Sometimes life surprises you [a poem]


Sometimes life surprises you

Like on Saturdays when you’re sad
and the sun is nowhere to be found,

So you ride your bike down to the shoreline where
– growing from the sand – are signs that say, “Jazz Quartet; Follow the signs or sounds.”

So you follow the sign along the trails through the waterfront park that juts out into the bay
and you stumble upon a makeshift amphitheater where four men dressed in suits and shiny shoes have set up a little stage by the sea

And they’re playing their drums and trumpet and cello and trombone as the audience sits scattered on seats of rock
And the sounds of jazz drift out over the water
In this little corner of the world.

Does it sound dark to say that I was glad to have stayed alive for this moment?


Plum Tree Ponderings

When I was younger I thought of gifts only as things that were exchanged on holidays and birthdays: toys, money, anything that could be bought or sold but that I received “for free.”

Now, when I think of gifts, what comes to mind are the less tangible things: time, thought, effort. The things that can’t be purchased in a store, or that can’t be quantified, or that people might not even know they’re giving to you. I have also come to think of gifts not as things that you receive on Christmas – or other times when people might expect to give and receive gifts – but as the things that arrive when you least expect it.

But I also believe there is truth in the common wisdom that you have to be open to receiving gifts; that you have to adopt a certain mindset that allows you to be receptive to, and aware of, the gifts you may be being given. This article in particular, I thought, summed up well my experience with gift-giving and gift-receiving:

No one ever taught me how to receive. Not a compliment; I am a master at countering any comment with insight about all my faults. Not a gift; I immediately feel the need to give something in return, preferably bigger. Not a kindness; I wave people away from helping me in a grocery line, no matter that I am dropping bread as I speak.

How could I have gone through so much life and have no experience with such a fundamental act as the ability to receive?

As I begin to examine this, I realize for me receiving involves vulnerability. When I give, I feel in charge. When I receive, I feel less.

Give feels like an action word; receive feels like something passive. Yet I can see how mistaken I am. Giving and receiving are yin and yang, the equivalent of the infinity symbol—looping back and forth, neither side larger than the other, both integral to the larger whole.

But I am becoming more open to receiving gifts: a few weeks ago I wrote about the gift of free lemons I found on the sidewalk, and just yesterday I experienced a similar moment on my walk around the neighborhood. I came across a plum tree that I only noticed because the over-ripen fruit that had fallen from its branches made splashes of bright reds and purples on the road. I looked up and saw, camouflaged in the tree’s purpley-red leaves, a few small, cherry-sized plum fruits that remained clinging to its branches. I reached up and picked two of the fruits and was shocked to discover their sweetness upon putting them in my mouth.

As I sucked the juices from the plum, rolling the pit around in my mouth once its flesh was gone, I noticed how I savored its flavor: first full and sweet as I bit into the skin, then a bit of sour as I reached a piece of its unripened flesh.

I noticed how my experience of eating this fruit – that I had received as an unexpected gift – was so different from how I might have eaten a plum that I purchased at the grocery store. Something about the way I had come across the plum – as a gift from nature, rather than a store-bought object – fundamentally changed how I interacted with it.

I think of a book I read recently (thanks, Dana, for the recommendation!) called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. In it, its author, Robin Wall Kimmerer, discusses nature through the lens of both modern science and indigenous wisdom. When I get home from my encounter with the plum tree I go to my bookshelf and find the passages from her book that I’d highlighted:

Perhaps it was because I’d read this book that I had this momentary awareness of my relationship to the plum, and I’m grateful for it. And I think about how, if we truly receive and appreciate nature’s gifts, we also cultivate a relationship with nature that is inherent with respect, gratitude, and reciprocity – in essence, the one native people have always had. It’s the same notion that’s described in the blog article: when we receive a gift, we are allowing ourselves to partake in a cycle that relies on both giving and receiving, and that both parts of the process are made more full as a result.

