Confession: I Document Everything

An intellectual (or not) debate at Max's.

An intellectual (or not) debate at Max’s.

Six months into my college career, I came home for spring break and announced to a few of my friends that I was switching my major from music to journalism. I expected reactions of mild surprise, at the very least. Instead, I was met with impatient “duh”s and amused “I always knew it”s.

“That’s not a surprising revelation, is it?” They asked. “You always carry a notebook in your purse. You’re always writing down everything we say. You document everything. It’s actually pretty creepy.”

It was true. I could certainly save a lot of closet space by purging from my belongings a stack of 20 or so notebooks, some completely full, others empty, still others only partially used. I buy them habitually, whenever I head back to my old stomping grounds for a nostalgia tour, whenever I’m away from home and need to chronicle my frustrations somewhere, and of course whenever a notebook is too pretty not to buy.

I’ve never met anyone else who is quite so intent on recording anything and everything, but thanks to the power of the internet, I now know there’s at least one other freak like me: Alice Bolin. I’ve never met her, but her post on thisrecording.com makes me believe we are kindred spirits and were probably separated at birth. From the post:

I have in my pocket at this moment a note I don’t remember writing to myself that I found recently on my floor. It reads, “Landscape quote: O pardon me thou bleeding piece of Earth.” (Googling reveals this is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.) Also in my pocket is a note card where it says in my graduate thesis advisor’s handwriting, “Question / Is there a historical reason for the great number of rear/alley entrances/exits in Missoula bars?” Also: a stranger’s to-do list I found tucked in a book I ordered online; its only noteworthy item is “Return Cal’s pants!”

Similarly, I hoard written and verbal content constantly. I tore a page from one of my college legal pads that reads, in a list, “bastard food; misplaced football jerseys; acid dropping.” The Notebook feature on my phone offers this quote, squeezed between a flight confirmation code and a grocery list, with no context: “As soon as you’re sitting on a pokey thing, you’re like, damn, I’m sitting on a pokey thing.” And don’t even get me started on those little notebooks I used to carry everywhere from age 15, packed with funny-but-oft-nonsensical quotes from my closest friends, tales of strange adventures with acquaintances I no longer remember, and letters to ex-boyfriends. I once listed nearly 20 quotes from my college choir conductor in a LiveJournal post: “You need to get the L out.” “Make this violent word sound as sexy as possible.” “Sorry, taken over by an alien momentarily.”

The urge to document also manifests in photos.

The urge to document also manifests in photos.

The height of my recording craze was my senior year of college, when my amazing group of friends would essentially recreate a Cheers scene at our favorite local hangout three or more nights a week. We’d while away the hours commiserating about our jobs and classes, watching football games, playing cards and winning prizes in pub trivia. I must have filled four notebooks with inside jokes and stories borne from our nights there.

“I misread your mustache, sir.” (Courtesy of someone who judged my friend’s political views by his facial hair.)
“It crashed and burned, and then a dinosaur stepped on it. And then it killed a puppy.” (A friend describes her day.)
“They’re like the tacos of the feet.” (Your guess is as good as mine.)

Why the constant urge to chronicle every last funny, interesting and semi-brilliant thing? I guess I’m just a nostalgic person. In certain life situations for which a comprehensive record exists–like the trip to Eastern Europe in high school, or the night the power went out during my winter break reunion with youth choir friends–it’s likely I wrote everything down for nostalgia’s sake. Back then, I believed my future self would kick my present self for forgetting the Best Inside Jokes Ever.

I think the particular affinity for quoting my friends in our last days of college may have been a self-preservational instinct, a desperate attempt to log the here and now in some form or other–because I knew that less than a year later, I’d be in a strange new city trying to find a job and a new set of bar buddies.

When I ran out of notebooks...

When I ran out of notebooks…

Why do I still do it? Because my post-college years thus far have been predictably tumultuous and subject to change. My entire world has changed almost annually as I’ve moved to new apartments, started new relationships, said goodbye to old friends and awkwardly courted new ones. As much as I try to live in the moment the way older adults advise, I can’t help but look toward the future to an older me, contentedly flipping through five thousand notebooks of strange memories.

The Book City

Even if you’re not attending the current AWP conference, and even if you’re not a writer, hop on over to The Stranger’s article about the average Seattle resident’s penchant for reading…and hanging out in places where reading material is purchased.

