On Milan

Milan is one of the great fashion capitals of the world. And while it may not be immune to America’s sloppy athleisure, Milan sure is putting up a fight. Instead of pajama-comfy cotton-spandex, people dress in wool, tweed, and lots and lots of leather.

Milan discovered that sex sells and hasn’t strayed from that strategy. Everything is in-your-face sexy. The airport is plated in fashion ads that could be soft porn. Underneath a wool blazer, a seemingly ordinary woman wears a sheer black top, her brazen black bra not underwear but part of the outfit. 

In Milan, sex is a given. It’s casual, really. Like the casualness of the focaccia you expect to be dry and forgettable like any other focaccia you’ve ever had, except that it’s lightly fried in the olive oil that should be reserved for the gods, and you realize that you’ve never had focaccia before in your life; you’ve had margarine thinking it’s butter.

Maybe everything must exude sexuality in order to compete with the food, which is orgasmic. Even the way people walk is sexy. The men walk boldly, their upper arms leading their strides with bravado, their motorcycle jacket-clad bodies angled forward. “Get out of my way,” their stride says. Are they going off to defend their family’s name, or to pick up some prosciutto?

Meanwhile, the women strut as if on catwalk, their bodies swaying from proudly held heads, their arms curling back and forth with seductive grace. The walk is equally off-putting and enticing, a dare: “Go away… or follow?”

I imitate the women’s walk, laughing at how ridiculous I feel. But when I return to my normal, sheepish stride, I feel equally alien. How have I settled for this sorry way of moving; is it any less fantasy?

Permeating the city is an undertone of death. The city itself is ancient, its streets peppered with Roman ruins. In such an old city, I can’t help but be reminded that I’m a minor character, yet another human fleeing fear and chasing desire. Perhaps the obviousness of life’s fleetingness drives Milan’s lust for life.

My days are punctuated with espressos and men calling me “Bella.” Milan seems to have not gotten the memo about light roast or culture wars, and I don’t mind. I walk the city in a caffeine-induced mania, wondering why not live life with more beauty, more sensuality, more prescience of death? And certainly—certainly—more fluffy, olive oiled focaccia. 

books Buddhism contemplation

What Thich Nhat Hanh Taught Me

I used to know for certain there was a living buddha in the world. Then Thich Nhat Hanh passed away.

But in his writing, he was clear that he would not die. He told a story of how a student had prepared a place for his remains. He laughed and said he would not be in this place. He would be with us in our mindful breaths, in the peace of the cloud.

I used to think I had a peculiar relationship with Thich Nhat Hanh, that I was especially touched by him. When he passed away, I discovered that very many people love him just as I do. When they speak about him, I know their love is the same as mine. It’s very beautiful, finding the same love that’s in your heart in someone else’s.

In Buddhism there’s talk about taking refuge in the Buddha, but Thich Nhat Hanh the buddha pointed to this current-breath-right-now as the place of refuge.

He said something I’ll never forget. He said that if he found meditation to be arduous, he wouldn’t do it. He meditates because he finds it enjoyable. He likes to sit with his breath.

From that, I meditated in a new way. I gave up the self-bludgeoning trying. I breathed and listened for peace.

Ah, there it is.

Last night his words taught me something else. He said we can be free while living our lives, doing good in the world, and tending to what needs to be done. We can be free if we are breathing mindfully in the present moment. We don’t have to be captives of our circumstance, always waiting for some outer situation to change. If we are present with the breath, we are free. ☁️

If you’re interested in knowing Thich Nhat Hanh, I really loved his books The Art of Communicating and The Art of Living.


2021 Book Recommendations

I used to do annual books read lists (see 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016) but honestly that’s a lot of work and I figure it’s more useful to just give my top picks because no one wants to read meh books anyway.

This year I got really into biographies and memoirs. Biographies are like fiction but the stories are essentially written by life itself, and my hypothesis is if you read enough of them some larger understanding of life will emerge.

There’s emojis in this list, here’s what they mean:
🌟 Top recommendation
💡 Particularly insightful
🎈 Fun!
👂 Audio version recommended


💡🌟 Four Thousand Weeks – Oliver Burkeman

This was a ‘quake book’ for me in that it fundamentally changed the way I saw the world. By showing me how little time I had and how I certainly won’t accomplish everything I’d like or hope to, Burkeman freed me from a tortuous delusion. I now feel more satisfied with ‘wasting’ my time, as surely that is all we can do. I loved this book so much that I was a bit evangelical about it: I tweeted constantly about it, forced friends to suffer through voice messages where I read them highlights, and almost sent it to one friend’s birthday before realizing that sending someone a book about how little time they have left perhaps isn’t the best birthday gift (I sent her a puppet instead). If you’re still not sold on this book, you can listen to a chapter of it in this episode of Tim Ferriss’s podcast.

