Monday, July 28, 2008

San Francisco: the other New York

I could start talking about West Coast people are like this, East Coast people are like this, or maybe Northern Californians are like this, Southern Californians are like this, or whatever (warning: loud) but I don't really have any idea.

I do know that I went to SF with my family for 5 days last week, and then Yosemite National Park for 2, and it was pretty fun. Some highlights:

- The Ferry Building Farmers' Market. It's the second coolest market. (Pike Place being #1, Seattle pride, etc.) It's huge! And has all the food you'd ever want. Some of it is inside, some of it is outside, all of it is exciting. I got some chai and cookies ("alfajores") from a non-profit community kitchen/business incubator called La Cocina. How cool is that?

- An improv show. Two sets, one by some people I don't remember much, one by the Un-scripted theatre company who asked the audience for a (non-musical) playwright, then improvised an hour-long musical in the style of that playwright. For our show, it was Oscar Wilde. It was really slick. And there were only three of them!

- Dim sum in Chinatown. First time I've ever had dim sum! I have a new favorite style of eating. Okay, maybe not, but I still love any system where you get a little bit of a lot of things.

- SFMOMA. This is a neat museum. They had like one painting by every modern painter I know (and a lot I don't, of course) so it was fun to walk through. Plus, I went with my mom, who knows things about art, which is always fun.

- Millennium restaurant. It's vegetarian (nay, vegan!) and so my dad wanted no part of it. My mom was intrigued, I don't think my sister cared either way, and so one day when they were too tired to eat dinner, I went there myself. It was totally worth it, and not in an all food-orgasmey sense, but just because it was cool to see a nice restaurant that was also vegetarian/sustainable/organic/etc, not another vegetarian/etc restaurant that was also nice. It's an example of eating less meat (even in high society) without being a patchouli-stinking Grass Person.

- walking around the Mission was cool. I stumbled into 826 Valencia, a nonprofit/pirate supply shop. Also ate a fantastic burrito at a place called, appropriately enough, "La Taqueria."

- giant redwoods in Yosemite. These were neat. This whole bit of the trip was a little more difficult, because as a family we tend to not like camping and stuff, which means we do national parks like most people, which means that wherever we are, so are most people. Did a little bit of hiking, but a lot of driving.

Whoo! I am now back in Pittsburgh for like three weeks (minus a weekend). And I am super-happy to be back.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Mindfulness a day keeps dukkha away

Meant to blog this but never did and I have like 15 minutes so gonna do it now.

Part two of my trip (actually part 1) found me in West Virginia at the Bhavana Society. It's a Buddhist monastery. 7 monastics (5 monks and 2 nuns) plus a couple of lay people lived there, as well as a handful of visitors like Catie and me. Every day went like this:
5:00-6:00: meditation
6:00-6:30: chanting
7:00-8:00: breakfast
8:00-11:00: chores/personal time
11:00-12:00: lunch
12:00-17:30: chores/personal time
17:30-18:30: meditation
18:30-19:00: chanting
19:00-20:00: talk/q&a

When I say "chores/personal time" I mean the chores usually took like a half hour then we had a lot of free time. I spent a lot of this time reading. I learned a lot about Buddhism. Particularly Theravada (not actually equivalent but sorta similar to Hinayana, which is the south-Asia half of Buddhism, where Mahayana is the north-Asia half) Buddhism and mindfulness (Vipassana) meditation.

In short, and only applied to me: meditation is the only thing missing from my life.
In medium length, and more generally, and poorly translated: Life is suffering. Desire causes this suffering. To escape suffering, you have to stop desiring. There's an eightfold path that helps you avoid desiring, but mostly it translates into "be a good person" and also "be mindful."

But really what it means to me is that I really need to meditate. Life is good! I am happy! But I worry. And I fret, and the more free time I have, the more I fret about whether I'm doing enough good with my free time, and that's no way to be happy. Meditation will help me there.

I want to be clear, though, that when I talk about meditation, I don't mean just concentration, like going into a trance. Sometimes meditation means that. But Vipassana meditation (like Zen, I think) is more than that: it's concentration plus mindfulness. If I were really good at meditation, when I were meditating, I'd be totally concentrated on my breathing, but I'd also be totally aware of everything around me. It's one of those concepts that you can't really explain, even if you're awesome at it, and I'm sure not, so I won't try.

If you want to read more, though, and learn about what I'm all into right now, read this.

