Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Duty

I know a woman who had it for six weeks.
Six weeks! It could happen
To anyone, ripped as if by cancer and broken bones
From life and normal things. We pretend to be immune but,
Like cancer and broken bones, it calls us all in time.

Each day she rode the train from Livermore
To Oakland, my home. For her, it was going somewhere
She would not normally go. Quarantined in the county seat, she
And eleven of her peers called a man a murderer
Then went for beers. So it turns out

Their shared trial formed a bond, and they remain
Best friends to this day. Talk about
A positive attitude. "It could happen
To you," she says. But we all know,
Just like there's no such thing as true love

Or true justice or learning from suffering,
It wouldn't happen to you.

Like reasonable people, I live in terror
Of my summons. I always defer
To the twenty-third of December, which is not
A holiday. If you must come for me,
O Judge, come then. I'll be waiting, limbs
Stretched, bones ready for breaking.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Not Sleeping

“He hates wasting time—a category that includes, for him, sleeping.”

Sam Anderson writing about James Franco

I once heard an interview with an Israeli artist who had just won an international award for her art and activism. She was also the mother of two young children.

“How do you find time to do everything?” the interviewer asked.

The woman laughed carelessly. “Oh, I don’t sleep very much,” she said, as though this fact were amusing. “Four hours a night or so.”

This glib treatment of sleep is part of the mythology of the superheroic, those people who seem to achieve more in a day than is humanly possible. It makes sense. If you want to sleep for eight hours, then you must fit your job, your hobbies and passions, your family and friends and love life, your exercising and cooking and eating and house cleaning and showering and brushing your teeth all into sixteen hours per day.

I am always overcome by guilt when I hear these superheroes boasting about their inhuman feats of wakefulness. That is why you can’t seem to balance work, writing, kickboxing, seeing your friends and family and cleaning your apartment, I scold myself. I’m sleeping too much.

Look at actor James Franco. He did four years of college in two years, attended four graduate programs at once while filming about five movies and publishing a book of short stories—none of this is an exaggeration. He thinks sleep is a waste of time. Just think of all the awesome things I could get done if wasn’t wasting all that time being unconscious.

For most of my life, I too considered sleep to be a waste of time, some need my body was trying to impose upon my mind, as though it didn’t realize that my mind had more important things to be doing. I pulled regular all-nighters starting in middle school, drinking endless cups of microwaved instant coffee, blasting cassette tapes to keep from getting too sleepy or too depressed as I lay awake studying on top of my unmade bedcovers.

In college, I used to haunt the recreation room of my co-op into the early hours of the morning with my textbooks and my electric word processor, writing the endless string of essays that were my lot as an English major. At 3 a.m. I would take a coffee break with the speed freaks and architecture students, the only people who stayed up later than me.

I knew it wasn’t good for me. I had a friend in college who somehow got eight hours of sleep every night, until he started hanging around with me and some other night-owls.

“I feel horrible,” he told me one day. We had stayed up until four studying for our morning classes. “I’ve never felt this depressed. I feel like the whole world is horrible and disgusting.”

“Oh, that’s just because you didn’t sleep enough,” I told him cheerfully. “I always feel like that.”

I remember how my professors never seemed able to comprehend how sleep deprived most of us were, especially in graduate school. After a night seminar, one professor asked us if we were going home to watch the same TV show that she was planning to watch.

Our jaws dropped in disbelief. She thinks we have time to watch TV?

“No, we have to study,” one of us said.

“What, now?” she asked in horror. “It’s nine-thirty!”

Another, crankier professor chastised us for our distraction during the last week of the semester, the week when we all had four twenty-page term papers due.

“What’s wrong with you people? It’s like you’re all on speed,” she said, in a stern voice, not a joking one. From the way she said it, it was clear she did not think this was an actual possibility.

Now I am the clueless professor, relatively well-slept and herding a flock of exhausted students of my own. Lots of the time they can barely keep their eyes open. They lay their heads down on the desk, lifting them only to send frantic text-messages and enjoy their breakfasts of candy and energy drinks.

If you ask them to make a time-management schedule of their week, you’ll see why they’re so tired. Their schedules are packed from morning to night each day. Lots of them work two jobs. These jobs might only total twenty or thirty hours a week—that seems to be a typical amount—but that’s enough to suck up every available hour that they could be studying. They go to school from nine to three, start work at four, get home at ten-thirty at night.

“When will you do your homework?” I ask them.

“At eleven,” they say.

“Do you think that’s actually going to happen?”

They smile grimly. “Probably not.”

Often it doesn’t, and they come to class with their work half-done. But for something important like an essay, they do stay up and work, and they come to my class angry, disgruntled, hating the world like I once did.

It’s my job to cheer these students up and get them to do things. I use my perkiest voice, trying to buoy the room with the helium of my enthusiasm.

Come on, wake up! It’s ten o’clock! That’s not even early!

This semester, though, I signed up to teach too many units. I have classes and meetings all day long. There seems to be enough time in a week to prepare for my classes or grade my papers but not both. I am back to the old student way of life, where there are twelve time-consuming things to do before Thursday and perhaps enough time to do three of them. I’ve been sleeping five or six hours on weeknights. In college, this would have been a good amount of sleep, above average. But now I have much lower tolerance for feeling horrible and hating the world, so it seems like pitifully little, especially as it adds up over the course of the week.

Now I remember what it feels like to be sleep deprived from too much work. It explains the flashes of resentment I see cross my students’ faces when I hand out their writing assignment, as though by giving them what they’re paying for—writing instruction—I am subjecting them to some horrifying injustice. They can’t help it. When someone asks you do to something impossible, it’s hard not to resent them just for a moment, even if you are ninety-five percent sure that you will eventually buck up and do the impossible thing.

These days I am just as resentful as they are. I hand their graded assignments back grudgingly and begin to ramble my way through the lesson I have been up planning since four in the morning. So what if I’m not explaining it very well; I only slept four hours. You can have me coherent and unprepared or prepared and incoherent—your choice. Okay, so I spelled a word wrong on your handout. I’m tired. I’m really, really tired. Screw you guys.

Part of my job is to uphold a system that causes our students to feel this way, not for just one bad semester but every semester. I feel guilty about this all the time.

“How can we expect them to sacrifice sleep and health when we’re not even willing to do it?” I ask one of my colleagues.

“They’re in college, we’re not,” she said. “We paid our dues when we were in college and now we have earned the right to get a full night’s sleep.”

It sounds like the simple logic of hazing, but it’s more than that. We really don’t think they’ll learn everything they need to know unless they have more work than is humanly possible to complete. That’s the logic of education: you need to cram in as much as possible, as much as can be done in eighteen or twenty hours of wakefulness. The future success of America rests on your shoulders, and every hour you sleep is time you could have spent working.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Slaughterhouse Five

I have very few regrets about never becoming a literary scholar.

Occasionally I get frustrated that critics don’t seem to notice the Brechtian influence in Tony Kushner’s plays (It’s really obvious. He talks about it all the time. Someone should notice it already). And I still get annoyed thinking about the complete misapplication of Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject in Djuna Barnes’ novel Nightwood. I mean, you’ve got an opaque, experimental novel about abortion doctors and people turning into plants and mating with dogs in your right hand and in your left, an opaque, poststructuralist piece of critical theory about the horror people feel when their physical and psychological boundaries dissolve—how could this puzzle be any easier to assemble?

