Dropping F-bombs in high school – or how I learned to think for myself

Growing up, my teachers and parents seemed to care more about what I thought than how I thought. They presented themselves as sources of infallible information that I was supposed to learn and internalize as the indisputable truth. Learn your lessons, do well in school, and your life will be good. Don’t question authority, I was told.

It’s a stereotype than Asian Americans are smart and hardworking, but dull and not especially creative. Asians are managers, not CEOs. Executors rather than innovators of big, groundbreaking ideas. I’ll have to admit that my parents largely raised me to fit this mold. I was taught to work hard but to keep my head down and not get into trouble. It took a long time and a few extraordinary individuals for me to realize how very limiting this mindset was.

Freshman year of high school, I joined the school paper, the IHS Tattler, at the behest of my mother who thought that this extracurricular would look good on college applications. I didn’t think much of student papers or the profession of journalism, but that quickly changed. In my first year reading (and writing for) the Tattler, I remember reading an editorial about a student getting detention for cursing in class. The writer objected to this punishment, arguing that every word in the English language had its time and place and that this situation for dropping the f-bomb was merited, even in the classroom. He argued that obscenities have their place, and by limiting speech the school was limiting thought which was dangerous.

The editorial resonated with me deeply and I emailed the then-Editor in Chief to tell him so. He thanked me, and I learned that he was in fact the one who had gotten in trouble for cursing and had then penned the editorial. Even though I wrote for the Tattler, I never got to know the EIC very well as he was three years ahead of me and ran in a different social circle. Despite this it fascinated me how he fit into the high school social hierarchy. He was incredibly smart and an unabashed nerd (not things that necessarily made you popular or well-liked), but also well-spoken, charismatic, and clearly respected by his peers. I observed how being an independent thinker could be an asset and earn others’ respect.

The Tattler was just a high school paper, but it has a remarkable and unique history of its own. Soon after joining, I learned that a a number of former student editors of the paper were plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit against the Ithaca City School District over censorship of a cartoon that the faculty advisor considered to be too sexually explicit for publication. Learning about this case made me question the rights of students to challenge authority, the role of the first amendment in schools, and the function of a student paper.

In my later high school years I became more involved in the Tattler, reporting on a lawsuit against the school district in which it was ordered to pay $1 million in damages for failing to protect a student against racial harassment, and interviewing the Principal of Ithaca High School who resigned after the lawsuit. In my senior year, I was elected to be Tattler Editor in Chief, a position that brought me much pride.

Being a part of the IHS Tattler was so much more than just an extracurricular to impress college admissions officers. It brought me in contact with a group of wonderful, smart, and independent-minded peers who thought critically and always asked tough questions in pursuit of the truth. It kicked off a healthy lifelong skepticism of the information that we as the public are constantly being fed – by authority figures such as teachers, parents, and perhaps the US President, as well as the media.

These experiences have sat at the back of my mind throughout the events of the past week. Were all the insurrectionists who stormed the United States Capitol so brainwashed by Donald Trump as to do his bidding in a most horrific and violent fashion? Why didn’t they think for themselves? In his first column for the New York Times, Ezra Klein wrote the following words about the storming of the Capitol on January 6th:

If [the crowd’s] actions looked like lunacy to you, imagine it from their perspective, from within the epistemic structure in which they live. The president of the United States told them the election had been stolen by the Democratic Party, that they were being denied power and representation they had rightfully won. “I know your pain,” he said, in his video from the White house lawn later on Wednesday. “I know your hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it.” More than a dozen Republican senators, more than 100 Republican House members, and countless conservative media figures had backed Trump’s claims.

If the self-styled revolutionaries were lawless, that was because their leaders told them that the law had already been broken, and in the most profound, irreversible way. If their response was extreme, so too was the crime. If landslide victories can fall to Democratic chicanery, then politics collapses into meaninglessness. How could the thieves be allowed to escape into the night, with full control of the federal government as their prize?

The insurrectionists literally believed all of Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen election. Many of them also believed QAnon conspiracy theories of a deep state cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles or the Great Replacement and persecution of white Americans. Any amount of digging would have unearthed facts that clearly disputed Trump’s claims and brought to light the incredible hypocrisy and self-contradictory claims being made by the President and his supporters. These claims were outrageous and outlandish to even the most amateur investigators of the truth. But they didn’t know better. Should they? How could they?

I certainly wasn’t taught to know better. I consider myself lucky to have been a part of the IHS Tattler and to have received the outside-of-the-classroom education that I did. But it was precisely that. The lessons about independent thinking, critically questioning, and chasing the facts were taught to me not by my parents or my public school education, but by my peers, through self-education and high-volume consumption of diverse media sources, and through lived experience.

Whose fault is it that so many – perhaps most – Americans aren’t equipped with the skills necessary to critically process the information they receive?* Is this a skill that everyone should have? Is critical thinking necessary for a robust and healthy democracy? Or is it the responsibility of the media and elected officials who should “know better” to be more truthful? How do we hold the exploiters accountable or try to provide people with a defense against exploitation?

Misinformation is rampant and shows no sign of ebbing in the future. It seems that in the immediate aftermath of the Capitol riots that the largest response has come from tech companies who have taken swift action to de-platform Donald Trump and many of his supporters who have made some of the most heinous, violence-inciting remarks. But it hardly brings me comfort to know that the Mark Zuckerbergs, Jack Dorseys, and Jeff Bezoses of the worlds are the ones leading the defense of American democracy and world order. As many have stated this week, our democracy is fragile, and I don’t believe that it can survive unless the truth prevails. How we get there – that I don’t know.

Tell me this – do you consider yourself to be a critical thinker capable of distinguishing truth from misinformation? If so, how did you get that way?

