In and out of conversations

On a Saturday afternoon in the heat of June I hide in the shade and air-conditioning and think about what is next. As a friend said to me one evening in Dongguan some six years back, always do whatever’s next.” In short order I will. After weeks of conversations, I’m looking forward to the change. After a few months off, after surgery and healing, after weeks of playing ping pong in the park and video games in the afternoons, of going to happy hours and studying Mandarin on alternate evenings, I will once again have a job. For the first time since moving to Hong Kong in the fall of twenty eighteen, I will have an office. For the first time since the spring of twenty seventeen, I’ll have a team. The three and a half years in that sentence feels like a lifetime. I try to remember that boy, biking from Fruitvale station and eating hotdogs along the estuary at lunch, and am happy for him. From a distance I can clearly see the good in those days.

Over these past weeks, with a variety of friends, the threads of a single conversation became clear. The chats, which start with rituals, questions about the current day, future plans, and recent shared activities, dive slowly to deeper topics. Jobs, first, and the challenges that surround them. How to handle a boss that won’t listen to a suggestion, or how to manage a request that can’t be completed. These are basic parts of modern life, and reveal so much about how humans treat each other. This languid survey of friends shows those who have or have had decent relationships with their direct managers to be shockingly rare, one in five, one or two in ten. Buried in the commonalities of the stories is a shared desire to treat ourselves better and to develop empathy. As I wrote once about flying, any opportunity to reflect on our choices is an opportunity to treat each other better.

In so many ways we become who we are gradually, over years, the accumulation of hours at our chosen craft, the accumulation of hours in transit, moving from the person we were to the person we hope to be. Through trying new sports and learning from new friends, by studying for hours, and through teaching ourselves to solve problems, we gain new abilities and learn how to answer old questions. Through our experiences, better ones and worse ones, we learn better how to treat others, and what we hope for from leadership.

In other ways we are creatures of the immediate, reacting to the daily encounters and constantly in unfamiliar situations. In so many ways we are built on a series of sudden changes, job offers, injuries, and singular days of travel that forever shift what we will do, and where we have been. In these moments so much of our nature is both revealed and shaped. In moments of great disturbance we have the opportunity to become better, to change ourselves rapidly. For years the difference between these two types of change have fascinated me, the fast and the slow. As an early version of this site’s about page said, it’s the love of both that leads me to move so frequently and stay so long. Loving both the small rituals of daily routine and the rush of learning a new place, I am so happy to move, rather than just visit. Almost two years into Hong Kong I am both glad at how comfortable it feels and excited at how much more there is to learn. Once again I revise my baseline of time required in a place upwards. We have but scant years, and so much to learn.

Here then on this last weekend where the immediate future is uncertain I try to remember all I have learned since the last spate of time off, or the gap before that. I promise to try to follow through on the hopes of the shared conversations of the past few months, to be more of what we all hope for. And I try, on this last weekend, to make space for all that we will learn, when we do whatever’s next.

Gaps between

Being unanchored in the world has been a gift. I’ve seen friends in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Portland. I never made it to the east coast, but I did make it across the Pacific.

Now though, after three months of small projects and peaceful days with my cat, it’s time to get back to it, to grow and learn and be part of a slightly larger team.

For the last few weeks I’ve woken early to make tea and then gone back to bed, reading or sleeping again with the cat snuggled tight against me. It’s been a peaceful life, transitioning between gym and study, nap and novel. It’s been exactly the kind of break I needed, and exactly what the cat hopes for. We’ve become accustomed to each other, and we’ve shared this small apartment in circles from chair to bed to kitchen to sofa, one of us following the other. It’s a routine we will both miss and seek to find again on suddenly valuable weekends. For now though, he will have the place to himself, able to relax wherever he desires. No one will disturb his nap with the vacuum at ten am on a Wednesday, nor with coffee grinding at two pm. I think he’ll miss the company anyway.

The final morning he and I spend snuggled in a new chair. I thought it a chair for one until his seventeen pounds landed on my lap, inbound via the sofa’s arm.

On the last Friday of my sojourn I read back through my notebooks to other times like this, to remember the challenge of being groundless and how these periods ended. Familiarity helps, reminding me that this time is not any different, and that each time the transition works out fine.

Yesterday I had lunch with an ex-colleague who had never quit a job before, never spent months in between. Over ramen I listen to her thoughts and challenges, some familiar some unique. At the end of my own holiday the feel of these gaps has become strangely comfortable. In some way I have become what I try to be, at home in uncertainty.

For a few months, anyway.

Time to think

The sky in Houston is blue, with vague drifting layers of cloud. The freeways are empty and smooth, the buttresses adorned with the star of Texas. At two am we sit back in the cab, watching the city we used to know so well roll by. Christmas is coming, and the air’s humidity licks us through the open windows, borne on a warmer breeze than the one blowing fog past the windows of our San Francisco apartment.

With the gentle rolling up and down of 59 and then 45 we catch glimpses of our old neighborhood, passing under the bridges we used to bike across to the supermarket. The Sears building in midtown is still empty, still signed. I wonder how long it will stay that way, and who owns it. Theirs was a vast empire of real estate almost entirely disassembled. The tower in Chicago now bears another name, the huge flagship in Los Angeles is being converted to condos after years of an emptiness similar to that of this Houston store’s, sign lit but doors locked.

Further on, out west and headed south on 59, we pass one with the lights still on, the S alone the size of our taxi, a minivan. Modern and suburban, it is still retailing, but the shape of the building holds nothing of the company that built art-deco monuments to shoppers, built huge structures in the center of towns becoming cities.

We are in Texas for the holidays, staying with family, playing basketball in the drive, and relaxing. Taking time to think.

Thinking time is all too rare these days, coming mostly in commutes up and down the 101 to Petaluma. No surprise then that thoughts of automobiles, of the economy, of the cultural differences in driver’s education on the left and right coasts, and of abandoned buildings are foremost in my mind. No surprise that the Fit has become a touchstone for the later parts of twenty ten. Thinking time used to be something done in public, on trains, in airports and hotel rooms, in countries where I did not speak the language. Now it happens in a car without company. I spend more time on the phone.

The last week of the year holds as much time to think as I am capable of, offices lightly staffed or closed, friends out of town, gone home. The year unspools in reverse, accumulated memories flicked through, adventures ticked off on lists of beds and travel. Mostly though what looms is the difference from the start of twenty ten, where time to think was Monday morning, time to write an unavoidable aspect of the time everyone else spent in the office or commuting. Scattered moments, now, are spent editing and thinking. In the shower and at night I remember ideas and try to get them down before losing them to the office.

In twenty eleven I will make time again. Time to work out, time for friends, and time to think.