Please don’t stop reading. I promise this is going to get more interesting. Well, to me, anyway.

My real failure, my greatest regret, the reason I should have doggedly pursued a career in academia into whatever town-nobody-wants-to-live-in it called me to, was to declare this:

Slaughterhouse Five is the most brilliant novel ever written.

I am pretty sure I am the only person who knows this. The more I explain this to people individually, the more they stare at me blankly and say, I always meant to read that, the more convinced I become that it was my duty to spread the word on a larger scale, that this was my true calling in getting an English Ph.D., and that I missed my chance.

People who haven’t read Slaughterhouse Five, and also many who have, think of it as a science fiction novel. They should, because it is. But it’s also something much weirder, which is a rare and precious eyewitness war account.

When Britain and the United States firebombed the heavily populated city center of Dresden, Germany during the final weeks of World War II, Kurt Vonnegut was there, a prisoner of war hidden away in an underground meat locker. After the bombing, he and his fellow POWs were released into the rubble that had formerly been a great center of German art, architecture and culture.

So here is Kurt Vonnegut, a writer, one of a handful of American witnesses to an atrocity great enough to be called a war crime by some historians, since there seemed to be no strategic justification for it. It was a show of force, the destruction of life, beauty, and culture, for no reason except to stick it to the Germans for all the suffering they had caused. At least that’s Vonnegut’s perception of it—a heartless act of war committed by his own country, “a massacre” as he calls it. (Though when an acquaintance, hearing this description, reminds him of the concentration camps, he says, “I know. I know. I know.”)

For a writer, this nightmare experience was a gift. He was a witness, a survivor, specially authorized to speak. As such, he could write a memoir, a history book, a historical/cultural critique. Or he could write a war novel, the kind of gritty, naturalistic epic that you can only write if you’ve really been there, if you’ve earned the right.

Vonnegut explains all this in the first chapter of Slaughterhouse Five, a metafictional introduction that explains how he came to write the novel.

“When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen.”

It was all laid out for him. All he had to do was write it down. Simple. What makes the novel brilliant is that he did exactly the opposite.

First, he stalled for twenty years. Whenever anyone asked him what he was working on, he told them it was his Dresden book. But he wasn’t really writing it. “Not many words about Dresden came from my mind then—not enough of them to make a book, anyway.”

And then, when he finally did write the book, it wasn’t the true-life story of a true-life veteran who had been through hell and lived to tell the tale. Instead, it was a novel about time travel and aliens and mediocre Midwestern optometrists suffering from acute depression and possible traumatic brain injury.

The main character, Billy Pilgrim, experiences roughly everything Vonnegut did during the war: he is drafted in the late stages of combat, hastily trained and improperly outfitted, and abandoned behind enemy lines. As a prisoner of war, he survives the bombing of Dresden in an underground meat locker and is then freed by the Allied troups. He could be a literary stand-in for Vonnegut, a boy-soldier who had no business on the battlefield trying to be an adult.

But Billy has two science-fictiony quirks that make it clear that this novel will not be a straightforward, serious tale of war. The first is that during his brief military career, he becomes unstuck in time. From there on out, he flops spastically in and out of different episodes in his life, creating the twisty structure of the narrative, which begins with Billy being drafted and ends with him being rescued from Dresden, with the rest of his entire life story occurring in a spiraling succession of vignettes in between.

And then, in case that first quirk just seems like some kind of metaphor, there’s a second, much goofier one. In 1967, around the time when Vonnegut would have been completing the novel, Billy Pilgrim is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who hold him as a captive in a zoo and mate him with a human pornographic actress named Montana Wildhack.

Having aliens in the novel seems to clearly mark it as science fiction. But it’s not serious science fiction, the kind where all the fantastical events are physically plausible and scientifically justified and allegorically significant. No, these aliens are really, really silly. The Tralfamadorians are green, shaped like plungers, topped with a single hand that has an eye in the middle of it. They admit without guilt to destroying the universe during a failed experiment (they travel freely in time so they know how the universe ends). Even their name is silly. And their project of breeding two humans (both of whom just happen to have silly names and outsized secondary sexual characteristics) as a form of entertainment could not be any more self-consciously ridiculous.

It’s as though Vonnegut wanted to take the lofty story of his war experience, the couldn’t-get-more-serious historical account that he was specially authorized to tell, and scribble crazy zigzags all over it with mismatched crayons. He even talks about outlining an early version of the plot with crayons, making a tidy timeline for each character. But that’s not what he did. He scrambled his timeline into a giant, messy tangle, illogically topped with not one but two of the most hackneyed science-fictional tropes imaginable.

Of course, this chaos is orchestrated carefully, beautifully even. Every narrative thread is neatly tied up, every scene thematically significant. But the feeling of messiness, silliness, arbitrariness is what Vonnegut wanted. “It is so short and jumbled and jangled,” he tells his publisher, “because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

Disgusted by his own authority to tell the serious, meaningful war story, Vonnegut takes that story and shreds it to a messy pulp, just to make the point: I will not tell a serious, meaningful war story.

I love about six hundred things about this novel, but this one first and most. To be given the special, authorized privilege to tell a survivor’s tale, and to sacrifice that privilege in the name of art, meaning, and human decency, is an act of beauty that breaks my heart.

Perhaps Vonnegut’s purposeful evasion of seriousness is the reason that his works do not receive the kind of critical attention afforded to great American postmodern authors. Almost all Vonnegut criticism seems to fall into the realm of explication—plot summaries, readings based on Vonnegut’s biography—rather than serious analysis that would explain the author’s significant contribution to modern literature and thought.

If I write that book of serious analysis someday, I will say this about the message (one of the messages) of Slaughterhouse Five: that it asks us to think about our own war stories. What did we learn from them? Are we better off for having gone through that suffering? And when we tell our survivor’s tales, complete with their morals and lessons, are we full of wisdom and insight? Or have we just convinced ourselves that we are, because it feels better to have something intelligent to say about a massacre?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Ann Arbor

I went to an Alice-in-Wonderland-themed burlesque show in Hamtramck, Michigan with my friends from Ann Arbor. It was in a towering, abandoned factory, remade into a performance space. We took a freight elevator to the fifth floor. The hallways up there were as wide as my living room, lined with dust-clouded windows.

“Listen,” my friend said, pointing down the hall. “The train is coming.”

It came barreling around the corner, a motorized engine trailing three passenger cars, something children would ride at an amusement park. It zigzagged across the broad hallway like a startled cockroach, passing us by fifteen feet, breaking, driving backwards until it landed right in front of us.

“Get on! Quick! Everyone get on!” yelled the conductor, as throngs of giddy hipsters threw themselves aboard for the ride down the long hallway, around the corner, and to the doors of the giant production floor that would serve as the theater.

Inside there was a full band, sounding ready to play back-up for Tom Waits, while a tall, stately chanteuse purred songs about Alice, tea parties, things growing curiouser and curiouser. A Bettie Page look-alike pranced around the stage, dropping successive articles of baby blue clothing in her wake as she encountered the juggling Cheshire cat, the break-dancing playing cards, the Mad Hatter and March Hair suspended from the ceiling by hooks stuck under their skin.

