Tuesday, August 14, 2012


At a gym where I used to train, the senior students sit on the edge of the boxing ring, passively eying the throngs of regular students jumping rope.  Their gaze pans evenly across the room, never lingering on any one student for more than a second or two.  A regular person might acknowledge someone’s quick footwork as they jumped, might nod approvingly, might wince as a mistimed rope slapped sharply against the tops of the jumper’s bare feet.  But the senior students won’t do any of that.  It is a point of pride for them not to react to anything less than a foot flying towards their head, and even then, only with bored indifference, as though moving out of the way is a bit of a bother.

This is how martial arts people look: the blank face. I’m kind of a connoisseur of it.  I often find myself studying the still expressions of fighters on the side of the ring, training partners and classmates waiting for their friend to fight, teachers in the windows of karate schools, former high-school wrestlers.  They all have some form of it, a slackness of the facial muscles that normally would be showing engagement, interest, reaction.  

The blank face is what allows martial artists to recognize each other in public places.  They are the ones who don’t flinch when the waiter drops a tray of glasses to the floor, who brush past creepy drunk people blocking the sidewalk as though they haven’t quite noticed them, who quietly step out of the way of that guy trying to punch them in the bar, causing him to fly head-first into the wall, who return to their beer as if nothing had happened.

When I earned an English Ph.D., I was taught to have a cool nonchalance towards unfamiliar information.  “Doesn’t Zizek’s analysis of hegemony invalidate your argument?” someone would ask.  The trick was to stay calm, to redirect the question, to say something like, “Well, Zizek’s view of hegemony is useful but hardly an ontology,” to point your accuser to something like Foucault’s analysis of hegemony.  No one must ever know the shameful truth that your knowledge of Zizek was limited to one article about Lacanian psychoanalysis that you read and barely understood during a first-year theory seminar.*

This kind of bullshitting wasn’t an incidental skill one had to pick up to survive; it was an explicit part of our training.  I was told repeatedly by my professors, an insider secret not announced in a lecture but passed from mentor to student during private office visits: “You need to learn to speak on any topic, even if you know very little about it. That’s one of the main skills of an English Ph.D.”  Practicing this skill during oral exams, dissertation defenses, job talks is how students are conditioned to be scholars, unshakeable under the most obscure and unpredictable attacks.

Learning the blank face is something like that. No teacher gives a lesson in it, but they tell you again and again, as you grimace in pain or scowl in frustration: “Don’t react.” It’s partly for the same reason as the literary grandstanding, to avoid showing weakness to one’s opponent.  But mostly, the blank face is not for the purpose of deception. Rather, it’s a technique for staying in the present moment, which we must do when we fight.  A reaction prolongs and memorializes a moment that has already passed.  In a fight, you don’t have time to congratulate or chastise yourself, to gloat or get angry—everything moves too quickly.

Blankness also allows us to focus on a task rather than on the social exchange involved with that task. Normally we spend a lot of energy reacting to those around us, but this performance can actually prevent us from observing and absorbing information, as when we are so focused on our eye contact and firm handshake that we cannot remember the name of the person we’ve just been introduced to.  I used to nod at my teachers even when I didn’t understand the direction, until a teacher told me, “Don’t nod, just do what I say.”

Now I know all about the blank face, but I’m still not always good at it.  I might scowl or smile, depending on my mood, when my teacher tells the class to do something impossible like throw four minutes of roundhouse kicks or do a hundred pushups or lift a forty pound weight over my head.  Sometimes I become angry when I feel a larger sparring partner is using his size against me, and my anger shows.

I could work on not getting angry, at not caring whether I have to do something impossible, but I could also just work on not expressing those emotions on my face.  Just as smiling has been shown to make people feel happier, lack of facial expression can make us more inwardly stoic about our fate. If we can appear equally content to do whatever our instructor tells us, then perhaps we’ll learn to be equally content to do something fun like throw roundhouse kicks or something hard like do pushups or something boring like clean the wrestling mats or something scary like fight that guy over there.  And then, like the stoics, we might be equally content with whatever fate brings to us, sickness or health, companionship or solitude, life and death.

*Regarding the topic of Slavoj Zizek’s thought, Wikipedia warns: “This article may be too technical for most readers to understand.” 

The illustration depicts the blank faces of my three kickboxing teachers at the 2000 San Shou Nationals Tournament.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


I’m bad at finishing things.  Without strict discipline, I would start a thousand projects and never finish any of them.  When you start writing a story or drawing a picture or designing a new college English course, it is full of excitement and possibility.  You can imagine all the fabulous things that you will include, all the brilliant details, how much everyone will enjoy it. It is rich with unrealized potential, ready for action like a new battery or a wound-up toy or toddler.

