Interesting times

Hospital view

From the hospital bed I can see the tops of towers. The dawn sun rises over the green hill behind them, a slow brightening of the world and my room. The view feels odd, perhaps due to the painkillers and lack of sleep, or perhaps due to the world. With little to do until the doctor’s rounds around nine, I work on relaxing each part of my body, starting with the lungs. This slowing of each portion is my way of putting myself back to sleep. It’s an ability formed in the childhood years of asthma attacks but not truly appreciated until years later, when healing other injuries. Now it is as comforting as anything, and I doze restlessly until seven, when the phone rings. My painkillers are on an eight am and eight pm cycle, at least the pill ones, and so by seven I’m beginning to miss them. The IV drip is noticeably not enough alone.

On the other end of the phone my boss is on his way home, in San Francisco. The all-encompassing virus is mandating work from home, and life, in his description, sounds even more surreal than I already feel. A few moments into our conversation, after the pleasantries, he lets me know it’s no longer an employer/ee relationship. The rest of the conversation is cordial, save for the growing ache in my shoulder. Eventually it ends, and I wait in the almost daylight for the nurse to bring relief. I have nothing else to do.

The end of things, I have written, comes suddenly, but without terrible surprise. So it feels this time, the echoes of one startup’s failure have lingered into the chances of the next in my mind, so that I am not surprised. In fact the similarities are so specific that that the differences are what disappear, and I feel uncertain of many things. Luckily I have little to do but breathe and try to sleep, and a shoulder worth of pain to distract my brain from deeper thoughts.

Prepare the body, shelter the mind

On this Sunday I sit and watch the sliver of road perched half-way up the hill behind our house. Birds flitter across the view, darting and wheeling in the updrafts that must surround all these hills and towers. They are, it seems, going nowhere and enjoying the motion very much. Like the cat, I think, who frequently zooms around the house with wild eyes. Most often he does this right after we turn off the lights for bed, his eyes suddenly wide in the dark. From sofa to bedroom he bursts, and pausing, back in a straight line, kicking off bags and stools en route. I love these parkour moments, and celebrate when they occur in the afternoons. Like the birds, his sprints do not feel fully formed, and occasionally he skids into a wall, or once loudly the glass door of the shower, a deafening bang that shocked both him and myself. The zooms feel instead like the joy of motion, like running for running’s sake. The passing birds, wheeling tightly near the tall towers of our neighborhood and off up the hill only to pivot and return, accelerating down just above the canopy, feel similar, a joy for life expressed in action.

Sitting still in my chair, watching the hill, I know their feeling, this cat and these birds. I am preparing for just such a burst of motion. My bag is mostly packed, save for the laptop I am typing on. A few choices remain, as they always do the night before a long loop: one pair of shoes or two, one pair of pants or two, and a notebook or not. These are the edges of my minimal packing routine, well-considered now, years after it began.

In the morning I will head out, decisions made, on a burst of activity designed in some fashion to provide signs of life to the world. Like the cat and birds, I will bounce from spot to spot and eventually wheel, returning to my starting point. In between I will learn new things in Los Angeles, see colleagues in San Francisco, and celebrate in New York. In between those destinations I will tap down, lightly, like Mr. Squish on the wooden stool, in Tokyo. Like the cat, the intensity of this pending action requires a lot of energy, gathered through long naps in the sun and a small physical gathering of muscles for sudden acceleration. After a quiet couple of weeks of quarantines and ill news, this burst of motion will bring me back to life, put me out in the world once more. With this loop I will close out my first quarter travel plans, hit both sides of the continental US and most of my American touch points. I’ll return, in ten days, body sore and mind tired from the exertion. Hopefully the cat will welcome me back and we will once again nap together like this morning, curled tight to share the same sun beam. For the rest of today though I will be here, watching the hillside and quietly preparing both body and mind.

Passing through

In the foggy chill of a November San Francisco evening I head home to a place I’ve never lived. After a jet lagged day in the office, a round of mini golf with coworkers, and dinner with an old friend I am tired and full. Crossing Dolores I am also alone, in the strange way of San Francisco where ten pm sees all responsible individuals indoors save in a few tiny commercial strips. In Hong Kong there would be dozens of folk out of doors in all directions now, a level of activity not only explained by the weather.

I’m happy to be at home in the Castro this week, a neighborhood I haven’t frequented since our early years in the city a decade ago. On these recent trips I take advantage of friends’ generosity as both a cost saving measure for the current startup and a fringe benefit of the long flights. These evenings with people I now live too far from are quite a perk. We discuss old times, sharing memories of China and San Francisco in equal measure. I am often confused about bed times and vague about meals, but good conversation is not as vulnerable to displacement.

