I made it a goal this year to write more on this site. I only wrote 7 posts on this site last year, so more should be easier. Yet, I’ve struggled for the first 5+ weeks of this year on formulating a full post. I have a few things brewing that I’d like to finish, but I also want to get into the exercise of just writing.
That’s always been a great unlock for me to get more out and of course more writing = more published. So for this blogpost, which I made a calendar invitation to complete, I’m just going to write about a few things I’ve been seeing lately. Some favorites, if you will.
I loved Another Earth and have been anxiously awaiting getting-my-shit together to see the rest of the movies that she wrote, starred in, and co-produced. I don’t know why I’ve delayed. (Potential here to be persuaded to watching The OA too which is her TV show).
Her article came out just today in the NYT Opinions section and she has some revelations about her sadder times navigating both Hollywood and the corporate world as she moved out to L.A. from Chicago.
Here’s just one anecdote:
The lone female V.P. on my floor and my mentor at the time gave me the following advice when she left to partner at a hedge fund: Once a week, open the door to your office when they finally give you one, and place a phone call where you shout a string of expletives in a threatening voice.
The advice is essentially a charade. That the V.P. felt strongly enough to recommend playing a character—the strong and tough female—showed her early on what it could take to be a woman in power.
Beyond that, she shares her eaction to Parable of the Sower, the Olivia Butler book that I had the pleasure of reading a few years ago.
I won’t summarize the article too much but it was impactful. Marling’s conclusion is expansive, but here, in a way she is thinking about the shaping of narratives, is some of it:
They choose who we can find empathy for and who we cannot. What we have fellow feeling for, we protect. What we objectify and commodify, we eventually destroy.
Sometimes in life I have this odd meta-moments where I think about how strange it is to be wherever I am. I ask: how did I get here? What oddness has to transpire to make it happen? It’s an entertaining way to remember that not only is much beyond our control, even those things that are in our control can surprise it.
About an hour and forty minutes into the movie Waves I had the same reaction about the movie itself. Somehow we were in a Missouri hospital and the plot had still moved cohesively (sort of). There was no feeling of loss of control in being where we were as viewers. This was fascinating: too seldom do we find ourselves so far from the first budding of character and plot in such a short time—without jumping through time, of course.
Waves still jumps. (What a sentence). I won’t spoil anything but there are some breaks and inconsistencies in the narrative—not quite like Moonlight’s three acts, but not so far from it. And at times the movie feels a bit like Moonlight—the ocean scenes in the warmth of south Florida and the bright and brilliant colors. They are both named for phenomenons of nature and yet deal with their characters in a very real, and a very raw way.
I thought about the word ‘Raw’ several times during the movie. I had read it described as such. I found myself jumping to it. But what did that mean? It was still being acted—it was still a movie. Perhaps raw means removed of the same tropes or gloss as Hollywood often puts on. Maybe? But that seems lackluster as an explanation. I’ll have to think on this.
What I can say is simple: the movie was affecting and emotional. There are times you’ll gasp and times you’ll hold our stomach tightly waiting to see what happens. It’s not my favorite movie and I don’t know a scenario where I’ll watch it again fully but it was an absolute gift to see it once and to know movies like it are being made.
A Show – The Sopranos
No introduction needed nor do I need to wax entirely on this. Perhaps one day I will. But last week saw me finish the entire Sopranos series—yes, for the first time.
It was long, gripping, and at times frustrating. But it was excellent and I looked forward to each and every episode as I got closer to the end. And then there was the ending which brought on a whole day’s worth of reading.
My thoughts a week out? I miss it, certainly. The characters were so rich and the show so unconcerned with building tension just for the sake of doing so (my opinion) that I’ve missed the cadence of being both enthralled with a TV production and somehow feeling like it was so “everyday” that whether I watched or not the world would exist. I don’t know how to explain it better than that—somewhere deep in me there was a supposed reality of that happening just across the state line in Jersey and being reproduced on my television. The structure of episodes and seasons came just as a frame to keep it from dragging on. I don’t know if I’ve seen a TV show that’s given me the same reaction; or ever will.
A year ends and a decade with it. I’ve been thinking in the latter terms recently—like in publishing this list of my 100 favorite songs of the decade. But 10 years provides a whole lot more reflection than does one, even if this one had a lot happen.
The decade started out in my senior year of college and ends in New York City—and the in between seems like an impossible timeline to predict or imagine. I’ve traveled to dozens of countries, switched jobs, started and ended relationships, wrote short stories, a book, and several posts on here. New hobbies and interested have emerged while resolute ones have stayed as much (reading, for instance). it was a tremendous decade of growth with much to reflect on positively. I’m grateful for the health to be able to do it and nourishing human relationships that pushed it into even more pleasure. That’s a vague and non-specific way to reflect on a decade but when so much happened I suppose there’s no other way to do it.
This past year, though, that’s what the rest of this post is about. And here I can be quite specific. In 2019, I went from being an unemployed novelist living in Mexico City to fully employed in New York City. Plus a new relationship and partner that brought me here. I have an apartment that I’ve filled with my things (mostly books it feels) and plan to be here for the foreseeable future. So I feel settled now after starting the year with no such feeling.
I started the year riding electric scooters around Mexico City after the big celebration on La Reforma, whipping around empty streets hopeful and optimistic about a new year ahead. Many of the things I wanted have come true and I’m so very pleased to be where I am now. But some were harder to reckon with—the book I left my job and Chicago to write was “finished” but now sits in a drawer (so to speak) while I pursue other writing projects. I had a goal to write a book and I did that but I also have a goal to publish a book and that goal remains elusive. Guess that’s what the next year (or, more likely, decade) is for.
Here are even more specifics from 2019:
Categories In Review
Travel: Mexico City > New York City > Chicago > London > Rome > Scottsdale > Virginia > Amsterdam > Las Vegas > Charlottesville > San Diego > Madison > San Francisco > Los Angeles > Woodstock > Nashville > Washington D.C. > New York City
Writing: 2019 was one of my most prolific writing years (certainly combined with 2018). I finished the editing draft of my novel, the largest editing task I’d ever taken on (+400 pages whittled down to just over 350). And then I edited some more, taking feedback on my first few chapters and working specifically on voice, tone, and pace. That was a lot of work, and to do that for the rest of the book is a task I haven’t taken up yet. In fact, I’ve hit a point in 2019 where I’ve put that novel on hold. I’ve come to terms with it—my goal was to finish a novel and I did so. So it sits in my proverbial drawer, waiting to be returned to when it feels right. But the writing hasn’t stopped. I wrote another short novel for NaNoWriMo this year and am in the process of turning a part of that into a short story. I also planned and outlined a new book that I’ll work on in 2020. That, among essays, poems, and other sketches of stories. I’m writing and I’m writing an amount I’m happy with. So I carry on!
Dotcom Secrets: The Underground Playbook for Growing Your Company (Russell Brunson); Jan 2
Parable Of The Sower (Octavia E. Butler); Jan 5
Dr. Zhivago (Boris Pasternak); Jan 20
Building A Storybrand (Donald Miller); Feb 4
Crossing To Safety (Wallace Stegner); Feb 6
Midwives (Chris Bohjalian); Feb 22
How To Change Your Mind (Michael Pollan); Feb 24
The Spirit of Science Fiction (Roberto Bolaño); Mar 4
The Mastermind (Evan Ratliff); Mar 12
Light Years (James Salter); Mar 21
This is The Story Of A Happy Marriage (Ann Patchett); Apr 16
The Sportswriter (Richard Ford); May 1
Asymmetry (Lisa Halliday); June 13
The Boys In The Boat (Daniel James Brown); June 26
To Sell Is Human (Daniel Pink); June 29
Wildlife (Richard Ford); July 9
Inherent Vice (Thomas Pynchon); July 18
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Yuval Noah Harari); July 29 (audiobook)
The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguyen); Aug 18
Under The Volcano (Malcolm Lowry); Aug 26
The Moviegoer (Walker Percy); Sept 3
Robert Lowell in Love (Jeffrey Meyers); Sept 9
Don’t Save Anything: Uncollected Essays (James Salter); Sept 10
The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible (Lance Fortnow); Sept 25
Neon In Daylight (Hermione Hoby); Sept 30
How To Do Nothing (Jenny Odell); Oct 10
On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Ocean Vuong); Oct 24
The Vegetarian (Han Kang); Nov 1
722 Miles: The Building of the Subways…. (Clifton Hood); Nov 3
The Botany of Desire (Michael Pollan); Nov 7
Garden Time (W.S. Merwin); Nov 14
Cigarettes, Inc. (Nan Enstad); Nov 18
Marshall McLuhan: The Medium And the Messenger (P. Marchand); Dec 5
Lost in Translation (Eva Hoffman); Dec 15
Tribe Of Mentors (Tim Ferriss); Dec 18
The Dolphin (Robert Lowell); Dec 21
Man’s Search For Meaning (Viktor Frankl); Dec 24
For record-keeping purposes, I finished 19 books in 2015, 21 in 2016, 24 in 2017, and 35 in 2018.
