January Reads: Crime and Punishment and Thanos, Self-promoting Your Career, Crying on BART, and Educated

Happy February everyone!

I read four books this January: two physical books and two ebooks. My initial goal in the beginning of the year, as part of my Shopping Ban, was to read only the books that I already own. But lo and behold, I got a new San Francisco library card and went a bit crazy. Also, I seem to have joined the ebook bandwagon about 10 years late. I think I bug Ratik about 10 times a week exclaiming how amazingly far technology has come because I can highlight, take notes, and look up words from the comfort of my Kindle app. Grandma Dina is finally wrestlin’ those darn compooters.

The genres I read last month were a bit scattered, which I really enjoyed. It kept things interesting and also challenged me to flex my reading muscles because I had to switch how I analyzed and consumed text. I guess it’s like rotating your muscle groups when you work out so you make sure that 1) you’re less likely to get bored and thus more motivated to work out/read and 2) if you only did chest and back and only read melancholic Russian literature, you will end up top-heavy and melancholic.

Image result for how women rise"How Women Rise by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith

I read this book for work as part of our internal Women’s Network. I volunteered to co-organize a presentation this quarter on how to self-promote your career because I’m obviously hella qualified to do so, and my partner recommended this as one of our topics. Helgesen and Goldsmith are professional coaches who help people identify habits that may keep them from getting where they want to go. How Women Rise is a self-help and empowerment book because it identifies some habits that women specifically tend to hold on to, and gives tips on how to let go or transform these habits in order to advance.

The book is actually targeted to women around middle-management who are trying to move up into executive or upper-management positions, so I found that some of the tips may not apply to people who are starting out in the career. I did, however, find some tips quite helpful for anyone in any part of their career that I will highlight during our presentation:

  • Claiming your achievements and contributions
    • Many of us wait to be acknowledged by our peers and bosses about what we’ve accomplished or how we helped the team, but we can’t rely on others to do this. Women especially are taught to be humble and soft-spoken as virtues, and that highlighting our own achievements would be bragging or being arrogant. But in order to ensure that we are being recognized for our hard work and talent, we should be proactive in highlighting what we’ve done and what we do.
  • Leveraging relationships
    • This was a hard pill to swallow, because I’ve always been terrified of my friends and acquaintances thinking that I’m taking advantage of them for personal gain. But the fact of the matter is, everyone has skills or relationships or expertise that can be helpful for you, and the reverse is also the same. If you ask someone for help, that’s establishing a two-way relationship where you could return the favor father down the line.

I gave this book 3/5 stars, meaning that I didn’t find it life-changing or profound but I thought it did have really good and helpful tips. It also gave insight into learned behavior that is usually instilled in women and how to navigate away from it. I  recommend this for anyone who feels stuck in the middle of a corporate job and wants to re-examine and evolve their habits and behaviors in order to move forward. Perhaps the protagonist in my next book could have used something like this…

Image result for crime and punishment arc classic"Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevksy

[Avengers and I guess Crime and Punishment spoilers for those of you who have heretofore lived under a rock and JUST NOW decided to join society]

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading this. It was heavy at times because hello it’s about a murder, but I found that it read like a psychological thriller and at times couldn’t put it down because I was so enthralled in the building anxiety and drama. The story follows Rodion Raskolnikov, a young and impoverished law student who turns to murder as a means of escaping his state in life. He kills and robs an old pawnbroker–as well as her sister, accidentally– and then spends the next few hundred pages being paranoid and anxious of being caught and dealing with his conscience (characterized by the overtly pious women in his life.) The plot takes place in St. Petersburg, Russia during the summer, where the stifling heat add to Rasky’s stifled conscience and growing claustrophobia and paranoia.

I gave this 3.75/5 stars because I really enjoyed the story and really diving into old Rasky’s mind. He has an interesting ideology in that men of great intelligence and original ideas are above the law, and that murder in the name of social progress is justified. This reminded me of my old friend Thanos from the Marvel Universe, who eliminated half of society for the good of the world. Whether these men (and they’re always men…) are right in their philosophies is another topic for another day, but I found a great difference in the two characters.

Where as Thanos does have an original and progressive idea (addressing overpopulation and the damage its done on natural resources), Rasky doesn’t seem to have a clue. I read that Dostoevksy wrote this character as a caricature or criticism of utilitarianism, the idea that actions are justified if they’re for the overall betterment of society, and nihilism, the rejection of religious and moral principles because life in a practical sense is meaningless. Rasky definitely had nihilistic views in his disregard for human life, but I found it hard to believe his act of murder was utilitarian. Before the events of the novel, Rasky had published an essay in which he presented his ‘utilitarian’ ideas that some men, like Napoleon, cannot be judged by the law on the same level as other men of lesser importance and intelligence. I’m not going to debate whether utilitarianism is a morally or intellectually sound philosophy, but I found it hard to believe that Rasky had any sort of progressive ideas or plans. Sure, he talked about the good he was going to do once he had the money to finish law school and be a part of society. He talked about how some men are justified their actions because of their original ideas, but he never really had any original ideas except to murder (and then to justify it).

Rasky talked the talk, but did not walk the walk. 

Another issue I had with the story was its depiction of women. This was not at all surprising, but I’m going to hold authors of the past just as accountable as I do modern and contemporary authors when writing about women. Rasky’s mother, his sister Dounia, and love interest Sonia were interesting characters on their own, but they were pretty flat and really only existed to move the plot and his character development along. On the other hand, we have characters like Ramuhizin and Porfiry who are dynamic and have ideas and motivations of their own. Why do they get to be so much more interesting, Fyodor?

