Zosia Mamet is an inspiration.

Girls came into my life when I needed and connected to it the most: right after I had graduated from college, with no job, dwindling savings, and a writing degree.

Although I never named myself the voice of a generation, I felt deeply connected to the struggle to figure everything out: your passion, your social life, your friend circle, your dating efforts, your budding career, your student loans. I applied far and wide and had nibbles from places in Richmond, Va., and Lake Tahoe, Calif., and Laughlin, Nev. But nothing felt right. So I stayed in Tucson, freelanced my way into a publishing company job, and hung out with friends in their senior years of college. It was a blast.

But part of me couldn’t shake the fact that it felt like arrested development. Why wasn’t I successful yet?

So I pulled up my big girl pants and moved for a host of adult reasons, some personal and others to achieve a greater level of success. But it took me on a path that was both leaning out of where I thought I was going and diversifying to try out new things. Cool, yes, but in some ways, not success in the way I envisioned it a couple years ago. But it wasn’t the “knock down the doors until you get what you need” and the “overcome the female confidence gap” training that pop culture has seen as en vogue.

Lean In. Thrive. The Confidence Gap. They all tell us to be aggressive in the pursuit of success.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been told that I should be “meaner” in order to be “successful” in a field, to move up the ranks. So these more aggressive tactics just didn’t seem like me. Am I confident in my skills? Of course. Am I the type to stab people in the back to sit at the top of the heap? Not so much. (Mostly because I’ve been the recipient of said stabbing by a person who would later be the mean person that job needed to be on top and it felt just awful.)

Then I started to question whether or not I made the right choice as far as what the job meant for my career and what my career should be in, whether or not I should go to grad school, what people would think about me if I shifted paths … and what “success” is supposed to be. This is where Zosia comes in.

In Mad Men, Zosia (gosh, I love her name) plays Joyce Ramsay, an assistant photo editor at Life magazine, who is in charge of app parts of her career, social, and personal life. She is a woman with an editor position at a major magazine in the ‘60s. The feat would be impressive now, but in the context of the times, it is even more so. She’s by every metric pretty successful. In Girls, Zosia plays Shoshanna Shapiro who at times during the series has been critical of her friend’s lack of motivation and achievement (read: lack of success), but then when she falters at the finish line of her degree and sees a future where her plans for success have been disrupted, she starts to try and put her life back together, starting with a last ditch effort to mend her broken relationship. By most metrics, not as successful. But both women are young and enjoying their life, making mistakes along the way. From an outside perspective, either one could hear the line “you’ve got your whole life ahead of you so make mistakes now” and yet still be lumped into today’s version of what we believe a young person is: a lazy, entitled millennial.

Either woman’s success, however different she maybe, is measured by the same rigid outside monetary, prestigious, and societal metrics.

Even in real life, Zosia the actress says she “ha[s] been incredibly blessed with success in my chosen career.” Success by someone else’s metrics.

But then she asks herself a line of questioning in a Glamour column recently that I’ve been circling around lately myself, a line that ends in this revelation: “We are so obsessed with ‘making it’ these days we’ve lost sight of what it means to be successful on our own terms. … You can’t just jog; you have to run a triathlon. Having a cup of coffee, reading the paper, and heading to work isn’t enough—that’s settling, that’s giving in, that’s letting them win. You have to wake up, have a cup of coffee, conquer France, bake a perfect cake, take a boxing class, and figure out how you are going to get that corner office or become district supervisor, while also looking damn sexy—but not too sexy, because cleavage is degrading—all before lunchtime.”

I say this is a revelation for a reason. I had a deep conversation with a bunch of smart women about work/life balance recently. We discussed how much of yourself you should be comfortable committing to a job, where to draw lines, how career affects a personal life, the ultimate goal of “Do I want a husband/wife and kids?” and what does that mean for my career, all of it. The conversation alone was exhausting. So trying to make these strategic choices seems daunting in so many different ways. Plus, with all the gendered discussion over the firing of Jill Abramson (who I have had the pleasure to meet, along with the new executive editor Dean Baquet because of my involvement with the New York Times Student Journalism Institute back in 2011) from The New York Times, leaning in seems like even a slightly dangerous proposition.

At the end of this vigorous discussion, though, we all had a different feeling about what balanced even was and what would make us happy in the pursuit of success. We all had different opinions about what “having it all” meant, too.

Zosia goes on to say, “The solution, I think, is to ask ourselves what we actually want—each of us personally—and stop putting so much pressure on one another. Success isn’t about winning everything; it’s about achieving your dream, be that teaching middle school or flying jets. And no matter what we as individual women want, no matter what our goals, we have to support one another.”

That seems much less daunting. Focusing not on what you lack, or what different person you should become to get what you want, but taking what you have and striving for what you want. Achieving a dream, whatever it is, in the best way you know how. To me, if that’s the goal, I’ll lean in and thrive for that all day long.

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Carl Sagan is right: Books are astonishing.

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

I posted a while back about really starting to crack down and read more books and I won’t lie, it’s been amazing. I’m so inspired to write, to spend less time wasting time and more time learning and growing and experiencing the moment. (This might possibly be because of meditation rituals as well, but that addition is fodder for a whole other post.)

So I figured I’d post here a little synopsis of what I’ve read so far (these books are listed as close to chronological order as well as I can remember) and also ask for any recommendations on what to add to the queue (especially if those are non-fiction selections since I’ve been a fiction fiend). I’m taking a train from Flagstaff to Chicago and back around Memorial Day so I’ll have plenty of time to read (or listen to) books!

