Some Thoughts About Gentrification

26 09 2015

I am very lucky. My latest job – as a guide/camp cook for a tour company – has taken me to some dreamy places this summer. From the orange canyons of southern Utah to the shores of the Great Salt Lake and the icy heights of Glacier National Park in Montana, it’s been a wild ride. And the luckiest thing of all is that my job currently has me home for a few weeks.

Home. I use the term loosely, since I am staying in Berkeley. There was a time when I would have laughed at the notion that my sleepy suburb was part of that monolithic paper town called the Bay Area. But adulthood has changed my perspective. After everywhere I’ve been this summer, I really do feel like I’m home.

The other day I was returning from working on a trip up in wine country, right around sunset. As I climbed up the white arc of the Richmond Bridge and the bay opened up before me, I watched the islands that dot the water drift past each other like backdrops in a marionette show – some golden and bare, others crowned with dark bunches of Monterey pines. And bit by bit, the skyline of the City unfolded from behind the massif of Angel Island: first the towers of downtown, from which the twinkling lights of the Bay Bridge were strung like a garland; then the pale stipple of houses on Telegraph Hill and Russian Hill; and finally the wooded slope of the Presidio, beyond which the sea spray hung like gossamer in the blinding gap of the Golden Gate. I looked at the glorious view, and didn’t even realize that I had taken a deep breath, and let my whole body relax.

But then I thought about an article I saw linked to on Facebook recently – as one often does, when one sees a beautiful vista, and wants to spontaneously ruin it. I thought of the title of the article: “A Surplus of Tech Killed the Loveliest, Liveliest City on the West Coast.” (Wonderfully concise, these modern online journalists.) And I couldn’t help but think, as I looked out across the water: Is this what a dying city looks like?

San Francisco is a city with a demon, and everyone is talking about it. If you’re uninitiated, allow me to introduce you to the conundrum. It can be summed up like this: Tech industry booms. Overnight, San Francisco goes from an old-school, mid-sized city, to a place upon which a flood of people with six-figure paychecks descend from every corner of the earth. Rent goes up. A lot. People get pushed out, and the culture changes.

That’s it, in a nutshell. It’s called gentrification, and it’s a word that is on everyone’s tongue around here. Average rent in San Francisco, according to this real estate group (found in a quick Web search for data), has gone up 60% since 2010. SIXTY PER CENT. The Bay is not an easy place to be poor right now, and I disclaim now that this is not a post about the dark edge of gentrification, the real problem of how it interacts with urban poverty. I don’t know enough about that to write about it, and for fear of disrespecting it, I want to acknowledge that. No, my fascination is unique to the Bay, where the snafu comes down to a particularly personal and particularly subjective heart: What happens when the soul of a city gets lost?

I have always believed, in case my description above didn’t make it clear, that San Francisco is the most beautiful city in the world. For that reason, I find it unbearably ironic that soon, the only people who will be able to afford to live in the most beautiful city on earth are those whose passion, livelihood and culture revolves around looking down at a screen. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly goes into the poisonous brew: a mix of the inherent link from technology to convenience; with, perhaps, the tendency of the titanic tech companies to offer services that allow their employees to live a private, charmed life behind closed doors. The controversy takes its first steps beyond the bank and the realtor’s office in dramas of entitlement, like this one, for example. And it all adds up to one overarching feeling among the defenders in this class war: that the new techie arrivals are taking up space, but they aren’t giving any of their time, money, intelligence or imagination back. And in doing so, are sucking this city dry.

It’s hard to analyze this situation without passing wild and unfair judgments. I want to acknowledge that before going on, so that whatever sounded unfair in the above paragraph, you can just pop a grain of salt with it and entertain the notion that this problem is not just the fantasy of crusty and nostalgic locs. And if you moved to the Bay for a job and you’re still reading, with all the crap you gotta get… you are a saint. I promise that this has dipped the deepest into vilifying that it’s gonna go.

So let’s start by playing devil’s advocate. Being from the suburbs, it has always seemed clear to me that cities change, and that’s why you live in the city. That’s the price of living in the city. That little Chinese place you love is going to close, but something else cool will open up where it was, because it’s the city. It’s like Game of Thrones. Nothing is immune. Right? You just roll with it.

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Pigeon Point Blues

11 11 2014

Hey. You.

Yeah, you.

Hi there. Hi! …Hi.

Remember me?

Just a bit over a year after my last post, I think it’s time I reassert this blog as more than just a crusty online footprint of my adolescence. (Think about it… how many professional, well-adjusted adults today probably still have embarrassing Xangas floating around? That’s the most Silicon Valley thought I will allow myself today, but just think about it.) It’s been a while since I was in a blogging mood, and honestly I have no regret. This has been a fast-paced, overstimulating, surreal year. It’s been an academically rigorous year. I cannot have have been expected to synthesize events when I squeezed out all my articulacy on a weekly basis writing about optimality theory and the Irish copula.

How collegey it all sounds now. A caricature of academia. Here I now am, jettisoned free and floating in that infamous miasma known as The Real World. Shockingly, it’s not that different. The years of school transition quite nicely into it, or at least the path through those years that me and my friends trod. Senior year was the most real-world-esque yet. Then I had a summer job and was living in a college house, then suddenly my summer job was a normal job and I was living in a normal house. It’s as simple as that, really.

Except truth be told, I am not living in a normal house at all. The main purpose of this post is to give an update about my life nowadays, and my life is so strange that I think I’ve given the Real World a pretty easy break by assuming that this strangeness is responsible for everything that’s changed. Time will tell whether that’s unfair or fair.

