Tag Archives: life

Mental health

Since quitting my job as an attorney, my life has improved a lot. I know I’ve said this before, and I’m sure my fellow lawyers are sick to death of hearing it, but I’m going to say it again. I now can do all the things I used to want to do but didn’t always have time for: knitting, sewing, exercise, cooking, binge-watching entire television series, making art, folding my laundry, and so on. I feel extremely lucky because I know a lot of people aren’t able to indulge their hobbies and interests.

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I’ve also found, since quitting my job, that partaking in a variety of activities every day (rather than just doing one thing, day in and day out), regardless of what I’m actually doing, has in itself improved my mental health. Life is more interesting for me when I’m doing a bunch of different things. Today, for example, I went to the gym, wrote, went to the fabric store, wrote some more, talked to my mom in California on Google chat, got my eyebrows waxed, planned dinner, and knit. Tomorrow, I think I’ll write, swim, write some more, sew, and knit. Compare this to my life as a lawyer, when on a typical day I’d go to the gym, go to the office, come home, watch TV, and go to bed, and you start to see what I’m talking about.

There are certain constants in my days, of course. Exercise. Writing. Tea. These are my Essentials, the things I need to do or have regularly to feel normal and healthy. After my basic physiological demands (eating and sleeping and so on), exercise comes in near the top of the list. When I don’t work out, I feel crappy, inside and out. After that, I must write. This professional writing business isn’t for wimps. You have to actually do it — constantly — to make things happen. Plus, I love writing. If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t really be me. And yes, I need tea. Tea features prominently in the equation.

What else? Making things. I’ve talked about this before, but one of the biggest differences between my life now and my life before I quit my job is that now, every single day, I’m able to be creative. My work requires me to create and then, in my downtime, I make things.

Another Essential: reading. I can’t imagine what I’d do at night without a book to read. My Kindle broke recently and the same day, I rushed to the bookstore to stock up on paperbacks, as if preparing for a coming bookpocalypse. Priorities, you understand.

What about people? Do I need people in my life every day? Yes, but maybe not in the way you’d think. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve slid more and more into the Introvert side of the Extrovert-Introvert divide on the Myers-Briggs scale. This means, practically, that I don’t need that much face-to-face human contact every day to feel happy, which is why working at home in my little writing cocoon suits me so well. But I do need some contact, whether that means reading and responding to emails from my friends, seeing my husband for dinner, or talking to my parents on Skype. No woman is an island. But do I miss the hum of an office buzzing with human activity? Hell to the no.

So, that’s about it. I need to be physically active, creative, tea’d up, surrounded by books, and not completely isolated from other humans. How about you? What are the things that make you feel normal? How do you balance your hobbies with work and life? I recommend thinking about your Essentials, making a list, checking it twice, and then making the top one or two or three on that list a daily priority. It works wonders.

 

On sewing, knitting, and the impulse to make things

I’ve always loved making things. As a kid, I did latch-hook; I made beads; I wove hemp necklaces; I painted; I sketched; I sculpted. I was always making something. I can’t remember a time in my childhood where I didn’t have several projects, of various sorts, going. As an adult, I never lost my desire to be constantly creating things, but there were long years during which I figured making things just wasn’t something I got to do anymore. There was never enough time. Or energy. Working at a law firm, I found that I was so unhappy with my work life, I had little energy after work to devote to being creative. Instead, I’d come home from work and watch TV, or read, but I wouldn’t create anything more elaborate than dinner because I just didn’t have the energy. Consequently, my creativity languished for a long time. Then, I quit my job and rediscovered unstructured free time, which has been an absolute joy. I am now an adult who gets to make things during my day. In fact, my job now requires me to be creative: I get to tell stories for a living. Best job ever, right? (Well, best job ever for me, anyway).

Me and one of my masterpieces

Me and one of my early masterpieces

As I mentioned a while ago when I talked about knitting, I love to do activities in my downtime in which I am creating something — that is, in which I am making a product of some sort, whether it’s a hat or a casserole, that I did not have to invent from scratch. I like following a knitting pattern or a recipe and ending up with something I can be proud of, but which I did not have to pull out of thin air. I love knitting, especially, because in the end, you have a product — something you can wear or use — and, best of all, the knowledge that you made that product with your own two hands. So satisfying.

There's something nice about seeing your husband wear a hat you made.

There’s something nice about seeing your husband wear a hat you made.

So, I decided, given my love of knitting, to seek out sewing classes in London. I’ve wanted to learn how to sew for years but never got around to it (see: law firm job), and I figured there’s no time like the present. Thus, early last week I reported for a four-day, twelve-hour Intro to Sewing class at the lovely Sew Over It in Clapham North. And I loved it! I came back from my first day of class, completed pillow cushion proudly in hand, and told Al that I was “pretty sure” I could “master” sewing. Yes, I used the word “master.” No one ever accused me of hedging my bets. I was encouraged, you see, by my early success at creating things made entirely up of square pieces of fabric sewn together in straight lines. To give you an idea, here are the projects I completed in my intro class:

Cushion cover

Cushion cover with buttons

Tote bag

Tote bag

Makeup bag

Makeup bag with lining and zipper

Feeling on top of the sewing world, I immediately signed up for an Intro to Dressmaking course, figuring that after another twelve hours of instruction, I’d basically be able to start a side business as a seamstress and/or make all my own clothes from here on out. But oh!, dressmaking brought me low. My first day of class was intensely humbling. We made a circle skirt, which is so named because when you hold it up, it’s in the shape of a large circle with the waistband in the middle. It sounds simple — and the pattern looked simple — but that circle skirt nearly broke me. I messed up the hem line, the waistband was bumpy, and, when the dratted thing was finally done, I found that I had made the waist just a tad too small, so that the back would not stay closed if I so much as breathed. Ugh.

