Various positions

The alley next to Coffee Obsession in Fortress Hill, Hong Kong

I sit on a bench in an alley, leaned against the concrete wall of the coffee shop. Next to me water trickles down the gutter from the earlier showers. It may rain again. The construction site across the way is wrapped entirely in blue fabric, over the thousands of bamboo poles. The building will be thirty stories. It’s not terribly remarkable in this North Point neighborhood.

I’m here because the coffee is good. Quality coffee without much hassle is an art. Fancy coffee is thick on the ground these days. Everyone has started a coffee shop in the past two years. They’re not closed by the government’s lockdown on bars and evening dining. They’re popular with the wfh crowd. They don’t need international tourists, so aren’t hurt by the last two years of border closures. With no where to go, Hong Kongers are exploring their city more than ever, hunting out corners unknown. That there are still so many after two years is a testament to this place’s incredible depth. There are dozens of hikes and waterfalls I haven’t yet seen. Beaches likewise. Coffee shops likewise. Because, though we adventure, mostly we enjoy the neighborhoods we know, the places close to where we live. Mostly we adventure close to home, now that we can not go far afield.

Men rattle their carts down the alley beside me, filled with recycling, or deliveries, or inventory for small shops somewhere out of site. Like all good big city alleys, this one is a thoroughfare, just for the back end of the commerce that occupies the larger streets. It is full of scooter parking, of trash and recycling, of workers on their smoke breaks, of chairs for building attendant’s lunches, of shop back doors and hotel fire escapes. Alleys aren’t the glamorous parts of cities, they’re the required parts, the things that are too often eliminated in nice drawings, in recreations, in Disney versions. Disney, of course, puts all the alley tasks underground, in tunnels, so staff can emerge in place and trash can disappear, setting impossible standards for the rest of the world.

I like the alleys. I like the view of real life they present, of breaks and deliveries and trash removal, even if I don’t appreciate the smoke. I don’t complain though. I’ve come, after all, to where the smokers escape to.

Places I slept, 2021

View of Hong Kong Harbor and Island from a hotel on the Kowloon side

Unlike last year, I tracked this list carefully in twenty twenty one. Some rituals fade in importance when forcibly paused, but not this one. I love recalling our different adventures. Lists like these and the mental exercise they entail are a way to mark time, and to remember life’s variety. In 2021 I needed both. As years go this one was not as slow as the last, and for a brief moment we felt the world open up. After both getting new jobs during the first lockdown in twenty twenty, we started the new year working hard with good groups. For the first time since twenty sixteen, we both made it through the month of August in the same job we’d begun the year with. It was a spring of adventuring around Hong Kong, bouldering on beaches and kayaking in the ocean. We played frisbee, but sparingly, and Tara spent alternate Wednesday evenings running women’s beginner frisbee sessions. Long a passion, her efforts have paid off, with summer sessions attracting thirty-odd women of various levels. Given less access to the world, we’ve invested more in the community we can reach. We also started doing yoga together, slowly, and for much of the year it made Friday mornings the best part of the week. As we learned in twenty twenty, spending time learning new skills is always worthwhile.

Most luckily, we got vaccines in April and were on a plane to the US by the end of June. After more than a year on the ground, seeing Hong Kong from the air during takeoff was a relief and a reminder of how important air travel is to our lives. I’ve rarely been happier to be on vacation. In California we swam in pools, drove cars, ate barbecue on decks, and walked around lakes. In Colorado we went to the All-Star game, and in New York I played soccer on a field with a view of lower Manhattan. Mostly though we spent almost every waking hour in conversation with someone we hadn’t seen in a year and a half, and those moments make up many of the year’s best memories.

Our trip was lucky in all the best ways, as we returned right before Delta re-terrified communities, and escaped with only seven days in hotel quarantine. Those seven days watching Hong Kong and the harbor, the view of which tops this post, represent something of a dream, a small gap to be quietly ourselves and remember all that we’d done. From the moment we left that room and reunited with our friends and our cat, on my birthday in early August, the year seemed to accelerate. Tara changed jobs, a lucky shift back to the renewables industry she never really wanted to leave, and the sense of being underwater that comes with starting new hard things returned. After a hard year for my startup’s business model I too moved on, without a next step in sight. Some decisions are difficult but necessary, and the gift of a partner who can pay rent has enabled me to relax this past month. The cat appreciates the company, and we know by now to take what breaks we can whenever we are able.

