Hello Again, Seattle

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Regenerations

Last week, for the 11th time in my adult life, I made a long-distance move to a different city. But for only the second time, it is to a city I’ve already lived in: Seattle. And the first time doesn’t really count, since it was for a year-long break from grad school I always knew I’d be back from.

When I left Seattle for Los Angeles 4 years ago, in June 2019, the intent was to stay a year, and decide where to go next right after my fellowship at the Berggruen Institute ended, with a return to Seattle only one low-likelihood possibility among many. At the time, I wrote about it in my post Regenerations, the fourth installment in a straggling decade-plus blogchain chronicling my moves. Then the pandemic happened, one year turned into four, and a city I thought I’d just pass through as a longer-term tourist turned into the venue of a significant life chapter. I was 44 when I left. I’m 48 now, a few months from 49, and less than two years away from the big 5-0.

But though it took longer than I expected, I’m once more in that familiar (and at this point, rather tiresome) liminal passage, having left one empty apartment behind, living out of another, with my stuff (now in 1.5 containers rather than 1) in transit somewhere in the containerized ether.

This move is special in another way: For the first time in my life, I don’t have any particular big reason to be moving. There is no gig or strategic consideration bringing me back to Seattle. And there is no particular annoyance driving me away from Los Angeles. The Los Angeles chapter just felt done. With the pandemic over, there was no particular reason to stay, and a few practical reasons to leave (high taxes in particular). The question was: where to next?

Neither my wife nor I felt particularly inclined to continue our decades of random-walking across the continent. We found ourselves mainly thinking about regions we’d already lived in, and ultimately Seattle popped as the only real contender, whether we approached the question analytically with a spreadsheet model featuring earthquakes, fires, and tax rates, or intuitively. I personally feel far more attuned to the Seattle area (and the Pacific Northwest generally) than to Southern California. My wife seems to be more ambivalent about our move: She likes the idea of LA as a long-term home city, but only for a much richer version of us. Seattle is a better fit for resolutely middle-class rut groove we’re in.

And so we’ve returned, to an apartment in Kirkland (a suburban town just outside of Seattle proper). I’m feeling something I haven’t felt in 30 years — a sense of coming home. And honestly, it feels like we never left. Everything is immediately familiar, and California already feels like a pleasant but surreal dream we’ve woken up from. I suppose that’s what 7 years of reawakened place-memory will do to you.

This will be my 23rd apartment in 26 years (and 18th shared apartment with my wife in 18 years). And finally, I think both of us are done with frequent moving. The intent now is for this to be our last-ever apartment rental. We’re hoping to buy a house smol mansion, and do what my parents have been waiting for me to do for a quarter-century: “settle down.” I have no idea whether this plan will work out. The Seattle market is not exactly an easy one to buy in right now, especially as a free agent on a tight budget competing with securely employed and obscenely well-paid tech people financially equipped for bidding wars. But we’ll give it a year of hunting and see where we stand. We might still end up somewhere else cheaper, but we’re going to try and stick this landing.

If we manage it, I’ll be into my 50th year when we finally “settle down.”

That thought makes me feel old, but not bad about feeling old. I suspect it’s the right way for me to feel. The Los Angeles chapter felt like an apogee arc. Somewhere along the way, it felt like what passes for my career passed through some sort of extremum. I think I hit my peak of institutional legitimacy and mainstream legibility there. Now I’m sinking back into my natural state of sketchy illegibility.

Rather appropriately, while in LA, I had an in-depth profile (9 pages with a bunch of photos) published in Courier, a UK-based boutique print magazine. It’s pretty good. John Sunyer, who interviewed me, somehow managed to extract a coherent set of answers to good questions out of me that made it seem like my life has a point and plot to it. You can buy the magazine here. It may be published online at some point, but for now it’s only in print.

