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.

Ease of operation

Looking out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get moving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fur drifting

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

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

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

Like a rabbit,” some note.

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

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

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

It’s almost time to vacuum.

Again.

Naps

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

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

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

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

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

Been there twenty years

Do you remember Saturday Coffee,” our conversation begins. We do, the small cafe on Yongjia Lu that served coffee and warm sandwiches, two blocks from our last apartment in Shanghai. It was open just over a year and then disappeared. A couple’s dream of entrepreneurship hindered by the rising rents and limited clientele. Most of the time we had the place to ourselves, could get coffee and two sandwiches without any wait, which was part of the appeal. Mostly though we liked the owners, and their sandwiches. We liked living two blocks from a cafe in Shanghai.

These are the brief memories of an urban area. In San Francisco we reminisce about Hotei, our favorite Sunset ramen spot in two thousand ten, since closed. For two years we would walk the ten blocks through the early evening fog to have ramen, to be welcomed by the staff accustomed to our routine, and to enjoy the peace of Sunday before the week began. When it closed, in two thousand fourteen, Hotei joined Saturday coffee in our memories, places to be discussed nostalgically.

So much of living is about watching things end, about remembering restaurants no longer open, friends who have moved away. Rare then are the places that have endured, the corner pub, the tiny burger joint. Rare is the other side of these conversations, the acknowledgement of survival, more commonly said with reverence.

It’s been there twenty years,” he says about the corner store. The owners are friendly, part of the neighborhood. They provide booze to the homeless and coffee to the construction crews, milk to the forgetful and egg sandwiches to the hungover. As neighborhood staples go they’re a highlight in an area that has for so long been neglected by the city. Building this reputation has taken years of opening early and closing late, of hosing off the street outside, of brushing up the trash and adapting the stock to suite the neighbors. Recently the coffee has improved, a nod to the younger generation moving in. They still play KQED and know the baseball scores.

Like Ebisu, Jenny’s Burgers, and the Little Shamrock in the inner sunset, the places that have survived are special too, even though discussing them usually involves commenting on the current state of the city rather than remembering the idealized version of our memories. Saturday Coffee, Boona 2, and a dozen other of my favorite places in Shanghai have shut in the decade since I moved away. More impressive, then, are the places that endure, the woman still cooking noodles on Wuxing Lu, Bar Constellation and People’s Seven, because they have become part of the tapestry of Shanghai by surviving.

The trick to discovering cities is to remember that they are constantly changing, that of course the things we love will disappear. Restaurants shut and neighborhoods turn over not because things are getting worse but because nothing lasts forever. We should celebrate having had those sandwiches, having lived near that bar, and tell tall tales about our luck.

And we should continue to explore, to grow and to discover. Living in a city is a gift. It is lucky to be somewhere that is alive, growing and evolving, to be somewhere that pushes us to do the same.

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.

Closing time

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

It’s a quiet end to a dream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commuting lives

Vanmoof

Years ago I wrote about my commute, on electric scooter through the neighborhoods of Shanghai.

Once again I have a similar commute, by bicycle in downtown San Francisco. It is hard to overstate what an accomplishment this is in the United States in twenty seventeen.

As Mobike overtakes the Asian cities I love, San Francisco is still caught in the death throws of the private automobile. It’s common to hear conversations about autonomous vehicles, electric bicycles, or other means of transportation, and yet so much travel, so much of commuting life relies on the private car, even if employed via an app or treated as a shared resource.

For the past few years I’ve ridden Bart & biked to work, a lengthy combination made friendly by a wonderful bike shop in Fruitvale that housed my bike on weekday evenings. Now though I am finally free, able to bike or walk, Bart or bus as I feel the need. No option takes more than twenty minutes, door to door. It’s a glorious release, a freedom I haven’t felt since Shanghai, since those scooter rides through neighborhoods I still know well and still think of often.

And so my thought these last few weeks, made happy by this gift of geography: How much of our life is really our commute?”

Not where we work, but how we get there. Not who we work with, but who we travel along side. Not how much we are paid, but how much we pay to arrive at the office.

How much of our lives are we spending in transit, and how does it leave us?

This is the question that resonates as I pedal home down Howard Street, a decade after slipping quietly down Yongjia Lu on my electric scooter.

Free.

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.

Sails raised

Bay

From the water all the stories seem true. San Francisco’s towers are a blend of new and old, and the bridges that link it to the surrounding hills are huge feats of engineering with graceful lines. On this Sunday the light and waves are perfect, neither dull nor overwhelming. We move at a good clip, up from the ballpark and around Treasure Island. On the north side, past Angel Island, there is a race on, a set of boats loosely grouped with similar sails raised. One of our companions, a racer himself, describes their paths and the rules as they tack around and farther from our view.

This short jaunt with new friends is educational. I learn about the wind’s two seasons, stronger summer and calmer winter. Our April Sunday feels like summer, with gusts pushing us south as soon as we pass the ballpark’s shelter. Our biggest shock comes in the missing Cape Horn, no longer tied alongside it’s companion the Cape Hudson. After ten years, the departure is a shock to seasoned sailors and city dwellers alike. Luckily we live in the age of curiosity, and it is quickly located via search, under power heading south down near Monterey. Why it is on the move remains a mystery that fuels much of our next half hour’s conversation.

Getting out on the water is one of the treasures of life here. With a bay large enough for container ships, ferries, cruise liners, and sailboats, it’s part of life in a different way than the waters near Shanghai, New York, or Tokyo. After eight years, I’m glad to be on a sailboat, grinding and tailing in turn as we make our way out and back. It’s a lucky coincidence, an invite we never expected, and we are happy to have said yes.

Sometime in the past few years yes became a goal. At least once a day, to something unplanned on waking. With a smile if at all possible, say yes once a day. It’s a small habit, a trick to play on my own nature to keep adventuring, to keep moving in new orbits and avoid the drag of laziness. Often I follow Tara, which counts. Often we follow someone entirely new, or old friends we did not plan to meet. In this way we end up at dance recitals and at track workouts, and learn in both cases.

Sometimes we end up out on the bay on a Sunday in April, watching the water and the land in equal measure, talking of ships and sails until we return to the dock and remember our knots.

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.

Trading neighbors

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, get out of there.”

Get the fuck out of that car.”

Yeah you come back here.”

Hey call the cops.”

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

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

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

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

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

Or try to, given the noise and the hour.

Moods of light

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

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

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

Sounds relaxing

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

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

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

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

Welcome, Fall, to San Francisco.

Teach a body

In the afternoons, after our team is done sprinting, we teach each other head stand technique. We learn to put our hands in a triangle behind our head and push up gracefully. Or we try to learn, waver, and collapse. After a while we move to hand stands until our shoulders are too tired to support our weight against gravity. Exhausted, we lie in the sun on our backs and laugh at each other.

These are the good days of summer. We run together and work on what our bodies can accomplish. In the space of a few months I learn better sprint starts, higher one-legged jumps, and get closer to hand stands. These are good things to practice at any age, let alone turning thirty seven. Together our group pushes each other to new levels of fitness and agility. We go climbing together, swimming together, and mostly, running together. Along the way we practice tricks. Some take up acro yoga and become adept at spinning each other. Some work on dynos at the local gym, practicing power moves until our shoulders and fingers are too sore to grip.

