Are you a human? Then move to Quito.

After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration — and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

Let me begin by saying that if you haven’t read A Gentleman in Moscow, you must. Grab a hot cuppa and a cozy blanket, and cuddle up in your favorite recliner. It won’t be long before you’ll feel like Count Rostov is a grandfather figure to you, and you’ll be overcome by a desire to give him a big ol’ hug. He’s not real, but you’ll love him like he is! Thank you, Towles, for creating this character. He is a gem.

This quote is just one of Rostov’s many reflections about humans and how to be one. I particularly resonated with his idea here because when I moved to Quito, Ecuador last August from the states, not knowing much about the country and the culture, first impressions abounded!

The longer I live here, the more I learn about the city and the humans in it. I don’t boast to be anywhere close to understanding them. I agree with Rostov when he muses that we must “withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.” But as I ponder those words, I’m starting to realize that getting to a point when we no longer have to withhold an opinion is . . . impossible.

And maybe that’s the point. Look carefully at what he says: humans “deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration.” So it’s not that we should go around reserving all subjective feelings towards others, eyes glazed over, arms raised in front of us at a crooked bent, left leg dragging and leaving a meandering line in the dust. It’s that we acknowledge that opinions can and should be fluid. Humans aren’t robots. They are complex and ever-changing. It only makes sense to be open to changing opinions about them. It’s the least we can do.

I don’t live life feeling compelled to wander about zombie-like, but — I’ll be honest — I do feel compelled to judge others. Why? I don’t know. Probably my own insecurities and impatience with idiocy. Whatever the reason, it is not good.

I am working on it.

One thing that has helped me is moving to a new country. And I suggest you do the same. Because when you have to start all over at square one, and everything is a first impression, and you are constantly in a position of humility because of the language barrier, and you never know where public restrooms might be, you start realizing that withholding opinions is a very, very good thing. Having opinions about all the beings on top of learning all the things? Too much.

That said, move to Quito.

And join me in engaging with beings in every possible setting at every possible hour.*

*Disclaimer: I choose to interpret this statement metaphorically. Literally hanging with humans that much? Yikes. I’d get grumpy. Although I have to give a shout-out to some of my former students-now-friends: that all-nighter in the Performing Arts Center was epic. I loved it. Playing AND WINNING the game What Do You Meme against some of my AP Lit students is a memory for the books blog. Did I mention I won? But more than that, hanging with my students, staying awake ALL night, playing piano at 3 a.m., and being a total weirdo because of lack of sleep combined to create one of my favorite memories. Because at 3 a.m., no one cares too much about how much of a weirdo you are. And we’re ALL weirdos. So perhaps there is a bit of a literal bent to be taken from the statement.

And as I engage with Quito and its beings, I am learning so many things. They deserve my consideration (and reconsideration), so I’ve compiled a list to go down in the annals of (my personal blog) history.

List of Things About Quito That I Might Upon First Glance Feel Compelled to Cast Judgment Upon but That I Won’t Because I’m Trying to Be a Good Human and Take Count Rostov’s Advice to Heart:

  1. Quito is a treasure hunt: You want different types of whole wheat flours for your breads? Find a teeny tiny specialty store hidden in a random neighborhood where otherwise you wouldn’t think to shop. This is where being in a neighborhood chat group comes in very handy.
  2. Fly in your house? Open a window. There are so few flies, bugs, insects in this climate that instead of closing your windows to prevent them from coming in, you open them to let a wayward one out. Oh, and there are no screens on windows here!
  3. There is no air conditioning or heating in your house. A little warm? Open a window. Feeling a little cold? Stand in the sun for one minute. Or grab a blanket and head to the couch with a cuppa and a book.
  4. Coffee served at restaurants is instant. As you read in my last post, I definitely formed a (negative) opinion about this. Whoops. But — UPDATE — I now have decaf instant coffee in my home. Occasionally in the evening, I’ll heat up some milk and add coffee and máchica, instant toasted barley.
  5. Good luck finding public bathrooms. And if you do, it probably costs 10-20 cents to use it.
  6. Speaking of bathrooms, there is no toilet paper in the stalls. Get some from a dispenser before you head in. And if you’re goin’ in for some serious stanky business, everybody gonna know.
  7. Drinking fountains are not a thing. Bring your own water.
  8. If the sun’s out, you’ll get sun burned.
  9. Lunch is not a “choose your own adventure” like in the States. It is a set menu, different each day, with a couple of options for the protein. Expect a soup, a protein (chicken, pork, or fish normally), rice, some sort of salad, a small dessert, and a fresh-squeezed juice — all for about $3.
  10. The sewage system is such that there are drains in the bathroom and kitchen. Occasionally these will emit an unpleasant odor. Simply pour a little water in. It acts as a barrier and prevents the smell from emanating forth into your kitchen as you cook dinner.

