Friday, August 28, 2015

Financial Illiteracy

When I graduated from Loyola Chicago in 2010, I graduated as a highly privileged millennial, financially atypical from the rest of my generation. Thanks to many academic scholarships and overly-generous parents, I managed to escape student loan debt altogether. (There were some small loans in my name, but I paid them back during college by working part-time at Borders, and I paid my parents directly, while they actually dealt with the banks.) Immediately upon graduation, I was hired by a company that paid me very well and gave me very good benefits--again, not something that happened to most people my age. Sure, I'm type-A, I'm a hard worker, whatever. That's not the point. I was (am) extraordinarily lucky, and I'm grateful for it.

I worked at that well-paid job for three years. (Full-time, that is--I still work for them part-time and remotely.) My salary was large enough that I had the luxury of not having to budget in any formal way. I knew what my rent was, what my share of the bills roughly was each month, and I never had to make a high-ticket purchase of any kind. I was living in Chicago, where the public transit is great, so I didn't have to worry about a car. I had health and dental insurance and a 401(k) from my employer. Because of all this, I saved up a decent amount of money--without having to think about saving it. There was never a fixed amount of money I set aside each month or anything like that. It just pooled up in my account, and I worked hard enough that my boss kept giving me raises.

While all this sounds ideal--and it was, in many ways--I decided to leave that job to pursue my fiction writing MFA. Rather, I decided to do that assuming I could get into an MFA program that would give me a full-ride and a stipend, as I wasn't willing to go into debt to do it. And in another ridiculous stroke of luck, I was accepted by the program here in Vegas. So many things that have happened in my life are based almost entirely on a shiny gold fairy-dust foundation of good luck. I'm constantly nervous that my luck will disappear and everything will collapse.

Anyway, even though the MFA program is (mostly) tuition-free and does provide a stipend, I knew that I'd be taking a significant pay cut to come here, and that I'd probably have to eat into my savings to a certain extent. And that's exactly what happened. I've still got a cushion, but whereas that cushion used to be stuffed with down feathers and covered in silk, it's now more like a stylish throw pillow from Target. For whatever bullshit bureaucratic reason, the university doesn't start paying us until October 1st, so I still have another month until the end of the salary dry spell. Therefore, I've been thinking a lot about finances lately--especially since I'm graduating in May and will have to figure out something else to do with my life.

Here's the thing: I don't understand anything about money, and it causes me a great deal of anxiety.

Let's start with my 401(k), which I still have. What is a 401(k), exactly? I know I put money into it, and my employer matches some of it, and then when I'm too old to do anything interesting with that money I supposedly get it back. I know that the money is in stocks. I think? Or "mutual funds"? Which are possibly many stocks bundled together, but I could be wrong. What does the title "401(k)" refer to? What does the "k" stand for? If it's retirement savings, why doesn't it have a nice, comforting name rather than something that sounds like a tax form or a mile marker? There is an online account where I can check on and adjust my 401(k). I have never checked on it. I don't remember the password.

How does the stock market work in general? When I was in 7th grade we had to do a stock project, where we got into groups and pretended to buy stock in various companies. The thing I remember most is that my group invested in Krispy Kreme, and when we went to our local Krispy Kreme and told them that, they gave us free donuts. (Donuts!) People seem to blame stock market problems on the president, but I don't understand what the president has to do with it at all. He's just one person; he can't magically raise and lower the price of stocks. Also--the price of stocks falls when people sell their stocks, right? That's why the price falls? So couldn't we just solve the problem of stock market crashes if everyone just bought stock and never sold it? Or sold it in only very small increments from time to time? Wouldn't it at least stay relatively even that way?

I understand what interest is. I think. If a bank gives you a loan, they charge you for more than you're borrowing because they're jerks, and you have to pay a certain percentage more each month so that they get their cut. Please tell me this is what interest is. I'm pretty sure that's what it is. But how do they decide interest rates? Do banks just get to decide willy-nilly? Are there laws about it? Also, I've heard about people "refinancing" loans and getting a different interest rate. How the hell does that work?

