Blue Sky

a work-in-progress by lily chiu

The Last Great Thing I Read

Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard
by Kay Ryan

A life should leave
deep tracks:
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place;
beneath her hand
the china knobs
rubbed down to
white pastilles;
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
almost erased.
Her things should
keep her marks.
The passage
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space–
however small–
should be left scarred
by the grand and
damaging parade.
Things shouldn’t be so hard.

What’s Happening To Us?

I’ve refrained from talking about Pinterest and all the remarks around Pinterest “clones” out there because I don’t want to deal with those who will race to call me biased given my role at BO.LT. But — I can’t sleep so I might as well get these thoughts down.

Let me say right now, this piece isn’t really about Pinterest or BO.LT or copyright or companies that look like Pinterest. It’s about the way we react to things, and how eager we are to be the one to speak first instead of being the first to speak thoughtfully. I’m as guilty of this as the next person. I see the backlash against Jonathan Franzen for his remarks about Twitter, and it’s easy to jump on the #JonathanFranzenHates bandwagon because there’s momentum. I may not agree with how he says things (because I find it alienating and polarizing, but really that’s more his problem than anyone else’s, and if he doesn’t see it as a problem, why do we care? But I digress…) — still, I have to admit I can empathize with the essence of what he says. Or rather, I fear it.

I fear we have made it so easy to fall into action that we have lost the ability to choose not to act. I wonder if we even ask ourselves why we feel or act in a particular way before jotting off a snappy 140-character retort. Like, why does it bother me that Jonathan Franzen says “[Twitter's] the ultimate irresponsible medium. People I care about are readers … particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves.” Well, it’s probably because I feel defensive about my own perception. Will you think I’m not a serious reader or writer because I’m on Twitter and Facebook and Foursquare and Highlight and Path and and and…? I don’t think I want to be one of Franzen’s people…but shit, maybe I secretly do? And suddenly it’s about me, not about him, and I’m glad I can recognize that before tweeting something full of witty brilliance about what #JonathanFranzenHates.

In the startup world, we’ve gone giddy for concepts like lean startup and minimum viable product. Yes, you need to get shit out the door. I get that as much as the next person. But, in execution, it looks more like I don’t know what we’re supposed to do but holy fuck let’s go do something now and we’ll figure out the next step in 2 days, rather than, I’ve thought about the problem and while we don’t have all the data, this is the plan I want to follow for the next 2 months.

I digress and digress and digress. Okay, let’s talk about Pinterest. They have a beautiful UI. I’m sure they were influenced by other objects and concepts in the physical and digital worlds, but that doesn’t matter. They created it for themselves and they shared it with the rest of us. Other sites are now using that UI as a way to shape and display their content. The UI is not the product. The product is the product.

I’m going to talk about poetry because I think about nearly all things in terms of language as a way to make sense of it. There are many poetic forms out there, and it’s probably impossible to pinpoint who invented any of them. And I would bet that whoever invented the sonnet or the ghazal or the pantoum didn’t think they owned it, nor would they have wanted to. Language is for the people. And when I say language, I also mean paint, and fabric, and food and clay and whatever building block pleases you and fills you with joy. Even CSS, as it may be.

If anyone thinks Elizabeth Bishop ripped off whoever first “invented” the villanelle when she wrote One Art, I will punch them in the face. Anything that can do for people what that poem does is free from human pettiness, or should be. And that’s the thing, isn’t it already more than we can hope for to create something brilliant that is inspired by something else brilliant, and share it with the world? And in return, could the world not be full of haters who are more interested in snark than praise?

Okay, let’s get meta. I read recently that over 80% of the content on Pinterest was repins. EIGHTY PERCENT. Staggering, and yet it makes sense. We have distilled the internet to be one click. One click to buy, to like, to copy. We do this knowingly, happily, intentionally. As a product person, I think all the time about instant gratification. Greasing every single action so it’s easier to stick with us than to leave. But what the hell are we doing to humanity in the process?

Are we supposed to try to create products that make you think before acting? I’m seriously asking the question. I suspect that is the wrong solution, simply because nobody would use or buy it so what’s the point, but I raise the question because I think it’s our collective problem. By our, I mean you and me and the rest of the human race. I worry we’re losing (or running away from) the ability to think critically and tenderly about a problem. Underscore tenderly, as in gently, with empathy, with a lot of fucking heart. For better or worse, this is the shit that keeps me up at night. How will it get better? Are we magically going to turn away from Farmville and Facebook and Twitter and sit somewhere quiet to think about a complex problem that doesn’t have an immediate solution? I confess I started reading Marilynne Robinson’s essay in Guernica a few days ago and found it so taxing on my brain that I had to save it for later. I don’t know if I’ll return to it. I don’t particularly want to, it wasn’t satisfying to not just get it in the way that I totally get this tweet: “How about book ppl stop talking abt #JonathanFranzenhates & discuss something important, like the top 12 author beards.” And yet I think it’s important (no, vital!) that we return to the things we don’t understand until we can understand them just a tiny bit more.