Despite these issues, I’m glad I read this because it really made me think and chew over Rasky’s character and the different topics and ideologies that are brought up. If the main character were Thanos instead, and we had female characters like Gamora or Captain Marvel then this might have been a 5 star read.

Image result for there there tommy orange"There There by Tommy Orange

This book was everywhere last year and I regret not having read it until now. In short, it wrecked me.

The story is told through different perspectives, following the lives of Native Americans from Oakland, California as they navigate through turmoils and challenges of identity, addiction, abuse, gentrification, and overall disillusionment. Their paths converge as they all attend the Big Oakland Powwow, where chaos and trouble ensue.

I gave this book 4/5 because I was absolutely captured and moved by the characters’ stories and voices. They felt so real, in their struggles and flaws and relationships. For the characters who were dealing with addiction and identity, Orange had a way of depicting their wounds and struggles in a way that felt so visceral to the reader. The characters had real, believable flaws and they dealt (or didn’t deal) with them in real, believable ways. 

Orange also talked about being a Native American in a way that is so important for us to read in a postcolonial (is it really though?) world, especially in a country that was built upon the institutionalized genocide of their people and culture. Mainstream media often portrays Native American culture as something of prehistoric or ancient times, rarely ever acknowledging that there are Native communities living and breathing and evolving.

One of the characters, Calvin, says that he “feels bad sometimes even saying I’m Native. I just feel like I’m from Oakland.” This is during an interview held by another character, Dene, who is holding open-ended interviews for Natives to tell their stories without prompting the subjects with questions or suggestions, so that “content directs vision.” This is what it felt like Orange was doing with his characters, letting their stories come to life without being tied to a specific theme. I think often when we see Native Americans in literature or movies, there’s usually a central theme that directs and ties down their stories. Either that, or they don’t even have stories to begin with and are limited to caricatures of their people and culture. The characters in There There don’t abide to a certain expectation of who they should be; instead they force the reader to see their stories and lives in all of their flaws, prayers, triumphs, and failures.

I was also incredibly impressed by the author’s grasp of language and pacing. As the characters’ paths draw into the Big Oakland Powwow, the chapters become shorter and more focused on action. It felt like watching a movie and seeing the characters from a bird’s eye view as they drew to the converging of their stories. Orange grew up in the Bay Area so he definitely had an advantage, but his use of Bay Area diction was so genuine that it felt like I was talking to people from my high school. They felt so familiar that I genuinely miss them now that the story is done.

Image result for educated tara westover"Educated by Tara Westover

Westover’s memoir follows her journey from living in isolation on her survivalist family’s farm in the mountains of Idaho to going to college and eventually graduating with a PhD from Cambridge and acknowledging the trauma and hurt that had been inflicted on her during her adolescence.

I rated this 3.5/5 stars; I would have rated it higher if not for some choices in editing that I thought could have been improved. That being said, I was absolutely mesmerized and inspired by Westover’s story and storytelling. What moved me the most was how honest and forgiving she is, while still unyielding about her writing and her voice. As she began to confront her family and the abuse and neglect inflicted upon her, they gaslighted her for succumbing to the devil and living in sin and telling lies. Westover was explicit in relaying her memories but was also transparent in giving disclaimers that they were disputed within her family. This reinforced her integrity as a memoirist and daughter/sister (even despite being excommunicated by most of her family) because she could have easily given her side. Instead, she acknowledged the voice of others that had hurt her.

Her honestly and compassion shines also in her relationship with Mormonism, which she studied as part of her dissertation. She found a balance between the blind, zealous faith of her childhood and disregarding the writings and beliefs as irrational and wrong; instead she examined the religion and ideologies as major contributions to history. As a writer and as someone who grew up in an extremely religious family, this was important for me to read because it gave an example of making peace with the past  and acknowledging beliefs respectfully while still staying firm in what I believe and don’t believe.

I really enjoyed the books I read last month and will continue varying the genres I’m reading. My reading this goal is to read 40 books, and to explore new genres and writers (with the help of the library because SHOPPING BAN!)

Have you read any of the books above and if so, what are your thoughts?

What are you currently reading? Do you have any reading goals this year?

 

On Mental Health as a Filipino-American

I was inspired/#triggered to write this from this article that addresses toxic behaviors in Filipino culture. In it, Abby Pasion revisits her childhood as a young Filipino American and discusses the all-too-familiar family gathering with the infinite trays of food, ear-shattering karaoke, and unwarranted comments about bodies, accomplishments, etc.

Pasion talks about the pain that accompanied the eating and the laughter during these parties, as they were often places of “judgement, drama, and toxic social behaviors like child bragging and comparing, body-shaming, gossip, and even subtle public ridicule.”

As someone who grew up as the fat kid, this really hit home. It brought back memories of making my plate, finding a place to sit to enjoy my food, then being bombarded with comments about my weight.
“Oh my god, look at how much you’re eating, why don’t you just drink water!”
“O, you better run on the treadmill tonight, ha?”
“Your face is so pretty, anak. Why don’t you go on diet? Sayang naman, eh?”
And while I know these came from a place of love, I have to admit that they hurt and enraged me.

