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, are 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 expected from the world, and having it restored has restored my sense of what is 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 are 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.

Make time

Light in London one afternoon in October 2006

Stephen King’s commencement speech to my Vassar class was a good one. His message, that you can’t take it with you,” never left me. Every year since I try to do more with, and waste less of, what I’ve got. The efforts aren’t always successful. I’ve spent a lot of time playing games and goofing off, and a lot of time on skills I don’t always need. Mostly, here half way through my forty second year, I’ve spent a lot of time.

My grandfather, on the phone a few weeks back, just eighty seven, said I never expected to be this old.” The line echoed in my head all week. Who does? And yet underneath the statement is the simple math, that he is more than twice as old as I am now. We have time, or we could have time, if we’re lucky and healthy and work hard at making more of both.

You said you needed time, and you had time,” Ani sings on a song Tara’s been learning to play. We do, I think, though never as much as we’d like, not with the people we most want it with. I think of the methods, of the sums. Half hour phone calls, hour long video chats, and text strings that cover years, that drop for days and re-emerge with new questions, new thoughts for that friend from years ago. Mostly I think about the good days, about the long weekend in Amsterdam with a friend I’d met in Tokyo. It was after the World Cup in 2006, and we spent the weekend relaxing and wandering the canals. I think about how there are no pictures of that weekend, how without both of us to remember, I’d have forgotten it entirely by now.

From October of that same year there are photos, somewhere, of our time in London together, of our brief wanderings as I jammed more travel into a busy year. In those photos we are young, and happy, and as unfinished as anyone in their late twenties can look. We are still en route to so much, still before so much.

Life, it seems, is like that. There’s never a sense of how far we have to go, only of how far we’ve been. Sitting on the floor of our office in Hong Kong on a Sunday, writing while Tara chops ume for pickles, I think of how lucky we were to have folk visit before travel stopped. How despite all the urging we did, we probably didn’t do enough. Because there might not be time, after. The world is here, now. Or it was, and, vaccines done, we hope it will be again. I’m getting ready, on these quiet weekends of chores and writing, for whatever’s next. Getting ready to move again, to act again, and to be part of other people’s lives again. It’s been a while.

We said we needed time, like Ani sings. Have we had time?

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.