Good Teachers Make Good Students

From fifth grade to seventh grade, I was a horrible student. I routinely received Cs in science, English, and math classes (strangely enough, those are the classes I enjoyed most in high school and beyond). I rarely did homework, and when I did, it was late or incomplete. Teachers eventually stopped giving me feedback, advice, or support. At the end of seventh grade, when all of my friends were on the honor roll (in other words, they got a 3.0 GPA or higher), I decided that I wanted to be on the honor roll, too. So I put (some) effort into my studies as an eighth grader. I don’t think I ever made it on the honor roll, though. I just wasn’t a good student.

But in high school, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I was one of the best students. I did my homework. I spoke up in class. I was on the honor roll every term; in fact, most terms I had a 4.0. And I wasn’t taking easy classes! I had a full load of AP courses my senior year and I still got As. Me: the girl who, four years prior, struggled to achieve a B average.

I’m not 100% sure why I changed. My middle school wasn’t harder than my high school, and my intellect didn’t make a huge jump between eighth and ninth grade. But, there’s at least one definite factor that changed my behavior and turned me into an overachiever: the teachers.

My grade school teachers saw in me a girl of average intelligence who couldn’t be bothered to do anything. They saw my tardy homeworks and said, “Well, our only option is to tell her to do her work.” As I recall, they didn’t really try to understand why I didn’t do my homework. Or, if they did try, they eventually gave up. Something wasn’t clicking for me in middle school. I took no joy in learning.

But then I started ninth grade. The teachers were young, passionate, enthusiastic, and empathetic. They wanted to know me. They wanted to teach. And they expected positive results. Between their infectious love of learning and their encouragement to participate in class, the “something” finally clicked for me. I grew to love school. I woke up early to prepare for the day instead of sleeping until the very last second. I can’t remember a time I was late to class, let alone late on a homework assignment. I became a class leader, a student who could be counted on to contribute to class discussions and help others.

Maybe that was another factor. I liked my classmates in high school way more than I did in middle school. I made better friends. People actually talked to me, got to know me. I genuinely cared about my teachers and classmates. At high school, there was a support system that just didn’t exist in middle school. My high school teachers cared about me in a way my middle school teachers did not. 

Some people might look at my accomplishments and argue that I’ve always had the capacity for success—that high school didn’t change me. But of course it did; everything else in my life remained the same. High school was the catalyst that righted my path, that gave me the tools to open doors and achieve success. I’ll be forever grateful to those bright-eyed teachers who sacrificed their sleep, their weekends, and often their well-being to deliver quality education to students like me.


The natural follow-up question to this post is, what specifically did they do to encourage different behavior in me? The answer is too long for this post, but it’ll come later this week.

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Women Supporting Women

It’s been hot in Portland for about a week now. Last Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were all over 100 degrees. We bought a “portable” AC unit from Amazon just to survive this dry stretch. Most houses in Portland don’t have air conditioning, and it’s not a difficult decision to rationalize. Why would you need AC when it rains half the time and hardly ever gets up to ninety degrees? Well, in the past month, we’ve had sixteen ninety-plus degree days. It’s been rough.

Our AC unit doesn’t quite cut it; we installed it in our office upstairs, and while it works great in that room, it doesn’t do anything for the house. I needed a break from the heat—and several of my friends felt the same way. We planned a day trip to Moulton Falls in Washington, hoping to cool off in a relatively unpopulated and relaxing swimming hole.

In a perfect example of doublethink/lying to myself, I put on my swimsuit that morning while completely disbelieving I would go swimming. I’m extremely self-conscious, and I was unenthused about displaying my swimsuit-clad body for the world to see, so I tricked myself into thinking I wouldn’t actually use it—that I was putting it on “just in case.” Because, of course, going to a swimming hole doesn’t mean you’ll swim.

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Moulton Falls. Photo cred to Lisa Hein. Check out her Instagram: lisahein

We drove to Moulton Falls and had a lovely picnic. The five of us brought enough food for ten people. After cleaning up, the others started putting on sunscreen. I hesitated. But—we’re not really swimming, I protested. But I knew I was deceiving myself. I inwardly groaned and accepted my fate.

I put the sunscreen on. I waited as long as possible before taking off my shorts and t-shirt, hoping none of the others would notice my razor burn, my flab, and all the other small, inconsequential flaws of my perfectly functional body. I waited for someone to say something about my appearance. I was so sure one of them would notice all of the things I disliked about my body. But if they did, they didn’t say anything.

