Sunday, September 26, 2010

Information overload

My feeling of calm and peace after organizing all of our homeschooling stuff lasted only a moment. I made the mistake of signing up for a homeschooling yahoo group whose activity takes up half of my e-mail inbox. Though the conversations have been interesting (one of them relevant to me -- how to teach math to a creative, right-brained child), the rest seem to come from frantic parents desperate to resolve whatever problems their child has. I'm glad there is a forum for that, but all that online frenzy doesn't seem to help my already manic mental state.

Manic mental state. Partly due to sleep deprivation, partly due to information overload. So, I've removed myself from that frenetic yahoo group, and I'm also going to stop my subscription to the Sunday New York Times. I enjoy the NY Times a lot, esp. the arts and leisure section, but most of the newspaper I end up ignoring -- seems to be a waste of money to me. Plus, whenever I get the paper, I feel more pressure than pleasure. Pressure to read it all by the time the next issue comes out...and frankly, I don't have time to read! I have very few moments of complete quiet and calm to just TAKE MY TIME reading. When I have ten minutes to read, I am skimming, skipping...it really takes the joy out of reading. It seems I'm going to actually have to schedule private reading time into my schedule as well.

I'm going to also have to stop putting books on hold at the library (or at least limit myself to one request at a time). First, I thought it was the greatest blessing in the world to be able to request any book I desired and have it ready and waiting for me on a designated shelf at the library (such a gift when most of the time I spend in the library involves chasing my son through the stacks). And it's just fine when I can pick up one book at a time, but when three or more are available simultaneously, I freak out from the pressure to get all that reading done by the due date (even with renewals).

The jazz dance class I'll take in forty-five minutes takes me away completely from my crazy monkey mind. An hour and a half of complete focus in the moment.

I also started rehearsals with a Baroque choir that are utter bliss for me for three hours. This choir is a bit of an experiment for me (month-long, for now) after telling myself I was going to focus on mainly my writing and dancing. I thought I could live without music-making on a regular basis, but I think I'm addicted to singing Baroque music. I'm kind of returning to my roots in early music. Early music (medieval to Renaissance to Baroque mainly) was why I went back to school after getting an economics degree at Cal. I was suffering at a nightmare job and asked myself, "What would make me really happy?" My answer was, "To be an early music singer." My plans were to get a bachelor's degree in voice locally and then get a master's degree in voice (with an early music emphasis) at Indiana University. I changed my plans when I met my husband. That's the way life often goes, right? I have no regrets. John is great, and I wouldn't trade my job as mom to my wonderful kids with anyone.

Now, I do feel a little tug to return to my old dream of becoming an early music performer. That would be fun and a lot of work and stress (I don't think I can handle that kind of work stress anymore), but it seems totally unrealistic since my goals for the kind of family life that I want is not conducive to a performer's lifestyle. I think some things may always remain fantasy, and it's nice to settle into fantasy for moments at a time as long as I don't have to live it. It's a bit ironic, since now I am the closest I've ever been technically (with my voice) to make a singing career happen.

[I am sitting in my regular Sunday morning cafe and am totally distracted my someone's cell phone conversation. Something about wanting to chop off part of her toe, which is longer than her big toe. Typically, I'm not ready to hear about self-mutilation before Sunday noon.]

Okay, it's time to go. Time to torture my hamstrings. Have a wonderful day!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I found my place!



Woohoo! I knew I'd find it. I needed to find a place to write that has wi-fi and is open late. And here it is (ugh, this photo taken at home is misleading). In my hood. No more getting kicked out of cafes at 9 pm. A cafe with wi-fi, late hours, relaxing classical music in the background, iced tea after a Thursday night hip hop workout...near perfection. It's a little loud. Not everyone is working quietly, but hey, I'll just have to adjust. Rifling through my bag now...voila! I found some little earbuds in my bag. Now I'm pumping Purcell choral music into my ears. Hmmm...not quite perfect -- can still hear a microbiology discussion bleeding through, but good enough. I admire hard-working students. I will feed off of their energy of self-discipline and dedication to their studies. I just hope I don't try to understand what they're talking about because it's way beyond me.

