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All you have to do to have fun in Boston is buy Red Sox tickets online!

What do you want, anyway?

Last summer, I lived in a $450 sublet with a grease and filth-covered kitchen and 2 roommates. I didn’t make much money, but because rent was so cheap, I swung a trip Mexico for a week and attended my first Burning Man.

There was an amazing Chinese bakery across the street, a fantastic thrift shop next door, and Super 88 was a 5 minute walk away.

I was happy as a clam.

From September 2011 until mid-May 2012, I didn’t have a permanent address. While traveling through Asia, I didn’t work much and managed to break even after 4 months on the road. The entire trip, including airfare, cost about 8k. If I’d been even more cost conscious, I could probably done it for 6k.

After I got back to the US, I stayed on friends couches and with my parents for a few months. I thought about moving to Buenos Aires for the summer and learning Spanish. I looked up airfare, apartments, language immersion classes.

Still, I couldn’t shake my weariness. You know how people become lawyers to win their parents’ and peers’ approval? It’s crazy, but I was doing the same thing. I felt obligated to live out other peoples’ aborted dreams. That I was disappointing some phantom audience if I didn’t learn every language, visit every country, do this whole “travel thing.” Just because I knew that I could.

Not entirely sold on Buenos Aires, I got a short-term Boston sublet and picked up more clients, waiting to see what transpired.

Summer crept in, thick and golden. In July, I took a 2 week trip to Italy, because I could. I wandered beautiful miles of coastline and ate a few kilo of gelato. I hung out with backpackers, and saw the same travel stories play out: transient relationships, chance encounters, pantomimes.

A college friend happened to be in Lake Como. We rode the funicular to admire an panoramic view, then took a ferry to visit a villa.

As we walked back to the ferry, dripping wet from a dip in the water, I said to him: “You know what my problem is? I shouldn’t travel… unless I actually want to.”

The American couple walking behind us burst out in unmuffled laughter.

I felt a dark flash of embarrassment. I sounded spoiled. All the money and time in the world, whatever will I do?

I know what you’re thinking: give me a fucking break.

—–

In order to succeed at anything – absolutely anything – the first step is always the same.

Get clear on what you want. Define the goal.

But why is the wanting so unclear?

Most people don’t want to grapple with the underbelly of this question.

It calls all your life choices into doubt. If you want something different than what you’re doing, it makes you feel like a hypocrite. And you already have a great resume – no one’s ever accused you of screwing up your life, so everything must be fine.

But that’s not the actual issue.

Consider this: if someone held a gun to your head, you’d give an answer.

It’s not that you don’t know. It’s that you don’t trust yourself.

Who are you to make that call, anyway?

—–

After I got back from Italy, I thought: what am I waiting for?

I signed the lease for a studio apartment in downtown Boston after 2 days of hunting. It was much more expensive than last summer’s accommodation, and not a whole lot more luxurious – but it was mine.

I started working more and reattempted dating. Work went a lot better than dating, as is often the case. I stopped worrying so much about what I was going to do after freelancing, and began to focus on what I enjoyed about it. Things have gone well. I’m surprised and grateful.

I feel strange about writing this post. There’s no conclusion. And then I lived happily ever after? That would be boring and a lie.

And if I don’t post it now, I’ll just keep tacking things onto the end, or rewriting sections. But I suppose that’s ok – unless I get hit by a bus tomorrow, no one’s expecting a neat ending.

 

Why Being Aimless Is a Good Thing

Thailand Sunset

It’s been one year since my decision to “take a year off.”

It was one of the best decisions I ever made. In the past year, I’ve eaten tacos al pastor in Mexico City, hiked up and down the streets of San Francisco, wrestled with existence and danced on art cars at Burning Man in Nevada’s desert, popped by Vegas for a weekend, reconnected with friends, and did a monster backpacking trip through Shanghai, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

I’ve learned how to ride a motorbike, scuba dive, navigate the streets of a foreign country, take total responsibility for my own safety, speak a little Thai and Burmese, and the fine art of haggling. I’ve gotten sick, lost, scared, and dejected, but when you’re on the road for over 4 months, every moment passes, only to reveal a more beautiful one.

I started off with no guidebook or plan. I knew I wanted to start in Bangkok and end up in Shanghai for my return flight home. Everything in between – those 4 months – happened by magic, wish, circumstance. It was the best trip I could have asked for, even if I had no idea what was in store.

————-

In Kampot, Cambodia, I took a small boat out to Rabbit island, where I swam in warm, waist deep cerulean water and picked at fresh crabs. I met a movie cast of characters there: a chatty New Zealand pork importer with his friendly Thai girlfriend; an American and recovering drug addict named David who’d spent the last four years in Kuwait, building boxes for the military; a spritely 70-something British woman, still backpacking solo around the world and flaunting a bikini. I swung in a hammock and drank juice out of a coconut. The Cambodian coastline and mountains were delicate watercolors in the distance; the palm fronds arched over the island lip and into the merged blue of sky and water.

