For the People Who Find the Humor in Everything

Robin Williams, an amazing actor and comedian, committed suicide today. He hung himself. He was 63. My family’s car ride to dinner sounded like a game, the kind where people say things that connect to other things: “Mrs. Doubtfire.” “Dead Poets Society.” “The Birdcage.” “Mork & Mindy.” “Goodwill Hunting.” And of course, “RV.”

Being as old as I am, I was shocked. I knew nothing about rehab or his ongoing depression. Robin Williams was an Oscar-winning comedian; he made his living on laughs. How could someone who found the humor in everything also find the need to die?

“Comedy is acting out optimism.” ~ Robin Williams

And then I remembered David Foster Wallace, one of the funniest writers I’ve ever read, who also hung himself back in 2008. I remember thinking then, “He was so vulnerable in his writing. This makes sense. How can someone be so raw, so open, without suffering for it?” And for some reason, I accepted DFW’s suicide because he was a writer, and because I had been taught that genius often came with a streak of madness. Because people who saw the world so differently from the rest of us might miss the reasons to live like the rest of us. And because I also loved Virginia Woolf.

“The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” ~ David Foster Wallace

I forgot that vulnerability has two sides in the arts and entertainment business. Vulnerability is just finding the truth inside yourself and wearing it for everyone to see. But you can wear it in tears, or with a smile on your face. Your vulnerability can make others cry, or make them laugh. And if comedians can find the humor in everything, they can also find the vulnerabilities in themselves.

And still, I wonder why, at undoubtedly the most vulnerable moment of their lives, my two favorite funny men could not find the humor. Or maybe they did find it, as always, but they still found a more compelling reason to end it all. Because for them, humor may not have been a reasonable thing. It was simply a means of communicating a much bigger truth. I can’t imagine that this truth ended with their deaths. But it’s sad to think that their ability to tell it did.

“What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human … is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.” ~ David Foster Wallace

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Five Things: Reading Easy

I know the feeling well:

You are sitting in your bed or on your couch (which is also probably your bed). You have watched hours and hours of television, and you’re not even binging on a TV show; it has just been reruns of The Price is Right, Say Yes to the Dress, and Top Gear. You feel sluggish, like a cow, even though you know sitting in front of a TV doesn’t make you fat. However, the three bowls of cereal you had this morning might. You expect your parents or someone to yell at you and say, “Get up! Carpe Diem! Seize the Day!” But no one does. So you decide to get a little educated. You’re going to read, son. But you don’t want to get up. You have your laptop, so you search the web, end up on reddit, and say bye-bye the next twelve hours. And all you’ve done is change pj pants.

Like I said, I know this feeling well.

Waste away no more! Here is my definitive lazy-Sunday guide to high-quality reading you can only do on the internet*.

Do I Not Entertain You?

  1. Read the New Yorker (and every story they’ve published since 2007). This is an archive I could really get lost in. I would suggest starting off with some of your favorite authors (Alice Munro, Malcolm Gladwell, Philip Roth) and some of their best stories. One of my favorite is “A Tiny Feast” by Chris Adrian. Here are the top fifteen short stories available according to Entertainment Weekly.
  2. Read interviews on the Paris Review. Speaking of archives, the Paris Review’s interview archive is incredible. I am obsessed. I love looking up my favorite writers and reading what they really think about writing and their craft. I discovered my favorite interview piece of all time in this archive: William Faulkner on writing, life, religion, and how he came up with The Sound and The Fury.
  3. Read thirty free essays from David Foster Wallace. Everybody loves a good (educated) laugh, and DFW will deliver. He’s a great person to read if you want to feel cool, literary, and very weirded out by humanity (I mean, we eat lobsters. Lobsters).
  4. Discover poetry through Poetry Out Loud. Yes, I know we were all forced to look at this website in high school, and then humiliate ourselves in verse in front of our English classes. Well, humiliation no more. You can browse some pretty amazing poetry, read poet profiles, and listen to poems recited by some very talented high school students. I’ve found some of my favorite poetry on this site.
  5. Read (not watch) some TedTalks. Have you ever been watching TV, but you want to watch a video, and you think, “Oh no, I have to either stop watching TV or not watch this video. I can’t do both.” Well, now you can! All TedTalks are now transcribed, meaning you can just read them instead of watching them. Or, for those of us who are a little hard of hearing, you can do both.

Happy reading! Or TV watching. It’s your life.

*Or alternatively, with actual literature compiled from many different sources. But I warn you: libraries are scary places on weekends. 

