Author Archives: yi-shun-lai

“Don’t be an asshole” can’t be the full moral of this story: a blog post with no resolution

This weekend, I taught for a couple of days at the incredible Mt. SAC Culturama. I’ve been involved in this event for four or five years now, and it’s an event that never fails to leave me feeling so satisfied, and full of the hope that inevitably comes from having had a whole weekend of being a part of a strong literary community, yes, but also being able to pass on what I know and have worked hard to know in intense, 75-minute sessions.

I always end up starving at the end of every day, probably from sheer joy. This is as it should be. But this is also beside the point.

In a class I was teaching on alternative essay forms, I covered braided essays, some experimental techniques, and finally, the hermit crab essay, which is by far my favorite type of essay. (It’s the essay form that takes on the form of something else, like a list; a set of directions; advertisement copy.)

I described two events that I’ve been noodling over since they happened, and used them to illustrate how, when you’re struggling with what things your brain won’t let go of mean, thinking of them in different forms can help you to resolve them.

I’m past that point. These two events have taken up a lot of my brainwaves and I need to write them down. Maybe someday I’ll do something more creative with them, but right now they’re burning a hole in my creative pocket and I want to tell you about them. We can discuss them together in the comments below, if you like. Or just take them home and noodle them and then tell me what you think.

Event the first: A tale of heresay

Many of you know that I run a literary magazine with some friends. We buy a booth every year at the big writers’ conference we go to. This year I got to be on a panel with a Bigwig Writer, whom I already knew from another event. We like each other. So after the panel, Bigwig Writer came by our booth to say hello to me. I, alas, was not there. Here is the scene I understand to have taken place.

Personnages: FRIEND OF YI SHUN (FOY); ASPIRING POET (AP); BIGWIG WRITER (BW).

Scene: AP is IN CONVO w FOY when BW appears.

BW: Hello! Is Yi Shun here?

FOY: No, but she’ll be back later!

BW: Oh, okay. I was on a panel with her! That panel!

BW POINTS to the framed sheet we have displayed outlining our staff’s panel appearances.

AP is still AT THE BOOTH, now STANDING next to BW. Some might say she’s LURKING, but I wasn’t there, so who’s to say?

FOY: Oh! You’re [BIGWIG WRITER]!

AP to FOY: You didn’t know that’s [BIGWIG WRITER]?

FOY is suitably embarrassed. I know, because I talked to her afterwards. BIGWIG WRITER, by the way, is still standing there, this entire time. God knows what he thought of the whole thing. 

#END SCENE#

Event the second: A tale of I-Don’t-Know-What-to-Call-This

Personnages: CLASS full of people; INSTRUCTOR; UNNAMED WOMAN; ME

Scene: INSTRUCTOR is telling an anecdote to illustrate how important it is to make literary connections. He tells a story about how, at this same conference two years ago, one of his goals was to get his next book published. He whips out a book.

INSTRUCTOR: Guess what? Today is my book’s birthday. I met my publisher right here, and we made it happen.

INSTRUCTOR displays book.

CLASS oohs and aahs.

INSTRUCTOR: Isn’t that amazing?

CLASS murmurs agreement.

UNNAMED WOMAN raises her hand.

INSTRUCTOR: Yes! A question!

UNNAMED WOMAN: I’m an artist. I already see a problem with this book. I can’t read the title.

UNNAMED WOMAN leans forward; squints. INSTRUCTOR gamely leans forward with book in hand.

UNNAMED WOMAN: Here, let me see that? Yeah, I can’t read this. It’s so busy.

INSTRUCTOR: Mmhmmm.

CLASS is dead quiet.

am fuming.

UNNAMED WOMAN: Who chose that cover, anyway?

#END SCENE#

If you’re anything like me, you are mouth open, wondering what could possibly make these people behave like this.

You are also furiously thinking up rejoinders, or maybe wondering what the appropriate thing to do or say would have been. I am most often reminded of an article I read about Bernie Williams, the New York Yankees’ former center fielder. He also plays concert-level guitar and composes music and likes chess, but whatever. (#overachiever)

Anyway. The article recounted how quiet Willians was in the locker room, and that whenever anyone would “yo’ mama” him, Williams would usually just gaze at the offender and say, something like, “Man, why did you have to say that?”

I have wanted to be Bernie Williams for a very long time.

I have noodled over these two occurrences for some time now. This is where my writing is supposed to take a left turn to Albuquerque, or maybe take the Osprey’s dive, to use a metaphor I borrowed from essayist Kathleen Dean Moore, and I’m supposed to see something fantastic that I didn’t see before about what these two events mean to me. But that is not going to happen. I can only posit a few theories:

1., I have maybe been shamed enough myself that I know what it feels like to be made to feel stupid in public.

2., I have maybe been shamed enough that I don’t believe anyone should be called out in public.

3. Painfully transparent short-sightedness makes me itch: UNNAMED WOMAN actually asked the publisher’s information, so that she could submit her work to them. And ASPIRING POET clearly did not put two and two together: If BIGWIG WRITER is at someone’s booth, and that someone is not you, them maybe you should consider that being nice to everyone at that booth and not trying to look like you know better is the right way to do it.

4., I am just churlish and curmudgeonly and need an ice-cream sandwich, stat.

5.. I am furious with myself for not having been there in situation the first to say something snappy to AP; and furious with myself for having not spoken up in situation the second. Earlier, I justified it to myself by saying, “Well, it’s not my class” and things like it, but FFS people. I should have said something.

6., I also distinctly remember what it was like to feel so insecure that you just need to prove you know more than the next guy. This makes me sad, both the remembering and the idea that grown-ass human beings still feel the need to behave this way.

I don’t know. I just needed to put all this somewhere. Just–don’t be like this, people, okay? People have long memories. And the ripple effect of your actions are always bigger than you think they are.

