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.

Inside looking out

Hotel bed and towers beyond

Quarantine is always an odd experience. This time I’m alone, looking out at the world but unable to touch it. For seven days I watch the apartments above Elements, hundreds of boxes filled with life. I watch the restaurants and green spaces below, and the motion of cars. To one side I can see the Star Ferry trundle back and forth, and beyond that Hong Kong island, another stack of buildings and people. I watch a parent and child tend plants on their balcony, and children chase each other around a playground. Far to the left I can see a swimming pool, filled with those rich enough to reside in one of these towers.

Hong Kong is built on this density, on this ability to see several thousand apartments from any angle, but the view is rarely this good, nor are we forced to watch it this long. For a boy who loves people, loves towers, loves motion and this city, it’s a pleasure. While I of course would rather be out, rather be able to feel the air and touch the water, I’m glad to have this view.

Seven days is just long enough to force thoughtfulness. The first few days, burnt away in the haze of jet lag and working from a hotel, feel like any work trip anywhere. It isn’t till the weekend that the situation becomes clear. Like the weekends I used to spend in Dongguan, too injured to bother going anywhere, staying in a hotel alone is an odd experience. Even on those Dongguan weekends in twenty fourteen, though, I would spend most of the day walking, would feel the air and eat in restaurants. Quarantine is a different form of solitude. I think of all those who did three weeks like this, the requirement in Hong Kong over much of the past few years. I think of a factory project manager I know who spent fifty three days in quarantine in twenty twenty two for the pleasure of seeing her family in Taiwan for a week. Fifty three days alone, as a person others are to be afraid of touching.

It’s hard to imagine that length of time. It’s an odd experience, this week, but another few days and I’ll be home to my cat. Another few days and this whole trip, circumnavigating the globe fore the first time, will be over, almost like it never happened. So much of travel is like that, a blitz of new places, new weather, new colleagues and old friends, and then home again, to the cat, the family, and the hillside. Home to my tiny routines in our neighborhood, where the world is within reach.

I’m excited to see if the bakery has re-opened, to get bagels and milk tea. I’m excited to feel the humid air, and walk in the park.

Quarantine is a strange place, so close to home and yet nowhere anyone can see. And that comes back to the window, where I sit looking out. A boy kicks a soccer ball against some stairs, practicing his touch. Taxis loop in and out of the fancy apartment complexes, bringing guests and residents. And the harbor reflects the light as the sun sets on Saturday.

I’m glad to have this view, for a week.

Outward bound, again

Masked up, looking out the window at my airplane at HKG

In many ways the pandemic started for me in a hospital room in Hong Kong at seven am. The painkillers from shoulder surgery had worn off, and I was unable to sleep. My then boss called, letting me know our startup was furloughing everyone as our prospective lead VC had pulled out of the round. This string of words, which matter only in a specific universe, is how I became unemployed that morning while waiting for the nurse to bring the next round of meds. It was March 20th, 2020, and I knew recovery would be slow.

In many ways the pandemic ended for me purchasing flights late at night last Saturday. My new colleague did the purchasing, over Zoom, coordinating our trip to Dublin and then a week on-site with the team in San Francisco. The job is new, my start date is the date of boarding the flight to Dublin, and the future, much like it was in March of twenty twenty, is uncertain. I did not expect the end to be so clearly personally demarcated. The change, the shift that makes me feel so profoundly different, is that once again people are excited to pay me to fly places and learn things. That, it seems, is what I expect from the world, and having it restored has restored my sense of the possible. This change, in some ways, has restored the horizon that was so difficult to see.

We’ve learned a lot the last few years, us humans. We’ve suffered, too. I’m not high on the list of people in difficult situations. Knowing that has made it hard to write lately, when life felt hard, as I know life here in Hong Kong is quite good, even when restrictions were the tightest. It’s no Shanghai, and the sound of ambulances has never been as omnipresent as New Yorkers once described. We suffer mentally from the closed borders and we suffer physically from the closed gyms, but many people can still work, many people can still see their family. While the bar is low, Hong Kong has cleared that low bar.