It’s a bit unsettling to see a messy, improvised life distilled and packaged into a relatively legible magazine profile. One that portrays you as some sort of landmark. Here’s the opening bit:

Maybe you’ve come across the concept of premium mediocre: food that Instagrams better than it tastes, putting truffle oil on anything, extra leg-room seats in economy. The idea that more people than ever before can indulge in ‘exclusive’ things that aren’t, really, all that exclusive. Or maybe you’ve read about how online spaces are being taken over by ‘beef-only’ thinkers, as global culture quickly moves more closely towards a state of constant conflict. What about the rise of ‘domestic cozy’ and the ways it has defined a new Gen Z aesthetic, with every brand pivoting to self-care and marketing to cool young people who, even when they’re not at home, want to feel like it? Looking up these cultural and business trends, you might come across a low-fi blog called Ribbonfarm, which doesn’t look entirely dissimilar from Wikipedia but with memes and weird hand-drawn diagrams. It’s run by Venkatesh Rao, an LA-based writer and consultant with an unconventional career path. Before becoming one of the leading public analysts of economic and social theory, he earned a PhD in aerospace engineering. He’s written a book about decision-making and workplace dynamics as seen through the lens of TV show The Office. He carries out one-to-one work with business executives, acting as a ‘conversational sparring partner’ to stress-test and solve big challenges. Above all, though, Venkatesh helps ground trends in a larger cultural and historical frame. He shares deep dives into emerging cultural and business trends, as well helping to define what’s coming next. With a cult online following, made up of people who like the internet best when it feels handcrafted, misshapen and idiosyncratic, Ribbonfarm has helped him turn trend forecasting into a real job. Even so, trying to capture and summarize his body of work is like trying to pin down smoke. Here, we give it a go.*

I’ve often been interviewed and quoted in stories about other things, but I’ve never myself been the subject. There’s a milestone of sorts there. You know you’re past your apogee when you’re more part of the scenery than a traveler through it.

The profile left me feeling vaguely unsettled (no fault of John’s). On the one hand, it felt accurate and clear enough that I had a copy sent to my parents, so they could get a sense of what the heck my life has been about since 2011. On the other hand, reading the interview, I had a depressing sense of “is this all it amounts to? A million mostly forgettable words, a few memes that stuck for a couple of cycles, and a vague notoriety in an obscure corner of the internet?”

But John’s not wrong that trying to capture the essence of what I’ve been doing is a bit like trying to pin down smoke. Unlike people who publish a couple of million words in a couple of dozen legible brick-like books, my oeuvre, such as it is, is definitely a couple of million words worth of smoke.

There are some people whose life’s work you could call “a life’s work” with a straight face. Some are famous people who do Uniquely Significant Things. Others are ordinary people who do simple and interchangeable, but hard things, like working a societally necessary job while raising a family and being Upstanding Citizens, or even writing a couple of dozen Real Books™ you can buy at airports. Both those life patterns call for living life at 100% intensity, and making a a life’s work of it.

I’m not one of these people. At the rate I’m going, I think I’ll end up with something like a 25% life work. One of those people who are described as living a “full life” could probably live four of mine.

It’s not that I have any particular yearning for significance, substance, or an intensely lived universe-denting life. I don’t even have any particular regrets, or a sense that perhaps I should have been living a more intense life all along. As I remarked to one of my friends recently, not everybody is built to channel “main character energy.” I certainly am not.

Still, it’s unsettling to be reminded that you’ve consciously chosen a life in the slow lane, marked by spectatorship, contemplation, and what looks like idleness from busier perspectives. A life filled with what seem like consolations rather than prizes when viewed from the perspective of a more intensely lived one. It’s not unpleasant to live this way, but it is certainly unsettling to be correctly seen to live this way by a thoughtful observer. I once tweeted, “you have no obligation to be interesting or useful to the world,” and I’ve certainly lived by that thought. But I guess I’m now seeing that life reflected in an honest mirror, and I’m doing a bit of a double take to understand what I’m actually looking at.

I’m going to sit with this feeling for a bit. It’s interesting to process.