Ugh.

 

 

 

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

I visit with museum guards

Museums are my happy places. I visit them when I find a new city; I re-visit them when I go to cities I’ve been to before, too: I like to know what new things they are exhibiting, and maybe what they’d added to their permanent collections.

I also like talking to the museum guards. There are three that stand out in my head at the moment; at some point I would like to write them all down and maybe do a little chapbook of them.

Most recently, I was at the Phoenix Museum of Art.

I was in an exhibit of an artist I’d never heard of before, one Agnes Pelton. When I walked in there, I didn’t really know what to think: Her work is equal parts graphic design and fine art, and I couldn’t be sure if she had gained inspiration from the art of the era that was already around her, or if the wider art world took its cues from her. So I asked a museum guard.

“What do you think of this work?”

She was probably my age; standing straight, hands clasped behind her, and she looked alert. “Oh, I really like it,” she said.

“Oh? What about it do you like so much?”

Here she launched into an explanation that I won’t try and repeat to you verbatim, but the gist of it was that she thought the work was so clearly spiritual, and that it was ahead of its time.

I asked her which of the works displayed she liked the best, and she pointed out one that was a kind of landscape, but with a rectangular opening in the paint that looked out onto what was possibly a another lighter blue sky. “Look at that open door,” she said, or something like that. “Anyone can walk through it.”

I pointed at another one, this one.

(“Orbits,” 1934.)


“I like that one, too,” she said. “Everyone is their own little star.”

After another couple of exchanges, I thanked her for her time and did a slow lap around the paintings. When I got to “Orbits,” I saw that the curatorial note expressed the same sentiment of individuality. It was nice to think that the museum guard either had come to her own similar conclusion on seeing the painting, or that she had read the curatorial notes and they resonated with her.

When I was almost at the end of the exhibit, she came back to me. “You know,” she said, or something like it, “I think the best way to look at this art is to think that it has something for everyone. Whatever way you choose to look at it, that’s what it means to you.”

Obviously, I wasn’t recording her, or taking notes while I was talking to her. But I very much liked the sentiment of what she was saying, and while it’s obvious to those of us who have spent a lot of time looking at art, it was nice to hear it expressed from someone whose life is literally art, day in and day out.

Last year, I went to the National Portrait Gallery. I went to see the then-new Obama portraits, but I had a spin around the other galleries as well, and then I found this:

(“Shimomura Crossing the Delaware,” Roger Shimomura, 2010.)


(This copy is on my bulletin board; it’s not framed that way in the gallery, dur.)

When I went to look at it, there was some kind of class in the gallery, staring at it. I asked the museum guard nearby what was happening. They all had pencils and paper out and were looking very serious while someone lectured and asked them questions, but they weren’t sketching it anything.

“Oh,” he said. “they’re discussing what it means.”

“Mmhmm,” I said, “what do they think it means?”

“Oh, they’ve got all kinds of answers. I keep raising my hand, but she doesn’t call on me.” He tilted his head towards them. “Notice anything about them?”

“Yeah. They’re all older white women.”

“The thing is,” he said, looking equal parts amused and disgusted, “they’ll never get it right. You can’t know unless you’re like us, stuck between two cultures.”

A great gleeful laugh nearly bubbled out of me at that point, but I can’t quite pin down why. Some kind of solidarity? Some kind of schadenfreude? I don’t know. It wasn’t my proudest moment. But I really appreciated the exchange.

Last week, I took my students to the Norton Simon museum, a little place in Pasadena. It’s one of my favorites, in part because it’s manageable, but also, I like the art in there. We were doing some exercises from Amy E. Herman’s seminar the Art of Perception, and her companion book, Visual Intelligence. We were looking for “The Repentant Magdalene” (Guido Cagnacci, 1660-1663).

I couldn’t remember where this painting was in the museum, so I asked a museum guard. He didn’t know, which was annoying, but then he came back to as we were on our way to the information desk. “Is it the one where she’s taking off all her jewelry?” he said, making brushing motions down each of his arms, as if he were shucking off bracelets, rings. “That’s it,” I said, but I didn’t remember the motion quite being depicted that way, and as you can see below, it isn’t that at all. It’s very much after the fact.

 

One of the things we were looking for as we were studying this painting is our sense of implicit bias, or unconscious bias. All of my students grew up in Catholic households, but none of them clocked that this was Mary of Magdalene. (I didn’t let them look at the curatorial notes or the names of the paintings.) Some suggested that the women in the background were coming to rescue the woman on the floor. I’d just finished editing a book by a stripper, so my immediate re (re re re-action, since I’ve seen this painting many times) was to double-check and make sure the angel wasn’t flogging the woman on the floor for being a terrible person. And, of course, I clocked her gorgeous footwear, because I’m a sucker for good shoes. (They’re in the bottom left-hand corner, and if you google the painting you’ll see I’m not the only one who’s noticed them.)

I loved my interaction with this particular museum guard because it showed what his memory of the painting is; what he felt was most important about it. The immediacy of the subjects’ actions; the “what happened” imparting such a sense of urgency to him…

Well, maybe I’m wrong. But still it was interesting to note.

They all have been. I think this is why I’ll always talk to museum guards, even if just to find out what they think of the art they have to work near, all the times. I’m still wondering if I’ll ever meet anyone who hates their job.

 

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

My students want to read more, and it is a huge win for two reasons

Hello, everyone. This will be a short post, but I have been thinking about this thing that happened since it happened, and so I want to share it with you.

Some of you may know that I teach creative writing for non-traditional students at an area university. This has been one of the best things I have ever done. You see, this course is required, part of the students’ “Self-Expression” requirement, and so the students come in reluctantly, just to fulfill a requirement. I usually get some variation of “I just need this class to graduate.”

