It was a summer sun and autumn wind. He felt both uncomfortable and snug in the sweater as the heat bore through and the air blew in tidal breaths about him. He couldn’t help look up as he made his way down the gully using his spade like a walking stick. The sky, a wash of azure, held out a gorgeous cleanness – a tableau vivant of redemption after the fierce rain.

Reminding himself to breathe with the wind softening above, he followed the redolent trail of conifer to a line of trees tall against the strike of sun. Right there, by the rock. That’s where he’d dig. The clods eventually gave way because they had to. All those years: longing and defeat marked a hundred thousand steps that made a life, and he hadn’t lived. The dirt crumbled under the work of sure hands. When he made his way back out to the deepening sunlight and noise, will people know that his heart had stopped, that in death he had prevailed over beguiling hope? No. They will just believe his depthless smile. The hollow was now big enough. Calloused palms smoothed the bottom and bending, like a father over the cradle, he buried his dreams.

I Hear Voices

First Grade, NYC

First Grade, NYC

I imagine people don’t know what a recluse I am. I socialize at church, at field trips. Stand tall, take initiative, make announcements at our homeschool gatherings. My parents, struggling to piece together a life in a country where they were Other, taught their little girl to write large and speak loudly. That’s me in the school play, mike in hand. (My husband would now like me to lower my voice by 20%.) I’m usually the one to notice inefficient or even unjust ways things are done in our different communities and the one to speak up. So I can pull off extrovert and can be sociable because I know it’s rude to sit next to someone for half an hour and say nothing. But all I want, oh all I want is to bolt the door to my office and write. Bury myself in what novelist Dani Shapiro calls the cave to give attention to the voices in my head, meet myself on the page. Because inside is where so much of my life is.

I remind myself of how I would long for love and community if I were to be granted the hermit’s wish (er, I think). We certainly want what is out of reach. I am glaringly not in step with the vogue practice of being present. No, I can’t be fully feeling the current of the moment around my feet when my head is in books, ideas, memory. In my defense: we women are wicked multitaskers.

Speaking of tasks, I asked Husband to scrape the stovetop stains last week. With equanimity he announced that he had just vacuumed and was done for the day. “I’ve done enough,” he said pleasantly. I marveled at the male self-preservation apparatus in action. Granted, that was a lot of carpet. But it was the question corporate executives, business owners, moms, students knot themselves in angst over. When is enough? And he had solved the cosmic conundrum with such ease. Buddha Man just might be able to undo the problem of world peace. I laughed, “Done enough. Imagine mothers saying that. The world would stop.” No skin off his nose, he agreed – feet up, on the couch. I shouldn’t grouse about the responsibilities. It’s a blessing, not a burden, to have places to go, people to see, (aaalll these) things to do. George Eliot debuted at 50, Laura Ingalls Wilder at 65. There are others enjoying their second life publishing in their 70s and 80s. I don’t plan to wait another 30 years to go and to see all that’s in my head but in the meantime I show up where I’m needed. Whether or not I can show up for myself, I will keep writing large and speak to be heard. Poor Husband.


Holisticpedia: [Blog-eye-tis] Blog withdrawal refers to a group of symptoms that may trigger from prolonged hiatus in posting after sustained blogging. There is no way to predict how an individual will respond in the abstinence. If you plan to break for a month after blogging drunkenly for a minimum of a year, you should consult a health care practitioner before going cold turkey or locate a support group near you.

Days 1-5
Brain has yet to process the trying spell ahead. It is still feeding off the sugar of the comments from the last post and is feeling okay enough.

Days 6-12
Brain knows something is up. Headache and mild agitation.

Days 13-21
Irritability coupled with mood swings, anxiety, paleness, increased appetite and caloric intake. Seeks comfort food, craves alcohol.

Days 22-28
Shakes, sweating, failing blood pressure, chest pain. Bad dreams (that you have forgotten your WordPress password and are calling out to your readers, the screen impermeable against silent shouts).

Days 29 – Day You’re Kidding Me.
Call 911.


The Best Gift You Can Give Him

You know the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas?

On the third day of Christmas
My true love gave to me:
three French hens
two turtle doves and
a partridge in a pear tree.

So I got in with some friends a few years ago where we counted down the 12 days to Christmas with a gift a day for our husbands. Like the song goes, we used the number of the day we were on for our theme. Day 1, maybe a note “You’re the only one for me” taped to a Hershey’s Kiss. Day 2, “We make a great pair” tied to a pear with his lunch. Day 3, a three-pack of tic-tacs or underwear.

Well, I realized it was already Day 4 and I hadn’t given him the coupon.


“Shoot! If only I’d remembered on Day 1. I would’ve gotten away with only one.”
So the Mister got a whoppin’ four, which in keeping with the number theme, would be good ’til April 4.

I never saw the man so happy. He danced around and promptly hopped to the computer where he scanned the coupon to Facebook. There were moments that day when he wished he had them in the car to redeem.

Ladies, the coupon takes minutes and costs nothing but the bit of blood you get biting your tongue.

I Enjoy Stripping

cake2I don’t like having more than one of anything. Feels wasteful. I mean, one hairbrush will do. My wedding dress and cake had no decorations, no ribbon or flower. Nothing. In my day-to-day, I map out the most efficient route for errands. Lose time and you’ve lost what’s irretrievable. I like to keep on the spare side of things.

It hit me that the way I relate to money and time is how I write. I try to work each word full tilt. I love having guest writers see they can toss two, three hundred words to find the heart of their story. Of the 42 who have come through these doors, virtually all have sworn they have “cut to the bone” and just can’t reach the word limit I set. I plunge my knife, head straight for the marrow, send them the bloody remains. And yes, I laugh like Cruella De Vil. My toughest critic, I stripped a short February post of a dozen words last night. And nodded in approval. Cleaner, tighter. I do my best to preserve the unique voice of every contributor, which is why we have had 42 different voices in the repertoire. No one has to or should sound like me. Goodness, not with the literary greats to emulate. But I believe we can apply principles of efficiency no matter what our style. Because we writers and poets love our words so much, we tend to err on the side of overstating and in our earnestness, try too hard. We all know less is more but my guests still scrounge for the anesthesia when they see the knife. Which reminds me. I need to wipe that blade.