A Garbage Post [Happy Earth Day]

Each year I celebrate Earth Day by going on a plog. For those unfamiliar with the term, know that Thomas was as well until his edification three years ago:

This text conversation is probably more embarrassing for me than it is for him, as it speaks volumes to what he thinks I’m doing in my spare time.

In previous years I visited some combination of my favorite parks nearby our house in San Francisco: Buena Vista, Twin Peaks, Mount Davidson, Sutro, Glen Canyon, Billy Goat Hill, Kite Hill, Corona Heights, and/or Bernal Heights (there were so many amazing parks in walking distance! I love you, San Francisco!). Today, on my first Berkeley/East Bay plog, I jogged with my bag of accumulating trash through Strawberry Canyon and Claremont Canyon. It’s a common theme in the Bay Area that if you want to explore the local parks you have to be willing to climb a lot of hills, but luckily I’ve lived here long enough that the thought of a flat jog is intimidating.

By the end of my jog I’d filled and emptied four bags of trash, not to mention stopped for a few selfies and tree appreciation moments. (Imagine living in the beautiful, magical land that is Northern California and not wanting to save our planet!)

Here is a list of the most common trash items I found:

  1. Masks. This one sucks so much. Not only do we have a pandemic on our hands, but masks are creating additional litter! Wear your mask…but dispose of it properly, please!
  2. Bags of dog poop. As the sign (pictured above) courtesy of Untrash.it says: “This is trash too! Please pack out your dog waste.”
  3. Napkins. In particular: those rough, brown napkins they keep in large dispensers on tables at fast casual restaurants and college cafeterias. Either people are using them as toilet paper on the trails (use a leaf! or air dry!) or they’re eating a lot of trail snacks that require napkins, but either way it was sad how many of them were crumpled up on the side of the trails.
  4. A half-eaten burrito. Ok, fine – this was not a common item of trash. But the fact that I found a half-eaten, foiled-wrapped burrito in the middle of some wood chips in the park was mind-blowing! Not only did this person litter, they also wasted most of a perfectly good burrito! Food waste + litter = double whammy.

More importantly: thank you to organizations like Untrash East Bay who are working to keep our beautiful parks and earth clean. When group activities are back up and running I plan to join them on their weekly group trash pick-ups. I was also thinking that for my next birthday I should invite friends to one of my favorite parks for a trash cleanup partt…prizes for the person who picks up the most trash!

As for other personal Earth-related initiatives, I found this tweet I posted on Earth Day two years ago (from a pre-pandemic world in which and we still commuted to an office for work):

I am sharing this because I have always been passionate about improving access to bikes, buses, and trains as means of both work and personal transport. If you live in San Francisco, I suggest joining and/or supporting the San Francisco Bike Coalition who works to improve bike accessibility and safety in the city. Even more importantly, I recently read this incredible article written about the lack of representation low-income riders have when it comes to safe cycling and transportation planning. While I have become a more avid cyclist over the past few years, I am continually frustrated by perceptions of the cycling community, and the inclusivity of the community itself. The lower-income folks who rely on bikes as their primary mode of transportation are overlooked when planning and accessibility decisions are made, and the cycling community doesn’t always do the best job of advocating for them. The article provides a great overview of why it’s important to support lower-income cyclists and I am thinking of ways to be a better advocate in my own community.

I’ll end with a post from one of my favorite Instagram accounts @intersectionalenvironmentalist:

Little Things / March 2021

1.

In a brief moment of culinary inspiration last weekend I decided I wanted to bake some scones. I’d just had my morning coffee – so the possibilities for my day were seemingly endless and I dreamt my biggest, most wild dreams – and seen an inspiring photo of local produce from Berkeley Bowl.

“What flavor scones should I make?” I asked myself as I sat on the couch, already envisioning the Samin Nosrat I was about to become. I had the essential ingredients in my pantry – flour, butter, heavy cream, sugar – and decided on lemon poppyseed: a classic, hard-to-mess-up flavor that would only require buying a lemon or two from the grocery store. And then – of course, as usual – the moment of inspiration passed before I even made it to the store.

