"I began to feel for the first time that I was seeing what was really there, without asking myself whether or not I was expecting to see it. When I think back to the time before, and especially to the years of my marriage, it seems to me as though my wife and I looked at the world through a long lens of preconception, by which we held ourselves at some unbreachable distance from what was around us, a distance that constituted a kind of safety but also created a space for illusion. We never, I think, discovered the true nature of the things we saw, any more than we were ever in danger of being affected by them; we peered at them, at people and places, like people on a ship peer at the passing mainland, and should we have seen them in any kind of trouble, or they us, there would have been nothing whatever either one of us could have done about it."
-Rachel Cusk, Outline
"One always seemed to see them running: they ran everywhere, to work and back again, to the supermarket, in groups around the park – talking together as easily as if they were standing still – and if they had to stop for a traffic light they would keep running on the spot in their enormous white shoes until it changed and they could progress again. The rest of the time they wore flat shoes with rubber soles, supremely practical and supremely ugly. Their shoes were the only inelegant thing about them,’ she said, ‘yet I felt they were the key to the whole mystery of their nature, for they were the shoes of a woman without vanity. ‘I myself,’ she continued, extending her silvered foot out from beneath the table, ‘developed a weakness for delicate shoes when we returned to Greece. Perhaps it was because I had begun to see the virtues of standing still. And for the character in my novel, shoes like these represent something forbidden. They are the sort of thing she would never wear. Moreover, when she does see women wearing such shoes, it makes her feel sad. She has believed, until now, that this was because she found such women pitiful, but in fact when she thinks about it honestly it is because she feels excluded or disbarred from the concept of womanhood the shoes represent. She feels, almost, as if she isn’t a woman at all. But if she isn’t a woman, what is she? She is experiencing a crisis of femininity that is also a creative crisis, yet she has always sought to separate the two things in the belief that they were mutually exclusive, that the one disqualified the other. She looks out of the window of her apartment at the women running in the park, always running, and she asks herself whether they are running towards something or away from it. If she looks long enough she sees that they are simply running around in circles.’"

-Rachel Cusk, Outline
"What if where I am is what I need?"

-Deborah Hay


"I often wonder where the birds go in a snowstorm, for they disappear completely. I always think of them deep inside the bushes, and further along inside the trees and deep inside of the forests, on branches where no snow can reach, deeply recessed for the time of the snow, not oblivious to it, but intensely accepting their incapacity, and so enduring the snow in brave little inborn ways, with their feathered heads bowed down for warmth. Wings, the mark of a bird, are quite useless in snow."

-Mary Ruefle, "Snow," The Most of It


Pick up the phone, is all. Go back to being who you were before everything became this. Nothing happened! You were just at a party and boys chose everyone else, and your best friend stared at you with flat eyes and you walked in the woods and talked to a grandmother. Nothing happened, and yet it feels like something did, because things aren’t the way they were before. It’s like when you come home and your mother has changed the furniture around, and for one instant it’s like you’ve entered the next dimension over: it’s your living room but it’s not your living room. That’s how this feels, like if you tried to sit down, you might find out that the chair is over there.

-Jo Ann Beard, In Zanesville


-chromatic-inspired feelings
-the absurdity of earnestness
-accepting chronic pain
-transience is a fact amplified by cities


this is a game of phones

I sent this out in my weekly-ish newsletter today. 

I believe this: what we hold closest to ourselves has the power to save or destroy us. 

And I don’t mean what we think we hold closest to ourselves, or what we say is most dear and most precious. We protect ourselves with an armor of self-delusions, denials, and lies. Rarely do our thoughts or words wholly reveal the substance of who we are, or what we believe. But if we take account of our actions, and more importantly, the measure of our attention, that which matters most to us is made incontrovertibly clear.

Lately I’ve been afflicted with this sense that, if I don’t do something drastic, my phone will ruin me. It already takes up more of my attention than I want it to. I’m distressed by my reliance on and overuse of it. I believe phone addiction is a real and not-so-distant possibility for a majority of San Franciscans.

(And hi! You are probably reading this on your phone. And that's okay. Thank you for reading!)

In past efforts to be my own disciplinarian, I’ve implemented parameters around phone usage. Is it sad that most of it is actually common sense? (e.g. It’s not allowed in my bedroom at night. Never pull it out mid-conversation. Turn it completely off when I need to focus—it’s off right now) But still, the parameters are not nearly strict and expansive enough. I’m good when I’m around people—anyone who's remotely socially aware abides by some general phone etiquette, I think. But I’m more concerned that I’m losing the interstices of my life: the moments of boredom, of waiting around, of standing on the brink of some sadness that I don’t want to feel, opting instead for a faint hum of droll, useless, and mostly unexciting stimulation that is nevertheless reliably numbing and endless. The phone is a black hole, and its expanse is infinite. 

It's not cool or sexy to talk about our relationships with our phones. The kind of people who are addicted to their phones are supposed to be weird and pathetic loners that you feel sorry for, like Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix's character) in the movie Her. You sympathized with him, but you definitely did not empathize with him. Because come on, he fell in love with a voice on his phone, an invisible non-person (Samantha) that he carried in his pocket—definitely not something that would happen to you. The movie seemed eerily accurate though, a premonition of a future generation perhaps, but wasn't it easy to distance ourselves from him? There was no way in hell that resembled Theodore, that I was that emotionally, romantically, frantically invested in a smooth-screened, rectangular machine. It was uncomfortable to watch Theodore fall in love with Samantha; it was as if we were watching something illicit, something we weren't supposed to see. Because here's what's subversive about our digital habits: they're mostly conducted in private when we're alone. No one really knows how much time you spend online except yourself. No one knows what mischief or hanky-panky you're up to, and in fact you can live an entirely separate virtual life if you want to. It's becoming harder to distinguish between our virtual and non-virtual selves. Which one is real? Does the distinction even matter?

In the realm of relational dynamics, there's a strange social currency that we derive from being aloof, unavailable, just a little bit more removed than everyone else. But here's the thing: the aloofness of your digital personality (you say you're not great at responding to texts, you rarely post on Instagram) has very little correlation with how much time you actually spend on your phone. Some people are aloof as a matter of playing it cool, conscientiously absenting themselves from the social media terrain—this is a fact that they wield both as a badge of pride and as social currency—but who knows how much time they're actually spending on their phones? You can only speak for yourself. 
So while the least cool thing to do is to admit that I spend more time on my phone than I'd like, that it occupies a greater measure of attention than what I think is comfortable or healthy (though I will admit I have high and stringent standards for myself), I'm bothered enough to write about it. In fact, I’ve noticed that turning to my phone has become a weird, kneejerk response that I have to intentionally obstruct. Perhaps I’ve become conditioned in this way because my phone facilitates, in large part, both my work and social life. Among my work colleagues, texting is on par with email. Notification of events, even by very close friends, often happens exclusively on Facebook. Breaking news is on Twitter. You can literally find the physical location of your friends on your phone! Can you even imagine what it'd be like to meet up with someone—anyone—in Dolores Park without your phone? But what I fear most, in my annoying reliance on my phone, is that I’m tuning out, that I’m only half-conscious, semi-feeling, that my senses have become dulled and inadequate. I want to experience this world physically, viscerally, immediately, fully, and I want to experience people in the same way. But I suspect my phone has become the bane of a totally conscious existence. 

My phone has certainly had a damning effect on my brain. I’m much more distraction-prone. Finding my way into any kind of meditation or stillness feels increasingly difficult. Real solitude often evades me, in part because technology has made it easier to avoid real solitude (You can text a friend, or even more pathetically, see what your friends are snapchatting, tweeting, eating, etc.). 

The hapless state of my phone-addled brain is probably best explained by my friend Alice Gregory, who, in one of the best book reviews I’ve ever read, writes:
“In the past year, I graduated from college, got a desk job, and bought an iPhone: the three vertices of the Bermuda Triangle into which my ability to think in the ways that matter most to me has disappeared. My mental landscape is now so altered that its very appearance must be different than it was at this time last year. I imagine my brain as a newly wretched terrain, littered with gaping chasms (What’s my social security number, again?), expansive lacunae (For the thousandth time, the difference between “synecdoche” and “metonymy,” please?), and recently formed fissures (How the fuck do you spell “Gyllenhaal?”). This is your brain on technology.”
She writes about the digital-intellectual equivalent of FOMO—the anxiety of not being able to keep up—, which she chalks up to the “primitive pleasure of constant and arbitrary stimulation.” She calls the iPhone “that little monster in my pocket ‘pushing’ me an uninterrupted stream of distractions,” which is a brilliant and fairly accurate description.

