Stephen Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Songs and Memories: A Quarantine Collection - Page 5

Song #81: Blacking Out The Friction

@sdavidmiller: Song #81 is "Blacking Out The Friction" by Death Cab For Cutie. It's about spending a carbon copy Christmas in Las Vegas.

Artist: Death Cab For Cutie
Date: June 7, 2020
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There is no meaningful speed limit on I-15 south of Vegas. Technically speaking I imagine one exists, but only as an abstract concept, purely theoretical—no one ever follows it and no one ever cares. At 95 mph we were still being passed on the right, and it took every ounce of willpower not to push it further. The holidays were over, and all of us were ready. Girlfriend beside me, sipping her sugary latte, fixing her gaze on the desert expanse; younger brother in the back draped in Blink-182, trying not to make eye contact in the rear view mirror. We were done interacting. We were ready to be home.

We’d spent the week in Las Vegas, but not in the fun part. It was senior year of high school, 2006, and I’d been invited by my girlfriend to spend Christmas with her dad. Technically speaking it was the week after Christmas, but divorce has a way of making carbon copy holidays with no implicit ranking permitted. It was not to be “ersatz Christmas” or “second Christmas.” It was only Christmas, again, and it had to be perfect. From the obscene pile of presents hiding under the tree, to the meal at Feast Buffet in some Hotel/Casino, to the brand new flatscreen that filled 2/3rds of the living room, everything was overwhelming, larger than life.

Though they’d never met me in person they’d heard so much about me, and it was genuinely touching how hard they tried to make that known. Stepmom cooked me pancakes on also-Christmas morning, with no limit to the fixings, all I had to do was ask. Dad orchestrated a clumsy heart-to-heart about my “intentions,” as if he still were playing gatekeeper, as if she really gave a damn. Under the tree sat not one, but three generic presents addressed specifically to me: a $50 Target gift card, an XL Rip Curl button-down, a gift set of various Axe Body Sprays. Her dad even let me split a bottle of Mike’s Hard, one evening after the others had wandered off to bed. Bet that tight-collared ex stepdad and the new mysterious boyfriend never did a thing like that, huh? Man to man, no bullshit.

My parents were (are) still thankfully together, and growing up in the Evangelical tradition, most friends could say the same. That Christmas was my first window into familial dysfunction, at least the overt kind I’d seen on TV. I tried my best to stay out of it, to keep my feelings neutral, but I couldn’t blot out the tightrope that was propping up our week. It had to be not only perfect, but better: the gifts better than their mom could have given, The Strip better than Grand Avenue at home, the movies more R-rated, the fixings more generous. If it was better, it would justify the years of broken promises, when Dad packed up his condo and moved 5 hours north to get in at the ground floor of an exciting new venture. He’d have regretted it forever if he didn’t, so he did, and when you really dug into it, he did it for them. Everything was for them. Surely they saw that.

We didn’t say much on the drive back to Escondido. I think there was a sense I’d seen more than I should have, a world neither girlfriend nor brother were in the mood to unpack. I raced down the interstate, letting Death Cab fill the silence. “Styrofoam Plates” would hit soon with a dull, heavy thud, but at the moment we were happy to avoid it.

I don’t mind restrictions or if you’re blacking out the friction
It’s just an escape (it’s overrated anyways)

@sdavidmiller: Quick note: the next few entries will be relatively light, but the world outside remains heavy. I don't know how to square that circle, except to say that this daily exercise has been meditative for me, particularly in difficult weeks. You may not be in the mood for navel gazing.

Song #82: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

@sdavidmiller: Song #82 is "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" by The Platters. It's about last November's cruise and the relief of doing absolutely nothing.

Artist: The Platters
Date: June 8, 2020
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“We call it the Coroner’s Bar,” an acquaintance said on the first night, revealing an I’m-so-bad grin. One look at the patrons and it was clear what she’d meant: The Crooners Bar on the Promenade Deck (7th) of the Coral Princess cruise ship has a median age of at least 65. Gallows humor was incredibly popular on the vessel, and everyone, from the passengers and staff to the watered-down-borscht belt comedians who provided evening entertainment on the Princess Theater stage, was in on the joke. Cruises, especially long ones, are a retired couple’s game.

Seated in the audience for our 10th consecutive evening, Joanna and I were the youngest of the regulars by at least 20 years. We were a novelty, especially when it came to audience participation: with trivia and singalongs that emphasized midcentury classics, it was seen as a minor miracle that we recognized anything at all. Whether we sung along to “Waltzing Matilda” or correctly named the cast of The Music Man’s first Broadway run, the crowd always met our knowledge with the delighted sort of shriek you might emit if you heard a puppy bark the alphabet. No one was more delighted than Sammy at the keys. Toothy smile, volcanic laugh, cheeks flush from Jack Daniels, neat—being visibly delighted seemed to be half of his job, and he executed it flawlessly. He’d spotted us the first evening, knew our names by the third, and by now we were part of his routine. Tonight was for requests. “Nothing after 1960” he said in my direction, almost like a dare.

It was an intentional decision, our being a novelty. The alternative would have been hell: 15 days surrounded by people our own age, with all of Wallace’s Organized Fun tailored explicitly to us? No, the fact that it wasn’t our wheelhouse made it easier to enjoy it. I set up an emergency e-mail address and disconnected the others, Joanna informed her coworkers she’d be totally unreachable, and for two weeks we sailed from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale via the Panama Canal. The ports were lovely but, we quickly learned, superfluous: No one who has done any serious travel could mistake those excursions for “seeing the world.” There was a Panamanian train ride, a farm in Nicaragua, a zipline through a humble stretch of Costa Rica rainforest. Save the father / daughter duo we met in Costa Rica (who were bizarrely quick to brag about how many “zips” they’d done), everyone seemed to understand their limits. The stops are an excuse to give a sense of forward motion; the real value of the journey is being absolutely still. What began as a collection of bullet-point destinations, soon became entirely about negative space—the glorious Sea Days when the boat never docks, when whatever you have chosen is tautologically correct. I exercised daily while looking out at the coastline; I wrote every morning for three hours minimum; we lounged by the pool, gorged ourselves at dinner, and each night we sipped cocktails and watched Sammy glisten.

“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes?” I timidly suggested, eliciting cartoon shock from Sammy and the surrounding alphabet shrieks. The maestro gave a nod and smoothed his Formal Night collar before launching into his intro. “This one is from the Kern / Harbach musical, Roberta, though you might recall The Platters' version from 1959.” As I sipped my Brandy Alexander and watched the couples around me remember, I was reminded of the reason I’d been familiar with the tune. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay may well have been with us that evening. There was heartache, stress, and a world to escape from, but tonight was for blissful forgetting.

Now laughing friends deride tears I cannot hide
So I smile and say
“When a lovely flame dies
Smoke gets in your eyes”

[Note: As this project shows, confined spaces with synthetic deadlines are great for forcing me to write! Here’s the short story I started and finished on that cruise, inspired by a trip to Wuhan and a Paul Simon song.]

Song #83: The Saga Begins

@sdavidmiller: Song #83 is "The Saga Begins" by "Weird Al" Yankovic. It's about a field trip to Catalina, my first girlfriend, and my first kiss. Same weekend, different people.

Artist: “Weird Al” Yankovic, parodying “American Pie” by Don McLean
Date: June 9, 2020
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A long, long time ago, we stood at the docks of the Dana Point Harbor and looked out at seagulls and the passing of ships, sharing one pair of earphones, incessantly giggling. We’d been boyfriend and girlfriend for a full 24 hours—or at least, that’s how I saw it at 12. After a year of silent crushing as a friend (then a “best friend”) I gathered the courage to say it on AIM. “I really, really like you,” I blurted out of nowhere, my “as a friend” escape hatch ready to paste. After a solid minute which felt like an hour, she responded with an “I like you too.” Sealed with two (2) smileys and four (4) exclamation points, common law declared us An Item.

