Jules of All Trades

A blog about learning. 

How to Stay Young, or, 5 Pillars of Dubal

 At Dubal’s celebration, surrounded by his loyal following.

At Dubal’s celebration, surrounded by his loyal following.

It’s pretty simple, right? Don’t smoke, eat right, stay active, and listen to your elders.

Wait. That last one is dubious. We all know people who have been around for a long time but have never seemed to live a day in their lives. How about, then, listen to your elders, but only the wise ones?

Before I left New York city, I met up for lunch with David Dubal, the piano encyclopedia, eccentric oracle, and mentor extraordinaire. I told him how much I had enjoyed hearing about the 5 Pillars of Dubal, a set of tenets presented a few months earlier at a celebration in his honor. Peter, a talented pianist (just one of an embarrassing number of talented pianists present), told us how Dubal had bestowed the 5 Pillars upon the students in Dubal’s class at Juilliard, and how, years later, Peter still remembered all of them. They are, in order:

  1. I am alive!

  2. I am me.

  3. Expect nothing.

  4. Let nothing faze you.

  5. No one can save you.

Peter explained these enigmatic missives. First, when you wake up, you must take a moment to marvel at your body (here he raised his hands and examined them, front to back) and the fact that you are alive! It is no small thing. Second, you are YOU, and no one else. Peter is Peter and should not try to be anyone else. Third, you should expect nothing from the world. Entitlement is the root of much unhappiness, hatred, and worse in the world. Fourth, let nothing in life throw you off kilter (easier said than done, right? I’ll come back to this one shortly). Lastly, we all have a mortal fate, and recognizing that, alongside the first pillar, gives our lives balance.

As Peter explained the pillars, Dubal beamed with delight, as if these pillars were new to him too. Such is the nature of his wisdom - shot straight from the heart, rather than mannered and sterile from overthinking. Of course, you could reword his 5 Pillars in a million ways, as society has done: Life is Short, You do You, etc., but somehow, the Duballian version seemed to combine the best of both childlike and sagelike perspectives.

When I reminded Dubal of the pillars at our lunch, I expected him to smile with delight as he had that night and perhaps say something generally affirmative like, yes, yes, always remember those. Instead, he lurched forward over the table and looked intently at me for a moment. He raised a finger and said, “Yes, but there is one more - you must always remember this. Practice fearlessness. Always. Practice fearlessness.”

In the moment, I was surprised by the unexpected addendum to the 5 Pillars. However, in retrospect, it was the missing piece to their implementation. Pillars 1-3 and 5 are easily understood. But, let nothing faze you? It seems these days as if everything fazes everyone, as if my entire country is stuck inside an ever-inflating inner tube of anxiety. It seems that people are so fazed by things they read on the internet that they feel compelled to kill others. How I can I not be fazed?

The answer, is that you must pretend. You must, as we modern people say, fake it till you make it. Dubal and I talked about how being a concert pianist is the perfect embodiment of this practice. Every single time I go out on stage, I must seem fearless, whether I am or not, because I have a message to deliver. Over time, as with any other practice, fearlessness will become a ready companion, calling up its own attendant virtues: control over one’s emotions, clear-eyed responsiveness, and mindfulness of one’s values. Would not the news be less scary if, instead of portraying faces locked into contortions of rage, it showed visages of people strong enough to calmly engage with opposition? Would that a successful nominee for this country’s highest court could model this, but his failure is many of ours as well.

Yes, we need to practice fearlessness, because, as short as life is, there is plenty in it to scare all of us.

The last few months, I’ve been starting a new job. I’m certainly no stranger to starting over - I’ve had a lot of jobs, I’ve ventured into many rigorous fields of study, I’ve spent time living in foreign countries with my abysmal language skills. But. I am also no spring chicken, and I have to say starting over is not as easy as it used to be.

I’ve noticed that, as we get older, the chances for doing new things dwindles. We get used to things: our circle of people, our routines, our places. By contrast, in our first few decades, everything is wonderfully novel. My niece is 2, and she’ll soon go to school, learn to read, write in cursive (maybe?), and understand the time value of money. All with the cutest fervor.

But for those of us farther on in life? Starting new things gets harder. At least it has for me. I feel the effort. I have more to consider. I feel that failure is more costly now.

At the same time, I don’t think the solution is to settle into your comfy bear den, encountering nothing new, until it caves in around you. The trick to staying young, I believe, is constantly trying new things. Why? Because doing so connects us to our younger states of being and ensures continued personal growth.

How do we do that, given all the awareness we’ve accumulated? Practice fearlessness. In other words, be brave.

Dubal was careful to warn that this is not fake bluster, not the fluffed-up tail feathers, not the macho posturing intended to intimidate. No. Many of our leaders today think they show “fearlessness” when in fact they show their failure of the first 5 pillars: they expect everything for themselves and give nothing to others, and they are fazed at the slightest hint of opposition. We are not talking about this fake “fearlessness,” which of course comes from very deep-seated fears or insecurity (how dare you prevent me from becoming a justice! I deserve it! And yet I am terrified of not getting it). We are talking about the quiet inner strength, a kernel of which is inside each one of us, inside the child in each one of us. We must trust in that kernel and let it lead us forward, ever challenging and growing ourselves with grace and at no one’s expense. Would that our leaders could model this.

I’m glad I had that lunch with Dubal, because the 5 Pillars are great, but when I shy away from a challenge that I know is necessary -- having an honest conversation, leading with confidence, stepping outside of my comfort zone -- I think of that sixth pillar and how it will keep me sharp for a very long time.

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Crazy Midwest Asians

The movie Crazy, Rich Asians is killing it at the box office, and I know what I’m supposed to feel: joy that audiences have embraced it, gratitude for the people who made it happen, satisfaction that Asian faces are finally accepted in Hollywood, pride that a story so steeped in Asian culture is now mainstream. And I do feel all of those things.

