Working out, reading, etc.

After a year of not working out, I am now working out. It is not so much out of vanity rather than cheapness. I hate that I have pants I cannot fit into right now, and I refuse to buy more work clothes once school starts. Clothes buying feels too much like buy now and then throw away. Garbage in, garbage out. I have that fast-fashion mindset having come of age in the time of H&M and Forever21.

I also realize that I no longer care about fashion as I did when I was younger. I suppose admitting to this is somehow admitting to giving up in life. But I don’t see it that way at all. When I cared about fashion, it wasn’t for me. It was for other people. I was trying to look effortful for work or for dating or to make a cool statement, but now, and it’s a relief to say this, I just don’t care. Give me comfy pants or shorts and a tee any day.

Getting to the end of the school year was tough. I could not get on top of my grading for the last two months, and I stress ate because the feat felt so impossible. I missed out on a gathering with my fellow teaching friends, and I drank so much soda and bubbly water that my teeth ached. But now I am rewarded with summer, and it has been the sweetest feeling ever. Sure, I’ve birthed a baby, I’ve had a wedding full of so much love, but nothing compares to that summer after a year of teaching.

My watch also tells me how many calories I have burned during a workout. I’m trying not to turn into Exercise Queen (imagine an 80s fitness goddess like Jane Fonda with shiny spandex, pastel headband, and blonde permed hair with bangs) because…because…what is the point? But those numbers can become a quick obsession.

I was thinking about this with the tallying and recording culture I feel that surrounds me. I have started reading again, a whole joy unto itself. But I do record what I’ve read in Goodreads, and I dislike how it motivates me. Here is an example: when deciding which book to choose, I want to choose the book I can finish quickly so that I can record that I’ve read another book. Hence, I’ve been reading a lot of graphic novels.

That’s probably not entirely true. I also am reading graphic novels because it is easy access back into reading. I find that there is a flow to reading, and when I haven’t read in awhile, I like to start out with really fun books like graphic novels and essays/memoirs by comedians. Then I ease myself into more serious books. And then to go on another tangent, I started reading Sally Rooney’s Normal People on our way to Legoland, and I couldn’t put that book down. I couldn’t even socialize or interact with people because my mind kept drifting back to that book. And I loved it, I loved the ending. It was so satisfying to read.

The other tangent is this. I thought after a year of being absent socially that what I would want to do most was meet up with friends. I do want to do these things, and I do enjoy these things, but I guess my realization is that my honest to God first love will always be reading. Books. Give me a pile of books and then people I love around me, and I’m just a happy camper.

But to go back to what I was talking with the tallying and recording of things. To live in a culture where it does feel quantity over quality. To now have this watch that tells me how many calories I burned when before it was just a nebulous kind of idea. I used to not even know precisely how far I’d ran or walked. And to be motivated by this little ticking watch that tells me how fast my miles are, how many calories I’ve burned, and to be able to compare that to yesterday. And the comparing and the push to do better each day, to read more books because they’re getting recorded on a website, and…STOP.

The tools should be helpful to me, the tools should not run my life aka my motivation. I walked/ran without music today just because I always feel so plugged in, and I wanted to know what it feels like to be in my body. I ran slower today than I did the day before, but I felt more conscious. It somehow felt better.

And I know the next book I need to read. Reading will take me awhile, and I probably won’t be able to fill my goodreads with the new books I’ve read, but it’s the right choice. It’s the soulful, spiritual right choice.

There are the should-do’s and there are the want-to’s. Too many should-do’s and I do nothing. I drown in the should-do’s. Make room for the want-to’s and life feels lighter somehow.

YA Books

I recently read a YA romance that I found reprehensible in the way it teaches girls to think and in the way it deepens the tracks of how girls are taught to be: quiet and waiting for a guy to save them. To be completely honest, I found the story to be romantic, but another part of my brain was mad and resisted it because I could feel how harmful it would be for a young woman to read this novel and buy into it.

The problem with this story was that the girl did nothing. She wandered around, I saw very little of her interaction with her classmates or her peers or those around her, and yet almost everyone declared at some point in the story that SHE WAS SPECIAL. She was DIFFERENT. She carried herself differently from others. It was also mentioned quite a few times that the character was pretty. Again that trope that I saw over an over again in YA novels growing up that brainwashed me, that taught me it was important to be quiet, to be still, and that the right boy would like me if I were pretty enough.