Now the question is can we clear a higher bar, that of once again being one of the world’s best cities. Can this once again be a home base for people who are paid to fly places and learn things?

I hope so.

On this Tuesday, outbound to a country I’ve never been to tomorrow, everything suddenly feels possible, and the future bright.

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.

Ahead of us

The hardest thing of being on pause is figuring out what’s ahead of us. The hardest thing about lockdowns is not knowing when they’ll lift.

In Hong Kong the last week of March is filled with rain, and without activities. Friends message from blocks away to say the’ve done nothing with the weekend. Friends message from other islands asking if we did anything. Friends message from other sides of the world, having just returned from Mexico, from Hawaii, from Mexico, and we must explain that Hong Kong will not let us out, won’t let us go to gyms, or use the exercise equipment in the park. Hong Kong won’t let us use the beach, or the airport. Hong Kong won’t let us see the world, or come home.

The rainy week is a perfect match for these restrictions, for the quiet that overtakes us when the only thing to do is stand in line for cookies at the fancy store across the street. Fifty people do at all hours, or at least at all hours the shop is open. I laugh at them, but can’t blame. There is nowhere else to go, not much else to do. Hiking, the only activity of any potential these past few months, is less appealing in the rain.

Instead we consider what will come next, when this child is born, when our life of two is a life of three. It’s hard to imagine, not least of all because we don’t know who we will share this apartment with. It is hard to imagine because we can’t see into our own future at all. There are no trips, no vacations, and haven’t been in years. There are no moves, no visits from distant friends, no concerts, no movies, no holidays. There is, in short, nothing on the horizon, which again matches this rainy week perfectly, the physical horizon as obscured as the chronological.

To counter these feelings of opacity we cook and see friends, sharing meals and light banter. We build lego, we work, and we work out in our apartment, glad for the quiet and free from any external requirements. It is, in many ways, a low stress environment, a relaxing few weeks of calm time. We are lucky to have jobs, to have food, to have shelter.

In other ways it is sad to have these low bars be our only achievements, and we desperately miss the feeling of potential that used to lift our spirits, that used to encompass our lives.

Summer will be here soon, and another member of our household. Perhaps by then the future will have returned to us.

Shaped by people

My grandfather, Keith Seegmiller, reading to me when I was small

Often the people who shape us are a surprise. The freshman year roommate from the other coast that turns our expectations upside down. The weird studious kid in our college circle with whom we share a variety of countries with, and a trail of physical correspondence that spans twenty years. Even these examples are somewhat predictable, people in our near orbits, people at the same schools. Sometimes the shaping folk come from stranger orbits than these. They come from small towns outside of Tokyo, or outside of Shanghai. They are colleagues who grew up in clothing factories, whose voices and smiles we can still see, fifteen years on. They are colleagues in San Francisco, who sat with us on a median in Dongguan and gave us life advice, often recalled on this site, to always do whatever’s next”.

Often the people who shape us are entirely predictable. They are our family, they are those in all the globe most similar. They are those whose eyebrows we share, those our facial expressions have called to mind since we were young. They are those who shaped us, our young intellects, with book recommendations, with conversations, with visits to Fallingwater and art museums. They are those who shaped us with their joy in rivers, their love of fields, and their curiosity about the world. We are lucky, to be shaped by those with curiosity. We are lucky to be shaped by people now gone.

Not all endings are the ones we chose. If life provides any lesson repeatedly it is that people are rarely ready to be done. People are rarely ready to be finished with their studies, their career, their relationships, their lives. Sometimes they shape us with their lives, rather than with their actions. As I say often, we are creatures guided not by opportunity but by example, and there are few stronger than those we grow up around. If their kitchen tables are stacked with magazines, we will flip through them when bored. If their walls are covered with maps, we will become engrossed on the way to the bathroom in the afternoon and forget our purpose. If they like long walks through fields as the light changes in the early evenings, we will too, and these hours will become important without our really stopping to think why. Our examples shape us not through conscious imitation but through the pull of the familiar. When given choices we drift towards things we understand, towards things we have seen before and find familiar. We drift towards what we think we know.