The sense of home, though, has gone. That is the starkest change, walking home across Church, or up Market past Safeway and the Churchill. I know these places, having bought thanksgiving dinner fixings at one and fancy cocktails at the other, but they are no longer part of my city. I spend a morning thinking about this as I ride Muni to work. It’s been so long that I try to swipe my Clipper card on the way out of the gates, like Bart, only to have the station attendant remind me that’s not necessary on Muni. It must have been five years since I rode it last.

And then suddenly in a text message it’s explained to me, obviously. Visiting San Francisco now is like returning to Shanghai in two thousand ten, two years or so after moving away. Everything is familiar, it still can feel like home, but it isn’t, and in some way it doesn’t. I’ll always be comfortable here, but probably never again a resident. Just like Shanghai. And the metro confusion of the Powell street Muni gates matches so well my lack of knowledge of line 10’s stops past Xujiahui in two thousand nine. These are places we know but have forgotten, or places that have changed.

On my way to the climbing gym this evening, to meet old friends and enjoy one of the largest bouldering gyms in the world for a couple of hours before my flight, I pass Chase Center, the Warriors new home. It’s a colossus, a sparkling modern money-printing facility. The last time I rode this street I could see straight through the structure. Only the girders were in place, phantoms of the future bleachers curves mirrored in their arcs.

Like all cities, San Francisco is changing. Like all people, we are changing. Many of my friends no longer live here, not in the city proper. It has only been a single year, and yet the pace of their evacuation is startling. The people I stayed with in September have fled north since that visit, a scant two months prior. I wonder how long I will have friends here at all. And then I arrive at the gym and find another friend sprawled on the mats unexpectedly. It will be a while, I realize. My five years of connections to Shanghai have still not faded, not fully. Nine years in SF will likewise not fade too fast. It’s just the sense of home that has moved on, to warmer and denser cities where my cat wanders the park and is taken out to dinner at the noodle shop.

Time now to get back there, again on this long commute.

Temporary crossings

Looking at the river

We have a gift, in technology, that is transforming our memories. When I began writing, years before this site, the idea of a personal photographic history was a distant vision. Digital cameras were a poorly performing luxury and cellular connections barely able to convey data. I would not own access to either for another half dozen years.

Unsurprisingly the memories of my first trip abroad have a vague feel and possibly apocryphal characteristics. Much of human history has the same quirks. I have always taken the year of my birth as a blessing, lucky to have grown up before self-documentation. Not before documentation, as parents still took photos and recorded far too many Christmas presents being opened, but before the constant self-editing of ones’ personal digital history. And yet cloud backups and quickly accessible photo streams are a gift of another kind, bringing our memories out of the fog of uncertainty and into the concrete in an entirely new way.

They do not, however, constitute the whole truth, something for which I am grateful. There will still be stories told without evidence, and poorly lit photos that do not clearly prove that we were there that night. At least not without consulting the location metadata.

What we do have is the ability to remember a specific day, return to it, and share the remnants of it with new people, or with old friends. We have the ability to instantly look up the last time we saw someone, or the last time we took a photo, at least.

And so it is that I can find the image I remember in a mater of moments. He stands on the deck of a ferry in the bright light of October sun. We are headed across the Yangtze river to a new factory. This was the good kind of trip, all of us excited to see what we would build together. The travel still felt exploratory and joyful. We all laughed and enjoyed the ferry that day, a place none of us had ever expected to see.

Three months later I would be back, on the worst kind of quick turn quality control visit. I would cross this river on this same ferry, or one of four identical vessels. I would spend several days in the cold of Yangzhou and then fly to Tokyo to present my solutions, to apologize, and to wear a suit. That would be the last time we met in person, me apologizing to him and then us both apologizing to a mutual customer. It was an unpleasant occasion at the end of the year. We were both tired, then, exhausted from the compromises of supporting a failing business model. A little more than a month into the new year I changed jobs, and left that industry and that world behind.

The truth is there aren’t many people to tell, few people I know who ever met him, and fewer still I still speak to. Instead I sift through photos of my times in Tokyo, of his trip to Petaluma, and of our factory visits in China. The best ones I send to his colleague, in case they capture moments he does not have. I share the memories I have available, especially of the good days. It’s all I can think of to do.