The LA chapter had other notable bits and pieces. The Berggruen fellowship got my next book project off to a good start. I started and finished a short-run newsletter over two years that ended up as the two-volume Art of Gig collection. I started developing the Ribbonfarm Studio newsletter, and that’s coming along nicely as both a body of work and an income stream. My consulting work settled into a curiously stable mode, without the famine/feast cycle of the first decade. I set up a home lab and got back into engineering and hands-on building for the first time in 20 years. I hiked up to Griffith Observatory probably a hundred times. I read a lot.

But overall, the LA chapter felt like the end of the beginning, if not the beginning of the end.

The city itself was an ideal backdrop for the life chapter. If 2019-23 was an apogee arc for me, Los Angeles was the Kuiper belt where it unfolded. The city has an edge-of-civilization quality to it. It feels like cold rubble far from the fiery central fires of human life. There’s really nowhere logical to go once you’ve lived in Los Angeles. Unless you get on a rocket to Alpha Centauri, you have to turn back in some way. Viewed from LA, the entire rest of the world looks reactionary and tradition-bound. Any other city you might go to would represent a cultural retreat from this dissipated edge of civilization.

I suppose this is partly why we chose to return to Seattle. There is nowhere logical to go “next” after Los Angeles suggested by any sort of forward-looking logic, so to leave Los Angeles is to surrender to some sort of backward-looking impulse to craft a return.

Speaking of returns, Ursula Le Guin’s famous line from The Dispossessed is on my mind: “To be whole is to be part; true voyage is return.”

I think I’m finally beginning to understand what that means. There are people who accept the underlying sentiment uncritically at age 21, and as a result never leave their hometowns. And then there are people like me, congenitally predisposed to outward wandering, who have to have the idea hammered into them at age 48 by a world-disrupting pandemic.

So what does return mean?

There is of course, the literal giving up of further wandering to return to a city I’ve lived in before, but the geographic dimension of return, I think, does not need more development. I certainly have no intention of executing a literal-minded full rewind through cities I’ve lived in, landing on a deathbed in Jamshedpur.

There is return in the sense of a halfway point between cradle and grave. With 50 looming in 2024 (and I’m human enough to view 50 as the last age you could reasonably call a “midpoint”), that sense of return to ashes and dust is certainly strong.

There is return in the sense of rediscovering old interests from a more mature perspective. In some ways, my dabbling in my robotics workshop is a midlife-crisis cliche. But in other ways, it is a genuine re-engagement with fundamental ideas and themes in engineering that I think I’m now able to appreciate in a very different way, at the late stage of a career in and around technology. For the last year or two, I think I’ve been in a sort of back-to-school mode, revisiting Engineering 101 subjects I haven’t touched since the early 90s.

And then there is this sense of having navigated an apogee arc through a civilizational Kuiper belt.

Talk of apogees and Kuiper belts of course begs the question: what’s the Sun here? What is the focal attractor object tugging at every life, eventually bending its course into something that can only be described as a “return?”

Of course, in a rather obvious way, the “Sun” of any life is the birth/death pair of moments transitioning from/to oblivion. Two perigees (or perihelia I suppose) separated by a lifetime. But only the first and last few years of life, I think, are truly shaped by the twin singularities of birth or death. The long middle has the subtler geometry of an outward voyage gradually bending into a return. If you’re not paying attention you might miss it.

So I ask again, what am I returning to? What is the Sun drawing me back in?

To ask the question in Seattle is a good start. It is easier for me to see the past here than the future. I spent nearly 7 years here the last time around: 2012-19. They were action-packed years, to the extent I’m capable of packing years with action. Much of what the Courier profile spotlights happened during those years. The Ribbonfarm scene emerged and wound down, and I myself went from solo writer to half-hearted scene organizer to solo writer again. This is more than a place; it’s an embodied set of personal memories. Memories that exist against the eerie backdrop of the now-ephemeral-feeling zero-interest-rate decade with all its frivolities. Memories destined, perhaps, to be lost to cultural amnesia along with the rest of that somewhat embarrassing period.

