10 albums that shaped me 

As an adolescent, when music truly started to come into my sphere of knowing, I was lucky to have young parents with excellent and profoundly varied music taste. Listening to music with them in the car or at home wasn’t just background noise or the radio, it was an experience. I made off with many of their cassette tapes and later CDs for my own private listening. Their music formed the foundation not only of what I would then seek out for myself, my openness to new sounds, but it also formed who I was.

Music has changed my life, has saved my life. It can turn a shitty day or shitty mood on a dime if you’re open to it. I got the idea for this post last year during the pandemic, when people were tagging each other to share one of their top 10 albums in a post each day for 10 days. I got distracted after day two or three and stopped posting, but I really like the idea of 10 albums that shaped you, ones that you’d choose without hesitation if you were stuck on a deserted island. 

Some of the albums I’ve included in my list have been in regular rotation since I was 14. Some are more recent discoveries. I was also that person who had the car sun visor CD holder until I sold my car in 2019. Some of these were fixtures there. Some are records that I’ve inherited. I’m not a record hoarder and I’ve moved around a lot, so the 50 or so LPs I have that are still around are solid to me. I love albums that are interesting, nuanced, tell stories, and are solid from top to bottom.

I’ve become such a playlist person, especially when I started using Spotify in 2011. I’m also huge on discovering B-sides and non-radio hits. They can totally change your opinion of a band, smash preconceived notions. As we move more and more into curated playlists, whether homespun, or served to you by algorithms or friends, the value of the album as an art form seems further and further in the rearview. My way of preserving a bit of that is by sharing my top 10 albums here, in order from newest to oldest. I hope you enjoy, and even more importantly, I hope you listen.

Cult of Luna – A Dawn to Fear (2019)

cult of luna, a dawn to fear, a dawn to fear album cover

I found out about this band when I was cruising Instagram. One of the publications I follow (maybe MetalSucks?) posted the Best Metal Albums of 2019 and there were tons of angry comments that this album wasn’t included on the list. So on my 90-minute commute to work one day, I listened to the entire 80 minutes and it fucked me up in such a good way. It was wintertime, so I blasted it on my bus ride home with my noise-cancelling headphones and remember watching the moon rise and having my heart wrenched out of my body by the lilting guitar and steady, driving, somber basslines. This is an album that takes its time and builds up, like any masterpiece should. It also changed how I listened to metal, and reintroduced me to the whole subgenre of post-metal.

I also was lucky enough to see Cult of Luna at Slim’s on March 9, 2020. It was one of the last shows at the venue before it closed for good and my last concert before San Francisco closed down completely for shelter-in-place.

Listen on: Spotify | YouTube
Listen for: Lights on the Hill, The Fall 

Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)

Kendrick Lamar, good kid Maad city album

Hip hop and rap music played a big part of my high school upbringing. But even more than any of the artists or albums I blasted in those days, I always come back to Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city as the best hip hop album of my generation. People who aren’t fans of hip hop often complain that rappers are always just bragging about cars, clothes, women, whatever. And sure, there’s a lot of that out there, but this album turns that notion on its head. I’m a sucker for a good coming of age story and this album delivers, it’s filled with stories of young love, gang violence and death, and salvation. All told with Kendrick’s poetic verses and fresh, interesting beats — he’s sampled Beach House, Bill Withers, Janet Jackson and more. good kid, m.A.A.d city won a flurry of awards when it came out, but it’s also worth noting that Kendrick Lamar became the first rapper to win a Pulitzer Prize for his 2017 album DAMN. DAMN is right.

Listen on: Spotify | YouTube
Listen for: Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe, Swimming Pools (Drank), Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst

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Jury Selection: The Olympics of Crazy

Jury duty has a magical way of bringing out the inner crazy in everyone. It turns the public into a nearly empty tube of toothpaste — as you squeeze the life out of it, it inevitably pops and splatters in your face. Being summoned is an exercise in extreme patience, but if you’re like me, it can also satisfy a year’s worth of morbid curiosity. To what extremes will prospective jurors go to prove their own incompetence, hence excusing them from their civic duty? 

As I found out last week, some people subtly stumble upon their own craziness as its teased out through a line of questioning. This is perhaps the most common. They want to seem fair and impartial in front of a room full of their peers, but when the counsel turns the screws, they crack. Others dump their mental purses out on the table Ally-Sheedy-Breakfast-Club style. They let the judge and counsel sift through the pennies, loose Goldfish, and unwrapped tampons of their minds to find coherent thoughts and opinions. Others are even more blunt, practically shouting racist epithets as they file into the courtroom. 