💡👂 Living From a Place of Surrender – Michael Singer

Ok so technically this is a lecture series, but it’s on Audible and was amazing so I’ll include it. In the lectures, Singer makes a logical argument that the world is a highly complex series of events over billions of years, so why are you upset when things aren’t the exact way you desire them to be? I got so much out of the lectures, I’ll need to re-listen to them soon. If you’d prefer an actual book, Singer’s The Untethered Soul is one of my favorites and is probably the book I’ve reread most.

🎈💡 This is Your Mind on Plants – Michael Pollan

I loved Pollan’s previous How to Change Your Mind so much that I found myself grieving when I finished it. So I was overjoyed when Pollan mercifully created this semi-sequel. This is Your Mind on Plants is composed of three long essays on poppies, coffee and tea, and mescaline cacti. Like anything Pollan writes, it’s worth reading just to savor Michael Pollan’s exquisite prose. If you haven’t read How to Change Your Mind, read that first.

🎈👂 Just Kids – Patti Smith

This engaging memoir won the American “National Book Award.” I hesitated reading it because I wasn’t familiar with Patti Smith, but I’m so glad I gave it a try. I loved living through some New York City history and the lives of famous artists. But more than anything, this is a memoir about a friendship, an account of two people falling into orbit with each other. I can’t recommend it enough, particularly the audiobook which is beautifully read by Smith.

💡Almost Everything: Notes on Hope – Anne Lamott

I discovered my love for Anne Lamott through a Tim Ferriss podcast. She’s the opposite of the hyper-confident alpha males Ferriss normally interviews, and I love her so much for it. She shares the wisdom of someone weathered by seasons of dark nights of the soul. She shares many of my own faults and fears, and for that she makes me feel less alone. This book is a collection of stories and wisdom. To help you get a sense for the type of wisdom in the book, I’ll share my favorite quote:

An old woman in twelve-step recovery once told me that while there is an elaborate prayer in one of the steps, of turning one’s life and all results over to the care of God, as each person understands God, she and some of the old-timers secretly pray upon waking, “Whatever,” and pray before falling asleep, “Oh, well.”

Luckily Lamott is quite prolific; I look forward to discovering the rest of her catalogue.

🎈 The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

In this work of heart-wrenching beauty, the author recounts her tale of a year spent denying her husband’s sudden passing. The story speaks to our tendency to cling onto a sense of control at any cost, and the preciousness of the everyday. I recommend giving it a read on a rainy weekend and reveling in life’s fragile bitter-sweetness.

💡 The Psychology of Money – Morgan Housel

A nice read for anyone interested in investing. My main takeaway was that we expect ourselves to make rational decisions about investing, but we don’t. For example, we panic and sell during market downturns. We need to set ourselves up for success, like having enough cash to be able to sit through market downturns, or whatever else that looks like for us.

🎈 Open – Andre Agassi

I absolutely adored this book. I had no idea that Agassi actually hated tennis, and was simply forced into it by his overbearing father. It is a wonderful gift to be able to glimpse the struggling inner journey of someone who from the outside appears like an untouchable success. It’s an epic drama, and one that takes place more inside Agassi’s mind than on tennis courts.

🎈👂 Greenlights – Matthew McConaughey

A super fun read with more depth than expected. I devoured it in a weekend. Because it’s such a joy to read, I recommend this book to people who aren’t “readers.” The audiobook is worth checking out if only for McConaughey’s Australian accent impersonation.

💡 Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art – James Nestor

An entire book about breathing? That’s interesting and helpful? Yes and yes. My main takeaway: breathe through your nose, not your mouth. There’s a whole bunch of health reasons to breathe through your nose, but this is difficult for many of us because we have underdeveloped nasal cavities and so our noses remain perpetually stuffed. Curiously, this is in part due to a new diet of soft foods—it takes lots of chewing to produce the nasal passages our ancestors enjoyed. Regular use of a salt water nasal spray helps me, but Nestor shares many other tips.

