New traditions

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

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

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

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

Passing through

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sickness and work

October passes in fits of frisbee, sickness, and work. We see friends from distant cities and chase plastic in mud together. Weeks later the fields are still bumpy with the memories of our bids and cuts.

We are sick too, a common occurrence in the fall, especially after sharing water bottles and meals with dozens of friends from cities across Asia. We’re lucky in these illnesses, though we may have gotten them from Shanghai friends or given them to Tokyo friends. Hopefully the folks from Manila and Singapore went home without the horrible colds of the fall of 2019.

In between the high energy days of games and the low energy ones of frequent naps we work. In offices and factories we spent much of our weeks solving problems no one has had a chance to resolve before us. This is how it works in startups, every problem something no one has yet had time energy money or knowledge to fix. In our new roles we bring at least energy, and occasionally knowledge. It is the luxury of a decade in San Francisco.

These are good times, if blurry. I feel that I finally know what kind of year 2019 will be. I hope we will remember the best parts with enough details to grant it length, but am not optimistic. Some years are simply spent this way, building blocks for all of our lives.

Mostly, here in the first faint whispers of Hong Kong’s fall, I am glad to wear jeans for a trip to Shenzhen, the first time in six months I’ve contemplated denim. The seasons return, belatedly, long after we’ve forgotten their feel on our skin.

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.

Shanghai again, together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Temporary crossings

Looking at the river

We have a gift, in technology, that is transforming our memories. When I began writing, years before this site, the idea of a personal photographic history was a distant vision. Digital cameras were a poorly performing luxury and cellular connections barely able to convey data. I would not own access to either for another half dozen years.

Unsurprisingly the memories of my first trip abroad have a vague feel and possibly apocryphal characteristics. Much of human history has the same quirks. I have always taken the year of my birth as a blessing, lucky to have grown up before self-documentation. Not before documentation, as parents still took photos and recorded far too many Christmas presents being opened, but before the constant self-editing of ones’ personal digital history. And yet cloud backups and quickly accessible photo streams are a gift of another kind, bringing our memories out of the fog of uncertainty and into the concrete in an entirely new way.

They do not, however, constitute the whole truth, something for which I am grateful. There will still be stories told without evidence, and poorly lit photos that do not clearly prove that we were there that night. At least not without consulting the location metadata.

What we do have is the ability to remember a specific day, return to it, and share the remnants of it with new people, or with old friends. We have the ability to instantly look up the last time we saw someone, or the last time we took a photo, at least.

And so it is that I can find the image I remember in a mater of moments. He stands on the deck of a ferry in the bright light of October sun. We are headed across the Yangtze river to a new factory. This was the good kind of trip, all of us excited to see what we would build together. The travel still felt exploratory and joyful. We all laughed and enjoyed the ferry that day, a place none of us had ever expected to see.

Three months later I would be back, on the worst kind of quick turn quality control visit. I would cross this river on this same ferry, or one of four identical vessels. I would spend several days in the cold of Yangzhou and then fly to Tokyo to present my solutions, to apologize, and to wear a suit. That would be the last time we met in person, me apologizing to him and then us both apologizing to a mutual customer. It was an unpleasant occasion at the end of the year. We were both tired, then, exhausted from the compromises of supporting a failing business model. A little more than a month into the new year I changed jobs, and left that industry and that world behind.

The truth is there aren’t many people to tell, few people I know who ever met him, and fewer still I still speak to. Instead I sift through photos of my times in Tokyo, of his trip to Petaluma, and of our factory visits in China. The best ones I send to his colleague, in case they capture moments he does not have. I share the memories I have available, especially of the good days. It’s all I can think of to do.

Long ago and in another country

In the quiet of an unemployed Hong Kong afternoon I watch the clouds gather on the hillside above our apartment and work through memories. For the last several weeks of travel I have been thinking of the distance covered. Distance not in the sense of miles on the road, or places slept, but as people. I am thinking of the distance between who we were, and who we are.

In early twenty seventeen I left a job, convinced that the time was right to become bolder, to move into a new circle and have a wider presence. It was a moment of confidence in my professional abilities. I had gathered several small consulting gigs into a semblance of structure, and was planning to study for a professional certification. I felt more ready for a life without work than I had in years, since two thousand eight. For the first time since returning to the US I was professionally relaxed, if not calm, and ready to try new things. That it had taken me almost a decade is not a surprise to those who’ve struggled with the self-doubt of returning to their home country with a resume built abroad. Discovering the difficulty of conveying the value of broad international experience in a job application can be hard on the mind.

Three months later I was back to work, the beneficiary of friend’s recommendations and personal persistence. We had, at least temporarily, decided to stay in San Francisco, to enjoy the summer and learn as much as we were able.

It is to this point I now return, in memory. To the decision in May twenty seventeen to stay, to learn, and to take the opportunities we had worked so hard to get. Moments like these take a while to evaluate correctly, to understand whether the choice of jobs and hours at them are worth the lessons learned. A friend of mine once said, before he quit the company we’d met at, always do whatever’s next”. That spring, we did.

From my small office window looking out at the towers of Hong Kong, I know we were right to follow his advice. It took but two short years to prove us both so. That new job taught me an entire industry that I’d been interested in for a decade, and gave me the resume line I’d lacked. Tara’s extra year gave her the experience she needed to move on at the right level. Through work and patience we did, to a new role for her and a new country for us both. And now, with another break, albeit an unexpected one, coming to a close, I am again excited for what’s next. I’m looking forward to a new team, to new friends, and new challenges, all of which will be built on the choices of that spring of twenty seventeen.

For the first time in a while I have had time to feel out who we are, and who we are becoming. I’ve had space to evaluate where we wanted to be and our trajectory. It’s a gift, to have time off so frequently, and I try to both celebrate and observe. We’re lucky, and we’re getting closer.

Title quote from Ursula K Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness.

On the road

We spend a week in motion in a rented Kia, exploring toll roads from Illinois to New York. We get gas in Ohio and an Easy Pass in Pennsylvania, and stop in neither state. It is a quick but thorough tour of relatives and friends, and despite the pace nothing feels rushed.

It’s been a while since we drove the east coast, down 81 and through Philly. Longer since I drove from Chicago to Ithaca, a part of the country my companion has never seen. We encounter fierce rains in Cleveland and the Endless Mountains, and see great lightning in Cherry Hill and Rumson. It’s the kind of tour that sees us admire flowers, play tennis, and hold snakes. We eat in back yards and dining rooms, at local restaurants in Brooklyn and at Google’s cafe in Chelsea. I even get a couple of bagels from College Town Bagels in my home town, and eat them while driving.

We do better than the above listing suggests though, and on our flight out of Newark I am happy and relaxed, and then asleep. By the time we land in Denver for the next stretch I feel sated, rested, and comfortable with the conversations we traveled those miles to have. We’ve gotten better at pacing ourselves, planning less and focusing more on each evening, on the mornings around the kitchen table and the walks to get breakfast. Fewer photos, less posting, and more focus on the people we came so far to see.

More and more I am grateful for our abilities, for the freedom to fly so far and be so unburdened. As I once wrote about being thirty eight and biking to the gym, there is a luxury now to being able to spend time with friends and family, despite the choices we have made to move so far. The conversations are brief, often a single hour or a single evening, yet they are real.

And so with each such loop of short visits we share a bit more of our lives, and we remember each other a little more clearly. With the tools of rental cars and trans-pacific flights we are pushing back on the erasures of friendship by distance and time.

Keep contact

Anki view

At the end of everything come goodbyes. They come after the laptop is turned in, after the exit interview, after the resignation letter. We go out for a drink, or lunch at a place we’ve always liked. Sometimes we just sit around the office and chat, or wander the parking lot. The location isn’t as important as the people. They are our constant companions for the last several years, folk who have shared more of our waking hours than our families. It’s a strange aspect of this modern life where occupation dominates. The time together leads to friendships that are both intense and limited by location. For a few years we share everything, so many things, small battles and celebrations, long trips, awkward meetings and Christmas parties. And then, suddenly, we move on.

And so we say goodbye last, for the people are what we will miss, regardless of the product or company, regardless of which side of the table we sat on in price negotiations. Vendor, colleague, customer, supplier, all of these words are simply descriptions for a person in one box of their life. Before and after, well, it’s hard to say who they may become, and good to remember who they have been. So we say goodbye in bars, in line at boba tea, over ice cream on Market street. At the very end we say goodbye on Zoom calls, while the account still works and everyone’s schedule is simultaneously free. And when it has been good we laugh and we cry, glad to have had the chance to share so much with these people met in the search for a paycheck.

It took me years to learn to say goodbye. My first jobs were places that celebrated for me, where turnover was high enough to have rituals surrounding it: Irish car bombs on the restaurant patio in Boston or all-night karaoke in Saitama. Those were the years of transience, of scattered memories and friendships made for the moment with Irish students in America for the summer or English teachers from Newfoundland. Part of these goodbyes was the lack of surprise at their happening. So many of our relationships came with expiration dates, visa limits, or school year cycles. And so I made it to Shanghai before I knew how to value colleagues, even the ones I remain friends with from those earlier years.

Thus these last few weeks have been bittersweet, filled with former colleagues and good friends reaching out to see where I will land, to see if they can help, or simply to admire the product that occupied so much of my last two years. There have been lots of chats with colleagues now become friends about job prospects but also about baseball. We bring up old jokes formed during late night calls with distant timezones, partially because they still make us laugh and partially because we weren’t ready to say goodbye, because we were still having a good time.

In that last sentence comes some of what has changed from those early days. For the first time in as long as I can recall, I wasn’t leaving, I wasn’t in a rush to whatever’s next, though I now need to find it. My former colleagues, far from being distant and forgotten, toiling in their cubicles while I take interviews, are all within reach, available by chat and sharing their search. In some ways there was no goodbye, despite the zoom calls and the tears. In a lot of ways we’ll still be here, in different cities and at different companies, because we didn’t leave.

Fast or slow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hideaway

Honne concert

We leave the show in the first wave, our seats having been towards the back. It’s Thursday evening, and the crowd is eager to head home. For the first few blocks we walk with other concert goers, and there is the joyful buzz of those who have just left a very loud, very shared experience. These are the same people who’d waited for an hour beforehand in a line that stretched to three sides of the block. Everyone is smiling.

The farther we walk, headed to the metro, the more dispersed that crowd and that shared event becomes. And then suddenly we are waiting for a light and the buzz is gone. We can feel it immediately, no longer being surrounded by the shared experience. 

“None of these people were at the show,” my partner says. She’s right, just from a glance around. The man in a suit beside us is clearly on his way home from work, or hopefully from post-work dinner. The couple next to him might have been at the show save for the giant Nike shopping bag which hints at a different evening. To my left there is an older man in flipflops, not the typical attire for a Honne concert. In the Hong Kong way of things we have left the sphere of the show but are not alone. For the next two blocks to the MTR we enjoy this feeling, of being part of the dense crowd of a Mongkok Thursday, anonymous and in motion.

The joy of density is so much in its acceptance. People can be anything in New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, or Hong Kong not because each family, each company accepts anything, but because collectively there is space for everything in the anonymity of the crowd. Because tens of thousands of people are out in Mongkok on a Thursday, the two thousand from our concert blend in and go their separate ways without much disturbance. The opening doors of MacPherson Stadium are not a flood into emptiness but a large splash into a running river, a momentary blip on a moving surface.

Later, typing this up on a rainy Sunday I am reminded of the game I played our first months here. At any time of day I would head to the window and count the people visible on the street below. Even at the odd hours of the jet lagged, two or four am, I could usually spot ten people from our 7th floor window. These observations brought me such joy, and reminded me that once again we lived in a city where everyone was alive and awake.

On Thursday after the show we continued home, trading one train for another until the crowds finally thinned as we walk from the station. Ours is a quiet one, and we encountered only thirty or forty people on our ten minute walk home. This slow separation from frenzied crowd to calm apartment was a good way to say goodbye to an event, our first concert in Hong Kong.

Rituals reshaped

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Eyes open heart wide

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

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

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

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

Ease of operation

Looking out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get moving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fur drifting

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

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

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

Like a rabbit,” some note.

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

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

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

It’s almost time to vacuum.

Again.

Seeing the future

We are rarely entirely new beings. Instead we are an echo of our parents and the examples set before us. We grow and change and age in patterns that seem unique individually but are quite in line with our species globally. We are children and then adults of a particular history, of a place and time.

I am reminded of this in the breakfast buffet of the Pullman hotel one morning in Shanghai in two thousand fifteen. A man walks past me in shorts and a black T-shirt, carrying a notebook and pen. He has a shaved head, and is perhaps forty five. I am thirty five, here for work, and still too concerned about appearances to wear T-shirts. The man wanders away though the buffet and I can barely avoid staring.

It’s rare to see one’s future self walk by so close.

He looks like I look. More, he looks like I will look, if I am still attending buffet breakfasts in Chinese hotels in ten years. The feeling of witnessing someone in the same place, with the same styles, mannerisms, and accouterment, is disconcerting. The first moments are of shock, an odd tickle on the back of the neck. After that comes a humbleness, the awareness of one’s lack of individuality. And finally, when I am standing in the elevator returning to my room, a desire to make contact, to have said something witty by way of introduction. A wish to have met myself, however strangely.


Three years later, at a breakfast in Dongguan, in black T-shirt with notebook, I have grown more comfortable. I no longer worry about the supplier I am going to meet in an hour. I have been swimming early in the morning, and will write a letter to a distant friend over coffee. I am more collected, more comfortable, and slightly older. My head is recently shaved, by a young man in a Shenzhen barber shop. If I encountered that future self again the recognition, I believe, would be mutual, and not just for the clothing, bald head, and habit of writing at breakfast, which I’ve possessed for years.

There is a certain comfort at being in China, at being at home on the road, that I’ve improved on these past three years. After so many trips full of urgent mornings rushing through breakfast to make the pick up schedule, after so many years of worry and email before bed, I feel more able to schedule rigorously and still breathe. It’s a skill I’ve always had but not always believed in, which led to unnecessary stress.

Since my injury in 2014 I am focused enough to rise early, to swim or exercise, and to eat little breakfast. I am able to relax enough to write at the breakfast table afterwards, and pack quickly for the scheduled departure. I am able to eat less at lunch and dinner, to work out in the evenings if that is the only option, and to make time for video calls with family.

I am older, and still on the road. Not yet forty five, but no longer thirty five. And on mornings like this one I wonder about that man in the Pullman in Shanghai. Is he still on the road as well, still meeting business partners and enjoying spartan hotel mornings?

Perhaps one day I’ll know.

Naps

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

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

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

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

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

Places I slept, 2017

The year ending feels very long, in ways both big and small. For the first time since two thousand nine both of us were able to take time off this year, to figure out what to do next, where to live, and what to aim for. These processes aren’t finished yet and will shape much of twenty eighteen and beyond. The last time we had such freedom, in the spring of two thousand nine, we interviewed cities on the west coast of the US, certain that we wanted to be close to the Pacific. We still do, though much else has changed. The feeling of freedom is rare and wonderful, and will dominate all memories of twenty seventeen.