As a middle-school teacher, it bothers me that books like this exist in the world. I don’t want girls to read these books and gobble up these false-truths like candy. Be good, be pretty, then you will be recognized by some romantic hero. The author even has the girl’s romantic interest declare that she doesn’t need saving, but then he kind of does save her. So, yes, just because a character can mention it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in the book.

I get that there is a market for these kinds of books where these guys do these crazy impossible things for these girls like write a steady stream of love letters to her anonymously just because they saw them at school and liked them. This is so fantasy driven, and there is a place in my heart that wished or longed for these kinds of interaction growing up because I grew up on a steady diet of Korean dramas and Harlequin romance novels. We all want to be plucked from the masses for our specialness, but also, COME ON.

I’m old enough to know that kind of interaction is ultimately dissatisfying. Some guy who would actually act like this in real life would not be romantic but a little creepy. A girl who is taught to wait for someone to notice her specialness is going to have a really sad and pathetic life. You just go and do. You just go and humiliate yourself and get better. You just go and learn to advocate for yourself because the rest of the world is not really watching you and hoping you will reach your full potential. You bust down doors, you make people uncomfortable, you make people pay attention to you. You take up space.

And I find so much of what lies between those pastel covers can be so insidious. The ones that I gobbled up as a teenager. They look so harmless with their bubblegum colors, the cute girl on the cover, or stars and hearts, but they can often send debilitating messages to girls.

So, I guess I am left with the worry that some of these books will infiltrate into my classroom library because it is just impossible for me to read all the books out there. The falseness in any form of writing bothers me. Writing that is full of its own pretensions, writing that is essentially about nothing but pretty words. I tried to read Ellie Kemper’s memoir and I thought, What is the point of this? These are just words in love with itself that show no conflict, no strife, no humanity. I am not going to waste my time on this. I don’t need self-congratulatory writings where characters are perfectly self-aware and say the right things all the time. I need writing that feels meaningful in some way, that shows an honest struggle. I don’t need fake conflict either, but I want something that rings true.

So what now? I would very much like to cultivate a library that contain stories of real pain and growth. Not just fake, fluffy stories that add nothing to the conversation. I want those books that always seem on the edge of some new conversation. The ones that push the boundaries and that startle a reader into thinking about the world in a different way. I don’t need books that push agendas of the boring gendered environments that we wish to escape and that come at the expense of girls reaching their full potentials.

What would an honest but fulfilling rom-com kind of high school book look like? I thought Sally Rooney’s Normal People had that kind of realism and romance intertwined,  truly flawed characters, but the story would be too mature for my middle school kids. Something like that then but more appropriate for the middle school crowd. Something that has that feeling even if the content would be different. It would feel honest and true.

President Obama and His Reading Life

This January interview of President Obama and his reading life came up in my feed because of the rumor that Michiko Kakutani is leaving as book editor for the NY Times. (She is the one doing the interviewing.)

It’s such a good reminder of why we read: for the quiet reflection, for taking the time out to think about things when it’s so much easier now to switch on our phones, iPads and computers.

In my mid-twenties I traveled by myself through Europe for nine months and wouldn’t have an internet connection where I would stay. I spent a lot of time by myself reading, being a kind of hermit, and developing my own tastes. Tastes that were not dictated by popular media, what everyone else was reading, or what school or my professors told me to read. It was such a delicious way to read. There was no showmanship about it. It was such an intensely personal experience and totally mine. Those books I read during that time live in my mind. I probably have never discussed half the authors with anyone I know but they still inform and shape my point of view.

In Budapest I had cable TV and ended up watching a lot of documentaries on CNN. But I would have trouble writing about what I watched after because I would forget those bubbles of thoughts by the time I could write–at the end. It made me realize that books are made more for contemplation. A book carves out a space for silence and thinking. A book you can pick up and put down. A book you can stop and copy your favorite passages into a notebook. You can rest and think, “Wow, what a beautiful way to phrase it” or “I never thought of it in that way.” TV and movies just zoom on by in a way that are completely immersive (which I love too) but where I lose more of those interesting and provocative thoughts.

This interview is a good reminder of why I should read more and what I’m missing out by not doing it enough. Really, for the purest of reasons. To enter that space of meditation and quiet. To enjoy a book no one else may be reading, no rush, and then hold that book in my hand and think about what it means to me and if it changes how I view the world.

And what a loss to have had a president who understood the value of reading and taking the time to think more deeply about things and to where we are now.

From the Inimitable Zadie Smith

I watched an episode of the sublime Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the one where it finally occurs to the main character that she might not be the hero of her own story. (She has this realization in song.) I’m not trying to be cute when I say that I could have written 5,000 words on it — I truly had what the Internet calls “many feels.” This is what I am looking for in art: feels. Intellectual, emotional, philosophical, religious, existential feels.

