is weather to bottle, says a friend, to save forever.  We cannot, of course, the only store for days like this is in our memories, which is why we tell stories, and share travel histories.  And I wonder, watching the clouds blow by in huge gusts that reach the ground so gently, whether this too is an era, and we, like Didion, will write stories of it that will astonish in thirty years, sending readers to Wikipedia and to pages kept by those who remember.  Will two hundred dollar flights to an island south of Korea for a weekend of ultimate have the same allure of the PSA, of the common since become impossible?  I consider the carbon footprint, my dislike for the automobile, and that claimed equivalent, and suspect they will.

Not quite yet, though.  A friend is coming, from New York’s ice and snow, to see these magical February Houston days, hopping down for a weekend.  He won’t be riding the smile, and it won’t cost him $13.50, but, if the weather holds and the flight is safe, the belief that our lives are special, and temporary, will be hard to shake.

Airports

That these huge spaces are so frequently written about is unsurprising.  We are a transient people consumed with life and information. Towering buildings granted meaning by our passage yet requiring the sacrifice of hours, airports have come to represent so much of the pause time in our lives.  They are a space not personal, not pre-scheduled or already occupied.  Thus emptied of purpose save the passing through they grant us a moment to analyze and write, to listen to our thoughts and watch others likewise held motionless by their very pursuit of such.  With news televisions, internet, cell service, pay phones, sports bars and large windows they provide plenty of inputs.  They do not leave us isolated, but unable to act.

Yes, we restlessly patrol our Blackberries for urgent problems to resolve.  And there are those of us who simply space out, earbuds in and mind in neutral.  Others pace, restless legs patrolling wide corridors while one hand holds the phone pressed against the jaw, checking again on the project we’ve been preparing to leave for weeks, in case one last moment of nervousness can guarantee success.  We cram our legs up into our seats, leaving nothing touching the floor, no limb to anchor us to this city we are about to depart as we confide in family members we have just left, or will soon see.  And we drink, relaxing in darkened caves away from the ever-present fluorescents and their helpfully automated voices reminding us that the automated walkway is coming to an end, that the alert level is orange, that our belongings are for handling by us alone.

The airport is an odd space for us, once through the security check, cut off from those who came to wish us farewell but still here, not yet separated by time zone or ocean.  It is a space no one wishes for interactions in, save perhaps that brief farewell or hello, which we prefer at curbside, stepping into a vehicle that can escort us from the lonely halls.  We hope for a speedy passage through, minimal time in baggage claim, in ticketing, going through security, yet we arrive with hours to spare, ensuring those moments of contemplation at the gate.

This gift of mental peace and clarity, these unclaimed, unscheduled half hours are the true miracle of airports, of this giant network we have built.  So it is a good sign then to see how much writing they produce, how much thought, how many compassionate phone calls checking in on loved ones.

Now if there were such moments of unclaimed quiet in the progress of our daily lives, what would we contemplate, what would be produced in those hours removed from the world yet enmeshed in its workings?

A decade on

When counted as a stack of days, ten years is a long time.  In the history of a place, though, ten years depends entirely on when.  Lansing, small and rural, looked almost identical this August.  Ithaca has changed, with some new buildings, a Starbucks in Collegetown, a Walmart on Rte 13.  These are small shifts, though passionately fought against for years.  They are changes that do not disguise the place, save to those who have spent every day there.  All changes like that happened long before, in waves that have long left upstate New York.

Shanghai has become a creature completely unrecognizable to the countryside from whence it sprung, a decade earlier.  Those still able to find their way through the streets to their homes have mapped each change and watched their neighbors move on, move outwards, move up with the construction.  But it is not the larger places that have changed most these past ten years, New York and Tokyo still very similar to their counterparts of nineteen ninety eight.  Rather a decade’s worth of change is a matter of focus, a matter of effort.  Change is something that must be made, conscious and full-willing, despite the scale of time.

A decade is a long time to a person.  Or it can be.  People change by waking up and doing different, rather than simply as they have before.  People change by waking up and doing.  From nineteen to twenty nine seems long enough a corridor that memories from either end throw strange echoes off the wall.  Yet maybe from some greater remove of age the gap would not seem so great.  Or perhaps from a life with less motion, with less change in the same period, the similarities would shine through.