In fact, the opposite happened.

One of them grinned at me and said, “I love your swimsuit! It’s so cute. One-pieces are coming back.” I returned the smile, comforted yet still on guard. It was only a matter of time, surely, before someone gave me a too-quick glance or recoiled when I sat next to them. But as we made our way to the water and found some rocks to sit on, the negative reactions I had expected refused to manifest. The girls had every opportunity to comment on my appearance, but their words were only positive. It wasn’t an endless torrent of compliments, but it was enough for me to feel comfortable with my body and do what we had come to Moulton Falls to do: relax.

The water ran mountain-cold over the rocks. We alternated between swimming and sunbathing, talking about books and TV shows and school and work. We picked pebbles from the riverbank and drove home with the windows down. It was, unexpectedly, the most fun I’d had outdoors in a long time.

I was surprised to receive such supportive and loving words from my friends. Growing up, I watched TV shows and read books where female friendships were infrequently shown. The books that did show female friendships portrayed them with a dose of cattiness, and my own friend groups throughout the years followed suit. But the women I swam with at Moulton Falls broke the mold. For a few blissful hours, there was no cattiness, no competition, no parade—just five women in swimsuits, enjoying an outdoor adventure on their day off.

Our bodies are imperfect, but it doesn’t matter. We are so much more than our stretchmarks, our moles, our cellulite, our messy hair. There’s so much more to love.

Holy Hiatus, Batman!

So, all of my plans for this blog fell by the wayside five months ago. Nothing big happened; there was no real inciting incident for why I stopped blogging. But, if I hadn’t stopped in February, I would have stopped somewhere along the way. In the past month alone, I finished a term of grad school, bought a house, got married, and went on my honeymoon. It was a lot. I barely read any non-required books during that time.

Thankfully, things seem to be winding down for me. Soon I might have enough time to blog about the books I did read in the past five months, as well as behind-the-scenes stuff about publishing. My role in the publishing world has changed since I last blogged (in a good way), and I’d like to document it here.

Here’s a recap of the books I’ve read since February:

  • The Hero of Ages, Brandon Sanderson
  • The Inheritance Trilogy, NK Jemisin
  • A History of Glitter and Blood, Hannah Moskowitz
  • Three Parts Dead, Max Gladstone (in progress)

You can expect a review of at least one of these books in the coming weeks.

I won’t commit to a blogging schedule right now. In the next week, I’ll be flying back to Portland, unpacking the new house, and going for a quick jaunt down to California for my family-centered wedding reception—seriously, we’ll be there for less than forty-eight hours. I don’t know what my schedule looks like after that; I could be completely free save for my not-for-credit schoolwork, or I could happen to find employment between now and then. I do know that I have a lot of things to blog about, so I’ll be back. I promise.

Adopting my Cat

Before graduating college, my fiancé and I talked about adopting a cat. It was one of those “someday” things we’d think about when we needed a distraction from our studies. It was a daydream. Little did I know that a mere month after graduation, I would bring a furry friend into our apartment.

I’d always wanted a cat. My mom had cats when I was young, but they passed before I was even in kindergarten. In middle school, we owned a couple mice and then a few rats. Cats were strictly prohibited in my college dorms and the apartments I lived in while working toward my bachelor’s. That didn’t stop me from wanting one, though. Looking back, it makes sense that I would jump at the chance to own my own feline.

In June of 2015, I started looking. One of my housemates adopted her own cat a few months back, and I suppose I was a little jealous that she had a pet and I didn’t. I went to a nearby shelter two or three times to look at the available cats. One cat was a big, fluffy tabby that hid under the chair in the meet-and-greet room and grumbled until I left him alone. Another was a sleek black cat who was more interested in the windows than in me. But I finally found him. My cat. White with a few black splotches of fur, pink-and-black toe beans, and light green eyes. He let out the softest meows and rubbed against my legs. And he looked at me like he knew I wanted to take him home.

He was a bit of a handful for the shelter volunteers, so I was expecting a rambunctious cat when I brought him home. When I let him out of his cage to explore the bedroom, though, he went straight to the closet and hid behind my shoes. It took him a few days to come out and be comfortable with us, but it was worth the wait. I named him Finn.