Comments closed on this one.

HW, in cahoots with the Mafia

st r u gg ling artist ii

                    my boy
          i am the shade of his sun
afraid he will burn, but

i am more than the smell of the bosom
          he has learned, to grow up and leave and cleave
                   to the woman of his heart 

                                     i am the album of regrets and
                              and deficiency and forgiving

the roots that climb deep down parents' omissions

i am the redemption of the years my mother
        pushed through the choices she didn't have, on grit and coffee

                       did you know? korean grandmothers don't
                 have a name but Grandma in korean
           and tradition erased their childhood
    -- no one heard -- their cheerful silence was
their greatest gift to us

i am the epode on the piano
        G major 7 in improv and 
while i keep time for my family, i am the   sus pension
                                  that knows to resolve

                                      the heave of jazz
                      i can S C A T

                           i am the cherry blossoms that concede
                     their soul in season, unabashed
         and the ones that could not    hold    on
                          their delicate dance down in death
                                  dust to dust    

                           i don't need self-esteem
                           i know Whose i am
                   but God doesn't have twins and
                   He doesn't make machines
         we are each His masterpiece

         no -- no, i don't want to roar
         that i am Woman

                           i just wish silence --
                  license -- to put to paper my person

              who cares what i am
       but the earnest page
and the memories and dreams that ask not to die

i am the apology that i know what i want
                    and have begun to sing before the cicada's time

                           i am the choices i live with
            am almost the books i wait
                                                 to write.

The Commons Getty Collection Galleries World Map App

A fascinating report on cicadas ran in a number of media outlets 
last year. A certain species remains underground for 17 years, 
surviving on roots, to buzz an intense noise for six weeks upon 
surfacing - only to perish. After months of trying to figure out 
what about these creatures enthralled me so, it hit me in the
writing. Seventeen is about the age kids leave home for college.

— know?


He dressed the day with clouds
   and spilled a sea of stars
      into the night
         calling each by name
  The night's aria declares 
      His deep pleasure

The universe is intoxicated with glory.

    The Autumn wind gasps
the surety of Winter

The geese, one giant wing
   a moving geometry
      that angles into the wind

How do they know? 
   where to go
   when to stop

Trees give up leaves like paper hopes
    swept into the sleepy season

The gray whale pursues the southern waters of Baja
    to warm her heavy womb

How does she know?
    how to birth
    what to eat

Spring forgives the freeze
    and laughs to live again
       in the resurrection of color
before the ferocious Summer

The dolphins' dance is
   a cadence of instinct
      in waves wooed by moontide

The Earth sounds a symphony of reverence.

We build skyscrapers and businesses and poems
   and the tides rush up and claim
      the sand castles of our dreams

      i, the crown of creation
    trifling, a mark of punctuation,
   know less than the beasts
that live and play as they ought.

Your Place in the Virtual Revolution

This post is for parents, bloggers, Facebookers, anyone who’s stuck a foot out on Cyberland. In our talk about belonging, we seemed to think in terms of the social Haves and Have-nots. Many of you spoke of the self-consciousness of often feeling on the fringe. Some shared you were too fat or too this or too that to fit in, others that you never even figured out why you always seemed to find yourself on the outside. I wanted to bring to attention something that’s as right in your face as the computer or phone screen in front of you. The Internet has given every one of us the power to lead. It has made us all insiders.

It’s a new day, a global Do-It-Yourself culture everyone with online access is privy to. YouTube alone is an open platform where anyone can catapult himself into stardom and not hurt himself trying. You can post the silliest, quirkiest, most informative videos and reach thousands in the least – and make as much in dollars. My husband has had the opportunity to monetize his funky YouTube tutorial on how to make Man Kimchee (kimchee made by a man, unheard of in Korean culture. No, I didn’t edit the instructions. See? You can toss basic grammar out the window and still have a shot at good money). We all have watched publishing, newspaper, music conglomerates groan as they caved, giving up a share of the power to self-publishers and bloggers. Cyberspace has become the Great People’s Republic. Alongside the question of copyright; space, boundaries, relationships have redefined themselves yielding a new profile on leaders. Here’s a snippet of a TED Talk from Squidoo.com’s founder Seth Godin and my thoughts on the traits he believes leaders have in common:

1. They challenge the status quo. I’ve observed that high achievers in any field are always on the move, eyeing the next benchmark or creating one. They’re never static.
2. They build a culture. Leadership is less about giving orders as it is about connecting people over shared values and goals. It is the worldwide web, after all. Tribes are no longer bound by geography, no longer have to adapt to the dictate of seasons. Virtual tribes can build community across distance and time, and determine their own climate.
3. They have curiosityabout the people in the tribe, about outsiders. They’re asking questions.
4. They connect people to one another. Do you know what people want more than anything? They want to be missed. They want to be missed the day they don’t show up. Seth wasn’t clear if he meant that leaders help people feel valued or if they themselves end up missed where they leave a vacuum. But I found this a fascinating point. We want to know we count, don’t we?
5. Finally, they commit. To the cause, to the tribe.

Seth also describes leaders who have risen from the masses by sheer drive, people who outside their success are socially awkward. “You don’t need charisma to become a leader. Being a leader gives you charisma. You know, Bill [Gates] has a lot of trouble making eye contact. Bill has a lot of trouble getting a room of strangers to come around to his point of view. But now, because of the impact his foundation has had, people feel differently around him.” Interesting. People are drawn to success. Social Have-nots can actually get.

