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Scattered

  1. Art about happiness or joy—or any sort of positivity, really—is usually dismissed as corny or sappy or saccharine or sentimental. But, really, isn’t this just a form of anxiety about being vulnerable?
  2. I tend to understand art as the product of a set of decisions made by the artist, each decision having been made for a reason. I find myself captivated by the desire to understand those reasons, and even if it’s not possible to unambiguously arrive at that understanding, I feel like there’s something valuable in the attempt.
  3. Still, I can never help but think about Whitman. “Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the earth much? / Have you practis'd so long to learn to read? / Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?”
  4. So often when I talk to people above a certain age—and by that I suppose I mean people past middle school—they talk about what we’ve lost as a society. There’s this anxiety about what we are becoming, about whether humanity will eventually be something they don’t recognize. Maybe that will happen, and maybe it won’t, but humanity is bigger than what any one person can do anything about.
  5. My grandmother used to talk often about how her father was a poet, how one of his poems was put on a monument along with a poem by Bashō. My great-grandfather’s pen name was Kanji, which is the word for the characters used in Japanese writing. I’ve never seen one of his poems, and if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to read them. I don’t know where that monument is, or if it’s even still there. My grandmother has trouble remembering my name now.
  6. I wonder a lot about what it means that the culture that is supposed to be mine, my heritage—as though culture is something inherited and not lived, but that’s another story—is one that I can only ever experience in translation.
  7. The other day as I was driving home I had an epiphany, which seems an embarrassingly grandiose word to use. I had an idea, let’s say, about how to finally finish a project that has been collecting dust on my work table for the past eighteen months. It’s funny how such a small detail can seem so earth-shattering. By the time I got home, my hands were shaking and I felt sick to my stomach.
  8. Every day when I am alone in my car, perhaps driving to or from work, or on my way to pick up one of my kids from some activity, I see some photograph I’d like to make, but either because of time or safety, I don’t. Every time this happens, it feels both tragic and utterly inconsequential.
  9. I finished two more books last night. I wonder if the reason I read so much is because I still think that, somewhere, there’s someone who can teach me how to be. I wonder if the reason I’m looking for a teacher is because my education was mostly in things that don’t matter to me anymore. Or, maybe, in things that never did matter to me, really. I wonder what it actually means to be self-taught.
  10. I realized this morning, again, that the things I correct my kids about are the things that I most struggle with myself, which is to say, failures of empathy. The thing is, they are, mostly, kind and compassionate, and they hurt or dismiss each other sometimes anyway. Parenthood so often reminds me of how impossible it is for me to teach them anything, how everything they learned about how to be is something they came to on their own.

Book Anxiety

On my last day of high school, my English teacher gave us one piece of advice: to keep a reading journal. Being a teenager, of course, I waited six years before starting to keep track of my reading. I’d feel bad about that—I guess if I’m being honest, I do—but college was pretty legitimate in its distractions. In any case, I’ve been thinking a lot about books lately, because I’m on pace to read more books this year than any since I’ve been keeping track.

I set a goal for myself to read 30 books this year. I finished the 30th the day before yesterday: Franny Choi’s Death by Sex Machine. (It was excellent, by the way, a collection of poems using artificial intelligence as a frame for how people are marginalized, alienated, and dehumanized.) This is the 16th week of the year, so if I maintain this pace, I’ll end 2018 having read 97 books. I doubt I’ll be able to keep that up, but it seems likely that I’ll beat my previous record of 51.

Reading this much is on one level exhilarating. It’s a feeling I haven’t had since I was a kid, when I used to spend whole days immersed in one fantastic world or another. In some ways the world felt more alive, more electric, bigger back then, and I suppose I’m not sure whether it’s because I spent more time mentally elsewhere or simply because I hadn’t had my own shine worn off yet. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t feel worn down back then, but even the grinding felt epic in its way.

This year I’ve read more, and more widely, than I can ever remember. It’s been thrilling, but at times I also feel like I’m drowning. Like the written word is simply too energetic for me to hold close, and I’m overwhelmed. And then when I come back to reality, I’m left both spent and disconnected, feeling as though I’m floating, unmoored from any sense of narrative or progress in my own life. I find myself wondering if I should try to be more present, more in the world, if I should read less.