Finishing things is grueling.  All the hopeful energy of newness has been spent, and you must deal with the reality. You need to make sure that everything works, that it’s all been done correctly, that nothing has been overlooked.  There will certainly be parts of the project that are painful, tedious, miserable. You need to get through those parts to finish.  You also need to accept all the imperfections that you know are there but don’t have time to fix and all the awesome parts of your plan that didn’t end up happening.

The worst part about finishing things is that it always seems to take about three times longer than anyone could anticipate.  That’s why I never finish cleaning my kitchen: I always feel like I’m about ten minutes from getting it really clean, which means it will take thirty minutes, and I always need to leave my apartment in twenty minutes. 

Last week, I finished revising a novel.  I had been revising it for over a year.  I thought I could do the entire revision last summer during my two-month break. But when school started again, I was only halfway done.  When this summer started, I promised myself that I would be finished by the end of June.  But as my self-imposed deadline arrived, my speed slowed to a crawl, like decelerating at the end of a sprint. There were so many little details to check, so many final issues to address, so many finishing touches.  I wasn’t done on Friday, June 29th, as I had hoped.  I swore I would finish by the end of the day on Monday, July 2nd, but as the end of the day approached, I still had about fifteen things to do.   It will be done by noon on Tuesday, I assured myself.  By 3pm, I had to cut myself off—for better or worse, I was done. There were still two things on my list I hadn’t gotten to, but I needed to be somewhere at four, and I didn’t want to wait another day.  I was afraid if I didn’t send the draft off right then, I never would, that Wednesday would stretch into Thursday and into the weekend and then suddenly it would be August and my summer would be over and I would still be working on the last two things on the list.

That’s how I feel about finishing anything. Eventually I have to make a proclamation that something is finished, because if I didn’t, I could keep fussing at it forever, fixing up different parts, ignoring it when I didn’t like how it was going, impulsively changing this and that every time I got a better, more interesting idea.  

I always thought everyone shared these same preferences, that starting things was objectively more satisfying than finishing things.  But recently I learned that there are people who enjoy the end of a project more than the beginning.

I learned this from a program I teach in.  As part of the program, students identify themselves with one or more of the following learning styles: synthesizer, interactor, analyzer, and concluder. These styles correspond with the types of energy needed to work on any sort of project.

Synthesizer energy is what you need to start a project.  People who are high synthesizers like to brainstorm and come up with ideas.  Interactors, predictably, like to talk to people and make connections.  This is the second stage of a project: once you have an idea, you need to get other people involved and find out who can best help you. Analyzers like detail work.  They enjoy reviewing numbers, double-checking data and calculations, editing for grammar and clarity, and making sure all steps have been followed.   The final kind of energy is the one needed to finish a project.  Concluders like to cross things off their to-do list.  Given a task, they start right away, don’t procrastinate, and check in with others on a team to make sure they are also finishing their assigned tasks according to schedule. 

While the students in this program are fairly evenly spread amongst these four energies, almost all teachers who take the learning styles test, including me, come out high on synthesizer energy. We love brainstorming, coming up with ideas, discussing ideas with others; that’s why we became teachers.

Since synthesizers are good at beginning things, they are often horrible at ending things. Not all synthesizers are low on concluder energy, but many of us are, myself included.  Working with a panel of teachers can be a nightmare for this reason.  We will come up with a million grandiose ideas and never devise a realistic strategy to implement them.  College administrators, many of whom are concluders, hate working with us because we will spend hours coming up with a million ideas that suit everybody’s competing needs and desires and are completely impractical to implement. We have to make a point of writing outcomes for any meeting or we’ll just brainstorm and never actually devise a plan.

Of course, the concluders need us as much as we need them.  My students who are concluders will rush through an assignment and turn it in without proofreading, skipping any directions that seem too intricate or time-consuming.  My coworkers who are high on concluder energy will roll their eyes as we engage in our (admittedly annoying) brainstorming, but left to their own devices, they would choose a plan that wouldn’t work well just for the sake of having made a firm decision. They need us to devise the alternatives and we need them to force us to choose one.

In the teaching materials explaining the types of learning styles, concluders are horribly maligned.   The Powerpoints and handouts for the program include examples indicating that the concluders are bossy, fussy, controlling—basically a bunch of jerks.

A typical example is something like:

Imagine how each learning style would help plan a surprise party for Sarah.

