The growth of worry

In my memory there is a boy who does not worry. He is nearly fearless, the luxury of the invincible. He walks to class across the college quad without shoes, his three quarter length pants baggy and his wallet on a chain. He is at peace here, at least in memory. He has few books, little money, and no plan for the future. He is somewhere between 18 and 21, and his world is smaller than he would admit.

In two thousand three there is a boy who climbs buildings in Tokyo in the dark without fear. He does this casually, stepping off of balconies as though they were stairs, catching himself on the flat of floor above as his feet touch the top of the railing a level below. In this way he slides in and out of conversations at parties, skipping floors from one gathering to another without ever entering the apartments. He is almost a ghost, a part of many moments and somehow impossible to contain. One night in the rain he talks with a colleague on the open walkway in front of their apartment, looking out over Saitama. The dawn is not far off.

I’ve always wanted to climb that water tower,” he says, indicating one perched on a seven storey building three blocks away. It must have a great view.” This section of the suburban Saitama sprawl is short, most buildings four or fewer floors.

That might be tricky,” his colleague says, perhaps tired, perhaps older and aware of the risks. Without pause the boy is off, down the four floors to the ground and away. His colleague watches from the railing as he walks into the apartment building and up to the top floor on a similar exposed walkway, the construction a kind of standard Japanese topography. At the seventh floor he is stymied, for a moment. The stairs do not continue to the roof. After a quick look around this boy climbs onto the railing, balancing carefully. Hands extended for stability he rises to his feet, and reaches for the roof. It is a flat edge, no gutters, and after a moment he pulls himself up onto the roof, seven storeys up, now eight. Later he will confess that this moment scared him, palms flat on the wet concrete, pulling his body up over the edge of the roof with legs dangling below. Trusting to friction.

That morning, though, he makes it, and after a few seconds is up the ladder and onto the water tower’s roof. With a quick wave of triumph for his watching friend he turns to the sunrise, the sky just starting to lighten towards Tokyo.

The memories are clear, the actions easy to recall. The fear of palms on wet concrete that morning has never left me. Instead it is the lack of fear, the easy joy in dropping off my fourth floor balcony and swinging into my neighbor’s third floor card game that has gone, replaced by a concern for insurance, for physical therapy.

Like all changes this was a gradual one. Despite the obvious, it was not triggered by twenty fourteen. I wonder if this tale of aging is a common one, or if the joy of sitting on a lighting truss at 16, thirty feet up above concrete, tightening down a light to my side with both hands while the pipe that held us both swayed with no support that was the odd part. Were we all as free?

Specific moments of change do come back to me. I gave up climbing balconies on moving to China, where the iron balustrades could be shaken by hand free from the concrete. I gave up climbing buildings when the railings became untrustworthy. The sentence is filled with irony, and with half truths. On returning to our campus setting for our ten year anniversary I met some current students who were setting out for a building climbing adventure.

Did you climb buildings back in your day?” they asked me.

I’ve been on top of four buildings already this weekend,” I told them, truthfully, and we swapped common approach spots, both so glad to share. It should be their ten year reunion soon, I think. I wonder if they’ll similarly celebrate on top of Chicago, and if they too will one day wonder where that feeling of freedom has gone.

Explicit caution

Rocks and water

A friend I saw on Monday was exposed last Thursday,” is the first time we’re aware. We leave work and go get rapid tests, and stop socializing. In Hong Kong there are centers everywhere, booking takes 5 minutes, the test process 15, and $20. For the rest of the evening we wonder. The texts telling us the results hit 18 hours later, negative. We relax, more so when the friend and our contact both test negative. More so when the friend’s colleagues do likewise. We won’t relax for another week, until two more rounds of testing pass quietly. We are too familiar with the day twelve positive test in Hong Kong quarantine to expect any less.

Time passes slowly these years, or quickly, in lockdown in quarantine or just with the gyms shut, with sports canceled, with bars closed after 6 pm, with tables limited. Whatever small price we are paying to be healthy, to be safe, it is not a large price. We are healthy, working, and usually able to socialize in small groups, in bubbles that are more porous than those we hear about in America.

Hong Kong has been a blessing these weeks and months. Hong Kong has been a blessing this year, more now, since that first case imported directly from Wuhan by train on the 21st of January, 2020. This city was early on the panic, people here still wary of SARS, their fear borne of actual memory rather than tales. Masks appeared as if by magic, shipped from family, shipped from friends, and purchased everywhere. For a year now it’s been rare to see a smile, and we’ve all learned how to read the signs in each other’s eyes.

