2017 - 2019 by Anran Li

This is the first post in several years. I’ve started and then erased these lines so many times that every new sentence feels contrived. The feelings I’m left with rush through the head and sit deep in the gut. They don’t come accompanied by words; just memories of having formed thoughts into words. I’m left with writings that could have been: potential stories about two very important years in my life.

I might have written about falling in love. A small boat being thrashed by the salty waves finds a temperate island and stays. Two amorphous shapes bind, expand, and glow. Water touches paper.

Or, I would have liked to write about an inability to communicate and understand. A heroic dream that ends from the perspective of the defeated. A stream of consciousness written in twenty nonstop minutes on The Most Dangerous Writing App. A post about unwritten posts.

My thoughts on ambition.

And meditation. Working part time from home and spending the rest living a life. I cooked so many delicious meals my mouth is drooling at the abstract idea of remembering having cooked so many delicious meals.

Is this turning into a food blog? by Anran Li

We are all lost in this world. I have learned this fact through the baked-egg-in-portobello-mushroom-in-salad I made this morning.

In our wandering, we are all collectors of opportunities. Most of our opportunities never amount to much, but once in a while we find a way to unlock the full potential of a simple thing. These opportunities take on many forms, from an unexpected conversation to an awareness of the Earth. And if your journeys often take you to the Whole Foods, an opportunity might come to you as a portobello mushroom.

This morning, I find the mushroom looking like a 10 in the refrigerator. I clean it, thinking I would make a mushroom and tomato omelet. However, I only have two eggs left, and I don't want to crowd the omelet with mushroom. I also didn't want to leave the mushroom in half. After some careful thinking, I realize I can bake the eggs inside the mushroom. I'm also out of tomatoes, so I line the mushroom with marinara sauce. To top this, I would place a piece of basil over the finished egg and mushroom. Only, I don't have basil so I reach for the bag of spinach. That's fine, I think to myself. I'll put a bed of leaves under the mushrooms and one above, like it's Fall and somehow all of the leaves are green. In this composition, one of the leaves falls on the mushroom. Beautiful. 

But eating spinach by itself makes your teeth chalky. Since I don't have any salad dressing, I made something out of soy sauce, cane sugar, and sesame oil. To balance the saltiness of the soy sauce, I cut some apple strips and line them over the spinach. Everything is fine now. Except that I have half of an apple leftover. So I open a container of yogurt and make a banana and apple smoothie. Perfect. Except now I have half a container of yogurt, so I mix it with leftover berries and Quaker Oats (of which thankfully you can use only as much as you need (which happened to be the rest of it)). 

The end result is not quite the serene mushroom-in-the-forest dish I had imagined, but by this time I was very hungry and needed to restock the fridge. Sometimes, we are burdened by opportunities, and we need to not take the path. I think the apple was the tipping point in this case. If I didn't add the apple slices, the spinach would actually would have balanced the earthiness of the mushroom by itself, and, well, nirvana. 

Ultimately, all we can do is take pictures with our mobile devices and write nice things about our lives. So here we are with baked-eggs-in-portobello-mushroom-in-salad... and it is so good.

Tangent thoughts:

  1. Shout out to Kunle Awojinrin for reminding me to update my blog! 
  2. Planning what to cook is difficult, especially coordinating ingredients. It feels like we need everything all at once. How is it that we need everything to be on hold?
  3. Imagine the missed opportunity for a fungi to fall from a tree instead of an apple. Opportunities are two-way.
  4. Spinach contains oxalic acid which will form a coat on your teeth. Incidentally, oxalic acid prevents absorption of iron, which defeats the purpose of eating spinach in the first place. Vitamin C breaks down oxalic acid, so eat your spinach with citruses.
  5. As I am finishing this piece, I'm eating an apple and thinking "wow. What if I had decided to just eat an apple for breakfast?"
  6. And now I am thinking about this ball of mozzarella I have in my refrigerator. 

Someday, I will grow up a little more and make this dish again without the apple slices. I will post a picture of the mushroom in the forest concept.

On Smoothies and Grad Students by Anran Li

Recently, I became a graduate student. This seems to mean many things. It means I now own a smoothie machine. Also, I am technically (probably only so) an adult. Expectations are raised and no longer met. Conversations demand purpose and order. I'm old and can't pull anymore triple-all-nighters.

