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March 13, 2019

Reading : Winners Take All

Within the first chapter of this book I had texted a dozen people asking if they're read it and asking them to read it if they hadn't.  While there's a lot to this book, it really comes down to bringing to the surface a few fundamental principles that make both logical and moral sense, and that have been buried deep in a society weighted by profit and technology.  What I appreciated most is that by examining what those in highest power are doing to harm others and what they could be doing to decrease harm, we're able to see our own respective power and consider what does it really take to be mindful of others?

Giridharadas focuses on the philanthropic efforts of the corporate elite.  He shows how the wealthiest entrepreneurs and venture capitalists rationalize their business practices to themselves and to the public at large.  The people at the top present their businesses as the best avenue to help people at the bottom.  They start charitable foundations and argue that their financial, intellectual and social resources offer the means to develop new technologies and networks to better the lives of the most vulnerable.

But by presenting themselves as agents of positive change for those in need, the people with most power:

1) offer solutions and ignore that they themselves have created the problems.  They try to help in response to problems instead of doing no harm in the first place. Philanthropic efforts divert attention from the fact that these corporations create the very inequities that they are purporting to eliminate.  Giridharadas argues that "generosity is not a substitute for injustice." If you create wealth at the expense of others' basic needs, you can't make up for that by giving to charity later.  You are the reason the need for charity exists.   

2) give back instead of taking less.  The elite, many of whom have good intentions to do good for people with less, aren't willing to do it in a way that requires true sacrifice on their part.  They do what it takes to acquire wealth for themselves, then give it to others.  This enables them to ignore real solutions that would weaken the power of the elite (higher taxation, labor movements, regulations to protect the working class).  People assume that they can make change by giving disadvantaged people opportunities, instead of trying to eliminate the baseline inequality that has caused such disadvantage, such a gap between the top and bottom.  This inequity has arisen from a profits-first culture, and changing it requires a redistribution of wealth that the elite will always reject.

3) Instead, they offer solutions that increase power for the already powerful and weaken the already disadvantaged.  People in power argue that by acquiring more and more wealth and opportunity for themselves, they are actually increasing wealth and opportunity for everyone.
The opposite has been shown to be trueAs those in power are enjoying longer and wealthier lives, wages for the middle class have plateaued, and life expectancy and health outcomes are declining disproportionately among the lowest classes.

4) Ultimately take agency away from those they want to help.  To say that the best way to help the least fortunate is in the hands of the most fortunate deprives people of the validity of their experience, and of the voice to change an already limited path.

In all these ways, the philanthropy of the elite is not just ineffective; it's also harmful because it allows the problems to continue and worsen.  As much as those at the top want to believe it, it's just not possible to have so much power and wealth concentrated in this narrow sliver of society and still have social equality in America.  As you add more to those who already have more, those who have less will suffer.

I love this book not just because it reveals the harm of extreme profit-driven business, but because it challenges every person to examine what we do on a daily basis, and how to be better.  It's easy to read it and think, that sucks that the top one percent is like that, but really what are we to do about it? But I think that Giridharadas is asking the same of us that he's asking of the elite: examine how much we take, and take less.  Examine how much we do harm, and harm less.  Do it to a degree of sacrifice and discomfort, not at the sake of your own basic needs, but for the sake of someone else's basic needs.

February 5, 2019

Healing in 2019

In 2017, my general philosophy was to do everything I loved as much as I could. I went all in, without too many defined goals other than to take advantage of time and space that I'd been missing up until then.  In 2018, after all this exploration, my word for the year was to be "navigation."  I wanted to clarify and sharpen, give myself more direction.  It sounded like a good transition from all the experiences in 2017--take what I saw, select what I needed.  Then 2018 turned into a string of one challenge after another, in which I had to adjust and arrange myself in ways I never had before.  There was less room for maneuvering toward one direction, and more investment in preventing a crumbling of what I'd built up until then.  I didn't so much navigate as much as I skittered up, down and around to get back to baseline.

I wrote about some of the many ways I felt broken this year in the most personal post I've published here.  (Thanks to everyone who reached out and responded so kindly).  I felt good at that time, and shortly afterwards, became overwhelmed by a stacking of minor merging difficulties. The holidays tend to be a hard time for our patients, many of whom don't have any family and many more who don't have the resources to fund the cheer we're told we should have and is particularly hard to find in winter. While my issues in no way compare to not having a support system during a season in which we celebrate relationships, the end of 2018 felt really rough.

I realized this was due to fissures in the relationships in every area of my life.  Within my family, the backbone of everything good I've been given.  Within my friendships, wherein lies the unique ability to grow in parallel.  Within romantic relationships, in which I've trusted to help me expand no matter how they end.  Within work, a community of co-workers and patients that calls me to my favorite quality of endurance. And within my relationship with myself, one that I used to rely on for a full acceptance no one else can really provide. 

Through this, I've depended a lot on endurance.  I choose so much of what I do based on the need for stamina and resilience, because I value that so much.  But this year, partly due to this mindset and partly due to the pace at which things happened (one after another), I forgot that endurance requires recovery.  Generally, I immediately want to keep going.  While there is a lot that benefited from this (I don't at all regret climbing in my cast), there is a lot that I would have liked to tended to more carefully, more slowly.  And maybe that's why everything at the end of the year hit me so hard, so fast.

So in 2019 I would like to focus on healing from everything in 2018.  Recently, I've realized in practice (instead of just in theory, which I've always known) that relationships take deliberate effort and if I want to heal them, it needs to be intentional.  I formed my resolutions, though they might seem unrelated, in ways to give me the room to do this.