I think the most painful part of it all was that I didn’t allow myself to cry or show that I was hurt. Because I deserved and needed these comments, right? I was fat and it was unhealthy, so why would I be upset about the truth? I learned early on that the best way to react was to either not react at all, or to retaliate with a joke. One of the things that came from being a fat kid was the need for a sense of humor and fast wit. I could never speak back to my elders and tell them they were wrong for saying these things, but I could grow a thick skin and deflect. Laughter is the best medicine, but it became my vice and addiction when I used it as a means of numbing the emotions that I should have been processing and expressing.

When I was about 9-years-old, there was an instance where a family member learned how much I weighed. Being embarrassed, I asked them not to tell anyone. This was something personal to me and something I knew was wrong and ugly about myself. So when the person told all our friends and family about it the next Sunday at church, it felt like someone had stripped me naked and left me standing in front of an audience while they laughed at all my rolls and imperfections. I was devastated, but I couldn’t show it. Because if there’s anything worse than standing naked in front of a laughing audience, it’s crying while standing naked in front of a laughing audience.

It took a long time and a lot of reflection for me to get over my fear of treadmills and diets and health discussions, because in the back of my mind I always equated them with being publicly humiliated and ridiculed. I regret to say that it wasn’t until I had a boyfriend who loved me for all of me that I started to become truly okay with my body and understand that self-love went beyond posting selfies and face masks, rather it also encompassed taking care of my emotional and physical health.

With the recent birth of my nephew came the new generation in my family, and I find myself stressing about what kind of aunt and role model I want to be for him. While I do want to uphold Filipino traditions and culture, I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that family is a social hierarchy with children on the bottom. I want him to not fear social gatherings like I did as a kid, and I want him to be comfortable enough to speak up if I do or say anything wrong.

My brothers and I have discussed this and a big word we throw around is “ego.” While I do think that may be a part of the problem, I think the issue goes deeper than personal ego or self-esteem. Being an elder in a culture that values cohesive extended family structures means having taken the brunt of the hierarchy as a kid and young adult. My parents’ generation in my family are wonderful people and have raised my generation to be successful, so a part of their grasp to the hierarchy and archaic traditions could be that it worked for them, so why not us?

What I appreciate about Pasion’s article is that she doesn’t simply blame the older generation, making sure to point out that “it is easy to label the elders as the villains of this story. Taking a moment to challenge that and to look at the larger picture of toxic Filipino culture, there’s really an intergenerational conversation that needs to take place.” I was angry for a long time at my parents and aunts and uncles without analyzing where their behavior came from and what it probably was like for them when they were my age. As I’ve grown older, it’s become more clear to me that the hurtful comments and the toxic behavior were reiterations of what they must have experienced as children. I believe now more than ever that these expressions of “tough love” are not only rooted in good intentions, but that they also provide a window into truly understanding why and how this became part of our culture. And understanding that and starting conversations to fix it is the first step.

I must admit that although I know this first step, it’s still difficult as hell to approach the wheel, let alone try to break it. Confrontation has always been terrifying for me, even more so with the people I love and respect. But isn’t that a part of growing up? Understanding that although some things have been in place for a long time, they aren’t necessarily always right?

An emerging conversation amongst Filipinos is the topic of mental health. Pasion refers to a 2015 study finding that while “Filipino Americans have some of the highest rates of depression among Asian Americans, Filipino Americans also seek mental health treatment at some of the lowest rates.” During a family conversation about depression and anxiety, a family member expressed confusion at the apparent rise of mental health issues in my generation. “We never had depression,” they exclaimed, “but we had less money and things than you guys do. Why would you feel depressed?” A big consensus was that our generation does not pray enough (another issue for another day), but one of the glaring reasons as to why our generation seems to be more depressed and anxious is that we and the society we live in are more open about it. My grandma and grandpa were very loving parents and grandparents, but I’m sure if anyone had come to them and told them they were having panic attacks, they would have pointed them to the nearest Santo Nino and Mary statue with a rosary in hand.

So who can blame my parents and aunts and uncles for not completely understanding mental health issues and how to help?

Throughout high school, I suffered from frequent panic attacks. With how comfortable my life was and how many resources I had at my disposal, I didn’t understand why I had them and felt frustrated at myself for being weak and sensitive. It wasn’t until I started seeing a counselor during my freshman year of college that I started to work through why I was having these feelings and what I could do to address and fix them (it wasn’t prayer).

One of the most difficult conversations I had with my counselor was about the root of my anxieties, where she focused on my relationship with my family. I was defensive at first, because I didn’t want to victimize myself and in turn make them villains. But through long discussions and a lot of work she helped me understand that it wasn’t that simple, and that I needed to learn how to maintain these vital relationships while also distancing myself from toxic and unwanted behavior. The solution we came up with was moving out from my parents’ house while remaining relatively nearby, because until then I was either living under their roof or studying abroad on another continent. She pointed out that my relationship with my parents had only ever seen 2 extremities, which could have been the reason why I didn’t have the tools to confront my feelings about it. I either felt suffocated by them, or was too far away to process them.

So here I am: 23-years-old living about an hour away, a daughter, sister, cousin, and auntie. I can happily say that over the years I’ve worked on my response to my anxieties (whether about my family or work or a sudden change of plans that I wasn’t ready for), and I’ve definitely progressed in how I process and express myself. My family has had its ups and downs but I see my siblings and cousins being more outspoken about their beliefs and the beginnings of what look like open conversations with the older generation. It’s hard work and I don’t see it becoming any easier any time soon, but I have hope that love (and tigas ng ulo) will help us follow through.