Seth points out that you don’t need permission to lead. I would add, to make a difference. “I’m not the best blogger there ever was, but I’ve been persistent at it. Anyone could’ve done what I did. But they didn’t. And we keep making the same mistake again and again where we say, Oh no, no. That’s not for me. Someone else is going to do that one. [We make] excuses from fear.” So it seems all that’s left if you hope for a voice and an audience is to deny yourself the fear and get out of your own way.

Last Sunday I hit 1000 likes on my About. A part of me finds it a pretty remarkable milestone for someone who didn’t know which way was up when she started out. If I can do this without the aid of other media platforms, you can get along farther than you think. But the rest of me isn’t starry-eyed about my numbers. Partly because I’m too tired to be impressed, partly because others out here have done that and more, partly because you quickly adjust to your new heights and press on to higher ground. Like those who’re not satisfied with just one medal, title, or mission. This last feeling is a point of transformation all its own for me because I’m not a born dreamer. I was wide-eyed as a baby blogger, seeing 200 follows on a board. And wow, how’d she rack up 75 likes? I wondered. But I’ve come to a point where I’m not concerned about the numbers anymore. They’re nice but they’ll take care of themselves. My focus is on delivering the goods and on my relationship with you. As for authenticity, at the time my About page walked itself right out of my head, decided it had to live. What in your life insists on its own breath? Give it sun and air. I will support my son in just about anything he wants to pursue when he’s older. But I’ll want him to stay persistent, skillful, and inimitable. Do what he wants to do beautifully, his own way. Leave a mark. It’s my job to provide the opportunities for him to hear what in his spirit asks to live and nurture the will for him to shoot it to the moon. The majority of us has limitations weighing on our dreams, but don’t let your self-talk be one of them. We stop making excuses for ourselves, license to achieve little, when we accept that the stars usually won’t align over our head or the red carpet run under our feet when we want to set out. We each have our pace, mine maddeningly slow most days. A dream to me feels like a painstaking tapestry of priceless minutes I thread here, braid there, working my way around this giant rock I resent that’s really just the stuff of life. We make do. Berlin isn’t the only place the Wall’s come down. We’re talking about leadership in any context but the virtual world has leveled the playing field. Take your place. Claim it. If you want to.

Why I Run

You might run for the thrill. You sail into the zone, keep on like you’re under a spell. I wish it came so naturally to me, wish these limbs would move with knowing.

I run because I was terrible at it. And I’m less terrible the more I do it. I run to silence the aspiration for what’s easy. To teach my body to endure, hold on just a little longer. I run to meet my weaker self head on – conquer her on strong legs Treadmill2so I limp less under my load. I sprint for the fullness of being alive because I often forget how to live. I remember the power of simplicity. I jog to find my pace and cadence. I run to take ownership of myself and to stretch my reserve. I run to claim every day that is mine.

I run because good enough isn’t good enough.


See me wrestle? Why I Sweat


The Measure of a Woman

I don’t remember my mother ever having the cold or flu. She must’ve had her share, especially in the sharp New York winter. She remains healthy in my memory because she never took a day off, never took a nap, never complained. Not even when the needle flew off the Singer and disappeared into her finger. Between the waitressing years in New York, Mom sewed for the giant garment industry that Latino and Asian immigrants pinned their hopes on in the 70s and 80s. The heaps of cut fabric she brought home in the metal shopping cart, they literally called homework. It enabled her to raise her kids and stay involved in my early schooling. Mom did everything fast. She would feed polyester rectangles through the machine and recruit me and my little brother to flip them. At two cents a piece, time was the enemy. She ate a lot of dust.

The older I grow, the smaller I feel in the shadow of my mother’s sacrificial silence. I grew up exasperated with Mom for the most part, but her threshold of patience in marriage and motherhood was a lot higher than mine. I am not only a verbal woman, I am a vocal wife. Thanks in part to the freedom of speech this beloved Land of the Free so fiercely protects, the culture of rights I am privileged to claim citizenship in. Thanks in part to a man who works to give me all I need and ask for. And most absolutely in part to my nature which still begs tempering. I don’t take crap from husband or son. And sometimes I should. My counselor helped me trace my emotional defensive offense to the years of living under a sense that my needs could not be met. I had to take care of a lot of things in the home, which at times included my parents. My anger is really fear. As helpful as this insight has been, it’s no ticket out of jail. I need to be humble. Need to love. I worship a God who exchanged his rights for a cross.

MomKitchenI don’t have the patience and gentleness for my son that Mom had for me. How dare I draw myself up to her small frame in these comfortable shoes that cost more than what she ever spent on her own tired feet? It wasn’t just waitressing that her legs ached from. She stood hours in the kitchen over the traditional side dishes that every meal called for. Korean food is misogynistic. When I dug up this picture of Mom, I was surprised at the poor quality of the photo. It had stuck in my head as a beautiful shot, one of my favorite of hers, because it shows her radiant slaving away in a hole with no ventilation in a tiny apartment. And then my grandmothers had it even harder. No appliances to keep up with the laundry for a family of eight or nine. My mother’s father passed away when Mom was three, leaving Grandma to flee on foot with six children when the communist North invaded Seoul three years later. My mother became the youngest in the family when her brother, three years old, died en route from the pneumonia they could not treat in the winter flight. They buried him on the road and this and the rest my Grandma endured with silent heartache and grace. If unassuming, unreserved sacrifice is the measure of greatness, does greatness diminish with each generation? Or is it just me? I am probably the weakest link in my line. Of course I don’t believe all women before me were noble, and I know of many among Mom’s generation who even abandoned their own. I’m talking of the times and culture. Even though I have my hearty share of struggles, my days aren’t heavy with the desperation I sensed in Mom as a child. The small matter of war aside, she and the women before her had to make their way through resistance just to procure the basics. Korea was poorer then, immigrant life tougher than the country that shut no door on me as I grew up. Living seemed to have required more fortitude. There are things I do better than Mom did. Like many of us, I determined to be a different parent. But my savvy turns out to be simply a matter of knowledge and opportunity. From the education my mother paid for with her self. I had set out to do better but I now see every success of mine is the dream she chased.