These hours spent training are the gifts of being able to live actively, with leisure time and in good weather. On a Saturday afternoon, biking no hands down Folsom to a baseball game, I think of how lucky we are. All these skills, learned over years that have been punctuated by injuries, are my lasting memory of San Francisco. These abilities gained on beaches and fields are a reminder that we live close to the ocean and in the gentle weather of the west coast. Here, where it is never too hot or too cold to go running, where bicycling is always an option, and where a group of friends will push me further than I would ever have pushed myself.

Coasting along like this I think of climbs I have not mastered and my still-imperfect hand stands, and tell my body we are not done. There are so many tricks we have not learned.

And miles to go before we sleep.

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.

Quoted lyrics from Polica’s Wandering Star’ off of 2011’s Give You the Ghost. Incredible live version available on Youtube here.

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.

Chocolate cake

Chocolate cake

A few doors down the street a folding sign sits on the sidewalk most days. In witty messages it suggests that passers by stop in for some dessert, for some chocolate. The jokes vary with the weather.

This shop, opened about a year ago, is part of the rapid gentrification of the neighborhood. Without question, the shift from $2 tacos to $2 chocolates is predicated on the gifts of rapidly rising incomes and shifting demographics. This change comes with the displacement that is making the Mission district of San Francisco a battle ground for policy folk of all flavors. Bicycle advocates, transit advocates, NIMBY folk, working class locals, service providers, and the ever increasing influx of people from all over the world.

The inviting sign exists entirely within this larger sphere. Yet for each passer by it exists for just one moment on this otherwise quiet block of 15th Street. And in that moment is where it shines, where the day’s joke about dessert has the chance to make us laugh, regardless of the greater context. All that matters in that moment is how clever the author was on any particular morning.

Walking home past that shop last night I was surprised to see it completely full, every seat taken and people standing indoors and out, enjoying strange confectionary pleasures. Surprised because this block of 15th Street is relatively quiet; There are no other commercial properties. And surprised because chocolates for a minimum of $2 is a specific market.

More than surprised though, I was happy. Because the women who opened this shop, who work endless hours in its stainless kitchen, have built something that brings joy. They have brought a new source of happiness into the world with their baking and confectionary, with their renovated storefront and their jokey sign, that did not exist before.

Listening to the laughter from inside as I walk past on a Saturday evening, I am reminded how much better we can make the world, through hard work, for other people.

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.

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.

The changing weather

In twenty fifteen the first week of September bakes San Francisco. Several days break 90 F and fans are out of stock. In the Mission temperatures close in on 100 in the late afternoon. At work in Oakland, which is hotter than SF, everyone complains, their houses not built for such temperatures. There are few wrap-around porches in Berkeley, less air conditioning in San Francisco. Heaters for the foggy summer were our primary concern when picking apartments. Heaters and windows, to let in the scant sun.

Instead we brainstorm ways to keep our apartment, picked for its long exposure to the afternoon sun, cool for Mr. Squish. Our first tries are not successful, and we come home to clouds of black fur drifting through the still air as he tries desperately to shed some insulation. On the hottest night we bathe him, and he lounges in the water. Afterwards he wanders the apartment contentedly, wet and dripping in the evening breeze. We sleep with every window open, happy to be part of the slowly cooling city.

On Wednesday, unwilling to leave him to bake, I take him to work. We drive together across the Bay bridge and lounge in the office’s air conditioning. He is a favorite there, drifting from room to room unnoticed until he leaps onto a colleague’s desk in search of snacks. As cats go he’s calm in the face of surprises, and welcomes the adventure.

In Tahoe the weekend before the low lake level was a constant presence. We had to swim or be ferried out to the boat, and most docks were constrained to shallow-drawing vessels. Watching their skeletal structures rise so high above the water I thought of the foresight to have built this far out in the first place, and of droughts that must have come before. I thought of Shasta, already low some four years ago, and wonder if house boating would be fun still. Could we enjoy an escape in an environment so obviously lacking sustenance, so clearly in need of water?

In Tahoe we could, relaxing in the breeze coming off the lake. In San Francisco, that first week of September, we cannot. In the western portions of the city this weather is less extreme, and the ocean provides some breeze. In the Mission, flat and rarely washed clean by rain or wind, heat that endures past dark is a rare feeling. Brooklyn, a few weeks ago, was both hotter and more humid, but the stick of an East Coast summer is to be expected, and evenings out of doors stretch late as the sky cools.

And yet how quickly all weather disappears. This morning, sitting with the windows open, San Francisco is a pleasant 61 F, and Mr. Squish joins me beneath the blanket I’ve spread over my feet, glad of the cover. Neither of us can remember the week prior and our reluctance to touch. Our bodies have forgotten, holding only what they can feel at the moment.

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.

Rattling bottles

On the street outside the recycle bin lid thumps open against the side of the building. It is eight pm and just beginning to get dark. Someone begins digging through the bin, pulling out cans and bottles with clangs and dings, the mechanical sounds of a practiced activity. After a while someone else joins, or tries to, and there is a brief debate, some muttering, and then casual conversation, a little too low to hear. Three floors up I sit with windows open to cool the house. Homeless and searching for income the unseen pair below have agreed not to fight over my scraps. This is life in San Francisco in the twenty first century, living in the Mission. While I was at work today someone peed on my garage door, leaving me to walk my bike around the puddle. Between my house and the Bart station one block away several people have slept and defecated in the last few days, and the street is alternately cleaned and crudely dirty.

This is life in the Mission district of San Francisco in twenty fifteen.

Tending our strawberry plants on the rooftop I watch the sun set over the hill while the fog rolls in, wrapping around the base of the Sutro Tower. Many days in the summer the entire tower will be engulfed by six pm, leaving the height of the hill itself a mystery, the fog pouring over and down into the Castro, into Duboce Triangle and lower Haight. The cat and I enjoy this varied weather. He sits in the doorway to the stairwell, feeling the breeze, feeling his fur ruffle after the long day alone in the hot apartment. He relishes these breezy evenings, as do I. One block away, on the rooftop of an expensive apartment complex, someone else watches the sunset too, in shorts and a hoodie. We are too far apart to even acknowledge each other. There is a similar building closer, with swimming pool on the roof, to whose inhabitants I could speak with raised voice. That nearer roof is empty though, the residents so new, the building so recently renovated that they do not venture out of doors on week days. Yet residents of all three buildings enjoy these evening views of the Bay Bridge and downtown SF to the east, Twin Peaks and the Sutro Tower to the west.

This is life in the Mission district of San Francisco, where studios go for $3,800 a month and where 4,000 people sleep on the streets.

In many ways San Francisco is the future, with apps that summon cars and dinners and movies and so many things, with electric scooters for rent and wifi in bars. San Francisco is the future in other ways too, with no rain, with no housing, with an incredible income gap, and with a liberal urban population that did not grow up in these hilly neighborhoods.

This morning the escalator to the 16th St Bart station was out of order again. I was not surprised, there had been several pounds of trash pushing up against the bottom of it when I walked out of the station the day prior, and often that trash gets sucked in to the bottom, jamming and breaking the escalator. This trash comes from the dozens of people who spend all day in the plaza at the metro exit, homeless and searching for help. The escalator is repaired weekly, the people left to wander the streets. Later in the evening they will search for cans in the bins outside my apartment. They share, argue, and curse out the fancy cars that have started encroaching on their sleeping spots, the rooftop terraces that host parties they can barely see from the ground.

This is life in San Francisco today, forefront of the future in all regards.