On Atheism as a Filipino-American

Disclaimer: This post is based completely on my personal experience with Filipino Roman Catholicism. Individual belief is just that: up to the individual, and I do not claim to have any authority of judgment over what you believe in.

My earliest memory of questioning God was at around 5-years-old, when my grandma told me to behave because Papa Jesus was always watching. I took this as a threat and was thenceforth terrified of the Jesuses that seemed to multiply in our house. An emaciated Jesus weeping as he bore his cross, a calm Jesus standing before a golden halo with his hands stretched out in a welcoming embrace, and the Santo Niño, the baby Jesus. At every corner he was watching me, waiting for me to make a mistake. And why was he always blonde and blue-eyed?

I remember waking up in a cold sweat one night, dreaming that the Santo Niño had come to life and was walking towards me, saying “I’m always watching” as it bore its teeth and reached its claws toward me, ready to punish me for my sins. When I told my grandma about this she was livid, telling me that I was watching too many movies and that I could never think about Jesus in such a way, that it was a sin in itself to be scared of Jesus and what he would do about my sins. I don’t doubt that I probably had watched Child’s Play one too many times, but I wondered at that moment what I was doing to deserve this close surveillance. Why was Jesus always watching me? Didn’t he have more important things to do?

I grew up going to church every Sunday at 7 pm, and even some Wednesdays and Fridays. I took evening classes where we read the Bible and colored in pictures of the benevolent Jesus, often sitting on a rock in the middle of a pastoral scene, with children and sheep surrounding him. My mom, dad, and three older brothers sang in the church choir with my uncles and aunts. They still sing, every Sunday at 7 pm. When she was alive and able to, my grandma sat in the front pews and prayed diligently. Besides church, we prayed the Rosary at home, gathering together in the living room-turned-altar with dozens of statues of saints. My grandma would sit on the couch and have her eyes closed for most of the prayer. Her Hail Mary’s were always calm but firm, and sometimes she would rock back and forth to the syllables of prayer. I remember wanting so bad to feel what she felt, a presence of grace and knowing and assurance of what she was doing and who she was.

My grandma died in 2008 when I was in 7th grade. For a year after her death, we gathered and prayed the Rosary and a litany, imploring Jesus and all the saints in Heaven to welcome her into the radiant gates. Selfishly, I also prayed because I wanted to reach the state of grace my grandma seemed to be in when she prayed, moving back and forth as she communicated with God and Mary. And it always seemed like they communicated back to her. For me, it felt like I was whispering into a void. I mimicked my grandma’s Hail Mary’s and sounded out every syllable, every consonant, as if to push my voice further into the void in search of something there. And with every conclusion of our nightly rosary, I was left feeling empty, nothing coming back to communicate with me. I was terrified of this void and the unknown because it meant that all of my prayers, all of my tears and wishes were going into empty space. What was there, if not God?

I prayed harder than I ever had before, because the silence on the other side was terrifying. Why weren’t the Heavenly Hosts responding? My one-sided prayer made me feel so alone and scared, and it was at this point in my life where I truly began to feel what this emptiness meant. I was terrified that I was questioning God’s existence, because surely this meant I was going to Hell.

This was also the same time that Proposition 8 had passed in California, overturning the right of same-sex couples to marry. My church, the people whom I loved so dearly and who I knew loved me back, talked about the institution of marriage and how it was the Catholic’s duty to protect it from abomination. As someone who was coming to terms with her bisexuality, I wondered what that meant about me as a member of the Church. Was I still welcome? Or only the acceptable part of me? People of the Church assured that their position against same-sex marriage meant nothing about the individuals, that they still welcomed queer people. But it just didn’t make sense to me how you could claim to welcome and accept someone while denying and dismissing their love. I know now that not all Catholics shared this belief, but it was the authoritative teachings against LGBTQ people that began to affirm my suspicion that I didn’t quite belong.

Growing up, my family and the church were woven together. We were well known in the congregation as a strong family of faith. I didn’t want my lack of belief to smudge that reputation, so I’ve kept it hidden. I went to church with my family every Sunday up until the year I moved out. Even up until now, I’ve either avoided the subject of religion altogether or simply nodded my head and lied about it. Yes, I was going to church. Yes, I took communion. Yes, yes, yes.

But now as I’m getting older and coming to my own in this world, I have to question if what I’m doing is right. I’ve been lying to my family because I don’t want to cause them distress over my faith and humanity. With faith such an important aspect of being Filipino and being part of my family, will my personal beliefs become a barrier between me and my loved ones? I chose to keep up the image of a somewhat decent Catholic, because I believed it was a part of my duty as a Filipino daughter. I wanted to avoid the conflict that would come with being atheist, but in doing so I’ve created my own problems because I feel like I have to constantly edit and hide myself to appease my family.

One of the things I was most worried about when I started questioning my religion was the idea of good versus bad. Whenever I misbehaved or did something out of selfishness, my grandma would tell me, “Don’t do that or Papa Jesus will be mad at you.” So for the first years of my life, my compass of morality was based on what I thought Jesus would approve of or what was taught in the Bible. You know the basics, love thy neighbor, obey thy mother and father, don’t covet thy neighbor’s wife or donkey…

But I realized growing up that the things that I can do things that are “good” or “righteous” simply because they are good and righteous, not because it says so in the Bible. What is the Bible, anyway? It’s a compilation of stories and teachings written by ordinary people, which was then picked over and edited by men of authority, men who were building communities and empires and needed literature that justified and supported their cause. Who knows what else was written in the name of Christianity and left out because it didn’t serve that editor’s needs? But why does that have to stop us from being good people? It’s an evolutionary trait to want your species to survive and reproduce, so can’t being kind to others also be an inherent function of being a social animal?

