28 December, 2015

Christina and Nate (People Making Cool Stuff)

"Home" is permeated by the culture and personality of the people who spend time there. My friends Christina and Nate have created a home that is unified, in part, by a shared love of food. And I'm thankful to have been fortunate enough to participate in that tradition.

This particular evening, they created a dinner based off a set of Indian food recipes. I subsequently interviewed them in an attempt to better understand their perspective on food, and how their love of food might influence other aspects of their lives.
While they continued cooking, I explored the kitchen looking for moments and for vignettes that might tell a little bit of their story. This scene seemed to fit the bill.

Nate would subsequently share that he often finds the food preparation process to be satisfying, and at times meditative, as he loses himself in what he called the "technicality of preparation." It's easy to ignore all else and focus on ingredients "until [they're] just right." "Sometimes after a stressful day at work, cooking helps me relax."
The ingredients were particularly important this time. This was Nate and Christina's third time trying to make this meal, but only the first time they were happy with the end product. "I got a feel for how to spot a bad recipe."

The key was to find recipes that called for, rather than avoided, traditional Indian ingredients that are uncommon in American cuisine. They pointed out methi leaves as one ingredient that made "all the difference" in their saag paneer.
Of course, strict adherence to recipes isn't always possible or necessarily beneficial. Christina and Nate often attempt to strike a balance between repetition and experimentation. And at times, necessity is the mother of innovation. Christina spent much of the time that I was present preparing naans, and then cooking them on a pizza stone in the oven — it's the closest thing they have to an actual tandoor.

They also experiment with flavors and ingredients. Nate emphasized the strategy of determining "what's important and what's flexible." "Which flavors can be compromised and which," like the methi leaves, "are essential."
Some of their experiments are motivated by the dietary preferences of their dinner guests. The dinner we had that particular evening was completely vegan. Some of their other dinners are gluten free. When it comes to parties, they told me "we like to challenge ourselves to new things that we don't usually eat."
As the interview continued, our discussion meandered toward experimental ingredients that they had tried, and some that they had yet to try. They had played with various different olive varieties, and were just starting to investigate mushroom varieties.

They paused to describe the candy cap mushroom. Strong hints of cinnamon and allspice, they explained, and the smell lingers in the kitchen, but changes over time. They were also considering asafoetida, a traditional Indian herb that elicited the descriptors "savory," "oniony," and "garlicky."

At this point, Christina and Nate's own experimental urges took hold of the discussion. How could you use both ingredients in a single dish? Maybe a curry? Hmm… Moroccan? Well, Moroccan does typically include a mix of savory, sweet, and spicy flavors…

Bon appetit

16 November, 2015

Poetry at Patreon

As some of you know, Patreon is a site that enables individuals to help support the content that they love. But more than a company, it's also a place and a group of people. Bay Area-based Patreon creators like myself were invited to visit the Patreon office last Tuesday for a poetry event, and I figured it would be nice to meet some of the folks who help me keep this photo blog up and running.

So that's how I found myself chatting with my benchmate Selena, who described the office "as if the word 'startup' threw up all over everything." But not in a bad way, she clarified. "I mean, it's nice, but…"

She was right, of course, but the venue seemed to fit the character of the event. While I was there to see Patreon, much of the audience had shown up for comedian/poet/performer Derrick Brown (pictured), along with his contemporaries Annelyse Gelman and Jason Bayani. Just prior to the event, I saw Brown duck away from seemingly-perpetual bouts of dancing to go do a handful of pullups on an exercise station that was tucked beneath an open air staircase.
"There are several ways to get 'got' in a city. The prime offense is to always be looking up."
Jason Bayani started off the evening with… I don't know… A poem? A feeling? A window to another world? Whatever it was, I loved it. The poem itself, "Kein / Muenchen," was the centerpiece of an experience that was some combination of visual and visceral. It didn't transport me to Munich, so much as transport the Munich experience back.

I mean, when I talked with Bayani beforehand, he avoided describing his poetry other than as "personal." I can see why. "Kein / Muenchen" was — is — a personal tale that reminds you of the ties between the physical aspects of a place and how it makes you feel to be there, looking up, because you just can't help it.

I caught up with benchmates Stephanie and Jeremy afterwards and they confirmed that the piece strongly recalled each of their own experiences visiting Munich in the past. You can find the poem online here, along with a short feature on Bayani.
Annelyse Gelman took the stage next. While also a poet — she and Bayani both have books published through Derrick Brown's poetry publication house, Write Bloody Publishing — her Tuesday evening performance was primarily a musical piece. What struck me was her ability to embrace mistakes.