Listening after dark

Lying in bed at night I can hear so much. With eyes open after the lights are out, book down, and mind clear, I have nothing to do but listen. I hear cars on the 101, which is elevated a few blocks northeast. I hear the occasional cyclist on Minna, below my windows. The distant roar of a jet passing overhead after leaving SFO to the south. Closer, someone pushes a shopping cart down Minna, stopping every few houses. Hunting recycling. Someone yells something a block or two away, up Mission. There is no response. A siren moves, fading, in a more distant part of the city, SoMa maybe. And more 101 traffic. The aural landscape tonight is mostly highway. Mostly cars.

The light from the neighbors’ bathroom goes on, shining in through my bathroom window, both rooms sharing the same light well at the center of the building. More cars. Their light goes off. The family in the house next door is talking, a low murmur through the windows. Which stops. One person comes out into the tiny courtyard between our buildings. The thin door bangs behind them.

After a while they go back in side, having stood silently while out. Smoking? No click of lighter or sound of match.

The neighbors bathroom light goes on again. And off. Much shorter.

The cars continue on the 101 as the clock hits eleven pm. The calming background noises of the city as Wednesday ticks toward Thursday.

Time for bed.

Jet lag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just around the corner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Downtown, by the train

For the first time in the United States we have the life we had in Asia. At great but worthwhile expense, we live downtown near the train. In San Francisco this means the Mission, and this means Bart.

Three years ago we lived in a studio in the Sunset, half a block from the N-Judah, a Muni above-ground train line. The studio was wonderful. Giant west-facing windows made for perfect light, and the neighborhood was comfortingly Asian. Rent was reasonable, even with parking, albeit double what we’d paid for a 1 bedroom in Houston scant months before. As for the train, well, proximity was often its best feature. Locals refer to the N jokingly, if at all, and avoid any reliance on it’s twisting route, which is often blocked by cars at 9th and Irving and delayed at the Duboce and Church switch to underground operation. We used it first frequently and then less so, moving to bicycle or car instead.

For years though we regretted leaving that studio, at least on Sundays. Our one bedroom in the Richmond faced east, and so lost the light early in the day. Coupled with the Cigarettes Cheaper crowd next door and the Walgreens loading bay across the street that apartment became exactly what we’d hoped to avoid: a large house with poor light, loud neighbors, and a two-car commute. Looking back now, only months removed, it seems impossible to imagine. Yet for three years we both drove an hour plus each way out of San Francisco. One north, one south, far enough to make most moves impossible for one commute or the other.

And so from the Richmond we took the bus downtown, and walked Fillmore in the night. We went to shows and to bars, but not as many. We took more cabs, and drove more often to friends’ houses.

Our move to the Richmond was built on two desires. Most importantly, a cat, which our Sunset landlord would not allow. Secondly, to have a spare room for guests, even though several had braved our studio, slept on couch or kitchen floor. The living room was useful, and allowed us to easily welcome guests from all over the world. That apartment gave us Mr. Squish, fulfilling our exact request for a cat.

As I write these words he is sprawled on the couch across from me, content in his new home, only the second he has known. He is happier, though that could be the Karlstad sofa he is lounging on, a wedding present to ourselves in a blue that matches our new house. Moving with a cat has long been a dream of ours. Taking him on our adventures, if not yet rock climbing, and watching him explore new spaces are some of our favorite moments.

Why is this apartment so much more welcoming than our old one?

The answers are easy: light, size, and location.

In three months we’ve had friends come for dinner, colleagues bring lunch, and visitors crash on that couch. We’ve walked home from baseball games and taken the train to the airport. We’ve taken the train to brunch at friends’ houses in the East Bay and to work, novelties both. In the last week neither of us drove to work for two days in a row, the first time that has happened since we moved to San Francisco.

Why is this such a change, why did we ever forgo it, and how did we know we wanted it? These questions repeat themselves to me on my walks to Bart, on my train rides home.

This is such a change because we’ve each gained at a minimum two hours of mental time each day. Four hours multiplied by five days is twenty hours a week we gained as a couple with the move. Twenty hours a week, minimum, of additional thinking, reading, and working is time almost impossible to value. Another half a work week. Another two and a half days of paid working hours. Yes, rents are higher in the Mission. Yes, getting rid of one car helped keep our expenses within a similar range. But clearly, at twenty plus hours, we were undervaluing our time, undervaluing each other.

We gave up those hours initially because we had to. We’d gotten an apartment in the Sunset as the cheapest place we could find in San Francisco proper, and a good place to start our life here from. It was. We then got jobs out of the city, in opposite directions. They were good opportunities, and so we put up with the cost in cars and miles, knowing it would not be forever. When we moved to the Richmond, we shortened my commute at Tara’s expense. We balanced traffic and distance and the desire for a cat as best we could. And still we knew it would not be forever.

How did we know what we wanted? How did we know we’d be happier in a smaller apartment within walking distance of a train line, with only one car, in a more urban environment?

Shanghai.

We have lived in dense urban environments, ridden the subway or an electric scooter to work or to school, and commuted in the dense throngs of people rare for most Americans. We have lived in those environments and thrived. We have become comfortable with the benefits of dense living, of good transportation, and of shared public space rather than large private residences.

In America these lessons are difficult to learn. Apartments in dense areas with good public transit are expensive and restricted to a handful of cities. In many, like San Francisco, they are restricted to select neighborhoods in those cities. In Shanghai, in Tokyo, in Hong Kong, these lessons are simply life. They are learned on the train to grade school and in the tiny urban apartments of university. Density is not an option but the ground rule, public transportation not a luxury but the base layer of the urban environment.

We are lucky, in San Francisco, to live downtown near the train. In Shanghai it was the only place we could live, there was no other option. In Japan before that I lived in Saitama, outside of Tokyo proper, and yet on a line that ran directly into Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya. Out of the city and yet of the city in a way rare for Americans. Able to work and shop in the global megacity and still go for a run in the mornings along the Arakawa river.

In San Francisco, in the Mission, guests from out of town drop in for single night and leave early in the morning for meetings in the Financial District, or to tour the Embarcadero. What was once an hour away by bus is ten minutes by Bart. Waiting twenty minutes or more for the N has been replaced by taking any train out of dozens on a workday morning. We often do not drive for an entire weekend, and soon for an entire work week.

Yet in many ways this feels like avoiding the problems. The N still goes 30 minutes between trains on the weekends. The Richmond is still 40 minutes from Powell by bus, an hour twenty or more from the East Bay without free transfer. That we no longer care is a symptom of the problem, and a reason public transit remains a fractured experience. In Shanghai all the trains are run as one unit. In Japan a variety of companies with huge networks work together on train time tables and station infrastructure. In San Francisco there are only three stops on Bart in residential neighborhoods.

Yet
I no longer complain about transit in San Francisco, instead promoting Bart to arriving guests. Limited, yes, but effective, and valuable, as was my line in Saitama. These visits and easier commutes, then, are the benefits of living here. And in many ways we are at last at home in San Francisco in a way we have not felt before.

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.

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.

In cities we trust

Living tightly packed requires a certain trust unique to cities. In my rural home town no unfamiliar faces pull in to get gas at the Citgo. No strange children show up to play ball at the North Lansing Firehall. With an average grade of less than 100 children, everyone in the Lansing public school system knows each other, has a cousin in the grade ahead and a sister two grades below. People become part of the town’s tapestry, have kids in the school musical, coach each other’s children in little league and hang out at the lake together in the heat of August.

