We float

Clearwater Bay

On off days, in good places, we have nowhere to be save on the water, or under it. The joy of the first quick dunk or dive is hard to match. Submerging always provides such a clear break with the world above. We have spent much time adrift, from houseboats on Lake Shasta or Lake Havasu to inner tubes in cold rivers in the Pacific North West or warmer ones in upstate New York. In recent years we’ve gotten lucky, spending days on the Colorado at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and on kayaks around small islands in Raja Ampat. All these breaks bring peace to the rest of our lives, give us small gaps of distance from the burdens of to-do-lists and spreadsheets, product meetings and sample reviews.

The best gift, in times like these, is to have such peace available near to home. In San Francisco we used to get moments of separation on an old sailboat with a haphazard group of acquaintances, telling stories of landmarks and wondering about the history of boats we passed beneath the Bay Bridge. Each time out was a gift, the reward of friendships we never expected to discover.

In Hong Kong on a Saturday we hop off the side of the boat as it comes to a stop in Clearwater Bay, around the corner and out of sight of the city. The water lives up to the name, and the temperature is perfect. For hours we swim and drift, chat and throw discs as the water laps gently at our arms and necks. We jump off the boat’s second deck and dive for thrown objects from the first. On board we eat, sing, and laugh. The guitar gets some work, as do the flippers. Mostly, though, we relax. In the middle of a long year, in the middle of an undetermined period of limitations and stress, it’s wonderful to have so much physical joy at hand, and so few risks.

Save, of course, for those who are afraid of heights, who are lightly heckled to jump and either do or retreat from the edge to laughter. Still, this is a mild form of pressure, that of friends with no risks save a momentary stutter of the heart as the feet leave the deck.

It’s a good way to spend a Saturday, and a good reminder that wherever we are, we need to step off the edge and into water every now and again.

All we can see

The story of growing up, for me, is the story of learning how to manage my body. This story doesn’t happen all at once, or evenly. There are good years and bad, months of quick progress and months lost to sloth and adventure. Some years I take up running in the mornings. Other years I rise early to bike to the climbing gym before work, sliding into my desk at nine thirty am having ridden 6 miles and spent an hour on the walls of Dogpatch Boulders.

There are other years, like perhaps this one, where I am held back by injuries and instead focus on muscle control, on single-leg squats, on planks and on the ability to raise my left arm above my head. These years are productive too: in twenty fourteen I spent much of the summer learning how to walk in the pool of the Park Lane in Dongguan. That stretch remains a high point of patience and growth.

Our lives, I have written, are written on our bodies as much as on the rest of the world, a topography that can be learned by others, or hidden from view. Our skills are not stagnant, they require maintenance and patience, diligence and some semblance of desire. Ten years ago I had never bouldered, had not yet taken climbing seriously. Perhaps I still have not, unwilling to put on harness or rope, unwilling to follow rigid routines on fingerboards. I still prefer the small self-built habits of the amateur over the youtube rituals of the practitioner. In this preference so much of my life can be found; the habit of writing five new characters a day to remember my Mandarin born of the park in Xujiahui some fifteen years ago is still with me in our Hong Kong apartment, though my knowledge of words has not improved as it should have given such repetition. In some ways this desire to build my own rituals is invigorating, and in some ways limiting. As with the body, the mind is an exercise in growth that rewards both dedication and new attempts.

For the most part I manage to avoid this kind of introspection, focusing instead on the expansion of scars, the patchwork of criss crosses that now adorn my left shoulder. They compliment the two slashes that match the gaps between ribs on my left side, now mostly faded and unremarkable. All are, when clothed, less visible than the scar below my right eye. None of these are large, a minimal presence like the first scattering of stars as night falls. In this I am lucky, the product of a body that tends to good balance and has benefited from good medicine, in not-quite-equal parts.

And still, doing repeated exercises in our apartment in the quarantine days, trying and failing to raise my arm over my head with both hand and elbow flush against the wall, I am grateful for the slow pace of both recovery and growth. Halfway through my forty first year I am still learning new sports, still learning new exercises, and still able to devote hundreds of hours to each. This is the clearest kind of luck, and so I try to record my gratitude, despite the discomfort and tedium.