Let’s start with the basics. I am not living in a normal house; I am living in a trailer, by myself, up on a mountain above Highway 1. All summer I had to commute a half hour from Santa Cruz to the hotel I’m working at. Now, I drive five minutes down the highway before the great light of Pigeon Point appears winking in the darkness, welcoming me home. Then it’s a turn onto a dirt road and up, up, up to the ranch where I’m subletting.

It’s a beautiful place, in a windswept and lonely way. My trailer itself is parked in an area of the ranch surrounded by flat brown horse corrals, the drying poop and dead gray weeds now shot through with a bright green filigree of live weeds. The whole hilltop is broad and relatively flat. From my place I can look out one window and see the pine-covered hills; look out the other window and see the ocean. But they’re distant backdrops, I have to emphasize. This is no dramatic cliffside. It’s a long shivering chapparal, the brown grass and silver-green bushes and stubby little pines all permanently twisted sideways by the wind.

Outside of my trailer I’m building something of an oasis, guided by a halcyon god named Craig and his holy bible: the Craigslist Free page. There’s a firepit and a little table with a shrub of rosemary. There’s kale planted in a tire, which is doing quite well. I hope it grows fast, because my trailer does not have a fridge, and so produce is a commodity. Long-keeping vegetables like cabbage, beets, potatoes and onions are key. (Especially beets, for reasons which I’ll leave to your imagination.) My diet consists of cooking misadventures, and that’s coming from a guy whose cooking adventures are what the rest of the world would call misadventures. Yesterday I made a project of gathering stinging nettle, which apparently you can cook and eat. The verdict: excellent! Sautéed they taste like kale chips; the tea I made out of them was smoky and almost ricey, like gen mai cha. The only thing I’ll change next time? Make sure I gather them on a hillside with solid footing. (The stings were gone by this morning.)

The main buzz up on the ranch lately has been due to a mountain lion that’s lurking about. We think it’s a mother with a cub, because animals turn up dead in the morning but uneaten, like the cub is learning how to hunt. In any case, the body count is now two goats and one llama. I was around the morning after the second goat died, and strolled out to greet my landlady, who was making her daily rounds feeding the animals. “How are you?” I called.

“Sad,” she pouted. “Another goat got killed by the mountain lion last night.” She surveyed the goat enclosure, shared by a formerly three goats and a number of bemused llamas. “You know, I got the llamas so they would protect the goats,” she said, shaking her head. “But I guess they just only watched out for the other llamas.”

I looked around. “Where’s the other goat?”

“Oh, he’s pretty traumatized,” she dished. “I put him in the barn with a mirror so he wouldn’t feel so alone.” (That’s a very her thing to do.)

After that, I noticed that an unfortunate horse had moved into the goat/llama pen. He always looked pretty sad to me, moping around lethargically munching on hay like he had been forced to hang out with the losers.

Fast forward a few days, to the night of the first big storm of the year. Everyone had been talking for days about how it was coming, and I could feel it in the air as I bounced up the dirt road to the ranch after work. It was about a week before Halloween. Now would be a good time to explain that on my way up to the ranch I have to pass through four gates, as the road goes through various properties where horses graze. That means I have to get out of the car eight times, to open each gate and then close it behind me. Wearing my nice work shirt at 11 o’clock at night, normally that’s just annoying because it’s cold. But on certain nights, yeah, it’s damn spooky.

This night was like that. It was windier than usual, and the bushes and trees rustled and whispered restlessly. Clouds covered the stars and the moon, and outside the lurid ring of the headlights it was trip-over-yourself dark. It wasn’t just the dark, though, about the clouds: without stars the sky felt surreal, like it was just the feathery ceiling of a maze built for the entertainment of the eyes that watched from the trees. I can’t help picturing them on nights like that: plump spiders and waddling skunks and yeah, mountain lions. They have night vision and I don’t, and I blaze into their world suddenly and unexpectedly in a roar of light and exhaust. I don’t think I’m being watched. I know I’m being watched.

So I’m feeling particularly prickly on this night, and after each gate I scurry back into the warmth of my car, a big metal box. Finally I get to the goat pen, where I park to walk to my trailer. The first thing I noticed was the horse. It was white, so I could see from a distance that it was trotting back and forth along the fence, tossing its head like it was restless, anxious. I had never seen any horse on the ranch act like that, let alone in the middle of the night when I got home, so immediately I thought something was wrong. As my car drew close it came to me, following my slow progress along the fence. When I drove past the gate it reached its head over the gate, like it was calling to me.

Then when I turned the corner, my headlights flashed over the enclosure and I saw something that gave me chills: the llamas were kneeled on the ground in the center of the enclosure, forming a circle with their backs to each other, facing out. I thought of my landlady’s words: The llamas just watch out for themselves. And I felt certain that the mountain lion was close, somewhere just outside my car.

And next to the llama pen was one more gate, forty feet from my trailer. So I had to get out. Flushed with adrenaline, I started singing loudly, announcing my presence as a human, as I opened the door and walked around to the shotgun seat to get my backpack. Well of course as soon as I opened the door the horse let out a high-pitched whinny. Now, I’ve read that mountain lions are grouped with housecats among the cats that can’t roar – apparently their sound is kind of a screech. So, not being used to horses, of course I jumped, and of course I pressed the panic button on my car, which shattered the spooky silence with an earbreaking wail. And of course after an awkward minute of cursing, pressing buttons, fumbling with my keys, and finally starting the ignition and shutting the alarm up, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself as I thought: Well that’s one way to scare off a mountain lion.