But I am feeling lots of other things too. 

Read More

5 hacks for blitzing your dissertation and getting back to practicing

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Ah, summer. The time when graduate students find a quiet spot, crack their knuckles, and resolve to finish their theses and dissertations. Freedom from the shackles of a terminal degree never felt so close! 

Then one teeny problem emerges: the nagging realization that a) this is going to be a lot of work, and b) there are many things WAY more germane to our careers, interests, and well-being. All of a sudden, the motivation train grinds to a halt, still astride the platform. Sigh.

I feel you; that was totally me last summer. Every hour spent on my dissertation was one less hour for other things and one more hour I was very, very annoyed. So I decided to blitz it. I finished writing my dissertation in a few weeks of full-time work. Life went on. I passed.  

You can too. To minimize the pain, I recommend these 5 easy steps.

1. Acknowledge that this is NOT your magnum opus. The most honest and experienced professors will tell you that a dissertation is a means to an end. As one told me more bluntly, "Everyone knows that dissertations are not usually very important." Someday, you may make it an article or book. Someday, you may take the time to dig deeper, becoming a world expert in that field. Today is not that day. Today you should finish the damn thing and get back to practicing. 

2. Pick the topic where you can see the farthest down the road. Let's say you already have a list of topics you're interested in. How to pick? I say, if you already know what research you’ll do and what you’ll say about it, that’s a potential winner. However, if for a certain topic, you can only see as far as “I’m gonna gather as many primary sources as I can find and see what they say!” you will not be practicing for a very long time.  

3. Make an outline with the requisite number of chapters and no more. Six is totally fine. If you need more chapters to finish your topic, reread steps #1 and #2 above. Now, most people make it to this point just fine, but stall big time before actually starting to write. Others dive headlong into research, digging up interesting source after interesting source, delaying writing because they “don’t know enough yet” (reread step #2). Stop reading. You cannot (unfortunately) turn in your brain full of knowledge. You have to turn in a pile of paper. Go on to the next step and start writing TODAY.

4. [LISTEN CLOSELY TO ME NOW] DICTATE YOUR PAPER. Set a timer for ten minutes and place the most delicious snack you can imagine just out of reach. Then pick a section of your outline, go into Google docs, turn on voice dictation (or use Dragon or other software if you like, but the free stuff is totally usable these days) and JUST TALK FOR TEN MINUTES. Pages and pages of content will magically appear in your document. Relax when the timer goes off. Luckily, cleaning up dictation errors is easily done as you enjoy your treat. Rinse and repeat. 

Dictation has been around forever, but the software is more widely available, cheaper, and more effective than ever before. When I worked as a law firm secretary in college, partners still dictated documents onto tiny little cassette tapes, which we played back on these specialized tape recorders with foot pedals to rewind and replay. What we used to do is now done invisibly and admirably by Siri and Alexa and Google Home. If you don't have your own secretary on call (oh how I wish), why not take advantage of the technology? 

At some point over the last few decades, I think we adopted the notion that writing is what happens when we sit in front of a computer screen. The truth is that writing has always been about what happens in your head. Dictation WORKS because it reflects the structure of your thinking. If your dictated text is messy, disorganized, and wandering, your typed-out writing would have been too. Clarity of mind is the fastest way through a paper. If you don’t yet have the clarity, go back to step #3 and flesh out your outline. You should be able to stare at your outline and just talk about it into your computer's mic.  

5. WRITE FIRST, SUPPORT LATER. As you're talking/writing, anytime you feel like a pesky reader will say, “What’s your support for this?” make a small note however you like (I type "[CITE]" so that I can Control+F the brackets later) and MOVE ON. This way, your paper only has the support it needs and mostly comprises YOUR ideas. Every time I’ve tried to start with the sources - bookmarking, taking notes, copying passages - I end up debilitated, drowning in quotes and diluting my own voice. By submerging yourself in sources first, you become a slave to them rather than the other way around. If you like living in a library, by all means, do it that way. But, be advised, you cannot practice in the library. Or eat. So. 

BONUS TIP: find an advisor or reader who is neurotic about your document’s potential weaknesses. These weaknesses could be a certain analytical angle, a writing or editing skill, or a body of knowledge. Pick someone who will be so bothered by your weakness that they will literally fix it for you, or at least flag whatever concerns may come up in your defense. One of my dear readers, a real nit-picker, basically formatted all of my citations for me. Thanks, reader! I hate formatting citations. Flashbacks to law review subciting, anyone?


Best of luck and best of snacks to you all. Just do it and be done. You’ll never look back. I promise. 

Why organized religion?

Do you ever wonder this? I do these days, especially while cringing at the public display of self-professed Evangelicals like Roy Moore or that pastor who got a standing ovation for admitting sexual assault or so-called Christians online who spew hatred against anyone who doesn’t look like them. It seems as if religion continues (as it always has) to be yet another platform for the worst instincts in humankind.  

Now, I acknowledge that these examples only reflect the public Christianity of a certain majority culture. Are there other "types"? Of course. Is there a Christianity of a more private, distinctly minority Christian experience? Yes, my own, in fact. Did I realize its impact on my life before this week? No, not really. 

