For most of these entries, I’ve tried to tease out an emotional throughline—some sense in which the memory means what the song is about. Many were drawn when the memory occurred: a lover of lyrics, I’d often find myself reaching for the perfect song to express a given mood. Others are constructed in post: mini creative exercises tinted with hindsight, aided by some happy lyrical fluke. Today’s is neither of those things. It’s an intense connection I made immediately, and I don’t have a clue what it means.
It was early 2018 and I was in Tokyo for business. I could easily spend a full week of this project with memories of Tokyo alone, each representing its own separate trip. There’s just something about that city that demands a soundtrack: the blur of lights seen from a late night metro, the way you rise into each neighborhood filled with some distinct, specific vibe. (NYC is the only place that comes close, and in New York I’m rarely alone with headphones.)
I was sitting in a cafe during a lull between meetings, waiting for my third or fourth cappuccino of the day. I was listening to the same thing I’d been stuck on for the duration of the trip: Phoebe Bridgers' debut album “Stranger in the Alps.” Today I’d put her squarely at “famous,” but in early 2018 I considered her a rare discovery, a lucky rec by a friend of a friend. She was the sort of fresh voice that made me genuinely excited; an artist I would evangelize to you given the tiniest conversational opening. I was on the track “Motion Sickness” when my order was called. I took out my headphones…and the song kept playing.
Whenever I try to tell this story, it falls flat. It was a Starbucks; it’s her most famous song; she wasn’t the “unknown” I’d thought her to be. I know all that, and yet: How can I describe the surreal mix of emotions that ran through my head as Phoebe continued singing at the precise section I’d left off? Implausible explanations raced through my head. Was my phone somehow connected to the overhead speaker? Was this some esoteric new feature they had rolled out to Japan, a tailor-made soundtrack that only I could hear? Was I really even hearing it, or was it a jet lag induced echo—the ghost of her voice ringing in my ears, pulsing through the aether on the other side of the world?
I grabbed my coffee, raced out the store, and the song just kept following; like some bizarre, cosmic flashmob with an entire multi-story mall in on the joke. Confusion led to momentary, sanity-questioning panic, followed by the dumbest grin. Whatever it was, I surrendered to it.
And I want to know what would happen
If I surrender to the sound
I remember the fall of 2016 as a blur of despairs personal and political melded into one. She moved out suddenly, just before the election; a long time coming, though I couldn’t see it at the time. What I saw instead was a world untethered, spiraling into chaos for reasons no one could explain. Things I’d once understood were suddenly littered with vacuums: one wrong turn and I might find myself in some contradictory memory, or infuriating broadcast, or a swarm of friends and pundits weaving half meanings from scratch. I couldn’t breathe inside all that nothing. The old panic attacks flared up from their semi-dormant state, and with no one there to quell them, they just hit and hit and hit. Sometimes they’d wake me up in the middle of the night, and I’d write tiny Brautigan-esque “poems” to exhume them.
The other night I rolled
onto your side of the bed
and a fire ghost
A change of scenery was clearly in order. I needed to get out of my head, to be surrounded by a present more substantial than the past. A coworker mentioned that an apartment above my favorite music venue had just opened up to rent, and I applied on the spot. I loved the idea of bass booming through the floorboards, of crowds lining past my door 6 or 7 evenings a week; of a second “home” downstairs that would always be full and open late, bustling with bartenders I would know by name and music to escape through. If I couldn’t out-think the nothing, I could at least drown it in sound. And it worked, more or less! The two year arrangement would have its drawbacks, and I couldn’t be happier with the condo Joanna and I now call home. But as an act of survival in those numb and blurry days, it was absolutely perfect.
I spent the weeks leading up to Christmas clearing out my old loft. There were boxes and boxes, of things that were mine, things that were hers, things that had been “ours” which would now be orphaned. I could tell you about photographs, birthday cards, souvenirs from trips—those obvious knickknacks you stumble on that fuel an entire breakup industry. But in truth, my sadness wasn’t that specific. I’m not even certain what it is that I grieved as I stared at this now-empty loft in this meaningless country. The passage of time? The gap between expected and actualized futures? The years I would re-render from a distant, skewed perspective; the happy details that exercise inevitably obscures? Maybe it was just the space that I was grieving, along with whatever incidental meaning had sunk in.
Know the things we need to say
Have been said already anyway
By parallelograms of light
On walls that we repainted white
There’s one more change I made when I moved into that noisy apartment from yesterday’s story: I seriously took up running. For years I’d done it once or twice a week, to clear my head or help me focus. But this time it was targeted, intense. I needed to empty every ounce of myself. For that first month I stuck to a strict, daily regimen. 3-5 miles every single day, regardless of sleep or sickness or schedule. Zero exceptions. I chased all-nighters with an espresso and a sprint; when I had international travel, I ran pre- and post- flight.
At first I ran out of desperation: Please, just let this work. By the time I’d landed in the Philippines some 3 weeks in, desperation had turned into conviction: It will work, you know this, keep moving. We’d booked a 48 hour layover on a business trip headed elsewhere, and despite many cancelled flights we managed to (barely) keep it. After a Bond movie’s worth of frantic drives and jet boat rides, we made it to Boracay well after midnight. We’d have to get moving by noon.
I remember sitting on that boat around 2am, smirking at the wake and the speed that sadness travels: How much faster could I possibly move to shake this cliché? It was there with me still, a residual haunting, but that smirk was my first hint that it would eventually deflate. If I could see it for what it was, it meant there was an offramp; a sorrow I could laugh at was a sorrow I could steer.
