Personal Inventory on Patience, Sacrifice, Self Control, and Other Virtues

I often thought that if I took care of myself half as well as I took care of my child that I would be in pretty good shape. For example, I always make sure that he eats at least one serving of fruit for his morning snack at school and I work hard to get him into bed at a reasonable hour, even on weekends. I’m mindful of how much time he spends indoors versus outdoors and I remind him to balance his screen time with more creative activity. As for me, though, I hardly pay the same kind of attention to my own daily habits.

A few weeks ago, Fred officially began training for his black belt testing (in taekwondo). He was given a journal in which he is to track his daily and weekly activities such as running, doing push ups and sit ups, and practicing his forms and self defense techniques. In addition, he is to reflect weekly on how he has exhibited patience, sacrifice, self control, discipline, and punctuality.

While I definitely need to think about how much (or, more accurately, how little) exercise and fruit servings I am getting, this question on behavior piqued my interest. How often do I show those character traits or behaviors? I decided to try out the exercise for fun. This is my own reflection of the past week (√ marks what I did well and X shows otherwise):

Patience
 
√  With my clients…always
X  Showed exasperation when Fred started talking to me while I was working at my computer (repeated multiple times throughout the week).
X Showed exasperation when Fred didn’t move as quickly as I’d wanted him to (repeated multiple times).
 
Sacrifice
 
√  Took an afternoon off of work to make dinner and cake for Max’s birthday
√  Took a morning off of work to help a friend with her business
√  Sang Fred to sleep because he still wanted me to 
√  Stayed up late several nights to respond to last minute client needs
 
Self Control
 
X  Ate too much red meat
X  Ate too much carbs
X  Popped a sleep aid 3x this week (before trying other options, like meditation), a consequence of the fact that I —
X  Stayed up late too many nights on my computer and
X Kept going to sleep past midnight
 
Discipline
 
√  Got all my client work done during the week so I could take the weekend off
√  Went for a run (2x) with Fred and Max 
√  Made a schedule for my March reading and am keeping on track 
√  Cleaned our bathroom before it got gross
√  Returned/submitted all necessary forms, checks, emails, etc. for Fred’s school and activities
X  Fell behind in grocery shopping
 
Punctuality
 
√  Am up on time each morning to get Fred ready for school 
√  Was prompt responding to clients
X  Got meal on the table a little late on most of our taekwondo days, resulting in rushed eating and late arrival to class
X  Failed to respond to some emails from friends
 

I wrote out the “X”s not to be negative but as a way to see my patterns. Clearly I need to do a little better with the self control. It seems that the older I get, the more likely I am to want to please myself. While I am still a healthy eater overall, I’m less fanatical about it and I listen to my body more (I don’t know if that is good or bad). I keep to my 80/20 rule (80% healthy). This past week was a little off though, a sign of fatigue perhaps, or an unconscious attempt to reward myself for having worked hard for my clients.

And I need to work on patience, with my child. I always do a better job when I’ve had enough sleep. So it all goes back to self control.

What are your strong and weak points?

I wish that were my hand holding that fork. Image courtesy: http://www.fwallpapers.com

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A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 Booker Prize finalist A Tale for the Time Being tells the intertwined story of a Japanese girl named Nao and a Canadian writer of Japanese heritage named Ruth. Ruth has found a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on shore near her island home off the coast of British Columbia. When she opens the lunchbox, she finds inside a small packet of letters written in French, an old army watch, and a diary handwritten in English. The diary was written by Nao, a teenage girl in Tokyo.

Through Nao’s diary we learn more about her and the circumstances surrounding her decision to write this diary. She and her family had recently moved back to Tokyo after her father lost his tech job in Sunnyvale, California following the dot-com bubble burst. Unfortunately, he has trouble finding work in Japan and falls into a deep depression, which he tries to end through several suicide attempts. Nao becomes the victim of extreme bullying at school, eventually dropping out and also deciding to end her life after witnessing her father’s psychological decline. She does, however, find a spiritual guide in her 104-year-old Buddhist nun great-grandmother, Jiko, through whom she learns the story of her great uncle, Haruki, a kamikaze pilot during WWII and with whom her father shares the same name. Near the end of her story we learn about the parallels between her great uncle and father, and we discover the truth behind Haruki #1’s suicide attack and Haruki #2’s multiple suicide attempts. And yes, we learn to a sufficiently satisfying degree the fate of both Nao and her father.

This is an existential story about conscience, agency, and the meaning and passage of time as well as our role as human beings within this space. At the peak of the story Ruth traverses time and steps into the lives of Nao and her father (or does she?), resulting in a brief moment of magic realism.

