Human technology

Screw Your Pandemic Playlist, I’ve got an internal jukebox I can’t unplug.

And like the birds fluttering in to populate quiet cities with their delicate song, the ghosts of former lives find me humming in the garden. Today The Hooters and Steely Dan have come to roost. The other day it was 38 Special and Brittany Spears.

Why these decades-old earworms, like so many unwelcome visitors? When I should be alone with my thoughts, why does Missy Elliot want to come out and play?

Under normal circumstances I can tie it to something environmental, but now I have no doctor’s office lobbies or convenience stores to blame. I haven’t unconsciously heard it in a bar, restaurant, shop, or gas station. Nor a retirement party, block party, or at a friend’s house.

Songs lie dormant in the recesses of my mind, lyrics filling space that could be better used. I can’t tell you my son’s social security number, but I could probably sing you a Kool & the Gang song start to finish. I love Robin, but I hate Celebrate. My skin crawls at parties when it plays. 

I default to NPR. I so rarely listen to music in my car in the morning that once when I was driving a carpooler and loaded up tunes, she remarked, without a hint of irony, It feels like we’re going on a road trip! (In fairness, the sun was shining and I was speeding.)  

Perhaps like the caffeine I use sparingly, music has a strong effect on me. It hasn’t lost its power to boost my mood or set a scene. It’s not playing constantly in the background, and my background is a lot more quiet than it used to be.

I used to use singing as a way to tamp down insecurities and negative self talk. Any time I would start to ruminate on something stupid I said at a party or the office, I would sing something quietly to myself that prevented those negative thoughts from nesting. 

This much is true. This much is true. I know this much is true.

Music is a welcome distraction from the death and despair of the pandemic. Maybe I need to spend more time dancing with DJ D-Nice so that a more colorful and current wave of tunes accompanies me on my unplugged neighborhood walks. 

I don’t want to discover new music now, lest it always have the taint of death and quarantine when I hear it later.

Maybe that’s why Feist and Wilson Phillips and Bananrama bubble up from the recesses of my brain. They are not tied to any distinct memories, happy or sad. They were only background music to me, never anything more. 

They are not like the Jane’s Addiction that fueled my college parties, nor the Ani Difranco and Portishead that carried me into adulthood. Not the Radiohead that accompanied me through the beautiful unknowns of my pregnancy, nor the U2 that has heightened so many milestones.

Likewise, the music that helped heal past pain is not emerging now. No Alanis Morriset breakup therapy or post-9/11 Springsteen. No Common, though he nursed me through Trump’s election. It is too close to my father’s death to even consider listening to Bowie’s Dark Star, or Queen, or the Brother Ali we enjoyed:

Whatever comes up comes out. We don’t put our hands over our mouth.

My pop exposure has risen exponentially in the past few years. It’s mostly Robin’s fault, but I like to blame the suburbs. I don’t mind most of it, but there is very little I actually like.

Maybe in some future pandemic, I’ll find myself in my recliner humming Billie Eilish or marveling to the others at the nursing home that though I never even liked Justin Timberlake, I still remember all the words to that dance, dance, dance song.

For now, since nature abhors a vacuum and I am unable to quiet my nerves with birdsong, perhaps I’ll sink into Apple Music.

Art, City living, Family, Human technology, Travel

In Gratitude for My Sabbatical

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” – Ferris Bueller, on school truancy

“They’re giving you time off for good behavior?” – A former colleague, upon learning of my plans

A sabbatical. Three weeks off, and then a week away at a work-sponsored conference/retreat. A full four weeks out of the office.

To be sure, I checked my email ten times a week and kept basic marketing functions going, but for no more than a day each week, on my own schedule, as if my employer were my client.

Everyone deserves an extended break in the midst of a loyal, long-term commitment to an employer. Sabbaticals, I am realizing, are a thing outside of academia. Some forward-thinking employers (with more staff and resources than mine) offer paid sabbaticals of 3-4 weeks to employees in addition to their paid vacation, and after only 7 years of employment.

It inspires loyalty while giving staffers space to nurture passion projects, projects that can enhance their skills. There’s space to pursue exciting new ideas and scratch creative itches without needing to leave the company.

It also staves off burnout, kindles creativity and self care, and refreshes an employee’s thinking. I needed a reset for sure, and I was damn lucky to have the vacation time banked up to get paid for this.

So what did I do? Let me get it down quickly, before the bliss evaporates completely.


Yoga, 3-4 times a week
I found a favorite new teacher at Twisters, stretched with friends, and spent happy hours on the mat at Tara.
I set up a website. It ain’t gorgeous, but it is presentable and gathers my portfolio together neatly for those who might hire me for freelance gigs.

