I was delighted to get my hands on an ARC of one of the most anticipated releases of 2020, The Beauty of Your Face by Chicago’s very own Sahar Mustafah, thanks to Third Coast Review.
On top of her exceptional writing–this is one of the most suspenseful and vivid literary works I’ve ever read–Mustafah’s debut accomplishes a stupendous task of cultural understanding. Hailing from the southwestern suburbs, I knew there was an Arab-American population, but not much about them–let alone how similar their immigrant stories were to all of Chicago’s.
Check out my full review here. I’m looking forward to Mustafah’s future work, and I’m hoping it includes a cookbook!
In 2013-14, I spent nine months in the provincial capital of Latacunga, Ecuador on a Fulbright grant. Social-cultural norms meant that daily life had a lot in common with today’s “shelter in place” mandates. Here I share what I learned, and how to best embrace this “new normal.”
For FAQs on why I chose this lifestyle, please see part 1.
Part II: Social-Emotional Health
Once I committed to adapting my social life, I took a page out of the Ecuadorians’ book and prioritized:
We US Americans are always complaining about how we don’t have enough time to do one or more of the above things. I recommend starting here, with your true priorities, and dedicating your time and energy to those instead of scrolling through the news.
If you ask an Ecuadorian why they do anything—work, school, whatever—they will rarely say they do it for themselves. They usually said they were motivated to produce money for their family and public works for their community, tangible or otherwise.
In Latacunga, I called my mom and dad at least once a week. We could only talk on Viber over Wifi, so I had to be in my house. I told them what was going on at the university, planned for my dad to visit me, I shared what I was learning. If I missed these weekly calls due to a trip, I felt really lost and unmoored.
Tip – beginner: if you can— CALL YOUR MOM. Or Dad, or sister, or cousin. You probably have a lot to talk about.
Intermediate: Bring an agenda so you don’t just wax catastrophic about coronavirus. Decide to watch a movie or a show together, and talk about that instead! Maybe now’s the time to teach your Boomer relatives how to actually use Facebook. Or identify fake news. Or download a podcast. You probably have something valuable to share, and vice versa.
Advanced: If you’re feeling especially ballsy, you can even try to mend a broken relationship. You may find yourself with the time and emotional bandwidth to process some misunderstandings, so a delicately worded email or text could set your feet on the path to healing.
Time commitment: 1-2 hours, at least weekly. Try every 2-3 days!
For a lot of folks, “found family” is just as, or even more important than biological family. I leaned heavily on found family while in Latacunga, located both in Ecuador and in far-off countries. There was a lot of information coming in and I needed a “philosopher buddy” to bounce ideas off of and help process.
I spent hours and hours, sometimes daily, discussing politics, cultural differences, historical research topics, everything under the sun with people I knew I liked, but never really had the time or space to pursue a full friendship with. They are some of my closest friends now. We exchanged writing, critiqued each other’s novels, talked about 16th century religion, developed theories of gender and religion and the Renaissance on three continents. We had our own little virtual salon!
Tip – beginner: Call, facetime, or start texting again with good friends you’ve lost touch with, or just barely get to see because you’re both so busy! Chat while you make dinner or clean up the house.
Tip – intermediate: Reach out to a college friend or old classmate or someone you met with a shared hobby. Catch up on whatever you had in common, see what they’re up to.
Tip – Advanced: Join or set up a discord server and invite whoever you think would like it! Or set up a virtual event just for your friends. (Super advanced people already know how to make Reddit friends, or use Patreon Discords to find connections.)
Time commitment: 4-7 hours a week. Really, people wanna TALK about things, especially when they’ve got nowhere to be!
As a university teacher, I needed to plan classes and grade papers. This definitely ate a bunch of time, but I also had the time and space to come up with new and better ways to communicate and run a classroom.
I also was able to do some soul-searching about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I knew I wouldn’t stay in Ecuador forever, and that I’d eventually come back to the States, so I planned out a few viable career paths for when I got back.
If you can work remote: now’s the time to figure out new and better ways to do things, since your boss can’t breathe down your neck or micromanage you. Even if that’s not useful at your current job, I guarantee it will be useful in the future. Really, I promise, cross my heart. Companies are starved for people who can think critically and optimize workflows with a human touch. They might not admit it, but it’s very real.
