Places I slept, 2022

View from the shore of Lake Biwa looking north east

In retrospect 2022 was the hardest year. The best summary is that it ends much better than it began.

Hong Kong spent the first half of the year in the kind of pointlessly strict lockdowns we’d thought finished. Despite having the highest death rate per capita, proving the futility, the government kept the economy and borders largely shut until April. It was a hard time to be once again unemployed. The optimism that had risen with vaccines and the prior year’s travel faded as we were ever more cut off from the world’s re-opening.

The spring did offer a few specific joys, highlighted by Tara’s success at work and my own ability to freelance for US companies. Being able to recommend and hire friends and former colleagues in China has been a wonderful side effect of the closed borders.

The pandemic ended suddenly for me in April, on boarding a flight to Ireland for a new job. Getting paid once again to go to new countries and learn proved that the world I missed so much was not truly dead. Until it happened, I hadn’t realized how doubtful I’d been. Kinsale was beautiful, and Dublin likewise. Meeting new colleagues in the US afterwards was a pleasure. Being able to see my folks in Ithaca and friends in Brooklyn on the layover from Ireland to SF was exactly the kind of gift that used to be so commonplace. I’d forgotten how good that kind of surprise opportunity felt.

Most importantly, I made it back and then through quarantine (1 week) and Covid (caught in Hong Kong despite the quarantine) before Tara gave birth. Clara is healthy and napping as I write this. It’s cliche to say she’s changed our lives, and yet.

After eight months of struggling with our plan for the future, in September we resolved to stay in Hong Kong and live like we wanted the world to be. We moved (one block) and went to Thailand in the three weeks before Tara’s maternity leave ended. It was wonderful, both walking on the beach in a foreign country and having Hanna join us from Colorado. We may have eaten breakfast at the same well-loved French cafe in Bangkok every day of our visit. Seeing that places we miss had survived the pandemic was a truly wonderful feeling. And Hong Kong, in what would prove to be a turning point, dropped inbound quarantine while we were on the road. Clara has never done a hotel quarantine. I hope I can say the same for her next year.

After Tara’s promotion and the ensuing grind of October, made more difficult by my work trip to the Bay Area, we needed another vacation. Japan, finally re-opened, was a perfect finale to our year. We saw old friends and new while doing plenty of wandering with a baby attached. Clara loved the onsen and tatami floors, so now she has her own. Tatami, not an onsen. Feeling comfortable on the road these last two trips has reminded us of who we used to be, and still are: people who aim to be comfortable anywhere. They also made keeping this list again a pleasure.

The places below then are a mishmash of memories, some hard, some joyful. Spending a weekend in Oakland with Kevin was a wonderful gift, as were the two visits, not reflected, by Tara’s folks to Hong Kong.

As always, here’s to the next year. May we be less scared to try and may our bravery be rewarded.

Tai Hang, HK
Central, HK (staycation)
Kinsale, Ireland
Brooklyn, NY
Ithaca, NY
SF, CA (three spots, one twice)
Oakland, CA
Tsim Sha Tsui, HK (quarantine)
Lumphini, Bangkok, Thailand
Ao Nang, Krabi, Thailand
Walnut Creek, CA
Oakland, CA
Haneda, Tokyo, Japan
Osaka, Japan
Nagoya, Japan
Gero, Japan
Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan (two spots)

Prior lists visible here.

With new eyes wide

A view of Hong Kong island as the sun sets, with orange and blues streaked together over the peak.

In the last light of one of the year’s last days, we lie on her futon and stare at the peaks of Hong Kong Island. They are capped in pinks and golds, wreathed by the light of the sun that has itself sunk from sight. It’s a beautiful view, one of the world’s best, as far as cities go. The lights are coming on across the city, and the sky up top is starting to settle into the truly dark blue of space. The air, blown back in from the ocean all day, is soupy, the petrochemical mass perfect for refraction. Like LA, sometimes Hong Kong has the most beautiful smog-driven sunsets.

For five whole minutes she lies on top of me utterly still. On my back, my view is of the sky down to the building tops. Her weight, held upright by my right arm, is scant enough that I do not grow stiff. Her view is perpendicular to the ground, facing the island. She can not see the scrolling lights of the ICC. It’s not dark enough for them to dominate the skyline anyway. The purples slowly drip down into the golds, until the hilltops are ringed mostly in a deep rose. It’s subtle, the matter of a few minutes. Perfect for a post-nap six-month-old’s attention span. I’ve never held her this still and not asleep.

I watch the shadows of the hills against the skyline, reflected in her eyes. It’s a strange feeling, seeing someone so clearly a blend of our families take shape. The square jaw and face shape is so familiar; I’ve been waking beside it for fifteen years.

