Drinking Coffee

At the 2007 CCCC I went to the exhibitors' hall on the last day and scored myself some free books. One of them was a short story collection by ZZ Packer titled Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, which I finished reading...finally, just a few days ago.

The collection is wonderful, and I hope you get to read it one day if you haven't already. Please don't think that it'll take you nine years to finish it—once I got started, I was done with it in just a few days.

The titular story is about a woman who enters an Ivy League school as a freshman and learns—and is made to reaffirm—all the injustices tied to being black, female, and queer (though she doesn't identify herself in all of those categories).

But what the story "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" reminded me of was that funny process by which people who go to university choose their undergrad majors. For career reasons? For friends? For interest?

When I was still an undeclared undergrad over a decade ago, my advisor-to-be gave me one of his many and best advices: "Don't major in something because it'll help you get a job; major in it because you want to learn more about it."

Of course the man was a professor of Elizabethan drama, and I doubt there was any job to be gotten with a major in English. But major in English I did, because I wanted to learn more about it—to read more books, to know more about their authors, to write and talk about them within circles of people who also were interested in English literature.

I took a roundabout way to get to where I am today, but I wished that the students around me now also had the luxury of majoring in something because they "wanted to learn more about it". I don't know how many Business majors I've met who tell me that it'll help me get a job (which I'm sure isn't false) or Japanese majors who seem intent on finding a job as a translator. Those things are all possible but not necessarily guaranteed—and to get to those places, you need a lot more than just a piece of paper that says you got your Bachelor's in fillintheblankhere.

Whereas majoring n something for the pure joy and curiosity of learning something... If you can afford to do that, I have a feeling the experience will be both more enjoyable and perhaps even more successful—because you're taking classes in a topic that you want to know more about anyway, so wouldn't you automatically work harder at it? Who knows—I'm just a bookworm who found a way to major in, basically, bookworming. And this here bookworm is now so lucky that she can watch anime all day and call it "work"...

[That there is a little lizard in my kicthen! Awe...]


AAA #1: 7 Considerations for the Application Stage of the Academic Job Search

This past year I had the chance to serve on a search committee for a tenure-track position in my department. I learned so much in the process, that I wanted to write a few posts about the experience before I forgot about it.

Thus the start of a new series, American Academia Awesomeness—because, you know, at some point I have to leave my Grad School stage behind.

Whatever I write, as always, is my personal opinion—from my perspective, my department, my college, my university. But if any of this is helpful for people, that would be great.

This post is about the application stage in the academic job search process. I'll write posts about other stages later.

Here are my personal thoughts about how people submit applications to academic job searches—as well as what might go in the content.

  1. Submit only the documents that the job post requests. I have no time to read anything extra, and in fact I get a little annoyed when people submit things we didn't even ask for.
  2. Submit documents as PDFs. If you have Word files, convert them to PDFs. If you have JPGs or PNGs to submit for some reason, find a way to convert them to PDFs. It annoys me when I have to switch between different apps on my computer to review an applicant's application. (Ha—how many ways can I use the word "app"...?)
  3. Make your documents the same size (e.g., all Letter size), if possible. (I know I didn't do this because my teaching evals scanned in a weird way, but still.) Also, try to put them in the same orientation—especially within a single document. It's annoying when I have to keep rotating the page just to read what someone submitted. 
  4. Name your PDFs in the same way: e.g., LastName_DocumentType.pdf. There is no need to name files in multiple different ways. I'm happy when I create a folder for an applicant and it's immediately clear what each document in the folder is.
  5. Know that some programs actually call your references you list in your CV. Don't put random people you knew from some TAship you had years ago, unless you know that they support your application for that particular position. It's important to have people who can vouch for your research, your teaching, and your personality (or a group of people who can do so collectively). 
  6. Ask for letters of recommendation only from people who actually know and support you. Hopefully you have strong relationships with faculty not only in your department but also other departments or even other universities. If you're in a visiting position, it's tricky to ask for a letter from someone who's only known you for a couple of months—so do your part to make sure the letter writers have a clear picture of you as a teacher and a scholar. 
  7. Know that not every search committee member reads your writing sample(s). I've encountered committee members that actually read writing samples, and also those that don't. Some people read them for people who make it to the interview, or campus visit, or whatever—and others never do. Keep this in mind throughout the evaluation process—i.e., be prepared to explain your work, both for people who have already read your materials, as well as those who might not be so familiar. 

