thoughts on self-care: I have a lot of them

This is an intro post to a multi-part series (of an indeterminate number of parts) on self-care and community care that started as one post, and then it was too many words, so now it is more than one post.

This year has been … a lot of things. A huge part of me wants to curl up into a ball (maybe surrounded by puppies and kittens, also curled up, resting their fuzzy little faces onto their tiny fuzzy paws) and take a break from everything. I am tired, and it feels like people in my communities are also tired.

I’ve been meaning to write a post about self-care and trauma, with links to resources, for at least the last 6 months. I’m recognizing in finally writing this post that I have been thinking “I need to write that self-care post,” while my heart and life have been traveling down a different path of “What does community care look like?”

selfcare.jpg

By the way, this is my favorite hobby/self-care practice (working on my photo book “Hey, can I hold that?”)

Thankfully, this hard and tiring year has also been amazing and rewarding in many, many ways, in large part because I have met and deepened relationships with so many rad, radical QTPOC organizers. I have learned so much from reading their status updates and blog posts, from talking through trauma and #organizerproblems over meals, from observing how folks hold space.

I’ve learned about what I want care and access support and communities to look like, how I want to show up for folks, how to ask for support and articulate needs and boundaries. These are all things that I recognize are ongoing practices, things I hope I will strive to be better at for the rest of my life.

So. I am accepting that I don’t have all of the answers, which is like, probably important to growth? And part of my self-care process and accepting imperfections? I guess?

My original post had paragraphy subheads to help break up the text, so I will leave them here as a preview of what I think follow-up posts will be, with links added in once other posts go live:

  • Context matters: Maybe we should be thinking about why we need so much self-care. (OR the world we live in is often a deeply fucked up place and instead of feeling guilty about not being more grounded, maybe we can shift the blame outside of ourselves)
  • “Self-care for sustainability” is part of the problem. If we’re only doing self-care so we can work more, how can we disentangle our self-worth from the work? Hint: I don’t think we can. (Also, this is capitalistic and ableist.)
  • “You’re living in a bubble”: Yes I am, and also you’re not invited any more. (But I also believe in transformative justice, so here’s some reading and a snack, I hope we’ll be able to share bubble space later.)
  • What does the opposite of a bleak disastrous hellscape of loneliness actually look like?* Moving from self-care to community care.
  • [Something about trauma, secondary trauma and therapy, which I had already decided to break out into a separate post.]
  • Here is an oddly curated list of resources.**

* This is particularly odd without the context of the section that comes before it, which might not make it through edits.
** I may break up the resources a bit to go with each post, and then create a final post with all of the links, along with any additional suggestions I gather from the comments or Facebook. Please comment with resources you’ve found helpful!

Anyway, here’s Wonderwall a partial list of things that help me maintain perspective:

  • my hobbies: baking bread and picking up animals and taking pictures with them
  • journaling, even if it’s only for 10 minutes at a time (if 10 seems daunting, start with 5; if it helps, try promising yourself that you won’t go back and read what you wrote for a month, or 6 months, or ever, and find a good hiding spot for your journal)
  • QTPOC workouts: being able to move in a space that is affirming and inclusive, that welcomes all bodies, openly encourages modifications, and where folks are actively respectful of pronouns and thoughtful about how they are communicating feels almost unrealistically magical but it’s real
  • Chani Nicholas’ weekly horoscopes
  • Lucille Clifton’s short, powerful poem “won’t you celebrate with me” (full text, video, skip to 30 seconds in)

And some additional things I’d like to share:

blog inertia + random list of thoughts

I have three different drafts of blog posts about different things, many of them heavy, and because I haven’t written a blog post for so long, I feel the need to write about everything, and to do it well, and instead I have spent large chunks of the last few days scowling and/or frowning at my laptop with WordPress open. So instead of a full blog post, here is a random list of thoughts:

  • I talked to my parents about Vincent Chin for the first time today, and until then I never realized they’d never brought him up before. I asked my dad if he was scared at the time, and he replied simply, “There were just some places we knew not to go.” He mentioned being on a business trip with a black co-worker in the South a while back, and he remembers that co-worker telling him how nervous he got when he got lost on the way to a presentation. “You just couldn’t be sure, so you knew not to go some places.”
  • We talked a lot about happiness and what that looks like, and values and work ethic and what it meant to grow up in the community we did. I asked my mother what lessons she hoped she imparted on her children, and she started to answer, then asked, “Isn’t this kind of cheating? Shouldn’t you know?” In a way, it does feel like cheating, as a writer — why bother with metaphors and signs and allegories and trying to figure out the subtext, I’ll just ask her.
  • The Poets for Ferguson cypher was amazing, and powerful, and so heavy. I talked to my friend Ami about it today, and we are both working our way through the hours we didn’t see live. I feel an absence, almost, now that it has wrapped up, and I realize how much I crave space that is centered on and exclusively for people of color.
  • I am grateful to have a friend I can Skype with for three hours about everything we are thinking and fears and feeling stuck and not being sure what lessons our parents wanted to teach us and what we should be doing next.
  • I am thinking a lot about inertia in general, and about living up to one of the poems I performed — one of its conclusions is that the road to progress is long, but that it’s important to keep moving. So often over this past month and a half (and in other stretches before), I have wondered how we are supposed to keep moving forward, and whether we will be able to. And I keep reminding myself to balance the need for self-care against the knowledge that my ability to turn away — and the instinct to do so — both of these are rooted in privilege.
  • Today was my mother’s birthday. Her 33-year-anniversary with my father is coming up soon. They went to get Thai food to celebrate. This morning on the phone, my mother misheard me say I would call her back and thought I’d said I’d be at the house at noon. “My heart jumped for a second,” she told me in disappointment.
  • I have been sitting on a post about “The Giving Tree” and motherhood, and I wanted to talk to my mom about it first. She said she doesn’t find it sad, just accurate. I texted my brother about it later, as he got ready to head to the Thai restaurant to surprise my mother.
    (does the boy come back? / As an old man he returns and sits on her stump / oh, happy book then!)
  • What is a sad story about motherhood, then? Is it a tree that keeps waiting, having given away all of its fruit to show how deeply and unconditionally she loves? Will she continue to wait, forever, unable to move past the spot of her last and most painful sacrifice? How can we ever begin to heal the wounds of boys who never return and trees who will always be kept waiting?

