At First Glance
At First Glance was a project created over the course of two weeks when I decided to write introductory paragraphs for my friends as if they were characters in a novel. What first started with a few modest requests quickly grew into an almost unmanagable task: in the end, I wrote over ninety paragraphs. On a stylistic level, it was an interesting exercise to take what was essentially the same structure and twist it in a way that seemed fresh. It was always tricky to take the complexities of my friends and try and capture them in a single paragraph, but I had a lot of fun. Some of them ended up scratching the surface. Some went deeper. Some were irreverent, others serious. No matter what, in some way, I tried to tell the truth. So here it is: the complete collection of all these paragraphs.
"There was that saying - that life began outside of your comfort zone. It was a saying that was meant to inspire people to try new experiences so that they could reflect on their own life with newfound perspective. There were, however, people who seemed to permanently settle outside of that zone. Here was a woman who'd boldly leap into unexpected situations and achieve her comfort through connection - with her new environment, with the people in it, their customs, their culture - and embraced it all with open arms and little outward trepidation. There was more than a little fear inside of her, of course - but that made her all the braver for pushing on."
"She moved in for a hug and had the kind of smile that seemed to form the words 'Would you like some tea' without moving her lips. Of course, better lip readers would be able to divine 'You're gonna have some tea or else' from her expression instead. It was the kind of hospitality that wasn't an option, but all the better for it. Here was the kind of woman that would serve the tea hot, in a large cup, and with a healthy dose of conversation."
"She peered over her glasses in the way oceans peer over horizons - that is to say, dangerously in the distance. She spoke with the rhythm and melody of someone used to music, and moved in the same way. There was also something else - something less composed and more impulsive, carefully kept in check. That was the ocean staring back at me."
"The conversation was clipped and moved fast between the points, like a down-slope skier navigating between flags nimbly but at breakneck speed. It could have been self-consciousness, or simply a love of talking. Then, she nodded. It was the kind of nod that could snap a neck. She moved off. I was still trying to figure out what I had just said."
"Some people could point a finger at you without moving their body at all. Here was one of those people. She had the kind of expression that signified there were terms and conditions for the conversation you were about to have, but of course, you'd never get the contract."
"Her voice moved upwards, like it was forming a series of questions. She moved quickly in all ways - her legs were driven forward with speed, her feet planted themselves nimbly, and even her stillness was sudden. Her brain soared forward at a thousand miles an hour. Here was a woman who had to install brakes on her life for fear of moving too fast."
"My mother had once said that you can always trust on the kindness of giants. Of course, she was fooled easily: it's just that every smile seems gentle when looked at from below. But here was the sort of kindness that radiated downwards. The man's slightly lanky body didn't seem to be made for easy movement, but I caught the assuredness of his step and the gentle tapping of his feet. He wasn't fooling anyone: the guy had rhythm, and probably some blues."
"If muscle had a face, this is what it would look like. The face was smiling - it was the kind of smile that could only have been carved with a lot of exercise."
The shape of her face formed a half-smile even when relaxed, but her sunny predisposition had turned that smile into a self-fulfilling prophecy: she looked like she always smiled, which made the people around her happy, which made her smile in return. Whether she was truly perpetually happy was anyone's guess and probably untrue, but that she radiated it outwards was a certainty."
"She spoke with a voice that reminded me of silent movies, or rather of what I imagined silent movies would sound like if the actresses could have talked. Sultry, a little husky from late nights and deep conversations, peppered with cigarette smoke of days past and the alcohol of perhaps more recent nights. It wasn't just the tone - the articulation, the clipped words, the playfulness that masked whatever lay beneath it. It was the kind of voice that gave depth to everything."
"It was a questioning kind of expression, but the object of her puzzlement wasn't anything in particular. Instead, she seemed naturally curious and gravitated towards anything that could deepen her understanding of things. In that sense, she had a childlike sense of wonder, but it was tempered by the experience of disappointing answers. I suspect that was where the jokes came from - making boring people bearable."
"Some people were expert disarmers. They could remove the tension from any conversation, reduce anxiety or transform nervousness into a cheerfulness before you knew it. The girl in front of me had a lifetime of experience in doing so, and she might not have even been aware of it. Some people are so good at making you feel at ease, it makes you uneasy."
"Here was the kind of woman whose soul seemed to be holding its breath for fear of drowning. Not a fear of the world or even the people in it, but for empathy, and the depth of feeling, and the suffocation of caring. Exhaling would mean letting the emotion wash over her: swimming ashore and letting other people move past her was not an option. There she was then, perpetually on the precipice of feeling too much, steeling herself but remaining vulnerable in spite of it. It was admirable, and tough, and wondrous."
"I wondered if there was such a thing as a dexterity of the soul. It would be like dexterity of the body - fast moving, nimble, adjustable, capable of not just deflecting but incorporating outside force and using it to strengthen itself. Highly trained, frequently exercised, slightly battered but resilient, brawny, unapologetic, rising every morning against the gravity of the world. That was what I saw, or at least what I think I saw. She moved too quickly for a second glance."
"The man stood at the other end of the corridor, his silhouette dramatically backlit by the lights of the room. He greeted me from a distance, and then moved to grab something out of view. The shadow reappeared, and he beckoned me to come closer. In his hand I saw what appeared to be a towel or handkerchief. Not understanding, I moved closer and started speeding towards him. The corridor seemed to stretch endlessly into the distance. Finally, his figure grew in size, and the light caught both his face and the thing he was holding. In his eyes, I saw a manic, possessed look. In his hands, a muleta. ‘Olé,’ he roared. I charged."
"She stared at me warily. I realised that it wasn't a look that was specifically reserved for me - her mind seemed to have a safety pin for the world at large. After all, our planet was a pretty dark and scary place, but she had embraced it just the same. She gave the impression of living life fully but with some trepidation - which made her all the more fearless."
"His problem was that he was an artist but also a good man. The two rarely reconciled: his art thrived on isolation and being misunderstood, but he had someone to care for him, and someone who understood. Of course, he needn't have worried: struggling between a life of artistry and a life of fulfilment was an art in itself."
"She raised both the energy and temperature of her surroundings, an almost elemental presence that for its lack of abashment was precisely what was needed to liven up even the deadest of rooms. Here was the kind of laugh that inspired joy rather than reinforcing it; here was the kind of dance that created the music."
"I saw in his eyes the end of a long day and the gleam of an approaching evening. I recognised that gleam: it was the anticipation of adventures in mythical landscapes, underground caverns, cozy taverns and cold rainy castles. Mind you, it wasn't the gleam of an adventurer, or a warrior, or a survivalist. This, my friends, was the gleam of a nerd. Ah, I thought. A kindred spirit."
"I used to cry a lot when I was a baby. Worried, my parents took me to a doctor to see if there was anything wrong. The doctor assured them that I was perfectly healthy: I just didn't have the strength or stamina in my body to do what I wanted to do. I would never sleep; I would explore, and laugh, and taste, and talk, until I was too tired to do anything else. I wondered if this girl had ever been the same. Her complexion was slightly uneven, from periods of intense sunshine alternated by periods of rain. Her backpack was worn from use, and there seemed to be slight traces of mud under her fingernails, as if she had recently climbed a hill. Ah, I thought, a traveller. You don't have to cry when you're finally big enough to move, and explore, and laugh, and taste, and talk, and live, live, live."
"The man was ageless: he had been so blonde as to be almost white, which meant that his slightly greying hair was almost undetectable. He was timeless, in the sense that his fashion and possessions weren't indicative of any particular period. And he was alert in conversation, asking questions like a predator and answering them like prey; vulnerable and prodding at the same time. It's the kind of precarious balance that drives some men insane; others just become artists."
"If it looks like a jock and sounds like a jock, then why isn't it coming across as a jock? This man's looks got in his own way; neither his muscly frame or the angularity of his features played into his sensitivity and even self-consciousness. What gave him away were his jokes. They were too well timed - surely from a lifetime of perfecting them as self-defence rather than a form of attack. They put a musician in a jock's body, I thought to myself. Better than the other way around."
"Some people are meant to be birds. You can see it in their flighty movements and their furtive looks. You can hear it in the chirpiness of their voice and their laugh. They understand the wisdom of treating life lightly and escaping every now and then. She was like that; ready to fly at a moment's notice."
"It was too late when I realised that the man's nervous appearance was a finely honed trick. No person could fill a room like that and be actually intimidated by his surroundings. Instead, he wielded his anxiety as a distraction, had weaponised it to great effect and charmed the hearts of his friends. Goddammit. If I had known sooner, I wouldn't have had the world's most nervous assassin after me. I dodged another bullet and yelled out. 'Your shirt doesn't match your pants!' If I could keep him second-guessing himself long enough for his accuracy to worsen, I maybe would survive the night.'"
"I bet she wished the world was black and white. Not to remove the color from it, but to enhance its texture, and its lights and shadows, and to blend shapes in different ways. I bet that if she could, she'd fill them in herself, with colors not found in nature. I don't know why I thought she'd have different kinds of color to paint the world with: I guess it's because I got the sense even reality wasn't real enough for her. 'Closer,' she seemed to say. 'I want to get closer.' 'To what?' 'To everything.'"
"He played the guitar like a life depended on it. Not his own, mind you. Someone else's. Someone long ago who still heard him play every now when she passed by the park. People move on. Music doesn't have to."
"She was a case study in balancing acts, right between an open book and a closing door. She had the kind of smile that would easily tempt you into conversation, but talking to her was like talking to the forest at night. Your secret would be safe with the trees, of course - but the woods have deep memories."
"She was like a Friday. She wouldn't be the slow crawl of the Sunday, or the intimidating mountain that was Monday. She felt too distinct to be any of the days in between, but a Friday - that moment right before relaxation and letting go - that's what she was."
"She spoke fast, like she was trying to beat herself to her own punchlines. Pop culture decorated every sentence; her quotations had quotations. There she was, filtering, processing, giving answers with wit so fast it practically had sparks flying. There was a slight element of exhaustion, as if her brain was running too fast for its own good, but nothing would stop it, not even her."
"For a man who moved that fast, he was suspiciously late a lot. His rhythm was off-kilter - I reckoned it had to do with an offbeat life. After apologising, he sat at the table opposite me and we rubbed our hands in anticipation. 'Here we go,' he said, and he took a bite of the chicken in front of us. He chewed it thoughtfully for a moment. 'You can really taste how nice this is through the pain,' he said in reference to its spiciness. 'What do you think?' In response, I screamed with the terror of the devil itself."
"His tallness somehow seeped into everything he did - from how he picked up glasses to the way he spoke, as if from on high, although not so much judgmental as with a certain distance. He moved through moods like a chameleon changes colors, the pace of his words alternating between hasty and languid depending on the topic of conversation. His wit was dry as a desert, acerbic and prodding. One could almost be forgiven for thinking this man was cynical, but that would mean one missed the gleam in his eyes. When I caught it, it let me in on a secret: this conversation was a game we were playing."
"His words were like a carefully gift-wrapped package, delivered with the clarity and punctuality of a manager or a politician, but with none of the coldness. Certainly there was something calculated about the politeness with which he spoke, but it wasn't so much insincere as careful. I offered him a beer."
"It would not be untrue to say that she floated: she seemed lighter than the rest of the room somehow, and she moved between people like a leaf in the storm. It was not with or without purpose: there was no such thing. She wasn't the ending or start of a conversation, but the perpetual middle - she lived in each moment as it appeared. It was what freedom looked like, if you saw it the right way."
"He talked as if someone had hot-wired a computer to his brain, one of those dual cores that distributed processing power depending on the task at hand. He made an offhand joke about a television series while sorting a task list by priority, then shook my hand while gesturing for someone to approach with another. They said that there was no such thing as multitasking. They had clearly never met this man."
"There was something idyllic about postcards from the 50's, and something surreptitious. After all, that perfect time you saw in those old photographs never existed: it was carefully posed, but looked so precious and wholesome that you wished it did exist. It'd be nice if the fantasy was a memory, somehow. She reminded me of one of those postcards."
"It shouldn't be said he was eager to please - it was more that he felt obliged to. There was something permanently grateful about the man, as if he was let in on a secret that rest of us didn't get to hear. Probably, he was just good at taking it one day at a time, and realised that we were pretty damn lucky to be alive."
"Some smiles were like weapons, aimed carefully and with purpose. Others were a form of defense, trained reactions to defuse a situation. The most pure of them were unplanned and even unnoticed by the person showing them - the kind of smile that was involuntary to the point of innocence. They were rare and far between, but she had one of them and gave it away easily in passing conversation."
"I suspected that she was in a lot of photographs around the world, somewhere in the background of touristic photos of the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall, between the pottery roofs in Seoul or in a marketplace in Thailand. By itself, there was nothing particularly special about such a photo - inconspicuous as she was as part of the crowd. Taken as a collection though, you'd realise photos weren't a good way to chronicle the true existence of a modern nomad like her - you could only capture her as a moving picture."
"If everyone was born in their right time and place, how come people moved to find themselves? She was part of the land here, as much as the trees and the buildings and the music on the radio. She had made herself part of it, or maybe it had made itself part of her. No matter what, she was inseparable, and insurmountable, to and because of it. That's the music you hear in her bones: it sounds like home."
"His deep voice didn't match his boyish looks, and the genuinely warm smile on his face felt at odds with the slightly monotone phrasing of his words. Here was a man who could win big at poker and feel nothing; here who was a man who could tell you everything about himself but keep all of his secrets. He patted me on the shoulders. 'Hey man,' he said, 'I appreciate you writing this for me.' A look of heartfelt emotion briefly crossed his eyes. He didn't fool me for a second. I know a goddamn robot when I see one."
"Baudrillard once spoke of the simulacrum - the mirror image that was still there when the original had gone. It was the Vegas Eiffel Tower thousands of miles away from Paris; it was Chinese food prepared by a man who'd never been to China. The man's movements reminded me of it. That's probably because as he was driving his car, drinking his coffee and scratching his pants, I realised he had no car, no coffee and no pants. Fucking mimes."