Professionally: After starting the year in Mexico City working on my novel, I came to NYC in May looking for a job. I interviewed at a few places, fielded a few offers and started a role at LinkedIn. I’m a Customer Success Manager for large, enterprise clients there for LinkedIn Learning—a library of thousands of training videos. It’s a great job at a great company and it fits in the field I’ve worked now for 8-9 years (Learning & Development). Plus, I came in with a fitting background: I was a customer of LinkedIn Learning at my last role (Uber) and now am on the other side helping clients like myself.
Pearl Jam: No Pearl Jam this year. Lots of rumors of a 2020 tour though!
Favorite 2019 New Thing: New York City
It’d been a dream to live in New York City for years—a sort of vague idea of what the city was and what it’d be like to call it home. I’d spent weeks—even months—at a time here but always knowing I’d be leaving (which could help dump off the “lows” the city provides without warning). As of May of this year, I’m now a New York City resident and commute each day to my job in Manhattan from my apartment in Brooklyn. And from there, there’s a nearly infinite Xanadu to explore. And from the 28th floor of the Empire State Building (my office) I get to look out at a whole swath of it and imagine what’s going on below. I’ll see more of NYC in 2020 (the good and the bad) and I imagine the list of things to do and see will only grow.
Other favorites: Making the bed, CRISPR (gene editing), The Sopranos
Favorite Book Read In 2019: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
I know, I know. This book. But it’s true. This book has stuck with me (as everyone who recommended it said it would) since finishing. It was a long trip—an audiobook of over 14 hours that took me on my car ride to NYC and for many weeks beyond. Harari’s book is a masterful lesson in where we came from, why we are the way we are, and an important cognitive lesson in understanding sociology as a product of evolutionary selection. It has some of the most important stories of our species that I’ve read and frames a new understanding of Sapien history. I don’t know how else to encompass that without saying what everyone else has said. My suggestion is just to read it. be amazed, be humbled, and be ready to change your mind on what’s brought us to year 2020.
Other favorites: Crossing to Safety, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, The Moviegoer, How To Change Your Mind
Michael Lewis claims he started this article with an alphabetized list of government workers affected by a furlough. He picked the first name and set out to write a story. He’s either the luckiest journalist around or he’s that good, because the article is a masterpiece in the annals of mastery. The “inessential” government worker here is Art Allen, who has likely (and mostly single-handedly) saved hundreds of lives. And will continue to—thanks to an obsessive desire to understand how bodies float in water. The rest of the story awaits you (read it!) if even for a better understand of the origins of the term “leeway”.
Leaving the theater in a stunned state after seeing Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, the only word I could really find to describe it was “Shakespearean”. It seemed like a dramatic stage play–complete with influential minor characters, long and determined speeches about class, brutality and death—all of it. It was a heightened film going experience and left viewers catching their breath. I think the fact that so many I know who saw it didn’t even try to describe it (and left it as a “just go see it”) speaks to its perplexing charm. But it was the movie of the year for me and a crown jewel of Korean cinema which I’ve loved more and more each year.
Other favorites: Knives Out, The Irishman
Favorite 2019 Album: Morbid Stuff (by PUP)
Start to finish, one of the most ripping punk albums I’ve heard—definitely in the last few years. My favorite punk record since On The Impossible Past. The album starts with ‘Morbid Stuff’ and never seems to let up from there. It instantly brought me back to the more pop-punk heavy teenage years I had, and I think it did the same for a lot of aging punk fans. And probably for a new generation of fans too.
Other favorites: Salt (Angie McMahon), Western Stars (Bruce Springsteen), Any Human Friend (Marika Hackman)
Favorite 2019 Song: ‘Moonlight Motel’ Bruce Springsteen
The last song on the new Springsteen album, this one caught me off guard. It’s a slow, acoustic ditty with a whole lot of lyrical nostalgia. And it’s sad, don’t get me wrong. But I remember a Reddit thread about the song being about hope and a commenter saying there was absolutely no hope in the song. I disagree. There’s certainly no optimism about a hotel (and its clientele) who have fallen into old age and reminisce about a more innocent time. It’s not saying that’s going to come back. it’s too far gone. But I think there’s a hope and optimism in nostalgia. One that says that our memories mean something, that they give us purpose. To create new ones, to keep those times in the filing cabinet of the cortexes. There’s hope in just being human, no matter what age we get to and the fading of hotels into blight. That’s what I get from this beautiful little song.
Other favorites: ‘Not’ (Big Thief). ‘Just Fear’ (Dan Mangan), ‘On The Water’ (Josh Ritter), ‘Morbid Stuff’ (Pup), ‘Slow Mover’ (Angie McMahon), ‘Missing Me’ (Angie McMahon), ‘You Have Stolen My Heart’ (Brian Fallon), ‘all night’ (Marika Hackman)
Favorite 2019 Place Visited: Amsterdam
My first trip back to Amsterdam since 2009—and a much different one. Got to see the “real” Amsterdam this time thanks to my amazing partner who lived there for a few years. Bike-riding around the city, the north, and through parks PLUS cheese, beer, and long canal sitting sessions. It was easy to see why Amsterdam is so magical for so many, particularly in the summer. We were there for the solstice and it felt like the sun never went down (and temperatures stayed high without air conditioning).
About a year ago, I started putting a playlist together of what I thought were the best songs of the decade. It was about 4 songs for the first eight months, forgotten about. I can’t remember why I started and I don’t remember why I switched it to being ‘favorite’ songs (a distinction that matters for me probably more than it should). In September, realizing the decade would soon be ending, I decided to go for it and finish out the playlist. 100 songs, my favorites since January 1, 2010. And I started compiling.
As I looked back at the playlists and compilations I made for myself over the last years (or at least what’s been on Spotify), I realized that most of what I listened to in the 2010’s wasn’t made in the 2010’s. It’s likely the first decade of my life to have that distinction and likely a sign of things to come. Even the bands that have multiple songs on this list (War On Drugs, Big Thief, The National), don’t compare in 2010’s listening volume to the artists I really started listening to in the 2010’s (Springsteen (my #1 artist for 2019 according to Spotify, Tom Waits, The Replacements)—which themselves probably don’t hit the volume of my now-enshrined stalwarts (Dylan, Pearl Jam, Stones).
Alas, however, there were songs this decade that can go on my favorite of all times list with no hesitation. The 100 of them I could find and sort through are below. Only time will tell which live on into the new decade, and the blank spaces of long-term storage I hold for art to live on within me.
The only song on the list provided by a teenager to this aged punk fan. A small gift—may there be many more. Thanks Lindsey.
96. ‘Ribs’ Lorde
95. ‘A Certain Kind of Memory’ Kacy & Clayton
94. ‘Morbid Stuff’ PUP
93. ‘Mine’ Axel Mansoor
The artist on the list that I have a phone number to text. One of two for Axel on this list.
92. ‘Suicide Demo for Kara Walker’ Destroyer
91. ‘Dylan Thomas’ Better Oblivion Community
A sucker for literary references in indie songs.
