Finding freedom

The 7-Eleven steps, benches, and a parked taxi in the rain

On Sundays, after she’s eaten early and we’ve done a second diaper change, we head out. Our routine, like all things, is benefiting from practice. The first time out I forgot my wallet, and the second, a metal cup for tea. The first few times going into the carrier she fussed, almost but not quite enough to wake Tara.

Now we are happy and quiet, going into the carrier with no complaints, collecting wallet keys phone mask hat cup flip flops, and heading down the stairs before anyone is much the wiser. It’s humid in the stairs, and those seven flights are a slow way to get used to the weather after our air conditioned bubble.

By the coffee shop around the corner she’s often asleep, a scant twelve yards from our door. Sometimes she watches me order cold brew before passing out again. It’s early, after all. And then, standing outside in our alley, coffee in hand and baby asleep again, everyone lightly sweating, I am free.

I think a lot about freedom, what it means and where we find it. I think a lot about the hours in our lives that matter to us, and how they change. I remember strongly the feeling of freedom late at night, after the town or the campus or the city was mostly asleep. For as long as I can remember I’ve loved to be up high at night, to look out at a place and think about all the people who are there, invisible with their lights off, asleep. Mostly of course I think about those still awake, those heading to work at odd hours, or just finally coming home. I think about those up for no reason, and those up because of pain, medication, or young children.

In those contemplative moments I am free. Free to think about almost anything, to consider new ideas and observe things I’d otherwise ignore. It’s a feeling I love.

Lately I feel this way a lot, standing at our window watching Tai Hang at three, at four, at five am. I count the taxis parked along Wun Sha street every night, when their driver’s shifts are over. The current high is twenty five in sight at four thirty am, a number hard to top given the streets physical limits. For this view and these hours of freedom I deeply love Tai Hang. I love the 7-Eleven with it’s large entry, where people sit at all hours. I love the coffee shop next door to it that put up benches. These benches, unknown to the shop staff, have featured dates, late night delivery worker dinners, and smokers on their phones at three. They have hosted drunks of all genders in all combinations, continuing their evenings or sobering up before heading upstairs. Late at night our window is a great view into the kind of city I most appreciate.

And yet there’s another side, another set of hours in which to find freedom. San Francisco first convinced me of freedom in the early mornings. As painful as they were, once we were on bicycles to the gym at seven, we were free. Being first on the mats, able to climb any route without concern for overlap, to hear the songs the staff played while cleaning to wake themselves up, and having the sunrise pour through the windows, blinding us on top out, was freedom. Biking to work afterwards, having showered, past the construction site that is now the Warriors stadium, I felt almost as free as walking home late at night.

On Sunday, as I walk around the small blocks of Tai Hang at eight am with Clara asleep in her carrier, sipping my first coffee, I am free. I pop in to the French bakery for bagels and a croissant for Mr. Squish. I put those on a bench and drink coffee while leaning on a parking barrier, holding Clara and watching people in line for one of the cha chaan tengs in the back alleys. The clientele, at this hour, is mostly those like me, with young children, and groups of spandex-clad bikers and runners, eating after even earlier rides or runs. Half of us are escaping the later day heat, and half of us are simply following the child’s cycle. Later we will all be replaced by families, and by those with dogs, both of whom dine closer to 10 am on Sundays. I like this changing of the guard, and remember similar ones from my own restaurant days: the older folk, couples or alone, who would dine at five, right on open, and were often regulars. Then families, six to seven, and finally dates, younger couples and a wider variety, after eight. The hours change with country, or like with San Francisco, the weather, but the themes are consistent. We are all human, and hungry.

After the coffee is gone we purchase milk tea, in a metal cup we’ve carried clipped to our belt, for the sleeping family member. She’ll appreciate it, iced from her favorite street stall. After saying thank you we head home, our half hour stroll almost over. These are our moments of freedom. Our missions, small though they be, are accomplished and with (including the cat) three quarters of the family asleep, we are in no rush.