 

The 2014 Read As Many Books As Possible-A-Thon 

Completed:

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

The Fault In Our Stars – John Green

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris

Song of Myself – Walt Whitman

Americanah – Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz

This Is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz

Consider The Lobster – David Foster Wallace

An Abundance of Katherines – John Green

Women – Charles Bukowski

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs – Chuck Klosterman

The Lord of the Flies – William Golding

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

Sleepwalk With Me – Mike Birbiglia

Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut

The Stranger – Albert Camus

Feminism Is For Everybody – bell hooks

In Progress:

Human, All Too Human – Frederich Nietzche (20 pages in)

100 Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (read the first sentence, one of the best in the history of literature, and got self-conscious about my own writing, but also excited to read it)

The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde (really close to being done)

Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger (audiobook-ing it while working)

To Read (books that I have purchased and haven’t read yet):

On The Road – Jack Kerouac

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

The Invisible Man – Chuck Klosterman

Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

American Pastoral – Philip Roth

Scar Tissue – Anthony Kiedis

The Upgrade – Paul Carr

Then Came You – Jennifer Weiner

The Harlem Renaissance Reader – Various

On Such a Full Sea – Chang Rae-Lee (on its way)

Stay Up With Me – Tom Barbash (on its way)

 

I have told those I love around me that on our inevitable next trip to Bookmans or Barnes and Noble, I have to have finished a book I have already purchased or started before I am allowed to buy another one. Seriously the stack is high and growing higher every time I leave the house. I’m turning into a book hoarder.

So please let me know if you have suggestions, or if you want to talk about my impressions of each book. I have lots of opinions, but I will offer them only if someone wants them to be shared!

As Abe Simpson says, one tiny change makes all the difference

After we had decided to see The Grand Budapest Hotel after dinner at Carrabba’s I was asked, “Why don’t you seem more excited?” I know, I know, Wes Anderson. Life Aquatic and all that. I said, “With that many people in a movie, doesn’t it seem like it doesn’t give most of them time to be any good?”

I was – mostly – right. Jeff Goldblum cannot be tamed and even missing fingers he was one of the most enjoyable parts of the movie. Voldemort also played a convincing Ralph Finnes playing a concierge.

Seeing this movie, however, stirred up quite a conversation, one that lasted past the walk to the movie theater lobby, past the drive home, and lasted about half an hour after that.

“It was pretty though. Some of the shots were truly brilliant.” I grew up in a family that actively discussed cinematography after emerging from a movie theater.

“Yeah, but who makes Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe seem …”

“Hollow?” I said.

“Yes, exactly!”

“I just would rather watch Four Rooms.” Granted, although I said this particular sentence, it was a group sentiment.

Now, this is no disrespect to Wes Anderson or Wes Anderson fans. And full disclosure: I truly enjoy Quentin Tarantino movies, and can tell that the cinematics in The Grand Budapest Hotel are exciting and visually stunning in a way that Four Rooms doesn’t necessarily achieve. But hey, it was ’95, so I give it a pass. (Tarantino had quite a hand in Four Rooms, just to add the connective tissue here.) But after this chat, and another discussion about it over tandoori chicken and chana masala the next day, a singular thought arose: one tiny change makes all the difference.

Take Four Rooms and The Grand Budapest Hotel: Interwoven stories surrounding the exploits of a concierge at a hotel that turned from very popular to less-than-popular over its time. Even the concierges both had purple suits. But the string that held the movies together, Tim Roth’s concierge versus Ralph Finnes concierge, were just slightly different, and the focus in Four Rooms stayed, well in Four Rooms, whereas The Grand Budapest Hotel spent only a third to a half of the movie inside the actual hotel. And this slight change made Four Rooms easier to follow and more fun to watch, and The Grand Budapest Hotel … full of beautiful visuals and Anderson-esque featurettes and Jeff Goldblum jokes (and by this I mean Jeff Goldblum being effervescently funny, not people making jokes about the amazing Jeff Goldblum … have I mentioned I like Jeff Goldblum?) But did it convert me into a Wes Anderson fan? Maybe not. (Good thing I like quirky books and craft beer, otherwise I’d lose all cred with the hipster-indie crowd with that last statement. Maybe I need to finish The Life Aquatic. Or watch Moonrise Kingdom. Or have a proper introduction to Anderson to … “get it.”)

A conversation expanded to two other movies: Identity and Shutter Island, which take the theory of amazingly terror-filled events trapped in the psychoses of a mind, and let you know the wool has been pulled over your eyes at two different times (about two-thirds through the movie versus right at the end respectively) and that made one much more effective than the other to a friend of mine. “You figure out this is all fake and then you think, ‘Why do I care about that bald guy? I don’t even care that much about John Cusack at that point. The suspense is gone.’” Valid point, even though I still like Identity, and took slight offense to his protestations as I recommended him the movie and said it was “totally awesome.” (Spoiler alert: He absolutely did not agree.)

But here again, one tiny change makes all the difference.

It’s like how they always say in time travel fiction to not mess with the past because killing a mosquito in the pre-historic age can change everything about the present. (My most vivid memory of this is some version of this sentiment said by Abe Simpson to Homer in Treehouse of Horror V (a great The Simpsons episode that really holds up if you haven’t watched it in a while.))

