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Word for the Year

In 2017, I chose STRENGTH as my word of the year. It was two months since Trump had been elected, but still before the inauguration, before the Women's March, before I'd started a resistance group. I hadn't started working yet, but I knew there was work to do, so much work, and I felt that I needed to be strong, resolute, enduring in order to do what had to be done. I knew that over the coming year I would get tired and would at times despair—and, indeed, that did happen. The word I chose was meant to be a reminder, a mantra to repeat when exhaustion set in, a way for me to push through, to keep fighting.

Yet although I had worked hard throughout the year, often speaking to myself and others about the need to fight, to resist, the metaphor of combat never really fit for me. Anger, rage, fury—these are words that I'd see over and over from others, but they're not emotions I can sustain. And although I felt and continue to feel that it is important not to shy away from struggle, that adversity and challenge bring the opportunity for growth, and that the work still yet to do is necessary even though it is difficult, it is not enough for me to be defined simply by struggle. Maybe this works for other people. It doesn't for me.

Ultimately, what I needed was not strength or force of arms to overcome. Nor did that outlook match my principles or my approach to leadership, if “leadership” is the right word for what I did—I'm still uncomfortable with how grandiose it sounds. I set myself some ground rules from the beginning: that I would present myself as a resource, not an authority figure; that I would speak my truth and offer what information I had, but not tell anyone what to do, nor even try to persuade anyone to change their minds; that I would ask for help when I needed it, but never make demands, and I would accept it when people refused my requests; and above all that I would always aim for kindness, respect, and understanding. None of this was meant to be high-minded—or at least not mainly—nor did I always live up to what I had set out to do. I just knew that this approach would make it easier for me than feeling frustrated or despondent when people didn't do what I wanted, which of course they could and did.

In thinking about what word I would choose for 2018, I imagined a rock in the ocean, around which the tide flowed and onto which the waves crashed, but which was itself unmoved. But when I described this to others, the words they thought of—“resolute,” “stoic,” “enduring"”were closer to what I had felt I needed last year than what I wanted for this year. That isn't to say that they didn't fit the image. They did. So perhaps the image was incorrect. Or at least incomplete.

What I'm looking for in 2018 is acceptance without passivity. Calm and quietness of mind and spirit; peace, but not appeasement. To stand for what is right, but to forgive myself for my shortcomings, as I forgive others for theirs. Forgiveness without capitulation or condescension. Empathy. Kindness.

My word for 2018 is GRACE.

58 Things That Mattered to Me in 2017

Every Friday—or, at least, as many Fridays as I can manage—I write a list of things that mattered to me over the preceding week, and then I share that list on social media. I started doing this last summer, just as a way of shouting out the people who helped make my life a little better, and it’s something I’ve enjoyed doing from the beginning. It helps keep me positive and makes me consider a bit more closely the pieces of media and culture that I consume. This year, though, it felt a little more urgent to me to make these lists, a little more defiant, perhaps. It feels a little grandiose to say that these lists were an act of resistance, but if nothing else, 2017 has given me a lot of opportunity to think about what kind of world I’d like to live in, and what I can contribute. It’s a small thing, these lists, but they help me, and I hope that other people find them useful as well.

Over the course of this year, I shared over 200 essays, poems, articles, and bits of pop culture in my weekly round-ups. But there were others that didn’t quite fit, or for which I couldn’t find a link. And, looking back, some have stuck with me more than others. But I wanted to take some time and share some of the things that did stick. It’s not an exhaustive list of everything I read or saw or did in 2017, nor of everything that was good or important. Some of the things were new when I encountered them, some were quite old, but they were all new to me, and perhaps they’ll be new to you as well. In any event, here are 58 things that mattered to me this year, presented in roughly chronological order:

  1. “When I think of wearing a kimono, I think of every way I have failed.” Rowan Hisayo Buchanan wrote that line in her essay “The Woman Scared of Her Own Kimono,” and it summed up a lot about my own relationship to my ancestral culture. I read a lot of essays about diasporic and mixed-race experiences in 2017, but this was one of the first, and one of those that I continued to think of most over the course of the year.

  2. There was a lot on Thundercat’s album Drunk that I liked, but hearing Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins show up in the song “Show You the Way” brought me back to my childhood in the best possible way.

  3. The first time I read Eve Ewing’s poem “to the notebook kid” I thought about it from the perspective of the student she describes, dreaming past the situation he’s in. The second time, I thought about it from the perspective of the teacher who sees that kid, and I thought about the students I worked with way back when. Every time I’ve read it, there’s been something new to it. That’s something, I think.

  4. So much has been written about Moonlight and there were so many memorable things about it. What I think about most is the ache and hunger in Black’s eyes when he looks at Kevin as they talk in the diner.