Synthesizer: Let’s have a pirate theme for the party.
Interactor: I’ll invite all of Sarah’s friends.
Analyzer: If everyone pitches in $20 we can afford enough food and drinks for 30 people.
Concluder: You all need to listen to me because you are doing this all wrong.

When I teach these materials, I always jump to the concluders’ defense—and not only because about a quarter of the students in the class fall into this group. I tell the students, honestly, that I love concluders.  Sure, they’re bossy sometimes, but they keep everybody focused and make sure things get done.  If I am working on a project, I always try to find a concluder to be my partner or teammate.  If I know someone is expecting me to finish my part of a job, I am much more likely to do so in a timely manner. If I know that nobody I’m working with cares if I finish or not, I might procrastinate and stretch out my task forever.

For example, my novel revision—when I finally emailed it, I got a message saying that the agent I sent it to will be out of the office until next week.  Five extra days until anyone will look at it. That means I still have time to go back and finish those last couple revisions on my list, right?

I know the title of this post totally scared the crap out of you, but don't worry, I am not done with Smythologies. What a relief!  I have just been taking a break from things like this blog, my friends and loved ones, cleaning my apartment, while I concluded my novel revision.  I'm happy to be back! 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Skinny with Big Boobs

The woman on the workout site looked like a porn star.

Yeah, I think she used to be in porn, my friend Marie told me. Marie was the one who had recommended the site to me. It was a great site, filled with high-intensity exercises that I started using as kickboxing warm-ups. Its creators were a husband and wife: Freddy, a shy Canadian who did the video recording and editing, and Zuzana, a petite, extremely muscular Czech woman whose surgically-enhanced breasts could barely be contained by her skimpy sports bras.

I have no problem—or perhaps not much of a problem—with breast implants. Several people I love very much have gotten implants to replace breasts lost to cancer, which I think is a great reason for cosmetic surgery. As for women who just wanted larger breasts, I consider their decision none of my business, but I do think most women look nice with the breasts they came with.

My standards for Zuzana were a bit higher than for most women, though. I felt uneasy taking workout advice—which is a form of health advice—from a woman who had risked elective surgery and the insertion of foreign objects under her skin in order to look like a Barbie doll. Once I found out that she was a former pornographic model, however, I could forgive her unhealthy decision, since it was a career choice made before her career was being a role model for health and fitness.

The site had a community of followers who would often send in pictures of their newly fit physiques. The comments under these pictures would gush with praise and support: You look so strong, so sexy! But underlying this support, I noticed an ideology that disturbed me: Exercise is for making you look good. And when it comes to looking good, leaner is always better.

This was especially true of Zuzana’s own standards for herself. In one video journal, entitled “Stress Makes Me Fat!” she complained about the weight she had gained over the past few weeks. I can’t stop eating cashews, she said, turning her palms upwards. I could eat two big handfuls of them. In the video, she is sitting cross-legged on the floor in a sport bra and hot pants, her late six-pack reduced to a four-pack by the unsightly flab covering her toned abdomen. I don’t know much about body-fat percentages, but if her old physique was somewhere around 0% body fat, she must have increased it to at least 2%. Watching this gaunt woman, it was easy to envision her shoving two entire handfuls of cashews—that must be at least twenty of them—into her ravenous maw. Of course you can’t stop eating cashews! YOU ARE STARVING TO DEATH!

A few members of the site commented on how ridiculous it was for a woman with the physique of Bruce Lee to call herself fat, how it set a bad example for the millions of regular people following the site. Zuzana’s husband lashed out at them: How dare you invalidate the very personal feelings Zuzana is sharing with you! Here she has gone out of her way to show that she is vulnerable and struggles with her weight just like everyone else, and all you can offer is criticism.

The commenters were on to something, though. Looking at the site, it was easy to imagine that Zuzana-style skinniness was the ultimate sign of strength and fitness. As an athlete, it was difficult not to be seduced by this ideal: This was as fit as one could possibly look. I often thought of Zuzana as stronger than me, but when I saw her use weights, I realized that I was probably at least as strong as her, just with a lot more body fat. Of course, if I were as lean as her, I would be completely flat-chested, which is not a trade-off I was interested in. But with her ginormous porn-star rack, Zuzana had all bases covered. It seemed to me like cheating: starve yourself down to no body fat and then insert artificial fat where desirable.

Soon after the “Stress Makes Me Fat” post, Zuzana and Freddy got divorced, finally clarifying what type of trauma had driven her to ingest twenty cashews. She left the site and reappeared a few months later on YouTube cooking healthy recipes. She had gained at least ten pounds, moving her from Bruce Lee’s weight class to perhaps that of an Oops-I-did-It-Again-Era Brittany Spears. All the comments praised her new appearance: She looks good fat, more than one commenter noted.