A second cold brew, perhaps, and then the elevator up stairs.

First days

Looking southwest from the Peak in Hong Kong, across Wong Chuk Hang, and Aberdeen to Repulse Bay, Stanley, and the ocean, where container ships pass.

Like anything new, the first days are a bit of a blur. We sit in a room overlooking all of Hong Kong and try to take in the view. We are looking at the face of a new human, someone never before met. We are looking out at an island, at hills of jungled green and reservoirs that mirror the trees nestled in the valleys. Expensive homes dot the hillside below us, and beyond that the flat areas of Aberdeen, Wong Chuk Hang, and Repulse Bay. Past all that container ships pull towards us and away. The main sea route in and out of Hong Kong feels busy enough. Only the skies are quiet, with no airplanes in sight for much of the day.

The view is shocking on a clear day, all the way north to land that is not in Hong Kong, that is part of the greater country that surrounds us, some twenty miles up the coast. It’s a view worth millions, a view utterly unavailable in most major metros, and the thing that sets Hong Kong apart among world cities.

Mostly we ignore it, focused instead on the new person who has joined us. Our spare moments are spent texting family and friends, sharing photos and chatting about the new responsibility we’ve taken on. It’s a weird one, learning how to care for a human who most definitely can’t care for themselves. Like every new parent, I’m sure, I’m shocked at how unready we humans are released into the world. Unable to walk or talk, and not particularly close to either. While friends with older children say that the time goes quickly, by any reckoning three, five, eight, or eighteen years is a long time. Thinking back to the start of our relationship, fifteen years prior, makes it clear just how long a commitment we’ve made. Life will not be boring.

We look forward to the learning, to sharing our lives with someone new. After all my years avoiding housemates, it’s a bit of a strange choice. I hope that the cat feels the same enthusiasm, at least eventually.

In the afternoon, we are lucky and nap together. The pleasure of three people tucked into a single bed is pure joy. After an hour, when the nurse comes to take the new member for a checkup, we realize how free we are, going to sleep without any responsibility, without worry or hesitation. In the first few days of parental leave, rather than adding to our stress we have ceded our normal tasks, our professional goals and targets. In the hospital for another twenty four hours yet, we have not yet assumed the full burden of our new role. I have no complaints.

Looking north I can barely see the buildings of North Point over the hill, the tops of the AXA tower and One Island East poking above the mountain. I can see Red Incense summit, where we watch the sunset and fireworks. I’m excited to take Clara up there, to show her the world we live in. To show her the place she was born.

Mostly unprepared

Before change, like before a storm, there are moments of peace, of pause. On a Wednesday after yoga I work from a courtyard, free until a dentist appointment. It’s beautiful here, cool enough in the shade to be pleasant. For two hours I write documentation and update plans. I want to remember these moments, with little to worry about save my own responsibilities.

Often big changes are visible some ways out, and yet still impossible to anticipate. The end of university. The first days after moving to a new country. These events are monumental, and will be permanent memories. Their dates are known in advance, planned around. And yet the feeling, the act of being on the far side, remains invisible, unknowable until it arrives. I think often of our first week in Hong Kong, walking the TST waterfront in the humid evenings. That week, at a hotel paid for by a company long since bankrupt, was uncertain, and beautiful. Every act, of getting coffee at Starbucks while messaging real estate agents early in the mornings, of eating noodles at a Japanese place at the end of the day, awoke us, reminded us of the shift we’d made, from San Francisco to Hong Kong.

On this afternoon in June I wonder what the next few weeks will feel like, how well I’ll remember them. I know everything will be different, but the how of it, the feel of the change, is invisible to me. I hope I remember to write.

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.

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.