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I’m not sure adopting Finn changed my life, but it certainly changed his. Prior to being at the shelter, he’d been a street kitty—a “trash cat,” as we called him. He tipped over our trash cans and fished out things like plastic bags and used Q-tips to play with. (Ew.) After being brought to the shelter, he stayed there for a few weeks. No one had shown interest in him. And then he won me over with his gentle meow and cute cat face. He eventually grew to cuddle with me while I read, lick my hands, sit on my lap while I play video games, and follow me around the house. In exchange for food, he gives me affection. It’s one of the best trades I’ve ever been a part of.

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Anyway, all this to say that shelter animals deserve a chance. They deserve your love. So much good comes from adopting an animal from a shelter: the shelter can stay open, the animal gets a loving home, and you get a great friend. I’m so happy that I made the decision to adopt Finn. He’s been the best pet I could ask for and I’m thrilled at the idea that he’ll be with me for the next ten years. And I like to think that he loves me for it.

Book Discussion: The Danish Girl

 

I first heard of The Danish Girl when it came to theaters in 2015. A few of my friends—who are far more knowledgeable about and active in the transgender community than I—advised people against seeing it. It was great that aHollywood production had a transgender character, but the story of Lili Elbe’s transition is hugely different from the majority of trans experiences. Plus, the actor who played Lili is cisgender, even though Hollywood could have easily gotten a transgender person to play the part.

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Eddie Redmayne as Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe

So I didn’t see the movie. But a friend of mine had the book, and let me borrow it. And…wow.

I don’t feel comfortable giving this book a regular “review” for a few reasons, the first being that it’s so far outside my comfort zone. I can’t remember the last time I read a literary fiction book. The experience was so, so different from genre fiction. I read slower, and I could tell that the author labored over most every sentence and made conscious decisions about what to include in the scenes. Genre fiction—in particular, science fiction and fantasy—tends to describe every action the point-of-view characters take (or maybe that’s just something I do) so I found Ebershoff’s writing style refreshingly sparse.

Another reason I’m not comfortable “reviewing” this book is because I don’t know if it’s accurate. I’m not talking about historical accuracy; in the afterword, the author explicitly states the he filled in a lot of details missing from his research, and that he straight up created characters to suit the story. I’m talking about its representation of what it’s like to be transgender. I am not transgender, and I don’t claim to know what it’s like to go through that struggle. The transgender people I know each has their own experience, and none of them was exactly like Lili Elbe’s. This admittedly huge aspect of A Danish Girl remains a giant question mark for me.

Lastly, the ending fell flat for me. I knew the real-life Lili Elbe died after her final surgery, so I was expecting The Danish Girl to touch on grief. But the novel didn’t get that far. It ended before Lili’s story did, in my opinion. I would have liked to see the novel explore the various characters’ feelings of grief over Lili, especially because a few of the main characters knew Lili before she transitioned. I wanted to see, in particular, Greta’s grief over losing her husband intertwine with her grief over losing her friend.

Despite these reservations, I would recommend this book. Ebershoff’s characters are compelling and real, and his descriptions of the settings are exquisite. The novel is heavy-handed with the flashbacks in Part I, but they become less frequent as the story goes on. The Danish Girl explores not only one’s changing gender expression and gender identity, but also one’s changing sexuality. For anyone unfamiliar with it, The Danish Girl would be a great place to start learning about the transgender experience. Fair warning: the novel contains a few NSFW scenes and a stunning amount of sexual imagery. (I was expecting a more psychological look at transgenderism as opposed to a sexual one; that could be because the transgender person I know best is also asexual, though.) The Danish Girl is superbly written and quite the compelling read, and fans of literary fiction will find much to love between its covers.

Thankfulness and an Unrelated Shameless Promotion

I’m thankful for a lot of things, and probably not enough.

I’m thankful for my education: for the friends I’ve made, for the skills I’ve learned, for the ability to make mistakes and learn from them with relatively few consequences. I am thankful for the opportunity to attend good schools, for the privilege to prioritize my education.

I’m thankful for the apartment I have: for the safety it provides, for its comfort and warmth. I’m thankful to live in a maintained community with ample access to public transport and healthy (and not-so-healthy) food. I am thankful for my bed, my clothes, my shoes.