It is on those teaching us then to be broadening the familiar, to be constantly increasing what will seem comfortable when encountered again. From architecture to art, from global history to local water politics, we are luckiest to learn from those interested in the world and engaged with their surroundings. These are the lessons we’ll need to learn, the kinds of traits we’ll seek so hard to pass on ourselves.

Sad, then, to have to do it without those that so shaped us.

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.

New neighborhoods

Almost three years into our Hong Kong life, we contemplate moving. It’s a small contemplation, that of leases ending and the option to choose. Should we, so happy in this small set of streets, venture forth, change these neighbors for new ones, and learn? Should we, cut off from foreign travel, take the time and money instead to fancier spaces, to newer buildings?

We don’t know, and thus, on weekends before frisbee, after chores, we explore. In our usual fashion we wander places that are either centrally located, geographically, or metro stops that would be in between. The type of neighborhood, the closest grocery store, the heat island situation, are what we wander to discover. We look for where we’d shop or where we’d eat if returned from sports exhausted. How long would it take us to walk somewhere with cheap noodles, how long would it take us to get to a park for a late night run? These are specific questions, and come second to our need for MTR access, for short work commutes, and for the ability to walk everywhere.

In so many ways we are products of our neighborhoods, chosen at more or less random, with more or less luck, over and over again. In Shanghai I picked the French concession due to the stories I’d read before I knew what a map of the city looked like, before I knew what quarter was what. The leafy streets of Jianguo Lu that dominate my memory are so more by chance than anything, driven largely by the proximity of friends and easy commutes. The daily electric scooter rides were a product of the city’s topography and the availability of technology.

In Houston we lived within longboard reach of Rice, the apartment chosen for commute and friends again. The leafy streets and easy bike rides to groceries were benefits, and welcome ones.

In San Francisco the first time, without jobs, we chose for price and the presence of Asian faces, for the comfort of the fog and the park. For perhaps the only time, commutes didn’t factor into our thinking other than to be on a muni line, in this case the ever unreliable N.

The second SF house was driven by our desire for a cat, by the need for a garage, and a poor attempt to balance two forty plus minute car commutes in opposite directions. The house treated us well despite those constraints, and those are good years in my memories.

The third and final SF spot, driven again by our changing commutes, was at last downtown near the train. With rooftop and garage it remains a high point, windowed and central to everything. For four years we cycled everywhere, or ran for the train.

In Hong Kong we are happy, we are settled, and we are still curious. Will we move? Change is good to consider, especially in these quiet years.

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.

Until tomorrow

First, when given freedom, we meet friends, we meet new people, we gather groups and hike new paths to new rocks. We work to keep each other safe, to help each other up, new fingers on old routes. These gatherings are peaceful, everyone united in joy to be outside by the sea with raw fingers and sore toes. We share pads and water, snacks and tips for surviving, for getting to the top. In many ways climbing, during these last few months of lockdown, has replaced frisbee as our source of friends, though of course many faces are the same, like us moving between activities depending on season, weather, and level of quarantine. Together we try new things and learn to take joy in small steps, in getting something the second time out, or third. We learn the best way to each spot and the best place to put pads on the ground. We learn how to spot, and hope not to fall enough to need much. And then we hike back, when our fingers are raw, when the sun starts to set, when we run out of energy for pulling.

And then, showered, gear away, fed, I start to prepare for the week to come. I do laundry, and make notes for our Monday morning management meeting. I pick up the bedroom and pay bills, I clean up my desk and my desktop. And finally, ready but not yet ready to sleep, I read fiction and write. The cat, happy to have the bouldering pad back, stretches out on it to claim ownership, and naps. We are happy to be here together, resting in the slow hours of the week’s end. We enjoy each other’s company, the house quiet save for some tunes, save for the washer’s thrum and the tick tack of my typing.

It’s a good life, here, with space to breathe and time to before sleep to turn over some of the things I’d forgotten. Answering personal emails after a week’s delay, or checking on things I’d meant to research, is a good way to close down, to wrap up, and to feel human again. We need these hours, I think, as a buffer, as a way to be who we were, before jobs, before friends houses or beers on Friday, before de-stressing, before stressing, before a task list. We need these hours on Sunday evenings to remember where we were headed, and who we were hoping to be.