Let's move on to health insurance. What on earth is a deductible? If I'm not mistaken, it works this way: I pay a ton of money for health insurance, and then they make me pay even more money before they actually provide me with the service I paid for. How is that even legal? Isn't that fraud?  It seems as though every time I think my insurance will cover something, it doesn't cover it. Out here in Vegas, it's pretty good as long as my problem is something the student health clinic can take care of. If I have to go see a specialist, it's very expensive, even if I have a referral. Which is why I'll just eat bland foods to deal with the weird stomach issues that have been plaguing me for months and months and months rather than go see a gastroenterologist. I don't think I can afford the many hundreds of dollars it would take to do that, especially if it required multiple trips. Maybe I could technically afford it, but I certainly don't want to pay it. Why do we trust health insurance companies if it's in their financial interest not to help you when you're sick? I'd give anything for socialized medicine. #BernieSanders2016

As I'm sure you're beginning to understand, I am truly oblivious when it comes to financial matters. And I suspect I'm not the only one. The worst thing about it is that even though I know I should understand all this, I have absolutely no desire to learn about it. For one thing, as I mentioned earlier, it makes me extremely nervous. Just writing all this down I'm feeling panicky--throat tight, quick pulse, all that. But the other problem is that finances are utterly dull. There's nothing interesting or beautiful or whimsical about numbers, so my brain tries to forget that they exist most of the time.

There really should have been a required course about all this in college--or even in high school. Because there wasn't, I can only hope that I'll write a bestselling novel and become filthy rich so I can hire a financial planner and personal accountant. I suppose I can also hope that there's an app for that. Hey now--Buzzfeed informs me that there are many apps for that! Maybe I won't end up homeless and starving after all.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Last First Day of School?

Today is the first day of school for my final year in the MFA program. Third year already! How has this happened? If I don't go off and get any more graduate degrees (and I might--you never know), this could be my last first day of school ever. That makes me sad. I like school. I'm much better at functioning in school than I am in real life. I think it's because school has concrete goals. Complete these steps, do this work, and you will graduate. Real life has no concrete goals. Do this job, indefinitely, until you get bored and decide to do another job. Get married, or don't. Have kids, or don't. It doesn't matter. Perhaps I just need to be better at setting personal goals, rather than letting an administration set them for me. Or perhaps I need to find some other meaning in life besides achievement. Things to ponder later...

It may be the first day of school, but I don't actually have to be on campus today. I'm only taking one real class this semester--fiction workshop with Doug Unger--and it's not until tomorrow evening. I also have thesis hours with Doug, and my translation project with Don Revell, but those both function as independent studies, so we'll probably have irregular meetings at best. I don't teach until tomorrow, either--English 102 again, two back-to-back sessions from 11:30-12:45 and 1:00-2:15. I'm already getting emails from students.

Speaking of teaching, I could use some help from the Internet hivemind. Normally for my students' first paper, I have them read three articles about and write a summary and short synthesis essay regarding sexual assault on college campuses. We have a large class discussion about it first--after I issue multiple trigger warnings, verbally and through emails, and even in the syllabus, as I don't want to traumatize anyone. I chose this subject for several reasons. First, my class is horror themed, and I wanted to touch upon real-life horror, especially a real-life horror that has some relevancy to their lives. I also want them to learn how to discuss difficult subjects respectfully--and the discussion usually goes remarkably well. Finally, I think it's important that someone discuss consent culture with them, as it's not something people normally teach in school. During those class discussions I often learn that my students have some serious misconceptions about sexual assault, mostly because no one has ever talked to them about it before.