I like it that I'm not doing any serious writing right now. I tell people I'm working on becoming a writer, but I'm not pressured to show them anything, right? I immediately say, "I'm just starting out," or, "I'm way at the bottom of the game," and I can still go on feeling good about what I'm doing. No guilt, no pressure. Awesome.

I can only stay here until my laptop runs out of juice. I'm a little too far from the nearest outlet. I could look harder for another outlet, but I don't want to bother anyone right now. I'll come again during the day to really scope out this whole place.

It's pretty fun to be surrounded by all these laptops. Who knows what everyone's working on. Some people are probably just surfing the net. Other people might be writing the next best American novel. Berkeley is a hotbed of talent, and I consider myself to be so lucky to be living here, surrounded by all this creative energy and openness to everything.

Most people immediately show excitement and support when I share with them that I'm writing, but others are like, "Geez, is there anything you can't do?" which always surprises me. I mean, the things I do are not extraordinary...at least, not to me.

Cooking and baking well -- that's not something I was born with. It's still something I'm working on -- there's lots of things I haven't tried making and would probably fail at first, but if I was dedicated to it, I would turn it into a quest to perfect it. My cooking was so bland before. I used jarred sauces. I couldn't cook fish (and I still can't do a decent job at it). My dishes improved so much after an expat friend in Paris taught me how to season properly. For fun, I read cookbooks and search the internet for easy, delicious recipes. I work at the cooking. It's not a natural talent.

My musical skills are decent. I'm not conservatory-trained, so I don't think I'll ever be at the par of the musicians I most admire. I never worked hard at music -- I wasn't disciplined enough in my youth to practice more than 30 minutes to an hour a day, but I took a hell of a lot of lessons over many years. I was persistent. I didn't stop lessons in violin and piano until right before college. I think I have a talent for sightreading music (being able to play sheet music placed in front of me for the first time), which has been both a blessing and a burden. It's helped me get lots of piano gigs, but technically, I'm really lacking so some of those gigs ended up with my faking my way through pieces (playing most of the notes, but rarely all). Made me feel pretty crappy afterwards -- like a fraud, and I was one! These jobs should have been given to real pianists -- not someone who stopped lessons her senior year in high school and didn't really practice until her junior year.

People may be misled into thinking that I'm a full-fledged dancer, but I'm really a beginner. Two years of hip hop workouts does not make one a dancer, does it? I did take ballet and tap for four years in my early childhood which I think did set up my brain for learning routines at an adequate pace. I did take a few months of jazz dance and ballet when Maylin was a baby which have trained my body to align and balance itself properly. I do think that the jazz dance classess that I now take on Sunday mornings will take me to a much higher level. The regular teacher (I've had two lessons with her and two lessons with three lessons with subs) is super-tough and notices EVERYTHING. I love it when she tweaks my positioning and tells me what I'm doing wrong. I'm definitely in the right place emotionally now to be able to take any necessary criticisms. And I sure learn the most when the teacher has high expectations for each student. And I love that I come out of the class with wobbling legs and have sore quads for the next several days. I am going to be so strong after a few years of this! The class is also very humbling because I'm usually the least experienced person there. It reminds me of how far I need to go. I also look at all the perfect, trim bodies in the room and think, "Someday, I'll look like that." I think I have a relatively slender figure, but dancing among these gazelles, I look rather like a gorilla. Okay, I'm exaggerating, but my mid-section could use some work for sure.

With art, I'm a complete hack. I admit it. Utterly no training. I think I've inherited a pretty good eye for balance and composition from my father, who is a self-taught painter, so that helps. I've always drawn for fun, and am adept at copying illustrations. Ask me to paint a realistic portrait or draw a human figure and I will totally flop on my rear. Cartoon-y stuff is what I can manage sans training. I do wish I could at least draw characters from different angles. I even have difficulty doing simple side profiles. I am not a risk-taker when it takes to drawing or painting. I do what's safe for me. Remarkably, people still like what I've cranked out, so that's nice.

