Actually enjoying my journal of things, places, and events

13.07.22-CAFCI’ve only been writing my secret journal of things, places, and events for about 18 days now, but I’ve very much enjoyed the exercise. Since the journal is focused on concrete things, I count it as part of the day’s writing, and it’s a great place to write something down even on days (like today) when I don’t feel like doing any substantive work.

I keep the journal in Evernote, which does make me kind of twitchy (I hate putting anything into a closed system–one where I don’t control the actual files), but I figure as long as I export it every once in awhile, there’s a limit to how much I can lose. And there’s something very pleasant about updating it from my phone or about casually browsing backwards. Unlike with my last journal, I actually want to read this one. What happened in my life, I wonder. What did I see? What did I hear?

Once you start recording concrete things, all kinds of interesting stuff happens. Your novelistic eye awakens. For instance, I’ve begun to notice that even in description and summary, what I focus on the most are incongruities: maybe someone is wearing something that seems out of character, or they do something that alters my opinion of them. In order for something to be interesting, there has to be tension in every line between what you expect and what actually happens. And that’s just as true when noting things about your real life as it is when you’re writing about a fictional one.

It’s also interesting the sort of things that I write down. I think that before I read The Life of Johnson I could not have written this journal, because I simply wouldn’t have known what to write about. But that book made realize that a chronicle of conversations can be interesting too. My life isn’t that interesting, so I mostly tend to note down either conversations that I’ve had or stories that people have told me. I try, oftentimes, to record actual dialogue. I mean, it’s made up, of course, just as all remembered dialogue is made up, but it’s fun to try to capture the actual cadences of conversation.

Anyway, I looked and looked through my journal to see if there was anything that I felt comfortable sharing, and I found something! I went to court recently to support a friend (she wasn’t on trial, but she had an interest in the proceedings), and here were my notes upon returning:

“Went to Court today. It was the arraignments and sentencing court on the seventh floor of the courthouse. Very institutional building, with pew-like seating and very high ceilings. A massive flag hung, facing downward, behind the judge, but it was wrinkled and worn. He was a strange looking guy. His hair was black and white and brushed in two waves to either side of his face. He affected a paternal demeanor but talked very fast and seemed harried. It was so institutional, this processing of people. In front of the judge is not an open area, but a bullpen, in which the prosecutors and (I assume) the public defenders sit and work. The judge was surrounded, on all sides, by huge stacks of paper. I only saw one black person on their side—a woman clerk. Otherwise everybody was white, except for one Asian public defender.
“Reams of papers could be written about the semiotics of court. It’s a strange place—different from most city agencies—because there’s both a friendliness and a gravitas. Even the sheriffs aren’t as menacing as police normally are—they double as traffic guards and ushers. And there are so many staff people, so there’s always someone to talk to. You’re never fully lost at the courthouse, as you might be at the DMV.
“The judge, too, attempts to be very congenial. For instance, when releasing a man five days early so he could make thanksgiving, he said, “Not to pry, but do they want you home? Sorry to ask, but the answer’s not always yes.”
“And yet there’s a mercilessness to it. This is a raw, brutal processing of people. The judge speaks rapidly, rattling off the phrases he’s required to say. I especially was struck by his listing of fines, “$85 criminal appearance fee, $35 processing fee, $40 printing fee” that they have to pay in order to leave.
“You also have no idea when your case will be called. You sit there—maybe for hours—waiting and hoping that the next name will be the one you want to hear. But you don’t know.
“The action grinds to a halt for long periods of time as the judge and his clerks and the lawyers convene about things that are arcane and poorly understand. And the acoustics are so bad that you can’t ever hear what the judge is saying. Many of the proceedings are relatively minor. Was surprised that prisoners have to come here for things which are so small. One prisoner appeared with the request that his mom be allowed to pick up the phone and speakers that the cops had confiscated when he was arrested.
“The fist seemed ever-present to me, no matter how much they tried to hide it with their courtesies.”

The tale of the three bros and the girl who looked like she was in high school but was hopefully at least a college student

Normally, flying in an airplane is a horrible, brain-destroying experience that makes me feel like several hours of my life have been stolen from me. However, on the flight back from Wyoming (which left from Denver, because Denver is apparently next to Wyoming), I amused myself by watching the interaction between the three bro-ish fellows in the row in front of me and the girl who was in the row in front of them.

