Passages of Note: January

The Economist, Why is everyone so busy?:

In America, for example, men who did not finish high-school gained nearly eight hours a week of leisure time between 1985 and 2005. Men with a college degree, however, saw their leisure time drop by six hours during the same period, which means they have even less leisure than they did in 1965, say Mark Aguiar of Princeton University and Erik Hurst of the University of Chicago. The same goes for well-educated American women, who not only have less leisure time than they did in 1965, but also nearly 11 hours less per week than women who did not graduate from high school. […]

Slow economic growth and serious disruptions in any number of industries, from media to architecture to advertising, along with increasing income inequality, have created ever more competition for interesting, well-paid jobs. Meanwhile in much of the rich world, the cost of housing and private education has soared. They can also expect to live longer, and so need to ensure that their pension pots are stocked with ample cash for retirement. Faced with sharper competition, higher costs and a greater need for savings, even elite professionals are more nervous about their prospects than they used to be. This can keep people working in their offices at all hours, especially in America, where there are few legal limits on the working hours of salaried employees.

This extra time in the office pays off. Because knowledge workers have few metrics for output, the time people spend at their desks is often seen as a sign of productivity and loyalty. So the stooge who is in his office first thing in the morning and last at night is now consistently rewarded with raises and promotions, or saved from budget cuts. Since the late 1990s, this “long-hours premium” has earned overworkers about 6% more per hour than their full-time counterparts, says Kim Weeden at Cornell University. (It also helps reinforce the gender-wage gap, as working mothers are rarely able to put in that kind of time in an office.)

Eric Sanderson, Forget the Damned Motor Car:

Forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends.
—Lewis Mumford, My Works and Days (1979)

Humanity managed for the better part of 400,000 years without cars and did just fine. Julius Caesar, Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, Adam Smith, and Abraham Lincoln lived in cities and never drove an automobile. They didn’t need one, or thought to need one. And you wouldn’t need one either if we could arrange our lives such that you can get where you need to go without a car.

What does this have to do with the nature of cities? Cars are Enemy #1 for the nature of cities. Not only do gas-propelled vehicles pollute the environment and contribute to climate change, the roads they require take up space, robbing room from us and from nature at large.

Anshuman Iddamsetty, The Year in Thickness:

I would lose count, if I bothered tallying, the looks of other men (mostly, but not exclusively) whenever I went outside holding the hand of someone I loved. That smirk. Sometimes bewilderment, like I’ve broken something sacred. There’s the way the body language of kind, educated people turns: cocked to one side waiting for the punch line, or tilted in high alert, as if the deep pathology responsible, and a pathology it must be, were airborne. “A chubby chaser? YOU?” someone once balked at a party. I would’ve thrown my work Timbs at him if he hadn’t also been the host.

But I’ve never had time for fuccbois trembling to impress each other, and nothing but contempt for the closeted admirer too petrified to be seen in public with someone a size 26, but more than willing to slide into their DMs under the cover of an eggplant emoji. In the words of every mentor worth her salt: Do the goddamn work.

Christopher Knight, Museum admission should be free:

Museums like to say that they are eager to engage new audiences, and no doubt they are. Growing attendance by a quarter without tinkering with the program is a pretty good working definition of new audience engagement.

Admission policies often have an unacknowledged influence on museum programs too, and it isn't always healthy. Admission fees turn visitors into customers, and relying on customers turns an educational enterprise — which is what a museum is — into a public entertainment. Quantity of response trumps quality of response, and in the short run the surest way to juice quantity is to popularize the program.

Jaime Woo, The one scene in 'Boyhood' no one is talking about:

More than one reviewer noted how impressive it was to capture these “ordinary” Americans: In fact, Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir used the word three times in his review. So what does it mean when “ordinary” in 2014 still passes as the white experience? When the questionable treatment of ethnic minorities as props for the white characters nary raises a flag? Films don’t need to reflect experiences of all people, nor even the average experience. However, it is important that filmmakers be aware of how issues like race, gender, and class can matter. The benignly naive stance of Boyhood informs the luxury of living within a bubble where these issues can be ignored.

In life, as in this film, the unequal treatment of race is rarely blatant. Instead, it is something subtler, a gentle slope — the equivalent of the metaphorical boiling of the frog. It may not even be intentional. But those who face it every day quickly learn to read even the quietest of signals. We know when we exist only as props to make white people feel better about themselves. Or as punchlines to make them laugh. And then we take a step back, into the shadows, as we watch white people reinforce a world that places them front and centre and never question what that means.

[…] “If there’s anything we’ve learned from Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds or Sandy Bullock in The Blind Side or Hilary Swank in that movie nobody ever saw, it’s that all you need to fix minority problems is a really pretty white woman.”

R. Blair, Iron Man 3: Blue (Da Ba Dee):

Iron Man 3 is one of the best movies about PTSD I have ever seen.

The philosopher Susan Brison has summarized a view of trauma in her excellent book Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self where a trauma is above all an interruption—of whatever life you had been living before, of whatever plans you may have had, of any coherent story you had ever been able to tell yourself about who you were and how you got here, of the possibility of any future at all.

