Worth remembering

“Tokyo,” I answer. The question was where I’d like to turn 40. Of course Tokyo.

Our lives are brief windows into the world, and we manage only a smidgeon of the possible. Places learned when young remain outsized in memory, our early experiences more important, larger, than recent events. So, of course, Tokyo.

The first time I saw it, the week before my 18th birthday, Tokyo was already changing my life. That trip, a gift from a family friend, was my first real glimpse of the world outside the US, and enabled me to say yes to the post-college move back, at 22.

Turning 40 is an excuse to gather people to a city I love, to celebrate something both personal and utterly universal. Mostly, it’s a way to remember that boy turning 18 here, reading the Stand and operating with limited language. A week in Tokyo without goals, with no objectives or destinations, is an invitation to the deluge of memories from birthdays in two thousand two and three, turning 23 and 24. I remember, scant days before arriving, how I used to give presents to those who came to my birthdays, Bilbo Baggins style. And so I do, picking out small things that I love about Japan for each guest. It’s an excuse to wander Tokyu Hands, to consider who is coming, and to consider where we are.

I am lucky this time, and so many people have agreed to join us, from San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, New York, and Singapore. As these friends gather to our rented apartment I am shocked at the joy each arrival brings. Shocked not because I didn’t expect to be joyful but because I hadn’t understood in the planning stages how *much* joy sharing Tokyo with these people would bring. For this boy born in the rural hills of the US North East, Tokyo remains the perfect city. It combines incredible transportation with utter foreignness, huge crowded centers with quiet side streets. More than any place I know, Tokyo rewards wandering, with small shops, shrines, and beauty scattered across an urban tapestry of such scale as to be infinite. Tokyo, in many ways, is proof of what humans can build, as opposed to what we so often do.

On this trip we rent bicycles for the first time and reap the rewards of this most human scale of transportation, meandering from Hatsudai to Naka Meguro on small streets and through new neighborhoods. We bike to Shimo Kitazawa and back and are immediately lost. These kind of odd adventures are enjoyable only on bicycle, with the ability to cover large distances, stop easily, and never be too tired to manage one more side street.

As a way to welcome a new decade the week is perfect, filled with old friends and new memories. Seth takes us for whisky at the New York Bar that once housed Bill Murray, a foray inaccessible in our early twenties. A large group of us have drinks at the tiny 10cc, enjoying newfound comfort in a neighborhood that intimidated the younger version of myself. We stand on the rooftop of our apartment and watch Mt. Fuji as the sun sets. We take the Yurikamome line back over the rainbow bridge from Odaiba and Toyosu, artificial lands of the late boom now comfortably part of the present day. We eat in Ginza and Ikebukuro, in Harajuku and Hatsudai, together and separately. Some discover crem brûlée shaved ice and others revel in okonomiyaki, and no one goes hungry. Mostly we wander far and wide, on foot and by train, in the best fashion of unplanned vacation.

Watching my friends spend the week sharing their favorite parts of Tokyo and discovering new treasures is the best kind of present, one that makes my heart bigger. At the end of the week, on the Narita Express, I watch the skyline drift past and try to lock down all the memories, to remember each day, sure that I will forget the joy too quickly. Mostly though I think of the boy who once turned eighteen here, and who first took this train.

He would be so happy to know that at forty he will share Tokyo with his friends.

20 hours

When I was young it was hard for me to understand why my father and his best friends lived in separate towns. They had gone to high school together, moved apart for university, and stayed. Individually the decisions made sense, but as a group, for the friendships, the decisions made quality time rarer, made being a part of the day to day impossible. They still worked to maintain friendships, traveling for events or birthdays, making the long distance phone calls that used to cost money.

I no longer am surprised by these decisions. I haven’t lived in the same town as my best friend since college, and haven’t lived even in regional proximity with most of my good friends since the location where we became friends, be it college, Tokyo, Shanghai, or San Francisco. In many ways this has forced me to make new friends, people who are now in that category of “too far away to be daily contacts but still remain my favorite people”. It’s a strange category but one I keep adding to. Which leads me to the topic, and my new focus on short chunks of time.

In relationships separated by long distances, everything becomes discrete, a single visit, a single evening, a cup of coffee. In the best cases we get a day and a half together, one night and the following day. Call it twenty hours tops, to both remember the old times and share current challenges, to have longer conversations about serious topics and laugh at common jokes. These opportunities are short, but real, repeatable with most of my circle every calendar year. My abilities here are a gift of work travel and the result of personal dedication, because I know now that regular contact will not happen if not prioritized. The world is too big and our lives too full to allow accidental gifts like this evening in Las Vegas to cover all our desires. And so my most important friendships are built in chunks of hours, and require a kind of focus, a dedication, that has improved my life. Knowing that our time together is rare we all prioritize the moment, and are willing to be unavailable elsewhere to make sure the conversation is our focus and our thoughts are not overwhelmed by minor obligations, background stress.

