Accidental Ode to San Francisco

I love the elm trees on Folsom Street, and the way their leaves turn a fluorescent green as they capture the early morning light.

The other day I hiked up Bernal Heights with a friend and, until she pointed them out, I had never thought to look at those trees from above:

One of my favorite things about San Francisco is all the places you can view the city from above; how you can simultaneously be in it and feel so far from it; how you can walk through the bustling streets of downtown Mission and a few minutes later look down at the people and chaos from the quiet of a hillside trail.

This morning, as I ascend Bernal Heights…

I am overdressed in this Henley (where did the word Henley come from, anyway?). I dressed for an overcast walk but of course now I’m sweating and I’m going to ruin this nice white shirt with pit stains. The upper lip sweat collecting beneath my mask reminds me of humid summers spent on the East Coast.

San Bruno Mountain looks beautiful this morning, a perfect ridge rising behind the colored rows of houses.

I love San Francisco. As people escape to the mountains, to lakes, to other coasts and other cities, I am reminded of everything I love about San Francisco: the way different neighborhoods feel like different worlds, the bright colors and contrasts, the people and the farmers’ markets, the endless plants and birds and trees, the cloudless blue skies and romantic foggy days, the hidden parks and stairways.

I’m going to miss this city when Thomas and I moved to Berkeley. I’m excited for change – we’ve been living in the same place since I graduated from school four years ago (?!?!?!) – but every year I’ve fallen more in love with San Francisco. And, even after four years, it still has corners and secrets I have yet to discover.

I forgot how much my thighs chafe when I run. If I’ve learned anything from biking, it’s that pre-exercise Vaseline can only help.

On my way to Mt. Davidson I pass a Little Free Library and pick up a book I’ve been wanting to read. I take a picture of my location so I remember to bring one back.

Also on the shelf are some of the books I loved as a child: Gary Paulsen’s The Island and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door. I think back to elementary school, when my parents would turn my light off at bedtime and I would use a little red light-up “Hot Wheels” toy that I got in a McDonald’s Happy Meal to light the pages of my book as I read late into the night.

The book’s a hardcover, though, so I’m looking forward to a month’s worth of “upper body strength” as I carry it for the rest of my jog.

Mt. Davidson is green and lush and beautiful after days of fog and rain. Something about the morning light and the moss and vines and the eucalyptus trees always makes me feel like I’m in a fairy tale and that Tinker Bell is hidden somewhere behind a branch.

On days like these I never want to go home. On days like these I want to keep walking, further, deeper, longer, each step bringing me closer to myself and to the soul of San Francisco.

Book Review-ish: So Many Olympic Exertions

Last weekend I finished Anelise Chen’s So Many Olympics Exertions. I picked it up after discovering it on Goodreads (which, to be honest, I am finding more of time-suck than Twitter these days, though the content is certainly more wholesome).

I’m too lazy to summarize a book that is better summarized by someone else anyway, so here’s the quick Goodreads summary:

"Blending elements of memoir and sports writing, Anelise Chen's debut novel is an experimental work that perhaps most resembles what the ancient Greeks called hyponemata, or notes to the self, in the form of observations, reminders and self-exhortations. Taken together, these notes constitute a personal handbook on how to live--or perhaps more urgently, why to live--a question the narrator, graduate student Athena Chen, desperately needs answering. When Chen hears news that her brilliant friend from college has committed suicide, she is thrown into a fugue of fear and doubt. Through anecdotes and close readings of moments in the sometimes harrowing world of sports, the novel questions the validity of our current narratives of success."

What I enjoyed most about the book was how closely I identified with the author/narrator’s mental and emotional experiences. The questions and thoughts with which she grapples throughout the memoir were intimately familiar, not to mention the more practical struggle she has finishing her PhD dissertation (read: my senior year math courses) while battling depression, grief, and anxiety. The “athletics and sports” lens through which she rationalizes these questions led me to reflect on the role that sports and competition have played in my life, and to more critically consider the relationship between our minds and our bodies.