A decade ago prosperity seemed possible, democracy seemed casual, intelligence seemed valuable.  A decade ago growing old together seemed half madness, half obvious.  Growing old at nineteen an impossibility, a myth from those with no connection to the age.  May it always seem this way to those old enough to vote yet not to drink, and may they not always be given only one of those privileges.  Ten years ago the idea that the people I knew I would continue to was more basic a fact than gravity.  Friendships built in the fires of high school, of late night drives and semi-legal building climbs would endure anything.

A decade ago.  Yet here we stand, separated by every one of those stack of days.  Because there is another fact ignored in the belief stated above, that change comes from waking up and doing.  Sometimes change comes from not waking up, and not doing.  Ten years ago that seemed an impossible choice.  Today it seems even more so, reinforced by each decision I make, each place I see.  Of all the changes these years have brought, wars, jobs, friendships, travels, the one hardest to imagine is their lack.

Gary Snyder’s words linger as I type in a cafe in Houston, a city impossibly far from our high school plans. Ten years and more have gone by, I’ve always known where you were.” And I have.  And each morning I get up and do, making changes that take me further and further away from this day ten years ago, in nineteen ninety eight.

The confluence of dates is simple coincidence, but I think you’d be grinning at the change we’ve been working on, given the decade that’s come and gone.  I think you’d want to celebrate, and climb things, and run around with that wild look in your eyes, just like I will, tonight.

And sometimes, for a matter of hours in the span of these years, the distance doesn’t seem so long.

Quoted line from Gary Snyder’s December at Yase’, the final poem of his Four Poems for Robin’ published in The Back Country (1968), No Nature (1992) and The Gary Snyder Reader (1999)

Settling into weather

With fear comes many things.

The weather report beckons doom for my new home, in most of a half-dozen computer-generated predictions.  Then in all of them.  In a car, unfortunately, on the way to breakfast, the gas station is overwhelmed with drivers, spilling onto the road and disrupting traffic.

The sky is blue, with small cloudlets adrift in no discernible pattern.  I startle slightly at the earnest measures.  Evacuation measures engulf entire districts, and new-found friends.  Seven years previous, just before America’s transformation, I stood on the balcony of my new home, trying to see Fuji through the sideways rain.  The tsunami brought flooding and broken umbrellas to Saitama, far inland of the sea, and damage I was not equipped to assess elsewhere.  With the mass of suited commuters I huddled behind vending machines on the Saikyo’s elevated platform, drenched through, until later that evening I found a windbreaker and rain pants to cover work’s requisite tie and slacks.

In the evening of the coming storm we help piling furniture into pools, stashing barbecues indoors and securing all signs of outdoor living.  Our own house, small and box-like in nature, had already been prepared, books moved away from windows and covered lest they break, things unplugged for the inevitable power lapse, computer backed up and bicycle brought indoors.

Food, cash, gas, these things I had gathered either inadequately or not at all, instead relying on other’s preparations, on those who took the week’s worth of prognosticating in the utterly serious fashion it was meant.  The concept of such informational deluge, made real the night of the storm through all-hours television and then battery-powered-radio coverage, overwhelms my senses and I flee to fiction, to small personal tasks, and then to yard work, to food preparation and consumption.  I am sheltered by those who have but just met me, and appreciate their kindness even as I am stunned by their dedication.

Yes, the purpose of the opening statement is to clarify the outcomes, not to decry the causes.  In a storm severe enough to shatter trees, windows and roadways, I remained safe not because I saw the needless fear in the advisory messages, but due to the kindness of those who appreciated the severity of the warnings so direly delivered.

As for my new home, I am proud of its structural integrity and admire the wood floors and light.  As for my new city, I appreciate the hospitality and am not frightened by the news or weather.  The year will speed past I am sure, three weeks already in more like a moment, and be gone.  There will be smaller victories and larger lessons, but post natural destruction I can not avoid the memories of that first week in Saitama and the weather’s similarly unexpected impact.  Likewise I find us here glorying in the first day of clear skies, welcoming in the autumn’s long afternoon with relieved grins after long travels and trying arrivals.

Flying home

Again thirty thousand feet up, on a flight of a length that will become rarer.  Having said goodbye to friends and roommates, business contacts and those who welcomed me into Shanghai five years ago, I am on my way home.

