Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lily Allen and pop culture feminism

Note: the following includes profanity.

The activist Fannie Lou Hamer once said, "Nobody's free until everyone is free"; yet many movements treat their causes as issues within neat self-contained bubble wrap packaging like so many Fig Bars from Costco. (The moment my dad opened the box and realized that there was a plastic baggie for every 2 fig bars was incredulity concentrated.) Take examples from history--
  • The movement for African-Americans' suffrage split, controversially, apart from the movement for women's suffrage. 
  • Some questioned the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. pushed as much for international peace as much as he did for civil rights at home. 
  • Many historians point to second-wave feminists' alliance with LGBT-rights activists as a reason why Americans, onboard with feminist advances but still wary of gay rights, failed to overwhelmingly support the ERA. 
There are others, but those spring to mind immediately.

In truth, though it may be politically convenient to do so, attempting to separate movements that all seek to promote justice just doesn't work. Even worse: setting them in opposition to each other. And that's what brings me to a certain British chanteuse with a sleek black ponytail and the controversy erupting over her new single, "Hard Out There." 

I remember when I first heard Lily Allen. I was a preteen who still made lip-sync videos with her older sister, and aforementioned sis started blasting "Smile" on the computer. This was back in the day when the F-bomb still made my ears perk up in surprise. 

"What's that?" I demanded.

"Just listen," she said in obvious glee. "It's such a good song. Watch the music video, it tells the story."

And so I watched Lily Allen's narrator give a cheating ex revenge diarrhea (not shown onscreen) thanks to laxative tablets and coffee. It was pretty damn satisfying. Her other songs--"The Fear," with its criticism of conspicuous consumption, the realistic and human portrayal of female sexuality in a relationship in "Not Fair," "22"'s discussion of ageism and women--can all be interpreted in feminist lenses.

And then came "Hard Out Here." Its bountiful twerking and balloon letters seem to poke fun at pop culture icons Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke. The events at the beginning of the video show a cause-and-effect of an entertainment industry, and public, that pushes unrealistic expectations for women's bodies--Lily Allen on an operating table, undergoing liposuction while a villainous manager clucks disapprovingly about how she let herself "go so far" (gain so much weight). The trend continues, but with the introduction of several new characters: twerking African-American dancers, who provide the foils to Allen's "Don't need to shake my ass for you 'cause I got a brain" persona. 

Some choice lyrics:

"If I told you about my sex life, you'd call me a slut
When boys be talking about their bitches, no one's making a fuss
There's a glass ceiling to break, aha, there's money to make
And now it's time to speed this up 'cause I can't move in this space

Sometimes it's hard to find the words to say
I'll go ahead and say them anyway
Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits"

It's unapologetically profane, challenges the slut/player double standard, and even uses "glass ceiling" for probably the first time in a pop song that's received over 2 million views on YouTube.

So what's the problem?

This: by setting herself apart from a gaggle of nameless, voiceless background dancers, Lily Allen isn't changing that pop paradigm of fully clothed white males (holla, Robin Thicke) singing with gyrating close-to-naked women behind them -- she's only switching out the Pit Bull or Robin Thicke or Justin Timberlake and replacing him with Lily Allen. 

That's not a feminist victory, because equal rights--breaking that glass ceiling--isn't just Lily Allen's movement. It's those twerking ladies' movement, too. Intersectionality isn't a pop culture buzzword, but maybe "Hard Out Here" can help it become one. (As Geek Feminism Wiki defines it--"Intersectionality is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. Third Wave Feminism, especially, thrived on the concept of intersectionality in order to redefine Feminism as inclusive. The concept first came from legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989 and is largely used in critical theories, especially Feminist theory, when discussing systematic oppression.")

I still like Lily Allen's songs. I think that it's difficult, if not impossible, to be a perfect advocate for anything. Simply by pointing out societal issues as bluntly as she does in her music, she's leaps and bounds ahead of most pop stars I can think of. In fact, I'm grateful for "Hard Out Here"--because it's started a conversation about race and feminism, and it reminds us all to remember those words--nobody's free till everyone's free. 

Not even you, Lily Allen.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

on teaching, smartness, and empathy

One of my favorite quotes from Cedric Villani, the Fields Medalist and mathematics professor at UC Berkeley who spoke at TEDxOrangeCoast along with my sister and me in September, was one about teaching--to paraphrase, he said that he wasn't doing his job if he made people feel dumb when he was talking to them. True teaching, he said, was making people see a complex issue as simple. It clicked with me because it made total sense, and it distinguishes between good teachers vs. the folks who interject to "help" someone when in truth they're just trying to emphasize how smart they are. (Of course, there are also just folks who genuinely don't know how to simplify things.)

I guess this came to mind because I was thinking of all the teachers I've had. Undoubtedly, the best have been the ones who treat everyone with respect, never assuming that one person is somehow less capable of learning a subject than another. Across the disciplines, there are teachers who make individual students feel this way. Maybe you had one in high school--the calc teacher with the caustic sense of humor who made fun of the kids who got answers wrong, the sophomore English teacher who walked into the room after a big essay turn-in day and declared it the worst batch of papers she ever read, the science teacher who treated you to a stare you couldn't identify as contempt, disgust, or both when you failed to answer a question--these folks who focus on "weeding out" students versus helping them.

"Weeding out" students who have little aptitude for a given topic has its (arguable) merits in higher education, sure; if someone is going to major in a topic, they should be fully aware of the challenges that will face them. The problem is that in secondary education, we don't really have a choice like that. We take classes because they're part of breadth requirements or they look good for college apps (and because of that pesky second thing, you can't really argue "It's your choice to take a harder class where teachers will have higher expectations"--taking a few APs is, it seems, practically a necessity to get into most selective colleges). To expand on that "higher expectations" thought--why should we think that higher expectations must mean making individual students feel less capable?

