New old views

Sunset on the beach in Ao Nang, Thailand. Purples, oranges, and blues.

The trees are as green as I remember, that deep tropical green interspersed with lighter varieties. In the rain everything saturates slightly, becoming the colors of my memories. The orange tile roofs pop a bit, peaking out from between the skyscrapers. We are back in Bangkok again, after five years. The heat, broken by these daily thunderstorms, doesn’t seem as intense. Or perhaps my body is less shocked by the transition, Hong Kong being almost as humid. I would like to say the past four years have changed me, but I know my skin’s memory is too temporary for that.

Some of the city feels different, of course. So much has changed, so many new towers up and ones half built now complete. We wonder at things we don’t remember, are they new or forgotten? Five years is a long time. This trip is different in other ways: we are three, rather than two, and our concerns the first day revolve around finding diapers, being able to wash tiny garments in the sink. We are still lucky, still traveling carry-on only, still able to take the train into the city, transfer to the BTS, and walk to our hotel carrying all of our bags. We have packed lighter than ever to make this happen, fewer items for ourselves and more pieces of clothing we can both wear to accommodate the new member’s main needs, diapers and a stroller. The later item, in keeping with our family’s primary requirements, fits in a carry-on bin when collapsed. We change, and yet we remain. I can’t wait to be able to teach her to pack light and go far.


From the shade of the trees, at a restaurant table and the plastic chairs, the beach looks close enough to my memories. Fifteen years ago three boys stood a bit further down, just off a plane from Bangkok, waiting for a long tail to Railay. They were young, confused, and would spend most of the week drinking beer in the ocean and playing Magic in the aircon of their bungalow. It was the type of vacation that sounds easy and is incredibly rare. Three friends, their friendship formed in a small apartment in Tokyo, re-uniting in a foreign country years later, after they had all moved on to different places.

This afternoon, sipping beer Chang with an infant strapped to my chest while watching the ocean, feels like a good return to this area, to these beaches and the lack of urgency we try to create with vacation. For a few days we are going nowhere. We walk the beach, swim in salt water and pool water, and take the time to appreciate each other. My accomplices now have never been to this section of Thailand before, and my own memories are distant enough to leave us in peace. It is new, then, in a way sorely needed post-pandemic. For the first time since Hanoi in January of 2020 we are in a new place together, on vacation, with no goals. We didn’t intend these moments to be so far apart.

The bar plays a strange collection of covers, and I wonder about the economics. Does the streaming platform chose to play global pop, for a global tourist audience, in poor cover form so as to avoid paying the original artists’ fees? Is this the world now? Do we all live in muzak versions, not just in elevators but in everything? The global circuit no longer depending on poorly ripped CDs of Bob Marley, of Rhianna, but of covers uploaded by Filipino bands who will, through algorithmic manipulation, never cross Spotify’s threshold for higher-percentage pay outs?


The prior visit, the three boys who’d met in Tokyo, is now best dated as one year pre-iPhone. No one had cell service, there was no global data network. We Googled things from one shared laptop, and then went wandering. We reserved things online, before departure, via email. No one made FaceTime calls on their AirPods from the beach. It was hard to know how good the sunsets here were, without visiting.

I don’t begrudge these changes. They’ve let me work from many places, let me travel and live a life that was mostly fiction in 2004, or in 1998. The ability to quickly show our young accomplice’s face to the grandparents in distant locales is of course good. The ability to respond to work calls from the pool deck, well, it’s inevitable. On that 2006 trip I had a Blackberry, paid for by a company in Los Angeles. The future is already here, and the past right beside it. Outside our resort a man squats busily cooking corn on the cob on a grill for a dollar, while half the restaurants along the beach have not re-opened post Covid. We live in a world that contains all of us at once.

It’s wonderful, after a few years, to remember this face to face.

Finding freedom

The 7-Eleven steps, benches, and a parked taxi in the rain

On Sundays, after she’s eaten early and we’ve done a second diaper change, we head out. Our routine, like all things, is benefiting from practice. The first time out I forgot my wallet, and the second, a metal cup for tea. The first few times going into the carrier she fussed, almost but not quite enough to wake Tara.

Now we are happy and quiet, going into the carrier with no complaints, collecting wallet keys phone mask hat cup flip flops, and heading down the stairs before anyone is much the wiser. It’s humid in the stairs, and those seven flights are a slow way to get used to the weather after our air conditioned bubble.

By the coffee shop around the corner she’s often asleep, a scant twelve yards from our door. Sometimes she watches me order cold brew before passing out again. It’s early, after all. And then, standing outside in our alley, coffee in hand and baby asleep again, everyone lightly sweating, I am free.

I think a lot about freedom, what it means and where we find it. I think a lot about the hours in our lives that matter to us, and how they change. I remember strongly the feeling of freedom late at night, after the town or the campus or the city was mostly asleep. For as long as I can remember I’ve loved to be up high at night, to look out at a place and think about all the people who are there, invisible with their lights off, asleep. Mostly of course I think about those still awake, those heading to work at odd hours, or just finally coming home. I think about those up for no reason, and those up because of pain, medication, or young children.

