Diffusing the “cultural smog”: Part 4 of live-blogging Dolly Chugh’s _The Person You Mean to Be_.

This is part 4 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. And you can buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.

“…[Rick] recalled a conversation in which a female colleague who had challenged him not to refer to women as ‘guys.’ He had dismissed it with a roll of the eyes. … Remember, Rick hired women. He promoted women. He was a believer. His moral identity was tied to being one of the good guys. … Our unconscious biases, those attitudes and stereotypes outside of our awareness, may or may not align with our consciously held beliefs.
…[P]sychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum describe how these unconscious associations are shaped by what she called ‘smog.’ … We breathe [them] in, whether we believe them or not. … While Rick’s explicit beliefs are egalitarian, he breathes in the same cultural biases as everyone else.”

Dolly Chugh, The Person You Mean to Be, pp 51-52.

Years ago, my husband told me a story about how he grew up in Wisconsin and Rhode Island. He said when he was a kid, he and his dad and his brother would go out digging through the garbage cans on the softball fields. They were looking for aluminum cans, which they would then drag to the recycling center, to be turned in at a nickel a pop.

I was horrified. Jim told me later that he never wanted to see that look in my eyes directed at him again: he could see I pitied him. He was deeply hurt by my reaction.

Crushed Coke can.
Model: Molier International

I didn’t deny it. In my limited experience, I could never picture a situation in which you would encourage your children to pick through someone else’s garbage for extra cash.

In my mind, it was exposing your children to all kinds of risks.

But in Jim’s mind, it was fun. It taught him the value of money. He was with his family.

I was living under some cultural smog that told me that when folks are thrifty, or are creative about ways to earn some extra money, that means they’re poor. And that, further, poverty is something to be ashamed of.

Some of this has to do with my personal cultural smog. There’s a rack at my local grocery story by the milk and the extra baked goods. In this rack, things are 50% off, either because they’re out of season or because the product didn’t sell well or the packaging is wonky.

I was maybe in junior high when my mom pointed out one of our neighbors who was rooting through the offerings. She pulled me into another aisle, whispering. “See? If you don’t earn enough money, you’ll have to be like her. It’s so sad. She has to buy the second-rate goods.” Obviously this isn’t a direct translation of what she said, since I don’t actually remember exactly what she said. But it made an impression.

That experience, and the clouding of judgment that came with it, changed the way I view thrift. It created my own personal miasma.

I want to take a look at the one way to, uh, diffuse smog, whether personal or cultural. Take a close look at the way I’ve described these two anecdotes. Where I describe Jim’s family on the softball field, I say they’re “digging through the garbage cans.” When I talk about my neighbor in the grocery store, I say she’s “rooting through the offerings.”

Words have power. What happens when I tell these stories in a different fashion? Jim calls the thing with the cans “hunting for cans,” probably a shoutout to the fact that he was the kind of kid who used a B.B. gun to scare off squirrels. I now “have a look” through the 50% off rack myself, because sometimes chocolate bars no one else seems to love but me live there, and because the other day I found a jar of molasses exactly of the brand I use to bake ginger cookies.

(And also because, hell, who doesn’t love to save 50%? You’d have to be an idiot.)

One way cultural smog screws with me is by messing with my objectivity. We all have preconceptions and biases. (Elsewhere in the book, Dr. Chugh talks about how our brains are neurologically wired to use preconceptions to help us to make quick decisions about very basic things, like what’s “dangerous” and what isn’t. We use red, for instance, to signal things are hot.) But our sense of objectivity really suffers when we are lazy and don’t look at things for what they are.

Put another way, we often look at things without seeing all the other possibilities of what that thing could be.

In another book I read recently, Amy E. Herman’s Visual Intelligence, Herman writes about the difference between accuracy and rightness. Herman uses fine art to teach everyone from FBI agents to trauma-room nurses how to be better observers, and thus, better at their jobs. She uses the example of Edward Hopper’s Automat:

www.edwardhopper.net

The mood of the painting is somber. The girl looks bereft, lonely. But this is all charged language, and although it might be right to say these things, it’s far from accurate. An accurate description of the girl’s face would be that it’s part in shadow. That her eyes are downcast. That her face is slack.

So the girl could be pensive. She could be reading the tea leaves in the cup of looseleaf tea we presumed was coffee. Maybe she’s reading coffee grounds. Or maybe she’s meditating. So many possibilities, although it’d be silly to presume that Hopper wasn’t trying to evoke one mood or another with the painting as a whole.

Taking a page from Herman’s literal book, I think a good way to take some cultural smog away might be to really listen to what you’re being told–and then to describe it to yourself in uncharged, unbiased language.

Here, let’s try it:

Jim went with his dad and his brother to the softball fields. They were looking for cans. They found a few and they went to the recycling center. They turned the cans in and they got money back for them.

In the case of my neighbor in the grocery store:

That rack is 50% off. The woman is shopping in the rack. She finds something she likes and buys it.

Put this way, my neighbor’s shopping in the 50% off rack is no different than my mom paging restlessly through shirts in the Nordstrom Rack’s half-yearly sale.

I’m trying to be rid of a lot of my cultural smog. Better listening is one way. Trying to see all the possibilities is another. Rewriting in a distilled, neutral fashion is yet another. But, as Chugh says, a lot of the cultural smog is invisible, and I think that ultimately, I need a lot of consistent, self-examination around the way I’m reacting to things. And I don’t think I’ll ever be smog-free.

Case in point? When I sat down to write this piece, I told Jim, “Just so you know, I’m going to write about the cans.”

Jim said, “What?”

I whispered, “The cans, the cans. You know.”

What?”

I explained it to him, feeling the heat rise in my face, hating myself for making him relive the whole thing all over again.

“Oh, those,” he said, looking exasperated. “So what?”

Right. Because to Jim, it’s just a story about some kids and their dad, earning a little spare cash. And to me, it’s still a story about some people who so badly needed to make ends meet that they had to go rooting through other people’s garbage for scrap metal.