Say whatever you want about bros, but they are often a very handsome lot, and this trio was particularly good-looking. As I gleaned from their conversation, they were headed back from a bachelor party. This was particularly fortuitous, because they all mapped perfectly onto characters from the Hangover franchise. There was a tall, blonde, aloof Bradley Cooper type, and a medium-sized blue-eyed sober-minded Justin Bartha type, and a weedy, awkward, socially inept, Zach Galifanakis type.

I started watching them when Justin offered to buy a drink for the girl in front of them, who was wearing a green hoodie and high-waisted cutoffs and, honestly, looked about sixteen years old. As far as I can tell, she was dismayed because Southwest only takes credit cards, and she didn’t have one. She was a little reluctant to take his money, but I think he used some sort of drink ticket, and for some reason (probably because it wasn’t freely fungible for money and as such didn’t feel as crass) that was more acceptable to her.

After that, the girl and the three guys struck up a long conversation. She talked about how she rides horses on her parents’ farm, and how her horse had recently foaled, and they talked about their weekend (she was very impressed that Bradley had bought a $500 ticket just so he could spend 36 hours partying with his friend Justin).

I was fascinated by the encounter, because she was obviously very young looking, and these guys, although handsome, were three very dissipate thirty plus year olds (all of whom consumed multiple drinks during our two-hour Sunday evening flight). It was interesting to watch the mating calls of people who are roughly my age but not from my hipster-leaning social group. I’ve always been somewhat partial to the bro-types, because there’s something a bit refreshing about their confidence. For instance, hipsters don’t really flirt, because flirting means being comfortable with ambiguity: when you flirt, you have to accept that neither you nor the other person is being exactly clear about where things will go or what your intentions are.

And there’s something very open about the bros. They have enthusiasm. For instance, when she was talking about her horses, they seemed really into it. It’s obviously a sort of display–they’re trying to appear friendly and charming–but it’s a display that doesn’t contain irony or subtextual posturing. For instance, they started teasing the girl about the names of her horses–the horses  had really human names, like Anna or Jim–it didn’t sound like they thought they were better than her, or like they were trying to score points.

So I was like, wow, have I been wrong about the bros this whole time? Are they a gentle, charming people?

But then the girl got up to go to the bathroom and, while she was gone, Zach leaned over and, in a low, smarmy tone of voice, said something like, “Hey, I bet she’d really be stoked if you offered to show her around San Francisco. Tell her to come up. Hell, why don’t we all ride horses together. We could all ride horses on the beach,” and then he made the fist-punching gesture, that functions as the universal symbol for ‘Let’s tap that’ and they went through a round of sniggering.

At that point I was all like Ahah! They’re exactly what I thought!

But then they came back, and she started showing her pictures of her foal, and they oohed and ahhed over it and seemed so genuinely touched that I was like, huh, I don’t know, maybe this enthusiasm isn’t what’s being faked…maybe it’s the smarminess that was fake….

After the flight ended, I watched to see if there are any further developments, but the girl went off to baggage claim and the bros immediately headed to the airport bar to see what was going on with the Warriors game. What I’d interpreted (and what one of the men had explicitly described) as sexual predation was, really, probably nothing more than an airplane flirtation. frat-daddies-frat-bro-douche-1314669069

In the end, I think this story probably reveals more about my own tendency to try to fit a narrative onto things. Because what I saw, ultimately, was four tired people who were crammed into a plane together and engaged in an hour or so of conversation that was, undoubtedly, enlivened by a mutual attraction. And, as in all conversations, there was an element of performance (would they have been interested in her horses if she hadn’t been so pretty? Would she have shown the horses to them if they hadn’t been so handsome?) but there was also an element of human connection–displays of emotion that, although partially a result of sexual attraction, were also genuinely felt.

And yes, when the girl was gone, the guys did feel the need to paper over the things they’d said and done by attributing them to an explicit sexual motivation, but, ultimately, that seems more a matter of socialization than of character. Like me, they act differently around people they’re attracted to. But, unlike me, they exist in a social system where certain behaviors are only acceptable in the context of sexual attraction. In this case, I’m left wondering if bros flirt not so much to get with women, but because flirtation is one of the only contexts in which they’re allowed to be enthusiast over non-masculine things.

