field notes, personal history

8 best things I discovered in 2019

Happy 2020, everyone! Okay, I would have liked to have gotten this post out before 2019 ended, but that’s just how my year went: I didn’t necessarily get everything done exactly as planned, and it wasn’t always pretty, but I got everything done one way or another.

Lots of stuff happened this year that I could recap, but in deciding what kind of end-of-year post to write, it came down to this: I always want to be discovering new things. No year should go by that I don’t have something to include here. Even if I don’t “accomplish” anything during the year. Moreover, I don’t know that summarizing my accomplishments or life changes is valuable to anyone at all, including myself, so instead, I’ve collected things that you can immediately check out for yourself.

Here are a few things that really made my year, that I’d like to share with you. If any of these speak to you or if you get into any of them because of this post, let me know!

Here’s a quick overview, with links to each section:


Practice/tool I adopted: Post-it notes & Sharpies

When I talk of writing “notes” in this context, I almost exclusively mean “lists of things I want to keep track of,” and I’ll give you some examples in a minute. I used to write such notes either in a mini notebook (which 95% of the time I was too lazy to go hunt down), or in my phone’s Notes app, or not at all. In other words there was no system. This year I also migrated from the Notes app to Evernote, but it’s telling that the thing that wins this category isn’t digital, but good ol’ paper & pen.

I think I first got the idea from reading Make Time (which deserves an honorable mention as best productivity / self-help book I read this year), and which you can already see from the cover has a sort of Sharpie-inspired vibe, though I don’t remember if making handwritten lists is explicitly mentioned in the book. As soon as I started making some lists on Post-it notes, I got hooked, and started to realize there were more and more lists I’d been almost unconsciously storing in my head, that it felt better to write out. This had actually already happened once when I started using Evernote for the first time, but there is a way in which standing right in front of a blank pad of Post-its draws out even more lists that I might have thought too fleeting to be worth opening up Evernote for.

At first I was sticking them to the wall of my kitchen, which I faced when making coffee, planning my day, eating, etc. The blank pad and Sharpie were also right there on the counter, encouraging more list-making whenever I was waiting for my coffee/tea or otherwise standing in that spot spacing out, which I did a lot. Then I bought some new Post-its that were not sticky enough to stay on the wall (not actually Post-it brand, of course, that’s why they were subpar), so I just let them all lie flat on the counter, where they started accumulating. I wish I could show you a picture, but the lists are private, plus I’d look like a crazy person. Once there got to be around 20 notes and they started cutting into my food prep space, I started transferring some to Evernote and throwing the paper notes away. But Post-it + Sharpie is still the best way for notes to originate–and both elements are important. Here’s why:

There can only be one note on the top of the pad. Peeled-off notes are ephemeral. Post-its aren’t really optimized for you to use all pages equally well, like a notebook. They’re optimized for writing on the top note and then peeling it off. This means I can only really have one list or note active at a time. Sometimes I have peeled-off ones sitting around that I’m still adding to, but they are considered ephemeral because they get lost or damaged easily, so they only hang around for a few weeks at most, until I transfer them to Evernote and/or throw them away.

The benefit is that it encourages me to stay in the moment. What notes did I write last week? Who cares? If it was important, then I’ve put it into a different flow in my system where I can find it. If not important, it’s gone, I won’t see it again.

The other benefit is that this encourages me to make lists even if it’s just going to help me in the next 30 minutes (e.g. what I need to do before I leave the house, e.g. what I’m going to put in my stew), which I normally wouldn’t bother putting in a notebook or in digital notes. There are lots of times when this helps me de-stress in the moment because I have 7 little things I need to take care of now, plus I get the satisfaction of checking/crossing items off as I finish them–and throwing the whole note away, when I’m done!

No distraction from other apps while trying to take a note. 100% of the time I go to my phone/computer to write something in Evernote (“quick before I forget!”), I end up in some other app first, and forget what the note was, or even why I opened my phone. Even if I manage to not forget, the world of my phone/computer takes me out of whatever space my mind was in, which can be devastating if I was deep in thought on something I was writing or reading.

