The Cost of Not Getting Lost

I recently disconnected from the internet for a week, intentionally curtailing my use of my various iGadgets. I did not check Facebook for the latest witticisms from my friends, didn’t read the latest Kardashian gossip on Gawker nor skim the news headlines for the latest outrageous quote from a likely Republican presidential candidate or failure of our government to pass meaningful legislation. In the simplest terms, I stopped relying on technology to fill my spare moments and to answer every minor question. I would go to the internet if I needed to, not when I felt like it and had the opportunity (which is now all the time). Since my job is in the Internet, being completely offline was not really an option. And wasn’t the point.

I wanted to remember what it was like before being constantly connected. In the past few years, I have noticed myself being compelled more and more to reach for the phone each time my attention wasn’t otherwise required. If I think hard enough, I can remember when I used to read books and magazines. I used to watch TV shows when they aired or I missed them. I used to do housework, to make art, to write long, personal emails and even letters or made phone calls. Out and about, I watched other people, cruised, looked at the leaves falling from the trees or just had private thoughts and wandered, not doing anything at all.

But are those days in the past? I need to be reminded about what I’d traded away by making the choice to be online all the time. Clearly the time spent on Facebook and surfing the internet is now using almost all the time I used to spend doing something else.

In the course of being disconnected, I had an interesting and unexpected experience. I was driving to a store in Mountain View to observe how the layaway program was being implemented as part of my job. While on the freeway, I realized I hadn’t set up the route in the GPS on my phone. No matter, I thought. I didn’t need to use the phone to find my way and it was my third trip there. Surely I would be able to remember the exit. Turns out, I didn’t know the name of the exit and overshot by a couple miles.

Missing an exit like that would have been unimaginable for me before having a phone with GPS. I used to look at maps and visualize the route in my head before going somewhere new, with every sign, exit and intersection reinforcing the memory of the route on the way. Now, I hadn’t learned the route well enough to retrace my previous two trips–I didn’t even know the name of the street to look for.

So beyond having a simple moment to have my own thoughts, here was a concrete example of what I had traded away–my sense of place and direction. For many folks, traveling to a new place can be stressful. Maps can be confusing and directions can be wrong, leave out important details or be simply unintelligible. For me, that’s not really the case but even I don’t bother trying to figure out the route. Now, an address can be found with a search or even a link in an email, which is then transferred to your GPS without even reading it or thinking about it again.

After recognizing my own failing, I have since watched several people who rely on GPS drive to unfamiliar locations. When setting out, all they really care about is that the system recognizes the address they enter and tells them how long the trip will take. The GPS can be relied upon to call out each turn and correct you if you miss a street. You can be blissfully unaware of what direction you traveled, what town you’re in and even the name of the street your on, and only aware of the time and perhaps the miles traveled since you started your trip and the ease with which you could comply with the guidance of the GPS.

Of course, with GPS you are much less likely to get wildly and hopelessly lost and you can enjoy the view and companionship without constant anxiety of missing a turn or realizing too late you don’t have the right directions or just getting lost. You’ve essentially traded off learning how to get somewhere new and how to be resourceful in finding your own way with maps, knowhow and the help of the surly gas station attendant should the directions fail.

So I’ve learned that, with access to a constant fix of information, I traded away some of the difficult aspects of life, like being bored or getting lost. It’s not that I’m against the ubiquitous exposure to media and information that our new technology allows, but I do think that a quality of simpler, less purposeful living means less chance for growth that comes from uncertainty and adventure. While technology provide the benefit of allowing us to enjoy moments that we otherwise wouldn’t have, it also means that we are not learning from experiences the way we used to nor having unexpected experiences.


I spent the weekend in Los Angeles a few weeks ago to see Jovanotti in concert at El Rey–an amazing concert that deserves its own post. With my spare time, I toured both the Getty Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, two museums I hadn’t visited before. It was a lot of art to cram into a day and a half but had some rewarding moments.

The expanse and care of the Getty exhibits are both phenomenal and the LACMA complex offered a great variety of art-related experience, including a celebration of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, complete with dancers and a haft sin table of symbolic items representing the seven elements of life, which accounted for the unexpected assortment.