Today I visited the Googleplex

IMG_0238You’re not a real Silicon Valley town unless some startup has laid claim to you and used metonymy to make your name synonymous with its brand. You’ve got Apple in Cupertino; Facebook in Menlo Park; Pixar in Emeryville; etc.

Anyway, the company that owns Mountain View is Google.

Today, I was walking around my aunt’s neighborhood in Mountain View when I found a little trail and followed it north of the highway. And then I slowly started coming upon buildings that were completely ordinary and looked just like every other office building in the Peninsula and the South Bay. The only thing that was weird about them was that there were these rainbow-colored bikes everywhere. And for some reason, the bikes weren’t locked…

I immediately had an impulse to steal one of the bikes. But I didn’t. Because I am a law-abiding citizen.

Anyway, longstoryshort, the Google campus is full of free bikes. It also has a tiny swimming pool that I assume has some kind of current or something so that you can swim in it while staying in the same place. And that was the only interesting thing that I saw. Other than that, it just looked like a massive office park. Physically speaking, there was really nothing special about it. I feel like I’ve heard so much yammering about how these campuses are amazing paradises, but at least architecturally speaking, they are not. The World Bank complex in DC, where I used to work, was a much cooler looking place. It was a ten-story building with a massive internal atrium that went all the way to the top, so the entire building was very open and airy. In fact, if you’re talking about impressive office buildings, I feel like the government has the private sector beat, because all of our nation’s most celebrated buildings–the White House, the Pentagon, the Capitol–are basically government office buildings.

I guess skyscrapers are something else, though. It’s been years since I’ve been inside a really tall skyscraper, but I imagine that those are somewhat cool. Still, the Googleplex was not nearly as cool as a really tall skyscraper (although I learned today, from Wikipedia, that Google also owns Manhattan’s third-largest office building, so there is that).

Still, there was something weirdly impressive about it. I did enjoy walking amongst all the buildings and all thin and moderately-attractive young people who seemed to be so at ease and sure of their place in the world. It was like a college that only had graduate students. And it was strange to reflect that Google was only founded in 1998 and only moved to Mountain View in 2004. All of this–everything I was seeing–was only ten years old.

I might’ve discovered a heretofore unremarked-upon youth subculture

I tried to find pictures of what they looked like, but there was literally nothing. The tight pants / mullet combo is unprecedented in the history of man.
I tried to find pictures of what they looked like, but there was literally nothing. The tight pants / mullet combo is unprecedented in the history of man.

The other day, I was sitting at Tea Fever in Berkeley (which is just a block from Berkeley High School) and watching the people who were lined up at the door of the ice cream place next door. And that’s when I spotted a rather odd-looking fellow. Unfortunately, my phone ran out of batteries as I was attempting to take a photo of him, so you’ll need to listen to a verbal description.

This guy–I’m pretty sure he was in high school–was about six feet tall and had a big blonde mullet hanging behind his baseball cap. He also had a button down shirt tucked into the waist of his really tight pants, an was wearing Timbalands and a bead necklace.

Even when he was by himself, I was like, err, what is happening here? Who is this kid?


Four more guys showed up! All of them with mulletastic haircuts and baseball caps and tucked-in shirts and tight pants (not jeans, some other kind of pants). Only their footwear varied. One was wearing sneakers. Another was wearing patent-leather shoes. I kind of expected them to be surly Danny Zucco types, but then they started coming into Tea Fever and asking for water, and they seemed really respectful and polite. They were like (my conception of) field hands who’ve gotten dressed up to go to the church social.

I watched them for almost half of an hour as they lounged around outside the ice cream shop, eating ice cream and shooting the shit. I couldn’t believe it. I came this close to walking up to them and saying, “Err, what is this guys? What is this? Is this a thing?”

And then, just when my incredulity was stretched to the limit, two girls appeared! Yes, the mullet crew also had a female component! Two slouchy-looking girls in baggy pants and loose t-shirts. I do not know what the relationship between these dress styles are. To be honest, I am wondering if there was some homosexual component to the whole milieu. But I guess I will never know (at least until the mullet look becomes mainstream in like three years and some social anthropologist traces the whole thing back and tells us how it originated).