My timing was perfect. We were headed to a 3 day camp on Catalina Island, far from parental supervision. It was bound to be bumpy, this transition from digital to analog, but so far the signals were clear. We were joined at the hip for the entire bus ride, and during our Weird Al singalong nobody batted an eye. If that gave me hope, the ferry cemented it. We spent the full 90 minutes playing that hand slapping game. You know the one: Player A hovers their hands above Player B’s, B tries to flip and slap them before A can withdraw. If you’re a 7th grade Lothario, you withdraw slowly on purpose: you want to let her catch them, to see the moment linger, this not-quite-holding contact while she laughs and laughs and laughs. My first ever girlfriend, laughing.

The honeymoon ended the moment we docked. She left the boat without me to see the new cabin. She didn’t wave to me at orientation, and when she picked a team for volleyball, I wasn’t her choice. It was Rey, and that’s his real name, because he’s already won. Rey was a Track A student, and the two never crossed paths, but this weekend on the island we were one giant group. He was handsome, charismatic, overtly athletic, and when she picked him for volleyball I felt my first tinge of jealousy. Then she sat next to him at dinner.

“Stop being so needy” she said with an eye-roll after I held out my hands for a slap. I took her advice; I stayed cool as a cucumber. We only saw each other in groups.

On the ferry ride home, someone suggested Spin The Bottle. The idea of kissing was too wild to imagine, but under the fig leaf of a game? It was volatile, unexpected, unambiguously “cool.” It was my last chance to salvage the trip. She spun first, and it landed on Rey. He spun next, and wouldn’t you know it? Over the full 90 minutes the two only spun at each other, sometimes by luck, sometimes by cheating: A peck became a long kiss became…I couldn’t even say it. When it landed on some other girl, he called for a do-over. When it landed on me, she insisted it hadn’t. The look she gave was the nail in the coffin: The battle droids were broken.

I returned to the battlefield fifteen years later, reeling from heartbreak and the hangover spins. It was a long weekend in November; we were sailing through the Channel. I remembered my first kiss, there on that ferry. She was a shy, pretty blonde girl from the same track as Rey, and I’m not going to give you a name. Up to this point we’d never even said “hi.” Still haven’t, despite plenty of chances. She’s training to be a nurse now, according to Facebook. Happily married, had her first kid this spring—and when the bottle landed on me and the clique of girls giggled, I swore I could see her heart sinking. Frustration, resignation, preemptive regret. (You never really shake some expressions.) My heart raced to meet her’s, way down at the bottom, neither of us remotely enjoying this game but neither of us willing to leave it. Now, in the spinning, with a splash, slap, and cackle, they rose.

We started singing…

@sdavidmiller: Song #83 bonus materials: fifteen years later:

Song #84: Drop Of Lucifer

@sdavidmiller: Song #84 is "Drop of Lucifer" by ApologetiX. It's about a middle school Christian apologetics website, rewriting lyrics to be more "uplifting," and other mortifying relics of my childhood hiding on the internet archive for your amusement.

Artist: ApologetiX, parodying “Drops Of Jupiter” by Train
Date: June 10, 2020
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They did not have a prayer
Yet the Bible declares
You told them You’d come
But You was already there


Well it’s a hot one
The separation of re-li-gi-on
I feel the wisdom in God’s word could help everyone
In your state-owned school


Learn some Deuteronomy
Can you name those laws

Bon Scott may well be rolling in his grave, but to this day that’s how I remember those lyrics (“You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Smooth,” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” respectively). Sometime around middle school I discovered ApologetiX, the parody band every Christian parent could support. Unlike Weird Al, their obvious inspiration, they often weren’t trying to be funny: Even the word “parody” feels like a misnomer, somehow. It might be more accurate to describe them as a meticulous cover band which was contractually obligated to fill some Bible reference quota. There was a bizarre conviction that flowed from the endeavor, their clear love for the source material at odds with their fire-and-brimstone, fundamentalist rhetoric. Many of the contemporary hits of this era, I discovered first through their parodies: Puddle of Mudd’s “Blurry,” Linkin Park’s “In The End,” and, of course, Train’s “Drops of Jupiter.”

It was an era of clear-cut divisions: good or bad, edifying or sinful, an explicit call to the Gospel or a total waste of time. I aimed to be on the “good” side of those lines. I argued against evolution on theology message boards; I devoured the Left Behind series like an historical text; I even maintained a Christian apologetics website, whose name I’m omitting in case I ever run for office. (A few breadcrumbs for enterprising Internet Archivists: my message board handle was “creationistalltheway,” and I was featured in the “Fundies Say The Darndest Things” anthology series…twice). Alongside the nested frame navbars, the slick 3D logo with a dancing cross, the World Religion’s section intent on “proving” every other faith wrong, the compilation of articles relevant to every 8th grade boy’s life (“Should you date a non-Christian?,” “How should we feel about divorce?,” “Is homosexuality a sin?,” “Satanism”), and the guided prayer of repentance…was the “Spoofs” page. The regular contributors (me, my brother, and a few friends mentioned elsewhere in this project) aspired to do what ApologetiX had done—to create edifying versions of non-edifying hits. We ripped off many of the obvious classics. There was “Bible Star” a la Smash Mouth:

Somebody once told me that book was all bologna
Outdated fairy tales, what he said
And it isn’t any fun, cause it’s boring and it’s dumb
‘Bout some guy with some thorns on his forehead

“He Is Alive” in a nod to The Bee Gees:

Saw the tomb breaking, disciples all shaking
But He is alive, He is alive

“Crucifixion Rhapsody,” no citation needed:

Beelzebub’s greatest victory was a loss-to-be
To-be
To-beeeee

I remember feeling a serious sense of purpose, writing these uplifting abominations. Like we were doing something important. Something bigger than ourselves.

Uplifting or no, the secular had more staying power. By 8th grade, as I sat at the piano hammering out that C-G-F earworm with scattered -sus4s thrown in for good measure, I was no longer preaching about the Devil’s fall from grace. I was singing about love, pride, and deep fried chicken, my best friends always sticking up for me…even if it meant butchering songs.

But you’re no match for that verse 10:8, 9 Romans
Find out from Revelation
You’ll get yours later but you’re never having me.

@sdavidmiller: Song #84 bonus materials: the glory of web 1.0

Song #85: O Praise Him (All This For A King)

@sdavidmiller: Song #85 is "O Praise Him (All This For A King)" by David Crowder Band. It's about winter (?) camp, choices, and the five points of Calvinism.

Artist: David Crowder Band
Date: June 11, 2020
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TJ sat us down at the cafeteria table, long after the plates from breakfast had been bussed. We weren’t on KD (Kitchen Duty) but he’d asked us all to join him, to talk about the elephant in the room. Our cabin consisted solely of childhood friends; by now, in 8th grade, we were inseparable. So why did we suddenly seem so hostile, so cagey? The person we were avoiding, did we think he couldn’t tell? His eyes welling up, counselor’s hand on his shoulder, preparing to ask what none of us could answer directly. “What did I do wrong?”

I’d been going to Forest Home for years at this point: summer and winter, Song 25’s family trip. Years later I’d revisit it in my grad student days, when my friend (presently crying) took a gig leading worship. Then as now, it brought with it a wave of scattered details. Flipping through CDs at the on-site Christian bookstore, doing cannonballs off the high dive to The Blob in the lake, gorging on onion rings and cookie dough milkshakes, singing “Born To Be Wild” with my friends at the clubhouse, to make the girls laugh, or maybe just to kill time. A first kiss—not mine—on the rocks by the creek bed. The queue for the zipline up a three-story stairwell; that moment at the top, at the safety rail’s terminus, when I first wondered “What if I jumped?” Resisting the urge (was it an urge or a question?); affixing the harness and zipping down backwards. The rock climbing wall I was too scared to finish. My first falling snow that December.