🎈💡The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman

Fun read by a journalist exploring stoicism. I loved the beginning’s brutal takedown of the positive thinking movement. There’s many recent books on stoicism that are also excellent and worth reading, but I enjoyed Burkeman’s take as he comes from a more journalistic perspective instead of someone hell-bent on being a modern day Seneca. Notably this is the same journalist who wrote “Four Thousand Weeks,” which is my top nonfiction pick on this list.


🎈🌟 The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

This book changed my life in that I discovered how amazing fiction can be. For the many weeks it took to read this giant book and its sequel, I lived more in Rothfuss’s authored world than in my own. It’s a bit like Harry Potter for grownups. Posting about the book on Twitter, I quickly learned it has a large fanbase. If you’re into audiobooks, I recommend the version narrated by Rupert Degas.

💡 The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A View from the Future – Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes

This short book imagines how historians will tell the story of climate change, and how political will faltered to prevent and stop it. Normally I can’t stomach books on climate change—it’s just too unbearably tragic—but the fictionalized retrospective makes the topic more tolerable. I learned a lot about the huge missed opportunities for us to stop climate change. Just a few changes in legislation here and there could have done so much (and still could do so much…).

🎈👂 Project Hail Mary – Andy Weir

A delightful, frictionless audiobook listen. My favorite part was gaining a better understanding of how the engineer types in my life view the world. The audiobook narration is exceptional. I fell in love with the secondary character (can’t say much more without spoiling it. 😉 ).

Photo credit: Vita Lian

ideas living abroad

In Praise of Berlin and Very Slow Travel

I’ve been moving cities every 2-4 years since college. While I look forward to ‘growing up’ and committing to one place, I am fond of how the chapters of my life are filed neatly under city names.

I love this slow travel—exploring a locale by making it home. My last stop was 3.5 years in Berlin. While I haven’t seen any* of Berlin’s sights, I know what the tourists never will: The pulse of the city’s chaotic energy, the distance between the long stretches of summer mania and winter’s small gray windows, the anxiety of years slipping by with little progress in German fluency.

I love so much about Berlin. I love the way the city mocks advertisements, its billboards defaced moments after they’re plastered. I love the residents from seemingly every nation who spill out into the parks to drink beer on sunny Sundays. I love the pragmatism that guides citizen life, like how most drink bottles are not recycled but returned to manufacturers to be refilled.

On my first morning in Berlin, I awoke to a strange, oddly pleasant sensation. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Then a local informed me that Berlin is not privy to natural disasters—not hurricanes, nor tornados, nor earthquakes, nor fires. (“But world war does break out every so often,” he quipped.) In the U.S. I had taken it for granted that you must trade one natural disaster risk for another—if not earthquakes, then hurricanes. It was this that felt new to me: a sense of safety.

Perhaps I was also feeling the maternal embrace of Merkel, the German chancellor who had held office since George W. Bush, re-elected thrice. In her I found the female role model I had longed for: a woman who eschews fashion and frivolities in her total dedication to serving the public. She is the rare politician who will openly admit to not being an expert on a subject, or publicly admit to having been wrong. If only the world could have more Merkels.

A famous Silicon Valley VC once jibed that Berlin is where 30-year-olds go to retire. And I can see what he’s saying. In Berlin, the quality of life, for the majority of people, is good. So why strive for more? And compared to the U.S., you needn’t run so hard from the threat of falling through society’s cracks. While there’s still homelessness and other issues, there’s a more comprehensive safety net in German society. Certainly the threat of bankruptcy via medical bills is a lesser concern, and immortal student loans are nonexistent.

On my first evening in Berlin, I was astonished to see throngs of people lounging by the canal, beer in hand, to celebrate a glorious sunset. They struck me as slothful in their open squander of daylight hours. Didn’t they know they should be using this time to hustle to a future that might just come if they worked hard enough?

Likewise, I laughed when the public transit system workers went on strike, demanding to work less than 40 hours. “These people are so spoiled, this would never happen in the U.S.,” I cynically remarked. But, as a colleague pointed out, why not let people work less and enjoy life more? Isn’t this what societal progress should be? And certainly what the environment needs is less GDP, less consumerism, less doing.

Over time I came to understand: This day, this sunset, this time together, is all we have. And maybe this is enough.

Enough is something that Americans do not know, but it’s something I’ve tried to learn.

I have tried, over and over, to write about Berlin. To convey what the city has meant for me. To laud it for its openness to me, an immigrant fleeing Trump’s America and a California that is every year more in drought and on fire. To convey what it’s like to live in a city where it’s the unblinking norm to sit at a ten-person dinner where each person hails from a different nation.