90. ‘Songs That She Sings In The Shower’ Jason Isbell
89. ‘Unknown Legend’ Shovels & Rope
88. ‘Strange Mercy’ St. Vincent
87. ‘Carin at the Liquor Store’ The National
See song #91’s comment
86. ‘Can’t Get It Out’ Brand New
85. ‘Knocked Down’ The War On Drugs
84. ‘Tinseltown Swimming In Blood’ Destroyer
83. ‘Getting Ready to Get Down’ Josh Ritter
82. ‘Flesh without Blood’ Grimes
81. ‘Soundcheck’ Catfish and the Bottlemen
Teens Poetica: Because you grew up in a small town / You’ll appreciate it more / When you’re done figuring your life out”
80. ‘Missing Me’ Angie McMahon
79. ‘The Opposite of Us’ Big Scary
78. ‘00000 Million’ Bon Iver
77. ‘Anything We Want’ Fiona Apple
Teens Poetica: “Let’s pretend we’re eight years old playin’ hooky / I draw on the wall and you can play UFC rookie / Then we’ll grow up, take our clothes off and you remind me that / I wanted you to kiss me when we find some time alone
76. ‘Steve McQueen’ Brian Fallon
75. ‘Good Things’ Aloe Blacc
74. ‘Lost in the Light’ Bahamas
73. ’Where The Night Goes’ Josh Ritter
72. ‘Your Graduation’ Modern Baseball
Maybe I love this song. Maybe I just love the first minute. Still good enough to get on my list.
71. ‘No Role Modelz’ J. Cole
70. ‘Suitcase Full of Sparks’ Gregory Alan Isakov
69. ‘Best Night’ The War On Drugs
The spacy introduction to what likely became my favorite band of the decade. Hearing it for the first time, I think about a feeling of wanting or needing to move, but having no idea where to go. It still gives me that feeling.
68. ‘Too Blue’ Leyla McCalla
67. ‘Rambling Man’ Laura Marling
66. ‘Bloody Mary, Kate and Ashley’ PUP
65. ‘Same Drugs’ Chance the Rapper
64. ‘Treaty’ Leonard Cohen
63. ‘Speed Trap Town’ Jason Isbell
62. ‘A Change Of Heart’ The 1975
61. ‘Your Best American Girl’ Mitski
Floored by this song when it came out (and subsequent Mitski songs too). Such a soaring chorus and melodic guitar piece. I love it. May she make music for decades to come to be on most lists.
60. ‘My Sweet Lord’ Hurray For The Riff Raff
59. ‘Gallup, NM’ The Shouting Matches
58. ‘Make Me Feel’ Janelle Monae
57. ‘In Bloom’ Sturgill Simpson
56. ‘Ultralight Beam’ Kanye West
55. ‘Good Things’ The Menzingers
The proper kick off to one of my favorite albums of the decade. Any album that starts with, “I’ve been having a horrible time / pulling myself together” probably has good things to come. And this one does. See song #1.
54. ‘Lemonworld’ The National
53. ‘Pedestrian at Best’ Courtney Barnett
This one came like a love/punk bomb. That chorus like a wonderful little explosion in a reverb madness. I love this song (and this mid-list consecutive Australian woman string)
52. ‘Slow Mover’ Angie McMahon
51. ‘Kansas City’ The New Basement Tapes
50. ‘Posters’ Youth Lagoon
49, ‘Money Trees’ Kendrick Lamar
48. ‘The Waiting’ Angel Olsen
47. ‘Alabama Pines’ Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
46. ‘Thinkin Bout You’ Frank Ocean
45. ‘The Weekenders’ The Hold Steady
Teens Poetica: “She said the theme of this party is the industrial age / You came in dressed like a train wreck.”
44. ‘Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)’ Laura Marling
43. ‘Every Single Night’ Fiona Apple
42. ‘Holocene’ Bon Iver
I remember thinking no song could be bigger than this. It felt like it could hold the whole world in those notes, that it could sit inside any emotion. Which, of course, is why it’s a perfect title.
41. ‘New York’ St. Vincent
40. ‘Death With Dignity’ Sufjan Stevens
39. ‘Wait for the Moment’ Vufpeck
38. ‘Father Time’ Axel Mansoor
37. ‘Dancing On My Own’ Robyn
36. ‘Happy Birthday Johnny’ St. Vincent
35. ‘Newmyer’s Roof’ Craig Finn
34. ‘Let Me Down Easy’ Gangs Of Youth
Teens Poetica: ‘Cause you remember when, after Paris / We all decided the best way to fight it was / Drink wine, dance here and pray”
33. ‘Neighbors’ J. Cole
32. ‘Power Lines’ Telekinesis
31. ‘Frontier’ Michael Rank and Stag
30. ‘Amsterdam’ Gregory Alan Isakov
29. ‘No Future’ Craig Finn
28. ‘Hannah Hunt’ Vampire Weekend
Teens Poetica: “If I can’t trust you/then damnit Hannah/there’s no future/there’s no answer”
27. ‘Saint Valentine’ Gregory Alan Isakov
26. ‘Moonlight Motel’ Bruce Springsteen
The newest addition to the list (I think) and 2019’s most played song. The Boss goes acoustic, sad, and nostalgically poetic about a lost place of love. Maybe it’s the power of an aging voice simplified down to a near whisper. Or maybe it’s just a great song.
25. ‘Masterpiece’ Big Thief
If Big Thief is one of the big bands of my decade, this song kicked it all off. A one-two punch of defiant rock n’ roll and a new voice ripping down the walls holding it back, ‘Masterpiece’ audaciously titled itself so fittingly.
24. ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ The National
23. ‘Solo’ Frank Ocean
22. ‘Lost in the Dream’ The War On Drugs
21. ‘Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales’ Car Seat Headrest
20. ‘Cover Me Up’ Jason Isbell
19. ‘In Reverse’ The War On Drugs
Teens Poetica: I’ll be here or I’ll fade away / Never cared about moving, never cared about now / Not the notes I’m playing
18. ‘Video Games’ Lana Del Rey
17. ‘Red Lights’ Molly & The Zombies
Teens Poetica: In all good faith and sentiment / I can’t believe somehow / that I haven’t died of grief or something / Since you left this town
16. ‘Road Regrets’ Dan Mangan
15. ‘Fill in the Blank’ Car Seat Headrest
14. ‘Promise’ Ben Howard
13. ‘Paul’ Big Thief
12. ‘Depreston’ Courtney Barnett
11. ‘17’ Youth Lagoon
10. ‘Super Rich Kids’ Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt
I can remember the very first instant I heard the first chords of the song with Earl Sweatshirt’s voice coming in, droning on around the rich life. I was in the backseat of my now roommate’s car driving to Eugene from Portland that day after a concert. The question couldn’t be stopped….. “What is this?” I’ve been a fan since and those first jolting notes of the song always bring me back.
9. ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ The Kills
A cover song for the ages, or maybe just this decade. The Kills put on a different take on Lou Reed’s classic adulterous love song. And this comes with a kick-down-the-door guitar riff and a female lead singer performance laced with the kind of exasperation that the lyrics tell of.
8. ‘Back to the Future (Part I)’D’Angelo
D’Angelo came back this decade with a great album and this incredible song. His voice (masterful) with the rhythm (smooth) and the swirl of other elements has had me listen and re-listen to this song a thousand times walking down a thousand avenues this decade. I don’t know what it is this with song, but I remember dozens of those times. It always seems to be sunny, my step always a bit more excited.
Teens Poetica: “And if you’re wondering / what about the shape I’m in / I hope it ain’t my abdomen / that you’re referring to”
7. The New Basement Tapes – When I Get My Hands On You
6. ‘I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together’ – The Horrible Crowes
Teens Poetica: “Did you say your lovers were liars? / All my lovers were liars too”
5. ‘Fourth of July’ – Sufjan Stevens
Carrie & Lowell, the album this song sits in the middle of, may well be my favorite album of the decade. It’s full of dark and moving stories, laid over melodic tunes. ‘Fourth of July’ uses birds as pet-names in this song about a mother and son that starts beautifully and ends moreso. Sufjan’s voice is almost hidden here, constantly threatening to fade into silence. It won’t do it though. A voice is strong. A story must be told. A song is meant to be sung and end when it ends.
