Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My class schedule for this semester

ECON 456 01 (11604) Private Equity Investing Michael Schmertzler M 1.30-3.20

ENGL 463 01(12033) WritingFantasy&ScienceFiction John Crowley M 1.30-3.20

F&ES 732 01 (11296) Tropical Forest Ecology Florencia Montagnini MW 1.00-2.20 GML

MGT 887 01 (10926) Negotiations:Beyond Win-Win Daylian Cain M 1.00-4.00 PR135

ART 230 01 (12334) Introductory Painting Robert Reed MWF 10.30-12.20

Oh, I forgot: I graduated. Shoot. We can dream, though, can't we?

Public transportation in Los Angeles

At 10 p.m. at the Coffee Bean in Orange, California (20 minutes away from Disneyland), there is exactly one public transportation option if you want to return to downtown Los Angeles: take the 50 Bus 21 stops to Katella-Clementine, right outside the Disneyland entrance; wait 3 hours and 10 minutes for the 460 Bus; ride the 460 bus 60 stops; then take the 28 Bus 51 stops. 5 hours and 46 minutes later, you'll have arrived.

Tonight, I attempted this ambitious (stupid) journey.

I had a literary-foreshadowing of the night to come when I stubbed my toe, hard, leaving the Coffee Bean. I ignored this God-given sign and paid $1.50 for the bus. In the middle of the trip, I jumped off abruptly: my bladder was about the burst. After I relieved myself at a Shell station (the Indian owner gave me a dirty look because I didn't buy anything) I waited 40 minutes for the next bus.

After paying another $1.50, I sat down. The next stop, a drunk biker wearing a Redskins cap sat down next to me. 

"Deported...deported...You should be deported. I'm an American. This is my country. You motherf***ing illegal immigrants," he said -- not to me -- but to two Latina ladies sitting across from us. One of them started blinking back tears. At the next stop, the bus driver walked off the train and arrived 15 minutes later with a police office. Redskins cap at that point realized the trouble he's in, and rode off into the night on his bike, completely drunk. After 7 more stops into increasingly less well-lit territory, I asked the driver if Clementine Street was coming up. He told me we passed it 7 stops ago.

I called Kevin (my savior tonight) and asked him to redirect me. He patiently broke down Google Map directions on the phone. I had a new route – and new hope. When I got off the 50 bus line, the bus driver's last words were, "Be sure you don't fall asleep around here." 

On the 94 bus, I told the driver I was going to Long Beach Boulevard to wait for the 2:54 a.m. bus. "Oh no no no. You can't wait two hours there," he said. Then he visibly shuddered. "Take a taxi. If you care about your life." At this point, I'm a little worried. Even if I do reach downtown LA, I would be in downtown LA. At 4 a.m. I called the cab company.

 "Hi, can I get a taxi to Ocean and Pine?"

"Are you calling from a business or a residence?" the operator asked.

"Um, I guess a residence? I'm on a bus right now."

"Do you have a location?"

"No, I'm on a bus."

"We can't pick you up unless you give us a physical address, sorry. Call us when you get there." Click.

Thankfully, when I got off, there were taxis parked one block away. I leaned into the window of the second one. "Hi, I'm going to Santa Monica. How much is it?"

"This is a guess, but $120. Tell you what, though, whatever the meter ends up at, I'll give you a 10% discount."

At this point, I see slightly menacing people walking on the other side of the street, and I think they’re looking at me. Then I realize that, also across the street – I shit you not – there is a restaurant whose name is Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery. (F & M bank – otherwise construed as Eff Me Bank, is also close.) I need to get out of here. "How much is it to Anaheim?"

"Probably around $60. But listen, I'll give you a good deal."

At this point, I weigh my options: either I pay $60 and wait 3 hours at the train station, pay $120 to get back to LA proper, or walk around on the streets thumbing my rosary beads. There's no placing a value on my life, but I can’t swallow paying $60 to go backwards. There has to be a better way. I see a hotel behind me.

The lobby of the Renaissance hotel is flanked by two imposing wooden beams gilded with silver. The rug (I learn later) has been stepped on by Adrian Brody, Bill Gates, Bill Gates' bomb-squad security, Goldie Hawn, Tito Lopez from UFC, and Tito's girlfriend, Jenna Jameson. I ask the concierge how much a night here is. It's $169. I ask if I can make a call in the lounge area. She tells me the lounge is off-limits.

She does, however, let me use the computer. Hotels.com -- apparently, I can book a $60 ticket somewhere close for tomorrow night, then show up tonight and say I made a mistake booking. I start looking. There are no $60 tickets. There are, however, $179 and $219 tickets. I call Kevin again. I think, briefly, about hiding in the hotel's parking structure until daybreak arrives.

It is then the security guard approaches me. This is it, I think. Back to the curb. "You can sit here in the lobby until 5 a.m., when the metro starts to run,” she says. “You don't look like a bum (and you seem nice), so you can stay here. I'll bring you tea, ok?"

God’s benevolent hand had reached out and brushed off my shoulders. Either that, or it’s my yellow shoes. I’m so glad I wore them for this trip. I proceed to stop looking up hotels and check my email.

From 1:20 a.m. to 5 a.m., I stave off my growing sleepiness by talking to the concierge. We cover how I can be a bit actor in a commercial, student film, TV show, or movie; why she dumped her "stupid-ass" girlfriend for being a hypocrite; her 70% discount at Marriotts around the country and how, after working 25 years, she can stay at any Marriott for free; and the floor plans for the Presidential suite.

In the gaudy, mismatched, expensive-furniture lobby, I write this entry. And check my email. Around 4 a.m., the concierge brings me Starbucks tea, a silver spoon, 4 honey containers and 4 sugar bags. 15 minutes later, the security guard brings me 2 croissants. Am I in heaven? At 5 a.m, I use the bathroom. The stalls are made of wood the color of stallions. The sinks are turquoise-cracked-blue. I run to the subway, where I buy a ticket. It’s $1.50.

During my multiple (what else) transfers, the Tandem Talent Production duo befriends me, gives me directions, and teaches me a thing or two about Santa Fe. On the Santa Monica 704 bus, there are 120 people, and 8 are not Latino. 

I arrive at 1901 Avenue of the Stars at 7:45 a.m., only 4 hours late.

Monday, August 29, 2011

My summer at a publishing company

Parts 1 and 2. Part 3 to come.

When I arrived at Abrams publishing company, I was led not to my desk, but to a 5-foot tall roll of bubble wrap.

“Take this 6-foot Wimpy Kid snow globe and make it snug,” Jason, my newly-introduced manager, said. “We’re shipping it off tomorrow.”

"No problem," I replied. I can do manual labor. I’m flexible. And bubble wrap – that sounds fun!

I proceeded to suffocate Greg Heffley (the Wimpy Kid) in 5-foot by 20-foot rectangles of bubble wrap. Packaging peanuts spilled all over the floor, and because I didn’t have a broom, I bent down to pick them up one by one. I padded the shipping crate by stapling bubble wrap on its four sides, then delicately lowered the Wimpy Kid snow globe into the crate. The job took two hours, and it wasn’t unpleasant work. After I finished, I walked back to Jason's desk and thought, "Now, time for the real stuff."

Two weeks later, I had opened and sorted 2,470 letters from 6 to 16 year-olds for a comics contest, placed stickers on 2,040 cardboard cutouts, copy and pasted contact information from 300 farmers’ market websites, and processed 102 warehouse order forms. Needless to say, I had lost my sense of entitlement from my first day.