At the same time, I find myself increasing anxious about all of the books I’m not reading, and which I’ll never read. Since 2003, I’ve averaged 24 books a year—though, of course, my journal doesn’t include the picture books I’ve read to my kids for almost ten years. Nor does it extend far enough back to include all of those lazy afternoons when I was a child, myself, nor the decade or so of assigned reading from middle school through college. If I’m generous with my estimates and my definitions of what a book is, I may have read as many as 1500 books or so in my life so far. If I live to be a hundred and keep to a pace of 100 books a year from now on, a feat that seems staggering to me, that seems to put an outside limit of 7700 books in my lifetime. In reality, it will be less than that. 7700 books might seem like a lot, and in truth it’s probably more than most people manage, but when I consider that over 600,000 books are published each year in the United States alone, it seems miniscule.

When I think about this, I feel a tiny bit of panic. And not just because of the books, themselves. While I sat and read during my lunch break today, the articles, essays, short stories, and poems in my bookmarks app sat untended. The video games I bought over a year ago sat unplayed on the hard drive of my neglected console. The movies and shows in my Netflix, Hulu, and Crunchyroll queues sat unwatched, and this is to say nothing of the music I still haven’t listened to. Even while I’m reading, if I choose to read a new book by a favorite author, there are countless writers whose work I’ve never experienced that I’m still not reading. I’m certainly not writing anything of my own.

It’s that last thing that’s the crux of it, of course. I know that my anxiety tends to spike when I feel like I’m not accomplishing anything. I don’t want to slow down my reading, of course, but I need to get back to my own work, too. Aside from my reading goal, I also set a submissions goal for the year. Maybe it’s time to get to work on that one.

I had a whole other topic, but it’s late and I’ve gone on long enough already. Perhaps another day soon. I’m trying to get back in the swing of this thing. Thanks for your time and your patience.

Guns, again

I've been thinking a lot this morning about guns, of course. I've been thinking about how I have family and friends who are gun owners, who I like a lot and enjoy being around. As far as I know, all of them are what we consider responsible gun owners—my uncle, for example, is an avid hunter, but I never feel any concern taking my kids to his house to visit him and my aunt because I know there is no chance at all that they will find a gun lying around. There are a good number of my gun-owning friends and family who I have no idea what their position on gun control is, because I've never talked to them about it. I would imagine that at least some of them are in favor of common-sense gun regulations. I know for certain that some have, at least in the past, been vocal opponents of gun control.

I don't think any of these people are bad people—on the contrary, many of them are people I respect and enjoy immensely. I'm sure that they all find each new school shooting to be as shocking and horrifying as I do, and for the same reasons. But I guess I don't know how relevant it is what people feel in their hearts. At least, it is and should be less relevant than the consequences of their actions.

The point here is not that gun owners are monsters, but that understanding how we are complicit in things that make us uncomfortable is difficult, even as it is necessary.

We all make choices in our lives. And those choices say something about our priorities and values. I don't think many people would say that they believe that it is acceptable for children to be murdered in their schools. I don't think that many people would say that those children's lives matter less than the right to own a gun. Maybe I'm naive, but I think the number of people who might say such things is so vanishingly small as to be irrelevant. I certainly don't think my gun-owning family and friends would say anything like that.

But I do think that the end result, the function of some of the things I've seen friends say about gun control is the same.

For example, when we say things like "this is a terrible tragedy but there's nothing that we can do about it," this just isn't true. We know that there is a strong correlation both internationally and within the United States between permissive gun laws and increased frequency of gun violence, and, vice versa, we know that US states and foreign countries with more restrictive gun laws have less gun violence. We know that we can make this happen less often. What we mean when we say "there's nothing we can do about it" is really "I am not willing to do the things that can be done about it."

We also say things like "gun control won't end gun violence." And certainly this is true—no law that I've ever seen proposed would end violence, because human beings are inherently prone to violence, and determined people will find ways to circumvent laws. But it's also irrelevant, because mitigating harm is worth doing even if it won't completely end harm. When we say "gun control won't end gun violence," this is in function the same as saying that reducing the number of lives lost to gun violence is less important than maintaining access to guns.

We say things like "if we criminalize guns then only criminals will have guns" or "why should we penalize responsible gun owners?" But this is, essentially, to argue that laws and regulations should not exist at all. We accept regulation in so many aspects of our lives in order to mitigate harm, reduce risks, improve safety, and allow us to live together in something approaching harmony. Why are guns different? What makes gun ownership more essential and less open to regulation than workplace safety or automobile operation or food safety or environmental protection or any number of other areas where people can cause harm to other people, and we have decided not to allow that?

