Craving Control

I’m back in Seattle, getting into the swing of life in the States. The process has been slowed by spending a few dozen nights in the woods leading backpacking trips for the local YMCA. But I’m getting used to it, and I’m starting to pick up on some big things that have changed for me since my travels in India.

One of the main differences is control. After a couple months in India, I became totally at ease with the lack of control I was able to assert over any situation. Things never worked exactly how I wanted them to. There was always an element of uncertainty due to the general insanity of the place. Buses broke down, trains got delayed, holidays and strikes happened often and unexpectedly, cows blocked roads. The list goes on. The magical thing is that everything worked out anyway. Once I learned to set intentions rather than specific plans for how things would unfold, life progressed swimmingly.

Seattle (any typical US city?) is different. We’ve got smartphones with maps and email and to-do lists. We plan our days down to the minute. We over-schedule ourselves and keep our pockets buzzing non-stop. For what? Fear of missing out? Worry of wasting time? Not wanting to be alone? Avoiding unpleasant interactions? Everyone has their own reasons, but it seems to be natural for our brains to crave control of our time (and presumably, our lives), to make sure we’re doing what we consider the best, most productive, or most efficient at all times.

The ability to hyper-control our lives isn’t all dandelions and rainbows, though. First of all, it puts some serious pressure on us to make the right decisions all the time. When we have the attitude of complete control, we also take responsibility for everything that’s not perfect. Whenever something goes wrong, it’s our fault. It’s because we didn’t plan well enough or we didn’t take into account some minute detail. But here’s the catch: nothing is ever perfect. No matter how well we plan and scheme and organize, something will always get us. Our world is too complex. The second law of thermodynamics.

Secondly, and more subtly, imposing complete control pushes the universe out of our lives. The world is full of synchronicity, unexpected connection, and good things happening for no apparent reason. When we schedule every minute, we don’t leave room for the universe to play its quiet role in guiding our lives. Out of fear, we close ourselves off to the unknown, when in fact the unknown is exactly where the greatest things happen. We lop off the magnificence of nature to avoid potential pitfalls. We narrow our experience, limiting it to the bounds of our own imaginations. Sure, a lot of people have pretty great imaginations, but none of them stack up to the collective imagination of the universe.

This sounds hippie-dippie, but I’m convinced there’s something to it. Every time a phone vibrates in our pockets, some train of thought is mercilessly derailed. Every time we hustle down the street, late for an appointment, we miss the chance encounters that could make our day memorable. Every time we book our day solid, we’re probably too tired by the end to be receptive to that energy in the first place.

My intention for the next few months is to take things slower, to cultivate receptivity, and to let creativity continue to blossom in my life. I believe this is possible, even in a busy, stress-inducing environment. It takes mindfulness, deep breaths, and eye contact. It takes some time alone, some time away from the phone, and some time left unscheduled. But mostly it takes the intention to make it happen, and the motivation to do it. Summer is a great time to slow down, and a great time to practice bringing openness and vibrancy into our lives. Enjoy it!

Culture Shock v2.0

I’m quickly approaching a month back in the States. Culture shock continues, but in a much subtler and more drawn out way than the initial jolt. Mundane activities like grocery shopping, walking to a park, and meeting a friend for coffee have stopped blowing my mind. I’m slowly making less eye contact. But a seed of disorientation persists.

A big part of my confusion is the enormous disconnect between life the States/Vermont/Seattle and life in India. There’s basically nothing in my life here that reminds me of my life over there. The trip is starting to feel like a weird dream that happened a long time ago that I can’t quite describe to anyone. The comfort I acquired in bouncing between extremes has been replaced by wondering why things are so easy and straight-forward here. People make plans? Get places on time? Expect this from others? Days float by.

I continue to be struck by the wealth and assumption of comfort here. We all have relatively so much, but it’s not enough. We allow ourselves to get worked up over little things and problems we’ve created just for the sake of having problems. Traffic, slow service, soup that is too hot. At the same time, we hoard our wealth instead of using it to fix the inequality, injustice, and exploitation all around us. This is the downside of the adaptability of humans: when things are good or great, we get complacent and form expectations.

This is all starting to sound like a major downer. It isn’t meant to be. Life is amazing here. We have green spaces and potable water from the tap and clean bathrooms and time and space to exercise and pretty much do anything we want. The country is fantastic and beautiful. It’s just a lot to process.

