Prepare the body, shelter the mind

On this Sunday I sit and watch the sliver of road perched half-way up the hill behind our house. Birds flitter across the view, darting and wheeling in the updrafts that must surround all these hills and towers. They are, it seems, going nowhere and enjoying the motion very much. Like the cat, I think, who frequently zooms around the house with wild eyes. Most often he does this right after we turn off the lights for bed, his eyes suddenly wide in the dark. From sofa to bedroom he bursts, and pausing, back in a straight line, kicking off bags and stools en route. I love these parkour moments, and celebrate when they occur in the afternoons. Like the birds, his sprints do not feel fully formed, and occasionally he skids into a wall, or once loudly the glass door of the shower, a deafening bang that shocked both him and myself. The zooms feel instead like the joy of motion, like running for running’s sake. The passing birds, wheeling tightly near the tall towers of our neighborhood and off up the hill only to pivot and return, accelerating down just above the canopy, feel similar, a joy for life expressed in action.

Sitting still in my chair, watching the hill, I know their feeling, this cat and these birds. I am preparing for just such a burst of motion. My bag is mostly packed, save for the laptop I am typing on. A few choices remain, as they always do the night before a long loop: one pair of shoes or two, one pair of pants or two, and a notebook or not. These are the edges of my minimal packing routine, well-considered now, years after it began.

In the morning I will head out, decisions made, on a burst of activity designed in some fashion to provide signs of life to the world. Like the cat and birds, I will bounce from spot to spot and eventually wheel, returning to my starting point. In between I will learn new things in Los Angeles, see colleagues in San Francisco, and celebrate in New York. In between those destinations I will tap down, lightly, like Mr. Squish on the wooden stool, in Tokyo. Like the cat, the intensity of this pending action requires a lot of energy, gathered through long naps in the sun and a small physical gathering of muscles for sudden acceleration. After a quiet couple of weeks of quarantines and ill news, this burst of motion will bring me back to life, put me out in the world once more. With this loop I will close out my first quarter travel plans, hit both sides of the continental US and most of my American touch points. I’ll return, in ten days, body sore and mind tired from the exertion. Hopefully the cat will welcome me back and we will once again nap together like this morning, curled tight to share the same sun beam. For the rest of today though I will be here, watching the hillside and quietly preparing both body and mind.

Long loops

“Back to LA,” I answer, when asked where I’m heading. “It’s where my loop is from.”

This answer, now given a half dozen times to friends, colleagues, and family, is a phrase not well understood. The loop is obvious in explanation, the HKG to LAX round trip that connects me to this continent and to my home. On one end America and the other my cat. It’s a good loop, at least some times. I imagine it like the old tow-style ski lifts, ropes drifting by on the snow, there for the grabbing, to be towed along to the next stop. The rope itself is always in motion, like the planes between Hong Kong and LA.

The best part of long loops like this, the trans-pacific ones, is their branching, the ability to add or subtract small loops and other destinations before the return. Writing this from an aisle seat thirty thousand feet up and heading south down the California coast line I am almost done, sub-loops soon complete. It’s an emotional space, the air over San Luis Obispo, a week and a half since leaving Hong Kong. For a loop that started with Throwback and a dozen plus of my old San Francisco frisbee friends I’ve done a lot. Spent the work week in the Bay and added in a car loop to visit family. Sub-loops are like that, purpose-built around jobs or distant relatives. This morning’s started with an ebike, a rental car, out to Sacramento and back. One day full of the most driving I’d done since June. As usual with these loops the people were the goal, cruising Interstate 80 in a large Jeep was just bonus. Or cost.

And now, like a boomerang, I am swooping back along the coast line to LA, a brief hitch in the homeward swing. Another sleep or two and I’ll be sitting in my office, watching the buildings across the street. Descending through clouds into Los Angeles that view feels a long way away, in hours and space.

In so many ways these loops are a tale of our lives, the distance both true and not.