That next morning, as I ran along brilliant white sand beaches which didn’t give a damn what “made sense” or what I’d “lost,” I carried just a little extra hope. Timing my steps to the soundtrack of a film I’d rewatched and sobbed to on yesterday’s plane.
This is your life
You can go anywhere
You gotta grab the wheel and own it
And drive it like you stole it
By late high school, music was a major part of my identity. I loved it in its own right (as this project can attest), but I also loved being seen as the sort of person who would. I eschewed all manner of “mainstream pop”; I studied Pitchfork reviews like the Dead Sea Scrolls. I took pride in my refined, discerning taste, which more or less boiled down to “If it’s easy to like I probably don’t like it.”
In hindsight, I find that pretension almost painfully funny. First, because that “taste” I held in high regard was almost entirely cobbled from others: Half the songs on this very list I learned from my brother. He and our friends did the digging, I just shared in the reward. Second, because my inclinations were very pop in nature—provided the barest indie figleaf was attached. Unmuffle the microphone, lose a few “hyperliterary” lyrics, and those songs I felt so cool for loving were indistinguishable from the hits I claimed to hate.
If the signifiers were flimsy, the underlying passion was sincere. And for reasons I truly cannot recall, I refused to illegally download music. Maybe I knew it was more special that way; maybe I had a sense even then that “cool” was only a fleeting feeling, and that scarcity would help prolong the thrill. Regardless, physical disks were my only option. There was a great used record store out by the coast, and every other week we’d make the 30 mile trek. There might be dinner or a movie or an obligatory beach trip. But all of that was peripheral; the store was the event. It was intoxicating, digging for buried treasure: scanning every single semi-alphabetized shelf, small quantities of cash burning a hole in my pocket, hoping to discover my next obsession.
One band at the time, Voxtrot, had proven particularly elusive. They were critically beloved (at least, according to Pitchfork), but they’d never released a full-length album. Just a handful of EPs, which were packaged in thin vinyl sleeves rather than your typical jewel case, making them virtually impossible to clock at a glance. Your only real hope was to leaf through every single disk on the unordered Recent Used Arrivals shelf and pray you’d recognize the cover on sight.
Future generations might scoff as we recount this: how we not only paid for music we’d never before heard, but we fought tooth and nail for the luxury of doing so. Maybe scarcity was just a marketing ploy, or maybe they really were unknown. Either way, I’ll never forget the sense of accomplishment that Saturday when a glimmering sleeve caught my eye.
Is this the end or just the start
Of something really, really beautiful
Wrapped up and disguised as something really really ugly?
I listened to a lot of Christian music as a kid. With a few wholesome exceptions (musicals, Weird Al, radio-friendly subsets of classic rock), it’d be fairer to say that for the first 13 years of my life I only listened to Christian music. This wasn’t due to some Footloose-style decree against The Devil’s Music. As with many church kids, I think it happened organically. Everyone wants to listen to whatever the cool kids are into, and in youth group that meant DC Talk, Audio Adrenaline, Newsboys; music that spoke to us, that seemed to be about us. Throw in Sunday/Wednesday worship sets, summer camps that pack major coming-of-age milestones and G-D-Em-C progressions in a puberty-powered blender, and…well, it doesn’t take much sleuthing.
Volumes could be written about the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry’s shortcomings—there’s a reason it barely appears on this list. Still, there’s one facet of the genre I both admire and miss, and it’s something few others can fully embrace: earnest, relentless hope. Plenty of music is happy of course, but its subject is usually fleeting: a party, a trip, “this moment,” “tonight.” Hope, if it appears, implies some equal-and-opposite pain: darkness + dawn, lights + tunnels. Specific contexts might thrust hope upon us. But to hope broadly, continually, caveat-free…that’s a perpetual struggle, a chosen perspective. Unless you’re drawing from an eternal set of certainties. Then it’s just another Sunday.
For all the drawbacks of that certainty, I love the hope that it inspired. And I love the thousand mundane vulnerabilities it pried open in me: silent, shared prayers; taking notes on love and forgiveness in a folded paper outline; giving testimony to strangers and listening in turn; singing in a group as a matter of habit, without irony or mockery or at minimum four drinks. I look back on that sincerity, that proudly uncool joy, and I’m thankful for the good bits I’ve managed to salvage, the good that continues in so many I love. The five of us packed in a van winding up to Family Camp, bouncing to the Caedmon’s Call CD my dad bought for my 13th; old friends who still make a point of keeping in touch, who ask how I’m doing and care when I answer; my great aunt, her memory fading, who gives the warmest smile with every re-introduction, who leaves assisted living once a week to join my parents' service; all of them inside today, no longer allowed to leave, tuning in remotely after a decades long streak. Their gathering won’t be face-to-face, but the spirit will be the same:
One day I’m gonna dance right out of here
I can’t say I had much of the prototypical “college experience,” but the closest I came was Sophomore year. I was sharing a crummy apartment with my two best friends who’d moved up from San Diego. None of us were “free” per se, but you couldn’t call us busy: They were commuting to a local junior college, I was skating through two relatively easy semesters at Cal. Freshman year had been defined by imposter syndrome—a fear that I couldn’t keep up with the daunting EECS course load—and Junior and Senior years would be consumed by extracurricular research so heavy it’d render coursework a nagging afterthought. Sophomore was the one year of my life that was truly, completely relaxed. I knew I could survive it without breaking my back, and I didn’t yet aim for anything higher than survival. We filled our days with ironic TV viewing, elaborate inside jokes, drives to visit friends at nearby colleges, and, of course, whatever parties we could swing. (Not coincidentally, this is also the year that broke my 4.0.)
Is there anything more exciting at 19, or more depressing at 22, than what we used to call a “party?” I’ll set the scene. A condo or frat house packed wall to wall with hormones. Counters overflowing with Captain Morgan and Malibu and Bacardi 151. 24 packs of Natty Ice strewn in every corner of the room. A keg of Bud for the really classy affairs. Everything humid and sticky and thick, shoes clinging to the floor with each wobbly step. One or two couches for a lucky few squatters, the rest of us standing in circles, screaming. Or chugging. Or passing a bong among a dozen or so strangers (a nightmarish picture in this post-outbreak world). Pretending to love songs we actually hated, whose lyrics carried all the depth and present-tense nuance of the Cha Cha Slide: “Crack a bottle, let your body waddle,” “Red solo cup, let’s have a party,” or (the one that truly shred my soul) “I love college, I love drinking, I love women, I love college.” Volume cranked high so we’d strain our voices higher, to make vapid conversation we’d already forgotten in a desperate attempt to slow the room’s spin.
This song is for the After. That moment around 4am when the crowd has dispersed and the playlist’s tapped out and the spinning has flung you to whatever surface you could claim. Blinding overhead lights, no pillow or blanket, floor littered with solo cups and pizza boxes and puddles; above it a bouncing “Sony” screensaver with no remote in sight. Faint murmurs of conversation in every direction. The occasional escaped “WOO!” from a rager down the block.
I remember sharing a sectional with 2 or 3 others, contorting my body around the crook of the L, expending all of my energy trying to right the storm-tossed ship. I would fish the iPod out of my pocket by its still-connected earphones, focus on a fixed point on the horizon, and listen to this instrumental album on repeat—its swirling arpeggios, drifting in and out of silence, telling a story no less present than the anthems from before.
The first time I visited San Francisco, I was infatuated. It would be decades before I’d know it well enough to love its particulars, but the idea of San Francisco took me in at first sight. To a child of suburbia, it was the biggest thing imaginable: the skyscrapers of FiDi, the street musicians on Market, the bustling slopes of Chinatown, the tram no local would ever actually take to that crowded, windy Pier. It was, to me then, a sort of Platonic Ideal—of City, of Culture, of what adulthood had in store.
I’ve since spent 7 years orbiting the city’s periphery, and another 6 more living in the heart of it. I know it so much better than I did as a kid, overwhelmed by fizzy imprints of cablecar and skyline. But I do still carry a hint of his wonder, at the scale of certain buildings, at the reality of calling it “home.” In the daily tedium it’s easy to forget it; to cling too tightly to your neighborhood, to pace the same 20 block loops. Some nights, though, when I break that cycle, it all comes tumbling out. The vibrancy, the bigness, the way its disparate pieces fit.
Whatever this song originally meant, today it means Joanna. It’s lodged into a memory I can barely place, or maybe in the sum of a dozen. We’re heading to a dinner, a movie, a show, a comedy club, a Christmas party, an after-work drink—it doesn’t really matter where it is that we’re headed so much as the intention, the habit of the thing. It’s the outbound motion from Home to Somewhere and the reversal it implies. By Lyft or by BART or on foot if there’s time, passing scenery I gawked at at 7 years old which is now, in a tiny sense, ours.
What a gift it is to be familiar with these places; to cultivate affection in its minutia against the backdrop of its scale. This corner store, that row of restaurants, the street we walked an 8 mile stretch of just to find out where it ended. To know its component parts so intimately and still have the wind knocked out of you when you take it in at once. Abstract and particular, infatuation and love.
We’re going downtown
In December 2012, I was at the tail end of my very first trip to Japan. The startup I’d come to consult for was a “startup” in the purest sense of the word: five of us pulling 10am-3am shifts and 7 day weeks in a cramped office lit by a yellow fluorescent glare. To this day, I look back at those 2 months as the most extended period of intense focus of my life.
My flight out was in under a week, and I still hadn’t taken one full day off work. Which isn’t to say I hadn’t explored. Tokyo being Tokyo, every dinner was transformed into its own mini-vacation. I’d even managed to squeeze in some sightseeing with a wonderful local, a friend of a friend. Just bookended always by that one fluorescent room.
Resolved to see something before leaving for Christmas, I asked a colleague to make arrangements for Kyoto. All in, the trip would be just over 24 hours: take the Shinkansen at dawn, wander the city till nightfall, crash in the hotel, return before lunch. A veritable blitz as far as tourism is concerned, and yet following that work schedule it felt unbelievably relaxing. Those 24 hours stretch on for weeks in my mind.
I arrived in Kyoto Station without an inkling of a plan and, unlike Tokyo, virtually nothing was written in a Latin script. But my hotspot was working, and so (barely) was Google. I saw a picture of a shrine advertised in the station, and hopped on the first bus with kanji that seemed to match.
So many sights and sounds come flooding back to me. The Golden Pavilion, Ryōan-ji temple. Lighting a candle for Newtown after the news had poured in, wondering if the gesture was appropriating or profound. My first yakisoba, piping hot off the griddle. Taking a tram to Arashiyama, finding a park filled with monkeys, perusing a market as the sun began to set. Siphon coffee in a shop filled with smoke. The briefest glimpse of a Geisha as I set out for dinner. The restaurant I stumbled in, whose name I will never know: Glowing red lantern above an unassuming curtain; no English menu but a patient, kind chef; one of the best meals of my life, eaten at the counter. The hotel onsen with my awkward American disrobing. The sleep that ensued with the real velocity of “falling.”
I listened to this song while crossing a bridge in Arashiyama, and have returned to it on countless travels since. It sounds, to me, the way wandering feels: propulsive, cleansing, free.
There are places we must go to
To bring these hollow words on back from
You must cross a muddy river
Where love turns to love turns to fear
The love of travel is a bit like infatuation, or grief, or a fear of public speaking. It never really goes away, only deepens, settles in. Reading yesterday’s story, I’m reminded of the newness that imbued so much of my early twenties, and the outsized weight that newness now carries in my mind.
In working out this project, I often find myself forgetting details after about age 24. Years blur together. Chronologies cease to match. Entire seasons evaporate entirely. Yet I remember every minute of that first Japan trip: the taste of the yakisoba, the flicker of a candle, the precise podcast I listened to as I walked between shrines. I remember it with an intentionality that could only have been designed in present tense. The me that wandered played cinematographer, editor, and actor in one; he saw the world as raw material for a memory he’d craft in post.
What replaces that newness is a somber contentedness, an intense desire not to craft. When I land in Narita or Haneda now, I no longer feel that heart palpitation, that rush to take it all in. I feel fondness, recognition, and a smiling melancholy. It’s as if past and present were perpetually colliding. As if everywhere on earth were both too distant and too near.
Five years after my initial visit, I was back in Tokyo. A 7th trip by my count, though the details start to bleed. It was winter, and brisk, and I was floating in the distinct calm that comes just after jetlag. This memory is cast in the loveliest gray. I had finished my breakfast meeting, and had about 6 hours to kill before heading to Haneda. In the old days that would have meant racing for something—some hallowed food or beverage or previously-unseen view. Today there was nothing to race for. The view was everywhere.
I grabbed a cup of coffee from a shop in Harajuku, and made my routine pre-flight trek into Yoyogi Park. It’s a beautiful public space, some hundred acres in size, and in spring it would be crowded with families. The winter was quiet, but not exactly dead: couples on benches, the occasional jogger. Cherry blossom season was not yet upon us, but you saw its potential in the muted greens and browns. I can’t explain it any better than that—even in barren trees and patches of dirt, you felt a sort of preemptive color, a future peeking through the past. It remains one of my favorite places on earth.
I walked along a dirt road that circumnavigates a lake, my footsteps slowed to the rhythm of my soundtrack—a song about aimlessness, stretching out time, with a bleakness that feels like the potentiality of joy.
Went out for the weekend, it lasted forever
I’ll lose the preamble and cut to the chase: This is the story of the worst date of my life. I’m not even positive what we had was a date, but if it quacks like a duck…well, it was certainly something.
It was the week before finals in my senior year at Cal. I had a huge crush on a girl who went to school two hours north. Song 18’s clunky AIM Romeo had come back in full force: We were friends who texted daily for the better part of a year; our infrequent meetups were filled with strained bouts of silence; she was single and I was lonely but never dared broach the subject. We were stuck in a limbo of my own design, wherein everything was romantically fraught and plausibly deniable. In short, it was my fault and awkward as hell.
We were texting about study schedules and the tedium of being “responsible,” when I worked up the nerve. I shot my shot: Responsibility be damned! We were young; it was Saturday! She should drive down and visit, spend an evening in The City and head back after brunch. Amazingly, she agreed. She’d hit the road soon and be down by 7; dinner and drinks were on me, the DD.
The problems began immediately. First, my engine wouldn’t start. A glitchy hazard switch had run the battery dry. After two hours of failed charging and jumping attempts, she offered to let me drive her SUV. We headed for Nob Hill to hit “The Coolest Bar In Town"…where I circled for ages in search of an SUV-sized spot, hitting every bump and pothole along the way. We walked some 15 blocks up a hill that was deadly for heels; when we finally arrived, the bar had closed early. We trudged through the Tenderloin in search of "The Coolest Restaurant In Town”; nothing jumped out at us, coolest or otherwise. Demoralized, she suggested we head back to Berkeley, where I knew the night life better (in hindsight, a generous way of acknowledging what I didn’t know here). I agreed, and got lost four or five times en route to the bridge. By then it was well past midnight, and everything near my apartment would be closed. “What about Denny’s?” I resignedly suggested, beckoning to the sign just off the Emeryville exit. “Sure, whatever.”
We sat down and ordered, and I excused myself to the bathroom, where I immediately and loudly vomited. I returned with no appetite; she had strangely lost hers. Ever the gentleman, I picked up the tab. We went back to my place and watched a perfunctory hour of TV, sitting in tense silence while I debated holding her hand. I made the move, and she even held back, but it felt entirely unnatural: misshapen, begrudging, a desperate sort of clutch. I let go soon after and we never spoke of it again. She slept on the couch. By morning she was gone
I was gutted. I felt terrible. And I responded the only way I knew—with a massive overcorrection. That afternoon, I went for one last wild gesture, throwing together a “study package” of snacks and wine and music, and making the 2 hour drive north to deliver it by hand. As I drove up the 80 wondering what the hell I was thinking—Would this seem sweet or overbearing? Would she even open the door?—I blasted Frightened Rabbit and sang at the top of my lungs:
Is that you in front of me
Coming back for even more of exactly the same
Are you a masochist
To love a modern leper on his last leg?
“You look like Jesus, you know that?” That was the first thing she said to me as we waited in line at the rooftop bar of the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore. I was sleep deprived, 21 years old, juggling my first ever international conference with grad school apps and winter finals…and, yes, I knew exactly how I looked. I upgraded my order from one $20 Heineken to two, and began a conversation that would extend long into the night.
Her name was Katherine, spelling unknown, about my age and hailing from London. She was halfway through a 2 year stay, studying hotel management and working a gig as a concierge. We spoke for three or four hours, though I haven’t the faintest idea about what. Here is what I do remember: an infinity pool giving way to a jaw-dropping skyline, a dozen variations on the sentiment “I never thought I’d be standing here, on the other side of the world,” traded contact info, an offer of dinner (BBQ Stingray, whose virtues she’d extolled), posing for an impromptu photo, the phrase “Orchard Hotel” or possibly “Orchid Hotel,” and an abrupt, final exit.
When I woke the next morning, there was no new contact in my phone, nor was there any sort of napkin-pencilled address. All I had was the name “Katherine,” spelling unknown, a nonspecific dinner plan, and 20 hours till my flight. I searched Facebook for every possible variation: “Cathy Singapore London,” “Kathryn England Singapore hotel,” and so on. No dice.
It was my lone day to explore, and I knew it was silly. Surely sightseeing was more productive than hunting for a needle in a 5+ million person haystack. Then again, which would be the better story in the long run? “I gave up, explored, and ate dinner in silence”? Or “I rolled my wheely bag through the rain for hours, into the lobby of every Orchard-or-Orchid-related hotel in the city, and just as the small, still voice in my heart told me it was time, I spotted her.” I was 21 years old. The decision had already been made.
Everything happened according to plan—the wheely bag, the rain, the dozen hotel lobbies. Everything, of course, except for the ending. I never did find Katherine [sic?] at the Orchard [sic?] hotel, and when that small, still voice called it I begrudgingly agreed. Time of death: 20:30 SGT. Cause: statistics and Singapore’s propensity for orchids.
As I trudged to the market to order BBQ Stingray for one, I took in the flicker of passing headlights and listened to the song that would become synonymous with the trip, its shimmering guitar line a shorthand for every high and low I had rolled through.
Another one of those times
When I blanket stare
On the night I moved to San Francisco proper, I left my cardboard-packed studio and went for a walk. That first apartment sat at a dead end at the top of Potrero Hill, and behind that dead end was a park. With a 90 second hike up the grass, you could see it all. To the east, the Bay with its ferry boats and barges and reflection of stars; the cranes of Oakland behind it that look exactly like AT-AT Walkers, apocryphal inspiration or no; the barest hint of the Berkeley campanile, or at least where I imagined it to be. To the north that shimmering skyline, Song 27’s Downtown; the promise of everything my move entailed, of what I might one day see as familiar, mine. To the west, Twin Peaks; the unexplored terrain; the parts of the city I couldn’t name, what I hoped to eventually discover (and where I presently sit). To the north, a tennis court and another, taller hill. (You can’t ever really see it all.)
I stood in that spot for a very long time, shivering at the bay breeze and the falling of not-quite rain. It was late and it was March and my Sperrys were soaked in mud, but I couldn’t look away and risk losing that view. Like Simba being hoisted above his kingdom’s great expanse, I wanted to inspect it, take every angle in. That familiar jolt returned to me, the thrill of an airport runway—but I wasn’t going anywhere. I was static; I was home. A traveler in his own neighborhood, perpetually amazed. I hoped it would be perpetual.
I know I end a lot of stories with this phrase, but I truly did listen to this song on repeat, with all its SF specificity about ferry boats and barges. As Kozelek wove between tragedy and wonder, between a lifetime of hardness and a daily, conscious awe, I thought back to all the places I’d been, the feelings I’d strained so hard to capture. I think back to them now, too, as I construct this list: the awkward self-consciousness, the desperate romantic impulses, the idealism I so often wielded as a double-edged sword. Whether I can really see that campanile or it’s a memory of my invention, I see clearly what it represents: Point A to Point B. And I’m thankful for all of these distant signposts, visions of the past in the present horizon, scattered glimpses of who I’ve been and would eventually become. Hints of where, too, and with whom I might share it.
And in the midst of all the agonies and all the hardness I felt
Somehow the wonder of life always prevails
And in the midst of all the awkwardness and all my growing pains
Somehow the wonder of life always remains
It was summer of 2007, shortly after the road trip. I was spending a week in Sea Isle City, at the southern edge of the Jersey Shore. My parents were both born in Jersey, and most relatives live there still. Growing up, we’d take a trip “back east” at least once a year. I have a lot of nostalgic memories of the state (let me reiterate, The Boss will show up on this list). But this particular memory is less about “where” and more about “when.” Fall semester was starting at the end of the month. In a week or two I’d be packing bags for Berkeley.
I can’t say I was entirely sad to be leaving: The budding “traveller” in me was thrilled at the universe of possibilities that would soon open up. I imagined chilly weather and sweaters and books devoured in clinking coffee shops; arguments about philosophy spanning late into the night; concerts in the city, study sessions in Golden Gate Park, weekly trips to Pier 39 to eat chowder in bread bowls. (It pains me to tell you, dear reader, that only some of these predictions came to pass.) I was excited for whomever I was about to become. Even here in Jersey, I couldn’t help but take my shiny new College Self out for a spin. I remember trying out jokes on cousins, making small talk with aunts, playing poker at the “adult” table while the “kids” hit the beach—testing out a maturity I’d never before considered. It didn’t handle quite right, yet, but it did feel good to try.
I was also trying out loneliness: a deeper kind, maybe for the very first time. My whole life I’d been surrounded by a consistent set of friends. A few would join in High School (especially The Girls™), but by 5th grade The Best Friends were mostly set in stone. My life was a collection of after-school hangouts; I rarely went a day without seeing them, let alone a week. What could it possibly mean to leave them behind? Here in Jersey, too, I tested those waters: pacing the beach alone, meandering into town, holing up for hours listening to my newest road-trip-record-store finds.
This Shearwater song, in particular, refused to let me go. I couldn’t relate to the details—friends coupling up, starting families—but I was filled with the same sense that the Old Days had seen their end. It was that blend of mournfulness and hope I’d learn to love so well: The world is changing, and you will be lonely, but that loneliness is good. It’s exactly where it needs to be.
There’s not a soul down on the corner
And that’s a pretty certain sign
That I shouldn’t try to play the reformer
Picking up pieces of that old gang of mine
We all raised our glasses to the bride and bawling groom. I passed the mic, took another nervous gulp of beer, and sat down. It was over. Thank God.
I was in Santa Barbara for an old friend’s wedding, and this moment at the podium had consumed the whole trip. At this point I was mildly over my fear of public speaking (see Song 9), but my newfound confidence was built solely on crutches: technical topic, video-heavy slides. To stand for 6 minutes, PowerPoint free, and talk about love to an audience composed almost entirely of strangers…It was terrifying. So, veteran procrastinator that I am, I put it off as long as possible. It wasn’t until the prior day’s drive down from Stanford that I’d resolved to “write” a word, via five hours of repetitive verbal drafting on Highway 101.
Hurtling down the freeway, I tried to talk it through. The groom was a magnanimous goofball and a bit of a dork, with laser-focused passions about which he could (literally) write novels. He loved deeply, to be sure, but also loudly and intensely, and that could easily alienate depending on your mood. He was a real character. Yet here he was, the first in our group to get married. To a bride who was nothing like him in many respects. But it worked beautifully, upon reflection. She encouraged him and tempered him in equal measure; when she laughed “annoyedly,” it was a full belly laugh. It finally hit me, that lucky bastard. He had found the real deal, while I was still flailing. No, “flailing” was self-centered—no one gave a damn about my breakup. Searching. While I was still searching.
So I said all that, the toast went fine, and soon we were out on the courtyard. I was slumped against a wall with the groom’s stepfather, all loose collars and cigar smoke, like husbands in a 1940’s delivery room. Those nervous pre-speech gulps were finally sinking in, my buzz mingling with the survival high and golden hour sun. The emcee gave the signal for the mother/son dance, and prerecorded cheers greeted them as they stepped out to the floor. Tom Petty started singing; the world got still. Mom clutched Son’s hand tight as she mouthed along with the words, and I felt I saw their history all splayed out: rock-a-bye babies, dabs of Neosporin on wounds, words of comfort as balm against a middle school bully; the divorce, the remarriage, the lashing-out, the strain; the urge to shield something delicate under her wing.
They were both tearing up; I was full-on sobbing. He had cracked the code, and it had nothing to do with my “flailing.” It was about self-love, acceptance, and letting time do the rest.
So I’ve started out for God knows where
I guess I’ll know when I get there
A year later I gave a very different sort of wedding speech. Same race to the venue, same pre-speaking jitters. But this time I was in a castle on Lake Constance, wearing a suit twice my size, officiating a trilingual ceremony.
Okay, so “trilingual” is a bit of a stretch. Her family is Taiwanese, his is Swiss. The proceedings were in English, with 30 second intros in Mandarin and German which I’d spent much of the flight phonetically memorizing. Da jia hao, wo shi Stephen; jing tian je chang…Hallo, mein Name ist Stephen, und ich bin der Pfarrer…
My relaxing travel plans—land in Zurich Saturday a.m. for a Sunday p.m. reception—had been foiled by delays and cancellations. The best man and I landed hours before the event, bleary-eyed and caffeinated. My lost suitcase would spend the next week chasing me through Western Europe. But no suit, no problem! The gargantuan father of the groom had a spare.
Before we left the states, the happy couple shared a rough outline with me. In it was a section titled “Stephen talks about love — 5 minutes.” It was meant to be filled in collaboratively. But here I was, rehearsing a nonreligious sermon neither bride nor groom had vetted, which I’d cobbled together over the last 48 sleepless hours. It was a mashup of 1 Corinthians 13 (“love is…”) with a bit of Wallace’s “This Is Water.” Love is incredible; love is dramatic; love is the easy part. What this ceremony recognizes is much trickier than love. It’s a conscious decision to co-identify, to be made vulnerable as one. To share in the mundane along with the drama—sicknesses and health, sure, but also mind-numbing boredom and hellish evenings at the supermarket and irritable mornings where neither wants to talk. Their love was self-evident, but this choice was profound and, yes, sacred, however you pray. We were gathered in a castle from every corner of the world, rising to the sacred, silly immensity of that understated choice.
That night, the best man and I had secondary duties: He was the DJ, I was his hype man. At the beginning of the night there were two distinct factions. There were the attendees, sitting around their dinner tables, staring. And there were us—the groom, the bride, the best man, der Pfarrer—performatively dancing. This song was one of the first in the playlist. I remember dropping to my knees whenever Houston hit the “heat,” my enormous pants ballooning like a cartoon drunk. Making a fool of myself for the bride and groom, and their choice to make love last beyond its natural burn.
Yeah, I wanna dance with somebody
With somebody who loves me
In December 2018, Joanna and I visited India for the first time. We were attending a coworker’s wedding in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, about an hour’s drive inland from the Bay of Bengal. We were both new to the country, and had booked a sizable buffer before the festivities—sizable enough, luckily, to barely absorb yet another 24+ hour delay. (If you haven’t picked up on this, I am famously unlucky with flights.) The next week would be a frenzy of sightseeing: two nights each in Kolkata, Agra, and Delhi, then on to an NYC intermission, Carolina Christmas, and San Diego New Year. But all that came later. The wedding was the main, and most memorable, event.
