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!

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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.”


Amber orbs

Venturing back into my long-dormant blog, just in time for the new year. I have a tendency to write posts as unedited, rambling drafts and then never actually POST them, so going to make a minor effort to push that Publish Post button.

Up first is a series of pictures taken on the rooftop balcony at SFMOMA in late November. My family journeyed from the damp reaches of Seattle and Portland to visit San Francisco for Thanksgiving, so I had a chance to play host and show off all of the city’s decadent amenities. Naturally we made a go for SFMOMA, that art-deco tower of modern artistic thought. Prior to our museum jaunt, we stopped for coffee and contributed to a letter to my sister’s pen pal, an architecture friend studying at Columbia. We added a pint-sized doodle of a bird’s eye view of San Francisco, with commentary added (“My house”, “HIPSTERS”, “HIPPIES”, etc.) Here is her reply:

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Wow, that Gawon sure is a great pen pal. And what lovely handwriting!

After feeling particularly inspired by the celestial Field Conditions exhibit and Chinese paintings depicting the Maoist culture of the 20th century, we snaked up to the top floor for a pause from our arduous standing-and-pondering activities.

As we sat down on a side balcony, the clock nearing 5 pm, the last rays of the day cast a  sharply incandescent glow.  My family humored me as I went into amateur photog mode, cajoling them to “Stay right there! Now.. scrunch down a bit, yeah.” They both have such warmly amber orbital eyes that I wanted to capture their moment in the sun.

Fire eye’d girl.

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Winsome.

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It would be too easy to go into cliche-land and compare her ambiguous smile to a certain eyebrow-less Da Vinci, but I am NOT GOING TO GO THERE.

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But really, what is she thinking?


Tennis covers underrated greats: Broadcast, The Zombies

Alaina Moore & Patrick Riley of Tennis performing at Bottom of The Hill, 12/11/11

Minimalist pop band Tennis have developed a knack for crafting covers of unexpected musicians like The Zombies and Broadcast, selections eclectic enough to make a record store clerk proud.

Tennis is husband-wife duo Aliana Moore (vocals & keyboards) and Patrick Riley (guitar), collegiate philosophers who formed the band after a seven-month sailing excursion down the Eastern Atlantic Seaboard. (Can’t make this stuff up, folks!) Unsurprisingly their debut album Cape Dory featured major nautical elements, with titles like “Seafarer” and lyrics like “Take me out baby, I wanna go sail tonight” (from the title track). James Barone on drums rounds out the group, who just released their second album, Young & Old on Fat Possum. Their sophomore production features a richer sense of instrumentation, buoyed by the sharp production skills of Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Key tracks: My Better Self (bizarro retro-chic  music video directed by Lilliput), and first single “Origins”… I adore the ski/spy caper premise of the video:

I saw Tennis perform last December at Bottom of the Hill, shortly before the release of Young & Old. I found their stage presence to be warmly affable, and it was refreshing to see a group display genuine enthusiasm in these sarcastic, ironic times. Moore even made an oh-so-mainstream reference to Sex and The City, joking about “not being a Carrie,” even though she resembles the curly-haired, diminuitive fashion plate.  Also, just take a look at their official website (you can play Minesweeper on it, for real!) Tennis came off as resoundingly likable people who just dig hanging out on boats and playing sweet ’60’-influenced pop songs, what’s not to love?

The Zombies are best known as the least prominent of the ’60’s Brit Pop explosion. Don’t discount their mildly-dark baroque pop, which contains intriguing depth within its sunshine-y exterior. I first heard the Zombies on the Life Aquatic soundtrack, with the “The Way I Feel Inside,” a hypnotic whisper of a song. (Side note: Digging the soundtrack for Moonrise Kingdom, featuring chanteuse Franciose Hardy and sultry track “Le Temps de L’Amour”.) The Zombies’ 1968 album Odessey & Oracle was ranked as #80 on Rolling Stone‘s 500 Best Albums of all time, featuring some of their best work, including their well-known hit “Time of the Season.”

“Tell Her No” is a jaunty refusal of a track, here’s the 1964 original by the Zombies:

Tennis spun their own surprisingly faithful rendition of “Tell Her No”:

Broadcast was a captivating, enigmatic British band which burned brightly, but far too briefly. Trish Keenan fronted the retro-futuristic group, frequently compared to sometimes-collaborators Stereolab. Keenan’s honey-sweet vocals contrasts the almost staticky, electronic instrumentation, creating a unique sound that feels simultaneously warm and cool. “Tears in the Typing Pool” is a 2 minute song on their the 2005 album “Tender Buttons,” their final album which was titled after a 1918 poem by Gertrude Stein; it’s a hauntingly lovely song that I can’t help but play on repeat.

Broadcast’s original (I may have already posted this song on this blog but I DON’T CARE because it’s so good):

Tennis’ cover doesn’t quite capture the psychedelic crispness of the original, but adds a slight lo-fi haze, a gauzy finish.

So, thanks for the awesome covers, Tennis! Now, can you come pick me up and we can go hang out on your boat?


Whateva, whateva! I make my own Coachella!

