Flashback Fridays: My First Xanga

Moving to New York for College

When I was 16, I went on a cleaning binge and threw away more than a couple volumes of diaries I’d kept since childhood (a moment of silence please).

I’ve been beating myself up ever since.  Continue reading “Flashback Fridays: My First Xanga”

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The Sunday Seven: Unemployment

“She doesn’t even go here.”

Greetings from a Starbucks in Charlottesville, Virginia, where yesterday I saw my first college basketball game: UVA Wahoos vs. Virginia Tech Hokies. UVA won. I’ve never seen such a united display of school spirit, even though it seemed my classmates had plenty of it. I just didn’t. I also never paid attention nor participated in any sporting events aside from badminton. Though I did go to one football game at Berkeley (vs. Oregon) and sat on the wrong side. In a sea of folks dressed in forest green I said very loudly, “What color are we?”  Continue reading “The Sunday Seven: Unemployment”

The Genius Agenda

Today I walked up three flights in Wheeler for what may be the last time. I dropped off a small box of almond cookies from Trader Joes, along with a garish, glittery Christmas card, addressed to my Hitchcock Professor, the one who, though gay and single, taught me so much about looking and about love.

In the middle of the year, I had gone to his office hours.

“You need to speak more in class,” he said. “You have an intelligent face and I’m sure a brain to match. Share the wealth.”

What else could I but agree?

“What other classes are you taking?”

“Nabokov and Milton,” I replied.

“And Hitchcock,” he added, leaning back into his chair, “You’re taking the Genius Agenda.”

Two weeks ago, he threw a small party for our class in lieu of a screening, and, holding an alcohol free spritzer in his clean, well-manicured hands, went around to each group and asked after our winter plans. He was going to Tokyo, a one-man tradition he undertook each year, preferring to spend the holidays in a foreign land that has since become familiar to putting up with the trials of being a single, gay man at large family functions.

“I just love Tokyo,” he said, “It’s just my absolute favorite city. It’s a shame I just can’t learn the language.”

Later, as the rest of the students thanked him and milled out, a few classmates and I stayed behind to invite him to drinks.

“I’ll just have one,” he said, and gaily donned coat, scarf and beanie, and walked down to the bars with us. Though young at heart – outfitting his lectures with vivid gesticulation and quick steps – he is an older gentleman nearing seventy. His soft white hair is cut close. His skin is always a pale pink, his eyes bright and twinkling (had he been straight I would have pegged him to be one of those “wicked old men,” who, having pinched a girl’s bottom, would wink slyly) and his pecs disproportionately robust compared to his rather thin legs, accentuated by his fitted trousers and denim. From his CV, I gathered he has an interest in body building, health and wellness, which he somehow worked into his academic work at Harvard, Yale, and now Berkeley. He was born in San Francisco. And now, he has returned to San Francisco.

He had two martinis, all the while regaling us with stories from his past, which was far less wild than we had assumed. “I did have a wild period,” he said, “but it came far after everyone else’s wild period and, now that I think of it, wasn’t very wild at all.” Though he was open – a rarity for professors, in my experience anyway – there were certain subjects we didn’t broach. But I gathered that he lived alone in the city, had no lover to head home to, and that at his age, finding a partner was no less difficult than for a single woman in her forties. I wondered if there was a special someone waiting in Tokyo. Nevertheless he smiled often and before bidding us farewell, went around and hugged each of us (he smelled, I imagine, of Bond no. 9 cologne). I asked if he would drive home.

“I take BART,” he said.

I was surprised. The man dresses as though he were a Fashion Editor at GQ – his office is strewn with bags from Barney’s and Hermes, his tennis shoes are LV, his belt and laptop case unmistakeably Bottega, his watch, a simple, understated stainless steel Cartier. His pecs, hard as they might be, are unfailingly wrapped in the softest cashmere. His eye for fashion is not limited to himself. It is from him that I learned that Doris Day’s gray suit in “The Man Who Knew Too Much” was, in fact, Dior. I didn’t peg him as a BART man.

“A few years ago I had an accident,” he said, “And you know, some people, they shake it off. Get back on the horse. I never got back on the horse.”