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Luster: A Book Review of Sorts

For the last year I’ve been participating in a book club. Normally I’d roll my eyes at that kind of activity, but with our first book being “My Sister, the Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite, paired with the boredom and loneliness of pandemic life, this book club couldn’t have been a better fit. 

A few months ago we read “Luster,” a novel by Raven Leilani. I’d seen the book front and center on the shelves at Dog Eared Books in the Castro and had flirted with buying it several times, so when it was chosen as our book club pick I was excited.

Luster is about Edie, a 23-year-old woman living in New York City who begins a relationship with Eric, a man in an open marriage. She’s an artist and after losing her nine-to-five, finds herself struggling to survive. She’s then taken in by her boyfriend’s family and builds unlikely relationships in the process.  

What’s interesting is that our book club discussion of Luster was split pretty evenly down the middle, with the moms and older generation finding it depressing and the younger women finding it funny and relatable. 

I was in the latter camp. I’m a details person and this book is rich with them. Leilani pulls out all the stops for a female millennial audience. I laughed, I marveled, I cringed with knowing, I shook my damn head. You find that Edie, the main character, has and continues to live a hard life, yet you also know Edie because you’ve been Edie. As a girl, her prized possession was a Spice World VHS she received for her birthday. After one particular disappointing and sexless date, she goes home alone and eats half a rotisserie chicken. I am the exact audience for this book.  

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Adventures in Mendocino + Mormon Country

Over Thanksgiving I experienced the pure majesty of having six paid days off for a total of 10 calendar days away from the office, a.k.a. my kitchen table. The fruit stand that I work for shuts down for the full week of Thanksgiving, and we were gifted Monday 11/30 off as a thank you from our team’s leadership. Last year for the holidays I was a contractor, so actually getting paid time off was a really big deal.

Since I’d been holed up in my 400 square foot San Francisco apartment since March, I decided to book some travel. A much needed and long overdue trip up the California coast to see one of my ride-or-die homies in Mendocino, and a flight out to Utah to visit my aunt for Thanksgiving. Certainly some huge risks I was taking, but I weighed it, and decided that I needed to just bite the bullet and see my people. Plus I did a solo Thanksgiving the year I’d just gotten back from my Eurotrip, and it was the pits. My pets and I ended up eating a lot of turkey.

HemiTime

The Mendocino trip was definitely a #TreatYoSelf situation. Since I sold my car this time last year, I had to book a rental for the drive up. Normally I’d just book whatever the cheapest car was, which would typically end up being a Kia Soulpatch or a Nissan Versa, which is essentially a roller skate with a steering wheel. But this time I scrolled down a bit and found myself lingering over the Dodge Challenger. Since it always says “or similar,” you never really know what you’re going to get when you get to the lot, but sure as shit, when I walked onto the Mission Enterprise lot, I saw two gleaming Challengers sitting right next to each other just waiting. A few years back I toyed with actually buying a Challenger (my brother bought me an SRT Hellcat hoodie for Christmas that year), so this was a bit of a dream coming to life.

The agent walked up, checked me in, and asked if I would like to rent the V6, or the V8 R/T Hemi for my roadtrip. Is that even a question? While I was waiting, another agent asked if I’d been helped yet. I told him “Yeah I’m waiting on the Challenger.” He asked which one. “The Hemi,” I replied casually. He paused, looked me up a down for a split second, and shrugged “Ok” as in “I see you.” Just hearing the throaty monster fire up with the push start was pure happiness.

After not having driven a car since my last rental six months ago, I was pretty nervous driving off the lot. Especially on the roads surrounding Enterprise, which strongly resemble an M.C. Escher drawing.

I briefly thought, Crap, this might be too much car for me. But that was a fleeting thought. This land yacht was disgustingly powerful — and perfect. Opening her up on the highway, listening to the gears shifting, changing lanes, it was intoxicating. I’d been warned by folks before about the Challenger’s blind spots and hot damn, were they right. But as my brother joked when I told him about the adventure, “I guess there’s no need to check blind spots when you’re doing 140 miles per hour.”