But our class, only ten short weeks, is buckets of fun. My students learn something, and they are exposed to new things, and so I am not only happy to do this, but it feeds me, on some primal reptilian level.

Last week, I read my students some essays from Brian Doyle, one of my favorite essayists. And then I had them do an assignment in which they mimicked a writer of my choosing for each of them. I only have three students this time around, so it was super easy, even this early in the term, to decide who was going to get the most out of what.

One of my students was really taken with the Doyle I read, so I assigned another essay of his for her to mimic.

Here’s what she said this week, in the middle of class, in outburst fashion.

“I never knew people like this existed. After I read ‘Joyas Voladoras,’ I read everything I could find of his work. And I read about how he died and about his books. And I feel so stupid, that I didn’t know this kind of writing existed.”

Well, look. I about died, and not in a good way, either. My damn heart cracked, and I wanted to cry, because people, you shouldn’t ever feel stupid about something you didn’t know existed. I can’t remember exactly what I said back to her, but it was this torrent of something that was equal parts hopeful and sad: joyful, right, because she’s got this huge canon of stuff that she can’t even categorize yet right in front of her, and sad, because hello, I don’t want my students feeling terrible about something they’ve never encountered before.

Maybe the upshot here is two: I am so happy that my students are discovering new things. But also, imagine what else we don’t know, haven’t read, even those of us whose professional and personal lives only exist because of words.

Imagine all the people we haven’t met yet, whose stories we get to hear.

Read on.

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

I’m reading Moby-Dick, so you don’t have to

…Actually, I think everyone should read Moby-Dick. That doesn’t mean I admire the thing, it just means I’m finding it intriguing. This is my second attempt at reading it; I last tried in 2015 and made it all the way to chapter 18 before I realized the whale wasn’t going to show up anytime soon. This time, I’m halfway through it. Moby-Dick himself still hasn’t shown up yet, but enough interesting stuff has happened that I thought I would share it with you. I don’t know that I’ll make it all the way through this time. It’s a testament to the book, I guess, that I remembered enough of it to continue on nearly four years later. Or maybe it’s a testament to the fact that nothing of real interest plot-wise has happened yet. As my Twitter friend @angryreporter put it:

 

At any rate, here we are, 62% of the way through Moby-Dick. And here’s the link to my spreadsheet of my reading of Moby-Dick. Or, rather, so far of the things that made my ears go up. Let me know if it doesn’t work. Let me know what you think. Commenting is on. I’d especially be interested in hearing from those of you who have already read it.

 

 

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Accountability in the disaster-relief world

Hello from Dubai, where I’m on a long layover on my way home from my 13th deployment for ShelterBox. I want to take some time to tell you a little bit about something I don’t think a lot of folks consider when they think of disaster relief: How this agency works to continuously refine both what we deliver to families in need and how we deliver it, so we can be sure we’re doing the best we can.

A large part of this responsibility rests with our MEAL team.

This has nothing to do with the fact that I need feeding every two hours. This has to do with Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability, and Learning. After a decade at ShelterBox, I think this is one of my favorite parts of working with the agency. In theory, it’s about making sure we gain knowledge to improve every time we deploy aid and resources. I’ve had the great privilege of being a part of putting it into practice three times now, and I think I’m ready to share some of its most salient points with you.

First: Post-distribution monitoring (PDM) can start happening as early as a few weeks after we give families in need our aid, and, in fact, can go on while distribution of aid is still taking place. Some of this is due to our desire to see that the families we helped can use and understand our aid. So we go back and do things like making sure tents are set up properly; tarps have been installed correctly; solar lights are functioning properly and optimally (we might remind a family that using the solar light at full power will drain its battery faster, for instance). This helps us to check up on two things: 1., that the training we helped to provide was accurate and useful; 2., that the family is moving forward from the disaster they’ve experienced.

Second: Another phase of PDM involves longer surveys and focus groups. In the past, this has taken place about six months after we deploy the aid, but we are always trying new things, and this methodology may change. We spend somewhere from half an hour to an hour with randomly chosen families who have received our aid, and walk them through how hey felt about both the distribution process and the actual aid package itself. Since the families have had more time with the kit by the time we reach this stage, we are able to get more in-depth answers from them.

Focus groups are one of my favorite parts of the MEAL process. Since the beneficiaries are in the focus groups with their friends and fellow community members, this is a bubbly, lively event. The MEAL team works really hard to come up with topics that will help us to respond to each disaster, and each region’s, more specific needs. We then work together as a team to come up with questions revolving around the topics, which might touch on things like the potential for cash aid packages, how aid affects larger families, and other relevant issues that affect the communities we worked with.

In a focus group, recipients of ShelterBox aid selected which of the items they received was their favorite by attaching stickers to pictures of each aid item. Photo: Josephine Mendoza, Calbayog Journal

 

The MEAL team might opt for focus groups comprising all men, all women, or mixed. Any way you slice it, we get such valuable information–and such wonderful stories, the likes of which we don’t always hear if the families are just being interviewed by themselves. The air of discussion really loans some focus group participants bravery, and the backing to speak up.

Third: This is another one of my favorite parts of MEAL: The interviews we undertake do not happen without some help from locals. I mean the invaluable interpreters we engage in order to ensure we are understanding the families accurately. Several times we’ve leaned on our drivers, who sometimes do double duty as interpreters, and I’ve twice had the experience of working with students recruited from the local high school or university. These people come to help us as volunteers. These volunteers are amazing. They spend a lot of time being walked through the survey. And they also spend time learning about the software we use so they can use smartphone or tablet versions of the survey if they want.

Sometimes the interviewers are workers from the local government, or community health workers. Sometimes they are Rotarians. Either way, what ends up happening is a collaboration of a most remarkable sort, where people get to make connections to people they might otherwise have ever been able to meet. Another neat side effect: We’ve also heard from some volunteers that the skills they learn, and the experiences they gain, as volunteers for us end up encouraging them in different life directions.

