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.

In and out of conversations

On a Saturday afternoon in the heat of June I hide in the shade and air-conditioning and think about what is next. As a friend said to me one evening in Dongguan some six years back, always do whatever’s next.” In short order I will. After weeks of conversations, I’m looking forward to the change. After a few months off, after surgery and healing, after weeks of playing ping pong in the park and video games in the afternoons, of going to happy hours and studying Mandarin on alternate evenings, I will once again have a job. For the first time since moving to Hong Kong in the fall of twenty eighteen, I will have an office. For the first time since the spring of twenty seventeen, I’ll have a team. The three and a half years in that sentence feels like a lifetime. I try to remember that boy, biking from Fruitvale station and eating hotdogs along the estuary at lunch, and am happy for him. From a distance I can clearly see the good in those days.

Over these past weeks, with a variety of friends, the threads of a single conversation became clear. The chats, which start with rituals, questions about the current day, future plans, and recent shared activities, dive slowly to deeper topics. Jobs, first, and the challenges that surround them. How to handle a boss that won’t listen to a suggestion, or how to manage a request that can’t be completed. These are basic parts of modern life, and reveal so much about how humans treat each other. This languid survey of friends shows those who have or have had decent relationships with their direct managers to be shockingly rare, one in five, one or two in ten. Buried in the commonalities of the stories is a shared desire to treat ourselves better and to develop empathy. As I wrote once about flying, any opportunity to reflect on our choices is an opportunity to treat each other better.

In so many ways we become who we are gradually, over years, the accumulation of hours at our chosen craft, the accumulation of hours in transit, moving from the person we were to the person we hope to be. Through trying new sports and learning from new friends, by studying for hours, and through teaching ourselves to solve problems, we gain new abilities and learn how to answer old questions. Through our experiences, better ones and worse ones, we learn better how to treat others, and what we hope for from leadership.

In other ways we are creatures of the immediate, reacting to the daily encounters and constantly in unfamiliar situations. In so many ways we are built on a series of sudden changes, job offers, injuries, and singular days of travel that forever shift what we will do, and where we have been. In these moments so much of our nature is both revealed and shaped. In moments of great disturbance we have the opportunity to become better, to change ourselves rapidly. For years the difference between these two types of change have fascinated me, the fast and the slow. As an early version of this site’s about page said, it’s the love of both that leads me to move so frequently and stay so long. Loving both the small rituals of daily routine and the rush of learning a new place, I am so happy to move, rather than just visit. Almost two years into Hong Kong I am both glad at how comfortable it feels and excited at how much more there is to learn. Once again I revise my baseline of time required in a place upwards. We have but scant years, and so much to learn.

Here then on this last weekend where the immediate future is uncertain I try to remember all I have learned since the last spate of time off, or the gap before that. I promise to try to follow through on the hopes of the shared conversations of the past few months, to be more of what we all hope for. And I try, on this last weekend, to make space for all that we will learn, when we do whatever’s next.

Parked car

In Hong Kong in June the temperature sits at 30º C well into the evening. Outside the public housing in Chung Sha Wan older men listen to the radio and fan themselves with newspapers, feet up on the table benches and flip flops sitting idly below. Across the street children do laps around a roller skating rink under lights. The humidity is here, a constant presence in this world where all wear masks out of doors, but by June it goes unremarked on, a fact of life.

Along the street taxis are starting to park as traffic slows. A couple of friends sit in their car, windows down, smoking and scrolling their phones. In dense communities the cars become another room, their location along a nearby street a minor inconvenience when everything is walkable and close. I walk into the station thinking about those friends.

In a parked car by the station
I am using my imagination

My street has a lot of parking, arranged parallel to the flow of traffic for greater density. In the evenings it is contested as access to a plethora of restaurants. Late nights it fills with taxis and tired men wiping down the seats before heading home after a late shift. In between, in the evenings, it is a neighborhood of solitary smokers, of couples on dates and in fights, of individuals seeking space to surf the internet. These parked cars, windows on all sides, stationed in front of busy restaurants and 7-Elevens, with dozens of passers by at all times, are private spaces. Carved from public by the metal and glass, they are bubbles we have all agreed to allow, for each other’s sake, amid these dense towers of small floor plans.