The trip will not be short, though this flight, eleven hours of China Eastern hospitality, is about as quickly as one can swap China for the lower forty eight.  Yet, having leapt across the Pacific in a binge of time travel, I will not continue east apace.  I will drift, this evening into a sports bar in Santa Monica, to watch the Cardinals and meet old friends.  I will slow my travels gradually, from plane to taxi to bicycle to, at last, sandal-clad shuffle.  At this pace my heart may have time to catch up to my body, at least enough to be of use.  Right now it is torn between a woman in the mountains of Colorado and a friend walking away from the intersection of Jianguo Lu and Yueyang Lu.  It is torn between where I am going and where I have been, on a scale rare but not unique in my memory.  I struggle to  remember leaving Shanghai the first time, to Thailand and then the US in two thousand four, all belongings likewise shipped or abandoned.  I barely remember those months at home, selling my father’s collections on eBay for money eventually used to return, post election, to Shanghai.

Today’s sense of confusion, loss, and singular aloneness does not echo that transition.  The flight that comes back to me here in 41G, surrounded by sleeping Chinese and Americans, is the flight from Tokyo to Shanghai on August eighteenth, two thousand three.  The boy on that flight cried often, for lovers, friends and the comfort of the life he had left.  The sharpest memory, of standing on the observation deck at Narita, thankfully not alone, watching the incoming planes prior to my own boarding, brings sadness even yet.  Saying goodbye today is like that, though in many ways it will never be so permanent.  Most of my friends in Japan are still there, people I see rarely and think of often.  Most of my friends from Shanghai are American or there frequently, and reunions will not be as costly.  In some ways the Shanghai I have lived for the past five years is coming with me to America, somewhere.  Though we won’t be roommates, and contact will become a celebration rather than a morning necessity, it will be more than I have with the life I lived from September seventh, two thousand one until that August afternoon two years later.

Shanghai was, in many ways, a second chance to make something lasting out of a new country.  Sitting here, excited for the future but saddened by the exit, I know I have done that. And it’s a reminder, to all the friends I have scattered across the world: Eventually I’ll have another house to visit, another couch to crash on.  For the next few weeks though I’ll be the one showing up, knocking on doors and looking for a place to sleep.

Discoveries

Learning a place comes with the gift of discovery that fades with time.  Finding for the first time, after months in-country, whole blocks of cheese in a supermarket beneath Xujiahui.  That simple event - something Americans must first learn to be impressed by - changed our whole day.  This discovery of cheese: gouda, cheddar, swiss, more, required bread, wine, and the park.  Sitting in an apartment in Brooklyn now, years later, the sudden joy returns to me in other disguises.

I copy keys after asking around, discovering bicycle shops and long-time locksmiths in the same morning.  Afterwards, squatting up against a wall Chinese style, with a bagel and coffee, I remember where this glow comes from.  It comes from discovering anew things once taken for granted.  On Yongjia Lu there is a man with a key machine.  He fixes bicycles, patches tires, sells locks, repairs chains.  If asked he drags the key copier out onto the street, and digs through the rack of locks hanging on the wall for an extension cord, battered and covered in grease.  He turns the machine on and starts matching the grooves with a blank, by hand.  Sometimes the keys do not work, when his eyes guess wrong and his fingers fail to spot the error.  Usually they are fine, shiny and new, replacing those broken on beer bottle futility or packed up along with sleeping bags by friends on their way out of town.

In Park Slope the locksmith takes four minutes for a task for which I expect an hour and much of the neighborhood to stop in for something in the interim.  I am surprised, having just settled in to a long article, and hunt for change, quarters and dimes feeling unfamiliar in my pockets.  The surprise is of old things forgotten yet familiar in their sudden discovery.  For the first time Brooklyn feels like Shanghai feels like Los Angeles, as I wander them all in search of things I once knew.

Sitting in a bar one evening a year before, fresh off a plane and bewildered by time lag, I scanned the beer list for something exotic, something I hadn’t had in ages, and good.  Baseball was on the television, teams and a language I was familiar with, and the breeze blew in the open doorway.  The bartender came back with two bottles, one for me and one for the man next to me, pushing them at us across the wood and moving on.  The other customer might have been older, or not.  He grabbed the Tsingtao and tipped it towards me, saying something about good beer and something about the Yankees.  I clinked bottles, Sierra Nevada Pale, and drank, like him discovering something.  Again.

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.

Shared eyes

They make out frantically, in the back of the taxi, her head on his lap bent back. The abandon does not startle their driver, who weaves through Shanghai’s traffic without pause. The man, baseball hat on, looks up briefly as I slip past on my scooter. The woman, face hidden in the dark of seven pm, does not move; her head is back, mouth up in an imagined gasp for air. He, window again free of my shadow, dives down to her waiting lips in my rear view. Where are they going, this couple so enraptured on Tuesday? Where have they been?