Eight years seems like a full phase, and the present moment somewhat of a shared opportunity. Many of our friends are likewise contemplating what’s next in their lives. Some are moving, are looking to move, or have just done so. Others are taking professional risks or debating them. For reasons both mundane and political, twenty seventeen felt like a year of shifts, of small detachments and new freedom. Unlike twenty sixteen, which ended in despair, there is hope to be found, if we look hard, if we are willing to work and to dream. We are.

It’s always good to remember the past years gifts as well as it’s themes. Looking back mostly I remember friendship and the distances traveled in service of. We saw Seth in Bangkok in February and in Seattle in December. We met Jeff in Los Angeles in January, New York in November, and Seattle in December. Mitch joined us in LA in January and Arizona in March. Lucas and Kristin were hosts in Portland and guests in San Francisco. Bobert likewise, in visits on both US coasts. Mel, Dray, Tori, and so many others swung through San Francisco.

That list is neither comprehensive nor designed as such. Rather it’s a reminder, for myself: the friendships we keep travel well, and we should never fear for their endurance. They are what supports us in hard times and what we build on in good. In the tough years we work together to survive, all investing in smaller circles when larger ones feel fruitless.

Yet in twenty seventeen professional circles felt more rewarding than ever as well. We met inspirational people and were able to support others for what seemed like the first time, though it was not. Understanding, at last, the value of a professional network feels both strangely liberating and humbling. Once again I grow up slowly.

Lastly, to those reading, thanks for your time. Writing hasn’t been as easy the last two years, but it is still the most rewarding activity, a way to feel better at the end than at the beginning.

With that, here is my list of places slept, the longest ever without question due to sixteen different camp sites on the Grand Canyon over sixteen days this past July and August. That trip was a gift, and turning thirty eight en route felt lucky. On other fronts I saw new parts of southern China, a lot more of Hong Kong, and more of the US west coast than in most years. As always, travel is a gift, and I’m more comfortable with this rate now.

San Francisco, CA Humen, Dongguan, China Baiyun, Guangzhou, China Macau Futian, Shenzhen, China Santa Monica, CA Lumphini, Bangkok, Thailand Bang Rak, Bangkok, Thailand Along the 5, CA Mesa, AZ Malibu, CA Portland, OR Sha tin, Hong Kong Bao’an, Shenzhen, China Shaoguan, China Kowloon, Hong Kong Bodega Bay, CA Ft Collins, CO Walden, CO Flagstaff, AZ 16 different campsites along the Grand Canyon, AZ Davis, CA Gilroy, CA Rio Linda, CA Zhuhai, China Wan Chai, Hong Kong Cherry Hill, NJ Brooklyn, NY North Point, Hong Kong Ashland, OR Seattle, WA Astoria, OR

My count of places swam reached thirteen in 2017, but I will not publish them this year. Instead I will begin a new list, that of cities biked. This list comes thanks to the worldwide expansion of bike share and my growing certainty that cars are not meant for urban areas. I hope for more in twenty eighteen.

San Francisco, CA Shenzhen, China Fort Collins, CO Seattle, WA Portland, OR

As for Mr. Squish, he too has been traveling. I write this from Portland, where he is lying below the coffee table in the sun in our friend’s house, completely relaxed after a week on the road. A useful skill, for a cat. His list for 2017 is below.

San Francisco, CA Fort Collins, CO Ashland, OR Portland, OR Seattle, WA Astoria, OR

Years go by

The city

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

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

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

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

Across the city

On Sundays in San Francisco we bike to the beach. In earlier years it was a shorter ride, from the Sunset or Richmond. Now though we are distant enough from the ocean’s effects that the weather is unpredictable. I take long sleeves and a hat, and want both. Seven short miles, several elevation changes, and the variances of fog make for a strange ride.

At Baker Beach the fog swirls around the Golden Gate, hiding both it and Marin from view. We play at the water’s edge and enjoy the peace of the Pacific.

On the way home I pedal up through the Richmond to a coffee shop I used to frequent with the cat. The owner is happy to see me and I her, and we chat for a while while she closes up shop for the day. Leaving her I ride past our old house and see the new residents unpacking their car from a weekend away. I remember those days, two cars and so much time on the road.

Into Golden Gate Park and the scene changes, families on rollerblades and bicycles dominate the closed road. It’s a peaceful place, the car-free park on a Sunday, somewhere to exercise and wander without fear. Every time I am here I wonder what the entire city would be like without automobiles.

Down to the Panhandle I find at last the remenants of Bay to Breakers, the city-wide run turned street party. Hundreds of people in costumes fill the small stretch of park that reaches east into the city. They are drunk and celebrating, mostly oblivious to the bikers sliding past. I remember partying here, playing games with friends, cartwheels and rope climbing. Years ago now.

Out of the park and down into lower Haight I slide, finding more parents visiting their children, more folk walking their dogs. It’s a nice section of the city, Divisadero to Duboce Triangle, and I do not pedal hard, content to roll downhill and listen to snatches of conversations, slivers of people’s afternoons.

Out on to Market, into the heat of the eastern part of the city, and I am almost home. So many more cars, so much more traffic. Families now walk with coffee still, late in the day. Homeless people start to appear, wandering or pushing carts.

Down the side route by the 101 entrance I duck, and suddenly, after so long and so many different scenes, I am back in my own, on Valencia, past Zeitgeist, into the urban heat of the city. It’s comforting and less peaceful, an urban mishmash of Lyft drivers and those looking for fancy dinner spots.

Me? I slide through to my garage, to my windows that let in breeze on two sides of the house and my cat who naps in the sunbeams.

A city is best discovered on bike, and home again at last I think of all the different neighborhoods, all the different lives we’ve slipped through, me and my new Van Moof, on our trip to the ocean and back, taking in memories of this city that will hold us over till the next weekend.

Gaps between

Being unanchored in the world has been a gift. I’ve seen friends in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Portland. I never made it to the east coast, but I did make it across the Pacific.

Now though, after three months of small projects and peaceful days with my cat, it’s time to get back to it, to grow and learn and be part of a slightly larger team.

For the last few weeks I’ve woken early to make tea and then gone back to bed, reading or sleeping again with the cat snuggled tight against me. It’s been a peaceful life, transitioning between gym and study, nap and novel. It’s been exactly the kind of break I needed, and exactly what the cat hopes for. We’ve become accustomed to each other, and we’ve shared this small apartment in circles from chair to bed to kitchen to sofa, one of us following the other. It’s a routine we will both miss and seek to find again on suddenly valuable weekends. For now though, he will have the place to himself, able to relax wherever he desires. No one will disturb his nap with the vacuum at ten am on a Wednesday, nor with coffee grinding at two pm. I think he’ll miss the company anyway.

The final morning he and I spend snuggled in a new chair. I thought it a chair for one until his seventeen pounds landed on my lap, inbound via the sofa’s arm.

On the last Friday of my sojourn I read back through my notebooks to other times like this, to remember the challenge of being groundless and how these periods ended. Familiarity helps, reminding me that this time is not any different, and that each time the transition works out fine.

Yesterday I had lunch with an ex-colleague who had never quit a job before, never spent months in between. Over ramen I listen to her thoughts and challenges, some familiar some unique. At the end of my own holiday the feel of these gaps has become strangely comfortable. In some way I have become what I try to be, at home in uncertainty.

For a few months, anyway.

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.

Healing time

Bangkok skyline

Eight months ago we watched this same view with more pain, our skin worn away by a road in Laos so that the pool stung slightly.

Now we sit and watch the buildings almost astonished to be back. Work travel like this is always unexpected, and neither of us planned to return to Bangkok so soon after the last strange week here, shuttling between hospital and hotel.

We were too injured then to explore very far in any direction. A half dozen blocks at most, a couple of train stations, a single mall. Now, back to a more regular health, we wander a dozen miles a day around the city, becoming both more comfortable here and less tied to those injuries.

It is a strange reunion, a vacation given to us out of odd circumstance. A colleague unable to travel due to the new US government for Tara and the freedom of minimal employment for me has given us three days in the city before her work begins to relax and revisit old views.

In the interim months Bangkok has changed as much as our skin. The building across the street from this hotel is gleaming white and the pool on floor five filled. On our last visit it was wrapped in scaffolding and construction elevators, and filled with work men welding at odd hours. The interior of the upper floors does not yet look finished, but the lower ten seem occupied. For our part we can both do pushups, a testament to the surgeons at Bumrungrad that added titanium to Tara’s wrist and to her intervening months of physical therapy and dedication.

As a reminder of physical progress the week in Thai sunshine is welcome. As a mental break from the past before we begin building the future, it’s a luxury.

Sometimes we are lucky indeed.

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.

Last days

The seasons change, inevitably. In San Francisco the fog pours over the peaks in the afternoons, blanketing the city with a chill breeze that can only mean summer. Returning to the city from the heat of the East Bay the fog feels like a memory, and I know our time with it is ending.

I have learned that endings come from all directions. Usually they aren’t as simple as they were in two thousand four, packing up and walking out of my first Shanghai apartment with no plans and a single backpack. Often the point of departure is rather a runway built on dozens of small signals. A job ends, a boss quits, a lease expires, a visa is too difficult to renew. These moments when added together become impetus enough to overcome the comforts of a small apartment, of good light and great friends, of living downtown by the train.

Cause’ it could come out of nothing
And hit you harder still,

As the fall of twenty sixteen approaches, promising a few weeks of sun without fog, sun without wind, we breathe deep and prepare ourselves. The gift of seeing change coming is being able to remember the moments just before it with clarity. Riding my bicycle to work each day along Embarcadero in Oakland I watch the sky and the water. One day this will not be my commute, just like that long drive to Petaluma over the Golden Gate is no longer my commute. Like the Saikyo Line, Yong Jia Lu, and Houston’s streets, the commutes change and the past moves further behind us.

Can you pick a point that we can choose to rewind to
Or know there’s better days ahead than behind you

In many ways San Francisco is home. It’s not time for goodbye, not yet. For another few months the fog will roll in, we will grow older, and the call of distant shores will remain in the background. Yet in twenty sixteen the desire to go has grown powerful, and we have started planning for the end. Constant travel and a wonderful set of friends have kept us in place these past seven years, but weights can be only so heavy, and our curiosity is strong.

The cat, now four, has never lived outside this city of seven by seven miles, though he’s traveled far. He doesn’t know it, but he will love wherever comes next.

Don’t you know what it’s like
To disappear from someone else’s life

Leaving is a sudden thing built in stages. Moving away takes years, financing, and the will to ignore the accumulation of the first two. So in the fog of the summer of twenty sixteen I gather the last of these to me.

In two thousand seven a boy sat on his balcony in Shanghai, waiting for the storm to break. He was ready to go but not yet pushed to leave. In a half dozen months everything in his life would change.

Can we work it out?

For now we watch friends leave, jobs end, and people grow. We think of the future and celebrate the present. Like that boy in Shanghai, we are not yet in motion, we are waiting for the weather to break. Like that boy in Shanghai we are not packed, but we know what we’ll keep.

Post cards, books, memories, friendships.

And a furry cat.

Quoted lyrics from Gordi’s Can We Work it Out, Nothing’s as It Seems, and So Here We Are off of the 2016 EP Clever Disguise

Wandering Star

From two thousand eleven the lyrics still ring in my mind. The echo they leave is mostly Shanghai, the French concession in the rain. The band, I hear, has given up on the auto-tuned vocals of heartbreak. Or maybe just the heart break.

After all, I’m married to the wandering star,

In San Francisco, in the summer of twenty sixteen, we wander in search of virtual creatures, into the evening fog and along the bay in the mid day sun. In between study for professional certifications and travel to factories we enjoy the mental and physical space between portions of our lives provided by this strange new quest.

Committed already to a workout schedule and a travel schedule, we look for ways to commit to joy with one another on the off days. Rather than rehash political disasters, environmental disasters, or workplace frustrations, we sprint around the Mission district of San Francisco at ten pm hunting an animal we can not see, but are sure is only three steps” away. Building a life together requires intention and compassion and also small surprising moments of joy. In the summer of two thousand sixteen, without warning, we discover Pokémon together.

A friend’s quote about the game surprises us both with the truth: It sounds like something Wil and Tara would like; it involves exploring and is cute.”

She’s right, this friend in New York. Late at night walking the Mission together we laugh at this strange digital drive that takes us out of doors and into the world together. Rather than watching tv or reading a book we hunt a jellyfish near a local bus stop and a sea horse near a bar I’ve never been inside.

Nonsense, exploration, joy, and the occasional sprint. Sometimes that’s not only enough, sometimes it’s exactly right.

Personal monuments

Bangkok window

Now ten years and more have
Gone by

says Gary Snyder in my favorite poem. For this site and myself they have, and I can not help but consider the distance covered.

The decade has gone by in a very human fashion; it has passed in the small actions of waking, writing, and commuting that are repeated daily and in the large decisions of moving and hoping made more rarely and slowly.

Ten years ago, after fiddling with tools and styles for much of two years, inhab.it became a home. Looking back those early worries seem quixotic, and, like so much of life, the product of a different boy. Stylistically inhab.it has varied but topically so much of what I hoped to say is still here and has been brought with me from one city to the next, from one theme to the next.

In two thousand six, at the end of a long relationship, I spent hours on a balcony in Shanghai and trying to write. I had spent much of two thousand five in the same fashion, accumulating awareness of neighbor’s daily routines and a familiarity with the wonton shop across the street that sold a bowl full for two point four RMB. By the time I managed to focus on the technical side of the internet, much of my life was already changing. After years of underemployment I was finally busy. After two years in a two story apartment with three balconies and a cat I was planning to move. And after years of trying to write I was ready to share.

Ten years later, sitting on a rooftop in Bangkok, I try to remember the uncertainty and the hope of life in Shanghai in two thousand six. The writing from that year conveys so much to me now, and is exactly why I started the site. The future is always impossible to see, but looking backwards we are able to trace the pattern of our lives. In that first year of scattered posts lives a focus on people, cities, bicycles, Shanghai, and memory.

My memories of Bangkok are older than this site. They begin with arriving in two thousand four with one bag and no plans save to eventually make it back to the United States. We’d been down south in the islands for a week, enjoying the start of the relationship that would be ending two years later as this site went live. On my own on the bus into Bangkok from the airport I met some fellow backpackers who would end up taking me on midnight motorbike rides around the city, adventures I would otherwise have known little about.

In two thousand sixteen we relax on this rooftop with a pool for a week, recovering from a motorbike accident in northern Laos. Memories of those earlier trips had warned me of the risks, which I’d ignored. For a week I look out at the construction cranes that dot the skyline and enjoy the city. Much of my memory of urban Bangkok is from two thousand five, an adventure with old roommates from Tokyo. We spend a week in the south on a beach, and a few days on each end in Bangkok. My main memory is of the constant traffic, of finding a nice hotel, and of exploring stations along the one elevated train line.

