art, creativity, family, friendship, grateful, passion, Passion Company, social pressure, Thanksgiving

Why Simple Concepts Deserve More Attention Than Complex Ones

Be present. With us, not with your phone. Forget small talk. Talk about your dreams. Love yourself. Play. Engage with the art and creativity around you. 

These were the instructions I received hours before attending a perfectly San Franciscan event with three friends. Hosted by The Passion Company, the event showcased projects and lectures by people who found ways other than money and status to define themselves.

Though I wasn’t presenting, I was nervous to attend. I felt anticipatory insecurity about how I would measure up to other attendees who had surely discovered, you know, the meaning of life and stuff. The feeling doubled when my friend and I walked through the door.

A girl in a Renaissance gown asked for my name and checked me in. “Head over to that table with nametags on it. Write down your name and one thing you are grateful for about yourself.”Ugh. Why can’t they just ask for a name like a normal event?

I walked to the table and stared at the blank nametag with blank thought. I knew that others would write insightful, perfectly crafted adages on their nametags. Trying to push past the creative paralysis, I racked my brain. I am grateful for my optimism, but I thought it too fluffy for such a sophisticated crowd. Falling back on ever-reliable alliteration, I went through adjectives that start with “R” like my first name. Something stuck.

Rationally optimistic.

“Oh that’s good,” my friend said next to me, while she wrote hers.

Creating communities.

“Oh that is good,” I said to her.

We pinned our nametags onto our shirts (pity the man who still uses stick-on nametags), then started to schmooze.

Nametags were reliable conversation starters and within moments, we were talking to a native New Yorker who was grateful for his family. “I know it sounds silly,” he apologized glancing at my friend and my nametags, “but I am grateful for them! I was just talking to my sister before I walked in.”

He didn’t need to apologize. In fact, I was grateful for his nametag. The one simple word “family,” was immediately relatable to me. This is because the word was accompanied by a deep and universal concept. Thinking of my love for my own sibling, I instantly felt connected to this man, and more importantly, at ease at this event. I stopped worrying about the potential of mismatched intellectual planes. I was as similar to these people around me as I was different.

My nametag was much less relatable than that of “family” man. Mine couldn’t create community. As I continued to walk around, I received eye-raises and Oh, that’s good!‘s, but the slightly complicated phrase was incapable of forming a human connection the way “family” could.

I left the event feeling hokey, not because of others, but because of myself.

Two weeks after the event, I was lying in bed scrolling through pictures on my phone. I came across one of my recently deceased pup. I posted it to Instagram. The moment I pressed “Share,” my eyes welled with tears.

I cried for an hour.

Finally, a familiar tritone brought me out of it. The message was chillingly perfect:

The next day, I received this message from another friend who recently moved away from San Francisco:
And then, at what would have been 11:30 PM her time, another friend FaceTimed me. “I might fall asleep on this call,” she started, “but I just needed to see you this weekend. All weekend I just felt like talking to you. I feel like you might be sad. Are you sad?”These are just three of the uncountable, beautiful friendships that define my life.

As simple as it sounds, this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for my friends. The depth of these relationships goes much further than the simplicity of the word.Though I’ve always had friends and though I’ve always loved them, this year, I’ve needed friends. Through the good, but also through some bad and ugly. My friends kept me standing on my two feet then pushed me forward. And through it all, each played a different but necessary role: my fan, my therapist, my parent, my tough love, my unconditional love, my inspiration, my motivation, my pillar. My raison d’être. My friends that had always just been there in the background, were now the entire foreground.

If I could go back and do it again, that nametag would read, “My friends.

Sometimes, we feel so pressured to leave an impression that we unnecessarily complicate things. Those nametags taught me that simplicity is approachable, relatable, and powerful. Simplicity makes an impact. Simplicity is authentic.

Thank you for sharing your shoulders, your smiles, and your love. Here’s sending all of that back to each of you.

care, career, childhood, dance, mom, Mother's Day, ocean, Ocean Beach, passion, prioritizing, publishing, tradeoffs, writing

I used to fear that one day I’d be like my mom. Now, I look forward to that day.

Left: Mom and brother. Center: Me. Right: 1st-grade teacher and fruit of oil painting class.

“I don’t care if the Earth stops spinning, you have to sit down and practice piano for one hour.” This was one of my mom’s favorite statements (and one of my least favorite ones) when I was growing up. When I asked her why, she’d respond, “Because the sky is so high and you’re going to be married in the month of July.” Though I can assure you that my mom would care if the world ended, her statement expressed, in very few words, what she truly cared about, above all else: my brother and my success.  The extremity of her statement helped put it in perspective with (everything else in) the world.

