"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Monday, October 2, 2017

Letter to October #2


Dear October,
       I am surprised, again and again, by things coming back to me. This morning I sat in a coffee shop, and didn't write, even though I meant to. This is not the first time I have chosen to do the opposite of what I know I want. It will not be last. This is certainly not the last time I will tell you about it, October. Instead, I wrote in my car on my lunch break. I was sitting in my car with the air conditioning on because sitting in the park I had gone to was getting too hot because it is still ninety degrees here.

This morning, at the coffee shop, when I was supposed to be writing, I asked about a ring I had lost a few weeks ago. I love wearing rings, but like sunglasses, I have a tendency to lose them. Anyway, it was a long shot. The barista wanted to know what kind of stone it was and I felt silly for asking about a $6 ring that had been missing for weeks, but I told her it looked like an opal. And suddenly there she was, holding it out to me.

I've been thinking about why some things return to us and others don't. Why we're plagued by the same problems, but we don't recognize them. Why good things happen again and again, and we're surprised by them. Why is it when we set out to do something, it makes it harder to do it? Why is it that something as simple as getting a ring back can feel so gratifying, like some piece of the universe has clicked back into place?

I took more pictures today then I have in a long time. I took a picture of my coffee cup, the flowers climbing up a telephone pole near the bookstore, droplets of rain on my windshield. These letters make me notice more, October. That's another kind of return. A return to who I am in October, the girl who takes note. I wonder what else I've been missing.

Laura


Song of the Day: The Water by Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling


Letter to October #1




Dear October,
      Well, here we are again. You arrived on my day off, which was lovely. It wasn't until I started a real job that I understood the true meaning of a good day off. Even when I was in school I didn't cherish weekends the way I cherish a free day now. It doesn't have anything to do with not liking my job (I love it, in fact), but everything to do with suddenly relishing the gift of free time in a way that I hadn't before.

This morning I went to brunch with friends and felt like a millennial, I guess, though I don't really know what that means. It's still weird to me sometimes, hanging out with people as though it were still summer, as though it was just another year. But it's not summer. And my friends have jobs now, and we're not waiting for the next semester to start, we're out there making life happen.

All summer I would wake up and think to myself, "This is your life now." It wasn't a resignation or a defeat, but a reminder. A reminder that I'm not waiting for anything anymore. A reminder that I could go in any direction. Now, I don't have to remind myself as much. It's amazing how quickly we adapt, how ready we are to inhabit whatever space is provided us. I thought I wasn't ready for you, October, but I guess it's only a matter of time.

Laura

Song of the day: Midway by Bad Bad Hats

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Letters to October Announcement!

Hello Everyone! Sorry I've been gone for a little while. Luckily you'll be hearing from me a lot more frequently in the next few weeks, because it's that time of year again: time for Letters to October. For those of you new to this little tradition of mine, it was inspired by Emily Diana Ruth's Letters to July and Carrie Hope Fletcher's Dear Autumn series. Each day I write a letter to the month of October, and pair it with a picture I took that day and a song I've been listening to. It's a little project that helps me take stock of how my life has changed, and helps me notice more, instead of letting the days slip past without a second glance.

I don't want to get too sentimental too soon, but a lot has changed since my last Letters to October in 2015. I've graduated college, moved back home, and started a job at my favorite independent bookstore. In the past my Octobers were filled with mounting stress as the semester's work load got more intense. Now, I'm working full time and my days, while stressful at times, are more structured than they were at school. I was also in Iowa, where the transition to fall was obvious - blustery days, changing leaves, a biting chill to the air. Now I'm back in Texas, where we're lucky to get a handful of cooler days, and we don't get true fall colors until December.

Needless to say, I'm excited to see where this year's Letters will take me. I hope you'll join me, and I'd love it if you made your own! If you're so inclined, you can read past letters in the Letters to October tab.

Until tomorrow!

And, just for fun, here's a song of the day: Die Young by Sylvan Esso

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Eclipse



On the drive east my mother read Annie Dillard’s essay “Total Eclipse” out loud to us in the car. We were on our way to Tennessee to catch the total solar eclipse of 2017, or the Great American Eclipse, as all the news stations were calling it. (I wonder why we are still attaching the words “Great” and “American” to anything) My parents had been planning this trip since last August, when they booked our hotel rooms in a town just outside of Nashville. As my mother read, I got more excited and apprehensive about seeing the eclipse. 

The Annie Dillard essay is a masterpiece of suspenseful descriptive language. It puts you on edge and makes you want to crawl out of your skin. I have no pretensions that this blog post will even come close, so you should stop what you’re doing and get your hands on Ms. Dillard’s essay as soon as possible. That being said, I can’t let this momentous occasion pass without writing about it. It’s not often that something comes along that is completely outside the confines of lived experience. Outside of reading about it, there is no way to know what an eclipse will be like because it messes with our most basic experiential knowledge: the cycles of day and night; the behavior of shadows, birds, insects; the feel of the sun on a hot day. At the same time, our imaginations are so willing to fill in the gaps that I was almost worried about the eclipse being anti-climactic. I needn’t have worried.



