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.

One year

With regularity the days go by. The anniversary dates of first job offers, visa approvals, leaving parties, and flights all roll past as the summer ends and September begins. Now in October the memories are of our busy first days of house hunting, my last weeks of packing our San Francisco apartment, and those first few weeks in our Hong Kong home.

Mr. Squish doesn’t seem to remember arriving in a pee-soaked state one year before, having traveled farther than most cats ever do. Or maybe he does, but the trauma of that memory and the loss of his SF rooftop are not moments he chooses to commemorate. It can be hard to tell. Either way he naps under the red sofa in the afternoon heat and sprints around the house in the dark with the comfort of a cat familiar with his surroundings. This move may have taken him away from cool weather and the Mission rooftop, but it has given him air conditioning, a variety of rooms to nap in, and the company of a work from home human. I like to think he’s satisfied.

As for the humans, our memories are as fragile as ever. I remember biking home from long days at the office in SF, up hill into the wind, and wondering where we would live next, and how long it would take to get there. A year later I can answer the question, but not remember the urgency with which it was asked.

I don’t want a vacation, I want a new life,” I used to say.

It took more than a year to get one, and while I think often of how lucky we are to be in Hong Kong, the anniversary of the move is as good a time as any to reflect. This morning I do some light shopping in our neighborhood, for my sick partner. The shopping list is not long: avocados and passion fruit from the old couple’s street stand two blocks down. This fruit and vegetable stand, visible from our window, was a major perk of the apartment when we first saw it a year ago. A year later we’re frequent customers and were correct to value it. After that comes sourdough bread, from the coffee shop downstairs. This was a bit of luck, as the coffee shop opened in December, after our lease was signed. It serves wine and cheese in the evening, coffee in the morning, and whole beans and sourdough bread in between. Few establishments, opening directly downstairs, would have both signaled gentrification and fit my work from home routine as well. Last on the shopping list, of course, is some dong lai cha, iced milk tea. In the past year we’ve tried almost all of the small street restaurants and corner breakfast shops in the immediate vicinity, and have favorites for almost every type of dish. This tea, from the slippery egg place, is by far the best, and so a special sick day request.

Living somewhere, as opposed to visiting, is the art of learning a place deeply, enough to have a routine, and also of becoming part of the routine of others. At each of these stops I am no longer a stranger, if not exactly a local. At the small noodle shop I visit first, for myself, I’m by now a regular, if one who orders few things and understands little Cantonese. A year in though I’ve started to learn, and will get better.

A year in a place is both a long time and not. This year has been enough to make friends and change jobs, it’s been enough to become part of established social groups and to start new ones. A year though, as I first realized in Tokyo, is not long enough to really know much, or to have explored everything. In some ways a year is no time at all. And so, starting the second year of our lease, becoming comfortable in each of our second jobs here, looking back makes me happy. We’ve come a long way from those last weeks in San Francisco, from our one bedroom in the Mission. We’re settled, and home, in this new city.

20 hours

When I was young it was hard for me to understand why my father and his best friends lived in separate towns. They had gone to high school together, moved apart for university, and stayed. Individually the decisions made sense, but as a group, for the friendships, the decisions made quality time rarer, made being a part of the day to day impossible. They still worked to maintain friendships, traveling for events or birthdays, making the long distance phone calls that used to cost money.

I no longer am surprised by these decisions. I haven’t lived in the same town as my best friend since college, and haven’t lived even in regional proximity with most of my good friends since the location where we became friends, be it college, Tokyo, Shanghai, or San Francisco. In many ways this has forced me to make new friends, people who are now in that category of too far away to be daily contacts but still remain my favorite people”. It’s a strange category but one I keep adding to. Which leads me to the topic, and my new focus on short chunks of time.

