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.

New old views

Sunset on the beach in Ao Nang, Thailand. Purples, oranges, and blues.

The trees are almost as green as I remember, that deep tropical color interspersed with lighter varieties.

And then, in the afternoon rain, everything saturates slightly, becoming the colors of my memories. The orange tile roofs pop a bit, peaking out from between the skyscrapers. We are back in Bangkok after five years. The heat, broken by these daily thunderstorms, doesn’t seem as intense. Or perhaps my body is less shocked by the transition, Hong Kong being almost as humid. I would like to say the past four years have changed me, but I know my skin’s memory is too temporary for that.

Some of the city feels different, of course. So much has changed, so many new towers up and ones half built now complete. We wonder at things we don’t remember, are they new or forgotten? Five years is a long time. This trip is different in other ways: we are three, rather than two, and our concerns the first day revolve around finding diapers, being able to wash tiny garments in the sink. We are still lucky, still traveling carry-on only, still able to take the train into the city, transfer to the BTS, and walk to our hotel carrying all of our bags. We have packed lighter than ever to make this happen, fewer items for ourselves and more pieces of clothing we can both wear to accommodate the new member’s main needs, diapers and a stroller. The later item, in keeping with our family’s primary requirements, fits in a carry-on bin when collapsed. We change, and yet we remain. I can’t wait to be able to teach her to pack light and go far.


From the shade of the trees, at a restaurant table and accompanying plastic chairs, the beach looks similar enough to my memories. Fifteen years ago three boys stood a bit further down the shore, just off a plane from Bangkok, waiting for a long tail to Railay. They were young, confused, and would spend most of the week drinking beer in the ocean and playing Magic in the aircon of their bungalow. It was the type of vacation that sounds easy and is incredibly rare. Three friends, their friendship formed in a small apartment in Tokyo, re-uniting in a foreign country years later, after they had all moved on to different places.

This afternoon, sipping beer Chang with an infant strapped to my chest while watching the ocean, feels like a good return to this area, to these beaches and the lack of urgency we try to create with vacation. For a few days we are going nowhere. We walk the beach, swim in salt water and pool water, and take the time to appreciate each other. My accomplices now have never been to this section of Thailand before, and my own memories are distant enough to leave us in peace. It is new, then, in a way sorely needed post-pandemic. For the first time since Hanoi in January of 2020 we are in a new place together, on vacation, with no goals. We didn’t intend these moments to be so far apart.

The hotel bar plays a strange collection of covers, and I wonder about the economics. Does the streaming platform chose to play global pop, for a global tourist audience, in poor cover form so as to avoid paying the original artists’ fees? Is this the world now? Do we all live in muzak versions, not just in elevators but in everything? Does the global tourist circuit no longer depend on poorly ripped CDs of Bob Marley or Rhianna, but of covers uploaded by Filipino bands who will, through algorithmic manipulation, never cross Spotify’s threshold for higher-percentage pay outs?


That prior visit by the three boys who’d met in Tokyo is now best dated as one year pre-iPhone. No one had cell service, there was no global data network. We Googled things from one shared laptop, and then went wandering. We reserved things online, before departure, via email. No one made FaceTime calls on their AirPods from the beach. It was hard to know how good the sunsets were here, without visiting.

I don’t begrudge these changes. They’ve let me work from many places, let me travel and live a life that was mostly fiction in 2004, or in 1998. The ability to quickly show our young accomplice’s face to the grandparents in distant locales is of course good. The ability to respond to work calls from the pool deck, well, it’s inevitable. On that 2006 trip I had a Blackberry, paid for by a company in Los Angeles. The future is already here, and the past right beside it. Outside our resort a man squats busily cooking corn on the cob on a grill for a dollar, while half the restaurants along the beach have not re-opened post Covid. We live in a world that contains all of us at once.

It’s wonderful, after a few years, to remember this face to face.

Finding freedom

The 7-Eleven steps, benches, and a parked taxi in the rain

On Sundays, after she’s eaten early and we’ve done a second diaper change, we head out. Our routine, like all things, is benefiting from practice. The first time out I forgot my wallet, and the second, a metal cup for tea. The first few times going into the carrier she fussed, almost but not quite enough to wake Tara.

Now we are happy and quiet, going into the carrier with no complaints, collecting wallet keys phone mask hat cup flip flops, and heading down the stairs before anyone is much the wiser. It’s humid in the stairs, and those seven flights are a slow way to get used to the weather after our air conditioned bubble.

By the coffee shop around the corner she’s often asleep, a scant twelve yards from our door. Sometimes she watches me order cold brew before passing out again. It’s early, after all. And then, standing outside in our alley, coffee in hand and baby asleep again, everyone lightly sweating, I am free.

I think a lot about freedom, what it means and where we find it. I think a lot about the hours in our lives that matter to us, and how they change. I remember strongly the feeling of freedom late at night, after the town or the campus or the city was mostly asleep. For as long as I can remember I’ve loved to be up high at night, to look out at a place and think about all the people who are there, invisible with their lights off, asleep. Mostly of course I think about those still awake, those heading to work at odd hours, or just finally coming home. I think about those up for no reason, and those up because of pain, medication, or young children.