And as for that void that I found when I was 12, it’s still there. The universe is constantly expanding, which means the void is just growing bigger and I’m getting smaller in comparison. The empty space between infinity and me is infinity itself, a vast space of unknowns and emptiness. Of course, I’m still terrified of the unknown, but I’m also comforted by it.

I don’t believe that I’ll meet my deceased loved ones in an afterlife, and while this makes me extremely sad because I miss them, it also helps me cherish the moments that I did have with them. When my grandpa died last year, I was heartbroken at the thought of never seeing him again. I even prayed to the universe and whatever is out there to make sure that it knew I loved my grandpa. But in doing so, I realized the only entities to which my love mattered was my grandpa and myself. I realized how lucky I was to have shared this time with my grandpa, in the infinite vastness of time and space I had the chance of knowing such an amazing person. That inspired me to rethink my current relationships with other people, and how the universe has miraculously chanced the intersection of the strings of our lifetimes. Not believing in the afterlife as rekindled my belief in this life, and loving as hard as I can while I still have the people I love and who love me.

This is a long, convoluted whatever it is, but it’s something I’ve been wanting to say for more than 10 years. I don’t believe in God or Jesus, but that doesn’t mean I have no beliefs. I believe in being kind and fair for the sake of being kind and fair. I believe that we are here for a transient amount of time and that we can never be sure of what will come afterward. Our lives are minuscule and insignificant in the face of such a vast, infinite universe, but that just means we have to squeeze all the love and happiness and fullness we can out of the short time we have with one another. For me, that’s enough.

I Failed NaNoWriMo

Every year during the month of November, a bunch of crazy people around the world take on the challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days. That averages to about 1,667 words per day.

On my best writing days, this was a breeze. Some days I wrote more than 3,000 words and felt like I could take over the world. But on my very worst days, the 1,667 seemed like an endless trek up Mount Everest and I had no shoes on and my backpack was getting heavier and heavier with each step and my map had fallen into a perilous, snowy abyss.

Image result for panic gif
This is me, trying to write or do anything.

I ended November at approximately 45,000 words. It’s disappointing because I did fail to meet the standard goal, and I know that if I had just pushed on 2 days or even 1 , I could have made up those last 5,000 words. But on the other hand, I have 45,000 more words than I did at the beginning of November. I’ve written the majority of my story and have overcome that crippling fear of writing badly, the fear of writing a shit story and discovering that I am in fact a mediocre writer and that I will never amount to anything and that my hopes and dreams should just be picked up along with the rest of my trash on Thursdays.

Image result for i call it bold and brash
Bold and Brash? I call it: belongs in the trash.

But NaNoWriMo is not about perfect writing. It’s not even about good writing. It’s about getting your story going and those damn words written, which I did!

I’ve always been that person who waited until the very very last minute to write essays. Like I’m talking due date procrastination, calculating how many words I can write per minute and boosting to 40 WPM so that I could bust out 1,500 word papers in 1 hour kind of procrastination. And it was never because I didn’t know the material, or that I didn’t know what to write. It’s because I had this anxiety that once I started filling that blank page, the words I saw would be the words everyone else would read. 16 or so years of this made me terrified of the blank page, terrified of writing even though it’s my favorite thing to do.

Image result for spongebob essay gif
Ok, I’ll calm down with the Spongebob gifs. It’s not my fault that this show represents me at the deepest level.

This November, I was able to accept that my first draft is for me. I’ve read somewhere that the process of writing drafts is like creating a sculpture. You can’t start chipping away at a rectangular prism of marble and expect it to instantly transform into a beautiful sculpture with luscious curls, a Roman nose, and a tiny penis!

Image result for spongebob marble gif
I swear to god I wasn’t thinking about Spongebob while writing this.

You have to excavate through the medium to find the general shape of your art, and then chip away at the definition and contours of his abs and tiny penis. In writing a story, your first draft is the blob of marble that kind of looks like a person, kind of looks like the Pokemon Muk.

Image result for muk gif

This is the shape of your story, where you can explore the rise and fall of your plot, meet your characters and sketch out their arcs, discover the general tone and pitch of your voice. And it’s gonna look like shit. The second, third, fourth, fifth, and so-on drafts are for defining and perfecting the shapes you first discovered. This is where you delete the stupid dialogue you wrote that sounded funny but actually means nothing for the plot, or the weird 2-page explanation of a character’s sleeping patterns that has nothing to do with their development.

For now, I’m allowing myself to have fun with my story. I am the artist with the rectangular prism of marble, a kindergartner who’s been given a can of paint and a blank canvas. And I’m not afraid to get messy or to see a pile of shit after this, because I know and trust that future Dina can edit and refine my gibberish into prose. After all, editing a shitty draft is always easier than editing a blank page.

If you’ve always wanted to do something but are scared of being bad at it, just do it and comfort yourself with the fact that yes, it is going to be bad. But the more you do the thing, the more material you will have to work with and the more skills and experience you will have to polish your work and make it pretty. From Muk to David, folks.