In relationships separated by long distances, everything becomes discrete, a single visit, a single evening, a cup of coffee. In the best cases we get a day and a half together, one night and the following day. Call it twenty hours tops, to both remember the old times and share current challenges, to have longer conversations about serious topics and laugh at common jokes. These opportunities are short, but real, repeatable with most of my circle every calendar year. My abilities here are a gift of work travel and the result of personal dedication, because I know now that regular contact will not happen if not prioritized. The world is too big and our lives too full to allow accidental gifts like this evening in Las Vegas to cover all our desires. And so my most important friendships are built in chunks of hours, and require a kind of focus, a dedication, that has improved my life. Knowing that our time together is rare we all prioritize the moment, and are willing to be unavailable elsewhere to make sure the conversation is our focus and our thoughts are not overwhelmed by minor obligations, background stress.

The results of this mutual focus is incredible, and something I have grown to appreciate over time. At first I was let down to realize that, like my father, I’d created a life where my favorite people were rare guests rather than regular members. Lately though I understand that the depth of commitment required to sustain friendships across years and borders has resulted in my best sounding boards, my most true conversations. In twenty hours there is little time for superficial, and we quickly jump to career questions, business challenges, and family. The questions and ideas posed to me in these brief meetings over coffee in New York or drinks in Los Angeles drive my mind for months, often until the next meeting with a different member of my ever-expanding circle.

And expand this circle I do, with new friends gathered at each stop, in each new city. The best moments, then, are of realizing how large the circle has grown, how many of these distant deep friendships there are, and how much they sustain me and enable whatever is next. As expected Hong Kong is providing the next home base for this growth, for new friendships to blossom into deep ones and old acquaintances to swing through. In just a few short months in the city we’ve hosted friends from Singapore and San Francisco and seen family from both sides, which are good indicators of the new life’s pace. Writing this from Los Angeles, while my best friend is briefly at a meeting, is another indicator of my own circles and how they will be maintained despite the move abroad. Through twenty years of friendship we’ve continued to find time together, whether we live at opposite ends of the state or across the Pacific.

Here then, if you’re reading this, is to the next time we’re in the same place for an hour or twenty, and how those moments will not just sustain friendship but improve it. The past two decades are proof that this method works for me, just as the past four decades have proved it to for my father, who is this weekend en route to his high school friend’s daughter’s baby shower. May we all be in our own ways so lucky.

Places I slept, 2018

New View

The year ends with a new view. For the first time since twenty fourteen, we have a new address. For the first time since two thousand nine, we live in a new city, and for the first time since two thousand eight, a new country. That is what will summarize twenty eighteen in my memory: we moved to Hong Kong.

Looking back across things I wrote while living in San Francisco is the only way to understand how long the transition took. The earliest mention of moving on comes in two thousand twelve, written as we were moving from the Sunset district to the Richmond district in SF. My lasting memories from that year, without the aid of recollection, are of Obama’s second win, celebrated on Divisadero, and welcoming Mr. Squish, who also caused the move. It feels a very long time ago.

As I wrote at the end of last year our decisions in twenty seventeen shaped most of this year. The desire for different, long present, began for real with Tara’s flight to Spain the day after leaving Tesla. It became fact on the first of October, when we landed in Hong Kong. The gap between those two events, some ten months, will fade with time and deserve more recognition. Our ability to move was grounded in Tara’s freedom and our ability to be patient. Living for a possible future rather than a present takes an amount of self-belief that can be hard to sustain, and both of us struggled with it at times in the spring. Those difficult moments of self-doubt and fear are what will be lost in the grand story of our time in San Francisco and Hong Kong. The weekends we spent making plans A through E to have enough options to fall back on are rarely the highlights of our adventures, nor are they filled with laughter. Those plans, though, were what sustained us and stopped us from staying the course in San Francisco. Moving abroad, as adults, without sacrificing careers or facing too much financial uncertainty, is a challenging game of logistics, desire, and luck. Writing this from our Hong Kong apartment is proof we managed all three.

