Walking in the rain

After thirteen years, long walks are still a great joy. This statement seems a good sign, and a good starting place. Lately, during these pandemic months of alternating joy at the ability to congregate and sadness at the freedoms we have lost, that’s how I think about our life together thus far. A good starting place. For more than a decade we have worked on becoming the people we hope to be. We have worked on fitness, on skills, on friends, and on the never-ending goal of being comfortable everywhere. From tech startups in the Bay to bookstores in Houston, from distributed teams in Hong Kong to small companies where we hire our friends, we’ve worked on work. Work, in these cases, are mishmash of things. Work is a focus on getting paid, on getting better at making decisions. It’s getting better at building teams and products. Mostly, it’s just work.

Sports are much the same, time spent working on our bodies as full systems and as specific sets of injuries that need attention. Sitting on the floor in our sunroom with blisters on all my toes after a weekend of ultimate I am acutely aware of the need for better preparation. The pandemic’s halt to organized competition may have given me six months off to rehab from shoulder surgery but it also seems to have removed all my callouses from cleats and climbing shoes, leaving my feet more vulnerable than they were a year prior. These small wounds do not count as injuries in the larger picture. They won’t leave scars or require PT. They are just part of the process of becoming competitive again, a challenge that grows both more familiar and a little more difficult every time. It’s a challenge I’m still happy to undertake. Or at least happy to undertake again, this current time.

At yoga, occasionally, for my shoulder, I look at what we have learned, how much more flexible and strong, and am sure it is worth all the sacrifices. We are lucky, to be able to make these trades, mental space and easy sleep for muscles that ache and minds that will not rest. They’re the trades that have built this foundation.

Walking along the edge of Hong Kong island together in the rain, I am happy to feel the chill of it on my skin after the long hot summer and happy to have time to talk and think with each other on an evening in October. The moments of reflection like this walk are less common for us now than they were in the spring, a product of our decisions. More often now the bodies are too tired from the gym, or the work calls go on until one or the other of us is already asleep. On certain occasions, though, we make time for nothing else, and take a long walk somewhere new. On evenings like this one we give each other space to walk through our work problems, to be the sounding boards of first resort that we have been for so long. Looking at the lights in Kowloon and listening to the lap of the harbor against the side walls is a reminder that these long walks work. Like the long bike rides that proceeded them in San Francisco, or the long skates in Houston, they are how we process, how we grow, and how we share what we have learned.

Thirteen years of these exchanges later I am mostly grateful to have spent them together. I am glad to have shared all the work to reach this starting place, ready for whatever’s next.

Shape

In the background of our current situation certain topics repeat. They range from the inane chatter of the truly privileged, where we will go when first able to fly again, to the serious, where now can we imagine settling down. The later is a conversation not about home prices or commutes but, in the fall of twenty twenty, of where democracy and free speech will be possible, where will support non-car based lifestyles without also oppressing journalists and school children, without also building social structures that repress minorities?

The later is a hard conversation, ruling out as our criteria do both the small college towns of our American youth and the large Asian metropolii of our twenties and thirties. We are caught between the hell Facebook has unleashed and the deathtrap of authoritarian regimes. As with so many of a certain class and education we long for Paris in the 20’s, for New York in the 70’s, Hong Kong in the 80’s, and even Shanghai in the 00’s. Mostly we long for freedom, for the joy that comes with an explosion of expression and the ability to make new things in environments that don’t require the automobile. These are sad topics, avoided until they re-emerge, the looming background of every longer conversation.

The most frequent topic though is that of our selves, of our jobs, and of the people we are trying so very hard to become. Whether we are learning software or hardware, finance or general management, recruiting or e-commerce or app development, the main questions are of our ambition and the way it will shape our lives. Will we be happy to have spent hundreds of hours striving so hard in search of success? Will we be happy to have worked so hard at startups that may linger and become brands but will probably fail as our startups have before, will probably fade as our companies and efforts have before? Will we be happy with the resulting t-shirts and laptop stickers, LinkedIn CV badges, and stories of free beer?

Who are we building with all these hours of focus, who are we working so hard to create? Will we like these people, still incomplete and already overwhelmed, who focus on work on Saturday morning and Sunday evening, who work till midnight on weekdays and forget to visit the gym?

I wonder. In the spring of twenty twenty I thought we were doing the right thing by taking our time, by not rushing back to the job market, by not rushing back to the working world. In the fall I know we were correct, as I watch how quickly our habits are overwhelmed by our responsibilities, how our sense of obligation to the work goal outweighs our body’s sense of fitness and fatigue. I know we are building something, and that after those months off we were bored and ready to be more fully utilized. I know we try hard to be part of good teams, to relax when we are in between things and to take longer and longer off each time. And yet, here we are, two months in and fully under water, working hard to breathe.

