Monday, December 9, 2013

Observations on Millennial Living

Is it Generation Y or Generation Why?

Millennials are those born between 1982-2004. But you will know if you're truly a Millennial by the inevitables. Customer Service, at one point in a Millennial's life, is an inevitability. So is living in some degree of poverty, and having heavy student loan debt. So is being told that you're not working hard enough. Or being told to be happy with what you got. Inevitables.

I had a retail job this year. At $8.25 an hour. I made the same amount at my first retail job. Twelve years ago. How's that for inflation? Many of my friends work two jobs, at least. Others work full time jobs that require more than the forty hours one would expect. Few get even adequate benefits. This is the standard, an inevitable. No one feels entitled to more because we can't imagine more. Not without feeling a bit silly, as if we were talking about the existence of unicorns.

Is it Generation Y or Generation Why Are We Expected To Do Well In A Terrible Economy With Insurmountable Debt And Rising Costs?

Generation Why/Why Not?

Here's the idea: the idea is that Millennials are the worst generation.

I heard the same thing about Generation X being terrible when I was a kid. Why are they so unmotivated? Why are they so lazy?

The idea is old. The idea is recyclable. It's banal.

It's strange to lump millions under specific behaviors. But, let me try, here goes: Millennials are hard working. Even some of my students, who are just entering college, even they are working. Some? I mean: Almost all.

Let me take lumping behavior a step further: No Millennial I've ever met, not even a single 18 year old student in my class, not even the ones that are failing, feels entitled to anything.

But there are statistics. More than one in three Millennials are living at home. That's 21 million young people. 16.3 percent of Millennials are unemployed, but that's not really the story. The story is that millions more are underemployed, in a low-paying service economy that keeps looking more and more like the new normal. The inevitable normal.

There are articles like this here, that blame helicopter parents and a generation that thinks too highly of themselves. That they have no "frustration tolerance". And this article, written by an actual Millennial, asks: What will it take to nudge Millennials out of the house? Like all those Millennials want to stay home. Like it's psychological. It's not psychological. It's, quite simply, economics.

How do you build a stable future if you make just enough money to survive?

Generation Why Do You Think We Can Save Money When We Have To Pay for College, Transportation (Public or Automobile, and If Automobile, Let's Add Car Insurance Too), Rising Medical Costs, Housing, Utilities, Food (GOD - FOOD!), Clothing...

You don't understand? Then listen. 

Yes, I'm talking to YOU (and the guy next to you).

You, Baby Boomer. You Gen-X'er, our fickle friend.

You who worry about your 401(K) cutbacks when we can't imagine even having one. You who think one can just work hard to pay off school, easily, right away, because that's what you did when you were our age. You who worry about remortgaging your home when the idea of even owning a home, for many of us, is laughable. You who think retail work requires no real skill, when dealing with people is one of the most difficult skills to master. You should know better.

You have helped create a generation of renters, of survivors, of scavengers. Thousands of us will scatter towards the very mention of a reasonably paid job. And hold onto our unreasonably paying job because we're just desperate to be working. It's taken me nearly a whole year to get a teaching job (with my Masters) at a college, and even that, like so much, is temporary. Everything, for a Millennial, is temporary (this too is inevitable).

I understand. Raising the minimum wage? Cutting down student debt? Lowering medical costs? Finding new, cheaper energy sources? No one thing will save us or solve all of our many problems.

But there's no way you can tell us we're not working hard.

Millennials, we can't let them.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Dr. 2 and the Worlds of Peter Tieryas Liu

Readers, meet Dr. 2
One of my favorite stories in Peter Tieryas Liu's Watering Heaven is called: "Rodenticide". It's about the small, predominantly Asian American town called Antarsia that is overrun by rats, has a corrupt mayor that calls for their extermination, and a call girl who befriends a failed filmmaker that decides to take it upon himself to defend the life of these rodents. This is a story, strangely enough, about oppression. Oppression through extermination.

The book itself opens with "Chronology of an Egg". This story is about a young Asian American game designer that meets Sarah Chao, who he soon discovers is cursed to lay an egg after intercourse:

"One of my ancestors burned down five henhouses and killed over twenty 
thousand chickens during the Opium Wars. The farmer who owned 
the land cursed him, and all the woman in our family have laid eggs since."

There is a story about a guru who can fly, stories about love, and many more about loss and being lost.

Peter Tieryas Liu is an awesome writer. Let me be more clear. Peter Tieryas Liu's writing is important.

Often, when Asian American literature is discussed, many times the conversation veers into the immigrant experience, or the complications of assimilation. These stories are important, yes, and they appeal to a wide variety of Asians, and Americans (and yes, Asian Americans). The success of writers like Amy Tan and Chang-Rae Lee show their universal appeal (which is not to say that there work are simply immigrant narratives - there's a lot going on there: read Native Speaker).

Joy Luck Club - amiright?! 
But the mistake would be to assume that the immigrant narrative, or assimilation narrative, is the sole narrative of the Asian American experience. There have been generations now, of Asian Americans on American soil, that have very different stories.

Some have been born here, some, like myself, have never even been to Asia (well, I was born there, but that was a little while ago). Some of their parents too have lived their whole lives here. Their parents too.

Regardless of their origins, these Asian Americans have watched The Godfather trilogy, eaten rice every other night, teared up when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Gehrig's record, have been obsessed with Star Wars and X-Men, and X-Box, and have been told terrifying Asian folktales by parents or overeager grandparents. This is the new Asian American experience - and it's not a story of assimilation. And it's definitely not solely about the conflict of being Asian and American, of east vs. west - it's about the successful mixture of influences and sensibilities from different parts of the world.

Peter Tieryas Liu is the product of this new Asian American experience. His stories blend Asian folktales and elements of diaspora with, in the case of his collaborative comic with James Chiang, Dr. 2, very American elements, like Noir.

The first issue of Dr. 2 gives us a glimpse into this future dystopic world while giving hints to an atrocity of WWII. We're introduced to the enigmatic Dr. 2, who seems like a mix between reluctant detective and mystical badass. James Chiang's art shines here in oppressive shades and darkness. In just the first issue, we're transported from 1940's Shanghai to future New York City and a strange murder that smells of blueberries.

