I am writing all about my mother.

This is the story of two conversations with my mother – one exchange taking place a week before the 2016 election and one discussion occurring just a few days ago.

The significance of the first conversation requires context about my mother’s life. Although she has never been afforded a formal education, my mother is, by far, the smartest person I know. She has an infectious wonder when it comes to learning. The list of things she has managed to teach herself is impressive: guitar, long-distance biking, designing and building small sheds, installing hardwood floors, making weird handcrafted fruit baskets with watermelons, running marathons, calculating long-term financial projections on practically anything.  The list is infinite because she is constantly learning. When I returned home during the most recent Christmas holiday, my mother had taught herself how to route the basic functions of our house through her smart phone – any of my attempts to turn up the heat was immediately vetoed by my mother with a push of her iPhone.

Along with being the smartest person I know, my mother is also the strongest woman I know. My favorite mommy moment engrained in my memory (which I have written about ad nauseam) was witnessing her negotiate the price of my first car. I remember her intentionally choosing a young, Vietnamese salesperson who exhibited a self-assured swagger. I can hear her asking inane questions about the car (“Oh, the windows roll down automatically?”) as a part of her bait-and-switch strategy. I can still recall the walk down that sterile dealership hallway, knowing I was about to witness the equivalent of a spider roping in and feasting on a frantic ant imprisoned in its web.

She sat down in the non-descript office, continued a few pleasantries in Vietnamese, drank a free glass of water. When the salesman nudged the conversation towards the car, she named her price in English and then proceeded to sit there like a Buddhist monk, or a rock, or any object exhibiting bored, disinterested inertia. Counter offers were rebuffed, always in English, by her threats to walk – this salesman was unaware that my mother and I had spent months creating a full inventory of similar cars and their features within a 40 mile circumference of our house. It’s been almost 15 years, but I vividly remember the color of his shirt – a maroon button down, its hue becoming deeper and deeper with each drop of pit sweat until he finally relented at her price. It was his first sale. She was happy for him.

This was the way she approached most things in life – methodically, strategically, never waiting for a call because the most worthwhile things in life would call her.

I give this context so that we can step into future – 2016, a few days before the presidential election, my car parked in the driveway. It’s already dark and I’m exhausted from the day, but we’re engaged in a confusingly tense phone conversation. She’s revealed that she won’t be voting for Hillary Clinton, who she fully supported in 2008. I’m trying to process and decipher the strands of conversation. Is this about healthcare, or the economy, or about a need for change? I’m still the researcher and she’s still the negotiator, but we’re no longer working together.

“They’re both bad candidates, but I’ve never like my female bosses,” she says to me. “I just don’t think women make good leaders or presidents.”

I can’t summon up much to say after that statement, but I wish I could have said, “Mom, do you even know who you are?”

The second conversation transpired a few days ago. Since the election, each of my near daily conversations with my mother has had a monotonous rhythm – a discussion about my work, our recipes, her upcoming marathon in Berlin and the insignificant, daily occurrences that help us avoid speaking about politics.

The significance of this second conversation also requires context about my mother’s recent life story. For the better part of two decades, my mother applied her patient, methodical, and strategic approach to her career – she steadily rose from stripping fiber optics cables on an assembly line to being the line’s shift leader, which transformed into an opportunity to do clerical work for the assembly line, which morphed into an office manager position. If the rise was slow, the fall was sudden and at the whims of Texas’ boom or bust economy. Last year, as the oil prices dipped, she was without a job – her livelihood, her community, and her healthcare – for the first time in nearly 20 years.

This is the context she spoke from when we finally broached the topic of politics last Thursday evening beginning with healthcare. I was ready with my arsenal of facts ranging from cost effectiveness to the moral argument for universal healthcare. I had esoteric, intellectual bullet points to pit against the substantial, difficult changes she had just experienced in her life.

“I used to think like you, believe me,” she said in her characteristic calm. “I don’t like to be anti-anything, but when you have nothing, it’s hard. I can’t tell you that I know everything, but I just want to tell you how I feel.”