Sh*t Journalists Get Paid For

As an aspiring journalist, I’m always on the look out for a good story. Unfortunately, Caity Weaver of Gawker beat me to the best story of all time and one of the finest pieces of journalism I’ve ever read, “My 14-Hour Search for the End of TGI Friday’s Endless Appetizers.”  In the article, Weaver claims that she got the entire week of work off after eating 32 mozzarella sticks and spending fourteen hours in a TGI Fridays, per conditions from her editor. That got me thinking: how can I harness my amazing powers of reaction and doing-things skills to jumpstart my journalism career? I investigated…

Please, Pay Me

To Eat Stuff: I could definitely attempt to eat 35 tacos in one day like the guys over at Buzzfeed, or the pot candy bar that convinced this NYT’s columnist that she was freaking dead. One thing I will never, ever consume, no matter how much you paid me: the fatal amount of sugar-free gummy bears (yeah, those ones) that a brave Vice reporter ate, all in the name of honest reporting.

To Spend All My Time On My Phone or Computer: I am willing to explore the terrible depths of Tinder like (the very married) Joel Stein and his wife did for TIME Magazine. I’d also be cool with getting hacked because I don’t make enough money to steal (but maybe that will change after the jumpstart of my amazing investigative journalism career?!?). I also remember reading an article about a Chicago Tribune writer who watched all his TV online for thirty days, but I already do that anyway, so I don’t think I could honestly call it a challenge.

To Do Drugs: Aside from our edible-eating friend above, journalists have made major bank with dope: smoking it, like Michael Pollan and Nicky Taylor of BBC; buying it, like the guys at Forbes (who got caught); and  (I feel this deserves a category all its own) indulging with the president of Uruguay. I don’t even want to know what went down when Tom Wolfe wrote “The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test” (but apparently a bunch of other journalists did). Disclaimer: will not negotiate with cartels.

To Go on Cruises: Kid Rock cruise? Paula Dean cruise? David Foster Wallace on a cruise? Count me in! Bring on the suction toilets and endless towel-animals waiting on my bed each night.

To Visit Scary Places: Examples include, but are not limited to: the Illinois State Fair (I do hail from Chicago, after all), The Creation Museum (it is exactly what you think it is, Noah’s Ark and dinosaurs), and North Korea. I’d also be cool with doing generally stupid things in stupid places, such as trying to reason with drunk Manchester United fans like Bill Bufford, or driving an RV to a Christian rock festival like John Jeremiah Sullivan. Basically, I would really like to work for Harper’s, GQ, or VICE, as their editors seem batsh*t crazy for making their writers do things that other people would literally pay for.

There are a million and ten ways to pimp myself out as an online-writing guinea pig. However, some challenges have yet to be met: visiting the top creepiest roadside attractions (and I’m talking about the ones you’ve never heard of because no one has ever come back alive); taste testing the difference between water directly from fresh springs and their bottled equivalents; or, and this one is truly my favorite, see if I can find literally anyone who has put Burt’s Bees on their eyeballs, which is the latest and greatest of dangerous teen fads.

Here’s to hoping I get hired (and not fired) due to this post!

Ten Things: Creating Characters

In an attempt to get myself blogging more (it’s hard to devote my writing attention here when there are so many other mediums), I want to start a new segment: Ten Things Tuesdays. Let me know if you’re looking forward to lists about writing and creativity!

Tips And Tricks For Creating Great Characters

Great characters are the solid foundation any piece of writing needs, whether it’s fictional or not. Fortunately for fiction writers, they have a choice to make their characters as contradictory, complex, and curious as they want. Getting to these great characters, on the other hand, is tricky, time-consuming stuff.

What is a good character?

“Good” characters aren’t necessarily likable, kind, or forgivable, unlike good people. Good characters are, on the other hand, interesting, wanting, complex, and contradictory — the way that most people are, good or bad. They don’t fit cookie-cutter molds. They are full of lies, loves, flaws, and wants. They have unique and dynamic relationships with one another. Good characters are people who audiences want to read about and understand, and you, the writer, have the privilege of revealing this person to them.

Here are a few articles discussing the components of good characters:

Why are good characters important?

I’ll let Faulkner explain it for me:

“Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says. It’s the ingestion and then the gestation. You’ve got to know the character. You’ve got to believe in him. You’ve got to feel that he is alive, and then, of course, you will have to do a certain amount of picking and choosing among the possibilities of his action, so that his actions fit the character which you believe in. After that, the business of putting him down on paper is mechanical.”

Basically, when you have a good character, it’s easy to find a good story to put them in.

Unique Techniques for Crafting Characters

We all have different ways of getting into a character’s head space, rounding them out into not just flesh and bones, but thoughts and opinions. With my background in theatre, I’ve always viewed this stage of writing as “getting into character” — it’s how I become (in order to write or act on behalf of) my character.

