Breaking up with bad habits is hard to do

2018 First quarter recap

Every morning for the past three months, my alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. About five minutes later, I’d trudge out of bed, slowly at first, then stumble into the kitchen, turn on the coffeemaker, and then make my way to the bathroom to brush my teeth and go to the bathroom. Once I’m done, I head back to the kitchen, where the coffee is almost ready, then I’d go over to my husband, still sleeping on the couch (we sleep on a fold-out sofa bed) and nudge him out of bed. After a few minutes, he begrudgingly does the same.

After he’s done in the bathroom, we’d go into the kitchen, where we’d drink a cup of hot, steaming coffee, sigh with satisfaction, exchange a few words here and there, then sit down on a small kiddie chair (him) and a step stool (me) and we’d start reading. This would go on until I have to go to work or one of our kids wake up.

We’d go on about our days as normal, him taking care of our kids mostly, and me at work. After the kids go to bed, we’d step outside and do our workout every other evening. On the evenings that we don’t exercise, we either work on a jigsaw puzzle or watch a movie or use it to take care of personal business.

This chain of events would never happen if we weren’t parents. It certainly would not have happened while we were poor college students. Back then, if I woke up before 8:00 a.m. I’d give myself a high five. Waking up early to read and exercising consistently 4-5 times a week is utterly incomprehensible to me up until a month ago. You might think that we’re crazy–you may ask, “Aren’t you tired after a long day with the kids or a long day at work?”

“Hell yes, we’re tired as ever, but we have goals to reach,” is what I’d say. When you want something to happen bad enough, you do whatever it takes to make it happen.

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Photo by John Baker on Unsplash

Earlier this year, I had several realizations about myself. The first one is that I am not great at finishing things, mainly books. In a typical year, I’d start about 30 books but rarely ever finish them. Second, like many people, I went to coffee shops a lot! Of course, my justification was that if I only went twice a week, then it’s okay. Umm, not a good justification, because I don’t make the kind of money that allows me this particular luxury. Lastly, I hardly ever exercise. All my life, I’ve been skinny. I weighed barely 100 lbs in high school, and continued to be small throughout college and in my twenties. I never once thought that my weight would catch up with me. I thought my metabolism was invincible.

Boy, was I wrong. Earlier this year, I started to notice that my weight had climbed up a little bit. By BMI standards, I was close to being considered “overweight.” This translates into being 131 lbs. Ouch. For an American white female, this is normal, but for a short Asian female, it is not.

I wondered to myself if whether those pounds added up gradually because I had two kids or because I’ve had a sedentary job for the past year and a half and I’ve been going to Starbucks a lot to compensate for the long days.

I realize now that it is most likely the latter. The holiday season certainly didn’t help with my seasonal depression. I was feeling down because I didn’t have any money and we were living off credit cards, and I felt pressured to be jolly. Then February came, and I was greeted with a heaping portion of baked goods, to which I accepted. It wasn’t until the end of February when I went to the doctor for an annual check up and my doctor mentioned the phrase, “holiday pounds” that it clicked in my head. Yep–office job, the holidays and its sweets, then more sweets in February (Valentines Day and my birthday is only a week apart) is what got me to where I am today–being almost overweight for my age group and ethnicity. I cringed when I saw the number on the doctor’s office scale. Not watching what I eat and not exercising has been detrimental to my body. The scale doesn’t lie. This is the heaviest I’ve ever been without being pregnant.

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Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

I remember a customer that I used to help when I worked at a local credit union. His name was Paul, and when I first met him, I decided that he couldn’t possibly be older than 50. Then I looked at his profile and saw that he was in his mid-seventies! He looked incredibly healthy and fit. Not surprisingly, he worked out everyday and taught fitness classes for bus drivers. I was in awe, and admired him for his strength.

Then I examined those around me currently–at work, at home, in public places. And I was blown away by the evidence of unhealthy lifestyles all around me. At work, for example, I see at least three individuals who are extremely overweight and have trouble walking even three blocks. Plus, they looked so incredibly old for their age. The evidence was clear in their physical appearance–they did not eat healthy foods or exercised, two components necessary for maintaining a healthy weight.

I’m more inspired from seeing what I don’t want to be versus what I would like to be.

I thought about my bad habits and how they do not align with my values. It became obvious that changes need to be implemented right away.

So at the beginning of March, I stopped going to Starbucks. If I can manage to do this for an entire year, I’ll save at least $400, or $35/mo. I started my reading routine and invited my husband to do the same. My husband has never been the type of person who’d wake up early to read either. For him, it’s a real game changer. I also created a workout schedule, and even signed up for a 5K, something I never imagined I would do.

As March continued on, I started feeling better. My insomnia was almost nonexistent. Surprisingly, I looked forward to working out, because it meant quality time with my husband. And because of the consistent reading, I’ve finished three books in January, three books in February, and five books in March. My husband has also finished his own share of books. We’ve completed two jigsaw puzzles together. I went to Starbucks zero times (okay, I cheated– once to a Dutch Bros. thrive-thru, and once to a convenience store, which comes to a whopping $5 total). I spent roughly $16 on coffee for home brewing, and still have coffee for next month. I bought lunch exactly once. It was the best $5 I’ve spent in a long time. I exercised for fifteen days. During the month of March, I ran approximately 26 miles and averaged 9709 steps, roughly 3000 more steps than I’ve had in the past six months. Simply put, I’ve doubled what I’ve done in terms of exercise. I’ve saved a lot of money by not going to coffee shops as often. And I’ve nurtured my brain with jigsaw puzzles and reading every day.

I realized that if I’m going to allow my kids to eat only Cheerios and no other sugary cereals, then I must treat myself the same way–with restraint. I must practice eating healthy and resisting the urges that ignite in my brain whenever I’m bored/anxious/sad/angry/whatever. I have to learn to distinguish between a true need and a simple desire.

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Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

I ran into Paul several months ago on the train platform by my house. We exchanged a few brief words. He still looks the same as he always does–fit and happy. And it made me think–if I want to be as healthy as him in retirement age, then I need to start early. I need to start now.

The first few days were incredibly difficult. Like stepping on hot coals for the first time, you feel a sense of shock as the pain registers in your body—as mine did in the first few runs. The “fight or flight” response is in full swing at this point. Instead of choosing to quit, I chose to fight. My determination overrode my fear of becoming a depressed, unhealthy individual.