Carry You In The Rain

Your toe broke through the sole of your shoe. I didn’t want you stepping on the cold, wet ground. I put you on my back – my boy almost seven – and had trouble walking. A friend of mine was with us and we peeped our head into several restaurants, more like run-down bars, for a new shoe. We left the row of shops and stood on a threshold, facing the pavement. I cradled you.

I would carry you in the rain.

You grew a few years smaller in my arms. As I asked my friend to cover your face with your blue jacket, you slipped into bed with me, pulled me out into the fresh, dry morning. The first thing you asked was what I’d dreamt.

Last week you mused, “I wonder what’s inside the sun, Umma. I want to see.” You expressed this so imploringly. Should I not have told you that you will burn? Should I have left you to dream impossible dreams? Did I kill your wondering?

The other day you took car tracks bereft of the remote and car, and turned them into a runway for your plane. The delight on your face when the plane took off. And Daddy and I had wanted to get rid of the tracks. You blow me away. Life blows you away.

I forget why I keep you close, teach you at home. To free you to stand on your slab of questions and ingenuity, ready to run into the sun. I know that this side of dreams, there’ll be no carrying you in the rain.




My Race, Coast to Coast: Part 1

I designed this series because I thought it’d be interesting to glimpse stories from around the globe. But I found myself feeling almost apologetic writing my own; I didn’t consider my tale really worth telling. Then I warmed to the rich potential this project held out as a forum for safe, honest talk about our biases and personal struggles.

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.

I prefer Asian-American or Korean-American. I grew into the American part with time so I speak of myself as a Korean kid looking back on my childhood, but it bugs me to have to check “Asian” on forms. Tip-toeing on politically correct ground, we don’t call black people Africans in the States but acknowledge their American status. I don’t know why Asian-Americans are not accorded the same respect. Actually, I do know. We are not vocal about it.

2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I live in California. My family joined the biggest tide of emigration that brought South Koreans to America in the 70s. After the formative years in New York City, I went to Pennsylvania for college. I ended up nesting there until the move across the country 13 years ago. Given the diversity in major American cities I didn’t notice significant cultural differences between them, at least ethnically.

3) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

My childhood in NYC was your unoriginal melting pot. From neighborhood to school and city, we had white, Hispanic, Black, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, and of course many Koreans. My neighborhood was so motley that it was in fact homogenous when I started my school career; it was only as an adult that I realized how unusual it was that my first grade class was all Korean – under the tutelage of the only Korean teacher in all of NYC at the time. (I won’t get into whether she would’ve insisted on the -American.) Mrs. Cho was Korean and Americanized, one fully immersed in her culture but comfortable and proficient with the mores of this country. Because I was still clinging to my native language at seven, Mrs. Cho sent me out for a season of English as a Second Language services.

I was at ease with fellow Korean immigrants but as you’d expect, there was plenty of race consciousness on everyone’s part. I didn’t escape being called chink in elementary and walking home one time, was slurred with a kick for good measure. This, by two white girls I saw all the time. It was older black or Hispanic kids who wrested your bike from you and made off with it on our street – not older Asian kids. The Mexicans didn’t blare mariachi with the Chinese. Life was what it was. It would’ve been weird for the neighborhood to go all white. I wouldn’t call what we lived with tension so much as it was subtle racial abrasion. But for the most part there was peace. We had subcommunities in high school too, though there were the kids who mingled. The magnet school I went to was over 50% Asian-American, the majority Korean. So I obviously didn’t have much occasion to feel left out the first two decades of my life.

4) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language. It could be a scene with strangers, the park, school, work. Could have been subtle feelings you recognized or a blatant attack of bigotry. If it was a season or chapter in your life, tell us the impact it had on your sense of self, confidence, or emotional development. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?

Straight out of college, I ended up one of three Korean-American teachers in a Philadelphia school. But the diversity of the city represented in staff and students kept me from thinking twice about myself as a minority. On a field trip one day with my class, I was struck seeing a line of golden-haired children from another school. It was the first time I really noticed I was Asian – and this, in my early 20s. It vaguely crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be as comfortable teaching that class.

Two years later I transfered to a neighboring district where I felt the keen finger of self-consciousness as never before. White upper-middle class suburb, old money. In the meetings that prefaced the start of school, I found I was one of two Korean-American teachers among the 100 in the entire district. My African-American principal was a colored minority. Ten percent of the students in my school were Asian and as few black. In other words, I felt very Asian surrounded by staff, parents, and students. The Korean kids lit up and greeted me when I passed by even if they were not on my roll. As the Gifted and Talented Education instructor, I was a status symbol and my principal said it was important that those children see themselves in me. Despite the politeness of many teachers, I did feel awkwardly different among them. When a group of us went out to try some Korean food, I saw for the first time the profound, basic relationship of food to culture. Those who passed nervously on the invitation gave away their indifference to the Korean culture, and to me.

Others were outright mean, even conspired to get me, and things eventually came to a dramatic head. Though it’s hard to say, the malice didn’t seem fueled by racism as it was by the position I held. Suffice it to say I was a walking omen of more paperwork for the classroom teachers. Anyone who stepped into my position was doomed because, servicing the high achievers in the whole school, I worked with everyone and no one. As a specialist, I had no colleagues by grade to team with. The cultural distinction felt sharper for their rejection.