 

I expanded this thought to my own life, and about the tiny things and how they made all the difference.

I went to the University of Arizona rather than University of Southern California, which I really wanted to go to at 16, but would have been paying for until I was 46; I stayed in Tucson post-graduation and took a job I never thought I’d be in, which wasn’t what I thought I’d do even six months before that but taught me more than a different job or a year in a misguided grad program would have; I went to visit a friend in Phoenix in June of last year, after I applied for and didn’t get a gig in San Francisco, and one of the greatest things to happen to the last 10 months of my life happened because I didn’t get a job I thought would be perfect.

What if I went to USC for school? What if I had moved to Lake Tahoe, California, or Richmond, Virginia, or Laughlin, Nevada, for the jobs I “should” have taken? What if I had gone to Phoenix a different weekend, or had gotten Jimmy John’s delivered rather than walked into the shop on Saturday?

From the outside, some of these choices seem innocuous, or maybe even appear incongruous and hollow. But for me, they made all the difference.

So I guess what I am saying is, The Grand Budapest Hotel is my USC. It’s amazing and distant, something I want to like and seemed for me, but is also kind of OK if it’s not. It’s my tiny preference, my choice, my change, change, and it makes all the difference.

Does money or quality define seriously good art? And who said art had to be serious?

The clash of art and business is a mighty one. It’s one that hits close to home as well.

My mother wanted to be – and is, to be fair – a professional artist when she was growing up. But, like any responsible parent would do, she was told that the life of a professional artist is hard. So when she went to get a college degree she went practical and studied business.

Not a bad idea. In fact, a very smart one.

But years later, after a successful career in business that she gave up to raise my sister and I, she returned to art in a big way. She’d painted all this time here and there, giving paintings away to family and friends. A chance meeting with an old friend of my father lead her to a showing at a gallery, and a women’s workshop, and in Borders bookstores (you can tell how long ago this was). She blended her business sense with her art talent and sold paintings and then through volunteer work got an art director position crafted for her.

That’s rare. It’s hard to make art a career, but my mom, through a zig-zagged path, did just that.

But the legitimization of her passion for art came with its blend into her professional pursuits. The painting and talent were the same for years. She became a blip on others’ radars and that’s how she got the business cards that labeled her a professional artist.

So is that was makes art good? It’s monetary value and it being sold? Is that even the purpose of art – to be good?

Poptimism discusses this in the realm of music and music criticism. The New York Times recently called it “a studied reaction to the musical past. It is … disco, not punk; pop, not rock; synthesizers, not guitars; the music video, not the live show. It is to privilege the deliriously artificial over the artificially genuine … Poptimism wants to be in touch with the taste of average music fans, to speak to the rush that comes from hearing a great single on the radio, or YouTube, and to value it no differently from a song with more ‘serious’ artistic intent. … In this light, poptimism can be seen as an attempt to resuscitate the unified cultural experience of the past, when we were all, at least in theory, listening together to “Sgt. Pepper’s” or “Thriller.””

The author then compares it to criticism and “good” art in other genres, finishing with “[n]o matter the field, a critic’s job is to argue and plead for the underappreciated, not just to cheer on the winners.”

My immediate thought is that Thriller was both widely popular and critically acclaimed, and that there are certain pop artists, like Beyonce, or Lorde, that still garner this kind of wide sweep. But being indie doesn’t mean you’re better, just like being widely bought doesn’t mean you’re better. And that in a world where we have access to just about everything, having a Thriller is less and less likely. It’s not that there’s no talent in pop music – it’s that everyone’s pop is different.

The discussion at NPR made me feel much more sane, noting “in a globalized, polycultural, multilateral, warming, mass-migrating world, we have urgent questions such as, ‘Where is the center?’ ‘Which information matters?’ ‘Who benefits?’ ‘What does that make me?’” It states my general thought in more precise language: the discussion of pop music, and thus what is popular, is so much more interesting and valid because “Where is the center?” is a question that’s so much more valid today than ever before. Your taste isn’t bound by your parent’s record collection and the Beta Max/cassettes/CDs your older siblings played in your shared room. It’s bound only by your imagination and your faculties with Google.

Pitchfork also adds a refinement to this and an ancillary concept: “The point is that popularity is a number, but “pop” is a concept. To its enemies it suggests a dystopian image of music served up like condensed food pellets from some uncaring hand, forced into our living rooms and offices, inescapable. To its friends it is something inclusive, a unisex, one-size-fits-all party smock, the thing that draws everyone to the floor.”

The part that’s the most interesting to me is that all of this discussion is based on a dynamic that I saw my mother grapple with when I was small, one that haunted me throughout all my internships where I was giving away my creativity for the pay of $0 and experience cents for months upon months, and even see now as a content creator in the big bad world: money makes art “real,” “appreciated,” and “professional.” And these critics, in their bellyaching about losing their thrones as the arbiters of what people buy under the guise of making the “underappreciated more appreciated” really are just falling into the trap that created the mega popstar in the first place – it’s all about valuing the monetary gains to prove the art you’ve made (or critiqued) as good. Even in the fight against just “cheering on the winners” they rate their success as critics as turning “losers” into new “winners.”

Citing the fact that poptimism – and by extension the popular – must not prove its significance (as its sales have done that) but stress its further impacts, Pitchfork makes the point that I think is the most important one that I’ve read. “I sometimes worry that serious music can only be served by serious talk, or worse, that people who like serious music can only have serious reasons for doing so. The truth is that you will probably meet just as many shallow people at a National show as you will at a Miley Cyrus show, the difference being that people at the National show are more likely to think they’re important, while people at a Miley Cyrus show are more likely to think they’re having fun.”

