January 31, 2012

So Happy

Woot! I started Mandarin Lessons in order to hit one of my goals for 2012.

My teacher is a very close friend. We share a love of language (in fairness, I may think of myself as a language lover, but I've got nothing on G--she easily puts in 20 hours per week on her linguistic hobbies).

Because we share the linguist passion, each lesson involves us gleefully discussing and comparing other languages, and pronunciation, and grammar, and general word nerdery between the Mandarin I'm learning and the languages either or both of us have learned in the past or actually speak to some level of competency.

Tonight, I learned that I'm learning the old-school version of Chinese characters. The kind used by Taiwan and many immigrants to California. The kind that will be the most useful to me, I'm told. I inherently trust G, so if that's what she thinks I should learn, that's what I will learn.

It doesn't hurt that I've invited an additional person (L) to my lessons (Lessons? Party nights? How could you tell?). L is a Singaporean native, a very disciplined individual, and she agrees that it's easier to learn the classic complicated characters first, followed by the simplified, modern characters. So, yeah, Complex Characters? That's what I'll be learning. I'm led to believe they have a name. Perhaps I'll learn it and refer to them accordingly at some point in the future. For now, I'm swimming through the 4 tones and all of the pinyin. Yikes! That's enough!

When L learned that I was doing Mandarin lessons with G, it quickly became apparent that she'd be great fun as an addition. She learned Mandarin (and Hokkien) as a child, natively in Singapore, but since she learned by osmosis and moved to Canada at age 10(ish), she doesn't know the formal rules as well as G, who is English-first, American-University-Chinese-Degree-trained, worked in Taiwan for two separate jobs, and now is a professional technical translator from Chinese to English.

In short, with the combination of the two of them (and G's selected curriculum of ChinesePod for this week's lesson), I couldn't help but feel that I have the best self-made Chinese study program, EVER!!!

G showed up at my house and quizzed me on a bunch of Pinyin (I'd say I got about 85% correct. Much better than last week, but still, nowhere close to what I need.)

Then, L showed up, so we did last week's vocab and memorized conversation + variants, then we reviewed brush strokes and my writing homework (which, amusingly, I'd spent quite some time practicing and memorizing how to do completely backwards by assuming the numbered points on the diagrams drawn by G were the finishing points of the strokes instead of the starting points) and finally we moved to a new lesson of vocab, memorized convo for next week and additional characters to learn how to write.

After the lesson, we cooked dinner. L & G conversed in easy Mandarin while I listened (my favorite way to learn a language) and made pork belly, onion, butternut squash stew. L asked G technical linguistic questions. G asked L native speaker and cultural distinction questions. I was able to prepare delicious simple food to feed people I care about while learning a new language from people who really care about the linguistic nuances and were willing to discuss them at length in front of me.

I was, basically, in heaven.

Thank goodness the homemade garden-grown butternut squash, onion, pork-belly stew was a hit. The Holiday Cheese collection as a post-meal treat didn't earn me any enemies either.

Good Times!

January 24, 2012

2012 Goals

1. 9,000 pages read. This is a direct response to the ridiculousness that my 30 book goal imposed. Due to the shuffling, I know I have a minimum of 2 huge books on tap, REAMDE (at 1044) and 1Q84 (at 925).

2. Chinese language study. My general goal is to do one in-person private lesson per week with a good friend of mine. Bonus -- she's ridiculously fluent and a linguist and happy to dork out with me about pronunciation, grammar, and comparisons to other languages. Tonight's lesson was one of the more fun nights I've had in a long time. We used to do Spanish night, which was appreciated. But Chinese night is a completely different level of enjoyment for me. I feel so blessed to know someone who enjoys the same things as me and wants to share them with me. Yay!

3. Race Weight. So, I read Racing Weight and confirmed what I already suspected. If I want to PR in the half or the full marathon, I really need to get down to a weight that means I'm not carrying around a bunch of body fat that's not necessary. Painful to admit, but here's to being American. So this year, I have a goal to be at my racing weight by the time I show up for my second marathon.

4. 2 Marathons. I've already committed to what will no doubt be an awesome experience at the Equinox Marathon. Additionally, once I've recovered from that one, I'll fit in a late fall race when and where makes sense.