Projects: I've divided these into what I'd like to do in quarters of the year, so that I don't feel like I need to tackle it all at once.
  • Second: Get a camera and take pictures.  My friends from college and med school know that I used to take a ton of pictures, and my last real camera is the SLR I used for years back then.  I I haven't touched that camera in a couple years, mainly because I now rarely travel other than for climbing and bringing a heavy camera is difficult and because climbing photography relies a lot on technique.  I'm not so much into technique as composition and I'd like to get a new camera to get back into that mode of framing.
  • Third: Write more, privately. Most of the writing I do now is here, and I'd like to get back to more personal writing. I think it'd increase my volume and reflection, and push me to flesh out a lot of what happened last year, and in all the years.
  • Fourth: Get a new bike  This is the hardest project, because I'm so bad at biking. But I like the idea of doing something you enjoy despite being bad at it, and of having an activity I can do for a long time in between giving my body a break from running.
Space: These have to do with making more room for myself, more empty space so that things can arise on their own and so I can actively consider them.
  • Consume less and waste less.  I'm like to try to plan ahead enough such that I don't have to buy anything from Amazon, and I want to continue not buying any clothes except anything needed for exercise or to replace something I use often.  This includes shoes, which if you know me, know this will be the hardest part for me (luckily 3 of my 4 ankle boots are worn out so I'm letting myself replace a pair).  I'm going to buy all my books from an actual bookstore (easy since I'm currently in love with Pegasus), and would like to use up all my groceries (difficult because I'm not so creative or disciplined when it comes to cooking).  I've generally been good about using up the big things, but I want to be more attentive to the smaller items, so that I'm not throwing away lemon wedges and slivers of ginger and half cans of tomato paste.
  • No phone at work, and no phone for an hour before bed. Most people who know me know that I don't have wireless internet at home, and while that helps keep me disconnected in some ways, it does mean I use my phone a lot.  While I love that my phone allows me to connect to my friends and family wherever we are, I also see that my desire to constantly stay connected and responsive in all directions can damage the individual relationships.
  • Spend one weeknight to myself without plans.  I'm lucky to have people I love to see and activities I love to do, but filling up my entire week can mean I have less presence for those people and activities. 
  • See and talk to my family more.  My family has always been the most enduring, stable part of my life, and this year I've had to face its multi-dimensional fragility.  Through that, I've learned that it is up to me to strengthen my relationships, that I can't rely on an assumption that they will just be there.  So aside from physically building this structure, I'd like to see my parents twice a month and talk to one of my brothers on the phone once a week.
  • Practice nonviolent communication.  I read this book, and I want to use it to strengthen the communication and empathy in all the relationships in my life.
  • Be giving even when disappointed or hurt. This is probably the hardest of all the goals for me. I've talked before about how it's easy to make giving a goal, when I feel like so much has been given to me in terms of circumstances and community.  In the rare times when I feel like something has been taken or my expectations haven't been met, it's harder to be kind.  But maybe more important.
My Body: 
  • Run. This is pretty easy because I love running and hated not running last year.  It may have seemed that not climbing was the hardest part of injury last year, but I also really missed and craved running, because running for me is very unconditional and independent of people and circumstances.  I don't ask myself for much from it, other than to do it.  So regardless of how slowly or how far I go, it's almost always easy and welcoming.
  • Climb hard and take risks without seriously injuring myself.  This mantra can kind of apply to everything in my life.  I have to admit that all the breaks (physical and otherwise) this year have made me scared in a way I haven't been before--more scared of taking falls while climbing, more scared of trusting myself and other people in interpersonal dynamics. I want to continue getting over that fear, while not hurting myself too much in the process (knowing that some level of pain is an integral part of this process).
Thanks to 2018 for paving these goals.

January 14, 2019

Reading : 50 Books of 2018

In 2017 my general approach to life was to do all the things-- to go full force at everything I loved to do.  Which is probably how I ended up reading 75 books. In 2018 my general approach was to pare down and spend time with what I love most within my loves.  I took more time to decide what I'd read, and I'd generally stop if it wasn't a book I craved in some way.  I wouldn't necessarily say that one approach was better than the other, just that both were tried.  This list is the result of my deliberate choices this year.

Favorite Five

**The Nix - Nathan Hill
I obviously can't talk about this enough because I wrote about it here and here.  I think it means something that it was part of the foundation for my most-read post this year.  It's very reminiscent of Franzen's The Corrections, but funnierEspecially on audio, and I think this is one of those books that's a hundred times better on audio--the narrator captures the voice of completely different characters in such a skilled, nuanced way.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World - Anand Giridharadas
It's been awhile since I read a book that challenged my perspective and behavior this much.  Giridharadas argues that people with power attempt to better the world without examining how their wealth has contributed to domestic and global inequality, and challenges everyone with any level of privilege to consider how to do less harm.  Longer post about this to come.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness - Michelle Alexander
I've held out on reading this for a long time because I felt it would be too hard.  But of all the difficult books, this feels too important not to read. Alexander argues (and proves) that even though we've eliminated formal discriminatory processes, we've have maintained the oppression of African-Americans in a more subtle but equally dangerous system.  Possibly more dangerous in how invisible it is to us--that this issue is often inaccurately framed in terms of drugs and crime instead of race, that these people are placed out of sight.  It's mind-blowing how we have institutionalized racism not just through the one act of incarceration, but through all the steps before and after: the targeting of specific drugs over others, the choice to punish some students over others, the inability to integrate into housing and employment.