You may not believe me when I tell you the answer, of why we were avoiding our once-childhood friend. Here it is, honestly: He wasn’t a Calvinist. See, while the rest of us had leveled up in our theology, he was stuck on the wishy-washy nonsense they’d taught in 5th grade. “It’s a free gift,” we sneered, deriding his naivety, “You just have to take it!” He didn’t understand that this was rigorous business; he probably couldn’t name the five points if he tried. Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Preservation of the Saints. I type this from memory, because it takes more than 18 years to dislodge that ferocious conviction. We were experts, unclouded by useless emotion. Weak-minded friends had to go.

We apologized, of course. Sitting at that table with the counselor looking on, did we really have any other option? You might call it irresistible, that urge to make nice. We hugged and agreed to a group game of mini golf, then walked arm in arm to the course: winding around the lodge and the Creekside amphitheater, over that small suspension bridge to the neighboring camp, past the bookstore and the clubhouse and the families-only dining room, beside a pool either empty or jam-packed with kids. Chronologies bend backwards; nothing quite fits. We wouldn’t have played mini golf unless it was summer, but by summer there hadn’t yet been that kiss by the creek. My first falling snow, that had to be earlier, because it was an older girl who laughed when I juggled the sleet. The album I bought in the bookstore that evening, it wouldn’t come out for another 2 months.

Today I’ll make the choice I resisted at the time. Embrace the inexplicable, relish the mystery, let fade every detail but love.

Turn your ear
To heaven and hear
The noise inside

Song #86: Static (particularly the movement “Chart #3”)

@sdavidmiller: Song #86 is "Static" by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, particularly the movement "Chart #3" (4:43-7:22). It's about reshooting RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK in the Anza-Borrego desert, and a record-setting heat wave.

Artist: Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Date: June 12, 2020
Listen to the movement or the full track

There are no five-point Calvinists in Anza Borrego. No grace in the canyons or tumbleweed rot. No forbearance in blind turns taken at 105mph flat, in the tributaries to nowhere that are littered with traps. No atonement for the jackrabbit whose miscalculated dash would send my car bobbing upwards and down with a crack. That isn’t a metaphor: It’s a literal cracking, a resistance then yielding no speed bump could match. Depravity, darkness, a nothingness total. In the desert at night, all lines disappear. The symbol becomes what it symbolizes; an imitation the original artifact. A post-apocalyptic soundtrack becomes a prophecy, a warning.

I made an excuse to leave early that weekend. A friend was building a portfolio for a film school application and we’d all volunteered for the shoot. Our task was to recreate that desert chase scene in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. You know the one. The Nazis head to Cairo in a military cargo truck, Indy swoops in, and a struggle ensues—featuring a lengthy stunt that sees him dragged by a rope, inches from the LG3000’s wheel. Perfectly safe for an amateur crew. For 10 consecutive weekends, from spring break to summer, they made the drive out to the desert. A freshman at Berkeley, my own schedule was tighter. I only joined a few times. This was my last.

We did our own stunts, if that’s what you’d call them. My brother crashed a motorcycle the day he learned to ride, and “Indy” held his face up to a very real wheel. My fellow Nazis and I clung to the back of a cargo truck—Vietnam, not WWII, but still military grade. It was exhilarating, dangling by a thread over bumpy terrain at what felt like breakneck speeds. The script had me sidelined by a low-hanging branch, and I followed orders: tuck, roll, and hope. It took three or four falls to make it look natural. It’s a miracle I only had bruises.

We only shot the chase, none of the logic surrounding it. There was no hero’s journey, no face-melting ending, no real ark in the back of that Vietnam truck. Just movement, repeated, till the heat sent me home. Dirt in my teeth, elbow still throbbing, burn growing fresh atop the prior week’s peel. That weekend would prove to be a record-setting heatwave: It was only 104 Fahrenheit by the time that I left, but the others saw a peak of 116. (I had to check the archives to believe my own memory. June of ‘08, Borrego Springs, 116 °F.)

The next night two friends knocked on the door of my guest house, still decked out in gear, wielding fake plastic guns. I laughed when I saw them, but they didn’t laugh back. They were mumbling incoherently, eyes trained to the heavens.

Because when you see the face of God…

Song #87: Go Home

@sdavidmiller: Song #87 is "Go Home" by Julien Baker. It's about long walks through the city, and what it means to truly see something.

Artist: Julien Baker
Date: June 13, 2020
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You can glimpse a location without really seeing it. The Richmond, The Sunset, Cow Hollow, Russian Hill. Having lived in the Bay Area for 9 years by this story, I’d visited most neighborhoods, at least momentarily. A Lyft to a BBQ, a family trip to the pier, a trek to see a concert, a hunt for free parking. But to truly see a spot is to understand how you got there: the context, the journey, why it had to be so. I didn’t see The Mission till I missed the bus and hoofed it; I didn’t see West Portal till I jogged it this May; I didn’t see the Marina Green till I knew it as a terminus, a conclusion of an argument snaking down from Diamond Heights. In rare instances you might manage to see it while driving, but only if you’re diligent, in a contemplative mood. A bus ride fares better, with its frequent, named stops; bullet points denoting transition. To really fall in love, though, you should travel on foot. “Certain places, they carry you,” an acquaintance once told me, and I can think of no better description. Pick a target or, better, a general direction, then submit to wherever it carries you.

This particular day my direction was west, from my Inner Mission loft to the Golden Gate windmills. From there I turned rightward and traced the perimeter: Sutro Baths to Land’s End, in the shade of wind-swept cypresses; Sea Cliff to Presidio, all hoarded, hidden treasures; an hour of being lost for the first time in ages, the Palace dome appearing like a lighthouse; the Marina through Fort Mason, measured in single, weighty steps; a beer and a burger at a North Beach public house which would burn down the following year; a trudge home through the Tenderloin under flickering streetlights.

Long walks are the jurisdiction of podcasts and audiobooks, and this 18 mile behemoth was no exception. I listened to an entire book in one go, a self-narrated collection by David Foster Wallace. I still associate certain locations and pieces. “Big Red Son” is Fort Mason at golden hour, shimmering. “Forever Overhead” is 17th St. between Castro and Ashbury, just before hitting the peak. “Brief Interview 20” hovers over Mile Rock Beach, its glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge now insisting: “I knew she could. I knew I loved. End of story.”

When night fell and the book came to a close, I was zapped. I couldn’t process language; I needed something closer. Julien Baker accompanied me on the final few miles. As “In Christ Alone” rang out through decades to reach me and the preacher completed his fuzzy decree, I saw it. Really saw it, where it was and how you got there—the church camps, the doctrine, the courses that scared me, the piecemeal erosion of inherited truths; that exhilarating anxiety when I let go of the guardrail, no clue where the current would flow; an eternity that woke me like a phantom limb, throbbing, a fear lingering long past conviction. Cypresses scattered throughout the perimeter; rest stops still singed with hypothetical fire. Who I’d finally become, what it cost to replace it. Home, for the very first time.

I went walking again

@sdavidmiller: Song #87 Bonus Materials: photos from the long walk described in the story, in July of 2016. The windmill, the cypresses, the Palace, the conclusion.

Song #88: Crystalised

@sdavidmiller: Song #88 is "Crystalised" by The xx. It's about settling into a groove in my 2nd year of grad school, a bike bridge at night, and getting stranded nude in the CS building basement. More scattered than most.

Artist: The xx
Date: June 14, 2020
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There’s a bicycle bridge tucked between Stanford and Menlo. Blink and you’ll miss it. Santa Cruz is inconvenient and El Camino is a death trap, but at 3am the shortcut is absolutely still. San Francisquito Creek trickling softly beneath you, faculty housing behind you and tree-lined streets ahead. It became my nightly meditation, an unwinding of the day, feeling the thunk thunk thunk of tires across wood.

By my second year at Stanford, I’d settled into a routine. Gone were my most stubborn Berkeley convictions—"Walk, never bike,“ "Don’t you dare eat on campus.” Now that I no longer lived in the dorms, I learned to appreciate the bubble without feeling trapped. Every day followed the same basic template. The Entrance: wake up at noon, bike to campus, order a sandwich (Ike’s) to-go and devour it at my desk. The Ramp Up: knock out hours of grunt work, welcome all interruptions, catch a lecture or job talk if food was involved, swing by the dining hall if it wasn’t. Finally, The Zone: a marathon stretch beginning at sundown when nothing existed but code. No one left the lab before midnight. 2am was permissible, 4am preferred. Bike home and end with a nightcap in the kitchen, often alone, sometimes with the roommate on the rare night our schedules lined up.

There were deviations, of course. Like the Fridays when I hosted TGIF, a beer-and-snack gathering for CS grad students allegedly funded by one Sergey Brin—that involved a quick trip to Costco and a swervier ride home. Or Student Visit Weekend, which I co-organized twice—corralling the undergrads, arranging faculty interviews, doing the same wine-and-dining that had wooed me before. Or Deadline Mode, blinded by a paper submission, when I’d plant at my desk and eat nothing but leftovers (the “food@cs” mailing list was critical here). Or Family Visit Day, when a misplaced keycard and an auto-locking shower left me stranded in the nude in the Gates Building basement—roaming the halls like a goblin for hours, staring out the glass doors of the sole card-free exit, preparing to make a run for it past grandmas and grandpas till a postdoc friend found me with one foot out the door. (That last one wasn’t a common deviation, but this project is winding down and I had to get it off my chest.)

Wherever the day took me, it passed through that bridge. No headlight on my bicycle and no street lamp in sight: I would ride home in absolute darkness. Sometimes, if the playlist hit the right groove, I would let go of the handle bars and glide back and forth, to elongate the journey, ease out of the bubble, let the tide pull me frozen through invisible trees.

You’ve applied the pressure
To have me crystalized

@sdavidmiller: (Photo is from my final day hosting TGIF).

Song #89: Hello vs Party & Bullshit

@sdavidmiller: Song #89 is "Hello vs Party & Bullshit", a mashup of Ice Cube and The Notorious B.I.G. by Matoma. It's about wandering Harajuku a few hours before my flight, and a mood I can't really convey.

Artist: Matoma remix: Ice Cube feat MC Ren and Dr Dre, The Notorious B.I.G.
Date: June 15, 2020
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Sometimes there are no words left to describe it—the precise mood it activated, the context it fit. After 88 entries and hours of writer’s block, that’s one thing I’ve learned from this project. Most songs I can tease out if I dwell on them deeply, but some simply are, and their being is enough. They collide with certain moments to instill a special brand of meaning, one which compels me to testify but offers no script. These are the entries that demanded inclusion, that I jotted down on day 1 and spent 3 months postponing. Now, as the series is nearing its close, I’m accepting the limits of my wrangling: A faithful reproduction is the best I can do.

I had a few hours left till my flight from Haneda. This is the last appearance of Tokyo, in the series and in memory. It was fall of 2018; I have yet to go back. (Given the present state of international travel, it’s hard to say when I’ll ever return, and that thought carries real sadness, first world problem or no.) I was killing time in Harajuku, doing some last-minute shopping. Gone were the days of souvenirs and trinkets, of fine wooden chopstick sets “for special occasions.” I didn’t want special, I wanted transportive, and that’s far easier with an item you’re likely to use. A shirt for Joanna, some navy blue Oxfords, the fuzzy grey cardigan I still wear once a week. No evidence of its origin, save some kanji on the laundry tag—all the better, when you really have to work for the story.

The main drag of Harajuku is like 5th Avenue, dazzling, but that isn’t the neighborhood’s draw. Turn right off the thoroughfare and eventually you’ll find it: a maze of narrow pedestrian streets, tiled with open-air boutiques and second-floor restaurants and quirky experiences like an “Otter Cafe.” It’s tempting to call it the Portland or Williamsburg of Tokyo, but that would imply a sort of hipsterdom I’m not certain exists. As a foreigner, at any rate, I’m ill-equipped to assess it. I feel joy, pretense-free, when I wander that maze. Sipping a cup of some micro-batch coffee, browsing racks filled with streetwear I could never pull off.

I was hunting for a jacket or a purse for Joanna, when I heard it emanating from a neighboring shop—familiar voices carried by a jubilant new rhythm, East Coast and West Coast, steel drum and sax. I dropped what I was doing and followed the music. Inside was a swirl of bright neon colors, yellow and orange and magenta and green. When I entered the whole room appeared to be bouncing, cashier very much included. I soon followed suit. It was a mashup of a mashup, a ripple through eras, from Compton and Brooklyn via Norway to Now. My autumnal wistfulness and the colors of spring, pulsing to a ticking-clock deadline on a day without time.

Cause all we wanna do is…
(Hello)

@sdavidmiller: Song #89 Addendum: Since this particular song doesn't exist on Spotify, playlist listeners will get a different Biggie remix by Matoma which I listened to immediately after leaving the store. Thank god for Shazam and international data plans.

Song #90: People II: The Reckoning

@sdavidmiller: Song #90 is "People II: The Reckoning" by AJJ. It's about icebergs, Lexapro, and coffeeshop conversations with strangers.

Artist: AJJ
Date: June 16, 2020
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“Birthplace of the latte” was its self-designation, in a large placard hung by the menu. Dubious claim to fame notwithstanding, Caffè Mediterraneum (“The Med”) really did have a history. These were the tables where Ginsberg wrote HOWL, where Black Power advocates once gathered to brainstorm and the Free Speech Movement first blossomed. When Dustin Hoffman arrived at Berkeley in that scene in THE GRADUATE, this is where he sat: at a table by the window, looking out at the Telegraph bustle, plotting his next move. Night after night, I set up shop at that table with a textbook and notepad, struggling through something. Philosophy papers, writing my blog. Tonight it was Particle Physics.

After the panic attacks started interfering with coursework, I accepted a prescription for Lexapro. “It’s not for depression!” I made a point of insisting, “Just a physical disorder, an adrenaline thing.” It was very important to me, this imagined distinction between the mental and the physical, the emotional and the “real.” I had a problem, but not, like, that kind, you know? (It was that same arrogance that soon saw me quit them cold turkey, during the stretch of all-nighters from Song 47.) While the SSRIs worked, more or less, they carried a certain sort of fog—if you’ve seen GARDEN STATE you know both what I mean and how clichéd it’d be to describe it. Whatever it was, the caffeine helped to lift it.

Like all Berkeley spots, The Med had its own cast of characters—relics of a counterculture that didn’t really leave so much as get gentrified, diluted. Tonight I was talking to two of the stragglers, Andy and Greg. Greg was a large, bearded man with a professorial affect: tweed jacket, spectacles, book glued to his hand. Andy was the wild one: gaunt face, long streaks of greasy black hair, cigarette behind each ear, pacing briskly on crutches. (Both of Andy’s legs were prosthetics. I learned this when he face planted beside me an hour or two earlier, and sent one hurtling across the checker-tiled floor. “I’m not gonna lie,” Andy slurred when I crouched down to help him, “I am totally, thoroughly smashed.” This is how we met.) At this point, Greg mused, the dead outnumbered the living: Their house was now teeming with ghosts. “These ghosts aren’t actually people, of course! They’re laundry lists of unfinished business and sentiments.” Amorphous gusts of orphaned intention; spikes of adrenaline with nowhere to run.

When Greg first introduced himself, he said he was an iceberg, 10% visible, 90% hidden. The 10% inquired about the textbook I had open, and tracked my explanation with a kind (if intense) stare. The 90% then processed, synthesized my answers: relating Schrödinger’s equation to the dead acupuncturist he communes with, Heisenberg Uncertainty to Matthew 10:29. “We’re all God’s little sparrows,” he added with a twinkle, “Or at least, so speaketh the iceberg.”

I did this quite often, engaging with strangers. My 10% would nod and give warm, knowing smiles, maintaining the cadence of reason even as the content turned strange. It saw this as a joke, a zany collection of stories. The 90%, though, felt a certain sad kinship; felt that this was what happened when the mind took the reins. Fragmentary arguments, insuppressible instincts, the gnawing urge to see beyond the spine of a textbook: “burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” The same ghosts that haunted them lay dormant in me, slowed but still wriggling, half hidden by fog. I let them stay hidden; I bid Greg and Andy goodnight; I took sips of the latte I chose to believe in and turned all I could steer of me back to the bustle.

Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson
You live in an unforgiving place

Song #91: Unmarked Grave

@sdavidmiller: Song #91 is "Unmarked Grave" by David Thomas Broughton. It's about a jam session, a walk around campus, and a last-minute midterm paper. This one is a bit more rough / experimental, inspired by the structure of the (truly gorgeous) song.

Artist: David Thomas Broughton
Date: June 17, 2020
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Like any good jam session, it came about organically. My roommate found the chord progression and I soon followed suit. It was a morbid song, really, but it was perfect in the moment: two acoustic guitars trading rhythm and lead, finding new variations on the same old sadness. It was a day for contemplation, for dawdling towards an ending; for a grief that could be quarantined, bounded by a tune. We drew the curtains on the sliding door to let the music fill us. Springtime on the balcony, winter in the room.

I paced the campus in December, my favorite time of year. All foot traffic vanishing, students holed up in the library, and me with no agenda, nothing left to do but wait. It was the good kind of melancholy, neither specific nor threatening: the sort I could get lost in as the somber melody played. Every tree around the Campanile reduced now to a skeleton; bay breeze creeping upwards in numb but pleasant gusts. The bell chimed, the real one, from the clock tower beside me. It chimed to the rhythm of the music.

It was shortly before sunrise and I was working on my midterm. The course was on Heidegger’s Being And Time, a book I’ve still never opened (though I somehow bagged an ‘A’). I’d attended a few lectures and thought I got the gist: form vs function, the question of Dasein, whether an object could truly be divorced of its use. I filled my living room white board with a scribbled outline of an essay, on Reinforcement Learning as validation of his views. Knowledge couldn’t be codified, you had to rederive it: find a purpose you can strive towards and meaning starts to bloom. I typed up my flimsy metaphor hours before the deadline, and I listened to the album on repeat.

It was a morbid project, really, reduced now to a skeleton. It came about organically and I thought I got the gist: two acoustic guitars trading rhythm and lead, form vs function, nothing left to do but wait. New variations on the same vanishing Being, and Time’s creeping sunrise a numb but pleasant rhythm. Every tree around the Campanile was perfect in this moment, a scribbled outline of an essay, bounded by a tune. Neither specific nor threatening, you had to rederive it: find a purpose you could get lost in, a winter in the bloom. The bell drew the flimsy curtains on the melody of Dasein, and I listened to an ending on repeat.

My body rots while she is weeping
And I remain forever sleeping
Rest my bones from the daily chores
Rest my bones forever more

Song #92: Where Are You Going

@sdavidmiller: Song #92 is "Where Are You Going" by Dave Matthews Band. It's about a year of firsts and a "mind-blowing" present.

Artist: Dave Matthews Band
Date: June 18, 2020
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“You’re never gonna guess it” he taunted after a few failed attempts. My roommate was right. We never did guess the surprise he’d been teasing, even with a full week of waiting for it to arrive on our doorstep. A mini fridge? A game console? Not even close. A movie? Sort of, he granted, but we had to think bigger. Think something so mind blowing, we didn’t even know that we wanted it. Something we maybe thought we specifically didn’t want, but needed just the same. I’m talking, of course, about a two DVD bundle of Dave Matthews Band concerts.

Don’t get the significance? Neither did I or my other two roommates, but it was cause for celebration nonetheless.

When I first moved to Berkeley, I was as green as they come. I didn’t play sports, didn’t attend any parties, and could count my tastes of alcohol on a single Simpsons hand: a sip of champagne on New Years, a half glass of white wine on a family trip to Rome, one bottle of Mike’s Hard split 5 or 6 ways, another one shared with Song 81’s stepdad. So moving into a dorm complex populated almost exclusively by athletes, it was a bit of a culture shock, all things considered. They seemed to share a common language I’d somehow never learned.

If my roommates noticed my discomfort, they were too magnanimous to tease me. Instead they took me under their worldly wings, shepherded me into my newfound independence. The day I arrived, after my clumsy hello, they sat me on the couch to watch ANIMAL HOUSE. I learned football from daily tutorials in Madden ‘07: I’d ask questions like “what’s a running back?” and they’d answer mid-trouncing. My first taste of beer was half a six-pack of Guinness, artisanally selected by the DMB fan. It was pricier than the standard fare (nitrogen widgets don’t grow on trees) but he “wanted [my] first to be special.” I drank it at my first party, which was held in our living room, where they looped me into conversations with all of their friends. (Elevator pitch: I could fix your computer.) And my first time smoking pot was there on that couch, via a Cool Blue Gatorade bottle with two holes cut out, inhaling through the wide mouth and exhaling out the window while Dave Matthews indulged in what I’m promised was a “jam.” I’m still not sure I got it, but I managed to enjoy it. They always made it easy to enjoy things.

Time has scattered us, as you’d probably expect. We were only together that one Freshman year. One lives in China now, playing professional basketball. Another just moved back to Berkeley and we still keep in touch, especially when music is involved—there’s a nonzero chance he’s reading this entry. The one who surprised us with the “mind-blowing” present now flies carrier-based aircraft, a bona fide pilot, making all those Top Gun screenings read less like a cliché and more like an on-the-nose prophecy. And me, I never lived up to my ΔΤΧ potential—coursework saw me skipping far more parties than I joined, and panic attacks would send me off the Gatorade for good. But I remember it all as a kindness, that initial choice to take me in. Greasy-haired, fidgeting, lightyears out of my element, staring at the floor as I tried to muster a “hello.” They taught me to look up.

Don’t hide away
Like an ocean
That you can’t see
But you can smell
And the sound of waves crash down

@sdavidmiller: Song #92 Bonus Materials: the end of an era

Song #93: Fake Empire

@sdavidmiller: Song #93 is "Fake Empire" by The National. It's about a night of being Mad Men, a flickering city, and my first time attending SIGGRAPH.

Artist: The National
Date: June 19, 2020
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Los Angeles at night is a genre unto itself: the brake lights' red glare, the eerie swaths of nothing, the way the moon and billboards mingle into something Lynchian, bizarre. It isn’t a city that never sleeps, but neither is it dead: It’s a city that’s restless, that tosses and turns, in a state of perpetual transit. Just after midnight there’s no foot traffic on Beverly, and what few bars are open seem decidedly sad. But the congestion, still blinking like the clock on a nightstand, insists that there’s somewhere worth heading.

It was August 2012 and I was in town for SIGGRAPH. An academic will know it as a prestigious conference, the top outlet for Computer Graphics research worldwide. The industry sees it as a tech exhibition, like CES without the Instagramming tourists or the weird murmurs of porn. To civilians it’s Comic-Con’s less sexy cousin, a spot where Marvel might drop a splashy new trailer. In truth, it’s the strangest combination of all of the above. Grad students craft short films to entice you to their workshops, Pixar presents formulas for rendering Princess Merida’s hair, and keynotes are given with the exact cadence and depth of a corporate motivational speech. You sneak out of a talk about Bayesian methods to see a panel discussion on THE AVENGERS. Disney premieres their new animated short, PAPERMAN, and it moves you inexplicably to tears. Later that night, the same company throws a raucous party that singlehandedly wipes out the next day’s 8am session.

As a grad student with zero life outside of campus, my shiny fellowship stipend felt like more than I could spend. So I ditched the party and hatched a plan: I would blow every penny on a night on the town. A “Mad Men outing” is what I pitched to my companion, a close friend who lived about an hour from the venue. She was, as always, all in. After getting into character at the Blue Plate Oysterette, we hit our real target: Mastro’s Steakhouse in Beverly Hills.

Meals, like music, are only meaningful in context, infused with the You that encounters them. In all likelihood, Mastro’s is merely an overpriced steakhouse, but at 23 it was hands down the best meal of my life: wagyu rare with lobster mashed potatoes, a bottle of something spicy and red for the table, creme brûlée to finish. Scotch, neat, the first I’d ever tasted (Highland Park 18, Dalwhinnie 15, both recommended by my dad after I texted him the menu). It was as much about the food as it was the fact of valet parking, the shimmering ambiance as we were guided up the stairwell, the way the waitress took our cue and spoke like a mischievous accomplice. It was the realization that Stevie Wonder was dining two tables to my right; it was the bill that cost half my paycheck, and the cavalier flick I gave of my credit card, like I hadn’t even noticed the total. It was the audacity that made the meal, the self-determination; racing headlong into impulse, carried by the wind.

We drove in a daze of wordless contentment to the hum of my curated playlist. It was a straight shot home from the restaurant, though I really shouldn’t have been driving. I remember how the city seemed almost to vibrate, as if flickering between two competing truths. A starving student or a Mad Man, a conference or commercial, an adulthood fully rendered or just a black-and-white facade. Hemorrhaging savings, half-asleep at the wheel, or wide awake and brimming with conviction.

Let’s not try to figure out everything at once
It’s hard to keep track of you falling through the sky
We’re half awake in a fake empire

@sdavidmiller: Song #93 Bonus Materials: my one picture from the trip (with two of my lab mates), and evidence shamelessly stolen from @paigealyn's Instagram

Song #94: Revelation Big Sur

@sdavidmiller: Song #94 is "Revelation Big Sur" by Red House Painters. It's about meeting up with my dad at a conference, uncertainty, and snaking up the coast towards an inevitable conclusion.

Artist: Red House Painters
Date: June 20, 2020
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A bottle of Pinot sat precariously in the crevice. It was technically illegal; we had to sneak it in. We were tucked into a little cove on Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, watching the sunset refract through a layer of fog. It was all part and parcel: The waves' meditative lapping, the faint squawking of seagulls, the wish that all this subtext would speak on my behalf. We weren’t really dating. I don’t know what we were.

I wasn’t in town to visit her, at least not officially. I had driven to Monterey to meet my dad at a conference, before snaking up the coast to Santa Cruz for a fellowship retreat. It was the summer between undergrad and grad school, and the season carried a feeling of flux. Caught somewhere between Berkeley and Stanford, juggling half-finished projects, crashing on couches. Straddling the line between youth and adulthood, clinking beers with my dad’s colleagues at the neighboring pub. Stuck in a gear between romance and friendship, fashioning overwrought Hallmark cards without any text. Who I wanted to be looming on the horizon, who I had been still clinging to fistfuls of sand. It was a weekend to linger, to not give it a name.

Time has a special way of mutating memory. Today my impression is of that namelessness, lingering, but in the moment I was blinded by specifics: nervousness at the retreat (would I be forced to go on stage?), concerns over grad school (had I chosen correctly?), grappling with our status (why didn’t it have a name?). All of it so precarious, on the cusp of toppling over.

Nine years later, this is what I remember. Chowder with my dad that first morning on the pier, how the fog-filtered sunrise became a Fauvist pastiche. The pride in his voice that night at The Crown and Anchor, when he bragged about grad school, when I fielded their questions. The realization that his coworkers were as idiosyncratic as mine—the diplomat, the nebbish one, the guy who chortled like a surfer. The tired revelation of adulthood as a continuum, distilled into middle-aged man saying “schwasted.” How you don’t actually “snake up the coast” when you head to Santa Cruz: Even the most scenic route heads inland eventually, passing through farmland and flower fields and strawberry stands by the road. Delicious if you give yourself permission to stop. You should give yourself permission. Not the “us” on that beach, but the “me,” why it mattered as I drove home seeking meaning in a classical guitar. How those grand gestures would snake up through years of uncertainty to find me down on one knee in a 6th floor apartment, bottle of Veuve on the table, flooded with sunset and roses, perpetually flustered but precisely on time.

Of this I’m certain

Song #95: They’ll Never Take The Good Years

@sdavidmiller: Song #95 is "They'll Never Take The Good Years" by William Fitzsimmons. It's about two conversations and a failed attempt at silence.

Artist: William Fitzsimmons
Date: June 21, 2020
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I resolved to make the drive in silence, and failed in 30 minute intervals. Sometimes I’d break it for a depressing song or two; sometimes for a monologue, spat out with glossolalic fervor. It was a hypothetical argument I was determined to win—pounding the steering wheel to underline my indignation, modulating my volume for dramatic effect. The weekend was supposed to be perfect. What happened? The awkward, dead-eyed dinner at the downtown sushi restaurant, the dreaded Talk that started the moment we left the building, the last-minute crashing on a friend’s couch, no questions. Now I was doing a reversal of yesterday’s drive: LA to Stanford, alone with my thoughts. They couldn’t sit still any longer.

It would take five full months before that gnawing impulse left me. This was the period of Song 14, of going to bed furious and waking up pathetic. It’s a profoundly ugly thing, to allow yourself to hate someone. It wriggles inside you, hollows you out, like a 25-foot tapeworm in a medical drama. A parasitic translucence, an overgrown hunger, a secret that makes you feel dirty. Forgiveness, when it came, hit with the force of revelation. I realized it didn’t need to be conditioned on her apology. It could be my own apology, for the way that I’d behaved. Our 20 minute Skype was as awkward as you’d imagine: a clumsy introduction (how’s the roommate? how’ve you been?); me choking back the tears as I apologized for my anger; her nodding acceptance, nothing more to say. Hang up, let it die.

After both conversations, I listened to the same sappy album: “The Sparrow And The Crow” by William Fitzsimmons. Driving up I-5 it was a source of vindication, lending nuance to my sadness, universalizing my pain. When I ended the Skype call, it was a tale of exorcism: This is the ugliness you harbored, this is how it left. Today, the album is a (mildly embarrassing) reminder of perspective. How colossal it felt as I waded through it; how tiny when viewed from a distance. At the time I thought the “good” years stood in contrast to something—the “bad” conversations, nights spent sobbing into a pillow. Now I see it all as goodness, wholly indivisible. The specific way her hands are fidgeting just before she says it; how I beat mine into the steering wheel with a desperate, hammy howl; the details I refine into a story of betrayal, how quickly the narrative wears thin; the frantic Google search for “breakup album” I make moments before my drive. How forgiveness is always received as an epiphany, no matter how mundane the anger that precedes it. How refreshing the cycle, how precious to live it, in a world where epiphanies are fleeting.

No, they’ll never take the good years
There are some that never burn

@sdavidmiller: After 3 full months of daily writing, my song project is winding to a close this week. Thanks to everyone who stuck it out! The next 3 entries are a meant to be read in order.

Song #96: A Complete List of Fears Ages 5-28 (Aprox)

@sdavidmiller: Song #96 is "A Complete List of Fears Ages 5-28 (Aprox)" by The Yellow Dress. It's about moving above a music venue, and an intimate show finding me at a vulnerable moment.

Artist: The Yellow Dress
Date: June 22, 2020
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Bass booming through the floorboards, pulling me downstairs. The doorman’s nod of recognition as he stamps my inner wrist. Dangled LEDs, a perennial Christmas. A bartender who is also the owner and my landlord, wordlessly readying a Guinness when she sees me getting stamped. My designated spot, way back and to the side. Right elbow on the counter, watching a band I’d never heard of. A yelping high school surfer group whose genre was listed on the calendar as “hyphy”; an emo trio from South East England with a mob of adoring teenage fans; a rip-roaring classic rock outfit clad in powdered wigs, pantaloons, and Colonial-era coats; a Chicago-based marching band with at least 25 members, complete with baton-twirling majorettes doing cartwheels on the bartop (one of whom either stole or kicked over my drink). Living above a music venue was wildly unpredictable. That could be a blessing or a curse, depending on perspective.

Tonight it was a blessing. It was early 2017 and I’d only recently moved upstairs. I was at that odd inflection point between morose and back-to-normal, when the pity party’s dwindling but you’re not quite ready to kick out the stragglers. Stuck in an emotional rut you find egregiously boring. You’re going to be fine whether you like it or not; might as well run out the clock with a beer and a tune.

I stopped by with a coworker to catch a local indie group—"indie pop lo-fi" was the specific designation. It was the sort of show where “intimate” doesn’t even scratch the surface. The lead singer had our audience form a semi-circle around him, no more than a dozen in total. Six bandmates played above him on the elevated stage: drums, a keyboard, two guitars, a sax and clarinet. My friend and I seemed to be the only people in the building who didn’t already know the lyrics. Not that that stopped us from loudly singing when the mic pointed in our direction.

The song was about anxiety, the things they’d always been afraid of.

Birds and heights and movie credits
Crowds and puppets, dying in a fire
Being washed right out to sea
Losing all of my front teeth

It felt like it was building to a punchline, but it wasn’t. The conviction in the singer’s voice, the driving rhythm just behind him, the semicircle-shouted ending: “Oh, but mainly losing you.” It was a ramshackle catharsis, and it hit my inflection point dead-center. Silliness and melancholy. A joy that sounds exhausted. Birds and heights and popcorn reading, panic attacks at a corporate retreat, an accidental “like” mid-Instagram stalking, waking up gasping for not-enough air. Being incapable of leaving my comfortable sadness. Being capable and scaring off whatever came next. Tonight, we would wait out the stragglers together.

Make of it what you will
Make of it what you will

Song #97: Read My Mind

@sdavidmiller: Song #97 is "Read My Mind", a David Bazan cover of a song by The Killers. It's about a summer trip to Jersey and a checklist.

Artist: David Bazan (a cover of a song by The Killers)
Date: June 23, 2020
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We touched down in Philly an hour past schedule, and by the time I pulled my Yaris out of the rental lot, it was well after sundown. Too late to ask them to come out to the city. Better to get settled in, find something closer to home. It was a 45 minute drive to Temple, New Jersey, where my cousin and her husband were putting me up for the weekend. Any dive worth its salt would still be serving dinner; no reason to complicate an uncomplicated trip.

I was in town to surprise both of my grandfathers: paternal for his 80th birthday in the morning, maternal on Sunday for a Father’s Day lunch. It was a slight variation on a familiar routine, one which early travel memories have rendered mythical, sacred. That sludgy gust of heat when the automatic glass doors first slide open, the interminable loop illuminated by a flood of yellow light. The way the scale of I-95 hits you like a freight train—billboards sporting Bible verses, enormous outdoor amphitheaters, signs for Wawa or Chickie’s & Pete’s a bit too on-the-nose. The green of it all when you cross the Delaware to Jersey, the depth of its color unlike anything back home. The background hum of chirps and buzzes when the key leaves the ignition; the flicker of a lightning bug, too faint to know for sure. The night air thick, its warm precipitation clinging to your socks. Give or take the number of stadiums and the seat from which I viewed them, not a lot had changed in 28 years. I was still blasting the A/C at 9:30 in the evening, reading every billboard, obsessing over dinner. I still carried that old fluttering excitement, the sense of having arrived from somewhere distant.

The fluttering, I admit, was peripheral to Jersey. This was a few months after yesterday’s concert, and I was firmly on the upswing. By now I’d kicked out the stragglers and resolved to say “yes” to any opportunity that presented itself. Yes to the last-minute four page editorial, to be printed in a magazine at the tail end of this trip. Yes to a weeklong visit to Maui, divesting myself of work stress for the first time in years. Yes to the invited keynote in Brussels—an elaborate corporate event involving literal pyrotechnics, an emcee from the Comedy Cellar, and the largest audience I’d faced by a factor of 10. My complete list of fears was now a roadmap, a dare. A paid speaking gig to combat my latent childhood stage fright; a nontechnical essay to force myself to write without a crutch. Smoking a little pot for the first time in a decade, belying a story I’d spun from a panic attack in undergrad and let calcify into a certainty—that my “equilibrium” was “too fragile,” that I dare not rock the boat. I rocked the boat in the sands of Wailea and nothing toppled over. I was tired of being afraid of myself, and tired of being alone: At friends' insistence, I ripped off the Band-Aid and made a profile on OkCupid. Soon I was scheduling dates that were unambiguously “dates,” like an actual adult, like you saw in the movies.

My summer trip to Jersey felt like a High School reunion, minus the thin pretense of humility. I wanted relatives to draw a line from A to B, to marvel at all that was rising. I was anxious to brag to the only people in the world for whom it was socially permitted. Stars blazed like a rebel asthmatic on 4/20 as I crossed the Walt Whitman bridge and bobbed my head to the synth, excited to down a couple beers and a comically large cheesesteak. To trade a few stories, be seen as an equal. To parcel out clues about my newfound single identity…and the reason it was very short-lived.

A southern drawl, a world unseen
A city wall and a trampoline

@sdavidmiller: Song #97 Bonus Materials: a vacation, a publication, a terrifying keynote, a Bazan concert that April which likely informed the song selection.
@sdavidmiller: Song #97 Bonus Bonus: psyching myself up minutes before going on stage in Brussels. I truly have no idea why I recorded this:

Song #98: Wagon Wheel

@sdavidmiller: Song #98 is the Darius Rucker rendition of "Wagon Wheel." It's about a late night dinner at a bar & grill in Jersey, a nervous first date, and keeping things casual.

Artist: Darius Rucker (a cover of a song by Bob Dylan via the Old Crow Medicine Show)
Date: June 24, 2020
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I slid my phone across the table to indulge my cousin with a photo. She studied it for a second, passed it to her husband, then looked back at me with a devilish grin. “She’s pretty!” she teased, prolonging the “etty,” and I buried my face in the menu, though I’d already ordered. Double cheeseburger with pork roll and bacon, curly fries with cheese sauce, a 22oz pour of some local New England IPA. We were definitely in Jersey. It was just before midnight at a bar off Route 206—either Vincentown or Tabernacle, depending on who you ask. (Five years earlier, I’d have counted myself lucky to find Sam Adams in this zip code. God bless the craft revolution.) After a glance at the stage and a performative sip, I launched back into my spiel. “I’m trying to stay cool, not rush into things, you know?”

We’d synced up on OkCupid during my weeklong trip to Maui, provoking in my host an identical “etty” and grin. After a few days of texting, we agreed to meet up in the city. This was the very first date I scheduled on the app; I deleted it the following week.

I showed up to Mikkeller a half hour early to A) save a table and B) psyche myself into it. “Keep it casual!” was the advice I’d been given by every encouraging friend. Yet in the last 16 years I had never even seen “casual,” much less experienced it directly. From Spin The Bottle onwards I was always at a 10, and now I was a bundle of nerves. She was running a little late after shopping with a friend; I was nursing beer number 2, eyes glued to the entrance.

Here is what I saw: a girl whose hair glinted auburn in the lamplight, a leopard print top with a dark splash of red. Panting like someone who just fast-walked in boots, eyes darting left and right, biting her lip as she texted. “Sorry, I’m here, where are you?”

Here is what I didn’t see: A one hour “quick drink” stretched to a four hour dinner, a rule that I could only take the check if I let her get the next one. A next one, two days later, at her new favorite spot downtown, followed by kitschy tiki cocktails and a walk that almost hit sunrise—Julie and Ethan, eat your heart out. A first kiss goodnight and a high-fiving Lyft driver, all other plans cancelled indefinitely. A vacation on the Big Island two months into dating: Four coworkers, their spouses, and us (“keep it casual”). New Years in Paris, 1st arrondissement, a hotel just three blocks from Notre-Dame. The month she’d spend on Duolingo preparing for the trip; the way she always said our room number in French (“vingt-cinq!”). Our overwater bungalow in Mo'orea on my birthday: Passing out for 15 hours after sprinting there from Cannes, being woken by a blinding, vivid blue. Toronto twice one winter for the friend who’d been visiting her that week, now the mother of my godson with a second on the way. The Taj Mahal, the Princess Cruise, having an “our spot” in Manhattan (The Marlton, Greenwich Village, gloriously retro). One funeral, four weddings, three family Christmases, one dog in a bow tie surrounded by 40+ balloons.

The Five Dollar Shakes returned to the stage and launched into a cover of “Wagon Wheel.” The song had recently been featured on the “Somewhat unembarrassing” playlist, curated by the “etty”-inducing woman in the photo. I recorded a snippet and sent it to Joanna, who responded with a cowgirl bitmoji. My cousin threw me another look. “Though honestly,” I granted, already veering off script, “I’m feeling pretty optimistic…”

@sdavidmiller: Song #98 Bonus Materials: the screenshot from the app I slid across the table, a "casual" trip to Hawaii, Paris, Mo'orea

Song #99: The Set Table

@sdavidmiller: Song #99 is "The Set Table" by Shearwater. It's about the end of a playlist.

Artist: Shearwater
Date: June 25, 2020
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The most fraught aspect of crafting a playlist is knowing how to end it. A good closer pulls double duty, summarizing all that came Before and hinting at an After. It can be exuberant or melancholy, but only to a point: Too bright and it makes the experience feel trifling; too heavy and it lands with a thud. It should serve as an offramp, a gentle easing out.

I have multiple memories I could have chosen for this song, and multiple playlists it concluded. “Alt folk or something” wandering Berkeley in December; “PD Required Listening” a visit from the desert; “Walking alone in a foreign country” from Beijing to Casablanca. But you’ve had enough travel porn and “revelatory” moments. Let’s skip to something current.

I was out for a walk shortly before sunset, donning a surgical mask and a CamelBak backpack. It would have been a run, but I’d recently busted my knee (by pushing it to 12 miles when my limit had been 8). Now walking was my only mode of transport. I’d taken San Jose to Arlington and cut across the Highland Ave bridge. It’s a place I’d passed through countless times, but I hadn’t really seen it. Today, there was no pace worth keeping; I allowed myself to stop. I looked down at the passing cars, reduced now to a trickle, and up towards the skyline, held at a beautiful remove. If not for the curfew, I might have stood there for a lifetime. I did, in a manner of speaking.

This project was occupying my thoughts. For 78 consecutive days, I’d followed a routine: Wake up before 7, make two shots of espresso, write a story, hit “post,” let the real day begin. It was a challenge that flitted between “therapeutic” and “exhausting,” and this week it was certainly the latter. Like everything I do, I’d eventually pushed beyond my limits: What started as a screenshot of a single, hurried paragraph, became two screenshots, four, a photo and a theme. The longer it went on, the more unwieldy it became. But the end was in sight, for better or worse. Phase 2 was already in motion.

My “DRAFT Songs and Memories” playlist had 150 entries, and I spent San Jose to Arlington hunting for a closing sequence. It finally took shape there on that bridge. A revelation, the good years that time refused to burn. A laundry list of fears felt on the cusp of something new. A teenage dream, a loaded gun, a wagon wheel, a glint of auburn—then? A muted meditation; a gorgeous, alien city. The push and pull of memory which, held too tightly, starts to crack. As the world resumes its spinning and we wade into a tentative new After, may the traffic underfoot not distort our sense of balance. May we take the time to walk instead of run.

So when you find these things that make you shine
Don’t let them too far outside of your life
But don’t try to hold them too hard inside your mind
When they slide

Song #100: 100 Years

@sdavidmiller: Because it doesn't seem right to end on anything remotely cool or subtle: Song #100 is "100 Years" by Five For Fighting. It's about 20 years of memories and 100 days of writing.

Artist: Five For Fighting
Date: June 26, 2020
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My playlist would conclude with a song that I loved. Balanced, understated, a graceful letting go. Or at least that’s how I imagined it 99 days ago, when I first conceived of this project. But in practice, none of this has been graceful or ideal. It’s been an archeological dig through my psyche: moments of doubt, of anxiety, of profound embarrassment. So subtlety be damned. Let’s pick up the shovels and go out in a blaze of 2000’s cheesy.

♪ I’m fourteen for a moment, hunched over the upright piano that still sits in my parents' living room, Yahoo! Music playing in a loop just beside me as I fumble through the chords of a brand new Five For Fighting single.

I’m eighteen for a moment, winding through the sand dunes that tower east of Brawley, delaying an inevitable conclusion.

I’m twenty-two for a moment, wandering the cobblestone alleys of Barcelona after midnight, taking in the whole wide world.

I’m twenty-six for a moment, hiking in darkness deep in the Arctic Circle then gobsmacked by a sudden band of light.

I’m thirty for a moment, down on one knee in our shared apartment, asking a question I’d dreamed of for decades.

I’m thirteen for a moment, dreaming as my bicycle coasts across town, filled to the brim with hypothetical love.

I’m seventeen for a moment, driving down I-5 after a quick tour of colleges, impatient for adulthood to arrive.

I’m twenty-one for a moment, putting the final touches on my first big presentation, Shanghai sunrise gleaming through the 54th floor lobby, flooding me with terror and resolve.

I’m twenty-five for a moment, only 19 stories up now in a San Francisco condo, working on a pitch deck for an as-yet nameless company.

I’m twenty-nine for a moment, slumped in the shower of a Caesars Palace hotel room, talking myself down from a panic attack.

I’m twelve for a moment, staring at the floor of Palomar’s urgent care waiting room, breathing in through the nose, out through the mouth.

I’m sixteen for a moment, listening to L perform her a cappella ballad, recalling hospital waiting rooms and berry body lotion, overcome with something like pride.

I’m twenty for a moment, studying in Caffe Med and foggy from the Lexapro, doing my best not to extrapolate.

I’m twenty-four for a moment, staring at the skyline of a city I finally call home, extrapolating wildly.

I’m twenty-eight for a moment, avoiding my cousin’s giggled glances as she hands me back my cellphone, realizing I will never “keep it casual.”

I’m fifteen for a moment, still avoiding glances as I snatch the printed sheet music, unwilling to elaborate on what exactly stains the mountaintops.

I’m nineteen for a moment, clinging to my headphones like a line in storm-tossed currents.

I’m twenty-three for a moment, trudging home in Tokyo, repenting to no one in particular.

I’m twenty-seven for a moment, frantically typing in a bar in Bangkok, drafting a fictional story with the cadence of a memory and finding catharsis in the act.

♪ I’m thirty-one for a moment, sitting at the same desk I’ve sat for 100 consecutive mornings, putting the finishing touches on an overgrown project I’ve used to lend structure to a world I can’t control, glancing at the clock (15 minutes left to finish) then back towards the window, noting the gorgeous, distant skyline and the fog still rolling in, preparing for the earth to resume its manic spinning and cycle me with it through the same old epiphanies, like a protagonist in a sitcom running years past its prime, caught in a loop of perpetual relearning.

♪ I’m fourteen for a moment, singing wildly off key as I address all of me directly: “There’s still time for you.”

@sdavidmiller: THE END

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