An Indian wedding is truly like nothing else, and having been invited to share in one ranks among the great privileges of my life. The events stretch on for multiple days, and the logistics remain, to this day, bewildering: a lovely low-key Mehendi followed by a roaring Sangeet; a morning Haldi ushering in a late afternoon march-parade-dance-off (Baraat), collapsing into a feast and ceremony which extend nearly to dawn. What struck me most was the gorgeous tension at the heart of it all, between performance and authenticity, ritual and raw expression. Everyone is exhausted and carrying permanent smiles; the bride changes costumes more often than Lady Gaga on tour. And yet, it is so overflowing with emotion, so earnest and vulnerable: crying parents, singing siblings, dances and speeches and an abundance of heart. Evoking neither the casual ease of contemporary American weddings nor the rigid confinement of solely religious affairs, it is somehow theatrical and communal and personal at once: Two families staring down the barrel of a logistical nightmare and saying “For love, absolutely, backwards and in heels.”
The Friday night Sangeet was a time for performance, and both the bride and groom’s friends were rehearsing their routines. Of the thousand or so attendees, Joanna and I were the only pair with no ties to India; we were fish out of water, and everyone knew it. So when the couple asked us to participate in a choreographed dance, we were simultaneously nervous and thrilled—nervous of being the American laughing stocks, thrilled at the opportunity to be laughed at for this. I had about an hour to rehearse mine before the festivities began, and I’ll never forget the mistakes that accompanied every eventual step. That moment on the stage felt like a microcosm of the whole thing: free-flowing and restrained, silly and sincere, the element of performance not a barrier but a gift. Take this, all of it, my self-awareness included. Let it all bleed together in this mystery of love.
7 months later I was headed back to India, this time for a schedule with absolutely no buffer. I would depart for Bengaluru at 5am Monday, land 2am Wednesday and immediately prep for meetings, zip back Thursday evening for a funeral in North Carolina, before finally returning home late Sunday night. It was sure to be a whirlwind schedule—perhaps the most insane of my life. But all that would come later. Tonight was still Sunday, and I was in LA for a wedding.
My old advisor Pieter was finally getting married, and he couldn’t have found a more perfect match. It had been evident to everyone in the near-decade since they’d met: Liz and Pieter, Pieter and Liz. What started as a shadowy rumor in our 7th floor lab soon became a three-dimensional person we couldn’t imagine him without. Liz was then, and remains to this day, simply the best. The two are both goofy and serious, independent and inseparable, and the day’s festivities were a joyous sigh of relief. If they could find each other, there was hope for us all.
It was a night of things colliding: the rigor of academia with the looseness of a dance floor, wistful reminiscences with the stress of future flights, Sunday’s wedding with Saturday’s funeral, preemptive exhaustion with present tense ease. Joanna and I knew the alarm would be going off soon, but we resolved to spend this night ignoring its existence. We cheered, we drank, we traded stories with colleagues, we spoke for hours with an astronaut about the perils of space.
Everything felt vibrant, and extraordinary, and a little bit unreal: the tableau of Conference Buddies, the charisma of the bride, that we would all disperse by morning just as quickly as we came—some to journey to the other side of the world, others to leave its pull entirely. The adulthood we’d stumbled into via stochastic failures and successes, the impossible loves we’d discovered by mistake. We were explorers that night on a temporary reprieve, barreling from unknown to known before the morning’s reversal. My new favorite travel jam played through my head, as we danced through the thrill of an imminent liftoff.
I’m searching far and wide to find a planet to orbit
Far and wide, I wanna scan and explore it
Far and wide, you’re my new planet to orbit
So fire up the rockets
A couple years ago, I attended the Tribeca Film Festival in NYC for the full two weeks, working by day and watching movies at night. Joanna flew out to join me at the tail end of the fest, to celebrate our one year anniversary. We had limited free time and decided to split it evenly, to each plan half of a low-key celebration. Friday night would be my time, Saturday afternoon hers. With age, I’ve generally toned down on the grand, surprising gestures: More often than not, I’ve found the burden they put on the receiver is as high, if not higher, than whatever benefit they receive. Ted Mosby is sweet in the abstract, but he’d be exhausting to live with. Still, I’ve never quite lost that old itch for drama. Friday night in Manhattan was my time to scratch it.
We started the night with steak and cocktails at the Minetta Tavern—a bustling West Village gem that feels frozen in time. (I’d sampled their menu a week prior…solely for research purposes). We’d end the night only a block away at The Comedy Cellar, where Sam Morril was set to headline until Attell “surprised” with a last-minute drop-in. The hours in between contained the real mystery I’d been hiding for about two months: a just-close-your-eyes-and-rip-off-the-Band-Aid StubHub purchase for two box seats to see Hamilton on Broadway. Well, three, to be precise: As a quirk of ticket sale rules, we’d have the box to ourselves. (I seriously contemplated “losing” the spare ticket in front of her on the subway, then playing up my horror before revealing the third. If the joke seems cruel, know that it was borne of genuine terror. Those extravagant pieces of paper had been burning a hole in my wallet, and a fear that I’d misplaced them was a near-daily occurrence.)