  1. Make them a playlist. We all have music that we listen to in certain moods: sad playlist, happy playlist, dazed and confused playlist. So why not one for your character? It helps me feel the way that they feel; music can impart complex emotions faster than even words or visuals can.
  2. Follow them for a day. Go to the places that your character goes, whether that be a gas station, the public library, or the only patch of green you can find in a city. Just seeing — and breathing and hearing and feeling — the same kind of environment your character would experience, can unlock a new depth of understanding.
  3. Feel them, from the outside in. This may sound odd, but I find that good fiction writing is a very physical experience. I feel the need to constantly get up and physically embody my characters to write with greater physical accuracy. I wipe my hands on my pants; I curl myself between the desk and the wall; I pick things up and put them down. Following the physical actions of my characters gives me new material to write about (like the pressure in my chest when I’m crunched up in a ball).
  4. Spend your morning routine as them. Now you must really think I’m nuts — “this is not an acting class, Julia! You’re scaring your roommates!” But I promise, it’s an interesting and insightful experience. Sometimes my character plays with her face in the mirror. Other times, he sits on the toilet in a daze. This is your character totally in private. How do they behave?
  5. Pick out your cover art. And make it something your character would like. It sounds ahead of the game, but art and photos can really enhance your understanding of your character’s aesthetic. Maybe they’re not into frou-frou graphics and want simply bold, block lettering. That’s cool, too. But now you know!
  6. Write a letter from your character. This works amazingly well for playwriting, and I think it applies to fiction writing, too. Imagine your character knows that you’re writing their story. How would they want it told, if they want it told at all? Do they like you? Do they trust you?
  7. Listen for their voice. All characters are facets of the author (whether we like it or not, they’re our brain-children). Watch yourself saying things that fall into their category of speech or mood: petulant and breathy, happy and loud, etc. Write that dialogue down. Focus on the feeling of the words — they need to sound realistic, and not like histrionic writer-speak.
  8. WW (My Character) D? You’re at the DMV. You hate everyone and everything. What would your character do? Ask yourself these questions whenever you’re in a particularly happy, infuriating, or sad situation. Would my character go on a run? Pull out her knitting? Break something? Write it down (but don’t actually break anything, please).
  9. Find their poem. Poems, like music, can very quickly evoke an intense emotional tone. Find your character’s poem to read before you start writing for them. Is it Michael Ryan’s “Switchblade” or Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck“?
  10. Dream for them. They can be your own dreams, or just regular ol’ day dreams you’ve had. But come up with dreams for your character and write those dreams into your story. They needn’t be full dream sequences, simply the ghosts of dreams that we feel every day — the reason why our thoughts circle back to vases full of water and bubble wands when we’ve dreamed that we were a fish.

How do you get into your character’s voice? Please comment!

Is Literary Journalism Making Us Stupid?

No. Of course it isn’t. I crafted my headline with a purpose: catch eyes, incite feelings, and bring people to my work. I did exactly what Nicholas Carr did six years ago when he published his now insanely famous article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the Atlantic Monthly. Carr wasn’t out to prove that Google, the tool he used for his success, destroyed modern minds. He just wanted to talk about the way that Google changed modern thought and action. I could argue that all good writing discusses the change and evolution of thought. So why did Carr frame his article the way he did?

Literary journalism, the category under which Carr writes, is in a boom cycle right now. For those who don’t know, literary journalism, a subset of creative nonfiction, “demands immersion in complex, difficult subjects. The voice of the writer surfaces to show that an author is at work,” according to Norman Sims in his anthology, “the Literary Journalists.” Suddenly, everyone’s heard of David Foster Wallace and Tom Wolfe. People read “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” by Joan Didion in English class. I’ve even taken a literary journalism course in college and loved it. Literary journalism combines the best of the news world — interviews, research, and relevance — with the gifts of narrative and interpretive wiggle-room.

But that “wiggle-room” makes me uncomfortable. For me, and many others, plain ol’ journalism represents a writer’s best stab at an unbiased truth. Literary journalism is a completely different animal. It advocates for emotional truth, sweeping conclusions, and the tailoring of information. The literary journalist is first and foremost a storyteller, not a fact-keeper. The journalism I learned about in my high school newspaper class is very different from what I read in blogs, magazines, and books today. Which is to say, I feel like most of my news is beginning to adopt the format and style of a literary journalism article.

