Hospitals

A Bangkok hospital view

Some parts of life don’t bear talking about. Factories, mostly. I spend a lot of time in factories, time that forms a base of knowledge I have spent so many hours on the road to acquire. And yet it’s hard to talk about factories. Complicated, really.

Hospitals are like that too. Except I didn’t mean to spend so much time in them. Some days I remember the details. I remember waiting in the UCSF hospital while Tara got ACL surgery, nervous and uncertain in a tiny sitting area with no windows. Reading bad old magazines and trying not to stare at the only other visitor, an old man. Wondering over and over what or who he was waiting for but neither of us in any mood for talk.

The next time I had to wait through Tara’s surgery I went sneaker shopping in Siam Discovery, a fancy Bangkok mall. I had a couple hours they’d said, and knew better than to sit still. Sneaker shopping sounds fun, and often is fun. I remember walking the BTS stations almost surprised how normal everything felt. How normal my body was, despite the huge scrapes on my arms and legs. I felt worried, but also lucky, the doctor having cleared my shoulder after an exam. Only Tara’s wrist broken, after the motorcycle crash in northern Laos. Just the small bones. Just her right hand. Five years later it’s still a hard week to think about.

The third time wasn’t even surgery. Just stitches and a lot of cleaning, a lot of cutting dead skin away. She was awake. I left the room, pacing the entry to the fancy Hong Kong hospital for an hour at midnight on a Sunday. Nervous and tired but pretty sure she’d be ok. That was easier, but still too hard.

In March of last year it was again voluntary, or scheduled: one night in the hospital alone after shoulder surgery. My left, beat up by years of climbing and frisbee. And probably never a hundred percent since New York. Or since that motorcycle crash. Overnight hospital stays, like Ben Watt says in his book Patient, are strange things. Peaceful but without rest, the body either shutting down or being woken up for pills, for checks, by pain. It’s hard to sleep, even in a private room, even with luxury. I got laid off that morning, by phone, before the nurses brought more pain killers. Overnight hospital stays, when they’re going ok, are an awful lot of time to think, and no energy at all for thinking.

And then New York, of course. Two different hospitals. Five nights each. Surgery with fingers and biting on sweatshirts. A lot of pain and long waits to try walking. A lot of slow hellos with nothing to say. A lot of time to stare and think and no energy at all.

Hospitals are hard to talk about. Like factories.

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.

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.

Transitions

The weather breaks and he begins to move after months of planning. Habits are simple things, codified out of time and repetition. Their creation goes unnoticed, until a change of workplace, house, or partner forces home their shift. The boy who left Tokyo in one weekend of breakups and gift-giving, pieces of his life strewn on the street outside a Yono hommachi apartment block, stares at the rain sweeping across Shanghai. The windows are tinted gold, an attempt at fake glory that neither the view nor the windows have been able to maintain. The sky is grey and darkening, and the office lights begin to dim. He watches, waiting for a parcel from a factory. The phone rings, an apologetic and wet delivery driver, confirming address, hoping for the endless ringing of an evening reprieve. The phone says six forty five as he sets it down on the window sill. Marble, though the wall that supports it is concrete, painted white and slowly turning to dust. These evenings are comfortable moments, the staff gone, the building growing quiet. The phone blips with bars and dinners, none holding any sense of urgency against the darkening windows.

These Friday evenings of peace after the week’s hectic crush are habits that take effort to scatter. Their ritual encompass a host of others. His bed is waiting for him clean, sheets neatly turned down and clothes hung outside to dry, though they will not in the rain, by an ayi hired to accommodate the rush of busy weeks. On hearing of his plans the worry in her eyes will remind him of the destruction of this scattering. Moving on, he assures her he is not. Not yet, at any rate, not for several months. The sheets will still be cleaned, the bed made. The daily pattern will continue. Leaving for Hong Kong for a few weeks, he will return to familiar pillow covers, bought years ago upon moving in. Reassured she smiles, amazed at this man’s freedom to abandon employment.

Like freedom, scale stuns. Photography provides an example most easily, or most recently: five hundred thousand people crushed into a single train station in Guangzhou’s winter. The overwhelming realization of size new visitors have on seeing Shanghai’s skyline that first taxi ride in to the city at night, towers extending in every direction. Asked for the hundredth time the inevitable why’ he answers no longer in specifics but with the memory of that boy leaving Tokyo in a whirlwind:

I moved here on a whim.”

The question answered not at all, each side moves on to safer ground:  plans immediate, travel hopeful, the eventual expression of desire, or the jealousy of time. The ayi’s look of amazement at his freedom misses the scale, and thus the stun. To acquire the job he so casually concedes the man who employs her first had to abandon his family, his country, and his employment in some distant place of equal comfort.

Why’ lingers in his head long after each conversation as he seeks new answers for his own use on quiet scooter rides. Sometimes the moment is hard to spot, he thinks, the change a long time coming, wave-like from the sea. By the time it reaches land there’s no telling where the push arose. Change is a frightening thing, and yet empowering. This comfort with another culture, this industry mostly understood, they didn’t happen as tiers on a ladder, save for one of individual days assembled. There came a moment when what was was not enough, and habits, rather than small patches of comfort against the wind became small fences of restraint against desire. He wants to go, and to do so must disassemble all the things that hold him here. He is older, and has learned some things, no longer discarding books to re-purchase them again, now able to calculate shipping costs versus cover price. A gain not only of mathematics but of language, the post office understood rather than confounding. Some of these things and most of this learning he will take with him, and some of these habits he will re-assemble in distant locations, having learned their comfort in Shanghai.

For a few more months though he will greet the ayi in the mornings, pack bag with novel and notebook instead of folders and laptop, and set out on foot to remember this city, this country. To remember the habits of a boy curious and stunned, fresh off a plane at twenty four, and unemployed.