I care about this because it's not just about individual teachers and individual students. It's not just about the kid who's going to go home today thinking, "I suck at [insert subject here]" because of seeing, feeling, or hearing enough disparagement (explicit or implicit). It's about a larger culture that needs to realize, in the words of Jessica Jiang (a TEDxRedmond committee member), "intelligence means nothing if you don't use it well." In addition to pointing out that "the way schools measure aptitude is ridiculously skewed and so are certain cultural assumptions," she added,

"there are a million things more important than being smart, like being kind and fair and brave. don't let anyone tell you you're not smart because of a number. don't let anyone tell you you're not good enough because you don't spell words right or because you don't get their jokes. conventionally "smart" people do not have a monopoly on good decisions."

Her points--that intelligence and empathy must go hand-in-hand, that "smart" people don't make all the good decisions--are supported in one of my favorite articles, Why Elites Fail. Everything in that article resonated with me because the elites described within--"hyper-educated, ambitious, and well-rewarded"--are precisely the type of people the education I know helps create. One quote hit me in the gut.

"Of all the status obsessions that preoccupy our elites, none is quite so prominent as the obsession with smartness. Intelligence is the core value of the meritocracy, one that stretches back to the early years of standardized testing, when the modern-day SAT descended from early IQ tests. To call a member of the elite “brilliant” is to pay that person the highest compliment. Intelligence is a vitally necessary characteristic for those with powerful positions. But it isn’t just a celebration of smartness that characterizes the culture of meritocracy. It’s something more pernicious: a Cult of Smartness in which intelligence is the chief virtue..." - Christopher Hayes
Smartness, as it's measured in school, is the virtue we're being conditioned to provide by those teachers who make us feel like crap when we stumble.

Something that seems innate and impossible to reach for, something we perceive as a "you have it or you don't" quality. And so can the pursuit of smartness really be that motivating?

We learn to chase smartness.
Not learning from failure.
Not sticking our necks out in the future.
And certainly not empathy.

If we learn how to behave toward our peers from our teachers, then we are learning dangerous lessons when smartness is the only rewarded value.

The tl;dr version:
Don't make people feel stupid.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Sweet sixteen and we had arrived

The similarities between my life and the Lana Del Rey song ("This Is What Makes Us Girls") ends with the blog post's titular line, but I like the song...

"Sweet sixteen and we had arrived
Walking down the streets as they whistle, "Hi, hi!"
Stealin' police cars with the senior guys
Teachers said we'd never make it out alive"

It continues in that vein. But don't worry, I'm not going to model my life here on out after Lana's narrator (much as I find "stealin' police cars" and "drinking cherry schnapps at the local dive" to be intellectually engaging pursuits). The cultural significance of sixteen has a lot to do with the tradition of cotillion balls (thank the deep South for that)--the idea that you "made your debut" at this age. Clearly, I made my debut--albeit one of a different sort--a bit earlier. Which leads me to write this.

One of my best friends wrote on my wall that I was too young, and that she was happy I was getting older. Eerily enough, those have been my thoughts exactly since I was as young as I can remember--always sick of being two years younger than most of my friends, wanting to have some sense of "catching up." When one of my classmates assumed I was turning 17, I didn't correct her. Life would be simpler without stating my age being cause enough for double takes, questions, or the occasional statement of "You're so ADORABLE" (okay, I'll face it, that one ain't going away no matter how old I get. A pity). Oh well.

I once wrote an essay critiquing "growing up fast"--how its negative portrayal is misleading, and how it's one of the best things, in reflection, about my life. I also wrote an essay (incidentally, they were both rough drafts for college apps) about realizing that I'd never really finished growing up, even when I thought I had--ending with "In the hubris of an accelerated life, even one in which my age was touted in the background of any accomplishment, I had managed to forget just how very young I was."

Which brings me to, finally, another quote--which I seem to use on every birthday, but it finally works now, because the protagonist who uttered it was actually 16, too. In The Education: 

Miss Stubbs: You seem to be old and wise.
Jenny: I feel old. But not very wise.

 Wisdom doesn't come wrapped up in paper and tied with a bow; it's not something we can assign based on the number of birthdays someone has had. Making too many assumptions about anyone based on their age is lazy--age isn't a failsafe way to catalog the experiences an individual has had. In truth, that sixteen--or six-year-old--you're looking at may have seen "more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (yes, totally ripping a noncontextual quote from Hamlet, but stealin' from the Bard = the closest I'm getting to Lana Del Rey stuff-of-songs badassery. ;) 

So. Yes, I'm 16. Time to own it.

Monday, August 05, 2013

late night dance parties

Sometimes I wonder what a passing motorist would think about Adrianna and me, if they were to catch a glimpse of us through the open windows that face the street. They'd see two girls leaping, twirling, even hair-flipping in the light of two lamps. They'd see us jumping on the couches or stomping on the floor or advancing toward each other with threatening uppercut gestures parroted from YouTube kickboxing workout videos. Yet there's something so electric about spinning until you can't stand with your eyes open, dancing worse than Elaine Benes on Seinfeld (see below), and knowing that nobody cares because it's just you and your sister and the world outside your window, maybe, if anyone takes the time to look.
On that note the word of the day (which I won't keep up every day, because I'm just commitment-phobic like that--also, I realized that "cross my heart and hope to die" may not be an especially potent promise, since I'm still kicking) is *drumroll*
  1. fre·net·ic  

    Fast and energetic in a rather wild and uncontrolled way: "a frenetic pace of activity".