Living near each other in Tokyo requires forgetting where one person ends and the next begins, sacrificing self for the ability to return home on the last Saikyo line train. Stepping out in Yonohommachi in 2002 I remember most the first block, back along the train tracks, still wrapped in scents that were not my own. Beer. Sweat. Food I had not eaten. Perfume I did not purchase, or apply. For several blocks, until the streets became small and the crowds disappeared, until I passed the grapevines, I was not entirely myself, having given up my scent to the city of Tokyo.

In so many ways living in a city requires vigilance. In Ithaca in 1997 I used to leave the keys on the floor of my 1984 Volvo 240, windows rolled down to the summer heat. In San Francisco in 2014 strange sounds wake me in the night and my first instinct is to check on our Volvo, a 1997 model now, parked on the street outside. Our apartment doors, often open in Houston in 2009, are secured carefully in San Francisco, watched over by cats and by neighbors. Yet it is that trust of neighbors that persists, that grows. Because unlike in Lansing where I played ball or built tree forts with our neighbors, here we know little of each other’s lives, but watch each other’s doorways anyway. Here we are brought to trust by proximity rather than through history. We have the loose friendships of the city, temporary and without concern for the unknown. One neighbor receives keys to our apartment for a week, and we hers, on the basis of a single shared fact: that we each own a lonely feline. There is no elaborate period of getting to know each other, no shared holidays or family stories, just need, ability, and trust.

These are the relationships unique to dense urban environments, and the faith in each other I think of each time I pass my wallet and transit pass down the length of a crowded 38 bus so that someone unseen can swipe it and, hopefully, return card, wallet, and contents to me. It is the trust I repay in swiping some unseen person’s card on the panel in front of me, all of us twisted by the bus’ lurching into a human pretzel of shared motion.

The city enables

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calm evenings

In between larger moves, we pick berries. On a friend’s farm outside Portland, in the afternoon sun, we gather hundreds of black berries in a white bucket to take back to friends in the city who had to work this afternoon. This is the relaxed part of summer, a breather between work, ultimate, and airports. In the last month we’ve swum in the Russian River, the Feather River, and now the Sandy. Living in a city where the months of July and August mean continual fog and a brisk sixty two degrees F, this feels like success.

The summer has come, and we make time to celebrate. In the background, on walks across the park to dinner at 9th and Irving, we discuss larger steps, more serious plans. Grad school, a wedding, and jobs, always jobs. At home we try and institute a time for art, try to make it to the gym before work or at lunch time.

We don’t always succeed. Some days we’re too tired after work, some days we play ultimate or meet friends in the evenings. We know though, that there are larger goals, and we have ideas for the people we want to be.

In the summer Mr. Squish gets fleas. We fight them with laundry and diatomaceous earth, with vacuuming, combs, and more laundry. With poison, when we’re tired of the bites. And with constant attention to our house and cat.

Swimming in the rivers these last few weeks I think mostly of how much their temperatures vary, how much warmer the Sandy is, outside of Portland, than the Feather in the Sierra Nevadas, fed by PG&E dams from the bottom of the reservoirs. How much more comfortable games are when the water’s as warm as the Russian River, and how in groups they are all delightful.

Summer in San Francisco consists of long walks late at night, awake because we should be, but wrapped in hoodies hats and fog, unable to see the sun set, unable to see the sky. It’s a decent home base, a city full of life, but it’s our adventures out that keep us aware of the seasons outside the bay.

We are planning larger changes, and we are working hard to be more capable. Some days though, we’re working on remembering the joys of our childhood, berries and floaties and friends all over the coast.

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.

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.

Be not lost

In June friends arrive in San Francisco. By car, from Colorado via new Orleans, via California, via Houston. Late in the evening we joke that we are growing older in years and traveling in circles. Like everyone.

Many things have changed since our last cohabitation. We live in San Francisco, for one. We have jobs, cars, and a kitten. The later of which rampages around the living room, doing small flips. Our guest is thankfully without allergies and with patience, for Mr. Squish uses small paws to the face to test new accomplices. She passes his four am challenges and we spend days wandering, exploring this city again. San Francisco is gracious. May’s gorgeous weather lingers into June. The week is seventy degrees and filled with sunshine. Eighty. Eighty five. We bask, we dance, and we celebrate the company of those without schedules. We cook and discuss fish. It is a marvelous week of knowing a place well enough to be a guide and yet not well enough to be bored doing so. I wonder if this summer will be the peak of this city. Is.

And we amble home through the park in the fog which finally, long past midnight, creeps in.

In June a friend asks for guidance on the trains of Japan. Our recent adventures allow the specifics to come easily to mind. Deeper, though, lies the layer of comfort that comes from living there. I wonder how to impart this specific kind of familiarity with locations, with lines and names. Born of taking the Saikyo line home every day for two years, of walking dozens of times between Shibuya and Harajuku, of bicycling to Omiya in the dark, it is difficult to explain. The trains in from Narita, the NEX or Keikyu, retain the memories of old journeys home, jet lagged upon return from America, from Italy. Without these they would be meaningless words leading to places unknown.

The details do fade. Without the recent trip I would have known few restaurants from a decade ago. Without our long evening walks in February from this new apartment I would not know so many restaurants in San Francisco, in the Richmond district. Yet I am not lost here in San Francisco. I was not lost in Tokyo this spring.

With this realization, and the challenge of helping friends discover places I have been, I remember my own goal from years and countries back: to keep moving until I am comfortable arriving anywhere.

To keep exploring until I am not lost.

Perfect city

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Out late

In the evening Fillmore is a strange conduit. From Lower Haight it runs downhill to the McDonalds on Golden Gate in all senses. In the drive-through the rims are more important than the car, and a former self recognizes the mood. In Poughkeepsie in the year two thousand we’d walk to a drive-through like this. Open all hours, unlike the interior, it served fifty nine cent cheeseburgers on Tuesdays. In the dark we’d surprise the staff, catch them chatting to each other. Without headlights we were invisible, though rarely quiet.

Twelve cheeseburgers,” we’d request, having pushed the button and counted our change. Some days twenty five.

In San Francisco at two am I wonder what the staff of this McDonalds would say to a walk-up drive-through customer. And I wonder how much cheeseburgers cost on Tuesdays.

Fillmore heads up again, into a neighborhood of concert halls and Karaoke boxes, of Asian chains and bars I’ve never heard of anyone going to. Jazz and hip hop alternate, and on the corner women in shiny dresses complain about their heels to men in suits. Other groups of women complain about men to their friends in similarly spiked shoes. The men wait for cars, or wait in their cars, stereos adding to the neighborhood’s dull background throb. To the right a Panda Express sign winks out, the last workers shutting down.

Up still farther Fillmore runs into Geary, destroying any pretense of the small livable avenue. On the corners sit The Fillmore, famed venue to moderate stars of a likable nature. Ani will be back later this year the posters tell me. I will be in Shanghai. Opposite an establishment called the Boom Boom Room sounds correctly named. This is the end of my walk, this is where the 38 stops on its way out of downtown towards my foggy neighborhood.