From what I’ve read, the template goes like this:

  1. Pick a subject whose story represents a universal human truth. Carr’s article is a great example of taking an emotional truth — the fear that friends are secretly enemies — and applying it to humanity’s thrust into the digital age. People love computers and use them every single day, so they must be suspicious of the effects of technology. Carr preys upon that insecurity with his title, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
  2. Begin with an image that reader knows, and then turn it on its head. Doug Fine’s “Too High To Fail” begins with a cop responding to a burglar alarm going off on a local farm — a local cannabis farm, that is. Fine goes on to describe the lush, green beauty of the cannabis farm and the jolly-good relationship between the farmer and the cops. Immediately, the reader knows that the rules of the world in “Too High” are different from their own.
  3. Support claims with unwavering evidence rooted in data, science, and testimony. Malcolm Gladwell is the king of this one. All of his books and articles use a combination of statistical data, interviews with subjects and experts, and his own creation of scientific social laws: “Law of the Few” from “Tipping Point” and “the 10,000 Hour Rule” from “Outliers.”
  4. Find an easily digestible resolution. Notice how I didn’t say solution. Resolutions resolve things, put them to bed, and ease the reader’s mind. Solutions take work on the reader’s part. I actually have to do something with a solution. Michael Pollan told me in his book, “In Defense of Food,” to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Great. Easy enough. It may seem like a solution, but really, how much does it actually call me to action?
  5. End by telling the reader how to feel about the subject. This what I struggle with the most. In my own literary journalism course, after my first article workshop, my professor asked me to fix my ending. “You’ve gotta tell us how you feel so that we know how to feel.” I wondered why I couldn’t just tell the story well enough so that the reader could reach their own conclusion. Isn’t that my job as a writer? Give people information so that they can find out something new about themselves?

Every genre has its tropes. So what’s is my big problem with literary journalism?  There’s the obvious issue of turning personal narratives into pop-culture “science,” as Malcolm Gladwell has done time and again. It forces the author to shock and reveal information to the reader, making excitement and sensationalism more important than fact. The literary journalism article becomes the written equivalent of a political cartoon: illustrative, clever, but ultimately an over simplification of things. But there’s a subtler, more insidious feeling like bile creeping up the back of my throat; I am really scared that I’m being conditioned to expect and prefer this kind of writing all the time. I have enjoyed every single one of the articles listed immensely. They made me feel smarter, wiser, and emotionally connected when I finished. And I have no intention of ceasing my lit journalism consumption.

So what’s going to happen to literary journalism? Should it revert to a time when it was more literary, less journalism, and focused on human experiences? Should we distinguish between research-based literary journalism and interview-based? Should we just slap disclaimers on every book and article?

I don’t know. Pop journalism and literary journalism are here to stay, and I don’t really mind. Maybe I’m the one that needs to change; I need to learn to take the Michael Pollans and Malcolm Gladwells of the world with “the proper portion of salt,” as Jason Kottke wrote. And maybe, as a writer myself, I can learn the lit journalism rules, and then break them.

Weekends in Philly: How to Be Healthy in Cheesesteak Land

Maybe it’s because I’m at Villanova, where all of the students seem abnormally fit and the gym is always busy, but I’ve been on a workout kick all summer (my sudden healthy splurge might also have something to do with my introduction to cafeteria-style dining; WashU students, remember how lucky you are when you can eat grilled chicken and steamed vegetables whenever you want).

Being healthy isn’t easy, especially on vacation. You’re already spending money! To go to this place! Where you will have to spend more money on food! I’m here to tell you that not only can you be healthy on your visit to Philly (and no, I’m not counting cheesesteaks in this calculation), but that eating well and exercising is cheap, easy, fun, and definitely worth your while.

How to Be Healthy in Cheesesteak Land

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Where to eat: Fuel Center City

Eating well has never tasted so good, or been so stress-free. Fuel is a small café with outdoor seating, local art on the walls, and really, really good food. The menu lists all calorie counts (everything is under 500), so you don’t have to be worried about getting tricked by a health food claim. They have a full drink menu of smoothies, coffees, and homemade juices, on top of their regular menu of rice bowls, salads, wraps, sandwiches, and appetizers. I prefer the rice bowls because they are surprisingly filling and come in a few different flavors and styles: sweet potato risotto, thai chicken/tofu, ginger chicken/tofu, or black bean and avocado. But their best menu item is, in my opinion, the banana whip “ice cream.” They blend frozen bananas and your choice of strawberry or Nutella, and top it with whipped cream. Oh so good. You can order online, take out, or sit down and eat. They even have an app!  www.fuelrechargeyourself.com, 215.922.FUEL

What to do: Rowing Class with Laura at RowZone 

As a college student, I thought rowing was only for the tall, gangly boys on my freshman floor who woke up every morning at 4 a.m. (a.k.a. not me). Now, I’m a regular at RowZone classes with Laura Frigeri, the most motivating and fun teacher I could ever ask for. While listening to great playlists (we’re talking Miley, T-Pain, all the pumped-up beats I need when I’m sweating/dying), Laura takes the class through a 45-minute rowing and strength training routine where students can easily push themselves, but can also modify if 1,000 meters in six minutes just ain’t gonna happen. The studio’s website estimates that rowers burn 600-800 calories per session, so a few missed meters feels A-OK to me. The studio provides towels, mats, and free fruit after each work out. New students can get a 5-class pass for $35 (that’s better than groupon!). www.rowzone.com, 215.496.1399

