Landscapes, nights, and summer feelings.

I’ve been back stateside for ten days after a three-country, six-flight tour of Europe. Christina and I have seen the sun set on rivers in Lisbon and Paris; we’re sated like it’s our birthright.

When I reminisce about the trip, thoughts of Brussels humidity, Roquefort Carles, and ceramic tiles are accompanied as much by a palette of flavors as they are by clear, consistent melodies.


Björk – Jóga

We were slated to spend just four hours total in the country of Iceland, so I opted to download Homogenic to my phone while we taxied at JFK. Only Hunter finished downloading before takeoff.

On our way to the gate, quotes from Icelandic writers were printed on circular windows, over views of the runways and hills in the far distance. Next to our gate, Björk. I took a picture of Christina with that window:


Kool and the Gang – Ladies Night

We were in Brussels only for Ky Vinh’s wedding, barely enough time to see the Grand Place at night and have a cone of frites from a stand near the tourist quarter (waffles and mussels next time).

At the reception, a table of Ky Vinh’s boorish old friends, matched in red satin ties, punctuated the evening with rowdy chants. Sometimes they cheered the Red Devils. Mostly, they just sang – with pronounced Belgian accents – the end of this song:

Tonight. Is gonna be. Your night! Everything is gonna be. All right!

It stuck in our heads. I kept thinking Heavy D. But he was sampling Kool and the Gang.

The temperature and humidity in Brussels that Saturday both reached the high 80s; the air conditioning in the dining room at Kasteel Gravenhof couldn’t cool the room of 150 guests. The reception capped a day that started at 7:30 am and comprised three ceremonies (Vietnamese, Belgian, and Filipino). I’d had a few drinks.

Christina and I retreated to our air-conditioned room upstairs in the castle after dinner, and we took naps while friends and family of the couple lauded them in French.

The next afternoon at the flat in Brussels – while everyone packed for Lisbon and recovered from the previous night’s revelry – Ky Vinh’s mother put a half-finished magnum of champagne back on ice. When the bottle cooled, she offered it around to us: Christina first. She accepted. I raised an eyebrow.


Getz/Gilberto – Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars (Corcovado)

The wedding was followed by a trip with the newlyweds and two other couples to Lisbon for a “pre-honeymoon.” We shared an architect’s house.

On our first night in Lisbon, we barbecued. The kitchen was bare so we went to Pingo Doce immediately after landing to buy meats, batatas fritas, olive oil, charcoal briquets, red wine, Super Bock, and this unspeakably amazing condiment I’ve taken to calling Portuguese sriracha that apparently should only be used in small doses because it’s really salty but we didn’t heed this advice because we translated this page only after we got back to New York and sought out what the hell it was we bought that night and put several spoonfuls of on all our food.

Anyhow. We bought too much food.

On our last night in Lisbon, we aimed to finish as much of our leftovers as we could. Christina and I wrote our postcards in the living room.

We opened a bottle of red wine and ate large bowls of mango sorbet. I did laundry. Ky Vinh perused the CDs in the living room and found Getz/Gilberto. We played that album three times that night.


Jonathan Richman – That Summer Feeling

We spent 3 days in Paris. Booked an apartment in Montmartre, found a solid fromagerie and boulangerie on Rue des Abbesses a short walk away.

Compared Pierre Hermé and Ladurée macarons on the Champ du Mars. Bought books at Shakespeare & Company and had them stamped. Visited the catacombs.

On our last night, we made a trip to the Canal Saint-Martin (where Amelie skipped stones). In the neighborhood, we visited Artazart.

Jonathan Richman songs played in the store. “I’m a Little Dinosaur” captured our attention immediately, but “That Summer Feeling” lingered for me.

I looked it up when I got back: James Murphy says it’s one of the saddest songs he’s ever heard. Robert Christgau seems to read it differently.

At the shop, Christina bought me a book on radishes.

Afterwards, we tried to catch the Metro at Republique only to find it closed by the gendarmerie.