An initial setup for a focus group at Bayho Barangay, in the Lope de Vega municipality of Northern Samar, in the Philippines. Things didn’t stay this way for long.

 

When I was younger, I loved the urgency of disaster relief. Part of me hungered for the drive involved in its immediacy. I thought delivering aid by hand to a family in need was the pinnacle of responsibility. But I’ve seen a lot more since then, and I’ve often wondered how people are after we leave them. Ultimately, our MEAL team and processes allow us to see these families again, which fulfills a certain emotional urge, but it also gives us the tools to improve, so that we can keep on getting better at providing our aid to families who need it the most.

 

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

That smirking boy is me, or, the old world has a thing to say

In my home country of Taiwan (and probably in many other cultures), your elders are not to be questioned. Whatever they say goes. There is no discourse, no discussion, and you are most definitely in for a world of hurt, both physical and psychological, should you dare question that line of thinking. You just live this way, with these values.

The only L.A. Times story my parents ever clipped out and kept for me to read was about a Vietnamese-American girl who served her father first at dinner and then stood behind him as he ate, before eating her own meal. My parents said they wished I could be this obedient, this good.

Now, I know a lot of Asian kids who might yes-ma’am-yes-sir with the best of them. I also know these same kids did things like hiding their live-in relationships from their parents. (Whenever the phone rang–this is in the days before Caller ID–the kid with the parents who might care answered the phone, and not the relationship. If the parents came to visit, the relationship moved out.) These kids lived double lives. They might have done like me, and changed clothes in the school bathroom twice–once before going to school, once before coming home. They might have dated behind their parents’ backs. They might have pursued a Creative Writing degree while blithely telling their parents engineering classes were going great, thanks.

But they never, ever, would have raised their voices to their parents, to hear my parents speak of it. Rolling their eyes would be, like–Wow, you’d better duck for the slap that was surefire coming your way. They would never have questioned anything. They would just go along with, and know that it was for the better.

This is a lesson I never learned. Whether by innate personality, rearing, or perfect storm of circumstance (or perfect storm of all three), I cannot abide it when someone tells me something my gut knows is wrong. Or says something I’m hurt by. Or remarks on anything in a way that is rude and unseeming. Even if it comes from someone older. I got into a lot of trouble with my parents, growing up.

Here in America, there seems to be a kind of respect for elders. But I’ve also seen–and watched, and read–a lot of media portraying kids as talking back to their parents, or even shouting at them. These kids are portrayed as standing up for themselves, thinking for themselves, having healthy debate and discourse with their parents. I’ve seen such a thing happen in real life, even. And in the American media my parents watched growing up as kids in Taiwan–think James Dean, think Elvis, think Steve McQueen and others–there was always the kid who talked back to adults, who treated them with disrespect, calling them outdated or in general showing elders just what they thought of them, just because they were older, less strong in body.

The adults in American culture were not respected, is the message my parents walked away with. Not so in Taiwan. And therefore, their children would be raised according to Taiwanese traditions.

This did not work for them. It probably didn’t work for a lot of parents who had kids who wanted to be “more American.”

I really, really longed for an American-style relationship with my elders. I craved discourse, conversation, learning from them in a fashion other than being lectured at.

*

When I was in Taiwan last winter, I bought my SIM card from a MyFone store in the village center. I was with one of my elderly aunts. The girl behind the counter was maybe in her twenties. My aunt asked her if she was married. The girl said, “Nope! No time.” My aunt said, “You should make time.” The girl grinned and nodded.

My aunt then said to me, “She’s so cute! Look at her hair!” The girl had a messy mop of curls cut short on the sides, so her whole head fluffed  at the top, kind of, and the whole thing moved exaggeratedly with her every movement. “You look like a little rooster,” said my aunt to the girl, and the girl obligingly bobbed and nodded her head, and the whole thing moved, and my aunt laughed, joyfully, and the girl smiled with her eyes and a little quirk of her lips. She bobbed again, just to make my aunt laugh again.

A few minutes later, an old woman who had once worked in our household when I was a baby walked into the store. My aunt introduced us, or re-introduced us, I guess. I didn’t remember her, but she knew me when I was still pooping my pants. “Your aunt says you’re married,” she said, by way of introduction.

“I am,” I said.

“Children?”

“Nope,” I said, girding myself.

“Have some, why don’t you?”

“Too late!” I said, maybe a little stridently.

“You’re still young. You can do it!”

“My ovaries are shriveled!”

“It’s better if you have some. Try.”

“I’m too lazy!”

At this point something popped in my head. What the hell was I doing? Why was I struggling? Why not just tell her okay, and move on?

  1. I probably was never going to see her again.
  2. No one really has any stakes in this conversation.
  3. No one’s mind was going to be changed about anything during our interaction.

It struck me then that I’d be a lot better off in a lot of my interactions with my parents if I could just stop taking everything like it was criticism. And, maybe, if I cared just a little bit less. If I were better at “live and let live.”

In the case of the interaction with this particular elder, in my parents’ parlance, if I had just respected this woman more, maybe it’d be easier. Instead of arguing with her, the answer was to just nod and say, “Yes, uh huh, okay.”

But it’s not about respect, you might say. And yet, in my home culture, it is. No matter what you think, or feel, treating someone with respect looks like you’re giving them their due, letting them have their say, giving them the room they’ve earned.

Later, my aunt told me that this woman’s own daughter had run away. That they don’t speak to each other.

*

Earlier this week, the Indigenous Peoples’ March happened in Washington, DC. Nearby, the March for Life was also going on. You all know what happened. Some people from a Kentucky Catholic school stared down, shouted over, and in general were disrespectful to some Native American elders who were singing a traditional song. (There is another interpretation to this, and if you watch an entire two-hour video, or even just read this post, you can make your own decision. But I don’t think that changes, much, what I’m saying here.)