But definitely exciting times. Especially the smoothie machine part. I purchased a smoothie maker made by Black and Decker, a company that is perhaps more well-known for its power tools. Imagine buying a Toyota-branded bagel - the bagel is reliable, affordable, and plain yet one cannot help but feel the pastry is somehow coated in automotive paint. After some great kale smoothies and subsequent discoveries of lactose intolerance, I began pushing the limits of what a smoothie can be. Today, I had an extra hour and did the unthinkable. I put fresh tuna and chives in the blender and made some fantastic sushi. This way, the tuna becomes a soft puree that melts in your mouth, and the chives, cut by hand, give it a fresh texture and taste. There are only nine pieces because this was my first time making sushi and I immediately ate the ones that didn't come out so well. They are arranged by height from lower-left to upper-right to give order to the inconsistencies in the cutting.

My life has certainly changed. This realization isn't sudden. It isn't an awakening as a result of the heavenly taste of the nine pieces of my immaculate work. Rather, it is more of a passive "Oh. I'm now finding the patience to spend two hours cooking. Therefore I must be getting older."

JK. I'm going to sign up for a meal plan. Cooking can wait.

Front: ネギ・トロ (Onions and Tuna)
Back: Bitter melon soup

The Beauty of Deleting Photos by Anran Li

Emptying out Google Photos may be the single most beautiful thing I have ever experienced.

Recently, I merged the entire family album online to Google Photos. Previously, we all shared an Apple iCloud account, and this resulted in every internet call ringing all of our devices at the same time. Using separate Apple accounts but one Google account lets us collect photos from all of our devices while keeping communication very clear. Google even runs algorithms on the photos so we can search for visual objects such as someone's face, Niagara Falls, a squirrel, or a specific hue of green. It allows us to navigate thousands of unsorted photos.

The most enticing part of this setup is that Google offers free, unlimited storage if you allow them to slightly compress the pictures first. I won't get into the technical details, but given current technology, this is an unprecedented deal given the quality of the compressed photos. I jump the gun at free unlimited storage and upload everything to be compressed, only for a small part of my brain react as though a tourist had forgotten to turn off flash while photographing an original copy of the Declaration of Independence.

After much deliberation, I switch to uploading at original quality. However, it turns out that the service would not allow you re-upload the photos. I would have to trick Google into thinking the photos were new by deleting all of the old ones. It seemed easy, except there was no fast way to delete all of the photos. (I tried deleting the Google Photos folder on Drive: this just makes it hidden from view.) Ultimately, one has to delete the photos hundreds at a time from the web interface. Being too ambitious with your selection will return an error.

Deleting photos is an odd feeling, even if you know the photos are coming back, or that they are stored safely somewhere else. It feels like you are deciding which memories are going to be forgotten. Thus, as I scroll through the photos app, deleting everything, it was as though my entire life was on rewind and being forgotten. Entire blocks were deleted before even being loaded, while some photos received a few milliseconds of glory between each scroll of the wheel.

Some people believe that your life flashes backwards in your mind right before you die, and I imagine this is how it must feel: A high speed, relentless purging of memories. Some photos are deleted with cold methodology, but others make you feel sorry for the tiny humans in the frame, moving towards oblivion. Still others require a triple mental check that the photos are indeed going to be restored afterwards.

After hours on end, the months and years roll by until I reach my childhood photos, the entire collection of which could be deleted in one go. It amazes me that the photos from the first ten years of my life take up as much memory as a single photo taken with my current camera - it seems to be the same way for older memories. I scroll through slow enough so that the thumbnails could load. I'd seen these photos many times, but I always react as though the photos are new.

Finally, the scroll bar stops. In one fell swoop, I select all of the remaining photos, delete them, and find a sterile, blank white page for me to start anew.

The Barber of Nagoya by Anran Li

This summer, I worked for a very creative and forward-thinking firm, Kotaro Horiuchi Architecture. More importantly, I lived in a small suburb near the Shigahondori station in Nagoya. This has been my first time living in Japan for an extended period, and I truly appreciated having the opportunity to explore by myself.

About a month after I settled in, I had already run into cooking problems, gotten lost on multiple occasions, rearranged my room several times, pulled an all-nighter at work, and learned what it was like to eat a bad raw oyster. During the height of the summer heat in Nagoya, I decided it was time to have my hair cut and, on my way getting lost to home, passed by a wildly adorable hair salon. It was a creamy warm orange throughout with white clouds tiled on a blue ceiling. 

