Long ago and in another country

In the quiet of an unemployed Hong Kong afternoon I watch the clouds gather on the hillside above our apartment and work through memories. For the last several weeks of travel I have been thinking of the distance covered. Distance not in the sense of miles on the road, or places slept, but as people. I am thinking of the distance between who we were, and who we are.

In early twenty seventeen I left a job, convinced that the time was right to become bolder, to move into a new circle and have a wider presence. It was a moment of confidence in my professional abilities. I had gathered several small consulting gigs into a semblance of structure, and was planning to study for a professional certification. I felt more ready for a life without work than I had in years, since two thousand eight. For the first time since returning to the US I was professionally relaxed, if not calm, and ready to try new things. That it had taken me almost a decade is not a surprise to those who’ve struggled with the self-doubt of returning to their home country with a resume built abroad. Discovering the difficulty of conveying the value of broad international experience in a job application can be hard on the mind.

Three months later I was back to work, the beneficiary of friend’s recommendations and personal persistence. We had, at least temporarily, decided to stay in San Francisco, to enjoy the summer and learn as much as we were able.

It is to this point I now return, in memory. To the decision in May twenty seventeen to stay, to learn, and to take the opportunities we had worked so hard to get. Moments like these take a while to evaluate correctly, to understand whether the choice of jobs and hours at them are worth the lessons learned. A friend of mine once said, before he quit the company we’d met at, “always do whatever’s next”. That spring, we did.

From my small office window looking out at the towers of Hong Kong, I know we were right to follow his advice. It took but two short years to prove us both so. That new job taught me an entire industry that I’d been interested in for a decade, and gave me the resume line I’d lacked. Tara’s extra year gave her the experience she needed to move on at the right level. Through work and patience we did, to a new role for her and a new country for us both. And now, with another break, albeit an unexpected one, coming to a close, I am again excited for what’s next. I’m looking forward to a new team, to new friends, and new challenges, all of which will be built on the choices of that spring of twenty seventeen.

For the first time in a while I have had time to feel out who we are, and who we are becoming. I’ve had space to evaluate where we wanted to be and our trajectory. It’s a gift, to have time off so frequently, and I try to both celebrate and observe. We’re lucky, and we’re getting closer.

Title quote from Ursula K Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness.

Keep contact

Office view of San Francisco

At the end of everything come goodbyes. They come after the laptop is turned in, after the exit interview, after the resignation letter. We go out for a drink, or lunch at a place we’ve always liked. Sometimes we just sit around the office and chat, or wander the parking lot. The location isn’t as important as the people. They are our constant companions for the last several years, folk who have shared more of our waking hours than our families. It’s a strange aspect of this modern life where occupation dominates. The time together leads to friendships that are both intense and limited by location. For a few years we share everything, so many things, small battles and celebrations, long trips, awkward meetings and Christmas parties. And then, suddenly, we move on.

And so we say goodbye last, for the people are what we will miss, regardless of the product or company, regardless of which side of the table we sat on in price negotiations. Vendor, colleague, customer, supplier, all of these words are simply descriptions for a person in one box of their life. Before and after, well, it’s hard to say who they may become, and good to remember who they have been. So we say goodbye in bars, in line at boba tea, over ice cream on Market street. At the very end we say goodbye on Zoom calls, while the account still works and everyone’s schedule is simultaneously free. And when it has been good we laugh and we cry, glad to have had the chance to share so much with these people met in the search for a paycheck.

It took me years to learn to say goodbye. My first jobs were places that celebrated for me, where turnover was high enough to have rituals surrounding it: Irish car bombs on the restaurant patio in Boston or all-night karaoke in Saitama. Those were the years of transience, of scattered memories and friendships made for the moment with Irish students in America for the summer or English teachers from Newfoundland. Part of these goodbyes was the lack of surprise at their happening. So many of our relationships came with expiration dates, visa limits, or school year cycles. And so I made it to Shanghai before I knew how to value colleagues, even the ones I remain friends with from those earlier years.

Thus these last few weeks have been bittersweet, filled with former colleagues and good friends reaching out to see where I will land, to see if they can help, or simply to admire the product that occupied so much of my last two years. There have been lots of chats with colleagues now become friends about job prospects but also about baseball. We bring up old jokes formed during late night calls with distant timezones, partially because they still make us laugh and partially because we weren’t ready to say goodbye, because we were still having a good time.

In that last sentence comes some of what has changed from those early days. For the first time in as long as I can recall, I wasn’t leaving, I wasn’t in a rush to whatever’s next, though I now need to find it. My former colleagues, far from being distant and forgotten, toiling in their cubicles while I take interviews, are all within reach, available by chat and sharing their search. In some ways there was no goodbye, despite the zoom calls and the tears. In a lot of ways we’ll still be here, in different cities and at different companies, because we didn’t leave.

Slim hope

“They promote from within,” my colleague says, and it is a statement of admiration in an afternoon of less pleasant observations. We are waiting on a factory line for it to re-start. The work we hoped to complete today, we have just learned, is to be spread over several, and we are trying to prevent this delay.

We are trying to prevent delay, so that we can leave.

