Happiness and money

elizabeth taylor fur

While hosting a little dinner party at my house, a friend who just found a new job discussed  his life goals, his primary objective.

“Make money. Well, yeah, to be happy and all of that, but make money.”

Located in a city that is as ambitious and cash-driven as it is  sarcastic, I couldn’t tell if he was being serious. “Are you… joking?”

“Well, no. That’s the point, isn’t it?”

I mumbled something incoherent back-“Uh, um, I disagree,” and turned to the next conversation. After some time to muddle it over, though, here is my imagined reply:

Focusing on making money as your primary objective, as a purpose in itself, is a flawed argument. Viewing the acquisition of wealth as the central, intrinsic value in life doesn’t foster your simultaneous goal to be happy.  Those two words- ‘be happy’- have some serious baggage to unpack. Gaining wealth can be an offshoot of your goals, but by putting it as the central objective, it’s limiting to the scope of human experience.

Life is not a series of levels in Super Mario – collect gold coins, toss the bad guy in lava, rescue the princess. “Winning” doesn’t exist. Viewing life in this way, as a series of tasks to conquer and points to amass, is a limiting view on the breadth, beauty and complexity of existence.

We can agree that money can indeed buy happiness when it is related to your and your family’s livelihood – healthcare, education, a comfortable home. Beyond the basics, though, there are additional things that play a major role in happiness; for example, being able to take paid days off from work to spend time with those important to you.

A widely-cited 2010 study conducted by Princeton University found that money makes people more satisfied with their lives overall, but income reaches a tipping point where it doesn’t make a significant difference to your happiness day-to-day: $75,000.

“We conclude that lack of money brings both emotional misery and low life evaluation; similar results were found for anger,” Kahneman and Deaton, both professors at Princeton University, wrote in the report. “Beyond $75,000 in the contemporary United States, however, higher income is neither the road to experience happiness nor the road to relief of unhappiness or stress, although higher income continues to improve individuals’ life evaluations.”

Consider the $75,000 figure as a ballpark number, it makes sense to adjust that number based on cost of living, familial situation and other factors. But the point is there: after a certain point of gaining wealth, you receive dwindling returns. Sure, you can upgrade your vacation house in Tahoe or get a slick new ride, but your level of happiness doesn’t drastically increase. At some level, the ‘more is more’ equation just doesn’t bring the purposeful satisfaction you desire.

I’m not going to argue that making money doesn’t play a role in your happiness. For me, making money and satisfaction is related to a sense of autonomy and the ability to make my own decisions. In the not-so-distant past, a woman’s decision-making abilities and economic choices were largely not her own, and I savor my ability to live the life I choose to based upon my own volition. I derive a great sense of satisfaction from economic independence, and I would say that clearly personal income plays a huge role in that. But, it is best to view money as a corollary rather than a primary objective; it isn’t ultimately what I am aiming for, and it is not the ideal that I want to be remembered by.

In my experience, happiness is largely tied to our sense of inter-connectivity- rather than collecting individual moments as if they were charms on a bracelet, the true beauty and satisfaction in life lies in our connections with others. The subtle nuances of human compassion, friendship and empathy are the things in which I derive the most lasting happiness, the values that I espouse and what I hope others remember about me. Relationships are dynamic and constantly shifting; without attention, they can flounder and wilt. Instead of focusing on money as the be-all-end-all, strive for balance in your economic ambitions and personal relationships.

Aristotle was right – aim for the mean between extremes!


Time of the season

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October 1

It was one of those harshly warm autumn San Francisco days, a sort of final hurrah before the opaque gloom of winter rolls in. A few records left in a sunny patch by the window fell victim to the rays, vinyl warping and distorting Jerry Garcia’s vocals into an intolerable nasal whine. Ripple” rippled, goodbye American Beauty! Listening to it now makes your skin stand on edge.

Around seven pm on a Monday after work, I walked to Corona Heights, a craggy hidden  park that brings to mind a dusty lunar landscape. The hillside was crowded with admirers; we were grasping for the final dredges of summer, the last moments of sun on a dwindling day. We knew this was the last time we were going to feel this sensation for a while. The sense of change in the air brought almost a mournful feeling, warm breeze blowing across your skin.