This summer, I worked as an intern in Abrams’ Sales and Marketing division. Here’s a one-sentence description: we work with the media to publicize our books, and book sellers to sell our books. The senior executives manage the relationships with the magazines and bookstores; the assistants (including me) turn the cogs, mailing out advance book copies and other promotional materials. The assistants also print out PDFs, compile lists of media contacts, format book descriptions into press releases, write in mailing labels, update the Publicity Assistant database, deliver books by taxi to big-wig studio executives, and attempt to fix the printers when they break. In my 9 weeks (wow, it was that long?), 80% of my time was spent on these tasks.

The job was menial. But as my bubble-wrapping boss Jason repeatedly told me, it was all necessary. “The Library Association needs copies so that they can consider them for the awards this year”; “The bags will draw eyeballs at the conference, because, well, they’re literally huge eyeballs”; “The author just died, and we’ve received a deluge of requests for his latest book.” (Jason, of everyone I worked for, took the thoughtful extra step of telling me how what I was doing added value to the company.) So I folded and collated and printed, feeling slightly satisfied with my work, while harboring the thought that if I didn’t do it, someone else would be “wasting” their time. A majority of the tasks – like manually assembling 750 cardboard tubes – took days. I wondered, frequently, how the company managed without interns.

9 weeks stuffing envelopes almost made me disillusioned and apathetic. Thankfully, the other 20% of my time kept me afloat. I had four one-on-one meetings with our perpetually busy editors – Charlie, Cecily, Jennifer, and Tamar – about the books they published (Thanks for the advice, Anne!). I worked in our library, organizing the Abrams canon and reading a cross-section of our books, from the heartbreaking comic Mom’s Cancer to a retrospective on Picasso. I attended Sales, Publishing Board, and Editorial meetings to learn the process by which a manuscript turns into a consumer product. Most importantly, I spent 2 weeks at Abrams reading slush.


For the uninitiated, “slush” is publishing’s pseudonym for unsolicited manuscripts. It’s called slush because “crap” isn’t PC enough for the workplace. When a manuscript is unsolicited, it's usually one of two reasons: either the author doesn’t know the process of submission, or he isn’t good enough to secure an agent. Either way, the author's already in a hole. Most publishing companies do not read slush; envelopes are received in the mail, then promptly recycled. (The opposite of slush are agent-represented manuscripts, which go straight to the editors or assistants, where they are either read and considered a viable property, or read and sent back, with a nice, personalized email note attached.)

The slush I dealt with came from Abram’s children’s department (we don’t publish adult fiction). I first saw it in slightly unruly piles on the shelves of the editorial assistants, Brett and Jenna. All together, the slush looked around 14 feet deep. According to my expert back-of-the-envelope calculations, that translates to roughly 40,000 pages of stories, pictures, cover letters, and return envelopes.

I asked Brett and Jenna if I could take some off their hands. They looked at me as if I were asking them to help unclench a dog with rabies from their feet. They said yes.

So I started through the slush. Apparently, it’s an editor’s wet dream to pick out “a diamond in the rough”; look up the rags-to-riches stories of Harry Potter and Twilight (rejected by 14 publishers, accepted by one) for a general sense of what I mean (though I think they were represented by agents). I approached my pile with the same mindset: I was going to find the story everyone had discounted and make it famous.

This thought quickly died. Most slush is not very good. Actually, most slush is crap. I started out trying to separate slush into three piles: Yes, No, and Maybe. After the first hour, I realized there were no “Yes” stories. I axed my Yes pile and renamed my other two: No Chance, and Maybe but Not Actually. My binary pile system, though, didn't feel right. I realized I had no idea what I was looking for.

Before I started, one of the editors, Cecily, told me it was ironic that editorial assistants were the first filter for manuscripts. It’s like leading while blind: how can the most inexperienced have enough experience to cull the gems? The only moderately helpful heuristic she had for me was: save anything that really jumps out at you.

Problem was, of the 100+ stories I read, none jumped out. That doesn’t mean there weren’t solid stories: some had great rhyme schemes; others were built around great ideas; a few were just written with solid prose. But nothing popped. None of the stories grabbed me. I was never transported to another world.

Of course, if you only read the cover letters, you would think every manuscript I read was literary gold. They were destined to unearth "a new and untapped market”; each had “unique marketing potential to become one of the most profitable stories of all time”; and, of course, every submission was “the tip of the iceberg in a series.” The cover letters were such a hyperbolic arms race that the cover letters played no part in my decision-making process.

After I had read and re-read everything, 3 stories made the cut to the “Maybe” pile – one about different methods of making ice cream around the world; one about a mermaid at sea; and one about how Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass became friends. The more I looked at them, the more excited I became.  “Can I see this as a book on the shelves of Barnes and Nobles?” – my answer evolved from No to Yes. I gave the pile to Brett and told him, “These look good. I think they have promise. Let me know if you like any of them.” I never heard from him again.

My foray into reading slush ended after I picked out those three stories. The pre-sales conference, where all our Fall titles are presented to our sales representatives, brought a deluge of more urgent work. There would be no more editorial work for me this summer. Thankfully, I learned a key lesson in becoming a professional writer: find an agent.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Links, Week 10: Regression to the mean

Writing: 15 hours, 6 minutes
Wasted Time: 13 hours, 49 minutes
Email: 4 hours, 17 minutes
Neutral: 3 hours

Not much to say here. My goal is to answer all my email by the middle of next week. Email, halfway done.

Tech: Network of 20s-something bloggers; an intern's guide to the Bay Area; sharing big files is easy now; the 7 patents that define Steve Jobs; the life cycle of a start-upA/B testing for websites; the GrubWithUs founder story.

Yale: Dave Swensen's legacy is not at all in doubtfull-of-hope op-ed on Yale by a freshman; how a 20-year-old can improve their quality of life. (Read this!)

Sports: The baserunning play of the year; Obama talking to the Giants.

Random: The US debt in pictures; anonymous chat on any websitereverse dictionary for all your needs; the Chinese in the Philippines; a Chinese in the Philippines. Why we should be nice to truck drivers; the 17 best rom-coms John Song and I need to watch.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Trio: Poetry in Florida

Written during spring break under fluffy comforters in Port St. Joe, Florida, and revised for the modern age. They're jaunty, fun!


Coffee Uppercut

A man and a woman sit in a coffee shop. "Beignets, three, please," says the man, "Three, please." "Easy on the powdered sugar," says the woman. "No, just the usual, please," says the man. "Why not go easy on the sugar?" says the woman. "Because," says the man, already licking his fingers, "beignets taste better warm."


Double Up


clever green
boiled and steamed
penny and nickel
discard the wiggle
force a crunch
yellow stems all nub.


When You Consider

Willows with water
and tornados on reefs;

wildflowers and earthworms and
grapes on trees;

a rib-eye flank and
a hound gnawing marrow;

then, we will be ready for the barbecue.

Kafka's Metamorphosis

Where is the border between memory and dream?

There is an island near Hawaii where sharp black rocks resist the pounding surf and sea salt softens the green algae on smooth underwater rocks. I am standing, and I am piercing the ocean’s surface. The water is driving at my ankles, trying to pull me under. I am five years old.