I’m sure all this will calm down as I settle back into Seattle, but part of me doesn’t want to let it go. During my travels I developed a healthy sense of urgency to make something of my life and my privilege. If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you’re well-off, well-educated, and empowered. We need to remember and appreciate this, and acknowledge that these are gifts that we can use to help others achieve the same freedoms that we enjoy. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama comes to mind again:

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.

If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

I play the cello, too!

What It’s Like to Play in a Band

Eight months ago I joined a band in Seattle, Pocket Panda. I’ve played music most of my life and in all sorts of groups, but this was my first experience in a “rock band”. It has been a blast and has exposed me to a new and exciting scene in Seattle.


In terms of musical background, I’m very much classically trained. I’ve played cello since I was about eight, took a couple years of piano lessons, and picked up trombone in middle and high school for concert and jazz bands. In high school, I also started fooling around with guitar, mostly struggling to play Pink Floyd and Dave Matthews covers. I got a lot more serious about guitar a few years ago when I got into country blues. I never practiced my voice, but I’ve been getting more involved with that lately. When I went traveling abroad, I brought a ukulele and fell for that as well. I’ve played in orchestras, string ensembles, musicals, and as my focus shifted to guitar, by myself or with a friend. But never in a band, never in a self-directed group with the purpose of creating original music to perform regularly.

One night after practicing some Bach Cello Suites, I put on a Shostakovich trio I hadn’t listen to for a while. At the time, I was playing in a casual string quartet, mostly Mozart-era repertoire. The Shostakovich reminded me of some of the fantastic small-ensemble pieces I had played in high school (when I was the most serious about cello), and I decided to scan Craigslist for a couple folks who might be interested in a serious endeavor like that. The result: no string ensembles. A couple people offering cello lessons. An amateur orchestra with open auditions. And one “indie-rock band with folk tendencies” looking to augment their string section.

I listened to the only song they had posted on their website, and I liked the sound a lot. I was feeling reckless with the boundaries of my comfort zone, so I decided to send an email. I met up with the lead singer, went to a couple trial practices, and learned a couple of their songs. Within about a month I was part of the band.

And it has been a blast. The newness of the experience has been terrific; my comfort zone has undoubtedly expanded. I’m constantly learning about how the music scene in Seattle works and what it takes to put this kind of group together. I’ve gotten comfortable with playing shows – at least as the cellist. The idea of singing still freaks me out, but I’m getting more comfortable with it. And the cliche about a band being like a relationship – well, it’s completely true.


Here’s how it works. We rent a practice space in a grungy part of town for a couple hundred bucks a month. It usually suits our needs perfectly – enough room for the seven of us – but it can get noisy when other bands choose the same practice times as us. We practice twice a week for a few hours each time, and we occasionally have smaller meet-ups to work on specific parts and harmonies. The lead singer writes the lyrics and structure for most of our songs and we use our practice time to hash out the direction and details of the rest of the parts. At the moment we’ve got about a full record’s worth of original music, all of which we’ve performed, but most of which we haven’t had the time or funds to record.


Playing shows has been the biggest step out of my comfort zone, and also the most rewarding. I remember feeling some nervousness performing when I was younger, especially when my part was exposed or when I didn’t feel totally solid with the music. I haven’t felt even a hint of nerves thus far playing with the band. Partly this is due to the circumstance – I am sitting, which decreases my exposure, and my parts are not all that technically difficult. I am also confident with the cello. It is second nature to be playing it in front of people. Vocals are a different story. Even just thinking about singing into a microphone makes my palms clammy. I also can’t play cello and sing at the same time yet. Both things I’m actively working on.

And so shows are a joy to play. Every one has been fun, even when the audience is small or distracted. There is a feeling of energy on stage happening in the space between us, a spark that doesn’t happen during practice. We know our songs well, and this is our opportunity to send our energy and emotion out into the crowd. When we play at bars we usually get a couple free drink tickets a piece, which is sometimes the biggest part of our payment. At slightly larger venues, we usually split the cover with the other bands playing and the bar, and can take home a couple hundreds bucks or more on a decent night. Not enough to make any money, but enough to help with practice space rent and recording. A few of our shows have had great backstage setups – couches, coolers of beer, free food. It’s fun to feel like a VIP for the night.

Another piece that has made these shows so enjoyable is the immense support I’ve gotten from my friends in town. I’m lucky to be part of such a good group of people. They come out to shows and do fun things like cheer my name between songs (“Why is everyone cheering for to cellist??”). It makes the events feel intimate and comfortable. A real joy.


