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12/30 2014

33 Days on the road

2014-12-18 07.24.282014-12-18 06.03.53Before I leave I check the lock two times, then a third. Shake the handle to be sure. It’s locked. I look in my bag. Keys, wallet, passport, phone. Good to go. I have a bag and two suitcases so it takes two trips down the three story walk up to get everything out the door. The ground is frosty. I pull my bags to the street and get into the car, go to the airport.

DC – I’m late getting in. No matter – Riley and Damir and the cats are up. I comment on the rearranged furniture and outline plans for the week. Day two – I go with Riley to the vet with the cats and my heart tugs watching Bootsy shake in fear. I want to explain to him where he is, tell him it’ll be Ok, but for this we just have to wait. For Thanksgiving we are at Carl and Jo’s with yellow candles and strong punch. Music on the radio, somebody help with the potatoes, we put thyme in this recipe. This is a tribe of travelers – so I hear about Tanzania and Rwanda and Moldova. Turns out, Joanna is moving to Uganda. You should visit, she says. I agree. That sounds like a lovely way to spend next Thanksgiving.

To Shanghai. There is Dan waiting for me at the airport. Why is he here? This is fantastic. We get a cab and open beers. Tonight is a farewell party so I just need to drop my bags and change my shirt.   I am full of energy as we sail into the city, over the bridge, to Puxi, to Jing An, turn right here and I’m back at the dumpy hotel. Busy streets, honking horns, bicycles with ringing bells and furniture sets on the back. Dogs with shoes and sweaters, purple and yellow lights all along Nanjing Road. The air is rich and full and I, I walk on these uneven streets with my friends, and the happiness of being exactly where I want to be, right now.   The earth shifts and eases and turns and I want these glimmers and snippets to be larger, more full, but not everything works out, and that’s ok. On we go. I see old friends, I hug them, I see new friends and find meaning where there is none (a pillowcase, for example) and lesson one of this trip unfolds – a moment of happiness is just a moment and you cannot will it to be more.

Shanghai at 6AM is crisp and I smile on my way to the train. A man rides by on a motorized bicycle with a radio playing and cigarette burning. A woman is walking a dog, and I smile at all of them. I am happy. Another shift, turn, I go to work. I have lunch with friends. This is my old life, the one I miss, opened up for viewing. Someone wants a coffee break. There are so many coffee shops now – sprung up like flowers around the office.

I get a text. I make a call. My grandmother is gone and though I knew it, knew it, knew it was coming any minute it is still surprising. This office of glass walls is very inconvenient for grief because you can see into every room (“look how transparent we are”). Nothing is quiet but I find room that is at least mildly private and I hope, I hope, I hope a thousand times that no one has a meeting now. Just give me ten minutes, I think. Ten minutes to talk to mom and slow my breath. Ten minutes to honor a woman whose name I carry folded quietly inside my own. I take a breath, and I go back to work. I check my email and I sit at my desk. You can never say I love you enough. I’ll see my mother soon. I try later to write about this but I can’t. Nothing comes.

Hunanese, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Sichuan; everything is alive on my palate. Dumplings, wood ear mushrooms, chicken, tofu everywhere. I am elated with dinner, every dinner. I should go for a run in the morning. I need to get to the office early. Concerns come and move inside me, and then move on.

I listen to him tell a story and am washed in joy, though later I’ll realize something went wrong there, something I can’t find. Oh to hell with it, I don’t care at all. Just kidding. Of course I care. Shouldn’t I? Isn’t that normal? Oh well. On, on, moving on. I know I’m not a very good movie watcher, or maybe this was all lopsided from the beginning. My jokes sometimes don’t come out right and I sound rude. Was that it? Who the hell cares? It doesn’t matter why, doesn’t matter at all. Shift, turn, come on world, work with me here and revolve faster. Please get my mind out of this. But that moment is for later, not now, I’m jumping ahead. For now, it’s all good.