I drop to my knees to mold a sand castle. My hands can’t move fast enough: the water breaches the moat, razing my mounds as I raise them, the goop sliding back into its recently vacated cavities. Soon, there is no evidence of my work left. So, instead, I dig. I dig and dig and dig, globules of earth-batter splashing behind my back, until I dig a well so deep I can stand in it, bury myself, open my jaws and drink the water pouring in.

I look at myself, and realize a green and yellow inflatable raft is buoying my elbows. I walk into the water. My thighs shiver. I blow a spit bubble. Soon my eyes are sundry, and as I walk I lose contact with the ground, my toes lifting and landing. The tube pulls me above the muscular waves, and I have a bird’s eye view of the blue sunlight blinding the horizon. I buck and bend away from the sand. Soon, I cannot see anybody at all.

At night, after the sun sets, and my eyes adjust to the moonlight, I bump into an island. The sand is red and orange, and the rock is hardened molten lava. I step from one deceased air bubble to another. The lava path leads to a large, sinuous tree overrun by spiders. They crawl from dark olive vines and onto my arms, their inch-long legs tickling my ears and bellybutton. I take one by the leg and dangle it in front of my mouth, but decide not to swallow; instead, I grind the monster between my teeth, the claws scraping the inside of my jaw, the abdomen wet and hot and sticky. I then spit everything out. Droplets land on my feet, and feel surprisingly cold.

When the sun comes up, I take two paddles on the north end of the island and lick off the rust. The flakes stick between my teeth and slowly turn my tongue brown. I find pumice scattered in mangrove alcoves and rub the porous surface on my neck, scratching off layers of grime. I pluck bitter red berries from low-lying shrub in rock crevasses and draw a perfect circle on my forehead.

I spend the rest of the day cracking coconuts and sunbathing.

The next day, a cruise line steamer approaches in the distance. I craft a flotation device from banana leaves and float to the ship’s bright blue hull, where I am lifted onto deck by thick rope and carabineer. A room is designated for me on the 3rd floor. My bedspread is an thick orange cotton oven. I sleep above it, imprinting my frame onto its contours. The captain, who has a thick beard where two blue jays have made their nest, hands me a card that promises unlimited refills of coffee and scones. When I wake up at 3 a.m. with the munchies, I walk to the cafeteria, but find that it is closed.

The cruise lasts for 7 days, and when we dock in Alaska, I sneak into a suitcase of an Aleut fisherman. It takes considerable effort to latch the handle while inside the suitcase, but I manage to do it. The next time I peek out, we are travelling, by snow-wolf, underneath a flaming sun. When he opens the suitcase, I stab him with a fork I hid in my pocket, but he laughs it off. Inside his hut, his wife hands me a raw tilapia, and I don’t pick the scales off before sucking its eyeballs out.

In the thirty days I spend there, I eat 219 fish. Most of them are tilapia, some are cod.

When I leave, I leave behind a hand-woven doll that has lost most of its red hair. I wrap the present with old newspaper and tie it with twine. The next 2 months, I hitchhike and sleep in the corner of friendly porches before I make it back to my doorstep. When the door opens, my brother does not recognize me. My sister, though, grabs my hand, and leads me into the living room, where she hands me the still-warm Nintendo controller so we can finish our game of Super Mario Sunshine.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Happiness Hypothesis

Tonight, I watched the San Francisco Giants beat the San Diego Padres 2-1. Tim Lincecum consistently hit 94 mph and pitched 8 innings for the win. The one run he gave up was because of poor judgment by Carlos Beltran in right field.

I went to the game with Joe Lee, Raju Hansra, and Krishna V. It was an All-star crew.

Joe and I were spiritually attached at the hip last October. The Giants’ romp to the World Series was punctuated with back and forth texts – “omg omg omg yesssssssssssssssssssssssssssss” – and “f*ck yes” phone calls – “Oh my god did you see that?! So sick!” We watched the last 5 games together, baited breath before every pitch. He’s my go-to man for everything baseball. Tonight, he helped decode Lincecum’s pitches, made the fans around us laugh heckling the Padres bullpen, and came three feet away from catching a Sandoval foul ball. Afterwards, sipping on a 6-pack in the cool San Francisco breeze, we shot the shit about those good ol’ college days.

Krishna and Raju are old-school buddies. Junior year of high school, Raju and I realized a gaping hole existed at Monta Vista: organized fantasy sports. (I say this in jest, but only half-jest.) Taking our 6 years of experience playing fantasy basketball, football, and baseball, we started MV’s fantasy sports club, organizing draft parties every season and playing Pardon the Interruption every week. Krishna was our most dedicated member. Soon, the three of us started attending Oakland A’s games. Every year, we try to catch a game.

After the game and the six-pack, Raju, Krishna and I walked back to Caltrain, where we realized we missed our train by 6 minutes. The next one was coming in an hour. We started talking in a donut shop, and what started as an innocent question, “So, how’s your love life?” turned into 2 hours of How To Live Life.

I should note now that Raju and Krishna are two of the happiest people I know. It’s not a self-conscious happiness, founded on rational perspective-taking, but rather more based on the inveterate forces of nature and nurture. The two are good humored about everything, and their laughs, which are hearty, and come frequently, are the pith of their characters. They’ve made the leap: instead of thinking, “I know I should be happy,” they are. Best of all, the goodwill is contagious.

Back in Cupertino, Raju drove me home. Here’s how we capped the night off. (Note: conversation has been reconstructed for brevity and wit. Which means I added everything left unsaid.)

Me: “So before something important, like a coffee date with the girl you know you’re going to marry, or a big bhangra competition, maybe the key isn’t trying to convince yourself you should be confident, because of X and Y, but simply not thinking at all.”

Raju: “Exactly. If you’re trying to convince yourself, you’re already admitting, on a subconscious level, that you’re insecure.”

“Just shut the brain off.”

“Right. But at the same time, you can’t just ‘not think’ if you’re going to repeat past mistakes. You have to identify the insecurities and deal with them before you can shut it off.”

“How do you do that?”

“For me, personally, I did deep thinking. I figured out in what situations I was insecure, exactly what I was scared of, and why I was scared.”

“How do you know if you’re doing it right?”

“Because you just know. If you hit the core, you’ll feel the fear dissipate. If you don’t feel different, you haven’t hit the core.”

“That’s the key to self-assurance: know thyself.”

“Right. And here’s the best part: once you’re secure, the second-guessing stops. You make decisions, and by default of you making them, they’re great decisions – maybe even the best decisions.”

“It’s like they say in Harry Potter: the measure of a person is not his ability, but his choices.”

“Personally, this is my philosophy: I do what I feel like. Of course, I’m not killing anyone or screwing people over. It just means I’m not victimized by peer pressure, social status, or habit and inertia.”

“So: deep thinking leads to root-problem discovery leads to inner confidence leads to strong decision-making leads to happiness. And this ‘foundational’ happiness leaks out into everyday life. It’s a self-perpetuating spring.”

“Right. And it doesn’t just work with my philosophy: your value system can concentrate on family, friends, society, poverty, whatever you deem fit.”

“You know, Krishna mentioned a real-life allegory: Portland throws a parade every year that’s illegal to watch – you have to join in. What’s that mean?”

“What am I, some seer sitting on a mountain? I just graduated from UC Davis and I’m still 22, man.”

“Ok, well, I think of the parade as life. The surface level take-away is to take action, end apathy, fix what’s broken. But the more interesting observation is that people are forced to join. There’s no choice. You can’t just watch us having fun, you have to have fun too, even if you don’t feel like it.”