In those contemplative moments I am free. Free to think about almost anything, to consider new ideas and observe things I’d otherwise ignore. It’s a feeling I love.

Lately I feel this way a lot, standing at our window watching Tai Hang at three, at four, at five am. I count the taxis parked along Wun Sha street every night, when their driver’s shifts are over. The current high is twenty five in sight at four thirty am, a number hard to top given the streets physical limits. For this view and these hours of freedom I deeply love Tai Hang. I love the 7-Eleven with it’s large entry, where people sit at all hours. I love the coffee shop next door to it that put up benches. These benches, unknown to the shop staff, have featured dates, late night delivery worker dinners, and smokers on their phones at three. They have hosted drunks of all genders in all combinations, continuing their evenings or sobering up before heading upstairs. Late at night our window is a great view into the kind of city I most appreciate.

And yet there’s another side, another set of hours in which to find freedom. San Francisco first convinced me of freedom in the early mornings. As painful as they were, once we were on bicycles to the gym at seven, we were free. Being first on the mats, able to climb any route without concern for overlap, to hear the songs the staff played while cleaning to wake themselves up, and having the sunrise pour through the windows, blinding us on top out, was freedom. Biking to work afterwards, having showered, past the construction site that is now the Warriors stadium, I felt almost as free as walking home late at night.

On Sunday, as I walk around the small blocks of Tai Hang at eight am with Clara asleep in her carrier, sipping my first coffee, I am free. I pop in to the French bakery for bagels and a croissant for Mr. Squish. I put those on a bench and drink coffee while leaning on a parking barrier, holding Clara and watching people in line for one of the cha chaan tengs in the back alleys. The clientele, at this hour, is mostly those like me, with young children, and groups of spandex-clad bikers and runners, eating after even earlier rides or runs. Half of us are escaping the later day heat, and half of us are simply following the child’s cycle. Later we will all be replaced by families, and by those with dogs, both of whom dine closer to 10 am on Sundays. I like this changing of the guard, and remember similar ones from my own restaurant days: the older folk, couples or alone, who would dine at five, right on open, and were often regulars. Then families, six to seven, and finally dates, younger couples and a wider variety, after eight. The hours change with country, or like with San Francisco, the weather, but the themes are consistent. We are all human, and hungry.

After the coffee is gone we purchase milk tea, in a metal cup we’ve carried clipped to our belt, for the sleeping family member. She’ll appreciate it, iced from her favorite street stall. After saying thank you we head home, our half hour stroll almost over. These are our moments of freedom. Our missions, small though they be, are accomplished and with (including the cat) three quarters of the family asleep, we are in no rush.

A second cold brew, perhaps, and then the elevator up stairs.

Faith in each other

A view of the river in Nong Kiaw

A month in, the clearest part of parenthood is the reflection it provides. In the late nights, in the long days with sparse sleep, we see few things clearly save each other. Our ability to rest, to walk, to eat, to see friends, and exercise depends on our partner’s abilities, on their tolerance, and on our mutual trust. We have, in this small child, a way to finally see the compassion in our relationship, and our kindness for one another. It is humbling, to understand that our ability to hold the baby while she cries and our partner eats is perhaps the best gift we can give. It is clarifying to understand that our push for an extra smile when she will not sleep takes more energy and is therefore more appreciated than anything else we’ve done in weeks. And it is revealing to understand that our ability to do things, from lunch with friends to climbing workouts to dinners out depends entirely on our partner’s ability to be ok when things go wrong. We serve at the pleasure not of a higher authority, but of each other, a pleasure that must be re-iterated daily. Would you like to go out, would you like to go to the gym, would you like to meet friends? Each one requires explicit confirmation, and the understanding that it could take extraordinary effort, extraordinary patience.

Mostly they do not, and Clara is peaceful, is at peace with our decisions. She is ok with electronic music and ambient heat outside the pizza parlor on a Friday night, where we eat on a bench and share a beer with friends after a long week. She is ok with the bright lights and bouncing tunes of the climbing gym, with the many voices and odd sensations of an afternoon at the swimming pool. She tolerates a ferry ride, an MTR ride, and many taxi rides, without outburst. In some ways we adventure at the pleasure of the child, and I think in some tellings this would be true. But it is not, for while she has a voice, and uses it at will, she has no say in the initial agreement, in the planned outlay of patience and effort. That is instead an agreement built on all our years together, almost fifteen now since those early scooter rides in Shanghai. Almost four now here in Hong Kong, where the idea of family became more possible.

And so we continue to grow, our true selves revealed to each other in the things we are willing to smile together after. It has always been this way, of course. In many ways our four hours together in the back of a flatbed from Nong Kiaw to Luang Prabang remains the clearest mirror, held up to our relationship in pain, guilt, and the joy of adventure. It is good, then, to find new joy together in these late nights and the early mornings they blend into.