Prepare the body, shelter the mind

On this Sunday I sit and watch the sliver of road perched half-way up the hill behind our house. Birds flitter across the view, darting and wheeling in the updrafts that must surround all these hills and towers. They are, it seems, going nowhere and enjoying the motion very much. Like the cat, I think, who frequently zooms around the house with wild eyes. Most often he does this right after we turn off the lights for bed, his eyes suddenly wide in the dark. From sofa to bedroom he bursts, and pausing, back in a straight line, kicking off bags and stools en route. I love these parkour moments, and celebrate when they occur in the afternoons. Like the birds, his sprints do not feel fully formed, and occasionally he skids into a wall, or once loudly the glass door of the shower, a deafening bang that shocked both him and myself. The zooms feel instead like the joy of motion, like running for running’s sake. The passing birds, wheeling tightly near the tall towers of our neighborhood and off up the hill only to pivot and return, accelerating down just above the canopy, feel similar, a joy for life expressed in action.

Sitting still in my chair, watching the hill, I know their feeling, this cat and these birds. I am preparing for just such a burst of motion. My bag is mostly packed, save for the laptop I am typing on. A few choices remain, as they always do the night before a long loop: one pair of shoes or two, one pair of pants or two, and a notebook or not. These are the edges of my minimal packing routine, well-considered now, years after it began.

In the morning I will head out, decisions made, on a burst of activity designed in some fashion to provide signs of life to the world. Like the cat and birds, I will bounce from spot to spot and eventually wheel, returning to my starting point. In between I will learn new things in Los Angeles, see colleagues in San Francisco, and celebrate in New York. In between those destinations I will tap down, lightly, like Mr. Squish on the wooden stool, in Tokyo. Like the cat, the intensity of this pending action requires a lot of energy, gathered through long naps in the sun and a small physical gathering of muscles for sudden acceleration. After a quiet couple of weeks of quarantines and ill news, this burst of motion will bring me back to life, put me out in the world once more. With this loop I will close out my first quarter travel plans, hit both sides of the continental US and most of my American touch points. I’ll return, in ten days, body sore and mind tired from the exertion. Hopefully the cat will welcome me back and we will once again nap together like this morning, curled tight to share the same sun beam. For the rest of today though I will be here, watching the hillside and quietly preparing both body and mind.

Long loops

Back to LA,” I answer, when asked where I’m heading. It’s where my loop is from.”

This answer, now given a half dozen times to friends, colleagues, and family, is a phrase not well understood. The loop is obvious in explanation, the HKG to LAX round trip that connects me to this continent and to my home. On one end America and the other my cat. It’s a good loop, at least some times. I imagine it like the old tow-style ski lifts, ropes drifting by on the snow, there for the grabbing, to be towed along to the next stop. The rope itself is always in motion, like the planes between Hong Kong and LA.

The best part of long loops like this, the trans-pacific ones, is their branching, the ability to add or subtract small loops and other destinations before the return. Writing this from an aisle seat thirty thousand feet up and heading south down the California coast line I am almost done, sub-loops soon complete. It’s an emotional space, the air over San Luis Obispo, a week and a half since leaving Hong Kong. For a loop that started with Throwback and a dozen plus of my old San Francisco frisbee friends I’ve done a lot. Spent the work week in the Bay and added in a car loop to visit family. Sub-loops are like that, purpose-built around jobs or distant relatives. This morning’s started with an ebike, a rental car, out to Sacramento and back. One day full of the most driving I’d done since June. As usual with these loops the people were the goal, cruising Interstate 80 in a large Jeep was just bonus. Or cost.

And now, like a boomerang, I am swooping back along the coast line to LA, a brief hitch in the homeward swing. Another sleep or two and I’ll be sitting in my office, watching the buildings across the street. Descending through clouds into Los Angeles that view feels a long way away, in hours and space.

In so many ways these loops are a tale of our lives, the distance both true and not.

Waiting for the train

Unuma station

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

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

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

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

Cue the happening world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cue again the happening world.

Worth remembering

Rooftop view

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shanghai again, together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the road

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

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

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

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

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

20 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Seeing the future

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Perhaps one day I’ll know.

Heat rising

A friend of ours is fond of observing patterns in the movements of people. One of his favorite targets is migrations around the United States. For the most part domestic migration in the US is from cold places to warmer places, specifically from the north east and upper midwest to the south west and south east. These are not exactly new trends, nor is he the first to note them, but repetition does influence minds.

The trend I watch most closely, living inside of it as we do, is that of California as wealth pump, bringing in people, increasing their net worth, and then seeing them depart for cheaper housing, smaller towns, lower property taxes, and proximity to family. Unlike the north east, most people leaving California are not seeking better weather. As with my friend and his observations, California’s trend has been going on long before I became aware of it. We discuss them together, on occasion, because they have a similar side effect: this migration is changing the cost and tenor of the destinations. California does not just export wealth to Denver, it exports beliefs. New York and Michigan do likewise to South Carolina and Arizona. In an era where the self-sorting of Americans by political beliefs has been well explored, this is a counter tale of remixing.

And so, arriving in Austin for a wedding, I am glad to find the cranes sprouting over downtown. I am excited to see balconies on the apartment towers going up, and a dense neighborhood of bars at their feet. Bands play and cars, while present, are forced to stop for crowds of pedestrians, cycle taxis, and small electric vehicles. Near by a new hotel rises with more music in its lobby and a stylish walkway across the street to a section of creek. We wander late into the night and are never alone. So much of the city is outside and celebrating at the end of the school year, before summer truly begins. As the heat dies around nine pm, so too does the city come alive. It’s a rare sensation for those of us accustomed to San Francisco’s five pm fog and evening hoodies.

Austin still sprawls, and we spend much of our weekend in neighborhoods that are actually towns, places with names like Driftwood, Pflugerville, and Dripping. These places are accessible only by car and feature large houses and good schools. In many ways, Texas is still Texas.

Yet we are there for the wedding of someone born in Colorado, and visit friends who have moved from San Francisco and work in tech, on transit, and with future startup founders. These are people who want to bike to work or who work from home, and who care about density, sustainability, and public schools. The trends, at least this weekend, feel real. Walking past construction sites for future residential towers and seeing others just opened I am glad to see Austin rising in the heat in support.

Construction crews

Cranes and city

Out the window of my tiny Hong Kong hotel the scaffolding rises. In a wonderful match, my room is at exactly the height of the top-most floor of the buildings being built in front of this Hotel Ibis in North Point. The last time I was here, in December, the construction did not reach my room, topping out several floors below. Now I have a front row seat to the working day of a Hong Kong construction crew. They are busy today, a Saturday, having started at seven am. The buildings, a set of apartment towers along the bay, are already twenty plus stories tall, cased in the green netting so common to construction sites here. Like most their scaffolding is all bamboo, the tops of it poking out of the netting like a strange headless forest.

In the United States, in San Francisco, this would be amazing. Fifty to a hundred people that I can see, three cranes, and everything surrounded by bamboo. Here, like most of Asia, it’s just how buildings go up. Flexible, light, and resilient, the bamboo moves with the wind, though not enough to notice without tedious observation. Beyond the construction site from me lies the harbor, full of sailboats and tugboats moving past. Across the water lies the old airport, now a cruise ship terminal, and a large collection of working ships, dredgers, short haulers, and barges. Beyond that high rises stretch to the mountains. The sky is blue, though brown on the horizon just over the mountains. For Hong Kong it is a cold eighteen degrees C.

These apartments are the second phase of a project, and their identical siblings sit completed just up the road. They will block most of the wonderful views of this incredibly reasonably priced hotel, which is sad but to be expected. Nothing lasts forever, especially not budget hotel rooms in Hong Kong with full harbor views. Better to enjoy, and move on, like this construction crew. I wonder where they are from, how far they had to travel to be here at seven am on a Saturday in early March. Are they locals, or from the mainland? From a hundred yards away at twenty three storeys up they look local, and stay busy. There are few smoke breaks, few idle minutes. That isn’t to say they’re always moving, like all construction crews they wait for materials, for the crane, and have meetings to discuss the next stage at various points through out the day. Unlike Japan they wear no uniforms, instead mostly t-shirts, jeans, and hard hats. It’s a pleasant look, an almost American look. If Americans stood twenty three stories up on bamboo. If Americans built a half dozen apartment blocks at a time, in a city already full of them.

In some ways Hong Kong represents so much of my struggle with the United States, and I can’t help but see the echoes of San Francisco in the bay and mountains. That overlapping view defines much of my thinking, and the frequent bounces from one to the other reinforce the symmetry while highlighting the differences. I am here again for the weekend, sick at the end of a week spent in country, Shenzhen Dongguan Zhuhai and back in a loop of vans and trains and ferries that has given my throat little time to heal. These two days, then, are a break, a peaceful moment with a view. Breaks like this at the end of trips, as I’ve written before, are something I’ve learned, a way to come home relaxed instead of exhausted. A way to return, happy, to San Francisco and my cat.

Places I slept, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visiting weekends

On Sundays in Hong Kong the overhead walkways are coveted space. At eight thirty most are taken, demarcated with twine or blankets by the early risers. These women make phone calls or read, holding space for friends. By noon all spots will be filled and the chatter of friendship will echo off the walls of these temporary cement salons. This occupation of public space is part of Hong Kong, repeated and and relatable in a way comforting to this San Francisco visitor. In my Mission neighborhood it is the streets and sidewalks that are occupied on Sundays, rather than overhead walkways. The small sidewalk sales, drinking, and disruption are rather more confrontational in nature than Hong Kong’s collection of weekday workers FaceTiming their families. The juxtaposition is strange, and comforting. Like myself, the migrant workers of Hong Kong have only Sunday off. It is our sole moment of personal peace while in a foreign country. Unlike them, I spend the single day in a solitary fashion, drinking coffee, climbing, and writing in my hotel room. I am lucky to be here in the employ of a US company, to have access to discretionary funds, to have energy to explore. I do not need to carve out a section of stairwell to have private space, nor bring cardboard to pad the ground. And yet I too will FaceTime my family, I too will chat with friends similarly distant, and I too will go back to work in the evening, ready for another week of long days in a country not my own.

In some small way then I appreciate these women’s situation, their choice, however constrained, to live in this country and work hard for money they can share with a family they see only on screen. Watching them set up their places early this morning I appreciate their perseverance, their laughter, and their community. And I appreciate the culture that has employed them so willingly but also that allows them this one day a week of occupancy. The freedom to take over public spaces, in fact to appear in public spaces at all, is not taken for granted, and is not common. The fact that Hong Kong’s walkways are covered on Sundays with evidence of the city’s dependence on migrants is a reminder that public space can be shared and maintained for everyone, regardless of origin.

Outlier Ultrahigh Rolltop Backpack thoughts, part 1

I’m on my second, so this is a review of both versions of yet another horribly named bag. The first version had a non-stretch liner to the front zip pocket, no top to the interior sleeve that holds the back plate in place, and slightly different angles on the side stretch pockets. I believe all changes are very much for the better, and recommend the second version in all situations. After several years of only second hand availability, Outlier has recently re-stocked, which makes this review more timely. Unfortunately the price has increased significantly, which makes correctly valuing the product harder. Hopefully this review will help with that as well.

As mentioned elsewhere, over the last several years I’ve worked hard to eliminate weight and stuff from my travel kit. One of the key steps was moving to single-bag travel. For short trips that means the GR1 and for longer trips a North Face Base Camp Duffel that I am also working on a review of. Both of those bags, while ideal for packability, durability, and flexibility, are heavier than necessary for a day pack. For simple packability, Eagle Creek and others sell ultra-light weight day packs, but those too lack structure and durability, not to mention sacrificing something in appearance. These considerations, and a curiosity about materials, led me to dyneema bags and the Outlier Ultrahigh Rolltop Backpack.

The rolltop has two great features: it’s incredibly lightweight, and it can be collapsed to basically nothing. This means I can add it to my single bag carry by removing the frame sheet and rolling it up. The frame sheet I put in the bottom of the North Face duffel and the rolled bag gets crammed in above the pack it cubes. This lets me have a durable, light weight bag for daily use, mostly taking samples and laptop to work meetings, as well as shopping, hiking, or whatever else. For these situations the appearance and durability of the Outlier bag are far superior to similar light weight bags, and yet it can be collapsed for longer cross-border journeys as well as put into the duffel for international flights, allowing me to avoid checking luggage.

The bag itself has a couple of good features and a couple of drawbacks. Most of them center around the roll top, which long time readers will know I’m not a fan of. In this case, the most critical one is that the roll top makes the bag lie very flat when opened, and allows it to both accommodate large items and compress tightly when mostly empty. While it remains annoyingly slow to open, despite the Fidlock closures, the roll top is a solid compromise given the bag’s weight, size, and materials. I’d be very curious to test the quad zip version, but have not had an opportunity. Given the price, I don’t expect to.

Between the first and second generation Outlier revised the bag slightly as noted above. Most importantly for me, they changed the inner material of the zip pocket from a non-stretch fabric to a stretch one. This is critical as that non-stretch material on my first bag tore during my first year of use, probably due to a pen or key or other object pressing against the edge of the pocket during use. Two years in the second version with a 4-way stretch material for that pocket shows no signs of damage or even wear. It’s a critical improvement in my experience. The other changes are also for the better, as mentioned, but more minor, and wouldn’t impact my purchase decision.

One of the big features of the roll top system on this bag is the Fidlock magnetic closures that secure the roll. These are great, quick to attach and release. However, when using the bag open-topped, which I do a lot when doing grocery runs to maximize internal volume, the magnetic pieces stick out and can get caught on doorways. I have lost one this way, tearing it out on a doorway and then being unable to properly screw it in again, leading to it falling out repeatedly. Outlier support sent me a new magnet piece, which I screwed in on my own and has worked perfectly over the last four months. I still use the bag open like that a lot, because it’s the most convenient fashion, but am a bit more careful when entering or exiting houses and cars.

The bag is also a bit small for a 15” laptop, which is not a problem I have, but something to be aware of depending on gear needs. It’s a very comfortable home for a 13” size. It also, wonderfully, perfectly fits a six pack of beer in bottles in normal vertical fashion, something that may or may not have been on the designers’ minds.

As someone who is on the road a lot and generally rough on bags, I’ve damaged most parts of this bag over the years. This gives me a good feel for the overall durability. The fabric on the zipper pull gave out on my current trip, and the zipper pull is slightly too small for comfort without, so I’ll have to add something to that. I’ve bent the frame sheet due to extreme travel situations, and it’s a little hard to get perfectly flat again, though this doesn’t impact the bag or my use at all. And I’ve filled the Fidlock magnet ends with sand frequently enough to be well aware of how difficult sand is to remove from magnets. In short, I’ve put this bag through a lot, and other than the internal pocket tearing, which has been addressed in v2, and the Fidlock magnet getting pulled off, the bag is in incredible shape. Outlier’s durability claims for the material are true. This also speaks well for other cuben or dyneema bags such as SDR Traveller, Hyperlite, and Pitcharpak’s wallet line, which I’ve used for a half dozen years at this point.

While the Outlier rolltop is a very specific product aimed at a relatively specific market, I find myself using and thus recommending this bag more than any other I own, including the GR1, which I love. The combination of durability, flexibility, and lightweight structure make the Outlier bag an easy choice on days when I’m not sure what I’ll encounter, and make me happy to take a bag when I otherwise wouldn’t, as it’s basically no burden when empty.

At a new higher price this bag is a little harder to recommend, simply because $475 is a lot of money for any product. However, as I said about the GR1, if it fits your budget, this is a hard bag to beat, and I absolutely love mine.

Finding comfort

I am again in Hong Kong, briefly.

Over the past decade I’ve spent a dozen days like this, give or take. They’re days of freedom on either end of busy work travels. They’re days plucked from the vagaries of jetlag and airline schedules in an attempt to maximize time on the ground.

It’s not a common approach. Many try to minimize time in country, to avoid skipping a child’s soccer game or a Saturday morning breakfast. I have done that too frequently, and now my priorities are different, born of being a person who loves many places, rather than one. Luckily my family understands that I am better company returning from an extra day of quiet thinking than a tight Friday night rush to the airport from a factory in Dongguan. At least usually. Spending Friday evening exploring or at a dinner and then Saturday wandering leaves me with an impression of the world I want to return to, rather than viewing it as a place of work necessity. As always, I try to maintain that curiosity.

In this fashion I’ve spent a weekend in Changsha, doing research, and many weekends in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo, the loci of my global slingshot routes. And yet, despite years of practice, I’m still learning. I’m learning how to find special places, how to be a more adventurous visitor. Being a frequent visitor rather than a tourist should provide different opportunities, and does. Lately I’ve been visiting climbing gyms, small parks, and new neighborhoods. Mostly, as always, I walk long distances and speak little.

After several hours of wandering, after a day of looking down alleys and up stair cases, I find somewhere to get cheap noodles, maybe a local beer, and read some fiction. The novel lets me tune out the city I’ve worked so hard to focus in on. And eventually, calmer and ready for company, I head to the airport for my long commute back to our small apartment, to Mr. Squish and our four am jetlag mornings.

On the river

Deer Creek

For three weeks we drift down the Colorado. The Grand Canyon is so large as to take hours to approach by car. Finding the flat space at Lees Ferry where we launch our boats feels very random, and I wonder how the first explorers managed. So many miles of walking or riding to reach this place, and so hidden from view. How many ridges had they crested looking for a way to the river before discovering this one?

