Friday, May 5, 2017

What I Did Say

At the end of the day, I find myself running through things that happened during the day, reliving and analyzing them. On the second time through, I often will think, ah, I shouldn't have said that, or not that way. I meant to convey X but made someone feel Y.

Here are some examples. At my previous job, I once made a passing joking comment about the relative youth of someone who was very bright and only 21, at a table of our peers. The larger context is this table of peers regularly talked shit about other teams amongst themselves, I was not thrilled about it, and this punk kid(!) was kind of their ringleader. But also, I wanted to fit in. Anyway, in the moment, this guy didn't seem terribly insulted, but I sensed he wasn't excited to have his young-ness brought up. This bothered me more when I thought about it after work—I imagined he'd gotten years of flak for being 'a kid', because he dropped out of college and started working, so that topic must be especially old and irritating; and because he looks older some people might not have known, so now I've maybe "outed" him to some of his peers. It's possible in the process of thinking about this, I made myself upset to a degree he never was.

Another example: just yesterday, in the course of a longer conversation in which I was getting impatient, I told someone who was proposing some work to do that "I'd rather be doing something else." Thinking back on it, I realized that might have been insulting, and is not even what I had actually meant, which was "I recognize this proposed work is valuable but I think there are more pressing things right now."

I've started following up on situations that seem to matter (as in both of the above), and technology has made that easier with messaging. Easier than pulling a person aside the next time I see them, whenever that might be. It's a godsend for a someone who finds it challenging to think and talk at the same time.

There are some situations that happened longer ago that I have never resolved, that were particularly cringeworthy. They come up and bother me every so often. Most of these, I can put to rest by diagnosing them. There is a meeting with a director at Facebook I wish I could do over. (This one actually might be worth writing about at a later point, because there's a larger observation about growth here.) An interaction at a career fair with a cofounder of one of the most successful tech companies is my most embarrassing story. (The only real lesson here is to not cave to peer pressure to talk to anyone and that I need to be extra prepared when talking to total strangers.) But this morning I was thinking about a situation that was more mundane, which I still don't have a good resolution to. I think it falls into a category of things that are just better not said, but only as adults. [1]

A few years ago, I told an African American acquaintance, a male coworker, that I remembered him and liked his hair. It wasn't the first comment, it was the second. He had a fro that had made an impression on me, which seemed to fit him well. I guess the thing I immediately realized is, how uncomfortable and racially charged that compliment is, when it's from an Asian woman to an African American man. It might not even be so bad if the coworker had been a woman, because it's more normal for women to compliment each other's hair even if they don't know each other well. The thing that stops me, though, is that I think it wouldn't have been weird if the coworker had been of nearly any other race, but still a man. It would also have been much less weird had I been five years old and seen as "innocent." I've wondered if there was a different wording that I could have used, but I don't think so. The lesson there was to just stick to compliments about what people do, or... at most their outfit.

[1] Which reminds me of http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Footing

I've been slowly picking up running again. When I lived with Majd and Ari I ran down the eight-lane-highway-esque sidewalks of Dolores from 17th to 24th almost every day, plodding up and relishing the crest of each hill. 17th to 18th was clear; then I'd dodge the ice cream line that wrapped around the corner and, across the street, the patio seating of Dolores Park Cafe, where there would be at least one dog. On the hill between 19th and 20th I'd wonder where exactly does Christian live (I never found out), and on the way back up the hill at 22nd I'd glance at #864 to see if Alberto might be around. On Saturday mornings the same homeless man sat on a doorstep between 18th and 19th and judged my strides. I knew he didn't care, but it didn't stop me from kicking my heels a little higher as I passed by on the way home. The whole way I'd lazily count the palm trees, the absurd row of them lining the median strip of Dolores.

Where I live now in the Inner Sunset, there are three obvious options. One, run toward the Park—to it, through it, or across it to the Richmond. Two, run on the hills around the house, or climb up and down the 15th Ave steps. Three, run toward the ocean. The first option means three traffic lights and a downtown area worth of pedestrians to dodge on narrow sidewalks before reaching your destination, and then more traffic, if you want to enter at 9th. The second is fine; you get a nice view from the top of the steps, though the rest of the roads are not amazing to look at. The main problem with this option right now is it is extremely demoralizing because it is hard. What used to be easy is now hard. So lately I've been taking the run to the ocean, which is... mostly flat and slightly downhill.

I question, though, whether it's the downhillness, or even the distance, that attracts me to this course. The sidewalks of Kirkham are wide but less wide than Dolores, and everything else about the scene, especially after I pass 19th Ave, is the opposite of what I'd grown attached to. Low, boxy, pastel-colored houses stretch out into the distance on streets mostly devoid of pedestrians. Occasionally I pass someone, more often on the lower-numbered avenues—a middle-aged Asian man pulling weeds in his little scrubby patch of green in the early morning; a white-haired, bent-over Caucasian man walking his slow dog; a woman in tights pushing a baby stroller (I guess tights have really made it everywhere). There are two traffic lights between me and the ocean, and at the rest of the intersections there are only sometimes cars, but semi-aggressive cars that seem hell-bent on escaping this maze of monotonous houses.

The relative lack of stimulation means more thinking time. I'll wonder, how many more seconds of daylight does the Outer Sunset see at the end of the day than SoMa? I'll go through people and events like flashcards—what do they mean? Or I won't. Regardless the ocean beckons. Whenever I've stood in front of the ocean listening to the crash of waves on rock, thinking this is the edge of land, I've been keenly conscious of being small and mortal. The vastness of the ocean is incomprehensible, having swum in it once and, mouthfuls of salt water later, realized how far something that looks so close actually is, when you're on the water. How we ever find sunken ships or downed aircraft (even with radio and sonar) seems miraculous. The earthquake shakes, but the tsunami swallows.

So I think it's this: the act of running reminds me I have a body; the ocean reminds me I have a life.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Boringness

Last night, I went to the Season 4 premiere of the HBO show Silicon Valley, in, appropriately, San Francisco. The highlight of the evening was the Q&A with Kara Swisher.


In the 30-minute interview, one comment stuck out to me. Kara asked how the sausage was made, and one of the writers said, "We kind of go out and just talk to people about what might happen in certain situations, and what kind of stories they have to tell." He paused. "For the most part, the writing process is pretty boring."

It's odd because the rest of us see a polished, dramatic, funny TV show, and we think it must be dramatic and funny making it too.

Incidentally a lot of what happens to produce the cool stuff that comes out of the real Silicon Valley is boring. For example, good code is 90% boring. No surprises. And it takes day-in, day-out plugging and chugging. If Silicon Valley was actually all like the show, there'd be a lot less cool stuff, and a lot less to make fun of.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Everything Will Be Alright [sic] In The End

Two nights ago, I had a sudden urge to listen to Weezer. These days [1] Weezer is like the giant stuffed sea lion a friend gave me on my twenty-first birthday: it mostly sits in the closet, but once in a long while I take it out and cuddle it hard.

So I fired up YouTube and blasted through old favorites, and then (finally) decided to find out more about the lead singer, Rivers Cuomo. I found some interviews, old and recent, where he appears stiff and awkward, not the stereotypically charismatic band lead. Eventually I found these dance lessons on his YouTube channel:


This is bad dancing, and only video 1 of 4. At times the dance instructor can't help but laugh. After getting over my own bemusement, I wondered why Rivers had posted them... Then realized, intentional or not, they are a gift.

First, I reminded myself I also suck at dancing. Most of the things I reflexively laugh at other people for being bad at, I am also bad at. I have higher expectations for them for whatever reason. ("A rock star should be good at dancing"—but why?) Second, I didn't lose respect for Rivers; I admired his confidence not to care. Which leads to the third point: that the gift of these videos is permission (or rather, a reminder to give ourselves permission) to be bad at something and feel okay about it. These dance lessons are a living acknowledgement of how we all suck at things when we start, and an example of someone continuing in spite of that. A person likely only takes multiple lessons if they think they're going to get better. [2]

Another message I got from reading about Rivers is that as a kid he knew what he wanted to do: play in a rock band. The man can play the guitar, and from interviews, it seems he's confident he can write catchy songs. In one interview someone asks how he writes songs; he says, pretty casually, he's gotten a room at home "mirror'd out," and he dances and sings in front of the mirrors and "usually some good stuff comes out."

On the other hand, his singing is fine, but not great. (My opinion.) Not my opinion: for the early part of his career he had bad performance anxiety and poor stage presence. He described himself as a "shoe-gazer" on stage for the first 15 years and admitted it was probably not much fun for fans at concerts. These handicaps would dissuade most of us from starting a rock band, and he was fully aware of them and set out to found Weezer anyway. Lucky for us.

The fear of being judged—even by myself—stops me from doing things, and I have to remind myself that okay will get you pretty far, and to embrace the suck.


[1] My history with Weezer began relatively recently, compared to growing up with classical music and John Denver. One of my first roommates in college loved the band. It took me a while to get past my initial dislike of their rough, grungy sound and a style I found over-the-top and dopey. A night of Rock Band at the college newspaper during which one of our lead reporters (and eventual writer for WashPo) sang a fetching rendition of El Scorcho helped. Pink Triangle and Across the Sea were other "gateway" songs, where I got sucked in by the sad, absurd yet charming lyrics, then realized the music is really perfect for what they were saying. Weezer got me through tough times those four years.

[2] It would be funny, if after all this analysis, the real reason behind posting these videos is Rivers lost a bet. But it wouldn't matter. The good has already been done.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Ceramicist's Coffeehouse

In the idyllic downtown area of Saratoga, CA, there is a coffeehouse with soaring ceilings and large windows, a calming wood-accented interior, and a patio out front surrounded by plants. Sue's Gallery Cafe has two rooms with seating: one where you order and one that houses the eponymous gallery of ceramic housewares. On my first visit, the mugs displayed behind the counter caught my eye: they were extra large and the handles were shaped like human stick figures in crawling poses. My cappuccino came in a plainer but lovely ceramic cup. I learned from the barista that the ceramics used for the food and those in the gallery, which can be purchased, are made by the cafe owner's wife.

Cafe-ceramics is an uncommon but inspired marriage. The cafe can serve its food in unique, beautiful vessels; the ceramicist sees her wares in use and gets marketing and a storefront; patrons experience art with their coffee. Seeing this partnership made me wonder what other fortuitous combinations aren't yet mainstream.

I imagine it would be gratifying for one person to do both activities: to make and serve coffee for part of the day and throw pottery for the rest. One activity is social, the other more cerebral and solitary. It makes me think, in the likely future in which robots do much of the necessary work that maintains human existence, and humans must work not to survive but to occupy ourselves and maintain a sense of purpose—at this point, "work" will have to be fulfilling or it will not be done. We will still have specialists who have the innate interest and mental fortitude to pursue one thing deeply, but we are all some parts social, some parts mentally curious, some parts excited to work with our hands. My guess is as the need for fulfillment from our work increases, we'll see more Ceramicist's Coffeehouses.