I’m in the Seoul airport with friends for four hours. Shopping consumes some time but in the end we are a roving band looking for a bar. Why is it so hard to find a bar in an airport? Correction – why is it so hard to find a good bar in an airport? We eventually end up in an Italian restaurant that appears to be the only place in all of Incheon with draft beer. We drink beer and we laugh and I realize that out of the 100+ people on the plane here, I am with the exact eight I’d prefer to be. Eight is a lucky number, you know. I know I need to memorize this feeling, these jokes, these glances and impressions and laughing. Absorb every second, every smile. Tell some bad jokes, drink it in, and laugh and laugh, and laugh. Everything is fleeting but it seems more acutely so in my life of wandering, so these moments are for the keeping.

Cambodia – 1AM in the middle of December and I am floating in a pool at a resort in Siem Reap. Last time I was here I stayed in a place with a dirt floor. I repeat this line. Is it true? I think so. Memory is a bitch sometimes and I can’t recall everything as clearly as I’d like. I am looking at Orion’s belt and the moon as is slips through clouds, then hides again. Where I grew up, you can see the whole Milky Way I tell some uninterested coworkers. They like the stars, but this is not the time for nostalgia. Go on – swim, have fun, be merry. Who cares if we have to work tomorrow? We are here, we are in Cambodia. My ears are underwater and I’m listening to them only partially. I let my breath out and sink to the bottom. I wonder what my mother is doing right now. It’s daytime there so she’s not looking at the stars but I imagine she is anyway.   I hope my niece is doing ok. I should probably not spend too long out here.

Tuk tuks are everywhere. Siem Reap is alive and touristy as Thailand these days, good lord. I should have expected this but did not. There is a Pub Street now, there are throngs of drunks and wide Germans. I go out and enjoy the coolness of the air, and again, these people. I love these people and it’s not just the alcohol talking. I miss this side of the world and these conversations and people who have all decided “you know what, I’ll try living over there.” I swim every night, I eat large breakfasts, I wake up, I tell jokes and then go to work. I take my laptop to the pool. You can’t stop working, but you can at least do it by the pool. I go the ruins of Angkor and am as enthralled as I was the first time in 2002. I see the tourist traps then on day two with the most exquisite company I hike through some places more remote. I become obsessed with the time lapse video feature on my phone and spend a lot of time filming only to conclude it’s actually too fast to enjoy. Bugger all. I miss Kate. What kind of adventure doesn’t have her around anyway? More filming, then a skinned knee. Ow, ow, ow, ow, oh man that is going to hurt tomorrow. One more swim, back on the plane. Korea again, then back to Shanghai.

The music of Shanghai is either “Que Sera” or “Some Say Love” as these two songs play endlessly from the carts of young men looking to sell you some pirated music. Don’t need music? No worries. We can get you a Gucci bag, some chicken feet, or a movie. It may or may not work, but still, even the laowai price is just 12RMB. I don’t want to go home, don’t want to get back on the plane, don’t want to leave. I do need my family now, but want to come back right after that. Oh well, no need to dwell on that now. This is a city of honking horns and maddening crosswalks. There are scooters that honk at you on the sidewalk and dogs with shoes. I know I mentioned it already but it is baffling to me.

Last night in town – head to dinner – Peking Duck is fantastic. Anyone out there who eats meat needs to go out and try it immediately. On the cab over I watch the city, the lights, and count the number of times we nearly are in an accident. I’m not wearing a seatbelt – that’s not smart. Not wanting to spend much, we get the simple one, and its good. This is the night that does not go according to plan, though I should have known, I should have known. Sure, of course, no worries, I understand, of course, that makes perfect sense. You go that way, I’ll go this way. I should have known. I am wandering streets, replaying conversations, trying to figure it out, but there is no figuring. Nope. I walk, and walk, and walk, and walk for nearly an hour until I end up in a cab. I reach out to Dan. Dan sends a text that says “COMING JO. NOW. DON’T MOV!!!!” He is a good one, this Dan. He flings himself out of bed to meet me and has arrived in such a hurry he accidentally put on two scarves.  I keep him out too late drinking wine and blathering on until it is time for both of us to lurch away. Time to go back.