At that moment, I couldn’t figure out how to out-fact feeling. It wasn’t enough to remind her who she was.

MyHanh

I am answering the question, “What can I do?”

I want to begin this entry by stating that I am not the biggest fan of “self-help” or the Oprah-esque motto that we should always be living our best lives. I think life is recursive and akin to writing – constantly in a state of revision, never devoid of imperfection, always in drafting mode and never final.

That being said, this blog post is going to be the closest thing I write to a self-help, life-hack, live your best life, how to fucking YOLO! piece of writing. Over the last few months, I have found myself in social situations where friends have expressed their concern about the state of national dialogue and the questionable decisions made by our newly elected administration.

The discussion, without fail, always pivots to an on-going question of what can I do? Should I send my leftover NSYNC Christmas cards from 2003 and hand write shit like “Don’t say Bye, Bye, Bye to the Affordable Care Act”? Should I plan another gay dance party in front of Mike Pence’s house? Should I make another protest sign? Most of all, is this sustainable?

I’ve thought a lot about the question and have made a few adjustments to my personal life over the past few months. In my own search to the what can I do question, I’ve come up with my answer that I’ll be sharing in this piece – that through reflection, we should foster and harness our individual talents to contribute for the betterment of our world. Oprah probably said this first, but whatever.

A what can I do answer in three parts – developing a life philosophy, removing obstacles, and getting your shit together.

Life Philosophy – the Why?

A few months ago, I had a chance to get an advanced copy of Angela Duckworth’s Grit, which has become the latest popularized social psychology idea (and thus the concept everyone likes to shit on these days). Although I would highly recommend reading the entire book and theory in full, she has a six-minute TED Talk that has become wildly viral, summarizes the concept well, and prevents you from having to engage in the perishing, near extinct practice of reading words on paper.

Duckworth’s main analysis is that passion, intentional practice, and long-term perseverance are the drivers of the success – not innate genius. I see a lot of credence with the criticism.  However, what interested me the most is that grit can also be synonymous with focus and vision. Having a definitive life philosophy is, according to Duckworth, a guiding principle to organizing our goals, excluding projects that don’t add anything to our life philosophy and bringing focus to our decisions on a day-to-day basis.

An example – like most people, I devoted my 20’s putzing around and spending a lot of time in dive bars loudly and drunkenly discussing that I was going to fucking do everything all the god damn time! I wanted to experience and accomplish everything. Accordingly, I created giant lists of goals with no particular theme except that I needed to cross everything off lest I become a cat-lady living an obscure, indistinguishable life.

Below is a list I literally wrote and published in 2010 at the age of 23. Although my goals may have changed over time, my penchant to write with only fine-tipped pens on card stock with intentional color-coding has not changed:

 

2010 Jens Life Goals

Seven years later, I can attest that there are some good goals here (that I accomplished!), but it’s in a terrible list-like structure. Everything felt scattered, which made it difficult to intentionally work towards something.

Enter Angela Duckworth, who suggests having one single life philosophy and a tiered set of no more than five goals that align with that philosophy. Any project or task that doesn’t lead back to that philosophy is considered miscellaneous and should be placed on the back burner.

A month after the most recent election cycle, my head was filled with so many ideas and so many ambitions – learn to knit to make a pussy hat! Register more Mexicans to vote in Texas! Bake a lot of sassy cupcakes! – that it was difficult to focus my energy on tasks that felt collectively productive. So, I asked myself what my role is in our movement towards a better future (my life philosophy) and then set up 5 focused goals leading back to my vision. For reference, mine are below, which I post to keep myself accountable:

Life Philosophy: Practice and cultivate empathy by (1) writing to tell my story and the stories that best reflect how my experiences shaped my worldview and (2) supporting others to help them realize their own stories.