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San Francisco stood at our feet cast in a tangerine haze. The landscape felt  incomprehensible in its beauty, like you have to shield your eyes from absorbing it all. It gave the sense that you could never fully take in all that it has to offer; just out of grasp but intoxicating in its promise.

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I felt a sense of languishing dread, attempting to appreciate the moment while anticipating the inevitable bitter chill soon to arrive. Sort of like that feeling you get on Sunday evenings, puttering around to avoid thinking about the impeding week, a dull twist of anxiety in your gut.

While mourning the loss of the season, I simultaneously craved a reprieve from the suffocating warmth; enveloping your body in a saline stickiness and making you kick off your sheets in the night. The dreaminess began to turn to delirium; a cold slap of reality was needed. It was time for a change.

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Cosmic Bros: Tolstoy, Janáček and Murakami

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I love finding weird connections between artists, musicians and writers. While it’s easy to conceive of artists drawing inspiration from one another in the present day, it’s intriguing to see how artists of the past were influenced by one another and how that translates to the present. In my Wikipedia wanderings I discovered some interesting links between Russian literary great Leo Tolstoy, Czech composer Leoš Janáček, and the contemporary Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. Each are masters in capturing the sensation of the aching, wonderful, terrible, beautiful nature of life, and were influenced by one another in intriguing ways.

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Let’s start chronologically with Tolstoy, who is best known for Anna Karenina and War and Peace. (By the way, I am firmly on Team Tolstoy in the Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky debate, just throwin’ my bias out there!) In his later years, Tolstoy composed shorter works  that capture his exceptional insight without the insane page count. His novella The Death of Ivan Ilych is one of my favorite philosophical pieces, and at only 134 pages it’s much easier to handle than carting War and Peace onto the bus.

Tolstoy’s short story The Kreutzer Sonata , which was inspired by Beethoven’s music, was forbidden by the Russian government when it was published in 1889. It was banned in the United States in the following year, with Theodore Roosevelt calling Tolstoy a “sexual moral pervert.” Surprisingly, the radical content was Tolstoy’s argument for abstinence against the “swinish” nature of relationships.

In 1923, Czeck composer Leoš Janáček was inspired by Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata in his creation of String Quartet No. 1. Describing his influence, Janacek wrote that he “was imagining a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata.” Janáček’s piece captures a sense of infatuation mingling with fear.

In turn, Janáček proved to be an inspiring force nearly a century later for internationally-acclaimed writer Haruki Murakami. In Murakami’s 2011 novel IQ84, Janacek’s Sinfonietta plays a recurring role, starting from the first page as the orchestral piece plays from a taxi’s radio.

An excerpt from IQ84:

She closed her eyes again and concentrated on the music. She knew nothing about Janáček as a person, but she was quite sure that he never imagined that in 1984 someone would be listening to his composition in a hushed Toyota Crown Royal Saloon on the gridlocked elevated Metropolitan Expressway in Tokyo.

And now to come full circle, Murakami discussed the influence of Leo Tolstoy’s storytelling techniques in his novel Kafka on the Shore:

“That’s how stories happen — with a turning point, an unexpected twist. There’s only one kind of happiness, but misfortune comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s like Tolstoy said. Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story.”

The intermingling influences of Tolstoy, Janáček and Murakami which span generations show the timeless nature of  philosophical and aesthetic concepts. We can play a major role in others’ lives without ever actually meeting them. It reflects the causal connections between individuals that transcend space and time, how ideas can go beyond one’s corporeal existence.


The surrealist dream of “Holy Motors”

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Holy Motors is a metaphysical dream-scape of a film; a beautiful, ingenious tale that unapologetically stretches the limits of imagination, described by Time‘s Richard Corliss as an “exhilarating trip of movie madness and sadness.”

French filmmaker Leos Carax’s first film in ten years shocked and perplexed filmgoers at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, with some hailing it as a cinematic masterpiece and others decrying it as malarkey. Holy Motors follows Monsieur Oscar (an astounding Denis Lavant) as he goes through one day of work for “The Agency,” traveling in a stretch white limo to ten “appointments” throughout Paris. Oscar is either a super-spy or a prodigal actor, but as a master of disguise transforms himself completely – identities including a beggar-woman, manic psychopath, accordion bandleader, dying old man, anarchist, and father to a teenage girl. The purpose of Oscar’s work for The Agency is never fully disclosed and at times the illusion is broken, as others in the scene are revealed to be at an “appointment” as well.