I return to this passage every time I feel that some human part of me—my soul perhaps—, is being eroded away by the ubiquity of technology. And I’m almost certain it is:
“Opening Safari is an actively destructive decision. I am asking that consciousness be taken away from me. Like the lost time between leaving a party drunk and materializing somehow at your front door, the internet robs you of a day you can visit recursively or even remember. You really want to know what it is about 20-somethings? It’s this: we live longer now. But we also live less.” 
I don’t wish that iPhones didn’t exist—I rely on mine for transportation, for maps, for FaceTime with my grandmother in Hong Kong—all of which have made my life better and easier, though the two are not the same thing. But I’ve been imagining what city life would be like without a phone. It’s nice to be able to get away for a weekend and let all your friends know that you’ll be unreachable because you’re out of service. You end up being grateful for the forced absence from technology. But it’s another thing to have reception, to be living ordinarily (without the thrill of vacation or camping or backpacking), and to be navigating your social life in a city, without a cellphone at all (And imagine, this was life for everyone before the aughts!). The practical reality, for myself at least, is that during the day, work would make total phone abandonment impossible, but I’ve been contemplating an experiment of a similar order: I’ll get a landline and turn off my phone after work. I’ll make myself reachable—call my landline or show up at my doorstep—but in very narrow and specific ways. The landline is meant to preclude total isolation of course, but who knowsI live alone, and there's a good chance that inconvenience and habit would diminish the casual friendships I have in this city. But something about the minutiae of my existence would feel more real, I think. I imagine I'd write more, I'd read more. Even if for a little while, I'd be better for it. (Updates to come. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts and comments.)


this is like a shark does

I wish that I could swim and sleep like a shark does
I'd fall to the bottom and I'd hide 'til the end of time
In that sweet cool darkness
Asleep and constantly floating away

I wish that I could break and bend like the world does
I'd fall to the bottom and I'd chase all my dreams away
And I'd let you crush me
My dreams would be constantly wilting away

I wish that I could swim and sleep like a shark does
I'd fall to the bottom and I'd hide 'til the end of time
In that sweet cool darkness
Asleep and constantly floating away

-"Swim & Sleep," Unknown Mortal Orchestra


this is Joy Williams

"I think the writer has to be responsible to signs and dreams. Receptive and responsible. If you don’t do anything with it, you lose it. You stop getting these omens. I love this little church group I go to. The other day we were talking about how God appears or doesn’t appear and how we’re nervous about seeing God, and it was all very interesting, but then somebody piped up, Well, I think God appears often during the day! We just don’t recognize it! For example, I was trying to find my name tag before the ten-thirty service. There I was with all the name tags, I just couldn’t find it, and then I looked down and it had fallen on the floor! I thought, There’s God! Telling me where it was!

You know what I told her? I said that it was really a large name tag. It was. It was huge. How could she misplace it in the first place?"

-Joy Williams, The Paris Review


this is the end of summer

"I suspect that the way I feel now, at summer’s end, is about how I’ll feel at the end of my life, assuming I have time and mind enough to reflect: bewildered by how unexpectedly everything turned out, regretful about all the things I didn’t get around to, clutching the handful of friends and funny stories I’ve amassed, and wondering where it all went. And I’ll probably still be evading the same truth I’m evading now: that the life I ended up with, much as I complain about it, was pretty much the one I chose. And my dissatisfactions with it are really with my own character, with my hesitation and timidity."

-Tim Kreider, "The End of Summer"


this is Sol LeWitt > Eva Hesse, 1965

Dear Eva,

It will be almost a month since you wrote to me and you have possibly forgotten your state of mind (I doubt it though). You seem the same as always, and being you, hate every minute of it. Don’t! Learn to say “Fuck You” to the world once in a while. You have every right to. Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping, confusing, itchin, scratching, mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, humbling, stumbling, numbling, rumbling, gambling, tumbling, scumbling, scrambling, hitching, hatching, bitching, moaning, groaning, honing, boning, horse-shitting, hair-splitting, nit-picking, piss-trickling, nose sticking, ass-gouging, eyeball-poking, finger-pointing, alleyway-sneaking, long waiting, small stepping, evil-eyeing, back-scratching, searching, perching, besmirching, grinding, grinding, grinding away at yourself. Stop it and just DO!

From your description, and from what I know of your previous work and you [sic] ability; the work you are doing sounds very good “Drawing-clean-clear but crazy like machines, larger and bolder… real nonsense.” That sounds fine, wonderful – real nonsense. Do more. More nonsensical, more crazy, more machines, more breasts, penises, cunts, whatever – make them abound with nonsense. Try and tickle something inside you, your “weird humor.” You belong in the most secret part of you. Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. If you fear, make it work for you – draw & paint your fear and anxiety. And stop worrying about big, deep things such as “to decide on a purpose and way of life, a consistant [sic] approach to even some impossible end or even an imagined end” You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to DO!

I have much confidence in you and even though you are tormenting yourself, the work you do is very good. Try to do some BAD work – the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell – you are not responsible for the world – you are only responsible for your work – so DO IT. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be. But if life would be easier for you if you stopped working – then stop. Don’t punish yourself. However, I think that it is so deeply engrained in you that it would be easier to DO!

It seems I do understand your attitude somewhat, anyway, because I go through a similar process every so often. I have an “Agonizing Reappraisal” of my work and change everything as much as possible = and hate everything I’ve done, and try to do something entirely different and better. Maybe that kind of process is necessary to me, pushing me on and on. The feeling that I can do better than that shit I just did. Maybe you need your agony to accomplish what you do. And maybe it goads you on to do better. But it is very painful I know. It would be better if you had the confidence just to do the stuff and not even think about it. Can’t you leave the “world” and “ART” alone and also quit fondling your ego. I know that you (or anyone) can only work so much and the rest of the time you are left with your thoughts. But when you work or before your work you have to empty you [sic] mind and concentrate on what you are doing. After you do something it is done and that’s that. After a while you can see some are better than others but also you can see what direction you are going. I’m sure you know all that. You also must know that you don’t have to justify your work – not even to yourself. Well, you know I admire your work greatly and can’t understand why you are so bothered by it. But you can see the next ones and I can’t. You also must believe in your ability. I think you do. So try the most outrageous things you can – shock yourself. You have at your power the ability to do anything.

I would like to see your work and will have to be content to wait until Aug or Sept. I have seen photos of some of Tom’s new things at Lucy’s. They are impressive – especially the ones with the more rigorous form: the simpler ones. I guess he’ll send some more later on. Let me know how the shows are going and that kind of stuff.

My work had changed since you left and it is much better. I will be having a show May 4 -9 at the Daniels Gallery 17 E 64th St (where Emmerich was), I wish you could be there. Much love to you both.

"I suppose it could also be said we're known to the extent that we're dull and orbital about our life, that what's quotidian about us is more easily shared than the exuberances and passions that push us out of the predictable."

-Charles D'Ambrosio


this is Ferrante Friday

From the wise and intelligent Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan novels were among my favorite books this year. Can't wait for the fourth (and final!) novel, which comes out next week.

(Note: I have never identified more strongly with a fictional narrator than I have with Lenu)

  • "It has always fascinated me how a story comes to us through the filter of a protagonist whose consciousness is limited, inadequate, shaped by the facts that she herself is recounting, though she doesn’t feel that way at all. My books are like that: the narrator must continually deal with situations, people, and events she doesn’t control, and which do not allow themselves to be told. I like stories in which the effort to reduce experience to story progressively undermines the confidence of she who is writing, her conviction that the means of expression at her disposal are adequate, and the conventions that at the start made her feel safe."

  • "In general, we store away our experiences and make use of timeworn phrases—nice, ready-made, reassuring stylizations that give us a sense of colloquial normality. But in this way, either knowingly or unknowingly, we reject everything that, to be said fully, would require effort and a torturous search for words. Honest writing forces itself to find words for those parts of our experience that is crouched and silent. On one hand, a good story—or to put it better, the kind of story I like best—narrates an experience—for example, friendship—following specific conventions that render it recognizable and riveting; on the other hand, it sporadically reveals the magma running beneath the pillars of convention. The fate of a story that tends towards truth by pushing stylizations to their limit depends on the extent to which the reader really wants to face up to herself."

  • "Abandonment corrodes those certainties within which we believed we lived safely. Not only have we been abandoned, but we may not hold up when faced with the loss; we abandon ourselves, we lose the consistency that we have gained via the sweet habit of entrusting ourselves to others. So, to get through it, you must find a new equilibrium while at the same time acknowledging a new fact—namely, that everything you have can be taken from you, and with it your will to live."