Image result for statue of david

I’m taking a break from my novel to explore some other ideas I had last month, but I’ve extended my goal to completing my first draft before the end of next February. I’m not sure if burnout is the psychological effect of completing a goal, but one of the good things about failing this NaNoWriMo is that I’m not at all sick of my story (yet). On the contrary, I’m having a lot of fun with the plot and playing around with my characters. It’s like playing D&D, but I’m by myself with no dice or friends. Writing is so fun!

Image result for Spongebob gif

A House and Lungs

Who am I to feel like I’m breaking or broken?
When my grandfather crossed the ocean he was alone
and picked grapes in Fresno and called home
only to be told to stay here and build
a life for the future. For me to sit here unhappy
is to reach back in time and stamp on the fruits
that he had pulled and plucked
truly breaking under loneliness and hot sun.

Who am I to break when I am so lucky?
Lucky to take my time and study and play
while mom and dad worked double shifts
and swallowed tired breaths to make sure
we kids had everything and more.
And while my closet was filled with clothes and toys
I cried breathless from pressure of just being,
so fragile and easily broken and not seeing
in the mirror a person deserving of any of it.

Who am I to break when I stand on a foundation
that had been built with withered, cracked hands
built out of sleepless, lonely nights and lost time?
My only job was to be grateful and enjoy
the fruits of the labor of others who had come
before me, who had built this house. And who was I 
to cry and beat the walls because I couldn’t breathe
When they worked their lives away to give me lungs
so that I could inhale opportunity and what do I exhale
but uncertainty and fear and unknowing of who I am?

And I left the house in search of fresher air
building a separate life still on that same foundation
not ever knowing what it’s like to go hungry or feel truly alone
So who am I to feel lonely and sometimes not breathe
for fear that the walls are cracking and this house will crumble
and I with it and everyone will stand at the perimeter
asking who and why was that.

The City I Don’t See

Photo by Chris Leipelt on Unsplash

It’s funny and strange how a city changes
through someone else’s eyes.
I scroll through my phone one day
and am struck by a familiar scene
a convenience store I pass every day
to the office or home or somewhere
hurrying by and never noticing
the carved angels atop the building,
misplaced among offices and cafes.
I scroll further and see my subway stop
a crowded and sweaty hell
that I erase from my memory as soon as I escape
has become a collage of textures and colors and shapes,
a harmony of the contrasting lives.

I pass by the store the next morning
and see the owner, who promptly at 8
hoses down the sidewalk and whistles Canon in D
and I wonder which city he sees
Is it the same hazy blur
of employees and passerby’s and no ones?
Or does he wash the canvas blank every day
to make room for the next self-portrait?

~i’M nOt LiKe OtHeR gIrLs~

I just finished watching Tiffany Ferguson’s video “I’m Not Like Other Girls” and it brought such strong feelings that I have to interrupt my highly prolific Alaska series that I’m definitely still working on and write about my experiences with individualism and internalized misogyny.

Image result for i'm not like other girlsWe have all seen posts like this scattered across Facebook, Twitter, and if you’re extra not like other girls, good old Tumblr. The nerdy, quirky girl who doesn’t wear makeup or care about fashion but is still somehow flawless and beautiful without much effort. She drinks beer and jokes around with the guys and doesn’t really fit in with Sorority Sarah because other girls are so vapid and dramatic! She doesn’t need flowers or chocolate, just buy her pizza and touch her butt.

Image result for buy me pizza meme
People actually posted this. Will future archaeologists study this as a mating call of earlier primitive humans?

I was guilty of being not like other girls. I read books and carried them around in the crook of my arm so my middle school peers could see that I didn’t care about Forever 21 (not just because I didn’t fit their clothes), I wore my brothers’ band t-shirts and played video games. My interests and hobbies during my early teenage years bordered between genuine interest and a feeling that I had to enjoy things apart from what typical girls enjoyed. Because to take part in those rituals of makeup and shopping and accessories would bring the risk of subjecting myself to the typical ideas of femininity and womanhood. And who would want that? Nay, I was a quirky snowflake who rejected girly things because girly meant not what men like. And to not be what men like is bad. 

Looking back now at my thoughts and feelings as a tomboyish teenager, I wonder if my snowflake syndrome was the direct result of internalized misogyny or of a fear that trying to be attractive and pretty would simply highlight the fact that I was not either of those things. It was probably both. If you read my earlier post on my relationship with my appearance and makeup, you’ll know that I spent a good third of my teenage years looking like an actual boy. I guess I took the ~i’M nOt LiKe OtHeR gIrLs~ thing too far and teetered off the edge of looking like a girl at all.

In case you haven’t read the post and don’t care to, this is what I looked like:

middleschool

And if you had read my post and are sick of seeing this picture, too bad. It is here to haunt you forever just as it haunts me.

Whether my snowflake syndrome stemmed from either hatred or fear of my fellow women, it does boil down to the fact that it was influenced by a system we all know and love to mention in our feminist slam poetry:

~The Patriarchy~

The oldest and most generic definition of the word is:

a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is traced through the male line.

What does this have to do with my life in 2019 and why do these dang feminists always want to smash it, you say? Well, the idea of male lineage has constructed a social dynamic in which men and the typical traits that we ascribe to men are the default. Men are typically strong, aggressive, stoic, bearded and burly and eat flapjacks aside their trusty blue ox, Babe.

Wait, no, that’s Paul Bunyan.