In two thousand sixteen we take that same train regularly, and are as comfortable as those recently injured can be. It is a strange week, and a good one, an echo of years past in an entirely new fashion. It is as good a place as any to pass this monument to personal habit and to consider the change the past ten years have brought.

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)

Interstitial weeks

Weeks away are interspersed with brief time at home. The cat doesn’t know if we are coming or going so mixes a brusque approach featuring lots of claws with tight snuggles. In the evening hours he is never more than four feet away, and often closer. Yet he is wary of my bag, which has remained on the floor half packed since my return from Shanghai the week prior. Uncertain as to my long term plans he meows and bats at it each morning until, a few days later, I start packing again.

These are the down days of twenty sixteen, the in between moments. In many ways our life reflects the modern world. Outside homeless camp in constant rotation. We, traveling for work and pleasure, in the US and without, epitomize the problem while being as compassionate as we can. The front of our building for weeks features graffiti covered with peanut butter. Whether this was an attempt to disguise it or emphasize it no resident knows. We don’t mention it to the police, who come frequently, or the people living in tents outside our windows, who proclaim this to be their right.

There are no winners in these conversations. Instead we keep moving.

For one week the Squish and I are the apartment’s only residents. I run track workouts in Berkeley and have dinner with old friends. Each morning the Squish and I water the plants on the rooftop and monitor the weather. In hot days we open the top door to let a breeze from the roof clear the upper floors. In windy foggy weather we bolt and tie the door shut, an extra effort against the fog’s approach.

In all weather we are happy together, if mutually unsure of the future. And so it is in 2016, all of us in motion, happy and confused in equal measure.

Winding roads

Idabashi view

In the month of March I am mostly confused about location.

In a Shanghai hotel room an old friend brings me medicine in between naps. His daughter laughs at her reflection in the mirror while we chat. I’ve been sick for days and seen little save this room in between factory visits. The company is welcome and the medicine better than my homemade solutions.

A few days later I see a super hero movie on the US naval base in Yokosuka. I’ve never been on base before and the experience is strange. Sitting in a theater having paid $2 for tickets feels both familiar and surreal. It is strange to be in Japan and yet surrounded by Americans, especially after two weeks in China. Afterwards, wandering around Idabashi with my friends, I am so grateful to be back in the suburban depths of Tokyo. Sub-urban is a claim that can only be applied to Idabashi when it is placed next to Shinjuku. In some ways the duplication of train stations, shops, conbinis and aparto towers feels like it’s own culture, a form of topography and living for which Americans have no language. Sub-urban then only in hierarchy not in density.

In Las Vegas a few days later I look out from the thirty third floor at empty patches in the city’s expansion. Whole blocks skipped, still raw desert, surrounded on all sides by cul-de-sac housing tracts. A depressing view of car culture and relative waste that I don’t know well enough to imagine living in. Or to imagine feeling trapped in.

Sitting at a bar in downtown Las Vegas arguing about transparency and expectations I realize how much of our conversations are also about location. Much of the conversation, scattered over several weeks and countries, is about cities, housing, variations of living. So too is much of our conversation about our hope for the future, and many of our questions are about how places shape people.

It is a perfect if confusing way to spend several weeks, well-suited to this site save for the lack of writing.

Making do

The best SF sunset

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repetition and growth

Beijing Apartments.JPG

In the summer of two thousand seven lives a boy I will remember forever.

In the echoes of experience lie good stories.

In my memory this boy boards the train to Beijing on a Friday evening. It is summer, closing in on his birthday, and the sleeper cars are mercifully air conditioned. This train was new when he first moved to China, the car interiors a spotless white. The first time he rode it, in summer of two thousand four, the twelve hour ride to Beijing was incredible, so fast. Three years later everything feels well-used, a patina of hand prints on each door handle and section of wall surrounding. This overnight train from Shanghai was an improvement on the fourteen plus hours and hard sleeper trains of prior years, the late nineties and early aughts. In the present day the speed is not impressive; the current high speed line runs Shanghai to Beijing in only six hours. In two thousand four twelve hours seemed fast, but by two thousand seven it had become routine, and whole new ways of life had been built around the overnight sleeper’s reliability. Families in Beijing could have one parent take a job in Shanghai, commute down Sunday night, head to work Monday morning, and run the reverse on Friday. They’d stay with friends or family on week nights and be home when the kids got up on Saturday.

We never know what kind of lives the future will support.

In two thousand seven the boy who boards this train to Beijing is preoccupied. He throws his backpack in his berth. When the older Chinese couple in his compartment asks if they can have the bottom bunk he acquiesces without thought. Foreigners prefer top bunks, they say, and he agrees. Foreigners do. They’re happiest when able to sleep. Chinese families prefer the bottom bunks in this small four bed compartment. More social, better for eating and chatting. The boy moves his bag up high and steps back into the hallway. There are small tables and seats at intervals that fold up against the wall when not in use. He squats at one, charging his phone off the outlet beneath.

We never know what kind of lives the future will support, he thinks, scrolling through email on his Blackberry. This is a new technology, his third smartphone” but the first one that supports work email, that is paid for by a company. He has had it since May, purchased in Los Angeles, and it is his favorite device ever. On this train though it will be a weight around his weekend adventure. He is heading north to see a friend from Hawaii who is in China taking classes for the summer. Despite the weight they will have an excellent weekend.

The train leaves promptly at seven oh five pm, and the phone starts ringing shortly after. It is a woman from Indonesia, someone he has never met. She wants him to guarantee a shipment of fabric from a Chinese factory that is sitting in port in Jakarta. The shipment is valued at fifty thousand dollars. And so they debate, on the phone, as the train moves out of Shanghai headed north. Through Jiangsu they debate who is to bear the responsibility if the fabric has an issue, and why the Chinese factory that made it can or can not be trusted. Fifty thousand dollars. The fabric is to be made into dresses, for delivery to his company in the United States. There is a deadline, a ship window, and he urges her to have faith, to make the order, to pay the Chinese supplier. Again and again she asks him to personally back the shipment. They have never met. In a year he will leave this job and return to the United States. They will never meet.

The phone call drops, it is two thousand seven and he is on a high speed train. Standing in the vibrating space between cars where he’s moved to have some privacy the boy stares out the window at the Chinese countryside. Already then he knows he will never forget this evening. A boy from upstate New York, not yet twenty eight, taking the overnight train from Shanghai to Beijing, spending the whole ride arguing with a woman in Jakarta over fifty thousand dollars. How did this become his life?

The phone rings.

In two thousand sixteen I stand outside a bar beneath a highway in San Francisco. It is eleven pm on a Wednesday. The phone number on the screen is long, international. I answer it.

On the other end is a man in India I will never meet. He wants me to guarantee some charges on a shipment. The container is sitting in the port in Mumbai. We debate dollars. Excuses are made. Clear the cargo, I ask. Send me receipts.

I start walking. Somewhere in the next two blocks we are cut off. For the length of one red light I stand on the corner of 14th and South Van Ness staring at the phone. I am thinking of that woman in Indonesia, fifty thousand dollars, and the train ride to Beijing in two thousand seven when the phone rings again.

Hello,” I say.

In some moments the future feels like the past, imperfectly recreated.

Places I slept, 2015

San Francisco, CA

Santa Monica, CA

Dongguan, China

Kwun Tong, Hong Kong

Portland, OR

Shanghai, China

Mong Kok, Hong Kong

Las Vegas, NV

Davis, CA

Saguaro Lake, AZ

11th arrondissement Paris, France

Bella Center, Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark

Halmstad, Sweden

Oslo, Norway

Øvre Eidfjord, Norway

Near Tysevær, Norway

Stavenger, Norway

Harrow, London, UK

Albuquerque, NM

Point Reyes Station, CA

San Diego, CA

Brooklyn, NY

Prattsville, NY

Cherry Hill, NJ

Salisbury Mills, NY

Morgan Hill, CA

Incline Village, NV

Tacoma, WA

Malibu, CA

Wuzhen, China

Chicago, IL

Union Pier, MI

New York City, NY

What a long list. Depending on the exact methods used to count multiple beds in Shanghai, the most ever, breaking 2013′s record. But even without that, an intense, overwhelming amount of travel. I made seven trips to China, adding up to more than 9 weeks on the ground there, and most of a month jet lagged upon returning home.

Twenty fifteen was a strange year. We went to four weddings and finally, healed enough to adventure, on a honeymoon. We saw new places: Paris, Sweden, Norway, parts of Upstate NY, Michigan, Arizona, and New Mexico for myself and Copenhagen, Sweden, Norway, and Korea for Tara. We were healthy enough to both play the full club ultimate season, which resulted in most of the California locations. And we saw many, many dear friends on trips to New York, Portland, LA, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Colorado (Tara). Being healthy enough to travel, to play, and to once again do small physical tasks without hesitation was a wonderful gift. We appreciate our mobility more than ever.

Mostly we worked, with the all-consuming dedication familiar to the Bay Area. As we look into twenty sixteen, the question of sustainability reappears, and how we answer it will determine much of not only the coming year, but our future in California. I’m excited to see where the future leads.

As for Mr. Squish, he took it easy this year, spending almost all of it in our San Francisco apartment. His main adventure? Coming to work with me, where he spent almost every Friday wandering the office, surprising and delighting my coworkers.

Previous year’s lists can be found below.

2014

2013

2012

2011

2010

2009

California drives

On a Wednesday in November I drive north along the 101 in the middle of the day. It’s been years since I’ve seen the north bay during work hours. In Novato I get the car washed at a place I used to go only before 9 am, on my way in. The crowds surprise me, mostly older people chatting about books and signing cards for the troops. I am the only person under fifty not busy washing cars.

In Petaluma I drop the car off for brief repairs. I’m happy to see the town for a few hours. It’s a place I liked being familiar with. Of course things have changed, some for the better. There’s a combination roaster and coffee shop a block from the tire place, where before there was nothing. The clientele is young and engrossed in their work.

The Fit’s repairs are a minor thing, worth the adventure on this rare day off mid-week. The ride mostly makes me think of the three years of commuting, forty miles each way, from the western parts of San Francisco. Living downtown now heading north is far less convenient. So much of our life then was about proximity to the Golden Gate and comfort in the fog. The new zipper pylons on the bridge surprise me, though they shouldn’t. The truck that moves them was an internet sensation when it debuted, replacing the men leaning off the back of a pickup that had done the job for years. I was always impressed with their ability, slotting each pylon home while in motion, hanging down into traffic. I wonder what they do now. Their skill, calm coordination amidst moving automobiles, seems both widely applicable and of limited concrete value.

The passage of time is shocking at specific intervals. We purchased this Fit five years ago, for this specific commute. Five years, three of them making this drive, have passed since that first fall of automobile-based discovery. Owning a car was such a large step in becoming American, age 31, fourteen years after I’d sold my Volvo for spending money on my first trip to Japan.

Now, commuting by bicycle and train, I often comment on how glad I am not to drive every day, not to be stuck in traffic regularly. But this commute, forty miles up the 101, was how I learned to be American again. Seeing the dry hills on a Wednesday in November is a good way to keep hold of those memories.

Open doors

Walking home alone in the evening, as the last of the sun falls on the Sutro tower behind me, I realize this is going to be a good memory. It’s a strange feeling, recognizing one’s future self in the present. Walking into an emotion so good it will linger is rare because it has to be. Emotions that remain strong enough to carry us years later aren’t the common ones.

Today, this evening, coffee from Four Barrel in hand, walking home in jeans and a t-shirt and listening to the neighborhood, was like that. All the street lights were just on, the sky was still bright in places but losing color, and the gate to our apartment building was shut but the door behind it open, letting out a pool of golden light onto the street to welcome me home.

Living in cities in the early years of the twenty first century is an exercise in deposition, of putting down layers of personal history on to places that are or will be famous. By that I mostly mean are or will be unaffordable. Probably it has always been like this. I know from my parent’s friends that this is what New York felt like to them in the late 70’s and early 80’s, when St. Marks was a neighborhood not a name, when apartments in Chelsea were places to live comfortably, rather than micro houses to be featured in Dwell.

Yet living in cities is in some sense always about being seen, always about being somewhere rather than nowhere, about being able to walk to neat spots rather than commute to them. And so, like in Shanghai, I am laying down memories in San Francisco that will serve me for years, long past my time here.

Biking home late last night down Howard was similarly beautiful. The weather is finally perfect San Francisco after a September heat wave. The neighborhood, fast gentrifying, was still mostly empty in the dark, and I could slip through lights without braking, without holding on to the handle bars. On a Sunday evening everyone was inside preparing for the work week. Coasting upright I could look around and remember how lucky we are to live so close to our friends, to live so close to the train, in the middle of everything.

I remember riding my electric scooter home through Shanghai’s fall thinking the same thing, thinking how lucky we were to be in the center of this giant city. We knew the whole time that Xuhui would become unaffordable in a generation, become like Manhattan, a place few live in their twenties. Being able to put down those memories before the French Concession became a global tourist hotspot, before Lamborghinis were crammed into hutong alleys, was glorious.

Cities are always like this, I think now. And so I am glad to have these memories of walking home tonight to a small house with purple lights in the windows, to a cat who waits for his dinner, and to a rooftop garden that needs tending.

Twelve paws

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

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

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

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

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

Weekends off

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

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

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

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

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

Boom

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

Happy fourth of July Mr. Squish.

Time away

In a shop on Rue de la Roquette a man buys white peonies. They are in bloom and smell excellent. He intents to purchase five and ends up with ten. On the table of their rooftop apartment, next to the balcony doors, ten is a good number. He doesn’t mind the earlier linguistic confusion. It is that kind of week.

In the mornings they wander the Seine in cloudy weather. In afternoons they eat lunch on the balcony, often at four, and nap in the sun until six. They read, and write, and talk about the last eight years. Sometimes, after a bottle of wine, they talk about the next eight. Mostly though those conversations involve work, peripherally, and so are avoided. They look at photos of a year previous and celebrate health. A year prior they weren’t aware how hard things would get. Now they are both healing, both able to run, and both thinking of the future as a gift rather than challenge. Twenty fourteen at last seems lucky in the late afternoon light, and they can reminisce without tears.

Let’s leave them here, on this rooftop in Paris, for a while.

Industry worlds

Saying goodbye to a job so often means saying goodbye to a group of people, to factories, trade shows and entire industries. In one act, signing the next contract, I move from someone who flies southwest to El Paso several times a year to someone who will probably never do that again, who will soon go months without flying domestically. After spending the first week of August in Salt Lake for a couple of years I do not go, and only realize the change from a friend’s Instagram, viewed via VPN while in Dongguan. Unlike Salt Lake, Dongguan does not have an outdoor park concert series, where I lucked into the National in twenty thirteen.

As a teacher years ago my life was driven by students’ schedules, by my contracting company, and by the needs of other teachers. In Tokyo, as in Shanghai, these requirements represented both many of my waking hours and much of my mental processes. I learned to plan lessons, to trade classes, to pull forth answers from shy but eager children, and temper the rambunctious nature of 6th graders.

