Category Archives: personal

Wanderlust, distraction, quiet

I’m reading Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines now. I’ll spare you the several things that give me pause about his whole enterprise, but this is a passage worth reading, and I think it holds up well even without context.


“I had a presentiment that the ‘travelling’ phase of my life might be passing. I felt, before the malaise of settlement crept over me, that I should reopen those notebooks. I should set down on paper a résumé of the ideas, quotations and encounters which had amused and obsessed me; and which I hoped would shed light on what is, for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness.

Pascal, in one of his gloomier pensées, gave it as his opinion that all our miseries stemmed from a single cause: our inability to remain quietly in a room.

Why, he asked, must a man with sufficient to live on feel drawn to divert himself on long sea voyages? To dwell in another town? To go off in search of a peppercorn? Or go off to war and break skulls?

Later, on further reflection, having discovered the cause of our misfortunes, he wished to understand the reason for them, he found one very good reason: namely, the natural unhappiness of our weak mortal condition; so unhappy that when we gave to it all our attention, nothing could console us.

One thing alone could alleviate our despair, and that was distraction (divertissement): yet this was the worst of our misfortunes, for in distraction we were prevented from thinking about ourselves and were gradually brought to ruin.

Could it be, I wondered, that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?

All the Great Teachers have preached that Man, originally, was a ‘wanderer in the scorching and barren wilderness of this world’ – the words are those of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor – and that to rediscover his humanity, he must slough off attachments and take to the road.

My two most recent notebooks were crammed with jottings taken in South Africa, where I had examined, at first hand, certain evidence on the origin of our species. What I learned there – together with what I now knew about the Songlines – seemed to confirm the conjecture I had toyed with for so long: that Natural Selection has designed us – from the structure of our brain-cells to the structure of our big toe – for a career of seasonal journeys on foot through a blistering land of thorn-scrub or desert.

If this were so; if the desert were ‘home’; if our instincts were forged in the desert; to survive the rigours of the desert – then it is easier to understand why greener pastures pall on us; why possessions exhaust us, and why Pascal’s imaginary man found his comfortable lodgings a prison.”

-Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines, 1987, p. 161-2.

I started doing zazen the final semester of my senior year in college. It was a pretty rough patch in my life, and it helped me get past the general the noise in my head around the terror-of-the-future. (Aside: I think my life would have been a whole lot better if I’d have kept up with it.)

I came to a lot of the same conclusions that Chatwin attributes to Pascal above, about our inability to sit quietly in a room (in fact, maybe I somehow encountered that quote along the line, because those were exactly the words I used in my own head about the subject).  And it led me to the belief that I had to at least temporarily separate myself from the people around me who not only had more trouble sitting quietly alone than I did but who were hell bent on turning up the volume knobs.

There’s something to the idea of doing journeys on foot that I find appealing too, which is something to take up later.

Morse, painting, and loss

You’ve probably heard of Samuel F. B. Morse in the context of his contributions to telegraphy.

I first learned that he started out life as a painter during my sophomore year in college. I was editor of the campus newspaper and  was interviewing Andrew Ford, the then-new president of my school, in his office. He pointed to the portrait of former president Elihu Baldwin on the wall, and said “did you know that Samuel Morse painted that?”

Turns out that the story of Morse’s Wabash connection is moderately interesting (er… at least if you went to Wabash).

But for a really good story, check out this episode of The Memory Palace podcast from a couple of years ago. It tells the somewhat heartbreaking story of how Morse the  painter became driven to improve the speed of communication.

(By the way, The Memory Palace is produced way too infrequently, but is absolutely worth a listen every time).

And we’re back

Even though I have not been blogging much (okay, any) these days, I was horrified to notice a couple of weeks ago that I had let my registration lapse on Happily, I was able to get it back. And here we are.

Deep-fried tofurkey 2012

In case you were curious, my 2004 post about deep-fried tofurkey is still in the top 20 Google results, though that means that many brave souls have attempted this and lived to write about it.

We will be having conventionally baked tofurkey. Last year I smoked a real turkey on the Big Green Egg, which piqued much curiosity of neighbors and passers by. But it was a lot of work for the only non-vegetarian in the house (me), and this year I’d rather spend that time cooking inside with Terri and the spawn.

True tales of the mid-aughts

Back in 2005/2006 I used to check my RSS reader to see if I had written anything on my blog. I was always sad if I hadn’t and excited if I had. Then I would read it in my RSS reader. Then I would click through and re-read it on my actual blog.

