Archive for August, 2008


A Sweeter Song

Last weekend I took a trip to Idaho to visit a friend, and I had the good fortune of making a new one before I’d even boarded my plane in Oakland. It was an early flight, and I sat at the gate in between two empty chairs trying to stay awake when a big group of fly-lookin’ gentlemen strolled up. They were about to sit on either side of me so I offered to move over and give them at least two adjacent seats. I dropped my iPod and a member of the group reached down to grab it, saying “well thank you, pretty lady” as he took the chair next to mine. He then asked how I was doing, where I was going, and told me I was a “wonderful person” forĀ  paying a visit to a friend. Of course I liked him already.

I don’t always enjoy conversations with strangers in airports or on planes; needless to say, some of the people I meet are rather annoying. Nonetheless, I try to be polite and at least exchange niceties – and although I’m aware of the risk of cornering myself in an awkward (or worse, boring) conversation, I’m always willing to see if it might turn into a pleasant chat. The risk is worth the possible payoff that you might get lucky and meet someone interesting.

And last Friday morning, I struck gold. This fellow was pretty charismatic for a man in his sixties making an early connecting flight, but I suppose I should have guessed based on the big diamond rocks in his ears and black and yellow sunglasses that matched his outfit. He had it goin’ on. When he mentioned that he was also going to Boise to play a show before moving on to the next city, I asked him sweetly what kind of show. “Oh we’re playing the state fair out there,” he said, then paused for a second and turned to me, looked over the rim of his glasses and added, “We’re The Temptations.”

I reacted accordingly, and quickly realized I couldn’t let this conversation die. We talked for about 20 minutes until it was time to board the plane, covering the following topics: Idaho, Los Angeles (where he’s lived for over 30 years), the hot weather in Texas (where he was born), Detroit (including Motown and the riots), the Olympics, Michael Phelps, Shawn Johnson (whom he adores), travel in general, his favorite places to perform (Rio, London, Paris, Hawaii), Amsterdam, drugs, my tan, my job as a swim instructor and whether I wear a bikini while teaching, my biceps (which he felt), and what it takes to throw a good punch.

My favorite story was what he told me about his first time in Amsterdam. Their host greeted them when they arrived for a performance in the early ’70s, and took them to see a “movie.” He thought this was weird, and I guessed right that it was actually a live sex show. “Yep!” he said, “They were on stage makin’ love to one of our hits!”

Yes, this was a charismatic individual. I imagine it’s a prerequisite to be a part of the Temptations. About midway through our conversation, he started pointing out his fellow band members, one he called “Old Man River,” one he told me to watch out for, and he raised his voice to say “Hey guys, this is Shannon.” Of course I liked this too. Then my new friend turned to me, offered his hand like a gentleman, and said in a sweet, sonorous voice, “Otis Williams, nice to meet ya.” I could just barely see his eyes through his sunglasses, but they certainly had the wisdom, charm and sparkle of a man who’s been singing love and soul to the world for 47 years.

So, I offer this advice to myself and others: talk to strangers in airports, because one of them might just turn out to be a living legend singing a sweeter song than the birds in the trees.


“The relationship cannot be determined from the information given”

I don’t know how to find the area of a trapezoid. As a result of this, and the need for many other formulas I haven’t had committed to memory in at least 5 years, I did poorly on the quantitative portion of the Graduate Record Examination. The reason I’ve taken this test twice now is that I have uncertain plans of applying to graduate programs in literature or creative writing – both fields in which I will obviously need to solve many quadratic equations. The analytical writing and verbal sections I can understand, but honestly, do I really have to do an extensive review of middle school math to get into a masters program in literature?