I titled this post “Book Review-ish” because it’s less of a book review and more of a “here are the personal reflections this book incited.” Because it’s difficult for me to generalize these reactions, I’ll instead share some passages that resonated with me and a brief note on why:

Page 7: “I think being [at the pool] helps. The smell of chlorine does. The first blast of it when I come through the double doors. It’s the smell of anxiety, of anticipation, of the urgent need to perform well. That falling in love feeling: it’s the same.”
Besides the love analogy – which, of course, I love – this description brought me back to the running track that encircled the turf fields at our high school, the smell of it on the hot August mornings of field hockey preseason just before we had to run our “timed mile.” I found myself at the Stanford track in Palo Alto on a hot day last year, and with that first whiff drifting up from the red rubber, I could feel the butterflies return to my stomach, could almost hear our coach telling us to “line up behind the white line.” I had the same feeling – of anxiety, of anticipation, of the urgent need to perform well – each time the referee would place the hockey ball in the center of the pitch and ready her whistle to signal the start of the match. It’s funny how my early memories of anxiety are inextricable from excitement and anticipation; now, anxiety’s connotations are of stress and overwhelming negative feelings.

Page 19: “It is so exhausting to have to ferry around a body, a suitcase, and a head crammed with thoughts.”
Well, if that isn’t the most relatable passage I’ve read in a while. Thomas often says to me – after I’ve tried to explain to him whatever it is that’s been on my mind – “It must be exhausting in there.” Meaning my head, of course. He’s not wrong.

She expresses a similarly depressing sentiment on page 197: “This theater in my mind plays only one movie … Doesn’t it consume a whole lot of energy to keep this place up and running? I am the only spectator here.”
Again, LOL! IT’S ME!

Page 39: “As a child, I was always praise for suppressing desire. And so wanting took practice. Did I want this toy, or that bar of chocolate? My parents taught me to say no” … “Desire creates need and need creates action. Isn’t that just magical? Paul, a brand-new student of Buddhism, would respond: ‘Wouldn’t it be easier not to desire anything?’ Because the problem with desire is that it never goes away. I suppose that Paul is right. Was right? A lack of desire does reduce pain.”
I had to pause for a looooong time after reading this paragraph. What an interesting and loaded notion, that of desire. When I think of the roles desire has played in my life they’re often contradictory: I’ve decided at some times to be fully desirous; others, to pretend my desires do not exist. For example: Chen acknowledges the drive to compete in sports is nothing more than “untrammeled desire” and that all successful athletes share this quality. I am extremely competitive by nature and surely possess this “untrammeled desire” to win, to “succeed,” etc. But what about the parts of me that have tried to suppress my desires in the past? The parts who, at some point, decided (or were told?) that I possessed too much and I should temper them? The historically “eating disordered” parts of me must have striven to want nothing, to need nothing, to suppress my desires so fully so as to convince myself I didn’t have them. Did these parts coexist? Can they coexist? What do I make of my desires – or lack thereof – now?

… *calls therapist* …

Page 68: “If sports are nothing but a ritual sacrifice of expended energy, offered up to mitigate some self-inflicted grief, then perhaps modern obsession with sports is a therapeutic response to some unspoken fear, some presentiment of disaster that seizes us into movement.”
Well, this explanation adds up. It translates in my life to a fear of slowing down because…what happens if I stop?

Page 85: “My new philosophy is that I am just going to be confident about taking it easy. However, as liberating as this feels, it also feels deeply unsatisfying. Swimming this way feels like a waste of time. It’s only after I tell myself ‘one hundred laps’ that the time begins to pass more quickly and purposefully.” And she talks again about the concept of “purpose” on page 185: “Unable to sit long with feelings of uncertainty. Genuine ‘purposefulness’ is a feeling that’s hard to come by, like a rare ingredient that takes years to sniff out. A feeling of forced purposefulness, however, is cheap and fast and will do in a pinch. It can be achieved with coffee and uppers…”
Yikes, again. If that isn’t incredibly relatable! I’m reminded of a post I wrote a few months ago in which I grappled with feelings of “purpose” and noted how some days I am fully immersed in the brief euphoria that is “forced purposefulness,” while others I submit to the weighty pointlessness of everything.

