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When I'm not here, you may find me wandering the pages below. (If I'm a regular visitor to your site and I've left your link off or mislinked to you, please let me know! And likewise, if you've blogrolled me, please check that my link is updated: thisroamanticlife.blogspot.com. The extra (a) makes all the difference!)

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Body: in sickness and in health

I won't lie; this body and I have had our issues with each other for many years. Body image -- sure. Physical and mental overextension -- comes with being a Type A kind of girl. I still struggle with these things, so they show up from time to time in my writing.

More recently, illness, pure but not simple, has added itself to the mix in a multi-system sort of way. And the challenges in figuring out exactly what's gone wrong are many. As problems have revealed themselves in the last few years, beginning with reactive hypoglycemia in late 2008, I've documented them here, partly to gain a little clarity on managing complex conditions but mostly to give voice to vulnerabilities I feel but don't normally share with anyone face to face. Better out than in, they say, right? (Oh yes, humor is one way I deal.)

The links below cover the different angles I've examined (and from which I've been examined) within that experience.

Travel: neither here nor there

When the person you're married to lives two time zones away, you log a fair number of frequent flier miles. And if you blog about commuter relationships, you log quite a few posts en route too.

Since we're no longer in separate places, I blog less often from airports. But we do travel -- together now! -- which is much more fun to write about. So in addition to thoughts on our years of commuting, the links below cover the places we've been as a pair and, in some cases, the adventures that have happened on the way.

Writing: the long and short of it

Why do I do it? Good question. Maybe it's not so much that I like to write but that I have to write, even when the words refuse to stick to the page. Believe me, I've tried doing other things like majoring in biochemistry (freshman fall, many semesters ago). Within a year, I'd switched to English with a concentration in creative writing and wasn't looking back.

After graduating, I taught English for a few years and then worked as an editor, which I still do freelance. In 2007, I applied and got into an MFA program at a place I like to call Little U. on the Prairie. I finished my degree in 2011 and have been balancing tutoring and writing on my own ever since.

The following links cover the writing I've done about writing: process, content, obstacles, you name it. It's not always pretty. But some part of me loves it, even when it's hard. And this is the result.

Heart: family and friends

I'd have a hard time explaining who I am without being able to talk about the family I grew up in as well as the people I've met beyond its bounds. But even with such context, it's not easy! In the simplest terms, I'm a first-generation Asian-American who has spent most of this life caught between cultures. That, of course, doesn't even begin to describe what I mean to, but there's my first stab at the heart of it all.

That's what this group of posts is reserved for -- heart. The essential parts of my life whose influences I carry with me, for better or worse. The links below cover what I've written as I've learned how these forces work within me, for me, against me, in spite of me. They anchor me even as they change me, and they keep life interesting.

Recommended reading

What do I do when there's too much on my mind and my words won't stick to the page? I escape into someone else's thoughts. Below is a collection of books and articles that have been sources of information, inspiration, and occasional insight for my own work.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Meet the family



Yes indeed! Please allow me to (re)introduce you to D, Almost Dr. Sis, and Newly Graduated Sis in their avatar forms.

We had a good time putting these together. NG Sis and I were especially amused to find that we ended up selecting similar facial features for ourselves (scroll down on the sidebar to compare). I should note that I made Almost Dr. Sis, as she is in the midst of getting out from under the fallout of some unforeseen circumstances (work/school/life), so any likeness to NG Sis and me is intentional. But when/if Almost Dr. Sis decides to build an avatar, I'll be sure to swap it in. For now, please send positive vibes her way -- every little bit helps.

While we're on names and faces, let me also note that NG Sis is headed off to her first job in a week and shall hereafter be called, at her request, Marketing Sis. Don't worry; if you forget who's who, the information's in the sidebar too.

I think that does it. But stay tuned for another introduction! There's someone we want you all to meet when we pick him (or her) up after Labor Day weekend ...

Friday, August 28, 2009

Loyalties

They're messy.

This has been fairly clear to me since I started writing narrative essays. If you're going to write about events that really did happen in your life, you're going to have to decide how much to reveal about the people involved -- but what if they have no desire to appear on the page? What options do you have? You can't simultaneously honor their requests (stated outright or implied) to remain unmentioned and still stay true to your account of how things were, if your reluctant subjects happen to play key roles in your story.

Of course you can change names -- theirs, your own, whatever you need to alter so that your work can't be traced back to them. And that is probably what I will do as I'm writing this narrative; I'll introduce a protective scrim that will blur us all just enough to keep us from being identified. At the same time, there is a part of me that knows that that choice is part of the story too and that it deserves mention somehow. It's a decision driven by fear, fear of ownership -- and the coordinating responsibility for the pain my total honesty would cause others.

I attended a conference a few years ago, where Richard Rodriguez (author of the memoir Hunger of Memory) was one of the speakers. In his remarks, he offered an interesting perspective on this dilemma:

It is a writer’s business to betray the family, to betray the intimate circle. And I learned at 32 when I first wrote my book, what little girls know when they are 7 and 8 years old and they keep a diary -- boys never keep diaries, little girls keep diaries -- and they write because there are things too personal you can only say them to a stranger: Dear Diary. Today I fell, today I knew, today I met.