With a Sharpie, you can only fit a tiny amount of text on a Post-it. This is very important. On a standard square Post-it, using a Sharpie, I can only fit 8-10 lines of 2-4 words each. It forces me to distill every list down to what’s essential. No whole thoughts, only triggers. No digressions. And that makes for clearer, more structured thinking. Certainly I love to be long-winded and digress e.g. here on my blog, but a post like this one originated from, and can be summarized back to, 8 items on a Post-it note. Of course, any marker of the same thickness works, but I like Sharpies because they’re exactly the same anywhere you go.

Examples of what I use Post-it notes & Sharpies for:

  • Blog post ideas: This whole post was one item called “best of 2019,” in a running list of post ideas.
  • Blog post bullet points: The 8 items in this post were also listed in their own note. So it served as the outline of a single blog post.
  • Subpoints of bullet points: This list of examples was also its own note! It’s Post-its all the way down.
  • Punchlist: Quick ephemeral to-do list, meant to be used in the moment and thrown away: things to do before a friend comes over; packing list for a day trip; etc.
  • Misc ideas/thoughts: Topics to write about or research, distilled to 3-6 words each.
  • Things to remember tomorrow: To be written if I’m anxious before going to bed. I love this use case.
  • Highlight of the day: This is from the book Make Time. I write the ONE thing I need to get done today, leave it sitting out all day, and change it out every morning.
  • Quote to remember: Similar to “highlight of the day,” I write one thing and leave it sitting out.
  • Things from the outside world: I’m experimenting with carrying a pad and Sharpie in my pocket, so that when I hear about something while I’m out somewhere, I can write it down instead of automatically going to my phone.

Podcast I got into: The Tim Ferriss Show

I used to dislike Tim Ferriss. I knew of him from around 10 years ago, around the time his first book The 4-Hour Workweek came out–indeed, if you go read some reviews of it, plenty of the top reviews are some variation of “Tim Ferriss is a douche,” so I wasn’t the only one. I hadn’t read that book until just recently, but I read his blog for a while. Back then, my concern was that he was purely out to take shortcuts, blow through everything in the fastest way possible, and rack up accomplishments just so he could crow about being a master at this and that. It’s true that a lot of things in life aren’t as complicated or hard as we assume them to be, but for myself I didn’t want to risk crossing that border from constructive irreverence into arrogance.

This past year, on a whim I gave Tim Ferriss another chance, and I’m very glad I did. Either I was wrong about him, or he mellowed out over time, or I mellowed out over time, or all of the above. My way in was flipping through Tools of Titans at a bookstore in Bratislava (the former deserves an honorable mention, the latter is actually on this list, farther down), which proved to be immensely valuable to me throughout the rest of my year. Tools of Titans is basically a collection of excerpts from the podcast, so I went to the source and listened to the podcast itself.

Lest you think it’s only of interest for young white tech dudes trying to get buff, check out the episode where he nerds out with Maria Popova of Brain Pickings about their respective systems for taking notes in books, or the one where designer Debbie Millman walks you through an exercise in visualizing what you want your life to look like, or the one with Neil Gaiman which just warmed my heart.

The reason I’m sticking with Tim Ferriss now is that he’s the only author/personality/etc obsessive enough about doing things well, for me to relate to. I actually have a hard time finding anyone else who is willing to go into enough detail for my taste. He is also by far the best podcast interviewer out of anyone I’ve heard (which is only maybe 5-6 others, but still). No one else comes close. He doesn’t go into an interview like, the guest is just here to push their new book/venture so let’s just summarize that over and over and be done with it. He goes into it looking to wander into a conversation the guest hasn’t had before even if they’ve gone on a hundred other podcasts–maybe going into their childhood, the darkest moments they’ve ever had, or their exact morning routine, or other life stories they haven’t told anyone else about.

He doesn’t let the guest dodge the question by being vague: “Haha. No, but seriously. What’s one thing you do every morning? Maybe you can tell me one specific thing?” He asks the followup questions that are begged: almost every time I think to myself, “Oh, now you have to ask him X,” the next thing he says is, “Okay, since you said that, my listeners are definitely going to want to know X, can you elaborate on that?” He makes it applicable to his listenership: “Let’s say someone has been wanting to get started [making electronic music / experimenting with ice baths / earning money from photography / whatever the guest does]. What’s the first thing they should do? How does it work?”