Brain mush: “Twilight: Los Angeles”

I went to a Facing History Community Conversation with Anna Deavere Smith tonight. I will probably blog more things about it, along with some thoughts about LA and community and 1992 and race and things. For now, I’m thinking about this response Smith had to an audience question about her interview with Young-Soon Han (whose voice is featured in “Swallowing the Bitterness”).

The question came from a Korean-American woman who was living in New York in 1992: “Was there anything that didn’t make it onto the page? … Was she standing on top of her store with a gun?”

My transcription skills are not what they once were, although having the work iPad with me was helpful. (n.b. The iPads were donated; my nonprofit is all about fiscal responsibility.) The following is parts of Smith’s response:

“The feeling of the whole interview (was that) I was with an elder in the community. … There was a sense of a community, even though it was just the four of us.”

[not verbatim: She was also grieving because her husband had died not too long before that. She also kept apologizing for her English.]

“She wanted that feeling of community, but she said there’s just ultimately too much difference, and she couldn’t make that bridge. I felt that one of the remedies for her — one way that people dealt with the trauma was to try to learn more, so very often Korean-American people that I spoke to were very savvy of the broad race picture, and how they sometimes even saw themselves as proxies for white people.”

Also thinking about the opening remarks from Marti Tippens Murphy, the LA Director of Facing History. Paraphrasing: “As a child, I was told if I was ever in danger, to go to a police officer for help. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that not every child is told that.”

My roommate and I discussed race, erasures, model minorities, interracial dating, and the Asian-American experience on the way home, and then while throwing together a late dinner. More thoughts later. In the meantime, if you haven’t had the chance to see Anna Deavere Smith perform, get thee to a YouTubery. Also, read the book.

Three things I’m thinking about: bowling leagues, poetry, making things

Oh hey, remember when I used to blog? Easing myself back in with a “three things” post.

1) Bowling leagues

At our all-staff meeting last Thursday, we had  a guest speaker (as we often do) Bill Parent, Associate Dean at the UCLA School of Public Affairs. For a three-hour lecture on the state of the nonprofit sector in Los Angeles, I could have done with a little less on the history of the United States as it relates to civil society. (It was really interesting, but that part lasted beyond the first hour, and there was some really interesting data at the end that we flew through. If you’re curious about nonprofit funding and growth over the last decade or so, check it out here.)

The middle portion of the lecture was about social capital and effective civil society, and Bill brought up Robert Putnam’s study of Italian cities. He assigned students to walk into a police station and say that they thought they had a broken arm, then timed how long it took for them to receive treatment. There was a strong correlation between the amount of time to get treatment and the number of choral groups in the city. (Bill said the number “correlates perfectly,” but I’d want to see data before repeating that claim.)

Putnam concluded that the number of choral groups is a strong indicator of deep community ties, as well as a way for people to “get together with a purpose.” That intentional group membership correlates with higher trust levels, increased civic participation, and “things working,” as Bill put it. Putnam repeated the study in the States, by analyzing the density of bowling leagues* (and the decline in membership nationwide) and concluded some things about people caring about each other and being in communities and stuff.

Anyway, at our next department meeting, we discussed the all-staff, since a lot of the discussion was around nonprofit funding, and as the development department, knowing about that kind of thing is important. Boss lady asked us to write down all of the groups we belong to now, had belonged to in college, and had belonged to in high school, and to rank them based on level of participation. She asked us whether our periods of highest group membership correlated with stronger feelings of community engagement. Then we went around the table and answered the question “Is LA a community?” Seven nos, most of them definitive, a few with an asterisk (along the lines of “LA doesn’t feel like a community, but neighborhoods do/I belong to sub-communities.”) The only yes was from our newest staff member, who moved back to LA from San Diego last weekend. So … yeah.

It was interesting to hear my co-workers describe the ways they make LA feel like home for them, though; I love that I work with people who say things like “I felt disconnected, so I started a writing/cooking group.” My list for current groups also made me happy; I think this is the most intentional I’ve been about group membership ever. In college, the Daily Bruin and the rowing team were the two big groups I was part of. In high school, I was in a ton of groups formed around extracurriculars, and I felt deeply engaged within the community, but it was a narrow school- (and for a year, district-) based community.