We are trying to prevent delay so that when we leave we have done what we need to, seen what we need to, and can take the samples to colleagues further away. Teasing out our true needs should not take three sentences. In this concrete room we are quite clear, and have had meetings outlining this schedule weekly for the past month. The room we stand in has hundreds of workers on a half dozen products, and is quite temperate. The comfort is a gift of the season. In August the weather will not be so gracious, and we will all be a little shorter tempered. For now we try to see the good, and to have patience. Nothing life-changing will happen today, one way or another. We are all still early enough in the production schedule to go home tomorrow regardless of specifics. At dinner, everyone will laugh. And so we are discussing the factory in more general terms, the good and bad that come with any human operation. My colleague’s observation, borne out of the production manager’s youth, is true. They do promote from within. When we started this project, several years before, he was an assistant who fetched and did not speak. Now he is constantly on the phone, which is how we find him, often on another task in a different building. He is still less than twenty five, but he knows where everything is in this sprawling complex, knows who everyone is.

This knowledge deserves promotion, and thus comes as no surprise. In so many ways he has grown up in this factory. He has grown up with us and others like us, in the good weather and the bad, working on products that did well and those never re-ordered. He has adapted, as we all have, to the changing trends and product requirements, and is still here. That alone is something of a success.

Flexibility is a quality we list on both sides of the ledger for this factory, when we are waiting and listing our thoughts. On days like today though, when the weather is good and the timeline sufficiently padded, we take it in the best way. On long afternoons where not all is ready we cut each other the slack of those who know July’s stress and heat well, and do not want to build up any frustrations in advance of the challenging times.

Today, we say to each other without words, everything is alright. Whatever that means.

Directing ourselves

At an old friend’s house for the weekend we enjoy the rare time to think together. In between adventures and barbecues we discuss our lives. Goals, hopes, and simple steps for self improvement fly back and forth. With days together there is no need for specific scope. We pause on new backpacks and suitcases before moving on to new houses, jobs, our families, and vacations. Books, movies, and funny videos found on the internet litter the three days of conversation. Towards the weekend’s end, with our enthusiasm tempered by the calm of long days together, the important topics return. Family, work, and hopes for both.

These are new topics for us, though the seriousness of intent is old. For years we have focused on adventures and apartments, cars and sports. Smaller things that were big at the time. Now, with children at breakfast and wives who are not drinking at dinner we are more careful with our words, more aware of our ambitions. Cars seem like things again rather than signs of freedom. Houses feel more like homes and less like temporary parking spots. And our hopes for work are shifting, from fifteen hour work days to Friday afternoons at the beach with company from out of town.

Driving to the airport later I think of how fast these changes have happened: less than five years. An awareness of mortality, I think, and a belief in the importance of our time here. Part of this change is the joy at having friends who are likewise changing. Having old friends to talk to here in Los Angeles, at home in San Francisco, in Tokyo, London, Shanghai, Portland, and New York, makes each day in any of them feel precious. These friendships, more than anything, are the background against which our awareness and our changing selves becomes clear.

Days later a friend says he thinks of other people’s children as a reminder of his aging. In his words I recognize the same idea as the prior weekend’s conversation, that our view of others gives us a new sense of time. We are not aging faster because our friends have children, but we are more aware of each year as our friends take more permanent steps. At twenty five in our circle no one owned a house, few were married, and there were no children to plan around. Now breakfast with a stroller is not uncommon, and recent changes in mortgage rates are a conversational reference point. In some circles, at least. In others we spend time in the mountains, we dance, run, and climb. We commiserate via IM from New York to San Francisco about the fact that the phrase ‘birthday party’ involves cake instead of wake boarding, balloons instead of pistols. And then we each close our laptops and head to dinner with another set of friends who have serious news.

We are aging, if not growing up. And in the hours in that Santa Monica back yard we talk for long enough to discover what this change means: it’s time for new projects, bigger and more permanent than what has come before.

Friends grow

We have known each other now long enough to miss change. In the odd hours of the morning in an Astoria diner the differences between two thousand one and two thousand eleven are difficult to pinpoint. I still open my creamer with my teeth, my companion still orders both pancakes and eggs, orange juice and coffee. We chatter about the events of the day and then wander home to sleep as the sky grows light. We are no longer amazed to be in New York, but to be in New York is still amazing. Like that truth the differences between twenty one and thirty one are from most angles difficult to see.

Sitting on floors these last few weeks, in kitchens on the Vassar campus, in living rooms of Brooklyn, and bedrooms of Santa Monica, I watch the people I have known now almost fifteen years and rejoice. For in the details of their expressions, in the things they known now instead of speculate on, and in the places they have been rather than dreamed of, they are precious to me.

At twenty two I told myself we all needed space, needed time, to develop individually. It was equal parts hope and fear, born of being so new to the world of adults. This past month, traveling through places of old memory and homes of those whose friendships have survived the space they were given, I am glad to be proven right, if not necessarily by myself. In some way we did, do all need time, out on our own with only the world to teach us. We need space in which to grow true, to become the people we would rather be.

Making these changes happen may not require the distance I gave us in my twenties, for the changes are gradual and easily dismissed, or simply unnoticed. More than degrees or jobs the ways people grow are small things of confidence and wisdom and they require patience to see, as well as time to make themselves known. Perhaps then what we need is trust in each other that we are trying to do better, and calm moments on the kitchen floor to become aware of how we have grown.