  • "I simply decided once and for all, over 20 years ago, to liberate myself from the anxiety of notoriety and the urge to be a part of that circle of successful people, those who believe they have won who-knows-what. This was an important step for me. Today I feel, thanks to this decision, that I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful."

(via Vanity Fair, pt 1 & pt 2)


this is from the Odyssey

"They sailed on with afflicted hearts,
Glad to have escaped death, having lost their dear companions."

this is Simone Weil on work & activity

"No, the tragedy is that although the work is too mechanical to engage the mind it nevertheless prevents one from thinking of anything else ... I am still unable to achieve the required speeds, for many reasons: my unfamiliarity with the work, my inborn awkwardness, which is considerable, a certain natural slowness of movement, headaches, and a peculiar inveterate habit of thinking, which I can't shake off ... As for leisure, one has a good deal of it, theoretically, with the 8-hour day; but in practice one's leisure hours are swallowed up by a fatigue which often amounts to a dazed stupor."

"For the reality of life is not sensation but activity -- I mean activity both in thought and in action. People who live by sensations are parasites, both materially and morally, in relation to those who work and create -- who alone are men. And the latter, who do not seek sensations, experience in fact much livelier, profounder, less artificial and truer ones than those who seek them. Finally, as far as I am concerned, the cultivation of sensations implies an egoism which revolts me. It clearly does not prevent love, but it leads one to consider the people one loves as mere occasions of joy or suffering and to forget completely that they exist in their own right. One lives among phantoms, dreaming instead of living."

"This is what I ask you to do. If it happens some evening, or some Sunday, that you suddenly feel you don't want to go on bottling up your feelings for ever, take a pen and some paper. Don't try for fine-sounding phrases. Use the first words that come. And say what you feel about your work. Say if the work makes you suffer. Describe the suffering, moral as well as physical. Say if there are times when you can't bear it; if there are times when the monotony of the works sickens you; if you hate being always driven by the need to work fast; if you hate being always at the orders of the overseers. And say also if you enjoy the work and feel pride in labour accomplished. And if you manage to take an interest in your job, and if there are days when you have the pleasant feeling of working fast and earning good money. Or if you are sometimes able to work for hours like a machine, almost unconsciously, thinking of other things and losing yourself in pleasant dreams. Or if you sometimes feel glad to have nothing to do except carry out the work you are given, without having to worry your head ... Above all, say whatever comes into your mind, what ever is weighing on your heart ... Be quite sincere. Don't minimize or exaggerate anything, whether good or bad. I believe you will find a certain relief in speaking the unadulterated truth." 

this is 8/27

  • Do we improve ourselves for our own sake (to achieve / produce / impress more) or for the sake of others (to love, to give, to serve)? is self-improvement any good if it is selfishly driven, or are we just making ourselves more machine-like?

  • Water democratizes beauty. Every body under water is beautiful, reptilian, slithering through the blue. Awe-inspiring because of the way it moves, and not because of its proportions or how much space it takes up. I watched a one-armed, pot-bellied man swim yesterday, and his elegance was remarkable. At the public pool, I often submerge myself completely and just watch the bodies pass on by.Then I lift my eyes above the water and watch the rhythmic motion of arms move in and out, in and out.

  • How to create space for grace?

  • Addictions are always attached to a compulsive behavior.

  • The best things in life are rarely prizes won, but gifts given, or received.

  • The chocolate rye tart at Tartine is my current favorite food. A swell $4 dinner. I rarely go to Tartine because it's crowded and touristy. But damn, it is good as ever.

  • Benefit of doubt: every person has a complex interior life. Most of these lives I will never be privy to, but I acknowledge they exist.

  • Three years ago, I was 100 pounds and starving myself. I'm finally writing about this, in more depth than I have ever before. It's the most difficult writing I've ever done, but it feels important, feels necessary. 


this is the braindead megaphone

I was lying in bed last night feeling braindead, as one might feel after wandering aimlessly through a dull but overstimulating kiddie carnival. That kiddie carnival was my phone. I suspected that I had spent too much time staring at it, and I’m certain that the lucidity of my mind is inversely correlated with the amount of time spent on said device. It’s dangerously easy to fill in the crevices of my day—the moments in transit, in boredom, in waiting—by refreshing and scrolling through my phone, a habit not unlike chain-smoking.

The mobile phone possesses traits common to both a good companion and bad addiction: dependable, comforting, responsive, and easily integrated into one’s routine, which makes our attention to it both insistent and habitual. It becomes the first point of contact with much of the world, a means of both private and mass communication, and a medium through which we come to understand people, events, and ideas.

I typically fall into a failed dieter's remorse after any binge on technology: I berate myself and strive to enforce stricter disciplines. This rarely augurs long-term success, but last night my lamentation led to two actions: first, I turned off my phone completely, and second, I began working my way through the stack of papers I had brought with me to Los Angeles—I print everything out because I don't read well on my computer.

I started with David Grann's horrifying and thrilling piece about a prison gang called the Aryan Brotherhood and then continued onto George Saunders’ remarkable essay “The Braindead Megaphone.” Though vastly different in form and content, both are examinations of the baseness and derangement of the human spirit—the former much more obvious, the latter more normalized, subversive, and arguably more pervasive.

“The Braindead Megaphone” (I’m referring to the essay, the first in a book by the same name) is a brilliant piece of writing from a decade ago, but it still applies. It’s a sharp and piercing comment on mass media, whose plethora of messages are fired at us relentlessly through a machine-gun-like contraption, with literally mind-numbing consequences.

Saunders begins with this premise: our mental experience differs from a man living in the year 1200 in “the number and nature of conversations we have with people we’ve never met.” He describes a media landscape that not only fosters but is ruled by “braindead megaphones”—voices whose rhetoric is unavoidable because of their loudness and dominance, not because of their intelligence. We’ve arrived at a point, Saunders argues, where we’re hardly aware of the dumbness and coarseness of the most blaring messages. Even more regrettably, because these megaphones rule our eyes and ears, their messages become our own: “what we hear changes the way we think."

I see the dominance of these messages extending beyond the politicized opinions of traditional news outlets to the cultural and aesthetic ideals of beauty, coolness, and wit propagated through social media—on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, especially—which continue to multiply themselves in a homogeneous fashion, like horny rabbits in captivity. While the development of mass media is not new, Saunders points out that we’re in “an hour of special danger if only because our technology has become so loud, sick, and seductive, its powers of self-critique so insufficient and glacial.” As a result, we’re often unknowingly consuming propaganda—dumbed-down information with an agenda, which in turn shapes and distorts our worldview.

A loud message, Saunders says, doesn’t actually require much intelligence to spread widely (read: Real Housewives of Orange County; also, cat memes). One’s message only has to be viable or watchable, which also often means simple (complexity and nuance don’t lend themselves well to loudness), shocking, entertaining, controversial, and flashy. The methods by which we parse these messages are weak—we're suckers for drama, conflict, and gossip. In fact, we might actually enjoy listening to people go on for 10 hours a day about (in Saunders' words) “a piece of dog crap in a bowl” (think: blue dress controversy).

While we’re caught up in the morbid, scandalous, and sensational details deemed so strangely urgent by the powers that be, we forget to think about things in terms of their morality, intelligence, impact, etc. “Where was our sense of agonized wondering, of real doubt?” asks Saunders. He’s not condemning silliness, only asking that that we recognize silliness for what it is, and that we question whether our idiocy is really worth indulging in all the time.

By no means is Saunders criticizing our intelligence either; rather it’s because he assumes that we are bright and intelligent beings that he sees our increasing tolerance for stupidity as particularly tragic:
“Is human nature such that, under certain conditions, stupidity can come to dominate, infecting the brighter quadrants, dragging every body down with it?”
Here’s what Saunders says is a good story:
“The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them—if the storytelling is good enough—we imagine them as being, essentially, like us. If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it comes out of paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine those other people as essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, inconvertible.”
He ends with a simple antidote to the problem of the braindead megaphone, which isn’t to legislate against Stupidity, however tempting (this quote is great: “Can we legislate against Stupidity? I don’t think we’d want to. Freedom means we have to be free to be Stupid, and Banal, and Perverse”), but rather, simply to become aware of “the Megaphonic tendency” and engage in discussion about the same. In action, this translates to:
“Every well thought-out rebuttal to dogma, every scrap of intelligent logic, every absurdist reduction of some bullying stance is the antidote. Every request for the clarification of the vague, every poke at smug banality, every pen stroke in a document under revision is the antidote.”
I say, lend a ear to the naysayers, permit disagreement, leave room for the meek and quiet, read longer and more thoughtful articles; read books. Ask many questions, accept ambiguity, recognize complexity, understand that there are rarely catch-all solutions to huge problems; determine what is valuable and worthy, and spend time with those ideas.

