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.

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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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Equality 7-2521

“I stand here on the summit of the mountain. I lift my head and I spread my arms. This, my body and spirit, this is the end of the quest. I wished to know the meaning of things. I am the meaning. I wished to find a warrant for being. I need no warrant for being, and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction.”
- Anthem by Ayn Rand

Last night, I asked a friend for some book recommendations. When he mentioned a book by Ayn Rand, my first thought was “no way am I reading some thousand-plus page book full of insane ideology,” but I binge-read all of Anthem today and it was a surprisingly manageable and engaging 120 pages of dystopian fiction. I’d recommend it if you like dystopian fiction and aren’t scared to admit that you’ve read and enjoyed Ayn Rand.

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It’s about more than just happiness

Last night I met a friend for dinner and drinks to celebrate her first med school acceptance. As she delivered her good news over a dish of egg rolls, it was a moment of excitement, relief, and yes, happiness. I was able to share in her happiness, as throughout college as a fellow chemistry major I knew that she had worked hard, and after much waiting received this much-deserved acceptance. (Hopefully the first of many!)

Later that night, our conversation turned to the career paths we had chosen (or at least the ones we’re currently heading towards) – medicine and research science. Neither are  known for producing happiness as they both demand long hours, present challenging problems, and guarantee failure occasionally if not often. Yet, in many ways I feel like this kind of unhappiness is a privilege. I brought up a recently published Thought Catalog article that cited studies that showed decreasing trends in women’s subjective reported well-being. Yet, the article’s author argued a pleasant and easy life isn’t always the preferable life.

“A paying job from which you can get fired is more stressful than making PB&J sandwiches for your kids. Likewise, marrying your first boyfriend at twenty is easier than navigating the world of dating and romance, of hazarding the risk that you might not find someone, at least not for a long time. Autonomy is more taxing than non-autonomy. But is the solution to forgo autonomy? No thank you, not for me.”

And I would agree. While the Thought Catalog article specifically addressed women’s happiness, I think the argument is universal. Sometimes it’s easy to quit or to lose perspective as you’re filling out that 50th job application, or running a variation of the same experiment the 10th time, or making yet another call to that friend who never picks up. Trying can be frustrating and unrewarding, but just often enough, someone lands their dream job, or makes a new discovery, or hears just the advice that they needed. In low moments when we just can’t seem to catch a break no matter how hard we try, the path of least resistance may look “good enough.”  We hear things like, “Oh, you’re still young and attractive. Just marry rich and do what you want,” or “You have an Ivy League degree. Why don’t you work as a [unfulfilling, but high-paying position] at [large corporate office]?”

Even as a 22-year old, I’ve had my share of unhappiness, frustration, and exhaustion – both as a result of the decisions I’ve made and from factors completely beyond my control – but even if I could, I wouldn’t choose to take back any of it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve genuinely appreciate the love of a friend when I didn’t think I deserved it, or proved myself (both to myself and others) by being stubborn enough not to give up on a project even in the face of uncertainty until the very end. I would like to think that my future successes will be the result of my past blood, sweat, and tears. Successes that I’ve truly earned.

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”- Theodore Roosevelt.

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The Lean In collection

The Lean In collection is a partnership between, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit organization, and Getty Images, the giant US stock photo agency. The argument is that we’ve all seen pictures of working women depicted as mothers (apron-clad and smiling, serving stacks of pancakes to their children), businesswomen (steely-eyed in sharp business suits holding a briefcase), and multitaskers (typing on a laptop with one hand while spoon-feeding a baby with the other), but these images only serve to enforce limiting stereotypes of women. The collection aims to challenge stereotypical images of women and to instead represent working women and their families in a more realistic and empowering way.

I’ve briefly browsed through the collection (which has been receiving some attention from new sources as well as sites such as Buzzfeed), and especially liked this one:

Screen shot 2014-02-15 at 3.56.14 PMI like that the woman in the image is contemporary and stylish (love the sleeve tattoo and hipster glasses) without being overtly sexual. I like that she’s clearly a mother but that there’s nothing frumpy or stereotypically ‘matronly’ about her. And I like that she appears to be working because, you know, women work.

