this is why you should laugh at yourself

"No one sees anything funny in a tree falling down. No one sees a delicate absurdity in a stone falling down. No man stop in the road and roars with laughter at the sight of snow coming down. The fall of roofs and high buildings is treated with some gravity. It is only when a man tumbles down that we laugh. Why do we laugh? Because it is a grave religious matter: it is the Fall of Man. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified."

-G.K. Chesterton


I screamed, and then went completely silent.

Charley later told me that that the silence gave it away. Had I made a sound, the scream would have most likely been a joke, followed by laughter. But the scream itself was the eruption, or interruption, and nothing came after it.

In one swift second, my foot had gotten stuck between the car tire and the sidewalk: a total fluke of a moment, in which two forces pulled in separate directions, unknowingly. Luke was still operating a moving vehicle; I, unaware, tried to get out of the car. As I stepped out, my foot wedged itself, literally, between a rock and a hard place, he backed his car closer to the sidewalk, and the back tire dug further into my foot, squeezing it into a chokehold.

I screamed.

Charley ran around to the back of the car as I stared down at my foot, bewildered, shell-shocked, teeth sinking into lip, trying to swallow my tears, fearing that if I let out even one drop, my entire face would shatter, a bed sheet of ice floating precariously above black water.

I couldn't feel my foot anymore--how amazing our bodies are at blocking our suffering--and yet, the sudden, unexpected bolt of pain left me mute, dumb, and frozen.

Kneeling on the sidewalk, Charley gently took off my shoe, an Adidas high top with gold zippers, now scuffed. Luke hovered above, looking distressed, afraid, as anyone would be, of having injured a friend. Later, he recounted how terrified he was as Charley untied the shoe, hoping for something less than a post-traumatic monstrosity, a mere remnant of a foot, dangling phalanges.

Luckily, my foot was intact: a puffy and swollen heel and a tender ankle, but it still looked like a foot. It could have been a lot worse.

Luke apologized profusely, surely as shell-shocked as me, if not more--not by the bodily pain of physical injury, but by the affliction of guilt, which is a horrible injury one thrusts upon himself, like an explosive and grating act of self-mutilation. Like wishing that by rubbing salt into our own wounds, we’d heal the open wounds of those around us.

First stunned and helpless, then fumbling for words, Luke turned to the surest salve that he had, which was humor. I don't remember the jokes that he tried to crack. After all, it's not the jokes that matter, these incoherent words that tumbled out of our mouths as we were frantic, panicked, and unsettled. The jokes probably weren't even that funny, but we all tried to contort our mouths into smiles and laugh anyway, because it was the only relief that we could find at the moment.

I said I was okay, that I wanted to head into the party. I didn't want to sit here and try to figure out what to do with my ailing self. In pain, I wanted distraction. I wanted to move on immediately, escape the situation. This place we had descended into—this space of post-traumatic shock—felt like limbo.

Luke and Charley wouldn't let me walk, so they carried me to the party, my arms and legs split between the two of them like a great, big chair, hoisted in the air. I could only laugh at the absurdity of the situation, that on the evening of my twenty-third birthday, I was being paraded around like a helpless babe through these dark and quiet streets. Just ten minutes ago, we were driving up Divisadero listening to Zach Condon's travelling voice, which vibrated through the car, dark, somber, wistful, yearning and sweet--and now, now the vibrations had changed, and we were trying to make sense of this minor mishap. It was all going to be okay.

When we arrived at our friends' house for her holiday party, I stumbled in, trying to smile, trying to be okay. And yet, my body gave itself away.

"Natalie!" my friend Eileen exclaimed, greeting me by the door.

"H-h-hey," I stuttered back, my eyes glassy, glazed over. I had no words.

"Have you been drinking?" she asked, which I hadn't. I never do.

"No," I shot back, but that's all I could say, and when I couldn't manage another word, Eileen pulled me outside, and then into a bedroom, where I lay for the rest of the night, icing my foot, leg propped up on a pillow. I cried, convulsing, not out of sadness, not even out of pain, but because it felt most natural, as if the tears could excavate the shock and the absurdity of everything that had happened.

By the end of the night, Luke and Charley had found me and spent the rest of the evening by my side, trying to make me laugh, slinging jokes meekly at one another, trying to find a way to soothe the sores of this strange night.

"I'm sorry I messed you up on your birthday," Luke said to me at one point.

“Don’t feel bad,” I told him. “I’ll remember this birthday forever. And I’m pretty sure this is a bonding moment.”


Sometimes, trying to find the comedy in a mishap feels a little bit like picking up marbles with oil-slicked fingers, or trying to rescue trinkets and tchotchkes from swirling flames. Sometimes, it's a compulsion, like the mischief of scaring a flock of pigeons, or touching all the dusty surfaces of antique porcelains in a museum.

I remember one time in high school, I saw a classmate frantically weaving in and out of the hallway crowd trying to get to his next class, and as he was running, a classroom door abruptly opened and slammed him squarely in the face, banging his forehead so hard it rung, so hard that his glasses fell off. I saw this and burst out in cackling laughter, roaring at the top of my lungs, as if this were all slapstick comedy, which it may as well have been. Moments later, I was appalled at my own reaction, this sadist in me suddenly making itself known. Whether it was his haplessness or my helplessness, my first instinct was to laugh.

Mark Twain said, “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow.” Comedy arises out of our awareness that something is not as it should be. The injustice and sadness and brokenness around us demands that we respond with an awareness of those very incongruities, and that is what humor boils down to: interruptions, parodies, non-sequiturs, exaggerations, sarcasm—these are all ways of dealing with the incongruities in our lives. William Hazlitt says that we are the only creatures that can sense a real difference between the way things are and the way things should be, and that ability is both a blessing and a curse.

In Shakespearean tragedies, there is always a character whose role is to inject comic relief into the most somber scenes, when the rest of the characters are on the brink of tragedy. That is to say, levity can coexist with gravity—maybe it is even the way out of tragedy, a means of dealing, healing, and moving forward. Sometimes, in the wake of pain, our humor is morbid and inappropriate; sometimes it is a mere diversion; other times, it allows us to make hard-won connections with other people, or rationalize an unanticipated event, or find reason for a missed expectation, or vilify a scapegoat. Sometimes, it merely relieves tension; sometimes it eases the soul. It recognizes absurdity.

If we’re talking about tragedy, what happened on Sunday night was ultimately trivial. My foot is fine. In fact, what seemed like a small misfortune wasn’t really one after all. On the night of my twenty-third birthday, I lay in bed, surrounded by funny and loving friends, who tended to me by singing, telling jokes, and bandaging my foot. They missed out on a party to stay by my side. I was privy to the kind of categorical compassion, strength, and kindness that glamour and comfort often preclude. In a moment of collective weakness—and yes, I think all of us struggled a little—our skins were peeled back, and a new dimension of our selves became known to one another. It was that part of ourselves that we normally hide: the self in pain, the self in discomfort, anxiety, worry, or stress; the self we call ugly; the self we’re afraid of; the disoriented self; the confused self. We hope that when these parts of us creep out—because they were always there anyway—that our friends will still see us as whole, even though we’re fragmented, and yes, we really are.