And to myself I give this advice: take a break from all the media, from all the noise. Silence the megaphones once in awhile, whenever you can; absent yourself, even if that means letting people down or being unavailable. Shut off your phone completely and disappear, even if that's not the way of the world. It’s okay not to believe what everyone else says.
“We still have the ability to rise up and whip our own ass, so to speak: keep reminding ourselves that representations of the world are never the world itself. Turn that Megaphone down, and insist that what’s said through it be as precise, intelligent, and humane as possible.”

Amen George Saunders, Amen.

(Go read “The Braindead Megaphone” now!)


this is how to impress people

A friend of mine is obsessed with impressing people—whether ironically or literally I still have not figured out. “My personal brand of faking being impressive is being cocktail party interesting,” he writes, on a website called How To Seem Impressive. From what I gather, impressing people in this sense means piquing the interest of strangers or acquaintances so that they think highly of your persona and/or facade. Though I admit there’s at least a trace of this particular human proclivity in all of us, the conscious and primary pursuit of impressing people seems to me a total assault on the formation of one’s own mental faculties. One cannot fully realize the potential of her own brain—of which I believe there’s prodigious potential—if her thoughts and subsequent actions are shaped by what viscerally pleases other people.

This idea became clear to me when I began to think about not who impresses me, but who has impressed upon me—the latter being a much deeper admiration and respect that comes through strong, vivid, and often repeated impressions, rather than fleeting ones. When a stamp is impressed upon fabric, it leaves a mark, and so do the people who impress upon me, rather than merely impress me as a glittery parade float might.

The people (thinkers, writers, friends) who have impressed upon me share a few qualities. But the most salient are these:

Each thinks for herself, regardless of whatever is contemporary or mainstream or popular. In fact, each seems to disregard popular culture entirely.

Each is confident in her authority and voice. She believes—or at least acts as though she believes—in the significance of her own work, which arises from an unparalleled, inimitable existence. Without such a belief, the work crumbles—no one else can believe in its significance either. She trusts that if something is weighted with personal gravity and relevance, that it must matter to many more people too. This is by far the hardest quality to come by. Self-doubt is crippling and much more common than assured but not bombastic confidence. Believing in the significance of one’s work helps one to persevere; perseverance begets completion. This confidence does not preclude humility, or admission of fault when applicable. Constant awareness of one's own fallibility is essential to the progression of mind.

Each grapples with difficult subjects and ideas, not merely regurgitating what has already been said, or what has merely been taught. The work of grappling, whether intellectual or political or social, looks different for each person.

Each works hard. Genius may appear to be inherent or inherited, but the fruits of such genius are never without effort, and genius is only realized through labor. Each pursues her ideas to their furthest limits, beyond the limits set by those who preceded them.

Each exercises her distinct and idiosyncratic mental faculties to strive for truth, rightness, and lucidity of thought. The questions and answers in this endeavor may be neither popular nor impressive. However, a mind that exercises and strives in this way reaches its apotheosis. A unique consciousness working in the service of goodness—not merely capitalizing on its mimetic tendencies, which is much easier, much more primal, much more convenient, and much more feeble—is a noble and beautiful thing. (But of course, overcoming the majority of our mimetic tendencies requires much imitation and deep immersion in other people’s ideas and philosophies before we're even able to muster anything new. The examination of ideas, events, and language that may be difficult to comprehend, taxing to extrapolate, and time-consuming to dwell on is crucial in building the foundational layers of one’s mind). The person who does this understands the gravity and gift of human agency, which demands action. One does not accidentally stumble upon strength and confidence of thought. One is not born with mental faculties that are both fortified and humble, untroubled by passing winds but still open to its own betterment—one must consciously strive for it.


this is the most human human award

When people ask what the difference is between this blog and my newsletter, I usually say that this blog contains content either too mundane or too long for my newsletter. The latter seems to be composed more of material I actually want to communicate to people, rather than private musings made public. Both are writing exercises, but any act of communication gives more weight to the audience and the receiver, whereas, when I write on this blog, I allow myself the gratuitous indulgences of the trivial and long-winded, knowing that this space is primarily for me, and that whoever reads this is merely privy to the space, and not the person for whom this space exists. But I am finding increasingly that some of the content I write for the newsletters is material that I would like to keep on this blog too, where there is a chronological continuity by which I can track what I think and write. Now and then, I'll be posting excerpts from my newsletters here.

After I came home from watching Ex Machina last week (highly recommend), I began researching the Turing Test, which tests a computer’s ability to be indistinguishable from human intelligence. The annual Loebner Prize competition is the most famous public display of the Turing test, in which artificial intelligence programs (“chatbots”) compete for the “Most Human Computer Award.” Computer programs are paired with humans (“confederates”) for five-minute conversations, and the conversations are scrutinized by judges. If a computer can fool the judge at least 30% of the time, then the computer passes the Turing Test (note: many humans cannot pass the Turing Test). The test centers on the natural language abilities of participants, which is supposed to demonstrate one's intelligence—rational, emotional, aesthetic, and otherwise.

The more interesting part of the Loebner Prize, I discovered, is the “Most Human Human Award,” which is given to the human confederate who is most convincing as a human, according to the same criteria applied to the competing computers. It seems both farcical and ironic to me that a human being would be tested for his human-ness; this test begs the question of what it means to be human, how we create criteria for human-ness, and perhaps more alarmingly, how the definition of “human-ness” changes as technology advances. Writer Brian Christian, who won the Most Human Human Award in 2009, wrote a book about his experience as a confederate in the competition (read his excellent article on the same subject here) and asks this question: “How, in fact, do we be the most human we can be—not only under the constraints of the test, but in life?”

Though Christian is told “Just be yourself” as advice to win the Most Human Human Award, he spends months researching, training, and preparing to be “the most human.” He examines the history of the computer and our relationship to it, which is a strange one: the original computer was actually a human; computers were in fact job descriptions for women who performed calculations and numerical analyses at financial firms. A long time ago, digital computers sought to imitate human computers; now, when we encounter a genius or math whiz, we say that his or her brain is “like a computer.” Christian remarks, “It’s an odd twist: we’re like the thing that used to be like us. We imitate our old imitators, in one of the strange reversals in the long saga of human uniqueness.”

In his research, Christian brings up human characteristics that we used to consider unique, like the abilities to use language and tools or do math, that are no longer considered as such (because computers can too!). “Is it appropriate to allow our definition of our own uniqueness to be, in some sense, reactive to the advancing front of technology?” he asks. “And why is it that we are so compelled to feel unique in the first place?” What he means is: Are we less human because machines are becoming more human? Do we determine our human-ness based on the abilities and limitations of computers? Perhaps we humans are becoming more like machines, he suggests.

Christian ultimately finds that the questions the Turing test elicits are also the most central questions of being human: “How do we connect meaningfully with each other, as meaningfully as possible, within the limits of language and time? How does empathy work? What is the process by which someone enters into our life and comes to mean something to us?”

In thinking about this question of what constitutes human-ness, I’ve become convinced that the Turing test is limited and flawed not only because—as other critics have noted—some human behavior is unintelligent, and some intelligent behavior is human, but also because intelligence, and our verbal demonstration of it seems to be only one facet of our humanity. This may be obvious, but it's worth thinking about. Most of my days are consumed by judgments of my abilities and their resulting productivity, and much of this week has been spent criticizing my failures in language, writing, and communication. At the moment, I would probably fail the Turing Test if I had to take it. But when I think about what makes me human, I think not of my output but of my interior life and the complex terrain in me that is constantly seeking meaning, that yearns to connect and share with others the common experiences that make us feel less alien, less alone.

In reflecting on human-ness, I fixate on our capacity to feel pain, our inability to articulate our deepest suffering, the silent awe we experience in the face of overwhelming beauty, the complex and sometimes paradoxical interplay of emotions like jealous and love, confusion and certainty, sorrow and joy. We are human because we can bear the contradictions of this life and because we are not constant, not steady, not predictable. We change with time and effect. We surprise one another. As Hava Siegelmann once described intelligence as “a kind of sensitivity to things,” I see our sensitivities—and our reactivities—to barely detectable phenomena and nuances as crucial to “human-ness.” And also: our faith and our doubt, our search for meaning, our moral judgments, our conscience, our confrontation of the incomprehensible, our creation and imposition of narratives, our belief and our disbelief; the accumulation of wisdom over time; the way people imprint on us; the inexplicability of love and heartbreak.