I went for a walk through the neighborhood later that afternoon. I had spent most of the day attempting to read, but mostly ruminating, and sought fresh air to clear my mind. A few blocks from my house I came across a plastic dog bowl placed on the sidewalk with a paper sign taped to the rim that read “FREE” in black Sharpie. Inside the bowl were three large, bright yellow lemons that a neighbor had picked from the ripening tree in their yard. I smiled, picked one up, and put it in my fanny pack (yes, I was wearing a fanny pack).

Lemon x fanny pack

As I walked home with the lemon displayed proudly in the pocket of my fanny pack I felt so blessed. A lemon in a bowl on the sidewalk. It was such a small thing and yet it felt like a huge gift, to have this thing that I’d been “needing,” but hadn’t been able to give myself, brought to me with no strings attached. It was as if someone, somewhere had known that if I were presented with a lemon it might have the capacity to turn my day around.

At home that evening I stood at the counter zesting the lemon over a glass bowl. I grated the frozen butter, mixed in heavy cream and flour, and added just the right amount of poppy seeds. I’m not much of a baker but every time I bake or cook I notice how wonderful it feels to make something from scratch, to shape and create it with my own hands. When the scones came out of the oven looking and smelling just as I’d hoped, I thanked the world for the gift of a lemon that reminded and inspired me to create.

2.

The wildflowers are in bloom!

On Sunday afternoon I sat on a bench by a field of poppies and reread one of my favorite poems by Wendell Berry:

I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends
nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wildflowers
are blooming, and goes, 
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.

3.

Ben Howard released a new album that I (shockingly!!!!!) have not been able to take off repeat: https://open.spotify.com/album/09P40BHcaue9iF4QasXMTK?si=hVrCF0tbRQOcOkeRzxl6Og. Every time I listen to his music I think about what a gift musicians are to the world; how talented artists have the ability to make us feel and experience the world more deeply.

I read an interview he gave with Flood Magazine after the album release and one particular quote resonated with me:

“I think I’m always just looking for a little flash of inspiration rather than working on some great orchestral piece, and that kind of became what the record was—it was little fragments. I hate to use the word “vignette,” but these songs are little glimpses of life and of musical ideas. They didn’t even need to be completely finished—as long as the essence is there, it counts.”

Sometimes that’s how I feel about this blog (I am not, by the way, attempting to compare myself to a musical genius!): it’s a place where I can capture my flashes of inspiration – a poem, a wildflower, a lemon on the sidewalk – rather than trying to produce something cohesive or complete.

I’ll leave you with something else he said in the interview that I thought he articulated beautifully:

“I think that’s why I’m always reluctant to spell out every single element of a song, because feelings are supposed to change. It’s supposed to change with interpretation, and that’s one of the most interesting aspects of it all. Meaning can be quite an elusive thing. And actually, the most incredible moment is when you get presented with an image that you can’t get out of your brain, but you don’t know why.”

Happy spring, everyone! May it bring lots of wildflowers and hope.

I Don’t Always Cry…


…but when I do, it’s because I am out on a walk and the sun is setting on a cool fall evening and I am listening to David Gray and am overwhelmed by the beauty of the golden light caught in the tops of the trees, and the sadness hanging in the dry air, and the love of the father holding his son’s hand as they cross the street, and the calm of the lone pink rose on a bush on someone’s lawn, and the grace of the setting sun disappearing behind the houses.


Sometimes I don’t know what else to do with myself besides go for a walk. When my heart gets so full and heavy that it feels like it might burst and nothing makes sense but at the same time everything becomes so simple.

Is it weird that I am sharing a picture of myself crying? Probably. But unfortunately my writing isn’t good enough to capture all that emotion and so we return to the old adage: “a picture is worth a thousand words.” (A picture might be worth 2,000 words if you’re a bad writer, and only 500 if you’re a good one. That would be a funny metric by which to judge authors: how many of their words is a picture worth?)




I came home and ate pumpkin curry and rice and finished reading Louise Edrich’s The Night Watchman while Thomas watched Sunday Night Football.