From the article:

Part of the reason I moved to Seattle from the East Coast was for the rain and the clouds. There’s nothing more annoying than the pang of guilt that comes unbidden when you choose to stay inside with a good book on a beautiful spring day. With its relentless cloud cover, Seattle minimizes the opportunity for that kind of guilt. In fact, it rewards people for reading and writing, which is part of the reason our city always hovers near the top of those (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) “most literate city” polls that circulate around the internet every year or so.

Whether we’re literate because it’s raining or the rainy climate naturally attracts bookworms, it’s a fact: Seattle loves to read, and it always has.

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Ever since my dad read novels to me at bedtime (Goodnight Moon got old fast, so we moved on to Watership Down), I grew up with my nose buried in a book. I started with classics, including the Nancy Drew series and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. My childhood guilty pleasures included Animorphs and Sweet Valley High.

In high school, between the engrossing Harry Potter books, I devoured science fiction, fantasy, period literature and more, still discovering my literary tastes. During the week, I sat in English class wondering why in hell The Odyssey got top billing over The Aeneid in my classroom and a million others, while on the weekends I happily made my way through the 850 pages of Bleak House.

Then, in college, I discovered the wonder of contemporary fiction and its endless possibilities. There was nothing better than studying, discussing and writing about the books I would have read at home anyway.

Today, I miss the discussions and the feedback. Sometimes I convince a friend to read a book with me so we can get into lively debates like we did in college. In the last year, among other things, I’ve marveled at the Dickensian parallels in A Fine Balance, I’ve dissed Eugenides’ self-indulgent latest effort, I’ve read Zadie Smith at her best and her worst, and I’ve made it halfway through Colum McCann‘s canon.

It’s heartwarming to be reminded that I’ve done all this in a city full of like-minded folk, that I bought these books at some of the best book-buying institutions in the country…and that there’s so much more to discover.

On Being Real

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way my relationships with others have changed in recent years. I’m not a social butterfly, so I was glad to see Facebook’s continuous rise in popularity while I was in college. It was the perfect tool for those of us who wanted to keep tabs on old friends but lacked the courage to pick up the phone or even write an email often enough to do so.

But after more than seven years of Facebook use, I realize the site has not given me what I wanted. In Facebook I looked for insight into the daily ups and downs of those I used to see every day. It has instead provided me only with the highlights of my friends’ lives: the engagements, the exotic vacations, the new job announcements and the best home-cooked dinners.

I’m thrilled to see my friends doing well, but I know these updates don’t tell the whole story. In addition to their good news, I’d like to hear about their pipe leaks at home, their struggles at work and the recipes that failed. Balancing news of the positive with the negative, the quirky, the funny and the everyday paints a more accurate picture of someone’s life–a picture that does more to educate friends on one’s life rather than to simply induce friends’ jealousy.

This year, my life was filled with lovely sunsets, craft cocktails and exciting adventures. It was also filled with frustration, sadness, anxiety, confusion and sleep deprivation. And that’s okay.

I read a blog post last week that called for a New Year’s resolution almost all of us can keep. Rather than resolving to get fit, eat healthier, save more money or clean more often, we might first and foremost promise ourselves to be more honest with ourselves and with each other.

So in 2014, for better or for worse, I vow to stop Photoshopping my life. I’m done with humblebrags. I’m finished with heavily filtered selfies. I’ll leave the self-promotion at work, and I’ll spend more actual facetime with those whose friendship I value.

I’m ready to be real.

Fall

I visited Seattle for the first time in the fall. The weather was still temperate and sunny, the days were still long and the late afternoon light was perfectly golden. The city’s natural beauty was fully on display, and I fell in love.

ImageI know what you’re thinking–how can you possibly make it through another rapturous essay on apple picking, pumpkin spice lattes and changing leaves? But while I’m a sucker for all these things, I love fall because it’s been the season of so many good memories.

I’m sure I’m not the only one with fond memories of my first college term. I had no idea what to expect of the campus, the people or even my major, and I was pleasantly surprised to immediately love everything about the University of Oregon–even its retro student union, overly enthusiastic football fans and giant lecture halls. All of us who start college in the fall probably think of autumn as a time of year for fresh starts and self-discovery.

ImageTwo years later, I had one of the best autumns of my life studying in Paderno del Grappa, Italy. I spent much of the semester traveling all over Europe, and one of my most vivid memories is of the varied weather. It was practically summer one weekend in Florence, but two weeks later, my soaked ballet flats squelched all over Dublin during a daylong downpour. We wandered Paris in mostly T-shirts in October, but we needed to buy more layers and lots of mulled wine to  keep from freezing a month later in Köln. It was thrilling to experience Europe while the seasons were changing.