Change

The small corner in front of Little Tai Hang

All things start with our first impression. Our first view of our new flat, windows and doors, is hard to reconcile with the original architecture plans. Was this really a balcony? Our neighborhood likewise. Were these really all car shops, we think, wandering Tai Hang? Some, surely, as they are today, but not all. Was this coffee shop not always here? In this neighborhood the answer is it was not, one of a half dozen to have opened since the pandemic started. Unlike dinner restaurants and bars, coffee shops have boomed the past two years. There are no tourists, but there are thousands of Hong Kongers looking for something new, for a new neighborhood to explore and a new latte to try. Every few months a new sign goes up, a new restaurant is closed for re-modeling.

Some things we have seen change already, early in our time here, and struggle to envision what was before. Fineprint downstairs opened three months after our arrival and I have no memory of what preceded it. As with so many things the answer is several months of empty shop front under construction and so there is no earlier place to be overwritten.

And yet change does not pause.

In our fourth year in Hong Kong the change feels faster. Two places we have enjoyed close within a month, and we wonder what will happen. In our minds they have always occupied these corners, have always featured folk hanging outside on Friday evenings after work. The shock wears off, and we visit them one last time for the memories, noting wear spots on counters and scratches left on the floor by chairs. These signs of use, common to any venue, take on new meaning in our conversations. Did the owners know, and stop making repairs? Most likely not. Any space inhabited by humans is worn down through their contact. Our apartment, despite a re-painting on year two, features a few marks on the walls by the kitchen, where bags or the bouldering pad have rubbed, where careless turns chipped paint. Maintenance is a requirement, needed by private and public spaces alike. The corner we frequent outside Second Draft, one of the closing spots, pictured above, was repaired a few months back, the boards replaced and painted.

Seen in this way the turnover of businesses, rather than a commentary on landlords, neighbors, or the pandemic, is a way to make sure that things are fixed, and to give us all a chance to anchor our memories to moments in time. Whatever fills those spots next will be remembered as much for what they replace as for what they bring.

At least at first.

Places I slept, 2021

View of Hong Kong Harbor and Island from a hotel on the Kowloon side

Unlike last year, I tracked this list carefully in twenty twenty one. Some rituals fade in importance when forcibly paused, but not this one. I love recalling our different adventures. Lists like these and the mental exercise they entail are a way to mark time, and to remember life’s variety. In 2021 I needed both. As years go this one was not as slow as the last, and for a brief moment we felt the world open up. After both getting new jobs during the first lockdown in twenty twenty, we started the new year working hard with good groups. For the first time since twenty sixteen, we both made it through the month of August in the same job we’d begun the year with. It was a spring of adventuring around Hong Kong, bouldering on beaches and kayaking in the ocean. We played frisbee, but sparingly, and Tara spent alternate Wednesday evenings running women’s beginner frisbee sessions. Long a passion, her efforts have paid off, with summer sessions attracting thirty-odd women of various levels. Given less access to the world, we’ve invested more in the community we can reach. We also started doing yoga together, slowly, and for much of the year it made Friday mornings the best part of the week. As we learned in twenty twenty, spending time learning new skills is always worthwhile.

Most luckily, we got vaccines in April and were on a plane to the US by the end of June. After more than a year on the ground, seeing Hong Kong from the air during takeoff was a relief and a reminder of how important air travel is to our lives. I’ve rarely been happier to be on vacation. In California we swam in pools, drove cars, ate barbecue on decks, and walked around lakes. In Colorado we went to the All-Star game, and in New York I played soccer on a field with a view of lower Manhattan. Mostly though we spent almost every waking hour in conversation with someone we hadn’t seen in a year and a half, and those moments make up many of the year’s best memories.

