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

What Happened in 2013

I’m sitting in my office, knees up to my chest, shoes off, eating a lemon-cranberry-poppy-seed muffin from Flour, trying to figure out what the heck happened in 2013. I’m about to turn a quarter of a century old!

2013 was the year that I made a few life changes: I got into a serious relationship, went completely solo with my freelance business, and got my own office space. 2013 was, in some ways, less of a globetrotting Carmen Sandiego experience than 2012. Sure, I made it back to Thailand and dropped by Tokyo for a few days, but I’ve spent so much time in Thailand that I barely count it as traveling, you know?

What I’ve been up to:

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Playa love!

Did Burning Man, round 3 with an amazing group of nerds. Over a week in the desert, eating grilled cheeses and sushi made with canned tuna and black beans with cheese and salsa, cooking out of a filthy U-Haul. Riding through punishing heat on a little boy’s bike, tag still attached. Hitching a ride on a double-decker unicorn. An LED climbing wall; a wedding in a handmade castle; a sunrise over an alien temple; a morning lying on the faux fur floor of the Enchanted Forest. Some of the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever met, in the usual desert regalia of handkerchiefs and tassles and tutus. What psychedelic are you speaking of? you might ask, as campmate meanders through an alphabet soup of enlightened recollections. The response is the breathtaking precision of a chemical structure. You taste the joy of science: it is a kind of spirituality, an underpinning of logic and natural law. Ground beneath your feet.

Felt a little bit more Republican. Business grew this year, which is good, but I have to pay more to the government. I was trying to figure out my estimated taxes for the year, so I emailed my accountant. He said, why don’t you come in. I did, and we chatted for awhile about tax implications of different income sources. Self-employment tax is absurd — it just about doubles my total tax bill. I get a letter in the mail a few days later. Oh, my accountant is sending Christmas cards to his clients! I think, seeing the holiday stamp. I open it, and find out I owe him $150. Shit, I think. Should have known better.

Wrote 2 shitty short stories in a fiction class — taken at Grub Street. Well, shitty in the sense that they’re in progress. At least that’s what I tell myself. Shitty first drafts, as Anne Lamott wrote, are where we all start. Sometimes sentences will wriggle themselves into my mind, and I jot them down in a text file. They are just these little nibbles: eating ramen with a broken fork handle, hippies in Goa in the 70’s, dealing with asian fetishists. I try and write a story, which doesn’t go anywhere. Right before I was writing this, I wrote 3 other attempts at stories. I can never quite figure out if I’m writing about my life or not. Making stuff up feels uncomfortable, somehow. Even assigning a different name to a character inspired by a real person feels dishonest. Oh Asian lady Junot Diaz, where art thou?

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Meditation is pretty unexciting to look at, so here’s me with some squirrel finger puppets. 

Discovered I’m literally allergic to stress. I wrote about my first 10 day meditation retreat, but I didn’t actually maintain daily practice after it. Looking for an escape (or a confrontation, since meditation retreats are a bit of both), I did a shorter 3 day course two weeks ago in western Mass at the Shelburne Vipassana center. As a lifelong neurotic, awkward person with concentration problems, meditation is frequently cited as a tonic for my twitchiness. My skin was also suffering: I had what looked like hives and rash over 30% of my body and trouble sleeping and concentrating at work because the itching was getting so bad. I spend hundreds of dollars buying a wardrobe of Lululemon long sleeve shirts to wear, since my arms were both itchy and distractingly ugly. Here’s the crazy part: the hives-like red blotches, which had lasted for 2-3 months, disappeared after exactly one day of the meditation retreat. By day 3, I had only a few faint scabs left.

Basically, I’m allergic to stress. I can’t explain it any other way. Changing up foods, temperature, laundry detergent, gluten, various creams/lotions don’t really do much for me. Some things help, but I’ve never seen such absurd results except with meditation (or going on a short vacation also works). It’s like my neurotic mind junk just comes out my pores, literally.

I’m now meditating for 20 minutes in the morning and evening. I’ve still had good and bad days, but more good than bad. I could cry in relief — that I don’t have to spend 2 hours a day, trying not to scratch my arms until they’re bloody. I can even wear short sleeves. This is huge.

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Had my first TV appearance. It was actually incredibly fun to film Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. The crew was really nice as well. Checked it off the bucket list…

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Hung out with friends. That’s me and Rachel in Ko Lanta, Thailand. I also met some Tim Ferris-influenced entrepreneurs in Chiang Mai who were awesome and visited my friend Marco in DC. He led me to Little Serow, an absolutely amazing Thai restaurant. You gotta go.

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Me at the maid cafe. 