The only other activity we had planned for our short time in Nashville was to visit Parnassus Books. Parnassus was co-founded by one of my favorite authors, Anne Patchett, after the closing of her favorite independent bookstore. It’s nestled in an unassuming brown stucco strip-center, which it shares with a Chipotle and Fox’s Donut Den. Even on a Sunday, the place was bustling. People were everywhere: chatting about books, availing themselves of the armchairs at the center of the store, and tripping over the shop dog, who looked ancient but could move surprisingly fast. Maybe the crowds were because it was eclipse weekend (and all of Nashville was packed), but I’m hoping it was because bookstores are making a comeback. I wandered the shelves in a daze, caught between my usual bookstore state-of-mind (focused and methodical) and being swept up by the buzz of excitement in the room. Standing in that bookstore felt like standing on the precipice of something: maybe because I’ll be starting my own job at an independent bookstore in less than a week, or maybe because bookstores have always been places of potential energy for me. There’s the potential of finding the perfect book, but also the feeling, as a writer, that behind each one of those books is a person, a person just like me. Or maybe the rush of excitement in the bookstore was part of something larger, some collective energy that was sweeping the city at the same speed that the moon was hurtling in front of the sun.

The next day, the day of the eclipse, we rose early. Really early. Everywhere else in the city had been so crazy that we wanted to take exactly zero chances with any of it: the traffic, the crowds, the mayhem. We had gotten tickets for an eclipse party hosted by Wildflower Farms an hour outside of the city. We drove through the rolling hills of Tennessee, the rising sun a giant orange orb in the sky. It made me want to see an eclipse like that, where the atmospheric distortion turns the tiny ball of the sun into a colossus. We passed farm house after farmhouse, and I wondered if any of these people had plans to go outside during the eclipse. It was all over the news, impossible to miss, but I wondered if anyone was still in the dark, unaware of what was about the happen. Champagne colored light filtered through the low-hanging fog in the fields on either side of us. We wound our way through the countryside toward the impossibly tiny town of Bethpage, where we turned onto an even smaller road, barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other. We almost drove right past our destination. It was a barn normally used for weddings, sitting in the middle of a wide field. Of course, we were the first people there.



As the morning wore on, more people started to arrive. They came from lots of different places: Indiana, Kentucky, Washington, DC. We tried out our eclipse glasses, staring at the small orange circle climbing towards the center of the sky. One of the other eclipse watchers had brought his camera and a telephoto lens, and he and my parents swapped camera-talk. It was amazing, how easily these people felt like friends. We talked about what we knew of eclipses, and my mom and I urged everyone to read the Annie Dillard essay. A few people worried about the light, fluffy clouds gathering on the horizon. Would they obstruct our view? Would we miss our chance? That’s what this felt like. A chance. A thing that we all cared enough about to drive however many hours for, for just a minute or two – a handful of seconds really – of something extraordinary.

Every “live” event that’s experienced now is experienced in two places: online and offline. (How strange that we call it a “live” event when all of our events are live, simply by virtue of us living them). An hour before totality where we were, my instagram was littered with crescent shaped shadows from the people experiencing a partial eclipse, and then images of the sun and the black thumbnail of the moon blotting it out. 



In our own slice of reality, the light was changing. It happened slowly. The light was dimming, turning sepia colored. It felt a bit like looking through a weak pair of sunglasses. My mom stared at me and said, “Your hair looks redder.” The next thing that happened was the temperature change. Even though it had just been 94 degrees, and standing in the sun felt uncomfortably hot, now it was almost pleasant. Summer to fall in a matter of minutes. Someone told us that it had gone from 94 to 81. My mom counted down the minutes to totality out loud. None of us knew where to look. I watched the horizon, hoping to see the shadow of the moon slam into us. Hoping to see the hard line between day and night. It didn’t happen that way.

Instead, it was as if someone was sliding a dimmer switch in the sky. The blue of sky deepened in a matter of seconds. A chill shot through the air. The horizon glowed tangerine with sunset no matter where we looked. My head snapped back and I saw it. The corona around the moon where the sun used to be. In all the pictures of solar eclipses I’ve seen, totality looks flat, just a white ring around a black disk. In real life, a kind of tunnel vision happens, as though everything else is suspended from that one tiny spot in the sky, and we’re hanging there, necks craning, hoping whatever is holding us in place doesn’t break and we go spinning out into space. Suddenly the world around me, the grass, the trees, felt foreign and inconsequential compared to the orb hanging above us in the sky. I was vaguely aware that it felt like something out of a sci-fi movie, the closest thing to a sci-fi movie that I think I’ll ever experience in my life. One of our new friends had brought a white towel which they laid out on the grass. On it, you could just barely see slim, silvery shadows flickering across the surface. This, I had read earlier, was caused by the sunlight diverting around the peaks and valleys on the moon. Atmospheric distortion caused the shadows to dance and flicker, like light in the bottom of a swimming pool. 



We were submerged in night for two minutes and thirty-nine seconds, but it felt much shorter. As I watched, a spear of light appeared on one side of the disk, and then, in a matter of seconds, the daylight returned. The whole experience was a bit like submerging yourself in murky lake water on a sunny day. For a few minutes everything is brown and moss green, maybe you catch the mysterious glimmer of a fish eye as it glides silently past, and then you come up for air and the world is bright and sparkling and new. Around us, the world returned to its dusty sunglass-tinted state, but it was such a change from the twilight we’d just experienced that it felt like everything had just snapped back into place. The only tell: air that was unnaturally cool for midday in August.

