Dedication

PMQ view

She’s already settled by the time I climb the last flight of stairs at nine am. Her workbooks, pad of paper, pen, and laptop are neatly arranged. Her mask is still on. She’s tucked in a nook at a small table on the public balcony outside of my office, ready to go. Every day for a week she is there, before I arrive. These public areas are a well-known secret, a space for students after school to finish homework and chat, a space for tourists to enjoy the view down over central, and a space, sometimes, for work from home types and others to enjoy the fresh air. There aren’t many tables in all, and fewer now with some closed still due to the building’s strange coronavirus restrictions. Some gathering areas are fine, but not others. Some indoor rooms are available, but not all the outdoor spaces. Like many things the response is a mishmash of sensible and awkward.

At three pm this results in a scramble for outdoor space, those of us in the five small offices that share this floor competing with the students and tourists for places to take video calls, places to check in with our partners, places to take a five minute break from our colleagues. At four this jam peaks, and by six or so, as people start to drift away to dinner or to the gym, as the offices start to empty, the balconies are free. As the lights come on down the hill in Central the whole building gains a bit of Bladerunner, the sky lit with halos of signs as it otherwise fades through shades of darker blue.

The punctual woman is gone by then, of course. Her schedule seems fixed, starting at least at nine and ending before three. Or perhaps that’s the limit on her laptop’s battery, as there is no power on this balcony, retrofitted from its earlier purpose to this role as tourist destination and incubator. Every day for a week I wonder about her. My own team is not as punctual, arriving between eight forty five and ten thirty. Her rigor, then, stands out, as does her arrangement of materials. An online class, I expect. Perhaps languages, though that is probably a reflection of my own learning pattern rather than an accurate assessment. Whatever her goal, I am impressed by her dedication, by her preparation, and by her discovery of this tiny sanctuary among the bustle of Soho. When she disappears again, a week later, I wonder if the class is over or if the increasing virus case load has caused her to revisit time spent in public.

Whatever her goals, and whatever her reason for the week on our balcony, I hope she achieved them. Having studied myself on odd hours, on breaks between jobs and long evenings, I know the value of her rigor, and her habit. Age is of course a guess, for someone I never spoke to more than a quiet hello. Fifty, I’d estimate, punctual and well-prepared. May I too be so dedicated, regardless of aims.

Hope in the world

As Hong Kong has come back to life these last few weeks, this past month and a half, I’ve felt something new. Perhaps it’s just me, wishful thinking after months of quarantine. Perhaps it’s just privilege of having survived five months off work without awful economic impact, and having been able to get a job again. Perhaps it’s the change in the weather, the pull of the outdoors once the heat breaks. Every room feels better with the windows open than with the AC on.

And yet, perhaps this feeling is not only internal. Perhaps everyone is a little more open, a little more willing. Perhaps people are more likely to say thank you, more likely to hold a door or appreciate one being held. They seem more likely to wave, more likely to smile as we pass. As though we all appreciate our existence a bit more, and are glad that we are all alive. Playing frisbee yesterday at the park, the non-field area was full of families sitting in the shade, enjoying the grass, and everyone, unfailingly, was polite and glad to be outside. This could be temporary, caged birds emerging to stretch their wings. It could be how we operate now, entire generations defined by our common experience, by the shared trauma of pandemic and societal discipline. Survivors of a global economic crash, our saving habits changed and earning potential crushed, we now have another thing to share, that of being stuck at home and afraid, of being physically unable to move, unable to touch, unable to share.

As always it is hard to see the future, to know what will change forever and what we will gleefully forget when able. This weekend, at least, we are all out in the air, and even with our faces covered we are happy to be seen, happy to see, and happy, finally, to share.

Walking in the rain

After thirteen years, long walks are still a great joy. This statement seems a good sign, and a good starting place. Lately, during these pandemic months of alternating joy at the ability to congregate and sadness at the freedoms we have lost, that’s how I think about our life together thus far. A good starting place. For more than a decade we have worked on becoming the people we hope to be. We have worked on fitness, on skills, on friends, and on the never-ending goal of being comfortable everywhere. From tech startups in the Bay to bookstores in Houston, from distributed teams in Hong Kong to small companies where we hire our friends, we’ve worked on work. Work, in these cases, are mishmash of things. Work is a focus on getting paid, on getting better at making decisions. It’s getting better at building teams and products. Mostly, it’s just work.

Sports are much the same, time spent working on our bodies as full systems and as specific sets of injuries that need attention. Sitting on the floor in our sunroom with blisters on all my toes after a weekend of ultimate I am acutely aware of the need for better preparation. The pandemic’s halt to organized competition may have given me six months off to rehab from shoulder surgery but it also seems to have removed all my callouses from cleats and climbing shoes, leaving my feet more vulnerable than they were a year prior. These small wounds do not count as injuries in the larger picture. They won’t leave scars or require PT. They are just part of the process of becoming competitive again, a challenge that grows both more familiar and a little more difficult every time. It’s a challenge I’m still happy to undertake. Or at least happy to undertake again, this current time.

At yoga, occasionally, for my shoulder, I look at what we have learned, how much more flexible and strong, and am sure it is worth all the sacrifices. We are lucky, to be able to make these trades, mental space and easy sleep for muscles that ache and minds that will not rest. They’re the trades that have built this foundation.

Walking along the edge of Hong Kong island together in the rain, I am happy to feel the chill of it on my skin after the long hot summer and happy to have time to talk and think with each other on an evening in October. The moments of reflection like this walk are less common for us now than they were in the spring, a product of our decisions. More often now the bodies are too tired from the gym, or the work calls go on until one or the other of us is already asleep. On certain occasions, though, we make time for nothing else, and take a long walk somewhere new. On evenings like this one we give each other space to walk through our work problems, to be the sounding boards of first resort that we have been for so long. Looking at the lights in Kowloon and listening to the lap of the harbor against the side walls is a reminder that these long walks work. Like the long bike rides that proceeded them in San Francisco, or the long skates in Houston, they are how we process, how we grow, and how we share what we have learned.

Thirteen years of these exchanges later I am mostly grateful to have spent them together. I am glad to have shared all the work to reach this starting place, ready for whatever’s next.

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.