Frenetic because it's a word that describes our late night dance parties, frenetic because it describes this summer and everything about it that I don't want to let go. From shenanigans on a crowded party bus blasting pop music too loudly on prom night to learning how to drive, doing precalc, writing 3 speeches, prepping for TEDxRedmond, and trying to finish college apps--I guess even the things that aren't so fun are frenetic, just the same. In the end, what's the difference between me and Adrianna spinning in our living room to the music and me running from to-do item to to-do item?

My sister, I guess. And the music.

Song of the day!

Kiss me hard before you go
Summertime sadness
Oh, my god, I feel it in the air
Telephone wires above are sizzling like a snare
Honey, I'm on fire, I feel it everywhere
Nothing scares me anymore
I think I'll miss you forever
Like the stars miss the sun in the morning sky
Later's better than never
Even if you're gone I'm gonna drive

If I go back in the archives of this blog I can see what songs I was listening to last summer. Almost one year ago I wrote this: . Lots of Florence and the Machine, that line "No light, no light in your bright blue eyes / I never knew daylight could be so violent" because I liked a blue-eyed boy, all the Who and Beatles and Mumford and Sons because my best friends at summer camp reminded me of my repressed affinity for classic rock. I still like those bands/songs, but I don't listen to them nearly as much--it's funny how informed our tastes are by our times. I wonder what'll stick around and what will change when I write a blog post like this, one year from now?

As Ze Frank said it best (watch the video y'all)--

"Have you ever lost the ability to imagine a future without a person who is no longer in your life? Have you ever looked back on that event with the sad smile of autumn, and the realization that futures will happen regardless?"

But for a few minutes, maybe an hour even, all our frenetic dancing like Elaine Benes lets me forget summertime sadness and the coming season and all the to-do lists it brings. 

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Flooby or Fly

I wrote this in response to a challenge from my friend to use the imaginary word "flooby," so here goes...

            LaRousse took a guess, that he was floobier than fly,

            but the crowd met his bet with derision; they cry,

            “LaRousse! Don’t do it, you’re throwing away

            your money, our goodwill, hear what we say—

            you’re fly more than flooby, trust our advice,

            instead of taking this guess and a roll at the dice!”

            Yet LaRousse said, “I’m flooby,” with a chin set so firm

            that his mother winced and his father sat stern,

            as he stepped up to the table, took a swig from his flask,

            and threw down a card without stopping to ask.

            “What says it?” screamed the people, all bending to look,

            and a glance at the “f-l-o” was all that it took,

            They cheered him, he beckoned for drinks to be brought,

            “On the house!” said a barmaid, hefting a draught,

            and the naysayers said they’d been jesting, for sure,

            they knew he was flooby, just been trying to lure

            him away from the bet that was right.

            And LaRousse hides the floobies he’s carried all night.

Friday, July 26, 2013

who we are and not what we do

Summer for this rising senior means college apps (and, okay, lots of fun besides), and college apps mean actually figuring out where I'm applying and where I might want to go once I (hopefully) get in someplace. And so I hit up several people on Facebook--friends currently studying at places I'm interested in, like UC Berkeley, UMich, and Williams--to get firsthand advice.

With the most immaculately written "rant" I've ever known: "What makes Berkeley stand out a lot is definitely our activism--it's not exactly the 60s anymore, but there is definitely a sense that you can believe in anything here. There are plenty of hippies, a zillion Christian fellowship groups, pro-Israel and pro-Palestine activists, College Democrats and College Republicans, etc. You can join a sorority or you can join a co-op. You can be a part of a professional pre-med fraternity or an intramural soccer team or Colleges Against Cancer or you can teach a student-run class ("De-Cals") or you can be a lobbyist for women's rights in Sacramento." Progressivism, the chance to be anything, lobbying for women's rights in Sacramento?!?!? ...okay, I'm sold, I thought immediately.

And then I had an enlightening Skype chat with my friend Allison Wu--she's a sophomore at Williams. As someone who knows college admissions like the back of her hand she was probably the bane of her friends' senior year existences by being that-infinitely-more-prepared-girl (or not, because we high school students never get green with envy when other people aren't procrastinating and unprepared like us, riiiiiiight?) Of course, in her role as the sage college student giving me, the clueless senior, advice, she is anything but the bane of anyone's existence.

I could hardly do Allison's incredible summaries of Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, Wellesley, and countless other colleges justice, but what does stick out: weekly storytimes at Williams, where a randomly selected student is given 45 minutes to tell any story from their life, sparking insights as provocative and poignant as a boy coming out to his strict Catholic family to a guy eating rotten food and getting diarrhea on a hike in the Arctic. Parties where you can walk in not knowing anyone and get introduced to friendly students within minutes. "Entries," the freshman living situation where you're paired with juniors and people from diverse backgrounds and intended majors. To paraphrase a bit more: Amherst has a crappy sexual assault policy, Swarthmore is super super super (x500) intellectual, Middlebury has more of a hookup scene than Williams, Phillips Exeter/Andover rivalries still hold strong in college, and alumni networks at women's colleges are the strongest.

and the rest...
But what really really sticks out, even more than all these relevant facts, even more than the West Coast/East Coast contrast (I heard very little about Exeter vs. Andover on the Berkeley side, needless to say), even more than student groups or weekend snack time traditions, was something Allison and I briefly touched upon. She was telling me about Williams and noted that there, she feels valued "for who I am, not what I do."

I blinked, dazed for a moment.

I'd said that exact same thing in so many angsty teenage girl journal entries, I said to her. That in a life where I'd often been described in crass shorthands for accomplishments--even to this day some high school acquaintances call me "the prodigy"--what I wanted most of all, sometimes, was just to be known/liked/loved as me in life who breathes with breath instead of the me that breathes in the flutter of a printed-out resume. Isn't that what everyone wants?