  5. I loved Moana for a lot of reasons: for the music, for getting to see a Disney story led by a woman of color, for that woman getting to have her own story without reference to a love interest. But, honestly, the thing I love most is hearing my now-three-year-old daughter belting “I am Moana!!!!” at the top of her lungs.

  6. “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, is perhaps the most romantic, tenderest, and most devastating thing I’ve ever read about love.

  7. In March, Hanif Abdurraqib shared Kim Dower’s poem “He said I wrote about death” to Twitter, saying “excuse my language friends but this poem fucked me up.” It did that to me, too.

  8. I like Noah Cho a lot, just as a person, and I have liked having the chance to talk to him and get to know him better this year. His piece “How My Parents Met” was wonderful, full of both warmth and longing.

  9. I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite episode of The Poetry Gods podcast’s second season. I’m going to link the third episode here, the one featuring Patricia Smith, but honestly they’re all great.

  10. Alyssa Wong’s short story “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” was nominated for a Hugo this year. The story was fantastic, and also introduced me to her bibliography, something I’m glad about.

  11. I found my endurance flagging at several points in the year. Ada Limón’s poem “Instructions on Not Giving Up”came to me at a very opportune moment, and helped me keep going.

  12. “How to Write Iranian-American, or the Last Essay,” by Porochista Khakpour. It’s about the way that the world will take from you, and try to make you into what it needs from you, when you are a marginalized person. I wonder how many people reading this saw themselves in it, and how many saw something entirely new to them.

  13. Levar Burton launched a new podcast this year that people described as “Reading Rainbow for adults.” Levar Burton Reads was that, and it was delightful. It also gave me the spark for what may be my next project, but that’s another story and shall be told another time.

  14. One of the best and most exciting things about podcasts is the possibility of giving you a look into worlds and experiences that might otherwise be inaccessible to you. Or, conversely, the prospect of seeing your own community presented and represented in a way you never have before. For me, Ear Hustle was the former, presenting slices of life from inside San Quentin prison. But I have to imagine that for some other people it must have been the latter as well, not least for the inmates themselves. Anyway, it was really good.

  15. I enjoyed a lot of Devin Gael Kelly’s writing this year, and I’m very much looking forward to his new book of poems, In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen. The first piece of his that I read—this year or ever—was his essay “Running Toward My Father,” which was beautiful.

  16. I got to see a lot of acts of protest and resistance this year, both in person and online. The most beautiful was this one.

  17. Another new podcast to me this year was WMFA. I really enjoyed the conversations and the focus on craft. One episode I especially enjoyed was the episode with Hanif Abdurraqib. On a personal note, I’ve also enjoyed getting to know the show’s host, Courtney Balestier, with whom I’m now collaborating on a new project.

  18. I had a hard time picking out just one piece of Brandon Taylor’s writing to share with you. I sincerely love everything I’ve read by him. One example, his short story “Grace.”

  19. My kids and I have been watching Steven Universe together for a while now, and it’s one of my favorite things. The official soundtrack was released over the summer, and it’s become a sing-along staple in our family.

  20. If you’ve listened to my podcast or even just hung around me for any length of time, you’ll know that Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You was life-changing for me. This year she released her second book, Little Fires Everywhere, and it was absolutely a highlight of my reading year.

  21. Maggie Smith’s book Good Bones was lovely—like the title poem, the collection acknowledges the darkness but turns its face toward the light.

  22. I’m not sure I can quite articulate why I loved this breakdown of Sammo Hung's movies as much as I did, but I really did.

  23. In “If What I Mean Is Hummingbird, If What I Mean Is Fall Into My Mouth,” Natalie Diaz wrote about language and identity and history and poetry, and it was pretty amazing.

  24. We got my son a Switch for his birthday, though I admit that I was as excited to play with it myself as I was to give it to him. The opening scene of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, when Link walks up to the overlook and the music comes up for the first time, transported me. More than that, though, getting to play through at the same time as my son, and connecting with him over our experiences in the game, was something I’ve been waiting for for a long time.

  25. The poem “Wildlife,” by William Evans, about death and parenting, and dealing with both as a black person in America.

  26. The images in Michael Marcelle’s “Kokomo” series were weird and unsettling in the best way. That first image in particular has stayed with me the whole year.

  27. “The Paper Menagerie,” by Ken Liu, was such a wonderful story. In looking over this list, it seems that some common themes came up for me this year, in particular family and culture and language. God this was good.

  28. When I talked with Maggie Smith about her book for my podcast this year, she told me about Katherine Fahey’s “crankie” animations, in particular one called “Francis Whitmore’s Wife.” Beautiful and haunting.

