Note: Long Drives and Audiobooks

When I lived in Berkeley, I never prepared for the 8-hour drive to San Diego, where my mom lives, and back again. All I needed was a soundtrack, courtesy of my CDs, a collection that continues to grow as my car remains oblivious to developments in technology. My recent move to Sonoma tacked on a single extra hour to that drive, which led to the discovery that the tipping point is found somewhere within that hour; what is tiring turns exhausting, what is improvised turns planned. When faced with a 9-hour drive, I fill up on gas the night before, I look up the weather, I pack a lunch, and last time, for the first time, I downloaded two audiobooks. On the way down, I listened to When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, and on the way up, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.
 
I had not intended on reading either book, at least not anytime soon, because after reading the reviews, listening to the interviews, seeing the #bookstagram photos and observing the general chatter, I felt like I had spent a considerable amount of time with both. These are the titles that break rank to become spectacularly known, leaving behind an endless march of the likewise recently published. When a book becomes a major subject in the cultural conversation, and when so many opinions are readily and fervently expressed, I hesitate, as if navigating a dinner party: Perhaps I’ll observe this one from afar and join a quieter conversation in the far corner over there. But several months and books later, I remained curious about these two, and then I had to go on a very long drive.
 
In the foreword of When Breath Becomes Air, the narrator describes Paul Kalanithi’s writing as “cadence you can tap your feet to,” and I smile as I settle in. He emphasizes, “This book, the one that you are now holding in your hands,” and it feels as if I am getting away with something. Instead I listen, and as I do, there are so many passages I want to highlight, words to underline and references to look up, but I simply keep listening. Early in the book, Kalanithi describes his boyhood home in Arizona as “red-­rock desert speckled with mesquite, tumbleweeds and paddle-­shaped cacti.” I remember something about dust swirls and freedom, and that “spaces stretched on, then fell away.” I remember thinking, I need to see this on paper, I want to read this passage over and over again. Listening feels too easy, too passive, which is so unlike reading, an activity that is engaging and requires effort. I remind myself what an English teacher used to remind me, that a book only gives what it receives. Kalanithi, diagnosed with terminal cancer during the final year of his neurosurgical residency, was a lifelong voracious reader and bestows literature with the highest praise. He writes, “Literature is the best account of the life of the mind” and “Literature provides the richest material for moral reflection.” His final act is to masterfully contribute to this body of literature with a profoundly moving book of his own, one that earnestly explores what makes life meaningful, especially when death is so near.
 
Elizabeth Gilbert narrates her own book, Big Magic, which is to experience every word exactly as she intended. I then wonder how many levels of abstraction are at play when we read, and therefore how much of ourselves we actually pour into any book. I suspect a lot. A book is not merely a reservoir of ideas that we passively consume, but one that we filter and connect with our own. If creativity, however you define it, is your goal, Gilbert is your biggest cheerleader and her rallying cry is this book. She believes that we all have jewels tucked deep inside of us, that creativity is an external force with desire and intention, and that ideas can travel from one person to another. If you wish to roll your eyes, I do not blame you, but Gilbert writes so encouragingly that you begin to consider whether your cynicism is perhaps the biggest problem of all. Within her thick web of advice, Gilbert weaves in personal stories to support this or that claim, and these stories are by far my favorite parts of Big Magic. There is Evelyn of the Amazon, the book that never was, the garden that inspires The Signature of All Things, the young girl nicknamed Pitiful Pearl, and the poet who races inside for paper and pen whenever she hears a poem approach. Gilbert validates and applauds all creative pursuits, dropping tidbits like, “If it’s authentic, it will feel original,” and a classic by W.C. Fields that goes, “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.”
 
I arrived at the very last sentence of Big Magic as I exited the freeway for home, 500 miles of California behind me, and I felt like I was in a haze, like the drive was a bizarre encounter that needed to be shaken off. To focus on a single topic for a long stretch of time is difficult, perhaps exceedingly so, due to both obligation and distraction. Neither of these happens to be an issue when you are on the road for nine hours. Of course, focus takes hold most beautifully when it stems from our own passion and will, and when it does, it can feel like you have freed yourself from time, like you have successfully lost yourself in a daydream. My only regret? Well, that I did not actually read When Breath Becomes Air or Big Magic.
 
Read the glowing NYT review of When Breath Becomes Air, “Singularly Striving Until Life Steps In.”
Read the rather harsh NYT review of Big Magic, “Crash Course.”
 