Weekly lunch dates in Center City
I miss the life of the city, and I miss dates with Randy. I was able to connect with both, spending my morning writing at Elixr, running Center City errands, and then lunching out with my hubby.

I wrote, a lot
I wrote blog posts for this little rag, for Andrea Sz Communications, for Spotted by Locals, the Untours blog, Private Access Journeys and a couple clients. I banked up content to share throughout fall.


I volunteered
I worked for Project HOME, writing a profile of a brilliantly inspiring resident of theirs. I helped Weaver’s Way. And I volunteered at Robin’s school for the Book Fair, cashiering for my first time since college.

The beach
It was only for a long weekend, but Strathmere was a wonderful chance to spend time with my family, and to take long sandy walks and think.

I celebrated Septivus
That includes my birthday, Robin’s birthday, and our 15th wedding anniversary. I had space to honor our family milestones, enjoy my favorite month, plan celebrations, and ease us into the school year.

The B Retreat
I capped it off with the B Corp Champions Retreat in Toronto, a party of progressive business thinking, deep and thoughtful conversations, art and ecology, music and wine, and all in a glorious city, in a sane country.

These four weeks gave me time to digest the enormity of this fall’s relentless string of tragedies: natural disasters and man made carnage; I had time to feel the appropriate sadness. To let it sink in.

I also enjoyed long walks, lazy Sundays reading, off-peak errand running, tweeting, beers with friends, stalking paintings on Chairish, and discovering new spots in my city.

I would urge anyone who can to take a sabbatical, and to use it as such: not just as a staycation, but as a time to reset, build skills, nurture your mental and physical health, and take on personal projects that feed your vocation.

Use your talents for good. Reconnect with your gifts and your calling. Revel in the doing.

Art, Human technology, Travel

Paging Heshi Yu

Dear Heshi Yu,

I am a fan of your art. I would like to say I am a collector, but I have only one piece so far. It is this painting, which I picked up for a fair price at a mid century design consignment shop in a suburb of Philadelphia. The shop did not know your name but simply described this gorgeous creation as “signed Yu”.

The price was high enough that I needed to do a little research to justify the expense. I am an art lover but not a real collector as I have a tiny budget.

After a number of false starts tracking younger Yu’s, a deep dive into Google images yielded a familiar aesthetic, your whimsical 70s-80s line-drawn cityscapes, some penned or painted onto brightly colored canvases, some in vivid lithographs and serigraphs, some etched into textured metallic paints like the one I was about to buy.

I was blown away!

With the name Heshi Yu, I was able to find auction records, eBay and Etsy listings, and even a companion piece to the one I was about to own. My eyes and heart were full of your creations: the steeples and houses and squares of town centers, the docks and boats of fishing villages, the firework trees, and the tiny figures you dropped into them walking dogs or skating. They speak to my love of cities and community and to the villages we all create and inhabit. I was drawn to their design but anchored by their simple humanity.

In case you haven’t noticed, this is a love letter.

These images were to me a little reminiscent of the Paul Klee paintings I adore, but with a modern design sensibility and an Asian flair. There is something about the gold leaf and the circles that feel Eastern, the floating borders and medallions. And I wonder if the fishing villages are memories of your childhood in China, before art school in Paris and your move to New York.

What was it like for you to move to Brooklyn in 1969? What was your life like then, and how are you now? I understand you are in your 80s.

The paintings I’ve seen from the late 80s onward are stunning and different than the earlier ones that may be considered your trademark. There is a mother and child that especially moves me. It is done in blues and nods gently to Gustav Klimt but has a look all its own and a sweet tranquility. Its tenderness makes me wonder if you married here. If you had kids. If you still live in New York or even in the US.

Do you ever google your own name?

If so, I hope you find this. Because I google you often and always seem to find the same brief bio, repeated verbatim across auction house sites. It lists schools in Taiwan and Paris but little else. I want to know more about you. 

Are you well? In good health? Do you still paint or draw?

I want to know what motivates you. I want to understand your creative process. I want to know what it was like to leave China, to boldly cross oceans and cultures. To grow in an emerging New York art scene. To move into the printing process and find acclaim. I want to know what meanings you have coded into your paintings.

You are a mystery to me.

And more than anything, I fear sometimes that one of my regular “Heshi Yu” googles will yield an obituary, maybe a small piece in the New York Times that lays out some personal details and context of a life that must be fascinating.