So I didn’t see the mountain lion that night, though the next morning my landlady (who I had been sure would laugh at the paranoid city boy) agreed wholeheartedly with my analysis of the scene. Today, what’s more, there was another casualty. Without getting out of bed this morning I took a morbid and guilty glee in sleuthing from the window of my trailer, where I saw it all unfold: saw them discover the body, saw the other llamas sniff at it awkwardly from afar, saw my landlord drive up in a big yellow bulldozer and awkwardly scoop it into the air, like a teddy bear in the glass case at Denny’s. A leg or two dangled limply from the bundle inside the bulldozer’s arm, grotesquely dead. The landlords haven’t been eating the dead goats – they’ve been burying them in the back (“we would eat them if necessary, but right now they’re just friends”). The whole thing is like a French absurdist comedy. A very black comedy, I’ll admit, out of respect for my landlords’ losses.

Besides the strange dramas of country life, my days are spent reading; writing; playing guitar – but honestly, I’m lonely. I mean really maddeningly lonely; ruinously lonely. I occasionally talk to the spider living in the corner of my trailer, who is named Big Guy. Guess how many people have visited me since I moved in? My Santa Cruz friends who live a half hour away; my parents, my high school friends who would have to drive an hour and fifteen minutes? Zero. Not one. I know this is because I work weekends, but it’s still depressing. I got two folding chairs for free from Craigslist, and yeah one of them broke yesterday but I schlepped two all the way up there for a reason, dammit.

At work I am invisible. This is not me being dramatic; it is an empirically proven fact. It’s becoming a pattern now for me to meet random travelers while out and about and have really cool conversations with them, only to find out they’re staying at the place I work and have them brutally ignore me later. The other day it happened with a very cute guy from Texas, who I ran into while biking the trails at Butano and who let me look at his map. Later the same day he came into the front desk and asked my coworker for quarters; we made eye contact and he looked right through me. It was heartbreaking, honestly. Before that it was an old Irish lady named Eileen, whom I met while picknicking alone at Bean Hollow Beach. She quit her job to travel the world and blah blah blah et cetera, and we shared our food and talked for ages. She told me what her father had told her when she was a little girl, walking by the shore in Galway one stormy day: “The sea,” she said wistfully, “is the most uncompromising, demanding, powerful thing in the world. Beware about it, for it always, always wins.”

A few days later, she was led into the hotel by an employee from the campground, who was helping her look for her keys. “Please, sir, have you seen them?” she asked in that same Irish lilt, and looked straight at me with pleading, moony eyes. Nothing. She didn’t even recognize me.

I know, I know. I know she was old, and I know she was probably distraught about the keys. But still.

The phrase “soul-sucking” came to mind.

At the hotel where I used to work in Santa Cruz, I was not invisible. At this job I just am. I don’t know why. It’s probably a mom-and-pop vs. luxury business thing. The hotel I work at caters to the glitzy and wealthy of San Francisco who want to get away for the weekend, and they can be rather high-maintenance. You know the kind: start-up bros clad in puffy Patagonias; tech princesses with flowy sweaters and perfect haircuts who waft into the room on a gust of Wi-Fi. They’re pretty used to treating service workers as invisible, and the weird part is, they’re kind of the social class – the social circle – of my parents, to the point where yesterday I checked in a guy who works with my mother. I sometimes feel like a disowned son, knowing awkwardly that I am one of them as I watch from the other side of a one-way mirror. My school wasn’t Ivy League. My company isn’t on the Forbes 500. And just like that, I have vanished into the wasteland of the middle class. Vice versa, once or twice I’ve been talking to some acquaintance of my parents, sheepish about my uncertain plans –  “I’m just working at a hotel for now” – and I feel alienated by their blank and bewildered stare. And for just a second, it’s like I’m talking to a hotel guest. And I think, Whoa. This is what downward mobility feels like.

Not that I believe I am mobilizing downward. Despite certain frustrating aspects of life, deep down I am pleased with where I am, at least for now. Why, you ask, if I’m so lonely and sometimes miserable? I sometimes ask myself, but then I am able to answer straight away. I’m paying for my own rent and saving money on the side, which feels wholesome. I’m taking time to think, and it’s working. I’m getting to know these mountains better (seriously, who knew you could eat stinging nettle?!!?). I’m detoxing from college, from the most social four years of my life. I felt stretched thin, by the end. Like I was never quite at my highest energy. Like I relied on drinking to be silly, you know? I felt… normal.

I live alone on Pigeon Point because I need to get my groove back, my zest, my high on life. I need to lower my standards again, honestly. To rediscover my sense of wonder. There are adventures on the horizon – I want to leave for Mexico this winter. And I want to be stoked, I want to be observant, I want to be ready to interact on my feet.

And there’s plenty on Pigeon Point mountain to stoke my sense of wonder, to use the less Californian sense of the word. The sky is the main thing. Mist wafts over the ranch, turning into a golden haze when the sun cuts through it. The night after the storm the clouds loomed like a city in the sky, impossibly tall and solid and dark. On nights when the clouds are low, you can see the lights of the city glowing softly in the sky beyond the mountains. And on nights when there are stars, oh, what stars. And on days when the sun shines, oh how vast is the ocean, how white the foam that crashes around the lighthouse, how bright the shimmering haze in the ruins of distant Año Nuevo Island, floating on the horizon, how wide a horizon, oh how incredibly vast.

And here I am blogging again, so as a vote for my self-inflicted isolation therapy, there’s that.

There’s certainly that.

The Integrity Paradox

27 07 2012

DGAF [di’gaef] v. int. : to not give a fuck

I watched the movie “The Devil Wears Prada” last night.


Because I fuckin wanted to, that’s why.

I always tell people that in Peru I learned to DGAF. I find that the final, ironic step to DGAFing about being a gay guy is not caring if people perceive you as gay. Ironic because it’s machismo-obsessed Peru, after teaching me how to use a machete and how to play soccer and how not to be afraid of spiders, who finally taught me this. The last step to being brave is DGAFing about whether people perceive you as manly or not. That’s what truly makes you a man.