Is this what I had feared? Is this where aimlessness takes me? A bright, intense happiness filled me, as it had and would throughout my trip.

That thought was coupled with a kind of quiet pride: I am here, because I decided to be here. And how lucky I am to be here.

————-

Why do so many grads take jobs they don’t care for?

I don’t think the answer necessarily lies in social pressures.

Rather, we feel like we have to have a plan. A goal. And if you don’t have a plan or goal of your own, someone else’s will do. Aimlessness is something to be feared, pitied, ridiculed. It is anathema to a culture that values career accomplishment. But even more important, students don’t believe they can – or are too afraid – to come up with their own goals. What if those goals are “wrong”? What if they lead to failure?

I realized that my underlying fear was not unemployment. (That’s why I applied to jobs before making the leap to self-employment. I wanted to make sure I was actually employable.) It was not social pressure, although I felt that too. The true fear, buried below all my rationalizing, was much more insidious.

Without a structure – without somebody to tell me what to work towards – would accomplish anything at all? Did I even have goals of my own? Would I just procrastinate all day long and achieve nothing? Without a system to prod and reward me, would I collapse into a goo of TV-watching underachievement?

That is… a failure?

This is what I truly feared.

I’ve heard people deride self-help books and gurus as full of too much fluffy positive thinking advice. I get annoyed about that too. But truthfully, the deeper I get into following an unconventional path, the more I realize that our biggest obstacles are mental. Most things in life are not particularly difficult – they merely take time and persistence.

And that’s where most of us break down. Do I really want this? Is this really worth it? The decisions become overwhelming; the logistics convoluted; our bodies fatigued. And so we do something else that doesn’t awaken that doubt, at least for awhile.

It’s easy to get afraid of the questions, and the (very real) pain they cause. We’d like to assign some stability to the world as we understand it. To change the underpinnings of our beliefs is like someone snatching a security blanket from a child. You worry that doubting one thing will lead to another, and soon you’ll be so lost you can’t climb your way out anymore.

But it takes a different mind, and a stronger and wiser mind, to hold concurrent realities as all equally valid.

I found a funny thing though. It was only when I got lost – really, really lost – that I found I had a sense of internal direction after all. Sometimes, that lostness was so profound that I’d literally lost all trappings of identity. Sometimes, that lostness was the chaotic overwhelm that led to homesickness, fatigue, and a trip to the doctor for antibacterial meds.

Somehow, if you push up against lostness enough, it quiets down the other voices and points you towards what’s actually important. I learned to listen to what I wanted, and realize that I called the shots.

I love Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address. I listen to it whenever I need a reminder to keep going forward, even when I’m lost and don’t have a plan:

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

So don’t be afraid of questioning, of being aimless. You are strong enough to handle it. You’ll be ok.

How to Make Apple Pie For the First Time

When I do something for the first time, I usually do a bit of research to make sure I’m doing it right. My first foray in pie-making – hell, baking in general – was great because I realized that baking isn’t some scary, landmine-ridden challenge. Somehow, people build it up to be a lot more intimidating than it actually is.

Making a pie is fairly involved (a lot of letting things chill in the fridge), but if you follow a few basic tricks and rules of thumb, the end product ends up totally agreeable. The most important is to keep the butter and/or shortening cold, and to not overwork the dough. This is to preserve those little lumps of fat streaked throughout, which will melt in the oven and result in that coveted tender/flaky pie crust.

I left California earlier this week, and am cooking in my friend’s mom’s kitchen out in the ‘burbs of Buffalo, NY. It is a somewhat improbable place to go on my year off, but has done wonders for skills cooking American classics (my friend Nick is wary of Asian dishes) and maintaining my San Francisco time difference. I just took a pie out of the oven at 2:30am and am blogging this at 3:15 am.

I had dinner at Nick’s friend’s house tonight. She served us a lovely California Cabernet and beef bourguignon over egg white noodles with freshly baked popovers. Her mother was a whippersnapper of an 81 year old who still ran her own business and gave many tips on baking the perfect pie.

I used a vodka pie crust recipe from America’s Test Kitchen, using a pastry cutter rather than a food processor. (Check out their new blog, America’s Test Kitchen Feed!) I precooked the filling (recipe) based on the pie expert’s advice, since the apples were a bit tart, but wished I had cooked them a few minutes less. I threw in brown sugar and extra cinnamon, just because. The filling ended up very soft while the crust browned too fast on top and remained a tad undercooked.

Still, I’m pretty proud of the finished product. The kitchen smells delicious, my friend Jason gave it his programmer’s grunt of approval from behind his setup of monitors, and it’s not bad for Pie Numero Uno.

Should Cafes Ask Customers to Leave?

crema cafe harvard square

My favorite cafe asked me to leave last week. For the second time.

