January and February and everything after

2 Jan

Luckily, 2020 is already receding quickly from memory, and living with my parents becomes just another fact of life for me. But a year ago I was attending a New Year’s Day fitness class at Barry’s Bootcamp, taking a Lyft from my apartment to get to the Castro district location, then walking back to 17th and Castro, where I waited for a 24 Divisadero bus to take me over the hill towards home. Well, first I probably stopped and had lunch at Dara Indian, because stopping in there after a workout and stuffing my face with vegetable curry and rice and chai is what I liked to do. It was part of that nice little city life routine I had worked out for myself. It wasn’t grand, but it was part of the rhythm of my days. It broke about two months into 2020, and it now feels like a very distant memory. Walking down Castro Street to pick up coffee in the Castro, or walking in the other direction to stroll 24th Street in my neighborhood, Noe Valley. I guess one thing these recollections have in common is independence. Freedom. The freedom to encounter familiar face, neighbors, the occasional tourist with a map and a camera. In February, I bought Girl Scout cookies from a young girl towing her cookies in a red wagon in front of the Castro Theater. I took Muni to Cole Valley to meet girlfriends at Padrecito for margaritas and Mexican food on the night of the California primary election. On our way out, I stopped to excitedly tell a couple at a table near us that I had also voted for Elizabeth Warren (one or both of them were wearing Warren caps, the memory fades for me a bit, but I remember at least one khaki baseball cap). I waited in the cold with my friends until we all got Lyfts and Ubers home. And that cold, February night was the last night any of us would see each other for a long time. I haven’t seen them since.

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of positive reflections of people feeling gratitude for the lessons taught by 2020. I feel enormously grateful for making it through my summer of physical rehab, which also feels like a distant dream, like something that will just be a bit of trivia in no time. Yes, we should thank the year that’s passed for teaching us what’s important, what we value. What we miss. For me, that’s other people. It’s the friends and coworkers who made up my days, but also the hundreds of people who make up daily life- the commuters packed into a morning Muni car, the people jammed into cafés in the morning, packed restaurants at lunch, crowded bars at Happy Hour where I’d gather with coworkers to talk about anything and everything non-work related. The common thread was people- everywhere, at all times. Sometimes loud, sometimes annoying, but always there. It’s the crowds and strangers I miss, the ones I’ll be happiest to see when life comes crawling back. People. They’re what I won’t take for granted in 2021.

The year I stopped reading

30 Dec

I can’t entirely blame the loss of my reading habit on the pandemic, because I stopped reading in February. As I recall, I became engrossed in “The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu in January, and then…nothing. There were two books I picked up and abandoned in February: “Normal People” by Sally Rooney and “How to Do Nothing” by Jenny Odell, which I found excruciating. I always did my reading during my commute, pulling my current novel out of my bag and reading it on the J-Church, between Church and 20th and Montgomery stations in the morning, and then Montgomery to Church and 24th in the afternoons. As the cars ambled by Dolores Park, the doors blocked by strollers and nannies, I pulled out my book again and got through a few more pages. For whatever reason, I found that I could only read during that in-between place that was not work and not home. The ferry, the bus, the trolley car. Occasionally, a café, like the big, comfy chair at the Philz in the Castro, where I would often sit and read for an hour or so. Once I stopped commuting and I stayed home all day, my fiction-reading ceased.

But not for lack of trying. In addition to the two books above, I tried reading “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward and “Circe” by Madeleine Miller. And maybe under different circumstances I would have finished them both, but I only got about a third of the way through the first, and barely into the second, without getting any further. Is it because I’ve lost my physical space for reading? Or have I lost my desire, my mental space?

I’ve tried picking up new books during this time. I’ve tried reading, because I don’t know who I am if I’m not a reader. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve had my nose in a book. It feels like an important part of who I am. Susan the reader, that’s how I’ve always been described. Social media is great for keeping up with friends and jokes and keeping a finger on the pulse of what’s happening. But to get absorbed in a well-told story, in a world of the author’s own making, all in my head, populated by an ever-changing cast made up of the people I see every day- that’s an experience that I cherish, and that seems to be fading from me with each abandoned book.