5. 52 Healthy Days with E. Historically, I've happily congratulated myself and given myself credit for any one of the healthy habits of a yoga session or a vegetarian meal or an alcohol free night (well, technically, I count it as a day, as I rarely drink before night, but you know what I mean). This year, E and I agreed, we want to commit to 52 days that are vegetarian, alcohol free, and include a joint yoga session (typically before bed). The interesting thing on this one is that given my recent crazy life, I'm already *way* behind schedule -- while there have been a few yoga sessions, many vegetarian days, and a few 24-hour+ stints of no alcohol, thus far, they've only met in the holy trifecta of healthiness on one occasion in 2012. I predict that this is the goal that will result in the most scrambling at the end of the year (e.g. see this year's books scrambling).

To 2012!

January 23, 2012


At times like these, I can see why bi-polar disorder "works" in an odd way.

Since November 15th, I've only had 19 dinners in my hometown without guests (almost all with E, which is awesome). In lieu of the 50 other peaceful dinners I could have had in my hometown, I've caught up with countless friends and family, and done some very rewarding things for my life and business.

Several of these alternate dinners were simply changed by the blessing of people I care about coming to us, either to stay in the guest bedroom or to share a meal.

But, there's also been much motion on my part: driving, flying, and physically making the effort to be elsewhere for the privilege of connecting with people I don't often see and/or doing things in person that make sense.

This weekend was a perfect example of the high-effort life I've been sustaining for the last 69 days.

Saturday AM, after a night of late work, I woke to pack, drive to Oakland, and run around Lake Merritt and Piedmont with a friend. We ate a delicious brunch, and then I drove to the Sacramento area to visit brother, niece, and mom.

First, I was delivering brother's new computer, thanks to E and Metamatt. He was so excited, it was great to see. We had a delicious sushi dinner to celebrate my niece's birthday. Finally, I arrived at my mom's where I caught up with my mom and D and then cleaned up work files 'til 2 AM.

Sunday, I was woken at 6:30 AM by my mom and D yelling at their dog. It's their house, and completely reasonable for them to continue in their normal daily existence. But it resulted in a shorter night of sleep than the already truncated one I'd expected.

I tried to snooze 'til 7:30 and then caffeinated myself with a latte so I could join my mom for her first 5K.

Like most of what I've done these last 69 days, I'm so glad I made the effort to be there and run with her. It was so special to see her realize she is capable of finishing 3.1 miles at a reasonably brisk pace. Many women of her generation just don't think of themselves as athletic or physically capable of things that "athletic people" do. It is wonderful to watch her perception of herself change, and inspiring to be reminded that we are free to change and grow, even in retirement (so why not now?).

I followed this one up with another brunch and great conversation with my step-dad, a drive to Oakland to join friends and E at an Oyster-pocalypse party (mmmm.... oysters), and the a drive home.

Every single event I fit in the 48 hours was fun and rewarding and I'm very glad I did them all.

But, after 69 days full of 48-72 hour stints like this one, I am excited about the consecutive 12 nights at home on my calendar starting tonight.

We can elevate ourselves to a ridiculously high level of physical and mental activity and interaction with others. I definitely do so at times like the holidays, birthdays, special events, with visitors who make the effort, or when there's an unexpected opportunity to catch up with long lost friends or family.

I'm always pleased I amplified my energy output for the benefits of these opportunities.

But, I'm also realistic that this style of living comes at a cost of the downtime and the easy slow existence of breathing, not rushing, and being present with myself in a regular, daily life.

I definitely need to force myself to take some downtime. I suspect, if I were bi-polar, this would be one of those periods when my brain chemistry switched from mania to depression.

I am so thankful not to have such extreme swings as to be bi-polar, but I'm also mindful that even the super-powered manic folks eventually crash. If they can't sustain it, I certainly can't.

So, I am excited to make a commitment to rest and rejuvenation before I ramp up again for my trip to Cambodia in February.

January 10, 2012

What We Want To Hear

You know those terrible conversations where one person is hurt? And they are desperately trying to explain to the other person that they are hurt in connection with something that other person did?

Those conversations almost never go according to plan, right?

They usually spiral into one person or the other (or both) trying to blame the other and neither person expressing enough empathy or taking appropriate ownership of their role in the situation.

I'm human, and I've messed this stuff up and gotten it just as horrifically wrong as the next person.

However, I've recently counseled a few friends through some conflicts, and it's so much easier to see a way forward when you aren't in the middle. So here's what I could see from the outside:

As a general rule, if someone is hurt in connection with your actions, they usually want a few very simple things:

1. They want you to listen to what they are saying while they are venting and expressing their frustration, anger, sadness, disappointment and hurt.