We wanted to get to Lafayette Gourmet. We walked through the Marais to another Metro station. In the diversion, we passed another half-dozen blocks we wanted to explore further if only we had another day (next time: perhaps a coffee at Slow Galerie, a pastry and caramels at Jacques Genin). With each footfall, we watched near-dusk light reflect on Lutetian limestone façades.

At Lafayette Gourmet, we bought pasalubong and supplies for our last dinner in Paris, a picnic on the Île de la Cité, on the bank of the Seine.

Last meal

I can say with certainty I’ll remember that slice of four-cheese quiche. It was a slice of a quiche that was maybe a couple feet in diameter. We bought it at a counter at Lafayette Gourmet after exchanges of pidgin French and pidgin English and lots of euros.

When it was time to eat, the quiche was lukewarm. Our only utensil was a plastic fork we picked up with lunch at Monoprix earlier, so we took turns eating the quiche.

What I learned that night is that when the French say “four-cheese quiche,” they mean four fucking cheeses. (Also, they probably actually say “quiche aux quatre fromages.”) It’s possible that there were several smaller wheels of cheese in that massive, eggy disc. What chevres and gruyeres and comtés and whateverelses made that quiche their final resting place can take pride in their demise.

The quiche was too rich to finish there, so we took some of it back to New York. It was even better warm.


Ten years ago, as I left Narita Airport on an express train for Tokyo, I loaded A Love Supreme into my Discman. What I understood then to be the outskirts of Tokyo unfolded as a diorama just beyond my window as “Acknowledgement” churned into its motif.

I didn’t know that album very well at the time; I was just an aspiring 20-year-old aesthete who wanted to incorporate it into my cultural arsenal. And it lodged itself firmly there as it became the theme song for the things that I don’t yet understand but desperately want to.

That trip to Japan in the summer 2003 (as the guest of a former client and beneficiary of a moment of largesse I’ve yet to pay forward) was the first time that I had been fully disarmed of my ability to communicate. It scared me immensely to be at once surrounded by people and in a void.

I was overwhelmed at the time, not very well-off, somewhat primitive in many respects. I wasn’t sure that I’d ever return.

Looking back, it was essential to my development as a person, immersed in that situation in early adulthood where my only recourse was to observe and communicate using only the most rudimentary of terms. But it’s a situation I’ve learned to recognize and relish, and even sought again.

After that trip, I continued to Manila for an 8-week stay. That summer happened to be the same time Lost in Translation came out, and when I watched it upon my return, it too (however literally) occupied that thematic space with John Coltrane’s modernist jazz.

I return to that space with some frequency now, populating it with new songs to remember other thrilling encounters with my language’s permeable membrane, itself an advancing and evolving boundary. Elitism starts where the limits of your understanding begin, I’d believed long before that and held fast since.

And today, I’m going back.

The Chesapeake at sunrise.

The Chesapeake at sunrise, from Northeast Regional 180.

This seems at once the wrong time and the best time in my life to start reading The Architecture of Happiness (or any other de Botton for that matter). Its central concern with the effects of architecture on emotional well-being is one I align with completely, and with my usual sentimental nature, it should surprise none of my friends that I feel a sense of loss and even a twinge of regret as the contents of my apartment are boxed and neatly stacked in the corners, awaiting limbo in a New York warehouse.

And as my Tuesday mornings and Thursday evenings have been spent on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional (reminiscent of my 2005 eastern seaboard sandwich odyssey – does anyone else remember those days?), it seems the wrong time and the best time to watch a movie like Up in the Air, with its fetishization of packing a carry-on suitcase but equivocating vindication of its protagonist’s nomadic (and unbound) lifestyle. I admire the former as I’ve optimized my own laundry routine to the point that the largest items in my backpack (my only bag on this New York-bound train) are my computer and my water bottle.

The latter, however, is getting a little long in the tooth (to say nothing of my Amex statement). While I have aspired in the past to a kind of rootlessness – maybe even that kind of mileage-accruing white-collar rootlessness – I am now reaping my lack of commitment to it. It’s not simply that I’m burdened with stuff, but I feel like I got the wrong stuff. Gym shoes should fold and flatten, portable hard drives should be bus-powered, soap carriers should aerate and collapse, fabrics should resist odors, towels should dry as quickly as they absorb – I didn’t pay attention to these details before. These things were in my life to furnish an apartment, not facilitate a multi-city existence where I’ll never be sure what odors await me at the next room I’ll lay my head.