These words don't give permission, per se, but they do describe a certain futility in trying to stifle the need to write down those things too personal to say to the people closest to you. Indeed, Rodriguez seems to say that the very nature of those things compels the betrayal.

If only that knowledge could make it hurt less, for the betrayer and the betrayed.

Some more recommended reading, if this topic interests you: Ruth Behar's "Writing in My Father's Name: A Diary of Translated Woman's First Year," in the anthology Women Writing Culture. Any suggestions you might have for me are very welcome too.

Photo by Newly Graduated Sis

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The only way out is through

At least, that's what I keep telling myself.

The last few days have been challenging on the work front. I've reached the point where it's time to get going on the writing and I'm really not sure I know what my story is. I have no outline, as my thesis committee has more or less forbidden me to use one (it's for my creative good, to free up my mind from all the structure I like to impose on it). All I have as a result is a pile of personal documents -- letters, journals, school records, etc. -- and a lot of questions.

I've been gathering and sifting through these artifacts all summer, partly in an attempt to organize all the debris, partly to determine what can be thrown away. A lot of this stuff was boxed up, occupying unnecessary space in our closets, so it needed to be dealt with. I think I've finally streamlined everything as of yesterday, so the logistical work is done. Which means I can no longer avoid the really tough part: the emotional excavation of the memories in those boxes, memories I've blocked out for a long time.

I unearthed something in one document yesterday that brought back a lot of feelings, so many that I had trouble disentangling them from one another. Anger, shame, fear, hope, confusion, gratitude, grief -- I imagine there was more in there, but I couldn't stay with the memory long enough to identify anything further. It was too overwhelming.

I'm sure I'm afraid of the memory because there are truths about myself and others wrapped up in it, truths I didn't want to see before because they would cause me pain. Now that it's been so long, bringing those truths to the surface is going to be much harder work. And at the end, I get pain as my reward. Why am I doing this?

Good question.

The writing of this work plays some essential role and fulfills some crucial need in this whole process, I know, so maybe I'll have an answer eight months from now. That's the deadline if I want to graduate this spring.

In a way, I've been working on the project itself for much longer than just my recent years at Little U. on the Prairie. Elements of the subject matter have shown up time and again in creative essays I've deliberately tried to make about something else! Apparently this isn't unusual either -- one of my professors commented in a workshop that for a while, every single piece she wrote was about her dead mother. "You'll get a lot of mileage out of this," she said, about the subject dogging me. I wasn't sure at the time whether to feel good about that or taken aback by it. Does anyone really want to look at his or her personal griefs as something to "get mileage" from?

Anyway ...

I finished another reading this week -- a collection of short stories by Madeleine Thien called Simple Recipes. Many of the stories were published in literary journals before becoming part of the collection, and interestingly, now that they're side by side, the repetition of one theme among them is very noticeable. Specifically, each story seems to deal with a child's experience of being caught between parents whose relationship is slowly unraveling. The cause of that dissolution changes from one story to the next, and the actual conflict doesn't always take center stage, but the author does seem to circle the theme over and over as if she's searching for some way of understanding it. I can't say it makes for great variety in a short story collection, but the gaze trained on that repeated idea is compelling.

Speaking of which, it's time I turned my eye back on my work. To the dig, then ...

Monday, August 24, 2009

On deception

This is Deception Pass, a channel at the north end of Whidbey Island that connects the Puget Sound to the Strait of Juan de Fuca (the body of water that ultimately connects the sound to the Pacific Ocean). We stopped there to snap a few photos toward the end of our afternoon on Whidbey, just as the sun was setting.

I thought the name of the pass was interesting, but there wasn't an immediately available explanation for its origins. Newly Graduated Sis and I guessed that the currents, perhaps, were what was deceptive -- the water looked calm, but the boat heading into the sound just as we arrived was working extremely hard to make any headway. Of course, it turns out there's another reason for the name, which you can find here. (Ours wasn't too far off the mark, but for the sake of accuracy ... )

Deception -- the more abstract idea -- has been on my mind for a while, so coming across the word here felt oddly coincidental. Before our impromptu trip, I spent about a week trying to get through Hilary Mantel's Giving Up the Ghost, which was definitely not my favorite of the books I've been reading for my thesis. My beef was with the narrative voice -- I couldn't connect with the narrator for most of the work because of its distance, which made it difficult to identify what the memoir was really about. The subject matter isn't hard to grasp: the writer's loss of her father under uncomfortable family circumstances, physical symptoms that elude a diagnosis for years, and the aftermath of treatment for her ailments. But that list of topics still doesn't quite pinpoint what the story is meant to show. Except for the parts where the narrator talks about writing and its ability to mislead. Says Mantel:

I hardly know how to write about myself. Any style you pick seems to unpick itself before a paragraph is done. I will just go for it, I think to myself, I’ll hold out my hands and say, c’est moi, get used to it. I’ll trust the reader. This is what I recommend to people who ask me how to get published. Trust your reader, stop spoon-feeding your reader, stop patronizing your reader, give your reader credit for being as smart as you at least, and stop being so bloody beguiling: you in the back row, will you turn off that charm! Plain words on plain paper. Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a windowpane. Concentrate on sharpening your memory and peeling your sensibility. Cut every page you write by at least one third. Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours. Work out what it is you want to say. Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can. Eat meat. Drink blood. Give up your social life and don’t think you can have friends. Rise in the quiet hours of the night and prick your fingertips and use the blood for ink; that will cure you of persiflage!

