In the land of flowers

Although I haven’t been posting very many photographs, I’ve still been taking them as avidly as ever.

I am so thrilled to be living in Humboldt County. Money may be tight, my future may fill me with worries–but all I’ve got to do is take a walk and look around myself, and my heart becomes light.

The natural beauty here is astounding. I had expected the towering redwoods and the rocky coastline, but nobody prepared me for the FLOWERS.

The flowers bloom YEAR-ROUND. There are flowering trees, bushes, branches, beds EVERYWHERE. My nose is constantly pressed into petals; I talk to the blossoms sweetly and pick them up off the ground to cup in my palms and carry home. “Communing with flowers” is my preferred personal method of connecting with nature. The variety and abundance of flowers here means I do this on a daily basis.

In addition to the flowers, I also commune with the humans here, around whom I’ve cultivated a sweet little life. Since moving to Arcata in January, I’ve found myself surrounded by a ton of like-minded people. We take care of each other, play music together, and teach each other things. I love our lazy days and our adventures, and I try to capture them with my camera as much as possible.

I’ve been shooting fiercely since my brother sent me 10 rolls of Kodak Ultramax 400 for my birthday (although I also found an unshot roll of Agfa Vista 400 in an old purse, SCOOOREE). I’ve already blown through more than half those rolls.

I’ve been developing them in my bathtub here. After so many years developing film on my own, I can quickly identify a method for a makeshift darkroom anyplace and go about my splashy business without a hitch. I’ve even gotten to demonstrate my process to others!

I’m honestly behind on sharing photos, though. I’ve already processed, scanned, and edited several rolls, but haven’t gotten around to posting or sharing them.

Part of the delay is that I’d really love to DO SOMETHING with my photography, but I don’t know what. Something professional, something bigger than myself. OPEN TO SUGGESTIONS, friends.

For now, my film photos are a labor of my own love, my own personal diary. Making them makes me happy, and I guess that’s really what’s most important.

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Process vs. Product

 

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The first couple days of summer are spent lying outside our house, spreading blankets over the grass and moving them across the yard as the sun moves to different positions in the sky.

Our guitars lie with us, occasionally being picked up and cradled like our beloved babies or pets as we work on finger picking or playing pleasing chord progressions. Notebooks sprawl open across the surfaces of the blankets, dusted in tobacco shavings, pages blowing away in the wind, sending us running from time to time.

We’re both low on cash.

On the second day, I say to Sasha, “We need to find some way to continue our lifestyle as it is, but make money at the same time.”

That night, Sasha, Serena, and I sit around the kitchen table with our sketchbooks and snacks discussing an Etsy store. We talk about how we can come up with several types of crafts that each of us specializes in, how we can start selling them and see which ones people want to buy.

The next morning, I wake up to gray light and the wet sound of rain outside my window. I am supposed to go to Ferndale today, but I hesitate. Should I stay home instead and apply for jobs on the internet? Something inside pushes me forward, and I decide to stick with my original plan.

As I dry my hair, I think about my own debts and what produced them. Student loans, of course–a car loan, to buy the vehicle that took me across the United States–wisdom tooth surgery, unavoidable–and credit card debt, almost completely owed to international travel.

I notice that I have few material possessions that have put me into debt. I am thrifty when it comes to physical items, but I splurge on experiences. I think of how I could sell valuable THINGS if I had them, but what can I do with the experiences I bought?

Before I leave for Ferndale, I post a Craigslist ad, in two different languages, offering Spanish-English translation services or tutoring. Might as well at least TRY to make some money off my experiences, right?

Sasha and I visit our roommate, Mitch, at his office in a radio station in Ferndale. We play with the office pup, eat some cheeseburgers from a little nearby stand, and tour the building with its walls plastered in band swag and posters from concerts past. Afterwards, Sasha and I walk to the town’s cemetery, a zig-zagging collection of cement slabs built into the side of the hill. We pause at rain-dripping flowering trees and snap photos of snails clinging onto the sides of graves.

As we turn to walk onto the main street of the town, we come across an abandoned building. Through the murky windows we can see piles of hardware store junk–shattered glass, heaps of keys, rusted appliances, crumbling shelves. The exterior of the building is peeled away in layers with jagged edges, showing its previous colors like rings of a tree.

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Sasha is in a frenzy, trying to snap photos of the building and its contents through the old panes of glass. “I’m having anxiety about this right now,” she says. “I need to capture as much of this as possible. What if we come back and it’s all gone?”

“It looks like it hasn’t been touched in 20 years,” I say. “I don’t think you need to worry about it disappearing in the next month.”

Nevertheless, I step away and smile as I watch her dart between the windows, exclaiming and moaning as she discovers new angles from which to view the devastating sights. Sasha loves to see the effect time has on physical objects, to see things get worn down by forces of nature. To her, the most fascinating things are trash, abandoned objects, or ruined structures.

The day before, she had mentioned that this tendency makes it difficult for her to make art that other people want to buy.

“I had this picture of a bag of dead fish on the side of a road,” she said. “I was like, ‘isn’t this beautiful?’ And pretty much everyone else’s response to it was disgust.”

When she feels like she’s taken enough photos of the abandoned building to keep moving along, Sasha rejoins me and we start walking down the main street to find a coffee shop we’d been told to visit. As we scan the storefronts, Sasha says, “I hope we run into my friend Brian.”

Almost as soon as the words leave her mouth, a man in a raincoat carrying a belt laden with tools runs across the street towards us. It is Brian, and after an introduction, he immediately guides us to the coffee shop we’d been looking for.

The coffee shop’s interior is cozy and quiet, with a small fireplace and shelves of books on the wall. Brian shows us the shop’s current art exhibit, a collaborative project between himself and his girlfriend, Natalia. The works combine ceramics, wood inlays, and photography.

One ceramics piece, crafted by Natalia, sits on a wall-mounted shelf. It is a three-dimensional model of a fetal pig, cut down the middle like an anatomy diagram. The exteriors of the animals face outward, but their insides face a mirror on the wall, reflecting their serpentine organs–the entire piece visible from a single vantage point.

Through long horizontal windows that run along the back of the coffee shop, we can see a large wood workshop where canoes are built. Their skeletons hang suspended from the ceilings, bony ribs around thick spines, waiting to be covered with skin and made whole.