I hope to leave this weird aversion to novel-reading behind with the rest of 2020. I hope to finish my current book, the second book in the “Three-Body Problem” trilogy, and resume my residence in the worlds of novels. I miss it there.

Top TV Shows of 2020

24 Dec

I wish I could say I spent the hours indoors these last few months training for the Iron Man triathlon, but I actually spent time in front of a TV screen when I wasn’t in front of my work screen. But when there was this much good TV, and so much ugliness going on in the world outside, television was even more of a refuge than usual. The shows below brought some

The Crown: I’ve enjoyed every season of The Crown, and even muddled through when some early episodes were slow-paced and seemed to offer little narrative reward, due to the stellar acting, writing and visuals (this is still Buckingham Palace, after all). But Season 4 had no dull moments, most likely because of the introduction of two new characters- Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana. Season 4 had a voyeuristic quality, seeing the sad origins of the Prince Charles and Princess Diana story we all knew would end in tragedy, and seeing characters we knew were rotten, notably Camilla. One of the family members this season notes that new members of the family either bend or break. I thought about that as it relates to Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle. One bent, and one nearly broke.

Fauda: It came out years ago, but I discovered this Israeli series this spring, and quickly binged all two seasons. It was an action-packed take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and though believability was stretched in some places- I wondered how the main Israeli agent could speak such good Arabic as he went undercover in the West Bank- I thought the pacing was so well-done, first in the West Bank in season one and then in the Gaza Strip in season two. I enjoyed hearing some Arabic here and there (habibi tells me that romance is being discussed). I’m eagerly awaiting season three on Netflix.

Ted Lasso: So well-written and so winningly lead by Jason Sudeikis, Ted Lasso is the optimistic show we all need. How do you explain a Division II football coach being asked to coach an English Premier League soccer team? As the show explains it, he was hired by the team’s new owner, who hired him to sabotage the team, which she got from her boorish ex-husband in a divorce, and which she hopes to drive into the ground. So how does Ted Lasso earn the respect of the team and its English fans? With his winning attitude and endless supply of folksy expressions, of course (his tangent on the fabulousness of Alfonso Ribeiro is a highlight). I just may rewatch it. It’s that delightful.

The Last Dance: Another relic of the springtime quarantine, The Last Dance was something to look forward to for four weeks in a row. Did it take 20 years to put this documentary together? Who knows, but it was just what we needed at the time. The show that launched a thousand Jordan memes, this look at stardom and solitude in the person of one Michael Jordan was revealing about the man, but also the times, when If you had visions of basketball stardom in the 90’s, you had to step aside, because it was Jordan’s show, for better or for worse. The structure of the documentary was compelling, interspersing footage from Jordan’s final season with his early years in North Carolina. All in all, it was so entertaining and meticulously done.

Top 5 Movies of 2020

22 Dec

The movie-viewing experience was different this year- no bucket of popcorn, no trailers, no sitting in hushed silence with a crowd of strangers. I’ve missed going to the movies, which for me means the Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco, where I saw my last in-theater movie, “Little Women”, in February. Little Women didn’t make the cut, but a few other gems I saw on streaming made it. My top movies of 2010 are here, as well as 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.

What the Constitution Means to Me: To not address what it means to be an American in 2020 is to have a huge blind spot as an artist. It is to ignore, as John Mulaney memorably said, that there is a horse loose in the hospital. Broadway actress Heidi Schreck took audiences through a two hour meditation on the Constitution- living, breathing document that serves current and future generations, or a stale idea that has kept countless Americans captive? Is it the reason we’re so exceptional? Are we even that exceptinal, after all? Schreck takes audiences from the stale VFW hall in her hometown to a current day look at real-life competitors in constitution debates around New York City. What was surely a thrilling night of theater became a thrilling movie.

The Old Guard: This movie was an unexpected treat: a perfectly-made action thriller, where the action consisted of more martial arts and hand-to-hand fighting than gunslinging, there were clear lines between good and evil, and the classic trope of the, well, old guard initiating the newbie. Charlize Theron has proved to be a great action star after “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Atomic Blonde”, and she ably leads this movie too.