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With David and some new Japanese friends! 

Met some crazy people on the road. In Tokyo: I couchsurfed with a French guy named David. He had hitchhiked and couchsurfed for 2 years straight in Europe, and had some crazy scheme of learning 8 languages in 80 months. When he couldn’t find a place to stay on couchsurfing, he’d walk up to people in the train station, ask them if they’d heard of couchsurfing, and ask if he could stay at their place. I just loved Japan overall, and it’s at the very top of my list of places I’d like to explore in detail. I loved the food (of course!), and the orderly, neat way things ran there. I went to a cat cafe, a maid cafe, and a psychiatric prison themed restaurant where the waitress stuck a vibrator in my mouth. (About as weird as it seems.)

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One of their surly llamas.

In Sonoma: I was watering my friend Dan’s Bonsai trees over the summer. He had Airbnb guests staying at his place in Cambridge, and we ended up chatting while I was watering the dozens of little trees on his balcony. They were a really nice couple from Sonoma County, California, with a son at MIT. The father recalled taking his son to Burning Man, and getting in the midst of a light saber battle. He invited me to come visit their house in Sebastapol. House is not really an adequate description: it was a huge property, with an apple orchard, a vineyard, 2 surly llamas (!), a few shy goats, a water tower-turned-treehouse, a land boat-turned-apartment, a couch swing, a bocce ball court, and a house they’d designed themselves, with solar power. It was pretty magical. I cooked them a dinner that I got predictably anxious over, played bocce ball, ate apples from their orchard, and watched a documentary about a harmless Asian fetishist marrying his mail order Chinese bride (“Seeking Asian Female”). Can we live on an apple orchard in Sonoma with llamas and a water tower? I asked my boyfriend. And design our own house? He humored me, saying it seemed like a nice life.

But really, I just work a lot. There’s this whole issue with social media, where only the shinest bits of people’s lives get publicized, making you feel inadequate. And I’m guilty of that. I’m not going to put up some photo of myself where I looked like I got whacked with two black eyes and I’m about to pass out over my laptop. Most of my days are spent wearing either my yoga pants or my stretchy denim jeans, getting to the office before 10am, and working late to hit client deadlines. I actually like working (and routine is a thing of beauty for some shifty, creative folks), but I don’t spend everyday running around Tokyo eating sushi. Only like, two days.

Well, this got long. Hello friends, new friends, soon to be friends – let me know if you have ideas for what I should do in 2014.

Burning Man 2011: Or, I Can’t Believe This is Happening

I spent a week in the desert for Burning Man 2011.

Burning Man, by its nature, is hard to describe. It’s a festival of 50,000 people in the desert, where participants leave no trace and commerce or advertising is not allowed. It’s not a barter economy, but a gift economy – people give things away, ranging from food, to alcohol, to performances, to trinkets, with no expectation of receiving anything in return. The only things you can buy there is coffee and ice – you have to bring all your own food, water, and camping supplies with you, and all your trash out at the end of the week.

It’s a farmer’s market, for free, in the desert. Duh.

One of the most incredible things is how fully-realized “Black Rock City” is. There’s a post office, 3 publications (BRC Weekly, The Shroom, some other one), street names, villages, and police. One camp set up a farmer’s market, where they gave away fruits and vegetables, as well as serving up homemade chai and hand salads. Improbable, interactive art structures dot the landscape, inviting you to climb or contribute. There are incredible parties that happen at all hours of the day (whether it’s 3am or 10am). This is the land where drinks are free (just bring your own cup); the dubstep blasts at top volume; the people are gorgeous; and everyone’s respectful of your personal space. I felt a lot safer here at night than walking around around Boston during the day.

The environment is intense. The hot, dry air immediately wicks away moisture, which proved hellish for my skin. They recommend you drink at least a gallon of water a day, which isn’t an exaggeration. You have to carry goggles and a bandanna at all times in case a dust storm kicks up, reducing visibility to 10 feet.

The temple, before being burned


The temple, in a choreographed burn.

Conversely, it’s also some of the most beautiful landscape I’ve seen. Biking around the playa as the sun sets is breath taking: the gasoline-slick of sky slipping behind the mountains, bikers in fantastical outfits criss-crossing the desert while white dust rises like fog. Look around, and you’ll see a stunning two-story temple built out of wood (which will be artfully burned to ashes at the end of the week), a Trojan horse, and of course, The Man – a wooden effigy that is burned on Saturday night after a frenetic fireworks display and 200 foot-high mushrooming green flames, putting every action movie to shame. At night, the playa lights up in all directions, a cross between an amusement park and an acid trip’s rendering of Vegas.

