the last lecture: a review, of sorts.

I just finished The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. The book, published in 2008, is a sort of accompaniment to Pausch's last lecture at Carnegie Mellon, where he was a human-computer interaction, design, and computer science professor. I remember watching the lecture a few years back and being touched, and wanted to go through the book since I've been interested in memoirs lately.

Pausch was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer a month before giving the lecture and writing this book. He talks about childhood dreams, lessons he's learned, stories from his life, and things he's learned from teaching. The book is really moving. It's evident that Pausch has a sincere love and appreciation towards his life. He's acutely aware of what his death means, but is able to maintain a deep sense of optimism. I found that incredibly admirable.

I also found the book difficult to get through because of the various parallels I found between his life and mine. Pausch's oldest son was five years old when he passed away, which was the same age I was when my father passed away. The difference, it seems to me, is that Pausch had the mental and physical capacity to prepare for his death in a way that was unimaginable for my family. He had financial security, a strong support network, and an abundance of resources at his fingertips. He could hire someone to help him write a book about his life. He could spend money to swim with dolphins with his son and go to Disney World. He could spend time crafting and curating the image of himself that he wanted to leave with his children. Dying young is always a tragedy, but of all tragedies, his was the fairytale. He said all of his goodbyes, witnessed the glory surrounding his own life, and left his mark on the world. 

His message about achieving dreams, gratitude, and making the most of life are universally relevant, but by the end of the book, I felt resentful. The things he left his kids with - stories, security, entire pieces of himself - were things that I would not ever get. They were things that my father couldn't prepare for, and for that, the book wounded me. 

At one point, Pausch leaves a specific message for his kids - that he wants them to pursue their own interests, and that he would never want them to feel obligated to become something because that's what they thought he wanted for them. Those were words that I needed to hear and to fully believe. I cried when I got there because I didn’t know how much I had wanted to hear those words in a different voice until they hit me. 

This book drips with privilege, but it is a genuine celebration of life. It is a love letter to his family, Disney, academia, and the opportunity to say goodbye. It is a complete collection of everything I wish I had received from my own father, and for that reason, I cannot love it. 

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book updates / emotional rollercoaster

Thank you, Spotify Discover.

Time for a little book update before I forget what I've read.

The Defining Decade by Meg Jay

I think this book is a must-read for any 20-something who is confused about their life direction. I fall very neatly into that category. This book won’t solve all of your problems, but it was a much needed reality check for me about what I’m going through and also concrete steps to find a direction. It hasn’t necessarily changed my day-to-day life because I think I’m pretty proactive about learning, but it’s made me think about my fears and how they are potentially becoming detrimental to my development.

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

Memoir by the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene-American writer. This book is heartbreaking, but I also feel like it was a bit ruined for me because i learned of his sexual misconduct allegations halfway through it. I won’t really comment on it.

Lab Girl by Hope Jehran

Hope Jehran is a geobiologist and geochemist who has done dope research with isotopes (and many other things). The language in which she uses to speak about trees is breathtaking. She also describes one of the most fascinating friendships I have ever read in a memoir. Worth the read, especially if you’re a woman in science.

Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History's Most Iconic Extinct Creatures by Ben Mezrich

I really didn’t like this book. It felt overhyped and overdramatized and the writing sort of made me distrust the author, which isn’t great for a nonfiction book. Pass.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

THIS BOOK IS ADORABLY HEARTBREAKING. Read if you want to read a young love story layered with stories of domestic abuse, body image, and bullying.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

This is about a multiverse situation. I don’t even know what else to say without ruining it…a professor wakes up in a different version of his reality?! Very fascinating and plot-twisty and I basically consumed it in a single day because it is TRIPPY.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Chinese ethnic minorities, adoption, tea. This book basically follows the unfortunate young life of a Akha woman named Li-Yan who is forced to give up her daughter for adoption, and their parallel lives that follow. I really enjoyed this book for many resonant themes and stories. Highly recommend if you love tea culture or if you want fictional insight into the adoptee experience.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

“But home isn't where you land; home is where you launch. You can't pick your home any more than you can choose your family. In poker, you get five cards. Three of them you can swap out, but two are yours to keep: family and native land.” 