Our days are nothing like theirs must have been. Our route is well planned and food precisely proportioned. We cook in crews and camp at spots long favored by the elders of our group. We stop for hikes to waterfalls that pour into the canyon, and stand in them, letting the cleaner, warmer water wash and refresh. It is a hundred and ten degrees in Arizona in August, and we are often in the sun.

Mostly a passenger, I spend some part of every day with my feet up and my hat over my eyes, watching a narrow sliver of river and sky without a care. It is peaceful, to be rowed, though less so to row, and several of our party eat ravenously every day. I manage to read three books, mostly in the quiet hours after camp is made, on nights when I am not responsible for the cooking. It’s a beautiful scene, to look up from one’s book and see the canyon walls rise high into the distance, or to see the river wind away into the sunset. For three weeks any conversation can be interrupted by wow, look at that,” and everyone will. Condors, mountain sheep, hawks, herons, and frogs cause these exclamations, as do waterfalls, landslide evidence, and the cliffs themselves as we wind through one type of rock into another of a far earlier era.

So often the canyon reveals beauty in hidden spots. These side hikes, hidden caverns, or waterfalls are a surprise, the beauty of place that is invisible from without. The grandeur, the huge vistas and towering walls that sprawl across the horizon is overwhelming and an excellent reminder of real scale. These giant vistas have been photographed though, and can be seen in some sense from the rim, from above. The small canyons, etched by water in oddly smooth curves, with pools in between small waterfalls, that can be swam in or sat beneath, are impossible to discover any other way. They can only be found from the river.

And so for three weeks these small discoveries keep us climbing, hiking, and sweating, up hills and over cliffs, looking for another beautiful spot that takes work to find.

Healing time

Bangkok skyline

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes we are lucky indeed.

Places I slept, 2016

Manhattan, NY Montreal, Canada San Francisco, CA Santa Monica, CA Malibu, CA Shanghai, China Hangzhou Wan, China Itabashi, Tokyo Las Vegas, NV Ft Collins, CO Davis, CA Sheung Wan, Hong Kong Ashland, OR Bangkok, Thailand Luang Prabang, Laos Nong Khiaw, Laos Guerneville, CA Chicago, IL Indianapolis, IN Brooklyn, NY Santa Cruz, CA Union Pier, MI Phoenix, AZ Waimanalo, HI Honolulu, HI San Diego, CA Downtown Singapore Raja Ampat, Indonesia Katong, Singapore Cherry Hill, NJ

This list for 2016 reflects a year that went by quickly and in distinct sections. I again reached 30 distinct zip codes in 365 days, not my record but something of a regular milestone, the fourth straight year I have slept at least one new zip code every fortnight. Some of these patterns and beds have become familiar from past years and repetition: the same hotels in Shanghai, the houses of friends in Malibu and New York. Many were firsts, Hyde Park in Chicago, Singapore, Laos, Indonesia, and an unplanned ten days in Bangkok.

As usual the thirty zip codes do not represent the fullness of the travel. I saw Shanghai four times, Itabashi three, Brooklyn and Malibu twice. In many ways 2016 matched 2015 and 2013, two trips abroad for fun and several more for work in addition to the regular travel of the ultimate frisbee season and a couple of weddings. For better or worse we were often on the road, and Mr. Squish relied on the generosity of friends. To those who cared for him, in our home or theirs, our gratitude is great.

Mr. Squish made one trip, to Colorado in the spring. He’s become more of a home body as our adventures and jobs take us further afield. Improving his list is a goal for 2017.

As for the questions of sustainability posed by 2015’s pace, they were not answered in 2016. At last though the goals are clear, and 2017 should bring change to our habits and the frequency with which we move. I hope the changes bring us joy.

Previous years’ lists can be found below, an annual habit imported from my old tumblr which I moved to this site in 2016.

2015

2014

2013

2012

2011

2010

2009

Barely attached

Raja Ampat

Sitting on a deck in Raja Ampat, the water fading to black in front and beneath me, I perform a strange ritual. Like the four other people on this deck or at the tables behind me, I am waving my arm slowly overhead, searching for a signal.

In this corner of the world we are barely connected. The idea of a global network is alive, just out of reach. Once or twice a day TELSEL E springs to life and delivers the occasional email. More frequently it delivers only subject lines, leaving us curious as to the writer’s intent. Instagram displays pictures from several days ago with enthusiasm.

On some evenings between 6 and 11 pm, when the generator is running, there is satellite wifi. It is a finicky thing, ephemeral and varied. Weather affects it, I hear, or the breeze. In my own observations it works hesitantly or not at all. Waiting for these brief slivers networking is a tedious and laughable exercise that brings mosquito bites as often as data. Luckily all present are taking malaria pills.

The Internet, when found this way, in slivers of roaming or satellite data, feels far more fragile than the conduit of knowledge we’ve grown used to in the US. This is life not on the edge” but on the remote coasts of the world. Overhead here Orion is upside down and the moon sets early, a tiny sliver. Out in the bay between islands the occasional skiff motors, drawing a straight line between points, unconcerned about traffic.

The next morning we circumnavigate our private island with ease in a kayak, enjoying these flat seas. Here at the equator the world is beautiful and time goes slowly, just like the networks. We hear of the owner’s plans for a second resort, for more solar panels to supplement the generator’s few hours. He bemoans the lack of infrastructure, how machine parts have to come from Jakarta. The capital city is a five hour flight, a two hour ferry, and a thirty minute speed boat ride away. Nothing arrives next day. This is no great distress when fish can be caught and eggs gathered on island, but would concern everyone if water ran low.

To my right the next evening, on a raised wooden walkway connecting the eating deck and the shore, the resort owner sits, arms around his knees and hands on his phone. Like us he is searching for the signal, happily alive on this island but barely connected to the wider world.

Carrying future

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

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

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

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

Conbini

My first night in Shanghai, in August of two thousand three, I wandered Nanjing East road, the pedestrian street. I was overwhelmed by China, unable to speak or read, and afraid of spending money. As I’ve written before, I ended up at a Lawson’s, the Japanese convenience store brand an island of familiarity in the flashing neon.

In some ways convenience stores are the signposts of my life in Asia. In Saitama in two thousand one I paid my cell phone bill at the AM PM down the street. In Shanghai I relied on the All Days on the corner for phone card refills, water, and directions, once I’d learned enough to ask the women who worked there where things were in the neighborhood. In both cases the convenience store, one block from my apartment, was a hub for the neighborhood and the first place to try when in need of anything.

This idea is familiar to Americans. Convenience stores dot the suburban American landscape, attached to gas stations and owned by oil companies. They feature slushy-makers and horrible coffee, and have spawned the big gulp and helped fuel the rise of Red Bull and Monster Energy. When we head out of San Francisco on a weekend we inevitably end up at one, bright exterior and interior a welcome respite from Interstate 80 and the traffic that always halts us near Vacaville.

And yet here in the city there are none. The fundamental unit of Asian life, the corner convenience store open 24/7 and featuring fax machines, hot food, liquor, milk, toiletries and basic first aid supplies, does not exist. There are bodegas, small family-run groceries, and liquor stores, each featuring some subset of the true conbini’s goods and all closing between 8 and midnight. There is no neon beacon of familiar branding, no Lawson to anchor the visitor from out of town, no central place to buy water, milk or a phone card.

Walgreens, CVS, and Duane Reade fill this niche in New York and San Francisco, the drug store turned grocery turned convenience, but they close at eleven and their wares vary incredibly by location. Out in the Richmond district of San Francisco I lived next to a Walgreens that had fresh produce and was open till midnight. In the Mission the Walgreens features toys and makeup and is, on the whole, dirtier than one would hope. I am sure the employees would agree. Down in the tourist areas of the city there are Walgreens with fresh food, with good coffee, with tourist souvenirs and a wide array of local delicacies. These stores are true centers of neighborhoods, save for the fact that their customers live at hotels, and the stores still close in the evenings. They are comforting, and frequented by visitors who need food and supplies and have no familiar options, but these stores do not provide true convenience for the residents of San Francisco.

In Bangkok a few weeks ago I would go to a 7 Eleven every day or two for extra water for our hotel room, for bandages and ointment for our cuts, and for beer for our spirits. All over the city the bright yellow orange and green sings stand out and are relied on.

I understand the downside to this kind of globalization and the dominance of single brands, and value the strange bodega in Bed Stuy where a friend and I get egg on croissants some days. The cooks are middle eastern and the clientele black, jewish, hispanic. The diversity of food and supplies there is a reminder of how special local places can be, how different than the global norm.

And yet, in San Francisco late at night, the only option are liquor stores that primarily cater to the homeless population, and have no food or household necessities. Walking home late in the evening after a long day in the sun I wonder why, and imagine a Family Mart on my corner. How useful that would be, for myself and the neighbors. How quickly it would become an institution, relied upon for shipping, mail, concert tickets, scanning, printing, or just the occasional late night hot meal. I would dearly love the cold ramen dishes Tokyo locations stock daily.

Unfortunately Family Mart peaked at nine stores in the US, all in Los Angeles, and closed them all in 2015. None were attached to gas stations.

Sad to think that convenience, in America, requires a car.

Personal monuments

Bangkok window

Now ten years and more have
Gone by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interstitial weeks

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

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

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

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

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

Haneda mornings

Haneda at sunrise

In some ways, for this boy, everything starts in Tokyo.

Ever since he turned 18 here, on his first visit, the city has been a constant reference, and a sometimes home. The urban sprawl of the greater metro area has been a window onto so much of his life.

Today Tokyo frames the hours between four and nine am. For these five hours he wanders the new international terminal of Haneda without urgency. The rest of this trip, to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Ningbo, and back, will be a whirlwind of component approvals, press checks, and the small waits of travel required for each. For the next two weeks he will be seldom alone save for early mornings or late nights, and rarely on his own schedule.

This morning in Haneda serves as a counter to that sense of urgency. Drinking coffee in a chair with a view he can pause and think. About his cat, left at midnight the evening prior, the day prior, comfortably relaxed at the end of a quiet weekend. Of that same cat on the rooftop in the morning, looking out over San Francisco and sniffing the wind. He is happy on the rooftop, this cat, and the boy in Tokyo misses both spot and companion.

For so much of his life Tokyo has been about watching people. Sitting here as the airport wakes up, as business commuters and tourists make their way through security and start looking for coffee, the boy is happy. It’s been a while since he watched Tokyo this way.

At least a month.

Inspired by friends with similar jobs these layovers have come something of a ritual, a strange habit of intentional delay in what is already a very long commute. He began taking these breaks last year, in Hong Kong. Alone or with colleagues he would check in for his flight at Central, give up his suitcase of samples and clothing, and walk to a nice dinner, to a quiet evening drink with a view. Spending a few hours this way, before returning to San Francisco and the rest of his life, served as a firewall between the exhaustion of weeks in Dongguan factories and the exhaustion of jet lag. These breaks give him energy to return home with and become again responsible for the small parts of life, for dishes and laundry and the commute.

In twenty sixteen he has moved these breaks to Tokyo. Work is focused on Shanghai, and so Hong Kong is a less convenient option. Tokyo, with the government’s new focus on tourism and Haneda’s resurgence as an international airport, is becoming the perfect hub. Overnight flights from SF give him more than a full night’s sleep, more than enough rest to be awake when he finally makes it to Shanghai, some twenty hours later.

And the peace of Haneda, the fact that all announcements are played in Japanese, in English, and then in Mandarin, gives his mind some time to catch up to the rest of him, to accept the fact that he is once again on the road. Tokyo as rest stop is a new use for his favorite city.

In nineteen ninety seven Tokyo was a fairy tale for a boy on his way to university. It was his first trip abroad, other than Canada, and his first time alone without language.

In two thousand one Tokyo was a gateway, an opportunity, and the city he’d always dreamed of. Moving there got him out of the US, gave him a job, and showed him just how big the world could be.

In two thousand seven it provided a reminder of how peaceful a city could be, after years in the noise of Shanghai. It is this lesson he remembers now, and what brought him to this ritual layover.

In two thousand twelve he got to share his favorite places and the trains that connected them. Exploring Tokyo and Kyoto together they remembered how wonderful adventuring as a couple could be.

In two thousand thirteen, on their second trip to Japan together, they got engaged, in Fukuoka by the river.

And now, in two thousand sixteen Japan is a safe haven, a place to rest and relax, to hole up and to wander. On brief layovers he sings karaoke in Itabashi and climbs to rooftops in Shinjuku. He walks dozens of miles, and yet he also barely moves, spending hours chatting with old friends and hours reading in favorite neighborhoods.

Mostly he spends hours, like this morning, in Haneda.

Winding roads

Idabashi view

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always be holding

Cat watches

Travel in the modern world consists of a series of electronic notifications, an evening packing, a sad cat, a train ride and some time alone waiting. The process has become routine. Packing takes an hour. The train ride 40 minutes. The waiting time is peaceful, thinking time.

Leaving the cat, watching him realize what is happening as the duffle bag hits the floor, is the hardest part, the saddest part. And yet he too knows that this is our life; that commuting across the Pacific is how we pay for that apartment in San Francisco.

His face this morning, sitting on a Japanese-style stool looking out our window at the street, was perfect. He knows, he has known, that it was time for me to go again. But rather than watch me pack, rather than huddle on the bed, he sat at the window watching the pigeons on the telephone line outside. He looked out, calm, from the seat purchased specifically to give him this view.

These three months of peace, the down time between November’s wrap and March’s new start, have gone quickly. We’ve enjoyed lazy weekends, sleeping in and walking to the coffee shop or waking early and sitting by the window together. We’ve enjoyed long naps in the sun after beach ultimate on Sundays, confident that there was no better use of time. For three months we’ve spent most of our evenings together, sprawled on the sofa, happy to be home.

But the world is big, and adventures call. He and I are both curious animals, and underneath the sadness is a certainty. It’s the same certainty that brings us to the window at 4 am when there is yelling outside on the street, that wakes us both from the bed in our deepest sleeps. We must go see. We can not be content to sit and wonder what the racket means.

I must know how our products are made. He must watch the pigeons each morning. We are creatures of habit, true, but we are also creatures of adventure.

Out again into the world I go. Shanghai this week, and then Tokyo, Las Vegas, and Colorado.

The last one he and I will do together, a visit to the mountains and distant family. The thought of traveling together is exciting.

Watching him sit by the window, almost four years old now, his eyes on the wire and his body still, I know that he isn’t aware of our upcoming adventure. And given the choice, he might not like to leave his comfortable apartment, his daily routine. But like myself he will be happy once we’re elsewhere, able to look out new windows at new things.

Spring is here, I tell him, putting my bag on my shoulders. It’s time to go. Again.

Places I slept, 2015

San Francisco, CA Santa Monica, CA Dongguan, China Kwun Tong, Hong Kong Portland, OR Shanghai, China Mong Kok, Hong Kong Las Vegas, NV Davis, CA Saguaro Lake, AZ 11th arrondissement Paris, France Bella Center, Copenhagen, Denmark Copenhagen, Denmark Halmstad, Sweden Oslo, Norway Øvre Eidfjord, Norway Near Tysevær, Norway Stavenger, Norway Harrow, London, UK Albuquerque, NM Point Reyes Station, CA San Diego, CA Brooklyn, NY Prattsville, NY Cherry Hill, NJ Salisbury Mills, NY Morgan Hill, CA Incline Village, NV Tacoma, WA Malibu, CA Wuzhen, China Chicago, IL Union Pier, MI New York City, NY

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

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

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

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

Previous year’s lists can be found below.

2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009

Make few plans

For the fourth time in the last seven months I leave the country on less than a week notice. So often am I here one day and gone the next that the cat and house grow used to, if not happy with, my abrupt exits. The strangeness of it sweeps over me in 14G on my way to Incheon. As with all work travel, being on the road so often creates a detachment from the rest of life. Enjoying this requires an ability to be comfortable in two places at the same time, frequently jet lagged and uncertain of the weather.

Sudden departures though require a different set of sacrifices. Mostly they require tolerance and a partner able to care for the cat. Given four days notice this time it’s no surprise that the bag and the clothes are the same as my last trip, two weeks ago. Remaining packed means I have put little thought into attire and less into arrangement of belongings. For only a week, everything can be shoved in any which way.

The tolerance of partners and pets is a gift that must be earned. What can be learned to ease leaving the country so quickly is simple: make few plans.

At lunch three days before I sat listening to conversations between colleagues. They made lunch dates for the coming week and discussed possible weekend adventures. I sat silently, thinking about the coming week. Lunches will be wherever the factory team takes me. Evenings, well, I am lucky, and will spend one evening at a bar that has indoor batting cages near Suzhou Creek. Make few plans’ is in fact an incorrect presentation of the idea. I have many plans, just not in San Francisco, not in my house. And that, at last, is the central point.

Asiana 211 lands in Seoul over an hour late for a layover scheduled for one hour. I step off the gate into the humid Korean jetway air hunting for signs to indicate the next gates direction and am instead met with information. The onward flight will likewise be delayed, and the airline apologize for this, for the impact of a missed hour in Shanghai on a Tuesday night. I laugh. There’s a free dinner voucher and further apologies, to all of us.