*I’m hesitant to blame the public education system because the primary job of a K-12 education is to deliver a set amount of knowledge and this requires students to have some amount of faith in their educators. Additionally, many of the insurrectionists at the Capitol weren’t all uneducated, low-information “dummies” and included a CEO and a son of a prominent judge. There is also some evidence that the most radicalized people tend to consume the most amount of information – it’s just…. not good information.

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A fight to the death

This morning I was listening to an episode of the NPR podcast On The Media discussing the proposal of podcaster Joe Rogan to host a Presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.  While Trump seemed to be into it, NPR not so much, citing Rogan’s lack of training as a formal moderator, as well as his past history of problematic comments (especially about trans people). It had been a while since I listened to one of Rogan’s podcast episodes, so next I started playing his most recent episode – an interview with British author and conservative commentator Douglas Murray.

While I’d like to think that I keep an open mind to any good-faith argument or discussion between minds, liberal or conservative, this conversation made me uncomfortable. I listened to Murray downplay the dangers faced by trans people forced to move home with parents who rejected their identities. Rogan and Murray joked about calling anyone who disagreed with them pedophiles (remember what happened with Hillary Clinton and pizzagate? It’s not exactly a hypothetical joke). They then went on the criticize the appearance of a Black Lives Matter protester in his mugs shot, calling him unhealthy and lost-looking. They discussed how the protesters seem to be intentionally seeking out chaos, and then Rogan repeated the lie that protesters in Portland have been arrested for intentionally starting forest fires.

Joe Rogan calls himself extremely liberal. He even endorsed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. Yet his fans seem to be all over the political spectrum, with Donald Trump recently tweeting a clip of Rogan calling Joe Biden a flashlight with a dying battery. If Joe Rogan has the ear of America, with over 200 million listens and views per month, and this episode was making me feel this uncomfortable, then what did that say about me? Was I asking too much for trans people to be treated with respect (which doesn’t require you to agree with or even understand their beliefs)? Was I too radical for believing that gathering in protest is a valid expression of First Amendment rights, and that the BLM movement protesters have arguments worth listening to? Was I entirely out of touch with reality? I had felt this way once before, in 2016 right after Donald Trump was elected.

I was about an hour into the podcast episode when a friend messaged me and dropped the bomb that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. In disbelief I quickly went to Google to verify the news. It turns out that she had shared this news so early that I was only able to find one CNBC link corroborating it. Then stories began to trickle in – slowly at first, and then a torrent of them taking over front pages and all my social media platforms.

My first thought was, “FUCK. Trump is going to try and push through another Supreme Court nominee.” Just days before, the press reported that Trump’s list of Supreme Court nominees included the much-loathed Republican Senators Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz. The thought made me shudder. I felt a sense of dread.

But then I remembered the news I had just learned. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Everything felt wrong. I couldn’t hold it together any longer and started to cry. I quietly dropped what I was doing and ran down a flight of stairs to hide in a women’s bathroom where my labmates were unlikely to stumble upon me sobbing. I was in the middle of my workday, but I needed to sit down and give myself a minute to mourn this loss.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, affectionately known as RBG or the Notorious RBG, was a feminist icon. She was a role model for me and for countless women. She was deeply admired by feminists and the progressive left, but also had gained the respect of her male and more conservative colleagues. This itself made her impressive. She represented ambition and fierce wit. Intelligence and dignity.

And at the age of 87, she died fighting cancer and fighting injustice. She spent her final year doing what she had done for her entire life, fighting against the encroachment on our rights. She shouldn’t have had to do that. We shouldn’t have needed to pin so much of our hope for the fate of this country on one single elderly, ailing woman, no matter how incredible she was. She should have had the opportunity to retire, to spend the final years of her life with family, vacationing, or at least taking a break from fighting. She deserved better. She deserved to die peacefully, on a day when the country could properly celebrate her life and mourn its loss, not of panic about what her death would mean for the balance of the Supreme Court and the fate of the nation.

Instead, this is what happened: Ginsburg’s granddaughter shared that her grandmother’s final wish had been that her vacant seat not be filled until the next President is elected. That is not what Ruth Bader Ginsburg should have been worrying about in her final days. That is not the world we should live in. Everything feels wrong.

This election has always felt consequential. Nearly 200,000 American deaths from COVID – many preventable – with the numbers still rising. Continued high incidence of police brutality towards people of color, and gross misrepresentation of those who dare to protest. Crimes against humanity being committed against female detainees in ICE camps, and a much quieter and slower erosion of the reproductive rights of American citizens. Negligence towards the fight against climate change causing deep orange skies in California and floods in the gulf, symptomatic of a much more sinister skepticism of science. It feels trivializing to repeat, yet again, how 2020 has been horrific. Everything. Feels. Wrong.

The death of Justice Ginsburg hasn’t diminished my conviction that what happens in November will determine much more than just the outcome of the Presidency. I know that in the coming months there may be more tears and more frustration, but there is also a lot of fight left. I’ve watched so many brave Americans fight (sometimes to the death like RBG) for a better future.

I don’t know how many minutes I was in that bathroom stall. But eventually I patted some wet paper towels onto my puffy eyes, took a few deep breaths, and stepped out to rejoin the world.

Thank you, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for your extraordinary service to this country. May you rest in much-deserved peace, and may we have the strength to carry on your fight.

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Black lives matter more than our performative outrage

Last week on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter I found myself inundated with social media posts about Amaud Arbury and George Floyd, and it made me feel uneasy in a way I didn’t expect. Yes, shock and outrage in response to the coverage of the murders themselves, but also a sense of unease at the sheer volume of content my peers were posting and the intent behind it.

I mean, this was good right? Truly awful crimes had been committed against black individuals and people had the right to be angry and aghast and to publicly express their emotions as such. I too feel sadness and outrage at the dehumanization of black lives and the fact that their killers are often not brought to justice. But days after every major news outlet had published front-page articles about Arbury and Floyd, people were still making posts on social media to “protest online” or “spread awareness” and that just didn’t make sense to me. You had to be living under a rock not to be aware. So what were these posts really about?