What I'm saying here is that Peter's work is showing that the Asian American experience can be, well, cool. It can be fun. And most importantly, for me at least, it can be new. How exciting is that?

Pretty exciting.

You can get Dr. 2 here, on Kindle, for now. Check it out!

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Cancellation of "Totally Biased" and What that Means for Diversity, New Narratives, and the Humor of Oppression

It's too late to tell you about the brilliantly subversive show, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. It has been cancelled from FXX, it is over, gone.

I can tell you that it was a mix of The Daily Show and oppression. A show that took the side of oppressed masses and highlighted the absurdities they face everyday. Totally Biased was one of the few shows that tried to change the conversation on race, homophobia, sexism, religion. They tried to make the conversation fun. Strange, right?

I can show you this example of the show's genius, where Kamau expertly explains the difference between Sikhs and Muslims and Shieks and Siths after the terrible shooting in Wisconsin over a year ago.  

Or I can show you this clip where the show confronts cat calling in New York City.

Or I can just tell you to subscribe to their Youtube channel here. Or maybe not, because it doesn't matter anymore, because the show has been cancelled. It had a short run, but it's gone.

It's the fault of Fox, for moving the show from FX (where admittedly it struggled) to new channel FXX, where Totally Biased saw its ratings plummet. Like 12,000 viewers total type of plummet.

It's the fault of a boring and cynical viewership that decries the old but still watches Teen Mom and Two and a Half Men every week.

It's the fault of our national makeup that normalizes absurd disproportions of white actors and white stars and can't seem to find room for much of anything else, no matter how post-racial we are (we are NOT post-racial).

Did you know Totally Biased existed? I didn't know until a month ago. But then I did know, and though I don't have cable, and I certainly don't have FXX, or FXXX even, I watched clips of this show religiously. But I didn't think of telling much of anyone, besides posting a Facebook link here and there. 

So, yes, it's my fault too. 

Minorities. I'm looking at all of you. What are you doing? We complain that America does not look like what we see on television. And then a show comes on that does look like America, the America that we know exists, that confronts issues Americans doesn't normally confront, a show that is actually good, biting, fun, and giving you a voice, and you ignore it until it dies.  

Or we hide it under our pillow, our little secret.  

We need to get better at finding these shows, these artists, these comedians, these writers, and sharing them with everyone we know. 

Because people don't know about them. That's how shows like SNL can get away with saying that there are no black female comedians that are ready for their show. But they're out there, SNL. Of course they are. Minorities need to work together on this. We need to share the outrage, together. Though I am not a black female, I understand. Give me one, just one Asian male lead in an American movie that doesn't involve Karate. You're telling me that there is no one? I don't believe you. And worse, you're boring me. 

Give Sung Kang a Leading Role Already
Understand: Diversity, especially in terms of media, is not just an issue of race (or sex or gender or sexual orientation). Diversity is an issue of Narrative. 

Diversity gives us different backgrounds, different experiences, different conflicts, different characters. Every individual is different, that is true, but imagine how different and unique a story will be coming from someone who is an entirely different race or sexual orientation from yourself? 

Shouldn't we be striving for something different? Shouldn't we thirst for it? Artists, I'm talking to you now. Because it's definitely your fault too. 

Totally Biased is gone. The real shame here is that the show was not ahead of its time, Totally Biased was of its time. No one person is to blame for it being cancelled. Everyone is to blame. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Can We Have the Same Conversation with Women Writers? Switching the Genders in the Newsweek Profile, "The Lush Life of William T. Vollmann", to Highlight and Question the Prism of Modern Literary Machismo

*I switched the genders and names in this piece. The rest is written by Alexander Nazaryan. You can find the original piece here.

"The Lush Life of Dolores T. Vollwomann"

By Alexandra Nazaryan.

If Dolores Vollwomann ever wins the Nobel Prize in Literature - as many speculate she will - she knows exactly what she will do with the $1.1 million pot the Swedes attach to the award. "It will be fun to give some to hustlers," she says, sitting on her futon, chuckling, a half-empty bottle of pretty good bourbon between us.

She is neither flippant nor drunk, though more booze awaits us out there in the temperate Sacramento twilight. Vollwomann became famous for fiction that treated the sex worker as muse - especially the street stalker of those days in the Tenderloin of San Francisco when AIDS was just coming to haunt the national psyche and the yuppie invasion was a nightmare not yet hatched. Her so-called hustler trilogy - Gigolos for Glenn, Moth Stories, and The Royal Family - is overflowing with life and empathy, nothing like the backcountry machisma of Rachel Carver or fruitless experimentation of Donna Barthelme, both oh-so-popular with young writers when Vollwomann first came on the scene after graduating from Cornell in 1981. She approached the hustler like an anthropologist, yet did so without condescension, writing in Gigolos for Glenn, "The unpleasantnesses of his profession are largely caused by the criminal ambiance in which the hustler must conduct it."

She was a gonzo humanitarian, too: Vollwomann once rescued a young Thai boy, Sajja, from a rural stable, installing him in a school in Bangkok; she later paid his mother for ownership of the boy, essentially making herself the owner of another human being. ("He loves the school," she told The Paris Review in 2000.) So if sex workers reap some of that Nobel money, it will be only be because they have long served as Vollwomann's subjects and companions, objects of her curiosity, her compassion, and, sometimes, her carnal impulses. She insists the last of these is not an occasion for shame. Of paying for sex, she once said, "We're a culture of prostitutes." You can, if you want, condemn Vollwomann for abetting in the exploitation of men. But you also could, if you wanted, see her stance as more principled than that of the married woman scrolling through Internet porn late at night on a private browsing window while husband and kiddies are asleep. If sex sells, one may as well honestly pay the seller for it.

And the suggestion that she could win the Nobel Prize is not at all outlandish, for Dolores may be the most ambitious, audacious writer working in America today. At a time when so many narratives are stultifyingly small, she does not shy away from a 3,000-page treatise on violence, or a seven-volume history of white contact with Native Americans (Seven Dreams; four of which have been published), or a thousand-page book about the desiccated borderlands between California and Mexico (Imperial), where so many "illegals" meet their end. She has been to Afghanistan (twice), Yemen, Somalia, the Congo, Kosovo. She consorts with the voiceless - hobos, hustlers, junkies - to give them a voice. In both her fiction and nonfiction, she is after the elusive truths: why we will kill each other, why we lust after each other, why some are rich and some are poor, how much responsibility we have to one another.