Looking around near the gate I see few upset faces. There is little consternation among the waiting passengers, no uproar at the announcement. We are, as a group, content with this hour to eat, to walk, and to relax on the internet in one of the world’s best transfer airports.

Wandering up the automated walkways, at peace with the lack of urgency, I think of the group around that gate, waiting for the Shanghai flight. How many of us have no plans, to be so unconcerned? How many of us standing there in Seoul gave up all prior engagements before boarding some earlier flight countries back and days before?

Upstate

From the balcony the world looks lush. Upstate New York is green and filled with trees. Layers of hills gradually recede in the distance. For this transplant to California’s drought, the sight of so much water and growth is a relief. My body lets out a sigh I didn’t know it’d been holding.

We are in the Catskills for the weekend, seven of us, to celebrate a friends impending marriage. Like all such adventures there is little sleep and much remembering. Collecting the past thirty six years of someone’s life takes a lot of hours and whisky. The stories alternate between the embarrassing and the hilarious, with the best managing both. We who began as brothers, high school friends, college friends, we are all now adult friends. As such we play lawn jenga and shoot arrows together late into the night. In some ways it’s a celebration of one person, but in others that of a group who have known each other for at least fifteen years now.

On Saturday we go swimming in a river down the hill. The water is cold but not painful, save for one of us who hates such things. We splash and swim with some locals and some other vacationers, no one in any hurry.

In good coincidence it is also my birthday. And so I turn thirty six in a river upstate, some hours from where I was born but not many, surrounded by friends from college. It’s a good reminder of how things change and do not, and how we make friends and maintain them. We meander between talk of childcare and investments, and pure joy at the toppling of a tower of two by fours. We manage to mix pleasure and laziness in good measure, without much excess or any physical damage.

Sitting on the balcony as Saturday fades I think of the places I’ve lived with the people in this house: Vassar, Shanghai, and Tokyo. The specifics aren’t important, just the distance, the sense of how far we’ve traveled together in our thirty six years.

Casual beauty

Descending through the clouds into Shenzhen on a Sunday afternoon, the gift of flight overwhelms me. In a window seat on the left side of the plane as we fly south my view is of the edge of the continent. As we descend into Shenzhen the circular approach route gives me a view of most of the city and some of Dongguan.

It is a flight I’ve done several times, and one of my favorites. The southern China coastline is a mishmash of islands and man-made structures, ports and refineries mixed with huge cities and apartment complexes. On a good day the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong comes in to view, as do some of the islands surrounding. Today, amid a gaggle of puffy white clouds, my view is clear, unobscured by the wing. I can see the sun’s reflection on the water and clouds, the scale of Chinese cities, and the ocean. As with all flight it’s a reminder of how small each of us are and how beautiful the world is.

As we turn and head west over Shenzhen, starting a loop that swings west, south, and finally east again for our landing on the southern edge of the city, I see Chang’an district below, and the hotel where I will spend the coming week. Our turn is quick at this altitude, and I cannot find the factory that brings me here. I see the complex in the hills that has no lights and mystifies me, but not long or well enough to discover its purpose. We pass directly above it.

Air travel is a gift, I have said, as have many others. Swinging low on this approach I remember another reason why: flight is a view of the world’s beauty that can be hard to see from the ground.

Time away

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

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

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

Torn between

On the road again life is a procession of transportation, offices, factories, and hotels. In between each new step is a moment of carrying gear, of lugging duffle bags out of taxi trunks and yanking them off of conveyor belts, of carrying samples up chill concrete stairs and sorting them into piles based on vendor on hotel beds. Re-packing after one night in a Dongguan hotel I realize how many of the possessions spread out around the room were bought specifically for this life. This bag, bought for carrying across the Mexican border with shoes inside. The other bag, bought to be a one bag carry all for a trip to Japan. This clothing specifically chosen for weight and the ability to wear it multiple times without attracting attention. Jeans for their comfort when slept in on trans-Pacific flights. Laptop charger combined with phone charger to minimize cabling, and the cabling itself extra long, to support strangely-located outlets in hotels and airports. A toiletry kit that does not get unpacked at home, in a light weight bag from Tokyu Hands. Click pens that do not explode when pressure changes, which have replaced the Uni-balls I used to carry. A custom-made wallet for passport and larger Chinese bills.

Standing nine stories up in Chang’an, packing at eight am after swimming, my focus on gear suddenly becomes clear. So much of my life is spent moving that I have re-configured almost everything around it, often without notice.

Later, in a hotel in Shanghai for most of a week, I begin to unpack into the life of a resident. I build small habits around the coffee shop, a breakfast spot, and the comfort of a fixed hotel room. Clothes are hung rather than draped on furniture. Shoes have a spot by the door. And the lights, music, and heat are all configured for residency rather than taking whatever comes in a more transient style. Here, finally, I do laundry, and I consider how few items have made this journey with me.

At home in San Francisco, in our one bedroom with it’s limited closet space, we debate furniture. More than a year now and still no table other than in the kitchen. We have a sofa, a large purchase by both standards, bought as a wedding gift to ourselves. We have a chair, and some lights. Plants. Art. Enough, really, to fill the small space. And yet often, lying jet-lagged on the bed, I wonder what we really need, what of these belongings we’ll take with us when we leave. The three legged chair, bought as a present a few years ago. Clothes, though not all of them. Bags. Electronics, in some minimal form. And books, letters, and art, the daily acquisitions of long distance friendships.

The balance is between a garden and a backpack, between a nice library of books and an iPad instead of a laptop, between pants for every day and an every day” pair of pants. In my desire to live with less, to travel more, is a limit on how many things I am willing to have at home, how much time and energy I have to build one.

Sitting on the roof of our apartment building a week later, as the sun sets behind the Sutro tower, I wonder if this debate is honest. Watching Tara play the guitar, watching Mr. Squish sniff the strawberries, would I really rather have less? Could I possibly handle any more time on the move?

And out of all this optimized carry is anything as important as these few minutes a day on this rooftop, watching each other relax as the sky goes orange?

The answer is obvious and demonstrates why I shouldn’t bother accumulating stuff in the first place. Living with less is just a matter of living where we are without concern for what might be, without investing emotions in belongings.

Because the people and the animals are more mobile than any minimal set of items, and they’re what I’ll be taking with me, wherever is next.

Industry worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chance meetings

I wait on an overhead walkway in the reflected lights of a Las Vegas evening for a friend. We live five hundred miles apart, and are lucky to be briefly so close. He is here with friends from high school, I with some from Houston, some from San Francisco. In a small bar we have a drink and he puts Johnny Cash on the record player. It’s a brief break from the rest of our weekends, which are a brief break from the rest of our lives.

Except in so many ways neither of these are a break, both of our lives are a mishmash of locations and people that we have somehow managed to keep up with for a decade or more. Thanks to jobs, education, and opportunities that take us from one place to another and to technology, from Instagram to Find my Friends, we’re in fact growing more connected to more people.

As we walk he mentions a mutual friend in New York: Our TV tastes match very closely, so I listen to his recommendations.” After a decade of friendship we know more and more of the same people, regardless of how we first met.

When I return to the group I am staying with they ask after my meeting. In many ways this is the most unexpected and wonderful gift of our wedding last year. Friends from Shanghai, New York, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Tokyo all know each other, and have become connected in their own ways.

The week before I am in Shanghai for a weekend with a colleague. Lucky with a day off we have dinner with some of my old friends at a Xinjiang restaurant on Zhaojiabang Lu. In town but briefly I invite both who know each other well and those who have never met but have each known me for a decade. Watching them shake hands before we sit is a wonderful feeling. Late in the meal, after the restaurant’s dancers have tired, two friends who have each spent significant time in Tibet get to sharing stories of their adventures.

Watching them talk I’m reminded again that our relationships are the most precious things we acquire. The more scattered they are the more effort they takes to maintain, to pull groups together across physical space and personal time. Yet seeing old teammates, college friends, and former colleagues at the same table helps make sense of all this travel, of the busy-ness that fills so much of all our lives. And whether at dinner in Shanghai or over a drink in Las Vegas, introducing old friends to one another remains my favorite pleasure.

Patagonia Stormfront Roll Top Boat Bag thoughts, part 1

For the past few years I’ve been packing ever less and traveling ever more. In this new life travel comes down to three things: what you need, what you have, and how annoyed by lugging it around you are. The challenge lies in minimizing the last while equalizing the first two. The key to all three of course is to minimize the first, need, which makes the resulting jenga algebra easier.

This review is about one way to do all three.

Duffels have made a comeback the past few years, often in the guise of a weekender. The premise is simple: a bag to hold some stuff for a short trip that doesn’t require much carrying. This means no hiking, though some duffels have backpack straps. This means no wheels. And, most essentially for the category, this means not much bag structure.

The poorly named Patagonia Stormfront Roll Top Boat Bag 47L focuses on this last element. The entire bag consists of a TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) coated nylon that is cut and welded into shape. The handles, shoulder strap attachment points, zipper pocket, and carry loops are all welded on. This is a common construction in the boat/wet outdoor market, and all the bags in the Stormfront line feature the same base materials. Sea Line also makes a great line of bags using similar styling and a wider range of colors.

The Roll Top Boat Bag (hereafter boat bag to save words) is unique to this line in both size (47 liters) and lack of structure. When empty it can be folded or squished completely flat. There is a stiff plastic plate at the bottom, which is very useful to keep some shape when packing, but can be removed as needed. There are two simple mesh zip pockets internal and one external. There are two loops for attaching sandals, towels, hats, or jackets that were probably intended for more specific fishing gear. And that’s it. Empty, the bag folds almost flat, and is incredibly easy to stow in a closet, a major benefit in small apartments.

The best feature of this bag is also it’s great weakness: the roll top. The roll top provides a simple, waterproof, and variable size closure system. The last part is the key. Open, this bag becomes a holding cube, able to contain and hide huge amounts of gear. It is ideal when staying somewhere for a few days, as it can be opened up and used as a staging area, like a set of drawers, for all one’s belongings. Better than a small suitcase in this regard. Two of us have operated out of one for a week, without much re-packing during that time. It’s cavernous when fully expanded, as the pictures on Patagonia’s site demonstrate.

Needless to say this style of bag requires pack-it cubes. The specific style doesn’t matter, but in a bag without structure, items need to be grouped to prevent everything becoming a stew at the bottom of the bag. And that stew headlines the second part of this review, the problems with this kind of bag structure.  First, roll top bags require a lengthy opening. Especially in the minimal style of the Stormfront, which features only one tiny exterior pocket, this means every interaction requires unclipping and unrolling the entire bag. This wouldn’t be such a burden if not for the second problem, unique to roll top duffels: shouldering it causes the closure to shift and gradually work it’s way open. This happens because when carried by the shoulder strap the two ends of the strap exert compressing pressure from the bag’s ends, which crunches it to the middle. The result is that the flat roll top becomes arched, and is no longer held flat and tight across the bag. Under this pressure the rolled portion, without something to secure it in the middle, will gradually work its way open. This is especially problematic when moving quickly while carrying the bag on one shoulder, but happens over time regardless of position or speed. Also, because the TPU coating on the Stormfront is quite slick, it loosens especially easily. Without some kind of anchor or strap though, I believe any roll top bag of this size will open eventually. On the Stormfront it means carrying the bag is an exercise in rearranging, as the top will gradually shift, which allows the contents to move. Without pack-it cubes, the entire bag becomes a stew of items. With them, it retains the structure of the cubes’ exterior, but slides uncomfortably on the back.

Thus, after a lot of use, this is an excellent bag at the destination, but a difficult bag to carry to one. If transit involves primarily driving, boating, or short airplane rides where it doesn’t need to be checked, this is an excellent bag. The light weight, collapsibility, and cavernous interior are strong recommendations. Given the lengthy name, this is precisely the market Patagonia is targeting, and probably a correct one. Unfortunately the roll top that gives it such amazing storage when open is incredibly finicky when closed, and requires patience to carry for any length of time. This makes the bag much less useful for long walks or active sports, which are my primary use cases. The rather poor shoulder strap on the boat bag does not help, as it is thin and shifts around during use.

Overall this is a very well-built bag for specific uses, and we love it for short flights or weekend trips to friends’ houses.

Unfortunately the shifting and uncomfortable experience of carrying this bag for several hours has soured me somewhat on roll top duffels, and so I avoid all thought of more expensive ones like this seemingly awesome Outlier bag. I’d love to hear from other folk who carry roll top duffels, especially on a shoulder for any length of time.

Walking borders

I get out of the taxi on a highway offramp. The driver, from Dongguan, doesn’t want to be on the surface streets of Shenzhen. After a week on the road I don’t mind, and I shoulder my backpack and duffle. I weave through stopped traffic to the curb, following it down to ground level. The border is less than a hundred meters away, a large building that houses Chinese customs connected to a walking bridge across the river to another building that houses Hong Kong customs and the Lok Ma Chau train station.

I’ve walked further to borders.

Carrying gear through traffic on the surface street I pause on the dotted yellow as cars start to move and pass on either side. It’s an action that would cause problems in San Francisco or New York but here, like so much of the world, is simply part of crossing the street. Three cars later there is a gap and I am on the far sidewalk. Five minutes later I’m in line for exit customs. Five minutes after that I look at the river that separates Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Like always it makes me realize how small the differences are between places and how much impact they have on our lives.

Borders are largely artificial. Yes, the river forms a nice demarcating line, like the Rio Grande between Texas and Mexico, but the differences in income, opportunity, language and safety are not caused by the river.

On the train into Hong Kong the air is already slightly better. Pollution does not respect borders, but the sources of it do. Hong Kong’s air has worsened over the last decade due to its proximity to Shenzhen, Dongguan, and the whole Guangzhou region, but it’s still better than those cities. So too is the food, Internet, and transit, not to mention salaries. The effects of man. Housing is more expensive though, so many Hong Kong residents have started living in Shenzhen, commuting across the border to take advantage of the artificial cost disparity.

Walking this border is new to me. I first crossed it on foot less than a year ago, though the lines and shops have grown familiar with frequent repetition. Without an electronic ID card I have to wait in line, unlike my commuter friends. It’s still an amazingly efficient border, on both sides. Hong Kong customs are rightfully considered a model, fast, well-organized, and simple to cross. Being a trading port and an international hub requires good customs, I think.

Less than one year. Surprising to me, as it feels like much longer. Fourteen times at least. First with others, colleagues and factory representatives. Then by myself, often met on one side or the other. And now, in a taxi I found, dropped on the off ramp from the highway.

The borders we cross say a lot about our lives. As a boy from upstate New York, the frequency with which I walk the Hong Kong Shenzhen border serves as a shorthand explanation of my job, checking factories and working on manufacturing problems. It also outlines another, more common border I frequent: that between San Francisco and Hong Kong, delineated by airports and the Pacific. This border, seemingly unremarkable, is of course the slowest to cross, and the most expensive. Impossible on foot, or as a daily commute.

Two years ago my border crossings were very different, the product of another job, another life.

In that life I stepped out of the minivan into the harsh light of a Juarez autumn. I carried less, just my backpack, and walked faster through traffic, uncertain of its comfort with mid-stream pedestrians. Hawkers on the corner offered beads and newspapers. The footbridge, a couple hundred meters ahead, arced up over to the U.S. border beside the bridge for cars, jammed and barely moving. Without me onboard my host could avoid this line, using his express pass to meet me on the other side. By walking four hundred meters I saved us each an hour or more. It was an easy trade.

That border changed my travel strategy, led me to the single backpack packing method I use everywhere now. It also taught me that the strangest feeling a border can bring is that of having to ask to be let back in to one’s own country.

So much easier, less stressful, and faster, to ask for permission to enter Hong Kong.

The walking borders of my life two years ago were all between Mexico and the U.S. Mostly El Paso and Juarez, but also Tijuana and San Diego, after long days on the road. Those trips, a staple of my 2012 existence, have disappeared from my life entirely, replaced by Shenzhen and Zhongshan, by so many evenings in Hong Kong. In some ways it’s a direct exchange. I have traded the hot summer afternoons in Mexico, the air dry, for Hong Kong’s humidity and Dongguan’s pollution. Walking back from where the car traffic became impenetrable, almost a mile from the border in Tijuana, to my rental car on the other side of the US border, heading to San Diego airport, flying back to SFO, all that has been replaced by a car ride to Lok Ma Chau, a walk across that bridge, a train ride to Yau Ma Tei, a train to HKG, a flight to SFO. Longer, but much the same. Travel necessitated by sprawling supply chains that are themselves created by the artificial borders I cross.

What would I have said, at twenty, if told that fifteen years later I’d walk the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong a dozen times a year? Would I have been more surprised to know that at thirty three I’d spent months in Juarez? I suspect that twenty year old would be surprised by both, and then by neither, because he too was always seeking adventure, seeking to understand new things and to learn new places. He would be surprised at the specifics, at this afternoon’s offramp stroll. The general picture, of a life on the go, crossing borders on foot for money, would seem entirely appropriate. Or perhaps that’s the present talking, aware of all the strange jobs and odd decisions that brought me here. Perhaps that boy of twenty would doubt this future’s existence entirely, knowing little of Mexican factories and less of Chinese customs.

Either way, I’m glad to be back in Hong Kong, one border closer to home.