A Hidden Life: This movie is for Terrence Malick fans only. I saw it in the early days of January and still vividly remember the music, the imagery, but mostly the urgent moral message at its core. What a way Malick has found of addressing the Trump era: the true story of Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian who saw the fascism creeping in around him in the guise of Hitler and National Socialism, but also in the neighbors in his village, who we see ostracize his family as he is imprisoned for refusing to serve in Hitler’s army. We see how choosing fascism must have been deceptively easy, and choosing to stay true to one’s beliefs must have been extraordinarily difficult. The fog rising over the hills surrounding this Alpine village, the laughter of Franz’s children at play- Malick captures moments of beauty in this otherwise hard morality tale. It’ll haunt you.

Hamilton: What to say about Hamilton that hasn’t already been said? All I can say is that when it ws released on Disney Plus on July 4th, I was beyond excited. I had seen it on stage the previous fall, so I had some idea what to expect. But to see the original Broadway cast, expertly filmed, and to capture the raw energy of a live show, was something else. It’s also a time capsule of a time when black and brown Americans proudly wrote themselves into the story of America, which in the Trump era felt like an act of rebellion, and a relic of a long bygone time.

American Utopia: I’m not sure if this is best referred to as a concert film, or a Broadway musical, since it’s alternately both and neither. But it’s electrifying. I’m not necessarily a big fan of Talking Heads or David Byrne, but I love the way that he expertly mixes story, history and theatrics with his greatest hits in this show. The lighting and gray suits all lend it a signature look, and Spike Lee directs it with the oomph it must have had in the original performances. Thank God it was filmed. Lightning in a bottle was captured here. In a year when we couldn’t go to concerts, this was the next best thing.

July 2020, a month to remember

29 Jul

As this unusual July closes, I wonder where to even begin? I feel that I have to write something to commemorate this season of chaos. I was in the hospital. I convalesced at home. And I went from someone who used to fear MRIs to someone who had 4 in about a month. While the memory of this time is (more or less) fresh in my mind, here’s roughly what happened:

During one weekend in mid-June, I began holding onto the walls of the hallway outside my bedroom. I started running into everything- my arms would bang into doorways, my feet would bump into doors. It’s the kind of thing you write off at first, but as it continues you know something weird is happening. I decided to take Monday off work, but the odd behavior continued, so that Tuesday morning I went to the local hospital. I recall my Mom physically helping me walk to the entry of the ER, so my condition must have really degraded at that point.

That week in the hospital is mostly a blur, and thank God. I’m grateful for not remembering some things, and I regret that some things- like a disturbing memory of my having a seizure as I entered a cat scan machine- are still vivid. I remember going in for an MRI, and fearing the narrow confines of the machine. No, what makes the experience nightmarish is not the inherent claustrophobia, but the sounds, the constant screeching of photos being taken of the brain. I told myself, this is like that long flight from Seoul to San Francisco. It’s long, it’s awful, but you need to endure it to get through to the other side. You want answers to your condition, this is what that entails.

And I got answers. My brain did, in fact, bleed. Doctors told me I experienced a “shower” or small burst of many little strokes. I was relieved to have an answer. I remember yelling out, in my half-conscious state, “I’m not crazy! I knew something happened to me!”

You’re in an unflattering hospital gown, there is a needle in your arm at all times for the constant delivery of medicine, and your blood pressure is taken on a very regular basis. I’ve never liked having my blood pressure taken- I don’t like the constricting feeling. But what can you do? I remember feeling unclean. For that whole week, I couldn’t brush my teeth or wash my face. I didn’t shower. In between medical tests, I was mostly bored and restless. I wanted to go home and clean up.

Once I was discharged at the end of the week, my at-home recovery began. I saw at-home health therapists twice a week and practiced balance and coordination exercises in the evenings. Once that concluded, I moved onto hospital outpatient physical therapy at a different location. I made a full recovery from the stroke, but a new physical condition emerged: crippling back pain. To this day, 6-7 weeks after the hospital stay when it started, I still feel it, though it has mostly improved.

All in all, I feel older. Having pills in a day-of-the-week pill box. Being cognizant of which activities cause me physical distress and which ones don’t. Most of all, being aware of my own mortality, on top of the current pandemic, which still rages. I’ve been very lucky. I don’t appear to have gotten COVID-19. Is my stroke related to the pandemic, or a freak occurrence? I believe the former, but my doctors are leaning towards the latter. We shall see.