In a rare twist for me, everything went according to plan. The cocktails were fantastic, the food was delicious, and she had absolutely no clue where we were headed till we were under the Richard Rodgers marquee. I had seen the show once before during its first SF run, but this second time around felt like an entirely new thing. With Burr and Reynolds a foregone conclusion, I could focus on the romanticism that undergirds the plot: Hamilton and Burr’s duet about their children, whose subtle sincerity moved me to tears; Eliza’s impossible forgiveness under the shadow of grief; the framing of life as a memory set to music, a story only love can pen. But the part that struck me most was the central romance at its core, and the elaborately choreographed routine that sets it in motion. As I sat beside Joanna, I tried not to mouth along with the words.
My life is going fine cause Eliza’s in it
I look into your eyes and the sky’s the limit
Down for the count and I’m drowning in ‘em
If you’ve been following this week, you may have noticed a theme. I wish I could tell you that I began with this plan—to chronicle the ups and downs of my life as a sort of thesis for why I ought to do what I did last night. But the truth is, I stumbled into it. As the days piled on, I slowly realized every memory could be cleanly split between “Before Joanna” and “After Joanna.” Before Joanna is all grand gestures and striving; those cinematic solo years when everything was set to an invisible score. I think I glorified these memories—the long walk through Singapore, the breakups that cut to the bone—because I believed them to be more substantial, somehow. Thought aching loneliness was more authentic than joy. Eventually, joy set me straight.
So 3 weeks ago, I penciled in a song entry for a memory that hadn’t happened yet; one that would also function as a speech. The song is by The Magnetic Fields, and it’s about the evening of April 25, 2020. I was 7 weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, and had been sheltering almost entirely in place. In those 46 days since a “bad cold” first made me cancel a business trip, I’d spent almost every waking moment within a 30 foot radius of Joanna. It was 3 years, almost to the hour, since the first time we’d met.
It didn’t make me realize that I loved her; I knew that already, and I knew the reasons why. But it did serve as a sort of reminder, or symbol of that love. It reinforced a certainty that I already possessed: That if we could survive 46 days of this, we could survive just about anything. That we knew how to comfort each other in times of need and give each other space in times of stress; that we could be partners in all of it—the good, the bad, the endless in between. After 46 days, it couldn’t have been more obvious what I needed to do. I needed to stop waiting for the “Right Moment,” and spend the rest of my life with this hard-working, intelligent, beautiful girl. I had nothing to be afraid of. It was only time.
So I tried to make one more ridiculous, grand gesture. It was a challenge, all things considered, involving multiple fake runs, a phony server outage in Korea, a day of “work” with a prerecorded conference call playing in a loop, and a last-minute request from a pregnant friend for Joanna to help run an errand. There were some 60 balloons filled with a bicycle pump from downstairs, Too Many Flowers delivered to a complicit neighbor, a bottle of champagne smuggled in under a coat, an order from a fancy steakhouse that inevitably went cold, 4 recording devices of which only 2 actually worked, a playlist that opened with a string quartet version of The Luckiest (Song 18) before flowing into this song. She walked in and the speech began.
I was nervous, and exhausted, and we were both too overwhelmed to pull off the rhythm. Still, I tried my best to time my words to the music. I told her that I loved her and apologized for the secrets, then I got down on one knee…but I didn’t have a ring. Thankfully, just as the song hit its bridge of “Marry Me,” my partner in crime—our neighbor’s eleven year old maltipoo, Louie—rushed in to join the proceedings. He was wearing my bowtie from Cannes, a Go Pro on his back, and had a little black pouch hanging from the ring of his collar. I pulled the ring out of the pouch, took her hand, and did what I’d been waiting to do for so long; what every memory had been converging to; what every song insisted.
She said yes.
It’s been a heavy week, for obvious reasons, so I hope everyone will forgive me if the next few entries are on the lighter side. In Song 25, I mentioned that the two major exceptions to my Christian-music-obsessed childhood were classic rock and musicals. Since I no longer have a reason to keep my themes secret, I’ll just come out and say it: This week is dedicated to those genres. Starting with what I humbly argue is the single greatest American musical—hell, it even has it in the title. I’m talking, of course, about The Music Man. (No, I have not watched it as an adult and can only imagine how “Madame Librarian” or “The Sadder But Wiser Girl” would play in 2020. Please, please do not make me to do this.)
Now, I am hardly an unbiased observer. My parents owned a copy of the ‘62 DaCosta film, and for a variety of reasons I will never fully understand, I became hopelessly obsessed with it. In sheer number of rewatches, it is rivaled only by The Lion King, Aladdin, and the 1998 direct-to-video rendition of Cats. (In hindsight, did I have some sort of Biff’s Almanac for musicals whose songbooks would be sacrificed to the altar of uncanny CG in 2019?)
Anyway, I took to this like a sponge takes to water, or like Voice #11 takes to raisins from Fresno. It is no exaggeration to say I had the whole thing memorized verbatim—to this day, I find myself breaking out in “Whaddya talk whaddya talk"s or "Ballllllzac"s due to triggers only my subconscious can parse. My love for this film/musical was both intense and long-lived. When I was younger, that love was wrapped up in Winthrop (Ron Howard), whose lisp and general shyness spoke to many of my greatest fears. As I grew older, it was Harold Hill (Robert Preston) and his jaunty, huckster charisma—how he seemed to read people in an instant, made every social space his own. You probably won’t be surprised to learn though, dear reader, that eventually the romance was what struck my sappy heart; that gorgeous one-two punch of Marian (Shirley Jones) ballads: yearning and contentment, hypothetical and actualized, "Goodnight My Someone” and “Till There Was You.”
There was love all around
But I never heard it singing
No, I never heard it at all
Till there was you