Thursday, August 11, 2011


I'm writing this at 11:52 PM mainly not because I have a particular burning desire to write a blog post or even that I have a strong passion on the topic of productivity, but more (fittingly) because I feel like I need to produce some sort of written work today. :)

Admittedly, I did spend a good portion of the morning emailing TEDxRedmond speakers ( youth event I'm organizing), working on a document about TEDxRedmond for potential sponsors, communicating with organizing committee members, and taking a SAT Literature Practice Subject Test for fun during commercial breaks on the evening news broadcast (FYI, my scaled score was 760/800--hoping I can do better without the news as a distraction next time--and yes, to folks who disagree with testing, I was seriously doing it for fun), as well as taking a walk to the grocery store with my sister and mom. When I list what I've done today off like that it sounds slightly more "productive" but all the same I feel like I haven't done much, because not mentioned in that list are the minutes I spent skulking around after breakfast, how much time I spent just not really wanting to do much, etc.

My imaginary really productive day for me is one where I wake up early (well, my version of early is more like 9 AM), finish a speech, create a presentation, make a YouTube video, write a few short stories and poems, answer all the emails lingering in my inbox, do some math and science, write a blog post, and then sit back and relax and watch a movie or an episode of Arrested Development on Netflix instant play at night with my family, or read a new book. In short, cross everything off my to-do list and feel sufficiently accomplished to reward myself. :)

Of course, I've never had a day quite like that. I've certainly had days with elements of that, but most of the time I'll end up slacking off. I'll mark the email as important and then forget about it, or skip the math in favor of re-reading a Harry Potter book.

I joke to my mom that I envy kids who had to be coaxed into reading, whose parents give them treats for reading twenty minutes--my parents are the opposite. You see, I have to make deals sometimes (usually when I'm supposed to be preparing for a trip, going to sleep, or otherwise engaged) to read an extra chapter in a story.

It's been that way since I was little and my mom would try to coax me to go play outside instead of read yet another chapter book. When I was six my mom had to do the same in order to get me to stop typing up short stories on my laptop, and come eat dinner. A lot of my peers have parents shouting at them to do SAT practice when, yeah, I was doing the Literature practice test for fun (does that sound incredibly nerdy? I'm a big fan of literature and I'll tell you, the SAT practice subject test is better than mindlessly watching ads on TV during commercial breaks).

No, my personal definition of "productivity" is something closer to a ton of blog posts (I wish--I really need to update more), TEDxRedmond issues neatly squared away, maybe a masterpiece novel, and--this is really unlikely--me producing a properly shaded drawing (my tortillion-wielding skills need work). Other people's definition of productivity might mean de-bugging systems, making a certain amount of money, efficiently finishing homework, etc.

The really strange thing is that sometimes one person's leisure is another person's work (not quite a trash v. treasure thing, but I used the saying's structure). That is, my reading a couple novels--what I consider a break from, say, emailing people about TEDxRedmond or preparing a presentation (both perfectly enjoyable, just not things I want to do all the time) could be someone else's version of one-more-thing-on-the-to-do-list. It's an odd thought.

As I'm heading off to brush my teeth, now at 12:15 AM, somewhat satisfied with what I've done today, I have to wonder: should we be forcing ourselves to be productive in the first place? How far is too far? What's your personal definition of "productivity?"

PS, to everyone worried about my psychological health and about to comment that kids should totally have free rein over the summer, my version of free rein is pretty much exactly what I did today. :)
Yeah, I'm just really into organizing events.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Three favorite books about international characters

Dawn by Elie Wiesel
I read this a couple years ago and picked it up from the library to re-read recently, then had my mom read it as well. Thanks to the conciseness of its 80 pages, this novel is approachable to most readers. The plot is seemingly simple--the thoughts and reflections of a Jewish Israeli freedom fighter (or terrorist, depending on your viewpoint) on the night he is condemned to kill a British soldier in retaliation for the execution of a fellow Israeli fighter.

Though fictional, I think this story lends more insight to the Israeli vs. British fight for a Jewish homeland than the passing mentions the conflict is usually given in American history textbooks. As a book comprised of the main character's reflections, it is moving and raises important questions about the ambiguity of good and evil; Dawn is a book that explores the inner workings of the "gray area" of black and white.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (series) by Alexander McCall Smith
This heartwarming, cheery series about the proudly "traditionally built" Botswanan self-made detective Precious Ramotswe makes mystery both realistic and readable for easily scared folks like me. The series (thankfully) features no Agatha Christie-style nail-biters where people are getting murdered left and right; no, the problems Precious Ramotswe solves have more to do with people, feelings, and culture--whether stolen cattle or unethical witchdoctors, wayward apprentices or soon-to-be-married couples.

Nobody ends up getting killed and best of all, McCall Smith writes a perfect balance of interesting plot and beautifully lyrical details of the Botswanan landscape. The books give us a great gift of seeing Africa outside the lens of what we typically see in the news--famines in Somalia or protests in Egypt; shifting our focus away from the tragic or dramatic and painting a picture of the everyday and the beautiful. (Oh, and McCall Smith's other books are awesome too--I love the Sunday Philosophy Club, Irregular Portuguese Verbs, Corduroy Mansions, La's Orchestra Saves the World, and all the rest). :)

Aria by Nassim Assefi
While it's arguable that the main character in Aria, Dr. Jasmine Talahi, lives in Seattle and is thus not an "international character," the book--told as a series of letters and narratives--follows the Iranian-American woman around the world in her odyssey--both tangible and intangible--to find peace after the death of her five-year-old daughter. While the main character's Iranian heritage plays strongly into the novel, providing an un-sensationalized insight into Iran (much like Ladies' Detective Agency for Botswana and Africa), it is not the sole subject of the book.

The complexity of the protagonist's own struggle with the meaning of loss and mourning, an epistolary tug-of-war between supporting characters pleading with Jasmine to come back home, and the slow revelation of Jasmine's past over the course of the book, and you have a novel that is at once a mental reflection and a physical journey.


There you have some of my favorite books with international characters! I've found that reading fiction is an excellent way to broaden one's horizons about the world from a more first-person perspective.