I’m not going to lie–it’s been hard. But if there’s one thing that I learned from the past month it’s this–determination is the driving force to success. It starts in the mind. To me, there are three elements to achieving a goal. The first is deciding on which goal to tackle. The second is putting it into action. Lastly, continuing that action until you see active results. This is the part where a lot of us get hung up on–patience. Success doesn’t happen overnight, and for many of us, myself included, impatience gets in the way. Bad habits manifests itself in your thoughts, like the devil whispering on one side of your ear telling you that you are not capable. Being able to shut out the intrusive thoughts is difficult, but this month and beyond, I plan on continuing my path towards developing better habits.

I came, I conquered, and I’m here to tell: the story of my twenties

We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. – Joseph Campbell

This year in February, I turned 33. Exactly ten years ago I graduated from college–the first in my family, in fact. It was a proud moment of my life. What was supposed to be the grandest achievement in the greatest year of my adult life was about to become the greatest challenge that I would face in my youth.

One of those challenges was figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I had to have a job, but what? I didn’t spend a lot of time while in school trying to figure this out. That was my first error. That error, along with a great force of divine intervention, put me directly in the middle of one of the greatest recessions of all time–the Great Recession of 2008-09.

We all know about that. The one where the real estate market crashed. Just about everyone who owned a home lost value. People lost money left and right. There were no jobs available anywhere. It was an economic downpour that led to an enormous thunderstorm which would take years to recover.

This particular period wasn’t the brightest one in my twenties, and it was something that I was willing to never think about again, until I read this article.

I felt that the article was talking about me, to me. It talked about a concept that I’ve never heard of before called transformative resilience–the ability to improve because of a setback.

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Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

My story began in 2008. I was a new college graduate, eager and excited for the real world. But as I’ve mentioned above, my first error in navigating the “real world” was not spending time trying to figure out what career path to pursue. Thus began a journey of almost a decade of struggles, both personally, professionally and financially, before I was able to see any clarity in what many would call “the prime years” for working.

I was in a comfort zone in college, a bubble that didn’t burst until after I graduated. I was lucky to find a job right away. It was an internship doing marketing for a local health benefits administrator. I had a good working relationship with my boss, and because of that (and my expressed desire to obtain a full-time, regular position) she referred me to another department in the company when they had a full-time opening. The job was nothing fancy–doing data entry work, but nonetheless, I was on cloud nine because I was making more than I’ve ever had in years. This equates to about $13/hour, great for 2008.

Then the gossip came. My coworkers whispered that we might be out of a job, due to the recession. I didn’t think that was possible. I was doing well, so it came as a surprise to me when I was called into the manager’s office and told that I would be let go–they had to cut labor. Of course, they could not do that to the older, long time employees. It would have to be me, the newest bud.

Earlier that year, right after I graduated, I got married. My husband also just graduated from the local community college and had gotten a job at a hotel, working the front desk. The pay was nothing short of minimum wage, but it was what he wanted to do at the time–work in the hospitality industry. Little did he know that during a recession, not many people travel for pleasure. It was mainly for business.

The next blow came when I called the unemployment office to seek out benefits after being laid off. After waiting thirty minutes on the phone, I was told that I didn’t qualify. I was flabbergasted. The representative told me that the hours I did work during the last year were not regular hours because they were mainly work-study, subsidized by the government. I hung up the phone in tears.

Next came another strike when my husband and I sat down to do our taxes. I remember us so clearly–hunched over tax booklets and forms (we were still using paper and pencil at the time), one person reading the instructions, and the other writing down numbers and doing the math. Several hours later, we discovered that we owed $1500.

We had never done our taxes before, so I figured we must’ve made a mistake. I demanded that my husband take our taxes to the nearest H&R Block for a free review. He came back with the same consensus–yep, we did owe that money.

Problem is, we didn’t have that money in the bank. We were living paycheck to paycheck. Heck, we had just gotten married, so funds were dried up from the wedding.

So we decided to ask his dad for money. We knew that our moms didn’t have much money, so his dad was most likely to help. I was shocked when my husband came back and said, “Nope.”

The reasons are still unclear–he was either unwilling or unable to help. We decided not to dwell on it and moved on. The next task would be to find me a job–any job, really. Living on one income, especially one $9/hour income wasn’t feasible, especially when you have to pay back $1500 in taxes and student loans and a car payment.

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Photo by Aidan Bartos on Unsplash

 

I was lost. All my life, I was brought up to believe that once you obtain an education and get a job, you’d stay there and move up in the world. This upward mobility, stay-in-one-place path would prove to be something that many millenials do not do, and certainly not I. Nobody told me about the challenges of finding a job that fits your values while also utilizing your skills. Nobody told me that getting a job, any job, would be so hard. But that was the reality.

By this time, I was in the third stage as mentioned in the article–in the middle of chaos, where self compassion is absent, denial is in full swing, and panic sets in. Add on the lack of self-esteem, confusion over one’s abilities, and desperation, and you have a recipe for a full blown career crisis. This kind of crisis would put me in a blinding confusion that would last for many years to come.

I bounced from not having a job to having a job within a month. Sounds lucky, right? Except this was the first job that I found. It only paid $9/hour. The hiring manager made it clear that it wasn’t a very fancy or high paying position, but I took it anyway. I was desperate. It was either this or wait for who knows how long before I can get another job. I clung on to the first raft that I found, not realizing that it would drag me down so tremendously for the next year.

Almost every day, I came home from work crying. I had a devious, controlling coworker who’d watch everyone like a hawk and went to the manager immediately upon seeing an infraction of any kind–whether it be that the person was not putting things in the correct order, or was not telling people that they were going to the bathroom–in general, very small infractions that clearly did not dictate their overall capacity to perform the job. But she found it where she could and made everyone’s lives miserable. She assumed managerial responsibilities and barked orders at everyone even though she was not a manager. We all hated her, but there was nothing we could do, so we ignored it. I ignored it for awhile, until it bothered me. It filled me with a rage. Finally, I went to my manager to express this, and although she listened, she did not do anything to correct the issue. Not only that, I was doing three different jobs–something they did not disclose to me during the interview.