“You saw me cry tonight,” I told Luke, after we left the party. “And that means we’re really friends now.”

I heard someone once say, that the courage to laugh is absolutely necessary to the pursuit of liberty—and oh, how difficult it can be, to laugh. To not take myself—or my misery—too seriously, for my own sake, mostly, if not for the sake of those around me. I’m writing this as a homily to myself: If I had to dig my own grave, I'd choose to laugh while digging, rather than cry, because either way, I’m heading in the same direction—only, I’d rather spend more of my life laughing than crying. Sometimes, making fun of my misery makes it just a little more bearable than wallowing in it.

And sometimes, when the people you love come along for the ride, and their laughter and light help you see outside yourself, farther beyond than you could on your own, you’ll find that what you thought was a tragedy may not have been so tragic after all.


this is tree pneumatika

Inspired by a conversation about carpentry and a sermon I heard at church about resurrection, I wrote this poem on the BART, on the way to work last Monday 12/9. I typed it up at work at lunchtime. I haven't written poetry in a long time, but this one felt natural and easy, like a wind that gently blew out of my body and into words.

pneuma is an ancient Greek word for breath, a person’s vital, spirit, soul, and psyche. 
pneuma is “air in motion, breath, and wind.”

pneumatika is the expression of the Spirit, the Spirit that breathes life.

t r e e   p n e u m a t i k a

You could say a tree has one thousand lives,
or one thousand years before it dies,
or one thousand ways to be made into something new.
Maybe it has just one: one soul,
one thought of where it will go,
one prayer spanning endless time,
one perfect breath beginning where it will end,
dwelling in a body that cannot contain itself,
strength not in how well it stands
or how wide it grows,
but in how it resurrects new bodies, in new places,
in wisdom, here on earth, and in the sky.
Here is the seed that flew out from under its own,
sprinkled like ashes in this cremation grove.
How did it arrive
and where did it come from?
The fluke of fallen fruit, the whim of whispering winds.
It makes a bed of the earth,
and in the secret of time and grace,
awakens from the ground, inspired divinity.
How it grows upward, not forward,
looks, moves towards heaven.
It is the closest thing to a celestial body here on earth:
its remembering roots say ‘I am here on earth.’
When one day it falls,
there is no mourning.
Only a silence where it once stood.
Its sinews soften, sallow, sunken in,
every posture a stillness.
One day it is made into something new:
its wrinkles a maker’s mark,
in our hands, a remnant of glory,
no longer fallen, but an orphan we steward,
a breath we once breathed in, we now breathe into,
came from the ground, grew, rose, and died.
Now risen again.
Age no more; grief, a witness; joy it quietly bears.
Neither slumber nor nostalgia changes course.
Here a table, there a chair.
Here we feast upon its naked core.
Once a seed, now a feat.
Here we coax music out of its heart.

The silent timbre of its divined death
stood ringing humbly in a holy breath.

NJS 12.09.13


this is the riddle of friendship

In the fourth grade, my best friend and I bought matching Christmas outfits from the Gap: red, long-sleeved shirts, red fleece zip-up vests with leopard fur-lined hoods, and stretchy black bell bottoms. Not just ordinary pants: the seams were dotted with tiny, fake rhinestones.

At that age, I had no desire to be unique. Unique meant different, which meant alienation and loneliness--it meant you had no friends, that you existed without allies, which was a terrifying thought. Your identity at school was determined first and foremost by who your friends were; your membership to a friend group classified you in the genus and species of the elementary school landscape: jock, popular, nerd.


In fact, friendships were ways of togetherness, of saying, we don’t exist alone in the world. Our matching outfits loudly proclaimed to the world that we were bound together, even if by bad taste and little fashion sense. As with friendship bracelets or hair wraps or code names, we paraded through the school hallways in our red hooded get-ups, assured by these external markers that our relationship did actually exist--and in the process, trying to assure everyone else that yes this was a fact. Mainly it was to make ourselves feel better though.

These token rituals of friendship persist, even as we age. These tokens assure us of our togetherness as much as they isolate, or protect ourselves from the rest of the world. We become more reluctant to wear matching outfits as adults because we’re aware of its loudness; how doing so forthrightly proclaims an existence apart from the world, and most of us are trying to integrate into it, or do our best to be a part of it, and we want intimate relationships and we want secret friendships, but then again, we don’t want to close ourselves off from the rest of the world. We want everything.

Our tokens and rituals of friendship become more subtle, perhaps, or we might forgo them completely as our perceptions of self-identity branch out, change, and spread thinner; no longer are our identities merely in friendships, but in the work we do, the brands we flaunt, the hobbies we take on, the beliefs that seize us and convict us; and so many of us see those identities in flux, always in a precarious balance, or not.

You see, the most intimate friendships close as many doors as they open. You bind yourself to another person, and you remove yourselves, together, from the rest of the world.

In college, my best friend and I regularly walked to a pie shop on a small neighborhood street. It was hidden underneath old signage which still referred to its past life as an Italian deli. The paint was peeling on the outside, and inside the tables and floorboards were dusty, bare, unvarnished wood. We perfunctorily procured coffee and pastries, and spent mornings and afternoons there giving each other language lessons in the languages we each possessed separately but did not share (we only shared English). We tried to give each other words that the other did not have, expanding both the breadth and depth of our communication, for the nuances of every language also determine its speaker's ways of being and believing. With more words to interchange, we could share more feelings; more languages meant more significance, more ways to express the things we wanted to say, even though I know now how delicate and weighty the silences were too, like recesses in a cathedral wall. I traded her my Spanish and Mandarin for her Swahili and French. We named each other, as if we were initiating ourselves into the tribe of our friendship. Years later, writing the names elsewhere, except to each other, still feels blasphemous, so I won’t write them here, but I’ll say what they meant:

Her name was a combination of Spanish and Swahili and translated to “sweet honey,” like the color of her hair, like the jar of honey she carried back for me from Tigray, Ethiopia, wrapped in her own handwritten label, sticky and worn from the long ride. My name was French and Swahili, meaning “fierce sun in the sky.” We never called ourselves these names out loud, but like Navajo names, which are only used ceremonially to preserve their power, significance, and sanctity, we only used our names in the letters we wrote to each other, or on the CDs we burned for each other, or on the index cards we traded each other, with quotes and lyrics and verses on them--I always carried those in my backpack. These were our own little ceremonies.

