Chamber music

Tonight I attended a performance of UCSF’s Chamber Music Society. The video is of my favorite of the pieces they played (played by not-them).

It’s transcribed from an organ piece. But I was destined to like this piece. It’s Handel. It’s a passacaglia. It’s on strings.

I was also at the SF Symphony this past weekend. The contrast between the two experiences makes me think I prefer chamber music. I don’t care for the dramatics of having dozens of musicians anyway. It isn’t the temperamental clashing that makes me feel like I have a soul. It’s the melody. The more… how shall I put this .. amabile, the better.

At this event, there were hardly any old people, as compared to the demographic of the SF Symphony’s audience. That means, no coughing or dying tainted the playing. No one was dressed especially nicely. No one had a much fancier seat than anyone else. No one was there to “see and be seen”. There were no crowds. The room wasn’t even half full, and it wasn’t even as large as the biggest lecture halls I’ve had class in. Everyone was there for the music.

It was also more personal: the musicians introduced themselves and gave brief introductions to their chosen pieces. They chose what they played for us, so even that tells us a bit about them as people. All of them were either affiliated with UCSF medical school or had jobs in unrelated sectors (like software engineering): all of the musicians were hobbyists playing for the fun of it. I got to sit close enough to see their faces. Ah, I hope for a summer full of such concerts! Let me know if you are aware of any in San Francisco, won’t you?

Oh, and for anyone who’s curious, here’s the original Handel organ passacaglia:

A life worth living

Believe me, I am not an expert on this. What I realised about  year ago while working for a startup was that somehow, despite earning more money than I ever had in my life, being able to buy just about anything I wanted and having plenty of opportunities to socialize with my quirky, crazy-brilliant friends, I didn’t really think my life was worth living.

Everything was a dark grey, especially on Sunday night. Worse on Monday morning. Dread filled me. But it was confusing. My income was above the 95th percentile for my age group. I had a boyfriend (a very good person!) I had been dating for a couple of years. Everything looked excellent on paper. Who was I not to be happy? On top of everything, guilt. So many people had it worse than me. What did I even want?

I wanted a life worth living. But I made the mistake of using everyone else’s definition. I never asked myself the question “what do I want” because I assumed that having what everyone else wants for should make me happy too. Wrong.

There is a story I’ve read in passing: a professor presents a container filled with rocks and asks his students if it’s full. “Yes,” they respond. He then pours pebbles in, until the spaces between the rocks are filled too. He asks again. They respond “yes” again. He repeats this twice more, with sand, then water. The point of his demonstration is that if he had done this exercise in any other order, not everything would fit. This story has been used as a metaphor for life: what we put in first should be of primary importance to us.

That was my mistake. The things I spent the most time on were the things I valued the least: my job, Tumblr, playing flash games on Facebook, watching TV shows. The latter 3 made time pass more quickly. But there was nothing I was looking forward to… I was squandering time until my eventual death, I suppose.

I hesitate to tell you my conclusions because I’m sure they won’t be yours. The point is that you have to ask yourself what the rocks are. What are the most important things in your life? It may be counterintuitive, but you probably don’t treat them that way. Suppose you’re a math graduate student (this was once my story) and you have obligations in decreasing importance to you: your research, studying for your quals, your homework, and your teaching obligations. However, the less important something is to you, the more urgent the deadlines are, so you spend time doing those things first and neglect the more important things.

Life is similar! It maybe be extremely important that you paint or write or travel, but none of those things have “urgent” deadlines. So you put them off, sometimes forever. Meanwhile, what gets your attention? That work email to fix a build. Doing the laundry. Once you’ve taken care of all the things you have to do now, you’re too drained to even think about reading Dostoyevsky or practicing Liebestraum on the piano, so you end up playing Candy Crush with the rest of your time.

tl;dr — the first step in having a life worth living is figuring out what is important to you.

North Beach at sunset, before cioppino at Sotto Mare

For me, of course, it’s the Bohemian ideals. Perhaps they’ll each get their own entry one day: Truth, Beauty, Freedom (and above all else) Love.