I first want to say that my discomfort and criticism of the response to racism and police violence is in NO WAY an attempt to downplay the issues themselves or the fact that they merit many different levels of response. I am proud of my friends who have made concrete calls to action: those who have protested (safely) or participated in antifa resistance, provided the contact information and call scripts for their local representatives, donated money to groups fighting racial injustice, or gave personal examples of the ways in which they support the minority-led businesses in their communities. My criticism is not of you.

My discomfort is in watching my mostly white, liberal, millennial friends posting like it’s the ally-ship Olympics to see who can share the most articles, lists, or graphics letting other white people know what they’re doing wrong and emphasizing white guilt. It feels a bit cringe, like the left wing equivalent of tweeting out your thoughts and prayers after a mass shooting. An acknowledgement that there is a problem and a signal that you care, but an action ultimately without any risk or consequence to yourself and therefore meaningless. A social media statement of personal feelings of outrage or perhaps shame that goes no further is a performance. I understand that there is and always has been much about social media that is performative, but this felt more offensive when juxtaposed with posed thirsty selfies or cute pets or photoshoots of perfectly baked loaves of sourdough on a personal page otherwise “unmarred” by political content.

If you still don’t understand my discomfort here, I’d suggest listening to Akilah Hughes in the first six minutes of the What a Day podcast from last Wednesday part of which is reproduced below:

The video of George Floyd’s murder was haphazardly retweeted into the feeds of black people everywhere to say ‘look at this horrible thing a police officer did to a black person’, but the voyeuristic nature of sharing black human beings murdered like it’s a normal thing on a Tuesday didn’t bring that guy back. It didn’t stop racism, in fact, racism didn’t end when we all saw Mike Brown laying in the street or when the Amaud Arbury video went viral, or when Eric Garner was choked to death over a few cigarettes, or Walter Scott getting shot to death … Are there people on earth that are unaware that black people fear the police because the police disproportionately kill black people?

Do we need videos to prove it, and do the videos ever result in justice? We’ve had smartphones that shoot videos since what, 2005? We know this happens. Awareness isn’t the point. We don’t share white death like this … The video footage is short-hand for desensitization. Ask yourself why you’re even comfortable looking at a video of someone being murdered. Then ask why you’d share it with everyone you know. If it was a dog you wouldn’t. So, what’s the reasoning? For what reason should we share footage of a person being murdered? I’m traumatized. Black people are traumatized.

So when I say ‘don’t look away’ I don’t mean ‘consume black death like it’s a meme on TikTok’. I mean ‘look in the mirror, look at your family, look at the community you live in, look at your friend group, look at the wealthy white woman with the rescue dog in the dog damn park, and don’t look away’. Because we know what the problem is. No one is unclear on what the problem is. So where’s the justice?

– Akilah Hughes, What a Day, May 27, 2020

It’s alarming how all of a sudden everyone is an online activist. Yet I wonder how many of my friends who have this week used the #blacklivesmatter or #blackouttuesday hashtag have also never voted in a midterm election (only 35.6% of those age 29 and younger did in 2018 compared to 66.1% of those age 65 and older). Or ever written their local representative. Or donated regularly to charity. Who are all these Instagram activists in their offline lives?

I will agree that social media has a use in initially spreading awareness of situations before the mainstream press has picked them up. But we’re beyond that now. Awareness has been spread. If you still want to help, it’s time to move on to calls to action. Posting a black square on Instagram doesn’t actually accomplish anything. If your protest starts and ends with posting a black square captioned #blackouttuesday don’t pat yourself on the back for having done something and stop there. Don’t only care about social justice when it’s “trending.” It’s not cool or brave, it’s self-centered and transparent. We call that virtue signaling.

And then there are the businesses and institutions that have put out many vague statements condemning police violence, or expressing horror at the loss of innocent lives, and affirming support for racial equality. The music industry is participating in #theshowmustbepaused to halt new music releases for the week (to some bewilderment and head shaking from black artists). My inbox is flooded with messages from Airbnb, Etsy, Lyft, Nextdoor, and the UC Berkeley administration, some of which have questionable histories of racism. While it’s uplifting and encouraging that these often apolitical entities are speaking out on what is seen as a political issue, again I find myself wondering if these are hollow promises and more for optics.

There should be no shame in acknowledging that you haven’t done much (yet). Once you realize that there is much more you can do, be willing to do at least a little bit more. There are hundreds of articles, lists, and other resources out there if you want to better educate yourself on how to be anti-racist, on how to be a better ally, on how to combat police brutality. If you don’t have money to donate or large crowds give you anxiety, then order dinner from a black-owned restaurant tonight and tip generously (here’s a list of black-owned restaurants in the Bay Area). Amplify the voices of your black co-workers. Make sure you’re ready to vote in the next election, and help others get ready too. Speak up when your family members or friends make a racist or an ignorant joke or comment. Encourage others to do the same. Not everyone has to do everything, but everyone can do something.

If right about now you’re thinking “Ok, Eva, why don’t you put your money where your mouth is,” please do reach out (seriously) and ask me to share what I have personally done to fight inequality. I’d love to talk about it one-on-one (and also hear what you’ve done or help you get involved!), but I’d like to make this post less about ME and more about how we can all be be socially conscious and better in our activism.

I know that this is a hard time right now for everyone for different reasons, but there is always something you can do. Don’t just intend to do good or look like you’re doing good. ACTUALLY do good. Sometimes that means showing solidarity and visibly participating in a movement on social media. But more often it can mean helping anonymously in the background, or keeping your own mouth shut to amplify the voices of others. In these times when the change we desperately need is real change – not virtual – hold yourself accountable first.

