timely correspondence as a muscle to train

An old friend said I should call her once we moved to different towns. “Every day!” she said. I knew that wouldn’t be sustainable, but at least we’d try to connect regularly. Every day turned into twice a week, then once a week, and then hardly at all. The same thing happened with text messages.

I checked in with her to see if everything was alright between us. It was; everyone is just busy. Boo hoo, I thought.

Then I remembered all the other messages I left to marinate in my inbox. Unanswered Christmas cards, birthday wishes (some that are over three years old!), warm greetings from friends in faraway lands: each one lovely and worthy of a wholesome letter in return.


With work e-mails and calls, I am speedy. I reply within a day or two. So why don’t I extend the same habit to old friends? That mismatch in priorities doesn’t feel right. My favorite (and most deadly) rationalization: “I’ll write back when I have the time to make a worthy response”. But of course, that day doesn’t come.

I can’t complain in good conscience when I’ve left other cherished people hanging in the past. If anything, this is another reason for me to double down my efforts in making timely correspondence a regular habit.


Reframe: Rather than excusing yourself by saying “I stink at responding to messages”, think of timely correspondence as a skill to develop, or as a muscle to strengthen. The next time an old friend slips up, throw them a bone and be gracious, just as many others have been to you.

Here’s an example I like to return to, this one from Suzanne after I neglected her message for 11 months:

stars and stripes

I saw an Asian kid wearing an American flag hoodie today. The hood was blue with white stars, and the rest was covered in red and white stripes. Sweaters, shirts and bikinis with the American flag are nothing new, but this is the first flag hoodie I’ve seen on someone who looks like me.

I wondered if he still gets those “where are you really from” questions while wearing it.

a quiet 4th of july

Fireworks are heavily regulated in the Bay Area and California, but that doesn’t stop people from sneaking in their own bootleg explosives from Nevada or elsewhere. (Here, bootleg is a loose synonym for exciting). There’s an open residential area by the post office where neighbors gather and blow up their entire stash, and dad would take us each year to watch some homegrown magic. We only had to duck for cover once.

But that era is over, the police have shut it down. Ho hum. I’m sitting at home now. I still hear fireworks in the distance, but I’m not sure where they’re coming from.

consistency in sleep

FitBit calling me out on my sleeping patterns.

Sleep rewards discipline, or at least a consistent structure. My freewheeling ways are the opposite of that, and it’s wrecking havoc on my quality of rest — another everyday example of the gap between knowing something and actually executing on it.

I’m tempted to sacrifice sleep for precious hours alone when others are sleeping late at night. I need to remind myself that I can get those same benefits by sleeping and rising early in the morning. (And more: I get to hear the birds chirp and watch the sunrise).


Jocko Willink, author and former Navy SEAL, advocates being an early bird. He’s not the only person to say that, but he’s the only one I’ve seen to tweet a picture of his watch every morning to show it.

Scroll down his Twitter feed and you’ll find that he’s amazingly consistent. Waking up at 4:45 AM is late for him. (He’ll tweet about that, too).


You don’t have to wake up at 4:30 AM to get the same benefits (e.g. time and space to yourself before tending to other commitments, getting a head start to the day). But the underlying principle is sound: keeping a disciplined schedule with sleeping and waking up can grant you the energy and freedom to make the most out of your day — however you choose to define that.


Now is always a good time to start.


toyota avalon

The family car reached 240,000 miles on the way to Chick-fil-A today. Too bad it won’t pass the California smog test next year; otherwise I think it could last another 100,000 miles. It’s a Toyota Avalon, model year 2000. Think of it as a Toyota Camry, but with a bit more space to stretch. (And worthy of a spot with the 1990s – early 2000s Honda Accord and Civic — all legendary immigrant-family-friendly sedans. They were affordable, practical, and reliable, and I saw them everywhere in the Bay Area as a child). It’s 2017 and I still see them on the road.

Dad said thank you to the car and started patting the dashboard as if it were a dog.


I wonder what my odometer would say if I had one. I’m running more often nowadays.

thoughts on living in the suburb

I used to resent growing up in a quiet, sheltered neighborhood. Say bye-bye to spontaneity. No knocking on people’s doors or cruising around the streets on the bicycle; if you’d like to see a friend you must schedule a playdate first. In high school, I’d be jealous of the other kids who could just wander wherever they wanted without being supervised. Mostly I just felt lonely. I’d rebel by sneaking out to the grocery store instead of the park to buy a fancy soda.

