Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Where My Mind Wandered (this week)


A few years ago I took an assessment from Gallup called StrengthsFinder 2.0. The point was to reveal my top five strengths, or areas where I'm naturally talented. I took plenty of other assessments throughout high school and college, but they generally pointed out areas of deficiency where I needed improvement. StrengthsFinder turned that on its head, instead showing what you are best at and how to use those talents to be more productive and better at what you do!

My top strength was Input, which means I'm inquisitive (super curious), and tend to collect things. My house is jam packed with meaningful items from our travels, every single one with a story to tell. I can never have just one of something. If I read a book by an author I like, I am compelled to read every other book they've written, and I read A LOT.
Photo of a wall in my house:
If your home looks like this, Input might
be one of your top 5 strengths...
I also collect information, ravenously and unapologetically. My Shanghai friend Leslie used to tell her kids, "Don't bother with Google, just ask Auntie Heather." I constantly want to know what and why and where. I'm an introvert, but my insatiable curiosity about the world means I will absolutely march up to a random guy on the street in Wan Chai wearing a sweatshirt with latitude and longitude coordinates on it and ask him where the coordinates lead to (FYI a ski resort in Japan, the sweatshirt purchased as a gift from his girlfriend because she thought it was a meaningful holiday they shared there. The way he sorta shrugged led me to believe it may have been more meaningful to her than him).

Getting a smartphone was the absolute best thing for me because this insatiable inquisitive nature which has been with me my entire life could be satisfied right on the spot thanks to the phone in my pocket (and a good wifi connection). I have to limit how many TED talks I watch, and people have called me intense because I need to know so much. My parents owned a huge encyclopedia set when I was growing up, and I wasn't allowed to ask questions unless I could prove that what I wanted to know wasn't in the encyclopedia (smart, probably very weary, parents I had!).

The downside of Input as a strength is sometimes other people simply aren't as interested in the things I find fascinating (and if you know me in real life, it's not an act, I'm not just being polite: I find pretty much everything fascinating). I try very hard not to just spew "interesting" facts or overwhelm people with knowledge when they simply want a short, sweet answer about why the fire hydrants are painted purple in Fantasyland at Hong Kong Disneyland (to blend with the color scheme and not jolt you out of the realm of fantasy). But at the same time, I keep finding somewhat obscure information I want to share with the whole world!

I've decided to just do a weekly post where I gather the top five (or so) things which grab my fancy during the week. Dive down the rabbit hole of information at your own risk! And if you come across something interesting, do share!

1. Queen Mary's Dollhouse. I never wanted a dollhouse as a kid, and never had one. But I just came across the royal dollhouse gifted to Queen Mary that had actual books by real authors, running water, a working elevator, and even real wine in tiny bottles in the cellar. Maybe if this had been an option for me growing up, I might have wanted a dollhouse! See the dollhouse here and read about one of the actual books written for the dollhouse library here.

2. My fellow ginger-haired friend Steph was recently lamenting her childhood as a redhead in a house (and town!) filled with blondes and brunettes. It was the first (and sometimes only) thing people noticed about her, and it was rarely to compliment her. I told her that less than 2% of the entire world's population (under 150 million people) have red hair, so of course it's something people take note of. I also told her how in the Disney universe, redheads are very popular, they make up much more of than 2% of the animated Disney world. I have this article from 2012 saved on my computer because I find it so fascinating that Disney and Pixar have both frequently used red hair to visually tell us more about a character.

3. Here's a time when the use of social media resulted in finding out the name of the only woman, and only unidentified person, in a photo of 38 scientists.

4. And speaking of science, this article talks about why a degree or background in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) is no longer the most important thing Google looks for when hiring someone. Empathy matters, y'all.

5. And finally, come awards season my social media is filled with people talking about who wore what. People might say, "I just love [insert celebrity's name here], she has so much style!" But did you ever wonder about how they get their style? I loved this round table of stylists talking about their role in getting clothes from designers to the red carpet (and how tricky it was to find heaps of black gowns for the Golden Globes at the last minute for Time's Up).

There's more where that came from, but I'll stop here for this week! Have a great one!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Raft or The Kayak


My sons currently attend a British-curriculum school in Hong Kong. Previously they attended a local Chinese school in Shanghai. There's a million ways I could compare and contrast their experiences, but the one which is pounding us in the face right now is the difference between the group and the individual.

In America there was a law called "No Child Left Behind" in place from 2002-2015. It was a way to hold the schools accountable for the achievement of their students, as well as an opportunity to level the playing field for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. While the program struggled and has been replaced with something else, the idea of not leaving any student behind is a noble one. In Shanghai, the boys' school really seemed to do this well.