Like many Chinese students who arrived here in the 1970's, my parents first experienced Christianity through the local families who took them in. These Americans welcomed students to their new country by inviting them into their homes, feeding them, hosting them for holidays, and introducing them to pastimes like apple-picking. This generosity ran so deep that the couple who took in Chinese students in Cincinnati even threw my parents' wedding! I don't know my real grandparents well, but Grandpa and Grandma Smith have been there my entire life. I spent my first Christmas at their house, clutching the little stocking they gave me. They read us books and told us stories. After Grandpa Smith passed away, Grandma Smith made the trip to cheer me on at my college graduation. For birthdays and holidays, she sent handwritten cards and homemade gifts and the tastiest cookies. At 93, she still keeps up with all of her grandchildren, real and adopted, like me. She is the very paragon of what a Christian should be - attuned to the needy, open and loving to all. 

 With Grandpa Smith and one of the many epic meals together. 

With Grandpa Smith and one of the many epic meals together. 

It’s no wonder then, that many of these immigrants planted their new community in a church. Ours was Cincinnati Chinese Church, or CCC, as we called it, and for many in the area, it is a safe enclave in a foreign land, a place where newcomers are welcomed, a surefire place to seek help. The church grew quickly because the earlier arrivals were quick to pay forward the hospitality they had received. The more established immigrants became the ones driving church vans to Asian grocery stores, cooking hot meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas, translating for people in courts and hospitals, visiting with the sick. Religion, for these, was nothing short of a lifeline from social isolation. As I grew up at CCC, I could see that, even if I didn’t feel it myself. 

I always assumed I didn’t need any of those benefits. Yes, it was great for newcomers, but for us ABC’s, it could be a burden. I called it “CCC(CC)” - CCC with two extra layers of conservatism from parents stuck in the Chinese cultural mores of the 70’s, plus a conservative brand of Christianity. I bristled when the adults got into my business, commenting on my dress, appearance, behavior, etc. (turns out, that’s just how Asian moms roll). Also, I questioned certain views propounded by our elders. When I traveled to South African schools to help build sex-ed programs to prevent HIV/AIDS, I got articles sent to me about the (purported) efficacy of abstinence-only education. As I struggled to make sense of the world and my role in it, CCC(CC) sometimes marked a division between what I was told and what I believed to be true. 

When I left home for college, I kept some aspects of organized religion. I like the ethic of service to others; I appreciate the perspective that I am just a small part of a bigger universe; and I love a good sermon. Not the gentle, feel-good sermon, full of saccharine anecdotes from Chicken Soup for the Soul and teaching me nothing new, but one that tackles a Bible verse swaying like a cobra and wrestles it to the ground. I sought out preachers who could convincingly lead you through a complex argument, artfully unpack an opaque text, or paint an image of some huge idea - like love, or heaven, or right and wrong - in a way that forever changed how you thought about it. I hate taking notes in class, but I whip out my notepad for a good sermon! As for the the rest of church? I found myself shying away from social expectations, conformity, weak debate, and the feeling that I fell short no matter what I did. So I took to listening to my favorite pastors on the radio -- all of the intellectual exercise without any of the human judgment. But with no one to keep me accountable, that wasn’t even worth it after a while.

Until this week, I assumed that I had mostly tolerated church. But this week, I was reminded that I had gained something of immense value: the fellowship of all of those kids who grew up there with me. On Sundays, we went to Sunday School. On Friday nights, we went to youth group (after which we all honed our free throw shots in the attached gym). During the week, we went to Bible studies at each others’ houses, where the kids went straight to the basement to play video games, emerging only when the parents were done and dessert was served. To this day, I can tell you the layout of everyone’s basement and what Super NES or Sega Genesis games they had. Oh, and what snacks their moms made best.

 Game time at my childhood home. I think we had JUST gotten that game set.  

Game time at my childhood home. I think we had JUST gotten that game set.  

On top of these regular meetings, we went to summer retreats with other Chinese churches in the midwest. We sometimes even went on group vacations! Man. We spent A WHOLE LOT OF TIME TOGETHER. But during that time, as petty teens and internet trolls do, I focused on differences. I was a nerd, you were a jock, he was trying to be black, she was trying to be white, they were rich, they were poor, etc. And as we grew up, we mostly went our separate ways. 

 Gatlinburg road trip. We would caravan down the highway, the kids tying up the CB radio bandwidths with pointless banter. "Is that your car on fire? Over."

Gatlinburg road trip. We would caravan down the highway, the kids tying up the CB radio bandwidths with pointless banter. "Is that your car on fire? Over."

Last week we lost one of our own, one of us “kids.” He was 33. The last time I saw him was five years ago, but his passing still hit close to home. It made me realize that, despite my angst, I had not just one but more like 20 brothers and sisters growing up. I remember that for some years after we left home, we would still gather at Christmas to catch up and hang out, and those moments of sharing were the most vulnerable we could be all year. People could drop the cool and confident facades they wore in front of classmates and coworkers and instead be real and break down about how hard medical school was, about how lonely it was after college, about how love and loss never seem to get any easier. You could be a bit of a mess because we’d all seen each other in braces and bad haircuts and tough times and all kinds of awkwardness for years. Turns out, church was an enclave for us too - filled with a form of love that’s hard for me to describe. 

 As we got older, we often gathered NOT in the basement. 

As we got older, we often gathered NOT in the basement. 

As I keep up with people’s lives on Facebook, the overwhelming emotion I feel is pride. I am just so damn proud to be a part of this crew. I honestly marvel at how life has given us all a chance to find our way, to keep figuring out what it means to be good people. As the years fly by, I’ve realized that we have so much more in common than our differences. 

So. Despite my own contribution to the smallness and arrogance that can characterize organized religion, I’m grateful for all the giving and loving aspects of the church I had. Losing one of our own, far too soon, reminds me again to live out those aspects in my own life. After all, isn’t any belief only as compelling as the individual professing it? That’s on us, 100%.

RIP, Davy. 


