I’m writing from my kitchen table in my hometown Arcadia; tomorrow I turn twenty-four. My mom bought me plane tickets back home for just a few days, and it’s a nice opportunity to take a breather and observe how quickly the last three months have past, and how fortunate I’ve been to have acclimated so well to the next chapter of my life. Since I moved to San Francisco half a year ago and started my juggling act of part-time projects, there have been so many first times and new norms:
First time paying rent. New norm walking to buy groceries multiple times a week.
First time I’ve been car-less. New norm spending $70 a week on public transportation (reading lots of books, listening to lots of podcasts).
First time doing taxes. New norm bookkeeping everything that can be counted, even my steps.
First time going to the doctor all by myself. New norm spending every weekend work-free, working instead on this crazy little thing called love.
The last time I sat down to write to nobody in particular was the new year; I think perhaps having my birthday in the first days of spring is a serendipitous sign that I should try to write, at the very least, at each changing of the seasons. Perhaps we each owe ourselves that much reflection. So maybe if none of the particulars of my life are much too interesting to you, reader, the real value might be in awakening the storyteller within yourself.
In January my class at Stanford started its second of three quarters, while my class at Nueva started its second of two semesters. Teaching has been an incredible joy; at the same time it keeps the burner on at all times, reminds me of how far I am from satisfaction. I see a lifetime through that door but know that I will never walk through. I must satisfice myself with my teaching abilities and focus on the path I’m on – developing a Center for Sustainable Urban Systems at Stanford. (More on that (hopefully) in one season.)
The network of collaborators and projects continues to grow. For a brief stint my professional relationships in San Jose blossomed through a potential collaboration with some institutions to work on the problem of homelessness in Santa Clara County. Some exciting work started up again at Google, as well as a whole new passion for affordable housing in the Bay Area with some initial explorations in East Palo Alto with accessory dwelling units. My friends in Stockton are building momentum for action within their community, and I’m looking for ways to support them. The summer is shaping up to be medley of these projects as well as the next iteration of Common Ground in San Francisco and housing in Southeast Asia. The spirit of Cloud Arch Studio is alive and well.
More and more I’m seeing myself as an urbanist as I dive deeper into issues like housing, mobility, health, and governance all across the Bay. I’m beginning to know how little I know, and it excites me. This is the door I want to walk through. I truly believe that the future of sustainable cities lies in a systems-based framework of knowledge acquisition and decision-making. It means we need to break free of the illusion that we can “plan” the future and instead build the tools, levers, and programs we need to grow organically, incrementally, and flexibly towards a future that works.
It also means that we need to break free of the silos we put ourselves in through education and build an adaptive system of problem-solving that treats our environment, our institutions, and ourselves as all one mess of inter-related problems. Roads and buildings aren’t the only things that need to be engineered. We need to engineer the economic, political, and social structures that often have an even deeper influence on our lives.
We need to break through the illusions of politicization and polarization that pervade the media and have embedded themselves in our culture. Take the presidential race that has made headlines the last few months but still feels like a delicate subject. Why is there such a taboo around talking about politics? Why are we so scared to hurt people’s feelings? Why have we allowed ourselves to believe that we need to respect people’s political opinions because somehow ideology is a sacred virtue? Why can’t we call bullshit when we see it, take 99% of what our society cherishes as political/sacred diversity and reframe it as objectively solvable through science, data, and common sense? I don’t care if you call yourself liberal or conservative; I care to know which policies make the world a better place. Fuck your political correctness when the entire political system is corrupt and disillusions us to believe we can’t find common ground, that there is such a thing as original sin.
Look, when it comes down to it, there is only one fundamental political spectrum, and that is Me vs. We. Selfish vs. Compassionate. Pre vs. Post evolution of the human race. Politics is all about power; let’s not fool ourselves into believing it’s about right vs. wrong. Right vs. wrong is the collective story of human ingenuity.
