Saturday, December 11, 2010

"The only reason for time..."

" so that everything doesn't happen at once." --Albert Einstein

On November 26, I turned 48. I feel younger now than I did when I was 24. For me, the fountain of youth is happiness--and it's trying new things, being open, and saying "yes" to life!

My most recent endeavor in this regard is downhill skiing. I just spent two weeks in Tahoe re-learning to ski. Well, actually learning, since what I used to do 20-plus years ago was slipping around down the green runs. Now I've been skiing with my guy, who is an excellent skier, and we also spent some time skiing with three of his friends--all of whom are experts. In fact, one of them was in a famous ski movie..and this guy guided me down a few hills, giving me tips the whole way. Once I decided not to be intimidated, I realized it was an honor to have been given a private ski lesson by a pro. And of course it was an honor to have my guy and my friends slow down their pace to include me, and to guide me with their encouragement and technical tips.

Everything was new and different: donning the equipment that made me feel like an astronaut, riding the funitel that glides up to the middle of the mountain, riding multiple lifts to the top of the mountain, skiing down slopes that would be a challenge to walk down, whizzing downhill without a bike beneath me, and trying out all the suggestions for correct form. Here are the things I had to keep in mind:

* hands in front like you're driving a Ferrari or holding a grocery bag
* punch out an arm to turn but don't pull the other one back
* sit as though you're in a "golden seat"
* keep knees flexible
* move up and down, and side to side
* keep weight on inside edge of downhill ski
* keep the edges engaged and "float" on the turn
* press down with your toes
* use an ice-skater like movement
* focus on a point in the distance
* square your shoulders to the mountain
* the only way to do the correct movement is to go fast
* but it's okay to go slower to practice the correct movement
* relax, smile--enjoy the beautiful environment
* have fun
* and my favorite: move to the rhythm of a song in your head. My choice: "Peaceful Easy Feeling."

Oh yeah: And don't over-think things.


No, I didn't want to give up. I wanted to get better every minute, every day. I'm not sure I did, but I know the overall effect was improvement. My main evidence of improvement was this: Finally I was able to walk through the lodge without feeling like an alien.

Also, by Day Six I skied down a slope I refused to go near Day One. (Maybe "skied" is a loose approximation of what I did; I think at one point I was almost going backward. Nevertheless, I went down the hill, never removed my skis, and stayed upright.)

Now I'm excited to go back--not only to get back on skis but to experience living the Tahoe life, which is a clean-air snow world completely different from the urban San Jose life. I enjoy the differences between the two worlds. And I enjoy the contrasts of living in a snowy world: Warm under your clothes with a bite of cold on your face; orange fire in the living room while white snow drifts down out the window; breathing hard while moving your body in the high altitude, followed by a warm indoors yoga session, then total relaxation of wine and food and games of backgammon--dogs curled at your feet.

Another new experience for me was snowshoeing. Because it doesn't involve speeding downhill with the possibility that you might collide with an out-of-control boarder or another neophyte skier, there was no nerve-wracking element. It was all pure joy and beauty. One day we snowshoed along Lake Tahoe. The day was white upon blue upon white everywhere you looked: sky, water, land. Another day we snowshoed with friends up hills, through the trees, along a frozen creek bed. We stopped and created an "ice bar" of cheese, apples and white wine. We sledded down a hill on a "ziffy whomper" (French pronunciation: ziffy whom-pear) and laughed and laughed. Our German friend told us that when she was growing up in Germany, sledding at the new year was a tradition that brought good luck (Viel Gluck).

Funny how we mark the beginning of the new year, stepping from one year into the next both literally and symbolically. Or maybe it's all symbolic. Time is a slippery thing. Sometimes a minute can feel like an hour, or vice-versa. Sometimes you can be "middle aged" and feel more youthful than ever. Sometimes it's very clear that Father Time and Baby New Year are two sides of the same coin--a coin you hold in your hand.