4. ‘Queen’ – Perfume Genius
For what it’s worth, I think this is probably the ‘best’ song of the decade, by which I mean to separate the awe of this song’s creation with some relativistic term like “favorite”. Still, it’s in this list as a top 5 favorite, and after long pauses of mistakenly forgetting its existence, I’m drawn back to the drowning wail of this, the sirens calling out to be noticed, to be seen, and to celebrate queerness in a decade that finally allowed people to do so. It’s a masterpiece of rhythm, a song that one could dance to, cry to, sashay to (as instructed), and more. Someone with musical taste so far from mainstream will never truly choose an anthem for a decade, but this song wouldn’t be a bad choice.
3. ‘Mary’ – Big Thief
Listening to the ‘Mary’ for the first time felt like the revelation of an undeniable truth of musical beauty. I don’t know how a binaural being could listen to it without coming to that conclusion. It felt like a secret weapon, exposing beauty as it’s meant to be—in song, in voice, in overture. I remember listening to this song for the fortieth, fiftieth time and wondering if I’d ever hear another song that was better than it. There is nothing missing, and the song builds on itself so well that it feels like it packs a universe into a few small moments. Like the best poems, it expands the world in a few words. And like the best songs, it lifts that expansion on the crest of a singular voice. If Big Thief rocked me through the decade with songs like ‘Masterpiece’ and ‘Paul’, ‘Mary’ is a reminder that Adrianne Lenker is a talent nearly limitless.
2. ‘Magnolia’ – Lucinda Williams
Long, meandering, and crookedly beautiful, Lucinda Williams’ cover of JJ Cale’s ‘Magnolia’ has, through the only brief years I’ve had access to, provided me with some of the wildest explorations of my standing existence from any piece of encountered art. At over 9 minutes long, it begets that opportunity over and over again, but really it’s the music that wraps you—a single-take (supposedly) blues jam on top of a lonely ballad Cale wrote decades ago. That she chose to cover it, that she chose to cover it like this, speaks to a surface-level intimacy with the song, but the music itself warms me like a blanket, while also opening ancient windows that carry some cool, loose breeze. It almost whimpers at times and then stands with muscles flexed not a minute later. If I could lay in an ocean of this song, I’d do it.
1. ‘Casey’ – The Menzingers
It’s a song that bridges nostalgia and growing up with a punk-rock power chord riff, some melodic screaming, and a good few lines about the silly, stale boredom of growing up in some place that isn’t exciting on its own. ‘Casey’ feels like the perfect bridge song for a decade that took me from age 22 to 32—from a place where I was meeting people on shift breaks, waiting to break loose for beers, to a time when I’d reminisce about those very instances on some mundane train ride back home. In the seven years since this song came out, I’ve listened to ‘Casey’ across the world. I’ve sung it, screamed it, hummed it, lost it, and found it back again just when I needed it most. And when I’ve needed to replace all the names and details in here to still access heed the message I take from it—that any forlorn feeling of love or days passed by is just the forlorn feeling missing the innocent consequences before the effects took place. Or maybe it’s a simple story about a waitress. It seems like what it is matters less i
Teens Poetica: “And gin and Casey used to / dance inside of me / and I bet I sound like a broken record / everytime I open my mouth”
Artists Featured (by total songs)
5- The War On Drugs
4 – Jason Isbell
3- Big Thief, Gregory Alan Isakov, Justin Vernon (as singer), The National, Craig Finn (as singer), St. Vincent, Frank Ocean, Brian Fallon (as singer)
2- Angie McMahon, Axel Mansoor, Car Seat Headrest, Courtney Barnett, Destroyer, Fiona Apple,. J. Cole, Josh Ritter, Laura Marling, The Menzingers, The New Basement Tapes, PUP, Sufjan Stevens, Youth Lagoon
For one year now, I’ve been carrying around and writing in a leather bound notebook that was gifted to me. The first entry is from August 1, 2018, written in a town in Sri Lanka called Ella. The latest entry, written today—August 1, 2019—is copied, along with the former below.
August 1, 2018 — Ella, Sri Lanka
It is the first of August and I took a train from KANDY > ELLA. 7 hours through hills, the country, rain for an hour or so. I sat in the door with my feet out the train, like so many others, watching my feet hover above the tracks, the bridges, the rivers.
I am not sure what to do with this particular notebook but there’s a whole lot of pages to fill!
Digitally, I am up to 50,000 words in the novel — through 6 chapters. I want, in that, to stay disciplined + continue to write. It is what I came/left/lived to do. And so I continue.
What did I learn this week?
About Ceylon Tea – the world’s finest
and the spices that naturally grow on this
miraculous little island (cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, etc…)
August 1, 2019 — Brooklyn, NY
Today I took a train — just like a year ago but this train was through no mountains, my feet never dangled outside (thank god).
The train took me from Brooklyn to Manhattan to just near the Empire State Building where I was going. Going to work.
A lot has changed in a year since I started writing in this notebook. The notebook was a gift from old coworkers, my team. Now I have a new team — at a new job, in a new city with a life so new that it would have seem inconceivable a year ago at Ella as I pulled up by train.
Or maybe not. After all, I’ve always embraced Didion’s line to “live spontaneously, like jazz” and I am doing that as much as I did a year ago. I’m happy to think that and I am happy to be where I am now.
On the front of this notebook, my old team had engraved our exercise to start of all of our weekly meetings. “What did you learn this week?”
Well, a year later, and a full draft of he book finished and being tweaked, I learned how I love how life changes and what can happen in just 1 year.
For six months, I’ve been thinking about Page 383.
Page 383 is the end of the first draft of my novel. The first draft that I finished in September of last year.
That draft, when printed in Arial 12 size font with stretched margins, came out to be 383 pages. And since I printed that out—in October, after a break— I’ve been thinking about that last page. Because when I got to it, and only when I got to it, would I have edited that entire stack of paper.
And yesterday, on a gray morning in Rome, I sat the desk in my Airbnb and I finished editing Page 383. And then I walked down to Trastevere and got myself some gelato and ate it as the day cleared and the sun came out.
It took me six months to get there. When I started editing, much as when I started writing, I had no idea how long it’d take me. In both cases, it was my first time undertaking such a large project. I had no idea the challenges that would come.
One challenge was of my own doing. Because to make the writing part easier, I didn’t edit at all. I sat down each day and wrote, regardless of whether it made any sense or used the right tense or re-introduced a character I had already introduced. Beyond even that, I decided to switch from first person to third person narration halfway through. So that meant that every instance of “I” or “we” or “us” in the first 175 pages had to be redone.
And so it was six months going through all of that and more—one word and one sentence at a time. And I had to make notes, this time, of when I actually introduced a character. Or when I needed to break from the plot to put in some kind of description of where these characters were. In the six months of editing, whole chapters were chopped up and re-added. I still have a list of “orphaned” scenes which got cut that I couldn’t bring myself to delete entirely.
It took me six months to get through those 383 pages. That’s a rate of just over 2 pages per day—if you’re counting weekends, and travel days, and friends’ visits and days I just felt like going somewhere new and doing something different.
Because I wrote the book while traveling through South Africa, South Korea, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.And I edited it while traveling through the United States, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and, finally, Italy.
That’s 11 countries. And 11 different places with their own distractions and museums and wonder to pull me away from the book. I knew I wanted to travel while I wrote this, but that also presented its own set of challenges.
And when it was all said and done, I came out with a pace of just over two pages a day. It sounds paltry, really. But I can assure you it wasn’t. I didn’t work on it everyday, but I did most. And a good day was getting through four or maybe five pages.
Because editing is a slow burn and grind. I love writing. I think I’ll always love writing. But there were some weeks (probably months) where I didn’t care for the editing part at all. Re-reading my own words, day after day after day. Deciding what went where and what sounded better. Should it be “Cole went with the two” or “the two went with Cole”?
Sentences in this book—arbitrary ones on page 178 or 212 or 39, that a reader will glance over as it were nothing, were rewritten painstakingly four or five or twenty times.
And that all gets in your head. It’s hard to escape. On my long walks I’d think about what I had edited the day before—and not unusually with a feeling that I had not done my best work. And then spend an hour redoing what I had done before attempting to get into the headspace of what the next part to edit was.
A grind, I tell you.
But I got there. Slow and steady, I did it. I turned over Page 383 yesterday and looked at the last line of my novel and smiled. That singular moment of relief felt worth all the hard days to get here. Plus now I can say that I wrote and edited my novel—the first without the second almost seems like a foolish errand. Especially the way I wrote my first draft. It actually feels like a real book now.
