The future of the future

Shinjuku East exit stairs

…Will still contain the past,” She cuts in over the bouncing beat, that late nineties sound. I am walking through the warren of small streets around Sheung Wan station, and then up the steps through old Hong Kong. I am instantly instead walking through Saitama late at night in the cool rain of the autumn of two thousand two. I am twenty three, in a dress shirt, alone, and the world feels perfect, made just for me. In the distance I can see the elevated Saikyo line, my house on the other side. Behind me, almost invisible until a train passes, is the Kehin-Tohoku line. These suburban streets are quiet in the rain, and the folk I’d left in Kita Urawa are now far behind. I walk in a bubble of happiness and music, temporarily free from every bond.

Memories are fragile things, and they disappear for long periods, buried under more recent times, only to be brought back in an instant. The places that shaped me are never truly gone, the memory of entire evenings, commutes, relationships pulled back with the music that shaped those hours.

I have been obsessed with early Tokyo memories lately. I’d thought them a strange product of late-pandemic seclusion, of missing travel, of being so glad to have spent my fortieth birthday in Tokyo with friends from all over. The pull of places we could not visit, I thought, of favorite memories that were temporarily out of reach. Instead, suddenly, halfway up the 200 stairs of my morning commute, I am in the middle of a Tokyo evening, waiting for a someone overlooking the stairs of Shinjuku’s east exit. In my memory it was cold, or not. The weather, strangely, is hard to picture, having been overwritten by hundreds of days in the same spot. This is the effect of being shaped by places, and by music.

A colleague, a friend, gave me Amplified Heart my first year in Tokyo, back when passing albums was a thing, when recording minidiscs of other people’s CDs was the way we shared. I remember starting to rip CDs in Tokyo, to that very first iPod, bought in Omiya for most of a paycheck. I remember pirating software from the stores with firewire cables. I remember so many things, at least sometimes.

It’s packed at two am, are you on your own”

On a rare foggy Hong Kong evening I walk down the hill after work, through Soho and Central. People are living with the energy of evening, with the sense of somewhere to be. There are people everywhere, and I feel at home, part of a crowd going many places, going nowhere together. Often I write in the abstract, of groups and emotions. Partially I’m afraid of the details, of writing the specifics of memory into history, of giving shape to the moments that seem so important and finding them hard to see among the motions of a whole life. Partially though it’s because many of the details are abstract, my memory is lost in a crowd of people I can barely talk to, carried emotionally on the words of an English woman a decade earlier.

In many ways moving to pedestrian friendly Asian cities in my twenties is the defining change of my life. The songs that I’ve spent the past two decades wandering them to, then, echo instantly with memories of evenings long lost to time, with friends distant enough to likewise need assistance recalling.

For a boy who had spent his early teen years at ska shows, his late teen years quoting Ani lyrics, and his college years speaker hugging through late night raves to the heyday of jungle, Tokyo’s second hand CD shops and rental stores, coupled with the minidisc and mp3, meant music in a depth impossible before. Mostly, colleagues and friends took him clubbing and gave him tunes.

I use my walkman when I walk, and I don’t talk, but later on the moment’s gone and I don’t get it.”

Twenty years later, in the second pandemic spring, I spend a month walking to work every day to Everything but the Girl. These albums, Amplified Heart, Temperamental, and Walking Wounded, have been the background for so much of my life. Amplified Heart itself is the background for so much of our marriage, is the only album we own on vinyl, is the album I want most in the world.

I remember the conversation, a Canadian teacher on the train, older and wiser in a lot of ways, to the boy of twenty two. The week prior she had changed my year with the Dirty Vegas disc, with Days Go By. A week later she was ready to change my life.

If you like that I think you’d like Everything but the Girl. Amplified Heart.”

Like almost every day we were on the train platform in Kawaguchi, were heading home at nine thirty pm, shift over. Like every day we were tired and looking forward to the commute, to headphone time, to not having to talk any more. And yet we were awake, alive, part of the sprawling megacity we both loved so much.

It’s just so emotional,” she said, a turn of phrase both personal to her and globally correct.

Months later I would ride the train to Temperamental, leaning against the window of the elevated Saikyo line, dreaming of clubbing, dreaming of Shinjuku on that same ride home. The Saikyo line is one of Tokyo’s busiest commuter lines, leaving late from Shibuya and Shinjuku, touching down at Ikebukero before becoming elevated and pulling away from the city through Akabane and across the river into Sataima, out into the short lands, into the streets of my memories.

And the light goes down, and all the lights come on, and they call to me, oh come on come on”

Quoted lyrics from Everything but the Girl’s The Future of the Future’, Lullaby of Clubland’, and Low Tide of the Night’ from the 1999 album Temperamental

The growth of worry

In my memory there is a boy who does not worry. He is nearly fearless, the luxury of the invincible. He walks to class across the college quad without shoes, his three quarter length pants baggy and his wallet on a chain. He is at peace here, at least in memory. He has few books, little money, and no plan for the future. He is somewhere between 18 and 21, and his world is smaller than he would admit.