Finding Motivation: A Book Giveaway


In a previous post, I pretended to be an expert on staying motivated, but I have to admit that I'm very much still figuring it out. Almost six years after quitting my job and jumping into the utter unknown, I still struggle to explain why I did it. The truth is that we sometimes make huge, life-changing decisions based on gut instinct, justifying them much later only when we’ve gained the wisdom to do so. All I knew at the time was that my gut said to jump, so I did.

One’s gut, by the way, is never wrong.

An old friend recently gave me a book that helped me understand my decision. Daniel Pink’s Drive is a short read about what motivates us, and how so many workplaces still haven't gotten the memo. These business-y, self-help-y soft-psychology books can often be forgettable, but the best can clarify what I’ve already experienced to be true. This book is in the latter category.

It helped that the author and I started out on the same page: extrinsic motivation LOOKS like it works, but it’s really a short-term effect with a long-term detriment. External motivation tactics (so-called "sticks and carrots" or "reward and punishment" systems) include strategies we’ve all seen, like cajoling kids to do chores with money, stickers, or toys. It also includes the abusive behavior of some music teachers, who berate, belittle, and scream at their students, making them cry and feel useless. That these teachers still have students shows that people will accept the mistreatment as the worthwhile cost of studying with a famous teacher. Bullshit, I say, and this book agrees.

In my past life, the most important external motivator was money. At my last office job, I could not have fathomed being at the income level I am now and being happy. But I AM happier (though I'll still take a winning lottery ticket, thank you). The funny thing is, when money becomes your key motivator, it is never enough. Your bonus is never big enough for the work you put in, your income never as big as you feel you deserve, your self-worth never adequately measured by your bank balance. I’ve been there, and I don't like to think of the things I did and thought in that mode. If only I had listened to science, which has told us over and over again, that happiness levels off at a certain income level ($95,000 apparently). But we never listen to science, do we? We have to feel our gut first.

My gut was telling me that there had to be a better way. According to Pink, in today’s world, lasting personal and professional fulfillment comes from a deeper source: intrinsic motivation. To tap into this, we need three things in our work:

  1. Autonomy

  2. Mastery, and

  3. Purpose.

In hindsight, these three metrics easily explain why a life in music was an appealing choice. First, as a self-employed musician, I have a ton of freedom to direct my own life. I decide what projects to do, when to do them, how much to do, and who to work with. Contrast that to my life as an employee in the client services industry, whether law or consulting: you sleep (or don’t) when they say you sleep. You eat (or don’t) when they say you eat. You go where they tell you to go. I'm sure most people don't enjoy such environments, but I really bristled at it. 

Secondly, being a performing artist is NOTHING BUT pursuit of mastery. I feel like my job as a pianist is to train for an Olympics that never ends. If I skip a few days of practicing, I’ve lost ground. But, if I put in the work, I continue to elevate my skills. Being able to do something new and cool is a truly addictive feeling, not just for me but for my students. In my teaching, I’ve seen that the best motivator is to get a student to master something that he or she thought previously impossible. In all of my previous jobs, however, I saw how my superiors had long flattened their learning curves. This is why I have quit every single job I’ve ever had within two years. Personality comes into play here too, of course. In first grade, I marched up to the teacher’s desk as my classmates quietly worked on worksheets and declared that I was done and that I was bored. By contrast, I’ve been at the piano six years now, and every week I feel like I discover something new.

Lastly, a life in music, for me, serves a higher purpose. What constitutes purpose for everyone is different, but I’ve become convinced of the transformative power of the arts. The best I can explain it is that in our busy lives, we so rarely connect to our emotions and to those of the people around us. However, I believe that at the end of our lives, it is those moments that will remain: meaningful conversations and experiences with those we love, vistas so breathtaking that we glimpse the astonishing miracle of nature, crisp breaths of air that remind us that every day is a gift of time. Music creates the space and the language to have these moments. The rest is noise, is it not? For me, seeing someone access his or her humanity through music is way more rewarding than increasing a multi-billion dollar company’s bottom line.

The book covers other ground, such as how to foster the creativity that today's economy increasingly values, and how to advocate for an intrinsic approach in a resistant workplace, but I’ll leave all of that for you to read.

Want the book? I’ll ship it to the first person to contact me with your mailing address. Freeing myself from external motivators has worked wonders for me; maybe it will help you too.

Confessions of a pickle addict


I’m not sure when I had my first hit, but I know that by age five I was hooked. My kindergarten class took a field trip to Findlay Market, a historic farmers market nestled in the hills of downtown Cincinnati, and we had been instructed to bring one dollar to spend in wise consumerism. There was plenty to choose from: colorful baskets of smooth-skinned and deep-hued fruit, crisp stacks of leafy greens, tall piles of tubers. Findlay Market is one of those places that connects you to a simpler past; it was first opened in 1855 and is named after a general who skirmished with Native Americans. Today, throngs of people mill about, eyeing or prodding the wares as vendors whip customers’ selections onto spring scales with impressive speed. Now, the thought of wide-eyed five-year olds wandering about in such a crowded public place gives me the willies, but I guess we were an urban public school and times were different back then. 

 If you're ever in the Queen City, visit www.findlaymarket.org!

If you're ever in the Queen City, visit www.findlaymarket.org!

I imagine the assignment was to see how many apples, pears, or berries we could buy with a dollar, but I found my prize in one of the storefronts alongside the market. In the window of a dusty deli, something glowing caught my eye – enormous emeralds! No, a giant glass jar of whole dill cucumbers, submerged in a brown-green brine, their bumpy skins glowing enticingly in the half-light. I could have sworn they sparkled to get my attention. I went in, pointed to the jar and surrendered my dollar. A whole pickle! All for me! It was crispy yet juicy and as sour as I imagined. I pecked at that kosher pickle like a sparrow at a loaf of bread, savoring each tiny bite. After about 60 cents worth, I started to feel a little ill but regretted nothing. 