So does that mean the whole thing is done? Yes and no. It’s now officially a second draft, and that’s good. And it’s a whole lot more show-able than it was on the first draft. But there’s still some tidying up to do.
Next I’ll work on the novel’s first 50 pages. This is the part I’ll send out to agents to gauge interest in helping to find publishers. Any interested parties?
The novel: The Horatians follows four characters through the rise of a fictional start-up—a mapping app that lets users earn cryptocurrency. As the startup succeeds, adopting the Silicon Valley idea of growth at all costs, the relationships start to turn bitter and leaves the characters and reader questioning whether it was all worth it.
Years ago, when I was nomadic full-time, I wrote in a notebook that I thought one needed to be in a place for 6 weeks to fully feel lived-in—to get some kind of first real understanding of a city. I don’t know the mathematics of how I came to that number (likely none) but I’ve thought of it through the years.
I’ve now spent 12 weeks in Mexico City so by my own theory I should know this place doubly, whatever that means. And I think I do—I have my own places now. Places where I like to get coffee, tacos, croissants; or where I like to read, write, edit, or even where I know there’s a good bathroom to use while on a walk. And then I know the places that I shouldwant to see—the landmarks, which are quite worth it here in their grandness and space. I know the parks and the restaurants that makes recommendation lists and where a good place to sit for an hour would be based on traffic and people watching and maybe a nearby huaraches stand to fill the stomach up.
When I first came here about three years ago this was the vision I left with. Coming back here to get to know the city, instead of just seeing it. I did that, and I’m happy to have done it.
It was an incredibly rich experience which I assumed it could be from that very first visit. But you never know, of course. I had something like a dozen friends come down here that I got to see and tour around. I was in a music video, I saw a soccer game at Aztec Stadium, I played golf on the outskirts, I saw Lucha four or five times. I ate at traditional restaurants, modern ones, expensive ones, and sometimes I just settled for a street taco and it was better than I could have imagined.
On my last day here, I think, too, about the other purpose I came here with—to edit the book I wrote mostly while traveling in Asia. I am almost done with that task, about 5/6 of the way through that first draft and should be done with it soon. As far as editing location, I’m less confident in what Mexico City provided. Not that it was bad. I got it done and had a great time sitting at parks thinking about scenes and characters and purposes.
But part of me wishes I had written here. Mexico City is so full of life that what I did get to write (some short story beginnings, essays, poems, the start of a movie script) seemed more alive than the book itself. At least at times. Of course this could be a symptom completely of the way I see writing vs editing—but the feeling sticks here on my last day.
Because this city brightens me. It enlivens me with its smells, its colors, its squares and parks, the trees that have blossomed these wonderful purples—the people gossiping and walking slowly (goodness do they walk slowly). All of this plus the modernity of a growing city and the traditional past that sits never too far behind. It’s a changing city—I think when I come back to visit in another three years it will look vastly different than it does now—and that liveliness feels ripe for the capture of words.
But it was editing time and editing I did. Here in Mexico City I edited something around 335 pages of text—about 12 chapters of my book and made improvements that I’m proud of. I come away with that accomplishment and the set-up for the next step in the book process of trying to get published.
I also come away with a map. The kind that 12 weeks provides—more expansive than 6 weeks of course. There’s the tangible map on my google account where I’ve bookmarked restaurants, bookstores, plazas and more to remember where they are. But more importantly there’s the map in my head—of where things are and how to navigate this city but also fit with the intangibles of the pace of life, the wide streets where I walked in the middle amongst statuary, and the benches that don’t make a Google map but make life worth a sit down and restful few minutes to take it all in.
The map that’s been created I’ll carry as a memory and additive to my life and its experience. And Mexico City will exist in that map. But what really is going to be the memory of Mexico was coming here without much of a plan and leaving with a solid one. Because during my time here I started a relationship with someone wonderful (and got to host her here for a weekend). And now I leave with a plan and a greater purpose. This city will always be tied to falling for her, will be brightest during the weekend with you, and will be the set-up for what comes next (the great and exciting mystery). I think in all of my years of travel I’ve never been so excited to leave a place I’ve been in for a while—and it has nothing to do with Mexico City (which I love) and everything to do with her.
Two years ago—between my first trip to Mexico City and this much longer one, I tattooed Adrienne Rich’s line “the words are maps” on my right foot as a guidepost for myself. And now, leaving Mexico City, I see words and maps combining in ways I hoped they might. The book editing and the building of the internal map of the last three months here. Everything I wrote in the last year—the book’s drafts, the essays, the poems, the notes to myself—and all the places I’ve gone in the process of writing it. Even this blogpost is taking me somewhere—around the city, to the past, and toward the future. The words are maps.
Biblioteca Vasconcelos is a $100 million library with sawtooth windows spanning wide above floating bookshelves. It is a massive rectangular affair, longer than a football field with seven, maybe eight stories going upward. Well, stories isn’t quite the right word. More like seven or eight landing levels with bookshelves.
Each level has a hallway running building-long with exit hallways to six stacked rows of books. Each of these stacks has its own landing, some of which extend out into the vacant space of the middle, some of which sit inside, but all are entirely exposed to the Vasconcelos openness.
The effect is a steel pattern of boxes that hang above any dweller who walks in and looks up. What is the pattern? It’s hard to tell—but there is one. Assuredly there is one. And what does it feel like to go up into these landings? It feels like floating, floating with books, floating with the support of steel wire frames that hold up the landing, the books, the people, the stairs, the hallways, and everything else.
If that doesn’t give you a picture, here’s an actual picture (not by me).
Dewey In Verticality!
In Biblioteca Vasoncelos, there is space everywhere, even where there are books. Especially where there are books.
Libraries usually don’t do this. They do not usually give their books space. They give their space books.
Because most libraries are stations of economy. They are not taking profits to build bigger shelves or wider walls. They are trying to fit their readymade purpose with a quantity befitting.
But Vasconcelos is different. It is almost an absurdity of a library, at least in comparison to your something local. It is made in grandeur. The main architect of the project, Alberto Kalach, said he wanted, “the creation of an ark, carrier of human knowledge.”
And it is like a ship, an ark. At times economical with its space like a sailboat and but mostly concerned with keeping the enterprise wide. Wide enough for buoyancy. Its airiness gives it and you that feeling of floating.
It has areas for seating, for public communing, and rooms for rent, but it has wide open spaces to refresh your singular existence. It is not crowded here but it cannot possibly feel empty to anyone. Not with what’s happening above them. Not with whats hanging over their heads.
On the longer two sides, the building is flanked by a garden. More on the east side, where the garden is extensive, almost wild with tall plants and dirty walking paths. There’s greenery on the west side of it but less. Not far away is a mall and a huge train station. Thousands are passing through there in different stages of rush. Thousands will come through Vasconcelos but it’s not in a rush. Public spaces have their own pace.
Inside though, at the train station and the mall, no one is looking up. No one is admiring–with their eyes or with the camera on their phones. The mall, like the library, dwarfs a single human in its size. But malls are not meant to dwarf, malls are meant to quarantine offinto smaller spaces, where people feel big, and wealthy, and rich.
Vasconcelos is a functioning monument where almost everyone is transfixed in admiration. And if they’re not, their soul must be reliving the sublime of another time. They’re just silent about it all.
Inside Vasconcelos is something like 500,000 books, stacked in their six row templates. Each is part of a steel contraption, and obviously there are hundreds of these. To get to these books on these racks is a journey. And why shouldn’t it be? Certainly each book is a journey. Why not a journey to the journey?
The journey starts with stairs which hang on steel wires—a bit like hanging ladders—leading to discovery. These sit outside the books, with the words and bones in the center. This is just like us, like our bodies, or like a book with a strong spine. It’s all a collection of loose shoots, ladders, and halls but in the end it all looks abominably sturdy.
The rest of it is an exercise in the un-economy of space. So much exposure. So much empty room. Why? Well, it gives the library room to expand. It gives the citizen a journey to get to a book. It gives the sunlight a chance to slink in through the window and land its rays somewhere.
