Conversations, Conspiracies and Conservatives

Three and a half weeks in, the routines became rituals, and the amount of decisions that need to be made slowly declined. Whereas my morning routines used to involve thirty minutes of phone time as soon as I woke up, followed by an automated shower, a trip to the local cafe for a latté and a pastry, then the drive to work, my new routine involves rushing out of the 30˚ sleeping bag into the 35˚ ambient temperature, popping open the stove and the pantry to get the oatmeal and the coffee prepared as soon as possible, using the heat from the stove to warm up the van and my Little Buddy (a brilliantly named propane-powered space heater I picked up early last week) to warm me up. 

It’s a good morning this way, I don’t mind the cold really, it’s the heat that kills me and agitates me. Usually by the time breakfast is done, the windows are fogged by the heat, the van is cozy, and I get to sit and enjoy breakfast along with my homegirl Fairuz. Pack the bed, do the dishes, brush my teeth, adjust the solar panel, and my reward is two-to-three of uninterrupted reading time in the one sunny spot between the trees.

So I wake up, perform the morning ritual which has become a starting marker on my day, get in the van, and head over to Convict Lake. I’d seen Gregg Boydston whom I’ve been following for a while on Instagram shared photos from there which made the place amazing. 

One the way, I pass through the town of Bishop. On the main street, I come across a Vanagon, parked at an angle towards the street. Cool! I get closer, and see a Vanagon pull out of the parking lot. Huh, that’s weird, you don’t see that many in one place. I get next to the place, and in front me, the clouds parted and the light shined like it had never shone before. The music radiated like it had never played before, and no less than fifteen Vanagons sat side by side, with a shop window open. A Vanagon Specialist.

Coming across a Vanagon specialist on a trip is like coming across a coffeeshop that has freshly ground Kenyan beans drip-poured after a month of drinking Folgers. It’s like finding an Aspirin when all you’ve been given are slaps on the face to make you focus your pain on another part of your body. It’s like coming across a specialist after 5 mechanics reach to the back of the bottom drawer trying to find something, anything, that would fit that weird hose your van has, regardless of origin or compatibility.

I pull in, my spirits riding high. I walk in, there’s nobody there. I look around, shit. Fox News is playing on the TV. At this point, my beard has grown over an inch, and I’ve gotten into the habit of twirling the end of my mustache as I drive, making me look like a Turkish Basha with an ear for downtempo electronic music, out camping. I wonder how this is going to go.

Five minutes of idle chatter with another waiting customer, the shop owner arrives and jumps right in: “What year is that? What’s going on?” “It’s a ’91, my headlight switch melted, I got a replacement, but I don’t have the connector. Can you help me out?” We chat, he doesn’t have the part, but he might be able to find it for me. We move on to talk about engines, I mention a Subaru engine conversion that people do to their vans which more than doubles the horsepower, but isn’t smog-legal in California. I joke that I just need to find a nice Arab smog certifier and chat with him about the homeland and as soon as I said those words his brain clicked into high gear, he stood up, got a smile on his face, excited about what’s to come.

“Are you a liberal?”

Huh, that came out of nowhere.

“Uhh, yeah, you could say that”

He takes this as a cue to jump into a 10 minute tirade on the hypocrisy of liberalism, how the other states that don’t have smog rules are sharing the air with us and how we’re creating an uneven playing field, how the Indians on the reservation next door charge the same price but pay less for gas, how abortion is immoral, how immigrants need to be stopped.

How he jumped from one conclusion to the other was amazing to me. I was more impressed than anything, I wanted to give him a pat and the back and congratulate him on TV well watched, but at the mention of immigration I perked up myself. I knew what was about to happen, it’s happened many times.

“If we closed down immigration I wouldn’t be here”

“Where did you come from?”

“Syria”

“Did you come here legally?”

“Yeah”

“See you did it right!”

“Do you realize how much time it takes and how much money it costs to come here legally? It took us fifteen years, and many thousands of dollars.”

At this point, the conversation usually turns to some variant of “If you’re too poor to come, you shouldn’t come”. My mention of Syria as my place of origin usually takes a couple of minutes to register and locate on the hazy, foggy mental map of the world, and then the mention of Islam comes. This is my favorite part.

“I’m not Muslim, I’m Catholic Christian.”

I love being Catholic. It’s not like being an Orthodox, a Protestant, or any other obscure offshoot. No. I’m fuckin Catholic, bro. The Pope is my homeboy, what you got on me? It’s like someone assuming you’re not driving an American car and you tell them it’s a Ford. It’s the most blunt of Christian beliefs. 

He gets confused at the introduction of nuance and realism into the stark black & white vision of the world, and the conversation ends with:

“I’ll tell you the best argument against abortion.” – Somehow we were back on this topic – “I was adopted, if I had been aborted, I wouldn’t be here working on your van”. Point actually well made, I wanted to give him a hug for deciding to specialize in Vanagons. 