In Oakland, where I live, or in San Francisco, this all never would have happened. Okay, maybe it would have happened, but it wouldn’t have happened in a hulking factory. And if it did, you would have missed it amidst the throng of culturally enriching activities happening every single night. And if you did go, your friend wouldn’t be dating the bass player and your other friend wouldn’t have slept with the singer. The performers would be part of a specialized scene, and they would have spent years cultivating the appearance, style, clothing, mannerisms, and jargon of that scene. You might be able to get into the scene, but it wouldn’t be easy.

The thing the local weekly newspapers always said about Detroit is: cultural isolation breeds creativity. It sounds condescending until you go to Detroit, which is like going to another planet where everything is backwards. Downtown neighborhoods look like abandoned farms, there are more boarded-over storefronts than populated ones, twenty-three year olds own giant houses, ethnic enclaves are the fanciest and safest places to live. It’s an incredibly beautiful, surreal place, a place that feels outside America, a place where anything is possible.

And so in Detroit, and in the cities that surround it, people create their own scenes and ways of making art. There’s not much to be daunted by: you just start, and people show up, because they probably know you from work or high school or the bar, and anyway there aren’t all that many things to do on a given night.

When I first moved to Ann Arbor, it reminded me of my hometown, Palo Alto. Not modern, Facebook-era Palo Alto, but the pre-dot-com Palo Alto of my youth. It was a quirky college town, affluent but not wealthy, smug about its own artsiness. The main difference was, when young people in Palo Alto wanted to go somewhere, we got on the train to San Francisco or Berkeley where we could sit in grungy coffee shops, have picnics in the park, buy ourselves used books and CDs and absurd clothing, wander past the street vendors and the real beggers and the other beggars who were kids just like us, only dirtier.

Ann Arbor is an hour from Detroit, but there’s no train. This is a car town, people told me. Why would the rich people in the suburbs vote for a train? They don’t want to take a train, they don’t want to go to Detroit, and they sure as hell don’t want poor people from Detroit taking a train into their town.

You can drive an hour to Detroit, but then there’s the question of what to do when you get there. There are lots of amazing things to do: there are great bars and music venues, museums, historical sites. But Detroit isn’t the kind of place you can just wander around. You’ve got to have a plan, a course of action, a series of places to go. Every trip I ever took to Detroit was like this: exit freeway, drive straight to destination, park in front (there will be plenty of parking) go in. If there is a second destination in mind, get back in car, get back on freeway, drive to second destination, go in. Repeat as needed. Try to sober up for the long drive home down dark country highways.

But like the Detroit Metro Times was always saying: the lack of ready-to-wear, easily consumable culture spurred people to create this culture for themselves. I never met so many people doing creative things as in Ann Arbor. Even a simple act like getting dressed was an artistic project. In California, when you wanted bizarre, interesting clothes, there were a million stores ready to sell them to you. In Ann Arbor, the clothing stores catered to practical Midwestern adults and preppy Midwestern teenagers, and if you did find something good, four of your friends would have the same one. I learned the art of customization from people in Ann Arbor: making legwarmers out of socks, decorating shirts and hats with colored sharpies, ripping the sleeves and necks and ankles off of things to make them cooler and better.

Anyone could found an institution in Ann Arbor. Every wildly popular thing was created by someone we knew, often someone in their twenties. We all knew the guy who started the karaoke night at the local club, and the three kids who ran the mixed-tape dance party, the women who organized the Totally Kickball tournament and the Burly Girly mud wrestling. And if you grew up in Ann Arbor, you would also know every family who had owned the barn where the wrestling was held and every kid who had lived in that barn when his or her parents kicked him or her out of the house. The odds were that if something interesting was going on, you would know the person doing it.

The last time I visited Ann Arbor, my friends had started a burlesque troupe. The house where they prepare and rehearse seemed familiar, and then I remembered I had been to a few parties there. Houses in Ann Arbor are like people; you seem to keep running into the same ones over and over. At one of the parties, people had spun flame-tipped chains in circles in the back yard. But most of the parties had been normal, just lots of drunk people getting drunker and dancing at 3 a.m., after the bars closed. Now the house is filled with drawers of glitter and lace and construction paper and the basement is a rehearsal hall filled with wrestling mats and trapezes. The performers make all their costumes and props out of cardboard and paint and things they find at the Salvation Army Store.

Their performances are pure Ann Arbor aesthetics: everything is rough and homespun and nerdy and badass. Unicorns prance to disco music, girls in pasties wash themselves in bathtubs filled with sparkling shards of broken glass, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock strip off their uniforms accompanied by the spoken words of William Shatner. I watched them rehearse—I would be back in California by the date of the performance—and thought about how I loved my adopted hometown, the place where I spent my mid-twenties writing a dissertation and trying to pretend I wasn’t a graduate student.

I can’t believe I am wasting my youth in the Midwest, I used to think sometimes, as I made the reverse-commute back home to California every winter vacation, just as all the other young people were leaving San Francisco to visit their families in the boring middle states. But now I think that there was no better place to be young, where the world was a canvas begging to be painted and anything you could imagine was possible.

This illustration depicts the lovely and talented Annie Thing of Ann Arbor's Tickled Fancy Burlesque Company. Check out their videos, especially the ones about Star Trek and unicorns.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Road Rage

The other day, while I was exiting the freeway, something came flying off of the car in front of me. It looked like a dog. A spread-eagle, floppy-eared dog, flying from their car, about to smash into mine.

Instinctively, I moved my head to the side like I was slipping a punch, as though that would be of any help once this thing came crashing through my windshield.

But when the thing hit the glass, it flattened out and slid innocuously down the side of my car. Turns out it was a plastic bag, momentarily inflated by the wind of the freeway into a surprisingly dog-like shape.

When I first started commuting on the freeway, incidents like this—everyday incidents of imminent or seemingly-imminent danger—used to spike my adrenaline for ten minutes. A car swerving into my lane, water obstructing my windshield in a rainstorm, cars braking suddenly ahead of me. These situations occurred almost every day during my half-hour commute. If they went wrong, any one of them could injure or kill me or another driver. It was terrifying. How did people deal with this, the stress of a life-or-death struggle for survival each day, on the way to and from work?

Now, after years of my commute, my adrenal system has adjusted to these constant assaults. I recover from the terror of impending death quickly, in seconds rather than minutes. Ah yes, almost died again! Back to business! If I were safely aboard a roller-coaster, a scare like this would leave me shaken, frightened, exhilarated. But faced with an actual brush with death, drivers are calm, nonchalant, fiddling with the radio and thinking about lunch.

When we fly in airplanes, we are aware of the unnaturalness of the process. We are four-thousand feet in the air, hurtling forward at 500 miles per hour. This is nothing our bodies were designed to experience. We think about the space below us, between us and the ground, about what would happen if the bottom of that plane weren’t there. Even the more calm passengers gasp when the plane buckles and drops in a patch of rough air.

We should feel like that in a car. Our bodies weren’t made to move at eighty or even twenty-five miles per hour any more than they were made to fly thousands of feet in the air. We should have the same feelings of wrongness, of recognizing our own fragility as we pretend to be birds or cheetahs. But we are raised in cars, lulled to sleep as children by their gentle rocking motions, packed into their backseats for family trips, told that we are true adults when we learn how to command one ourselves. So we minimize the terror, or even come to enjoy it. People who are scared of driving are told they are crazy, that they have anxiety, that they require medication. They are not told, Navigating a two-ton vehicle that could easily kill you or someone else is pretty stressful. Maybe you shouldn’t do it.