The Argonauts - Maggie Nelson 
It's hard to describe this creative and form-defying book, which is part of the reason it breathes like a person--there's a solid, familiar structure and after that all bets are off.  The easiest description is it is beautiful.  As a disclaimer, I think it is most beautiful if you remove expectations of a narrative, and see it as a story that unfolds in proportion to your openness.  Loosely it's about Maggie Nelson's relationship with her partner, her child, and herself; and all the forms of love that takes.  She's able to infuse her descriptions with the exhausting labor of loving, at the same time that she floats with all that gives.  Her mastery of language and feelings is what I see the best gift of writing: the connection that happens when someone captures your experience in a way you've never seen yet is exactly what you mean.  One of many examples: "I like physical experiences that involve surrender. I didn't know, however, very much about experiences that demand surrender--that run over you like a truck, with no safe word to stop it. I was ready to scream, but labor turned out to be the quietest experience of my life."

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity - Katherine Boo
This book about families living in slums outside of the Mumbai airport accomplishes something that's rarely done and even more rarely done well, which is to write non-fiction in the style of fiction. The main reason I prefer fiction over non-fiction is the expressivity and depth of feeling and character that comes with fiction writing, that's missing in even well-written non-fiction where the goal is to tell a straightforward story.


On Love in Different Spaces
These are partnerships told deliberately in the context of finding another person in confusing, wondrous settings: in the whirlwind of a complicated city, in the vortex of adolescence.  And how much more difficult, and filling, it is when the love itself is seen by others as "different."  These stories take back ownership of that love, and I'm in awe of what they possess.  I wanted to include both of these in my top five, then decided to give them their own category because they are that good.

**Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe - Benjamin Alire Saenz (5)
I loved listening to this book in a voice I know nothing about: a fifteen year old boy. Aristotle and Dante become friends when they bond over their unusually literary names, and the combined isolation and depth that these titles give them.  Through this single path between two boys, the book traverses so much about identity and all the factors that play into belonging: family, ethnicity, sexuality, adolescence.  Aristotle struggles to find voice in a family that doesn't communicate: his father is a veteran who won't talk about his experience in Vietnam; his older brother is in prison and no one talks about this heavy invisibility.  The backdrop of being Mexican-American in Texas gives a general framework for feeling foreign in your home, but it's Aristotle and Dante as full-fleshed individuals who make me empathize most with what it's like to be apart: apart from a group, torn apart as a lone person.  I also loved their discovery of books and art in young adulthood (reading Grapes of Wrath, seeing Edward Hopper's paintings), reminded of how much by own way of learning about and relating to the world as a teenager was rooted in this culture.

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me - Bill Hayes (5)
Bill Hayes writes about living in New York with his partner, the neurologist-writer Oliver Sacks, in a combination of conventional narrative, journal entries, and photographs.  The variety in form lends itself well to the variety of subject, which is as the title promises--the many dimensions of New York City, Oliver Sacks, the writer, and the dynamics between all of them.  It is tender and honest, in the way it unfolds organically in real life and how it's re-structured in memory.  I can relate to the desire to document in words and images as things are happening, and the desire to go back and piece them into a narrative.


Nonfiction I Frequently Reference in Conversation: 

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life  - Marshall Rosenberg (4)
This book was recommended to me several times, and when the time it came off hold at the library many months later, I was in the throes of complex interpersonal interactions with pretty much everyone in my life (family, friends, co-workers).  So pretty much anyone who had a conversation with me during this time heard me talk about this, and I really recommend it to everyone.  When I told one friend about it, he responded: "You always communicate nonviolently; maybe you should try the other way."  Which was funny, but also speaks to how we might think of "nonviolent" as nice or conflict-avoidant.  But it's actually about being very specific and mindful, and honest about conflict.  It has really changed how I approach conversations, how I articulate my feelings and receive those of others.

So You Want to Talk About Race - Ijeoma Oluo (4)
This book so intelligently and clearly examines the conversations about race that we have all had, and how to dissect the reasons underlying common perceptions, how we can respond in productive ways without compromising our values, and how we can all be better. It convincingly explains when and why race is relevant, why it's important to separate race from other disadvantage, why everyone needs to examine how our privilege may harm others. It's uncomfortable to think of ourselves as hurting others, especially when we have good intentions. This book pushed me to confront this discomfort, to consider how to truly follow through with intention.

Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change -  Pema Chodron (4)
I talked about this book on the Buddhist practice of the Three Commitments all the time. The Three Commitments are really simple, true, and difficult to practice: do no harm, help others, and accept things as they are. This idea of do no harm was a recurring pattern in my favorite books this year, and has now become one of my conscious resolutions.


Less Plot, More Language
If we've ever talked about our preferences in anything creative, you'd know pretty soon that my preference is for mood over action, language over plot.  So keep that in mind with why I rated these so highly, and if you are curious as to how a book about not much can be so much, these were very good.

A General Theory of Oblivion - Jose Eduardo Agualusa (5)
Loosely constructed from the diaries and drawings of a woman who locks herself in her apartment in the time preceding Angola's independence from Portugal, this book contains so much and is so creative. Ludo observes the outside world without connecting to it, and the book unravels the stories of what she sees and can't see. The writing is so beautiful, I read lines over and over and want to read the entire thing again.