If you can’t work remote and still have to work: God bless your doctor / CTA driver / other critical infrastructure / other job situation soul. I’m not gonna pretend to have good work tips for you outside of general stress management, so scroll down!
If you can’t work remote or at all, and/or are on the job market:
NOW is the time to polish the heck out of your resume. Take that online course. Apply for grants and scholarships. Research that Dream Job You Think About while dealing with crappy clients or patrons. Sketch out a plan for how to get it. Make your LinkedIn shine. Dig through the free MIT courses and take one fun course, and one “pragmatic” course.
NETWORK NETWORK NETWORK online! All those professionals in your dream industry? They’re at home trying to stay busy too! They may actually have time to mentor and build their own networks too. Request an informational interview virtually. Make a professional twitter and follow the topics and careers you’re interested in, now and in 10 years.
It’s hard to stay disciplined with this stuff, and I personally get really exhausted and dejected quickly. I recommend an actual rewards system for time spent. For example:
1 hour of Future Job Research = you get to make another cup of coffee
You fix your resume —> you get to binge Netflix the rest of the day
Set a social call for a specific time of the day —> you only do job research and don’t go on twitter until then
Time commitment: ~1 hr per day.
(Obviously comes after you deal with the unemployment & COBRA stuff)
We’re all spending a lot more time in our houses. It’s important to make the space healthy, stimulating, and relaxing to occupy.
One of my most therapeutic house activities in Ecuador was doing my laundry by hand. In a big cement washtub with a bar of detergent. Yes, it was cold as heck and physically exhausting. I could have gone to a laundromat but I was determined to try out as much of Latacungueno life as possible.
I loved doing my laundry. It was a full body workout. You had to do it in full sun, otherwise it was too cold on my little wash patio. It was 3-4 hours of hand-roughening scrubbing, and my clothes never felt so clean or smelled so good. I also felt like I earned my own cleanliness, that I was more responsible for it. I’d put on Spotify or NPR and vibe every Saturday morning.
Today, I still do an iteration of this when I can cram it in: I put on a podcast and clean the bathroom, or vacuum, or scrub out the fridge.
Cleaning your own space is really empowering. Not only do you get to look at the finished product like a trophy you earned, but it helps your brain process information by moving your hands.
Tip for everyone: While you shelter in place, I also recommend delineating spaces inside your own house. Yes, you also can do this in your 700 ft studio. For example:
Designated Work Space. I work at my desk in my Desk Chair. When I log off from work, I shut down my computer, put it in my work backpack, and hide it in the closet until tomorrow’s login time. I also still Get Dressed for Work. Nothing fancy, but I do wear my Nice Jeans and occasionally my blazer. When I logoff, I take it all off and put on sweatpants. Pajamas are for Netflix and sleeping, nothing more.
Designated Hangout Space, the couch.
Designated Recreation & Social Space, the kitchen table.
Most importantly, designated space where you NEVER work in. For me it’s bedrooms. Life & work when you’re dealing with all this stress will inevitably worm its way inside your house. It’s important to have a “safe space”–even from yourself. (And Twitter, let’s be real).
The most centering thing I did while in Latacunga was keep my culture blog (warning–it’s SUPER dated). It was series of observations and thinkpieces about what I was learning from Ecuadorians—about their own cultures, and about my own. I have a lot of big ideas that I prefer to communicate in essay format, so I spent a ton of time on it. I could spend up to three weekends on a single blog post. While I still worked on my fiction, I honestly spent most hours on the blog, and I don’t regret a moment of it.
I also microblogged using Facebook, sharing quips and anecdotes that struck me as funny or significant. These were unexpectedly popular just with my Facebook network, and wound up earning me a niche following for people interested in travel, history, and Latin America-US cultural relationships.
What I’m saying is: if you’ve always wanted to launch an online personal brand, now is the time! Everyone is at home staring at their phone, craving content. Have something to say? SAY IT! Want to learn to do something as a hobby, or as a side hustle? DO IT! You have YouTube, infinite hours, and literally nothing better to do. Learn to videoblog. Learn to use Photoshop. Make an iMovie for your parents of old photos (parents love that). Someone give you a carpentry book because you said you wanted to be like Nick Offerman and you never opened it? Go pick it up off the shelf and read it!