Now, though, I have strong ties to the people I served with during my City Years, I have a tight circle of roommates and college friends (plus an affinity member) that work at spending time together, and I have Tuesday Night Project, which is a constant reminder that there is good and art in the world. Also some other groups.

2) Poetry and self-reflection, etc.

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” — Joan Didion

Traci asked me to open for the upcoming Tuesday Night Cafe, in celebration of National Poetry Month. Actually, she asked if I have any new pieces, and I replied that I have two in progress, and I agreed to take the set, hoping that the deadline would force me to finish these poems — I’ve been working on one of them for, like, six months, and it’s driving me crazy. Four days later, poems are done. (Thanks in large part to Syd, who is crashing in our living room and has been subjected to me reading poem fragments and drafts at her from Tuesday to Thursday nights. THOSE ARE THE PERILS OF COUCHSURFING, OK? Captive audience!)

Anyway, poems. I was going to read this piece, “Homecoming” that I wrote during Session 26 of The Undeniables, plus a haiku and two new pieces and “native tongue.” Then I had the epiphany pictured below.

This is the first time I’ve worked on two pieces at the same time (the second piece was born out of trying to give up on the first), and now I’m practicing all of them together and realizing that there’s a ton of imagery about going home, not being able to go home, feeling rootless, and not being able to sleep. I just saved myself three years of therapy. Thanks, poetry!

3) Making things

Other awesome perks of Syd crashing here:

  • Conversations
  • She makes things
Last weekend, we all sat around with the front doors open, reading and listening to music and enjoying the weather. Then other people came over, and there was some quality porch-sitting. Syd picked and squeezed lemons from the backyard, and I harvested some of the lavender that is overtaking the front walk, then everyone consumed snacks and lavender lemonade and ironic self-deprecatory comments about our bohemian hipsterhood. Mason jars were involved.
I brought lavender lemonade to work a few days last week, and my mason jars are currently the only watertight containers I have, so I’ve had a nice porch-like week all week. Also, Syd has been cold-steeping coffee and leaving it in jars in the fridge, and on Thursday I came home to baked tofu and asparagus.**
I can’t really remember what this section was going to be about. Mostly mason jars and finally getting around to harvesting lemons and lavender. Also, cooking, or something. I am done with this post, because the kitchen smells like fresh-squeezed lemons, so I’m going to go make some simple syrup and make Arnold Palmers with the iced tea I’ve been steeping. Mason jars will be involved.

Communities and groups and stuff. Comment about it.

* Bill asked us to guess what the American counterpart of choral groups would be, and of course two of us said “bowling leagues,” because we’d read the study and are competitive and like to ruin everyone else’s fun in the interest of winning. I love that about my co-workers. (We’re actually competitive in a friendly way, just very intensely so.)

** Unfortunately, she said no when I asked her to marry me.

Brain mush: Unintentional puns in translation

Kate and I drove past this poster on our way back from a late-night snack. The ad was at a bus stop, and it was pretty dimly lit, so my brain scanned the poster and went “intime” in French. (Click the word for pronunciation; I did not do well in the phonetics part of linguistics.*) I just got carried away with that footnote. Where was I?

Ah yes, I loved that my brain gave me a split-second reminder that I used to speak and see French on the regular. I hadn’t seen this poster before, and as it flashed by, my brain made a logical assumption that it’s an ad for a debonair cologne.

Another unintentional pun came up on Friday when I was having lunch with my aunt. We went to Cafe Surfas and she insisted that we order pretty much everything we thought was interesting from the menu (beet salad, lentil salad, a Lobster Sensations** panino and a lamb burger — and both entrées came with mixed greens). I was surprised that my aunt held her own, and she pleasantly reminded me that she’s not my mother (who has the stomach capacity of an average-sized toddler). I was all, “Oh yeah, you told me that she was never excited to eat when you had a 夜 餐 ( cān).”

I think my aunt responded first to my comment, then stopped and asked what phrase I’d just tried to use. I repeated it.

“You mean 宵夜 (xiāo , late-night snack)? There’s no such thing as 夜 餐 ( cān, which theoretically would translate as late-night meal, which, if we can say ‘second breakfast,’ should damn straight be a real phrase).”

My aunt, apparently, used to have my mom sit at the table to keep her company when she made midnight snacks.*** As she was telling me that, I asked her how to say “picnic.”

It’s “野餐 ( cān, ‘wild meal’ or ‘open-space meal’).” We both figured out where my mistake came from. Laughter ensued.****

I had a conversation a few years ago with a 外國人 (wài guó rén) about studying Chinese, and we started talking about visual and aural puns. He loved seeing and making visual puns — Chinese is built out of a series of pictographs, so radicals are placed together to create a type of accretive meaning (again, not good at this part of linguistics, ask an expert) — as he learned how to write. Since I’m functionally illiterate in Chinese, I tend to hear puns, and a lot of phrases in my mind have secondary layers of meaning created through associative relationships that someone who reads Chinese wouldn’t necessarily make, since Chinese is practically all homonyms. (Words are each one syllable, with one of four tones,***** so there are literally dozens of characters that represent the same sound, but have different meanings. Try typing in “you” in this dictionary.)