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ImageThree years ago, in the fall, my favorite people came together on the scenic rooftop of my first Seattle apartment.

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ImageAnd the next fall, when there was no more roof, we settled for a cramped kitchen.

ImageAnd to start this fall, some of us made a pilgrimage right back to the place where my love for fall started…at the University of Oregon.

Image…We were a little overwhelmed.

phi beta kappa key pin

The liberal arts factor

Some stereotypes are true. Most journalists, for example, possess thick skins, feel less empathy than the average person, don’t beat around the bush and enjoy the challenge of digging for well-hidden information.

Journalists are also notorious workaholics: their jobs follow them home, on vacation, to the gym, wherever they go. Reporters will pick up their phones in the middle of the night, on their wedding days and at funerals if the newsroom calls. Over the last few years, I’ve seen my peers and coworkers drop everything for a scoop. They’ve bailed on dates, classes, exams and parties to meet deadline or go the extra mile on a story. And although I believe hard work pays off–anyone who knows me can attest to that– I haven’t always supported their decision to skip out on everything else.

phi beta kappa key pin

I’m proud of my PBK key!

It’s true that getting good at one’s chosen profession requires focus, especially in journalism. But must focus translate to tunnel vision?

I remember some fellow students who pulled 50, 60, 70 hour weeks at the student newspaper. The work they did was incredible and invaluable. But their choice to work overtime for no extra pay was also a choice to skip classes, skim important reading and earn a degree with barely passing grades and nothing but minimum graduation requirements. Many of them told me they believed years of hands-on work experience was the most important (or the only) thing future employers wanted to see on resumes.

Like them, I made time for real-world experience. I had five summer internships, three of which were unpaid. I spent most of my college years working full time at the student newspaper, though my stipend covered less than half my rent. I always answered calls from my sources, even when they came at inappropriate times while I was in inopportune locations. I arrived at work too early and stayed too late. I put my life in danger to drive to work during a snowstorm. I left my own birthday party to investigate a mysterious death. (I don’t regret these decisions, but I don’t think I would make the same ones if I were to repeat my four years of school.)

I made all these sacrifices, but most of the time, I maintained much-needed separations between work, play and academics. While I took tens of electives outside my journalism classes, learned another language, contemplated a second minor and had the time of my life writing a thesis, my student newspaper colleagues were crashing on the newsroom couch and plotting how they might avoid their foreign language requirements. When we were all off the clock, my coworkers went home, reviewed notes on their steno pads and listened to the police scanner over a beer; I went to choir rehearsal, attended a play or read a novel. When I shared my hobbies and weekend plans with them, they stared with blank faces and went right back to their work.

I was, and still am, shocked at journalists’ blasé attitude toward non-news pursuits I consider important: a liberal arts education, cultural enrichment, a variety of personal relationships. I was relieved to leave the world of newspaper journalism and find a new company full of people with quirky hobbies, unique passions and different perspectives. These days, I have coworkers who appreciate my ongoing efforts to learn more and stay well rounded.

But these days, a well-rounded resume seems to be undervalued–and I think that’s a mistake on the part of employers. When I consider the leg up I had in stories that required a fundamental knowledge of history, literature or science, I wonder whether my laser-focused journalism colleagues were able to cover the story as thoroughly without a liberal arts education. I think about the friendships and relationships I maintain and wonder, when I’m having fun at a festival or a picnic, whether my old coworkers are still slaving away in the newsroom. When I absorb myself in choir rehearsal and forget about bills, task lists and arguments, I can’t believe underpaid cub reporters my age can cope without a hobby that provides an emotional escape from the stresses of adult life.

Perhaps the decision to broaden my knowledge base communicated a lack of pure journalistic commitment to some of the newspaper editors who saw my resume. But if a love for many things at once is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Writer’s Block

I’ve always been quite an enthusiastic writer. From a very young age, I kept journals that I sometimes updated multiple times in a day. I wrote about everything: things I learned in school, classmates I liked and disliked, life in after-school daycare, friends’ deep dark secrets I promised never to reveal, and of course my own deep dark secrets–usually involving a crush on a boy.

My motivation to write back then was a desire to resolve issues in my mind. Once things had been written down in a semi-coherent manner, I felt I knew where I stood and could move past whatever lingering anger, sadness or confusion I felt. There were times when I felt extraordinary euphoria and found immense satisfaction in successfully translating the feeling into words.