So does the world think that good art is valued by expertise in execution or especially good economic returns? In the abstract people would say quality, but in real terms, even the art critics allow their good work to be valued in monetary terms. Is that good? I doubt it, but I know that even after reading tons of art-flavored poptimism that would encourage me to lean Dali or Pollock rather than Woodberry, I love my mother’s paintings with a ferocity that only slightly outweighs how hard I bump “**Flawless” from time to time. And that’s OK, because I’m going to the Cyrus fan route and having fun.

What the Robocop reboot taught me about utopia

George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Bill Gates, and Robocop have forever changed my view of utopia.

The irony of this is that the discussion of what utopia is strangely both apolitical and completely partisan and Orwell and Huxley juggle this dichotomy in both 1984 and Brave New World respectively. But other than expanding my 15-year-old mind to explore the idea of a utopian society, I’m not sure if I ever wrestled with what a real applicable utopia would look like – and if it would even be a good thing to have.

This train of thought started with a benign discussion of robots.

Mashable talked about how tiny robots can build big things, noting “SRI International, a non-profit research firm serving government and industry, has found a novel way to control tiny, low cost magnets via electromagnetic pulses delivered to them through contact with printed circuit boards,” and went on to say that SRI is expanding this so that these robots can manipulate tools and the research firms aims to “enable an assembly head containing thousands of micro-robots to manufacture high-quality macro-scale products while providing millimeter-scale structural control.”

Mashable said this was both “amazing, and a little bit creepy,” and I tend to agree.

I pondered the thought of the disappearance of jobs by bots, a thought that Bill Gates talked about at length and one that the Economist ran a big story on in June.

“Software substitution, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses … it’s progressing. …  Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set. …  20 years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model,” Gates said, noting that maybe the elimination of the income and payroll taxes and tax incentives for businesses to keep on humans might be a good thing. It’s all technological unemployment.

But I can’t lie: Whenever I order takeout online, my order is always right – not always the case when a human jots it down. It’s not their fault, it’s just human error. And to be fair, the Economist did say there’s an almost 90 percent chance that what I do 9-to-5 right now will be done by robots in two decades. I am sure no matter how many grammar rules I memorize, the amount of times I’ll put in a typo is greater than that of a robot because of human error.

And this “lower end of skill set” is close to a fifth of the American population, as most of the 10 most common jobs in America are low wage work, including retail salespeople and cashiers, office and administrative support, laborers, and janitorial workers. Registered nurses were the only ones with average salaries above the national average of $22.33 an hour – and were also one of the jobs that Gates said might get phased out by bots.

It’s scary to think the way that my father and many people found their way into the middle class would be gone in favor of bots.

This reminded me of the recent reboot of Robocop that I saw in theaters. (Who can say no to Samuel L. Jackson in a wig and car chases?) Being a cop is one of those jobs that you could be a blue collar guy and have and feed a family on. So when I thought about the different forces at play in Robocop, typified by Raymond Sellars who said “Forget the machines. They want a product with a conscience. Something that knows what it feels like to be human. We’re gonna put a man inside a machine,” and Dr. Dennett Norton who said, “The human element will always be present! Compassion, fear, instinct, they will always interfere with the system,” it made me think – 1) where do we draw the line as to what we will and won’t let robots do? And 2) What’s the greater impact of the blend of man and machine?

Now how does this all relate to utopia? Well the 2014 Robocop stars with this vision of saving our brave men and women by putting robots on the street to deal with crime and creating a society where the crime rate can become zero – one of the facets of utopia that people crave. In talking about what these already invented magnet robots Mashable raved about could do, a friend said “The real life applications for things like these robots, 3D printing, and linking the brain to technology is like… woah. What if you had these tiny little robots with 3D ink and have them build a bridge. In my naive view, technology is the key to a more utopian society. If we can get technology to cover our basic needs, then maybe we’ll have more time for art, music, literature, etc.” (I have smart friends, and I don’t think the view is naïve at all.)

Maybe this could work. Have robots worry about fixing our plumbing when it spring a leak, have the state save human lives and send machines into the risky situations on the streets.

But then my thoughts flick to George and Aldous and how they grappled with the use of technology to control society, the control of information and history, and the dangers of an all-powerful state that can exert psychological and physical control of us through doublethink, through controlling the purse strings, through exerting power over heaps of metal that roam the streets assessing if we are a threat without the knowledge of what it feels like to be a man, a woman, a child, to express compassion, to react to fear, to work on instinct.

So what is utopia? Is it robots covering the basics and letting us create the high level cultural assets that will exist long after we turn to dust? Is it a libertarian view of limited government that allows us more freedom to live our lives the way we choose? Is it a progressive view of government that provides fiscal reform and regulation over private entities to prevent corruption? And are we OK with allowing machines control the little things in our lives? When do the little things turn into the big things, and the big things turn into everything?

I surely don’t know exactly how the Internet works, but I use it to pay bills, order food, talk with friends, even post this screed. So maybe the question isn’t are we OK with the thought, or where the line is, but how to grapple with the fact that we already sleep with our phones and freak out when our Internet connections stop. Maybe we aren’t talking about a future we ponder, but a present we already have.