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An ugly obsession

It feels inappropriate – a teeny bit blasphemous to admit – but I’ve always wanted to be beautiful. It’s an admission that feels at once a little vain, narcissistic, somehow deeply unfeminist, but also… quite trivial. Of course I want to be beautiful. Everyone wants to be beautiful even if nobody really admits it. I can’t precisely define for you what I mean by beautiful, other than to say that the kind of beauty I want is aspirational, making it undefinable and unattainable. So then, what’s the point?

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Surrounded by media images of beautiful women. If you ask me what I find beautiful, I’ll give you a list of messy contradictions: the fierce feminine sex appeal of Italian bombshell Monica Belucci advertising red lipstick, the authority of boss-bitch Jessica Pearson in a power suit, the soft innocence of rancher’s daughter Dolores before she embarks on her vengeful rampage, and “It Girl” Zoe Kravitz looking effortlessly cool in not much more than a chainmail bra.

Whether or not we like it, the way we choose to dress and present ourselves has cultural context and sends a message. The women in the House of Representatives knew it when they chose to wear suffragette white to Trump’s State of the Union speech. Steve Jobs (and Elizabeth Holmes) knew it with their minimalist uniform of Issey Miyake black turtlenecks. Lady Gaga knew it when she put on her meat dress or McQueen armadillo heels. Terms like “tech bro,” “girlboss,” “Wall St. banker,” and “hipster” all conjure up very specific images – a hoodie over a Google tshirt, a sheath dress and pair of pointy-toed pumps, a conservative suit and tie, a flannel shirt and a man-bun. Whether or not we like it, we often define people by the way they look.

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Very deliberate and statement-making wardrobe choices.

I find that the coming and going of trends reflects cultural change in a fascinating way. Scrutiny and criticism of fashion is anthropology. Just to give a few modern examples: after the 2008 economic recession it became gaudy and tasteless to broadcast your wealth through display of bold designer logos, fueling the rise of equally expensive though much more subtle “capsule wardrobes” of “Scandinavian minimalism.” The normalization of wearing yoga pants outside the yoga studio exploded into the mainstreaming of athleisure, a perfect fit for the modern man or woman who prioritizes comfort on the go, and who doesn’t have time to change in a busy schedule that includes the gym, the office, and the grocery store. Just yesterday a friend asked me when and how wide-legged pants had become ubiquitous. Skinny jeans have been in vogue for a while now, but all trends are cyclical. Plus, there’s been a recent movement towards women dressing for personal comfort rather than for the “male gaze” (see the rise of the wireless bralette and granny panties and corresponding decline of the Victoria’s Secret aesthetic, the popularity of menocore as embodied by the shapeless sack dress, etc.).

So, this obsession with beauty. I’m tired of women’s fashion at once being dismissed as a frivolous interest and at the same time decried as a deliberate tool of sexual manipulation (of men)*. First of all, the truth is that women dress more for other women than for men. It’s a not-so-secret form of social signaling that most men manage to remain oblivious of. Secondly, women are obsessed with their appearance because, well, in our culture appearance matters. A lot. Beautiful people are seen as more desirable (duh), but also more trustworthy, competent, and are generally more highly valued in society. We even equate beauty with moral worth. Notice how in fairy tales the princess is always young and beautiful while the witch is an ugly hag? So why shouldn’t we want to or try to be more beautiful?

Everyone curates their wardrobe to curate their image. And even those who aren’t trying are kind of trying. Deliberately choosing comfort or practicality over fashion and style makes a statement as well. This is something I think about a lot as a graduate student in a STEM field. My wardrobe, physique, and presentation appear on a surface level unremarkable, hiding the fact that I am obsessed with fashion, fitness, and makeup/skincare. My work (lab) wardrobe follows a dress code of long pants, close-toed shoes, and nothing that I wouldn’t be too heartbroken over if it got a bleach stain or acid-burn hole. The dress code exists for safety reasons, as well as practicality. And while plain jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt satisfy the dress code, I find it all a bit boring on myself (I will say that some people can wear the hell out of a basic outfit, but not me). Yet I come up against this idea that interest in fashion is superficial compared to much more “serious” interests like STEM field studies. And then that must mean that if you dress with any more care, formality, or style than the status quo or bare minimum required by your workplace that you are wasting your time/effort/money on frivolous pursuits**. We live in a society that pressures women to be beautiful, while simultaneously belittling them for caring about it. <Mumbles something about the patriarchy>.***

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A sample drawing from a project that had seventh graders draw how they imagined scientists, before and after meeting actual scientists.

I know that caring about external beauty doesn’t necessarily make someone shallow. I’ve just spent multiple paragraphs outlining the ways in which thinking critically about beauty is, well, actually pretty deep. There are many complex reasons for my wanting to be seen as beautiful. Sure, part of it is attracting the opposite gender. But most of it is wanting others (of both genders) to take me seriously. Or perhaps I’d like to project that I’m clever (glasses), laid back (casual clothes), put-together (well-groomed), edgy (piercings), whatever. The craziest part of it, is that despite all my efforts to conform to a standard of conventional beauty I have no idea whether or not I’m seen as beautiful. Sure, I’ve had people tell me I’m beautiful, but is it any more than flattery when it’s coming from my mother, my best friend, or someone trying to get me naked?**** I can walk past anyone on the street and (subjectively) judge whether or not they are beautiful. But I can also stare endlessly at my own reflection in the mirror and not have a clue. The ironic truth is that I’m more comfortable now with myself (inside and out <pats self on back>) than I ever have been before, yet all those insecurities are still there.  I know that conventional beauty standards are not defined by people like myself, and I know that it’s unhealthy to be too obsessed with my appearance. I know that it’s completely toxic to compare myself to others (especially those edited and curated images that are everywhere on the internet). But none of that awareness or ability to intellectually critique unrealistic beauty standards translates to me caring and less and wanting any less to be beautiful.***

So why write this blog post at all? I’ll admit that this is the dozen-th draft of some version of this post that I’ve written, and I still don’t know if I’ve said anything of value. But I have always placed value in having those slightly uncomfortable conversations where I’m willing to come out and say (publicly, here on the internet) that I can’t be the only one going through something, and that the more discussions we have, the more we understand one another and the less alone we feel. I’m still trying to reconcile what it means to accept myself and also accept that I’ll never stop wanting to be some unattainable standard of beautiful (or smart, or likable, or successful, etc.). I get the feeling that it will be a lifelong struggle. But I still think that the discussion is worthwhile. So the next time I tell you “nice shoes,” tell me why you picked them. I’d like to talk about your shoes for a bit.