I’m sure this list will grow, but I like the number ten. So we’ll leave it at that. I am doing my best to get to know Quito as I would a human being. And to that extent, I can say that I have experienced Quito at every possible hour since I live here. And sleep here. And what not.

But, similar to humans, Quito is a treasure hunt. It is a complex city, full of surprise hole-in-the-wall grain stores (just press pause on that humans-are-also-a-treasure-hunt analogy). Tomorrow, I plan on adventuring out with my bike to ride the Ciclopaseo Quito, a bike path that goes through the entire city.

So while first impressions might not be conducive to truly getting to know people or cities, I’ve got to say that the first impressions I’ve made of Quito so far have been pretty darn good. Well, the toilet paper thing is a little annoying. BUT I RESERVE JUDGMENT.

Here’s the thing. Our impressions and opinions can get us stuck. Especially if we can’t manage to reconsider our opinions. So what is one to do?

Move to Quito. I won’t judge you. I promise. *Sips instant coffee-barley-milk.*

Are you a human? Then disobey.

“Resist much, obey little.” –Walt Whitman–

For the most part, I consider myself a rule follower. In college, when my boyfriend and his buddies launched water balloons onto the football field during a powder puff game or donned their wet-suits to “swim” in all of the on-campus fountains or caught an opossum to release it into the laundry room of the freshman boys’ dorm, I didn’t join. I did sit in the stands at the powder puff game laughing as water balloons interrupted the game, knowing who was behind it. I found it humorous that the campus police (“Campus Safety,” as they were called) knew exactly who my boyfriend was. I definitely enjoyed living vicariously through his antics — all from the comfort of my obedience.

Not to say that I should have been out pranking the school at every opportunity, getting on the campus police’s “blacklist,” but maybe I did miss out a little bit. Ever the bad influence, my boyfriend did get me to disobey a bit here and there. Senior year, we climbed onto the roof of the largest building on campus — something that was definitely against the rules.

And then I married the guy. (Love ya, hubby.)

I think I knew deep down that I was never going to be with someone who floated along with the status quo. Where’s the fun in that? But more importantly, who wants to be with a rule-following robot?

And then I started asking myself if I was a rule-following robot.

It’s so easy to become. It’s what employers and law enforcement and government want you to become. And to an extent, it’s necessary to follow the rules.

But when the rules don’t make sense anymore, what is one to do? Remember Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”? The unnamed narrator has just had a baby, is experiencing depression (yes, it’s postpartum), and is confined to her room, not allowed even to write in her journal. She knows this is unhealthy, but she is a woman, and not only is her husband a man, but he’s a doctor (oooOOOhhh). She tries to follow the rules. But it makes her crazy. She scratches and rips at the wallpaper in her attic room, frantically trying to release the woman she sees trapped inside the walls. On all fours, she “creeps” around the room (eventually creeping over her passed-out husband). Clearly, following the rules was not a good idea for her. (If you haven’t read the story, you should! It’s a fantastic read. You can the full text here, provided by Project Gutenberg: “The Yellow Wallpaper.”)

In her case, following the rules made her lose her mind. So what does following the rules do to us?

I can only speak for myself, but here’s what I’ve learned about being a rule-following robot:

  • It inhibits change.
  • It squelches potential.
  • It stifles creativity.
  • It prevents questioning.

I’ll be honest: sometimes I wonder if those people put in authority over me were put there because they are rule-following robots. They do what they are told to do. And they are controllable. It might be the easy way out for employers to put rule-following robots into management positions because employers don’t feel threatened by robots.