I was convinced, the entire first two days of dressmaking class, that I was the dolt of the classroom. I had trouble visualizing what the teacher was telling us to do. “Stitch here,” she’d say, and I’d wonder, “But why?” I didn’t understand the why of any of it. Why do those stitches go there? What will happen if I put them somewhere else? What larger purpose are these stitches serving? This inability to visualize my final product, it seems to me, is the biggest difference between my experience with knitting and my experience with sewing. For whatever reason, perhaps because knitting is necessarily a much slower process of construction and one has time to wrap one’s mind around the contours of what one is making, knitting is just not as confusing as sewing. Sure, while knitting I may have trouble executing certain tricky maneuvers or I may accidentally mess up the measurement of a piece of work, but I generally understand why I have to do a certain thing when I see it on a pattern. With sewing, though, the patterns are just big pieces of paper, and I don’t think my spatial visualization skills are quite finely tuned enough to picture said pieces of paper arranged into items of clothing. Folds, in particular, confuse me. There are no folds in knitting.

Long story short, my first two days of dressmaking class were stressful. My Type-A, detail-oriented inner lawyer (who, let’s face it, is probably always going to be with me) was freaking out at every mistake and berating me for not understanding the instructions. I was dismayed that other people in the class seemed to zip right along, with no signs of nervous sweating. This made me even more nervous (and sweaty). I left class that day feeling discouraged, with my misshapen, ill-fitting skirt stuffed into a plastic bag.

The next day, though, we started on a simple shift dress, and things began to make a little more sense. I understood a little more clearly why I was doing things. Yes, there were certain parts of the pattern that I found confounding, but mostly, things made sense. And, in the end, my dress came out really well. It actually, believe it or not, fits me. I’ve sewn my first piece of wearable clothing. Huzzah!

Summer shift dress

Summer shift dress

So, what have I learned from the experience of learning to sew? One, I can’t expect everything to come easily to me right away. Not to brag, but I was a bit of an (idiot) savant at knitting. I was good at it right away, and could master new skills easily by looking at a book or watching a YouTube video. No teacher required. Sewing is not like that for me, and that’s okay. It is going to take a bit more practice and patience on my part to get good at it. Second, it’s good to learn a new skill, even — and perhaps especially — if you’re not good at it right away. Keeps you on your toes. Life gets boring if you don’t have to stretch now and then, after all. On her blog The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin writes about the three levels of fun: challenging, accommodating, and relaxing fun. Learning to sew is challenging fun. It’s hard and frustrating at first, but as you get better at it, it gets more fun — and that’s more rewarding than coasting at something you’re already good at.

Here’s to more challenging fun, then, and to always making time for making things.

Goodbye, Johannesburg

I can’t believe I am leaving South Africa tomorrow. I got here at the end of October 2012, which is somewhere between yesterday and a long time ago, and tomorrow I’m departing for London. Weird. I thought, after spending over seven months on the ground in South Africa, it would be fitting to write a piece about what I liked about my experience here, what I didn’t like, and what I learned. So — here goes nothin’.

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It’s no secret that I wasn’t a huge fan of Joburg. From the beginning, I wasn’t psyched to move to this particular city (even though I was excited about the adventure Al and I were embarking upon together), but  I was determined to keep an open mind about this place and give it a chance. I think it’s fair to say, at this juncture, that I did give Joburg a chance. I was prepared to let it win me over. It just — didn’t. I don’t want this to devolve into a long list of things that I hate about Joburg, because no one needs to read that, but suffice it to say that this city and I were not meant to get along.

Bread at Vovo Telo - one of the best parts of Joburg

Bread at Vovo Telo – one of the best parts of Joburg!

For one thing, you need a car to do anything here. Al and I shared a car, our trusty 2008 Toyota Yaris, but he took it most days for work, since he had to go to clients’ offices and meetings and such, whereas I worked from home. Fair enough. But that ended up meaning that on days I didn’t have the car, I was functionally housebound. You can’t walk anywhere here (no sidewalks, dangerous, etc.), and there’s no viable public transportation. So I spent a lot of time by myself. Inside. And until a few months ago, that was okay. I embraced my inner introvert, I got to know the afternoon TLC schedule (Say Yes to the Dress, Rich Bride Poor Bride, Jon & Kate Plus 8), I cooked dishes that required obscene amounts of prep time (including this one, which I highly recommend if you have an afternoon to spend grinding spices), I knit (oh, did I knit), I wrote (duh), I got hooked on several TV shows on Netflix (Being Human UK: life changing), and things were pretty good, overall.

I got REALLY into knitting.

I got REALLY into knitting.

