Shape

In the background of our current situation certain topics repeat. They range from the inane chatter of the truly privileged, where we will go when first able to fly again, to the serious, where now can we imagine settling down. The later is a conversation not about home prices or commutes but, in the fall of twenty twenty, of where democracy and free speech will be possible, where will support non-car based lifestyles without also oppressing journalists and school children, without also building social structures that repress minorities?

The later is a hard conversation, ruling out as our criteria do both the small college towns of our American youth and the large Asian metropolii of our twenties and thirties. We are caught between the hell Facebook has unleashed and the deathtrap of authoritarian regimes. As with so many of a certain class and education we long for Paris in the 20’s, for New York in the 70’s, Hong Kong in the 80’s, and even Shanghai in the 00’s. Mostly we long for freedom, for the joy that comes with an explosion of expression and the ability to make new things in environments that don’t require the automobile. These are sad topics, avoided until they re-emerge, the looming background of every longer conversation.

The most frequent topic though is that of our selves, of our jobs, and of the people we are trying so very hard to become. Whether we are learning software or hardware, finance or general management, recruiting or e-commerce or app development, the main questions are of our ambition and the way it will shape our lives. Will we be happy to have spent hundreds of hours striving so hard in search of success? Will we be happy to have worked so hard at startups that may linger and become brands but will probably fail as our startups have before, will probably fade as our companies and efforts have before? Will we be happy with the resulting t-shirts and laptop stickers, LinkedIn CV badges, and stories of free beer?

Who are we building with all these hours of focus, who are we working so hard to create? Will we like these people, still incomplete and already overwhelmed, who focus on work on Saturday morning and Sunday evening, who work till midnight on weekdays and forget to visit the gym?

I wonder. In the spring of twenty twenty I thought we were doing the right thing by taking our time, by not rushing back to the job market, by not rushing back to the working world. In the fall I know we were correct, as I watch how quickly our habits are overwhelmed by our responsibilities, how our sense of obligation to the work goal outweighs our body’s sense of fitness and fatigue. I know we are building something, and that after those months off we were bored and ready to be more fully utilized. I know we try hard to be part of good teams, to relax when we are in between things and to take longer and longer off each time. And yet, here we are, two months in and fully under water, working hard to breathe.

I hope we are building what we seek.

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.