Freddy found a new girlfriend, Lisa, who became the site’s new host. She was rail-thin with rippling muscles, like Zuzana had been. But her breasts were smaller, a natural size for someone with no body fat. Her tomboyish figure looked cute in the little shorts and bras that were the site’s signature workout gear. She gave lots of advice about exercise, about motivation and positive attitude, about healthy eating and lifestyle. It only took her three months on the site before she checked herself into the hospital to get her new, fake boobs.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


During high school, my parents told me not to worry about my grades. “Take the most advanced classes you can,” my father said. “Colleges like to see that you’ve challenged yourself.”

I wanted to challenge myself, too. I took every honors and advanced placement course that would fit in my schedule: American history, calculus, chemistry, physics, music theory, English. They were hard classes, and I was a stress-case of a student, staying up all night to study, writing endless sheets of notes. It was miserable a lot of the time, but I loved taking the most rigorous possible schedule, testing myself to see if I could hack it.

At the beginning of my senior year, I met with our high school’s college-placement counselor, which was the recommended thing to do. She greeted my mother and I with a grim face as she opened the folder containing my files.

“Your grade point average is only 3.6,” was the first thing she said. “When colleges see that, they will wonder why your grades are so low compared to your standardized test scores.”

I was puzzled. A 3.6 meant roughly half A’s and half B’s, with a few more A’s. I knew it wasn’t perfect, but I figured it was okay. The B’s were in my most difficult classes, math, science, classes in which maintaining a B had been hard work. Or sometimes they were in physical education, where I never suited up properly and usually snuck out halfway through class. I wasn’t exactly a model student, sure, but in my academic classes at least, you couldn’t accuse me of not working.

“It’s fine if school isn’t your priority,” the counselor said. “I can respect that. But the colleges will think you’re not living up to your potential.”

School isn’t my priority? I was dumbfounded. Had she ever been in an AP calculus class? If school wasn’t your priority, “B” would not describe how things would go for you.

I knew the counselor was crazy, but her accusation still haunted me: Colleges will think you’re not living up to your potential. Each time I got a rejection letter from a college, it was easy to blame my mediocre GPA. “I guess you should have taken easier classes that you could get A’s in,” my father said, disappointed that I had not been accepted to any of the Ivy League schools that we couldn’t afford anyway. I did get interviews for some of those schools, and looking back, I think the problem was more likely my teenaged understanding of “professional attire” (the thrift-store sweater and skirt without the holes) or my professed (and short-lived) love for Camille Paglia’s book Sexual Personae. But at the time, I was sure my horrendous grades had held me back, indicators of laziness and indifference.

Once I set my sights on graduate school, I learned not to take any college class that I thought I couldn’t get an A in. I avoided history, science, foreign languages, knowing how bad I am at memorizing lots of little separate facts. English was my major, but I knew that I couldn’t get A’s in English classes if I took too many at once. I padded my schedule with courses in linguistics, a subject that suits my brain so perfectly that I could get an A+ without studying for any of the exams. Then I found that I could really impress my English professors by incorporating ideas from linguistics, which I understood far better than they did, into my English essays. It was a cheap trick, but it turned getting an A into a guarantee instead of a gamble.

I knew that the top English PhD programs would only accept students with very high GPAs, not necessarily straight-A’s only, but close. Often, in fits of anxiety, I would calculate my average by hand during a lecture, running different scenarios: if I were to get one B next semester, what would that do? What if I take one class pass/fail?

It makes me sad to think of having spent college this way, trying to construct a marketable transcript to sell to the highest bidder. Of course I learned an amazing amount there, but that learning was always tinged with terror, the desperate need to do well enough, the unacceptability of failure. I think of all the classes I might have taken if I wasn’t worried about my grades—history, science, languages—and how much I might have learned in those classes, even if it happened not to be A learning but B or even C learning.

Grading does some good things for students. It gives them something to aim for, shows them how they are doing in comparison with other students, affords a sense of accomplishment. But the bad thing it does is turn education, and the educated student, into a commodity. Students don’t generally strive to get good grades just for their own sense of self-worth (if you don’t believe me, check out a spring-semester senior transcript). Good grades are worth something, and they can buy advantages like a job or college admission.

