Between day and night

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

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

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

Pattern the mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.