Bianca Sparacino, How To Ruin Your Life:

You ruin your life by letting your past govern it. It is common for certain things in life to happen to you. There will be heartbreak, confusion, days where you feel like you aren’t special or purposeful. There are moments that will stay with you, words that will stick. You cannot let these define you – they were simply moments, they were simply words. If you allow for every negative event in your life to outline how you view yourself, you will view the world around you negatively. You will miss out on opportunities because you didn’t get that promotion five years ago, convincing yourself that you were stupid. You will miss out on affection because you assumed your past love left you because you weren’t good enough, and now you don’t believe the man or the woman who urges you to believe you are. This is a cyclic, self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t allow yourself to move past what happened, what was said, what was felt, you will look at your future with that lens, and nothing will be able to breach that judgment. You will keep on justifying, reliving, and fueling a perception that shouldn’t have existed in the first place.

Nicholas Dames, The Chapter: A History:

The chapter is tied intimately to our notions of literacy, as signalled by the fact that we give the name “chapter books” to the texts that offer school-age children their first mature reading experiences. More than this, the chapter has become a way of looking at the world, a way of dividing time and, therefore, of dividing experience. Its origins date back to long before the printing press or even the bound codex, back to the emergence of prose in antiquity as both an expressive and an informational medium. Literary evolution rarely seems slower than it does in the case of the chapter. […]

What the chapter did for the novel was to aerate it: by encouraging us to pause, stop, and put the book down—a chapter before bed, say—the chapter-break helps to root novels in the routines of everyday life. The chapter openly permitted a reading oriented around pauses—for reflection or rumination, perhaps, but also for refreshment or diversion. Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” insisted that “chapters relieve the mind,” encouraging our immersion by letting us know that we will soon be allowed to exit and return to other tasks or demands. Coming and going—an attention paid out rhythmically—would become part of how novelists imagined their books would be read. […]

The unassuming quality of the chapter, its way of not insisting on its importance but marking a transition nonetheless, turns out to be its most useful, if also its most vexing, quality. It is a vocabulary for noting the way we can organize our pasts into units. Some things stop; others begin. We note these shifts, in relationships or jobs or domiciles, reassured that the environing story itself—our lives—are still ongoing. But how do we know when we are starting a new chapter? How are we justified in picking a moment out of fluid passing time and declaring a pause?

Aaron Schuster, A Philosophy of Tickling:

Aristotle famously defined man as the rational animal (zoon echon logon), and as the political animal (zoon politikon). But there are also passages in his work that indicate another less remarked upon, though no less profound, definition. In Parts of Animals, he writes: “When people are tickled, they quickly burst into laughter, and this is because the motion quickly penetrates to this part, and even though it is only gently warmed, still it produces a movement (independently of the will) in the intelligence which is recognizable. The fact that human beings only are susceptible to tickling is due (1) to the fineness of their skin and (2) to their being the only creatures that laugh.” Perhaps this notion of the “ticklish animal” was further elaborated in the second book of the Poetics, the lost treatise on comedy; indeed, the relationship between ticklish laughter and comic laughter remains an open question. Should tickling be investigated under the heading of comedy or of touch? Touch, Aristotle argues, is the most primary sense, and human beings are uniquely privileged in possessing the sharpest sense of touch thanks to the delicate nature of their skin. Though other animals have more advanced smell or hearing, “man’s sense of touch … excels that of all other animals in fineness.” We might view tickling as a side effect of the hyper-sensitivity of human touch. Our peculiar vulnerability to tickling is the price to be paid for more sophisticated and discriminating access to the world. […]

An additional note on animal tickling: the most famously ticklish beast is no doubt the trout, which falls into a trance-like state when its underbelly is lightly rubbed. This has been known for ages; in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Maria says, while planning to trick Malvolio, “Lie thou there; for here comes the trout that must be caught with tickling.”

Roisin Kiberd, Online Dating Is Turning Us All Into Tamagotchis:

Keeping a digital pet alive is a lot like an online relationship, I thought. The beeps and constant maintenance teach you to channel affection through a tiny interface, just like someone demanding attention through a smartphone.

Ryan Bort, Elvis Presley and the Dying Art of Leaving Them Wanting More:

The encore as we know it has lost its intended meaning. It’s too often a perfunctory charade rather than anything organic or inspired. Of course plenty of live sets will elicit genuine exuberance and an almost primal desire to see more of the powerful thing onstage that has moved everyone so. But just as many sets—sets that are simply good and not mind-blowing—will be followed by a polite upswell in applause that quickly settles into a tepid, prolonged clapping session from an audience forced to wait out a totally unnecessary intermission. If the band takes too long to come back out, they’re pricks. When they do return, they’ll play three or four songs, at least one of which is a crucial piece of the performance as a whole. The artist therefore must emphatically bring home (at least) two sets.

Imagining an America without sports, Sam Riches:

Since sports naturalize notions of difference between men and women, would their elimination result in greater equality? Would we be able to construct games, or other ways of using the human body, where both the achievements of men and women could be celebrated equally? Would a different intellectual or creative pursuit rise to popularity and, if it did, would we be any better for it?

