In and out of conversations

On a Saturday afternoon in the heat of June I hide in the shade and air-conditioning and think about what is next. As a friend said to me one evening in Dongguan some six years back, always do whatever’s next.” In short order I will. After weeks of conversations, I’m looking forward to the change. After a few months off, after surgery and healing, after weeks of playing ping pong in the park and video games in the afternoons, of going to happy hours and studying Mandarin on alternate evenings, I will once again have a job. For the first time since moving to Hong Kong in the fall of twenty eighteen, I will have an office. For the first time since the spring of twenty seventeen, I’ll have a team. The three and a half years in that sentence feels like a lifetime. I try to remember that boy, biking from Fruitvale station and eating hotdogs along the estuary at lunch, and am happy for him. From a distance I can clearly see the good in those days.

Over these past weeks, with a variety of friends, the threads of a single conversation became clear. What starts on meeting with rituals, questions about the current day, future plans, and recent shared activities, dives slowly to deeper topics. Jobs, first, and the challenges that surround them. How to handle a boss that won’t listen to a suggestion, or how to manage a request that can’t be completed. These are basic parts of modern life, and reveal so much about how humans treat each other. This languid survey of friends reveals those who have or have had decent relationships with their direct managers to be shockingly rare, one in five, one or two in ten. Buried in the commonalities of the stories, slowly revealed, is a shared desire to treat ourselves better and to develop empathy. As I wrote once about flying, any opportunity to reflect on our choices is an opportunity to treat each other better.

In so many ways we become who we are gradually, over years, the accumulation of hours at our chosen craft, the accumulation of hours in transit, moving from the person we were to the person we hope to be. Through trying new sports and learning from new friends, by studying for hours, and through teaching ourselves to solve problems, we gain new abilities and learn how to answer old questions. Through our experiences, better ones and worse ones, we learn better how to treat others, and what we hope for from leadership.

In other ways we are creatures of the immediate, reacting to the daily encounters and constantly in unfamiliar situations. In so many ways we are built on a series of sudden changes, job offers, injuries, and singular days of travel that forever shift what we will do, and where we have been. In these moments so much of our nature is both revealed and shaped. In moments of great disturbance we have the opportunity to become better, to change ourselves rapidly. For years the difference between these two types of change have fascinated me, the fast and the slow. As an early version of this site’s about page said, it’s the love of both that leads me to move so frequently and stay so long. Loving both the small rituals of daily routine and the rush of learning a new place, I am so happy to move, rather than just visit. Almost two years into Hong Kong I am both glad at how comfortable it feels and excited at how much more there is to learn. Once again I revise my baseline of time required in a place upwards. We have but scant years, and so much to learn.

Here then on this last weekend where the immediate future is uncertain I try to remember all I have learned since the last spate of time off, or the gap before that. I promise to try to follow through on the hopes of the shared conversations of the past few months, to be more of what we all hope for. And I try, on this last weekend, to make space for all that we will learn, when we do whatever’s next.

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.

Last days

The seasons change, inevitably. In San Francisco the fog pours over the peaks in the afternoons, blanketing the city with a chill breeze that can only mean summer. Returning to the city from the heat of the East Bay the fog feels like a memory, and I know our time with it is ending.

I have learned that endings come from all directions. Usually they aren’t as simple as they were in two thousand four, packing up and walking out of my first Shanghai apartment with no plans and a single backpack. Often the point of departure is rather a runway built on dozens of small signals. A job ends, a boss quits, a lease expires, a visa is too difficult to renew. These moments when added together become impetus enough to overcome the comforts of a small apartment, of good light and great friends, of living downtown by the train.

Cause’ it could come out of nothing
And hit you harder still,

As the fall of twenty sixteen approaches, promising a few weeks of sun without fog, sun without wind, we breathe deep and prepare ourselves. The gift of seeing change coming is being able to remember the moments just before it with clarity. Riding my bicycle to work each day along Embarcadero in Oakland I watch the sky and the water. One day this will not be my commute, just like that long drive to Petaluma over the Golden Gate is no longer my commute. Like the Saikyo Line, Yong Jia Lu, and Houston’s streets, the commutes change and the past moves further behind us.

Can you pick a point that we can choose to rewind to
Or know there’s better days ahead than behind you

In many ways San Francisco is home. It’s not time for goodbye, not yet. For another few months the fog will roll in, we will grow older, and the call of distant shores will remain in the background. Yet in twenty sixteen the desire to go has grown powerful, and we have started planning for the end. Constant travel and a wonderful set of friends have kept us in place these past seven years, but weights can be only so heavy, and our curiosity is strong.

The cat, now four, has never lived outside this city of seven by seven miles, though he’s traveled far. He doesn’t know it, but he will love wherever comes next.

Don’t you know what it’s like
To disappear from someone else’s life

Leaving is a sudden thing built in stages. Moving away takes years, financing, and the will to ignore the accumulation of the first two. So in the fog of the summer of twenty sixteen I gather the last of these to me.

In two thousand seven a boy sat on his balcony in Shanghai, waiting for the storm to break. He was ready to go but not yet pushed to leave. In a half dozen months everything in his life would change.

Can we work it out?

For now we watch friends leave, jobs end, and people grow. We think of the future and celebrate the present. Like that boy in Shanghai, we are not yet in motion, we are waiting for the weather to break. Like that boy in Shanghai we are not packed, but we know what we’ll keep.

Post cards, books, memories, friendships.

And a furry cat.

Quoted lyrics from Gordi’s Can We Work it Out, Nothing’s as It Seems, and So Here We Are off of the 2016 EP Clever Disguise