"It's not that she controlled the room - it's that she was able to refocus it, like a lens. She was a prism; any light you shone at her split off into separate colors and was directed back at everyone else. She wasn't conscious of this process, I think, as a lens wouldn't be. But people liked the colors, so they shone a lot of light."
"Something gripped his voice a little bit whenever he spoke, like there was a pressure from within to send it out into the world. It's not that he didn't love conversation - it's that he loved it too much for it to go awry. There was a nervousness there, not at anything the world might do to him, but at anything he might do to himself. He'd trip himself up in an introduction and politely apologise for it, not realising that was the very charm that would set people at ease."
"It was the voice of intellect modulated by charm. Smooth but calculatedly so, with a hunger for other people's thoughts and a thirst for conversation. There was something burning there. Whatever the fire within him was - a passion for life, restlessness, a certain sense of isolation striking out - it was moving him and everyone along with him. Here was a man you'd follow even when neither of you knew where you were going."
"I was reminded of the high notes of a piano. Staccato, allegro, the funky rhythm on top of a steady bass. You needed to hit those keys hard to maintain rhythm and keep the song going. This was a woman who had found her music a long time ago and had kept playing it for all of its difficulty. Not difficult in the classical sense - there were no elaborate melodic lines, no transpositions, no sudden alterations. But the difficulty of maintaining that beat and feeling it every moment she played it - of making the minimal powerful - she performed that kind of life like a champion. She was rock and roll."
"Japanese kabuki theatre had something called Kumadori, which was stage make up consisting of brightly colored lines over a white foundation. Red for the heroes, purple for nobility, black for the villains and blue for the ghosts. The stripes would exaggerate the actors' features, turning their facial expressions into something more poetic and more real. Kabuki meant 'out of the ordinary', and she was like a kabuki actress to me, red and blue and black all at once. The lines were right there under her skin."
"She was indomitable, I knew. Not because I had ever seen someone attempt to subdue or dissuade her, but because she had a positivity of spirit strong enough to prevent any attempt to do so. Telling her that things couldn't be done was like arguing with the wind to prevent the storm. She spearheaded her life with that spirit, and one could either go along for the ride, or get out of the way."
"She was both the sculptor and the statue, and her favorite method of sculpting involved pressure. The pressure to succeed, to improve, to harden, to chisel the muscles and bones of her body into resilience personified. 'Resilient against what?' I vaguely wondered. Perhaps it didn't matter when the statue looked like this."
"She had slender fingers. It was an odd first thing to notice about a person, but it was the way she grabbed the coffee cup and moved it towards her that grabbed my attention. Her hand didn't so much take hold of the cup as lock around it, her fingers tapping down on the glass one by one rhythmically as she laughed at the conversation that was taking place. That was the thing about her: you noticed the details before you noticed anything else, because the details were what made her, and the small moments were what moved her."
"Some men are observers; they're blessed and cursed for being so. True perspective comes with distance, and there was certainly a distance there, a cerebral kind of mind that could keenly distill a situation with a view from the top. But he wasn't always up in the air, I knew - there was too much warmth to the man for him to be truly clinical. Instead, this was a man who often touched ground but didn't live there. The sky was a better place for the size of his thoughts."
"Some people choose to live their lives as a marathon, pacing themselves as they move forward with determination and stamina. They are the patient, devising strategies and life goals years in advance; their investments are deep, their rewards considerable. Other people are sprinters, flinging themselves into situations with wild abandon, burning up their energy for blazes of glory that will be short but bright enough for a long afterglow. It was rare that I met a person who was somehow both - but that's what she was, both the patience and the fire, burning but not fading, moving onwards and upwards with a smile."
"The dark side of capitalism, pentatonic scales, Zappa in a bathrobe, the rapid denunciation of most political ideologies, a 1960's record he broke from playing too much, a fight with any church he could find, smartphone allergies, dusty corners in jazz shops, check-ins with the past, the reappropriation of Marxism, ennui in the middle of conflict, fireworks, fireworks, fireworks... And there he was, with nothing to extinguish his thoughts."
"She was fragile in a different way - not like porcelain or glass, but fragile and furtive like a moment. If you'd approach her in the wrong way, you'd never really see her. And you needed to relax so she could too; you needed to speak softly so she'd return the favor. One could be forgiven for mistaking this behaviour for shyness, but her subtlety was a way of challenging the world. Failing to see it would mean missing something extraordinary; rising to it meant being rewarded with open arms."
"She wasn't fooling me. You could put a wild child in Ikea, make her buy pillows for the couch and coasters for tea, bestow her with motherhood, instill in her a sense of belonging, stimulate her academic interest, theorise about her future career and affirm her growing responsibilities and I'd still see the bonfires, the music, the cheek-to-cheek dancing, the sweat, the chaos, the deep crazy love and the twinkle of darkness in her eyes."
"He was responsible, they said, and orderly, and pleasant, and balanced, and interested, and light to the touch. Like a gentle stream, they said. But the earth around him moved and shook every day, and to be gentle in that chaos is no small feat. It required an undercurrent of bravery, determination, sheer single-mindedness and a modest kind of passion that was endless. In that sense, I never saw him as a river; he was a mountain to me."
"Some people were light for the absence of darkness: they were born with that light in their soul, smoothly making their way through their lives without much resistance, sanguine about their prospects, confident in who they were and who others were to them. But absence of the dark was not a real kind of light. A real kind of light had to fight to be there. It displaced tougher times to create new and better opportunities, formed love where there wasn't any before, and battled away to keep shining. For this woman, it had settled as the perpetual sparkle in her eyes."
"They had tried to train him, you could tell. They had tried to structure him, to conform him, to make him suitable for their purposes. But you can't take a musician away from his music, and you can't take a dancer away from his dance. Even when the conversation turned to that other part of him - the strings and arrays, the variables and assorted mathematics - the science seemed to be dancing across his face and resonated off the tip of his tongue like a song. He was an artist, and for artists, art was everything, and everything was art."
"Some people were born strong, but that kind of strength was always fickle because it had never been tested against the world at large. Self-made strength was different: it was less like rock and more like steel, forged and refined through years of vulnerability. From that kind of strength came conviction and tolerance and love - and if you could see beyond it, you'd see the fragility that necessitated its creation. Truly strong people would show you both, and so he did."
"His mind whirred and sparked like machinery, associating and cross-referencing everything in its path. There was a theory and a context for everything, and there was the sense that a larger thought would somehow connect the chaos of the world. It was an intellect that was to be respected and admired, but I knew it was easy to get lost in a mind like that. You could see it in him: thoughts flying too fast for the world."
"She was one of those individuals that recognised the theatre in everything. Yes, all the world was a stage, and all the men and women were merely players, crafting their own stories with little consideration for other people's perspectives. A courtroom was a theatre. So was a casino, and a supermarket, and a bar. What other people called 'rules' was nothing more than following a script, and she had known all along that there was no reason to follow any stage direction whatsoever - she'd rather live between the lines."
"Intellect was honed like a blade, and the sharpest blades were meant for battle. It was a battle to improve the lives of the people around him, but he knew very well how complicated the world and its citizens could be. He was therefore cursed with knowing that his battle was a losing one; the only differences he could make in others' lives didn't succeed in fulfilling his grander ambitions. But if he couldn't save the world, he might as well touch it, taste it and see it, or at least as much of it as he could. People who fought losing battles were heroes; people who toured the battlefield afterwards were adventurers."
"There were two men staring back at me in the body of one. There was that fiery eloquent gentleman, who sometimes drank a little too much and relished beauty and love and sex and the truth, and there was the other, who lived vicariously through other people's stories and submerged himself in them, always the observer, always alone. He reminded me of the poet who dreamt he was a butterfly but contemplated whether he was a butterfly who dreamt of being a poet. I stared back at the two men. Yes, I thought. He was a butterfly. And he was a poet. And if the dream was real, did it matter who the dreamer was?"
"I saw something familiar reflected in her: heartbreak from long ago that just wouldn't heal. We both knew a sad but valuable truth, which was that you never truly recovered from extinguished love - you just got better at handling it. And why not? 'Forget your pain' was a sentence uttered by cowards. Embrace it. Feel the love as deeply as you once did, and move your fingers across the sharp edges of memory. As you get better at tracing your path, it hurts less and less. You'd keep yourself open. You'd press down more deeply and feel the texture of your experiences. She knew that touch well - and with that knowledge came wisdom and fearlessness."
"The laws of general relativity hold that time travel can only be done into the future - which we all do, at a regular speed. But make a person travel at a high enough velocity and he'll indeed travel faster into the future than others, as his clock would run slow relative to people who are still. I wondered why the man in front of me reminded me of such theories. Something in his smile or eyes, perhaps, or his voice - almost grandfatherly for a man so young - felt like the past century staring back at me. He seemed like a man who'd rather check a pocket watch than a phone, who'd waste away an afternoon with ease, who'd slowly move the pieces on a chessboard. Some of us are born too early. Others, too late."
"It seemed a little obvious to call her Amazonian, for she was tall and slightly broad-shouldered, with attractive facial features that were somehow both sharp and soft. There was, however, that other less definable thing about her that was similarly regal, a presence that seemed immediate and substantial without drawing attention to itself. Curiously, she seemed to almost want to mask it, taking another drag from her cigarette while listening intently to the group conversation, remaining silent throughout and leaning slightly back into the chair for a diminutive effect. Ah, I thought. The curse of a powerful woman."
"I was always amused at people who didn't know how to deal with a blessing. There she was - tall, striking, athletic and captivating in appearance - but none of her prepossessing features could divert attention away from her somewhat ungainly movement (she really was tall), her self-effacing laugh and subtly fragmented way of speaking. Without presuming too much, I did imagine a shy, bookish, awkward girl growing up and realising in horror that she was becoming beautiful."
"She lived her life at a high velocity, and burned through her days and nights like she was running out of life to live. It was impressive that she managed to do this while feeling every moment deeply and thoroughly, although it did not make for a gentle existence. And it was easy to admire and be seduced by that kind of passion, but the restlessness that was driving her forward and straight through other people's hearts had a dark engine. Perhaps, I thought, that was what all wild souls were: individuals who in their youth already saw the end coming, and acted appropriately."
"His mind was well suited to numbers and variables, and he was artfully skilled at connecting systems and structures to fashion the disorder of the world into something more elegant. But from the way he took a drag of his cigarette, you could tell that something else had seeped into his life; something darker, and more sinister, and less likely to be captured and put in its place. 'Probably love', I thought."
"As a person, you were supposed to swim upstream in the river of life; it's just how it was. And even if at the end of your day's struggles you somehow managed to get what you wanted, you could feel that river begin to drag you away again. All of it was a fight: getting smart, looking good, meeting people, having friends, falling in love, and basically getting a hint of the satisfaction that was promised to you when you were young. This was true for everyone I knew, or had known, or would ever know, except for this guy. This motherfucker swam downstream."
"When I was a child, my father had made me a spaceship. He had repurposed an old wardrobe, removed its planks, flipped the whole thing on its side and filled it with machines to form a cockpit staring out at the moon. They weren't real machines, of course. My father was a handyman, and so he had taken pieces of cardboard and spraypainted them with a coating that looked like steel, then sanded them to remove the imperfections. For all intents and purposes, it looked like metal, and in my imagination, it certainly was. Most of us start out our lives with cardboard hearts: malleable, flexible, open for others to help shape. Many of us, however, have to suffer through darker chapters and replace our cardboard with steel: the mere appearance of hardness has to give way to actual rigidity. This doesn't make life more pleasant, but certainly more bearable. But the process doesn't happen overnight: at our moments of crisis, we are faced with the decision on what to do with our pain. Many choose the steel, but some take the same old material and spraypaint it, polish it to remove the imperfections, and secretly keep our cardboard hearts - and those people still know how to fly."
"It wasn't any one thing, I later recalled. It probably wasn't her eyes, that hopefulness and openness surrounded by hints of crow's feet from years of laughter. It wasn't that laugh, loud, melodic and joyful, or the singsong voice that carried warmth into every room she entered. Or her expression, that intoxicating mix of fragility and strength that seemed to have settled on her face like a portrait. She was clumsy but moved gracefully; she was quiet but talked loudly, and she was forever a little out of reach. By themselves, none of those things about her stood out to me, but together they had manifested into the woman she was, and would forever mean the world to me."
"He sprinted through the conversation and jumped over its hurdles with Olympic dexterity, navigating its subjects with speed and finesse. The conversation moved from the current political climate to landscape photography to the finer points of whiskey to the intricacies of microbiology. For all its momentum, there were the occasional pauses in our tête-à-tête: moments of reflection that indicated we were aware of our velocity. Why were we moving so quickly? The contents of our talks seemed to dictate their pace: when we talked slowly, we reflected on the past. And when we talked quickly, we were trying to move faster and faster into the future. That's what an agile mind did when it was trying to run away from itself."
"People could influence you like music; some were rock and roll, those nebulous individuals that skirted through society without much regard for its conventions. Some were classicists, seeking wisdom in older forms of living. Some were punk, or blues, or jazz. But meet enough people and you would realise that, like popular music, you could often broadly categorise them into those hits you'd hear on the FM as you were driving home from work. They would be invigorating or lawless or stylish or formal, but rarely were they soothing in the way that this girl was. She was a lullaby; you wouldn't hear her on the radio, but she contained within the kind of music you'd only hear at home, in the comfort and safety of family, and the only voice you'd want to hear before you fell asleep."
"He was of the east and the north, and it took me a while to reconcile his seeming contradictions. He was keenly intellectual with a fascination for nature and the political arena, yes. I knew men like that. And there was that other part of him, always in pursuit of the spiritual, the sustenance he needed to quench his thirst for meaning when the material world had disappointed him yet again. I knew men like that too. But none of those men had a penchant for desolate temples and the subtleties of hiragana and Scandinavian skies and icy winds and shin bukkyo. There were patterns there, I realised; a motif that told a simpler truth underlying his complexities. For all the convolutions of his thoughts, the thing that he loved most of all was grace."
"There were, of course, limits to the life you could live; people's passions only extended as far as their stamina would let them. Artists burned out because they wanted to feel it all, everything, in each moment, and give shape to those feelings to create their art. And the bigger your stage, the bigger your life needed to be to fill it. Those who failed could succumb to depression or even madness, and even those who succeeded might fall to the fatigue of living that way. Artists were athletes. And this woman, whose voice outsized her body by considerable margin, with delicate features and the huskiness of the ritual smoker, was Herculean in her efforts. Her fire was her art, and her toughness preserved that fire every day."
"Bright lights and cityscapes would call her, as would parades, and the water, and morning cappuccinos, and the kind of vistas that would look good no matter which lens you pointed at them. She was like that too: effortlessly photogenic, cosmopolitan, and with an acid wit that would cut through your conversations with disorienting speed. But the glamorous have to keep their distance to the people around them; partially it's because their attraction invites disruption, from would-be lovers or jealous friends or even passers-by who wanted a taste of the glory. There was, however, also a more important reason for that distance: vistas can only become vistas when you see them from afar. I suspected that up close you'd discover a different kind of view, something equally alluring - but you'd never get there. She was to be admired from a distance. It didn't matter. Her life was big enough to fill that canvas anyway."
"I loved checkers. I knew that chess was a strategically superior game with advanced tactics, different roles and a deep history, but checkers had speed. Not the forced momentum of speed chess, but an in-built velocity that was the only natural way to play. Moving those disc-shaped pieces across the board resulted in a satisfying rhythm. Move. Move. Hit another piece. Hearing the wood slamming together with each decision you made was as satisfying as finally bringing your pieces together. And as you progressed into the end-game, everything would speed up even more; you'd be racking up the hits at such a breathtaking speed that you'd forget winning was even the point. The rush was in the chase. I knew this man had the strategic insight and patience for chess, but goddamn, it was good seeing him play his life like checkers."
"By the late nineteenth century, the British had essentially deified the concept of gentility; more than respectable manners, it had come to represent a way of life that was reflected in their social events, literature, and educational institutions. It was, however, partially enforced from above. Victorianism was obsessed with behaviour, and the English gentleman was a paragon of that obsession, so it was something that people aspired to be. It's therefore sometimes difficult to separate the conformists from the true believers, and that distinction is important; the former were conventionalists who boringly fulfilled their obligations to society, but the latter were virtuous even in the face of mockery. Their code of conduct wasn't limited to ballrooms or receptions: if they had to, they'd dress to the nines while taking a stroll through the ghetto. I imagined a fourteen year old kid in some high school dressed as if he was forty, and no matter the call-outs or insults or sandwiches thrown his way, he would dust himself off, nod politely and move on. It was, after all, the gentlemanly thing to do. This man had something better than bravery: he had bravery with style."
"We were all products of our environment. Some of us blossomed within them; meanwhile, others resisted their influence throughout their lives. And once in a while, a person would come along that would shape their city in the way their city shaped them. So take your dual cultures of west and east, decorate them with graffiti, dress them up in your darkest clothes, knock on a door at midnight and give the man your password, eat your breakfasts vegan, drink too much black coffee, browse through shops that don't sell anything, buy fourth-hand furniture and wink at the decaying remnants of a wall - you will feel the city's past and present. Then have this woman take you by the hand, and feel its future."
"The man didn't age. I didn't mean this in the obvious sense; yes, his features were well preserved and he'd always confuse the dating of a photograph, but beyond that he had a constant presence about him that was impressively casual. He made it seem like staying young wasn't hard work. I realised this probably annoyed the hell out of certain kinds of people, who awoke early in the morning for yoga sessions and breakfasts featuring kale, but I loved it, and it also proved something important. 'Youth is wasted on the young,' the old and bitter said while trying to reclaim some former glory, but they were missing the point. People who tried to be young could never be it, because youth was defined by its playfulness and lack of care - paradoxically, its only constants. You could never try to be young, but you could try to be something else. You could be a parent, a loving husband, a teacher and a caring son, but no matter which responsibilities life bestowed on you, if you could still laugh at fart jokes, get excited about a Super Mario game, do silly voices in front of a hundred people and stand in awe of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you wouldn't have to find your youth. You'd simply rediscover it, every day."
"Tremble, you mortals. Fiercely intellectual, interested, witty, caring, empathic, sensitive, prodding, principled, athletic and stylish: iIt was easy to resent a woman like that, or stare in disbelief at the perfection on the surface. This was especially true because her projected image wasn't done out of any self-conscious effort to impress others; such vanity was foreign to her. The people that knew her, however, were aware of the caveat to her personality - she was always trying to impress herself, and she was terribly hard to please. That kind of fire tended to not only light up rooms but burn the person wielding it in the process. And because all people carry their contradictions, you knew that her resolve was always mixed with her unbound curiosity, which meant that she would look left, right, and behind her while marching steadily onwards. It was exhausting. It was impossible. And it was incredibly, incredibly impressive."
"His understanding of the world essentially contained within it three levels. The first level was empathic: people were emotional beings, with basic needs like food, sex, shelter and love (or, if they couldn't have that, respect). On this level, the man understood that people were basically animals, but given enough care they could develop into something more. The second level was analytical: the world was a difficult, contradictory place with power structures, political ideologies, psychological profiles and societal enigmas, and here the man understood that he could apply a plethora of theories to further his comprehension and consolidate its inconsistencies, utilising his considerable knowledge to do so. The third level was cynical: you could throw a thousand theories at the world but it would still just be the world, inscrutable, indomitable and uncaring. Theory was your own perspective projected on others, not a deeper truth of their lives. So what remained was a concept: the skeleton of what the lives of others were - and to describe that, and bring your own flesh to it, and bleed while doing so, you needed to be a writer.
"Spare a thought for the open-hearted, those poor souls that think the best of people, who embrace them for all their faults, who get crushed for doing so but wake every morning with a song in their heart regardless. Spare a thought for their softness, their warmth, their respect for people's differences. It's not easy to live with an open heart - people can reach in and grab it, twist it and hurt it, or even replace it with their own when you're not looking. But none of that would stop him, because a heart that was sealed away could never grow, and the growth was all that mattered. You could see it wherever he walked; by now, his heart was beating outside his chest."
"She marched more than she walked, heading steadfast in a direction of her choosing. You'd fear for the person who stepped in her way when she did so; rarely could you see determination so singularly focused in someone's footsteps. It wasn't a movement rooted in protest or strictness, but simply the most effective way to move forwards while being sleep-deprived, carrying a baby in your arms and trying to mind the traffic. But the thing about marches was that they inspired people to line up in formation - and her friends and family would follow her anywhere, even when she didn't know where she was going."
"You wild child, out of the country into the city: reading poetry, discussing literature, drinking too much, dancing 'til dawn, falling in love with the dark. I bet you woke up feeling confused all the time. Fast-forward. Skate through the streets, snowboard down mountains, surf on the waves: that's you too. Push yourself up, wear yourself down, tire yourself until you fall asleep at night. Yeah, you pack punches, and you're smart, and you're tough - but you can't beat that artist out of you."
"She would wait to see which way the wind would blow; the constant look of anticipation in her eyes revealed at least that much. Yes, her charm was effortless, with an easy manner and optimistic beat to her conversations. But there were other moments, when she thought no one was looking, that you could see the realisation play out on her face. There she stood, outside in the rain, seeking shelter under a roof as she puffed away the last remnants of her cigarette. The thought was singular and devastating, and as short and simple as could be: it was no use to try and see the wind blow around you when you were the center of a storm."
"He was a man who stood between two worlds, which of course meant that he was a walking contradiction. I remembered him well - his gregarious personality, his tastes for late-night parties and incendiary conversation. Then he moved. I wondered about the parties in Jeddah, a city that was well known for its luxury resorts. But like the man itself, the place had different faces: it wasn't just a playground for material pleasures, but also the gateway to Mecca, the centre of the Muslim world. As such, that city represented the end-point of each person's hajj, their spiritual journey. Had the man started on his own personal hajj, and had it taken him to Jeddah instead? If so, did that mean he was still underway?"
"Cut to this man. Zoom in on his life. Fade in to reveal his dreams and pan to his passions. Focus on his future. He storyboards his plans, frames his goals carefully, then shoots for the moon, tilting the lens of his life upwards. That is his life in motion: impressive from any angle."
"There had been a day. I hadn't been there when it happened, but I knew there had been a day when life had changed for him. That instantaneous whiplash left traces invisible to the people who hadn't gone through such moments, but it was there to see for those of us who had. Whatever had shaken him up had spurred on his artistry and slowed down everything else (such is the fate of all musicians), deeply imprinting itself upon every chord he played. I never asked what happened. It didn't matter. What was still left of it was him, and all the days after."
"She thinks there’s freedom in a life unbound. That’s why she tunes in her days to rock and roll and sleeps at odd times and yells to the world. It’s why she poses nude for photographs and winks and experiments with love like it was a science. It’s why she uses her words as weapons and curls up beneath her blanket and cries and laughs and breathes deeply. She was crazy, and impossible, and thoroughly artful: vivid colours, no straight lines. Such a pretty picture, but you could never put a frame around it."