Author Archives: yi-shun-lai

Shelter, Warmth, Dignity–and Education

Hello.

Two Fridays ago I returned from Haiti, where ShelterBox, the disaster-relief agency I volunteer for, is helping the nation to recover from Hurricane Matthew.

As always, there are many different things I saw and people I met that left me feeling richer and better rounded, but I want to take some time and space today to reflect on something that sometimes gets overlooked in our normal understanding of relief efforts.

So let’s picture what people think of when they think of disaster relief: Food. Medicine. Shelter. Yes. All good, necessary things. But what happens in the immediate days after a disaster? Depending on where you live, you’ve probably encountered a sign like this somewhere in your neighborhood:

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Where do you usually see them? Civic buildings, generally: Stadiums, churches, sometimes–and schools. Schools are well-built; it’s the place to which parents will naturally turn if a natural disaster strikes during school hours, since they’ll want to see if their kids are okay.

But quite often, places of education get turned into shelters that may serve a population for weeks on end if families have no place to turn.

When we arrived in Haiti, a few days after Hurricane Matthew came through, schools had already been pressed into service. One chalkboard I saw had its last lesson on it, from September 28. When we left Les Cayes, there was no news as to when schools could go back into service.

The problem is, when schools are housing families, serving as places to stay safe and out of the elements, they can’t be used for their original purposes. In the Haitian earthquake of 2010, schools only started to reopen after a few months. And in Malawi, where I was last year, even after schools opened to regular classes, classrooms were still serving as shelters, so families had no place to go during the day, while school was in session; and school staff and communities had to work every morning and every afternoon to effect the change from classroom to shelter and back again.

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The classrooms in this school in Malawi were doing double duty when we showed up: They were serving both as shelters for families while they rebuilt their homes and as proper classrooms. You can see the kids in their school uniforms with my teammate here.

The effect of natural disaster on a society goes far beyond the more acute needs of food, medicine, and shelter. It’s one of the reasons aid agencies like ours work so hard to get families back onto their home sites, so life can go on.

For more of our work in Haiti and worldwide, visit ShelterBoxUSA.org. And for more detailed information on what effects disaster can have on education, see this paper from the Brookings Institute.

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

“You Do You,” or the Xterra Ogden Triathlon

Hooooboy. It has been *such* a long time since I’ve written a race report. The last one I did was for another triathlon. I think it was two, three years ago.

I was relatively fit then. I know this because I did a 10K the day before I did the sprint tri, and I felt fine starting the race and ending it. This time…not so much. I last ran three miles in July. I last rode my bike more than 10 miles in…I dunno. May? May? Seriously, yes. I was still doing a reasonable amount of swimming on a daily basis when I got into the car with Jim and my bicycle September 14, but I wasn’t going to Utah to race.

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Here is the lovely Utah landscape and some mountains I did not think I was going to be running up or down or anything like that a few weekends ago. 

I packed my sneakers, my bike stuff, and some run stuff, because a friend of mine was going to meet us there. Our husbands would race, but I had decided it was going to be a weekend of doing the _other_ things I like to do: reading, writing, finally getting back to my watercolors, pootling, just pootling on the bike and in the hills, maybe. I did spend the first morning at our shared condo doing those things, while everyone was out getting registered, but then when they got back home, the first thing my friend said was, “I registered.”

Oh! My heart sank. Oh, how lonely I felt just then, how quickly and sharply I remembered the previous year, when I drove Jim’s parents around the course while Jim and our friend Donna raced. Oh, I recalled the jealousy from watching them flop on the couch after their post-race showers, looking very slightly sunburned, tired enough to take forever to crack open their beers.

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Here is the shirt I should have worn all weekend so no one (especially myself) bothered me about racing. 

People, there ain’t nothin’ like race day–and there ain’t nothin’ like post-race either, when you stumble across the finish line and know that, whatever it is you eat or do the next couple of days, you earned it.

I took another couple hours to think about it, but after we’d taken a quick recon ride on the race course, I was pretty well convinced. So I got big numbers plastered on me and ate a nervous pasta-ish meal and then we all went home and got ready for the race.

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Here is the proof that I did something very stupid the day before a race: I registered. 

Folks, I know how to swim, bike, and run. I’m reasonably skilled on a mountain bike, and I really enjoy being out on it. Running is a necessary evil that I used to enjoy. But nothing can make up for months of lying relatively idle for a few months straight.

Well. This is where you say to yourself, Surely this is one of those stories where she surprises herself with her fitness, and there is joy and angels’ choirs and something like a halfway decent time, right? This is where she digs deep, a story of inspiration and blahbbity blibbity lip flap etcetera, right? No. No. Sorry. This is not one of those stories.