The film also includes a few notable cameos, including Kylie Minogue as a fellow spy for The Agency and Eva Mendes as an oddly placid kidnapped supermodel.

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I saw Holy Motors at the Roxie Theater in the Mission after hearing the unfortunate news that the Bridge Theater and the Lumiere Theater have closed this month. In a city with 74 neighborhood cinemas at its peak, six additional cinemas have closed in the past decade, including the demise of the Upper Haight’s beloved Red Vic in 2011.

Independent films are increasingly available on Netflix or other streaming sites shortly after their theatrical release. Why pay to sit in a living room-sized theater when you can sit in your own living room and watch it at no additional cost? THE EXPERIENCE, people! The character and history of single-screen cinemas provide a unique memory with each film; granted, the clientele is exceedingly pretentious, but it’s a special experience rather than the slog of  unending escalators, acrid chemical butter scent, and labyrinthian carpeted hallways at multi-mega-plexes. I always think of my hometown Bijou, a theater crafted out of an old church, and the signature large cat snoozing in a chair in the lobby- would that ever happen at a Regal? No!

Yeah, this guy. Apparently Boo the Bijou cat is no longer with us.

Yeah, this guy. Apparently Boo the Bijou cat is no longer with us.

Back to Motors: This specific genre of film is of a particular taste and somewhat divisive; if the surrealist absurdity of films like Dali’s Un Chien Andalou,  Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or the Dylan biopic I’m Not There appeal to you, then make haste to go see it. If you find those works to be frustratingly devoid of continuity and obnoxiously head-scratching, then stay away. In watching a surrealist movie, you have to allow each moment to wash over you, rather than analyze each bit of it, agonizing over how it doesn’t follow common logic. The moment is what it is and you can interpret it however you see fit- it allows the audience to be actively participatory.

The film reads as a love-letter to cinema, reminding me of the silent-film infatuation of 2012’s Oscar darling The Artist. Rather than sticking to one specific style, Holy Motors draws reference ranging from 19th century stop-motion film pioneer Eadweard Muybridge to today’s CGI animation using motion sensor technology.

The first-ever silent film by Muybridge... go, Sallie, go!

The first-ever silent film by Muybridge… go, Sallie, go!

At times the frenetic pace of Holy Motors becomes draining, particularly in the second half of the film. Overall though, it is an exhilarating ride that allows the audience to laugh at themselves, the absurdity of the art-world, and not take it all too seriously.

After I left the Roxie, I wandered over to the bus stop to hop on the 33. Just sayin’, San Francisco is an excellent place to contemplate absurdity and the strangeness of existence. On Muni, strangers shared cantaloupe on the bus and chatted about Mother Teresa and Black Rock City, Nevada. At 18th and Castro, shirtless muscular men sipped lattes outside of Starbucks while a pack of mimosa-drunk women giggled and swayed on the sidewalk. To some degree the film made me think about the multiple identities that we create for ourselves, from that carefully selected hat that gives off the perfect don’t care stance, to acting as a mini self-funded PR machine for our curated Instagram posts (“What does the Valencia filter say about me?”).

Rather than worrying about our social perceptions, perhaps we should just enjoy this bizarre, 80-something year journey in which we appear to have found ourselves. “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”


the place where you go to listen

Excerpt from “Song of the Earth: The Arctic Sound of John Luther Adams.” Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise. Originally published in The New Yorker, 2008. 

At The Museum of the North, the composer John Luther Adams has created a sound-and-light instillation called The Place Where You Go To Listen— a kind of infinite musical work that is controlled by natural events occurring in real time. The mechanism of The Place translates raw data into music: information from seismological, meterological, and geomagnetic stations in various parts of Alaska is fed into a computer and transformed into a luminous field of electronic sound.

The Place occupies a small white-walled room on the museum’s second floor. You sit on a bench before five glass panels, which change color according to the time of day and the season.

What you notice first is a dense, organlike sonority; the notes follow the contour of the natural harmonic series– the rainbow of overtones that emnate from a vibrating string– and have the brightness of music in a major key. The moon is audible as a narrow sliver of noise. Pulsating patterns in the bass are activated by small earthquakes and other seismic events around Alaska. And shimmering sounds in the highest registers are tied to the fluctuations in the magnetic field that cause the Northern Lights.