The chapters alternate between Nao’s diary and Ruth’s story. Ruth is a fairly successful writer suffering from writers block and living on a remote island. Since discovering the diary, however, Ruth becomes increasingly obsessed with the story of Nao. Who is she? Is she real? Is she still alive? Ruth hypothesizes that her lunchbox was washed away in the Japan tsunami of 2011 and makes effort to hunt down the real Nao and Haruki.

While I loved Nao’s story – Ozeki does a great job of making this intelligent and witty teenage voice come alive – I found Ruth’s chapters to drag a bit. The Ruth chapters are used often to interpret Nao’s diary and to explain the scientific concepts behind such topics as quantum mechanics (to explain how Ruth could have entered Nao’s story briefly at one point), the life cycle of barnacles, etc. Oliver, her husband, is the convenient walking encyclopedia that explains much of these things but all of it felt a bit academic to me, like I was being lectured to. I would sit up straighter whenever Nao’s voice came on and then my mind would sometimes wander when Ruth’s came on. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate Ruth’s perspective or all that she had to offer about philosophy, Buddhism, and science, but I found Nao’s personal story of trying to connect with her suicidal father so engaging that the chapter alternations sometimes felt like an unwelcome interruption and break in flow. I believe there are many readers out there who enjoyed the book precisely because of its interconnections with so many subjects; for me it was a bit much, as I was interested mainly in the more personal aspects of the story.

As for the mood of the book, while I don’t want to give anything away, I will say that it is not all bleak despite the weighty subject matter. There are definitely some parts that were very difficult to read but the story is ultimately heartwarming and rather inspiring. Nao has a lively, engaging voice and somehow the story manages to be serious without being overly dark, funny without being inappropriate. It was, all in all, a thought-provoking and unique/unusual read.

NPR Read-Along: The Grapes of Wrath for its 75th Anniversary

Too much work and too little sleep this week…I’ve missed being able to read and write!

But I have just enough brain cells to tell you about NPR’s upcoming read-along of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, in case you haven’t heard about it. April 14th marks the 75th anniversary of its publication and so NPR will lead three book club-type discussions between March 3 and April 14. A Steinbeck expert will join the discussions on April 14 to answer questions from readers. Here is the reading and meeting schedule from NPR’s website:

Chunk 1: Oklahoma
Chapters 1-10
Book Club Meets: March 3, 3 p.m. EST on Monkey See

Chunk 2: On The Road And The Arrival
Chapters 11-20
Book Club Meets: March 24, 3 p.m. EST on Monkey See

Chunk 3: California
Chapters 21-30
Book Club Meets: April 14, 3 p.m. EST location and special Steinbeck guest TBD.

The Grapes of Wrath follows a family of poor tenant farm workers who have been driven out of Oklahoma due to poverty (the story is set in The Great Depression) and drought. There was great controversy when the book came out because of Steinbeck’s explicit depiction of the way poor migrant farmers were treated. Nonetheless, it became the bestseller of 1939 and it won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In 1962, the Nobel Prize Committee cited The Grapes of Wrath as a major reason for awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to John Steinbeck. (Source: Wikipedia)

I’ve been pretty eager to read The Grapes of Wrath ever since I finished (and loved) East of Eden last year, and I was lucky enough to have found a like-new copy of it at a local library sale last year. This seems like the perfect opportunity and reading schedule for me so I’ll definitely be following along.

Have you read The Grapes of Wrath? Do you want to join in on the NPR read-and-meet?

No Flowers or Jewelry; Just Love

My husband has rarely bought me flowers, and the few – okay, the two – times that he did, I think he got them from the supermarket. He reminds me that I had once specifically asked for food over flowers.

He used to buy me jewelry too, until I started losing them. And preferring books instead.

And there was a time when he wrote me cards, short reflections on our relationship and restatements of his love. And then he – and we – stopped writing altogether.

Love does evolve over time, into something far grittier. The sacrificing, compromising, forgiving, and understanding seem to take years to fully emerge. It’s only after years together that I looked up and thought, yes, that’s what we are now: a patchwork of butterflies in stomach, respect, fondness, gratitude, minor annoyances, insecurities, cultural and temperamental differences, and hopefully forgiven hurts. This patchwork is love that has been made ironclad through commitment.

In our thirteen years together I have felt Max’s love in unexpected and unscripted ways. I would never find them in a store-bought card, or in the most expensive bouquet. I can find them only in him:

~~~

Not long after we began dating I moved into Max’s place in an unfamiliar suburb 70 minutes outside of Tokyo. On one particular night that I was working late, Tokyo experienced a rare snowfall and commuter trains were delayed and rerouted. Still not comfortable in Japanese, I struggled to understand the announcements over the loudspeakers instructing passengers on new routes. I was nervous and took a chance, boarding a crowded train that only got worse as it sat on the platform waiting to pack in as many people as possible. I called Max and told him that I had no idea when I was getting home, and he asked me to ring him once I reached the station.

I finally arrived two hours later. Exhausted and frustrated and with tears in my eyes, I rang to tell Max that I had made it. “I know,” he said. I looked up and saw him standing at the entrance of the station with an umbrella. I don’t know how long he had been waiting for me.

We weren’t married yet at this point. In fact, we only dated a week before we both knew we were going to marry. The few friends I told thought I was crazy. They were scared for me, believing I was rushing into things. But somehow I always knew that I had found someone rare…a genuinely kind man who would always protect me, look out for me, and put me first in his life.