Part of me suspects that 2009-19 was something of an invalidated cache of a decade, outside of the main continuity of history; a premium mediocre cul-de-sac of speculative collective existence. A decade that was all noise and fury, signifying nothing. A decade destined to be largely forgotten, much like the 90s. Except this time, much of what I’ve been doing with my life is marked for deletion, along with TED talks, culture war, and sidewalks littered with VC-funded scooter fleets.

That thought is oddly consoling. Footprints in the sands of time and so forth.

Speaking of being marked for deletion, it’s been a source of endless amusement for me that for much of the past decade, I had a Wikipedia page marked “may not meet notability standards.” And sometime in the last few years, it finally got deleted. I suppose some editor finally lost patience.

This feels like an accomplishment of sorts.

Never making it into Wikipedia is easy. Being uncontroversially canonized there is also kinda easy. Hovering on the edge of notability for a decade, like a ghost, before being finally exorcised from humanity’s contemporary record of itself, feels meta-notable.

But ephemeral and marked for deletion or not, I think I’m going to be spending some time digging into and reflecting on my Seattle-anchored memories that do not meet Wikipedia’s notability standards. Not to dwell on them so much as to get a sense of finished and unfinished business, and to orient myself for my 50s — and the world’s 2020s/30s.

I’m not entirely sure what I want to be doing (and what role writing plays in it, and how), but I do know that I’m ready for some sort of true Late Style. I no longer feel young. More importantly, I no longer want to feel young. I don’t want to continue doing in my 50s the stuff I was doing in my 30s and 40s. I want to spend my 50s doing interesting 50s things.

This is an unseemly and unAmerican sentiment. You’re not supposed to feel this way. You’re supposed to declare that the 50s are the new 40s and act embarrassingly younger than you feel.

It’s a curiously American tendency to immediately react to reflections on aging with protestations and dismissals. In America, you’re never old. If on your 90th birthday you venture an age-appropriate philosophical reflection, there will be a 92-year-old in the next wheelchair ready to tell you that you’re really still a kid with your whole life ahead of you. At 48, anything short of wanting to win an Olympic medal, a Nobel, and a billion dollars counts as being a quitter.

To me, this desperate clinging to the aspirations of youth feels annoying, and in some ways a retreat from life. A life that’s a series of increasingly sad do-overs of your 20s is not worth living, but is apparently the officially sanctioned median American dream.

Another thing I do know is that I’m no longer as future-focused as I used to be (ironic, since the Courier profile pegs me as some sort of gonzo futurist trendspotter). I no longer feel the mildly anxious attachment to the future, and mild alienation from the past, that has been an undercurrent in all my thinking.

This is in part because I have this growing sense that the capital-F Future rightfully belongs to younger people. To the extent I continue to participate in even a bit role, it feels like it should be in a facilitatory mode. At least that’s the sensibility I’m trying to bring to the Summer of Protocols thing I’m running. It feels like playing threshold guardian for a future I will not myself help author in any significant way. And that’s a nice feeling. A prime viewing point for interesting action where other people are doing all the work.

On the flip side, for the first time, I feel like there’s a part of the past that does belong to me, even if I don’t quite know what to do with it. Perhaps a trivial, forgettable, deletion-worthy part, too insubstantial to even sustain much nostalgia, but it’s there, sitting around like an odd bit of furniture. I suppose the commonplace feeling of alienation from the past has much to do with the fact that you weren’t around for most of it, and have no real claim on any of it. And for much of the part where you were present, you had no agency or authorship over events.

But now that I can claim a piece of it, I feel more well-disposed towards all the rest of it. I’ve always been very interested in history, but I’ve never felt particularly invested in it. Now, to some extent, I do.

This refactored sense of future and past doesn’t mean I’m “stepping aside” to play some sort of ersatz blogosphere emincence grise role in the cultural economy. Or “retiring” (that concept makes no real psychological or financial sense for me). Getting out of the way of the capital-F Future does not mean having no small-f personal future. You just no longer have as much of a stake in a collective capital-F future; in narratives grand and little that seek to reshape the unsettled streams of history-to-be. More importantly, the collective capital-F future no longer has as much of a stake in you.