In those contemplative moments I am free. Free to think about almost anything, to consider new ideas and observe things I’d otherwise ignore. It’s a feeling I love.

Lately I feel this way a lot, standing at our window watching Tai Hang at three, at four, at five am. I count the taxis parked along Wun Sha street every night, when their driver’s shifts are over. The current high is twenty five in sight at four thirty am, a number hard to top given the streets physical limits. For this view and these hours of freedom I deeply love Tai Hang. I love the 7-Eleven with it’s large entry, where people sit at all hours. I love the coffee shop next door to it that put up benches. These benches, unknown to the shop staff, have featured dates, late night delivery worker dinners, and smokers on their phones at three. They have hosted drunks of all genders in all combinations, continuing their evenings or sobering up before heading upstairs. Late at night our window is a great view into the kind of city I most appreciate.

And yet there’s another side, another set of hours in which to find freedom. San Francisco first convinced me of freedom in the early mornings. As painful as they were, once we were on bicycles to the gym at seven, we were free. Being first on the mats, able to climb any route without concern for overlap, to hear the songs the staff played while cleaning to wake themselves up, and having the sunrise pour through the windows, blinding us on top out, was freedom. Biking to work afterwards, having showered, past the construction site that is now the Warriors stadium, I felt almost as free as walking home late at night.

On Sunday, as I walk around the small blocks of Tai Hang at eight am with Clara asleep in her carrier, sipping my first coffee, I am free. I pop in to the French bakery for bagels and a croissant for Mr. Squish. I put those on a bench and drink coffee while leaning on a parking barrier, holding Clara and watching people in line for one of the cha chaan tengs in the back alleys. The clientele, at this hour, is mostly those like me, with young children, and groups of spandex-clad bikers and runners, eating after even earlier rides or runs. Half of us are escaping the later day heat, and half of us are simply following the child’s cycle. Later we will all be replaced by families, and by those with dogs, both of whom dine closer to 10 am on Sundays. I like this changing of the guard, and remember similar ones from my own restaurant days: the older folk, couples or alone, who would dine at five, right on open, and were often regulars. Then families, six to seven, and finally dates, younger couples and a wider variety, after eight. The hours change with country, or like with San Francisco, the weather, but the themes are consistent. We are all human, and hungry.

After the coffee is gone we purchase milk tea, in a metal cup we’ve carried clipped to our belt, for the sleeping family member. She’ll appreciate it, iced from her favorite street stall. After saying thank you we head home, our half hour stroll almost over. These are our moments of freedom. Our missions, small though they be, are accomplished and with (including the cat) three quarters of the family asleep, we are in no rush.

A second cold brew, perhaps, and then the elevator up stairs.

Enjoy the dark days

In Hong Kong, in early February, the world is gray enough to feel like winter. Sometimes the sky drips, and sometimes the fog lingers on the hills. It’s a brief sensation that will be forgotten by the month’s end. As a child of wintery climes, I take comfort in the cycle of seasons, and am glad of these dark days. Pulling on shirt, pants, socks, and hat before making tea is a rare requirement in this city. Having nights be cold enough that the cat wants to snuggle happens but a few times a year. I pad through the unlit house and have to turn on the light when I reach the kitchen as the window, though uncovered, adds no light to the room. These small changes and the brief moment they occupy remind me of our lives in other places, and I treasure them.

Hong Kong will not hold this weather for long, nor the feeling of winter. At seven thirty, as they always do, the cockatoos swirl through our small neighborhood squawking. Entirely tropical birds with incredibly loud opinions and silly plumage, they dispel the idea of true winter with their daily arrival. As the world lightens the density of foliage on the hillside and the park, unchanged from summer, makes it clear that this is no northerly place. The thermometer, were I to look, would say 16 degrees, hardly cold. And yet these are the days for fleeces and puffy vests, for wool hats and socks inside.

We take what we can get, and enjoy each moment we are aware of the variety.

With low light

My favorite time of day is the first quiet hour of morning, when the house is still dark, shades drawn, and even the cat would like to go back to bed.

One room of our house has windows on three sides, with shades we rarely close. This room, used for yoga, for storage, for guests, and for laundry, is where I spend the mornings, after making coffee in the dark of the kitchen. I love the transition from the quiet shadows of the bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen to the open space of this room, to the view of Hong Kong and the sounds of the city waking. I love the light colors of morning, before the sun is beaming in, before the heat rises.

And then, of course, I love the transition back into the rest of the apartment. Coffee drunk I love stepping back into the dark of sleeping hours to slowly prepare myself for the day, to wake the house as much as I have woken myself. I try to do these things without urgency, the cleaning of cat box and dish, the laundry folding, the putting away of yesterday’s dishes. I try to keep the stillness and calm of those first few minutes even as the street noises get louder, even as the work hours draw closer.

I know why people meditate in the morning, when life is still. I know why they do yoga early, or run. There’s a lot of peace and less exhaustion than there will be later on. These moments without distraction, without external demands or personal hopes, are precious.

I do my shoulder PT in this room with grey light, before waking Tara. And write. And step back into the darkness to move on with the day.