* * * * * * * * ** * * * * * * * * *
Another thing I'll be doing by the fire over the next few weeks is reading the zillion books I'm teaching this spring semester. Here's what's up:

English 139: Visting Authors
In this course, I'll be teaching a variety of works
by writers who are coming to our campus to speak. Here's the reading list:
non-fiction writer
Rebecca Solnit: A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Jasmin Darznik: The Good Daughter
Tony Barnstone: Sad Jazz, Tongue of War and The Art of Writing
E.L. Doctorow: Billy Bathgate, Ragtime and Homer and Langley (the latter of which I'm reading right now and enjoying immensely)
fiction writer
Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum: Madeleine is Sleeping and Ms. Hempel Chronicles

English 117: Film, Literature and Culture
In this course, we'll be talking about how films are adapated from books. The books we will be reading (and corresponding films) are:
The Joy Luck Club
Like Water for Chocolate
Push (film version: Precious)
The Motorcycle Diaries

English 71: Introduction to Creative Writing
Good Poems (edited by Garrison Keillor)
Short Takes: Brief Encounters with Nonfiction (edited by Judith Kitchen)
Flash Fiction Forward (edited by Thomas & Shapard)

English 1A: Composition
In this course I'm using a Reader and Rhetoric, and students will be reading memoirs of their choice (from a list I create) in book groups.

Yep, I said "yes" to teaching four different courses. I think the same list of pointers for skiing will in some way apply to my teaching life this spring. Bring it on!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Life, Liberty and...

Would you rather be right or happy? I have no question that my answer is the latter. Being right is about justifying, explaining, wasting your living time and energy on trying to get people to agree with you, or trying to get people to change. It's also about thinking that if someone in your life would just act differently, you'd be happy. But we can, at any given moment, choose happiness no matter what someone else is doing or saying. When you are being who you truly are and leaning into positive, loving thinking--then happiness arrives. (This is a timely topic today, National Coming Out Day, in which embracing one's happiness is central!)

Sparked by the fact that I'll be seeing the Dalai Lama speak this week, I've been reading The Art of Happiness, a book written by psychologist Howard Cutler, who interviewed the Dalai Lama over a long period of time. About half the book is the Dalai Lama's words and ideas juxtaposed with positive psychology--which has a lot in common with the Dalai Lama's flavor of Buddhism.

One of my favorite points the book makes is that being happy is not a selfish goal. Cutler writes: "Isn't a life based on seeking personal happiness by nature self-centered, even self-indulgent? Not necessarily. Survey after survey has shown that happy people are more sociable, flexible, and creative... And are found to be more loving and forgiving than unhappy people."

The Dalai Lama--who lost his country to some of the most brutal violence in modern day history--believes that being happy should be our central goal because it is unhappy people who disrupt others' lives at the minimum, and at extremes do things like start wars.

I've always felt deep down that happiness was crucial to me personally but also for larger reasons--and now I understand why. There are so many critiques of pursuing happiness that argue that it's "fluffy" and unrealistic. I've been called a Pollyanna more than once in my life. I've also been accused of not being a deep thinker because I tend toward the positive. (Funny, because the Dalai Lama is one of the deepest, most contemplative thinkers around, and he promotes the "art of happiness.")

But what I understand now is that the discipline of happiness is not about denying our negative feelings. Instead, it's using our negative feelings to recognize--as the Dalai Lama puts it--the ways in which negative feelings point us in the wrong direction. The key is to note those feelings and then lean into something more positive. One way to do this is to look at what you appreciate around you, what you are grateful for. One cannot be compassionate without being fundamentally happy because if we look at the ills of the world through the lens of anger, we perpetuate anger and violence. If we are happy, we are peaceful and kind, and we are more effective at creating solutions. Happiness, he believes, will change the world.

(Another event I'm attending this week is a talk by filmmaker Michael Moore, who is receiving the Steinbeck Award at my university. Afterward I get to attend a reception where I might actually meet the guy! Love him or hate him, he's made his mark on the documentary film as a social change agent.)

