Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The daily card, weeks 47-48

November 24 was inspired by watching a lot of Trump rallies (don't ask), by applying Trump's winning attitude to challenges at work, and most specifically by Vox's illustration of Trump in their Thanksgiving primer. November 29 inspired by Elise - I love how this one turned out.

November 30 is a favorite quote from the inimitable Lindy West and December 3 refers to this great quote from Ira Glass about closing the gap between art you recognize as great and art you can create yourself.

As I write this, there are just five days left in 2015. Pretty wild to be so close to the end of the year and of this creative challenge. Since I got a bit beyond in posting throughout the year, I'm going to double up for the last few weeks' worth of cards. 

If there's one thing I will take away from this challenge, it is that creativity breeds creativity and action begets action. I've gotten some of my best card ideas when life is hectic. And this holds true well beyond the cards. The days that I have to do a bunch of writing at work are the days that I am raring to start writing new blog posts. 

The best part is, high-volume writing days in a professional context help take the fear and emotion out of my personal writing here and elsewhere. They remind me that writing is just words and ideas - not a reflection of my deepest worth as a human being. They teach me to be comfortable with criticism and to not take it personally when someone has thoughts on how to strengthen something. They remind me to just start getting stuff down on the page and to go from there.

As a creative challenge, I am decorating a playing card every day in 2015. More context on this project is here and you can see all past card posts here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The daily card, week 46

On tap this week: stamping with wine, finding pattern in Arabic script, obsessed with Hamilton, finished reading Essentialism, wondering when you can appropriately wear bras that show through your clothing, trying not to freak out, and the phrase that captures this year better than any other.

That phrase is from Life of Pi, in which Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with a lot of tiger and very few supplies. He finds a water can but, sans can opener, has to use a tarpaulin hook to open it: "Holding the can with both my hands, I sharply brought it up against the hook. A good dint. I did it again. Another dint next to the first. By dint of dinting, I managed the trick."

I read the book over a decade ago, but I still think of that phrase. For a long time it was just for the clever wordplay - and now also because it so perfectly captures a year of daily creativity and small, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other steps forward.

In high school, I was a bit of a procrastinator, prone to putting things off to the last minute and then writing papers in a burst of inspiration over the course of a late night. (I once faked a semester's worth of prayer journal entries in an afternoon.) It was stressful, but I did well, so I never had incentive to change my ways to embrace the slow-and-steady.

But most everything worthwhile I have done in my adult life has been by dint of dinting. I am not a great athlete, but I have become a runner by dint of dinting. I have been dinting at strengthening my writing basically since I was literate. Until the day when I get tapped to jump ten salary bands and run my organization, I will keep dinting at building competence and expertise in my job. And this whole year-long endeavor - making daily small-scale art - has been a way of dinting at becoming a creative person.

That phrase is immensely encouraging to me - we often don't immediately see the impact of our efforts, we just need to dint, dint, dint.

As a creative challenge, I am decorating a playing card every day in 2015. More context on this project is here and you can see all past card posts here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Week 45 and thoughts on art & identity

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the daily cards are not so much a part of my public identity as they are a personal practice. (Even if I am sharing them with the Internet.) There is a lot of emphasis in blog world on having a well-integrated personal brand. But the thing is, I don't know that I do -- or even that I want to. I love working in international development and democratic politics by day and I love dabbling in this stuff by night. But it is not really something you could consider a "side hustle." It is not going to make me money or give me skills I can use in my job or inspire an entirely new online career. It doesn't feel "essential" in the Essentialism sense -- it is probably not furthering my ability to make my highest possible contribution to the planet.

All of these thoughts had been rolling around in the back of my mind when I listened to Elizabeth Gilbert's Magic Lessons podcast. In one, talking to a burned-out art teacher who wants to recommit to making her own art, Liz tells her to have an affair with her creativity. To pursue something that is just for her, that is even a bit furtive and secret, that doesn't depend on having an audience and in fact does better without one. And I loved that idea. It made things click for me. It was immensely reassuring to be reminded that my creative life, if you can call it that, needs to serve no further end than my own enjoyment.

As a creative challenge, I am decorating a playing card every day in 2015. More context on this project is here and you can see all past card posts here.

Monday, December 14, 2015

then & now

There is something so special about coming back to an old place that, plus or minus a few restaurants, has stayed basically the same - it gives you a window on what has changed in yourself. I first came to Mauritania when I was 23, less than a year after I wrapped up my post-collegiate world travels and just six months into my first real job. Now I am 26, feeling more like an adult in some moments and as confused and naive as ever in others. I have changed and stayed the same in ways that, while endlessly interesting to me, would be very boring to read about. But the sun is still hot, the beach is still lovely, and the seafood is still fresh and plentiful. Plus รงa change

Saturday, December 12, 2015

My traveling-for-work intentions

This draft started when I last traveled to Mauritania earlier this year, not expecting that I'd be back so soon. I rediscovered it when I was getting ready to travel to Nouakchott last week and, though Austin gives me a hard time for saying this, I was reinspired by my own words. The funny thing is that it applies just as much, if not more, now than it did before.