The sharing economy

In my closet, there is usually a box. In that box, there are more boxes, all nested in one another like Russian dolls, but with their tops open. The smallest box is stuffed with old air pockets, used padded envelopes, tattery tissues paper and druggie-sized ziploc baggies. Why? Why, you may ask. For just one reason:

I am a hoarder.

There. Now you know. The basest fear in a hoarder’s heart is that she will discard something and then need it later. It hurts even more when I can remember having once had the perfect thing and giving it away. The motivation to keep things is this:

I have it now. If I get rid of it and I need it later, I’ll have to find it AND pay for it. How inconvenient!

This mentality, in its extreme cases, leads to the homes you see in A&E’s Hoarders.

What has helped me immensely in the last few weeks is the discovery of the sharing economy with sites like Yerdle.  (No, I don’t work for them. I’m just a rabid fan.) It’s very reassuring that if I give away, say, my old jewelry box, then I one day desperately need another, I can probably find one on Yerdle and “pay” for it with the points I’ve accumulated. It’s also a nice idea that something I like but never use could be very useful right now to someone else. It isn’t pure altruism though. Far from it. Here are some things I’ve managed to get for free (and their retail prices):

Crate and Barrel down queen duvet insert ($259)
Apple 85W MacBook Pro charger ($79)
Farberware roasting rack ($38.88)
Stainless steel compost pail ($22.99)
Fashy warmflasche/hot water bottle ($18.95)

I almost feel bad because the things I’ve given away were largely worthless. Like old clothes, toys and costume jewelry. I’ve always found it funny that those things cost so much at the store, but have so little value on resale. Even a $200 cashmere sweater won’t fetch more than a few bucks at a garage sale. I’m not going to bother with buying things at full retail price anymore when I can avoid it. Clothing, utensils, bakeware, dishes — most household goods, and even some nice furniture can frequently be found for free. Why spend money to make retailers even richer? With all the money saved on these items, I can feel better about splurging when it matters to me. Like on travel or Apple products.

I also attended a Peerswap the other evening. While I did bring a sack full of old clothes to give away, what I came home with (a North Face jacket, a J. Crew blazer and button down, 2 H&M sweaters, etc) was worth a lot more. More importantly, I’m sure I’ll get more use out of my haul than the items I gave away.

I guess that’s part of the point: we have limited storage space, and limited time to use all the things we own. So why not try to give our unused things a better life? I like to imagine the rainbow slinky I know delighting a child again, like it once delighted me.

Stories from childhood

I was watching the above Ted Talk from Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian writer, and she said something that struck me. She had read stories about British children when she was first learning to read, and as a result, her first stories were about the same sorts of children doing the same sorts of things as in those books — things completely foreign to her like eating apples and talking about the weather.

That made me think back to what books I read as a child. It wasn’t hard. My favorite was series about Samantha Parkington, a wealthy orphan growing up in Victorian upstate New York. I still have a tradition — when the weather gets cold enough that I start taking long baths just to keep warm, I read the entire set again. Usually over the course of just 1 or 2 baths. As you can imagine, my set (gifted to me one Christmas when I was about 7), is falling apart now.

This time, I noted with amusement that Samantha Parkington defined my taste: drop-waisted dresses, nautical theme, black watch plaid, charcoal wool school dresses, collars, lacy nightgowns, multi-layered pink dresses, intricate embroidered edges, giant hair bows, lockets and extraneous buttons on everything. Her personality had also shaped mine: fierce loyalty towards a few close friends and the inclination to make it very clear to each person whether or not they are in her favor. A cavalier disregard for rules that don’t seem to make sense. A willingness to say shocking things in the name of truth. A love of christmas trees and decorating gingerbread houses.