While we lived in China they attended boarding school. They were with their classmates all day and night, with only a break on the weekends to come home and do laundry and eat a week's worth of pizza. Their classes weren't grouped together based on age so much as ability. For instance, my youngest was in the American equivalent of the seventh grade, but he was in a ninth grade math class because that was the level which fit him best (even though it jumped him from junior high into high school). And unlike our experience in America, the students were actually expected to confer with a classmate first before asking the teacher a question. If you didn't understand something, the entire class was expected to help you out and make sure you got it. Working together was the way you were successful, not isolated studying for individual glory.

The experience was similar to being on a big raft on a river. The water may be flowing quickly, but the large raft filled with people was a pretty safe place. You would all leave from the same spot on the shore and arrive at the destination together.

This style of schooling took a little while for my sons to get used to. Heck, it was hard for us parents because our own upbringing said the teacher was your first point of contact if you were struggling, not one of the last. And you never let your peers know if you were slipping, how would that look? But the benefit really was that no child got left behind. You could use your individual strengths to contribute to the success of the whole group, while one of your classmates used their strengths to help you out. The whole group got the ice cream party at the end of term, not just an individual who did particularly well. And because it was a boarding school (and in China with no uncensored internet, wifi, or distractions), you had plenty of both programmed and casual time to work as a team.

In Hong Kong, they go to a day school right down the hill from our home. I assure you the transition from boarding school to having our kids home each night was far more difficult than when they went away. After so much relative freedom from their parents, it was hard to reassert boundaries or even ask questions about homework without great suspicion on their end. And it was also hard simply remembering to ask if they had homework after so many years of not being involved in that part of their lives!

There was also a vocabulary difference. We'd ask if they had homework, and for months the answer was no. I found this to be shocking! After all, they are in the American equivalent of the ninth and eleventh grades... how could there be no homework in high school? Turns out the word for "work you do at home after the school day is complete" is revision. I'd been hearing the word at the school, but assumed it meant altering, or improving something which has already been done. As in to revise an essay in a second draft (thanks Merriam-Webster American Dictionary). But according to the British Cambridge Dictionary, it means 'study of work to prepare for an exam.' Isn't it funny how two native English speakers from different parts of the world can actually be speaking a completely different language? While there was no specific assigned task to complete each night to turn in the next day, the boys were meant to be studying at home every evening for each class they had (they knew this, they were somewhat taking advantage of their parents' ignorance on terminology).

The programs they are in here (IGCSE for our youngest and A Levels for our oldest) have huge exams at the end of two years which cover everything they previously learned. The coursework they are doing during this time doesn't count toward completion, it's passing the exams at the end which matters. Revision is how they are meant to keep the details fresh. Ten minutes every day per subject vs. three days of cramming before an exam, which covers everything you learned 18 months before. Of course, being new to this, it took us awhile to truly grasp the enormity of this system.

Here we are, six months into the school year and figuring out there is no raft for our kids to sit on as they speed down the river toward major exams at the end of next year. If anything, they've been standing in the middle of the river, getting pummeled by the water and trying not to drown. Right now we're doing our best to at least get them into a kayak and teach them how to paddle for themselves. What it means to actually study, not just doing repetitive classwork or a project. It's not an easy place to be when you're 14 and 17, and have no real recollection of doing school any other way. How do you teach someone to study when the majority of their school life is already behind them?

Hong Kong, especially the area where we currently live, is not an exceptionally transient place. Many of the boys' friends were actually born here, and have attended school together their whole lives. Our youngest was the sole new student in his year, and our oldest was among only a handful of new students for year twelve (the equivalent of 11th grade in America). Their peers and friends have come from several years of practice in what is brand new to my boys. And because neither of them have ever been in a system where everything is riding on a huge exam so far off in the distance, they don't know what to expect or how best to train for that scenario. And for our oldest, with just one more year of school, he doesn't even get a chance to try it out in an earlier grade before he gets to do it for the first and only (and most important) time. The boys aren't the only ones standing in the river unsure what to do, us parents are wet and shivering as lost as well.

The good news? The teachers here are incredible. If you take one step toward them, they are more than happy to cover the rest of the difference. But transitioning from a system where the teacher was not the first stop on a bumpy patch of road, to the people my sons need to be talking to and updating and asking questions of on a daily basis is just as rough as when we left this type of school!