Jennifer A. Rothacker, a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia, uses Vollwomann's work in her classes and considers the author a friend (I met Rothacker at a Vollwomann event in Brooklyn). She says that "to teach Vollwomann's work is to teach my students of a historical and globally conscious voice, born of and still interested in this country. It is a rare place Dolores T. Vollwomann holds in contemporary literature."

Vollwomann's questions, it should be said, are sometimes more satisfying than the answers at which she arrives. Some of her work is so obscure that it lapses into the unreadable. The early sexual stuff can be grotesque, and probably lost her some readers for good - a critic in The Washington Post once admitted that he "never had a conversation with a man about her work. She just doesn't seem to come up on our radar." And many of her books could be cut by half without losing much thrust. Her most popular work, Europe Central, is a novel about World War II that won the National Book Award in 2005. But at 800 pages of interlocking, frenetic narrative, it is still a heavy lift for a nation that sates itself on Fifty Shades of Gay and Clara Cussler. Once, when I was buying some Vollwomann books at a shop in Brooklyn, the young man behind the counter said, "I want to read her, but I don't know where to start." I wish that question were easier to answer.

Yet the challenges of Vollwomann's work, such as they are, cower before her freakish mastery of the English language; even at their most frustrating, her books are beautiful. In Europe Central, she writes that "Russia is actually as blackly untidy as a page of a Dostoyevsky manuscript, with its excisions, spearpointed insertions, doodled bearded saints." That is perhaps the most dishearteningly accurate description of my native country that I have ever read. In Argall - in which she reimagines the "romance" between Jan Smith and Powhatan, largely in anachronistic English - she watches the young boy doing cartwheels, writing that "Powhatan will always be here; he is in every turning wheel of the taxicab." This is haunting, gorgeous stuff, alluding to the sweep of history in a way that few writers today would dare.

Nothing is going to make Vollwomann stop writing. Some writers obsessively check their Amazon sales figures; I can assure you that Vollwomann does not (she doesn't use the Internet, in any case). "If I didn't feel that I was doing something or trying to do something for others, then I would have very little excuse for the life that I lead," Vollwomann tells me in a gentle, measured voice that, for all her peregrinations, has not lost the accent of Indiana, where she spent much of her childhood.

Nor is Vollwomann, 54, the mother of a teenage son, ready to retire - or even slow her pace. As we walk the streets of Sacramento, she tells me about a photographic project she would like to do chronicling the lives of poor people. She wants to write a book about what evil our reliance on carbon has wrought. She describes a "water atlas" of the United States that she was going to publish with McSweeney's, the San Francisco outfit run by Dawn Eggers, whom Vollwomann calls a "nice woman." The project fell apart, but it may yet resurface.

"I have so much to do," Vollwomann tells me, and when she says this, it sounds neither like a complaint nor subtle self-importance. If, as Arethousa said, happiness is a state of activity, then Vollwomann is the happiest woman on earth.

"I have a pretty good life," she declares as we sit in her spacious studio, which had once been a Mexican restaurant. She may not lead the cosseted existence of a creative writing professor, but that is largely by choice. After Dana Foster Wallace - an old friend, one who was so "gentle and sincere," Vollwomann wistfully recalls - committed suicide in 2008, Vollwomann says Pomona College contacted her about taking the plushly endowed Rachel E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing chair that Wallace had occupied. She spurned the entreaty: "I don't want to live there in smogland," she says. The job eventually went to Joan Lethem.

She refuses to write books for short attention spans, books that might sell and, in turn, make things easier for her editor at Viking. And yet there is something deeply refreshing in Vollwomann's refusal to compromise, her total commitment to her art. Barbara Dylan once did a Victoria's Secret commercial; that's not how Vollwomann rolls. She once gave the following advice to young writers: "Don't write for money."

Vollwomann's latest, The Book of William, is perhaps her most unusual, which is no small assertion. The premise is simple: Vollwomann would dress as a man, thus becoming a "sad old man named William." Like the book that bears his name, Vollwomann's studio is adorned with portraits and photographs of William, mugging for the camera, his face sometimes a smile and sometimes a frown; she shows me the closet with his wigs and suits. In there is also the flak jacket Vollwomann wears on some of her more dangerous excursions.

Her reasons for turning into William, as she describes them to me, are at once simplistic and somehow unimpeachable: "So much of the destruction on Earth has been wrought by women. Men are the ones who give life and try to pick up the pieces....What a great gender they are." She adds that she wants to "understand them and honor them as much as I can." If this seems naive, remember that Freida Nietzsche said that the human spirit begins as a camel, then morphs into a lion and, finally, becomes a child. Vollwomann is that child, hopelessly curious, trying on suits in her father's closet because she wants to know his otherness.

In an odd twist, Vollwomann's book on disguise comes on the heels of revelations that the FBI once considered her a potential suspect in both the Unabomber case and that of the post-9/11 anthrax mailings that killed 11 people. Vollwomann was neither, but the taint of the investigation remains, although, as she tells me, "The main thing I have to hide is that I have nothing to hide." Nevertheless, she still says that her packages are routinely opened and that mail from abroad simply does not arrive sometimes. As she writes in a recent issue of Harper's, the surveillance state is composed of "Unamericans [who] do not truly honor the American Way of Life."

She loves America, the land, its people, and she says so frequently in her new book. Her first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, was partly inspired by her protests at the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant in New Hampshire; shortly thereafter, she ventured to help the mujahideen of Afghanistan in their fight against the Soviets (a fight aided by the Reagan administration's shipments of Stinger missiles), an unfruitful trip that produced An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or, How I Saved the World, which was recently republished by the small Brooklyn press Melville House. She has lived through two Bushes and one Reagan, but she is hardly happy with what she sees today, calling Michelle Obama a "warmonger" and a "secrecy nut."