(My pillow-top queen mattress, on the other hand – I don’t regret that purchase at all.)

The balance, it seems, is in the argument for “less, but better” stuff (there’s this salient point too) – and better in the sense that it speaks to the life you want. That said, I still need to reconcile my ambitions to the rucksack and library (and my Kindle, though I love it, is not the solution).

This week: after a few weeks in uncertain guest rooms, I booked a hotel in Park Slope for a couple nights and ordered a quick-dry towel. I also got a parking permit for the moving truck yesterday – they’ll be emptying my apartment Sunday morning.

Apropos nothing, anybody out there need size 31 pants? A TV cabinet? Twenty back issues of Communication Arts?

And perhaps out of a lack of contentment with my current existential/architectural crisis, perhaps I’ll read another de Botton book next.

Wash and fold.

Four weeks in, and I’ve figured out a useful trick to packing light for weekdays in New York: a wash-and-fold near the office where I can drop off my laundry before the weekend and pick it up at the start of the week.

It really isn’t so much a trick as an extravagance, but with any new milieu are born new justifications for life’s luxuries. Things that seemed frivolities in a previous routine become imminently desirable: wash-and-fold laundry service, a same-day train ticket, passport wallet, a 4G iPad, a pair of black pebbled leather shoes with storm-welted Dainite soles.

They may be tricks, or maybe just material possessions that address severed connections in my personal infrastructure. The pre-sleep path between water pitcher and toothbrush I knew as a linoleum-parquet-tile-rug textural odyssey in a dozen unlit steps shifts every week. Every morning shower in a shared bathroom is bracketed with moments of being on – and there’re more than those two moments if I forget my shampoo in my toiletry bag or my towel on the back of the door.

Maybe this should’ve occurred to me sooner, but I’d never realized (or admitted?) that these paths and even the smell of my own towel as I dried off my face were ballasts of a kind. Still, I don’t suppose that justifies the sheer quantity of dress shirts I own.

While this lifestyle of packing light and keeping no fixed address requires an unusually heavy amount of thinking, the price of having lots of stuff is becoming apparent. Christina spent the weekend clearing bookshelves; I spent an hour today in conversation with a pair of moving companies to discern the price of leveraging their infrastructure for my northward leap. In sum, I’ll likely spend more than a month’s rent (not just my share but the entire check) to store the contents of my E Street apartment and have them unloaded them at a time and location to-be-determined.

But that’s the price I’ll pay at the end of the month. In the meantime, it’s a $10 wash-and-fold bill that allows me to lighten my everyday carry to a duffel and a backpack, three days at a time in New York. This week, as last week, I’ll be sleeping in a guestroom on Grand and Lafayette in Clinton Hill; next week, I’ll be in Park Slope.

I’ve grappled with the definition of ‘home’ for most of my life. For now, I’m content to call it the place where I know exactly what my towel smells like and where it’ll be hanging.

Stanton & Ludlow.

Stanton & Ludlow, olives & wine.

My host left a bottle of wine on the dining room table with a note to help myself to a glass. I did, and with the tub of olives I claimed from the leftovers of the LAMP party, I sat straight-backed on the foot of the bed facing the window and pulled out my computer. Olives and wine and StreetEasy and NYBits and the noise of the apocalypse and glass bottles filled the air.

Week one in New York is behind me (week two at the new job), and I’m on the Northeast Regional back down to DC. There’ll be perhaps a dozen trips like this by the time I’m done, scores of nights and early mornings spent intuiting apartment floor plans from lousy realtors’ websites by the time I sleep in my own bed in New York City.

Still, I’m heartened. It’s taken only a week of supportive colleagues and a sane client to get most of my confidence back. Wednesday was unintentionally eat-shellfish-and-drink-beer-at-bars-of-establishments-with-punched-tin-ceilings day – mussels at Resto in Murray Hill for lunch, oysters and beer at Upstate in the East Village for dinner. Resto had quenched my craving for Belgian food one weekend a few years ago and I was happy to return to find it still serving a lovely approximation of the bistro fare I’d found so delightful in Brussels.