“It’s like paternalism. But without the negative connotations. It’s like removing a choice. Cutting off an escape route. Like the Vikings did when they burned their ships before battle.”

“You sure it was the Vikings?”

“Hmm. Yea, maybe not. Brett Favre would never do that.”

“Or Tavaris Jackson.”

“Jared Allen?”

“Alright man, it’s 1 a.m. We’ve been sitting in my driveway for 10 minutes. I’ll see you again before I leave?”

“For sure. I’m in Davis all weekend, want to do tomorrow?”

“Yup. Afternoon? Laterrrr.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Pledge of Allegiance: The story of my first crush

As a 5th grader at Faria A+ Elementary, I was smitten by a girl in my homeroom  Jocelyn K., a thin, black-haired, ponytail-wearing girl who, in the small world I occupied between school and my parents’ 2-bedroom apartment, was the prettiest person I had ever seen in the big, wide world. She sat in the 3rd row, close to the front door, and I sat two rows behind her. I never talked to her. I don’t think I so much as made eye contact, but I Liked her, and she was, as I was acutely aware of, the first girl I ever liked, with a capital L.

I can’t explain why I felt the way I did. I never paid attention to Jocelyn in 3rd grade, or 4th. I don’t remember her being extremely popular, to the extent you can be popular in grade school. Neither was she a physical education superstar (which, back then, was tremendous street cred), a performer (in the school’s annual talent show), nor overtly bright (I learned later, of course, that she was going to Stanford.) But every day in 5th grade, at around 9 a.m., when the entire class rose to say the pledge of allegiance, I would dismiss the American flag and covertly look at Jocelyn. I looked at the wispy black strands of hair falling out of her scrunchy, her small ears, the frills on her white shirt, and the slight outline of her training bra pressed against her frame (though I’m not sure I knew what a bra was at the time).

It wasn't very exciting unrequited love. But there were days when she, ostensibly bored of our nation’s jingle, would look around the classroom, and I'd glimpse her face. For my 5th grade self, it was enough to buoy my entire morning. And so it went on, every morning, until one day, she looked back and caught me staring at her. I quickly looked towards the ground, a splotch of embarrassment blooming across my face.

Momentous events like first crushes stick in our memories, and are molded later to explain the arc of our lives. For all of 5th grade, I never did talk to Jocelyn, but the morsels, a glance here and a “Thank you” there, were enough to make me remember, in middle school, high school, and even now, that she was the first girl I liked. Then, I didn't imagine whimsical universes where we’d be friends, or even something more—my fictions were muted, repressed, and non-existent, because the feeling of infatuation was overwhelming enough.

Summer came, with its vicissitudes, and when 6th grade started at Kennedy Middle School, it took a couple of weeks for me to realize Jocelyn wasn’t even there. Or if she was, I didn’t know it. My mind was swept up in the terrifying new social order: the influx of older, cooler, different peers. When my world expanded outside Faria and our daily Pledge of Allegiances, I learned that puppy love jumps from target to target, like a bumblebee haphazardly buzzing from flower to flower. Over the years, I started making eye contact with girls I liked, and, eventually, I even started talking to them.

During second semester senior year of high school, I organized a Faria reunion, one last tribute to our childhood before we flew away from Cupertino. 30 people showed up, and we played handball, talked to our former teachers, Mr. Tuckweiler and Mr. Wong, and sat on the lunch picnic benches, revisiting the year 2000. Jocelyn didn’t come, though if she did, this time, I would have said hi.

Monday, August 22, 2011

1-minute read: The Upside of Irrationality, by Dan Ariely

I love psychology, but I hate pop psychology books. Distilled for the masses (the masses being the soft American middle: white, 45-year-old housewife somewhere in the Midwest), they’re 10 times longer than they need to be.

Everything is explained: Not just technical terms and study parameters, but every social phenomena. Like basketball. Basketball. Blink, The Paradox of Choice, Nudge, Predictably Irrational, and Stumbling on Happiness (thanks, Ant) all fall victim to this word vomit, though The Happiness Hypothesis does not.

The insights are important, though. That’s why I’ve taken the liberty to summarize The Upside of Irrationality, by Dan Ariely, so you don’t need to thumb through vaguely unsatisfying anecdotes to get to the meat.

If you really don’t have time, just read the one sentence “Takeaways.”

Note: in this review, really, really basic concepts, like loss aversion, are completely ignored.

Chapter 1: Paying More For Less

Incentives are a double edged sword. They motivate us, but promise too much, and performance declines. This doesn’t happen for simple mechanical tasks, but often for cognitive tasks. The reason? Incentives increase pressure; pressure sucks. How do we reap the merits of performance based pay without the associated pressure to perform? Ariely doesn’t say. Anecdotes: poor people in India and NBA players.

Takeaway: Don’t give a baby too much candy.

Chapter 2: The Meaning of Labor

In America, our jobs are intimately tied to our identity. Animals enjoy earning their food more than getting it for free (see rats, parrots). This goes against traditional economic theory. Similarly, people are motivated when they have an audience for their work, their work has personal meaning, and their work is appreciated. The industrial revolution – breaking tasks down to their component parts – creates efficiencies but exacts psychological damage. Who wants to sew the back pocket on Levis 12 hours a day? We don’t want to feel like a cog; we want to be the entire machine. Create (the perception of) meaningful work. Anecdote: Lego Sisyphus experiment.

Takeaway: Go kayaking, instead of lying on the beach.

Chapter 3: The IKEA effect

We want to feel ownership in what we do. Sara Lee created an empire because of her 70/30 rule:  automate 70% of cooking, let the cook do the other 30%. We treat our work as positively as we treat exemplars in the field, and we think other people love our work as much as we do. Making a process more difficult increases our love for it. Anecdotes: origami, building chairs.

Takeaway: Give people a little freedom, but not too much.

Chapter 4: The Not-Invented-Here Bias

People like their own ideas better than other people’s, even if it’s the same idea. People are addicted to their own ideas. Anecdote: word scramble for world problems, Thomas Edison, Sony.

Takeaway: Inception.

Chapter 5: The case for revenge:

The threat of vengeance has a certain efficacy. Punishing is pleasurable. When we’re mad, we don’t care who we punish. Saying “Sorry” negates much of the negativity, though. Anecdotes: ibankers; Audi; annoyed phone calls to people who will not give back your money; yours is a very bad hotel.

Takeaway: It’s too late to ‘pologize, it’s toooo lateeeee.

Chapter 6: On Adaptation

People who have experienced more pain can withstand more pain. If pain is associated with improvement, you are more resilient. We adapt to everything in life. To reap the benefits from our tendency to adapt, don’t take a break when doing negative things (paperwork), and take breaks when doing positive things (jacuzzi). Intermittently increase living standards to slowly level up adaptation to wealth. Select transient experiences because you can’t adapt as easily. Be reckless and do different things. Sources: The Joyless Economy.

Takeaway: Take breaks during sex.

Chapter 7: Hot or Not

A “sense of humor” is always code for “unattractive.” There are three ways to deal with being ugly: alter perception of aesthetics (“I like bald men”); reconsider the rank of attributes (“I value humor more than looks, anyway”); don’t adapt (“FML”). Ugliness does not change who we think is hot, but it changes our taste. (We view non-physical as more important.)