I am currently in the middle of a trip to Nouakchott, Mauritania. This is my sixth seventh work trip, depending on how you count it. And no two of them have been the same. (With the exception of the three Tunisian election days, which were like living the same day three times). I like to try to set intentions, but I've found that the key is not to hang on to expectations too tightly based on what things were like in the past. Every time I've come, the office has been helmed by a different country director with a different style and different favorite haunts around Nouakchott. This time there's no acting country director and so it's even more different.

So my goals are to be useful and to learn something about the culture -- and most of all to be open to whatever happens. And to never think I know everything there is to know. The nice thing about Mauritania is it's clear, right off the bat, that you are just scratching the surface. When I first came to Nouakchott, I expected it to feel like a sleepy town at the end of the world. And in some ways it does. But there are also surprisingly gorgeous beaches and well-stocked supermarkets and a society far more complex than you can grasp in a quick ten days.

And speaking of being inspired by my own words, this note fell out of my legal pad when I was unpacking. It's my handwriting, but I have no recollection of writing it and no idea what originally prompted it -- it was a couple years ago, based on the stationery, and when I was presumably in a more woo-woo phase than I am now. But it was almost spookily apt and surprisingly reassuring as I geared up for my time here. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The daily card, week 44

This was a fun week full of lots of writing. (And editing, which can feel like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.) "Neighborhood news" is a reference to the fabulous Girl Next Door podcast - the big news in Columbia Heights these days is the Chick-fil-a that just opened, and since Austin was away I treated myself without someone there to remind me of the human rights abuses I was committing by proxy. Then Sunday, I ran a 10k across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and celebrated that with some Maryland flag pride.

The "she's a rebel" card is all about serendipity and the power of the crop. I cut out a magazine picture of a rebellious-looking guy to accompany that caption, but then I noticed the perfectly-framed image on the reverse side, and decided to use that one instead. I love the about-to-take-a-leap moment it captures, and how the crop focuses on one person in a crowd. I was composing a blog post in my head about the power of creative accident when Austin asked if my card was "about a girl's butt." So that brought me back down to a place where I could take myself a little less seriously. :)

Otherwise, my favorite new technique is using watercolor to paint on stamps. I stumbled into this one by not having paint or ink the shade of blue that I wanted, so I looked for alternatives. I totally dig the ephemeral way it turned out.

Moving right along! So crazy that we are now on month 12 of 12 of the year of creative habits. I am hoping to finish this project strong.

As a creative challenge, I am decorating a playing card every day in 2015. More context on this project is here and you can see all past card posts here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The daily card, week 43

Eek... I had better keep up with posting these or I will still be sharing this year's cards well into next year. In some ways, this project has faded into the background. I don't really think much about it (until it's time to post here, of course). It's just a part of my routine. So it's going to be weird that in less than eight weeks I won't be doing it anymore.

There are some things that aren't so much a part of my public identity, in the way that gardening is, but more something that makes me feel like myself. The daily cards do that for me. Bar Method does that for me. On a good day, running does that for me. Walking around my neighborhood and listening to podcasts, reading before bed, do that for me for sure. It is like an internal touchstone. It is a reset position. It's not something I talk about much. Despite the fact that I'm sharing here, this project is really just for me.

When life gets busy, as it is at the moment, it's tempting to want to jettison this project to have more time for Things That Need to Get Done. But I've found that when life gets busy is when I most need this, to keep me in touch with who I am and to help me find the calm center underneath it all. In times like this, I am so glad that I made this commitment to myself.

As a creative challenge, I am decorating a playing card every day in 2015. More context on this project is here and you can see all past card posts here.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The daily card, week 42

Hi there! I am falling off the regular blogging wagon until the end of the year as I work on some other projects - but I will still plan to share the remaining weeks of the daily card project.

My favorite by far is October 24, which is a washi-tape recreation of the Anthropologie dress that I wore to a friend's engagement party. My least favorite - like, possibly of the entire year - is October 21. I like the concept but the execution did not work and it looks like a Claire's catalogue threw up on a graffiti wall. But the quote is from Elizabeth Gilbert's fantastic podcast and her advice to stay present and find inspiration in what's around you, however mundane. On a similar note, October 19 is inspired by the alt-text of this comic, which I think of when I get bogged down in stuff at work that probably doesn't matter too much in the scheme of things.

And for another creative playing card project, I recommend Austin Kleon's steal strategies.