I’m 39 and otherwise very healthy. I’m glad to be alive, and to be well. I still hope to not go to the hospital any time soon, so I’m still wearing a mask AT ALL TIMES. I’m also enormously grateful for the care of the staff at my local hospital, who made me feel like a person and not just a number. Shortly after my discharge, there was a surge in hospitalizations there, and I think often of those kind hospital employees. I hope they stay safe.

I don’t know how to end this except to say thank you to everyone who reached out to me during this time, and to those who cared for me throughout, especially my close family members. Please continue to be well.



A most unusual year

30 Dec

I have no illusions that the changing of a calendar year represents anything more than the changing of months, from December to January. It’s like waking up on your birthday expecting to instantly feel a year older. However, I look forward to shedding this last year and beginning 2020 without the burden of 2019 hanging over me. 2019 was a long, strange year.

Most of this last year has been spent applying for jobs. To try and try to do something, and consistently fail, is what made this year difficult. In hindsight, some of my mistakes are very clear to me- resumes that were amateurish, interviews I was not very prepared for, jobs I was simply underqualified for. And I was in an unusual position for six months, of being technically employed but virtually unemployed. I’ll rewind and elaborate.

During the month of January, I showed up to work every day eager to learn if there was a new project for me to work on, and every day I learned that there was nothing. I asked members of my team if I could lend a hand, and they simply had nothing for me. It seemed suspicious to me. Then, in early February, I learned why: my team was moving from one division of the company to another. And with this move, the team would no longer need a writer: me. In one fell swoop, I lost my role. Redundant. But I wasn’t laid off. So I continued going to work every day, collecting a paycheck, and cheerily letting my colleagues know I was available if they needed someone to help out on anything. But mostly, I kept going into the office every day for the routine. To see my work friends. To ride Muni in the morning with all the other people who had places to go. To maintain the illusion of usefulness.

One way I occupied my time was by taking long lunches. It was quite a luxury- taking an hour and a half to eat at Indian buffets, Thai restaurants, dim sum palaces, and pizzerias. Reader, I got fat.  And in the meantime, I was applying for jobs. My employer was all but telling me: leave. We have nothing for you here. An ideal time to leave. But I had to lie through all of these interviews when asked about what I was working on, why I was leaving my current position, etc. It’s hard to interview well when your confidence has been shaken. Remarkably, I sailed through a lengthy interview process in February for a job in my previous industry, digital marketing. I was given an offer. But the salary was a significant decrease from what I was making, so I turned it down. Was that wise? I think so. I sailed through the interview process because the job turned out to be fairly entry level, which was reflected in the salary. Too qualified for entry-level jobs, underqualified for senior-level jobs in my current industry. I slogged along. I became absorbed in user testing research and analysis, though that project was temporary.

Luckily, in late July/early August, after a former colleague left the company, I was told I’d be assuming his old projects. Finally, I wouldn’t feel like a fraud for accepting a paycheck for nothing. I had to learn this new role, which was very different from my old one, but I was glad to have work. That first month, I was tossed into the deep end while still being trained- it felt like that dream where you show up to school and find out there’s a test you aren’t prepared for. After a few weeks, I got the hang of the new role. But I kept looking. I was happy to have work to do, but still felt there was a different job at another company for which I was better suited. I was determined to continue my career elsewhere. And that hasn’t changed.

I’m not the superstitious type, and I tend to think coincidences are just coincidences. But after trying and failing to find a new job- and watching so many of my colleagues leave for plum jobs at other companies- I’m convinced that it’s a sign. Look for a different type of job, make a shift in your career. It’s tough, to be nearly forty and still pondering what you want to be when you grow up. Wondering how to best apply your talents. But I haven’t lived in Spain and France and Mexico by being rigid. I’m remarkably adaptable, and resilient. The last year felt like a hamster wheel I couldn’t get off. Well, this year I’d like to jump off and get on a new track. A new job, perhaps representing a shift in my career. Maybe here in San Francisco, or in a new city. And while I know that December 31st becomes January 1st and it’s just another page on the calendar, I wanted to set down these thoughts before the New Year begins. Maybe I believe in New Year magic more than I’d like to admit. Only another two days until I can turn the page on this long, strange year.


