A Saturday Night Lyft with a Madman

Yesterday I called a Lyft to take me from The Holding Company in Ocean Beach to my home in South Park, and what I expected to be just an ordinary ride home on a Saturday night turned out to be a trip chauffeured by a madman.

When the Ford Expedition — Lyft decided to upgrade me for no apparent reason — picked me up in front of THC, I opened the door to see a man wearing clothes that caused me to second guess my decision to step into his SUV. The Lyft driver had red hair that looked the texture of shoelaces, and it was bursting out of a stovetop hat. He had on white makeup, which made him look like a ghost, and rouge around his eyes. Around his neck, he was wearing a ridiculous bow tie that would have been appropriately sized for Yao Ming, not a man that appeared just under six feet tall.

It took me a moment to realize that it was Halloween weekend, and, no, I shouldn’t turn down the free luxury Lyft. And that the man was, indeed, playing a character from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He was Johnny Depp’s version of the Mad Hatter.

Ironically, I had recently finished reading Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, and I was thinking about how this one character had transformed from the book to the Disney cartoon to Johnny Depp and now to the driver of my Lyft. It has been a long time for this character to exist, and what I found ironic was that in the original Alice’s Adventures in WonderLand that Lewis Carroll gave as a gift to the real Alice, the Mad Hatter wasn’t even in the original text, according to the BBC. The Mad Hatter was only added later when Carroll — a man steeped in mystery over his mathematical mind meets psychedelic journeyman meets potential pedophile — when he decided to take the book and try and publish it.

The Mad Hatter is someone who is a bit of a holy fool — someone who appears mad but actually has wisdom. It’s an archetype that has existed from Shakespeare to Rick and Morty.

I love these types of characters. Individuals who seem lost in the world, investing in passions and visions of life that others don’t find appropriate, conventional, or sane. These types of people are creative, imaginative, and, sometimes, dangerous. They are my type of people.

The Lyft driver certainly appeared to be revealing a lot of about his inner character, his inner madness, with his costume, and when he began to talk, I continued to be surprised.

For some reason, he started telling me about how his expedition was custom built, and he said that he needed the expedition to be climate controlled, comfortable for long hauls, and big.Ā It turned out he needed these specs because he collects reptiles, especially snakes. At the mere mention of the word snakes, I looked down at my ankles and anticipated a new version of Snakes on the Plane, except the title would obviously have to change, to begin with me as the protagonist, and from the vents and the floorboards, I would suddenly be swimming in reptiles. Perhaps a cobra would snap into my achilles tendon.

Of course, I know this wasn’t going to happen, but we all have an irrational fear of snakes, and here was a man who collected them and was driving me home on a Saturday. He said that he owned about 300 different snakes, and they were in his house.

My immediate thought was about the reaction a date would have when the lyft driver brought her or him home to his house of serpents. I had so many questions: Did he warn them about the snakes before entering the house? Are some of the non-venomous šŸs simply slithering around the floors? Does he ever have someone stay the night?

Honestly, it would take a very specific person to be able to handle a one-night stand with this man. Imagine a couple, a night out drinking, ripping off each other’s clothes before they entered an apartment. The door opens, the man fumbles for the light switch, the couples pants are almost off: Then the hissing begins. The rattling. The inaudible yet intense sound of slithering.

That’s when the date, I imagine, would end.

So, instead of asking all the prying questions that I wanted to ask, I simply said: “Do people get nervous when you bring them over?” To my dissapointment, he had an apartment next door to where he kept the snakes, and he owned a separate apartment to sleep. It’s not great for my blog, but it’s good for his personal life.

Of course, when someone tells you they specialize in reptiles, you’re going to ask questions. A couple things I learned that were interesting was that he gets bit all the time by snakes, but he compared them to dog bites. He said, some dogs are more aggresive than others, and some dogs are smaller, so their bites hurt less. That’s just like snakes.

But what I found also interesting was that he had a tortoise. In fact, over the years he’s sold many tortoises. Somewhere, I heard tortoises live a long life, and it turns out that his great great great great (not sure how many greats honestly) grandfather received a šŸ¢, and they had been handing it down in their family ever since. The Lyft driver still has the tortoise, and it’s 180 years old.

When I did the math, I realized that the šŸ¢ was alive when slavery was still legal and before Lincoln was president or assasinated. Part of me wonders if this is bullshit, but I’ll never know. Slate has an article that backs up that tortoises can live a long time.

Really, at the end of the day, I have no idea if what this man told me was accurate, but I enjoyed my Saturday night ride with the mad hatter.

What is Good Writing?