As another long-winded example, I’ve been trying to write a short story for years about how you’re not supposed to give Chinese people clocks as presents, because the phrase that means give the gift of a clock sounds like the name of a ceremony you go through when someone dies. Also for years, I thought that it was a symbolic thing, that giving someone a clock was a representation of how much time they have left to live. (This is, by the way, not an illogical conclusion — you’re not supposed to give Chinese people knives, either, since it might symbolically represent cutting off the relationship.) Spoiler alert! On the off chance I ever get around to writing that story, the twist is going to be that the main character got rid of everything that reminded him of the passage of time and completely disconnected from the conveniences of the modern world because of a misunderstanding.

These are the things that go through my brain. Multi-lingual friends, tell me I’m not alone!

* In case you couldn’t tell, I’m much more of a semiotics-type gal. I do, however, love the word “infixation” and what it means, although Wikipedia is now telling me that inserting a word instead of an affix into another word is technically “tmesis.” It’s, like, a whole ‘nother thing. Fan-bloody-tastic.

** I guess “Lobster Sensations” should have tipped us off that we weren’t getting real lobster. Oops. It was still a decent panino, but there was some mild chagrin on my aunt’s part.

*** She wasn’t interested in the food. I don’t know, maybe she’s not my real mother. Just kidding, Mom, I love you! I am also 97 percent certain that you will never read this footnote unless someone tells you about it.

**** This whole conversation was in Chinese, I just do not have the patience to look up each word on a Chinese-English dictionary. (That’s the nerdiest alt-text joke I’ve made yet, btw.) Also, I encode the bulk of my foreign-language conversations in English in my memory, so there’s this weird re-translation process that goes on, unless the phrasing of a sentence was particularly unique. Or I make a mistake and someone points out what I said.

**** There might be a fifth tone: I think it’s a kind of “and sometimes ‘y’ type thing.” This is why I’ve written poetry about feeling guilty for studying French.

Brain mush: Mind odysseys

"Paper Clips!" by Tyler Howarth

Got 10 minutes (in addition to the ones you were going to spend reading this post)? Make a list of everything you can do with a paper clip. No, seriously. We’ll wait for you here. Then read the first footnote.* (You should also know, in the interest of metablogging, that I threw this in here after completing the rest of the post, to justify the image.)

Udeitha: “I don’t think blogging is going to make you any more coherent.”

Yes, well, I don’t think another four hours of reading case studies and industry analyses will, either.

Work was a bit of a struggle for the first half-hour today; I was working with a student one-on-one on a draft of a short story that’s due Thursday — a story she’s been actively not writing for the last two weeks. We’ve made a ton of progress lately on varying sentence structure and incorporating more details, but for 30 minutes as I was working with her on fleshing out her main character, she become borderline nonverbal.

“Why is she going to miss her friends?”

“Because she likes them.”

“Why did she like them?”

“They were fun.”

“What makes them fun?”

“They’re not boring.”

“OK, think about your best friend. What’s your favorite thing about her?”

“I’ve known her for a long time.”

“How does that make you like her?”

“She’s fun.”

(I’ll let you guess what makes her fun. We finally broke out of tautology fun time after we discovered that the main character’s hobby was photography. She takes pictures of “everything.” Because it’s there. She takes pictures of leaves because it’s pretty.)

This is a 13-year-old who can correctly define words like “sardonic” and “impecunious,” but says “That’s weird” about everything. I have taken to saying “new adjective” every time she says “weird,” and we’ve probably cut usage by about 80 percent (down to 2-3 times/hr).

As a word junkie, I found today’s session excruciating, for myriad reasons,** and beyond doubting my abilities to engage youngsters, I was more than a little concerned with whether we (the education system, society, a not-quite-bibliophilic culture) are hampering our collective and individual abilities to articulate ourselves. As I worked in journalism and attended conventions of varying levels of nerdiness (ACES wins, on so many levels), I had the pleasure of hearing multiple experts remind us that readers have short attention spans. No one has the time or inclination to read complex analyses of issues. Lies. All lies! Everyone within a culture actively contributes to it, and pandering to shorter attention spans also creates them.

During my walk home — which was lovely, since I was heading west as the sun was tinging the clouds and contrails pink — I also started worrying about whether public education (or culture, or visual media, or whatever else) squashes creativity.  My friend Jessica, who works at the same academy, mentioned that her second graders freak out when presented with free-writing time. I loved free writing, and one of my favorite memories of elementary school is being part of an Odyssey of the Mind team in the fourth grade. I can’t remember what the activity was called, but we did a warm-up at some of our sessions where an adult would hand us an ordinary object, and we would pass it around the circle making up different explanations of what the object was. (Think “Props,” one of my favorite improv games.)

Now I’m wondering if I love improv, logic problems and lateral thinking puzzles*** because I’m just that type of nerd, or whether I was just inculcated with a love for challenges as an impressionable child. (And if that’s the case, if that’s possible, I am a complete advocate for breeding it in all children.) When I was about 7, my mother went back to Taiwan for a few weeks, leaving my older brother and me under the care of our engineer father, and I distinctly remember him tucking me in at night and asking me logic and math problems in place of bedtime stories.****

I suppose I’m a little anxious about the future and kids these days, as the prematurely old coot that I sometimes am. More than that, though, I’m disappointed, because I’ve seen the tremendous capacity for creativity that young people have, especially when they are given the opportunity to express themselves and placed in an environment of high expectations. We aren’t doing enough to foster divergent thinking, and it’s weird.