Top 5 Movies of 2019

21 Dec

Dolor y Gloria

Dolor y Gloria

It’s time to revisit the best movies of the last year, in my humble estimation. They represent a variety of genres and themes, but they all featured great acting, writing and directing. Read on to learn more, and check out my reviews from previous years here: top movies of 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.

Parasite: I wrote about Parasite shortly after I saw it, and I still think about certain indelible images from the movie: the new maid in the Park family using her Olympic talents to toss the hammer in the backyard of her boss’s palatial home; Mr. Kim lying awake, staring at the ceiling after a long night; the many long, dimly lit hallways of the Park mansion. Parasite is a work of visual art, but it’s also an expertly-drawn thriller and an astute commentary on inequality. The ultra rich and those just trying to get by? They exist side by side here, and in South Korea too.

Once upon a time in Hollywood: A few years ago, after reading the novel The Girls by Emma Cline, I became obsessed with learning everything I could about the Manson murders. When I heard that Quentin Tarantino was directing a movie about them, I felt uneasy: I didn’t think his penchant for gore and senseless violence would do the subject justice. But Once upon a time in Hollywood proved me wrong: audiences got 2 hours of classic Tarantino dialogue, a groovy soundtrack, a world of weirdos and misfits played by a cast of actors at the top of their craft. Dakota Fanning, Timothy Olyphant and Brad Pitt all turn in memorable performances. And Sharon Tate gets the ending in this movie that life never gave her.

Dolor y Gloria: Pedro Almodovar’s latest movie gives Antonio Banderas the opportunity to show what a talented actor he is. In Hollywood, he’s Puss in Boots. But in Spain, he’s a gifted actor, and in “Pain and Glory” he portrays an aging film director who spends his days numbing his aches and pains with an array of pills and potions. The movie can roughly be divided into thirds: the director’s reunion with his old collaborator, his reunion with an old lover, and caring for his dying mother. Interspersed with all of this are flashbacks to his childhood, where his mother is played by Penelope Cruz. Almodovar films are colorful and visually gorgeous, vivid testament to the beauty of Spain. This story shows what it takes for someone to pull themselves out of addiction: it’s not easy. But it takes effort. And love.

Hustlers: Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, starring Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, and featuring music by Lizzo and Britney Spears, among many others, Hustlers was the rare feminist blockbuster. I’m not sure what a movie about strippers conning Wall Street types would have looked like if it had been directed by a man, but this movie portrayed complicated women with complicated motivations- some are more conflicted about stealing from their marks than others- in a nuanced way. It also gives J-Lo a chance to shine, commanding every scene she’s in as the ringleader of the group. This movie was just plain fun, and I hope to see more woman-led blockbusters like it in the future.

The Farewell: Awkwafina has shown that she can do both comedy and drama with The Farewell. Like its lead actress, the movie is never entirely dramatic or comedic. It’s a serious story about an immigrant family with many funny, absurd moments. Isn’t that what family, and real life, is like? The plot is simple: spend time with Grandma without telling her she has terminal cancer. Director Lulu Wang’s tone is whimsical throughout, observing the absurdities of the proceedings at a distance. The result is a deeply personal film about family that was one of the most affecting of 2019.

Parasite: feeding off the host

22 Oct



I wanted to see Parasite before the hype got too overwhelming. It’s like waiting in an endless line to get ice cream or coffee- after such a long wait, it can’t really be that good. And if there is crazy hype around this movie come Oscar season, I may reevaluate how I feel about it. But moments from the film- images, actions, jokes, music- have stayed with me days later. I love a movie with a good twist- and this one has about three.

What do you need to know going into the movie? It’s about a working-class family, the Kims, that insinuates itself into the lives of a wealthy family, the Parks. Yes, the title may refer to them living like parasites off of their wealthy hosts. But “Parasite” is not a simple anti-capitalist polemic. It is funny, largely thanks to the gullible matriarch of the Park family, as well as the scheming of the Kim family as they worm their way into the luxurious Park home. It is thrilling, as we watch the plot take unexpected turns. Director Bong Joon-Ho is a master of not only setting tone, but at switching, from dark humor to taut psychological thriller, in such a seamless way. The visual language of the movie is rich and tells a story itself, each corner of the exquisite Park home telling a tale, and with the obvious visual metaphor of the Parks living high above the city, and the Kims living in a basement apartment, although the high/low metaphor extends to the interior of the Park house as well. Upstairs/downstairs, indeed.