Keep contact

Anki view

At the end of everything come goodbyes. They come after the laptop is turned in, after the exit interview, after the resignation letter. We go out for a drink, or lunch at a place we’ve always liked. Sometimes we just sit around the office and chat, or wander the parking lot. The location isn’t as important as the people. They are our constant companions for the last several years, folk who have shared more of our waking hours than our families. It’s a strange aspect of this modern life where occupation dominates. The time together leads to friendships that are both intense and limited by location. For a few years we share everything, so many things, small battles and celebrations, long trips, awkward meetings and Christmas parties. And then, suddenly, we move on.

And so we say goodbye last, for the people are what we will miss, regardless of the product or company, regardless of which side of the table we sat on in price negotiations. Vendor, colleague, customer, supplier, all of these words are simply descriptions for a person in one box of their life. Before and after, well, it’s hard to say who they may become, and good to remember who they have been. So we say goodbye in bars, in line at boba tea, over ice cream on Market street. At the very end we say goodbye on Zoom calls, while the account still works and everyone’s schedule is simultaneously free. And when it has been good we laugh and we cry, glad to have had the chance to share so much with these people met in the search for a paycheck.

It took me years to learn to say goodbye. My first jobs were places that celebrated for me, where turnover was high enough to have rituals surrounding it: Irish car bombs on the restaurant patio in Boston or all-night karaoke in Saitama. Those were the years of transience, of scattered memories and friendships made for the moment with Irish students in America for the summer or English teachers from Newfoundland. Part of these goodbyes was the lack of surprise at their happening. So many of our relationships came with expiration dates, visa limits, or school year cycles. And so I made it to Shanghai before I knew how to value colleagues, even the ones I remain friends with from those earlier years.

Thus these last few weeks have been bittersweet, filled with former colleagues and good friends reaching out to see where I will land, to see if they can help, or simply to admire the product that occupied so much of my last two years. There have been lots of chats with colleagues now become friends about job prospects but also about baseball. We bring up old jokes formed during late night calls with distant timezones, partially because they still make us laugh and partially because we weren’t ready to say goodbye, because we were still having a good time.

In that last sentence comes some of what has changed from those early days. For the first time in as long as I can recall, I wasn’t leaving, I wasn’t in a rush to whatever’s next, though I now need to find it. My former colleagues, far from being distant and forgotten, toiling in their cubicles while I take interviews, are all within reach, available by chat and sharing their search. In some ways there was no goodbye, despite the zoom calls and the tears. In a lot of ways we’ll still be here, in different cities and at different companies, because we didn’t leave.

Visiting weekends

On Sundays in Hong Kong the overhead walkways are coveted space. At eight thirty most are taken, demarcated with twine or blankets by the early risers. These women make phone calls or read, holding space for friends. By noon all spots will be filled and the chatter of friendship will echo off the walls of these temporary cement salons. This occupation of public space is part of Hong Kong, repeated and and relatable in a way comforting to this San Francisco visitor. In my Mission neighborhood it is the streets and sidewalks that are occupied on Sundays, rather than overhead walkways. The small sidewalk sales, drinking, and disruption are rather more confrontational in nature than Hong Kong’s collection of weekday workers FaceTiming their families. The juxtaposition is strange, and comforting. Like myself, the migrant workers of Hong Kong have only Sunday off. It is our sole moment of personal peace while in a foreign country. Unlike them, I spend the single day in a solitary fashion, drinking coffee, climbing, and writing in my hotel room. I am lucky to be here in the employ of a US company, to have access to discretionary funds, to have energy to explore. I do not need to carve out a section of stairwell to have private space, nor bring cardboard to pad the ground. And yet I too will FaceTime my family, I too will chat with friends similarly distant, and I too will go back to work in the evening, ready for another week of long days in a country not my own.

In some small way then I appreciate these women’s situation, their choice, however constrained, to live in this country and work hard for money they can share with a family they see only on screen. Watching them set up their places early this morning I appreciate their perseverance, their laughter, and their community. And I appreciate the culture that has employed them so willingly but also that allows them this one day a week of occupancy. The freedom to take over public spaces, in fact to appear in public spaces at all, is not taken for granted, and is not common. The fact that Hong Kong’s walkways are covered on Sundays with evidence of the city’s dependence on migrants is a reminder that public space can be shared and maintained for everyone, regardless of origin.

Commuting lives

Vanmoof

Years ago I wrote about my commute, on electric scooter through the neighborhoods of Shanghai.

Once again I have a similar commute, by bicycle in downtown San Francisco. It is hard to overstate what an accomplishment this is in the United States in twenty seventeen.

As Mobike overtakes the Asian cities I love, San Francisco is still caught in the death throws of the private automobile. It’s common to hear conversations about autonomous vehicles, electric bicycles, or other means of transportation, and yet so much travel, so much of commuting life relies on the private car, even if employed via an app or treated as a shared resource.