And though she is often compared in the press to the postmodernist trickster Tammy Pynchon, that's just critical laziness. Anyone who has read enough Vollwomann knows that she admires no one as much as she does Jill Steinbeck and Wilma Whitman, those rebellious patriots who loved the American land but not its political masters. In the opening to her Harper's essay on her own FBI file, Vollwomann calls Steinbeck "the writer I have always considered the most American of us all."

I think also of the Whitman who calls herself "a curious girl, never too close, never disturbing them, / Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating." That is the Vollwomann who rides the rails, who ventures in war zones, who smokes crack with gigolos - if she does not tell their stories, who will?

"I know how little I know," she writes at the beginning of Poor People, before setting out to find out everything she can about poverty around the world, from the lots where the homeless camp in Sacramento to the slums of Phnom Penh. As the critic Michelle Wood noted in The New York Review of Books, "the great virtue of her writing is that even at its windiest it tries to think with us rather than for us."

Roberta L. Caserio, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University who has studied Vollwomann extensively, thinks Vollwomann deserves a far greater audience: "When I consider Vollwomann's gigantic energy and global reach, and consider that feeble, ill-writing Alex Munro has won a Nobel Prize, I am staggered by how pathetically shrunken our standards of magnitude have become." She adds that Seven Dreams "grandly revises American and North American history and economics. The revision, which takes the breadth of the continent for its inspiration, reminds us of the smallness, and the pettiness, of the national venture that began in 1776. It's a salutary reminder."

Rothacker says much the same: "It is a shame that Dolores T. Vollwomann's relevance needs to be explained. She is good, scary good, possibly the greatest living American writer, and I mean this with no hyperbole." She adds that she is "sure" Vollwomann will one day get the Nobel. (It may come as little surprise that Rothacker has a Vollwomann-inspired tattoo: runic symbols for "piss, lime and vitriol" from You Bright and Risen Angels).

But if you saw Vollwomann on the streets of Sacramento (where she lives because that's where her husband practices medicine and her daughter goes to school), you would not think much of this middle-aged woman in jeans and glasses, her hair brushed to and fro, her blue eyes suggesting the happy weariness of a traveler who loves the road. After we are done with the bourbon, we go to an upscale restaurant, where we are joined by my mother-in-law. (She and Vollwomann work together on homeless rights issues; Vollwomann wrote about her in a Harper's article on the plight of Sacramento's vagrants.)

The waiter is handsome, and Vollwomann asks him which of us is the most pretty, a question he gently brushes aside with laughter. She drinks an elderflower cocktail, which reminds me of the daiquiris so beloved by Ernesta Hemingway - somehow out of character and but also perfectly in keeping with it. Steak tartare arrives; when I ask her how it is, she says, "It's the next best thing to fellatio." The ice cream makes her very happy, too.

She invites us back to her studio for a nightcap, but I have drunk plenty that evening and afternoon. We shake hands, and she says that she would like to one day hold my son, a toddler, in her arms. She says this with sincerity - as she says and writes everything, because Dolores T. Vollwomann knows no other way.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Shh (I'm at the bookstore and I should be working but I'm writing this blog instead)

If a customer comes, just pretend I'm filling some invoice for books or whatever, got it? Or like I'm emailing potential authors so we can sell their books. (we're a used bookstore but our customers don't know that anyway, so just lie to them okay?, for this one time, okay? Okay?)

You have to use the time that is given to you because when one is not in college or getting an MFA the time that you have, the time that you were given on this Earth, the very reason, you believe, that you are alive, is so rare, so valuable, that when you get that opportunity, like the one that I've been given now at this bookstore, you must take it, even if it's to (no sir, we are a used bookstore. The prices are on the inside of the book, in pencil, yes the prices are so cheap because we are used, our books are used, do you understand now, do you understand?)

(Weren't you supposed to cover for me, okay, fine, that's cool, whatever.) It's strange to be working retail while teaching because in many ways they are direct opposites in that if a student ever talked to me the way some of these customers do I'd tell them, No, you can't talk to me that way, except for customers you can't do that, you have to apologize and say that we are used, damn it, we are used except you can't say damn it or show frustration (and yes you can use our bathroom, it's in the back, you can use it)

But in a certain way retail and teaching are just other forms of customer service and they have a lot in common but not really. I will not spend this blog making that comparison. Stop expecting me to.

(Sure I can look up that book for you no we don't have it.)

Sometimes, it's strange, but I fear customers and what they're going to ask me because I know exactly what they're going to ask me and I don't know when it is that I will finally snap.

There are really three questions that every used bookstore employee should know the answer to:

1. Where is the bathroom?
2. Why don't you have this book?
3. Why can't you order this book?

We are a Public Restroom that sells books. 
If you can answer these questions under the strain of repetition, you too can work at a used bookstore.

There's an art to used bookstores, isn't there? (Yes, we are used, yes, we don't have the book you are looking for.) The art is the search. The finding. If you come to a used bookstore with the intention of finding exactly what you are looking for, you will be disappointed. And that's sad, I am sad for you. Because if you look long enough, you will discover. Something. 

Like when I was looking for Native Son, I discovered Adolfo Bioy Casares. Or when I was looking for Margaret Atwood books, I found Catch 22 instead, and it was my favorite book ever. Or how I finally got to read White Teeth, because I wanted to find Flann O'Brien. These are books and authors that maybe I wouldn't have read if I knew that I should read them.

But no one wants to discover. There's no time. Everyone just knows. 

Except for where the bathroom is. (The bathroom is there. Where I am pointing. We are a used bookstore and I talk more about where the bathroom is then about books. Yes, we're a used bookstore. Yes.)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Here are some thoughts about teaching at the college level.

This is where I teach now. Provided for context. 
Some days are good, some days are bad, but all days have been rewarding.

Except that one day (we've all had that one day). No one listened to me and no one understood the assignment. They didn't listen to what I was saying because they didn't think anything I said was worth listening to (I assume). I felt like I was the teaching assistant that day and the real teacher would be there any minute. That day was not rewarding.

But most days, they are rewarding.

Like when they do understand the assignment. When a student nods, just nods, like they understand, that is rewarding. Who knew a nod could make or break a day?