Something else I've been thinking about a lot is this: Wherever you put your energy, there you are. There have been times in my life that I've been miserable, such as when I've been stuck in the "wrong" job or "wrong" relationship. Now that I look at those situations from a distance, though, I can see in each case how I had put a lot of energy into making those jobs, relationships and other "unfortunate" situations happen. I'd worked hard to set the stage for those things. I'd gotten the "right" education, put myself in situations to meet the "right people," and cultivated the "right" disposition to bring those things into my life--and then when it was clear they weren't working, I spent a lot of my living time thinking about what was wrong, complaining about what was wrong, rallying the troops about what was wrong. All of that was energy that entrenched me into my unhappy situation. It made me "right" not happy.

Now I see that if I think more about what I want (not what I don't want) and about what I appreciate about the positive aspects of my life, then those things proliferate. It makes sense, doesn't it? Whatever we spend our thinking and living time on multiplies like rabbits.

The things I love are reproducing in my life. I'm very much enjoying writing the "personal transformation" book. I've been meeting regularly with a good writer friend to share what we're working on and to give feedback. I can feel the book forming in exciting ways. And now in the past few weeks I: a) received a message via Facebook from a guy who loved one of my novels that he'd come across in Guatemala, of all places, b) I just received a call from a radio program interviewer in Florida who wants to interview me in January, c) A new review of my novel that came out last year was just published and d) I gave an informal talk on campus about writing, and a student wrote this wonderful response on a blog. Energy begets energy.

Speaking of energy, I ran the San Jose Rock n Roll Half Marathon about a week ago, which was a wonderful community event. As I ran, I was moved by all the community participation: the numerous groups and individuals cheering from the sidelines, the hundreds passing out water, the bands every mile or so celebrating with their music--and of course my 13,000 other running comrades. It was fun to walk out my front door to the start line, joined by two of my friends. These events aren't just about running; they are about connection. Next on tap: Big Sur Half Marathon November 14, and the 10K Silicon ValleyTurkey Trot Thanksgiving morning.

I ran that Turkey Trot last year, which coincided with my 47th birthday. This year, it's the day before my 48th birthday. What a difference a year makes. Last year, I was coming into my own. I was spending my birthday and Thanksgiving single for the first time in 15 years, which felt somehow remarkable. After having been married in summer 2008, I'd never imagined that I'd be single in 2009. Last November, though, I embraced feeling free. I could feel that my world was mine to design.

Fast-forward a year, and now I'll be running this race with a man who has brought so much joy into my life. Talk about energy begetting energy. He is already teasing me with tantalizing hints about elaborate plans he's made for my birthday weekend. Perhaps throwing my own birthday party for myself last year (including buying my own cake embossed in frosting with "Happy Birthday Kate"!) set the stage for what is happening now: co-creating a life with someone who celebrates me, as I do him. Each day is a study in appreciation of now--and excitement for the future.

At the heart is a certain tenderness I feel toward the human condition. As one of my friends said to me today, "It seems like when things get really really bad, when things change for the better they change to the same degree and get really, really good."

I'd rather be happy than right--and I also know it's everyone's right to be happy.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Joy Thing

Why have so many months lapsed since I last blogged? I think Facebook is the culprit. Well, that and living life inspired, awake and alive. In other words, I've been doing a lot of traveling and going to a lot of concerts. Dancing takes time! But it's time well spent because it's impossible to be unhappy while dancing.

And when happy, I am aligned with my essence. I know that sounds like I live in California, so let me translate for those who don't: When I'm happy, I'm being my true self. And maybe others will benefit from that. (At least my students will, because happy = less cranky! Less cranky is a good thing for them, especially when they ask to turn in a paper late even though the syllabus says on every page, IN CAPS and italics, that I don't accept late work.)