But the feels have to possess a certain amount of vertical depth. It’s like lowering a stone down into the well of yourself, and the further it goes the deeper it resounds. I am resistant to a lot of the Internet, not because I disapprove but because the feelings I personally draw from it seem to me shallow and don’t lead me anywhere useful or pleasurable. A lot of the social platforms provoke feelings in me I simply don’t enjoy. For a moment I am flattered, falsely puffed up, briefly amused, painfully hurt, or infuriated. I accept it feels different for other people, but I have to gravitate to the things that really interest and excite me while I’m alive.

It’s totally selfish on my part. I’m in the middle of my life, and I just don’t have enough years left to spend a large proportion of them inside an iPhone. For one thing, I know I would be an addict. I live inside my laptop plenty enough already. I don’t have a moderate temperate with these things. If I were going to live to 150, perhaps I wouldn’t mind so much spending half of every day online. But there’s so many things I haven’t read or seen or experienced. I want that vertical experience all the time — I’m very greedy that way.

(From Zadie Smith’s email to Lena Dunham in Lenny Letter)

10-15 years

Last Friday a few weeks before my teaching application is due I found out that I need to take a four-part standardized test.

It put me into a bit of a panic because studying for a standardized test is…not a fun way to spend my time. Especially one that I thought I didn’t have to take. I’d much rather be reading books I like than studying for a proxy of all the good things of literature.

And let me tell you, signing up for that test in itself was a huge headache. First, you sign up for the tests and pay with your credit card. THEN they send you an approval email that lets you actually schedule the test. So you’re left waiting for this email to come in. I made the mistake of signing up for all four tests at once (as you would think to do) but then THAT was a mistake. If you want to take the four tests broken up over different days, you have to sign up for each test INDIVIDUALLY. Which requires answering the same ten questions about your background FOUR TIMES. I had to call to figure this out. Then waiting for the email to come in that would let me cancel that initial test, then signing up for those four tests one at a time and waiting for those emails to come in so I could schedule the test.

It took me literally two full days of hovering over my email to get my testing schedule. (The people on the phone were very nice though.)

As much as I resisted taking this test, I accept it now. If anything, it puts me in students’ shoes and how those standardized tests matter so much. (If I don’t pass this, I definitely don’t get into the program.) I feel deep empathy for anyone in high school who has to take these kinds of tests. Through this process I remembered how easy it is to get into some warped thinking of how the test score is who you are.

And thinking it over today it made me realize that I am unwilling to jump through those hoops so blindly. There are two writing portions of the test. The temptation is study and get through it and pass. But you know what? I can’t write some critical essay analyzing texts where I don’t care. I can’t write some perfunctory essay where I answer everything but the essay has no human soul attached to it. I would also not want students to approach it in this way. And honestly I feel like that is a waste of my skills and my time.

Whatever you write, matters. Make it matter. Whatever you do in your life, make it matter. This is a very Buddhist idea. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about how when you wash the dishes, you don’t think about the cup of tea you get to enjoy after and getting through the task as quickly as possible, you WASH the dishes and you ENJOY washing the dishes. This is your life, don’t waste a minute thinking it is not your life. He said the same thing about people with kids. He said the temptation is to think your time does not start until your child goes to bed but that it is important to be able to spend your time with your family and still see it as your time. I haven’t figured this out 100% yet, but I understand the deep feeling behind it. I have felt it in moments.

Anyway, after I figured that out, taking the test really doesn’t seem so bad. I also let go of the outcome of absolutely needing to pass, as in I HAVE to pass. Let’s see how it goes. I can always re-evaluate plans later. Who says plans have to be so all or nothing?

One nice thing about being in my mid-thirties is that my friends have all committed to something long enough to end up close or near where they ought to be, and I get to observe it. I have been thinking about two friends in particular after they helped me think through a problem. Being able to turn to them in utter confusion and have them walk me through different but equally important solutions made me realize that they both do such good work in the world. One is finishing up her PhD in cultural studies and she is the friend I turn to when I want to talk about all things related to race. Another friend worked for five years as a high school English teacher in the LAUSD and now works in education non-profits. I remember right after undergrad she got into all these top law schools but chose to go be a teacher instead. 10-15 years later I can see how much they’ve progressed, how they are real resources for me to turn to when I have troubling questions, and how incredibly insightful and intelligent they are because of the time they have spent thinking about these things.