As a creative challenge, I am decorating a playing card every day in 2015. More context on this project is here and you can see all past card posts here.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The daily card, week 41

This is one of my favorite weeks in a while. Inspired by: the pattern on my favorite plaid shirt and rummaging through my childhood bookcase; the first Democratic debate (it's Hillary's logo on a photo of Vermont); the deliciousness of runny eggs, especially on bibimbap; collage inspired by a Katie Licht zine; rainbow stamping; a favorite line from True Detective (so good); and a moment of existential doubt (don't worry, Mom, I'm okay). The latter is done in the style of one of my favorite pieces of modern art, by Steve Lambert via Wendy at First Person Singular a few years ago. Lots of orange this week - it's feeling like fall for sure.

As a creative challenge, I am decorating a playing card every day in 2015. More context on this project is here and you can see all past card posts here.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The daily card, week 40

For Monday through Thursday, I went with a theme of black brush script, mostly of quotes I like on magazine tear-outs and a photo. (Quotes are from Hafiz / Bob Dylan / Virginia Woolf / Liz Lemon.) But I got a bit bored with that and switched it up for the weekend. I did actually make seven cards this week, just redacting Sunday's for my personal records.

In some ways, it feels like the year is wrapping up - even though we have (almost) a full quarter of it left to go. I'm already trolling the web for 2016 calendars and thinking about what, if anything, I'll do next year. I would love to keep up the habit of daily, or at least regular, creativity - but I would also like to take some of the pressure off.  I will confess, I am looking forward to the day when I don't have to make a card. It is so impressive to me that Crystal Moody went right from a year of drawing everyday to a year of painting everyday.

Right now, I'm thinking I would love to try something a little more free-form than completing a card. Like art journaling, or maybe just "making something," (almost) every day, and not worrying so much about missing a bubble on the goal tracker. It would also be fun to try drawing or doodling every day since this project has made me want to build my skills in that area.

What I love about this project is that it got me creating every day. But I don't like that it meant that I had less time to art journal and make minibooks and do all of that other good stuff. But then again, I'm not sure that I would have done much of that without the creative habit in place either. The beauty of the daily card is that it can be quick and simple, while my art journaling and book making processes tend to be longer and more involved. Maybe the trick is just to bring some of that permission to be quick, simple, and imperfect to my other creative endeavors.

As a creative challenge, I am decorating a playing card every day in 2015. More context on this project is here and you can see all past card posts here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The daily card, week 39

This week I felt like drawing a Bloody Mary and getting a bit messier. I made fake blackout poetry with a line from Sister Corita Kent's rules for creativity. (Blackout style and quote both via Austin Kleon.) I played around with tissue paper and used a paper clip as a stamp. And then I spent the weekend in Chicago and prepped simple cards based on vintage Chicago posters. All good stuff.

As a creative challenge, I am decorating a playing card every day in 2015. More context on this project is here and you can see all past card posts here.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Our California adventure

For what was originally meant to be a travel blog, I have, ironically, done a very poor job blogging about my travels. I'm going to try to do better - and first up is a recap of the nine days Austin and I spent in California in early September. This was not an adventure in that it was very far off the beaten path - but we did do a lot of moving around and made a lot of decisions on the fly.

A few months back, Austin and his parents started talking about meeting up for a long weekend in Napa over the summer, and were kind enough to invite me along. I mentioned that as long as we were on the West Coast, I'd like to combine it with a visit to my sister in Southern California, since I'd been hoping to make it out her direction this summer anyway. Austin was game to join me - and so the idea was hatched of doing a mini-road trip down the coast from Napa to Newport.

Lonely Planet recommended you take a week or two to travel down the coast. I scoffed a bit at that suggestion since Google Maps only showed seven or eight hours of driving time between San Francisco and Newport Beach - a trip that could technically be knocked out in one day that we would be taking a leisurely route on over two or three. Oh man, have I seen the light. Sure, the driving time is one thing, but there is so much to stop and see along the way. This was a fantastic trip but I would love to go back and hit some of the spots we missed.

We landed at SFO early on Saturday morning and made our way to Fisherman's Wharf, where we stayed at The Argonaut hotel. That was a San Francisco highlight for sure - it was converted from an old cannery with some of the original wooden beams still showing (and the best and only octopus wallpaper I have ever seen). After Irish coffees and a bit of wandering around the piers, we hit Zuni Cafe (I believe on a recommendation from Tom Sietsema, who can do no wrong in my book) for roast chicken and several glasses of rose in the hour it took them to roast the chicken. (No complaints here.) We hit City Lights bookstore and the cable car museum, and then the bar at the top of the Mark hotel for happy hour. We had been wondering whether it would be a better stop by day or by night - the obvious solution is to stay for a few hours and several drinks to watch the sun set and the city lights come on.