Places I slept, 2014

Richmond, San Francisco, CA

Santa Monica, CA

Malibu, CA

Mission, San Francisco, CA

Brooklyn, NY

Manhattan, NY

Somewhere between Albany, NY and Chicago, IL

Somewhere between Lincoln, NE and Denver, CO

Elko, NV

Ft. Collins, CO

Santa Cruz, CA

Nice, CA

Kowloon, Hong Kong

Dongguan, China

Shanghai, China

Mong Kok, Hong Kong

Sheung Wan, Hong Kong

Wan Chai, Hong Kong

Guerneville, CA

San Diego, CA

Las Vegas, NV

Yosemite, CA

Makati, Manila, Philippines

Alabang, Manila, Philippines

Bohol, Philippines

Ebisu, Tokyo, Japan

Itabashi, Tokyo, Japan

Timber Cove, CA

Walden, CO

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

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

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

Here’s to the next.

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

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

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

The future in 2G

A lot of my job is done abroad. This year I spent almost two and a half months abroad, 73 days all told. Being out of the States so often and for so long, cumulatively, gives me many opprotunities to learn and to remember things I’ve forgotten since moving back to the US in 2008. I really appreciate these chances, even if some of them are lonely, or represent significant challenges at work. Enough are interesting and for personal adventure to keep me happy, and keep me traveling.

2014 brought one specific change to my travel methods, and because of that an experience I wanted to share. I no longer use local SIMs, save in extraordinary situations. In October of 2013, T-Mobile, an American mobile phone company, launched free international data roaming. Even now, more than a year later, typing those words feels amazing. Free international data. To give context, previous international data deals available in the US ran something in the realm of $30 USD for 50 megabytes of international roaming data. Thirty dollars for fifty megabytes. It’s easy to see why I switched to T-Mobile.

The catch, because of course there is one, is that this free and unlimited data comes down from the tower at 2G speeds.

So I spent one fifth of 2014 on 2G, and the remaining four fifths on LTE. Or with no service in the wilder parts of the US, specifically northern California, north western Colorado, and a lot of the cross-country train ride. That is another trade-off that comes with chosing T-Mobile. It’s an easy choice for me, being primarily a city person.

Having free international data and spending so much time on the road, be it in the trains of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo, or the traffic of Manila and Shenzhen, not to mention factories, restaurants, and hotels, means a lot of phone time. A lot of email. A lot of Twitter. A lot of web. And that leads to the point. In 2014, the web is hard on 2G. Sites load slowly, first displaying banner ads and only then, tens of seconds later, the all-text content of the article. Mastheads take dozens of seconds to load, complex drop down menus and high-resolution logos. Analytics packages. And ads. Some activities and apps simply don’t scale well to 2G. Instagram, for example, is an exercise in patience, but a worthwhile one. And Google Maps, well…

In 2014 it feels like the network is finally everywhere, or almost. And it feels like the future. Being able to turn on my phone in any country on landing and check on my cat, at home in San Francisco, will probably still feel surprisingly wonderful for another couple of years. And 2G isn’t bad for most things. Despite how it probably sounds, this post is not meant as a complaint. It’s meant as a note, a reminder, and a future consideration. For example, loading time for maps matter. More than anything, maps are used when in unfamiliar locations, and often those are situations without great network access. Be it hotel wifi, 2G cell network, or just the slow connections of many smaller cities, maps are most necessary on the fringes, out of our comfort zone, and often in something of a hurry. Yes, most of the places I’ve been have faster networks. Hong Kong has excellent service, faster than the US in many cases. But not every place does. Not every city has LTE, nor every carrier, and that’s the point.

I view these 73 days on 2G as a test of how we interact with networks, and as a challenge for service design. Twitter as it used to be, all text 140 characters or less, was the perfect low-bandwidth mobile-first service. Modern Twitter, with video, photos, expanded links, and soundcloud embedded, is increasingly something built for fast networks, for always-on connections. Not necessarily a bad set of decisions, but a definite shift from a service originally built on SMS, built for the mobile networks we used to have and that many still do.

Of course not all things are built for slow mobile networks, and that’s fine. Heck, Tumblr is one of them, image heavy and full of .gifs. Oh god, .gifs on 2G. If ever a format’s resurgence has come without consideration of bandwith, .gif is it.

Overall I think a few weeks on 2G is something product teams should experience, and consider, not just today or this year, but well into the future. There will be people on slower networks and with worse connections for much longer than San Francisco, which had quite poor cell networks just a handfull of years ago. If a service is designed to change the world” it needs to be usable out in that world.

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.

Building forever

Landing in Tokyo at night the city does not seem to end. From the air lights stretch away in all directions save where the sea still intrudes. In a bus from the airport this is reinforced, no suburban gap between airport and the city it serves. Neighborhoods change, the area around Haneda giving way to the denser residential sprawl of Tokyo proper, and then micro shifts as the gaps between train stations become the only visible breaks. Like interstate exits in the US, train stations represent the loci of Tokyo, clusters of shops, neon, and light that then spreads out, a subtle Doppler effect of dissipating commercial space, until the pace accelerates before the next station, another bunch of stores and people, taxis and signs. In this pattern we move on through the city in the night.

As many have written, Tokyo feels like the future. On this evening taxi ride, just arrived from Manila and another view of a possible future, I wonder why Tokyo, more than any other city, gets this designation.

The common reasons are obvious and true. It is clean, far more than any other city of size. Efficient too, in a way Germans and Swiss can enjoy. The city is polite in service and accommodating to foreigners, in a fashion that leaves visitors impressed and eager to return.

Our bus and then taxi each pass through separate construction areas, both calmly productive at one am on the morning of a national holiday. Lights are on, workers direct traffic, and the dirt of the digging is neatly contained by cones. Tokyo is, like New York, in constant repair. And yet there are no potholes, the average street seems five years old, and the sidewalk is level, blind strips and all. How can this city be so large and so well-maintained?

The smell, stepping out of the taxi, is what I remember most. Tokyo in the rain. So different than the smell of rain in Hong Kong, a few weeks back, or Bohol last week. So different than Shanghai, Dongguan, or San Francisco’s smells, the cities I now know well. The smell is clean, to my nose, lacking pollution and not quite of the ocean in the way Bohol was.

Now, a few days later, I think that the magic of Tokyo is not in just in the trains, or the organization, or the maintenance, but in all three. The magic is found in the attention to detail on all ends of the organism that is Tokyo. From construction to use to repair and replacement, the extra measure of care can seem robotic or idyllic. Especially after the vagaries of public transit in the Bay Area, after the impenetrable morass of Manila traffic, Tokyo’s mechanical functionality can seem impossible, the cleanliness obviously forced, drawing the inevitable comparisons to Disney or Singapore.

Instead I think, it represents what could be, not what will be. It represents what people might build, if so determined as a large group. Manila and San Francisco, St. Louis and Dongguan do likewise. All that differs are the people, and the complex intermingling of abilities, desire, and willingness to work together.

In this view the future of Tokyo is both approachable and impossible, marvelous and out of reach. It’s a city to love, I think. More than anything it’s a wonderful place. Standing on the balcony of our rented apartment, looking out at the city and falling rain, it is a place I am so glad to see.

Injured travel

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

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

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

Injured.

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

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

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

And scars.

Capital F future

Sitting in a luxury hotel in Chang’an Zhen, I am thinking about the future.

Not the future as in my personal five year plan, though it may turn out that way. Nor the capital F future of living computers and jet packs, though it may turn out that way too. Instead I am thinking about our future, the shared strangeness that is both hard to see and probably already here, somewhere.

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about this future. Mostly from strange Chinese cities though not usually from luxury hotels. It’s a future that seems to slip into view when I’m walking home alone through the evening heat, past street stalls and electric bikes. I find it under neon offering nothing, the store fronts long closed and falsely alluring in the night. It’s a future that I see often after sitting in an Ajisen and eating cucumbers for a while, after drinking an Asahi by myself while reading Fallows and Paul Hawken, Chipchase and Posnanski.

I think about the heating planet and the bliss of air conditioning in Hong Kong this week. I think of the costs of oil, and my job making plastic. I think of those giving up air travel and look at my location. I think about my favorite writers and how frequently they fly. I think about how frequently I fly and whether I would care about flying, about all of this, if I’d never started.

Would I care about the world this way without having sat in so many Ajisens in so many Chinese manufacturing cities, reading on paper and phones and drinking Japanese beer? Unlikely, I think. Without so many evenings watching the lights come on in Chinese apartment towers, how would I know to value all of us? Without watching the neon blink back and forth and eventually off, watching the parks fill with people enjoying the evening and then empty to silence, how would I have learned the size of cities? Without flying, how would I have met so many people, learned from so many places? Without the energy expenditure that damages it, how would I have ever understood our planet?

I watch two men honk at one another, scooting past on e-bikes. They are chatting as they disappear side by side into the gathering dusk. I watch cars at the intersection, red lights hold them stationary, engines running. I wonder what makes so many people want to buy a car, and what would make them stop.

Mostly I think about the difference between making things and growing things, between working and building. After that I think about the difference between being alive, looking at the moon as it rises behind the skyscrapers , and not. It is a difference I only recently started to appreciate.

What will the world will look like when we are gone? Will we have left anything good behind, intentionally or no?

I haven’t yet given up flying. I’m here in Chang’an Zhen. I haven’t yet given up making things, I’m here visiting a factory for work. More importantly, I haven’t yet given up on anything. Walking back from Ajisen I wonder if I will, if the cumulative weight of the capital F future will change my life. I wonder what the next five years will bring, and ten. Whether we’ll all be living different lives, or still wondering. Will Chinese cities still feel like the future in this way on lonely evenings, an amazing combination of factories and urban density, of modern trains and hand-repaired motorcycles, of destroyed air? Or will the world have changed in all directions, become more evenly distributed, for better or worse. On evenings like this I can see both possibilities, a future here and yet often invisible .

Watching the two men on e-bikes fade into the darkness down the street I know one thing: even in the 90 degree F heat and 90% humidity of southern China, I’d rather we all biked than gave up airplanes, and each other.

Picharpak Travel Wallet thoughts, part 1

I’ve been looking for a travel wallet lately. I’d like something that will hold a passport, a couple of different transit cards, money, maybe a spare SIM, a couple of business cards, and still fit in a back pocket. Over the past year or two I’ve started traveling with my passport tucked behind my wallet in my back pocket, so I know a wallet sized for the passport would fit my use cases. What I didn’t know was how well, or where to get one. Money too has been a problem, as most US-made wallets don’t gracefully hold larger bills. As someone who spends a lot of time in China, where the 100 RMB notes are large, this is an annoyance that grates. So I was looking for a wallet that fit a passport, fit in a back pocket, held Chinese currency, and possibly had a SIM slot.

While there are plenty of blogs devoted to frequent fliers, milage points, hotel reviews, two week camping trips, and non-tent sleeping options, the parts of travel that matter to me are surprisingly lightly covered. Traveling light but not backpacking, carrying as little as possible, carrying it in a way that allows for inconvenient travel methods and locations, and yet still being presentable for business meetings seems to be an under-served market. Or just a small one.

The only wallet I found that seemed designed around my needs was Bellroy’s Travel Wallet. At $120, it’s still on my shopping list, or Christmas list. The video though perfectly encapsulated my use cases. I don’t particularly care about the pen, as I have a favorite cheap pen on hand at all times, but the rest? It’s got a SIM slot, a passport slot, spare card slots for transit cards, and is big enough to hold boarding passes! If that doesn’t sound exciting, I’ve proven how specific the use case is.

For the last two years I’ve carried a Yasutomo 2020 wa-ben cuben fiber wallet. Like so many people, this was inspired by William Gibson’s interview. As someone who spends a lot of time looking at outdoor gear, fibers, bags, and clothing, I have been talking to and watching Jason’s company, now Picharpak Workshop, ever since. He’s been building a broader product base, and during a conversation one night in Hong Kong, I offered to test new products. For Christmas I bought my fiancée one of his limited edition hybrid wallets. To my my surprise an early sample of a travel wallet showed up in the package!

Built on the same idea as Bellroy’s, Picharpak’s travel wallet features a couple of extra card slots in the back and two spare SIM slots on the passport sleeve. It also has an extra slot for a touch pay transit card behind the normal card slots. Otherwise it resembles the wa-ben, with the same two slots for bills or receipts and the same cuben fiber construction. Like my original wa-ben, the travel wallet prototype is made of CT9.5, and so won’t offer good abrasion resistance. Jason’s newer hybrid wallets have different outermost layers and offer much better abrasion resistance. From the turfed-up photos of my 2 year old wallet it’s clear this is a serious design improvement. Along with the limited hybrid, I ordered one of the newer woven fiber cuben hybrids, to possibly replace my old wa-ben and to check whether the transparent options had been improved as well. They have, and the new woven cuben hybrid retains the old look while offering a smother and more durable outer shell. I’m all for it.

Testing has taken some time. A couple of day trips to Mexico in January provided the first opportunity. The wallet was a relief from carrying passport and wallet in the same pocket, l as I’d supposed, convenient and simple. Swapping wallets prior to travel was the only obstacle. After the second trip I considered carrying the travel wallet as my regular wallet. However on the second trip I learned that the slick CT9.5 slips out of pants with stretch. Not ideal, but I’d expect a full version to feature the hybrid construction. At this point I also switched full time to the hybrid wallet, and now can’t see myself returning to the CT9.5 construction full time. One of the early concerns, that the SIM card would slip out its holder, proved unfounded. My China Unicom SIM, seen in the photos, has been secure for the past three months.

Travel wallets like this may be a small market, but they’re an excellent idea. For those of us who travel lightly, frequently, and yet for work, the simplification is worth the wallet-swapping. I can’t wait for a finished version.

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.

Places I slept, 2013

San Francisco, CA Santa Monica, CA Cherry Hill, NJ Manhattan, NY Brooklyn, NY Danbury, CT Toronto, Canada Green Bay, WI Las Vegas, NV Shanghai, China Yangzhou, China Shenzhen, China Kowloon, Hong Kong Miami, FL El Paso, TX Hamamatsucho, Tokyo Harajuku, Tokyo Yanasegawa, Saitama Fukuoka, Japan Kagoshima, Japan Osaka, Japan Santa Cruz, CA Belden Town, CA Guerneville, CA Salt Lake City, UT Portland, OR Chico, CA Ciudad Juarez, Mexico Scottsdale, AZ Itabashi, Tokyo Malibu, CA Fort Collins, CO Wan Chai, Hong Kong Trinidad, CA Moss Beach, CA

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

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

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

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

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

San Francisco, CA Fort Collins, CO Petaluma, CA Malibu, CA

Impressive, no?

As fast as possible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The nicest people

On a flight from El Paso to Phoenix I hear of these elusive folk. They live in Lubbock, I am told, and serve the greatest steak. The whole town, it seems, is filled with them, kind and compassionate to strangers, traveling businessmen. The revelation isn’t surprising, I’ve had other close encounters.

On the next flight, Phoenix to San Francisco, the topic comes up again unbidden. In Detroit, I hear, despite the conditions, that the nicest people have arrived again, in fact won’t leave. They are the friendly folk who work hard to keep the city functioning.

What is it about these people, I do not ask, that makes them the world’s nicest? This is a familiar question to me, something I wonder of hot dog stands, burger joints, and ice cream parlors: how is this world ranking calculated? Where is the committee?

On a flight from Salt Lake to Portland I learn of small towns far beneath us, home to people I’ll probably never meet. They are filled, I am told, with gentle, compassionate neighbors who are kind to passers by.

In Salt Lake I hear of the strangers who pile in to town for a Megadeth show, coming from the wilderness in camo and tattoos, in pickup trucks and Hummers. In much of a month of traveling it is one of the few moments of distaste I encounter. Despite our differences it seems that we are creatures of great love, of appreciation for the places we do not live and their inhabitants.

And yet under the weight of repetition I realize I have these conversations mostly with those who have just left the place we discuss, or who are from there. In neither case would they settle in these towns of kindness. What does this say about our tolerance, that we speak well of Lubbock, of El Paso, of Greeley, as long as the wheels are up.

As long as we’re able to get out one flight earlier on Thursday, back to Phoenix, Los Angeles, Dallas, San Francisco, we can be kind.

As for myself, I think of the people of Ithaca often, of Lansing, and my old home town. Waitresses, cooks, business owners, farmers, and neighbors there who represent the place to me. I think of those long since reduced to Facebook photos and birthday greetings, to the occasional memory. Are they too the nicest people? Would they be who I spoke of on the plane, sharing with a stranger after a successful sales meeting, on the way home to my family? Or is the story instead of a place visited only briefly, with surprising kindness true or not? Is nice the only word we have to describe those we can not fathom, folk we have no knowledge of how to be?

This later I suspect is the truth of these airborne conversations. The people of Lubbock may indeed be the world’s nicest, as promoted. More likely though they are simply people, a collection of lives tied loosely to some inhabitable ground by a series of mostly unrelated accidents that befell their ancestors. The same as Lansing, the same as Phoenix or San Francisco.

With the seemingly-agreed-upon exception of New York, the world’s nicest people appear as we depart their town, a product of memory and heightened emotion. As the ground approaches and the conversation in each shared row of seats falters, these people recede from our consciousness. By the time we’ve reached our cars, taxis, and trains the nicest folk we’ve ever met are no more real than the conversation that spawned them, some thirty thousand feet above the ground.

