I’m back from an energizing trip to New York, where I celebrated my 37th birthday. I used to live there, once upon a time, and I always enjoy going back. I actually had a NY bday trip scheduled in April 2020, but had to cancel due to the onset of the pandemic. (An eery realization: My NY trip paralleled my social life—both were put on pause two years ago, and are now finally resuming.)
Around that time, I wrote an essay (Once a New Yorker) paying tribute to my love of New York, and expressing my concern:
Like many of its global counterparts, New York is a city that thrives on density. Its greatest strength has become its noose. COVID has set its foundation on fire.
I’m grieving for New York’s present. I’m worried about its future.
I’m happy to report that New York in 2022 is alive and well. I’m not under any illusions that the pandemic is “over,” or that its effects can be so quickly overcome. But it was incredibly heartening to see the streets filled with the people, and the restaurants bustling with activity.
There are so many things to love about New York, but my favorite is an activity most residents find mundane—riding the subway. (Yes, really.) I rode it everywhere I could. There is a feeling of freedom that only a vast, interconnected network of transit can provide. Channeling some of my past words here:
I remember getting an impromptu text from a friend. I hopped on the subway and was standing next to them fifteen minutes later. There came a sense of liberation through that kind of mobility — movement is at the very core of the city’s DNA. Everything and everyone felt like a subway ride away.
Efficient public transit is a luxury experience in America. It may not be perfect, but no American city achieves it the way New York does. It’s in a class of its own. The day-to-day experience of gliding around the boroughs feels like a breath of fresh air, especially when contrasted to the week of hellish driving I had during a recent stay in LA (or, to a lesser degree, any day I spend driving here in the Bay Area.)
Urban transit has always been like a personal passion of mine, but one I never pursued in my career. You might call it a career missed connection. At times, I considered working in the space, but always pulled away to pursue other passions. A while back, I wrote about The American Traffic Crisis—it was the beginning of an effort to write more about supporting public transit, and raising awareness around its benefits. Not only is a train or bus ride less stressful than driving, it’s a far more scalable and climate-friendly approach to transit. The more people that experience good transit, the more support they’ll get from the public, which can lead to better quality of service. The challenge is that too few American cities give people a chance to experience good transit in the first place.
Side Note: If you’re looking for some excellent writing on urban issues, check out my friend Drew’s newsletter, Kneeling Bus. I had the pleasure of catching up with him in person during my trip. (He’s taller than I expected, so I was a bit disappointed his body does not include an actual kneeling bus feature.)
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True to my transit obsession, I spent my birthday at the New York Transit Museum. It was amazing. The entrance to the museum is just like a subway entrance (a staircase leading underground). The museum is really well designed—it’s a great balance of information and interaction. The bottom floor is full of retired train cars from over the years, and you get to walk in, sit down, and imagine yourself riding in those cars from decades past. I highly recommend visiting if you get the chance.
The museum does a great job of documenting the incredible sacrifice that went into building the subways. It is sobering to learn about the people lost their lives digging tunnels and laying tracks. But it is also heartening to know their sacrifice built the infrastructure that fueled the growth of a great city, and carries millions of people every day safely and affordably. I was caught by this beautiful poem written by Billy Collins in 1841:
As you fly swiftly underground
with a song in your ears
or lost in the maze of a book,
remember the ones who descended here
into the mire of bedrock
to bore a hole through this granite,
to clear a passage for you
where there was only darkness and stone.
Remember as you come up into the light.
—Subway, Billy Collins, b. 1841
The coolest thing I learned about was the fate of the infamous fleet of Redbird trains. After they were retired, these trains were dropped into the ocean, and now live on as artificial reefs for underwater life!
Photographer Stephen Mallon captured some incredible scenes in a series between 2008-2011 titled Next Stop Atlantic, as subway cars were dropped into the ocean:
Behold, the Redbirds’ second life:
On the subway ride back to my hotel, I looked at the scratched walls of the train I was sitting in, and thought of the countless rides it has taken. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year, the train does its duty. Thank you, I thought, hoping it could hear me.
I wondered, then: Will that train be a reef some day, a happy home for fish?
I wonder, now: Why stop at trains? What if everything we made was given a second life?
What plans could we make for all those things whose utility we so mindlessly take?
What might the tiny teapot might go on to do, once it has brewed its last tea? Or the mighty plane after its final flight, free of its duty?
When we’re done with the gifts we give, will we gift them a second life to live?
Drawing for Writers
This Friday, May 6th @ 11AM PST, Nate Kadlac and I are hosting a free live session, Drawing for Writers: Procreate 101, focused on helping writers get started with drawing. We’ll be going over the basics of using Procreate for the iPad, followed by a round of demos on drawing basic visualizations, comics, and more.
Note: Nate and I will demo using Procreate, but the ideas are broadly applicable to any drawing tool.
One Year of Writing a Book
I recently passed the one-year anniversary of writing my book of fables. It’s been tough balancing it with all my other work, but I’ve made slow and steady progress. So far, I’ve done the hard work of drafting all the fables. I then worked with an editor to revise the stories. Revision has been, by far, the hardest part of the process. For many of the stories, I’m now on the third or fourth version of revision. It’s tough but rewarding work. I want to bring the best out of the stories, and I’m learning a lot about the craft of storytelling along the way.
Once I’m done with revisions, I’ll move onto the illustrations, and then into the publishing phase. I’ve done a lot of research around publishing options, and so far I’m leaning towards self-publishing, but leaving my options open to potentially pitch small presses. (If you’re curious about the publishing aspect of writing a book, check out this free session on May 5th featuring my good friend Kat Vellos — Authoring Q&A: Many Paths to Publishing.)
I want to record a one-year checkin video to think out loud and share what I’ve learned from the process of writing & editing so far. I’d love to incorporate any questions you might have! Note that I’m writing a collection of fables, not a non-fiction book. Still, much of the book-writing struggles are universal—ask away, and I’ll do my best to answer.
So, I’ll leave you with the question:
What do you want to know about writing a book?
Let me know by replying directly to this email, leaving a comment, or replying to my book thread on Twitter.
Riding on the train reminds us of the thin line between the mundane and the magical. There is a certain power to that liminal space, a permanence in the shared experience, the necessity and the privilege of utility for the riders.
Woohoo! Looking forward to Friday's drawing class. :D :D :D