Summer anthem

The Kid Cudi original is good, but Lissie really makes it her own. I had the privilege of seeing her live in Webster Hall this November, and she closed her concert with this song. Amazing, of course.

Bonus Danzig cover – just because.

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Curves or lack thereof

In the last two months, my mother and I have had hours of conversation about fake breasts. Silicone breasts. Breasts reconstructed from your own body fat. Chicken-cutlet-style falsies tucked into a special bra. More importantly, the pros and cons of each, and what she wanted. Prior to this, we had never had a conversation about her body. But cancer changes things.

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in April; the tumors were small, but they were there nonetheless. Though the cancer was in its early stages and had not metastasized, she knew unequivocally – as if she had long prepared for this moment - that she wanted to pursue the most thorough and proactive treatment and get a full mastectomy rather than the more common and less invasive lumpectomy. “Tell them to cut it all out,” she said with absolute certainty.

A few days after she broke the news to me, she brought up fake breasts. Her doctor had presented her the option of surgical breast reconstruction, suggesting that she have the surgery done immediately following her mastectomy to avoid an additional separate procedure at a later date. With less than two weeks to decide, I talked through all her options with her. A silicone breast meant putting a foreign, artificial object into your body. A breast from her own body fat would mean an additional surgical procedure to extract the fat. And what if the fake breast looked unnatural? Even if they managed to recreate the shape and feel of a real breast, there would be no nipple unless she wanted to tattoo one on (she did not). Choosing not to have reconstructive surgery would mean asymmetry and [literally] losing a part of herself.

“I’m an old woman. I’m not vain. What do I care?” she said to me. And this much was true. My mother is 63 years old and has always taken a low-maintenance approach to her physical appearance. She always looked put-together and presentable, but never fashionable. Even the efforts of an occasional touch of red lipstick for social outings and the periodic re-dyeing of her gray hair had all but ceased by the time I was a teenager.

But to me, it was not just about age or vanity. “This has been a part of you for decades. What happens when one day you look down and you feel like you’re missing something?” I argued back. I thought about amputees and ghost limbs. “It’s part of what makes you a woman,” I heard myself saying, at once feeling sexist and un-feminist, not knowing whether I believed that or not. “You’ll be self-conscious if you look different from everyone else.” My arguments were quickly becoming more superficial and more vapid. I felt uncomfortable and wondered how far I had drifted from facilitating her decision-making to projecting my own anxiety and insecurities.

In the end, my mother decided against reconstructive surgery. “I’m strong enough to live with my decision.”

Later, I continued to think about breasts. The “classic” female silhouette featured buxom curves with a slender waist. Not that my mother cared to have an hourglass figure. I thought about push-up bras and low-cut v-necks. Not that she owned either of those. About breast feeding, and those stupid pink “save the boobies” wristbands. She hadn’t breast-fed in nearly two decades, and well, those wristbands were stupid. But one in eight women in the US will get breast cancer during her lifetime, and to many of these women these things do matter.

Two weekends ago, I saw my mother for the first time since I had accompanied her to her surgery. With a silicone mold tucked into her bra, I couldn’t tell fake from real. “It gets hot and stuffy to wear, but it’s not so bad,” she said. When I asked to see her scar, she showed me the harsh straight line, purple and brown that cut across her heart. “It’s just another one,” she said, referring to the equally severe scars on her abdomen and forearm from two C-sections and a major car crash respectively. “I don’t care how I look. I just want the cancer to be gone.”

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What is…

“THE MEANING OF LIFE” is a surprisingly poignant short film by Don Hertzfelt (of “Rejected Cartoons” ie. “My spoon is too big!” fame). Maybe it’s the Tchaikovsky soundtrack. Or the perspective that turns all of human communication into white noise. Or that X years in the future, round-bodied, single-eyed creatures of then still look up at the stars and wonder “What is the meaning of life?”

Undoubtedly, the man is strange but not without charm. And never lacking in imagination.