The results of this mutual focus is incredible, and something I have grown to appreciate over time. At first I was let down to realize that, like my father, I’d created a life where my favorite people were rare guests rather than regular members. Lately though I understand that the depth of commitment required to sustain friendships across years and borders has resulted in my best sounding boards, my most true conversations. In twenty hours there is little time for superficial, and we quickly jump to career questions, business challenges, and family. The questions and ideas posed to me in these brief meetings over coffee in New York or drinks in Los Angeles drive my mind for months, often until the next meeting with a different member of my ever-expanding circle.

And expand this circle I do, with new friends gathered at each stop, in each new city. The best moments, then, are of realizing how large the circle has grown, how many of these distant deep friendships there are, and how much they sustain me and enable whatever is next. As expected Hong Kong is providing the next home base for this growth, for new friendships to blossom into deep ones and old acquaintances to swing through. In just a few short months in the city we’ve hosted friends from Singapore and San Francisco and seen family from both sides, which are good indicators of the new life’s pace. Writing this from Los Angeles, while my best friend is briefly at a meeting, is another indicator of my own circles and how they will be maintained despite the move abroad. Through twenty years of friendship we’ve continued to find time together, whether we live at opposite ends of the state or across the Pacific.

Here then, if you’re reading this, is to the next time we’re in the same place for an hour or twenty, and how those moments will not just sustain friendship but improve it. The past two decades are proof that this method works for me, just as the past four decades have proved it to for my father, who is this weekend en route to his high school friend’s daughter’s baby shower. May we all be in our own ways so lucky.

The distance of friendship

A Chicago view

In Chicago the air is crisp and the skies gray. For a boy from upstate New York it’s welcoming weather here at the end of November. Sitting in an apartment window overlooking a park I watch bundled locals walk their dogs. At this time of year dog walking is dependent on the owner’s patience, the time of day, and the amount of clothing. A man stands with his arms wrapped around his torso waiting as his pet squats along a fence. A different man stands with his hands in his pockets as his dog sprints back and forth in the caged area. The animal is ecstatic to be freed from the apartment. The man less so, obviously missing heating and insulation.

In the morning though the light is beautiful and Chicago feels like a city. I visit East Coast establishments like Dunkin’ Donuts and mingle with construction workers and doctors. We are here for a friend’s wedding, for a celebration. The days on either side serve as a peaceful break from the rest of our lives.

The celebration and the evenings out are a reminder of the power of friendship and the challenges of distance. So many of the friends here, like so many friends everywhere, met in college or high school. Now all in their thirties these bonds are a reminder of who they were and who they are, friends who can recall early driving mishaps and the lack of cleanliness of college apartments. Friends like these aren’t a necessity, of course. Spending time with those who know us and who have known us is always a luxury. The further we move and the more frequently, the rarer such evenings become. In some ways that’s the best part of weddings, bringing together a group of people who know each other so well and who have shared so much.

On the flight home, far too early in the morning after a late night of deep conversation, I think about how much of our travel is dedicated to maintaining friendships. When asked about our plans or our vacations it’s the location or the specific adventures that we recall, Tokyo’s busy trains or the relaxed feel of Los Angeles. Yet in both cases, in most cases, it’s friends that have taken us there, and friends we will return for. Having moved so often and met so many people their conversation is what I miss, and so much of what brings me to the airport so frequently. Without planes, without sleeping in so many different zip codes each year, those friendships would fade.

The sad truth is they fade anyway. Visiting can not replace living down the street or in the next room. Time spent catching up can’t replace time spent doing, making new memories. This, finally, is teaching me the sacrifice of being constantly on the move, constantly searching for another place to discover. Because for every new person we meet and place we feel comfortable there’s another we have to work to hold on to. Too many messages I write say that we’ll “try to visit this year” instead of “see you tomorrow.”

All this is of course the complaints of the truly fortunate. Given both opportunity and means to travel it is easy to complain about their challenges. Gifted with friends far and wide it is easy to complain about their distance, rather than celebrate their quality. Yet standing in a group of friends who have known each other at least a decade and currently live within a five mile radius is a poignant reminder of the virtues of staying close.

Landing in San Francisco reminds me that I am wrong. The city is warm and inviting. We bicycle to the gym and back in the sunshine. A friend from college, fifteen years ago now, texts to say taking care of our cat was no problem. Another Vassar friend messages about meeting up soon, and a friend in London, whom I met in Japan, writes with book advice. These interactions, all brief and all electronic, make me smile. Because this is why it’s possible to maintain friendships across so many years and so many miles, despite moving houses and countries: we are so rarely truly out of reach.

Which is a good reminder for a week filled with love and Thanksgiving.