Now, I just listened to my boss’ answering machine for the first time. My boss is a very gay, very hipster man who’s super professional and lived in New York City doing theater for some years. So I was kind of weirded out to hear on his voicemail a butch, vaguely Bronx-accented, Average Joe kind of voice that was still unmistakably his, telling me in a tone reminiscent of what a firm handshake would sound like, “Hey. You’ve reached my voicemail. Please leave a message and I’ll call you back as soon as I can.”

To be brutally honest, it sort of made me lose respect for him. Why can’t he let his flag fly as a gay man, especially since his sexuality is so blatantly obvious when you talk to him? He was in theater in New York. You know he’s good at accents, so you know he did it on purpose. I think uneasily of how many doors he’s opened, how many social ladders he might have climbed by putting on that butch voice at an audition.

There are a lot of threads to this tapestry, and even more than usual, I’m struggling at how to bring them all together. I am one thread: knowing that people don’t really perceive me as gay, I wonder if I’m just not in a position to judge anyone for putting their freak flag at half-mast. Another thread lies in Peru. I found that there, the only gay men to be found were hyper-feminine types who were into cross-dressing. They, I hypothesized, were the ones who are so genetically feminine that they just couldn’t suppress the naturally sashaying dance of their bodies. The ones who couldn’t hide. And meanwhile all the in-between folks living in Peru, trapped by an old-fashioned culture where marriage happens at twenty and affairs start at twenty-five, just marry women, slap their wives into not talking about the uncomfortable sex, and deal with it.

So do you even credit the gay guys who are out of the closet in Peru, because they are truly doing something brave? Or are they simply the ones that lost a game of cultural assimilation in which everyone has a bet?

Gay isn’t the only part of the tapestry I’m trying to weave either. The heart of it, as a matter of fact, is this blog. I was talking to my friend today, a friend who writes for a travel blog (unpaid but I’m still really effing jealous), about how it’s kind of uncomfortable to make something as personal as writing into something you’re suddenly trying to get views and hits on. My soon-to-be-travel blog isn’t quite in the same situation, but I’m going to hopefully have a lot of stories to tell next year,  and all stories must begin by introducing their main character. Knowing that the few people who read this blog already know me very well, continually re-introducing myself feels egocentric. Like I’m selling myself and my life.

I think blogs – the entity of Blogs as marketable, valid pieces of media – inherently have that problem. My sister’s friend is a very well-known fashion blogger (apparently), and after reading her blog, which is all quirky and thoughtful and has posts beginning with things like, “Oh, how I love the halcyon sunny days of spring!”, I met her for the first time and sort of instinctively didn’t like her. Even though she’s obviously smart, and has the thoughts in her head that lay the seeds for her blog posts, she’s just, like… not the kind of person who would say things like that. Which I find really weird. But that’s sort of what all writing is: continually reinventing and reintroducing yourself, and not caring that the few people spying on all your personas catch you reusing a few jokes. Or at least, trying not to care.

“The Devil Wears Prada” is actually a pretty good indicator of the whole thing. It might even be telling that the example I mentioned is a fashion blog. In the movie, Anne Hathaway is forced to choose point-blank between being pretty and being a good person; giving up her integrity for good clothes or staying frumpy and smart. In the end, she chooses frumpy over evil – and the movie never really addresses the obnoxious choice that it’s presenting people, especially women. Inner beauty versus outer beauty. Integrity versus… clothes.

I think this world is so bankrupt of integrity that people who pursue it fall into the trap of fetishizing it as well. It’s simple: there are ways of portraying yourself to the world that are savvy; that smooth ruffled feathers and help you get along and get ahead. You can make a conscious choice to try and stick to those ways. And there’s a school of thought which posits that every conscious choice to be someone you aren’t naturally, without thinking about it, chips a teeny bit into your integrity. I’ve struggled with that, as a Jew and a gay man, for a lot of my life, because I can choose to show those things or to not show them. And as you can guess, there are a lot of situations where not showing them could definitely get me ahead.

But Peru taught me to DGAF from both directions, and I think that’s an important lesson. It is possible to reinvent yourself with integrity. You can worry constantly about people judging you, and become a totally fake person dressed head to toe in haute couture – or, I dunno, an Arequipa soccer jersey, depending on what the world is asking of you – but you can also worry constantly about losing your integrity, and keep yourself from grabbing life by the horns because you’re afraid of people going, “Oh, look. He changed the way he dresses, what a try-hard.”

I hope I can make this blog into something an aspiring writer can be proud of during the coming year. I mean, hell, I hope it already is. But at some point, somebody I don’t know that well will follow the link from my Facebook and look at the cutesy article titles that yeah, I spent some time thinking about. They’ll scroll down a little, realize that I write about surfing a lot more than I actually surf, snicker and go, “Hah. What a douche.”

But you know what?


Chevron with Techron

9 01 2012

I got gas today at a gas station brandishing the name, “Chevron with Techron.” It’s not the gas station I usually go to, but my parents used to go to it all the time. So I was surprised by how easily the phrase “Chevron with Techron” jumped into my mind, like something quoted so often that you’ve forgotten the source. And suddenly I asked myself the question: what is Techron?

It’s so indivisibly part of that phrase, but it doesn’t mean anything. Like, why is Chevron always offered with Techron? Has anyone ever walked in to pay at the cash register and been like “Hi, I’d like my Chevron without Techron, thank you.”

I have never seen Techron with my own two eyes. My first thought is that it’s some secret formula, some chemical they put in the gas to make it extra-effective. So saying “Chevron with Techron” is like labelling a food item, like, “Orange Juice with Vitamin C” or “Brownies with Pot”. I’m pretty sure that’s what I passively believed Techron to be when I was a kid. But that doesn’t make much sense. So then I thought, maybe Techron is a mascot. Like Tony the Tiger. There are, after all, a lot of drawings of animated cars in Chevron propaganda. Maybe one of them is Techron, so when you get gas there it’s like, “Get Chevron with Techron! [TECHRON smiles and winks a windshield wiper at the camera. Cut to black.]”