We capped off Saturday with dinner in Chinatown and an impromptu driving tour, including Lombard Street and a stop at Coit Tower. I had never heard of it but would definitely recommend it for the fantastic views - though there seemed to be no shortage of those, what with all the hills. It's a cliche but they were SERIOUSLY SO STEEP. And it wasn't like the city was just a tilted plane, they went up in all angles in all directions with no discernible pattern - hard for us swamp-dwellers to wrap our heads around.

On Sunday morning, I went for a walk along the Embarcadero to see the sea lions at Pier 39 (spoiler alert: seals and sea lions were my absolute favorite thing about this trip). Before heading across the bay bridge, we stopped at the Ferry Building for lemon-lavender-charcoal juice and artisanal mushroom jerky. Similar vibes to Union Market in DC but pretty cool that it is still a working ferry terminal.

We stopped in Berkeley for fantastic Mexican food and a quick self-guided campus tour, then continued on to Napa - just in time for happy hour at Mumm, where the two-drink limit was a source of some disgruntlement among our party. We then embarked upon the first of several vineyard photo shoots. Let the record reflect that I would have been happy with a few profile pic-worthy snapshots, but Austin egged me on into an extended session featuring a number of jumping photos. (Foreshadowing.)

We continued just a few more minutes down Silverado Trail to our airbnb. We had opted to stay in St. Helena since it seemed a bit less congested than more southerly areas of the valley, and it ended up being a great location - we could have drunk for weeks without ever going beyond a five-minute driving radius. Austin found a fantastic two-bedroom airbnb, of which everyone's favorite feature was a palm tree in the middle of a vineyard. Doesn't get more California than that.

On Monday, we hit Sterling Vineyards for its tram ride to the top, had a nice lunch in neighboring Calistoga at Solbar, got inspired by the idea of port and hit Prager Winery and Port Works, and capped it off drinking a lot of cabernet sauvignon (including some of the really good stuff) at the beautifully-designed Hall Wines - of which my favorite feature was the rabbit sculpture. This was, predictably, the site of another jumping photo session - the results of which I will spare you.

Tuesday morning, my back started bothering me. Some back story (do you see what I did there?!) - my lower back has been hurting on and off since April (the hilarious thing is, I remember that's what it started because I made a daily card the first day it was bad enough to leave work early). It flared up the week before we left, but I was hopeful that I would be over it by the trip. It never felt 100% back-to-normal - the cross-country flight didn't help - but it didn't feel like a big deal until Tuesday, when it appeared that all the jumping photos came back to bite me.

Nonetheless, we had a great wine-tasting at Frog's Leap and learned about the perks of growing organic grapes and not irrigating your vines (so they grow deeper, hardier roots) - the community gardener in me was totally fascinated that the same principles that apply to my vegetables apply to wine. But it got harder and harder to stand up, and by the afternoon I was yowling every time I had to get out of the car. Since we kept passing the turn for the St. Helena hospital on the way to and from the wineries, I put in a request for a quick emergency room visit. I left a few hours later with a bunch of drugs and a new lease on life for the rest of the trip. It sucked to spend part of vacation at the hospital, but it did have the nicest views of any I've been in.

Wednesday morning, we got an early start to drop Austin's parents off at the airport, passing through Sonoma and over the Golden Gate Bridge, and then drove to Palo Alto to pay Stanford a visit.

We made it to Monterey by late afternoon and checked into a fantastic airbnb, about ten minutes in the hills surrounding the town with fantastic views of the area. We had gone back and forth on the idea of staying in Monterey - initially we thought we'd spend Wednesday night in Big Sur - but it looked like most places in Big Sur were inland, and Austin was adamant about staying someplace with views and NOT staying in the woods. We walked around the wharfs as the sun set and then had fish at a Tiki restaurant in town - the first of a few restaurants with a "water only on request" because of the drought. We would have liked to visit the Monterey aquarium, but it didn't quite work in our schedule - that's top of the list for a future trip.

On Thursday morning, we did a quick driving tour of Monterey to see Cannery Row and the Middlebury Institute, and then headed onto California 1 through Big Sur. It was everything Instagram promised and more. We pulled over every few miles to take in the view and saw some whales along the way. We skipped Nepenthe and ate an impromptu picnic lunch of the various foods we'd accumulated during our stay. We took the can't-miss-it trail (a little over a mile round trip) in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to see where the waterfall hits the sand. Probably one of the most Instagrammed parts of the park and worth a visit for sure.

This photo makes me laugh - I love the composition (nice eye, Austin) and the pictures of just me in front of the ocean are a little misleading. (I actually didn't mind the throngs since hey, it's cool to be around people who are just as excited as you, and it was a good way to pick the "best" scenic viewpoints to stop at.)