And on the flip side, finally feeling a sense of ownership of a piece of the past does not mean you must live in it, much less wallow nostalgically in it.

But there’s definitely an altered post-life-apogee temporality I feel suffusing my new-old life getting going here in Seattle. An altered relationship with time, both personal and historical. And as with many feelings I’ve experienced lately, it’s one I feel inclined to stay with.

There’s a reason the 50+ crowd, through much of history, has been viewed as a barbell comprising, on the one end, geriatrics desperately clinging to power, and on the other end, a bunch of optional-extra humans in retreat, relegated to enrichment roles like grandparenting, storytelling, and starring in pharmaceutical ads. In the traditional Indian life-stage model for example, the 50-75 period is known as vanaprastha ashram, the retreat-to-forest stage, when your worldly duties as a householder are done (many of my college peers are sending their kids off to college this year, and facing empty nests), and you’re expected to retreat to the civilizational edge, gradually disengaging into an optional-extra status.

I have no use for this particular storyline as an identity-defining storyline. It is the graceful-aging-into-sideshow-elder storyline. One that cedes the small-f personal future along with the big-F collective Future.

On the other hand, the Dylan Thomas rager script does not appeal to me either:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

There ought to be a third way I think. One that engages squarely with the essence of later life. With a life stage marked by more past than future, more memories than possibilities, more settling than striving. And with its own unique adventures on offer.

I have no idea whether such a third way is possible, but I’m going to look for one. But first, I need to look for a house.

Anyhow, it’s nice to be back to Seattle. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with old friends and making new ones. If you’re in the area, and especially if you happen to be around Kirkland, look me up. I probably won’t be doing meetups and stuff, but I’m down to meet up for coffee or lunch as time permits.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Welcome back to Seattle!

  2. Great post, my favorite in a long time.

  3. this post resonated on several levels. thank you for sharing your reflections, always.

  4. Mike Dierken says

    Welcome to Kirkland!
    I’m on the north end (near Juanita) and if you are interested in coffee or lunch with a semi-retired, ex-Amazon, ex-McKinsey, ex-CTO and budding venture investor it would be great to meet up.
    And yeah, housing in the area is crazy expensive.

  5. Mike McCall says

    Welcome back! We moved to Seattle last year (stop #4 in our quest for a “forever home”). Would love to grab a coffee or take a hike sometime if you’re up for it. Your writing has been like a gym for my brain, which is otherwise consumed by Corporate Nonsense and toddler affairs.

    • Mike McCall says

      This offer stands for anyone else reading Ribbonfarm who’s in or visiting Seattle, by the way!

      • Thomas Bergman says

        Let’s do it! (Coffee)
        I also need a break from toddlers and corporates!

  6. Thomas Bergman says

    Welcome back to Seattle!
    I’d also love to grab coffee with the ribbonfarm adjacent!

  7. Not going gentle into the good night is the way I’m going (but hopefully not for a few decades yet). There’s plenty to be said for contented rambling into the otherworld.

  8. Thanks all, looks like there’s quite a few people in the area. I might organize a meetup and ping all of you.

  9. Ravi Daithankar says

    There’s a very peculiar kind of introspective, retrospective melancholy energy in this piece but one that isn’t lacking optimism or cheer. It reminded me of this Larry David interview, an absolute gem, from 25 years ago.


    The fact that Larry at the time was around 50 years old isn’t just a coincidence. But the more interesting thing perhaps is that he went on to create Curb, shortly after! In a lot of ways, he actually topped what he did with Seinfeld. And when I watch this interview now, it kinda hints to me that for all the downplaying and the proclivity for half-assing and coasting by that he has always espoused (which I believe to be fully authentic), he had a sneaking feeling about a very rich small f future, still to come. I don’t know how this squares with what you feel or have written about, but I hope it does!

  10. Rory Kaufmann says

    Love this! You do a lot of analytical, speculative writing, so it’s a real treat to read something grounded in your own life. Wherever you end up, in or out of the history books, I think you made an impact!

  11. Welcome back to Seattle. The pacific northwest feels like home, like few other places in this country do.