It could always be worse. I grew up in a loving family, and at least it was safe enough for me to go outside (or stay indoors, for that matter). The bubble of security and genuine care freed me to think about other things instead of worrying about staying alive. Not every kid gets that chance.

Plus I had unrestricted Internet access, and could keep my social needs at bay by talking to oddballs in faraway places. And I could bug my younger brother whenever. You’ll have to ask him if he enjoyed that part.


Being sheltered and knowing that I’m being sheltered can carry both shame and fear. Shame that strangers would think of me as one of those entitled, overly coddled kids that pundits like to criticize in the news, and fear that those people may have been right. My reaction to that life narrative was just going bananas the moment I left home for university. That meant being open to meeting anybody strange or mysterious, or pursuing any adventure reckless, late night, or “for the story”. I had a lot of years to compensate for, I felt.

I can’t say that’s the best reaction, but it certainly made life more interesting.


I still resent the American suburb and what it represents (isolation, lack of respect for a vibrant public space), but now I think without that experience, I wouldn’t have been so eager to break out and explore the world.

So I am grateful.

looking for permission from the world

Somewhere down a side street in San Francisco, outside a bar.

Taking life advice from random signposts in the city isn’t the most refined approach to decision-making. But I feel stuck and lost, and will look for any excuse to keep going. You may as well stamp eat-pray-love on my forehead.


In her New York Times Modern Love piece, “Looking for Signs That It’s Meant to Be”, Liz Falletta writes:

“Like many people, I tend to write a story in my head about the future of any relationship before it has even begun, which means I’m constantly looking for signs that it’s either meant to be or not. If you’re unsure about a relationship, or unsure about the trajectory of your life in general, you’re more likely to grasp unusual coincidences or circumstances and give them greater weight than they otherwise deserve.”

I think Falletta is right. Would I give as much weight to this sign if I were already doing epic shit and happy with the direction my life is going? Probably not. But I’m a sucker for encouraging words, and I found the sign compelling enough to step through a side street and take a picture.

At best, it’s dorky. At worst, it’s procrastination or self-delusion. Searching for signs (real or imagined) as a way to gauge my progress is an indulgence when I’m scared and uncertain of the world. I’ve done the same by waiting for the approval of mom and dad, friends, and mentors before making big life decisions. In Toy Story, Woody does the same with his Magic 8-Ball.


Growing up means holding myself accountable for my own decisions and growth. That means experimenting and taking risks while I am still young, healthy, and unburdened, and it means experimenting and taking risks even when I am old, weary, and worried. Instead of waiting for the perfect conditions to build the kind of life I want, why not start now and just go for it?

Feeling scared is fine, perhaps even helpful. Feeling helpless and sitting frozen is less so.

100 days of 750words

750words is a website that encourages a daily habit: every day, write 750 words. That’s three pages a day. Doesn’t matter if you’re happy or miserable, you sit your ass down and write three pages. There is no prompt to follow, so I usually write whatever’s on my mind at the moment.

Buster Benson (the website creator) calls it a daily brain dump — something to “help clear your mind and get the ideas flowing for the rest of the day”. Calling it a brain dump is helpful for silencing any inner voice demanding perfectionism. I don’t need to write gold, I just need to write. Sometimes I’ll even leave a typo in, which would have driven a younger me nuts.

Today marks my 100th-day-in-a-row of writing. I’m quite happy with that.

100 days also happens to be the amount of time I’ve been on a job hunt outside of the academic lab. (That I am less happy about). I’m grateful to have a healthy habit to hold because unemployment is making me go bonkers.


Before this, my longest streak was about 80 days. That streak ended after I fell asleep watching Bojack Horseman one December evening last year. By the time I woke up at midnight it was too late. (Bojack Horseman is a cartoon that stars a self-pitying, talking horse who indulges himself every time he doesn’t feel good about himself and his decisions — which is every episode). I felt silly and dealt with my disappointment by indulging in more late-night cartoons.


In Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed answers a letter from a reader who describes herself as “a pathetic and confused young woman of twenty-six, a writer who can’t write”. The reader asks: “How does a woman get up and become the writer she wishes she’d be?”

Strayed’s response: “Write like a motherfucker.”

This is one way of following her advice.


But wait, there’s more!

Each time you reach a milestone on 750words, you get a goofy, animal-themed pixel badge. It pleases me more than I’m willing to admit. You may as well dangle a carrot in front of me.