Best, Yuri
 

Labels: Notes, Personal, , , ,

Note: I Write This from a Window Seat

On March 11, two days before my birthday, I flew to Amsterdam for what would be eleven days in Europe, my very first time. I selected two cities beyond Amsterdam to explore: Utrecht, a university town 30 miles southeast of Amsterdam, and Paris. Europe invites the possibility of seeing its major sights on a single trip, à la “backpacking through Europe,” a rite of passage straight from America’s young adult folklore. But already under the assumption that I will inevitably return, I chose to tighten the focus on Holland with a jaunt to Paris. In retrospect, I could have easily spent the entire time in either country, or any single city, and I suppose the lesson is to never underestimate the enthusiastic heart’s capacity to explore. I took photos when I could, alternating between DSLR, disposable and iPhone, and wrote when I could, either in my trusty navy Moleskine or the Notes app on my phone, furiously tapping as I wound through Shakespeare and Company not once but three times. Before I revisit such notes, photos and souvenirs (simple items like a postcard from the Ann Frank House, bookmarks from the Van Gogh Museum, tattered train tickets), a couple of unpolished photos and likewise corresponding notes may capture a spirit of the trip that is likely to fade from overthinking.

I write this from a window seat on a train traveling from Paris to Amsterdam. Under a low gray ceiling, scenes alternate between swaths of bare winter trees with tip-tops made invisible by fog, fields of green and brown in equal measure, anonymous farms, and urban relics like graffiti, billboards and pedestrians before and after each station. Birds appear in all directions and begin to race the train, though they soon forfeit to dance up and away to a place gravity forbids. I sense magic when listening to songs from my own canon of favorites as the landscape flies by, especially when that landscape is new and that song has such fitting lines as, “I quit casting hooks off the California coast we held so dear.” California, now an ocean and continent away. I have driven the 500-mile stretch between California’s northern and southern ends countless times, a feat that has skewed my perspective of travel. I am accustomed to traveling far while very little changes. Now, I sit on a train that traverses three wholly unique countries – Holland, Belgium and France – in a little over 300 miles. Borders feel especially arbitrary when countries live in such close quarters. Soon I will arrive in Amsterdam Central only to race to another train headed for Utrecht. Simply because this trip began in Holland, returning after two days in Paris feels a bit like going home. Understand I’m prone to attachment.

I write this from a window seat in Café Pieper in the center of Amsterdam. Louis Armstrong’s trumpet plays familiar notes in this 17th century café, and as the two make an undeniably perfect pair, the conclusion is that certain things are indeed timeless and stunningly so. Floorboards creak loudly with each new customer, and the espresso machine whirrs just as often as beer is poured. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman cling to each other in the far corner. To my left, a couple sits with a dog that they quickly report is 15-years-old and deaf; to my right, two shimmering blondes talk as quickly as their hands fly. Upon hearing any foreign language, my mind seems to fill every word, sound and syllable with deeply profound meaning, as if to emphasize, Listen to all that you don’t know! Outside the stained glass windows, there is a canal with cars and bikes wrapped tightly around its perimeter, which strangely does not diminish the canal’s beauty. Instead, beauty emerges from the bustle, timeless and stunningly so.
 
Best, Yuri
@yuriroho
Labels: Notes, Personal,

Note: Late February

I’ve begun to hear a murmur of impatience for the arrival of spring, still a month away, which I remain surprisingly patient for. When days effortlessly transform into weeks and then months, very little patience is required to pass a season. Spring has already dropped breadcrumbs, like the blindingly bright yellow fields that dot Highway 12, the containers of sown seeds in neighboring yards, and the light cotton dresses that reemerge from the depths of my closet.
 
February left a false impression when it introduced itself as winter amid dark clouds and rain. By the end of the first week, clouds broke to set loose an all too eager sun that has been shining ever since. The change was unexpected, my least favorite kind. After struggling to settle into the new home in the middle of winter, I had finally reached the end of a learning curve and was beginning to relish the season’s rituals; pulling on thick socks to guard against the icy kitchen floor, keeping spare jackets and scarves in the backseat of my car, collecting firewood, tending a fire, visiting deserted beaches, and driving with the heater on and windows cracked open.
 