It felt as though the world righted itself much quicker than it had come undone. Maybe the anticipation was gone. Maybe our brains had already filed away our new experiences, and so it knew what to expect. We hung around for a little while, retreating to the barn where it was shady and cool as the heat returned. We exchanged contact information with our fellow eclipse-watchers, promising to share the pictures we’d taken. And then people began to tickle back to their cars, back to their normal lives. 

It’s difficult to say what impact this experience will have now that it’s over. I hesitate to call it life-changing, because my life hasn’t changed one bit. But it is significant. It does tell us something about the universe, ourselves. First of all, the eclipse reminded me that the universe is a system. It’s like the gears in a gigantic clock, moving so fast that we can’t see them, can’t even fathom them. The eclipse momentarily slowed one of those gears down, let us witness it in all of its silent, calculated grace. A glimpse like that comes so rarely that we have to take every opportunity we can to experience it. I expected to feel small in the wake of the eclipse. I expected to recognize how tiny I was compared to the vastness of space. But I didn’t feel that. Instead, I felt closer to it somehow. The eclipse was strange and intimate, like someone telling you a secret that makes all of their behavior suddenly make sense. I feel more knowledgeable, like I’ve gained some new insight into how things work, even if that’s only the knowledge of what it’s like to see the world momentarily go dark. Maybe it’s silly to feel this way, but I do. Maybe it’s silly to travel hundreds of miles for something that lasts under three minutes. Maybe it’s silly to marvel and laugh and gasp with strangers, to take a million photos, and make lofty analogies about something as simple as the moon moving in front of the sun. But if that’s silly, then count me in. Because that is togetherness, and wonder, and knowledge, and power, and I’ll take that over cynicism and boredom any day. Especially hot days in August, when the sun blinks and the earth is cool again.


Monday, August 14, 2017

The Search for the Perfect Campus Novel: Part One

College campuses are ripe grounds for a novelist: you've got characters being thrust into a new way of life, rites of passage, and a rich intellectual playing field. I became enamored with campus novels largely out of frustration. I found myself picking up them up over and over again, but usually I found them so pretentious I could hardly stand them. I feel like a have pretty strong tolerance for intellectualism – I'm excited by it, actually – but many of the novels I read had characters who quoted Milton from memory, translated the Greek classics for fun, and were also just terrible people.

Even so, many of the campus novels I've read stuck with me, to the point where I tend to ask if people have read certain books just so I can have someone to discuss them with. And thus, an obsession was born. I'm on the hunt for the perfect campus novel. Something that doesn't feel overly pretentious, has likable characters, and that perfectly calibrated studious atmosphere that makes campus novels so fun to read.

This is the first installment of a series of posts where I'll share my thoughts on the campus novels I read, and what better time to start than August and September, when, for the first time in my life, I'm not going back to school.

Below are the books that got me into the genre; the good, the bad, and the ones I wanted to throw across the room.


1. The Secret History by Donna Tart
If you google "campus novels" this will inevitably turn up. It's one of the most popular campus novels of all time, and despite my personal reservations, I have to admit that it deserves to be on the list. The Secret History follows Richard Campden, a California boy who moves to New England to go to an elite private college. There, he falls in with a mysterious bunch of classics majors under the influence of a morally corrupt professor. What follows is a slow burning, volatile, maddeningly illusive story that tells you something is going to happen only to have it completely shatter your expectations.

I loved the first half of this book. The atmosphere is perfectly eerie: you feel the old-world sophistication and the grandeur of the campus buildings; the isolation the characters face during a particularly snowy winter; that strange, warm quality found in oaken rooms filled with books. During the second half, though, it started to fall apart for me. Characters who I found flawed but fascinating became almost unbearable. Moral questions posed in the first half were batted away as easily as flies. As the characters' lives spiraled downward, so did my enjoyment of the book.

And yet. And yet. I can't stop thinking about it. Images from The Secret History have stayed with me long after I gave it two stars on Goodreads. I find myself wanting to discuss it with everyone I meet. And what is that if not the sign of a particularly good book? My final verdict: The Secret History is well crafted. It is an undeniable feat of suspense and tension, and a fascinating portrayal of privilege gone wrong. By the end, you may just want to hurl it across the room.

2. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
This book could not be more different than The Secret History. They might very well be polar opposites. Fangirl follows Cath, a freshman in college who is a super-fan of Simon Snow, a book series with overt similarities to Harry Potter. Cath is extremely shy, and is more inclined to stay in her dorm room and write fan fiction than go out and socialize. But a loner can't stay that way forever. With the help of a judgmental (and yet oddly likable) roommate, a hard-ball professor, and of course, a guy, Cath begins to come out of her shell.

Fangirl is light and funny, but also a poignant portrayal of anxiety and loneliness. I've heard that some readers are annoyed by how much Cath overthinks things, but if you have that tendency, too, her character will most likely ring true. Rowell is tender with her characters, making you like them despite their flaws, and you delight in all the ways Cath grows, and the tiny steps she takes to being more outgoing, letting more of herself show. Unlike the other books on this list, this is a truly optimistic one, and one of the rare books I found myself grinning at whenever I picked it up. If you're looking to read about a college experience that feels refreshingly realistic and modern with a dose of humor, Fangirl is it.

3. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
The Magicians is often billed as "Harry Potter for adults," but in my mind that doesn't quite fit. Maybe: "Harry Potter if Harry Potter were intensely apathetic and studying magic was not as easy as it looked." That's not to say I didn't enjoy this book. Like The Secret History, The Magicians left me with a lot to think about. The book follows Quentin, a high school senior who grew up reading a Narnia-esque series of books about the magical land of Fillory. Upon graduating, he is unexpectedly accepted into Brakebills, a - you guessed it- magic school. What follows is an erratically paced journey through their four years at Brakebills, and their struggle to survive after returning to the real world, where magic is an intensely useless skill. If you're looking for the in-depth, perfectly plotted world of Harry Potter, this is not that book. But, if you're curious about how someone else might conceive of a magical school where learning magic takes patience, effort, and skill (and failure is frequent), and you like reading about the struggles of disillusioned youth, this is the book for you. That may sound flippant, but there's a lot of substance here, and it stayed with me long after I read the last page.

4. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
This is the only book on this list that I flat-out didn't like. I read it in my marriage plot class, right after reading five or six marriage plots, from Jane Eyre to Emma. This book is supposed to be a semi-modern take on the marriage plot structure, but I found it to have the same constricting effect on its characters as the marriage plots we read in class. It follows Madeline, Mitchell, and Leonard as they are in their last year at Brown University during the 1980s. The book opens with Madeline, but spends a lot of time with Madeline-obsessed Mitchell Grammaticus (yes, that's his real name *gag*) and manic-depressive bad-boy Leonard. The book seems more concerned with their emotional and psychological journeys than Madeline's. All of the characters are obsessed with the writings of the deconstructionist theorist Derrida, and in its own attempt to deconstruct the marriage plot, it seems only to point out its own shortcomings in being unable to do what its 19th century predecessors could. In short, Jane Eyre is more feminist than The Marriage Plot.

5. Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

This book is still somewhat of an enigma for me. It's billed as a modern re-telling of the sixteenth century Scottish ballad, Tam Lin, but if you're looking for modern/urban fantasy, this is not it. I went into it knowing nothing about the original ballad, and came out of it only slightly more educated. What is interesting, though, is her portrayal of life on a college campus in the 1970's. Her complex cast of characters are interesting and witty, and literary references abound. The joy Dean takes in having her characters quote Shakespeare I think makes up for any pretentiousness - it's obvious that she loves literature and revels in it throughout. At 456 pages, this book is not for the faint of heart, but if you go into it with the right expectations, it's a highly enjoyable read.


6. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
I tried to read Prep on the recommendation of my friend Ruth (who usually gives great recommendations), but I just couldn't get into it. However, that doesn't mean that it isn't worthy of being on this list, and a recommendation this emphatic could not go unnoticed. Here's what Ruth has to say:

"Prep is about a girl who lands herself at an elite boarding school, and finds herself very out of place with the wealthy, self-assured people around her. We follow her through her four years at school as she observes the social, racial, and class divides there, and see how she reacts.

Here's why it's good. This is a book that feels authentically high school, with the same cringe moments and awkwardness of being a teenager. Ever small thing seems so big. The book is narrated by an adult Lee, looking back on her high school years, but for the most part you forget she's the narrator. As a teenager Lee is perceptive, sharp, and self-conscious, and has a gift for observing other people and dissecting their actions. She's particularly insecure as a freshman but one of the best parts of the book is going through the 400+ pages and noticing her language and perspective change. She takes action more often, gets better at articulating her own feelings, and acknowledges and is confronted by the limitations of her perspective. The book moves at a pace that makes this really interesting – slow enough for her to feel just the same, but quick enough for you to see her expand her idea of who she is and what she's capable of. Every scene in this book feels uniquely its own, and builds up slowly, with all the nuances of interaction and dialogue of something that happens in real life.

I have so much affection for this book because some of Lee's conclusions, or observations she makes about life, you read them and you think, 'ha, that's kind of funny,' because it's a little melodramatic, or a little oh – high school. But they resonate almost more so because they're acute observations that are sincere and vulnerable, easy to criticize but there anyway. It's that kind of naivety and honesty that makes Prep fascinating to read."

There you have it. I'll keep you updated on my next campus reads, and hopefully I'll find some gems in what (so far) has been a mixed bag. Currently Reading: The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Summer of the Rest of Your Life


I've been trying to write about what it feels like to be newly graduated. Every time I sit down the words come, but by the end of it they don't feel adequate. Or maybe they feel self important. What do I know? Not enough. These days are strange and unwieldy. I try to wrangle them into submission by writing, making plans, setting goals. It feels like summer, and yet not quite the summers I've known my entire life. An old friend and a stranger.

Yesterday my friend Ruth came over and she, my mom, and I made gelatin prints with leaves and paint and fabric. It's a quintessential summer activity for us- making art projects for the fun of it, no pressure, no expectations, just enjoying making a mess. At the end of it we have twenty or so squares of printed fabric and no idea what to do with them all. Mom says maybe we could turn them into a quilt, but I kind of like the fact that they don't have a purpose. I like that not everything needs to be in service to something else.