If you ever see this and wish to connect, I would love to learn more about you and to write about you. I would love to help tell your story to the cult of people who collect your work and to those like me who love it and are craving the back story. If you read this and care to, please drop a line! A simple email would blow my mind.

But either way, it would warm my heart just to imagine you somehow found and read these words. If you do, know how much I love your work. And if these words make you smile even momentarily, I will be glad to have in some small measure returned the favor.

I like to imagine the swollen suns of your paintings shining down on me. You are a brilliant artist, and your work continues to shed beauty, light, and human warmth in a world that needs it.

I love Yu,
Andrea in Philadelphia

Heshi info

Human technology, Language

The Power of Words


A new year, and words have produced results!

December was a month of action around here, of packing and unpacking, of moving, of painting and remodeling. Of transformations, tiring work, tangible physical results and visible transitions. No time for journaling or blogging or any of my usual word play. Too much stuff to get done!

It was refreshing for someone who spends most days in front of a screen typing away, pushing well crafted communications out into an indifferent world, with little to show for each completed project. A sale. A blip in web traffic. An email reply from a reader. Six likes. A share. Tweet. Tweet.

Then January happened.

Our house hit the market on a Friday afternoon. I’d spent time honing the language of the description with my realtor, though I knew the photos were more important. We had put in the labor to clear out the house and hired expert help to refresh and beautify it.

Still, I felt the rich community of the block was its best feature, far more important and enduring than the stager’s trendy hexagon end tables. I wrote a concise essay on the warmth of my neighbors, our memories of block parties and fire pits, and the texture of that special block. My realtor planted it at the open house that Sunday and distributed copies.

By Tuesday we had an offer. We sold our house in less than a week, and to someone we felt was a good fit.

Sadly, that same day I got news of a dear friend’s passing. The founder of my company, the man who hired me 20 years ago and changed the course of my life, left us that day. His contributions to the worlds of responsible business, economic empowerment, fair trade and sustainability will live on for decades. My respect for him is bottomless.

I quickly published the obituary I had written for him in anticipation of this moment. (He was 91, after all.) It was an assignment I’d been honored to take some months earlier, approaching the task with diligence and earnest respect rather than sadness. That brief biography may be one of the most important things I have written.

I also wrote announcements of his death and disseminated them to clients, staff and friends.

As people from around the world shared their memories and condolences, and as we grieved together, I was struck by how many people thanked me for my obituary and my beautiful words about Hal.

My words helped honor the man in the manner he deserved, beyond what his family and newspaper reporters could offer. And my writing provided comfort to readers who loved and grieved him as I did.

For the first time in a long time, I remembered just how powerful good writing can be, how articulate words can change minds, soothe loved ones, connect people and tighten communities. I felt a sense of my own power as a writer and felt grateful for my gift of language, my ability to encourage, persuade or comfort with well chosen words.

I watched the president’s State of the Union address with a new enthusiasm that week, eager to let the speechwriters’ soaring rhetoric elevate me. Wanting to join them, to turn my pen to civic matters. The world needs our crisp prose to inspire action and light the way of progress.

(Watch this space.) Write on!



Human technology

Pinch Me, I’m Streaming

TV land

Why do female cartoon characters always have long eyelashes? Is that really my gender’s defining characteristic? Where do those cute bunnies, shaggy puppets and cartoon dogs get the mascara? I haven’t worn it since middle school.

Dinosaur Train, for God’s sake. Pteranodons! Even the smart shows do this. Which brings me to my point: I just realized there is smart TV for kids. I don’t think screen time will increase my kid’s IQ, but if I select it more wisely, it may not stunt his growth!

I’ve always considered TV a bad thing, like candy. So I haven’t given much thought to what Robin watched. My only impulse has been to limit it. But as there are carob-covered raisins and yogurt pretzels, so too is there better-for-you television.

Mighty Machines. All About. The Wild Kratts. (OK, Robin finds these guys lame.) Even Dinosaur Train, with its manic, fast-talking characters, has the redemption of smart, bland Dr. Scott the Paleontologist and his calm explanations. He’s informed Robin’s thinking on dinosaur extinction and has taught him that forest fires are good.

There is a danger in letting any characters in. Perhaps I’ve misspent energy gate keeping, steering us away from the current Pixar movie or shows with ubiquitous branding. Trying to stave off the inevitable.

Robin recognized Elmo a full 18 months before he ever watched Sesame Street, or any TV. The characters and branding are in the air we breathe (hyperbole) and on the cereal and toothpaste we buy (fact).

A chatty nurse once asked Robin about his stuffy: “Is that Kung Fu Panda?” Robin looked at him blankly. “No, it’s National Zoo Panda,” Randy replied.