I don’t want to give off the wrong impression. The commentary in that section of the story is not how I felt, it was how I reacted in my head. In truth, I side much more heavily on the liberal end of the spectrum, but I believe in nuance. Nothing in the world is black & white, and people are neither strictly right nor wrong, especially in these areas of debate and belief. I also don’t think arguing with someone on these topics is worthwhile. We’d be arguing at the leaf nodes of the logic tree, not the root, where we disagree. It doesn’t matter what you think about Obamacare, abortion, religion, immigration. I want to have a conversation about human nature, what our tendencies are, how you prioritize and weigh factors in your life. That’s the difference, not right or wrong, just different priorities.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have time to work on my van and I didn’t have time to wait. Slightly dismayed but more amused, I continued up the eastern foothill of the Eastern Sierras, showing my van Sierra the backside of her namesake. “You think this is cool,” I told her, “Just wait till you see what’s on the other side of the peak!”

Weird things happen to objects when you name them. Ever seen bestowing my van with a name, I’ve felt a kinship toward it. Yes she has a temperament, and yes she’s needy, but I can’t help spoiling her. She has trouble up the hills. You see, she’s only got 90 horsepower, and coming up a mountain pass, she’ll pull a hearty thirty, and on a downhill, she’ll pull a lively seventy. The problem with going thirty uphill though, is that the heat starts overpowering the wind’s ability to cool the engine, and the heat starts to scare me, after what happened in Death Valley. So I scratch her in her favorite spot, that little patch of soft metal right above the driver’s side window but below the windowsill, and I comfort her. I open up the heater on full blast, and I start: “You can do it, baby, just two more turns, you can see the peak, there it is, see that sign? Come on, Come on – HEY PASS ME MAN I DON’T HAVE A TURNAROUND! – it’s ok baby, it’s not your fault, it’s coming up, it’s coming up! HEY! Summit, 7,800 feet! YOU DID IT!”

I arrive, spending the whole trip looking for some dispersed camping in the many national forests around that area to no avail. I find a campground sign near convict lake, turn into it, find a spot, take a swig of whiskey after finding out it’s $25 per night (relatively, even a nice spot on this trip would’ve cost me $15, most were free). I find a spot, park, open the door, and immediately I hear “Hello neighbor!”. I look around through to trees to find the campground host on a chair outside her RV waving. I head over, wanting to know about some of the hikes and the area around. She’s new, but she has maps and packets which she lends me to read over. Her name is Christy, and there’s a guy there, shirtless, bald, muscular, with shorts and a pair of skater shoes on. His name is Jay. He was from London.

I ask them where I can go to get a good steak and some fresh Asparagus, then he silently goes in and fetches me a pork steak and some asparagus. Huh, how awfully kind! “How much do you want for it?” “Nothing mate, just enjoy!” “How about a trade?” “I’ll tell you what, you get the beer, and I’ll grill the steak.” Sound good to me! Off I went with them, slightly disappointed by him putting on a shirt. Suddenly we looked less like an Arab and a Skinhead walking together and looked more like an Arab and a punk English man walking together, much less poetic. 

Anyway, we walk over, some idle chatter later, the steaks are done, we eat, we drink, we feel good, and then they mention Chemtrails while I was dozing off a bit. “Chemtrails? What are those?” Jay and Christy proceed to explain the conspiracy theory to me, I’ll leave the explanation as an exercise to the reader. Out of this conversation follow a few more conspiracy theories: Capitalism, Religion, Society, TV. I’m fascinated by this topic of conversation and want it to keep going on. I’ve never met anyone who believed in those theories, and I wanted to find out more, but the beer was working its way and I lost focus. We started feeding the chipmunks. 

I woke up the next day, said goodbye to Jay and Christy, and took Sierra up towards Tahoe. One mountain pass later which Sierra championed, we descended into the casinos of the California-Nevada border in southern Lake Tahoe. Through the casinos were $35 campgrounds, tall thick pines, clear blue lakes, 5pm rush hour traffic, overpriced rent, overcrowded brunch, and home. Home sweet home.

Elevation: Sea Level

Waking up to the sound of generators and crying children in a puddle of sweat wasn’t high on my list for the trip. 75 degrees at 7am does weird things to me, I get irritable and frustrated. It was becoming increasingly clear to me that my plan of spending the day kayaking in Lake Mead wasn’t really going to pan out. I needed to get the hell out of the desert, as soon as possible. I had my fan blowing hot air in my face, the window down with hot air hitting my side, and the blasting sun glaring down the left side of my body, stuck by the adhesive force of sweat to my shirt and seat. I wasn’t happy. 

The fastest way out into the Sierra Nevada – my van’s namesake – where elevation, sweet sweet pine trees, and shade were waiting for me, was through Death Valley.

I didn’t know much about the valley, but it was May and the summer hasn’t hit in earnest, and I’m just going to blast through the damned thing anyway, my baby’s got this, Sierra can make it. Or so I thought.