Also, on page 189: “However, one does not advance when one walks towards no goal, or–which is the same thing–when the goal is infinity.”
It would be helpful for me to remember this sentence. My “goals” are always arbitrary and ill-defined (or extremely well-defined, if you count “the best” or “perfection” as definitions) and so I find myself in a constant state of disappointment and self-hatred. Having “perfection” as the goal has always felt more motivating – whatever that means – than having no goal, but my levels of happiness and fulfillment are probably lower as a result of these “infinite” goals.

Page 100: “Because what kid likes pain? If they seem to ‘like’ pain it’s only because another kind of pain is stronger.”
Another interesting hypothesis, one that probably explains my ability to push my body athletically and tolerate physical pain. For all the times I’ve been in physical pain, they’ve never hurt more than my worst bouts of emotional and psychological pain. I meant to write a longer post about this realization after my injury because, during the recovery process, when everyone was telling me how “strong” and “brave” and “positive” I was, all I could think was, “Battling suicidal depression was way harder.”

So, this was officially not a book review, and mostly a “read this book if you ruminate way too much” recommendation. But I loved this book for the reason I love most books, which is that it gave me a different lens through which to view my own experience and to explore what it means to be human.

Fashion Friday

Hello, loyal readers, and happy Friday. Hopefully it’s the start of a long weekend for most of you. My meetings are winding down and I’m wrapping up some loose ends at work before heading straight for the unopened bottle of rosé in my fridge (related: some recommended reading from the SF Chronicle).

I’ve done a series of “Feel-Better Friday” posts in previous weeks but was inspired to switch it up today in favor of an inaugural “Fashion Friday.” In an effort to add a #fashion angle to my personal #brand (totally kidding, for those of you not as well-versed in my sarcastic tone), I’m pleased to present some updates on what I’ve been wearing lately, as well as some tips and tricks for the bargain shoppers out there! I might even throw in a few tips from my skincare and makeup routine if you’re lucky.

Actually – I’ll start off with some #skincare #content! Well, skin-related content. I’m in the phase of my menstrual cycle where I get big, fat, painful pimples in various places on my face. This month’s worst one is between my upper lip and nose and hurts whenever I scrunch my face:

Follow my blog for more pimple-related content!!!!!

I probably deserve these painful pimples because the only skincare routine I have is washing my face with soap whenever I shower, so routine is probably a generous term. Oh, I also put on sunscreen before I go on a long bike or hike outside because skin cancer is no bueno! Anyway, as I sat at the kitchen table eating lunch with Thomas earlier today, I said to him, “My pimple is getting so big!” And he – without even looking up from his sandwich – said, “yes, it has to get worse before it gets better.” Which meant that even he – the least!!!! observant person ever – had noticed the large pimple on my face.

So that’s the #tea on my skin. Now, onto fashion. A few of my friends have said that shelter-in-place has meant they are now changing outfits multiple times a day. The outfit-changing seems to stem from a combination of boredom and showering multiple times a day. I, however, am here to provide an antithetical approach to clothing in quarantine: wearing the same item of clothing for multiple days in a row.

There are a few important considerations when choosing said item of clothing:

  1. Make sure it transitions well from day to night.
    You know how there are those articles about day-to-night outfits? Like this one?:
Day-to-Night Fashion Statements - cabi Spring 2020 Collection

Well, that’s not quite what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something you can wear both during the day for work, chores, etc., and to bed at night. Exhibit A is this fantastically amazing coral romper that Leslie bought for me because she, as my identical twin, knows me better than anyone else ever will:

Not only do I look super cute wearing it at the park and on my couch, but I am cozy and comfy when I go to sleep in it at night!