My travels this year have included Hawaii, Italy, Spain, Morocco, the High Sierra for hiking and this fantastic music festival, Seattle, Whidby Island, L.A. and Catalina. I met with two different friends I hadn't seen in 30 years. I met vibrant, fun people from all over the world. And I met a man who has been bringing all kinds of lovely treasures into my life.

It seems I've gathered ten years of writing material in the last few months. Indeed, I have been feeling that fullness that you get when a project has been gestating. The words I've been typing onto the computer page are developing into a new book. This book is about a lot of things. I know by the time I try to get an agent to represent it, I'll have to be able to communicate the bumper-sticker version of what the book is about, but for now--headlong in the creative process--it gets to be juicily undefined. So for now, it's just a book. Or a bunch of words. Or an exploration.

One of the things I am exploring is what it's like to be thrust back into the straight world. It's interesting to be seen and treated as a heterosexual just because I'm in a relationship with a man. Wait a minute. Does that make me heterosexual? Even though I was with a woman for 15 years? When I was married to a woman, did that make me a lesbian--even though I'd spent 30-plus years with men? Why does the gender of the person we love determine our label? Why not their height ("She's a tall-o-sexual") or their job ("He's a nurse-o-sexual") or their ethnicity ("She's an Italian-o-sexual")?

But back to the point that I'm seen as straight. It's fun because I have a double-consciousness, an overlay of the previous Kate ghosting the current Kate. This pentimento can feel delectable, like a secret. It's interesting to me how now I blend in. Let's face it, even in today's world, lesbians stick out. People notice lesbians. Sure, there were disadvantages to being queer, notably the times I was targeted with people's hate, shame or prejudices. But more often than not, people were intrigued. Being a lesbian was kind of like being a celebrity. When we went places as a couple, people smiled at us, knowingly, telling us with their eyes that they were fascinated by our special club. Sometimes people would excitedly ask us if we'd gotten legally married. They'd want us to meet their lesbian friend or sister. They'd ask our opinions about politics. They'd be amped up just to be near people who appeared to be so iconoclastic.

What's funny about the iconoclastic image is that I felt much more parochial as a lesbian than I do now. Back then, I lived a more conservative life. Sure, I was writing and teaching, but domesticity was at the center of my life. Not much risk-taking, not much body and mind stretching, not much reveling in the pleasure of life. I was in that numb, sleepwalking phase that can creep up on you when you're not happy but for whatever reason refuse to face that fact.

I know there are people that don't believe in happiness. But I'm here to say something very important that I've discovered in the last year-and-a-half as I've moved through betrayal, devastation, divorce and into the amazing light of rebirth into a new life: Happiness is not over-rated.

And I'm learning something else. Something even more important. Something I wish I'd known when the shit hit the fan last year. Happiness does not depend on another person. Not on another person's attitude, behavior or words. It doesn't matter if that person is your lover, your ex, your boss or the President. Happiness (and now we're coming full circle) is about aligning with your true nature. When you are happy, you are fulfilling your gifts. You are living your purpose for being here, now, on this planet, in this spot, at this time, in this body.

So. Be yourself. Be happy. I'll continue to work on it too. Then let's check back in soon to see how we're all doing with the joy thing.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Endure. Then Celebrate.

A year ago my heart and life were broken into pieces, and I wasn't sure life was worth living. Pema Chodron, my amazing therapist, my friends and family, literature, art and music helped me move to a new level of appreciation of life.

How can it be that now I'm full of joie de vivre? How can it be that I love to dance around alone or with friends in my apartment? How can it be that I'm open to new love? And to travelling, and cooking, and hiking and running, and the life of sensual pleasures? I enjoy being alone, and I enjoy being with my new love. I'm challenged by, and appreciating, my new classes. I can see my students have whole worlds they swirl in, worlds that can teach me as much as I can teach them.

Perhaps it takes coming close to death to love life at a new level?

Of course, there's wisdom of friends that always strikes to the depths. Here's an example. My friend Mike wrote this poem after I told him about my new relationship:

For Kathleen

I hate to say I told you so.
But I will. Because I did.
Of course, you know I'm lying
I love to say I told you so.