I’ve been M.I.A. on this here blog as of late- attributed to a sense of comfortable complacency, the antithesis of any creative venture. Oh, and I have been obsessively going to shows these last few weeks, to overcompensate for my lack of Coachella attendance. It started with a rapid-fire, trigger-finger purchase to see Radiohead at HP Pavilion on April 11. The justification was easy enough- Once in a lifetime opportunity! Can’t miss Thom Yorke (and his ponytail) live in the flesh! Things spiraled quickly, to a month filled with bleary-eyed mornings and overt amounts of of “woooo!”-ing.

Ian S. Port of  SF Weekly’s music blog “All Shook Down” described “Faux-chella,” for those Bay Area residents who want to experience Coachella’s lineup without the desert pilgrimage.

Maybe you hate traveling. Maybe you’re broke. Or maybe you’re allergic to waiting in long lines under the hot sun while privileged pre-teens gyrate to David Guetta.

With this year’s double weekend format, there were even more possibilities for artists to swoop up to the Bay Area in the interim four days between festivals (April 13-15 and 20-22).

I made the trek to Coachella for the last three years, but with a full-time position, it didn’t seem like a feasible, or even desirable, possibility.When asked if I was attending the festival, I would reply with a grim, tight smile and that “I’ve had my time.”   Now is the time for cubicles and being the target audience for the Starbucks-queue, for responsibility and self-sufficiency. I had my heyday of being a cool pseudo-music journalist, now’s the time to keep my head down  and play the role of the respectable professional.

And yet… there is this niggling weirdo inside, the one that inadvertently starts humming loudly and skipping to some imaginary beat in my conservative J.Crew finery. I suspect that this is a common ailment of those creatures we call “adults,” and one of the toughest tasks is simply masking your eccentricities for eight hours of your daily waking consciousness.

The following is the month in review, my hand-crafted “Faux-chella” Roster:

Wednesday April 11: Radiohead at HP Pavilion

Although our seats were located in  the area known as Nosebleedus Maximus, Yorke & Co. performed a mesmerizing set that reached every crevasse of the massive arena, with a sold-out attendance of 19,000. In the latest issue of Rolling Stone, Yorke discusses the sheer feasibility of performing the heavily manipulated, looped songs of The King of Limbs live, and the unexpected changes that come with a performance of this magnitude.

“There is no way in hell we could have come up with what we’re doing now, live, if we hadn’t been sitting in front of turntables and samplers, piecing the record together in this method. There is no way it would have turned into this dynamic thing,” says Yorke, analyzing Limbs’ electronic composition. Radiohead appeased long-term fans and new converts with a two-encore set that featured gems like the robotic vocals of “Kid A,” aggressive guitar snarl of “The National Anthem,” and schadenfreude inducing “Karma Police”. Getting to see Yorke do his “Lotus Flower” convulsing-wiggle (clad in tight red pants) was worth the price of admission.

Friday April 13: Youth Lagoon and Porcelain Raft at The Independent

 22-year-old Idahoan whiz Trevor Powers (aka Youth Lagoon) brought dream-rock at its twinkly haziest. Although the songs on his debut album The Year of Hibernation follow an easily recognizable pattern, that of reverb-heavy delicate vocals which give way to chest-pounding bass and eardrum-aching drum machine beats (referred to as “Dropping the Bass” in the evil twin dubstep version), it’s an effective musical technique. The smallest details shone in the live performance, like the delicate high plinks in “Daydream” (above) and the slight crack in his voice while waxing nostalgia about being 17.   He brought a delightfully strange stage presence, chomping on a banana onstage and feeding it to his guitarist.

Monday April 16: The Black Angels and The Horrors at Bimbo’s

I came for The Horrors and left a Black Angels convert. The Austin-based band’s dark psychedelics were undeniably mesmerizing, a band whose album doesn’t hold a candle to the overall aesthetics and impact of their live performance. The Horrors’ tight performance felt like an under-water, goth prom… in a good way!

Thursday April 19: Wild Beasts at The Independent

My second British band of the week- Wild Beasts blew me away, possibly my favorite concert of the whole month. That undulating falsetto and dramatic vocal range, my god!  Goosebump-inducing, groovin’ jams with just the right touch of theatrics. Best of the night was 2009’s “All The King’s Men,” listen above.

Friday April 20: School of Seven Bells at the Rickshaw Stop

A definite flop. A peculiar mesh of an unfriendly crowd that seemed like they came because they heard one of the band’s songs on Gossip Girl. Strange attempt at a flirtatious dynamic between SSB’s singer and guitarist that seemed contrived and uncomfortable. Left early to go listen to Bright Eyes’ Digital Ash In A Digital Urn in my apartment.

Tuesday April 24: Tune-Yards and St. Vincent at the Fox Theater

Merrill rockin' the uke at The Fox

A joyous homecoming for Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus, who opened for St. Vincent at the gorgeous Fox Theater in downtown Oakland. Garbus mentioned that she last performed in the East Bay at tiny Mama Buzz Cafe, showcasing her rapid ascent since the release of 2011’s whokill. With her signature live vocal looping technique, Garbus performed breakout tracks like “Gangsta” and “Bizness” with an infectious exuberance. For her final song, Garbus brought on stage the kids from her new video “My Country,” who rocked it HARD. The kids are part of the San Francisco Rock Project, a nonprofit music education program. Tune-yards has an ongoing Kickstarter project to benefit the arts program… check it out!

Whew! I think I have satiated my obsessive musical tendencies… for now!