Don’t worry, I do shower, but these outfits simplify the showering process greatly for those like me who don’t *love* hopping in the shower every day. All I have to do is 1) take off the romper and leave it hanging in the bathroom while I shower, 2) shower, and 3) put the romper back on, without ever having to leave the bathroom! Genius!

Another great example of a perfect day-to-night piece is this dress, which I featured in my Instagram story the other day because IT HAS POCKETS!!!!!

Yes, this image is filtered, because everyone should get a free pass on filtering their photos during shelter-in-place.

Not only is this dress super easy on-and-off, but it’s light, airy, and doubles as a nightgown! The other fantastic thing about this piece is that I got it…

…take a guess…

…drumroll, please…

at a CVS in Florida! You know how pharmacies have that one rack of cheap clothing they try to sell you if you’re on vacation and in desperate need of something ugly to wear as a coverup at the beach? Well, this is from that rack! And it was only $5! When I said I was going to be sharing bargain shopping tips, this is what I meant. It’s all about how you wear it.

Until next time, my fellow fashion folks. Happy weekend!

Racing in the Street

Leslie and I were talking the other day about how we only have so many “energetic” hours in our day; namely, the first few after we wake up. My hours of peak focus and energy are probably 6am-11am, after which I become increasingly unfocused and useless. The problem with having this limited 5 hour window is that it means I need to fit into it whatever has to be accomplished that day.

I think back to my college years when I’d wake up at 5am, be waiting outside the door of our campus Starbucks for it to open, and sit there for the next few hours cranking out whatever math or CS problem set was due later that day. Being a morning person in a CS major did not work well, considering all my classmates would collaborate on their problem sets from 10pm-2am, long after I’d gone to sleep.

But I’m still the same way, and each morning I wake up and have to decide what to use those precious few hours to accomplish. If I’ve got a lot of work on my plate I’ll do that, which means that on days I used to head into the office around 8 or 9am I’d have already done my most important work of the day.

It’s frustrating, though, to not be able to focus on much after a certain time. Every silly “life-hack”/productivity post tells you to schedule around these hours of peak performance, but for me it’s difficult to decide what I want to use those hours for. If I have work to do that takes priority – gotta pay the bills! – but if I want to have energy for a run or bike ride, or to read or write, those activities fall by the wayside. With my writing, for example, either I do it first thing in the morning (like I am now) or it doesn’t get done. And I want to write more!

That’s the good thing about Sundays, I guess. I woke up with no plans and am now out for a walk, typing this on my phone as I head down Folsom St. The rain just stopped and the sky is clearing up and the trees lining the street look especially green this morning:

I’m listening to Bruce (duh) and thinking about how basically everything in life (work, sports, our bodies) is temporary except for art. My body will age and at some point I won’t be able to hike any more, but music will still be there. Maybe that’s why I love music so much? Because I’m subconsciously afraid of the day my job and my body can’t preoccupy me anymore and I’m left feeling empty and unfulfilled?

Just passed this beautiful rose still wet from the rain.

Ah, man. Well at least I got a few words down this morning. Most of my thoughts happen when I’m out walking or hiking or running or riding so the walk-and-type strategy works well for me. It does mean that I have to make sure I’m paying attention to traffic and, if I’m on a trail, rocks and divets. I said to Thomas earlier this week that I need to buy a cheap handheld recorder so I can safely dictate my thoughts while out on a ride. Maybe I’ll start updating this blog with some of my morning “one-liners,” which is how I like to refer to a random thought that pops into my head but never end up elaborating on.

Anyway. Back to Bruce.

Good Morning(s)

I love mornings because they feel like a clean slate. I don’t know if that’s always a helpful thought to have, because “clean slates” aren’t really how the world works. But sometimes it helps me to know that if I go to bed feeling depressed or anxious or angry that tomorrow is a new day, and the sun will rise again, and the way I’m feeling then won’t be how I feel forever.

