The Racer, Part 2

Alternatives to racing I

I tried interval training for the first time a few weeks ago.  As you may know, I’ve been running for a while and have done a few races.

Interval training is very different from how I used to train.  Previously, with little guidance other than training plans found on the internet, I was running prescribed distances at a steady pace.  In interval training, you run at your goal pace in short, manageable intervals (usually one minute or so) with rest periods in between.  This supposedly helps your body acclimatize to your goal pace.

In this way, interval training is not about finishing faster than the last one.  It’s about consistency.

I definitely was caught aback by this difference.  The audio guide (from Nike+ Run Club – Nike+ apps rule my fitness life) for this interval training session that I was following called out in the very first interval to cease from all-out sprinting.  This surprised me as I realized that I unconsciously was doing exactly that.

Alternatives to racing II

A friend of mine and I were bemoaning the difficulties of writing papers.  Typical arts students.

I always manage to turn things in on time.  I cannot bear to take deductions based on lateness, rather than my skill.  So, it boggles my mind when I hear of others like my friend who knowingly turns things in late.  To her, the paper was not ready, so she didn’t turn it in until it was.  For her, the greatest challenge when writing papers is bringing herself to finish it on time.

“But why?” I demanded to know.

She replied that she’s not sure herself, but perhaps it’s because she lives life a little slower.  I can see that as a viable reason – she has told me about how she’s noticed certain trees on campus look particularly beautiful at sunset, and eased the speed that I would have gone at during our meetings by taking time to talk about things that aren’t on the agenda.  Things such as school and family, which are in a way just as important, because it’s brought the two of us closer and thus made the meetings much better.

I walked by one of those trees she talked about, albeit early in the morning instead of at the end of the day.  I chuckled as I eyed the orange leaves, drooping slightly with dampness, thinking to myself that it did look as gorgeous as my friend described.

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Dear Opportunity

Dear Opportunity,

I believe that I just missed you.  You were virtually on the other side of the street, just a few keyboard strokes away.

I was very aware of your presence in my peripheral vision.  You were that message that I could’ve sent to someone and that application to some cool experience that I could’ve filled out.  I didn’t summon the energy nor courage to type my way to you though.  I didn’t send that message, nor that application.

We make calculated decisions.  Mine was to ignore you, for a variety of reasons.  Usually, it was because you looked too time-consuming, even though you look very promising – the chance for a new relationship, perhaps, or a fascinating adventure.

I don’t want to regret not taking you up as I have a strong distaste for regret, birthed from mental debates regarding my commute in high school.  Back then, I evaluated on a daily basis whether I should exert myself and run for my bus which was infamous for rarely coming, or take it easy and be content with potentially watching bus rolled into and out of sight as I strolled to the stop.  I learnt to embrace whatever decision I made and the emotions that came after through this, but it’s hard applying this to the rest of my life.

Since I’m writing to you about out of these potential feelings of regret, I am clearly still learning to and practicing how to accept the consequences of my actions.

I recently heard a helpful piece of advice that helps with this coping process.  A person that I look up to told me to not see my next actions as a finite, be all end all decision.  Choices certainly can irrevocably change a life, but they do not necessarily close off all doors.  They can open other ones too.

Opportunity, I may have missed you this time, but that’s alright.  I believe it’s alright.

Another time then, Opportunity.

The Corax

P.S: Looks like I did ultimately use more than a few keyboard strokes on you, writing this letter.

“Inside every person is a universe”

“Since I was a young child, I have been aware that inside every person is a universe, and that we’ll never know what it feels like to be another person.  Which is horrifying.” – Elizabeth Strout

I came across this quote from Elizabeth Strout in an interview she did with Time Magazine.  I had never heard of her before, nor read the book she is most well-known for, Olive Kitteridge, but the image this quote paints has stuck with me.

It stuck with me so much that three days after I finished that edition of Time Magazine and recycled it, I fished out the magazine from the recycling box to take a photo of the quote, in case the interview was not published online.

