Up until a few years ago, I never noticed birds on my balcony. When I first started consciously paying attention to the birds at the start of the pandemic, I would occasionally hear a Dark-eyed Junco serenading me, but I never saw it unless I went onto my balcony and looked.
Then one day, I noticed a House Finch feeding on some chickweed growing in a pot with the dried up remnants of a neglected houseplant I had killed many years earlier. If a pot of weeds could attract birds, I wondered what native plants might do. A few weeks later, I populated my balcony with native plants and also put out a bird feeder.
Now the birds come every morning, even when I forget or can’t feed them. But when I do put out seeds, I am always amused and amazed by how quickly the birds come. They are obviously watching and listening.
The Dark-eyed Juncos are the first to arrive, followed by House Finches. Later in the morning, the doves arrive, eventually followed by the crows. I know most of the smaller birds are hanging out in nearby trees, although I wish I knew exactly where the juncos come from. The bigger birds are far less conspicuous.
After I put out my bird seed, I sometimes like to turn the tables on the birds, peering out into the neighboring landscape to see if I can spot them. The other morning, I decided to bring my camera with me to document some of my larger winged friends watching me from afar.
I recently dipped my toes into the world of bonsai. It all started last spring with Sammy the Squirrel, my frenemy and garden nemesis, who planted a Coast Live Oak acorn in a potted mint plant that I was going to give away. I have no room to plant a full-sized oak tree, but I couldn’t bear to kill it, so I decided to re-pot it with the intention of raising it as a bonsai. I didn’t know this at the time, but this essentially means keeping the tree alive and thriving for the first few years of its life until it’s ready to start shaping into a miniature tree. In the meantime, I wanted to start developing my skills so that when my little oak tree was ready, I had some idea of what to do with it.
I decided to join the East Bay Bonsai Society, which is a wonderful community of bonsai enthusiasts and an amazing resource for beginners like me. At the first meeting, I met another beginner who had started a little rosemary bonsai. “Ingenious,” I exclaimed! Rosemary is a woody herb that’s plentiful and hardy, and it seemed like the perfect practice vehicle. It just so happened that I had a spare pot of rosemary that I had grown from a cutting, so I decided to convert that into a bonsai.
I brought my plant to the East Bay Bonsai Society’s annual re-potting party. Folks there were incredibly generous, and they walked me through the necessary steps to fit my rosemary into a tiny bonsai pot. Part of the process consisted of doing some initial pruning so that the rosemary could focus its attention on regenerating its roots rather than on supporting excess foliage. One of the members, Ian, offered some basic rules of thumb to guide me through the process.
One of those guidelines was to trim branches that were growing downward. Those branches were shielded from the light, and they likely were going to grow weak and die anyway. I found a stem that had a branch growing up and a branch growing down, and I said, “So do you think I should trim this downward branch?”
Ian paused. “Maybe,” he said. “But, you could also trim the upward branch, which would expose the downward branch to light and cause the branch to curve upward again. That might give you an interesting shape in the future. It’s up to you!”
Ian didn’t realize it, but he had cemented my faith in him as a teacher. As a beginner, I found the idea of pruning even a small herb overwhelming. I had no idea what I was doing, and no vision for what I wanted it to eventually be. I needed guidance, but I didn’t want to blindly follow a set of rules without understanding their intent. I didn’t want to know what to do, I wanted to know how to think about it. Ian provided that for me and then some. He offered a rule, then gave me permission to break it and explained when I might want to do that.
I chose to prune the upward branch. I want to see what happens for myself, and the cost of “failure” is small right now. Maybe the downward branch won’t turn into anything interesting. Maybe it will end up dying anyway. Maybe I’ll end up pruning downward branches 99 times out of 100. It doesn’t matter. I won’t learn unless I try.
My partner, Eun-Joung, and I went to the grocery store yesterday afternoon to pick up some items for our New Year’s meal. While perusing the meat aisle, the butcher asked about the button on Eun-Joung’s vest.
A few months ago, my friends’, Catherine and Reid’s, dog passed away suddenly. Her name was Cam, and she was incredibly sweet, even as dogs go. Eun-Joung loves all of my friends’ dogs, but she especially loved Cam, and when we discussed potentially adopting a dog of our own, she would often cite Cam as a model.