In two thousand three there is a boy who climbs buildings in Tokyo in the dark without fear. He does this casually, stepping off of balconies as though they were stairs, catching himself on the flat of floor above as his feet touch the top of the railing a level below. In this way he slides in and out of conversations at parties, skipping floors from one gathering to another without ever entering the apartments. He is almost a ghost, a part of many moments and somehow impossible to contain. One night in the rain he talks with a colleague on the open walkway in front of their apartment, looking out over Saitama. The dawn is not far off.

I’ve always wanted to climb that water tower,” he says, indicating one perched on a seven storey building three blocks away. It must have a great view.” This section of the suburban Saitama sprawl is short, most buildings four or fewer floors.

That might be tricky,” his colleague says, perhaps tired, perhaps older and aware of the risks. Without pause the boy is off, down the four floors to the ground and away. His colleague watches from the railing as he walks into the apartment building and up to the top floor on a similar exposed walkway, the construction a kind of standard Japanese topography. At the seventh floor he is stymied, for a moment. The stairs do not continue to the roof. After a quick look around this boy climbs onto the railing, balancing carefully. Hands extended for stability he rises to his feet, and reaches for the roof. It is a flat edge, no gutters, and after a moment he pulls himself up onto the roof, seven storeys up, now eight. Later he will confess that this moment scared him, palms flat on the wet concrete, pulling his body up over the edge of the roof with legs dangling below. Trusting to friction.

That morning, though, he makes it, and after a few seconds is up the ladder and onto the water tower’s roof. With a quick wave of triumph for his watching friend he turns to the sunrise, the sky just starting to lighten towards Tokyo.

The memories are clear, the actions easy to recall. The fear of palms on wet concrete that morning has never left me. Instead it is the lack of fear, the easy joy in dropping off my fourth floor balcony and swinging into my neighbor’s third floor card game that has gone, replaced by a concern for insurance, for physical therapy.

Like all changes this was a gradual one. Despite the obvious, it was not triggered by twenty fourteen. I wonder if this tale of aging is a common one, or if the joy of sitting on a lighting truss at 16, thirty feet up above concrete, tightening down a light to my side with both hands while the pipe that held us both swayed with no support that was the odd part. Were we all as free?

Specific moments of change do come back to me. I gave up climbing balconies on moving to China, where the iron balustrades could be shaken by hand free from the concrete. I gave up climbing buildings when the railings became untrustworthy. The sentence is filled with irony, and with half truths. On returning to our campus setting for our ten year anniversary I met some current students who were setting out for a building climbing adventure.

Did you climb buildings back in your day?” they asked me.

I’ve been on top of four buildings already this weekend,” I told them, truthfully, and we swapped common approach spots, both so glad to share. It should be their ten year reunion soon, I think. I wonder if they’ll similarly celebrate on top of Chicago, and if they too will one day wonder where that feeling of freedom has gone.

Explicit caution

Rocks and water

A friend I saw on Monday was exposed last Thursday,” is the first time we’re aware. We leave work and go get rapid tests, and stop socializing. In Hong Kong there are centers everywhere, booking takes 5 minutes, the test process 15, and $20. For the rest of the evening we wonder. The texts telling us the results hit 18 hours later, negative. We relax, more so when the friend and our contact both test negative. More so when the friend’s colleagues do likewise. We won’t relax for another week, until two more rounds of testing pass quietly. We are too familiar with the day twelve positive test in Hong Kong quarantine to expect any less.

Time passes slowly these years, or quickly, in lockdown in quarantine or just with the gyms shut, with sports canceled, with bars closed after 6 pm, with tables limited. Whatever small price we are paying to be healthy, to be safe, it is not a large price. We are healthy, working, and usually able to socialize in small groups, in bubbles that are more porous than those we hear about in America.

Hong Kong has been a blessing these weeks and months. Hong Kong has been a blessing this year, more now, since that first case imported directly from Wuhan by train on the 21st of January, 2020. This city was early on the panic, people here still wary of SARS, their fear borne of actual memory rather than tales. Masks appeared as if by magic, shipped from family, shipped from friends, and purchased everywhere. For a year now it’s been rare to see a smile, and we’ve all learned how to read the signs in each other’s eyes.

Standing by the ocean, the breeze whipping whitecaps at my feet, I think about how lucky we are to be able at any moment to feel the sea. We live in the world’s tallest agglomeration, in a city of density and hills, of shopping and mass transit. And yet there is the sea. It is behind us as we boulder, beside us as we walk, a guide, a road, a backdrop, majesty. Hong Kong should always be remembered first as one of the most beautiful cities people have ever built. It should be remembered as a strange conglomeration of islands and mountains, of towers and jungle. It should be remembered as being built on the sea.

Usually the harbor is relatively calm, a casual mix of pathway and vista. The ocean proper is around the corners of the island, mostly out of sight. This of course is an illusion, is a false boundary of the kind humans like to draw. Wind from the south whips it up and we are suddenly aware the harbor is sea, is part of the same ocean that shakes the ferries to outer islands, that makes the run around the corner up to Sai Kung sometimes treacherous.