I was doing three jobs for $9/hour–it was not worth the stress, I knew it. But at the same time, I didn’t know what else to do. I had gone from a situation of a comfortable job to no job, no unemployment, no savings, and no parental help. Our country was in the middle of a recession–there were hardly any jobs to be had. So it came as no surprise when my husband found out that his company instigated a two-year pay freeze. Nobody would be allowed any raises for the next two years. Ouch.

Not only that, we had to pay back our taxes, so my husband and I devised a plan to save as much as possible in order to make the payments. Part of that involved being diligent about what we were spending our money on. We decided that we would limit our grocery budget to just $30 per week. We had no money for lunch or dinner dates, so the $30 would have to last an entire week for two people. This equates to around 72 cents per meal.

Now that I think about it, I remember it so fondly–us dragging our “grandma cart” down to the nearest Grocery Outlet (because driving costs money) talking and laughing, all the while calculating our total before we got to the register. We had to be precisely on budget or under.

I have to tell you that we did not frequent food pantries at this time. I suppose we could have, but being young and somewhat ignorant, we did not know how to seek out help. We vaguely knew about food stamps, but we never seek it out. We figured we had to be self-reliant. I thought food stamps were for low income immigrants, and I didn’t think of myself that way. In reality, that’s exactly what I was. The combination of pride and shame prevented us from seeking out government help, especially after getting rejected by one of our parents.

Looking back on it now, I remember we were in the stages of chaos and struggle for several years. During this time, we followed the $30/week grocery budget strictly, never went out, never bought alcohol or got massages, spent $10 or less on haircuts (which were rare), always shopped for things on sale, utilized coupons, used second hand furniture, and rarely drove our car. For fun, we stayed home and watched movies that I got for free from the library, and went camping & hiking in the summer.

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After a year, I left my miserable job, and I found another one at a bank as a teller. Eight months later, I moved on to a credit union, where I would stay for the next four years. The experience at the credit union is another story altogether, reserved for another day, but the point remains–I was still confused about what I should do with my life, I was holding onto a raft that was dragging me down again. I explored and researched many career paths but never actually made any leaps of faith. Having just barely survived the recession, I favored stability over adventure, or rather misery over excitement.

Luckily for my husband, he survived his company’s pay freeze, and went on to become manager in the dining department. He stayed there for several years until he became stifled himself, seeking out new opportunities. But after having worked in only two main industries, it was difficult to transition to another industry without a certain level of education or experience, so he decided to step down from his position and go back to school.

Then a month after he enrolled, we found out that I was pregnant. Thus begins the next chapter of our lives–he started college with no kids and ended with two. It was challenging to say the least. We would not have made it without his grants, scholarships, student loans and government assistance. He was working part time, and at one point, I left my job to stay at home with my daughter so I could figure out what I was going to do career-wise.

Time flew by. We focused on raising our kids; he focused on finishing school. We were in a trance for a long time. Despite all of this, we still managed to come out on the other end slightly untethered. We paid off the taxes that we owed to the IRS. I educated myself on taxes so we would never be in the same boat again. We increased our credit rating and kept it at a consistent high. We paid off our used car loan of roughly $7000. We also paid off my husband’s community college loan. We started retirement funds and took advantage of 401Ks. When we had kids, we started their college funds too. We also saved over $10,000 in the course of four years, which was later used in 2014 when I was a stay-at-home mom while my husband worked part-time and went to school full-time. With the help of my mom, we bought a new car outright in 2015. We haven’t had a car payment since 2011. We took a trip to Vietnam to visit my family in 2009. We saved up for a trip to Hawaii in 2012, and it was amazing because every dollar spent was worth it knowing that it took almost a year to save up that money–our money.  If you were to measure our wealth in terms of experiences, we were rich.

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When you fall down and get hurt, it’s easier to stay in one spot and complain about it, and wait for someone to rescue you. But it’s also another to get back up and move on, to face the unknown ahead and say, “I can do this.”  As the article mentioned, all of us will experience a challenging circumstance in our lives, regardless of our socioeconomic backgrounds or ages. It’s what we do with it that matters more.

I truly believe that everything happens for a reason, and the main thing that I’ve walked away with about my twenties is this–it was a challenging period in my life, both professionally and financially. I had no sense of direction whatsoever. I made lots of mistakes. But I’ve also learned a lot. It was from those mistakes that made me the person I am today. If I had not been forced into unemployment, or been depleted of funds, or worked at jobs that paid very little, then I never would’ve learned the value of frugality. I never would’ve consciously chosen to live within my means. I never would’ve felt the desire to save money, and I never would’ve felt the pure joy of spending the money that I saved. There were periods of time when I went crazy and spent more than I should have, and sure enough, I paid the price for that.

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Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash

Late last year, I met with a financial advisor (for free, of course–who can afford one with my salary?) and we reviewed my retirement funds. He told me that my husband and I are above average for people our age. It felt great to know that we were on track, that we were much better than the average millennial. Having kids really changed a lot of perspective. Being low income for a long time really put things into reality. I no longer felt shame that I had to rely on food stamps while my husband was in school and I wasn’t working, or when I was working but part-time with two kids. Although we have ways to go in terms of our career paths, things are looking up, and it only took about a decade to see it in its full clarity. I just wish I had seen it sooner.

My not-so-proud parenting moment

One of the facts of life is this–none of us are perfect, we all have flaws, right? But for some reason, these flaws don’t make their appearance until we become parents. At least, for me anyway. When you’re young and self-absorbed, you tend to push your flaws aside, thinking that while you acknowledge their existence they don’t make a full impact in your everyday lifestyle.

Then you become a parent, and things start coming out of the closet.

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Just 10 days after turning 28, my daughter was born. I officially became a parent. My world from that point on changed completely. I learned to take care of someone else besides myself, and if you are one of these people (parents) then you know what I mean. I worried like most parents worry. I slept little like most new parents slept. I handled explosive poops and temper tantrums like most parents have to do.

Like many parents, I wondered how my daughter would turn out. And everything I did seemed to revolved around the thought of, “How will this look like in her eyes?” Her perceptions of me were more important than what other parents thought of me.

