It’s the present. I’m wandering Nanhu park in Changchun, China, with a few fellow English teachers. The skies are clear, the sun gilds every inch of green and blue, and there isn’t a hint of smog on the horizon. Sudden gusts of wind make it feel like winter. Despite having a windbreaker jacket, I’m wishing I wore an extra layer of clothing.
People ride in paddleboats, navigating the lake in the park’s center. The wind makes it impossible for them to control their own direction. A local woman asks me to pose for a picture with her brother. There’s a skating rink, fair rides, horse rides, and ice cream stands. I remain convinced that the best things in life are free, with the exception of maybe books.
Outside, away from the groupthink-inducing media, away from the advertisement-planting social networks and the collectivist mobs that wait online for a headline to seethe over, I feel fully alive.
I close my eyes and think about the world I’ve seen.
It’s 2007. Suddenly I’m at a Singapore zoo, riding a trolley and gaping at a wild hippo one second, a flying squirrel another. I sit with a group of swimmers attending Stanford and Auburn. We’re at the World University Games. It’s early evening. I think about how it’s now been over a decade since I’ve seen any of them, yet this memory could have been from yesterday.
As you get older, you realize that your memories work separately from time. Events from yesterday can be farther removed than events from a decade ago.
I saw Kara, the Auburn swimmer, five years later at a Masters swim meet. It was a completely random encounter that brings to mind the feather drifting at the will of an indiscriminate wind in the movie Forrest Gump. It’s difficult to keep up with people, but I often wonder if fate will afford another chance meeting.
I’m back at a National Team swim practice at a local golf resort in Singapore, coated in layers of sunscreen, panicking from the strength of the sun (I’m kind of pale), and watching in awe as a wild monkey tries to steal the protein bars from my bag.
Then it’s 2005, I’m two years younger, and I’m visiting Montreal. It’s the last day of the swimming World Championships. The Japanese national team is coordinating cheers in the rows above me. I decide to have some fun and join them.
I went back to Montreal eleven years later for work. Life is a circle, and some coincidences are too uncanny to ignore.
It’s 2016 and suddenly I’m 31 years old, not 20, and I’m ambling down Old Montreal along the St. Lawrence River. I’m with my manager and a French colleague named Fred. We stop for ice cream and drinks around noon, breathe in the crisp autumn air, and try to block all dread of the future. We’re all happy because we’re away from the cubicle, and we suddenly see each other as friends, not coworkers.
One breath taken fully in the present can brush all troubles away.
That night, I join a group of employees at the Sara B absinthe bar. We’re tasting several premium brands, laughing over stories, and enjoying the moment. Two drinks in and I’m convinced that my thoughts are profound enough to render me the next Aristotle.
It’s late 2016 and I’m in Lyon, France, navigating the downtown area during the festival of lights. The city is vibrant, with vin chaud (hot wine) being sold on every street corner. I drink as I walk and wonder how I’ve been to so many places in such a short amount of time; it was never planned. It just sort of serendipitously happened. I saw the world by luck of the draw.
I took one more trip to France in 2017, to Combourg. I had a sinking feeling it would be my last venture to the country for some time, and took advantage by eating crepes by the northern coast of France most nights.
It’s summer 2016 and I’m in Las Vegas, attending an old friend’s bachelor party. I’m lost in a swarm of cirque du solei shows, Steve Aoki pool parties, MGM Grande buffets, and the Hakkasan nightclub. One night ended with a hookah at 4am at a booth shared with strangers. Another ended at the Hakkasan, where an old classmate of my brother had rented a private table for the night. At one point I did see Steven Snyder, the lucky bachelor, over at the Cosmopolitan, but large groups branch out quickly.
I’ll never be able to recollect my Las Vegas weekend without also thinking of the horror that just transpired, the sort of crime that bludgeons the soul by revealing the extent to which true evil can sink.
It’s the present again, and I’m thinking of last night. I dreamt that I was back at the University of Texas. I often do. Regardless of where I am, my mind is often back at the Lee and Jones Jamal Swim Center, dreading another Eddie Reese practice in a lane next to Ricky Berens. How did I graduate so long ago?
And finally, I’m stopped at a random mountain in Utah, way off the beaten path. I’m on a solo road trip from California to North Carolina. Having concluded that California was not a place designed to harvest my aspirations, I went back home. On the way, I decided to take a hike. I found a trail about thirty miles south of I-95 and walked up it alone. It was either Halloween or the day after.
I reached the summit of a small mountain after a few hours of labor and looked down at the vista. What went wrong? Why did I make so many mistakes over the past three years, and how was I going to right my course? It was 2012.
I look back on these moments and suddenly have no regrets. Every mistake was corrected, and every failure brought a new opportunity. It’s true that my decisions and lifestyle are atypical, but it’s also true that these moments were mostly full of joy. And I wonder, if all of this happened in the span of a decade, what adventures will the next decade bring?