I’m convinced that pickle-lovers are born, not made. I know this because I’ve met many others, like my former law-firm coworker Mahan (pro tip: in a macho corporate environment, people only have last names). I’m not sure how it came up, but I discovered that he has pickling bona fides - he and his law school buddies developed a dill pickle recipe so good that it stoked bidding wars in school auctions. I demanded a tutorial, so he let me apprentice to the secret recipe, and the results were amazing. The recipe let us make the pickles as sour, garlicky, and spicy as we wanted. Just like moonshine can be stronger than the authorities allow, our pickles were probably illegally flavorful. After a few of those, that was it. I was hooked on making the perfect pickles. 

 Mahan and I survey the fried pickle operations at NYC's annual  Pickle Day  festival on the Lower East Side. 

Mahan and I survey the fried pickle operations at NYC's annual Pickle Day festival on the Lower East Side. 

I’d like to say that my quest to make my own pickles was due to some benign curiosity or diversion, but really it was to ensure a quality high. There are a surprising number of terrible pickles out there: limp and sugary giardiniera in supermarket jars, rubbery dills from the deli, bland cukes from well-meaning street vendors. Others are delectable, but at a price: a few bites of Szechuan pickled vegetables for $8.95 at Han Dynasty?? Without a reliable (affordable) pickle supply, you have no choice but to make your own. And then you find that the recipes are just as variable. There’s a ton of olive oil in this giardiniera recipe from the New York Times ... And fridge pickles (aka quick pickles) are quick, sure, because they get their sourness from bathing in acid rather than from lacto-fermentation (read more about the difference here). But IMHO most quick pickles taste like straight up vinegar. Blegh.

So, I set out to make my own Szechuan pickled vegetables, a recent obsession and relatively hard to find (especially if you don’t live in New York). The best I’ve ever had are at my uncles’ Chinese restaurant in Ohio - crisp, clean, and layered with delicate flavors. So I went straight to the source: I asked my older uncle how he made them. I expected to be told some juicy pickling secrets, but his explanation was quick and simple: add cloves of garlic and Szechuan peppercorn into a jar along with leaves of cabbage, cover with brine, set out at room temperature for a few days, and, when the flavor is good, refrigerate. Too easy. Where was the magic?? I had a million questions until he poured out a spoonful of the brine for me to taste; whereas mine just tasted like salt water, his – the collected brinings of many pickle batches – had that same delicate savory flavor as his pickles. It was magic brine. I was given a bottle of the brine to take home to New York. He told me that if I needed more to submerge the veggies, I should just mix more at the same concentration. Desperate for more certainty, I asked, exactly what percent salt was in the brine? He looked at me like I was a little dense (a favorite look of his) and said, “You just tasted it, didn’t you? Like that.” 

 The good stuff.

The good stuff.

I forgot that pickling, like any cooking, in the hands of an expert is more art than science. Anyone who has asked a parent or grandparent for their famous recipe and gotten in response a wandering narrative pebbled with “oh, as much as you like” or “until it tastes good” knows this annoyance. As a trained scientist, I wanted a percentage for the brine, preferably to three significant figures. But my uncle is in tune with most of the pickling world. I read the entirety of Sandor Ellix Katz’s Art of Fermentation, perhaps the most modern and popular reference, and still had a ton of questions. So do most people. I’d say 95% of the posts in the book’s Facebook group are people posting pictures of dubious looking ferments and asking if they should eat it (see this post for my answer to that). 

So, I had no choice but to go home and science-lab it myself. I looked up some literature online, and it seems that a good range for safe lacto-fermentation is a salt brine between 1 and 10 percent. It also seems that the most familiar pickles (sauerkraut, half-sour and full-sour dills) have a brine somewhere between 2 and 5 percent. So I knew that my uncle’s brine was somewhere in there, but my tongue had no idea where. I took out my food scale and added salt to a half-liter of water, a gram at a time, until it tasted roughly as salty. I'd put my best guess at between 2-3%, but my pickles develop slower than my uncle’s, so it’s likely that his brine is even less saline to encourage faster growth; it may just taste super umami after repeated pickle brewings.

 My uncle's magic brine on the right; mine on the left. 

My uncle's magic brine on the right; mine on the left. 

 Attempting to benchmark the magic brine. 

Attempting to benchmark the magic brine. 

Ultimately, there are recipes out there that are totally good enough. I recommend starting with the spices and procedure in Madame Huang’s excellent recipe. I modify it by bumping the brine down to 2.5% brine and using readily-available equipment: wide-mouth mason jars with the Easy Fermenter lids (they allow carbon dioxide to escape as the pickles ferment without letting spoiling-inducing oxygen back in). I like to pickle cabbage (my mom advises cutting out the core and tough stems and slicing the remaining leaves into wedges) and add cauliflower florets or cubes of daikon radish for variety (I didn’t like how celery or carrots turned out, and anything colorful like radishes stains the brine). They start to have that tingly fermented taste at one week and are straight-up addictive by two weeks. 

 My brine is darker in part because I can't help adding all these tasty flavorings. 

My brine is darker in part because I can't help adding all these tasty flavorings. 

 Ready to hurry up and wait!

Ready to hurry up and wait!

 The final result.

The final result.

 If you drizzle them with chili oil, they become 10x as addictive. SOMEHOW. 

If you drizzle them with chili oil, they become 10x as addictive. SOMEHOW. 

I haven’t achieved the perfect Szechuan pickle yet, but each batch is getting more flavorful. Maybe someday too I’ll have a giant vat of magic brine, just like my uncle. He had the knowing look of an enabler as he decanted it for me. Apparently other customers, craving more, had also asked for his secret brine. We addicts are all of the same cloth, willing to go to great lengths (including carefully swaddling my precious jar inside my checked luggage) to assure a steady supply of good pickles. 

