Looking around the library

It is 105 degrees out today. If you don’t have air conditioning and like to read, you’re at the Newport Beach Public Library.

It’s hard to find an empty chair. All the cubicles are taken, so I settle for a lounge chair. Each lounge chair has a lame circular table. What is the purpose of a table with a 6-inch-radius? Is it supposed to dignify the lounge chair? If you’re going to give me extraneous furniture at least give me a footrest.

My seat is at the center of the room. The lounge chairs and cubicles encircle me like a twenty-first century Stone Henge. No one is watching me, but I am in everyone’s peripheral vision.

My spot makes for a good observation deck. I can observe everyone around me without anyone taking notice. Some distinct characters have joined me at the library today:

In the cubicle to my right is an Asian college student who has hunkered down for the long haul. She has a 18 ounce thermos of water or tea, a Tupperware container of noodles and vegetables, a bottle of pink lotion, a calculator, a backpack, and a cooler bag. A textbook lies open with a notebook on top. She reads off her laptop, and occasionally glances at the iPhone propped up against the cubicle wall, constantly flashing with new text messages.

In the cubicle to her left is a white male student reading large blocks of text on his laptop. He focuses intently, pausing every 5 minutes to take a single bite of his protein bar. There are many bolded headings, bulletpoints, and footers. I imagine he is proofreading the bylaws of a campus organization he helps lead. It probably reads:

CHAPTER 9, SUBSECTION 3

  • The protocol for voting abstentions is as follows
      1. The voting party may abstain from procedural matters only if the requisite quorum does not meet specific parliamentary standards
      2. Such standards include, but are not limited to
        1. I really pity this kid. Get a girlfriend.

 

To his left is another student, blonde, sitting crosslegged on a spinny chair. She wears Nikes, workout shorts, and a pink tank top. Her legs will probably get some dirt on them, with her sitting like that. On her laptop, she pulls up images of small, complex diagrams which she must lean in and squint at to see. She copies them down in her notebook. She sips a Starbucks iced latte.

To her left a man sits in an armchair. He wears flip flops and ripped socks, worn jeans, and a shirt the color of dried mud. He has headphones held together with tape, and watches a screen that I infer is borrowed from the library. I cannot tell if he is homeless. He is the only person here who occasionally looks up from what he is doing to glance around self-consciously. He has met my eye a couple times so I think I’ll have to stop observing him for now.

To his left (if you haven’t noticed, I’m going in a circle) is a middle aged man wearing neon pink shorts. Somehow, it doesn’t look out of place on him. The shorts compliment the black fitted shirt, the smart, red-rimmed glasses, the Perrier sparkling water, the leather backpack, and the MacBook Air with a sticker reading “1000 Miles.” I infer that he cycled down Pacific Coast Highway this morning. His grey hair flows in waves down to his shoulders. He is very absorbed in his typing. He’s using the lame little lounge-chair table, and that doesn’t look out of place with him either.

To his left, in a cubicle, is another Asian student who has taken a nap. She wears Minion-themed crocs with pink socks.

To her left is another student who appears more Southeast Asian, her sleek black hair streaked with blonde and tied back in a bun. She wears a gold necklace, black strappy sandals, and a navy blue sundress. Of her three books, one lies open, and she types on her laptop. She’s writing an essay. She is a liberal arts student, whereas the other students are STEM. Every 15 minutes or so, she checks her Facebook.

A heavyset lady with a suitcase walks past me then disappers behind a row of books. I wonder what the story is there.

An attractive Afro-Arab looking man sits down across from me. He wears metallic glasses and Airpods and carries nothing but his phone. I infer that he lives close-by, in Newport. You don’t travel 30 minutes to go to a library and check your phone. Maybe he was grocery shopping at Trader Joes down the street, and thought he’d stop by the library for a moment of silence and a breath of fresh air. I am guessing he’ll leave in the next ten minutes, once he cools down. I am right. 

That’s all the data I collect from my surroundings. Now I analyze my empirical observations and draw conclusions.