**This is the hardest step. When someone is hurt they often lash out or resort to passive aggressive miscommunication. If they are direct, they are often too direct, saying things that are hurtful and not necessary or related to their pain. In my experience, the more often someone trusts that they are going to have their needs met by sharing their pain the more pleasant they are in the communication of their needs. If you are committed to helping heal the conflict, you have to be the bigger person here, and just listen. This is hard.

2. When they are done venting, they want you to put yourself in their shoes, and say, "Yes, I can see how if I were you, what I did would suck."

**Okay, maybe this is actually the hardest step. Keeping quiet and really listening when someone is saying difficult things about you (#1) is hard, but then putting aside your pain to address theirs from their point of view is even harder.

3. They want you to say, "I definitely could have done better. In fact, I really should have done better. Perhaps I could have done X. Would that have been preferable?"

**This part is usually not so tough so long as you sincerely committed to #1 and #2. In fact, if you can get here and be creative, you are well on your way to smoothing things over. Ideally, their response will be positive and their feedback will help you understand how to avoid similar conflicts in the future.

4. Finally, they want you to say, "I feel terrible that you are hurt. I want to make you feel better. I think I can try to you feel better by doing X, right now, and doing my best to do Z, in the future. Would that work?"

**It is important to note the acknowledgement of how bad you feel and the desire to make it better. This is a component of emotional conflict resolution that is often ignored. It is not enough to say you are sorry, in most cases. Sorry is an empty word without some showing of vulnerability and an effort and commitment to avoid repeating the pattern that caused the pain.

Note, nothing they want is about you.

They don't want to know why you did what you did. They don't want to know why you think they are overreacting or how you think they are being unfair. They *really* don't want to know anything about what they've done that might be cause for pain on your part.

Is that fair?


In fact, it is likely that in addition to having completely reasonable complaints you'd like to see addressed at the same time as theirs, you will also be hurt simply by listening to them in #1 and possibly by their responses to your efforts in #2-#4.

However, unless the other person is being abusive or disrespectful (in which case you should stand up for yourself and point it out), I promise you, the fastest way to a solution and smoothing over of a conflict is to swallow your hurt and focus solely on theirs. You can raise your pain *after* theirs has been properly addressed.

(P.S. -- why do I feel like this post is going to come back and bite me in the butt?)

January 8, 2012

Skip Barber Racing School

Yeah, this happened today.

A huge thanks to our friends D&K who got me the intro to racing class as a birthday gift.

Oh, man.

So fun.

As E, D&K suspected, I'm hooked.

D, however, may not let me drive his lemons car.

Turns out, in an interesting contrast to my professional life, I'm very risk-tolerant on the track.

This resulted in me spinning out to the inside of turn 9 on Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca at the end of my first session.

Sand bags were displaced. Body damage occurred. And I learned that it's amazing how fast a Formula 1 car going full throttle and spinning out with BT in tow will stop when brakes and clutch are applied full force.

When I finally made it back to the pit (embarrassed to keep the rest of the class waiting), one of the instructors pointed me to a new car, and then asked the head instructor and my pace card driver (rather reasonably, in my opinion) "Do you want to move her to a different group?"

My pace car driver said, "No. She should stay with this group. She's fast."

And there you have it. On a race track, I am much less risk averse than anywhere else I've been in a long time.

The rush of driving fast and trying to keep up was awesome. My group was (i) a 35-yr-old U.S. Marshall who has 15 yrs of motorcycle experience and acts as a flag man at Laguna Seca MotoGP races; (ii) a 20-yr-old self-professed street and canyon racer with ridiculous quick-twitch muscle control; and (iii) me.

I did my best to keep up and they kept speeding up. At some point, something had to give and, clearly, it was my lack of high-speed road-racing experience and skill at managing sharp turns at scarily high speeds in a vehicle (albeit a ridiculously stable and forgiving one).

Within 30 seconds of starting I was grinning from ear to ear and whooping with joy. After 20 minutes of driving in one session, my heart was happily beating along at a nice 60% of it's max (yeah, I took my pulse while I waited for the tow-truck. What?), and I was drenched with sweat. The instructors had consistently referred to racing as a "Sport" and I could now completely understand why and agree. I was exhausted from the mental focus, aerobically challenged during the entire session, and now, weird muscles are sore from shifting, braking, and accelerating from the flat L-shaped seat and bracing myself in the car (unlike the larger folks, even with the 5-point restraint and foam they added, I still slid around a little bit and have to prop myself up so I could see and steer and manage the pedals and gears on fast turns).