Now this narcissism has been democratized and barely-literate celebrities tweet occasionally interesting things in a place where they can be asymmetrically followed, and barely-literate people I slogged it out with from K-12 post occasionally interesting things on Facebook. I’m being mean. They’re not barely literate, it’s just that 20 years ago if you would have told me any of those people would have been writing for fun, I would not have believed it.

I can’t say that on the whole my life hasn’t been enriched by this turn of events. Turns out that people I had written off in my youth have something to say.

But something has been lost. Many things have been lost. The paragraph, for one. The art of the essay, for two. Thoughts that lead to other thoughts that lead to other thoughts and then spiral back and modify the original thought. Also, I increasingly am not getting the same narcissistic buzz from “sharing” using other peoples’ tools. I don’t see anything resembling me in the person I see when I click on my profile in Facebook, I don’t see the whole me when I look at my Twitter feed. And god help me if I want to remember back farther than 2 months in either platform.

When I started blogging, I feared that the platform was too lo-fi, that it was a format someone else had invented, even in those early days codified into conventions set by others, and that if I started pouring myself into it, I would lose sight of the reality that not only was I not the person who was described in the words in the blog, but I was not even really the person writing the blog. I only managed to start blogging after I wrote my first blog post, a long stemwinder— which is still waiting in my drafts folder, maybe I’ll post it someday— which could have been more succinctly summed up by its first sentence: “the tao that can be blogged is not the eternal tao.”

And yes, I’m well aware of the irony that that’s less than 140 characters.

In the days when you were hopelessly poor, I just liked you more (part 2)

[part 1 was here]

This phrase still pops into my mind uninvited all the time.

It’s not that you were a better person. It’s not that you’re a bad person now that you’re comfortable-to-well-off. It’s not that the person you were then didn’t show a hint of the person you became, would fatalistically make the same series of choices that ended up turning you into the person that you became.

It’s that I just liked you more.

Take Back Thanksgiving

So, Christmas has been encroaching on Thanksgiving (and has had its eyes on Halloween) for decades, but apparently it has now metastasized to the point where Wal-Mart and K-Mart are actually open on Thanksgiving Day.

Look, I love Christmas as much as the next guy, maybe more. But it’s only meaningful because it’s special and the more of the year it takes up the less special it is. Thanksgiving is a fantastic and unique holiday. It’s maybe even more American than the 4th of July: lots of countries celebrate their independence or founding, but we have an almost universally adopted (and totally made up!) holiday that almost all Americans have a warm place in their heart for, that works with any religion or lack thereof, and has extremely achievable expectations (eat a lot? check. watch some football? check. spend time with people you love? check.).

So please, whatever you do, don’t shop on Thanksgiving Day. Leave the stores empty so that the Wal-Mart and K-Mart employees get to spend the day with their families next year. We can do this. Thank you.

An Answer

At about 5:45pm today, I almost cranked up the ol’ WordPress and almost posted something titled “An Open Question To The Universe” the content of which was “How has my life become a series of such situations as ‘if I don’t figure out a way to get a 4′x8′ sheet of plywood mounted on the wall of a room in Chelsea I’ve never seen, by tomorrow morning, my entire company will not have email by November 30th?”.

Shortly after I got home [decided to take the bus and ran into our condo-neighbor and had a very pleasant conversation; walked to the corner liquor store and bought a growler of Opa Opa IPA for me and a 2L bottle of Diet Coke for T] I got a phone call from a very helpful co-worker who let me know that (without boring you with the details) things might actually turn out OK in the aforementioned room in New York (which is my co’s new office location), plywood and internet-wise. Which was a huge relief.

And once I got home, another unexpected treat awaited: a lovely little thing in the mail from the Sun Hill Press. You may know them indirectly; they are the folks who do the letterpress print work for Brookfield Stationery (whose stuff is found in many East Coast fine stationery and office supply stores). Darrell does the press work; his wife (whose name I am struggling to remember) does the design, and the Brookfield folks do the distribution/marketing/etc. Terri and I went to their shop (with the wee 5-month-old Rainer) last year on a Letterpress Guild of New England outing, and it was quite an inspirational creative space. From Elizabeth’s (yes! that’s her name!) lovely attic studio to Darrell’s massive Heidelberg press in the basement to the delicious lunch they fed the Guild members on a misty cold October Saturday in Western Massachusetts, it was a highly memorable visit.

Here’s my favorite page:
Something no one else is reading

(They don’t really have a website, and there’s no way to buy it on Amazon. If you want a copy, though, they’re US$3, just comment and I’ll send you the contact info).

Anyway, I felt a whole lot better about the universe by the end of tonight.

The Week That Was: one year ago

Digging through my drafts folder, I found this post, pretty much complete, from a year ago, about what a momentous week that was. Indeed it was!