What is good writing? It’s easy to sit there from your computer or phone and say, “Joe, it’s simple to spot good writing. No typos. Great command of the English language. Possess a fundamental understanding of grammar.” Other people might say something like: “You have to know how to use a comma and understand the difference between Let’s eat grandma and Let’s eat, Grandma.”

Don’t forget about the people who say: “Vary your sentence structure” or “understand how to use a semicolon” or “commas splices are the devil, Bobby.”

Then there are the people who think that split infinitives are the worst thing in the world, believe that using a serial comma is wrong, or chastise writers for a typo in a blog and see that as an indication of an inferior intellect. Oh, and don’t use literally the wrong way; you’re going to piss a lot of people off.

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I’ve heard so many rules that people have to follow to write well, but I’m here to say that there is no such thing as good writing. It’s a lie. It’s all a lie. Our teachers and our parents and our high school newspaper editor all want us to believe that there is good writing. I’m sorry to say this, but that’s just not fair. It’s not accurate. It’s kind of a shared hallucination.

When most people examine writing to evaluate if it’s good, I actually believe they are more likely asking (unconsciously), does it match my style expectations? Is it following the rules that I have in my head that define good writing? Does it meet my understanding of language? And when you break those rules that I know, that I understand, you should be crushed and seen as a hack!

But this is just a poor way to evaluate quality. For instance, I heard for years — from professors, authors, and copy editors — that a split infinitive is a mistake; yet when I read Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style,” he has an almost diatribe on how many credible sources believe that a split infinitive shouldn’t be remotely considered a mistake. To poorly construct a sentence with a split infinitive shows as little about writing abilities as using the passive voice.

Yes, we have been trained that the passive voice is horrible and should never be used, but emphasizing a different part of a sentence can be a great use of style.

What I’m trying to get at is that good writing is not actually good writing; it’s effective communication. It’s being understood by an audience; it’s making them feel something; it’s helping them understand a complex idea. It’s a conversation that can be expertly done. Steven Pinker doesn’t say this exactly in his book– or he might; I can’t remember — but what I took away from it was that effective writing is about using style and language to convey thoughts to be understood. And that’s what we should focus on.

When you evaluate this post, I hope you don’t look at a typo; I hope you say: “Did I truly understand what he was trying to say?” “Did he convince me that good writing isn’t real?” Well, probably not in this small space.

But overall, I’m so tired of the question about “What is good writing?” Yes, when we work with people professionally, we have to agree on a standard, and if I write right as write when I actually mean right not left (šŸ˜‰), then you probably will think I’m an idiot. And it would behoove any writer to avoid obvious mistakes. Just…. does that mean the writing is bad?

No, good writing is a lie that we are sold by elitists who want to keep literature and writing to themselves.

How to Get Better at Reading

This is going to be embarrassing. Over the last year, I forgot how to read. Every time I picked up a book, well, I couldn’t actually connect with the words, pages, paragraphs. The novels and memoirs that I normally loved became cumbersome strangers. Perhaps it was the books I was reading, I can hear you saying, but it wasn’t the quality of my selections. From fun reads to intellectually stimulating journeys, I was trying to read works by talented authors.

There is a line in one of J.D. Salinger’s short story, For Esme:–with Love and Squalor, that reminds me of this predicament:

“He was seated on a folding wooden chair at a small, messy-looking writing table, with a paperback overseas novel open before him, which he was having great trouble reading. The trouble lay with him, not the novel.”

Ever since I read this line almost eight years ago, it stuck out to me because it showed that the problem with reading is often not the book; it’s the state of the mind of the person. Perhaps books can also read people. As a journalist, a graduate with an MFA in creative writing, and a published author, I was just not enjoying reading. Everything I read felt like work.

So, what was wrong with me?

Perhaps I can blame this on just being tired. After working all day, reading and reading and writing and writing and strategizing and strategizing, it was easy to surmise that I just didn’t have the mental strength to come home and read for enjoyment. But I heard on a podcast that the mind shouldn’t be thought of as a muscle that becomes fatigued and needs a rest; it’s more of computer that is always on and can never be turned off … it just needs, well, a variety of inputs.

What else was strange about my disinterest in reading was that I was crushing Audible books. Over the last two to three years, I have noticed that the amount of books I consumed in an audio format was beginning to exponentially surpass (I’ve decided I’m pro split infinitive šŸ˜‰) the amount of physical or digital books that I was reading. I started to wonder if I just preferred the audio format of books now, and that my tastes had simply evolved. Homer was meant to be spoken rather than read after all.

I asked myself: Why was I enjoying the audio books more than the physical artifact, which I collect and love so much? What changed?

