Friday, January 18, 2013


In my late teens and in my 20s, I read book after book. I always had a book in my purse or backpack, sometimes two, just in case I had even a few minutes to myself, whether I was on the subway, the LIRR, the El, or the Metro, or waiting to meet a friend at a cafe or a street corner.  When I was working, I protected my lunch hours so that I could skip out to a deli or a cafe to read a book while gulping down my lunch. And I always picked a place where I had no risk of running into someone from my office who might want to chit chat and cut into my valuable time.

I plowed through about a book or two a week. I didn't necessarily read for pleasure, even though I often enjoyed them very much. I also didn't read to escape, as some of my friends did. I read out of desperation. I thought these books could show me how to live my life -- or more precisely, how not to screw up. Mostly, by way of example, by illustrating how others lived theirs -- and what they did right or didn't. I read in search of instruction manuals.

I also read out of fear. Our family moved from Korea to the US when I was eight. During our first few years here, I was often struck by the differences between our way of living and those who lived here. Also, by the different way we saw things. And how some of them failed to understand us -- and yet had no idea how limited their perspective was. As I grew older -- and became more "Americanized"  and identified less with the Korean way of being -- I started to fear turning into one of those people, those who only knew their way of living and understood so little of others'. Books punctured through my own protected bubble and opened windows into other, much larger worlds.

I often read the same books twice. First a quick read - more than a skim but still a passive take, and then once I got the big picture, back to page one to digest more carefully, thoroughly. I sometimes underlined the sentences that resonated with me.  Often those sentences had nothing to do with the main theme of the book, but to me they were little nuggets of truth that felt truer because somebody else had written them down. And after I finished, I neatly lined up the books on my bookshelf, as proof of my growth and improvement.

I often gravitated towards literature and memoirs. For memoirs, usually those written by someone on the outside, whether African American, Jewish-American, or some kind of survivor, and everything I could find by Asian-Americans. At the end of those books, those writers felt like personal friends, with whom I'd had intimate conversations.

I am not an extravagant person, but with books, I did not limit myself. I grabbed whatever caught my eye, often purchasing a pile of books at a time. I had every intention of reading them all, even though I usually ran out of time before another pile of books caught my attention. As a result, I have more unread books than read, especially since after reading, I immediately donate books I feel do not merit shelf space.

When we moved to San Diego a couple of years ago, we did not unpack most of our belongings since we were not sure whether we would stay here for good. When we finally decided to stay, we still did not unpack since we are currently in a rental and plan to buy a house. During that time, my books have been trapped in boxes. A couple of times, I have gone through some of those boxes looking for one or two particular books that stuck in my head -- although it would been easier simply to check it out from the library or order a new copy from Amazon. But most of the time, they have remained in their boxes, marked "S's books - Read" or "S's books - Unread." The other day, I had a moment of panic fearing that they are all growing moldy.

I recently caught up with a friend from my first job out of college. She asked me what I've been reading -- and I found myself reporting that I had read less than three or four books in the last several years. What an awful record. But I feel less desperate about reading these days. Perhaps because I don't assume others know more than I do, although they often do. And perhaps because I am getting set in my ways.

But I still miss my books. And I miss having time to read. Jeff called me a "book hugger" the other day, just because I forbid him from dog-earing my books and cringe when a book is bent at the spine. I teach my children not to step on books, just the way we were taught. And I want to instill in them a love of learning, because I believe that to be the most important tool we have for finding our way in the world. But I don't think there is much for me to do, because they were born with an innate curiosity, an eagerness to learn.

I look forward to the day when I can sit with my children, each of us with our own age appropriate books in hand. But for now, reading is a group activity. We huddle together on the couch next to a big pile of board books, my face pressed against their warm, soft cheeks, our eyes locked on the hungry little caterpillar.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

So, So Behind

Next month, I turn 42.  And I am still working on trying to lay the grounds to start a new career.  Laying the grounds as in trying to find time to study for the GREs, trying to find time to research some schools, trying to find time to read up more on the subject in general, trying to find time to talk to people in the field so that I can decide whether that is what I ultimately want to do, and trying to find the time to do enough due diligence on the subject so that I can assure myself that I am making the right decision. You know, the kind of stuff I should have done when I was in my early 20s.

I feel like I'm two decades behind. Well, actually, I am. The other evening, I asked a stay at home mom if she would consider starting a new career at this point.  She said, "Gosh, maybe I'll go back to what I was doing before, but I can't imagine trying to start all over again!" She is younger than me. Not too long ago, I read a New York Times article about Oprah's efforts to "attract 'women in their 30s or perhaps their 20s, to be able to reach people when they are looking to fulfill their destiny" because according to Oprah, "[b]y the time you're 40, 42, you should have kind of figured it out already."

