Monday, November 30, 2009

Running in Pittsburgh

My first "long run" was supposed to happen this weekend. Never having lived here as a "runner," I've only ever driven distances longer than one mile within the city of PIttsburgh; therefore, I actually had to map out a 10-mile run around my neighborhood using the same online resources I would use in any foreign city. In the end, I came up with this route:

However, I encountered a few snags, in my attempt to follow it.

  1. There isn't a road in Pittsburgh (or at least in the communities around me) that stretches for longer than half a mile before it goes up or down a hill. Truly. I was tired before I had even gotten three miles out.
  2. I was also sore from the Turkey Trot the day before, which, although it had only been 3 miles long, I had run at a 7 min/mile pace. Proof that I am not a sprinter.
  3. I got lost about 4 miles out, when trying to find Thompson Run Road. When at last I thought I had it, I ended up walking up this mountain of a hill, only to dead end at the top at a buddhist temple.

Meanwhile, it was snowing and hailing and sleeting intermittently throughout this whole thing. Needless to say, I only ran about halfway out before getting lost, and I walked nearly the whole way home. Talk about a failure of a long run.

The day before that attempt, I competed in the YMCA Turkey Trot. I ran it as more of a sprint and less of a trot, seeing as there were 2,416 runners in total, and I had no interest in finishing 2,416th. I came in 124th overall, and placed 6th* out of 428 women in my age group (20-29). My finishing time, disappointingly, was 21:41. For some reason, I cannot seem to break 7:00 per mile. It's terribly frustrating!

I failed again two days later, when I raced in the Treesdale Turkey Trot. This time, I finished in 23:33--considerably slower than in the YMCA race, and this time well over 7:00/mile. Unfortunately, since the race was not timed by chip, I never found out how I placed. There were only about 200 runners in the entire event, though, so my placement couldn't have been too bad!

NOTE: I came in 30 seconds behind a girl I actually know: she was the cross country and long-distance track star of my graduating class. Talk about weird life turns--for someone like me, who picked up running all of two years ago, to consider someone like that a "running rival! See full race results here."

Return to Pittsburgh

Every time I come home to Pittsburgh, I am struck by how much things have both changed and stayed the same. My high school football team is still going to regional playoffs; meanwhile the district has opened a charter school. The Waterfront shopping district still has that movie theatre and those few restaurants where my friends and I would go back in high school; now, however, the area has morphed into a sprawling self-contained metropolis complete with riverside condos and a gas station.

The same goes for the people who live in Pittsburgh: many of their lives have drastically changed, but yet they are still very much the same people I knew when I left Pittsburgh. My family provides one example: my sister is now in her junior year at the University of Pittsburgh. She started out applying to prestigious musical conservatories around the country to sing opera and is now preparing to apply to graduate school in order to become a physical therapist. Yet she is still the same energetic, enthusiastic, endearing sister I have always known, who tries to make me “dress up more” and wants me to dance to hip hop music with her in every room of the house at every hour of the day.

My mother and father are also the same . . . but different. They are both working far more than they ever worked while I lived at home—three jobs apiece during tax season, when my dad works for the U.S. Postal Service, Aramark, and H&R Block, and my mom works for University of Pittsburgh Press, UPMC Rehab Services, and (also) H&R Block. Otherwise, however, they are merely aging versions of their endlessly patient, good-humored selves.

Where the most drastic changes have occurred, I think—and therefore the scariest changes—are with my friends. These are the people I grew up with: my neighbors, my classmates, my high school crushes. Seeing them take what I consider to be enormous steps in life is both a little bit scary and a little bit heartbreaking. It’s scary because I know that I am nowhere near taking on these sorts of gigantic responsibilities. It’s heartbreaking because such huge changes, ultimately, cannot help but wrench our life paths in separate directions.

One of my best friends recently got married. In her case, I was already realizing the differences of “married life” and “married priorities” well before she was married, because even a year before the wedding, she and her now-husband were already hanging out primarily with other couples, a number of whom were already married. My visit this break merely confirmed what I already knew: that one’s definition of “family” ends up defining one’s definition of “friends.” Unfortunately, that means married people hang out with married people, and single people . . . .