What to buy: Granola from Green Aisle Grocery at Rittenhouse Farmers Market

Walking is a great way to continue a healthy day, so why not take a stroll around a buzzing, bright farmers market? Free samples had me sold on Green Aisle’s granola, which included my favorite, pumpkin seeds. That, and the fact that no one chastised me for taking two freebies! Green Aisle is a gourmet grocery that also sells jams, breads, and candles at the market. I’m definitely going back to buy some of their preserves and nut butters; they looked delicious.  www.greenaislegrocery.com, 215.465.1411

What to gift: Beeswax Candle from Tassot Apiaries at Rittenhouse Farmers Market

If you don’t already eat it on the regular, you should get yourself into local honey. I was fortunate enough to live with a beekeeper last summer (how college!) who taught me that consuming local honey was not only good for my sweet tooth, but my allergies and health, too. If you’re not from Philly, local honey won’t do you much good, but you can still support the cause by buying a beautiful-smelling beeswax candle. They’re not bad to look at either; they come in floral patterns or, of course, honeycombs and beehives. www.tassotapiaries.com, 908.264.4504

(More info on the farmers market here).

Image Credit: Celeste Lindell, Flickr, some rights reserved

“Orange Is The New Black” Season 2: New Religion

Warning! Spoilers for season 2 ahead!

Released by Netflix June 6th, season two of “Orange Is The New Black” shows a different side of popular religion. The audience knows of obvious religious figures on the show — Pennsatucky and Sister — but in season two, we are introduced to different forms of spirituality. Religion is about a god or supreme being, yes, but it is also about a system of worship and a place to put your faith. The women of Litchfield find different ways to contain and preserve their faith in themselves and the world on the outside.

While season one told the stories of inmates being in the wrong place at the wrong time, season two shows their willful participation and addiction to the crimes that put them in prison. Though the crimes were done with a purpose (we all need money, attention, things), they were often repeated beyond necessity just for the thrill of it: Rosa robbed one too many banks; Sister chained herself to one too many fences; and Black Cindy lifted one too many iPads during her job as a TSA agent. These are people who live — and love, like Morello — in extremes.

Unfortunately, the women can’t feed their needs while behind bars. In prison, they lose their gods along with their freedom. Without the ability to feed their criminal tendencies, the women are constantly in search of something else to believe in. The inhabitants of Litchfield prison need a surge of good faith in season two after the hopeless events of season one: Tricia dies from a drug overdose, Pennsatucky tries to murder Chapman with a cross, and Red loses her friends and position as head cook. Whether it’s “the lesbian agenda” for Pennsatucky or Soso’s social and environmental activism (in other words, an excuse to hide her fear of the public showers), every women is on the search for their next spiritual fix. Instead of showcasing religious fanatics like Pennsatucky last season (oh, how things have changed), “Orange” focuses on Sister’s radical christian activism, Mendoza’s witchy version of christianity, and the new false prophet on the block: V.

So what are we, the viewers, supposed to do with an influx of religious figures that our main character, Chapman, does not digest for us? Piper is distinctly irreligious (and Larry’s Judaism seems purely cultural). She doesn’t witness Mendoza’s candle-lighting or Norma’s attempt at spell-casting. She isn’t a disciple of V or Soso’s hunger strike. Instead, the viewer has the chance to separate from Piper — who we already know doesn’t quite fit in with the normal prison flow — and try to understand how the other women in the prison really work. Religion is a huge part of identity, and magic Christians, activist nuns, and a “truth speaker” (as V calls herself) don’t fit with the mold that most viewers will know.

Despite the problems with season two (lack of excitement, no change between the circumstances of season one, and a disconnection between characters that we want to see more from), a deeper, substantial look at the religious lives of the prison women was really refreshing. Religious ideology and faith affect every part of life. Seeing Mendoza lose faith in herself and her religion when she extinguishes a candle with her fingers because she’s afraid that in the end, her voodoo magic won’t save Red or Daya, was something that we could never have understood, fully, without this season’s religious theme.

Want to read other cool OITNB articles? Check this out: “Orange Is the New Black and the Difficulty of Portraying Prison Religion” on religionandpolitics.org.

Image credit: Abbey Hambright, Flickr, some rights reserved

Why I Write

Or, The Power Of Vulnerability and the Opposite Of Loneliness

Watch “The Power of Vulnerability,” a Ted Talk by Brené Brown, and read “The Opposite of Loneliness,” an essay by Marina Keegan. Their words will at least make you think, if not reevaluate your own life. 

