Here I am
Sunniest morning San Francisco will ever get. Here I am, determined to make the most of the cavernously empty Sunday I’ve eked out for myself. I’ve packed a choice of books and even (overkill) a choice of journals. I plop down on a patio, grab a drink and a banh mi, planning to while away a few hours. But I finish eating, and then I’m just done. My feet start instinctively carrying me home, laden down by the books I haven’t so much as touched. There’s certifiably nothing at home, no reason I can think of pulling me back.
I’m bad at being on hikes. I like planning them (whose car, when to meet, where to pick up sandwiches). And I like having done them: looking happily at my health app, tracking steps, remembering headlines on the health benefits. Being an East Asian woman who Has Been outdoors basically means living forever. A forever of heading on out before ever settling in. I am awful at summits, at scenic vistas. I quickly classify them: Yup, that’s a waterfall, yes, nature’s majesty, yes. A glance of acknowledgement, and then I’m immediately swept off, thinking about the journey back down.
Prospect Park in finest form. The magnolias are showily in bloom, some teenagers nervously cradle cans of beer in paper bags, a toddler is taking his first steps. The friend I’m with is dozing. I prod him awake with the fat novel I’m supposed to be reading. “We gotta go! Brooklyn Museum!” He groans and asks blearily, “When does it close?” (Not for hours and hours.) “Do you have any idea what you want to see there?” (No.) “Can’t we stay a little longer? It’s perfect out.” (No answer.) The question hangs in the air. Pointlessly, I usher us out.
Often, when I travel, I get a familiar sense of vertigo. It’s when the membrane of daily life feels impossibly thin, liable to burst and reveal just how much of our routines are total happenstance. Why on Earth do we live and work and play as we do? Is this time well spent? On layovers, I feel a perverse tickle and wonder what’ll happen if I don’t board my connecting flight and just walk out of the airport, deposited by chance and airline economics. But I already know what happens! I’ve always known. I’ll get off, take a look around, then immediately start making plans to get back home. My 1 weird trick! that helps is ducking into a grocery store and seeing if I can assemble the ingredients to recreate elaborate feasts of my past. It boots me from why mode to what. It staves off the panic and keeps me busy enough to sustain the decades to come. It soothes the fever but I know comes nothing close to a cure.
This is the second biggest thing I am currently trying to figure out about myself. Here are some clues I’ve tugged on.
A friend asked why I like taking public transit so much, given that it’s so time-inefficient. That’s precisely what I like best about it! Stepping on a bus and ceding all control, knowing that I will only get there when it chooses to get me there. Not calculating whether the shared car or private was the right call, not keeping a watchful eye out for rerouting around traffic slowdowns. I like how buses are basically rooms traversing the city, and how you can walk in not knowing if this room will be sullen or jovial or what. I like getting off at a transfer and knowing that the next bus will come in 3 minutes or 23 and that’s it, there’s nothing else for me to do but to scrutinize the clouds and practice living in my skin.
I know, I know so well that productivity is a very new, very invented concept, barely older than Betty White. I read all of the founding documents in college. The time when time first became money. When we first decided it could be spent, saved, and correspondingly, wasted. I know there is nothing inherently virtuous about side hustles and being early to rise. But this knowledge doesn’t set me free. My calendar feels like the grocery cart of a former dieter. Everything inside has been soundly debunked, and yet I still instinctively stock it the same way. Quiet judgments four thousand times a day: this is worth it, this will be good for me, this is not.
I think too much about the economics of restaurants to ever truly feel at ease. I’m constantly calculating: did we order enough to make it worth their while? Can we launch into this conversation now, so close to closing time, when that couple’s waiting to be seated? I get around this by searching for restaurants, bars, coffeeshops that look like living rooms. With the mismatched furniture somehow comes the explicit invitation to linger. The transaction changes — my mere presence now also counts for something positive. I love places where there are always at least 3 empty tables so I can be sure I’m not hogging. Where I understand, despite my protests, that it’s okay to sit and be happy a little longer.
I have probably too good of an internal clock. I always instinctively know how much time has passed. At concerts, I carefully keep track: How many songs have been performed, how many left to go? When will they do their biggest hit? Watching any video, I hover over the progress bar, interrupting the entertainment to fret over how much more of this niceness I have. I always wake up a few minutes before my alarm clock. My subconscious self is determined to never be late, not even for myself.
Sometimes, I do have a nice time in spite of myself.
I’ve tried giving myself projects, little bets. Get off at a random far-flung transit stop and wander for a few hours. Stay in this coffeeshop until it closes. But the incomprehensibility of working toward being able to sit somewhere and not work drives me nuts. I want to tackle it with the same vigor I always employ, but by definition, I can’t.
So here I am, trying to reconceptualize it.
This problem of mine is a ticking timepiece or magnet or compass, a little device embedded long ago in God knows what recess of my brain.
I could make it tick quieter.
Or make it measure more accurately.
Or try hiding it for a few days.
Or cultivate a rival instrument I pay just as much attention to.
Or recalibrate how I’m reading it.
Or do my best to lose it forever.
Here I am, wondering what previously unknown favorite parts of myself I’d lose if I successfully deployed any of those.