Issue 019
May 11, 2018

Meditation & Blisters, Money on Medium, Parents in Japan

My parents arrive in Japan in a few days. I have lived here, mostly, for the last eighteen years of my life. They have never visited. Not once. This is their first trip to Japan. First trip to Asia. They are petrified, but curious. I grew up in a small, blue collar, airplane engine factory town. A tiny house, one bathroom, packed with three generations of hard workers.

Kumano Aframes

Fine Fettled Explorers —

First some notes on Kindle hardware design, making money on Medium, Instagram fatigue. And then below: A longer essay on walking and meditation during my solo Kumano walk in March / April.

Bonus link to a weird YouTube video I made waaaaay at the bottom.

As always, if none of this interests you, if my voice drives you bonkers, if my linkage sends you screaming into pillows, click-away, click-away, click-away: unsubscribe.

My parents arrive in Japan in a few days. I have lived here, mostly, for the last eighteen years of my life. They have never visited. Not once. This is their first trip to Japan. First trip to Asia. They are petrified, but curious. I grew up in a small, blue collar, airplane engine factory town. A tiny house, one bathroom, packed with three generations of hard workers. I was the first person in my family to go to a “proper” University (my mother graduated valedictorian of her community college ten years after high school, having worked at said airplane engine factory, finally deciding to become an elementary school teacher). I am certainly the only person in my family to have lived abroad — to have had the means to live abroad. And so it dawned on me, just a few days ago, that this is more a trip about them seeing just who the heck I am — what kind of life I could possibly be living, why I could possibly have chosen this country as my home — than it is to see Japan.

I’ve planned an unorthodox, deep cuts tour of the country. I’ll be guiding them for two weeks. I hope they enjoy it. You can bet you bottom yen, pizza will be had.

Best of Kumano

A cafe with a view of the waterfall

I made a Google Map — The Best of Kumano Kodo. It’s the best Kumano stuff I’ve found. I love Google Maps. I think Google Maps may very well be the most unintentionally additive, positive, high-signal social network in the world, with no dreadful dark pattern attention hooks.

My review of Pit begins “Let me ask you this: Are you prepared to give your life for Omelet Curry?” and my review of the Cafe with a View of the Waterfall just gets right into the weird, and my review of Ama Ai posits: “Say you were on death row (framed, innocent, a kind but duped soul) and upon said death row you were to die. Tomorrow. And those executioners said, Your final meal may be chicken curry and chicken curry alone.”

(Death and curry seem to be recurring review themes.)

Yale Publishing Course Update

I wrote in the previous newsletter that I was lecturing once again at the Yale Publishing Course. I love it and highly recommend it if you’re involved in the publishing world and want a week of mind-melding with publishing folk from around the globe. I forgot to mention I’m lecturing at the books portion (not the magazine portion). So sign up for books if you want to hang. And my 15% discount code still works (until May 15, I believe) — YPC2018MOD.

Medium and Dollar Bills

Kindle interaction diagram

I published an essay called “Reconsidering the Hardware Kindle” on Medium the other day. I published it as a “subscribers only” article. Which means any subscriber claps were transmuted into cold, hard, American bucks. Shall we discuss those economics?

Now, I concede that had I named it something more … erm … catchy, it might have done better. But even still, it was picked up by, Daring Fireball, Six Colors, and Hacker News. I hadn’t intended it to have such a reach. It was something I wrote up because my Oasis was driving me a little nuts. (But Craig, you say, didn’t you give up Kindles? Sort of — I almost always carry one now in an effort to subvert looking at my smartphone whenever I have downtime. (Replace habits, etcetera.) It’s working. (Also, better for hiking.))

Regardless of my poor naming, the piece had 25,000 readers with 274 fans giving me 1,800 claps. That was transmogrified into $182.15. About $0.007 / reader, or $0.10 / clap.

This is about what would pay for a blog-ish article. But comes with far greater reach and infinitely more cultural cache. It’s tricky. Is the Medium model a good model? I mean, on one hand it’s amazing that I got $180 for that random piece. On the other, there’s no way I could make a living doing this, and the chances of another article getting 25,000 readers is low. This particular piece was an aberration in terms of attention getting, and I only got that attention because of who I am and what I’m known for — writing about digital book stuff. In other words, this was a bit like using a cheat code.

Traffic-wise: Hacker News was the highest referrer after direct access (7,000 uniques). Next was, at about 1/2 of Hacker News’ traffic, and then Daring Fireball, which surprisingly only delivered 1/3 of Hacker News.

Ev was profiled in the New York Times; nothing particularly new there. But they snuck in a link to a little manifesto of his, which, oddly, wasn’t published on Medium, but rather as a PDF.

Publishing is hard. Sustainable publishing is harder. Creating a platform for universally accessible sustainable publishing is, perhaps, impossible. And so while Ev is getting a lot of flack for chopping off various Medium appendages — people, publications (rightly so; these changes could be done a wee more elegantly, respectfully), I do think it’s laudable that he’s trying to engineer a better place for sustainable, non-ad driven writing … even if that platonic place may not exist.

Insta Series

Solor room, laundry, Kumano Kodo

I finished my #kumanostuff series, having followed my #kumanomirrors and #kumanosolorrooms and #kumanolaundry series. All collected under #notkumanokodo.

There is a growing weariness I feel around Instagram. Do you feel it, too? The feed is now chockablock with ads. I would love a fast, mobile friendly, photo based community that I can pay for, but also allows onlookers to participate for free. Something almost like Instagram, but with a chronological feed, and a no-ad option. You know — a real image-based community. Flickr was that ten years ago. Instagram was that, but now seems to be sliding away. Stories are clearly the most important part of their business model in terms of monetizing attention going forward. I’d love a story-free home for photos.

Can Flickr come back, reborn, like some 24-bit full-frame flaming phoenix? That would be swell, wouldn’t it. (Holding my breath, I am not.)

On Margins — Jason Kottke

Solor room, laundry, Kumano Kodo

Jason and I chatted about his 20th anniversary of I pulled out some highlights: If were a Book. You can listen to (or read) the whole episode here. And as always, can subscribe on iTunes.

I’ve decided to cap On Margins at ten episodes and call it a season. I like the idea of seasons. I have another episode recorded — 006 — and so will do four others after that, coming to an end towards the fall.

Phew, did you make it all the way down here? Now for the meaty essay portion of the newsletter:

Vipassana vs. blisters

Kumano Tree

In the end I covered about 130km over nine days. Much of it was captured on Strava. And through those 130km I had many moments of heightened awareness of breath or mindfulness as you might expect. But there were two especially torturous stretches during which the full power of vipassana’s distancing from, and observation of, sensation came into play.

On the 29th of March the temperature rose to a ridiculous 31C. This is unheard of in March. Neither my socks nor boots were summer socks or summer boots. My pack was heavy because of all the photography and computer equipment I was carrying. And despite having worn my Danner boots for eight years without even the slightest hot spot — never mind blister! — I found my heels to be warming up quite a bit.

On the 30th of March — which consisted of one of the biggest climbs of the walk, over Obako Pass — I was about a kilometer into the ascent when I realized my feet were bleeding. My heels were a mess. The previous day had worn them down, but this second day ripped off all the skin. I had blister bandages in my med kit, though they were old, never used, “expired” in 2015. I sat on a log, tried to clean up the heels — they looked like a burn victim, freshly butchered red meat — taped them up, trudged onward. A few kilometers later it was obvious the bandages were failing me. The heels were raw once again. I was out of luck.

Did I go back? No, that would have been too sensible. Though I’ll never do justice to the pain I felt in the moment, let me try. Each step on the ascent — of which there were roughly FIFTEEN THOUSAND — set off a blinding white firework of pain in the center of my skull, as if someone was taking a red hot spoon and gently pressing it into the back of each eyeball. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. Every. Single. Step. And so I … meditated my way up the mountain. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. Oh, that’s interesting … BOOM. BOOM. … that I am sweating in ways I’ve never sweated before … BOOM. BOOM. … from body parts I didn’t know could sweat … BOOM. BOOM. … like my tortured feet are trying to expel the pain through water and salt and tears from every pore.

And so it was, I performed some disembodied observation of the physiology of acute pain all the way up. I could not have done this had I not completed my ten day retreat last year, or my three day refresher just before the walk. It was weird: All that pain, and yet seeing it from the third person.

I’d never in my life been so happy to arrive at a mountain pass. The walk down was a piece of cake. My heels were mercifully saved on descent, but every now and then my foot would twist ever so slightly on a rock, pressing the boot into the open wound, eliciting a bolt of pain so intense I could only laugh — scream laugh, shock tempered by perverse delight, an atavistic bleat neither sad nor angry nor happy — at the ferocity of it. Christ was that what I felt every step up?

Halfway down I ran into a couple coming up from the other side. We chatted for a second before the woman, Sally, asked me — Hey are you Craig? They were on the walk because of Koya Bound. And one of their colleagues (a Roden subscriber, Hello!) had told them I would be walking when they were walking. They were on the end of their trip. I told them about my feet, mainly because I was both embarrassed and crestfallen, worried about my ability to finish the walk that had just begun. Here, Sally said, opening her pack. She pulled out bundles of tape, blister packs, and bandaids. Take them, she said. We’re done. We don’t need them.

And so I did. And had I not … I don’t think I would have been able to walk the next day. That tape — those packs — saved my feet. For the town I stayed at that night — Miura Guchi — was at best a ghost town, no pharmacy in sight. Average inhabitant age around 70. I bought a tiny sack of rice from a man who looked like he had shed his skin some thirty years ago, and I was talking to the skin, not the man.

The next morning when I set off — feet wrapped in beautiful, stretchy bandages — the ascent still hurt, but by the end of the day things were fine. And by the next day it was no problem at all.

So thank you! Sally (and Francesco). You saved my tootsies.

The second invocation of meditative superpower came during an ascent of Dogiri-zaka, or “body cutting slope.” This was on the last day of walking, between the sleepy mist covered Koguchi and Nachi Grand Shrine. My feet were essentially normal by this point.

This Dogiri-zaka is considered the hardest part of the Nakahechi route of Kumano Kodo. And it is tough, and long, and somewhat relentless. I had walked it before, with Kevin and Hugh. You just power through. What makes it especially spirit crushing, though, is that it looks like it goes on forever.

So I made a plan. This was my plan: I would not look at my watch, would not look up, would do nothing but keep my gaze on my feet. I would breathe and look at my feet and climb step by step at a consistent pace. I would invoke that disembodied third party view of the self so strangely available once you’ve done vipassana. And so I did. And the whole ascent became a trance — step by step, breath by breath. Everything faded away. On a step by step basis any ascent is as simple as any other. How many steps were there? I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I had one step, and then another step, and then another. Never looking up. Always down.

My mind went to strange places. Opening lines of books appeared and reappeared. I was in the forest and yet wasn’t, was somewhere else, both inside and outside of myself. Step by step. It was easy, so easy, the easiest I had ever walked up until that point. And then, just as suddenly as it began, the steps stopped, the ground eased, the path became flat. Post-ascent flats feel miraculous, a gift from the mountain. After walking what I considered was an acceptable amount of flatness — an amount that convinced me I had passed Dogiri-zaka, I looked at my watch — over an hour had disappeared, and I looked up, and the hill was indeed gone. I ate some celebratory chocolate, and the rest of that day was a breeze.

That’s it for this Roden. I already miss that walk dearly, and am planning my next few.

For now, here’s my sage advice:

Disconnect for an hour. Read an entire book in an single day. (I just blew through In the Distance — worth your time.) Take your next meeting on a mountain. Ignore the news for a week. Do a headstand (watch that neck).

Until next time,

p.s., For those curious about how this newsletter is put together on a technical level, I created what must be the least interesting YouTube video in the world. It’s a screencast of my mailing list production process, using Hugo to generate the templates that are then used to publish this. Take a peek, if you dare. I was just getting over a cold and had lost my voice for a week. I did one run on this as soon as I had a semblance of a voice. I was slightly loopy on cold meds. It could be much shorter and less rambling, but it will give you a sense of how nonsensically complicated the production miracle of Roden really is.

p.p.s., I received some shocking/appalled emails that I hadn’t disclosed that my Amazon links are affiliate links. Apologies. I assumed everyone assumed all Amazon links were affiliate links. All mine are. The several tens of dollars they generate go straight to coffee which then goes straight to troubleshooting Hugo in order to publish this thing. So thanks for your generous understanding and shopping!

Kumano garage