(Take that, Dominant Culture!)

I know at least one local preschool that forbids kids to wear clothing with movie or TV characters’ images. I thought twice before I bought Robin his first character shirt: Curious George. He’s a literary figure, after all!

Cars jammies hitched a ride in with my mother, and the nighttime Pull-Ups advertise Monsters Inc., Toy Story, Cars, and some pirate guy that Robin knows from a friend’s lunch box. He recognizes Angry Birds, though I hope he makes it to puberty without playing a video game.

The predictable thing about innocence is its end. Enter the real world, with its ads and influence. Sponge Bob toothpaste, and worse yet, commercial TV when we travel: Nickelodeon and its parade of cool commercials cultivating want. Can I really shut it out?

We all know that person who grew up not watching TV–the smart one with hippie parents. As adults they may watch TV but are just as likely to tell you (a little too eagerly) “I don’t own a television.”

(Incidentally, this is the whitest thing you can say that doesn’t involve golf or mutual funds.)

These pale, intellectually superior children were, of course, robbed of their pop cultural heritage. They don’t get your Monkees jokes and Brady Bunch references. Do I want my kid to miss this? To be a cultural outsider?

Or worse yet, might he gorge on his first exposure? Skip college classes to watch a Bridezilla marathon?

I’ve relented. We have Sesame Street T-shirts. We collect Cars like Jay Leno. We have enough Thomas the Tank Engine paraphernalia to open a small museum.

I’ve found smarter shows on PBS and Netflix, dodging commercials and letting the animated guys do a little teaching while they babysit. (For 30 minutes a day, anyway.)

And just as this happens, the next wave starts: Robin asks to watch music videos for Happy and What Does the Fox Say? The only thing scarier than lush-lashed kittens is real women with mascara, in music videos.

After all, who wants to eat carob-covered raisins?

Family, Human technology

Phone Free Sunday: The Ultimate Impulse Control

20131110-210604.jpgParenting a four year old is all about teaching impulse control.

I am patiently explaining to my son over a board game that he cannot scan all the cards to find the one that allows him to rocket his game piece ahead. This is Candy Land and there are rules here. He needs to draw cards blindly, and in order. He seems to be getting it when my phone buzzes with a text message from a friend, and I immediately pick it up to respond.

Smart phone. Dumb parent. With this much information and distraction at our fingertips, who can resist?

For a long time, Randy and I tried to ignore our phones from 6-8pm on work nights, but we quickly forgot ourselves. First came minor trespasses, like a check of weather or some Pandora on the dock. But as work bled into home life, we found ourselves answering e-mails after dinner or getting a quick RSVP off to a neglected friend.

No, Robin, you cannot get up from the table until you are excused. Now let me check Facebook quickly while you doddle over your broccoli.

In response to a recent and unexpected bout of bad behavior, we took a moment for reflection and revisited our own ground rules, priorities and bad examples. Life steers off the tracks periodically. We use these little bottom-out moments as a chance to reboot our parenting, and occasionally our personhood.

Our new idea this time? Phone Free Sundays. It is our family day after all. Why not strip away the distractions? We may place or receive a call, or even check the weather or hours for the museum or orchard or restaurant we plan to visit together. But otherwise, no texting, no social media, no e-mail, no web surfing.

skyWe feel a little bit Amish at first, and the day stretches out before us with a big sky sort of expansiveness. In practice, there is plenty to fill our time, and not the cleaning and errand running we reserve for Saturdays. There are art projects to conquer and meals to prepare. Plans to hatch and songs to sing. Bubbles to blow and train cars to push. Gardens to weed and trails to hike.

We have never been TV people, but I miss my little screen. It has become a sad sort of default for me. When I want to veg out, it is where I go now, sometimes instead of book. One night, too restless and zonked to read, I find myself watching snippets of Louis CK on youtube. He rants persuasively. You will never watch those videos of the moments you missed with your kids, he tells me. You shoot them to share on Facebook, but you aren’t actually there, living them.

Inspired, I turn off my phone. I actually power off the damn thing. I have the same feeling I got on those first screen-free Sunday evenings, after Robin was in bed and the house was quiet. Like a disembodied soul, unconnected. Randy went digital a couple years ago, so I am unequipped to read his books now, and too busy to get to the library for some paper ones.

Later, as insomnia hits, I resist the temptation to fire up the laptop and scratch the shell of this essay into my journal instead. You know, the paper kind. I think of all the ways my phone has made me dumb and dull. I can’t spell anymore, and my typing has gone to hell; auto correct has made me lazy. I don’t need to remember anything or search my knowledge banks to recall information when I have the worldwide web in my pocket. I am doomed to early onset dementia, preceded—I can only hope—by a good decade or two of bad spelling.