Thanks to all those little things and more, it almost always turns out to be a really engaging, detailed conversation and not a bullshit interview just to claim you had so-and-so on your show, like so many podcasts. Even if you don’t care about the content, it can teach you how to talk to anyone, which is to say how to be curious about anyone.

If you want to check it out, all 3 of the episodes I mentioned above are representative of what I describe, especially because the guests really go with the flow of what he’s trying to do. If you are a young white tech dude trying to get buff, there’s plenty for you there too! Just browse the episode list and you will see all the big names.


New sport I tried: Bouldering

“What made you decide to try bouldering?” my instructor asked me.

“I watched Free Solo too many times.”

This is true, but it’s only part of the reason. I watched Free Solo first, in late 2018, but my first climbing experience was actually ice climbing, in January 2019. While in Norway, two tiny Finnish ladies taught me how to top-rope up a frozen waterfall using ice axes and crampons. Hanging out alone at least five stories up a wall of ice, the people I came with reduced to tiny pinpoints way down below: that was the seed of the addiction. After that, I was ready to try indoor climbing.

In the town where I lived, I could choose between bouldering and rope climbing; there was one gym for each. Bouldering involves climbing short heights without a rope. It’s a bit simpler because you don’t need any gear at all, you don’t need a partner, and you don’t need any training (though obviously it’s nice to have a little bit). You can walk in, change your shoes like with bowling, and with some gyms (this was true of the one I went to), you can already do one or two of the easiest routes, which might require no more skill than climbing a ladder. Just like with bowling, you can pick up some tips from friends along the way. I liked the simplicity, but what clinched it was that the bouldering gym was closer to the office and to my house, and was slightly cheaper. There you go.

Once I was up on the wall, I discovered another reason I was drawn to bouldering: without any rope or equipment, your mind is left with a real, primal fear, even when the fall would be relatively tiny and harmless. Self-consciousness and fear of embarrassment is a whole ‘nother thing that’s real (if you don’t fall on your ass in front of strangers and friends, often, you’re probably not doing it right), but I’m talking about a deeper, non-social feeling, the vertigo from looking straight down the wall, the animal nervousness that if I slip, I might literally die. And I don’t even have a particular fear of heights.

But what I discovered that was much more unexpected was the countering belief: the sense of the state and position of my own body and how it’s currently balanced, that allows me to know: “Yeah–but I won’t fall. Not from this position.” And that conflict between primal panic and informed calm is an allegory for all sorts of things in life (see my previous post The downside of staying put, for one). Not only that, there’s the self-preservation that kicks in: “Falling is not an option. I can’t fall.” Which functions like a +20-50% strength powerup on some hard/scary moves that I wouldn’t have thought I was strong enough to make, because my body has kicked into survival mode. Just for the experience of one or both of these feelings, I think it’s worth trying out.

Speaking of strength, I am an exceedingly petite and physically not-strong person, but it turns out it doesn’t matter too much for climbing. Not having a lot of muscle just forces you into good technique, which will pay off in more advanced routes where dudes who have been muscling their way up will falter. See Ashima Shiraishi, petite Japanese-American girl who became a world-class climber around the age of 13.

I’m still very much a beginner and I don’t climb much these days; it’s just kind of time-expensive and sometimes money-expensive, and not a priority for me at the moment. But I still have my own chalk bag, which means I’m legit. And if you invite me, I will probably go.


Film director I got into: Jia Zhangke

Ahh. I discovered Jia Zhangke in the most unlikely of places: sitting at a cafe in the Netherlands, idly picking up a film festival brochure on the table and flipping through it. It was an international film festival which happened to be in town that week. (This happened more than once while I lived in NL. Are the Dutch just good at leaving timely film festival brochures in cafes, or do we also do this in the US and I never noticed?) So I looked for movies subtitled in English and not Dutch, so I could watch them, and the one that caught my eye was Ash Is Purest White, so I went to the movie.