I understood, I said, the BART is fine, even though we both knew the BART was awful, especially when compared to Tokyo’s unfailingly pristine and punctual transport system. But I had a hunch that in Tokyo, he was a cab man.

“You were a wonderful class,” he said, before slipping out the door.

—-

Today I took the elevator up to floor F of Dwinelle, for what may be the last time in a long time. I slipped into his box another garish Christmas card, this one filled with a small essay, written with love, restrained. I walked down the hall to my lovely professor’s door. It was closed, but through it I could hear his rich, low voice discussing something or other with a young female. A graduate student, most likely. I lingered outside for a moment, pondered knocking, imagined being let in, and giving the man a hug, breathing in his laundry fresh scent (what else could he smell like?) and rushing away before he could see my eyes tearing up.

Yesterday evening I handed him my final exam and he stood up like a gentleman to hand back my final paper (A minus).

“Let me know how the Fulbright turns out,” he said, and I was so moved by his concern (feigned or not) I nearly wept in front of my classmates bent heads. They scribbled furiously. My mind raced. What could I possibly say to this very special man?

“I will,” I whispered, “Thank you, Professor.”

I walked home in the rain, knowing God was indulging me my melodrama. But truly, to know that I would very likely never see him again… it was a strange thought. People tie you to a place. I wanted him to know that. In the garish card I thanked him for his patience in discussing papers and my plans after college. I thanked him for encouraging me to stay in school – “I think you should finish,” he said, when I went to him feeling lost in the art history department. “Change your major, do what you have to, but you should finish.” I changed my major. It meant I would stay an extra semester, but an extra semester led me once again to his classroom, and to him.

Earlier this semester he sent an email to say he would be missing one lecture and one office hour:

“My mother has been ill for a while and has taken a turn for the worse. I will be back in class on Tuesday and hold extra office hours…”

Two weeks later, nearing a paper deadline, I went to see him. I asked about his mother. Perhaps she had recuperated? He never indicated that anything grave had happened and had reappeared the Tuesday following his email with a rather humorous lecture.

“She passed away,” he said, “She was sick for a long time.”

I was startled. Watching him teach and discuss so earnestly our silly paper topics, one would never have guessed his mother had just passed away. He had, in fact, leading up to her death, been flying to and from New York to see her and in a week, would return to New York for her memorial service.

And that was all. His mother was ailing. His mother died. And through it all he taught and taught, never once letting on.

And now I stood by his closed door. The empty hallway echoing like an old, bad dream, but for the future rustle of an envelope being torn open, a tasteless, glitter-covered Christmas card extracted, opened, and read. My prim penmanship burning into his eyes. At least for that. I too, had never let on.

—–

Today I am studying for my last final exam, on Milton. I cared little for my Milton Professor and more, surprisingly, for Milton. He recommends change, and cautions me with a warning as I leave Berkeley for home and other places:

“Farewell, happy fields
Where joy forever dwells; hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest hell
Receive they new possessor: one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
What matter were, if I be still the same?”

The Road

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On Facebook, a high school classmate recently changed his profile picture to one of him and his son. If there’s a surefire way to alienate certain Facebook stalkers (or just, you know, members of your high school class who are still in college) it’s putting up a photograph of you, your kid and your wife/husband (whose presence is implied as the photographer). It’s even more startling than the status updates that say So and so is “engaged” or “married,” not least because of that old adage: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Continue reading “The Road”

Creativity vs. Energy

Lately, I’ve been feeling like an editor. It’s not a bad thing.

By chance, always by chance, I came across a wonderful book by Betsy Lerner, a former book editor and current book agent. I like to think that fate brings me to the same authors over and over again and that these writers carry me through various critical moments in my life even though I gravitate towards certain sections of the bookstore (fiction and literature, cooking, biography, etc.) Having stopped in Moe’s between classes, I was in a hurry to attend my next class but the fastest passage out of the tightly packed bookstore was blocked. To avoid a rather large and surly man who had parked himself in between “New Non Fiction” and “Sale Literature,” I took a right into “Resources For Writers,” a section I normally avoid. It’s populated by writers whose take on craft is often too personal or narrow for me to truly learn from. Their advice, though varying in degree, never strays too far from what I already know: write what you know; set a schedule; write everyday; don’t kill yourself, etc. etc. But the cover of “The Forest For the Trees” caught my eye (pencils that sprout into trees) along with the author’s name. I picked the book up, knowing in the back of my head that I would be late for Milton; after all, I had just become reacquainted with an old friend.