Sigh. Sometimes, the smog is extra, extra thick.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

What’s “safety” look like to you? Live-blogging Dolly Chugh’s _The Person You Mean to Be_

This is part 3 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. And you can buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.

…”[Brittany’s] experiences as a black women had given her first-hand reasons to be a believer, but they did not equip her with the skills to be a builder…[Her] beliefs about her ability to grow were necessary, thought not sufficient. The beliefs she had about the people around her also mattered, specifically, her belief about what business school professor Amy Edmondson calls “psychological safety.” Edmondson…has shown that when a group believes they can speak up, ask for help, admit mistakes, propose ideas, take blame, confess uncertainty, and disclose inability, they learn more and perform better.”

_The Person You Mean to Be, Dolly Chugh, pg. 30

As I’ve grown, I’ve sought out psychological safety, even without really knowing it. Part of this is just figuring out what makes me feel good. It sounds simple, but it’s more than that: It’s about defining what you value.

For instance: I run, sporadically. I’ll happily train for half-marathons and longer events, but I don’t love to run. What I consistently seek is a thing loosely reflected in the runner’s high. I always relish being outdoors, and I like the extra-observational quality I seem to acquire when I run (I notice a lot when I’m out), but really, I’m chasing the sensation of having finished a run, or the idea of being strong enough to go out every day, if I want to. I want to know I can.

It took me years to figure this out. Now, when I try to talk myself out of a jog, it’s easier for me to talk myself back into it: I just need to embrace the Bacchanalian side of me. Whereas before, I used to wear T-shirts that said things like “Yes it hurts” and believe that I enjoyed the sensation of being tired, now I say things like “One beer for two more miles” and “I get to rest tomorrow if I can just manage this many miles.”

Watercolor dinosaur--T Rex?--in sneakers, sunglasses, and a polka-dot racing jersey.
Me, when I run now.

(Also, my new puppy is getting very good at running, and he seems to enjoy the time we spend together. I could be projecting.)

This is not a perfect science. Clearly I don’t mind the suffering, and on some level I enjoy the burning muscles and sweaty face. It’s just that my personal value system places a higher value on joy than it does ick.

So how does this translate to the things I value in psychological safety? In the example that comes right before the passage quoted above, Chugh describes an organization that is “stumbling upwards.” It is trying really hard to do diversity and inclusion, but every once in awhile it fails hard, even as it’s putting in measures like including minority members on its board.

She lists the risks people feel they can take in safe psychological spaces, like admitting mistakes and taking blame, and that got me thinking about the safe psychological spaces that populate my life, and whether or not I can pinpoint the qualities of those spaces that allow me to perform better. I’ve chosen a few of them below, and I hope you’ll share some of yours with me.

  1. An all-woman disaster-relief team. I volunteer for ShelterBox, an international disaster-relief agency. Most of our team members are male, so it’s rare that an all-woman team gets matched up together on deployment. On my thirteenth deployment, I finally landed on one.
    ShelterBox puts all response team members through the same rigorous training, so we all know what’s in each other’s kit; what the safety protocol is; what our remit is, and so on. These provide us with a basic level of psychological safety when we’re in questionable places. But having an all-woman team made things like complaining about your period totally okay. Being able to tell someone, “I got my period,” and having them exhibit empathy instead of “I don’t know what to do with that” is extraordinary.
    Also, my teammates put “Yi Shun, CALL YOUR HUSBAND” on the team calendar because I was deployed over my anniversary. That was pretty great, too. I’m not sure a team of men would have thought of that. Not having to consider whether or not it was appropriate was aces.

    (from left to right: Kate, Ursula, myself, and Amy. This team was deployed just before International Women’s Day, which felt appropriate.)
    This example speaks to my preference for a low-stakes default state. I prefer to just tell people things, for instance, without having to anticipate a bad or embarrassed or embarrassing response. Both these things—my period, which can cause fatigue, and worse, extra extra hangriness; and my anniversary, which was causing guilt—needed to be dealt with. Being in a safe environment allowed me to allow the team to help with those.
  2. The team at Tahoma Literary Review. Four of us run this literary magazine, which is trying to add to the status quo of the literary-magazine industry. We are not affiliated with a college or university, and we pay our writers and our staff. (This is an unusual thing in the world of literary magazines.) We are nowhere close to even federal minimum wage, but we are working towards a new model that we hope will inspire change.
    We have published a lot of first-timers and undergraduates and strive for diversity and inclusion, and most of our meetings are fun.
    We share similar communication styles, or we know enough about each other to be able to parse what we are each trying to say even when we stumble. Because we are all remote, we all have to be really, really good about communicating our needs and worries to each other, and for the most part we are able to do so. When we have stress points, I think we are pretty good at saying so.
    I think much of this has to do with our commonality of cause. Because we all ultimately want the same thing for our magazine, we can surmount more and take more risks with each other.
  3. Southern New Hampshire University. I teach in the online MFA program here. I like it a lot, even though its mascot is…meh.

    (Frankly, I find him terrifying.)
    The entire MFA is online, so we need to have a pretty good support system for both students and faculty members. In this program, I’ve never lacked for answers or felt lost. When I need help, I can choose from a student’s academic advisor, my own team lead, or one of two associate deans to communicate with. Of course I need to do some due diligence to ensure that I am communicating with the right person, but I don’t ever feel alone or unsupported.
    This system, maybe because of its structure as an online education tool, puts communication first. We are asked to respond to all students within 24 hours maximum. And we post welcome messages at the beginning of every term and introduce each week in the term with an announcement of some sort.
    SNHU places a high value on constant communication. This creates a feeling of safety for me, and has allowed me to weigh in on everything from diversity initiatives to internships in my short time with the program.
  4. My high school friends.

    These are the women I have known since high school or before. They are people who already know what I was, and so are not expecting anything more than my teenaged self, which was probably the worst version of me. They allow for flexibility and allow me to ask a lot of stupid questions.
    This relationship speaks to the part of me that values the (sometimes harmful) ideology behind family. You can make mistakes around each other and you can inadvertently hurt each other, but you can’t imagine not seeing each other, so you make steps to move past it. This relationship also allows me to talk through ideas even when they are not fully formed, something that’s echoed in my relationship with my husband and my brother.

These are the values that underscore my sense of psychological safety and contribute to my growth mindset. In her book, Dr. Chugh invites the reader to think about where you feel safe, and I’ll echo her here: What are your psychological safe spots or relationships, and what values do you think they underscore? Tell me in the comments below.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Work-in-progress, and I’m not talking about my next novel: Live-blogging Dolly Chugh’s _The Person You Mean to Be_

This is part 2 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. And you can buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.

…If I have a growth mindset about drawing, I believe that I can improve my stick figures with effort, time, and feedback. The alternative, a fixed mindset, is where I see myself as fully formed—either as someone who is terrible at drawing or wonderful at drawing or somewhere in between—and destined to stay that way. The fixed mindset is an “either/or” mindset because it allows no room for being a work-in-progress.

Dolly Chugh, The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, pg 24

During a group activity I was participating in, one of the group members kept on calling out for his “Cambodian wife.” Earlier, he’d introduced me to our colleagues as his “Korean wife.” When the Cambodian wife line got no answers, he switched to asking for his “Vietnamese wife.”

I am none of these things, but it was apparent he was calling for me: I was the only Asian woman on the course.

Let it be said that my relationship to this person is jovial, and long. It involves banter and beer and a lot of loudness. This had been going on for years before I finally said I’d had enough. “Stop,” I told him. “You’re not saying these things because you think Korean, Cambodian, Vietnamese women are to be respected. You’re saying it because you think they’re caricatures. And I’m not any of those things, anyway.”

“I know,” he said, and “I’m sorry. I really thought we were having such a good time.”

“You were,” I said, with a twinge of guilt. “But I’m not. It’s hurtful. You have to stop saying things like that.”


I don’t believe my friend and I have ever really recovered from this exchange. But I’m willing to bet that those of you reading this probably are focused on the fact that I felt guilty telling him these things. “Why?” some of you are saying to the screen. “Why on earth would you feel guilty?”

I’m feeling guilty because I wish I had said something before. I wasn’t ever the kind of person to enjoy a joke like that, but for most of my adult life I just swam with the jokes, believing them to be what I had to work with, to deal with, as a minority in America. I wanted to get along, so I just let them go.

Like Sammy Davis, Jr., I suppose, when he endured being the “Man of the Hour” at Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast. Oh, you, haven’t seen it? It’s an hour long, but you only have to watch the first eight minutes to be party to jokes about everything from watermelons to lynching:

(As always with YouTube videos, don’t read the comments. They made me nuts.)

“Oh,” you might say, “it’s just a sign of the times.”

It was this kind of thinking that led to my belief that I could only endure. I didn’t think it mattered enough for me to stand up and say something. But then I realized that the people around me weren’t necessarily laughing. And when I brought up the incident and the previous ones to leadership of the event we were at, they said, “Oh. When we first saw it happening, we took cues from you. We saw you were laughing, so we just went along with it.”

Later, they told me that they had mistaken it for something personal to our relationship, which I maybe could have stood for. And then they said, “We thought it might be an American thing.”

When Chugh writes about growth mindset versus fixed mindset, she’s mostly talking about individuals, and the way we see ourselves and each other. But I’m thinking more about society, and the way we see it. I’m thinking about how the way we see ourselves as individuals feeds into the way society is, and whether or not it’s within our power to do anything about it.

I was operating under the assumption that there was nothing I could do to change this. “It is what it is” had become my motto. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ had become my lifestyle.


Take, for example, my allergy to math. For a long time, I caricatured myself: “You’re talking to the only Asian ever to have scored a D- in Algebra,” I’d say at cocktail parties, by way of eliciting a laugh, or by way of making myself stand out, maybe.

During a game of Cards Against Humanity, a close friend drew a set of cards that had her nearly choking on her drink. They were so funny–and seemed so apropos–that I took a photo of them. All of my friends know and believe that I am terrible at math. I have told them so. They never let me calculate the tip.

But in another interaction, a friend looked at me curiously when I ran the line about my being a terrible Asian/math person. “Why perpetrate that stereotype?” he asked, quietly, and I went into a corner to sit and Think About What I Had Done.

And in yet another interaction, my friend Roz’s mother, who teaches fifth grade, put on her teacher voice and said, “You’re not bad at math, Yi Shun. You’ve just never made it a priority.”

Hey. I like that. And even if my not making math a priority does lead to my being terrible at math, well…it doesn’t mean I can’t be better at it one day. Everything is a work in progress, even my math skills.


I think seeing systems—and ourselves!—as flexible, and works in progress, has true application beyond our desires to be good. A belief that we can change the systems around us to work more efficiently is a valuable, healthy way forward.

A friend works as a programs director in a small city government. She has inherited what can only be described as a dysfunctional workplace. For instance, when she doesn’t respond to emails within ten minutes, the person or resident who is asking for help or information either calls her directly or comes to her desk, even if she’s specifically asked for that time alone, to work on grant proposals or paperwork or admin. When I told her I had moved to checking e-mail only three times a day, she laughed merrily and told me the system wouldn’t tolerate that.

My friend essentially works every single weekend as a direct result of this system.

I don’t know anything about working in a city government. But I think that there are lots of ways she can challenge the status quo to make it work better for her, even if she’s having to press against many years of doing things one fixed way. And people can change, too. My friend’s claim that the people around her won’t respect her time is a false claim, I believe. I think she can probably encourage them, in her role as programs director, to see that the workplace can produce even better programming than ever before if she can cut down on things like e-mail and interruptions of a more obvious nature, like people opening her closed office door or stepping into her blocked-off calendar.


In another book I read recently, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, the authors write about how important it is to recognize the idea that conversations that feel bad may be affecting us because they threaten our ideas of who we are.

In the case of the first interaction I described, my friend thought he was being jovial. He thinks of himself as being funny, the guy who gets the laughs. I thought of myself as the cool girl, the one who could roll with the punches and “take it,” whatever “it” was.

In the case of my friend and her dysfunctional workplace, she may see herself as the woman who can work with whatever difficulty she’s presented with. She may not want to rock the boat.

I don’t know what’s happening yet, in the case of me and the mathematics thing. It’s probably a combination of wanting to be the cool girl, the girl who can laugh at herself in straight-talk fashion, and the girl who will never rock the boat.


Challenging the system feels like touching a cactus spine, to me. “I wonder if…” and then, the inevitable, ouch! But sometimes, you touch a cactus spine, and you think, Well, hunh. That’s not so bad. If you touch it gently enough, you might even try it again, until you eventually see that cactus as not a terrible Danger Plant (TM), but just as something to be navigated.

In the extended version of this metaphor, and if you’re me, you might find yourself loving cacti, and then saddled with an unhealthy obsession with all things related.

Or you can draw your own metaphors. Whatever way you choose to look at it, the best systems are the flexible ones. And those systems comprise flexible people, with growth mindsets.

smiling cactus wearing a hat made of flowers

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

“A Boy Named Sue”: Live-Blogging Dolly Chugh’s _The Person You Mean to Be_ (Part 1)

This is part 1 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. And you can buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.

Sarah wrote out the names phonetically. She practiced saying them … She was surprised to realize that the names were not that hard to say semi-correctly, albeit in an American accent … She just had not tried before.
A week later, Sarah called Gita. When Gita answered, Sarah asked, “May I speak with Gita Suryanarayanan Varadarajan?” Gita cried. It was the first time anyone had tried to say her name since she had moved to America several years before. “The first time,” Gita emphasizes.

The Person You Mean to Be, Dolly Chugh, pg 11

The other day, on a long road trip, my husband introduced me to “A Boy Named Sue.”

(I know. You thought it was Johnny Cash. Me, too. But no one does maniacal sing-yelling like Shel Silverstein, and I’m glad he wrote it. It slots with everything I thought I knew about Shel Silverstein.)

When I first heard this song, I felt immediately seen. Because everyone’s name has a story to it: Your parents named you Mike for your great-grandfather, say. Or you’re called “Tick” because your name is actually Christopher, but your parents called you “Kit,” and when you were little you couldn’t pronounce it, so you introduced yourself as “Tick,” and now it’s what’s on your business card. (This is a true story, by the way. I don’t know where Tick is anymore, but this is one of my favorite name stories.)

Me? My name means “humble.” And I’m named so because when I was born I had flaming red hair, and my grandfather said, “Uh oh, better name her something that’ll temper that red hair,” and so, humble it was.

This is the story I am told, anyway, with great love and joy, by my family members.

My name is complex. Spelled out in Mandarin, it comprises some 34 strokes and three characters, if you include my last name. In English, my parents chose to spell it out in two discrete words, which is why sometimes you’ll see me, on Goodreads or on Twitter or on Facebook, as “Yi.” (This is an annoyance to no end. It’s like Shelby being called “Shel” all the time. Or Allison being called “Al.” It’s fine for close friends. It is not okay for the DMV or a faceless social networking tool, because they don’t know jack about me. Well, they do, but that’s a different post and issue.)

Some people butcher my name. That’s okay. I just correct them and laugh and tell them it will take them a while to get it. I encourage them to keep trying.

But the ones who really rankle are the ones who tell me, straight up to my face, that they’re not even going to try.

Right after my husband’s grandmother’s burial, the pastor came up to me and said, “Now, who are you?” I told him I was married to the eldest grandson, and introduced myself, and then he said, “I’m not even going to try.”

Okay, I was at a cemetery, but I could not stop myself. “You should,” I said, and waited through an uncomfortable silence, and then spelled it for him and pronounced it again, and then waited until he had tried it.

My impatience may have been because of where I was–my husband’s family and I have come to loggerheads several times over political and humanitarian matters–and it might also be because, just the day before the funeral, I was getting a breakfast burrito at an airport kiosk. I put my name in and waited.

The young man behind the counter called my name when my burrito was ready. “Yaeshooon?” he called, tentatively, and then, when I started laughing while coming to collect my burrito, he said, shoulders slumping, “I’m so sorry. Please tell me how to pronounce it.”

In Chugh’s book, she quotes Dale Carnegie: “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” But to me, hearing that young man ask me how to pronounce my name was sweeter than my name itself: It told me he was trying to understand where I come from.

Perhaps a person’s name sounds so sweet to them is because it carries with it baggage of identity, of history. I used to say, when introducing myself, “Don’t worry about it. It’ll take you ages. In the meantime, I’ll answer to anything.” I don’t say this anymore, because I have come to realize that my name is tied up in the fight for my identity. That not having people even try to pronounce it is a sign of my struggle as a minority, which I’ve only recently begun to explore. That giving the Starbucks barista “easy” American names like “Sue” or “Melissa” or even my husband’s or my friend’s name so I can avoid seeing my name butchered on a coffee cup is just dodging the truth–that I live here, that I am multi-cultural. That even so, I deserve to take up just as much brain space as Sue, Melissa, Mike, George.


Each year, my father’s high school hosts five or six kids from Taiwan to come visit California. They live with host families over two weeks and are introduced to … erm, American things. They learn about the higher education institutions here and visit a famous aerospace lab. They go to Disneyland and Universal and baseball games too, don’t worry.

These kids, who speak some English, are placed with Caucasian families so they can better their language skills. When my husband and I picked them up at the airport, they introduced themselves to us with their Taiwanese names.

A few hours later, when we met them and their host parents for dinner, they had started using their English names. “Oh, you mean Justin?” said one host parent, blithely, when I asked how her student was settling in. I told her, “That’s not his name.”

She said, “It’s easier for us.”

I said, “You should try. He has a name already. It’s–” and then I proceeded to completely mispronounce Justin’s Taiwanese name.

I don’t think this was necessarily the right place for me to bring this up. Lots of Taiwanese kids have English names. I have cousins who have chosen the names Joanna, Brenda, Brian, Willy, Henry. But the motive, in this case, was way off. “It’s easier for us” is way shittier than “It’s what he wants us to call him.”

I’m not all that interested in your ease, lady. I’m interested in this kid’s sense of identity.

For what it’s worth, I asked Teddy and Justin and Eddie what they’d prefer to be called, and they said their English names were okay, but that they also liked to hear their Taiwanese names. I told them that, in America, it’s okay to be called what you want to be called.


If you haven’t noticed, I can’t remember any of the kids’ Taiwanese names, but I remember their American names perfectly fine. And, when I was repeating them back to them, to make sure I got them right, I Americanized the bejesus out of them. This is because I can’t actually write or read in Mandarin,* so remembering Taiwanese or Mandarin names is rote memorization, using rhythms I don’t know as well, and combinations of letters I don’t usually see. Some might argue that it’s pointless to pronounce someone’s name unless you can do it perfectly. But you know what? Speaking from long experience? It only matters that you try.

Because not even wanting to make the effort sends a pretty clear signal that you don’t believe the word that sums me up–my name–is worth your time.

Think about it. When was the last time a friend of yours did something endearing, or hilarious, or frustrating, and you said to yourself, “Oh, God. That’s so Peter.” Or “That is straight-up Jim.” Or, “That is 100% Borchien.” In this roundabout way, I have come to see people’s names as a personification of who they are, all their bits and bobs and trip-ups and foibles.


In relating the anecdote about Gita and Sarah, above, Chugh relates that Gita told Sarah she believed people don’t try to pronounce foreign names because of arrogance. Sarah, Chugh writes, was horrified. She had never tried to pronounce Gita’s middle and last names because she was afraid of getting it wrong. Now, her friend was telling her her behavior was arrogant, which sent Sarah’s sense of self-identity into the red zone. She had always believed she was a nice person, but here she was, being told she was arrogant.

It’s so important to make our motives clear, but in the end, what matters is how they’re perceived–the feelings you hurt. To write those possibilities off is of highest arrogance, isn’t it? There’s no winner in the name game—at worst, the offender is perceived as arrogant. At best, the person with the unusual name ends up feeling like she has to bend to majority opinion, and she always does it, putting her feelings and her history at a lower value than the majority rule.

You know what? No one’s feelings are worth that. And realizing that, I think, takes true humility.

It’s why the guy from the breakfast place will always be my benchmark. He put his feelings aside, and asked, humbly, to be taught something new. No matter how the rest of my day went, I was always going to remember that someone thought my name–my person–mattered enough to set his own ego aside.

It matters enough that I’ll tell you how to pronounce my name at a grave site. It matters enough that I’ll call you out for your laziness at a social gathering meant to honor you. Why? Because my temporary discomfort, and yours, is nothing compared to being told that the word that embodies a person should be easier for you to pronounce–or never uttered at all.


I asked my parents a few nights ago why they hadn’t given me an American name. “Your pre-school teacher,” my ma said. “Mrs. … Piccone?”

“Uh huh,” I said. “I liked her. She had curly brown hair.”

“I told her your name, and I said if it’s too hard, I can change it.”

“Oh,” I said.

My mother shook her head. “Mrs. Piccone didn’t want that,” she said. “She said, ‘No. I have to learn.'”

My mother would have chosen “Hope” for me, she said, and my father, perhaps already seeing a future comprised entirely of bumps and scrapes and hoping to change my stars, “Grace.”

But for Mrs. Piccone, I may have had an easier time. Maybe I wouldn’t be so neurotic about people’s names, although I have a terrible habit of mixing up friends who come in twos (married couples, best friends, and the like.) But she’s become a part of my history too, and for her, if for nothing else, I’m glad I’m called “Yi Shun.” (Use my business card below to learn how to pronounce it.)

*Taiwanese relies on Mandarin for its written language. So although I can speak it fine, I can’t track new words very well. It’s something I’m working to change.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

It’s broke: Love it enough to fix it

When I was in college, eleventy trillion years ago, I was editor-in-chief of the paper which served the five colleges that made up our undergraduate system. I think I did that for a year or so.

Our offices were in the basement of the college bookstore; I had a key and a stipend and there were a few scandals during my tenure on the paper overall, from writer to news editor to editor-in-chief. I really can’t remember what they were about or who they involved, probably because my hippocampus or frontal lobe or amygdala or whatever or maybe all of it wasn’t developed enough to comprehend what was actually happening.

At any rate, all of this led to some indignation and righteousness and then I became editor-in-chief, and this led to a good friend of mine sitting in the living room of one of the dorms we used to hang out in at another college (??? why did we do this? so strange. i know we had friends there, but…anyway), talking about the newspaper.

I remember distinctly telling him I thought it was broken. And I remember Jake being royally pissed off. He was red in the face, even. “How can you say that?” he asked. “This is your thing now. You should be proud of it!”

“I am proud of it,” I said. “There’s just a lot that needs to be fixed about it. It needs a lot of changes.”

Jake wouldn’t budge. He couldn’t comprehend how you can love a thing, respect it, and want it to change. He saw it as the height of disrespect that I would tell him that it needed changes.

But see, for me, loving a thing means wanting to change it. You love a thing despite of all its flaws, or maybe even because of them. You see it for everything it is. You know it so, so well that you are an expert in its weak points, its pain points, its very realness. And yet, you continue to work at it, because you see what it can become.

College was a long-ass time ago. (I graduated in 1996.) But I’ve never forgotten that conversation, and it pops up in my memory now and again.

Most recently, I remembered it because of that terrible tweet from our commander-in-chief, saying that four congresswomen should “go back to the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” (It’s missing a hyphen, but whatever.) Yes, yes, three of the four women he was addressing are from America already, but I was struck by how intent 45 is on how great this nation is. Lawmakers go into office, as I understand it, to effect change in a place they love, not to sit on their laurels.

But then, probably because I can’t stand to think of 45 very long before my head explodes and I make yet more wrinkles in my lips from unsavory expressions, I pivoted to the conversation I had with Jake, all those years ago: How I feel the way I do because of the way I grew up. And how it’s probably the same with Jake.

I don’t know much about the way Jake grew up, actually. I’ve visited his home town only once, and his family home on the same visit. (On this same visit, Jake ribbed me about being a baseball fan who doesn’t know what a “balk” is. “You know, I think it’s really weird that you call yourself a baseball fan but you don’t know what a balk is,” he said, and I returned that there was so much more to love about baseball than its infuriating intricacies.)

But I do know about the way I grew up. In my household, criticism was a daily pill. No! Pills you take once a day. This was more like windows, peeing, air–criticism was always there. My brother and I were criticized–too fat, too sickly, too loud, too stupid–as a manifestation of our parents’ love. Nothing was good enough, and so nothing would ever be perfect.

This backdrop manifests itself in my adult life in other ways, too. When I am running with my young dog, Huckleberry, I give him grades for how he behaves. If he looks at a dog passing by on the other side of the street and doesn’t lunge or drag me in its direction or bark, that’s 98% good. If he lunges, that’s 73%. If he lunges and barks and drags me, that’s 33% and no cookie.

If he goes right on by, that’s 100%. Perfect.

I actually tell him this. “Good boy, Huckleberry! One hundred percent! I am so impressed!”

Or, “What was that? That was terrible. Sixty-five percent. Not even close to passing.”

What happens in my brain when I run with Huckleberry. Why, why?!

Friends, I hate grades. I hate them with the fire of a thousand flaming Dumpsters.* I hate them because I am bad at them, and because they were used as leverage all my life. I avoid them whenever possible in my teaching, preferring to assess my students qualitatively.

And yet, with the least assuming creature in my life, there they are. Bang. I cannot escape them.

You probably already know where this is going. I am fascinated by the role our upbringings have in who we are as adults. I think I can trace everything I do today to what happened to me and what I was exposed to as a kid. I am fascinated, in short, by unconscious, or implicit, bias.


For the next few weeks, or however long it takes, I’ll be working through a live-blog** of Dolly Chugh’s book _The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. Chugh is a social psychologist, and I admire her work. I learned a lot from her book, and the posts are meant to be a way for me to illustrate for myself the lessons I’ve learned, and they can also be seen as a way for you to think about some of the issues she raises. Some these issues are: Why we believe what we do; how to broaden our perspectives; how to talk to people who don’t have our perspectives and not go completely batsh*t.

I made a couple annotations, or something.

For anyone who’s ever thought of themselves as a good person, for anyone who wants to be a better person, for anyone who feels stymied about how to be a good person when there are so many varying definitions of “good person”–this book is for you. I hope my posts can supplement your reading of it.***

Talk to you soon. And if you’ve read this book and want to discuss with me, drop me a line: yishun@thegooddirt.org

*I used this phrase in a comment to my class awhile ago. They have to cite themselves to avoid self-plagiarizing, so I’ll do the same here: Yi Shun Lai, Brightspace class announcement, 7.22.19, SNHU Online MFA program.

**It’s not technically a live-blog. I’ve already read the thing. But I didn’t know what else to call it.

***I find seeing examples of things helps to cement an understanding of it, so this is also for me.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

“If it fits, I sits,” for dogs

I am sure you have all seen “If it fits, I sits.”

No? This is a cat thing. Here is a video compilation for you, just in case:

This is cute, even if I don’t quite understand the internet/meme-speak people insist their cats engage in. (“I can haz cheezburger?”)

(To be fair, even though I’m a declared dog person, I also do not understand most of the Internet “doggo” speak. My friend Chels refers to her dog as a “puppalups,” and this I understand, but this might be because I can hear Chels saying it in my head.)

Anyhow. None of that is either here nor there. I’m writing because I think my dog is actually a cat. Witness:

  • He loves fringes of any sort: on my head, on my blanket, on my tablecloth; on people’s trousers.
  • He uses his paws for a lot more than normal dogs do: to get your attention; to open doors; to juggle toys.
  • And last week he ate a fern.

I mean, just look at it. He ripped it right out by its roots. The pot was still standing. And then he sat on the remains of it, so I couldn’t see the evidence. There were some dirt clumps on the side table where the fern used to live. It was a near-perfect crime.*

Also, he climbs on things. He’s only allowed on two pieces of furniture, but Christ, how do we explain this?

And then there is this:

This is the dog version of if it fits, I sits.

Here, have another look.

Obviously, there are some marked differences.

First, this:

This is just sloppy. No self-respecting cat, I think, would leave a limb hanging out like this. I mean, an appendage, sure–a paw, or a tail. But not a whole limb. It just seems uncouth.

Then there is this:

What even is this? This is uncomfortable. No one would ever choose this, unless one is a dog with no nerve endings in his head and does not give a flying whatsit. Dog’s head is against a table leg. Dog is half-in, half-out of bed.

Then there is this:

And this:

What are these evidence of, you might say? This is evidence that dog does seem to care what we think. Which is not to say that cats don’t care what we think**, but this is obviously some kind of needy stare-down.

In fact, I think it’s downright pugnacious.

Look, I know other dogs do this “if it fits, I sits”** thing. In fact, I think Huckleberry does it because his friend Scooby, a gigantic black lab who belongs to our friends Non and Jess, did it first.

But I do think that I’m prescribing cat-like behavior to The Berry because I’m struggling to understand him.


Our dead dog, Sprocket, was a hyper-communicator. He had funny little eyedots that were a visual cue to whereever he was looking, and sometimes, whatever he was thinking. When he wanted to pick anything up on our walks, he would stop and put his paw on it and wait for us to tell him, “You can have that,” or “No.”

If he wanted to pee, he would stop walking and wait for us to acknowledge that he was, indeed, stopping to pee.

If you told him to “leave it,” he would fling his head to one side, away from the object you were telling him to ignore, an extra signal to us that he was LEAVING IT.

If he came across something on a walk or if he saw something from the window that he’d never seen before, his ears would pin back on his head, and then he would look up at you. “What is that? Is that…okay?”

And we would say, “That’s okay, buddy. It’s just a bunny/raven/lizard. You leave it alone.” We would pat him and the ears would move forward and he would watch, but he rarely bolted or got nervous.

Sprocket had one blue eye, one brown.

Huckleberry’s eyes are very dark brown, and set more closely together and forward in his head. He looks beady-eyed, calculating, sometimes, especially when we are wanting him to do something with us or for us:
“Huckleberry, come!”
*Beady-eyed stare*
“Huckleberry, come!”
*Further staring.*

This is frustrating at best, and it makes us really sad, at worst. I worry that Huckleberry doesn’t enjoy the same level of trust or calm that Sprocket did. When he goes outside and we see a bunny, we tell him to leave it. He does, but his whole body trembles. He is alert. Every muscle is waiting for release.

(Not for nothing, but this is a little cat-like, too.)


This morning, I read something that put into more concrete terms an exercise I give to most of my students and my writing-coaching clients. In the case of my university students, always runs the length of our time together.

I borrow the term “deep noticing” from poet Derek Sheffield, and I use Lynda Barry’s daily diary exercise. Part of the exercise requires you to list seven things you did, and seven things you saw. You’re not to spend more than two and a half minutes on each section. The idea is that you just get better at paying attention to what’s actually around you.

We do this because I want students to pay attention to how much wealth of inspiration there is out there, but I don’t want them to be overwhelmed by MAKING SOMETHING of it. Sometimes, a thing just is, and you can get to know yourself really, really well by paying attention to what you’re actually noticing.

When I’m noticing things, for instance, I notice:
Patterns
Creatures
Leaves

(What things are you likely to notice?)

The thing I read is this piece from the New York Times Smarter Living section, which I seem to be reading an awful lot of lately. In it, the columnist, Tim Herrera, talks about “pay[ing] attention to what you care about, and … car[ing] about what you’re paying attention to.”

I love this idea, and putting it into practice with Huckleberry may help me to make more sense of his behavior:

When does he look apprehensive?
When does he look happy?
What is his body doing when he is happy/apprehensive?
When is he paying attention to me?
What expression is he wearing when he is paying attention to me?


Probably my favorite thing about life overall is how much the things we love to do dovetail into each other, and how confirming that can be.

Back when I thought my first novel would be a middle-grade/YA book, and the animals in my work in progress were talking, someone suggested I really consider what they’d say if they were actually talking to me. So I built a facebook page for Sprocket, and made up a voice for him. This is the most I’ve ever considered my writing life coinciding with my dog life.

But you know, maybe the thing I should take from this is that I noticed Sprocket a lot more than I notice Huckleberry. That’s a valuable lesson, too.


*So stealthy.
**Who’m I kidding? Part of the great charm of cats is that they really don’t care what we think, do they?


Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

What price attitude?

We’re still sitting in the Bergen airport, awaiting for our flight home from a packed trip with my parents. Jim and I took a day to decompress in this laid-back city by ourselves, which was  a much-needed reprieve from the cruise we took–a vacation from our vacation, like they say.

I’m not sure the 24 hours here was enough–the city has four art museums all in a row, and a pile of beautiful public spaces to hang out in, as well as a lot of interesting architecture to discover and some great people-watching–but something happened last night that I’m still turning over, and I wanted to share it with you and see what you thought.

We ate out last night at L——–, a restaurant I won’t name here. It has a solid multi-course tasting menu helmed by a guy who’s put in time at some other restaurants we’ve eaten at and loved, so we were excited to see what he would do with food from his native Bergen.

The décor is reasonably stark, naked bulbs and good design. It’s in one of Bergen’s KODE art museums, in an older building, so that loans it an air of coziness. Fresh peonies were on some of the tables, for a mildly Rococo sensitivity.

I won’t bore you with the details of the whole meal, because this is not what this post is about.

This post is about our young waiter, which is why I won’t name the restaurant. He’s in some of their social-media posts, and this isn’t a witch hunt. When we sat down, he immediately asked what we wanted to drink. “I need a few minutes to look at the wine list,” I said.

“I’ll make it easy for you. Sparkling or still?” he returned. It took me a minute to realize he was talking about the water.

He was deadpan; he gave off the impression that we were lucky to be stepping through the restaurant’s rarified doors. He dropped food off quickly, spit-firing a bunch of terminology and explaining it quickly, not waiting for us to digest the information, as if it needed to be explained; making me feel like I wanted to resent being explained to. And, in fact, I did resent it.

 

Later, even as the space between our 7 courses slowed down (timed exactly so, he assured us), he rushed through things.

During one super-awkward exchange, he started to step back from the table, but I had a question about the ingredients, so he had to stop from stepping away. Instead of stepping forward again, though, he just stood there, causing me to be half-turned in my seat, cranked around to talk to him.

I think, as a result of my perception of him–or the attitude he was giving off–every joke he cracked landed flat:

“Anything else? No? Fine, I’ll just tell the chef you thought everything was terrible.”

“Beer? No. We absolutely don’t serve that.”

And every comment he made seemed like a sneer. Jim asked for the menu back, so he could send a photo of it to his father. The waiter laid it on the table like it was a page out of the Gutenburg Bible and said, “Do you want two? No? Are you sure?”

When the time came to close out, he took a few minutes to chat with us, telling us about how he travels. How he goes to all the better restaurants, and his dad wants menus from all of them. How, even in Tokyo, where his father couldn’t read the menu, he wanted to get a translation from Google.

It was a nice attempt to connect with us. But the ship had sailed for me.