What the work meant to me is easier to convey if I tell you that in my family, as in many Chinese families, there is no concept of an inner life or an emotional life. None. Just last year I told my parents that I found out the father of a friend of mine had committed suicide. Their response was, “But how could that be? He had plenty of money to support himself through retirement.” Reader, THIS WAS MY CHILDHOOD. Think I ever tell my parents, or anyone in my family, when I’m feeling sad about something? I don’t, and most of my other Chinese friends don’t either.

Chinese movies and stories historically have had plenty of emotion, but it’s mostly kind of hackneyed and over the top; if you were to actually act like any of the characters in such stories, your family would talk shit about you behind your back forever, until you die. Not an exaggeration.

In Jia Zhangke’s films (I’ve watched just a couple now and I plan to watch more), there is China, today, with all the transformation that is actually happening, and with the distinct sense of place and class and being from a specific region (like you can be Chinese and in an unfamiliar part of China you can still feel like an alien from another planet… kind of like in the US), and there’s a deep undercurrent of anguish and emotion, which is both real and expressed realistically, which is to say, pretty much not at all, but you can feel it. That’s the real shit. All the reasons in the world to feel loss and suffering, and no language to say it in.

In short, Chinese film in general is becoming a real, nuanced thing and not just the cheesy soap operas and martial arts movies I grew up with, and Jia Zhangke is a major influence. For a more general overview, I especially liked the documentary Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang.


Best book I read: Frantumaglia, by Elena Ferrante

As I wrote on Goodreads: “The best company the lonely soul of a writer could ask for.” (But if you haven’t read anything by Ferrante yet, I wouldn’t start with this one, I’d start with My Brilliant Friend, which I force on any and all friends who will accept a book from me. Amazon says I’ve ordered it 4 times; I know I’ve bought it in a store more than once; and I recently gave away my own copy so I don’t even have one anymore. My only copy is in Italian.)

But back to Frantumaglia. Why write? What makes it worth it? How do you know whether you have to or should? How do you know when it’s good enough, what does that feel like? Why publish, and what makes that worth it? Why not publish? What does it mean to publish? What’s the cost?

Who is the author? Does it matter? What does your childhood give you, or the place you come from, and how can you use that? What do life experiences give us, what does cruelty and suffering give us, what do our mothers give us?

What can writing do that film can’t? What does it mean to read a book? What happens when you read someone else’s book? When someone else reads your book? How do you let go of what you’ve written?

Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m really a writer. When I read My Brilliant Friend, I don’t feel like I’m a writer, I feel like that’s a writer. But reading Frantumaglia, I felt like a real writer. Like I’m part of a secret sisterhood of people who care about the same things and wonder about the same questions and quietly, wherever we are in the world, find a little corner and do our work.


Other best book I read: Adults in the Room, by Yanis Varoufakis

A memoir by the former finance minister of Greece, who in 2015 found himself with an impossible hand dealt to his country by the EU, tried to fight back, and details in the book exactly why and how it didn’t work.

When I was approaching my 20th birthday, I emailed my dad to ask whether he had any opinions on the following fields I was interested in going into in order to make the world a better place: international peace & security, economic development, or the environment and climate change. He suggested that I avoid the first two, because if I got deep enough into either one, I would run into corruption and other nastiness and would wind up unhappy.

The more I learn about the world, the more I get what he was saying. Adults in the Room really hammered it home. But the way I see it now, it’s more nuanced than what he made it sound like or the way I saw the world at 20: by and large, people aren’t evil, people are self-interested. The system isn’t evil, the system is impersonal. It’s too impersonal to keep itself from causing large-scale suffering, and it’s too complex for any one person or group to keep it from causing large-scale suffering. Varoufakis makes it clear from the first chapters that he sees things in much the same way.

Now I’ll quote from my own Goodreads review:

The past five days of reading this book, I laughed, I cried, I couldn’t put the book down, when out with friends I was mildly impatient to get back to the story, and I learned more than I ever thought I would about the issues facing Europe.

I walked into the book as an ignorant American where the full extent of my knowledge of the EU was “it means I don’t have to change currency all the time when I travel through Europe” (seriously) (even though I have lived in Europe for over a year), and I now feel like I would be prepared to summarize, point by point, every economic proposal and negotiating strategy that was considered by Varoufakis & co.–which suggests a feat of teaching and of clear explanation that’s impressive on its own–but also, that I could summarize [the author’s understanding of] all the political considerations on the part of each player. Varoufakis is able to clearly and empathetically explain every one of his opponents’ positions, even the allies who backstabbed him, and what each has to gain or lose from a certain decision.