Beyond childhood, there were ever more motivations to keep writing well–to get good grades, to get admitted into high-quality colleges, to win debates, to stand out in the job applicant pool. Even though I still found emotional clarity after writing down my personal thoughts, I wrote increasingly less for purposes of personal growth as I wrote increasingly more in the name of professional growth.

As a result, I started experiencing something I once thought I was immune to: writer’s block. In college, I spent hours staring at a blank Word document struggling to find the words to start my term papers, even after I’d done extensive research and found a good thesis. Writing each sentence was as difficult as pulling frozen taffy.

It didn’t help that Gmail, Facebook and myriad news sites were just a click away, and so I assumed the presence of campus-wide Wi-fi was to blame for the writer’s block. I found I was slightly more productive when I moved from the library to a cafe, where I found a pleasant buzzing of white noise rather than crushing silence; when I took short breaks about once an hour for coffee or a New York Times article; or when I was running on an extra-tight deadline and had no choice but to work without stopping.

Still, I’ve wondered for years why I, the person to whom others turn for help with writing and editing, experience these extensive mental blackouts when in childhood I could write unceasingly for hours.

Today, I realized the answer could be as simple as this: In childhood I wrote on paper; now, I write on a keyboard.

It sounds like an oversimplification, I know…but something crazy happened to me today at lunch. Before I left, I opened up a document full of scripts I’ve been writing for KING FM’s next on-air fund drive. I got out my yellow legal pad to consult the informal list of script ideas I’d made for myself, found where I’d left off, and started typing. No more than two sentences came out…in a half hour.

So I tried something else: when I left to grab a quick lunch, I took the legal pad and a pen with me, thinking a little lunchtime brainstorming couldn’t hurt. I ended up scribbling furiously with my pen as I scarfed a sandwich. Thoughts came to me two at a time and my hand nearly cramped up as it tried to get everything down. In about 20 minutes, I had written three full pages of scripts.

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For no good reason, I find it less inhibiting to write on paper than to write on a computer screen. It makes no sense, because when I write something down in pen, it’s there forever, and editing is messy. On a keyboard, the backspace bar is a no-fuss editor. So it must have something to do with the fact that I associate personal writing, which no one but me can judge, with paper and pen, while I associate professional writing, which many highly influential people have judged over the years, with computers and typing. The content is irrelevant; the medium is what alters my productivity. For all I know, I could have started my first-grade diary in Word and never gotten past Page One; similarly, I could have started writing my thesis in a spiral notebook and finished within a week.

This revelation has motivated me to try using good old pen and paper whenever I get into a staring contest with my computer monitor at work. It has also illustrated the importance personal writing once had on my personal well-being, and has offered a completely free and relatively easy stress-relieving method I’ve dismissed for years. I know I always say I want to write more, but this time I really mean write–not type.

Winter blues

…sure beats the winter greys!

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No one REALLY enjoys constant rain, so it’s easy to believe Seasonal Affective Disorder is something we’ve all invented in our minds. But when the sun comes out in February, like it has today, I feel a huge sense of possibility and empowerment. I start getting excited about all the projects I started enthusiastically last summer but have since let fall by the wayside. If this great weather sticks around or at least shows itself a little more often, I have a feeling I’ll finally plant those indoor herb jars, seek out a collapsible, Farmer’s Market-friendly basket for my bike, and pay more visits to local parks with good walking trails.

In Defense of Pinterest–or, Upcycling

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In elementary school, we learned the three phrases of sustainability–before “sustainability” was even a buzzword.

Recycle, Reduce, Reuse.

A couple of decades later, we on the West Coast don’t think of sorting our waste into three or more categories as a chore. It’s just what we do to make the world a bit greener.

And in the last decade, we’ve gotten much better at reducing our consumption and energy use, leaving as small a carbon footprint as possible.

In other words, we’ve long embraced the first two words in the mantra we learned a while back…but we’re still ruminating on that third word. Reuse.

It takes a little bit of creativity and extra thought to realize that lots of things we’ve finished using for one purpose don’t have to be thrown out–they can be reborn for another purpose.

Take food containers, for example. Old cream cheese and yogurt tubs make great Tupperware after they’re cleaned thoroughly–I’ve got a container of “strawberry yogurt” with yesterday’s dinner leftovers sitting in my refrigerator as we speak!Image

On my lunch break this afternoon, I walked by an apartment window ledge lined with reused pasta sauce jars. The apartment’s residents had cleaned the jars, filled them with soil and planted various herbs for cooking–basil, cilantro, thyme and oregano. Then they brushed the jar fronts with a little bit of chalkboard paint and labeled the jars with chalk–an urban inspiration!