Case in point: another one of my friends found out he was a father last year, moved in with his girlfriend, and committed himself to raising her already-three-year-old son as well as his own newborn daughter. Now, he no longer talks to any of his former friends, many of whom are still single, and all of whom are childless. The worst part is that this friend pool includes me. And as sad as this might make me I do understand, because even if I call him once, twice, ten times, his children will probably need his attention, and when you have kids, your kids come first. When you’re single and childless . . . all you have to worry about is you.

The third huge life-altering change I witnessed while I was home in Pittsburgh was a purchase: one of my friends bought a house. We’re approximately 23 years old, and this guy feels settled enough to buy a house. Meanwhile, I can’t even decide if I want to live in Queens, New Jersey, or China. Talk about being in different places in life!

Like always, one of the questions I was most frequently asked was, “Are you coming back?” Of course I said yes, I’d be back already at Christmastime, but then the questioner would revise their question. No, no, they would say, do you think you’ll ever move back? To Pittsburgh.

While I usually give the same noncommittal, “maybe, but I can’t see why,” type of response, my answer lately has felt more and more certain. Over the years, as I witness more changes in lives of those around me, I feel less and less compulsion to come back. If I could have frozen time right when I graduated high school and then left, gone to college, done my stint in New York City, gallivanted around the world, and then returned to things exactly as I had left them here in Pittsburgh, I might feel a stronger compulsion to stay. But I don’t fit here anymore. This space, in this portion of my life has changed shapes, and it no longer calls to me the same way it did when I first left. Every time I come back to Pittsburgh, it feels vaguely like I’m trying to force my life back into that original shape, even though I recognize that so much has changed. And it hurts to try to make things like they once were, because that’s an impossible feat, and one that always results in disappointment. It’s just that the place feels the same, and the people are the same. But everything has changed. Including me. So I doubt I’ll ever really be back. But, as they say, never say never.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Crank Dat

Learning the dance to "Crank Dat" in my parents' kitchen with my sister.... Yes, it is already a happy thanksgiving.

Instructional video here >>>

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: Call Me By Your Name

Call Me by Your Name: A Novel Call Me by Your Name: A Novel by Andre Aciman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An emotionally packed, intensely obsessive, stream-of-consciousness story set against the backdrop of a summertime vacation in Italy. It is a love story akin to Brokeback Mountain (or what should be known as Annie Proulx's short story "Close Range"), only with the added dilemma of age differences and inevitable end-of-summer separation factoring into the mix.

Aciman writes the story from inside Elio's head with such conviction, that anyone with the slightest obsessive compulsion will be swept away into his absolute need for Oliver. The push and pull of his yearning, the "I-am-perfect-for-him" mixed with "I'll never be anything in his eyes" moments that happen nearly simultaneously are so poignant that we're in his fifteen-year-old head. Yes, it gets exhausting to go back and forth and over and over the same thing so much, but not necessarily because it is so repetitive as a reader, but because it feels so repetitive to be this character. As a reader, we are convinced we have become him, have adopted his obsessions and his insecurities. And in this way, Aciman carries us along for the duration of the story--all the way to its appropriately unsatisfactory ending.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone has something in their lives that they struggle to control. We all have that friend who can’t attend a party without puking or passing out (or both). We all know someone who can’t pass up that extra portion of dessert (or who can’t ever bring themselves to eat it), and let us not forget our colleague who cannot last two hours without stepping outside to have a cigarette.

Now, do not mistake me: I am not saying that people cannot control issues. I am merely saying that every person has an issue in their life that they struggle to control. I am convinced that this is true for every person—that we all have at least one such issue—and so the trick, for an inquisitive person such as myself, is to identify that issue. In a number of cases—depending on the issue or the person—this can be incredibly challenging.

For instance, who thinks of “trust” as a matter of control? Yet, some people cannot help but to trust everyone they meet. This is obviously very different from alcoholism or drug abuse, but it can also be very damaging and is just as much about lack or loss of control; the person cannot seem to control who they trust, and therefore sustain psychological injury as a result.

Likewise, what about exercise? Some people claim to have an “exercise addiction,” and others jealously mutter that they wish they were addicted to exercise. But what if exercising consumes your life? If working out is all you do, if your entire schedule consists of running; if the only friends you have are your lifting buddies; if all you own are swim suits, track pants, sneakers, and an IPod, are you still maintaining control over that pastime, or has it become an addiction just as consumptive as, say, alcohol or shopping?