A few days after I realized for the second time that I am simply too far detached from my 8th grade algebra class to do any better on the GRE, I found myself sitting on the BART train coming home from San Francisco next to a girl who had probably just completed her 8th grade algebra class. She looked about thirteen or fourteen, on her way home from somewhere with her sister and auntie, and she was hard at work coloring a page of her notebook. There was a healthy stash of fine-point markers, highlighters and mechanical pencils in the small zipper pocket of her Jansport backpack, and she used these to decorate page after page of binder paper in her FiveStar spiral – all while quietly singing American Idol Kelly Clarkson‘s hit, “Since You’ve Been Gone.”

I kept peeking at her artwork and couldn’t help but crack a condescending smile or two. She’d splattered the page with little phrases that I’m sure were significant to her and was working on coloring them. They went something like this:

LiSTeN tO yOuR hEaRT

CASH rules EVERYTHING around ME!

MuSIc is the way i LIVE

sOmeTImEs we WoNDer if tHe FIGHT is wOrtHwhiLe…

And so on and so forth. I sat there remembering what it was like to be that age – only a short eight or nine years ago – and the way everything seemed terribly important, terribly real, the way all of our thoughts seemed profound, bold and original (especially when embellished with a fresh set of glitter gel pens). As I shook my head and giggled to myself over her silly melodrama, quietly judging her petty, adolescent frame of mind, I realized something that sobered me right up: she would probably do better on the GRE quantitative section than I did.

While I’m glad to have left most of my teenage melodrama at my senior prom, glad that I no longer enjoy writing words with a variety of capitalization, there are clearly some things that I would have been wise to hang on to (at least according to the folks who write the GRE). I mean, her notebook was kind of silly, but I found myself wanting to borrow one of her markers and I couldn’t get the Kelly Clarkson song out of my head all night. Though, from my experience, it’s probably safe to say that she’ll remember those song lyrics long after she’s forgotten the pythagorean theorem.

Since you’ve been gone, I can breathe for the first time. I’m so movin’ on, YEAH yeah…


Fear of the Unknown

Well, here it goes: in exactly three weeks I will be on a plane to Amsterdam. Where I’m moving. Alone. For one year. To be thousands of miles from anyone I know. In a city with a lot of rain. I sound excited, don’t I?

Now the news is on the internet for public view and has become official. I keep thinking that new developments in the planning process make it more officially official – first it was the job offer in mid-July, then it was sharing the information with friends and family, then it was the flight reservation, and now it’s the debut on my blog. When the news hits Facebook, there’s really no turning back.

If I sound at all like I’m staring doomsday (or, as I like to call it, September 5th when I depart from SFO) in the face, I apologize and ask that you withhold judgement. Exactly one year ago as I was preparing for my semester in Italy, I felt and behaved in precisely this way – except worse. I was depressed and cried for several weeks, imagining a new possible catastrophe every day and assuming all the worst. People probably thought I was getting ready to jump into a fiery volcano rather than spend three and a half months in one of the most popular destinations in the world doing nothing but eating and learning and exploring. But this is simply how I am.

When I graduated and moved away from college (see post: “Coming Full Circle”), I told a few people that I felt like I’d been given a death sentence and was being forced to say my final farewells in the time I had left. I believed I’d never see most of the people there again and kept saying things like “have a nice life” and “nice knowin’ ya,” with only partial sarcasm. In other words, I’m a little bit crazy. But come on, who isn’t? It’s just that I am very nostalgic and get very attached (see post: “Hold for a few breaths”) and have an exceptionally difficult time leaving people and things behind.

But I know it’s what I’m supposed to do right now. And I know it will be great. Every rational molecule of my little-bit-crazy being says that this is the best thing for me, that nothing but good will come from it, and that I will change and grow in positive ways that I can only begin to imagine now. Despite this, I am sad and scared and irritable as my departure date approaches.

