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.

For later

Looking towards Kowloon in the fog

I will remember this winter of 2022 I expect. Every morning I make tea and look out the window at Kowloon. This morning city is strangely foggy, closed off, quiet. There are no runners on the track, no tennis players on the courts. Few folk are out. I cannot see the ICC across the harbor, one of the world’s tallest buildings ghosting me. Neon on other TST rooftops is still on, bleeding though the fog with vague appeals.

This is a rare view of Hong Kong, a city usually bustling and humid. I am grateful for the quiet moments, as they match my life, unemployed and awaiting great change. By the peak of summer’s heat everything will be different, our lives, work, weather, this room, the fact that I sit wrapped in a blanket.

These quiet mornings the past two years have given me time to think. I’ve wasted much of it on reading news and random things, and still around the edges the quiet hours have done their trick. I’m happy here, in the house before it wakes, with my brain before it does likewise. I am glad to tend the cat and put away dishes, to make tea and then watch the treetops of Victoria Park, looking towards the harbor. Even the cockatoos are silent today. Usually they wheel about at seven thirty sharp, expressing their opinions of the morning to the world in loud voices.

The only reliable motion is the trundling busses, double decker ones and mini ones, back and forth on King’s road and up the hill. I love that the only sound is public transportation. There are people out of course, this is a dense urban center, but no more than twenty or so visible, scant different here at seven from two am this morning. There are always ten people visible from our seventh floor apartment. This is Hong Kong and we are never alone.

I wonder what this room will feel like in July. I wonder what my mornings will be like in the heat? Will I run AC in here or ensure the mornings? What did I do last year? It’s hard to remember the same as always. I got this chair in June. We gave away the couch that had occupied this spot some time later. The shapes of prior furniture come back to me, vaguely, but not the feel of their coverings on my skin. Years later and I am still confused by the changes in weather.

Shaped by people

My grandfather, Keith Seegmiller, reading to me when I was small

Often the people who shape us are a surprise. The freshman year roommate from the other coast that turns our expectations upside down. The weird studious kid in our college circle with whom we share a variety of countries with, and a trail of physical correspondence that spans twenty years. Even these examples are somewhat predictable, people in our near orbits, people at the same schools. Sometimes the shaping folk come from stranger orbits than these. They come from small towns outside of Tokyo, or outside of Shanghai. They are colleagues who grew up in clothing factories, whose voices and smiles we can still see, fifteen years on. They are colleagues in San Francisco, who sat with us on a median in Dongguan and gave us life advice, often recalled on this site, to always do whatever’s next”.

Often the people who shape us are entirely predictable. They are our family, they are those in all the globe most similar. They are those whose eyebrows we share, those our facial expressions have called to mind since we were young. They are those who shaped us, our young intellects, with book recommendations, with conversations, with visits to Fallingwater and art museums. They are those who shaped us with their joy in rivers, their love of fields, and their curiosity about the world. We are lucky, to be shaped by those with curiosity. We are lucky to be shaped by people now gone.

Not all endings are the ones we chose. If life provides any lesson repeatedly it is that people are rarely ready to be done. People are rarely ready to be finished with their studies, their career, their relationships, their lives. Sometimes they shape us with their lives, rather than with their actions. As I say often, we are creatures guided not by opportunity but by example, and there are few stronger than those we grow up around. If their kitchen tables are stacked with magazines, we will flip through them when bored. If their walls are covered with maps, we will become engrossed on the way to the bathroom in the afternoon and forget our purpose. If they like long walks through fields as the light changes in the early evenings, we will too, and these hours will become important without our really stopping to think why. Our examples shape us not through conscious imitation but through the pull of the familiar. When given choices we drift towards things we understand, towards things we have seen before and find familiar. We drift towards what we think we know.

It is on those teaching us then to be broadening the familiar, to be constantly increasing what will seem comfortable when encountered again. From architecture to art, from global history to local water politics, we are luckiest to learn from those interested in the world and engaged with their surroundings. These are the lessons we’ll need to learn, the kinds of traits we’ll seek so hard to pass on ourselves.

Sad, then, to have to do it without those that so shaped us.