But do I take my own advice? Not a bit. Persiflage is my nom de guerre. (Don’t use foreign expressions; it’s elitist.) I stray away from the beaten path of plain words into the meadows of extravagant simile: angels, ogres, doughnut-shaped holes. And as for transparency -- windowpanes undressed are a sign of poverty, aren’t they? How about some nice net curtains, so I can look out but you can’t see in? How about shutters, or a chaste Roman blind? Besides, windowpane prose is no guarantee of truthfulness. Some deceptive sights are seen through glass, and the best liars tell lies in plain words.

So now that I come to write a memoir, I argue with myself over every word. Is my writing clear: or is it deceptively clear?
(4)

When I came across this passage, it was as if someone had finally put into words the problem I frequently have with my own work. Don't get me wrong; I know what I write will never be objective. But have I illuminated my slant on things well enough? Or has some other story, the alter ego of what I think I'm writing, emerged? Words are tricky things, projecting one image to one reader while presenting something different to another -- obviously, this is impossible to control. But what about that image I see? In the transfer of energy between seeing and telling, have I done my utmost to conserve the essence of the experience, or have I let things escape? And if so, why?

I'm not even sure that makes sense anymore, I've read it over so many times trying to practice what I mean to say. But that's the way it is with writing about writing, no?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Treading new ground

Last weekend, D and I decided to clear out a good portion of the little garden at the side of our house to make room for some new plants. We originally had only the four iris bulbs we'd been keeping in pots, but an impromptu trip to a nursery with Troubadour Mom and Newly Graduated Sis on the Sunday before that convinced us to get more residents for our flower beds.

We went out to Whidbey Island on a whim -- NG Sis hadn't been on any of the Seattle ferries yet and we hadn't explored Whidbey, so it seemed like the perfect way to spend an afternoon. The nursery was a quick pick from a Washington guidebook (we knew it happened to be open on Sunday but didn't have a lot of other information), and it turned out to be an excellent stop.

Chocolate Flower Farm is a little niche nursery toward the south end of the island, specializing in flowers and other plants in deep maroon hues, from chocolate dahlias and chocolate sunflowers to chocolate cherry tomatoes and chocolate corn (in color only, not flavor!). We wandered through the display garden, which intersperses flowers of other warm shades among the main attractions.



Top and center photos by Newly Graduated Sis

We were very tempted to get some lavender to create a border along the walk leading to our front door. There were at least three varieties, all of which smelled delicious. In the end, though, D picked out a salpiglossis flower (didn't get a shot of it in the garden itself, but the link offers a good image from the nursery website). We figured we'd try our luck with a less expensive plant before committing to a dozen or more seedlings, especially given our recent wild weather.

Our plan this past weekend was just to decide where to put the salpiglossis -- it's supposedly self-sowing, so we wanted to give it a home where it could have space to spread. But once we started looking around, we got distracted by the raggedy shrubs, overgrown ground cover, and dead ornamental grasses crowding the flower beds, which had probably been neglected by the previous owner for a few seasons. Out came the spade and pruning shears, and several hours later, we'd transplanted two bushes (I think they're yews?) and uprooted four others deemed too unattractive to keep (the species looks moribund, but their yellowed, drooping leaves are normal, from what we've seen on well-maintained public grounds). I also tried my hand at giving a laceleaf Japanese maple a much-needed trim -- it was beginning to look like Sweetums (of Muppet fame) -- while D ripped out masses of unidentified creeping vines. The salpiglossis eventually found a home near the front walk.

Of course, with all the newly bared earth at our disposal, we couldn't help wanting to fill it with beautiful things, so our one new acquisition will be joined by an order of tulips and lilies in the fall, which we bought here. The irises will go into the beds this weekend and we'll remove the last of the dead bushes (there are six remaining), weather permitting. Now if we can just find the valve that feeds the sprinkler system, we'll be in good shape ...

After growing up in hot climates, I never thought I would enjoy gardening, but this new project (in normal Seattle summer temperatures) is undeniably fun.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Let's face it

Having to maintain anonymity on this blog means it's unlikely I'll ever post a photo here with my face in it, or that of anyone who can be unquestionably linked to me. It's just too risky.

As I'm sure you've noticed, this forces me to limit the shots I do post to those showing only the backs of people's heads. Until now, that is: enter the Mad Men avatar maker.