And yet so many people go to colleges where they are what they do--the football star, the freshman with the cool internship, the business creator--and where their college becomes just another definition of them. There's nothing wrong with being the Harvard kid who has done incredible things X Y and Z. But you are more than the Harvard kid who did X Y and Z, and there's something wrong if no one ever took the time to find what that "more" was. If no one ever valued you enough to have a conversation with you till the sun came up about something that had nothing to do with how you make money or a project due in school. If no one has ever given you moments where you forget your company, your school, and maybe even your schedule, because those things don't matter in the strange illumination of life that is discovering a person.

After my blog post about getting 520 on math the lovely Charity Sunshine Tillemann-Dick wrote me this: "The good news is that scores mean LITERALLY nothing. What we do with our lives is what matters. I didn't end up at Yale like 6 of my other siblings, but I never expected my degree to do the work for me. So all I want to tell you is ... you're more than enough. The college brand with which you're associated matters so much less than what you create from your experience."

So, fellow seniors who are getting stressed out right now (or whenever it hits you, maybe when September or October or November or December comes), this is for you. Let's remember that where we go isn't who we are; and let's go places where who we are isn't just what we do, either.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"it's my fast food name, don't ask"

Grabbing Starbucks drinks with my friend Atticus yesterday, I distinctly remember what he said when the beaming cashier asked, "Can I have a name?"

"Alex," Atticus said, muttering to me, "it's my fast food name, don't ask."

"Your fast food name?" I snorted derisively, and stammered out "Uhhh, could I get an orange mango smoothie?" to the cashier. She asked for a name. "Adora," I said, enunciating (I thought) very clearly.

Her eyebrows furrowed in bemusement.

"Andora?" she asked, Sharpie tip wavering over the plastic cup.

"No, Adora--never mind," I said, and waved. She wrote down Andora. I winced. A little part of me died. That extraordinarily microscopic little part of me that is captured by the nonexistence of an "n" between A and D, the "ttic" and nonexistence of a "lex" part Atticus must kill off every time he orders fast food, the "anna" that performs a Lazarus-like death and resurrection when my sister Adrianna hangs out with her friends ("Adri") and returns home.

So, for that tired old question, what's in a name? Shakespeare wrote "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," but I personally like being Adora, a name born at the intersection of a lazy decision that Isadora (after the mother of modern dance, Isadora Duncan, whose biography my mom finished some time when she was pregnant with me) was too long a name, and a stroke of genius by my dad that "Adora" was a nice name. Aurora is too blonde Disney princess-esque, Andorra more reminiscent of the tiny rocky outcropping of a European country, and Dora? Well...I can only think of the love interest in David Copperfield.

Or this girl.

Screw having a fast food name.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Thursday, July 18, 2013

I got a 520 on math on the SAT!

This is the kind of confession which is so good to get out you just have to say it in one breath--IGOTFIVETWENTYONMATHONTHESAT. And just like that, a weight is lifted. Okay, 520 isn't terrible. (I have friends who would read this and shake their heads right now saying, "Yes, Adora, yes it is." I have friends who have done that, in so many winces or raised eyebrows or sympathetic displays of lip-biting if not in words.) Well, it could've been worse! 400. Or 300. 520 is, anyway, 20 points lower than what I got the first time I took the test, and many hundreds lower than what the majority of my friends got their first time. For the record, I also took Algebra II as a junior and haven't done an AP science! The latter revelation prompted a family friend to sigh sympathetically, "Ohhh honey." I got F's on some French tests and a B overall that year.

In three years of high school, I have never gotten all A's.

As the modern-day prophet Billy Mays said, "But wait! There's more!"

When I sing, my sister, gifted with perfect pitch, asks me to "please stop." (Three cheers for not singing on key! Three cheers for not knowing what the key is!) My ability to serve successfully in badminton or tennis is sporadic at best. I have never whistled, and snapped successfully once in my life. But this is all extracurricular. Let's just reemphasize--in summary, I fail, a lot, on academic things that most of my friends don't fail on!

I say all this because of two things: comments like "oh my god you're so smart Adora" and the fact that this is the season of "WOO LOOK AT ME I GOT 800's AND 5's" for so many people.

To address the first: I feel like an impostor when people say "you're so smart" with absolutely no freaking idea how insecure I can get, feeling the need to uphold the sustainability of that compliment. I've often wondered (no joke here) if anyone would like me if they realized just how inept I am at some things.

To address the second thing: if you got a good score, congratulations!! I mean that, without resentment. I got 5's on the APs I took this year (Psych, Comp Gov, US Gov, and AP Lang, so playing to my strengths a bit...) 800 on reading and 780 on writing on the SAT! But that matters as little as my 520 and sucky transcript. I'd be a hypocrite if I picked and chose. We're defined by our good numbers as little as by our bad ones.

Sure, this 520 is probably etched into my mind the same way runners know their marathon times. It's a part of me. But it's a tiny part of me, because hopefully in my fifteen years I've learned at least that I should live a life complete enough (even as the work in progress that it is) that I have cooler failures to dwell on and better successes to treasure than 520s or 5s. Some of the smartest people I know got terrible SAT scores. Even as I get incredibly stressed out, like all soon-to-be high school seniors at this time of year, I have to remember: tests are taken, scores are given, acceptances are mailed, and life goes on!

When I was younger, speaking at the Entertainment Gathering conference in Monterey, CA, I delivered a talk about education, testing, and creativity--the kind you probably hear a lot, nowadays. Afterwards, the author Amy Tan, of Joy Luck Club fame, walked up to me. I died a little bit from fangirling. This was AMY TAN, after all, AMY TAN with her little-Chinese-lady haircut, dark red lipstick, and intimidatingly large handbag. She said that my speech had resonated with her. (Swoon.) And then she added, "I got a terrible score on my SAT!"