 

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Brian offers to show us the shop and we follow him through the doors. We are immediately greeted by a smell that reminds us of our fathers–sawdust and fresh slabs of wood. Brian gestures to the work benches that line the walls of the room and tells us that they will soon be offered for rent to craft workers who need space to work.

Sasha and I are excited by the mention of working artists. We tell Brian about our Etsy plans, about our house, and how we want to collaborate with others to make art and make a living from it.

Brian tells us he’s been trying to gather a similar group together–he has been trying to establish an artist collective, comprised of people with a variety of skills who could make craft items together while still pursuing their own personal projects.

The three of us begin chattering, and Brian offers to show us his workspace. We follow him outside and through the misty air to his apartment. The room we enter is wide and filled with diffused white light from the windows, adorned with plants and small pieces of wooden art. Natalia greets us and I introduce myself to her–she is petite, dark-eyed, and serene. Her energy is warm and relaxed, but alert.

We all talk together about our ideas, and Natalia shows us a table she recently built on her own. The short, blond wood structure is reminiscent of mid-century modern furniture style, with close-clustered, pointed legs and a glass display front. We talk about different media–wood, fabric, paint–and how each type allows us to make our art functional as well as beautiful.

Brian mentions having a camp-out in the coming week to bring together the artists he’s been talking with. It would be a time for us to share our skills, identify projects we could share, and discuss a collective rental of a studio space for us to work. Sasha and I urge him to contact us about it, and leave his place feeling enchanted, refreshed, and optimistic.

We stop in a fabric store briefly to murmur over the pretty patterns, and then return to the coffee shop to get warm drinks. A fat black-and-white cat sprawls across one of the leather-backed chairs by the fireplace and I kneel beside her, brushing my fingers along her soft fur. Sasha joins me and extends her finger to the cat’s nose, and the cat begins licking her finger. We both giggle and speak softly to the animal as we stroke her and wait for our coffees.

Natalia soon joins us with her computer to use the shop’s wifi. The three of us sit by the warm fireplace, talking about art and life.

We talk about combining art and science, and how important it is to be able to communicate complex ideas to other people.

We talk about trying new things and how valuable it is to fail, to slowly work toward expertise–how society as a whole tends to make the mistake of valuing the product over the process.

I think again about my debts owed to the immaterial things I’ve gained.

After a while, Sasha and I say goodbye to Natalia and walk back to the place where I parked my car. As we tread along the damp small-town streets, talking, Sasha spots a heap of trash lying in someone’s yard.

“Trash pile!” she shouts excitedly and runs down the block. I laugh and stand waiting across the street as she moves around the garbage with her camera phone, shooting it from every possible angle. She crosses back over to me and we continue walking for a moment until I’m distracted by my own personal favorite beauty: flowers.

“Look at this one!” I breathe as I cup a huge orange blossom in my hand and raise its face out of the fence it bends over. The inside is black ringed with white, with large fluffy stamens and wide petals. I lean over it and smell it, spend some time feeling the texture of the petals in my fingers.

After I leave the flower, Sasha and I walk the last block to my car. “I think we should be thankful to be this way,” Sasha says. “I think it comes from my parents–the interest in little trivial things around me.”

I agree. “I feel like I’ve been taught to see the potential of things. Or to notice the small details of things and appreciate them,” I say.

“It’s never being bored, that’s what it is.” Sasha says. “It’s finding something fascinating in every moment.”

As we head home, we talk about the importance of interacting with the world without a specific goal. We point out that we’d just had a wonderful day without forcing any specific objective on our surroundings–moving through our world and being open to the things we encountered.

I don’t know what my end goal is most of the time, but I feel like I live in a world where people care the most about those end goals. This creates a constant sense of tension inside me, forces me to work against my own natural tendencies in order to survive here.

Art is only valuable when it can be sold. Labor is only valuable in the form of a product.

But the work itself is what I enjoy. Why can’t I just do my work and still have enough money to live? There must be some way to make this possible.

I am trying to stop moving against things, trying to stop fighting myself, trying to carve out my own place and fix the broken parts of the world for others.

So, I think again about what matters to me:

It’s the process, not the product.

WRITE

I lay curled up on my yoga mat the other day, trying to meditate. It’s a new activity for me–normally my brain is a jumble, with fast-moving thoughts and fleeting impressions. Trying to calm it down always seemed futile. Before, I could only ever meditate by tricking my mind into focusing on something else intensely, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle or playing a musical instrument, allowing my self-exploratory thoughts to hum forth in parallel to the engaging activity.

But I need to learn how to find a clear mind for myself. My life has gotten mixed up, and I’ve lost my sense of direction. For a while, peace has been utterly impossible.

***

I set a goal to move to California. I set a goal to go to graduate school. I have achieved both of those goals. There have been some clear things I’ve always wanted, and I’ve managed to claw my way up to them. Along the way, some of my long-term aspirations truly have changed–but others I’ve simply ignored, or tried to replace.

I am not a scientist. At least, I’m not the kind who works in a lab. I’m not neat; I’m not precise. Rules and safety procedures bore me. Math equations, writing everything down–it’s tedious.

The pissing contest of academia makes my eyes roll. I can best describe its culture by making a jerk-off motion with my hand. I love learning, and I love experimenting, but I’m not cut out to do science the “proper way.”

I am not a doctor, and perhaps I’ll never be one. I still like the idea of being a psychiatrist, but mostly because in that role I would be able to use my own expertise and care to help soothe the hurts of others, to bring peace. I want others to feel supported and connected. I want people to understand themselves and their own minds. I want to heal the wounds of society by starting with individuals.

***

I am a writer.

I hesitate to call myself by titles, because I feel I need to earn them. “Writer” has always been a coveted position for me, the only thing I’ve ever wanted to call myself.

For some reason, whether bred by humility or self-doubt, I’ve often avoided acknowledging my own skill as a writer. Mostly, it’s like “I haven’t written a novel yet, how can I ever call myself a writer?”

But I write. I will always write. I have always written. I “write as I breathe.” I have a portfolio full of published articles, and more pages of personal writing than I could ever even collect in one place.

It is the one thing, above all other things, that I’ve always done without outside prompting. It flows from me joyfully, automatically.

***

Recently, I’ve been metamorphosing. It hurts. It feels great. It’s bewildering.