Which brings me back to my original conclusion: that everyone struggles with some sort of control issue, no matter how obscure. I am slightly obsessed with discovering what that is for people in my life; I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it is a matter of trust, to let others know what is (or at least feels) “out of control” in your life. Perhaps I want them to trust me enough to let me in on that vulnerable detail?

Yet, oddly enough, some of the people I trust most in my life are the people who seem most “in control” of their lives. For instance, I don’t think my mother will ever let me glimpse whatever her “control issue” is . . . if she has one. She is probably the only person who makes me doubt my theory (although my friend R___ in Boston and E___ in Pittsburgh are also in the running for those least likely to let their infallible armors of self control falter). I admire these people hopelessly, but not knowing their “one vice” drive me a bit insane, because as much as I idolize them, I am a realist—no one is perfect. I call these people perfect, I see them as perfect, but in my innermost mind, I cannot believe them to be absolutely perfect. Meanwhile, though, I will envy their fa├žade of control . . . and do my best to emulate them.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

They were wrong about the diamonds

Dogs still might be a man’s best friend, but diamonds were never a woman’s.

Diamonds can’t cure headaches. Diamonds can’t lower fevers. And they certainly can't ease monthly weeklong pain so women can eat, sleep, and go about their daily working lives.

Motrin are a girl’s best friend. And if you think otherwise, just check her purse. You ain't findin' no diamonds in there.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: Dope

Dope Dope by Sara Gran

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This starts out reading like a docudrama and ends up mystery--which is actually what saves it from being trite and, ultimately, boring. Gran does little to make her protagonist stand out from other drug addict-thief characters we have read about before, those who have come clean, those who doubt their ability to stay clean, those who crave the drug and those determined not to go back. In this way, Josephine's character fails to stimulate the mind or imagination. The characters she meets are what drive the book, until the plot eventually takes over. Then, the mystery of finding Nadine involves the reader as much as it involves Josephine, until a dramatic twist hurtles the reader through to the end.

I have to admit that the ultimate ending left me immediately disappointed. Afterward, though, I stopped and reconsidered my reasons for feeling disappointed: 1) I--just like every other Disney-raised American--had been hoping for a happy ending. We always want our protagonists to succeed. They are extensions of ourselves, after all. And this, for what it was, was not a happy ending. Then, 2) it wasn't much of an ending. It wasn't conclusive. And I hate untidy endings. I don't like endings to be too neat, either--that's just as easy a way out for an author as providing not enough detail--but "not knowing" is antagonizing! However, the lack of definitive ending really did suit this book, when I stop and think about it. Thematically, it suited the situation both specifically and at large: drugs, betrayal, hopelessness, the cyclic nature of relationships and habits.

So for all of the issues I may have had with the book and its ending, I have to give Gran her dues. It was a quick and authentic-feeling read.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Teaching--a real possibility

Yes, most of you have heard me swear up and down that I will never become a teacher. Mostly, I make this proclamation as a retort to the, "What are you going to do with that English degree, teach?" jab, but honestly, I never did think I would seriously consider teaching for two primary reasons:

  1. I have very little patience for children. In fact, I don't even really like children very much. I discovered this “lack of like” fairly early on, during the various babysitting stints I undertook in my adolescence. I don't dislike kids, per se, but I do not have that "oh my goodness, how wonderful, how precious, how joyful to be in their presence" feeling that so many people seem to get from being around a child. This, of course, becomes even more problematic when said child is being troublesome or obstinate, because reasoning with a child--as we all know--can be somewhat difficult, and I like to treat problems with nothing if not reason and rationality.
  2. I like to receive credit for my own work. Call this selfish, call is egotistical, but I like my own congratulations. Teachers are never congratulated for how well their students do. The teachers actually are the ones who are expected to offer the congratulations; they are the ones who compliment their students for doing so well. Meanwhile, the students should be the ones offering congratulations and thanks to their teachers for doing such a tremendous job forming them into the talented, smart human beings they have become. But no, few--if any—students come out grateful. So the occupation of teaching, on the whole, does not seem very appealing.