~~~

We had gotten into a particularly awful fight. As the years went on, I began realizing more and more that even love was not enough to stave off the differences inherent in our international marriage. Neither of us had ever deliberately intended to hurt the other and yet we did. And we struggled to make ourselves understood.

During this fight I went into the guest room where Max had been sleeping. Excessive pride is my weakness in relationships and I often refuse to be the one to “give in,” but this time I was worried. When I walked in, Max reached for a notebook and said, “Please don’t talk and just listen. Please.” He picked up the notebook and began reading to me through tears. In careful and precise English, he told me how much I had hurt him with the casualness with which I attack him with words.

I began to cry, not only because of the realization of what I had done, but because I saw, in the notebook and the hands and voice that trembled with emotion, what he has sacrificed for me. English is not a language he spoke until he met me. He’d studied it, yes, but he’d never had to use it regularly or depend on it for a relationship. He’d never had to struggle this much just to be heard and to be understood.

I was talking with a Japanese client this week about international relationships, as he and his American girlfriend broke up because of distance. He asked me if Max had moved to the U.S. for me. I told him, yes. Max had moved here for me.

~~~

Last year news came out that a private foundation was looking to recruit a married couple to go on the 2018 space mission to Mars. The trip would entail being confined together in a small capsule for 500 days. Max looked at me and beamed, “We can do it! If anyone can do it, it’s you and me!”

After all that we have been through together, it is the most romantic thing he could have ever said to me.

And he is right.

A Suspenseful Tale of Adultery, Power, and Womanhood: Apple Tree Yard, by Louise Doughty

I recently finished reading Apple Tree Yard by British writer Louise Doughty, whose last novel Whatever You Love was longlisted for the Orange Prize (now known as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction) and shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award.

It’s a mystery/suspense tale that opens with 52-year-old Yvonne Carmichael sitting on the witness stand in her own trial. She has been accused of being an accomplice to murder. After the chilling prologue, Yvonne takes us back about a half year or so, to the day she meets X (the only name we have for him at this point). She is on a lunch break after presenting before a governmental committee, and she catches his eye and vice versa. He begins walking with her, and then guides her down one set of stairs after another, until they are alone in the basement of an old chapel. In this way their affair begins.

Yvonne addresses the entire novel to her secretive, unnamed lover, calling him “you.” Through her story we understand the context of this affair and where she is in her life. She is an accomplished and respected geneticist. She is married to another academician, lives in the suburbs, and has two grown children. Her marriage is stable, familiar. Her husband did hurt her some years back, but she has chosen to stay in the marriage. She has a troubled son with whom she has a tenuous relationship, but she loves him dearly, and is desperate to do the right thing not to drive him away.

Yvonne, though a semi-unreliable narrator, is a nice, “normal” woman, the grown-up girl next door who always did well in school, followed the rules, and tried her best to have a quiet, meaningful life juggling career and family. She says, “Until I met you, I was not the sort of woman to throw caution to the wind” (page 44), and “I suppose there are two types of adulterers; the repeat types, and the one-offs. I fall into the latter category. I would never have had an affair if I hadn’t met you.” (page 311)

One night, Yvonne is attacked. She chooses not to tell her husband or her girlfriend and confides only in X. From here a series of events unfold like the kind of nightmare that one sees happening only to other people on television. In less than a year that she’s begun this affair, Yvonne finds herself facing a potential prison sentence.

I was captivated from beginning to end. The premise of the story itself is not all that original – so many stories have been written about love affairs gone awry – but what also kept me engaged is the psychological tale of a woman trying to find meaning, or something, in midlife. Yvonne is a woman who could be a colleague or a friend or a neighbor, someone who has it “all,” at least within the limitations of real life. Reading this book was like reading a long letter from a good girlfriend who is smart, successful, witty, unsure, flawed, and vulnerable. I think that many of us can see pieces of ourselves in Yvonne.

I also sensed the emptiness she feels in her life, a life in which she is hungry for connection with the opposite sex. She hasn’t seen her son in two years but fears driving him away if she comes too close. Her husband is married to his work and they haven’t had sex in three years. As a woman scientist, she is wary of licentious looks and power plays with male graduate students. About being propositioned by a male student who is depending on her external review of his dissertation, she says: “Maybe he wanted to f*ck me because he knew that I had indeed – simply by being who I was – already f*cked him.” (page 53) And in comparing her relationship with her husband with that of her lover, she describes the former as being full of knowledge of one another but with little intimacy, and the latter as being void of knowledge but filled with intimacy.