Every name, in the Sioux naming system, has a separate significance: birth order, honor, special deed, spirit names. Our names, known only to ourselves and used only with each other, were markers in the lineage of our friendship: a declaration that we had our own language, which wasn’t one that existed already. We created our own, even if that meant taking what we already knew and turning it into something that was ours alone.

In these exchanges, in these signals and gestures and rituals, friendships seem immortal, and somehow, they are, even across distances and time and shifting spaces. Even when you haven’t talked in years. Despite this immortality (once a kinship comes into being, it will never cease to exist), the landscape of friendship is nevertheless eroded or built up; it is always changing. A landscape never dies, but winds and water will sand and smooth and wear a place down; or seeds will be sown and then they will grow and blossom and wither away.

A friend catches an unlikely glimpse of your soul, and it is that specific knowledge of some specific part of who you are at such a specific time in your life that seems more indestructible than our mortal bodies. No one else knew you better, maybe not even yourself.

And one day we will die and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea, but for now we are young let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see.

This was the song we listened to and shared the first time we met. How surprised and delighted we were to find another with the same longing. No, we did not just want ephemeral, material beauty, or the enchantments of this earth, which are so easy to fall in love with. We wanted eternal, immortal beauty, the kind that is steadfast and sometimes subtle, the kind that delights in the trivial and the ordinary and in the nothings that seem not to matter. You see, ultimately, friendships are quiet harbors, not always thrilling or stomach-churning like the surging crests of romance; they are the hand-holding, not the kissing; the hammock, not the swing. The best and truest ones keep your heart safe, while making your heart bigger and more spacious, for more beauty, for more God; they are most specific in their knowledge and habits and gestures; they're life nets for insanity, and they're rich, sweetly satisfying loves that linger long, ideally, unconditionally.

This post is now also on Medium.


these are Wordsworth words

Last night I fell asleep with Patti Smith's The Coral Sea in my hands, letting her swift, mystical words lull me into slumber. Lull, as in lullaby, which comes from the Middle Dutch word lollen, meaning to talk drowsily, mumble. At the end of the day, when my body has been shorn of its vigor and my mind is in the shallows, sinking slowly beyond its own grasp, words are not words but the sounds of a hypnotic trance...

This morning I woke up hungry for more.

The words I ingest in the first hour of the day lay the soil for the rest of it, and this is what differentiates the desire for words in the morning from that of the night. Think of words like a drink: a warming single malt is the nightcap that lets you lay down your head; the double-shot of espresso is the morning calisthenic you drowsily stumble into, depending on it to enliven you, shake you, set you on the right path.

In the morning, you need words to fill you up, not settle you down. You need words that will strengthen you for the rest of the day, or instill in you a way of being, an inexplicable method for interacting with the rest of the world. If the Psalms are warming nourishment, then Facebook status updates are surely a farce.When I wake up, I take my own pulse, out of routine, as if to confirm I'm still alive. I'm not sure why I do it, but I'd like to think I'm checking in with my own heart to see what I need for the day.

This morning I'm at my parents' house in the hills, in my childhood bedroom, where the most precious area of the room is the corner with a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. Upon rousing, I walked straight to it.* The third shelf from the top is at eye-level for me, and all poetry resides on this shelf. I skim the book titles--Neruda, Plath, Rilke, Milosz--and settle on a stately, thick, dark green volume with gold embossing**.

When I search for words to fill me, I am a drug addict scouring the streets for his fix, and in that moment, I have the blindest, most assured faith, that the words I need will fall in front of my eyes. I want something to tell me how I feel--I want my feelings crystallized, phrased eloquently, beautifully, in ways I cannot do. I want to short-circuit the digging, the probing, the self-examination. Damn it, I just want the clarity, the ease, the comfort now. I know words can do for me what I can't do for myself. They crawl into my innermost crevices, sending little shock waves through my veins, playing cat's cradle with the fibrous strands of my being.

I flipped open to this Williams Wordsworth poem, which is quite long. It's nothing like the 140-character, byte-sized snippets that we shoot up like junkies, one hit after the next. I wanted something punchy, a quick-fix, but this wasn't that. This is a poem that leads you through landscapes slowly, into the landscape of Wordsworth's mind, into the physical places he once inhabited, into the space he has arrived just now. A poem of this length mandates patience and rumination.

We begin with the passage of time, the awareness that nostalgia brings. Right now is so far from where we were then. We revisit the cherished landscapes of our past, and we see again the same hedge-rows and copses and groves, and we return to that familiar refuge. We remember how the physical landscapes carried us, even after we left them, as Wordsworth notes here. The physical landscape become a mental landscape, a memory we return to for "tranquil restoration," when we are wearied and worn thin.

I have places in my head like that, like my parents' backyard, and how every summer morning, when I was home from college, I would drag a small plastic table and chair outside with a stack of books and journals, and eat a big bowl of cereal with peanut butter in the sun. The stillness of those summer mornings, the idle idyll of familiarity, knowing there was nowhere to be, and nowhere to go--those are the feelings I attribute to that time and landscape. Yet I know that if I accurately transcribed the murmurs of my heart, I would find anxiety and unrest. I would find an unsure, searching soul, an inner landscape without the tranquility of the landscape that surrounded it.

Camouflage would not have been possible.

And then there are those landscapes in my memory that are among the most beautiful that I have ever seen, that stirred in me the kind of dizzying nausea that only the sublime can invoke. God in nature, the sum of the parts, giver of that ecstatic amnesia that sifts out all that is absent from a place. That morning, a delicate quilt of spiderwebs, laced with dew drops, barely skimmed the surface of prehistoric ferns. The light in the clearing was crowned by a circle of tree tops, a spotlight searching through the morning mist.

We hiked the lone mountain, patchy green and yellow, with wilty wild flowers, scratchy straw, soil trodden only by quiet beasts lumbering above the ocean, heads bowed low. The ache of a beauty so sweet, wound tightly around the fear of losing it. How wide and expansive my heart, how I cradled that joy, that love.

What becomes of a landscape when you lose some part of the joy that created it in the first place? Is that place any different than how you first experienced it? Is it any less beautiful, any less vibrant? But isn't it funny how we smear our sadnesses across a scene, imbuing all of its physical components with our own vibrations? The happy tree, the sad brook, the angry wind, the serene pasture? We create, we imprint, we leave, we neglect. When we return, we are shaken by the bittersweet tonic of remembrance that inevitably courses through our veins. Our memories betray us, and so does time--even as it beautifies, purifies, and heals, so it also destroys.

Nothing remains the same. We are mere mortals, the world's ephemera.

After all, beauty is magnified by the heart. Now I know: my pulse tells me that I am alive and changing, that I am moving, and that I have moved on.

Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour July 13, 1798

Five years have past; five summers, with the length

Of five long winter! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.--Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are glad in one green hue, and lose themselves
'Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods, 
Or of some Hermit's cave, where by his fire 
The Hermit sits alone.
                                  These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, 
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration:--feelings too 
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, remembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Not less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:--that serene and blessed mood,
in which the affections gently lead us on,---
Until the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
                               If this
Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft,
In darkness, and amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart,
How oft, inspirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro' the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!
And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.--I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, nor any interest 
Unborrowed from the eye.--That time I past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompence. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour 
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy 
Of elevated thoughts: a sense sublime 
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
                                   Nor perchance,

If I were not thus taught, should I the more
Suffer my genial spirits to decay:
For thou art with me here upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister! and this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; 'tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain-winds be free
To blow against thee: and, in after years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations! Nor, perchance—
If I should be where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence—wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together; and that I, so long
A worshipper of Nature, hither came
Unwearied in that service: rather say
With warmer love—oh! with far deeper zeal
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!
-William Wordsworth

*In my high school days I organized my bookshelf by genre, and within each genre, by author's last name (this organizational tact I sadly no longer possess)--childhood fiction on the top shelf (think Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter), fiction on the second (Underworld, The Road, On Beauty), non-fiction on the third (books on the Beats, my obsession in high school; all of John Stilgoe's books on landscape theory; poetry); on the fourth, modern Christian theology (C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright) and a smattering of other non-fiction ( Predictably Irrational, Justice; there's also Shel Silverstein); then food and cookbooks below that, and all of my encyclopedia, photo, and art books on the bottom rung.

** I bought this volume of English Poetry, the second of three in a set of "Harvard Classics," ("Collins to Fitzgerald") from the Book-Go-Round in downtown Saratoga, which I walked to from my parents' house on hot Summer days. The book (and it's still inscribed with the second-hand price) was $3 and originally belonged to Florence Worrell.


this is finding my way to God

Sometimes when it seems like all the world is gathering, I know it's best to fade away.

On Sundays I have a routine. I wake early, think about what to read or write, make and eat banana pancakes with chocolate chips because I can't read or write on an empty stomach, and then read or write what I had thought about before breakfast. On a good day I lose myself in whatever I'm reading or writing, and then meet a friend at the espresso bar around the corner from my apartment.

We walk to church.

2012 Asia Trip

Depending on your experience or perception of religious institutions, you may think of church as being a humorless, sedate place. Not mine. My church is for the extroverted. In fact, it's more like a rock concert than a nunnery, with the crowds of televangelical TV, minus the cheap suits.

As you walk up the stairs that lead into the school auditorium where church service takes place, you'll begin to hear the buzz. Someone will greet you at the door, and you might make half-hearted eye contact or ignore him completely. The moment you're inside, everything around you begins to pulse, and you're like a camera lens in the dark, whirring back and forth, searching helplessly for a focal point. People are darting in and out, greeting each other, smiling, laughing, trying to be affable and pleasant, finding eye contact, scanning the crowd for someone they know. The whole place devolves into a fuzzy, Impressionist painting, and I, for one, feel like I am on drugs.

I sit down to catch my breath, duck below the throng of bobbing heads. This scene is a chaotic musical number that seems to be in want of choreography, an acid-laced phantasmagoria of sprouting colors and spewing sounds. At least that's how I feel: overwhelmed, thrilled, anticipating exhaustion. This is the experience of sensory overload, where every stimulus seems to be layered with synesthetic elements: I can see the sounds coming out of mouths; every moving person is emanating musical vibrations; every wave of noise is dripping with color, as Pollock-like pigments thrown and smeared across a canvas. Now you might understand why an art museum, for me, is as, if not more stimulating, than an amusement park.

You know, both fear and excitement are processed by the sympathetic nervous system.

When the service begins, the crowd quiets. The lights dim, and the band begins to play, rousing the congregation with their indie-folk, poppy renditions of worship songs. I stay quiet, even as everyone around me begins to sing.

Here's how I return to center: by pausing, by listening, by letting the words fall into me, resting in me. Like eating a rich, decadent meal, when you let food linger in your mouth longer than you normally would so that you can actually taste the textures and flavors. Or like sucking on a piece of hard candy rather than chomping on it, which you do when your mouth is restless. No, this isn't the crunch of instant gratification; it's cradling the song in your entire body, letting it wash down you like a hot shower after a long day, when you're standing under the shower head, immobile, eyes closed. It's not letting the words merely pass through you, which can happen when you sing and then you're no longer singing these words of praise but rather just listening to yourself and the person next to you, and then trying to harmonize, and then listening for the bass line, and the drum line, and the guitar strum.

I'm trying to let these God-given words soften me, dampen me, stroke me. And this requires stillness. Which is difficult. A moment ago, my mind was frantically trying to find a parking spot on a busy city street. A moment ago, I was the drunken, catatonic fool, weaving through the crowd on all fours, looking for a lost key.

But now I retreat. Among the crowds, among the sounds, I retreat. I retreat not into myself, but into God's presence, which is neither a soundproof, padded solitary confinement cell nor a raucous bar scene. Those two places seem diametrically opposed, yet somehow, the feelings of loneliness, insecurity, and neuroses are the same in both. Everything is measured in relation to yourself, and it feels wrong, like geocentrism, but instinctively, that's how we cope.

That's not what it's like to be in God's presence, which so many people describe as ineffable, and yes, it's grand and it's mysterious and it's infinite, but it's also a sensation that courses through your entire body, like experiencing a beautiful dust storm in the desert for the first time, where your stillness agrees to play spectator to the almighty that passes, where a solar eclipse halts a moment in time, just by its strangeness and singularity. Where you're not even aware of your solitude or the fears of your body or the paranoia creep of your mind. It is basking in a space where you are overwhelmed by the weight of gratitude, and you're humbly reaching out for the wisdom of love. For the first time, being overwhelmed is not exhausting. Despite the noise and the people, I can imagine peacefully; I have found the arcadia of my mind. Here I meet God.

I have everything I need in this very moment. I am not in want.

We're constantly passing through things, trying to get to the destinations of this world as quickly as we can, wanting results, wanting big love, settling for skinny love, skimming the glassy surface of our shiny, glistening spheres, and then we're running in this direction and falling in the other.

By the end of service, I feel inebriated and elated, which are literally mutually exclusive for me because alcohol gives me hives and a headache, but this is neither the reckless delirium of inebriation nor the false pretense of momentary elation. I do not feel farther from this world, like I have escaped, but I feel more settled in it, more at peace with every dimension of my life.

When I leave the church building, I am moving in my own time and space, unaware. Nothing is too messy or ugly or scary. For today, I just want to be invisible. I slip out of sight, fade into the background, and make my way through the city, sweetly silent, joyful and full.


this is kale for winter survival


Winter is coming quickly. The wind's edges are sharper, dusk falls earlier, and the golden light fades into a grey palette. The arrival of winter has never been easy for me. This became especially true when I moved to New England from California and learned the importance of wool socks and leather gloves for the first time. From November through April, until all the snow had finally thawed and we could go down to the Charles River and sunbathe in what felt like a tropical 60 degrees, winter swaddled my mind and my heart. Sometimes it felt more like smothering.