I could turn this into a blog post about testing culture and underlying issues in education or the like, but what I'm really trying to say is this: a lot of you have secret failures. Maybe not things like my 520, but the kinds of things you switch the topic deftly to avoid or live in dread of anyone but your closest friends knowing. You're not alone. You never have been. It gets aggravating, scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed and seeing pictures of beautiful people with their perfect scores and happy lives--the lithe runners taking all APs, the social butterflies on dance team who win medals in speech and debate, the math kids who got into Stanford and Harvard AND landed hot prom dates--but none of us have it all figured out. I have incredibly accomplished contemporaries who consistently make me feel like an underachiever, but their struggles also helped me realize that every win has its flipside.

In the end, if I love you, I love you no matter what your resume says or what you got on the SAT or how fast you run a mile or how well you write a story or any number of things at which it is entirely possible to fail at--in fact, I love you knowing those failures.

Is it too much to ask for the same?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

the addictions we tolerate

"I shoot up heroin, snort lines of coke, have a gambling problem, chain-smoke, and drink."

"I watch Game of Thrones, Homeland, Newsroom, Big Bang Theory, and Dr. Who constantly, and LOVE rocks. No, seriously, I really like buying rocks."

Ideally you haven't heard either of these quotes too often, but which would you say has the more urgent problem? Undoubtedly the first person. They're addicted. With that said, isn't the second person too? "Addiction" is a word with a lot of connotations, most dramatically connotations like the first quote, and yet it's manifested in everything from "just one more episode" to "I swear this is the last time I'll buy ___." I question what separates the addictions we tolerate and the ones we don't.

If you think about things like illegal drugs, they're obviously far more damaging to health and safety than, say, a TV show, but we also think of them as primarily addicting substances. There's no warning label on a TV show, "This may keep you watching on and on and on until you actually start rejecting social opportunities because you just want to know what happens" (HOLLA, DOWNTON ABBEY!) the same way a cigarette packet or wine bottle comes with a warning.

Of course, though, if we think about it, TV shows and clothing stores and food items are designed to be addicting just as much as those street drugs are. The most effective guarantor of sustainability in a business is addiction to the product. The customers keep coming back because...well...there isn't much of a choice (or, at least, free will comes with a far greater price). Additives in fast food that make them way more tasty than naturally possible for the dehydrated refrozen items they are, continuously shifting trends that create a sense of urgency in the clothing consumer to "update" their wardrobe, plot twists that meanly sink your heart and make your eyes pop and water (THAT CAR ACCIDENT, DOWNTON ABBEY, THAT CAR ACCIDENT).

We just don't class those things in the same kind of category. These are the addictions we tolerate, because we usually delude ourselves into thinking that these aren't addictive substances at all. But they can be. As an example: what's my grandmother's heroin? Rocks. Yes, rocks. That isn't a street name for anything, I'm talking about straight-up rocks here. Once, she went shopping at an outdoor market in Seattle's International District and purchased a jade bauble and some "valuable" rocks for an untold but presumably massive amount of money that led to great regret on her part and scolding by everyone else. Why an aged and intelligent woman would spend money on rocks is kind of beyond me. There are more precious rocks that other people are addicted to--diamonds and rubies and emeralds--but the point is less about the substance and more about how we react to someone else's attraction, or addiction, to them.

Addiction isn't just drugs or alcohol or problems that wreck your life. Look up "define:addict" on Google and you'll get:


  1. A person who is addicted to a particular substance, typically an illegal drug.
  2. An enthusiastic devotee of a specified thing or activity.
Enthusiastic devotee? Now that sounds awfully acceptable.
"I'm an enthusiastic devotee of skydiving."
"I'm an enthusiastic devotee of the works of Richard Feynman."
Say "I'm an enthusiastic devotee of ___________" and you have something palatable, something you can bring to posh dinner parties and say while you stand in your evening gown sipping a cocktail! So next time someone says they're an enthusiastic devotee...
you know what they really mean is, "I'm an addict."
I think, in the end, we judge the addiction less on whether it is an addiction or not--let's face it, we're all addicts, to shows or clothes or book series or drugs or people or LIFE--and more on the end result. We calculate the impacts in our heads and we realize that you can't win every battle, that we can't all be ascetics, and we have to let some of these addictions pass. I can only hope that we make the right judgments.
Let the right ones in.
(cough. cough. Downton Abbey.)

Monday, July 15, 2013

the ethics of serendipity


The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way: "a fortunate stroke of serendipity".

I've been thinking a lot about serendipitous occasions because of the role of luck in so much of my life. Relationships especially--as an example, I've met crushes because of incidents as inexplicable and random as walking faster than everyone else, being at the same event or camp or class, or asking for a ride. Okay, that may not be as crazy as seeing someone's face fleetingly through a subway window, but I still think of it as serendipity.

I suppose that everything beneficial is serendipitous, in a way, then, with a definition as broad as "development of events by chance." You don't have to be hardcore deterministic to realize that a lot of life is up to luck. All those news stories where the anchorman or woman begins with "S/he was in the wrong place, at the wrong time..." All this is in hindsight--something isn't right or wrong before events take place and make it so.

So if we don't get the blame for terrible turns of chance outside of our control (if you hurt someone in self-defense--post-Zimmerman trial, I feel the need to stress legitimately--you're someone who had to do an unfortunate thing, not a criminal; it wasn't your fault that a criminal happened to be there with aggressive intent), should we reap the rewards, including, often, a sizable amount of praise, for the good things that happen to us because of chance? We usually do.