The sun now pours itself into every room, urging me outside. I sometimes give in but I just as often decline, as the sun makes its way to me anyway, eager for attention. My desk sits alongside the window and warm air drifts in, knocking the vertical blinds against each other like modest wind chimes. Once spring arrives, I envision keeping open all blinds and windows, even the front and back doors, to erase any distinction between inside and out. But I feel perfectly fine waiting. Who knows, perhaps there is a rain spell waiting in the wings, there is a glimpse of one even now. Winter, take your time.
 
Best, Yuri
@yuriroho
Labels: Notes, Personal,

Note: Early February

February, what a delight. After the never-ending holiday season, followed by the long stretch of January – an intimidating month, one that highlights our inadequacies and demands resolutions – I welcome short and sweet February.
 
I bid final farewell to the apartment in Berkeley, handing off its keys to the property manager after a two minute walk-through. The original owner was a spectacular chain smoker who cited the apartment’s proximity to Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto as one of its winning attributes, a place we understandably failed to dine at over the course of three years. As shiny new apartments sprung up tall around us, in time the largest real estate firm in the area took over our tired building, as is the trend in these shapeshifting neighborhoods. Finally standing bare and empty, the apartment never felt so small. In fact, it seemed to shrink with each visit since we began moving out in early December, as if distance inspires a fresh understanding of dimensions. The apartment indeed felt small while we lived there, its close quarters made obvious whenever a friend visited or a neighbor’s cat slipped in, easily overwhelming the space. But its familiarity bred comfort, and that comfort distracted from the smallness of 500 square feet. I suspect that comfort is what also led us to prolong the move like we did, to flip back between two chapters for just a bit longer. After the walk-through, I left Berkeley quickly only to take the long way home, driving Highway 37 through the southern tips of Sonoma and Napa. It felt like moving on, like settling in. A couple days later, I searched for the apartment’s listing on Craigslist and there it was, the rent almost double what we paid. So it goes.
 
Of the books I plan to read this month, I eagerly begin with Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson, a coming-of-age that unfolds within the obsessive world of 1970s New York City ballet. The subject provokes awe, the tone is reverent, and I anticipate the book to be a fixture of this first weekend in February. Then there is All Stories Are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer, a favorite new author whose first book I adored; I remember lines in An Uncommon Education like, “she passed in a full sail of silence” and “living within shouting distance of each other.” Her second book centers on a group of survivors in San Francisco, the city in ruins after it is struck by two earthquakes within one hour. It is a scenario that feels scarily inevitable, and a reminder that we merely tiptoe around nature, a character of extremes that operates of its own accord. I am also very curious about Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett. February is a short one, but what is fleeting has left a permanent mark before.
 
Best, Yuri
@yuriroho
Labels: Notes, Personal, ,

Note: Two Weekends


I woke up two Saturdays ago with the ocean in mind, so off we drove to the Sonoma Coast, where we passed beaches with names like Salmon Creek, Goat Rock, Portuguese and Schoolhouse. Of all the new neighbors this move has introduced, these beaches are by far my favorite, and I hope they will tolerate my frequent and unannounced visits. The ocean was loud, its waves wild, which I bet means catching it on a good day, in high spirits. Grays, blues and whites intertwined to create a palette familiar to those who have spent a winter in California.
 
The following weekend, last weekend, we headed west once more. The subject of octopuses has lingered on my mind since reading and then re-reading The Soul of an Octopus, so off we drove 170 miles to Monterey, to go see one. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has several species of octopus on exhibit, but as with siblings and seasons and most everything else, a clear favorite quickly emerged. The Day Octopus was mesmerizing, stretching itself to its full length, plastering itself onto the glass, and changing color and texture on the fly. It was clearly showing off for us spectators – alone in its tank, without the bleating commands of trainers – which I thought generous and kind. How special that it puts forth such effort. Does it care what we think? We responded approvingly, with exclamations of awe and clicks of the camera.
 
The trip to Monterey confirms books to be reservoirs of ideas waiting to inspire our lives, often in the simplest of ways; like when I tell a friend a bee won’t sting her if she sends it love because “every little thing wants to be loved” (The Secret Life of Bees), or recommending a chicken sandwich and a glass of milk to someone in distress (Franny). I save songs referenced in books so that that gems like Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in G Minor, Opus 23” (All My Puny Sorrows) and Yusef Lateef’s “The Plum Blossom” (The Light of the World) boldly slip into an otherwise humble music collection. If reading just a few books can inspire habits or playlists or weekend outings, surely reading hundreds of books can eventually inspire a life, and what is yet to be discovered excites me endlessly.
 
Best, Yuri
@yuriroho
Labels: Notes, Personal, ,