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.