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Being mentally ill doesn’t make you anything other than mentally ill

In the wake of the Isla Vista mass shooting, I’ve been both pleased and upset with the spirited media discussion surrounding mental illness. Pleased because I think that mental illnesses are much more prevalent than most people realize and deserve widespread and open discussion in the public sphere, but also upset because I disagree with much of what has been said, and believe that many of the popular opinions arise from fear and ignorance on the topic of mental illness.

First of all, I don’t believe that being mentally ill makes you anything other than mentally ill. Mental illness covers everything from ADHD, to depression, to schizophrenia, to yes, perhaps psychopathy as well. But simply labeling Elliot Rodger as “mentally ill” places more stigma on all those who are mentally ill and NOT psychopaths. The vast majority of people who are considered mentally ill (even those who are untreated) are functional, non-violent contributors to society. Additionally, I would argue that while the shooting may have been a “pre-mediated act of violence” it was just as much a hate crime. A psychopath may kill for pleasure/sport/other twisted reasons I will never comprehend, but it takes a truly misogynistic psychopath to be driven to kill in “retribution” for perceived grievances against him by the female sex.

What has upset me the most is the popular opinion that this attack (and others in the past, and those that will inevitably happen in the future) are preventable if only we were to improve our mental health system, more specifically making it easier to involuntarily commit individuals to psychiatric institutions. Currently, there are incredibly strict criteria that have to be met in order to involuntarily commit someone. To be involuntarily committed, an individual has to pose a real and clear threat either to themselves or to others, and they have to do so in the presence of law enforcement or psychiatric professionals. And this strict system exists for a reason. It exists to protect against abuses against those who don’t truly and immediately pose a threat to themselves or others. It protects people who don’t deserve to be shut away because they have real problems that aren’t easy to solve, but can and should be solved by cooperative methods before jumping to solutions of last resort. What involuntary commitment doesn’t do is shut away people who would inflict harm but are smart enough to hide their intentions.

Richard Friedman, professor clinical psychology at Weill Cornell Medical School wrote in a NY Times Op-EdMass killers are almost always young men who tend to be angry loners. They are often psychotic, seething with resentment and planning revenge for perceived slights and injuries … they tend to avoid contact with the mental health care system, so it’s tough to identify and help them. Even when they have received psychiatric evaluation and treatment, as in the case of Mr. Rodger and Adam Lanza, who killed 20 children and seven adults, including his mother, in Connecticut in 2012, we have to acknowledge that our current ability to predict who is likely to be violent is no better than chance.”

Furthermore, I believe people have a gross misconception of what happens once someone is involuntarily committed. As someone who has had a loved one involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility, I know that after the 72 hours (the maximum time that a person can be held in a psychiatric ward against their will), they don’t come out magically fixed. In those 72 hours, they are minimally prevented from harming themselves and from harming others. They might receive counseling, but they don’t even have to talk about what got them there in the first place. No one can force medications, or confessions, or really anything. I know that I can only draw from my very narrow personal experiences, but to me it’s clear that expanding involuntary psychiatric commitments will not be a “quick fix” to eliminate violent attacks.

Recently, Jeff Deeney wrote in The Atlantic, “Involuntary commitments are not the silver bullet some want them to be in dealing with mass shooters. People who are involuntarily committed frequently leave psychiatric institutions little more stable than when they arrived… The public assumes that there is some life-changing intervention that happens inside psychiatric units after someone is committed, that leaves them permanently fixed after 72 hours. In fact, it’s more typical receive little more than observation to make sure one doesn’t harm oneself while on the unit. A social worker will refer you to an outpatient mental health program when you’re discharged, but if you don’t want to go to one you don’t have to.

I hate that the public and the media look to jump to some quick fix, treating the mentally ill as a problem to be swiftly and bluntly dealt with. Yes, Elliot Rodger may have been mentally ill, but that alone is not what made him a killer.

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So let’s not talk about the weather

Years ago, when applying to college, in one of my apps I came across the question, “If you could have lunch with one person, living or dead, who would it be and why?” At the time, I had absolutely no idea how to answer, which bothered me. I recall waiting until the last minute to finally jot down 200 words about how Hillary Clinton was a great role model to young women, blah blah blah. If I think about the same question now – who would I want to have lunch with – I’d like to think that I have better answers.