Image result for Paul Bunyan

Because of these internalized prejudices that we have towards typically masculine behaviors like stoicism, pragmatism, and wearing flannel shirts, we almost automatically denounce the attributes that are typically feminine. Putting effort into looking pretty means that you are frivolous and don’t care about the real issues at hand, like how to out-argue someone in a debate or how to chop down trees. Wearing false eyelashes and curling your hair means you hate democracy and don’t care about the Amazon burning to the ground.

And god forbid you like to take selfies. How can someone be so vapid and self-centered that they fill precious phone space with pictures of their own faces??!

Capture.PNG

It seems as though as soon as a personality trait or hobby or interest is connected to the female population, it is deemed stupid or unnecessary. Teenage girls get the worst of it. From the dawn of man it seems that anything that young girls or women take interest in is considered foolish. Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House was constantly ridiculed and belittled by her husband because of her spending habits and because she liked eating sweets. The entire conflict is based on her husband’s inability to fathom that his little songbird was capable of getting the family out of financial ruin. Because isn’t it automatically the devil’s work if a woman does anything worthwhile?

Young girls are constantly ridiculed and chastised for everything they do. From pumpkin spice lattes to pop music to makeup to genuine nihilistic dread about the fact that life is a meaningless void, whatever girls come up with is just stupid.

Image result for Vsco girls

Now we have the VSCO girl. I get it, making fun of trends is funny and not at all a cheap joke. But if reusable water bottles and comfy clothes are becoming trendy then I’m all here for it.

VSCO girls are a new internet phenomenon that I’m particularly interested in because it entails an intriguingly meta self-study of teenage girls reacting and dissecting their own trends. It seems like a self-parody of the ~i’M nOt LiKe OtHeR gIrLs~ trope and a possible light at the end of the tunnel that is internalized misogynistic hate we’ve instilled into our societies.

I’m not going to tell you to stop saying it, because you should have stopped after graduating middle school, if you did say it at all. But I will tell you, because it is still an annoying trope that persists when people want cheap laughs without taking the time to think of actual jokes, to stop relying on teenage girls for your humor. It’s old, overused, and frankly a little weird how society seems to be so obsessed with young women’s interests. Drink your Starbucks (with a reusable straw, of course) and wear that scrunchie on your wrist, or wear a flannel and frolic through the woods. Girls are awesome and strong and spunky, and I’m proud to be like other girls!

Selling Out?: Getting a “Real Job” as an English Major

“What’re you gonna do with that?” I heard this question many times throughout my educational career as an English major — eventually I would just respond with a blank smile and allowed the inquirer to speculate on their own. “Ooooh, a teacher?!?!” They would smile wide and nod: a self-congratulation as they had brilliantly rationalized why anyone would choose to gruel over the humanities as their field of study. And of all humanities studies — English! You can’t write code or do surgery or found the next brilliant tech innovation with an English degree!

“I’ll just be broke or homeless, I guess,” I would say sometimes, watching the look of inquisitiveness move into either mild shock or annoyance. After all, that’s what it seemed their question was leading into. Why put myself through 4 long years of school just to read?

No one is ever asked what they’re going to do with a Computer Science or Medical degree, because those indicate specific career fields after graduation. Even some art degrees have logical trajectories: the exploding world of technology and entertainment will always have a designated home for designers, illustrators, and musicians. But for the humanities it’s not always quite clear. I’m looking at you, students of philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and of course, English. If you look so disdained and irritated at the thought of teaching, what the hell are you going to do with your life? You can’t highlight and discuss Dostoevsky for rent or bulk quinoa, you know. In this economy??

During the very last months of college I found myself wildly panicking over what was to come after graduation. I had seen the light after long, stressful nights of postcolonial essays and cursing Descarte, but what exactly was it that awaited me outside the tunnel? I had worked at Starbucks and as a math tutor for most of my time at university, but now I had to leave the lull of part-time work and join the work force as a full-fledged, blazer wearing adult. I began the arduous task of filling out applications and writing enthusiastic-but-not-desperate cover letters. The more company websites and Glassdoor reviews I read, the more I began to doubt and question myself. Just who the hell did I think I was, trying to penetrate into these money-flooded, world-changing industries with but a mere English degree?

The first thing I learned was that job applications are nothing but a numbers game. That posting on LinkedIn might have been there for weeks by the time your grubby hands clicked on it — imagine all the other souls that have already applied and posted their resumes and cover letters and hopes and dreams.

So you’re probably 189th in line to interview for a decent paying job in the Financial District with great benefits and catered lunches, and I’m sorry to say that statistically you are unlikely to even get an in-person interview. Maybe the recruiter won’t even see your profile. Don’t fret, dear friend. Remember the numbers and do not put all of your eggs (and your hopes and dreams) into one catered lunch basket. Take advantage of the “Easy Apply” button and up your game. The more applications you put out, the more likely you’re going to get a call. The more calls and interviews you’re granted, the more likely you’re gonna get a job. 

If you’re feeling as insecure as I was about your major, don’t. The education section in your resume is only what, 3-5 lines? There is an entire 8 1/2 x 11 sheet (or A4 if you’re not American) on which you can paint the intelligent, competent, and hard-working individual you are. The skills you learn as a humanities major are useful and important, but you have to know how to market them to fit corporate expectations and needs. For example, my long, grueling nights over analytical essays and presentations became:

  • Efficient and thorough analysis of written text
  • Effective written and oral communication on different scopes and levels of detail

It’s all about selling your skills and customizing your resume and cover letter to fit the job application. Technical writer? Emphasize your quick and accurate copywriting/editing skills. Project coordinator? Highlight your communication skills and the high- and low-level detail work you put into that senior thesis.