For  stellar audio of Adams’ complex, ambient compositions, check out his website and listen to his pieces, which he describes as “electro-acoustic soundscapes.”  Here’s a video of The Place in action (albeit with subpar sound quality):

Adams describes The Place in his own words:

“I knew that I wanted to hear the unheard, that I wanted to somehow transpose the music that is just beyond the reach of our ears into audible vibrations. I knew that it had to be its own space. And I knew that it had to be real– that I couldn’t fake this, that nothing could be recorded. It had to have the ring of truth.

“Actually my original conception for The Place was truly grandiose. I thought that it might be a piece that could be realized at any location on the earth, and that each location would have its unique sonic signature. That idea– tuning the whole world– stayed with me for a long time. But at some point I realized that I was tuning it so that this place, this room, on this hill, looking out over the Alaska Range, was the sweetest-sounding spot on Earth.”

The composer and artist, John Luther Adams

The composer and artist, John Luther Adams


The wistful, bittersweet lure of nostalgia

The term nostalgia describes a yearning for the past, often in idealized form. The word is a learned formulation of a Greek compound, consisting of νόστος (nóstos), meaning “homecoming”, a Homeric word, and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “pain, ache”.

(Definition via the ever accurate and always trustworthy source of our times, Wikipedia.)

As an admitted nostalgia fiend, there are few things I find pleasure in more than reading a weathered book with someone else’s notes scrawled in the margins, a looped, cursive signature of a stranger on a yellowed LP cover, a ripped tag from a foreign brand on a secondhand, delightfully unique garment. The mystery of discovering the joys of lives once lived, grasping at the small tokens of pleasure that perhaps contributed to a sense of purpose, escapism, longing, beauty… an infinite possibility of meanings, never fully uncovered.

The minutiae of life help to drive us through the daily slog of the mundane, fuel our aspirations, and tell our stories beyond our ultimate demise. In discovering the artifacts of the past, the eternal and the temporal nature of existence is fused together in a moment. I find myself infatuated with the past partially due to to the terminal nature of life, in the dark hope that the minuscule items that contribute to my sense of self will somehow transcend my time kickin’ it as a corporeal being. Our lives are ever changing, constantly moving, but the significance of past histories remains, the ideas behind them will never die.

(Side note: the auditory accompaniment for this article is provided by Aphex Twin’s “Avril 14th”.)

 With that mildly morbid statement said, let’s turn to a more cheerful stance on nostalgia: FLEA MARKETS! Any San Franciscan who loves diggin’ through piles o’ crap in search of hidden treasures should definitely hit up Alemany Flea Market, located just off of the 101 in Bernal Heights. I went on Sunday morning with two good pals, ’70’s Ray-Bans (stolen from my dad) shielding my weary eyes from the harsh winter sun. (Music interjection: have you heard Beach House’s ode to their distaste for the winter sun?) At first, Alemany Flea Market was overwhelming with the sheer quantity of STUFF present, but upon closer inspection, details of loveliness emerged.

One of my luckiest finds: an issue of LIFE magazine from January 9, 1970. Fascinating speculations about the future, analysis of cultural norms, beautiful photography and design aesthetics.

Streisand and a Picasso.

These statistics are from your parents’ lifespans. Illuminating, fascinating, and more than a little   disturbing.

“What sort of society are our computers and computer-oriented society driving us?”

Predictions of androgyny for 1970’s fashion.

Fantastic Rolling Stones book (The First Twenty Years):

LBJ-era political cartoons:

How much has changed, and how much is exactly the same?

San Francisco seems to be an endless treasure trove for individuals who are drawn to the unique histories of the past. Other recommendations for those who love to imagine stories told in the waxy wood grain of weathered bar tops:

Aub Zam Zam: Sip a wicked martini with the 3 pm-Tuesday regulars in this decadently divey Haight locale. The lush red walls, dingy carpets, and gold-encrusted Persian mural behind the bar are the original 1940’s decor… try to find the black-and-white framed photo in the back of this haunt in its heyday!