When Lily was three and a half years old, she started preschool. I remember dropping her off on the first day and feeling a sense of nostalgia–my baby was growing up, but I wanted her to stay little. She was a talking, walking and discovering little toddler, with thoughts and questions now. I gave her a hug and a kiss goodbye, and for the most part, she was excited to start preschool. She was perfectly okay with me leaving her there for half the day. As soon as we arrived at her school, she’d start in on an activity, as if to say, “Mom, I’m good, thanks. You can go now.”IMG_0918.jpg

Fast forward another year or so, this separation agreement evaporated completely. It started at home, when my husband told me one day that Lily had a problem with him going outside for a bit. He had to take out the trash, do the laundry, etc.–things that involved stepping outside our apartment. She’s always been one of those kids who were okay with this, but all of a sudden she was not.

Did it make it hard to do chores? You bet. Every time he had to step out, she’d dissolve into a pool of tears which ballooned into a full freakout. I was not there for the majority of these freakouts (because I was at work), but got the full frontal experience one day when my husband was at work himself.

As any typical day goes, there is laundry and trash and dishes to be done. After doing the dishes one Saturday morning, I had a bag of trash that needed to be taken out. Not only that, there was the looming presence of laundry–so full that it looked like it was about to burst out of the hamper, and I needed to take care of these things immediately.

This is the part where I feel like Homer Simpson whenever he goes, “Doh!” and slaps his head, because it was not very smart. I thought I could get away with it, if I was quick enough. And I planned on being as fast as possible, to not allow Lily to figure out what I was doing. I was a ninja in my head, I thought.

 

Homer Simpson Doh Sound Effect Download I15 image in Vector cliparts category at pixy.org

So, while she and her brother were playing in her room, I sneaked out with the bag of trash and laundry. I ran to the dumpster as fast as I could, dumped the trash in, and rushed to the basement of our quad, turned the laundry on, and felt relieved that I only took about five minutes or so.

As I stepped out of the basement, I heard what was no doubt cries–piercing cries coming from my apartment upstairs. I walked up the stairs, and not surprisingly, the cries were doubled. Turns out, whenever Lily freaks out, her brother also freaks out, because he’s a baby and other people crying and screaming that loud scares him.

I let out an exasperated sigh, and braced myself for the drama. Deep breaths, I told myself, but all I could feel was anger rising in my chest. I mean, for God’s sakes, it was only a few minutes! What the hell.

When I stepped in and opened the door, there she was in her full crying glory–babbling away incoherently words I didn’t understand, and her brother being completely freaked out next to her. By this time, things are getting LOUD in the living room.

It was then that I just lost it. I mean, completely lost it. I don’t remember the exact words I yelled, but it was something like, “What the hell’s wrong with you?!?! I was only gone for like five minutes! What’s your problem?!? Can’t a person go outside for a few minutes to do chores without coming home to this??? WHAT THE FUCK!!!” I slammed the door hard and demanded that she go to her room.

By this time, all three of us were crying–me because my toddler wouldn’t allow me to leave for a few minutes to do chores, her because of the fact that I did it, then yelled her at her, and James because he was scared at the commotion between the two of us.

Because the crying was amplified, my neighbor from downstairs came up to see what was going on. I had my door opened by that time, and she just walked in and immediately gave me a hug. She didn’t say very much, but I knew she understood because she’s a mom herself. I cried and cried, feeling resigned, like I couldn’t handle any more of this drama.

Then she left me be and went to my daughter, gave her a hug, and whispered something in her ears that made everything a little bit quieter. For the next few minutes, Lily and I were in separate rooms, stewing by ourselves. It was that toxic.

And that, my readers, is one of the lowest, if not the lowest moment of parenting in the past five years to me. You know it’s bad when the neighbor comes up to help you. The last time she did that was when James was born. That’s another story.

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In retrospect, that incident taught me a lot about patience. Heck, becoming a parent taught me a lot about patience! But when your toddler pushes you to your breaking point, and you don’t know what to do…well, there’s a sense of helplessness there. It’s a vulnerability that we all have, but a trait that rarely comes up for some of us. On that day, I felt a lot like Homer Simpson, not just because I had a “Doh!” moment, but also because I wanted to wring her neck. I felt like Homer whenever he grabs Bart by the neck and say, “Why you little…!!!”

With all dreams of abuse aside, I knew I would never do that. After all, she was going through what is typically known as the “terrible” ages–Terrible Twos transformed into Terrible Threes. Anyone who tells you that you only get to experience the Terrible Twos is lying. I think that the terrible ages last well into early 4th year. As soon as you start feeling like they’re on a good schedule, sleep-wise, they enter the Terrible Two stage, which by itself, is a test of your physical and mental endurance.

As I’m writing this, I’m happy to report that the phase she was in have dissolved. Finally, we can go out to the dumpster by ourselves! And down to the basement to do laundry! Or to the car to pick up something! Hallelujah!

I never thought I’d be so glad to say, “I can go out to the dumpster by myself,” but I am. There you have it.

What no one tells you before you become a parent

Confession of the day: I am notorious at almost finishing articles. If you’re a parent, you know what I mean. You browse the ‘net and you see an interesting article that you want to read. But as many parents face this all-too-common dilemma, time doesn’t allow you to finish. Rather, your kids don’t allow you to finish.

So what do you do? In my case, I leave the article(s) open on my phone’s Safari browser. That browser gets inundated with more open web sites than it knows what to do with. The other night, as I’m making an effort to clear out my baggage, I came upon this article about parental fear. The points made in this article is relatable–that parents, especially new ones, have this innate fear of their child getting hurt and it reminded me about the time that it happened to me…and my husband. It made me wonder–why the hell didn’t anyone tell me about this?!?!

It was perhaps fall of 2013, when Lily was about five or six months. She had reached the semi-mobile stage where she could roll over and lift her head up sturdily. One day while I was at work, I got a call from my husband. He sounded frantic on the phone as he explained what had just happened to our daughter, making it sound like she was almost near death.

“Oh my god! Lily just fell off the bed.” Ahh, those magic words. I was immediately alarmed.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I just left the room for maybe a minute, or two tops, and then I hear this screaming. I left her on the bed so I can go grab something…and next thing I know, she’s off the bed!”

“Oh. My. God. That’s terrible!” I exclaimed. “Is she okay?”

