I’ve spilled a lot of ink over the last year. Writing is how I sort my thoughts and there’s been no shortage of jumbled confused thoughts over the last year. I’ve written about race and my relationship to racism. I’ve written about our division as a nation and the loss of a shared reality or unified goals. I’ve filled countless journal pages with half considered musings about politics and philosophy and random thoughts on whatever has recently grabbed my attention. I don’t think much of what I’ve jotted down is of any use to others, and I won’t be sharing much of it (except maybe some of the fiction writing which I hope to share sooner than later), but the process has helped me feel a little less lost in a strange time.
In thinking about what has kept me sane and happy over the past year three themes have emerged: community, art, and nature. Like any large broad concepts, these can be broken down into infinite subcategories but I think these three categories best contain and encapsulate what I’ve found to be important to me. Most of what I share will touch on one of those three.
I’ll start this email by sharing some art that has particularly influenced me in the past year. Then I’ll share some of what I’ve found has helped me through the last year. Plus some bonus memories celebrating The Public Works’ 15 year anniversary.
We are the sum of our experiences. It’s a simple statement but a profound idea. Our conception of “self” – how we view the world, how we show up for others, how we feel, and act, and think, is all built by the concepts we encounter. I am constantly evaluating (maybe to the point of being neurotic) what building blocks are contributing to my personal world and book choice ranks as high as anything.
I lived inside these books during 2020. They brought me as much joy and meaning as any other part of my life. If any of these titles spark an interest, please reach out and I’d be happy to share my thoughts. If you’ve read any and want to chat about them, don’t be shy, I love these conversations.
I won’t write in-depth summaries or take aways from any of these since plenty exists online – just enough to maybe tease your interest.
R.O. Kwon The Incendiaries – The story of a college student swept up by a Christian cult and her boyfriend’s journey to try to hold onto her before things become violent.
Julie Otsuka – Buddha in the Attic – A beautiful book written in the first person plural (a powerful device that I hadn’t experienced much of) about Japanese immigrants and the indignity of interment camps.
David Foster Wallace – Good Old Neon – One of those DFW stories that digs deep and sticks with you. This one doesn’t take as much work as much of DFW’s writing but I’m still thinking about the story almost a year later. If you want to explore further, there was a great deconstruction on Very Bad Wizards. “they ramble on about “Good Old Neon” like a couple of first year Comp-Lit grad students trying to impress that girl who works at the Cajun bakery.”
Ted Chiang – Exhalation – Holy shit… this whole collection is mind blowing. If you’re into speculative fiction or scifi or just writing that makes you think, this one should be top of the list.
Jonathan Safran Foer – We Are The Weather – Foer’s exploration of industrialized meat, Eating Animals, was the final domino in my decision to give up store-bought meat. We Are The Weather is a brilliant follow up focusing on the relationship between meat consumption and climate change. He brilliantly weaves personal narrative with statistics and some good old fashioned philosophical dialog to create a powerful case for eating less meat and doing everything we can muster to lessen the damage.
Jenny O’dell – How to do Nothing– One of my favorite books of 2020. O’dell explores our personal relationship to the attention economy through the lens of art, philosophy, and bird watching. Exactly the slow, contemplative, deep book I was looking for. Disclaimer: this is NOT a “how to” or a self help book.
Mary Oliver – Upstream – I’m in love with anything that flows from Mary Oliver’s pen. This selection of essays provided a glimpse into her life and creative process. I’m doing my best to not worry about the empty mustard jar.
Mary Oliver – Poetry Handbook – As someone who loves poetry but often feels mystified by what makes some poetry “work” and other poetry feel like a jumble of pretension and neurosis, this book (a re-read for me) shines a bright light on the craft of both reading and writing good poems.
Emily Dickinson – Collected Works – I bought this to have a printed version of my favorite poem The Brain is Wider Than The Sky and ended up reading every poem she ever wrote (it was my sh$#ter book for months).
Ray Bradbury – Martian Chronicles– I’m more of a hard sci-fi person (sci-fi rooted in our current understanding of physics) but this was fun, well written (like everything Bradbury created), and a mirror on the neurosis and follies of our own culture.
Carlo Rovelli – The Order of Time – F$%ing mind bending explanation of the nature of time. I’ve read a lot of physics and thought I had a decent understanding of relativity and space-time but this book blew my mind.
Jedidiah Jenkins – Shake the sleeping self – Beautiful adventure story of a young gay man from a strict Christian community breaking free and discovering the world on a multi month bike ride from the Oregon to Patagonia. I can’t wait to read his follow up that just released.
James Baldwin – The Fire Next Time– Powerful exploration of race in America by one of the 20th century’s most powerful voices.