Winter: Ali Smith (5)
Autumn was in my top five last year, and its sequel didn't disappoint. If you're skeptical about using the trope of seasons for a series, I can tell you that this worked better than it did for Gilmore Girls.  Like Autumn, Winter is atmospheric and focused on the imagery of people's sensations and thoughts. Smith makes winter so much more complex than cold and snow. There's the honesty, beauty and complication of harsh conditions that may or may not give way. I also love that this book is political and poetic at once.  How in the same quick brush of a sentence Smith can be hard ("Human beings have to be more ingenious than this, and more generous") and languorous ("That's what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again").

Pond: Claire-Louise Bennett (4)
My co-worker described this as "Seinfeld in book form," referring to the fact that Pond isn't really about anything. Yet, I think anyone can relate to how much attention Bennett pays to the open spaces in between concrete events: "Everybody knows deep down that life is as much about the things that do not happen as the things that do." A collection of musings by a woman living alone--the narrator contemplates everything from breakfast to death--it's about how much of life is internal. 


Books Read After Seeing the Movie

The Push: A Climber's Journey of Endurance, Risk & Going Beyond Limits - Tommy Caldwell (5)
I didn't give this a 5 just because it was about climbing. For whatever reason, I'm not generally drawn to books about climbing but I started this after seeing the movie based on it (Dawn Wall). I was really impressed by the nuances of Tommy Caldwell's character, and his relationships.  The book goes into more detail about the complex dynamic between Caldwell and his climbing partner, which I loved for its honesty and openness about how we often turn to rock because relating to another person is so freaking complicated.

Notorious RBG - Irin Carmon (4)
Thank you to my friend Irene for asking me to see this, and who is the only reason I watch any non-climbing movies. I was a little disappointed because I thought the book would go into more detail about RBG's historical cases, but it was still worth reminding myself of the slow labor of equality.


Rom-Coms with Asian Leads

The Kiss Quotient - Helen Hoang (3)
Stella is awkward and unaware in the ways of dating, in part due to her Asperger's.  So she hires an escort to teach her, and that proceeds in the way you imagine a standard rom com would.  But I liked the diverse, fully fleshed-out characters; that it explicitly addresses the stigmas of mental health and socioeconomic status; and that it featured a half-Vietnamese male protagonist and snippets here and there of Vietnamese language and culture.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before - Jenny Han (3)
Okay, I gave this book a 3 but I loved the movie because Lara Jean in the movie is so much more vivid, with more surface quirks and underlying depth.  Yes, I have a lot of thoughts about the problematic lack of Asian representation in the male characters and the larger issue of the Asian woman-white male dynamic.  But for me this is not a love story about Lara Jean and Peter K, just me in love with Lara Jean.

I Believe in A Thing Called Love - Maurene Goo (2)
A teenager decides to win over her crush by studying Korean dramas and enacting the same situations in real life.  (...I don't know, I was in a mindless mood and was intrigued by another Asian lead character).

And I tried reading Crazy Rich Asians and got through about half of it before I decided I just don't care what everyone is wearing from head to toe in every scene.


In Which Race is Everything

Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship: Michelle Kuo (5)
Kuo is a Teach for America teacher in rural Arkansas for two years before going to law school. Then she learns that one of her former students has been jailed for murder, and she quits her job to become his one-on-one teacher. As a believer in the powers of both narrative and generosity, this story really appealed to me. But Kuo isn't naive in thinking that even the combination of these is enough to lessen inequality.  Still, the question she presents is so important: is the endeavor to impact one person as valuable as the one to change a system?

**Long Way Down - Jason Reynolds (4)
The entirety of this book takes place in the 60 seconds it takes a 15 year old boy to decide whether he should kill the man who killed his brother.  Highly recommend listening to this on audio, because it reads more like verse than prose.  It's very short, showing how much goes into defining moments.

Kindred - Octavia Butler (4)
An African-American woman living in California is transported through time to the South during the slavery era. The idea of modern day culture facing this past brings so much new perspective on the complexity of personal relationships against cultural norms.

**Flying Lessons & Other Stories - Ellen Oh (4)
I loved the idea of this, a collection of stories for young adults focused on diverse perspectives. Stories about what it means to be a person with a difference--color, orientation disability, language, income--from the majority. I didn't love every narrative but I really loved these stories were all told naturally, without direct attention to difference. These aren't stories about a black person or a gay person or child of an immigrant; they are just people with these qualities telling their experiences. Which mirrors the rare, tight sliver of time when kids absorb information with judgment.

**Sing, Unburied, Sing - Jesmyn Ward (3)
When his father is released from prison, 13 year old Jo travels through Mississippi with his mother to see him. Along the way and within the state penitentiary, Jo faces the turbulent history of the South and how it affects his path now.

I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives - Caitlin Alifirenka (2)
Given the assignment to write to a student in another country, Caitlin chooses to write to Martin in Zimbabwe, and they continue writing to each other for six years. My dense self didn't realize this book was true until the very end, and the fact that it's true is definitely what makes the story. It obviously simplifies what it takes to overcome poverty in a place like Zimbabwe but is a nice reminder of how far simple connection and feeling for someone can go.


On Being A Woman 

Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening - Manal Al-Sharif (4)
While I'm indignant about the barriers we face as women here, I'm grateful every day that I have supportive communities enabling me to do what I love. This book about Al-Sharif's battle for women to gain the right to drive in Saudi Arabia reminds me of how much struggle has fueled what we have, and how much we are all on different points of the same frustratingly difficult road. I'm in awe of how much burden Al-Sharif bore on behalf of others. Ostracized and jailed, she put her life at risk over and over to fight for something I take for granted daily.