It gives so much space. That’s okay. It’s an exposed and vulnerable space and what could be more perfect. It is the great house of so much emotional exposure of its authors. There are books, like buildings, that when they bare their entirety it’s 30,000 square meters of room to maneuver in.
Space is vital here. Space is books, the area around which letters are formed (think of letters chiseled away from a block of black ink the way that David was chiseled away from marble) and a book makes space in its sentences, in its flow. There’s a space between reader and book that’s obstructed by the eyes to fully engage. There’s a space when you open a book, and little spaces when you close it where the words still breath.
This all leads to the beginning here. Perhaps you’ve had the question on your mind:
Why do you build a $100 million library?
The same reason you build a $1 million dollar library, or a $1 library in your front yard. To provide space for the communion of mind and knowledge.
Here, there is space enough for an ark-full of minds—to float down the great rivers of wisdom, the seas of possibility, the deluge of everything we deserve to learn.
I want to tell you a story about my favorite band, Pearl Jam. It’s a story I’ve thought a lot about. It’s a story of compassion, death, art, redemption, and much more.
The story starts on September 29, 1996.
The scene is a now-torn-down outdoor stadium on Randalls Island, just outside Manhattan. The stadium holds 22,000 in the seats. The attendance that night is 30,000—with a moshpit on the floor and thousands of others crowding in.
The band is on fire. They’d end up playing a three hour show that night—remarkable for a band with only four albums released.The crowd is alive and singing—it’s New York City and the summer is fading away. Everyone’s looking for that last kick before the sun ashes itself into autumn’s ashtray.
At one point, Eddie duct-tapes his body and crowd surfs in the pit. Someone throws an ‘Eddie Vedder For President’ shirt on stage (it’s an election year). By all accounts, the show is absolutely electric. Here’s the whole concert.
Yet, something’s off. The band has to stop playing a few times to address it. Eddie gets a bit angry having to repeat himself.
The “pit”—the standing area right in front of the stage—is looking a bit dangerous. There’s a bad sway to the packed-in crowd. The band is worried that someone could get hurt. Eddie, the voice of the band, pleads for reasonability and safety.
At 16:07, Eddie stops a song entirely. He points to a person in the audience and waits for them to be kicked out. He tells the people in the back that they have it good because they’re not in the pit. The PSA to clear out the danger lasts for almost two minutes. It’s a total concert buzzkill.
They start playing again. At 21:15 he implores the crowd to “watch out for your neighbor”. He’s now making announcements between almost every song they play. And the concerts only just begun.
We’ll stop there for a few paragraphs. Hang on to this scene though.
Fast forward to four years later.
It’s June 2000. The band is playing a series of shows in Europe, mostly festivals. One night they play one in Denmark—a festival called Roskilde.
They start playing. The crowd, exciting by those opening chords of what will likely be an epic rock n’ roll vision quest of a concert, rushes toward the stage.
But the ground is muddy. Things start going terribly. People are crushed. Nine concert goers end up dying by being trampled on in the chaos.
It’s an excruciatingly sad entry on the band’s timeline—the saddest. They cut the show short and leave. They cancel forthcoming tour dates. The police blame Pearl Jam for the deaths, though the band refutes that. Here’s a news report from the day.
No one is sure if they’re going to play again. The band said later that they weren’t even sure. There’s no good playbook for how to come back from something like this. They talk to the families of the deceased fans. The band, having had some issues from sudden fame, is bound together in a closeness that hasn’t existed for years. It’s ten years into the existence of Pearl Jam.
It takes them months to play that next show. They play, they say, because it will help them heal. In their documentary, all of them point back to Roskilde as a crucial point. A before-and-after day in their history.
Their first show back they play in Virginia Beach. It’s almost four years after that New York show (we’re still coming back to this). It’s an emotional show, to say the least. They dedicate songs to the fans who passed. They improvise. They shed some tears.
Eddie asks the crowd to do something. He says the last time they asked it didn’t work out (where they tried, like in New York, to have fans give each other space). But this time it’s singing.
The crowd does. They sing “it’s okay, it’s okay”—a cover of this song. It’s therapy for everyone, but it’s the band that needs it the most. They’ve gotten fans through so much, now it’s time for the return. As Eddie said that night, “it’d be nice to start anew.”
Later, Eddie would say, “When we were trying to figure out what to do, the thought was not to react, but to respond. How to make the best of a really screwed-up situation.” He also pointed to The Who—his favorite band—who played on shows after losing their drummer, played on after losing their bassist years later, but mostly Eddie pointed out they played after a concert tragedy of their own: losing 11 fans at a show in 1979 in Ohio.
Die hard Pearl Jam fans know the Virginia Beach 2000 show. The first one after Roskilde. But many don’t know the New York show in 1996. It wasn’t particularly notable—another great show in the pantheon of great shows. Even the band’s cautions to the pit were something Pearl Jam had to do regularly in the 90s. Before venues themselves started cracking down on moshpits.
I didn’t know anything about the New York show. But I like to put on full concerts when I write and as I was listening to the show one day something caught my ear. I stopped writing immediately and went back.
It happens right around the 25:45 mark. Eddie’s addressing the fans for the third or fourth time that night.
At 26:00, he says, “If someone was hurt to the point where they didn’t live after tonight, I don’t think we’d ever play again.Some bands they continue on, I wouldn’t be able to do it. Music ain’t that important.”
I was stunned. Four years before Roskilde he gave a prophetic statement of where he’d stand should something hypothetical happen. And then it happened.
And then he did exactly what he said he wouldn’t do.
Since then, I’ve been searching for meaning in this. What does it mean? Was my favorite lead singer a hypocrite? Or was he just saying something to say it way back in NYC in 1996?
I don’t have that answer. Perhaps Eddie does—along with Mike, Stone, and Jeff.
But here’s what I think.
First: we can make claims about anything, including ourselves, in the hypothetical. We’ll never know what we’d really do until that something materializes.
And there’s some wisdom in this—but the wisdom is wiser when we try to establish an opinion on how someone else acts when we’re still in the realm of hypothetical. Like we learn in the famous movie scene, experience is a greater teacher than mere learning passed down through words.
For Pearl Jam, Roskilde is a story of redemption. It’s taking a terrible event and turning it into fuel to keep going. From pain to purpose. The fact that Eddie said something about that event years before may simply give it another point of redemption. Redemption from ourselves, from the hypothetical part of the first point above.
Second: What the New York concert shows is fear. Eddie’s fear of something terrible happening. But he, like all of us, can’t know what happens if that fear is manifested. Because we often fear fear itself, as the saying goes, we live in the hypothetical as though it were the reality. It’s not. The reality deserves its own judge—and we deserve the space to be separated from what we had thought in the hypothetical.
Third: the things that we create—the art we pour our hearts into, whether its music, poems, drawings, 3D models, etc…may be the only thing that can heal us from the depths in which it has hurt us.
Ten years later, in 2010, at a concert in nearby Berlin, Eddie spoke about that day. After a false start met with some tears and Stone’s and the audience’s encouragement to keep going, he said:
“It continues to be the hardest day in our lives….It’s not like we’re thinking about it any more today, because it’s thought about every day….
I’m still sorting out what the lessons are here. Well, I’m sorting them out in logical. What they mean given the evidence and history I’ve gone into above.
There’s another part though: the emotional lesson. And that’s already figured out. It’s a group bouncing upward from both fear and loss. That’s a lesson I can carry with me without the need for more clarity. I’m grateful for the lessons the band learned and the lessons I’ve learned in being a fan.
Well, 2018 is stubbing out its cigar. Closing its chapter. It was an important chapter in my life. In the story of my life it’d be a chapter with a true character turn, a tension point in the plot.
This year was a turn from a bit of normalcy into a great unknown. A great unknown that I’ve been anxiously awaiting for many years now. I’ve begun a career as a writer, writing my first novel. I finished the first draft of that this year and have spent the latter part of the year tearing it apart in pursuit of further excellence. This will be a pattern I’ll become quite familiar with the further I go into it. And 2018 will be when it all materialized.
But it wasn’t just the writing. I reverted back to being a nomad, giving up my apartment and a home, this time in Chicago, for the road. I did quite a bit of traveling (listed below) but the crux of it was four months in Asia. I’m ending the year in Mexico City where I plan to be for several months.