Still I am a lot better off than most. I am young enough to embrace the technology but old enough to have grown up without it. I understand boundaries and don’t hit up Zillow to see what my friends paid for their houses, or interrupt an intimate conversation to fact check on my phone. I have basic competencies that many 20-somethings lack. I can read a map, for instance. And calculate a restaurant tip in my head.

I can listen.

I want to raise Robin with this discipline, with these skills and sensitivities.

So I pledge to never put family life on hold, or even on vibrate. Instagram can wait. The only image I want to see is my son on his balance bike, following my direction to come in for supper, though he really wants to do another lap in the alley.

Human technology

Hello, Facebook. I am finally here.

IMG_0827How do I find myself using Facebook for the first time only now, at the age of 40? I’ve resisted this long not because I am antisocial but because I value my friends and wish to share details of my life selectively and intentionally, without a hint of the narcissism I fear fuels so much social media. Why start now?

A new smart phone greases the gears, and encroaching midlife inspires me to try something new. Now I find myself reluctantly scrolling through head shots like a casting agent. As an introvert, this feels wrong. I have close friendships, one on one or in small circles. I am shy, just like my young son.

It is only in raising him that my social circles have expanded: the neighborhood crew, the playgroup moms, teachers and parents of school friends. Add to that the close friends, colleagues, family and long distance friends, and we are into serious numbers. In the actual world, that is. I struggle to keep up with these people, and have always felt Facebook was a superficial time suck. I’d rather spend my time chatting over coffee.

Now I try to recreate these groupings on line. I hope to fly under the radar of casual school acquaintances, creepy ex-boyfriends and work clients, so I initiate my account using the last name of my husband, a name I never took and have never used in any other context. I also link the account to an old e-mail address and crank up the security settings.

Then the humiliation begins: Sending friend requests to other grown adults, most of whom have been using this technology for 5 or more years and have built enormous networks. I have 13 friends out of the gate and already my feed overwhelms me. All encourage me with positive comments on every family photo I upload. So I cast a wider net. Asking for friendship so overtly is unseemly.

Blank slate. I start slowly, as I might send invitations for a party: my closest neighbors and colleagues, dear and scattered friends from school, the few family members on this network. I only friend one person in each couple I know to avoid overlap. I have no ambitions of a triple digit friend list. I want to keep this meaningful.

As I follow my feed, I get a better idea. I begin to curate my network. I add colorful spouses. The earthy Quaker neighbor who will share inspirational quotes. The office vegan who will spike my feed with activist updates. And the arty architect down the street, who will surely share cool photos and invitations. I look to friends abroad: New Zealand, Germany, Israel and Italy, check. That should be good for global perspective.

My old techie boyfriend answers my friend request in real time chat. (Yikes! This thing is fully loaded.) My husband hates Facebook for its shallowness, but I post a comment on his page anyway: “Pssst, I love you.” Two people like it. (They can see that?) It is a bit like learning to drive in a crowded parking lot.

Still learning to use my phone’s touch screen, I accidentally send friend requests to a couple total strangers. One accepts immediately and her sardonic feminist posts populate my feed. I laugh so hard I almost wake my son. Yes, I am pulled over on a roadside doing this while he naps in his car seat. But it is only on my laptop at home that I can figure out how to unfriend her. (Is that rude?)

Many of my friend requests are ignored, possibly because of confusion over my alias. Or my profile picture, in which I wear a sloppy headscarf and fat wrap-around shades and am hugging my son in his rainbow wig. I try my best to not take these implicit rejections personally.

It is thrilling, though, this rush of connection and reconnection. But as I look at the pages of my true companions, I start to feel a little abashed by my low friend count. I want quality, not quantity, and I am pretty unfindable. There are some outliers, acquaintances with whom I’d like to connect, for social or professional purposes. I cannot comfortably approach them until I’ve reached at least 80 or 90 friends.  (Won’t I look desperate, like I am investing too much in my friend request?)

My son pulls me away from my phone, from my new obsession. (But Becky is messaging from London! And Mary Jane just realized it is me!) This is me, Andrea K—–, with 65 friends in Facebook and one eager little boy tugging my hand to go outside and play.

At night his bedtime stall tactics are of the “I need something” variety. I need water. I need blankets. And as he settles into a bed well padded with plush animals, he tells me “I need more friends.” I pitch another teddy bear and sock monkey into the pile. Me too, honey. Me too.