These skills have come with me through the past decade to San Francisco. The people have not. Save a few, old roommates from Tokyo with whom I still adventure when able, and fellow contractors from Shanghai who likewise moved on from the profession, I no longer speak to anyone from those jobs. I do not know where those fifth or sixth graders are, who they have become. I hope amazing people, the foundation of modern Shanghai. They are after all twenty two.

Their teachers, my former colleagues, I wish well also, and hope they have received better working environments, more support, and an increase in wages. I remember wearing winter jackets in the the chill concrete rooms of that first Shanghai winter. We worked with sore fingers, all of our joints going numb as we filled out student evaluations, graded homework. From that year I have no contacts, and even the school addresses are fading, save for an elementary school on Sinan Lu.

More recently my clothing industry colleagues and vendors, from the first years of factories, remain on the periphery of life. Occasionally we find one another on LinkedIn, or in person, but mostly I walked out of that life when I moved back to the States, and my colleagues have remained where they were. The few I do keep track of have moved similarly to myself, from one industry to another until we are more at home in the strange international circle of Shanghai than in any particular company or factory. These friendships are the best parts of life, those who I have known for years and trust, whose recommendations I use in my more recent jobs. They’re who I have dinner with when alone in the city for the weekend, whose houses I stay at when booting up new production lines.

And this movement of professions continues. Just a year ago I worked closely with a man who ran an outdoor gear factory in a small Chinese city, with a metallizer outside of San Diego, and a family-run maquiladora in Juarez. In January of 2014 I spent several days measuring blankets on the floor of an Otay Mesa warehouse with a man close to my own age who had walked across the border to meet me. Each day we would have breakfast at IHOP, mostly coffee, and begin our measurements. One month later I had a new job, and our relationship passed on to a resume note, to a memory.

Moving from one city to another requires so much change. A new grocery store, a new ultimate team, a new apartment and neighborhood. Changing industries does much the same, removes the support network or renders it less valuable. By taking the new job or moving to the new town we so often say good bye to what we know and to the people we’ve worked so closely with. Passing through factory towns on my way to a new vendor in Ningbo last year I realized I probably couldn’t find the offices I used to visit in Shaoxing, Hangzhou, or Ningbo. Could no longer even recall all the products I’d come this far to source, all the weeks I had been on the road.

Crossing the Yangtze by ferry in December of twenty thirteen I knew it was probably the last time I would make that journey, and sat on the railing the whole time, trying to take it in. That’s the difference with these changes now, I remember the earlier ones and am more able to see them coming, to try and hold on to the feeling of each accidental place I will most likely never see again.

Places I slept, 2014

Richmond, San Francisco, CA

Santa Monica, CA

Malibu, CA

Mission, San Francisco, CA

Brooklyn, NY

Manhattan, NY

Somewhere between Albany, NY and Chicago, IL

Somewhere between Lincoln, NE and Denver, CO

Elko, NV

Ft. Collins, CO

Santa Cruz, CA

Nice, CA

Kowloon, Hong Kong

Dongguan, China

Shanghai, China

Mong Kok, Hong Kong

Sheung Wan, Hong Kong

Wan Chai, Hong Kong

Guerneville, CA

San Diego, CA

Las Vegas, NV

Yosemite, CA

Makati, Manila, Philippines

Alabang, Manila, Philippines

Bohol, Philippines

Ebisu, Tokyo, Japan

Itabashi, Tokyo, Japan

Timber Cove, CA

Walden, CO

In many ways 2014 was the best year ever. After getting engaged in Japan in 2013 we got married in Colorado in April, surrounded by friends from all over the world. We saw Japan again, and the Philippines. We took a train across the US. We moved in SF, to an apartment with better light near the train. I got a wonderful new job and did an amazing amount of travel. I didn’t quite reach as many different places slept as 2013, which is fine, I hope it remains a record for some time. More than 2012, 2011, 2010, or 2009, when I first began to keep track.

In many ways 2014 was the worst year ever. After hurting myself worse than ever before I spent two weeks in hospitals in New York, and required a train ride across the country to get home. I missed a month of work. Doctor’s visits, physical therapy, and a slow return to normal activity followed. I didn’t get to play any ultimate at all. Tara had knee surgery in July. We spent much of the year indoors, unable to adventure. We had to cancel our honeymoon.

And yet, looking back at how many adventures we still managed, I can only laugh. We went to four weddings, not counting our own. We saw new places (Dongguan for me, Hong Kong for Tara, and Yosemite, Bohol, and the cross country train for both of us) and so many old friends. If 2014 was the worst, it was also a reminder how lucky we are.

Here’s to the next.

Also, Mr. Squish’s list for 2014, for those requesting:

Richmond, San Francisco, CA Mission, San Francisco, CA Ft. Collins, CO Petaluma, CA Walden, CO

He is still a traveling cat, albeit one currently curled on my feet, asleep.

Napping creatures

In the long rays of afternoon light on the last day of the year I read through words from the months past and stare out the window. On the sofa Mr. Squish sleeps with his face tucked against the blue cushions that were a gift to ourselves this past April, when we were in sore need of a space to lie down. Since then it has hosted friends from New York, from Denver, from San Diego, Detroit, and Portland. In 2015 hopefully many more will visit and find it welcoming. Today it is my home, at least until nap time.

In 2014 we mastered a new skill: napping. Whether from injury, exhaustion, jetlag, or illness, we were often forced to sleep when able rather than when dark, to rest when the day became quiet, even at 3 pm. And so we did, all three of us, with great frequency. Mr. Squish is pleased with this turn, as he misses my ritual of Thursdays at home from the two years previous, when I would avoid the commute to Petaluma and instead pace our bedroom on long phone calls as he slept on the bed in the slim beams of sun those east-facing windows provided. In those afternoons he would nap on the bay window seats above the floorboard heater as I sat nearby at the desk. In 2014 he has the luxury of our new sofa and an expanse of north and west facing windows perfect for a sun-loving cat. He is not alone in this love, and often times has to share the couch. It’s an arangement that suits everyone.

In these last short days of winter we have managed to wring from 2014 more of the smiles we had hoped for at the year’s start. A few days on the North California coast gave us sun and the sounds of the ocean. A few days in the mountains of Colorado gave us the peace of being snowed in beneath thousands of stars. And now, at the end of the year, we have some time at home to curl up and reflect, to make art and to sing. Buried in the joy of these early afternoons and short evenings is a lesson about hopes and expectations and the challenges that will fill the rest of our lives.

The year started with a new job, with a new house, and plans for a wedding. It ended with five weddings, four bachelor/bachelorette parties, a huge number of new destinations, new trips, and new experiences. Also the worst injury of each of our lives, the longest break from ultimate, and the most hours of work we’ve ever clocked. 2014 was grueling, swallowing us with the feeling that we could do nothing but grind, do nothing but heal, and do nothing but celebrate.

In between these moments it has been a year of naps. A skill once learned on Tokyo trains and long haul flights has been perfected in hospital chairs, airport lounges, and on this exact sofa.

So, after both lunch and work emails are finished, Mr. Squish and I retire to the bed. The house is finally warm, and the sun streams in the windows. Later we will rise, welcome Tara home, and prepare to celebrate with friends. For now we curl up tight together with a furry blanket and surrender again to sleep.

Lucky to be alive

Our lives are stories that we tell ourselves and tell each other. Our personal fiction, edited and self-controlled, takes different shapes depending on the audience and our mood. At work it gains a more serious tone than on the frisbee field, than at the beach. In one place our story is of physical prowess, in another of mental competency. So often these are stories we act out rather than speak, reflecting ourselves to those surrounding us rather than espousing our roots.

We have two histories, I have written: a geographical one that must be teased out in stories and a topographical one that can be discerned through observation of our bodies. So to do we have a variety of explanations for our injuries, for our accomplishments, for our decisions.

In some stories our line of work is an accident. In some it is the clear result of a multi-year plan. Our facebook pages and linkedin profiles are but the most extreme versions of these variations, clearly targeted acts of self creation.

These varied explanations are not untrue, they are simply separate views of the interwoven events that have lead us from where we were born to where we are today.

In many of my tellings employment is a side effect, work history a result of where I’ve been and who I’ve known rather than a focused accomplishment. In these versions I moved to Shanghai because I was ready to leave Tokyo, because a friend was living in Anhui and wanted to move to the city. The jobs that followed were coincidental, the result of moving to the focal point of the global wave, a place at once both megacity and boom town. Likewise, years later, San Francisco was a compromise rather than a natural next step.

In some ways the direction of those connections is correct. In some of these tellings though there emerges another version, one I bring forth reluctantly. It is the story of a mind constantly filling, and the awareness of a variety of goals. It is the tale of a boy who wanted to see more than his home town, and the story of a man who wants to know how things are made. More than anything, it is the result of wanting to be comfortable anywhere.

From this angle, in these more cautious tellings, the jobs line up and are part of a progression from curiosity to knowledge, from office to factory, and from country to country.

Our stories are not fixed things of course. They depend on the teller, the audience, and a feel for the moment. Considering my own versions from a San Francisco window on a foggy summer afternoon, I’m reminded most of a truth first heard almost three years ago. A truth I have considered, if not articulated, on the edge of each major decision:

The distance between who you are and who you might be is closing.”

Our stories do have a direction, and a pace. The latter, in my case, is no surprise. Each time I read that quote from Jan I hear a second sentence in my head, my own personal warning and guide:

Keep moving.

Injured travel

In a hotel room again he stretches before rising. These new actions have become a daily routine, the small pattern of curls and flexes that make standing without pain a possibility.

It is a Sunday in Dongguan, in Chang’an. In this hotel a week now he has become familiar to the staff, greeted no longer in the formal English of their training but in the Mandarin reserved for visitors from the north. They no longer try to stop him from taking coffee back to his room after breakfast. Like many foreigners here he is understood by his habits, a strange list. Cereal and coffee at breakfast. Then more coffee. Departs between nine and ten. Returns around 6. Laundry on alternate days.

In the afternoon he swims in the indoor pool, slow laps in a variety of strokes. Backstroke, measuring his place against the pool’s glass ceiling. Breast stroke, breathing out in small bubbles. Sidestroke, slowly, when his left arm is tired. Crawl only on the third day, gingerly. He moves cautiously, and holds his back frequently between lengths. Old, the lifeguard thinks, before returning to his other distractions.

Injured.

On other trips this man would have left, would have headed for Hong Kong on Saturday afternoon when work was finished. Would have spent the weekend in Shanghai with friends. Instead on Sunday he stays inside, stretches, swims, and drinks milk. Instead he is cautious with his body, avoids groups, does not drink alcohol in public.

These are the actions of recovery, of a human slowly remembering their abilities. In the morning he puts his shirt on backwards. Without pause he raises his arms, removes, reverses, and dons again. Only after does it strike him: a month ago he could not lift the left arm high enough to don t-shirts with both arms, nor bend it backwards to remove clothing.

All his small trials of stretching, swimming, and caution will one day pass. His body forgets quickly the limitations it learned reluctantly. Eventually he will have only vague memories of these days spent in Chang’an, too injured to adventure.

And scars.

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.

Working to breathe

Landing in Shanghai in December, in October, in March, the air looks as dangerous as it is.

Shadows settle on the place that you left.

The darkness comes with a tangible presence, the feel of coal ash and concrete dust that falls on everything left outside, that coats balconies and bicycles, grass and trees. In Shanghai my breathing fails quickly, and I become dependent on albuterol, on inhalators I can no longer buy without a doctor’s permission. For almost a decade they were easy to come by, seventy six RMB each. The women who sold them, at the Shanghai No.1 Dispensary on Nanjing East and then at the Shanghai Pharmacy on Huaihai and Maoming, would ask how many I’d like. Ten? Twenty?

Our minds are troubled by the emptiness

In San Francisco my doctor will not issue a prescription for more than one inhaler. My asthma requires a control medicine, he says, a steroid. Another inhaler to rely on, two prescription drugs to carry and afford forever, neither a cure, neither making the other unnecessary. Instead creating a balancing act of renewals and office visits, emails and paperwork.

And if you’re still breathing, you’re the lucky ones

I left Shanghai in 2008, partially because of the air. On my return visits I see how wise it was, to move on and stop breathing in the pollution. With limited life in my lungs adapting to reduce their workload seems the best path. More than a year ago I started acupuncture. More than a year ago I went a week without using my inhaler, for the first time in longer than I could remember. Years. Decades? When did I begin taking these drugs? I remember Quibron, a horrible liquid, and white pills that tasted likewise foul, their name forgotten. And then Albuterol, forever.

Cause most of us are heaving through corrupted lungs

Acupuncture has changed my life, brought a strange surprise to the onset of an attack, brought a relaxed joy to awaking, once the worst of moments. Until two years ago I’d woken with shock and strain, lungs struggling to handle the change in my body’s oxygen needs. Visiting San Francisco for a few days my old Shanghai roommate notices the change and tells me I always thought you might die.”

Setting fire to our insides for fun

In December Shanghai’s AQI topped 450. The air does not clean itself in the face of our pollution. Our bodies do not get stronger without our effort and care. As my friends in Shanghai purchase filters at frantic rates, some hand-assembled from fans and charcoal paper blocks, I rest and calm my body with mental tricks learned slowly over many years. I watch the sky, I stay warm, I avoid smokers. As with canaries, those of us with weakened lungs are not the only ones burdened by the failing air.

And you caused it,
And you caused it,
And you caused it.

Quoted lyrics from Daughter’s Youth’ off of the 2013 album If You Leave

Places I slept, 2013

San Francisco, CA

Santa Monica, CA

Cherry Hill, NJ

Manhattan, NY

Brooklyn, NY

Danbury, CT

Toronto, Canada

Green Bay, WI

Las Vegas, NV

Shanghai, China

Yangzhou, China

Shenzhen, China

Kowloon, Hong Kong

Miami, FL

El Paso, TX

Hamamatsucho, Tokyo

Harajuku, Tokyo

Yanasegawa, Saitama

Fukuoka, Japan

Kagoshima, Japan

Osaka, Japan

Santa Cruz, CA

Belden Town, CA

Guerneville, CA

Salt Lake City, UT

Portland, OR

Chico, CA

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

Scottsdale, AZ

Itabashi, Tokyo

Malibu, CA

Fort Collins, CO

Wan Chai, Hong Kong

Trinidad, CA

Moss Beach, CA

In so many ways 2013 was an excessive year. This list, at 35 separate zip codes, reflects that excess. An average of one new zip code slept in every 10.7 days. More than 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. And many of these multiple times, on multiple trips. 4 different beds in Shanghai alone that are here listed as one location. 2 different beds in Santa Monica. Twice to the same hotel in Tokyo, the same apartments in New York and La Quinta in El Paso. For the first time ever, Las Vegas, Fukuoka, Idabashi, Shenzhen, Malibu, and Kagoshima, a city I’ve wanted to visit since first reading Number9dream in 2002

And yet more and more this list is a reflection of exhaustion and a nebulous toll on our environment. 2013 also marked the first year I considered giving up flying.