I hope we are building what we seek.

All we can see

The story of growing up, for me, is the story of learning how to manage my body. This story doesn’t happen all at once, or evenly. There are good years and bad, months of quick progress and months lost to sloth and adventure. Some years I take up running in the mornings. Other years I rise early to bike to the climbing gym before work, sliding into my desk at nine thirty am having ridden 6 miles and spent an hour on the walls of Dogpatch Boulders.

There are other years, like perhaps this one, where I am held back by injuries and instead focus on muscle control, on single-leg squats, on planks and on the ability to raise my left arm above my head. These years are productive too: in twenty fourteen I spent much of the summer learning how to walk in the pool of the Park Lane in Dongguan. That stretch remains a high point of patience and growth.

Our lives, I have written, are written on our bodies as much as on the rest of the world, a topography that can be learned by others, or hidden from view. Our skills are not stagnant, they require maintenance and patience, diligence and some semblance of desire. Ten years ago I had never bouldered, had not yet taken climbing seriously. Perhaps I still have not, unwilling to put on harness or rope, unwilling to follow rigid routines on fingerboards. I still prefer the small self-built habits of the amateur over the youtube rituals of the practitioner. In this preference so much of my life can be found; the habit of writing five new characters a day to remember my Mandarin born of the park in Xujiahui some fifteen years ago is still with me in our Hong Kong apartment, though my knowledge of words has not improved as it should have given such repetition. In some ways this desire to build my own rituals is invigorating, and in some ways limiting. As with the body, the mind is an exercise in growth that rewards both dedication and new attempts.

For the most part I manage to avoid this kind of introspection, focusing instead on the expansion of scars, the patchwork of criss crosses that now adorn my left shoulder. They compliment the two slashes that match the gaps between ribs on my left side, now mostly faded and unremarkable. All are, when clothed, less visible than the scar below my right eye. None of these are large, a minimal presence like the first scattering of stars as night falls. In this I am lucky, the product of a body that tends to good balance and has benefited from good medicine, in not-quite-equal parts.

And still, doing repeated exercises in our apartment in the quarantine days, trying and failing to raise my arm over my head with both hand and elbow flush against the wall, I am grateful for the slow pace of both recovery and growth. Halfway through my forty first year I am still learning new sports, still learning new exercises, and still able to devote hundreds of hours to each. This is the clearest kind of luck, and so I try to record my gratitude, despite the discomfort and tedium.

Saturated

The first few weeks of a new job test our abilities to take in information. For days we come home tired and then have calls in the evening. Some days we stay home and talk either to each other or others constantly. We read, worry, check, reach out and try so hard to learn faster.

The process feels like a test of our ability to learn. Here is all of the information, our new employers say. When can you make decisions? And for weeks, on long walks after dinner or while having coffee in the morning, we tell each other to make fewer decisions, to try and do as little as possible, to react as little as possible. Because we do not yet know, and will regret the decisions made in haste these first few weeks. Take it slow, we tell each other. Don’t believe that we understand the situation, we tell each other. Be patient and learn, we say. These are the words of our past selves. The strengths of repeated startup failures is a wealth of experience in starting over, in learning everything again.

Finally, now, driven by those past tries, we are relaxed enough to tell our colleagues and our managers that we are trying to avoid making decision early. We are trying to avoid making decisions rashly, without all the data. And one week in it’s not possible to have all the data, have all the knowledge of what came before. We test our capacity to input and find it wanting, unable to absorb thousands of hours of learning and creation in the scant hours of a single week. We talk about how tired our brains are, in the evenings before sleep.

We do not give credit enough to how awake our brains are. After months of ping pong and yoga, surfing and naps, video games and novels, we are awake. We are more fully deployed and our abilities tested in all directions. It is exhausting in the way that true utilization is exhausting. It is tiring in the way tournaments are tiring, our bodies pushed to and beyond what they were ready for. The evenings this past week have been like those glorious hours of post tournament revelry where we are beat up and utterly present.

So here we are again in the summer of twenty twenty: happy, exhausted, full of energy, unable to sleep, and fully alive.

Saturated.