David Whyte – The Bell and the Blackbird– Similar to Dickinson, I bought this book for one poem and ended up loving the whole collection. Twice Blessed is one of my all time favorite collections of words.
Viktor Frankel – Man’s search for Meaning-A light read about human nature from a survivor of Auschwitz. Absolutely heart crushing but somehow also hopeful and applicable to all our lives. This should be required reading 100%
Bill Hayes – Insomniac City – Easily one of my favorite books of the year. Bill Hayes writes a love letter to both New York City and Oliver Sacks. As a long time fan of Sacks, this peek into his last years and his quirky and beautiful relationship with Hayes was a special treat.
Vonnegut – Breakfast of Champions – Always fun revisiting any Vonnegut work. It’s amazing how relevant his societal commentary is today.
Frank Herbert – Dune – The movie is dropping soon and looks pretty badass. I wanted to read this classic before I had to envision Jason Momoa in every scene. I don’t know how I missed this book when I was younger but I’m glad I finally found it.
Frank Herbert – Dune Messiah – I wasn’t quite ready to leave Herbert’s universe yet so I jumped into the sequel. I needed a break before I check out the next in the series but I definitely will.
Obama – A Promised Land – I don’t need to say much about this one. If you think you might want to pick it up, you do. A reminder that politics can be rooted in character, morality, humanity, and generally giving a shit about making the world a better place for everyone.
Ken Liu – The Paper Menagerie – I only knew Ken Liu as the translator of Cixin Liu’s tomes Remembrance of Earth’s Past (my all time favorite sci-fi books). I discovered this collection through this amazing podcast. The title story is the perfect short story: potent, heart rending, and beautiful.
How I’m Dealing
I’ve had a couple friends and family members reach out and ask me how I’m dealing with everything, particularly societal issues and all the attendant stress and mental anguish. As I talked through a process that had been mostly hidden from myself, I was reminded of the famous quip, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”-EM Forster. The few little insights that came from these conversations seemed worth sharing.
Compartmentalize – Disconnect, Escape, Enjoy, Appreciate
I believe we should all do our best to be members of an active informed citizenry – It seems to be necessary for a functioning democracy. Yet, that doesn’t necessitate that we become all-consumed by the constant dramatization and hyperbole of the 24 hour news cycle. The world is a vast beautiful place and while politics do touch everything eventually, we can refocus our attention on the beauty, mystery, and intrigue of the world around us, on our relationships, and our relationship with our own minds. When I’m feeling especially angry, or frustrated, or despondent after scrolling through my feed or reading the news, I do my best to read/watch/view something beautiful: a piece of literature, a film, a photo book, or the house finches that have taken residence under our awning. Or, better yet, I go for a walk, run, or ride my bike in nature. The mountains that stood before sapien’s first fire and will be standing long after our worst blunders and greatest victories. Moving among them, and noticing beauty, large and small, helps me remember that. Which brings me to my next strategy.
Find Perspective – Connect to something big, beautiful, and meaningful
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s foreign policy advisor and speech writer, recounts in his memoir, The World As It Is, that directly after Trump’s election in 2016, Obama wrote him a simple message, “There are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the earth.” Obama was always one to take the long view.
Big picture thinking can help put things that might otherwise feel all consuming into perspective. The particularity of scale (spatial and temporal) that we inhabit – We are a tiny blip, a mote of dust, in an uncomprehendingly vast universe and our lives are an unnoticeable glitch on the scale of cosmic time. This kind of thinking makes the latest xenophobic tweet feel a little less important.
On a more human scale, it’s helpful to look at the positive. Steven Pinker’s books are a great place to start. On almost every metric we could care about we are currently living in the safest most peaceful time on our planet. In Enlightenment Now he argues that health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are globally at their highest levels in human history and continuing to rise. Our perspectives are skewed by the ubiquity of information and the perverse incentive of the news organizations and for-profit media to report negative stories – ‘If it bleeds it leads’. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t major societal problems we need to solve, but it’s a helpful balm when it feels that the world is going to hell in a hand basket.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Act – Do something!
I’ve found that the best way to combat the pervasive feeling of helplessness we tend to feel when we’re inundated with negativity, injustice, and cruelty, is to act. For me that has consisted of attending protests, calling and writing letters to elected officials, and volunteering for campaigns that fight for what I believe in. Sometimes it’s also just writing. Even for an audience of one, creating something from nothing is a powerful act.
TPW -15 Years in Business
The Public Works is celebrating 15 years in business! As we look back through the people and places that have become part of our story, we’ve been revisiting and sharing a few highlights on our social media. Portillo was an easy choice.