Here at the top a hill and of Fillmore’s rise, just west of Geary’s peak, we wait for the bus and watch women doing likewise try to avoid the bus stop’s permanent tenants. Each time here I wonder about the Boom Boom Room, which doesn’t seem unappealing. At two am the club may perhaps have worn out the evening’s excitement, covered it up with cheap vodka, and pushed it out with continuous beats. I ponder this and watch silently, content to let the dapper post-club crew make large of their status as the most appealing conversation in the vicinity. A woman in heels is grateful for their attention. Behind her the man who’d been extolling his history with the piano shoves off, slightly too hard, from the bus stop’s shelter and staggers into the wall. From its exterior decoration the Boom Boom Room’s brick is accustom to this treatment.

On the bus out I am surrounded with chatter and games, the joy of the evening made mobile in small groups of friends. I hear stories of skateboards and girls, I hear stories of boys and first dates. The city is alive on late night busses, everyone slowly separating out into the neighborhoods of quiet housing, separating at the end of the evening.

This, I think, my companion asleep on my shoulder, is why we live in a city, why we love walking home late at night. Because we aren’t alone, and our stories may not be the best.

Living in public

A long time ago I snuck out of bed late at night, awoken by a man hammering on his toilet. Climbing the stairs, my bare feet soon covered with concrete dust, I found him excavating in the new hours of the morning. Hidden in shadows and unmoving, he did not see me. After he returned inside, toilet firmly shoved against the wall, I crept back down and returned to bed. The image of that old man’s back strained in a curve beneath the thin undershirt he wore as he tugged the toilet from his apartment in the dead of night has never left me.

Living in cities we are close to each other. In Tokyo men pushed us on to trains and we riders willingly subjected ourselves to a closeness no American city, no Chinese railway, really knows. The last Saikyo line out of Shinjuku on a Saturday night remains the closest I have ever been to several hundred other people. Mosh pits of my earlier years share so little with the orderly sacrifice of intoxicated and exhausted city dwellers desperate for a lift to the suburbs.

Bouncing home on the 38 down Geary last week the bus smelled mostly of pee. Sometimes we are too close to one another. Leaving the theater two men are arguing over a woman who is wisely nowhere in sight. They attempt physical harm but are well past the point in the evening of injuring anyone save themselves. They may be well past the point in their lives.

We live densely, the ratio of person to thing higher than it perhaps ought to be. This is the miracle of cities, what makes them such fountains of energy when the weather is good. There are so many people in Shanghai that if everyone set off fireworks on one day the city would be ablaze with light, louder than TV war zones and more covered with smoke. On Chinese New Year we did, and the burning banging popping craze overwhelmed the landscape for three days. Standing in the middle of the street watching red paper flutter down in smoke so dense it obscured the skyscrapers surrounding me I reveled in it. This, I thought, is why we are here, living so close together, enduring each other’s company. So that when the time comes to celebrate, we are never alone.

In the Richmond our apartment faces the street. After years of quiet in Colorado and the Sunset we are surprised to again be part of the city. The police sirens doppler past us, waves washing over our music. At two drunks wandering home from the bar curse loudly outside our windows at people we do not know. At mid day the robotic announcements of the outbound 38 bus trickle in, a reminder of the paths outside these walls. A boy skateboards past, his hard wheels sending each break of pavement up to our ears, a morse code of our new block’s sidewalks. Hearing his success I wear my Heelys to the new coffee shop.

We are, then, back. Members of a tribe found packed together in boxes of wood and concrete, able to share each other’s lives, for better or worse, each morning and much of each night.

They know your name

After cleaning our old place we sit with our backs against the wall of our local bar, tacos on order and Tecates in hand. It won’t be our last trip here, the Taco Shop will remain just across the park, but it won’t be our closest option late at night, after ultimate or hard days. We won’t wander down at 5 on Fridays any more for happy hour, or watch games from the back tables on Saturday afternoons. The bar staff, who know our faces if not our names, are unaware of the reason for our strange faces. They smile when we sit down and treat us well, locals who live around the corner and come in often, never when the place is packed. This is what happens when we move. As a basketball game unwinds on the TV behind the bar I remember the early times, saying goodbye to places I once knew. Places I once was known.

For that boy the differences at first felt so small. Of course no one knew his name, in those new towns. At the laundromat he watched people for hours, sitting cross legged on top of a washing machine. In nineteen ninety eight Portsmouth didn’t feel that different from Ithaca. He would get a bagel in the morning, fresh off the boat in, and walk to the laundromat. His one day ashore would be spent reading, thinking, cleaning, and talking to almost no one.

Four years later and on a day off again he would walk out of the Ebisu train station in the rain. He stopped for coffee in a shop with an English menu. Ebisu is a quiet part of Tokyo, and after coffee he would head down small streets towards the used foreign book store. Mostly English, he perused for hours until it was time to take the train home to the suburbs of Saitama. He did buy books, but that was not why he loved this store. He loved it because the staff streamed British radio, Channel 4. Standing in the tiny aisles of this shop in Tokyo he listened to traffic reports of a place he had never been. Hearing of traffic conditions and the evening weather in England he no longer felt alone in the world. The foreign feeling that so surrounded him on those week day afternoons when all of Tokyo was at work and he, with no language, was free, faded for a bit. There are so many parts of the globe, said the radio, where we are out of place, where things feel like home but are strange.

In between these two moments he lived in Maryland and Boston, Pougkeepsie and New York. He would live in Tokyo without language for another year and then Shanghai with only fragments. In each of these places he was familiar few times. In each city he started over, found a coffee shop, a laundromat, a bagel place, a bar to frequent. And in each city, with time, the staff of some establishments remembered his face, his drink. They noted his odd habit of taking a corner table and pulling out a notebook, of reading the Economist over twelve kuai worth of dumplings and twelve kuai worth of beer. They saw him sleeping over his coffee late in the afternoon instead of eating lunch at noon with the crowd. Even less frequently they knew his name, and he theirs. Knew that he would, when asked, tell stories and bring friends, recommend dishes or specific seats.

In these quiet exchanges he built something and left it behind again with each move.

And after each new beginning he woke early on a Saturday and went looking for a coffee shop in which to write.

In the Richmond in twenty twelve I begin with Japonica, on California and 17th. Just to see, just to try. Maybe in a few weeks the owner and I will know each other by sight, if not by name. Maybe a few weeks after that I will be a regular again.

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.

The setting sun

From the rooftop we can see the edge of the continent. In the last light of Sunday it looks appropriately epic. We are quiet in the face of majesty, at least initially. I remember standing with friends on the rim of the Grand Canyon one morning in the year two thousand, all four of us silently willing our minds to process what our eyes were taking in. The task remains daunting even in my memory a decade later.

Few events require that kind of silence, the re-routing of all brain power from chatter and output to absorption of spectacle. The sunset this evening was that kind of thing, pink and gold and dusty rose and purple filling the sky and reflecting off of all the glass of the city’s windows behind us, up and down its hills, in between trees and large structures. The shifting clouds led the light inland and gave it the rippling texture of the wind.

I am obsessed with satellite imagery of our planet, of the surprising intricacies and overwhelming scale of this globe.  Photos, events, descriptions in books lead me inevitably to the true magic of our generation, the unstated masterpiece of our global connectivity thus far: the easily available view of our planet. No longer is knowledge of the world a challenge to obtain, no longer is a sense of geography the province of those who spend days outdoors or a life on the road. The world is a thing to be seen and the tools to do so can fit in our pockets, can take over our walls.

I wait eagerly for a multi-touch display the size of a Minority Report screen not to wave away dialogue boxes on, but to view the Maldives from a thousand meters up, to observe the east coast of the United States, where I grew up, from the spartan furnishings of whatever tiny Asian apartment I then inhabit.