But how innovative and creative and healthy could our environments be if we could freely question the rules and have healthy dialogue?

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. –Albert Einstein

I work as a teacher at a private school. We don’t have to follow all the rules that public schools do. But even at a private school, I think we still have a tendency to want rule-following-robot teachers and rule-following-robot students. Perhaps what it comes down to is that it’s easier and safer to run an institution where people simply do as they’re told. But if we want to be set apart and different from other schools, it’s probably not going to happen if things are always easy and safe. It’s probably not going to happen if a few people at the top are making the rules. It’s probably not going to happen if the rules aren’t being questioned.

So this blog post is for all humans. Are you an underling? Have the confidence to ask questions and push for change. If you aren’t supported in that, if at all possible, leave. Are you in a management position? Encourage your people to ask questions and push for change — and then be their advocate to the higher-ups. Finally, are you a CEO? A head of school? The president? If you are secure in your own abilities, you will welcome discourse that includes resistance to your rules and questioning of your decisions.

Stop floating through the bog that is the status quo, adhering to someone else’s version of life. In the wise words of Big Brother contestant Rachel Reilly, “Floaters, you better grab a life vest.”

But in all seriousness, I think Whitman’s words still ring true today. Never accept status quo. Never get to the point in life of I’ve figured it all out. Never stop questioning. Resist. Disobey.

And as a(n almost) final note, it’s interesting that Whitman expressed his antithesis of two independent clauses by joining them with only a comma. In terms of formal English, it’s a run-on. (Well, I never! *Says with pinky finger up whilst sipping tea.*) So maybe he chuckled to himself as he wrote that. Whitman: the rebel, the rule-breaker. Good ol’ Walt. Certainly we appreciate Whitman’s wit and writing legacy (clearly we do: he is the poetic inspiration of the wildly popular series Breaking Bad). And it’s writers like him who have influenced me as a writer. They’ve inspired me to break the rules of writing. And it’s freeing, I’ll tell ya. (How many times do I write fragments? Or start sentences with coordinating conjunctions?)

But while appreciating is nice, it’s not going to change our lives — action will. So let’s do it. Resist. Disobey. Zip into your wet-suit, and jump in a fountain. And let’s teach our kids to do the same. (Cue the riff from “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes.)

Are you a human? Then do better.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” –Maya Angelou–

Preface: The second in the series (read the first post here), “Are you a human” seeks to dive deeply into the human psyche to address issues like reading books and being a good person. Read books. Be a good person. Like I said: deep stuff.

First of all, Maya Angelou, we’re not worthy (*drops into deep bow*). What simplicity! What grace! What truth! If you know me, you know that I — along with Ernest Hemingway — appreciate simplicity. And the Angelou quote takes the cake. She begins her sentiment by using the superlative best. Already this is great advice for all humans: do the best you can. Are you running a race? Do the best you can. Are you taking a test? Do the best you can. Are you playing Super Mario Uno with your kids, trying not to rip out your hair? Do the best you can.

But that’s not where it ends, friends. There is a qualifier (also known as a subordinate clause, or dependent clause, or adverb clause — gosh, don’t you love the English language?) in this sentence — reader, beware! Angelou says to do your best until you know better. Now doing your best is good — but only to an extent. If you realize that training more than the few miles you ran the week before will equal running faster, then doing your best isn’t good enough anymore. If you realize that studying by making quiz questions instead of just “looking over the notes” will equal a better score, doing your best isn’t good enough anymore. And finally, if you realize that more quality sleep each night will equal more patience (less hair ripping) during Mario Uno, doing your best isn’t good enough anymore. Dang, life can be complicated.

Old habits die hard. It’s a cliche for a reason — because it’s true. As students, as teachers, as professionals, as parents, we get into the rut of what-works-well, and we just stop. We’ve got a system that works, we’re good at it, so why change things up? Yeah, that’s a tough question. Why change when things are working?

Because if we can be better and do better, why wouldn’t we?

So let’s get off our lazy butts and start by making the damn bed. Nothing starts the day better than a freshly-made bed (well, that’s not entirely true . . . a fresh cup of coffee and a clean kitchen are also contenders).