Shanghai, like any where, shifts with the lives its people. Like any people, we shift when caught up in each other. A cold ride home through quickly darkening streets becomes a soft journey barely remembered when not alone. It becomes a passel of stories swapped over the wind and horns, becomes the wait for an end that is glorious in anticipation. Likewise, old haunts long since grown repetitious suddenly provide new afternoons of shared wandering.

A conference center never finished stands several blocks south of Zhaojiabang. First discovered in two thousand three while wandering on lunch breaks from an elementary school nearby it is a mystery of Shanghai, of the Asian Financial Crisis, of some bankruptcy somewhere. Its brick and concrete structure sits astride the terminus of Feng Lin Lu and imparts a strange majesty to this neighborhood, still trapped in the repetitive architecture of China’s 70s and 80s, rows of short squat flats all the same. The marbled-bodied friezes on the front, strangely fixed in place before the windows, floors, and walls, which were never completed, stare out at the tree-lined avenue. A massive gate, likewise roofed in granite long before the arch was framed completely, has been walled off with blue corrugated metal opened only occasionally by the old man who lives in this complex now alone. There is no mention of the plan, intentions, builder, or the once-imagined grandeur save for a model, tucked away in a section of the surrounding construction wall, it’s glass window originally set up to inspire passers-by and now covered by sheet metal. Sneaking through the old man’s room it becomes visible from an end, an odd angle above and behind the complex. In it the ring buildings are five stories high and roofed with peaks rather than the flat structures of skeletal concrete they remain. The central hotel towers fifteen floors above the surrounding streets, it’s intricate curved entrance wide enough to drive up, it’s elevators’ glassy fronts ascending the building’s outer face, gradually rising out of the courtyard to give a view of Xuhui, of Shanghai.

This building, discovered years ago, is wrecked in the fall of two thousand seven, and only the desire to show another, to be somewhere together, to share this city, brings me back to see it crumble. Four years on the view through fresh eyes returns the joy of discovery to mine. It is two years since I climbed through the complex one Sunday in January with a friend, discussing girls and the chances of surviving them while transposing lives (his) to America. The circle is not lost on me, watching the wrecking crew pillage this gigantic complex, imagining so many parts of the life I have built here come crumbling down in that shudder, this shake. Construction in Shanghai is immediate, constant, and temporary. As if in proof of time’s passing buildings are removed from my life, buildings that contained my history here. The noodle shop of Friday lunches in two thousand three has been boarded up for years, the Out of Africa poster that hung behind the tv leans up against the half-obscured window, a small reminder to old customers. The dates I went there on are likewise lost, only peeking in to my memory occasionally as I pass in the dusk of evening, coming home from Cotton’s, from work, from intoxicating conversation.

In Hongqiao, in two thousand four, there was a noodle shop with a wooden door, carved, eight feet high and four across, of a weight made light by hinges yet massive to the touch. Often, in the cold of February, a boy and girl would sit ensconced behind it, neither entirely familiar with the menu, with the street, with each other, or with the city. They slept in an apartment furnished yet made bare by the cold and their caution, on a street whose name neither would remember. Still strung with Christmas lights Hongqiao’s streets felt empty even when packed with the rush of office workers heading home.

Writing a letter in a cafe near there in the fall of oh seven, the streets of Hongqiao have lost their mystery, and I have joined the work day lunch break.  I can no longer find that door. Has New York shifted this much in four years? Is it Shanghai that changes, or the people, or are they both the same?

I scooter up and down Fuxing, sometimes alone, sometimes not, learning new places, noticing new houses, which are often old houses suddenly discovered behind walls and trees long sheltered. Shanghai changes, as does my focus, and both of us are better for it.

On the first Sunday in December the view in all directions fades into white as the pollution descends low and encapsulates everything, like snow, cutting off sound. On Fuxing, kept warm by arms wrapped around me and slipping through the dust into invisibility, the reason I am leaving - this strangling air - strikes us both as gorgeous, and Shanghai is again a city of picturesque memory.

Fall growth

With the typhoon, everything swings about. Trees sway, leaves begin to age, droop, and fall. Seasons happen suddenly, and the heat is gone. Wind whistles through windows that have been open for months with barely a murmur.