No, it's not a replacement for real photos (and no, I don't watch the show; I just saw this on another blog), but being able to put a face to a name is nice. Even when the name is merely an initial or a very obvious pseudonym. I played with the different features you can give each avatar -- face shape, eyes and eyebrows, nose, mouth, hair, skin color, etc. -- and was able to get interesting likenesses for D, Almost Dr. Sis, and Newly Graduated Sis.

So where are they? Well, I was going to post them. But then I decided it would be much more fun to have each person design his or her own for me to put up instead! Hopefully they'll be willing, and if not, then I'll share what I've created. In the meantime, here's mine:


In addition, I shall reveal the last nominee for the One Lovely Blog award, something I've been saving for an appropriate moment. I'm giving these accolades to iHeartFaces, written by Angie Arthur and Amy Locurto. Even though I can't post real pictures of my favorite people, here's a place where others can post shots of theirs. Enjoy!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Brushes and palates

I think next time I go to Vancouver, it will have to be without Troubadour Dad.

Seeing the city with him right after we moved up here in 2007 was a lot of fun -- I'd never explored Richmond (the suburb with all the amazing Asian seafood restaurants offering live catch in tanks for you to order) and I hadn't seen the public market on Granville Island. There was also Stanley Park to check out and the Chinese herbal shops in the downtown area to experience.

Since that first trip, we've gone back to Vancouver with my parents two more times (one visit for each subsequent summer we've lived in the Pacific Northwest). And each time, we've done the same itinerary, even down to the same restaurant (yes, singular) for lunch and dinner multiple days running. The only difference, perhaps, has been less time in the park and more time at the table or in search of things to put on it.

Now, I do enjoy a good gastronomic tour, but in a city that contains so much more than food, you'd think it would be nice to explore some of those other cultural offerings, wouldn't you? Unfortunately, Troubadour Dad is not very adventurous, and as it has been for the rest of us in the family since I was very little, it's his way or the highway. I've been trying to figure out how to change this dynamic without catastrophic fallout (aiming for a few falling rocks rather than an entire landslide), but at this point, my muscles are giving out. What that means for the future, I'm not sure. At the moment, it just means taking a breather from Dad-controlled vacations before my head explodes. We've had four this summer (vacations, not explosions, in San Jose, Boston, Newfoundland, and Vancouver) so I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I feel this way. Still, the situation makes me sad.

We did get two hours' reprieve from food on this most recent trip, which I was grateful for. Troubadour Dad wanted to commission a Chinese painting for a friend of his, and one of Troubadour Mom's former schoolmates, who does wonderful work and has had it exhibited, is now living in Vancouver. So we got to visit her in-home studio, where she showed us samples of her watercolors and calligraphy. Newly Graduated Sis and I had fun taking pictures of her tools, still out after a private lesson earlier in the morning:



Troubadour Mom also took classes in calligraphy and watercolor before leaving Hong Kong, and when we were kids, she let us use her brushes and her special ceramic dish (similar to the one above with multiple compartments) to paint. I had forgotten all about that until I saw those tools again.

Supposedly, Troubadour Mom has many old friends who have settled in the Vancouver area, so if we can get her up here on her own, we might have a chance of reconnecting her with a few more of them. That was the best part of this trip, of course -- getting to witness the reunion between her and her schoolmate, whom she hadn't seen in thirty years.

More on non-gastronomic sightseeing soon, as well as thesis reading updates and a final blog award nominee (I know, I'm getting to it!). More frequent posting in general too -- it's a relief to be in one place again.

Photo by Newly Graduated Sis

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Roll modeling

That's what Newly Graduated Sis is about to begin at left. Yep, we painted the garage.

It took nine hours, three snack breaks, two paint rollers, one very useful ladder, three cans of self-priming paint, and some super-energizing music. By the time we were done, we were splattered and spent, but the results were well worth it.

NG Sis had insisted before her arrival that she wanted to help us with some kind of home improvement project, and painting was high on our wish list in several of the rooms as it would then allow us to put up much-needed shelving. Since neither of us had ever painted before, the garage seemed like the safest place to learn as we went. We pulled the cars out and parked them on the street, taped up the wall plates on all the electrical outlets, moved all the random stuff in storage to the center of the floor and then got to work with the rollers. Here's the obligatory before shot:


It was pretty quick work until we had to start using the ladder -- only one person can be on it at a time. But that gave us breaks to work the kinks out of our arms and shoulders, which was necessary by the time we got to that point. The garage is 12' by 12' by 13', so it's not a small space by any means.

The project wouldn't have gotten done so soon had NG Sis not come out a few days ahead of Troubadour Mom and Dad (they were less inclined to join in the DIY fun). D was away at a conference as well, so he and I would have had to put off the job until at least today. Instead, we're now ready for the next step: mounting shelves and -- more importantly -- moving as much as we can from the house into storage here. It will be so nice to have closet space again!

Here's the after shot -- wish I'd had a fish-eye lens to get a picture of the entire room. In any case, it may not look like much, but we're very proud of it.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why I'm in Vancouver:

(Not really, but the Air Canada ad was funny so I thought I'd post it.)

