Monthly Archives: January 2009

I will update this again soon

I promise.

For now, let me just say that at my new job, I get to hand out smiley face stickers. I carry them around in my back pocket while working, and in my purse when I’m not. As a result, I now have smiley face stickers over almost everything in my purse. I find myself pulling out random things like my passport or Betty Boop wallet, only to see yellow or pink smiley faces stuck in odd angles all over them. It amuses me :)

Things I will need to update about:
– trip to Vancounver (most likely on silly travel blog)
– my new job, what I do (in disguised ambiguous language, in order to preserve anonymity), what it’s like working with so many kids in such a high-paced environment and what it makes me think about what it felt like to be a kid and kids in general
– Part I of Don Quixote and Dreams of My Father, depending on which one I finish first
– I’d like to do A-Day-in-the-Life entry, now that my schedule is somewhat stable

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"Watching the painter paint, it’s the best mistake he could make"

Today I impulsively bought a sketchbook, some acrylic paints, paintbrushes, a fancy schmancy pencil and white rubber eraser. Much to my pleasure, the store was having a 20%-off sale, and I got all this stuff for $21.

And I now just drew this duck.

I went into that art store for two reasons: 1) I’ve been listening to Kate Bush’s “Aerial” a lot–the concept behind the album is that it takes over the place of the day, from dawn to dusk to midnight to the sun rise and repeat, which also neatly works as a meditation on the artistic process of creation (read an interesting transcribed article summarizing Bush’s canon here). Reason number 2 is I figure that if I’m going to be organizing (and possibly teaching) art classes to kiddies, I might as well brush up on my old art “skills.” I also drew one atrocious comic page for a short story I’ve been working on. I’m sort of shocked at how much fun it is. It’s like I’m using a part of my brain that’s been left to get neglected and dusty for years. I guess at some point in high school or something I gave up on art because I felt I wasn’t talented or good enough. Well, poo poo on that, you don’t have to be good or particularly talented to draw stupid ducks, ‘s long as you have fun, methinks. All of the time, we gotta be changing.

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I think I just died and went to heaven

I’ve been waiting for something like this for ages— I AM SO EXCITED!

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On flexibility

In yoga class today I tried to really focus and concentrate on not letting my elbows hyperextend. I’m double-jointed, which means that when playing basketball in high school, my knee would often pop in and out of its socket and I would freeze mid-dribble and ignore my teammates yells as I let the ball roll out of bounds, staring down at jutting-out boneof my suddenly extremely fragile-feeling and wonky-looking knee in equal parts horror and fascination. A girl with similar joint structure on the soccer team was nicknamed “Rubber Lady” by her teammates, and I always silently thought that it would be a highly appropriate nickname for me as well (as opposed to my official team name Mona, or Blondie, which is not very accurate–man, anyone whose hair isn’t jet black in Colombia is basically considered a mona!).

Anyway, doing yoga has definitely raised some interesting ideas and/or points of reflection for me. The idea that you have this sacred time and space (your mat) where you can just be with your body: learn about it, reflect upon it. I like the idea of making the muscles around my joints stronger, of trying to gently but firmly correct bodily behaviors that have been entrenched in me for years.

Flexibility in general has been a new concept for me to learn. I’ve always had incredibly tight hamstrings, for whatever reason (epic bike riding?). I was always one of the girls who dreaded the gymnastics portion of P.E. class. I have yet to ever turn a somersault. And yet, after years of never, ever being able to touch my toes, I can finally do so. I’m even reaching the point where I may be able to lay my hands flat on the floor without bending my knees. Sure, it isn’t much, and I’m sure it’s yoga candy for most folks, but for me, it’s pretty exciting! Trying to learn to think of my body as flexible and bendy, as opposed to tight and wound-up. A suitable metaphor for emotional and mental states as well.

It’s a good lesson for life in general–learning to be flexible. It’s hard for me sometimes to not get jealous of friends or acquaintances of mine who are just packing up and leaving at this point, embarking on jet-setting adventures about the globe. Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Nepal… countries that sound exciting and different and strange. This is the longest period of time I’ve lived in the U.S., ever…! During the school year, there was always that ticket home to Colombia during Christmas. Not anymore. My parents are moving to Portland on June 1st. And that will essentially be that. If I ever want to return (home) to Colombia, or travel to a different continent, it’ll have to be of my own volition and planning (as well as Corey’s, goes without saying). It’s so hard for me not to daydream and get itchy feet sometimes, to fantasize about just packing up and going, getting out, buying a ticket and then leaving the very next days. I have responsibilies here, though. There will be time for traveling. “There will be time to make decisions and indecisions, to murder and create, for visions and revisions, all before the taking of toast and tea.”