It takes a hardy Californian to bear the tantrums of New England winter. One winter I made a nightly routine of drinking hot chocolate and eating a big bowl of popcorn while listening to Joni Mitchell's Blue on repeat. In our living room, my best friend and I would lay in our hammock (our "couch") together or paint and re-paint our coffee table, whose layers of pigment were like the growth rings of redwood trees, histories of sadness and joy.

Read the rest of this post at Eat This Poem, where I guest-posted last week about Jordan Davis' poem "Kale" and my favorite little espresso bar in the Mission. There's a recipe for the best kale salad ever too! 



this is rootedness

A few nights ago I hosted a small dinner gathering. I invited three friends, but two others showed up unannounced and were beckoned in to sit and eat. This is the kind of house I seek to build--an open house, a refuge for friends.

During my lunch hour that day I went and bought groceries. Sunchokes, squash, carrots, parsnips, chile de arbol, fresh thyme, beets. The provisions needed for dinner that night, no more, no less. 

Pickled Daikon (made and brought by Crystal Jones)
lemon, mustard seed, bay leaf

Warm Sunchoke Salad
sunchokes, cumin, pomegranate seeds, fried almonds with rosemary and thyme, shaved manchego, lemon, miso, tahini

Morroccan Root Vegetables with Spices; Saffron Couscous
carrots, parsnips, butternut squash, shallots, cinnamon, ginger, chile de arbol, turmeric, paprika, bay leaves

Chocolate Beet Cake
70% Scharfenberger chocolate, beets

The dinner was an homage to root vegetables, which arrive in your kitchen covered in dirt, homely and plain. You wash them, chop them, oil them, season them, roast them, soften them, working as a carpenter who loves his wood. They are strong and firm but not stubborn. Really, it's hard to go wrong with root vegetables; they love heat and time. With a blast of high heat, they caramelize; with time, their fibrous cells become supple and pliant. Their insides are more colorful than they dare let on. They are sweet to eat, filling and warming the entire body.

Winter heralds the uprooting of these vegetables, which have been underground for months, their woody tissues collecting sugars, fattening up. Unlike flowers, shoots, and leaves, roots are durable and hardy, not like their ephemeral aerial counterparts, which are delicate and beautiful--easy to please, but numbered in days. 

The root is an anchor, requiring little attention. They begin as subterranean systems that spread wide to absorb water and nutrients for stems and leaves, growing laterally, penetrating deeply. Greek philosopher Theophrastus called the root and the stem the primary organs of the plant. Early botanists valorized roots, which they looked to as the source of drugs. Greek herbalists were known as "root-gatherers." 

Root vegetables are the synecdoches of the winter season. As synecdoches help us understand the coherent whole through the characteristics of its individual parts ("part of the whole, whole for the part, container for the contained, sign for the thing signified, material for the thing made...cause for the effect, effect for the cause, genus for the species, species for the genus"*), so the root vegetable nudges us into the posture we assume as days grow shorter and darkness lingers. 

We settle down and settle in. We humbly rest, with an awareness of our human limits. We pause deliberately and listen. We take note. We no longer chase down every high, every turn of the kite that beckons us to run after. We rest gracefully. We stay.

That night, as we gathered around the table, it was dark outside, and we were all tired from long days. J wasn't feeling well, and C had many things on his mind. M stopped in to banter and eat, then left in a hurry for a phone call. P came for her luggage, which had been sitting in my living room for a week. She ate chocolate cake first, and stayed to talk afterwards. 

After four years of feeling like a wandering soul, of feeling uprooted and not fully belonging (it's what I wanted. I wanted to leave. I wanted the thrill of the new. I feared boredom, mediocrity, sameness.), I'm in a city I feel deeply connected to, as if the city were a friend for whom my love deepens and widens and complicates as I begin to understand its many faces. Its people, its systems, its ways of doing and going and being, undoubtedly become darker in time. Rooting yourself in a place means seeing beyond the facade of thrills, of living in the social and structural schemas that make San Francisco at once a beautiful and ugly place. That kind of awareness can be terrifying, but it's also because of this awareness that we care enough to stay, even when it's not easy.

As I've become increasingly rooted in this city, hospitality has begun to feel more like a grounding a routine than a once-in-awhile-burden. Not that hospitality isn't possible wherever you go, but when you know a place and feel settled in a place, somehow you feel that you have more to give. Maybe it's not even that you have more to give, but that you want to give more, because your rootedness has made you aware of the community around you that wants to receive love, that needs the care of a warm hearth and open heart. Because your love has grown, you're also empowered to love more. Roots spread wide, absorbing water and nutrients from the soil, not for themselves, but for the buds and shoots that will sprout from the ground, when the roots are sturdy and ready to grow something beyond themselves. 

Nothing here is mine. 

What I have is Providence, and what has been given to me, beyond all material possessions, is connection--to people and to this place. These strands of invisible yarn that weave themselves into the fabric of this community make a tapestry far greater than I can fathom--or make, for that matter. I can't go it alone. For what is the Divine but a knowledge that something far greater, far more majestic, exists beyond oneself? 

*Kenneth Burke on synecdoche


this is how the year has passed


Much has changed in a year.

Last night I met a friend for dinner at a pie shop that I hadn't been to since last November. That pie shop, though by no means extraordinary in and of itself, had been the beginning of an important relationship in my life. I expected to feel nostalgic or wistful upon visiting it again, but none of those emotions were stirred. The pie shop was unchanged: a small space with a glass case full of lattice-covered and crusty pies, painted white stools, and a large sheet of butcher paper taped against the wall with names of featured pies scrawled in mediocre handwriting. 

In the landscape of my mind, certain landmarks feel particularly heavy, shackled to memories and feelings that are either polished or eroded by time, though for a tumbling rock, that is pretty much the same thing. In loss, those memories can become little thorns, pricking and pinching, splinter-like, embedded in the dermis of your heart. After days of rubbing salt and grease and vinegar and glue and every other home remedy into a seemingly hopeless wound, it is a sheer relief, by God-given grace, when you notice one day, in a brief and surprising glance, that the splinter is no longer there. We never expect the absence of pain, and we're surprised--and delighted--when we finally notice its passing. 

A year ago, my best friend was in Africa, perched on a rooftop in Mombasa, talking to me with what scrappy cell service she could find. We were both in new places, constantly searching through foreign landscapes, finding people who we thought could see--like truly see--some part of our naked souls without turning away in disgust.