The person we meant to be

Runner at night on a Hong Kong track, with city behind

I write a lot, or I think a lot, about the difference between the person we are and the person we meant to be. This gap changes over time, and can be between our hopes, or between our actions. This sentence could read my hopes”, rather than our hopes”. I think, though, that these differences are common, are true for most of us.

One of the quotes I repeat most, both on this site and in daily life, is Jan Chipchase’s the distance between who you are and who you might be is closing”. It’s succinct, and encapsulates so much of the fear of getting older and the challenges of relationships. We are all so far from who we hoped to be, and yet we are running out of time.

Mostly I think about who we said we would be, when we started a relationship. When we were first dating, first flirting, and trying so hard to be the best version of ourselves, to convince both our now partner and our then self that we were as good as we could be, as we hoped to be. I think so much about this version of myself, aged twenty eight, working his first real job, managing people, traveling, spending hours on his blackberry on bus rides to cold Chinese factory towns. I think about this boy constantly, wanting to quit his job and move somewhere with central heat, wanting to move somewhere with blue skies, wanting to write. He wrote, he studied, and he wanted to do more. He wanted to learn, to put out, to create.

In the intervening years he has done that, the boy I used to be. He’s written dozens of letters, hundreds of posts, and several drafts of a novel. He’s written journals and filled notebooks with Chinese characters. He’s grown in other ways as he has learned new industries, new cities, new sports. He has met so many people, and tried with each introduction to be a little more of the person he wishes to be and a little less of the person he wants to leave behind. He tries to be more curious, and less judgmental. He wants to be more open, and less sure.

In relationships there is an art to letting one’s partner make these changes. The trick is to make space for growth without expecting it, without demanding it. People don’t change, and we should never expect them to. But when they do, when they move past what’s comfortable to a new reaction or a new choice we should be ready to embrace them there, to welcome this change.

When bored, be it in Saitama in 2002, San Francisco in 2010, or Hong Kong in the lockdown days of 2020, I run. In the park, on a track, on a road. Whatever. It’s a habit born out of boredom and the inability to sit still. But because I am a person who does not like to run neither do my friends. And so, one morning this year, when I said I’m bored, I’m going to go for a run,” and my partner said I’ll come,” I had the perfect opportunity to react how I hope to be.

The easy snark, of Oh really, but you hate to run,” is death in this phase, when someone’s trying hard to do a new thing.

Great, I’m getting changed, 10 minutes?” I said. Build a bridge together to the people we both want to be. It was fun, running together in the park, walking back sweaty and tired. A new kind of fun, for people who are still trying to close that gap.

My partner tells me she’ll be ready when I decide to cook. Meanwhile she’s happy making dinner, figuring out new recipes that I might like. It’s love, in the best form.

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.

Interesting times

Hospital view

From the hospital bed I can see the tops of towers. The dawn sun rises over the green hill behind them, a slow brightening of the world and my room. The view feels odd, perhaps due to the painkillers and lack of sleep, or perhaps due to the world. With little to do until the doctor’s rounds around nine, I work on relaxing each part of my body, starting with the lungs. This slowing of each portion is my way of putting myself back to sleep. It’s an ability formed in the childhood years of asthma attacks but not truly appreciated until years later, when healing other injuries. Now it is as comforting as anything, and I doze restlessly until seven, when the phone rings. My painkillers are on an eight am and eight pm cycle, at least the pill ones, and so by seven I’m beginning to miss them. The IV drip is noticeably not enough alone.

On the other end of the phone my boss is on his way home, in San Francisco. The all-encompassing virus is mandating work from home, and life, in his description, sounds even more surreal than I already feel. A few moments into our conversation, after the pleasantries, he lets me know it’s no longer an employer/ee relationship. The rest of the conversation is cordial, save for the growing ache in my shoulder. Eventually it ends, and I wait in the almost daylight for the nurse to bring relief. I have nothing else to do.

The end of things, I have written, comes suddenly, but without terrible surprise. So it feels this time, the echoes of one startup’s failure have lingered into the chances of the next in my mind, so that I am not surprised. In fact the similarities are so specific that that the differences are what disappear, and I feel uncertain of many things. Luckily I have little to do but breathe and try to sleep, and a shoulder worth of pain to distract my brain from deeper thoughts.