I’ve been in a “really-deep-thoughts” mood, as Tori Amos sings. I guess the New Year is a good holiday for really deep thoughts. A stranger randomly asked me the other day “who or what motivates you?” I was slightly taken aback and couldn’t come up with an appropriate answer. I stammered something out how the formation of communities motivate me (thesis, again… not to mention sweetly reminiscent of one the 5 Components of my summer job two years ago). I asked Corey the same question later that evening and he answered immediately, “curiosity.” A good response. I’ve thought about that question over the past two days, and I guess I still don’t really know. It’s a big question, no? “Who or what motivates you?” Some of the things that motivate me, just in my day-to-day existence, are the little things: a scheduled yoga class, a planned outing with a friend, a good chapter in a book to finish. That’s what I would say helps me get up in the morning, the eagerness for Demera sugar in my English Breakfast and my silly spinach-raspberry-yoghurt breakfast smoothies. (Hopefully that doesn’t make me sound completely empty and pathetic!) But then you need the big things too, you know? Curiosity. Community. Simplicity. Wanting to be a good person, to do good things, to be good to others. Sometimes those things can be harder to do. That’s why while doing those little, day-to-day things, you still need to be aware of the big picture.

I try to learn something new in little ways every day, I guess. That’s where I find the real appeal in traveling: when you’re somewhere different, somewhere you’ve never been before, every experience feels huge and incredibly significant because it’s all so new and unfamiliar. You go to bed at the end of each day completely exhausted because all the overwhelming informations and sights and smells and sounds you’ve had to absorb. Time itself feels stretched out, like a stringy piece of bubblegum, and days feel like a week, weeks like month. It’s a feeling I miss. But it’s definitely one I’ll have again someday. I just have to be patient, to appreciate and enjoy my time here now. Work starts on Monday, which also means new experiences and new people.

To end on a somewhat tangential note (I can’t figure out how to connect it to any of the other ponderings in this entry), another interesting thing our teacher mentioned in class today is that since it’s the full moon, that can sometimes lead to a lot of erratic energy in people. “Finally,” I said to my friend over the phone later that evening, “I’ve found something else I can pin my ‘erratic’ energy on! PMS, caffeine withdrawal, the moon’s waxing and waning…” So that’s my excuse for the erratic nature of this post (and hence blog), just your regular old waxings and wanings.

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"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"


My initial review of this book (posted on goodreads) wasn’t very positive. Since then, though, if there were little half-stars to hand out on that site, I probably bump it up to 3 ½:

A fast, fun read. I dunno. I was expecting to like this book more than I did. I liked it, but I didn’t *love* it. I liked the narrator’s style, like how he addressed the reader as “Negro, please.” The sprinkling of Spanish slang and words everywhere was fun too, though it definitely made me wonder what people who didn’t speak a word of Spanish would think. When I read books with French phrases thrown around like it’s nothing at all, I always feel sad and bummed, like “man I really want to know what kind of incredibly funny pun or comment you’re making… mais je ne parle pas francais!” Oh, well.

My favorite part of this book was when Oscar goes back to the Dominican Republic to visit his family–the two-page run-on setence describing his experiences is my favorite in the whole book. Diaz definitely captures the whole going-back-to-a-place-you-were-once-a-part-of-but-now-really-aren’t feeling very well.

My favorite chapters were the ones narrated by Oscar’s sister and her boyfriend. The ones about DR history, concerning Oscar’s ancestors and family, were a bit more of a slog for me to get through. I dunno, I just feel like that whole family-history, magical realism thing has been done to death. Every time that stupid magical mongoose showed up, or the characters dreamed about the faceless man, I wanted to throw the book across the room and pick up “The Savage Detectives” instead. PLEASE, NO MORE MAGIC IN LATINO LITERATURE. I guess Diaz was trying to frame Oscar’s story in this epic Dominican Republic history, a la LOTR… my problem was that I liked the modern, young characters’ voices and stories so much, I wanted more from them!!! Not another rehash of the Latin American extended family history novel. It’s not exactly fair to call this book a “rehash” though, since it’s narrated in such a unique, fun voice.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that this is the kind of book which I’ll either feel differently about once some time passes (i.e. I’ll read it again and completely love it), or I’ll have forgotten about it completely, and can only offer up a blank face and a neutral “erm, it was a good read” when asked what I thought about it.