Little did I know that the heat wave hits hard and fast in the valley. Little did I know that this was the weekend it hit. Little did I know that the valley was a valley because it was surrounded by 5,000 ft mountains. Little did I know that Sierra would have to struggle, at 25 mph, up a steep hill, for half an hour. Little did I know that Sierra, at 2,000 feet, after two and a half hours of driving in the noon sun, would start dipping its RPMs, Little did I know that Sierra as a matter of fact, wouldn’t be able to make it. 

Well, here I was. Heat unlike any heat I’ve ever felt. The only saving grace was that my cowboy hat was just wide enough for its noon-shade to cover my body. Only my feet were exposed, and if I leaned just right, the shadow of my body covers those as well. It was a good look, as you can imagine.

Out of options and signal range, I flag down a car, ask them to take me to the visitor center so I can call AAA. This awesome Swiss couple stops for me, gives me a ride to the nearest gas station, drop me off, where I proceed to find out that the phones are down. Ok, cool. I described my situation to them and they tell me I broke down not 200 ft from a ranger station I didn’t see ’cause I was monitoring my RPMs. 

Ok, time to hitch a ride back. I got this, I don’t look like one of those bums who hitch rides on the side of the highway. No, I’m an educated professional from a good family, people will stop. 

You never empathize with hitchhikers until you find yourself stranded looking for a ride. I’m sure if any of the people just stopped for me to tell them what’s up they’d realize I just needed a lift 15 miles on the single road I know they’re going to go on (there are no turns on the 190). 

I walk up the road to a restaurant, where I found my first thermometer of the day. 116 degrees. In the shade. One of the employees gives me a ride back to the car, I give him $10 for gas money, put the van in neutral, and roll back down the hill to the ranger station.

Ain’t no ranger in the ranger station, pay phone doesn’t work. Ok well, I have only one option: Hope that the breakdown happened because of the build up of heat, hope that the evening will cool down enough for me to attempt to cross the pass the next day. Off to the campground 100 feet away I go, I turn right, I’m the only car in the 12-spot gravel campground. I park the van so it provides shade for me, sit down, and start reading. 

In pulls a couple of cars, a couple of people walk out, and I strike a conversation with one of them. Solitude doesn’t seem to have the effect of introspection on me, it seems to just make me more likely to approach strangers and have a conversation. The urge to talk apparently doesn’t leave me when I’m in the wild. After I talk to one of them, he goes back to join the other, and proceeds to tell him in detail everything that just happened. Huh, they’re being pretty loud, I can hear everything they’re saying 70 feet away.
 

They invite me over to chat, I sit down and find out they’re writing a book together on the mines around Death Valley. Turns out this place is chocked full of late-19th and early 20th century history dating from 1849 when the first white people came and gave it its name, till the 20’s and 30’s toward the end of the gold rush era. It also turns out that they’re called Richard and Bob. I immediately find out the cause of their conversation volume: Bob is old and bad at hearing. Bob gingerly drops the fact that he first started coming to Death Valley as a teenager in the mid-30s. The Middle of the 1930s! He was a teenager! That means he’s in his 90’s! The man has seen the development of the national park system, World War II, The Korean War, Vietnam, The Internet, the raging 60s, The growth of cars and the highway! And at his old age, he’s still backcountry camping in the desert. Man oh man, what a guy! He drinks his water from a tin cup, he wears wool pants, his shoes are worn down to his socks, his wrinkles tell the story of more than 80 years of ceaseless exploration. It was like sitting next to John Muir, I had so many questions to ask, I was overloaded and just stared in admiration.

When I asked him what his story was, he started “I’ve been single all my life” – No wonder he still has his vitality. When I asked him what his secret was, he said “I eat right, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I am thankful for the creator, you gotta do right by the creator”. No kidding! I asked him what the biggest change he’s seen in society, and immediately he replies: “Divorce! And Graffiti! And Tattoos!”. Huh, didn’t expect that. I was expecting him to say something about how technology is separating us and people don’t interact with each other anymore, to which he replies: “I love the internet, I use it, and I keep in touch with Richard over email and share photos with him”. My god, this man is my idol. 

By this time, the sun began setting, the valley started taking on a pink hue, the cloud took an orange glow on their underbellies, and the setting sun through the shadows of the mountains down into the valley, 2000ft below us. When you stop and clear your head, Death Valley really is an amazing place. There was not a single sound to be heard in the middle of the park, other than the whooshing of the leaves in a nearby tree. Richard tells me the moon won’t show up tonight and we’ll get to see The Milky Way. I get excited. Richard has been stargazing all his life and knows all the constellations and points them out to me, I corroborate on my iPhone, and sure enough, there’s Mars, Saturn, Venus, Scorpio, and on and on. At about 10:30, the Milky Way glows in its majesty, we all grow quiet and think about the reality of what that milky white strip is, what it represents, and watch it grow from a small bow near the horizon to a large strip above our heads. I set my alarm for every hour, sleep outside my van on my sleeping bag, glad for life, glad for my new friends, inspired by Bob, and respectful of Sierra, who once again taught me that the landscape is only a setting, not the story. The story is with the people who know the area, who can point out its history and know it like a good friend.