Because we spend so much time together as a group, and because we’re exploring something that each of us feels passionately about, being in the band can feel like being in a relationship. A few months ago our drummer got upset with the rest of us and quit the band (he has been replaced, and our new drummer is stellar). This experience was the most similar to breaking up with a romantic partner that I’ve had. Harsh words were shared. We had to coordinate his moving his stuff out of our space. A lot of eye contact was avoided. Emotionally wrought emails were exchanged throughout the process. Luckily there were still six of us to keep the relationship going. We were able to move on, and we found someone great to take his place. And for now, we all get along well. We still have differences of opinion, but for the most part we’re able to communicate about them and find some middle ground. Good communication – a universal necessity for successful relationships.

I’m excited now to see how we grow as a band. We recently got together with a manager. We’ll be putting together a KickStarter or IndieGoGo campaign soon so we can (if it succeeds!) afford to record a full-length album. We’re pushing for bigger shows and more radio play. Things are moving in fun directions, and people seem to like what we’re making. I’ll keep you posted!

Have questions about what it’s like to be in a band? Post a comment and I’ll try to address it next time I write about it. To listen to Pocket Panda, check out our Bandcamp page. If you like what we’re doing, you can stay updated on Facebook and Twitter. Enjoy!

Crater lake is the best.

City Biking

Update 2/13/2012: It looks like some folks at the Seattle Times read my blog and put together this article in response. Check it out.

Biking around a city can be a wild thing. It’s usually fun, sometimes a hassle, and occasionally just plain scary. But in Seattle, and I suspect in many other cities, it’s quite often the fastest and best way to get around. From my bike, I definitely feel good knowing that while all the cars around me are spending money on gas, getting stressed out and wasting time looking for parking, I’m just getting exercise. There are some clever signs and T-shirts about biking, my favorite probably being the one with the silhouette of a bicycle and a gas pump, then info mimicking the window plaque on a new car. Highway MPG: ∞, City MPG: ∞. Another good one: “You’re not IN traffic, you ARE traffic.”

I’ve been riding around Seattle consistently for about two years now, and this is the biggest city I’ve ever biked around regularly. It’s a whole different experience than biking around a smaller city or town. It can be stressful at times, but on the whole it’s a fun and rewarding experience. Weaving around busses, poorly parked cars, and bleary eyed pedestrians is exciting – as long as I make it to my destination in one piece. I ride a fixed gear (for those less bike-inclined, this means the pedals are directly linked to the back wheel so you always go exactly the speed you’re pedaling, times the gear ratio. On my bike one full rotation of the pedals creates about 2.93 rotations of the back wheel. To slow down, you pedal slower. You can’t coast, and if you pedal backwards, you actually go backwards. Don’t worry mom, I still keep a front brake, even though some claim it’s superfluous), which makes the riding experience very tactile. I wear a helmet and lights. Biking regularly in a city without them is pretty much a death wish. I have a quick commute to work, but it’s all on busy streets heading into downtown. There are a lot of great bike paths in Seattle, but most of my trips keep me on roads instead.

A problem with biking in a busy place is knowing that you could die at pretty much any time for a variety of reasons, many of which would not be your fault. Rather than become a timid or defensive biker, this that taught me to be aggressive and (perhaps) overly assertive on the road. My number one priority on my bike is to not die, so my theory is that if a driver can see me well enough to get pissed off at me, then they can see me well enough to not kill me. The rational behind this is that it is not going to be some enraged, steam-blowing-out-of-the-ears driver who is going to hit me. It is some unsuspecting, lazy or distracted driver who doesn’t see me. A soccer mom with kids in back, a tipsy twenty-something focusing hard on not swerving or speeding, the guy whose mirror has been broken for a month but he’s been too busy to get it fixed. There are three situations which I consider the MOST dangerous, and which would give me the least time to react:

1. The car door. This is a perpetual fear of mine, and it has most often come the closest to putting me in serious harm. The problem: people don’t check their blind spot before they open their door after parking. Especially when a car is already parked with the lights off, this gives almost no time to react. I think it’s common for people to park, sit in the car for a couple minutes checking their phone, then throw the door open without looking. The solution to this is to ride as far to the left as possible. In tough situations, this means cars won’t be able to pass, and they’ll get upset. Well, let them wait.

2. Turning right without a blinker. A lot of people don’t think they need their blinker when they turn right because it often doesn’t affect the rest of the flow of traffic. Well, especially if you make a fast turn, you might hit the biker you didn’t see. For some reason, this is a lot worse on one way streets with people turning left and the bike lane on the left. It’s a situation nobody is really used to, so they don’t know where to look. I’ve considered wearing a clown wig to increase my visibility.