Tipping isn’t part of the culture in Norway, but we’d heard that it’s always appreciated, and that it’s becoming more expected at higher-end restaurants, so we’d planned on giving our waiter the last of our Norwegian cash. But I balked, hard. When I unfolded the bill and laid it on the plate, I gave it an extra-sharp crease.

And last night, I found myself turning over the interactions in my head, wondering what about the whole sequence was so off for me: Was it that I found myself reacting in such a bad manner to his supercilious ways? Was it that I found myself judging him immediately for everything that came out of his mouth?

Or was it that his colleague, the greeter, delivered this witty parting shot as we left and wished him a good night?

“Mmhmm.”

Jim wants to go back to the place. He loved it.

I found the food ethereal in places: well thought-out, with flavors of my mother’s own kitchen (the place uses Asian influences frequently, our waiter said) mixed in. I found it earnest in others. The Minke whale triggered my gag reflexes for its fishiness and gaminess, but I ate it.

I enjoyed meeting one chef’s interpretation of his native cuisine.

But I hate the restaurant, and this rankles, because I’m reasonably sure it’s because of my very personal reaction to this one server. I’m annoyed at myself, and wondering if it is possible for me to separate: if I can manage to enjoy part of one experience while hating another part of it.

Restaurants are funny places. They are equal parts service and product. Some might even say that the service is part of the product.

What about all of you? Do you have experiences like this, where you can’t compartmentalize?

I know this is something I’ll be watching about myself in the future. Tell me about your experiences below.

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On the demonstration of joy

I want to take a second to talk to you about joy. So we can be on the same page, here is an official definition of it, from my favorite dictionary, Merriam-Webster:

This a fine, workable definition for now.

Now let me tell you about Seb.

Seb is Huckleberry’s trainer at our local pet store.

The remarkable thing about Seb isn’t how well he’s trained our dog or how much our dog loves him or how much we look forward to showing Seb whatever new thing Huckleberry has learned after a few classes with him; it’s how we got to this point.

In dog training, they talk all the time about positive reinforcement. Most people take that to mean that you pat the dog on the head; give him a treat. Sprocket’s trainer advocated full-body rubs and smiles and enthusiastic “good boy!” exclamations; another we knew said, “Yes!” as if she were executing a mental fist-pump whenever Dog did something right.

I liked this last one; it feels dignified and true.

But Seb does not do this. Seb’s brand of training has no time for dignity. Seb is all authenticity and enthusiasm.

Whenever Dog does something right, Seb gets down on the floor and hugs Dog.* “Oh, Huck,” he says, “I am so proud of you,” or “You are so smart. What a good job.”

Seb’s brand of training extends right to the person attached to the dog.

When Human does something right, say, planning a new trick for Dog to learn so that Dog can be shaped towards good behavior, Seb marches in place, a little mini-jig, all lug soles and cargo pants, and sometimes hops a little. “Oooh, yes. That is perfect for Huck. Great idea. I am so excited to see that.” Or when Human executes their part of the training well enough for Dog can follow along, Seb adopts some of the dignified approach: “Yes, Yi Shun! Good work! That’s a great ‘heel’!”

Seb puts his whole body into his emotions. I have never seen him sad, or mad, because he is a pro. But I have seen him questioning things. He puts one hand to his chin and goes, “Hunh. How abooout…”

Or he cocks his head. “Oh, I see. What about…”

Or he just asks questions. “Wait, do you mean…” or “Is it like…”

Most of us have body signs that go with our speech. Both Mr. Gooddirt and his mother claim to have issues talking if they are sitting on their hands.** But this seems to be different to me. I think this is because I think Seb is basically in his element when he is expressing joy.

And actually, I think he reacts this way because he experiences joy on behalf of others. He experiences it on behalf of Huckleberry when Huckleberry does something right, because it means Huckleberry will have a better life for it. And when he sees us learning, or stretching the bounds of our knowledge even just a little bit, that gives him joy, too. It gives him so much joy that he has to expend the extra jolt it gives him by doing a little jig, or clapping his hands.

This vicarious joy is a beautiful thing. It is the exact opposite of schadenfreude, and I think it is a thing I would like to practice more, and a thing I would like to see more of. It does not have to manifest itself in the same ways Seb’s joy manifests itself, but I would like to see and experience more of it.

Our English language does not, as far as I know, have a handy one-word equivalent of the opposite of schadenfreude. We say clunky things, like “I’m so happy for him.” But that does not fully express the internal sense of satisfaction one can have on the behalf of others. The more encompassing “empathy” doesn’t have the specificity I want, either.

Recently, a friend told me she was moving from California back to Connecticut to be with her family. She is a single parent and has a young boy who will soon turn two; having her parents around fulfills a family unit that she doesn’t quite have here. When I heard this news, I felt pretty bereft. Some tears welled up. Running concurrent with that sadness, though, was joy for her. Moving back was what she wanted, had wanted, ever since her boy was born, and I know our friendship won’t slip away. We have the means and will make the time to visit.

Maybe now that I am older, I can more easily experience joy on someone else’s behalf.

I just think it’s something worth paying attention to. If only because this joy on behalf of others seems to have the power to mitigate feelings of confusion, or sadness.

I mean, look at Huckleberry. After some bouncing some failed “sit” attempts because he was so, so excited, he did this.

A calm, floppy dog is a pretty good indication that something has gone right. Vicarious joy is a thing I will always equate with calm, floppy dog, and I think I am likely to spend a good chunk of my time, now, chasing that sentiment. If it means I’ll get to experience more joy on the part of others, well, I’ll take it.

What was the last thing you heard or experienced that gave you vicarious joy? Tell me in the comments below.

*Some of you will be tempted to put somewhere in the comments that dogs do not like being hugged. Mine does. And Seb would never hug a dog who does not want to be hugged, so please do not leave that comment. We are not concerned with that here, because Seb is a pro, like I said.

**I cannot actually envision a thing where someone would be asked to sit on their hands and talk,, but this is the way they tell it. Later on tonight I will ask Mr. Gooddirt to sit on his hands and talk to me and we will see what happens, okay?

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

“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.

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