My kung fu teacher often says that students are acquisitive about learning kung fu forms (choreographed routines). Instead of learning a few forms well, we want to learn as many as possible, more than we can possibly practice on a regular basis, so we can have more than everyone else. That’s also how grading students teaches them to be—acquisitive. They earn the grade, and they can stash that grade away like an arcade ticket until they have enough of them to win a prize.

Sometimes I wish I could teach my English students the way my kickboxing teachers have taught me. In a combined-levels class, everyone learns the same lessons again and again, until they aren’t even lessons anymore but parts of our own minds and bodies. Some students are naturals and they come in throwing an A roundhouse kick without any experience. Most students struggle to learn, and work harder in their first year than they will ever work again, harder than the experienced students whose bodies could do the moves as they sleep. A grade is a score relative to others, but in this class, it doesn’t matter how you are doing in relation to others; it matters that you are trying your hardest. If you aren’t trying your hardest, you won’t learn, which means you have wasted your time and money. That’s what I wish school could be about: earning knowledge, information, and ability, not a grade.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


“Galaxy Glue, Galaxy Glue,
Life would go to pieces without Galaxy Glue.”
The Incredible Shrinking Woman

The hives popped up on my toe first, a perfect circle of blisters. You’re allergic to tape, my doctor friend told me, which made sense. The toe had a large cut on the bottom of it, making it uncomfortable to walk and more uncomfortable to kickbox. I’d been taping it every day, with athletic tape, with band-aids, with scotch tape wrapped around the band-aids to hold them in place. Now my body was rebelling against the mystery adhesives I’d been casually strapping against my skin as though I had any idea what they were made of and whether it was bad for me.

I was relieved to hear it was an allergy. Easy, just stop taping it, I told myself. But avoiding tape didn’t seem to help. The hives spread, first to my hands, which they covered entirely so that I looked like I’d been burned. Then all over both of my feet. They were creeping up to my knees and elbows by the time I went to the doctor, who beat them back with two rounds of strong steroid pills.

Make a list of things you have been in contact with during the last forty-eight hours, the medical websites told me. Medicines, clothing, pets, foods. I remember Lily Tomlin in The Incredible Shrinking Woman, the housewife steeped in a cocktail of household chemical products—who could say which had caused her body to shrink away into nothing?

“It’s spreading internally,” the allergist told me. “And once your system is sensitized, anything will set it off. It’s like your body is set on a hair trigger.” And so anything did set it off: detergents, wool, leather, anything scratchy, the friction of a jujitsu gi against my hands. I became one of those allergic people who is scared of everything, who feels like the world is attacking her, though really it’s her own body that is staging the attack.

On good days, the hives lie low, waiting but not acting. They’re like the physical version of panic attacks—always there, threatening to flare up at any moment and ruin everything. Once my skin gets dry, I can feel them hiding on the palms of my hands, agitated little pores looking for a fight. And if I rub them the wrong way, if I touch something they don’t like, they jump to attention, rising up, daring me, just daring me to scratch them.

Scratching them is the worst thing you can do. That’s what allows them to reproduce, sending their little hivey spores through your entire body. Scratching the bumps on my feet will instantly raise the ones on my hands, the chemicals moving through my body at a speed that seems completely disconnected from anything I’ve ever learned about a bloodstream.

Once you start scratching them it’s impossible to stop—or rather, you don’t care if you stop, you don’t want to stop, because the scratching is like heroin and you don’t care who you have to rob or kill to get more. It’s that kind of itch that makes you remember why itch is a euphemism for horniness. Scratching it the best feeling in the world and horrible burning pain all at the same time.

One good thing I’ve learned about hives is that they can kill you, which makes it really easy to get a doctor’s appointment. Every time I told the appointment nurse what was wrong, her first question was, Is your throat swelling shut? Are you having trouble breathing? I learned to cut her off to save time.

“What is this appointment for?”
“I have hives.”
“Okay, ma’am, I need to ask you…”
“My throat isn’t swelling. I’m not having trouble breathing.”
“Great, thanks.”

“Contact dermatitis is serious stuff,” my doctor told me, shaking her head in sympathy over my mangled hands. “You need some pretty aggressive treatment to stop it.”

I wondered what would happen to me if I didn’t have medicine. Would I die of a something as seemingly benign as a skin rash? Or just live the rest of my life looking ever more like Freddy Krueger? What did people do hundreds of years ago, before they had steroids and cortisone? The answer of course, is that they mostly didn’t need them, because they didn’t go around strapping laboratory chemicals against their skin as though they had any idea what they were made from and whether it was bad for them. But when they did need laboratory chemicals, when the chemicals were the only thing that could save them from a deathly allergic reaction, they were out of luck.