I ran against Rob Ford and suffered the consequences, Munira Abukar:

I saw that my parents and the rest of the community were tired of voting for someone they thought would bring change and not seeing it happen. No one reflected their life experiences, their ideas and their beliefs. I wanted to demonstrate that there are options, so last year I entered the race for councillor in Ward 2. I ran against Rob Ford, knowing I had little chance of beating him. My goal was to show people that it’s possible for one of them to run for office.

What happened during the campaign shocked me. People wrote “Bitch” and “Go back home” on my campaign signs. Being a target made me feel incredibly vulnerable. Then my signs started disappearing. We let the city know, but they said there wasn’t anything they could do. After the election was over, whoever stole the signs placed them back up all over the ­neighbourhood—likely knowing I’d be fined for it. In total, there were 154 put back up, and in ­November I received an invoice from Municipal ­Licensing and Standards for more than $4,000. I’m still fighting the charge—I ­followed all the rules and shouldn’t be penalized. The racism hit my team pretty hard; it took a lot out of them. The youngest volunteer was only 11 or 12, and they’d never faced anything like it. But I tried to teach them we could persevere past it. People only do this because they have hate in their hearts; you don’t have to give them any space in yours.

How Fashion Helped Defeat 18th-Century Anti-Vaxxers, Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

A sense of normalcy is exactly what’s missing from today’s vaccination debate. Already stressed-out new parents are bombarded with the alarmist, emotional accusations of the anti-vaxxers who claim vaccination can cause autism on one hand, and the strident, jargony denials of the medical establishment on the other. We hear a lot about the risks of vaccinations—or, alternatively, the much more serious risks of foregoing them and losing herd immunity as vaccination rates drop below 92 percent—but little about the vast majority of parents who quietly continue to vaccinate their children according to CDC guidelines, without complications.

This is where fashion could once more play a role. Just as those "I Voted" stickers have a certain election-day cachet and effectively shame those who haven’t voted into getting to the polls, an "I Vaccinated" sticker could start a revolution, or at a least a conversation. Some clinics already give out similar stickers during flu season—not to reward the vaccinated, but to remind the rest of us to get our shots.

The Last English Teacher, Nick Ripatrazone

I teach every class like it is my last. It could be. When I started teaching, I thought my purpose was to create a legion of English majors. I have learned that my purpose is to pause the lives of my students for long enough that a line of poetry is the loudest sound they encounter during the day.

Links of Note: January

Every episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy is available online, for a free. Here’s a directory of all of them: prepare to lose hours of your day for the next year to science.

Zoolander was a great movie, but did you realize that the idea for the movie originally began as a short spoof for the 1996 VH1 Fashion Awards?

Last year’s best corrections and errors in media are sometimes hilarious, and often cringe-inducing.

Sarah Larson, on Serial: “Episode twelve conclusively proved that what we’ve been listening to is not a murder mystery: it’s a deep exploration of the concept of reasonable doubt.”

Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day, one of my favorite novels,in four weeks using a process he called “The Crash.”

Two vocalists perform an acoustic duet of two different Taylor Swift songs sung at the same time, and the result is beautiful.

Bianca Sparacino, on ruining your life: “Understand that life is not a straight line. Life is not a set timeline of milestones. It is okay if you don’t finish school, get married, find a job that supports you, have a family, make money, and live comfortably all by this age, or that age.

August Sanders took photos of pedestrians in several cities around the world, and then arranged them all together to show us that we’re all the same, completely average, no matter where we are.

As someone who has been working in an open-concept office for the past three years, I’m starting to agree with this: the open-office trend is destroying the workplace.

What it feels like to have a panic attack. I haven’t had one for a while, but they were like this, with some variations.

This is what people asked the library before Google. Our Google search histories will seem just as strange to our children, I’m sure.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has picked the eight books every person should read, and I’ve only read five of them. Time to update my reading list.

The top ten bridges of 2014 are not just architecturally stunning, but have lots of consideration for sustainability and pedestrian life.

Photographer Beth Moon has traveled around the world, taking photos of the oldest trees on earth. Some of these are startlingly beautiful.

Origins of common user interface symbols. A lot of these were new to me.

Watch someone take apart a Rolex Submariner. Don’t worry, he puts it back together again.

26 charts and maps that show the world is getting much, much better. Always good to hear some good news from time to time.

Remember the “Pillars of Creation,” the star-forming nursery in the heart of the Eagle Nebula? You’ve never seen it like this. Space photography is remarkably gorgeous.

Warby Parker created a “year in review” generator. According the report it generated about me, I spent 32% of my time exploring (accurate) and my spirit animal is the hedgehog (could be accurate).

What it’s like to cross the border while having brown skin and having an Arabic name. I can relate to a lot of this.

5 things beautiful is not, and 5 things it is. Just in case you were confused.

Craft brewers are running out of names. I’ve always been impressed by the creativity I see on beer labels.

What 2,000 calories looks like. Spoiler alert: you can pack a lot of calories into not a lot of food.

