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

Dedication

PMQ view

She’s already settled by the time I climb the last flight of stairs at nine am. Her workbooks, pad of paper, pen, and laptop are neatly arranged. Her mask is still on. She’s tucked in a nook at a small table on the public balcony outside of my office, ready to go. Every day for a week she is there, before I arrive. These public areas are a well-known secret, a space for students after school to finish homework and chat, a space for tourists to enjoy the view down over central, and a space, sometimes, for work from home types and others to enjoy the fresh air. There aren’t many tables in all, and fewer now with some closed still due to the building’s strange coronavirus restrictions. Some gathering areas are fine, but not others. Some indoor rooms are available, but not all the outdoor spaces. Like many things the response is a mishmash of sensible and awkward.

At three pm this results in a scramble for outdoor space, those of us in the five small offices that share this floor competing with the students and tourists for places to take video calls, places to check in with our partners, places to take a five minute break from our colleagues. At four this jam peaks, and by six or so, as people start to drift away to dinner or to the gym, as the offices start to empty, the balconies are free. As the lights come on down the hill in Central the whole building gains a bit of Bladerunner, the sky lit with halos of signs as it otherwise fades through shades of darker blue.

The punctual woman is gone by then, of course. Her schedule seems fixed, starting at least at nine and ending before three. Or perhaps that’s the limit on her laptop’s battery, as there is no power on this balcony, retrofitted from its earlier purpose to this role as tourist destination and incubator. Every day for a week I wonder about her. My own team is not as punctual, arriving between eight forty five and ten thirty. Her rigor, then, stands out, as does her arrangement of materials. An online class, I expect. Perhaps languages, though that is probably a reflection of my own learning pattern rather than an accurate assessment. Whatever her goal, I am impressed by her dedication, by her preparation, and by her discovery of this tiny sanctuary among the bustle of Soho. When she disappears again, a week later, I wonder if the class is over or if the increasing virus case load has caused her to revisit time spent in public.

Whatever her goals, and whatever her reason for the week on our balcony, I hope she achieved them. Having studied myself on odd hours, on breaks between jobs and long evenings, I know the value of her rigor, and her habit. Age is of course a guess, for someone I never spoke to more than a quiet hello. Fifty, I’d estimate, punctual and well-prepared. May I too be so dedicated, regardless of aims.

Hope in the world

As Hong Kong has come back to life these last few weeks, this past month and a half, I’ve felt something new. Perhaps it’s just me, wishful thinking after months of quarantine. Perhaps it’s just privilege of having survived five months off work without awful economic impact, and having been able to get a job again. Perhaps it’s the change in the weather, the pull of the outdoors once the heat breaks. Every room feels better with the windows open than with the AC on.

And yet, perhaps this feeling is not only internal. Perhaps everyone is a little more open, a little more willing. Perhaps people are more likely to say thank you, more likely to hold a door or appreciate one being held. They seem more likely to wave, more likely to smile as we pass. As though we all appreciate our existence a bit more, and are glad that we are all alive. Playing frisbee yesterday at the park, the non-field area was full of families sitting in the shade, enjoying the grass, and everyone, unfailingly, was polite and glad to be outside. This could be temporary, caged birds emerging to stretch their wings. It could be how we operate now, entire generations defined by our common experience, by the shared trauma of pandemic and societal discipline. Survivors of a global economic crash, our saving habits changed and earning potential crushed, we now have another thing to share, that of being stuck at home and afraid, of being physically unable to move, unable to touch, unable to share.

As always it is hard to see the future, to know what will change forever and what we will gleefully forget when able. This weekend, at least, we are all out in the air, and even with our faces covered we are happy to be seen, happy to see, and happy, finally, to share.

Walking in the rain

After thirteen years, long walks are still a great joy. This statement seems a good sign, and a good starting place. Lately, during these pandemic months of alternating joy at the ability to congregate and sadness at the freedoms we have lost, that’s how I think about our life together thus far. A good starting place. For more than a decade we have worked on becoming the people we hope to be. We have worked on fitness, on skills, on friends, and on the never-ending goal of being comfortable everywhere. From tech startups in the Bay to bookstores in Houston, from distributed teams in Hong Kong to small companies where we hire our friends, we’ve worked on work. Work, in these cases, are mishmash of things. Work is a focus on getting paid, on getting better at making decisions. It’s getting better at building teams and products. Mostly, it’s just work.

Sports are much the same, time spent working on our bodies as full systems and as specific sets of injuries that need attention. Sitting on the floor in our sunroom with blisters on all my toes after a weekend of ultimate I am acutely aware of the need for better preparation. The pandemic’s halt to organized competition may have given me six months off to rehab from shoulder surgery but it also seems to have removed all my callouses from cleats and climbing shoes, leaving my feet more vulnerable than they were a year prior. These small wounds do not count as injuries in the larger picture. They won’t leave scars or require PT. They are just part of the process of becoming competitive again, a challenge that grows both more familiar and a little more difficult every time. It’s a challenge I’m still happy to undertake. Or at least happy to undertake again, this current time.

At yoga, occasionally, for my shoulder, I look at what we have learned, how much more flexible and strong, and am sure it is worth all the sacrifices. We are lucky, to be able to make these trades, mental space and easy sleep for muscles that ache and minds that will not rest. They’re the trades that have built this foundation.

Walking along the edge of Hong Kong island together in the rain, I am happy to feel the chill of it on my skin after the long hot summer and happy to have time to talk and think with each other on an evening in October. The moments of reflection like this walk are less common for us now than they were in the spring, a product of our decisions. More often now the bodies are too tired from the gym, or the work calls go on until one or the other of us is already asleep. On certain occasions, though, we make time for nothing else, and take a long walk somewhere new. On evenings like this one we give each other space to walk through our work problems, to be the sounding boards of first resort that we have been for so long. Looking at the lights in Kowloon and listening to the lap of the harbor against the side walls is a reminder that these long walks work. Like the long bike rides that proceeded them in San Francisco, or the long skates in Houston, they are how we process, how we grow, and how we share what we have learned.

Thirteen years of these exchanges later I am mostly grateful to have spent them together. I am glad to have shared all the work to reach this starting place, ready for whatever’s next.