Then, a few months ago, I hit a wall. I just got sick of not having much of a life outside of my house. Part of this frustration was compounded by the fact that Al and I had not invested heavily in our social network here. We made wonderful friends, of course, but most of them worked crazy hours during the week and traveled on the weekends, which meant that during the weekdays and early evenings, I was pretty much left high and dry if I needed social contact with other human beings. The thing is, I’m not someone who needs a ton of time with other people to be happy. But I do need options. I’d like to have the option of setting up drinks with someone, for instance, or the option to just leave the house and go do something by myself. When I lived in Sao Paulo by myself and my friends were traveling or otherwise not around, I used to take myself to the movies, and I could walk to the theater. But here in Joburg, I couldn’t do that. And after a while, I got pretty sick of it.

A typical afternoon in Joburg.

A typical afternoon in Joburg.

Now, the flip-side of all of this, of course, is that while we were here, we invested heavily in travel, and I am very glad we did. In nine short months (more or less), we traveled to Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Namibia, as well as pretty extensively within South Africa (Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Kruger, the Drakensberg Mountains, Durban, and more). Plus we squeezed in a trip to Italy, and I went to North America twice (first by myself to San Francisco, and then with Al to Ottawa, DC, and Mexico City). So, not too shabby, if you ask me. I am so, so grateful for the experience of living here and being able to travel so widely in Southern Africa and within South Africa, in particular. Joburg, while not awesome itself (in my opinion), is a great jumping off point for seeing all sorts of amazing stuff in this region.

I saw a leopard. With my EYES.

I saw a leopard. With my EYES.

I’m also grateful to have had the opportunity to live in a country — and a part of the world — that I knew pretty much nothing about before I came here. To be honest, I still kinda don’t get it. South Africa is confusing and complex and confounding, but I’ve enjoyed being here and trying to figure out what’s going on around me day to day (that is, when I step foot outside of the house). It’s a country that has a lot of problems (inequality, corruption, wastefulness, racial issues), but it’s also a place with incredible potential and some of the most stunning natural beauty (flora and fauna) that I’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s a special place.

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

I probably won’t miss the experience of living in Joburg, per se, but there are definitely some things I will miss about being here. A short list would include the low cost of living (and especially the cheap, high-quality steaks, nom), the incredible (and cheap) wine, my adorable local knitting store, and the great weather.

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I will miss you, knitting store.

So, all in all, these last nine months have been a rewarding adventure. Even for all of my complaints about Joburg, I wouldn’t ever take back the time we spent here, because it afforded us such incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to explore this region. And I will always remember my kitchen table in Joburg fondly, because this is where I launched my fledgling writing career. Me and this table, we have history now.

And now, off to London, our next adventure. Onwards and upwards. Seacrest out.

What I like about DC

We’re back in DC after more than eight months away (holy moly!) and being here after so long is throwing this city into sharp relief for me. Suddenly, I’m remembering all the things that drive me bat-poop bonkers about this place (see, e.g., the Red Line), but also all the wonderful stuff that makes DC the place I want to live permanently.

I have a love-hate relationship with this.

I have a love-hate relationship with this.

Last night, after a great dinner with some of our best DC friends, Al and I walked back to our hotel and talked about what we miss about this place. We both agreed that we’re glad we’re doing this stint abroad (with more international adventures still to come over the next year!) but that we’ll be very glad to head back to Our Nation’s Capital when the time comes. There’s just a lot of things to love about this place.

So here, without further ado, is a short list of things I like about DC:

  1. Weather. Yes, summers tend to be muggy and, one might fairly argue, swampy. Literally. Like, the city was built on a swamp. But you know what? It’s temperate! There are seasons. And Shorts Weather lasts for a long time, which is really all you can ask for from a place.
  2. Monuments. I’m talking huge, in-yo’-face, impressive monuments. Every time I come back to DC after being away, I marvel at much the city looks like a movie set, with all of these big, famous monuments just crammed together. It looks fake — but it’s not. Although, contrary to what TV would have us believe, people don’t actually conduct business meetings at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial or while dipping their feet in the reflecting pool. Sorry.
  3. Walkability. After being cooped up at home in Joburg for so long, there’s something deliciously liberating about being able to walk places, by myself, when I please. You know what I’ve really missed? Sidewalks.
  4. Food. Over the last few years, DC has evolved into a great food city, and it feels like there are still new restaurants and new chefs popping up all the time. And dang, this city does a good lunch salad. I missed you, Chop’t.
  5. Friends. Al and I have a great group of friends here and we miss them. Can’t wait until we can hang out with them again on the regular.
  6. Location. DC is so convenient. You can get anywhere on the East Coast easily, either by flying or driving, and it’s midway between Europe and California. After having lived for the past eight months in a country that feels impossibly remote from everything and everyone, I now really appreciate DC’s accessibility.
  7. Happy hour. This city runs on happy hours. It’s basically like one of those Brazilian cars that runs on alcohol. And now that I’m no longer chained to a desk at a law firm, I may even be able to enjoy the DC tradition of meeting for early drinks, often on a rooftop somewhere.
  8. Culture. Gotta love a city that has the Smithsonian museums, the National Zoo, theater, and live music. You never have an excuse to be bored here.
  9. International influence. DC has to be one of the most international cities in the world. Period, the end.
  10. NPR. I’m a public radio junkie and I love that NPR is based right here. It also makes me think my ultimate life goal of becoming best friends with all of the hosts of Pop Culture Happy Hour may eventually become a reality. Here’s hoping.
  11. Family. DC seems like one of the rare big cities in the US where you could theoretically raise children without them automatically becoming entitled, privileged monsters. Just my impression, although I’m not ruling anything out at this point.
DC Metro. Sure, the occasional person dies on the escalator. But at least there's public transportation.