Go work your wiles on them
Said I. Snap your fingers and
Strike them blind if you don't
Like them. Fuck them if you do.

While you're whirling around
You'll bump into one that closes
Your eyes and opens your soul.
That's your man. I told you so.

I'm in love with the possibilities of life. I feel that there's barely enough time to do all I want to do. And at the same time, I remind myself to stop and appreciate the moment. The moment, after all, is all we really have. Perhaps this is aging, an accumulation of wisdom. Don't get me wrong. I don't have it all figured out. It's just that I can experience the richness, and ambiguities, and complexities of life in a way that I didn't in my teens, twenties and thirties. In a way that I didn't pre-divorce.

Probably in a related vein, creativity has been infusing my life lately--a strange attractor, to be sure. It's as though my new life energy is a magnet for all kinds of exciting creative acts. Here are some of the things on tap:

Feb. 27 (Saturday), 3 p.m, Fremont Area Writers talk at Mountain Mike's Pizza, 35760 Fremont Blvd, Fremont, CA.

March 11 (Thursday), 4 p.m in the MLK Library, I'm doing a joint reading with Cecilia Woloch. I'll be talking about the function of poetry in my new novel, Complementary Colors.

March 27 (Saturday), 9 a.m. at the Quilts & Textiles Museum in San Jose, I'm giving a 3-hour workshop for SWAN Day:
"Nothing happens, and nothing happens, and then everything happens." -- Fay Weldon
A lot of life feels like we are traveling on a familiar road. Then, suddenly, by choice or not, we face a crossroads: a place where multiple, unfamiliar roads converge. We all have periods in our lives that we can identify in the moment, or in retrospect, as "at the crossroads." These times can be painful, exhilarating, or both. No matter the feelings stirred up, being at the crossroads is a rich time. A time of possibility. Of transformation. In this workshop, we will engage with, capture, illuminate and explore life's transformations through writing. We will also probe intersections among poetry, prose and visual art: creativity's crossroads. In this vein, we will engage with the exhibition of poetry and quilt art of acclaimed artist Joan Schultz. Participants will be provided with opportunities to share their writing and discoveries.

April 7 (Wednesday) at 7 p.m., I'm doing a reading from my new novel, Complementary Colors, at the MLK library at 7 p.m.

April 10 (Saturday) at 1 p.m., I'm doing a poetry reading with a number of other San Jose poets at the San Jose Museum of Art. The reading is based on poetry written by various Bay Area poets in response to one of the museum's exhibits. We were all invited into this project by Nils Peterson, our county's poet laureate.

Life is not to be given up on. Sometimes it's to be endured until we can celebrate it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Coming Out in All Directions

Over the past year, my life has turned upside down. A year ago, I was in a 15-year relationship with a woman whom I'd legally married. Soon, we endured an excruciating split-up (the divorce is still in process). During the first 30 years of my life, I'd loved only men. I'd been married for five years to a man, had lived with another for a few years, and had dated numerous guys.

Since my split with the woman I loved for many years, I have returned to dating men. Transitioning into being with a woman was a lovely, exciting (and often apprehensive) time--as is transitioning now in a new direction.

I know I'm not the only woman who has ever experienced coming out of lesbian life into bisexual or straight life. In fact, the book Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire by Lisa Diamond makes the case that women's sexuality is more fluid, flexible and multi-directional than not. Another book I've read recently is Jan Clausen's Apples & Oranges, her story of leaving an essentially lesbian separatist world. Another excellent book that addresses gender and sexual fluidity is Gender Shock: Exploding the Myths of Male and Female by Phyllis Burke. It's been a while since I read it, but the book strikes me as a good companion to Diamond's book because it is also research-based, and it makes the case that our insistence on fixed identities is rooted in anxieties, not in lived and felt experience.