Despite that move, or more accurately because of it, my list below of places slept is smaller than it has been in years, and focused tightly on neighborhood hunting in Hong Kong, work in the Shenzhen Dongguan Guangzhou Zhuhai area, and family in the US. In many ways this list, started to aid my memory, has succeeded in defining, quickly, the shape of life. Scanning the previous entries I can spot friends’ moves and the slow shift of job changes. I can’t wait to see what 2019 brings, with a new home base and some familiar stops already planned.

As always, thanks for reading. Twenty eighteen feels like a fresh start, both in writing and in learning. I’ve been sending physical mail again, trying to get back up to my five pieces per month target of the early part of this decade. If you haven’t gotten any, send me your address and you will.

Here it is then, the list. Previous years can be found here, back to 2009 when this project began.

Portland, OR
Mt. Shasta, CA
San Francisco, CA
Henderson, NV
Newport, CA
Malibu, CA
Phoenix, AZ
Bao’an, Shenzhen, China
Zhuhai, China
Kowloon, Hong Kong
North Point, Hong Kong
Austin, TX
Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
San Po Kong, Hong Kong
Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong
Wan Chai, Hong Kong
Bellingham, WA
Aurora, IL
Ft Collins, CO
Elko, NV
Rio Linda, CA
TST East, Hong Kong
Cherry Hill, NJ
Rumson, NJ
Brooklyn, NY
Tai Hang, Hong Kong
Doumen, Zhuhai, China

And as for Mr. Squish? He made it farther than any street cat from the East Bay ever expects to go, and we’re so grateful for his company. As I write this he’s asleep in his chair in the living room, finally relaxed in this new country.

Portland, OR
Mt. Shasta, CA
San Francisco, CA
Tai Hang, Hong Kong

Eyes open heart wide

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

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

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

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

Ease of operation

Looking out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get moving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing time

Studio closing, equipment for sale inside” says the sign, handwritten on an piece of A4 paper.

It’s a quiet end to a dream.

For more than ten years my friend has run a recording studio here, at 7th and Howard. He worked hard to make this dream a reality, by finding space, by saving money, by living in odd spaces to afford the building’s rent, by scrounging gear, by making trades and finally by meeting bands, by inviting musicians into his achievement, and helping make their dreams in exchange. He has worked odd gigs on the sides to cover expenses, and invested so much of himself in building what he hoped would continue.

Helping sort some boxes, pull down some lights, and throw out some small portion of the past ten year’s accumulation, I am glad to be here. Sad, too, of course, at the small failures. Sadder still at our approaching middle age that makes the failures real, makes us have to decide finally if this business is a life, or just a section of one. We are no longer twenty five, hoping to achieve things one day. Instead we have to look at forty and determine if where we are is where we want to be in another ten years. And if not, we have to figure out how to leave.

In a SOMA evening, the kind of breazy warmth rare to San Francisco, we carry trash cans out into the night. Bottles and cans, from clean-up crews of the week prior, are set aside for the scavengers who wait patiently at the other end of the block for us to close the door and give them space.

Inside, climbing a rickety aluminum ladder with a caution my younger self would not have shown, I remember so many other evenings like this, building or taking down, in so many strange spaces across the North East. Theaters, mostly, but also churches, bars, warehouses, and the occasional alley. In a sense, this is just one more show whose run is finished, one more set to be deconstructed in so much less time than it took to build.

Leaving later, down Howard on our bicycles in the night, I feel the post-show low too. I wonder where I’ll see my friend again, now that we’ll no longer bump into each other walking down the streets of the Mission or SOMA at odd hours. I wonder where we’ll get to build again.

And that question lets me smile, makes me happy. Because on our last parting, in Boston in two thousand one, I couldn’t forsee meeting at a friend’s house in San Francisco eight years later, to play Magic and Mario Kart again, as though nothing had changed.

Many things have, of course, and more will for both of us. Adventures are to be cherished, though. The freedom to say goodbye is hard to come by.

At the end though we don’t use that word.

See you somewhere,” we say instead, after a hug. Maybe Berlin.”

Past waiting

Nine years ago I quit my job in Shanghai and began the process of moving back to the United States. I was excited.