DC Metro. Sure, the occasional person dies on the escalator. But at least there’s public transportation here.

Of course, there are things about DC, as I mentioned above, that make me want to wring its figurative neck. But that’s going to be the case for any city, anywhere in the world. Nowhere’s perfect. But DC is a pretty good match for me, and I’m looking forward to living here again, after our international sojourn. See you next spring, DC!

Sound Advice Thursday: Should I go to law school?

Dear Steph,

I just finished my junior year of college. I wanted to reach out to you to ask about your experience with law school and with law as a career. I get that you didn’t find law as a career to be particularly rewarding — could you elaborate a bit? I’ve always had law school in the back of my mind as a main post-grad option, but I’ve increasingly become skeptical that it’s the right path for me after reading insights like yours. I find it really inspirational that you left law to write. 

Sincerely,

Law School or Bust?

Dear LSOB,

This is a question I’ve gotten many times, in some form, over the years, even before I ever left the law to pursue writing, and I always wonder how to phrase my answer (which basically boils down to: “don’t go to law school unless you have a REALLY good reason”) while still getting across the fact that I actually really liked law school. So let me take a crack at it here.

First, I’ve written before on this blog about my experience of law school in the context of being a woman at Harvard Law School, and I blogged about my time in law school on my old blog (here, for example, and here). If you don’t feel like reading my archives, the basic gist is that I (mostly) loved law school. There were things about it that were highly annoying (see, e.g., 90% of the people), and three years of studying/writing papers could get monotonous (as I illustrated here), but mostly, I really enjoyed it. Law school, for me, was often intellectually engaging, challenging, and, turns out, fun.

No, seriously, I REALLY liked law school. Steph, circa October 2006.

No, seriously, I REALLY liked law school. Steph, circa October 2006.

Keep in mind, however, that I was in law school from 2006-2009 and I secured a job with a firm before the economy completely went to hell, so when I graduated, I was looking at a completely different job landscape than kids who are graduating from law school now (turns out that law graduates are now experiencing a “jobs crisis,” even graduates from top law schools). My experience was also helped by the fact that I was not gunning to be a Supreme Court clerk, so I made time for clinicals that interested me, language classes, salsa dancing, cooking, and hanging out with my now-husband, all of which helped to make my three years at HLS feel fun and easy. If I had been chained to my desk, trying to get on law review or trying to get all A+’s, I might be singing a different tune right now.

So here’s my first big piece of advice about law school: don’t go unless you’re POSITIVE you want to be a lawyer and know exactly WHY you want to be a lawyer. This is what I used to tell Harvard undergrads when I was in law school and was a pre-law tutor at one of the colleges. I’d beg these kids to please please please please not look at law school as a “fall-back” option. There are many reasons why law school is probably the absolute worst choice for a post-undergrad fall-back option, including the huge expense, the crazy debt you will probably rack up, the dwindling job market for lawyers (see the frightening Atlantic article cited above, and this article about how almost half of 2011 law grads can’t afford a house), and the fact that MANY people who go to law school end up not liking either law school or the practice of law (or both).

Consider that if you get a job after graduation (which is no longer a guarantee), there’s a decent chance you’ll go to work at a firm. Which means billable hours. Which means, unless you really love what you’re working on, your life is not going to be much fun, especially when you’re first starting out. Sure, I have friends from law school who are the kind of lawyers who go to court and get to say “Your Honor” and “may I approach the bench” and stuff, but they are the exceptions. The vast majority of my friends work at corporate law firms and have terrible, soul-crushing hours. Just like I used to! And the only way to make those soul-crushing hours worth it is if you’re doing something you care about. Period. Otherwise, life’s too short.

This probably won't be your life.

This probably won’t be your life.

This might be.

This might be.

As you’ve gathered, being an attorney was most definitely not my cup of tea. I did it for three years and then I got out, and I’m approximately 1000% happier now. The lesson here for you is that it’s possible to go to law school and hate being a lawyer, and vice versa. This doesn’t mean I regret going to law school. I enjoyed it, plus it was the right (and well-reasoned) choice for me at the time. I happened to have a crisis of disillusionment with what I was doing (human rights law) midway through my time at HLS and switch horses midstream, which contributed to me ending up at a law firm, which I hated, so there are lots of individual circumstances that affected my experience both as a law student and as a lawyer.

Here comes my second piece of general advice: WORK for a year or two once you’ve graduated college, rather than going straight to law school. Save some money, experience life a little bit, and then reevaluate and see if law school is still something you’re interested in. You can even do what I did, which is to apply to law school when you’re in college and have easy access to professors for rec letters, etc., and then just defer for a year or two if you get in. But really, I think it’s better to just apply to law school when you think you want to go. Everyone I knew at HLS who had taken more than a year off before law school (including my husband, who took three years off between college and law school) was happier, better adjusted, and more focused, because they tended to have entered into law school with clear ideas about what they wanted to do post-graduation.