 

Footnotes:

*It also doesn’t help that there’s a huge double standard in the relationship between age and beauty/desirability between men and women. We still call George Clooney and Harrison Ford sexy, but Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren are “elegant.” Men age into sexy. Women expire out of it. So god forbid women should try to take advantage of our youth/beauty (because aren’t they really one and the same?) while we still have it.

**Another interesting observation I’ve made is that my coworkers will often browse personal things on their laptops during work breaks (it’s a pretty lax environment), but I feel a little judged for online shopping during my lunch breaks or work breaks late at night, whereas no one ever says anything about the guys blaring sports games from their computers. The boss has even walked by and stopped to chat with the guys about who’s winning the soccer match. I feel like spending time on traditionally male interests like sports is not penalized, or even more gender-neutral interests like reading the news is fine, but I get judged for browsing clothes online or reading fashion/makeup blogs with obvious feminine imagery. Or maybe it’s all in my head…

***Quoted and paraphrased Contrapoints a couple times here and there. She’s brilliant.

****This is NOT a reason to NOT pay people compliments though. Some people suck at accepting compliments, but everyone should still compliment each other more. It’s nice.

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Autonomy and control

Those who know me well know that I am a big fan of writer/cartoonist Tim Kreider*. I find his work to be witty, insightful, and emotionally evocative in ways that I’ve always aspired to be. Today he penned a column for the NY Times about power, and the first paragraph made me chuckle.

The wish to have power over others is altogether alien to me; I just don’t get it, any more than I get why anyone wants to have kids or play Settlers of Catan. Even sexual fantasies based on power dynamics don’t particularly appeal to me. Why would I want to boss other people around? What would I make them do? My taxes, maybe? It just sounds awkward, and like a huge hassle. I don’t even like being waited on by people I’d rather have a beer with; I’m uncomfortable holding the meager (and mostly illusory) power of grades over my students.

Oh, hey…. That sounds like me… *raises hand*

Kreider’s column made me think about all the uncomfortable power dynamics in my own life. Like the fact that it took me 20 years (and a generous 30% tip) to decide that I was personally OK with paying a young (usually Asian or Latina immigrant) to massage my feet and apply nail varnish to my grubby toes. Or that I still need to work up my nerve and self-confidence every time I push back against and argue with my advisor when he dramatically underestimates the time and effort that a particular experiment would require. Or slowly coming to realize that the aging parents who supported (and yes, sometimes controlled) me as I was growing up now need my support and help. I could certainly write an uncomfortable introspective blog post about each one of those power dynamics – but don’t worry, I won’t.

What I found most interesting was Kreider’s discussion of what he called the “most essential freedom,”

…the most essential freedom to secure is the power to move freely within the borders of your own skull. Doing what you want is predicated on knowing what you want. The world’s most insidious power is that which infiltrates your own brain, constricting and deforming what’s permissible to think. It’s almost impossible to writhe out from under the crushing weight of cultural consensus, ideology, propaganda, conventional wisdom and the deafening chatter of other people’s opinions, to harbor your own samizdat thoughts — as Virginia Woolf describes an artist in “To the Lighthouse, “struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say ‘But this is what I see; this is what I see,’ and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.”

I too crave and seek this freedom. However, I also whole-heartedly and openly accept that I have no idea what I want. The most I can do is to list some things I definitely don’t want.  Tim Kreider, who himself is a successful freelance writer and artist writes:

Of course freedom, as is written in the bumper sticker, is not free: I decided long ago that the greatest freedom is the freedom to command one’s own time, and to that end I’ve forfeited a regular salary, home ownership, a retirement plan and any credit rating whatsoever, as well as the cozy fetters of family.

I have also forfeited some things and am ready to forfeit more. Recently, I accepted a postdoctoral position in California, which comes with a commitment to get paid a less-than-enviable stipend and to rent a shared apartment for a few years in continuation of the nomadic academic lifestyle (a few years here, a few years there – long enough to form relationships and then abandon them). But ultimately, it’s one more step towards pursuing an academic career. Separately, but relatedly I’ve been musing over a quote from a former grad student in my lab. He was known for his quippy little sayings, one of which was “I want to be a PI because I have problems with authority.”** I understand the appeal of wanting to be the boss, so no one else can be the boss of you (ok, that’s not entirely how academia works, but sort of?).

Reading the column has also led me to reflect a bit about the ways in which I have felt compelled to act out against in defense of my own freedom. I voraciously consume the news and news analysis to arm myself against anyone who would try to cast me as wrong or ignorant or uninformed (not that I have verbal sparring partners, just the occasional patient friend who’s willing to indulge my rants). I’d rather perform a favor than ask for one (though I’m never keeping count). And even the choices I make with my body (thank you to health insurance coverage of long acting reversible contraception and also my favorite NYC piercer) feel like a big middle finger to someone (our Republican administration, or my parents’ conservative values, or just all the haters). All the ways I try to feel autonomous and in control, in a world where things often feel unreliable and out of control.