I wrote to her, "Here's the secret that the truest evangelicals have always known and preached: we are all broken souls who want to be loved and understood and the thing that stops us from letting ourselves be loved and understood is that we believe we're more broken and fucked up than anyone else we know. We are selfish and self-centered and we lionize our own misery as a result. Because we identify most deeply with our broken selves, we fear that others will judge, then consequently reject us because of our transparencies. Instead of letting the weight of brokenness be a fear, the evangelical emblazons his chest with the emblem of brokenness, which, as I've increasingly discovered, is an invitation for empathy as an offering call is for alms. The most effective way of doing this is to be unashamedly forthright and jokingly self-deprecating."

We wrote back and forth to each other in heartfelt confessions, because the physical distance between us, and her itinerant lifestyle at the time, didn't afford us the luxury of physical presence, or even constant phone contact. 


In Welezo, my best friend volunteered at an old people's home run by four Catholic nuns who were sisters. She worked in the kitchen with coconuts, clipped fingernails, embroidered names onto clothes. Before that, at the Indian ocean, entranced by glowing plankton; before that, Dar es Salaam, at a hookah bar, or in her kitchen, cooking a chickpea stew. 

By the shore, at dusk, I was slurping Oysters, blinded by the descending sun. In New Zealand, I sat on a grassy knoll, beneath a double rainbow, half-listening to electronic dance music I did not understand. After that, Brazil Ranch, with swaggering cows above a hazy blue ocean, a delightfully empty field of dried straw and green grass; after that, a morning in Mendocino with smoke and the squawk of seals.

Much has changed in a year; my heart has swelled and opened and mourned and released. I am a different person than I was then, and I suppose that it is my sentient breath that allows that to be. No fear of difference, no fear of change, no fear of seasons. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return...For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?


this is a musical education

In 1997, our family moved from Cupertino to Saratoga, to the Redwood-dotted purlieus of the Santa Cruz Mountains. We moved into a staid neighborhood of mainly older, white, rich folk. On a Saturday afternoon the first week we moved in, I remember kneeling in front of my bedroom window, which was low enough that I could see out of it like that, and staring out into our front yard. Out on the street, a dead-end road which was a concrete peninsula among towering houses, the seven-year-old boy who lived next door was having a birthday party where he paraded around on a full-sized horse (not just a pony!) with a convocation of family and friends trailing behind him. Now I envision him wearing a cape and a crown, an after-effect my memory imposes in the mere remembrance of something so grand and regal. I was jealous and wanted to ride the horse too.

Soon after, that neighboring family moved out. I never met the the horse-riding boy. But that meant there were no kids left in our neighborhood, and my sister and I occupied ourselves playing in the house, sometimes in our backyard, which, for the first five years of our living in Saratoga, was under construction and always mysteriously overrun by deer.

However, the neighborhood we lived in had a few redeeming factors that have become more pronounced as I've moved further away from it: it's peaceful, with a symphonic blend of cicadas, crickets, and coyote howls at night (which is the only sound I can fall asleep to... now I must wear earplugs every night); it's replete with trees and wildlife; hiking trails are merely walking distance; but perhaps what distinguished it from any other place I could have grown up was that it was well-positioned for a unique cultural education.

A couple decades ago, Villa Montalvo, which is now flourishing as the Montalvo Arts Center, with an artists residency program (and was even the site for the Lyft Silicon Valley launch party), was not much more than a pretty historic landmark built by James Duval Phelan, three-time mayor of San Francisco in 1912. Besides playing host to many photography shoots and weddings, Villa Montalvo had summer camps for kids (which I went to: it was a circus camp and it was there that I learned the art of making balloon animals) as well as weekly concerts with music that catered to the 50-and-over crowd.

If there was anything that most profoundly influenced my tastes in and appreciation for music, it was that my dad would drag me to these concerts, despite my then-lack of enthusiasm, and I'd have to sit and listen to these "old-timers" play music that seemed culturally irrelevant for me at the time, their not being The Backstreet Boys or Christina Aguilera.

The first concert my dad took me to was Al Jarreau, a jazz singer, who I now know won seven Grammy awards, but at that point in my life (I was seven), I don't think I even knew what a Grammy award was, and I definitely didn't know a thing about jazz. It's funny to think that my dad and I were receiving a cultural education in tandem: he, with his funny tastes in Jewish food, jazz, and Margaret Thatcher, was a black sheep among a sea of Silicon Valley Asian fathers; and as he was digging deeper into the music that satisfied his soul, he was pulling his young daughter along for the ride.

At the Al Jarreau show, I convinced my dad that we had to leave early: I wanted hot chocolate really badly.

Despite the hassle of taking a pesky and unknowing seven year old to jazz shows, which is not unlike bringing a finicky baby onto an airplane, my dad persisted, and we went to see a wide range of musicians I didn't know: Bruce Hornsby, Natalie Cole, The Go-Go's, Bobby McFerrin, Chick Corea, Dave Brubeck, David Benoit, and Taylor Eigsti, among many others. Each show was a new discovery. Unlike going to concerts now, where I expect a familiar sound, the experience of going to these shows was like a blind tasting. At such a young age, my taste in music was a tabula rasa. I remember that by my early teens, I began enjoying these shows my dad took me to, able to sink deeply into foreign sounds; take them and make them my own, these sounds that were so different from what was on the radio, or what my classmates in school were listening to.

A curious thing happens when you're young and impressionable and soaking in a pond of cultural and aural stimuli. Those sounds and sights seep into your veins and begin to form the patchwork linings of the places and people and objects that you will gravitate towards for the rest of your life. Your first experiences of music and art preen your future experiences like a bird to its feathers, even if in a disembodied way; and those experiences are practically religious, though you won't be able to exegete your attractions and affinities with much satisfaction or logic. There are sounds that will make sense to you, and yet you will not be able to make sense of those sensibilities. But you will cling to those sensibilities and the beauty that sight and sound bring. One day, you'll be in the car, and your hand will unconsciously turn the radio dial to a station that makes most sense to you, the bum-bum-bum of the upright bass, the piano that spins and riffs in drunken delight...


this is an optical discovery of humanity

Burning Man happened months ago, but I have still yet to make sense of it all. The ten or so days bleed together into one amorphous space of time, like a muddle of watercolors that have yet to dry.

But certain events bob up to the surface of my consciousness, events that won't let themselves be forgotten.

One afternoon in the middle of the week, my friend Kevin May, a poet and rapper also known as Phil Opsophical, gave a workshop at the central dome in our camp, Fractal Planet. His talk focused on building a new world, one rooted in compassion, community, vulnerability, and love rather than in fear, greed, and selfishness -- the base motives that cause much of the suffering in the world as we know it. His talk was inspirational and compelling not only because of the words and wisdom he imparted but because of his wide open heart; his rare gentle disposition that reminds me of Gandhi in its radical departure from the aggressive posture that our society seems to champion, even if in subversive ways.