Back to Pinterest and repins. Can anyone appreciate the meta-ness of the site that is getting copied being essentially a big bucket of copies? I mean, this is what humans do. We advance because we build on top of work that other people did. There is an undeniable beauty to feeling as if you’ve created something by retweeting, retumbling, repinning, and yes, even rebolting. Curation is a valid form of expression. But, not to state the obvious, we all know it wasn’t invented for or by the internet, right? (I wonder how art curators feel about how the word curation has been snatched from their delicate, discriminating fingers.) To take this argument one step further, 99.9999% of us have not and will never create anything from scratch. It’s simply impossible, and that’s a beautiful thing. We have so much that’s been created to assist and inspire us already, so why are we still so attracted to own things and believe that we were the first and only person to ever think of such a masterpiece? It’s absurd and narcissistic. Great artists are falling all over themselves to name the people who helped them unlock another realm of creativity and possibility in their work. Why can’t those of us who are building something to sell act in kind?

Alright — what’s the point of writing this? I’m not sure, I just know I’m sick of all this noise that doesn’t matter, and I wonder why we all contribute to it. I have to believe I’m not the only person who’s had their fill of this vapor. It’s utterly valueless and I feel hollow thinking about it. Let’s just go create good things. Let’s be kind to each other. Or rather, step 1 — let’s not be unkind to each other. No, step 0 — ask yourself if what you’re about to do or say makes your life or anybody else’s better. If not, what’s the point? If not, go do something else. Or think about it for awhile, maybe even a long while. And then say and do and create meaningful things. Onward and upward.

Reading is easier than writing


I read lots of interesting things but rarely find enough time to write a coherent blog post about them. I’d like to try sharing them without much exposition though and see how it goes. The widget below will update automatically with the things I Bolt. Hope you enjoy!

The Art of Remembering

My dear friend O gave me a collection of short stories. This one in particular by Jonathan Safran Foer keeps returning to me. Somewhere between a poem and prose, it explores the span of a relationship and the details we choose to remember, the actions we wish to revise. Hope you enjoy it.

* * *
Here We Aren’t, So Quickly
by Jonathan Safran Foer

I was not good at drawing faces. I was just joking most of the time. I was not decisive in changing rooms or anywhere. I was so late because I was looking for flowers. I was just going through a tunnel whenever my mother called. I was not able to make toast without the radio. I was not able to tell if compliments were back-handed. I was not as tired as I said.

You were not able to ignore furniture imperfections. You were too light to arm the airbag. You were not able to open most jars. You were not sure how you should wear your hair, and so, ten minutes late and halfway down the stairs, you would examine your reflection in a framed picture of a dead family. You were not angry, just protecting your dignity.

I was not able to run long distances. You were so kind to my sister when I didn’t know how to be kind. I was just trying to remove a stain; I made a bigger stain. You were just asking a simple question. I was almost always at home, but I was not always at home at home. You were not able to cope with a stack of more than three books on my bedside table, or mixed currencies in the change dish, or plastic. I was not afraid of being alone; I just hated it. You were just admiring the progress of someone else’s garden. I was so tired of food.

We went to the Atacamama. We went to Sarajevo. We went to Tobey Pond every year until we didn’t. We braved thirteen inches of snow to attend a lecture in a planetarium. We tried having dinner parties. We tried owning nothing. We left handprints in a moss garden in Kyoto, and got each other off under a towel in Jaffa. We braved my parents’ for Thanksgiving and yours for the rest, and how did it happen that we were suddenly at my father’s side while he drowned in his own body? I lay beside him on the bed, observed my hand reaching for his brow, said, “Despite everything -” “What everything?” he asked, so I said, “Nothing,” or nothing.

I was always destroying my passport in the wash. You were always awful at estimating. You were never willing to think of my habits as charming. I was just insisting that it was already too late to master an instrument or anything. You were never one to mention physical pain. I couldn’t explain the cycles of the moon without pen and paper, or with. You didn’t know where e-mails were. I wouldn’t congratulate a woman until she explicitly said she was pregnant. You spent a few minutes every day secretly regretting your laziness that didn’t exist. I should have forgiven you for all that wasn’t your fault.