Now that that’s taken care of, we can get down to business. I am an adamant believer that if you’re a human, you can find something to be “best” at. Remember the Alan Watts’ lecture on what to do in life if money were no object? It’s worth a listen. He starts with a simple question: “What makes you itch?” Think about that for a moment. Then read his next thoughts:

What do you want to do? When we finally got down to something which the individual says he really wants to do, I will say to him “You do that! And forget the money!” Because if you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time.

You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living – that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing. Which is stupid! Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way. And after all, if you do really like what you are doing – it doesn’t matter what it is – you can eventually become a master of it. It’s the only way of becoming a master of something, to be really with it. And then you’ll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is. So don’t worry too much, somebody’s interested in everything. Anything you can be interested in, you’ll find others who are.

Whoa. Find something you love doing and be your best at it. And then keep learning and keep being your best at it.

Here’s the thing, though. We don’t always know what we like doing. When I was an undergrad, I thought I knew for sure what I would love doing: being a teen therapist. I plowed through my psychology courses — genuinely loving them — and didn’t even think about taking on a minor. That is, until my husband (then boyfriend) told me to minor in my other love: English. I had some credits from my AP exams, so I was already on the way. I enjoyed my English courses but didn’t think much of them in terms of my life and career trajectory. Then I graduated and needed a job. Because of all the English credits I had, I qualified as a private school English teacher. When I landed a job at a small private school, I was glad mostly because my husband and I needed to show proof of employment to be able to rent an apartment. Hooray — on our way to becoming real adults!

That first year of teaching English, I thought This is it! I love this! I’m good at it! But my rational side didn’t give in so easily, so I proceeded in my graduate program to eventually receive a master’s degree in Evaluation, Measurement, and Research Design from Western Michigan University. Through my graduate studies, I continued teaching, realizing more and more that teaching English is what I loved.

So I made a decision. I’d teach, yes, but I’d be the best I could be at it. I devoured professional development books and still to this day have a special affinity to Jim Burke, author of The English Teacher’s Companion. I remember reading and rereading it every year at the end of the summer in preparation for the new year. It was that good. (Thanks to my high school English teacher/mentor Michael Kanda for the recommendation all those years ago.)

I remember thinking I never want to be a teacher. But when I stepped into the classroom as a teacher, I knew it was where I was supposed to be. And even through its ups and downs, I’ve never stopped loving teaching. In my quest to always be my best, I vowed to remain confident yet humble. I advise you to do the same. When pride creeps in, we tend to get stuck.

So whatever you do, do your best and stay humble. And if your life takes a weird turn and you find yourself in a [fill-in-the-blank-for-the-place-you-said-you’d-never-be], embrace it.

It might just be your opportunity to be your best.

Until you know better.

Are you a human? Then I have a book recommendation for you.

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.” –William Faulkner–

I don’t even like Faulkner. I am an English teacher, and I don’t like Faulkner. I own it. His writing style is too dense for my preference, and that’s OK. It’s a beautiful thing to have the freedom to read whatever we want and have an opinion on it. But the bottom line is that we’re reading.

Because we don’t simply read for reading’s sake. And if you think that’s what you’re doing when you read, well, you’re wrong. When we read — whether we acknowledge it or not — we absorb. We absorb new-to-us diction, a variety of phrasing and sentence structures, unique narrative styles, and I could go on and on. HOW COOL IS IT TO READ AN AWESOME BOOK AND BE SUBCONSCIOUSLY LEARNING AT THE SAME TIME? Love that. My poor (lucky) students get to hear me rant about that all the time. When students tell me oh, I HATE reading, I take on the challenge to find something they’ll like. And I take it very personally. I WILL FIND SOMETHING GOSH DARN IT JUST GIVE ME A LITTLE TIME (and maybe tell me the last movie you watched and really liked because I’ve found that to be quite helpful).

I like the Faulkner quote because it is a clear challenge for us. Do you write? Do you blog? If you do either but don’t find the time to read, I think Faulkner would call you a hypocrite — an unskilled hypocrite. I think he speaks truth when he says that to “see how [writers] do it,” you must read. Read to become a better reader, yes, of course.

But read to become a better writer.