After leaving the Big Sur area, it's a short drive to San Simeon, where the elephant seals joust on a beach near Hearst Castle (which we didn't hit - it wasn't top of my list but I'd definitely be curious on a future trip). We made something of a mad dash to Morro Bay to watch the sun set by Morro Rock. On a recommendation, we hit Taco Temple for shrimp and swordfish tacos that did not disappoint. (But tortilla chips that did. Somehow none of the tortilla chips in California were up to par.) If there's one contribution I have to what is an amply-covered part of the country, it is that Morro Bay is a super-worthwhile stop.

We knew Friday was going to be A Lot of Driving to get to Newport Beach. (We'd given some thought to spacing it more evenly, but based on where we were interested in stopping for the night - and the fact that Big Sur seemed like the part of the drive we'd most want to linger on - we gave into a longer drive on Friday.) If we'd had more time on Friday, we would have kayaked around Morro Rock - but we satisfied ourselves with gazing upon it from the shore. We got coffees in a charming bakery - full of salty dogs and bread in the shape of various sea animals - on the embarcadero and then hit the road. We ventured away from the Pacific Coast Highway (I think) in the interest of efficiency, but the views through Santa Barbara were surprisingly scenic. I think we dipped into the Santa Ynez Valley - another place I'd love to go back to for wine-tasting and more fantastic views.

When choosing the airbnb for Newport, the two front-runners were a room in a beach house on Balboa Peninsula by Newport Pier, a couple blocks from the beach, and a room on Balboa Island facing the harbor. We ended up opting for the latter and oh man, was it the right call. Our room had French doors opening onto a little terrace, and then right across the sidewalk there was a private beach where we flouted the rules a bit to have some sunset chardonnay.

After sundown, we took the ferry across to the peninsula for a private Ferris Wheel ride and a fantastic sushi dinner. We sat at the bar at San Shi Go in Newport and, like the proper hipsters we are, asked what fish were local and in season - which led to course after course of delicious sushi being presented to us and a much higher bill than anticipated. It was well worth it though and a huge highlight of the trip.

Saturday morning, we had frozen bananas for breakfast on Balboa Island and geeked out at staying where Arrested Development was set. We then picked up my sister and kayaked for a few hours in the harbor between Balboa Peninsula and Balboa Island - we even pulled onshore across from our airbnb and lounged in the sand for a bit. There were more sea lions there - swimming around and hanging out on the backs of boats and honking when anyone got too close. We got more fantastic tacos at Sancho's tacos and leaned into SoCal life with acai bowls for dessert. After chilling on our little beach that afternoon, we had dinner with my sister in Huntington Beach.

Sunday morning, we were up at 4:45 to drive to LAX - foregoing the smaller, closer Orange County airport for the promise of a nonstop flight back to DC. We were a little nervous about tackling the traffic and figuring out how to return the rental - but at that hour, there were very few people on the highway and the airport was a cinch. And it was cool to drive into LA as the sun came up.

So that's it! Overall thoughts: I could probably vacation in California for the rest of my life and never get bored. And I have a newfound appreciation for the fact that a road trip is a tricky thing to get right. It's hard to balance the on-the-move parts with let's-explore-this-locale parts with let's-sit-and-drink-wine-and-enjoy-the-view parts. And to balance the fun of spontaneous adventure with the stresses of last-minute planning. I wish we had had the time to spend two nights at our stops down the coast - so we could explore the aquarium and the castle and do more relaxing in our lovely airbnb spots and to not have to pack up and drive several hours every day. If we did it again, I'd want to stay longer or try to cover less territory.

In summary, the big winners: Airbnbs, tacos, views, wine, sea lions, and health insurance. The losers: tortilla chips and sciatica.

...and if you made it to the end of this post, we both deserve a nice glass of California wine. Even if in my case, it's from the nearest grocery store. Cheers!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Book Review: The end of the world as we know it - The Circle

(You can read the first two parts of my apocalyptic summer reading book review series, on The Last Days of California and Station Elevenhere and here.)

The Circle by Dave Eggers | Recommended by Erika

Favorite line: "Not every human activity can be measured. The ceaseless pursuit of data to quantify the value of any endeavor is catastrophic to true understanding."

If Station Eleven depicts a post-technology world, The Circle is one where technology has taken on a new degree of authoritarianism over our lives as social creatures and as consumers. It follows Mae, a twenty-something who gets a job at The Circle, a Google-like technology company quickly expanding its reach over a variety of human endeavors. If we're being technical, this is more dystopian than apocalyptic - but it definitely focused on a radically changed world. This was a quick and enjoyable, if a bit predictable and slow-to-start, cautionary tale about the direction we're headed in our social media-obsessed world. Once you grasp the basic conceit, you see where the story is going. But then again, it was also more thought-provoking than I anticipated.