A few months ago, my brother and I had a conversation about not being truly free to pursue what we wanted for ourselves until after our parents had passed away. It was a selfish and purely hypothetical discussion in the context of a larger gripe about family responsibilities. My brother said he might quit his corporate engineering job to run for political office. After a brief moment of thought I replied that actually I would keep doing exactly what I’ve been doing. So I patted myself on the back and thought, it might not often feel like it but maybe I’m doing OK, and I’m a little freer than I thought.

 

*I guarantee that at least a few of you reading this blog post have been sent links or screenshots of his writing, if not been gifted or lent a copy of one of his books by me.

**One Halloween, we got a bunch of people in the lab to wear his quotes, termed “Stevens-isms” on white t-shirts, and we took a group photo together.

stevensisms

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Eva’s goals for self-improvement in 2019

Some people might call them New Years resolutions. But I’ve never been one for New Years resolutions. I find the idea of resolutions to be rigid and oppressive. There’s the implication that if you take one wrong step that your resolution is ruined, you have failed, and you should just quit. Maybe you accidentally managed to gain instead of lose a few pounds in January – may as well give up on trying to eat healthier the rest of the year and try again next year. Did you learn that your veggie fried rice was actually made with chicken broth? Game over, may as well scrap vegetarianism and become a carnivore. Only read gossip blogs this month? Time to return Infinite Jest to its 2018 role as a doorstop. This is then followed by emotionally beating yourself up for having failed, and you are certainly no better off than when you started.

In the latest episode of Pod Save America, Erin Ryan of Crooked Media argues that she prefers to think of intentions as an alternative to resolutions. If you don’t achieve a resolution, you fail it. However, intentions you can sustain. The why is just as important as the what. So my resolution for 2019 is more of an intention. In 2019, I intend to be more conscientious.

If being conscientious seems like a broad and ambiguous goal, that’s because I actually mean for it to encompass two separate, more specific goals. My first intention is to be a more conscientious consumer, which means buying less and buying differently. Buying less is partly a matter of practicality. I expect to be moving (possibly across the country) in about six months, and it would benefit me to accumulate less stuff that I will need to pack up and transport. Saving money would also be nice. But buying differently is also important for me.

In 2018, I tried to shop more ethically. I enjoy buying clothes, and the temptation to buy more has only increased with the accessibility of online shopping. However, in the past year, I’ve tried to steer away from buying fast fashion (H&M, Forever 21, but also big box brands in general) because these brands are known to have questionable practices concerning the environment and labor ethics. While I understand the allure of owning new things and buying trendy, disposable items, I now find it hard to justify. Especially when there are so many brands that emphasize ethical consumption. I’ve slowly transitioned to mostly buying to replace items when they become shabby or unwearable, and making sure that the replacements are better quality and either second-hand or from brands that used recycled fabric or pay their workers a fair wage. I like the idea of buy-it-for-life, and items that can be repaired before they need to be replaced.

While clothes/shoes/accessories probably make up the bulk of my non-essential purchases, I’d like to apply the same general guidelines to purchases of electronics (I definitely don’t need a GPS watch even though they’re cool), cosmetics (no one needs 15 colors of nail polish), kitchen appliances (I’d love to own a Kitchen-Aid…. someday), and hobby items (I’m looking at you, unused yoga mat and climbing gear). My exception is books. While I have been reading more on my Kindle, I love reading from a physical book.

My second goal is to be more conscientious of my role in my personal relationships. More than five years after graduating from college and leaving my hometown, I’ve learned the lesson that good personal chemistry and shared history are not enough to sustain a relationship, especially when distance is involved. I had close friends from childhood and college who I have all but lost contact with. While it has taken great geographical distance for me to realize that some relationships were only strong because of shared circumstances, and that it’s ok to let those friendships fade, others wither due to lack of attention. With some people, all it takes to maintain a connection is catching up over beers when we’re in the same town, and we can pick up as if time hasn’t passed at all. With others, it can take more work – scheduling a regular exchange of texts, emails, calls, and video chats on a monthly or even weekly basis. Remembering birthdays and important details about friends, co-workers, and family members. Sometimes it’s beyond my control, and someone gets too busy, or loses interest, or their priorities shift, but other times it’s my fault. I failed to answer one too many texts. Or I initially waited too long to reply, and now it definitely feels like it’s been too long and I don’t want to seem awkward. Or I’m avoiding the possibility of getting ignored or rejected. But in many instances, I’ve watched valued friendships fade knowing I could have reached out and done more. And this makes me sad.

But even with my more geographically immediate relationships, the people who I get to see and spend time with on a more regular basis, I think it will help to be more conscientious. To ask myself whether I’ve been neglectful, and if I’m ever taking my friends for granted. It seems obvious when stated aloud, but I’d like to occasionally remind myself that relationships take work, and like many things in life, that you can only get out as much as you put in.

Both of these intentions that I’ve just shared are more abstract, and in that sense lack the concrete accountability many people want from their New Years resolutions, but they also leave room for both growth and mistakes which I think is maybe more important. Here’s to the never-ending quest for self-improvement and a better 2019!

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Eva’s 2018 year end list of favorites

Favorite read:
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Among the 17(!) books I managed to read this year, many were notable but the standout was East of Eden. I picked this up at my brother’s suggestion (he usually reads non-fiction, so when he couldn’t stop raving about this novel he was reading, I figured I’d give it a try as well), and then for the next two months I went around telling people how life-changing it was. Read this if you value compelling characters as much as a compelling narrative. If it brings you joy and satisfaction when an author manages to recreate the nuances and complexities of human relationships. Even if you read it in high school (or perhaps especially if you only remember it as part of a high school English curriculum), give it another try now.