  29. This isn’t a terribly profound thing to say but, damn, Baby Driver was a lot of fun. Right from the get-go.

  30. Spider-Man: Homecoming was fun, too, and I think it’s safe to say that it was my favorite Spider-Man movie ever. The scene that sticks in my mind the most, though, wasn't fun. It comes toward the end of the movie, when Peter is stuck under a pile of rubble. At first he calls out for someone to help him, but no one is there and he has to find the strength to get out on his own. More than any other Spider-Man movie I can recall, this one really drives home that Peter Parker really is a kid.

  31. I read and talked a lot about food as a cultural touchstone and food as heritage this year (and last year, if memory serves). Dongwon Song’s essay “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Eat the Damn Eyeball” was particularly good on that topic.

  32. “The Story of the DuckTales Theme, History’s Catchiest Single Minute of Music,” by Darryn King, was a great piece of nostalgia for me. And getting to watch the new series (and sing the theme song) with my kids was great.

  33. “A Map of Lost Things: On Family, Grief, and the Meaning of Home,” by Jamila Osman, about home, connection to place, to land, to people, about family, about loss. Such a beautiful piece.

  34. I’m not sure if “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is exactly my favorite of Amal El-Mohtar’s short stories, only because I don’t think I could pick a favorite—I’ve loved every single one I’ve read, each in its own way. But it was the first one I read, and the one that led me to all the others I read this year, so it has a certain exalted position in my mind.

  35. It’s kind of remarkable to me how before last year I’d never read any fiction that resonated with me in terms of Asian-American representation. You can see from this list that this is no longer the case. I first encountered Laura Chow Reeve’s story “1000-Year-Old Ghosts” on Levar Burton Reads, and I just loved the mixture of magic and food and family.

  36. I read the first two books of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy back-to-back, after the second one came out last year. The concluding volume, The Stone Sky, finished the story off in a way that couldn’t have been more perfect, for me anyway.

  37. I started listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat last spring, and it carried me through most of the year. I loved (and continue to love) that music dearly, but by the time the show swept through the Tonys I had more or less resigned myself to the idea that I’d never get to see it in person. But, in a total surprise to me, J and ten or so of our family members pooled their resources to get me tickets to see the touring production in Los Angeles, which they gave me for my birthday. We went to see it in September, and I started crying as soon as the house lights dimmed, and kept crying through most of the first act, and then cried again at “Burn” and then all the way through the finale. It was, without exaggeration, the best gift I’ve ever received.

  38. I loved José Olivarez’s poem “(citizen) (illegal).” I can’t wait for his forthcoming book of the same title.

  39. UNC law professor Eric Muller did a limited-run podcast this year called Scapegoat Cities, about the Japanese-American Internment. I found it gratifying that someone would take the time to tell these stories, which are beginning to be lost from living memory. And they were done quite well, too, I thought.

  40. I have gotten pretty down on tech lately, which I suppose is odd for a person who makes his living as an electrical engineer. But there are still ways that technology and scientific endeavors manage to bring a sense of wonder to me, and one time that happened this year was getting to look through these photographs from the Cassini mission.

  41. “A Nest of Ghosts, a House of Birds,” by Kat Howard, was just lovely.

  42. I love Mallory Ortberg’s writing in a way that makes me vibrate with happiness every time I get to read something new from her. Her Shatner Chatner newsletter (and the subsequent website) brought me so much joy over the course of the year. But for all that, the piece of hers that I loved the most this year was “When Every Bra Size is Wrong.” Because getting the chance to be happy for someone who makes you happy is simply wonderful.

  43. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Nicole Chung this year, who edited my first-ever paid essay. The reason I was so excited is in part because of pieces like this: “On American Identity, the Election, and Family Members Who Support Trump.” I admire the hell out of her.

  44. Speaking of people I admire, Martha Crawford wrote some amazing personal essays for her blog this year, of which my favorite was definitely “Dancing in the Graveyard,” about dreams, symbols, the collective unconscious, mortality, and Geoffrey Holder.

  45. After the announcement that Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel, I went back and read his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, a story that I found haunting and tricky in all of the ways that I love about Ishiguro’s writing. But the thing I think most about Ishiguro’s Nobel is actually not about him at all, but rather a Twitter thread that Kenny Coble posted about what Ishiguro’s work meant to him.

  46. Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s debut poetry collection, Peluda, was funny and poignant and ultimately triumphant. I loved it.

  47. The first line of Tricia Gahagan’s artist statement for her photo series “11:11 Mirroring Consciousness” reads “How often do we pause and pay attention to the messages the world is mirroring back to us?” The photographs themselves made me gasp when I first saw them. The images were so perfect for my aesthetic, but also not something I think I could ever have done.