Most people seem to believe the anonymity of the other drivers is what leads to the irrational anger that we feel when we drive, and I agree. It’s easy to be furious with someone you can barely see, someone driving too slowly, or too quickly, someone getting in your way. On foot, we stop for each other, hold doors open, give a wide berth to someone tapping a cane or using a wheelchair. On the road, we see not people but cars, faceless machines, machines that obstruct and endanger us as we maneuver our own machines around them.

But I think our rage must be fueled by a second factor: the constant, low-lying terror of death. The cars that get in our way are not only annoying us, like someone pushing past us on a busy sidewalk; they’re endangering our lives. Even when we are furious about someone too slow, someone getting in our way, the driving equivalent of the old lady pushing her walker down the sidewalk, I think it is our terror that enrages us. Surely, some part of our rational brains must have to shut down in order for us to not experience constant terror when we drive, and so we cannot think rationally. We don’t think, This man driving too slow in the fast lane is probably confused, or from another country with different rules, or unaware of his speed. Poor guy. I should be nice to him. No, we hate the man, make a point to glare at him as we pass by, cut aggressively in front of him as soon as we have passed him on the right. The qualities of kindness and empathy that are so carefully socialized into us as small children disappear, and all that is left is the logic of war.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


When I was a kid, my favorite thing to do was walk. I would walk anywhere my protective parents would allow me to. I loved gardens and parks, places where I was allowed to follow trails and explore. When my family visited the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park, I would make sure to cover every bit of terrain, looping back past the same areas again and again so I could follow every detour and alternate path. I felt certain there was some magic hiding where I hadn’t yet walked, that there was some amazing mystery I couldn’t leave unseen.

In high school, I was finally allowed to ride my bike instead of taking a school bus. I did that for about a month, and then I decided that I would rather walk. My parents thought I was being unreasonable the first day I told them I wouldn’t be taking my bike. It was only a mile to school, but adults in the suburbs didn’t walk distances like that. On my walk to school, I discovered all the things I had missed by driving and biking. Careful gardens of drought-resistant plants. Sculptures in windows and yards. Communes where Palo Alto’s persistent enclaves of hippies and artists preserved the Sixties version of our city. Patches of the yellow flowers whose stems tasted like lemon if you sucked on them. Crazy people walking the streets, cats, butterflies, interesting garbage and free things, lost notes and photographs. My walk to and from school was one of the most interesting parts of my day.

Walking became my major hobby outside of school. My friend Therese and I spent the entire summer after freshman year crossing our town from side to side on foot. Every day, we would choose a unexplored territory to walk to. That pedestrian overpass you only usually saw when driving on the freeway. Shoreline Amphitheater. Downtown Menlo Park. That seeming wasteland between downtown Palo Alto and the Stanford Mall.

People often reminisce about their love of their first car, how driving represented freedom. That’s how I felt about walking. You could walk anyplace. It was hard for me to wrap my brain around that kind of limitlessness. Using no resources except your own body, you could get to almost anywhere. You could get to all kinds of places that a car wouldn’t take you: the woods surrounding the Stanford campus, the deep ravine behind the mall, the hill with the giant rope swing on the way out of town. If you added public transportation, you could go to San Francisco, San Jose, or even, in theory, Richmond, Dublin, Pittsburg (wherever those places were).

I spent my twenties in universities. Every morning, from the age of eighteen to twenty-eight, I walked twenty minutes or so to the school where I took classes or taught classes. Sometimes I walked to a bus and took the bus to school. At night, I would walk to the coffee shop, the bookstore, the bar. Everywhere I needed to be could be reached by foot, like living in an old European city.

I haven’t walked like that for a while, now. I got one of those jobs that you can’t get to by foot, bike, or public transportation. For the first time in my life, my morning starts with me getting into a car. I used to counter my new driving lifestyle by walking everywhere I could. But over the last few years, I’ve lost my patience for walking, preferring biking or driving for their more immediate gratification of getting me somewhere in minutes.

For the last week, though, my car has been broken. I’ve been walking every day, to the store for groceries, to Piedmont Avenue to get tea and write. It takes longer, but I’ve already seen a lot of things I would have missed if I had been speeding past at fifteen or thirty miles an hour. I found a tree full of ripe loquats, one of my favorite foods. I found a free stepstool, something I’ve been meaning to buy for years. I have exchanged commiserating glances with people under umbrellas in the unseasonable June storm. I have passed lots of people that I see every day in the coffee shop and who I didn’t realize were my neighbors. I’ve stood on the overpass that I usually drive or bike over and watched cars speeding below me, and marveled to think that this is happening all day and night, only a few hundred feet from my apartment. I have learned a lot about where I live, my habitat, and the places between my home and my destination.

The illustration is based on a photograph demonstrating healthy walking posture from Esther Gokhale's Eight Steps to a Pain-Free Back.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Lost Potential

When I told my graduate advisor I was hoping to teach at a community college, he asked me why I wanted to throw my career away.

“I want to teach someplace where everyone can go to school and where people are a little more equal with each other,” I said. “I don’t like all the hierarchy at the university.”

He gave me a pained look, like he had had this conversation before. “Everyone comes to a point in life when we must let go of our youthful ideals,” he said. “We need to make certain sacrifices in order to live a comfortable life.”

I’m embarrassed to say, these might have been somebody's youthful ideals, but not mine. In my youth, I loved the hierarchy of the university. Everyone has their rank and everyone knows their place. Tenured professors are at the top, then untenured ones, lecturers, graduate students, then undergraduates. And under them are all those who serve the academics: the poor janitors and cooks and security guards and secretaries who don't even know just how lowly they are, on the fringes of the real business of generating knowledge.

When I was an undergraduate, professors were nothing less than rock stars, amazing lucky bastards who had defeated insurmountable odds to achieve my dream job. I longed for the day when I would become one, when I would write the great, barely-comprehensible works of esoterica that would revolutionize literary studies for its rarified cadre of devotees and make me a household name in a very small, elite number of households.

As this dream became closer to a reality, it began to lose some of its luster. During graduate school, I worked as a cashier in a grocery store on weekends, and I found myself more comfortable with my coworkers than my graduate student colleagues. Many of my closest friends never finished high school. It didn’t matter. In the store, they were judged by how well they worked, how reliable they were, and how kind, how funny and clever. By the standards of the university, these workers would be off-the-charts low. If they enrolled in college in their mid-twenties, they would be “re-entry” students, the most marginalized sorts of undergraduates. They would never be the kind of people who really mattered at a university, the rock stars, recognized experts in their fields, people who demanded awe and respect.

A lot of my grocery store friends attended school at the local community college. There they paid affordable tuition to take classes with other students who were as varied as the workers at the store: young, old, parents, retirees, people starting over after layoffs or divorces, people from other countries. No one judged them because they hadn’t taken the traditional route straight from high school to college. All of them were untraditional in some way, and they all treated each other with respect. It sounded like a utopia to me: you mean you could take college classes without all that hierarchy? You could just pay your tuition, go to a class, study, all without being above somebody and below somebody else?

But once I started teaching at a community college, I saw that the students do have a sense of hierarchy, a hierarchy of institutions of higher learning, and they are at the bottom. My school is called Las Positas, but the students call it College Behind Costco, Thirteenth Grade, Lost Potential.