Last year, in my reflection, I wrote that in 2017, “I spent more time with myself—meditating, reading, writing, floating. But Chicago is still a city of friends and I’m still an unabashed extrovert.”
So you see, things have changed. I spent much, much more with myself this year—traveling alone for significant stretches. And though I was in Chicago for the first half (and living my extroverted life), the writing life turned me much more introverted. Focused and dedicated to my project. I’ve asked myself if I thought this might be a pattern, which time will only tell. Exploring that idea and more on the writing-focused website I launched this year.
In summation, it was an exciting year. It revolved around one big change, sure, but it had moments of exultation as well. I officiated not one but TWO weddings this year. Grateful to have had those honors. I visited three new countries; rented houses with friends in Wisconsin and California, went back to New Orleans. Got to be a third-wheel roommate with some best friends who graciously took me into their apartment in the sky. I transitioned away from work with some relationships still strong and in tact from Uber. I kept up with people far and wide, visited friends all over the place, and read a tremendous deal of fiction and beyond. Another year down and another year of experiences that guide me into a fuller life.
I reflected upon that growth of experience in a poem I wrote at the very beginning of the year, for my 30th birthday, which I performed in front of dozens of people at perhaps my favorite event of the year—a house concert with my friends and family in my old apartment in Pilsen. It was the best way I could have imagined to start this whole year and it set the tone I hoped it would.
Travels: Chicago > San Francisco > Lake Geneva > San Francisco > Sea Ranch, CA > Phoenix > Napa Valley > New York City > Savannah > Cape Town > Garden Route > Balule Nature Reserve > Johannesburg > Los Angeles > Minneapolis > South Korea > Indonesia > Sri Lanka > Indonesia > Laos > South Korea > Vietnam > Thailand > San Francisco > Los Angeles > Chicago > New Orleans > Mexico City
Writing: Oh boy. 2018 saw more writing than perhaps any year of my life—even the creative writing years in Madison. Why? Well I wrote the first draft of a novel, clocking in above 160,000 words. And beyond that I journaled my travels, wrote letters, wrote halves of short stories, travel essays, and more. In 2019, I hope to spend more time writing, even if the word output isn’t as prolific.
I tracked my word count for most of my first draft writing time in Asia. Here’s the average daily word output from each of the countries I went to:
Reading: Last year, only 20% of the books I read were fiction. This year will flip and be much closer to 80% fiction. This was purposeful. Much advice given from writers and articles is to read prolifically while you write. And so I picked it up in Fiction. There are two dangers with this: (1) you start to bend your sentences toward the style of whoever you’re reading, (2) you get wildly intimidated by reading fiction that’s way better than yours. I’ve been a victim of both.
Here are the books I finished in 2018, with their date of completion.
1. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Michael Chabon); March 25
2. The Secret History (Donna Tartt); April 23
3. The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt); May 6
4. Horace and Me (Harry Eyres); May 9
5. The Little Friend (Donna Tartt); May 20
6. Notes on Camp (Susan Sontag); June 12
7. Siddhartha (Herman Hesse); June 16
8. Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Marisha Pessl); July 13
9. The Caveman’s Valentine (George Dawes Green); July 19
10. The Immortalists (Chloe Benjamin); July 21
11. My Absolute Darling (Gabriel Tallent); July 23
12. Less (Andrew Sean Greer); July 26
13. Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of a Fist (Sunil Yapa); Aug 2
14. Colorless Tsukuru Tazkai And His Years Of Pilgrimage (Haruki Murakami); Aug 6
15. A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara); August 18
16. American Psycho (Bret Easton Ellis); August 24
17. Old School (Tobias Wolff); September 1
18. Lincoln In The Bardo (George Saunders); September 23
19. The City In Which I Love You (Li-Young Lee): September 25
20. The Hours (Michael Cunningham); September 27
21. A Way In The World (V.S. Naipaul); Oct 1
22. The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion); Oct 3
23. What Wast Lost (Catherine O’Flynn); Oct 8
24. The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead); Oct 21
25. The Game (Neil Strauss); Oct 23
26. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Renni Browne, Dave King); Oct 23
27. The Circle (Dave Eggers); Oct 26
28. The Sellout (Paul Beatty); Nov 13
29. Poetry Will Save Your Life (Jill Bialosky); Nov 21
30. Letters To A Young Writer (Colum McCann): Nov 27
31. Draft #4 (John McPhee); Dec 1
32. Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner); Dec 13
33. Memory Wall (Anthony Doerr); Dec 16
34. The Locals (Jonathan Dee); Dec 21
35. Bright Lights, Big City (Jay McInerney) Dec 23
For record-keeping purposes, I finished 19 books in 2015, 21 in 2016, and 24 in 2017.
Professionally: Well, I did a little bit of a wardrobe change here (probably literally—though interesting that on some days I get more dressed up to write, not quite Tom Wolfe status but still). I left my Learning & Development job in corporate America to make it on my own; writing my novel and freelancing through some connections to pay for some travels. And that’s been fantastic.
Pearl Jam: No Pearl Jam this year. It was the first time I missed Pearl Jam playing Chicago since I stared seeing them in 2003.
Favorite 2018 New Thing: The Siblings Folder
This one comes with gratitude to my sister Sammi. She realized earlier this year that with her travel, mine, and our other sister growing up we would have less time dedicated to talking with each other, learning about each others lives, and forging our bond as siblings. In February, we started a dropbox folder where each of us asks a question to the group (that we’ll also answer). Then, before the end of the month, each person writes a life update and answers each of the three questions.
Most months, though sometimes every other, we gather for a siblings chat to go over answers and talk about life with one another. If we’re able to do it in person, we try. Otherwise we do it over Skype which will likely be the case going into 2019.
But it’s been fantastic to get to know my sisters better and to get to keep them updated in my life, as well as answer tough life questions honestly.
Other Favorites: Birthday House Concerts, Vox’s Earworm,
Favorite book Read In 2018: The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I read some good ones this year but none took my breath away like Tartt’s debut. I’ve written about this elsewhere on sites but I picked up the book without knowing much about it on a Heathrow bookstore en route to South Africa.
I was swept in immediately. It’s a brilliantly written book but also just speaks to other interests of mine—overly educated erudites at college, reading all day and debating dead authors and dead languages. So I loved that. Toss in a murder mystery, and an innocent narrator swept up in over-the-top worship for another character (her Henry is like a prep school Gatsby who speaks 7 languages and can knock a guy out with a single punch).
Anyway, I finished The Secret History in two days, of nearly non-stop reading, even as I got to Cape Town. My first day and a half there was reading in cafes and devouring every word in it. It’s my most dog-earred and marginalia-ized book of many years and I return to it as I begin writing my own.
Other Favorites: Less, A Little Life, The Hours, Angle of Repose
I haven’t made a category for new favorite quote found in a year but I’ve been coming back to this one from The Hours:
“We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep. It’s as simple and ordinary as that……There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) know these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.”
Favorite 2018 movie: Roma
This one surely carries both recency and location biases, but that’s okay. Watching Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Roma’ while in Mexico City was a special gift. Because there’s so many nuances he got right (of course he did). Dogs are always barking here, for instance. Garages are beautifully constructed and marvelous. And anyone doubting that street parades happen at random is dead wrong—I’ve encountered three in the 13 days I’ve been here.
But really what got me about this movie was its insistence that no matter what your circumstance (and each character is given their own), life around you continues on. Whether chaotic or in order (depending on your worldview), it marches on. And that’s what made Cuarón’s long panning shots on the streets so powerful. He does the same with water. It’s a masterpiece as I see it; a force combining the brilliant character studies and writing of ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien’ and the innovative direction (and editing, done by him) of ‘Children of Men’.
Other Favorites: Springsteen On Broadway, Three Identical Strangers, The Favourite, American Animals, First Reformed
Favorite 2018 album: ‘More Blood, More Tracks’ (Bob Dylan)
This wasn’t even close. And it’s also not an album. There was some good new, original music this year, but nothing groundbreaking as others have been. Or maybe my tastes are being left behind.