“She’s freaked out, crying. And then your mom came rushing into the room and starting rubbing tiger balm on her. What the fuck.”

[disclosure: this is probably not the exact words spoken by us, but it was pretty darn close].

At this particular point in time, I faced a personal dilemma. One side of me said, “Tell him that it’s not the first time she’s fallen off the bed. Tell him that it happened to you too.”

But the other side (the devil side) said, “Hell no! You’re crazy if you tell him that! You gotta make yourself look like the good parent by NOT disclosing your bad decisions.”

The good side of me responded with, “Don’t listen to her. She’s crazy. You tell him that it already happened, at least you’ll feel a bond, a connection because you understand what he’s going through right now.”

The devil side retorted with, “That’s just baloney, and you know it.”

Do I tell him? Do I tell him? I was being pulled in two different directions by two separate forces.

Guess which side won? The devil side.

I decided to keep my mouth shut and uttered my condolences to my husband, who reacted like any new parent would–with feelings of horror and guilt, that they’re the worst parent ever, that their kid might possibly be heading towards a brain injury.

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It’s exactly the same kind of feeling that I felt when it happened to me. Just a short period of time (perhaps a month or so) before it happened to my husband, I was at home by myself with Lily. With the naivete of a new parent who didn’t think their kid was capable of rolling any further than two inches, I put her in the middle of the bed. Mind you, it was at least two inches inward from the edge. Our bed was about three feet off the ground and rested on top of hardwood floors. Yikes. If we had carpet, the fall wouldn’t have been so bad, but we had hardwood floors and there was no rug underneath or anywhere near the bed. Just a clear landing for my little girl.

I needed to grab a diaper for her, so I went into the other room, where we kept our diapering supplies to get one. I thought she was safe where she was, but within a minute I hear this awful scream. My heart had palpitations as I walked into the room and discovered that she had fallen off the bed.

How the heck did that happen?? I asked myself. After all, I wasn’t gone that long. How did she manage to get that far?

Luckily, her landing was perfect, just like the landing on the moon. She was inches away from hitting the foot of the crib, spared from brain injury. She landed on the floor with a quick thud, and a shocked expression, but that’s about it. She cried and cried and cried, and I picked her up and consoled her for what felt like forever. The whole time I’m holding her, I thought to myself, “Man, I am the WORST parent ever. How did I let this happen? And how on earth could she have rolled that far? What the hell!”

Guilt and indignation followed me the rest of the day. So, when my husband called me to confess right after it happened, I was faced with the dilemma and even more shame, because I didn’t tell him right away. I kept it zipped up, because you know, she was fine. We were both fine several hours later. No harm, right? Besides, I didn’t want to make myself look like the bad parent.

I told myself that if I ever have another kid, I would make sure that it doesn’t happen again. I was wrong. It happened to James after he started rolling over too.

It’s an inevitable truth that one day, your child will hurt themselves and you won’t be there to prevent it. And it happens sooner than you think. It happens when they’re little. Life does that to you, just to test your morals. It’s like the devil saying, “How do you like them apples?”

 

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Now that I’ve been a parent for five years, with two kids who’ve managed to roll off the bed under my watch, I can say that it’s one of those things that affects parents way more than it affects the kids. What no one tells you before you become a parent is that kids are more resilient than you think. We’re all made to believe that babies are fragile–and yes, some of them really are–but in general healthy, normal babies will do things that are normal in their development, but terrifying to the parents who raise them. They roll off the bed, fall into things, touch things that are dangerous, so on and so forth. As a parent, we feel the need to protect our kids from all harm’s way, and while that’s good in theory, it’s impossible to do. After all, one day your baby will no longer be a baby–he/she will grow up and go out into the world, and they’re going to get hurt, no matter what they do, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Just like how there’s no way to preventing falls, or bruises, cuts, etc. there’s no way to prevent hurt. And it’s not the fact that it happens, it’s what you do afterwards that matters. I may have felt terrible for “allowing” my daughter to fall off the bed, or my son to do the same, but then again, I was there to console them afterwards. I checked to make sure they didn’t have any signs of physical trauma, and then held them for awhile after it happened. I think that is really the best thing that you can do as a parent.

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Last year, I was talking to an old coworker of mine and she mentioned how terrified she was of her daughter beginning to roll over. I chuckled…quietly, of course. As the devil would have it, I didn’t tell her that her daughter will probably roll off the bed at some point, or do something to get hurt, because I didn’t want to scare her. She was a new parent. It’s not something I’m proud of doing, but I can remedy that by telling all new parents–if you are one of them–that it’s going to be okay. Things will happen, but kids are not china dishes. They’re strong, resilient, and they will survive, but their survival depends on you. You are the force that can help them get back up.

The four people that I would invite to a dinner party

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Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

Back when I used to read Portland Monthly magazine, there was a small section in which the editorial staff listed who they would invite to a dinner party. Displayed at the bottom of the page before feature stories were names of about four or five individuals (and an artist’s rendering of that individual) who are either well known in the local community or have done something to be noticed, anyone from business owners to artists to sports players. The names change with every issue, but the point remains—these are the people who are most likely going to turn your dinner party into an unforgettable night.

It made me wonder—if I were to host a dinner party, who would I invite?

In this fictional dinner, I’m a woman in her late forties hosting with my daughter, who is in her early twenties. I’d imagine this would be a “women’s supper club” of sorts, where men are not allowed (sorry guys) because we’re going to be talking about some serious woman stuff—the kind of stuff usually discussed behind closed doors, hidden under the sheets, or tucked away in a closet in someone’s home.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about sex. Female pleasure. Perceptions and expectations. Where we get our knowledge from. Stereotypes against men and women. How society views sexual desires and activities. And most importantly, what women (young and old) think about their bodies and how that translates into their sexual activities.

But first—let me give you a little background before I reveal my dinner guests. As an adult, I can say that I’ve never had a conversation with my mother about sex. In fact, I don’t think we ever talked about how babies are made. Most of what I learned about sex came from books, TV shows and movies. One particular favorite of mine resonates strongly with who I was as a teenager—a book called, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” by Judy Blume. It’s a story about an adolescent girl caught in a crossroad between religion and sex. Like Margaret, I grew up in a religious home. Practically everyone in my village was Catholic and went to church every week. I was educated by nuns yielding whips and threats. But unlike Margaret, Catholicism was my only religion, whereas in Margaret’s case, her parents came from two different religions. Her mom is Christian and her dad is Jewish. She doesn’t identify with either religion but instead talks to a God. She has a lot of questions about her growing body and forms a secret club with her friends to discuss “womanly” things like getting your period, bras, boys, etc.