The teenagers apparently mocked the elders. In one portion of the tape, one can be heard saying, “Yo, this is deep,” and others are shouting to drown out the elders’ song, making tomahawk motions and some other stupid shit.

We should all agree that this is disrespectful behavior. And disrespectful behavior towards our elders is on my mind a lot lately, as I spend more time with my parents and look ever inwards to my culture and my own behavior. Where does the urge to roll my eyes come from? Where does the need to second-guess my elders and their frame of reference come from? Where does the need to meet them head-on, like an angry bull, come from?

Sometimes, second-guessing is healthy curiosity. But most times, I think, it comes from a need to defend myself, a need to prove that I Have Degrees and that I’ve Learned Things and Been Places. This fragility leads me to act as someone not myself; it leads me to be mean where I don’t need to be mean.

Perhaps most importantly for my own sanity, it leads me to be angry when I don’t need to be.

More germane to this conversation: I have been this young man, at least to my own parents. I have mimicked them behind their backs. I have stared them down. I have openly, flagrantly, confronted them.

I have been intolerant of their views.

I’m not equating myself with these young men. I’m certainly not calling for you to understand them, or give them a pass. And I’m definitely not equating what happened this weekend to what happens in my own head and heart on a day-to-day basis. The parent-child relationship is deserving of more than this simple comparison.

But what I am saying is this: When we speak of disrespect, we must know that, at any given minute, we are a hair away from being just like these young men. You might think it’s different because we’re not disrespecting people from another culture, say, or disrespecting someone from another age group, or of another body type or of a differing level of ability, but it’s disrespect, all the same.

I still struggle with this, when it comes to my own family. I still think everyone has a right to their opinion, and that there is a moral, humanitarian right and a corresponding wrong. At some point in my life, I told my dad that it was because I respected him that I wanted to have what I termed “the good fight.” But he didn’t see it that way, and he still doesn’t.

Families are one thing; society is another, but we still must, at a minimum, tolerate each other. We must practice this tolerance. We must understand that respect for each other also doesn’t always come naturally, especially when it is countered by intolerance. So we must practice this as well.

Practice with the people you naturally respect. Listen to all they have to say. Then carry that through, to people you don’t always agree with, or even respect.

Practice tolerance. Practice respect. Head off the simmering desire to disregard someone else’s point of view; to shake your heads mournfully at their ignorance.

I work on this every single day. Now, more than ever, I work on it. Maybe it’s the right thing to do; maybe something bigger and stronger is needed. But the sorrow I experience from seeing the smug, awful look on that young man’s face only makes me wish that he had had parents and a culture like mine, one where elders were never, ever to be disrespected.

*

Ultimately, I want to live a life where I’m not as angry; where I’m not as frustrated, by things I don’t have to be angry and frustrated by. This means a lot of heading things off at the pass. When I first lived in New York in the mid-90s, it took me ages to realize that getting angry at the subways being late was only not useful; it was downright silly. I couldn’t do anything about it in that moment. If I was going to get angry, it should have been years ago and on a larger scale; campaigning for more straphangers’ rights, say.

Letting go of that anger did wonders for my state of mind.

Not swearing as much unless I really meant it (another long project) was a part of that, too.

This is way bigger, obviously. It has huge implications, this letting the elders have their say. Yes, they’re wrong a lot of the time, but so am I. And anyway, I think the point is to not react to so much with anger, so much defensiveness.

*

I have a friend whose default questioning expression is, “Hmmmmm.” This expression accomplishes so much. It tells you she’s mulling things over; it buys her some time; it doesn’t express one opinion or another.

(For contrast, my default questioning expression is one raised eyebrow, or a squint, and a relatively explosive, “Hunh!”)

Moreover, I think my friend’s expression is very, very respectful. By the same token that it tells you she’s mulling things over, it tells you that she’s giving what you’ve said or done some thought, letting it knock around in her head.

I’m not sure that she means all of that in that one long, drawn-out syllable. But at the very least, “Hmmm” takes a lot less energy than “Hunh!” and my raised eyebrow, and expending less energy can go a really, really long way towards a happier, less angst-filled life.

I tried it on my parents at dinner the other day. It made for a much more pleasant evening, took the charge out of everything.

I think what happened is that my parents felt heard, rather than challenged.

Who knows? Next month I may discover a more worthwhile coping mechanism. But for now, this, this thing I had formerly lumped in with other unfortunate side effects of colonial lag–this I think is something I can put to good use.

What’s your preferred method for defusing charged situations? Tell me below. 

 

 

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The lenses through which we see may not be our own

When I was 18 or so, I went to Oregon to be a camp counselor. All the counselors had camp names–Seaweed, Alpine, Whinny, Weed, Shaggy, Scribbles, Moondog, Kramer. One of the ones I admired the most was about my age, but she was way, way cooler than I was. Or am. I only remember her real name, if that’s any indication. Anyway, she had a boyfriend who came to visit. I met him once, and he was coming to visit us at camp at some point in the summer. Just before he came, Turtle, whose real name I also remember, asked me what he was like. Or maybe she didn’t ask me.

See, in the family I grew up in, my parents just gave opinions, willy-nilly. They didn’t ask if anyone wanted to hear them; they just gave them, because no one but your family would ever tell you the truth, or some other adage designed to excuse the hurt such opinions could cause.

Anyhow. I started talking, talking, talking, telling Turtle about the guy, and then Turtle said something like, “How about you let me meet him first?”

It was the first time it ever really occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t be influencing other peoples’ opinions with my own jabbering. It was the first time, actually, that it ever occurred to me that maybe I didn’t need to have an opinion, really. And maybe it was the first time that it occurred to me that other people most definitely didn’t need to hear my opinions on everything.