She is right. Oprah is always right. I should have figured it out by now. I should have spent my teenage and college years exploring. Trying out this and that, talking to people in different fields to learn more about their jobs, working as an intern in organizations that piqued my interest. Instead, I spent most of my time coming up with arguments as to why I would not make a good doctor. And when my parents finally accepted that I would not become a brain surgeon, I then worked on trying to rationalize to myself why I would make a good lawyer (my parents' second and only other choice for an acceptable career), even though I had little idea what lawyers did.

We did not grow up in an environment where we were encouraged to explore and to try to determine our future paths for ourselves. Instead, all doors were closed except for one or two. And it was our job to make ourselves fit through one of those doors, no matter how misshapen or contorted. I spent a lot of time banging my head against them and then tending to my bruises. It was the antithesis of exploring.

But even so, you'd think I could have done something in my late 20s and 30s to help myself.  I graduated from law school in 1998, when I was 27. That left me 15 years to fashion some career that I could call my own. But instead, I just put on my good worker bee smile and did all that was expected of a good associate. I put in my hours, cancelled dinners as well as holiday and vacation plans when necessary, and collected my paychecks. I also spent a fair number of my free hours pondering over alternative career options with friends over $15 gin and tonics. I really have no one to blame but myself.

But it's not all that bad. I think if my last job had not ended as it had, then I may still be there or at some other law firm, washing away my doubts with $15 drinks. And telling myself that I should be lucky to have such a well paying job. And delaying my life crisis until retirement, when it would be too late to do anything about it. Thank god they threw me out.

Motherhood is my second chance. It gives me a break from the career that I never wanted and an opportunity to start again. Unlike most women who worry that taking time out to raise their children will damage their careers, I'm grateful for this time off.

But I still worry that I'm too far behind.  I feel pressured to get going on my career. I've already wasted two decades -- so much time to make up for. I hear about my college classmates who've written books, whose articles appear in the magazines I purchase, those who have fulfilled the dreams that I did not let myself entertain, much less aspire for. And when I hear about them, I sometimes find myself in tears. What have I done with all this time? Why have I accomplished so little? Why do I have so little to show for my life so far?

When I talk like this to Jeff, he often points to my law degree and my legal career. That's not nothing, he says. Perhaps, I say, but your career is only as meaningful as the value you place on it. And for me, my legal background didn't measure up to anything, not in my eyes. It held little meaning for me. And I think its unhappy ending diminished it even more.

Things were rolling along somewhat while we had a babysitter, even though I found that 10 hours a week really boils down to far less -- after you have shaken the children off of your leg, put away this or that, and thrown in the laundry. And reluctant to leave both an infant and a toddler in the hands of a college student, I tried to line up the babysitter to come during our toddler's nap -- except that on occasion, he refused to go along with my plans and I would find my three hours abbreviated to one and a half. But at least I had some time to regroup myself.

Then, in early December, our babysitter quit. We quickly lined up another, and planned to get her on board right after the holidays when she would be available. But shortly after the new year, she emailed to say that she had found a more career-oriented position. So now, we are back to the drawing board. Looking up potential babysitters, setting up interviews, checking references. The whole process will take a couple of weeks or longer, and I feel so impatient. For some reason, this feels like a crisis moment -- and perhaps that is what this is. My midlife crisis.

I am starting to understand mothers who are narcissists -- those who have so many personal needs to meet that they cannot meet the needs of their children. God forbid, I'm not a narcissist -- but I can taste the hint of my personal need colliding with the needs of my children -- and at the center stage of all this is our mutual need for my time. And the biggest question is how to slice the pie so that we can all feel somewhat satisfied and not denied. All I want are a couple of hours a day -- it seems so simple, but in the middle of this feeling of crisis, I feel as if a lifetime is passing me by.

I try to still my anxiety -- and my impatience. But I don't know any tricks. I just command and rebuke myself, which only muddles things inside. I am hoping that writing this down will help me sort out my inner turmoil. Why so urgent now? What difference do a few months make, especially since I'm so late as it is? Right?

And maybe I'm not as late as I think. 42. Really, is that so late to start working on a new career? Well, actually, it'll be a couple of years before I can even start a program since I need to study for the GREs, take the exam, apply to schools, etc. So maybe 44. Not a bad number, is it? According to Wikipedia, the number is considered to be a "hitter's number" because it was the number for Hank Aaron and Reggie Jackson. So, I'll have to bank on their luck and keep my fingers crossed for a homerun when I finally get my chance at the bat. I just hope that time doesn't fly until then because I need all the time I can get.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Our baby girl turns one

We celebrated our daughter's one year birthday in December.  This photo was taken by a friend at the birthday party, and I love it.  She looks like a little Korean princess.