Strout has beautifully captured how deep individuality runs in each person by comparing it to an entire universe.  Her quote implies that we’re all distinct persons: we are all universes that are totally different from one person to the next, so (unfortunately and horrifyingly enough) we can never fully comprehend each other. 

This quote intersects with another quote and a story for me.  If all people are total universes on their own, it means there’s a lot we can learn a lot from each other.

My Chinese textbook introduced this proverb: “三人行,必有我师”.  If you translate it along more literal lines, it means, “When three people walk together, my teacher must be there.”  The essential gist of it is that you can always learn something from the people around you.  Somebody nearby will always be able to teach you something.

A recent interaction drew the connections between Strout’s quote and the Chinese proverb.  A classmate asked my professor a question that was smack dab in my region of interest, East Asia.  I thought I could suggest some further reading for her as I had taken a course abroad that was closely connected to her question, so I approached her after class to extend this offer.

After I introduced myself awkwardly, I quickly learned after exchanging a few words that she was already very knowledgeable about the region.  The conversation rapidly deviated from what I had originally approached her for (i.e., to share my knowledge), to her telling me about herself, her research interests, and her research findings.  I was the one learning from that conversation.  And it was so cool.

In sum, this interaction was a real-life reminder for me about the awesome depth each person has within, and to be humble enough to recognize it and learn from it.

Mari Kondo and Me: What I learnt from a crazy Japanese woman

Why I followed a crazy Japanese lady’s advice to completely reorganize my wardrobe, and how it changed my life

When you’re a college student with a paper due tomorrow, a job application due the next day and a midterm sometime in the near future on top of that; the last thing on the priority list is closet organization.

This likely goes beyond college students too.  Who cares if clothes or folded or not?  As long as you can wear them, right?

My mother was always puzzled as to why I typically let unfolded clothes pile high on a rather redundant pink chair in my room (to be honest: I detest pink, that was part of the benefit of having it covered with clothes).  My experience working in retail added to this mystery.  I used to work in a Western business-casual store, no less, where most of my eight-hour shifts were spent folding blouses into neat little squares with a board.

Anyhow, the point is that I never thought folding my clothes was particularly important.  I would do clean-up of my wardrobe and refold clothes twice a year so everything could actually fit inside.  Otherwise, as long as my shirt fit inside a drawer, then it was cool with me.

On the opposite end of my likes/dislikes spectrum is the joy I find in beautiful design and aesthetics.  I adore a particular clean, cluttered-yet-perfectly-disarrayed look, the sort you find in Ikea catalogues and on the Instagram feeds of my favourite bloggers.  I tried emulating their sparse composition but gave up because my colours simply didn’t coordinate as well as theirs did.

Two winters ago, “The Magic of Tidying Up” by Mari Kondo ended up in my hands as I was winding along Main Street with a friend one winter day.  I read a few chunks of it and my reaction was, “This lady is crazy.”

For those of you unacquainted with Mari Kondo, she is a Japanese woman who makes a living out of helping people organize stuff.  In her bestseller, The Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo details her “KonMari” method of tidying up, from theory to practice.  She tells you how to store your bags, tidy up your desk, and even how to fold your clothes (because not all methods of folding clothes are equal).  Interspersed are accounts of her own experience. 

One story I remember in particular is her description of how she loved tidying up so much that a daily pastime of hers in high school was to turn the contents out of a few drawers upon returning home and reorganize them.  She did this so often that she found herself going through the same drawers time and time again.  Sure, it taught her an invaluable principle about tidying up: that you need to tackle it by category, not location.  That means rigorously tidying up drawer by drawer isn’t sufficient, rather you should go by category (e.g. all your makeup, no matter where it’s located).  However, this anecdote to me was clear proof of madness.

Still, I was intrigued by how Kondo’s book became a bestseller, so I went online to learn more.  I found several blogs on how following Kondo had transformed crammed and jammed wardrobes into displays pleasing to the eye.  It was very soothing to look at the vertically folded, colour-sorted clothes that Kondo advocates for, even if they weren’t in the monochromatic pallets that graced the Instagram feeds that I subscribe to.