There was some contemporary art as well, including Chris Burden’s incredibly popular Metropolis II, which had crowds of families enthralled with it’s noisy excess. There was also a large gallery dedicated to the oversized works of Robert Therrien.  No Title (Blue Plastic Plates) is a ten-foot-tall mixed media work and I caught the gallery attendant in the background of the picture featured here. I showed her the image–she was amused and thanked me.


I painted Tree Meditation in 1998 when I was in a workshop in Tuscany. Since that time, it’s weathered several indignities–being stretched and unstretched for international travel, rolled up, folded, dropped and tipped over onto pointy objects. It’s a large canvas, 6 x 6 feet more or less, and its glossy, dark surface suffered some wear and tear, including holes, scratches, chips and stretched out bulges.

It remains one of my favorite pieces and has a lot of personal meaning for me. I painted this work after meditating under a particular oak tree, pondering my own problems and reflecting on what the tree’s point of view might be. I recognized at the time how absurd my concerns were to an immobile oak that can’t see and can’t think, at least in the way I can. This tree, I imagined, had a much different perspective, alone in the middle of a field for decades “watching” the world change around him, humans coming and going, the tree forever stationary, unknowing and isolated from any of its kin but alive just the same. And beautiful.

I ignored the condition of Tree Meditation for a long time as it hung on my wall, poorly lit, hiding its flaws. Then I lit it from a new angle, which brought the painting to life, but also revealed its record of abuse. The uneven, highly reflective surface in particular made the bumps and lumps more noticeable, so I took the piece down and pulled it from its stretcher bars with the goal of restoring it. I rebuilt the wooden stretcher to make it stronger and less prone to warping. To constrict the canvas fibers and make the canvas taught, I applied hot water with sponges and a spray bottle on the back the painting after it was re-stretched. I touched up the scratches, carefully matching the colors with the same pigments, which felt strange after not having painted on the work for 12 years. I also added more glazing as I’d improved as a painter over the last decade and knew better what to do to bring out the color and contrast.

The last step was to rephotograph the piece in its new condition before returning it to the wall. I had a single photo of the completed work, which I took with my very first digital camera over a decade ago. It poorly captured the colors and textures of the work. Glossy, dark, large paintings are particularly difficult to photograph without getting odd glare, but after some trial and error, I positioned the painting in our backyard at the perfect angle to photograph from our deck, minimizing reflections properly exposing the dark and light areas. Restoration complete.

Winter summer

As the Central Valley broils at 100 degrees just 50 miles inland, San Francisco can remain enveloped in fog all day during the summer, the temperature never leaving the 50s. This phenomenon was most pronounced for me when I used to commute to Pleasanton on the opposite side of the coastal ridge 10 years ago, sweating in shorts as I boarded the train on the way home, only to emerge from the subway an hour later to the biting winds swirling around the San Francisco Civic Center.

My new job, which is just south of The City provides me with a new variation on the theme, with weather that seems to alternate between either blistering hot in the afternoon as I wait for the shuttle bus to take me to the train, or 40-mile-an-hour frigid winds sweeping over the fog-covered hills of South San Francisco. I transfer from the bus to the train at Balboa Park on the west side of San Francisco, which is dependably foggy. I depart the train for my walk home to Hayes Valley through the Mission, which is sheltered from the wind somehow, but for this summer, is still not its usual sunny self.

After an uncommonly long winter of rain and cold, San Francisco is now in the midst of one of coldest and darkest Julys I can remember. I’m not the only one complaining as I see friends on Facebook complaining about down comforters and winter hats and scarves in response to those sweltering on the East Coast. But I understand this is the price to pay for living in San Francisco, and a wintery summer is still a good trade-off for an actual winter-winter in the Midwest.

Cool is dead

I think Prince was on to something–the Internet is not dead, but everything we think is cool about it will be dead sooner than we think. We are becoming so accustomed to rapid changes in what is technically possible that we pick up and abandon trends faster than ever, making the life expectancy of new products and services shorter and shorter.