Twenty twenty one was a good year, alternately hard and peaceful, and while we miss some parts of our old lives fiercely we are settling in to this quiet new reality, grateful both to those here with us in Hong Kong’s bubble and for regular communication with those further afield. Our list, when compiled like this, paints a picture to me of our relationships. It reminds me of friend’s homes and the comforts of our local situation. We are lucky, as always, to have so much to do.

Tai Hang, HK
Aberdeen harbor, HK (houseboat)
Admiralty, HK (staycation)
Wan Chai, HK (staycation)
Malibu, CA (twice)
Oakland, CA
Fort Collins, CO
Walden, CO
Berthoud, CO
Cherry Hill, NJ
Rumson, NJ
Brooklyn, NY (two separate spots)
Ithaca, NY
Hung Hom, HK (quarantine)
Tsim Sha Tsui, HK (staycation)
Sai Wan Beach, HK (camping)

A longer view

For years we have been on the move. For years when people ask what we’ve been doing the answer has been working” or playing sports but mostly working”. In so many ways that has been the truth, the collective summary. In another view, though, we’ve been collecting people, discovering an ever-expanding group of humans we enjoy. It’s the best undertaking, and gains from motion, from working at a variety of companies, playing a variety of sports, and living in a variety of cities. Part of leaving, part of changing, is the joy of meeting new. Here in Hong Kong, at the end of our second strange year, I’m so grateful to all those who’ve been part of our teams.

In the late summer of twenty twenty one we rode out on a boat, past the city’s edge to a bay facing the ocean. The water was cool but not cold, the sky hot but not boiling. Falling off the third deck to the waves I felt free, and light. It’s a feeling of pleasure so simple I repeated the action a dozen times. Each time the release was easy, and the water welcoming.

The boat was full of friends, teammates, partners. They’re a happy group, a third or so just out of quarantine and back to the bubble of Hong Kong, celebrating their release from confinement with extra abandon. We are glad to be back, to be on the water, and to be with friends. In this journey, in this odd bubble world, we are each other’s crew. It’s a simple designation of friendship grown deep through repetition, through boats and hikes and beach days. Mostly, it’s a friendship grown through frisbee.

In the early winter we again are on the move. This time the vessel is a party tram, rented from the Hong Kong Tramways for a two hour loop up and down Hong Kong Island. These rented vehicles serve as gathering points, rallying cries for a group of disparate people who like chasing plastic on grass. The community, formed through training, across games won and lost, is transient. There are new faces and faces of those who will move on. There is even, on this tram ride, a child barely a month old. It’s a glorious group, and cheering people on passing busses and tram stops we float through the city. Like most of us I wear a santa hat and a mask covered with a fake beard. It’s a silly outfit, an attempt to bring Christmas to us. Most of us are foreigners far from home, and the season is a strange one, with few of the flights to distant lands that used to dominate this time of year. Yet as we totter off the tram back to solid ground, like from the boat back in August, we are happy, and together. Tomorrow many will play sports again, focusing on throws and cuts. Today, this afternoon, and tonight, we are on the move, laughing at each other’s stories and playing silly games. I meet spouses and partners, and am grateful for this time together.

Quick rituals

Looking across Kowloon towards the mountains as the sun sets

In Hong Kong, at last, the weather shifts. The mercury touches 18 C for a day, and mid-twenties for several. I try on pants I’d forgotten I owned, and wear sneakers even after work. In the mornings, while making coffee, I wear sweatpants and a shirt, reveling in the chill breeze through open windows. It has been a hot year. I suspect they will all be hot years.

My body, after a few days, can’t recall the sweat of summer. I’ve written about this before, the brevity of my physical memory. My mind knows we once sweated even while sitting still but I can’t replicate the sensation, can’t feel it when it’s gone. In some ways I am a goldfish, waking new to each moment and unaware that I am under water at all. In some ways the writing on this site is a challenge to that, proof that there are records that persist. As the sun sets on Thanksgiving day, I try to record this change before it too recedes.

In the fall of twenty twenty one, after an exhausting struggle and a huge amount of learning, I am again unemployed. I think about the habits I’ve made around this job, that I am now abandoning. I will no longer open the office every morning, turn on the A/C and set down bag and mask before making coffee. I will no longer run cash on hand on Monday mornings before I open my email. I will no longer hold 1-1’s while walking along the harbor. Time has come for all those things, habits I pass on to no one. Instead I will wake with the cat, pad around our silent apartment, stretch, and spend my time in thought. It’s a beautiful trade and portends a recovery of energy.