I woke early at 6am by the light of dusk, packed quickly, turned the key, backed the van, and out I went, Sierra now satisfied in my lesson for the day, took me up and over the first pass, down the second valley, up the second pass. On one of the last turns, I find a Joshua Tree! Around the bend, about twenty more Joshua Trees! As I crest the top and tilt back down, I see the mountainside spiked with these gorgeous trees, lifting their arms up to the sky, thanking the sky for the water and the sun that gives them life. I’m out of Death Valley now, ahead of me, The Sierras shoot out from the valley floor. I’m looking at Mt. Whitney now. It’s rocky and barren on this side, but I know what’s on the other side. Home is on the other side.

Holy Smokes!

“Hey, you smell that?” I asked.
“Smell what?”
“There’s a burning smell man! Something’s burning!” I yelled.
“Relax, it’s probably coming from the outside. Stop freaking out.” Ben tried to calm me.

I’ve never known myself to be an anxious person. I’ve always considered myself a happy-go-lucky kinda fellow, not afraid to make fun of myself, and not sweating the little stuff. That was before I started hanging out with people who speed through thick trees on steep slopes on snowboards, and before I drove into a thunderstorm in the high plains of Utah in a van containing everything I own, 100 miles from the nearest service shop, and 400 miles from the nearest specialist.

But Ben wasn’t thinking about all that when he asked me to stop freaking out. He’d been thinking about that time earlier in the day when we stopped by the Kayak rental shop in Page, Arizona to return our two kayaks. We’d spent the day paddling around Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border, going around the Lone Rock and climbing the sandstones around Wahweap.

We unload the kayaks, small talk our way around the van with the storeowner who wants to learn more about Sierra. “Here, come check out the back.” I lead him around the passenger side towards the back, when I glance down. “Fuck.” Sierra has diarrhea: Green-tinted goo is leaking out of her back side. My first thought was that it must’ve been wiper fluid, what else is green in a car? A quick Google search revealed what it actually was: Coolant. Shit, that’s not good. Four days into the trip, this was the first problem I encountered with the van. It won’t be the last. 

There’s an ironically beautiful reduction that happens when you encounter a car problem on the road. “Whelp, I can’t go anywhere, and I don’t know how to fix this.” Suddenly your priorities become very clear, and the options dwindle down and you know exactly what you need to do. It’s actually kind of nice, fate is in the driver’s seat. We ask the storeowner if there are auto shops he recommends nearby, he recommends Eagle Automotive. We call them up, they can take us, we breath a sigh of relief, turn Sierra on, drive her slowly monitoring the temperature gauge. It’s only a 2 mile drive and we get there in no time. 

When we arrive, we encounter the shop owner, an older gentleman with a belly and a voice thickened with decades of heavy smoking, and a younger guy working as an understudy. As we pull in, we overhear the owner chastising the employee, explaining to him what “We’re overbooked means”. Phew, glad we got the right guy on the phone. We tell him our story and he takes us in. The employee who’s working on Sierra looks like a real rough kid. He’s got the goatee, the attitude, and the burly build. For ten minutes though, he was arguing with the shop owner: By hell or high-water, he will not go down into the pit to work on the car: There’s a spider there, and he’s mortified of spiders. He puts me on watch: “Listen man, keep an eye on that little fucker, if he moves, look where he’s going. I’m going to get a spray”. Five minute later he comes back with an industrial grade insect spray. “Hey man, there are two spiders now, they’re right over there.” He doubles down with fear, cautiously steps down the stairs one at a time, and proceeds to make it rain down on the two spiders a flood of anger, fear, and concentrated hatred of bug spray. If the spray didn’t kill them, they would’ve drowned in the pool of toxins, poor things. They were pretty big though, to be fair.

The guy working on the van turned out to be a fascinating character. Ben and I had been wondering how people manage to end up in places like Page, and why they stay. He casually informed us that he was a local felon and that it’s really hard to find jobs as a felon. We also informed us that he, as a half-Navajo, doesn’t really like the Navajo people and that the Navajo people themselves don’t like a lot of other tribes. He said they were pretentious and always acted like you owed them something. His broad generalizations of the Navajo people rung in my head throughout the trip as I criss-crossed through the Navajo Nation. Most of my interactions rubbed me the wrong way with them. In most of them, there was an emanating sense of apathy and lethargy as they dealt with us, whether we were buying a tour for Antelope Canyon, paying the entrance fee to Monument Valley, or just ordering lunch. As a victims of generalizations, I try to not to generalize, but what I describe was a common theme among most, though not all, of my interactions.

30 minutes of waiting later, the guy found the problem and managed to fix it: It was an old rubber cap on an old plastic hose that had frayed and eroded and was leaking badly because of the heat. They got it worked out and off we went, Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie playing through the stereo, on the road towards Moab where Ben had a flight to catch the next day. 