Shanghai, though not on the sea, is of it. Buffeted by storms brewed far south and carried by currents to sweep clean the stick of summer, the city sheds the lingering stench of sweating millions. Change, like the weather, happens overnight.

Leg warmers overtake the thin netting of summer nylons, and Shanghai’s population remembers garments lost for months amid closets unopened. Coats, scarves, hats that will all become mandatory within months are suddenly fashion, perched rakishly atop cycling heads.

I spend days out of doors, never alone in the celebration. Fall, unlike Spring, is the temporary, a celebration of what is to go, rather than to come. A friend’s mantra from months back suddenly becomes a daily belief, suddenly supports a never-ending grin.

Get it while you’ve got it.”

With a gentle step and a certain pause for admiration Shanghai does, and we do.

Tokyo, two thousand seven

From Narita, several days past the four-year anniversary of leaving it.

I lived here for two years. Those words sound strange, as the Japanese that flows out of the speakers does not impart meaning in my mind. Two years. September seventh, two thousand one to August eighteenth, two thousand three.

My plane is delayed, Singapore airlines, widely regarded as the world’s best, does not start our relationship on a high note. Forty five minutes though, due to late arrival” is not enough to diminish my desire for the flight onwards. Narita. For two years Tokyo was home, and now it is a space I return to in transit, lost in the system, understanding that I am here for scant hours, and that my requirements are few. Electricity. Internet. The same things Pudong cannot provide, Narita overflows with. Five hundred yen for the day’s internet. A steal compared to some airports in Germany. A steal compared to Shanghai’s utter lack.

GSM cell phones still don’t work here. I will distrust the entire system on this basis a few weeks later. I will be forced to rent a phone, expensive yet foolishly trusting, a few weeks later.

Some days the whole world is filled with echoes, and the day itself cannot get through the mesh of time-lag and personal history. Tina Dico’s voice, lilting:

Watch my neighbors go to work
and look exhausted and burned out when they get back

Saitama rings out of the corners of my ears, my eyes, the train station emptying it’s bicycle-stealing salarymen out into the night, free of the beer-breath-filled train. I stumble home, in these visions, grateful for the peace of that small space I rent, of that small corner of Japan I inhabit.

A dinner party in Shanghai, years later, someone’s mother commenting on taste, on patience, as the Christmas lights sparkled white, which allows them to survive year round, out of all seasonality save for this evening. Gentle splashes of light into shaded swatches of night.

I’ve been blind, too blind to tell false from true
I’ve been so busy running
never stopped to think where I was running to

Now Tina’s voice is live, in a coffee shop in Copenhagen, and the memories are of a vacation, one May morning, sitting on the steps of a church in a Danish square, bleary-eyed and missing Korea.

The memories pile up, and only an onward push can rid them.

But what’s a man without a past
We love him for his lies
and then we try to break him down to make it last
’til they come true

Standing on a train platform in Ueno, past midnight two weeks later, the strings of people homeward bound linger only until the doors close. Machine-purchased coffee tastes the way it did at eighteen, the way it did at twenty two. The stations change as I head east, across and then out of Tokyo’s heart. The train, a crowded mass of smells so distinct and so familiar, gives way to lonely commuters hanging from the hand-rests, gives way to solitary exits from deserted stations, to the chirp of crickets and the crunch of gravel. To a suburb of small towers, balconies creating the odd shapes of houses past. My head a swirling fog of izakaya alcohol and my heart awash in solitary gladness, I remember what I loved here, long after I’ve remembered why I left.

It’s the order that’s elusive, not the memories.

Thank god for this beautiful view

Quoted lyrics from Tina Dickow/Dico’s Room With a View’ off of In The Red (2004) and Tina Dico Live at the Copenhagen Jazzhouse (2007)

Whistle blow

As he holds up his hand, palm facing the oncoming traffic, yellow brim of his hat covering his eyes, the tenuous nature of his position becomes clear.

These men and women who hold traffic at bay with their white-gloved hands, day in and day out on Shanghai’s chaotic streets, inhabit a strange strata. Neither police nor street sweepers, not quite civil servants, yet not volunteers, they are paid the bare minimum and endure disasters. In torrential downpours they stand sheltered beneath swaying umbrellas anchored on the corners. In the sweat of August they hide behind sunglasses, beneath the uniformed hats. Their khaki pants are sometimes tucked into rain-boots, sometimes into dress shoes, sometimes hanging to the ground un-tailored and unfitting. They have no power save their whistle, it’s lanyard presence their baton. They give no tickets, have no higher authority to call. The police do not heed their shrill cries, and so often neither do I.

They are , these capped and uniformed whistlers, between forty and ninety, products of a China that is struggling before the tide of age. They are passed over by children who stand idly beside them, licking ice-cream, lolling from foot to foot, waiting for the light to change. Beside the children stand the cell-phone-staring masses, the bustling business men of degrees and financial mobility. Around all these rushes the never-ceasing crush of scooters, bicycles, odd machines, precisely the traffic these whistles were designed to tame. And ever more cars, overflowing small streets, jam-packing elevated highways, ignoring waves and yells, whistles and vague hand-waved persuasions.

Will this job exist in the Shanghai of 2030? Once this generation fades, and the next, with far fewer children and far grander desires, floods in to take it’s place, who will take these jobs of a dozen hours in the summer’s sweltering heat? Who will stand on curbsides swallowing exhaust and putting out noise for a few hundred kuai a week?

Will these jobs, created in the late eighties, early nineties, late nineties, after the car’s first private introduction, before the pulse of electronic sign boards indicating the average time to Xujiahui, to Zhongshan Lu, fade mysteriously into the labor shortage, into the rising economic prospects, into the disguised waste of a half century?

By the government, for the government, to organize and protect the people. To organize, protect, and employ the people. An entire generation brought up without schooling, and placed into jobs that demand nothing but arrival, persistence, and time.

My children will have more than I did,” words not unique, both true and sad as may be anywhere. In Shanghai they are tinged with the idea, new and startling in scope, that perhaps no one will have what he had, what he has. An entire system, created with a generation’s rise, may disappear with it’s fade.

Attending parking spaces

Some of the people I talk to most often, and enjoy greatly, are those who demand money of me. Not large sums, which is how we survive the irony, neither troubled by the transaction. They watch my scooter for 1 kuai. I, a creature of great habit, frequent few establishments but with incredible regularity.

This job, clad all in blue, slightly above street sweeper yet slightly below whistle-blowing stoplight watcher, is done by machines in the land of my birth. There are no wizened men there, sitting on the flower pots waiting for an approaching cyclist. No women swapping stories to lift the boredom in between progressing up and down their lines of scooters, cycles, oddly motorized contraptions. No one spends their days escorting, re-arranging, directing, in a twelve hour shift of two-wheeled motion. In time lapse the patterns would be mesmerizing.

Perhaps my home town lacks this service not because of the people to machine transformation of so many jobs that has granted the developed world it’s label but because of the lack of two wheeled travel. My home town has no need for rows and rows of carefully restrained and individually locked bicycles. My home town has instead towers of concrete that stack four wheeled machines, in strange and ever-more-increasingly complex patterns. Turn right to exit, turn left to proceed, do not go straight. I re-learn their mazes often.

These men and women, though, do not provide me with some over-arching insight, they provide me with a place to leave my cycle, and I know them well. The woman who watches in Hongqiao, outside Zoe’s cafe, where I eat on Tuesdays, often with a friend since moved away. In rain, she huddles under her umbrella, wondering at my soaking clothes.

It wasn’t raining this morning, was it?” To which I nod and shrug, and we laugh. 1 kuai. Thank you. One day her friend is lounging on the planter, and observes my approach.

He’s a foreigner,” she says, as I park and lock, two kuai, two kuai.” Massive inflation hidden with a half-toothed grin. The parking lady waves her away.

He knows what you’re saying, he comes here every week, stop it, stop it,” and they laugh.

You do, don’t you,” she questions me.

I do.”

1 kuai.”

This is not a foreign story. This is not a story of monetary influence. This is a story of habit, of repetition, and of small interactions that embody places.

The two men who share duties outside the ICBC in Zhongshan park are full of smiles, their spot a prime location filled with shoppers, with building guards, with hotel workers, with bank guards, never silent or empty.

One of them speaks English, a result of living in Australia for four years, he tells me. He offers to share a beer when off at eight pm, shares stories, and asks about my day each time I arrive.

His colleague, who works every other day while he rests, barely speaks. He takes my coin, gives me my receipt, and heads back to his office chair, it’s wheels long gone, that leans against the building’s wall nearby. He is rarely alone, someone else sitting on the low ledge, usually the parking garage attendant, his legs swinging idly while his friend collects my money. This man, his job consisting of twelve hours of tedious patience, smiles hugely at all times.