The end result is that I am now meditating daily. Eventually I will become better at meditating and at living life (because meditation is only "practice" for the "game" that is life). My "monkey mind" will calm down. That is nice.

(I'm throwing that out there because when I publicly proclaim things, I tend to do them. Like 90% vegetarianism (still good through 3 weeks) and not eating cereal (still good there too). Speaking of 90% vegetarianism, though, I might make a special reservation for travel. When I'm in a place, I want to try the food of that place, and I think that might be more important to me than vegetarianism, because it's always for such short periods of time.)

And speaking of things in general, I'm going to San Francisco for 5 days, then Yosemite for 3, with my family. See you later!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

New York Fucking City

I kind of wanted to get my dad one of those shirts, because we both think it's great. But you could never wear it! Which is too bad.

I spent 48 hours in a West Virginia monastery, then 36 hours in Manhattan. I'll talk about the second one first, because there's less to say.

I made the right call to work with Google Seattle instead of NYC. I thought living in the city would be super neat. After my second visit (I was there for a week a couple years ago), I am a little disenchanted. Eww! I drove in to the city. Gah! 1 1/2 hours traffic, an $8 toll to drive through the Lincoln Tunnels, and $50 for parking 24 hrs. (actually, $42 for 24 hours; $50 for 24 hours and 3 minutes) Although that's not as bad as it sounds, I don't think. Apparently if you commute in on one of these commuter trains from Jersey or CT, it can be $20-30 (taking into account parking at the train station and the train cost) and it takes forever too. (Quote MattJ: it's more expensive to commute into NYC than it is to live in Pittsburgh!)

Okay, parking worries aside, a lot of it is dirty, it's a little cutthroat sorta kill-or-be-killed style, cockroaches are sometimes a fact of life, and most of the streets really are not that exciting. Come on, do you really want to see another boulevard of office buildings, food marts, apartments, and ripoff electronics stores?

And it's expensive.

THAT SAID, it's an awesome place to visit! I spent about half the time hanging out with a lot of friends, stayed with Mike Yin, went to bars with him and Catie and her friends, saw Todd and [title of show], and aforementionedly hung out with Matt J.

Speaking of [title of show], this show is great. Skip that Disney-movie-turned-musical (or Shrek the musical, which does exist, fuck you world I hate the entire goddamn planet shit ass fuck shit fucking hate you all) you were going to see and go see this instead. It's a show about how they made the show, and while you groan "meta-play shuuuuuuttt uuuuuuuuppppppp", it's really well done. Except for a few stale jokes about ATM machines and PIN numbers, the whole show was really pretty fresh, there was a joke in there that I was the only one who laughed at, and it's funny and then even at the end you're like "I'm watching a funny play" and then it's BAM you just got inspired. Not inspired, just a little like "awww!" because you're watching these lovable losers become winners as their show gets to Broadway and then you're like, hold up, this is really them. I hate Broadway! But I like this show. Did I mention Matt's working on it? Support your friend/fellow SnSer/guy you don't know, depending on who you are, and go see this!

Chelsea Market: I saw this again! It is still my favorite spot in New York! I had the best espresso of my life there! They have a milk bar, and a couple bakeries, and a Moroccan shop. I later learned that the Google NYC offices are right across the street! Shit, maybe I should have worked there!

The rest of the time: I pretty much retraced my steps, entirely unconsciously, from last time. I found myself in the same stores, and I totally didn't mean to. It was pretty surreal. Except I ate at a place called "OMS/B" which sells (appropriately) omusubi, which is rice balls, and that was neat. Drank a lot of coffee.

I like this city. I do not love it anymore. I will gladly not live in it, but I will gladly visit it. Thanks to Mike for hosting me, thanks to all my friends for making it super fun, and more about WV (arguably the more interesting/life-changing part of this trip) whenever I get around to it.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A weekend of happy losing

Sorry I haven't been around. I went home for the weekend, which you'd think would mean more free time, but it really means a lot less! A lot of my friends from school were home, so I was hanging out with them a lot, and of course family.

It was nice seeing my grandparents and especially my aunt and uncle on my own. My parents were out of town. You don't really get to talk to relatives much at family things because the grown-ups are always talking. But they're really cool people, and hey, I'm an adult now too, and we can actually talk.

Seeing my friends was great fun too. Dan, Erik, and Brad were in from Cleveland (okay, he lives there), DC, and Dayton, respectively, and I got to see Ananth, Seth, Tony, and Kev too. (new slang for pot: "steaks." As in, "Hey man, you want some steaks? I got some nice juicy New York strip steaks!" Ironically, Kev doesn't smoke. He just looks like a stoner.)