I still think sexual assault on college campuses is an important subject, but there are other important subjects in the world, and I'd been teaching that one for three semesters straight. So for this semester, I decided to change it to police violence against black Americans. (You're right--Writing Project I is not the cheeriest assignment.) I'll still issue trigger warnings, of course. My worry is that I'm not as qualified to lead this discussion as I am to lead the discussion on sexual assault, as I'm much better versed in that area. I know I want to start the discussion with the concept of privilege, just so they can understand what it means--I usually have to do that in the discussion about sexual assault as well. But I was wondering if any of you can think of points that I should definitely touch upon, or any resources that might be helpful for the discussion. I'm going to search online to see if there are any guides for teaching about Ferguson, etc.--there usually are sample teaching guides for controversial subjects out there, thanks to the diligent teachers of the world. But any extra help would be greatly appreciated. For reference, the three articles I'm having them read are Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Nonviolence as Compliance," Roxane Gay's "Of Lions and Men: Mourning Samuel DuBose and Cecil the Lion," and Charles M. Blow's "Police Abuse is a Form of Terror."

In other news, I spent last weekend with Lulu at her parents' place in charming Parowan, Utah. It really is beautiful up there, nestled at the base of these rolling, pine-tree-studded mountains. We saw wild turkeys and peacocks. We went garage-sale-ing and I found a first edition of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls for $1. We ate too much food. It was lovely. Though too much inaction gets to me sometimes--I'm mentally better off if I'm constantly doing things. So the break was nice, but I'm glad to dive into the semester and get some work done.

Ah. Getting work done. That's a thing I should probably do. Like, right now. Until next time...

Sunday, August 16, 2015


I've done so many themed posts lately; I think it's time for a general "what's going on with Becky's life" post, n'est-ce pas?

Overall, things are good. It was a bit of a rocky adjustment when I first got back to Vegas. One day I was jetlagged, the next I was in enormous pain after having my wisdom teeth removed. Staying inside for a week and resting was almost certainly good for my teeth, but not so great for my mental health. Some days I felt really sad, other days I felt really anxious. But then I healed up (for the most part), and my mood improved significantly. Had a raucous night out for Shaun's birthday--Champagne's and then The Golden Tiki, a brand new tiki bar in China town, which appeals very much to my 1960's kitsch sensibilities. Had dinner with Olivia. Resumed climbing with LeeAnn--my muscles are so pathetic after two months off! Helped welcome Shaun's friend Conor to Las Vegas life with a game of trivia at Atomic Liquors--we won, obviously--and a (far too late) night out on Fremont Street along with Danielle, Jesse, and others. Yesterday a bunch of us went swimming.

I started a new blog because I don't have enough of those already. Actually, it's a project with two goals. The first goal of The Backlog is contained within the title; I have a shameful backlog of books that I have purchased and have not yet read, so I'm cutting myself off from buying books (with a few reasonable exceptions) until I have finished them all. I suspect this will take years. In order to motivate myself to read the books, I'll be reviewing them on the blog when I finish them. This will also help me practice reviewing books in general--not such a bad skill to have in the literary world. The second, less obvious goal is to familiarize myself with WordPress. Until now I've always used Google Blogger as my blogging platform. It's straightforward and easy to use, and it lends itself to lengthy writing, which is more useful to me than sites like Tumblr, which lend themselves to photo/gif/video blogging. However, WordPress is clearly the standard these days for blogging platforms, to the extent that many business use it to create their websites. Almost every job listing I've seen in the past few years has cited WordPress familiarity as a desired skill. I worked with it a little when I was interning at Les Figues last summer, but other than that, my WordPress skills are fairly weak. My experience so far is that WordPress gives you microcontrol over every aspect of your site, which I imagine is extremely useful for business websites, but not as useful for basic blogs. For instance, when I use Blogger, images will autopopulate in the links I share on Facebook--either the blog logo, or the first picture in the post if I've included pictures. But with WordPress, I have to make sure I select an image that I want to use with the link when I share it online. I find it a bit irritating--but then, I can see where such small adjustments could be useful under certain circumstances.