The real reason that we go to restaurants…

1lardHad a realization recently while eating tortilla chips at a restaurant. They were unbelievably delicious. But halfway through the bowl, I realized that they were basically just a salt delivery system.

All the time, I go to a restaurant and order something and it is delicious and then I wonder, “Why does home-cooked food never taste like this?”

Well, restaurants prepare their food safely out of sight, so they can put more sugar and salt and fat and lard and oil in it than I could ever imagine using.

Restaurants aren’t special. I mean, they have industrial equipment back there that allows them to cook more food at once, but it’s still basically just stoves and ovens and griddles and all the other things that we can do. And sure, the chefs in a restaurant are quick and precise and understand the ways in which their ingredients are affecting the taste of the finished product (whereas I pretty much just mechanically follow the recipe and hope that it’ll taste good). But still, I think that at least half the reason we go to restaurants (and half the reason that restaurant food is so good) is that they put unhealthy ingredients into their food at quantities that we would never imagine doing it in our own kitchen.

For instance, a friend was once telling me that he’d been trying, over and over, to make pad thai, but it never came out quite right. Well, obv, he wasn’t using enough oil or sugar. If he had used enough, then it would’ve tasted right, but he wouldn’t have wanted to eat it anymore. It’s only when the preparation is cloaked by an anonymous professional in an anonymous kitchen that we can sit back and enjoy our salt.

Several pictures of the mouse that I just killed

With the onset of winter and the extended absence of several members of the house, an indeterminate number of mice apparently felt like now was the time to make their presence known in our house. I don’t exactly know why they’re here. My suspicion is that it has something to do with their desire to master French cooking or to reconnect with the other mice who immigrated to this area from the shtetl. They might also be part of a team of rodent rescuers. I don’t know and I don’t care. They’ve become increasingly bold, even going so far as to penetrate into my bedroom!

As my anxiety increased, I decided that the tension in the household could only be relieved by the spilling of rodent blood. So I drove to Target, bought four of those classic snap trap, baited them with peanut butter, and then left the house for two days to visit my parents.

I returned to a scene of unbelievable carnage:

2014-01-05 16.33.27

As you can see the mouse was much more widdle and adorable than I had thought it would be. Even in death, it just looked so cute. Nonetheless, I was well satisfied that I’d managed to get rid of one of the horrible pests. 

Unfortunately, the mice circumvented the rest of my traps! They not only failed to get caught in them, they actually managed to lick them clean!!! Diabolical.

You might not be able to see, but the rest of these traps have been licked clean
You might not be able to see, but the rest of these traps have been licked clean

Being at attention for days has, however, given the traps a much looser trigger (as I discovered while attempting to re-bait them [my finger is still numb from being snapped at]), so my hope is that the mice will’ve been lulled into a false sense of security and that when they go back to replicate their peanut butter heist, they’ll find their necks broke. 


Merry Christmas!

Yes, even though my family is nominally Hindu (and, in practice, fairly irreligious), we do celebrate Christmas. Most Indian-Americans do. We’re a syncretic people. For ages, I was surprised that Jews didn’t celebrate Christmas. But eventually, I came to understand that their associates with Christ are slightly more complicated than those of Indians.

Hindus can be pretty snooty about other peoples’ religions. Other religions are all sort of true, because they’re all versions of Hinduism. Our religion is the most true, though, of course.

I hate hate hate hate hate hate the way the Kindle tells you how far you are in the book

I’m reading Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (on a sidenote, I bet that last name really hurts his citation count. Misspellings alone must cost him big time). And it’s pretty excellent. I read it once before, when I found it in my dad’s study. But I was like twelve, so all that I retained of it is that there is this thing called flow (which is where you’re completely lost in an activity and time stops and you feel like the master of time and space and the universe opens up and everything’s amazing).

What I find interesting is that the book has both a normative and a descriptive component. The descriptive part is just describing flow: when it occurs, how to make it occur, what it’s like, etc. The normative part consists of the assertion that flow is “optimal experience”–basically that it’s the best thing ever, and that the purpose of life is to get into flow.