I'm kind of in need of something funny at the moment as I think I'm coming to the unhappy realization that Troubadour Mom and Dad stress me out in ways that I wish they didn't. By which I mean two things -- (1) that I wish they wouldn't do the things that stress me out and (2) that I wish I were able to accept their foibles and just be glad to spend time with them.

They flew into Seattle on Tuesday evening, and within about thirty minutes of picking them up from the airport, I was feeling the anxiety that always accompanies being around them, no matter how hard I try to subvert or suppress it. It's probably quicker to surface these days because the relationship problems in their not quite three decades of marriage have been coming to a nasty head in the last twelve months, and as much as I'd like not to be involved in that situation, I am, just because I'm part of the family. Trying to establish boundaries and asking my parents to respect them has always been difficult for me for cultural and personal reasons, which I won't get into right now (that's enough material for oh, say, a thesis?). So on a trip where we're constantly together and the little arguments between them pop off every so often or sub-arguments threaten to become full-fledged ones, I get particularly stressed.

I've resisted writing about this explicitly here for a while because I don't want this blog to become nothing but a venting space for my frustration with this situation, but I think said situation is becoming a major feature of my current life landscape. And since this blog is about trying to put down roots in the terra not-so-firma many of us live on, I think it's time I stopped trying to write around said feature.

We're in Vancouver till late tonight, so I'll say more when I get back home. I also promise a fun post on a project Newly Graduated Sis and I worked on before Troubadour Mom and Dad arrived. There are before-and-after photos ...

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Monday, August 31, 2009

Meet the family



Yes indeed! Please allow me to (re)introduce you to D, Almost Dr. Sis, and Newly Graduated Sis in their avatar forms.

We had a good time putting these together. NG Sis and I were especially amused to find that we ended up selecting similar facial features for ourselves (scroll down on the sidebar to compare). I should note that I made Almost Dr. Sis, as she is in the midst of getting out from under the fallout of some unforeseen circumstances (work/school/life), so any likeness to NG Sis and me is intentional. But when/if Almost Dr. Sis decides to build an avatar, I'll be sure to swap it in. For now, please send positive vibes her way -- every little bit helps.

While we're on names and faces, let me also note that NG Sis is headed off to her first job in a week and shall hereafter be called, at her request, Marketing Sis. Don't worry; if you forget who's who, the information's in the sidebar too.

I think that does it. But stay tuned for another introduction! There's someone we want you all to meet when we pick him (or her) up after Labor Day weekend ...

Friday, August 28, 2009

Loyalties

They're messy.

This has been fairly clear to me since I started writing narrative essays. If you're going to write about events that really did happen in your life, you're going to have to decide how much to reveal about the people involved -- but what if they have no desire to appear on the page? What options do you have? You can't simultaneously honor their requests (stated outright or implied) to remain unmentioned and still stay true to your account of how things were, if your reluctant subjects happen to play key roles in your story.

Of course you can change names -- theirs, your own, whatever you need to alter so that your work can't be traced back to them. And that is probably what I will do as I'm writing this narrative; I'll introduce a protective scrim that will blur us all just enough to keep us from being identified. At the same time, there is a part of me that knows that that choice is part of the story too and that it deserves mention somehow. It's a decision driven by fear, fear of ownership -- and the coordinating responsibility for the pain my total honesty would cause others.

I attended a conference a few years ago, where Richard Rodriguez (author of the memoir Hunger of Memory) was one of the speakers. In his remarks, he offered an interesting perspective on this dilemma:

It is a writer’s business to betray the family, to betray the intimate circle. And I learned at 32 when I first wrote my book, what little girls know when they are 7 and 8 years old and they keep a diary -- boys never keep diaries, little girls keep diaries -- and they write because there are things too personal you can only say them to a stranger: Dear Diary. Today I fell, today I knew, today I met.

These words don't give permission, per se, but they do describe a certain futility in trying to stifle the need to write down those things too personal to say to the people closest to you. Indeed, Rodriguez seems to say that the very nature of those things compels the betrayal.

If only that knowledge could make it hurt less, for the betrayer and the betrayed.

Some more recommended reading, if this topic interests you: Ruth Behar's "Writing in My Father's Name: A Diary of Translated Woman's First Year," in the anthology Women Writing Culture. Any suggestions you might have for me are very welcome too.

Photo by Newly Graduated Sis

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The only way out is through

At least, that's what I keep telling myself.

The last few days have been challenging on the work front. I've reached the point where it's time to get going on the writing and I'm really not sure I know what my story is. I have no outline, as my thesis committee has more or less forbidden me to use one (it's for my creative good, to free up my mind from all the structure I like to impose on it). All I have as a result is a pile of personal documents -- letters, journals, school records, etc. -- and a lot of questions.

I've been gathering and sifting through these artifacts all summer, partly in an attempt to organize all the debris, partly to determine what can be thrown away. A lot of this stuff was boxed up, occupying unnecessary space in our closets, so it needed to be dealt with. I think I've finally streamlined everything as of yesterday, so the logistical work is done. Which means I can no longer avoid the really tough part: the emotional excavation of the memories in those boxes, memories I've blocked out for a long time.