Update (completed about 20 minutes later): Speaking of creativity and the need for innovative solutions, I just read about this program: “Wash and Learn” stations student-teachers in laundromats in low-income neighborhoods to encourage young children to read or get homework help while their parents do laundry. (The student-teachers also gain one-on-one teaching experience, the parents get a little bit of quiet time, and the laundromat owner gains added value.) Also, this quote is just awesome:

For example, when Rodney Pearson, 6, walked in with a shy demeanor and a pair of drumsticks, Mrs. Smith asked him if he wanted to come over and read and he shook his head no. Then, as the boy was walking away slowly, she asked if he wanted to read about dinosaurs. He pivoted around and was soon sitting on a lap, lost in a tale of meat- and plant-eaters.

* I first heard of this exercise at a corps member-led CY session about rethinking public education, also how I learned of RSA Animate. (Watch this video of Sir Ken Robinson discussing new educational paradigms; it’s awesome.) Nick wanted to kick of the session by having all of us consider divergent thinking. Researchers did a longitudinal study, asking different groups to come up with all of the possible uses of a paper clip. Kindergarteners are able to come up with hundreds of uses, and as you move upward in age brackets, people come up with fewer and fewer responses. As Nick put it, highly divergent thinkers are less likely to restrict themselves by limiting the size of the paper clip — it can be a giant paper clip statue! I had my copy editing students (about 25 19- to 21-year-olds) start with this exercise last week, and the majority had fewer than 15, with only two who had more than 20. (It was earlyish on a Sunday, and they stopped trying after about 7 minutes.)

** Such as, for example, my student nonchalantly drawing on a textbook cover with a pen. (It’s hers, she had to buy it, so that makes it OK! I suggested that she resell it, but her dad donated last year’s books back to the tutoring academy … because he’s weird.) She was also manhandling a paperback against the edge of a table, until she realized I was cringing at her. (I just spent a few minutes trying to find that FoxTrot strip where Paige uses a paperback as a spitshield because her mother is raving about literature, and Andy stops, wipes her mouth and asks “Did you break the spine of that book?” That will be me, future children.

*** The childhood Christmas present I remember most clearly was a set of three books of lateral thinking puzzles.

**** He did also tell bedtime stories, for the record. There was an amazing one about an animal sneezing into an over-peppered bowl of noodles, which ends up as a wig on a hippopotamus — I guess you had to be there.

Three things: copy editing, food and community 

I started this post last Sunday (by which I mean I selected the three topics and typed fragments of words), and then I got distracted by packing and moving two years’ worth of accumulated books. All of the parts in italics below are the original notes I typed (open source, blah blah blah).

1) Copy editing

I got to teach in Haines A82 today, which was kind of awesome. [being a professor]
article, getting distracted forest for the trees, trees, forest — whatever, look at both of them!

That sentence, the fragments, two hyperlinks and the block quote below. That’s as far as I got.

I’m teaching copy editing training for ASUCLA Student Media for the second time this month (the first time having been in January). The January classes felt slightly less professional, since I had about 20 people crammed into the tiny conference room in the Bruin and then scattered around the advertising side of the newsroom. Last week, I got to teach out of Haines — a building in which I took a bunch of English and French literature classes — so I felt all kinds of grown-up.* (I was part of this!)

As an editing exercise, I pulled an actual DB article and introduced errors into it, so we could discuss content, style and story structure. Here were two paragraphs:

Brown stressed the state’s responsibility to make public higher education available to California students of any background and said private wealth should contribute more to this goal.

“(We need to) get every kid in this school that can qualify,” Newom said. “Everyone. Whether they’re documented or not.”

We went through graf by graf, and when we got to this part, almost everyone chimed in “‘Newsom’ is spelled wrong,” except one observant young copy editor who asked, “Isn’t that introduction to the quote wrong?” Yes, gold star. That was when I demonstrated how articulate copy editors are by saying something along the lines of “Don’t get so distracted looking at the forest that you miss the trees, wait, trees, forest. Look at both of them!”

I’ve written (and talked and rapped) fairly often about how copy editors are essential, serving as internal ombudsmen for newspapers and doing their little part to save the world, so I won’t go into more detail here. But copy editing. It is important. It helps you think critically. It, like being an English major, gets you all the jobs. And this is what it looks like.

2) Building community, social impact networks
City Year, Thought-luck, StartingBloc

Last Friday, I spoke (very briefly) at City Year Los Angeles’ Opening Day, representing CYLA’s third corps. Four alumni described their service and one current corps member described the foundation laid by the 525 corps members** who came before him.

City Year ceremonies are unabashedly wholesome and cheesy.  Case in point: When our then-very pregnant ED took the stage at our graduation in June, one of our program directors played Justin Bieber’s “Baby” as her entrance music. Also this is what I said:

My name is Audrey Kuo and I proudly served in CYLA’s third corps. At John Liechty Middle School, 79% of our students passed math, up from just 30% at the beginning of the year.  I was one of 150. I gave a year and changed the world.

Cheesy, yes. And yet, right before the alumni+one spoke, CY played a clip from MLK’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon,*** and Dr. King intones:

You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.

The copy editor in me thinks about how nice it would be if making your subject and verb agree would be a great way to serve, but the hopeless idealist shushes her, and then we speak, and this year’s corps bursts forth (i.e. runs screaming and cheering from hiding spots behind and around the sides of City Hall), and it’s all a little bit wonderful. Working with youth in under-served communities is hard, and it burns people out. It is amazing to see 210 fresh faces (well, 190ish fresh faces, 20 or so faces having completed a year of service already) rushing in to serve the same students my co-workers and I have worked with over the past four years.