Besides young adult novels, I had the media to inform me about change. Shows like Sweet Valley High and Saved by the Bell introduced me to the world of high school drama. Now, as an adult with two kids, I feel like I have a responsibility to pave a better road for my own daughter, so she doesn’t grow up with these misconceptions about her body, or sex, or anything in between. In short, I’d rather be frank with her, no pun intended.

"Dad said he wanted to talk to us about birds and bees so we're doing a little advance research."Lately, I’ve been doing research on how sex education has been taught in America. Not surprisingly, for the past two decades (since the early 90s), sex education has been primarily focused on abstinence-only education. For me, there was no sex education at all. Neither my middle school or high school offered it. Sure, there were health and PE classes, but none provided the information necessary for growing adolescents at their peak hormone levels. There were school nurses, yes, but I never felt comfortable going to her and asking for anything other than a Band-Aid. Sounds familiar to you?

As a teenager, I went to Planned Parenthood for birth control, medical exams, and the morning after pill. I went there instead of my mother because it was the only place where I knew I wouldn’t be judged. I would get the care I needed and move on, whereas if I had gone to my mother, she would’ve had a heart attack knowing that her daughter was sexually active and seeking birth control.

The other night, I asked my husband if his parents ever gave him the sex talk. He told me that his mom attempted to give him one, but it was vague. Later, as a teenager, his dad gave him a talk about the dangers of sexual activity. He was told that he should not get a girl pregnant, because if he did, then he would have the responsibility for the rest of his life. For a teenage boy, this kind of talk is terrifying. The weight of responsibility for another human being is not something that teenagers want to deal with. But then again, it was typical American parent activity—to scare their children away from having sex by translating it into a devious, risky behavior.

I think it’s time we change that. Thus, for my dinner party, the first person that I would invite is Peggy Orenstein, author and journalist. Peggy has done many interviews with young women and asked them personal questions about their perceptions and behaviors regarding sexual activity, which she outlined in her Ted Talk here. She said that a lot of women do not take into consideration their own pleasure—after all, society has dictated that male pleasure takes precedence. In her talk, she referenced a study done on 300 young Dutch women and young American women and their early experiences. Published in the International Journal of Sexual Health, this study noted that American women had engaged in sexual activity at an earlier age and were less likely to use birth control. They’re also more likely to feel pressured to have sex. By contrast, Dutch women’s experiences involved open communication with their partners about what they liked and didn’t like, along with using protection appropriately. They were more comfortable about their bodies and more in tune with their own pleasure.

The main difference between Dutch and American parents is that Dutch parents instilled a sense of responsibility and joy. From an early age, they talked to their kids openly about sex, pleasure and mutual trust, whereas American parents either provided the “risky sex talk” or didn’t talk about it at all. My experience along with my husband’s experience fits into this mold perfectly.

Speaking openly about sexual thoughts and behaviors is difficult for many of us, men and women included. But one person who has talked candidly about her sexual escapades is Amy Schumer. She is the second person that I would invite to my dinner party. In her book, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, she talks openly about her childhood, her family, her thoughts and sexual adventures. The first chapter of her book is titled, “An open letter to my vagina,” which, as you would expect, is funny and raw. Her “openness” might be misconstrued as overzealous confidence. Whether or not that’s true, I think her “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” attitude has helped her fit well in to the male-dominated world of comedy. As a woman, she’s had doubts and uncertainties about herself and her abilities, and I think it would be great to bring that to the table.

And while we’re at it, I’d also bring the author of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, E.L. James. For someone who wrote one of the best-selling series in the world, I was surprised to find that she is currently in her mid-fifties. She has truly opened a lion’s den regarding people’s sexual adventures, turning something that surely has been common (but kept secret) in America into something acceptable and extremely erotic. She has redefined female sexual pleasure to a whole new level.

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Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Recently, I watched Fifty Shades Darker with my husband. Even though it was almost 10 o’clock, our bedtime, our eyes perked up at the sex scenes. I’m not going to lie—it was hot. This movie challenges many cultural norms, such as where pleasure should be directed to. It’s clear that outside the bedroom, it’s all about him, but inside the bedroom, it’s all about her. A woman’s desires and articulation for that desire was brought forth in this film. For example, in one scene, Anastasia says to Christian, “Kiss me,” a euphemism for oral sex. In another scene, she asks him to take her to the Red Room, a secret room where he keeps his chains and whips.

What E.L. James brought forth in her novels is that women are sexual creatures too. They want to be loved, yes, but they also want to be open and exploratory. Women’s desires are just as important as men’s. Thus, she created this young woman who is just barely out of college as an anchor for what young women should be like today—confident, self-assured, and knows what she wants.

On that same note, the party wouldn’t be complete without Anastasia Steele, James’ main protagonist, as my last dinner guest. I realize that she’s fictional, but Ana is a raunchy character who keeps up her “good girl” image in the professional world (evidenced by her refusal to submit to her boss Jack Hyde’s sexual advances), but instead allows her man to take control of her in bed while telling him exactly what she wants. She is, in theory, more Dutch than American.

As a society, particularly in American society, we often undermine girls’ self-pleasure. We don’t talk about girls masturbating; instead, the attention is on boys’ masturbation. We often make a joke out of it, saying that boys are bottles of hormones waiting to be expelled, whereas it’s lewd for girls to pleasure themselves. The result is that these girls grow up into women who doesn’t know how to articulate their sexual desires to their partners.