Writing has been up and down lately. I tried to write when I was healing from my wisdom teeth surgery, but I'm sure I'll have to rewrite all of that--my head was foggy and in pain, and I just couldn't put the words on paper correctly. It's as though the thoughts I wanted were all there, but they came out in entirely the wrong order. Since then I have been writing, but not quite as much as I'd like. For some reason I'm finding it difficult to write in my house. But coffee shops are loud, as is the Student Union. The upstairs couches in Greenspun seem to work well. Today I might try the library. Normally I find libraries too quiet to get anything done, but we'll see how it goes.

I'm nervous about my thesis. I'm possibly even more nervous about thesis/life balance. On the one hand, my creative thesis is what I came here to do, and I've arranged my schedule in such a way that this is definitely the year to get it nice and polished; I have no literature classes, no essays to write. I still have to teach comp and grade essays, but I have literally no way of escaping that timesuck, as my stipend depends on it. This year is my own personal writer's retreat, or as close as I can make it to that. Unless I'm very lucky, it's probably the only time in my life I'll be able to solely dedicate to writing. On the other hand, I don't want to ignore my friends. But I think I have to ignore them, to a certain extent, in order to finish everything. Hopefully they will also be ignoring me, as they have their own theses to write. Hopefully. Note to friends: it's not that I don't love you, it's just that thesis.

Time to exercise. Then time to write. Then time to read. Let's get productive.

Monday, August 10, 2015

My Personal Summer Jams

Now that the summer is almost over--so swift, so cruel--I thought I'd write about some of the best music I've encountered over the past few months. When it's hot outside, I normally prefer the clash-bang of garage and punk rock, but overall this summer has been slightly less raucous. Here are the three artists that I can't get enough of at the moment:

1) Ezra Furman and the Boyfriends

You can't blame my Ezra Furman obsession solely on my strong affinity for androgyny--you can blame it partially on that, but not all of it. The kid's music is killer. Last summer I was addicted to his 2013 record Day of the Dog, a high energy rock album with a glittery glam edge, reminiscent of David Bowie with its liberal use of saxophone. This summer I'm all about his new album, Perpetual Motion People. It features what I'm going to call "sarcastic doo-wop" music, which I believe to be a stroke of genius. The album's lyrics discuss difficult issues including gender and sexual identity, depression, and Chicago's blatant socioeconomic/racial divide, and to juxtapose these themes with doo-wop, which evokes 1950's white-picket-fence "perfect" (and diversity-repulsed) America, makes his lyrics even more poignant. Listen to "Lousy Connection." Or "Wobbly." Hell, I don't know. They're all so good.

2) Lady Lamb

Lady Lamb was a relatively late summer revelation for me; Spotify has this new feature called "Discover Weekly," where it makes a playlist tailored to your tastes based on the other music to which you've listened. It seems Spotify has noticed my affection for badass female musicians, and I must give it credit for sending Lady Lamb my way. I suspect that generally people would categorized her as a folk musician--she is opening for The Tallest Man on Earth right now, after all--but her music is more like folk with a hot, chainsaw buzz running through it. Some of her songs, like "Dear Arkansas Daughter," move straight into rock. I'd also classify Lady Lamb as a composer as opposed to simply a musician; many of her songs, like "You Are the Apple," have clear movements. As far as her lyrics go, they're often delightfully twisted--"I still need your teeth around my organs" being a personal favorite of mine. In my opinion, you can't go wrong with either of her albums--After or Ripley Pine.

3) Asaf Avidan

Yes, I've written about Asaf Avidan on this blog before--he was indeed the artist I traveled to Nice to see, which wasn't that crazy, as I was in Toulouse for the summer anyway. Here's the thing about Asaf Avidan: the man has range. Vocal range, yes. He can sing very very high, and very very low, but that's not really what I mean. His voice is odd in the most wonderful way; if young Marlon Brando were a good singer, he might sound like Asaf Avidan. (His vocals are also very Tallest Man on Earth-esque, now that I think of it.) And his music has range, too. He's another one people probably classify as a folk singer, but that's not entirely true. "Bang Bang" is a blues song. "My Tunnels Are Long and Dark These Days" is essentially a James Bond theme. "The Labyrinth Song" is a haunting folk ballad. "613 Shades of Sad," the first song of his I ever heard, is just kind of poppy-weird. He has lots of albums with past projects, but I'd recommend his two most recent solo albums, Different Pulses and Gold Shadow.