As a child, my mom was an Bharatnatyam dancer. Though she, like I eventually did, attended weekly rehearsals, she and I did it for different reasons. I did it because my mom made me; my mom did it because she was passionate about pursuing the art form. When she was fifteen, my mom’s family moved from Kolkata to Delhi and she was forced to quit dance classes. A mix of other family priorities and the inability to find a good teacher in their new town stripped my mom of the one thing for which she cared so deeply.

But she wasn’t going to let this be the end.

Life went on, and thirty years ago, my mom moved to America. I was born four years later and the year after that, my mom found the perfect dance teacher she had been searching for back in Delhi. My mom didn’t let me stop her from dancing. She took me to her lessons, where I was propped up on a washing machine to watch her and receive a few cheerios between each set. Two years after I was born, my mom danced while pregnant with my brother.

Until we were in high school, my mom was a stay-at-home one. She gave up a professional career for one in raising her children the way she felt was best. She prepared us for vocabulary quizzes, watched us do our homework and drove us to an ever-growing list of extracurricular activities from piano to soccer to dance to oil painting to singing lessons to the rest of the superset.

And still, somehow, she continued dancing.

When I was ten and my brother was seven, my mom, at age thirty-seven, performed her Arangetram. In Indian Classical Dance, the Arangetram is a dancer’s first official solo dance recital and demonstrates a significant achievement in the art. It follows a specific two-hour format.

Her longtime dream finally came true.

Three weeks ago, I received my first rejection letter from a children’s book publisher. While the letter itself is a nice one (“Presents an all-too-common story in such a unique way, and with a really heartwarming message at its core…” “…grateful for the chance to consider it”), the overall message of the letter was not the one I wanted to hear (“…unfortunately with our relatively small list we’re unable to take it on at this time”).

The rejection has been difficult for me. I initially couldn’t help but question the worth it-ness of this thing that I don’t have to do. While I care deeply about the manuscript and publication, I was overwhelmed with what I gave up by means of other activities, random events, relaxation and time with friends in order to create it. I reminded myself that this is what it will look like, for every future manuscript, at every phase of my life.

Ocean Beach at sunset

Still grappling with the reality, last Monday, I went to the ocean in search of myself. It was a simple scene. After a while, it became clear to me that I needed to create a simple scene for my life. It’s impossible to care for — to put the same amount of time and effort into — everything. I forced myself to determine what five things in this world I care about most, an exercise inspired by a wise friend. Five because I want to be able to hold them in one hand. To clench them tightly in one fist. What was I willing to give up? What does my life — my happiness and my personal sense of success — require? I didn’t leave until I was happy with the list, with a still to-be-determined order or priority:

  • Family + closest friends
  • Health
  • Job
  • Writing
  • Learning

Given a choice between something else and something on the list I know that I care more about the thing on the list. And in this case, it means submitting to another publisher, and another and another for however many times is necessary for this manuscript, and for each manuscript.
What makes my mom’s realized dream an inspiring one is that it wasn’t realized fortuitously. There was no unforeseeable “lucky break,” no industry bubble, no market boom. Her dream came true because she, in her mid-twenties, determined what few things in this world she truly cared about. She didn’t have to dance. She didn’t have to commit her children to a slew of activities. She didn’t have to quit her job. She made big, scary trade offs. And because she chose the right things, the ones that mattered the most to her, she was able to persevere. She continues to dance, and in fact, my brother and I will watch her perform in a show next weekend.
This Mother’s Day, I’m thankful for a lady who has not only cared for me above so much else, but who also, maybe more importantly, has taught me how to care about the special things in my life.

bread, craft, descending the corporate ladder, happiness, hobbies, Josey Baker, Josey Baker Bread, novella, passion, persistence, San Francisco, San Francisco Public Library, SFPL, The Mill, toast

Josey Baker Has Perfected The Recipe for Happiness. Now He’s Perfecting One for Bread.

There are few organically inspirational things in this world. Products, establishments, services, these things are not inspirational. It is the story behind them — the people behind them — that move us to be better versions of ourselves.

The first time I visited San Francisco’s The Mill, it was to edit an early draft of my novella. I was in between jobs at the time and committed to completing this endeavor that I started eighteen months prior. Having just received feedback from my hired and peer editors, I was feeling especially insecure. With feedback like, “It starts to read like a high school exercise in making writing ‘interesting,'” and “Like listening to your girlfriend talk about her work problems,” I was having second, third, and fourth thoughts not about my novella but about my pursuit of writing as a hobby. Maybe I’m not as good at writing as I thought I was. This book is shit. (Note: Not “the” shit. Just shit.) Maybe I shouldn’t be writing publicly.