Check out the Lean In collection here:

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from the ranks / of the freaks / who could never love anyone

Because sometimes the soundtrack is as good as the movie itself.

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Infopolitics for infopersons

In last night’s State of the Union speech, President Obama spoke (often eloquently) about a great number of issues from economic mobility, to clean energy, to gender equality, but I felt at least one glaring omission from his speech. I was extremely disappointed that President Obama failed to discuss NSA surveillance, net neutrality, and the general issue of “infopolitics.”

I came across the term “infopolitics” in a NY Times opinion piece published earlier this week (read it in full here).

“Infopolitics encompasses not only traditional state surveillance and data surveillance, but also “data analytics” (the techniques that enable marketers at companies like Target to detect, for instance, if you are pregnant), digital rights movements (promoted by organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation), online-only crypto-currencies (like Bitcoin or Litecoin), algorithmic finance (like automated micro-trading) and digital property disputes (from peer-to-peer file sharing to property claims in the virtual world of Second Life).”

The column argues that popular thinking and policymaking need to acknowledge the extent to which infopolitics shapes nearly every aspect of modern life, and to instate the necessary reforms before even more breaches of individual rights and other grievances come to light.

In many ways, it’s discomforting to ascribe so much power or importance to the virtual world. It’s easy to remain complacent and think “I have nothing to hide,” or “If I’m responsible and careful online, nothing bad can happen to me,” but I think the unaffected minority is very rapidly shrinking. Just look at all that has happened in the past year. Revelations about the extent of NSA surveillance. Data stolen from 40 million Target customers. Evidence of Chinese government hacking activity into numerous US agencies from commercial companies such as Coca-Cola, to news agencies such as the NY Times, to companies essential to infrastructure such as electrical power grids, gas lines, and waterworks. The closure of Silk Road and the explosion of Bitcoin. The end of net neutrality.

If those occurrences still seem too far-removed, I can share more personal stories. My brother and his roommates lost money investing in Bitcoin. A friend of mine recently got engaged and expressed surprise at how her email inbox was suddenly flooded with advertisements from wedding planners (we think they found out via her change in Facebook relationship status). I have numerous friends who were fined for pirating movies and music (arguably their fault, but still). If you think hard enough, I’m sure you can conjure up familiar experiences.

Another essential point that the column makes is about the blurring of the line between virtual and physical reality.

“We like to think of ourselves as somehow apart from all this information. We are real — the information is merely about us. But what is it that is real? What would be left of you if someone took away all your numbers, cards, accounts, dossiers and other informational prostheses? Information is not just about you — it also constitutes who you are… We need a concept of infopolitics precisely because we have become infopersons.”

I think that people are coming to realize that by allowing our information to come under scrutiny, we are allowing ourselves to come under scrutiny, whether from the NSA, Facebook, credit agencies, or other information agencies that will undoubtedly come into existence in the coming years. When we enter a credit card number to make a purchase on Amazon, what other third parties will see that information? When we apply for health insurance, can we really trust the health insurance companies to keep our SSN’s private?

I’m certain that how we regulate the dissemination and protection of private information will be a big, if not the biggest, challenge of our generation. But change won’t happen, and it certainly won’t happen fast enough, unless it is acknowledged and discussed by those in positions of power.

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Caring for elderly parents: responsibility, culture, obligation, love, expectation…

This morning, I woke up to a text message from my brother sent late last night, “You read the nyt article about aging Asian American parents. Hits kinda close to home. Comments are quite thought provoking.” I had. And he didn’t know, but I had contemplated sending the article to him as well.

The particular article, published yesterday, describes the struggles of Asian Americans in following the cultural expectation of caring for aging parents.

“This idea that the younger generation is culturally mandated to take care of their parents is deeply ingrained in the Chinese culture,” Mr. Feng said. “Children are supposed to take care of older parents in need.”

The article goes on to discuss personal stories of families that had taken aging elders into their homes. Some of the women had quit their jobs to serve as full-time caretakers rather than place their loved ones into nursing facilities or retirement communities. The article itself was fairly brief, but as my brother pointed out, the real battle was in the comments.