Now you have so much good music to listen to! Why are you still reading this? Get on it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.

This week I'm recovering from wisdom tooth extraction surgery once again. You may recall that I had one pulled in May, but my top two hadn't yet erupted, and therefore the students at the UNLV Dental School required more staff supervision to remove them. They took a bone saw to my face. To. My. Face. Awake the whole time. I am a badass.

Currently, I am also a chipmunk. Figured I may as well blog while I'm hiding.

Yesterday I read something that I can only describe as horrific. In her article "Homme de Plume: What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name," author Catherine Nichols describes a life that sounds like it could be mine in a year or two; she'd sent out a novel to agents before, received some kind responses, but no offers. Later, she started sending out her second novel--she knew it was a better manuscript overall, but she still received no offers. "I figured that I was paying my dues, keeping on keeping on, having roughly the same experience any other young writer would have," she says. If I were in her position, that's exactly what I would have thought, too.

Then one day, after a period of writer's block, she sent out the same manuscript under a male name. Everything was the same, right down to the cover letter, except the name. She had five responses from agents within 24 hours. "I wanted to know more of how the Georges of the world live, so I sent more. Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25."

This is disheartening news to me as a woman in general, and especially as a woman writer. And it's frustrating, too--makes me want to spit and scream. Bibliophiles are supposed to be liberal people; they're supposed to be at the forefront of social justice. Frequent reading is supposed to boost empathy, or so the scientists say. It's infuriating that the patriarchy is so insidious that it operates in publishing as well.

Not that this is a surprise to me--the bias towards men in literature is abundantly clear. Until high school, I'm hard pressed to think of a single book we read that featured a female main character. But three years in a row we did read books about boys surviving in the wilderness--My Side of the Mountain, The Sign of the Beaver, and Hatchet--as if that single, repetitive plot were utterly necessary to our education. (Though I should note that the first two on that list were written by women.) I read books in my spare time that were written by women and featured female characters--notably the Nancy Drew series--but the only book I can think of from grade school that was written by a woman and featured a female main character was Little House on the Prairie. In high school, we read Pride and Prejudice. Both a female author and primarily female characters? What madness is this?! I had some excellent AP literature teachers in high school who put books in the curriculum that one would normally never encounter until college, but the vast majority of them were still by men, and often about men: Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (at least the main character is a woman), Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (at least it's by and about a POC), Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night a Traveler (at least they didn't fire our teacher for having us read a book featuring a threesome). Now that I think of it, we did read Louise Erdrich--a woman AND a Native American. Who'd have imagined one could find all this diversity in a Catholic school? The first two years of high school, though, I received the standard, male-dominated literature curriculum--The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace. This doesn't stop in college, though one might have the opportunity to take separate classes dedicated to women writers. Last year I took a class that featured literature in translation. Only one of the authors was a woman.

This patriarchal canon makes men less able to empathize with women's stories.* For our entire lives, women have been forced to read and empathize with men's stories--that's why there's no "men's lit" section in bookstores. Male literature is suitable for everyone, but when a woman writes a book, no matter how well-crafted, it's relegated to "women's lit"--because why would a man want to read a story about a woman? If a woman writes about a man, maybe it's worth their time. Even among the men I respect most, the men who embrace feminism and actively try to check their privilege, I notice this. I loaned a male friend my copy of Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, which features a teenage female protagonist. The book was critically well-received--it was even a finalist for the Pulitzer. Karen Russell writes some of the most beautiful sentences I've ever read in my life. My friend's response was that it was okay, but that he wanted to know more about alligator wrestling.