While I don’t disagree that you should warn your kids about the dangers of unprotected sex and sexually transmitted diseases, I do think that it’s important to give kids a straight talk rather than the danger talk or avoiding it altogether. Recently, I thought about how in approximately 7 years, my daughter will be 12 and in the swing of puberty. No doubt she will have questions about her body and boys and sex (she’s already asked me, “Why do women have boobs and little girls don’t?”) and I thought about how I would have “the talk” with her and what I would tell her about her body. So I wrote down a list of what I called, “Body Advice That My Mother Never Gave Me.” One of things on the list is about her hymen, how it will bleed the first time she has sex. Then I discovered this Ted Talk called “The Virginity Fraud” and it took me a step back. Whoa. Here I was, thinking that the hymen was like a piece of sensitive skin that breaks during first sexual intercourse, when reality, it’s more malleable than that.

After listening to the talk, I had to re-examine what I knew about the female body, and I realized that misconceptions such as the one about the hymen have been extrapolated from a variety of sources that I came into contact with growing up in America, such as books, TV shows, movies and my peers. It was then I realized that I, too, need to overcome certain misconceptions. I need to do my research before I tell my daughter that our bodies are the same, because it’s not. According to the speakers, hymens come in all shapes and sizes. Thus, hers might not be the same as mine. Lastly, her sexual experiences will not be the same as mine either.

At the end of this dinner party, I hope that we all can come to the consensus that while it’s important to give the talk, it’s more important to give the right kind of talk, the right kind of information, and be open and honest about our desires and experiences. As a woman, articulating my wants is something that I’m still working on. It is quite difficult to do when one grows up in an environment of secrecy, unmentionables and filled with abstinence-only education backed by religious beliefs. Still, I look forward to the day when I can talk to Lily about all of this.

Want to start thinking about sex education in a different way? Start with this Ted Talk.

Let’s screen in for screen time

In response to Sarah DeWitt’s Ted Talk

It feels like ages ago, but when I was pregnant with James, my second child, I had a bad case of fatigue. I felt like it plagued me all throughout the pregnancy. Day in and day out, I was tired. Perhaps it was because I was working nights at a local grocery store, often flopping down onto my bed at half past midnight that contributed to the tiredness. Or perhaps it was because I had an energetic two-year-old toddler in tow, who constantly needed me and who constantly chatted, that I fell prey to the lovely technology piece called an iPad.

If the nights go well, then I’d be in bed by 12:30 am and passed out by 12:45 am. Then, approximately six hours later, between 6:00-6:30 am, Lily would wake me up. Her father is usually long gone by then. In the early afternoons while my husband was working, my fatigue settled in and told me that it wasn’t going anywhere. According to my time clock, I still had another three hours before my husband got off work, and another 9+ hours before I could go to bed. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time counting down the hours and minutes until I could go to bed. Unfortunately, my toddler was out of the napping phase at the time, so I couldn’t put her down for a nap and then take one of my own. Thus, my solution was the iPad. I gave it to her often in the early afternoon, so I could have an hour or so of quiet time. When she started playing, I’d immediately lay down on my bed, often staring at the ceiling, eyes wide open, and wondering to myself why I wasn’t asleep already.

My inability to take naps is another story. The point is, the whole time I laid there staring at the ceiling, sometimes crying (because, you know, pregnancy hormones), I felt incredibly guilty at having to use a technology device as a crutch for relief. I felt guilty at not having more energy to spend on her. I felt guilty because I wanted to do things, like clean the house, or even get out of the house, but my body couldn’t face it. The baby was draining all the energy out of me.

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Even now, as I’m writing this, I’m allowing her to play on the iPad so I could write. I can hear her mumbling through the door of her room, the sound of her voice inquisitive. I know what she’s playing—a bubble pop game designed after the movie Inside Out.

This small level of parental guilt never quite diminished…until recently, while browsing the TED app on my phone, I came upon Sarah DeWitt’s Ted Talk called “3 fears about screen time for kids—and why they’re not true” and felt prompted to watch it immediately. In her 12-minute engaging talk, Sarah outlined the fears and perceptions about screen time for children, then weaved in her research and work at PBS to demystify the fears that a lot of parents face. Finally, she related the research on children with a very important idea—that what we should do as parents is engage with our kids about what they’re watching and playing.

Such insight on parental engagement in relation to children’s media has been validated through a study done at Vanderbilt University. In this study, researchers found that in order for children to learn best with media, such as television, parents need to engage in a dialogue with their kids. It makes perfect sense, because as Sarah had put it, engaging in conversation with your kids about what they’re watching opens up opportunities for discussion, thereby developing the child’s communication and critical thinking skills.

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Fears about how screen time might be a waste of time and how it takes away children’s educational opportunities are valid. Fears about the content of videos being inappropriate to a child are also valid, given the recent criticism of Google’s Youtube Kids web site. Somehow Google allowed a few videos “slip through the cracks” and as a result, a myriad of videos with adult content circulated the web site, causing a lot of uprising amongst adults and parents around.

Look, I get it. Sometimes we can’t stop videos from appearing on our feeds. I recall awhile back, Lily was obsessed with Youtube Kids. It was an app on her iPad, and she was always watching. I saw a few videos that I thought were strange on the app, but never gave much further thought, until the issue with adult content on Youtube Kids came to the surface. From that point on, my husband and I decided to delete the app from the iPad.

When Lily was approximately eight months to 20 months, she was completely obsessed with Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a TV show based on Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. Mr. Rogers, as we know, have gone away to a better place, but his legacy lives on in the lives of Daniel Tiger and his friends. Sarah mentioned in her talk that what Mr. Rogers did was revolutionary—he started talking to the children as if they were there, when in reality, they were behind a screen watching him in front of a TV. He paved the way for other shows to follow, besides Daniel Tiger and the lessons about life that a child can learn by watching TV.

I wish I had shows like Daniel Tiger to teach me about life when I was a kid. Growing up, we had a small black & white television (this was, after all, a third world country in the early ‘90s) and we reveled in the television and what it offered. Then, when my family came to America, we stayed with my uncle and his family, who owned a large Panasonic television that was about as heavy as construction equipment hooked up to a video game system for their kids to enjoy in the basement on hot summer days. It was there that I realized televisions can be in color! (oh the excitement!) and how much of an entertainment experience that was.

IMG_5872The point is—whether we like it or not, we live in a world filled with technology today. It’s part of our every day lives. The truth is, many of us check our phones as soon as we wake up in the morning (myself included) and can’t stay away from checking emails on our commute to work daily. I often see many people, from all ages and ethnicities on the train with their headphones on, either watching a video or listening to music or checking social media. Technology is embedded in our every day lives, and it would be ironic if you are a person who is a frequent user of technology who revokes the same privilege to your kids. After all, what are you teaching them by doing so? That perhaps it’s something forbidden, or something that carries a certain level of excitement simply because it’s forbidden?