  1. You can learn a lot about a person by what beverage they drink.
  2. Students still seem to have and carry textbooks, but never open them.
  3. I have trouble creating narratives without the help of stereotypes. It is hard for me to visualize the napping croc-wearing Asian student ripping a bong, or the white male club organizer dancing at a J Cole concert, or the Nike-wearing blonde excelling in organic chemistry. But, I mean, 2/3 of those things have probably happened.
  4. Wow, two hours have passed?

 

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Gratitude and the 4th of July

I never thought I would call myself a patriot. My liberal, vegan, Southern Californian self is not the type typically associated with red-white-and-blue fervor.

That said—you can’t come back from traveling in four Communist countries without gaining appreciation for the USA. Travel has shifted my perspective.

Before, I had never reflected on the gift of uncensored internet access, independent media, the right to ask questions, or ethnic diversity. During my homestay in China my VPN frequently crashed, leaving me at the mercy of the Great Chinese Firewall. My online activity was closely monitored. WeChat, the Chinese social media platform, flagged and blocked my friend due to “suspicious activity.”

The media was shameless propaganda. Its slanted coverage of international politics, the 2016 Olympics, and the America election cycle would’ve been funny if it weren’t alarming.

Question-asking was not a large part of my experience. I would constantly toe the line of discretion in asking my host family about politics. My mom was a Communist party member who worked for a state-owned broadcasting station. When my curiosity went too far, my mom would end the discussion with a resolute, “Eat your noodles.”

Mao’s face is printed on every dollar bill, his portrait on billboards and in school hallways.

There was very little ethnic diversity. Over the course of one month, I saw five Caucasians and one black person. When I touched back down at LAX I was instantly awash in a colorful rainbow of humanity: Arabs, Mexicans, Koreans, Germans, all rushing through Tom Bradley International terminal. I had never stopped to consider the beauty of such a globalized society. That was the first of many reverse-culture shocks. My American perspective left more room for gratitude, nuance, and pride.

Unequivocally, our country is deeply flawed. In 2018 alone, cops have shot and killed exactly 99 black people (Washington Post). The Supreme Court recently upheld the Muslim Travel Ban. Our EPA does not acknowledge human-induced climate change. Our vice president endorses gay conversion therapy. Our Congressional voting districts are gerrymandered to secure the election of white ruling class. The gender pay gap, the fossil fuel industry, ICE detention centers, arctic drilling, factory farming, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the overthrow of democratically elected Latin American leaders, the Japanese Internment Camps, the Chinese Exclusion Act, slavery, the Trail of Tears, all the way back to the genocide of an entire native peoples with the colonization of our continent—we have been and continue to be awful. It is rant-worthy.

These injustices are especially heinous because they are ironic. Our country promises to uphold liberty and justice for all. Our Constitutional ideals are so noble and pure, it is all the more tragic when we break them. I am not preaching that we forget our unjust past, resign to our scary, undemocratic present, and blindly rush into an ever more chaotic future. I urge that we be grateful for the principles our country stands for. Today’s dangerous political maelstrom is a betrayal of those founding principles. When we celebrate our country’s promises and seek to uphold them, we become better Americans. And an American is something I’m proud to be.

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Funny Chinese Food Translations

[Reposted on Chineasy.com]

The English translations of these Chinese vegetable words range from absurd to adorable. I’ve listed the Chinese character, the pronunciation, the English word, and the literal translation.

卷心菜 [juǎn xīn cài] – cabbage (literally, “swirling heart vegetable”)

Related image

菠萝 [bō luó] – pineapple (“spinach radish”)

Huh? Maybe pineapple and spinach plants appear similar in the ground.                  Screen Shot 2018-06-23 at 4.58.42 PM.png

灯笼椒 [dēng lóng jiāo]- bell pepper (“lantern pepper”)

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 芦笋 [lú sǔn] – asparagus (“bamboo reeds”)

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羽衣甘蓝 [yǔ yī gān lán]-kale (“feather dress cabbage”)

Image result for kale plant

西兰花 [xī lán huā] – broccoli (“western orchid”)

Ever seen the yellow flowers on a broccoli plant? They don’t look like “orchids”, but they are pretty nonetheless.