Fear not

In times of panic so too are there moments of clarity. In Hong Kong a run on face masks is underway. Queues form at the whisper of some for sale, and stretch in circles around entire blocks, until the store of rumored provisions is entirely hidden behind the line of people waiting to learn if it is true. Walking past, those who have not yet caught the fear are confused, wondering if a concert or some other promotion, a tax break, a refund or discount sale is occurring. Have they missed out?

They have missed out on fear, though fear is an easy companion to find. Fear, in this case, is born in a Chinese city and exported world-wide. Fear is a thing that will keep us apart, more than wars, poverty, or the fact that the act of travel destroys our environment. As governments have known for centuries, fear is a great human motivator. It also gets plenty of press, and so I try not to take notice, not to share. When asked if I am afraid, if living in Hong Kong is dangerous, is risky, is scary, makes me nervous, I reply it does not, it should not, it will not. A place like Hong Kong brings joy, brings adventure, brings friendship and a great sense of accomplishment, but it does not bring fear.

And so I do not queue for masks, nor toilet paper, trusting in the global supply chains I help build to recover faster without my additional pressure. Neither, though, do I mock those who do, because fear, once uncovered, is a difficult worry to shake. So to those sending their domestic helpers to stand in long queues for fear of missing out on some newly short commodity, I understand. Being trapped in an office and unable to respond makes us more eager to act and more vulnerable to the whimsy of social media shares. Unable to prove, from the confines of a desk, whether the world is really running out does create uncertainty, does give rise to fear.

If you are short TP I have extra,” reads the text from my friend, unasked for.

All we can do is take care of each other.

One year

With regularity the days go by. The anniversary dates of first job offers, visa approvals, leaving parties, and flights all roll past as the summer ends and September begins. Now in October the memories are of our busy first days of house hunting, my last weeks of packing our San Francisco apartment, and those first few weeks in our Hong Kong home.

Mr. Squish doesn’t seem to remember arriving in a pee-soaked state one year before, having traveled farther than most cats ever do. Or maybe he does, but the trauma of that memory and the loss of his SF rooftop are not moments he chooses to commemorate. It can be hard to tell. Either way he naps under the red sofa in the afternoon heat and sprints around the house in the dark with the comfort of a cat familiar with his surroundings. This move may have taken him away from cool weather and the Mission rooftop, but it has given him air conditioning, a variety of rooms to nap in, and the company of a work from home human. I like to think he’s satisfied.

As for the humans, our memories are as fragile as ever. I remember biking home from long days at the office in SF, up hill into the wind, and wondering where we would live next, and how long it would take to get there. A year later I can answer the question, but not remember the urgency with which it was asked.

I don’t want a vacation, I want a new life,” I used to say.

It took more than a year to get one, and while I think often of how lucky we are to be in Hong Kong, the anniversary of the move is as good a time as any to reflect. This morning I do some light shopping in our neighborhood, for my sick partner. The shopping list is not long: avocados and passion fruit from the old couple’s street stand two blocks down. This fruit and vegetable stand, visible from our window, was a major perk of the apartment when we first saw it a year ago. A year later we’re frequent customers and were correct to value it. After that comes sourdough bread, from the coffee shop downstairs. This was a bit of luck, as the coffee shop opened in December, after our lease was signed. It serves wine and cheese in the evening, coffee in the morning, and whole beans and sourdough bread in between. Few establishments, opening directly downstairs, would have both signaled gentrification and fit my work from home routine as well. Last on the shopping list, of course, is some dong lai cha, iced milk tea. In the past year we’ve tried almost all of the small street restaurants and corner breakfast shops in the immediate vicinity, and have favorites for almost every type of dish. This tea, from the slippery egg place, is by far the best, and so a special sick day request.

Living somewhere, as opposed to visiting, is the art of learning a place deeply, enough to have a routine, and also of becoming part of the routine of others. At each of these stops I am no longer a stranger, if not exactly a local. At the small noodle shop I visit first, for myself, I’m by now a regular, if one who orders few things and understands little Cantonese. A year in though I’ve started to learn, and will get better.