2013 was also filled with amazing things. From Tara asking me to marry her and me vice versa in Japan in May to winning the Hong Kong Ultimate tournament with old friends and new in October, it was a year that saw adventures I’d never imagined.

Here’s to 2014. May it bring more adventures for all of us, though perhaps not one every 10 days. I’d like to spend a bit more time with my cat.

Then again, he’s been traveling too. His list for 2013:

San Francisco, CA

Fort Collins, CO

Petaluma, CA

Malibu, CA

Impressive, no?

As fast as possible

In the space of a week I go from Los Angeles and a pool to Petaluma, San Francisco, and Shanghai. Yangzhou, Changshu, and Tokyo follow before the string of airport initials and train station names reverses, leading me home in time for Christmas. With each step comes a greater sense of urgency, and a greater sense of exhaustion. Every vehicle and every contact is exhorted for speed. ASAP. Any phrase so often abused as to have a common acronym deserves consideration before use, in this case deserves preservation for the truly urgent moments.

How to tell what requires attention when everything is made to seem urgent?

Our lives are brief fragile things of scant import and dear value. They consist of years that can be counted with ease by children, of months tied together by weather, and of hours that seem to drift by with the Chinese countryside, in a state of waiting known as transit.

In the space of a week I spend forty one hours in motion and yet waiting, rushing and yet unable to move. In the space of a week I sleep in seven beds. At the end of it, waiting for the last plane, I try to clear my brain and add up the lessons from those miles, add up the value of the travel in a way other than the monetary cost or the hours.

I have had dinner with friends from all segments of life, from Tokyo ten years ago, Shanghai eight, Shanghai five, and San Francisco now. I have seen houses and children, girlfriends, and wives. In groups large and small, we have shared stories that will hold us together for another month, or year, or two, until somehow the world brings us to table again in the same city.

I have solved problems I am paid to solve, given support to those both up and down the chain of business from me. Listened to complaints, answered requests, provided explanations, outlined requirements. I have cleaned and trimmed and measured and folded and packed product in the kind of chill concrete building I try to avoid after Christmas 2007.

Do these things, done at questionable speed, make for a better life? They certainly do not help our shared environmental disaster. In fact, they are a direct cause, a product of the excesses of miscalculated transportation costs. What can I do to repair these damages? What can I do to make each hour both longer and shorter, both more memorable and less all-consuming? How can I continue to learn and work while allowing myself time for tasks that require mental focus and a single location?

These are good questions for a twelve hour flight from Seoul to San Francisco.

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.

Fleeing the dark

In a window seat on a bus from Changshu to Shanghai as the sun sets, my eyes linger on dark towers. Along side the highway buildings both finished and not form huge rectangles of black against the fading sky. These clusters of massive apartment buildings lie vacant, whole complexes of fifteen or twenty towers of thirty stories plus. They form the leading edge of Shanghai’s expansion, like the foam on a wave. Unoccupied and often incomplete they will one day be home to thousands, one day be connected to Xujiahui or Zhongshan Park by subway lines as yet unbuilt. Today they are huge monuments to investment and urbanization, massive Stonehenge-like clusters without light. From my seat on the bus, bouncing with each lane change, these dark pillars are a sign post of my journey. I am heading home, fleeing the gathering dark of China’s smaller cities for the lights, towers, restaurants, and friends of Shanghai.

Bus rides are always jarring, a series of jerks and swerves, loud and full contact. Luckily towards the front someone has begun a conversation with the driver and he no longer focuses on the horn. I appreciate their sacrifice after two hours of its sharp peals. Alongside and around us smaller cars weave, looking for openings. Occasionally to the side one of the buildings is alight, one of the towers filled with families cooking dinner. I am not alone on this flight from small town darkness, the seats surrounding are filled with old and young. Across the aisle an old man and his wife discuss their evening plans, drinking tea in glass containers they’ve brought. We are all trying to get somewhere other than Changshu, trying to make it to the big city before dinner.

This is not a new situation. For a decade now I’ve been coming home to the lights of Shanghai. By train, bus, or car, and occasionally by taxi I have fled the dark of smaller cities, of factories and rural areas for the comfort of the world’s largest city. I have fled the dark of Changzhou at two am by standing on the side of the highway and flagging down passing sleeper busses. The bus that finally stopped that night was filled to overflowing, and I sat for two and a half hours on a bucket perched atop the entrance stairs, holding myself upright on the driver’s seat. Other times I have stayed in cold hotels, unable to find a way home, trapped by work in the dark.

The desire to flee to an urban area at the approach of darkness is a strange one for me, having grown up in the countryside of upstate New York. For many years I spoke of it only briefly, uncomfortable with how quickly the desire to return to Shanghai in the evening began to sound like a fear of the dark. In many ways it is. And yet I have spent months in smaller Chinese cities and villages without this panic, without needing to flee. Somehow it is the combination of work and of having no place to sleep, of the color of the sky and the smell of the air that makes me so eager to leave. Against the burning pollution haze of afternoon becoming evening I feel far from where I belong in a way rare to someone so rarely stationary, so long removed from my childhood home. It is a feeling both unnerving and glorious.

Closer in to Shanghai’s center there are lights in most buildings, and now it is the dark that surprises. We are almost home, and the idea of human life no longer seems strange. Traffic becomes too heavy even for the horn, and the last ten kilometers threatens to take hours. I grow restless with my fellow passengers, and eager to be finished with this journey. Spotting a metro stop, one too far north for the station name to be anything familiar, a group of us asks to be let off at the corner, and are. And like that, in an instant that was actually three hours, I am back in the city, and no longer seeking light.

Another decade

The evening comes to Shanghai through a filter of haze. It’s been a clear week here in the middle of October, clouds and blue skies every day. There’s still a tinge to the air though, something in the smell of the place that’s unmistakable. Shanghai has changed in the past ten years, but the smell remains. I step out of an airplane into the open air. Across the tarmac Pudong’s Terminal 1 beckons, a huge square of light against the gathering dusk. For a moment I linger at the top of the truck-born staircase, letting the memory take hold.

Ten years and two months ago I stood, stunned, on a similar staircase, on this same runway, in the same last moments of daylight. The details match: the yellow sky of pollution and arc lights, the huge rectangle of Terminal 1, the line of other passengers before and behind, and the smell. Around these details, everything has changed. Terminal 1 is mirrored now by Terminal 2, opened in 2006 and far more frequently used. The road leading to the airport has been re-done, and the maglev built. Metro Line 2 now reaches both airports, stretching across the entire city east to west. And the sprawl of Pudong has reached ever further east, though not quite to the airport’s edge.

I have changed far more than the view has. I am no longer surprised China Eastern is too cheap for a jetway. Walking down the stairs to the waiting bus I look around. There are a dozen foreign faces on the bus to the terminal. That first evening I was the only one, alone with out language, landing in Shanghai on a flight from Tokyo. In August 2003 at the height of the SARS panic few foreigners wanted to visit China.

Fewer still were looking to relocate.

Customs is no longer a strange labyrinth of paperwork. Instead it’s a routine I’ve been through dozens of times, if not yet a hundred. I do the math quickly. Sixty? The HSBC ATM I rely on for RMB has moved, to the front of the customs line rather than just after. Or is that Terminal 2? It’s been years since I used the old Terminal 1 and the two are mirrors, which makes recalling the differences more difficult. I do remember this building though, in good times: boarding a flight with a frisbee team, on our way to Korea or Hong Kong. We drank beer purchased from the vending machine in the check-in hall all the way through customs, through security. I remember pausing to set the open cans on the  X-ray machine as we went through the metal detector, laughing with the guards and teammates. So much has changed.

I remember meeting friends here, arriving from the US, the UK or Japan, to visit me and to explore Shanghai, all of China. I remember being met upon my return in November of 2004, having fled the US again following Bush’s re-election. The symmetry of all these trips is hard to escape, standing in line at customs.

Ten years two months and three days have passed from my first footsteps in this country. I slept in a windowless hotel room on Nanjing East, the pedestrian street, my first week in Shanghai. A horrible idea, it was the cheapest option I could find. I ate at Lawson’s the first night, a sad familiar brand from my life in Japan. I was unprepared for that first landing in China, without friends, language skills, employment, or housing. I spent three days looking for an internet cafe. During that first week in the hotel on Nanjing I walked home from an interview in Hongqiao. Those first few weeks were a challenge and an opportunity to let curiosity overcome uncertainty. My surprise at stepping out of the airplane into the open air of evening on Pudong’s runway that first evening turned out to be only a small shock, if a lasting one.

In Shanghai in 2013 I step into a taxi, glad to be able to speak Chinese again after months away. Gao’an Lu and Hengshan Lu, I tell the driver. And, as we start moving, the air looks good today, tell me about the weather.”

As I’ve written before, in some ways Shanghai will always be home. Ten years since I first touched down, I am glad to have another look from the top of those stairs, staring west into China with the ocean to my back and the wind in my face.

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.

Build a home

Above the Pacific on a JAL flight to Tokyo the question strikes gently. Like most moments of introspection it lingers for days, long after I have landed at Haneda and taken the monorail to a tiny business hotel in Hamamatsucho. Opening the single window to the rain and lights of evening I think of it again: Where do I love enough to settle in?

Not settle down in the traditional sense, not stop moving and become a fixture at the local pub, but settle in with property, invest in making a place more than just a passing habitation. Where is it that modifying a space to my specific interests would be feasible, as well as useful?

Out the window the roof lines slope in a particularly Japanese way, from balcony to balcony to fire escape. After all these years away it is a comforting view, this slice of Hamamatsucho I have never seen before. In the foggy evening whole floors are lit, offices and apartment building balconies. Neon from the chain restaurants and convenience stores below sparkles, wet and inviting against the gathering dark. Looking around my room, well-shaped and just large enough for the bed, I think of my old apartment in Saitama and it’s Fuji-facing balcony. A space like that, designed for minimal possessions and a place to tuck necessities away? A space like this?

A few days later in a Harajuku studio I am sure this is not enough space, nowhere to hang towels or stash bags once they are unpacked. Close though, with a tiny balcony and decent light, on a side street without too many visitors. Private and central. How much more space would I need?

In a Saitama apartment not unlike my own a decade earlier, I think this is enough, this may be too much. With two bedrooms, almost three, the tendency is to acquire things, a larger screen, a computer, a collection or two. To invest in a place like this, with balconies and room for friends, would be a call to remodel completely, move walls and consolidate closets. This is an apartment to rent, not a space to own. As I did in Yono Honmachi, I want to see inside the neighbors doors, to learn if anyone else has taken to the space like a beaver, damming and redirecting the flow of traffic in their residency.

In a hotel in Fukuoka, overlooking a river, the windows are the most important thing. They open, letting in huge gusts of weather, and run floor to ceiling, allowing in light and neon in equal measures. Across the water a parking garage, invisible in daytime sun and billboard-lit evening, shines starkly through the night, bright enough to wake those bothered by light. Power plugs are everywhere in this room, a central point of convenience, and a huge mirror guards the entryway to prep visitors for their excursions. A wooden half table slides quickly away when not in use, leaving two chairs that become a sofa in front of the windows. This is a space designed for tight occupancy from the ground up, and welcoming with its futuristic feel. For two days we enjoy each perk, save for the fridge, which has its own on off switch separate from the room’s key-card controlled power. This trick sits undiscovered until the second evening. A brand-new building, this hotel displays the benefits of designing from scratch, and impresses with the feasibility of small-space living. At least without a kitchen.

In Kagoshima, the southern end of our journey, the hotel is likewise new and completely purpose-built. With textured flooring in place of carpets, a bathroom on the outside of the building, windows to the bedroom and tiny, custom-built clothes hanging spots, it is an excellent example of re-thinking space. This is the kind of thing I’d like to do, if not exactly how. A kitchen is a challenge. The living space needs windows, and yet the bathrooms need air and light to dry. Wrapping all these separate uses into a tiny square requires compromises, requires settling on one use or another, discussing our needs.

This, here on the southern tip of mainland Japan, may not be where we decide to settle down. These islands may never be home again. But from the constant reinvention of space, from the dedication to cleanliness and the attention to detail and maintenance that ownership rewards and requires, we learn so much. We learn with every hotel and apartment, floor and bed, balcony and bathroom.

For the time is coming, one way or another. We will settle in to a space, be able to reorganize, reconstruct and utilize. Exactly where is hard to say.

Out the window in Kagoshima the rain is falling. In our tiny hotel box we look at the architecture and discuss the future. It is a wonderful break from the rest of our lives.

Happy birthday

From his spot atop my backpack Mr. Squish laps up the sun. He loves these hours with the bay windows in our Richmond apartment, when the morning light comes in thick and hot.

In the afternoon the space chills, and he seeks refuge on the furry blanket that is his favorite possession, that has been since his first days in this house. He stretches and turns and settles in, his head pressed deep into the fur and paws extended forward to knead the soft material. Purring loudly he shuts his eyes and begins a nap that ends only when we return from work.

Today however he has company, and sneaks up on my keyboard as I type, sniffing for the remnants of my bagel sandwich on the plate discarded after breakfast. Finding little he settles on a cushion in the window and watch for pigeons and Coca-Cola delivery trucks. The small fleet of police trikes that lead the street sweeper, giving tickets to parked cars, startles him with their strange speed and clustering. Occasionally the 38 hisses loudly as it brakes to a stop at the corner and he rises, fur on end, prepared to defend his home from the unknown.

Mostly he watches me, and naps, content in the knowledge that his people are near by.

Today Mr. Squish turns one. In his first year he has grown from a tiny ball of fluff with pale blue eyes to the king of the house, a cat of no small size or shedding power. His fur remains strangely soft, a single coat of fluff that he disperses widely and yet never seems to lack. Rather than an unknown creature of mystery he seems to be a specific breed, and a gentle one. He is not afraid of dogs or other cats, though the latter are not his biggest fans. At fourteen pounds he intimidates without meaning to, and is uncertain of the social mores surrounding cat-on-cat interactions.

His early life on the street, before the shelter and the foster family, left him with something of a wheeze, and he catches colds easily. Thus Mr. Squish is more like his owner than otherwise would seem, asthmatic and often sneezing. These ailments have not stopped his adventures, from frisbee field to wedding party to coffee shop. Today on his birthday he will see Golden Gate Park, Jenny’s Burger, and the Little Shamrock. Being a creature of San Francisco’s small apartments he is amazed at the variety of trees, birds and boxes in the wide world, but knows his own gate well and is always ready to return to the furry blanket.

In the last year Mr. Squish is not the only one who’s grown. Our lives have changed with his company, and with a creature at home we are more likely to leave early, or sleep in, content with his warm fur on foot or head. So too have we come to rely on friends for food and care on our frequent expeditions, for patience when we speak of his antics. Those who’ve visited have had to tolerate his nightly curiosity, and have benefited from his love for snuggles. This first year has been a happy one, and tonight we go to sleep hoping to wake to his sniffing for many more.