Upstate, however, particularly impressed me – the proprietor’s care and love of the food (and the pleasure diners take from it) is evident. I swapped names (and cards) with regulars and the barkeep, shared samples and observed the regulars’ ritual of rating the different oysters. I ordered a few Saranac white IPAs, had the last slice of the complimentary whiskey cake in the house. The barkeep endeavored to keep my tiny water glass filled throughout the night (and alternately kept a second tiny glass filled with varying samples from their taps).

At Behavior, as I arrived into a meeting with the creative director early, I caught the end of a discussion about a project the firm is pursuing for a center for Philippine art and scholarship. Naturally intrigued, I followed up about it during lunch today – it’s still in a nebulous place, but the pedigree seems sufficiently prestigious to make it coalesce into a real, bright and shining star.

Apropos nothing, as I pass Trenton, I love love love all weird cocksure urban sloganeering, especially done up in fantastic neon and steel on a goddamn bridge – I hold that it engenders civic pride by binding the town’s diaspora to a memorable epigram. I do imagine across the world, Trenton(-ian?-ite?) strangers meeting for the first time utter what Trenton makes, the world takes as a kind of shibboleth before then arguing jovially about who’ll get the first round of Bud Lights and comparing who they knew from when they were in high school.

So where was I, about strangers in bars? Information architect is one poncy job title. I seem to be getting a lot of mileage about my cooking by recipe vs. technique metaphor. And about the state of Filipino food in America – made for our parents’ generation, chafing dishes of old hits. The long-asked question about how to plate dinuguan I now realize is deprecated by a decade of haute peasant culture/high-low mashups/jeans and high heels, replaced by the question of wine pairing and course order. The creative director is partial to Purple Yam in Sunset Park. Kuma Inn is the most cleverly named but seems to have the least enthusiastic supporters. At Upstate, they raved about Maharlika down the street. I’m going to try the hell out of all of them.

In time – and there’ll be lots of time. I ate well last week – hardly news. For whatever reason, I feel in my element eating at bars. One of the regulars at Upstate was discussing with the proprietor her plan to prepare the cakes for Saturday service – a chamomile panna cotta and a flourless chocolate – as another implored me to return.

I’m going to be in DC for dinner on Saturday – after a day of cherry blossoms and Moomin and The City Dark – but I’m looking forward to returning.

Moving to New York.

Washington, DC is the first place I’ve ever chosen to live. New York will be the second.

I have accepted a job with Behavior, and it starts almost immediately.

It’s sinking in that after seven years of calling DC home, my days here are numbered and few. I resigned yesterday, left a message with my landlord about terminating my lease.

DC: I still love you very much, hate to go, and hope we can still be friends. It’s a place with flaws, to be sure, and New York is by no means utopia. But it’s far and away the most exciting American city today, among the finest cities ever in the world, and I have an opportunity to, frankly, make it there.

So now: to find a new apartment. To find a place to lay my head for a few weeks while I search for a new apartment. To pack up my Capitol Hill jewelbox of an apartment into a pair of storage containers, and to host one last brunch – this will probably happen on an early April weekend, after the intensive scope phase of my new project is done but before the serious packing starts. Come for the pepper bacon, leave with a throw pillow.

While Christina’s here, I imagine I’ll be arriving on the Northeast Regional at Union Station something like every other Friday night. I’ll hardly be a stranger, but on the Sunday nights that follow, I’ll be leaving for my new home – I’m angling for one with a second bedroom or a den.

What I wrote when I left LA that first day of summer bears repeating: So many people I know have earned their thanks, and so many people I know deserve apologies. To the former, stay dear and true and wonderful and at my home when you come to visit. To the latter, take my diligent angels—leave my better demons be.

And I mean it about that last brunch. Stay tuned.

…with an ice cream maker and Steve Buscemi.