Yes. Because the alligator wrestling was the point. (It's not.)

I want to believe he simply didn't care for the book. There are many universally-beloved books that I simply don't care for. People have literally threatened me because I hate Tolkien so much (with the exception of The Hobbit). But men so frequently criticize woman authors, and especially stories about women, that I can't help but wonder whether the dislike has simply been ingrained in them, taught to them by their schoolteachers. When teachers assign primarily male authors and stories about men, they're conveying the idea that male authors and stories about men are the only authors and stories worth reading. The same goes for the lack of POC and LGBTQIA and disabled authors/stories in school curriculums, of course.

I don't want to suggest that teachers and administrators are exclusively to blame, either. Teachers can't assign diverse stories if those stories aren't being published. And even now, in 2015, men are still vastly dominant in all literary spheres, though small improvements are being made. Women don't typically take home prizes, either--but their chances are increased if they write about male characters.

So, no, I was not surprised to read that querying agents with a male name results in a higher success rate. But I was very disappointed. I was hoping that the publishing industry was getting better about this--lately there's been much banter about the need for diverse books, especially in children's literature. And again, I imagine it would be difficult to find male agents and editors who didn't describe themselves as feminists. It's disappointing that they won't do the work to take women seriously.

Possible solutions to this problem? One friend suggested blind submissions, then immediately retracted his own thought--women should be recognized for their own merits. They shouldn't have to degender themselves or pretend to be male in order to be published. I think the best thing we can do--both men and women--is to call out injustice when we see it. Furthermore, we should all start buying and reading more diverse books. Like any other business, the publishing industry loves money, so if there's an increase in sales for books about women by women, one would presume they'd publish more of them. Were you planning on picking up the new Stephen King? DON'T. Buy a book by a woman instead (or a POC, or an LGBTQIA person, or a disabled person). Stephen King will be just fine.

It'll be a slow process, undoubtedly, but it's better than nothing. Hopefully.

*It also makes some women less able to empathize with women's stories--women can be misogynists, too.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The (Barely) Fit Writer

Would you look at that? Back in Vegas, and the blog is back to its normal fonts and coloring. Sad to see the French theme go, but it was time.

While I was in France, I thought of a few ideas for themed blog posts. However, none of them were particularly French, so I decided to save them for my return. The first is exercise.

If you're like me, you hate exercise. Or at least, you hate conscious exercise. I'm not aggressive enough for sports. The gym bores me. Running makes my considerable chest hurt, and not even the fanciest, most high-tech of sports bras can help. In a perfect world, I'd be able to sit on the couch all day and eat whatever food I wanted (all of which would be prepared by my personal chef so I didn't have to waste time cooking) and write and read. Occasionally I would take a nice long walk for variety. Also, I'd be David Bowie.

Sadly, this world is deeply flawed. I am not David Bowie, and calories exist. Therefore, I have had to find enjoyable ways to exercise, and I have had some success. Now I will share my secrets, so you too can stay fit (enough).

In 2008 and 2009, I was fortunate enough to study abroad in Rome, Italy and Beijing, China. I was convinced that I'd lose weight in China, as I wasn't a huge fan of Chinese food, and my chopstick skills were miserable. Turns out that authentic Chinese food is delicious, and that in order to deliver the delicious food to one's mouth, one can learn how to use chopsticks very quickly. When I returned to the States, I wasn't happy with how I looked. I started eating better, but I knew I needed to find a way to exercise that was effective, tolerable, and would take as little time as possible. I didn't think I was particularly good at dancing, but I knew I didn't hate dancing, and I also knew I liked music. A few Google searches later, and I ended up ordering a copy of The Bollywood Dance Workout, featuring "fitness star" (whatever that means) Hemalayaa.