Now teaching, I think I'm definitely a natural at. I remember helping my classmates even in the primary grades. I continued tutoring throughout my academic career, but I had to stop once I got to Cal because the material got pretty hard for me. I was the one who always needed help. This was hard because I was very proud and really struggled to ask for help. Anyways, homeschooling seemed to be the perfect fit for me, someone who wants to teach everything (not just one thing). And I'm always curious and find so many things interesting. I have a big opportunity now to learn anything, everything. Now, I've identified all the names of the birds who visit our yard, I've grown my own vegetable garden (officially, it's Maylin's, but I definitely did most of the work), I'm composting with worms (not well -- I think I almost killed most of them), and my Chinese is getting better -- all these are the by-products of homeschooling. I don't think I would have advanced this far without it. In the mission to educate my child, I have educated myself as well. How wonderful is that?

And life is too short to stop there. I think everyone can keep growing, becoming better people...you can never stop learning. To stop learning is to stop living, in my opinion. I hate feeling like I'm stagnating. That's exactly where I was before we moved to Paris. I was too comfortable where I was before the move. I was a musician, but mainly because I didn't know what else to do and because that's what everyone expected me to do. I followed my abilities, but not my passions, which I hadn't figured out yet. I needed Paris to help me get on the right path to figure it out. I couldn't help but learn about myself as I gained much real self-confidence from learning a new language, adapting to a new culture and environment, and creating my life instead of letting it create me.

One of the biggest things I learned about myself is to not necessarily follow my abilities. My passions may involve skills yet to be developed. With patience and hard work, I will evolve into the person I was meant to be.

Living joyfully


Here's Stefan soaking it all in on Mt. Rainier in Washington state. Ah, the joys of being a toddler -- no, now preschooler! He always brings a smile to strangers' faces as he runs by them. Stefan is almost always exuding joy from every ounce of his little active body. Yes, ACTIVE! I was thinking of signing him up again for the Chinese class he took last fall, but he cannot sit still! Especially if there are other kids around. A normal trip out includes my chasing after him, worrying about losing sight of him, dodging the crowds as he wiggles quickly through them, ahead of me.

Things feel like they're falling into place properly now. I feel happy and well-balanced. I have time to think about my novel that I won't start writing until November 1 (I'm so excited -- I've got a character, a supporting character, a vague setting, and a non-existent plot!). I have time to volunteer at our homeschooling school's resource center (fun!). I have a few moments here and there to sing an opera aria or two in a very acoustically live area of our house (joy!). I write in a cafe and take a jazz dance class every Sunday morning (so wish for more of these exact mornings). I have time to write out a customized math lesson every morning for Maylin (she needs variety, just the right amount of easy and challenging work, and games -- logic puzzles, sudoku, hidden pictures to graph, and fun word problems). I am teaching Maylin piano and she likes it and is doing great! I have time to take Stefan to a beautiful park nearby and enjoy the serenity (no people!) and the scenery (amazing view of the bay, including San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge). I am enjoying Maylin's own interest in writing, as she types away (now on her second page of a story entitled, "The Dolls").

Recently, I asked her again what she wanted to be when she grows up. She replied as I expected, "an artist." But then I asked her, "what kind of an artist?" Maylin answered, "An artist that writes and draws." The drawing part was nothing new to me. She draws almost all the time. Now, she is writing almost all the time as well. Her own self-initiated projects. Stories, pen pal letters, e-mails...and her writing is good! And I really can't claim any credit for it! Except that I model a lot of that for her. She sees me writing and typing, sees that I enjoy it, and then does it herself. I think that parents modeling positive behavior is so important and much more influential on our children than we think, and much more influential than anything we tell them. Actions speak stronger than words?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Being true to yourself, part I

Yesterday, Maylin and I both took free acting classes at the Berkeley Rep. Maylin didn't have the best of times since it sounded more like running and jumping than actual acting, but my experience was awesome. We did a lot of breath-work, connected with our bodies while lying on a mat, and made our own personal connection to a few lines from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. My big take-away from that class was learning the importance of making the text your own -- finding your own personal truth in it and making it real for yourself. I guess it sounds obvious, but how many times have you seen a production where you say to yourself, "That actor delivered those lines perfectly, but I don't feel anything." The actor may have been trained to deliver the lines well enough to be heard and understood, but has not made the text true for himself so that the audience can feel the emotion of that personal truth.