Well, since writing that I read the little wikipedia article about the novel and the author, and even though this feels like a huge cop-out to me, I have to admit that it brought some things up that I didn’t really think about (but which in hindsight should have seemed perfectly obvious to me, and hence make me feel like a dunce). First of all, I had no idea that the narrator’s name was Yunior de las Casas, immediately reminiscent of Bartolome. Thinking of Oscar’s story as one in the tradition of the immigration saga makes a lot of sense. The connection between the novel and Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” also opens up a lot of doors in my brain. That deliberate nod to Hemingway makes me wonder if masculinity is a bigger theme in this novel than I’d realized—I me, the basic narrative arch of the story boils down to Oscar trying to get laid. So yeah, it’s interesting to see how now that a little time has passed, I’m still thinking about this book and lots of interesting themes and ideas are coming to light

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"Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln"


I chose to read “Team of Rivals” because reference to it became increasingly fashionable in the media following Obama’s election, particularly in the frenzied Who’s-It-Gonna-Be coverage of his cabinet picks. It got to the point that some articles were even making ironic, self-aware references to the media’s obsession with the term, commenting sarcastically “insert obligatory ‘Team-of-Rivals’ reference here!’” Rather than being overrated, “Team of Rivals” deserves the accolades: it’s an exceptionally involving, very readable, engaging history book. Goodwin has plenty to interest everyone here, from the hardcore Lincoln scholars, to the Civil War battle plan and strategy aficionados, to the “people’s history of the U.S.” fans. There’s a lot of eerie parallels between present and past that make for particularly fun reading–I folded the corner of the page over every time I read something that reminded me of Obama’s campaign or lifestory, so the first half of the book (which deals with Lincoln’s pre-president vida) is dog-eared with all these little folds (hopefully things will end better for Barry-O than they did for Abraham). 750 pages is a little dautning, so maybe save this one for when you have long commutes on a bus or subway, or an extended Christmas vacation/snowpocalypse, like I fortunately had.

It can be tricky to go beyond the more obvious parallels between this book and the current state of things—little known Senator from Illinois, famed for his eloquent speeches, goes on to win the presidency in an election where Ohio is a decisive state, winning the party ticket nomination in an upset over his rival, a long-time experienced Senator from New York who was assumed to be the favorite (stop me if this is starting to sound familiar to you). Time will tell if current events continue to reflect (follow?) the path previously set by history (for example, I will be okay with Hilarly and Obama becoming best buds on the level of Lincoln and Seward’s friendship, but I am definitely not okay with a deathbed or assassination scene).

The central thesis of the book is that Lincoln was a cool, chill dude whose biggest asset (or what specifically made him a “political genius”, as described by the book’s subtitle) was his ability to emphasize with others, to put himself into other people’s positions. Near the end of the book, Tolstoy is quoted as describing Washington as classically American, Napoleon as classically French, and Lincoln as the classic humanitarian, thus explaining his appeal to not only starry-eyed hopeful American presidential candidates, but also to wild white-haired Russian authors.

I’ve read at least one article/review arguing that the basic premise of constructing a “team of rivals” is fundamentally false, because by building a team out of political rivals, Lincoln gave himself a lot of unnecessary crap and drama to deal with. This is definitely true in the case of the unfortunately named Salmon P. Chase, one of Lincoln’s rivals of the Republican nomination, who doesn’t come off too kindly in the latter half of the book (i.e. even after Lincoln gives him the prestigious Treasury Main Boss position, he comes off as a whiny pants consumed by the delusional belief that the presidential nomination was still his to be had in the future, instead of just making the best of things with his current position like Seward). However, I’d say for the most part Godwin effectively argues that Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” (last time I use that phrase in this review, I promise) did a pretty good job, all things considering. Stanton’s badass military plans in particular make Lincoln look pretty smart for choosing him for Secretary of War. Goodwin argues that by choosing the men he thought would be the best for the job, instead of his friends or people who were just going to suck up to him, Lincoln revealed himself to have the admirable quality of being capable of burying old grudges (such as Stanton calling him “a long-armed ape” upon their first encounter as lawyers in Illinois) instead of being bitter or petty. Lincoln also demonstrates an admirable capacity of taking the blame for things (even for things he definitely didn’t need to take the blame for). My general impression from this book is that so much of politics seems to involve this very fine dilly-dalling dance, hopping back and forth between the thin line of offending one person or damaging the pride of another. Que stress. Good luck, Barry.