Well… maybe not mistakes, really. But she took the kinds of sounds other people might make by accident, and she formed them into an intentional component of her music. And listening to it reminded me of the unconscious expectations that we form while listening to music, and that the right song can force us to recognize those biases, and to reconsider what "music" can sound like.
Derrick Brown was all over the place. In a good way. The energy that characterized his fidgeting before the show continued throughout, and he took us on a topsy-turvy journey through different kinds of feelings. Happy stories that were actually sad. Sad stories that ended up being funny. Confusing stories that somehow managed to offer deep revelations about human nature. It was all there. After the fact, Brown admitted to me that he loves playing with the audience's emotions and expectations.

For the bit in the photograph, Brown asked for volunteer couples who had been together for at least two years. He picked one and had them sit in front of the audience, facing us. He then described himself as a high-tech mind-reader, broadcasting the supposed inner thoughts of the two volunteers in an absurd, obviously-prefabricated monologue.

But in practice, he constructed a situation that allowed the couple to reveal actual aspects of their inner thoughts to each other, and to us. You could tell when the ridiculous monologue struck on an actual feeling because the couples' reactions would become momentarily sincere or vulnerable, amid all the laughter. "Uh-oh," you could see one think to themself. The situation also induced a heightened sense of empathy from the audience — I watched the couple closely, because it would be cruel to keep laughing during one of those fragile moments. The golden rule seemed to guide all of our behavior for those few minutes.
And more generally, throughout the performance, Brown displayed a masterful control of our behavior and reactions. When he wanted us to laugh, we convulsed with cackles and giggles and guffaws. The most ridiculous situation would be followed by the perfect one-liner, and we would just lose it. Then moments later, some new turn of events would demand our most grave consideration, and we would return to stoic silence, ears and eyes rapt with attention, hearts hoping.
After his final poem, Brown thanked our hosts, somehow uttered "let's all thank our DJ" with a mostly-straight face, and then cranked up the tunes again. People milled around, chatting with each other, meeting unfamiliar faces, and waiting in line for signatures.

In the somewhat raucous atmosphere, I was surprised to spot Gelman, perched atop a table that seems to embody the word "rustic," leafing through one of Brown's poetry books. Perhaps some of the best hiding spots are in plain sight.
Another unexpected contrast was between Brown himself — still, for once, despite the profusion of sound and music — and some fans who danced to the grooves as they jauntily waited for him to finish his painstakingly-careful inscription. Clearly, he was still in control.

09 October, 2015


"We don't usually stop here, but…" That's always an ominous thing to hear while on a train ride. As one of the conductors made some non-committal statements about how something had just happened, and that we'd be stopped at Burlingame for a short while, some of the passengers had already assumed the worst — they started gathering their belongings, contacting ride sharing services, and generally trying to find other ways to continue traveling up the peninsula.

They were right. A few moments later, the speakers crackled to life. For some of us, the words "trespasser incident," said what the other passengers had already presumed. A few moments later, the wording became clearer. "Fatality." "Looks like it'll be more than a little while." Many of the remaining passengers disembarked at that point.

The conductors were already outside, standing at the north end of the train, chatting with the engineer. I asked one conductor and she replied that both northbound and southbound trains were stopped, at which point my traveling companion and I decided to scrub our trip to San Francisco and go for a walk.
When we returned, our train was gone. That, combined with the quiet around the station, was eery. The trackside monitors stubbornly and steadfastly displayed the current time in a shade of yellow that nearly matched the streetlamps. It's always comforting to see them flick over to the expected arrival times, but those were clearly on hiatus. Lacking any other kinds of guidance, we sat next to the southbound tracks and waited.

After a short while, a southbound train approached, #284. We rose to meet it as it came to a stop, but a rush of passengers emerged from the doors as they opened. They said that everyone was getting off and that we should all head to the opposite platform and wait. It turned out that this train (on the far side, in the photo) was the one that had struck the person, and it was finally letting passengers off before it would continue south, out of service.

Another train arrived before we were able to cross, but it was headed northbound (the near side train, in the photo, #289). As we waited, I talked with a few of the passengers and learned that the on-duty crew is relieved immediately. In subsequent research, I ran across this article from wnyc.org, in which a Caltrain engineer described it as being "rescued from the scene."

The #289 departed, and then so did the #284. Then a second northbound train came and went before a southbound train finally arrived to effect our own somewhat less traumatic rescue. But the emotions surrounding these incidents are always peculiar and relatively incoherent. I imagine that this is an evening that I'll be pondering for awhile, yet.

