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.

Summer Writing

Yesterday morning I woke up tired of myself. This morning I woke up tired of the computer. Well, I should not blame my computer. I woke up tired of my habits on the computer. The endless loop on the computer of checking email over and over again; checking the same few blogs that no longer update; and getting lost in Twitter political feeds, celebrity news, and snarky fashion sites. Finding myself so enraged over things like Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck’s whole marriage, as if I really know what happened in their marriage.

I will wonder forever why Amy Poehler and Will Arnett got divorced.

Most of all, I am tired of the thing inside me that preens, that wants attention, that wants to be recognized, that wants all the glory. You would think with the way that I have shaped my life that this would not continue to reside in me, but it does. When I woke up yesterday tired of myself, it was because in my dream I was trying to get all the attention. And while this is not how I behave generally in my day-to-day life, it is probably accurate to how I feel inside.

But I am tired of our (my?) obsession with narratives of making it, of becoming a success, of clawing oneself up to the top. Of needing to be successful in order to be something, that I will only be something if I achieve something, if I receive that glory.

If there is anything that makes me more miserable, it is that.

I was listening to a podcast where two comedians crowed and congratulated each other on how they had made it. They asked each other when they knew they were going to make it, and it was very masturbatory, to hear the glee in their voices as they regaled each other with their “creation” myths, stories that I am sure they have been building in their heads since they started out. More interesting to me nowadays are those who did not make it. What happened to them? What do their lives look like now? And are they perhaps in a better place by not being rich and famous? Maybe sometimes one is rightfully thwarted because receiving something before one is ready can twist someone inside.

I do not believe that art is only valuable if it is consumed by many people. I do not believe that someone’s value is based on how many people recognize them. I am not even sure that is a validation of someone’s art. But what matters to me is to have the creative space to do the work that I want to do. The outcome I cannot control. The narrative in American society is that it is something you can control. If you work hard enough, you can achieve anything. Maybe. But is that what is necessarily right for a person at any point in their lives?

Let us live our days and just be. Let us walk in our small lives with those around us, not needing to be recognized or wondering what others are thinking about us and our influence and importance. So many self-help books are about how to make it, how to be great. Achieve wealth and power like Warren Buffet, Peter Thiel, Marc Andreeson, Elon Musk etc. Maybe I don’t want to achieve greatness like these guys. Maybe our focus on superlatives (the best, the greatest) leads to our dysfunction. Why are we emulating these people? They are probably the most dysfunctional people around.

I am all for ambition and for going after one’s dreams and so on, but it also does have to be coupled with a strong responsibility to those around us, our community, our peers, our family, and our friends. We are not meant to drift off into the sky and leave everyone else behind.

I made a promise to a few of my writer friends that I would write this summer. I have no excuses. I am out of school and I am not helping out in the classroom. So in the few weeks that I do have left, as a promise to myself and as a way of taking care of myself and my creativity, I will write here in this space. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be anything more than that. It can be a simple practice because a simple practice is better than nothing.

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.

Tutoring

I have been tutoring in a few public high schools in San Francisco the past three weeks, and it has been one of the best things I could do with my time. I can write and think about race and gender and class and understanding and inclusion, but it is another thing to do this work out loud and in public.

One of the tutors gave me a compliment. He said that I bring a good energy to the group and that the students seem to be responding well to me. That is a compliment that I have earned. When I started tutoring nine months ago, I made a lot of mistakes with students. Not huge mistakes that looked terrible, but my assumptions were incorrect. For example, I expected the students to respect my authority and my time, and to listen to me and follow my instructions. Ha ha ha. I should’ve realized that with a young son that this is NOT how it goes. The best way to get my son to follow the rules? Explain why it is important. Explain why brushing one’s teeth gets sugar off the teeth and keeps cavities away. Put in some knowledge so that he will have the intrinsic motivation to want to take care of himself, or at the very least plant the seeds for this for the future.

I also do the lovingkindness (metta) meditation on the BART ride over. (http://www.onbeing.org/blog/lovingkindness-metta-meditation-sylvia-boorstein/2599) I think about everyone in my life and I send them these thoughts. Though it is called a form of meditation, I see it as a form of prayer. I also do this for the people who are commuting with me, for the students and teachers I will work with, and then I open it up for the whole world. I have no idea if it “works,” in that the people who I am thinking of suddenly feel enlightened or more loved by the world, but I will say that for myself it opens up my heart for the day ahead and the people I will encounter. I use it when I am driving too because traffic stresses me out and this is one thing I do that calms me down. This reminds me that I am connected to other people and that how we all feel as a whole matters.

On the BART ride over, I will also read something that centers me and takes me out of my own preoccupations. Last week I read David Whyte’s Consolations. He has a generous perspective that resonates with me. I also will read Pema Chodron, and tomorrow I will bring a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, whose interview I just heard on On Being and loved. Writings by people who believe in things like love, peace, and wisdom. People who are not so unbearably cynical about the world that they have no belief in humanity. People who are not wholly in it for themselves.

I write all this not because I want to convert you to my particular flavor of pseudo-spirituality but because I know that it takes a lot of mental preparation to give myself over to day devoted to students. I don’t have sophisticated expectations either. I am there to 1. connect with them 2. listen and see them (so many of us go through a day without feeling seen) 3. do whatever it takes so that they can see that there is real meaning behind the work the teacher is asking them to do 4. do the best I can 5. self-reflect so that I can learn from my mistakes, figure out what is not working, and what I can do better in the future.

I like being out in the world this way. It feels empowering. The world feels less scary when I’m walking toward the things I believe in. This feels like what will be one of my lifework. I have spent the last 10+ years writing, struggling with writing, I just had my first piece published this month. It has been a tough struggle where I doubted and continue to doubt myself some of the time. But then I see that I have this other thing, where I have deep empathy for anyone who struggles with writing and where I know I can help. There are many approaches to writing. There is more than one point of entry to writing an essay. I want to show students that a flexibility with writing and with ideas makes for better writing. There is not one easy solid right answer. I want to make writing feel less rigid and structured and like a dreaded school assignment. I want to push them toward seeing how writing can make them feel alive.

But most importantly this experience has been about learning so much from the students I have worked with. How impressed I have been by all of them, every single one of them. How most of them work hard in school (and have support of their families to do this) because they want to have a better life. How this makes me think we better make damn sure that they’re getting the education they need to be able to do this.

And if someone who looks as boring and as uncool as I do can do this, then anyone can do this and should go volunteer in under-resourced schools. (I recommend volunteering through 826 Valencia.) Just know that you will probably learn more from the students than they will from you. Just be open to the experience whatever it might be and that every time will be different. You don’t have to be the coolest tutor, the funnest person, you just have to show up consistently, listen and work with them, and be yourself. And no BS because students can look through that.