Saturated

The first few weeks of a new job test our abilities to take in information. For days we come home tired and then have calls in the evening. Some days we stay home and talk either to each other or others constantly. We read, worry, check, reach out and try so hard to learn faster.

The process feels like a test of our ability to learn. Here is all of the information, our new employers say. When can you make decisions? And for weeks, on long walks after dinner or while having coffee in the morning, we tell each other to make fewer decisions, to try and do as little as possible, to react as little as possible. Because we do not yet know, and will regret the decisions made in haste these first few weeks. Take it slow, we tell each other. Don’t believe that we understand the situation, we tell each other. Be patient and learn, we say. These are the words of our past selves. The strengths of repeated startup failures is a wealth of experience in starting over, in learning everything again.

Finally, now, driven by those past tries, we are relaxed enough to tell our colleagues and our managers that we are trying to avoid making decision early. We are trying to avoid making decisions rashly, without all the data. And one week in it’s not possible to have all the data, have all the knowledge of what came before. We test our capacity to input and find it wanting, unable to absorb thousands of hours of learning and creation in the scant hours of a single week. We talk about how tired our brains are, in the evenings before sleep.

We do not give credit enough to how awake our brains are. After months of ping pong and yoga, surfing and naps, video games and novels, we are awake. We are more fully deployed and our abilities tested in all directions. It is exhausting in the way that true utilization is exhausting. It is tiring in the way tournaments are tiring, our bodies pushed to and beyond what they were ready for. The evenings this past week have been like those glorious hours of post tournament revelry where we are beat up and utterly present.

So here we are again in the summer of twenty twenty: happy, exhausted, full of energy, unable to sleep, and fully alive.

Saturated.

Reprieve

Alone in the house on a Saturday I do laundry and putter. It is a beautiful day to this child of upstate New York, gray and intermittently rainy. I leave the air conditioner off for most of the afternoon and crack windows, a luxury in this Hong Kong summer. It is the first of August. The cat is as surprised at the noises of the outdoor world as at the humidity, having spent months now inside the purring bubble of dry air we maintain for him.

Weather has always been the most fascinating thing. The changes of season and time that happen suddenly are both a stark reminder that everything changes and an explanation of why the world, in its own way, will not remember. Any single moment will not be tethered, be stuck down to any particular feeling. After months of humid weather that makes the mask wearing reality of our current situation an exercise in patience, the typhoon blows in from Hainan and the south east suddenly. It is a reminder, delivered overnight, that pants will again be possible and hoodies, one day, will be more than a protection against sitting below the office AC unit. It is a reminder that the trickle of sweat that attaches mask to skin will one day disappear.

For as long as I can remember my body has been a poor historian, unable to recall what the weather felt like a day before, or last month. Now, with the windows open and the birds chirping I suddenly remember sweating in Tokyo this time last year. It is a feeling more than a memory, and soon gone. In today’s change I remember other moments, my brain aided by photography. Last year we stood under an awning as the typhoon drenched streets and battered shop signage, curtains of rain cutting off the view. In June and July that seemed impossible, every moment outdoors spent wiping sweat from our eyes, every ping pong game requiring a shower at it’s conclusion. For months our apartments were small capsules that mimicked the temperate climes of our youth and we wondered if we would always rely on these whirring dripping drying machines. A year ago tomorrow I walked under the Chiba monorail to meet a friend in a tree house. A year ago today I stood on a bridge in Osaka waiting for a man I know from college to take us clubbing to celebrate his birthday. The weather of those days, like the travel that enabled them, feels impossibly distant from the past three months of heat and sweat and bubbles.

And yet suddenly on August first I leave the windows open and dream of sleeping likewise.

Change will come, and our bodies forget. Our challenge is to embrace, and be able to move again.

Saying goodbye

Barefoot on a rock

Every time it’s a surprise. Every time I wonder if this will be the last such surprise. I’m learning, slowly, that they will all be a surprise, right up to the end. I won’t ever be ready. In that sentence is the truth about all of this, the truth about how I feel. I am not ready.