Men Explain Things to Me Rebecca Solnit (3)
Working at a clinic formed entirely of women except for the male management, and in love with a sport in which men constantly make assumptions about the ability of women, the title of this spoke to me. I imagine it speaks to most women and I appreciate what it expresses: the unthinking ways men exert power over women, and the psychological and physical violence this perpetuates.  The writing and thought processes aren't as good as my favorites in this category last year (Adichie's We Should All Be Feminists, especially on audio). 

The Mother of All Questions Rebecca Solnit (3)
In this collection Solnit goes into more detail about the sexual assault that results from the issues she explores in Men Explain Things To Me. Again I appreciated the attention to this topic but other books about this have been more powerful for me (Jon Krakeur's Missoula, which I recommend to everyone all the time).

Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley Emily Chang (3)
This book about the sexist culture women face in tech actually has a lot of parallels to Daring to Drive, where Al-Sharif describes the difficulty of working as a computer engineer in a male-dominated company. It's interesting to see how the same gender dynamics plays out in two entirely different cultures. But while Al-Sharif's story possessed power in its personal narrative, I think Brotopia's use of anecdotes over factual journalism was counter-productive. It made me annoyed with the situation without gaining much more understanding of it.  Still, I appreciate the intention, to publicize this really important topic.

Books on the State of the World That Are Hard, and More Important, to Read

What Happened - Hillary Rodham Clinton (4)
The main things I gleaned from what contributed to the election:
1) Russian interference, the extent and scariness of which is scarily underestimated
2) The role of the media and their depictions of both candiates, also highlighting that we just aren't ready for a female leader because we have no image of what that is supposed to look like
3) James Comey and his re-investigation of Clinton's emails days before the election (statisticians show that Clinton had the votes prior to this event)
4) The displacement of identity of rural whites, not necessarily because of economic inequity but because of a failure of expectation --the threat of the image of the white working class by "otherness"--Muslims, blacks, and the undocumented.
5) Voter suppression

Dreamland: The True State of America's Opiate Epidemic - Sam Quinones (4)
This book tells in parallel the rise of addiction to black tar heroin and prescription opiates. I think the most important part of the narrative is what it tells us about our vulnerabilities and how people take advantage of them, how our individual nature and broader societal systems contribute to the harm of so many people. Sometimes the need to reiterate certain messages took away from fleshing out individual stories. But the overarching motif is so important: the similarities between heroin and prescription pills--in physical substance, in the people who use them, in the people who make them each a corporation and business motivated by profit and willful blindness to the wreckage they create.

**Escape from Camp 14: One Men's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West - Blaine Harden (4)
I became really interested in books about North Korea after reading Nothing to Envy, one of my favorites from last year and a book I still reference all the time. This story about a man's escape from a North Korean prison camp was recommended to me by someone who had lived in South Korea. It's very hard to see how this system reduces a person while immersed in it (having no qualms about competing with your mother for food), and after leaving it (feeling guilt over the past and wondering what it means about you now). What blew my mind in Nothing to Envy blows my mind here: that what we're reading is happening now in our world.


Haruki Murakami

Underground: The Toyko Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (5) (full review)
This is nonfiction and very different than his other books, but with the same underlying goal to understand and connect people.  He interviews sixty-two people connected to the 1995 Tokyo gas attack in which members of a religious cult released sarin on three subway trains, killing thirteen people and injuring over six thousand.  The interviews focus on memories of the attack and what happened on that day, and how it has affected the person since that time. It's such a moving way of giving voice to these people, and to how trauma perpetually infiltrates life in time and space. 

Killing Commadatore (4)
When I'm reading my most loved Murakami, I have this unmatched sense of this-is-the-best-thing-I-could-be-doing. I enjoyed his last two novels (Colorless Tsukuru and 1Q84) but didn't experience this feeling.  Yet every time I read something new by him, I expect to feel it.  Within a few pages of Killing Commadatore, it arrived: immediate contentment and nostalgia.  I blew through the 700 pages in a week and was sad when it was over.  

Men Without Women (4)
I somehow missed this collection of short stories when it came out last year. I'm not generally into short stories, except for Hemingway and Murakami. And funnily enough, this book is named after one of Hemingway's short story collections. Maybe because Murakami doesn't seem comfortable writing the voice of a woman, he pays homage here to what happens to men when they are missing that voice. They're good but not super memorable (would recommend Blind Willow Sleeping Woman for a better short story collection).

Also, I saw Burning with another Murakami fan. It's an adaptation of his short story Barn Burning, and it was very good and very dark. It doesn't exactly capture the essence of Murakami, but it does incorporate motifs and themes from his work as a whole.


Books I Read Because I Liked the Title

Asymmetry - Lisa Halliday (4)
This was definitely an acquired taste for me. It includes two separate stories, one about the relationship between a young editor and much older writer, and another about a man who is detained in London on the way to visiting his brother in Kurdistan. It's the kind of book where you wonder why certain details are being included and what the overall point is. At first it's annoying that you aren't just being told, and then you get invested and keep trying to go back to figure it out.

The Wide Circumference of Love - Marita Golden (2)
I loved this title, but not so much this book about a woman caring for her husband as he suffers from Alzheimer's.  It relies heavily on the story, which is definitely one to empathize with, but I didn't really get any new perspective or feeling from it.


Takes Place in Space

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth - Chris Hadfield (4)
This book was just really fun to read. It balances the wonder of being in space and having experiences none of us can imagine, with the routine of how so much of what happens out there applies to how we can approach our lives on Earth.  I would've liked to hear more about the difficulty of being in space, but it was also super enjoyable reading about how much Hadfield loves space.