Standing by the ocean, the breeze whipping whitecaps at my feet, I think about how lucky we are to be able at any moment to feel the sea. We live in the world’s tallest agglomeration, in a city of density and hills, of shopping and mass transit. And yet there is the sea. It is behind us as we boulder, beside us as we walk, a guide, a road, a backdrop, majesty. Hong Kong should always be remembered first as one of the most beautiful cities people have ever built. It should be remembered as a strange conglomeration of islands and mountains, of towers and jungle. It should be remembered as being built on the sea.

Usually the harbor is relatively calm, a casual mix of pathway and vista. The ocean proper is around the corners of the island, mostly out of sight. This of course is an illusion, is a false boundary of the kind humans like to draw. Wind from the south whips it up and we are suddenly aware the harbor is sea, is part of the same ocean that shakes the ferries to outer islands, that makes the run around the corner up to Sai Kung sometimes treacherous.

On a Sunday the ocean is closer, as it washes up against the island’s southern shores. Above the waves we scramble and struggle up steep rocks our bodies are not yet ready to master. We work hard and then relax, watching some other fool cut up fingers and arms in a tricky human-prescribed endeavor, to climb this small boulder with only a few holds.

For an hour we don’t consider the sea. And then a large wave crashes, pulling all our attention away to the water. We are here above it, with a viewpoint of majesty. We are lucky, a scant half hour from our urban homes, to find this wild spot where waves lap just out of reach. We are lucky to be free, for the moment, in this city now our home.

Naps

When the sunlight comes in our west facing windows, if the house has been cleaned and the laundry done, and if our bodies have been exercised and fed, we nap. These are hours of contentment, after long workouts and good meals. They are fragile hours, and rare. Often there is an activity in the afternoon. Sometimes the house is not clean, or the laundry not done, and so those tasks or similar take up the hours that could be devoted to rest. Yet just frequently enough to be a habit, we nap.

It’s a luxury, of course, to be able to be so self-focused at thirty eight. To be able to rise, make coffee, write, work out, go eat, come home and sleep. It is a luxury have so few constraints, so few impositions, and so much personal space. A luxury to have a gym membership and a bicycle route to and from, to have money for coffee and lunch out, not to mention for an apartment in this ever-more-expensive city.

It is also a luxury to have a furry black cat to nap with, a creature so content in the sunbeams and so glad to have his humans at home. He loves being able to see both of us, or better yet to be touching one of us and in sight of the other. He can be ornery, just like us, and demanding, but his joy at cohabiting with two humans is something to appreciate. As I say often when people ask me about living with a cat, it’s like sharing a home with an alien. It is a creature we can only sort of understand, only sort of communicate with, but who has agreed to snuggle in cold weather. Both sides see benefit in that.

In these lazy post-nap evenings, when the sun still pours in as the days lengthen, life expands wonderfully. Tara makes art, or plays the guitar on the rooftop. I read, write, and mail letters. We plan for the future, with the slow determination it requires. Eventually we cook dinner and watch as the darkness settles on the city, the sun having already gone behind Twin Peaks and the Sutro Tower.

But first, in the afternoons when we are lucky, we nap.

Teach a body

In the afternoons, after our team is done sprinting, we teach each other head stand technique. We learn to put our hands in a triangle behind our head and push up gracefully. Or we try to learn, waver, and collapse. After a while we move to hand stands until our shoulders are too tired to support our weight against gravity. Exhausted, we lie in the sun on our backs and laugh at each other.

These are the good days of summer. We run together and work on what our bodies can accomplish. In the space of a few months I learn better sprint starts, higher one-legged jumps, and get closer to hand stands. These are good things to practice at any age, let alone turning thirty seven. Together our group pushes each other to new levels of fitness and agility. We go climbing together, swimming together, and mostly, running together. Along the way we practice tricks. Some take up acro yoga and become adept at spinning each other. Some work on dynos at the local gym, practicing power moves until our shoulders and fingers are too sore to grip.

These hours spent training are the gifts of being able to live actively, with leisure time and in good weather. On a Saturday afternoon, biking no hands down Folsom to a baseball game, I think of how lucky we are. All these skills, learned over years that have been punctuated by injuries, are my lasting memory of San Francisco. These abilities gained on beaches and fields are a reminder that we live close to the ocean and in the gentle weather of the west coast. Here, where it is never too hot or too cold to go running, where bicycling is always an option, and where a group of friends will push me further than I would ever have pushed myself.

Coasting along like this I think of climbs I have not mastered and my still-imperfect hand stands, and tell my body we are not done. There are so many tricks we have not learned.

And miles to go before we sleep.