Photo by Bruce Miles

Imagine all this, while art cars – moving vehicles you dance on, ranging from sharks to yachts to octopi – blast their best dance music around a screaming throng of thousands. Some art cars carry giant propane tanks so they can spew 30 foot high flames into the night sky while they serve you drinks. The heat from the flames is actually somewhat painful, reminding you that yes, this is actually happening.

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Photo by Bruce Miles

I ended up at Burning Man on total whim. A friend of mine from Harvard was organizing a theme camp and described it as an “art festival in the desert.” I was looking for things to do in my year off after college, so I shrugged and figured going with her was a good bet. It wasn’t until after I bought my ticket that I had this conversation:

Me: So, uh, what about running water?
Natalie: Well, you bring all your own with you.
Me: Oh. So what about showers?
Natalie: There aren’t really any, but we’re going to have a solar shower for the camp!
Me: But there’s electricity, right?
Natalie: No. But some people do have generators!
Me: Wifi? Cell reception?
Natalie: Nope.
Me: AM I GOING TO DIE?
Natalie: No.
Me: [hysterical] I’M GOING TO DIE. AM I GOING TO DIE?

I haven’t gone camping in over ten years. I was more nervous than excited as I rolled onto the playa in an overloaded sedan with Natalie’s friends from Berkley, CA.

The car engine immediately broke into pieces. We fretted for a few minutes, then the 5 of us pushed the car for 3 hours until we reached will call to pick up our tickets. They wouldn’t let us push the car the last two miles, so we hooked up the sedan, all of our luggage, and all 5 of us to the back of a Budget truck with nothing more than nylon rope thinner than my pinky finger. Miraculously, it held.

It was an inauspicious beginning, and my first full day on the playa beat me up physically. Scorching dry heat and high altitudes make you feel like crap. I drank some water, wandered around, went to bed early. My tiny tent and sleeping bag that night felt more luxurious than any 4 star hotel.

The hardest part to deal with is not the heat. It is the superfine, alkaline white dust. It coats everything and stays there, even if you rinse off your hands with water. Your fingers are perpetually chalky, and you’ve never had a worse hair day. There’s a coating of dust on your cooking supplies, dust sneaks into your sleeping bag, and dust grinds in your contact lenses.

My skin revolted, my feet ached, my hair felt like plastic. I gave up on makeup.

To my surprise, I didn’t die.

——–

I normally wrestle with a perpetual baseline of anxiety. Sometimes I’m aware it’s there, sometimes I can’t even perceive it. Like many others, I’m always attempting to control the world around me, and sorely disappointed when it fails to comply. Friends flake despite followup emails; it rains during a barbecue; my taxi sits in traffic before an important meeting.

Time exists fragmentally at Burning Man. Few bother with clocks. There are no cell phones, so you can’t text someone demanding to know where and when they’ll show up. Strip away the controls, and you find that social machinery still churns, with even more life and verve than before. I met the most incredible people by accident, and soon, accident became fate. People there, as a rule, are incredibly friendly and helpful.

At the same time, Burning Man only exists a week a year. The entire city is transient, burned or carried away with beauty and sullen efficiency. I caught myself pining for certain moments to be extended. It’s strange. So often, I feel saddest when I’m happy, because I’m thinking about how that particular source of happiness will end. That’s what I took away from the eponymous burning man at the end of the week: that beauty exists for a certain finite period in time. Its end is inevitable, even desirable. It is a gift to experience happiness, and it is wisdom to let it go.

A Belated Fourth of July Update

Warning: bodily functions ahead.

I am skeptical of Large Group Things. Like concerts, movie openings, and crowded clubs. Something so many people like must not actually be very good, my logic goes.

I am not sure where my logic comes from, but that is another story.

This is before all the doom and disaster happened. Just finish reading this post.

Anyway, my friend Evan decided he wanted to float down the Charles River to watch the Fourth of July fireworks. I gamely agreed. Meanwhile, my brain was thinking: “WTF. How lame. Fireworks and a boat? I’ll fall asleep and get shit on by a bird.”

Evan carrying the boating equipment

But it ended up being surprisingly fun. First we blew up the boat using an air pump. Then I practiced my rowing skills.

So skilled! Yah.

Evan and his Olin College alum friends waved to some fellow Oliners floating down the Charles on… couches. Don’t ask me how they got couches to float. It’s those crazy engineering students.

Bad things were about to happen.

The sunset was beautiful – and there’s nothing like a sunset that totally surrounds you and reflects off the water. I paddled along, careful not to get overturned by the wake of larger boats.
Meanwhile, I wondered if I was incredibly boring. Evan was not replying to any comments I made. Occasionally, I’d crack a joke and he’d just be silent.