I confess to feeling a bit of discouragement at the moment. Every day it becomes painfully obvious how we don't even know what we don't know, and we certainly can't pass on any knowledge in this area to our kids, who expect to follow our lead. Really all we can do is focus on what we do know to be true: We are a family not afraid of failure. We are a family who has been through a lot. We are a family who loves each other. We are a family who finds a way through when it feels like there isn't one. We are a family who will figure this current season out, because we've figured out past rough seasons. We are a family that will either learn to paddle our kayaks, or we will learn to swim!

Yeah, if this sounds like a pep talk to myself as we prepare to sit down with all our oldest son's teachers this afternoon to get the honest truth of how he's doing, it's because it 100% is. Everyone I've spoken to about my fears says it'll all work out just fine in the end. And sure, that's probably true, even if it's not at all a helpful statement to make while someone is currently hyperventilating. I still want to put this part of our experience down in words and share from an authentic place that isn't always sunshine-filled days and trips to Disneyland. 

I want to record this season in a thoughtful and meaningful way. It's not just the end of the story that matters, that place where the moral and wisdom magically drop from the sky and you move on to the next great adventure. It's really the muddled middle, where you truly don't know what might be coming around the corner, that serves to give the ending the sweetness, the satisfaction, the goosebumps, or the tears which make a story memorable. 

Here's to the middle, this not-quite-to-the-end season, and to our future, stronger, drier selves. 


*All photos courtesy of my husband, who took the boys on a rafting trip in Anhui, China during the summer of 2016. All three of them loved it. Good reminder that ultimately, being in the water at all is a super fun place to be. Especially with family and friends by your side.  

Monday, March 19, 2018

7 Best Books of 2017

In 2017 I did a personal reading challenge, reading 52 books in 52 weeks, and invited friends around the world to join me.  

I did pretty good documenting them on Instagram and Facebook for most of the year, and then got behind in posting. I think I read a total of 67 books, but I gave away a stack of books I'd finished before documenting them, so I'm not exactly sure. 

My friend Anthony also did the challenge, waiting until the last day of the year to post a complete list of the books he'd read, along with his top five. He asked me to share mine, and of course I could not keep the list to five. Because it was 2017, I decided to pick my top seven. They aren't really in any particular order, it was hard enough to narrow it down to this list! I picked six books that were new-to-me this year, and one book that I've read over and over and still love. 

1. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I joined a book club I saw on Facebook which met in my little beach community and this was the book they picked. I knew nothing about it or the author, and I only had a few days to read it. It was an absorbing read, set over thirty years in Russia about a Count placed under house arrest in a hotel. I spent a summer in the former USSR back in high school, so the subject matter was actually quite familiar to me. The writing is outstanding and the story of a man retaining his class and dignity during the most trying of times feels fresh in today's political climate. 




2. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman


This was the second book I read in 2017 and it should have come with a warning that I would be crying inconsolably by the time I turned the last page (consider this your warning). My greatest passion in life is building community, and this story of a grumpy elderly widower in Sweden dealing with his crazy neighbors shines a light on the fact that we are worth being loved and giving love until the very last breath we take.



 
3. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

I actually read three Margaret Atwood books this year, but I have to add this to my top seven because it's a book I wanted to actually live inside, to know the characters myself, and be a part of the action. It's a story of simmering plans for revenge while putting on a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest in a prison. It makes Shakespeare relevant to modern times, something I'll always be a fan of. 




4. The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves by James Han Mattson

This one wrecked me. Ricky Graves is a teenage boy with a secret who ends his life before the book starts. The people who knew him tell the story of how and why he got to that point. This book is really a must-read for anyone who works with or parents teenagers. It deals with social media and bullying, as well as the effects of shame and secrets.




5. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King

This is a collection of short stories, all of which come with commentary of his writing process and inspiration for each piece. The stories are great, but it's the commentary straight from Mr. King which really excited me. If you've ever read one of Stephen King's books and wondered what in the world goes on inside his head, this book will answer that, to some degree. 

The first book of his I read was The Stand in the 5th grade when I was home for a week with the Chicken Pox. I was immediately drawn into this epic story. It's amazing how his short stories feel just as epic. 




6. The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

Walt Disney cites Robert Henri and this book as inspiration for his creative mind. It is a truly a master class in creativity and my brand new copy ended up filled with underlines and highlights and notes in the column because every page was so rich with advice and ideas on being an original. I'd definitely recommend it for anyone who works in a creative field, but even if you don't, you will still get so much out of it. This is a great book to read slowly, though like me you might want to just gobble it up.


7. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is one of my favorite books of all time. I've read it at least five times and have lent out two hard copies of it which I never got back, so I purchased it again on my Kindle. Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year and a second book club that I joined (after the first one disbanded after my first meeting) decided to read this book. I was more than happy to read it once again. This book is deceptively simple, written in very easy to understand prose which makes you think it might be for a younger audience. But by the end of the book you'll be covered in goosebumps with the realization of what has been happening throughout the book. Even though I know what's coming, I'm still shocked every time. He's also the author of The Remains of the Day, which is actually one of my least favorite books (I could barely finish it and thought it was a terrible waste of my time). Funny that for other people, it's their absolute favorite! Amazing that one author can cause such a wide spectrum of passion! 





And there you have it! I'm not doing a reading challenge for 2018 because I'm spending the year writing! Though I'm still finding plenty of time to read thanks to all the time I spend on public transit in Hong Kong! Oh, and FYI: Purchasing any of the books through the links provided adds a tiny bit of money to my book buying fund, so please help my habit while I'm helping out yours! Heh heh heh...

What have you read recently that I absolutely need to download to my Kindle ASAP?

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Talent vs Hard Work

I’m surrounded by talented people. I’m drawn to them, especially the ones talented in areas where I’m not. But not all of them are successful, at least not in the area where they have remarkable talent. Myself included. Especially myself. We all have areas where we shine. And like the poster in my high school guidance counselor’s office, success in life is not just about our gifts, but what we do with them.

Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates 
the talented individual from the successful 
one is a lot of hard work. --Stephen King

This is the year I’m focusing on discipline, small habits being built day after day, which in turn lead to a lifestyle where success can blossom. I saw the quote above in a magazine article and googled it, which lead me to this article, a quick but good read.

It’s only March but I have genuinely grown so much already. It has not been easy. I didn’t expect it to be. There have been some challenges that I certainly didn't anticipate. But I'm embracing them and learning from them. Looking forward with great anticipation to the fruits of the lessons I’m learning now. 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Babel

I wrote a play last year, and this Saturday it will get its world premiere in America, in my home state of California. It’s called Babel, and was loosely inspired by what I imagined was the aftermath of the Tower of Babel story.


It seems we’re in an age where we as a human race are more deeply divided than at any other time in my life. This divide feels so hopeless, and it’s caused me significant anxiety. It feels like each day brings a new polarizing event which shuts down any potential for communication. Instead people dig in even deeper to their convictions, often with a great deal of pride that their side is far superior.

Members of my own family stopped speaking to each other with love and kindness, and then stopped talking to each other at all, turning instead to the echo chamber of people who think exactly as they do for support and ammunition. I had what can only be described as a panic attack and spent four days crying in my pajamas in bed after watching people I love and admire hurl insults and hatred toward one another online. Friends of mine on both sides of any given issue “unfriended” me on Facebook for my unwillingness to draw a hard line on their side instead of continuing my lifelong passion of being a force for love above all else. Does it matter if we're right if we alienate people we love (and who love us), forgetting to show any kindness at all, speaking with vile hatred to strangers on the internet, telling them how wrong wrong WRONG they are?

I had a light-bulb moment many months ago while in the midst of despair over the current state of affairs. I was talking with a friend I’ve known for at least fifteen years. Her background is very different than mine. Her outlook on life, her politics, all very different from mine. But she’s also a mama who loves her kids. She was very vocal in her support for something I was quite opposed to (but far less vocal about). I couldn’t understand how she could think so differently from me, but our fifteen years of friendship comes with a deep respect and love for each other, and I wasn’t about to say 'so long' to our shared history. I had a conversation with her about what she was supporting, and asked her about it in the gentlest and most non-confrontational way I could. Her reasoning? She wants a better future for her family. For her kids. For her future grandchildren and generations to come. Which is a good thing, a noble thing. You can't fault that in any way.

But here’s the kicker: my reason for thinking the exact opposite of her was because I want exactly the same thing.

The fact that at the core our desires and dreams were identical, somewhat blew my mind. Our paths to get there were (and are) very different, and honestly I can't clearly see how we can both get there the way things are going. It gave me a lot to think about. It gave me a little spark of hope that maybe there is a bridge, even if it's not the sturdiest or prettiest, which could somehow bring people together if we could all step far enough back from the fight for just a minute.

My play doesn’t offer any concrete solutions. It's not a comedy, it likely won't make people feel fluffy and light by the ending. But I do hope the distance from the stage to the front row is just enough space for people to see the beautiful potential in coming together instead of continuing as we are.

It has a limited five show run over two weekends, and one night is sold out with a second almost full. If you're interested in tickets and are somewhere near the Central Valley of California, click here for more information.

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