I’ll tell you why I feel sad: when I first found Crema Cafe two years ago, I fell in love. I spent so much time there, my sweaters absorbed its scent, an inexorable melange of lattes, carbs, and indie-pop Pandora playlists. The owners described it as a place between home and work; I took that quite literally. I proudly told my friends I was considering moving in.

Over the past two years, I’ve spent so many happy hours in that cafe. I love bringing my laptop to do work on the upstairs level. I’ve forcibly dragged friends there and bought them my favorites, just so they could be converted. I’ve blogged about them, plugged them on Serious Eats, posted photos to various food sites. When I signed up for Mint.com, I budgeted a very liberal portion for “coffee.”

If you ask me for restaurant recommendations, you’ll likely hear raves about their turkey-avocado-jicama-slaw sandwich or their baked-fresh-from-scratch pastries.

crema cafe harvard square pastry

So I disappointed when I was asked to leave during a busy Saturday afternoon to make room for other customers. I’d been there for a little over 2 hours with my laptop, and had planned on taking a seat closer to a wall outlet when one of the owners stepped in. (I had polished off a medium coffee and a chicken sandwich.) He had promised that table to another customer; since I had headphones on, I hadn’t seen the line forming behind me.

He was apologetic. As I was leaving, he apologized again. And this was the second time – a month before, a different owner had asked me to leave, but relented when I bought another sandwich. I’ve generally tried to share my table or buy another pastry during marathon study sessions, but I know I’ve overstayed my welcome in the past.

And I understand why they’re taking a more aggressive tack. Mostly. They charge reasonable prices for freshly made food. They have high labor costs and rent; they depend on table turnover and volume to pay the bills. I ended up chatting that owner for about an hour about the trials of the business world and how to solve the problem of being too popular.

I’m happy Crema has done well. It clearly has no problem attracting loyal customers and long lines. But I’m disappointed that the same place that I cheered for and championed feels that its success is dependent on asking me to leave. Are the two really at odds?

Perhaps this Seth Godin (a well-known marketer) post about “best customers” summarizes some of how I’m feeling:

If you define “best customer” as the customer who pays you the most, then I guess it’s not surprising that the reflex instinct is to charge them more. After all, they’re happy to pay.

But what if you define “best customer” as the person who brings you new customers through frequent referrals, and who sticks with you through thick and thin? That customer, I think, is worth far more than what she might pay you in any one transaction. In fact, if you think of that customer as your best marketer instead, it might change everything.

If you’re a cafe lover, do you think cafe owners should ask customers who have finished eating to leave?

Cafe owners, how do you deal with slow table turnover?

This is the Pancake of Your Wet Dreams.

Google “pancake recipe” and you get nearly 3 million results. How do you sort through the mess, if you’re just lusting after a syrup-sodden flapjack of joy?

Enter MyStack. This is an entirely fictional Pancake Search Engine – the Google of pancake recipes – that allows you to delicately tweak ingredients, mix-ins, calories, and costs. It even calculates whether a pancake is qualitatively “sweet” “hearty” or “fluffy” using ingredient ratios.

Its backend, if it were ever built, would feature a hell of a lot of data parsing, web scraping, and hopefully tap into existing recipe database APIs, should they be made available.

Again, this website does not actually exist. I drew up this mockup in Photoshop (in a record 1.5 hours) for my CS171 Data Visualization class.

The Pancake Challenge prompt:

Mon Feb 7 – The Pancake Recipe Challenge

Google the words “pancake recipe,” and you will get more than 1 million hits. Looking more closely, there are actually many ways to make such a simple thing as pancakes.

In this exercise, we want each breakout group to pick some tasks that have to do with the variety of pancake recipes and to sketch a visualization that supports as many of these tasks as possible. The list of possible tasks includes, among others:

  1. I have some ingredients at home, which pancake recipe can I make?
  2. Which is the most diet friendly recipe?
  3. What recipe will require the least amount of money?
  4. How will pancakes turn out for the difference recipes? Taste? Texture?
  5. To what extent do recipes vary? How much deviation is in the various quantities?
  6. I am making pancakes — I wonder what recipe my friends recommend?

You can also come up with your own tasks. Note that the data is many pancake recipes and not just one, so your interface should scale to billions of pancake recipes (just kidding – but you get the point). At the end, you will present your design to the class and explain how the visual elements and possible user interactions are supporting the tasks you chose.

Unfortunately, I’m going to be out of town on Monday when the project is due.

This probably the one time I’ve ever wanted to present my homework… but I figured I’d let it into the wilds of the Internet, in case anyone wants to build the mythical MyStack and turn it into syrupy reality. (Slice and dice the full size mockup here.) What the hell, let’s throw in a handful of blueberries and add “tortilla” to the database.

Lana Lingbo Li

I'm a world traveler / enthusiastic eater who's now blogging and producing videos over at HelloLana.com. Visit me there!

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