After all, as a society, we're inclined to celebrate the end results and not the process of getting there. Who cares if you only made millions because you happened to stumble across a lithium mine while out on a walk with your dog (terrrrrrrrrrrrible example I know, but bear with me)? It's still the same millions as if you'd spent years of your life methodically surveying the land.

Indeed, it's the serendipitous occasions, like that terrible example, that make the headlines. Perhaps it's because there's an implicit equality to serendipity--luck can happen to anyone, hard work has to be, well, worked on. Still, though, is it really right to treat the things that come to us by luck the same way we treat the things that come to us by work? Or, of course, you could justify it by saying that everything is driven by luck and that there's really no difference in the end at all.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

crazy taxi remembrance

It's strange, how the images that evoke "childhood" for us aren't always the quintessential ones--stuffed animals, baby shoes, Legos. For me, the arcade game Crazy Taxi always makes me think of being little, of trips to the local "Asian store" (the Ranch 99 Market in Kent, a veritable mecca for Chinese people and a few bemused Westerners who had wandered there looking for exotic fruits, or, like my dad, went out of obligation).

Ranch 99 Market is located inside the Great Wall Shopping Mall. Fittingly for its name, it seemed palatial to me at four or five years old. Sometimes my sister Adrianna and I went inside Ranch 99 itself, with our mom, but most of the time my dad would take us around the mall to kill time window shopping. We pointed at teapots in fancily decorated tea shops, sniffed the air in the hopes of picking up the scent of the chestnuts roasting outside, gazed through gleaming glass cases at deep purple amethyst geodes with price tags that kept us outside but glinting edges that kept us staring. Here, I understood my dad's quirky fascination with geology long before I saw the highway-bordering basalt towers of Eastern Washington road trip drives.

Before long, though, the entertainment of product- and people-watching became exhausting for two girls on little legs, and we would turn to the rows of arcade games wistfully. A lot of them were shoot-'em-up games dominated by prepubescent boys machine-gunning away hours of their youthful potential (or just eyesight...yeah probably just eyesight), but there were a few that didn't have any gun controllers attached. Crazy Taxi was one of them. Even my dad liked Crazy Taxi, so that made it okay (whereas the other games, that splattered gore across screens, shook with noise, and most importantly evoked Daddy's disapproval, were unacceptable).

While playing Crazy Taxi I felt simultaneously empowered and powerless. Empowered because suddenly I was the one sitting in the driver's seat, making decisions that could make or break me (usually not break, because arcade driving games seem to have an incredible tolerance for off-roading), but powerless because once our quarters were up, I'd have to slide reluctantly off the high seat and let someone else have a go. Sometimes Daddy would relent and put in some more quarters. Adrianna and I took perverse joy in seeing how many umbrella-ed tables we could crash into, seeing the wood splinter all over the screen and people scurrying before us. Who says driving games can't be violent too?

To any observer we must have made an odd group, my dad and Adrianna and me--in the almost unbroken row of Chinese boys there gaming, our trio consisted of the one white guy in Great Wall and tiny girls with pudding-bowl haircuts playing an arcade game with a seat too high for us. I'm glad that I was five--too young to notice or care if anyone was looking. And afterwards, when my mom finally emerged from Ranch 99 she brought with her the peace offerings (for taking so long!) of sticky, sweet roast duck, red bean buns, and chestnuts.

Chestnuts, amethyst, and Crazy Taxi...if young me had the foresight to make a time capsule, I would've stolen them all from the Great Wall Shopping Mall. I haven't been back there in a long while, and I think that's a good thing--I like keeping the image I have from when I was a little kid. The amethyst's glint would be duller to eyes that have seen many, many shiny things; the arcade games sillier, the building smaller, the chestnuts staler. Memory is often sweeter than the present. But if I see the telltale bright yellow of an arcade game console and "Crazy Taxi" emblazoned on the side, I'll smile and think of a little girl who loved to drive.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Cross my heart and hope to die

In my neverending capacity for masochism, I've decided to not only do precalc over the summer, show up for preseason cross country runs, and get through all the Game of Thrones books (currently on Storm of Swords!), but also write one poem, one short story, and one blog post every day. Cross my heart and hope to die...

Which brings me to my inaugural post. Where does that saying, "cross my heart and hope to die," come from anyway? A Google search on the term brings up mostly inconclusive answers from not especially trustworthy sources (my AP Lang teacher would not be proud of me relying on and Yahoo Answers), but they'll have to do.

Yahoo Answers user Lorreign said this, "Probably the gesture and its binding nature were originally based upon the familiar Catholic sign of the cross. In my own Protestant childhood in Ohio, and my wife says the same was the case in Massachusetts, the oath was often accompanied by the irreverent doggerel: 'Cross your heart and hope to die, And hope the cat'll spit in your eye." From "2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings & Expressions from White Elephants to a Song and Dance" by Charles Earle Funk (Galahad Book, New York, 1993). Another Yahoo Answers user, who agreed with the statement that the origin lies in the Catholic cross, added this, "The British extended version (at least in South East England) is "Cross my heart and hope to die / Stick a needle in my eye."

I'm guessing that the Catholic Church never intended crosses to be used in vain by every child who has ever sworn an oath, the likes of Huck Finn's gang and solemn children who pledge themselves to death before they know what it is. After all, using God's name in vain is biblically prohibited; the rosary doesn't seem all that far off. It's interesting to me, how much we invest in symbols. That the cross itself can immediately evoke a movie's worth of images, feelings, and history--from the image of the man on the cross, to his life, to blood and sacredness and sacrifice--and all in one small piece of plastic, steel, or gold. And sometimes, we manage to invest so much in the object that we forget about the story. That, it seems, is precisely what happened with a simple childhood line called "cross my heart and hope to die."