You see, untrained muscles are just that: Untrained. That whole “muscle memory” thing? That’s not about your muscles remembering how to be strong. That’s just about them remembering what it was like when they were strong. This muscle memory, by the way, makes you incredibly frustrated with yourself, and your muscles incredibly frustrated with you, when you have to hobble along next to your bike because both quads have cramped up. And then, imagine their further frustration when your muscle memory also says, “Oh! We know how to fix this cramp! Just pull your ankle up to your butt and–WHAT WHAT O HEY NOW WHAT IS THAT AGONIZING CRAMP ON THE BACKS OF OUR LEGS NOW WHAT WHAT OWTCH.”

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Here are the bananas I should have eaten because they might have saved my legs from cramping. Okay, not. Anyway. 

You begin to see the problems. Suffice it to say that, by mile 10 or so of the 12-mile bike, I was knelt on the ground by my bike; ass on ankles, helmet on the gear ring, focusing on breathing. (Somewhere in the back of my brain was the line from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” where he’s muttering to himself, “The penitent man shall kneel; the penitent man shall kneel.” Oh, yes, I was penitent, all right.) People looked at me concernedly. Other competitors asked if I was okay. Passersby asked if I was okay. It was one of those.

All right. Fast forward past the run, to the finish line. (Let’s just say that on the way to the finish line I was passed by an amputee doing a course that was twice as long as mine was; a seventy-year-old, some kids, and a great many more people, and that doesn’t count the people who got out of the water way faster than I did. Also, I finished a good two hours behind the prior finisher in my age group. Mmmhmmmm.) Flop flap across the line, lie on the grass, pant moan etcetera. Did not even have the energy for normal post-race beer.

Now, when I told this story to a bunch of college students last week, I used it to illustrate a cardinal writing rule of mine. I said the rule was “You do you.” And I still stand by that. We should all be doing our own thing; we shouldn’t be writing shit because the market says we should write about wizards or whatever; because our moms say writing legal briefs is more lucrative than writing poetry. Neither the market nor our mamas is lying, but if our hearts do not want to write legal briefs or books about wizards, we will not be happy and our work really will be for shit.

Also, just because your friends are doing a triathlon, you should not also do a triathlon.

But–I was happy out there on the course. I did not enjoy the cramping, but I enjoyed the ride itself. I did not enjoy the shambling shuffle that passed for my run, but I liked being in the woods and sticking to the dirt and feeling competent on the course.

The swim…I did not like the swim at all. The swim can bite me.

But oh! Triathlon. Oh! The outdoors. Oh! The muscle memory of being tired, smug, happy, with a cold beer in your paws, crab-like from shifting some gears that will not shift, and clutching at Gu packets. Even my gigantic age spot cannot keep me from loving this.

Yeah. “You do you” apparently means that not even the flat-out fact that I am not ready for a triathlon can keep me off the course. I kept on saying, “You know better than this,” and you know what? I did not care. So I am going to have to get back on the bike and back in the water and back out on the hills. It may take awhile.

But it is time. Because apparently I’m going to do a triathlon no matter what my brain says is smart, so I might as well be ready. I guess that’s just me, as me.

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Here is the position in which I hope to never finish a race again: The beer, she is missing. 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

What Do Editors Do, Anyway?

Over at one of my day jobs, I’m the nonfiction editor for the Tahoma Literary Review. I love it to pieces, even if sometimes the work makes my head spin. We read a lot of submissions over there, and we really only get to take a fraction–I do mean a literal fraction–of the work we get. (Over time, it has waffled between five and seven percent for the nonfiction category; in fiction and poetry it’s hovering around one percent.)

I have said this in other places, but I will repeat it here: When I get work from you, I consider it a very big deal. I consider it a gift, in fact. I felt the same when I was editing fiction, but nonfiction carries an added gravitas to me; it’s like we made a bond, the minute you decided to send me your work, because you chose me to tell your story to.

I almost don’t have to say this part, but I want to: When we edit your work, we are doing so because we have think we have found a gem in your piece. There is some other stuff covering it up, so we get out our little excavation brushes and we carefully, gently, work with you to brush some extraneous stuff away. Maybe use some tweezers. So glad we spent all that time playing “Operation” years ago, or in my case, so glad I finally learned to tweeze my eyebrows.

What is this stuff we are editing away, or asking you to add? Sometimes, it’s the language you use to cover up what you really mean. Sometimes, it’s the sweatsuit you put on because you don’t like the lines of your hips. Other times, it’s the TURN LEFT AT ALBUQUERQUE sign you put up for the reader, when really you mean, “Stay with me. Let’s go over here together.”

operation

We are here to help your fine, fine work really sparkle.

Okay. So what is the point of all this? Actually, it’s not the what we do that’s really interesting, it’s the why.

Yesterday, I got an email from a TLR contributor, Chris Arthur. One of his essays, “Glass,” has been listed in the Best American Essays 2016 volume as a “Notable” essay. People, I am chuffed to pieces. I am so pleased for Chris, and proud of the work we did together, and I want to let you know: When you get published? When you feel good about the work we’ve done together? When others recognize the work you’ve done to tell me your story and then polish it to its best possible form?

That’s why we do the work we do. And that’s why, every time something good happens to any TLR contributor, we want to know about it.

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(Chris’s wonderful essay is about a blue tit crashing into his window, but it’s about oh, so much more than that. You can read it in TLR’s Vol. 2 No. 2, here.)

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Some notes on “literary community” for writers

Sunday morning, grey out, and there are sooo many things on my mind, not the least of which is what feels like a metric ton of snot pressing on my sinuses. Sorry, Internet, but you needed to know what you’re dealing with.

I’m still noodling over the first part of my book tour, and this thing folks are calling “literary community,” or “literary citizenship.”

What does it mean, exactly? Some have said that, in order to be a great literary citizen, you need to show up at book signings and readings. You should volunteer at your local bookstore and buy books from your indie bookseller whenever you can. You should support other writers.

I agree with all of these. But there is one aspect of literary community that I think is often overlooked in the great equation of “platform building”: You were a reader before you ever became a writer. It’s easy to forget that, when you are all writerly stuff, all the time. Here’s some of what that means for me:

  • When I asked for beta-readers (read: test readers) for my novel, I asked folks who are readers, not just writers. That is, I asked friends who were not at all connected to the writing world, and who were avid readers.
  • When I craft events, I try to build in an element that the non-writers in the audience will enjoy, as well. Sometimes this means asking someone outside of the writerly world to interview me; sometimes it means making an event that everyone can enjoy. Either way, I like it when someone walks away from an event with a take-home.
  • I read willy-nilly. That is, I read outside of my own genre on a regular basis.
  • I work extra-hard to maintain relationships with people who aren’t writers. This isn’t to say I value any of these relationships of any of the others. I’m just a little hyper-aware that it takes more to maintain friendships with folks with whom you don’t also work.

Now, looking back over this short list, I think it maybe comes down to this: We are more than our professions. We are well-rounded people with lots of interests. When we think about our writerly careers, we should also consider the stuff that falls outside of the writerly boundaries.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

What “Being On Book Tour” Means

Well.

Hi there. It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? Sorry about that. Things have been a little cockadoodle, as they say in the dark hinterlands of my brain.

I have had an amazing few months. But that also means I have been neglecting this blog, which is really sad, because I really like this blog, this talking to you. Sure, I keep a diary. But somehow, work feels different when you know it’s being read by others, doesn’t it? Also, a lot has happened, and while none of it has changed much in my status quo, it is still worthy stuff to be sharing.

I have been on Book Tour. Many people have been asking How That Feels. Here is how it feels:

  • Before you go: “I have to leave the house again? For how long, this time? OH OK FINE.
  • During the events: This [reading/workshop/panel/event] is the best thing ever! I want to do this forever!
  • After the events: …What just happened?

Yeah. That’s pretty much what it feels like. But here’s what it really is:

  • Staying with friends, in their spaces. Taking that in; feeling the pieces of the puzzles–click, clack, flippity–that are your friends fall together, because you have been where they live, walked where they walked, had tea and coffee from their kitchen appliances.
  • Passing on all the knowledge you’ve amassed up until now; watching folks get excited about their own projects.
  • Exploring towns and cities you’ve always wanted to spend more time in, even if it’s freakishly fast-moving time.
  • Seeing friends you might not otherwise get to see, even those you haven’t seen in a decade or more.
  • Seeing friends you only, until now, knew online. Realizing the pleasant fizzzzz that is an online friendship gelling into something tangible–a hug! a shared interest in good liquor and food!
  • Meeting new writers you never heard of; discovering work from writers you never knew; hearing them read from their own works and walking away feeling ever so much wealthier for it.
  • Meeting booksellers. Getting to thank them in person for the work they do to forward literature.

So yeah. That’s what being on book tour is like. And that’s why I’ve been gone. But I’ll be back here more frequently, I promise. I have missed you guys. So here are some photos, as a thank you for sticking with me, along with some links. And you can sign up for my brand-spanking-new newsletter here. It’ll go out once a month and cover what I’ve been reading, some things I saw that you might be interested in, and maybe even some embarrassing photos of my drawings. :) (More likely it’ll have some writerly tips and tricks, and some other brain flotsam like upcoming events and locations.)

Okay! The photos!

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Not A Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu now lives at the Lopez Bookshop. I was invited to appear there in conversation with my good friend Iris Graville.

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Signing books! So much fun when surrounded by an amazingly curated selection like they have at Lopez Bookshop!

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In Seattle, I got to read at the incredible Looseleaf Reading Series, along with four other really talented writers and the amazing musician Ramona Shore. Here, my talented friend, Whidbey Island MFA classmate, and Looseleaf co-founder Samantha Updegrave introduces us, along with Looseleaf co-founder Suzanne Warren. (A tremendous shout-out here to my friend Roz, without whom I am reasonably sure only a fraction of this PNW traveling would have been possible.)

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This is Iris’ dog Buddy. <3.

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Writers leave notes for each other.

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Sunrise, from the front window of the house we rent while on Whidbey Island.

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The Kenton Library, in Portland, OR, where I hosted a workshop on memoir smack-dab in the middle of the day, and then followed with drinks with a friend I’d only ever known on the Interweb. What a treat! My friend Haley Isleib, a children’s/young adult writer and screenwriter, invited me to teach here. Friends are awesome.

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Mt. Hood, Oregon–from the Fruit Loop. Fruit Loop! Not a breakfast cereal. Hosted by my friend Jo, from HIGH SCHOOL! Eeee!

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Llama llama ding dong, on the Fruit Loop. (Not just fruit, obviously.)

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In New York, I was honored to appear alongside Jen Baker (creator and moderator of Minorities in Publishing), Hasanthika Sirisena, and Leland Cheuk in a panel at the amazing Word Up Community Bookstore in Washington Heights. Y’all, you need to go to this incredible space. Tremendous thanks to Hasanthinka for setting this event up!

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In Chicago, I was in conversation with Alexandra Salomon, producer for WBEZ’s WorldView at Chicago’s wonderful Women and Children First Bookstore. I’m privileged to call her my friend and proud to count her among my peeps.

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And these people. These people saw my novel in its very first draft. They are Tabitha Olsen and Nancy Stevenson, members of my Chicago critique group and talented writers themselves. You can buy Nancy’s book for middle-graders, about a code-cracking, plucky heroine, here. It’s called “Capitol Code,” and it is every page worth a read.

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I miss you, Chicago.

 

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In wonderful Decatur, Michigan, I was hosted by my fast-talking, speedy-thinking friend, Ami Hendrickson. If you’re in need of a writing coach, Ami can help. We had amazing conversations and have wonderful synergy, and I was so happy to visit her and learn from her. Here she is, teaching her class on narrative.

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St. Joseph’s, Michigan, where I visited with Listen to Your Mother host Kim Jorgenson Gane, was a wonderful town to hang out in. I will visit again, St. Joe’s. Get ready.

IMG_4524And the whole shebang kicked off with a trip to Skokie, Illinois, to teach a workshop on memoir at the Skokie Public Library. Folks, public libraries are IT. Go. Visit. Support.

Okay. That’s it. More soon. I promise. In the meantime, don’t forget: The Newsletter!

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

An Open Letter to My Gym’s Howler Monkey Guy

Dear Howler Monkey Guy,

You are not working hard enough. I know this because you are bouncing up and down in the saddle of your spin bike like a problematic Jack in the Box. You have zero resistance on your wheel.

Half the time you are standing up due to some misguided notion that you are firming up your glutes or whatever by doing so.

(You are still pedaling too fast, even as you are standing up.)

You are annoying and distracting. Now I know how Monica Seles’s opponents felt on the tennis court. Yes, I just compared you to a girl in a very short skirt. (Somehow I know this will annoy you to no end.)

But at least Monica Seles was consistent: she grunted every time she hit the ball. (Plus, she is way more bad-ass than you will ever be.)

But you! You are surprising, and not in a good way. You make the howler-monkey noise if you like the song; when you feel yourself moved by the amount you are sweating; if you like the way you look in the big wall mirror; if you feel the sweat stain you are producing on the front of your shirt looks particularly like something you like…I don’t know. I don’t live in your brain, thank god.

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If you were working as hard as I am, you would not have enough energy or breath to Howler-Monkey. I know this.