Takeaway: Throw a party where everyone writes a number on their foreheads, then try to bag the highest number in the room.

Chapter 8: When a Market Fails

The market for single people is the most egregious market failure in Western Society. People are like dining, perfume, and art – we are experience goods that have ineffable qualities. MIT students spend 12 hours online screening, and 1.8 hours going on real dates every week. Online dating should be called “Online searching and blurb writing.” Setting up a virtual world where people can meet is much more effective than skimming through profiles. Try to build a better dating site.

Takeaway: F*ck OKCupid.

Chapter 9: On Empathy and Emotion

The identifiable victim effect: “I am unable to multiply one man’s suffering by one million.” We help others based on 3 factors: proximity, vividness of encounter, and how much we uniquely can solve the problem. (We don’t want to be a “drop in the bucket.”) Empathy trumps rational thought.

Takeaway: Be wary of those street fundraisers.

Chapter 10: The Long Term effects on Short Term emotion

The snowball effect of negative emotion. A bad mood might cause you to lash out. But because we look at past actions to inform ourselves of who we are, a temporary bad mood might create an action that affects sequences of related decisions far into the future. Give yourself time to cool off before you act hastily.

Takeaway: Be happy.

Chapter 11: Lessons from our Irrationalities

We don’t like loss; we love the status quo; making irreversible decisions is hard; we can’t help but rationalize our choices. Psychological experiments are important.

Takeaway: Does it even matter?                                                                                                         

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Links, Week 9: Generating investment

Writing: 26 hours, 41 minutes
Wasted time: 8 hours, 24 minutes
Gmail: 2 hours, 59 minutes
Neutral: 3 hours, 3 minutes

My best ratio yet, 3:1 writing versus wasting time. I've taken to editing my old posts, even if nobody will ever read them. And I still have some long-form pieces in the works (alcohol, publishing) that will hopefully come out next week. I'm also beginning to wonder how this blog will work in the Philippines, when I'll be without internet. 


Sports: A teary Rodman’s Hall of Fame speech, and the sportswriter who captures a relationship. Santiago Casilla pitching so slowly, a fan lost a bet. Zach Randolph’s mishaps, before he became good; flash to the past when it was Strasmas; The NBA lockout, still in the first quarter;

Me: From Sanjeev: Why green pants and yellow shoes make me look like a duck; I’ve been playing a lot of The Wreckers’ guitar-friendly songs lately; accidental chinese hipsters; I loved this guy in Inception, can’t wait for this movie; interview with ballin’ writer Jay Caspian Kang; Mark Cuban on how to get rich;

Tech: Motorola’s fall from dominance; get a scanned book for a dollar; the mother of all interview questions; see who Google thinks you are; remove yourself from background checks; the Xbox story, part 1; quitting to start a tech company; learn PERL in 2 hours;

Random: Eating trash for dinner; grocery store love story; paper and pencil artwork; transcribe a video for free.

4th of July, Investment banking style

James Z., a recent graduate of Yale University, lives on the 42nd floor of a Manhattan high-rise 3 blocks and 2 avenues away from Times Square, with his freshman year college roommate, Sanjeev, and his fraternity brother, Josh. Their apartment, which costs $5,100 a month to rent, has on its walls three framed prints, in a stylized, demure, tan-and-brown color scheme, of investment bankers lounging on art-deco furniture looking towards distant skyscrapers. On the walls of James’ apartment, the prints feel a bit like a slyly self-conscious attempt at a picture-within-a-picture, a homage to his start in investment banking.

During a sunny afternoon on July 4th, James, who is slim, with straight black hair and mouse-like eyes, was wiping down the kitchen, dressed in a casual button-down and cargo shorts. He had straightened up his own room, cleared out the balcony, and fluffed the couch pillows. “Who wants to go grab the booze from across the street?” asked Sanjeev. Josh volunteered. The two walked out, a soft click of the front door signaling their exit.

The party started at 8 p.m. It doubled both as a housewarming for their apartment and a 4th of July rendezvous. The main windows of their living room faced west, where, one block away, 5 of the 6 barges that would be shooting fireworks into sky were visible. As the guests trickled in, James, Sanjeev, and Josh lingered by the hallway, greeting each visitor with mirth and enthusiasm. Some were older friends they hadn’t seen in years; most were classmates, recent graduates that were similarly entering the world of finance.

“Sanjeev here’s working at a hedge fund,” James says, introducing three crew-cut, muscled West Pointers to the apartment, “and Josh is starting at Goldman. IBD.” The West Point boys were in New York for the night before returning to base the next morning. Two, George and Eric, were being shipped off to Germany in the fall, to work at the reserve camp. “Wow. This is a sick view,” George said. He stared out at the floor-to-ceiling windows for a minute. When every subsequent guest came in during the next hour, each would inevitably make their way to the window, or the balcony, and repeat a variation of what George had uttered first.

A girl wearing a white, slightly frilled dress walked in, carrying a cake and a pitcher. “James, where can I put this?” she asked. “I’m making you guys sangria.” Soon, the lights were off, Schwayze and Usher were pumping, and the eighty or so people in the apartment were talking, touching, flirting, checking their phones. Every few minutes, small shrieks reverberated in the entrance. “Oh my god, it’s been too long!” a tall, comely Asian girl said, bear-hugging a slightly rounder Asian girl. Most of the conversations, though, were of a more subdued nature, made stimulating only with references to their employers: Morgan Stanley, McKinsey, Jane Street Capital.

At 9 p.m., all eyes turned west, towards the Hudson river. Fireworks exploded in the sky, red, yellow, and green spheres of light dancing and falling against the contours of the New Jersey shoreline. For 20 minutes, the darkness was lit up erratically, a schizophrenic display varying in intensity, height, duration, and shape. In the end, though, traditional yellow sparklers bloomed across the sky, and the entire windowpane, from left to right, was lit with overlapping copies of the same show. “That was awesome,” someone said from the crowd. “I am so ready to start work tomorrow.”

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Almost but Not Quite

I’m lying on Venice beach with my girlfriend, honestly spending the best quality time ever with her, tanning side-by-side on identical indigo towels. In the last three hours, we’ve played an ecstatic game of Frisbee, splashed salt water into each other’s eyes, collected unbroken shells, left southpaw footprints up and down the pier, held hands, kissed, even fondled each other when we thought nobody else was looking.

But then we broke up. She caught me glancing at another girl, my eyes stuck on her strut and her lace-white string bikini. The girl wasn’t even that gorgeous, but all that skin exposed, it’s just an unconscious reaction.

Now I was in the cramped parking lot fumbling with my keys, sand chafing underneath my swim trunks, my shoulders radiating from sunburn. I tossed the Frisbee in the trunk above my basketball duffel, brushed my hands off and drove back to Santa Monica, the joggers and dog-walkers on Ocean Avenue flashing by so fast they were trapped in a still-life painting of the seascape.

The last time we broke up, she jumped the line waiting for a taxi at the club and got in with people she didn’t even know. She rolled down the window when I started pounding on it.

“She doesn’t know what she’s doing,” I cried.

“Buddy, look at her face,” the Lacoste-sweater man said. “You don’t cry this much unless you’ve gotten your heart broken.”

“You’re pathetic,” she yelled, her mascara running like black tears.

I tried to yank the dull yellow door open, but it was locked. At that point, my sadness started to percolate, and I sweated beads of whiskey and salt. The taxi cab sped away.

The next morning, she let herself in to the apartment.

After the beach incident, though, I was sure she wasn’t going to be back, at least not until tonight, so after parking in the underground garage and sitting there for ten minutes with my hands clutching the wheel, I backed out and drove to the West Hollywood basketball courts.

This Saturday was packed with middle-aged men. They wore running shorts and sported headbands in serious colors, gray and black and white. I slipped on my lime-green shoes. Doug was playing, laced up in his yellows. He was posting up one of the 40-somethings.

I stood on the sidelines until their game was over.

“Aren’t you supposed to be with Sarah all day?” he asked, slapping me on the back. His shirt was soaked down the front, a V-shape of masculinity down his collar. His hair was slippery, mahogany, held erect by a yellow headband that spelled out LIVESTRONG.

“Yea. Shit happened,” I informed him.

“Word.” Doug nodded understandingly.

I joined his team, ended up guarding a squat dude wearing baby-blue Jordans who could really shoot. He would just spot up in the left-side corner and heave arcing three-pointers. I fought through the screens and mostly managed to stick a hand in his face. The ball still went in. We lost 11-3.

“Get your head in the game,” Doug said. “He’s killing you out there.”

I moved faster on defense, but I couldn’t concentrate, crumbs of sand still stuck between my toes. We lost again.

“Really? I’m going to have to trade you for one of those senior citizens,” Doug said. He slapped me again on the back. This time the sunburn hurt. My skin was slow-cooking bacon.

“I’m not feeling this. I’m going home,” I said. I was secretly excited to leave. Sarah might be back already. She was probably washing her swimsuit in the kitchen sink. She liked to do that, then hang the damp nylon over the air-conditioner.

Sarah wasn’t home. I took a shower, made myself a raspberry-jam sandwich, and turned on ESPN. Kobe was playing tonight, even with a jammed thumb. I needed to pump myself up, so I jammed my IPhone into the dock and immersed myself in some Shwayze. His melodramatic beats bounced off my Ikea furniture and compressed the oversized living room. I texted Doug: “Sarah isn’t back.”

It was the third quarter before my phone vibrated.

“I’m staging an intervention. Get suited up. We’re going to Mix.” Doug’s voice sounded symphonic over the AT&T connection.

“No, I can’t. Sarah’s probably going to be back soon,” I said.

“Has she called you?”

“No, but—”

“Has she texted you?”


“Then fuck her. We’re going out. I’m picking you up in 25 minutes.” I stared at my phone, my hands oiling its metal with nascent sweat. Then I walked to my closet and tried to decide if I wanted any cologne.

I'm leaving you, New York. But it's not you. It's me.

New York, it's been thrilling, spicy, loose, comfortable, tasty, sweaty, scary, lugubrious, and pleasantly amusing. But I don't think this is going to work out. You're great, seriously, but, well...I've found a new lover. And I'm leaving, in fact, in 7 hours. So—

Yes, hanging out was fun.

Yes, you did satisfy my carnal and intellectual needs.

Listen, don't second-guess yourself. Don't underestimate what we had. You were great. I liked the MoMA clock you got me for my birthday, and the New Yorker iPad subscription was clutch. But your grand plans — resuscitating Borders, rejuvenating the Dow Jones — left us with no time. You know, for the small things. Like a back rub now and again. Maybe buying fresh bagels when the ones in our pantry went stale. And would it have killed you to smile while walking down the street or sitting on the subway?

Believe me, I can't believe it's happening either. I thought we'd be together forever. Our first date in Central Park, feeding each other marinated olives — I thought I'd found The One. At least until dusk, before the mosquitoes ate my legs alive. Or that time we first held hands in Brooklyn, our Momofuku Milk Bar blueberry cookies tucked in our jean pockets? That was fun — well, until the one hour, out-of-service F train detour. Oh! And who could forget that unforgettable night at Rucker Park? Ok, we did get robbed walking back, but at least we left our credit cards at home, right?

And really, it's not you. It's me. Seriously. I might quibble occasionally, but this was the best relationship I've ever had (well, other than that 4-year fling in New Haven...). We're breaking up not because I'm tired of you, but because I can't handle it. There was just too much stress. Constantly having to live up to your expectations — going out every night, staying cheerful through reruns of Jersey Shore, wearing a power tie to work — I broke down, physically and mentally.

Don't think I won't remember you. I'll always remember you. In fact, I shouldn't be saying this, but you were a reach. Your verve, tenacity, crunchiness — I just never thought you'd fall for me, too. I hope you'll remember me? And not just because of that time when I got a little too tipsy in K-Town....actually, let's not relive that moment. We had a good run, right?

Ok? Hug it out? Come here, you. Mmmmmm. So...stay in touch? I'll come visit whenever I'm in the area. And let me know how that audition goes — 2020 Olympics, right?

I'll see you lat —


Do we have to talk about it? This was so nice, I don't know if we should...

It's your sister, San Francisco. Well, and your niece, Los Angeles. We were thinking of a threesome? I know you introduced them to me, but—

Alright. I'm a douchebag. Just hear me out. I—

Ouch! Ow ow owwwww. Stop! Put down the lamp. Give me a chance to explain myself. Please?

Remember how I met them at your big 4th of July party? Well, one day I started a hangout on Google+ and both of them joined and one thing led to another and we ended up talking the entire night and...well...we just connected. It's unbelievable, what we have. We're soul mates.

No, you're right. You and me were good for each other. But it also rained during the summer. Like 4 times. The summer! SF and LA, they're not like that.

Honestly, now that I've spilled so much, I might as well say it: wasn't this the honeymoon phase anyway? I mean, back in June, weren't both of us looking for a summer fling? What's going to happen to us in 4 months, when the trees are bare, the smell of subway urine intensifies, and the frost whips through the avenues? Better now than later.

Yea? You were?

Really, now?

Well, I was lying too. I never had a thing for redheads. I just said that. And I never got completely used to all that red hair...everywhere...black's better. Like SF. And LA.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Stickers of the Bayou

When he boxed
his red jewel

—an apple face
scraping the cement—

broken skin lips
like light pennies

he surveyed
cities lapsed.

Dig out the tides,
the jimmyweed cadences:

crocodile, scar,
dried calamari.

Healing Bells

Healing Bells

Every man misses opportunities. Let’s begin
by walking in tall grass along a farm, kicking
dirty rocks where car wheels cross. He trots
past a mound of millipedes, soft legs bloodied
with sun. The wheat chaff is sundry with
blossom, but the pollen, it floats fallow.

Every man asks for mistakes. In the dry
tool-shed, his hands feel the wood of
early winter. His fingers touch rust,
machine tears dried and flaked.
Copper, nickel, cobalt: here is
his harvest of the core.

Every man needs regret. Ask about family: he
will serve you bread in triangles of silver.
A bowl of citrus sits placid in repose.
Walking caulked on heels of bitter
grass, this is certain. Abysmal, a signal—
crows invade his porch-step, flying from
south. Ask about his family: he will tell you
every man has been pocked.

Inclination: A little plant story

Thank you, Professor Zarin.