The critical part of a hobby or a side hustle is that it has to fully engage your brain for hours and hours. It’s different from binging Netflix in that your brain has to actively generate ideas, content, and solutions. With the Internet we are out of the habit, but this is a great time to rebuild that skill set.
I promise, dedicating hours to A Project, literally Any Project, REALLY HELPS. Humans are happy when we’re building things, for ourselves and for each other.
Tip for everyone: Dedicate one hour a day to finding or starting a true hobby or side hustle. It’s okay to give up or decide you hate it—you’re not getting graded here—but try, for at least 3 hours per week, one single thing. After the pandemic passes, it will be super helpful to have a passion outside of work and life’s craziness.
Have trouble focusing? I recommend Pomodoro timers. I especially like that you can track how many hours you spend on a specific thing—makes me feel productive even if I haven’t accomplished anything after 3-4 hours!
In Latacunga, it was super weird to go anywhere alone without an explicit purpose on any day of the week, much like the Shelter in Place orders in Illinois right now. It wasn’t a law, it was just the social norm.
Chicago and a host of other cities & countries issued Shelter-in-Place orders in an effort to curb the COVID-19 pandemic in the past ten days. People are freaking out, understandably. I’m here to tell you that the recommended “shelter in place” practices aren’t all that bad, and there’s potential for silver lining.
How would you know?
For almost a year, I voluntarily lived a “shelter-in-place” lifestyle.
From September 2013 through July 2014, I lived alone in Latacunga, Ecuador. I was a recipient of Fulbright English Teaching Assistant grant, which funds U.S. students & recent-ish grads to work part-time in English Language departments of public universities in select Fulbright-participating countries.
Wait, you were living abroad and you sheltered in place?
Essentially! I only went to work at the university, grocery shopping, and running. I did go on trips with friends about once a month, and occasionally joined a coworker at their family dinners. But most nights—and weekends—I spent alone in my apartment.
[I don’t care about your story, skip to the Tips!]
That sounds horrible!
It does sound horrible, but I actually loved it. I slept regularly for the first and only extended period of my life. My mental health issues all but disappeared. I got in great shape, and miraculously lost the 20+ lbs I had put on in college (not on purpose—more on that later). I outlined a half dozen creative projects I maybe one day will be lucky enough to pitch. I kept a relatively successful niche blog—and inadvertently developed an online brand with a dedicated following. I grew and developed significant personal and professional relationships in Ecuador and back in the States, both virtually and in-person.
I didn’t specifically set out to do any of this. In fact, when I accepted the Fulbright and committed to this lifestyle, I was terrified of many of the things people fear with social distancing and shelter-in-place. I was afraid of being lonely & isolated. I was afraid of my mental health spiraling out of control. I was afraid of messing up my job, and my important relationships. I was afraid of having the personal willpower to see the long, lonely scholarship period through all on my own.
Most of all, I was afraid of myself.
How did you get over that?
Eh, how one gets over anything. You prepare as best you can with the knowledge that you have, and you just steel yourself and jump in. You acknowledge your terror, existential and otherwise, hold it in your hands and let it save your life when it’s smart, and tell it to screw off when it’s dumb. Easy to say in hindsight.
Why were you staying in so much anyway? I thought Fulbright was about traveling and experiencing new places and people.
It is! I had been to Latin America a couple times before for extended stays, so I had an idea of what to expect socially and culturally. I prepared as best I could with the knowledge that I had, and steeled myself and jumped in.
go to the gym
hang out with people my age
go to restaurants or bars
go out dancing, clubbing, etc
eat-pray-love stuff popular with other gringos (yoga on the beach, “volunteering with orphans” etc)
outdoorsy stuff popular with other gringos (ie rock climbing, petting endangered monkeys, etc)
I committed to changing—adapting—“essential” aspects of my personality that turned out to not be so essential after all.
But Terry—those are all of your favorite things! How—and why—did you cut that out of your life for so long?
Yes, they’re a lot of my favorite things, but they don’t define me. They certain aren’t prerequisites my happiness or contentment or purpose. They’re more like my favorite color, which is purple. Yeah, I like purple a lot, but if I never see that color again I won’t be sad.