  48. There’s a scene somewhere in the middle of The Florida Project where Moonee and one of her friends come out from under a tree where they’ve been sheltering from the rain, and step into a green pasture where some cows are placidly chewing. I recognized something in the color and the sudden quiet and calm, a sense of awe and the sublime that I used to feel when I was a kid, but which I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe at the time.

  49. I saw Christina Riley at the Medium Festival this year, where she was participating in the portfolio reviews. It was great catching up with her, and seeing the prototype of the book she’s making of her “Born” series, a series I’ve been watching take shape for some time now, and about which I’m very excited.

  50. Dimas Ilaw wrote about the nightmare happening in the Philippines in his piece “The Shape of the Darkness As It Overtakes Us.” It puts into perspective our own political situation, and shows us what the stakes are. He tells us, too, about both the necessity and limitations of hope, and the value of continuing to make art in such an environment.

  51. Isobel O’Hare’s erasure poems “What We Know About Men” took powerful men’s statements about their alleged sexual harassment and assault, and transformed them into something else. That’s a powerful act, I think, and one I’m heartened by.

  52. The newest podcast I’ve been listening to—and one of my favorites—is Carvell Wallace’s show Closer Than They Appear. In it, Wallace talks to celebrities, family members, old friends, doctors, journalists and others about the state of America. That description makes it sound like any number of other articles and books and podcasts out there, but the way he does it is unlike anything else I’ve ever heard, personal and honest and both broad and specific.

  53. Both J and I cried when we watched Coco. Whew, what a beautiful movie.

  54. I’ve only read one of J. Y. Yang’s Tensorate novellas so far: The Black Tides of Heaven. The world-building, the sibling relationship, the presentation of gender, it’s all so fresh and well done, and it has me very excited to read The Red Threads of Fortune, not to mention the ones that are still forthcoming.

  55. I’ve been wrestling with Sofia Samatar’s essay “Why You Left Social Media: A Guesswork” for several weeks now. I think there’s an essential truth in there that I’m maybe just not ready for yet, but I think I’ll get there.

  56. There’s a scene in Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird in which Sister Sarah Joan, one of the nuns at the Catholic school the title character attends, is talking to Lady Bird about her college application essay. She suggests that Lady Bird must love Sacramento, which Lady Bird finds surprising. She (Lady Bird) replies “I guess I pay attention,” to which Sister Sarah Joan asks, “Are those not the same thing?” I loved the whole movie, but I especially loved that scene.

  57. Just this week, J and I took a short trip up to San Francisco by ourselves, and while we were there we saw Call Me By Your Name. We both loved the movie. The conversation between Elio and his dad (if you’ve seen the movie, you know which one I mean) just destroyed me.

  58. Finally, one of my favorite things in the world is reading to my kids, and this year I’ve gotten to revisit some of my own childhood favorites with them—The Lord of the Rings with my nine-year-old son and The Wizard of Oz and Charlotte’s Web with my six-year-old daughter were particularly fun for me (and them). Earlier tonight as I’m writing this, my son and I finished the last Harry Potter novel. It was wonderful.

As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me. I know that there’s a lot of work to do in 2018, but I feel that we’re up to the task. I’m looking forward to it. Here’s wishing you (and all of us) a safe, happy, and prosperous new year.

Touch

Photo of a streetlamp, a fire hydrant, and a tree, at night

I took a course in electromagnetism when I was a sophomore in college—I turned out not to have much aptitude for physics but it was required. I often think about a little throwaway moment from the first day of class, in which the professor described electromagnetic force as being the one we’re most aware of interacting with. That, in fact, due to electromagnetism, we were all actually hovering a tiny distance above the atoms in our chairs. For years, that image would pop into my head unbidden: the infinitesimal but real space between our fingertips and the object our our desire, separating us, insulating us, sequestering us forever, an uncrossable gap.

I’m given to a touch of melodrama, I suppose.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about language, perhaps because I’ve been reading Sofia Samatar’s novel A Stranger in Olondria. About the profound weirdness of sitting alone in a quiet room, my mind full of sounds and images thought up and preserved by someone in a completely different place and time. But even beyond the written word, I’m thinking about how, by making noises with your mouth, you can induce a brain state in me such that we are both essentially thinking the same thing. We are, for a moment, in sync. I’m thinking that I don’t know whether there is a soul or if what I am is a series of electrical patterns running from one neuron to the next, but that either way, language allows you to literally change me. And even though none of these ideas are particularly novel, or really even any deeper than what I might have rambled about while getting high after reading Kant for the first time as an undergraduate, there’s something comforting about the idea that our minds can touch, even if the particles of our bodies might not.