We’ve been making the pilgrimage to this little piece of South American paradise for a decade and a half. Nestled on a lake, under the shadow of the tallest mountain on the continent (Aconcagua 22,841′), on the dividing line between Chile and Argentina, Portillo sits as a monument to sliding on snow. We’ve seen all the moods of the mountain here from the infamously powerful winds of the Andes to the equally powerful sun. We’ve weathered country closing storms, earthquakes, dry spells articulating the effects of climate change, and hungover drives down one of the windiest roads on the continent. We’ve skied the famed SuperC Couloir in pow, perfect corn, and heinous wind-board. We’ve shot photos of @colbyjameswest jumping out of the helicopter in the pool. We’ve shut down the basement discoteca. We’ve racked up the hobbs hours with @warrenmiller and post holed for hours. This place has become a part of who we are and there is something beautiful about knowing it’s always there waiting.
Here is are just a few images from this epic place.
Content Consumption (Awesome Shit)
A couple years ago I began keeping a log of everything I was reading, watching, and listening to. I also keep a regular journal, where I am able to reflect more deeply on ideas and experiences, but there is something illuminating about reading the list of what was entering my brain throughout different parts of my life. I figured I’d share a couple recent favorites.
Documentary – I haven’t been watching many documentaries recently but both these touch on different elements of how our digital lives have pushed Into everything. Highly recommend both: Feels Good Man (The story of a stoner cartoon frog became the face of white supremacy and the battle to bring him back to the side of love), The Social Dilemma (an inside look into the calculated manipulation of our minds for profit by the attention economy)
Movies – Sorkin’s second film as a writer and director (though he didn’t know he’d be directing when he wrote either). Powerful story relevant today. My dad was at the protests and has told me about them since I was little. Trail of The Chicago 7 . Side note… if you’re like me and you were mostly aware of the Chicago 7 from The Big Lebowski, “That was me. Well, and six other guys”, then you’ll be interested in the story of Jeff Dowd, the inspiration for the Dude’s character (who was actually one of the Chicago 7), and a good friend of the Coen Brothers.
Podcasts – Too many good ones to list… couple recent favorites :Sam Harris – A Call with Ricky (an uncharacteristically casual and charming discussion of dreams and conciousness with Ricky Gervais) , Dan Harris – Brother Phap Dung on 8-fold path (A fascinating personal journey and solid recap of the Eightfold Path in Buddhism) , Tim Ferris w/ Seinfeld (I’m not always a Tim Ferris fan but this conversation was amazing. I loved hearing a different, deeper side of Jerry.)
Books – I’ve loved all 3 of these so far this year. Each one has changed my vantage on the world at least a little bit: I Am A Strange Loop (Journey into the origin of “self” with one of the a Pulitzer Prize winning author, philosopher, and physicist) , One Long River Of Song (A painfully beautiful selections of essays about life), The Vanishing Half (The powerful multigenerational story of separated twins, one who lives as a black woman and one who passes as white)
Music – A few songs, albums, and videos that have touch my heart and are running on repeat in my head: Tobe Nwigwe – Tiny Desk, (I don’t know how I had never heard of Tobe but he’s awesome and this performance is the shit!), Tyler Childers , (I had given up on country music but Tyler brought me back), Black Thought – Fuel feat. Portugal. The Man & The Last Artful, Dodgr (Black Thought has to be one of the best MCs to ever live), RTJ – Tiny Desk (This one is probably old news but holy shit… RTJ are the best)
Random Thought Nugget
Throughout the pandemic we’ve heard a lot about exponential growth. I’ve always known that exponential growth created counterintuitively large numbers but I had never heard this little thought experiment until a recent interview with Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize winning physicist who just came out with a new book, Fundamentals : Ten Keys to Reality.
If you folded a piece of paper in half 50 times, how thick do you think it would be?
I’ll give you a moment.
Many people guess about the width of a brick.
Each fold doubles the thickness, so folding 50 times = 2^50 (two to the fiftieth power)
1,125,899,906,842,620. If a sheet of paper is .004 inches thick that is 4503599627370 inches or 375,299,968,947 feet = 71,079,539 miles
The moon is about 240,000 miles away. So 50 folds of a sheet of notebook paper, though it would become very small, would reach to the moon almost 300 times. That’s the power of exponentials that I had always kind of known about but didn’t really have a grasp of until this week.
More coming soon: Hunting article I wrote for Outside Magazine. A reflection of the death of Powder Magazine. An article on Phil Casabon in The Ski Journal. And a bunch more random thoughts on our confusing and heartbreakingly beautiful world.
Love you all. Thanks for reading and engaging!