I unearthed something in one document yesterday that brought back a lot of feelings, so many that I had trouble disentangling them from one another. Anger, shame, fear, hope, confusion, gratitude, grief -- I imagine there was more in there, but I couldn't stay with the memory long enough to identify anything further. It was too overwhelming.

I'm sure I'm afraid of the memory because there are truths about myself and others wrapped up in it, truths I didn't want to see before because they would cause me pain. Now that it's been so long, bringing those truths to the surface is going to be much harder work. And at the end, I get pain as my reward. Why am I doing this?

Good question.

The writing of this work plays some essential role and fulfills some crucial need in this whole process, I know, so maybe I'll have an answer eight months from now. That's the deadline if I want to graduate this spring.

In a way, I've been working on the project itself for much longer than just my recent years at Little U. on the Prairie. Elements of the subject matter have shown up time and again in creative essays I've deliberately tried to make about something else! Apparently this isn't unusual either -- one of my professors commented in a workshop that for a while, every single piece she wrote was about her dead mother. "You'll get a lot of mileage out of this," she said, about the subject dogging me. I wasn't sure at the time whether to feel good about that or taken aback by it. Does anyone really want to look at his or her personal griefs as something to "get mileage" from?

Anyway ...

I finished another reading this week -- a collection of short stories by Madeleine Thien called Simple Recipes. Many of the stories were published in literary journals before becoming part of the collection, and interestingly, now that they're side by side, the repetition of one theme among them is very noticeable. Specifically, each story seems to deal with a child's experience of being caught between parents whose relationship is slowly unraveling. The cause of that dissolution changes from one story to the next, and the actual conflict doesn't always take center stage, but the author does seem to circle the theme over and over as if she's searching for some way of understanding it. I can't say it makes for great variety in a short story collection, but the gaze trained on that repeated idea is compelling.

Speaking of which, it's time I turned my eye back on my work. To the dig, then ...

Monday, August 24, 2009

On deception

This is Deception Pass, a channel at the north end of Whidbey Island that connects the Puget Sound to the Strait of Juan de Fuca (the body of water that ultimately connects the sound to the Pacific Ocean). We stopped there to snap a few photos toward the end of our afternoon on Whidbey, just as the sun was setting.

I thought the name of the pass was interesting, but there wasn't an immediately available explanation for its origins. Newly Graduated Sis and I guessed that the currents, perhaps, were what was deceptive -- the water looked calm, but the boat heading into the sound just as we arrived was working extremely hard to make any headway. Of course, it turns out there's another reason for the name, which you can find here. (Ours wasn't too far off the mark, but for the sake of accuracy ... )

Deception -- the more abstract idea -- has been on my mind for a while, so coming across the word here felt oddly coincidental. Before our impromptu trip, I spent about a week trying to get through Hilary Mantel's Giving Up the Ghost, which was definitely not my favorite of the books I've been reading for my thesis. My beef was with the narrative voice -- I couldn't connect with the narrator for most of the work because of its distance, which made it difficult to identify what the memoir was really about. The subject matter isn't hard to grasp: the writer's loss of her father under uncomfortable family circumstances, physical symptoms that elude a diagnosis for years, and the aftermath of treatment for her ailments. But that list of topics still doesn't quite pinpoint what the story is meant to show. Except for the parts where the narrator talks about writing and its ability to mislead. Says Mantel:

I hardly know how to write about myself. Any style you pick seems to unpick itself before a paragraph is done. I will just go for it, I think to myself, I’ll hold out my hands and say, c’est moi, get used to it. I’ll trust the reader. This is what I recommend to people who ask me how to get published. Trust your reader, stop spoon-feeding your reader, stop patronizing your reader, give your reader credit for being as smart as you at least, and stop being so bloody beguiling: you in the back row, will you turn off that charm! Plain words on plain paper. Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a windowpane. Concentrate on sharpening your memory and peeling your sensibility. Cut every page you write by at least one third. Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours. Work out what it is you want to say. Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can. Eat meat. Drink blood. Give up your social life and don’t think you can have friends. Rise in the quiet hours of the night and prick your fingertips and use the blood for ink; that will cure you of persiflage!

But do I take my own advice? Not a bit. Persiflage is my nom de guerre. (Don’t use foreign expressions; it’s elitist.) I stray away from the beaten path of plain words into the meadows of extravagant simile: angels, ogres, doughnut-shaped holes. And as for transparency -- windowpanes undressed are a sign of poverty, aren’t they? How about some nice net curtains, so I can look out but you can’t see in? How about shutters, or a chaste Roman blind? Besides, windowpane prose is no guarantee of truthfulness. Some deceptive sights are seen through glass, and the best liars tell lies in plain words.