See the newsletter in full here.


this is messed up


A couple of weekends, I discovered the strangest thing at the City Lights Bookstore. It's one of the most popular and renowned bookstores in the city, known originally as a congregational home for San Francisco Beatniks and still widely acclaimed for its selection of leftist, underground, and sub-cultural literature. A purveyor known for its radical and revolutionary spirit, for its advocacy of intellectual freedom, City Lights is supposed to be (or I supposed it was) forward-thinking and socially progressive. To my shock, I discovered otherwise...

That Saturday afternoon, Rob was looking for a couple of books recommended to him by his friend Graham. One of those books was The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I've heard is very good. Rob and I had parted ways when we entered the bookstore, but I found him in a side room looking for this book.

"Is this the fiction section?" I asked him.

"Nope it's the foreign section," he replied.

"But Kazuo Ishiguro is British," I said. "It's not a translated novel."

Kazuo Ishiguro, though born in Nagasaki, Japan, moved to England when he was five. He went through schooling completely in the British school system, and I would argue that his books are distinctly British. The Remains of the Day is narrated by the butler of an English countryside estate.

"I don't know," Rob said. "The guy who works here told me it's in this section."

This categorization piqued my interest. I scanned the bookshelf, my eye searching for "Ishiguro." On the bottom shelf, I found the book.

"Here it is," I said. But before I gave it to Rob, I flipped open the book to the copyright page. I wanted to check that it wasn't translated.

"See, he totally wrote it in English," I said. There were other books on the shelf, like Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies and Chang-Rae Lee's The Surrendered. I checked that both were written in English. They were.

"What is this section, then?" I asked. "This isn't the translated section," I said, though I did notice a few Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels.

A man who worked at the bookstore passed through the room. Rob asked him what section we were in and he barked back, quite angrily, "This is the third-world room."

The third-world room?! What?! What is City Lights trying to say about these books, that they don't belong to the other works of fiction? I understand the utility of a "translated" section, but a translated section would include the works of Marcel Proust and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, both of whom you would never find in the third-world section. These men are white, after all. As an Asian-American, who was born and raised in Mountain View, California, I suppose if I ever wrote a book, I would be siphoned into this third-world section as well, though my voice and my background and my education, I would argue, is American, the way any daughter-of-an-Immigrant is American, the way any tenth-generation-descendant-of-the-pilgrims is American. These authors are writing in the English language, not a foreign tongue, and yet, it's their skin color that separates them as authors? Uncertain what the purpose of this separation is; it accentuates difference, relegates a group of people to another category of literature. Here is white man's literature and here is non-white man's literature. The two are not the same. We are over here and you are over there. That a man's skin determines his place in literature, that a non-white man is immediately third-world, the world beyond the white-man-centric first-world, seems at best, a reinforcement of supremacist and segregational ideals. City Lights, let's move past this soon.


this is quitting coffee

Ever since I quit drinking coffee, I've had to reconfigure my daily routine. Before, I could count on getting fresh air first thing in the morning during my 1.5 minute walk to a nearby coffee shop, where, due to the congeniality of a friend who works there, I received free coffee at least three days out of the week, a 20-oz thermos filled with coffee, glugged down slowly over the course of the morning. I sincerely believed I needed that beverage to stimulate and awaken, a pathology that manifested itself physically when, in the first two days after I quit coffee, my head throbbed even while lying in my bed and the smell of coffee lurked in waiting around every city corner. In forsaking coffee, I lost one of my favorite morning occurrences, which is the small talk that happens between barista and customer. That particular type of small talk might bother some people, but because it happens within a bounded and predictable space, without any expectations of depth or chemistry, it is actually rather enjoyable to me. There's no sense that we need to talk about a meaningful subject. Shooting the shit about weather is perfectly acceptable. Having the same conversation five days in a row is okay too. It's the kind of easy small talk in which you don't need to judge the quality of the conversation, or scrutinize the affability of another human being. It's perfunctory enough that it feels like a morning calisthenic, whetting your social appetite for the day. Of course, there are baristas I prefer to banter with. Who doesn't like a warm and smiling barista? In this city you'll rarely err on the side of being fawning or excessively enthusiastic, as a barista. You just don't see that kind of behavior. But the barista whose eyes are daggers, whose mouth is pursed, whose judgment and disdain seeps out from her nostrils, is certainly not a pleasant person to encounter in the morning, and that I do not miss. But still, the coffee shop in the city is a crucial hub because it's a reliable place to be around people. Even the mere noise and the faint chatter and the grinding hum of the coffee beans will ameliorate acute pangs of aloneness, at least for a little while.


this is overeagerness

"Overeager" is a derogatory term, "over" implying excessive and "eager" denoting strong and unfeigned interest. When someone is "overeager," is that a factor of timing, verbosity, posture, or language? Is self-protection so engrained in human psychology that our scorn of "overeagerness" is our way of warding off the intensity of desire? Say you meet someone whom you are interested in getting to know better, and you decide to solicit the person for drinks. Your perceived "eagerness" is determined by a few things: how much time has passed between seeing the person and soliciting them (e.g. texting five minutes after you first met could be interpreted as "overeager"), how much effort you put into "connecting" with said person (e.g. following them on every social network they are on), the language used in communication (e.g. "Hey! I think we really hit it off when we met, and I want to take you out for dinner. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night work for me, and we could do drinks after dinner too, and maybe a movie? Let me know what you think. I'm really excited about this!"—is probably perceived as overeager—the tone and verbosity of this text reflect this), one's availability (see aforementioned example), and the level to which one's desire is reciprocated (some men will always be perceived as assertive rather than overeager; perhaps this is the male version of je ne sais quoi).

When did aloofness become a virtue? Why does mystery entice us so? There's a deep thrill in being the one-who-desires, perhaps moreso than being the desired. The horizon line is still far away; there's something to swim toward—somewhere beyond your reach. Our society is as mannered as the Whartonian world, in which social cues were clearly patterned and understood but not necessarily spoken of. Our behavior is still governed by ideas: not of respectability now, necessarily, but of what is deemed "cool." But one more thing: the attention we pay to the way we interact extends beyond face-to-fact contact: now our selves inhabit technological spheres and social networks and Google-searched images on global platforms, and we must heed social norms there too. We must calculate our airs and our advances. We are not overeager, perhaps, but we are overgroomed. Perhaps overeagerness is actually a moment of vulnerability, of completely diminished pretension, of social cues being dropped for one second; a desire not manicured or tamed but freely aired. For that level of earnestness, I surrender all disdain—I welcome your overeagerness.

update: uncannily found this whip-smart essay on this (at least tangential) topic, and a rebuttal to it (also worth reading)


this is how to win friends and influence people

When strategizing how to "hang out" with someone, might you employ a salesperson pitch instead of skulking around?

Instead of "hanging out," why don't you say "exciting opportunity"?
Instead of proposing to "hang out" amorphously, subliminally, abstractly, passively, why don't you provide six specific "exciting opportunities"?

Prosperous friendships shall ensue. You will win friends and influence people.

See below for a real-life example, which occurred at 6:03 PM on Monday, April 6.

*phone rings*

me: Hello?

M: Hello. I have some exciting opportunities for us.

me: What?

M: First, I propose a walk this afternoon.

me: No, I --

M: Second, I propose a meeting at Atlas Cafe where I eat a beet-loaf sandwich.

me: No, I--

M: Third, I propose yoga at 7:30. Fourth, I propose coffee tomorrow at 5.

me: Are you done yet?

M: The fifth exciting opportunity is our scheduled hang-out and yoga session at 6 tomorrow.

me: What's the sixth?

M: I only have five.

me: I decline the first four exciting opportunities, but I will accept the fifth.

M: Great.

me: Looking forward to our exciting opportunity. 

M: Very exciting opportunities.

me: I propose we refer to all of the time we spend together as "exciting opportunities," instead of "hanging out," which has some kind of weird connotations.

M: Exciting Opportunities is much more fitting.

me: Agreed. Goodbye.

M: Goodbye.


"Champagne" by Laura Kasischke

A cold wind, later, but no rain.
A bus breathing heavily at the station.
Beggars at the gate, and the moon
like one bright horn of a white
cow up there in space. But

really, must I think about all this
a second time in this short life?
This crescent moon, like a bit
of ancient punctuation. This

pause in the transience of all things.