  • YouTube has been popular for about 5 years
  • Most people I know have been on Facebook for three years or less
  • Twitter was very 2009.

Apps and internet memes may only last a few months or weeks. Fat Booth or Sad Keanu anyone? For free or for a dollar or two you can download the latest cool thing, share it, like it and forget it. There are so many trends that there’s only enough time to adopt a small percentage of them before they are replaced. The proliferation of mobile technologies is only hastening this effect (in 2010, it’s Grindr and FaceTime on the iPhone).

The Internet itself is not dying, but whatever someone says is cool about it probably is.

Office park

My office park, 2010

Ten minute walk to 16th Street BART. Ten minute train ride to Balboa Park Station. Ten minute shuttle bus ride to the Sierra Point office park. Add in 5 minute buffers and my commute to work each day is about 45 minutes each way.

I don’t mind the commute too much. I used to take MUNI from Van Ness to the ball park each day, and even though my old office was in the city, the commute was over 30 minutes on public transportation. My new commute is a little longer but it is a reverse commute, so there is always a seat. In fact, it is just enough time for me to check email and Facebook, or to write these little posts.

But still.

Unlike commuting to points in the city, my new office park is isolated between the freeway and the Bay and close to nothing else. It is a big adjustment from all those years in the city. There are no street businesses and no residents–just office towers and office workers. But the area is nicely landscaped and clean, with a beautiful public trail and a marina and plenty of places to sit and look at the water during a break. But because of the geography and development plan, Sierra Point is isolated–almost an island that requires a two mile drive to get to the nearest community, and walking or riding a bike to the office is impractical. There is no public transit, just an office-sponsored shuttle to BART or Caltrain.

During the middle of the day, my options are limited in ways that I never had considered before–no errands, no lunch with friends, no walking to SFMOMA when I need a break or going home early if I have to wait for the shuttle. The modern office park is designed for cars and little else.

As a long time user of public transport and/or bicycles, the idea of driving to work is still something I have to get used to. Right now a motorcycle seems like the best alternative, so now I have to figure out how I can get out of the office island during the day to get to the DMV…

Motorcycle class was hard

Yesterday I completed a two-day motorcycle class. Unlike most people in the class, I’m not even sure if I want a bike and I figured that taking the class was a good way to find out.

The class was held in a wind swept, foggy parking lot at City College in San Francisco. There were about 30 students broken into three groups. The instructors were enthusiastic and we were all eager to get on the bikes.

The lessons were thorough and some of the exercises were fun, but most of the time was spent either standing, listening to instructions or waiting our turn to ride the bikes around the course, which would have been fine but many of the exercises were trickier than I supposed and I felt my anxiety level rise each time we completed an exercise that I hadn’t mastered.

The easiest and most fun exercise was running over 2 x 4s while going in an oval. Executing two tight u-turns in a row was the hardest and very nerve racking. On my second to last practice, the guy in front of me dumped his bike, which had me spooked–if you dump your bike in the final exam you fail.

At the end of the second day we were evaluated on three moderately complex maneuvers. The first maneuver was tight u-turns, which I always took too slow and wide. For the test I became bold and decided to ‘use the force’–doing it the way I was told to and resisting the impulse to go too slow and look whether or not I was within the lines. Nailed it.

The last maneuver was a fairly straightforward brake and turn scenario. I thought it went well but, as I later learned, I was wrong.

Waiting for scores was nerve-racking—I hadn’t felt that way since performing oboe recitals in high school. The instructor met with us one at a time. When it was my turn, the instructor first covered some formalities then it was time to talk about how I did. The first two exercises went well even though I had to do the second one twice because I was too slow. Then he listed all the points that were deducted on the third maneuver: I didn’t use boths brakes enough and I didn’t accelerate into the turn properly after slowing before the turn. If I had made one more mistake, I may have failed, but I didn’t. I passed.

I left class relieved but pre-occupied with my performance and its implications. Riding the motorcycle was fun but I won’t miss being judged, especially on something I’m doing for essentially the first time.