The best rapper alive, every year since 1979. Hard to argue with most of this list.

I had the chance to dine at Next in the first month of its opening, and had to use the online “ticketing” system instead of a reservation system. It was clunky at that time, but I’m glad to see it’s progressing and more restaurants are embracing the idea of “tickets.”

I hadn’t ever thought about the history of the chapter before, but it’s interesting to see how the chapter evolved to become the de facto text separator in long-form writing.

Teju Cole writes about the Paris attacks, and sums up the conflict of emotion perfectly.

One of Gandhi’s only prized material possessions was his watch. As someone who is a bit of a stickler for punctuality, I’m inspired by Gandhi’s insistence for being on time.

A philosophy of tickling: humans are not just the rational animal, we are the ticklish animal. And I am as ticklish as a trout.

We used to buy toys that would annoy us with notifications all the time; now our friends and family do the same through our smartphones. Online dating is turning us all into Tamagotchis.

As much as I want to believe that Toronto, this month, is the coldest place imaginable, it’s crazy to see how people live in the coldest city on earth.

To fall in love with anyone, do this. I had a long conversation, over a decade ago, with an anthropology professor who was arguing that love is the term that we give to describe the human sense of deep connection, and that those connections can be forged and created. The prof argued that “falling in love” was a construct; instead, we create connection, and then come to describe that as love.

Walead Beshty constructs glass vitrines that are the exact dimensions of a FedEx box, and he then places the glass boxes into a FedEx box and ships it to the exhibition site.

Let’s get drinks. This one hits close to home; one of the things I’m consciously working on this year is to follow through with my social plans.

Elvis Presley never played an encore, and always left them wanting more.

Last week, I played a “choose your own adventure” game on Twitter, unfolding a story by clicking through a variety of Twitter handles. It was a fascinating exercise in interactive narrative. Here, the creator of that game explains how he did it, and why.

David Chang thinks that the internet has killed innovation in ramen. And on a related note, the recent Lucky Peach magazine has an in-depth guide to the regional ramen of Japan. I’m no connoisseur, but I’m sure ramen is a perfect winter’s afternoon lunch.

What age did the greatest authors publish their most famous works? Amazing to see how some authors were prolific in their youth, some in their old age, and some were consistent over a long period of time.

The Atlantic Photo has a collection of photos of Detroit from the 1940s, back when it was entering the boom era. I’m a huge fan of rust belt cities, so looking back at Detroit from a booming, yet more racially volatile time is fascinating. 

Jack the Bulldog met Butler Blue III last year and the video was all kinds of adorable. This past week, Jack and Blue were reunited, and they were giddy with happiness. (Seriously, check out the photos they posted on Twitter together.) When I was at Georgetown over a decade ago, I had the opportunity to walk Jack a few times — he’s a friendly, fun, lovable dog. I miss that little guy.

When the measure to create MLK Day passed in 1983, 112 members of Congress opposed it; six are still office.

Essential books to impress anyone who finds your lost Kindle. Funny list, but also a good list of classics to read at some point in your life.

Flipping out over handheld movies, a century before smartphones. I had a bunch of little flipbooks when I was a kid. I’d love to find them again and see the little movies they all held inside them.

Ditching your commute is worth $40,000 a year. I’m lucky enough to live walking distance from work, but what about those that can’t afford that lifestyle? How do we make their commutes less (economically, physically, figuratively) painful?

A comic strip about brutalism in Toronto. I am deeply enamored with brutalist architecture, so this was a fun read.

How Paper Magazine's web engineers scaled Kim Kardashian’s back-end. A fascinating look at how we build technology, with a playful headline.

A Little Help From His Friends: The Making of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. Every great person has a group of really amazing people working with them to do great things. Loved looking behind the scenes on how Black Messiah was made.

The rise of the avocado, America’s new favorite fruit. My mother loved eating avocadoes when I was younger, but I didn’t see them everywhere like I do now.

How Fashion Helped Defeat 18th-Century Anti-Vaxxers. There has been a lot of talk about how to convince anti-vaxxers these days that vaccinations are safe and good for all of us; this is an interesting lens on that discussion.

An instagram account that’s nothing but photos of matchbooks from iconic NYC restaurants. I didn’t hesitate one second to follow this account; the New York match game is strong.

The weird racial politics of online dating. Other than L and I, I have yet to meet any other inter-racial couples that met online; didn’t think it was strange until I read this.

Imagining an America without sports. The economic repercussions would be staggering, but what about the social ones?

Olikoye: abeautiful short piece of fiction by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the power of vaccinations.

Lou Bopp has been photographing the last remaining blues players from the Mississippi River Delta, and sadly their numbers have been dwindling over the past few years.

January flew by.

The month has flown by. Perhaps too quickly, but at this point in life, time always passes too quickly. I have had to remind myself to breathe more than expected. Perhaps February will be quieter. For now, here are a few musings from the past month:

January 19, 2015

Yesterday, I crossed the street in my neighborhood, and the one person who causes me the most panic in the world was crossing in the other way. I noticed her just as the walk signal was about to come up; I could tell that she noticed me as well. She was carrying groceries and, uncharacteristically, wearing her glasses instead of her contact lenses. I had my headphones in and was chuckling to the jokes being made on the podcast I was listening to.

