Life

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.

“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read on.

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Accountability in the disaster-relief world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The lenses through which we see may not be our own

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why does she follow the very specific timeline she follows?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

A small-but-significant change for 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My current gift box looks like this:

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

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

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

How’s it going so far?

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

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

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

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

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.