Parking next to a snazzy new electric cycle one week, my own a battered wreck, sans rearview mirrors, sans seat, sans locks, starter twice changed, headlight busted in, I wonder at this flashy machine’s make, and cost. The characters scrawled on it’s frame are unfamiliar, have no meaning, convey nothing. As he approaches I ask the grinning man how they are said, what they mean. He looks at me and shrugs. I ask what brand this is, what is the name of this brand, what cycle, what characters, how are they read.

He pauses, looks at them and then again at me, his smile never changing, and shrugs, and walks away, his one kuai collected, his receipt distributed. Back to his chair, and his friend.

I don’t know how to read them either,” I say, my Chinese vague and tones wrong, and likewise turn away.

In celebration, time

Cities are built in our minds as layers of stories, novels, photographs, brief visits. To live in them is not to dispel, but to add, not to remove, but to complement. The romantic vision of Paris still exists, after months of work-time drudgery, at another angle of view.

I moved to Shanghai on a vision and some faith. The Shanghai of my dreams had no maps, had no daily commutes. The Pearl Tower didn’t hover over the river, wrapped in pink reflections and the smoke of a thousand explosions. The small houses of the French Concession weren’t torn out and re-furbished, weren’t divided up and re-occupied. My vision, from this angle today, is hard to find. Perhaps it was of Hong Kong, or Tokyo. Perhaps it was actually of Pingyao or Changzhou. There were never this many fireworks, not on a Sunday night in early March. Not enough to have my walk home lit by hundreds from every street corner. Not a week after Chinese New Year, post vacation. Not by every employee, nor with such glee. The Shanghai I left Tokyo for was never wrapped in smoke that flashed green and red, that sparkled, that deafened with the thudding boom no smoke could shield me from.

Watching the suits roll out of Hong Kong plaza at noon on a Wednesday, out of Plaza 66 at 6 pm on a Friday, I wonder where the Shanghai I anticipated has gone. That strange land of Chinese people and mystery, of abduction so literally named that tempted me from afar.

What does New York look like to a boy growing up in Italy? In Mexico? In Bolivia? In Shanghai? What are these visions that drive us all to move across oceans, to push past distance and imagination, and what then do we find?

One night the bar is filled with collars, shirts starting to come un-tucked as Friday’s challenges recede into memory, as beer one’s grateful relief becomes beer four’s sudden enthusiasm. The pool table holds it’s own against the dart boards, the barman counsels whisky choices, Man U scores again and again in slow motion on a pirated Philipino cable channel. Outside on the balcony he’s hard to hear.

Shanghai didn’t have any streetlights when I got here. Now everything is neat.”

The difference between the Shanghai of imagination and the city of reality coalesce around his sentence, around the bar, around the sense of order possessed by New York, London, and Hong Kong, that of money. The global city that airline customers inhabit with such ease slips over the imagined city of men on plastic stools eating at pasteboard tables outside stone houses with no running water, their jackets square cut a reminder of the 40s, their bundled half-dozen layers a reminder of the season and the lack of insulation.

Wreathed in smoke tonight it’s hard to tell the two Shanghai’s apart. Zhaojiabang Lu is a mish-mash of explosions and quiet conversations in posh restaurants, parents taking their families out to huge meals, their servers running out the back between courses to set off crackers with the cooks. The smoke wraps the Audis as they attempt to park in multiples on the sidewalk. The smoke masks the specks of red paper and spots of ash that litter their roofs. The cigarette-selling woman stands, arms crossed and grinning at the scene, beside her friend the fruit vendor. They smile as they chat, these women who watch everything that passes on this street: weather, Audis, firecrackers, construction cranes, trees, men with axes, police.

The Shanghai of my dreams was really of someone else’s, or of fiction loosely based. My own stories of Shanghai are fragmentary, dependent on time, mood, luck, and friendship. The Shanghai of Economist editorials, of NYTimes stock rumblings, of factory openings and shipping schedules is likewise a fiction, an abstraction of the complete picture. Shanghai’s dumpling women standing in the steam mid-morning, water pouring down their faces and hair half tucked back, do share this city with the collar-popping crowd of Louis Vuitton fashion watchers, of Guandi party dancers, of dkd bouncers. My commute to work and the school child’s ride, tucked behind their parents on the scooter, are made on the same streets that Zhang Jimen’s Mercedes takes, that is then swept by hand by a blue-uniformed man who pulls his cart behind him.

