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The Feeling of Being Back

Dog on the beach. Northern California, 2015. You can see recent photographs from California here.

Being back in the United States is still weird but has very quickly started to feel normal.

The most shocking thing is probably the portion sizes. More than the actual food contents, which seem mostly fine, the amount of food you get in a restaurant here is insane. A bowl of pad thai in San Francisco might be a liter in volume. In Thailand you’d get about half a liter. I still go to my favorite restaurants and order what I ate before I left. It’s just that now the end of a meal my stomach feels like there’s a brick in it and I have trouble walking.

Americans also seem so very wasteful. We feel like we’re struggling to distinguish ourselves with cars, clothes, and extreme sports.1 I’ve got a lot of bias here: I don’t think marathons are healthy. I also still own and plan to own relatively few clothes going forward.

How people distinguish themselves is an interesting topic for me. I think that we subconsciously buy products that make us feel like part of a group. I doubt we really consider how those purchases read to people in vastly different social circles. (Otherwise why would anyone wear a $40,000 watch?)

In Asia those distinctions are kind of straightforward: a wealthy person drives a big car, wears a nice watch, and wears expensive clothes. In San Francisco a wealthy person might have no car, no watch, and dress like they’re intentionally trying to break fashion rules. The distinction in San Francisco is more dependent on what’s scare here: time and social activity. The most powerful people2 take the best vacations and go to the best parties, but they might not drive a BMW or even a Tesla, and they might not dress like an adult.

In Asia I was part of a tight knit documentary photographer group. Everyone knew everyone and everyone saw everyone at the same restaurants and parties. The atmosphere was undoubtedly competitive — people talk shit about each other’s photos to their faces and behind their backs — but it was also far more relaxed.

In San Francisco you need make a calendar entry to meet someone for lunch. You have to push it back a few times as schedules evolve. Most good restaurants have a waiting line. Most self respecting people refuse to eat at a place without a line. It’s rare to just text “Hey, want to come over?” and have someone who’s actually available. I don’t even try.

Conversations felt normal very quickly. The human body and mind adapt really fast. My old routines: eating this meal, seeing that person, walking from here to there — they all came back instantly. But keep these old habits for a while and I end up exhausted and not remembering why. So I’m careful with social activity and staying out late.

My job is amazing. Working all day sucks though3. Being on a shared group schedule and needing to be in the office for many hours per day so that we can collaborate is difficult. My body rebels. I’m not used to waking up at the same time, committing my mind to a problem for a predictable 8-10 hours, and then going home and relaxing. I’m used to working on problems until they’re solved — that might be all night — and then resting until the next problem comes up. I don’t blame my boss or my team for this at all, it’s just a side effect of where collaboration technology is that everyone being in the same office for the same predictable hours per day is still the best solution.

Why am I working again at all? The easiest reason is that I was short on cash. The harder reason is that I got tired of waking up in different cities all the time. I wanted to have my own life again, to have my own goals and aspirations, and to fit those into the stories I make. Wandering for so long I felt remarkably detached. I’d see people in the street and think “What are all these people doing hustling back and forth from work? What could be so important?” It was time to break that habit and rejoin society.

  1. And photography and writing, of course. :) [return]
  2. Had a great conversation with my friend Sam about how money was very important during the industrial revolution but maybe not before or after. Before the revolution we didn’t need money and could trade or borrow. During the revolution we needed money to buy new factory products. After the revolution products have gotten so inexpensive that most people in the USA can live comfortably with much less money than they earn. [return]
  3. We’re getting a permanent office soon and once we’re in there I hope that it will be practical to leave my laptop at work and maybe even bring a hammock into the office and sneak naps. [return]