Updated 4/21: Mashable once again teaches me something I don’t know, this time in op-ed form, which bashes the end of this blog post … and in delightful fashion.
The tl;dr version can be summed up with this:
“The varieties of ways in which drones are improving our lives is a great example of how the unintended consequences of technology can often be positive ones — no matter what Hollywood would have us believe for the sake of a story. Hubris was not the only lesson of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; it was also written to show how men fear and destroy what they don’t understand.
So understand how slowly and tentatively the new robot race is coming into being. Reserve your fears for more clear and present nightmares — such as the political candidates that will emerge from a campaign finance system that allows for unrestricted funding. And when your ASIMO finally arrives at your home, many decades from now, and pauses to look and smile at you when it pours the tea, remember to smile back.”

“Wait, so why do you live in Arizona?”

Between the effect of local political activists on policymaking, which with SB 1062 raised concerns about if state legislation could try and legalize discrimination; between police firing pepper spray into crowds (and the reporters covering them) that took the streets after the Arizona Wildcats lost in overtime in the NCAA Tournament; between the water issues of Tucson that makes the vibrant and culturally rich city struggle to accommodate the demands of its population; and between the constant news of its internal struggles surrounding women’s productive rights, on tragic falls of Arizona college students that lead to death, on closed-door caucus comments and its militarized border and education woes, I’m never surprised when people ask, “Why do you live in Arizona?”

I am not the typical Arizonan that gets pictured in national media, although I was born here, as was my sister and my father, and I’ve spent a large portion of my life (13 of 23 years of it, as a rough estimate) living within its borders at various times and in various cities. 

I am, however, a fan of its gorgeous sunsets; of its amazing carne asada; of its southern university where I earned my degree; of its ability to house a hipster bastion like Tucson replete with amazing dining and bars and sights; of its mountains; of its more northern cities such as Sedona, Prescott, and Flagstaff; and of its lesser known and less frequently visited places to the south, like Tombstone, Patagonia and Sierra Vista, and further north, like Jerome, Cottonwood and Kingman. 

I am shaped by Arizona as much as I am shaped by being an American, a minority, a female, a writer, a millennial.

It has given me some of my closest friends. It has given me the chance to grow from girl to woman. It has given me a chance to learn, and grow, and enjoy. However, it has also caused me to catch a lot of flak, from strangers and friends alike. (This is not something I’m completely startled by, as I spent a significant amount of time also living in Las Vegas as a child, a city which is as interesting and complex and dirty and brilliant as you can imagine.)

So, the inevitable follow up question, after I list my likes, is: “So do you want to live in Phoenix (or insert Tucson, or another city in Arizona) forever?”

…and my inevitable and steadfast answer: Maybe. Maybe not. I’ve lived in California for a time too, and might go back. Or maybe my parents will finally get their wish and I’ll move back to Vegas and closer to family. Or maybe I’ll move to Tokyo.

But as much as I laugh when 30 Rock lampoons Arizona State University (I’m a Wildcat forever, even though I appreciate the programs ASU houses more than my undergrad school spirit cares to admit), as much as I chuckle when Jon Stewart bloviates on the Arizona legislature again and again and again, as much as I can cop to the fact that Arizona has its share of divisive characters that weave their way into the national political stage, I still like the state. I like its craft breweries and wine market, its Wild West history, its small businesses, and its hiking all while forgiving its missteps borne from a American history of both successes and failures that echo across all of America’s many cavernous parts.

I wouldn’t be the person I am without Arizona, and so I have learned to enjoy it past its faults – at least for now. Plus, unlike Google, I still haven’t seen the Grand Canyon, so I have to stay for a little bit longer, right?

 

 

Black. Female. Millennial. Invisible.

My sister and I were (subconsciously) always tasked with being examples. As the youngest of a generation on one side of the family and the oldest on the other, we were in an interesting spot where we somehow provided an example of what could be done with our genes, our bodies, our last names.

“It’s important to me that they see that they are building upon a foundation … We have to continue to build each generation. It’s important for our uplift as a people and our uplift as women.”

And so, even though my sister and I both went to a major state school, have successful careers, never moved back home to live in our parents basement, and were born in the Gen Y era, we rarely, if ever, see our story reflected in the media. The black millennial story, especially black millennial women, has not been told to great length – especially when you exclude those accounts couched in the trappings most columns of the African American experience tend to touch on (e.g. the effects of stop and frisk on NYC’s minorities, the visions of us in media and in politics, the tale of a multiethnic woman who has become our vision of the Welfare Queen, and so on). I know that as much as I try to skirt the issue people of color still seen as an other – a voting block to be captured, a section of people to be turned into mascots, a stereotype to have parties about.

I meditated on this fact at length as I came to the end of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Yes, the author shouted out by Beyonce. But her novel expresses a global and connected world, race relations in America, sexual politics, immigration issues, economic class clashes, and even love in an ever connected, multiethnic and evolving world. (Plus, she’s just a brilliant author and speaker.)

Seeing this nuanced portrayal, one that took five years to make and was now easily available to be picked up, bought, read, re-read, analyzed, shared, and cherished from the bookshelves of my local Barnes & Noble, I decided to Google “black woman” to see what the results would be. They were either non-descript or startling.

Black Woman Google

Although I have in fact occupied many a chair in my day I have never been shot nor thrown a table. C’mon, I’m not a Real Housewife of New Jersey.

