Explicit caution

Rocks and water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The setting sun

From the rooftop we can see the edge of the continent. In the last light of Sunday it looks appropriately epic. We are quiet in the face of majesty, at least initially. I remember standing with friends on the rim of the Grand Canyon one morning in the year two thousand, all four of us silently willing our minds to process what our eyes were taking in. The task remains daunting even in my memory a decade later.

Few events require that kind of silence, the re-routing of all brain power from chatter and output to absorption of spectacle. The sunset this evening was that kind of thing, pink and gold and dusty rose and purple filling the sky and reflecting off of all the glass of the city’s windows behind us, up and down its hills, in between trees and large structures. The shifting clouds led the light inland and gave it the rippling texture of the wind.

I am obsessed with satellite imagery of our planet, of the surprising intricacies and overwhelming scale of this globe.  Photos, events, descriptions in books lead me inevitably to the true magic of our generation, the unstated masterpiece of our global connectivity thus far: the easily available view of our planet. No longer is knowledge of the world a challenge to obtain, no longer is a sense of geography the province of those who spend days outdoors or a life on the road. The world is a thing to be seen and the tools to do so can fit in our pockets, can take over our walls.

I wait eagerly for a multi-touch display the size of a Minority Report screen not to wave away dialogue boxes on, but to view the Maldives from a thousand meters up, to observe the east coast of the United States, where I grew up, from the spartan furnishings of whatever tiny Asian apartment I then inhabit.

Watching the sunset this evening, though, my desires are quieted and the vast list of adventures to plan, tickets to purchase, and accommodations to discover slide out of my brain along with all thoughts of technology. I do not even remember the camera, that falls to my companion, who hustles down the stairs and returns with image capturing equipment. Instead I turn my head from ocean to hills and stare. The light fades earlier these days, and is no less impressive for the arbitrary change in hour.

The year is coming to an end, surprisingly. It feels as though it just began, twenty eleven with its frantic pace. The colors that fill the sky tonight promise, like an afterthought on a gorgeous day, that all is not yet done.  Brief though are the remaining pauses where the eyes can overwhelm the brain’s thoughts of work and obligation.

Our minds finally still then, here in the last of the week’s light, we stand on a rooftop in San Francisco, gaze towards the ocean and feel the wind.

To and fro

From the edge of the Pacific, on his thirty second birthday, a man watches ships approach from China, their decks stacked high. With steel sides and huge size these vessels are proof again that something exists out beyond the waves, concealed by fog and distance. The beach is a windy place, and despite the coffee shop’s sign that says we love the fog” along Judah, most seem content to stay indoors. It is a Monday in San Francisco, and, not having to work, he approaches the ocean alone, to check that both have survived the year.

At twenty eight he stood on the shores of this ocean, facing it from the other side. The South China Sea, specifically, though the bodies of water do not require fare at their borders. The waters instead leak back and forth, stirred by currents far larger than these boats, by motion on a scale beyond that of any one person. His visit to the ocean that day, in the back of a Buick, after a factory floor and before a seafood lunch that would make him sick, was due to a job he could not leave for celebration, had no need to escape at the moment.

In August San Francisco sees little of the world, is an island unto itself. As he drove north the weekend prior sunshine lingered on California hills. Covered in vines of grape and tall grass, they were a message so clearly of summer as to be painful for one who lives in the fog. Returned for the work week to the city of his current residence he wakes sore and sleeps restlessly, muscles tired and mind overcome. In the morning he lingers in the house, cleaning and re-arranging, thinking and remembering those far away.

The ocean swirls with colors deeper than blue, pulled from far below and reflected back by the low hanging clouds. A group of teenagers cavort at the water’s edge, and another man who looks more lost than most here sits on a log and talks to no one. Walking along the water’s edge, his red sneakers leaving brief impressions, he of thirty two says almost nothing, singing instead into the wind. From the ship growing larger to the shore the ocean is a turbulent mass of white, and the birds are constantly flapping away from the crash of the waves.

A week later and he again has tickets to cross it, has friends whose houses await and strange factories to visit. Purchasing flights once more is exciting, most of a decade after those first tickets from Japan to Shanghai, ten exactly since he first felt this combination of uncertainty and joy. Of all the birthdays since then, twenty eight feels most real, standing on the shore of the sea, looking east towards Japan and California. By the count of years he is four older now, looking west from San Francisco. Yet with visas and tickets in hand, with the wind off the ocean and no idea where he is going, he feels much the same.

On brief vacation

You are a creature of habit,” she says. You like to have things that you do every weekend, and lots of space.”

True.” Being habitual is not the whole of it. It is not the repeating of specific activities but the necessity of forming them, the comfort derived from having a plan, a pattern.

I would wake up and go on adventures, but you want to do Saturday things.” Her voice is not accusing, rather it is the joy of knowing someone’s true self. The defensiveness in his response is the shame of being so easily understood.

We go on adventures,” it begins, look at where we are now.”

Outside it is dark, and the gardens watched over by only stars, and the moon. Inside the fire crackles, the wine sits on the mantle, and a man and woman sing of life and love on the stereo. The ocean is audible over their voices if not visible beyond the flowers.

This was my idea,” she points out, and it was, he had taken no time to plan, despite desire. He’d been late from work, the calm delay of the one with no knowledge of schedule, with no responsibility for check in.

I like new things,” he tries again, almost without energy. Almost conceding. To himself he is moving on, ready to acknowledge that he likes making new habits, likes learning a new place, learning how to replicate a love of coffee, wine, and tree climbing in new locations. Removing the fear that otherwise stirs in the unknown air.

You like to learn new things, and new places, on your own time,” she says, smiling now. So that when others want to explore you are already comfortable.” She is finished now, happy to have explained this without wounding him.

We should go more places, do more.” This is no great admission. It is an attempt to combat his central fear, of seeing too little. That fear makes him survey the crowd at parties and wander constantly in cities.

We should remember to explore,” she says. We won’t always live here, and we need to learn to remember.”

He knows this too, for years later it is not the comfort of habits that remains in mind from previous houses and days spent in routine, but the exceptions, the impetuous variation from rituals, that live on in stories and in their lives.