Helen Thomas. (journalist)
What we would talk about: What was the most difficult compromise you ever made? What are your thoughts on modern journalism and how journalism has changed? Do you think that digital media will or should replace print media? What is your opinion on Glen Greenwald? How did you manage to break the “glass ceiling” before the concept of a “glass ceiling” even became a thing? Who was the most honest president? The sassiest?

JD. Salinger. (author)
What we would talk about: Who inspired the Glass family? Does Franny ever find peace? Why did Seymour kill himself? What was the meaning of the banana fish story? What was your method when you wrote? Why did you withdraw from civilization?

My grandmother.
Note: My grandmother passed away in 2012 at the age of 91. While in high school I slowly came to realize the value of my parents’ biographies, my grandmother left the US when I was much younger, and between a language barrier and the rarity of international phone calls during which we would have to shout to be heard, I never got to hear her story. I wish I had.
What we would talk about: Tell me your life story. What was it like to raise a family during the Cultural Revolution? Did you ever regret letting my mother move so far away? How did it feel to meet your great-grandchild? Tell me about your husband, the grandfather I never got to meet. Tell me about the best years of your life.

Hayao Miyazaki. (filmmaker/director)
What we would talk about: What kind of creature is Totoro….? You tend to write strong and complex female characters into your films – do you consider yourself a feminist? You are one of the last animators who chooses to draw their scenes rather than use CGI – what do you see as the value of hand-drawing? How are still art and animation different to you? How did you first meet Joe Hisaishi, and when did you realize you had the perfect collaboration? What do you think of Disney films?

Mstislav Rostropovich. (cellist)
What we would talk about: Nothing. I’d just listen raptly as he serenaded me on the cello. Dvorak and Elgar, please.

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That charming, secret wretchedness

Every so often, I find a piece of writing that causes me to exclaim, “YES” and dramatically, reflexively clench my fists to my chest (luckily no one was around to see). “That’s it.” Yesterday, that piece was The Feast of Pain, an opinion piece in the Sunday Review of the New York Times.

Tim Kreider’s piece is a little cynical, but not hopeless. Misanthropic, but not without certain admiration. At once mocking and commiserating. And absolutely, unapologetic in acknowledgement of, sharing of, and almost celebration of misery.

This isn’t schadenfreude… as far as I know, there isn’t a German compound, but if there were it’d be something like mitleidfreude, compassion-joy — compassion in the literal sense of “suffering with.” It is the happiness, or at least consolation, of knowing that Things Are Tough All Over, that everyone else is secretly as wretched as I am…”

Kreider shares several poignant and quite funny anecdotes of observing human misery, acknowledging that misery and pain come in varying degrees and at varying times – from gastrointestinal distress in public restrooms to the death of a loved one. In one instance Kreider plays with the auto-fill property of Google search,

“…it occurred to me to see what else might be autofilled, as a sort of unscientific poll or cross-sectional sample of my fellow human beings’ furtive curiosity and desires. I typed in “Why am I” and got: so tired/always cold/so ugly? “Why does”: salt melt ice/my vagina itch/it snow? “Where is”: my refund/Sochi/Chuck Norris? “Why can’t”: we be friends/I own a Canadian/I cry? I felt fondly toward all depraved humanity.”

My favorite passage was a little more serious and something I’ve personally grappled with. It’s the inevitability of trying to frame your own problems and suffering in the context of that of others. How bad is it really for me? Am I allowed to feel this upset? Am I wrong to put the desire to lessen my own suffering above the problems of my friends and loved ones? Above the suffering of whole nations? Am I selfish in my craving of sympathy and compassion for myself?

A pastor I know, who gets a more privileged vista of human suffering than I do, told me she was sick of the phrase “first-world problems” — not just because it delegitimizes the perfectly real problems of those of us lucky enough to have enough to eat and Internet access, but because it denies the same stupid trivial human worries to people who aren’t. Are you not entitled to existential angst or tedium vitae if you live in Chad — must you always nobly suffer traditional third-world problems like malaria and coups d’état? If we’re lucky, we graduate to increasingly complex and better problems, and once all our material needs are satisfied we get to confront the insoluble problem of being a person in the world.”