I am again excited. What has changed in the past nine years? Looking around our small San Francisco apartment in the dark of four am the answers are obvious. The cat, currently curled inside his spherical palace, relies on us. That, and the pronoun in the previous sentence.

In Shanghai I had books, like the ones on these walls. They went into green boxes from China Post and then back, via scooter, one at a time to be shipped to the US, to an address in a city I barely knew.

In San Francisco I have books too. Two weeks ago we sorted them all, a pile to keep a pile to donate. The keep pile isn’t much larger than it was in Shanghai. Some of them, Ondaatje and Gibson, came to the US in those green boxes. Most were purchased here, replacing older versions pressed on friends. This is true for more than books. So much of what I loved and left behind in China I’ve re-purchased. Even the sofa I’m lying on now is the same. As Tara would say, that’s the beauty of the global megacity: IKEA and Kinokuniya everywhere.

Further surveying the apartment there are some differences. I definitely have more backpacks now. Or at least I think so. It’s hard to remember exactly what I moved where with. A Tom Bihn bag I am sure of. The custom RELoad bag arrived in Houston. The Outlier, Goruck, Timbuk2 and Peak bags are San Francisco discoveries.

Mostly, though, we will pack light, taking as little as possible. And so, in these free weeks in the spring of twenty seventeen, I begin the process of disassembling our life, sorting through back up cables, back up bowls, and back up hoodies, and reducing in all directions.

In the afternoons I go to the bouldering gym, practicing a new skill with the same joy that I practiced slacklining in the grassy quad of Jiaotong University almost a decade ago. Being able to sit and think, to pack, and to work out in the freedom of the gym’s quiet hours are stranger abilities now than they seemed in two thousand eight, which makes me think of how our life has changed since.

Mostly I realize how lucky I am, to have been so free at twenty eight, and to be again so at thirty seven. And how lucky we are, to be able to consider so many options.

Including the cat, who loves the homebody I have become.

Just one

Life is full of phases. Easy segmentation comes in the form of school graduations and new jobs. These moments force us out of our houses and friend circles and introduce us to entirely new groups of people. Colleagues become friends, and fellow students drift away into Facebook birthday reminders. Some times they, or we, resurface a decade later, in a different town. Usually not. And when the new job ends we leave behind most of our colleagues, save for one or two we still see outside of any office, in circumstances far divorced from the workplace that first introduced us.

Life is fully of these changes, more for some people than for others. Depending on how often we move, how many jobs we have, and how many schools we attend the number of groups we’re part of varies. The kind of interactions, though, are stable. Out of each group there will be people we connect with, people we want to hold on to when the binding circumstance drifts away.

Living in upstate New York, at Vassar, and then in Tokyo and Shanghai, my groups are varied, distant, and rarely overlap. I’m lucky to have even one friend that shares multiple locations, let alone three. Most of my friends come from one of the many jobs, one of the many frisbee teams, one of the handful of cities. People I met while working at a delivery company in Shanghai, or a teaching job in Tokyo. Like most, I have friends from middle school, high school, or college. And now, on the west coast, I know people from a couple of jobs well enough to invite them over. At least one from each.

For those of us that move frequently, that have homes in different countries, friends in different cities, that’s a good place to start: one from each. Writing letters to Seth in Singapore last week I realized how special it is, to have him remember my apartment in Tokyo, to have him know my first apartment in Shanghai, and the grass of Vassar’s quad. There are several people who I can share each set of memories with, but only one who knows all three.

Standing last night in a yard in the Oakland hills with a friend from a job in the US, meeting his wife, brother, and father for the first time, I realized he’s one of a few, of very few, that I will stay connected with from those three years driving to Petaluma every day. There are others, scattered all over the globe, people I remember and will connect with when able. But few of them will invite me over, few will I meet up with in Shanghai late on a Saturday evening when all our work is done.