I managed to be terrible at everything we did! First poker, well, what do you expect. I watched Ananth and Tony play chess. They're incredible. I guess they're some level of masters, but I don't know what. The next day, we played tennis. I was easily the worst of the four of us. We jetskied the next day too, and did some tubing, and I just didn't like tubing, and was even getting freaked out by jetskiing as the day wore on! Oh, and between going out on the lake, we played Corn Hole. I didn't win a single game. Then Brasa Grill (a Brazilian steakhouse) and a party across town where I got a stomachache from eating too much at the Brasa Grill. We finished off the weekend on Sunday by hitting up the newly-reopened art museum, and I still don't know much about art.

This was probably good for super-competitive me. Honestly, I didn't mind, as long as I wasn't slowing them down. I don't really have much to say, and I have to go take a shower. When you don't work, you can take showers whenever you want!

And also, I'm a little addicted to Final Fantasy X. But it sucks so much! (the characters, I mean. The story's all right, and the gameplay is pretty fun, which is why it has me hooked. I just say this because I'm finding myself embarrassed to be playing the game.)

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The first step in solving your problem is admitting you have a problem.

I mean, I've sort of half-admitted it for a while, danced around the issue, joked about it, tossed it aside. But it's serious business, and something that should be changed. And to change it, you have to throw it out there and publicly, or at least privately, acknowledge it. So here it is:

I'm a breakfast cereal addict.

Many mornings, I get up, eat cereal until I'm full, then eat for about 15 minutes more, and roll out of my chair to start the day. I get indigestion on my morning bike rides, feel awful until about noon, and don't get hungry again until dinner. If I want a snack later, it's cereal again. I justify this to myself by saying how healthy it is. (to be fair, I'm more addicted to healthier cereals. I won't eat, say, Lucky Charms. But granola never stays in the house more than a couple days.) But even so, a lot of a healthy food is unhealthy.

This has been going on for years. I've taken action to stop it once, and succeeded for a while, but then got back into the cereal. Now, I'm back on the wagon.

How to quit? I think I can just do it cold turkey. That's how I did it before. It's easy if there's no cereal in the house. If there is, it's harder, but the fact that I'm declaring this publicly will be good inspiration for me to stay clean.

Why now? Well, I have all this time, you know? I'm sorta trying to tie up every loose end I can so I am as unburdened as possible when I start my new job and life in August. Being free of cereal will help.

Note to anyone with a more typical and harmful addiction: I don't mean to trivialize your addiction in any way. I'm entirely serious here. I have a problem (albeit a small one) and I'm trying to solve it.

Note to anyone with any addiction, serious or not (and think about it; you might have an addiction you don't even realize): if you'd like to quit your addiction along with me, drop me a line. It might be easier for both of us. I can do it. You probably can too!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Bar, part the third and last.

Long-term Snail Shell aficionados may know that I've tried a few times to make the best nutritional bar out of fruits and vegetables. Like a Clif bar, but with actual food in place of "soy protein isolate" and stuff. US FDA RDA's were no object. Neither was taste.

Boy, this is embarrassing.

Unrelatedly, though, I can save a little face by saying that I, before reading that article, already first conquered and then abandoned the Bar project.

First, the "conquered" part: This company called Just Tomatoes makes a product that is, well, just dried vegetables. (I'm sure other companies do too, this is just the one I found) Grind them up in a food processor into a flour, mix them up with an egg, bake until done. There you go: a lot of mixed vegetables, plus an egg, in bar form. No weird ingredients. (if you're vegan, just add water instead of an egg.) I guess it's about as "healthy" as you can get, although you clearly can't reduce foods to just a number of how healthy they are. This brings us to:

Second, the "abandoned" part: It's not worth it. I'm reading In Defense of Food by my food guru, Michael Pollan, who struck a nerve with a bit about how not only are we not eating actual food, we're not actually eating it. Scarfing something down is worse than sitting down to dinner with friends or family, in a lot of ways. In every culture (but not very much in ours) food is social and cultural as well as nutritious. We don't need a new bar to make the food we eat healthier, we need a revolution to make the way we eat food healthier too. As Brillat-Savarin, maybe the first gourmet dude ever, has said: animals feed, humans eat, men of wit dine.

Misbehaving prisoners eat bars.