Her room smells perfect. It smells like vacation, and memory. The tatami is brand new, and the scent of fresh straw permeates everything. The room smells like our onsen in Gero. It smells like the hotel in Osaka where she laughed and rolled for hours. On top of the tatami, the single futon folds perfectly in thirds exactly as mine did twenty years ago in Saitama. Though a single, it is big enough for two or three of us, at least for a while yet. I’m still trying to introduce the cat to it. He loves the one in our room, which is thicker, a solid mass of cotton. This one, softer and more malleable, will take him time. Or maybe that’s the occupant, who he’s fascinated by and annoyed with in alternating measures.

Either way, lying here in the afternoon light looking out over the harbor and peaks feels like a new phase. She has her own room with it’s own scents and objects, a new person and a new story being written. At the end of the year, that’s the biggest change, the thing I’ll remember most.

From Shinjuku with a view

Looking towards Docomo tower and Shinjuku station at first light

In the early evening I sit on a mattress on the floor with a view of the Docomo tower. I love Tokyo, and specifically Shinjuku. I love everything about it, from the name (new station) and it’s sound in both Japanese and English, to the density and variety. The train and pedestrian structure of Shinjuku’s urbanity brings together working folk, shopping folk, nightlife punters, bouncers, and ramen cooks. Unlike Shibuya it’s not as popular, from a foreign visitor perspective. Unlike Dakanyama or Naka Meguro it’s not as hip, doesn’t feature ad agencies or as many desert cafe’s. Unlike Ginza, it’s not where glitzy shopping is done, though there’s plenty of that. Unlike Ueno, or Akihabara, or Shimo-Kitazawa, or Kichijoj, or so many other spots, it doesn’t have a single theme, a single purpose. Shinjuku is simply the heart of a city. It is dense. Full simultaneously with trains, malls, chain stores, and mediocre coffee, it can overwhelm. And yet like anywhere in Tokyo there are alleys with life and quiet neighborhoods tucked seemingly at random behind giant buildings visible for miles. It, more than anything else, feels like a city from the future. I love it.

People, I often say, are shaped by the places they inhabit. Where, rather than who, sometimes feels like the most important part of any life story. The where, even with similar friends, with similar activities, remains unique. Among the globe’s multitude of urban train stations, boarding the last train out of Shinjuku on a commuter line is difficult to share without the place. Being pressed in, unable to lift one’s arms, vulnerable and part of the sway, can be experienced in a couple of spots in Japan. It’s Shinjuku’s unique blend of being a hub to the suburbs and large late night gathering spot makes it one of the few to truly have to pack the last trains out. I remember it fondly, as well as other nights spent in net cafes, having just missed that last train. Shinjuku is part of so many memories, from recent ones, meeting friends for drinks or dinner, both of us coincidentally in Tokyo, to older ones of our first trips together, to noodle stall lunches and coffees on my own or with roommates decades ago. It’s been more than twenty years since I first visited Shinjuku. My oldest photos show a city that feels the same in many ways. Studio Alta’s display still beckons, once a popular date meeting spot for me. The Hanzono-Jinja Shrine in Kabukicho, first visited with a friend in April, the cherry blossoms still lingering, is now a part of a city we know well, pushing the stroller past it on the way to the station last week.

Better yet, we are shaping Shinjuku into entirely new memories with these adventures. A block from Shinjuku Sanchome station will now always remind me of a cold December night, carrying 5’s around while she cried bitterly, having put her hand in Tara’s udon. I’ll always remember watching Tara change her on a stool outside a restaurant a few blocks further over. Perhaps the drug stores I discovered while hunting diapers will come in handy to some future self. These memories, born out of our new companion, are now imbedded in my favorite city, waiting to be built upon on our next visit.

Never your mind

An alley near Haneda airport in Tokyo in the morning light.

On a Monday evening I walk twenty minutes from Haneda to a small hotel near the airport. The air is cool and dry, the way cleanly paved, and the passers-by mostly on bicycle until the last few blocks. The sun has set. Most of those similarly walking have just left work. It’s the kind of Tokyo evening that will always feel familiar: the quiet walk to the station, ride home, and quick dinner or groceries in a familiar neighborhood. I have never been to this stretch of Haneda-adjacent Tokyo, but it is not unknown. As per my goal, I’ve spent enough time here to be comfortable.

My mind drifts as I walk, between distant locations. This is expected. I am just off a flight from San Francisco, and only outside tonight because of a missed connection. I think of family in Hong Kong an hour behind, just starting to wrap up the workday. I think of my friend, arrived back in LA after our weekend together in Oakland. And I think of my colleagues, now scattered across the US again after our week together in Walnut Creek. Briefly I consider my friends, now scattered to the US and UK, with whom I would have stayed or eaten with on previous Tokyo stops like this. Last, and only once I find the hotel, do I consider Tokyo, my plans for the evening, what I’d like to do. Part of this is due to the unplanned nature of the visit, the unexpected reality of being in Tokyo at all. Part though is because my mind is scattered, pulled at by the remote nature of my job, of my friends, and of our life. As Yoda said, All his life has he looked away to the future, the horizon.” I would add the pull is that of the unknown, of the different. That pull is strong.