When Cam died, Catherine was devastated. As hard as it was to watch her in this state, I couldn’t help but admire how openly she mourned and how willingly she reached out to her friends in her time of need. My inclination would have been to do the opposite, but watching Catherine and other friends deal with loss have helped me realize that completely shutting myself off is not the right way to do it.
Catherine and Reid organized a memorial for Cam at Fort Funston. It was simple and beautiful and perfect. Her friend, Vanessa, who was leading us through the memorial, invited us to name and remember others we had lost. It was a small, but generous gesture. I mentioned one of my mentors, who had recently passed, and I found myself suddenly welling up. The space had been created for Cam, but it ended up being a place where I and others could fully feel and process other grief that we were carrying.
Catherine, always the maker, created buttons for everyone with Cam’s photo and the words, “Dog is love.” Eun-Joung has been wearing that button ever since, and that was the button that caught the butcher’s attention.
When the butcher asked about the button, Eun-Joung told him about Cam. “I’m sorry for your friend,” he replied softly. “I know how she feels. My dog passed away six days ago.”
We asked him about his loss, and he shared stories and photos. Even though we only spent a few minutes talking, it felt like time slowed amidst the hustle and bustle of folks doing their last-minute grocery shopping. A day later, I’m still struck by the intimacy of that moment, sparked by that little button and all that it represents
Large double carabiner clipped to the top MOLLE strap on the left sideThe same carabiner clipped to the Side HustleParagon with MOLLE attachments and the Side Hustle
I thought about trying to sew this by hand, but I did enough research to deter me. I ended up asking a local shoe repair shop to do the work for me to my specifications. They did a wonderful job, and it made me feel good to support a great local business.
Why Mod my Bag?
Friends and family know that I have long been a Tom Bihn loyalist (although I’m still in wait-and-see mode with new ownership, who took over after Tom retired last year). They’re based in Seattle, and they’ve been making their rugged, high-quality bags in-house for decades. I bought my first bag there in 2008, and I bought my long-time everyday carry backpack — a Synapse 19 — in 2013. That bag is still my all-time favorite, and I will likely use it until it falls apart, which won’t happen in my lifetime. It’s a physically small bag, but it holds everything I need exactly where they should go, because it is so freaking thoughtfully designed.
That said, two years ago, the zipper broke. All good — Tom Bihn has a lifetime warranty on its bags and excellent customer service. I sent the bag in, and while they were repairing it, I bought a Synik 22 Guide’s Edition, just to check it out. You can think of it as an upgraded version of the Synapse 19. It has a built-in laptop sleeve, a clamshell opening, and a few extra liters of space. It also had straps where I could attach things to the outside of the bag.
During the first few years of COVID lockdown, I spent a lot of time outdoors, often taking my folding chair with me, and I found myself wishing for a way to strap my chair to my backpack. I also found myself wanting a bag that might be better suited for hiking / play, which was slightly different than my work-oriented everyday carry. I was getting into painting and birdwatching, and in addition to my camera (which had been a steady companion since 2013), I often found myself carrying binoculars, a long lens for my camera, and my watercolor kit.
I thought the Synik 22 Guide’s Edition, with its extra capacity and lash-on straps, would fit my needs, but it wasn’t quite right. It did more things, but it felt less elegant. When I got my original bag back, I promptly returned the Synik.
I resigned myself to buying another bag, one that was more of an open bucket as opposed to having a lot of built-in organization. I looked at other manufacturers, and I probably would have tried a Goruck bag, but they were having supply issues. I ended up buying the Paragon Guide’s Edition. The Paragon was a re-design of a bag Tom had designed in the 1970s. It was a simple boxy design, and the company was able to sew them more easily with their pandemic-limited capacity.
I didn’t love the bag, but it was more or less what I was looking for — an open, but still compact bag with lash straps. It was the usual high quality, and I thought it looked better than similar bags, fitting equally well in the city and in the woods. It mostly held everything I needed it to hold, although I found that it was often slightly overstuffed, and I had trouble getting stuff in and out. I also often had trouble finding what I needed — a common problem with this kind of bag, even with my various pouches and straps.
I did a few things slightly differently than Jim. I could only fit two loops per strap, whereas Jim fit three. (I suspect he didn’t need his loops to conform exactly to the PALS spec because the accessories he’s using don’t require it). I also placed the straps a little bit higher, mainly because my water bottle accessory is so tall. Finally, I’m using large double-carabiner clips to attach my Side Hustle, whereas he used Gatekeeper Rail clips. I find the carabiner clips easier to attach and remove.