One is enough, sometimes. Given how much I like change, adding someone at each stop is a good pace. Sometimes I am lucky, and a frisbee team gives me a plethora. But it’s good to find someone from each part of life, to help with my memories, and to prove that we built something over all those days together.

Just around the corner

On a Sunday in October we are in search of a bike shop. Between the two of us we have a bald tire and aging brakes. In 2014 we’ve increased our miles ridden, part of the transition to a single car and a Mission apartment. In exchange, bicycles that have neither needed nor recieved maintenance in years are due and deserving. Over lunch we search out a place, now an act of skimming crowd-sourced recommendations that becomes more familiar with every move. We rely on those we have never met so regularly, bus drivers and engineers, architects and grid operators, that asking for recommendations anonymously is an easy habit. It’s an exchange made more personal by profiles and star ratings for restaurants and shops, if not more important. And with each recommendation tested we become more comfortable in this, our third San Francisco neighborhood. It is a comfort built on learning, slowly, where to go for what. For bicycles this is our first try. Our last cycle shop was in the Sunset, and evolved during our time in the neighborhood, Roaring Mouse transforming into Everybody Bikes as the former moved to the Marina.

In the Richmond we did not have a local favorite, preferring the 38 and a walk to a chill ride home through Golden Gate Park most nights.

In Shanghai we had many mechanics, all over the city, wherever they were needed.

On Nanyang Lu behind Plaza 66 one evening, having gotten a flat on a broken bottle. Somewhere in the old town one night after a volleyball game when the starter on my electric scooter failed. Mostly, though, on Yongjia Lu at Yueyang Lu, a block from our last apartment. A tiny shop, really the front of a house, filled with equipment packed densly in each evening and pulled out on to the sidewalk during business hours. The man who ran it also made keys.

On these earlier searches we mostly did not have Yelp, did not rely on unknown people, save for the mechanics themselves, or other cyclists met on the street. Instead we used the bicycles themselves to explore and discover.

Like all such searches, in the Mission we are seeking both convenience and quality, focusing on a small area and hoping that our neighborhood can support the service. It can, and we find sevaral options, settling on one that is both open and near our favorite coffee shop.

Years ago I wrote about neighborhood boundaries, and familiarity. Building that knowledge again in the Mission I think of how transportation defines it, how bicycles expand it and reward casual exploration due to the low cost of going one more block, or an unfamiliar route. Without too much concern for one way streets, traffic, or parking, bicycles are better than cars in this regard. They are better than walking as well, for the limited energy expended to cover six blocks in all permutations. Or our bicycles will be, once they have brakes and tires.

We own four bicycles, though only two are available on this Sunday. The oldest, my Haro, purchased in Venice in 2006, is still in Los Angeles at a friend’s house. Having come with us from LA to Houston in 2008, to San Francisco in 2009, it returned to LA in 2011, less than perfectly suited to the wiggle and San Francisco’s hills.

The second, one of two old Peugeot frames, was damaged by a car on 19th Ave in 2010 and, though having been repaired several times, now needs a new front tire, perhaps wheel, and sits without either in our garage.

Two working bicycles then, just enough for exploration, for a quick trip to the gym and some meandering to a new lunch spot. Just enough to take us to the edges of our neighborhood and to expand those edges. Part of learning each new portion of San Francisco or of our earlier cities is figuring out where the boundaries are, where neighborhoods end and to what distance errands can be run. In the Mission, one of San Francisco’s few flat neighborhoods, our reach is wider than it was in either the Sunset or the Richmond.

Here then, finally healthy and home long enough rebuild the center of a life that has been moved and shaken this year, we seek a bike shop, a place to repair and replace. We find our answer three blocks away, Box Dog Bikes. Checking out the bikes for sale while my brakes are replaced, I think of Roaring Mouse, and of my old resource in Shanghai, the man who opened his front doors every morning, and made keys as well as repaired bicycles. We change cities and neighborhoods, and yet seek the same assistance.

No surprise then that in each the shops are not far, around the corner and waiting to be found.