** The Wanderers - Meg Howrey (3)
Coincidentally, I came across this right after reading An Astronaut's Guide and it explores what I missed from that book: the darker side of space.  Following the (fictive) narratives of three astronauts preparing for a mission on Mars by simulating the mission, it considers how this affects each person's relationships and psyche.


Writers Drawing Their Parents

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant - Roz Chast (4)
Chast wrote this graphic novel about what it was like to watch her parents grow old.  It's both sad and hilarious, and I love how the humor isn't detracting. Instead, it gives depth to the complex relationship of seeing your parents lose independence and gain idiosyncrasy, and trying to grow with and against them.

Maus - Art Spiegelman (3)
I'd heard so much good about this Holocaust graphic novel, written by about Spiegelman's parents.  Maybe it was that hype, but while I related to the difficulty of learning your parents' history, I wasn't as moved by the story as expected.


Self-Proclaimed About Life

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End - Atul Gawande (4)
Gawande speaks to what we learned quickly in medical training: we spend too much on the wrong efforts at the end of life. My favorite part was about how placing animals in a nursing home improved health and quality of life more than any medical intervention.

Everything Happens for a Reason : And Other Lies I've Loved - Kate Bowler (3)
A young woman and new mother is diagnosed with late stage cancer, and writes about what it's really like to live this tragedy.  I appreciated the grappling with the question of why, and the acceptance of the inexplicable.

** One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter - Scaachi Koul (3)
I'll probably read any funny book by a woman of color in the hopes she can articulate our experiences with the humor I don't have.  I didn't think this one was that funny, but loved the experiences.


Books I Read Because I Loved The Previous One

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng (5)
(Because I loved Everything I Never Told You).  Ng is so good at letting a backstory unravel, reminding us how we don't know about our families, neighbors, fellow human beings. The characters seem like typical tropes: the suburban family aside the bohemian artist mom and her daughter.  But each has such intricacy, alone and connected to one another.

The Monk of Mokha - Dave Eggers (3)
(Because I loved What is the What).  I saw a Nourse Theater lecture with Dave Eggers and the protagonist of this book, Mokhtar.  Mokhtar is a Yemeni-American who travels to Yemen to cultivate coffee and becomes trapped in the midst of their civil war.  The story itself is a pretty amazing one, but lacks the complexity of character and unique voice that I loved so much in What is the What.  I also just learned that Mokhtar's coffee company is being sued for racketeering, which is disappointing as the book presents him in an especially positive light.

Feel Free -  Zadie Smith (2)
I've had a crush on Zadie Smith since I saw her read in college, but I've never loved her books as much as other people (I've read White Teeth and On Beauty; if you recommend others let me know!). I liked these essays (especially the ones on family and libraries) because I like her, but otherwise couldn't get into them (that might also be because a lot of them are about movies and music and I'm bad at pop culture).


Books I Wanted to Get But Didn't

Less** -
Andrew Sean Greer (2)

This book, about a novelist turning fifty and facing the so-called failures of his personal and work life, won the Pulitzer.  So even though I didn't like it, I want you to read it and tell me what I'm missing.

**Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders (2)
I listened to this on audio because there are 166 narrators, which sounded amazing but ended up being pretty confusing for me. A couple friends who read the book loved it, and one sent me a beautiful passage from it that I didn't remember at all from the audiobook. So maybe I should read it and re-evaluate...

**The Red Car - Marcy Dermansky (2)
A woman inherits a red car and goes on one of those classic self-discovery road trips, except I never felt like I learned anything about her.

The Immortalists - Chloe Benjamin (2)
Four siblings learn the date on which each of them will die, and we learn how each of their lives unravel toward those dates.  I felt the book relied too heavily on the plot, which is an interesting one, and catered too much to predictable emotional responses.

In 2019, I'd like to listen to more audiobooks. I've also been reasonably called out for reading mostly books that are heavy and sad.  I could have an hours long conversation about why sad fiction makes me happy, but that being said, I wouldn't mind some more humor and fluff in my reading this year.  Recommendations for that and everything else please.

January 6, 2019

2018 : A Year in Climbing Up & Down

Climbing this year through two injuries, I'm less grateful for what I climbed and more thankful for who I climbed with.  Here's to the best partners, for catching my falls and pushing me to get up, come down, stay somewhere in between.     


January: Echo Cliffs California

Even though they'd never met, I had no reservations about taking these two ladies on a road trip to LA for a long weekend of climbing. They are both so accepting, warm and open to people and experiences.  We made so many good silly memories of funny conversations, delicious camp dinners, sunset filled hikes back from the crag, and this cold morning run on the beach which necessitated a onesie.  Hannah, I'm so grateful for our 6 AM talks, in the gym and sometimes on the phone from bed when we were too tired, sad, or full of some other emotion.  Lea, I treasure how naturally you give love and laughter...and the fact that you gave me immediate permission to post this picture.

February: El Potrero Chico Mexico

Caleb took me on my first multi-pitch trad climbs in Yosemite, so it was fitting to do my first multi-pitch sport climbs with him in Mexico.  When we first climbed together, I don't think you knew how new I was and though it became immediately clear I didn't know what I was doing, you were endlessly patient.  I so appreciate how you have stuck with me, always believing I have the capacity to do more.  Thank you for going 12 pitches with me, in so many ways.  I can't wait to see your daughter crush.