A year in a place is both a long time and not. This year has been enough to make friends and change jobs, it’s been enough to become part of established social groups and to start new ones. A year though, as I first realized in Tokyo, is not long enough to really know much, or to have explored everything. In some ways a year is no time at all. And so, starting the second year of our lease, becoming comfortable in each of our second jobs here, looking back makes me happy. We’ve come a long way from those last weeks in San Francisco, from our one bedroom in the Mission. We’re settled, and home, in this new city.

Off hours

The kind of quiet Monday I last enjoyed in the spring sneaks up on me. I rise early and make coffee, acknowledging the cat by leaving the sink tap dripping for a bit. He prefers to drink running water with quick laps of that tiny pink tongue, and I prefer to let him. In the dark of the kitchen we make space for each other, me pouring boiling water over grounds and him two paws down in the sink, two paws up on the counter, making tiny splashing sounds.

We retire to the office once the coffee is done, where I scrub emails and reach out to factory staff to plan visits later in the week. It’s too early for them to be on site yet, and in an hour I’ve accomplished enough to pause until they reply. The cat and I wake Tara with tea and move to the sunroom to read the news and lie on the rug until she arrives. We read and she plays the guitar for a bit until the neighborhood is fully risen. These minutes of morning together are likewise a gift of this kind of Monday, and we appreciate them. Quite often one or the other of us is traveling, is at the train station early or the airport even earlier, and there is none of this shared peace, reading while the children next door leave for school.

After a while the neighborhood is awake, children out and office workers likewise. The shops open and deliveries start to arrive, and Tara departs for work, a short bus ride or walk. Again this commute is a gift of our life here. No longer are the bus rides an hour plus of private shuttles down the peninsula. As she leaves I set the robot vacuum to work, appeasing the cat with a high perch safe from the trundling commotion. He accepts this reluctantly, and naps while I follow up with the responses arriving from factory staff and US teammates. These colleagues are conducting a ritual I know so well, that of the Sunday evening email scrub to prepare for the week. It’s a part of life I have left behind in my journey to the future. In return I now work Saturday mornings, a few hours of quiet catch up on the end of the US work week. These hours are a fair trade, as they overlap with some factories sixth working day. I’m happier with this schedule, trading Friday dinner time emails in the US for Saturday morning ones, letting Tara sleep in while I chase shipping documents and wire transfers. There’s an unspoken rule in this exchange, a pact we all mostly keep: one day a week without email. Saturday in the US and Sunday in Asia are sacred, a shared time for everything else in our lives. One day a week of peace. And as a result the last quarter of my weekend sometimes comes, strangely, on Mondays.

So it is that afternoons like this Monday, where replies trickle in and there is no specific urgency to any situation, sneak up on me, for they are not planned. Instead, upon realizing myself so gifted I head to the gym or to the grocery store. Occasionally I write, or nap with the cat. Days like this are rare. Last week on Monday I was on a 7 am flight to Taiwan. The week before I was already in Japan. The week before that I was already in San Francisco. More than a month, I think, since the last of these quiet mornings with the cat. And so I relax and appreciate the gift of living once again in the future, in UTC+8, and working at least partially in the past.

Eyes open heart wide

Moving means everything is new and of unknown interest. As a result I spend weeks wandering with my eyes and ears open. Exploring, in the tame urban sense of it. I look out of doors, in shops, up stairs, and around corners. More than a month in, Hong Kong is as full as I’d hoped and I have no sense of the limits. Learning a new place is best done by wandering without earbuds, and without goals. Tonight, sitting on the top level of the tram heading home at golden hour, every angle looked good. Every direction provided some new detail to absorb. Bamboo scaffolding. Laundry hanging out of windows. Purple neon in the top floor of busses. Commuters watching their phones. Commuters crossing the street. People in upper story windows just getting home, and people in shops picking up things for the weekend.  All these parts of the city convey the sense of motion and depth that I love so much. There are people everywhere.