But what I most remember about the talk was one exercise he made us do. I'm usually reluctant to do these kinds of participatory exercises because they feel forced and uncomfortable, and you can't take yourself too seriously, which I do, to a fault. I was sprawled on a dusty tarp, sombrero and Camelbak beside me, not wanting to move in this dry and languor-inducing heat, but because I knew Kevin personally, I felt obligated to participate. The spirit of Burning Man is also one that mysteriously induces both the boldness and silliness that seems impossible to muster in the structures of ordinary life.

Kevin told us to find a stranger in the room and sit across from them, face-to-face. It's that familiar moment that we all dread, when you're at some meet-and-greet and scramble to occupy yourself with someone else's attention, so unconsciously fearful of being that one single soul who will surely drown in momentary loneliness. In those moments, your eyes become instinctive predators, moving swiftly to lock down another's, and it was to my God-given relief that my pair did seek and find, a wiry young man with thin hairy legs and big floppy sandals. He had dark brown buzzed hair and wore a white t-shirt, which appealed to me as did all rare signs of ordinary comfort at Burning Man. His name was Eric, which I saw first scrawled in sharpie on his water bottle but pretended I didn't see when we introduced ourselves to each other. He was from Oakland, and he had come to Burning Man alone.

After a few minutes of perfunctory introductions, Kevin told us that for the next five minutes, we would be doing something so ordinary yet rare--and difficult, and daunting. We would be staring into each other's eyes. It's interesting  that we say "staring into" and not "staring at." "Staring at," or "making eye contact" are sterile phrases, but "staring into" implies seeing beyond the surface, as if opening or discovering, or looking deeper, looking past. How often do we stare into someone's eyes? How often do we lock ourselves into a gaze with another, a gaze with a stranger? Even conversations with our friends do not promise prolonged eye contact. It's easier to look away or dart glances around the room, scope out what's going in every crevice outside of the actual person in front of you. On the street, mistaken eye contact with a stranger is a burn--at least it is for me. It terrifies and embarrasses me when my gaze scrapes the surface of a stranger's eyes. So how could I do this for five minutes?

When the clock started, our eyes met; they met despite the distance of space. Mine blinked furiously trying to make sense of this strange act I was participating in, this counter-act to avoidance, this self-coercion of staying, of not running away. Though I was sitting still, surely my eyes projected the bewilderment that churned inside of me, this unnatural act! I searched for a way to put myself at ease; if only I could abstract this man into a surface, a two-dimensional veneer of this greater, more terrifying thing in front of me: this person, this soul, this body connected to me by such remarkably little will. A tiny moment in a vast expanse of time, yet this gaze required consciousness and unwavering persistence through immense discomfort.

Something happened though, and I'm not quite sure how to explain it. I don't know how the tension suddenly dissipated, how the fear mysteriously evaporated. How mere looking became actually seeing, how lovely and laughable it was that I could only think to myself that I was, in every cliched way, swimming in the blue pools of his eyes (such a remarkable moment, and so inadequately trite a description), which were not merely one shade of blue, but many pigments, with orange and amber stippling that glistened and changed the longer I stared back. Like some strange tidal wave suddenly brought on by mysterious lunar pulls, love for this man suddenly overwhelmed me; this irresistible love, like how could I not love this person whose eyes I am sinking deeper into? I knew nothing about this man; in fact, I was scared at even looking at him, and now this, this awe that sprang into me; this wisdom to know and love humanity if only I were willing; if only I acknowledged God's creation as one of His, incredibly made in His divine image.

We think we need to know to love, and yet the most divine, selfless love falls outside the realm of human ability. There are moments when broken spirit meets broken spirit, in conscious acknowledgment of the other, when we're not dodging the world and the people in it, when we let ourselves be fully in the world for a present moment, and we can finally see, like truly see, another human being for the first time. Like looking up in a darkened elevator and saying hello, how are you, I am not going to just be in this space with you pretending you're not there, I am going to be here with you because we're both human, and we're meant to connect with each other.


this is state bird provisions, san francisco

(This post is also on Medium.) 

A friend and I were texting back and forth yesterday, planning to meet up for dinner before heading to a Halloween party. On a whim, she jokingly suggested that we go to State Bird Provisions for dinner. This is how the conversation went:

If you know anything about State Bird Provisions, you're probably aware that it's been quite the hyped-up place for awhile. Just last week, SF Gate said it was "arguably the hottest restaurant in San Francisco (if not the country),"and Bon Appetit named it America's Best New Restaurant in 2012.
It reopened recently after a few months of remodeling, and reservations are already gone through December.

I'll admit I love food and spend a lot of my time thinking about it, but my strain of devotion to eating doesn't necessitate fine dining; more than anything, I enjoy a meal cooked and shared by friends around a communal table, with easy conversation and the kind of special intimacy that food brings. A hyped-up restaurant is never do-or-die for me. If I have the opportunity to eat somewhere nice, I will enjoy every minute of the experience, but I will also not go out of my way to spend two hours waiting in line for food. I know that food can easily become a full-blown obsession for me, so it's better for my lifestyle (and my wallet) to apply principles of temperance to dining out.

So it was only by whim and impulsiveness that I ended up at State Bird Provisions. And we got lucky.

You see, San Franciscans take Halloween very seriously. We're a city whose culture fixates on costuming and dressing up, so Halloween is a night when attention on the holiday festivities shifts the focus away (temporarily) from food, another one of San Francisco's great obsessions. This shift was to our good fortune: we started waiting in line for the restaurant at 5:15, to be seated immediately at 5:30, when the restaurant opened (usually, people start lining up at 4:30 PM, and the expected wait time is about three hours without a reservation). We felt like God's chosen people. 

We were seated at the chef's counter by the raw bar, which turned out to be one of the best seats in the house. Not only were we first to see all of the food coming out of the kitchen, but also--and this was probably my favorite part about dining at State Bird Provisions--we were able to chat with the chefs throughout the course of the meal.

From the outset, State Bird Provisions is insistent on not taking itself too seriously. It describes itself as an "adventurous, inventive, delicious, thoughtful contemporary American restaurant ... without any programmed elements." In an unassuming space that is not particularly notable or cozy or minimalist, the restaurant is nevertheless welcoming and congenial, with an open, well-lit kitchen that is buzzing but not tense. The kitchen is comprised of mostly young, white males, a kind of quintessential bearded San Franciscan whose mix of urban, rustic, and eclectic is his charm.

The service is dim sum-style, which is conducive to visual decision-making (haven't you realized that menus are biased towards linguaphiles?). This way of choosing and ordering is playful and fun: there is a selection of aptly named provisions, which are supplied to you in passing trays and carts along with detailed descriptions of the dishes, and then there are commandables, which you order from a a server (I intentionally say "a" and not "your" because you will be served by many).