There are lots of terrible things about The Bollywood Dance Workout, first and foremost the blatant cultural appropriation. Furthermore, Hemalayaa is obnoxious, and she frequently screws up the moves, unlike the other dancers in the video. Here's the thing though: it works really well. The workout is only 50 minutes long. I did it once a day for a few months, and I lost tons of weight. I looked like an idiot while doing it, but I was in my living room alone, so that didn't matter. Plus, I scrolled through the DVD menu and learned that there's a feature which allows you to turn off Hemalayaa's disgustingly cheerful voice. I wouldn't recommend this when you're first starting out, but once you get the hang of it, by all means, make it stop.

I must not be the only one for whom The Bollywood Dance Workout was effective, for there are many other DVDs in the series, some that focus on abs, some that focus on legs, and so on. Nevertheless, doing the same thing every day gets dull after a while. After I graduated from college and started working full time, I realized I could afford a hobby, and I decided to find one that would get me moving. A friend recommended the Psychedelic Go-Go dance classes at The Old Town School of Folk Music. I love 1960's music and fashion, so I decided to give it a shot.

Changed my goddamn life. Sounds silly, but it's true.

Once a week on Thursday nights I'd go to classes and dance with many other lovely people who also like 1960's music and fashion. The instructor, Tina, is funny and fabulous and talented, and she always took the time to choreograph dynamic numbers for us to perform at the end of the session, and she'd often make us costumes to boot. When I started gogo classes, I thought I was an awful dancer. But that isn't true! I'm a good dancer, assuming it's the kind of music and the style of dance that I like. I daresay that I flourished in gogo classes. Gogo became one of my favorite activities. I got stronger, and my confidence went through the roof. Eventually I even started gogo dancing semi-professionally, as the solo act Blondie Saint-Shimmy (yeah, I had a stage name) in variety productions like Beast Women, and in a troupe with the (ultra-fantastic) Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute band The Fortunate Sons.

Pictures or it didn't happen:

I desperately wish I still owned this dress.

Of course, if you're not fortunate enough to live in the greatest city on the planet Chicago, gogo lessons may be difficult to come by. But do not fret! The internet is your friend. Back before she was a burlesque legend, Angie Pontani and her sisters were queens of the gogo scene, and they produced a series called gogo-robics. The first one is nearly impossible to find, and the second DVD is out of print as well--it's available on Amazon, but it's relatively expensive. Fortunately, some kind soul uploaded the second edition to YouTube. The first section goes through some basic gogo moves, and then they teach you a dance to the song "Barracuda" by The's. Once you get the moves down, you can throw on whatever 60's music you want and improvise. (Or not 60's music. In the picture above I was dancing to Cake's "Short Skirt Long Jacket.") It's excellent cardio, and at least in my opinion, it is legitimately fun. Pro-tip: if you want to dance in boots, don't get them at the costume store. Order boots from marching band surplus stores online. Slightly lower heel, literally made for walking.

When I moved to Las Vegas, I had to hang up my fringe dresses and stop performing--though I still gogo dance for exercise on a regular basis, usually for about an hour at a time. Still, moving to a new state is a good excuse to pick up a new hobby, too. In Nevada there are mountains. I can still hardly comprehend the existence of mountains, as Illinois is flat as flat can be. Near Vegas, there's great hiking at Red Rock Canyon--but am I going to drive thirty minutes to go hiking on a regular basis? No. Way too lazy for that. Exercise needs to be easily accessible, or I'm not going to do it. Fortunately, after some prodding from BFFL-and-frequent-visitor Leta, I went to the climbing gym with her and my friend Austin.