Up there, Ishtar in the ship
of life he’s sailing.  Has

he ripped open again his sack of grain?
Spilled it all over the place?
Bubbles rising to the surface, breaking.

Beside our sharpened blades, they’ve
set down our glasses of champagne.
A joke is made.  But, really, must

I hear this joke again?

Must I watch the spluttering
light of this specific flame? Must I
consider forever the permanent
transience of all things:

The bus, breathing at the station.
The beggars at the gate.
The girl I was.
Both pregnant and chaste.
The cold wind, that crescent moon.
No rain. What difference

can it possibly make, that
pain, now that not a single
anguished cry of it remains?

Really, must I grieve it all again
a second time, and why tonight
of all the nights, and just
as I’m about to raise, with the
blissful others, my

glass to the silvery, liquid
chandelier above us?


this is exhaustion

If I could reify my exhaustion, it would look something like a shackle chained to a heavy steel ball, I a prisoner of myself and of my bodily limits. By my attitude toward exhaustion, you can tell how much I loathe being tired. Tiredness feels like tar, and it also feels like emptiness, forlorn and accidental, when all strength and energy and willpower has drained out. Tiredness often feels like the opposite of consciousness; I’m both physically and mentally stuck, unable to make decisions and disinterested in action. Also highly vulnerable to angst, despair, and loneliness. If ‘perforated’ could describe a state of being, that might be the most accurate adjective.

It’s both a symptom and consequence of my neuroticism that I count depletion an imperfection. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I expect in myself the consistency and infallibility that I expect of machines. Even machines burn out though—my seven-year-old hair dryer started whirring and smoking yesterday, and I thought, “I guess it’s about time”—but we expect that anything functioning under the algorithmic architecture of codes, programmed inputs, and scientific wiring to achieve impermeability—maybe even immortality. That I desire perfection is not the problem; that I feel less worthy and less able for inhabiting my imperfections is. A machine is reliable and manageable, and it also does not have a soul, which is that spontaneous, desirous, capricious proof-of-being that carries with it an awareness of self as it relates to the world; also gives us the capacity to believe, love, give. After years of battling perfectionism in the form of tangible afflictions and self-inflictions, I'm still learning to encounter the humanity in myself; it's okay to want and need and to be hungry. It's okay to feel exhausted and weak. When tired, rest. When hungry, eat. It should be as easy as that, right?


this is what came before


I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge today. The passage through and out of the city is loathsome up until the the red steel towers of the GGB become visible, rising out of the cold blue waters—a reliably redemptive sight, it never gets old.

I got off on the exit right after the bridge, which I don’t think I’ve ever taken up until today, and drove through a long stretch of a dark tunnel that used to be a military connection between Fort Baker with Fort Barry—the first artillery posts established on the north side of the Golden Gate. Despite the tunnel’s disuse and dilapidation—it was built in 1918, and the last of the Coast Artillery troops left Fort Barry in 1946—, driving through it felt precarious and lonely and doomed, a one-way passage of darkness, longer than you would have expected, on all sides dirty white concrete so stained and bleak—it looked like someone had smeared ashes across its surface. That it was longer in length than most tunnels created a sensation of awakening from a nuclear bomb shelter upon exit. I thought about the movie Blast from the Past, in which Brendan Fraser plays a man named Adam (spoiler alert: he meets a woman named Eve—90s movies got away with shit like that), who is thrust into civilization after spending twenty-something years raised in a bomb shelter. First look at daylight after being underground for so long—the shock of progress! That moment of seeing daylight for the first time, of seeing the passage of time not incrementally but in one fell swoop, the passing years felt most palpably in the absence of the old, and the presence of the strange and foreign and new.

(Also, why do inane pop culture references contaminate everything?)


I visited Headlands Art Center today, which is housed in the old Fort Barry buildings—military barracks—hovering above the Rodeo Lagoon, which empties into the Pacific Ocean. The barracks were rehabilitated and renovated in the 80s—partially renovated, I should say. Physical traces of the military establishment still remain, the artifacts of old looking strangely like pieces of art themselves. Military signage with missing letters resembling the work of Jasper Johns, the pastel paint peeled and crackled on the wall looking suspiciously like a retro throwback proclaiming its aura of authenticity. The rooms and spaces—the mess hall, the officers’ room—still structurally intact. Reformatted, but still named and noted for their original architectural intent. You're stepping into an erstwhile chamber, which was once filled with the noise and chatter of vigilant men. A room now vacated for something entirely new, though remnants are preserved out of respect or out of necessity. Sometimes you get an eerie feeling of haunting, the possible presence of ghostly souls. I feel this sometimes at Alcatraz or Treasure Island too. The vacancy that comes with desertion but not destruction.

I didn’t stay there long, but for the little while I was there, I felt a sense of precedence everywhere around me. Merely the sense was striking and affecting. I didn’t need to read about Fort Barry's history or understand exactly what each building was used for and which men inhabited these dwellings—I just knew that I wasn’t the first one here, that we, this generation, were not the first ones here, and that feeling was significant; the arts center was a descendant, not an originator. Wide open space and empty used chambers. Certainly a stark contrast from the city just over the bridge, where construction is ubiquitous, where buildings are being razed down and replaced with newness, plushness, richness. Destroying the old makes way for the new. Progress the king precludes any thought for what came before. I've noticed so many fires as of late—accidental, perhaps—but the reduction of decades-old building seems to strangely coincide with incoming Babylonian erections. Every month we see a new multi-million-dollar sky-rise, stylized, sumptuous, luxurious.

Where is what came before? How beautiful, really, is progress? Man glories in being the first one everywhere—the pride of the intrepid explorer, touching down; only conquest will sate his hunger; we must land on the moon first before the Russians; the Santa Maria sailed into the dock, setting its eyes on the new world, my new world. Here in America we celebrate ownership. We celebrate the realization of dreams and ideas and the self-made man—made of course, at the expense of the quiet dwellings, the humble and the luckless. Sometimes history appears to be invisible. We can’t find it anywhere (we’re not looking hard enough; we’re not staying in a place long enough). But blindness is safe. Who wants to open his eyes to see the havoc he’s wreaking in the world?


this is making yourself disappear

"It was a trick I'd learned early on in life; a small, slightly fearful girl, obsessed with birds, who loved to disappear. Like Jumbo in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I was a watcher. I had always been a watcher. When I was a child I'd climb the hill behind my house and crawl into my favourite den under a rhododendron bush, wriggling down on my tummy under overhanging leaves like a tiny sniper. And in this secret foxhole, nose an inch from the ground, breathing crushed bracken and acid soil, I'd look down on the world below, basking in the fierce calm that comes from being invisible but seeing everything. Watching, not doing. Seeking safety in not being seen. It's a habit you can fall into, willing yourself into invisibility. And it doesn't serve you well in life. Believe me, it doesn't. Not with people and loves and hearts and homes and work. But for the first few days with a new hawk, making yourself disappear is the greatest skill in the world."

-H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald


this is too much world

If not now, when?
Here is the Phoenix airfield,
I see the cones of volcanic mountains
And I think of all I have not said,
About the words to suffer and sufferance and how one can bear a lot
By training anger until it gets tired and gives up.
Here is the island of Kauai, an emerald set among white clouds,
Warm wind in the palm leaves, and I think of snow
In my distant province where things happened
That belong to another, inconceivable life.
The bright side of the planet moves toward darkness
And the cities are falling asleep, each in its hour,
And as for me, now as then, it is too much.
There is too much world.