Obviously not a provable assertion, but certainly thought-provoking and more convincing than most philosophical standpoints, because flow is actually extremely pleasurable, but doesn’t have the same downsides as most pleasurable activities. It’s the best kind of pleasure.

I am enjoying the book. It resonates with me. I experience flow fairly regularly, both when I write and when I read.

For years, writing didn’t involve anything even approaching flow. It was actually extremely painful. But now that I’ve gotten better and refined my techniques, I’m operating on a bit of a higher level. And, true to the lessons of the book, I generally get into flow whenever I’m pushing the limits of my abilities.

Anyway, none of that is the point of this article. The point is that at some point the book started talking about your attention and about how, in order to get lost in something, you need to restrict your attention to just the matter at hand. And I realized that I really really really really hate the way the Kindle tells you what page you’re on. I mean, I always knew that I hated it. But now I knew that I really hated it.

kp-slate-05-lg._V358033061_If you don’t use one, then you don’t know: the Kindle has two progress counters. On the left side, there’s a percentage. And on the right side there’s one of four completely arbitrary numbers: time left until you complete the book (based on your reading speed), time left until you complete the chapter, location (a weirdly arbitrary Kindle-centric number that’s usually in the hundreds or thousands), and page number (but this doesn’t refer to actual page turns on your device…it refers to some weird arbitrary page number, so that it might take three or four Kindle page turns to get this number to change).

All of these numbers are awful! It’s like they were put in there by someone who doesn’t actually like to read books.

The time markers are awful because they focus on when you’re going to finish the book, when you’re supposed to be losing track of time.

The location marker is awful because it makes me keep glancing down and performing quick math to see how many page turns it takes to go up how many locations and how many page turns I’ll need to get to some arbitrary location.

And page turn is the worst of all, because it just makes me glance down with each page to see if the page turn number has gone up.

Oh, and don’t get me started on percentage completion. This was the worst of all, because it made me continually do mathematical operations to try to relate this to the other number and to how many page turns it’d take to make the percentage go up.

It took me awhile to figure out why all these number bothered me when the page number on regular books does not.

It’s because the page number on a real book increments in an orderly fashion. You turn the page and the page number goes up. There’s no uncertainty there. You don’t need to keep looking at it, because you know you’re just one page above the last page you were on.

Anyway, I put down the book, got out some tape, and solved the problem. Since tape doesn’t conduct electricity, it doesn’t trigger the Kindle’s capacitative touchscreen and, thus, there’s no problem putting tape on the screen.

2013-11-18 19.47.07

Err…what exactly happened yesterday? I got way more hits than I’ve ever gotten before.

change-architect-sign1Yesterday this blog got something like 800+ views, which is something like 2.5 times my next most-trafficked post. It got retweeted a fair amount, but most of the views were from Facebook, so perhaps some writer-type people shared it? I guess people really were looking for advice on which writing manuals do not suck. Kind of funny. I’d definitely heard about this sort of thing–an article spreading beyond a blog’s immediate readership–but it’d never really happened to me before. I think that part of it is that I haven’t been as active on social networks until this year, really. Nowadays I’m making more of an effort to, like, do the tweeting and such, which at least puts me in a place where it is capable of being noticed by people.

Still, it’s very interesting. Part of me is, like, “Oh god! I have already used up my one article idea that was of general interest! And it wasn’t even my idea: a follower (whose name I do not know and who I have never met in real life) tweeted the idea to me yesterday morning! I am bereft! My idea box is bankrupt!”

But, intellectually, I know that’s not true. I will have other awesome ideas. This blog’s been evolving for some five years now, and I constantly feel like I’m only just figuring out what I should write about and how I should write about it. Sometimes I read other blogs, and  the writing seems so crisp and witty and assured. And that’s not me. My blogging is kind of chatty and slack and it often refuses to coalesce into a nice conclusion. But there is something developing. And I am sure it will only continue to develop.