Places I slept, 2019

The year ending has been full. At its beginning I wondered whether it would, in retrospect, feel fast or slow. The idea is imperfect, not yet refined. The year, though, had the pace of one that will be difficult to recall as such a span. Changing places in quick succession scrambles my attempts to stitch things into patterns, and although twenty nineteen’s list is not the longest it does feature mostly shorter hops. In some ways that was the goal of moving. As for the reasons for the motion, they vary. We went to ten ultimate tournaments, despite trying to cut back. I went to Japan four times and Tara went five. We went to Taiwan independently for work and together for frisbee, a new country for both of us. We saw old friends in Shanghai and the Philippines, and drove a lot of the east coast of the US in between.

As first years in new countries go 2019 was a hectic one, for us as well as the city. We both got new jobs as the rough side of the start-up lottery came around again. One of our hopes for 2020 is a bit of peace, within and without, though as always not at the cost of freedom. Despite all the travel and turbulence we were able to share Hong Kong with a wide variety of guests, which remains a great pleasure. Hiking, exploring, and laughing with couples from New York and the Bay Area were gifts indeed. Solo travelers too, from New Years on through December, kept us learning new places and reminded us why we love this city. Last, and largest, thanks to the friends who met up in Tokyo for my 40th. The week together is represented by a couple of places slept and of course the view above, and outstripped expectations in the best way.

Despite moving half way around the world, we didn’t feel too distant for most of 2019. These moments together, wherever they happen, are a good reminder that the people we care about won’t fade from our lives. For now, let this serve as a gentle reminder that the guest room is open and flights are cheap.

The list of places slept that follows, a tradition now itself a decade old, reflects mostly our changed home base, with lots of new Asian destinations and a family & friends-focused approach to our time in the US. From the mountains of Colorado to the beaches of Boracay it’s not even all cities, though major metros feature heavily. For the coming year our goal is more new, without of course giving up on the old. Let’s see how we do.

Tai Hang, Hong Kong
Malibu, CA
Santa Monica, CA
SF, CA (five times, three houses)
Tamachi, Tokyo , Japan
Toyosu, Tokyo, Japan
Shaoguan, Guangdong
Shenzhen North, Guangdong
Longgang, Shenzhen, Guangdong
Boracay, Philippines
Novena, Singapore
Hyde Park, Chicago, Il
Ithaca, NY
Cherry Hill, NJ
Rumson, NJ
Brooklyn, NY
Fort Collins, CO
Walden, CO
Bao’an, Shenzhen, Guangdong
Waigaoqiao, Shanghai
Zhongshan Park, Shanghai
Ōsaka, Japan (twice)
Chiba, Japan
Idabashi, Japan
Hatsudai, Tokyo, Japan
Taipei, Taiwan
Taichung, Taiwan (four times)
Kyoto, Japan
Hainan, China
Manila, Philippines

As for Mr. Squish, quarantine laws will keep him in Hong Kong, at least for now. He does get out and about, to our noodle shop, the park, and on an occasional shopping trip. Mostly he’s grateful for the company, which is another invite in a post full of them.

New traditions

On our street the old couple sets out their boxes of fruit and vegetables before we wake. Today there are passion fruits and cherries along with the standard oranges, apples, and pears. On the far side from our window there is lettuce, cabbage, mushrooms and potatoes. Next door the local restaurant does a brisk business in toast, eggs, fried pork and some noodles. Up and down the street chairs and tables are set out and proprietors take in the air. It is Christmas morning and the world is quiet, but not empty.

For the first time this pattern is familiar. Unlike the year before we do not hoard groceries before the two day holiday, Christmas and Boxing Day. We are comfortable that the grocery store and fruit stand will be open. In the afternoon our neighborhood is alive, someone somewhere hammering on a tin sheet trying to fix an awning. Mostly it is the foreigners that are quiet, not visible on rooftops, their apartment windows shaded and dark. Of our local establishments only the coffee shop is closed. I am glad that they get a break, the Australians and locals who run it. Outside, on it’s steps, a couple takes photos of their Akita, lush and happy in the cooler weather.

The weather is relative, of course. Twenty one C is not exactly cold, not to these children of Colorado and New York. Not, probably, to that dog bred for northern Japan. A balmy Christmas is still new to us, and for the week leading up to it we are uncertain of the season, busy with other pursuits. Finally, though, with the Christmas tree in the building lobby and carols sung by groups in Cantonese outside our train station, we acquiesce and agree. Far from family and with many friends traveling, we spend the days quiet, reading and chatting. These are always some of my favorite days, the quiet ones at end of one year and the beginning of the next. They are time for reflection and for planning, for taking stock of growth and remembering our hopes.

In these years we barely give presents. We share a few, with friends nearby and those we encounter on our travels, or those elsewhere when inspiration strikes. Mostly though we grin at each other, carrying fruit back to our apartment in the sunlight, lucky already with what we wanted most.

New metrics

Context for the article

In Hong Kong on a Wednesday evening I am looking for a spray bottle. It’s our anniversary, the original one, and I’ve purchased a succulent to honor it. The succulents I’d gathered over previous years got moved from San Francisco to the East Bay but not all the way here. So I sought a new one, and then flowers, and now a spray bottle to care for them. In Tin Hau this search means walking down the street, eyes open. Eventually it means a ten Hong Kong dollar purchase from a store that sells stationary, toys, and basic household supplies. Tucked in the back near scrub brushes and a cutting board I find two sizes of bottle and opt for the larger one, in bright translucent colors.

For years now we’ve been evaluating cities, measuring them against our desires and needs. From the earliest days of this site, when smiles were my underrated metric for economic growth in boomtown Shanghai, I’ve been watching places. In Houston the bicycle infrastructure, or relative dispersal of it compared to Shanghai, was what struck me. Gas stations existed on every other corner while repairing a bicycle required a mile or more of travel. This set of facts, once realized, described adequately the built environment, the preferences of locals, the density of jobs, housing, and food, and the danger of streets for pedestrians. After all, cyclists rarely cause death. And so Houston gave me a new way to consider cities, a way to review wherever came next.

In San Francisco I spent days considering elevation and microclimates, these subtle shapes of hill and weather that have huge impacts on residential desirability across the city. The fog is a force in SF, and neighborhoods are defined by their position relative to its reach. The Sunset remains affordable partially because, come evening, it is entirely within the fog bank. The rest of its affordability, or what little remains after twenty years of appreciation, is due to the lack of transit, either highway or train.

In Hong Kong for months now I’ve struggled to clarify my thinking. “I like it” and “It feels good” remain mediocre rationales. The cliche, while true, that we live in a city but can quickly access the mountains or ocean is not what pulled me here. Something else explains why walking home from our noodle shop in the evening makes us so happy.

And so my quest for a spray bottle. In America, a desire like this results first in an online search. In a location where travel is expensive, dangerous, and personally demanding, it’s no surprise to see delivery flourish and online shopping rise. This rise brings with it the lack of neighborhood unity due to decreased exposure to nearby residents, the failure of local small-scale retail, and the creation of a poorly paid and utterly dehumanized delivery class to take the transit risks and bear the costs. For those reasons as well as the related sedentary health effects, it isn’t a culture that appeals to me. But how to express this preference succinctly?

In Hong Kong on a Wednesday evening I go in search of a plastic spray bottle. I walk seven blocks in eight minutes before finding one. In those seven blocks I pass three 7 Elevens, two grocery stores, one fruit stand, one vegetable stand, and countless small restaurants. I am never alone. Many of my neighbors are outside walking dogs, doing errands, chatting with friends, or coming home from work or activities. I purchase the bottle and then some sushi for dinner from a take out place. It’s a nice night. People are eating outside or in line for bubble tea near the train station. The whole city feels alive and engaged. Walking home amidst all my neighbors it strikes me: this search is a way to evaluate cities. In Hong Kong the fastest way to find something is to walk out of the house and start looking.

I remember coming home one day at the beginning of this year, not long after moving, excited with a discovery. “Troye Sivan is playing in May” I said, entering the house. “I saw a poster walking home.”

At the time we laughed about how learning about upcoming concerts and music releases from posters plastered on walls felt like New York in the 90’s. Now I think that for as long as we’ve lived here, we’ve learned by walking outside. That’s pretty new for me, a child of the American countryside. In rural America the fastest way to get anything, before Amazon, was to get in a car and drive 20 minutes. Walking was a good way to discover blackberries, and occasionally animals.

And so, one year in, I have a new way to evaluate cities, and a further explanation for why we love Hong Kong. What’s the fastest way to find something? It’s one more way to think about the places we inhabit, and what shapes the sense of life and community in each.