I’m thankful for my cat. The cat is thankful for me, too. I feed him and give him a dry place to sleep and he pays me in cuddles and cuteness.

I’m thankful for my fiancé, my best friend and partner. I’m thankful for his selflessness and his love and his undying belief in me. I’m thankful that he cares so deeply about me and about others.

I’m thankful, again, for my friends. I’m thankful for their support, for their happiness, for their humor. I’m thankful they choose to spend time with me.

I’m thankful for my body, which can do amazing things like write and draw and run. I’m thankful for my mind, which wonders and creates and questions. I’m thankful for my heart, which I’ve only recently accepted as something to be thankful for, and which allows me to care deeply for those around me.

I’m thankful for my family: their love, their support. I’m thankful to be in their thoughts. I’m thankful for their acceptance.

Most of all, I’m thankful to be alive. I’m thankful to walk this earth alongside seven billion other individuals and the countless lifeforms that call our planet home. I’m thankful to live in an era of technology. I’m thankful for the ability to comprehend and to convey information and to breathe clean air and to dance, listen to, and create music. I’m thankful that I get to share my life with so many wonderful people and that they choose to share their lives with me. I’m thankful for every new day.

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On an unrelated note, Please visit the blog for my grad program and read my post on tools for writing. You can read it here. I have used all four of the tools described in the post (I even wrote about Trello in a previous post on this blog) and am happy to answer any questions you may have.

Exploring the Amazon Bookstore

A few weeks ago, Amazon opened their third bookstore location in Washington Square. I’m not Amazon’s biggest fan (though I am a Prime user, mostly for their TV and music services), but I liked the idea of having another bookstore close to home. Amazon gets a bad rap from some publishing professionals for controlling too much of the book market. And while some days I agree with that sentiment, I was willing to keep an open mind about their bookstore. Maybe it would be awesome.

Well…

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It wasn’t what I expected.

In fairness, I wasn’t sure what I expected. And going in on opening day negatively affected my perception of the store: it was, in a word, overwhelming. So many people, so many book covers staring at me, so many signs to read… It wasn’t welcoming in the way I thought a bookstore should be. I treat bookstores kind of like libraries. The books should be plentiful, the people few and far between, the noise low. Amazon Books? Totally different.

When I finally found the sci-fi/fantasy aisle, I was confused. Surely there was another section somewhere? Maybe around the corner? But no, there was only the one aisle shown in the picture above. There couldn’t have been more than 200 sci-fi and fantasy titles in the whole store, which is strange to me, considering that I personally own over 50 fantasy and sci-fi books.

Something else that caught me off guard was finding books 2 and 3 of a series, but not book 1. I was assured that customers can order the missing books in a series from the virtual Amazon marketplace, but regardless, the source of this weirdness is an Amazon Bookstore policy: to only stock books with 4-star ratings or higher. (I’m sure they know this, but ratings aren’t everything; Twilight has a 4.2/5 rating on Amazon. Yikes.) Another side effect of only stocking the highest rated books is that I when expected to find an author’s entire collection of works, I only found their few popular ones. There are some readers who would want only the most read books by an author, certainly. But for me, part of the joy of being in a bookstore is stumbling across the unexpected. It’s exploring the shelves and discovering a book that feels unknown to everyone but you.

Amazon Books does not do this. Instead, only the most popular, most loved books are on display, and therein lies a realization: Amazon Books is in it for the money. The store is not comfortable; I found only a few chairs tucked between shelves, in the middle of where people browse. The lighting is new but makes the store feel dark and industrial. Sure, it feels like a new take on a traditional or independent bookstore, but…I don’t think it’s a good take.

From a business standpoint, maybe it is. It promotes visibility of Amazon as a book retailer, and the store does have a technology section which features the Echo, various Kindles, and the Fire TV among other devices. Amazon Books probably generates a lot of money for Amazon. Plus, the Washington Square area hasn’t had a bookstore for a few years; Amazon Books fills that void.

So there are benefits to the store. Perhaps I’m being overly critical. I’ve been in love with Powell’s since I moved to Oregon, and I couldn’t help but compare the two. I love the warmth in Powell’s—I love being surrounded by hundreds of thousands of books. At the same time, friends have said Powell’s overwhelms them and makes them claustrophobic. I totally get that. Maybe they would like Amazon Books more?

I was never going to like Amazon Books the same way I like Powell’s. But maybe someone else will.