Biking with a cat, part 1

Yesterday after work, with a friend’s offer of dinner in mind, I threw Mr. Squish in my backpack, with his leash tied to the top handle. Knowing he’d be unhappy eventually I put his furry bed in too, folded as a liner for the bag. And I got on my bike, helmet and all, and set off across the city. He handled it well, head poking up through the unzipped top of the bag, peeking out at the world whipping past. It was cold but not unpleasant, and we rode up through the Richmond and into Golden Gate Park, up JFK and out into the Panhandle. I was worried about him in traffic, because he doesn’t like cars much and busses even less, but he handled it fine, never moving much. He’s really a champ of a cat in most respects.

When we arrived I pulled the bike inside and he scrambled out of the pack, leashed to me while I locked up. He knows the house, having stayed there before while we were out of town, and was excited to see the resident cat. She might not have been as excited to see him, but at least they can cohabit a bit.

Going home was a different adventure. It was dark and cold and Mr. Squish was tired. He had no interest in staying put in my backpack. Halfway back through the Panhandle he was up on my shoulder, crouched with his head facing the wind. Not my ideal way to ride, as he could leap off at any moment and, because of the leash, be dragged by the bike. Once I got into the park I slowed down, and sure enough he jumped off. I did too and for a while walked the bike with him running along side, still tied to my backpack. This wasn’t too bad, we go on walks a lot, but it wasn’t a fast way home, and it was almost midnight. So I pushed him back in the bag and started off again, figuring any bit of the ride I could do on the bike would be worth it.

He scrambled out again almost immediately, up on to my shoulder. Worried about the jump but wanting to keep going I headed up onto the sidewalk, figuring I could ride slowly along it and he’d be ok.

Wrong call. About twenty feet from where I got on the sidewalk the sprinklers started. The first one hit us both in the face, him crouched by my head. No one was pleased, cold water added to the cold wind, and at least three more sprinklers ahead. I did the stupid thing and tried to keep going, grabbing Mr. Squish with my right hand and biking with my left, somehow thinking I could make it through these 3 more sprinklers and be ok. Squish wasn’t having any of it. The second one got us both, but by now I was holding him dangling by the harness as he frantically tried to avoid the third sprinkler. We never made it to the fourth one. After the third I was soaked, scratched to hell, and holding the harness but no Squish.

This is my worst fear with taking Mr. Squish out on the leash. It’s a harness that clips around his middle and neck, connected by a strap with a loop for the leash. Pretty secure, but I know from experience that if he gets really spooked he can squirm his front paws out of the thing and somehow get it off his head.

I hopped off the bike, throwing it to the ground, and headed back to him. He was squatting in the middle of the sidewalk between two sprinklers, huddled in a wet ball. I was pretty soaked too, and bleeding from my hand, though I didn’t notice then. I managed to gently grab him and pulled us both back onto the road, away from the sprinklers, where I calmed him down, somehow got the harness back on, and got him into the backpack. At this point I just desperately wanted to make it home, and I’m sure he did too. He was cold, wet, and at least a little banged up from the scramble and fall.

He stayed in the backpack, just his nose peeking out, all the rest of the way home to Tara, who took him and brushed him and put him in front of the heater.

And that’s how Mr. Squish’s first bike ride went.

Hopefully the next one will go better. And be in the daylight.

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.

Places I slept, 2012

San Francisco, CA

Brooklyn, NY

Santa Monica, CA

Shanghai, China

Tokyo, Japan

Kyoto, Japan

Tochigi, Japan

Rochester, NY

Ithaca, NY

Cherry Hill, NJ

Anaheim, CA

Portland, OR

Salt Lake, UT

Lake Havasu, AZ

Forestville, CA

Fort Collins, CO

Billings, MT

Arcata, CA

El Paso, TX

Yangzhou, China

Davis, CA

Los Angeles, CA

Green Bay, WI

Edinburgh, Scotland

Erchless Castle, Scotland

Harrow, London

Chicago, IL

Berkeley, CA

Walden, CO

A very full year. A new country, old friends, weddings, work, and family. Longer lists than 2011, 2010, 2009. Here’s to the new year, a blank page, and friends all over the world.

Also, here’s Seth’s list. We do keep moving.

Scotland

It is October, and we drive the M90 north through the tiny Kingdom of Fife. Though it’s home to the home of golf we have miles to go and do not linger. Having rented a car with incredible acceleration we pass rather rapidly, overtaking slower vehicles in mild terror on their left. Right.

In fact Scotland is to the north of our lives. After our first weekend in Edinburgh every step we take in Scotland is further north than either of us have ever been.  We realize this on a beach facing the North Sea in Banff. It’s a tiny town not terribly far south, latitude wise, of Juneau Alaska. October is past half done and the sunshine and warmth are a gift to our travels. The roads are dry and skies clear, and we visit castles leaving our jackets in the car.

We are on an adventure again, to the last new place we have plans to learn in twenty twelve. It is an entire country in a week, another island nation and a few more old fiends. We adventure by car and train and foot. We see castles in the mornings and oceans at sunset. We see snow in the first light of dawn and lochs by the last. We wander with little in the way of plan from east coast to west, from Edinburgh to Inverness, Aberdeen to Portree and Mallaig.

Scotland is a country of rolling hills and steep cliffs, of lakes that stretch long through valleys, and fields of furry cows tucked into the gaps. It is a country of trains and lorries, beer, cider, and whisky. More than anything it is a country of kind people, from the strangers who help us with our flat to the two NFL fans who sit opposite us on the train south, excited by the opportunity to see the St. Louis Rams play the New England Patriots in London. They drink Budweiser, like Nickelback, and work in the oil industry in Aberdeen. Like everyone we meet they are the kind of direct polite that surprises sarcastic Americans, mocking each other yet kind to passers by.

Much of the week we reside in a cottage on the grounds of a castle in the hills south west of Inverness. It is the kind of accommodation hard to imagine prior to arrival, half fantasy and half luxury, found by a friend. For, like our trip to Japan, Scotland is an adventure with old friends, and the four of us spend each evening building a fire, cooking together, discussing the future, and telling stories of the past. Here at last is someone who was there when I fell off the bridge in Saitama, who walked me home scraped and in shock. Here’s someone who remembers standing on the stairwell in Kawaguchi between English classes, looking out at the city with the exhausted and uncurious eyes of a resident. It’s been years since our last meeting, in Amsterdam after Italy won the World Cup, and we are old enough now to cherish each evening together.

Scotland, like Japan, like any nation, is far too much to encapsulate in a week of travel, though we try. Mostly it is a chance to adventure, to challenge ourselves by learning new things together. It is a way to remember how we met, if not where, and why we are always on the move. Walking on the dam that holds back Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin we think of James Bond, of the beauty of nature, and of the perseverance of humans in exploring, mapping, and building on so much of this globe.

The first morning in Edinburgh we look at each other, wide-eyed with jet lag and the joy of discovery, and remember. Five years ago in Shanghai, riding an electric scooter together and discovering new districts, new routes home late at night. In Scotland five years later the scooter is an Audi, rented for the week. The look in our eyes though is familiar, as we stand on top of Arthur’s Seat, a little winded from the climb. Five years seems both impossibly long and never enough. Twenty twelve may have brought Japan, Scotland, and old friends, but the world is wide and there are always more of you to see.

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.

Forgetting

You know him, but you probably don’t remember his mom, she was an…” This is how stories begin in my parent’s home. I do not. It has been decades since her son and I shared a playground in middle school.

Decades.

The children we once knew have grown, moved, married, and are contemplating children. Some parents, like mine, remain in old circles and wonder at our forgetfulness.

The loss is not intentional. Rather too great is the world, too many are the people. We do not mean to surrender these memories of childhood, they are forced from us by the onslaught of days. To manage we devote our meager resources to our current locations, to our new homes. On the East Coast for a few days of stories and family, I learn of another method, long practiced, for defeating the limits of memory.

My father’s parents drive me south to Philadelphia. We have scant trips like this together and many things to share, tales of those gone and those unable to join us. We alternate between the two as the miles pass. Sometimes we speak of our future desires, my own hopes to visit Scotland this fall among them.

It’s really beautiful out at the north edge of Scotland,” says my grandfather, I forget the name of the town, I’d have to look at my notes. Anyway, you ride along…”

In an astonishing moment an entire world previously unknown appears to me, revealed after decades. The same decades that have hidden my childhood companions suddenly contain copious detail, personal history, the travel of those with no limits on time.

Notes?” I ask, thinking of my poor scribbled collection of memories from earlier travels, from years abroad.

From everywhere we’ve ever been,” he says.

Every night when we get back to the hotel,” adds my grandmother, he writes while I read my book.” With that my own urge to organize and record no longer seems so strange. The first image I see is of our cruise in two thousand six, me writing in a lounge high on the ship late in the evenings, others having retired to their cabins. I imagine him sitting at a table, looking out over the Mediterranean, writing.

A day later I have copies of his notes from three weeks spent in Scotland in nineteen ninety four and can add format and handwriting to my imagined evenings. The notes are in a kind of short hand, and the hours driving together lend me the sound of his voice as I read them, which I do for much of my plane flight home.

9/10 Saturday Stayed — Toured Hadrian’s Wall — Housesteads Roman Ft. (high on ridge, impressive remains & views, walked wall — really windy)

Almost twenty years ago. As with so many written things I picture a book of these travel diaries, with appendixes that list the miles traveled per day, that list the names of each hotel, as they are recorded on the paper in front of me. I see a book of things forgotten and yet not lost.

We have a finite memory. Most things slide in and out. Relationships, good times with old friends, one-time travels to distant lands, even these drift from our fingertips though we do not mean to let them. What then of the details of Japan, of Shanghai, of our travels, houses, kitten? On the bus home from the airport I think of this site, of my attempts to record time and place, and vow to continue. Looking down again at his notes as I sit in the fog of San Francisco I am amazed at the details so long forgotten and so quickly returned to hand.

The circle grows

In May we acquire company. Mr. Squish, as he was known at the SPCA, enters our home and our daily routine. We sit on the kitchen floor and chase crumbled balls of paper together. It is a trick we’ve been taught at other houses full of kittens. It is the season.

We nap together, him curled on my lap and me, exhausted from the cleaning and preparing, the allergies and the stress of selection, with my head against the cabinets. A little later on I move him to his bed, in the overturned cardboard carrier he came home in. I then go back to sleep against the cabinets before making it out of the kitchen.

After the lights go out he mewls, stuck in the kitchen. From the bedroom we ignore him, as old instincts and new SPCA handouts have taught us. Impatient for access to the larger world he vaults the cardboard barrier to the mudroom. Built from a diaper box I’d found in the downstairs recycling earlier that day, it had looked far taller than he could jump. In play, anyway. A bundle of fluffy nerves in the dark he clears it easily.

Lights on again and nerves of my own aflutter I re-tape it after assuring him there is nothing of interest in that direction. Some shoes. The fridge. A handful of re-usable bags for grocery runs. He seems equally surprised to find himself out of the tiny sphere of the kitchen. I pull him back with one hand and work on the barrier. The gaff tape is confusing to my half-open eyes. Eventually he is again constrained by temporary walls featuring giant babies. He mewls. I lie on my back in the dark and think of all the things in life I am not yet strong enough to survive. Eventually I sleep.

Our apartment is far vaster than his room at the SPCA. He was kept by foster folk for some weeks, but confined to a bathroom, and with other kittens. Even a dog, says the report. In the kitchen, Mr. Squish is a rampaging animal of adventure. Out of it, on his rare forays to the mudroom, the living room, the hallway, he is a jumpy creature of extreme fluff, puffed up and shell-shocked, eyes wide. He hops on all fours and ducks under the built-in cupboards.

His name, like his fur, is something of a mystery. The SPCA had several kittens, short hairs of standard nomenclature. They were called Giles and Lucy and Lulu and Hawk and Cleo and Colin and Clyde. Among them, with his long black hair and soft underfur, Mr. Squish stood alone. To find him the SPCA required precise spelling. Mr Squish produced no such cat. Neither Mister Squish. And so, in his scant days with us, he has earned the title I repeated often to politely searching volunteers: M R period Squish.

Long may he remain.

Remembering these streets

I enter the US as usual, in a line half asleep. Asiana has shut off the movie system thirty minutes prior to landing, just long enough for me to doze off before touch down.

As a person I wake slowly.  My head follows far behind the rest of my body, languishing in dreams until it has churned them into unintelligible fragments. Because of this I do not like mornings, save when jet lagged, for then the day springs upon me unsuspecting and I am unable to feign sleep. Waking up on the plane as it settles down onto the tarmac of SFO I am confused, my eyes do not seem to work. As we taxi I struggle to create focus by closing first one and then the other, to remember who I am, where I have come from, why I am here. It has been weeks on the road.

Filling out the customs form I struggle to remember my address. Proof that I have indeed been gone long enough, and moved just before leaving. The label of home” has no immediate mental association.

What were you doing out there?” the uniformed man asks, far kinder than his compatriots at LAX. I have woken up now enough to use both eyes, to use some portion of my brain.

Visiting friends,” I say. The truth. I have slept but four nights out of the last twenty five in a bed.

Checking on the world, I think, as he considers my Walgreens photo and brand new passport. I was looking to see if it was still out there, beyond the bubble that my own country’s culture and borders create. I do not say these things. They are beyond the power of my tongue as well as beyond the wisdom of the moment. He hands back the booklet which still does not feel comfortable, having not yet adopted the curve of my pocket. This new chip-containing version has not spent years in my bag, has not been thumbed through by countless officials, and has not sweated against my skin in the summer’s heat. Yet this now is my documentation, and it is no longer bare.

The world too, on the other side of airplanes and air conditioned waiting rooms, felt similar. It lacked the comforting curves of my previous apartments, of my own daily commutes, and yet was not foreign. Conversations with new acquaintances had the feel of the familiar, and friends not seen in decades seemed well along their chosen paths. The world, in all its variety of Shanghai spectacle and Tochigi silence, was still there, reassuring to my hopeful heart.

The car is an unfamiliar place after weeks on foot and trains. It vibrates with the pavement in a less predictable fashion, and my eyes, still confused by the brightness of San Francisco, are again unprepared. The hills look gorgeous, the skyline wide. It’s the colors, I realize, the blue of the sky and the green of the land, that are so sparkling. Again it strikes me how precious this area is, not for its relative beauty but because it exists, because people have managed to destroy and repair in mostly equal measures.

Lately Shanghai’s pollution startles me each time as I land with the thought that I lived amidst such heavy clouds for so many years. And yet returning after several weeks to this western coast of the United States it is the blue that surprises and the sun that is unexpectedly bright.

In a week or two San Francisco will again seem normal, and the latest travels be swept under a current of daily responsibilities. Until then I will treasure the early mornings when my body jolts awake at five am, and revel in having no sense of home, here or anywhere.