(That last part is constantly a work in progress; the pressure to seem relevant is always there.)

Anyway, it’s been slowly occurring to me that anything we do or say; any time we appear, is meant to imply, to impress something upon the viewer, or the reader, or the persons you interact with. I’ve had this thought a number of times over the last two decades or so: People walking their dogs in their pajamas, for instance, imparts for me not an admirable sense of independence, but, rather, a sense of sloppy insouciance, a lack of pride in one’s appearance.

Likewise, when I walked down the street with my dog off-leash, it was meant to imply confidence over a blatant disregard for the rules, but I couldn’t have that much control over people’s reactions. Or could I?

When I wrote for the J. Peterman and Patagonia catalogs, those pieces were meant to convey very specific emotions built around getting people to buy things. Earlier this week, I gave some brief remarks on behalf of a nonprofit I volunteer for; I did it in a logo’ed top and an exaggerated houndstooth-print skirt and walking boots, an outfit I chose to convey the efficiency and yet, continued relevance and constantly evolving nature of the charity.

Sometimes these things go awry. Years ago I delivered an earnings report in a nice suit, but I did it leaning against the wall, in a posture meant to convey confidence and a modicum of intended arrogance (it was a complicated relationship) but I know for a fact–could sense it, even while I was doing it, that would backfire. And I once walked into a meeting of marketing people with my huge French cuffs deliberately undone, but they flapped while I was talking, causing a terrible distraction.

All of these things seem sartorially bent–it’s the easiest thing for me to think of–but really what I’m referring to is narrative. What I’m referring to is context.

Take, for instance, the podcast Serial, which I’m finally listening to. (If you haven’t heard it yet, pick it up here.) In the first season, the reporter tries to make sense of a murder case she feels has gone awry. I haven’t heard the end of it, so I don’t know what we’re going to find out. But there are so many moving pieces to this story–the characters, the settings, the very social backdrop of the time the murder took place–that I couldn’t help but wonder why this reporter chose to tell this story in the way she did. Why, for instance, is it crafted in segments like this?

Why does she feature the defendant’s voice in some episodes over others?

Why does she include her own musings as she’s reporting?

Why does she follow the very specific timeline she follows?

For me, all of these questions are leading to even more questions, and although I’m only just nearing the end of season 1, I’m worried that I’ll walk away from the podcast feeling like I’ve been played–that I won’t actually feel happy about the outcome of this particular series, because it will have just opened in me–has opened in me–the desire to see it for my damn self, to root through the stuff, before I can believe what the reporter has told me.

Some things are like this. Maybe the whole intent of Serial is to make you ask questions, make you realize what else might be out there that you’ve either misinterpreted, or just taken for granted because something you deem a higher authority told you so.

Or if, like Turtle, you’d been primed to see something one or or another because of something someone said.

It strikes me that this is a key part of art, the capability to shape someone’s view of things, to prime them with a narrative of your own making, before they even get to witness the thing themselves. Last weekend we took my dad to see a photo exhibition featuring pictures his friend Dr. Dean Hsu had taken on his travels around the world. Every part of that show–from the photo itself to the placement of the photos and the editorial choices made by the curators–was meant to imply and help you to form an opinion of the places Dr. Hsu had been, even if you’ve never been there yourself.

We walked around the town of Visalia a little bit between lunch and the exhibition. I took some photos of the buildings there, because I love the buildings of that era, and I like to do watercolors of them. They’re my safe spot. And before lunch, we took a tour of the cancer care practice Dr. Hsu used to work at. It was such a warm, lovely place.

I never thought about it this way before, but the intent of the drawings I do is meant to convey to you, the viewer, my own impressions of the place I’ve visited. So when you look at these pictures, the first of a window in Dr. Hsu’s office; the second of a building I particularly liked, I hope you get the sensation that these are places that made me feel warm and happy. Whether or not they imply the things I want you to feel is a mark of the work’s success–or failure.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing and teaching about intent and its importance in writing stories and essays, but this is the first time I’ve thought about my visual art this way. Which is funny, because surely there must be some kind of internal desire around each painting I do.

It’s good to approach everything, I think, with intent, whatever that may be. The conveyance of who we are and what we’re about comprises these small details. More importantly, we have the power to change the way that others see things, and I think that’s not something to be wielded lightly.

For my part, I like to keep reminding myself that these things have more weight that we might have otherwise considered–or intended.

What have you seen, read, or heard that’s irrevocably changed your opinion or the way you think and view things? Tell me in the comments below.

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

A small-but-significant change for 2019

If you’re anything like me, you like shiny things. I don’t mean shiny things like diamonds and pearls and watermelon tourmaline, but I mean shiny things like all that distracts from the work you do to make a living or build a career, or even just  something that distracts from your everyday flow.

For me, it could be anything. It could be:

  • A long read I want to delve into and take time with
  • A web site offering new organizational tools that might be useful to me
  • A note I want to write to a friend
  • A friend I’ve been meaning to call but haven’t yet
  • A question or discussion I’d like to open up with someone
  • A new-to-me book I want to learn more about before I buy
  • A new shop I want to visit

The list is broad, and runs between my IRL and my virtual life. Keep in mind, these aren’t “tasks,” or “to do” items. They are THINGS, in my parlance. STUFF that translates to something I can hold, I think. I’m not sure what the actual rules are, but they don’t lead to anything. They are individual discrete items, in and of themselves. Anyway.

In previous years what I’ve done is to list these things down on my daily to-do list and get to them when I have time that day, but that tactic has failed to work. That is, I haven’t stuck with it. I either never get to the item on the list and then I forget it, thus decreasing the pleasure I get out of each day, or I just never write it down, trusting to memory, and then I never get to it that way, either.