This is rooted in my intense love for the life I’ve had thus far, and for an almost debilitating fear of the unknown (though it hasn’t stopped me from doing anything yet). At the end of my time in Italy I thought I’d moved past this silly habit of freaking out every time I experience a positive transition in my life. In December I wrote this in the last post of my travel blog:

…when I’m reading a book, at the start of a new chapter I always flip to the end to see how many pages it is, to see just what exactly I’m getting myself into. But, while I still do that with every book I read, I no longer feel that I have to know how something in my life is going to happen, no longer submit to the anxious need of a clear picture and understanding of what I’m about to do.

Yet, here I am – sad to say goodbye to what I know, and afraid to say hello to what I don’t. My only comfort (and it is enormously comforting) is the knowledge that I am going to live with what I can already tell is a wonderful, loving and interesting family in a place with everything to offer and that I’ll have the opportunity to make a positive impact on their lives (and my own, of course) as an au pair. Just as my trip to Italy turned out to be pretty much nonstop bliss and allowed me to grow and mature unlike anything else had before, I know that this year will surprise and delight me in ways I can’t even predict, that it will certainly be my greatest adventure yet.

Plus, I’ll learn a few things, which is always solid incentive. The other night I went to Barnes and Noble in search of a phrase book to begin learning my Dutch. I couldn’t find anything on the shelves, so I approached the info desk to ask a helpful and knowledgeable employee. The conversation went like this:

“Hi. I’m looking for a Dutch phrase book.”

“OK. So…Danish?”

“No, Dutch. Ya know, the Netherlands?”

“Right, but in terms of the language, you want Danish?”

“Um, no. Dutch, like I said. Dutch is the language.”

They didn’t have anything; next time I’ll take my business to Borders. So, if I get absolutely nothing else out of this experience (which I know won’t be the case), at least I can be happy with the knowledge that I will never, ever be a stupid girl working in a bookstore who doesn’t know that Dutch is a language and that it is spoken by people who are Dutch.

And that will soon, with a little courage and a lot of practice, be spoken by me.


Check back often for posts on my adventures; I’m more than happy to help anyone live vicariously. Look under the Amsterdam category and by all means, leave me a comment.


Hold for a few breaths, and release

Last night I attended a stretch yoga class and the instructor talked to us about the problem with having attachments. Apparently, yoga maintains that having attachments is the greatest source of suffering. The practice emphasizes the process of letting go of our attachments – to things, ideas, people, even time – so as to avoid clouding the ‘true self.’ To be in constant awareness of our attachments means to more easily allow them to weaken, to dissolve. In fact, it’s more than merely letting go; yoga teaches us not to take hold in the first place.

I couldn’t help but relate this to everything in my life that I am in the process of detaching myself from (with more than a little suffering). I’m not doing this to de-cloud my ‘true self’; I’m only doing it because I’m soon moving far away, and I have no choice. As a result, I am suffering. Our most intense and profound attachments are those we have to other people. So when those attachments break for whatever reason, we experience the most intense and profound suffering.

This is a suffering I would rather not go through if I can help it, and if letting go of attachments is the way to do it, I’m willing to try. I haven’t had much luck so far. I try to imagine myself having fun and doing exciting things in the coming year – which I am able to do with relative ease – but when I try to imagine doing them with other people, I freeze and the whole image crumbles. I realized that it’s impossible to imagine the people with whom you will be friends with and the kind of relationship you might have before you even know those people exist.

I can tell myself a million times that I’ll make friends – which I’m sure is true – but it won’t mean anything to me until I meet them. So until that time I will have to do my best to weaken the attachment I currently have to those around me, make my peace with leaving them behind for a while. And when I make my new friends, I can hold onto them just tight enough, but try to remember that at a certain point it will be time, once again, to release.


D’il Mio Libro Piccolo: In the Heart of New York

Exhibit by Jeff Koons on the roof of the Met with Central Park and Manhattan skyline in the background.

Exhibit by Jeff Koons on the roof of the Met with Central Park and Manhattan skyline in the background.