If you think law school is something that you’d really like, and you’re sure you want to be a lawyer and have a type of law in mind that you think you’d like to practice, I’d strongly recommend working as a paralegal first and getting a sense for what the lawyers’ lives are like and what the work is like. If you can work as a paralegal in the type of practice area you’re interested in, all the better. I worked as a paralegal for a year in Brazil before going to law school, but the horribleness of the lawyers’ lives/work didn’t dissuade me because I wasn’t planning on working in a firm after graduation (but, guess what — I did end up at a firm, anyway. Oops!).

When all is said and done, whether or not to go to law school is an individual decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. The best thing you can do for yourself right now is to sit down and consider what actually makes you happy.  What do you enjoy doing? What interests you? Do your skills and interests match up to a realistic/attainable job within the law? There’s no rush here, so take your time, think it through, and then make the most informed decision you can make.

Best of luck,

~Steph

 

 

On ethnicity, curiosity, and idiocy

I’m a member of the website Quora, which I’ve been told is now used primarily by stoner college students who want to get “deep” and ponder life, man, but is actually sometimes also used by lame, non-stoner, old people like me. The premise of the site is that people ask questions and other people answer them, and then the best/most popular answers get voted up the chain. So it’s like a smarter version of Ask.com and a less weird version of Ask Metafilter.

I don’t go on Quora often — I have asked a total of one question, and it was about whether earthquakes can cause headaches, and only one person answered it, and the answer was no — but sometimes I see a question that strikes my fancy and I decide to answer it.

The other day, I saw this question: “Is it racist for someone to ask ‘where are you from originally?'”

My original answer was the following:

Not racist, necessarily, but perhaps (probably) ignorant. I’m a vaguely ethnic looking lady from Michigan. I’ve been asked COUNTLESS times where I’m from “originally.” Um. Michigan. (Well, I was born in Baltimore…) Another one I get asked is, “Where are your parents from?” California and Pennsylvania. Is that what you really want to know? No. What people who ask these questions really want to know is, “What ethnicity are you?” And these people don’t tend to take my honest answers to their questions — Michigan, California, Pennsylvania — at face value. They don’t believe that someone with my looks could NOT have immigrant parents. It’s bizarre. Like, hi, welcome to America: lots of us have brown hair and brown eyes, turns out.

Anyway, if you’re so curious about my ethnicity, go ahead and ask about it: that doesn’t bother me. (For the record: Irish-Mexican-Italian). But asking where I’m from “originally,” as if that’s a more subtle or polite way to get at my race or ethnicity, is just stupid. So stop doing it and just ask the question you want to ask.

This face confuses people.

This face confuses people.

My answer sparked a bit of a debate on Facebook, with some of my friends arguing that it is, in fact, inherently racist to ask where someone’s from originally, because it implies that an Asian American person, for instance, is not actually American, and with other friends arguing that it’s a harmless, if stupid, question, and just shows curiosity and an intent to strike up a conversation about the wonderful melting pot that is these United States.

I’ve thought about it a bit more and I’m sticking with my original answer, which is that the question itself is not racist, necessarily, but it is tremendously stupid and should go the way of the dodo. Here’s the thing: in today’s America, do people really not recognize that someone belonging to a minority racial or ethnic group can actually be FROM America? How is that news? Take my dearly departed grandfather, Mark Rivero, as an example. He was born in San Francisco in 1920. He was Mexican-American (and his father was born in Mexico), but Pop, my grandfather, was originally from San Francisco, which is located in America, contrary to what some might think.

This man is from San Francisco, originally. But is that what you wanted to know?

This man was from San Francisco, originally, despite being ethnic.

So if a person were to ask Pop, “Where are you from originally?”, he would say, “San Francisco, California.” And then if this person kept questioning him, like, “No, but originally, where are you from?”, Pop might smack him upside the head. And he’d deserve it, because that’s a stupid way to get at someone’s ethnicity.

Unbelievably, people still try to tiptoe around the question of race and ethnicity by asking this stupid question. I, myself, have been asked many times where I’m from “originally,” and even when I know what the question-asker is driving at, I won’t volunteer my ethnicity, because it’s annoying. Just ask what my ethnic background is if you really want to know.

To be fair, the “where are you from” conversation has happened to me more in Latin America than it has in the United States. Whenever I’m in Argentina, or Brazil, or anywhere else south of Tallahassee, people are always asking me where I’m from originally. If I say the United States, they ask where my parents are from. If I answer that both my parents are from the United States, they ask where my grandparents are from. Finally, when I say that my grandfather was Mexican-American, they go, “Aaaah, I knew you had some Latin blood in you.” A trip to Latin America never feels complete until my “sangre Latina” is brought up at least once by a cab driver.

Now, normally, I am not offended by someone asking me about my ethnic background, because most of the time, people are just curious. Most people, especially Americans, myself included, find ethnicity and racial background interesting. It’s fun to find out where people’s grandparents were from, and how people of different backgrounds found each other to produce the DNA cocktails we’re walking around with. Like, how many other Mexican-Irish-Italian-Americans do you know, besides me? Don’t you kind of want to know how that mess happened? (Answer: long story, but mostly, strict Catholicism brings people together in surprising ways). I find these types of conversations fun and innocent, for the most part. Once in a while, though, you do get the creepster who is interested in fetishizing a certain race or ethnicity (“I like Spanish girls”), and that is no good. No good, at all. [Note: I am only speaking for myself, here, by the way, when I say “once in a while.” I’m sure that ladies (and gents) of other, more immediately recognizable ethnic groups may get the creepsters on a much more regular basis (looking at you, Asian ladies).]