All of us see and probably experience some form of misery on a daily basis. I share the misery as I dole out ibuprofen to a friend, watching her pop the pink pills like candy, while clutching her abdomen from period cramps. I know, because the same pills have helped me through that time of month too – been there, done that. I felt compassion as I spoke to the health insurance company phone operator who told me that his wife, too, had (and survived) breast cancer. “She’ll get through it, you’ll see,” he reassured me about my own loved one. I thanked him politely and smiled, even though I knew he couldn’t see from wherever he was in the country. I felt a sort of compassion when during the winter months my brother or friends back at Cornell texted me, “Fuck, it’s -18F in Ithaca right now,” and I texted back “Haha, sucks to be you.”

I also feel compassion for those whose suffering I’ve only read and heard about. Those who have lost loved ones on a sunken ferry, or who have died in political protests, who suffer from diseases with unfamiliar names. It’s a different kind of compassion. More moral, less personal perhaps, but not more or less in any absolute. Because it’s all suffering. Sometimes we’re all miserable. It’s part of the human condition.

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chit chat

Screen shot 2014-04-09 at 3.18.43 PMI’m in the mood to discuss physician-assisted suicide, Birkenstocks in fashion, metabolic pathways, main character deaths in Game of Thrones, and Wes Anderson films. So let me know if you’re down to talk about any of those topics. Or we can sit in comfortable silence. I’m ok with that too.

Image from fuckiminmy20s.

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Why I follow Svante Myrick on social media

Svante Myrick isn’t a celebrity. He’s not a close friend, we were never classmates, and I’ve never even met him. But Svante Myrick is the Mayor of Ithaca, and we have one important thing in common: we both love Ithaca.

About a year or two ago, I noticed on Facebook that people were “liking,” “sharing,” and otherwise drawing attention to Myrick’s posts. I had heard his name thrown around, but it only took a quick Google search to learn much more about him. At the age of 24 and freshly graduated from Cornell, he became the town’s youngest mayor and its first of African American heritage – a story which is inspiring in itself, but almost nothing compared to the personal journey of how he got there. I would strongly encourage you to read this piece by Syracuse that tells a true story of the American Dream – a boy born to a single mother, who grew up in-and-out of homeless shelters, attended public schools and then Cornell University where he became involved in public service and local politics. And now he is one of the most locally beloved public figures and sure to be a rising star.

But Myrick doesn’t use his Facebook page and Twitter feed to brag about his own achievements. He uses them to draw attention to local causes, to provide news updates, and to make the occasional joke. I’ve found his posts endearing and inspiring.

When Ithaca was hit by [another] blizzard in February, he recruited his roommates and offered to shovel residents’ driveways.

Screen shot 2014-03-29 at 11.51.09 AM

He appended a sign “and friends!” to his parking spot labeled “RESERVED FOR MAYOR” and filled it with plants and park benches. Screen shot 2014-03-29 at 12.18.58 PMHe made this face when he met President Obama (who he cites as his greatest inspiration).Screen shot 2014-03-30 at 12.50.59 PMHe is a feminist!

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And he makes House of Cards jokes!Screen shot 2014-03-29 at 11.50.05 AM

Even though I no longer live in Ithaca, following Svante Myrick on Facebook reminds me of how lucky I am to have a connection to this amazing place with amazing people. It’s easy to drown in cynicism when you pick up a copy of the NY Times and read about the state of international affairs, but it’s also very uplifting to be reminded how a single individual or a few individuals can make such a positive impact in a town and a community.

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[im]perfect, [in]secure

There was a moment, about a month ago, when I felt like a hypocrite. I was giving advice to a friend who had hit a low point in an abusive relationship. While the details of her life are not mine to share, my task at that moment was to convince a wonderful girl who felt discarded that no matter how imperfect she considered herself, she was still a great catch (brains, body, the whole package), that she had done nothing wrong (except maybe trust the wrong person), and that no one deserved to be mistreated by someone who claimed to love them.