I was responsible, but I did have some fun driving on 128, the 70 mile long stretch of two-lane highway that carries you from 101 out to the coast. It was a breathtaking drive, you pass grapevines and vineyards, farms, cute country storefronts, then you pass through cool, dark, spooky redwood forests, and finally get spit out onto Highway 1 hugging the twisty coastal cliffs. I took about as many pictures of the car as I did of the trip itself, natch.

That first night I got in to the AirBnB, my friend came over and we drank some wine, smoked a spliff, solved the world’s problems, and soaked in the hot tub to this view.

The next day, we loaded up in my friend’s truck and set out for adventures. First stop was a little Mendocino headland hike and a visit to the tide pools and scenic cliffs. Stella was wound up, so getting her to stop and pose for a picture was damn impossible.

You get the gist.
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What it’s really like living in San Francisco

It’s been just over two years since I moved to the Bay Area from Atlanta. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how completely different it is out here and what it’s like living in San Francisco from a displaced Southerner’s perspective. It’s impossible to capture all the little details when someone from back east asks me “How is California treating you?” Usually I make some generic comment about how nice the weather is, or how crazy it is working in tech. But here’s the full answer ⁠— my collection of observations, musings, and rants about San Francisco and NorCal (yes, it’s really called that).

First, let’s make one thing crystal clear. Despite my drivers license and impending jury duty summons, I will never be a San Franciscan. However, there are times when I’ve come dangerously close. These include when I:

  • Developed a concerning Birkenstock tan
  • Cooked and enjoyed my first vegetarian quinoa bowl
  • Referred to every patch of green space in San Francisco as “the dog park”
  • Finally got a Clipper card
  • Ordered a vape through Eaze and it was delivered to my apartment in three minutes
  • Sold my car

This last one is pretty crazy and happened in November. It was a very strange and bittersweet moment, especially considering that I’ve never been without wheels since I was 16 years old. I’ve always needed a car, but not so living in the Mission. I never drove the damn thing except to move it for street sweeping, and when I did, it was a nightmare trying to find parking. Sometime I would just treat myself to an $80 parking ticket as a kind of fuck-it tax.

But I’m chauffeured to work in a luxury coach with Wi-Fi and I live a five minute walk from the BART station. Lyft is also piloting a rental car program in San Francisco, so there are plenty of options for getting around. This morning I rode an electric rental bike to the gym. But mostly I prefer to walk. Some days I walk seven miles without even realizing it!

The Mission

As I mentioned, I live a neighborhood called the Mission. It’s the home of Dolores Park, brilliant street art, countless shops, bars and restaurants, and is a place where people come from all over to people watch, wear their leather jackets and feel cool. It’s like if Little 5 Points and a mariachi band had a baby. On a one-block stretch of Mission Street you can get a street pupusa, a bootleg copy of Gilmore Girls season 3, a $4 happy hour whiskey ginger, a pair of glittery pink hot pants, and a hair cut at a salon called WERK. Continue reading

Melissa Witt | A Tribute to the Gold Standard of Friends

[Now Playing: “That Place” by The Lion’s Daughter]

“Our earthly bodies will surely fall
But the love we share outlives us all”
– “Only Memories Remain” by My Morning Jacket

Yesterday I stood at the gravesite at Rest Haven Memorial Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky in the pouring rain and said goodbye to one of the dearest people that I’ve ever had the privilege of calling a friend.

Melissa Witt was smart as a whip, quick-witted, funny as hell, curious about the world and how it worked, a brilliant artist and designer and a kind and loving friend. She could pick up new languages and their accents at the drop of a hat. When we went to Tulum, Melissa’s accent was so impeccable that people thought she was a local.

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Art Review of Rene Magritte: Something’s Not Quite Right

I’ve always been fascinated by the strange and subversive, so when I began to learn about Surrealism in art school, I was hooked. I pored over Dali paintings, spent a semester studying Frida Kahlo and fell in love with the beautifully executed, yet off-kilter work of Rene Magritte.

Rene Magritte (1898-1967) was a Belgian surrealist painter who explored the concept of the untrustworthiness of images. His work constantly pushes you to think, what am I really looking at? “The Treachery of Images,” one of Magritte’s most famous pieces, depicts a pipe, with the words “This is not a pipe.” The point here is that it’s not a pipe, it’s the image of a pipe.

surrealist painting, magritte, rene magritte, this is not a pipe

“The Treachery of Images”

Magritte Exhibit at the SFMoMA (May 19 – October 28, 2018)

Recently, I was lucky enough to attend the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Rene Magritte exhibit, which contained 77 of the surrealist master’s original paintings and drawings. I also opted for the audio tour, which contained commentary from the museum’s curators, people who were close to Magritte, and even famous artists like Jeff Koons.