The black female portrait in society is multifaceted but also dramatically flawed. (This, I concede, is not a singular problem to the black female, but that’s the life I know so it is the one I will speak on.) We have Oprah and Michelle Obama and Olivia Pope and Mary Jane and Laverne Cox and Beyonce, and also Basketball Wives, Love & Hip Hop, and the aforementioned housewives franchise’s Atlanta edition. We take steps forward and also take them back.

As the millennial discussion continues to be dominated by tales of trying to decode millennials, as if a column titled “7 Ways Millennials Are Just Like You Baby Boomers” can really unlock the secrets to speaking to, understanding more about, and working with millions of people, I feel like those Google results above aren’t just happenstance. They really are representations of what some people see black people to be, and so the black female millennial experience falls into the trappings of the experience of generations before, even if we are not the same as those generations. So having a minority name alone makes employers less likely to consider your resume. So the pains of the Great Recession still hit black and other minority workers harder because of the lack of social networking that we have at our fingertips. So people believe in reverse racism against them in schooling and in work, and think race isn’t a problem but rather just black people playing the race card. So people still feel as if minority youth aren’t safe on the streets while others are startled by their presence and choose to stand their ground.

I am not the kind of overly inspiring black story that gets told in political stump speeches, however. I grew up blissfully, and somewhat ignorantly, middle class with a great nuclear family support system, one that some branches of my extended family ridiculed and other branches did not have and could not identify with.

I’ve seen people I hold dear, in the pre-ACA days, get very sick after working at a company for decades and seem to be pushed out, their loyalty seemingly unreturned in the face of struggle, in the thoughts of the company’s bottom line. That is one of the stories which shape my attitudes, the attitude of a young minority woman, a woman in the tech sector where my humanities and liberal arts training serves me well, a job which I took after leaving a previous one in publishing, a job which affords me proximity to loved ones, to graduate schools, to better salaries to place in my salary history. I was told I needed to work twice as hard to get half as far and be all things to all people, so I did. I did not win awards for participating, but rather was told how I should look in order to be a proper representative of the school on my high school dance team when I did not look like all the other girls. I was not sheltered by helicopter parents that did not hold me accountable, but rather driven my parents who deferred their own comforts for my well-being and achievement so much so that paying them back with graduating with honors from high school and college seemed to be payment in kind.  And they don’t have no awards for that.

I was raised understanding that black women typically earn less than their counterparts despite the degree they attain, that black women still face higher unemployment despite making gains in education, that black women’s health is constantly more at risk, that black women tend to have lowest rates of marriage, even though those claims are continually under debate.

So can I really be blamed if I am less likely to attend a church every Sunday, less likely to stay at one company my whole life, or less likely to marry early? And more importantly, is it fair for media report upon media report – created by an industry that continues to say it wants more diversity and more youth in its ranks while most never really act on it  although some try (and industry that I love and majored in by the way, so I am particularly sympathetic to its struggles) – continue to create a picture of millennials that is so one-dimensional that even though I adhere to some of its stereotypes, I can’t even see myself in it?

It’s a question to which I don’t have the answer, or even the confidence that it’s the perfect question in the first place. But I’ll keep trying to learn, and keep hoping that one day I’ll look out and see myself – not merely for my own sake, but for those I’ve met and also have yet to meet, so that when they see me, they don’t see stereotypes or misconceptions, but just me.

Good ol’ fashioned book learnin’

I have been resolving to read more this year, an unofficial New Year’s resolution, but more just a resolution to include things that enrich my life into it, including but not limited to eating better, exercising regularly, learning how to play more than three chords on the guitar and more than just super basic HTML/CSS code, and writing for pleasure (including on this blog).

In college, professor after professor would say that it’s necessary to read for pleasure and outside of assigned readings to become a better writer. I would scoff at this, not because I didn’t want to, but because I had no idea how to fit it in with a full course load along with three part time jobs and internships depending on the semester. I envied the people who seemed to have time to fit in reading giant books along with class, rationalizing that they weren’t working at the newspaper, and grading essays as a TA, and working as a desk attendant, and trying to finish an Honors thesis as to graduate in four years.

So college came and went and I read for pleasure in limited amounts, sprinkling in a Buzzfeed or The Atlantic longread on the way to work, during a lunch break, as some reading material before bed. I started and failed to finish many a book, stopping and starting and slogging through a couple trashy and more respectable books cover to cover. But I couldn’t ever muster the time to take in books, claiming I was too tired after a day of work.

Then I saw that in February my friend Kristina Bui, a copy editor at the Los Angeles Times and an all-around awesome lady with fantastic book taste, seemed to consume books with the rapidity that I, say, drink water or breathe – so I resolved to finally get off my butt and read more. (Seriously, her Instagram has seen more book covers than I had in the first month of this year.)

This change, for lack of a better word or maybe for satisfaction with the simplest word, changed everything.

I usually tend to fall back on classics when I am trying to get myself out of a reading rut and although Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself was a collection of lovely words which has altered the way I view things for the better, I decided to creep people’s Facebook pages and tear through recommendations from friends of books written closer to when I was born than say Oscar Wilde.

Ender’s Game, The Fault In Our Stars, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Me Talk Pretty One Day all have taught me new things. And the parts of Americanah and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that I have read prove to be just as shifting and altering for the way I view the world. (If this sporadic reading list isn’t indicative of my constant need to mix things up, I don’t know what it is. And I am sure the next books sitting in my mental queue – the highly recommended Stay Up With Me and On Such A Full Sea – will add more names to a patchwork of enriching books that have made inroads into my brain.)