The book departs from the premise that by understanding the character and conduct of the men who were on Lincoln’s cabinet, Lincoln’s own exceptional qualities as a politician will stand out more clearly. Goodwin does an excellent job at this. By explaining how Seward and Chase had made enemies by appealing to the abolitionists and using a lot of blatant anti-slavery rhetoric in their speeches, Goodwin in turn explains why Lincoln took such a moderate stance on slavery throughout the years of his presidency (doing so without excusing said moderate stance). As I understand it, one of the reasons why Lincoln won the nomination (and then the presidency) was because he simply hadn’t been in politics long enough to make enough enemies, like Seward and Chase (and Clinton).

One of the more interesting points Goodwin makes in the book is that no one can ever know for sure Lincoln’s personal feelings on race, save for the man himself. However, she points out in all the Lincoln scholarship, in all the countless letters and memos and notes he and his secretaries and contemporaries left behind, there is not a single act of racial bigotry or racial slur to be found. Lincoln also gets plenty of respect and kudos from Fredrick Douglas once they finally meet each other (before meeting Lincoln, Douglas bitches a lot about how he isn’t doing enough to help the slaves—fair enough, in my view). It sucks that Lincoln wasn’t this totally radical, ahead of his time guy who from the beginning was like “Aight bitches, no more slaves, equal educational and employment opportunities for all, and lots of other good stuff,” … but as Goodwin argues, that simply wasn’t what the country was ready for at the time. As I understood it, a lot of what being president often entails is taking the middle ground. That being said, the Emancipation Proclamation was a totally great, non-middle ground thing to do (there’s a very dramatic scene that would be great in Spielberg’s movie version, where Lincoln takes a deep breath and tries to calm down before signing the Emancipation act because he doesn’t want his signature to come out shaky and thus leave people believing that he was hesitant). And this is where the whole Lincoln’s Great Empathy Quality comes in again. Lincoln’s empathy entailed him to put himself in the place of the American people, to understand how they felt and what they were thinking and where exactly they stood in public sentiment, what they were ready for. With the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln kind of adopted a common reverse child-psychology technique: when you expect great things from people (and make it clear that you expect them), it’s easier for people to do great things. (This feels incredibly reminiscent to me of Obama’s call to young people for service and political participation)

The book starts out with a biographical description of each man’s early lives. Once Lincoln wins the presidency, he naturally assumes a more central role. I found the latter half of the book the most interesting, as it describes the Civil War and the dealings of Lincoln’s administration in great detail. The book kind of splutters out at the end in the last chapter describing Lincoln’s last term, but perhaps that is to be expected of a 759 volume.

One interesting theme that emerged in this book was Lincoln’s relationship with death. It makes me want to read that recent academic-looking book about Death and the Civil War (hello, Chapter Two of thesis again—maybe I should go all the way and start attacking all kinds of Death Criticism in general). In the early sections (which I’m afraid I can’t remember all too well—so many hundreds of pages ago!) Goodwin talks about the death of Lincoln’s childhood sweetheart and how that affected Lincoln’s attitude towards death. Unlike his peers Seward and Chase, who populated their speeches with grandiose religious imagery and references to a “better life” following this one and the “designs” of a creator, Lincoln tended to avoid such imagery in his speeches. Instead, his rhetorical flourishes were more grounded in man himself, in the individual’s capacity for self-betterment, in earthy references (reflecting Lincoln’s fondness for tall-tales, humorous anecdotes and his Kentucky, down-to-earth background). I’d definitely like to read more about attitudes towards death before and after the Civil War (and in the latter half of nineteenth-century in general). I’d like to read more about the history of slavery in the U.S. and the Reconstruction. This book made me want to learn more, it made me think, it made me ponder, it made me crave, and quite frankly that is quite a compliment for any work.

I’d like to close this review with some selected quotes from this book that seem relevant to the title of this blog (in which “doubt’s best ally” is “hope”): “ ‘Having hope,’ writes Daniel Goleman in his study of emotional intelligence, ‘means that one will not give in to overwhelming anxiety, a defeatist attitude, or depression in the face of difficult challenges or setbacks.’ Hope is ‘more than the sunny view that everything will turn out all right’; it is ‘believing that you have the will and the way to accomplish your goals.’ “(631) Throughout the book, whether dealing with his political defeats, the death of his son, the violence of the war, “As he had done so many times before, Lincoln withstood the storm of defeat by replacing anguish over an unchangeable past with hope in an uncharted future.” (521)

To paraphrase Vonnegut: What a man. What a war. What a language.

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