Watching the sunset this evening, though, my desires are quieted and the vast list of adventures to plan, tickets to purchase, and accommodations to discover slide out of my brain along with all thoughts of technology. I do not even remember the camera, that falls to my companion, who hustles down the stairs and returns with image capturing equipment. Instead I turn my head from ocean to hills and stare. The light fades earlier these days, and is no less impressive for the arbitrary change in hour.

The year is coming to an end, surprisingly. It feels as though it just began, twenty eleven with its frantic pace. The colors that fill the sky tonight promise, like an afterthought on a gorgeous day, that all is not yet done.  Brief though are the remaining pauses where the eyes can overwhelm the brain’s thoughts of work and obligation.

Our minds finally still then, here in the last of the week’s light, we stand on a rooftop in San Francisco, gaze towards the ocean and feel the wind.

HKIA

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

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

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

To and fro

From the edge of the Pacific, on his thirty second birthday, a man watches ships approach from China, their decks stacked high. With steel sides and huge size these vessels are proof again that something exists out beyond the waves, concealed by fog and distance. The beach is a windy place, and despite the coffee shop’s sign that says we love the fog” along Judah, most seem content to stay indoors. It is a Monday in San Francisco, and, not having to work, he approaches the ocean alone, to check that both have survived the year.

At twenty eight he stood on the shores of this ocean, facing it from the other side. The South China Sea, specifically, though the bodies of water do not require fare at their borders. The waters instead leak back and forth, stirred by currents far larger than these boats, by motion on a scale beyond that of any one person. His visit to the ocean that day, in the back of a Buick, after a factory floor and before a seafood lunch that would make him sick, was due to a job he could not leave for celebration, had no need to escape at the moment.

In August San Francisco sees little of the world, is an island unto itself. As he drove north the weekend prior sunshine lingered on California hills. Covered in vines of grape and tall grass, they were a message so clearly of summer as to be painful for one who lives in the fog. Returned for the work week to the city of his current residence he wakes sore and sleeps restlessly, muscles tired and mind overcome. In the morning he lingers in the house, cleaning and re-arranging, thinking and remembering those far away.

The ocean swirls with colors deeper than blue, pulled from far below and reflected back by the low hanging clouds. A group of teenagers cavort at the water’s edge, and another man who looks more lost than most here sits on a log and talks to no one. Walking along the water’s edge, his red sneakers leaving brief impressions, he of thirty two says almost nothing, singing instead into the wind. From the ship growing larger to the shore the ocean is a turbulent mass of white, and the birds are constantly flapping away from the crash of the waves.

A week later and he again has tickets to cross it, has friends whose houses await and strange factories to visit. Purchasing flights once more is exciting, most of a decade after those first tickets from Japan to Shanghai, ten exactly since he first felt this combination of uncertainty and joy. Of all the birthdays since then, twenty eight feels most real, standing on the shore of the sea, looking east towards Japan and California. By the count of years he is four older now, looking west from San Francisco. Yet with visas and tickets in hand, with the wind off the ocean and no idea where he is going, he feels much the same.

Cat variations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you,” he says.

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

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

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

Unexpected life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming one city

In the first long afternoons of light the city looks strangely wide. Swinging down from the hills of Marin towards the Golden Gate it stretches out before him across the horizon from the bay to the ocean. The peninsula is painted white and green and white and green again, the overlapping colors of buildings and hills, trees and houses that remind him of the importance of topography in any representation of San Francisco. There are strange tall points, the TransAmerica building, the Hong Kong-esque apartment towers of Russian Hill, with their tiered balconies, and the oddly-large churches of Pacific Heights, of the Richmond. Coight Tower is small and almost invisible in the light, off to the left. Behind it, reaching out towards the islands and the cranes of Oakland, the Bay Bridge forms an edge to the view of this city framed by suspension towers.

San Francisco, in the right light, is capable of surprise. He is reading fiction again at pace, working through stories of this city first read long ago without the aid of geography. Revisiting his mental San Francisco now with new layers of personal history, the same way he’d obsessed over Shanghai, Tokyo, he discovers buildings and locations. To take a city out of literature and into one’s own history is a delicate act. Often the fragile place of words and imagination is lost forever, mental ties not strong enough to withstand the daily monotony of work and rent and grocery shopping. Sometimes though, on afternoons like this one, the city provides its own majesty, reminding the newly arrived that yes, here is the place of stories, a landscape of the human so varied and involved as to conjure history.

Re-reading these books about this city he is caught up in their description of bridges, of people, and of light. On the bridge now he looks towards the ocean, where the sun is setting into the fog. A freighter works its way towards him, bearing goods from Japan, heading for the port of Oakland across the bay. By the time it docks the light will have faded and the fog moved in on his home, hidden from view on the bridge by the green hills of Golden Gate Park. By the time the light fades he will have crossed the other bridge as well, exploring the train tracks across the bay, where grass fields are lit behind warehouses and beneath freeways that reach towards Cheyenne, Cleveland, New York.

The weather of things

In the steaming fog of the dumpling shop the rain outside doesn’t seem so out of place. On Irving this afternoon the sun was hidden by clouds long before it set, late now the day after the equinox. The streets have been filled with shoppers, students, families these past few days, since the sun no longer sets at five. Daylight Saving Time may be an oddity, a trick we play on ourselves with math and clocks, but it works. We are a happier people when we see the sun.

Tonight the wind came in early, fog and rain along side. No one complains, knowing deep down winter is over. Even in California the spring brings relief, and it’s tempestuous showers cause no ill will.

This is dumpling weather,” she says. I concur. This is weather for fogged-up windows and large numbers crammed in small rooms. We take novels and drink tea, ordering in fragmented Mandarin and cherishing the hot sauce. On the way home we watch the rain, lighter now, patter on the pavement, reflecting the headlights of 19th Ave.

This weather’s good for the Little Shamrock too,” I say, continuing our conversation about things just perfect for this weather. The self-proclaimed oldest bar in town, the Shamrock is a cozy kind of place with a fire and padded chairs, built for rainy Sundays.

They wouldn’t do well in a sunnier neighborhood,” she says. Too dingy.”

We cross, watching the fog sneak across the street on Irving, now fully at ground level. It is our second year here, in this weather of swirling shapes and constant drizzle that we so enjoy in part because we know where to go when the world becomes a place of damp and chill. Having learned the neighborhood grown out of the fog, we are no longer put down by it’s weight.

In Houston there were no dumpling houses like the King of Noodle, no bars like the Little Shamrock. Instead Poison Girl featured bike racks outside and a garden that was heavenly in February, perfect in November. Filled with plants and vines that snaked up and over the walls into neighboring yards, this space felt felt utterly unlike the dive bar it belonged to, and yet perfectly attached. Like the Shamrock, Poison Girl was built of it’s neighborhood, of it’s weather.

Weather is the strongest of forces, a statement that needs no proof save the news, and it shapes the places of people far more than we pretend. At Beach Bum on Boracay the drinks are built for long afternoons spent barefoot on the sand, and when storms blow they build walls of sand against the rising tide. It is an establishment made possible by the location, and then refined by weather.

To know a city, a town, a beach, then, we must embrace the weather there, be it by hiding near the fire or lolling barefoot. In San Francisco that idea has taken us most of two years to learn, here where the ocean joins the air and rolls over the land, where the fog is a member of the neighborhood, and where the best bars are cozy, the best restaurants steamy.