Combatting that pull is a depth of friendship only possible after twenty five years, that allowed my best friend and I to spend a weekend together on the deepest topics, without pre-amble or a pause to catch up. We did, of course, watch sports and go through the mundane details of our current lives, but mostly we focused on the things we can discuss with no one else, the questions for ourselves that only someone with twenty five years of context can help clarify. It’s valuable time, made all the more so because of it’s rarity. Call it twenty hours.

Moving, really relocating, fractures our lives into segments. There are friends from our home town, friends from university, from our first job, from our first city. Friends from Tokyo, from Shanghai, from Houston, SF, and Hong Kong. There are friends met in places we have never lived, on frisbee fields mostly, but also from jobs. And all of these people, like us, have scattered, have spiraled out until we have friends in Austin, where we’ve only briefly ever been, from five or six different segments of life. Likewise Seattle and Boston. Manila holds not only friends but families of friends, and more connections. Shenzhen, a frequent work stop, holds dozens of former colleagues in long-since failed startups. For work we have been all over Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, making friends and acquaintances. And each of these groups exerts a pull, a sense of comfort and place we could return. Each one makes, in some small way, the next move to the unknown harder.

They make keeping our eyes on where we are require more focus.

And yet I am here, in Tokyo, wandering small streets with a Californian originally from Belarus who I met in the airport. We eventually eat ramen and return to our separate rooms, immaculate and tiny. Watching him navigate the Japanese menus and ticket machines I’m happy. Here is Japan, the voice in my mind says, familiar and unique. How lucky we are to see it again after so long.

For a night, that is enough.

Patience for me

Light across the rooftops of Tai Hang one day

In the early afternoon, as one lady projects (a family verb meaning does things around the house that aren’t daily chores”) and the other naps, I sit quietly and watch Tai Hang. The light is great, late summer humidity giving the approaching golden hour a helping hand. The squawking birds wheel and yell, perch on rooftops and cavort in bunches above the low buildings. The balconies and roofs of this small neighborhood are empty, the day’s sun still too close. This morning, a breezy 28 C, was the first sign of fall’s approach, the kind of morning that perks everyone up, that gives the dogs and children an extra bit of energy. Fall is not yet here though, in early September, not in Hong Kong, where the heat will linger until November. Just it’s finger tips, brushing over the city before the full light of day. And so in the afternoon we swim in the public pool, indoors, and nap, one and then the other, until the heat fades.

Hong Kong has wonderful public pools, part of the athletic infrastructure that shapes both the space and the population, who are active, are athletic, are fit and adventurous. In so many ways the foundations laid here are good, and should be built on. In so many ways we are trying to build, to be part of this city. On Saturday I chat with neighbors, with shop owners, with the fruit stand family, and am happy. It’s been four years and Hong Kong feels like home.

The question, then, is how to be patient with myself, with our trajectory. Patience is an oft-mentioned requirement of parenting, a commonly mentioned challenge, to have enough. Yet in all those tellings it is patience for the child, for the burdens of care, for the pain and limitations of childbirth, of rehabilitation and recovery, and of physical growth. These, to me, are the external requirements, the clear and valuable lessons of being part of a family, of trying to build a structure that can raise a human. Patience for each other, while still too limited, is a common goal, and a well-understood shortcoming when it falters.

Less discussed, and perhaps less easy to build, is patience with one’s self.

In our family this too is a constant thread, due to injuries and rehab, due to the challenges of climbing and frisbee where our goals are so frequently beyond our bodies’ abilities. We council the other to give their body the time it needs to heal. We try hard to remind each other to have patience with our own sore knees, with the wrist never quite perfect after that motorcycle accident, with the back that refuses to bend smoothly, and with shoulders that are never again as flexible as we’d hoped. We try to be the buffer between what the other person wants to achieve and what they are able to, to cushion them from their own disappointments.

It is not always easy.

Harder still is to give ourselves that gift. Harder still is to be truly patient with our own slow pace of improvement, with our own slow progress towards strength, towards competent leadership, towards deep friendship and emotional intelligence. Harder still is to be patient with the years of our life that seem to drift by without the kind of growth we’d hoped for, without the experiences we once thought we’d have.

In many ways these are the challenges not of children but of the pandemic, not of our family but of our expectations. Yet the same call for patience comes to me in seeing one family member asleep across the room and feeling the immediate need to accomplish things in this bit of time. The true need is for patience with my back, sore from rocking her to sleep, and with my mind, tired from the work week. The challenge is not in being calm until she nods off but in being calm once she has done so, in being productive, whatever that means, without feeling like these moments are fleeting. At forty three I am half way through the average lifespan of someone of my gender and country of origin. There are not infinite days to come, but there are enough to let the body and mind appreciate this sunset, and watch these birds for a while. There is no need to move quickly, and nothing I am missing, other than perhaps a good photo as my phone is in the other room.

Ah well, the sun will set again tomorrow. Time instead to watch the sky.