Steve Buscemi stood ahead of me a couple places in line. I didn’t recognize him from behind, but once he came to a bend in the line, I could not mistake the translucent blue eyes that hung over his smirk for anyone else’s. He wore skinny black jeans and a faded black cap embroidered with what I think was a Jamba Juice logo in cardinal red monochrome. He travelled with a woman with reddish brown hair who wore thick-rimmed glasses.

I made eye contact with him and moved to nod as if an acquaintance, but he didn’t recognize me. He may not have recognized that I recognized him. Or maybe he did: he is, after all, recognizable.

I thought to take a picture of him with my phone, to tell him I was a fan and in particular I remember his voice work at Eastern State Penitentiary. I did not take that leap. I read the lips of the TSA agent who asked to see his boarding pass and identification: I’m a fan of your work.

I yanked my over-stuffed suitcase onto the steel tables leading to the conveyor belt, emptied my pockets into a side pocket of my suitcase, took off my shoes. As my bag passed through the perfunctory X-ray, I faced to the side, elbows above my head, as shown in the diagram. I stood perfectly still. Another agent allowed me to pass. I lined up at the end of the conveyor belt and waited for my bag. My shoes came out. The agent at the conveyor belt called for a bag check. The agent responsible for bag checks chided him for calling for bag checks so often. She asked whose it was and I said it was mine. She told me to follow her. I put on my shoes and followed her.

She opened the main compartment of the bag, removed the clean shirts at the top of its contents, and observed two drums wrapped in plastic. She looked at me wearily, wordlessly asking what these two drums were meant to be.

“My parents gave me an ice cream maker for my birthday,” I said. She started swabbing the edge of the compartment.
“Are you going to use it?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, then clarified: “Not on this flight.”

She continued swabbing other pockets and placed each of these swabs into a scanner the size of a jukebox. I watched, having expected this interaction as a consequence of packing a disassembled kitchen appliance into my suitcase.

“Homemade ice cream is good,” she said without prompting.
“I agree.”
“I asked because I have an ice cream maker but I never use it.”
“It’s good with fresh fruit.”

I started to comment about how I thought frozen fruit would suffice for mixing into ice cream. She started to advise me about strawberries.

“What’s good is when you take strawberries, cut them in half and hull them. Sprinkle some sugar over that, leave it overnight, pour out the juice the next morning. Puree that,” she said.

I stopped paying attention to my suitcase. I assume the swab turned up clean.

“That sounds good,” I said. “I’ll have to try that.”

She replaced my clean shirts atop the drums of the ice cream maker and zipped the suitcase closed. I fished out my phone, wallet, etc. from the side pocket of the suitcase and replaced them in the pockets of my jeans. Another agent interrupted us to bring me my messenger bag. I left it at the end of the conveyor belt in my haste to follow the agent who did bag checks and advised me about strawberries. I took my suitcase and messenger bag and headed towards Gate 30 where Christina was waiting and other passengers for Alaska 6 were already lined up.

As I offered her to get us a bottle of water, Steve Buscemi and the woman with reddish brown hair sauntered past.

Yes, that is a gnome in my duffle bag, and I am happy to see you.

We are visiting Christina’s family in Houston to ring in the new year. I am carrying a gnome from Georgetown in my duffle bag, a gift for her folks she picked out.

It has a G on its hat. The G is for gnome.

Highs in the 50s and 60s, lows in the 30s. Looking forward to the Menil Collection, Forbidden Gardens, some thinking time with a laptop and a table outdoors, and a nap on the flight.

Ten thoughts for December.

Having been too busy last month to extend the ‘Nine thoughts for November’ franchise into 2010, I now return, with interest on late delivery, absent alliteration but with assonance. Happy new year.

1. On the last day of 2010, at the close of a decade, the delay seems to render this an appropriate forum for reminiscing on the ’00s behind and forecasting the ’10s ahead.

2. In 2011, I will be finishing two substantial projects that have defined the latter half of the current year: the U.S. State department’s visas site and my thesis. While satisfying to complete, projects that arch over calendars have a potential for individual days fraught with existential crises. Engaging two such projects at once in similar stages rather than parallel tracks of conception and execution – one at school, one at the office – has magnified that potential in a seemingly logarithmic way.

Worse, the potential for parallel deadlines looms.