I have the feeling that the preceding paragraphs are ones that my future self is going to find insufferable and embarrassing, in much the same way that reading posts from the beginning of my blog make me want to set myself on fire. But it’s been a hell of a year, demoralizing and alienating, and perhaps I might be forgiven for grasping at any little thing that helps me feel connected to the rest of humanity.

Has it really been so bad? I mean, it has insofar as I can’t remember ever being so worried about the future, but there’s been so much to be thankful for as well. So many evenings spent reading to my kids, so many afternoons spent in engaging conversation with friends new or old, so many times I held my wife’s hand, even if neither of us said anything. The most insidious thing about 2017 is how it has convinced me to forget all of that and focus on the loneliness.

There’s so much to be angry about, but I’m not great at being angry. When I was younger I could nurse rage and resentment for days, weeks maybe, but I can’t sustain it anymore. And somehow I still believe—perhaps naively—that there’s a way out of all of this, and that art and stories and empathy and connection can help get us there. I don’t mean to say that hugging my kids or reading a good book or taking time for introspection over a cup of tea is going to save our democracy or end racism or keep capitalism from crushing us all. I mean that one way or another what will carry me through, what will last, what will always matter are the ways that I’ve been close to someone else.

Is there something that has made you feel less alone recently? I’d love to hear about it, if you’re willing to share.

Crayfish

Photo of a crayfish

My son has a pet crayfish. Which, I suppose, is another way of saying that I have a pet crayfish. This isn't something I was expecting to ever say. But then, my experience of parenthood can more or less be summed up by the fact that I have an actual list of "Things I Never Thought I'd Say."

Red—that is the crayfish's name, and also its color, more or less—came to live with us in May, having previously been part of my son's third-grade unit on life science. He (my son assures me that Red is male) spends most of his time lying around on his side, a disconcerting habit in an animal that lacks eyelids, making it look like he is constantly dying or already dead. When I see him doing that, I tap on the side of his aquarium, my finger making a dull, ringing thump on the plastic, and Red immediately rights himself and either brandishes his tiny pincers at me or scurries into the little flowerpot we've provided him for "privacy." These are Red's three general states of being: depressive malaise, ridiculous bravado, and hiding in darkness. Which, when I put it that way actually makes the smelly little creature kind of relatable.

When I was a kid, a few years younger than my son is now, we lived in a cabin in Bixby Canyon, maybe a mile or so in along the canyon floor from where the creek ran under the famous bridge that causes so many traffic problems now, lines of parked cars a quarter mile in each direction as the tourists jockey for a spot to take the same exact photograph as the people they're elbowing out of the way, hundreds of them every day. There weren't so many of them back then, but either way we had our own little bridge as well, though ours was just a little wooden foot bridge and not a historic concrete arch. The creek ran through our front yard, and in the shadows cast by that little foot bridge, under the rocks, there were rainbow trout and crayfish, though we called them crawdads. We would pass the time, sometimes, by tearing up slices of American cheese, rolling the bits into balls and dropping them over the side of the bridge to feed the trout and the crawdads. The first time I saw my mother's boyfriend doing that, I thought he was throwing pebbles at them. I tossed in a big rock, which made a satisfying splash before it crushed one of the crawdads. I got a spanking for that.

We lived in that cabin about a year, from one winter to the next. I learned a lot of things that year. I learned which spots in the creek the crawdads liked to lurk in, and how if I dipped a blade of long grass in front of them, they'd grab it and wouldn't let go even after I pulled them out of the water. I learned what crawdads taste like when my mother's boyfriend decided to take us to a different part of the creek and showed us how to catch a whole bucketful, how they turn bright red when you boil them, how to tear the tails off and suck the meat out. I learned that sometimes my mom's boyfriend would be interested and affectionate with us, and sometimes he would be sullen or angry, but I never quite learned what would make the difference, or how to anticipate his moods. I eventually learned that I wasn't responsible for his moods, but not that year.

I asked my son the other day if he loved Red. He thought about it for a second, then cocked his head and said "No, but I'll still be sad when he dies." It seems like this is our main interaction with Red apart from feeding him and changing his water once a week—that is, waiting for him to die. Crayfish can live several years according to what we looked up online, but what we heard from teachers and other kids' parents was that they usually only last a few weeks after the kids take them home, and, indeed, Red has already outlived the rest of his third-grade science class cohort. It seems a little strange to me, sometimes, that the boy is so attached to this creature that gives so little back, but this is what he's like. He cares. I think sometimes that he's better than I am, and that's a good feeling.