I haven't had that level of pleasure coupled with in-the-moment focus since collegiate athletics.

So, I suspect I'll be going back.

(Oh, and also, a huge thanks to E for driving to Carmel and back and joining me on an awesome date night stay (complete with ocean-view hot-tub, balcony, and in-room fireplace) at the Highlands Inn with a delicious dinner at Pacific Edge (the sommelier's willingness to let us order Vieux Telegraph 2008 Chateuneuf du Pape by the glass since it was on the tasting menu pairing list despite our lack of tasting menu? Awesome. We have a new value wine to add to the cellar!)

January 6, 2012

Different, But Good

Today, I had a hectic AM and calls starting at noon, so I stopped at the Mexican restaurant next door to our grocery store for a quick lunch.

I saw that they had tortilla soup, one of my favorites, so I ordered some to go.

I opened the plastic quart and inhaled. Mmm.... a heavenly smell. A hint of lime and cumin, my favorite spice. The top layer was a gorgeous collection of queso fresco chunks, avocado, and tortilla strips.

I dunked the spoon and stirred: smiling with anticipation as I saw fresh-grilled corn kernels, slices of broiled pasilla, cooked onions, and... pinto beans?

Pinto beans?

I tasted it. Absolutely Delicious.

Not a hint of tomatoes, and no chicken. Not at all what I thought I was ordering. But, healthy, vegetarian (yet full of protein), and so yummy.

And just like that, I've found another delicious, filling, vegetarian soup lunch option.

January 2, 2012

2011, The Year in Books

I struggled with my books goal this year. The random selection of the yearly goal of 30 pushed me well beyond what I otherwise would have done. As of March 8th, I had read none. Yikes. That may be the longest period of time I've gone without reading a book since I learned to read.

I eeked out 12 by early June. This was around the time when I realized LuLu completely took advantage of me with respect to the Flower Girl Saves the Day book I wrote for my niece in June. Not a good books moment in my life, overall.

Thankfully, I turned it around and hit 20 books by October 3, 2011, which was not on track for the goal. So, I took drastic action and focused on short books for the rest of the year.

I increased the randomness in my life by quite a bit and ripped through books 21-28 in less than a month.

I also cleared 30 books with plenty to spare. Here's the rundown:

  1. The History of Argentina (Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations) by Daniel K. Lewis. Amazing cultural background for our trip to Argentina. Fascinating how different the experience has been of people my age, many of whom I interacted with. Particularly amazing that women didn't vote 'til 1947, and no peaceful change of political regimes until the late 20th century.

  2. Dreaming the Biosphere by Rebecca Reider. A very well-researched academic look at the biosphere. A bit too much focus on myth and history for my preference, but I sincerely enjoyed learning about the crazy details of the folks behind the project.

  3. The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside the Biosphere by Jane Poynter. A personal account of the first stay in the biosphere. I very much enjoyed her accounts of the day-to-day farming tasks and cringed at the detail and extent of the political interpersonal dramas

  4. Labyrithns: Selected Stories and Other Writings by Jorge Luis Borges. Puzzles within puzzles. English translated from one of the most well-known Argentinian voices. Often I found myself starting a short story only to exhaust myself with promises of "later, when I have more time to focus." Much philosophical and historical meaning buried and hidden in the beautiful multi-stepped passages of this book. Enjoyable, but thought-provoking in a difficult way.

  5. Saturday by Ian McEwan. A beautiful tale of a very full day that examines the interelations between all of life's unseemingly connected events.

  6. Mennonite In a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen. A hilariously snarky tale of a sheltered Mennonite who became a world-weary academic and eventually goes home again. Also, fascinating details on the Mennonite culture and its evolution in modern America.

  7. Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. In the tradition of epic tales, while wonderfully modern and questioning in a non-biased way. Upon finishing, I wanted to re-read it immediately, to think and absorb the powerful lessons that it hinted at but did not preach -- are historic ways better? Are humans merely seeking more motion? Are running shoes a terrible thing (I wear them and replace them often!)?

  8. Chi Running by Danny Dreyer. A great perspective on proper running form, relaxing into the run (interestingly similar to the themes in Born to Run), and incorporating principles of proper Chi into running and life.

  9. Unacustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. Gorgeous vignettes of the Bengali-American or Bengali-British experience. Pain and loss told acheingly well.

  10. Atonement by Ian McEwan. A child's crime. Embraced and given momentum by adults in a terrible display of humanity's worst. War. Writing. All told with an embrace of the mundane details one remembers when in the midst of heatwrenching drama.