At the Circle, any experience that's not shared socially is essentially worthless. You are expected to be "on" constantly, and to be able to package your interests and travels and achievements in a way that makes you attractive to others. It's the logical conclusion of the idea that "if it's not on Facebook, it didn't happen" - and the temptation to, when you're traveling, get caught up in thinking about how you'll caption your photos later instead of enjoying the moment. I've found myself thinking that about some of my own endeavors - like what good is this if no one knows about it? - so it was a good reminder that there is value in private experience.

Unexpectedly, the book also made me think about how we approach social change. The Circle uses its technology - tracking devices and video cameras and the like - to combat countless social ills. When that leads to a disastrous conclusion, the book (implicitly) challenges the idea that all we need is the brightest minds and the latest technology to solve the world's toughest problems - that there is a simple technical solution we can come to if we just think hard enough / do enough coding / design enough reusable widgets to distribute in the developing world. While widgets are well and good and sometimes necessary, what we need most are political and social solutions.

The line about the "ceaseless pursuit of data" quoted above (which comes from a Circle naysayer) was an especially good, and broadly applicable, reality check. It's certainly an indictment of us Fitbit obsessives who consider a walk wasted if our beloved devices ran out of charge. And it applies broadly across a number of sectors, to education policy and - most relevant to me - to the increasing push to quantify our difficult-to-quantify results in my field of democratic development.

I have loved Dave Eggers' work in the past - both the classic A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and especially loved his inventive and playful short stories in How We Are Hungry. I actually met him at an event when I was volunteering for his literacy organization, 826DC, a couple years ago - he was gracious to the volunteers and so friendly about signing my book. This book read like he was pulling his punches or writing like a "normal" writer and I don't think it's the best showcase of his talent. If you're interested in a "near future" futuristic novel, I would instead recommend Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, which similarly depicts a world in which our devices are more and more integrated into our identities, but layers it with broader commentary about social change.

And that's it! I'm currently reading All the Light We Cannot See and enjoying it. I'm not sure if I'll continue to do book reviews in the future but this has been a fun writing exercise for sure.

Links throughout this series are not affiliate because I am not that legitAnd because I checked these all out of the library anyway

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The daily card, week 38

In the interest of full transparency, I will confess: the cards for Saturday and Sunday were made after the fact (like, on Monday and Tuesday). If a card needs to dry, sometimes I'll wait until the next day before applying finishing touches. But it's been a while since I flat-out haven't made a card - the only other times have been when I'm literally traveling all day long, and even then I end up doing it ahead of time. On Saturday, I ended up crashing at a friend's house after an all-day beer olympics birthday party and a late night catching up around the fire. And then the festivities continued on Sunday and I was too beat to make a card. Both days, I came up with an idea for a card that I promised to execute later and called it good enough. Good to remember that the point of this project is to encourage creativity, not to squeeze it so tightly that it gets crushed. 

Commemorated this week: the pope visiting, learning the phrase "Netflix and chill," watching Wild, and playing a Lovecraftian board game with friends. It was a good week.

As a creative challenge, I am decorating a playing card every day in 2015. More context on this project is here and you can see all past card posts here.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Fantastic news

I remember waking up in February 2013 to the news - delivered by Austin's daily NPR fix - that a leading Tunisian opposition activist had been (presumably) assassinated, and worrying what that would mean for the country's transition. Since then, I've woken up a few more times to bad news out of Tunisia - when the second politician was killed in July 2013 and then, this year, to the terrorist attacks on Bardo and Sousse. So I was thrilled to learn when I woke up Friday, in my half-awake Facebook-scrolling state, that the National Dialogue Quartet had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

There's lots more information on the Nobel site (though they overstate it when they suggest that Tunisia had been on the brink of civil war). But in short, the two assassinations resulted in political tensions and a stalemate that threatened to derail the transition process in summer 2013. A Quartet of civil society organizations stepped in to negotiate a path forward, leading to the passage of a new constitution and historic elections last fall.

This Nobel feels huge. It's tremendous recognition not just for the leaders who negotiated the deal, but for so many Tunisians who have worked so hard over the past few years to make the transition succeed - and who have weathered the challenges it has meant for the country's economy and security situation. I think it's significant that the award recognizes civil society actors rather than elected politicians. The transition is far from over, and there have been some bumps - most recently, the state of emergency following the Sousse attack - but I am hopeful that regardless of what political leaders do, the country's strong civil society will continue to safeguard the process.

The Nobel doesn't necessarily change anything on the ground. The challenges are still challenging. But it does signal to the international community that we should not give up on Tunisia. In the wake of the headlines about the tragic deaths on the beach in Sousse, I'm hopeful that the Nobel will refocus positive attention on the country - and remind us that there is still so much reason for optimism.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The daily card, week 37: Q4 edition

After our trip to California, my new plan is to move out there and start a line of Central Coast-themed letterpress greeting cards. The hitch is I'm pretty sure a bunch of people are doing that pretty well already and that the September 16 card is my only design so far. September 15 features a quote from Crystal Moody. This week also features the first naked card I've done... both one of my lazier and more brilliant moves. Word to the wise, this is what happens when you do your crafting late at night after too many beers.