But I’d like to take the Faulkner quote one (crazy) step further: Do you interact with other humans? Do you have a pulse? If either question applies to you, then you should read.

Oh, but you don’t have time to read. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize. (Excuse my while I finish dry heaving.)

That’s ridiculous. Of course you do. If you want to read, you have time to do it. 15 minutes before bed is all it takes. The sleep research even tells us what a great idea it is: reading before bed (on a print book, not a screen), helps communicate to your brain that it’s time to go to sleep land. How lovely!

If you do actually want to read, here’s what I do know: we as humans are really good at making time for what we want to do. (Like mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. OMG, an hour has passed — what is my life.)

But what if you don’t want to read because — gasp — you don’t like reading? Then I’d like to issue an apology (something I’ve done every blog post so far: here, and here) on behalf of your parents and the Literary Prude English Teachers of America (LPETA) . I am betting that some of you weren’t taught that reading is something to do for pleasure. Or maybe your schedule was kept so busy (for your college resume, amiright?) that by the time your head hit the pillow, you were out. Or maybe you had English teachers and professors who refused to release their talons from the “classics” (you know, the ones that the students hate or don’t even read — or the ones where they think just squeezing in some SparkNotes for those pesky reading check quizzes will suffice). Now there’s nothing wrong with the classics, don’t get me wrong. But if that’s all the students get? Yeah, good luck getting them to be lifelong readers. One size does NOT fit all.

Being an English teacher myself, I think I’m allowed to say that it’s stupid and antiquated to think that literary fiction (i.e., the classics) is the only kind “worthy” to be taught in schools. Come on, English teachers, stop being pretentious, literary prudes, and live a little! It’s OK for students to also read commercial fiction (I see you, literary prude, who noticed that split infinitive). It’s not the end of the world. If we teach only literary fiction, most of which is — let’s be honest — kinda boring, what is the takeaway for students? That most books are kinda boring. WHAT A DISSERVICE THIS IS TO THE HUMAN RACE.

May I admit something to you? That pretentious, literary-prude teacher I spoke of? That was me. That was me for the first few years of my naive teaching career. I’m embarrassed, but looking back, I see that I was just trying to be one of the Literary Prude English Teachers of America (i.e., compensating probably for my own insecurities). I was the English teacher who would scoff at commercial fiction, trying to convince my students that only scum of the earth read it and that The Scarlet Letter was God’s gift to the literary world (I can’t stand The Scarlet Letter, BTW). But the worst part of it all? Even as I was basking in my English Teacher Pretension, I wasn’t reading. Not really, anyway. I read the books my students were required to read but not much else. Well gosh, that’s embarrassing.

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Stephen King

So whoever you are — student, novelist, blogger, adult, teacher, or any other kind of human — support your local library, pick up a book (or 7) for free, and read. Let’s read to make ourselves better. Let’s read to make others better. Let’s read books that are uncomfortable to us. “Read, read, read,” as Faulkner simply (for once, might I add) states.

So if you’re wondering where to start, here’s an aside of some of my favorite book recommendations, organized by genre:

  • YA/adult fiction: Beartown, Fredrick Backman
  • Historical fiction: All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
  • Non-fiction/writing: Writing with Style, John Trimble
  • Non-fiction/science/humor: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Mary Roach
  • Poetry: Felicity, Mary Oliver
  • Graphic novel: Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
  • Short stories: Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Classic lit.: Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  • YA: Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
  • Adult fiction: A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini
  • Memoir: Educated, Tara Westover
  • Novel in verse: Long Way Down, Jason Reynolds

I hold firmly to the belief that if you are a human, there is a book out there that you will enjoy. Maybe it’s at a lower reading level. Maybe it’s a graphic novel. Maybe it’s a novel in verse (lots of white space!). Maybe it’s young adult fiction and you’re . . . fifty. Maybe, as Faulkner recognizes, it’s trash. But it’s there. And, man, what a world opens when you get to dive into a good book. There truly is nothing like it.

So get off your phone, and find it. Consider it an adventure! A journey to a new world! It will be fun! Do it! (And then friend me on Goodreads.)

~~What I’m currently reading: (1) A Curse So Dark and Lonely, Brigid Kemmerer and (2) How Not to Die, Michael Greger~~