Habitats

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

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

Keep us interesting,” She says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset farewell

To each phase there comes an ending. So often these are clearly marked, irrevocable. The job ends, the visa expires.

In my memory a man of twenty six carries his one box of possessions to his scooter and heads off into the Shanghai traffic alone. From that moment forward he no longer shared a two floor apartment in a concrete building painted green. Riding along Jian Guo Lu he was silent, within and without. Carefully balancing the box and the scooter’s throttle, he drove west with only the quiet whir of the electric motor. His mind, so long divided, was almost empty with the resolution.

The first time China ended with a plane ticket, the apartment packed, some things shipped and many more abandoned. The boy, twenty four, left for Thailand and the States with no intention of returning to the land of dumplings and scooters.

College ended with a bang, one day of pomp and celebration and then the scattering, to cars and new adventures. Or to old haunts and a strange sense of solitude even among old friends.

The second time college ended with a long drive, all belongings again packed or given over. Two now, they gave bicycles to friends, chairs to neighbors, drove furniture back to the ancestral home up north. With one last wave they set out for Big Bend, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and a definitive end to Houston.

In twenty eleven nothing ended. Jobs, houses and family stayed much the same. Vacations were taken, marriages begun, and personal growth, always debatable, seemed possible. New friends were made, and new skills learned in the quiet hours. Strange beds too were slept in, more than usual but not too far afield.

Enough then. For too long stability becomes a crutch, becomes a habit that weighs down rather than an enabler of curiosity that sets free. We are comfortable here, in the Sunset, in San Francisco, in our smallest ways.

And that is why the time has come to go. With small steps first we will venture forth, to the Richmond and new housing. Our aims are larger and our vision not yet clear, but the path is calling. Over hill and ocean once again we will away.

If not just yet this morning.

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.”

There comes a time

We shape places, I have written, as much as they shape us. In the summer months of two thousand nine I think the same is true of time. Turning thirty on a mountain in Colorado, with friends flown in from either coast, the talk is of the landscape, large themes and shared history. In America, later than in many places, these are the years of settling down, and friends from college, from Asia, from both and neither are moving with me through them.

This is the time of late night texts and early morning IMs informing me of good friends’ engagements to their partners of years. In the middle of this country and far from them, having once again driven enough of it’s spread to appreciate the distances, I am glad for each pair in turn. These tales are not just of impending marriage and rings. They are of a variety only distance can shrink to a pattern. Though I am physically closer to these friends than I have been in years I still watch the aggregate shape, aware of our age.

There are remnants of this current crop of decisions in our past, attempts to shape the age we were before the age we are became a shape of it’s own. A friend who now moves to New York to live with a woman once did so before, from Maine to Hawaii, to try to build a future on an island. A boy I once knew likewise moved back to Shanghai to live with a woman. A couple now engaged once moved into a two floor apartment together, a single bicycle their transportation to offices across town. A couple I knew shared a one bedroom in a Chinese apartment complex built years before, where the shower and the toilet were part of one unfinished concrete room and the price, economical to the extreme for a single inhabitant, became a joke with two incomes. The space itself became their burden, moving together to avoid collision, and they moved on, to another country where issues of lines on a map, visas, instead of physical space would push them forward.

Yes, these are not the first attempts, these synchronized decisions of the summer of oh nine. Neither are they an end, and in another decade they may look like a progression rather than an event. This summer though, as friends move from Boston to New York, move from New York to Boston, move from boyfriend to fiance, change coasts in each other’s company, the clustering of decisions is too much in tune to ignore. Our lives are reflected in the passage of years, and, having accumulated enough of them to weigh someone down with are all seeking people like papers seeking stone.

Interviewing cities

In the transient weather of June we drive west with a mission of some beauty.  We are interviewing cities, searching out a new habitat before a new home.  Houston, which had sheltered us these past months, will do no longer, the daily temperatures too frequently in the triple digits of the Fahrenheit scale.