I think the most honest thing I've ever heard a gun control opponent say was "I like my guns and I don't want to have to give them up." And I get that. To be honest, I enjoy shooting and I always have, though I haven't gone to a range since I was a teenager. When you come down to it, we all have trouble prioritizing other people over our own comforts and conveniences. I'm no different. But I think that the most important thing any of us can do is take a good hard look at ourselves and ask ourselves whether the way we are living is harming other people. To ask, "What would I be willing to give up in order to help others, and what wouldn't I be willing to give up?" To understand why we don't want to give up certain things. To ask whether it's worth it.

Nobody wants to think of themselves as part of the problem, and honestly few people will do so. But we all agree that problems exist and that they are mostly brought about by people. It simply can't be the case that it's always someone else's fault, that we are always blameless. If we are ever to solve the problems that exist, then we must be willing to look to ourselves first.

Perhaps we will choose to continue on as we are, accepting that other people will pay for our choices, sometimes with their lives. Maybe we will decide that that is acceptable, that those lives are worth it. Let's at least be clear about it when we make those choices, though.

Intimacy

This morning I was thinking about podcasts and social media and relationships and intimacy, which is to say that I was thinking about the same stuff I think about a lot. There’s a podcast I’ve been listening to for over seven years now. Call it a bit under a fifth of my life, though, actually, it feels like longer. But seven years is a good long time, and you can’t spend that much time with the same voices in your head week after week without feeling some kind of a connection or relationship.

Obviously, I’m aware that this imagined relationship is just that: imagined. One-sided. The people to whom those voices belong don’t know me from a hole in the ground. But it’s also not wrong to say that I’ve spent time with them, perhaps more time than some people who would actually count me as a friend. It’s a strange thing, this kind of relationship—it feels both intimate and distant. You feel like you know these people, and in a way you do. At least, you know that part of them that they choose to show you. And if it is only one aspect of their lives or personalities, it’s also not nothing.

I think about this kind of thing a lot, in part because I spend so much time on social media, which means that I have to consider what intimacy and friendship mean in a context where neither of us really have access to each other’s lives, other than what we choose to write about. What can I ask of someone, and what can they ask of me? What are our responsibilities to each other? How much do I actually know any of them, and how much do they know me?

But then, I suppose the reason I’m thinking about this now, and the reason I’m choosing to write about it here, is because I find myself wondering—again—how much we can ever really know anyone.

One of my co-workers died suddenly about a month ago. I’d worked with him for over eleven years, but somehow I still thought of him as one of the “young guys” just because I interviewed him for the job when he was a new grad. Realistically, back then I was a young guy, too.

The company held a memorial lunch for him last week and we all ate and swapped stories and laughed a lot. He was that kind of guy, the kind that made you laugh. People talked about how fun and funny he was, what a good engineer he was, how he was a good guy. Eleven years, and what else can I say about him? I knew him, joked with him, stayed up working into the wee hours with him. Sometimes we argued, sometimes we pissed each other off. A lot of times we laughed.

What does it mean to know somebody? To be close? I’ve pushed not to be defined by my job, either to myself or others, and so I often think of my relationships outside of work as being more real, somehow. That the people in my home life or often even people online know me better than my coworkers. And to some extent, that’s true. But as many parts of my existence that my coworkers never see, there are also parts that only they see, whether that’s how I talk when I’m giving a technical presentation or what I look like when it’s two in the morning and I’m still in the lab. I’m different at work from how I am at home or out in the wider world, but I’m no less myself for that.

The easy question to ask here is this: are social media friendships somehow less real because of the fact that social media personas are curated? Or: what are the limitations of intimacy in these relationships, which are necessarily defined by the narrowness of their visibility? But I find I’m uninterested in those questions. Because it’s easy to talk about social media being seductive. It’s easy to talk about presuming an unearned or nonexistent intimacy in that context. What I find myself thinking about more is how “real” life is seductive and narrow. Not to say that listening to your podcast means we have a relationship or that being able to see and hear and smell you doesn’t, but rather that every relationship is both real and false, both more and less than it seems. That we are at the same time profoundly connected and utterly alone.

I think that what you do with a thought like this is a matter of temperament and choice. If you can keep both the candlestick and the faces in your mind at once—or at least remember to switch back and forth—I think there’s an opportunity, both to rejoice in closeness and to respect distance. I’m trying to see it that way, anyway.

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.

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