Our trip was lucky in all the best ways, as we returned right before Delta re-terrified communities, and escaped with only seven days in hotel quarantine. Those seven days watching Hong Kong and the harbor, the view of which tops this post, represent something of a dream, a small gap to be quietly ourselves and remember all that we’d done. From the moment we left that room and reunited with our friends and our cat, on my birthday in early August, the year seemed to accelerate. Tara changed jobs, a lucky shift back to the renewables industry she never really wanted to leave, and the sense of being underwater that comes with starting new hard things returned. After a hard year for my startup’s business model I too moved on, without a next step in sight. Some decisions are difficult but necessary, and the gift of a partner who can pay rent has enabled me to relax this past month. The cat appreciates the company, and we know by now to take what breaks we can whenever we are able.

Twenty twenty one was a good year, alternately hard and peaceful, and while we miss some parts of our old lives fiercely we are settling in to this quiet new reality, grateful both to those here with us in Hong Kong’s bubble and for regular communication with those further afield. Our list, when compiled like this, paints a picture to me of our relationships. It reminds me of friend’s homes and the comforts of our local situation. We are lucky, as always, to have so much to do.

Tai Hang, HK
Aberdeen harbor, HK (houseboat)
Admiralty, HK (staycation)
Wan Chai, HK (staycation)
Malibu, CA (twice)
Oakland, CA
Fort Collins, CO
Walden, CO
Berthoud, CO
Cherry Hill, NJ
Rumson, NJ
Brooklyn, NY (two separate spots)
Ithaca, NY
Hung Hom, HK (quarantine)
Tsim Sha Tsui, HK (staycation)
Sai Wan Beach, HK (camping)

New philosophies

Looking back towards the sunset on Hong Kong’s harbor

In the fall of twenty twenty one I at last address the challenges of two years of pandemic, and begin to grow. People, I have written, do not change. When they do, if they do, we ought to accept those changes, sudden and surprising though they may seem. We can not try to change people. But we can be aware, and be supportive, when they chose to.

Change comes from many directions. Mostly, in my life, it comes from an accumulation of days spent thinking. In the fall of twenty twenty one, having quit my job, I start walking home from the office, roughly an hour and forty minutes away. To compensate for the commute length, or for my own readiness to leave, I start at four pm. The walk is beautiful, along the harbor of one of the world’s most recognizable cities, and one of its most expensive. It is a walk couched in privilege, in the fortune of the past twenty years. Hong Kong, despite the battles, is a beauty, especially as the mercury drops below 25 C for the first time in 7 months. On these walks, as with every moment in this dense metropolis, I am not alone.

Long walks surrounded by humans give rise to change, I’ve found. They’re part of the reason I love living in cities, especially ones safe enough to walk in a straight line from origin to destination without considering the makeup of the neighborhood. To my American readers, I promise, these places do exist. On walks like these I think of the comments of a French person, hearing that Americans think Hong Kong’s pedestrian infrastructure to be the world’s best. The harbor isn’t very walkable,” they say. And the sidewalks are narrow.” How poor a place do we come from, Americans, that we are astonished by what is a step down for Europeans? No wonder that we love to vacation there, and to dream of something that seems impossible to build in our homeland.

Walking long distances clears the mind not through the exertion, but through the time. Eventually we have exhausted the current trains of thought. Eventually we must stop at new stations. So, at last, on these weeks of wandering post-decision and pre-result, I come to consider what I am truly up against, here in Hong Kong on year two of the pandemic. So, at last, do I come to consider what I believe, and how it has changed.

I am no longer making five year plans. As prudent savers whose jobs revolve around planning and our task-oriented natures, we do not YOLO. In some way we cannot. Yet we are changing. We are making fewer long term plans. Having spent much of the first forty years of my life in pursuit of qualifications, of experience, of visas, of access, I appreciate the luxury of peace, of an inability to schedule flights for ultimate tournaments in foreign countries, or to purchase tickets to concerts I’ll need work to fly me across the Pacific to see.

The past two years, and whatever is to come, have killed my desire to plan our future, to map our lives. I have often been focused on the five year view, on the medium term. The medium term, I see now, is dead, buried by governments, by fear, and by the virus. Instead I have today, which I spent in the park, on the water front, and talking to neighbors. Instead we have our lifetimes, which we will try hard to spend without fear.