That being said, I’m going to have to get honest with you, fellow humanities major. Unless you’re intensely brilliant and prolific, Hermione Granger incarnate, or you were able to land and work unpaid internships during college, I’m sorry to say that you are probably not going to be a tenured museum curator at the Smithsonian or a publishing editor at Random House right after graduation. If you have the financial means to do so, put in that entry-level time at creative companies and work your way up. If you do need to make that cash, maybe take some time in another industry while you keep working on your creative pursuits. I say this because unfortunately, you will probably have to weigh in between having a higher, secure salary versus lower pay while working on your passion project and dream career.

I personally had to choose between taking a lower paid entry-level position at a small publishing company and a higher paid position in an industry I don’t love. Call me a sell out, but I chose the higher paid position for now because I want to build up financial security while I keep looking for better paid creative work and endeavoring on my own passion projects (like this godforsaken manuscript). At first I felt guilty because I gave up the opportunity to work in literature for a corporate job, but I can still love books and writing while paying my bills and building my savings.

So yes, I did get a real, big-girl job with my English degree! I am not finished with my education and constantly scour free classes on Udacity and Coursera to learn new skills (Mandarin and Python just because they’re interesting) but I am proud of my education and what I’ve learned. I like the work I’ve found and admit to settling, but I’m also on a constant lookout for transitioning into creative work. Do not fret, dear English major. The world is abundant and full of jobs: careers that you will either love or careers that you can take for the time being while you gain more editing experience and/or finish that manuscript (finish it, dammit!).

 

Chess, Infinity, and the Abyss

Chess was the first love of my life and my first encounter with the daunting abyss of infinite choices, infinite cause and effect. An important strategy of the game is to analyze the possible outcomes before making one’s move. Carelessness with even the simplest piece could open an advantage for the opponent and alter the course of the game. But as most matches are timed, there must be a limit to the analyzing: the predicting and planning. Every move has a number of outcomes that branch into more outcomes, so the possibilities multiply exponentially and it becomes dangerous to ponder, to let time tick by as one tries to map out the infinite intricacies of possible futures.

I learned how to play in 3rd grade and almost instantly fell in love with the methodical chaos. For most of the day I was a normal 7 year old girl, trading Hello Kitty stickers with Tracy and Sabrina and giggling over Zac Efron. But by the time Chess Club began I was completely transformed. I was Napoleon, setting traps and feeling fiery satisfaction as my victims fell into them.

One late spring afternoon towards the end of 5th grade, my teammates and I were on a bus to the state championships. My school had been reigning as the #1 elementary school for years. We rode into the venue with our black team visors and sponsorship Clif Bar t-shirts, ready to continue the reign of the Cherrywood Charger as well as setting our own rankings on the state ladder. I crushed my first two matches, fueling the fire with Hot Cheetos and Gatorade.

My third match was different. A typical strategy, a no-brainer, is to gain control of the center of the board by moving the center pawns early in the game: this allows the stronger pieces, such as the knight, queen, or bishop to come out and take positions in or around the middle. Pawn to E4 is ingrained into every chess player’s mind. But my third opponent that day, a scrawny boy with silver wiry glasses and a furrowed brow, did not follow the silent rule. Instead, he opened the game with his peripheral pawns. They stood at A4 and H4, taunting me, daring me.

At first I dismissed his choices as that of someone with no skill.  I figured it would be an easy victory. But by the time he had developed his other pieces’ positions, it was clear that he knew what he was doing. I was losing, and with a tightness in my gut I began to scrutinize every single moment, considering at least five different ways he could go for every one move I made. I could no longer map out different strategies; there were far too many, and I was running out of time. Our tournament clocks kept track of how much time we each had: he was still at 4:32 when I realized mine read 0:30. And I froze, staring at the ticking second hand, too paralyzed to even lift my my own.

“Hey, are you gonna go?” He asked, nodding at my diminishing time. I was at 0:12.

At 0:07 I realized the match was over. I let it go to 0:00 and watched him raise his hand. The volunteer judge came and wrote Forfeit on my chart, Victory on his. We shook hands, exchanging a polite “Good game” and went our separate ways.

Thought had gotten the best of me in a game that was supposed to revolve around thoughtfulness and deliberation. I had gone too far in my mind and lost myself in the labyrinth of What Could Be’s and What Could Happen’s. The maze of outcomes that had previously been my joy and solace had betrayed me.

There is a line between thoughtfulness and rationality, and instinct and spontaneity. The missing strategy of chess that I never quite grasped during my competitive days was to plan one’s course of moves, but to also embrace the infinite void as just that. We could all sit there and plan out every outcome and every outcome of that outcome; it’ll make us feel secure in our decision making but it’ll also eat away at time. It’s taken me eleven years, but I finally understand the courage and insanity of that furrow-browed kid’s opening moves. He rejected rational strategy and instead embraced the infinite future that had paralyzed me, trusting instinctual skill over careful deliberation. He stared into the abyss square in the face and laughed as it stared back. 

We can all sit here and deliberate every single move and plan out every outcome, but our clocks are ticking. Some decisions need that extra contemplation and planning out, but sometimes you just have to trust yourself and go headfirst into the darkness.