My sense of self was not shaken. It never has been. I enjoyed deep friendships with teachers who shared my faith and also knew the kindness of those who didn’t – some black, some white. I’m not sure how I handled that sense of separation from the masses. I kept my head high, even managed to break through some walls and feel accepted by some cliques though I refrained from trying too hard. I also refused to stoop to the level of my enemies. Not one retort, confrontation, or curse escaped my lips though I can’t count the times I came hairline close. I had dirt on them, too. But this way, I had won. No one could accuse me of a bad word. And in time, they were served their due. I have never looked back on those few years with anything but a dull negativity. As trying as it was, I now feel it was good for me to have experienced the cold heat of exclusion. The real world isn’t a bubble and if you insist on staying in one, it’ll burst on you. I’d say it’s important for those who usually sit among the white majority to have to work through this sense of isolation at some point, too. Of course I don’t mean we should perpetuate hatefulness across racial lines. But some discomfort out of complacency challenges us to grow.

Continued in Part 2.

What If You Weren’t Afraid?

Fear dictates a lot of what we do, say, and don’t. Over the years, my husband and I have peeled back the face of harsh words, avoidance, and everything in between to lay bare this tyrant in the heart. The things I want from him will often lead back to my fear of finding myself out in the cold with hat in hand. In those moments I’m the little girl her parents let down, even while I now understand that they had done their best. Holistic Husband will hesitate to share with me what he really thinks, afraid of rejection. I am short with my boy for shedding clothes outside because I am afraid he will get sick. Not a 100 pounds, I could not relate to anyone with eating disorders. Until a few years ago when I showed myself I could overeat. I knew better. I was the health and nutrition consultant among moms, with over a decade of study under her belt. The worst thing you can do with your food is do too much of it. I realized something wild. Though my husband spared no expensive to meet our needs, the compulsive eating started from fear of going hungry.

There are many things we hold back from trying, scared to fail. We worry about what others will think and end up spouting dumb words or holding back when we should speak up. The wind of peer pressure blows on our kids everyday, right through the morning window when they decide what to wear before pushing them toward and away from other kids.

How would these things look different in your life, if you were not afraid?

Your relationship with your sweetheart
How you parent
The people you tend to befriend
The relational boundaries you draw
How passive or aggressive you are in conflict
How often you say no
How and why you study
What you would say in a job interview
Where you work
How you work, the hours you put in
Your relationship with your self, in exercise or ways you nurture your body and spirit
Your eating
Your career
Your blogging
Your art
Your dance
How and what you write
What you buy
The goals you set
Add your own.

Feel free to think before getting back to me.

Greatness, Part 5: Praise, Smarts, and the Myth of Self-Esteem

A friend sent me an enlightening, provocative New York Magazine article on how praising kids for being smart often backfires and ends up straitjacketing them to fear of failure. It spoke to me not only as a parent of a boy fairly fresh on the path of formal education, but as the studious girl whose achievements were marked by a curious mix of confidence and anxiety. The ten-year string of studies on the effects of praise spearheaded by psychologist Carol Dweck at Columbia (now at Stanford) University also shed light on the aspects of overachieving I have been exploring here: persistence, assurance, motivation, talent. I will extract the key points on “the inverse power of praise,” and while I usually don’t refer readers to anything but short articles or video, this ones well worth the time if you can manage.

A sizable portion of gifted students, the very ones who grew up hearing they are smart, apparently lack confidence and will keep to the safer road of doable tasks rather than set out for the hill that promises challenge.

According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart…The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short. But recent landmark studies make the case that labeling kids just this way might actually cause them to underperform.

In one of her ground-breaking experiments with 400 New York fifth graders, Dweck took the students out of the classroom one at a time for an IQ test in the form of puzzles that pretty much guaranteed success. The students were divided into two random groups, one praised at the end for the kids’ intelligence, the other for effort. The children then chose a test for the second round. They were told that they’d learn a lot from the one that was more difficult. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The ‘smart’ kids took the cop-out. Why did this happen? When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes. And that’s what the fifth graders had done. They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.

In a following round, students were offered no choice. The test actually designed for kids two grades higher set them up for failure. A marked difference in response lay between the groups. The ones who were initially praised for their effort assumed they had not worked hard enough and went on to tackle the puzzles vigorously. Many actually commented that it was their favorite test. The kids who had been praised for their smarts sunk into obvious misery. Of course they took their failure to mean they really were not bright after all.

Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can controlEmphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.” Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hit both boys and girls – the very brightest girls especially.

One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me is their unflagging confidence and trust in my abilities. It was in my working years that I saw just how deep their affirmation rooted me in the self-assurance people sensed of me even when I was growing up. I was praised for being smart before the days of memory, but I also was an assiduous student who suffered migraines for taking elementary school so seriously. My mother not only vouched for my intellect, but urged me to work as hard as I could. I remember the time I cried in apology when she demanded to know why I had brought home only a 98% on the test. Today, she has nothing but remorse for the years she faked pride for disappointment to push me to my uttermost.

Dweck slowly began to make sense of my confusing dance with ambition. Through all the praise from family, friends, and teachers, fear of failure –  the devil on my shoulder – goaded me with the pitchfork to double-check all homework instructions with my friend who really was smart. I distrusted myself. Just before a piano recital in the junior high orchestra, my fingers would freeze both in temperature and mobility. I didn’t answer a call-back on the first audition for the sophomore musical in high school. I rejected the role before anyone could reject me. When my Latin and Linguistics professors later encouraged me to pursue a PhD, I rued having fooled them into thinking I was so capable. My mother wondered in exasperation why I volleyed every career suggestion with “it’s too hard.”  I set my standards so high that I couldn’t meet them.

To describe my metamorphosis in thinking would warrant a separate post. In brief: after teaching in the public schools, I ended up consulting a Harvard professor for a possible PhD track in language, literacy, and culture, and sat in on her doctoral class. I was 27 when I took part in that fun discussion, just before deciding on life under California’s sun. It’s doubtful I would’ve been admitted to the venerable institution, but the life-changing shift in confidence that came about largely at the encouragement of the last principal I worked with was an unlocking inside. Slim chance, but why not dream — and try? It seems what had locked me in the first place was likely the praise over my innate ability that had attended my youth. But when trepidation gives way to boldness, amazing things can happen. Because this release came so late for me, I am fascinated by people who dream bigger than the life they’ve known. My uncertainties in myself did not arise from low self-esteem. I always had a strong sense of self. The article describes how that great emperor of modern psychology, the credence of self-esteem, was found to have no clothes on.

