Thinking about the ways in which I’m constantly dying

It’s really strange to acknowledge this, but I’ve just finished my first month working at Duolingo. Before I started this job, it was hard for me to visualize what working would be like. The fact that it was going to be such a new environment, and even the idea of working full-time (with no definite stop date, for the first time in my life) actually made visualizing the transition impossible for me. When I tried to imagine what working would be like, my mind would literally just come up blank.

This has happened to me at other times too, basically whenever I’m anticipating something very new or foreign, for which I’ve had little context for. For instance, I could not imagine what the Dipabhāvan retreat would be like—I’d never had an experience that I felt like I could base my expectations of the retreat off of.

The strange thing (which I don’t actually think is too uncommon) is that whenever I’m in this kind of position, where I can’t visualize some aspect of my near future, I feel like I’m about to die. And I think it makes sense, because in those periods, the future me just doesn’t exist in my imagination.

I’ve been thinking about this feeling-like-I’m-about-to-die recently, not because I can’t imagine my future right now, but because I recently finished reading Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s In Love With the World: What a Buddhist Monk Can Teach You About Living from Nearly Dying. The book constantly reiterates the idea that the transition between life and death is not just something that happens at the end of your life. We’re constantly dying in small ways, as we shed various parts of our identities. In this way, I was right to perceive myself as about to die before I started working, or before the meditation retreat. The part of me that couldn’t fathom what those experiences would be like died, and transitioned into one that could.

For the past couple years, I’ve been focusing a lot on explicitly cultivating gratitude. Although some of the practices I used to do feel a bit forced to me now, I’ve inadvertently realized that thinking about the ways in which I’m constantly dying really allows me to see the blessings in difficult or uncomfortable situations. For instance, I’ve been feeling frustrated at how slowly I’m picking up the knowledge/skills I need for my job, but when I remind myself that nothing is permanent, and that my identity as a new employee is temporary, I actually feel appreciation for my current confused state. I just imagine that one day I might look back on this time with a lot of nostalgia. When I’ve “figured everything out,” I might miss the uncertainty and all the possibilities that accompanied it. A smaller and more everyday type of example is when I feel impatient while waiting for the bus or an appointment, I remind myself that my identity as someone who is waiting is going to die soon, which helps me to loosen my attachment to the future and future identities/states and brings me back to the present moment.

The only time you can live is the present!

Book review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up


The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō

Given that much of the KonMari method has already entered the public consciousness, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed reading this book. Although I had expected it to serve as a how-to or even self-help book, I found a lot of value in taking it as a philosophical text. Kondō makes insightful points on materialism and presents a novel (to me) perspective on the purpose of tidying/maintaining tidiness. It can be tempting to view some of the practices she advocates, like asking whether or not things spark joy or thanking your belongings, as silly—hence the memes—but taking them in the overall context of the book reveals a fresh philosophy on how we can relate to our environment.

What is the purpose of tidiness? And of the objects that we surround ourselves with? In 1927, Le Corbusier answered, “A house is a machine for living in.” Even before I first heard this quote, I had already subscribed to a similar philosophy: the environment should be designed/organized to serve you, implying a service relationship between a person and their objects.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up not only re-imagines the potential of that relationship (“The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”) but also establishes a convincing strategy for actually changing your life through revisiting the nature of this relationship. First of all, by going through the process of determining which of your objects spark joy, you train the muscle of actually discerning how you feel about things in general. The former allows you to create an environment filled with joy, while the latter gives you a new lens through which to view your career/relationships/etc. And secondly, by going through this process, our objects regain a sense of preciousness, which I think is really important in our Amazon Prime, fast fashion society. (Side note: this kind of reflection was one of the reasons I also found Princeton’s spring 2019 musical, We Were Everywhere, so thought-provoking and moving.)

Although I didn’t actually do a full KonMari Method declutter, the ideas underlying the method have stuck with me and are very much informing how I’m approaching e.g., decorating my new apartment. Overall, I really appreciated how this book caused me to reflect on the way my internal state affects and is affected by my external environment, and I highly recommend this book to folks interested in organization (and thinking about organization), as well as anyone looking to make a change in their life.

My first Amazon Books store experience

This past weekend, I visited the Amazon Books store on 34th Street in NYC. According to Wikipedia, it’s one of the 13 Amazon Books stores in existence!

First, let me show you some of the pictures I took of the store, and then I’ll tell you why I dislike the entire concept of the store (and why I’ll never go there to buy books). 🙂 Btw, hope the scroll-down gallery is fine! The slideshow view doesn’t seem to display long captions.


A screenshot of a Yelp review for the Stumptown inside the store (which is definitely a plus for Stumptown lovers like Michael!). “Slightly dystopian vibes” is definitely a phrase I would use to describe the store!
The storefront. I saw a bunch of people taking this picture as I drank my chai latte inside the street-facing window of Stumptown.
A sign you see when you walk into the store. This was kind of confusing to me! I’ll get back to the pricing in a later picture.
One of the ways the Amazon Books store is different from many other bookstores: it sells more non-bookstore-type merchandise. For instance, coffee and juicing machines, and blenders, to go along with books on the same topic…
…and fitness accessories to go along with fitness books. One thing to notice though (and this continues in other ways throughout the store) is the weird specificity of the merchandise displays. I know other stores do New Year’s themed marketing in stores, but this felt weirdly more intrusive, probably largely in part due to the context of the rest of the store.
Along with those non-book products, they also sell Amazon devices, including Amazon Fire TV and Echo Dot (next pic). From the Amazon Books site: “For customers who aren’t Prime members, Amazon devices are the same price as from; books and other items are sold at list price.” As a side note, I’ve heard that they’ve also begun selling e.g., the Amazon Echo at Whole Foods, but I didn’t see any when I last visited a Whole Foods in Charlotte last month.
For some reason, this kind of stuff really bothers me. I get that you’re primarily an online retailer, but that doesn’t mean you have to bring web practices/jargon/etc. to the physical world! Let me know if this bothers you too and we can have a conversation shitting on it.
A picture to help you get a sense of the store’s layout. To describe it in more detail, Stumptown is on the left when you first walk in, and takes up the entire left third-ish of the store. Random electronics (like the various drink makers) are directly in front of the entrance, other electronics are in the middle left of the store, checkout is on the middle right, and everything else is books.
I guess this is one of the reasons someone might choose to go to the Amazon Books store instead of another one? If you primarily base your purchases off of online reviews (which, yeah, I do too), then this is probably supposed to be a differentiating feature. But I’ll go into detail after the photos about why this kind of thing actually has the opposite effect on me.
More of the same.
This is another example of the weird specificity. I’m guessing this is their attempt at physicalizing targeted marketing, but it really doesn’t do it for me. Like, maybe? But no. And it makes me feel weird.
Using not-Amazon reviews, but still an “online”-type metric for one of the displays! (I notice myself getting saltier and saltier as I write these captions.)
Similar to the last picture, but this shelf was curated just using Goodreads.
A sad (in the context of everything else) attempt at humanizing the store. Cute, but still too little, too late.
An attempt at physicalizing Amazon’s recommendation system. It kind of works (?) because I’m guessing the books on the left are widely read. But this still doesn’t make me want to come here.
Similar to the last picture, an attempt at physicalizing the “sort by top sellers in this category” online feature.
The pricing in this store was really strange. If you’ll notice in the previous images, the labels under all the books didn’t have prices. Maybe I’m missing something, but the only ways to check the prices were to either scan the barcode on the label in your Amazon app (quite tedious!), or to scan the book in this price scanner (also tedious, because there were only a few of these in the store). As you can see on the screen, if you’re a Prime member, you get a better deal on the books. This would be the same price you would pay if you were to buy the book on One small confusion I have about this is: if you don’t have Amazon Prime, why would you get the book in stores (if it’s not urgent)? I get that Amazon’s probably trying to convince a different demographic to try out Amazon Prime with this scheme, but people who want to resist can still resist at a pretty low cost (for instance, they could just buy the book on without Prime shipping instead).
You can checkout with your Amazon app. I feel like this is a novelty more than anything else – I can’t imagine actually repeatedly checking out this way and being happy about it. Probably (hopefully) a temporary solution…
…but you can also pay with a credit card linked to your Prime account, so not sure why the troublesome QR code method is advertised/utilized at all. Maybe for the small number of people who don’t have all their credit cards with them, or share a joint Prime account, but even then, I don’t understand why the QR code method was advertised more prominently.
This is an image of a small sign on the checkout counter of Stumptown. I wonder who fills out these surveys… Surprised that they didn’t include a QR code linking to the url! 😏
Last photo: the arch separating the coffee shop from the bookstore. The design is still cohesive across the boundary. In general, the store gave me major airport bookstore (e.g., Hudson Booksellers) vibes, but with a bit less wood and more white. But still depersonalized af.