3. Running a stop sign or light. This is the illegal move that worries me (U-turns are bad too, but give more time to react), mostly because I’ve heard stories; it leads to some of the worst crashes. I definitely cover my brake whenever I’m going through an intersection, and get as much visibility to side streets even when I have the right of way, but there’s only so much you can do.

I haven’t had any accidents in Seattle in my first few hundred miles of biking around the city, and I’m hoping not to anytime soon. I try to anticipate poor driving decisions, and I think riding my fixie makes me more alert (plus I go slower down hills). A lot of my friends have had wrecks, and you definitely can’t anticipate everything. There’s all sorts of questionable and dangerous maneuvers cars make around town, so you’ve got to stay on your toes. To be fair, I suppose I should mention some of the questions things I do that probably upset drivers.

1. Swerve through traffic. This is what makes riding on busy streets fun and fast – ignoring the traffic. I ride between lanes (but try to stay on the right when it’s open), and swerve around cars that pop into the bike lane to turn instead of stopping behind them. This makes biking about twice as fast as taking the bus for most trips. Also, most Seattle drivers are push-overs, so nobody seems to care that I’m in and out of their lanes.

2. Ride in the middle of the lane. As mentioned above, I do this when it’s not safe to be anywhere else. Sometimes it means the cars will have to wait, and sometimes that makes them upset.

3. Mess with aggressive drivers. Ok, I admit to occasionally intentionally making some driver’s day a little bit worse. Biking a lot can cultivate a sense of righteous indignation – you know what you’re doing is better than what those people are doing, and they should know too. So, if someone revs up as they’re speeding past me with <1 ft clearance, or if someone honks (this is the worst. Without the glass and steel cocoon it’s a lot louder than they think), or if someone passes me carelessly only so they can cut me off and get to a line of stopped cars first, sometimes I’ll indulge my momentary road rage. Some of my favorites are pulling in front of someone at a light and leisurely getting my feet to the pedals as the light changes, and riding really close to someone and maybe giving their window a little slap to wake them up. On bad days, after getting cut off for about the fourth or fifth time, I sometimes dream of pulling out my bike lock and seeing how hard I’d have to swing it to break a window, or how deep a dent I could make in a hood. So far, it hasn’t come to that.

Knowing what’s out there and what is dangerous definitely forms a lot of my biking decisions, but there can always be something left unaccounted for, some surprise or freak occurrence. On the whole, Seattle drivers are very accommodating to bikers, and I generally feel safe. There are some jerks and idiots out there, though, and in the dark and rain it can be hard even to see a well-lit bike. Sometimes you just have to hope you make it where you’re going, and when it’s really bad, sometimes you just have to take the bus.

Snow in Seattle

Snowpocalypse comes to Seattle. In this town, that translates into about five inches. It’s definitely enough to shut everything down, though. Especially living up on Capitol Hill where the roads are steep and narrow, transportation becomes impossible. Walk or stay home.

The last week has been glorious. Maybe it’s my Vermont roots, but the snow seems to have made the whole town wake up and smile. We had a solid day of snow, as predicted, and then a second day of snow and icy rain, not predicted. People skipped work, or worked from coffee shops, cross country skiers took to the sidewalks, cars lay tucked away and unreachable in the snow.

I love the snow, being snowed in, and having to make a real effort to trek to the nearest coffee shop for a warm beverage. The brightness of reflection on an otherwise gray day. The weather seems to foster a sense of community that I haven’t seen before in Seattle. People raise their heads from the dark- and rain-induced cocoons and actually take a look around. We’re all struggling against a common difficulty, and everyone’s life is affected. We can relate to each other.

I called a few friends over for a snowball fight, and once they showed up we had about 7 people building snow forts and hurling snow balls. The best part, though, was that our neighbors started to come outside and join in. People I’d never met before, despite living about 35 paces apart. People I should already know, and who I am now committed to developing some kind relationship with, even if it’s just recognizing them at the grocery store to say “Hi.” In the end, about 15 cold and wet people came up to our apartment from the snow for mulled wine.

The last remnants of slush and ice are vanishing today (the walls of the snow fort are the last to go), but the mood persists. A crust has been peeled off our eyes and brains, rejuvenating the neighborhood as we head back into a few more months of darkness and rain. A great week in Seattle.