Six hours later, we were 20 miles south of Moab, making good progress, we turn left at the Canyonlands National Park sight to get to the campsite for the night. For the past couple of hours, it had been raining, and it got late into the night. The closer we got to Moab, the harder the rain fell, the darker it got, and the closer the thunder got. When we turned left, the thunder was ahead of us. The more we drove, the more it became clear that we were driving head on into the heart of the storm. Vanagons are known to have weak headlights, so we couldn’t really tell what was happening too far ahead and around us. Every time the thunder clapped, the world was illuminated for a few milliseconds, just enough for us to see why it was called Canyonlands. Ahead of us was some of the most epic, majestic scenery I had ever seen. It was made more epic because of the dark, roar of the thunder, and the rain, but it was a humbling feeling. It was easy to miss the Open Range sign in that majesty, which accounted for the herd of cows sleeping by the side of the road. “WOAH LOOK OUT!” Ben yelled. I quickly turned, the glowing eyes staring at me, paralyzed with fear, I swerved left slightly, passing a the cow as its upper body wanted to turn away, but the paralyzed legs wouldn’t respond, so it stood there, taut, leaning right, looking right at me. Thankfully we were going about 30 at the time, and drove past the rest of the herd going 15.

Steinbeck had been contemplating the soul or America when the bad smell started. Ok, fine Ben, it’s coming from the outside. Two minutes later, the smell was persistent, and getting worse. “Shit man I’m not feeling good about it, I’m going to pull over.” We wait for the next pullout a few hundred feet ahead, pull over, turn the van on, my heart thumping and a lump in my throat: Smoke. 

Ben rushes back to get the fire extinguisher, I get out of the van in the muddy, rain-filled ground trying to figure out where the smoke is coming from, can’t find it anywhere. That’s actually a good sign: The engine is in the back and there aren’t any flames. I get back inside, pop open the instrument cluster, and the smoke pours out. So that’s where it was. Once I let the smoke out, it stops, and things settle down. For the first time we have time to think. I pull out the shop manual for the van, and dumbly rummage through it, unable to comprehend anything I’m looking at. 

We decide we can’t camp where we are both because of the rain and because of the location. We also decide that we need to get Ben into Moab so he can at least get a cab to the airport. Ok, let’s take stock. The smoke came out from the instrument cluster, so it’s not mechanical, nor is it the engine or the brakes. It must’ve been electrical. I turn the key, the engine starts. Let it idle, nothing happens. Ok, let’s try going forward. I try to turn the headlights on, nothing. The headlight switch is stuck, it won’t even turn. I try the turn signals, they work, I try the high beams, they work, but I can’t use the headlight switch. By this time, we had reasoned that because this was the first time we used the headlights, they must’ve overheated something in the instrument cluster and melted it. 

We decided to drive into Moab, relying on the high beams. I try to click the high beams into the on position, and they don’t hold. Shit, I’m going to have to hold the level up for the next 25 miles. It’s fine, I think, we’ll be there shortly. What proceeded was the most terrifying 30 minutes of driving in my life. My middle finger kept getting tired and loose and the high beams would go off, leaving us driving 50mph in the dark for a split second in the rain. Trucks would pass and throw a shower of rain into us, smothering the high beams. I slow down, take it easy and safe, and roll into Moab, turn right into the Motel, make soup in the back, check into the smoking room, and call it a night. The cows were still there on the drive back.

Note: What we did was stupid in hindsight. We should’ve camped the night and not driven with the high beams. It was stupid and reckless.

A Foreshadowing

It’s hard in real life to tell when a character foreshadows an event. It doesn’t happen when you’re expecting it nor is it scripted. Maybe hindsight is lending itself to confirmation bias, or maybe it’s wisdom is speaking to the folly.

The old man in Slab City told me in no uncertain words: “You guys seem like you’re in such a hurry! It’s when you slow down, move without expectations, that you find what you’re looking for.”

The old man in Yuma told me: “I went to war in Korea, I got cold and never got warm again. I’m here now, I’ve been here 3 years. I like the heat. It’s never the same, every time a wind storm rolls by, it changes the place.”

Here I am, 5 hours later, sitting in the back of a 20 year old van, wiping the soft, light, yellow sand of the sand dunes out of my eye. Late in the night on an open field, 5 miles past a No Trespassing sign, 10 feet from a smoldering fire pit. Sweat, dirt, and sand caking my body, as I write into my computer. Why am I here? what am I looking for? Why am I smiling?

The old man in Yuma turned out to be right. After we got down the dunes and finished flying a kite, the damned wind picked up and kicked up tornadoes of fluffy, light, champagne sand. Every crevice of my body, my van, my beer, and my bike was covered. We decided to leave and look for another campground. This perfect camping spot turned out to not be so perfect.

Damn. The van is full of flies. On our way to the dunes, we had transported about 60 flies with us from the Salton Sea to Yuma. Unwelcome, annoying little fuckers. They knew what would happen if they left the van, they could tell a wind storm was around. They were happy just hanging out in the van. We had no choice. We couldn’t stay in the van because of the flies, we couldn’t leave the van because of the storm. 