As I was walking the halls of Barnes and Noble on my way to purchase the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Junot Diaz books above, I wondered if only people who spent lots of money on a major dealing mostly with words felt the way I do. Then, I heard a construction worker I know talk with earnest about how disappointed he was that I had yet to read Ender’s Shadow, a complimentary book in Orson Scott Card’s famed Ender’s Game series.

So I guess it’s not just me.

In fact, researchers found “critical, literary reading and leisure reading provide different kinds of neurological workouts, both of which constitute ‘truly valuable exercise of people’s brains.’” But this doesn’t just happen when you are reading. Other research has found that days after reading a book, not only can the story stay with you, but neurological changes in the way information is processed. “At a minimum, we can say that reading stories –- especially those with strong narrative arcs -– reconfigures brain networks for at least a few days,” a researcher noted. “It shows how stories can stay with us. This may have profound implications for children and the role of reading in shaping their brains.”

The most encouraging thing of all for me though is that reading hasn’t discouraged me from producing my own words, but rather made me more ravenous to write on my off time, even those words reside in a Google Doc, waiting for ruthless edits or to be dumped and replaced with new, better ones.

Research again rationalizes my wild whims, proving voracious need to write day to day isn’t word nerd related either. In fact, non-writers recalling their writing prove to me that when I tell people anyone can (and should) write, that I am not full of it.

“So I write. I write because it’s hard to remember everything. I write because it’s become a relaxing habit. I write because it’s private. Yeah, all my writing today starts as a private note. Too many people are afraid to write because of the time commitment or the resulting discussion. It’s an increasingly large problem due to the growth of the Internet and privacy. We no longer really ever find ourselves alone. And it’s because of this I choose to write privately first – with the option to share if it’s what I would deem a shareable thought.”

I guess the moral of this story is that don’t be surprised if there are book recommendations and stories of failing at becoming the world’s best guitarist or web designer to come.

Can You Be Nice, and On Top?

For a long time I have wrestled with whether or not to be nice. I know your mom told you it’s always good to be nice. But especially as a woman in the workforce, there’s this unspoken rule that you have to prove that you can hang with the guys in order to be the boss. Be tough, but don’t lose your cool or get angry, otherwise then the pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction.

In fact, I had someone on a hiring panel tell me – after I lost a job to a guy less qualified and (of course) less gregarious than me (gregarious was their word, not mine, although I do like it) – that there’s something that might help: being meaner. More colorful language was used to describe this, but I’ll spare you all of that.

I don’t fault the guy for telling me that because in general he is right.

Women in traditionally male occupations can either be viewed as competent (a significant hurdle…as evidenced by the MIT study) or liked (which, it turns out, is really important and for more reasons than just a desire to be popular)…but rarely both.

I mean, unfortunately, really right.

Studies have long challenged the idea that nice guys finish first. Being kind and considerate in the workplace has been perceived as a weakness, and an invitation to disrespect, and indeed studies have found that such behavior does not seem to come with many rewards.

… Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg writes, in Lean In, about the numerous instances in which being overly accommodating — not taking the best seat at a meeting, waving off praise, underestimating their billable hours to avoid overcharging — holds women, in particular, back at work.

So I retraced it. Was it the cardigan and pearls I wore? Did I giggle too much? Do I smile too much when I should be “meaner”?

As I came to realize that if I had to change or question who I was as a person in order to get a job that maybe the job wasn’t for me, I wrestled with how in the future I should present myself. Is me being jovial holding me back in my career? Do people take me less seriously because of it?

And then here comes Jimmy Fallon.

Jimmy Fallon proves it’s possible. Unlike the Philly magazine column about him, which ironically points out not a single new thought or complaint about Jimmy Fallon’s comedy while accusing him of the very same atrocity, Fallon is nice.

Saying that he shouldn’t do impressions mocks both the heritage of Fallon’s rise to stardom on Saturday Night Live as well as the fact that he does more than impressions, he gets the celebrities in on the joke. He gets Bruce Springsteen to mock himself, and gets Michael McDonald to sing “Row Your Boat,” and gets Barry Gibb to sing as he does a crazily outrageous version of his ‘70s persona. He even gets Jerry Seinfeld to mock his own voice to match his impression. Celebrities and public figures are best when humanized and imperfect as seen by the absolute love of Jennifer Lawrence being irreverent and speaking from her heart at every turn. Even Netflix banked on a Mitt Romney documentary that did that same thing – humanize him.

Sure, Jimmy might over-laugh at a guest’s jokes. Sure, he’s not the best interviewer. (But considering most late night talk show interviews are a rehash of pre-approved talking bits about a star’s latest vacation or a singer’s new dog, I think I’ll take Natasha Richardson playing charades or Drake playing flip cup over recycled, boring, and overly sanitized anecdotes anyway.)

He’s in the zeitgeist, and that’s why he gets to do the Tonight Show. That, and of course, he is nice. Unlike Mr. Philly mag, there are a lot of people who have noticed this in Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show.

I know when I first started watching Late Night I thought, “Ugh, the guy who could never keep it together on SNL? WHY?” and then weeks went by, and then months, and he found his groove as the head of a three ring circus variety show put into high gear and I had to eat crow. The show is watchable, shareable (which is ever important), and just plain ol’ nice and fun. And as he is proven in interview after interview, no one is more excited to be doing that job than he is.