My body’s memory is short. I can’t remember being excited about taking this job after four months of freedom in the early pandemic. I can barely remember those first days of lock down, playing ping pong when everything else was closed. I can barely remember driving the East Coast of the US this summer, in the brief July window of 7 day quarantine hope. I do remember sitting on decks in Oakland chatting with friends we’d missed so much, and of swimming in the back yard with a child suddenly able to dive deep. Those memories persist, and will power me through another winter of closed borders and horrible quarantine rules. Those summer days of walking around Lake Merritt and having lunch in West Oakland are why we do so much of what we do, because the people we’ve met in each step are worth it.

The gift of this fragile physical memory is that nothing holds me for long; I make new habits easily. I quickly become accustomed to rising early, before the alarm, to give the cat the pets he desires with his breakfast. I easily learn to do laundry each evening after frisbee, when suddenly given an in-home washing machine. As I have written before, the changes of habit that came with our move to San Francisco, our move to Hong Kong, are also the changes of growing older, of learning the value of mornings. And yet what strikes me on my first few days of freedom is how quickly I acclimate, how easily these new habits are formed. In many ways what makes me good at the repetitive nature of jobs, what makes me comfortable building processes to be repeated by teams, is my own comfort with repetition, and the ease with which I become accustomed to new patterns.

New philosophies

Looking back towards the sunset on Hong Kong’s harbor

In the fall of twenty twenty one I at last address the challenges of two years of pandemic, and begin to grow. People, I have written, do not change. When they do, if they do, we ought to accept those changes, sudden and surprising though they may seem. We can not try to change people. But we can be aware, and be supportive, when they chose to.

Change comes from many directions. Mostly, in my life, it comes from an accumulation of days spent thinking. In the fall of twenty twenty one, having quit my job, I start walking home from the office, roughly an hour and forty minutes away. To compensate for the commute length, or for my own readiness to leave, I start at four pm. The walk is beautiful, along the harbor of one of the world’s most recognizable cities, and one of its most expensive. It is a walk couched in privilege, in the fortune of the past twenty years. Hong Kong, despite the battles, is a beauty, especially as the mercury drops below 25 C for the first time in 7 months. On these walks, as with every moment in this dense metropolis, I am not alone.

Long walks surrounded by humans give rise to change, I’ve found. They’re part of the reason I love living in cities, especially ones safe enough to walk in a straight line from origin to destination without considering the makeup of the neighborhood. To my American readers, I promise, these places do exist. On walks like these I think of the comments of a French person, hearing that Americans think Hong Kong’s pedestrian infrastructure to be the world’s best. The harbor isn’t very walkable,” they say. And the sidewalks are narrow.” How poor a place do we come from, Americans, that we are astonished by what is a step down for Europeans? No wonder that we love to vacation there, and to dream of something that seems impossible to build in our homeland.

Walking long distances clears the mind not through the exertion, but through the time. Eventually we have exhausted the current trains of thought. Eventually we must stop at new stations. So, at last, on these weeks of wandering post-decision and pre-result, I come to consider what I am truly up against, here in Hong Kong on year two of the pandemic. So, at last, do I come to consider what I believe, and how it has changed.

I am no longer making five year plans. As prudent savers whose jobs revolve around planning and our task-oriented natures, we do not YOLO. In some way we cannot. Yet we are changing. We are making fewer long term plans. Having spent much of the first forty years of my life in pursuit of qualifications, of experience, of visas, of access, I appreciate the luxury of peace, of an inability to schedule flights for ultimate tournaments in foreign countries, or to purchase tickets to concerts I’ll need work to fly me across the Pacific to see.

The past two years, and whatever is to come, have killed my desire to plan our future, to map our lives. I have often been focused on the five year view, on the medium term. The medium term, I see now, is dead, buried by governments, by fear, and by the virus. Instead I have today, which I spent in the park, on the water front, and talking to neighbors. Instead we have our lifetimes, which we will try hard to spend without fear.

We will try to make choices based on what is good, on what is best, without concern for the five year plan or the final destination. We will go when we can go, stay when we want to stay, and learn what we can in every situation. We will try hard to be the people we want to be, not eventually, but now. It is indeed a change.

These thoughts coalesce from long walks, and are built on the decisions that presaged them. These are the outcomes of two years of thinking, working, watching, and talking. I’m lucky to have a partner who is ready, neither impatient nor hopeful, but able to see and happy to move with the pace of my mind. It’s a thing formed step after step for decades now, and only finally ready to let go.