I think that idea is my personal favorite for Techron, even though there are other possibilities (insurance policy? special automated pumping system?). If I ever get a dog I might name it Techron, so that I can bring him in the car and say I’m going to get Chevron with Techron.

Well… maybe it would be too dorky to say. But I’ll think it.

Techron would be a good name for a dog, actually. You could call him Tech for short, which I think has a nice ring to it. It sounds like one of those douchey 50s names, like Skip and Rush and… I dunno, Mitt. (Why do Republicans always have douchey names?)

The gas was so that I could drive to Santa Cruz and tie up a few loose ends with the registrar and my rock climbing membership and so forth before I leave for the Amazon in two days. I know that where I’m going is a place of sweltering tropical languor and heat, but for me driving over the summit of Highway 17 is driving into endless summer. It was a clear day in Santa Cruz; the green was starting to creep back into the meadows; the sun was crisp and bright; and from the linguistics offices in Stevenson I could see down the green sweep of the town all the way over the blue, blue waters of the Monterey Bay to the land on the other side. The Moss Landing smokestacks 40 or 50 miles away, usually a hazy silhouette of a thing, were in sharp relief. I don’t know when I last saw such a clear day. And it was… well, I’m going to miss it. I went to Bry and Annaïs’ place in the Porter apartments and they were there along with a bunch more of my friends, and we had salad with blueberries and pot stickers for lunch, and hung out. Everything was all clean and bright from people having moved out and then moved back in. And… I’m just going to miss it a lot. Going to miss them  a lot.

On my way back I was listening to a mix CD I just made. Now, before I tell the rest of this slightly embarrassing story, I need to say that songs almost never make me cry. Maybe I’ll be listening to a sad song for a specific reason which is making me cry, but for a song to emotionally create something out of nothing? It doesn’t happen to me. Maybe this wasn’t “something out of nothing” because it had to do with the trip I’m about to take, but the song “3×5” by John Mayer came on, and to my own bewilderment I started to tear up. I have to stress that I’m honestly not mentioning the I-never-cry thing to be all macho, it’s just that the first reaction I felt was “Wha–?!?! whoa.” When you think about it, 2 minutes really should not be time enough for you to build up enough emotion to cry. It’s weird and abrupt. That’s how it felt: abrupt.

But anyway. This song, this song is so perfect, and something about it caught me by surprise. Part of the reason I’m so excited to go to Peru is because lately I’m feeling dizzied by the crush of technology and staying connected, and the pace of life when some important news about my 992 friends on Facebook breaks every twenty minutes. Five different passwords. Three different e-mail accounts. Keep in touch via Skype with your friends from this class, and that class, and that summer…. I just want to get off the map and really live. And this song, the title is after a common print size for photographs – 3×5 – and it goes, “Didn’t have a camera by my side this time/ Hoping I would see the world through both my eyes.”

Yeah, I’m bringing a camera to Peru, but the camera isn’t the point. Some combination of the experience I’m looking for and what I know I have in Santa Cruz – friends that are always there to share food with you when you show up at their door; something that can’t be photographed or quantified in Facebook posts – really hit me. The friends that are really worth something have a connection with you deeper than what you can share and describe. Just as I know that my time in the jungle will mean more to me than any blog or photo could ever share or describe. The magic is in realizing that, and not trying too hard to share and describe it anyway. As the song goes, “You should have seen that sunrise with your own eyes/ it brought me back to life…” The idea that stopping to really see something, even something ordinary, can save you. I heard it as if for the first time. And I… well… sort of…. um. cried.

Yup, that was embarrassing. I’ll be going into hiding in Peru now. Be back in 2 months.

(P.S. John Mayer is hot, isn’t he? That’s not a rhetorical question; i’m staring at him and I honestly can’t decide… but. don’t look at the video while you listen to the song. Hot or no, John Mayer’s smoldering Zoolander lips will not reduce you to tears. but this song might.)


3 11 2011

In my astronomy class we talked about the lives of stars today. Of course, we humans are so egocentric that any mention of this eternal, impartial cosmic phenomenon contains some sort of discussion about What Will Happen When The Sun Goes Out. God, we’re so egocentric that to even try to talk about stars’ lives without having the Sun discussion seems ridiculous, like there’s an elephant in the room.

But I digress. The term “goes out” is misleading, because actually the sun will probably turn into a red giant star, engulfing the first two planets of our solar system and turning the Earth into a barren, boiling wasteland long before it blows up and the party’s over.

We also learned about the birth of stars today. In the cloud of dust and gas that radiates from a supernova, sometimes a nebula coalesces, and sometimes within that nebula, a speck of dust swirls into the weight of its own gravity and slowly begins to heat – and another star is born. Like a phoenix, a new solar system rises from the ashes of an old one. Just like people, stars are born, stars die.

That idea, it seems, should give me some sort of comfort: the universe is cyclical, a ring of interlinked endings and beginnings, just like human life. But the point of this post is that oddly enough, it doesn’t. Because actually it’s not like human life at all. There are trillions of planets in the endless cold sky, and as far as we know not one of them has even the slightest basic similarity to this balmy cocoon we call Earth. I believe that there must be other life out there, but what if there isn’t? And what if we never find it in time? When I imagine the end of our solar system I can’t help but see it as a death from which there comes no rebirth. Because when you think of all the infinitely perfect chances that have allowed life on Earth to develop as it has – the impossible chance of there being wonderful sweet liquid water here; the insanely timed spark of protobiotic energy that somehow made a single carbon molecule suddenly decide to start flopping around trying to survive – it’s like, how could this ever happen again? How could this ever come again?