Goals:

  1. Write (1) long form pieces for a wider audience (2) weekly blog pieces for my community to get into the practice of writing regularly
  2. Work (1) with students in helping them cultivate their own stories and self-expression and (2) manage my team (currently all-female) in a way that practices empathy, fairness and compassion, countering some of the negative stereotypes of what female leaders and managers are perceived to be
  3. Foster relationships with family because (1) it’s the right thing to do and they paid for everything, God damn it and (2) to preserve their stories and their language
  4. Financial freedom so that (1) I can take breaks to write, develop stories without concern or worry and (2) so that I can help my parents and build a life with my partner
  5. Foster relationships with friends and my partner (1) because they’re good people, (2) they keep you accountable to your bullshit, and (3) they’re rejuvenating to your life

Self-Reflection – Removing Obstacles

The other important concept I’ve integrated in my life is one I have learned by regularly seeing a therapist who specializes in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Let me begin by stating that I am not ashamed of seeing a therapist and anyone who is thinks that its a shameful, stupid experience should probably see a therapist (let’s talk!).

As someone who feels anxiety about not living up to my life philosophy, ACT has been exceptionally helpful in practicing ways to cope with and accept that anxiety. The most important concept I have learned is breaking the procrastination cycle, which has been key to helping me focus on my goals.

You’ve probably experienced it before, but here’s a visual depiction of the procrastination cycle, which has been the biggest obstacle to life philosophy work and actually creates more anxiety:

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  • “I need to do this awesome thing or else my life will suck, bigly.”
  • “I don’t feel like doing this awesome thing. Oh!  There’s a new season of The Great British Bake Off on Netflix!”
  • “God, I suck.  I haven’t done awesome thing.  At least I know to use star anise when I bake.”
  • “FUCK, FUCK, FUCK.”
  • “[YouTube Dog Video.]”

Getting Your Shit Together – The How

Thoughts, goals, and resolve are nothing without action. My therapist likes to use the refrain that admitting something is always the hardest part in personal change. I would argue that doing the actual shit to change is the hardest part.

For this section, I’m going to write the word “shit” a lot and I’ll be deferring to two books that have been helpful to me: David Allen’s Getting Things Done and Charles Duhigg’s The Habit Loop. For those of you who prefer not reading and like learning things in meme, a summary below:

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Taking into account my life philosophy and to help me break out of the procrastination cycle, here are some of my habits and organizational structure that have been tremendously helpful, although I’m still a work in progress about following through:

  • Creating an office space so that I can immediately go to a creative place whenever I need to
  • Carving out at least 2 hours of writing time each on Saturdays and Sundays
  • Waking up at the same time and sleep at more or less the same time, so that I can maximize my energy
  • Exercising regularly to increase my energy for writing, work, and people
  • Being efficient at work so that I don’t take work home and can focus on writing in the evening
  • Writing weekly and post it on my website every Monday.*

*Editor’s Note: Sike! Except next Monday.  I’ll be taking a break because I’ll out of town and focusing on a long-form piece.  Yes, longer than this piece.

I am not sure you’re on your man period.

A year ago, I heard the term “man period” used for the first time. I was disappointed to find out that this particular man was not experiencing the scorching self-immolation of his uterine tissue, induced by an excess of estrogen hormones. Nor was this specific dude flushed with a hormonal influx, causing him to experience excessive fatigue or to feel incredibly anxious and emotional while watching Blue Planet.

The guy was just in a bad mood – a bad mood he could control.

My hope was that this was an individual expression and not a widely used colloquialism. However, the term “man period” has its own entry in the indisputable, verifiable source, Urban Dictionary.

Given that “man period” is officially a part of the American lexicon, I have developed this somewhat easy to follow flow chart to help our men find out if their symptoms match the ailments of menstruation:

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Editor’s Note: Ladies, I’m going to take a moment to vouch for the Diva Cup, which I started using a year ago. The product made being on my period much, much easier. I don’t get endorsement or sponsorship money, but if representatives from Diva Cup are reading this – I don’t mind being compensated in 100 Diva Cups.