-Czeslaw Milosz


this is a tendency toward division

"Even after an hour of good work, the day might be lost: he would feel that a fruitful afternoon was opening up for him, and on the strength of that feeling would take a break, stretching his legs in the garden. He would look up at the sky, his attention would be caught by an unfamiliar bird, and he would take up his bird book and follow the bird over the wild acres outside his garden, plunging through the underbrush, scratching his face, and gathering burrs on his socks. Returning home, he would be too hot and tired to work, and with a sense of guilt would lie down to rest, reading something light."
-"Sketches for a Life of Wassily," Lydia Davis


I have a tendency toward division. For mental peace-keeping, I must divide the day into its polar parts: inside vs. outside, alone vs. in company, connected vs. disconnected, digital vs. analog, loafing vs. working, puttering vs. producing. The day is never about balance but rather about punctuation; time spent inside staring at a computer screen must be punctuated with walks outside, which I take regularly, when I remember to. The trouble is that I do not like walking senselessly and without direction, for it increases my sense of malaise and resignation, which is not a spirit or mindset that is conducive to creating or writing or communicating anything. Malaise and resignation make me want to nap, which I do not do on principle. A walk must have purpose, so that when I return home I feel purposeful and can continue the work I had paused with gumption and motivation. Thus I have devised a way of making every walk purposeful: if not walking with a friend, or walking to the library, then I walk to the grocery store and purchase a single item, like an onion or a stalk of broccoli. Only one item can be purchased at a time; other items are purchased on subsequent walks, or the next day. No walk is frivolous; each walk entails the retrieval of a necessary food item, which feels particularly precious and instrumental in being a solo purchase. This has been a successful solution for many reasons: I have many opportunities to take purposeful walks during the day; I feel thrifty; I get my grocery shopping done; I have become fairly adept at keeping an ongoing mental catalog of groceries; my outdoor breaks (alone, disconnected, analog, loafing, puttering) are satisfactory punctuation within stretches of indoor labor (inside, alone, connected, digital, working, producing).

One must devise small systems of order (inconsequential task lists, break options, minor chores) as reliable and comforting structures (or semblances thereof) as well as distractions from general disarray, unpredictability, and chaos.


"POSSIBILITIES" by Wislawa Szymborska

I prefer movies.

I prefer cats.

I prefer the oaks along the Warta.

I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky.

I prefer myself liking people

to myself loving mankind.

I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case.

I prefer the color green.

I prefer not to maintain

that reason is to blame for everything.

I prefer exceptions.

I prefer to leave early.

I prefer talking to doctors about something else.

I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations.

I prefer the absurdity of writing poems

to the absurdity of not writing poems.

I prefer, where love's concerned, nonspecific anniversaries

that can be celebrated every day.

I prefer moralists

who promise me nothing.

I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful kind.

I prefer the earth in civvies.

I prefer conquered to conquering countries.

I prefer having some reservations.

I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order.

I prefer Grimms' fairy tales to the newspapers' front pages.

I prefer leaves without flowers to flowers without leaves.

I prefer dogs with uncropped tails.

I prefer light eyes, since mine are dark.

I prefer desk drawers.

I prefer many things that I haven't mentioned here

to many things I've also left unsaid.

I prefer zeroes on the loose

to those lined up behind a cipher.

I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars.

I prefer to knock on wood.

I prefer not to ask how much longer and when.

I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility

that existence has its own reason for being.


"It was a failure of my imagination that made me keep leaving people. All I could see in the world were beginnings and endings: moments to survive, record, and once recorded, safely forget.

I knew I was getting somewhere when I began losing interest in the beginnings and the ends of things.

Short tragic love stories that had once interested me no longer did.

What interested me was the kind of love to which the person dedicates herself for so long, so no longer remembers quite how it began."

-Ongoingness, Sarah Manguso


this is a postlude: New Geometries

(originally posted on the New Geometries blog)

In 1991, a twenty-something Swiss man named Hans Ulrich Obrist hosted his first show in the kitchen of his student apartment. Over the course of three months, thirty people visited. In a New Yorker profile of the now mega-curator, D.T. Max writes, “the idea of the show was to suggest that the most ordinary spaces of human life, cleverly curated, could be made special.”

Later, Obrist went on to curate and install art shows in other unusual locations, including a country house where Nietzsche wrote part of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” a hotel restaurant in the Swiss Mountains, a hotel room in Paris, where nine artists created clothes for the closet, and finally, in and around the Zurich sewers, featuring art about lavatories and digestion.

Though this particular segment of Obrist’s biography was unknown to me when I conceived New Geometries, the idea of his first show—to make ordinary spaces of human life special—was certainly one of mine as well. And many of Obrist’s convictions and passions resonate with me: his view of curatorial work as “junction-making between objects, between people, between people and objects;” his interest in unfinished and incomplete work; his fondness for interactivity, participation, and ephemeral aesthetics. Max writes: “The art [Obrist] is most passionate about doesn’t hang on walls and often doesn’t have a permanent emanation. It can take the form of a dance or a game or a science experiment, and often leaves nothing behind but memories and an exhibition catalogue.”

The three-hour stretch of the New Geometries show that I hosted and curated on Saturday night was a frenzy: in total, over 150 people passed through. At one point, there were over 70 people in my apartment, and we had a line going out the door. Friends, friends of friends, and complete strangers mingled in one room. The work of twenty artists, of all different mediums and forms, was on display, including: a multi-colored quilt, a yarn drawing on canvas, photographs of Devil’s Gulch in Montara, a three-dimensional painted sculpture in glowing neon green and yellow. A performance artist danced in a corner near the upstairs bathroom, scattering dirt, fire, and water on the hardwood floor. Food installations entranced and delighted show-goers: kimchi waffles, post-modern lunchables, sugar cookie rounds amidst hundreds of tea light candles, and do-it-yourself geodesic grape structures. A live terrarium in a half-dome provided an immersive escape into a wild environment of mosses, leaves, and bark.

At 9 PM that night, after all the candles were extinguished and the grape structures dissembled, after what was left of the food was swept into the garbage and guests had trickled out, after I had used up every last bit of energy in conversation—I wanted only silence and experienced only exhaustion. That night, despite gnawing hunger pangs, I was too tired to chew any food, and drank Nyquil to fall asleep. Real talk.

Now a week later, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the experience. Weeks of preparation, work, installation, and collaboration—What did I hope would come of it all?

First, I hoped for CONNECTION—connections between artists, connections that would lead to creative opportunities, connections between people who otherwise would not find themselves in the same room. This happened! Even in a small city like San Francisco, there are so many disparate worlds. and often the gaps between those worlds are far and wide. They remain unbridged without effort, and so they go on, in their separate ways, ignorant of each other. I want to change this. Above all, I believe physical proximity fosters meaningful relationships that can create positive, social change for a fragmented community. I am passionate about an economy that supports and sustains creative work while bridging socio-economic differences. I hope that connections with artists and their art would be a first step for people to make both emotional and financial investments in creative work.

Second, INSPIRATION. One of the most gratifying emails I received after the show said this: “I get down on SF more often than I care to admit, but last night reminded me of why this city has so much to offer—both artistically and spiritually.” The in-person experience of art is strikingly different from disembodied encounters with it online or on Instagram, but in the constant stream of productivity we’re tethered to (especially here in San Francisco), seeking out art can be difficult. By providing a novel artistic experience that was at once intimate and accessible, I hoped that people would see that art can be awakening, challenging, and worth thinking about. In his book No Man Is An Island, Thomas Merton writes that in response to art, “one finds in himself totally new capacities for thought and vision and moral action . . . his very response makes him better and different. He is conscious of a new life and new powers, and it is not strange that he should proceed to develop them." This is significant!

Third, CONTINUATION. My hope is that New Geometries is only the beginning. In the introduction to Obrist’s book do it, a compendium of artistic instructions from over 100 artists, he writes: “Do It rejects the notion of the original in favor of an open-ended conception of the creation of the work . . . Unlike the theater, Do It has neither beginning nor end. No two versions of Do It instructions are ever identical when carried out. Via the list of instructions, the specific profane daily environment flows into the exhibition space rendering porous the limits dividing interior and exterior space . . . Each exhibition is yet another truth.”

The intention of Do It is, in part to inspire a never-ending chain reaction in which artists continue to create work based on the artistic instructions given to them. I too hope that New Geometries would spark a chain reaction—that in seeing the possibilities of creative, communal gatherings, in knowing that, even on a small scale, art in its many forms can be dynamic, fluid, responsive, non-institutional, and transcendent, others would feel compelled to host art shows in their own homes or embark on spontaneous, artistic endeavors.

My point is this: anyone can put on a show like New Geometries. You just have to DO IT.


"If what distinguishes us from other members of the animal kingdom is speech, then literature—and poetry in particular, being the highest form of locution— is, to put it bluntly, the goal of our species."
-Joseph Brodsky

"Why would anyone write a poem in this wrecked world? And really, how could they? Massive doubt, failed love, shitty thoughts, empty spirit, a dead history compelling a transfixed vision, these are devastations that might overwhelm and silence anyone; and silence, for a poet, is a prison. It's where the descent hits bottom, it's where the poet either faces or does not face all the risks of failed comprehension."

"Answers are as transient and foolish as we are, and poets generally aren't in the solution business. In fact, if you're a poet and you're going to pose questions, they'd better approach the unanswerable. Why? Is it that only questions without answers are worth asking? Is it that the muse needs courting and doesn't usually go with know-it-alls and wise guys? Is it that questions salt and preserve life, keeping the mystery fresh?"