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.

In transit

Avoid dead time, the recommendations go. Time in airports, time in train stations. Spend that time adventuring, seeing one more temple, eating one more meal. Never eat on the plane. Never drink on the train. Spend the time walking, and then rush to the gate, to the platform. Be the last one on board. See more, and wait less.

This advice is not wrong. The airports of the world are more similar than the cities, the restaurants, the temples. Train platforms are empty things, born of functionality and passenger capacity. Security lines are massive multiplayer experiments in patience, and in humanity’s ability to trust the unseen. A single hour sitting in a Ho Chi Minh City food stall is worth a dozen in Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport Terminal 1. An hour in Edinburgh more valuable than a dozen in JFKs Terminal 4. Time waiting can’t be reclaimed, and hours spent in the Shaoxing train station can never be turned into great stories.

Except for the arcade game in Shaoxing station, a drop the claw and pick up a prize style box, the glass enclosure filled not with plush toys but with foil-wrapped packs of cigarettes. Except for the hours spent with old men sitting in the halls of high speed trains, watching the Chinese countryside blur past. Except for the feeling of a long tail boat pushing off from an island beach in Thailand. Travel is dead time and it is watchful time.

In between our house and our office are two chapters of a novel read on the train, a podcast, a phone call, an album. In between where we are and where we are going are a couple of accidental interactions with people we had no intention of meeting. Multiplied by hundreds, thousands, and our lives are suddenly full of strangers, filled with observation and the opportunity to learn. Would we be richer without all our time in transit? When asked what super power I’d want, I immediately wish for teleportation; the ability to eat dinner with my grand parents and then watch the sun set on the Pacific, the chance to play ultimate with friends in all corners of the globe on the same day, and the opportunity to see hundreds of thousands of places I will probably never see specifically because of transit time. Until recently I have never considered what I’d be giving up.

Airports can be hassles, security mind-numbing. Busses can be too bouncy to read on, or smell of urine. Trains can be filled with people eating food on our seats and smoking cigarettes in our air space. And yet are we better off without that time? Are we better off without each other?

On a flight back from Haneda to SFO I look around at my fellow travelers, each with their own destination and their own purpose. We are crammed together in this flying tube far above the Pacific, uncertain of the hour or day, trusting our pilots, watching movies, and dreaming of places far away. For a few hours we are free from all interruptions from the world outside, obligated only to each other.

We could all do worse than these hours expended in motion.

Shanghai again, forever

Like that, I am back. After six months of travel, work, and daily life I board an airplane, transfer, and return to Shanghai. The ritual of packing, driving to SFO, boarding, and drifting through Asiana’s in-flight movies is strangely comforting, as is the coffee in Seoul early in the morning a day later. With fast internet and quick transfers, Incheon represents a stepping stone, a brief pause to consider my final destination. And to say goodbye to the unrestricted internet, to the wider world.

The first few days on the ground in Shanghai are always a blur. PVGs strangely dark carpets, the inspection line and HSBC ATM. Baggage and the first feel of local weather. The taxi’s new route, on the middle ring road that didn’t exist when I lived here. Flashing traffic cams and billboards. In the dust of evening the outline of Pudong’s towers. And then at last, after hours in the air and in Seoul, after the strange discomfort of sleeping in jeans while seated, the tight familiar streets of Puxi and real Shanghai. Baozi and soda water or gatorade and mi xian in my old neighborhood. A SIM card from the subway station shop and divestiture of bags in a waiting apartment. Eventually a walk to a bar with old friends.

Like everyone, I have fond memories of the places I grew up. Lansing. Vassar. Boston, where I lived in 2000. New York City, on longer and shorter stays of varying life impact. Tokyo. And Shanghai. More than any, Shanghai. At 33 here I am again. Here it seems I more than anywhere return, six times in the past five years. In this city I am content to anchor on, in visits and jobs, long after I’ve moved away. Shanghai again. Forever.

I wonder so often at those who have left and not returned, gone four, five, or ten years. What would they think of the city now? Where would they look to stay, again in this rebuilt metropolis? For me the memories are thick and yet too distant. I wish we could again bowl in that strange place north of Jing’An, that we could again find solace in cheap pints in the Hut.

Two weeks later I am leaving Shanghai again but not forever. In a few hours this trip will blur into others. It will become just one more strange variation, one more series of long evening walks and quiet train rides. As for the people here, we deal and live, trade stories of our time apart and move on. More than anything we become friends and say goodbye. Over and over, to old faces and new, for a decade now.

On this trip I’ve eaten noodles with friends and taxi drivers, wandered Puxi late at night, played frisbee and seen countless factories. I’ve remembered how much Chinese I know and how much I’ve forgotten. And now I will move on in the rush of a modern life, next Monday to Miami. Shanghai will recede and new objectives arise, but the few weeks here will serve as a reminder of how good life can be when cut free from the current of every day and anchored instead in a city of 20 million that I know so well. That we, collectively, have lived in and come home to for so long.

Writing these words I look around. Pudong airport is falling apart a bit, rotting in the concrete way, in the way of dirty air and humidity, of a lack of maintenance. I’ve been here dozens of times, on the top deck of T2, getting coffee in a tucked-away spot with a view. After napping in the taxi for 45 minutes on the ride out. Out till 3, up at 7, 8. Out of the apartment at 9 and in Pudong shortly later. Early, to have time to remember.

Two weeks later the sentences I wrote on arrival perform the same magic as always, the magic that makes me write. Boston is in the news. I am making plans to return to Tokyo. And the last night in Shanghai was spent in a new bar with old friends, folk who have like myself returned again.

The bar was new but the building old, familiar. The last establishment inside those walls was the Hut of this post’s opening. It was convenient in those years, the pub behind a good friend’s apartment and a block or two from mine. Now the two of us meet in Brooklyn and reminisce about its cheap drinks and over-ripe peanuts. On my last night the new name and fancier drinks could not disguise the location. Stories of the past decade came easily to all of us.

From the heat of Miami I try to recall my earlier visits to Shanghai, since leaving in two thousand eight. Being sent to a city in a country not my own for business is an incredible opportunity, something I have always wanted. Being able to stay with friends, being trusted to plan my own travel and produce my own results, those are the perks that make it better than I had imagined, better than I’d experienced before.

And landing in Shanghai may always feel like coming home.

Places I slept, 2012

San Francisco, CA
Brooklyn, NY
Santa Monica, CA
Shanghai, China
Tokyo, Japan
Kyoto, Japan
Tochigi, Japan
Rochester, NY
Ithaca, NY
Cherry Hill, NJ
Anaheim, CA
Portland, OR
Salt Lake, UT
Lake Havasu, AZ
Forestville, CA
Fort Collins, CO
Billings, MT
Arcata, CA
El Paso, TX
Yangzhou, China
Davis, CA
Los Angeles, CA
Green Bay, WI
Edinburgh, Scotland
Erchless Castle, Scotland
Harrow, London
Chicago, IL
Berkeley, CA
Walden, CO

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

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

Treat each other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is a way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will be on the ground shortly.”

Scotland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apple Maps and Shanghai

Apple’s new Maps are bad. That seems like a statement of fact. Unfortunately, in the United States they are most frequently described as passable”, which is altogether too generous. Most people do not live in the United States.

Rather than a long diatribe about how international users are important, I thought I’d present some examples, from a city I know well. Per Wikipedia, Shanghai is a city of 23 million people as of 2010. Sorting by actual municipalities, that makes it the largest single city in the world. On that list New York is 19th.

So how does Shanghai look on Apple Maps in iOS 6? And how did it look on Google Maps on iOS 5?

Well, from the default zoom level in Apple Maps:

Default zoom, Apple

And Google:

Default zoom, Google

Zoom in 1 step on Apple:

Zoom in 1 step, Apple

And Google:

Zoom in 1 step, Google

Zoom in 2 steps, Apple:

Zoom in 2 steps, Apple

And Google:

Zoom in 2 steps, Google

Not only does Apple lack roads, parks, train lines, major buildings, districts, and any semblance of a sense of the city” normally apparent from a map, it lacks the river.

To reiterate: it does not show the Yellow River, the Huang Pu, a major geographical feature of the entire coast, not just Shanghai proper.

The new maps fail in the kind of way that should be impossible to fail: they lack publicly available data. City maps of Shanghai are much more accurate and correctly detailed. Geographic features are visible from satellite.

For the US-only user, these new maps may be passable. For the international traveler or those residing in non-US countries, these maps are disaster, and a true regression in device utility. Quite simply, they represent a reason to buy an Android device over a new iPhone.

Which is quite a software update.

The morning rush hour

Each morning on Clement the street wakes in a certain rhythm. The coffee shops open, first to walking traffic and then cars. The busses begin to run more frequently, passengers accumulating at each stop in waves to match their arrivals. Food trucks begin deliveries, first to super markets and corner stores, and then, a few hours later, to restaurants and cafes. At nine the meters turn on, and commerce commences, quarters deposited and spots filled in neat rows rather than parked across by trucks. The garbage has come and gone and now staff haul the empty bins back in to restaurants and start their prep work.

It is these early hours that fascinate with repetition, each day played out much the same, each morning an echo of those past. To return, after a year or two, would be to see the same folk, the same shops opened by the same staff. The man who delivers pigs, cut in half, to the Chinese grocery still hops from the tall truck with a hog on each shoulder, still swings them onto the tables with the same gusto. Before his arrival an old man sits on the bench in front of the restaurant next door, waiting and watching. Though a smoker he does not yet, as though still waking up. Instead he crosses his legs and uncrosses them, watching busses and cyclists pass between the steady stream of commuter cars. He lives on this street, in a house somewhere behind it, and spends each morning watching the progression of service vehicles to joggers, school children to shoppers. He watches my arrival, coffee purchase and departure. Clement street is part of his life, and he part of it, his patient eyes proof that not everyone need hurry.

On a brisk morning in late October another city hustles. Seven thirty on a Wednesday and Dunkin’ Donuts is packed. The man holding sway in the center is wearing a witch’s hat and a long wig. This is Chicago, on Halloween, and the wind is sharp but not blustery. The remnants of Hurricane Sandy stormed through the day before, chopping Lake Michigan into muddy froth near the shore. In the Loop, at the heart of down town, the sense of motion is energizing. In great coats and business attire each person on the street outside the hotel has purpose and the sense of urgency that comes with big city routine. These blocks are filled with overhead trains and the honking of taxis, and coffee shops on each corner do the brisk business of rush hour. This is their peak, unmatched by the ten am break or noon lunch. From seven to eight forty five there are lines to the door at the Starbucks, the Caribou, the Dunkin’ and the McDonald’s, all within one full block. This is urban America, and it shows, the chains dominating by prioritizing efficiency and recognition.

As an east coast native the pace is thrilling, and some part of me is excited by Dunkin’ Donuts, a chain that dominates New York but has no presence in California. The experience at seven thirty, all interactions precisely packaged and refined through endless repetition, bears just enough similarity to my normal routine on Clement to be understood: the act of buying coffee. Outside of the Blue Danube the Chinese man sits on the bench of Burma Superstar, waiting for his friend to arrive and offer him a cigarette. After that ritual they will chat and watch the grocery store’s opening, where the pigs are delivered, and then wander off down the block, disappearing from the street. In Chicago a city employee sweeps trash from the gutter, and workers in suits file in to tall office towers.

Mornings, in cities, on week days, are studies in practice, in shared space and short time frames. Comfort comes in the form of a well-executed routine, a perfectly timed bus, a well-made coffee acquired with speed. The differences between places are not so vast, and yet, underneath, in the pace and dress is the place.

Clement’s feel, easy and welcoming, with random pedestrians and old residents, is that of home, of comfort and connection. Downtown Chicago’s rushed pace and commuter nature gives it the rare sense of the truly metropolitan, with no homes, few locals and small, pre-outlined exchanges done in incredible volume. More than anything it feels like New York, a rare thing in America. For a few days I’m glad to swap one routine for another, and even more to know both.

Summer evenings

In the summer on the east coast the heat oppresses. Sticky and uncomfortable friends shower often and drape themselves as they sit, careful not to touch any of their limbs together. In Colorado the heat is likewise merciless, but dry. Everyone carries water with them, into stores, cars and the wilderness. We gather near trees, wishing their shade extended still further, that we had planted more. It is a time, in both places, of some adventures and some lethargy.

This is not the magic of summer though, not the hours we will wish for when winter again is upon us. Those hours, the precocious gift, comes after five, after eight, after ten pm, when the sun sets and the world cools, even if but slightly. These are the magic hours, when whole towns are out of doors, awake and together. When sidewalks fill and laughter can be heard from blocks away. Neighbors chat, dogs sniff, and children chase each other on foot and bicycle.  It is a treasure, this comfort in the darkness, and a memory that will carry us through long winters and short days.

In Colorado for the weekend it is the evenings that most satisfy. Like Arizona a few weeks earlier, the gift of summer is after the sun sinks in the sky. In small towns on the east coast the magic hour is after the sky has grown dark, when the heat is within, rather than without. Then the entire town comes out of doors at last, together in the dark. For me, now, living where July means a lack of blue sky and August wear a jacket to work, each summer evening is a treasure. Throughout the summer I find them in strange cities, in Ithaca, in Collingswood, in Portland, Lake Havasu and Fort Collins. Each time they surprise me, an unexpected gift.

Cities of accident

Ciduad Juarez is dusty and chill. In the long sunlight of the middle of November I stand in the courtyard to warm myself. Behind a chain link fence topped with razor wire a small canal separates the yard from the street beyond and the houses that line it. The canal is built of cinder block, and the water that runs through it is a trickle winding its way through piles of leaves and rubbish. Off to the right it continues out of sight, running between the road and this strange strip of quiet land, behind factories and hotels. Left it ducks behind the concrete building I have emerged from and continues on to the main road, disappearing beneath it into a culvert.

The break yard has several beat up office chairs, two dusty concrete benches, and the remnants of someone’s lunch, a crumpled wrapper and a can of soda. In the lazy afternoon light it looks deserted for decades rather than hours.

Yangzhou looks like a Chinese city. The generalization is a particular one, born of identical train stations, hotels, party buildings and apartment blocks. The first groups of these towers, built five years ago, have terraces and are six stories high, walk ups with nice gardens now slowly being converted into parking. Row upon row of these, identical, were built all over China before each tenant had an automobile or aspired to one. The ponds were initially stocked with koi, a few of which remain. The leaves on the landscaped shrubs and trees are covered with the dirt that settles the air, coal dust carried for miles. Balconies likewise, which remind me of mine in Shanghai that had to be cleaned weekly to be habitable. The sidewalks that wind beside the buildings in each of these complexes are almost completely parked over with VWs and Audi’s, Buick’s and local brands, mostly black, mostly sedans. This is a Chinese city in two thousand twelve, new towers, new subways, new streets still rising while the old wear fast.

Yangzhou looks familiar after passing Wuxi, Suzhou, Changzhou, Zhenjiang on the train. I am here on a Friday morning, my second trip in a week. Across the Yangtze on a ferry from Zhenjiang, Yangzhou was probably a unique place when I first moved to this country.

These are the cities of accident. They are places I never intended to visit, let alone return to. They have renown spots and local problems, neither of which I will spend much time on. Instead I will visit rooms of concrete where large numbers of people gather to make physical objects for humans they will never meet. It is an odd trade at this level, the view of globalization both immediately present and impossible to understand, far beyond the horizon.

In the late summer the courtyard in Juarez has been spruced up, flowering trees and new chairs. Some space has been cleared beneath the largest tree for the lunch table, which looks both more recently wiped and more regularly used. The air still has the desert’s distinct dryness and the sun lurks overhead, ready to subordinate those out of doors too long. I am happy to see the changes, the growth that is born of daily efforts to improve rather than sudden wealth and dictated construction.

I wonder what Yangzhou will look like when I see it next. I do not know when that will be.  No matter the date there will not, I suspect, have been a change as great as that from bicycle to car, of a million people suddenly learning to drive. As far as China goes my time there was perfect, coincided with the wave. All else is bonus, extra time on set.

The ferry was a gift today, I tell myself in the mirror of the G train back to Shanghai. Until this week I had never been on a boat on the Yangtze. I had never been on a working boat in China, nor had it been on my list.

Sometimes the road, rather than the destination, is the day’s gift. Flowers in the Juarez break yard, road crews building by hand in Yangzhou. These are cities I am lucky to see, to know, and to watch change, even if only small patches in brief moments of time alone.

Trucks

We bounce up the gravel road, some miles from where it leaves the pavement behind. Before the ride is out something will puncture the right front tire on this American-made Ford F150. We will notice it later in the evening, as it settles slowly to earth after our return home. For now though the vehicle is big and the ride as comfortable as can be.

Better than in the old truck,” says our host. It is a statement I cannot vouch for, but tolerable, given the track.

The world, this far from human habitat, is stunning and full of life. On the ride in we see little save the landscape, the barren fields already cut, the dusty road long without rain. It is Montana, the shrubbery low and the trees hidden in valleys. Our destination is a ranch house tucked, in the style of Rivendell, into an invisible cavity in the rolling hills. Surrounded by trees and filled with family and cats it is a secret sanctuary amid the brown of felled hay and wheat.