Recently, though, mornings have been feeling less innately “clean” and hopeful. I don’t want to waste energy dissecting the impact of Covid on our mental health (there’s already plenty of good material out there on that topic), but of course these circumstances are unique. And it sucks that, in these circumstances, the “fresh start” I usually ascribe to mornings doesn’t seem to apply.

But mornings are still the best part of my day. They are, for logistical (Thomas is still asleep), logical (working hours have not yet begun), and some unfounded (I collapse into a useless ball of anxiety in the evening) reasons, the time of day when I feel most entitled to “take time for myself.” For me, that looks like sitting down with a nice big glass of iced coffee and listening to music. And if there’s one good thing that’s come from shelter-in-place it’s that I don’t have anywhere else to be in the morning except there, at my kitchen table, drinking iced coffee and listening to music.

Maddy Mornings: A Photo Series

Shenandoah Sunsets (for My Sister)

It’s 5:04 pm on a Saturday but if I hadn’t consulted my phone I’d have no idea what time of day it was. The sky has been the same translucent grey since I woke up, making it impossible to distinguish between morning and evening. I’m typing this on my phone as I walk laps around the park a few blocks from my house; I wanted to sit and write but my body – just like my mind – is not accustomed to stillness. For a multitude of reasons (global pandemic included, of course) I’ve felt more thrown off in the past 24 hours than I have in a while.

I have so much anxious energy in my body; not entirely in a bad or negative way like it sometimes is – but just an overwhelming amount of it, like if I don’t move around it will swirl around inside me like a tornado, sweeping up everything in its path, gaining strength until eventually I explode?

I miss my sister so much. I painted this watercolor while thinking of her:

A sunset in Shenandoah National Park, inspired by Leslie

I wish I could reach into my belly and extract like a heavy mass all the love I have for her and Express Mail it to London.

This morning she sent me pictures of the gorgeous flowers out in London and I had this thought that they’d all bloomed for her. Like all the flowers, in all the gardens across London, put their heads together – each arching in with their stems so that their flowered heads touched – and were like, “OK guys, it’s time. Leslie needs us. Give us your best bloom.” Like the flowers knew that she – more than anyone else – is always, always there for her family and friends, sometimes to the point where she neglects herself. And that the flowers saw this and said, “Hey, Leslie needs some love, too.”

And we all do. We all need love, especially now. And so much of this energy I have in my body is made up of love for everyone in my life: Leslie, my family, my friends, even strangers I pass (six feet away) on the street. Sometimes I don’t know where to put it all and it swells up inside me and I find myself like I am now: walking in circles, typing furiously on my phone, looking like a madwoman. Which, a lot of times, I’m pretty sure I am.

I take a deep breath; the moisture in the air tingles in my nose.

The High Life

At exactly 4:07pm on Wednesday, April 8 – four days ahead of schedule – I achieved “To-Do List Zero.”(That’s my version of “Inbox Zero” but, instead of an email inbox, refers to the weekly to-do list I write each Sunday that details everything I want to accomplish that week, both work-related and personal.)

I had a shockingly productive Monday and Tuesday and, despite starting to fade earlier this afternoon, kept plugging away at the list items (note to self: where does the idiom “plug away” come from?). I finished the hefty work projects I’d been putting off for days (in favor of responding to one-off emails and chats which made me feel productive but weren’t exactly high-value activities), paid the medical bills that had been piling up on the corner of my kitchen table for two weeks, painted my mom’s birthday card (two weeks ahead of schedule, I might add #bestdaughterever), and put away my laundry.

So it was in the middle of a conference call that I referenced my weekly planner, distractedly planning what to work on next, and saw that all the checkboxes had been…checked off. The ensuing joyful sensation would have been much more gratifying were I not confined to my house with absolutely nothing better to do than immerse myself in work and household chores, but for a moment I experienced the brief high one gets from productivity.

It was in this state – of realizing I’d done everything on my list, but that the list itself was what had given me purpose the past few days – that I drew this quick sketch of the table in front of me:

That is a Joshua-scented tree candle, by the way, gifted to me by my wonderful sister-in-law Maïté. I’ll be lost when it burns out.