Later, Ruth and I are talking about how it feels to be done with school (for now). I know that this is the source my uncertainty, this weird pendulum of days. I feel urgency, and I feel it bad. Every decision acts like something that effects all of the strands of time unraveling in front of me. When I was in school, for some reason, wasting time didn't feel as unforgivable. I could spend a couple of hours watching youtube videos and it was okay, if only because it was in a larger container. I could waste time because I had a deadline to pull me back into the work. Now, though, that container is gone. That container is the rest of my life. Now, it's entirely up to me to delegate my time, and I feel more guilty about wasting it because wasting it feels like wasting my life. 

Of course, I know intellectually that my time has always been mine, and it didn't suddenly become mine after I graduated. I've always had the choice of what to do with it, even though I didn't always use it wisely. I know I should use this new-found urgency to my advantage, but it feels like tug-of-war sometimes. I'm scared of losing it, because then I'll slip back into my old ways, with nothing to keep the idleness in check. But if I hold it too close, my whole life stretches in front of me, paralyzing. If I let urgency rule, even my most productive days are never enough.

That's why Ruth and I dubbed this "the summer of the rest of our lives." It feels like any other summer. It feels like I'll be going back to school in September. But this summer will blend effortlessly into fall, with no first day of school to mark the transition. This summer is the beginning of all other summers that will arrive unannounced, without ceremony.

And I know, eventually, these wild, expansive days will filter back into containers: I'll get a job. I'll have deadlines and appointments and obligations to people other than myself. The terrifying responsibility of being sole master of my days will loosen.

I keep coming back to that Mary Oliver quote, the one that insists, "Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" I know I don't have to figure it all out this second. I know I have time, even when it feels like it's unraveling too fast. So I'll keep asking that question, keep letting it guide me. I'll lean into urgency and away from idleness. I'll try and cherish these container-less days.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Thinking Out Loud Episode 6: Space Dust


I love stories about people doing what they love, despite other people thinking they're crazy. I recently read a New York Times article about Jon Larsen, an citizen scientist who spent years searching for micrometeorites. This episode explores the cosmos, the everyday, and what it means to be an amateur.

Thinking Out Loud Episode 5: Farallon Islands


I recently finished reading The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni. It's a wonderful, eerie book about a nature photographer who is sent to a set of remote islands off the coast of California. At first I thought the islands were just a creation of the author's imagination, but a quick google search revealed that they actually exist, and that they are just as creepy in real life as they are in the book. I don't usually believe in comparing an author's description of a place to the actual place itself, but these islands just beg comparison. It's funny how you can go your whole life without knowing something exists, and then, once you do, you can't stop thinking about it. The islands have become a sort of haunting presence in my mind. Maybe it's the atmosphere created by the book, or the pictures of their rocky forms, jutting out of the ocean, but I have a feeling the islands will stay with me for a long time. I hope they do for you, too.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Thinking Out Loud Episode 4: Jane Austen


I never thought I could like Jane Austen. When I first read Pride and Prejudice it bothered me that she seemed to "tell" more than she "showed" and my understanding of the plot had been spoiled by the film adaptations. But, when I found out that my favorite professor was teaching a class on Jane Austen, I decided to give her a second chance. I'm so glad I did. Not only have I come to enjoy her writing more, but I have a greater appreciation for the contributions she made to literature as we know it. What's more, she's just a fascinating individual, shrouded in mystery.

Today, I talk about a New York Times article which discusses the possibility that Jane Austen died from arsenic poisoning. I'm not sure I believe this myself, but I find the concept of looking to people's personal belongings (in this case Austen's eyeglasses), in order to find out more about their life fascinating. How much can we really know about a person more than 100 years after their death? And how much would that individual want us to know? This episode is mostly questions, because I certainly don't have many answers.



Until tomorrow.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Thinking Out Loud Episode 3: Deep Time

Here we are, back at it again! This episode explores humanity and mortality and geological time and all that good stuff. In it, I talk about the book The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman, and about what is possibly my favorite website on the internet: Brain Pickings.

Because it's such a beautiful book, I had to take some pictures of it:












I hope you'll take some time to look up this beautiful book and support the author, who continues to make fascinating work at the juncture between science and art.



Until next time!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Thinking Out Loud Episode 2: Self Help

I'm not gonna lie. I'm a bit of a self improvement junkie. I love motivational quotes, and reading about people's morning routines. When I was a kid, I was a bit obsessed with routine, to the point where I once I asked my parents to alternate the days that they read to me before bed (Dad one night, Mom the next, etc). I'm not quite as obsessed as I was then, but I'm still enamored by productivity tips and new ways of thinking about time, distractions, and getting stuff done.

In today's episode I share quotes from a couple of my favorite self improvement sites (Zen Habits and Raptitude) and talk a little bit about the weird world of self help gurus. This podcast is meant to inspire further reading, so don't hesitate to check out the articles mentioned and read them in full!




As always, thanks for listening, and I'll see you tomorrow!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Thinking Out Loud: An Introduction


Today marks the beginning of a dream I've had for a while, but couldn't bring myself to embark upon until now. I'm making a podcast. Actually, it's more like a 30 episode mini-podcast, in which I dive into the things I've been reading, watching, and listening to, in under 5 minutes.

It all started when I was listening to an episode of the Design Matters podcast, in which Debbie Millman interviews Sam Winston. At the end she reads a quote from him about creation over consumption, and it got me thinking about all the stuff I consume in any given day, but never really engage with or talk about. An article or a twitter feed might spark something in me, but how often do I actually take that spark and do something with it?