Saturday, July 06, 2013

"teach your girl" - a new poem

teach your girl
Teach your girl to jump fences and her world will know no boundaries,
teach her to sneak out in the dead of the night with no fear of the bogeymen who have never tried to hurt her, but give her the strength to kick them as hard as she can in the groin on the off chance that they do. Teach her to run until her legs can’t carry her anymore, and when that happens, to walk a little further. Teach her to walk like she owns the ground when she steps on it instead of apologizing for the air she breathes—
teach her to dance on fallen trees that make bridges in the woods as if her hiking boots were ballet shoes, because bird calls and wind-whispers make music too. Teach her that no matter what anyone says falling off cliffs isn’t the worst thing in the world, not climbing in the first place is. And if she can’t reach the final foothold lift her up on your shoulders the way you do on the Fourth of July, and teach her that shortness need never be weakness when you can stand on the shoulders of giants. Teach her to dig in the backyard for hidden treasure and make booby traps like the kid in Home Alone, take prisoners in Capture the Flag and use mud for war paint on her cheeks. Teach her to wear a seatbelt, yes, but teach her too how to do 110 on the open road, whooping as you feel up big sky country with a steering wheel and tires. Teach her that setting fires is about more than making s’mores, and when the night comes, the fire flickers, and you hear her take off for the woods without you, you’ll know you’ve taught her well—because the world is this girl’s oyster, as much as it was ever any boy’s.

Monday, May 27, 2013

"An odd sense of companionship arises along the lonely road--a solidarity of sorts with the darkened truckstop, the rare passing drivers you only know by their hazy taillights, and most of all the big sky that reminds you emptiness can be beauty, too. 

Crossing three state borders in one night's madcap ride, and there are still twenty bottles of beer left
...on the wall 
" I typed on my mom's iPhone screen, fumbling with the letters as we jolted along on the freeway in Middle-of-Nowhere, Northern Michigan.

From Friday till today (Monday where I am, here in Tokyo) every day has been spent traveling. On Friday, as soon as we landed in Chicago our first order of business was picking up the rental car that took us down that aforementioned "lonely road," all so that we could make Adrianna's graduation the morning following. We all sighed when the trip seemed to have suddenly gotten longer--in actuality, all that had happened was losing an hour because of the Central to Eastern time change.

When we finally pulled into a hotel in Big Rapids, MI, it was drawing close to 3 AM. The following morning we'd wake up early to make the final leg of the drive up to Interlochen...all these miles being covered by dear old Dad. No one else in the family knows how to drive (yet). (I'm on it!)

Adrianna's graduation made me feel simultaneously old and young. To see your sister in a cap and gown is to see a little bit of your own life flash before your eyes. It's also an incredibly proud and happy feeling. When the Dean of Students at Interlochen called out her name I stood up (screw decorum!) and yelled with a "WOOOOOOOOO" so loud that a lady two rows forward turned and stared.

Immediately after Adrianna had bid some all-too-brief goodbyes to friends and classmates we took off for Chicago again. That night we had the chance  to meet up with the Gevinsons--I first met/last saw Tavi three years ago when we were both speaking at the IdeaCity conference in Toronto, Canada. In fact, the entire day was filled with seeing people I haven't talked to in ages, from my sister in the morning (boarding school half across the country isn't exactly conducive to family visits), to Tavi in the evening, to friends from summer camp at Stanford last year at night! I stayed up (or as my dad put it, "slacked off way too much") talking to them till some time past midnight Chicago time...but I wouldn't have changed it for the world. And this all left me completely exhausted but FIRED UP AND READY TO GOOO (yeah, stolen from the Obama campaign a l'il bit) in the morning for the 11-hour flight to Tokyo!

Can you tell my enthusiasm is manufactured?

The first thing I said, stupidly, when my sister raised the window shade on the plane was, "Oh my god. Oh my god. It's the water. They're boats!" I dunno what I thought the spectral shapes floating in the fog-shrouded water were, but as we began the slow lurch forward (aka gradual descent to Narita) some of their names even became clear.

Getting off the plane launched us into a deluge of culture shock, from the vending machines to the hustle and bustle to the face-mask-wearing masses. It reminded me of something out of the movie "Contagion" except sans white people. (Why haven't I seen any Americans here wearing face masks?)

A few more quick thoughts/mental snapshots of Tokyo so far:
- tradition! Our hotel and the restaurant we ate at both feature tatami mats and the requirement of taking the shoes off, so we got thrown into the (relatively, for us) deep end soon! Yayyy
- shortness! I actually feel tall standing next to some doors here. My heart goes out to those poor souls taller than 5'5"
- bikes! So many people here bike, and I've been trying to stay extra observant as to not cause some horrible sidewalk collision
- poor Adrianna! That is to say, most of the restaurants we've been to have not been the most awesome for in, not having anything at all.

All this travel makes me inordinately grateful for a sense of place/home. It's easy, like Ryan Bingham in one of my favorite movies, "Up in the Air," to forget where you come from, to find a place to belong. Often when I walk into airports now I get that same Bingham-esque feeling of having come home--and then I remind myself of people. Because ultimately it's not the familiar roads or flowering trees or even my house itself that speak "home" the loudest to me, but the friends I love and who, I promise, I'm reminding myself to buy souvenirs for.

There's a famous Chinese poem wherein a weary traveler sees the moonlight and thinks of his family seeing the same. Looking up and seeing the moon and the stars has always given me solace because of the comforting thought of people I know seeing the same moon and the same stars. It's probably why I had my face pressed up against the cold glass of the rental car as we drove from Chicago to Michigan, trying to stare up at the vast empty sky and memorize its outlines with all the intensity of someone trying ESP. Maybe it's why now, I've perched myself on my windowsill to look up at the night sky in Tokyo. And what with timezones and all the rest, barring the idea that we are looking at the same things at the same time, I think of this line from Up in the Air instead.