A very poignant look at the true messiness of human relationships.

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Just read this. So insightful. So important.

The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett

This book is very long and potentially a bit dated, but anyone with an interest in the history of infectious diseases would love it. That’s what it’s all about. I am scared. We’re all gonna die.

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In other news, finally got my wisdom teeth pulled. The scariest thing is apparently being awake for half an hour after general anesthesia and having normal conversations people with no recollection of it at all. I’m sick of soup and smoothies already but glad to not have jaw pains anymore.

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Finally sent my beloved Leica M2 for a CLA (cleaning, lubrication, adjustment) and shutter curtain replacement. I realized in Hong Kong that there were holes in the shutter and that shutter-speeds beyond 1/250 were completely inaccurate. Super excited to get this back and keep shooting. :)

Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.
— Hope Jehran

perspective shifts / (sweet music)

I started a new job last week. It's taken a lot of mental work for me to be comfortable talking about it.

I felt like a failure when I moved home. I felt ungrateful. I felt lost. But mostly, I felt like a failure. I had graduated from a top university, landed a decent job, rented my own apartment alone, and gained independence in every sense of the word. And yet, I was miserable through the core of my being in a way I'd never been before. I couldn't even identify it at the time. It is only in retrospect, now, when I am aware of the happiness and gratitude I can feel on a daily basis, when I notice how much more easily smiling comes to me, that I am aware of the darkness of the past year.

I've been reading a lot. Books are what I gravitate towards when I am lost. I seek guidance from authors whose words have the power to embrace and heal me. JB MacKinnon's The Once and Future World provided a healthy dose of optimism and perspective-shift about the changing planet. In They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hanif Abdurraqib's exploration in music and culture gave me a deep appreciation for Carly Rae Jepsen and the power of essays. Both he and Michelle Obama (Becoming) revealed the deep confusion and uncertainty they felt in their 20s, and I've held onto their words with great hope. They made my confusion feel normal, maybe even positive. Ken Liu has inspired me to write, although my struggle with fiction seems eternal, as my own true stories constantly push themselves through.

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I felt like a failure for moving home because I was afraid that it seemed like regression. More accurately, I felt like a failure because I thought of it as a regression. It took a few books, but I've finally realized that the decisions I've made in the last six months have led to more personal growth than I've experienced in years. I feel more open and vulnerable to the human experience, to questions of history, identity, and purpose. I feel compelled to learn about a variety of subjects, take on personal projects, write, exercise, and engage in my community. In the context of a logical career, perhaps I've regressed, but I've gained so much more.

I went from working at a design consultancy in Boston to working at as a film processing technician at a small photography lab in Irvine. The former required a degree from a top university, internship experience, and a significant amount of luck in timing. Landing that job was difficult, and for a few months, I felt spoiled and ungrateful for walking away. The job that I have now requires a high school diploma and a passion for film photography--both things that I had before I left for MIT more than five years ago. This fact alone makes it difficult for me to explain what I'm doing now to other people, particularly those who I don't believe will take the time to understand my decisions (or are unable to due to their own life experiences).

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For now, I've given up a nice salary, a sense of independence, a clear career trajectory, and the status of a steady corporate job. I've gained proximity to family and friends, knowledge about an aspect of photography that I'd otherwise never be exposed to, experience in a job that requires mostly physical capability, comfort of living at home, time to pursue my own hobbies and passions, and an increasing sense of clarity about what matters to me in the world. I've been able to spend time with friends, old and new, in ways that challenge my perceptions and intellect. I love being able to eat dinner with my mom on a daily basis, to see my grandma every weekend, and to hike in the mountains whenever I want to feel sunlight on my skin. Maybe it sounds like I'm running from real life. Maybe I am. But maybe I've just decided to choose a slightly different path than the one I thought I was meant to take, and maybe that's okay.