There’s a reason that now Upworthy headlines are all the rage, and widely imitated with varying levels of effectiveness as a result. For so long as a society – especially in media and entertainment – that if it bleeds, it leads. But people grow weary of negativity, especially in an environment where our elected officials hit scandal after scandal, our neighbors and friends struggling to get by in a recovery just standing up on its Bambi legs, and our world becomes more interwoven yet disconnected every day. Now, media realizes that something heartwarming and fun – even if it isn’t perfect – isn’t just wanted, but is needed.

Jimmy Fallon is an inspiration, in that if he can get to the top of the heap, and do it while being imperfect, giggly, and constantly learning to be better, then isn’t there hope for all of us that nice guys and girls don’t always finish last? Sometimes, they come out way ahead – and all while being nice.

#Kindness

Warning: This post will be more optimistic than ever usual. You have been warned.

A hashtag can be many things on the Internet: a witty aside (#adultolescence … a personal favorite of mine [seriously, it’s in my Twitter bio, not even sorry about it]), a meta statement (#hashtag), a marker of participation in a major event (#SuperBowl, #HouseofCards) — or as it has lately become a call to action in support of an idea or a person, no matter the level of controversy surrounding them (#solidarityisforwhitewomen, #notyourasiansidekick … or the latest #freeincognito or #dangerousblackkids).
Much like journalism’s original purpose, the Internet at its best and its worst gives voice to the voiceless. This gives a lot of the principles of American free speech to the masses, and allow voices of the public to say, spit, and spew more or less whatever they wish.
(Here is my free speech side note: Like any other right, free speech has limits. This is something people tend to forget or ignore when the speech serves them and get frustrated by when that speech violates the harm principle, or delves into the lurid or hateful.)
Free speech at its best serves a purpose, but many condemn hashtag activism, as well as doing things like liking Instagram pictures, passing along Upworthy videos, or sharing good natured Facebook photos as meaningless attempts at care for others — another symptom of the narcissism bred and encouraged by social media users. The thought: I’ll share this so my friends think I’m a good person, and I’ll feel better, without doing much of anything to change much of anything.
This is where we get the Konys of the world and so many other viral stabs at progress.

[This apathy is known as pluralistic ignorance:] “Views, comments and “likes” often feel like a powerful online currency to the recipient but they are cost neutral in the sense that virtual disapproval doesn’t commit the individual to real intervention.” This is a state of collective belief referred to as pluralistic ignorance in social psychology and it doesn’t get any better while everybody stands on the sidelines watching while the ignorance goes uncontrollably viral. In doing so we aggravate the problem. We personally contribute to the bystander apathy with every supporting “like.”

But the origins of hashtag activism I think are the most potent with the Arab Spring, which I followed closely in my International Journalism course a handful of years ago. (Mort Rosenblum, by the way, is one of my favorite journalism people ever. Buy Little Bunch of Madmen and read and love it. I cherish my copy to this day.) But this movement, where people without a voice, used the Internet and made it its best, organizing themselves, making the best strides at powerful citizen journalism and crowdsourcing sources, and bringing the organizing powers of social networks for good to the forefront.
So are Twitter, Facebook, and a host of other social networks really the death of society? Is it true that “”it’s a place where intellectual laziness is encouraged, oversimplification is mandatory, posturing is de rigueur, and bullying is rewarded … a place hateful people are drawn towards to gleefully spread their hate, mostly without repercussion.” Should we stop looking at the web and start looking at the “real” world?
I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. Technology has kept me in touch with family and friends across the city, the state, and the country. It has broadened my education and made pursuing it further a distinct and palpable possibility. It has kept me connected to others whom I love and couldn’t see every day as our relationship bloomed.
But it has also allowed people to blindly and namelessly assert threats and threaten violence against countless people, including myself. I could list the things I’ve been called online but I’ll spare your eyes and not spread the sadistic, narcissistic ramblings of trolls in the online comments as studies have now called them.
So is there any merit to using the social networks which bind us to bind us in activism, kindness, and real change? Or to put it better:

There is significant power in the online world and the effort to hold people accountable for their actions. In some senses, the Internet has become a “voice of the voiceless” for people whose stories have historically been marginalized (or straight-out ignored). Facebook and Twitter serve as an immediate way to gain support, but seeing the social conversation over this past year leaves me with the question: How successful is online activism in relation to making changes in the “real” world, and what are the next steps?

There have been some steps toward translating the share or the like or the hashtag into something more palpable. One company made strides to make those pictures you post from happy hour sushi worth more than a few likes on Instagram, taking “foodstagrams” and translating that into feeding the hungry.
There was recently a Random Acts of Kindness week where a hashtag bound people to do something nice for someone else, outside of a texted donation to the American Red Cross that only surfaces when a surprise disaster strikes in the case of Hurricane Sandy. This week called for small random acts of kindness, where you can smile extra at a person on the street or park further away to give a pregnant or elderly woman a shorter walk into the grocery store. There’s even an app, called Kindr, linked to this movement.
The spirit of HelloGiggles tries to accomplish this, fostering a place on the Internet with positive messages via a mandate coming from Zooey Deschanel at the top and spread down through its contributors, but that can’t be the only place where that kind of spirit exists. It has to be more than a call for nice favors. We might not be able to make the entire Internet a nicer place to be, but we can use the power and connectivity that the Internet provides to make kindness more of a priority, where respect and change can be more prevalent than trolls and negativity.