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)