Cafe Du Nord: Originally opened during the Prohibition era, Cafe Du Nord feels like a hidden relic, a dark-wooded basement gem (featuring an excellent live music roster). In more recent nostalgia news, apparently it was THE place for the late ’80’s gothic scene, with a wildly popular event called “Dark Sparkle”… how intriguing!

St Francis Fountain: Operating continuously since its inception in 1917, this wood-paneled Mission diner evokes the days of the sock-hop while you are served vegan soyrizo and artisanal coffee by attractively grungy servers (how appropriate for the neighborhood). Past ‘n’ present, UNITE!

What are your favorite places to reminisce about a lost time that perhaps never even existed?


The Luxury of Solitude

Maintaining a firm sense of self is an integral part of a well-rounded life. Spending time alone is one of the best opportunities I have to re-evaluate why I am acting in the way that I am, rather than going through the motions mindlessly. It is a wholly self-centered pursuit, devoid of any ulterior motive other than making oneself feel more complete. Being alone provides a chance to do things that you truly enjoy without worrying if anyone else is having a good time.

As any economist will tell you, luxury is a function of scarcity. So, your alone time becomes more valuable when there is less of it available. Conversely, if all of your time is spent alone then it becomes somewhat meaningless, devoid of value… life is all about moderation, and time in solitude is no exception. Especially after starting working full-time, I cherish my moments alone, where I am able to engage in activities that I perform for the sake of themselves rather than activities performed for an ultimately functional purpose.

Below is an excerpt from Margarita Karapanou’s novel Rien Ne Va Plus, translated from the original Greek version by Karen Emmerich.

For me freedom means solitude, a solitude full of walks in the country, solitary strolls through unfamiliar cities, books scattered around my bed at night, lying open at random pages… When I’m sitting at a cafe, I look at my hand resting on the table, my pale hand with its long red nails, maybe I’m wearing a ring, and it fills me with an indescribable pleasure, because that hand is my hand, and I’ve made it beautiful for myself, and when I leave this cafe in this unfamiliar city, I’ll return to the hotel, take a hot fragrant bath, and then fall asleep.  I want to be alone, to sail like a ship and stop and whatever harbor I choose, and leave again when I want. My solitude is sacred.

Spending time alone helps you to develop a strong sense of self in future challenges; pardon the cliché, but a sense of calm amidst the storm. Being good to yourself helps you to bring something to the table in terms of your fundamental beliefs, passions, and understanding of truths. Once you embrace your unique-ness and comfortability as an individual, it makes life a hell of a lot  easier, more carefree, and fun.

One of my favorite solo indulgences is going to see films. Now, I’ve gotten plenty of bewildered glances from ticket-sellers when I ask for one ticket, even had an usher ask me, “Don’t you have any friends?” Yes, usher dude, I do indeed have friends, but movies are possibly the least sociable activity to partake in. You sit parallel to another person in the dark for a few hours, with minimal eye contact and conversation forbidden. It is lovely to see flicks with fellow film-nerds and analyze it over  drinks afterwards, but having company is by no means a necessary component to enjoying a film.

My film tastes run towards the snobbish, obnoxiously esoteric side of things, not exactly everyone’s cup of tea. Why drag a friend to sit morosely through a movie they don’t want to see when it is is perfectly acceptable to go solo? On a quiet Sunday afternoon two weeks ago, I saw Lars Von Trier’s visually stunning Melancholia, a cosmically epic film that lives up to its tragic name. The film garnered rave reviews for its dual depiction of clinical depression and an impending apocalypse, with some good ol’ criticism of capitalism thrown in.  Oh, and gratuitous usage of Wagner’s Prelude from Tristan Und Isolde.

As a bit of a nostalgia fiend, I adored seeing the film at the legendary Bridge Theater, a throwback single-screen movie house that has been operating nonstop since 1939. It’s the kind of place where the projectionist is the same guy who sells you your ticket, shills popcorn, and does a charmingly awkward introduction of the film to the audience (referring to Melancholia as a “downer”). After the film, I walked down the street to my favorite cafe, sipped an Americano, people-watched, and thought about the purpose of it all.

So, that’s the kind of thing I like to do alone. Now, I’m not advocating that you spend your alone time seeing semi-depressing movies, you do YOUR thing! Appreciate your individual quirks, unapologetically foster your interests, get down with your bad self.