27 September, 2015

Portraits In Situ (part 1)

"Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can. The revelation, if it comes at all, will come in a small fraction of a second with an unconscious gesture, a gleam of the eye, a brief lifting of the mask that all humans wear to conceal their innermost selves from the world. In that fleeting interval of opportunity the photographer must act or lose his prize." —Yousuf Karsh

As I flit through life with camera in hand, I inevitably notice certain moments that seem to exemplify aspects of my friends' personalities. With luck, I recognize those moments in time to take a photo.

Here are some of those photos, and a word on what I see in them.


31 August, 2015

People Making Cool Stuff: Carmel

"My parents would tell you that I've always been drawing on walls."

It's amazing how you can watch the creation of a work of art — you can follow every stroke of the brush, every mark of the pencil — and it's not until you pause and blink a few times that you see a picture rather than just a composition of strokes.

And even after you recognize that an art work was created, it remains something of a mystery exactly how it happened. How did the person start with a blank page, and come up with this? And why? What had to go through their mind during the creation process?

So I asked. This post is the first in a vague series about the cool stuff that my friends create.
For Carmel, it started in first grade, with Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. She enjoyed the story, but distinctly remembers being taken by the book's illustrations — "I want to be able to draw like this." By high school, Carmel said, she was watching anime like Sailor Moon almost every day, and her current illustration style certainly reflects that influence.
Carmel explained that most of her pieces begin with a "burst of emotion" — a spontaneous sense that she has some feeling or message to share, and that she might express it with an illustration. She mentioned that even during stressful periods, the creation process "takes me away from the real world." The process gives her time and space to contemplate the things that are going on in her life.

Once she has a kernel of an idea, she typically does some pencil sketches to find a direction, and then will keep moving forward once she hits on a form that captures her feelings on the topic. The ideal illustrations are "an extension of my feelings and thoughts," she added.
After the general theme, further development of the storyline and the color palette go hand-in-hand. Carmel specifically mentioned that she picks a color palette to suit the subject. More emotional topics garner darker, bolder colors, while other topics might receive colors that are more subdued and dreamy, as she described them.

To actually apply the colors, Carmel uses watercolor to fill space, and colored pencils for details. She mentioned having tried acrylics and oil, but she stuck with pencils because of her facility with them. "[They] feel like an extension of my fingertips."
When the process is complete, Carmel keeps some of the pieces, and she gives some of them away; perhaps to coworkers, to friends, or as gifts. Even of the pieces intended for other people, though, she noted that "I won't give it if I'm not proud of it." After all, she describes each work as "a piece of myself."

01 August, 2015

Reunion (Rhythm of Racing, Part 6)

(Note: this post follows "Disaster" in the Rhythm of Racing series.)

I mentioned in "On-Track Prep" that the pre-race grid walk is a going-away party of sorts. That for cast and crew, it's a mental transition period from focusing on anything else to focusing exclusively on the race.

The opposite transition begins in the moments before the finish — undivided focus transforms into some combination of relaxation, exhaustion, and a variety of other emotions…
Mental and emotional distance give way to reunion.
And as the race ticks ever closer to the checkered flag, the result crystallizes. "We're doing it" gradually becomes "we did it!", and "we can do better" becomes "we did our best."

That sense of closure, even before the checker actually flies, tends to manifest as small, impromptu celebrations; particularly among teams that are doing well. Here, driver Dale Sievwright (left) and a member of the pit crew share a high-five after the team's final pit stop. Their car, the #31 Hankook Tires / El Diablo Motorsports M3, would finish first in class E0 and seventh overall in the final standings.
And then, the moment itself. Here, team members and race staff cheer as owner Bob Davidson drives the race-winning #17 Davidson Racing Norma M20F (center, obscured) toward the checkered flag, at the head of a formation of other race cars.
The teams welcome the #34 Team RDR Mazda RX-8 and the #70 Mazdaspeed Factory Guys Mazda 6 Diesel back to base. The #34 placed first in the E2 class, and despite finishing over 100 laps down from the E1 class leader, the #70 was the only one of three sister cars to go the distance — the #55 crashed into a stopped vehicle after sunset (see "Disaster"), and the #56 went off-track and rolled later during the night.
Members of Team Quick Racing Products take a group selfie behind their #03 Superlite SLC after a third-in-class (fourth overall) finish. A far sight better than their DNF in 2013.
The closing driver for the #07 New York Rock Exchange / 1st Community Acura Integra celebrates after getting out of the car. The team finished second in the E3 class, only 40 seconds back from first.
Before they depart company, a member of the NASA safety crew expresses his gratitude to people who helped during the race.
Annual car races have a certain kind of rhythm to them. A fundamental identity that defines them, even as they evolve over time. From year to year, things always change — different conditions, different competitors, different tactics, and often, a new winner. But every December that I make the trek to Thunderhill Raceway, I find a race that's familiar, even though it's always a little bit unique.
The full Rhythm of Racing sequence:

12 June, 2015

Disaster (Rhythm of Racing, Part 5)

(Note: this post follows "Break. Fix. Repeat." in the Rhythm of Racing series.)