I used to find mortality very comforting. Because I knew my time was finite, I fondly pictured my life span as a big, green yard. In that yard, the beautiful, crystalized moments of my life hung from the sky like frozen rain. I could walk through the still storm of memory to find and treasure my favorite times. Here was the sepia-toned night that never quite happened again; here was the afternoon I walked and walked and walked until I found myself somewhere better than I had ever been before.

Lately, my mortality hangs over me like a fated end. My life has felt more narrow with age. Days seem to fluctuate between overwhelming responsibility and punishment, instead of gratitude and grace. I like to say that the universe is indifferent to my suffering; the universe responds to my action. But that weight, the weight of constantly doing and trying, is crippling. It is crushing me with responsibility in this place where I cannot give myself a break because there is no one else to blame. Perhaps that is the scariest thing about loneliness – not only does it rob me of my creature comforts, but it takes away the people who love me enough to share my burden.

I have been walking and thinking for days, trying to find the kink in my brain. I know something is wrong with me; I know I am sad. But what is it? I looked at my thought patterns. I have been thinking about the future a lot. I am getting a degree for the job-seeker I will be in two years. I am constantly writing and blogging for the freelancer I see in five years. But what am I doing for myself now? I am drowning in fear that I will not be the person I want to be in the future. I am so afraid of failure that I am punishing myself for even trying to succeed. Some changes feel refreshing, like traveling or buying things, all temporary experiences. But other changes, normal and timely life changes, represent some kind of terrible consequence for me. As if growing up or becoming a woman isn’t an accomplishment, but another opportunity to lose myself. But it’s not a loss; it’s just change. 

My fear has driven me to do great things. Without fear, I wouldn’t write so much. Without fear, I wouldn’t push myself to wake up and do every morning. But after a certain point, fight or flight reflexes become exhausted. They start to malfunction when they are turned on all day, every day. They flare up when I am walking and have a shameful memory, and suddenly my body wants to hide. They dull themselves to strangers because my senses have learned that I am the most dangerous thing out there. I can’t fight myself all the time, so I act. I change. I become my own aloof best friend. I don’t want to talk to people; I don’t want to hang out. Eventually I wake up, and my senses are on even higher alert than they were before my self-imposed isolation.

I still cherish lucky happiness – days of sunshine and nothing to do, when the grocery store has all my favorite fruit. Luck is a gift. I am grateful. I have done no work, and I am able to reap beautiful benefits. I am so lucky and so grateful to be friends with and to love the people who have come into my life. Moments when I feel a spiritual vortex around me, and I am suddenly so connected to the blessed people I am lucky to love, have been the best of my life. Not days when great things have happened, but nights when I am lying in bed and I feel like the universe is passing through me, and I am cradled by all the people who care about me. It’s like a dream without sleep. There is something magical and fated about moments like that, moments that aren’t lucky, but destined.

I don’t notice those moments as often. My attention is elsewhere. I have become a secretary of loss. I notice the disconnection between me and the people I love. Gaining friends has always been tenuous, tricky, time-consuming, but the reward is a unique fullness from finding another link in this world. Losing them, on the other hand, is a debilitating dysphoria that feels not like my own death, but the eventual death of all other things. Everything will come to an end. The chair I am sitting on now will one day be less than dust. So will all the people I love.

My body wants to act. My brain thinks that action will bring change, which will at least bring a response from the world. It wants to run in manic bursts; it wants to be angry and yell and blame; it wants to find a thing to break and put back together again. But there is nothing I can do to heal my heart and my head, other than to wait. To wait and to write, the two coping mechanisms that have never failed me. When all my other comforts leave, when all my loved ones are away, I will still have the self I have cultivated through time and blank pages. I will always have my words.

Again, my brain starts running worst-case scenarios where I lose my hands and the ability to speak and all my higher brain function. I have a deep, deep fear of having my hands become paralyzed or crushed so that I can no longer write or type. But I have already lived twenty years. I want to live more, but I have already had twenty, wonderful years. I have seen so many people, places, and things that my seemingly infinite brain capacity cannot hold it all. It is amazing to me that human brains are capable of remembering thousands of faces and facts, and I cannot remember all of them from only twenty years of life! And so goes my fear of losing my hands, my voice, my brain. I forget to fear what has not happened yet when I remember to love what already has. I write to find not why I live, but how.

Weekends in Philly: Third Street and the Good Life

People come to Philly for cheesesteaks and the liberty bell, which, don’t get me wrong, is a lovely way to spend a day. I’ve been coming to Philly pretty regularly for over a decade now — I have all the cheesy tourist pics of me with a fake wooden riffle marching outside of Independence Hall. Eight-year-old me was very proud of my initiation into the fake militia.