  11. Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo. A lovingly intimate story of a family in a small town. Infinities within infinties -- drama and intrigue all buried in what appears from the outside to be a boringly normal and uninteresting group who tend to a corner store.

  12. Thoughtful Gardening by Robin Lane Fox. A collection of 2-5 page articles from a British Master Gardener sharing thoughts on flowers, gardens, beauty, history and civilization. A great introduction to the art of gardening for beauty's sake (instead of food).

  13. The Heart And the Fist by Eric Greitens. A personal tale of aid and conflict, struggles with protection and leading. Navy Seals. Adventures. Overall, an easy, informative, wonderfully entertaining read.

  14. Moneyball by Michael Lewis. A baseball parable of exploiting the human bias that often gets in the way of accepting mathematically or scientifically uncomfortable truths.

  15. Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. Mr. McCourt's memoir of growing up as an Irish-American in Brooklyn and Limerick is filled with almost shocking tales of a child's matter of fact approach to life in extreme poverty.

  16. Anathem by Neal Stephenson. Futuristic speculative fiction at its finest. Physical and philosophical concepts retold, reinvented, and most importantly, all renamed in fictional languages. One of the more impressive written works of imaginative cohesiveness I've ever read.

  17. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. A data nerd and control-freak ex-lawyer-cum-author's novel about her year-long approach to increasing happiness. I enjoyed it thoroughly. But, I may be biased…

  18. House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. The heartwrenching tragedy of a gorgeous young woman constantly self-sabotaging in the whimsicle leisure classes of early 20th century New York.

  19. Ringworld by Larry Niven. (The origin of the Halo Game) Painfully stark (emphasis on *painful*) wording combines with great imagination on the science side and ridiculous stereotypes on the gender side for one of the great Sci-Fi classics.

  20. An artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro (see the 20-28 book blog post for more detail)

  21. Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez. (See the 20-28 book blog post for more detail)

  22. Mudbound by Hilary Jordan. (See the 20-28 book blog post for more detail)

  23. Running For The Hansons by Sage Canaday. (See the 20-28 book blog post for more detail)

  24. Notes from My Travels by Angelina Jolie. (See the 20-28 book blog post for more detail)

  25. Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs by Heather Lende. (See the 20-28 book blog post for more detail)

  26. 90-Day Geisha by Chelsea Haywood. (See the 20-28 book blog post for more detail)

  27. Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. (See the 20-28 book blog post for more detail)

  28. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffengger. (See the 20-28 book blog post for more detail)

  29. The Help by Kathryn Stockett. There's a reason this book became a New York Times Bestseller and then was optioned into a movie. It was good. You should read it. I read it and had a book club conversation with my sister, which was a first for us. And fun.

  30. Consumption by Kevin Patterson. Ay. So much to say -- human evolution. Epidemologic evolution. Inuits. Mainlanders. Health. Disease. Death. Hunting. Life. Adventure. Love (fleetingly). A great tale.

  31. Full House: The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin by Stephen Jay Gould. This book drove me crazy. The points he made are interesting, but the writing style was Not. For. Me. "So far I have only demonstrated…" "Most of this chapter has focused on…" Uggghh! Just write what you want to say, Man. E says the reason I didn't enjoy this book is that I don't know how to skim. I think he's right. Occupational hazard, I suppose.

  32. Codex by Lev Grossman. A very enjoyable modern mystery. Multi-player games, steganograms, library science, New York youth and British old money. Very satisfying during the read, but I felt the ending was a bit of a let-down (or a set-up for a sequel).

  33. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. A sad tale of uptight british lovers who part ways on their wedding night after an abismal failure to communicate about the oh-so-embarrassing realities of consummation (or failure thereof).

So, in the books mirrors life category, we've got 1 on travel, 2 on running, 1 on gardening, and a bunch of navel gazing about life experiences or locations I've never experienced. Seems about right.

As an aside: 13/33 books were written by women (39.4%), a non-trivial increase over the 7-yr average of 58/174 (33.3%). It occurred to me at some point this year that I don't select books on the basis of the gender of the author at all, but, I do fall in love with certain authors and try to read whatever I can get my hands on that they've written. When I realized this, I wondered if I had a bias, in terms of gender, and it appears that I do, although I'm not aware of the actual statistics in terms of number of books with female authors vs. male and in particular, how those numbers play out in areas where I'm interested in reading, so it may be that my bias is not my own and rather is caused by availability.