March: Bishop California

Over the three years we have gone to Bishop, my relationship to the place and to the climbing has changed and it only grows in deeper, more loving ways.  Like the best trips, I cherish the non-climbing moments as much as the climbing. This had so many: freezing feet in mud, Bishop locals, surreal winter landscapes.  It deserves a space of its own.  And so do these ladies, with whom I share not just climbing but endless group texts, emails and IRL conversations about everything.  We came together during a time of transition, and have continued facing change after change together.  I love that it makes me happy to spend time with them as a group, and with each one individually.

April: Yosemite

This is the trip in which I started feeling more comfortable climbing trad, and the trip in which I broke my ankle.  I love this picture, which was taken after the accident, because I remember feeling happy and grateful.  Even though I didn't know then how bad the injury was or how long it would take to recover, I felt lucky to have pushed myself and to have had people who supported me so much. Thanks Mike for giving us so many opportunities to learn and push, and your generosity in teaching your knowledge and sharing your love of trad.  I'm proud of leading that first sustained lieback pitch of Nutcracker, and breathing through Bishop's Terrace.

May: Climbing in a Cast

This month I stuck to climbing indoors, and I'm really lucky that what could have been a pretty down month for me turned out to unexpectedly good because everyone was so supportive.  This was the birthday party I had at Ironworks with my co-workers, who humored my request to climb with all of them.  Thank you to Rachel for constantly belaying me on laps, bedazzling my cast, for listening to me all day long all week long, for making me post-climb tacos because I was too tired to feed myself (I miss you so much).  To Melanie and Zen for getting me gelato and a pull-up bar, for always checking in, and for the BEST hugs.  To Sarah for asking me to take time off (I didn't but it reminded me I could always ask you for help) and for caring for me as much as you care for our patients.  To Cris for showing your girls so many forms of strength, and this group for making work such a strong community.

Spearheaded by Diana (see November), my friends surprised me for my birthday.  During a time when all is out of sorts, the way people continually showed up in my life is what put me back together.  Thank you to Kristina for your loyalty and over 20 years of friendship; to Lindsay and Marlene for running alongside me, so nourishing and strong. To Laurie for answering my Craigslist ad for climbing partners when I first moved to SF, and to Laura for being a role model of persistence through injury.  To Prathap and all my med school friends including my wife who made me a separate birthday dinner with three different cuisines and four mini-cakes, I feel so lucky to have learned how to take care from you.  And to Christine, who helped organize this surprise--you have been there through everything bad and good, and have made it all more full of love and ease.  I'm always surprised by the extent of your generosity, and never surprised that you give it.  I've never ever doubted how much you have my back, and every day I try to be as present for people as you are.  Thank you to this group for understanding what I was missing, and for filling me up so completely.

June (and all summer long): Emeralds Tahoe CA

In June, we went to the Emeralds for my first time back outside after my foot was free from cast and boot.  It was hard to viscerally experience how much strength I'd lost, but throughout the summer I kept coming back.  This photo is from the last summer trek there.  It's my favorite picture, and one of my favorite memories, of 2018. I had just dealt with a health issue, and was feeling generally unsure of how I'd be feeling physically.  With these ladies, I climbed the hardest I ever have. It was special to have them, each one so integral to my climbing life and personal life, on the ground as I fell often but eventually got to the top with the goal to come back.  To reiterate what I expressed at that time: Thank you Kate for a wonderland brain that pushes me to take intentional falls, and adopt a mindset of just leading every climb I want to climb, because why not?  This also applies to how you push us to bravely approach life off rock.  Thank you Jorine for showing me how to focus on the next hold and not the next bolt, how climbing harder routes outside are within reach and not because of height, and how to appreciate the beauty of a line.  Thank you for inviting vulnerability in each of us, and for reaching out to me during some of my most privately difficult times.

July: Colorado

My brother Duy got married in Idaho Springs. Even though it was planned very quickly in order to accommodate my mom's surgery soon after, every detail was perfect.  (Also, there were four cakes so I was pretty happy).  I learned that even though I have always known them, there is more to my family--individually and every diagonal relation to one another--to learn, explore, accept and love.  And that while there is a lot uncertain about the future, in the past there are memories like Duy holding my hand while crossing the street up until I was in college.  After the wedding, we climbed in three different places over three days: Clear Creek Canyon, Boulder Canyon, and Devil's Head. While this is something no one in my family would ever do with me, I love them for giving me everything that makes it possible to climb.

August: Dolomites Italy

Besides being the most breathtakingly beautiful place of the year, Italy was special for the time spent with the strongest climber I know who also happens to be the most humble.  Thanks to Taylor for being the first person to tell me why not climb with a cast, for always asking me whether I wanted to lead what you just climbed even if the route was grades beyond my ability, and for teaching me so much about technique and passion--not by telling me, but just by doing what you do.  And thanks to Andy for your stoke and ability to capture all the angles of climbing, and Aimee for sharing our parallel challenges this year--you'd think that the high point of our connection would be the Dolomites, but it's only gotten better.

September: Mt St Helena

A reunion of most of the ladies who climbed here together last spring. The area looked, and the rock felt, completely different after the Napa fires.  We've been through a lot of renewal together, and I love that about returning to the same places over time.  Irene, I'm inspired by the grace with which you move through change.  Also, thanks for my annual banana cream pie, and for all the ice cream and movie dates, and for finishing my beer (pretty much, for being the best boyfriend ever).