And then there are my books. In the midst of my transition into loving men, my novel Complementary Colors was released--the irony being that the novel is about a straight woman who falls in love with a lesbian. And yet is this ironic? Maybe it's portentous because, if you look beyond gender, my novel is about the ways we change. The ways we are more fluid than we think. It's about the twists and turns and surprises in life's journeys.

What I find fascinating is that I was interviewed twice over the course of a year by Gary Shapiro for his radio program "From the Bookshelf." The first interview focused on my first novel, For the May Queen. And in that interview, I talk about my lesbian relationship in connection to my writing. In the second interview, about a year later, I talk about my new life and how it resonates with my writing.

Re-listening to these interviews, I'm struck by how confidently I talk about my long-term relationship in the first interview. I didn't know we were on the edge of a cliff. In the second interview, I'm more tentative. I seem tender, more hesitant--perhaps more open to ambiguity?

I don't have any huge revelations here. I just know that as my life path twists and turns, I want to keep my eyes open. Fully, completely open in awe, wonder and curiousity. Maybe this way I can see clearly whatever appears around the next corner.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Fun with Syllabi ... and creative ways to help Haiti

Now is the season for syllabus-crunching. Designing a semester course is dizzying, made more so this academic year due to the weirdness that is furloughs. Because we had to take an almost 10% pay cut this year, we are also required to cut out a certain number of days from our semester. Some of the required days are university-wide furlough days. Others are ones we must designate ourselves, which means students may have some classes that meet on a given day, while others won't. For students taking several classes, the calendar contortions are mind-blowing.

On furlough days we are by contract forbidden from grading papers, emailing students, etc.--in other words, doing any work. It's like University Shabbat. But the bottom line is we are not to compromise any of our teaching and learning objectives. How do you cut out teaching and learning time without compromising anything? It's Kafka-esque.

Still, I'm grateful that my job affords so much creativity. This semester the travel writer Tim Cahill will be our Lurie Endowed Professor. He'll be teaching two classes, and giving a free talk open to the public. So a number of us have decided to focus our courses on travel and "the journey." Here's my run-down:

COURSE #1: English 117, Section 03 (Literature and Film: Travel and Transformative Journeys)
In this class, we will read books and then watch the film adaptations.

1. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (by Frank Baum)
2. The Grapes of Wrath (by John Steinbeck)
3. Up in the Air (by Walter Kirn)
4. Orlando (by Virginia Woolf)
5. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (by Sherman Alexie) [Film is Smoke Signals]
6. The Road (by Cormac McCarthy)
7. Sideways (by Rex Pickett)

Course #2: English 130, Section 02 (Fiction Writing)
In addition to workshopping student stories, we will study the writing of fiction writers who will give readings on campus this semester. These readings are free and open to the public.

1. Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen (by Marilyn Chin)
2. War by Candlelight (by Daniel Alarcon)
3. Teach the Free Man (by Peter Malae)
4. Works by the current Steinbeck Fellows

Course #3: English 1A
1. The Best American Travel Writing (Eds. Wilson & Cahill)
2. Online Handbook
3. Reader comprised of works by Chin, Alarcon & Malae, as well as the Steinbeck Fellows


I am grateful to say that the reviews of Complementary Colors that have been coming out have been wonderful. I don't know why I'm surprised that people seem to love it even more than For the May Queen. Perhaps because Complementary Colors is about a straight woman's journey into loving a woman. I figured that wouldn't be to everyone's taste. But someone wrote on Goodreads that she normally wouldn't read a book on this topic but she was glad she did. That is thrilling to me!


We've had a few earthquakes here in the last couple of weeks, but of course they have been nothing compared to what has happened in Haiti. The pictures coming out of that world are apocalyptic. I know a lot of people want to help even though this is a terribly rough time financially for so many. My sister Ann is involved in a creative solution. She has put for auction on eBay one of the purses she knitted, and the proceeds will go to disaster relief in Haiti. Anyone can do this. So you may not have money to give, but perhaps you have items to sell.