In my head it seems like I've been rock climbing for a while now, but in reality it hasn't been that long. This very blog tells me that I first went climbing sometime in April of 2014, so it hasn't even been a year and a half. And that might be the best thing about rock climbing: one can improve quickly. I'm certainly not brilliant at it, but I can already climb at intermediate levels, and it's not as though I spend my time lifting weights or training for it in any way. Climbing feels less like exercise and more like a logic puzzle--how do I climb up this wall while using only the holds that are taped in green? (Or blue or pink--whatever.) It's actually fantastic exercise, though, and after climbing for an hour or two I'm usually quite tuckered out. It has its disadvantages: you have to pay for a climbing gym membership, and if you don't own equipment, you have to pay to rent it. Also, it helps to have someone to go climbing with; most gyms have auto-belays, but not very many auto-belays. You could always go bouldering instead (climbing up shorter heights without a rope), but I am not a fan. I think I got started too late in life--the fear sections of my brain were already fully developed, so jumping to the ground from even four or five feet up freaks me out. I realize that being in a harness hardly makes it less dangerous, but it feels less dangerous, and that's all that matters. I don't want to discourage anyone: as long as you do it properly, the dangers are relatively low. If you're in Vegas, Nevada Climbing Centers is my gym of choice, but there are many others. If you're in Chicago, good news! They just recently opened/are soon opening a few gyms there: First Ascent in Logan Square and Uptown, and Brooklyn Boulders in the West Loop. I haven't been to any of those, but hopefully they're good.

I also haven't been climbing on an actual mountain yet. Soon...

Last Spring I started taking a Mindfulness and Meditation Workshop to help get my ridiculous anxieties under control. One big thing I learned from that experience is that I'm terrible at breathing. As in, I hardly breathe at all. I hold my breath, or I breathe shallowly, and when your brain likes to panic over nothing, being in an oxygen-deprived physical state doesn't help. Since then I've been working hard on mindful breathing, and it's made a world of difference. In order to help with mindful breathing, I started practicing yoga at the school gym.

Some people say that yoga is addictive. They are absolutely, 100% correct. I was skeptical at first, as until that point I had filed yoga in the "new-agey bullshit" category. In my head, "yoga practitioners" shopped exclusively at Lululemon and ate exclusively granola and listened exclusively to Enya--even though I knew plenty of people who did yoga and were not like that at all. I was also worried that I'd be bad at it. The most important thing to remember about yoga is that everyone sucks at first. These are not natural positions into which you're contorting yourself, so why would you be good at it? For the first few weeks, you'll fall over a lot. But it doesn't matter--everyone else is also focused on not falling over, so they won't notice when you do. The other nice thing about yoga is that it's more about breathing than it is about exercise, so once you get the hang of it, it's very calming. By the time Spring Break rolled around and there were no gym classes for a week, I was hooked, and I resorted to YouTube in order to get my fix. I like this 45-minute yoga workout, even if the woman does call herself something as silly as "Lesley Fightmaster." It's vinyasa yoga, and it's fairly repetitive. Once you go through it a few times, it's easy to remember. Bonus for early-2000's music nerds: many of the songs in the background are from the Garden State soundtrack.

But what about those days when you don't want to spend between 45 minutes and 2 hours exercising? I mean, there are so many seasons of Supernatural to binge-watch, am I right? Also, what if you live above other people and you don't want to stomp on their floor in your groovy gogo boots? The internet comes through for us once again.

When I was in France this summer, I lived on the fifth floor of an apartment complex. I was doing a lot of walking, but I knew I should probably figure out some way to squeeze in cardio. Leta is as brilliant as she is gorgeous and talented, and she found me this quiet cardio workout by FitnessBlender on YouTube. The downside: it's no fun. It's blatant exercise without any distractions, and as usual, I strongly dislike it. However, it's only 20 minutes long! 20 minutes, and you'll burn (according to FitnessBlender) 132-198 calories. Not a ton, but enough for those days when you're too busy playing games on your phone to do anything else. Plus, you don't need equipment of any kind--just your body. It's not great, but it works.

I skipped a few stories--my brief dabbling in burlesque, my occasional zumba stints--but for the most part, this is how I, a decidedly exercise-repulsed human, stay (kinda) fit. For all the writers out there, the musicians, the Netflix addicts, I hope this helps.