I spend all of my time trying to outride you, but I can’t, because we are in spin class, and our bicycles are stationary.

So I moved from where you can startle me when you whoop, although I liked that position there. It was right in front of the mirror, so I could see the way my right knee tracks a little bit to the side when I ride, and correct it. I could keep my eye on my shoulders and ensure they are level, belying only small movements, every potential movement channeled right into my chicken calves.

But you were too close to me there, in a direct sonar line right behind me. I imagine your WOO! drills right into my medulla oblongata, or whatever part of my brain it is at the base of my skull, which must also be the part that makes all the hairs on the back of my neck rise up.

WOO!

Also, even though you are directly behind me so I do not have to look at your face when you WOO!, I still have to see you bobbing, weaving, bouncing all over the fucking place. I see glimpses of you, multiples of you, every pedal stroke, and it’s like this disappearing/appearing you is more stressful than the regular old you would be if I just had to stare at you all the time.

But the WOO!s are loud. They are SO loud from here. So I move.

I was wrong. Although this corner of the class is right by the very loud rotating fan they have on the ceiling to provide some kind of breeze, and thus is very very loud and sometimes drowns out your WOO!s, I can see all of you now, all the time, because there is sometimes no one between my line of sight in the mirror and you.

From here you look like a factory-discard bobble-head doll: “Oh, no. No, no, This prototype will never do. It moves so much it will scare small children. Throw it out. Put it in a dark room where no one will ever find it.” They dim the lights in spin class, but not enough, by a long shot.

If Howler-Monkey guy were to imagine himself a bobblehead

If Howler-Monkey guy were to imagine himself a bobblehead

Ah! Today you have shaved your normal porn-star mustache, so I can see the split second your lips start to purse and you start to blow out and argh argh argh, because there it is. WOO! The noise comes out of your pursed hairless lips, and all I can think of a literal asshole, blowing wind.

WOO!

Anyway. In this corner you are less noisy. But you are just as disruptive, and not in an uber/AirBnB kind of way. You just are annoying.

Real cyclists, by the way, do not ride the way you do. We do not bob and weave. We funnel all of our energy to our legs, from our neck down, as much as we can. Our shoulders are rock-steady. If we bobbed and wove like you did, we would be all over the road so fast.

We also do not WOO!

But you are not a real cyclist. You have probably never taken your bike outside. Do you even have a bike?

I think it is not a coincidence that, after every class with you, I do something like looking up a triathlon or a group ride or something.

There on the open road, the thinking probably goes, from my damaged medulla oblongata, I would not have to deal with you. If you did start to WOO!, I could just ride faster.

On the open road, I know, the wind rushes past my ears so fast that I can hardly hear my husband or friends calling to me.

I can hardly hear the gentle beeps of the cars wanting to pass, not that we hear them that often. Going downhill on a swooping mountain road, we are faster than they are. And on the uphills, I have only enough energy to contemplate my whistling lungs, my heartbeat pounding in my ear; the midges gathering around the sweat on my nose.

If I am in the foothills, on the trail, I hear nothing but birds, since I am usually alone. I pay close attention to where my front wheel is tracking, what the terrain looks like; can I make this short steep climb?

Cars hardly need to beep anyway, because I am a good cyclist. I take periodic glances over my shoulder.

On the open road, or trail, I am strong and fast and I am frustrated only by my lack of strength, or endurance. On the open road, if I hear something that annoys me, I can outride it. Him. Her. Sometimes, the stray dog, nipping at my heels.

On the open road I can see the end of the hill. The scenery distracts with its variety. My mind does not roam, though, to how annoyed I am, because you need to pay attention to the tiniest things on the open road, on the mountain trail.

How I wish I were there now!

Why am I not there now? Why do I let you torture me?

If I go to spin class in my eyeglasses and not my contacts, I have to take off my eyeglasses, so I don’t sweat all over them. And in this darker corner of the room, I can choose not to see as much.

In my refection in the mirror I can barely see my lips, stretched in a gasping grin, trying to ride out the effort. I wheeze through my teeth and try to outride your WOO!

The instructor says, like he always does, Relax your shoulders. Relax your face. This is not running.

If it were, I would outrun you, Howler Monkey Guy.

On the open road I would not grimace when you WOO. We are not even in the same universe, Howler Monkey Guy.

In the reflection of the gym mirror, in this darker corner to which I have moved to escape you, I can also hardly see my age spots, especially the huge one of my cheek. These age spots sit right over my cheekbones, the ones I’ve been been praised for all my life. In this dark corner, they are less prominent.

Put on sunscreen, says the doc. I tried that; SPF50 all the time.

“Let’s try bleaching cream,” said that doc. Tried that, too.

My husband says my spots are lightening up. But whenever I get out of the pool, I feel I can see a noticeable difference…I can see it—them—the ugliest blotches I have ever seen on any face, dark, stain-like, on my countenance.

I find it hard to look at pictures now, of myself in my 20s and all the way through my mid-30s, when the spots were not yet there.

I got the big one—well, it appeared, anyway, after a stint in the Philippines with the disaster relief agency I love so much. Close to the equator. Working all day. Not enough sunscreen in the world.

Sometimes, in my wildest, darkest dreams, I think I’d rather lose a finger, a toe, instead of having these stains on my face.

Sometimes, I like awake at night, thinking to myself, if I am this stained at 41, how will I look at 60? 75?

This is a losing proposition. This is just as bad as trying to outride you, Howler Monkey Guy, in a classroom of spin bikes.

Why am I here?

I am here because one can swim in the dark, at night, and one can run in the dark.

One cannot ride one’s bike in the dark, not where I like to go.

So one will tolerate you, won’t one, just to be close to one’s bicycle. One will collapse over one’s useless, unsteerable handlebars, time after time, effort after effort, deflated by your stabbing, animal yelps.

WOO!

One’s husband will tell one that one has GOT to get over it.

If one could get over this massive age spot on one’s face, this would not even be a problem. One would be outside, on the open road, where she truly wants to be.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

A Real Wookie of a Father’s Day

I went to a high-school graduation the other week.

Bonita High School Graduation

Bonita High School Graduation

The crowd was amped. The parents never stopped looking for their children, and when they picked them out among the sea of green or white gowns, there was frantic waving, shouting, and something uniquely American: the “Wooo!” that is the hallmark of any excited person living in these United States.

Woo! It took me ages to learn how to do this, with varying levels of success. The first time I tried it, I adopted the Julia Roberts version, the one where she’s at the polo fields in “Pretty Woman”? In that spotted brown dress with the big, big hat? “Woof! Woof! Woof!”

I had to try, you see, because the Woo! had not made its way into our family. Certainly it never came out of a woman’s mouth. Men, in my family, express approval with stern nods, compressed lips, vaguely approving eyebrows, I think. No one ever smiled. Certainly no one ever whooped. So I had to work on it, make it sound casual, make it sound like I really meant it.

But here in America, we whoop. We whoop at everything. We whoop at goals; we whoop when people get married. We whoop when we have managed to land a Cheeto into our moths after tossing it into the air. We whoop when we have manage to get on-board a flight at the last minute.

I know this, because after many, many years of practicing, I have developed a passable “Wooo!” and I deploy it at will. With impunity, whenever I damn well feel like it. Sometimes I think I might even Wooo! more than I high-five. (At best, it’s a close call.)

Now that I am 41, I can “Wooo!” with the best of them.

Anyway. I digress. When it was my turn to graduate high school, like five thousand years ago, I was kind of…trembling. Not from excitement. No, I was worried that when I crossed the stage, there would be crickets. I wasn’t especially popular; I had fought with all of my best friends during school at one time or another, and I knew my parents wouldn’t make a peep. I didn’t have any visiting family, either, not that they would make a peep. Sure enough, they didn’t.

But I was lucky; apparently I did have friends, and they whooped for me, even if the size of whooping was smaller than it had been for our homecoming queen or princesses, or that girl who was so nice that everyone liked her even if her accomplishments were questionable and she missed all the college application deadlines by accident.

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may have dreamed this. But I think, months later, my parents commented on how enthusiastic Americans were, how happy they were. How awesome it was to hear all the noise, how joyful these parents were for such a small accomplishment as graduating high school. What, after all, is there to be proud of? Almost everyone graduates from high school.

I think I may have smiled weakly.

Anyway. Maybe it wasn’t by coincidence that, not long later, at a baseball game, with my brother and I yelling at the players and me occasionally get poked in the leg by my Ma, who was not excited at all to hear her daughter yelling, “You suck!”* at a random player on the field, my dad got up and did the wave. And out of his mouth came a noise that made me freeze solid. It was a cross between a cow in some kind of pain, although it sounded like it wasn’t actually sure if it was in pain, and Chewbacca. “Uuuhhhhhh! Whuuuuuuuh!”

I stared. My dad was  cheering. He was working on it, just like I was working on my Woof.

Four years later, I graduated from college. First, I heard my brother. “THAT’S MY SISTER!” and that was awesome, but then, everyone already knew my brother is capable of generating awesome. Then, the dying-cow-choking-Wookie noise. “Uuuhhhhhh! Whuuuuuuuh!”

My dad, cheering for me.

Never was a sound so welcome, ever.

Here’s to the dads. The ones who buck everything they know, everything they think they know, just to make a kid feel special.

*I no longer do this. The PollyAnna in me says “Everyone is trying their best on that field.” And then, “Oh, look, hot dogs.”

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Snippets

It has been what feels like an obscenely long time since I’ve blogged.

In the meantime, my book had its birthday and we had ten days’ worth of houseguests, and then I went to Seoul to participate in the Rotary International Convention on behalf of ShelterBox, and then I had a most extraordinary time being carted around South Korea, talking about writing and publishing with interested parties all around.

Truly, I lead a charmed life.

On the last day of lectures, a grueling 4 hours of talking broken up by a pleasant hour-long lunch, I got a note from one of the attendees in the audience. Having evidence of the work we did together outside of Instagrammable, social media fodder in my hands, a tiny little craft-paper envelope with precise writing on it, still warm from her hands, is such a present. I, too, may take to carrying around little cards, the better to thank people in tangible fashion, on the fly. How much we can learn from each other!

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Over my three days with the Embassy, I met some other characters, people I’ll forever be grateful with for making it so obvious that sharing what I’ve learned with others is bound to be a most gratifying existence.

The Old Storyteller: He comes to many of the American Corner Daegu’s events. He speaks pretty spot-on English and has stories he wants to pass on, but he’s 85 and wanted to know what I would tell someone like him, someone who’s tried to write but can’t seem to do it. Time is short, he says. “When should I quit trying?”

The Anxious Girl: “You said we should write every day. Well, I draw every day. Is that okay?” Later, meeting me one-on-one, her hands shook as she tried to turn to a page in her notebook. I mis-stepped, asked if she wanted an autograph, like her classmates, but no, she wanted to show me her drawings, and boy! Were they something! Reptile claws over a planet overgrown with trees and scrub and vines; silhouetted people standing at the hearts of planets, trees rising out through their heads…Yes, yes, write every day, but geez, don’t stop doing these, ever.

The Concerned Citizens: “I wanted to know if you consider yourself a feminist.” And “You say we should fight the efficient fight when it comes to unfairness in the workplace. What is the best way for writers to do this?” And, “As a writer, do you think Donald Trump is exercising free speech?”

The Enthusiastic One: “You’re my very first author ever.”

The Worrier: “I think I carry around so much of what people say in critiques. How do you know what to take and what not to take?”

The Interpreter: Did you know that, during simultaneous interpretation, interpreters have to switch out every ten or fifteen minutes? It’s that grueling.

The Single Girl: My handler over the three days in Korea was this amazing young woman who has no plans of getting married and no plans for kids. She’s truly a career woman, a person who’s constantly curious, always living, it seems, whether that take the form of hiking up Seoul’s beautiful hills or scouting locations for visitors like me or enjoying whatever it is she’s eating. I wish we could have spent more time together.

The Veteran: “Could you sign this for me? I want to show our young people what we can do with our creativity. And I want to show them what we Orientals [sic] can do when we go abroad.”*

What a terrific three days. How lucky I am!

*No, I’m not offended. It’s a dated phrase, and the guy was near 80.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Talking to People Who Talk to You Like You’re an Idiot

A long, long time ago–1997?–I was walking down Broadway on my way to work. At 8th street, I encountered a very angry woman in front of a science-fair-type posterboard covered in pictures of suffering domestic animals. They were horrible, and compelling, and I was young and easily swayed, and curious.

This woman (short, aggressively blond hair; long black overcoat over a T-shirt with the sleeves rolled and pushed up; jeans) was yelling:

“Animal RIGHTS!”

I can still hear her voice in my head, all these years later, Janis-Joplin, smoke-and-whiskey frayed: “Animal RIGHTS! Animal RIGHTS!” She was trying to get everyone to sign a petition.

At the time I worked for a nature magazine of some repute. What I learned there made it obvious to me that I shouldn’t sign anything unless I knew for sure what I was signing. But I didn’t know much about these extreme animal rights groups, so I approached her to learn more.

I can’t remember exactly what I asked her. Probably something like, “Can you tell me more about what this is about?”

She immediately shot back, “I don’t have time to explain it to you,” and went on shouting, right in my ear, since I was close enough to ask her a question. “Animal RIGHTS!”

Animal RIGHTS lady was like this. Only a lot scarier.

Animal RIGHTS lady was like this. Only a lot scarier.

Fast forward, yesterday morning. My friend Jamie gets a comment on a blog post she wrote about themes in writing. I won’t reproduce the full comment here, because it is so very, very tiresome. It is a couple hundred words and involves Dante, Aristotle, praxis, and lumps novelists and contract writers with “and such” and sets us apart from “true writers and artists.”

asshat

Jamie posted this blowhard jerkface dimwit obfuscating badger  guy’s comment to a braintrust we’re both involved in, with a call for help: How do I respond to this guy? The answers she got from our co-hort were, nearly unanimously, thus: Ignore him. You don’t have time to spend on this jerk. There were accusations of mansplaining, which were spot-on.

Me? I spewed a bunch of eff-bombs, did the requisite pushups, and then went for a walk with my Fuzz. Seeing Jamie, an educated, sensitive, generous whip-smart writer of her own credentials, getting schooled by this guy–THIS GUY THIS GUY THIS POOPTACULAR–was beyond the pale.

(I have been mansplained to, and I have done my own mansplaining. It’s not uniquely a male problem, although it does seem to happen a lot in one direction.)

In the end, I wrote to Jamie, “I’d reply to him in public, telling him everything that’s wrong. If we’re lucky, we might have converted a wanker asshat into just an asshat.” Jamie was much more elegant. She thanked him for his reply and said she’d try to reply in full later. She did the right thing, I believe.

More broadly, I’m thinking that there is enough anger in this world. I’m thinking that, if the woman on the corner of 8th and Broadway had taken the time to educate me, instead of brushing me off and making me feel like an ignoramus, I’d have walked away better educated, knowing more, at least maybe understanding why she was so passionate about this issue. And maybe I’d have cared to find out more.

Fervently hoping that Mr. Dusty-Library-for-Brains disappears into a deep pit of…uh, dusty library books isn’t going to actually make that happen. Screaming the same slogan over and over again at people you can’t be bothered to educate, I think, isn’t that far from just ignoring someone, and the issue, and losing out on a chance to help them see another side.

In fact, I’m reminded of the way my father once described the arguments he heard between me and my mom [paraphrased, obviously]: “It’s like the two of you are wearing suits of armor, okay? Big medieval things. And you’re just whaling away at each other with those big weapons–those big spiky balls. It’s a lot of noise. And no real progress on either side.”

Some arguments sound like this. CRASH BANG with no resolution. pix paul lewis (Nth Wales tel 07836 797910) Tom Mitchelson....Full contact Medieval fighting at Ludlow Castle Shropshire.

Some arguments sound like this. CRASH BANG with no resolution. pix paul lewis (Nth Wales tel 07836 797910) Tom Mitchelson….Full contact Medieval fighting at Ludlow Castle Shropshire.

I don’t hold out much hope that Dingleberries McRealWriter will actually take what Jamie eventually has to say on board. But at least she can say she tried, which at least allows for some possibility of that thing we call Hope. For discourse, for civilised conversation, for a world where we can read things and comment thoughtfully on them and then have further conversations that we can all learn from. That is something Angry Animal RIGHTS lady will never have.

Some days, though, we are just too damn tired to deal. That’s okay, too.

NB: Holy buckets: tracked down a story about ANIMAL RIGHTS lady. I guess, if you were just out to scam people, that’d be a reason for brushing off anyone who asked.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Biography of some blue jeans

Adopted ca 2006 from a consignment store in Chicago, on Southport.

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Meant to be “dressier” jeans due to original darker wash and stiffer denim.

Heritage: “Made in the United States,” likely one of the last pairs of Luckys to carry that distinction.

Worn: everywhere, from dive bars to wine bars to bicycle seats to ferry seats to porch stoops.

Worn: any time, from first thing in the day to late, late at night and into the early morning and then into the next day again.

Worn: with polo shirts, button-down shirts; T-shirts; sweaters. Flip flops; heels; boots; flats; bare feet; sneakers of all stripes and spots.

First tear: down around the cuffs, from scuffing along in flip flops.

First wear: Front right pocket, top edge, from rooting for change and keys.

Most obnoxious tragic flaw: zipper placket hopelessly crunched to the side, so as to expose brass of zipper. Sigh.

Second visible wear: Zipper placket, from constant tugging back into place.

Second and third tears: Knees

Fourth and fifth tears: Thighs

Sixth, inexcusable, mysterious tear: Crotch.

Diagnosis of sixth tear: consistent right-leg-over-left-leg crossing, and accompanying, inevitable slide down the seat.

Legacy: Mournfulness. Where will I find another pair?

Do you have a favorite item you’d write a biography for? Tell me in the comments below. 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.