Honorable mention(s):
We Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider – Loved this. Witty and hilarious; cannot recommend enough
Our Town by Thornton Wilder
Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami – The only book on this list actually published in 2018


Favorite album:
By The Way I Forgive You by Brandi Carlile
This was the year I really discovered, and promptly fell in love with Brandi Carlile. This is going to sound pretentious as fuck, but I’ve have a hard time enjoying much of modern folk/pop/rock music because it’s either too bare bones (like the kind of raw, sad-girl indie pop my brother likes – sorry, Larry) or way overproduced (autotuned to death, or 3-minute made-for-radio earworms). Brandi Carlile falls in the perfect sweet spot. She and the twins have so much musical talent and couple that with raw emotion and killer stage presence. My favorite songs on the album are Most of All and Every Time I Hear That Song. Even Barack Obama put the latter song on his year-end list.

Honorable mention(s):
Encore by Anderson East – Also featured on Obama’s list
Be the Cowboy by Mitski
LA DIVINE by Cold War Kids
*Bonus: Spotify playlist with many of my 2018 faves


Favorite podcast:
The Ezra Klein Show (Vox Media)
It recently blew my mind to learn that Ezra Klein is only 34. I like his podcast because not only is he clearly smart and well-read, but he’s also an incredibly good moderator. In an era where it’s easy to cherrypick the content you consume and limit yourself to either the hottest and most controversial topics or familiar interests, I recently found myself unexpectedly enthralled by an 80-minute interview with Congresswoman-elect Katie Porter (who I had never heard of) about bankruptcy (something I typically consider a dry topic). Klein does a great job picking guests and leading them in great, insightful, expository conversation.

Honorable mention(s):
Hidden Brain (NPR)
The Daily (NY Times) – How I start off every morning
Radiolab (WNYC studios) – Specifically the “In the No” series


Favorite movie:
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
I did not expect my favorite film of the year to be a documentary about Mr. Rogers. In fact, I didn’t even really grow up with Mr. Rogers. I knew who he was and had a general respect for and nostalgic fondness towards his show, but that was about it. Yet I found the film extremely moving. It was an endearing and intimate look at the life of a man who devoted his life to doing good, and a loving tribute to his legacy. If you’re a crier during movies, bring tissues.

Honorable mention(s):
Blackkklansman – Holy shit, what an emotional roller coaster
Beautiful Boy – Possibly biased due to my love for Timmy Chalamet and Steve Carrell


Favorite article/longform writing:
Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher, Mounts a Defense of Science by Ava Kofman (NY Times Magazine)
Scientists can sometimes be awfully self-righteous about the inherent immutability and truth of scientific discoveries, yet Latour has spent his life arguing that scientific “facts” are only as valid as the institutions and practices that produce them. An interesting profile of an interesting man that contextualizes his life’s work in the fight against climate change today.

Honorable mention:
Go Ahead, Millenials, Destroy Us by Tim Kreider (NY Times Opinion) – If you can look beyond the clickbait-y title, this was the article that turned me onto Tim Kreider.
Also, any of Ronan Farrow’s reporting for The New Yorker on Harvey Weinstein and the greater #metoo movement. Thank you Ronan, for doing what you do.

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Filthy radical, difficult, impossible forgiveness

I’ve been listening a lot to Brandi Carlile’s most recent album, By The Way, I Forgive You. It’s a raw, acoustic, melting pot of country, pop, and Americana sound with some beautiful tracks containing personal stories about her daughter and her parents. In a live radio performance in March, she played four songs interspersed with discussion about the new album. At one point the host asks her about the title of her album and the theme of forgiveness. In her response, Carlile describes forgiveness as a “not a word to be taken lightly,” but rather a “filthy radical, difficult, impossible thing to do” and shares the story of a minister who refused to baptize her when she was 15 because she was an outwardly gay teenager. She addressed the incident in an open letter to the minister, published before the album’s release, that explained that despite what happened she still loved him and never lost her faith.

To forgive is to let go of anger and resentment that we hold towards someone who has wronged us. We are taught that forgiveness is a virtue and that it frees us. The Bible preaches forgiveness of others as a way to ensure God’s forgiveness. Step 8 of the 12-step addiction recovery process asks you to reach out and seek forgiveness from those you have harmed. Forgiveness is supposed to help us grow and move on. It may be difficult, but to forgive makes us good people. Right?

When I think about the people in my life who I would like to forgive, the first person who comes to mind is my mother. I won’t go into my accumulated lifetime of grievances here, but I feel like this blog has practically become an outlet to vent about my parents and upbringing (ugh, sorry), so if you want context just read some of my recent posts. I think that I’ve turned out generally ok, but sometimes I feel that it’s despite my parents, rather than because of them. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more sympathetic towards and understanding of the (largely good) intentions that fueled my mother’s (sometimes misguided) actions. I can understand why she did much of what she did. Though I still don’t agree with many of her choices, I am at the very least able to make excuses for her (she was a product of her upbringing, a product of the times, a product of her culture, etc.). Knowing these things, I want to forgive her, but I don’t know if I can.

“Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.” – Oscar Wilde

Perhaps I find forgiveness difficult because my mother probably doesn’t feel as if she need to be forgiven by me. Even having gone through what she has and knowing what she knows now, she probably stands by her choices and would scoff at the idea that there is anything to forgive. And because of this, perhaps what truly makes it hard to forgive her is that she seems unwilling to change and completely absent of remorse**. And as a result, I believe she will continue to hurt me in many of the same ways. I spent some time with her and my brother this weekend, and in the span of 24 hours, she managed to criticize my weight and eating habits, she was rude to multiple waiters and excessively critical of our food, and managed to make false and disparaging remarks about a gay friend of my brother.

My weekend wasn’t entirely miserable and I do love my mother, though perhaps some of the conflict arises from the fact that we hold those we love to higher standards. We want the people we love to be good, perhaps even better than ourselves. I remember returning home for Thanksgiving in 2016, just weeks after the election, and running into some old high school classmates at a bar. We bemoaned not just the results of the recent election, but having to sit at the dinner table and make nice with our conservative, Trump-supporting relatives. To maintain civility would be a tremendous exercise in patience and restraint, we agreed.