Last night, before going to bed, I read a few brief bios of essay writers, gleaning a similar message -- that a good writer writes words that are the most true to herself. That is so true. Some writers' work seem so contrived. In fact, my college essays sounded quite contrived because I was writing with the voice that I thought I was supposed to have instead of writing with my own voice. But how is a young adult supposed to know her own voice already? I know some talented teens who have probably already discovered their true voices, but I certainly had not by the time I entered Cal. In high school, I learned how to write a good analytical essay, but I don't remember anything about learning how to write a good personal essay. We should have learned since one of our most important essays in our lives was the college application essay -- a very personal essay.

Anyways, I woke up at five this morning to the revelation that good acting and good writing is a lot Iike good living. I haven't done the best job living until now. For a long time, I hadn't found my voice -- I hadn't given myself permission to live my own life on my own terms, not someone else's. And now that I'm in control, I'm going to really listen to myself, do only what feels right to me (follow my gut, because it's always right), and not be swayed by what I think I should be doing. Overthinking can get me into trouble, but when I am really in tune with my feelings and follow through in action, then things usually turn out just great. More on this later...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Feeling giddy about writing


Woohoo! I'm so excited to come back to my regular Sunday morning cafe, sip my tea, and write to my heart's content!

Two nights ago, I had an amazing, cinematic dream that I knew would make an awesome novel (and later, a movie?). But (a big BUT), I don't think I know how to express such a cool story in words! It kind of has a Lord of the Rings feel to it, so maybe it's time to actually read the trilogy. I've never been a reader of fantasy, but it's never too late to start! This will be for research mainly, but who knows? Maybe I'll actually enjoy it. I'm not sure if I'll use the story for my National Novel Writing Month project. I'll probably save it for when I'm a better writer. National Novel Writing Month is going to be the time when I just pull something out of thin air and see what happens. A stream of consciousness novel -- haha! That would be fun to read.

Argh -- I have too many ideas in my head to really know where to start writing today. I guess that's a good thing. With homeschooling, there's always an overload of information.

Maybe I'll start with how I'm feeling. I feel energized, youthful (in the last two days, two people have commented on how young I look), and optimistic about the future. But I feel pretty darn naked in these leggings I'm wearing right now. I'm suited up already for my dance class which follows this writing session since I'm too lazy to change right before class in the studio dressing room. Usually, I wear the ones that hug my thighs and butt just right, but flare out towards my feet. These are your typical high-waisted (ugly!) leggings that smush everything from the vulnerable belly to the shy butt, from the embarrassed thighs to the less inhibited ankles. It's mostly my butt that feels really exposed. I'm used to wearing hip-hugging jeans, but somehow this is a little different. These pants leave nothing to the imagination. I might as well be strolling down the street in my birthday suit. Fortunately, I'm feeling pretty confident these days, and my body is in an "acceptable" condition for exhibition (I'm working on getting an "excellent" rating in my head). So, for now, three and a half stars? Maybe almost four?

Enough of that. Last month, after a deep discussion with my husband, we decided that we needed to have regular dates to increase the health of our marriage. Fridays have been our date night (two dates managed so far). 1.5-2 hours seem to be enough for us to get a nice dinner in Berkeley (luckily we're blessed with marvelous restaurants in this town) and catch up with what's going on with us and the kids. And we get to hold hands. I miss that. Holding hands were a common occurrence before we had kids -- now, we've got to work at it! It's such a simple pleasure for me.

Homeschooling is really going great. Of course, there are days where I'm completely frustrated about not feeling like we accomplished anything on my agenda, but then I look back, and I realize that Maylin accomplished a lot on her agenda (and that's okay!). For example, my anxious days are actually very creative days for Maylin -- she may have evaded my strict morning schedule of math and grammar, but she drew a comic, wrote several paragraphs on her self-initiated story project (typing it all on her own), and continued programming her animation project with Scratch, a visual programming language accessible to people of all ages, among other things. I will feel better personally if we can get back on track (she was sick for a couple of days and it really put a wrench in our schedule) and fit in our yoga, math, grammar, and reading in the morning -- she can have the entire afternoon and evening devoted to her own activities.