These days, Lily likes to play the drawing game on her iPad. She also likes to play the bubble pop games. When I’m sitting there with her, she often turns to me and gives a sports anchor’s minute-by-minute play on what she’s doing on the game. I’d often nod, smile, and listen to her words, amazed by her inquisitiveness and curiosity.

I really believe that when used appropriately, technology can be our friend. It can teach us a lot of things. Learning apps are aplenty nowadays, and as a parent, I try to choose games or apps that have an education component so that Lily gets the best of both worlds—to have fun and to learn something.

 

Perceptions of poverty and how to overcome it

First, let me get one thing straight.

I’m not here to extend a confession as if someone is not reading, or as if I want any kind of sympathy or charity. I’m here to tell you about my experience with poverty, and how my thoughts and perceptions about poverty have evolved over the years. I’m here to tell you the truth about poverty.

I’ve been poor for all of my life, and currently just barely out of the running for state assistance benefits. I make about $100 too much to be considered “at poverty level” or “the highest need.” Yet, when I file my taxes I still qualify for credits intended for the poor. In fact, for the past few years, I belonged in the State Assistance Club. When my son was born I enrolled in the WIC program so I could get extra food benefits, only to drop out completely after several months of being limited in the things that I could buy at the store. Cheerios, plain only, in a certain size. Only a certain type of tuna, not all types. Only block cheese, whole wheat bread only, etc…you get the idea.

From approximately 2014 to 2016 I was on food stamps. Or I should say rather—we were on food stamps, my family and I. We subsisted on an income of less than $2000 per month. Our rent was about $1000 per month, cheap by Portland standards. At least we had that on our end. That, and financial aid money from my husband’s school kept us afloat.

Then in the summer of 2016, I got a job that I coveted for so long—an accounting position at my alma mater, Portland State University. It wasn’t so much the fact that it was an accounting job, it was more so the opportunity to work at a university that I enjoyed being at so much during my undergrad years. Even though it was a part time position, things were moving in the right direction. But we still qualified for food benefits.

It wasn’t until I got a full time position that put us out of the race for food stamps. Although my husband graduated last June, he’s still on the job hunt and things are still hard, especially when there are no longer financial aid money to utilize.

There have been many days in the past where I’ve felt shameful about my lack of prosperity in life. During my four years working for a local credit union, I handled a lot of accounts. Numbers flashed before me every single day. High numbers, that is. I helped a lot of individuals from my generation and knew exactly how much they made. I also knew how much they spent, and the numbers were both equally monstrous. Often, I’d sit there next to the quiet hum of the computer, and browsed through people’s accounts during slow times. Those who were around my parents age, I understood if they had a lot of money. But for those who weren’t, for those who were younger or my age, I’d stew in silence at how much they had and how much they made, and wondered what was wrong with me, why was I still stuck in the position of bank teller, a position that only pays a few dollars above minimum wage. After all, wasn’t I a college graduate? What the hell was I doing there wasting my time looking at other people’s accounts? Why wasn’t I out there earning more money??

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This attitude unfortunately was born out of self pity, and it’s not something I feel great about admitting. And that’s the thing that is worse than being poor—your attitude about being poor. I grew up in poverty, and one of the things I’ve realized lately is that poor folks are perceived poorly by their upper middle class peers. You’re lazy. You sit around all day and complain about why you’re so poor, why the whole world is against you, why God hasn’t given you a piece of the pie yet, when in reality you haven’t so much as gotten off your seat and made some changes. In reality you haven’t experienced an enormous amount of rejections and disrespect yet. In reality you’re scared, and you don’t know what to do, how to make the changes happen.

Without realizing it, I trapped myself in the mindset of a true poor person—someone riddled with self pity, not self confidence. Someone who fits the stereotype, which is ironic because I’ve been trying to avoid stereotypes all my life.

This epiphanic realization came to me recently following the publication of Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in the New Yorker. It was called “The Psychology of Inequality” online, and “Feeling Low” in the print version. In the article, she discussed something called a “tax on the poor”—the fact that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to play the lottery versus those who are not. And they play it so much that it feeds into the system, thus becomes an informal, unwritten tax. Poor people put their money, whatever little money they had, into a bucket for a chance at a larger bucket of money, never knowing that the odds are stacked against them.

That example reminded me of my father immediately. I exclaimed in my head, “my dad used to do that all the time!!” We were always poor when we lived in Vietnam, but he never failed to play a game or two. Even after we came to America, he remained an avid lottery player. He never won anything except for $50 one time. And I’m certain he must’ve spent thousands on those lottery tickets.

So it goes without saying that when you’re poor you hope to get rich and any chance, no matter how small, is worth trying. But as Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in her article, research shows that even for those in the 1%, the truly rich do not consider themselves rich, nor do they acknowledge that they are rich. Instead, they dismiss their prosperity as something minute, something that they worked hard at earning, something less in comparison to their peers. For example, “My neighbor has a private jet that takes him anywhere he wants. That’s rich.” Never mind the fact that they have a million dollar mansion with four new vehicles and a half a million dollar income.

This proves that no matter if you’re rich or poor, you will never be in perfect alignment with how you actually are. When you’re poor, you submit to a lot of self pity and when you’re rich, you submit to a lot of self entitlement.

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I’m glad that I don’t work at that credit union anymore. If I am, I would still be subjecting myself to the same level of self pity. I’ve come to realize that the first step in getting out of poverty is changing your way of thinking. It’s not saying “hard work will do you good!” because it’s easier said than done. It’s not hoping and wishing that others will understand you. It’s the mindset. It’s taking the “feeling low” factor out of the equation and refusing to let it back into your head. I know that I’m not always going to be low income. I’m going to be middle class someday, and it may not happen as soon as I would like but I know it’s going to happen because I’m going to try. And I feel like I’ve accomplished something here today by admitting that hey, I used to be that person who was jealous of her peers and engaged in a lot of self pity, but now I’m not. I can only do what I can, and as long as I’m trying that is what matters.