At first, I thought of turning the other way, of going back up the street so that our paths would not have to cross — I hadn’t seen this person in months and even though I was getting better, I still was wary of triggering the kind of panic attacks that she used to cause. Instead, I stepped into the street and crossed the crosswalk, just as she did the same. I strode confidently past her, and instead of shuddering, or even deviating my path, I looked at her and smiled.

She, as is her custom, even when we were on better terms, scowled and glowered and then quickly looked away. I was not fazed.

It took me a few seconds to catch my breath, but I caught it by the time I had hit the sidewalk on the other end of the crosswalk. I did not succumb to panic, and did not engage in a cycle of self-doubt or self-loathing as would normally accompany such an event. I went on with my day, knowing that I am happy, and I am being the person I’ve always wanted to be.

I’m getting better, slowly, and yesterday was just one moment that proved that I am.

January 21, 2015

I discovered that I loved teaching when I volunteered to help teach English to newly-arrived refugees from Afghanistan and Tajikistan a little over 15 years ago. The feeling of being able to help someone learn something, to impart a tiny bit of knowledge in a way that is understandable and memorable, is a feeling that I cherish, that makes me feel good about myself and what I do. Since then, I’ve delivered workshops and keynotes and panels and all kinds of similar things, all in the pursuit of the feeling that comes from having taught someone something useful.

Yesterday, I taught my first ever class under the auspices of a post-secondary institution. It was an executive education class, the first of a series of them I’ll be delivering this semester, and it went really well. There’s a certain gravitas to teaching at a university, and I was nervous at first. As soon as the students entered the room, however, I relaxed, and did what I had prepared so hard to do: to share useful and valuable information with people who were there to learn. It felt good — I can’t wait to do it again.

January 25, 2015

There is always a reason to celebrate. Even when life comes at you too quickly and you’re finding it hard to remember to breathe, even when you feel overwhelmed and you’re faced with problems you don’t know how to fix, there is always a reason to celebrate.

It could be the birthday of a good friend, or seeing another good friend after months, or finishing a week of workouts that make you feel really good, or completing a task at work that you’ve been working for a long time, or cooking a dinner that everyone loved to eat, or just being able to step outside in the morning and stare up at the sun and smile — whatever it is, there is always a reason to celebrate.

And so, we do.

January 26, 2015

Leftovers have a bad reputation, and I don’t quite know why. We ate leftovers for dinner tonight, and I was so happy that we did. There’s something implicitly heart-warming about leftovers: it means that we cooked a meal that was delicious enough that we made the conscious effort to save some for another day. It means that, on a cold day when I’m coughing and don’t feel like cooking, I’m still being responsible for my health by not ordering in some greasy pizza. It means that, tonight, we ate something that we made, together, in our kitchen, with love. Leftovers are a reminder that we are taking care of ourselves, and subsequently, taking care of each other. Tonight’s dinner was delicious.

January 27

This is the third time I’ve come down with a cough this winter. The first time was fairly rough and lasted about two weeks. The second time was short and felt more like a simple throat irritation. I have no clue how this one will turn out — it’s not looking positive so far — but whichever way it goes, three times in one season (and there are still a few more months to go) is two times too many.

I wonder if there is something wrong my immune system, or perhaps this is a remnant of the horrible asthma I had as a child. Perhaps I need to do a better job of avoiding people who sneeze at work or on the streetcar. All I know is that my throat feels like it is on fire and this cough is loud enough to wake the neighbors.

So now, I sip tea and take Advil and watch the gorgeous sunset outside my window. The fiery sky doesn’t alleviate my pain, but it makes it much more pleasant to be home.

January 29

I’ve been thinking a lot about teachers, recently. Perhaps it is because I’ve started teaching a post-secondary class, or perhaps it is because I am wondering when and if I should start thinking about going back to school. Perhaps it is because I read The Last English Teacher by Nick Ripatrazone and it reminded me of so many of the great teachers I have had throughout my life. Here’s a snippet from Nick’s piece:

I teach every class like it is my last. It could be. When I started teaching, I thought my purpose was to create a legion of English majors. I have learned that my purpose is to pause the lives of my students for long enough that a line of poetry is the loudest sound they encounter during the day.

I think, perhaps, I shall write more about teachers and teaching, sometime soon. For now, here is a list of a few teachers, off the top of my head, that have made considerable impact on me and have been a large part of making me who I am:

  • Mme. Boughton
  • Mme. Sherman
  • Mrs. Sitarek
  • Mr. Niedre
  • Mrs. Hollinger
  • Mrs. Padmore
  • Mr. Novak
  • Mrs. Robbins
  • Mr. Robertson
  • Mr. Legault
  • Mme. Jean-Baptiste
  • Nico Bethel
  • Eileen Dombrowski
  • Reverend Alvaro Ribeiro
  • Dr. Joshua Barker
  • Dr. Sarah Salih

There are many, many more not listed here. I am eternally thankful to every single one of them.