But even someone of her age, professional status, and confidence is ultimately reduced to the primitive and physically weaker position of woman. This is Yvonne’s internal struggle when she attempts to finalize an email asking her attacker to stop contacting her:

“Before I hit Send, I look at those two sentences for a long time. I shouldn’t be saying “please.” I should be telling him, not pleading with him. ‘Please’ was what I said, repeatedly, during the attack, and much good it did me. But if I leave it out, it’s an imperative, a command, and that might anger him. It comes to me with great force, and it is a sober and simple thought, that I am very afraid of him, viscerally afraid . . . Fear fought with my education, my achievements, my politics: fear won. ‘Please’ stayed in.” (page 138)

Apple Tree Yard was such a satisfying read for me because it encapsulates the things I look for in a mystery but have a hard time finding in one book, and it has those elements in just the right doses. It is entertaining yet thought-provoking; suspensefully paced and yet not merely plot-driven; erotic yet tasteful. This book also appealed to me as a woman who thinks about issues of relationships, gender, security, and power.

Classics Club Spin: I got Howards End

I participated in The Classics Club’s Spin #5 and the magic ball that rolled out is #20. Boy, I didn’t see that one coming. So I got Howards End. When I posted my list last week I couldn’t decide between Howards End and A Passage to India. Those of you who’d read both said that you liked Howards End better so I finalized my list over the weekend.

I’m okay with it. I only put books on the list that I wanted to read. Howards End was lower on my list than some of the other books but I’m looking forward to it as I have yet to read E.M. Forster!

Have you read Howards End? If so, what did you think of it? If you also participated in the Spin, what book did you get?

Men, Women, and Chivalry

I’m reading a captivating book right now called Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty. I plan to review this next week so for now I’ll just say briefly that it’s a mystery/suspense tale about an accomplished 50-something woman who finds herself on trial as an accomplice to a murder.

More than just a mystery, though, Apple Tree Yard is about what it means to be a woman – a successful woman – especially at midlife. How independent and strong are we, and how much do we need from our men? More specifically, this is a story about crimes against women, and here I define crime broadly whether it is infidelity, estrangement, professional intimidation, rape, or physical abuse. And most strikingly, it is a story told in the context of husbands and sons and colleagues and lovers.

Reading the book I started to think about the role of protection in our partnerships with men. For women in heterosexual relationships, how much do we expect to be protected? How much responsibility are we placing on our men to shield and guard us and to be our shelter?

The protagonist, Yvonne, becomes the victim of a crime but she doesn’t tell her husband or her closest girlfriend. Instead, she tells the lover with whom she has recently started an affair. She calls him every time she feels unsafe or whenever something triggers a painful memory, and he responds as any protective man would – by listening, yes, but also by offering more physical and concrete protection.

I couldn’t help putting myself in Yvonne’s position. I know whom I would go to if anything like that ever happened to me. Even without making the mental effort I immediately visualized the scene. I would be crying, maybe hyperventilating, and I would need to be enveloped inside the protection of my husband. I am grateful that I have someone whom I can collapse into in this way.

Do we still expect chivalry from the men in our lives? For all my independence and earning power, there is a significant part of me that is very dependent on Max. I feel lost when he’s away. I feel safer when he is driving. I’m more comforted when he’s sleeping beside me. Though we are equals as parents and business partners, that quieter, more invisible side of me feels like a little girl sometimes, not unlike the way I felt around my parents growing up. A girlfriend once attributed this to my lack of independence until I reminded her that I had once moved to a foreign country on my own and have pretty much steered my own life since childhood and made my own money since junior high. No, it is not that. It is not about being weak. I want to think that it is about love, and it is about being a woman in the sense that, as equal as we may be in brains or capability, we will always be more vulnerable physically.

In the end, I know that love brings out our most basic instincts to protect whether we are women or men. Women, with their maternal instincts, are fierce in this sense. I have seen this in myself. Seeing my child get hurt unjustly has brought out an assertiveness in me that I never before exercised. And in quieter, more unseen ways, in the absence of any real danger, I have been protective of my husband as well. It happens in the way I speak about him to others and in the way I implore him about things like driving too fast or running when it’s too hot. It happens every time I move on from a fight and put things behind me. It happens each day that we are together and I commit to loving him. While love motivates us to protect, it is also love – ordinary, unheroic – that is our protection, the shield of security that envelopes us.

Image courtesy https://i1.wp.com/i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01813/englishpatient_1813424i.jpg

My heart swells every time I watch this scene: Count Laszlo de Almásy walks 3 days to try and get help for the dying Katharine Clifton in The English Patient. Image Courtesy: i.telegraph.co.uk