Anyway, 2013 has been a good year for blogging! I was feeling somewhat depressed for much of it, which actually led to some pretty good posts. This is actually the 3rd or 4th time this year that the blog has set a new record for most-visited day. Anyway, nowadays I’m feeling way, way better. Even though it is 7:30 AM and I am really tired (only got 5 hours of sleep last night) and I kind of hate life, I also don’t really hate life. I love life. Life is the best. Someday in the future, I am sure I will once again feel terrible, so I’d better enjoy this while it lasts!

Sometimes I get this strange sense of destiny, like everything is moving closer at this incredibly slow but utterly inexorable pace. In my life, it always feels like nothing is happening, but when I look back even six months (or even three!), I can see that everything used to be completely different. I mean, three months ago, I was still trying to revise that terrible novel. Now I’m trying to revise an entirely different, but much better, novel. Three months ago, my most-visited day involved some 150 views. Now it’s 800 views. It’s all so slow and, in some ways, so minor. But still stunning to me that so much could’ve happened in so little time. And I just think, wow, I have so many trimesters left in my life. At least, I dunno…a hundred? Two hundred? To me, that involves an amount of change that is simply incomprehensible.

Problems In My Life That Have Recently Been Fixed By Scotch Tape

1. My Credit Card’s Faulty Magnetic Strip

I had taken a picture of my credit card and was about to upload it before I came to my senses.

For at least the last twelve months, my credit card has been getting refused at gas stations, grocery stories, drug stores (including every CVS, for some reason), and anywhere else that requires you to swipe yourself through. Sometimes a friendly cashier would go through the rigamarole of swiping the card through again with a plastic bag wrapped around it, which somehow allows it to miraculously work (I tried to do this once myself, and made a total hash of the procedure). I kept meaning to call in and get my card replaced, but day after day, month after month, I put it off. The result: literally hundreds of minutes of my life lost to fumbling for a different card or swiping again or messing around with a plastic bag.

Then my savior appeared! At the CVS here in Charles Village, a cashier gave me a contemptuous look and then pulled out a few inches of scotch tape and stuck it onto the magnetic strip. Shouldering the load of her disgust, I swiped the card again! And it worked!

Since then, I’ve had zero problems with the card. This much-put-upon woman was, admittedly, not very friendly. But her grumpiness was a creative grumpiness. Out of a desire to never again deal with my stupid card problems, she utilized a simple piece of folk wisdom (or, I dunno, I’m just assuming this is folk wisdom…maybe it’s her own invention?) to solve my problem forever!


2. The little percentage completed indicator at the bottom left corner of my Kindle

For years, I haven’t been able to complete a page on my Kindle without a quick glance at the progress indicator to see whether this page turn made the percentage completed number go up. Although a small distraction, I found that it repeatedly broke my absorption in the given text. Oftentimes, I’d waste some seconds in calculating how many percentages I was reading per hour and how many percentages I’d get through by the end of the day and how many page turns it’d take before the percentage went up. It was all just a thorough-going waste of time.

But it wasn’t until I began to read Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit that the percentage sign became truly an impediment to progress. Little Dorrit is really fucking long (more than 250,000 words), and there was just no way I was going to get through the thing unless I could forget how long it was. And there was no way to forget how long it was when I could read for half an hour and see that little percent only go up by three or four points.

Something had to be done!

After remembering the credit card miracle, I realized that my answer was close at hand. I went back to that same CVS and bought some scotch tape. Then I came home and taped a tiny black chit of paper over the place where the percent sign goes.

Voila! Ever since then, I’ve been blowing through the book (I’m almost halfway done).


3. The blinky LED on my phone charger

Okay, this just poor design. People charge shit at night while they sleep. And they charge shit in their bedrooms. And the last thing you want in your bedroom is a surprisingly bright LED light. And yet, every damn thing in the world has an LED light on it. With a charger, this is particularly silly, because you can just see, by looking at the phone, whether the charger is working.

Anyways, tape to the rescue!!!


4. The battery cover on my laptop

My HP Laptop is magnificent. But it just has one problem. The battery cover comes loose whenever I slide it backwards. Since my hands rest on the front of the laptop when I type and exert a constant (though slight) forward pressure on it, the damn battery cover is always slipping out.

Well, no longer!

Okay, I kind of added in that last one a bit gratuitously, since by that time I was wandering my apartment with tape in hand and looking for things to tape. But the other three are pretty legit, I think.