Callus.

No amount of moisturizer can cure the massive calluses that form on the inside of my hands after a deadlift day at the gym. Trust me: I’ve tried using all kinds of creams to hide the rough bumps that form just below my fingers, but nothing has worked so far. For about twenty-four hours after I deadlift, the calluses will make their presence felt, and there’s nothing I can do about them.

It’s not just deadlifts, of course — they are just the worst culprit. Any kind of weight work at the gym that requires a strong grip leaves me with the rough patches on my hand. Deadlifts are particularly taxing on my grip; trying to pull upwards while a few hundred pounds of weight are pushing down against me makes it imperative that I hold on tightly, and that my hands are securely around the bar. By the end of a particularly good deadlift workout, my forearms are screaming in pain, my hands have taken a nice rosy shade, and the base of my fingers feature gorgeously large calluses.

Early on in our courtship, L noticed those calluses. We were holding hands while walking, as we are still wont to do, and she remarked on the roughness of my palms. I grinned, sheepishly: it’s hard to explain to someone that your most visible output of going to the gym four days a week is a calloused hand, rather any kind of change of body composition.

She’s used to the calluses now. She still reminds me to use moisturizer every day — I tell myself that I just have naturally dry skin — but understands that there will be some days when I will get home from the gym and the skin on my hand will feel like sandpaper, at least for a few hours. She understands that twenty-four hours after a leg workout, my hamstrings will be sore enough that it will take me a few extra seconds to get up the stairs, or that after a shoulder workout, I will need to pull out a step stool to reach the middle shelf of our kitchen cupboards because I just won’t be able to lift my arm that high.

I like to think that this is proof that we love each other and that we are well suited to each other. She has become used to my little quirks and intricacies, she knows how I react (physically, emotionally) to various activities, she sees my oddities and absurdities and embraces them. She has seen and felt my calluses, literal and figurative, and still holds my hand as we walk through the city.

Photo of dumbells by Garen Maguerian.

Photo of dumbells by Garen Maguerian.

A friend recently asked me why I do not wear gloves when I work out; she claimed, rightfully, that a good pair of gloves would not just improve my grip, but would eliminate some of the unsightly calluses on my hand. I didn’t have an answer for her that seemed rational; instead, I told her that I didn’t like the way the gloves felt on my hand, and that I felt like I had better control of the bar when my hands were bare.

The real answer is perhaps absurd: I do not wear gloves because I have grown to love the calluses on my hand. Sure, they are rough, and feel awkward to the touch. Sure, the hardened and peeling skin is unseemly and unattractive. Despite this all, I am attached to the post-workout calluses on my hand.

I have grown attached to them simply because they remind me that I am doing something good. They remind me that I am pushing myself to my limits and then extending those limits, every day. Each hardened bump at the base of my finger is a reminder that I am taking a step to being a better me, that I am following through on my commitments to myself. They are a physical reminder of the work I am putting in: work to become healthier, stronger, happier.

I notice this most when I spend some time away from the gym — the holidays are usually an excuse for me to spend two weeks eating and avoiding much physical activity — and my hands regain a smoothness that is slightly unsettling. There are no more remnants, any markers of proof that I am working hard at being a better me; the calluses go away, and with them, some of my motivation to return to the work that brought them there in the first place.

The callus is my proof to myself that I am investing in myself, and that investing in my health is something worth doing.

In the end, anything worth doing will leave some unsightly marks, physical or figurative. Our hardest work, our most intense efforts to become better versions of ourselves — whether that is becoming healthier and more active, removing ourselves from toxic relationships, accepting our bodies as beautiful, teaching ourselves to see things from a new perspective , or any other such lofty pursuits—will all undoubtedly leave some scars, some rough spots, some emotional or physical reminders of what we have done or are doing.

Sometimes, those marks will be unsightly, like calluses; sometimes, they will be hidden. Either way, we will notice them, and we will remember the strength we had to go on the journeys that left them there.

A new year begins.

The first few weeks of the new year have been a whirlwind of activity, of catching up on what was left behind before the holidays and jumping into new adventures.

January 5, 2015

I have lost track of what time it is, right now, right here.

I could not sleep last night. Perhaps it was my anticipation for coming home after a long trip away, or perhaps it was my nervousness of not waking up on time (5am) for my flight. Perhaps it was this incessant cough that doesn’t seem to want to go away and gets worse when I lay my head down on a pillow at night. Perhaps it was a sense of wariness, a small feeling that I am coming home a different person than I was when I left.

We are all different, every day; our daily experiences change us. It is still possible to know this and still be wary.

I could not sleep on the airplane. Perhaps it was the knowledge that if I slept on the flight, I would mess up my sleep schedule for the rest of the week, or perhaps it was knowing that I would wake up with a pain in my upper back and neck, like I often do. Perhaps it was the lack of air on the plane that made me slightly short of breath and made me cough more than I hoped I would, much to the dismay of my fellow passengers.