Prior to departing for South Korea, I was planning to clean up my stuff so it wouldn’t simply sit around for months.  If I was going through all my clothes, I figured that this would be time to try out Kondo’s method.

I originally planned on only sorting through my main wardrobe as I thought my drawers were reasonably organized.  But as I started sorting out things, some new categories no longer fit where they used to.  This made me recall Kondo’s advice to tidy up things by category.  I ended up tipping the contents of all my drawers onto my bedroom floor so I could move sections around.  My pants now had a small drawer to themselves and my shirts had a large drawer. They previously were intermixed in one vertical and inaccessible pile in my closet.

Key to the KonMari method is the mantra to keep only things that “spark joy”.  This simple principle was incredibly useful to me. It boiled down all my considerations and concerns to one single question.  It didn’t matter whether the item was wear-able or not, whether I had worn it five times or fifty times.  If it made me happy, I could keep it.  If it didn’t make me happy, I was probably wearing it not very frequently  or not at all, so there was no point in keeping it and having it take up valuable space in my room.  In practice, how I answered this questions ran along these lines in my head:

Thin sweater that I rarely wear because I don’t ever feel fantastic enough to pull it off?  Bye.

Worn hoodie that I’ve owned since high school but is fantastically comfortable and something that I would wear every day? Staying.

This was very different from how I used to approach reorganization.  Before I cleaned out my room KonMari style, I thought that I needed more storage space to store everything.  I was wrong.  It turns out that I had more than enough room for all that I needed.  I just previously kept so many clothes that were of high quality enough to wear, but that I didn’t actually wear because I didn’t like them.  Those took up a lot of valuable space.  When I demanded myself whether these “sparked joy” for me and whether I would really like to keep it, I “gained” a lot of space and a much freer mind.

The most important outcomes for me: lighter mind, joy in how beautifully my clothes are arranged, joy in knowing that everything I see is something that I enjoy wearing, joy in knowing I can live with less, joy in visual sparseness.

Other outcomes: making stuff I wasn’t even using available to others who might like it, or in other words, passing things on that I wasn’t appreciating fully to others who might appreciate it more.  These additional outcomes are no indication of altruism.  They were just externalities to me.

However, the process was no easy task.

I still remember scheduling four hours for this overhaul (I typically refolded all my clothes in an hour or two before)…but four hours was actually how long I simply laid on the floor of my room spread out like a starfish, arms resting on piles of clothes around me.  Just taking everything out and chucking them into categories of “shirts”, “home wear”, “formal wear” and “not keep” was an incredibly exhausting hour that demanded a recovery period four times as long (ok, maybe there was some Daniel Deronda or period drama in there.  Ok, there was definitely Daniel Deronda).

Here are some of the results:

Closet organization 1

Closet organization 2

Pretty snazzy, hey?  I am so incredibly proud of it.  It wouldn’t meet the colour scheme standards for Instagram, but I think it would be worthy of #organizationinspo tag anyways because this is real.

But more than looking like the minimalists I always aspired towards, listening to Mari Kondo helped me embrace this lifestyle for real, beyond the definition of “lifestyle” as newspaper or magazine categories propagate.  Minimalism is about focussing on the things you care about and spending time on those things, which is essentially the keep only things that “spark joy” principle Mari Kondo preaches.  I apply the “spark joy” principle to more aspects of my life now: to things I buy, to things I do, to where I spend my time.

So, it turns out that even a few phrases from a crazy Japanese lady planted a seed for extraordinarily positive change in my life – or should I say, “sparked joy”?

Letter to an enemy

Dear Lord Elgin,

At first I thought you were just one of many white men that had a street named after you for goodness knows what historically important reason that nobody can recall anymore.  Then, I found out that you weren’t just any old, dead, white man.