So now that I come to write a memoir, I argue with myself over every word. Is my writing clear: or is it deceptively clear?
(4)

When I came across this passage, it was as if someone had finally put into words the problem I frequently have with my own work. Don't get me wrong; I know what I write will never be objective. But have I illuminated my slant on things well enough? Or has some other story, the alter ego of what I think I'm writing, emerged? Words are tricky things, projecting one image to one reader while presenting something different to another -- obviously, this is impossible to control. But what about that image I see? In the transfer of energy between seeing and telling, have I done my utmost to conserve the essence of the experience, or have I let things escape? And if so, why?

I'm not even sure that makes sense anymore, I've read it over so many times trying to practice what I mean to say. But that's the way it is with writing about writing, no?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Treading new ground

Last weekend, D and I decided to clear out a good portion of the little garden at the side of our house to make room for some new plants. We originally had only the four iris bulbs we'd been keeping in pots, but an impromptu trip to a nursery with Troubadour Mom and Newly Graduated Sis on the Sunday before that convinced us to get more residents for our flower beds.

We went out to Whidbey Island on a whim -- NG Sis hadn't been on any of the Seattle ferries yet and we hadn't explored Whidbey, so it seemed like the perfect way to spend an afternoon. The nursery was a quick pick from a Washington guidebook (we knew it happened to be open on Sunday but didn't have a lot of other information), and it turned out to be an excellent stop.

Chocolate Flower Farm is a little niche nursery toward the south end of the island, specializing in flowers and other plants in deep maroon hues, from chocolate dahlias and chocolate sunflowers to chocolate cherry tomatoes and chocolate corn (in color only, not flavor!). We wandered through the display garden, which intersperses flowers of other warm shades among the main attractions.



Top and center photos by Newly Graduated Sis

We were very tempted to get some lavender to create a border along the walk leading to our front door. There were at least three varieties, all of which smelled delicious. In the end, though, D picked out a salpiglossis flower (didn't get a shot of it in the garden itself, but the link offers a good image from the nursery website). We figured we'd try our luck with a less expensive plant before committing to a dozen or more seedlings, especially given our recent wild weather.

Our plan this past weekend was just to decide where to put the salpiglossis -- it's supposedly self-sowing, so we wanted to give it a home where it could have space to spread. But once we started looking around, we got distracted by the raggedy shrubs, overgrown ground cover, and dead ornamental grasses crowding the flower beds, which had probably been neglected by the previous owner for a few seasons. Out came the spade and pruning shears, and several hours later, we'd transplanted two bushes (I think they're yews?) and uprooted four others deemed too unattractive to keep (the species looks moribund, but their yellowed, drooping leaves are normal, from what we've seen on well-maintained public grounds). I also tried my hand at giving a laceleaf Japanese maple a much-needed trim -- it was beginning to look like Sweetums (of Muppet fame) -- while D ripped out masses of unidentified creeping vines. The salpiglossis eventually found a home near the front walk.

Of course, with all the newly bared earth at our disposal, we couldn't help wanting to fill it with beautiful things, so our one new acquisition will be joined by an order of tulips and lilies in the fall, which we bought here. The irises will go into the beds this weekend and we'll remove the last of the dead bushes (there are six remaining), weather permitting. Now if we can just find the valve that feeds the sprinkler system, we'll be in good shape ...

After growing up in hot climates, I never thought I would enjoy gardening, but this new project (in normal Seattle summer temperatures) is undeniably fun.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Let's face it

Having to maintain anonymity on this blog means it's unlikely I'll ever post a photo here with my face in it, or that of anyone who can be unquestionably linked to me. It's just too risky.

As I'm sure you've noticed, this forces me to limit the shots I do post to those showing only the backs of people's heads. Until now, that is: enter the Mad Men avatar maker.

No, it's not a replacement for real photos (and no, I don't watch the show; I just saw this on another blog), but being able to put a face to a name is nice. Even when the name is merely an initial or a very obvious pseudonym. I played with the different features you can give each avatar -- face shape, eyes and eyebrows, nose, mouth, hair, skin color, etc. -- and was able to get interesting likenesses for D, Almost Dr. Sis, and Newly Graduated Sis.

So where are they? Well, I was going to post them. But then I decided it would be much more fun to have each person design his or her own for me to put up instead! Hopefully they'll be willing, and if not, then I'll share what I've created. In the meantime, here's mine:


In addition, I shall reveal the last nominee for the One Lovely Blog award, something I've been saving for an appropriate moment. I'm giving these accolades to iHeartFaces, written by Angie Arthur and Amy Locurto. Even though I can't post real pictures of my favorite people, here's a place where others can post shots of theirs. Enjoy!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Brushes and palates

I think next time I go to Vancouver, it will have to be without Troubadour Dad.

Seeing the city with him right after we moved up here in 2007 was a lot of fun -- I'd never explored Richmond (the suburb with all the amazing Asian seafood restaurants offering live catch in tanks for you to order) and I hadn't seen the public market on Granville Island. There was also Stanley Park to check out and the Chinese herbal shops in the downtown area to experience.

Since that first trip, we've gone back to Vancouver with my parents two more times (one visit for each subsequent summer we've lived in the Pacific Northwest). And each time, we've done the same itinerary, even down to the same restaurant (yes, singular) for lunch and dinner multiple days running. The only difference, perhaps, has been less time in the park and more time at the table or in search of things to put on it.