Back in my apartment, I’ll open the fridge every once in a while even if if there aren’t any pickles left and just gaze upon my brine, palest yellow, teeming with probiotics. I close the door, content; all I need to know is that it’s there. 

How to keep up a daily habit

[I wrote this as a guest post for DIEMlife, a platform that brings people together to achieve their goals, or Quests. Check it out on the DIEMlife blog here or below.]


Rachel Weisz was quiet for a moment, taking in what I just said. After a pause, she breathed deeply and said, “Wow. That’s intense.”

As piano students at Juilliard, a friend and I had been asked to help Ms. Weisz prepare her for a role in the film Complete Unknown, in which she plays a former piano prodigy. What I had just said to her was this: “If you don’t practice one day, you don’t get that time back. It’s gone forever.” My friend Kristen added, “Every day, you’ll have a choice between practicing and everything else – going out, hanging out with friends. And sometimes it’s tough making the sacrifices so that you get your practicing done.”  

Talking about our lives as musicians to an outsider, especially an outsider as gracious, thoughtful, and kind as Rachel (seriously folks, she’s the real deal – what a great person and artist), made me realize how hard it can be to sustain a daily habit. I used to be an outsider myself – I came to Juilliard to escape a corporate law job where I often worked all night and all weekend and all holidays. But those long hours were never of my own choosing. By contrast, students at Juilliard seemed hell-bent on practicing all the damn time, locking themselves in tiny windowless rooms all day. That level of daily dedication was overwhelming to me, and I thought I knew what it meant to work a lot!!

I was curious to learn how these young artists stayed so dedicated to their daily practice. After all, we’ve all experienced plenty of reasons not to stay on track! Maybe our schedules or plans change, or work or personal life gets out of hand, or our physical or mental energy levels just aren’t there. And then we feel discouraged or start to think of the habit as a chore, further ensuring that we won’t get to it.

I’ve totally been there. But you know what? This happens to EVERYONE, including musicians. It turns out that practicing every day for hours is just as hard as keeping up any other regular commitment, whether that’s learning a new skill, working out, cultivating a professional network, or anything else that will build your mind, body, and spirit.

How, then, do musicians do it? In my musical training, I’ve learned three very doable strategies to keep up my daily commitments, even when the going gets tough.


This strategy is great when you just don’t have it in you to tackle your habit. Instead, why not use the time to connect to your key motivations for your goal? Think back to the WHY of your Quest, including the people, places and things that inspired you: is it to have more time for your family? To feel good about your body and have more energy? To pay down debt so that you finally feel financially free? Any activity that gets you reconnected to these motivations will likely fire you back up about getting there.

In my world, if I just don’t feel like sitting down at the piano bench, I’ll do something else to remind me how awesome it is to be a musician – I’ll sit down and listen to some recordings of the most electrifying playing I can find (unrelated to my repertoire!), or I’ll marvel at other forms of expression, such as dance or drama or literature, to remind myself how important art is to humanity. If your day is so frazzled that you can’t even get a clear picture of your key motivations, it might be helpful to meditate to recover a calm, connected, and clear state of mind. Doing any of these things is time just as well spent.



Anyone who has done weight training knows this – your muscles won’t necessarily feel any different as you’re doing your reps, but they sure might the next day. Many habits which build cumulatively over the long-term are just like this – as you put in the work today, you’re building your tomorrow self. Learning a language, losing weight, starting a new business – these are all investments in your future self, and the tasks of today might not be the most fun. But once you see how the work you did yesterday paid off, it’s a little easier to keep yourself on task.

As a pianist, there’s a lot of nitty-gritty work at all stages of my preparation, whether it’s learning a slew of notes in a difficult contemporary score, refining tiny passages that just don’t sound the way I want yet, or practicing performing in front of as many people as possible to get every last kink out of a piece. On days when playing doesn’t necessarily feel the most “fun” but I really put my attention to the task at hand, I know that I’ll probably see the improvement tomorrow. It’s amazing – when I validate and celebrate yesterday’s hard work, it makes today’s easier to do.

I keep a tiny notebook as a practice log where I record eureka moments and any newfound principles I’ve picked up. Seeing my daily work as an incremental step towards my goals, rather than a chore,  absolutely keeps me motivated. So, on days when you just can’t get to an hour-long habit session, why not take just 10 minutes to reflect on all the progress you have made?



Many times a worthwhile goal can be too big and thus paralyzing, or too distant to spur action. Well-spaced intermediate milestones are great for keeping up your motivation. When a big performance is coming up, you’d better bet that I’ll be scheduling mini-performances all along the way, even if it’s playing for one person in a practice room or recording a piece on my phone to email to someone. This gives my daily practice more direction than just the end goal. As you may have noticed, these intermediate goals work best when you call on people to keep you accountable, whether it’s signing up for a 5k with a buddy before a longer race or promising a trusted friend a draft of the first few chapters of your book. Luckily, DIEMlife is set up so that you can keep track of all of these milestones. When in doubt, add more intermediate goals! They give you the chance to both reflect and celebrate how far you’ve already come.


Ultimately, it’s important to be proud of yourself for taking the long road, for tackling a Quest that requires such commitment. It’s not easy, but it surely doesn’t require superhuman powers. You can do it! And when you reach your goal, your tomorrow self will thank you.

Source: https://blog.diem.life/daily-habit-strateg...

Subway poem #4

Subway rides, growing longer and more crowded, provide plenty of time to reflect on current events. This one is for the survivors of Parkland, Florida. 