But I don’t think I can ever truly convey what Berlin is, or my experience of it. I can only urge you to go, move there for a few years, and find out for yourself.

Or… don’t. Instead, look around you and see that wherever you are, whoever you are, and whomever you are with, is enough.

Viel Glück.

*Actually, I did go on a walking tour and witnessed the place where Hitler shot himself. Spoiler: it’s now a parking lot.

favorite posts the truth about life

Things You’re Allowed to Do, That I Would Recommend

Sell everything you own and buy a one-way ticket
Arrive and have a panic attack
Regard this as one of the highlights of your life

Buy a new book, even though you have a stack of unread books
Add the new book to the stack
Admire the stack from afar

Make spreadsheets to critically think through your big life decision
Go with your gut feeling
Eat some chocolate, you deserve it

Take a walking tour of the city. It’s fascinating, everything you didn’t know
Don’t take the walking tour. Let the city remain a mystery
Stay in your hotel room. Browsing the internet in a new city is nice

Walk around with smeared eyeliner. It looked nice in the morning
Admire women who don’t wear makeup
Buy nude lipstick

Buy crypto
Panic sell when the market crashes
Laugh about the silly internet money (that you no longer have)

Become zero waste
Become vegan
Ask for a paper napkin with your grilled cheese. Hey, you’re only human

Resist taking a photo of the pretty sunset. Just be present
Nevermind, take a photo. Living in the moment is on your to-do list
Make the photo your wallpaper to remind your future self to live in the moment

contemplation favorite posts the truth about life

Letter to My Younger Self

Dear Younger Self,

I’ve got good news and bad news.

The bad news

You’re not a special snowflake. You’re not especially pretty, or smart, or talented.

You could take this news in stride, but American society has convinced you that you need to be special, extraordinary. Yet the odds of being extraordinary are slim to none, and the dice have not rolled in your favor. Your ancestors’ gifts to you were merely to ensure survival: a chronic fear of everything, a preoccupation with what others think, and a nagging self-concern that buzzes around your thoughts like a trapped mosquito.

You’re also not brave. You prefer to live in your cozy mental assumptions than interact with the world to discover how it really is. 

For example: 

You decide (without asking) that Jordan from geometry class is not interested in going to a movie with you. In your beauty magazine logic, you decide that he would ask you out, if only you were thinner. So you dedicate most of your waking hours to achieving a thigh gap, never questioning whether this is a worthwhile goal. Your thighs eventually stand apart. He doesn’t ask you out.

But your biggest issue is not that you think the best way to woo someone is through silent starvation. No, here’s the rub: the universe is chaos. It’s immune to your affirmations. It will not rearrange itself to suit your fancy.

Your hard-won thigh gap gives way to entropy.

The good news

It turns out the beauty magazines were mistaken. Millions of years of evolution have ensured some opposite-sex members of your species will be attracted to your fleshy, fertile-looking body. Unlike your female ancestors, your poor judgment about who to mate with won’t haunt you. Your fear of everything, which ensured your ancestors lived to reproduce, now ensures you remember to take your birth control. First your ancestors were freed from hunting and gathering and then farming; now you’ve been freed from church and children.

So while you may not be extraordinary, this world and the time you were born into are. While your ancestors didn’t gift you with remarkable wit or beauty, they did suffer through disease, birth, genocide, poverty, and war to grant you a body so that you may stand, now, on this spinning rock.

Maybe you shouldn’t be so concerned about your thighs.

It turns out society is mistaken, too. You don’t need to be extraordinary. You don’t need to be lauded by thousands to feel loved; you’ll be content with a handful of genuine friendships. Nor do you need fame or fortune to feel fulfilled; just helping one other person will suffice. 

The world is far bigger and weirder than what you’ve seen on TV. Those ideas of better and worse are all made up, and you can author your own. For example: that the pinnacle of beauty is luscious, ample thighs.

And while you may ultimately be average, in the 21st century that entails being extraordinary. You can summon any piece of humanity’s knowledge by typing the right words into a search box. You can sit in a big metal bird and chomp bubblegum while flying over mountain ranges that armies once died trying to pass. There’s so much for you to see and learn and do. 

So please, don’t waste your time worrying that you don’t measure up to some societal ideal. Be glad for the lucky shoes you stand in. Walk those shoes out past your fears, past your self-concern, and right out the front door.

The world awaits, and you’re every bit good enough for it.