Image result for broccoli with flowers

黄瓜 [huáng guā]- cucumber (“yellow melon”)

Native Chinese cucumbers are yellow! The word “yellow melon” describes all types of cucumber, including the traditional green.

Image result for yellow cucumber

抱子甘蓝 [bào zǐ gān lán] – brussel sprouts (“hugging cabbage”)

Brussel sprout plants look like a bunch of tiny cabbages hugging each other.

Image result for brussel sprout plant

西红柿 [xī hóng shì] – tomato (“western red persimmon”)

Screen Shot 2018-06-23 at 4.56.21 PM.png

土豆 [tǔ dòu] – potato (“earth bean”)

I, too, am an earth bean.

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鳄梨 [È lí] – avocado (“alligator pear”)

Screen Shot 2018-06-23 at 4.59.24 PM.png

朝鲜蓟 [cháo xiǎn jì] – artichoke (“royal fresh thistle”)

Screen Shot 2018-06-23 at 4.59.51 PM.png

玉米 [yù mǐ] – corn (“jade rice”)

Screen Shot 2018-06-23 at 5.01.03 PM.png豆腐 [dòu fu]- tofu (“bean decay”)Related image

 

[Images courtesy of Google.]

Books I read in the past year, ranked

I’m not even aiming for objectivity. I mostly ranked these books in terms of their influence on me.

    1. Sapiens — 2014. Yuval Noah Harari dissects human history through a revolutionary new lense, weaving anthropology, economics, psychology, and biology into the story of our species.

    2. Homo Deus — 2015. Harari lays out a sobering roadmap for humanity. He envisions a world where a select group of elites upgrade their minds and bodies. Human concede every last shred of privacy and identity. AI eliminate the need for humans altogether. Homo Deus is pessimistic–but his next book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century promises hopeful solutions.

    3. Into the Wild — 1996. Jon Krakauer. I draw immense inspiration from Chris McCandless. I admire his stubborn commitment to his ideals and his search for self-knowledge through isolation. Krakauer is also one of my favorite authors; his style is clean, objective, and charged.


    4. Freakonomics — 2005. Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt. As a numbers person, and I enjoy distilling day-to-day life down to statistics. Levitt has made a career, a book, and an academic field out of it.


    5. Kafka on the Shore — 2005. Haruki Murakami’s masterpiece. This novel is a journey through our own subconscious minds. I remember events of the book as one remembers scenes from a vivid dream.


    6. The God Delusion — 2006. Richard Dawkins. I grew up an atheist, but in the months before reading this book I was exploring different spiritual religions. The God Delusion set me back on my natural track of steadfast skepticism. Dawkins witty style and unapologetic arguments will persuade any fence-sitter.

    7. The Handmaid’s Tale — 1985. Margaret Atwood. I love the way Atwood discusses language. She provides backstories for words, as if they were characters. I remember a particular moment when the protagonist said, “I feel like the word shatter.”

    8. Sign Preceding the End of the World — 2015. Yuri Herrera. Trans. Lisa Dillman. The English translation of this contemporary Mexican novel is shocking and powerful. The protagonist is a messenger between drug cartels, crossing the border between the US and Mexico, English and Spanish, hope and desperation, life and death. It sheds a light on the often-unseen complexities of immigration and language.

    9. Franny and Zooey — 1961. J.D. Salinger. My summer roommate was in love with Salinger. In an attempt to get to know her better, I checked this book out from the library and read it in three days. I think this book is Salinger’s self-portrait, and he’s laughing at himself. That makes it all the more genius.


    10. Between the World and Me — 2015. Ta Nehisi Coates shares his brutally honest perspective on race in America. Formatted as a letter to his son, Coates delves into police brutality, the insecurity of his black body, and his mixed feelings towards raising a child in this country.

    11. The Age of Sustainable Development — 2015. Jeffrey Sachs is the special adviser to the UN Secretary General and helped devise the Sustainable Development Goals. His book discusses the problems facing human, environmental, and economic health, their causes, and their solutions. It is a pragmatic, well-written, readable manual on saving the planet.

