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Introducing: Notes from the Field

September 3, 2020


Dear Haily,

I've been away from you now for six months. It feels longer. Along with the rest of the world, I've been locked-down, ordered to stay at home, sheltering in place, social distancing, and self-isolating. All variations on the theme of hunkering down in my parents' spare room. We left England together in March. It's September now. We thought we'd be back together by then, but the world had other plans. You in Vietnam. Me in Seattle.

Much as I've appreciated the time with my mom and dad, I think it's safe to say you got the better deal. Things are open in Vietnam. There have been a total of zero deaths from COVID-19. You are free to go to bars, engage in social activities in public, and meander about the country like nothing's the matter -- all sans mask. Not the case for my nation. We're setting records by the day. Not the good kind either. Under usual conditions one might discuss how a sovereign California would rank as the world's fifth largest economy; now it's a conversation about how more bodies are piled up in Florida than after most civil wars. Not to mention the looming notion of societal collapse between the scourges of racism, economic depression, civil unrest, and having cause to look up the precise definition of what constitutes a failed state. I wish I was in Vietnam. I wish I was with you. Instead, here I am. A whole lotta nothing going nowhere. I'm restless.

I long to be on the move. I'm ready to get going. I wanna be somewhere. Anywhere.

And it's all this fettered idleness that has put me in mind of the places we've been together. It's what made me want to make this collection. I've been working through many of these essays over the last couple years. They come in spurts. Until now, I've never been sure what to do with them. I returned to these pieces over the past months as a kind of escape. It's not possible for us to get back to these places any time soon. But I can delve into the memories and the notes and the ideas and the feelings they evoke. They have been a reminder of the great times we've had together. They're also a promise of more to come.

At any rate, I decided to collect them as a podcast. It's a reasonable question to ask whether I need another podcast. An equally reasonable answer would be "probably not." If we're talking in terms of "should," what I really should be doing is getting serious about my PhD work. Back in March, I was at least in the ballpark of "on track." Then the virus hit. Since then, to appropriate a phrase from Calvin and Hobbes, scientific progress has gone "boink." And that is, to be sure, an over-generous evaluation -- whatever one may take it to mean. The only justification I have is that if I wasn't working on this, I'd probably find another way to be screw around anyway. Might as well try to direct it toward something at least vaguely worthwhile.

But setting aside the question of whether it's a pursuit worth undertaking, it's something I sincerely want to do. While most of my favorite thinkers and writers fall into a more philosophical or scientific bin -- like the people I interview on Cognitive Revolution -- there is another strain of individual I find myself consistently drawn to: the traveller. The person who goes out into an unfamiliar land, has a look around, meets the people, and reports back to the rest of us, attempting to make sense of what she saw. The marriage of these two -- and a not-so-secret obsession of mine -- is the anthropologist. Back in its heyday, anthropology was about going off into the most remote regions of the world and trying to figure out who was there and what they were up to. I don't think anyone ever truly succeeded in this enterprise. Professional anthropologist or otherwise, no one ever seemed to get it just right. Such a thing probably isn't possible. But the prospect of achieving some sort of asymptotic closeness -- to find oneself on the precipice of verisimilitude, of having really captured something -- is tantalizing.

This project isn't nearly so ambitious. In this first batch (what I'm calling the first season), I'm reaching for a much lower hanging fruit. There are a couple personal theories strewn about. But overall these essays are not about explanation. They're meant to be fun. Ideally, they're meant to take an image from my own mind, my own faculty of recollection, and to reconstruct that image by purely verbal means in the mind of another. If I can get part of the way there for a handful of people, it'd be worth it. Hell, even if I don't, it still would be. I had a lot of fun writing these essays. I bet you'll enjoy reliving a few of the occasions as well. As long as that's the case, then who cares what anyone else thinks? Fuck 'em.

You were present for a lot of this action. The World Cup in Russia. Our four-man road trip through the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. But a lot of what's in here are moments -- like the present one -- where our paths temporarily diverged. It's easier to write about a lonesome figure. And sometimes it's easier to engage with a place in one's solitude. Mostly, it's easier to write about being on my own because being with you is too much fun. It's distracting. I think you get it. I remember you got kinda annoyed with me carrying my notepad around everywhere, scribbling little secrets to myself. Well, they're not secrets anymore. Even the things you weren't around for -- Warsaw, Istanbul, Hong Kong; that time I went to Myanmar without you -- here they are. These are my Notes from the Field.

I look forward to when we're able to be back together again, when we're on the other side of this whole virus thing. In the meantime, these stories will have to tide us over. They're dedicated to you, without whom I probably wouldn't go anywhere. I certainly wouldn't want to.



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