"If rock bottom, if total bust for a poet is silence, then the questions must be unanswerable, without remedy, to provoke the central event, which is language. Answers are the end of speech, not the beginning, and if language is the main draw in poetry, silence is the occasion for it, the ground of renewal. Questions precede speech; they're language tensely coiled, expectant."

"How can one write poetry after Auschwitz?"
-critic Theodor Adorno

"And how can one eat lunch?"
-poet Mark Strand

All of the above is excerpted from Charles D'Ambrosio's fantastic explication of Richard Hugo's poem, "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg," which was published in his collection of essays, Loitering. Highly recommended.


this is a new year's letter

Happy 2015!

I sent out this New Year's letter to friends and family a couple days ago. Writing an annual letter has become a decade-long tradition, and it continues with this one. Enjoy.


Dear friends and family,

I am sitting on the floor of a friend’s one-room cabin in Mendocino with a gash on my right knee. It’s a red ridge with blue, bruised edges—nature’s brand upon my body, proof that earlier today, when we were hiking through Russian Gulch, we went off the trail and found ourselves on the wrong side of the river in a fern canyon. There were fallen trees all around us, and we kept climbing over them, swinging our legs over their slippery, fungi-speckled trunks. We were heedless, determined to make it through the forest on a mere semblance of a trail with treacherous and muddy, leaf-swamped ledges. Losing ourselves in the wilderness was not a loss; rather, the experience was intimate and serendipitous, as we embedded ourselves deeply into the forest folds.

Somewhere along the way, a sharp nub of a branch scraped me badly and dug into my skin—I was careless, but sufficiently carefree. And no matter, you can’t blame nature for your pain when you collide with it, or when, like a storm, it heaves itself upon you. You cannot question the logic of the seasons, or coerce the rain into watering the earth. These are matters of fact, the mysterious ways of nature to which we ascribe beauty (a sunset) or catastrophe (an earthquake) on our own terms. The same waves that collapse boats also thrill surfers. When a tree falls, the earth grows over it, and life flourishes on it and through it and within the hollow cavern of its trunk. The sun that brings life also withers, also burns up.

This past year contained so much grief—that is what I remember most clearly about 2014, despite its many moments of shimmering joy, because tragedy echoes loud and long. Its afflictions spread surely because grief has no bounds, and it permeates, without losing its intensity, in the spaces where affinities are deep and bonds are strong—where there is love and empathy. Within community, grief is amplified, but healing is also easier. Community makes grief less terrible to bear because no emotion is possessed in solitude; true community refuses to alienate.

But still—as family members fell sick, as friends were taken away, as loved ones passed, as relationships were broken, as bigotry begot slaughter, as death followed and haunted us, as tragedy befell and uprooted us—, we asked, How could this be? How does the world rage on this way? How do we live in this darkness? I am reminded of a sorrow-filled scene in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, in which 11-year-old Cal Trask is praying and crying in his bedroom: “Don’t make me mean. I don’t want to be,” he says. In agony and desperation, he pleads to God, I think, not only because he sees darkness and evil in himself, but also because he sees in the world what he sees in himself, and he hates what he sees. The brokenness in him is the brokenness around him. Where is the light in all this?

I’ve tried to make sense of these passings. At first, it seemed as if understanding the logic of tragedy would offer some consolation, but when I looked for logic, I only found pain. Among the few consolations I find to be true—the ones that don’t diminish or write off sorrow—, one is in nature herself, which helps me to see beyond the immediate without dismissing the present. These systems, cycles, and phenomena that we witness in the natural world—so intricately wrought, nuanced, and complex—are in fact, in all things—they must be! Surely our human lives, so short and fleeting, are mysteries we cannot solve, mysteries that abide, mysteries by which we must abide. Mortality, however, reveals itself: in our freedom, as well as in our limits. Perhaps our helplessness is revelatory.

In the hidden gulches and throngs of mountain trees, let me not forget I am so small, walking among giants! Let me remember how grand and majestic this universe is, hidden and revealed according to God’s principles. If light can cast itself differently everyday, if the ashes of wildfire can nourish the soil, then there must be some hope of renewal to cling to. “Salvation might ache before it heals,” wrote Leslie Jamison. There is more here than what my eyes can see, rhythms that I still cannot hear. Because there is more than I can take in and understand, disavowing resolution can be a relief. Letting go of my compulsion to know and understand requires humility and willingness. The all-embracing arms of nature demand that we let go of all that is petty and unimportant. As such, every hike, every seaside sojourn, and every forest wander has felt like a sigh. Every rain and every arrival at a mountain peak has been a reminder of hope, that there is a better world to come. The world whispers, Forget not my beauty, forget not God’s grace, in spite of it all.

Nature is sorrow. Even when it relieves sorrow, nature does not transfigure sorrow the way grace, I think, transfigures all things, all people. I have seen grace in practice most clearly in my community this year, a community of friends—of brothers and sisters, really—that bestows grace upon one another. In 2014, I found a rootedness in San Francisco, which means that for the first time in my life, I feel the possibility of longevity in a place. Early in the year, I moved from one side of the Mission District to another, and now I live around the corner from four of my best friends. This has been a strange and surreal blessing. We share so much, both tangible and intangible; we possess in common; we have committed our lives to one another.

The greatest joy this year, by far, amidst all the sorrow, has been deepening these friendships: rejoicing and mourning together, seeking to understand who we are in relation to each other, and inviting others to partake in our sweet communion. We feasted on tres leches cake, we made granola, we cried so much, we planted fava beans, we hiked, we wrote letters, we climbed Bernal Heights, we collaborated on art projects, we went succulent-hunting, we took nightly strolls—every minute of all this strengthened our ability to love one another, especially when sorrow descended upon us.

To be rooted in a place, I have learned, is to be rooted in its people. It is community that grafts together the broken branches. Regarding grafting scions onto trees, I read: “When roots make physical contact with each other, they often grow together.” In what I have seen among my community this year, I believe this to be true.

In 2014, I quit my steady tech job. I traded a sheltered and bounded office life for the possibility of more meaningful work. No more than a month after I left, the founders of Edition Local—merely an idea then—found me, and I began writing the stories of craftspeople and artists living in West Marin, which was a serendipitous privilege. If my own community of friends helped to plant my roots in San Francisco, then learning the history of these towns, surveying the geography of hope in these landscapes, and discovering the narratives of the people who have lived here for decades has surely fortified and anchored those roots, stirring in me a deep sense of belonging and sensitivity to the land. These words from Rainer Maria Rilke’s diary resonate: “I feel that I am on the way to become an intimate of everything that beauty preaches; that I am no longer a mere listener who receives its revelations, that I am becoming more and more … someone who heightens their answers and confessions with discerning questions.”

Yet despite the feeling of rootedness in San Francisco, I am still wandering, as I think we—pilgrims on this earth—are always doing. Quitting my job was an explicit point of departure, but I think, whether physically or metaphysically, we are departing and arriving everyday. In these comings and goings, we can choose not to be complacent; we can choose how we want to live, by which principles we will conform our lives, instead of conforming to the cultural narratives and ideals that have been thrust upon us. We can see beyond the illusion of parameters. We do not need to know where we are going, but we can choose how we will walk.

Even without a destination, wandering is not without a sense of direction, for you can orient yourself around what is good and true and constant. Stephen Prothero suggests that wandering is not exile, but rather an opportunity that fosters new ideas and creative insights. The essence of wandering, he says, is “moving without destination into the unknown and opening yourself in the process to surprises.” No matter how daunting and unknown, the wilderness is rich in beauty and hidden glories; do not dismiss the possibility of miracles. Know this: you do not have to travel the world to see it. It is right here before your eyes. You only have to commit to seeking, and surely you will find. You will find what John Haines calls, the “hidden [places] obscured by what we have built upon it … Whenever we penetrate the surface of the life around us that place and its spirit can be found.” So go on, seek and find. Know and unknow. Root and uproot yourself. The new year lies ahead, and in its wake, I am hopeful. Happy 2015.

My friends, I hope to continue to tell the stories of where I pass through and how I walk. I started an email newsletter this year, and I continue to write on my blog. I would love to hear from you. Thank you for listening, thank you for reading, thank you for responding.

I leave you with this line from Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, one of my favorite novels of 2014:
“So joy can be joy and sorrow can be sorrow, with neither of them casting either light or shadow on the other.”

With love,