    12. Open Veins of Latin America — 1971. Eduardo Galeano. This book opened my eyes to the tragedies of Latin America’s past. European colonialism, centuries of enslavement, covert CIA missions and the installation of dictators and puppets, manipulative “free trade” agreements, all bind Latin America to poverty. I went on a two week rampage of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist fervor (my heated passion remains to this day, without the Commie rhetoric).

    13. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running — 2007. Haruki Murakami. Never have I connected so deeply with an author. Murakami discusses writing and running as symbiotic: two components of a happy, creative, prolific life.


    14. Metamorphosis — 1915. Franz Kafka. A hilarious, thought-provoking, twisted classic. It helped me understand Murakami much better.


    15. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime — 2003. Mark Haddon. A rare, intimate look into the mind of a mathematically brilliant, autistic child. This novel made me laugh and cry.


    16. Buddhism for Beginners — 2001. Thubten Chodron. I bought this book at the local hippie shop. It was exactly what I was seeking: a concise guide to the philosophy and teaching of Buddhism. It inspired a daily meditation practice and several months of Buddhist curiosity. But that ended with Richard Dawkins.

    17. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — 1995. Haruki Murakami. The first Murakami I ever read (my gateway drug). I fell in love with each outlandish metaphor, entangled storyline, and twisted character. I place this book in the middle of his development as a novelist.

    18. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth — 2013. Chris Hadfield. There are few people on Earth (or, shall I say, beyond it) more qualified to give advice about life than Hadfield. A cosmonaut, engineer, husband, father, writer, and photographer, his story is astronomically inspiring.

    19. The Undercover Economist — 2005. Tim Harford. An unashamed capitalist preacher, Harford makes a solid case for himself. He discusses environmentalism, health care, coffee, and human behavior in ways I had never considered.


    20. A Wild Sheep Chase — 1982. Haruki Murakami. It is fascinating to compare his earlier works to his newer ones. This book is far more light-hearted and funny than his more “serious” contemporary novels, but his dream-like whimsy is as present as ever.


    21. Hurry Up and Meditate — 2008. David Michie offers some invaluable practical advice on how to meditate well and regularly. I’d reread it, but I leant it to a tree-hugging friend who never gave it back.

    22. The Runaway Species — 2017. David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt use dozens of historical anecdotes to illustrate how our brains create original ideas. Though it was well-written and the examples were interesting, this book talked less about biology and psychology than I hoped it might.

    23. My Neighbor’s Faith  2012. Assorted Essays. Someone I deeply respect recommended me this book. I devoured it in a desire to get to know him better. The book itself was, meh. I’m not religious.

 

Working on a farm

This summer I am working on a farm. I lead tractor tours around our 30 sun-drenched acres. My job involves eating raw corn, demonstrating how to pick strawberries, speaking some Chinese and Spanish here and there, and telling stories about vegetable history.

When I get hungry, I simply pick more strawberries. When I get tired, I go inside and hand out samples at the market stand. When I have to go to the bathroom, there’s a port-a-potty out back. When I need a moment to breathe, I inhale the rich musk of the earth.

Though I’m not quite a farmhand, I like to play the part. I wear a big straw hat and corduroy jeans, and invite guests to call me Farmer Chuck. When I get off work, I drive down Pacific Coast Highway to the sound of Arlo Guthrie, James Taylor, and Dolly Parton.

I relish the question, “Oh, where do you work?”

 

 

First steps

My first steps towards any goal are physical steps. My ideas spring from the impact of running shoes on packed dirt. My brain is like wet cement, and my ideas are inlaid bricks. Running dries the cement and sets my ideas in place, so that they might form structures.

Whenever a big essay deadline approaches, I “run on it.” I set out with no music and no phone–just the simple intention of  brainstorming an idea. Not that every run is a well-spring of inspiration. I rarely devise fully-formed plans and paragraphs as I run. I merely seek to create a blank headspace. In this vacuum, creative sparks might flash.

The first steps of my creative process are therefore simple. I require no post-it notes, graphic organizers, Excel sheets, nor Starbucks espressos. I need a good pair of running shoes (I swear by Hoka’s) and a trail.