The following is an amalgam of direct quotes and paraphrasing from the exhibit and audio tour, along with my own thoughts, reflections and commentary.  Continue reading

Eurotrip: Barcelona & Athens

Last month I had the extreme privilege of attending an international user experience (UX) research trip with my team. The locations were Barcelona, Spain and Athens, Greece. Some from our team also attended a third leg of the trip in Casablanca, Morocco, but I wisely planned on only two countries for this trip.

As I wrote this on a plane over the Adriatic Sea from Athens to London, I was completely exhausted after averaging 3-5 hours of sleep per night, was braindead after days of intense focus, observations, note-taking and discussions, and I missed my bed and animals. The experiences of traveling abroad are beyond compare, but the idea of returning to the comfort of home is intoxicating.

So what is UX Research?

Many companies in virtually every vertical do market research. User research is a little different, so here’s my informal definition.

tech research, user research, UX research, UXR, in person research

Tech companies that design products like apps and websites should not design and build them in a vacuum. They should be making decisions around a number of factors, two of which include data (logging how people actually use the product and drawing conclusions from that data) and user experience research (UXR), which just means talking to regular non-techy people about how they use our app. UXR encompasses a vast arsenal of techniques such as focus groups, on-the-street intercepts, in-home interviews, lab studies, usability testing, A/B testing and much more. The general goals are to understand how people perceive and use our products, and to get feedback on what they like, dislike, would change about our concepts, and how their ideal products would look and function.

So we did this work! For two days each in both Barcelona and Athens. We worked hard and gained a ton of useful insights.

Now for the Fun Stuff

I should be upfront that this was (gasp!) my first trip to Europe, so a lot of things I observed may seem run-of-the-mill to seasoned travelers, but I found them interesting, hopefully you will too. The following is a collection of my thoughts, observations and experiences from the trip.

British Airways Wants You Good and Drunk

plane flying, british airways plane, british airways, drunk on british airways Continue reading

Welcome Home to Seattle

I recently moved to Silicon Valley to work at Facebook which has been an incredible experience. One of the perks of my job is that I’ll get to travel all over the world on user research trips. I also support a team located at Facebook’s Seattle office, which I visited two weeks ago.

nostalgist, seattle

My face when I’m judging bearded douchebaggery on Instagram. Credit: Jennifer Hanson

Seattle has been on my travel bucket list ever since I first obsessively listened to Nirvana’s “Nevermind” in my room as a kid. I should also mention that I’ve been dressing like this for the better part of ten years, so it really did feel like, as one bartender put it, “Welcome home.”

(To make it even more meta, I’m wearing a Nostalgist shirt, which is an amazing Seattle-based noir shoegaze band).

In a nutshell, the trip was dope. I got to reconnect with an old roller derby teammate and met a bunch of cool people while I was out and about. According to several sources, making friends in Seattle is not a terribly easy thing to do; the struggle is so common it’s been dubbed the “Seattle Freeze.” My only explanation for this is that over the past few years, I’ve discovered that I’m at my best when I travel alone. I’m more interesting, I’m funnier and apparently better looking. There’s also a little bit of magic in knowing that you may never see the people you meet again. Who cares?  Continue reading

I Smoked Weed in an Uber

Yesterday I had plans to meet a friend for drinks at a German joint called Der Biergarten in downtown Atlanta. Not wanting to deal with downtown parking or driving after a few steinfuls, I booked an Uber to pick me up from my house in Cabbagetown. Immediately after hitting “Request UberX” the driver calls me.

“Hi! This is Jared, your Uber driver. How are you?”
“I’m good, and you?”
“I’m great. So how are you?”
Pause. “I’m fine,” I say hesitantly, having not the slightest clue what is happening.
“I wanted to ask if it’s OK if I have a friend riding with me.” No explanation as to why.
“Yeah that’s fine,” I reply. My first thought was that he’s simply giving his friend a ride somewhere and is doing double duty. My other thought was that it’s probably just two dudes riding around like we used to do when we were in high school and the only things to do were drive around, or hang out in the Walmart parking lot or in the woods. I found out immediately that it was the latter. Continue reading