While I called “Parasite” far from a communist screed, there is righteous anger coursing through the film, especially in the second half. The patriarch of the Kims overhears the patriarch of the Parks confess that Kim (his driver) has the stench of the poor. The Kims get a glimpse of the good life in the Parks’ home, but that’s all it will be- a glimpse. As Kim tells his son, the best plan in life is to have no plan at all. Even when you have the extraordinary good luck to find yourself in a situation like the Kims do, you know it’s all a dream. You’re still the parasite leeching off of the good will of your hosts.

Matrushka: a poem

4 Jun

Painted, wooden, grinning dolls

One inside another

Inside another

Inside another.

Twist to separate the biggest doll,

Top half from bottom half.

Then find someone similar inside her.

Twist, set aside and repeat

And repeat,

Until you reach the tiniest doll,

The first.

Amazing to think that all of those bigger, heavier, painted girls,

Contained little you.

Fleabag: sex, sisterhood and that stepmother

2 Jun



You hear the hype about a certain show, and you go in cynical: surely this can’t be that good. The show is British: are people in love with it because of widespread Anglophilia? And yet, brisk 25-minute episode after brisk 25-minute episode,  I saw why Fleabag has garnered so much attention. It is often hard to watch because of the emotional honesty of the nameless protagonist, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator/writer of the show. Fleabag, as she is referred to in the credits, walks around with grief- her mother died a few years ago, and her best friend committed suicide in the near past. Her sister is awful, her brother-in-law is repulsive, and her stepmother delights in insulting her stepdaughters with a smile and a barb. I am of thinking of season one, which introduces us to this world, a bleak one punctuated by the wit of the main character. Humor is the coping mechanism in her chaotic life, and she frequently breaks the fourth wall with a wink, eye roll, or smirk. We end up coping along with her.

Season two is decidedly brighter, following the events of season one a year later. Fleabag announces to the audience at the beginning: This is a love story. And we see two parallel love stories play out: one, between the main character and an endearing, lonely Catholic priest, and two, between Fleabag and her sister, Claire. First, falling in love with the priest, the ultimate unavailable man. Both he and Fleabag lead unconventional lives, with tenuous grasps on how to embrace (or reject) their sexuality. The priest flirts with Fleabag, not seeming entirely comfortable with his vow of celibacy, whereas she admitted in the previous season that sex is more interesting to her as pursuit than act. Both characters open up to each other, and Fleabag is vulnerable in scene after scene with the priest, culminating in a tearful monologue in the confessional. Twitter user Ellen O’Connell Whittet shares an interesting theory about what foxes symbolize throughout the season and especially in the last scene (spoiler alert: only click if you’ve already watched the show). The writing is at its most insightful when both of these characters talk to each other, though there is also a memorable rant delivered by the still-luminous Kristin Scott Thomas on the pain of womanhood that reminded me of the cool girl observations from Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl”.

And the other love story at the heart of season 2 of Fleabag, the one that shows its protagonists’s evolution as much as, if not more than, her affection for the priest: her sister Claire. Brittle and unsmiling, she couldn’t be more different from her sister, an open book who can’t help but blurt out what’s on her mind, especially to her rude stepmother (wonderfully played by Olivia Colman). And yet the sisters push each other to be better throughout the season, with Fleabag supporting her on several occasions, defending her from the smarmy brother-in-law from hell and providing a united front against nasty stepmom. One of the sweetest moments of the show is when the reserved Claire tells her sister that she’d only run through an airport for one person- for her.

There are so many aspects of the show to delve into. I’d love to explore the writing,  the feminism, the spirituality. Each season lasts just over 2 hours. This is two evenings, or one cold Sunday, at home. Watch the show if you haven’t already, and if you have, let me know what you think, or if you’ve bought the Fleabag jumpsuit.