“The sun was low in the sky, casting slant regal light. As they plodded along, the golden radiance intensified until it seemed to emanate from every feature of the land. Trees, brush, snow, hills. She couldn’t stop looking. The road led past frozen sloughs that bristled with scorched reeds. Clutches of red willow burned. The fans and whips of branches glowed, alive. Winter clouds formed patterns against the fierce gray sky. Scales, looped ropes, the bones of fish. The world was tender with significance.”

Louise Edrich, The Night Watchman

I swear…this has happened multiple times now…I’ll be reading something that reflects almost exactly a thought or feeling I recently had. The above passage from The Night Watchman, for example, is a beautiful depiction of the way I felt earlier this evening. I am also confronted with the difference in ability between myself and a professional author because, in an ideal world, I would have crafted the sentence “The world was tender with significance” to describe my evening walk, but instead I shared a stupid meme and a picture of myself crying. Nice!

Anyway. I’m sure many similar sentiments have been described, but I’m reminded of a quote from author and philosopher Alain de Botton: “Most of what makes a book ‘good’ is that we are reading it at the right moment for us.” I think it goes both ways, though: we can enjoy a book because we are reading it “at the right moment,” but also we can create new significance or meaning from a book that might not have seemed relevant at the outset. Does that make any sense?

It’s getting late; I will post this tomorrow morning after a cup of coffee and a good laugh at my sorry attempts at philosophizing.

Nowhere to Be

Nowhere to Be (a “poem” I wrote typed on my phone while on a walk)

What a privilege it is to have nowhere to be
this morning, outdoors, with the cold wind on my face.
I pass the construction workers on the main street nearby
as the sun rises
and I yell “good morning” and they yell “good morning” back
“Have a wonderful day!” we say.
They are working
and soon I will be, too, but for now
I have nowhere to be
but here, outdoors, with the sun shining on my face.


I love walks. I’m thinking of all the wonderful walks I’ve been on over the past few months. Coronavirus sucks a lot a lot a lot but I am thankful for the time it has given me to walk. Yesterday I watched a Sierra Club livestream about post-election work for environmental justice and Leslie Fields (fucking badass, by the way) said it beautifully: “One of the few silver linings about this syndemic…is that people have really gotten outdoors. People have really explored their local parks, they’ve explored their national parks, they’ve just explored their neighborhood better and gotten to know their neighborhoods. How do we bottle these feelings of connectivity and make sure it lasts when we get through this terrible time?”

Actually, the parenthetical appreciation for Leslie is not enough: WHAT A F*CKIN BADASS!!!!!! If you’re interested in the wisdom she has to share about environmental justice and the work we can do together, you can watch the recording here (22:15 onward is where she makes some of my favorite comments).

And as usual, a blog post that started about something (walking) ended up with me ranting about something else (badass women doing incredible work for environmental justice). That’s the point of writing – or any kind of critical thinking, really – though, right? To make connections between things? To find relations and intersections between everything we read and experience and consume?


Some of my favorite walking memories & photos from the past month:

With Dana along the coast in Half Moon Bay as the sun set. Golden hour with a golden gal, if you will:

With Thomas along the Tuolumne River on my birthday weekend. We sat along the edge of the river on the most wonderful, peaceful morning:

By myself through our new neighborhood. Moving from San Francisco to Berkeley has given me an entirely new 5-block radius to explore:

I brought home one of the pineapple guavas pictured above because I hadn’t seen any since Thomas and I did a hike along the Nā Pali Coast on our honeymoon. We hiked the full Kalalau Trail and had enough food for the round trip journey, but we (naïvely) underestimated the Hawaiian summer heat and humidity and ran out of water halfway through. On the trail home we picked pineapple guavas from surrounding trees and sucked their juices for hydration. I guess it worked, considering we made it back alive. And here’s a fun fact: the pineapple guavas are actually an invasive species and pose an ecological threat to the endemic flora and fauna in Hawaii.

A little thank you, then, to the random house in Berkeley who reminded me of our honeymoon adventure. (Thomas wouldn’t eat the guava, though, which was disappointing.)