I couldn’t understand it. I was starting to think there was something wrong with me. Perhaps my capabilities as a reader were just simply diminishing. Perhaps I was actually just dumber than I was before. Perhaps I didn’t care anymore.

Then it hit me like a ton of books.

When I listen to audiobooks, I play the books at a speed that is 1.75 times faster than the original speed. Technology is amazing, and Audible cuts the spaces in between words so that I can consume my books faster. There were times when I would listen to the audiobooks in my car on a walk in my neighborhood in South Park, and I would realize that I just completely tuned out. I didn’t remember what I had just read, but I didn’t care and still enjoyed the experience.

If this same phenomenon, a sort of literally hypnosis, happened when I was reading a physical book, then I would have reread the paragraph or sentence or section until I was sure I consumed and comprehended the material. When I read a physical book, I stopped tuning out and sinking into the material. It was sort of like listening to someone speak and asking them to repeat the last sentence they just said because I couldn’t understand it. No one wants to talk to that person.

I didn’t used to read this way. I used to be able to consume books, to become lost in their worlds, and to see reading as leisure and not drudgery. How did this happen?

Well, it’s probably years of school. Years of analysis. Years of critical thinking. Years of trying to deconstruct works of literature to figure out how to put them back together.

I had to stop. I had to learn to read again.

Now, I’m reading books the way I listen to them. I’m not worrying about every word, every sentence. I’m trying to leave this world and enter the one created by the author.

I’ve heard similar problems from many of my friends. They say it’s hard for them to read when they come home from work, but they have no problem watching Netflix. And I’m not judging. But I think many people in my generation and younger are falling victim to an education system, a community, a culture, that demands we interpret books rather than experience them.

How Cal Newport and Digital Minimalism Influenced My Life and Blog

Over the last few months, I have been thinking a lot about what this blog means to me and how it fits into my life, and I hadn’t realized how much Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism has changed my entire perception of my work and digital life. I started this blog when I first began freelancing almost eight years ago, chronicling my journey to building a life around writing. Now, I write every single day, tallying up words for novels, essays, and short stories while working on my craft within my career as a digital marketing professional. I have a great career where I help tell stories for universities.

So, I’ve been thinking, where does this blog fit into my life that I’m no longer a freelancer?

Honestly, my blog exhausted me (in a similar way to my podcast, The Working Poet Radio Show), because it began to seem like a burden rather than a passion. I know that sounds awful, especially to those people who have read or listened, but what I noticed is that the reason these projects were feeling like a burden was: 1. I was really busy at work, writing, and with my family, so something had to give. 2. I was focused on the wrong metrics — organic traffic, shares, page views — and not connecting with an audience.

As a digital marketing professional, I have learned to realize the value and the tools to increasing a digital presence, and I still see the value in this for any writing professional, but they consume me. I dedicate my day to helping our clients achieve these goals, and I thought, well, shouldn’t I be doing the same thing for my own blog? I pursued writing for this blog in the same way I approached my work: SEO optimized blog posts, listicles, social boosting. But it struck me this week: I don’t care about those things anymore for my own personal work. They are exhausting.

My thoughts have really started to change after reading Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism.” It’s a book that explores a lifestyle where you use digital technologies to support value, true value, rather than allowing the behavioral techniques that Silicon Valley — and digital marketing professionals like myself — employ so that a user keeps scrolling, keeps sharing, keeps you on your device. Newport’s book proved to be one of the most useful books I have ever read, and it helped me reorientate myself to what I care about: building a career and a community, writing books, and being there for my family.

Because of this book, I have written six chapters of a new novel and read 18 books in a month and a half, which I will catalogue at the end of this blog and flag the ones I recommend.Ā  During this time, I’ve come to a conclusion: I need to start writing without caring about being read. Well, maybe that’s not right. Clearly, I want to care about an audience. Maybe it’s more on the lines of: Be yourself and your audience will find you. That could be it. I don’t know. Realize what you value and focus on that…maybe. I don’t know.