From 1970 to 2000, there were over 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem and its relationship to everything – from sex to career advancement…results often contradictory or inconclusive. So in 2003 The Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature…Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standard…Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves)…Baumeister said his findings were ‘the biggest disappointment of [his] career.’

I groaned to be told in graduate school and teacher professional training sessions to shower the touchy-feely you’re-so-wonderful-what-do-you-feel-today approbation all over my students. How a society, let alone a marriage, can expect to survive the sacred right of every person to nurse his, her individuality and feelings above else confounds me. (How telling that the sun does not orbit the earth.) I absolutely believe in the inherent worth of every individual, and that no child should feel unloved or unworthy – because there is no higher glory than that we bear the very image of God. Self-esteem champions who haven’t quit this page by now will differ vastly in their response to this statement of faith but wherever we draw our security from, to keep on point: giving kids credit for smarts they did not earn is to build their self-esteem on sand. Once they find themselves struggling in a more demanding setting, they “surmise they’ve been dumb all along. Their grades never recover because the likely key to their recovery – increasing effort – they view as just further proof of their failure.”

The ability to respond to repeat failure by exerting more effort – instead of simply giving up – is a trait well studied in psychology…persistence turns out to be more than a conscious act of will; it’s also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain…While putting people through MRI scans…this switch [lit] up regularly in some. On others, barely at all…The key is intermittent reinforcement…The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear. We could be priming our kids for a chemical addiction to constant reward with bribes or effusive praise that’s misdirected, hijacking their capacity to work toward goals. The greats whose accomplishments we’ve been discussing apparently have a different brain. Hear that, Opinionated Man? But the beauty of intelligence is its organic adaptability. I love how Dweck’s researchers produced improved math scores from low-achieving math students: the adults simply taught the kids that the brain is a muscle and exercising it makes us smarter.

The Little Man

The Little Man

Within eight weeks, my six-year-old has memorized over 350 facts across the subjects of science, history, Latin and English grammar, math, and geography – some in the form of long sentences. At this rate, he will go on to grow his knowledge base through the years ahead. I worried on Day 1 that I was overloading him. “What are the seven types of biomes? Grasslands, deserts, scrublands, tundra, deciduous forests, coniferous forests, tropical rainforests.” Aye yaya. Since then, I’ve discovered the brain of children expands like Mary Poppin’s bag. The more you require it to hold, the more it gladly will. With a modest estimate of 100,000 students worldwide on this Classical curriculum, my son is no exception and smarts can’t really take the credit. It’s work. And we make it fun. But there’s no getting around daily application. How do I encourage his success? The article describes the kinds of praise that do make for effective encouragement: whether it’s the number of times a hockey player checked his opponent or improved concentration on a task; sincere, specific feedback provides repeatable strategies that move one forward profitably. I’ve replaced much of the “you’re so smart” with express pleasure at effort and minilessons on the capacity of the mind.

We all love commendation, and exchange plenty of it as bloggers. In light of the research, I find my own response to kudos on the blog this year interestingly apt. I’ve said that with more talent, I could afford to work less hard. After decades of reading and writing, I only now feel like a writer. Despite the modest publishings, it’s taken me 40 years to pen my thoughts with a deep satisfaction that I have communicated my purpose. It is the pains and time I take to get it down just so that keep me on sure course. Faith in my aptitude? No. And it’s not a timorous dissent. My work may not make the ranks of the literary pantheon. But with joy, great care, and dreams I answer my calling as writer – standards higher than ever.

Greatness, Part 1: MMA and the Art of War

Even in my happy indifference to athletics, I can understand the competitor who seeks to challenge himself. The Olympian urges his body on to the moment that will redeem the years and pleasures and normalcy he had laid on the altar of glory. He bests himself in going up against the unrivaled among the nations. But men who attack one another – invite the blows and blood – and go on to fist-five or hug after beating the brains out of each other? (Right, it is women who make no sense.) Baffling brutes, I’ve thought.

A year or so after my boy had started in Mixed Martial Arts and I too had learned some moves in self-defense, I was strolling past the octagon at the gym when the sparring in there took on a startling light. Suddenly, what I’d always dismissed as irrational violence made every bit of sense and the fluid logic of the moves blew me away with its beauty. So this was the art of war.

I became intrigued by men who put themselves in harm’s way not in noble cause for their country but to test themselves under the most raw, visceral conditions they could fashion. Fascinated with these creatures of discipline – so many of them who I discovered are really nice guys – I went around the last two months asking fighters of all caliber in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, “Why do you fight?” But it was the questions under the question that pressed me. Aren’t you afraid? What do you do with that fear? What makes you spurn the bed of ease and slog through the path of greatest resistance? Are you born different from the rest of us? What is the stuff of warriors, are they born or made, and what inner battles are you fighting?

These questions played in my head during a mesmerizing rerun of the epic fight between Dan Henderson and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in the summer.

A minute and a half into the first round, and blood rains on Shogun’s face. He stays bloody to the end. By the third round, both he and Hendo have drained their reserve. Round Four, they pummel. And Hendo looks at the clock. An eloquent moment: two hundred pounds of muscle and he wonders when he can stop.

The men hang by a thread through the distance, the longest 25 minutes of their lives. As a fighter later said to me, it’s not muscle in the last round. Shogun and Hendo find themselves in the mental corner. They have given up their all and for one of them, it wouldn’t be good enough. What follows will ride on mind and will. Shogun gives Hendo a run for his money, but Hendo had done too much damage too fast from the first round not to win in the judges’ eyes. The call remains a technicality for many, fans the world over moved by the warrior spirit of both men.