But I think I’ve found something that will really work for me: A gift box to me, to be opened at the end of every week. The plan right now is to take one day out of my workweek to do this. Today’s Friday. I’m going to use this day for this catchup for a couple reasons:

  • Friday is a good day to gift yourself
  • Jim doesn’t work on Fridays either, so it’s a nice dovetail
  • If I want to follow up further on these things, I have the weekend to do so, and I can go into Monday worry-free

(This isn’t a new idea, by the way. Productivity pundits have been touting their benefits for ages, but more recently, the former director of leadership at WalMart wrote about his “Untouchable” days in the Harvard Business Review. It’s something similar, I think. Have a look here. If I find the other post I’m thinking of, something I read back in the early 2000s, I’ll post it for you.)

Okay, so what is a gift box to myself? It’s basically just a box in which I can store the things I want to take time for. I like this concept for two reasons: First, I like to open presents. Second, I’m of the “set it and forget it” mentality: If I can write something down somewhere and put it away, I can feel confident that it’s in a safe place and I won’t misplace it or never get to it.

My current gift box looks like this:

It’s basically just a fancy cardboard box. It wasn’t the prettiest box I could find (I’m not one for florals), but the New Year had started, my pile of things I was already interested in was growing, and I needed a place to Put Stuff. So yeah. Panic. I had a couple conditions for this box, though:

  • It needed to be attractive
  • It needed to be easy-open, so I could get stuff into it quickly
  • I wanted it to feel somewhat sturdy, with some heft, because the stuff in that box is important to me. I wanted it to match up.

So how do I manifest the things I listed above, the stuff I want to look into? Really low-tech: I just write it down on a piece of paper and dump it into the box. I have a little pad of llama paper that a friend gave me, no lie, a decade ago, I think, and this is the perfect use for it. Also, index cards. Scraps, sometimes. But the llama paper is nice, and loans a little uniformity. Plus, it’s always easier to find a pad of paper than a scrap. Sometimes I put the business cards of people I want to learn more about/formulate a relationship with in there, too.

How’s it going so far?

Well, it’s only been a week. But I can tell you that I feel much clearer over previous years. Like, the ugly spackle that I formerly pictured this stuff as has changed into little gems that I can put into this box. I don’t fret about things so much, I don’t have nearly as many windows open on my browser as I used to—

These are little things. But ultimately, they get to add up to big changes, in mood and in productivity.

Hey! I just thought of another thing I should put in this box. Blog post ideas. That’s a good place to store them.

Do you have a new, shiny productivity/life improvement thing for 2019 you want to share with me? Tell me in the comments below.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Yogis I have loved

When Mr. Gooddirt and I went to our first-ever yoga class in Chicago in the mid-2000s, we only knew a little bit of what to expect. We hoped it would change us from being tight-hamstringed runners and cyclists into better athletes. I’m not sure mindfulness, or whatever, was really of interest. But since then, we’ve found ourselves repeating over and over again a phrase that first yoga instructor we had used. For me, the phrase has become a little bit of a situation barometer. (I’ll explain below.)

Since then I’ve been to several more yoga classes and encountered several different instructors, obviously. Some were great. Some were downright terrible, including one right here where I live who felt it her right and place to engage in publicly shaming people in class. (Yes, I complained. No, they didn’t care, which just underscored the impression I sometimes have of yoga here in America being the domain of the privileged—see here for more reading.)

But I want to tell you about the ones who stuck with me in positive fashion:

Chicago Parks System, 2006ish? 2007? Can’t remember exactly

It was almost always cold and dark when we walked the two short blocks to our yoga class at an offshoot of the Chicago Parks System. It was winter, and I think we were looking to try something new. Our instructor was about as far away from the modern interpretation of a yoga instructor could be: short, in her late 60s, maybe, tight curly hair and dressed in a tracksuit. The room was huge, lots of space for everyone, and darker than I expected.

Her pacing, tonally, was about what you’d expect, though, slow and measured, and out of her mouth, with every stretch and bend, came this phrase:

“See…what…it…will…do.”

With this gentle phrase, she encouraged everyone to take their muscles and limbs a little further, and also, to bend a little the bounds of what you think your body can do.

I don’t think we went to very many classes, maybe a handful? But that phrase is linked now to every situation where there might be a squishy variable:

“Our timing looks tight tonight. Do you think we can get Huckleberry to the dog park for a little bit?”
“I don’t know. Let’s just play it by ear.”
“Yes. See…what…it…will…do.”

“I don’t know if I can make it up this hill.”
“Well, just…See…what…it…will…do.”

This instructor’s voice happens internally, too, whether I’m sending out submissions or puréeing veg for a little soup. “Ooh. I’ve never tried this before. Let’s See…what…it…will…do.”

It’s a remarkably handy phrase.

Claremont Club, 2017ish sometime

If I could take this next yoga instructor around with me in my handbag, I totally would. Her name is Emily. We don’t belong to the club anymore, but she is easily one of the most supportive people I know on a cursory level.

In contrast to the yoga instructor I told you about earlier, she’s exactly what you’d think of when you think of a yoga instructor. Tall, but muscular. I wouldn’t call her willowy. Perfect manicure/pedicure every time I’ve seen her. Long dishwater blonde hair. Great yoga clothes. Emily runs her classes without using a mat herself. She’s confident and also intimate. If you need to approach her about a problem you’re having (I first started coming to her when I had a back problem) she sits down across from you and talks to you about it, taking all the time you need before or after class.

She is demonstrative. She spends a huge chunk of her time walking around the class, showing people poses from different positions, correcting you when she can, using her body as ballast or support for you if you’re trying something new. She’s hands-on, and hands-down, my very most favorite ever yoga instructor. I did my very first headstand in her class, and I did it because of rambling commentary like this:

“What’s going to happen if you fall over? Nothing. You’re not going to fall very far. Just try it. And see if you can touch the floor. Ready? Boop! Touch the floor.”