For the past few years I’ve ridden Bart & biked to work, a lengthy combination made friendly by a wonderful bike shop in Fruitvale that housed my bike on weekday evenings. Now though I am finally free, able to bike or walk, Bart or bus as I feel the need. No option takes more than twenty minutes, door to door. It’s a glorious release, a freedom I haven’t felt since Shanghai, since those scooter rides through neighborhoods I still know well and still think of often.

And so my thought these last few weeks, made happy by this gift of geography: How much of our life is really our commute?”

Not where we work, but how we get there. Not who we work with, but who we travel along side. Not how much we are paid, but how much we pay to arrive at the office.

How much of our lives are we spending in transit, and how does it leave us?

This is the question that resonates as I pedal home down Howard Street, a decade after slipping quietly down Yongjia Lu on my electric scooter.

Free.

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.

Healing time

Bangkok skyline

Eight months ago we watched this same view with more pain, our skin worn away by a road in Laos so that the pool stung slightly.

Now we sit and watch the buildings almost astonished to be back. Work travel like this is always unexpected, and neither of us planned to return to Bangkok so soon after the last strange week here, shuttling between hospital and hotel.

We were too injured then to explore very far in any direction. A half dozen blocks at most, a couple of train stations, a single mall. Now, back to a more regular health, we wander a dozen miles a day around the city, becoming both more comfortable here and less tied to those injuries.

It is a strange reunion, a vacation given to us out of odd circumstance. A colleague unable to travel due to the new US government for Tara and the freedom of minimal employment for me has given us three days in the city before her work begins to relax and revisit old views.

In the interim months Bangkok has changed as much as our skin. The building across the street from this hotel is gleaming white and the pool on floor five filled. On our last visit it was wrapped in scaffolding and construction elevators, and filled with work men welding at odd hours. The interior of the upper floors does not yet look finished, but the lower ten seem occupied. For our part we can both do pushups, a testament to the surgeons at Bumrungrad that added titanium to Tara’s wrist and to her intervening months of physical therapy and dedication.

As a reminder of physical progress the week in Thai sunshine is welcome. As a mental break from the past before we begin building the future, it’s a luxury.

Sometimes we are lucky indeed.

Three business tactics

Answering the phone while driving back from the factory to his office, weaving in and out of the oncoming lane to pass trucks and cyclists, his voice shifts. At thirty eight he is a man of no small stature, having already begun to gain the bulk of those well-fed into their later years. The change then, from light-toned questioning with the windows down to this deep-voiced adult, who refers to others as Little so-and-so, comes easily from his body. This voice, devised for business and for those unknown, is not a personal invention. It is a ritual, a method of establishing seniority, sincerity, importance. He questions the faceless caller without pause for several minutes, half in one lane half in another. As the phone clicks off he shifts back to a more gentle set of sounds, but the switch is not as quick. His first sentence begins severe, in this voice of habit, and then becomes a joke, a secret shared between friends.

It is this voice he will use the next day to tell me about the factory’s complaints, about the difficulties they face, and the strictness of my standards. His voice will tell me this is business, that it is his job to say these things, and I will nod, agreeing. Nothing will change.


Without words he pulls the pack, red with golden lettering, from his bag, slicing the plastic wrap from it with a long nail. As he pushes the top open he extends it, though he knows I do not smoke. As I dismiss the offer he swings around to its true target, the third party at our small lunch table, who accepts gladly. He then takes one himself, and procuring lighter from some pocket lights them both. As they inhale he sets them neatly on the table, lighter on top of cigarettes, a deftly handled social calling. He looks at me, then, slowly exhaling, before eyeing his cigarette carefully. The third man puffs away, grateful for the break in conversation.

You still don’t smoke,” he says.

No.”

Neither do I.”


This weekend we will go to a bar,” he says, it’s just that I’ve been so busy.” I nod. I’ve barely had any alcohol at all this week myself,” he continues, too much work, too tired.” I sympathize. The week has been long, lots of driving and meeting, waiting and watching, but that is not what we are talking about. We have spent hours together, driving around in the patchwork of our shared language, and they are long hours, filled with uncertainties and re-thought opinions. But I agree, if that’s how it happens. I haven’t been to a bar in so long,” he says. Two days before he’d admitted that he didn’t understand them, and never went. His wife, across the room, does not look enthusiastic.

Me neither,” I say. It’s true. We leave it like this, sipping tea and waiting for a phone call.

Do you even go to bars?” he asks after a minute, as though the idea were new.