Six years ago in New York City, I teetered on the brink of self-destruction. I was a college student, but went seldom to class except to turn in poorly written papers. Instead I divided my waking moments between a twenty-four hour grocery store near my dorm and the cozy interior of Shakespeare and Co. and similar bookstores. Thus: when I wasn’t buying pints of ice cream, pots of double clotted cream, Oreos and scones, I was in a bookstore trying to feed what psychologically, was the same hunger. No drugs, no alcohol, just sugar and salt to (vainly) satiate some insatiable loneliness. One afternoon, after a particularly loathsome episode which most likely involved all four aforementioned foods, I came across “Food and Loathing,” Lerner’s memoir about her struggles with her weight. She had written it after her first book, “The Forest for the Trees,” but looking back, I am grateful to have read them in reverse order.

“Food and Loathing” was a paper mirror: two hundred or so pages written by a woman I had never met and who was many years older. At her core however, she was essentially the same person as I. She was a writer. I aspired to be one. She had come to New York to do an MFA; I too, was a student in New York. The city was a foodie’s heaven, but we were bingers, not foodies, and thus we were in hell. I hated the book because one hates the ugly parts of ones reflection but loved the book because she was I and her words, my thoughts.

Lerner’s book did not propel me out of my despair as I had hoped it would, but like a good friend her words held my hand and sat with me in the dim dorm room and showed me that I was not alone. The sad irony of course is that everyone struggling with their weight knows they are not alone, that there is most likely (especially in college) a girl next door going through the same self-inflicted ordeal, but like the desire to become a writer, it is a lonely struggle and as much as we would like to, we seldom talk about it.

Eventually, I returned home and in the warmth of family and friends, reestablished myself as something more than just a mouth, stomach, fat. The rewiring of my brain took some time – in fact, it is undeniably a work in progress; sometimes the wires twist and tangle and I feel I am back at square one – but what I had never lost was rediscovered and, I like to think, strengthened. I began to read in earnest and to open my eyes, to look and see at the folks around me and question my place in the world only in my ability to understand it. This is what I have begun to accept about my abilities as a writer, and as in her first book, Lerner’s “The Forest For the Trees” reaffirms this notion. That it is okay to think like this, to recognize potential in shortcomings. I am not a creator but an interpreter.

Lerner was a both: a poet, promising enough to be accepted to Columbia and later, a successful editor and memoirist. But it signifies something to me that her most successful works are a memoir and a book about her experiences as an editor, the latter which she crafts into advice for writers. In “The Forest For the Trees,” she mentions “giving up on poetry.” She says this almost matter-of-factly, and I am moved by her bravery.

In a previous post I wrote about my struggles to write short stories and fiction in general – I still hope to do so some day, but there is also a satisfaction in knowing that there is a place for writers like me (and perhaps a steady job too, in editing) where real life provides the framework and we put our lens over it, our brush and color in the flesh, the flowers, the fruit and the trees. When you read, you see our colors – and in this sense we are artists too, but there is no fantasy involved – nothing imagined or created, just the language of our illustration.

This too, I think, is what I like about editing – regardless of what – a friend’s essay, poem, or personal statement – you give me the body (with too little or too much flesh) and whatever I return, is hopefully enhanced with my energy.

In her book, Lerner quotes the famous editor Maxwell Perkins, most known for editing such literary greats as Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Wolfe:

“An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. Don’t ever get to feeling important about yourself, because an editor at most releases energy. he creates nothing.”

In a sense, this is what I aim to do in writing. Not to create worlds a la Rowling or Orwell, but to re-create the worlds you and I already know: my worlds – Taipei, Berkeley and where ever else I will eventually explore – and the people in them. Once it seemed a strange goal – flat, underwhelming. But honest. After all, one must build the vessel before attempting to reach the stars.