Continuity, circles, service, youth, yay.

3) Food: security, etc.
Originally meant to be the second section. Notes: “chloe chicken nuggets”

Sesame Street ran an hour-long prime-time special on food insecurity last Sunday, and it was one of the best-edited pieces of television I’ve ever seen. (I immediately went online to check for job openings, because I wanted to be part of the awesome.)

Eventually, I'll post images that aren't just screen caps of other social media.

I heard about the special through a Reuters link posted on Google+, which seems to bring me much cooler information than Facebook. (More speculation on how I set up social media networks later.) The program did a great job addressing food insecurity and different ways to increase access not just to food, but to produce: supporting food pantries and community gardens, taking back food deserts by sponsoring farmers markets and CSAs. I seem to have met a ton of people recently who are working with community gardens, urban gardening or nutrition classes tied to school gardens, and it’s great to see the message being spread at such a young age. (More links and fuller recap tk.)

Leave me comments. Talk about copy editing or food or community or all of them all at once.

* At one point (after discussing that block quote), I reiterated how important it is not to miss content issues in error-laden paragraphs, and a bunch of people stopped and took notes on what I was saying. One girl was clearly underlining for emphasis. What?!

** Speaking of copy editing: This number is technically inaccurate, since it double-counts corps members who returned as senior corps members the following year. From the third to the fourth year, that was just over 20 CMs. Not the point, but still. Also, while we’re nit-picking, I gave two years. I changed the world twice.

*** (The title of which, incidentally, was an answer to a question at AAJA LA’s Trivia Bowl on Friday — more on that here.)

Three things I’m thinking about: math, bikes and cynicism

1) Standardized tests, blaaaaaaaaargh

Over the past two months, I’ve been teaching an ISEE math prep course at a tutoring academy, helping students about to enter the sixth grade take a test to place into competitive private schools. Obviously, this brings up certain amounts of angst related to class, race, my notions of the importance of enjoying the summers of your childhood and my absolute disdain for standardized tests.*

I recently found this communitychannel video about how math problems aren’t relevant in real life, which is hilarious but did not make me feel better: “So you remember those crazy math problems they made you solve in school? Yeah, what was that for?”

(I love Natalie, but she’s not kidding about having forgotten how to solve these problems. Check out the problem at 0:26 — her friend would be 0 years old, and her friend’s sister Anna would be -5.)

One of the challenges I had while working with students from high-poverty neighborhoods over the last two years was in drawing the connection between schoolwork and real-life application. But thinking about it now, I realize this isn’t an issue that’s relegated to low-performing schools. I struggled in middle school, not because the material was difficult, but because I felt that all of seventh grade, except for algebra, was a waste of time — the curriculum wasn’t interesting, and the coursework was less challenging than what we’d done in elementary school. I was disconnected from my classes because I wasn’t being asked to think.

Back to standardized tests: I think they’re terrible. The students I worked with over the past two months are pretty advanced in math (they can easily manipulate positive and negative numbers, fractions, decimals, etc.), but they’re becoming intellectually lazy. I commonly asked them to explain how they solve problems, and a lot of the time, they were using guess and check. As a test-taking strategy, this is excellent. As a learning strategy, it’s terrible. My solution, or as close to a solution as I came up with, was to create my own problems for them to solve, mixing concepts and adding unnecessary language so that they had to decipher what information they were looking for and how to solve for it.

The middle school I worked at from 2009 t0 2010, uses connected math, a conceptually interesting approach that pushes students to conceptually understand curriculum by identifying patterns and making discoveries. Why “conceptually interesting”? Because it wasn’t effective. My students didn’t have a strong enough foundation in basic arithmetic to identify patterns, and they were expected to fulfill learning standards that were dependent on previous understanding.

David Bornstein provides great analysis of some of the problems with math education in “A Better Way to Teach Math“:**

Despite the widespread support for “problem-based” or “discovery-based” learning, studies indicate that current teaching approaches underestimate the amount of explicit guidance, “scaffolding” and practice children need to consolidate new concepts. Asking children to make their own discoveries before they solidify the basics is like asking them to compose songs on guitar before they can form a C chord.

The rest of the op-ed is interesting, too, and since you’re following a link, it won’t count against your NYT quota.

Natalie’s video sticks out for me for two reasons: One, I feel complicit in the class-based test disparities. Two, I don’t think it’s true that we don’t encounter crazy math problems or that we don’t need math. As Natalie says, “In real life, people just tell you the answers.” In general, people are comfortable saying they’re bad at math, in a way that most wouldn’t be OK with admitting they were illiterate. It’s a bit frightening, if you ever poll a group of journalists, to see how many struggle with math;*** since accurate holding-truth-to-power bad-assery is contingent on thorough, comprehensive data analysis. Compound poor math reporting with the general public’s shaky math skills and misinterpretation of statistical significance, and think about how easy it becomes for those who do get math to mislead and manipulate.

Leonard Mlodinow’s “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives” provides a bunch of interesting examples of how people misinterpret numbers and statistics. (Ironically, it’s as much about the theory of randomness as Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” is about irony. It’s mostly just random in the meta sense, and it also kind of provides more biographical information about mathematicians than seemed absolutely necessary … or interesting. Wait, here, just read my GoodReads review if you’re still on this parenthetical.)