On the way home in the dark the same path has come alive. After the sun set the cats disappeared into the night, only to be roused by our headlights as we bounce out the driveway. Young and gray the kittens skitter across in front of our paths, and we all warn the driver, instinctively. They are too precious to risk, and he is well aware.

In the dark the animals of the wilderness grow bold, traveling with comfort along the nice track left by humans through this wilderness. We see one skunk, thankfully quiet, and a pair of porcupines, separate and strange in the darkness. They are creatures whose shapes surprise me, and it falls to others to guess correctly what the shadow are before the headlights find them. A group of deer bound across the road in front of us, young and skittish they proceed away with uncertain bounds. Last there is an unidentified creature, a dark shape of dog or wolf or coyote but with long tail, with strange motion. We stop and turn the car towards it, but the motion is lost in the weeds and we find nothing, nosing the Ford up into the dirt. Again I am impressed by the vehicle, by the ability to nose up and into the rocks. This detour may cost us a tire, but it is a demonstration of the value of size, of wheelbase and clearance. The Fit, much loved and well-traveled, would not fare well on these roads.

And so it is we return to Billings, to the small house that is our house for a few days of weddings, introductions, and celebrations. Good times and back yards, sunshine, stereos, pickups meant for four, and a landscape suitable.

Afloat

Stepping off the plane the weather is calm as always, by the beach and exceedingly early. I woke even earlier, to fog and a chill wind, my car covered with tiny droplets. Waiting for friends by the curb the clear skies and lack of humidity feel wonderful, a gentle weather that to me is Los Angeles.

Stepping out of the car some four hours later the heat assaults. Within seconds I begin to sweat and my companions make sounds of awe at the change. The amazement is not purely at the temperature, but at how great a change four hours could bring. Distance is a tricky thing, surprising when encountered suddenly. Our brains, I think, evolved to walk, to travel slowly through such shifts as I saw that morning. From fog, wind, and persistent damp to the relaxed 70° F of Southern California, to the open desert, the barren rock filled with heat accepted and re-radiated. Shorts, I think, and sandals. Both are in my shoulder bag, carried on to my morning flight in anticipation. They were too much to ask my brain at four am, waking chilly in the 52° F of San Francisco. We were born to acclimate gradually, to walk over a mountain range and see the sea rather than to land suddenly in the East Coast’s stifling humidity after a restless night’s sleep seated in an air conditioned tube of metal.

My companions are likewise overwhelmed, and we spend the afternoon, the two days following, alternating between AC and water. This seems to be how lives are lived in Arizona, as most vehicles tow boats and the lake, the Wal*Mart, are filled in the afternoon. Our home for the weekend, a sixty foot behemoth, offers us both air conditioning and water with ease if not grace. Trying to start the grill for an early dinner my friend is quickly drenched in his own sweat, his wool Dodgers cap a burden in its authenticity. Fire, while necessary for cooking beef, is not something to linger near when the ambient temperature ticks over 115° F.

For three days this lake is our playground, this boat our castle. Filled with food and friends from across the country, it is all we need. Together we float and swim. We learn, from each other and the world, how to drive large vehicles and leap from cliffs. We work together to tie up on beaches and dive through inner tubes. As the sky cools we are alone on the shore, and sit high on the boat watching the sun. It sets behind the mountains, splashing the lake with pinks and oranges as speedboats rip past heading home. Tied up on a small island we linger on the top deck, no longer forced into the AC or water. Our topics grow serious, brains finally cool enough to process. Business school and marriage, families, jobs and houses. Later, in the dark, we set off fireworks, spin fire, and tell stories. We speak of experiences we will never have again, of first encounters and the strange adventures that have brought us here, across miles and years. It is a weekend to celebrate our friend, his growth and a new phase we know he’s ready for. That we are ready for.

On our last morning, all of us slowly waking to the sun, I walk across our small island and swim to the shore. The cliffs, so inviting the day before, look wonderful in the fresh light. With a couple other early risers I climb, pause for the view, and jump.

Airborne for a full second not a single thought goes through my head. Below, having hit the deep cold water and pulled my way back up, I feel complete. My muscles and brain are weary, and awake. Finally, after hundreds of miles and hours of travel, I have removed myself from the world. Alone with this small circle of friends, on this small circle of water, there is nowhere more to go, nowhere else to be.

At least until after breakfast.

Homes belonging

In a span of weeks I am in a variety of homes belonging to good friends rather than landlords, occupied by owners rather than tenants. It is an exhausting tour of small neighborhoods and cities I may one day inhabit. Returned at last to our apartment north of the park in San Francisco I think mostly of the difference between here and all of those homes.

In Santa Monica to begin I have a spare key, a room and seclusion from the week day bustle. From this cool comfort I work, computer on my lap, and give thanks for the privacy, the lack of a commute. Having a home in a city not one’s own is a key step for this would-be global wanderer. Having one well situated is an even greater boon, with coffee near at hand and the airport an affordable taxi. In Santa Monica when my hosts come home I close the laptop and prepare for dinner. My Haro, pulled from the rafters of their garage, needs air and dusting, and then we are off.  For both my belongings and my body their home is a quiet spot safe from all the city, traffic, and heat.

In Portland on a Monday the house sits on a corner lot, the mulch newly laid. Gorgeous in the long days of June it is a work in progress. The bathroom sink, I am told upon entering, does not work. The kitchen sink does, and we share it each morning in between teeth brushing and work. The hole in the wall between closet and kitchen is a visual problem my friend, an architect, assures me, not a usability one. I concur, and sleep well. Bus lines are close at hand, as is a coffee shop to work from. A spare bike caries me to dinner with a huge group of friends from China. Lingering downstairs in the evening he points out planned points of improvement, the next place to repair.

In New Jersey after a long drive the houses are also under construction. One has an addition growing beside it, about to break through, and in one the downstairs is in various stages of spackle, flooring, and paint.

Most of the electricity is done,” I’m told.

After this room is painted it’s basically finished.”

Tomorrow I’ll knock through the wall here for the duct work.”

These are the projects of my peers, the weekends and money sinks of couples already married, about to be, still tentative. We sit over dinner and discuss mortgages, we sit over wine and plan weddings, we bicycle to beers and talk furniture styles, long term commitments.

After this string of visits I fly home to my Fit and my kitten, to my apartment, ultimate team, and companion. In so many ways the two of us are part of the decisions of our age. We share solutions and discuss options with these friends and others, in Portland, in Montana, in St. Louis and New York.

Yet in this sphere of property, of homes belonging to those under forty we remain visitors, grateful for the spare bedrooms, bicycle options, and permanent addresses. As yet untethered by projects of such scope we elope on weekends to the Russian River, for weeks to Japan. We are settled and yet not fixed, comfortable but not permanent, and the ownership of property remains at a distance, with no clear path between.

Forgetting

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

Decades.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Wild country

In the mountains of Tochigi the children bound up the hill through the trees to meet us. In the forrest trunks grow thick together. Only a hundred meters in the houses and the valley are utterly forgotten. Another hundred and we’d be adventuring in the dark.

Wild boars live here, says our host, and shows us a skull he discovered on a walk as proof. Later he points out more recent evidence of their rooting in the potatoes. Wild boars look larger and fiercer than the children I say.

Oh there are bears too, we’ve got it all,” my old roommate replies with a grin. In this sense they do. They have creatures, cats that wander off to neighbors for months at a time. They have a garden, and land enough for future crops. Wood, cut by the government in preparation for a dam comes free to the door for their stove and winter heat. Water, running down the hill, fills the toilet without need for municipal plumbing. And the birds visit at all hours, singing with the morning’s light. Far from the cities and the hustle of Tokyo, their hillside seems a different world, an older Japan. And it is.

The farmhouse they inhabit is a hundred years old. Made of wood and built to be opened on all sides to the air, its central pillar is based on a round boulder rather than driven into the earth. This allows the structure a bit of room to move with the earth when it shakes. Age of the building alone proves the idea’s merit, the earthquakes coming stronger and more regularly of late. In two thousand eleven the grave stones up the hill fell but the house barely shuddered. The floor, bathroom and soon kitchen all will have been replaced, but the pillars, walls, and roof show no sign of letting go.

Northwest of Tokyo Tochigi is the middle of Japan, geographically. Standing in the hills it feels like the center, feels as though we’ve come deep into the country, far from all exposed edges. Above the trees, the rolling hills, hot springs and old shrines that dot them, the skies are a pure blue. More than anything it feels like a good place to raise children, to watch them running out in the darkening evening with no one to notice.

Save, perhaps, the boars.

Glimpses of Shanghai

When the day is done

I meet a friend in front of Jing’an temple. Looking around at the intersection I recognize no buildings save the one behind me that names this intersection, ancient and partially re-built in concrete decades before. Towers of glass and neon spring out of corners that once held parks, that once held nothing. My friend finds me looking lost in one of the city’s most familiar places. I hold tight to the back of his scooter as we speed down Nanjing Lu, dodging police and taxis with equal caution.

And I lay me down

I am sick in the afternoon at the edge of a grass field, almost to the river, almost to the sea. A man on a bicycle outside the fence who is watching the soccer game behind me pretends not to notice my squatting form. I appreciate the gesture. My stomach turns. On the way home I am sick on the Nanbei Gaojia, out the taxi window in the sun. Traffic, moving at a brisk walk, politely does not crowd our cab, and I am grateful. Home again on a friend’s borrowed couch I hunker down with Gatorade and warm blankets. A day goes by as I heal.

I think about the day we had

I visit new shopping complexes with old friends, talking of change and plans. I have one constant thought, that we have grown up from the youth who first learned this city’s streets. The streets too have matured, and this old block now recreates a Shanghai that once was and yet has never been. Microbreweries occupy lane houses recreated to a degree Disney would be proud of. In my first days back I hear tales of rental car adventures and clear explanations of domestic regulations on electric engines. One did not exist eight years ago and the other was obtuse, unintelligible. Deep local knowledge, smart phones, and an ever-improving sense of business characterize all my meetings. We are no longer English teachers and Shanghai is no longer the edge of the world. Friends who once saved for bicycles have offices and employees, worry about adoption rates and customer growth metrics. Vacations are no longer home for Christmas with parent’s help but to Hokkaido, to Cambodia. Indonesia, I hear twice in the same week, is the new wild west.

After all, I’m married to the wandering star

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

Places I slept, 2011

San Francisco, CA
San Antonio, TX
Santa Monica, CA
San Diego, CA
Washington, D.C.
Salt Lake, UT
Medford, OR
Arcata, CA
Cherry Hill, NJ
Ithaca, NY
Queens, NY
Brooklyn, NY
El Paso, TX
Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
Poughkeepsie, NY
Shanghai, China
Hangzhou, China
Lake Shasta, CA
Moss Beach, CA
Santa Barbara, CA
Chicago, IL
Santa Cruz, CA
Manhattan, NY
Charlotte, NC
Timber Cove, CA

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

The happening world

In a borrowed Mini I tear down Alameda and onto Washington. Los Angeles is hot and bright in the morning, and I squint. Without ever having lived here, the streets feel familiar, and the potholes are an entertaining obstacle course. The air is drier than San Francisco, but not as dry as Juarez. Nor as hot. The trucks that ruined these roads bounce around me, and I revel in the tiny size and excellent horsepower of this two door vehicle. Twice the tires squeal unintentionally as the light turns green.

Where have you been?” a former colleague asks me later that evening, and I grin.

Around.”

It is true. This is the busy season, the time of each year when everything accelerates towards the calendar’s end. In the last thirty days I have seen Shanghai, Hangzhou, New York, San Francisco, Juarez, and Los Angeles. Saturday I will see Chicago. In between, near home, I have danced in the park and drank wine beneath an aquarium. I have run on the fields of Stanford and watched the sun rise over Hong Kong. Behind these sights, behind the thrill of motion and the exhaustion of sickness, has lurked a single phrase, coined by a man I will never meet.

Script cue: the happening world

-John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar

It is Saturday, and the boat does not rock. Lake Shasta is far stiller than the lake of my childhood, Cayuga in upstate New York. Made by man behind the Shasta Dam in nineteen forty eight the lake winds through valleys, not having had time to wear them down and make them part of a single whole. The shore line is tumultuous, coves abound, and small points challenge those who have never boated very close to shore. On this house boat that is all but one of us. We crash twice, in the minor fashion of shallow board vehicles that move but slowly.

The first morning I sit on the bow and begin anew this book, first read in Japan in two thousand two, a gift from my then roommate. It has been out of print for the intervening almost-decade. At the above line on page two I look up and marvel at the distance we have come: from Chicago the weekend before, from San Francisco the day before, and from the dock in darkness the night now ending.

The sun peeks over the hills and scatters the last pieces of shadow. The water’s clarity is striking. Out a ways from the shore, where the depths of lake bottom should be difficult to judge, long dead trees poke their trunks upwards. These hulks, chewed through by woodpeckers and, without branches, resistant of wind, reach out to the sky. This was not always lake, they say, and in the mid-day we will swim to them, climb, perch, and jump.

Likewise from the houseboat’s third story roof we will fling ourselves, seeking moments in the air to anticipate the water’s chill. Like these leaps the weekend is an escape, a vacation.

An escape from what, I wonder, sipping coffee made on the boat’s stove and a French press remembered by someone more prepared than myself.

With my feet on the rail and Brunner’s book, newly re-published, on my lap, the answer is surprisingly clear.

An escape from the happening world.

An escape because our travel is not of distance any longer, the world a well-known sphere, but of pace. The borrowed Mini, a go kart-like mobile of power and short wheelbase, was a friend’s, and is now gone, will never be driven again.  It has been replaced by some far more elegant machine in the two weeks it has taken me to write this.

The week I spent in Juarez, prior to landing in Los Angeles to race its red frame up and down Fruitland Ave, its then-owner spent in Belize, mostly underwater.

Later in the afternoon I will swim out to the center of our current section of Lake Shasta, mostly underwater.

In between visits to each other’s neighborhoods my friend and I discuss possible futures, both short term and further afield, while in transit between San Francisco and Petaluma, between Santa Monica and Los Angeles. These journeys are carried out in vehicles both Brunner and I saw as temporary. Like the red Mini. These trips occur with such speed and rapidity that we do not consider them travels, having invented a separate and more boring word for daily excursions done in the name of employment.

The members of the Shanghai book club prepare to read Brunner’s book, at my urging. Strangely almost the entire group is now re-constituted in San Francisco. Somehow the founding circle has re-located without shared plan or even much communication to this city on the opposite side of the Pacific.

One of our six was in Chile for three weeks, the book assigned in his absence. Upon returning he discovers an empty house, save for the cat and some plants. His roommate, also a China hand, has left the country and will be in the Philippines for six weeks. At a brunch after his return friends compare stories of Dallas, visited recently, as well as New York, and share stories of the art movement re-districting Detroit. One guest has been on the road for a year. Much talk is of jobs and houses, of gardens and school districts. The motion does not indicate a lifestyle as much as the extremes of the world, the pace of our lives.

On this lazy Sunday we pilot the boat beneath the bridge of I-5, amazed at the train tracks that run beneath it. I lie on the roof, curious as to the empty rail cars and their destination, certainly far away and busier than this lazy waterway.

Their destination is the same as my own, once returned, later that afternoon, to my car and that same highway, to the Bay Area and the city.

Cue the happening world.

Readily available cures

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

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

I also remember.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Humid country

The mood of a place is dependent on small things, and weather. In San Francisco every single part of the city is informed by fog, by the lack of it or the lack of visibility it brings. Sunshine is a thing of sparse moments and joy, and the changes to workdays and clothing that come with the East Coast’s hundred degree days are hard to imagine, let alone replicate. We move in wide circles, but as I have said before, our bodies have short memories.

San Francisco smells of fruit and tall trees, of wind and buildings built primarily of wood. It smells of the dust from China that blows off the Pacific. Over everything, in the early afternoons of the season that the rest of the country calls summer, it smells like a city, a place where humans have struggled in close proximity for a hundred years.

And then the fog comes in, and the peninsula smells like an island in the ocean, the air filled with water and sand. On Irving, a man walking to dinner in July of two thousand eleven might wear a wool hoodie and jeans. In Brooklyn the same amble to dinner would entail shorts and flip-flops, sunglasses and a t-shirt.

Along Irving the street lights go on at six, their routine unchanged by the lengthening of day, for the fog darkens everything.

Thus in July we flee to the east, and drive windows down across Staten Island. The Verrazano bridge toll has been raised to $13, and the traffic is thick with accidents. The rental car is our fortress, allowing safe passage from state to state, allowing us to grow accustomed to the humidity without carrying our luggage as we do so. The gift of red-eye travel is in these surprising mornings before our new locations awake.

In New Jersey we play frisbee in the back yard, barefoot in the humid air, and sit on the deck in the afternoons, grateful for the quiet hours. After a few days we drive up through Pennsylvania, along roads from my childhood, past the small towns of her grandparents’ history. The gentle hills are green and the air is thick with fresh cut hay, with flies, and with small towns. After the West Coast’s sprawling hours of land without cities, the transition from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to New York takes no planning and happens in a leisurely afternoon.