I didn’t go to Latacunga to “live my best life” or to “find myself” or to self-actualize; I came to Ecuador to be with Ecuadorians.
Ecuadorians take care of each other with unfathomable dignity. I came back to learn from them their ways of being a good community member—for shouldering weight when you have the strength, for giving back using your unique skill set, for huddling together when things are bad, and celebrating madly when things are good.
It was really important to me to learn not just by watching, but by doing. Perhaps counterintuitively, being a responsible participant-observer implicated a lot of Staying at Home.
Wait, how did staying at home make you a better community member?
Honestly, the cultural norm in Latacunga was to be a bit of a homebody.
Sure, people go out and do things—they take trips to the national parks and participate in “turismo nacional” in other cities and national parks and beaches. They go to nightclubs and out dancing and to eat “comida tipica” or foods unique to cities and regions. But rare is the group of teens or twenty-somethings roaming around doing these things together. Most folks do this with their extended family.
The main social unit in Ecuador was the extended family. It was rare—even frowned upon—for a young person to move out of their family’s household, which typically occupied a few buildings on the same block or plot of land. Dorms did not exist. Students who did move outside their home communities to study typically rented a room & purchased board in the household of another extended family in the city of their university.
It was actually seen as virtuous and desirable to spend most time at home with your family than doing literally anything else.
Where were all the twenty-somethings?
Most twenty-somethings I met were deeply ingrained in their family life both socially and economically. They worked several jobs—usually some sort of service job in the family business, student work, and childcare. Many were entrepreneurs on the side, selling homemade food at soccer games on Sundays or working with the community brigades to repair roads and other civil services.
No one had time or space to go drink craft cocktails or party all night. They barely had time to see their own significant others. If they did travel or go out, they wanted to bring their parents and grandparents—who else would help with childcare?
Furthermore, most people already had kids before they even thought about college. College was seen as a second or even third step of adulthood.
Couldn’t you have gone out and done things by yourself?
In Latacunga, it was super weird to go anywhere alone without an explicit purpose on any day of the week, much like the Shelter in Place orders in Illinois right now. It wasn’t a law, it was just the social norm. Sure, there were tons of nightclubs and public concerts and festivals, but people went with their entire extended family. Imagine going to a nightclub by yourself, and everyone is there is a full family, nineteen year olds up through their great-aunts. It’s not exactly the place you go to make friends and influence people.
It was not appropriate for me to participate in Latacunga public life for a number of reasons. I had learned the hard way that my light brown hair and blue eyes made me an instant celebrity anywhere I went, and I was often greeted like I was Paris Hilton. No matter where I went, my presence was disruptive—due to my appearance, my nationality, and my obscene wealth & privilege.
After some fumbles, I adopted a sociocultural Hippocratic Oath of sorts: do no harm, even passively. The best way to do no harm, I learned, was to earn the trust of the community, and show up to social gatherings only when invited.
This worked incredibly well. So well that I’d tell any white person, or anyone with a privilege differential, that the best way to engage with a community is to just be a normal respectful person, and one day you might be lucky enough to get invited. And then you can g–but keep your goddamn mouth shut. But that’s another blog post!
So while everyone in Latacunga was working three jobs and having quality family time, what in the hell were YOU doing shut up in your house?
All kinds of stuff! Here’s what my schedule was like:
6am – dawn run.
Terry, shut up. I know you. You did NOT wake up at dawn to run. Don’t lie to me.
I’m not lying! I told you, I adapted aspects of myself I thought were essential, but weren’t really.
The dawn runs were a cultural accommodation. Unlike Chicago, you don’t see folks out in running gear at literally all hours. In Latacunga, a dedicated bunch of middle aged men and women congregated silently in the city’s central park and ran laps around a cute little half-mile track (made out of cobblestones! It was like trail running). I joined them, silently, and my presence did not seem disruptive to this quiet little group.
It was a glorious experience. The sun poked through the fog and illuminated the snow-capped Cotopaxi volcano with fiery magenta light. The rising moon in the cold blue sky, the whispering palm trees, Florence + the Machine on my iPod. It was an important, centering meditation. I learned the streets of the city really well without the bustle of traffic, and had some quality time with its unique turn of the century architecture. Also—with the rest of my schedule, there was no other time to run!