So my point, I guess, was that standardized tests, are like, the opposite of learning, but that math education in general is flawed, anyway. I find myself using math all the time — mostly for basic computation, which I will concede that calculators do faster — and I also find myself wishing all the time that strong number sense and conceptual understanding of probability was seen as more critically important. But hey, I also think that about literacy, poetry, sustainability and ethics education.

2) Biking is awesome

I always plan to go on bike rides, but the activation energy involved in getting my bike down the stairs and out the front door and two gates often stops me. I went to a Meetup on Wednesday at The Last Bookstore about using the city as a creative canvas, and hearing everyone else talk about biking was a great catalyst. I biked to my friend’s new apartment on Wednesday, and it took about half as long as it would have by bus. I also biked from her place to work the next morning and beat the bus that GoogleMaps suggested. (I had looked it up because I was worried about tutoring students drenched in sweat, but I got there early enough to cool down, anyway.)

I only went about six miles in all, but it was wonderful. I felt completely in control and free from the clutches of LA traffic. LA public transportation is not what I would call reliable, and walking places limits my exploratory radius. I’m also a fan of mixing Metro and biking, at least until I get in better shape. I always forget how freeing biking feels, but getting somewhere using myself as an engine completely changes the way I view the city and my own sense of agency.

3) Cynicism, and our struggles against it

OK, let’s be real. When I started this post as “Three things I’m thinking about,” I was planning on writing about 300 words on each topic, but I got a little carried away with the math part.****

This conversation continued for five more comments. I may digest/analyze them more later, but if you're reading this blog, we're probably Facebook friends, and you can just find it yourself.

In any case, I was also going to write something about the struggle between cynicism and idealism, the search for meaning and everything else that I write about on this blog and elsewhere, always.

The LA Times ran an article last week about the use of facial recognition software in advertising, and I was most disturbed by the kicker (I’m literally rehashing the image, sorry), a quote from a 27-year-old who describes himself as “hyper social”: “It’s not that scary. … I always get upset at new Facebook privacy settings, and then I get over it.” Umm, just read the image.

I also just finished reading “Up, Simba,” David Foster Wallace’s article about John McCain’s 2000 primary campaign, in which, inter alia, he discusses how deep political cynicism among young people helps incumbents:

“[T]he lower the overall turnout, the more the Establishment voters’ ballots actually count. Which fact then in turn … helps explain why even though our elected representatives are always wringing their hands and making concerned noises about low voter turnouts, nothing substantive ever gets done to make politics less ugly or depressing or to actually induce more people to vote: our elected representatives are incumbents, and low turnouts favor incumbents for the same reason soft money does.”

Speaking of DFW, NYT Magazine blames poorly done “post-ironic sincerity” on him, sort of; the problem is that his writing style, part of his appeal, is also infectious (see this blog, for one):

And if, even from Wallace, the aw-shucks, I-could-be-wrong-here, I’m-just-a-supersincere-regular-guy-who-happens-to-have-written-a-book-on-infinity approach grates, it is vastly more exasperating in the hands of lesser thinkers. In the Internet era, Wallace’s moves have been adopted and further slackerized by a legion of opinion-mongers who not only lack his quick mind but seem not to have mastered the idea that to make an argument, you must, amid all the tap-dancing and hedging, actually lodge an argument.

The problem is that people adapt DFW’s approach of not explicitly making arguments without simultaneously undermining them as a way to say outrageous things and pretend that the hedging makes them somehow less culpable. (See also Jon Stewart criticizing the ways in which TV networks abuse the question mark.)

DFW was not unaware of what he was doing; Maud Newton, in the NYT Magazine article, quotes Keith Gessen, who “applauds Wallace for ‘trying, at last, to destroy’ the oppositions between ‘irony and sincerity, self-consciousness and artifice.'” Read “Up, Simba,” and it’s painfully clear that Wallace is aware of how deep cynicism, posturing, awareness of cynicism and further posturing, paranoia about posturing and insincerity are all ruining everyone’s belief in everything, or something.

But Wallace also urges voters to get beyond their cynicism, or at least to acknowledge their complicity and the inescapability of the system:

“Let’s pause here one second for a quick Rolling Stone PSA. Assuming you are demographically a Young Voter, it is again worth a moment of your valuable time to consider the implications. … If you are bored and disgusted and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.”

OK, fine, so I guess I wasn’t done with the post and, also, that the three things are somewhat related. It upsets me when my students shut down instead of trying to figure out a problem, because it reflects years of being conditioned not to expect to think. I really like Michael Gerson’s phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations” (if not the reasons behind the coining of the phrase) — it makes a lot of sense in the context of education and learning outcomes. On a broader scale, too, our cynical acceptance of low expectations allows the perpetuation of systems of oppression and eroding personal rights. Inaction always supports the existing power structures.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”  — Bishop Desmond Tutu

You should leave me comments. Do I need to end posts with questions so people will reply?

* I should note that I hate standardized tests in a conceptual sense, for their purported ability to measure anything more than how well an individual can prepare for that test. As a nerd, I kind of enjoyed taking standardized tests in school,^ the same way I enjoyed math competitions, Odyssey of the Mind, and the WordMasters challenge. Once I hit middle school, though, the tests became much less interesting, and I became conceptually aware that they were taking away from instruction time.

^ Cf. this morning, when I woke up at my friends’ apartment and everyone else was asleep or at work. The only books they’ve unpacked were pop lit, a GRE prep book and a GMAT math review book. I went for the GMAT first, but got bored after taking a few chapter tests. I tried reading the GRE prep book, but it seemed kind of silly, since I’ve already taken the GRE. (This is also why I try not to go anywhere without my own books.)

** Article search deconstruction: I had the sense this article was somewhere in my gmail archive, but I realized that there were probably a ton of similarly tagged e-mails. I then tried to search for the opening quote about people being OK with announcing they’re bad at math, but realized that wasn’t specific enough either. Then I remembered the sentence “Is that a good day or a bad day?” (in his example about adding and subtracting integers). Third search result.

*** Of course, an informal poll of just a roomful of journalists wouldn’t give you a very reliable statistic. But since you’d be working with a roomful of journalists, you could probably get away with it by throwing out a bunch of percentages and interjecting “standard deviation” a few times.

**** (Pun intended, always).

The best books I never read, cont.*

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I feel like I should apologize for blogging relatively infrequently of late, but I don’t have a strong sense of whether people are checking for updates or are just following links from Facebook and Google+. I’ve been working on a short story and just did a book review of Tim O’Briens The Things They Carried for … Continue reading

The best books I never read

“… strong texts tend to become so familiar, even to people who have never read them, that they become part of what exists, at least a distort of them does. It is very strange to read something supposedly familiar, The Gospels, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, and to find that it is quite unlike our mental version of it. Without exception, the original will be as unsettling, as edgy as it ever was, we have learned a little and sentimentalized the rest.”

— Jeanette Winterson, “Writer, Reader, Words” in Art Objects

On Saturday night, my friend Lorena and I started discussing books we haven’t read, and I was reminded of this quote (which I had recently rediscovered while flipping through old journals — I copied the entire passage I linked to above by hand). Specifically, Lorena was worried about reading Brave New World, because she was worried it wouldn’t live up to her expectations. Still, she had a sense of what the book was about, which was what reminded me of Winterson’s argument that familiar books become part of what exists — and as I was describing it, I mentioned the idea of works seeming less edgy once they become part of societal context instead of challenging or upending it, which, actually, is not what Winterson said, so when I reread the quote while typing, it was all meta and performative and mind-blowing.

As I mentioned before, and will blog about more in-depth … sometime, I just finished reading “The Most Human Human,” which I’d been meaning to check out since Brian Christian did an interview about it on “The Daily Show,” which aired on March 8. Before I read the book, the idea of the Turing test was rolling around in my brain for months, especially in relation to research/philosophizing I was doing about social media in relation to job applications.

I think the concept of not being able to unknow things is incredibly fascinating (in the same way that I think the concept of wanting to go back and change the past is bizarre, since every random moment in the past influences the present moment, and it’s impossible to know what else would be different).** Think about all of the books you haven’t read that you still consider familiar,*** or the pleasant shock of discovering that a text you thought was familiar was unsettling. As I was applying for master’s programs in comparative literature about two years ago, I had a long conversation with an assistant vice provost from UCLA about my romanticization of literate culture in England; I love the idea of culture being steeped in texts (and served with crumpets), as when I went to breakfast at my mom’s cousins place in Felixtowe, and a first edition of Great Expectations was just chilling next to the toast rack and very cheddary scrambled eggs.

That may also be why I love books about books and writers who write for readers, like Jasper Fforde and his Thursday Next series, which I think are enjoyable whether or not the reader is extremely well-read, but truly understanding and catching all the references requires a fairly deep knowledge of literature.****

I think another way to interpret my headline, “The best books I never read,” though, is to think about some of the classics I read in elementary and middle school when I was largely reading for plot. I think if I went back and reread them, I would experience that same unsettling feeling to find that old-school writers really just were that edgy with their quill pen and inkwell badassery.

* Coincidentally, I was disappointed by the second half of that book, because I’d read the beginning when my older cousin brought it with her on vacation, but I didn’t finish it before she left. I never got around to checking it out of a library, so I didn’t read the second half of the book until my sophomore year of high school. During the intervening three years, the ideas of human engineering to maintain societal castes rolled around in my mind (and “The Matrix” came out, etc.), and I was really excited to finish the book, but didn’t really enjoy it as much as I had expected to.^

^ I now have no way of knowing whether I would have enjoyed the ending more had I not had such high expectations, or whether I would still have been disappointed and that would have tinged my view of the opening.

** Tangential thought: I love re-reading books, and am firmly in the “you can’t reread a book” camp, since you bring your context and environment and mood with you with each “re-reading.” I read Maniac Magee about once a year after first reading it in elementary school, and at some point in late high school or college, I teared up at Grayson’s death, the first time I cried while reading that book.

*** For example, earlier in the evening during which I had that conversation with Lorena, someone asked us to name the book and author from whence the quote “The only people for me are the mad ones.” I guessed “a beat poet,” then Kerouac, then On the Road. (I’ll get around to reading it soon, I’m sure.)

**** Incidentally, I love that Lemony Snicket makes similar references in A Series of Unfortunate Events (cf. Sunny Baudelaire’s “gibberish,” e.g. throwing around Latin roots or calling Count Olaf’s ambiguously gendered henchperson “Orlando”).