I have the luck of being surrounded by the most wonderful people. I live in a beautiful old house with a big magnolia tree in the yard. I see the ocean every day. Wise old redwoods tower over me, always moist and green, smelling like the earth.

And yet, I’ve been flailing. I’ve been lost, confused. I failed a chemistry exam. I’ve gotten terrible grades on each of my genetics exams. I have a paper overdue by three weeks in my Research Methods class. My car is broken and the repairs are too expensive, but I still have to make payments on it. I’ve been working 20+ hours a week in a minimum wage retail job. I switched thesis advisors but I still don’t have a solid topic, and it’s already my second semester.

Most importantly, I haven’t been enjoying my life. I’ve been waking up with a feeling of dread, sinking into hopelessness, and having very bleak thoughts. A few weeks ago I was crying and upset so often that professors took notice–I met with the dean of students to explain my financial situation and emotional issues, and an official email was sent to my professors to grant me leniency in my classwork.

Something had to change. The past couple weeks, after I admitted to everyone how much I needed help, have been a process of assessment, rebuilding, and self-care.

This past week was spring break, an absolutely necessary reprieve from my brutal schedule. When thinking ahead to it, I imagined being productive and working to catch up on things the whole time. Instead, I’ve been relaxing and reflecting–and finding peace.

***

“Yield–don’t keep pushing against things that won’t move.”

As much as I thought medical school should be my next goal, it seems like every effort towards it has been frustrating and miserable. It was a goal I picked up only last semester, but decided to run with, in light of knowing that I didn’t want to be a laboratory researcher.

While I find the material in my science classes to be interesting, the fuss required to learn and practice it feels unnaturally difficult. Schoolwork always came naturally to me before–effortless. It’s not that I don’t want to do hard work, it’s that I am usually capable of doing hard work and feeling a sense of joyful fulfillment when I do it. I don’t feel that in these classes. It feels like drudgery.

On top of that, the time required for me to succeed in these classes while also working and taking care of my life has made it nearly impossible for me to do the things I LOVE–making art, making photos, making music, writing. Creating, beautifying. Reading books, watching films, seeing art.

I made a motto for myself many years ago: “To pursue and create beauty.”

The other day on the phone, Tim said to me, “Stop getting distracted by all these side-bitches in life. Do what you’ve always wanted to do.”

***

I lay on my yoga mat and I asked myself what I want. What do I dream about? What do I love?

I get phrases stuck in my head, often. They come from somewhere inside of me–either as the product of a linguistic equation I’ve been silently working out in the background of my mind, or drawn from some collective human unconsciousness that I access in my sleep.

I don’t know what produces them, but they jump up in front of me and I write them down. I try to apply them, to test them against reality and see what meaning they have.

Recently, one phrase was, “mundanity is an illusion.”

It is easy to feel like each day doesn’t matter. It’s easy to feel a sense of routine, a boring gray sense of “grinding away” at things. I think we surrender to this illusion because feeling things can often be intense. If we pay attention to our senses and feelings fully each day, they can reveal truths to us that may conflict with our everyday lives, threatening our senses of security. We don’t want to be confronted with the realization of our own freedom, because it presents us with the opportunity to either make use of our courage and seize it, or to squander it.

“Timshel”–the word that holds the potential of a man’s greatness, if he wishes to make use of it.

We squander our freedom every day under the illusion of mundanity. Wasting our lives is easy if we tell ourselves that today is not important, if we ignore our senses and subscribe to some sort of defined path just for the sake of security. We anesthetize ourselves because we are afraid of our own freedom, our own limitless potential. Making use of our freedom is terrifying, but exhilarating–many people only experience it in discrete episodes of their lives.

***

A few of my housemates and I have formed a “lucid dreaming” club. It’s pretty informal–mostly we just tend to be outside smoking around the same time of night, so we talk about our dreams and what they mean. I have lucid dreams sometimes, but my one roommate Sasha is basically A DREAMWALKER, and lucid dreams on an advanced level.

“You can do anything,” she said. “Anything you want.”

She related stories about dreams in which she’s flown up above the sky, through the ozone layer into space, and traveled to whatever planets she wished to visit. She’s talked about times she’s approached people in her dreams and asked them anything she felt like having an answer to.

The important part of becoming lucid is to realize that YOU are the dreamer. Everything around you is a product of your mind–so it is malleable. You can create anything, mold anything to be what you want it to be, as soon as you recognize your freedom to do so.

***

I lay on my yoga mat exploring myself, venturing inside my mind. I chose to lie on my back, my knees drawn into my chest, my arms wrapped around them. In this position, I feel my own potential energy–I am coiled like a spring, waiting to act.

Something strange happened. Suddenly, I became a part of the air around me.

I thought about old philosophers who used to talk about the “ether” to describe the “empty space” around us–they knew it wasn’t empty, but didn’t yet have the scientific knowledge to talk about air molecules or invisible gases.

I felt that I was not an object sitting in empty space–all of my surface area was interfacing with a thick substance all around me. I recognized that this substance was touching everything else, too, by proxy. I melted into the substance and let myself feel submerged in it, dissolved in it. I could feel that distance is an illusion, that everything is connected.

The most hippy-dippy feeling of “oneness with the universe”–and I understand what that means, now.

Albert Einstein said that the most important question for us ask is, “Is this a friendly universe?”

Yes, I believe this is a friendly universe.

And as soon as I chose to believe this, I knew the answers.

***

The universe has confirmed it to me, has begun clearing a path for me. I am stepping along it lightly, joyfully. My worries are melting away because I trust the universe and by proxy, I trust myself.

The day after I meditated, I walked out of a store and the first thing I saw was someone’s vanity license plate.

It said, “WRITE.”

I guess I’ve known it all along.

The strangest

These are photos from August 2016 that I never published anywhere because I got swept up in the rush of packing, moving, and school.

My homeboy Link and I were feeling super inspired to be creepy after watching all of Season 1 of Stranger Things. One afternoon, we were sitting in my living room and he asked, “Have you ever been to the old cemetery in Antes Fort (the village across the river from my town)?”

He started explaining it to me, how it was tucked away in the woods and filled with crumbling Revolutionary War graves. So we decided it was IMPROMPTU ADVENTURE TIME and hopped in my car with some black-and-white film to go take creepy pictures. It helped that there were cornfields and a steepled church nearby.

I forgot about these for a while, but I was telling my friend about this cemetery the other day and it reminded me that I still had them. Enjoy the strange.