I felt like a hypocrite because I was doling out advice from one insecure girl to another. We both knew it was good advice – difficult, but sound – yet the kind of advice that is much easier to give than to take.

I am a perfectionist. I have been for as long as I remember. Perfection earns you an A+. It earns you smiles and compliments and awards. People respect and admire perfect work. Perfection gets what you want. It is easy to buy into the idea that perfectionism not only garners praise, but earns praise. Everything else somehow feels unworthy. Perfection must be attainable, or else it wouldn’t exist as a standard. Imperfection is simply your failure to meet that standard. Typing these thoughts out, I realize how ridiculous it sounds, but I can’t help believing that everything would fall into place if only I could be perfect. At everything. All the time.

As someone who is incredibly self-critical, it is very easy to fixate on my flaws. I have family baggage – sometimes I feel emotionally/behaviorally broken by my upbringing. I’m socially awkward – I say the wrong things to the wrong people, or say nothing at all. I wish I was more athletic, I have trust issues, I can’t hold my liquor, I don’t work as hard as I’d like, I emotionally close off when I’m upset, I overanalyze to the point of neuroticism… And all the time, I compare myself to those around me.

To return to the topic of insecure girls and relationships, I believe that insecurity sabotages romantic relationships in two major ways. The first way is through distrust and jealousy. They’re lying when the say they’re over their ex. They were definitely cheating when they had dinner with that unnamed opposite-gender ‘friend.’ You always text first. Do they do these things on purpose? To mess with your head and maintain the upper hand? Withholding affection and attention, doling out just enough and just often enough to keep you hooked. You become needy and possessive and hate yourself all the more for it. Somehow you believe that they deserve to be dating the perfect person (the person you are striving and failing to be) while you are willing to accept much less for yourself. There’s a quote from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, “we accept the love we think we deserve,” and we don’t believe we deserve much.

The other form of relationship sabotage happens when affection is given freely. When they’ve clearly fallen for you and give you nothing but love and support and affirmation, even when you share the darkest most twisted parts of yourself. When communication at all emotional levels is transparent and thorough. And this makes you pull away – because you’re so sure that anyone who loves someone as messed up as you couldn’t be someone you’d want to be with. Suddenly their love – their seeming blind devotion – becomes stifling. If they are truly that good, then they deserve someone far better than yourself. Someone who appreciates what they can give.

And insecurity doesn’t only sabotage romantic relationships. It can strain friendships and just about any other relationship. I recently spoke with one of my best friends who admitted to being emotionally overwhelmed. He said that problems would start when he’d get upset at someone over small things, and instead of speaking out he would hold those incidents against people and become more upset with them. And then he’d expect them to realize why he was upset, despite never having protested. But whatever initially caused the upset was usually so trivial he’d feel petty bringing it up – he didn’t want to be “that guy” who cared too much about everything. Or maybe the incident really is no big deal, and whatever grief or suspicion has arisen entirely from a dark and paranoid place. So the feelings stay bottled up. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that it’s really hard for some people to express their feelings. There’s never a casual or easy way to tell someone you care about that they’re upsetting you. You’re scared you’ll just be dismissed, or maybe they’ll overreact, and you’ll wish you had never said anything to begin with.

Insecurity is crippling. We see others around ourselves succeeding with apparent ease. We see them happy and functional. Our lives are all fine (we’re young and live comfortable, middle-class, first-world lifestyles) yet we wonder why we’re so miserable. We fight within ourselves about wanting to change – to take more risks in speaking out and trusting others – or sometimes we just want to get over it – to push it all to the backs of our minds and stop caring. It’s exactly the advice we give all the time. The advice we give, but never take.

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We make some noise inside a room and call it art

Me: [Using my finger to erase all the dots above the i's written on the blackboard]
Labmate: Are you going to replace all the dots with hearts? I really want to see that.
Me: Do I seem like the kind of person who dots their i’s with hearts…?
Labmate: Maybe if they were mangled or something.

I guess at some point between graduating from Cornell and now, I became an angry grumpy person who dots their i’s with broken hearts. Thanks, life.

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