I guess I can see you singing Florence and the Machine to a shiny volcano. Go on.
6am – dawn run
7am – cold shower (no water boilers! Needless to say I got very efficient)
8am – make my own coffee and breakfast. While I stopped drinking alcohol, I could NOT stop drinking coffee! I had to go out of my way to find places that sold Ecuador’s delicious coffee beans exported to places like Intelligentsia in the States. Most Ecuadorians drank Nescafe because it was so cheap!
Breakfast was usually some pan and eggs. Fruit if I was ambitious.
9am – bus to university, stop at a print shop to make some copies
10am – first class
12:30-2pm – lunch at the adorable fix-prix hole in the wall place across the street from the university. It was 2-3 courses for $2.25—typically a bean, meat, and veggie soup, an entree of a small cut of grilled meat, 1.5 cups of white rice, a carrot or cabbage salad, and sometimes jello for dessert. It came with delicious freshly-squeezed tropical fruit juice too, but I unfortunately had to stop drinking it since I figured out they didn’t use boiled water to make it and I kept getting amoebas. (That’s how I lost 20lbs).
4pm: EMPANADA HAPPY HOUR! The women professors were kind enough to invite me to their daily snacktime ritual. A guy with a pickup truck and a portable deep fryer set up shop every afternoon to sell emapanadas al viento, puffy deep fried pastries full of creamy mild cheese and doused in crystal sugar. Served with Nescafe saturated with sugar. I still dream about this. The women professors tell me all gossip and give me advice; it’s a really important food-and-ladies therapy session.
5pm: make more copies, last set of classes
8-9pm: take last bus back to downtown, a taxi if I miss it
10pm: “make” dinner. Usually a spinach salad with eggs, or some chicken or beans I made the previous weekend. I don’t have a microwave so I figure out how to reheat things by steaming on the stovetop.
Talk to a friend on Facebook messenger & wrap up classwork while eating
11pm: depending on how bad the Perpetual Food Poisoning is, crawl into bed with a cup of cedron “lemongrass” tea, or oregano to soothe.
Yeah, you really didn’t have time for anything on the weekdays. But what about the weekends?
Yep, three days a week I basically had no structured schedule (Fri-Sunday). It was a relief after the 11 hour days at the university, but it turned out very healthy for me.
True, but I’m I have identified as an extrovert since I was about 19. In reality I’m somewhat of an ambivert. I get lots of energy from interacting face-to-face with people, especially if they’re telling a story unique to their own life experience or teaching me in some other way. But I equally love learning people’s stories in other ways–books, podcasts, history studies, and blogs.
The extrovert vs. introvert thing is a bit of a false dichotomy. Everyone’s got a little bit of introvert in them. I’ve seen every single extovert I know post about how much they love binging Netflix or scrolling through FB.
Regardless of who you are, click here for my outline for Best Practices when you’re sitting inside staring out windows.
“Education should be the antithesis to genocide. If you don’t agree with me, you’re an asshole.”
Chicago writer Gint Aras doesn’t sugar-coat things, and that’s exactly why I like him. Read more of our conversation about his latest release Relief by Execution for Third Coast Reviewhere.
“Harvesting Trauma” was the title of the workshop at Northwestern Summer Writers’ Conference where I met Gint. I was trepidatious about the content of this course, half-expecting someone to break down crying, half-expecting that person to be me. Imagine my surprise when the instructor turned out to be an enormous bald white man in his forties who looked more like a nightclub bouncer than a trauma counselor. But the force of Aras’ presence quickly transcended the physical into the psychosocial, as he guided us through exercises to reframe and validate our painful experiences while preserving the anonymity and privacy of fellow attendees. I walked out of the workshop feeling like my pain–everyone’s pain–was worth something, and Aras had put our feet on the path to wield it in the name of justice at best, catharsis at worst.
I’m vastly oversimplifying what Aras teaches–I recommend his workshops and blog to any and all writers–but that day I found the philosophical backbone I’d been searching high and low for, right here in my home city. I ran to pick up his novel The Fugue, and became an even bigger fan.