From the city, if not the house, of my birth, we adventure. We swim in gorges and wander to waterfalls. We sit by the side of the lake and watch the light fade, and set things alight and let them drift into the sky. Further from the ocean the air is less humid, and the long evenings a glorious reminder of what summer usually means. We do not think of San Francisco, or fog, choosing instead to watch lightning bugs in the trees of the back yard, their small flashes miraculous gifts of light.

In New York City later we sit on the concrete of Williamsburg and eat hand-crafted donuts in the shade, Manhattan across the water looking gorgeous in the sunshine. In the evening we crowd into the one room with an air conditioner, this strange piece of equipment everyone in New York has purchased as they grew able in the last decade of employment. In San Francisco no house has these boxes in the windows. Instead we shut the glass against the fog in the evenings and fling it open in the morning to let the wind in.

The evenings in Brooklyn move from park to rooftop to sofa, from large exuberant celebrations of summer to small conversations about the practicalities of shared spaces, and the hours fly quickly. In another two dozen we are back on our coast, back in the weather that is not a season, and back to the courtyard that houses a cat. The vacation has ended, and the memory will fade from our skin, but we have seen New York, and summer, again.

Friends grow

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

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

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

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

When in clouds

Directions are meaningless without a view of the ground. They serve as only the end points of a journey, and the transition from Texas to Nevada is difficult to note without the details of terrain, without any sense of the obstacles crossed. In the dark Las Vegas looks like a place half built by fantastic creatures with wild minds and half built by the most boring of beige square-desiring late 20th century Americans. Despite our individual wants we cannot escape the habits of comfort and communal conformity. In the seat behind me a woman composes a presentation. To my left another reads a self-help book, part of a poorly named genre.

To my right the window looks out on the Pacific, another journey entirely. The water feels fresh and beckoning, like the edge of the world I know it not to be. The opposite side has seats facing the valley, facing the mountains and deserts beyond that. Each time I am offered the choice on a small screen filled with chairs I choose the ocean, never the land.

I grow older on these flights, and learn about the bible.

An hour outside of Texas a woman gives me her explanatory book, heavily annotated. I cannot bear to throw away her efforts and in turn carry it for weeks, looking for a home for this most worn of thin-paged texts. Twice I offer it up to others who take it in jest and then peruse in earnest, once even borrowing it for a week, but eventually it is returned.

We travel in circles, unable to see.

I awake one morning in JFK with my best friend, and we have coffee without hurry at a place near the gate. He is sure this is the best the terminal has to offer, I am confused by the brief blast of humidity between jet and jetway and gate. A week later he will come home from work to find me reading on his sofa, us both within reach of the Pacific. In between he will see Vegas and I will see…

I stand on a mesa outside of a Mexican town famous only for its affordable beer. There is no sign of habitation save the road that stretches off in front of me, first down the hill and then out into the valley. In the distance other plateaus rise likewise from the rock, without vegetation or inhabitants. Across this vast expanse of land the weather varies but with enough visibility nothing it will bring can surprise.

Behind me stands a great mass of concrete and steel designed to keep men from their families, and from doing whatever they please. Ahead of me some few miles runs a strange fence, its individual panes the shade of rusted iron. It sways in the wind slightly, or seems to from a distance. From this side I do not approach it, tales of American vigilante posses too possible to tease me.

I do not quite grasp the language, but the motions for removing one’s belt and wallet seem to be a universal constant, and I leave the car with only my ID. It is worn and will be replaced in 2012 with one that bears a more passing likeness to me.

Where is that boy?” one of my companions says, when presented with that smiling picture.

It’s from a photo booth under the Saikyo line in Japan,” I say, as though that explains everything.

We walk in through scanners and detectors, with declarations and pat downs, to do the things we woke early in another country to do. And on the way out we stand quiet in the startling brightness, the sun in full reflection off the concrete and sand, and cover our eyes with our hands.

We do not speak about it, but we are trying to remember this landscape forever.

Boxes just the same

In Shaoxing it rains, and I stay in my little box, waiting for a phone call. From inside I could be anywhere in China, anywhere in the world. Hotels are designed to be interchangeable, and I forget my location.

In San Antonio a year later the room on the thirty fourth floor looks out over a pool. Lit and empty in the Texas January, the water shines green into the night. From this box the weather is impossible to discern, the pool’s lack of use a solitary clue. Through the glass of this Hyatt’s windows it is a hovering square of aquamarine composited with the reflections of lights beside the bed and over the desk. Above the rooftop the evening is still, save for planes landing far off in the suburbs.

In Japan, years ago, the room was tatami-floored, and the sliding glass of one wall opened on to a balcony. Through the laundry swaying from the rafters came the evening sun, and with it a view of the Saikyo line to the left and Mt. Fuji to the right. Shared with a dozen others, the balconies were sectioned off with partitions flimsier than the wind, so those on either side pretended for their privacy as they hung laundry in the mornings. Tiny on the inside, this glass wall gave the box a sense of the world, an ability to feel the breeze.

Two weeks later the hotel room in Washington D.C. could again face any city in the world, with the train tracks elevated beside it, clattering away as the light fades. With the shades wide the bed has a view of the sky, contrails and wisps of clouds in March, a blue that gives no sense of location. The furniture has the same sharp edges as everywhere, the same reddish brown wood.

In Shaoxing I check into my hotel in the evening, having found it via taxi from the train station. The air is gray, up above the street lights, and I am tired. There will come a time for exploring this city, for business and the lonely hours of solitary travel to foreign countries. For now, though, a little box of my own is all I desire, shelter from the weather and space to breathe.

Places I slept, 2010

San Francisco, CA
Santa Monica, CA
Shanghai, China
Shaoxing, China
Cherry Hill, NJ
New York, NY
Seattle, WA
Sacramento, CA
Fort Collins, CO
Duluth, MN
Green Bay, WI
Chicago, IL
Manzanita, OR
Miami, FL
Clark, Philippines
Boracay, Phillippines
Houston, TX

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

Get out of this country

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

How many years?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

Let’s hit the road dear friend of mine

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

Let’s get out of this country

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

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

Mobile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps the mobile will get a Christmas present.

Bud Selig & the TSA

There are two things that make me very angry today.  They may seem to have nothing to do with each other.  Yet Bud Selig is exactly like the TSA.  They are both higher powers in the American landscape that are forcing their awful ideas on society.  Let me explain.

Bud Selig wants to put ten teams in the MLB playoffs, rather than the current eight, which is already an increase from the six that got in when he became Commissioner.  Six, eight, ten, why the big deal?  Mediocrity.  Baseball is the American pasttime.  It isn’t the current American sport of the moment”, nor is it something cool we made for TV.  Baseball is tough.  The season is long.  The games are played in the sun of long summer afternoons.  Pitchers take forever.  Batters grab their crotches.  Baseball is awesome.  It’s also hard. And most teams don’t make the playoffs.  I don’t mean half the teams don’t make the playoffs.  I mean most.  As in, pre-Bud, less than one out of three. One per division.  That was awesome.

Bud Selig implemented the Wild Card, which is pretty solid, as things go, though it does occasionally lead to crazy math.  The idea behind the Wild Card was that teams who happened to have another very good team in their division could still make the playoffs.  This was called the Yankee rule” or the AL East rule”, because it gave Baltimore, Toronto, Tampa Bay and even Boston some hope that, in an era when the Yankees went to the post-season almost every year, they didn’t have to beat the Yankees to get in, they just had to be better than everyone else.

I love the Wild Card rule.  I think it’s very rewarding to say hey, we didn’t win the division but we would have won most divisions, so we should keep playing.”  I like this sense of achievement.  Plus, the Cardinals won the WS as Wild Card entrants in 2006.  And the Marlins in 2003.  And 2007.  Wild Cards are good for baseball.  And eight out of thirty teams is still less than one third.  It’s still tough to get in to the playoffs in MLB.

Why is it good to have the playoffs be tough to get into? Because nothing is more disheartening than hearing a NFL fan say the following: Our team is 4-6. Maybe if Buffalo loses to Tampa and Green Bay beats Seattle and we beat Chicago, we can make the playoffs!”

That is pathetic.  It’s demeaning to the fans, and to the game. Why? Because their team is simply not any good.  Good teams make the playoffs, bad teams don’t. That’s the whole idea!  If mediocre teams make the playoffs it’s called THE REGULAR SEASON.

But Bud thinks good teams aren’t making the playoffs.  Hence the whole ten teams instead of eight thing.  Wait. What? Did any good teams miss the playoffs in 2010?  The Padres?  Not a good team.  How do I know?  They didn’t make the playoffs.  Also, their run differential was +84.  This means they scored 84 more runs than they allowed, over the course of the 2010 season. Was this good?  Well, in a word, no. The eight teams that made the playoffs were between +163 (NYY) and +100 (Texas). No team had a +100 run differential and did not make the playoffs.  The Cardinals were the only ones even close, at +95 and no playoffs.  And we all know the Cardinals weren’t very good down the stretch.

In case that last paragraph contained too many ideas and failed attempts at humor, let me clarify:

In 2010, the best eight teams made the playoffs, and those eight teams were quite noticeably better than any of the other 22 teams.

Bud Selig is not helping the sport.  He may be helping someone.  That I won’t argue.

And how is Bud like the TSA?  Well the TSA may be helping someone, but they’re not helping passengers. They’re not helping airports.  They’re not improving security. They aren’t saving money. They’re not speeding up transit. They’re not making people’s days better.

What are they doing? Keeping everyone scared.  Remember, the threat is real, they say. The threat level is orange.

The threat level has always been orange.

Airplanes got blown up before 9/11. The TSA didn’t exist. Neither did naked scanners, shoe removal, pat downs, nail clipper confiscation, belt removal, or 2 hour security lines.

Are we safer? I guess that depends on us. All I know is that Bud isn’t making the sport I love better and the TSA isn’t making the experience I love (air travel) better.  They may be helping someone, but it’s not me. I love to fly and I love baseball.  Please, Bud Selig and faceless TSA boss, stop trying to change that.

Out again

Returning to the circuit, Los Angeles Seoul Shanghai Shaoxing, after a few years away, everything has faded slightly. The feel is familiar, but the names have gone, and I am constantly asked if I remember things I do not think I have ever learned.

Over the Pacific I watch a romantic movie and cry repeatedly. Without the certainty of destination the flight out is one of separation. In the airport in Seoul I am again the solo traveler, proceeding from Gate 25 to Gate 43 over the span of two hours. My movements if viewed from above would be erratic and unrepeatable. But I am alone, and whether I wander down a corridor to look for a bathroom farther from the smoking lounge or whether, unknowingly, I sit at Dunkin’ Donuts and then go looking for my gate on a board down the hall only to find it eventually, behind the donut counter, the result is the same. Two hours later, having used the free wifi that does not filter social networks to say goodbye on them, I am again on a plane, over an ocean that does not touch the continent I woke up on.

In Shanghai I am part of the flow, not surprised or hurried, filling out forms in Immigration with the precision of those who long ago memorized their passport and visa numbers. The lines are shorter and in different locations, but the process has not changed, no one takes fingerprints. Coming down the escalator I remember this feeling, from my returns to Japan. Seoul was just a touch stone, a way to remember where I was going by remembering how to get there, like passing familiar landmarks on the drive to a childhood home.

Getting cash from the HSBC machine that lies inside the Customs gate I wish for a view of myself, time lapse composited, doing this in 2004, in 2007. The change in attire, in airport congestion, in personal urgency. Arriving in the morning I lack the push of those whose flights land after dark, who suddenly find themselves far from home and very tired. At ten am I walk to the taxi line, words slipping back into my mouth as they are needed.

Shanghai has grown in my absence, as noted elsewhere, but this first day it is a veneer of uncertainty covered by the plush carpets of a four star hotel’s long term housing. In the morning I am on a train, to a city small and still building concrete towers. The list of station names along the way recalls bus trips along this route years before, to factories I no longer am responsible for, whose forgotten owners do nothing to ground my soul on this stretch of fields and rivers, cities and farms.

As the train passes a road in the smog-filtered morning light I watch the dozens of people on their bicycles and scooters waiting behind the guard rail. Out here past the plush edges I find China still the same, filled with the crazy combination of past and future, bullet trains that travel upwards of two hundred mph and peasants whose homes are built of mud. It is a cliche, but a comforting one, something I have lived through, and it pulls the veil of change from Shaoxing. The streets have changed and DVDs are harder to find, but electric bicycles are still silent, televisions still loud.

On the outskirts of Shaoxing I see a single story red brick building in the middle of a lake. With dark tiles on its peaked roof it sits on a small island, connected to the shore by a foot bridge, picturesque in the way only something made in the last century as a copy of something ancient can be. Whether house or storage area I can not tell, and imagine the owner waking every morning surrounded by water, perhaps with the accompanying fowl.

On the shores of the lake, set back from the water by swaths of grass that has never grown well, are fifteen story towers of sandy concrete, balconies of apartments built in the 80s, dark and disheartening. Ten of them circle the water, and in the afternoon must cast shadows across it’s whole surface.

Back in China less than twenty four hours, still uncomfortable with the language and detached by the speed of transit, I watch the red building slip behind, curious about its inhabitants, more curious about its picturesque setting and invisible purpose.

We drive the PCH

On a Tuesday morning we leave the sunless Sunset for more southerly climes. In no great rush my friend is headed to San Diego, and I to Venice, both visits brief. She is driving the country simply to do so. We are expected eventually, for dinner perhaps, but have no sense of urgency. It is July, and, as soon as we leave San Francisco’s city limits, gorgeous in California.

We take the Pacific Coast Highway, California State Route 1.

It is a rare thing, having the time to pick the route for pleasure rather than speed, and I relish it as we swing around curves and are suddenly confronted with the ocean, which lurks to our right at all times. The sharp cliffs and sandy beaches alternate for the first few hours. The road is lined with cars pulled over to take pictures and then cars pulled over so that their drivers can put on their wetsuits and get in the pictures. We talk, and look, but do not stop. We have enough pictures, I think, in our minds. I remember moving to Asia, almost a decade ago, without owning a camera, claiming to remember things. Three months later I bought one, not for my own gain, instead so that I could show those far away my Tokyo sights. Our winding trip down the PCH will be similar to those first three months, in that I do remember it but there won’t be any pictures to show, and the memories will fade on their own, with time.

When living in California it is good to travel with those who do not, as a reminder of the beauty we may have become inured to . The coastline is gorgeous, and the three hours longer that it will take us, versus Highway 5, will change nothing in our day, would only narrow the breadth of topics we cover.

It is July, and we drive along the Pacific. My companion will, by the time she reaches San Diego and the guest room that awaits, have driven the entire west coast of the United States in three days. She will have stopped, in Portland for an evening, in San Francisco for a day, in Venice for dinner. She will have seen, in one stretch, a coastline I have only seen in pieces, or from airplanes. Leading the Subaru through the winding curves of the coast just south of Mavericks I catch glimpses of the waves while she looks out the window. This is my gift to her, a few hours away from the wheel, and it is a small enough present, but in a good location. More advantageous I think than having a friend drive the bare miles of Texas or Oklahoma, where the sights are repetitive, the road less demanding.

We make good time, save for when we are standing still, and we remember things we haven’t told each other. It’s been a year since our last meeting, and nearly four since we last lived in the same city, since we last had no urgency to our actions, no pressing sense of time.

In Shanghai life was like this often. The city would open up on weekends, our responsibilities fled with Friday’s close, and we would spend afternoons on the grass at the SRFC. We would enjoy the smog of evenings from someone’s balcony, or a bar, before heading out to dinner via scooter, taxi, and bicycle.

On the Pacific Coast Highway we pass through small towns built by long-ago surfers, where there are no gas stations. We pass through coastal towns with colleges, universities to their name, filled with clusters of students here for summer classes, or who have remained to be near the beach. Later on, coming south, we pass farming towns and air bases, long dusty tracks where people race their pickups along behind us and then, rather than passing, veer into a field. Where people in Civics just off work head into town on the long stretches of highway bordered only by green.

We end up back by the ocean, winding through Malibu. I drive while she looks for multimillionaires, or their houses. It is absurd, really, to change so quickly from one to the other, from surfing collective to farming town to mansions, and we drive on without pause, hungry for dinner and friends, for a break from the road. I have only been on it one day, but the memories of road trips come back easily, and I am glad to be stopping in Los Angeles, rather than continuing on to San Diego, to New Mexico, to Texas and beyond.

In Venice we find welcome and dinner. The weather is perfect as the sun sets, warm with a breeze. As we stand on the sidewalk before the restaurant we look at each other, companions for a day, and smile. Here we are, on Abbot Kinney in Venice, a place unlike where we woke yet more unlike where we’ve been in between.

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.

Childlike eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really?”

It’s orange and fuzzy.”

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A man was shot on our block.

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

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

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

Places I slept, 2009

Houston, TX
Lansing, NY
Ithaca, NY
Baton Rouge, LA
Austin, TX
Big Bend, TX
Los Angeles, CA
Cincinnati, OH
San Francisco, CA
Portland, OR
Sacramento, CA
Fort Collins, CO
Near Gould, CO
Incline Village, NV
Shanghai, China
Shaoxing, China

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

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.

From far away

They arrive gradually. Each one in turn is slotted underneath a single magnet. Eventually more will be needed, to keep up with their flow. They go up backs face out, a collage of hand-printed lettering. Their fronts contain scenes from this country or others, strange photographs, or sketches made popular not by the artist’s fame but by their very printing.