I’m not asking for a 67-year old immigrant to adopt all of my liberal and progressive views. But it would be nice if we could dine out just once where my brother and I didn’t have to apologize to the waiters and leave an extra-large tip to compensate for my mother’s rudeness that verges on harassment. I don’t need her to jump on the body positivity train, but there’s a difference between showing concern and being condescending and critical; it would be nice if she considered the influence of a mother’s criticism on a daughter’s self-confidence. If forgiveness requires letting go of wrongs, then I’m clearly not there yet and don’t know if I’ll ever get there. I know that much of my mother’s happiness hinges upon hearing from me and my brother and knowing that we are doing well. So sometimes it makes me feel guilty to be so upset with her. Is it wrong or selfish of me to continue to hold this grudge? Will I regret it if I am never fully able to forgive her?

By the way, I forgive you
After all, maybe I should thank you
For giving me what I’ve found
‘Cause without you around
I’ve been doing just fine
Except for any time I hear that song

Every Time I Hear That Song, Brandi Carlile

**Completely unrelated to my mother. But I believe that absence of remorse is huge obstacle to forgiveness. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the lens of the #metoo movement, and the many men who were knocked down from their positions of power but are now seeking to make a comeback (Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, Mario Batali, Bill O’Reilly, etc.). I generally believe that people who make mistakes – especially isolated mistakes, which are different from an established pattern of behavior – deserve a second chance, but only if they express regret or remorse for their actions. Those men (and women) who haven’t learned from their mistakes, if they think their only mistake was getting caught, or still deny allegations that were proven to be true, do not deserve sympathy and forgiveness. They are not to be trusted and do not deserve a second chance because that chance will likely be squandered, and once returned to positions of power and influence they will only hurt others again.

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Thank you to all the extroverts who have ever adopted me

Growing up, I was a shy kid. Not entirely avoidant or especially socially inept, but more… timid and reserved (why isn’t there a good antonym for outgoing?). If anything, from carefully observing the interactions of my peers, I figured out how to make myself comfortably invisible, agreeably nodding and smiling from the periphery of the circle, contributing just enough to the social atmosphere for my friends to want to keep me around (at least some of the time).

It wasn’t until I was in late high school that labels “introvert” and “extrovert” came into vogue. The self-identification was immediate, and I was able to point to many of my behaviors as being characteristic of an introvert. I get uncomfortable when left alone at large parties. I use the self-checkout line when shopping even if there’s an empty cashier lane. I exit from the middle exit of the bus to avoid saying bye to the bus driver. Even now, I’ll hit the door close button after stepping into the elevator, hoping no one else gets in. When my younger brother started high school I was a junior, and walking through the halls it was impossible not to run into another one of his friends (he seemed to know everyone) who would call me “Larry’s sister.” As far as I know, even to my friends he was Larry, never “Eva’s brother.”

At a time when most students had to build their social circles from scratch, starting college in my hometown allowed me to cling to my high school friends (it also helped that ~10% of my high school graduating class ended up at Cornell). At the start of freshman year, I remember waiting until the sun went down at 8:30pm to eat dinner with a friend who was observing Ramadan. I didn’t mind eating that late, especially since he seemed happy enough to have me as company, but it also allowed me to avoid having to sit among strangers, however friendly they were, and go through another cycle of scripted freshman introductions (Where are you from? What’s your major? Which dorm do you live in?). For the first few months of college, I mostly made new friends through old friends, tagging along to meals and parties. I got used to being the lone science major eating lunch with a group of econ and CAPS majors, or the stray non-athlete at a tae-kwon-do team party because I was friends with someone in the group.

It wasn’t really until my junior year that I made friends entirely on my own (not friends-of-friends or hallmates I fortuitously liked which I consider cheating), and only because it was impossible to survive Quantum Mechanics and Analytical Chemistry lab working on problem sets and lab reports alone. It was at this point that I met someone who was to become one of my best friends; he was a guy in my major who was outgoing to almost an extreme. My thoughts upon meeting him went something like, “Who the hell is that loud kid in the corner who seems to know everyone? Why is he talking to me? Oh wait, he’s offering to help me debug my Mathematica code. Huh, he’s actually pretty cool.” It wasn’t long until I was chasing him through the chemistry building at 11pm as our study break suddenly pivoted from an existential life discussion to a decision to bother our night-owl faculty advisor and ask him for life advice (previously I had always thought of professors as these inaccessible entities who were always too busy with important things to talk to undergrads – I still largely believe this, but clearly my friend didn’t). I looked on in bewildered amusement as during a lull in lab periods he would snatch our grad student TA’s phone and text himself so that he’d later have their phone number in case they wanted to hang out. While I can’t say for sure how much befriending an extrovert rubbed off on me, I’m extremely grateful for not just his friendship, but how he made accessible to me relationships with some people I never would have approached on my own.

This made leaving Cornell and starting grad school all the more difficult. My first year of grad school, I had a pretty rough time and will confess to at least a few late-night texts sent to college friends that read something like, “Ugh, I hate everyone here, and I really miss you” (This is not entirely true. I didn’t hate everyone, but I did really really miss my college friends). Again my saving grace was an extrovert who adopted me, a rotation student in my lab who invited me to a Halloween party. I had enough drinks to loosen up a bit and apparently made a good enough impression that she kept inviting me to things (pro life tip: alcohol can be a very effective strategy for those introverts who need to temporarily be extroverts). And it’s largely because of her that most of my closest grad school friends now are not in my department (Chemistry) but hers (Mol Bio).

So thank you to all those friends who have let me use them as a social crutch – there are many, many of you and only a few have been mentioned in this blog post. And especially thank you to those extroverts in my life who have adopted me and invited me into experiences and interactions far outside my comfort zone.

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