After having worked for a month in a completely devoid white room by myself, this shop was so bright and colorful I must went into shock and stared at the storefront for too long. A burly men talking to his friend outside stopped his conversation and asked if I was alright. I asked if the shop was open and, upon hearing it was, walked in. As I learned later, Ballerina Salon is famous in Nagoya for its sustainable and safe practices, especially in hair perms. Each and every ingredient is thoroughly investigated.

Imagine the kind of people who would make a pumpkin-colored hair salon named after the only type of orchid that has a fragrance. The owners of Ballerina Salon were every bit as personable and kind as they were fashionable and knowledgable. The husband, Ito-san, had studied hair design in New York and Chile under some of the world's forefront specialists, and recounted how he had missed home when apprenticing abroad. The wife had also studied with one of the most famous hair stylists in Japan. After my hair cut, they took me to eat at a Chinese restaurant across the street, the first of many meals and adventures we had together.

Ito-san was an avid driver in his early years. He attributes his newfound kind and peaceful demeanor to his wife, a bubbly and spirituous woman who, with his husband, works long shifts. Apparently, Ito-san still occasionally goes speeding with his crew in a Lotus parked behind his studio. I saw it the first couple of times and never guessed it was his car. Ito is also a nature and BMW enthusiast. On two occasions, Ito and I drove various latest-model fuel-efficient BMWs into the mountains. I remember the first time Ito invited me on a "trip to the woods." I told my parents and they were so certain I would be kidnapped and sold. It occurs to me now that I forgot to tell them when I decided to go on the trip, which would explain how surprised they were to hear that I was hiking in the Japanese Alps with two strangers.

As I learned from our various trips, dinners, and talks, Ito believed in the world. Take, for example, the process of hair perming, where chemicals are essentially baked into your hair to keep it in a certain shape. Ito believes that there is a way for perms to be non-damaging and yet beautiful. His salon is full of innovative, natural products like baking soda shampoo for your babies and dogs, ionizing toothbrushes, and the like. When discussing politics or the environment, Ito always believed that we shouldn't settle for the lesser of evils - that a "good" solution was always possible.

The Ito family's positivity helped me through an otherwise potentially dark summer. Without going into details, the firm I worked for had been doing some shady business and borderline abused their interns. To put this in perspective, as one of my professors had warned me, many foreign architecture firms overwork interns and treat them poorly. That being said, the previous interns had elicited a formal investigation from the government, and as soon as news of my employment was posted on the Facebook page, the interns contacted me to warn me against working there. During my time there, five interns came and left. Only one intern, Mohamad from war-torn Syria, stayed because he could not risk flying back and could not afford to switch residences. When Ito found out about our situation, he was determined to help. He offered to find Mohamad an interim job in the fashion business, and contacted some lawyers to see what kind of action could be taken. Unfortunately, because these kinds of internships are informal and typically happen under vacation visas, it is difficult to make a case. 

I am unaware of what actions Ito did to help Mohamad after I left Nagoya, but in the end, Mohamad safely moved to Dallas, and the employer stopped taking foreign interns. I tried to adopt the healthy and positive outlook the Ito family had in life. For example, I started investigating natural alternatives to everyday products, using baking soda to shower and wash my hair. I also began working towards a healthier self and set a goal of 8 hours of sleep and 3 meals a day. To compare, I slept every other day and ate only one meal a day during my first year at Stanford. When I came back from Oxford, I weighed a mere 120 lbs. In less than a year after being inspired by this amazing couple, I had gained 50 lbs and run a half marathon. 

More importantly, I learned to bring this positivity to the way I solve problems, whether it is a design prompt or a conundrum in life. I learned to never settle for a solution that is less than what I think is right. True, we might never find a fully ideal solution, but we should not settle for existing ones simply because they are acceptable or standard. We should always believe and work towards a better solution.

That was a fairly dense blog, but I learned so much from this kind couple. [In hindsight,] it is also the only blog I wrote in 2014, which either highlights its importance or belies the fact that I've literally cut the amount of time I have to work on projects by half now that I sleep and eat every day.

Here is a picture of a pug I found on the same street as the Ballerina salon. No transition needed.

More pictures of Japan (link)


how i almost died with a pocket full of snickers wrappers by Anran Li

August 30. I almost died on Mt. Fuij. Rather than going on some dainty cruise around Mt. Fuji's lakes as planned, my coworker and I attempted to climb the mountain.  