And that’s so good to see.

The Reading!

Saturday night I did my reading for Litcrawl, and it was exhilarating. I can only remember about half of what happened because I was so nervous, but it was wonderful to have this be the ending to all my experiences in my writing program.

The week leading up to the reading, I was irritable and cranky. But by the time Friday rolled around, I was eerily calm–I’d accepted all of it. It probably helped that I got to see some classmates read at the bookstore Friday morning. Also, I had practiced enough that I knew my reading well by then. I also refused to look at my reading on Saturday because I didn’t want to feel sick of it but excited when I read it. It needed to rest, become fresh and new again in my eyes.

The reading proves to me that the anticipation of things is the scariest part, the part that eats away at me the most. Once I was up there, ok, I wasn’t as comfortable as when I’m talking to a close friend, but I could still function and do and get close to how I had practiced it at home.

We had the best possible setup anyone could’ve asked for. A glamorous, cozy bar filled with mostly friends, families, and teachers. We had a mic and speakers, and the crowd (a crowd!) was quiet when we were reading—it’s not always quiet from what I’ve seen in the past—so mostly people were there for us, and that was great for me to have for the first time I was reading my work out loud to so many people.

I finished reading, and I had no sense of how I did. (Later on, I got wonderful words from a few people, words that I’ll truly keep forever.) I was surprised by how exposed I felt. The things I write have me imprinted all over it—which I think is how most people feel about their creative work. And this experience was important because it gave me a sense of what it’s like to release creative work into the world. How you have to let it go and let it be weighed in other people’s minds, how they have to grapple with it and interpret it, and I have to just let it go out into the world and not hold up my finger and say “but, but,” “no, no,” “well, actually…” Everyone was supportive, but it gave me a small, tiny sense of truly letting something go into the world, without qualifiers, without trying to control the outcome. How you have to let it go.

This is an important part of the creative process. Who would say that they write for themselves and only themselves? Of course you make stuff so that other people can witness it, to say that you were once here and alive. If you write something and never show anyone, it’s like it’s only half formed. The other half is having people interact with it. So I appreciate that opportunity and it taught me what that feels like. As frightening as it feels, I know it’s important too.

But there is, I realized, too the importance of doing the work, of the cocooning, of the self-preservation, of going deep to those places on my own. Of being able to go underground and do that work privately. The reading was fun, but it’s not my default setting. I have to switch my brain to a different frequency to do that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about David Whyte and what he calls the discipline of asking the beautiful question:

[T]he ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered.

And you don’t have to do anything about it. You just have to keep asking. And before you know it, you will find yourself actually shaping a different life, meeting different people, finding conversations that are leading you in those directions that you wouldn’t even have seen before.

I feel that in every way that writing is that for me, a place to ask the beautiful questions, the unanswerable questions. It can be scary to ask these questions because sometimes it can feel like, What is the point of asking these questions if there is no answer? Are you just being overly hopeful? Naive? Or sometimes I feel that society’s general attitude is, Don’t be stupid, don’t ask these kinds of questions.

So this is my beautiful question about readings. How do you read and remain vulnerable with your work? How do you stay open when, if you are an introvert like me, you just want to retreat? How do you read and use it as a way to connect with others a little more? This was my first reading. I’d like there to be more opportunities in the future not because of self-promotion on some grand level, but because as I get more comfortable doing this, I imagine this kind of work would feel good and fulfilling like the way writing does. It’s just another vein for that kind of communication, but how to learn how to do it, get better at it? What will be the trick that will make me feel more present and less like I’m barreling through it? I guess I’ll just have to see.

From Marc Maron’s Conversation with President Obama

President Obama on Marc Maron’s podcast awhile back. I still think of this snippet of conversation a lot.

Obama: I was talking to somebody the other day about why I actually think I’m a better president and would be a better candidate if I were running again than I ever have been. And it’s sort of like an athlete—you might slow down a little bit, you might not jump as high as you used to, but I know what I’m doing and I’m fearless.

Maron: For real. You’re not pretending to be fearless.

Obama: Right, you’re not pretending to be fearless. And when you get to that point?

Maron: Freedom.

Obama: And also part of that fearlessness is because you’ve screwed up enough times that you know that—

Maron: It’s all happened.

Obama: It’s all happened. I’ve been through this, I’ve screwed up, I’ve been in the barrel tumbling down Niagara Falls, and I emerged, and I lived. And that’s such a liberating feeling. It’s one of the benefits of age. It almost compensates for the fact I can’t play basketball anymore.