Suddenly, I’m on a plane out across the world again and I calculate that it’s the 20th time I’ve flown from North America to the far east. I want to see my niece, my aunt, my brother, sister, mother, father, brother in law and cousin. I hope I packed right. Family is so good. This is good, and I wake up, look at the stars out over Alaska and am elated.

Then it’s my birthday. I’m on a beach watching surfers glad and paddle and rise in the sun. My family went to the park but I got a pass to wander Ocean Beach. That pier, that sun, surf, salt in the air. San Diego, you beauty. I am at a taco stand with a beer. Sure it seems like time for that. I call Kate. All is right in the world. People walk barefoot, try to hula hoop, tattoos are out. I love the west coast. I have to do laundry – don’t forget to get quarters. Happy Fucking Birthday, the bartender says. Sure is nice to be in a t-shirt on Christmas Eve. Here are some truths: I make too much out of nothing, I need to write more, I need to work less and love more. I need to write all the shit and all the beauty down because life is an endless flip of pictures. This is what moves me forward. There is no purpose in thinking about whys and agonizing over maybes when the world is full of certainties. Family, friends, Chicago, China, and looking out windows when traveling is still the best way to pass the time. I am alive, I am able bodied, I have a job I enjoy and people to call for all the stops and starts in my life. It is a good life.

There is a slip of moon, a sliver visible bottom only but you can see the outline of the rest of it. Orion is there, can’t miss that guy. Audrey and I are standing in a driveway wearing matching pullovers, looking for Ursa Major. Cannot find. Should be there, right? Is that just part of it. I insist it should all be visible, she thinks that we can just see part of it because of the light. She’s probably right. I wish I had my glasses, she doesn’t need any. I love her to the end of the earth.

Shift, turn, go to LA. I’m here with Anna and her cat, Louis Cators. I love Louis though it’s been so long since I’ve seen him he receives me coolly. Anna assures me that if he didn’t like me, he’d be hiding. We drive to the observatory to see where James Dean got in a fight all those years ago but the crowds are too much to bear so we instead go to a cemetery. Somewhere, Michael Jackson is buried here. We don’t look for him, but instead just check out strangers. Find typos on headstones. Weird.

On a train. I don’t know where I’m going. I know the train is headed straight for Chicago. I fall asleep in California and wake up in Arizona. Snow on Mesas. Rocks, brush, this is where Westerns are filmed. I’ll be your Huckleberry. Canyons, rock, sage, trailers in the desert with beat up trucks next to them. More rock – sudden and the train slows so I can see it better. There are five kids with their dad jammed in a booth on the observation car next to me. Next to me, grandma is cutting slices of cheese for them. Here is a conversation overheard: “Rico, do you want your cheese on a triscuit, or on a cracker?” Rico says “what’s a triscuit?” and she replies “a kind of cracker.”

Behind me a woman describes an illness that she says kept her in the hospital but it doesn’t make sense to me. “I can’t get excited” she explains “it makes me throw up.”

Cliffs, snow, a bending river, open wide blue sky. The river is mostly, but not completely, frozen. There is a highway in the distance with cars, semi-trucks, and a billboard. I try to read it but cannot. Why is there a billboard all the way out here? Where the hell am I anyway? I think we will cross into New Mexico soon. I don’t want to do anything but write what I see because thinking gets me nowhere.   I just want to sit in the window in the sun and stare at the world. I listen to children playing blackjack. Mother teaches an important lesson :“17 or higher you should always stick” she instructs to the nodding group.

There are houses and gas stations and a herd of cows running from the train. There are dried riverbeds and lives lead in those buildings. There are schools erected, jobs lost, windows cleaned, children born, phone calls made to sick uncles, and a thumb gently tracing the inside of a palm. Lives are opening and closing in these towns. I watch the landscape shift, turn, and ease across the country.

I get to Chicago. This is the boring part: I wait for luggage. Have I mentioned I hate waiting for luggage? I take a taxi home, unlock the door and find everything perfectly still. There is the click, click, click of the radiator and the song of a plane passing overhead. Just as it should be. All the lights are off. I look over and see a card, misplaced from my hurried packing, that June Porter gave me years ago when I was uncertain about another move, another time. It says “You are exactly where You should be. You are doing exactly what you should be doing.”