And here it is with my “desk” (read: kitchen-table-turned-workspace) for reference:

Having nothing else to do for the day, while daunting and slightly depressing at first, gave way to an appreciation for the opportunity that lay ahead. The world was (almost) my oyster! Like…a tiny oyster! Who’s confined to a small section of ocean! I could read! I could walk! I could cook! I could write (this post)!

And so, at 5:28pm, a few minutes after my last meeting finished, I went outside for a short walk. Because my “office” doubles as my personal reading/writing desk as well as my kitchen table (a multi-purpose function explicitly not advised by any article titled “Helpful Tips for Remote Work”) I make sure to step outside to signal the end of a work day. (Also, on days like today when Thomas and I have a delicious-smelling curry made for dinner in the Crockpot, a short walk is a useful way to kill time so that I don’t eat dinner at 4:45pm.)

I bring my phone only in case of emergency and relish the time away from a screen. When I started going on these short walks after my spinal surgery – always within the same five-block radius of my house – I challenged myself to notice something new on each of them. These walks quickly became the most joyful part of my day.

And, as it turned out, there was absolutely no element of challenge involved in noticing something new each time. There was always an intricately-designed door on some house I’d never noticed; or a few flowers that had bloomed since the last time I walked by; or a street that looked entirely different depending on the weather and how light was reflecting that time of day.

Today, for example, I encountered the following interesting things on my 20-minute walk:

This 40-ounce of Miller High Life perched on top of a garbage can outside of Thee Parkside, which I thought made for a nice little still life.
This box of old records left outside the stoop of a café. I sorted through them and came across this Natalie Cole one, which meant for the rest of my walk I had “Unforgettable” stuck in my head.
And, lastly, the most exciting discovery of all: finally meeting the man who owns my favorite car on the block (an old, pale green Imapla). He had his garage open – it was as cool as I’d expected from the guy who drives an awesome vintage car – and I got to chat with him a little about the current paint jobs he was working on.

I may not be able to travel far these days, but I’m managing to keep things pretty interesting over here in Potrero Hill. That’s all for now; I’m off to Google the history of “plugging away.”

Mad E. Coyote

I have struggled to write anything intelligible or cohesive in the past two weeks, much less creative or fresh. Sometimes I wake up feeling optimistic and inspired and manage to type a few paragraphs, jot some notes in my journal, or start a quick sketch. But then the 20-minute coffee high wears off and reality, and its subsequent anxious and “what’s-the-point” thoughts, hit me like a ton o’ bricks. I feel like one of those cartoon characters in the exaggerated, panicked moment where they’re hovering in the air after the ground has fallen out beneath them:

Wile E. Coyote –> Mad E. Coyote (get it?! Maddy Coyote?!)

All of that is a long-winded excuse for another week of unfinished drawings and thoughts. Last week I posted a half-finished sketch along with whatever rambling thoughts I could compile, and this week it’s kind of the same.

Here’s another half-finished drawing from my notebook earlier this week:

This sketch is reflective of my persistent daydreams about bright colors and flowers (and ideally experiencing them with my sister, Leslie).

I try to start my day by setting aside time for a calming activity before beginning work. About 50% of my mornings actually begin this way – with drawing, writing, or something as simple as deep breathing – and the other 50% are me waking up, pouring unhealthy amounts of cold brew into a jug, and immediately logging on to my work laptop. Once I start checking my email – even if it’s 7am, two hours before any of my coworkers log on and meetings start – any hope of me accomplishing any of these other activities goes out the window.

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

In addition to the time I managed to draw for 20 minutes this past week, I also eked out the following indecipherable words in my journal:

More questions than answers about my trains of thought here…

If anyone can provide me with clarity on my own disorganized thoughts that would be greatly appreciated. Alternatively, please send me a note or leave a comment about some the things you’ve been thinking about (bonus points if they make no sense).

Love to everyone. Keep hanging in there.