And sometimes, you get people who are just plain ignorant. I was at a party in Boston once where this girl was going on and on about, among other things, how Mexicans typically have “heavy brows” and “slicked back, greasy hair.” I was with Al, and we looked at each other in horror/delight, because this woman was so terrible/ridiculous, but I didn’t feel like jumping into the spray of her ignorance fire-hose to let her know that she was being offensive. This same woman, shockingly, was interested in my ethnic background, and so, being the evil person I am, when she asked me about it, I told her to guess. She guessed Persian because, apparently, I have “Persian eyebrows.” Believe it or not, this is not the only time someone has guessed I was Persian. Years ago, a hot-dog seller in Paris asked Al, right in front of me, “Where’s she from?” Al said I was American, and then the hot-dog lady insisted that I looked like a Persian Jew, which is both very wrong and very specific.

The point of all of this is that people can be dumb. But the secondary point is that it’s just easier to ask someone in a straightforward way what his or her ethnic or racial background is, if you’re dying to know, rather than trying to get at it in some roundabout, stupid way, such as asking where he or she is from “originally.” I mean, originally, we’re all from Africa, right? Maybe I should just start saying that.

Idiot: “Where are you from, like, originally?”

Me: “Oh, originally? East Africa. Near modern-day Ethiopia.”

That might just create more problems. But it would be fun to see the looks of bafflement (“But — but, you’re white! White people can’t be from AFRICA!”).

Anyway. Can we put the “where are you from originally” question to bed, once and for all? Please? I’m tired of people guessing where my eyebrows are from.

 

Anniversary

This is my 100th post on this blog! And yesterday marked one year of marriage to my wonderful husband, Alastair. Milestones abound!

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Evidence of our wedding day is all over the internet — I wrote about it here, and it’s popped up here — but one of my favorite relics of our wedding day, May 12, 2012, is this very short video made by our great photographers, Leah and Mark:

Ugh, I love that video so much it hurts!

Our wedding was a fabulous day, and the best part of the whole thing was coming out of it with Al as my husband. He is SUCH a catch. I knew it before I married him, but after a year of having him as my official life partner, I now know it even more. Al has been the most relentlessly supportive person in my life since making my Big Decision to quit my lucrative law job and throw in my lot with the starving artists of the world by trying to become a writer. He is also hysterically funny, ridiculously sweet, smart as a whip, and, I must add, devilishly handsome.

This guy makes me laugh every single day.

This guy makes me laugh every single day.

Our first year of marriage was not necessarily a cake-walk in terms of life events: I got typhoid fever and quit my job in the same week (both of which were fairly traumatic), we moved from D.C. to South Africa, Al had to adjust to a very challenging work environment, I received my first rejection letters, and, you know, life happened. But marriage-wise? Piece of cake. All of the obstacles I’m faced with as I go through life seem infinitely more surmountable with Al as my permanent cheerleader, and I love that I’m also able to be there for him, cheering him on, as he faces his own challenges. I love having dinner together, watching bad TV together, having travel adventures (both successful and fail-tastic) together, and generally just muddling through life together as a team. Marrying him was one of the best life choices I’ve ever made.

No, seriously. He makes me laugh EVERY DAY.

No, seriously. He makes me laugh EVERY DAY.

Thank you, Al, for being you. And here’s to many more years of getting up to stuff together.

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The controversial Dove Real Beauty sketch artist ads

I am nervous this morning as I write this post; my stomach’s all fluttery, and not really in a good way. After last week’s kerfuffle over sexism, HLS, and internet trolls, I am a little hesitant to dip my toe into the waters of internet controversy yet again, especially on a topic related to feminism, but I’ve been thinking hard about something and I want to use my blog to help me process it, because, you know, it’s my blog. So, buckle up, trolls and non-trolls! Here we go, again.

This week, several of my friends posted on social media this ad by Dove:

I watched this video at eight o’clock in the morning the other day and cried. I’m not ashamed to admit it! This ad got to me in a way that advertising rarely does; the last commercial I cried at was a Folger’s commercial and that was years ago. Okay, maybe that one Google ad made me mist up a little bit but seriously, if you don’t mist up at that Google ad, you might be a robot.

Anyway! I thought that the Dove ad was moving and beautifully shot and, well, important. If you haven’t watched it, in a nutshell: Dove brought several women to this artsy abandoned warehouse, sat them each down behind a curtain and asked each one to describe herself to a forensic artist, who then produced sketches based on the women’s self-descriptions. The organizers of the “experiment” (and I get that it’s not a scientific experiment, but I’m going to refer to it that way, anyway — everyone just relax) had asked each woman ahead of time to become friendly with a stranger. The strangers were then brought in front of the sketch artist to describe the women, et voila!, at the end, the sketch artist had two sketches for each woman: one that she had described of herself, and one that a stranger had described of her. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sketches as described by the women themselves were harsh and unflattering, whereas the sketches as described by strangers were much “gentler” and more flattering.