This is the flag that you never want to see at a race track. The other colors are, by and large, to be expected. Green flag when the race is underway. Yellow for localized incidents or disabled vehicles (spins, stalls, lost wheels, etc.). Striped red/yellow for debris on the racetrack (parts, dirt, oil, etc.). Blue with yellow cross when faster traffic is approaching.

There are more, but the flags are all about keeping the race going. About letting drivers know about forthcoming track situations and conditions so that the cars can continue circulating. Letting individual drivers know that they need to come in for a penalty. And so on.

The red flag means "stop on track immediately." Something happened which is more important than the continuation of the race.

The Calm

Near as I could tell, there was nothing special about the Sector Purple Racing #71 car. The morning of the race, the team went through their morning routine just like any other team.
Once on track, the car was running fairly well. According to the final scoring sheet, the RJ Racing #23 Miata, which finished first among the Miatas in the race, turned 587 laps in 24.5 hours, for ~23.9 laps per hour. For the 9 hours that it was on track, the #71 averaged ~23.3 laps per hour; slower, but pretty much on-pace.

Somewhere after the 9-hour mark, when the sun had already set, the #71 ran out of fuel, and subsequently lost its lights. It came to a stop on-track, toward the right side of the track, in the middle of the back stretch between turns 13 and 14.

I talked to a member of the Sector Purple Racing team, who recounted what he heard over the radio. "Where are the flashers? Never mind, I found them." About thirty seconds later, the team-member estimated, the #55 Mazda 6 Diesel would hit the #71 at full race speed.

The Storm

After I saw the red flag, nobody around me seemed to know what had happened. I followed the emergency lights, and this is what the scene looked like when I arrived. By this point, the driver of the #71 was already out of the car and in some other emergency vehicle.

Immediately after I took this photo, one of the emergency personnel asked me (and some other photographers) to stop taking pictures of the scene. I watched for awhile, and then moved to take pictures of a different part of the cleanup.
This appears to be where the #55 car came to a rest, about 200-300 feet down the track from where the #71 had stopped against a barrier. The #55 itself had been moved before I showed up.

Prior to the collision, the #55 was closing on a slower car while coming down toward the back straight, where the #71 was stopped. The driver attempted to pass the slow vehicle on the right and then struck the #71. A member of the Mazda Dealers race team would later share that, "We all watched the video. He moves along, then he goes right and suddenly there's this white thing. Everybody flinched. Even though you know what's coming, you still flinch."


While continuing to talk to people about the collision, I heard the unmistakeable sound of an approaching helicopter. Police had blocked off the entrance to the racetrack and turned the area into an ad-hoc landing zone.

I was initially surprised about the helicopter evacuation, since I had initially heard that the driver was conscious and able to walk after the incident. I heard later that the driver was in and out of consciousness while in EMT care, and that he had complained of neck pain, which would explain the increased urgency of the situation.
A paramedic leans on the now-empty gurney after the driver was loaded into the medevac helicopter.
The helicopter hovers above the Thunderhill entrance for a moment before setting a course for Enloe Medical Center, in Chico, CA. A post on the Sector Purple Racing Facebook page noted that the driver had suffered a collapsed lung and a concussion, and was scheduled to spend 1-2 days in the hospital for observation.


I found this story particularly interesting to consider, because it simultaneously demonstrates how dangerous motorsports can be, but also how safe motorsports has become. I've been unable to get a status update on the #71 driver, but judging by the Facebook post, he wasn't doing too badly. And I asked a person on the #55 team how their driver was doing, and got the response that "oh, he's fine. He'll definitely feel it in the morning, but he's fine."
But that's how it goes. Risk is an inherent part of motorsports. You do what you can to lower the risk to a manageable level, and then you manage it. Sometimes disaster strikes, but with luck, everyone makes it out and the entire community learns what it can from the situation in order to continue managing that risk.

And then you get back out there and race some more.
The full Rhythm of Racing sequence: