Scant busy days

Occasionally, when otherwise unoccupied, I find myself busy for a prolonged stretch. It is no great expanse of time, merely the full measure of a work day, from early in the morning until the sun has set. Being mostly unemployed, these days are never single purpose, and the varied nature of them affects my mood. On good ones, like today, they start with interviews with distant companies, conducted before the household has woken. I sit in the office, grateful for the view of Kowloon, and talk to engineers on products I am curious about, am hopeful for. After a few hours I emerge to make tea or say goodbye to the family, depending on the work day.

The next calls are ones where I talk less, but add more value, consulting calls with factories, with American engineers at the end of their days and teams closer to me at the start of theirs. These are the kind of calls I am at home in, translating or clarifying where needed, managing the structure and shape of the plan, and resolving minor issues with both sides for the hour following. These are the kind of calls that keep me sane, when mostly unemployed. They keep me connected to factories, to what is happening with China’s lockdowns and American labor shortages, and to where the distributed teams in the US are located. It’s a hard way to do hardware, fully remote and part time, but it’s rewarding, and the people are worth the contact hours. Many of them I’m sure I’ll work with again. Some I already have.

After these hours I rise and procure coffee, wandering down stairs to Fineprint to say hello to neighbors, the regular crowd. It’s a comfortable environment, the kind of experience central to our love for Hong Kong, for Tai Hang. Our street features a dozen restaurants, our neighborhood roughly thirty, and a fifteen minute walk’s radius an easy hundred. There is always somewhere to go, something to eat, someone to see. The liveliness of this kind of environment balances my work-partially-from-home situation perfectly. I can not imagine doing without, and worry some times about those on calls, so clearly in suburban locations, so clearly in a single family home with nothing to walk to. I worry about Americans.

I worry too about my Chinese friends, about those in closed loop” work environments that, with the euphemism discarded, means sleeping at work”. I worry about the sustainability of Covid Zero when it takes away everything but the ability to work. I hope we survive this, collectively. I hope my project manager, who has spent fifty three days in solitary quarantine in twenty twenty two, survives this. We don’t seem to have a choice.

Inside looking out

Hotel bed and towers beyond

Quarantine is always an odd experience. This time I’m alone, looking out at the world but unable to touch it. For seven days I watch the apartments above Elements, hundreds of boxes filled with life. I watch the restaurants and green spaces below, and the motion of cars. To one side I can see the Star Ferry trundle back and forth, and beyond that Hong Kong island, another stack of buildings and people. I watch a parent and child tend plants on their balcony, and children chase each other around a playground. Far to the left I can see a swimming pool, filled with those rich enough to reside in one of these towers.

Hong Kong is built on this density, on this ability to see several thousand apartments from any angle, but the view is rarely this good, nor are we forced to watch it this long. For a boy who loves people, loves towers, loves motion and this city, it’s a pleasure. While I of course would rather be out, rather be able to feel the air and touch the water, I’m glad to have this view.

Seven days is just long enough to force thoughtfulness. The first few days, burnt away in the haze of jet lag and working from a hotel, feel like any work trip anywhere. It isn’t till the weekend that the situation becomes clear. Like the weekends I used to spend in Dongguan, too injured to bother going anywhere, staying in a hotel alone is an odd experience. Even on those Dongguan weekends in twenty fourteen, though, I would spend most of the day walking, would feel the air and eat in restaurants. Quarantine is a different form of solitude. I think of all those who did three weeks like this, the requirement in Hong Kong over much of the past few years. I think of a factory project manager I know who spent fifty three days in quarantine in twenty twenty two for the pleasure of seeing her family in Taiwan for a week. Fifty three days alone, as a person others are to be afraid of touching.

It’s hard to imagine that length of time. It’s an odd experience, this week, but another few days and I’ll be home to my cat. Another few days and this whole trip, circumnavigating the globe fore the first time, will be over, almost like it never happened. So much of travel is like that, a blitz of new places, new weather, new colleagues and old friends, and then home again, to the cat, the family, and the hillside. Home to my tiny routines in our neighborhood, where the world is within reach.

I’m excited to see if the bakery has re-opened, to get bagels and milk tea. I’m excited to feel the humid air, and walk in the park.

Quarantine is a strange place, so close to home and yet nowhere anyone can see. And that comes back to the window, where I sit looking out. A boy kicks a soccer ball against some stairs, practicing his touch. Taxis loop in and out of the fancy apartment complexes, bringing guests and residents. And the harbor reflects the light as the sun sets on Saturday.

I’m glad to have this view, for a week.

Outward bound, again

Masked up, looking out the window at my airplane at HKG

In many ways the pandemic started for me in a hospital room in Hong Kong at seven am. The painkillers from shoulder surgery had worn off, and I was unable to sleep. My then boss called, letting me know our startup was furloughing everyone as our prospective lead VC had pulled out of the round. This string of words, which matter only in a specific universe, is how I became unemployed that morning while waiting for the nurse to bring the next round of meds. It was March 20th, 2020, and I knew recovery would be slow.