So, I watched this thing, I shed some tears, and here was my takeaway from it: we women need to go easier on ourselves. The way we view ourselves might not be — in fact, probably is not — accurate. We should give ourselves the same consideration as we would a stranger. We should look at ourselves gently and appreciate our own beauty, in whatever shape or form it may take. That’s all. And for me, that message is powerful, because I’ve struggled with my own self-image for as long as I can remember. I was the type of little kid who always thought I was fat, or ugly, and those insecurities have waxed and waned over the years, but they’re always there, even now. Seeing this ad was a good reminder of how distorted my own self-image can be, and how unproductive it is to view my own physical being negatively. So, for me, this ad was positive and uplifting and moving.

Then, I started seeing some of my other friends on Facebook posting articles criticizing the ad for being anti-woman. Say what? This article on the blog jazzylittledrops, for example, argues that while the Dove ad has some positive features, it is mostly negative, because:

“it’s not really challenging the message like it makes us feel like it is. It doesn’t really tell us that the definition of beauty is broader than we have been trained to think it is, and it doesn’t really tell us that fitting inside that definition isn’t the most important thing. It doesn’t really push back against the constant objectification of women. All it’s really saying is that you’re actually not quite as far off from the narrow definition as you might think that you are (if you look like the featured women, I guess).” 

The author of the blog post, Jazz, goes on to criticize the ad for not featuring enough women of color, and for emphasizing the positivity of physical features such as thinness and youngness. Hmm. My first reaction to this is that a single ad cannot be all things to all people. Would it have been better if Dove was able to round up a rainbow of women of every shape, size, and age? Sure. To be fair, there were several black and Asian women featured in the ad, but Jazz notes that the black women in the ad were “lighter skinned,” so I guess they don’t count? I’m not sure what the ideal mix of races and ages would have been for Jazz, but apparently, Dove missed the mark. I find this particular criticism a tad disingenuous, because if you look at other Dove campaigns, they have made a real effort to use women of different sizes, shapes, ages, and skin tones in their advertising. For example, check out these images:

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In her post, Jazz harps on the fact that some of the strangers in the ad, while describing the women they had met, emphasized features such as a “thin face” or “blue eyes,” and argues that this “kinda seems to be enforcing our very narrow cultural perception of ‘beauty’: young, light-skinned, thin.” I suppose the strangers’ comments can perhaps be put down to the fact that our society values thinness and whiteness. Or it could be that the particular woman being described was thin and white. Or it could be that those were the features that stuck out to this particular stranger, for any number of reasons. So I guess it’s fair for Jazz to criticize the ad for focusing on those features rather than others, but the fact that the end results — the sketches as described by strangers — were not a parade of thin, white, blonde women is telling. Dove wasn’t trying to convince all of these women that they are, in fact, beautiful Barbie dolls with blonde hair and perfect smiles; Dove was simply presenting an alternate vision of their looks, as perceived by strangers, presumably with no particular agenda to promote.

Jazz concludes that the ad sends the disturbing message to women that beauty, rather than courage or smarts, is what we should value in ourselves. She writes:

What you look like should not affect the choices that you make. It should certainly not affect the friends you make—the friends that wouldn’t want to be in relationship with you if you did not meet a certain physical standard are not the friends that you want to have. Go out for jobs that you want, that you’re passionate about. Don’t let how good looking you feel like you are affect the way way that you treat your children. And certainly do not make how well you feel you align with the strict and narrow “standard” that the beauty industry and media push be critical to your happiness, because you will always be miserable. You will always feel like you fall short, because those standards are designed to keep you constantly pressured into buying things like make up and diet food and moisturizer to reach an unattainable goal. Don’t let your happiness be dependent on something so fickle and cruel and trivial. You should feel beautiful, and Dove was right about one thing: you are more beautiful than you know. But please, please hear me: you are so, so much more than beautiful. 

Okay, so let’s hold the phone right there. First of all, I agree that “what you look like should not affect the choices that you make.” However, the way you feel about your looks very well could impact the choices you make. I know this for a fact, from my own life: if you feel like you’re gross, or ugly, or fat, or whatever, it absolutely does impact the way you interact with the world. It affects everything. Really. The message of the Dove ad, as I perceived it, was not: “You must be good looking in order to make positive choices,” but rather, “Change the way you see yourself and it will impact your choices positively.” There’s a huge difference between those two messages. As a person with a whole bunch of interests and skills and thoughts and feelings that add up to make me me, I certainly don’t believe that my external beauty is the most important thing about me, and I wouldn’t support an ad that sent that message. But that’s not what the Dove ad was trying to say. And I think it’s insulting to women like me who were moved by this ad to suggest that we’re being brainwashed by some sort of patriarchal, capitalist, ethnocentric (etc., etc., insert your favorite negative “ism” here) cultural narrative about beauty because it struck a chord with us. I’m a savvy enough consumer of media to be able to tell when a company’s selling me a bill of goods. While I appreciate Jazz’s reminder that I am “so, so much more than beautiful,” I already know that, logically. But to pretend that women’s self-perception of our looks is not important to the way we move through the world is unrealistic at best, and disingenuous and even cynical at worst.