So 2018’s favorite album is a collection of unreleased bootleg versions (some aren’t even versions, just attempts) of Bob Dylan’s piece de resistance 1975 album ‘Blood on The Tracks’. Instead of spelling all of that out, you can read my thoughts on it here.
Favorite 2018 song: ‘Father Time’ Axel Mansoor
I may be biased here since I got to see a live versions of many of Axel’s songs at the memorable birthday party mentioned above. But know him or not, I’m going with ‘Father Time’ as my favorite new song of 2018. And the bias can be disproven with the numbers. According to the fact crunch of Spotify, ‘Father Time’ was my second most played 2018 song and in comparing the only above (Brian Fallon’s ‘Watson’), I’m going with Axel. Especially because this version puts it over the top.
In some moments, the song has been an emotional lift in remembering the existential inability we have to reconfigure time’s arrow. In other moments, it’s a simple and beautiful ode.
Well done, Axel. Proud of you for making this but much more grateful to be a listener.
Other Favorites: ‘Neptune’ Brian Fallon, ‘Young Lover – piano version’ St. Vincent, ‘Me And My Husband’ Mitski
(For non 2018 songs, there was a clear favorite from this year and that’s ‘Lover’s Spit’ by Broken Social Scene – both the original version and the Feist version)
Favorite 2018 Place Visited: South Africa
It’s always hard to pick a favorite here but South Africa was really an incredible experience—I think perhaps for containing so much in one country, I got to spend three weeks there, starting in Cape Town and ending in Johannesburg. Along the way was a few days in wine country, a roadtrip through the southern coast’s Garden Route and an amazing safari experience near Kruger National Park.
While traveling through South Africa, you needfully learn a lot about the nation’s history, as well as its amazingly diverse wildlife. These add to the richness of the country. It’s a fantastic place to visit and since it offers SO much, it can really fulfill any traveler’s desire. I loved that and I loved my time there.
(South Africa was my favorite new place visited. 2018 was also the first time back in South Korea since my year there in 2011; that was magical. I love that country!)
Favorite 2018 Meal: Bollywood Eggs (Samadi Cafe, Bali)
I love eggs. But I learned that I love eggs even more when you add in green chiles, mustard seeds, fresh curry leaves, tumeric, ginger, garlic, shallots and coconut milk. Add in sides of green sambal, coconut curry, warm chapatti bread and a side of kimchi and I’m sold. I think I got this three days in a row in Canggu, and pledged to figure out a way to make it for myself. That’ll be in 2019!
And now some pictures from 2018 (hover over for captions!)
Soundcheck roommate jam session
Just checking to make sure
Axel headlining the birthday
NorCal Airbnb; an amazing experience
The poster for the 30th Birthday Concert
Los tres perros de Pilsen
One of many safari pics
Reunited with my favorite snack of all time
South Korean Jeju Island art
My ride in Sri Lanka thanks to a friendly stranger
Who wore it better?
Said goodbye to the car I’ve driven my whole adult life this year
This colorful lovely is a house in New Orleans. For some months, over half a decade ago, it was a house that I called home. Fresh with a new paint coat of whatever colors you’d call those, the house looks as full of its character now as it did those years ago.
But this was the first time I’d seen the house since I left New Orleans in the summer of 2012.
My relationship with the house, like my relationship with New Orleans at large, is as undefined as it is positive; fuzzed of definition, bright with life. Perhaps the house, then, is a metaphor for the poignancy we all want, perhaps it’s just the type of perspective one gets from the lez bon temp roulez lifestyle of New Orleans.
I say the relationship is undefined because this might not have truly been a home, not for that long anyway. Or was it? I stayed in New Orleans for less than half of a year. Is that “living” somewhere? What’s the definition for that length of time, anyway? One month? Three? Eight? Years?
Revisiting New Orleans this month I am reminded that I know the city. I know places there—and I know streets, and restaurants, and where to go for this or that. I know more than someone who has just visited. Being there, I found myself wanting to explore what exactly what my relationship was to the place that I knew, but still felt like a visitor. Because spending time there again, I was flooded with love for the city; the special things only it has. And there are a lot.
What I decided was that my relationship in terms of living/passing through there didn’t matter as much as the positivity of what my memory had kept and the path the New Orleans brought me down.
Because when I decided to go to in late 2011, I had no idea what the city looked like. I hadn’t seen as much as a single map of it. So I certainly didn’t know what my future neighborhood, the Treme, was—or where it was. Or, perhaps more importantly, what it meant. Because in New Orleans, like some other cities of noble histories, neighborhoods are more than their names. They are stories themselves.
I definitely didn’t know how to pronounce ‘Ursulines’ either. I’m not even sure I do now.
But I found a post on Craigslist. It was a couple looking for a housemate or two. They had just found a house in the Treme. It was recently “fixed up”. They couldn’t afford the whole thing on their own to rent, but they wanted to move in the same day I was planning to come down. Most importantly, they were open to temporary arrangements. I was intrigued and that was before they really even sold me on the house itself. It had a backyard like you wouldn’t believe, with a patio surrounded by a tangled giant green garden. Beyond that backyard, just steps away, was a historically black church built in the 1840s.
I called. Things clicked. I was in.
In for something I had no idea about. What was a ‘shotgun’ house anyway?
But that didn’t matter. I was 22. I had just gotten back from South Korea and had no discernible plan but finding some kind of way to make money and continuing to travel. A friend was in New Orleans. He spoke highly of it, especially for someone looking to find something interesting.
I was dating a girl at the time as well. She was on the East Coast and I somehow convinced her to join me on the journey. We packed my car and drove from Chicago, right up to Ursuline Street where we’d find this house behind its purple shutter stacks.
I’m not sure if it sounds like the kind of barely-baked plan that it was. But it was certainly that. And I was proud of that, in a way—the way that a 22 year old should and could be proud of throwing his life in a car and driving to a city like New Orleans to figure some shit out.
But here’s the twist. Here’s what came back to me when looking at that house this last weekend: it all worked out.
The house was bare when we got there but soon it started getting filled. With furniture and things we brought, but also with music from the roommates who played several instruments. The ceilings were high, the garden grew in the warm February, the neighbors were all interesting. They played trumpet deep into the night. It echoed everywhere. It was a quintessential New Orleans house in some ways, without even knowing it.
The days filled in. I found work. We didn’t have wi-fi so it gave good reason to explore the various coffee shops of the city and really dive into virtual work. I made friends, and got to spend good time with old ones. I explored the long avenues Uptown. The (unbelievably talented) roommates played house concerts, the Red Hot Chili Peppers filmed a music video on the corner, we met Quentin Tarantino in abar while he was in NOLA filming Django.
Drinks were had, nights went long. Mardi Gras was celebrated; as was French Quarter Fest, Jazz Fest, St. Patrick’s Day, Sunday Second line parades. The food was relished: gumbo, po-boys, red beans and rice, alligator sausage, crawfish, way more. Visitors came to see the city and I got to play host; at Commander’s Palace, at Le Bon Temps Roule, on Frenchmen Street.
The lists are incomplete here but are dizzyingly long for the short time there, because the days are so full of life there.
And that’s what my relationship comes back to me as; for the house on Ursulines Street and for the city. Life being packed in; crowded hours of joy. Little sleep, lots of laughs.
But what compels me to write is what it all means to me now. Because New Orleans was a start for me. A start of a nomadic, off-kilter way of living that I’ve kept in spurts since then. And sure, I went to South Korea first which started the whole travel vibe, but I knew I’d get a foreign-ized experience traveling so many thousands of miles away. And it was contained there; come for a year, teach, leave.
NOLA was open, an experiment in living with a loose plan. And it turned into this gift because it worked so well; because it showed me I could live beautifully by being groundless. In that, it inspired in me a lifestyle which I am still crafting. Which has lived on now for the better part of a decade.
Some things have changed in New Orleans, some have not. The house is still there, though it looks fresh. When I left New Orleans this time, my thought was one of relief. That New Orleans is still there. That the house is. That my plans are still loose—this time I escape to Mexico City with as little reason as I went to New Orleans, but with a whole new goal. I left NOLA last week knowing that if I need to, the city would be there to return back to. Should I need it for another experiment.
While you’re here, read some other posts involving New Orleans: