Childhood Treasures

This is the big project I worked on over December and January, a book containing all my childhood (and early adulthood) keepsakes and journals.

I’m really happy with the result. The book is big, and heavy – but it really ties all my various keepsakes together well, and takes up a lot less space than the boxes used to. It covers everything from my early childhood through 2010. Although I was certainly an ‘adult’ by 2010, I still felt like a child in many ways – living at home, no job, no focus, no responsibilities. But I really felt like an adult for the first time after going abroad and working my first full time job in Korea – managing my own money, leading a class full of real children, making my own life decisions completely separate from my family.

I think the reason I worked so hard on this book was to make a clean break with my own past – to let go of everything that came before, and move forward into the future without baggage from my past. I never want to forget who I was as a ‘child’ – but I want to put it behind me. If I ever feel nostalgic and want to visit the past, now everything can be found in one place – neatly laid out in chronological order.

Here’s a sample of what’s in the book.

This is a page with my school pictures, from 1st – 8th grade, next to that is an essay I wrote in 3rd grade about my earliest memories – living in Inglewood, a really rough neighborhood in LA where I spent the first 7 years of my life. It includes happy things – my dad teaching me to ride a bike – as well as sad and scary things – such as being trapped by the LA riots and witnessing a gang related shooting.

These are scanned documents: My first doodles on the computer; letters written to my then best friend, John Slovachek; a short article about me in the school newspaper; My christmas lists, in an envelope addressed to Santa Claus at 7353 North Pole (yes, somehow I determined Santa’s exact address).

When I was young, I had a LOT of stuffed animals. I would arrange them on my bed and sleep with them like a big, messy, lumpy mattress. I’ve kept a few special ones, and given the rest away – but I posed all of them for one last photo shoot before sending them away.


These are pictures of all my old art projects. Going through all of them, I remembered how much I used to love art. I remember when I was a kid and lost my teeth – instead of getting money from the tooth fairy I would usually get art supplies, and used all of them. I also got quite into painting and ceramics in high school. I’ve now got a drawing set and new sketchbook, maybe I will get back to my drawing.

These are toys and other objects that held a special place in my heart. Many of these picture were actually taken years ago – back then I had no idea I would make this scrapbook, but I knew I couldn’t bring myself to throw the toys away without taking a picture, and I knew I would do SOMETHING with the pictures, someday.

The rest of the book is one long narrative, mostly from my high school and college days. Back then I was heavily into blogging – and in the days before Facebook and Myspace took over social networking, me and my friends all shared blog entries on LiveJournal. I used these blog entries, with their date stamps to give the book a chronological order – mixing the other pictures and scans into the text. Below is a typical page from my time studying at Soonchunhyang in Korea.

This book was HARD to make. There are some days I look at it on my shelf and still shudder to think about the work that went into it. Organizing the posts from different blogging services, mixing my paper journal and blog entries into one timeline, sorting thousands of photos to select those that matched the written record. Not to mention the emotional baggage of actually tossing my papers, toys and keepsakes once I was done documenting them.

On the technical side I tried several different software programs, none of which worked out, before I finally landed on Adobe InDesign. Using that program was kind of like using a bazooka to kill a fly – a bit of overkill., but it gave me beautiful results. I formatted text exactly how I wanted it, I had nice control over graphics and how they mixed with the text, and I could keep the whole huge book in order. The only trick was I could not afford the software, which sells for ~$500, so I used the 30 day trial period offered by Adobe – I made it, but just barely.

I used the online service to do the printing, and in total it cost ~150 (saved $30 with a holiday coupon) for the whole book. It’s big – 11×13 inches (22x28cm), the maximum allowed 440 pages and weighs in at 6.5 lbs. (~3kg). But as I said, this will be SO much easier to carry with me through life than the boxes and boxes of keepsakes I had, and it also allows me access to my personal history in a new, fun way.

For example I visited my 90 year old grandmother 2 weeks ago, and I was able to show her my pictures and let her read my blog entries from my time studying in Korea. She does not know how to  use a computer very well and was unable to read my weekly reports back then- but now she  got to read all about my time over there in a format she is familiar with.  I’m really happy with how it turned out, and I’m quite proud of it. I got the idea for this almost one year ago, and I’m happy I finished it.

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The Fates don’t want me to go to South Korea?

So I work in South Korea teaching English, and as part of Korean immigration law I have to send an FBI criminal background check to prove I’m not a criminal when I get a new job. After getting the background check, I must send it to the US Department of State (USDOS) to be authorized for international use. After 2 months of waiting for it to be returned (supposed to take 2 weeks) I had almost given up, until today…

USDOS person: Hello Mr. Newsome, you called us regarding your FBI criminal background check several weeks ago?

Me: Yes? Have you received them?

USDOS Person: Sort of. Unfortunately it appears that your letter has been BURNT. The envelope, cover letter, check and document – all of them have been burnt on the left side…

I am almost speechless. How in the world does a letter, sent priority mail (or ANY kind of mail) get half burned away? I’m not religious, but even I’m inclined to interpret it as some kind of sign. They are going to process it anyway, to give me my moneys worth – I’ll post a picture when they do.

Thankfully, I have another FBI background check, but I’m scared to mail it in now. I’m thinking of just getting it authorized in person when I visit my family on the east coast. That is, once I go read some tea leaves and check with a fortune teller to make sure The Fates are okay with me taking this trip at all.

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More bike kitchen

So, I did my time at the Bike Kitchen – 6 hours to earn my membership and 6 more hours to earn digging rights for bike parts. What has the work been like? Oddly enough, after spending months cleaning out my own room – I spent most of my volunteer time doing more cleaning and organizing.

This is the parts room a the Bike Kitchen. Each bucket contains an assortment of brakes, pedals, gears, handlebars, shifters, etc… All of these parts are donated – some are brand new, while others were pulled from hundreds of bikes that have passed through the kitchen – everything from cheap and abused mountain bikes to expensive racing bikes. My job was to sort through these parts, pull out the garbage, and put matching parts together whenever possible. For example  yesterday I sorted tires according to size and found matching brake sets.


The work may seem kind of boring, but I think I managed to get something out of it. I learned the names and functions for a lot of parts I knew nothing about. I now know the difference between cantilever and V-brakes, why road and mountain brake levers and handlebars can’t be mixed and matched, the names for all the little fiddly bits of different components (jockey wheels, spoke nipples, clip-less pedals, brake noodles, etc…) All of this should help me with building up my own bike.

It’s also quite easy to converse while sorting through all the doo-dads, and I met some interesting people. There was a woman who just finished pedaling across Laos and Cambodia – she was probably just across the border while I was vacationing in Thailand. There was another woman who was starting a similar bicycle workshop in Maine, and was doing volunteer work to see how the Bike Kitchen managed their program. There were multiple people building bikes for burning man. One of the mechanics told me about his real job – managing a small-scale hydroelectric plant.

All in all it’s a really great deal for those who can’t afford to build up their own bike or pay for membership. But now comes the most important part – building up MY bike!

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Perfect timing

In a stroke of good luck, I noticed last week that the Bike Kitchen was holding a two day wheel-building workshop on February 25th and 26th. Their clases normally fill up weeks or even months ahead of time, but for some reason this wheel-building class had one spot open – I snatched it up immediately. Well, after taking the class and building two beautiful wheels, I am quite happy with my decision. Take a look at my process below…

I will add one important note. Building a wheel is not impossible, but it is far from easy. It takes patience and an attention to detail.

The attention to detail starts when buying the parts. I would have saved myself a lot of hassle if I had started getting my parts earlier – but since I only had one week to get my parts together, I couldn’t order online and had to rely on local bike shops. I mis-matched my hub and rims (they were each made for a different number of spokes), after I replaced my rims I discovered that the bike shop accidentally gave me the wrong size of rim (27 inch instead of 26 inch) and finally I discovered the hole for the inner-tube air valve was the wrong size (there are two types of bicycle inner tubes, presta have thin valves made just for bikes, and schraeder which are normal car-size air valves).

The patience comes in once one starts to build the wheel, the best way is to go slowly and methodically. As I discovered the hard way, you don’t necessarily notice big mistakes early on – it is possible to get 75% of the way through building the wheel without even noticing mistakes made with threading the first few spokes. I almost finished one wheel, but noticed the tension on the spokes was majorly unbalanced – the mechanics at the shop suggested de-tensioning ALL the spokes and starting over again. It took me 6 hours to build my first wheel, but only 3 hours to build my second wheel. The workshop leader said it took her about 45 minutes to build an average wheel, after years of practice.

I’m so happy I decided to build my own wheels. I can’t wait to get out on the road and know that I really built up almost every part of this bike.

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Building my bike

Well, today I started building my bike. Here is the frame I got off of Craigslist.

Made by Surly, it’s called the Long Haul Trucker. This frame is made specifically for long distance bike touring. The frame is made out of welded steel, it has lots of brazed-on places to attach things like racks, baskets, water-bottles and other gear, and the geometry of the frame is designed to be stable while carrying heavy loads. It’s no speed demon, and it’s a bit heavier than most modern bikes – but it should take many miles and many years of abuse – I just hope I get the chance to put that to the test.

I originally had planned to choose a frame from the Bike Kitchen, but as time went on I wasn’t sure that was the right decision. They have some decent frames there which would surely last me for a while, but I just didn’t fall in love with any of them.  I wanted to build a bike that could travel with me, something that felt really special. So instead of finding all my parts at the Bike Kitchen – I think I will mix and match. I will first look for parts at the Bike Kitchen, but if I can’t find something that satisfies me, I will look elsewhere.

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Volunteering at the Bike Kitchen

Last night was my first night volunteering at The Bike Kitchen. For those who have never heard of it, the Bike Kitchen is a non-profit DIY bicycle repair center. For $50/year you can become a member and get access to their workspace and tools. They accept donations of spare parts from individuals and bike shops all over the city and sell these parts to members for very low prices. For a flat $30, you can even get “digging rights” – the right to dig through their piles of bike parts for everything you need to build or finish one complete bike.


Don’t know the first thing about bikes? It’s okay, the staff are all current or former mechanics, with varying levels of experience. They often get focused working on their own projects, so you have to be proactive and ask for help – but they will be happy to TELL you how to do anything on your bike (but you still have to DO the actual work).

Can’t afford the $80 for membership and digging rights? Also okay! They accept work-trade for membership and parts – 6 hours volunteer work will get you a membership, 6 more hours will get you digging rights. I might be able to afford their fees, but since I’m living off savings at the moment, I figured I should take the volunteer offer. So this week – Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday I will be volunteering at the Bike Kitchen to earn my place.

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Where I’ve been

1. The project that has consumed me night and day since I got home is all but finished. I set out to clean up my room and clean up my life, and I’ve done that. Just compare the following two pictures.

All the mess in the first picture was sorted and then trashed, recycled or stored properly. The second picture is my room right now – I’m not done with it, but it’s a LOT better than before. But, being the sentimental packrat that I am, I was not content to let the trashed and recycled items just vanish into the ether. I photographed, scanned and journaled about every little thing, and I compiled everything into a massive scrapbook.

Trust me, I have a lot more to say about this scrapbook I made – what’s in it, how I made it, how LONG it took. But that deserves a post all its own – I’ll write more about it next time.

2. “Seth, you’ve been so quiet, I didn’t even know you were back home” ~ Mary Grace

It’s true, I really have been obsessed with the above project. Sometimes I didn’t leave my apartment building for days at a time. However, I have managed to have some social life since I’ve been home. The people I’ve seen the most are my friend in Jake and his fellow Decadence alumni at their group house in Berkeley. In particular they had great Christmas and Halloween parties. I also had a great Christmas get-together with old friends from Soonchunhyang University, my Korean college. It’s hard to believe I’ve known them all for over 6 years now – and we manage to get all the Bay Area people together 2-3 times a year, with the occasional out of town visitor to boot.

3. “Seth, are you ready for your workout?” ~Emily

When I was young, I often asked my parents if I could have a sister – I had a brother, and knew what that was like, so I wanted a sister. That didn’t quite work out (though I do have a brilliant step-sister Zana) so if I ever get married, I think I want a daughter. But for the time being I’ve taken in two surrogates – my little cousins Gracie and Emily.

I first met these girls when they were very young, age 2 and 5. I’ve only seen them a few times between then and now, but I love it when I get to spend time with them. This year, after spending a quiet Christmas with my mom and grandparents I stayed a couple extra days to visit with the girls and their mom as they came to visit. We played a lot, I taught them how to play pool, they did my make-up and nails, and they showed me app after app on their new iTouches. Emily also made sure I got my “workout” as she called it – which involved giving her piggy back rides all around the house, spinning her in the air, and holding her up by her ankles. It really did the trick – kind of like flinging around a 50lb medicine ball.

I’m really making it a priority to see family as much as I can while I am home – especially my grandparents. It was two years ago that my father’s mother died, and I felt really sad that I never really got to know her. With me spending so much time out of the country I think it’s really important I spend time getting closer to my family while I’m state-side.

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Stuff, stuff, everywhere

I started my process of cleaning by emptying all the boxes, every one. The big problem with these boxes is that most of them didn’t follow any order – there were family photos placed next to kitchen appliances, my older brother’s baby toys with my high school diploma, books mixed in with AC adapters to long lost electronics. I dumped everything out on my floor and organized it by category – then made a plan to tackle one type of item at a time.

I started with photos. Mercifully, my earliest childhood had been organized into albums already – back when my parents had the time to do such things. But everything before my older brother’s birth and after my 5th birthday was in complete disarray. To give an example of the chaos – i found a picture of my 6th birthday and my MOTHER’S fourth birthday stuck together. Here i am trying to make sense of the mess.

I took hundreds of photos, dumped them all on the floor, and started to sort them into a rough timeline. I started by looking at each photo and made my best guess what year it was from. This was terribly inefficient, and probably could have taken days. But then I remembered a handy feature of old lab-processed photos – most of them had either date stamps or photo lab stamps on the back. And all photos from the same roll of film had the same markings. So I flipped the pictures over, didn’t look at the images at all and sorted them all by lab marks – with only a few mistakes. This let me get through them in only a few hours.

Then I bought a Canon 8800F scanner, which was a lifesaver – able to chew through six photos and half a roll of film negatives at a time, while automatically making different files for each image. I scanned, and scanned…then scanned some more. All the while I had my own private TV marathon on Netflix.

After I scanned the photos I focused on my many, many keepsakes. These ranged from old toys to awards from my middle school track team, old homework assignments (such as 2nd grade cursive writing practice sheets), elementary school valentines day cards, probably every postcard I’ve ever received from anyone, the first phone number I got from a girl, all my yearbooks, my original Nintendo system and games, every stuffed animal that survived my childhood and many things I no longer even remembered.

I took my entire floor space and again sorted these items into piles by category, and attacked each pile one at a time. I scanned every document and item that could be scanned – and those that could not be scanned, I posed and took photos. I’ve kept a few items, but from the start I promised myself that I would throw away or donate most of the stuff – I chose ONE plastic storage box, and vowed that every keepsake I kept just for myself had to fit in that one box.

I went on and on, from September through November. Scanning, photographing, letting go of everything. I even used a 30-day demo of Dragon Naturally Speaking (a voice recognition program) to dictate and transcribe old handwritten journal entries. Along the way I made many trips to Goodwill and other charities. Then finally, one day, I emptied the last box, and it was over. I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment, but also a little lost. On one hand, I finally won the war against MY STUFF that I’ve been fighting since I was a child. But I had spent so many weeks on this project that it had become second nature, and I had to figure out what the next step was.

I knew I didn’t want a jumble of pictures and text cluttering up my computer instead of my room – so I sat down with my digital treasure trove and put everything together in one big, fat scrapbook – which I will share in my next post.

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Cleaning mistakes

I believe I made a grave mistake in my cleaning process. In the middle of my cleaning I had compiled this collection of paper journals.

These journals sat on my shelf for several days. I stared at them, feeling slightly demotivated every time I did so. I had gone so far as to organize them roughly by year, but I could not begin to imagine actually poring over each book and putting them in some kind of real order. Even the prospect of scanning them seemed daunting.

In a cleaning fit, I tore them up and dumped them into the recycling bin. Immediately after I felt saner, cleaner. I walked into my room feeling relief. But now I feel a certain sadness – I wish I had at least scanned them. With my document scanner it would not have truly taken very long, and I could have made a decision about them with a cooler head later.

But now they are gone…long gone, maybe already part of a newspaper or cardboard box somewhere.

I can’t change that action, but I can temper my behavior in the future. I’ve just now started to organize my digital files and am at the same stage I was at with my journals. They are roughly organized by date, and there are thousands and thousands of them.

But this time, if I get fed up with the immense number of files, I will just take a break and walk away instead of letting my frustration get the best of me.

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Closure to childhood

I had a theory when I was young, it went something like this. Teenagers, are aliens. Everyone starts as a normal human as a child, but then when they reach their teenage years, aliens come down and replace them with alien doubles. The aliens look and sound just like the old person, but is different in every way that matters.

This probably has something to do with the relationship between me and my brother when he crossed into adolescence, but no matter. When a person is done being a teenager, the aliens come back and replace the teenage double with one’s adult self.

I feel like I’ve finally been replaced, and it’s for the better.

I have been home in San Francisco for one month now, and I’ve wrapped myself in a veritable cocoon, seldom venturing out. I am in the process of going through a transformation – or more precisely putting the finishing touches on a transformation that I think already happened.

You see, just before I went overseas, me and my dad trekked down to the Los Angeles area to empty a storage container full of my family’s trash and treasures, which we then packed into my room while I was away. This meant that the first sight to greet me, walking into “my room” was floor to ceiling boxes. I wish I had taken a picture early on to adequately describe just how much crap there was. I don’t have such a picture, but here’s a picture of my room TWO WEEKS(!) into the process to give some context.

I immediately set about cleaning the mess – if for no other reason than to clear a space on my bed to sleep. I will detail this process in an upcoming post, but that’s not what I’m thinking about now.

Last week I picked up the journal I was keeping just before I took my teaching job in Korea. Even though I know it’s mine – I recognize the handwriting, I remember writing many of the exact sentences within – it doesn’t feel like mine. Reading it feels like I’m reading someone else’s thoughts.

When I went off to teach, I didn’t feel like an adult, I felt like a really old kid. If I was to talk about myself or my peers, I would have had a hard time even referring to myself as an adult – it just felt…wrong. But now, I don’t feel like a kid, I actually feel like an adult.

There is no one time that things changed, but I think I know when the process started. My very first night in my Korean apartment, after my boss and welcoming party dropped me off, and I stood in the doorway, feeling completely alone. I felt like I was telling a lie – I remember saying out loud to the empty apartment “I’m lying to these poor people!”

I honestly thought about quitting the next day, before I actually had to start teaching. I simply couldn’t believe that in three days time I would be in front of a classroom teaching children, when I still felt like a child of sorts myself. That first day teaching came and went – and I still didn’t feel prepared. But bit by bit my confidence grew, and the child in me fell away without me even noticing. I’m not the same person I was when I left, but I feel like I’m more truly myself than I have been for many years.

I feel silly, having locked myself away with my memories for the better part of a month. But it really has been a process of letting go. I set myself the goal that everything I keep from my “extended childhood” must fit into one neat box. Everything that can’t fit into that box must be given away, sold away or thrown away. I’m down from more than a dozen to ~3 boxes. This last stretch is killer, and I feel like giving up sometimes, but I won’t, I can’t.

I think the end is near, I truly think by the end of this week I can have that one neat box packed, and do away with everything else. By the end of this week I plan to close a big chapter of my life and start something new.

Goodbye teenage alien Seth, I wish you well on your home planet.

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