Procrastination Kills

Recently, loved ones have taken to congratulating me prematurely.

“You’re almost done! You must be so excited!”

“Just three weeks away!”

“I’m so proud of you! Do you want anything for graduation?”

“A graduate! You’ll be just like Dustin Hoffman in that one movie with the ambiguous ending!”

No one’s actually said the last one to me, but it’s the statement to which I can provide the most accurate response.

Lately I’ve been stalling. I haven’t been writing except for lame one pagers in my diary (pining about ‘Ben,’ mostly) and I certainly have not been reading for or participating in class discussions. True, “graduation” is only three weeks away (two, if I subtract the week of Thanksgiving, as I will be home for its entirety) and true, time, in its inevitable way, will fly, but right now, this Tuesday evening, the unwritten pages of final papers are piling up and I haven’t a clue as how to tackle them. It’s no longer a question of motivation – I haven’t been motivated to do well in school since senior year of high school – but rather, an issue with…”What now?”

I didn’t expect this stupid, common question to hit me too like the proverbial ton of bricks, but it has and my face hurts and so I’m asking: What now? I can see into the immediate future. I will graduate. With above average grades, below average affection for my alma mater. (At the department store the other day, I overheard a teenage boy discussing Berkeley and Brown – “I like both,” he said. I looked up from black boots that didn’t exactly fit, my face red, “Choose Brown,” I said.)

I know myself – writing papers assigned by youthful and elderly professors alike is, regardless of my attraction to them, like pulling teeth – and I will write them. I will turn them in and if they are graded by professors, will garner generous grades. If not the professors, then bitter, stingy GSI’s (graduate student instructors), who, if the holiday spirit vacates their hearts at the wrong moment, will damn my papers and final grades to scholarly hell (any grade below an A minus). I don’t want to be cast into that hell, especially not in my last semester, but while it’d be great to leave Cal with an academic bang (3.9 decibels loud!), I am wearied by all this relentless reading and writing and listening. I have waited six years to tune out higher education and on the 17th of this December, 2010, I will finally plug my ears and walk away.

My dear aunt called from Taipei two evenings ago. It’s been my spoken plan now, to leave the States for one or two years and fashion a little expat life for myself on the seventh floor (the most modest penthouse there ever was) in our family’s building on Dong Fend St.

“There’s a fine English cram school near my work,” my cousin told me happily. Both she and my aunt anticipate my return, as though my presence would somehow breathe fresh life into their self-perceived dull ones.

“There’s no one here to make waves,” my aunt sighed into the phone, “And Karen wants to live with you on the seventh floor. Perhaps things will be more exciting this way.”

And I’ve no doubt things will be exciting – I’ll teach English, make a killing (especially now, with my degree!) and shop, dine, watch movies whenever I please – it will be a more mature, more fabulous version of my life in Taipei nearly five years ago, when I tutored privately and taught at the National Taipei College of Nursing. Karen and I grew up together and the plan is to continue growing (or perhaps halt the aging process) while living out our single girl life in Taipei. Is this viable? Is it possible? Am I merely planning some elaborate escape? Taipei, despite its cloying humidity and bustling streets, is my mental cryogenic freeze. I go there to pause. To put “real” life, whatever that is, on hold. Ought I do that for more than six months not to mention a year? Or two?

I have my concerns, not least of which is Taipei’s dating scene- a veritable pond sans fish for a big-boned, deep-voiced, giant shark like me. (I believe I did, yes.) The year and twenty-three summers I’ve spent in Taipei have revealed that my “type” of man does not exist in Taipei. And if he does, he is there only briefly, on a stopover perhaps to bigger and more important cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong or Tokyo. No, Taipei gets the stringy foreigners from Europe and middle America – the guys who are misinformed about but endlessly by idiot Taiwanese girls. They come with pale, blotchy skin, holey t-shirts, and those disgusting sandals with the velcro straps and in the heat, break out in the worst cases of yellow fever known to man. Speak perfect English and their eyes glaze over – they don’t want communication, they want dumplings spooned into their mouths with submissive coos.