Last week, I came across a blog where an Australian couple had created a similarly pint-sized ecosystem with cut-up milk cartons. They lopped off the carton tops, covered the rest with glued-on strips of their favorite fabrics, and stuck a dirt-filled can inside, ready to be filled with their favorite flower or herb plants.

The practice of taking something simple and seemingly useless and turning it into something fabulous, new and useful is called upcycling. At least that’s what it’s called on Etsy, Pinterest and countless blogs from creative types all over the world.

Upcycling takes a million different forms. Some people show off a project that turned an old pair of Levis into a handy denim purse. Others document their efforts to turn a horrible Coke bottlecap hoarding habit into a lovely windchime. Ever-resourceful girlfriends found that their significant others’ discarded button-down shirts made excellent pillowcases in a pinch.

While the artistic aspect of upcycling interests me greatly–mostly when it comes to ModPodged furniture–I’m most inspired by the way people in urban environments can easily and safely keep entire herb gardens inside, or just outside, their rented apartments by upcycling things they already have and would otherwise throw into their recycling bins. It demonstrates to this twentysomething urban girl that you don’t need a huge backyard equipped with a chicken coop, a compost bin and rows of handmade planter boxes to live greener.

But don’t get me wrong–someday, I hope I have a huge backyard with all those things, plus a couple of cats!

Snow

When snow is forecast in Seattle, everybody steels themselves for what’s to come. The kind of snowfall that other major cities expect–nay, scoff at–is enough to turn this entire city upside down. Seattle’s total transformation only after a couple inches of snow accumulation is partly because snow and ice make for treacherous walks, drives and bus rides up and down its steep hills, and partly because we can’t justify the cost of studded tires or salted roads round the clock.

So when it snows in Seatown, you can expect a lot of rogue behavior on the roads. Pedestrians opt to simply wait until the roads are clear to cross rather than to press buttons at crosswalks; lane dividers on major highways cease to exist; cars don’t stop at intersections unless it’s an overt safety hazard not to; and buses seldom take passengers exactly where they want to go.

(Don’t believe me? This morning I tried to follow the rules at a crosswalk, pushing the button and waiting patiently. A driver nearby leaned out his window and shouted, “Don’t you think we’ve moved past formalities by now?”)

Snow

Things went surprisingly smoothly earlier in the week, when everybody in the city knew exactly when and where to watch for snow. Everyone ran errands early, left work at the appropriate time, and settled in for the long haul at home. The roads were a mess, as usual, but most people seemed to stay safe.

But in the last 24 hours, when the flakes were expected to turn to light nighttime showers and daytime rain–when the snow was, in fact, expected to wash away–we got the opposite. The flakes fell more persistently than ever, and our white blanket grew thicker. School districts gave up for the remainder of the week, local shops stayed shuttered, and almost no one dared to drive.

I thought this would be a tame one-day snow event, nothing too crazy. But as evidenced by tonight’s Twitter posts, which tell of icy commutes, mass power outages and tree-splintered carports, there’s plenty of crazy to go around…


2011

Another year…gone already?!

It never quite dawns on me that a year is about to end until the neighborhood Christmas lights go out, all the New Year’s Eve-themed sequined dresses are on sale at downtown department stores, and I’m flipping through Time magazine’s annual “Person of the Year” feature.

But here I am, watching the neighborhood gradually darken, avoiding shopping malls as if my life depended on it and reading about the collective power of protesters in the Middle East, Africa and the U.S. I guess we’ll soon see if the Ancient Mayans were right!

A lot happened this year. It started in Santa Cruz, Calif., my hometown, where I rang in the new year. For months, I sustained two full-time jobs, and my life was my work. Then summer came, and with it came glorious sun, a new apartment near Lake Union and a greater understanding of this vast city. (Try lunch at Irwin’s in Wallingford, become an REI member and take free classes at the flagship store, and check out this iron horse sculpture in Ballard!) Fall brought a lovely Celtic concert season, kittens, a driving trip spanning the whole West Coast, and a whole lot of soul-searching.

I kept most of my (Chinese) New Year resolutions, focusing on just one job at a time and allotting needed time for sleep, friends and music. Next year, I hope I can maintain a good work-life balance and continue to discover more about this amazing city.

This year, Seattle Pro Musica’s annual auction was “Casino Royale”-themed.

Watching Fourth of July fireworks on Lake Union from our balcony.

The coastline along treacherous Highway 1 near Big Sur, Calif.