We met years ago on a frisbee field in Shanghai. It became a favorite legend, recounted to each other often. You were lying on the grass at the end of a tournament, off to one side, reading a book, a novel I think. You always remembered which one. Le Guinn, maybe, who you loved. It was a strange thing to do, read a book alone on the grass. The end of a tournament is usually such a social moment, everyone milling about, barefoot, having a drink, enjoying the sunshine and friendship, so glad that the running is done. It’s my favorite time, probably ever. Especially on Saturdays. On Saturdays, when the tournament isn’t done, when we’ve all just paused for the evening, it’s beautiful. There’s no missing anything yet, none of the sadness that comes at the end of the weekend. It’s golden hour and the world looks so beautiful. We’re often somewhere odd: a field in Manila, a field in Korea, a field in Shanghai. I love to get a beer and wander through the crowd, watching people and watching the world, appreciating how lucky we are to be fit enough, to be rich enough, to be free enough to travel and play. Every time I’m amazed, from my first international tournament in Shanghai in 04, to the most recent, Manila in December last year, or Shenzhen in January, or Los Angeles the week after. It’s a luxury, it’s our church, our community, what we spend so much of our money and time on. What we give our bodies to.

I remember you so clearly: such an odd picture, all arms and legs, so skinny, reading. I was curious, and never shy. I probably poked you with a foot and asked about the book. Somehow it worked. After that we were friends.

There were tournaments in between, on different teams. The Hong Kong one is a famous touchpoint, 07, 6 of us jammed in your tiny apartment to save on housing costs, playing Blockus and relaxing on the rooftop in the evenings. It wasn’t my first time in Hong Kong, but it was formative, the first time with friends from all over in the same house, people from Korea Manila Shanghai all jammed on top of each other, friends at last despite our different teams and competitive natures. I looked at a picture from that weekend yesterday. You look just like yourself, still all arms and legs and a ridiculous beard I’d forgotten. So young, in retrospect. Your youth always wore a heavy disguise.

I remember that apartment so strongly from half a year later. I was between jobs, between everything. You told me to come stay, a month, you said, and so I did. By then you’d abandoned the kitchen, a step prior to abandoning the whole house. But for a few weeks in the spring of 08 we were lazy, barely working. We went to the park, and played Blockus on the roof a lot. Those weeks were the kind of peaceful break that becomes so rare in life as we age, where there really is nothing to do save enjoy each other’s company and explore a bit. You knew people, we played some disc, but those aren’t the parts that stick. What sticks is lying on our backs looking at the dark sky and talking about life, about where we would go, as soon as we could be bothered to leave that roof.

The details of those conversations, like the boys that were holding them, are gone, lost to time and all the nights since. All that remains, like with most of our time together, is a patchwork of memories, maybe a single photo, and gratitude. Years later you would lie on the windowsill of our apartment in San Francisco, in 2012, as though no time at all had passed. In some ways it hadn’t. We were before so much then still, in such an early part of our lives. In between those two reclined evenings you’d moved to Taiwan, and briefly LA, and then Portland, into a domestic life. I’d done the same, left Shanghai for Houston and then San Francisco. The apartment you saw was already our second there, in the foggy Richmond district.

In twenty thirteen we’d come north to see you, in Portland’s summer, but you’d already moved on, headed to the UK. Instead we picked berries at what had been your house with other friends and reminisced. That’s how it works with scattered friends, there’s a lot of surprising joyful overlap and a lot of near misses. Years later I’d stand in front of your old apartment in Sheung Wan and call you in the UK. I was thinking of moving to Hong Kong, I’d say, and I missed your rooftop. I wondered if I could get one of my own, and whether you’d come visit. You said you would, that you were thinking of moving to Japan anyway. I promised not to abandon the kitchen before you did.

There were other moments, of course. Quite a bit of frisbee, some wonderful book swaps via post, and long phone calls. But the most important moments were in person. They always are. I remember wandering the Mission together one morning of our last year there, just enjoying the San Francisco air before you packed up your airbnb and went to the airport. That was a great visit, the whole family in town for a weekend. We had dinner with a group of old friends as well, the first time we’d been all together in years.

Now, sitting in Hong Kong, I think of our last evening together in Osaka, wandering small streets, eating good sushi and eventually drinking gin until we had to run for the last train. Or the weekend prior, in Kyoto, horsing around on the streets near Nijo Castle. I remember your face as you biked home, that wicked grin and those long limbs. When recalled like this, working back through our years together, I’m amazed and happy at how much there was. For two people who never managed to live in the same state, who spent most of their lives in different countries, we did pretty well together with what little we had.

I wish so much that there was more to come.