Limited visibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are ways of growing up.

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

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

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.

Problems with Translink/Clipper Card

Translink, recently renamed Clipper, is a contactless payment system for transit companies in the Bay Area.  It is theoretically usable on Bart, Muni, and for bridge tolls.  This seems at first to be a great idea.  Similar cards are in use in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, and London, and work very well.

Unfortunately, San Francisco, sitting at the heart of the US tech industry, did not simply deploy one of these solutions.  Instead, they hired someone new, who gradually developed a system with the capabilities of those already in place elsewhere. This process was slow and involved many intermediate steps that would have been uneccessary had the city merely looked abroad before starting.

The first problem with Translink/Clipper is that the machines used to load value onto a card are only available in the downtown stations.  This means that a user with no value on their card at a non-downtown station has to pay cash fare, ride downtown, and then load their card.

The second problem is that the value adding machines are incredibly slow.  This slowness is due to their use of a dial-up modem to communicate with the Clipper computer network and perform credit/debit card checks.  A dial-up modem in the year 2010 for brand new machines installed in the heart of America’s tech industry seems not only stupid, but absurd.  Each transaction takes upwards of four minutes, and may fail if the dial-up connection isn’t established the first time.

To circumvent (not solve) these two problems, Clipper provides a service called Auto Load, where by the user can input a credit/debit card on their site and associate it with a Clipper card and money will be automatically added to the card when its value drops below $10.  This means the user does not need to go downtown or use those slow machines, though it does not remove the 72 hour transaction processing time, which is due to the fact that all trains do not dock every day, so their onboard terminals may not be updated for 72 hours and they may incorrectly reflect the card’s balance until then.  This is a problem only solvable if each terminal was networked, rather than only the downtown stations, which presents, I imagine, a significant cost barrier.  Thus the 72 hour transaction time is unavoidable.

However, the Clipper site is not without flaws.  First of all, it does not send out receipt emails for purchases.  Instead it sends out a generic email stating that You attempted some action with the Clipper website that will take 72 hours to process.”  This avoids claiming a successful process when none has yet taken place, but also doesn’t tell the user what the action was.  Also, when the 72 hours have elapsed, the user is not notified if their transaction was successful or not, and are not given any receipt of charges in either case.  This means that, without re-checking the site, the user has no way of knowing what Clipper has done.

Should the transaction fail and the card not be loaded with money, the user will not be able to board a train.  And here in lies the real failure of the Clipper system.  There is no solution to this problem.  The staff in the station can not do anything about Clipper cards.  The online phone support staff can not do anything without a 72 hour delay.  The only solution is to either use the slow value add machines if at a downtown station, thus forgoing the entire Auto Load feature, or purchase a physical ticket, proceed to a location with internet, log on to the site, check value, try again to add value, and wait for 72 hours.  If this fails or succeeds no email or notification will be sent.

In Clipper San Francisco finally has some semblance of a modern contact-less payment system.  However, because the city hired a third party to build one from scratch rather than purchasing one that had already been deployed, the system is slow, opaque to the user and completely unresponsive to support calls.  Because it has never been tested in a different city the residents of San Francisco are forced to deal with the growing pains of a company that does not consider the transit rider its priority, and whose computer systems are woefully behind the times.  Dial-up, 72 hour transaction processing, and no email confirmation of purchases are reminders of 1995 rather than parts of a modern contact-less payment system.

Hopefully Clipper will improve, because the city has invested in it without considering better options, and residents are now forced to live with that choice.

iPhone 4 thoughts, part 4

I’ve now had my iPhone 4 for several weeks, and wanted to re-visit these thoughts, to see if I’d changed my mind on anything.

First, the iPhone 4 is pretty awesome. The display is gorgeous and battery life is much, much better.  The responsiveness of the camera has me using it all the time, and the ability to multi-task, even in limited ways, is great.

The rubber Bumper case is annoying, because it clings to the fabric on the inside of my pockets, which makes the phone hard to get in and out.  This leads to me not wanting to use it, which in turn means I will have to deal with the antenna issue and the fact that I spent $30 on the case.  Apple has just dealt with the $30 portion of that problem.

Under 4.0.1 I no longer ever have 5 bars in my house.  I live in San Francisco.  Coverage has not changed.  It’s good to have a better understanding of how poor AT&T is here, and I wish I had my phone configured to display -db, as the Anandtech people do.  I’ll look into that.

The antenna issue, whatever Steve Jobs, John Gruber, et al. say, is both real and a hardware flaw.  I have now spent quite a bit of time holding other people’s iPhones, as well as the demo units in the store.  I have found phones that will drop from 5 bars all the way into Searching…” and I have found phones that, in the exact same location, will drop from 5 bars to 3 and no lower.  I do not see any way of telling them apart, other than holding multiple phones in the hand.  Note that, in order to truly tell, one must hold the phone for upwards of one minute.  In shorter amounts of time the phones look identical, as they will all drop roughly 2 bars.  Only after a longer time will some phones continue all the way down to no signal and the battery-destroying Searching…” mode.

The proximity sensor issue is also real, but very, very tricky to diagnose or understand, as it seems to only happen after the sensor has been activated.  I have only had it happen one time, where a call ended surprisingly and I looked at the phone and realized the screen was on.  I don’t spend a lot of time on the phone, making only a few brief calls a day, and encountered the issue on a more lengthy call.  I suspect this is fixable in software.

The reflective clarity of the Apple logo on the back is amazing.

The iPod app is nicer now.  I don’t use it too often, though I am starting to as I grow less afraid of my battery, but the subtle interface changes, which mostly present more details on each screen, are much appreciated.

I love being able to see the percentage of battery remaining rather than simply the icon.  This has been possible since the 3GS, but is new to me.

My best usage time on the iPhone from 100% charged to shut down is 6 hours 34 minutes of usage and 38 hours 21 minutes of standby.  That, to me, was impressive.

And, on a very specific note for one person, let me say this: don’t put your phone in the same pocket with your keys.  That would be stupid.

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.

The iPhone 4 conundrum

I currently have an iPhone 3G. After two years of daily use it is definitely worse for the wear, with cracks in the plastic casing and dust stuck under the screen. The battery is also failing, resulting in a standard 2 hours of usage. For those curious, the cracks occur between the holes in the plastic (for volume rocker, sleep/wake button, sim tray, screws, 30-pin connector, and speakers) and the metal edge to the front of the phone. These cracks grow over time, and multiply.

Of course I’ve dropped it. I list these things as facts rather than as points of failure. In the past ten years I’ve had a number of phones. Not one survived two years without showing the wear. This is one of the reasons I take mugshots (via dailymugshot.com), to see if the wear is as visible on my body. It must be.  The point for the phone though is that two years is a long time to commit to a single object. It is a lot of hours of use, a lot of strange locations, a lot of potential drops and spills. There is no other object in my life that spends so much time with me and is so delicate. And survives. So a two-year commitment to any single phone seems an odd decision. But that is the current US cellular climate, and despite my vocal protests and Google’s attempt at direct sales, it will not be changing this week.

I am ready for a new phone. I enjoy the iPhone, and am not currently enamored of any other maker’s offering, though I watch them all. I had hope for Palm, and believe Android/HTC will tempt me repeatedly, but at the current moment, they do not. My main desires, for a faster processor, better battery life and nicer display, are all at least partially addressed by iPhone 4.