Equally repulsive are the wealthy ABC’s (American Born Chinese) and TEABRGHTWFD (Taiwanese Educated Abroad But Returning Home To Work For Daddy). When we were younger, my cousin and I studied my aunt’s wealthy friends, dreaming that marrying into one of these families was certainly the fast track to wealth, power and consequently, happiness. Thank god we developed brains along the way. Despite our meager (future) jobs and pitiful paychecks, we still have, in our fathers and other men we admire, standards to adhere to. And I confess there’s a bit of self-loathing going on here – I’m terrified of being my parents’ charity case (hence the plan to teach English in Taipei) but I would hate to date or marry another charity case, regardless of how lucrative the source of the charity may be.

Thus one setback Taipei might pose is the potential throwing away of two perfectly good years of my twenties. I’m not getting any younger. The crows feet that have stepped into the corners of my eyes are only getting deeper (and funny, I’m not laughing all that much). I’m not thinking too much. I’m thinking critically about my situation as a woman in the world.

Another crux: professional progress. Of course I can pledge to write everyday about the sights and sounds of Taipei and of my family – and most likely, I will, but how diligently will I revise? And how ardently will I complete the applications for the MFA programs I’ve also been crowing about? That was the whole plan, after all – graduate, move, teach, write, apply, enroll (Brown, UCI, Iowa – in that order), learn, write, publish, teach at Harvard. The master plan.

And now that’s it’s written and will soon be posted, I feel better. Now that it’s written, I can see how far this plan is, how strange my fears sound and how very achievable it all is. My imagination is quite vivid. My age still young.

My essays all due in less than three weeks, still unwritten. As long as they remain unwritten, the master plan will seem hazy and far. I can’t have that now, can I?

To Nabokov, Milton, Hitchcock and Wagner (the last not a famous writer but an adorable professor with an unfortunately dull class) – may you all see me to the end.

Focus

This past weekend I caught a glimpse into the focused mind – a brain capable of tuning out and zooming in on whatever task or idea sits before the body. Ben, old Ben, changed but unchanged, with a sprinkling of gray hairs on his young head, stood a little straighter, dressed a little neater, walked a little faster than I remembered. He welcomed me with open arms to his new Alma Mater, Stanford University, granter of his future Doctorate in Computer Science. We walked through the campus; I saw everything and nothing.

But he unlocked the door to his office, which he shares with another PhD student and I began to pay attention. It was a narrow room with a large window at the end wall providing a refreshing vista of Stanford’s campus. “I like the view,” he said, and I nodded, knowing the need to look up from one’s screen sometime and wish to see something far and natural, like a tree, mountain or glistening lake. But whatever respite the eyes require, the focused brain at work can stop only for a minute, if at all.

The focus I speak of manifests itself in surprising ways: a dirty dry-erase board with a mysterious “Daruma” written on the top left corner; a messy desk nearly smothered by half-empty coffee cups and Gatorade bottles; conference papers spilling out of paper grocery bags and onto the floor. It was intoxicating. I imagined myself standing in a still life: “Genius at work”. I was lucky that the genius stood there with me, but had he been somewhere else, I would, by the contents of the room itself, have been bathing in the aura of genius.

His is not the only office I have seen that paints a passionate, concentrated mind at work – my lovely professor, the Nabokov expert, has a similar workspace. Every shelf crammed with books (all with creased spines indicating they have been read and reread) and every inch of flat surface covered with papers both his and his students; mine, the product of hours and hours of sporadic, half-hearted research, floating lightly on top, weighted down only by the ink and paper rather than solid ideas. In both offices, dust coats certain areas, but it does not matter – the true activity takes place in their skulls.

Contrast those still lifes with another of my room: consistently spotless; my desk, my closet, even the bottommost drawers of either, everything neat as a pin. Never an item out of place; the only thing on the floor are the legs of my furniture and a rug, which, if wrinkled or flipped, immediately straightened and righted. This is not only the sign of a budding (or full grown) obsessive compulsive, but also a dead giveaway for an unfocused, wandering mind. The brain that can’t focus must generate the illusion of being able to do so by making the physical environment seem orderly.