Having experienced both prestigious universities and community colleges, and having taught at both, I think the students get as good, or better, educations at the community college, where undergraduates are at the center of the institution instead of at the bottom.

When I taught at the university as a graduate student instructor, I was told repeatedly: don’t focus on your teaching. There were cautionary tales about young associate professors denied tenure because they had succumbed to the temptation of prioritizing their classes. There were the lessons we received in our single pedagogy course: don’t get too involved with your students. Don’t let them talk to you about their problems. They will try to suck your energy; don’t let them.

Talk to anyone trained to be a professor, and this ideology is evident. People in Ph.D. programs considering community college employment often say to me, “So, to get tenure in a community college, you don’t really need to publish that much.”

“You don’t need to publish at all,” I say. “All they care about is your teaching.”

“So, like, publications would look nice but that’s not their priority,” they say.

“No,” I say. “They don’t care at all about publishing. They would think of it as okay as long as it didn’t interfere with your teaching.”

They nod in understanding, but I can see that they are still perplexed, maybe even skeptical. How could they not care about publishing, I imagine them thinking? What else is there?

Community colleges are like bizarro universities. When I tell my colleagues that working at a community college was seen as throwing away my career, they are incredulous. But you’re still in academia, they say, baffled.

“They don’t consider community colleges to be academia,” I say. “They consider them to be teaching.”

For an academic researcher, our students would be the worst kind of distraction, teeming with the needs and demands that my pedagogy teacher warned me about. There are students with learning disabilities who flourish with some extra time and attention from their teachers, and there are students with such severe disabilities that some of their teachers question whether they should be in college. A high percentage of the students have lived through horrible trauma: medical crises, the death of siblings and parents, acute poverty and homelessness. Students come to my office hours with complaints ranging from family quarrels to mental health issues to car troubles to domestic abuse.

I remember similar students in the university. I would deflect their complaints, create distance, give them some canned speech about how everyone has personal troubles and we can’t allow them to interfere with our education. Now I can’t avoid these students and try not to get involved. Getting involved is part of my job description.

The worst part about teaching at a school that accepts everybody is that we have a large proportion of students who don’t care about their studies. Their parents are making them go, or they need to go to stay on their parents’ insurance plans, or they don’t know what else to do with themselves. They treat their studies as a chore and their teachers as bossy parents. They tell you that the reading assignments aren’t interesting, and when you ask them what topics would interest them, they say, “None, I guess.”

I always considered these students to be the major downside to teaching at a community college. But lately, many of my well-educated friends have confessed to having been these students in the past.

“Oh, that was me,” said a friend who is now working on a Ph.D. “When I was eighteen, I didn’t care about my community college classes at all. But later, when I was a little older and ready to go back, I knew where to go.”

That’s why I love community college. It is the opposite of the university, where everything rides on our performance for four years, where there’s no time for confusion and illness and insanity and waffling, where we will waste thousands of dollars if we mess this up. It’s not rock-star college; it’s garage-band college. It’s college for whoever wants it, whenever they want it, and if they need to leave for a while, it will still be here when they get back.

By the time I finished graduate school, I had even convinced my advisor of how great community colleges are, and he supported me in my new career. For me and for my students, it’s exactly the right place to be.

The illustration depicts a cover story from Las Positas College's Naked Magazine.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Good Pain/Bad Pain

“This doesn’t hurt,” says my yoga teacher, as we squirm our way into the forward-splits. “You know what hurts? Stepping on a thumbtack. No one ever steps on a thumbtack and says, hmm, interesting.”

He squishes the ball of his foot back and forth against the floorboards, a pensive look on his face.

Hmm, yes. Maybe I’ll just push this a little further.” He grinds his foot hard into the floor.

“No one says that. If you step on a tack, you say, Ouch! Get this thing outta my foot! That’s how you can tell it’s pain. You want it to stop.”

Any yoga student needs to learn this lesson: the difference between pain and not pain.

But if you think it’s pain, doesn’t that make it pain, you might ask? Isn’t pain nothing more than a perception?

Okay, then, point taken. Any yoga student needs to learn the difference between good pain and bad pain. Good pain is the pain of breaking through things that bind you up and restrict your motion, bunchy muscles and scar tissue. Bad pain is the pain of injury, of debilitating yourself. Good pain makes you better. Bad pain makes you worse.

It’s similar to the difference between sorrow and depression. Sorrow is horrible pain that you don’t really want to go away. I just need this time to be sad, we say. I’m not ready to be cheered up yet. You’re sad about something, and you need the sadness to help you understand that something.

When you’re depressed, you would give anything to stop it, which is why it’s really cruel to tell depressed people to stop wallowing and pull themselves out of it. Your painful emotions aren’t helping you understand anything, because they’re illogical and disconnected from your experiences. It’s odd to even call them emotions or sadness, because those terms indicate a response to something in the world, and depression is a response to nothing. It’s bad pain, pain that tells you something is wrong, pain that is a sign of damage.

If we are too frightened of pain that hurts us, we may shy away from pain that helps us. Dropping your body weight onto your tight hamstrings feels horrible at first, like you are going to rip your muscle in two. This isn’t an irrational fear; stretch too far, too soon, and it might happen. But without pushing the limits of your physical comfort, you’ll never become more flexible and mobile. So you need to learn how to relax with the discomfort, and know when that discomfort crosses the line between helping pain and injuring pain.

As my yoga teacher talks about pain, I look over at a young, attractive South American woman who has worked her way into a pretty nice-looking split. She looks familiar, and then I remember: she used to come to my kickboxing school. For a few months, she was my frequent training partner, often the only other woman in the class. She had never done martial arts before, but she had an appealing enthusiasm for kicking and punching, throwing her full weight into her techniques and laughing happily as her fist smacked against the pads.

The only problem was, she fell in love with someone in the class. I could tell, because she began training with her hair down, her long, brown tresses slapping her face each time she threw a kick. Then one night, when she waved at me from across the room, I didn’t recognize her—she looked like a different girl, with a blanker face, a photoshopped version of herself. Upon closer inspection, it turned out she was wearing a full mask of evening makeup, her cheeks rouged, her eyes shadowed in deep, smoky gray. The next week, she showed up to a wrestling class wearing pearl earrings and a cashmere sweater that felt soft against my cheek as we took turns throwing each other onto the floor.

The day that the object of her affections rejected her advances, she stormed out of the school with the jaunty walk and forced smile of a woman who wouldn’t let a man get her down. “Goodbye!” she exclaimed to me and another student as she passed us, in a voice that held back tears.

The toughness of her exit—the exaggerated spring in her step, the grimness of the smile—made me hope that she would triumph over this pain, that she would be back the next day, or next week, to show her beloved that she was too proud to let him scare her out of a class that she seemed to be enjoying.

But she didn’t come back until a year later, only to repeat the same pattern: more makeup each night, tighter clothing, until two weeks later she left in a huff, this time for good. I never saw her again, until now, when she had appeared in my yoga class.

I could imagine why this girl didn’t want to continue attending a school with someone who had rejected her. I have dated people from my kickboxing school. When we broke up, it was painful to see them in class, to have my private unhappiness infiltrate the space where I usually escaped my problems. The awkward greetings at the beginning of class, watching my ex-boyfriend wrestle with a new female student, waving goodbye on the way out the door as he listened to a message on his cell phone—every interaction was like a sharp little punch in the stomach. But these punches were more like the splits than the thumbtack. They hurt for a minute, but then I got used to it, and really it wasn’t so bad.