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Step outside, the summertime’s in bloom

In the middle of August, I am going to be moving to northern California for graduate school.

I feel very “right” about my decision to do this–about the area I’m going to be living in (the redwood forest!), about the field I’m going to be studying (neuroscience!), and just in general about the way I’m going to live my life going forward.

But I spent the past year absolutely working my ass off in order to make it happen. There were a lot of times when I would feel sad or frustrated or worried about the future, and wonder whether I was ever going to be able to get the things I wanted. At those times, I’d usually start working even harder–and I asked myself, “When will I ever feel that it’s okay to rest a little?”

At the beginning of the summer I was still humming on all that nervous energy. I thought I would spend the summer like I spent this past year: by myself with a bunch of textbooks.

But then I realized that this is the perfect time to rest and enjoy things. While I am, of course, doing all the preparatory stuff that I need to do before I move, I’m also savoring all the time I have and taking good care of myself in the meantime.

After all, this is going to be the last time that I’m in my Central Pennsylvania home for a long while. Although a large part of me still celebrates my departure on a regular basis (most often when I encounter the extremely conservative social and political opinions of the people around here), I am also taking time to appreciate the natural beauty of my surroundings, the familiarity of home, and the company of longtime friends.

I’ve also been indulging in art, writing, and music on a daily basis and it just FEELS SO GOOD. I am the queen of never having enough time for everything I want to do, and I often push my creative cravings to the side when they don’t have due dates or paychecks associated with them.

But I’m getting better at treating artistic expression as what it really is to me: an outlet for my feelings and a means for me to relax and play. It’s much easier to prioritize creativity when I look at it as an important component of my emotional well-being.

SO, one of the things I’ve returned to is film photography, of course.

I was only shooting black-and-white for a while, ever since the beginning of the year. I still want to keep using it regularly because I like it stylistically, but then last week I discovered like, 8 rolls of unshot color film that I’d forgotten I had.

I’ve been shooting with my Olympus OM-10, which has proved to be the most reliable and lovely film camera I’ve ever had. I’ve also been TRYING to use my Zenza Bronica medium format camera, but medium format and I just don’t seem to get along too well. I’m not familiar enough with it to troubleshoot it yet, and so that’s frustrating.

I’ve been the only one to touch any of my films, processing-wise, for the past two years. I am now very comfortable with the whole routine–spooling film with my eyes closed is second nature; I can judge approximate temperatures  just by putting my hand in the water. I used to worry every time that I was going to somehow screw up my film, but that’s only happened to me maybe once in the entire time I’ve ever processed it.

I know how to adjust timings, temperatures, and agitation/inversion cycles for each chemical in order to get the effect I want, and since I’m confident I won’t ruin my film anymore, I have been playing around with it a little. I’m going to probably start playing with it even more.

I am also going to be stretching the limits of my C-41 Tetenal chemicals and seeing what comes of that. The current batch I’m using was mixed over a year ago, and they’ve been used to develop many more rolls of film than is deemed “ideal” by the manufacturer.

I actually wasn’t sure if they would still work on the 35mm rolls I processed last week, but I added time to the developer and Blix steps to account for the degradation of the chemicals.

Usually I develop for 3:30, so I added a minute to that to develop for 4:30 (at approx. 102 degrees F). In hindsight, I shouldn’t have added as much time because the developer is so time-sensitive. The photos came out all right, but the highlights blew hot. Adding 30-45 seconds would have been better.

Following a guide I found online, I also Blix’d them for SO MUCH LONGER–15 minutes, actually. I’m glad I did though, because some of the medium format film I processed before the 35mm rolls definitely started to do some alarming things (change color, grow spots) while it was hanging to dry, and I guarantee it’s because it wasn’t fully fixed.

I have been vacillating about buying new color chemicals, but I don’t see the point in doing that since I’ll be traveling across the country so soon and don’t feel like worrying about their temperature or security while they’re packed in my car with my other stuff.

So I’m going to be doing some more experimental stuff for fun with these chemicals until I leave! Look forward to some weird stuff, I guess.

For the following photos: the black-and-white is mostly Tri-X 400, although there is one roll of Ilford HP5 mixed in there (CAN YOU SPOT THE DIFFERENCE?). The color is one roll of Ultramax 800 and one roll of Agfa Vista 400. There’s also some of the medium format in there, which is Lomography Color 100.

The time period they span is varied. Some are older that I just hadn’t developed; most are recent. One roll is double-exposed, which was something I vaguely remember doing but had completely forgotten about until I saw what came out of the roll. My scanner is terrible at detecting and cutting in the right places with the double exposures and the medium format shots, so I just embraced the weirdness of it and let some of the photos bleed together.

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Dreams of Eden

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I’ve been thinking a lot about paradise, lately.

The weather has slipped into my most favorite of seasons. The world is absolutely pulsating with life. Flowers spill out of tall grasses along roadsides, while the trees on all the mountains shimmer a lacquered golden-green. The sun shines most days, and when it doesn’t, the rain comes down warm, bringing plump droplets that cling to all of the leaves and blossoms.

I can drink in the balmy air through my skin, soaking up the happiness and moisture and feeling continually refreshed. It seems like all the greenery is breathing back huge quantities of oxygen towards me, and I take it all into my lungs in deep breaths, until I feel almost intoxicated from its volume filling me and nourishing my own living cells.

The summer fruits are ripe and sweet, and I eat them as though they were fat jewels, spilling juice onto my fingers. The strawberries and cherries blush to their deepest shades, while white nectarines have swelled to their dappled tightest, pregnant with delicate juices.

The rains fall soft but persistent, cooling the grounds and forcing a light steam to rise from the earth, carrying thick, palpable breezes that drift in through windows and between houses, cool and sticky, caressing me with mists.

The flowers are my favorites–orange tiger-lilies, trumpeting in their slender glory; thick clusters of rose petals, folded one over another and unfurling into spiraled cushions of dark pink and dusty yellow; dogwood blossoms wreathing the branches of trees in fragile snowy bundles. They are a feast for my eyes, and I devour them insatiably.

Maggie said to me, a couple of weeks ago, “I wish I was in a garden. We were all meant to just live in a garden.”