On the road we went. Looking back, our footsteps had disappeared from the sand, washed out by time and nature moving in fast forward, like a foreshadowing in and of itself. The old man was right.

I drove out here to embrace the happenstance of life and through it learn something about myself and those around me, to round out the story of my life, to have something to tell my grandkids. Today I got a whiff of it, the whiff of a hungry poor boy in a dark alley behind a restaurant. I can smell it, I just let it get to me. The old man in the Slabs was right. It’s when you don’t have expectations that you find what you’re looking for.

At the Tip of my Brain

You know the feeling of having a word at the tip of your tongue? You know it’s there, you know that you know it, you know that as soon as you hear it you would recognize it. Yet it sits there, like a cat with its hind legs coiled, ready to spring up, but it doesn’t move.

There are thoughts like that too. The collation of thoughts, experiences, and conversations that are converging on a single realization, a eureka moment. But it sits there waiting. It’s waiting for you to organize these disparate elements, put them together in an order that gives them meaning, causes and effects, and clarity, a result that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Along with this anxiety is the unrelenting feeling that these near-realizations are fleeting. A sense that if I don’t put the pieces of the puzzle together now, the pieces will flow through me and get lost. 

Yet I understand that this is part of the process. The journey is the reward, it’s the place of learning where the combination of the disparate pieces requires analysis and contemplation. The analysis is what gives the final realization its strength and resilience. It’s what gives me the ability to adapt the realization to various context into which it may not immediately seem applicable. 

When the pieces do come in together at the end, it creates an awakening of sorts. The ability to look outside my physical body and look back at my past and my surroundings in a new light. It’s like unplugging from the matrix. It’s a new piece of insight through which subsequent thoughts and experiences will be filtered, and through which mental models will be developed. I think this is what people call intuition, or wisdom.

And so, I sit here, thinking about how heroes helping people who fell into the subway tracks fit in with first-generation immigrants and cognitive inertia. I know they’re connected, I can tell you why they’re connected in my head, I just haven’t combined these thoughts and pieces into a coherent thesis. But it’s there, at the tip of my brain, waiting for me to realize something I haven’t realized yet.

Reflexions on my 26th Year

Here I am again. This time I’m trying to make a pre-emptive attempt at getting this blog post done in time after last year’s snafu. This is the forth annual birthday-related blog posts where I reflect on how the year went, what I got out of it, and what my hopes are for the next year. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything voluntarily for this long, so it’s pretty awesome to see how this has evolved over the years. I mentioned last year that I had spent a few months thinking about what I would eventually write in the next reflective post, and this year was no different. I think the first time I brought it up was 3 months ago. That’s how big of a deal these posts have become for me. There’s still no defined structure for these, they’re more stream-of-consciousness than anything else. Hopefully a structure would evolve naturally over time. I don’t know. Maybe. Anyway, enough blabbering, onto it.

So. How did the year go? Pretty damn well! I remember last year wondering how 2013 could possibly be better than 2012. I had thought about it in the context of work, since work was going really well, and I entered 2013 with quite a bit of anxiety toward it. But you can’t really predict what’ll happen, what’ll matter, who you’ll meet, and what you’ll do.

A Fulfilled Resolution

I can’t quite believe that I actually followed through on a resolution! Last year, I wrote about my resolution to spend more time, energy, and money on experiences rather than possessions, and what will follow will hopefully demonstrate that. Whereas the years following my college graduation centered around work and my career, 2013 was a focus on enjoying my newfound health, my youth, my geography, and my friends.

When I think back to 2013, I see a blur of moments spent with friends traveling eastward to the Sierras, up to Marin, down to LA, on bikes, motorcycle, in cars and plains, on surfboards and photo walks. All the accomplishments of the year professionally pale in the comparison when put through the lens of hindsight. 

Skiing

My first skiing trip ever! My new year resolution to spend money on experiences was off to a good start. I’d go back to Tahoe for 4 more trips that year, having found out that I both loved skiing for its thrill and the mountain, and loathe it for the vertigo it gives me high up on the steep slopes. Skiing was a really big deal for me though, it fit into a narrative that would play out through the whole year, one of discovering the outdoors and increasingly identifying myself with them.

Meanwhile, as all this is happening, I ask Maddie if she wants to have Dim Sum one day, she says yes, and just like that, 2013 went from good to greatest.

Cycling

At this point, cycling is an integral part of my life. Last year I wrote about how much cycling I did in 2012, and I did twice that in 2013. It was awesome. I was hitting performance levels I never dreamed of a year before. The Summer of 2013 will long be remembered not just because of what I did or rode, but also for the amazing community that Facebook Cycling fostered around it. 

We rode down to work, up to Marin, down to LA, over in Yosemite, Tahoe, Santa Rosa, Montana, Wyoming, around LA. Through it all, I’ve come to see California as a home more than I’ve ever seen any other place I’ve lived. Every time I leave, I feel the draw of California tugging me back into the mountains.