The self-deprecation continued as I waited outside in a line fifty people deep.

Once at the barista, I ordered my regularly programmed skim latte. “Anything else?” he asked. The intonation was different. It wasn’t like other coffee shops, where they ask it out of obligation and are already running your credit card. It was a knowing one. You’re going to want something else. He looked at me, then looked at a mini chalkboard on the counter.

I cringed at the cost, then reminded myself I was going to be there a while. You basically need to rewrite this thing. I ordered a slice.

Filled with an anxiety sent up from my stomach to sit on my epiglottis, I sat down with my draft, a latte, and my expensive slice of sea salt-sprinkled, honey-drizzled, almond butter toast. Before I did anything, I took one bite.

It didn’t change my life. It wasn’t the best food I’ve ever sunk my teeth into. But that crisp-crust, moistened-middle, almond-goopy bite went down so smooth that it washed my anxiety down as if it owned the place.

It made me happy.

I’ve been to The Mill a dozen times since then to accompany my toast with a good book, good company, or good writing time.

Last Tuesday, I stumbled upon an upcoming event by The Mill’s lead baker, Josey Baker, at the library. Though the establishment is unarguably my Happiness Enabler and I was definitely going to attend (I am a sucker for new authors), I was nervous about it.

The most off-putting quality of “craftspeople” is their ego. You respect them for their talent, but you despise them for their self-aggrandizing claims. It’s like going to the museum with that “artist” who who feels obligated to critique every single artifact. Or going to dinner with a “foodie” who chews everything twenty-one times while commenting on each new flavor she tastes or invents in the process. I just want to punch them.

I assumed Josey would tell us about how he was destined to be a baker. And given his last name, that claim would actually be scientifically accurate (Implicit egotism explains how we are attracted to self-associations and research has explored how this translates into our make life decisions that share beginning letters or syllables with our names). I prepared myself to hear him say, like we hear so often, that everyone else, from bakers to mass producers, was doing it wrong. How he was born with some innate bread truth. He would use floury language to tell us how he was changing carbs and disrupting the Wonderful bread industry that we know so well.

On Thursday evening, seated in the front row, I clutched his book, skipping past the presentation in my mind to think about the bread samples and book signing that would follow. The event started, and Josey had me at, “Hey guys.”

Well, kinda.

When Josey bar-tended, people came for bread, not booze

“Hey guys. Thanks so much everyone for coming to this. I’m still getting used to the fact that the people who come to these things aren’t just people I know anymore.” The element of surprise that people actually care about what he was creating, that twinge of sustained insecurity from his amateur days, and most importantly, a genuine gratitude of people’s support — here was an artist with whom I could completely connect, who I could immediately respect, whose story promised to inspire.

Josey’s introduction included a second surprise: He started baking four years ago. Four.

To me, this is the single most important part of Josey’s story.

There is a wide misconception that to be passionate about your craft means to have an innate skill or unmatched expertise. But as Josey’s story goes on to demonstrate, it’s not expertise but happiness that you must prove with any craft. That’s what drives persistence and a desire to improve.

Josey began baking when a friend gave him a sourdough starter (because, San Francisco) and told him to try it out. Making this first loaf made him happy. That’s it. And so he stayed at it.

As he continued baking, Josey started giving away loaves to neighbors and coworkers so he could bake more. Soon, people insisted on giving him a couple bucks for the loaves and that’s when he realized he had something. Working at UC Berkeley at the time (writing children’s books!), Josey started a bread subscription. He finally quit his job to be honest with himself and to use his bread to well, put bread on the table.

“I had this naive idea that my job could be something I loved.” 

There were signs of his success along the way (like when people came to the bar at which he worked to get loaves of bread) and a “this is it” moment in November 2010 when a whole bunch of people wanted bread for Thanksgiving.

“Looking back at those Thanksgiving loaves, I can’t help but think how crappy they look,” he joked while showing us a picture, “but given the look on my face at the time this photograph was taken, it’s clear that was not at all what I was thinking at the time.”

When you pursue your happy-craft, you’ll stop and celebrate your successes along the way. Even when you know you can be so much better, even when you’re aware that there are people who are better than you, your personal victory will merit self-appreciation.

Though his path wasn’t an easy one, Josey, to an external eye, has finally “made it.” He can look back on this 2010 loaves and chuckle at their elementary form. But even today, he and his bakers (who he insists are better, more experienced bakers than he) pursue their curiosity by experimenting with different techniques and recipes.

“Everyday, we are trying as hard as we can to make the bread better than the day before. And we don’t always do it but when you do, you want to do it again.”