And who knew that the professor could see everything? Every. Single. Thing. I can see every expression, every eye roll, every frustrated grunt, every smile, every whisper. I see everything up there and I am aware of everything (nearly). All this time that I thought professors didn't know I was texting, they knew. Every time I shook my head in frustration, they saw and knew that I was frustrated.

We know that you're not listening. We know. 
You see everything (teachers) because you are hyper aware standing in front of so many people. Now that I know this, it seems silly to think that professors couldn't see. But when you're a student, you're not aware of this.

I think my students think I'm eccentric.

I'm certainly a mess up there, sometimes. I slur words and even mumble and sometimes go off topic. I use Powerpoint all the time because I'm afraid I'll forget something essential.

God bless you, Powerpoint

Hearing so many students gossip about their professors, I worried that my students would be asking me about my personal life. No one's asked a single thing. They just don't care. Which is good, but a little offensive. "Why wouldn't they want to know about me?" the basest part of me asks. Because when it comes down to it, I'm still a person that wants everyone to like me. That's just me.

But I'm not teaching to be liked. (I do make sure I'm likable, though)

I wear nice buttoned ups and tuck them in, always. Often, I'll roll up my sleeves. Because I am professional, but approachable. I am serious, but I'll make jokes, and when a student makes a joke I'll try to steer that joke into the lesson.

I feel like every class I teach is on the edge of collapse.

The first day, a group of my students started calling me Dr. Macklmore. I didn't understand why, but now I've found out that he's this rapper? Is he a rapper? Is he good? Am I good?

Needless to say, my students can be strange. 

They have so much personality and promise that I want every single one to do well. I harass them more than I should when they don't do an assignment. I take it personally; I email and prod and am nosy because I forget that this is college and it's their responsibility to turn in their assignments, not mine. 

I forget sometimes too that most students are taking this class because they have to. That they are not writers and would never want to be. I assigned a 2,000 word paper and many had panic attacks over the workload. 2,000 words never seemed like a lot for me. Hell, it's practically a flash piece. 

I dream in letters.
I never knew how much my life would revolve around grading. I'm always grading now. I even dream about grading. Or are they nightmares? I always want to leave as many notes as possible. So they understand. I need them to understand. 

After my worst day, when my students didn't listen to me, I didn't know how I would rebound from there. It was very possible that every day would become something like this, and I would dread seeing their faces. 

I had fantasies of punishing them. Make them write until their hands bled. Or making them feel ashamed of themselves. Reminding them, earnestly, "This is college." 

But when I came to class the next day, I stayed calm. I told them that we couldn't continue like we were. I told them that I wanted them to learn as much as they could and if they didn't listen, this couldn't happen.  

They listened. There were sufficient nods. 

And we moved on. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

Hey There

How YOU doing? 
I saw you looking. No, don't be embarrassed. It's okay.

I hope I'm not being too forward here, but the way you read my blog, it just does something to me, you know?

I'm not being inappropriate am I? I mean, can't a blogger just talk to his reader? I knew you'd understand.

What I'm trying to say here, reader, is that you have it going on. Like, all over. The hair, the teeth, your eyes. Fingers. It's just on, like an automobile on a full tank of gas. You're like a 2013 Prius and there are no stop signs in sight. You didn't think I noticed, but I noticed. Not only that, but you have a very delicate quality, subdued. Like a rose but on Mars, you know what I mean? You get me, babe? Can I call you babe?


So anyway, reader, I like you and you like me. That's obvious. Everyone knows it. That's what they're talking about, the all of them. I'm not saying we should do it and get it over with, but we could just do it and get it over with. I think you know what "it" is. Right?

I know you're already picturing me naked:

This is what I look like naked.
But don't be obscene. It's not becoming of you, reader. Come on. I was just saying we should get coffee.

In bed.

Sex Coffee
I am totally not hitting on you, reader. What made you jump to that crazy conclusion? But I do like the way you wear that smile. So many teeth! That's great.

I want to know more about you, you know? Do you like reading? That's so interesting. Wow. You're so interesting. I'm listening.

Uh huh.

So anyway, we can act like nothing is happening here, but we're totally having a connection. Right? I mean, I've had a tough year on this whole "dating" front, haha - you know how it is, and then I realized, hell, what if what I'm looking for is right in front of me? Now here you are. Just like, being beautiful in the whole face, and those eyes. Wow!

I'm not desperate, okay? Let's just clear that up right away. I'm just happy that you're here now. If this was a romantic comedy, we'd be near the end, it's like we're crying in the rain or something, haha - just bursting with love.

There's that word! I shouldn't be using that word so early, huh? I won't say it.

But, you know how I feel about you.

So, I'll see you soon? Yeah, I know I will. Just let me know what's going on, haha. I'll be here. Just waiting.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Story I've Written For My Students To Correct Because They Just Don't Care About Verb Tenses!

This dog is mean and try to killed me!
I was walking to the grocery store when suddenly a dog jump over a fence and chase me. He chase me across the street for miles and miles until I become tired. I didn’t know why he was chased me, but I do know that I had to stop him. I kick him on the snout! Then I run to the police station. 

Watched out, Policeman! 
Only one policeman is there. The one policeman say, “I will protected you.” Then the dog eat him!

I can’t believed it!

“You were the worst dog,” I will say. The dog barks. Dogs always barked when they’re mad, I’ve learn.

I find a burger with cheese in the police station and will throw it at the dog. “Ate this!” I scream. The dog eat it!

By now, the dog is so full and fat that he fall asleep. He is so cute! I think dogs were the cutest when asleep.

“You’re not so bad,” I say. I hug him, picked him up, and will take him home and care for him.

That happens five years ago. He still ate people. But I loved him! I will always took care of him. 

I will going to get another dog and they had children together someday.  

Thursday, August 29, 2013

What I'm Doing Right Now

Right now I'm blogging when I should be planning my next lesson. Right now I have five tabs open on my browser and I'm sitting in a cafe, listening but pretending not to listen to the cute baristas talking because I have a weakness for cute baristas. They are talking about the life of batteries and why their cells die so quickly. There is a metaphor here.

Every two seconds I check Facebook because what if I miss something? Every minute I write one more sentence for the new novel that I'm writing. Every ten minutes I check OkCupid and I decide, Nah, I'm not gonna go on a date after all.