I have been informally homeschooling three year-old Stefan as well (just turned three last week). He recognizes most of his uppercase and lowercase letters, can count to 29 (with some trouble around 15 and 16), knows his shapes (we're working on ovals and octagons now after mastering the others), has known his colors for forever (although he mixes up yellow and white often -- interesting!), and is excellent at matching games (thanks to our newly-acquired iPad, which was actually a gift for a wedding that didn't happen in the end). He loves books, still leaning towards train, car, monster truck, construction equipment, and jet airplane themes, but I am so relieved he now likes good old storybooks now, too. As I'm reading to him, I occasionally run my finger across the sentence, and I think it's really helping him understand how reading works. Sometimes he runs his fingers across the sentences, too, and attempts to "read." It's the cutest thing.

Another wonderful is seeing Maylin and Stefan read together. Maylin will often initiate a reading session, and it's just so precious to see them sitting quietly next to each other on the bed sharing a book. With homeschooling, these beautiful moments happen more frequently. And with homeschooling, I can see them creating a stronger bond as sister and brother than they would have without the homeschooling. Homeschooling is a gift. The most valuable thing about homeschooling is the freedom of time. The kids have more time to cuddle, play together, read together, "work" alongside each other...I am sure that the strong friendship and sibling love that they create now will continue to flourish through the years.

This seems like a good place to stop. I'm still feeling good, but maybe I feel even better, now that I've released my thoughts to the universe. I'm off to my jazz dance to get my butt kicked (and enjoy it, too).

Until next time...

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The writer I want to be

Well, I've said it. I want to be a writer. But if you've been reading my blog all along, this is probably nothing new. Caroline writes in her blog, albeit not regularly. Caroline has said many times she aspires to write a children's book. Caroline may have mentioned (have I?) that she is going to participate in the National Novel Writing Month campaign which requires her to write 50,000 words in 30 days (yikes!).

Yet, I do not want to be a novelist. The novel's just an exercise in writing for me. I just got to get my creative juices flowing. And also, I need a really ridiculous challenge once in awhile, just to let myself know that I'm alive and have control over my own destiny. I compare it to doing a triathlon without doing any proper training. What have I got to lose? It's not like I might break a leg or drown in the process.

So, what kind of writer do you want to be then (even though you're going to waste all your time writing a novel), Caroline? An essayist! Yes, yes! You heard me right. Even though I've been reading books like Writer Mama, which tells you basically how to break into the magazine article market as a freelancer, and No Plot? No Problem! by the guy who started the whole National Novel Writing Month phenomenon, I find I most identify myself with the writing of essayists. David Sedaris was my first inspiration, although the more I read of his work, the more I think that this is a guy I wouldn't necessarily want to hang out with. And now I find myself dipping back into one of my college texts from English 1B, Eight Modern Essayists, compiled by William Smart. Ah, to be in the company of fine writers/thinkers like Joan Didion and Alice Walker is pure pleasure. So now to read, to be inspired, and to write. Wish me luck!

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Maylin earns orange belt in karate


For two years, I had Maylin take ballet, and though she had much talent and grace, it turns out that she didn't enjoy it. Too girly, she said. Yes, that's my daughter. I'm fortunate we discovered a karate program that she enjoys. After one year of study, she earned her orange belt at the end of the summer (it starts with white, then yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, brown, red, red with black stripe, and finally black). I'm always in awe of her determination, focus, strength, and flexibility when I watch her practice her forms or her kicks. It's so beautiful! There are a couple of kids who are one step away from their black belts, and their work is the most amazing. I could see Maylin being one of them in a few years.
I remember last year when she talked about how much she would sweat in the hour-long class, or how she almost felt like throwing up (it's not an easy workout by any means) but kept going. The perseverence! She's learning much more about herself than I could ever imagine.