The lack of sleep and the slight time change — three hours isn’t usually enough to unsettle me, but it feels long this evening — has got me all discombobulated. I am tired, but yet feel wrong for wanting to sleep while the sun is still up.

I have lost track of what time it is, right now, right here. Perhaps it doesn’t matter; I am comforted in knowing that I am back home.

January 7, 2015

My entire body is sore, and that’s after only one workout. Granted, it was the first workout I’ve had in over three weeks, and granted, I’m still suffering from a pretty bad cold, but the amount of pain I feel in my muscles right now is somewhat overwhelming.

It was a much-needed workout, of course. They all are. No matter how you feel, the day is always better after you do some physical exercise. I say this not as some form of polemic for fitness — I am, after all, overweight and less active than I should be — but as a reminder to myself that I always find msyelf being more productive, smiling more, and more patient after a trip to the gym.

I would say I’m walking with a spring in my step, but really, it’s more of a waddle: my hamstrings need some time to heal.

January 10, 2015

At the start of the year, I have a lot to say. There are lots of stories to tell, delights to share, plans and hopes to put down on paper and send to the world. All these things I have to say, I write in cards, on letterhead, on pretty pieces of stationery that make me smile numerous times: when I see them in the store, when I take them home with me, when I pull them out of my drawer, when I seal them in the envelope, when I put them in the postbox, when the recipient sends me a message saying, “thank you, your correspondence made me smile.”

At the start of the year, I have a lot to say, and so I do. I write until my hand hurts and until I run out of ink in my inkwell and I have to go buy more to refill my pen. I write until I run out of stationery, and then I go to the store and buy some more.

There will come a time in the year when I have less to say, when the nib of my pen will dry up from idleness, when the stories in my head will want to stay there, and not seep out onto card stock. That time is not now. It is the start of the year, and I have a lot to say.

January 12, 2105

Today, over coffee, I had a chat about user testing. The users of a friend’s product had been complaining about the new version of that product, venting and speaking loudly about their preference for the old version, and she was wondering how she could find out what they wanted changed without promising any changes or a full roll-back to what once existed.

I told her to see what people actually did with her product, to watch them use it; I also told her to watch them use the old version and see how the usage differed. The delta between those two patterns of use would give her insight into what changes she needed to make without inciting another complaint session from her users.

I’m no expert in user testing, but that approach made sense: people are wary of change. We all get used to one way of doing things, and when we’re forced to do something a different way, we will naturally complain, rebel, and be upset. While there is value is listening to those complaints, there’s more value in seeing how behavior shifts, how changes — in a product or a service or even in just other everyday parts of life — spur a different way of acting or thinking. It’s in observing those shifts, those little nuances that we can learn most about somebody, and thus, learn a little bit about how we relate to them too.

Then again, I’m no expert in user testing. I just like people.

January 13, 2015

Two of my closest friends had a baby, today. I received the news over a text message, along with a few quick snapshots. They are, as expected, overjoyed, excited, nervous, exhausted, and giddy with anticipation.

The new baby girl is beautiful; she will grow up to be a wonderful, lovely, special woman. I know this because her parents are among the smartest and kindest people I know. I know this because her parents are abundantly loving and caring: they both give so much of themselves to their friends and family, and they will not just love and care for their daughter dearly, but instill in her this love of others, as well.

A few years ago, in my darkest hours, I relied on the generosity, warmth, and love of my friends to help me get through each day. Two of those friends — two people who took care of me and looked after me as if I was their own family — had a baby today. They will be loving, wonderful parents; I know this because they are loving, wonderful friends.

morecorrespondence

January 15, 2015

The first thing you learn when you get a job in a government policy department is the “policy lifecyle.” It’s a framework for getting your work done, for making sure that all the steps needed to ensure the successful implementation of a policy are taken. It’s quite an impressive piece of process, actually; despite some flaws, it still holds up pretty well to the rigors of modern policy-making.

I didn’t study public administration in school, so I had to learn the ways for the policy lifecycle on the job. After a few years, it became fairly ingrained, and at some point, I started delivering presentations about policy innovation and how to embed new ways of thinking into the existing lifecycle. Even now that I have left the public service, policy innovation is a sexy topic, and one that I still deal with every day.

Tonight, I am staring at my computer screen in the dark while my love is asleep upstairs, working on a presentation I will be delivering soon to a group of policy analysts. The first image I include is the policy lifecycle — it is something they will know, and a common place to begin. Then, the crazy ideas can start. I’m already excited.

Pender Island.

We spent the first three days of 2015 on Pender Island, one of the southern Gulf Islands off the coast of British Columbia.

Port Washington, Pender Island, British Columbia

Port Washington, Pender Island, British Columbia

January 1

This morning, we had breakfast on the ferry. It is a greasy breakfast, full of fried eggs and sausages and potatoes, but a couple of times a year, ferry breakfast is the best meal; it is the marker of a few days about to be spent on a small island off the Pacific coast, surrounded by trees and ocean and quiet.