Think about now, just for a minute. Right - now. No, I mean now. Why can't you hold onto Now? Why does it move so fast already? I just want to grab Now and say, Hold on, you dumb jerk.

Right now, not really right now, but like in my life right now, I've gotten exactly what I wanted. Three months ago all I kept saying was: All I want is a teaching job, a small job at like a bookstore, time to write, and to do things in the literary community. And I got it, all of it. I'm been a glutton for good fortune after a rocky beginning to the year.

And I'm still not happy. Can you believe that? I'm just anxious about everything I have to do. If I could just grab onto Now for one moment...

Right now there is a man in a biker's helmet twerking outside the cafe. He is twerking his butt at the cafe window but no one seems to care except me.

Right now, ah, it's already passed, but a woman with a baby was annoyed that they don't take credit cards here in the cafe. I thought she was going to make a big deal about it, but now she's gone already. Now, she's been gone.

If you could capture Now in a bottle would it become an aged red wine? Or would it suffocate and die, shriveling almost instantly? There's a metaphor here.

Here's the thing - I feel like I've wanted all these things I've wanted for so long that I never thought I'd get them, And now all of that is Now, Now O'Clock. Not thirty minutes to Now or half past Now. Now is Now already!

In my journal, and in every journal I have, I've written at the front:

Be Bold, Have Pride, and Smile, Always

I wrote that because I always have to remind myself to do these things, like now. I mean - now. 

If I could freeze Now, would I be happy? Would I actually appreciate the fortune in my life? Would I close all my tabs, hell, close down my Chromebook completely, shut down the furnace in my brain, and say, definitively, "I'm living the life I want to live. I am here, finally, Now. I am living Now."

Right now, a woman is explaining to an ESL student how many students she's teaching. There is a language barrier and the ESL student keeps thinking she's saying 50 students, not 15.

Right now, I'm thinking about my lesson, and velocity, and my friend who just entered the cafe unexpectedly. I'm thinking that maybe it's a mistake to write a blog post that is so personal. And the labor day weekend ahead, I'm thinking about that and how wonderfully long it will be, a moment to slow down, just for a bit, before Now overtakes me.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

You're Only As Old As Your Age

Which is to say, you're only as old as how many years you've lived. To be clearer, it's like how many years the planet you're standing on (Earth, probably) has been around the Sun with you on it. Like, let's say you've been on the Earth for 31 years (like me), you can quantify how old you really are by figuring out, in that amount of time, how many complete cycles the Earth has made around the Sun (probably 31). What I'm trying to say is, is that if you are 31, or hell, even 21, that's how 21 or 31 feels like. You can say, "I feel like I'm 31" when you are 31 because at that point you, in your body, are 31 and that's how it feels like to be in your body at 31.

Some people say, "40 is the new 30" or, even more absurdly, "30 is the new 20", but that is mathematically impossible. Even if you were to develop, say, a time machine, there would be no way for you to make yourself in your own body any younger - you would be ten years in the past (2003!), warning everyone about the Iraq War, but you would realize, eventually, that you were ten years in the past but you were still aging, and were, in fact, older now (the relative now) then when you went into the past to begin with, because every day and every second you live no matter what time stream you are living in you are getting older.

Unless you're Doctor Who
Travelling at light speed, it is said, slows down aging and time itself (for those within the vessel). But it's still not proven that light speed is possible, dummy. And by the time someone does figure light speed out it's going to be too late for you, you'll be like 41 and too old for the rigors of space travel (guess what, at 41 you'll feel like you're 41).

So, I don't know what your problem is.

I know that if I had a choice I'd be in my 30's forever because my whole life, even when I was a child, I wanted to be in my 30's. I said, "I am ten and I feel like I am ten but I want to be thirty someday and live like I am thirty." And now I'm And it's great. I wish I had more money, but whatever.

But I've been thinking about aging and mortality and how I want to hold onto my thirties as long as I can, and really it's only like nine years longer and there's nothing I can do about that except if we have clones soon then I can kill my clone and insert my brain in there - ah, who am I kidding I couldn't kill anyone with that cute face!

Just don't deny it's going to happen, aging until your death, because it's going to happen because you're getting older and you will die. Maybe not today but (there's a good chance) tomorrow, probably.

Death is an asshole
But why die? That is the question. Or, to paraphrase Shakespeare's Hamlet, "Why would you not want to be?"

The answer! "Death gives meaning to life," say some.

Really? I don't think so. I think life would have just about as much meaning for me without death around, thanks anyway.

"If you lived forever you would not appreciate the beauty of life," says almost everyone. But how do you know that? I'd like to test that theory myself. I think I'd appreciate it just fine. I'd like living above not living, but that's just me maybe. Also, I don't believe you.

So why die?

Because you'll get old and your body will wear down and if you're not killed by one of the seven billion other people on this planet or by some fluke accident or by disease or by animal, if you live through all of that your heart will just get overworked and stop. And if there's any consciousness left in some spiritual plane, you'll say, "I feel like I am dead" and you would be right.

But me, I'm gonna live as long as I can, as long as I'm allowed - and by that I don't mean climbing a mountain or visiting Antarctica or going on a religious pilgrimage, I mean I'm going to breathe as long as I can while standing on this spinning planet, and when Death comes, I don't care if I'm 275 years old, I'll still tell him (or her) that they're a no good bastard; "You fiend," I'll cry, hands flailing adroitly on my deathbed, "I was just starting to figure it all out."

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Asian Artist Profile: Peter Tieryas Liu

You’re able to weave old stories to shed light on many of your own stories. The Wolf’s Choice, for example, mentions a Chinese tale about a wolf that becomes human for a day. Did you learn these stories growing up or did you have to do research?