Habitats

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

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

Keep us interesting,” She says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unpacking ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Places I slept, 2011

San Francisco, CA

San Antonio, TX

Santa Monica, CA

San Diego, CA

Washington, D.C.

Salt Lake, UT

Medford, OR

Arcata, CA

Cherry Hill, NJ

Ithaca, NY

Queens, NY

Brooklyn, NY

El Paso, TX

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

Poughkeepsie, NY

Shanghai, China

Hangzhou, China

Lake Shasta, CA

Moss Beach, CA

Santa Barbara, CA

Chicago, IL

Santa Cruz, CA

Manhattan, NY

Charlotte, NC

Timber Cove, CA

A lot of local adventures, thanks to the Fit, a new country, and many repeats. Here’s to more new places next year.

Readily available cures

In my Mexican hotel room Lost in Translation plays, a mirror for those adrift. I am again feverish in a country not my own and so relish the sounds of Japan, the clean linen, the Gatorade and air conditioning. Perhaps it was the food, or perhaps pure exhaustion from a weekend spent running in the sun at Stanford and several extremely long days on my feet.

On screen Bill Murray smiles awkwardly. I shiver. In this box of manufactured air I am secure, and I heal. Tomorrow I will rise early and step again into the heat that waits outside my door, in the very hallway. Tonight, like those lost souls in Tokyo on TV, I ignore Juarez. Instead I try to find some space to breathe, and to think of how fix the problems I am here to see. How to do the right thing, once I have discovered it.

I also remember.

In the Summit, an expensive Shanghai apartment complex behind The Center, a glass tower on Huashan Lu then but a few years old, I remember a man of thirty. He lay for a day and a half in bed. He shivered and shook with some unknown disease contracted in the manufacturing sprawl outside Shaoxing. He cured it the way he was accustomed to in China, with Advil, Gatorade, and thick covers. The Saturday I remember was his one day off out of three weeks in country, and he saw nothing outside of his friend’s apartment, the guest bedroom.

Out the window in Juarez a pool glows in the evening, abandoned for the moment by hotel guests. A gym next to it features men working off business lunches by pounding their knees on an endless rubber path. I have energy for neither sit-ups nor discontent.

I am in a country without holding any of its currency. The idea of this is bemusing and inconvenient as the vending machines on the floor below might otherwise offer sustenance. I toss and turn, occupied by the soreness of sickness. Somehow all of these illnesses, all of these aching hours alone in strange countries, blur together in feverish dreams.

On an airplane across the Pacific, I remember a man age twenty eight.  He had a bulkhead seat, but did not appreciate the space. Neither blanket nor hoodie could stop the chills and the aches of the illness he had contracted in Houston and incubated on the flight to LA. On reaching home in Shanghai he would remain housebound for a week. He would learn of his roommate’s soup-making skills and see little save the sallow face in his own mirror.

At thirty two, I leave Juarez for Phoenix with the illness still inside me. Shivering in the Phoenix airport as the air conditioning floods down, almost unable to stand, I take comfort in having still never been as ill as on that flight to Shanghai.

On the flight home to San Francisco, finally free, finished with the week in the Juarez Holiday Inn Express, I count up those other lost days, ill in countries not my own. So often I have been powerless save for the cures I knew: Advil brought with me, Gatorade purchased for scant dollars, and covers of a bed briefly borrowed.

I am glad once again to be going home to a house that is not empty. Going home to someone who will aid me in ways, alone and with so little language, I have never managed to improve.

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.

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.

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.”

Places I slept, 2010

San Francisco, CA

Santa Monica, CA

Shanghai, China

Shaoxing, China

Cherry Hill, NJ

New York, NY

Seattle, WA

Sacramento, CA

Fort Collins, CO

Duluth, MN

Green Bay, WI

Chicago, IL

Manzanita, OR

Miami, FL

Clark, Philippines

Boracay, Phillippines

Houston, TX

Another good list, and a streak kept alive. I’ve been out of this country every year for a decade now. Here’s to saying the same for the next one.

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.

Get out of this country

Without this trip I’d have broken my streak,” he says. We are standing barefoot on the world’s finest sand, Red Horse in hand, watching the sun light up the ocean and clouds as it sinks. I do not need the streak explained.

How many years?” I ask.

Five.” A good number, half of the last decade. We watch the sun set, toes sifting the beach. World’s finest, in this case, is not an abstract label of quality applied by the local tourism board. Rather it is a measure of size, grain for grain. Though this island may not truly be the world’s anything a survey of our group reveals experience on the beaches of five continents, and none finer. Surrounded by friends, a few steps from the shade of buildings and trees, we are wrapped in the color of the approaching evening. The water is warmer than the air and the days are still long at the beginning of December.

What does this city have to offer me?
Everyone else thinks it’s the bee’s knees.

My friend does not mention that, in his streak of five years, he has learned a smattering of Mandarin and become fluent in German. He doesn’t mention that he has made hundreds of friends, or how these years have changed his approach to work, to housing, and to vacations. He doesn’t have to.

On the beach we toss a frisbee around without urgency. This white plastic disc has brought us all together, in Asia, in the US. It has kept us close through moves and new countries, jobs and relationships. Yet this week it is simply a toy, to be brought out and put away, to be organized around and kept track of. Because the people are here already, they do not need to be assembled. The people and the sunsets and the sand and the water, and life feels complete.

Let’s hit the road dear friend of mine

Five years is enough time. It is time enough for our home nation to change presidents, for economic growth to reveal its cyclical nature, and for us all to settle down, at least a little. Five years ago we lived in the same city, and we played the same game. Years later we again live in the same city, and still play this game. Most everything else has changed. The language we speak daily has changed, as have our jobs. We’ve left behind belongings and gained new apartments, stomping grounds and teammates. We’ve left behind a lot of frisbees.

Let’s get out of this country

she sings and we agree. At least once a year, for as long as we can manage it, for five years or ten. As twenty ten grows short we smile at each other, having kept our streaks alive. Over the ocean the sun drops into the water, leaving pink echoes in the sky. We are lucky to be sharing a city again in San Francisco, and lucky to be standing here again on Boracay.

Quoted lyrics from Camera Obscura’s Let’s Get Out of This Country” off of the 2006 album of the same name

Mobile

In Pescadero, along the coast of the Pacific an hour south of San Francisco, the water and the sky are one. The sun has set and the lightning, when it breaks, blankets everything. The ocean, in the last light, was white and whipped with the onrushing storm.

In a parking lot a group of a dozen debate shelter. Possible permutations of bodies to fill four bunks and one queen are offered and countered. Camping, formerly the refuge of the rugged or underfunded, has become undesirable.

As the hail hits there comes agreement. Newly gifted with the ability, we withdraw our need from the group. For the remainder of the stormy evening, the Fit that brought us here will be our home. It’s rear seats folded flat and padded with zipped-down sleeping bags, the little car has ample room for two people who routinely claim 5’10. With a bit of contortion I manage to stretch my legs straight, a blessing with hip joints that ache from a day spent running in wet sand.

This ability, to travel short distances to strange places on our own schedule, is not newly gained. For years now the trusty Volvo has been our steed, taking us across the western states with pace. The Fit would not win by any measure of speed or acceleration, but this new found capacity, to shelter, impresses greatly.

In the two months it has been with us the Fit has seen the Pacific from a wide range of angles. Manzanita, Oregon last month and Pescadero, California today represent but the end points. It crosses the Golden Gate daily, winding first through the Presidio and then up into Marin. It has seen Mount Shasta and driven the streets of Portland, not to mention Berkeley and San Mateo. Some day soon it will see Los Angeles, I imagine.

First though will come more days like today, random parking lots and stands of weeds made into them, near grass fields or beaches, with cleats and discs and water bottles filling the back seats. The mobile is good for that, with it’s small frame and seats for five it handles odd spaces without question.

And, as we woke this morning, we realized it could do so much more, having sheltered us comfortably through downpours while moving and now while asleep. Wiping condensation from the windshield’s interior with a t-shirt though it occurred to us exactly why door visors are an option. Sleeping with ventilation that did not also let in the weather would be an improvement.

Perhaps the mobile will get a Christmas present.

The topography of people

People have two kinds of geography. The first, outwardly invisible, is that of their history in the world. The house they grew up in, cities where they’ve worked. Geography like this can be shared but is hard to learn, residing as it does in memory, in emotions tied to shades of light and times of year. This geography is the hook that songs sink in to, and perfumes. In this version of my geography We Walk the Same Line” will always be a Kawaguchi evening near Christmas, the park cold and empty save for the glow of white bulbs strung over dark grass and bare trees. I was alone, and can describe the evening, but can not take anyone there. A visitor to the place I recall would find it different, would indeed create their own separate version of that park and city, adding to a different set of maps. The geography of memory is permanently intangible.

The second kind is a more physical topography. It can not be shared but is easy to learn, for it is layered onto each person by the world. In the scar beneath my right eye lies a story of an ultimate tournament in Hong Kong, and in my crooked nose the story of a child’s repeated foolishness. These stories require extraction, questions, to understand, but only sight to discover. Unlike the geography of where we’ve been, the geography of what has happened to us can become familiar to another.  Our geography can be learned by anyone we let close enough to touch.

We are all vaguely aware of each other’s old injuries, of the recurring impact of the years and places we have managed to survive. Likewise we know that most people in most cities have a different birth place, a history of travel and a rationale for each move. The learning of each kind is what differs so, an interesting separation. Who knows both parts of us, who cares to and who even could? How many sets of geography and of personal history do we have space for in our heads, or on our bodies?

Becoming American

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gone running

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

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

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

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

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

Quiet people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreaming of a President

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Remembering fear

Last Thursday on Irving, between 19th and 20th, a man was shot to death in front of Phở Huynh Hiep 2. PHH, as it’s known locally, if it’s known at all, is a Vietnamese place, in as much as every restaurant must seek inspiration somewhere. Despite its plate glass windows and fluorescent lights it is popular, filled daily at noon and 7. Although some swear by rival PPQ, directly across the street, I can tell no difference.

Returning to America I must remember many things, from the proper place for crossing streets to the inadvisability of discussing someone while they are standing beside me. Crosswalks are interesting artifacts, but remembering to use both them and common courtesy is part of my cultural re-assimilation.

Working in theaters in SOMA or the Tenderloin and walking home late at night, assessing danger is another.

Asia is, in most regards, a phenomenally safe place, especially as a westerner. Ask any expat in Shanghai how many times they have fallen asleep in a taxi and how many of those rides have ended poorly.  Their answer will reveal the carefree manner in which I once navigated the world. This is not to suggest taxis in San Francisco, Houston or New York are unsafe places to sleep. Rather it is a demonstration of the security and comfort that I found in Shanghai and Tokyo.

The dispute on Irving does not bring fear to me. Police were watching, and the perpetrator arrested immediately. A violent dispute between Asian gang rivals over the correct choice of phở shop is not the fear I remember, nor do I think it should be. The homeless man passed out on the steps to the Civic Center MUNI & BART station is the fear.

Is he dead?” I ask myself. And then, more disturbing, how would I know?”

Would I even notice, care, or act? I step over his sprawled form. He grunts something about money. He is not making music.

In the evening, after the show, I suggest meeting at a bar.

Should I come get you at the station? Sixth street is sketchy.” The question is not chivalrous. It is born instead of a confusion, an awareness of how much I have forgotten. Is this neighborhood safe? Should I be worried for a woman walking alone? How should I solve this problem? This is the challenge of remembering fear.

In Shanghai we would walk home across most of the city at four am, certain only of our destination. There might have been desirable neighborhoods and less acceptable ones, but there were no areas to be avoided. There were no streets filled with drunk homeless men shouting. Drunk homeless women shouting. There were, and are, injured beggars, crippled children, destitute old men, but they do nothing more than occasionally bang their money bowls into passing arms and legs. In Shanghai the largest threats are bike thieves and pick pockets.

Looking at apartments in the Tenderloin in September we marveled at their size.

The ceilings are so high!” we told each other, heads tipped back.

It is cheap,” we acknowledged. The windows were large, and the ceilings arched overhead with delicate moulding. Spacious, almost grand, it was an apartment of a forgotten style, when buildings were built for the feel of the place, rather than the number of square feet or the view or the efficiency of use. We were not blind to modern improvements such as windows that would contain heat and faucets that did not clatter when running, but there was a majesty to this old building, to that wasted corner space where the walls curved, making shelving impossible.

There were six sex workers on this block,” she said. I nodded. I was imagining telling her parents where we had moved, and their first visit. I was imagining walking home late at night, or waiting for her to. I was trying to remember how uncomfortable this should feel, how afraid I should be.

We decided the number of crack dealers and sex workers was higher than we would be comfortable with, sitting alone in the apartment waiting for the other to come home. We decided that it was not the kind of neighborhood we wanted our parents to see us living in. We decided the ceilings were pretty, but the landlord lackluster.

We moved to the Sunset, which is more Asian, more friendly, less dangerous.

A man was shot on our block.

Everywhere we go, we ask ourselves if this is a good restaurant, that a good bar, this or the other hotel a better deal. We constantly seek the places locals like, the normal, comfortable situations. We are not unique, other travelers seek this information also. It is the desire to understand, born of a suddenly obvious lack.

Returning to America after years abroad I find the challenges similar. Can I leave my bike on the street? Bring it into the bar? Take it on the train?

What is safe, and what is normal? Where are we again?

She brings flowers

Into our apartment they come, the week before Valentine’s day. Half are the beginning blossoms of a tree cut in secrecy, the thin branches supporting new blooms. The others, pink tulips of a delicate age, she purchased at a roadside stand on 19th to offset the earlier theft. By the time I return home they are carefully placed, a few in each room of our house’s three. The living room, largest, has several shapes, a bowl, a glass, a vase. A long branch carefully balanced cascades from the high shelf near the bed, its shocks of blossoms dark purple above my head as I sleep. On her side the tulips are more equal partners, playing their lighter pinks against smaller portions of this former tree.

I watch them all while she is at work, as they open and bloom, grow full and start to wither. The weekend approaches with proclaimed importance, and we do make plans and small gifts to each other. After several years of uncertainty we are celebrating comfort and the will to keep on going.

What good things are we making, I often ask, in the evenings.

It is a question that comes to me in long hours of silence as the wind blows off the Pacific and the afternoon light fades. On this Friday in February, as I look around our little house I find a response.

Beauty in small daily doses is her answer.

And in our Sunset studio scattered petals flutter down.

Another winter

In San Francisco, it rains. His friends are happy, are ill, are new to town, exuberant, exhausted, and at work. They buy bicycles, have lunches, look for work, travel, drink, play ultimate, talk, speculate and hope. To see each other they take the cable car, in the rain. They wait for busses together, and trains, they bicycle and walk. Very rarely, they drive.

It is two thousand ten, and the car seems inconvenient, expensive, restrictive. Parking is costly and traffic bad, especially in the rain. Yet in the rain they value the car too. After ultimate they are glad of its four wheels four doors and an engine that makes heat. Buying bicycles and furniture they are glad of its trunk. Commuting in it they are glad of the ability to take jobs where public transit does not run, and yet distraught at the hours spent to do so.