But twenty-year-old me doesn’t come to Philly for the history and the pictures anymore. I come now for solace, a way to get away from school, stress, and the suburbs of Villanova. Being so isolated and so uncitified (nope, that isn’t a real word) has taken a toll on my psyche. So why not make my first weekend in Philly about total relaxation and fun on third street? This was probably the most luxurious weekend that I will have all summer, so I had to make it count! I give my FULL endorsement for each place below.

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Weekends in Philly 1: Third Street

Where to eat: Wedge + Fig

Do you like cheese? (Um, OF COURSE) What about fresh, yummy food? (This is the easiest questionnaire, like, ever) Welcome to Wedge + Fig, where cheese and, yes, figs are in abundance. And you will eat them in abundance. I’ve heard they’re famous for their brunch, but knowing nothing, I went their for lunch. And it was still crazy good. Their Modern Waldorf salad had creamy, soft figs, greek yogurt, blue cheese, and a freaking fig cake. The rhubarb bar I ate later had more berries than most fruit bowls. Make sure to check out their grilled cheese bar (what?!?) and their sandwiches, two of which are named after Daryl Hall and John Oates. wedgeandfig.com, 267.603.3090

What to do: get a massage at Spa Terme Di Aroma

I’m a bit spoiled when it comes to massages. I’ve had more of them than most people will ever have in a lifetime, let alone before they’re out of college. But I love them. I love hot oil; I love perfect strangers kneading my skin; and I love — LOVE — how good I smell when it’s all over. The aroma therapy massage at Spa Terme Di Aroma was one of the best massages I’ve ever had. Ever. Aroma therapy sounds deceptively unmassage-like, as if they just spray some scented oils and call it a day. Not so. I had my arms rotated and my back unkinked, all without the pain that can come from a deep-tissue massage. Plus, there were hot stones involved. Sold.  www.termediaroma.com, 215.829.9769

What to buy: Rompers from The Geisha House 

The Geisha House has a swe-e-et sales section and carries all sorts of cool, I’ve-never-heard-of brands. I felt trendy just palming all the netted blouses and sheer pants (that sounds really bad after I write it, but trust me, it’s cool stuff). A trip there is like a trip to Australia; I saw brands like Cameo, Maurie and Eve, and Keepsake. Thankfully, I didn’t have to pay the price of a plane ticket to check out far away brands, but I will say it was worth waiting a few months for my favorites to go on sale. They rotate brands pretty regularly, so when something’s on its way out or isn’t selling as well, back to the sales rack it goes. www.hellogeisha.com, 267.886.8110

What to gift: Pb & Jams from Philadelphia Independents

Philadelphia Independents is full of cool posters, jewelry, and, lo and behold, peanut butter! Everything comes from local Philly artists (or artisans, I guess, in the case of the awesome PB), so it’s a perfect place to go gift shopping. Or just shopping for yourself. Everyone needs peanut butter, right?  www.philadelphiaindependents.com, 267.773.7316

 

Why Modern Feminists Are Good At Making Bad Arguments

Who remembers AP English? Anyone? Let me give you a quick reminder: you read life changing literature (whether you appreciated it or not), wrote at the speed of light, and learned how to turn a thesis that could barely stand on two clauses into a three-page paper. My last point is the most devastating. Unfortunately, the AP curriculum doesn’t require educators to teach students about bad arguments, or logical fallacies. They’re easy to fall into, and once you start, it’s hard to stop.

I fear that bad arguments are starting to proliferate thanks to the surplus of opinion on the internet. Whatever slippery slope you fear or generalization you secretly believe is true, you can find it by the dozens. And those extremes sell: a blog post that simplifies a complex social movement into “People who don’t support us hate us” is an easier message to digest while reading your phone on the train than, “Well, it’s actually about a series of principles that mean…”

Take the modern feminist movement, for example. I, a good feminist, have abused my words for the cause. I bet you have, too. The either/or logical fallacy of “You’re either with us, or against us” oversimplifies the argument by reducing it to two sides, evidenced by hate for celebrities who refuse to explicitly state, “I am a feminist” (i.e. Shailene Woodley, even if her counter argument is equally as silly). I’ve used feminism to make some pretty bad arguments, and while I’m willing to take some of the blame, I’d like to share it with the movement as a whole for not only condoning logical fallacy, but encouraging it. But why? How? And what are the most common logical fallacies, again?