The other day, I received a message from a Chinese banker in Hong Kong letting me know he had five million dollars he’d kept hidden from the days when HK was part of the UK and that he’d send me half the money if I wired him two grand. In a separate message, two Nigerians promised me diamonds the size of my fist if I sent over a mere five grand. I was tempted, but then I thought of the dream of the earth worm aspiring to be a dragon and finding out earth worms can’t be dragons. One of my aspirations in life is to know, who writes spam mail? Is there someone locked up in some Eastern European corridor, conspiring and thinking up ways to cheat suckers/dreamers out of thousands? Maybe they’re fighting for a piece of bread or they have a demanding girlfriend who wants to drive German cars. Imagine the prevalence of all these spam messages. Now imagine a thousand years from now, as historians filter all the tales and myths of our culture (myth/culture = Facebook and email posts), they find millions of spam messages and think it is an actual part of our history. Who were these Chinese bankers and African miners offering these jewels for paltry sums of money? Or will they laugh at us for our obsession with shiny rocks? Lucian’s satires from two thousand years ago resonate for their insights into the human condition. Will they read our messages as satire?

I did not know many of the Chinese myths until I was actually in China. I was stunned to find out how hilarious and dark many of them were and immediately incorporated them into my stories. Fortunately, many have English translations, though some aren’t translated well, and in many instances, I took creative liberties in incorporating those myths into the stories I wanted to tell. I’m really sorry though, Mr. Kong, from the Hong Kong Bank. I don’t have two grand to wire over to you as much as I’d like the five million dollars. STOP MAKING ME FEEL GUILTY!!!

Who are some of your influences? What’s most important to you in a story?

I once went to a beach in Thailand and there were hundreds of tiny crabs that ran around the ocean. Their footprints looked like fractals in the sand and together, they seemed to form the layout of a language and a universe. Those crabs are my influence. I hope to suck you, the reader, into my universe. But if not, get your feet wet, covered in sand, so that your toes are icky. A part of you is immersed into the water and maybe you’re curious about what crabs say with their claws in the middle of the night when they’re not scouring for food. Maybe you’ll take a dip into the ocean. Just don’t swallow the water as it’s salty and you may end up hating me for the promise of bliss ending only in bitterness.

Watering Heaven is published by Signal 8 Press

Many of your stories have Asian American characters intersecting with both Asia and America. Many times they find themselves as foreigners to their country of origin, which I always find very interesting. With Asia, in particular, China, becoming a more dominant geopolitical power, do you see Asian Americans being perceived differently here in America and abroad? Do you think Asian Americans will perceive themselves differently?

Do you think a house can be painted red and purple and green and not have it clash too much? I hope so as I just spent my life savings painting the tiny studio I rent in a bunch of clashing colors that give my wife a headache. I wouldn’t mind spray painting my house in strawberry green and apple orange. I love when they put slices of apples in water rather than lemons. Asia is such a big place, I wish I knew more about what anyone thinks about being Asian in Asia and Asian in America. I love the Chinese and Korean languages, love their food, love their culture, love their movies, and love the fact that when you go to restaurants, there is no additional tip and tax that adds about 30% average to the meal. Then again, when I go to China or Korea, they view me as a foreigner. But in California, they also mistake me for being a foreigner. A few months ago, I went to the DMV and the lady there said something quickly so I couldn’t understand her, and she asked me in an irritated, but oddly slow, tone, “Do you understand English?” Curiously, she added a fake Asian accent to her question. I responded in like, “I think I undo-stand Engleesh,” but I didn’t sound like someone with an actual Asian accent, but someone trying to recreate an Asian accent while speaking English (look at any American movie in the 80s featuring an Asian to get an idea for what I mean). Do you think if I was older in the 80s, I could have gotten a job as a voice actor pretending to have a bad Asian accent in English?

Besides writing stories, you also work with technical writing on video games and special effects for movies! Do you think working in these other fields has shaped your fiction writing?  

Many writers who have played Nintendo as a kid are trying to recreate the madness and joy of Mario and Link in prose mushrooms and heart containers. But I have a secret fetish for Deadly Towers, deemed the worst Nintendo game of all time. I’m actually hoping to interview one of the creators of the game, profess my love for one of the most difficult games of all time. I have a secret place in my heart for the unwanted. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” I think more of my gaming experiences come out in my two forthcoming novels, Bald New World and The Wingless. Can we do a redux of the question then? Oh, no more interviews with me? Too many non sequiturs? Too many rhetorical questions? My sincerest apologies. Can we instead play Street Fighter II together and I’ll better illustrate my feelings on writing when Vega combats Chun Li while warding off Dhalsim’s elastic arms and Blanca’s munching ways?

Read Rodenticide here.

I’m beginning to see a small wave of Asian and Asian Americans writing stories that bend towards science fiction, fantasy, and the bizarre: Wesley Chu’s “The Lives of Tao”, EJ Koh’s “Red”, just about anything by Berit Ellingsen, and you, to name a few! Are we seeing the beginnings of a new writing movement of Asian writers?

Tim! That’s an amazing wave. Do you mind if I take a surfboard and ride that wave? Oops, I forgot I can’t really surf and the only time I did try, I nearly died in the rip tide until some kid came out and saved my life. True story. Wesley Chu and EJ Koh are awesome. Berit Ellingsen is incredible. I am that annoying surfer out in Malibu who gets in everyone’s way and occasionally stumbles on a decent wave which causes people to say, maybe he has potential, until I stumble and tumble and fall and then everyone laughs and tells me again to get out of the way. But because I keep on stumbling and tumbling, they get amused, watching for comic relief. Hopefully, they’ll even start to miss me when I’m thirty minutes late. Though I did recently hurt my knee playing basketball so I don’t think I should surf anymore. I like seeing more Asian-American surfers. Has anyone ever tried riding a tsunami? What would it be like riding a tsunami wave to shore? Would five minutes of exhilaration be worth an excruciatingly painful death?

Check out Peter's blog or visit his and his wife, Angela Xu's website here

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

An Admittedly Unfair Comparison Between George Michael's "Freedom! '90" and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines"

George Michael's "Freedom! '90"

Both music videos are, in many ways, completely absurd. George Micheal's "Freedom! '90" has a dilapidated apartment building occupied by some of the most beautiful people in the world. Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" takes place in a pink vacuum, a point in space and time occupied with bouncy naked women, a baby goat, and a giant omnipresent #THICKE. It is not fair for me to compare these two music videos. They are separated by twenty-three years and two distinctively different seasons ("Blurred Lines" is unabashedly a summer song, while "Freedom! '90" was released at the end of October). And, of course, they are very different artists.