What was a place of vistas became a place of peace. Where I once hid away from nature, I began to find myself seeking it. Every friday night, when we would go on a trip to the mountains, I would physically feel my stress, thoughts, concerns, and anxiety melt away with every mile crossed.  A mountain top now represents all the challenges I’ve gone through in life and eventually overcoming them.

I’d always hear athletes talk about the effects of their sports on their personal lives, and I always dismissed it. Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to understand what they’re talking about. I remember two rides more clearly than any other rides. The first one represented a disappointment. A disappointment that I would remember whenever I was facing a challenge, on the saddle or not. I was trying to from Muir Beach to Stinson Beach and back to SF. I’d never done that ride before, and didn’t know what was ahead of me. At some point, I gave up, turned around, and headed back home. When I got home, I looked at the map, and realized I had covered most of the way and I would’ve been able to finish the ride had I followed through. That disappointment cut deep for me, and I still remember it today. Another was when I almost gave up going up an unexpected hill for the first time. I tried convincing myself to quite multiple times, and I almost did, until I made it to the top. I’d never felt better about anything before. It sealed in my head the high of accomplishment. Up until then, I would get close to finishing something, just far enough to convince myself that I can finish it if I wanted to, not knowing that that last 2% is what really matter, it’s what separates the dreamers from the doers.

Health

The diet continued into its 3rd year. Now the goals are a bit different though: I want to get to 170lbs and stay there. I want to find a lifestyle that can help me maintain and not feel like I’m in a constant struggle trying to hold on to a number. This is how I did:

 A graph of my weight over the past year
A graph of my weight over the past year
 A graph of my cycling activity over the year
A graph of my cycling activity over the year

Here’s what’s interesting about these two graphs: Since they cover the same span, they mostly line up. You can see the correlation between my activity level between january and June, and my weight. I think part of what happened there was that I was riding very actively, and some of the weight gain is most definitely related to a gain of muscle. However, I think my body got very efficient at the form of exercise I was putting it through and I was using all this exercising as a way to justify eating whatever I want. I tried fixing that after Aids/LifeCycle (The peak of the graph), and it mostly worked. You’ll also notice around July a drop. That’s when I went low-carb. I cut out rice, bread, and pasta. I cut down on processed foods, and my diet started looking a lot like this: 

 My typical day of food since July: 1 cup of Steel-cut oatmeal with granola, some fruit (sometimes), a salad for lunch, a mid-afternoon snack, and protein/grains for dinner.
My typical day of food since July: 1 cup of Steel-cut oatmeal with granola, some fruit (sometimes), a salad for lunch, a mid-afternoon snack, and protein/grains for dinner.

Overall, the diet has been fairly successful at stabilizing my weight. I’ve actually never been this stable. However, it’s stabilizing about 8 pounds above where I want it to stabilize. Hoping that as I re-introduce exercise into the diet, it’ll stabilize in a better place.

Vacations

I discovered what a vacation was this year. Up until AIDS/LifeCycle in June, I hadn’t taken a real vacation…ever. Since that one, I’ve gone on 2 others, and I haven’t spent 3 weekends in a row in San Francisco. These vacations have kept me grounded and stable, have widened the range of my experiences, and are my most cherished memories from this year.

 I went camping for the first time
I went camping for the first time
 I woke up to Yellowstone National Park
I woke up to Yellowstone National Park
 We made dinner in the woods
We made dinner in the woods
 I tried surfing and realized it wasn't really my thing
I tried surfing and realized it wasn’t really my thing
 I learned how to pack a bag properly
I learned how to pack a bag properly
 My bike came with me
My bike came with me
 I paddle-boarded in Wyoming
I paddle-boarded in Wyoming
 I rafted in Montana
I rafted in Montana
 I rode my bike from SF to LA
I rode my bike from SF to LA
 I got a motorcycle (And sold it 6 months later)
I got a motorcycle (And sold it 6 months later)

 I bought a car to go on more vacations
I bought a car to go on more vacations
 And I used it to take a lot of photographs
And I used it to take a lot of photographs
 I finally went to Europe with Maddie. It confirmed I wanted to spend a lot more time in Europe.
I finally went to Europe with Maddie. It confirmed I wanted to spend a lot more time in Europe.

Work

I guess if you want to draw any conclusions about how this year went, consider that every “Reflexions on my..” post has been almost only about work, and in this one, I decided to put it last. I got to launch some awesome products this year, which was cool. I got to increase my internal multiplier, which was also cool since that’s what my goal had been. I transitioned to Instagram half-way through the year and have found the team to be profoundly brilliant. Love these guys.

I don’t know what to say about work. I’ve had about 15 epiphanies when it comes to product development, cultural development, how to ship software, how to run meetings, how to sell my ideas, how to plan ahead, etc etc. Each of those topics deserves its own blog post.

I think back now, half-way through December, to who I was at the end of last year, who I am now, and I can see the profound way that my experience at Facebook and later Instagram has helped me grow. That’s my leading and trailing indicator of the worth of the place I’m working, and it’s all thanks to the people I’m working with, the collection of people Facebook draws to it, and the open culture that allows for the free-flowing of ideas across such a diverse and smart employee-base.

I have some hard questions to answer to myself about the trajectory of where I’m going and the things I want to do. I’m not ready to talk about it now since these thoughts are still unformed in my head. They’ll get their own posts when their time comes.

2013 has been a great year. I’ve lived life like I haven’t lived ever before. I’m thankful for all the people who are a part of my life, I love each and every one of you guys.

A Journey of a Lifetime

riends,

I’d like to share a journey with you. It’s a journey that I’ve been on for three years. One that has transformed my life, touched the people I interact with, altered my perception of the world and most importantly, made me realize my dreams and what it takes to accomplish them.

I’d like to share the journey of losing weight and discovering myself.

The story starts out with a cliché: I was an active kid: Thin and active, until I discovered computers, at which point my weight began its steady climb throughout my teens and my early twenties. I had never been in denial about it, but I never decided to do anything about it. Sure, I had my resolutions: I lost 20 pounds at one point, had sputters of gym attendance, but nothing stuck.

See, a funny thing happens when you’re overweight: You morph your life around it. I didn’t have any active friends, and even if they were, I didn’t partake in that part of their life. The activities I was a part of didn’t require physical fitness, so my weight was never an issue. Plus, it was Michigan – Who wants to go run in the blistering winter cold?

My internship at Apple the summer of my Senior year of college was a wake up call for me. People in the Bay Area if you’re not aware, are all fit and beautiful. They run marathons, ride centuries, swim from Alcatraz on a weekend in the winter. That summer made me realize that I had been missing out on something basic and fundamental in the shared experience of life.

Fast forward a few months, I’m on the couch in Michigan, all packed up from my college apartment, looking for a place in the city to move to start my career. I think the first decision to lose weight came when I decided to rent an apartment on the hill before I even moved to the city. I thought the walk up the hill would help me get started.

May 18th came, I arrived at SFO, and my journey started.

My coworker at the time convinced me to take on a challenge of running 2 miles a day for a month. I thought he was crazy. Not only could I not run for 1 mile a couple of months ago, the simple act of walking to lunch gave me very painful shin splints. I couldn’t hold a run for more than 2-3 blocks, the cramps would be too painful.

Many sweaty mornings later, I successfully hit my goal. I started finding that waking up earlier is refreshing. My legs began feeling stronger, my heart and lungs were working better. Nike+ became my best friend, the atta-boys they play when I performed well became my endorphin hit of the day. Shortly thereafter, I signed up for my first 10K. The weight starts melting off. I lost 20 pounds easily, saw progress, and bought new, smaller clothes. Things began looking up.

My goals got loftier after that. I signed up for a half-marathon and a 10-mile run. I manage to up my distance enough to participate for the 10-mile run, but since I had not built up a strong foundation, IT-band pain kicked in and freaked me out. I sat out the marathon and stopped running.

Meanwhile, Cycling entered my life I discovered the joys of climbing mountains, descending, fooling around with my friends, tracking my progress, and bonding with all my cycling friends.

You have to remember that I grew up in the Middle East. People aren’t “outdoorsy”, spending time in nature isn’t a common thing to do; it certainly wasn’t something my family did. I moved to Michigan after Syria, where it was completely flat and uninteresting. The most average Suburban landscapes surrounded me. When I came to the Bay Area, I was lost in the mountains, the Ocean, the Bay, the Big Trees, The Golden Gate, the Hills. I discovered that I enjoyed, craved to be outside. To smell the trees, feel the wind, watch the rolling fog. Running and cycling for new, foreign activities to me.

I had found Paradise.

How can I not spend my weekends up in Marin? Down by Skyline? Around the city, absorbing the scenery that surrounded me. 12 mile bike rides became 20 miles, 30, 40. I began doing 50 mile bike rides on the weekends. My legs were stronger and stronger, my bike became my best friend, my cycling friends my family.

Fast forward to today, I just shaved my legs. I didn’t really do it because of any of the admittedly unfounded reasons. I did it because it represented something else to me. I did it because to me, it represented something. It represented a buy-in into the life, a sort of ritualistic mental leap. Cycling was no longer something I did on the weekends, cycling was something that defined me, and this was my way of showing it.

I’m thankful for the journey. It’s far from over, but it has already helped me rediscover life. Every day is a gift, every experience is a joy. Our life before adulthood is an accident, a byproduct of our parent’s decisions. Why should I not experience the thrill of skiing, the joy of running, the rush of surfing? I’m incredibly lucky to have the time, money, and physical ability to do all these things, to squander it would be shameful.

I’m thankful for my friends who have expanded my horizon. My friends at Apple who introduced me to running and cycling. My friends at Facebook who turned it into an addiction, who introduced me to Skiing, and all the friends I’m going to meet who will continue to enrich my life.

I was on a ride 2 weeks ago with the Rapha Cycling Club. Three years I have been in San Francisco, and I still stopped, took off my cycling glasses, took a breath of fresh air, and got goosebumps. I live here, this is my home. This is where I belong.