One commenter wrote:

“The expectation that we will be the sole caregivers for our medically complex and sometimes emotionally needy parents is often impractical and unrealistic. I was told many times (as the only daughter) that the reason I was brought into the world was to provide eldercare for my parents when the time came … Their understanding of the situation was that “the sacrificed for me, now I must do the same for them”. The expectation that the younger generation will be the sole caregivers for the older generation is not feasible for many of us. It may have been possible when our parents were young and someone (usually a woman) didn’t have outside employment, but it is not sustainable for many of us. A child should not be raised for the sole purpose of serving the parent.”

Two more wrote:

“To abandon one’s parents when thousands of years of shared cultural memory scream “NO!” is to reject wisdom honed by timeless truths.”

“I doubt you have witnessed the ‘specialized care’ in nursing homes/facilities, it is a death sentence … When did we get so indifferent? So cold?”

Having visited my father who spent the last five weeks in inpatient rehabilitation at a nursing home, I would agree that the living conditions are far less than ideal, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call them a death sentence. (I saw no physical abuse, gross negligence, or filthy conditions that are the material of occasional media exposes of nursing homes). In fact, my father’s primary complaint was about the food. He could never stomach much of the tasteless mush they served residents, and my mother ended up cooking and bringing him a number of his meals. Additionally, he would complain that his roommate left the thermostat too high, and would blast the TV volume too loud and too late at night. Yet, in many ways my father was luckier than most of the residents there. My mother visited him every day, and my brother as well on the weekends, providing him with company and conversation.

My own parents waited until late (their 40s) to have children. (Optimistically) assuming it takes me five years to complete my PhD and an additional three years spent in a post-doctoral position, by the time I begin looking for a more permanent job, my mother will be in her 70s, and my father in his 80s if he survives his Parkinson’s for that long. The woman in the NYT article was 61 and quit her job as a manicurist to take care of her mother. I would be barely 30, and maybe just starting my own family and career.

When my grandmother suffered a stroke in the beginning of 2012, my mother dropped everything – taking all her vacation days, leaving care of my father to my brother and I with some hired help – and spent most of the next five months in China. She was by my grandmother’s side throughout her last days, and then stayed for her funeral and to help carry out her will. Even so, when she returned, she expressed the sentiment that she had somehow not done enough. She told me again and again that “this” (my grandmother’s stroke and passing?) would not have happened had she been there, and that my grandmother was wrong in not keeping one of her daughters close to home to take care of her (my mother’s sister lives in Finland).

Being my mother’s only daughter, this terrified me. Growing up in the US, my cultural education gave me much larger doses of the values of individuality and independence than Confucian familial piety. While I acknowledge that I owe everything to my parents, I wonder about the extent of the sacrifices I will have to make for them. I want to live my own life, with the freedom to pursue my own goals, yet I cannot envision sending them away where there is a chance they will be miserable and poorly cared for. Whether I could even afford that is another issue.

Early last year, another NYT article caught my eye. The article drew attention to an alarming “Plan C” – a third alternative to home care or nursing facilities – suicide. The article brings up the alarming trend of increasing rates of elder suicide, citing that in South Korea the suicide rate for those age 65+ had quadrupled from 2000 to 2010.

“As the chances for riches grew in recent years, parents began going to lengths to try to ensure their children’s success, and by extension their family’s, that make other countries’ versions of helicopter parenting seem tame.”

The article goes on to say (in less explicit terms) that the elderly were killing themselves so as not to burden their children (financially or otherwise) with having to take care of them. While this may seem far-fetched and beyond extreme to some, again it was my mother’s words that caused me panic. Many times, I have heard her say that she would rather die than be senile or bed-ridden. And just weeks ago, while returning home from visiting my father, she told me that she would never consent to being in my dad’s current position and would rather “jumping bridge” – a reference to the method of suicide that involves (mostly Cornell students) leaping into the gorges off Thurston bridge. And as frightening as this is, I do understand that there are some worse things than death. While my mother is very much mentally lucid and still managing her health, her comments add another layer of difficulty (and many more layers of worry) to the decisions that my brother and I will eventually have to make.

And while my family’s situation has its own personal details, my problems are not unique, but universal. All of us are born to parents, and unless we have the misfortune of losing them young, they will age. And how (or even whether) we choose to take care of them is a human problem, with our decisions shaped by our sense of responsibility, culture, obligation, love, and expectation.

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