Soon after, I caught some words from The Korean Zombie on the gym screen, a crash introduction to the relatively new but popular mixed martial artist who earned the nickname from his singular ability to plow through injuries and blows. Thrilled to his wildest dreams that he was slated to fight UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo, Chan Jung said, “I’m willing to put everything on the line…I would give my life to be fly1champion.” How stupid. How marvelous. Beautiful. I was enthralled. Three years he had chased the chance to take the title from the eight-year undefeated champion. I asked The Zombie in my head: What makes you define years of your life by a moment you hold in your dreams? Where does the confidence even come from, to disagree with the masses that your opponent is superior?

Aldo: “I don’t even see a chance of losing.”
Jung: “I push my opponent to his breaking point.”

I scribbled away the rest of summer, lit by the high voltage narrative.

I had the recent privilege of reaching The Zombie in Seoul, Korea. His agent Brian Rhee took the time to translate the interview and grant me a more personal acquaintance with the star. Chan, like some of the other fighters I spoke with, ended up in martial arts because he was bullied as a kid. His aunt enrolled him in Hapkido. As to the qualms, he echoed the others, “There is always the fear, but mostly of losing.” Fear of injury becomes a minor concern. After the first blow they feel, they’re good (something I don’t quite get as a woman) – the anticipation over and the adrenaline on. Beyond any anxiety over a black eye, they’re afraid of letting the coaches and themselves down. The competitor works to free himself from the fear of fear. A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor at our gym said he competes to face his fear of vulnerability and stay ahead of his insecurities.

Former UFC champion Vitor Belfort said it simply on TV, “Nothing can distract.” The Korean Zombie doesn’t just dream. He labors in the vanguard of those who breathe, beat, sweat that dream into reality with this laser beam devotion. These guys seem to live on a different plane altogether. I remain mystified. Because the art of the octagon happens out of the months and years and daily dogged minutes of self-denial. Though C.S. Lewis was speaking of spiritual appetite when he pointed out that we are far too easily pleased, his commentary captures the human spirit. We worship comfort, especially as postmoderners. I am blown away by the single-minded who take no excuses for themselves, repudiate mediocrity, forgive nothing substandard. In this case, fighters put themselves at a place that exposes what they’ve got, what they’ve worked for: they ran the extra mile or they didn’t. The cage door closes and you have two guys hell bent on winning. No one trains to lose. They force each other to their best. The contenders risk it all before a watching a world. And the months of toil can all go down in seconds. It hit me (pun intended) that this death grip on commitment resonates with me for the crazy work ethic Koreans have branded themselves by.

I had to puzzle out the deepest answer I sought from the interviews. The men told me, “I fight because it’s what I love. What I’m good at. The thrill of victory, the arm going up.” But why do you have to punch someone in the face to feel so good?

If man ever did evolve he stopped over 2,000 years ago. I realized MMA is not so new. I am watching the Spartan warrior and the Roman gladiator in the most primal fight for self-preservation. History is battle, the fiercest of physical arguments over land and power. My son has been learning, “Assyria falls to Babylon, Babylon to Persia, Persia falls to Alexander the Great.” The Conquerer has been redefining boundaries – of space and within himself – since ancient times and on he goes. Man’s quest for greatness.

The current of the past carries these fighters on to their future. Competitor Phillip Brown is not only chasing his dream but living it. He stays present so that the training is not only a movement toward possibility but joy: “You wake up and realize it’s already tomorrow. You feel really alive. It’s a presence. All your hard work has paid off. All those minutes on the bag, all those tap-outs in practice. Tap-out means I need to get better. Martial arts is the art of bettering oneself. When that cage door shuts, I’m exactly where I wanna be: win, lose, or draw.” How many of us know exactly where we want to be?

Part of my fascination with these contenders stems from the mystery of the Other. They are as talented with their body as they look and talk so differently from me. After a year’s sorry attempt in Self-Defense, I discovered I have as much survival instinct as I do coordination. But I’m drawn to the sport for the resonance; I fill with hope and pride in people who seek excellence in their craft, partly for this very pursuit in the roles I have played as mother, as writer. Whether or not I have been successful remains a different matter. But what I asked the competitors were really parenting questions that continue to replay themselves. How much do I push my son in freeing him (to borrow from Gloria Vanderbilt) to follow his bliss? How do I encourage him to refuse distractions from his purpose? How to reconcile the wisdom of balance with the virtues I prize: stamina, discipline, passion? You lose, sometimes excise, a part of yourself for the greater gain on the hot trail of dreams.

Fighting doesn’t make you great.  Even winning does not necessarily, and indeed it is the heart of gold that marks the knight. Obviously greatness begs definition, but to offer one isn’t my goal in this series so much as to examine its different faces through the lives of achievers in their element.

“The tragedy in life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.”  Benjamin Mays (1894-1984), American minister and educator

Enjoy the Wayfarer in MMA action here – most notably not in her element.

My New Brain

I am not alive or dead. My muscles are wood and my skull is cracking. I swear it’s cracking. Someone’s tightening my heart like it’s a screw and I hear the world from underwater. Sound and images blur, broken like my brain.

In truth, I have no idea how I built this blog sleeping once every four days. That’s on a good month. But I’m not writing to detail the insomnia hell that’s been my life these twenty-five years. In fact, I’d rather not get into it so please respect my wish on the comment board. I write to share a breakthrough I’ve experienced because while I have felt completely alien among the people in my life who look so rested and functional, over 60 million people are supposed to suffer insomnia in America alone. If you happen to be among them, yes, I’ve read your posts. I’ve plenty understood. You might find freedom from your living nightmare here. Or maybe you can share this treasure with someone who is suffering.