She was talking about the Garden of Eden, and how this was the place made especially for humans to live in paradise. It makes perfect sense to me–what joy it would be to spend all my mornings lounging in sunshine or the shade of lush trees, sleeping midday by the steady waters of cool streams, filling my belly to ripeness with fresh, sweet fruit, and surrounding my head ever with fragrant heaps of crowning flowers.

I luxuriate in these offerings of the world. I find the deepest appreciation for the most natural of things–obvious and abundant, well-worn tunes of the original, primitive beauty, archetypes of all the things that humans find most pleasing to our senses.

I’d like to believe that humans’ rightful place is in a garden paradise–I’d like to think that our most basic objective is to simply enjoy beautiful things, to relax, to have other humans nearby to love and share in the appreciation of all the offerings of living art. That all we must do is be fruitful and multiply, mimicking the plentifulness our surroundings and creating more beautiful creatures to share our love and our world with.

I could break the spell of this beautiful dream by enumerating the present sorrows of mankind, or by speculating metaphorically about what it means that, in the myth, humans had to leave the garden–but I won’t do that right now.

Because it’s a glorious summer, and somewhere written inside of me in that fantastically lyrical medium called the human genetic code, I remember that my most basic purpose as a human being is to enjoy it all.

Potential Energy

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Me playing with a bunch of puppies

It’s weird to want things but to know that you’re not yet ready for them.

One of my favorite short stories is “Cat in the Rain” by Hemingway. It’s brief, and very simple, but the first time I read it, it filled me with so much joy.

In this story, an American husband and wife are on vacation in Italy, staying at an inn on a rainy evening. The husband is relaxing in bed reading a book, and the wife looks out the window and notices a cat outside in the garden, crouched under a table trying to avoid getting wet.

The wife feels sad for the cat in the rain, and decides that she wants to bring it inside with her. She walks downstairs and goes outside with an umbrella to retrieve it, but finds that the cat is gone.

When she returns to the room, she is restless, and begins talking about other things that she wants. She wants her own house and dinner table, she wants it to be spring, she wants her hair to grow longer–and still, she wants a cat. Her husband listens only absentmindedly, as she speaks with great longing. He tells her to stop brooding and read a book.

Then, there’s a knock on the door. It is the inn’s maid, with the cat in her arms, which she has brought up for the wife.

The end.

That’s all.

Months after I read this story for the first time, I read someone else’s analysis of it. They argued that the story highlighted how impatient and frivolous Americans can be. They said that the wife was being childish, and that she was only focused on her own desires instead of enjoying the present moment or appreciating her surroundings.

But to me, it seemed to be the purest happy ending to a story I’d ever read, a perfect example of wish fulfillment.

Like the wife in the story, I feel like there are always so many things that I want–material things, specific experiences, personal growth, certain circumstances. Lots of them are far out of my reach. I see them far off in the distance and I hope to reach them someday, but for now, I just pine and work for them.

Patience is a virtue, but it’s not always one that comes easily to us. There’s a reason why you train a dog to hold a treat on its nose before letting it eat–because learning how to wait is an important thing to learn. And I am learning this, too.

On a most basic level, our behaviors are predicated upon the outcome of an electrical equation. Excitatory and inhibitory impulses sum up in our brains, and whichever has communicated a higher number of impulses at a time or place wins out, either exciting or inhibiting a behavior.

I am very happy with myself now, and these days, I sometimes feel like I am straining against some natural urge inside of me to be always excited, to be always acting. I don’t feel I inhibit many of my behaviors very often anymore, and it’s very pleasant to give into my whimsical impulses.

But, as with everything, there must always be balance. I can’t do or have everything that I want all of the time, most often for lots of very practical reasons: I don’t have enough money, I have certain responsibilities, I don’t want to be disrespectful, I don’t want to inadvertently harm someone or something.

There are also some things, however, that I can’t have because I’m not ready for them yet. I am my own best judge of what’s right for me, and I have finally reached a point of maturity where I can recognize my own limits without feeling defined or boxed in by them. Instead of striking out wildly in some impulsive attempt to break free, I am learning how to stand still and acknowledge my current place in things, and to see how that relates to the things I eventually want. I’ve learned how to exhale calm and to feel joy, even, in waiting for those things.

My father is a butcher by trade, but he has the mind and heart of an inventor. Our house is full of things he’s made, both beautiful things and useful things. He goes through phases of interest. A couple of years ago, he was building furniture out of tree branches. Currently, he is constructing electrostatic generators from scratch, using bits and pieces of things he finds or acquires, watching videos, and tweaking his machines to suit his purposes.

I check in on his workshop every few days, and he shows me his progress. He points out the different parts of the machines and shows me how they work together to generate electricity. On the sides of his generators are leyden jars, which collect static through wire brushes and store electrical energy inside themselves until it reaches a critical value, resulting in the discharge of a large spark in the space between two metal bulbs.

While the spark is the exciting part, the goal, the tangible product of the work, it could never be produced if the electricity didn’t have time to build up inside the leyden jars first.

I feel a sense of kinship with this process, and I recognize its importance in myself.

In one of my favorite books, Stranger in a Strange Land, the main character Michael Valentine is a human who was raised by martians. As a result, he is a strange godlike creature who radiates wisdom and can bring about large-scale events through a finessed series of actions.

One of the characteristics he brings with him from Mars is the happy sense that he still has so much learning and growing to do. “I am only an egg,” is his endearing translation of the martian concept into English, and he also talks happily about waiting to “grok” (understand, feel) many things fully.

I am a leyden jar. I am only an egg.

I am glad to be those things. It’s lovely to know that there are warm, happy things waiting for me in the future that will unfold as I reach them. I am not religious, but I always feel a great sense of sureness in the natural unspooling of events, in the ever-onward march of time and its implications for growth, however slow the growth may be.

Like the wife in the Italian inn, I sometimes sit and dream impatiently about all the things that I want, until I nearly make myself ache with all my wanting.

But I know that I am moving forward towards them. At the perfect moment, there will be a knock on my metaphorical door, and someone will bring me a cat.

And what a purely happy thing that will be.

(Fun fact: Although this is applicable to many, many things in my life, I got onto this whole train of thought for one reason. I. Want. A. Puppy. So. Bad. But it’s not a good time for me to get a puppy. So if anyone in Central PA has a puppy I can come play with, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. THANKS.)

My camera and my guitar

For several months, I haven’t had much interest in taking photos.

This worried me a little bit, and so I’ve been thinking about what could be causing this downturn, and consequently, about what photography means to me.