The longer I inhabit this house the more crowded that space will be, on the freezer’s front. Eventually these first to arrive will be replaced, their pictures long forgotten. They will be read one last time, to revive the memories, and placed in a box that has come with me from Houston, from Shanghai. That box is filled with similar already, and though I can not remember from where, the list of from who comes easily to mind. These ones, fresh delivered to a mailbox I have owned but a month, are a good representation of whose handwriting might also be found in that box. Because, like all habits, that of postcards written and stamped is one born out of repetition, reinforced by reciprocation.

Turning them over now, a momentary cataloguing of their pictures presents me with the Potala Palace, proof that my friends, again, have been on journeys I meant to take myself and have so far not managed. The next is of Brandenburger Tor, ensuring that my catalogue of famous monuments enshrined on postcards continues to grow. It too is proof, though of a different kind: that friends from Shanghai were not as daunted by Europe’s expense and moved eastward. The lessons are similar though, that all of the places I wished to go, whether to visit or live, are as accessible now as they have ever been. Yet here I sit, receiving these in a city in the country of my birth, the borders of which I have not crossed for more than a year.

The last is of Old North Wharf on Nantucket, a beautiful shot of houses with their boats at anchor in place of a lawn. It is America, in the view of water and peace, something I appreciate, from my house mate in Shanghai, who is likewise learning a new coast. It has traveled long, chasing me here from Colorado, to which it was sent at the end of the summer as I fled westward.

As we settle so too do I send out these missives, currently featuring whimsical Japanese art, to the corners of these United States and a variety of countries. I must learn where the post office is, and mailboxes. These worthwhile efforts are fueled by our decorated freezer, and the envelopes of longer letters that lie in the phone nook. For the most part they are small stories of happiness, and share a sense of wonder. Because although we are not beyond our borders, we are exploring, learning a new city and state. And after so long parts of America are as foreign to me as anywhere, all the more so because they ought to seem natural.

I am grateful though for the reminders of places and people I always mean to see, and one day will be glad to.

Coming home

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

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

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

Interviewing cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foot traffic

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

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

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

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

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

Transient in all ways

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

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

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

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

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

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

Airports

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

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

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

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

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

Cabin air

The view is panoramic.  Living in dense urban environments, I had forgotten the pleasure of watching weather patterns approach or sweep past.  Snow lingers on a hill several miles away, the dense air and thick gray clouds my indication.  On the other side of the valley the sun strikes a forest, and the plumes of melting snow that rise in the wind dwarf the trees themselves.  Blanching down they strike, these huge shafts of light, separating shadow and not across wide swaths of forest and field.

I have forgotten, my mind says, and should be awed by the vantage point afforded me from this cabin in the mountains of Colorado, two hours from the city I have been guesting in.  Skiing up the mile to its door, from the end of the county road where we left the jeep pulled over in a turn-out and locked to wait for our return, I should be awed by the landscape. Instead I am stuck trying to breathe.  There is majesty in the landscape, and there is the pain of my nose as it freezes.  These are competing senses, although both can be described with awe.  Pushing up the final hill I can at last appreciate the expanse of the view finally, both poles stuck in the snow. The dogs can too, having had their run. They are ready to head inside for warmth and the cabin’s restraint of the wind that tugs and pulls and mostly chills.

A map of the United States is a curious thing.  Without an overlay of population or a satellite picture of lights at night there is no sense of exactly how empty, exactly how open is the western expanse.  With one though there seems to be a huge gap, as though the progress westward had not been completed, as though humanity simply leapt towards the west coast.  Half of this country is truly empty in a way hard to remember for a boy from the east coast who has spent the past seven years in Asian metropolises of Tokyo and Shanghai.  In some ways this expanse of snow-swept reservoirs and mountains is overwhelming, something to be acknowledged and accepted rather than interwoven with my images of the wide world.  Over and over I wonder at the people who live up here, not visitors or retirees but children who play over these hills in their youth and herd cattle across them as teenagers, who build houses under the auspice of construction companies founded in these small towns by their uncles or fathers.  I can not comprehend the sense of ordinary they must have for these views, and, on the other end, how trapped they would have felt in Shanghai these past five years, watching the polluted air curtain off the city, particulate walls of white blocking the view after a half dozen blocks.  Would they feel as cut off and alone there as I do now, looking out at the snowstorms almost upon us and yet still ten miles to the south?

Somehow I doubt it, myself a child of the wilderness of the north east, which remains, despite the brilliance of its representation from satellite.  My house, the house my parents are selling even now, is one from which the stars can be seen.  Perhaps not with the same clarity as here, up nine thousand feet from the level of the sea. Yet from a hill in Lansing they are visible with the eye in a fashion impossible to imagine for a child of the sprawl of Yokohama-Tokyo-Chiba-Saitama.  As I type that my memory gives it lie, remembering walking home one night from the last train in Kawagoe, two thirty in the morning as I crossed a river, walking on the bridge’s wide rail above the water’s concrete bed.  The stars shone bright that night, one of summer’s warmest.  Here, in the dry height of Colorado, on the shortest days of the year, they do again, save when obscured by blowing snow.

It is peaceful here, and many things explain themselves to my brain in the ample time it has to consider ideas, bereft of internet and telephony.  With only word games and the printed page to occupy us we construct, knitting and writing, cooking and fire-building, until the dark has worn us down, and the idea of waking with the sun has more to offer than remaining upright.  These four days at the end of two thousand eight are respite from the constant chase of our urban lives, even from the holiday cheer of our visit to Colorado.  They are a chance, too rare and too often filled with gasps, to breathe deep and watch the way weather moves, and the speed with which we are overtaken.

Much of this article is informed by a view of the Earth at night from space, widely available on the internet.  One of the best views of it can be found in Google Earth, by checking the layer Earth City Lights” under NASA in the Gallery section of the Layers sidebar.

Going somewhere

This fascination with motion is the central thing.  Travel and transit, the celebration is not of destination but of journey.  Whether on foot or on scooter, on bicycle, airplane or maglev, the undeniable appeal of going somewhere bonded with the desire to leave this place creates a sense of excitement rarely rivaled.  The main holidays, worldwide, involve some huge amount of travel, as most of the world goes to see people they are too far from the instant they are able.

Not strange then that we romanticize the means of transit, is it?  From America’s car stories to the long trail rides of cowboys, there is a love affair among us not only with the motion but with the vehicle or steed.  The spaceship, the rocket, the car, the train.

I dream of touring like Duke Ellington
in my own railroad car,

says Ani, and I know what she means.  Even on crowded Chinese trains, crammed in between cars and forced into standing with a half dozen smokers and a set of doors I’m not allowed to open there’s a beauty to train travel.  It is hard to write with all the rocking, though it’s possible to type, and the bathrooms overflow onto the floor. Still, if there’s somewhere I have to go domestically I’m in the queue at the station, looking for a ticket on those rails.

In Japan, I slept through my stop on the Saikyo dozens of times, one night walking home from Kawagoe, the end of the line, at almost two am.  I slipped in the door at four, glad to beat the rain, and willing to do it again the next day.  I loved living on the Saikyo line, despite its deserved notoriety for chikan and the evening salary-man-drunk-crushes.  I was happiest, in some ways, sipping canned whisky and water on the platform at Akabane, waiting for the nine twenty eight train home after a long Tuesday at work.  Five years later when I think of Tokyo I think of the trains and the views they afforded me, twenty two and curious.

The fascination with my electric scooter endured through hundreds of repairs, cracked casings, broke brakes, and pieces of it falling away month by month, exposing the bare metal beneath.  Despite being stranded one night after a dodgeball game, a mile or two from home in a strange part of town, stuck waiting on a curb in the heat of August for a man I’d woken from sleep to put in a new converter, I loved that scooter.

People asked me often, what’s it like, don’t you hate the battery, how long does it take to charge?  The answer always disappointed them: a long time, first six hours, then eight, by the end too hard to find a power outlet for that long without taking the battery out, all seventy five pounds of it, and carrying it up to my apartment, or office.  I loved it despite these things. Despite losing both rear view mirrors, cracking the headlight, destroying the sides.  Despite its horrible unwieldiness in rain, spilling me out onto the street on the white stripes of zebra crossings again and again.  Against all those things stood my freedom, the sense of wonder and invincibility, youth and daring, flying through Shanghai’s streets, staring up at buildings and pedestrians, dodging taxis and bicyclists, early in the morning for breakfast or a few beers in on the way home.  I love it, I’d answer, I can’t imagine living here without it.  And I couldn’t, the days before it a strange mishmash of other forms, all those hours crushed on the busses, or running for them.  Through all of my life in Shanghai two wheeled vehicles remain a high point. The various bicycles, Sanch’s oft-broken gas-powered scooter, and the two plastic electric ones together, granted me an entirely different city to explore.

There are similar stories, this one is not unique.  Friends who named their first cars, friends who have named their fourth, who care for them and relate tales of their personalities.  Of ships, named for as long as we can remember, with captains who would die with them, or at least consider it.  While we may be, as a culture, a people of intractability and motion, of discontent and the continual attempt at perfection, we are also a culture of worship, of object desire and anthropomorphism.  At thirteen, fresh returned from a trip to Telluride I spent all of the money in my savings, some hundreds of dollars intended for college or another grand idea, on a snowboard, fetishized and loved, given a bag hand-made for it, and stored reverently each time.  Covered in stickers and soon in scrapes and dings, the first purchase of any weight was, as it is for many of us, a means of transportation, even if a frivolous one.

As many before I have noted, it’s not the destination but the journey that remains, years later.  I agree, even on a shrunken scale, to late night rides and complete disasters, to asking policemen for directions and pushing cars towards gas stations.

Quoted lyrics from Ani DiFranco’s Self Evident’ off of her 2002 live compilation, So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter, used with appreciation.

Flying home

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

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

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

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

Rooftops, carts, and cats

The streets of Hong Kong are packed with delivery motion. As Manhattan swirls at three am, so does Sheung Wan bustle in the morning as dried fish in vast quantities is hauled off trucks by men with giant metal hooks. At break time they leave these implements carelessly in giant bags of rice, handles up, points embedded in the compacted mush. Each sack in turn is flung from truck to cart, bundled up into a store, frontless, wares open to the air. Each bag is sliced open and dumped into bins for later measurement again, into smaller bags individually carried home. So many stairs in this city, so much vertical travel, and all of these homes furnished, all of these kitchens filled, all of this waste removed. What of this massive expenditure every day, to carry vegetables home to supper? The cost of yet another tower does not include this.

The carts themselves, ubiquitous on the streets, will be tied to poles at the day’s slackening, around three. Their metal handles, circular and hollow, will fold down to the bed, compacting the entire device into a rectangle of green steel with four blue wheels. The wheels are fixed. These carts are so basic, so mass-produced, and so communal that they have neither names, nor dates, nor manufacturer’s brand. The flat slats of metal that form their weight-supporting base seem not to mind the pounding of sacks tossed from trucks, the blue wheels seem not to heed the curbs they are perpetually banged into up and over. At least one per shop, the carts outnumber the trucks, themselves a half-dozen, most with Japanese engines. There are, later in the evening, twenty carts scattered around unoccupied and seeminly unowned on this three-block stretch. A sense of public space pervades this city, which has so little that all must be carefully shared.

In a park near Lan Kwai Fong a trio of ladies rehearses a dance routine at mid-morning, before the rush of lunch and smokers, after the street sweepers have cleared the broken bottles away.

From our Sheung Wan rooftop the cats seem multitude. They scale the construction site, they swarm the streets and fences, alleys. This vantage point reveals their secret paths, startles one with their numbers, the city below in constant motion. Strange too, as most of the cats I find on the ground spend large periods of time hunkered down beneath some shade. It is early April and Hong Kong is beginning to sweat. We lie on the roof top at night, assailed by mosquitos, in gym shorts, barefoot and considering the skyline. Rooftops like this are a gift, sitting as it does above an apartment that barely slept five, all laid out next to each other, last November. The rooftop triples the floor space. The rooftop raises the ceilings to the clouds.

Which are themselves coming down. The air here is getting worse, the view shorter than it used to be. So they tell me, people everywhere during these few weeks. So I can see from my vantage point, high above Sheung Wan and watching. The air may indeed be getting worse, smog pouring out of Shenzhen, Guangzhou, all of the motherland to the west. Hong Kong remains the most beautiful city I know of, a mass of thin towers and green peaks that slide into the water in a confusion of street vendors and colonial organization. For a few weeks in April it is a gracious host to me, a peaceful place of feline grace and hand-pushed cargo transport, and I am glad of the hospitality.

Transitions

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

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

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

I moved here on a whim.”

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

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

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

With wings

He leans against the curved hull, pillow stuffed into the window well. Mouth open and head back, he is asleep in 33A high above the Pacific. Time zones slip past, an oft-ignored creation of human-kind, organizing the world into segments. The plane shudders in the wind, buffeted by invisible currents. As it lands, sliding into the gate, the passengers rouse themselves, stretch. Phones blink to life, electronic cackles of welcome, connection, home and business. The arrival gate and it’s crowds of men with signs, of lovers desperate for the first glimpse, awaits.

Habit shifts can define generations as the rare becomes commonplace, the mythical ordinary. Mid-morning conversations with friends in New York as they settle in for sleep, detailed analysis of fauna found on a day’s excursion on an Australian island read over breakfast coffee in Los Angeles. The world shrinks, people say, as their habits change. As what was once extraordinary, the arrival of mail on horseback, becomes a daily ritual, and then scarce again. On a rural route outside of Ithaca the mailman pets the golden retriever through his jeep’s open door, knows the names of every family on his route, holds their letters when they travel. This integration seems mundane to those born a century after mail calls around campfires. Only a decade after that a single envelope hand-addressed is a cause for celebration, the personal effort touching. Stamps whose varied faces once hid beneath pens in every drawer become difficult to find, require lengthy waits in line to purchase. FedEx, revolutionary in it’s global reach and speed, becomes the province of companies, recedes from the individual. Our travels become electronic, or personal. The detailed letter from Thailand wilts under the weight of a thousand blog posts, of Flickr shots uploaded from dodgy connections at the beach.

These shifts, of distance and technology that become those of lifestyle, are not necessarily successful. The automobile created suburbs that became cities in an effort to avoid the use of the automobile that inspired them. The airplane becomes a cubicle with repetition, and the freedom of takeoff that so delighted little boys becomes a sleep trigger. No longer do the passengers peer out and down, watching cars fade into matchbox toys, wondering who all those people are, and where they are headed. The boy no longer looks up from his lawn mower, wondering where all those people are going, up so high in that silver sliver, trailing white across the sky.

The man in 33A boards patiently. He no longer seeks to be the first in line, no longer jumps at the anticipation of the flight attendant’s newspaper rack. He stows his luggage anywhere, comfortable with magazine and notebook. His movements, long practiced in these tubular confines, have gained an economy of motion, been minimized. Like all such travelers he knows the bathrooms, the coffee spots, and where wifi is at each and every airport. He no longer marvels at the numbers of people heading to Korea, to LA, to Chicago, to Singapore, to Mumbai at any hour of the day, at any time of year. This is how the world works, covered in people constantly re-arranging themselves. All sense of miracle at humanity’s frantic new habit has disappeared.

Perhaps he is correct in this. The technology amazes, as once did the wheel, the steam engine, the railroad, yet underneath the urge to leave, the desire to settle somewhere new, the possibility of better just out of sight has kept people moving for millennia. They have crossed valleys, rivers, oceans, often in no more than their skin, rarely with a plan grander than to go. He crosses the Pacific likewise, back and forth with little certainty, and less consideration. His nonchalance would be epic, save for the other two hundred passengers asleep around him.

Tokyo, two thousand seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank god for this beautiful view

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

Daegu lonely

The rain pours down, splashing off cars and sidewalks, dowsing Daegu liberally with cleanliness. The lightning slits apart the faint pulse of neon that lights the street, revealing small delivery trucks cowering at stop lights. The rain’s clatter does not find it’s way indoors, falling too vertical and fierce. Rooms remain muggy despite the faintest breeze, and when it passes, hours later, they will still stink of mid-day heat. The next morning the city will slowly start to bake again, stickiness clinging to everything, and by mid-afternoon the previous day’s shower will seem an impossibility, a night time dream of vast confusion. Business men will sweat through their couplets and shirts, pace outside restaurants in a struggle to remain in the shade, to smoke, and to avoid touching one another in these brief noontime moments of solitude.

And again as evening comes the clouds will gather, the sky darken, and at eleven the lightning, the thunder, the sudden drenching will return.

I imagine Daegu always this way, not seasonal as it must be, as it should be. My four days here are alike, each evening punctuated with sudden showers, violent in their suddenness, and baking days of sweat and sunshine that discourage the thought of their re-appearance. The heat licks around cars at 1 pm, making traffic a hellhole of exhaust and granting pedestrians the disgusting certainty of swallowing that which is not air. Windows go up, go down, go up and stay, as the cars cool, as the A/C that all rely on is first blessed and then exposed, a heat-exchanger of vile proportions, creating toxic streams along these concrete roadways that will desperately need their cleansing shower to enable the daily repeat. Commuting in a city trapped by hills, the air still, the pollution lingering, below a sign that says dye capital”, the air seems dead, though filled with energy. A combination not often found or championed.