Ginger had a vague notion that the concrete underneath her feet was uneven. That she was currently standing on a crack in the sidewalk, and that growing out of this crack were weeds: wild-eyed dandelions, whisker-haired buttercups, and spiky cocklebur. But when she looked, there was a sprout. Four inches tall, it had crested upwards like a skinny, splotched teenager, yoking the weight of its numerous lily-pad leaves. The tip of the sprout drooped. The stem was notched with dark, coagulated green bands, each a scar from haphazard footsteps that had bent the sprout in two and forced it to bow. The leaves were pocked with blemishes. Near the base, a shriveled, desiccated leaf was hanging by its stem.

Ginger noticed the sprout was swaying. She plucked it out of the ground. Holding the plant between her index finger and thumb, she examined its contours—the blemished stem, creased veins, waxy nodes—and had an urge to lay it inside the pocket in the underlining of her coat. Then her cell phone vibrated. As she reached to answer it, she flicked the weed away, and it tumbled earthward, head-over-heels, before coming to settle on the raised bed where the gardeners had just planted the new roses.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Cleaning Yale: My New Haven janitor, Sherri B.

“I would definitely consider leaving here. In a heartbeat.”

Sherri B.’s hips are hanging over the sides of her chair. When she shifts her body, the fat sways, a consequence of her middle-age operations. She doesn't seem to notice.

There is no hiding certain signs of her rough upbringing. Freckles and oblong black bumps dot the contours of her cheek. Her chin falls into folds of skin; they move rhythmically as she speaks. Her face, distinctive and wholesome from afar, is in reality a haphazard amalgamation of beauty tips. She turns her body and looks at me. “Would you consider living in New Haven? You wouldn’t live here, would you?”

Sherri is my janitor. Every day between ten o’clock and noon, she climbs the steps of my entryway, jerking a sanitation cart in her left hand and a sopping mop in her right. Her rounds have become more difficult since she had knee surgery two months ago, and by the time she is at my room on the fourth floor, she admits to being out of breath. When Sherri walks, the small bulge of keys in her front pocket jingles, announcing her entry—insofar as a janitor can get noticed. 

It wasn’t like this eighteen years ago, when Sherri first started working for Yale. She headed her own small division in catering, where she met all the celebrities: “I was doing catering parties for the president of Yale, I done saw presidents from different countries, I done seen secret service from different presidents. Actors, actresses.” She loved the job. 

In 2005, she fell in a basement and needed multiple back surgeries. Two years later, she transferred into custodial services. Her current work is menial, uninspiring, and sometimes painful. Sherri has gotten over the demotion. “We make 17 an hour. It might not seem like nothing but you’re not going to go nowhere else and get that kind of money. Everyone in the inner city want to work at Yale University.”

Her time at Yale has been her personal blessing. She met her second husband, now of fifteen years, while he was a cook in the Calhoun College kitchen. At her catering job, she had the power to recommend others, and as a result Sherri’s friends and eldest daughter are all working forty hour weeks. Due to Yale’s generous first time house-buyer program, Sherri and her husband have a home in West Haven, and Yale has paid for twenty five thousand of the down payment and two thousand towards taxes every year for ten years. Her six children, four with Maurice, are taken care of for college: Yale subsidizes half their tuition at any place of higher education. But perhaps most importantly, Yale has taken her out of New Haven’s grittiest neighborhoods.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Links, Week 8: Back home

My last week in New York, I spent 24 hours online. My first week back home, I've spent 43 hours.

Blogging: 25 hours, 20 minutes.
Time Suck: 11 hours, 51 minutes
Neutral Time: 3 hours 21 minutes
Email: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Literary: 1 hour, 19 minutes

The 11 hours of wasted time looks pretty bad, but let's look at it in a different light: I've maintained a 2:1 ratio of writing time versus wasted time. That's something to be proud of. And I hit my targets: 1 fiction post, 1 poem, and 5 essays.

Links, below:

Tech: The definition of a brogrammer; is Sam Odio a good person?; Airbnb rolls out so many safety features I almost want to use it; Google Image Swirl is shutting down soon; the best netbook out there; reverse image search; cool Apple gestures; CallRoulette; it’s Cupertino on TechCrunch!

Apps: LikeALittle; I had this idea first, OkCupid; I downloaded this app to make my day a bit more funny; I also downloaded Prey too; and Banjo.

Writing: Ai Weiwei and what artists want; how to write faster; leukemia treatment giving people hope; MIT mathematics made easy; new U.S. Poet Laureate; what happened to Obama’s passion?

Sports: Best overview of pitching statistics I’ve ever read; Rucker Park, now depleted;

To-Do: Get out of your Verizon account without paying an early termination fee.

Moving Day


I spotted a silver die, half-buried in the trash, glistening for me, while I waited to cross the intersection. I wanted to point this out, ask someone if the tenants on these blocks regularly threw out brand-new diebut nobody seemed to want to talk to me. A woman plugged into pink headphones stared blankly ahead. A businessman in a charcoal suit thumbed away at an email. A very young man sneered. I pinched out the die between a grocery bag and a slightly soiled napkin, and then returned for the napkin to clean it off. I cupped my fingers and the die tumbled in the crevasses of my fingers, then threw it onto the street, just before the last onslaught of cars rushed by. When I looked, the woman and the young man were staring at me out of the corner of their eyes. Their faces showed slight concern, but more for themselves, it seems, than me. I smiled at them, as an explanationthen the walk sign came on, everyone stepped out, and I bent over to pick up the die. 6.

I was headed to Flatbush, to do some cleaning for a man. He lived in a two-story gray house, with a Japanese zen garden encompassing his front yard. The doorbell was a chime that played a song by Pachabel I couldn't place. When he opened the front door, he introduced himself as Donny and looked me up and down. He was a dark-skinned Asian man, likely in his early sixties.

"You Filipino?"

"Hmong," I said, baring my chest and taking my hands out of my pockets.

"Humph," Donny said, scowling. "It's over here."

Friday, August 12, 2011

Afterlife, spoiler-alert: Me convincing you to see Sleep No More

I'm the last person that appreciates good theater. Case in point: at Yale, I fell asleep, at least for a little bit, during every play I attended, whether it was Angels in the Outfield, Arcadia, The Importance of Being Earnest, that play in JE Jeff Gordon was in April 2009 I can't remember, or...wait, that's it. (At least I didn't fall asleep in The Shadowbox. But that's because I was an assistant stage manager.)

On August 6th, I saw Sleep No More. And, true to the name of the play, I didn't fall asleep. Didn't even get tired. Was sprightly and raving the entire time. Crazier still, I spent $90 on tickets. I've never spent that much on a concert, rave, sports game, dinner, or shoes, ever.

What convinced me? One of my friends told me he would write me a check for $90 if I didn't like it.

Was it worth it?

First, let me mirror the mainstream media: yes. The New York Times said it was so good you didn't need pot to enjoy it. (Is this how people get through plays?) It's innovative in a mass-appeal sort of way; unique enough for the critics to discuss, but exciting enough for an amateur to really dig.

Second, let me chime in personally: yes. It was a mindf*ck. For $90, I could have seen Inception, Shutter Island, Memento, and (insert 3 more movies). Instead, I lived inside a movie. Imagine seeing the first Matrix onscreen. Now imagine being surrounded by that Matrix green, standing in the office building Neo machine-guns to save Morpheus. That's how Sleep No More felt.

Half the time, I was close enough to touch the actor. Nothing prevented me from punching him and running away; I had that much freedom. I didn't punch him. Instead, I touched him. He touched me. (Not like that!) I smelled his sweat. Saw the dried flecks of fake blood not properly washed off. Sometimes, they used us as human shields, treated us like conspirators. Most of the time, they looked at us with vacant eyes, brushed us off their beds, or bulldozed us aside as they danced.