My questions were answered about half an hour into our journey. The two of us were crammed onto a tiny, inflatable boat, so it was very obvious when leaned over the side and began vomiting the contents of his stomach.

I patted him awkwardly on the back, and dug frantically through my tote bag for tissues and mints. He continued throwing up, then washed off his mouth with some of the lake water, looking pale and fragile.

“You must feel so much better!” I said, filled with optimism. “I’m sure you’ll be fine now!”

“Yeah,” he said, not sounding convinced. “A little bit.”

Half an hour later, we were floating in between giant boats, the periphery of where the fireworks were going to go off.

He leaned over and began retching again, except this time, it was just dry heaves.

The very nice lady on a neighboring boat offered us some Coke.

We decided, at that point, to paddle over to the dock. It was around 9pm and the banks of the Charles were teeming with tens of thousands of spectators. The teenaged Asian girl, who must have staked out her spot hours before, tried to chase us away.

“You’re not allowed to bring boats here,” she said.

I almost believed her, especially when I heard a police boat yell at someone on a megaphone to move away. “Is that at us?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

Evan, poor soul, had his eyes closed and was doing breathing exercises.

I figured out she was lying, and ignored her. Evan and I sat on the edge of the dock for another hour until the show started. We had stolen front row seats, thanks to our water route. He no longer felt seasick, and the fireworks were indeed incredible. Especially since they timed them to Katy Perry.

After the show, the streets of Boston looked like the zombie apocalypse had hit. People were climbing over barricades and spilling across the crosswalks. The streets were littered in trash. Evan and I packed up the boat and decided to have some dinner at a sushi place in Back Bay.

The sushi ("pink lady" roll) was not that good, so the restaurant is not being named for lack of remarkability.

I am proud to report I neither fell asleep, nor was soiled by a wild animal.

Why Being An Artist is Uncreative

I received an interesting message from a reader about my How to be Your Own Tiger Mother post.

Ronald asks:

I found myself surprised by the end of the article. I agreed with it all the way until the very end, when you said “that it’s not about picking the most creative field. It’s about being the most creative one in your field.”
To me, that sounds like justifying a less intrinsic life route. That makes me question, are you willing to negotiate your true passions to appease what society tells you? Or were your passions too flimsy to withstand the test of time (it doesn’t matter what your teacher said, if you love art, you love art; that’s the way my experiences have been at least).

My response:

“Creative” fields can be paradoxically uninventive. You might love fashion and want to pursue it… but find that the vast majority of all designers actually copy higher end brands who have done all the creative thinking beforehand. Working in film may seem creative, but chances are, you’ll be executing someone else’s vision down to the letter if you’re not the head honcho. And even if you are at the top, it’s not necessarily “creative” – the nature of creative fields is that they’re still businesses that need to be run profitably, and this means that risk taking if often cast aside in favor of another reality show or formulaic action flick. Yes, you might find smaller opportunities to be creative – a buckle here, a piece of a scene there – or the work fulfilling, but the point I’m trying to make is that the gross distinction between “creative” and “noncreative” fields is somewhat illusory.

For the record, I’m glad I never pursued a fine art degree. Yet, I still love to doodle on my iPad during class. (All the illustrations were drawn in iPad’s ArtStudio and Doodle whilst in computer science class.)

Let me relate a story: a friend of mine once wanted to be a novelist. He majored in literature, worked as a journalist for many years, published a biography, and even obtained a masters in creative writing. Finally, he had a novel he began shopping around with a top agent. The marketing people at publishing houses turned it down, saying it wouldn’t appeal to women (who buy 80% of books). Disillusioned, he got into a top law school and began practicing law, figuring he’d still write on the side. To his surprise, he loved it. It challenged him and fulfilled him. Maybe he’ll write that novel one day, but for now, he’s perfectly happy.

Which is why I don’t believe that just working in the field of your purest creative passion is necessarily the right career choice. I believe that you should always pursue that passion in some form or another, but for many, navigating the networking/marketing/financial realities of a creative field will distract or ruin a perfectly good thing.

And you know what? I’m now working as a web designer. I have freelance work up to the gills, and I love it.

I think my creativity is not in web design (which I don’t plan on doing in 30 years time), but in constructing empty spaces in my life for creative projects to grow. The future is awash in planned uncertainty, and I refuse to compromise on that point.

 

How to Be Your Own Tiger Mother

I never saw myself as a Harvard type. “You have a duty to go to art school,” my high school art teacher told me sophomore year, holding my pen and watercolor sketches in one hand. It was delivered with the same weight as “thou shalt not kill.”