You were terrible in emergencies. You were wonderful in “The Cherry Orchard.” I was always never complaining, because confrontation was death to me, and because everything was pretty much always pretty much O.K. with me. You were not able to approach the ocean at night. I didn’t know where my voice was between my phone and yours. You were never standing by the window at parties, but you were always by the window. I was so paranoid about kind words. I was just not watching the news in the basement. You were just making a heroic effort to make things look easy. I was terrible about acknowledging anyone else’s efforts. You were not green-thumbed, but you were not content to be not content. I was always in need of just one good dress shirt, or just one something that I never had. You were too injured by things that happened in the distant past for anything to be effortless in the present. I was always struggling to be natural with my hands. You were never immune to unexpected gifts. I was mostly just joking.

I was not neurotic, just apocalyptic. You were always copying keys and looking up words. I was not afraid of quiet; I just hated it. So my hand was always in my pocket, around a phone I never answered. You were not cheap or handy with tools, just hurt by my distance. I was never indifferent to the children of strangers, just frustrated by my own unrelenting optimism. You were not unsurprised when, that last night in Norfolk, I drove you to Tobey Pond, led you by the hand down the slope of the brambles and across the rotting planks to the constellations in the water. Sharing our happiness diminished your happiness. I was not going to dance at our wedding, and you were not going to speak. No part of me was nervous that morning.

When you screamed at no one, I sang to you. When you finally fell asleep, the nurse took him to bathe him, and, still sleeping, you reached out your arms.

He was not a terrible sleeper. I acknowledged to no one my inability to be still with him or anyone. You were not overwhelmed but overtired. I was never afraid of rolling over onto him in my sleep, but I awoke many nights sure that he was underwater on the floor. I loved collapsing things. You loved tiny socks. You were not depressed, but you were unhappy. Your unhappiness didn’t make me defensive; I just hated it. He was never happy unless held. I love hammering things into walls. You hated having no inner life. I secretly wondered if he was deaf. I hated the gnawing longing that accompanied having everything. We were learning to see each other’s blindnesses. I Googled questions that I couldn’t ask our doctors or you.

They encouraged us to buy insurance. We had sex to have orgasms. You loved reupholstering. I went to the gym to go somewhere, and looked in the mirror when there was something I was hoping not to see. You hated our bed. He could stand himself up, but not get himself down. They fined us for our neighbor’s garbage. We couldn’t wait for the beginnings and ends of vacations. I was not able to look at a blueprint and see a renovated kitchen, so I stayed out of it. They came to our door during meals, but I talked to them and gave. I counted the seconds backward until he fell asleep, and then started counting the seconds backward until he woke up. We took the same walks again and again, and again and again ate at the same easy restaurants. They said he looked like them. I was always watching movie trailers on my computer. You were always wiping surfaces. I was always hearing my father’s laugh and never remembering his face. You broke everyone’s heart until you suddenly couldn’t. He suddenly drew, suddenly spoke, suddenly wrote, suddenly reasoned. One night I couldn’t help him with his math. He got married.

We went to London to see a play. We tried putting aside time to do nothing but read, but we did nothing but sleep. We were always never mentioning it, because we didn’t know what it was. I did nothing but look for you for twenty-seven years. I didn’t even know how electricity worked. We tried spending more time not together. I was not defensive about your boredom, but my happiness had nothing to do with happiness. I loved it when people who worked for me genuinely liked me. We were always moving furniture and never making eye contact. I hated my inability to visit a foreign city without fantasizing about real estate. And then your father was dead. I often wasn’t reading the book that I was holding. You were never not in someone’s garden. Our mothers were dying to talk about nothing.

At a certain point you became convinced that you were always reading yesterday’s newspaper. At a certain point I stopped agonizing over being understood, and became over-reliant on my car’s G.P.S. You couldn’t tolerate trace amounts of jelly in the peanut-butter jar. I couldn’t tolerate gratuitously boisterous laughter. At a certain point I could stare without pretext or apology. Isn’t it funny that if God were to reveal and explain Himself, the majority of the world would necessarily be disappointed? At a certain point you stopped wearing sunscreen.

How can I explain the way I shrugged off nuclear annihilation but mortally feared a small fall? You couldn’t tolerate people who couldn’t tolerate babies on planes. I couldn’t tolerate people who insisted that having a coffee after lunch would keep them up all night. At a certain point I could hear my knees and felt no need to correct other people’s grammar. How can I explain why foreign cities came to mean so much to me? At a certain point you stopped trying. I couldn’t tolerate magicians who did things that someone who actually had magical powers would never do.