We will try to make choices based on what is good, on what is best, without concern for the five year plan or the final destination. We will go when we can go, stay when we want to stay, and learn what we can in every situation. We will try hard to be the people we want to be, not eventually, but now. It is indeed a change.

These thoughts coalesce from long walks, and are built on the decisions that presaged them. These are the outcomes of two years of thinking, working, watching, and talking. I’m lucky to have a partner who is ready, neither impatient nor hopeful, but able to see and happy to move with the pace of my mind. It’s a thing formed step after step for decades now, and only finally ready to let go.

Empty windows

As always, things end before we were really ready. Returning from a month abroad, we find our living room faces a newly empty apartment. Across the street the walls are bare, save for a horse painting. It will be left for the next tenant. The curtains that had obscured the kitchen are gone, leaving a clear view of the small space two women shared for the past two years. The apartment looks both larger and smaller, in the way of these things, with all their furniture gone.

We wonder where they’ve moved, these women we never spoke to but shared some slice of life with. For two years we have seen them come home late, the lights often going on at last at eleven pm, work finally over. We’ve watched them host dinners on Friday evenings, welcoming a handful of friends with wine and laughter. Mostly we have seen their cats, and they ours, as the animals watched the world or lay on the dining tables that face each other across the small street that separates our buildings. For two years we have shared the occasional wave and the knowledge that we are not alone, that despite the lack of communication we are happy to see each other, happy to watch the cats grow up.

And now the apartment is empty. For us, returning home after travel and quarantine, the loss is instantaneous and the shock unexpected. Out of all our neighbors, the cluster of shared windows and barely visible lives, they were the two we appreciated most, two women and two cats. We miss them, and wish them good fortune. For ourselves, we wish for neighbors with cats, and we wonder when we’ll see those lights go on again.

Places I slept, 2020

A Hanoi view

My tradition of keeping track of every bed became almost an afterthought this year. Like most people, I have never spent as much time at home. My regular question as to the pace of the year and whether it will feel fast or slow in memory is easy to answer. Twenty twenty will feel very slow.

In some ways the change of pace is, as many have written, an opportunity to reset, to re-value and build new habits. Many have done so. Tara has learned to surf and pickle, learned to do handstands and play new songs. For myself the skills aren’t as obvious. This year gave me time to learn to lift my left arm again, and then to do pull-ups, planks, and climb once again. These abilities are the gift of a re-built shoulder, itself a gift of Hong Kong’s medicine and reasonably priced global insurance. The quiet days with nowhere to go and nothing to do save rehab were a gift of the pandemic, with sports and travel closed and my startup failed.

The other gifts, less physical, are those that come from the new job, from trying hard to help build a team and company. From presenting to a board, talking to investors, recruiting, and building cash flow models, twenty twenty gave me the chance to prove that all my start up experience could go further. It’s an opportunity I’ve sought, and I’m glad to be here in Hong Kong trying to make a company work.

As for travel, well, I think the list of places we were supposed to go outnumbers those we did. From weddings postponed or done via Zoom to meetings conducted on Slack instead of in person, there was much we gave up. For a year that saw Hong Kong give up so much more, that saw America give up so much more, it feels awful to even mention our losses. Far more important, then, to recall what we did do, before the planes stopped, and all the people we did see. Here then is my list, and a wish:

May we not have to say goodbye to so many in twenty one, and instead get to say more hello’s.

Tai Hang, HK
Hanoi, Vietnam
Taipei, Taiwan
Malibu, CA (x2)
Santa Monica, CA
SF, CA (x2)
Anaheim, CA
Manhattan, NY
Brooklyn, NY
Cherry Hill, NJ

The total for the year’s first 58 days: 10 places, and 2 of them twice.
Since then:

Kowloon, HK - a hotel staycation
Wan Chai, HK - another hotel staycation

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.