I guess all this is pretty obvious—but I know that I certainly didn't think about it while on the job market, and it seems not all our applicants do either. Also, I apologize that I sound so jerkish, though I admit I can't really help it... (I did delete a lot of "please's" from this post because it was getting kind of long.) 

Anyway, as we near the beginning of another academic job search season, I wish everyone good luck and good vibes! It's true that being successful on the job market is mostly about luck, but a chunk of it is solid preparation too. (And a sliver of it is about not annoying your search committee...)


I threw out food the other day.

Which never happens, seriously.

When I was growing up, my mother—like many others who manage the household food budget—was careful not to let food spoil. Certainly not produce, but of course not dishes that had been prepared. There is good luck in leftovers, as they say, so we had a lot of meals where we pulled out all the nearly-dead-but-still-living things in the fridge and made stir-fry or soup or whathaveyou with them for dinner.

The "not throwing food away" mentality extended to "food" we got when we went out as well—you know, ketchup and soy sauce packets from fast food places, little pots of wasabi if we bought California rolls at the grocery store. I mean, we can't very well throw them away, can we?! This of course explains why I think that mold can just be "cut away" and the salvaged item eaten in a jiffy on the day it's discovered—and also the reason why I had the toughest time throwing away packets of colored sugar pellets that came in boxes of gluten-free baking mixes I'd been using since last February.

What do you even call those? (OK, the box says they're called "sanding sugar".) I mean...I think they're sweet? Maybe they're made of "sugar"? I'm not sure. But the important point was that it was "food", not unlike sugar, so of course I should be able to find a way to use them, no? Like maybe use them to top off a cup of Greek yogurt in order to turn a perfectly healthy snack into some artificial grossness, or use them to sweeten herbal tea, so that something that was supposed to help me unwind would now end up giving me some grave illness. I don't know.

But I've been watching all these food documentaries lately, and I've noticed the weather warming up—so I thought to myself: Self, you need to stop eating crap; you need to get that Summer Body that all the online listicles keep talking about! (Because apparently a Summer Body is supposed to appear around Summer Solstice and then gradually dissolve into ugly holiday sweaters.)

So I finally went and threw away all the packets of "sanding sugar" I'd collected over time and welcomed the warming weather with open arms. (I'm pretty certain my mother would wonder why the hell I didn't throw those packets away months ago.) But that of course meant baking another batch of gluten-free cookies, to celebrate! And if you know anything about me, you know that I am so cooking/baking-challenged that I need a mix even to bake cookies. But the adjustments I made to the required ingredients were so genius that I have to record them here:

What Was Formerly Known as "Snowman Buttons" (but this product was discontinued a while ago and it's kind of a mystery why I still have it)

1 box of Glutino cookie baking mix
7–8 tbsp of olive oil
1 overripe banana
1–2 tbsp soy milk
Lots of nutmeg

Mix and bake at 350ºF for 10 minutes and then take out of the oven 2 minutes later. This will solve all the problems of crumbly dryness that I had been bringing upon these poor guys for the last, well, year.

Apparently I'd purchased 48 boxes of these damn mixes at a deep discount of about $2.25 per box—when the retail price is $5.50. Hooray! Now if only I'd found a way to use those sanding sugars... Well, at least now I'm a step closer to getting that Summer Body in time for Thanksgiving.


On (Not) Driving (in (Southern) California)

Yesterday was a beautiful day, and I spent it in 4.5 hours of meetings.

Don't get me wrong, I rather enjoyed the two meetings. Plus the department bought us lunch because it was the last meeting of the academic year! Yay.

But on days like those I'm glad for my 20-minute daily walk to campus, guaranteeing that I get at least a little bit of vitamin D and some alone time to sort through things on my mind. (I do get another 20 minutes on my way home, but the vitamin D isn't guaranteed at that point.)

When I was in grad school my walk to campus was 30 minutes, which may have been, as one prof suggested, my own way of staying sane. In Nagoya my walk was 45 minutes, which was a bit long, but an awesome excuse to walk through various neighborhoods and stop at various convenience stores for pastries, fried chicken, etc. (Otherwise it was the subway in Nagoya, which meant, still, a lot of reading and thinking.)

I don't drive. I don't own a car. I do have a license—and in my glory days I would drive from Mountain View to the East Bay, or, once or twice, drive between Riverside and San Diego. (I mention this to prove to people that I'm not totally incompetent behind the wheel.)