Maybe that South American girl could have worked through the pain and continued training. But the very fact that she didn’t shows that martial arts wasn’t the right discipline for her, anyway. Learning to fight is all about expanding your notion of good pain to include things that would normally be seen as bad pain: getting punched in the face, kicked in the stomach, slammed on the floor. It turns out that that the boundaries between these types of pain are blurrier than you’d think. Good pain can cross over into bad when you get a little bruised, or bleed a little, or sprain your ankle. Or those things might be good pain, pain that strengthens us, depending on how much discomfort we are willing to accept. I consider black eyes and broken noses to be too much pain, but I’ve seen people I train with shake them off like a stubbed toe. Maybe a bruised ego or a bruised heart is too much pain to encounter several nights a week. It becomes a question of weighing damage against growth, judging how much you can stretch before you snap.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Getting in There

“I was thinking about your fight,” my friend Jim said to me.

It was one week after the fight. I had lost. Everything was great for about five days. I went to sparring class the day after the fight and sparred as well as I ever had. I couldn’t stop eating like I was cutting weight. Nothing but steamed vegetables and small portions of lean meat seemed like food. I couldn’t bring myself to drink more than half a glass of water at once. I kept waking up in the middle of the night wanting to do pull-ups. I was as high as a roundhouse kick to the head.

Then on Friday came the crash. I could barely pull myself out of bed. I couldn’t stop crying. I was sure my cat was going to die. And I was right—she died two weeks later. Everything was totally, totally messed up. I was a failure.

I ran into Jim while I was running errands on Saturday. The last thing I wanted to talk about was the fight. “Yeah, so I was wondering,” he asked. “How come you never kicked the girl really hard?”

I didn’t know what to say. Because she was flitting around really fast like a 110-pound girl can do and it was a little tricky to kick her at all? Because it was a tournament scored on points, so I was trying to kick her often, not hard? Because it looks a lot more impactful when you kick someone standing still holding a pad than a skinny little body in constant motion?

“I don’t know,” I mumbled. Truthfully, I was surprised to learn that I hadn’t kicked her hard. It was like asking a stand-up comedian why he didn’t tell any funny jokes.

I told one of my coaches about it later. “It’s easy to criticize someone’s fight," he told me. "What’s hard is to get in the ring and do it yourself.”

That’s something fighters say a lot: you have to give a person respect just for getting in there. Before I competed, it was one of those abstract things I understood in principle. It’s brave to fight a stranger in front of an audience. On that level, I understood it well, because I was too scared to do it. But afterwards, it meant something different. You can prepare as much as you want for a fight, but you have no idea what will happen once you are in the ring, who you will be fighting, or how you will be judged.

Martial arts teachers have to remind their students of this because the potential for thoughtless shit-talking is so high in a situation where new students are learning to critique their own form and technique. I’ve seen people running their mouths after tournaments: Bill should have kept his hands up better, a new student will say, shaking his head in disappointment. If the teacher overhears this, he’ll raise an eyebrow and say, I didn’t see you in that ring.

I have to be that teacher myself in my writing classes, talking students out of making comments that are thoughtless, insulting, or inane as they critique each others’ essays. Students who will readily admit that they don’t know how to use a comma and have never read an entire book are happy to slam away at other people’s writing with all the contempt of a New York Times critic. Anything that expresses an opinion is a rant, anything with complex sentence structures is torture, anything from before World War II is Old English.

They’re even worse about each other’s writing. On their peer response sheets, I had to make a rule against answering nothing to the question, What is the strongest part of the essay? Granted, there are many students who love to praise their classmates’ writing with as much unilateral enthusiasm as others like to criticize it. Neither approach will provide much useful help for a writer trying to improve a draft.

It’s easy to criticize other people’s writing—much, much easier than writing something oneself. Many of the things that aren’t working in writing are glaringly apparent, just like the things that aren’t working in a fight, and both give bystanders a sense of entitled outrage:

This paragraph doesn’t make any sense!
That guy kept punching you in the face!
You don’t have a main point!
Your kicks weren’t landing!

It’s easy to spot these obvious design flaws. Giving constructive feedback is more challenging. I know this as well as anyone. Constructive feedback is my job, and the fact that I give it quite well means I get paid one of those cushy, union-inflated government salaries. It’s not easy to look at a rough piece of writing, relax enough to make out the contours of what the author is trying to say, determine which parts are creating that meaning and which are detracting from it, and advise the author what to keep and what to change. I don’t want the students to be perfect at it. I just want them to turn off that automatic voice, the one that feels entitled to understand everything instantly and takes a confusing idea as a personal affront.

I think people are extra crotchety when critiquing writing because writing invades our brains, and so we take it very personally when we don’t like it. When we disagree with it, it has violated the sanctity of our thoughts by making us narrate the offending words. When we find it confusing or unclear, it has exhausted us by making us work to decode it. If, god forbid, we are forced (like my students) to read the entirety of something we dislike, we consider it as a waste of our precious time and brain cells, viewing it with a sense of persecution that we would never aim at reality television, marijuana, or Farmville.

Now that I’ve written a draft of a novel, I’ve gotten all kinds of responses, many positive, many critical. I’ve been lucky not to get too many mean ones, because the novel is only being read by people I know and who care about me. Occasionally I get one that hurts a little, though, because the person has rejected the novel wholesale:

I wasn’t sure what the point was.
I just didn’t like any of the characters.
I thought, why am I reading this?

Even though this kind of absolutely critical feedback is a little painful, I don’t mind it or feel upset at the people who voice it. When you put a piece of writing into the world, you expose yourself to far, far worse than that. Just like when you fight, you potentially expose yourself to be the idiot who got the crap beat out of him in front of an audience.

These are legitimate reactions when reading a book, and I’ve certainly felt this way about many books I’ve read. I probably wouldn’t tell them to the book’s author, though, because I can’t imagine how the author would fix these problems, or that they should. There’s no way this book will ever appeal to me. Like many books, including many of the world’s most celebrated works of literature, it’s not about people or things that interest me. If asked, I would probably say, “I just couldn’t get into it,” or “It wasn’t the kind of book I like” and be done with it.

I didn’t used to be so diplomatic. When I was my students’ age, I did at times rip into a work that didn’t suit my liking, whether amateur or celebrated.

That guy’s essay was total pretentious gibberish.
Jane Austen? How can anyone stand all that quipping?

Once I became a writing teacher, I stopped subjecting works-in-progress to this kind of criticism. But published writing, writing that was projected out into the world for public consumption and critique, was fair game.

Now, having experienced a taste of the other side, of being the writer as well as the consumer of writing, I think I will be as careful when I speak about someone’s writing as I am when I speak about their fighting. Even if I don’t like what they wrote, I will respect the fact that they wrote it and remember that it’s easier to pick apart a fight than to get in the ring yourself.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

What to Eat

Girls, they never befriend me
‘Cause I fall asleep when they speak
Of all the calories they eat.
Marina and the Diamonds

“Did you know that most people have four to seven impulse moments a day, lasting 2 to 3 minutes, in which they are tempted to indulge in unhealthy foods?”

“Changing your eating habits will be easier if you have a plan. Putting together a plan means setting goals, tracking your progress, finding support, and rewarding yourself.”

“Anorexia affects both the body and the mind…You think about food, dieting, and weight all the time.”

The passages above are from the Kaiser Permanente website. This is what my heath care provider tells me about eating. Everyone is obsessed with unhealthy food. You need to carefully plan and regulate what you eat. But don’t think too much about it; that’s an eating disorder.

After Sunday sparring class, my male training partners stand around and eat tangerines and compare their diets. Somebody has cut out all grains and dairy. Somebody else has been eating as much animal fats as he wants, but no refined sugar. Another person only eats raw vegetable matter. Our teacher has just finished a cleansing fast. Two people admit to drinking their own urine for medicinal purposes. This topic can last for hours; there’s just so much to say.

One of my favorite videos from my kung fu school shows myself and another woman sparring. The reason I like it because of the off-screen conversation that narrates our fight. Just behind the camera, my teacher is talking to the raw vegan student.

“What have you been eating lately?” my teacher’s voice asks.

“High protein diet,” says the vegan.

“Really?” asks my teacher. “Where are you getting your protein?”

“Broccoli,” says the vegan.

“Broccoli has protein?” my teacher asks.

“Sure, lots,” says the vegan. “I’ve been eating mostly broccoli, greens, bananas, sprouts…”

You can just imagine how hard it is to wrap up conversation on such a fascinating topic. It lasts longer than the two-minute sparring round, so I never get to hear the end of it, which always disappoints me.

The health teacher at the college where I work tells me that it’s typical of athletes to be obsessed with food. Martial artists might be worse than most, because they often need to drop below their optimal body weight to compete. That, and martial arts are a cross between a sport and a religion, so people tend to understand their physical demands as ethical imperatives. Maintaining a minimal body weight isn’t just a strategy for competition: it’s what the Shaolin monks would want you to do, if you were training with them on a mountaintop in China instead of here, in Oakland, across from a Pizza Hut.

I think about food a lot. I’m pretty sure everybody does. If it’s true, as they say, that women think about sex every three minutes, and men about twelve times more frequently than that, and if we need food more urgently than we need sex to ensure the survival of our species, then it stands to reason that food might cross our minds during those brief respites between sex thoughts.

When I am being polite, I try not to reveal my thoughts about food. It feels uncouth to reveal such an obsessive inner narrative, like exposing your sexual fantasies to a casual acquaintance.

And like revelations of sexual fantasies, not everyone reacts favorably to discussions about food. When I haven’t been careful enough, I’ve elicited negative responses ranging from That’s kind of neurotic to Being so obsessed with food is totally unfeminist to You are giving me an anxiety attack.

“I always wonder if eating too much fruit is bad for me,” I said to the health teacher one day.

We were having a conversation about nutritional science, a subject taught in her department. My question about fruit was meant as an example of why I thought nutrition was such an interesting field of study.

“Well, how much fruit do you eat?” she asked.

“In the summer, I let myself eat as much fruit as I want. Sometimes I eat a regular dinner and then a second dinner composed entirely of fruit.”

I saw her face stretching into an expression that communicated, Oh, you poor person, you have some kind of mental disorder.

“Did that sound crazy?” I asked.

“Listen to your wording,” she said. “You ‘let yourself.’”

Okay, it sounds a little neurotic, I’ll admit, the idea of giving oneself permission to eat some things and not others. But even Kaiser Permanente told me to have a plan. How else can someone maintain a healthy diet? Eat whatever they want, and hope it turns out to be healthy? If I didn’t give myself permission to eat some things and not others, I would eat cookies all day long.

It’s doublethink—“the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” Make healthy choices about food…but don’t think about them! Just do it, do it unconsciously, do it right, and for god’s sake don’t talk about it!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Blind Dates

The tea shop I write in is a hot spot for blind dates. I am witnessing at least one of them right now. Amongst the students piled high in sweatpants and textbooks, the girlfriends grabbing dessert after a movie, and the weirdos like me, leaning over notebooks and staring out the window, are several couples, chatting over their tea. Which one of these pairs didn’t know of each other’s existence before a week ago?

That woman talking at length about how she came to accept her Filipino-American identity, while the guy across the table slouches his face into his hand and nods in understanding—they are way too comfortable to be on a blind date. Their later conversation reveals that they are gay best friends. That couple holding their cups in front of their faces, sipping their tea and barely speaking—a well-established relationship or a really bad blind date. Despite their reticence, they hold hands on the way out of the shop later on.

But the lady in the casual-but-cute outfit describing her time living in Tucson in a measured voice but with lots of hand gestures and words like cosmopolitan and juggernaut while her male companion drops the lid of his teapot loudly onto the table—these people have never met each other before, I’m sure of it.

The man takes out his phone to check the time.

“Wow, that’s a shiny phone,” the woman says. “Is it heavier than an i-phone?” She and the man take turns weighing two phones against each other in their hands.

This is the way you can tell the blind dates: their victims are talking about nothing. Either that, or narrating their entire life stories in a way we would never do to either a friend or a regular stranger. I was born in Hawaii, but I moved to Pennsylvania when I was a month old…I went to Berkeley for college and the University of Michigan for graduate school. It’s like a job interview, except both parties are being interviewed at once, and no one is relaxed.

I never wanted this sort of thing to happen to me. But my friend told me I had to do it. You haven’t even tried, she would scold me. How can you say you hate something if you haven’t tried it? She is married and has been with her husband for ten years. I suppose the idea of an awkward evening with a lonely stranger appeals to someone at such a point in life. It sounds fun, she told me. If I were single, I would totally do it!

Eventually I caved under the pressure and went on a handful of my own blind dates, one of them in this very tea shop. It was a perfectly nice little date. We had a lovely conversation about our families and what kind of music we liked. I asked him about his job. He was a film editor. It seemed like a pretty cool job to me. Someone would have to be passionate about an artistic job like that. It’s the kind of job people love. Did he love it?

Not really, he told me. It just paid the bills. He had gotten a two-year-degree that qualified him to do it, and it had provided him with stable work editing commercials for beer and prescription drugs. He performed his duties faithfully, with neither relish nor disgust.

What he really wanted to do was be in a band. “It was always my dream,” he told me, “but I can’t even play an instrument.”

“You could learn,” I said. “You should learn to play an instrument and then start a band!”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, sounding dejected. “You have to be good if you really want to be in a decent band.”

Well that’s silly, I thought. “You work at it until you get good.”

“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “I think you need to have some kind of talent to begin with. I’d know by now if I were supposed to be a musician.”

Later, as I recounted this episode to my pro-blind-date friend, I felt like an episode of Seinfeld, with my ridiculous fussy reason for not seeing him again. I couldn’t even find concise words to encapsulate the problem.

“He wasn’t passionate about anything,” I tried. Well, that wasn’t true. He was passionate about the bands he liked to listen to. He had told me about a few already, adding that we should go to a show sometime.

“He didn’t have anything he was proud of,” I tried again. But this was still wrong. He was quite proud of his fancy stereo system, which he had described to me in loving detail.

“He wasn’t creative?” my friend suggested.

I’m not sure if this was dead-on, but it was at least a little closer. I wouldn’t need him to be traditionally creative, just to create something. It could be anything: a song, a poem, a computer program, a dinner, an automotive transmission. A perfectly edited beer commercial. Anything. Just something he cared about, something that he had actually done himself.

Considering I couldn’t describe this criterion in something shorter than a paragraph, it seemed like a petty reason not to date somebody. That’s how I felt after every blind date I ever went on, all four of them. Non-creative guy was my last one. I couldn’t take it anymore, shopping for people online like shoes, callously sending back each pair that didn’t fit my fussy standards. I emailed him and told him I didn’t plan to see him again. He took the rejection poorly, with lots of complaining and bafflement.

A week later, I sat in the tea shop, writing in my journal about how I regretted hurting the guy’s feelings. Maybe I should have given him a chance, I wrote. How would I even know if I liked somebody after one date?

This was the heart of the problem: how can people be attracted to somebody based on a date? Or two dates, or six, or twenty? How can you develop feelings for somebody that you only ever meet out of context, never observing how he deals with a challenge, or treats his friends, or does something he’s really good at, or does anything at all besides sit and drink tea and talk?

Should I go out with him one more time, I wrote? Or give up this whole dating thing altogether?

As if in answer to my question, I looked up and saw him walking past the window of the tea shop.

What is he doing here? In Oakland. In my neighborhood. In front of the tea shop that I told him I spent all my time in. He lived in San Francisco, and had talked about Oakland like it was an exotic vacation spot that he had never before visited. Was he trying to find me? Was he stalking me?

He walked by the window once more, then checked his watch and walked in, right past my table.

“Hi,” I said as he walked by.

“Oh, hi,” he said, looking surprised. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” I said, confused. “Funny seeing you here.”

“I’m meeting somebody,” he said, looking around. “Oh, there she is!” He walked to the back of the coffee shop, sat down across from a woman about my age, and began a stiff conversation.

“Uncreative Guy stole your date spot?” my pro-blind-date friend said, when I told her the story that night. She was laughing so hard she could barely talk. “That’s classic! He’s not even creative enough to come up with a new place to go.”

I suppose this showed that my intuition had been right: he really wasn’t very creative. Or maybe just not very wise. Either way, I had made the right choice.

I think what I hate about blind dates is really what I hate about dating in general: that it is treating a person like a commodity. But I don’t see any way around it. That’s how we get things. We shop for everything else we need: food, clothing, shelter, a school, a car. I suppose shopping for a mate is like shopping for a job. We all hate to do it, but we’re scared of where we’ll end up if we don’t.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I love pink. It looks like health, spring, rosebuds and the cheeks of babies. Of all the decorative items in my apartment, I would approximate that forty percent are pink. Pink tapestry on the wall, pink glass votive holders, dusty pink velvet upholstering my dining chairs, pink stripes and spots on the leaves of my houseplants.

I have enough pink clothing to assemble an entire fuchsia outfit, hat-to-shoes. I did it one time in order to try to get excused from a jury. It didn’t work, so I sat at the day-long trial dressed like punk Barbie. The defendant, accused of assault with a deadly weapon, gave me a big smile as he entered the courtroom.

If he wanted his own pink outfit, he was out of luck, because in America, men don’t wear pink. That’s the only rule we have for colors. Everyone else can wear any color they please, but for half the population, sorry, no pink.

You might argue that there are other rules for wearing colors. You can’t wear a white dress to a wedding if you’re not the bride, and if you live in a neighborhood with gangs, your high school won’t permit you to come to class in red or blue. You can’t dress your baby girl in blue—unless it is a blue flowered dress with ruffles, in which case you can. A few limited rules…but when the guest leaves the wedding, or the student leaves the neighborhood, or the girl gets past the age of about two years old, then they are all free to wear any color without earning any concerned glances or snide comments.

Baby boys, on the other hand, are never dressed in pink clothes. There are plenty of flowery blue baby dresses, but there are no rugged boyish pink baseball jerseys covered in pink dinosaurs or pink fire trucks, because boys just don’t wear pink, period.

We all know the rule is arbitrary. At the beginning of the century, pink was the color for boys, a variation of aggressive red, while tranquil blue was appropriate for girls.

Still, like all our bizarre cultural mores, it seems only natural that pink is not for boys. A recent study tried to demonstrate the naturalness of this association, claiming that women have a greater innate preference for pink than men do, all the better for performing primitive women’s duties like finding ripe berries and determining if a child has a fever.

The methodology of this study was widely considered unsound, but it’s easy to see where they got their hypothesis. Little girls seem to love pink as soon as they love anything, just like all my friends’ sons have been obsessed with trains and garbage trucks since they were old enough to point and squeal. Pink was one of my favorite colors (second to red) when I was little, until mid-elementary school, when I decided that green better represented the non-frivolous person I wanted to be. But pink worked itself back into heavy rotation in my clothing during graduate school, when I didn’t care whether I was frivolous anymore.

For the first two years that I studied martial arts, I avoided wearing anything pink to class. I was often offered pink gear: We have pink boxing gloves made especially for women!

I didn’t want any part of it. I had seen women who wore pink boxing gloves, and there were two types of them. The first type were martial arts newbies who wanted to show that they were still cute and feminine, even thought they were learning to fight. That type made up approximately ninety-five percent of the pink-gloved girls. The other five percent—meaning maybe two women I knew of—were straight up badasses who could easily take out a man twice their size. They wore pink as war paint, a challenge to anyone who dared to view them as cute.

I knew I wasn’t that second type of woman, and I didn’t want to be the first type, so I avoided all pink. Not just in my equipment, but also in any clothing I wore to my martial arts schools, including my training clothes and my street clothes. I didn’t want my male training partners to think of me as female, so like a baby boy, I wore blue, grey, orange, red, anything but pink.

Eventually I got so used to avoiding the pink shoes and t-shirts that make up a good percentage of my wardrobe that I forgot I was doing it. One day, a male classmate made a comment about pink being my favorite color. How did he know, I wondered?

“It’s a joke,” he explained. “You’re not the kind of girl who wears pink.”

“I’m not?” I asked, surprised. Why would he think that? Then I remembered: because I never wore it to class. Like the self-monitoring prisoners in Foucault’s panopticon, I had enforced the masculine no-pink rule upon myself.

After that, I started wearing pink all the time. I would wear my pink motorcycle boots to and from class, and pink t-shirts when I trained. I wasn’t scary enough to become a type-two pink-gloves girl, but I was secure enough to stop pretending I was a boy.

Lately, though, the boys at one of my kickboxing schools have taken to wearing pink. It started with some bright pink kickboxing shorts that the school was selling. They only came in sizes so tiny that none of the women could fit our curvy hips into them. They sat unpurchased in the display case until the very small, but decidedly male, Thai teacher started wearing a pair.

Of course, being a non-American, he probably didn’t believe that pink was a girls’ color. In Thailand, pink is traditionally associated with Tuesday and recently has been worn to show support for ailing king Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Whatever his own associations with the color were, leading class in his pink shorts, he was like the type-two pink-gloves girls, a tiny badass fighter daring you to look askance at his shorts so he’d have a reason to kick your head off. Soon he began adding more pink to his outfit: pink t-shirt, pink hand wraps, pink ankle supports.

Then all the boys at the school started wearing pink. The school purchased multiple shipments of pink handwraps to keep up with the demand. I suppose they are using the color to show that they are type-two scary men like their teacher. Or maybe they just think it's pretty.

Coke Chunhawat