I love my modified bag. Moving the water bottle to the side frees up room inside the bag and also makes my water easily accessible when I’m walking. Similarly, carrying my binoculars on the outside of my bag takes them off my neck while still keeping them easily accessible.
My original plan was to strap my Tom Bihn Side Kick to the front, which I was already using to carry my watercolors and sketchbook. I like my Side Kick a lot, and even though it’s slightly smaller than the Side Hustle, it fit perfectly well strapped to the front. However, on my weekend trip (which I one-bagged), I found that it would have been useful to have a larger bag that could hold a few more things and that I could remove and use as a day bag. I hemmed and hawed over whether I really needed this, but I ended up buying a Side Hustle. I don’t love the bag by itself, but it fits this one specific use case perfectly, and since it’s this use case is not uncommon, it’s probably okay.
There are two downsides to the MOLLE attachments. First, they’re a pain to attach and remove. Second, if you fly a lot, and if you like to sit in the aisle, the attachments will make your bag too wide to place under the seat in front of you. For middle and window seats, your bag will still fit just fine.
If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have purchased a Tom Bihn Smart Alec instead of the Paragon. (It’s a design that’s since been retired, but many folks hope will make a return). It has about the same total volume as my hacked bag, with more built-in organization (including a water bottle pocket), elastic cord for attachments, and attachment loops to clip modular pockets, including bags such as the Side Kick. (I wish Tom Bihn would add these loops to more of their bags, including the Paragon.) It’s not as sleek as the Paragon, but I don’t think that’s too important.
Still, no regrets! My modified bag works great. Plus, who am kidding? It’s fun to hack a bag, and it’s even better when the hacks work!
My friend, Renee, recently mentioned The Red Hand Files to me, and she shared this post with me as an example of Nick Cave’s writing and engagement. The post was a response to a question from a reader asking about the benefits of using ChatGPT to write song lyrics. The whole post is lovely and funny and short, but here’s a taste:
In the story of the creation, God makes the world, and everything in it, in six days. On the seventh day he rests. The day of rest is significant because it suggests that the creation required a certain effort on God’s part, that some form of artistic struggle had taken place. This struggle is the validating impulse that gives God’s world its intrinsic meaning. The world becomes more than just an object full of other objects, rather it is imbued with the vital spirit, the pneuma, of its creator.
ChatGPT rejects any notions of creative struggle, that our endeavours animate and nurture our lives giving them depth and meaning. It rejects that there is a collective, essential and unconscious human spirit underpinning our existence, connecting us all through our mutual striving.
As humans, we so often feel helpless in our own smallness, yet still we find the resilience to do and make beautiful things, and this is where the meaning of life resides. Nature reminds us of this constantly. The world is often cast as a purely malignant place, but still the joy of creation exerts itself, and as the sun rises upon the struggle of the day, the Great Crested Grebe dances upon the water. It is our striving that becomes the very essence of meaning. This impulse – the creative dance – that is now being so cynically undermined, must be defended at all costs, and just as we would fight any existential evil, we should fight it tooth and nail, for we are fighting for the very soul of the world.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: There’s a little sweet moment, I’ve got to say, in a very intense book — your latest — in which you’re heading out the door and your wife says what are you doing? I think you say, “I’m going to buy an envelope.”
KURT VONNEGUT: Yeah.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: What happens then?
KURT VONNEGUT: Oh, she says, “Well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet?” And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope.
I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is, is we’re here on Earth to fart around.
And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.
I think there’s a lot of truth to what both Cave and Vonnegut said, and I think it’s helpful to keep in mind as machines continue to push us to remember what it means to be human. But maybe there’s a middle ground.
Today is my nephew’s birthday. This morning, Google Photos put together a little montage of photos of the two of us over the years. I spend more time than the average person looking at and curating my photos, but I was still moved by the arrangement this tool had pulled together automatically without any creative struggle or farting around on my part.
I know there’s a world where tools like ChatGPT augment rather than try to replace the human experience. We do have agency as to whether or not this happens, although how much, I do not know. Either way, it helps to be reminded that we are dancing animals over and over and over again, and to proceed accordingly.