Morro Bay

For how much exploring I’ve done in California, so little of it has been south of Monterey. I’ve visited some of the “heavy hitters,” if you will – Joshua Tree, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Sequoia National Forest – but my tendency is to drive north of the Bay especially for shorter weekend trips. As a result, I’ve only been to California’s Central Coast once or twice and even then only briefly. Last weekend, however, Thomas and I drove four hours south to join a few friends who have been staying in Morro Bay, a beautiful coastal town just outside of San Luis Obispo.

Between Thomas’ school and job, covid, and our move to Berkeley, it’s been a while since we got out of town. Thomas has also been anti-weekend-trip because he “dislikes driving distances over two hours” but apparently when his football-watching and board-game-playing buddies are there, he’ll gladly make the trip.

Me, realizing it’s not that he dislikes driving, but that he doesn’t enjoy my company enough to make weekend trips worthwhile.

Most of our road trips consist of me hogging the aux cord and playing my favorite music while he complains that it’s putting him to sleep. This time, however, we downloaded an audio book he needed to read for class and, with the help of the 1.5x speed feature, listened to the entire book on the drive there. While the book, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, was assigned by his professor in the context of navigating policy negotiations, I listened to it through the lens of our marriage (“How can I win more arguments about what we should eat for dinner?”). It is, of course, one of those books where the negotiation framework presented is applicable to many things: relationships, business, communication, decision-making, etc. My general reaction to the book was, “I don’t think these guys needed to write a whole book to explain these concepts” (which is how I feel about a lot of “business” books) but it was interesting to think about how the principles applied to my job and relationships.

In general, the book’s concepts were straightforward and intuitive: don’t approach negotiations with a fixed position; rather, work to understand everyone’s interests and goals first and then identify possible options that can elicit mutual benefit. Nothing the book explained was new or surprising to me, though it did provide more structure to what I’ve already found to be successful in my job. Perhaps my biggest takeaway was that being a Product Manager is really just a lot of negotiation (which, again, is obvious if you take a moment to think about it). The authors’ principles for successful negotiation aligned with what I’ve seen from the best product managers when it comes to making difficult decisions or having tough conversations: identify everyone’s interests and stakes, understand everyone’s motives, lay out the problem first rather than jumping to solutions, make others feel involved in the decision-making process, etc.

…wow, gross, this is not becoming a “How to Be A Good Product Manager” blog, I promise! My worst fear (aside from mediocrity, death, and Thomas running off with a beautiful French woman) is becoming one of those LinkedIn influencers who thinks they have something revolutionary to say.

Anyway. We arrived a few hours later in Morro Bay and enjoyed the most relaxing weekend we’ve had in a while. It consisted of many of my favorite things: burritos, beer, sunrises, sunsets, ocean, friends, mint chip ice cream, music, board games, and trails.

At the risk of getting too personal too quickly: it was the first time in a while I had few days where I didn’t feel bad about myself. For one, I wasn’t working and therefore didn’t have my usual thoughts of, “you’re messing up at your job,” “your career isn’t going anywhere,” “you should be doing more,” “your coworkers hate you,” etc. Next, I spent time doing only things I enjoyed rather than things I felt I should be doing or were doing as a means to an end. By which I mean: I went surfing and absolutely sucked at it and had the most amazing time ever. I drank beer and ate chips and tacos and ice cream and didn’t give a fuck what I looked like because that seemed so trivial in the grand scheme of my life. Lastly, and most importantly, I surrounded myself with people who made me feel good. I’m convinced there is no greater path to happiness than to seek out people who don’t make you feel like you need to be someone else, either explicitly or implicitly. Be honest with yourself about who – maybe through no fault or intention of their own – makes you feel bad or less-than or like you need to change, and remove them from your life. (This includes on social media, by the way.)

Though they might not realize it, the people with whom I spent the weekend are the kind of people who shift my mindset from “you should be doing this” to “who gives a sh*t if you’re not doing this or achieving that, life is so much bigger than how you feel about yourself.”

It never hurts to have the trees and waves and mountains to remind you of your insignificance either.