Thus was born Thinking Out Loud, a podcast about ideas and inspiration, and being intentional with the information we consume.  I want to push myself to learn as much as I can about this new medium, and hopefully, I'll get better as I go along. There's something exhilarating about doing something completely out of my creative comfort zone, and this definitely falls into that category.

So, without further ado, here is the first episode of Thinking Out Loud:



I'll be posting new episodes as often as possible, and you can see the complete list in the Podcast tab above. Links to everything mentioned will be in the episode description.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it!

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Some Thoughts on Instagram

Today I finally updated my Instagram app. Goodbye classic logo; hello new, boring one.
Okay, so I know I'm woefully behind on this one. Most people have already updated Instagram (like six months ago) and gotten used to the new features, but switching over today got me thinking about Instagram as a whole, as well as the impact it's had on my life. Here are my thoughts, loosely organized:

Part 0: Meta Ramblings
It feels kind of ridiculous to even be writing about an app. I still have a tendency to see internet culture as something less real, or less "worthy" than culture that has its origins in the "real-world." But of course that's ridiculous because the two are, more than ever, inextricably linked. I also feel hesitant to spend so much time contemplating and interacting with an app which could theoretically go extinct. Think MySpace. Think Vine. Think about your favorite website ten years ago: does it still exist? So much of that time and creativity, obsolete or completely gone. Still, Instagram feels important, and I don't think it's in danger of dying out any time soon. It's been a major source of creativity and inspiration to me since I first got a smart phone my junior year of high school. So I'm going to put aside my initial reservations and give Instagram the thoughtful consideration it deserves. 

Part I: Background
First of all, let me just say, I love Instagram. It's by far my favorite social media platform. I think the reason I fell in love with it is because it's one of the few social sites that feels truly creative. Not only does it satisfy my itch to see the world through other people's eyes, but posting to Instagram feels like an act of creation. You're not just telling people about your day or sharing a funny meme. You're actively noticing the world around you, capturing it in a way that only you can, and sharing it with other people. Instagram feels like an experience in a way that Twitter and Facebook don't. You open the app in the morning and see twelve different sunrises, breakfasts, and cups of coffee. No two photos are the same, and yet we're all experiencing the same morning, the same sunrise. Instagram brings everyday to the level of an art form.

Part II: Criticisms
That's not to say that Instagram is perfect. The plethora of sunrise, breakfast, and coffee photos is both a blessing and a curse. There are entire Instagram accounts devoted to Instagram cliches. Over the years the platform has become less a place where people post photos from their everyday life and more a glossy silkscreen designed to make their life seem more perfect than it is. The act of adding filters to your photos was already an act of enhancement, but look at enough Instagram accounts and you'd think most people were living lives filled with travel, adventure, and gourmet food. Most of the time I see Instagram as a source of creative inspiration, as a way to experience beauty through other people's eyes. But I'd be lying if I said I never fall into the trap of jealousy, based on the false notion that someone's Instagram feed is an accurate representation of their daily life.

Part III: The New Instagram
This leads me to the update. Part of the reason it took me so long to switch over was that I didn't really care about the "story" feature in the first place. For those that don't know, your story is a way to upload photos and videos that are separate from your normal Instagram feed. They disappear after 24 hours, and they play in succession, so if you want you can see moments from someone's entire day at a glance. The feature comes almost directly from Snapchat, complete with a similar option to write captions over the photos and add cute overlays and graphics. 

I wasn't expecting to like Instagram's story feature. I'm still not sure that I do, but it certainly got me thinking. I found myself fascinated by the difference between what people posted on their stories and what showed up in their normal feed. The same thing that bothers me about Instagram, the tendency for it to feel overly perfect and contrived, was suddenly enhanced by the existence of the story feature. Here, the same person who posted a stunning photo of themselves on a beach at sunset to their regular Instagram, could also post a video to their story about running out of gas near that same beach. The Instagram story is anti-filter and anti-perfection. If your Instagram feed were a movie, your story would be the "behind the scenes" featurette. It draws attention to the artistry required to post a beautiful, filtered photo to your feed. 

Part IV: Authenticity and Artifice
This dichotomy has been bothering me all day. With the new update, Instagram has tried to put two opposing forces in the same place. Instagram stories are all about immediacy. You only see photos and videos for a few seconds at a time. You get the sense that they were created quickly, too. It's life in rapid fire. By comparison, regular Instagram forces you to really look at a photo, take it all in. It is a perfectly curated snapshot, something that was composed and edited rather than simply captured. 

What I like about the stories is that they're personal. You're not just seeing this person through their photographs anymore; you're hearing their voice, seeing how they move in the world and interact with others. But if stories are somehow more "authentic" where does that leave your regular feed?
Does seeing "behind the scenes" make your photos more beautiful or more fake?  Does it matter that everything we put online is curated in some way? 

I don't know the answers to these questions. All I know is that seeing a video of someone I'd only ever known through photos was a profoundly strange experience. I immediately revised my original view of that person based on their voice and their mannerisms. It made it harder for me to idealize them, because now I know for sure that they are just a regular person living a regular life. Maybe Instagram stories does the much needed work of breaking the facade. But maybe it also turns the thoughtfulness behind each photo into a display of its curated-ness.

Part V: Conclusions, If I have Any
Basically, Instagram's story feature is weird, but I still like Instagram as a whole. I wrote this post not to bash Instagram or the people who use it, but to think critically about the way we portray our lives online. I'll probably have more thoughts on this in the future, and I'm curious to hear yours. I thought I'd end with a list of my favorite Instagrammers, the people who inspire me daily to see the world through a creative lens. 

@rachelcokerwrites - One of my favorite people on Instagram. Rachel sees a world full of color. She always seems to turn small outings into mini adventures, and she excels at appreciating the little things. Follow for vintage fashion, sisterly love, and thoughtful musings on art.

@hellopoe - This lady has some serious photography skills! She travels constantly for her job as a freelance photographer, but her photos don't feel postcard-perfect in the way that a lot of travel photography does. She has an incredible eye for color and line, and every time I see one of her photos I want to set out on my own adventure.

@ashleymaryart - One of the many artists I follow on Instagram. I love her unique, geometric style, and the best part about her Instagram story is getting an in depth look at her process and watching her work come to life!

@jedediahjenkins - It's hard not to admire someone with such profound curiosity and unbridled joy. I also wish I was half as good a writer as Jedediah. His (long!) captions make me revaluate my reality every. single. time. His most recent posts regarding politics and how to bridge the gaps between people are a balm for the soul. Come for the photos, stay for the words.

@thiswildidea - Okay, I'll be honest, I mostly follow this guy for his dog. (As I think most people do - she's in almost every photo) She is supremely cute and also probably the most well behaved dog on the planet. One resounding pro of Instagram stories: you get to see her in action!

@laurenmarek - Another fantastic photographer who happens to also be based in my hometown. What a cool thing it is to see the city you grew up in through the eyes of another person. She's made me see Houston in a whole new light. 

Phew! I think that's enough for one post. Let me know if you think this hard about social media, too.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Momentum Creates Momentum


I've always been an aspire-er. A person who aspires more than she does. It's a quality that I've struggled with for pretty much my whole life, and I still have a long way to go. But this year, I've been making minuscule progress. For the past couple of weeks, doing homework hasn't felt like pulling teeth. My done journal is more than just piddly little organizational tasks, but actually things like "Finished art history assignment" and "Wrote 800 words." I still have my share of lazy days (yesterday, for example), but where before it was hard to get back up after I fell off the productivity wagon, now I find it relatively easy to start fresh.

If you know me, you know that I'm kind of a productivity junkie. As a kid I was obsessed with routines and would spend hours imagining what my life would be like if every day was the same. (I know, I was a weird kid. Also I no longer wish every day was the same). Now I just read about famous writers' morning routines (my favorite is Darwin's: even with constant illness and anxiety about how his work would be received, he still found time to write, take long, meandering walks, and reply to every single letter he received). So really, nothing much has changed. But as much as I admired other people's orderly schedules and productive days, I was never really able to recreate that for myself.

One piece of advice I've heard over and over again is that momentum creates momentum, or in other words: the more you do things, the easier doing things becomes. A young Amelia Earhart echoes this beautifully in a letter to her mother: "Despite my unusual activity I am very well organized to do more the more I do. You know what I mean... I am not overdoing it and all that is needed for bouncing health is plenty to eat and happiness. Consider me bursting, please." Let's hope this isn't my characteristic beginning-of-the-semester optimism (see my post from last September if you don't believe me). This feels a little different, more stable, more like something taking root. No doubt there are other posts on this blog that sound like this: full of optimism and brimming with plans for the future. I was hesitant to post this for fear of sounding false or repetitive, or worse, jinxing myself out of my newfound productivity. But, what the heck.

Consider me bursting.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

London Patchwork: Museums

London Patchwork is a series of posts dedicated to some of my favorite experiences in London (Spring 2016).

Let me get this out of the way first: I love museums. I love their vastness, their history, their quietude. Since going to London I've also become enamored with the concept of the Victorian-era museum, with its crowded, floor-to-ceiling picture galleries, its taxidermied animals, its crowding of diverse objects into the same glass case. One of my favorite things about London was its museums, and one of my favorite things about its museums was that stepping into them felt like going back in time.

One of the classes I took in London was a museums studies class, so I got to discover quite a few places that I might not have known about otherwise. In addition to learning about their history, we also talked a little bit about the role of museums today and how modern conventions such as gift shops and cafes change the museum-goers experience. Overall, it was a great experience, and the best part? Most of the major museums in London are free!

So, without further ado, here is my list of favorite museums in London:



1. The V&A
The Victoria and Albert Museum is the world's largest museum of decorative arts and design. In addition to painting and sculpture, it has rooms for furniture, tapestry, dress, iron works, glass, and metalworks from all over the world. It's a huge, stately complex built in the 1850s, and I could definitely have spent several days here.


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2. The Petrie Museum
This little gem turned out to be one of my favorite museums we visited, and it also happens to be the smallest. Tucked away on the second floor of an unassuming brick building on the University College  London campus, this museum houses the archeological collection of Flinders Petrie, a British archeologist who excavated thousands of Egyptian artifacts during the 1880s. I've seen quite a few of Egyptian exhibits, but none have captivated me much as this. I've always been able to appreciate Egyptian art to a certain extent, but it's hard to make the leap from admiring the objects of ancient civilizations to actually imagining them as belonging to living, breathing human beings. The museum is only a couple of rooms, but it is packed with rows of glass cases that are full of everyday objects Egyptians would have used, from pottery to glass beads (I had no idea the Egyptians worked with glass!). The whole experience felt a little more like walking through a yard sale than a museum, and the result is a museum experience that feels profoundly intimate and personal.