The shock from his comment warmed me. I went home that day and started researching art schools: FIT, Parsons, Pratt, RISD. What bothered me was their breezy academic requirements. After all, I’d been getting straight A’s since elementary school – would they even care?

I was really trying to ask: am I too smart to be an artist?

*

Then, I saw my future as a dichotomy. Either I’d end up fingerpainting in a rented cardboard box, or weeping myself to sleep as a doctor-banker-lawyer. Even worse, this mental prison was entirely self-imposed.

I’m a first generation immigrant, but my parents are not the Amy Chua type. I told my father recently that I was foregoing full-time employment in favor of traveling for a year. He was cool with it. Similarly, when I agonized over the stray A-, my mother told me I was being too hard on myself. Their endless support and forgiveness is, in many cases, unwarranted.

External judgement came instead from a classmate. I find it hilarious that TV shows show jocks and cheerleaders as the tormentors. A ditzy cheerleader would never lean over and comment to a classmate that my Physics midterm grade “wasn’t very good,” or that my hard-won 85 on a brutal AP Chemistry test was unacceptable. The worst were the arguments in front of mutual friends, where I had to fend for myself. High school breeds peculiar bullies: so perfect they seem self-manifested.

*

My parents never issued a curfew. This was because I rarely left my room. Sometimes I wondered if I was mildly autistic during my teen years. Social interactions were confusing and infrequent; while other people trolled the local mall on Friday nights, I would design websites, write novels, or update my Livejournal.

Being totally clueless had its advantages. I was free to whatever I wanted, after all, no one cared. Somehow, I ended up writing articles for the local paper. I had never conducted an interview before, but it was in journalism that I lost my fear of cold calling strangers with no idea what to say.

It was an exciting but lonely endeavor. I liked talking to drug dealers, doctors, and marginalized teens. I was writing a piece about local teens using drugs when an English teacher pressured me to not make the school look bad. I continued reporting in college, where prominent academics berated me, a movie star flirted with me, and the House of Blues kicked me out after a tense conversation.

It can be isolating to believe that no one cares, but I found it be my most useful piece of rhetoric. It’s how I conquered my fear of talking to strangers, of entering a beauty pageant, of a million social failures. No one cares. Your real friends get over it. When I become too deeply engrained in something that I lose that naivete, I’ll make some major change to bring it back.

I love the stories and experiences I’ve collected as a result. The ex-con in a New Haven bus stop who opined on racism in jail. Walden Pond in the dark. Eating dinner with locals in Pudong, and the stew of beef bones that made my stomach churn later.

*

Still considering art school, I went on a college tour junior year of high school. The Harvard student guide was a tall, spindly blond named Ben. As we walked through Memorial Hall’s yawning corridor – where I’d arrive late to Ec10 three years later – he complained that high schoolers were now on Facebook. Of course, I resolved to friend him. I listened to the admissions spiel, feeling chills course through my body. Maybe it was the steady drumbeat of sunshine outside, the stained glasses casting fractal rainbows, or the creme-de-la-creme culture. Suddenly, I had something to aspire to.

My family and I were staying at friend’s house in the suburbs. I drank cup after cup of tea at dinner and couldn’t fall asleep. My SAT scores raced through my brain. My search had narrowed from a universe of college picks – from South University Tampa to Stanford –  to the tunnel vision of just one.

For better or worse, when I want something, I pursue it with the ferocity and grace of a high-speed bulldozer.

My unvarnished ambition is not a particularly feminine trait, which I was reminded of when I heard through the grapevine that an acquaintance remarked, “I hear she gets what she wants.”

I was upset. “Would he say that if I were a guy?” I asked my friend, not sure what it meant.

*

I ended up getting into Harvard. It was December 15th, a data I had circled, then tore out in my calendar to represent a nuclear bomb crater. It was just in time, since my soul had already been tractored from reading too many posts on the College Confidential forum by neurotic overachieving applicants. After a week of joy, I promptly fell into a tailspin, decided I wanted to go to Brown instead, and passed through senior spring like a hospice patient. The bully delivered a quickly forgotten speech at graduation; I fidgeted with my robe and felt no nostalgia.

I ran into the art teacher again before I graduated. We chatted about college, and he said something offhand about remembering I was a decent artist.

Remembering his near-religious conviction two years prior – and how it’d nearly ended changed the course of my life – the remark felt like a blade revealing nothing in a balloon but stale air.

*

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine said something really interesting. “I realized,” he said over Thai food, “that it’s not about picking the most creative field. It’s about being the most creative one in your field.”

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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