In the first month of what might be a new decade his friends also plan, and hold meetings. They direct, act, celebrate and rehearse. He attends, happy to be again in the dark of a theater, in the shelter of strange buildings in SoMa or the Tenderloin.

On public holidays they walk together to the ocean and watch dogs run in the chill water of the Pacific. They watch a lone kite surfer, bold, skim the chop at ridiculous speed. And then they walk home, in the rain, wet and content, to do laundry and clean.

It is January 2010, and in his country politics are a disaster and the news often sad. He thinks briefly of leaving, as he did in 2000, in 2004. His friends are here though, doing so much in to San Francisco, and he resolves to stay, to learn, and to enjoy. New places beckon, both across the street and around the globe, but he is not leaving. Not yet. Instead he builds a new desk, places it at the window, and watches the weather.

In San Francisco, in January, it rains.

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.

Places I slept, 2009

Houston, TX

Lansing, NY

Ithaca, NY

Baton Rouge, LA

Austin, TX

Big Bend, TX

Los Angeles, CA

Cincinnati, OH

San Francisco, CA

Portland, OR

Sacramento, CA

Fort Collins, CO

Near Gould, CO

Incline Village, NV

Shanghai, China

Shaoxing, China

The wonderful thing is not the number of places, but that they were seen multiple times, and involved so many friends.  May 2010 bring still more.

List of mobile phones I’ve used

A Japanese Panasonic candybar model with a monochrome screen which, being old and cheap at the time (2001) I can’t find any information about online.

Nokia J-NM02 - A model that’s very hard to find information on, but in 2002 was pretty sweet.  Flip, color, camera, web, and that wonderful antenna.

Nokia 2100 - On moving to Shanghai in 2003 I bought the cheapest phone I could.

Siemens M55 - Quite an upgrade after about a year in Shanghai.

Nokia 6681 - An incredible phone.  A little slow towards the end, but with Opera Mini and the Gmail app the best phone experience I had ever had, by far.  Also synched with my Mac via Bluetooth, which was a huge win.

HTC P4350 - Windows Mobile.  Great hardware, worst software ever.  Only lasted six months before I got tired of having the messaging app crash while texting.  No sync.

BlackBerry Curve 8300 - An incredible phone, but by 1 year the trackball was breaking. Also better with Opera Mini and Gmail app.  Qwerty keyboard was great.  Used w/ Exchange.

iPhone 3G white 16GB - Fun, versatile, but hands down the worst phone I’ve used since the… ever.  Horrible reception, prone to crashes in the phone app, generally slow, and after 1 year the plastic is cracking at the edges.  Note that this is my first time on a US post-paid contract, though I did use T-Mobile pre-paid at times on the BB and the 6681.

Returning souls

In the same time zone on the same continent a week now my body begins to understand its place. It is not the act of transit that leaves me so disconfigured, but the lack of location. In San Francisco for parts of three months, in Los Angeles twice, in Shanghai for a matter of days and Shaoxing a few weeks, I mind not the distances, but the lack of home. To those who frequent airports as business usual and shrug at the list just made, I note again, it is not the travel, but the lack of home.

We humans settle in the same fashion as cats. Chelsie, the cat from downstairs, hops onto the bed to find the afternoon sun. She has explored the closet, the bed’s underside, and the kitchen, looked for new purchases and imports from previous dwellings amid the piles, and is ready to furnace, her fur heated by the long rays of November. She turns once, surveying the alternatives to her spot just beneath the pillows, finds none better as she pushes gently at the comforter, assessing it’s softness, and settles. It is the act of someone who has come to rest in this spot before, who is aware of the benefits, and ready to be where they are. I watch her, as her eyes close in those long blinks that mean happiness, and realize my lack.

In transit for too long, stripped of all habits save the most basic, coffee in the morning and communication before bed, I have lost track of the best spot to settle, of where the light falls longest. With only a month in this apartment in a new city, a new state, and then weeks in a country I had left, with four months this summer afloat, borrowing other’s dwellings, though grateful my soul knows not where to rest.

Re-reading Pattern Recognition on the flight to Shanghai, the layover in Seoul, I remember Gibson’s brilliance in Cayce’s disconnect, her continual lack of comfort. It is a delicate point, and one I had seen but not felt on previous readings. There is a time for all books, or a place, I’ve been told, in long walks through Tokyo, and I agree. They are not places intended by the writer, though those surely exist, but rather specific locations that allow the story to resonate with the reader’s situation. Reading In the Skin of a Lion the second time, in Shanghai in 2003, with the cranes all around and the streets dirty with the sweat of men working underground, laying water and sewage in the hot August nights, the sacrifice of those forgotten builders of Toronto became impossible to avoid.  On successive readings it is the dust of China that returns to me most vividly.

This sense of understanding given to books and ideas by our body’s similar experiences strengthens many things. Yet relying on our bodies this way means that when they have no mooring, no familiar spot in the sun, we too are lost, adrift in the things our minds take in and call forth.

Here in the Sunset years past those Shanghai evenings, with an apartment again to myself during the hours of sunlight, I wait for my soul to return, for my body to remember the place I do inhabit, rather than those that I have.

Irving in the dark

Tonight I am biking home from the video store, where I wheeled my Haro in and stuck Appleseed in the DVD return and wheeled out again, gliding down the sidewalk in the nine pm dark. Black hoodie no lights and a grin I crest one of the rises, happy to be back. They aren’t hills, I live out where it’s flat, where from the roof the sun sets on the Pacific, and where the wind from Asia shakes the trees. Tonight I am coasting down a sidewalk, silent, and the man walking out of the gym, shorts and sweat-wicking top, never sees me, his headphones in and head covered in sweat. I see him and dance past, my BMX nimble, its tires freshly inflated. Down the slope I go, past Roaring Mouse Cycles, who will swap out my brake cables on Tuesday next, something I’d thought about doing in Houston. But boxing and shipping and storing were in our future, this bike’s and mine, and those leave a lot of dirt on the chain, on everything, that needs cleaning and straightening.

Tonight we are done with that, this bicycle and me. Bought in Los Angeles while I was living in China I think it is glad, after our year’s sojourn in Houston, to be back in California, within reach of the Pacific. So am I, glad to be slipping down Iriving amidst the cars and fixies, late night diners and homeless men who accost me, hey you on the bike!”

This little trip to the movie store is one of our first jaunts, just a quick spin up to 9th and Le Video, home to the greatest selection in the city, or so I was told. Our neighborhood seems to hold the kind of balance I have been seeking, it feels like, for years. Tonight though I am going for speed, for the thrill of no hands in the dark, and the strange acclimatizing that happens on returning to a BMX after a summer of riding full-size mountain bikes around Colorado.

Yesterday I watched the neighborhood while we wandered, the sounds of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass resounding over the trees.

There’s a good balance here,” I said, a few Vietnamese restaurants, a few Thai, a donut shop, all filled with people who speak Chinese.”

I know,” she said, it’s like being in Asia again.”

But it’s got what I always wanted,” I said, my point coming together slowly.

A donut shop?” She wasn’t far wrong.

Yes, and a pizza place, and a bar that shows sports and serves tacos and is full of people I can talk to.”

A mixture of Asia and the parts you like of New York,” she said, in a neighborhood near the Pacific, and the park.”

It’s small enough for me to know and foreign enough for me to feel alone,” I didn’t say, but have thought all day.

Tonight I know it’s all these things as I unlock the gate with my bicycle in one hand, and walk in to our courtyard quiet and warm. Half of the apartments are lit and the wind, which howls in from the ocean and down the streets, is held back by their walls. Chelsie the cat is no where in sight, but I know she’ll come visit when the afternoon sun pours in our windows. Her owner often wanders up, after an hour or two, to look for her through our open door. He’s content to have her wander the building, and we likewise, another part of the neighborhood not our own but familiar, and becoming home.

Familiar faces

We live together, celebrating the years since our meeting. After so long, though, it becomes hard to remember what we saw in each other’s faces, that first time. The features have become people, the strong nose or odd eyes faded into friendship.  Looking at each other today, we do not evaluate. Well, occasionally, of course.

You look pretty today,” she says. It is a shy moment, not something I am used to being told. Is anyone? Sometimes we’ve made a special effort, preparing for an interview, or a business meeting.

Nice outfit,” one says, as they look in the mirror one last time.

Thanks.”

Even this is not the same, it is recognition, and our response something likewise known. Praise for attention to clothing, or a new haircut. We have grown familiar to each other, and each specific quirk, vocal habit or emotion has ceased to be a moment of discovery. We offer comfort for fear, anger at a story of injustice, or laughter. We no longer prepare for one another, showing up instead unannounced at any hour, in any garb. Faces become familiar, and our knowledge of each other’s features background to our daily adventures.

This is a good thing indeed, and it holds us together in spite of illness or anger, good dress or poor, because it is the person we see, not their appearance, or face.

Yet sometimes, on anniversaries, say, it is good to get out pictures and try to remember each other’s faces as they were before we knew them. What we thought before we had watched the other awake without shower or coffee, eyes closed and uncertain of the world around. This shared exploring of our memories is another form of familiarity. Trying to remember what we were so inclined to know better, to photograph, to tease laughter from, is indeed treasuring how far we have come.

There is another goal: an awareness of this change. So that with practice we may be able to see those first faces again, without pictures or special occasions, scattered randomly amidst the familiar daily expressions. And with these observations we remember both why we have spent all these years together, and where the desire to do so began.

Coming home

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

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

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

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.

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.

Summer ’99

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Some days I party, some days I sleep

The best thing about weekends is not needing them.  Because of Marie and the impending Rice spring break several of us went to some gallery openings Friday, and then a bar for some karaoke covers of songs no one knew.  A good way to end the week, after a lot of thinking and some writing and some planning and well yeah everyone having plane tickets the next morning.

Except me, which is good for the novel and the pocketbook and bad for the whole talk to people not using the computer” portion of my life.  Which is fine, that’s what cell phones are for.

The realizations though that drive this are: going out with friends is fun, but better when not dependent on the day of week, because things are crowded on weekends.  The grocery store on Saturday is a nightmare, just like the laundry machines on a Sunday, both of which I avoid whenever possible.  I got a table at the Agora today by virtue of being early, but it was packed by four pm in a way Monday-Friday never is.

What I’m saying is that, should you not work 9-5 Mon-Fri you have a gift that few people ever have, revel in your time.

Unpacking and re

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Moving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

Home again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Personal geographic

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

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

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

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

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

Transitions

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

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

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

I moved here on a whim.”

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

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

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

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)

Sweat and storms

It is July, a month filled with sweat, with uncomfortable sleep and itching eyes and with abrupt transitions from air artificially dried and cooled to air filled with water held in only by surface tension. In the afternoon the winds swirl and, on good days, the air breaks open in rain that wipes away, for a moment or ten, the dirt and slow motion malaise that creeps otherwise over everything and everyone. For fifteen minutes people scamper, as though the water poured down upon them provided power for their footsteps. With the rain’s end their pace slows again. Men become once more immobile, sitting again on steps with their shirts up, bellies bulging slightly in the posture-slackening heat.

It is two thousand and seven, and a man sits on his balcony, re-reading a work of fiction he first found a decade before, half a world away. Re-reading a book that has been quoted endlessly by friends who now live in Los Angeles, in San Diego, in New York, in London. The beer by his shoulder is cheap, and pretends to be Japanese. His feet are covered in bug bites, the sacrifice necessary for the small area of grass at the base of his building. His balcony, on the fourth floor, is not high enough to avoid them. Perhaps no balcony is.

In the coming weeks he will travel, to Beijing, and it’s famously forbidden palace of previous governments. To the wall, a barren portion long ruined, untouched by the repairmen who have installed handrails at Badaling. At least he hopes so.

It is July, two thousand and seven, and he cannot stop thinking about the same month, three years before, and a smaller room with no balcony three blocks to the west. In that room lived a boy as uncertain, as young, as anyone can be who has traveled so far. That boy packed and drank, planned and read. He sat in the sweltering heat unable to afford a decent air conditioner. His apartment, lengthy and narrow, conducted wind well from kitchen to bathroom, bedroom to desk, but did not release heat.

In the winter the same room could not store it.

That boy packed in between conferences and crisis, after working hours, of which there were few, and before late nights. His books, clothing, and prized possessions, all became cubic space in green boxes he ferried home from the post office on a scooter he’d purchased for seventy kuai, the cost of replacing it’s starter. The scooter puttered and sputtered and did neither with safety or speed. He adored the scooter for its cheapness, this boy of two thousand four, and waited constantly at corner stalls where boys far younger disassembled it’s fuel line and poured liquid through that thin rubber tube, dissolving clots, cleaning away years of accumulation. They did this same repair for less than ten kuai each time, a cost of ownership affordable even to twenty four-year old boys working twelve hours a week. Or less.

When these strangely sacrificial rituals of boxing and re-boxing were complete, and the parcels ferried back to the green storefront of China Post, he left, this boy of two thousand four. Backpack on and shoulders back, he stepped out of his apartment for the last time, locked the door, gave over the key, and wandered off, to Thailand, Malaysia, and out of sight.

Sitting on his balcony, age almost twenty eight, the man with bug-bitten feet finishes his beer and steps inside. He is not packed, he has more possessions than ever before, though they are scattered delicately across the globe; mementos of his existence given to friends, old traveling companions, and roommates.

He is not going anywhere. At least until the storm breaks.

Survived awaking

Waking up, the faces transpose, and I realize that the woman next to me was not the woman in front of me, that the war I was fighting in my dream is not a war I wake to, here, in the cold chill of January.

That the women have changed is not shocking, five years on the horizon since that spring of anger and frustration, of sacrifice and mutual destruction. Yet, sitting in bed, warm but breathing steam out into the room, the cat tucked next to my legs beneath the layers of covers, my stomach roils, turns, tightens in step with my spine. The tingle of anticipation, discomfort, anxiety is like no other, instantly clarifying.

It’s been a long time since I woke like this, countries back, on tatami some lonely month, the dawn just breaking over Saitama. It’s been a long time since I went to work, tried to focus, with these emotions sitting in my stomach, just beneath the coating of daily need.

It’s been a long time since I woke up unable to get my head clear of problems that have long been solved. I guess that’s why I’m smarting, why I wince in the morning, and step in the shower with a hangover I didn’t create the night before.

People change, they age, they learn lessons built on sharp edges and self-entrapment. Yet the words of a fight carried out in dream, in a situation that never happened, in a world that doesn’t exist, are so tight and so true, the tension close enough that my body wakes still holding it. We do grow, and have changed, and continents have left their impacts etched on my skin for all to see, crevasses, creases, lingering flickers of confidence. Doubly disturbing then, to have it reduced to old emotions, have them wake me with their fury, have me hate them just as much as I once did and, like I once did, have no solution to their ills.

This body that I inhabit was built up over years, contains things I wish it did not, remembers moments I have forgotten, perhaps because I shouldn’t have.