Interviewing cities is a complex act, easily demonstrated by asking anyone about their favorite, or their home town.  Out come adjectives in streams, beautiful, vibrant, alive, tiny, boring, progressive, hot, leisurely.  Adjectives alone do not suffice, layered over with evaluations of the housing market and job prospects.  Cozy means tiny,” we are told, and quaint means old and possibly broken.”  Oh I love this apartment, I’d stay if I could find work,” says a man moving to Alaska for its prospects.  Well the money is alright,” says another friend of his work, which is a remark as dense as a Craigslist apartment ad.  Translated over a beer and into my ears, it means I’d rather do something else.”

The picture, though, is less shady, as we have chosen June so as to see places at their best.  Exactly as we moved to Houston in September, to feel the heat and welcome the gorgeous winter, so do we visit the west coast now, allowing the warnings of gloomy Februaries to bounce off of us in the sunshine.  This is the best weather yet this year,” we hear, in more than one location, and shrug.  To inhabit a new place is to both accept unknown flaws as they emerge and continue to celebrate the reasons we had for arriving.

You are lucky,” a friend says, it’s not many people who get to chose a place they like to live.”

These words follow us for days on the long stretches of I-5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco, between there and Portland, and back.  On I-80, heading again East to Colorado, we consider them.  I could live anywhere,” we both say, independently, and the truth is out.  There are, we know, excellent reasons for inhabiting every place, as we have heard for Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Seattle.  Even Houston, which we have resolutely left, casts a certain charm from it’s position on the Gulf Coast.  Perhaps, with our homeless stature, we grow easier to please, able to imagine ourselves any place with a bed, or without.  Yet in each location our interview follows the same pattern, rigorous.  We scout friends’ apartments, are escorted to bars, restaurants and grocery stores, and then are cut loose, to discover what we will in the longest days of the year.  Walking, car parked and bicycle boxed, we bounce from back streets to river and ocean, from expensive districts to ones even more so.  By interviewing cities we are trying to discover what sort of people they hold, and what beauty.  At the end of most days, footsore and un-fed, we have found people worth watching and people worth meeting, and neighborhoods we’d like another month in, or five.  Though we have limited our search to a few of the nation’s most liberal urban blocks, the feeling which overwhelms us as we drive is of the world’s scale, and the small choices that make up our lives.

Moved here figuring on one year, maybe a couple.  Been here fourteen, and well, yeah, just look at it,” says a friend of a friend.  He speaks of San Francisco, though the echo I hear is of the world, and of living.

Foot traffic

Bike packed I am back to pedestrian travel, moving at the speed of aimless amble rather than that of jogger mom or homeless cart pusher.  I no longer whip past people caught between Land Rover and coffee shop.  Instead, wearing torn jeans, battered sandals and ironic tee I am in their midst, lucky to have less rush propelling my morning and more patience for the dog walkers and the sky mumblers, whether they be bluetooth powered or other radiation fueled.  It is good to be back in Venice, which has become a home base of homelessness for me as it has always been for others.  Nine months ago I sat on these same carpets, steps and couches, my belongings in boxes from China to Houston.

Now, the Houston portion of my adventure complete, I am here again en route to somewhere I have never lived.  Venice welcomes this, her streets lined with vans and Winnebagos that reek of extended occupation. Weather-wise these blocks off the beach are an ideal spot for homelessness, and I watch the wanderers, contemplating the gradual gentrification of Venice and the changes along Rose’s sidewalks these past five years.  There are old men with the air of a previous time trapped in their scraggly beards, and a cereal bar, new and portentous, if not pre-.  The grocery’s windows remain barred and the laundry mat oddly packed mid-morning, signs that while Rose welcomes new company old inhabitants remain.

At an intersection an older women on her bicycle admonishes me as she breaks traffic laws while wearing long gloves and a wide-brimmed hat.  That wasn’t right, horrible I know, shhh,” she says, and I smile.  Telling someone was not in my plans, though it comes to be, and with coffee and bagels balanced and eyes on the surroundings instead of the vehicles I am already a traffic disaster.