But I do dislike driving, and I am also deathly afraid of it—not only because my dad got hit by a car around the time I was practicing with a permit (which must've forever done something to my relationship with cars and driving) but also because more recently I ran into something I shouldn't have run into while I had a friend in the car—so, I'm not incompetent, but I do make some very consequential mistakes at times.

More recently, though, I've been appreciating the other reasons (or effects) of not driving. The health benefit of vitamin D and mild exercise of walking is one. The solo thinking time, without having earbuds stuck in my ears, is another. Not owning a car and thus not paying for insurance, gas, or maintenance is certainly nice. Not contributing to air pollution isn't so bad, either.

I also know exactly how long it takes for me to get from Point A to Point B if I'm traveling by foot. I also get to see various parts of the city if I'm walking or taking other forms of public transit. Waiting for the bus or sitting on the train might feel like time wasted, but I'm usually reading or grading or thinking, which makes it rather pleasant. (And if I'm at the station before my train arrives, I can get me a quick Smirnoff Ice (or two) without endangering anyone's life.)

Arranging my day around bus and train schedules can be a pain, but it also forces me to plan out my day and get things done—or not. And if I don't get them done, then I learn what I'm capable of accomplishing in a given amount of time, which helps me work more efficiently the next time around.

Of course, there are plenty of downsides to not driving—like missing an awesome potluck party because it was kind of last minute and also a 35-minute walk away (rather short, actually, but not when I'm carrying a freshly-made green bean casserole).

(But then I admit that not having a car gets me out of having to go to a lot of things I don't want to go to...not that I have trouble saying no to people. But still.)

If I didn't walk to work every day, I would never have discovered the morning glories growing right outside my apartment complex. In the most unlikely place. Just one small batch of it, but still glorious and beautiful. And nowadays, if I really needed to get somewhere and I just couldn't walk or bus it, I can just call Lyft and it'll solve all my problems.


Why the Golden Poppy Is Not Enough

Sometimes I just don't know what is wrong with me.

Today on my way home I walked into a girl that was walking toward me from the opposite direction. Like, walked right into, not like, "Oh, I ran into so-and-so today." Why would I do such a thing? Because I was walking, dammit, and in a bad mood to boot—and this girl was walking with two of her friends, and the three of them were walking side by side, taking up the entire width of a narrow-to-normal sidewalk under a freeway, and what would she have me do, step off into the road and get hit by oncoming traffic? I don't think so.

So I walked right into her and didn't even say sorry.

Ha! I am such a jerk.

Actually that's only part of the story. I had one of those experiences today that, even as I was living through the moment I was thinking to myself, "Self, what is the matter with you? Why can't you just play nice and go along with the flow? Why must you be a naysayer and make other people feel uncomfortable? You're just ruffling feathers without accomplishing anything productive."

But did I listen to myself? Noooooooo.

I was talking with some people and we were trying to decide on something, something so simple that had really already been decided and that people mostly felt happy with. And I just... couldn't feel happy about it the way they did. So being my stubborn self, I flipped the table over and stormed out of the room, though not without pulling a total Half Baked "I'm out!" declaration.

OK, not really.

But really. Some character in Captain America: Civil War quoted someone who said something like, "Compromise on the things you can, and don't compromise on the things you can't". Or, as Song Liling says—"We must conserve our strengths for the battles we can win."

But what do I do when I can't tell one from the other? What if god never granted me the wisdom, always, to tell the difference? How do I know which battles to fight and which battles simply to lie down and die?


5 Steps to Gazillionaireness

After five roundtrip flights between California and Japan last year, I racked up enough points to cover, among other things, a two-night stay for us at this lovelily designed hotel. Look at that swank!! It's not the usual Days Inn I stay at.

This strange case of "points"—where first you spend money and then later get stuff for "free"—got me thinking about the how pleasant life is for people who can spend money in the first place. Which then got me thinking, as I often do, about how grateful I am to have a job that pays and gives me benefits. Recently I've also been getting little newsletters from my retirement plan thingy about what I'm supposed to do to prepare for 33 years from now. And with life changes coming up, I feel I should reorganize what financial tips often say.

A recent article on the Mint blog discussed how to prioritize among emergency funds, savings, and debt payoffs. Needless to say, many articles on financial literacy assume that you 1) earn a decent wage and 2) have a manageable-sized debt. Those two things don't always apply, though, given the realities of work in this country. The disillusion of that runs the gamut from a grad student racking up credit card debt to support a family with two kids, to a farm worker who's paid $45 for a whole day's work.