However. What is and always has been true is that I love to fix writing: my writing, my friends' writing, my peers' writing, any writing. I love to improve it, to play with the language until it says precisely what I want it to say (or, alternatively, until it says what I think the author wants it to say). My love for this has never wavered, and I have had the chance to practice it in multiple ways: editing my friends' and family members' letters/essays/etc., working as a writing tutor in college, and even looking over correspondences for my current bosses, on occasion.

Moreover, I have had a recent experience that makes me think that perhaps--just perhaps--the whole teaching thing might not be so bad. Granted, this experience involved teaching a physical skill (swimming) to an adult (the student is older than me) who wanted to learn the subject very badly (he practiced obsessively, asked loads of questions, and would have taken lessons every day if I had had the time to give them). Consequently, watching him progress and improve was so immensely gratifying, I didn't even need the reassurances that eventually came from my friends and family. (e.g. "He's already learning flip turns?! That's amazing! You must be an great teacher!") This experience also reminds me of swimming lessons I gave many summers ago: I taught a pair of twins all four strokes, helped a five-year-old learn how to float, and got a ten-year old girl who started out petrified of water to eventually jump off of the diving board . . . every day for the rest of the summer.

This brings me to an event that occurred two nights ago. I was lying in bed falling asleep when my roommate L___ knocked at my door. Usually, she and my other roommate B___ stick together and leave me out of the loop, but this time B___ wasn't home, so I got up and went to see what L___ needed. She was writing a letter asking her boss to apply for a FY 2010 work visa (she's Chinese), and wanted my help making sure everything sounded okay.

For whatever reason, although I was nearly asleep, with my hair askew and my eyes swollen half-shut, I felt invigorated by the task and sat down to help her with great gusto. As I went through each sentence, I asked her to explain the situation and all of its intricacies so that they could be made clear in the letter. Along the way, I taught her various English tips and tricks (e.g. "less" is for things that comes in amounts and cannot be counted, like water, "fewer" is for things which can be counted, like grains of rice). By the end, she had a clearer, more professional letter, she felt more confident, and I felt both proud and accomplished.

This is the sort of experience I want to have every day. Or, rather, this is the feeling I want to have every day: I want to feel accomplished. I want to feel that I improved something, that I helped someone, and that I got to work with language. Is this what will happen in teaching? Maybe. Every day? Doubtful. But teaching may be a gateway into other things I want to do, like travel, or learn another language, or interact with another culture. So if anyone knows of any outstanding ESL programs. . . .

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: A User's Guide to the Brain

A User's Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain A User's Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain by John J. Ratey

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The idea for this book was excellent: take all of the intricate, ground-breaking information in neuroscience and psychology, simpify it as much as possible to educate every-day readers, and add a "how to" component to show the information's practicality, importance, and usefulness. Coming from an author and clinician as well established as John Ratey (he works at Harvard), I expected nothing less than an intelligent, compelling book.

A User's Guide reads like a condensed version of my freshman year cousework in Brain & Cognitive Sciences. Ratey provides explanations of each basic neuroscience concept (e.g. synapses, "use it or lose it," plasticity, etc.) as he goes through his material, all of which are essential to understanding and being convinced of his argument that we can change the neuroanatomy and therefore functionality of our own brains. However, Ratey may as well have physically taken his book and bashed his readers over the head with it repeatedly, because that is what he does with every point he makes. Instead of providing one paragraph of neuroscience explanation and then a follow-up paragraph or two about how this anatomy or functionality works in practical terms and/or how it can be manipulated by a "user," he spends pages going over and over each concept in every synonamous way he can conceive. By the end of the first chapter, I was less convinced of his argument that people can change their own brains by "thinking right" and more convinced that he was trying to create a memorization aid for neuroscience students.

Ultimately, I got so fed up with the repetition that I quit the book. (A reader can only skip so many paragraphs, after all, before deciding to "skip" the remainder of the book.) I am sure there are other books out there on this same topic that are more entertaining and less tiresome. Ratey seems like he knows his stuff, and--as I am already familiar with the material--he seems to explain it well. However, as good as his explanations might be, there IS something to be said for too much of a good thing. And A User's Guide was definitely too much.

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