The appeal of density is a difficult thing to explain. I’ve tried for years, thinking about why fleeing the dark of rural China for Shanghai’s lights feels better than anything. Last week, on a bus back from Zhuhai to Hong Kong, I felt that pull again, that desire to be where the lights and people are. And here, on Hong Kong Island, walking home from the tram, I have made it back once again. I feel as comfortable as I can, considering I can’t yet speak Cantonese.

My wanderings are one way to enjoy the density of this city, to appreciate the variety of life, of housing, of jobs being done. Taking new routes to familiar places is a way to immerse myself in this city, to absorb as much as I can of my new home. Because eventually, as with all things, I’ll be busier, and have less time for extra steps. I’ll be focused on other things, and not remember the city I chose to live in the way I thought of it before moving. I won’t remember the Hong Kong of the past few years, where I took Sundays off after long Dongguan weeks. I might not remember the Novotel breakfasts of my business trips. Instead this city will join San Francisco, Houston, Shanghai, Tokyo, New York, Boston, and all the places I’ve lived in my memories. It will be full of friendships and struggles, the ongoing geography of real life.

Today, though, on the tram home, Hong Kong was still firmly in the realm of places I have always wanted to spend more time. And by keeping my eyes open and my mind empty, I’m trying to keep it there for as long as life will let me.

Fur drifting

A new season has come to our San Francisco apartment. Like the cottonwood fluff of my childhood, cat fur drifts in small tufts, buffeted by the fan kept on at all hours. Truly warm weather is rare here, and I don’t expect it to stay much into June. Soon Mr. Squish will miss all that soft under fur he has left on the sofa, on the bed, and everywhere else he’s been this week.

Like most good memories of childhood, I’m not sure of the season of cottonwoods, though I remember mowing through grass covered enough to look like snowfall with their white spores. It’s a good memory, now, as I’m safely removed from allergies by time and distance. The cat fur not as much, and I pull it off of my shirt and out of my coffee. Mostly, though, I catch it drifting lazily by, held up by breeze and lingering feline magic. It’s the soft under-stuff that drifts like this, the kind of fur that makes people shocked when they pet Mr. Squish for the first time.

He’s so soft!” they all say. He is, though there are plenty of sharp bits.

Like a rabbit,” some note.

I agree. It’s a luxurious feeling, this cat of long fur that mingles into downy softness. He’s a strange cat, and the fur is definitely a contributor. As Tara says, he really has one job: turning kernels into fur. It’s a responsibility he takes very seriously.

Somehow though this drift doesn’t create much of a reaction in my sinuses, which is why we get along so well, and can share this very furry one bedroom apartment without issue. It’s luck, fate, and probably mostly strange genetics. The furriest cat I’ve ever lived with is also mostly nonallergic. And soft.

As I watch him in the morning, sitting on a stool in the kitchen sniffing the open window, I can see the wind ruffling his fur. Every once in a while the morning breeze causes some to separate, and flutter off out of the kitchen into the hallway. It’s a slow motion, appropriate to the cool San Francisco morning. In the heat of the afternoon he will nap in the sun, and the shedding will be much more active, an intentional reaction to the warm beams.

It’s almost time to vacuum.

Again.

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.

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.

Just one

Life is full of phases. Easy segmentation comes in the form of school graduations and new jobs. These moments force us out of our houses and friend circles and introduce us to entirely new groups of people. Colleagues become friends, and fellow students drift away into Facebook birthday reminders. Some times they, or we, resurface a decade later, in a different town. Usually not. And when the new job ends we leave behind most of our colleagues, save for one or two we still see outside of any office, in circumstances far divorced from the workplace that first introduced us.

Life is fully of these changes, more for some people than for others. Depending on how often we move, how many jobs we have, and how many schools we attend the number of groups we’re part of varies. The kind of interactions, though, are stable. Out of each group there will be people we connect with, people we want to hold on to when the binding circumstance drifts away.

Living in upstate New York, at Vassar, and then in Tokyo and Shanghai, my groups are varied, distant, and rarely overlap. I’m lucky to have even one friend that shares multiple locations, let alone three. Most of my friends come from one of the many jobs, one of the many frisbee teams, one of the handful of cities. People I met while working at a delivery company in Shanghai, or a teaching job in Tokyo. Like most, I have friends from middle school, high school, or college. And now, on the west coast, I know people from a couple of jobs well enough to invite them over. At least one from each.