That is an artist. That is someone who appreciates his craft and is relentless pursuing the heart of it.

I share this story because it presents a freshly baked view on that trite advice to “pursue your passion.” It’s about finding something that makes you happy and wanting to become better at it because that makes you happy. It’s not about claiming expertise or forcing your craft on anyone else, but about doing it for yourself. It will be tough and people may hate you for unrelated reasons, but if you do it with a happy passion, admirable humility, and inspiring philosophy, you will find yourself with a never-ending-line-out-the-door group of supporters.

I took a lot of notes. On my phone. In the front row.

Josey ended his talk with a few words about his recently published cookbook, which he wrote for the beginning baker: himself. He still sees himself as a beginning baker. At the end of the day, he wants every reader’s first experience to be encouraging. “Your first loaf is not going to be the best bread in the world. Try to make a good loaf, and if you like it, you’ll want to make it better,” he encouraged.

My novella was my first loaf. A lot of people hate it and a handful of people think it’s a good read. I knew then and I know now that it’s not the best book in the world. There are so many things I want to be different about it. But you know what? That’s what makes me happy. That’s what drove me to complete a second manuscript (a children’s book!).

Forget making money for a second. Drown out the overconfident diatribes of experts. Determine what brings you simple, homey, happiness. That is your bread. Now figure out how to put some butter on it. Go make it better.

authenticity, being yourself, coffee shops, crafts, hipster, mom, passion, San Francisco, writing

Your mom is a hipster

When I arrived in Mountain View twenty-five years ago, I met a young woman who I’ve intimately gotten to know ever since:

She hates Starbucks. Not because she would rather support a local small business that serves fair-trade organic roasts and sheep’s milk lattes, but because she can make the world’s best filter coffee in her own kitchen.

While she’s eating one meal, she’s thinking about the next. She isn’t always eating, but she believes that every meal should be properly planned to include all food groups and effectively executed to involve only the freshest ingredients.

There was one time she invited me to go berry-picking. She taught me how to find the ripest berries and we plucked and plucked until our hands were stained purple. After a day on the farm, we drove back to her house with a car full of fruit and spent the rest of the weekend making jams and preserves (she insists there’s a difference).

That same year, she decided that buying her kids shoes was a waste of money. “They’ve practically outgrown them before we get home from the store,” she told a friend. What’s nice about sneakers is that they come with an extra pair of shoelaces, typically a color that’s not white. On a whim, she borrowed a craftbook from the library. The next day, she was making shoelace hairclips and the next month, selling them at various community events.

She only wears “real” jewelry; she doesn’t eat meat; she bikes; she knits scarves. I could go on forever but you don’t care. The only thing you’re wondering is,

“Who the hell is this hipster?”

Well, she doesn’t know what a “hipster” is, but if you really must know, she’s my mom.
Living in San Francisco and maybe other “up-and-coming” (whatever that means) cities, either you’re surrounded by people you consider hipster or you’re “accused” (as if it’s a bad thing) of being hipster yourself. Even the New York Times finds hipsterdom conversation-worthy.

“Let’s look at the facts,” someone once told me, “You love Mac products and frequently spend time in coffee shops. You are an aspiring writer. You are vegetarian, have thick-rimmed glasses, and use non-mainstream websites such as Hipmunk (which now, one year later, is arguably mainstream). You may, in fact, be a hipster.” Apparently the only thing I’m missing is an infatuation with “obscure” music. And a beard. Let’s call this Definition A.

More recently, a designer from a tech startup (who also paints and frequents bar trivia) told me that I am the most hipster person he knows: “You dress well and have hobbies.” Definition B.

Definition C. “Hipster is a set of behaviors and attitudes. The attitude is one of ironic negativity in which, outside of minor nuances, you can’t distinguish between their likes and dislikes. The behavior is doing things that come across as cheap — not shaving, drinking PBR, and wearing ‘old’ tshirts they claim to have ‘had forever’ when really they went rummaging through a parent’s attic.” — Soccer teammate.

I could hit Definition Z if I tried and you conceivably would disagree with all twenty-six definitions. But what’s more important is whyhipsters do what they do. Whether or not I am one, everything I do has a reason — cultural (vegetarianism), health-related (glasses), or passion (writing). I get this all from my economical, crafty, foodie mom.

No matter where you live or work, you have those things too. Things you do because they feel right for you. Maybe that makes us all hipster in some way or another.

People who do things they care about. My definition.