Books:

  • The Line Becomes a River, Francisco Cantu (Recommend. Reminded of Kerouac if he was working at the border)
  • The Psychology of Time Travel, Kate Mascareenhas (Don’t recommend)
  • Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport (One of the most useful books I’ve ever read)
  • How Not to Die Alone, Richard Roper (Recommend)
  • Ultralearning, Scott H. Young
  • Churchgoers, Patrick Coleman (Alert, San Diego author)
  • This is Not Propaganda, Pete Pomeranstev (Awesome read)
  • Writing to Persuade, Trish Hall
  • The Fault in Our Stars, John Green (Excellent, party time)
  • The War of Kindness, Jamil Zaki (Pass)
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
  • The Whole Brain Child, Daniel Siegel (Awesome)
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  • The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker (Incredible style book)
  • Paper Towns, John Green (Amazing!)
  • The Disordered Mind, Eric R. Kandel
  • Nine Stories, J.D. Salinger (Not as good as I remembered)

A Review of Solare San Diego

For four years, I’ve been living in San Diego, California, after moving from Los Angeles, and I’ve learned that when people talk about Italian food in our city, they always mention Buona Forchetta first. It’s a staple. The lines are long, the pizza is delicious (though I think Tribute in North Park is better), and most of the waiters have an Italian accent to make the patrons truly feel (or believe) they’re getting an authentic Italian experience. No wonder I had never heard a mention of Solare San Diego.

So when I heard that a San Diego-based restaurant won an international pasta competition in Milan, Buona Fochetta was my first thought. Turns out I was wrong.

Solare in San Diego Wins International Award

In 2017,Ā chef Accursio Lota of Liberty Stationā€™s Solare Ristorante won the Barilla Pasta World Championship in Italy. Accursio beat out 19 chefs from other countries around the world. While this isn’t fresh news in 2018 (I heard about this a couple months ago when I visited my favorite food blog Eater), I asked around to some of my friends if they had ever been to Solare, and many of them admitted they weren’t even familiar with the restaurant. Perhaps it was just the crowd I was running with, but I found it entirely strange there wasn’t more buzz around an international award-winning pasta champion.

On Friday, my wife and I decided to try the restaurant. When we showed up at the restaurant, I was greeted by a hostess in a red top and a black skirt that made her look like she was going to try and tango dance me to my seat. I made a reservation, thinking Friday night would be packed, and I looked around the restaurant and saw many empty tables. My reservation wasn’t needed.

Behind the hostess, there were poorly designed and bland signs touting more of Solare’s successes, includingĀ being named Best Italian Restaurant in San Diego, Best Chef, and Best Wine List by San Diego Magazine. How in the world is this place empty on a date night?

My wife and I were led to our seats, and we sat down in long tables that made us feel far apart, as if we were eating at a formal dinning hall in a Game of Thrones episode. On the far back wall, there was an old Fernet Branca advertisement, but other than that vintage touch, the design felt more like I was eating in a chain restaurant than a top-ranked, award-winning Italian restaurant.

The drink menu was overwhelming, and the cocktail list came across as a placard you would get in a beach bar before sipping on a pina colada and munching on some conch fritters. However, I was impressed by how many wines by the glass they had, and I could find a nice glass of wine instead of feeling like I would need to buy a bottle to try something memorable.

I settled on theĀ Fattoria del cerro, vino nobile di Montelpulciano. When I was recently in Florence, I tried a Montelpulciano, and it was rich with tobacco and black cherry flavors. This wine didn’t have as much tobacco as that wine, but it was moderately intense with some hints of vanilla.

The waitress was constantly at our attention, and it felt like she was anticipating our orders and wants rather than responding to requests. She brought over some house-made bread with an olive oil that was so peppery I coughed a bit. (Nothing quite like a peppery olive oil.)

My Courses at Solare in San Diego

My first course was a tomato salad with anchovies. I’ve finally concluded that I don’t love anchovies, but they were fresh, and the tomatoes rivaled those I had in Italy. My wife had an eggplant soup that was ugly brown yet delicious. I would recommend ordering the soup and not being intimidated that the eggplant flavor would be too overwhelming. It was balanced and flavorful.

For my main meal, I ordered theĀ Pappardelle al Sugo di Salsiccia, which is aĀ House-made pappardelle pasta, Pecorino aged 365 days, South Creek Ranch sausage sugo, and roasted pistachios. Pappardelle are thick and long pieces of pasta, and it was fresh and wonderfully paired with the sausage. The roasted pistachios gave the pasta a bit of a crunch.

Overall, I thought the cuisine at Solare was wonderful, even though I only tried a few of the items as we were eating light. But I can’t wait to go back and try their tasting menu and perhaps try a cooking class.

However, I did understand why there isn’t much buzz around Solare. Perhaps the lack of conversation and interest, despite their awards, has to do with a booming scene at Liberty Station, but I have a gut feeling that it’s simply the design of the restaurant. The long tables, the tacky menus and placards, the general ambience of an Italian-restaurant chain are what I think hurts Solare. If you can get past the lack of buzz and the generic atmosphere, then you will enjoy the flavors and the freshness of the food. Sometimes, great food just doesn’t know how to be cool.

For more food experience, read about my trip to Tijuana.