Now that we've rounded the bend of October 1, we're in the last quarter of 2015. (When will I get used to how quickly the years go nowadays??) I keep thinking about trusting the process. When I started writing this post, that felt like a totally new idea until I remembered I'd said the exact same thing at the end of the first quarter. Between then and now, I feel like the habit has become more established and it's easier to come up with new ideas. Though there are still days where it's like, "you mean I have to do this again? I just did this yesterday!" But then again I have the same reaction to doing laundry and grocery shopping and exercising.

I've been thinking about trusting the process in other areas of my life too, as I try to figure out how best to move forward in my career and life. About trusting that if I take the next step, the step after that will reveal itself to me - or at least be clearer, if not magically delivered on a silver platter. You just have to chip away at what's in front of you, not knowing exactly what you'll be doing tomorrow or the day after.

At the same time, the daily card challenge hasn't magically made me better at tackling other projects one day at a time... even when I'm faced with a big binder of evidence of the cool stuff that can result when you do just that. Just like Bar Method didn't magically make me more confident and effective at work, or like how I doubt that cleaning my closet would give me the boost to change careers like Kon Mari believers sometimes say. I guess I'd like to think it would carry over more than it does... but it has reminded me that I can set and achieve goals and keep commitments to myself. I just have to work on building that discipline - and establishing good systems and processes to support it - bit by bit in each area of my life.

As a creative challenge, I am decorating a playing card every day in 2015. More context on this project is here and you can see all past card posts here.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The daily card, week 36

This week was all California. (Which, of course, was FANTASTIC. I'll hopefully be sharing more thoughts and photos soon.)  Before we left, I printed off four stock images of the four major places we'd be spending time - in San Francisco, Napa Valley, on Highway 1 down the coast, and in Newport Beach - and used them as the background to the cards.

Since we were road-tripping and moving so much, I brought fewer supplies than I do when I'm headed to one place (like on a work trip) and can spread out all over one desk. There really isn't much artistry and not a ton of creativity in this set. But it was a nice way to get down a few themes, thoughts, or highlights from each day while keeping up with the daily rhythm. For Sunday, after we arrived back from LAX, I took the leftover scraps and wove them together. It sort of mirrors what it feels like getting back from vacation - a smattering of images and memories that blur together in one big scenic highlight reel.

And if you're keeping score at home, here is what all the California cards look like together:

That's about it. This week made for a nice break in real life and a nice break heading into the last quarter of the daily card challenge. As much as I sometimes find myself looking forward to December 31 when I stamp the last date-stamp on the last card, it really is crazy how quickly this year is going by.

As a creative challenge, I am decorating a playing card every day in 2015. More context on this project is here and you can see all past card posts here.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Book Review: The end of the world as we know it - Station Eleven

(You can read part one of my apocalyptic summer reading book review series, on The Last Days of Californiahere.)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel | Recommended by Elise

Favorite line: "No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in doing so, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars."

Oh man, so much to say about this one. As much as I loved the poetry and teenage angst of Last Days, this book was for sure my favorite of the three. I found it completely engrossing to follow the Symphony, which travels around the Great Lakes performing Shakespeare twenty years after the Georgia flu has eliminated 99% of humanity. (It was extra fun to be reading this while in northern Michigan visiting my family and passing highway signs for the same cities Mandel references in the book.) In some ways, it reminded me of Bel Canto - both describe bands of people brought together by art after a catastrophe.

Art and the power of storytelling are central themes here. The characters perform Shakespeare because it represents the best of the old world - though Mandel does well not to dwell too sentimentally about the uplifting power of art. But as another reviewer aptly commented, memorized Star Trek episodes and a tattered copy of an independently published graphic novel survive alongside the Shakespeare and end up being just as significant to the characters. So the book is, in large part, about the eclectic mix of cultural artifacts that survive from the old world and how people hold onto them to make meaning out of their lives in the new one. One of my favorite chapters is from the perspective of a minor character, a teenager in the Symphony who wonders if they shouldn't let go of Shakespeare and start telling new stories for a new world, and starts writing a play of her own.

The paragraph I quote above is from a two-page chapter describing the end of the world - one of the best two pages I've read in recent memory. The book starts off with one character doomsday-prepping-but-this-time-for-real as the flu begins to subsume Toronto. But then in lieu of a big montage of bridges crashing down and fires burning and zombies* on the loose, there are two pages describing all the things that cease to exist. It feels like a giant silence right at the core of the action and such a fitting way to evoke the end of civilization. I love the line "no more avatars" in particular. It describes a world in which there's no more buffer between us and a world that is nasty, brutish, and short, not just in terms of social media but all of the other advances and comforts that have extended our life expectancies.