3. I will be defending my thesis in late April 2011. Unlike the pomp and circumstance of graduation, the defense is tension and release, rigor and adrenaline and the most delicious pitcher of cheap beer. It matters to me. I will literally be standing for my research.

Your presence is requested. I’ll try to make it a Monday or Friday. It’s a presentation followed by a Q&A, and it lasts about an hour. We’ll get drinks after.

4. I don’t know what will happen to my research after I write my master’s thesis. I have been considering the social process of making the web browser as the first part that I will complete at Georgetown. Broader research about the social effects of the browser will comprise a second part; discussion of design and causality will be the third. It is not about the browser wars, but the browser wars are the setting for a significant amount of the research.

I have months to figure this out. In the meantime, two very rough chapters are ready. For now, I am flying.

5. There is nothing quite like watching the sun rise while ascending from zero to 20,000 feet above sea level. While the sun rises everyday, it is too rarely experienced quickly enough to feel like a hit.

6. There is no number 6.

7. I have often documented my complicated relationship with the suburbs of Los Angeles and each trip there raises its scepter. Something I hadn’t admitted to myself until this trip is that I am so compelled to return because I relish the challenge of doing something people in this place might care to notice.

When asked my thoughts on the city, I often refer to this BLDGBLOG post:

L.A. is the apocalypse: it’s you and a bunch of parking lots. No one’s going to save you; no one’s looking out for you. It’s the only city I know where that’s the explicit premise of living there – that’s the deal you make when you move to L.A.

The city, ironically, is emotionally authentic.

It says: no one loves you; you’re the least important person in the room; get over it.

What matters is what you do there.

In my case, to do what I wanted, I had to leave.

8. I exceeded the expectations I had for my life in California in 2001. I have flown thousands more miles, sent and received hundreds of postcards. Finished college, started graduate school. Composed a book of 10,000 words and 103 pictures from 30 miles of walking and 20,000 miles of flying. Saw several dozen concerts, made almost thirty mix CDs, made friends. Started a business, designed higher-traffic sites, moved east. Lost 40 pounds. Invested. Saw my screencaps featured in books, my words in lectures, my picture in a magazine.

I took a road trip to Fallingwater and discovered Storm King.

On Tuesday, over dinner with Rishi, I had wagyu beef, scallop sushi topped with a sliver of black truffle, and a glass of Balvenie 15. I played a street fighting video game on a Microsoft console by controlling my avatar with only my hands and feet. I am writing this now on an Apple laptop powered by an Intel processor, connected to the internet on an airplane. (If you had to choose between turbulence or disconnectedness, which would you choose?)

It’s unlikely I’ll exceed expectations for my life in 2020 to quite the same degree.

9. A part of me believes that my ideas about what I will do in 2011 will at once inform and be completely distinct from the things I will reminisce over in 2020. I had no idea when I was nine that web design was a profession, let alone one I would practice with a degree of success to the point of being a decade-long career before the age of 30. Technology created new opportunities that my expectations did not take into account, and I imagine the next ten years will by defined similarly by a combination of diligence and freakishly rapid innovation.

10. A part of me believes that the row of Jumbotrons mounted on griffins advertising factory outlet sales and staring down 5 Freeway traffic in Commerce will be included in an establishing shot of Los Angeles in November 2019.

It’s less than ten years away.

Storm king.

Go to Storm King Art Center before you die. Go this weekend before it closes for the winter. Go when we go in the spring, in the morning, with a picnic lunch.

It’s in upstate New York. Plan to spend at least five hours there. Bring a sandwich – I don’t know if they’d knock you for bringing a cooler of beer, but I nod in your direction if you’re getting that idea.

Or don’t. Go hungry – go with a grumble in your stomach, with a fire in your eyes. Go with an empty camera and comfortable shoes and take jumping pictures. Go with a pencil and pad. Go with your hands in your pockets and let memory be memory. Go.

Raised by wolves.

1. Rome is a city that stirs the blood, maddens and inspires. There are a few lasting achievements of art and architecture that seemingly happen but once a century (or two) in the course of human history, and Rome hosts an alarming concentration of them (for one, Pantheon).