What hesitation then? Well you see it comes to this: I live in San Francisco. I spent an hour or so at the Haight Street Fair yesterday (which may or may not be spelled with an additional e’). My iPhone 3G spent that time bleeding battery into a No Service” search. A futile one, because in addition to the thousands of people who would bring down AT&T’s modest network regardless of the location, there is another problem: AT&T has no coverage on Haight Street.  This is a well-kept secret, as Haight and Ashbury are relatively high-profile streets in San Francisco, and a mainstay of the tourist circuit.

How then can AT&T simply abandon the neighborhood? Your guess is as good as mine. But the dead zone, as these things are called, extends some 100 yards up and down Haight on either side of Ashbury, and is reliable enough that, when riding a bus down Haight, I can count down to the moment my phone will lose coverage. This is not the only such spot, but it is an excellent example of why AT&T customers in San Francisco are so unhappy.

But we have the fastest 3G network,” claim the ads. But your network doesn’t work, I say. Yes, in other cities AT&T remains relatively useful.  In San Francisco, however, it is a wish and a prayer.  In my first three hours back from New York last week I made three calls to three different people from three different locations. They all failed. Perhaps this is my hardware, save that the same phone had worked fine in New York scant hours before. Perhaps it is the network.

There is one other thing. In China, to take as an example a location whose carriers and cellular industry I am at least comfortably knowledgable about, this service would not be so maddening. In China, at the end of the month, I received a bill for the number of minutes used and the amount of data transferred. If AT&T functioned in this manner (or any US carrier, for that matter) such a dead zone would not be as frustrating, because I wouldn’t be paying for service in it.

The US wireless market remains that rare combination of uncompetitive, expensive, and mediocre. And yet here I live, in San Francisco. What to do, what to do?

Luckily I have another 24 hours until iPhone 4 pre-orders to make up my mind.

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.

April again

In the late hours of the afternoon we lie on the rooftop drinking wine. This is good, and the skyline clear. On the horizon, beneath the sinking sun, the Pacific shimmers. It is April and the weather is impossible to top. We have spent the day in Berkeley playing ultimate, greatly to our liking, and come home to watch the evening settle, which it is taking hours to do.

Some part of us returns with the sun. From our window the next morning the leaves on the trees outside flutter and the clouds drift in bright sunlight. It is the rise of the year, April in the northern hemisphere, when the light truly begins to linger and the winter is forgot. Coming home from a month abroad I am surprised at the sunset’s seven pm start. While I was gone the clocks shifted, a change made stranger by my absence also for the corresponding November shift. China does not deal with time zones, let alone this odd springing ahead and falling behind.

Yet this joy at April is a hemisphere’s joy. A friend in Berlin who has made plans to leave all winter writes to say how much more alive the city seems with better weather, and how he could see another year there. I smile at this as he tells tales of a man who runs karaoke in the park, an unofficial act of organization and singing well-attended on sunny Saturdays. We live in good times, I think, and they are called April, soon May. Our spirits benefit from their repetition.

San Francisco does not winter like Tokyo, Boston, Shanghai or Ithaca, but the late evenings and bursts of mid-morning sunshine are welcoming. The gift of more light creates time after work to run and bicycle, to sit on the rooftop and to adventure. One evening we cook as the sun sets and then head downtown. Sia is playing, and the city feels alive with people as the street lights come on after eight. It is a week day and we are all out of doors again, every block filled with people lured by the warmth and the reminder of evening’s smells, sounds, and friends.

Sia is glorious, at home in her awkward presence and amazing voice, and we head back to our apartment past eleven. The last few blocks we walk slowly, aware of the neighborhood and in no rush to shelter.

On the rooftop on Sunday, our bodies sore and sunburned, she raises her glass to the Pacific as the sky begins to fade into shades of orange.

It’s so beautiful here,” she says, reaching to include Marin and and the city spread around us.

It is so beautiful now, I think, lying on my back in agreement.

Like San Francisco and Berlin, the sun has come and woken us again.

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?

Just plain

Living in China he became inured to the pleas of the homeless, crippled, and burned. Embarrassed by his riches, even in the earliest days of part-time jobs teaching his native tongue to children for the barest of stipends, he gave coins as they came to him. A few in the morning, to the boy with but one arm in the Hengshan Lu subway station. They were the same age, he and the boy, or close.  One of them was surviving in a foreign land on the gifts of his birthplace, the other in a city far from his home on the gifts of those who pitied his loss of limb and with it the ability to work the land he had come from. A five on occasion to the old man who tottered in front of the Lawson convenience store on Gao An Lu, a bamboo stick for his cane, Mao-era blues padded underneath with layers and layers of clothing to blunt the wind. Most of the time this old man waited with his eyes closed, though he was not blind, arising with his cup only when alerted by the sensor at the Lawson’s door of a customer’s exit. The creative use of this annoying ding dong amused the boy from America and he did what he could.

But in time the numbers overwhelmed his ability to care, and aside from those he already recognized he gave sparingly. Cripples on carts dragging themselves down Shanxi Nan Lu elicited no sympathy. Neither did women holding hungry children they may or may not have borne. The enterprise that it had become, that it perhaps had always been, was too obvious, and the women who banged at his arms as he exited the subway were too brusque. Only music still made him search out spare change, flute players and trumpeters, the old man with an erhu and others with instruments whose names he did not know. This, he reckoned, was not charity at all, but payment for joy, for the echoes in the subway and the kind welcome home after a long day’s journey.

With this mentality he moved back to the country of his native tongue. The number of potentially self-maimed youths lying on the sidewalk was comfortingly less, and yet the total numbers didn’t seem to change.

In San Francisco though they are not burn victims or legless farmers, they are not his age, and their injuries are invisible. Some, when approached inadvertently, scream, or curse his presence. There are those who simply ask for money, and those with clever signs that read It’s morning I need coffee,” and on the reverse No lie I want to buy wine.” The startling part, to this boy grown accustomed to China’s injured masses, is not the wit but the vehemence, the random verbal assaults. One day as he exits the bus he comes face to face with the neighborhood woman. He has no other term for her, but she can always be found somewhere on the two blocks to either side of his apartment. Often she hides behind the tree next to the gas station. He flinches at her presence, drawing back because of their most recent encounter, him biking home one evening and her standing in the middle of an intersection cursing at him as he passed. He braces for the yelling, for the strangely strung together assault, and when she speaks calmly, a quiet could I have two dollars” he is uncertain. The other passengers push at his back, and he slinks away, sad and confused.

And still he gives money to those who make music.

Welcoming others

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

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

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

Letters to Mayors part 1, the N

Dear Mayor,

As someone who has recently moved to this city, I am writing you out of concern. The public transportation I was promised upon arrival is broken.  This is a bold statement, when millions of dollars are invested in it.  Yet I have an offer for you.

Please come ride the N with me for a few days.

We will be late to our meetings, yes, but we will be late together. We will be frustrated as the train we are on is taken out of service half way to our destination, the final Giants home game of the season.  Yet we will have company in this as well, said game being a popular public event scheduled long in advance.

We may watch as the train passes us at the station, empty and headed where we have promised to be, without stopping, despite NextBus’ assurances, but we will have our cell phones, and be able to explain to our colleagues, clients, friends, and, in your case, constituents that it is not our fault, that the Muni is again unreliable.

And they will understand, because they warned us about the N, and because they too live in San Francisco.

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.