  • The Slippery Slope: “If A happens, then B will happen…and eventually, X, Y, and Z will destroy the foundation of the feminist movement.” For fear of damaging the cause and condoning sexism, feminists feel the need to deny all traces of the roots of sexism, or inequality. Recently, I read an article called “Stop Looking for ‘Hardwired’ Differences in Male and Female Brains” on Popular Science. The article argued that studies showed “only a minor or negligible difference between men and women[‘s]” brains and “In the rare cases where actual psychological differences exist, they cannot be attributed to innate neurology alone.” How true the claim of nurture trumping nature matters less to me than the reason the argument needs to be made. Why are feminists so afraid of nature being the cause of differences between men and women? Using the slippery slope fallacy, it’s easy to tell: if feminists agree that there are natural neurological differences between the sexes, then they also must agree that there are natural cognitive differences, too. If they agree that men and women think differently, then they fear that they invite speculation as to which sex is superior cognitively: which sex is smarter? Which sex is better at math? If others conclude that one sex is “smarter,” then it will lead them to conclude that sexism is justified because women are “stupid.” So, feminism supports “sameness” between the sexes — if we’re all the same, we can’t be unequal. Unfortunately, this can make the feminist movement look stubborn and anti-science; if feminism can’t face the facts, then what else is the movement ignoring? Logical fix: differences don’t have to indicate a hierarchy. Instead, we should focus on equally valuing individuals for who they are, and not for their body parts: “The life of a man or a woman is of equal value, and gender or sex shouldn’t change a person’s worth.”
  • Ad Populum: “If you’re truly for women’s rights, you’ll call yourself a feminist.” I hate admitting it, but there have been numerous times when, after hearing a woman or man hesitate when answering the question “Are you a feminist?” I think, “They’re kind of sexist.” Because in my mind, and the minds of many young women, someone who is a feminist supports women’s rights, and someone who is not a feminist does not support women’s rights. The simplest definition of feminism is, “the belief and aim that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men” from Oxford’s dictionary. Who doesn’t support that? There’s something about the power of the buzzword “feminist”: if only we can get everyone to call themselves a feminist, then we can eradicate sexism, normalize gender equality, and lose the label of militant social radicals. If we all have the same name, then we have a stronger, unified movement with the ability to enact more change. But that’s the main problem with demanding that all people who support equality between the sexes call themselves “feminists” — it only affirms stereotypes that feminism is an exclusive and narrow movement. Some people don’t like labels. Some people don’t like the word “feminist” and prefer the term “humanist.” It looks down upon a group of people who don’t seem to fit with mainstream feminism, people who are feeling misunderstood and ostracized by a social movement that rejects their lack of enthusiasm for quick buzzwords and labels. Logical Fix: instead of asking, “Are you a feminist?” or “Do you think the sexes are equal?” and getting into a sticky situation of what “equality” really means and what “feminism” really means (even though there’s a dictionary definition, it’s hard to argue that those two powerful words have different significance to different people), ask these simple questions: “Do you value people of both sexes/genders equally? Do you embody those views in your everyday life?” So, instead of demanding that men and women call themselves one word over the other, the feminist movement simply asks that they act like feminists. Actions, after all, speak louder than words.
  • Moral Equivalence: “Women who don’t support feminism are basically Hitler,” or why bell hooks called Beyoncé a “terrorist.” bell hooks is a very big deal in the feminist world, so when she said, “I see a part of Beyoncé that is in fact anti-feminist — that is a terrorist, especially in terms of the impact on young girls” because of her Time cover, I was a little surprised. A terrorist? You mean the kind of person who commits a violent act for a political, religious, or social goal? No. Beyoncé is not a terrorist, even if her Time cover was explicitly anti-gender equality (which it definitely wasn’t). Logical Fix: don’t use crazy-people language, like: ” X is basically modern-day slavery” or “Y is basically gang rape.” If you need to add an adverb before using words like “Dictator” or “rape,” don’t use the word. I read the content from websites like Jezebel and Thought Catalog almost daily, and it is such a turnoff  when every sexist man mentioned suddenly becomes “basically a white supremacist Neo Nazi.” Some men are. But most aren’t. And no one, absolutely no one, is literally Hitler.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of logical fallacies. I haven’t even covered the Straw Man, Red Herring, Ad Hominem, Circular Argument, Begging the Claim, Genetic Fallacy, Hasty Generalization, or Post Hoc, though each intertwine with the arguments I made above.

I don’t believe in sacrificing rhetoric to make a point. Choose your words well. Remember that words mean different things to different people; throwing the dictionary at someone is similar to throwing the Bible. Get to the point succinctly and use few comparisons — it’ll help you and your audience understand your point better without muddling up your words. And remember that while feminism has developed its own lexicon and logic, it’s important to make argument that use simple, universal language to convey simple, universal truths: people are valuable and have human worth. No ifs, ands, or buts.