The book moves back and forth between the post-apocalyptic world and the immediately pre-apocalyptic one, focused on a famous actor and his series of wives. I enjoyed that story line too, though the use of multiple perspectives made it feel like it was retreading familiar territory by the end. But I wanted more post-apocalyptic world-building - I wanted the Symphony to cover more ground, meet more cults, face more action, paint a bigger picture. So ultimately, this book left me wanting more in some respects. But as long as you're not expecting a lot of gory zombie* confrontations, it is a fantastic read. And it unexpectedly made me want to read the Walking Dead graphic novels since I fell so in love with the post-apocalyptic setting.

What I also found interesting is that the book never lets you forget the sadness of billions of people dying in the Georgia flu. The characters themselves, when walking past cars left in traffic jams by people desperate to get out of the city, to get to the airport, to get anywhere else, think about what their final moments would have looked like. The narrator, when describing the pre-apocalyptic world, consistently references how long it would be until the character died or watched as everyone else did. The world Mandel creates is not one where people have killed enough zombies* that they're totally cynical. And that makes it a relentlessly human story.

*Note: there are no actual zombies in this book.

Next up: The Circle.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The daily card, week 35

Every time I think I'm totally over this project, I get into a groove again - and I am really happy with what I came up with this week.

Highs: The "I love you" card is one of my favorites this year... it's blurred not because it's anything truly secret or inappropriate, just some inside jokes that I figured I would keep inside. And starting with The Last Days of California, I've had fun this summer recreating the covers of the books I read. Then we took off for California and got started with some pre-made travel cards... more on that coming next week.

Lows: I messed up my back again but, more importantly, there was renewed focus on the Syrian refugee crisis as the body of little Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. The "no one puts children in a boat" line is one I'd seen circulating on Facebook, and is from a poem by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. This is my very minor tribute to one heart-wrenching moment in a long, intractable conflict full of them.

As a creative challenge, I am decorating a playing card every day in 2015. More context on this project is here and you can see all past card posts here.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Book Review: The end of the world as we know it

I think this is one of the great narratives in literature - the world as we know it is ending, something new is quickly coming our way, and we can't go back to the way it was. It reminds me of my favorite scene in Mad Men, when the series has gotten further into the 60s and there are race riots and beat poets and women in the workplace and Don's old life in the suburbs no longer feels like the norm, Roger Sterling says something like, "When is everything going to get back to normal?"

Unintentionally, my summer reading this year - The Last Days of California, Station Eleven, and The Circle - all focused on worlds ending. Though they all have a futuristic/dystopian/apocalyptic premise, they were three very different books with different narratives about individual and societal change.

I was originally going to do this all as one post, but at last count it was approaching 1500 words and I think that is doing blogging wrong. (The English major inside me must have been more desperate to write about books than I realized.) So they will be broken up book by book over the next week - as popularized by the Serial and Limetown podcasts. ;)

The Last Days of California by Mary Miller | Recommended by Kelsey

Favorite line: "And just like that, she wasn't a vegetarian anymore. It was strange how you could be something and then not be that something so easily."

This book is ostensibly about the world ending (it's right there in the title), but is very much rooted in reality - in the very relatable story of a teenage girl, Jess, dealing with her insecurities and fighting with her sister and experimenting with her sexuality on a family road trip to California. It just so happens that that road trip is driven by her father's conviction that the Rapture is coming. He decides that the West Coast will be the best vantage point from which to watch God smite the unfaithful, one time zone at a time.

I loved the emotional intensity and the short story feeling of this book - I read it slowly since there were so many sentences and moments to relish. It's not an apocalyptic book outside of the premise - but it is very much about the world as Jess knows it ending as she makes the awkward transition into being a grown woman. (Cue this song.) Over the course of the book, she gains new knowledge into her family that she can't un-know and a new awareness of her parents as flawed and fragile humans. This book so resonated with my inner teenager and the part of me that still has those insecurities and is still not quite sure how to exist as an adult in the world.

Also on point is her ambivalence about religion - sometimes she thinks about what their lives will look like post-Rapture, other times she thinks it's all baloney, but she is as preoccupied with boys and her body as she is with the will of the Almighty. It reminded me of that stage when you're a kid and the rumors are spreading that Santa isn't real, but you still sort of think he is, and it somehow doesn't bother you that you don't have a definitive answer. That ability to sort of believe two contradictory things at once pretty much sums up what it feels like to be a teenager - or maybe just a human.

Next up: Station Eleven.

Illustrated by the daily cards I made for each book cover... in large part because the actual books had all been returned to the library by the time I wrote this post.