If you’ve ever been to Cicero, you know it’s a dystopia. In The Fugue,several generations of immigrants converge in this gloomy industrial corridor and wrestle with the emotional baggage they took with them over the border. The Fugue is Chicago’s Ulysses, but honestly way more exciting. Many characters are synesthetic, and wandering through my own city in their colorful, musical voices was truly magical. It was the first time I’d seen my native religion portrayed not as an Evil Empire bur rather as my people experience it in real life: a cornerstone of immigrant communities going through hell, inhabited by flawed but well-intended human beings, sometimes equipped for the challenges brought to their doorstep but very often not. It’s a comprehensive examination of the intersection of mental health, Catholicism, and the refugee experience–something everyone needs to read today.
I maintain that if The Fugue was set in Queens instead of Cicero, it’d be nominated for a Pulitzer. The workingclass, Catholic, immigrant Cicero Aras splashes onto the page in all its gritty glory–and its troubling underbelly of racism, addiction, and domestic abuse–is only a few stops away from the former sundown town where I grew up. His stark childhood observations of the city’s socioeconomic divisions, and adults’ terse, unsatisfying explanations of Why It Has To Be This Way, struck a chord in me, as I think they will with anyone trying desperately to be on the right side of history while reckoning with one’s own privilege and complicity in oppressive structures.
The Fugue (and/or Relief) ought to be required reading in Chicago area high schools, particularly in communities that take any pride in the “my grandfather came to America in 19xx and did y, and that’s why I’m proud of my family” narrative. Many of us don’t know how to reckon with our collective heritage of trauma, and instead of dealing with it productively we at times reinforce the very power structures that caused our families to flee their homelands.
Aras’ characters impressively walk the razor’s edge between oppressor and oppressed, abuser and abused, until you finally give up and realize that everyone is both at the same time.
Relief by Executionis the perfect pocket-sized, passive-aggressive gift for that one relative who doesn’t quite get why they’re racist; The Fuguefor anyone who likes long books and Chicago, or has Weird Feelings About Catholicism. Check them out at your favorite local bookstore–Aras recommends The Book Table in Oak Park.
Year-end shout-out post dedicated to local Chicago arts publication, Third Coast Review, for supporting the Chicago arts community, and trusting me as a new contributor this year.
In January 2019, a friend referred me to literary editor Dan Kelly, and soon after I was pitching interviews with Chicago authors (or authors who write about Chicago). It became an excellent excuse to get coffee and talk nerdy with Chicago’s literary finest, including Brahm Stoker nominee Julia Fine, Hugo Finalist Alec Nevala-Lee, and accidentally-infamousTJ Martinson, not to mention my personal Chicago literary hero Gint Aras (interview forthcoming). Each author left me agape with more quoteable quotes than I could fit on a page, and each was exceptionally gracious and generous with their time and wisdom. Many thanks and happy writing to each of them in 2020.
This past fall I also began contributing book reviews as well, which you can check out here and here.
Writing about the city, and chatting with writers who share this cityscape has transformed the way I look at both my home and my work. Check out the Best of 2019 as curated by Dan Kelly here.
I’m currently open to book review and interview requests. If you are a Chicago writer and interested in a review / interview for an upcoming release–or just for fun–please don’t hesitate to reach out to me via email terry dot galvan dot writer at gmail dot com, or Twitter @TerryGalvanChi.
The talented and charismatic Julia Fine was kind enough to spend an afternoon with me discussing her debut What Should Be Wild. Julia’s an erudite champion of the Chicago literary community, and her novel entwines a profound femme coming-of-age story with wild magic. I’ll be following Julia’s career closely as she blazes into genre-bending and empowering feminist philosophy.
Check out the transcript of our conversation here and pick up What Should Be Wild at your favorite local bookstore or public library.
T.J. Martinson, a PhD candidate at University of Indiana Bloomington, just released his debut novel The Reign of the Kingfisher (Flatiron Books) this spring, and was kind enough to interview with me at Third Coast.
Don’t let the PhD fool you–T.J.’s a lively, unpretentious Midwesterner. We discussed everything from Chicago’s “Gotham City” reputation to the problems the literary fiction/genre fiction divide presents to not just the literary community, but our culture at large.