Tl;dr — The most ironic thing about “hipster” is that we can’t agree on what it actually means.

finding extraordinary, finding yourself, passion, thanks, Thanksgiving, writing

This above all: To thine own self be true

Last week, a friend stopped by my desk during a coffee break (note how sometimes I am merely associated with a coffee break, not necessarily partaking in it). Knowing him to be an enthusiast of both creating and consuming delectable prose, I shared with him this delightful flowchart on how to publish your book.

“That reminds me, there is this piece I’ve been wanting to write about something that happened to me in Boston. It was just so amazing, the experience. I can’t even quite describe it, but it was just so…I need to sit down and write about it before I lose all the emotion.” My friend’s eyes had lit up with excitement.  The lack of detail made it so that I could not revel in that particular moment of which he spoke, but I appreciated the general sentiment.

“What are you writing it for?” I thought for a moment perhaps he had a blog or some other public outlet through which I could enjoy his work.

“Nothing specific. Just, for myself. Whenever I have an experience that I feel is noteworthy or that I want to be memorable, I write about it. I include a lot of detail and spend a good amount of time editing it and stuff so that it’s a really awesome piece of writing.”

“Maybe all your texts will be discovered posthumously,” I joked. My joke was only to cover what I was truly feeling, which was a sort of embarrassment with myself for having immediately assumed that he was creating for someone or something other than himself. His passion, after all, should have been enough.

I have been writing since I could hold a pencil. Until middle school, I kept a journal in which I would record the daily goings-on in my life, always starting with “Today, I woke up…” After all, you can’t do anything until you wake up. In anticipation of any private matters that might come up (none ever did), I guarded this journal with lock and key.

Sometimes I would go days, or even weeks, without writing. As more and more time passed, I would be overcome with a sort of anxiety. That which comes with a sense of incompleteness. I would reprimand myself and continually include journal-writing on my daily to-do list. Finally, I would force myself to sit down, and for as long as it would take, recollect everything I had done each day since I had last written. Of course, I would never lead on in the actual writing that I was retroactively journaling. Each day started with “Today, I woke up…”

As I entered my teenage years, journal-writing became more therapeutic. I wrote about my life — thoughts, fears, accomplishments — at a a higher level. On a more grander scale than the day-to-day. I ended each entry with “lOvE aLwAyS aNd FoReVeR,” yes, in camel case, followed by my signature. I don’t know who I was writing for, nobody in particular, and perhaps even nobody at all. All I knew was that the pages’ ability to eat my words and cushion my emotions was unrivaled by any other worldly entity.

I had this romantic notion of my “texts” being excavated by future scholars, but was not really prepared for anyone I knew to read any of it. Ever. Even today, I will argue that not enough time has passed for me to feel comfortable sharing that writing in any forum. It’s my private classifieds.

For a brief period after I started my public blog, I maintained a personal journal as well. But soon after, the blog consumed all my effort and attention. The extrinsic motivation — approval from friends and family, public endorsements in the form of blog competitions, retweets, Facebook likes and comments — was far too addictive. As I wrote each post, I was distracted by how the sentences or words might be interpreted by others first, before I interpreted them for myself.

Recently, I’ve tucked myself into a personal book-writing project. While I plan to publish the work at some point, the day-to-day writing has been a thrilling rediscovery and exploration of my personal passion. It’s an intimate process, where I’m writing truly for myself.

At the beginning of each of my yoga classes, we spend a few seconds setting “a dedication,” as my instructor calls it, for our practice. Something we want to keep in our semi-conscious as the subconscious takes control. Last week, our instructor provided some Emersonian guidance. “In the spirit of Thanksgiving, forget all the external stuff. Think about something intrinsic for which you are thankful. Something that, no matter what happens around you in, in this world, with the people you know, will remain with you. That’s the thing that stabilizes you. That keeps you going through thick and thin. Be grateful for that.” If you think about it, that which he describes is what grounds us as individuals. If you ask me, that thing is passion.

Today, so much of what we do is for external appearances. Be it for a grade at school, a promotion at work, or Likes and comments on the web. I often find myself wondering if we would say or do the things we do, go the places that we go, document the scenes that we instagram, if it weren’t for the opportunity of public validation. If the answer is yes for any of those things, then that is true passion. Hold fast to those aspects of your life and never let go.

It is not to say that we should not do things for others, but it is to prevent ourselves from doing things for others under the pretense that we are doing them for ourselves. Whatever happens, don’t feel selfish. If you are anything like my literary friend who introduced this post, the time you spend drafting, editing, and perfecting that personal passion will inject itself into all other aspects of your life, and the people in your life. And that’s something for which both you, and they, can be thankful.

And despite my criticism of this particular medium for my writing, as we approach Thanksgiving, I do want to thank you, for reading even a sentence or a word. You have helped me to grow not only as a burgeoning writer, but also as a person.