It is, indeed, quiet here. There is a calmness around the cabin, a stillness only broken by the footsteps of the woman I love as she unpacks her bag while I stare out across at the cargo ships in the distance. Even the trees refuse to rustle, for now, as if to welcome us to the island, to welcome us to a sense of quietude which will be the marker of the next few days.

Even when the wind picks up and the rain starts to fall, as it undoubtedly will at some point over the next few days, the stillness will persist; we will be calm, rested, ready to start a new year with serenity, with hope, with happiness.

Gowlland Point, Pender Island, British Columbia

Gowlland Point, Pender Island, British Columbia

January 2

The rain began today, enveloping the entire island in a cloudy mist that permeated your pores even when the drizzle had stopped for a little while. There were moments, of course, when the clouds broke open to reveal the sun, but they were brief; the sky quickly darkened and the precipitation began, again.

We spent most of the day indoors, reading, talking, snuggling by the fire. The birds, too, seem to look for a place to congregate together and find shelter from the weather: the birdfeeder on the porch was a hotspot of activity.

We pulled the Audubon guide off the shelf and tried to identify the birds, with some success. When we were tired of that, we made meals, or watched Netflix, or retreated into our little pockets of solitude and attacked the stack of books we had brought with us.

By night, the rain had stopped, the clouds had cleared, and bright, vivid full moon looked down upon us, brightening the sky. We stared skyward for a long time before going to bed.

Roe Islet, Pender Island, British Columbia

Roe Islet, Pender Island, British Columbia

January 3

The sushi place on Pender Island uses black rice in all their rolls and in their nigiri. The rice looks less black and more purple, actually, giving the sushi a almost-disturbingly-fake appearance, as if you are eating a stylized, plastic meal photographed for the pages of a bad food magazine.

The sushi itself wasn’t bad; it was a nice post-market, pre-ferry lunch to close out our trip to the island. The farmer’s market was small and disappointing — a few people selling knit goods, some preserves, and a woman selling her children’s book — but it was still nice to say hello to some of the local island residents while there.

It was the short time we spent near the Roe Islet that I’ll remember most from our last day on Pender, a quick morning diversion that took us to a beach on Ella Bay surrounded by nothing but Douglas firs, the rising Pacific tide, a murmuration of starlings, and deep silence. It was the kind of silence where the flapping of a raven’s wings resonated loudly through the still air, where the tide against the shore sounded like waves crashing against rocks. It was a silence conducive to quiet contemplation, deep reflection.

A sea otter peeked its head up to say goodbye as we left the Roesland park. Now, we await our ride home: the ferry I can see out in the distance, slowly approaching the quay to take us back to the mainland.

Goodbye, sea otter. Goodbye, Pender Island.

The Leftovers

What would you do if the people you love just disappeared?

We’ve all lost loved ones through the dissolution of relationships and through death, but what if someone close to you just vanished into thin air? If someone you cared for, who cared for you, just vaporized, and you have no way to answer where they are or why they left?

What would happen to your community, your town, your country, if this vanishing, this disappearance happened on a grand scale? If millions of people around the world just vanished one day, with no pattern or reason as to why one person disappeared and why another was left behind? How would that change the way you thought about yourself, about life, about the world in which you live?

People often make fun of me because of my fear of revolving doors — I’ve mostly resolved that phobia now — but the fear didn’t come from the door itself, but because revolving doors have one characteristic that makes me uncomfortable: they don’t close.

There’s something about closure that makes things easier to cope with, to understand, to process. A door that closes has finality; losing someone to death or divorce also has a similar sense of end. A lack of closure is unsettling, unnerving, difficult.

Tom Perrotta: The Leftovers

Tom Perrotta: The Leftovers

Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers is ostensibly a novel about society after millions of people just vanish, but really, it is a story about closure. It is a book that looks at how various people deal with the loss of their loved ones, a loss without closure, without reason, without explanation. It is a story that grapples with loss, coping, rebuilding, self-doubt, and an acceptance of futility.

The characters in The Leftovers are all struggling with closure, and they all face that struggle in a different way. Everyone has nagging questions, and none of those questions get answered. Perrotta’s prose isn’t poetry, and the story is sometimes plodding, but the internal conflict of every character is poignant and resonant. The Leftovers appeals to us because it is relatable; it is a struggle we have all known, and the novel captures it well.

There is only a hint of closure at the end of the book, which is apt: Perrotta reminds us that there are always questions, there is always doubt. Not every question can be answered, and that’s unsettling, but that’s okay.

Grandmother.

It is my grandmother’s birthday today, and when I spoke to her on the phone this evening, her joy was palpable through the telephone. She was quick to tell me that this was her “best birthday yet” and that she was so happy to have been able to celebrate it with so many family members. She understood, of course, why I could not be there — there was no guilt implicit in her declaration.

I was just overjoyed that she was happy and healthy; at 81 years old, she is the oldest living person in our family, and has lived the longest of anyone in the past three generations, at least. My grandmother was the person who raised me when we first emigrated East Africa, as my parents were hustling to pay the bills and get our life settled in North America. My grandma is my inspiration, a person I look to for strength every day.

I celebrated her birthday from afar, today. In a week, I will celebrate with her, together.