Thoughts After a Weekend Full of Art

Photo of tea stains inside a travel mug

On Sunday afternoon I wandered away from my tour group and sat by myself at a picnic table in front of the San Diego Museum of Art, and ate a wrap I’d bought from a cart and finished reading A Pale View of Hills. Most likely if I had asked some of the other people with me if I could join them, or if they’d like to join me, they’d have said yes, and I felt that perhaps I ought to have done that, but it was nice to have the time to myself.

Every year I look forward to the Medium Festival of Photography, four glorious days of art and discussion and camaraderie, my favorite event in this or really any town. Beforehand, I count down the days, and afterwards I am filled with longing for the kind of connection I’ve just had, the experience of finally being among my people. It’s wonderful and it’s exhausting.

I’m at my best, I think, when I’m able to celebrate my peers. This friend has a solo museum exhibition, that friend has an amazing new book, this one just had a great interaction with a reviewer, that one sold both of his prints within half an hour of the show opening, and I’m thrilled. My friends’ successes make me feel like a part of something bigger than myself, like things are actually right with the world, and I wonder why I can’t feel that way about my own successes, why I feel embarrassed when someone asks to see my work, why I feel the need to apologize when, afterwards, they thank me and pay me a compliment. Why do I feel the need to make myself small? Why is it hard for me to admit that I’m proud of my own work?

It’s the strangest thing in the world to exult and shrink in the same moment.

Of course it’s not about the work, it’s always just me. In truth, I’m past feeling insecure about my photographs. I know what I’m trying to do with my images and my books, and why, and I believe that I have done what I set out to do, and done it well. Honestly, I think I’m good at what I do, and I don’t much care if people don’t like the work. It’s not the rejection that hurts, it’s the acceptance.

If it sounds like the weekend has been difficult for me and not like it was a joyful, inspiring, glorious experience, it’s because I’m doing a poor job of describing it, obsessing about details instead of filling in the whole scene. I got to spend four days swimming in art, filling my lungs with it, dancing with it until I collapsed in exhaustion only to begin again the next morning. I made new friends and reconnected with old ones, I had some amazing conversations, and received so much kindness from people who don’t owe me anything. If I am unable to simply bask in such warmth, it is a shortcoming of mine, not of the place or people with whom I spent the time.

If my twenties were a process of coming to terms with and accepting a comforting sense of mediocrity, then perhaps my thirties have been the process of letting that go. My forties aren’t too far off. It’ll be interesting to see how they go.

Narrative

I realized the other day that most of my favorite TinyLetters are written by people much younger than me. There’s a feeling of incipience and urgency that I enjoy reading but struggle to find in my own narrative lately.

There’s a way in which middle age—and if I’m being honest with myself, that’s where I should rightly place myself these days—seems to resemble the heat death of the universe. That is to say, one hypothetical fate of the universe is to reach an eternal steady state in which entropy is maximized and nothing happens anymore, and each moment is indistinguishable from the one just before or just after. This is how life feels sometimes once you’ve moved past your youth. Being young has a built-in sense of direction, of growth, of motion. You feel you are building toward something, even if you don’t know what that something is—at least, that is how I felt. But eventually you settle into a routine, and your life becomes what it is. From day to day, week to week, year to year, nothing much happens to distinguish the current moment from any other.

This isn’t true, of course. It just feels true, probably due to a short attention span. Mind you, this has always been true, but lately, reminders of this untruth have tended to smack me in the face.

My 20th high school reunion was a few weeks ago, and I had a surprisingly good time. For most of my life I’ve had a lot of social anxiety and the prospect of having to make small talk always makes me squirm, but the combination of having hosted an interview podcast for nearly two years, and the realization that I was legitimately interested in hearing people’s stories made the night quite enjoyable. Now, I had expected to hear a lot about what my classmates had been up to for the past two decades—and that did, indeed, happen—but what I wasn’t prepared for was hearing so many recollections about myself. Especially ones I had forgotten.

I wrote about this a couple of years ago for my blog, how people can have such different memories of an event, and how the meaning of those memories shape our lives. It’s jarring, to say the least, to realize that the story you tell about yourself is incomplete. I tend to see my adolescent self as fundamentally self-absorbed, usually well-meaning but sometimes petty or cruel—which is to say: a teenager—and generally unremarkable. That so many people not only remembered me, but remembered specific kindnesses I’d shown them or specific times I’d helped them or done right by them, it shook me. Not just because the edges around the holes in my memory have the same texture as the edges of my existence, but because it forces me to reevaluate the things I want to believe about myself now.

One of the most freeing realizations I’ve had in my life was how comfortable mediocrity is. This epiphany came after failing the first exam I took in college, which was shocking but also felt a bit like flying—to this day, I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed harder or longer than the day I got my score back on that test. Excellence has its comforts, too, but it comes with responsibility. Mediocrity places no demands. And if unimportance takes the shine off of my achievements, it also takes the sting out of the harm I’ve caused. You have to matter to someone in order to hurt them.