This is our one shot. Our solar system could die and reform a million times and none of these million future solar systems, each one lasting for billions of years, would ever support life again. To return to square one, to ground 0, and be faced with the impossible odds that another living planet could ever be created again: the prospect seems hopeless. Because all of those future solar systems would be nothing without life. What value does the emptiness have, if there is no human heart to wonder what lies within it?

During class today I brought my laptop and it proved to be extremely distracting; namely, I spent half the lecture reading the entire Wikipedia page for Iceland. Don’t ask me why. I sort of have a crush on the Icelandic language and the whim developed from there. But the point is, even one tiny treeless island in the frozen northern regions of our world can be the cradle for a complex and beautiful language, and one and a half thousand years of history, and a literature, and unique national sports and singer/songwriters who perform in Reykjavik cafés and a national healthcare system and a mythology full of trolls and elves who lurk beneath the glaciers and dubbed versions of every Disney movie ever made and the list goes on and on.

Why do the happenings of outer space enthrall us so, when an island can be an entire universe? Not that I don’t find astronomy interesting, just… a little bit terrifying. I don’t think I could ever devote my life to astronomy. Because without life, what’s the point? To cast your imagination into a vast and lifeless universe always and forever must bring about an existential crisis sometime.

Sometimes I imagine what went through God’s head while he created the universe. I used to believe in a very friendly, very sentient God when I was a little kid. My muddled adult faith doesn’t revisit that idea so much anymore, but sometimes I still do. I figure that belief in God is a willful submission to faith in something unproven; if you’re going to invest yourself in something that exists only in the imagination, why imagine it half-heartedly?

In this particular Bible of my head, God is very anthropomorphic indeed and specifically, he only has so big of an attention span. When God created the first atom he must have just spent millions of years basking in how brilliant that was, just watching electrons and neutrinos float about in a perfect clockwork like a kid admiring his Lego set, thinking, “Well, there it is, I created the Universe”. But then one day he got bored and suddenly – hey wait! What if there was this thing called gravity, and it allowed all these atoms to collapse in on each other, and when they got all excited and jittery because of that energy – heat! And once a few stars had formed, which must have seemed like the coolest thing ever and impossible to one-up, then God had another idea – what if these atoms can be combined into more than one substance? No, there can’t be more than one element… but what if there could? And then there was, and what a humdinger of an idea!

And thus I imagine how many eons of background must have gone into creating a universe so infinitesmal and detailed that these stars can create 117 elements, and these elements can combine on lovely little beads of fire or water floating through space, and that on these beads, Life can exist. When suddenly one day God got the idea for life, it must have been just the greatest idea ever but also about the umpteenth time he thought he wouldn’t be able to one-up himself.

J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a devout Catholic (ironic considering how often fantasy is black-listed by the conservative Church), believed that Man being created “in God’s own image” is merely a reference to the fact that we alone among all creatures make up and write stories. Just as God created the universe, we create universes of our own, and for that reason we are like God. So I think that’s the basis of how I imagine God: simply a great Cosmic Imagination. My God is only sentient because to imagine the beginnings of the universe, I must also imagine a sentient consciousness who witnesses it.

Sometimes it’s also fun to imagine how God must be different from us. For instance, color. When you project a beautiful HD image of a fiery rainbow nebula onto a projection screen, it’s funny to remember that it has nothing to do with the real thing. As far as I understand it, photography of objects in space is achieved through roundabout methods of capturing light that have little or nothing to do with the human eye. Color means nothing in the lightless vacuum of space.

I wonder what God would think if he paid enough attention to the world to notice these people called astronomers, who look at the beauty of these images and claim to love the cosmos. Hah! How could humans love what we will never understand as God does? A nebula’s heat, its sparkling diffusion of gas, and its inevitable turning gravity like a clock that never stops! And here we humans take it and transpose upon it simple, basically human ideas – ideas that mean nothing to the rest of the universe – in order to call it beautiful. Color. It’s so silly. We do not understand what’s beautiful about a nebula. A nebula is God’s child from another mother than Earth, a distant cousin to us only. Our eyes, our brilliant human eyes, are designed, specialized to see the colors of fjords and glaciers like the ones in Iceland. Not to process something as unreachable as a nebula.

No, I could never be an astronomer. I hope that one day we find life on other planets, but until then, it seems like an uphill battle to devote ourselves to anything other than the beautiful madness of life on our own. I guess can see how to a certain type of well-adjusted, unsentimental person, learning about star cycles and the death of our own Sun can be simple. To endure the emptiness, that’s one thing. But to love the emptiness – that’s something else altogether.

Things I Learned from Getting My Passport Picture Taken

24 10 2011

Disclaimer: Despite the neuroticism of this post, I honestly am not insecure about my head tilt, and I like my head the way it is. Thank you for your concern.

So I went to get a new passport photo today.

The photo place charged $15, which I thought was kind of stupid for a 2×2 picture that I could have printed out myself, but I texted my mom to ask if the price was normal or a rip-off and she replied “normal”, so ok, that was that. I had assumed that I would just get this done at a post office or something (because that’s where you do it at home), but a quick Google search on “santa cruz passport” led me to a place called Larry’s Photography, on Mission right next to campus. So on my bike I got, and off I went.

The first thing I noticed about Larry’s Photography is that as soon as I walked in, I entered the wide and wonderful world of yearbook photos. It was clear by the plethora of portraits on the wall (and the framed arrays of various-size prints marked “Graduate”, “Executive”, “Silver” and “Gold”) that this was the official place for Santa Cruz High senior portraits to be taken. Looking at them I was reminded that stalking was fun even before Facebook. While I waited for them to process my paperwork I took a gander through the pile of Santa Cruz High yearbooks. I was in journalism in high school, so I’m kind of a yearbook bitch. So, although there’s no real way I can explain why it was funny to my readers, I was entertained for a few minutes flipping through and judging the yearbook. The one gem I can share is this: the yearbook staff had decided to give people those funny little “senior awards” – you know, best dressed, nicest smile, blah blah blah – and each awardee (there was 1 boy and 1 girl per category) was given a little quote. The most awkward of these was the “Hopeless Romantic” award, which was a picture of a surly guy with a white hoodie pulled over his head, who had obviously been forced under duress to pose with a swooning girl in his arms. The quotes were as follows:

“Love is touching someone on the outside and feeling it on the inside. Every person could be the right person. If you feel the same way call me, 555-LOVE” -Kaitlyn

“I got this ’cause I have messed-up friends” -Nick

At this point they called me to get my photo taken. I sat in front of those weird ghetto umbrella-lights while the lady (obviously not Larry!) fiddled with the camera, trying to get the settings right.

“Can I smile?” I asked.

“Well, yeah. American passports are the only ones that allow you to smile,” she replied.

How about that? I’d always wondered, after last summer on my senior trip, when I compared my friend Tyler’s passport picture to my acne-spattered teenage passport. He was smiling in his, and I was sort of jealous whenever we went through airport security. So America is alone among the nations in letting her passport-holders appear happy. that’s kind of cool, in a stupid way, right? God bless Amurr-cah, land of the free! where you have the freedom to smile in a picture if you DAMN want to! (In the end, though, I decided on a more stoic expression. I’d rather my passport be international, if you know what I mean.)

She looked up from the screen to adjust my pose.

“Don’t cock your head sideways,” she said. “Could you tilt it a little to the left?” I did. “A little more?” I tilted my head a little more.

She went back to the camera screen, showing a recently-hired lady how to set up the picture, then looked back up. “Oh, could you tilt your head back again?”

I did. Hmm. Had I instinctively returned my head to its tilt during the 5 seconds she had looked away?

“Okay, one… two… three.”

This seemingly innocent experience got me suspicious. Do I always tilt my head sideways? Because I know that I have weird posture, but I realized – with growing awe – I often do have my head tilted in pictures. Is this an established thing?

To find out, I decided to put my private investigator boots on and take a little gander through my facebook photos. (yes, I know that’s the second time in this post I’ve said “gander”.) And what did I find?


Blatant, all-out conspiracy, my friends. Or should I say so-called “friends”, because WHY HAS NO ONE EVER TOLD ME ABOUT MY HEAD TILT? The treachery runs deep and wide. I don’t know why I didn’t notice it myself. I think it’s not even a posture thing. It’s just (for some reason) what I instinctively do when I know a picture is about to be taken, which is even weirder. I have subconscious pre-picture instincts? Who DOES that? In any case, the really creepy part is that in all of the photos MY HEAD IS TILTED THE SAME WAY. That means empirical evidence. Evidence that this is a scientifically proven pattern.







sideways. yes, that squirt gun is shaped like a dick.




Allow me to call attention to a few nuances above. In the picture of me with the soap, I was going to a costume party dressed as Tyler Durden. Apparently I also think that sideways=badass. I would flunk out of America’s Next Top Model.

I also, in my search, experienced doubt when I came across pictures where my head tilted sideways into the center of a group. Maybe my supposèd head tilt is just a result of me leaning towards other people in the picture? Well, the above picture with the chick in the dress disproves that hypothesis. I’m hugging the girl, but MY HEAD IS TILTED AWAY FROM HER. Despite the picture-taking gravity of the rest of the people in the picture (which is an accepted law of picture-taking physics), some still greater cosmic force tilted my head to the left the instant before that photo was taken. It’s like the “How I Met Your Mother” episode where they can’t take a bad picture of Barney. Except instead of looking at the picture a second after it was taken and I’m wearing a suit, you look and my head is turned inexplicably 180 degrees around like the girl in “The Exorcist”.

Basically this got me wondering what is wrong with my head. Not that facing-straight-forward is the best head position or anything. I don’t buy into head hegemony. No, I’m proud of my awkward gangliness, and I’m just going to be over here doing head yoga for the rest of ever to cure my neuroticism. But why? Is it because I sleep on the side? Because my core muscles aren’t strong enough? Or is it just some weird personality quirk? It’s like an actor tic, only it’s a… all-the-time tic. Well, a photo tic in any case.

There is one silver lining to this: at least the nice passport lady who was not Larry, as well as alerting me to my problem, also salvaged my passport photo. In fact, I look fly as fuck. Here’s how it turned out:

Awww look aren't I dapper?

(HA HA FLY AS FUCK see what I did there)

So there’s my new photo, which is currently being ground through the corporate wheels of the TSA after I spent a laborious morning watching “Tarzan” and “Finding Nemo” in the waiting room of the Willow Glen passport office in order to turn it in with my application. That is going to be my face for the next 10 years of my traveling life. I can live with that. I just hope they let me on planes despite the inaccurate head position.

Some pretty useless thoughts, and an insight that synthesizes them at the end

4 10 2011

^ that pretty much summed up my formula for all blog writing ^

But anyway.

1. I found out that my friend died today. I mean, I really should say “acquaintance”, because “friend” makes me sound much more shitrocked than I am. (I believe in keeping these things in perspective). But it’s incredibly surreal. Especially because I saw her walking in between classes just last week. I said hello, and she gave her usual sunny smile and exclaimed “Oh, hi! How’s your quarter going??” “Good,” I replied, and I didn’t have time to ask her about her quarter before we passed each other and had to keep walking in order to get to class on time. The encounter left me feeling lumpish and detached in a sort of douchebaggy way. If I passed her on campus now (which obviously I won’t), I feel like I would have to say something more. Hug her, not just wave. Ask her how she was doing and really listen. I would probably have been rewarded anyway, by her telling me about some awesome party she was planning to go to, and inviting me. Because Camila Lee was one of the most energetic, magnanimous, undiscriminatingly sweet people I know. She was half Brazilian, blond and willowy with perfect tan skin and white teeth and one eye that crumpled up too much when she smiled. She was frighteningly beautiful. But she didn’t care about her looks and she wasn’t ditzy. She lived every day with the sort of conviction that few people I know have the courage to. In short, she was full of life. Which makes her death – no, that sounds too historical; it happened two days ago which means that I don’t really have to believe that it happened yet – it makes the fact that she’s dead grossly ironic. Looking out my window as twilight gathers over the world, I can’t believe she is not one of the people in it. And it makes me feel uneasy. Because plain and simply, she should be.

2. What this makes me think about is living life to the fullest. And how I haven’t been doing it this year as much as I should. Maybe it’s partially the apartment. But it’s also partially the fact that I’m not doing plays this quarter, and that sort of sets me free in a frightening way. Last year I slowly let myself by engulfed by the world of theater (even though I knew I didn’t want to be “the theater guy” again). It became my safety net, and I have no regrets – I had some incredible experiences onstage, met some amazing friends through it, and was introduced to my first relationship, which probably did more than its fair share to make last year the best year of my life. But that relationship is over, and the fact that I didn’t get cast at all in this season of plays drives home a painfully clear message: Congratulations, you got your wish – you are not “the theater guy” anymore. But who am I, then? I’m a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. And I know I want to spend these years mastering a few, but going about it is a massive and terrifying task. I feel like I have to be very productive with my time. I need to live life to the fullest. I need to do it for Mila. But all my friends don’t live next door anymore, and life just doesn’t have the same energy level which last year I could ride when I wanted to get myself out there. This year I’ll have to make my own energy.

3. I’ve just been thinking about growing up in general. On my Birthright trip this summer I was placed with mostly 22 to 26-year-olds – in other words, college graduates. People with careers, lives, adult lives. Holy shit, is there really life after college? Social life, no less? Birthright didn’t vastly change my opinion of adults. Honestly, it both depressed me and gave me hope at the same time. Some of the people on our trip had lost their fire and gotten boring and normal; some people had crazy lives and were living the dream. It really depends. I’m not 100% social butterfly material, so a large part of me is vying against the life I want to live – a part of me that, as the wave of my adolescence crests and ebbs, is getting a little harder to eliminate. I know I can keep my craziness. But right now the immediacy of that task looms over me. And now are the years when I’m going to use it or lose it.

4. On the subject of staying interesting – drinking. I’ve always said that the key to becoming boring is to rely on drinking for fun. That’s the main difference between kids and adults. I’m afraid that me and my friends are slowly falling into that trap. That, more than anything, is what makes me afraid of growing up. When I’m trying to think of something to do on a weekend night, I wonder just a little too fast where there’s a party going on. I know that that’s the norm in the world but to me it’s deeply, deeply shameful. Last year two of my friends and I (while driving downtown to go to the beach on a weeknight jamming to 80’s music in the car) were talking about how, on the whole, seniors don’t seem that much happier than we do. “We just have to hold onto this feeling,” I said, and the enormity of what I had just said cemented the three of us into that moment forever. I’ve talked to one of my senior friends, and he says that once you turn 21 all you do is go to bars and mope. One of my main resolutions this year – at least, one that I sense is going to be important – is keeping on my toes with party creativity, sober or not.

5. This last thought starts out a bit off-topic. I’ve been thinking about where all my high school friends are now. I sort of view junior year of high school as the nucleus of my social life – ground zero, the golden year – and as I think of the ways in which my friends have diverged from the nucleus, I can see that all the schisms and splits have been caused by broken-off relationships. I can think of at least four really fiery, awful break-ups that totally redefined my group of friends. Now we’re well on our way into college, a lot of us know what we’re doing with our lives, and lurking some of the people involved in those breakups I can’t help but see how the breakups pushed them onward to dedicate themselves to productive things. It makes me think of the movie “The Adjustment Bureau”, where the agents of destiny tell the main character that his break-up with the girl of his dreams is supposed to create an empty void inside of him and spur him onward to become President of the United States. Some of my friends who had their hearts broken are now becoming massively successful, and I think it’s more than my imagination that makes me think that it started when they were jettisoned. Doesn’t that idea make you feel lonely? It makes me wonder, about all people who have been defined for the better by a big break-up: are they really happy now? Did they find what they were looking for? Is success revenge enough to fill that void inside? And in the aftermath of my own first relationship, which went pretty textbook how first relationships are supposed to go, I think of the questions: how will my big break-up redefine me? And will I ever be satisfied by any of the things it could inspire me to do, now that I know how much more there is?

So there. That’s my mood. Sort of a trying-to-live-life-to-the-fullest-but-not-doing-so-great, thinking about death, wondering about the aftermath of love, wondering about how great love is that it eclipses everything else that might be good and whether that’s worth it, wondering about how great drinking is that it eclipses everything else fun and knowing that it’s definitely not worth it, trying to find some new hobbies because theater was yesterday and theater is my memories of him and it’s not my haven anymore, trying to regain my zest for life while knowing that succeeding is incredibly important at this juncture in my life, sort of mood.

And I still have syntax homework.


So I guess I lied about the synthesis at the end of this post. Surprise! There’s no synthesis. Sorry for wasting five to ten minutes of your life. (now – how well would you really have spent those five to ten minutes?)