Here’s the question: was I just at the right age to be moulded? If I had instead been gifted a boxed set of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, would Kourtney have been my model? I think I was given Molly McIntire’s set at the same time, but that had no effect. Maybe one has to relate a little to begin with. Samantha was also an only child who liked to climb trees and get her frilly dresses dirty…

What stories did you read as an impressionable youth, and what effect do you think they had on you?

Christmas songs

I’ve been attending tree lightings lately. They seem to be in season. Being in the San Francisco Girls Chorus when I was little made the Christmas season especially hustle-bustle and bright. I miss it. We performed a sing-along yearly at Davis Symphony Hall. We sang at tree lightings of posh hotels, where they would bribe us with intricately frosted sugar cookies. We even performed for the Elks club, and for a morning news show to air on Christmas day.

What does Christmas mean to me? Well, I’m an atheist, so to me, it means singing to dear, sweet Christmas trees. O Tannenbaum is one of my favorite Christmas songs. German club would sing it at the retirement home on Geary street. Some residents were moved to tears, saying that they hadn’t heard a Christmas song in their native German in decades.

It also means snow. I would wish for snow every year because I grew up seeing it in the movies and read about it in Molly’s (American Girl) series. I never saw a white Christmas in San Francisco, but there was one time, when the temperature was below freezing and I tried to jump in a puddle but slipped and hit my head on the concrete because it was completely frozen over. Of course, I love “Let It Snow”.

The true meaning of Christmas for this spoiled girl, though, is getting every damn thing I want. From tickets to the SF Symphony’s new year’s eve ball to plane tickets to exotic locales (omg, only kidding). But wanting just one thing, and having that thing actually be a person is sort of adorable. And it’s in my favorite Christmas movie too, so “All I Want for Christmas” is probably the best Christmas song of all time.

Confession time: my favorite Christmas cd when I was growing up was actually Christmas with the Vienna Boys Choir. Especially the Mozart mass. It didn’t sound like any of the other Christmas music but I figured it was probably just what the Europeans listened to…


Today I’d like to tell you something a bit awkward about me. Call it a confession of sorts.

I think bridge is better than sex. Okay, there are a few similarities. You have a partner. Before you get a rubber, you’re vulnerable. You can’t just come out and say what you mean or what you want, you have to use conventions.

But bridge, played well, requires a deep understanding of your partner. And it feels so good when your partner knows you. That you always under-lead an ace. That you bid a little too aggressively. That the ace lead indicates it’s a singleton. Just the little things that make it feel like he’s inside your head. There’s no such thing as playing selfishly. We all finish at the same time, in the same place. If it’s no good for your partner, it’s going to be crap for you too.

Don’t say it though. Don’t say it’s only because I’ve never had good sex. I’ve had sex with the sort of unicorn sex god that can maintain an erection after having an orgasm. Even after more than one. He was so good I was happy to retire from sex after him. Not the point. Just — I have had good sex, but I still maintain that bridge is better.

My best bridge hand, I bid and made 7S. Not important. My partner bid 1H. I remember the look of pure frustration on his face when I responded with my one and only bid of seven spades. Disbelief. Frustration. A hint of anger? That part’s hazy. But I won’t, I simply can’t forget the sheer pleasure on his face as he watched me make it. My only play that round was to claim. Lips parted, cheeks flushed, heart racing, breath ragged, my partner looked at me with stars and awe in his blue blue blue eyes. That I’ll never forget.

I’ll say it over and over until I die. Bridge: better than sex.

This Is Water

I’ve just discovered this essay (adapted from a speech) by David Foster Wallace [linked below]. He’s spot on about the way I see everything as the little princess of my own imaginary kingdom. The center of the universe, the only one in the world who has ever felt this way. Everyone else in line is “stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman” — yes, yes and yes. How does he know.

His response to this sort of intellectual solipsism is to make up elaborate stories about the harsh circumstances in everyone else’s lives. Rather than being annoyed with the guy in an SUV who cuts you off, he says he imagines he has a sick child and therefore a good reason to be in a hurry. Though the author admits these imagined stories are very unlikely to be true, he uses them to try to see the world around him.