As someone who identifies as Chinese, you are horrid person in my history books because you commanded British forces during the Second Opium War.  You ordered the destruction and ravage of the Summer Palace, an extraordinary, fantastical sample of Western-Chinese hybrid architecture.  Thanks to you, the expansive compound amounts to a pile of dirty, grubby rubble today.

Ever since I learned of the things you did, I saw you as an enemy.

It wrecked my heart to walk on the street that bears your name in Ottawa.  It’s at the heart of my country’s capital, because apparently you were a decent Governor-General.

However, I know now that perhaps you aren’t the enemy.  Hating you and your legacy will do me no good.  You are a part of history and a ghost, but nothing that should ever strike fear or sorrow into my heart because I will make sure that no one ever does something like you did.

I will not aim to actively tarnish your name, but I will endeavour to tell people about the not so pretty things you did, in sum, rampaging around the Qing empire.  I won’t advocate to change the name of Elgin Street in Ottawa, but I won’t forget that you were commander of British forces in the Second Opium War before being Governor-General of Canada.

For Lord Elgin, while you may not be my enemy, you certainly are not my friend.


This post was in response to the following writing prompt: write a letter in response to the first word that pops out on page 29 of the nearest book.  For me, “Enemy” screamed out from a chapter title in Vanity Fair.

I’ve been thinking a lot about modern Chinese history as a result of a course I am taking.  I’ve talked about some of my struggles with this part of history in an earlier post: Hurt.

A proud moment

I had a proud moment this past weekend.  It marks another step in my health journey.

While walking through a train station, I glanced at an advertisement that read, “Get Gorgeous!”

My next thought, an instant reaction, was:

“I already am.”

Although I know I am not the fittest I’ve ever been, and although I am struggling to find a way to make exercise and eating in moderation more routine since leaving Ottawa; I think that I, however I look right now, might just be enough.

It feels damn good to know that I believe that deeply enough, as my immediate response to the advertisement proves.

Being present

When yoga teachers make sense

Although I faced an unexpected over limit fee on my credit card, had to stay late at work, didn’t get to go to the gym or yoga as often as I wanted, and most definitely overstuffed my face; I strangely felt alright and satisfied this week.

I attribute this unfamiliar new state of contentment to the words the yoga teacher said on last Sunday’s class sticking with me. Often, I tune out the stream of wishy-washy words that teachers spout (I don’t understand how breathing enhances my practice really, so I just try to get some physical exertion in for the week), but what the instructor said last Sunday resonated with me.

He declared we were all there for class because we were seeking a connection. Initially, that prompted me to begin shutting down my brain.  I foresaw a torrent of abstract concepts coming towards me, until he asked: “When you’re walking, are you aware of how you’re distributing your weight across your feet?”

I instantly snapped back into attention because my left knee has been bothering me. So yes, I’ve been very aware of the pain in my knee, but not whether I’ve continued to stress it out as I walk.

So I tried taking this advice and I’ve been paying attention this week to the way I walk.

This has unexpectedly impacted my commuting experience.  Instead of thoughts and plans for what I’d do once I get into the office, or what I’d do once I get home ricocheting around my head, I have been aware of where I was and of what my body was sensing.

Yes, I think I’ve started to grasp what yoga teachers or mindfulness guides are always seemingly directing students to do: to be aware, to be present. It’s the first time any of those oft-repeated phrases I’ve heard and read have held some meaning and significance to me.

I still let my mind wander around a bit on my commute. I looked back at how this differed from past commutes and I see that previously, my mind was constantly, relentlessly directed forwards. I was (and still frequently am) fixated on the future. In my head, I am persistently working on the next steps, extending my focus to a place or time very far away from where I currently am. I am always fighting to get to the next hour, the next day, the next weekend, the next month.

I never basked in the moment. Or, you could say that I never stopped to smell the roses.

The impact of simply paying attention to the now has been subtle, but I really believe the relatively okay and even positive attitude I’ve had despite those upsets I mentioned earlier are largely due to this new mindfulness.

Being present. A small, simple joy and useful practice that I learnt about from an unexpected source.