We were all doing well. I was still in love with the Olympics. The smaller the matter, the more I allowed your approval to mean to me. They kept producing new things that we didn’t need that we needed. I needed your approval more than I needed anything. My sister died at a restaurant. My mother promised anyone who would listen that she was fine. They changed our filters. I wanted to learn a dead language. You were in the garden, not planting, but standing there. You dropped two handfuls of soil.

And here we aren’t, so quickly: I’m not twenty-six and you’re not sixty. I’m not forty-five or eighty-three, not being hoisted onto the shoulders of anybody wading into any sea. I’m not learning chess, and you’re not losing your virginity. You’re not stacking pebbles on gravestones; I’m not being stolen from my resting mother’s arms. Why didn’t you lose your virginity to me? Why didn’t we enter the intersection one thousandth of a second sooner, and die instead of die laughing? Everything else happened – why not the things that could have?

I am not unrealistic anymore. You are not unemotional. I am not interested in the news anymore, but I was never interested in the news. What’s more, I am probably ambidextrous. I was probably meant to be effortless. You look like yourself right now. I was so slow to change, but I changed. I was probably a natural tennis player, just like my father used to say over and over and over.

I changed and changed, and with more time I will change more. I’m not disappointed, just quiet. Not unthinking, just reckless. Not willfully unclear, just trying to say it as it wasn’t. The more I remember, the more distant I feel. We reached the middle so quickly. After everything it’s like nothing. I have always never been here. What a shame it wasn’t easy. What a waste of what? What a joke. But come. No explaining or mending. Be beside me somewhere: on the split stools of this bar, by the edge of this cliff, in the seats of this borrowed car, at the prow of this ship, on the all-forgiving cushions of this thread-bare sofa in the one-story copper-crying fixer-upper whose windows we once squinted through for hours before coming to our sense: “What would we even do with such a house?”

On Compassion

This TED talk by Sri Swami Dayananda Saraswati is one of the best I’ve seen. I’ve watched it several times, and each time something new still strikes me.

Download Video: MP4

“One cannot contribute unless one feels secure, one feels big, one feels: I have enough.”

“To be compassionate is not a joke. It’s not that simple. One has to discover a certain bigness in oneself. That bigness should be centered on oneself, not in terms of money, not in terms of power you wield, not in terms of any status that you can command in the society, but it should be centered on oneself. The self: you are self-aware. On that self, it should be centered — a bigness, a wholeness. Otherwise, compassion is just a word and a dream.

“That experience confirms that, in spite of all your limitations — all your wants, desires, unfulfilled, and the credit cards and layoffs and, finally, baldness — you can be happy. But the extension of the logic is that you don’t need to fulfill your desire to be happy. You are the very happiness, the wholeness that you want to be.

“To discover compassion, you need to be compassionate. To discover the capacity to give and share, you need to be giving and sharing. There is no shortcut: it is like swimming by swimming. You learn swimming by swimming. You cannot learn swimming on a foam mattress and enter into water. You learn swimming by swimming. You learn cycling by cycling. You learn cooking by cooking, having some sympathetic people around you to eat what you cook.”

Happy New Year :)

Full transcript   |   TED talk page

Albert Einstein

“A human being is a part of a whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Once the Dream Begins

I’m reading Pleasure Dome, by Yusef Komunyakaa. I found this one especially moving.

Once the Dream Begins

I wish the bell saved you.
    “Float like a butterfly
   & sting like a bee.”

 

Too bad you didn’t
    learn to disappear
   before a left jab.

 

Fighting your way out of a clench,
    you counter-punched & bicycled
   but it was already too late—

 

gray weather had started
    shoving the sun into a corner.
   ”He didn’t mess up my face.”

 

But he was an iron hammer
    against stone, as you
   bobbed & weaved through hooks.

 

Now we strain to hear you.
    Once the dream begins
   to erase itself, can the

 

dissolve be stopped?
    No more card tricks
   for the TV cameras,

 

Ali. Please come back to us
    sharp-tongued & quick-footed,
   spinning out of the blurred

 

dance. Whoever said men
      hit harder when women
   are around, is right.

 

Word for word,
    we beat the love
   out of each other.

From “The Descendants”

“Nothing just happens.”

“Everything just happens.”

Songs That Stick

A cover of The Scientist, by Willie Nelson

Yes, it’s the song from the Chipotle commercial. Yes, it’s a cover of a Coldplay song. Yes, it’s good.

Russell Banks

“One of the most difficult things to say to another person is, I hope that you will love me for no good reason. But it is what we all want and rarely dare to say to one another – to our children, to our parents and mates, to our friends, and to strangers. Especially to strangers, who have neither good nor bad reasons to love us. And it’s why we tell each other stories that we pray will be transformed in the telling by that angel on the roof, made believable and about us all, no matter who we are to one another and who we are not.”