After the party I drove a friend back to his hotel room, and on the way he told me stories about how good a friend I’d been to him, back in the day. I wanted to argue with him, to tell him that I was nothing special, then or now. I wanted to insist, and by insisting, to take away something from his story, something which he treasures. What would I take from anyone to keep myself comfortable, to avoid the responsibility of living up to being something? I kept my insistence to myself, and sat and listened to his stories, and gave him a hug before we parted.

This isn’t ending where it began, which I suppose is appropriate. I’m learning. At least, I’m trying.

This Is It

Photo of a small star sticker on a white wall

At about 4:30 this morning, my son wandered into my bedroom and told me that he'd had a bad dream. He said that he had been running away from Voldemort, that Voldemort had been killing everybody around him and he had to get away, and then he woke up. I let him lie down between me and my wife, and within a few seconds he was asleep again.

An hour and a half later, my alarm went off. I rolled over and picked up my phone from where it lay on my nightstand, to be greeted by a whole night's worth of push notifications from different news services. Each new message told a story worse than the last—first a warning about an active shooter, then two dead, then twenty, then fifty. I put the phone down, turned and reached down to where my son lay, still warm and unaware. I put my hand on his back and he stirred. "Time to get up, buddy," I said. He stretched and sat up. I didn't tell him what I'd just read, nor his sisters. I don't think I will. That they don't have to be burdened with such horror is a privilege, of course.

I don't believe in magic. It has nevertheless been years since the last time a nightmare sent my son seeking comfort and reassurance from me or his mother in the middle of the night. That the image which so terrified him was of crowds of people running while a dark figure indiscriminately snuffed out lives all around him is... Well, it's the kind of thing that makes me wonder about coincidences.

The thing that hurts the most about a day like today, like any of these days with which we have all become so unfortunately familiar, is the certain knowledge that the world is like this because that's how people want it to be. Oh, sure, they may profess shock or grief on a day like this one, but still nothing happens, nothing changes. Not when a man stormed into an elementary school and killed twenty children. Not when an avowed racist looking to start a race war entered a church and killed nine people. Not when a police officer shot and killed an unarmed 12-year-old on camera.

Is it just guns? No, of course not. White supremacists march openly through the town square and the President makes excuses while well-meaning onlookers wrap themselves in the First Amendment and "tut tut" about campus protests. Houston, Florida, and now Puerto Rico—not to mention all of those other Caribbean islands—are demolished by successive hurricanes, but of course millions of Americans still believe that climate change is a hoax, including the head of the EPA. Closer to my home, a local Congressman is calling for war with North Korea. And city officials twiddled their thumbs for months while a hepatitis outbreak ballooned and claimed lives, only bothering to take action when the deaths made national news. (Meanwhile, of course, the amount of affordable, or even available, housing continues to fall in the area, jagged rocks are still under most of our overpasses, and now the city is clearing the streets without giving the homeless anywhere to go.) Nothing changes.

Let's not pretend that this isn't who we are. This is it. We have the money and the means to make life better, to protect those who need protecting, to save the planet. We know what we need to do, if not to solve our problems then at least to improve them. But we don't, because in our hearts we don't want to. Because whether it's guns or oil or property values or white supremacy, no price is too high to keep things comfortable for those who aren't already suffering. Because having to admit that solutions are available would mean admitting that we're part of the problem. The greatest source of harm in this world isn't greed, it's the inability to tolerate any amount of emotional discomfort.

After my kids left for school this morning, feeling heavy and sliding toward despair at the morning's news, I headed into the bathroom to get cleaned up for work. I noticed a small shape on the wall, about waist level to my three-year-old, a tiny red star no larger than two grains of rice stuck together. And for a brief moment, things didn't seem so bad. There is, as always, yet innocence and beauty and simple joy in the world. No joy is ever quite so pure as that of a toddler with a sticker, and how seductive that feeling is when all is wrong with the world. How I'd love to stay there in that space. Who wouldn't? But that would be giving up, just as surely as would despairing.

I don't have any answers. I never have. I don't know how to make people care. At least, not enough to make them take an honest look in the mirror and change. Do I even care enough? I don't know. I just know that I'm sad and angry and tired as hell.

I close so many letters or lists or threads by saying "I wish you peace." And I do. And I want to say that now. But the truth is that there will be no peace unless we make it, and we can't do that without struggle, without discomfort. I keep thinking that people will get there eventually. I hope we do. Me, too.