I heard about Sleep Tracks from a doctor over the summer. Familiar with neurofeedback and the fact that our alpha, beta, theta brain waves are supposed to be running in a certain pattern, I saw the validity of what I was reading and got the tracks right away. Yan, the mastermind behind these audios that reset your waves, offers a selection of tracks to help you find what is suitable for you. There are sounds for those who can’t shut down and for those who can’t stay asleep. Pulses to help you nap while enhancing your night sleep, pulses that ease anxiety. There was some stop-and-go while I experimented but I clocked in more sleep in July than I had the whole year up ’til then. I was off and running, able to attend the homeschool conferences and work on a music project – so productive that I couldn’t blog. After a little over a month, I had trouble sleeping with the tracks; my body was telling me I didn’t need them anymore. It was unreal. I could…just sleep. Life then threw a curveball and I’ve been in the process of disentangling from some unexpected challenges, but the tracks have been helpful again most nights. I can’t tell you the things I have tried and were willing to try over the maddening years. What works wonders for others would only aggravate my pains. But these audios have given me a taste of life beyond mere existence and survival.

If you get the audios, you are privy to an online sleep course with practical, useful guides and information that help you take ownership and regain control of your sleep issues. (I love Yan’s French accent.) If you want to talk to the man, he may take a day or two to get back to you but will provide knowledgeable guidance. As for those of you who’ve never had trouble sleeping, I think you’re weird. I find you very difficult to understand. (Wanna trade bodies for a day? A day in the !@#! life of Holistic Wayfarer. Will give you post ideas.)

The Real Reasons I Blog

1. To ward off dementia.

2. Stay in touch with my roots. No such thing as overworking with Koreans. Rest? Psh. That’s what the grave is for.

3. You’ve saved me money on therapy. I didn’t have to go this year.

4. I don’t want to clean. Who in their right mind would choose mopping and dusting over THIS?

5. It’s my one rightful obsession. I don’t drink, smoke, go on shopping sprees, or get pedicures. You gotta give me sOmething.

6. I can be as anal as I want and people like me for it. Go figure.

7. I’m repressed. Parents didn’t let me stay out at night. I get to party ’round the clock as the comments roll in.

8. I hand out advice on stuff: blogging, life, men and women. And all these people think I’m for real.

9. It’s my only chance at keeping up with technology. I’m terrified to tweet, annoyed with Facebook, have yet to go near an iPod, hate texting.

10. I haven’t had this much fun since…since…
*Slump* Pathetic. (Time for my next pick-me-up post.)

German Wardrobe

The conversations at the table continued around me. Work place, I caught. Ten o’clock. Or was that eight in the evening? I was still learning how to use a twenty-four hour clock rather than a.m. and p.m. At least I was certain it was Donnerstag: Thursday, because every Thursday my German boyfriend and I met his friends for dinner.

I was a body taking up space.

In the beginning everyone had spoken English out of consideration for me, but I knew I needed to get used to hearing and hopefully speaking German. “Please,” I’d insisted. “Just go ahead and talk German. It’ll force me to learn the language faster.”

I was dismayed by the consequences. They took me at my word, and no one had spoken another syllable of English to me. For weeks I sat through get-togethers and meals unable to take part. I picked at my food, nursed my drinks or gulped them and ordered more.

“Is it hard for you to have to listen to us? Can you understand much yet?” Rolf repeated.

I realized that someone had spoken to me – in English. Everyone at the table looked at me, waiting for an answer.

“Well, Rolf,” I answered, “I’ve been trying to follow you all. I try to get a paragraph and if I can’t, I listen for a sentence. If that doesn’t work, I try to hear phrases, or words. “And,” I added, “if all else fails, I amuse myself by imagining everyone sitting at the table without any clothes on.”

“Oh!” Rolf exclaimed. The table went silent, and everyone suddenly looked alert.

“Honey,” my boyfriend patted my shoulder, “I think you’ve had enough wine.”

After that evening my language skills increased dramatically. My boyfriend’s friends made a point of including me in every conversation each time we met. No one was quite sure whether my comment had been a joke…and I never told them.


Jadi at Jadi Campbell


I See You

Holistic Wayfarer:

We need more health care professionals like this. Touching post.

Originally posted on Nurse Kelly:


Truth can not only be found in obvious places in the world, but also in some of the most obscure.

I arrived at the agency promptly at 7:00 a.m. as planned. I was meeting with Tina to discuss the day’s caseload prior to heading out with her on her rounds of assigned patients, actually friends, no – family, to Tina.

Tina was written up one day on the hospital floor where she worked for a medication incident. It was filed with her state’s nursing board and disciplinary action ensued. Once this happens to a nurse, the action is placed on their permanent record, made public, and is posted on the board’s website. It is very difficult to have this action removed from the permanent record because it is seen as information that protects the public. Tina was not able to secure another job in a hospital, but was hired by a home health care…

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Walking Solo

I hated my life. My first teen year passed in fear. My parents struggled to make ends meet. Our meager diet left me skeletal and my physical weakness made me a target at school in a tough neighborhood.

Father then found a job in Mississippi in a rural town nestled on the banks of the Pearl River with only 300 residents at the time. I was happy to move there. I was only a child. I still held on to ridiculous hope that all my fears were behind me.

I started the eighth grade that year determined to make new friends and start fresh. The other students walked past me, unaware of my awkward newness. They were very tight with each other. I could see how happy they were as we all collected together before class. Socialization was a concept I didn’t understand. That first year, I never enjoyed more than a passing conversation. I grew silent and retreated inside myself. I had no distractions. My grades placed me in the top of my class. That further isolated me. It wasn’t a new experience.

Each day, lessons were imparted by teachers who never addressed me or looked into my eyes. Exploring the woods and creek behind my house filled my emptiness with adventure. My noisy mind was the only place conversation echoed.

In time, good friends entered my sanctuary and listened politely at the rantings of my fantastical dreams. They couldn’t stay long. I understood. My life was intended as a solitary journey and the friends that walked with me were a cherished memory when they left.

Daniel at Hyperion Sturm