Thinking about cities has convinced me that we can help humans flourish if we focus on engineering systems that work. One of those systems is evidence-based problem solving. Another is transparent and democratic governance. There are many more new systems to be explored, and many more trials and errors before we can make it all function. But I think there is a future that can be described as a-political — if that means we can dismantle the power structure that allows a select few to subvert the collective good for personal gain. If that means that differences of opinion and honest diversity of values are not pit against each other through vicious escalating battles but instead tested, dissected, and inputted into an inclusive and iterative improvement in human well-being. We’re not going to get there through national politics; but maybe we can through local city governance and policy. This is where we have the ability to experiment with real ideas, involve real people, and solve real problems.
Apologies for that philosophical digression. (Where would I be if I was my brain?)
In other news, Winter 2016 was a wonderful season. With a constant flurry of ideas I felt like I was never languishing. I felt happy. I tried my ambitious 365 days of Twitter poems again, but once again it couldn’t last (as of today I’m seventeen poems behind). But here are some 140 character poems I really enjoyed writing:
When we lost the signal
We used our nerves
Spooling them out for
Miles across LA
Sacrificing the feeling
In our toes just to
Feel less alone (#1)
Can we take two ends of the line
And make ’em cease to exist?
Can we pool the precious
Molecules in our lungs
And fight this fight together? (#6)
Those who were forced to leave
Left their hearts in San Francisco
While those who came
Hammered and chiseled away
At the city’s broken soul. (#20)
Poetry is an excuse
To conflate the mundanity
Of our experience with
“It fixed me.”
“It broke me.”
That is enough. (#21)
You have inherited a history of love,
While I’ve inherited a love gap.
The tested truths that
Fortify your heart are mere
Theories in mine. (#40)
If I lose poetry, do I lose my soul?
Do I lose my apartment to techies
Who tweet what they think,
Instead of thinking about
What they tweet? (#50)
I grasp for words I have known but,
Like shooting stars, they do not
Reappear. Even this poem
Was seconds away from
Vanishing into thin air. (#65)
Winter 2016 was also a great season for art. For music, I “discovered” Nick Drake before I found a few excellent new albums, particularly The Life of Pablo by Kanye West, ANTI by Rihanna, and I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it by The 1975. Ten tracks I couldn’t stop listening to:
- Kanye West – Famous ft. Rihanna and Swizz Beatz
- Kanye West – Low Lights
- Kanye West – Waves ft. Chance the Rapper
- The 1975 – Somebody Else
- Rihanna – Kiss it Better
- Ra Ra Riot – Call Me Out
- Kendrick Lamar – untitled 03 | 05.28.2013.
- Nick Drake – Hazey Jane II
- Alabama Shakes – Don’t Wanna Fight
- Roomful of Teeth – Partita for 8 Voices
Ten great movies I watched (yes, still loving that Moviepass with Boanne):
- The Revenant
- The Hateful Eight
- Where to Invade Next
- The Witch
- 10 Cloverfield Lane
- Hello My Name is Doris
And ten great books I read:
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandell
- A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
- The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
- Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos
- No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal
- The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
- The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker
- Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton
- The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins
- The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
Some final thoughts.
As I grow older, the most striking feeling is not the aging of my body but the becoming more and more of myself. It’s finding out the way I live my life and realizing, suddenly, that this is no longer a phase of me but a part of me.
I know that I am not a naturally happy person. I am a vessel of empathy, and sometimes that empathy is a distorted empathy that fills me with anguish and anxiety, that makes me see the darkness underneath the surface of all things, makes me blame myself more than I should. I’ve heard this refrain more than once in just the last three months, and I know it’s a part of me that I will struggle with for the rest of my adult life. But the conspiracy of love is strong and is always fighting, for all of us, whether we are aware of it or not. It shows itself when you stop to notice it, as you’re sharing dinner with friends and savoring the seconds more than the tastes, as you’re Skyping with a friend thousands of miles away who feels so much closer, as you’re watching a student grow in ways you’ve never imagined. As you’re falling more in love with a girl every time you see her face, every time you touch the small of her back, every time you build a piece of IKEA furniture with her.
And, on this last evening of twenty-three, as you wait for your mom to drive through that driveway, like you’ve watched since you were little, and look forward to a home-cooked meal with family. Everybody has a conspiracy of love between the lines of their story.