Among the ephemera, that a bang-on shot of espresso is available at every level of food service from slouchy snack bar to white-tablecloth restaurant is as much a factor of training and equipment as cultural reinforcement; that even for those who can only spare 80 cents the quality of their coffee is not spared. Restaurant menus indicate when a dish includes an ingredient that has been frozen, implying that the remainder of the spread is fresh.

There are perhaps more marble statues, frescoed ceilings, and gelato shops per capita in Rome than anywhere else in the world, and while there’s more to the place than art and food, they’re a fine way through which to experience the city.

2. A worthwhile thing to do in Rome that no guidebook or blog told us was taking in the sunset from Giardino degli Aranci (Garden of Oranges). It is, true to its name, an orange grove on Aventine Hill (about a kilometer uphill from Piramide station) with a stone (marble?) balcony tacked on at the end. That balcony faces west.

When in Florence, order a steak.

3. Travelling in the 21st century continues to amaze me. Though supersonic air travel has been relegated to 20th-century antiquity, the Schengen Agreement, Euro currency, and global networks of cash machines, credit cards, and mobile telephony have all but eliminated logistical hassles for Americans touring much of Europe. I am not taking this stuff for granted.

4. My undergraduate Italian held up surprisingly well, and I still consider it a minor miracle that I was able to correct my error when booking our return trip to Rome from Florence at the S.M.N. ticket office without the use of English or incurring an additional charge. While at the post office, a clerk seemingly eager to speak some English bridged the language gap to scrounge up 25 stamps for international postcards. Occasionally, a combination of ambient English guided tours and Wikipedia on my BlackBerry enhanced our experience of a place.

5. As a meta note, this trip was my first vacation in a new place in over two years. The degree to which my creative output has fallen in that time has surprised and saddens me. I think it’s mostly a byproduct of being enrolled in school and in a relationship where someone else’s time is to be considered in equal measure as my own, but part of me also thinks that it’s because I haven’t been anywhere new to me in too long.

6. There is no number 6.

7. My failure to sell or even give away my tickets to The National concert on Sunday prompted me to attend the show on limited sleep immediately upon arrival in Washington. It turned out to be a wise play, as the show was spectacular and my sleep schedule was tuned perfectly the morning after. The first time I saw them, I was standing for the whole show and aside from the band and their instruments and equipment I remember the stage was bare. This time I was seated and there were lights and horns.

If there is a band for whom the placement of a grand oak tree on stage is aesthetically consistent with their music, it would be The National.

8. The use of clean as an aesthetic judgment bothers me. Cleanliness is distinct from organization, and that mere organization often presents itself as cleanliness is a given and the judgment provides little in the way of compliment or critique. Some alternatives are minimal, which reflects a position within art history, and simple, which indicates a composition with few moving parts or even one that has been inadequately considered.

9. I’m also growing increasingly wary of interesting as an adjective, mostly because it is subjective and also because it tends to describe things that really ought not be beyond the threshold of known vocabulary. I want to know how that interesting thing actually held interest, whether it engaged, stupefied, inspired, saddened. If all you can muster is interesting, either learn some new words or experience some new things.

10. Christina and I are planning our trip to Cuernavaca for Carlos and Ana’s wedding in July, so I can safely say that two years will not pass before my next vacation in a new place. However, my high-school Spanish is dustier than my college Italian, so negotiating the language gap could get, well, frustrating, with a high chance of gesticulation.

In the meantime, we will watch The New Pornographers, Passion Pit, and Tokyo Police Club in concert. And I will be starting at NavigationArts on 21 June, which is also the date of my 5th anniversary in Washington. And given I’m sentimental and wish to commemorate that event, I hope to publish another piece of writing – perhaps a list – on that date.

11. And therein lies an exotic destination, experiences of live music, and a pair of personal milestones to commemorate – creative inputs and motivation. I think I can keep this up.

Originally published 11 June 2010.

Ursa major.

Some families set their dramas on the stage of a castle, a city apartment, a suburban bungalow. Mine was wed to the four wheels of a 1990 Toyota truck.

