The person we meant to be

Runner at night on a Hong Kong track, with city behind

I write a lot, or I think a lot, about the difference between the person we are and the person we meant to be. This gap changes over time, and can be between our hopes, or between our actions. I could say I or my, for all these things are true of me, but I think they are true of many of us.

One of the quotes I repeat most, both on this site and in daily life, is Jan Chipchase’s the distance between who you are and who you might be is closing”. It’s succinct, and encapsulates so much of the fear of getting older and the challenges of relationships. We are all so far from who we hoped to be, and yet we are running out of time.

Mostly I think about who we said we would be, when we started a relationship. When we were first dating, first flirting, and trying so hard to be the best version of ourselves, to convince both our now partner and our then self that we were as good as we could be, as we hoped to be. I think so much about this version of myself, aged twenty eight, working his first real job, managing people, traveling, spending hours on his blackberry on bus rides to cold Chinese factory towns. I think about this boy constantly, wanting to quit his job and move somewhere with central heat, wanting to move somewhere with blue skies, wanting to write. He wrote, he studied, and he wanted to do more. He wanted to learn, to put out, to create.

In the intervening years he has done that, the boy I used to be. He’s written dozens of letters, hundreds of posts, and several drafts of a novel. He’s written journals and filled notebooks with Chinese characters. He’s grown in other ways as he has learned new industries, new cities, new sports. He has met so many people, and tried with each introduction to be a little more of the person he wishes to be and a little less of the person he wants to leave behind. He tries to be more curious, and less judgmental. He wants to be more open, and less sure.

In relationships there is an art to letting one’s partner make these changes. The trick is to make space for growth without expecting it, without demanding it. People don’t change, and we should never expect them to. But when they do, when they move past what’s comfortable to a new reaction or a new choice we should be ready to embrace them there, to welcome this change.

When bored, be it in Saitama in 2002, San Francisco in 2010, or Hong Kong in the lockdown days of 2020, I run. In the park, on a track, on a road. Whatever. It’s a habit born out of boredom and the inability to sit still. But because I am a person who does not like to run neither do my friends. And so, one morning this year, when I said I’m bored, I’m going to go for a run,” and my partner said I’ll come,” I had the perfect opportunity to react how I hope to be.

The easy snark, of Oh really, but you hate to run,” is death in this phase, when someone’s trying hard to do a new thing.

Great, I’m getting changed, 10 minutes?” I said. Build a bridge together to the people we both want to be. It was fun, running together in the park, walking back sweaty and tired. A new kind of fun, for people who are still trying to close that gap.

My partner tells me she’ll be ready when I decide to cook. Meanwhile she’s happy making dinner, figuring out new recipes that I might like. It’s love, in the best form.

With low light

My favorite time of day is the first quiet hour of morning, when the house is still dark, shades drawn, and even the cat would like to go back to bed.

One room of our house has windows on three sides, with shades we rarely close. This room, used for yoga, for storage, for guests, and for laundry, is where I spend the mornings, after making coffee in the dark of the kitchen. I love the transition from the quiet shadows of the bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen to the open space of this room, to the view of Hong Kong and the sounds of the city waking. I love the light colors of morning, before the sun is beaming in, before the heat rises.

And then, of course, I love the transition back into the rest of the apartment. Coffee drunk I love stepping back into the dark of sleeping hours to slowly prepare myself for the day, to wake the house as much as I have woken myself. I try to do these things without urgency, the cleaning of cat box and dish, the laundry folding, the putting away of yesterday’s dishes. I try to keep the stillness and calm of those first few minutes even as the street noises get louder, even as the work hours draw closer.

I know why people meditate in the morning, when life is still. I know why they do yoga early, or run. There’s a lot of peace and less exhaustion than there will be later on. These moments without distraction, without external demands or personal hopes, are precious.

I do my shoulder PT in this room with grey light, before waking Tara. And write. And step back into the darkness to move on with the day.

The future of the future

Shinjuku South exit stairs

…Will still contain the past,

Her voice 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, and memories of entire evenings, commutes, and relationships are 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 south 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 alive, moving 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 trying to give shape to moments that seemed so important and finding them hard to make out in the larger motions of my 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 sung by an English woman decades 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 access to music in a depth impossible before. Mostly though, 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 that 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.