October: Red River Gorge Kentucky

This is Allison getting at her steep project.  She introduced me to climbing in medical school, and besides seeing me through that progression, she's seen me through pretty much every dramatic relationship and personal challenge since that time. Our week in your cabin--living a simply warm life of sleeping, eating, talking and climbing--encapsulates so much of what you give me all the time. 

November: Joshua Tree 


Diana and Drew got married in Joshua Tree. Their officiant talked about how a climbing partnership mirrored a marriage: taking turns, trusting, supporting.  I can say the same for my friendship with Diana.  We climbed in Nevada, Colorado and all over California together.  You are the only person I know who could spend a week climbing in JTree and then look this good getting married.  I love your multi-dimensional beauty, and I would've looked so much worse this year without you.  You do so much for me (and for everyone), it's hard to imagine you have three jobs on top of being my friend.  Thank you for not just showing up, but showing up immediately.  Also, thank you for being as committed to the belay as to the climb, for your incredible balance of support (belaying me with so much patience) and rage (telling all the guys spraying beta to shut up).

December: Red Rock Canyon Nevada

I ended the year in one of my favorite places with one of my favorite people.  I did my first leading outside with Toral here three years ago. Since then you've helped me grow in so many ways, by being somehow honest and kind at the same time. But what I've appreciated most is seeing you grow, how much can come from your constant love of what you value.  Things will always be up and down, in climbing and in all the rest, but you and this joy are still there.  Thanks for helping me re-find that amidst the darker, deeper stuff.


So 2018 was actually pretty great. Hoping for a smoother 2019, but if it's rocky, we have a lot to fall upon.

December 10, 2018

People : Objects

On my first day of medical residency, while other trainees across the country started long and nerve-wracking days in the hospital, the eight people in our primary care program sat down with our two program directors and shared our life stories.  I remember feeling so lucky that this was the philosophy underlying my medical education: that everything springs from our background, that what we value shapes our paths, that our foremost priority in becoming a caretaker is learning each person's narrative.  Similarly, last week I attended a retreat for health providers in safety net clinics in the East Bay, and we started the day by sharing an object that said something about us.  I offhandedly thought it would be interesting but had no idea how moving it would be, how much it will always stay with me.  It was an unexpected gift to share and learn such vulnerability, and to remember that this work and this community is founded on people who value this kind of raw storytelling.

There were themes in what people brought, and I loved these patterns alongside the individual stories.

The Legacy of Women
Three women shared objects that represented their grandmothers:
  • A knit baby cap made by her grandmother who knits them for babies born in the hospital where she volunteers, even after a stroke impaired her fine motor skills
  • A beaded flower, each petal made from a hundred beads.  The woman who made them lived to be 104 years old.
  • Weight bands, in memory of her grandmother who lifted weights daily up until the week she died.  This woman also lived to 104 (!).
The Perspective Lent by Nature
  • A teeny tiny sand dollar
  • A jar of pebbles, one of many that line a kitchen shelf as a reminder to stay present.
  • A photo of herself climbing in the French Alps, a place that has receded in sad ways over the years she has visited. 
  • A menorah his son made from wood collected in the wilderness.
Trying Over & Over
  • A magnolia tree that would not grow until being planted in a number of different environments
  • A spoon, used by her toddler son who is learning what can spoon (soup) and what can't (cardboard)
  • A Swiss army tool kit, with numerous ways to try and fix things
  • The only childhood photo she had of herself in Vietnam, before fleeing to refugee camps: a vision of what was and what could have been instead
  • A childhood photo of himself with a stethoscope, a 4th generation Chinese immigrant whose family was persecuted and driven to Mexico, bestowing upon him a Hispanic name
  • A book she can't read because it's written in German and connects her to her family's past as Holocaust survivors
  • A bike
  • Dance shoes
  • Running shoes (the women who brought shoes were sitting right next to each other)
  • A pen given to him after graduating medical school from the doctor who had cared for him since childhood in Nigeria
  • A crystal given to her from a mentor whose friendship perservered through a drastic change in career
  • A pawn from a chess set. She was taught by her grandfather, who once beat her in a chess game by playing against her with only pawns, that this is the most important piece.
  • A knit square, as part of the Welcome Blanket, a re-imagining of the wall, where 2000 miles (the length of the proposed wall) of yarn are knit into welcome blankets for refugees
  • A manuscript of poetry
  • An iPod, in which he plays a song for every occasion 
  • A wedding ring, the base of which forms the symbol of the trinity, and a wife who supports his commitment to care for the underserved 
  • A photograph of her growing family, and the need to protect our natural community 
  • A photograph of her clinic at the holiday party, and the community we create

My favorite, in its own category:
A painting of Nelson Mandela. He keeps a picture of Mandela in his office, as many reminders--of social justice, stamina and perspective (on a day he thinks is bad, he can feel Mandela looking at him: "Really? This is bad?"). But the painting he shared isn't the one he has in his office; it's a painting of that photo. A patient noted the photo in his office, saw its importance to him, and gifted it in a new form to him.

As for my object, I was dog-sitting in another person's home at the time so didn't have access to my personal items. As a last minute thought, I shared the book I was reading at the time, because I always have a book on hand. I explained that I had studied English in college, with the intention to make my living from stories, and how this eventually (unexpectedly) took me to medicine. As much as I love language, I can't imagine loving anything more than the narratives we get to hear, live and impact in small ways every day.  One of the best parts is working with and learning from a community of people whose values are so generous.  I can still remember in vivid detail each person's object, and by extension their story. During a time when I'm feeling like I can't hold much more, it's expansive to experience that stretching of emotional space.

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