It didn’t define who we were as a family, but it was a pliant witness to our own definition in southern California, the vessel we steered on paper routes in the San Fernando Valley, the commute to Riverside, then Anaheim Hills, then Cypress, the distance between contract work in City of Industry and classes in Irvine, the journey from Downey to anywhere. In some way, we were defined by how we interacted with the Los Angeles sprawl, how far across it we were willing to travel to grasp our ambitions.

It seems appropriate that the story of an immigrant family is not one of nobility but mobility, the nomadism etched into our DNA. In early morning hours of my childhood, my father would shine a flashlight on a driveway and me or Mikey would throw a copy of the LA Times into the target. Some people start all-nightering in college; I had my first when I was eight years old, in the bed of that truck, surrounded by newspapers. There was no air conditioning and no clock, one cupholder, and a radio with perpetually shot speakers, even after Scott and I installed a new pair (along with new headlights) in between oil changes at his house. Arguments over who would drive it and when were a feature of the thicker years of my sibling rivalry.

Angelenos are prone to defining others by the cars they drive, and at the University of Civics and Integras, the truck was an anomaly. Driving it in Orange County at odd hours of night inspired my dread of racial profiling — I have recently ceased the habit of checking my tail lights, but it was most often the falsified probable cause for traffic stops. I befriended different people, dated different women because of what I drove. If we are defined by the company we keep, the truck allowed a less materialistic conduit for my definition (that was inevitably inextricable from helping people move).

And as a family we also defined our setting. In its dents and leaks were scars of my father’s impulsiveness, my brother’s entropy, my workaholic fatigue. Depending on who was driving, the seat moved forward or backward, but the side mirrors always remained in place. Between classes I would recline in the passenger seat and take naps and awaken to find the windows fogged. In that passenger window, I could still make out the faint imprint of the original dot-matrix printed sticker. It cost my father around $11,000 when he bought it brand new in 1990. He named it Bear.

I remember the day I passed my driving test, that moment leaving Arthur’s for the Bell Gardens DMV where all those years of playing catch with a set of keys were rendered practice for that moment when two divergent schedules would make it necessary. I drove it to Las Vegas less than a month later, got a speeding ticket for going 101 mph downhill after the San Bernardino Mountains, and on the drive back home, called my mother on her vacation in New Jersey to explain why there would be a citation in the mail. The debt from that incident would deepen and lead to the start of the Spazowham Design Group. I remember picking up my father from work once after a long rush-hour commute and being angry with him for making me wait at the parking lot of his office, arguing with my mother about money and driving away. It was a vehicle of my rebellion.

I remember driving to Long Beach Airport with two suitcases in the bed in June 2005. This was the last day I would claim Bear as “my truck.” My brother called me today and told me the head gasket blew on his way to work last week. The repair would cost thousands of dollars, and he said it felt like putting the family dog to sleep. After I hung up the phone, my colleagues remarked it sounded like a pet had died, or a relative. But for an inanimate object, steel and plastic and rubber, it was special to the men of my family because in those 18 years of California traffic it seemed we spent more time with this machine than any of our friends, and perhaps with each other. It was a vehicle of our solitude.

From the Church of Christ parking lot next to that tiny Lindell Avenue apartment and the Corinthian on Florence, I moved about 3,000 miles to Washington, D.C. We’re a family awash in iPods with a son in graduate school. My mother no longer needs to work for us to make ends meet. We waste food. Over the post-mortem phone calls, I asked what’s next, if there’s another Bear in their future. Mikey’s buying his first brand-new car next week, planning to spend just a shade under $20,000. If we wanted to buy another Toyota truck, for another 18-year-run, we could.

If you ever want to quantify how far you have to go to make it in this country, for reference’s sake, my family put 258,346.6 miles on Bear. It was a vehicle of our social mobility, reminding us of where we started in 1990 as a young, fractured clan with a tenuous grasp of our new cultural context, of where we had been everyday in making ourselves (to a degree) a functional family at ease in America. Some choose to buy new cars to express their achievements to the world, to mark the level of success they enjoyed; I think we kept driving the same old truck as a reminder that we still have farther to go before we’re satisfied.

That, and to haul shit.

Originally published 10 November 2008.