A decade ago, I was the same way, my symptoms in some ways more acute. My aunt asked me, after marveling at my various systems of organization, why I felt compelled to keep everything so neat. I thought for a long while, mulling over a suitable response before settling on a fact: I was, at least to my young self, quite “messy” inside. I understood my need to clean and wipe and stack and fold as an outlet to some inner rumblings – the confusion that comes with being as optimistic as I was, yet also painfully self-aware of potential limitations.

I wanted too many things, pursued too many interests, swam in a million shallow pools so that I would never have to get my hair wet. By keeping my room neat and my belongings pristine (for some reason, I was never one of those kids who wore out the soles of her shoes or came home with muddied, torn clothing – even after long afternoons spent in trees) was a precaution – I was creating a safe haven for my body to return to in case the clutter of my mind somehow reared its head and emerged. It’s the root of my many evils, this desire for superficial perfection, and rather than promote productivity or creativity, it constrains, corrupts, and desiccates whatever streams I might have flowing within so that I cannot write or read or do anything worthwhile without fretting that my clothes are not in order or that my desk drawers are not perfectly partitioned off. Staples here, paper clips there, empty stationery for letters I will never write, here.

I am getting better. Better at letting little things go here and there (people are now allowed to sit on my bed) and no longer worrying about letting papers pile up or books topple… but even these little allowances seemed forced, as though I am testing myself to see how long I can go before I reach out to straighten, no, completely reorganize everything in one long, dusty afternoon. But I am learning. I am learning to apply these methods of organization to my mental state. And I am writing. It is hard for me, but I do it.

As we strolled through campus, I asked Ben if every morning he walked to his office.

“I do,” he said, “I drive sometimes too, because I do get lazy, but I like to walk. It takes me roughly thirty minutes to get to my office and in a way, the walk saves me time.”

I nodded, about to say something about not having to go to the gym, but he continued.

“I like to use that time to process my thoughts. It’s a good time to think and organize. I can’t really do that effectively when I’m driving.”

So this was his reason – a far cry from mine, which had everything to do with the body and nothing to do with the mind. This was before he showed me his office, and already I was in awe. Later, we stepped out of his office and into Hoover Tower, a Stanford landmark which, I was pleased to see, was less aesthetically pleasing than Berkeley’s Campanile – but the view was pleasant, despite the greyness of the sky and the chill of the wind.

I remarked how lovely it was to see matching Spanish tile roofs. “So orderly here,” I said, “Unlike Berkeley, where the buildings don’t match.”

He looked at me for a minute, “Really? I like that the buildings in Berkeley don’t match.”

In the two years I’ve spent at Berkeley, I learned to find my pockets of neatness and order. There are certain houses I like to look at because the paint is not chipped, the windows are whole and clean and the lawns are not overgrown to the point of resembling a small jungle. I smile at these houses and wonder how they can stand to neighbor the more unsightly edifices. Walking to campus, I prefer the right side of my street to the left because the sidewalk is more even and the row of houses more favorable to me than the over grown students’ garden. Certain restaurants top my list not only because of the food, but because the tables, floors and bathrooms are clean and well-lit. I hate the smell of garbage, piss and shit (all of which occur in abundance in Berkeley) for the same reasons as everyone else does, and also because these odors transcend the membrane of my nostrils and threaten to sully my insides. The homeless, even though I feel for them, truly I do – I too, would talk to myself and yell obscenities – invade my vision. They remind me day after day of what I am not capable of cleaning.

I’ll end here, at the top of Hoover Tower, where it was strangely quiet despite the wind and a group of laughing Chinese families. I gazed out across the red tiled roofs, feeling happy and sad, composed yet on the brink of disintegration. Dear Ben with his gray hairs and kind smile that masked a gleaming mind and I with my shiny hair, my bright orange scarf – the first carefully brushed the second carefully selected – with my muddle of thoughts. A jumble of millions. The buildings with the matching roofs calmed me a bit. I stole a glance at Ben, who smiled at me. Tumble tumble crash crash. I wanted nothing more right then than to clean something.