For those of us that move frequently, that have homes in different countries, friends in different cities, that’s a good place to start: one from each. Writing letters to Seth in Singapore last week I realized how special it is, to have him remember my apartment in Tokyo, to have him know my first apartment in Shanghai, and the grass of Vassar’s quad. There are several people who I can share each set of memories with, but only one who knows all three.

Standing last night in a yard in the Oakland hills with a friend from a job in the US, meeting his wife, brother, and father for the first time, I realized he’s one of a few, of very few, that I will stay connected with from those three years driving to Petaluma every day. There are others, scattered all over the globe, people I remember and will connect with when able. But few of them will invite me over, few will I meet up with in Shanghai late on a Saturday evening when all our work is done.

One is enough, sometimes. Given how much I like change, adding someone at each stop is a good pace. Sometimes I am lucky, and a frisbee team gives me a plethora. But it’s good to find someone from each part of life, to help with my memories, and to prove that we built something over all those days together.

A decade on

When counted as a stack of days, ten years is a long time.  In the history of a place, though, ten years depends entirely on when.  Lansing, small and rural, looked almost identical this August.  Ithaca has changed, with some new buildings, a Starbucks in Collegetown, a Walmart on Rte 13.  These are small shifts, though passionately fought against for years.  They are changes that do not disguise the place, save to those who have spent every day there.  All changes like that happened long before, in waves that have long left upstate New York.

Shanghai has become a creature completely unrecognizable to the countryside from whence it sprung, a decade earlier.  Those still able to find their way through the streets to their homes have mapped each change and watched their neighbors move on, move outwards, move up with the construction.  But it is not the larger places that have changed most these past ten years, New York and Tokyo still very similar to their counterparts of nineteen ninety eight.  Rather a decade’s worth of change is a matter of focus, a matter of effort.  Change is something that must be made, conscious and full-willing, despite the scale of time.

A decade is a long time to a person.  Or it can be.  People change by waking up and doing different, rather than simply as they have before.  People change by waking up and doing.  From nineteen to twenty nine seems long enough a corridor that memories from either end throw strange echoes off the wall.  Yet maybe from some greater remove of age the gap would not seem so great.  Or perhaps from a life with less motion, with less change in the same period, the similarities would shine through.

A decade ago prosperity seemed possible, democracy seemed casual, intelligence seemed valuable.  A decade ago growing old together seemed half madness, half obvious.  Growing old at nineteen an impossibility, a myth from those with no connection to the age.  May it always seem this way to those old enough to vote yet not to drink, and may they not always be given only one of those privileges.  Ten years ago the idea that the people I knew I would continue to was more basic a fact than gravity.  Friendships built in the fires of high school, of late night drives and semi-legal building climbs would endure anything.

A decade ago.  Yet here we stand, separated by every one of those stack of days.  Because there is another fact ignored in the belief stated above, that change comes from waking up and doing.  Sometimes change comes from not waking up, and not doing.  Ten years ago that seemed an impossible choice.  Today it seems even more so, reinforced by each decision I make, each place I see.  Of all the changes these years have brought, wars, jobs, friendships, travels, the one hardest to imagine is their lack.

Gary Snyder’s words linger as I type in a cafe in Houston, a city impossibly far from our high school plans. Ten years and more have gone by, I’ve always known where you were.” And I have.  And each morning I get up and do, making changes that take me further and further away from this day ten years ago, in nineteen ninety eight.

The confluence of dates is simple coincidence, but I think you’d be grinning at the change we’ve been working on, given the decade that’s come and gone.  I think you’d want to celebrate, and climb things, and run around with that wild look in your eyes, just like I will, tonight.

And sometimes, for a matter of hours in the span of these years, the distance doesn’t seem so long.

Quoted line from Gary Snyder’s December at Yase’, the final poem of his Four Poems for Robin’ published in The Back Country (1968), No Nature (1992) and The Gary Snyder Reader (1999)