In many ways the pandemic ended for me purchasing flights late at night last Saturday. My new colleague did the purchasing, over Zoom, coordinating our trip to Dublin and then a week on-site with the team in San Francisco. The job is new, my start date is the date of boarding the flight to Dublin, and the future, much like it was in March of twenty twenty, is uncertain. I did not expect the end to be so clearly personally demarcated. The change, the shift that makes me feel so profoundly different, is that once again people are excited to pay me to fly places and learn things. That, it seems, is what I expect from the world, and having it restored has restored my sense of the possible. This change, in some ways, has restored the horizon that was so difficult to see.

We’ve learned a lot the last few years, us humans. We’ve suffered, too. I’m not high on the list of people in difficult situations. Knowing that has made it hard to write lately, when life felt hard, as I know life here in Hong Kong is quite good, even when restrictions were the tightest. It’s no Shanghai, and the sound of ambulances has never been as omnipresent as New Yorkers once described. We suffer mentally from the closed borders and we suffer physically from the closed gyms, but many people can still work, many people can still see their family. While the bar is low, Hong Kong has cleared that low bar.

Now the question is can we clear a higher bar, that of once again being one of the world’s best cities. Can this once again be a home base for people who are paid to fly places and learn things?

I hope so.

On this Tuesday, outbound to a country I’ve never been to tomorrow, everything suddenly feels possible, and the future bright.

A way to see

In the light chill of Hong Kong’s winter I again learn how to see. After yoga on a Friday I get breakfast at a diner. The restaurant’s front is open to the street, letting the weather sweep in. I wear a hat while eating, but no jacket. The warm food feels good. It’s that kind of cold.

My legs are tired, and I am glad to sit still. These moments, freshly clean after early morning exercise, with no place particular to be, are some of the best. The world has opened up before me the last few weeks, and I feel great. I am able again to appreciate the beauty of Hong Kong, the convenience of dense urban living and the lucky life we have built. I once again take note of things, finding new joy in awnings, in second floor shops, in light on laundry drying on rooftops. I take joy in the varied styles of Hong Kongers, from super urbane to bankers, from those out for a run to the utilitarian workplace garments of off-duty kitchen crew. I appreciate the space this city offers for everyone, even when we’re scant meters apart.

On a Tuesday evening I’m asked a question that stumps me still, a week later.

What do you do in your time off?”

We are sitting on a stretch of corner outside a bar that will close too soon for my liking. I hope this bit of corner maintains it’s importance as the neighborhood hangout. These scant square feet of board and brick are the place to meet on a Friday, to chat on a Tuesday, or to sit around with the dogs on a Sunday. Tiny community centers like this are rare and valuable. Our corner is known all over the city as a neat neighborhood spot”.

What do I do in my time off?

Certainly not write or not publish enough, as this site will attest. Not work, though I put in a half dozen hours a week on paid projects and the same amount on hunting what’s next. Not work out, though I do most days, for an hour or so. Not see friends, though likewise I do at least a few times a week, a morning climbing, an afternoon in the park, or an evening chat. Not read, though I do that almost every waking hour, intake news or novels or blogs or newsletters or magazines. Not chores, though I do laundry and the dishes every day, clean the bathrooms once a week, clean the cat’s accouterment daily, and vacuum twice a week. Not hang out with my partner, as she’s at work nine hours plus a day.

What do I do in my time off?

Mostly try to keep my eyes open. It’s easy to nap.

Ahead of us

The hardest thing of being on pause is figuring out what’s ahead of us. The hardest thing about lockdowns is not knowing when they’ll lift.

In Hong Kong the last week of March is filled with rain, and without activities. Friends message from blocks away to say the’ve done nothing with the weekend. Friends message from other islands asking if we did anything. Friends message from other sides of the world, having just returned from Mexico, from Hawaii, from Mexico, and we must explain that Hong Kong will not let us out, won’t let us go to gyms, or use the exercise equipment in the park. Hong Kong won’t let us use the beach, or the airport. Hong Kong won’t let us see the world, or come home.

The rainy week is a perfect match for these restrictions, for the quiet that overtakes us when the only thing to do is stand in line for cookies at the fancy store across the street. Fifty people do at all hours, or at least at all hours the shop is open. I laugh at them, but can’t blame. There is nowhere else to go, not much else to do. Hiking, the only activity of any potential these past few months, is less appealing in the rain.

Instead we consider what will come next, when this child is born, when our life of two is a life of three. It’s hard to imagine, not least of all because we don’t know who we will share this apartment with. It is hard to imagine because we can’t see into our own future at all. There are no trips, no vacations, and haven’t been in years. There are no moves, no visits from distant friends, no concerts, no movies, no holidays. There is, in short, nothing on the horizon, which again matches this rainy week perfectly, the physical horizon as obscured as the chronological.

To counter these feelings of opacity we cook and see friends, sharing meals and light banter. We build lego, we work, and we work out in our apartment, glad for the quiet and free from any external requirements. It is, in many ways, a low stress environment, a relaxing few weeks of calm time. We are lucky to have jobs, to have food, to have shelter.

In other ways it is sad to have these low bars be our only achievements, and we desperately miss the feeling of potential that used to lift our spirits, that used to encompass our lives.

Summer will be here soon, and another member of our household. Perhaps by then the future will have returned to us.