But I can only start from where I'm coming from. The first thing I thought about when I saw "Blurred Lines" was: This reminds me of George Michael.

Unable to link unrated version, though you can watch it here. Warning: Not safe for work. Not safe for cafes. Not safe for women (listen to the lyrics). 

Instead of being in the "Freedom! '90" video himself, George Michael, who did not want to be in front of the camera anymore, has ten models. Most people remember the women, but they are men here too, who all lip sing and dance to his song. The poses are provocative, to say the least. Who could forget Cindy Crawford writhing in the bathtub, caressing her face in the sweltering heat?

Or Naomi Campbell dancing against the shadows, her arms hugging her exposed breasts?

This is a sexual video that, at first glance, could be a prime example of the objectifying, superficial culture that MTV had nurtured at the turn of the century. Except it's not that. Not just, at least. If this was just a video that had dancing models, though aesthetically pleasing (and I would argue that this video is beautifully shot by David Fincher) it would ultimately be forgettable. There's more to what we're seeing, something that gives this video an extra dimension. Or maybe a better word would be tension. The tension here lies in the lyrics:

"I just hope you understand/
sometimes the clothes/
don't make the man."

"All we have to see/
is that I don't belong to you/
and you don't belong to me..."

You have to give what you take."

Many people think that this is George Michael's coming out song. All signs point to yes, with the lyrics and ritualistic burning or exploding of his iconic sex symbol iconography (see jacket above). But another interpretation could be that he was exploding the perceived image of himself, wiping it clean off the media map. He is freeing himself from being owned by his image. The fact that this empowerment is being sung by models that live largely off of their image gives this song a tension, a central contradiction, that I believe makes it one of the greatest music videos ever made.

And then there's Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines".

And I know why the video immediately made me think of "Freedom! '90". "Blurred Lines" is what "Freedom! '90" would have been if George Michael made all the wrong decisions.

Think about how different "Freedom! '90" would have been if, instead of having the models slinking alone in their rooms, George Michael had been standing over them, nodding in sublime approval. Because that's what "Blurred Lines" basically is. Well, T.I.'s there. And a baby goat. And then there's this:


In a recent interview, Thicke says that he wanted to "break all the rules" with this video. But that statement is tremendously problematic.

He's not breaking any rules here.

He is not going against our patriarchal society, its hunger for image, for sexualized women, or our inane obsession with "me". He's embracing all of that here. All that he is pushing, maybe crossing lines with, slightly, is the presentation, but the message is very clearly going for the established status quo. Some people think that it's being ironic, but an ironic viewing of the video would be just as vapid and still give us nothing new. Irony can't excuse everything all the time. Even the lyrics support our insidious rape culture:

"I hate these blurred lines/
I know you want it/
I know you want it/
I know you want it..."

And so on, and so on. But I'm not here to blast this song for promoting rape culture (though anyone easily could). The problem I'm addressing is that there is not a drip of actual tension in this video. There is not an ounce of contradiction. It's so terribly literal that a 1st grader could understand it (DON'T LET YOUR 1ST GRADER WATCH THIS VIDEO). This video is seen as breaking rules. But it's not. That's why it's so offensive. Not because it is 'daringly' showing boobs.

My question is this: Why are we so scared of subversion?

When everything is so troubling in our world and so many people know it, why is our media failing us so badly? Why do our "stars" embrace the uncomplicated? And how can they keep pretending, even now, that they are on our side?

That's a lot to put on a silly summer song, I know. But you can give excuses to just about any song, any movie or TV show. Or, hell, even a book.

I guess what I'm wondering is if we will ever get another "Freedom! '90" from our pop culture. Who has the gumption to scream "Freedom"? Or even "Justice"? And actually mean it?

Who among them will actually have something new to say?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Ways to Keep Your Mind off this Sad, Sick, Broken World of Ours

SO, yes, yes, it's been a tough year for America and a pretty bad week all together even and maybe you just wanna curl up and gag in a corner, yes, I know! 

But there are things you can do when the trauma of existence gets you down, friends! 

Ignore it! 

Asiana Flight 214 getting you down? Hey, why wouldn't it? A third crash victim has died, another young girl (all the deaths, so far, have been young girls!)! And more still may die, and we get juvenile pranks such as this: 

A San Francisco affiliate accidentally aired these names after a National Transportation Safety Board summer intern (WHAT?) confirmed them. You can read about the story and subsequent reaction here, but why would you even do that and lose the little faith you have left in people? In fact, if you're going to experience anything remotely Korean, why don't you just watch this video, friends: 

Crayon Pop is fun and fun is fun!! 

Okay, now that we got that terribleness out of our minds, let's talk about Edward Snowden and being spied on by our own government? On second thought, let's not! Why talk about Snowden when you can talk about Snowday, the movie! 

"It's a Snow Day. Anything Can Happen."  

Chevy Chase and Chris Elliott in the same movie? I say: What NSA!? I say: Who doesn't just love a snow day?! 

There's a little town in Quebec called Lac-Megantic that was obliterated by a runaway train - you know what, don't even worry about that, just pretend I didn't even say anything about that and get a soothing bowl of pho

Pho is a Vietnamese noodle dish that has rice noodles, herbs and spices, and, of course, MEAT. Pho is incredible because the meat and vegetables will cook inside the steaming broth. It is also wonderful because if you get it at the right place (I'm looking at YOU, Nhu Lan Bakery!) there is so much of it that you become deliriously full of pho and become tired and you won't even have the energy to think about the terrible scary sad heartbreaking compromised disgusting violent racist misogynistic world! 

George Zimmerman killed a kid! He shot him in the heart! Oh well!

Buy new shoes or whatever! That's what I did! Nice shoes without shoelaces (I freaking hate shoelaces!!!!!!)!

Now my feet are happy, and when my feet are happy I'm happy! I'm so happy that I've written this blog about how to be happy when everything seems wrong! Because everything is wrong! Oh wait, there I go again being all sad and stuff! It just creeps up on you sometimes and grabs at your throat, but you need to be vigilant in these times of ours, banish those thoughts and embrace beautiful vacuity, fill your heart up with that great empty until you have no room for anything else and then dance, it's summer already, so dance!