On a Sunday the ocean is closer, as it washes up against the island’s southern shores. Above the waves we scramble and struggle up steep rocks our bodies are not yet ready to master. We work hard and then relax, watching some other fool cut up fingers and arms in a tricky human-prescribed endeavor, to climb this small boulder with only a few holds.

For an hour we don’t consider the sea. And then a large wave crashes, pulling all our attention away to the water. We are here above it, with a viewpoint of majesty. We are lucky, a scant half hour from our urban homes, to find this wild spot where waves lap just out of reach. We are lucky to be free, for the moment, in this city now our home.

Listening to years past

On Christmas eve she plays songs from years prior, from just the year prior. They are familiar, favorites picked carefully for the moments they bring back. The first song takes me a moment to place, the reason I was so enamored taking longer to return than the lyrics, which are instantly on my tongue.

It’s a song I listened to on repeat while wandering miles alone at night in Taichung, trying to get some exercise and to see the city after long factory days and dinners with colleagues. It represents a freedom, a sense of possibility in the world. I walked to night markets and through alleys, stopped at FamilyMart for coffee, and listened to music. On work trips of more than a single day the routine of the job becomes a home in itself. Days in Taichung started with a 7 am swim, before most others were awake, usually with the pool entirely to myself. Then a shower and early morning coffee from across the street while checking email and texting with the family. And then gathering with the team for the taxi to the factory across town. Factory days are both long and slow, full of stress and meetings that are hard to do remote. We learn from watching and discussing with the operators, from revising methods and attempting changes on samples ourselves. We learn simply from the hours spent, a benefit that’s been rarely discussed the past year. Simply by being together, by working on a project at the same time as a group, we the customer and them the project team, gain from the days together. Future emails, calls, and sample photos will be clearer for these hours, and our goals will be more similar. In the end that’s what we pay for with the days on site, for aligning two groups of people. Three, in my case, the engineers from headquarters in San Francisco, the Taiwanese factory engineers, and myself, supply chain in from Hong Kong, benefitting from time with both sides.

In the evening we’d eat together, at least some combination of groups. And after that, around nine, I’d walk them back to the hotel and then head in a new direction, walking without goal but with intention until eleven. And I’d listen to that song. Last year.

The mix she’s playing we put together in Hanoi, in a boutique hotel for a week of escape just after New Year’s. It was a week of peace after the intense fall burn of new jobs. We read and laughed and walked and walked. Mostly we were so happy to be adventuring again in Asia, in a year that had so much promise.

Sitting on the floor in the sunroom writing this, now with Lizzo playing, I remember the joy of that trip, and the joy of the year it wrapped. In twenty nineteen we’d survived two startup crashes and gotten our own visas to a foreign country for the first time. We’d gotten new jobs while abroad, made good friends, and played a ton of disc. A week later we would head to LA for a tournament with our old friends.

A year later we are making a mix again. It’s been such a different year than we expected. We again got new jobs, the startups of twenty nineteen failing to keep us employed for even a year. We traveled so much, that trip to LA, India, Taiwan, and another swing for me through the US to LA, SF, and NYC before the flights stopped.

It’s been a year. And I still like these songs.

Places I slept, 2020

A Hanoi view

My tradition of keeping track of every bed became almost an afterthought this year. Like most people, I have never spent as much time at home. My regular question as to the pace of the year and whether it will feel fast or slow in memory is easy to answer. Twenty twenty will feel very slow.

In some ways the change of pace is, as many have written, an opportunity to reset, to re-value and build new habits. Many have done so. Tara has learned to surf and pickle, learned to do handstands and play new songs. For myself the skills aren’t as obvious. This year gave me time to learn to lift my left arm again, and then to do pull-ups, planks, and climb once again. These abilities are the gift of a re-built shoulder, itself a gift of Hong Kong’s medicine and reasonably priced global insurance. The quiet days with nowhere to go and nothing to do save rehab were a gift of the pandemic, with sports and travel closed and my startup failed.

The other gifts, less physical, are those that come from the new job, from trying hard to help build a team and company. From presenting to a board, talking to investors, recruiting, and building cash flow models, twenty twenty gave me the chance to prove that all my start up experience could go further. It’s an opportunity I’ve sought, and I’m glad to be here in Hong Kong trying to make a company work.

As for travel, well, I think the list of places we were supposed to go outnumbers those we did. From weddings postponed or done via Zoom to meetings conducted on Slack instead of in person, there was much we gave up. For a year that saw Hong Kong give up so much more, that saw America give up so much more, it feels awful to even mention our losses. Far more important, then, to recall what we did do, before the planes stopped, and all the people we did see. Here then is my list, and a wish:

May we not have to say goodbye to so many in twenty one, and instead get to say more hello’s.

Tai Hang, HK
Hanoi, Vietnam
Taipei, Taiwan
Malibu, CA (x2)
Santa Monica, CA
SF, CA (x2)
Anaheim, CA
Manhattan, NY
Brooklyn, NY
Cherry Hill, NJ

The total for the year’s first 58 days: 10 places, and 2 of them twice Since then:

Kowloon, HK - a hotel staycation
Wan Chai, HK - another hotel staycation