Between day and night

In the fall of two thousand four two foreign boys played hacky sack in Xujiahui Park most days. They were free from worry, barely employed and frequently lost amid the whirl of Shanghai’s boom years. In clothes they had owned for years, t-shirts still from college that ended at the turn of the century, they kicked a knitted ball back and forth for hours. Gradually, as with all things, they grew better, their bodies gathering memory. They learn stalls, and behind the back saves. They were able to play for longer at a time, to control the game so that passers by did not interrupt, that the odd pedestrian unaware of their connection did not block a return. Every day they moved around the park to avoid children on rollerblades who loved the circular areas, or couples on dates who liked the secluded bench spots. Frequently they ended up near the older folks who rested near the entrance in the afternoons, a wide spread of flagstone that was transformed into a dancefloor in the early evenings. These older folks, the retired workers of pre-boom Shanghai, who had seen things the two boys from the US could not imagine, were happy to share their space. They taught the boys Mandarin, word by word.

In twenty twenty, three foreigners played ping pong in Victoria Park on most afternoons in February and March. With schools closed and all three unemployed, the tables became a meeting ground. These three were frequently joined on the other table by a group of local children, and their parents. The kids rode scooters and practiced incredible spin serves, chased each other and played games on their phones. Occasionally, when other adults used one of the two tables, they played with the foreigners, in pairs of all combinations. As always, practice made everyone better, and the daily ritual gave some anchor in a world without timetables or meetings. Ping pong also brought laughter, of poor serves or incredible returns. Occasionally the children taught the foreigners Cantonese, one word at a time.

A decade and a half later our lives have not changed so much. The cities are different, the sports and languages vary, and we age as any other. Yet the peace of spending our afternoons unemployed and in the park in a country not our own has not lessened, and the joy of being welcomed, being part of a community has greatly grown. Habits like these, small bits of exercise in public, are some of the moments we remember longest, after new jobs have come and swept away our afternoons. We are lucky, then, to re-discover them, and lucky to have this break to make them new.

Shanghai again, together

We land at Terminal 2 some eleven years since our last shared departure. In between Shanghai has been a touch point and frequent destination, but only for myself.

Shanghai is a city of change, where the list of bars and restaurants that have closed is daunting. Most of the places we knew in two thousand seven and eight are gone. Most of the places that opened after we left have likewise disappeared. The subway has blossomed, from four incomplete lines to more than a dozen. Entire entertainment districts have grown, become popular, and then been closed by the government. Apartments have gotten more expensive but also more numerous, and there are new cool neighborhoods far beyond what was our circle of frequency.

I have been lucky, taking in these changes over the course of the intervening decade, on work trips that lasted days and weeks. Since two thousand eight I’ve been paid for probably four months of time in Shanghai, though none since 2016. There are still changes that surprise me, every time I land. Taking them all in at once is daunting, and I watch Tara wander, eyes wide with uncertainty. Is this the corner we walked to so frequently? Is this our grocery store? Which way did we go to get from one apartment to the other, in those early days?

There are moments of joy too, in this adventure. The stalls attached to Zhongshan Park station, which had always been a home of odds and ends, now feature local designers, and better food. The connecting Carrefour features the same broad array of goods but under better lighting and with a cleaner sense of organization. The old apartment building is still standing, and the convenience stores nearby are far better than the old Kwik. We eat dumplings and meat pancakes for $3, and wander the neighborhood in the morning heat. Zhongshan Park itself is pretty, and filled with dancers. Of the Faithless concert that brought us there together for the first time, well, we have memories.

On Yueyang Lu we wander beneath the green leaves of Shanghai July, happy to see how much good the intervening decade has done for the foliage. These streets have always been a special part of Shanghai, a gift of foresight that keeps out the worst of the summer heat. Along Zhaojiabang Lu and throughout much of the city, efforts to spread the feeling of the French Concession’s tree-lined roads have paid off. The trees are so big now,” we remark to each other again and again. So often, in this greenest season, it’s impossible to see tall landmarks scant blocks away, not just in our old neighborhoods but all over the city.

Tree growth more than anything is the lingering lesson of these ten years. Buildings have gone up and become accepted. Businesses have come and gone. People too. Subways have been built so far out that the borders of the city are difficult to determine. All these efforts, though, are overshadowed by how green the city has become, at least in the summer. As we leave, walking up the stairway to our plane from the Pudong tarmac, we know the trees are what we will remember from this visit in twenty nineteen.

A decade is a long time to a person, or to a couple. A decade is a long time for our careers. Eleven years ago we knew so little of what we would become, and where that would take us. And we did not appreciate enough the small saplings being placed all over Shanghai.

A decade, it turns out, is a long time for the small trees planted along Zhaojiabang. Long enough to grow tall and dense, to separate one side of the street from the other, and to quiet the noise and improve the air. Long enough to make the city a better place.

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

Anki view

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.