Finally, Jazz points out that because Dove is owned by Unilever, a company that also owns brands such as the odious AXE body spray, which is infamous for their sexist approach to advertising, we should discount Dove’s marketing campaigns as so much patriarchal smoke and mirrors. While I think it is important to be a critical media consumer and to consider carefully a company’s agenda in promoting a certain product, I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the genuine emotional reactions that Dove’s ads inspire in women because Dove’s parent company has promoted anti-woman messages to promote other products. In fact, I think it’s entirely possible to appreciate the Dove ad’s message without buying Dove products or otherwise supporting Unilever, which, by the way, also owns such socially conscious brands as Ben & Jerry’s, so if you’re gonna boycott Unilever, say buh-bye to Chubby Hubby. While I think it’s important not to support brands that promote a message you actively disagree with or are offended by, I also think that Dove should get some recognition as one of the few women’s beauty brands that has made an effort to disseminate a broader, more diverse conception of beauty.

Maybe Jazz and I are just coming at this from two fundamentally different perspectives. Perhaps she has a much stronger self-image than I do, and so the ad didn’t resonate with her in the same way it did with me. That’s fine. We’re allowed to have different reactions to media without accusing one another of being duped or brainwashed or suckers. What do you all think? Did Dove’s ad hit the mark or miss it entirely?

(By the way, I hope we can all agree that this is hilarious.)

Lady of Leisure

Yesterday I took a break from writing. Well, not entirely. I wrote a blog post in the morning, and then frittered away an hour reading blogs and news, and then I went to the gym, and then I got a pedicure and had lunch with a friend. And then I came back home and thought, What shall I do now?

The reason I took the break from writing was because the previous evening, I had finished the latest round of revisions on my novel and had sent it to one of my readers/critics to look over before I did anything drastic, like send the manuscript off to agents. Now that my revisions were done, at least for the moment, I didn’t feel like writing anything, but I also didn’t feel like just sitting there, useless. I had to think of something to do.

I thought, Maybe I’ll pick up my knitting again. I have some nice knitting books and I figured I could do some knitting exercises and practice a bit before attempting to dive into the world of sweaters and bunnies. I searched our apartment and realized that I had not actually brought my knitting needles to South Africa. I brought the knitting books, but not the knitting implements. Which is like me, really.

Then I thought, Maybe I’ll read. But I read every day, a lot. All the time. I had just spent my entire pedicure reading (and ignoring the pedicurist’s snarky comments about my dry heels). A crossword puzzle? I do those every day, too, when I watch TV or listen to podcasts. Watch TV? Too defeatist. Cook? It’s 3:45 pm. Go for a walk? I live in Johannesburg, so that’s not gonna work. Go to the gym? Already did that.

Photo on 2012-07-29 at 14.15

Sigh.

The problem is, there’s this urge in me to always be doing something, to always be busy, to always be thinking. It’s hard to suppress it. At times when there is genuinely nothing for me to do – for example, when I am waiting for feedback on my manuscript – I feel that I must occupy these quiet periods with something useful, or at least creative, or else I am just taking up space, and then what good am I? Point being, I could definitely never be a Lady of Leisure. I would go bonkers. I’d probably end up institutionalized by how bonkers I’d go. But I realize, of course, that this is a good problem to have: deciding how to pass my afternoon when there are no demands on me. But, to be honest, it’s a struggle.

Eventually, I decided to compromise by watching Brideshead Revisited (the 1981 miniseries with Jeremy Irons, not the ghastly movie version with Michael Gabon – the horror!) and doing a crossword puzzle. Not exactly what you’d call productive, but at least I’m not watching The E True Hollywood Story: Lindsay Lohan (again). Eventually, I ended up planning and cooking dinner. I made this, one of my all-time favorite Middle Eastern dishes, which I used to chow down on with some frequency when I lived in Detroit. It turned out well, but next time I’d add sultanas, I think.

Anyway. I really wish I had brought my knitting needles.

2013

Happy new year to all my readers, friends, family, and people who clicked on this accidentally!

Well, guys, we made it. Here we are in 2013. The world didn’t end after all. Which means from here on out, I’m definitely going to take everything the ancient Mayans say with a huge grain of salt.   The whole heart-eating thing? I’m really reconsidering that now.

Anyway.  2012 was a big year for me. In chronological order, the following things happened in my life:

  1. I started a manuscript of a novel
  2. I got married
  3. I quit a terrible, no-good-for-me job
  4. I got typhoid fever (but recovered!)
  5. I moved to South Africa
  6. I finished a manuscript of a novel (huzzah!)
  7. I went to Italy with my parents and Al
  8. The world didn’t end

All in all, not bad.  I know 2012 was sort of a stinker of a year globally. Bad things happened to a lot of people: wars, hurricanes, unexpected celebrity divorces (I’m looking at you, Amy Poehler and Will Arnett), fiscal cliffs, and, most disturbingly, a decision by Kim Kardashian and Kanye West to reproduce. With each other.  God help us all.  But for me, overall, 2012 was great.

I got to go to Capri in 2012.

For example: I got to go to Capri in 2012.  Sigh!

The passage into the new year was rather anti-climactic for me this year.  I spent New Year’s Eve on an 11-hour Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Joburg.  At midnight the flight attendants handed out glasses of sparkling wine and the pilot counted down from ten in German. Which was fun!  And it’s the first New Year’s Day in recent memory where I haven’t woke up hungover, so I feel very adult and responsible.  Right now Al is making bread and later we’re going to get New Year’s “sundowners” at some fancy hotel nearby.  Aren’t we grown-up!

Anyway, instead of boring you with my many New Year’s resolutions, I’ll keep this short and wish everyone a happy, healthy, and non-apocalyptic 2013.  Feliz ano novo, amigos!