Here's how it started. On the bullet train to Mt. Fuji, I read a wikitravel article on climbing Mt. Fuji. To be sure, Mt. Fuji is not a difficult climb, and the top is usually crowded during climbing season. As it happens, we were arriving in Tokyo on the last day of the climbing season - August 30. It seemed we just had to go, even if the website recommended proper gear and supplies (boots, jacket, water, food - none of which we prepared).  We planned to finish the hike in four hours (it was a 4 - 7 hour hike one way), so we decided to set out to Mt. Fuji at noon. We had some difficulty getting through public transportation, switching from Tokyo's subway system to private light rail and then finally to bus. But we managed to arrive at 2, and did some "preparation." (We bought some calorie bars and two water bottles for the hike.) Aaaaand we were off!

On our way up the mountain, we saw many people wearing full hiking outfits and carrying hiking poles, large backpacks, and even oxygen canisters. The further up the mountain we went, the less people we saw who were wearing T-shirt and jeans like us. It never occurred to us how difficult the hike was going to be , nor did the staring from other hikers bring any doubt to mind. It was only at 6:30, when the sun was starting to set, that we started getting worried. We were worried because we would miss the sunset.

At this point, we had reached the cloud that covered the top of Mt. Fuji. How was it like to be in a cloud? It was miserable. I forgot how fast clouds could travel, and the moisture, gravel, and wind quickly grinded the smiles off our faces. By 7:45, the possibility crossed our minds that we couldn't make it to the top. It was pitch black, the temperature dropped to 6 °C near the top of Mt. Fuji, and we were soaking wet, covered in grit, and out of food. That is when we saw some lights beaming down at us, like a lighthouse calling out to sailors at sea. We had reached the top! We clutched our teeth and made it to the lights, only to find that the lights were coming from a hotel 30 minutes from the top. At this point, all of the hikers on tours were wearing oxygen cans, flashlights, and thick, insulated hiking gear. I was still a bit clueless, and wondered why nobody was wearing a T-shirt... ... ... Just kidding.

So we finally gave up. The wind threatened to knock us off our feet. We were hungry and cold. Our jeans, soaked full of cloud, restricted our movement. We doubted whether we could even get down the mountain. In the dark, I used my phone's flash to grope our way down the rocks. We finally reached a hotel halfway down the mountain before a kind manager let us into his lodge. While he wasn't kind enough to lend us a towel or give us food, we were able to pay for a place to sleep. Rather, we huddled next to snoring hikers who departed at random intervals throughout the night. So yeah, not dying was pretty nice.

I later realized how important it was that we didn't attempt to climb all the way down right then, because there are no hotels at the base camp, and transportation is closed after 8 PM. Easily, we could have caught hypothermia had we not decided to quit. We would have been found dead  the next morning with several snickers bars wrappers in our pockets. (Snickers bars have lots of calories.) Incidentally, we actually didn't have enough cash on us and owed the hotel some money. A kind business man from India then lent us 10,000 Yen to go straight back to Tokyo by bus (our escape plan was otherwise very elaborate, and risky). 

But we made it! Made it back, that is. I still have hopes to summit Mt. Fuji, even though my toes, ankles, fingers, and pride were bleeding after the trip.  

There is a Japanese saying that a wise person climbs Mt. Fuji once, while a fool will climb it twice. The likely, and more accepted, meaning of this quote is that a wise person can understand and appreciate the beauty of Mt. Fuji in one taxing climb. I, however, have come across a new meaning of the quote.

More pictures of Japan (link)

20 by Anran Li

As I leave the confines of teen years, a gaping hole is terrifyingly located next to a pile of treasures. 

 At the bottom of the hole lies questions.  Although it's been said by every young adult, I still have to repeat; there's just so much uncertainty regarding the future. I am constantly worried I will become a mediocre, egocentric designer taking myself too seriously. I certainly never imagined myself pursuing anything other than an engineering or medical degree.

And yet there are great expectations from having already taken so many strides. I have an amazing group of friends who advise me, usually unsuccessfully, against making mistakes. They are the mirrors through which I meerkishly peer at myself. I could not do it without them. You guys know who you are. And, I could not ask for more understanding and generous parents - my best friends. 

I don't ever suppose this hole should ever be filled. We need somewhere to seek shelter and somewhere to look ahead.  Yes, there will always be an imbalance and imminent danger,  but at least there is that.

Always thinking.

Always thinking.

England by Anran Li

The nice thing about England is it looks great in any weather condition. On rainy days, look at gothic architecture. On sunny days, look at the classical. Then again, sometimes you can't tell whether go gothic or be classy. And that's not a problem because the architecture is quite mixed.