"Tonight, most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and squealing kids. Their spouses will ask about their day, and tonight, they’ll sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip, passing over."

Monday, March 18, 2013

A love letter to my new global family

Let me preface this with a bit of exposition: something I said on Twitter was, "it's a strange thing to feel your heart tugged across continents, but that's what I've felt this week." Over the course of the Three Dot Dash summit in downtown New York City, I had the chance to learn, eat, dance, cry, laugh, and fastwalk ;) with 29 amazing teens (and our incredible adult facilitators, summit leaders, and Global Teen Leader alumni).

Three Dot Dash (that's a V, for peace, in Morse code) is a weeklong program that brings in teen leaders from all around the world (everywhere from South America to Europe to Africa to Asia to here at home) for a summit dedicated to helping us tell our stories and ensuring that the message powerfully shared by the late poet and peacemaker Mattie Stepanek, that "peace is possible," is embodied through our lives and work. We were privileged enough to learn from Mattie's mom Jeni, aka "Mama Peace," whose persistence and quiet strength inspired us all.

So without further ado, here's my big post-summit thank you. I'm still reeling from the experience, but in the best way possible. I'm blogging this because I wanted everyone to see what can happen when we declare sincerely, "we are family."

Dear 3DD family,

Repeating the refrain of post-summit days: "I miss you guys."
"You guys" means moments as well as people. There are too many moments to count, but maybe one of the first was discovering the roof view with Sudarshan and Anjali, stepping closer perhaps than I've been for a while to the feeling of being on the top of the world. In the mist, the streamers on a fence below seemed to be figures writhing on the sidewalk. Standing on that roof I was eye-level with the stain-glass Jesus in the window of the church across the street, oddly appropriate considering a conversation we had in the freezing cold about religion.
Then came the news that our fellow GTLs--most of the rest of you--were waiting for us, and so came scrambling down ladders with the glee of dancing on the brink of troublemaking. (Yeah, that's what we were doing right before I apologized for going overboard on the "Dora the Explorin'" side.) How couldn't I miss Kim and her stern expression that left no room for error except in the most cleverly sneaky ways (wink wink. Just kidding.)

I miss the nights that followed, wandering arbitrarily around New York and coming back way too late for much-beleaguered Dana (I'm sorry for being such a crappy roommate!) to be awake. I miss conspiring with Jasel on fighting Ali for control of his phone, and the crazy high-pitched sound of Rameez getting tickled. I miss the sound of all of our laughter, standing in energizer circles, executing ill-planned dance moves. I miss Anjali being perhaps the best teacher of Hindi and Tamil the average white/Asian girl-who-sucks-at-languages has ever known; now every time I say "I can count to ten in Hindi!" (over the course of just a few days, more frequently than you might think) I do it with the bittersweetly nostalgic reminiscence of how I got there in the first place.

I miss the drowsy sincerity of our last night, sitting in a circle in the hangout suite on the 21st floor, and listening to the soothing sound of Gani's ukulele, Robert's improv singing, and all of us chanting chorus lines. I could go on and on and on--but those are just the nights.

Somewhere in a binder which (woe is me!) I lost at the summit venue, there are copious badly-written notes, some hurried poems in the margins, and an action plan which I filled out with the last-minute desperate passion of a girl who's waited till the last minute to determine which project she's actually going to talk about. I want to thank you all for making me feel courageous enough to float a project which I only started conceptualizing recently, and for teaching me a huge amount over the past week.

Indeed, when it came to peace, social media, photography, speaking, and interviewing, I learned a lot--but I also grew in a less pronounced area: humility. It may not be a definable lesson or a topic we covered in a clear-cut way, but having the chance to meet all of you--with your intense passions, mindblowing eloquence, Muslim Brother-from-the-Bronx or Malcolm X accents (Faisal and Sheila, respect), beautiful singing, kindness, inclusiveness, freakingly intimidating smartness--made me really truly see how un-special I am in the grand scheme of things, no matter how exaggerated a headline or how high someone's praise may be. And yet at the same time you embodied Jeni's message, that reaffirming "You matter."
Realizing that I matter not because of whatever sets me apart but rather because of what I share with you--the desire for just peace--was one of the most valuable things I walked away with.

Under my breath I sing "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" sometimes. Toward the end of the summit the prediction of nostalgia, the logical rationale that it's the only song I can mostly hit the right notes on, and some other feelings made me do that with increasing frequency. The lyrics--"Love of mine / Someday you will die / But I'll be close behind / To follow you into the dark"--capture, in a way, how I feel; because even though none of you, fellow GTLs, are dying, we have dispersed and I want to follow you. I'll admit that maybe I forgot the "it's nothing to cry about" line of the song the afternoon of our last day. Actually, as I was crossing the street with Dana back to the hotel I started straight-up bawling like I haven't done in public ever, but at least I was laughing uncontrollably too.

Adib, Alexia, Alhassan, Ali, Anjali, Anoop, Dana, Ellen, Faisal, Francis, Hector, Jack, Jake, Jasel, Karen, Khaoula, Morgan, Natalia, Natasha, Nick, Rameez, Saajan, Sheila, Sienna, Souhail, Sudarshan, Tharon, Victoria, Yash: thank you for making me feel countless emotions more powerfully than I have before. Sometimes I'm bad at being effusive out loud, but the following words are things I would say to your faces: at Three Dot Dash I got everything from my longest hug to the best of friends, and I only hope that in some small way I might have repaid you with a percentage of the happiness I felt last week.

Love you,