First of all, I think that all art is an act of translation. It is a means of taking one’s visceral experiences–emotions, sensations–and translating them into some sort of theoretical representation, which can be shared with others.

For me, making photos has always been an act of love. Sometimes I become so overwhelmed by the beauty surrounding me, even in the most commonplace of things, and feel it completely necessary to preserve it, to translate the present arrangement of photons into more that just a fleeting phenomenon. I want to fix the image onto something physical that I can show to others, or keep for myself to return to later.

As soon as I first began taking photos, my camera became a constant companion. When I realized what I could do with a camera, I wanted to use it all the time to document the beauty surrounding me. I began to learn more about light, to appreciate its physical properties–density, temperature, direction. I enjoyed the act of analyzing the qualities of specific lighting situations.

Light is a beautiful language, and I strove to become fluent in it. I read books by photographers who understand light better than others–Joe McNally, for example–and began using the tools I had available to manipulate light, to move beyond simple documentation and into creation. I loved exaggerating scenes with carefully chosen light, or discovering pleasing light sources in my surroundings to properly illuminate the beauty of what I was seeing.

My camera was also a sort of security blanket. Sometimes I would wear it around my neck for days without actually taking a photo. It just felt good to know that it was right there in case I needed to use it. When I became anxious, I could detach myself and hide behind the lens. It was calming for me to freeze my surroundings, to isolate instants of time into frames, stepping outside of the situation to a degree, and seeing moments and events more objectively.

The more I grew to love photography, the more desperate I became to make the experience as visceral as possible. I wanted control over every aspect of the image; I wanted there to be physical work put into my shots. Deliberately selecting lenses and stocks, pouring chemicals over film, snipping negatives into strips–these things felt lovely. I felt so impassioned about it that I almost moved to another city a year and a half ago to be close to a person whom I’d never met, but had heard about his status as a “master” of fine arts film processing (luckily I never followed through on that foolish impulse, but I nearly did).

So, if I love photography so much, then what has made me stop making photos right now? Well, I feel there are three reasons why.

The first is that my camera phone has alleviated the necessity to carry my other cameras everywhere. I still find myself taking photos every day, but they’re often just quick snaps on my phone. They’re no less beautiful, and when I browse through them I find the subject matter is similar to what I would photograph with any camera. But the freedom of not having to lug a bigger camera with me everywhere is sort of liberating–I do not have all the subtleties of translational control at my disposal, but I have the convenience of preservational capabilities without extra baggage.

The second is that my life has been a lot of exhausting work for quite a while. This entire past year has been a streamlined, hard-won marathon racing toward some very important goals. I’ve learned so much, and I’ve gained so many things. But hard work isn’t so beautiful to photograph. Should I have photographed all the nights I fell asleep with my face on an open textbook? What was there of beauty to document in the 80-mile commute on the same highway that I drove each weekday? Haven’t I already over-documented my house, my immediate surroundings?

In short, the beauty has been scarce, and I’ve been too busy enjoying the bits of fun that I’ve earned to intrude upon them very often with my camera.

But the third reason is a very important one. It’s that I’ve replaced one emotional outlet with another–from my camera, to my guitar. And right now, I feel the guitar suits me better.

I suppose I spent most of my life being sort of a nonchalant musician. Music surrounded me so seamlessly that it was an unquestioned backdrop to my entire existence. My family is full of musicians, music has always played in my house, and as some families require their children to play sports, I was required to learn an instrument when I was in elementary school. I chose the clarinet.

I played the clarinet for eight years without putting much thought into the emotional aspect of performance. Always, there was a goal or regimen–a folder of concert music to prepare for a few months, a challenging audition piece that I broke down painstakingly into dynamics and articulation, a rote memorization of notes while I focused on marching drills at the same time. I play the clarinet well, and now that I have the choice to play it or not, I do enjoy it in the same way that I enjoy doing all the things that I do well. But I don’t quite love it.

Voluntarily, I also learned the violin, taking lessons for two years. But I had really wanted to learn the cello, and the technical mastery of the violin was too far from my reach to ever make playing very enjoyable. The humdrum practicing of boring little interludes in a workbook never became appealing enough for me to progress. I can still play the violin clumsily, but I much prefer to admire the performances of people who play it better than I do.

I used to view the guitar the same way I view the violin. I enjoyed listening to other people play it, and even tried learning a few times, but felt that I was better off being a spectator rather than a performer.

But this past fall, after the analgesic interlude of summer, I found myself dealing with the emotional fallout produced by my last relationship. I was deeply distraught and swimming in a pain so acute that I could barely articulate it. My commutes almost daily involved crying, I resisted any attempts at fresh intimacy, and I pressed all of my focus into my academic pursuits. I understood the nature of my pain in a theoretical, clinical way, and I knew that it would eventually subside, but I struggled to comprehend it viscerally. I knew that I needed to be patient while I healed, and I cared for myself appropriately. Over the course of the season the hurt began to ebb, but it hadn’t quite disappeared by December. And in December, I picked up the guitar.

Something clicked in me that never had before when I began learning this time. I could credit my best friend for being a good teacher, and she is indeed an exceptional teacher. But for my part, I learned the guitar the way a person deposited suddenly in a foreign country quickly learns the language–out of a desperate need to communicate.

The pain of developing calluses on my fingers was barely noticeable over the relief that playing the guitar brought me. I would play for hours until my fingers and wrist were too stiff to make neat transitions anymore. I took on each new challenge with gusto, learning chords and strum patterns and striving to sing along at the same time. At present, I’ve become pretty good at playing the guitar, at least relative to the length of time that I’ve been learning.

Coming home from a day of work and classes to my guitar is like coming home to the warm embrace of someone I love. I can hold the instrument close to me, press the strings, and feel the warmth of the music emerge as I begin to play. I can strum quickly and forcefully when I feel overcome with energy, whether nervous, happy, or angry. I can soothe the knots of my chest into mellow strains as I sing a duet with the chords, to nobody but myself. Sometimes when I’m sleepy, I slouch over the guitar, resting my chin or cheek on the top of it, lightly strumming each string and feeling the sound resonate through my entire body. How could I ever feel alone? How could I hurt?

As with photography, I find myself trying to get closer to the visceral while playing guitar. Last week, I discarded my pick, and began strumming with my bare fingers. At first I was frustrated that I couldn’t play as well, but I’ve gradually realized that, like using film, playing the guitar sans-pick offers me more control over the subtleties of the sounds I create. And playing feels even better than it did before.

Music is different from photography–with photography, I am taking light and time and fixing them into something relatively permanent. With music, I am taking sound and time and allowing them to exist for one brief moment. Recording music would be more like photography, but there is such glory in producing physical music alone, and such joy in having someone else create music right in front of me (I also absolutely love to hear my best friend perform for me). The music IS “the visceral” in the same way that the scenes I always sought to preserve on film were the visceral–and yet I can call it to myself whenever I want it. I can’t always call upon visual beauty to appear before me in a physical form.

I’m not saying that I’ve given up on photography. I’m sure that when I’m surrounded by much more visual beauty, as I will soon be, I’ll be sparked back into the feverish documentation of it.

But I understand why I don’t need photography as much right now. And moreover, I am thankful to have found this new language into which I can translate my emotions, and I am so eager to explore it every day.

 

GRE vocab and theories of consciousness

It’s safe to say that I’m a lover of words.

Pretty much every self-appointed intellectual says that nowadays, though, so perhaps there’s not a lot of salt to that statement.

It’s like when someone’s hobby is “books,” just in general. It’s like “Yes, friend, most educated people like books!” I feel like it’s an obvious and unnecessary way to classify one’s preferences without revealing anything about oneself as a person.

tumblr_n0334u9zKd1s5nggto1_250
And reminds me of this. (Source)

So, I’m probably regurgitating an opinion that many people have expressed before, but as far as a medium, I feel like writing offers me a wider palette from which to select than any other fine art. Words vary not only in precise definitions, but in their connotations and phonetics.

(Side note: as a lover of phonoaesthetics, I began a list in high school of the words that are most pleasing to me regardless of definition. Over the years, it’s grown to be pretty long. There are also some word sounds that I find repulsive. Ask me about it sometime and we can sit around exchanging words that either slip out roundly and elegantly from our mouths or plop out grossly instead!)

I like to think I have a decent vocabulary, but studying for the verbal section of the GRE really forces me to put my money where my mouth is (almost literally, actually–the test costs $195). There are lots of words that I have a “feel” for their definitions, but find myself struggling to provide an exact dictionary definition of, which is crucial for the sentence equivalency questions.

I started making flashcards for any of the words that fall into that category, as well as for any words that have secondary meanings I don’t normally think of. While I was writing some of the secondary definitions, I was like “Shit, why don’t linguists just invent another word instead of muddying everything up with multiple definitions?”

Pictured: Words I don’t use very often.

That’s a silly thing to think of course, mostly provoked because I ran out of space on a few cards. But that set me off onto another train of thought that’s much more sensical and savory to me: consciousness!

As far as we can tell at present, language is truly the basis of our conscious awareness.

My fellow neuroscience students already know this, but I’m not sure whether other people have ever heard or read about it. So let’s take a moment to reflect on how cool this concept is!

So. First of all, we’ve all got an inner monologue. It’s the “voice” that we speak with inside our heads to interpret situations, consider solutions to problems, reflect on memories, and entertain ourselves. It allows us to summon information from past experiences and recognize sensations.

While a purely philosophical consideration of the inner monologue by itself might lead us to conclude that language is the basis of consciousness, it’s also backed up by scientific experiments that support the idea.

Michael Gazzaniga’s work with split-brain patients in the 1960s provides some of the most powerful evidence for this theory.

Split-brain patients are people who have had their corpus collosi partially or fully severed to reduce epileptic convulsions (the corpus callosum is a big bundle of fibers that connects the two brain hemispheres, btw). As a result, the two hemispheres cannot communicate with each other–the right hemisphere cannot tell the left hemisphere what it has experienced, and vice-versa.

In spite of this, split-brain patients can still live relatively normal lives, because in the real world there are typically several sensory clues in any environment. This allows them to “cross-cue,” combining stimuli to perceive a cohesive experience.

But things get a little different if you control sensory exposure in a laboratory setting.

For those of you who have never studied it, here’s some info from psych 101:

The brain hemispheres are related to the contralateral sides of the body. So, the right hemisphere controls and receives information from the LEFT side of the body, while the left hemisphere controls and receives information from the RIGHT side of the body.

The main exception is olfaction, or sense of smell, which is perceived by the same hemisphere as the nostril that smells it. Also, our language ability is localized in the left hemisphere of the brain. Got all that?

Gazzaniga would expose some sort of stimuli to only one side of the split brain patient–have him/her smell things with the right nostril, show images to only one visual field, etc. When information was presented to the left hemisphere (i.e., the right side of the body, right visual field, or left nostril), the patient could verbally identify and respond to the stimulus.

For example, a patient who is shown a picture of an object to only her right visual field will be able to tell you what she has seen, or a patient who has an object placed into her right hand will be able to tell you what she’s holding.

BUT, if a split-brain patient’s right hemisphere (left side of the body) is presented with a stimulus, she will not be able to tell you what she sees or feels. This is because the left hemisphere, which produces languages, is completely unaware of the stimulus.

Interestingly, if you ask a patient to identify the object or picture that was presented by pointing at it or drawing it, she WILL be able to do so correctly, without being able to tell you why she picked it!

Two-minds
Here’s a helpful diagram to explain it better (Source)

While there are lots more aspects of brain function that were learned from studies of split-brain patients, language’s role in consciousness is probably the discovery I find most intriguing. It seems that our ability to verbalize an object or concept, whether aloud or mentally, is what allows us to be consciously aware of it.

AND it seems that, in a lot of ways, humans’ ability to meditate upon abstract concepts and solve complex problems better than any other animal is a result of our development of such sophisticated language.

That was a roundabout way of saying this:

I’m so glad that there are over a million different words (in the English language alone!) that allow us to represent and express complex and very specific concepts.

And I’m really not complaining at all about studying this vocab; I like becoming familiar with more words, because then I can more richly perceive and describe my own life.

Think of it this way: you can’t really learn to see new colors. But you CAN learn to see the world differently by expanding your vocabulary!

That’s my PSA and little educational moment for today. Now go play Freerice or something, y’all.

 

Turning the lights back on

I haven’t posted anything at all on this blog for about a year, now.

Reason number one is probably a combination of laziness and forgetfulness. But also, I don’t really know what I want this blog to BE.

It started off as a way to document my travels when I first studied abroad, and then somewhere along the way it morphed into an outlet for me to blog exclusively about my photography pursuits. For months, it’s been literally nothing—which is another option in itself, honestly, but recently I’ve been feeling like I want to use this again.

I struggle a lot with the “weirdness” of the internet. I regularly exclaim to people, “Wow, isn’t it so great that any time we have a question we can just look it up on our phones and know the answer immediately?” That’s awesome, and I’ve managed to educate myself exponentially more than I could if I didn’t have this wealth of information conveniently at my fingertips 24/7.

I also read a lot of articles and personal blogs that discuss topics I find relatable and inspiring. As a result, I’ve found writers and bloggers whom I follow regularly, reading everything from their creative writings, personal experiences, philosophies, venting sessions, tutorials, jokes, reviews, and more.

In this way, the internet makes me feel less alone in the world. I physically live in a place where I don’t share a lot in common with the “average” citizen, and that really gets lonely sometimes. I love having a window into the worlds of others that lets me learn about their individual experiences and daily lives.

On the other hand, the vastness of the internet bewilders me. Almost every time that I post something personal online, I’m quickly filled with regret. I begin to worry about who might see it, to wonder whether it could be used against me somehow either professionally or personally, and ultimately, to question why I posted it in the first place.

Online expression is unique and kind of weird–can we just all agree on that?

If I post a picture of myself, I ask myself if I’m seeking attention or compliments, and I worry that I’m opening myself up to be sexualized by a whole bunch of people who barely know me. If I post something about my accomplishments, I worry that I’m bragging. If I post something controversial, I worry about coming off as too opinionated or about isolating friends/family who disagree with me over an issue. If I post something sad or venting, I ask myself what I hope to gain from telling the world my problems.

But the fact is that plenty of people post pictures of themselves (and their lives), talk about their accomplishments, express controversial opinions, and vent about their problems online every day. And I don’t think poorly of them for doing so at all. On the contrary, I’m  curious about other people and I like knowing what people think and do, so I appreciate most things that people share.

With that in mind…

I have a lot of difficulty expressing my emotions to people. I have a close-knit group of friends and I’m very social in general, but I struggle to connect with people in emotionally-intimate ways. Most of the time, I express my negative emotions only when I’m alone. I’m the queen of nonchalantly mentioning to my good friends, “Oh yeah, I cried in my car the whole way to work today. Emotions are a crock of shit, right? You want another beer?” And that’s pretty much the extent of my emotional expression.

The fact is that I am a very emotional person, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve bottled everything up inside of me instead of letting it out, even when I was a little kid. Expressing my emotions is something I have so little practice doing that I don’t even know where to begin trying to change that about myself.

Luckily, I’ve always had writing.

Writing is one of the only ways that I can let out the things I feel inside, and also a way that I can work through them. If I want to say something heartfelt to someone, I’ll probably make the person a card or write a note and stand embarrassedly to the side while he/she reads it, rather than verbalize it directly. I’ve also kept journals and similar things for years, but nowadays I write in them very sporadically, struggling to fit time for it into my schedule even though I know it’s good for my well-being.

Moreover, journaling is sort of like hitting a tennis ball at the wall by yourself. You’re free to explore the minutiae of the sensations in yourself and experiment with them to produce a better, more accurate hit, but it doesn’t give you the challenge or sense of satisfaction that playing with another person does.

I’ve just lived a very tough year, hands-down the toughest of my life. Around this time last year, I feel like I started tumbling down into a canyon. At first the slope was gradual and the terrain gentle, and it felt deliriously fun, like when I used to roll down grassy hills as a kid. But the sandy ground gave way to sharp stones and some sudden drop-offs, and it quickly stopped being fun anymore. In May, I found myself unbelievably far at the bottom, beaten and miserable.

Since then, I’ve been climbing out of this hole alone, and it hasn’t been easy. Mostly I’ve been climbing out by finding a new purpose in life—a new career path, a renewed thirst for knowledge, a more confident assertion of my intelligence.

I often use this progress as a distraction from addressing my feelings, which have yet to heal. I love talking about science, psychology, and my future career while studying hard and trying to get into graduate school, because these are such concrete, measurable things to focus on. My to-do lists buoy me up and urge me forward, and I’m grateful for them.

But I avoid any discussion of my personal life, because I am still essentially living in a state of devastation. I experienced more trauma and violence this year than ever before in my life, and my heart is very worn out from it. I feel like my inner experience is still so messy, ugly, and fraught with hurt that I can’t bear to invite anyone inside at all.

Well, if there’s one thing I know about mental health AND personal progress in general, it’s that you absolutely MUST do things that are uncomfortable if you want to grow. You SHOULD be scared, but you should do the things that scare you anyway, because living life within the confines of your fears will inhibit your progress and get you into the habit of seeing fears as a facts rather than feelings.

It is not a FACT that I cannot express myself to others. It’s a fact that I have difficulty with it, and a fact that I’m afraid to try doing it, but my fear is not representative of true threats that exist. And, the rewards I’d earn for facing this fear look like they could be great.

So, here’s what I’m thinking.

I have lots of thoughts and ideas stewing in my head all the time. I’m also perpetually caught in the middle of several projects, artistic or otherwise. I’d really like to be able to share my life, my endeavors, and my feelings a little more.

I’d like this blog to be sort of a catch-all for anything I feel like posting about. Photography projects, fashion exhibitions, art attempts, album discussions dissections (because the world just won’t be the same without me explaining precisely why Preservation by the Kinks is a fantastic representation of the follies of political extremism WHILE ALSO carrying some fabulous musical motifs throughout it!), bits of my creative writing (maybe even my POETRY, gasp, vomit, probably not),  bits of my philosophies, reflections on neuroscience topics, and just MAYBE some genuine feelings interspersed in there, too.

I have to get the hell over the whole, “but why am I internetting?” thing and recognize that I’m grateful for other people internetting in ways that are helpful and meaningful to me. This big ol’ confusing information superhighway is such a ridiculously powerful resource, and I’ve been trying to make my 24th year all about using my resources to their fullest potentials, so it would be silly to neglect it.

Anyway. Thank you for reading–and I mean that. It feels good to shout into something that’s slightly more substantial than a void.

And I guess… watch this space? We’ll see.