"Things Fall Apart"

The most striking part of
Nigerian tribal life in
Chinua Achebe’s book was not
The shamans and ghostly rituals.
It was when Ekwefi, a young mother,
Said of her beloved daughter
(The only survivor of ten babies),
“Perhaps she is here to stay.”
Meaning, on earth. 
“I pray she stays.”
I remember thinking,
What a savage place, 
Where mothers are resigned to lose their children. 
Again and again.

Even non-mothers know
A youthful death
Is a cosmic wrong. 
I learned this when
I saw a college friend in her coffin,
And knew with the truth of
My young being that
This body, thick with disease, 
was not her. 
She had been a dancer,
A breathtaking one, 
Springing off the stage
Like a willow branch off the breeze.
But now she was elsewhere, resting.

Those left behind do not rest.
Dead children leave living parents with
Hearts shrouded in a black ivy, 
A suffocating growth with knifed edges. 
When a fourth grader at church
Was taken by cancer,
Her father wept on a blog.
I read once then turned away,
Unwilling to watch him struggle
To breathe in the darkness.

Every time tender American souls
Are cut down by American bullets,
I wonder how Chinua Achebe would frame This moment
In our history. 
I think he would be confused, 
And repulsed. 
Because unlike disease or foreign invaders,
It is we who are killing our young.

We can stop. 
But we don’t. 
Instead, mothers send their treasures to school,
Hoping that they will stay
Who is the savage now?
America falls apart.

Contemplations on a Jar of Iced Tea


One lazy spring day in law school, I was discussing with a then-boyfriend the materials and methods for really great iced tea. He mentioned something I had never heard of: sun tea. 

“Yeah,” he said. “You put some tea bags in a big glass jar and then you leave it outside for a few days, and then you have great iced tea!

“A FEW DAYS?,” I asked. “That can’t be right.” I was often skeptical of what he said and didn't hesitate to say so.

“No, it’s true. My dad always made it this way. Trust me.” 

“YOU LEAVE IT OUT FOR DAYS? Hahaha. Great way to make BACTERIA tea,” I cackled. 

“Look, you don’t know because you’ve never done it, but my family has been making sun tea like this forever. And it’s really good.”

“FOR DAYS! HAHAHAHA!” <cackling intensifies>

“Fine. You don’t believe me? Look. Look. I’m calling my dad right now.”

<he calls his dad>
“Hey dad, how’s it going? Hey, I had a question about something: how do you make sun tea? …. Uh huh … uh huh ….. You leave it out for how long? Wait, wasn’t it a few days? I thought you … oh. Ok. Got it. Thanks dad... Yup, I’ll talk to you soon.”

“So??” I said, eagerly, cackling inside. 

“Uh. You leave it out for a few hours. He said leaving it out for a few days would be stupid.” 

I cackled so loud I almost split in two.

Let’s just say that that relationship didn’t last because I was not a very nice person. I've been working on it. 

But the conversation did demonstrate something I have noticed over and over - a blatant disregard for food safety in pretty much everyone I know. If you have an Asian parent, you grew up with this - rice is left in the rice cooker, soup is left out overnight, leftovers are simply covered up and left on the counter. The items in a mom’s fridge seem to last forever; the dishes that you swore you’ve already eaten for a week still living on in their little Tupperware kingdoms of immortality, jarred things from years ago still doing their thing in their jars. This legacy continues in us, their children. I think of this now as I discover a jar of iced tea that has been in the fridge undoubtedly for weeks, and my husband, the son of Chinese immigrants, assures me it is totally fine. 

 It looks fine I guess, but remember, kids, you can't see bacteria.&nbsp;

It looks fine I guess, but remember, kids, you can't see bacteria. 

I believe many tummies have been sacrificed on the porcelain altar of “it’s totally fine.” 

I, on the other hand, demonstrate a healthy respect for our microorganism brethren. I constantly ask Google the question, "How long does [food item] last?” I diligently label newly-opened containers with the date. When in doubt, I throw it out. I even view moldy cheeses with suspicion, delicious as they are. In every instance, someone has reassured me that the subject of my concern is “totally fine.” 

When did I turn the corner, from unsuspecting rice leaver-outer to militant spoilage vigilante? I can tell you exactly when it happened: while doing cancer research in a biomolecular lab. In our lab, there were three areas set off for distinct purposes: the cold room, the warm room and the hot room. The cold room, as you suspect, was a giant room set at about fridge temperature where you could do experiments with proteins and gels and other things sensitive to heat. The hot room was not actually hot but where you dealt with radioactivity - there were special hoods and disposal containers, and you had to sign in and out every time you used it in case there was contamination.

Now the warm room actually was a very warm room, set to the temperature at which E. coli prosper and propagate. Kind of like a hippie music festival for bacteria, everyone making peace, love, and my cancer-gene protein while rocking out on a gently shaking platform.  I had to use this room every time I needed the “bugs” to grow me a batch of protein, and I’d put my GIANT erlenmeyer flasks, full of the little guys and their favorite soupy food, on the shakers and wait for them to do their thing. Since then, I've associated that temperature, 37 degrees C or about 99 degrees F, with that warm room and the sensation of the thick air crowding my reluctant nostrils with the euphoria of breeding bacteria. 

All three rooms were mildly unpleasant, but the warm room was my least favorite because of the smell. However, it did give me a very visceral sense of how bacteria multiply: how quickly they do it, what conditions they like, and how a liquid’s murkiness deepens as their numbers grow. And now I can’t help but see those conditions everywhere. For instance, after making a giant pot of homemade stock, those in the “it’s totally fine” camp might leave the pot out all day to cool before putting it in the fridge, or WORSE, just put it in the fridge (sacré bleu!!!). I can’t help but see in such a pot a giant bacterial Lollapalooza. I took my fears to the internet and found to my relief that, indeed, there are methods for taking a pot just off the boil and cooling it down in a jiffy. 