In June I saw New York City for the first time. I suppose I haven’t written about it yet because I’m afraid to, afraid I won’t be able to say anything meaningful about a place so full of meaning that I think my heart beat faster than normal during my entire stay. This is similar to the way I never write about my mother; I believe I subconsciously assume that my love and gratitude for her simply reject words or description, and I leave it at that. And New York, New York – what can I say when there is so much to say? I find myself stammering and returning again and again to certain words: life, energy, movement, color, diversity, layers, depth. Depth.

When people ask why I like it so much, I feel my lungs expand and my eyes close and my head move slowly from side to side and all I can say is, “There is so much there.” And apparently, there’s so much that I’ll just have to return someday for a longer stay – perhaps a year, perhaps ten, perhaps a lifetime (if I can handle the snow) – so that I am able to write, able to focus for a little while on one color, one layer, one life. For now, though, I will lean on a passage from E.B. White’s graceful and honest essay written in 1948, Here is New York.

A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

The full meaning contained within the city remains elusive to me, but I was lucky enough to walk amidst its vibrant rhythmic energy for a few dizzying days and perhaps begin to understand what makes the noises seem louder, the smells stronger, the colors brighter, and the people more complex than any other place I’d been; what, in other words, quickens the city’s pulse.


Coming Full Circle… and then going

It’s unnatural to leave a circle, to disrupt the seamless connection of meeting ends, to break away in a crooked line shooting off in another direction. If this were natural, our most fundamentally important geometric shape would resemble something like a sun drawn by a 5-year-old in a rendering of a landscape: a squashed oval with jagged rays protruding in every which way. But a circle is a circle is a circle – perfect, whole, complete. Like the moon, our eyes, a wheel, a crown, wedding rings, even the click wheel on an iPod, or perhaps an orange. So many vital, core things in the human world are circular (or spherical, if we want to get technical), and they remain that way because it makes the most sense.

I believe this is the reason that many people struggle with the traffic circle in the quaint downtown where I attended college. Visitors navigating the roundabout for the first time often become confused and frustrated when trying to figure out how, when and where to turn off (though there are only four options). Once you push your car into the oncoming traffic swinging around the loop and speed up to join the rushing, honking drivers, all while watching for pedestrians, it’s difficult to take a sharp right and break from it. The momentum continues pushing you around and around until you lose vision of your turn-off, your destination.

I realized this is also the way I went through my time spent in college and Southern California. I got in and started cruising the loop at top speed, ignoring the reality that college is, in fact, a terminal arrangement until they were forcing the diploma into my tightly closed fist. I wanted to scream at them to keep it, that I was staying, that nobody could make me do the things I’m destined to do, to branch out in life and use all the things I learned to enrich my existence and even the world around me. No! The child in me wanted to hang around drawing jagged yellow suns in coloring books and pretend there was nothing else in life worth doing.

But I accepted the diploma, spent a couple extra months in town trying to say some goodbyes, and I left. I left the home I made for myself and all the people I have come to love. On the evening of my first day of college, I grabbed a person I had just met and we walked down the street to sit on the benches in the middle of this traffic circle (ironically called Plaza Square). We watched the colorful fountain and learned about each other. I have since spent many hours in that circle – with that same person, with others, and often alone – observing the quiet rushing movements of life around me and listening to the changes occurring within myself. It became a sort of nucleus for my time spent there, and it was the last place I sat (with the same person who I brought there the first time) in the town that was my home of the last four years. Then I got in my car and found my turn-off.

It’s difficult to remember when rushing through a circle that you can leave it just as easily as you entered it. Turning off is no more complicated or difficult than turning in, it just involves changing your speed in different ways. I drove away from my college life just as plainly as I drove up to it, with a bunch of crap piled in my trunk and a very familiar fear of the unknown weighing on my shoulders. Though the circle may look unchanged and the circumstances seem similar, I can be confident knowing that I took what I needed as I sped through that rotation, and because of that the next circle I come to will be even easier to enter.

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
August 2008
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