(I wish I could remember what pose we were doing when she said this. It was some kind of warrior into half-moon into crescent pretzel horrible thingy.)

Emily is a master at sound effects. It turns out she’s a kindergarten teacher, which explains so much. I was encouraged to do stuff in her class I never even thought I could do. I got stronger.

I spend a good portion of my energy trying to be like Emily to others.

Hangar 18 Climbing Gym, last week sometime

Genuinely unlike any yoga class I’ve ever been in. This one takes place in the upstairs loft portion of our climbing gym, which we only recently joined after giving up our stupidly expensive membership to the Claremont Club. ($179 a month for two of us, and the benefits weren’t what we wanted, although the facilities were gorgeous.)

The space is freezing, because the windows are open to accommodate sweaty people climbing and bouldering downstairs. It’s in the 40s outside. People are falling off walls onto mats and calling out that they’re on belay or climbing. It’s a climbing gym, so high walls and echo chambers are everywhere.

Our instructor is a young man in glasses that are my favorite shade of blue. He’s in climbing pants, which are basically pants you might see on the hiking trail. There’s very little yoga garb in here, because a lot of people have probably come straight from climbing to yoga.

Because of the noise, Tylor has to shout. Like each yoga instructor I’ve mentioned above, he’s encouraging, but he doesn’t come by and correct you or anything, although he does position himself so folks can see what he’s doing from different angles. And he does verbally target things you’re probably doing wrong. “Pull your shoulders away from your ears.” Oh, hey! That’s me.

This is a different type of class. I get the sense we’re not working on our practice or whatever, we’re getting stronger with an end purpose in mind. Of course, this could just be me.

At the end of the class, when we’re in corpse pose for way too long for such a chilly, chilly space, Taylor talks his way up our bodies, from toes to crown of head, telling us that we should be mindfully encouraging our individual body parts

“…to relax.”

He repeats this over and over again, shouting over the noise in the gym. When you get told

“to relax”

over and over again, some part of it probably begins to sink in. Now, recalling it, I remember, certainly, how cold I was. But I also remember Tyler voice, yelling “to relax,” and although the grammar bitch part of me wants to tell him to change up his phrasing so that we just hear “relax” instead of the infinitive, well, there’s something weirdly, uh, relaxing about hearing that phrase over and over again.

It’s weird, the things that stick with you over time. I’m glad for things like this, popping up in unexpected places, that give me tools to play with at times when I might need help.

What phrases have stuck with you over the years? Tell me in the comments below. 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

New Year’s Eve in Morro Bay

I met some people over the two days and a night we were in Morro Bay.

Well. That’s not entirely true. I met one person. Watched another from afar. And found an item that helped me to write the first entry to my new column at The Writer magazine. (Launches in print in April, and it’s about the things I learn from my various writing and editing and teaching jobs.)

I don’t know either of the person’s names that I’m going to write about, but they made an impression on me. I wish I’d gotten photos of the one I talked to; he was a real gem. The odds that I’ll run into him again are low, but he was pretty special.

He was walking along the beach, in a helmet, drysuit, and booties, carrying a surfboard. He was walking north along the beach, checking the waves, and so I asked him: “What kind of water are you looking for?”

“Oh,” he said. “You want a wave that kind of peels, but with an open end to it. There, there! Like that one, but…oh, it’s closing up now. You want to be able to ride it for a long time, see.”

We talked for awhile longer. He said he’s been surfing for sixty years, and that he’s never had a shark encounter. He also said he’s been a white-water kayaker, a race-car driver, a sky-diver–and that surfing is the sport that he loves the most. But he also said that, in every other sport he’s ever tried, there’s been a kind of community, a kind of sharing. Surfing, he says, doesn’t have that. “There’s a kind of selfishness,” he said, but differed with Jim’s assessment that it was about preserving the best breaks for yourself.

I wish I’d had a chance to talk more, but he wanted to get on the water. I don’t blame him. I just thought he was really cool, and I wanted to share him with you.

All I have from the second person I want to tell you about is this photo:

No big deal, right? We’re on a beach, so why wouldn’t someone be barefoot? Well, it was January 1. I was bundled up in a sweater and a jacket and jeans and a hat; Jim was wearing a jacket, even. We were both wearing gloves. This guy, RayBans on, bluetooth headphones flapping around his neck, was in shorts and T-shirt, striding through the water, up the beach and then back down it. He had his shoes in his hand.

It was easy to imagine some self-affirmation stuff going on in through his headphones, especially because of the way he was walking: toes pointed slightly outwards (you can’t really see this in the photo above, but I’m telling you), chest out. He was in a navy-blue V-neck top and white shorts. He was short, a little bit pudgy. He had a full  head of black, wavy hair, and he was Feelin’ It, whatever it was he was hearing through his headphones. He was On a Mission.

I would have been freezing. But he was out there, struttin’ like a seagull. It was pretty cool to see.

Here’s the last thing I wanted to tell you about:


Sometimes you find rocks on a beach that have a lot of holes drilled in them. They’re usually thicker rocks, great big lumps. The holes are made my sponges or sea snails or piddocks that live in them. But this one was probably a mistake, like someone started drilling and went, “Oops! THAT’s not going to be an appropriate home!”

Anyway. I spotted this one and really debated about whether or not I should take it home. I like to leave cool things for other people to find, especially since it’s so easy now to take photos of them. But then I put it to my eye, and I knew I had to have it.

Why? Because looking through that tiny little hole made everything clearer. This little rock gave me the metaphor I needed to write my first column, so you’ll have to wait until then to see what I learned from it. In the meantime, hope everyone is having a great start to their new year. I am.

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.