Now…onto why I don’t like the store and could never see myself choosing it over any (reasonably) normal bookstore – barring fundamental changes.

Let’s think about buying books and visiting bookstores. For me, those two are actually very different things. If I’m buying a physical book (not an e-book), there are only a few different scenarios. Either a) it’s a textbook I need for school, in which case I would go to my university bookstore which is conveniently located and gives us a 30% discount on textbooks, b) it’s a book that I want a physical copy of (like if I want to gift a book, or if I want a book for reference or to add to my physical collection that I can lend to people), in which case I would just order it online, or c) I’ve received a gift card to a local bookstore (very rare). For the last point, I should also mention that it looks like there is no Amazon Books-specific gift card, you could just use your Amazon account, which could be loaded with an gift card, to pay, or use a physical gift card. (I could be mistaken about this.)

I don’t think there’s ever been a case where I’ve urgently needed to buy a physical book other than for school, but if I did, their feature that allows you to search product availability in your local store would certainly be helpful (and I’ll admit, is more convenient than calling in to ask the same thing from a smaller bookstore). Otherwise, I would just buy the e-book, go without it for a few days, or read the summary online. 😅

The Amazon Books website describes itself:

As a physical extension of, Amazon Books integrates the benefits of offline and online shopping to help you find books and devices you’ll love. We select books based on customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments. We place books face-out on the shelves, so each can communicate its own essence. Under each book is a review card with the customer rating and a review. Most have been rated 4 stars or above and many are award winners.

They say all of that as if they’re good things. What I appreciate about other bookstores is the curation, the ambience, the spontaneity! I want to have the experience of discovering a new read, or to just be able to sit down and take in the bookstore environment (similar to what I look for in a coffee shop). When I lived in the Mission in San Francisco, I loved (and cherished!) passing by Adobe Books and Alley Cat and checking out the discounted selection of used books in front of the store.


Even though you couldn’t replicate that kind of experience with a store selling new books, there overall is a sense of wonder and calmness that I look for in a bookstore that just cannot be replaced by Amazon Books’s curation by the online masses and attempts at translating their targeted marketing strategies into the physical world. Furthermore, the aspects that are supposed to be selling points of the store make me feel uncomfortable. The store is “personalized,” yet very depersonalized at the same time, and seems to be quite explicitly focused on getting me to buy buy buy, which is annoying enough to resist online, and almost antithetical to what I look for in other bookstores.

PSA: stores/corporations/etc. do not act in your best interests – they act in theirs! Sometimes the two are aligned – in which case, great! But that is very much not true for me and this Amazon Books store.

Overall, the only reasons I see for me returning to this store would be to either get some Stumptown (most likely), or maybe to try out one of the Amazon electronics (very unlikely). I think it’s worth checking the store out once if you’re interested in this kind of thing, but mainly, writing this blog post really made me realize that I really should support my local bookstores, lest Amazon Books stores become the new norm.