Terri and I were just commenting on how this was such a momentous week. And then it gets more momentous!

Saturday. (Oct. 31). Terri’s parents drove up to Boston for a visit. Rainer’s first Halloween. I get up the gumption to talk to our across-the-street neighbors and bring their kids trick-or-treat candy. They turn out to be very nice.

Sunday. Thanks to Nana and Grandpa’s visit, the morning features our first outing without Rainey, pretty much since he was born: the Boston Vegetarian foodfest. We met up with Lisa and Sierra, and Sierra is disappointed that Baby Rainer isn’t with us. The afternoon, also sans the kid, features me and Terri test driving cars. I’m 35 and have never really shopped for, bought, or even really owned a car. We’re sort of thinking of a pre-2007 Toyota Matrix or a 2009+ Honda Fit. Someday we may laugh at ourselves for this, but at 10pm, we sent Terri’s parents out to entertain themselves in the kitchen while we watched the penultimate Mad Men of season 3. Terri’s parents totally understand: we got them hooked, but (at the time) they’re only up to halfway through season 2.

Monday. I get up at 5am, quickly shower, and board a red line train at 5:56. I’m at South Station by 6:17, and in the bus terminal by 6:22. The $13 Bolt Bus leaves at 6:30. I sleep for an hour or so, and then work pretty much the rest of the way, thanks to the wi-fi. Because of traffic on the cross-bronx expressway, we don’t get in until about 11:05. The office is in Chelsea, 2 subway stations south of the spot near MSG/Penn Station where the Bolt Bus stops. I have lunch with the two new members of my team, enjoy the letterpress exhibit in the mall part of Chelsea Market, chat with various other colleagues, do some more work, and then at 6:10, pack it up, buy some ginger snaps in one of the bakeries in the mall, and head back to Penn Station, take the Acela home. Because of some bridge work in CT (thanks stimulus package!), I don’t get home until almost midnight.

Tuesday. Maybe the least momentous day of the week. Terri and her folks and Rainey go to a nearby farm (that we’ve never been to before) and get gourds and misc. food. We have enchiladas for dinner. We watch some season 2 Mad Men.

Wednesday. I leave work early and meet Terri at the Kenmore Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates to find out the results of her MRI. The good news is it’s not a brain tumor. This has been hanging over us for weeks. The bad news is the symptoms (vision weirdness, headaches) are unexplained. But since the worst case scenario is over, all the other explanations are pretty harmless so the doctor recommends holding tight for a few months. We are hugely relived.

Thursday. Happy birthday, Terri! Especially happy celebration given that we feel like we just got a huge reprieve. Our first official *date* without Rainey. We meet at Noir in the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square for a drink, and I have an expertly mixed Sazerac, possibly the best mixed drink I’ve had in my life. Dinner at Rialto. It’s insanely good. We walk the three miles home arm in arm in the cold. There is a carrot cake and a beautiful baby waiting for us at home. They’re at the season 2 Mad Men finale, “Meditations on an Emergency”.

Friday. Rainey learns to suck his thumb. Through Facebook, we learn that our friends John and Sonya’s daughter Lydia has learned to walk. We decide that this has been a hugely momentous week. And then we notice another item on Facebook: our friends Amy and Doug appear to be engaged (we are still dying for details, call us, damnit!).

Daily Dispatch: 6 November 2010

Or, Stuff I would have Put Into Facebook But Did Not

  • Rainer’s been a total joy today. I nicked his finger this morning when trying to clip his nails (he does not like this, and moved his hand at the last minute), and there was more blood than the nick warranted, and it made me feel terrible. But he was fine and I let him watch his hour of Sesame Street while I cleaned up in the kitchen and around the house. I heared a “aaaaaaaaaaaahhhh!!!!” from the living room and saw him running into the hallway at one point. Turns out Mr. Snuffalupagus was on. Rainer’s terrified of him.
  • I talked to Terri this morning; the NYC Interpol show last night that she had a photo pass to was good, but she was frustrated that security made the photographers stand in the aisles and not in the pit in front of the stage.
  • We went to Whole Foods and I felt insanely ripped off at paying $4 for 10 oz. of spinach. Two weekends ago we bought 2 lbs. of spinach at Wilson Farms in Lexington for $3. I just didn’t feel up to schlepping out to Lexington today.
  • I made a lasagne to bake tonight after Terri gets home. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can cut corners and don’t really need to cook the lasagne noodles before you bake it. That’s total crap. You at least have to get them flexible.
  • This Neil Gaiman article in Spin about the Dresden Dolls is so very great.