Six Years

Dear Eva,

We had your birthday party this past weekend, but today is your birthday. Your party was pretty great, though. You were tired by the end of the day, after all of the dancing and playing and hollering and hugging, but when you went to bed you said you'd had a great day. I'm glad.

You've had another big year. Kindergarten was a breeze for you, and your teacher constantly talked about how smart and hard-working you are. Now you're in first grade and I know you're going to do just as well. You had your first dance recital over the summer, too, and you were one of the best ones from your class. You take things seriously and always do your best, but you also know how to have fun and relax, too, whether that's curling up on a chair in the living room with an iPad and your favorite YouTube channel, or whether it's having your friends over for a play date. (You had your first sleepover this year, too, and that was great fun.)

I'm always proud of you for how much you care about doing things well and doing the right thing. Mostly, though, I'm happy to get to spend time with you, either reading with you or, lately, watching So You Think You Can Dance together. You're a really great kid, and I'm lucky to be your dad.

Happy birthday, my girl. I love you.


Soundtrack: "Wildrunners (With Oohs)" by Hugo Hans. Licensed from Marmoset Music.

(Briefly) Empty Nest

Photo of a teddy bear on a child's bed

When he was a puppy, our dog slept beside our bed, just within reach of my fingertips if I let my arm hang down from under the blankets. Then, when our son was born, the dog moved into his room and helped keep bad dreams away while the boy slept. But ever since our first daughter was born, and now, still, with three kids in the house, he sleeps in the hallway, the better to keep watch over the entire family each night.

This week the kids—all three of them—are hundreds of miles away, visiting their grandparents. The dog is still sleeping in the hallway, though. Perhaps he wonders where they are. Perhaps he feels some stress over not being able to protect them. Some day none of them will live here anymore, but, already almost eleven years old, it's unlikely that the dog will live long enough to see even the first of them go.

This is a melancholy thought, but it's not at all out of character for me.

With the kids away and me being out of the office, I've had few responsibilities for the past week. Notwithstanding the relentless march of terrible news, this should be a time for me to enjoy myself. And it has—J and I have eaten at interesting restaurants, seen some good movies, visited art exhibitions, and even spent one afternoon wine-tasting. Both of us have also spent time working on personal projects. In a lot of ways it's been glorious.

Over and over, though, I keep thinking about how hard it's going to hit me when the kids finally move out for real. How this is, in fact, the goal of parenting: to prepare your children to go out into the world and leave you behind. How brief the time is that you get to have them close. How some day they will all be too big for me to lift and hold in my arms, and how I most likely won't even notice the last time I do so.

While they've been gone, J and I dismantled our youngest's crib and took it and the rocking chair out of her room, and replaced them with a real bed. The crib went to J's sister's house, where in a few months it will belong to our newest nephew, after he's born. The rocker very nearly went to Goodwill, but at the last minute J changed her mind, realizing that she couldn't part with it yet. I'm nearly always sentimentally attached to objects, but J almost never is. There's something powerful, though, that both of us feel about the fact that we no longer have babies in the house. For nine years we've been comforting our children in that chair, reading to them, singing to them, lulling them to sleep. It's a lot to move on from. We'll get there, but not just yet.

A couple of days ago I went into my son's empty room, lay down on the bed, and just stared at the ceiling for a while. He has two Pokémon posters taped up there, and a paper Christmas tree from 2012, a few splashes of color against an otherwise plain, white background. His room still had the slightly musty, slightly sweet smell of boy, and I wondered how long it would take for it to completely fade. It struck me how strange and melodramatic and possibly creepy I was being, but it was still another minute or two before I got up.

The kids will be home tomorrow, bringing with them all the joys and aggravations that kids do. I can't wait.

Three Years

Dear Mary,

As I write this letter, you are asleep, having spent the day running and playing and having lots of fun. Earlier this evening, you and I sat next to each other when we went to a restaurant for dinner, and just before the food came you climbed into my lap—completely unprompted—and let me give you a hug and a kiss. It was a surprise, albeit a pleasant one—most of the time when I ask if I can give you a hug or kiss you say no. But, honestly, this is one of the things I love about you, that you have a sense of your personal boundaries and that you are independent and strong-willed.

You've had a big year. This was the year of your first dance recital, the year you discovered CookieSwirlC, the year you learned the words to every song from the soundtracks to Moana and Steven Universe, and the year you started potty training. You always have a ton of energy in everything you do, and you've been proud of your accomplishments, and for good reason! In the fall you'll be starting pre-school, and you're looking forward to it already. You're smart, funny, and very strong, and I know you're going to do great.

Happy birthday, Mary. I love you, my big girl!


Soundtrack: "It's Well (Instrumental)" by Bekah Shae. Licensed from Audiosocket.
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