Now, I do enjoy a good gastronomic tour, but in a city that contains so much more than food, you'd think it would be nice to explore some of those other cultural offerings, wouldn't you? Unfortunately, Troubadour Dad is not very adventurous, and as it has been for the rest of us in the family since I was very little, it's his way or the highway. I've been trying to figure out how to change this dynamic without catastrophic fallout (aiming for a few falling rocks rather than an entire landslide), but at this point, my muscles are giving out. What that means for the future, I'm not sure. At the moment, it just means taking a breather from Dad-controlled vacations before my head explodes. We've had four this summer (vacations, not explosions, in San Jose, Boston, Newfoundland, and Vancouver) so I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I feel this way. Still, the situation makes me sad.

We did get two hours' reprieve from food on this most recent trip, which I was grateful for. Troubadour Dad wanted to commission a Chinese painting for a friend of his, and one of Troubadour Mom's former schoolmates, who does wonderful work and has had it exhibited, is now living in Vancouver. So we got to visit her in-home studio, where she showed us samples of her watercolors and calligraphy. Newly Graduated Sis and I had fun taking pictures of her tools, still out after a private lesson earlier in the morning:



Troubadour Mom also took classes in calligraphy and watercolor before leaving Hong Kong, and when we were kids, she let us use her brushes and her special ceramic dish (similar to the one above with multiple compartments) to paint. I had forgotten all about that until I saw those tools again.

Supposedly, Troubadour Mom has many old friends who have settled in the Vancouver area, so if we can get her up here on her own, we might have a chance of reconnecting her with a few more of them. That was the best part of this trip, of course -- getting to witness the reunion between her and her schoolmate, whom she hadn't seen in thirty years.

More on non-gastronomic sightseeing soon, as well as thesis reading updates and a final blog award nominee (I know, I'm getting to it!). More frequent posting in general too -- it's a relief to be in one place again.

Photo by Newly Graduated Sis

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Roll modeling

That's what Newly Graduated Sis is about to begin at left. Yep, we painted the garage.

It took nine hours, three snack breaks, two paint rollers, one very useful ladder, three cans of self-priming paint, and some super-energizing music. By the time we were done, we were splattered and spent, but the results were well worth it.

NG Sis had insisted before her arrival that she wanted to help us with some kind of home improvement project, and painting was high on our wish list in several of the rooms as it would then allow us to put up much-needed shelving. Since neither of us had ever painted before, the garage seemed like the safest place to learn as we went. We pulled the cars out and parked them on the street, taped up the wall plates on all the electrical outlets, moved all the random stuff in storage to the center of the floor and then got to work with the rollers. Here's the obligatory before shot:


It was pretty quick work until we had to start using the ladder -- only one person can be on it at a time. But that gave us breaks to work the kinks out of our arms and shoulders, which was necessary by the time we got to that point. The garage is 12' by 12' by 13', so it's not a small space by any means.

The project wouldn't have gotten done so soon had NG Sis not come out a few days ahead of Troubadour Mom and Dad (they were less inclined to join in the DIY fun). D was away at a conference as well, so he and I would have had to put off the job until at least today. Instead, we're now ready for the next step: mounting shelves and -- more importantly -- moving as much as we can from the house into storage here. It will be so nice to have closet space again!

Here's the after shot -- wish I'd had a fish-eye lens to get a picture of the entire room. In any case, it may not look like much, but we're very proud of it.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why I'm in Vancouver:

(Not really, but the Air Canada ad was funny so I thought I'd post it.)

I'm kind of in need of something funny at the moment as I think I'm coming to the unhappy realization that Troubadour Mom and Dad stress me out in ways that I wish they didn't. By which I mean two things -- (1) that I wish they wouldn't do the things that stress me out and (2) that I wish I were able to accept their foibles and just be glad to spend time with them.

They flew into Seattle on Tuesday evening, and within about thirty minutes of picking them up from the airport, I was feeling the anxiety that always accompanies being around them, no matter how hard I try to subvert or suppress it. It's probably quicker to surface these days because the relationship problems in their not quite three decades of marriage have been coming to a nasty head in the last twelve months, and as much as I'd like not to be involved in that situation, I am, just because I'm part of the family. Trying to establish boundaries and asking my parents to respect them has always been difficult for me for cultural and personal reasons, which I won't get into right now (that's enough material for oh, say, a thesis?). So on a trip where we're constantly together and the little arguments between them pop off every so often or sub-arguments threaten to become full-fledged ones, I get particularly stressed.

I've resisted writing about this explicitly here for a while because I don't want this blog to become nothing but a venting space for my frustration with this situation, but I think said situation is becoming a major feature of my current life landscape. And since this blog is about trying to put down roots in the terra not-so-firma many of us live on, I think it's time I stopped trying to write around said feature.

We're in Vancouver till late tonight, so I'll say more when I get back home. I also promise a fun post on a project Newly Graduated Sis and I worked on before Troubadour Mom and Dad arrived. There are before-and-after photos ...