What transpires in the story is completely horrifying. But Varoufakis is the kind of writer (, person, economist, politician) who understands that economic policy can shatter people, and economic policy can also make people feel like life is worth living again. In a time when it’s so easy/justified to be a cynic, that kind of understanding can make you feel a little something in your shriveled little heart (speaking for myself, of course).


City I visited: Bratislava, Slovakia

This was a true discovery, as I’d never heard of Bratislava, and only went there to attend a polyglot conference that was happening there. The conference was just okay, but the city was a gem. Small, cheap, English-friendly, warm (as in charming, though the weather was nice when I went in spring/summer), walkable, bussable, with a surprising density of lovely food, comfy cafes (Turkish coffee and the selfie-ccino, where you can drink latte foam in the shape of your face or your dog’s face), the occasional terrifyingly stark Communist architecture / interior design, which you may or may not find funny (terrifying when you’re inside it, maybe funny later)… and, maybe most surprisingly, the best collection of bookstores with English books that I’ve found anywhere in Europe that I’ve been. Yes, perhaps better than Amsterdam. And that’s a major factor for me.

I felt it on the rainy day I spent bookstore-hopping and visited pretty much every one with English books in the city. In the morning I was in a tiny cafe-bookstore with about five tables, and bookshelves along the walls–at one point, just two of us in there, the barista-owner lady sitting behind the counter, and me at a table, each of us reading our own book, both listening to the perfect rainy-day-indie playlist over the speakers. (From which I discovered a couple of bands that I continued listening to for the rest of the year.) The afternoon I spent at a huge bookstore with an equally huge cafe (actually, two stories of cafe) where you can read the books without buying them, and I think you either press a button to order or they have servers walking around and you can wave them over. All I remember is I camped in a big comfy armchair with a pile of books for about three hours while servers came by dropping off multiple rounds of pie and tea. It could be worse.

Visiting cities for the first time, I often feel like a tourist, which means either shunned, or treated with fake niceness and servility that I can’t break past, or taken advantage of, or any combination of those. In Bratislava, I felt like a guest. Not fawned over, not judged or even really noticed, but welcomed with a run-of-the-mill, almost boring kindness, like a regular person. That’s the best way I can think of to describe it.


Best purchase under $100: a glass tea pot

(My glass tea pot was way less than $100, but I got this category/question from none other than Tim Ferriss, mentioned above.)

I’m all about small, inexpensive ways to make yourself feel rich and pampered. Want to know my #1 tip for this? Garnish your own food and drink. Fresh herbs on your food, a sprig of mint or a lemon slice in your drink, a piece of chocolate or a little cookie with your coffee/tea. If you’ve been my guest before, then you know. This is really important because if you get used to it, you’ll start to feel slightly disappointed when you go out to a restaurant or cafe and they don’t bother to do this. Which teaches you that no one else can give you the kind of attention and care that you can give yourself… which is one of the most important things there is to learn, really.

Anyway, for me, a glass tea pot falls into the same category. If you don’t drink tea, just think of it as a way to prepare and/or serve your beverage of choice (or even a food) that’s just slightly nicer and more restaurant-like or cafe-like than is strictly necessary. I don’t think I ever owned a tea pot previously, I just had tea bags to make individual cups, or at best, paper sleeves for loose leaf, still for individual cups.

With a tea pot, I could brew a pot and share it with a guest–there’s no better way to make someone feel comfy in your home. Plus, it’s pretty, and makes having tea feel like a real event. But I also sometimes used it for myself, even when just a mug and an individual tea filter would suffice. Because it’s fancy. On days like those, sitting down at my own table was like sitting down to work in the best cafe in the world.

Happily, I gave my glass tea pot to a friend when I was moving out, I don’t have it anymore. And I won’t own another while I’m nomadic, but the concept still applies. And it takes on a different twist when you’re not buying things for your own home, but working with what’s there in the place where you are staying.

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