Sitting at the cereal bar, several days later, I watch the old Greyhound parked across the street, trailer attached.  It has the sleek lines of the future as seen from the eighties and the curtained windows driven by the last decade’s real estate boom, where prices quintupled as gang violence fell.  The bus’ owner is invisible, though people pass our table in waves, and homeless or not is hard to say.  Is this gradual shift, where Rose loses its gang members and gains dog walkers, as momentous after all?  Fewer gun battles and more Chihuahuas, yet Venice still welcomes those of us with our belongings in our cars, as long as we have friends with more permanent residences.  Breakfast finished, we rise, and, at a clothing store down the street shop but do not buy, the difference between these two levels of homelessness a matter of friendship and attire.

It will be some time still, I think, before Rose resembles Abbot Kinney, and the Shopping Carts for Homeless program, whose product litters the sidewalks, is ironic enough for me to love.

When to go

How long would you stay with no friends?” she asks me from across the table one evening in June, and I count them on my fingers. Six, of every circle, next week five then four then three soon two and what am I to say? I sit in the shade with my glass of gin and wonder at my approaching loss.

Shanghai, like cities everywhere, was not built by those born to this river bend. It was, it is created by the migrants, the expats, the hopeful, the graduates. Its neighborhoods are filled with those here a generation, two, a few years. This sense of migration is audible in every conversation’s beginning, no matter the language. Hello, how are you, where are you from? A tacit understanding on all parts of how rare an answer Shanghai is.

Yet living closer to home would only make this question rarer, not easier. Goodbyes have the same poignancy in any language or location, the same sudden sense of lack on the walk home, the same odd silence from daily routine.

The strangest thing”, she says, is that I am not sure why I am going.”

The strangest thing I nod, though it is not. The strangest thing is that it has taken us all so long to realize what comfort home gives, and what where we are has to say about where we are going.

Standing in a bar, several nights before, five white men across the room gathered around a passel of bottles, mostly empty, and wondering out loud in drunken tones what does it mean, being in China? We’re white, we’re laowai…”

There are certain parts of life that come round, now and again, and shake everything with their passing. Feelings that happen to everyone, in separate moments. Witnessing one’s own questions of years prior replayed in the drunken mess they must have been reminds not of drunken joy but of the passing years and the strange ephemeral nature of questions that once felt so all-encompassing.

In time, everyone moves away. In time, everything changes. In Shanghai, as the summer comes, so too do the goodbyes, as schools end, jobs finish. Like everywhere, people rush to move while the sun shines, having shunned such changes in the winter’s chill. Those that remain adapt, greet arrivals with the fall, and the changes sweep in. Speaking to a friend gone since August his fear of obsolescence is clear in all of those names and not one I know” at a party description, the speed with which this city turns so stark in my now-unfamiliar routine. A month, or three, and whipped past by the world at speed.

It’s about the people,” she says later, in an almost empty apartment in this city of 17 million.

Like anywhere. I hear different words, old echoes.

I just don’t haven’t met anyone I really feel at home with.” A friend, at eighteen, leaving Syracuse.

People here are so cold.” Another, leaving New York at 23.

I need to be somewhere the people are, well, I don’t know…” a woman stammers, transferring colleges at 20. Tokyo’s got this edge, the people are so pushy,” she continues, missing Osaka.

We move, leaving things we do not like, searching out better. A new city, house, country, job. A new set of friends. All these things we’re looking for around the corner, around the planet. The globe revolves, a year or maybe two, and again it’s the place that isn’t right, that hasn’t held to expectations.

In the chill of winter I make preparations for warmer weather, a mystery of heat my memory is too short to conjure. The friends are few and of a likewise lengthy stay, and our conversations turn to moving on with the summer’s heat.

Months later plane tickets are purchased, deadlines in sight. Shanghai empties, and our rooms are left to new arrivals clean.

Transitions

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

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

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

I moved here on a whim.”

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

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

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