Everything is shared family-style, and it's easy to get giddy and overwhelmed at the swirling mosaic of dishes conjured up before your eyes, but the servers, many of whom also work in the kitchen, are friendly without being over-bearing, and they give you the time and the space to eat leisurely. Of course, if you're on the fence about a dish, they'll give you a little nudge of encouragement to follow your stomach's calling. Like dim sum or tapas, it's unlikely that you'll feel you've over-ordered, even if there's food leftover on the table. You kind of feel like a kid at the arcade with a bag full of tokens, picking and choosing which games to play, knowing that no matter what games you choose, you're pretty much guaranteed a good time.

Raw oyster with spicy kohlrabi kraut and sesame.

Lobster 'salsa' salad, with watermelon radish, romaine, and egg salad.

So you're choosing your own adventure, improvising as the carts pass by to construct your own multi-course processional feast. Between the two of us, we shared twelve dishes. Dave, one of the chefs working in front of us at the raw bar (cute, wide-eyed, slightly scruffy, and wearing a yellow bandana tied around his head), told us that a couple came in last week and shared twenty-four dishes between the two of them. There are thirty-four dishes on menu. Taking up the challenge to beat that couple's record would have been a swashbuckling and crippling move. Glad we didn't do it.

The casual rhythm of improvisation seemed to be a key element for the waiters and cooks too in the arrival of the food, which was not precisely timed but nevertheless fluid and efficient. That kind of flexibility is conducive to a pleasant, relaxed, and surprisingly intimate dining experience. One minute you're eating, and the next minute you have to make a decision about whether you're going to get that really good-looking pork belly. The cook in front of you is arranging food on a plate, and then looking up to chat with you about the restaurant's farm (yes, they have a farm in Los Gatos). One might think that the criteria for working at State Bird Provisions is to be "a highly likeable human being."

Hamachi-avocado & seaweed cracker.

The food itself is delightfully playful--combinations of ingredients and flavors and textures that you've never thought of. This kind of cuisine may be unfocused and scatter-brained to some, with a global range of ingredients and dishes that you'll clumsily label fusion or California nouveau, but can be more simply summed up as whimsical and delightful. Delight implies charm, entrancement, thrill, and pleasure, and these are the exact feelings I experienced while eating at State Bird Provisions.

You might start off with a light and easy oyster, which riffs off of the the traditional horseradish topping by incorporating the less popular kohlrabi. The menu is not cohesive, but cohesion seems besides the point, as it's the holistic dining experience, rather than the content of individual dishes, that seems to matter most.

Roasted bone marrow with chanterelles and pink peppercorn.

Garlic bread with burrata.

So much of a food's appeal to me depends upon texture, and State Bird Provisions does texture right: they nail the al dente equivalent of cooked seafood--the pleasant chewiness of lobster and octopus when they are loving cooked, gently nudged into well-done. Almost as terrible as poorly cooked seafood is seafood without flavor, where bland fishiness is distressingly the only flavor available to the palate. This is not the case here: you'll be surprised by how flavorful and tender the octopus is, in a savory tomato broth that's good enough to drink, accompanied by smoky chickpeas that though ordinary, are pleasant enough.

Breadth is the game here, as you'll move from Spanish tapas-like plates to comfort food, like melted burrata draped atop a fried, buttery garlic knot, to cheeky art pieces that are fun to eat. The tempura seaweed cracker speckled with hamachi, avocado puree, and mandolined radishes is one such dish.

Charred octopus in tomato-chickpea salsa.

The balance of light and heavy is not difficult to strike, though you'll pretty much feel like everything is getting a little heavier as you collect one dish after another (Growing up, we always stacked our bamboo steamer baskets at dim sum restaurants as a proud proclamation of how much food we finished). The cooling seafood dishes whet the palate for the fattier but no less refined plates, like the elegant bone marrow with chanterelles and pink peppercorns, bright spheres of color that are not merely aesthetic accents but a fresh and spicy pop of flavor. Oh those peppercorns, nature's Red Hots. And the sourdough toast (by the one and only Josey Baker, my favorite grinning bread maker), which you'll smear with marrow and then sop up the creamy mushroom broth that has collected beneath the bone. A tender fried quail--the state bird that inspired the restaurant, both delicate and hearty; rich, tender poultry. There are almond financiers with duck liver mousse--a sweet and savory marriage, and a Scandinavian-inspired chilled trout and potato porridge with an egg on top. The quinoa with persimmons, pumpkin seeds, and whipped pumpkin goat cheese or the spicy yuba skin with kimchi will be a nice refresher between heavy bites.

Smoked trout, egg, and potato porridge, with sesame seeds and nori.

Chanterelle, persimmon, & quinoa 'tabouleh.'
Imagination seems to be crucial right now to the San Francisco food scene. One can picture chef Stuart Brioza and pastry chef Nicole Krasinski, dreaming up different dishes in their head like jazz musicians, riffing on what they know while pulling together disparate ingredients to create a new whole that is different, untried, and altogether surprising. There's a keen awareness of the seasonality of things, which makes the fluidity and flexibility of the menu imperative, and despite the lack of a sense of rootedness in any single food history, there's a sense of context and place, that we're in city where West lunges for East and vice-versa, and that we have access to a global pantry of ingredients. In this cuisine, the spirit of San Francisco is made manifest. Here many cultures meet, but there's a kind of creative and experimental momentum that requires audacity. A new line is being drawn in the sand.

CA state bird with provisions. The California state bird is the California quail (as opposed to the Bobwhite Quail, which is the state bird for Georgia and Tennessee). The State Bird Provisions website says that the quail is known for its hardiness and adaptability. This recipe for deep-fried quail was the inspiration for the entire restaurant.

Dining out is never just about the food. It's about the atmosphere and the space and the interactions with your servers, which can be a wonderful thing--a kind of jolly camaraderie with a total stranger, especially if he or she loves the food and knows all about its nuances and can love people in a similarly nuanced way. Eating at State Bird Provisions was at once highly sensory and highly cerebral experience for me, but it was also intensely relational and conversational. The experience would not have been the same had it not been for the affable waiters, the gracious hosts (I heard one so elegantly say to a walk-in party, "We can seat you, but be forewarned that you may have an abbreviated dining experience."), and some of the friendliest cooks I've ever met. Like the food, the camaraderie likewise reflected the San Francisco spirit, or at least what I perceive it to be: welcoming, loving, and always hungry.

L: blackberry granita with creme fraiche tapiocha, umeboshi syrup, topped with bits of persimmon and sliced fennel. R: birdseed bittersweet chocolate crunch, maple cloud cream, figs and strawberries. 
'World Peace' Peanut Muscovado Milk
P.S. Don't skip on dessert, no matter how full you are. You can order half-portions, and wash down the intense chocolate birdseed crunch with the nutty and creamy peanut milk. You won't regret it. You know a meal is only complete with something sweet.

The remains of the night.