Mary Oliver wrote in Upstream: Selected Essays : "The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time." For the first time since high school (when I promptly squashed it), I feel the call to creative work, and for the first time in my life, I'm allowing myself to give it both power and time.

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time beings and psychedelics / shrike

I need songs that better segue into post content. Anyway, Hozier is always lovely.

I'm going to try to be more systematic about getting some thoughts down about the books I'm reading. They won't necessarily be "book reviews", but maybe more thoughts, questions, and bits of resonance that I find.

A book that I read during the first week of the Asia trip was A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Reading that book was a magical journey (so lovely that I read Ozeki's first novel, My Year in Meats, as soon as I got home), but it is Dogen's concept of time that has stuck with me. Basically, if you haven’t read the novel (which I highly recommend), it’s about a 16 year-old Japanese American girl named Nao who keeps a diary, and Ruth, a Japanese American writer who finds the diary on the coastlines of British Columbia after the 2011 tsunami. Time, and the concept of time, plays a pretty integral part in the story. Ozeki’s magic realism reminds me of Haruki Murakami, whose work I fell in love with in college but grew distant from as his characters starting feeling redundant (lonely male narrative). Anyway—the important thing here is Dogen’s concept of time. Here is a translated excerpt from Dogen’s work.

"The way the self arrays itself is the form of the entire world. See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time.

Things do not hinder one another, just as moments do not hinder one another. The way-seeking mind arises in this moment. A way-seeking moment arises in this mind. It is the same with practice and with attaining the way.

Thus the self setting itself out in array sees itself. This is the understanding that the self is time."

The complexity of this concept is not something I feel like I have enough grasp on to explain, but is something that I've been thinking about a lot and trying to make sense of. I finished reading Michael Pollan's How to Change Your Mind today, a book about the history and scientific revolution of psychedelics. There's a lot to unpack with that one, but the dissolution of ego is a phenomena that Pollan discusses extensively. A sense of detachment from the self is an experience that many have while on psychedelics, and it is that phenomena that is said to change the way people perceive and experience the world post-trip. The book goes on to discuss ways in which psychedelics can be used to help users cope with death, addiction, and depression (with many supporting studies and interviews with people who have sought psychedelic treatment through pilot research projects at NYU, Johns Hopkins, etc.).

The part that I found fascinating was a brief explanation of the "default mode network"—the part of the brain that becomes active when we are daydreaming and self-reflecting.

"If a researcher gives you a list of adjectives and asks you to consider how they apply to you, it is your default mode network that leaps into action. (It also lights up when we receive 'likes' on our social media feeds.) Nodes in the default network are thought to be responsible for autobiographical memory, the material from which we compose the story of who we are, by linking our past experiences with what happens to us and with projections of our future goals."

I have pretty much zero knowledge of neuroscience so this may be an oversimplification, but I took the default mode network to more or less be the part of the brain where the ego lives. And interestingly, this is the part of the brain with reduced activity during psychedelic trips where users felt disconnected from self and experienced ego dissolution.

However, while psychedelics are one way of reducing activity in the default mode network, meditating can also have a similar effect. And then suddenly, it made sense why this idea of a universal "time being" would spring up in Buddhism, a religion rooted in mindfulness practice and the transcendence of self.

Basically, my reading came full circle today. I still have many questions about the brain functions of the default network, about the science behind meditation, and about the philosophy of a universal time being. As someone who has meditated almost every day since I was around 7 or 8, I wonder about my own ability to manipulate activity in my default network and whether the detachment of self that I experience while meditating is at all similar to that of a psychedelic trip. I love when things that I perceive to be so different come together like this.

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Normal waking consciousness feels perfectly transparent, and yet it is less a window on reality than the product of our imaginations—a kind of controlled hallucination.
— Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind

someone crimson

I don’t know how I found this artist but this song is making me feel lots of things.