3. The National Gallery
Who can visit London without seeing The National Gallery? It's basically a staple. This is a place you could get lost in. Think giant, gilded frames, walls hung with silk, and maze after maze of galleries. My favorite thing about it is that a lot of the paintings are hung on traditional colored walls instead of the modern white ones, so it feels both historic and decadent.

4. The Wellcome Collection
This one totally came out of nowhere as one my favorite places in London. We visited this museum during our "medical museums" unit, which meant we'd just spend a week looking at specimens in jars and pondering 18th century surgery.*shudder* This museum, however, was different. It's basically a cross between a modern art museum and a medical museum. Different artists are commissioned to do work on a certain theme related to health or the human body. While we were there there was an amazing exhibit on consciousness that had a room that used audio and video to explore the sensation of sleep paralysis, and a group of drawings meant to showcase how autistic children see the world differently.

5. The V&A Museum of Childhood
Okay, so this is a branch of the the V&A but it's worth mentioning on its own. This is not to be confused with your typical children's museum. Instead, this museum looks at the experience of childhood throughout history, as well as showcasing toys from around the world. While we were there they had an exhibit about Britain's children migrants, who were sent to Canada and Australia under the pretense that they would have a better life, and often never saw their families again. Not for the faint of heart, but definitely worth learning about.

"The Sarcophagus of Set I in Sir John Soane's Museum", Illustrated London News, 1864

7. Sir John Soane's Museum
This is an interesting one. Sir John Soane was a neoclassical architect whose life work consisted of collecting and displaying classical sculpture and architectural elements. He asked that his house be preserved as a museum from the time of his death, so stepping inside is like stepping into the past. After you walk through the parlor and breakfast room you come to an amazing three story atrium covered in Greek and Roman busts, architectural fragments, and even an Egyptian sarcophagus.


8. The Natural History Museum
This museum feels most closely related to the museums we have in the US. There are modern aspects to it, like a high tech dinosaur exhibit targeted at kids, and some more traditional exhibits on animals and biology. The real reason you should go though is to stand for a moment in the huge atrium at its center, which feels like it could be right out of Hogwarts.

Pitt Rivers Museum


9. Bonus! Oxford University Museum of Natural History + The Pitt Rivers Museum
If you want to make a day trip to Oxford, don't leave without visiting the Natural History Museum. This is classic natural history at its best, complete with skeletons and taxidermy (I have a weird fascination with taxidermy, okay?), plus it's super informative. Be absolutely sure you don't miss the Pitt Rivers Museum, which is in the same building. The Pitt Rivers museum is an archeological/anthropological museum which groups objects by type rather than culture or geographic region. The result is an insane grouping of objects from all over the world, where you can make comparisons between how different cultures solved the same problems.


Playing cards through the ages (Pitt Rivers)
Keys through the ages (Pit Rivers)

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10. Extra Bonus! Kew Gardens
But this is a garden, not a museum, you say! Well, not exactly. Built in the mid 1800s, the two oldest greenhouses in Kew Gardens functioned as a kind of botanical museum, showcasing plants from all over the world (mainly colonies of the British empire). Even the tulips that were blooming in front of the greenhouses were imports from the Netherlands. There is also a fantastic exhibit of botanical paintings that made me want to break out the watercolors.



ps. I'm hoping to do another post like this all about London gardens, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Track Changes

I've met people who can look at their life and trace the trajectory of their personality. They chop up their life into categories and say things like, "Oh, that was my punk phase." While I recognize that we all go through phases, I've always found mine a little harder to pick out. For the most part I tend to like the same things, talk to the same people, and wear the same kinds of clothes. That's not to say I never change, just that it takes me longer to notice the divide between past me and present me. For the most part, I feel utterly, unequivocally, me. 

I look at what I wrote at the beginning of last semester, though, and I feel different. I had so many bright ideas. I wanted to blog more, write more. Now, everything I write here feels a little self indulgent. Who am I really writing to? What do I really have to say?

I don't know the answer to that. And for once, I'm not going to pretend that I do. What I've written here in the past doesn't seem untrue, just not true to my current self. For the first time in a long time, I feel the pull of my past selves -- the ones who were bright-eyed and who thought they could do everything on their own -- and I find myself tugging in the opposite direction.

I don't think I'll ever be the kind of person who sheds personalities like old skin. I'll always be the idealistic one who sets too many goals, who loves beautiful sentences, who wears stripes and tie-dye and sundresses. But there's also room for things to shift, and for them to settle in a slightly different place.

For now, I'm fine with picking them up where they fall.

Things I liked at the beginning of 2017:
-Fluffy blankets
-Huge books with epic stories
-Thinking about geological time
-Medieval illuminated manuscripts
-Cuddling with dogs
-Skype calls with the one I love
-My new tea maker
-The OA (Netflix show)
-Miyazaki films
-Russian literature
-Microsoft Word jokes (see the title of this post)

Until next time.