My problem with this is that I can only suspend my knowledge of which things are probably true (or not true) for the most delightful fantasies. I can fantasize about dashing through my commute atop a Jotunheim creature because the idea of it delights me. I find nearly no delight in making excuses for others behaving badly. I don’t see the point in expending the mental energy to imagine that some gaudy over-made woman who slaps her child in the supermarket is sleep deprived because her husband has osteosarcoma. Why on earth should I try to excuse awful behavior?

Reading his speech, I realized that I take the opposite approach. I imagine that these people do not exist. They’re loud furniture. They’re unruly decorations. I’m mildly schizophrenic, I tell myself. I can’t help it. But for the rest of polite society, I should just pretend that the dead-eyed, bovine zombies with too much perfume aren’t really there. Because they aren’t — not in any way that should be relevant.

As for worship, I think he’s right. I found my case:

Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up
feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

Now that I have outed myself and let go of that, I have had to find other things to worship. That was simple. The Bohemians have it right. For me it will always be truth, beauty, freedom and love — and yes, in that order.

This Is Water

Weddings and romance

One might think, that since I am such a fan of romance, that I would be one of those girls. You know, who started fantasizing about her wedding at the age of five, doodling dresses and playing bride by putting white towels on her head.

Not even a little bit. Weddings are not romantic.

I have read, with interest, many wedding websites — those of friends, former classmates, even strangers. What I have found absent from every last one is romance. Everything is formulaic. “Surprises” are unsurprising, the words are hackneyed, the methods are tired, and everyone always says yes. Every story sounds the same. I’ve said it before — I have more romantic stories with my friends than anything I have ever read on a wedding website. For example, this proposal is at once boring and trying-too-hard. How is that possible?

I have a story with B which is far more romantic, and we aren’t even — were never even  — terribly close. I was pleasantly intoxicated at a music and story night given by my housing co-op, and someone dragged me up to the piano and sat me down, saying “Play. I know you can. I’ve seen you.” Silence and expectation filled the room, so I began to play the only thing I had memorized — the adagio cantabile from Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique.

Almost exactly one year later, I was hurrying to class when the sky released a torrential downpour on me. I would’ve been drenched within a minute, but suddenly there was someone holding an umbrella over my head. It was B. I barely recognized him, but he remembered me:

“You played the 2nd movement of the Sonata Pathetique at Wilde House’s music and story night. I remember you, I remember being stunned at the depth of feeling in your performance. I have always wanted to talk to you. I’ve seen you around the house, but I’ve been too shy. Hello. I’m B.”

Perfection. He turned out to be one of the most interesting people I have ever known. We never dated*, but about once a semester, we would share a bottle of wine and talk through the night. Because he knows everything about everything but somehow made me feel even more brilliant than that.

And there you have it. He rescued me from the rain, and I had made such and impression on him that he couldn’t forget what I had played that night. Far more romantic than rose petals (red and white), a ring in two boxes (to cleverly disguise the size), and a venue recycled from a New Year’s party where love was first declared.

* He was convinced I could never love him…


Today, before I go out to find blueberries and a final resting place for my onion, I’d like to share a poem of Hafiz with you.

This poem could have been addressed to me because I’m often lost in my imaginary world, and have long ago stopped trying to make any of it reality. But his words will paint pictures in your mind, and may have started to change mine.

Imagination Does Not Exist

You should come close to me tonight wayfarer
For I will be celebrating you.

Your beauty still causes me madness,
Keeps the neighbours complaining
When I start shouting in the middle of the night
Because I can’t bear all this joy.

I will be giving birth to suns.
I will be holding forests upside down
Gently shaking soft animals from trees and burrows
Into my lap.

What you conceive as imagination
Does not exist for me.

Whatever you can do in a dream
Or on your mind-canvas

My hands can pull – alive – from my coat pocket.

But let’s not talk about my divine world.

For what I most want to know
Tonight is:

All about

(Poem originally found here)