When Macbeth fled (and he was fast), I ran with him, pounding up the stairs, feeling as though my volition and energy and wits were opening up more of the play to me. I felt better than the other viewers because I thought I was experiencing more than everyone else, even though everyone was probably thinking the same.

Oh yes. The orgy scene. Worth $90 in those 5 minutes. I'll probably flash back to it when I'm 40 years old, sitting by a pool somewhere. I had the great fortune of stumbling on it all 3 times, so I saw it from every conceivable angle. My first viewing was epic. And that's probably the only time I'll ever use the word "epic" adequately. It was epic. 

See, at first, the actors are just fawning over each other in a dimly lit lounge. Then, in the span of 3 seconds, three witches fly in, the lights break, a strobe light turns on, and sharp sycoph-awesome beats earthquake the entire room. Here's what happens in the next minute: a guy disrobes completely. His dick flaps up and down at over 200 rpm. 3 women become topless. The naked man masks his head with a 3-foot goat head, stands on a table, and shimmies. Macbeth is splatted with blood raving and laughing madly. Goat man writhes on the floor. A bloody baby is produced from nowhere and it is kissed in its bloody head over and over and over. The Matrix-style backwards duck happens. All this, mind you, faster than your mind can process because of the strobe lights. With the actors moving at impossible speeds. I felt like I was literally inside a movie.

(And no, I don't feel bad about this spoiler because you still aren't going to be prepared. You never will be.)

The other 2 hours and 45 minutes were also worth $90. Part of it was due to the inherent danger just watching the play. The elevator dropped me off in a cemetery. A real one, with real tombstones and dilapidated turquoise angels surrounded by broken brick walls. I could barely see 10 feet in front of me. That's dangerous. Someone could have injected me with a poisonous needle, choked me, or poked my eyes out, and gotten away with it. I could have done it too. The act of faith coming in here is believing that nobody will intentionally wreak havoc, trip you, leave you in a corner of the room, bloody and bruised. With the masks affording everyone complete anonymity (except me, with a bright red Grover t-shirt), anyone could have gotten away with murder. Which is why this play was so awesome.

One aspect that wasn't important: The plot. I had opportunity cost discomfort the first house; I couldn't watch Macbeth untie his shoelaces because I knew I was missing out on exploring. I only started following Macbeth when I realized he was going to die. The three hour play was really a loop, three times, of a one-hour play. It made the plot intriguing and maddening, because I never figured out where the "beginning" was. The jazz dance, the murder in the bed, the toasting, the washing of the face, the pregnant lady assassination, the check in at the counter: where did it start?

Finally, some real-time thoughts after I returned home: I am tired. 3 hours of walking and running around. It's insane. It's also beautiful. These actors do this how many days a week? The willpower! And they must go crazy.

Best $90 spent? It was pretty good.

Afterwards, James notes, "The masks had white person eye holes, but we had Asian eyes." Ha!

The real life afterlife: Sleep No More

"Sleep No More"three hours' worth of orgies, murders, love-making, and ghosts, often astutely choreographed to dance and performed across three abandoned warehouses on West 27th Street in Manhattandemands, or, rather, pleas to be seen. It's a spine-chilling rendition of Macbeth, brimming with emotion, that twists the conceit of Shakespeare until it is barely recognizable, and instead replaces it with an intricately built world of horror and superhuman, phantasmagorical actors that frequently disappear from stage in front of your very eyes.  

The show's format affirms a universal truth: freedom is king. The actors play out their roles, moving from bedroom to ballroom, fleeing from the 1st floor to the 5th, and the viewers (that's me and you) decide whether to follow, stay and wait, or leave to find an entirely different plot line. There are 11 actors across 5 floors; while they unite for specific scenes, there's enough separation that two viewers can follow two different actors and come away with entirely divergent experiences.

For less talented production companies, allowing the audience to wander around during a play can be ticket-box suicide. But for Punchdrunk, the British site-specific theater company enacting "Sleep No More," allowing the audience to break from the story line is their vote of confidence surrounding the set. It is beautifully rendered. Every roomand there are over 50is distinctly constructed: an eerie baby's room, with an overhead mobile dangling 40 burlap-cloth dolls; a hospital infirmary with 10 bathtubs of rusted spigots and dirty porcelain lined up in two rows; a forest of dead winter trees shielding a spectral goat balancing on a Roman alter, back-lit with fluorescent blue light. Many of the rooms are never entered by the actors; Punchdrunk expects the viewer to leave the play and explore on his own.

Personally, I experienced an emotional roller-coaster that can be summarized in broad sweeps. The first ten minutes were characterized by intrigue: I walked through a narrow, nearly pitch-black maze and ended up in an ethereal jazz bar. The playing card I was handed upon arrival (I had a 2 of spades) determined my on-boarding order. I was given a white Venetian carnival-style mask and told there was no more talking. In the elevator, the doorman cut the group off, and let us out in packs of 5 to 6 on each floor.

The second twenty minutes were characterized by anxiety and fright. I was let off in the graveyard, which, with its decaying headstones, archangels of death, and real dirt, was so visceral and daunting I was waiting for the moment when I'd be hit over the head and dragged into the dark pit behind me. It's hard to emphasize how terrifying the set appears upon entrance the first time. It's insanely real: the air blowing on my face felt natural, bedspreads looked and felt lived-in, and minute details like books and buttons are nailed so specifically that if there weren't EXIT signs everywhere, I would have truly believed I was there.

The next hour and a half is about exploration. Because of the otherworldly design aspect of the set, I quickly left the story lines I stumbled into and walked through all five floors, touching and prodding and tip-toeing into each room. The adrenaline flowed most freely walking through empty hallways and perusing empty rooms. With over 200 other viewers, someone was usually rummaging with me. But when nobody was present, I could hear the tinkling silence, felt the darkness' gravitational pull, trembled at the absurd-but-then-highly-believable notion that an inanimate object would come alive and beat me unconscious or a hooded figure would tape my mouth and drag me into a sinkhole.

The last hour and a half is about empathy. While exploring, I discovered Macbeth in a hotel lobby, beating a pregnant woman to death. I was intrigued. I told myself I'd follow him for 5 minutesand ended up tailing him until the end of the play, through his bedroom, the hotel lobby, the forest, and his banquet. Macbetheither Eric Bradley, Nicholas Bruder, or Luke Murphyhad superhuman stamina and concentration. Unlike a regular play, where actors can rest between acts, I saw Macbeth shave, get dressed, prepare for bed in-between his "real" acts, where he murdered, had sex, danced. The entire time, I was an arm lengths' away.

At 2 a.m., I left the theater. I wasn't a changed man. My worldview didn't develop. There wasn't even a stronger urge to watch more theater or opera. But I did leave with a sense of light-headed ecstasy. The three hours I spent were more immersive than the best movie, video game, or play. Combined. For days afterwards, I feasted on the mental ambrosia of my experience. The emotion etched on the actors' faces, from despair to mirth, was a projection of my ambiguous, undefined subconscious into reality. "Sleep No More" felt like living out a dream; it's the closest I've come to leaving my body and soul somewhere elsealmost, I'd say, like tasting the afterlife.

P.S. If you need more convincing, I've written more about why you should see it. It's more stream-of-consciousness, with more spoilers. Which one do you like better?