Now, you may well have picked your side, and from your side, you may well think I am a crazy person. And to that I’ll say: the food and drink purveyors of the world with any accountability are on my side. For example, if you look closely at Starbucks, every ingredient, every batch of liquid, is marked with a date and even time of expiry. In restaurants, there are a host of safeguards like inspections and food warmers and food coolers and inventory management. And even with these systems in place, shit happens (literally), like the E. coli outbreak at Chipotle, or like my first and last trip to a poke place downtown, where a friend and I ate a heap of raw fish and both spent an agonizing night in the bathroom, reflecting on how dysentery must be a terrible way to die. 

But, don't let me sway you. Everyone go ahead and do your own thing. Feel free to roll the dice, as thousands of our ancestors have (because I imagine scarcity left them no choice). As for me, I have the robust American food supply and the fear of the mighty microbe behind me, and I am going to throw out that iced tea right now. And a few other things. 

P.S. here’s a legit recipe for sun tea.

2017: Lessons from a Year in Blogging

 After years of decamping to the Juilliard computer lab, I finally got my own work computer. And it is beeyooteefulll!

After years of decamping to the Juilliard computer lab, I finally got my own work computer. And it is beeyooteefulll!

Happy new year! The running out of the calendar is a great reminder to stop our bustling about and sit down for some much needed introspection. My usual method of year-end reflection was to jot a short journal entry about memorable moments, triumphs, and disappointments, and then outline my upcoming goals. It was a crude method, but adequate to trigger the twinned emotions of closure and anticipation at year end.

Last year around this time, I started this blog instead. I had no idea what it would be about, but I had just launched my musician webpage and knew that it needed some “content,” fast. So I dubbed the blog “Jules of All Trades,” imagining that I would write articles full of tips, tricks, and hacks about everyday topics such as decluttering, good books, relationships, and cooking. You know, the usual. 

Instead, this blog morphed out of my hands into a very personal forum where I attempted, publicly, to process the events of 2017. Let’s face it: this year was tough in many ways, and there was no shortage of things to process. I didn’t expect to stray so far from my neat pile of mainstream blog topics, but I think it was the right choice. I once heard a powerful piece of advice from a law school mentor: when picking a legal research topic, start with what makes you angry or keeps us up at night. Most of the topics in my blog posts were spawned out of intense, irrepressible emotion, and that made the writing easier and more meaningful for me. 

So I kept it up, as much as I could. By the numbers, in 2017 I wrote: 

  • 22 blog posts
  • With an average of 1200 words each
  • About every 19 days. 

It’s not much when you add it up that way, but over just one year, this little blog experiment has taught me so much. Here are just three lessons I've learned from blogging this year: 

1. Writing regularly improves your writing.

For those of you who are afraid to show your writing to the public, I’m with you. I’ve never considered myself a good writer, and my perfectionism means that I have written far more posts than I’ve posted. (It also means I often go back and edit entries after posting….). However, practice makes perfect, does it not? Also, I’ve been inspired to grow my writing skills even more this year by reading more. Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America is up next. 

2. Writing in a public forum connects you with people, often unexpectedly.

When I started this blog, I had no readers. I was pretty sure it would stay that way forever, but three months later, I wrote an article (out of extreme frustration) about Betsy DeVos and what she taught me about my own learning journey. This article somehow was widely shared, getting over 2,300 hits that day!!! THAT’S A LOT OF PEOPLE I DON’T KNOW! The support from beyond my networks took me completely by surprise. I got emails through my website from strangers who had seen the article on Facebook or Twitter and wanted to share their own experiences with finding a growth mindset. I also heard from friends I hadn't talked to in years. It was an utterly amazing experience. 

So, heartened, I kept writing, especially when I felt a discomfort in my heart that needed soothing. The other top posts from this year ended up being:

"What I learned at Juilliard"
"What Is Privilege? On Cleaning Bathrooms At Harvard, And Harvey Weinstein"

Each one got hundreds of visits the same day that I posted them. Overall in 2017, I had over 12,000 page views from almost 7000 unique visitors. I know those numbers are insignificant in the world of high-rolling blogs, but to me, it was an overwhelming amount of human connection. The fact that people stayed engaged enough to read what I wrote, and that it meant enough to some to write me personally, made me feel heard and supported more than I could have hoped for. 

 2017 site traffic

2017 site traffic

3. Writing with gratitude begets more gratitude.   

Being a natural-born realist (some would say pessimist) I have to be very careful not to ship the whole world to hell in a hand-basket anytime something makes me upset. Writing in a public forum provides me the accountability to try always to turn anger, frustration, and hurt into more helpful emotions, such as acceptance, learning, and above all, gratitude. Having this platform for working out my strong emotions to events this year was an immense blessing, because every time I resisted ranting and tried instead to find a more uplifting message, that positivity returned to me a hundred-fold, amplified by those it had traveled through before coming back to me. Gratitude, like any other habit, grows with practice, and this blog has given me an arena to keep up the practice. 

So. I guess what I’m trying to say is, THANK YOU. Thank you for reading, for the texts and emails and comments in person supporting this little project of mine. It has been one of the bright spots of 2017, and that’s because of all of you. Looking forward to 2018, I’ll try to write better, think deeper, and lift us all up higher, together.

Might I suggest that we all practice gratitude together? It puts us in control of our emotions (instead of the other way around) and readies us for the hard work that has to be done in 2018. There is much to be done. 

Happy new year all, and wishing everyone your best year ever. 

P.S. If you haven’t already, please subscribe at the bottom of this page to get these posts by email! You’ll never miss one, even if I forget to post it on Facebook :)