Yet for everyone the moment comes, Shanghai’s changed,” it slips out, or I remember when we could,” or Back when …” Our visions falter, caught up in who we’ve become, thinking that the city is likewise obsessed, that the stories are not complementary.

Somewhere in this city is a boy just arrived from a foreign country, unable to speak, uncertain of where he will live when the hotel bill comes due. Somewhere in the city is a girl writing a novel that will lure him here once translated. Somewhere in the city is a visitor preparing to leave, is a teacher preparing to travel on holiday, is a student studying unfamiliar characters, is a man renting a small place all his own.

The Shanghai I was curious about from Japan is hard to see through the smoke of enthusiastic celebration. The Shanghai of my vision, so often forgotten these intervening years, was masked with a haze of confusion, of desire, of ignorance and hope. Tonight, walking home beneath colored thunder, these cities are not as far apart as they seem. They are the same, and have always been.

Months away, and back

In this other city people do not bicycle to work. They log hours of life in automobiles, invest those hours watching license plates for amusement: words paid for simply to alleviate this drone. They have made a collective decision that fifty dollars per person would benefit everyone by giving some form of humor to the mindless jerk and roll of stop and go freeways.

But this is not the difference that surprises. Los Angeles is a city built on the automobile, and we are all aware of the ramifications. That is, we are growing aware of the ramifications. That is, we are still hopelessly inconsiderate of the impact. A sixth grade class, full of boisterous cheer at their opportunity to ignore textbooks, all with their hands raised, desperate to answer.

The worst problem in Shanghai is the traffic.”

I think the pollution is the biggest problem.”

There are too many cars.”

Sixth grade. My next sentences are predictably icy, the strange lack of remorse that age and clarity bring.

Raise your hand if your family has a car.” Three hands out of thirty six.

Raise your hand if you want your family to have a car.” Thirty six hands out of thirty six, with one tentatively slow.

We are not different. The failings are repeated, the desires are mirrored. The time spent in automobiles is not a difference of desire, but a lack of time. In five years, the situation will be mirrored on both sides of the Pacific. Those who contest that statement contest only the number of years, not the fact.

No, the difference that provokes is the one that wakes me each morning, asleep on a leather couch that may not really be, that is green and welcoming, for the first week, and then becomes a strange combination of place to collapse and position to avoid.

The difference is light.

Shanghai is a city built upwards in leaps, towered with an enthusiasm seldom seen by man. It is built of concrete, and of steel, solid rock, sand. These are not items of comfort, they are items of quantity, of ability, of speed, and of cost. These are apartment blocks, yet the concerns of the living are attached last, afterthoughts, minor inconveniences their tenants will suffer through for the next decade, or two. Heating, the entire building a cement shape with no insulation, no space in the walls save for water and electricity, is bolted on to each apartment individually, small blocks to transfer energy out when hot, in when cold. They litter the sides of every building, frequently upgraded, moved, readjusted, individually purchased. The purpose of these buildings is to shelter, not to house. To cover, not to hold. Water pipes are run without thought of pressure, electricity without thought of human use. One line runs to the ceiling center in each room, one ends near the door, one on the far wall, and out. Any further adjustment requires chiseling through the wall and then patching, destroying the cement that is in all cases already too fragile. Too much sand, an irony in a city sinking slowly into it.

In Los Angeles, in Venice, by the beach, I sleep on the sofa of an apartment that is not, for it once was a house. This second floor may have been a deck, half exposed, later walled in when the internal stairs were removed. This is a building built for a family, converted to house three. It is wood, and it creaks in the wind, or when the neighbors start dancing again. It is softer, and warmer, and full of light. The walls are windows, open in the sunshine, sheltered by blinds in the night. The sunlight that wakes me could do so from any direction, my sleeping position visible from any side of the building. In Shanghai’s apartment tower each room gets one window, no more. This does not mean wall space is wasted, but that each apartment has so little of it that faces outwards. That each apartment is a cave, a container, stacked to the sky.

This is not a new surprise. New York knows it, Tokyo and Hong Kong as well. But the strange darkness of my apartment without electricity, even in the longest summer, now has a starker contrast, the well-lit afternoons in Venice, even on the shortest day.

It is a lack of windows, and a lack of wood, both small items that speak to speed, money, and numbers, rather than craft, people, and the desire to inhabit a space full of light.