Occupying parked cars is not a Hong Kong-only solution, though it is common here. In Japan cars are rented by office workers to serve as solitary lunchrooms, and in San Francisco’s Mission district they were similarly occupied by denizens of dense multi-family dwellings and lone homeless, though both were far more subject to police awakening.

I remember how much of my high school life took place in parked cars, in mall parking lots, parks, and odd secret spots, and sympathize. That child of upstate New York’s open spaces was lucky enough to find places with a view of the lake rather than a view of the subway station, to find trees to park beneath rather than street lights. And yet I love these dense neighborhoods, how everyone commits to whatever space they can share. Watching friends get take out from a restaurant to eat in their car in the parking space in front, barely two meters from the tables being served on the sidewalk, we all seem a little closer.

I dreamed to sit in an illegally parked car
For all eternity

Quoted lyrics from Tina Dico’s Parked Car’ off of 2018’s Fastland

The restaurant downstairs

We live above the type of restaurant I used to dream of running. My inspiration came from Stella’s, a coffee shop in Cornell’s college town. To my younger self, Stella’s was the perfect place, big enough that there was always space, light enough to read and study but dark enough to feel alone. There’s a fine balance in lighting that serves both mood and need. Stella’s had a couple of tables right at the front, before the counter. These were perfect for newcomers, for those on a date and uncertain of whom they were meeting, and for the quick chat type of business meeting or project discussion. They were visible from the street, rarely occupied for long, and didn’t require engaging with any of the other clientele.

Further back there were small tables and booths. The booths, with leather benches, were coveted by those planning to remain until their paper on Cicero was complete, sometime in the spring. Those were staked, like claims, with piles of books and papers, and the occupant would be alternately deep in thought, asleep, or completely gone, having left sufficient weight, sufficient evidence of intent behind to hold their space. Other booths would be filled with noisy groups of friends, playing cards or arguing about physics. As a teenager I would hole up in one, if lucky, with a book and a journal, alternately deeply self-absorbed and totally engaged in watching the behavior of those older than myself.

Downstairs, in Hong Kong, the coffee shop is smaller, of course. There are not enough tables to occupy with books, but the three counters, one for each wall and one for the serving space, provide plenty of seating for those trying to craft startup ideas or simply surf the net from a place not their apartment. The front steps are a frequent stopping point for dog walkers, who build knowledge of one anther through their pets behavior. The staff is friendly, the coffee good, and, like Stella’s, in the evening there are cocktails and a smattering of food. In many ways it is perfect.

These types of shops are not rare now, no longer solely the providence of college towns. There are coffee shop slash bars in almost every city and town, and I’m sure I’d find a favorite in many. Even here, the cafe downstairs is a second branch, the first having opened in Central some five years back. What makes the spot special, in the end, is the title. The restaurant downstairs is the simplest of descriptions, and the most powerful. It is a statement of density, of multi-use buildings, and of accessibility. Of course the staff knows me. Of course we are regulars. We live up stairs.

This is the second time in my life I have ever lived above a restaurant. In Shanghai, Tokyo, Houston, Boston, and San Francisco, I did not. Only once, for brief summer months where I lived on a sofa in New York, has the phrase ever been true before. As with my joy at finally living downtown by the train in an American city, I am thrilled with the current situation. Walking downstairs for coffee or bread is a great reminder of exactly what Hong Kong’s density has given us, so many parts of my perfect city made real.

I’m sure eventually we won’t live above a restaurant, it’s a rarer scenario than it should be. Until then though I’ll probably keep wandering downstairs in my flip-flops looking for fresh beans, comfortable with the hours and staff, and slowly meeting the neighbors. I wish more people, and especially more Americans, could enjoy the same.