Basically just posting to say that I updated my about me section. It’s taken a bit of time for me to acknowledge my confusion and current lack of direction in my life right now, but putting that out there was pretty therapeutic. For whatever friends that don’t know, I moved back home to Orange County a few months ago. I was struggling mentally in Boston and wanted to be closer to family. I liked the work that I did in design, but want to take the time to learn more about myself, explore other possibilities, and develop a stronger sense of what I want to tackle and accomplish in my 20’s. It hasn’t been easy. There’s many days where I wake up and feel utterly useless. It’s taken a while to detach my sense of self-worth from my job title. I still don’t think I’ve completely reconciled the work it took to get my degree and what I’m doing now. I tell myself repeatedly that it’s okay to be confused, to be lost, to be young and a little clueless. A lot of the times, I don’t believe it. Today, I did.

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inconsequential / 2019 goals?

I suppose there is a question mark after goals because I have no sense of what 2019 brings. I changed my website up for the new year—I’ve had the previous theme for about 3 years now, and decided it was time I refined some of my photo collections and strengthened some aspects of my website (this is still a WIP). I’ve added a “writing” section because writing more is a major goal for 2019. I started by submitting a piece to 35mmc, a film photography blog that I’ve been following for a while now. I think that will be the last definitive “non fiction” type of writing I’ll do for a while—I’m interested in blurring the lines between fiction and reality and experimenting with how hazy those lines can get. I also integrated the Medium post I wrote a few months ago into my website here. I like Medium because it’s accessible for people who would otherwise never go on my website, but it feels much less personal. I changed up some photos from that piece and added a few more.

Back to the topic of goals—reading, as always, is part of my goal list. I attempted to read 40 books in 2018 but only completed 38. This year, I’m aiming for 60. Since New Year’s Day, I’ve read My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki, The Once and Future World by J.B. MacKinnon, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, and Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. I was trying to do a book a day but that seemed like a path straight to burnout. Here is my tentative list for the year. Leave a comment if there’s anything you think I’d like!

  • Werner Herzog - A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin

  • A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

  • A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

  • Becoming by Michelle Obama

  • Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett

  • Call Them By Their Names: American Crises and Other Essays by Rebecca Solnit

  • Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

  • City of Segregation by Andrea Gibbons

  • Draft No 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

  • Educated by Tara Westover

  • Feel Free by Zadie Smith

  • Florida by Lauren Groff

  • Hold Still by Sally Mann

  • How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery

  • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

  • Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

  • Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

  • My Own Devices: Essays from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love by Dessa

  • On Writing by Stephen King

  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser

  • Once and Forever by Kenji Miyazawa

  • Ongoingness: The End of a Diary Sarah Manguso

  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

  • Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger by Soraya Chemaly

  • So Far So Good by Ursula K Le Guin

  • Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

  • Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli

  • Telling True Stories by Misc

  • The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New by Annie Dillard

  • The Archipelago of Hope: Wisdom and Resilience from the Edge of Climate Change by Gleb Raygorodetsky

  • The Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Andurraqib

  • The Devotion fo Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

  • The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass

  • The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

  • The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla

  • The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene

  • The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

  • The Mirage Factory by Gary Krist

  • The Most Wanted Man in China by Fang Lizhi

  • The New Geography of Jobs by Enrico Moretti

  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

  • The Once and Future World by JB MacKinnon

  • The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli

  • The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu

  • The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs by Stephen Brusatte

  • The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks

  • The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

  • The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

  • There Are Little Kingdoms by Kevin Barry

  • Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver

  • Watchmen by Alan Moore

  • We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

  • Why Dinosaurs Matter by Kenneth Lacovera

  • Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

  • You Don't Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

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Both life and death manifest in every moment of existence. Our human body appears and disappears moment by moment, without cease, and this ceaseless arising and passing away is what we experience as time and being. They are not separate. They are one thing, and in even a fraction of a second, we have the opportunity to choose, and to turn the course of our action either toward the attainment of truth or away from it. Each instant is utterly critical to the whole world.
— Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being