But that's another discussion altogether, one I can't do justice to here or now. So for now I unabashedly position myself among people with a solid income and a one-day-it'll-get-paid-off-sized debt. Here are the things I'm willing and able to do, based on what many of my Retire! magazines say.

  1. Track your spending—Done! You know how much I love Excel spreadsheets. But knowing how much I spend each month is helpful for the steps that follow.
  2. Establish a realistic budget—I don't know how realistic my budget is. But as someone who isn't pregnant or breastfeeding, I feel it's justifiable to have alcohol take up a large chunk of my income. Internet sources have suggestions for budget breakdowns, though a simple one from LearnVest suggests 50% for fixed costs (rent, utilities, etc.), 20% for financial goals (savings and debt payments), and 30% for flexible spending (leisure and all things miscellaneous). I've always liked the rule of threes.
  3. Save up an "emergency fund"—Sources vary on this too, with the above Mint post saying you can start with $1,000. That seems reasonable—not that I can pray to have my emergencies come in small packages... Other sources suggest 3–6 months worth of living expenses. I suppose this is another point on which individuals can vary. 
  4. Set some goals—Like building a dog house or traveling to Ireland! Your "20% for financial goals" have to go somewhere. Plus I read that saving is as important as paying off debt, because if you spend your entire 20% just paying off debt, after you've paid it off, you still have nothing left. Huh.
  5. Give back—If there was a charity organization that gave out free donuts and ice cream to people who wanted them once a month, I'd earmark my money for that. If you're lucky enough to be able to set some goals for yourself, then you might do yourself some emotional good to give back, too. 

I'm aiming to stop doing any work in 2036 so that I can not have to get out of bed every morning. Over the summer I'm going to spend time learning how to beat the market so that I can be a gazillionaire by then.


My Closet Tells Me What to Wear

I've been reading and watching an assortment of things that have made me want to get rid of all sorts of shit and just live in a tiny apartment (er, where I live already). This also means that I've been itching to extend my "decluttering" antennae into even my lovely walk-in closet.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a huge clothes person. I haven't spent an honest dollar on an article of clothing since August 2015.


(Um...WOW. Actually, that discovery kind of worries me. Oh wait, but shoes are articles of clothing too, right?? Oh thank goodness, I was worried I was neglecting my responsibilities as a professional to buy legit work clothes...)

Anyway, buying clothes gives me the willies, not just because I have enough already, but also because of economic and political reasons like how much (or little) people get paid to produce stuff that ends up in landfills way too quickly. At the same time, I don't have the guts to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on "high quality" articles that are supposed to last me for the rest of my life. (Plus I don't have the patience to take good care of my clothes anyway.)

But I am intrigued by ideas like the capsule wardrobe (with its complications, some of which are discussed in this article from Fashion Magazine), and I've been wanting to read Jennifer Scott's Lessons from Madame Chic ever since I saw the Japanese translation at Haneda airport a while back. (Don't ask—Japanese consumers love things from overseas that reference France.) Plus it's nice not to waste money on unnecessary clothes and to be able to find things to wear quickly when I'm about to be late for a meeting and I'm still brushing my teeth.

What I discovered when I actually got to decluttering my closet, though, was just how consistently I do wear most of my clothes. And it wasn't just that—I was reminded of the pieces my sister's bought for me over the years for birthdays and Christmases, the pieces my mother has bequeathed to me that she used to wear in the '70s, the pieces that I've hung on to even if they've required numerous alternations at the dry cleaners (in San Francisco and San Diego) or, god forbid, by yours truly.

I guess I don't have that much to declutter in my closet—and I guess I'm getting quite the mileage out of the pieces that I already have.

But, the real point of this post is the articulation of the system that enables me to maintain the consistency in my use of the majority of the pieces. (Whew! A mouthful.) I want to keep these things in mind, for the next time I (don't) go buy clothes.

  1. Have items in select colors that go together—easy colors like white, brown, navy, and coral. (Wait, is "coral" easy...?)
  2. Organize items in groups—for tops, for bottoms/dresses, for outerwear, etc. 
  3. Wear pieces from the left end of each group—pulled off the rack while brushing teeth...there's nothing else to do during that time anyway.
  4. Hang pieces back up, in groups—no laziness allowed! Hang up the last-worn piece on the right end of each group (tops, bottoms, outerwear, etc.).

Since most items match in color, all I have to care about is the day's weather (and maybe the silhouette of the combination, but who's getting technical). This way I just let my closet tell me what I'm supposed to wear that day, and I can spend my time doing other things—like figuring out how to fit my waist into my mother's old culottes from 1978.