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who'll sing this song?

For me to wholly claim Appalachia would be theft. I've lived there intermittently for the last ten years - I went to college in Kentucky, but on its periphery, and my family lives in east Tennessee, where I have also lived and worked, off and on. So I know more about the region than probably 90% of people in DC, but I can't say it's mine really, not like my friends who grew up in Laurel County or Ashland or Hazard. I only know it as an adult.

But if you spend any real amount of time there, the region gets under your skin, makes you want to rise to its defense even if you haven't earned the privilege. It's hard to explain to an outsider the sweet burn of peach moonshine, or the joyful feeling of stomping to a banjo's rhythm, or the way an abandoned trailer, surrounded by rusting barbed wire, looks in the fog. It's poor, yes, and different from other places, but it's complicated and beautiful too. And if I, an Appalachian Johnny-come-lately, feel this many conflicting emotions, imagine how much love and frustration must be felt by a person who carries the region in their blood - especially when they see how outsiders view them.

The rest of America has always enjoyed a strained relationship with this pocket of the country, with its poverty and luminous strangeness. (For an introduction to this issue, I always recommend Elizabeth Barret's documentary Stranger with a Camerawhich chronicles the death of photographer Hugh O'Connor in Letcher County, Kentucky.) A friend recently sent me a review of a new Brooklyn restaurant that looks like a parody of Appalachia, like some sort of weird poverty theme park where you can pretend to be poor and have a corn dog with a Budweiser. To the reviewer's credit, he castigates the owner for cashing in on a place he doesn't even understand. (Sample quote: "I doubt if he is aware or even curious to inquire how that barn he bought became fallow.")

However, he falls into another trap, which is the pity of the well-meaning outsider. In his review, he says that "(t)he miserable condition of Appalachia, a region that runs from New York to Mississippi, is as raw a wound and as deep a shame as a decapitated strip-mined peak. Poor, poor and damned poor are the mountain people who still live there, though as Ronald Eller notes in his bleak study Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, there’s not that many of them." It echoes Annie Lowrey's recent piece in the New York Times, "What's The Matter With Eastern Kentucky?", which notes "the desperation of coal country."

Well, yes, but.

There's no arguing with the fact that much of Appalachia is poor - very poor, poor in ways that might surprise you if you've never been. And yes, it is derided and/or ignored by much of America, because these issues, and our political complicity in them, are hard and painful to deal with. But there's also no arguing with the richness I've experienced there, even as an outsider, and the cultural and artistic offerings the region provides. My parents live outside the Storytelling Capital of the World - that's not my opinion, that's an official title. The Amish fried donuts at the Johnson City Farmers' Market are better than you can believe. And we're always coming up with new ways to make meth. (Joke. Joke.) 

The way we view Appalachia echoes the way we view most of the "developing" countries of the world - as places in dire need of our noblesse oblige, rather than as whole, complex entities with things to offer as well as needs. You can be desperate and still be beautiful, in ways that have nothing to do with your desperation. You can be financially rich, but still blind to what the country around you provides.

Poverty like Appalachia's cannot be ignored, but it's also not the sole defining characteristic of its towns or its people. And maybe we should care about it because its existence impedes us from accessing what lies within. When all we can think about is how much a place lacks, it's easy to miss how much it has to offer. 

And I'm going to be honest with you here: I've rewritten this post five or six times, because, as I noted at the beginning, I'm only beginning to understand the region - I can only speak for myself and my own experiences. (For a more nuanced defense from a true native, I strongly encourage you to read Silas House's recent editorial in the Louisville Courier-Journal.) So, given the amount that's already been taken from Appalachia by outsiders over the course of the last century, I hesitate to write any more than what I already know. But what I want to convey is that it's worth knowing, all of it. The whole picture.

 

 

 

 

 

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here comes the sun

In retrospect, it seems like the stormfront of bad luck that has charged through the past year made its entrance pretty soon after my birthday. In a way, it's hard to articulate how difficult the last twelve months have been, although I guess "I got laid off shortly after my mother was diagnosed with an unusual cancer" lays it out pretty neatly. But it's tough to convey the sheer exhaustion of so many days, the isolation that comes when you avoid your friends because it feels like literally nothing has changed, or will ever change, in your life. What it's like to drive back to the hospital day after day after day. On the road to Bethesda, I used to listen to a song from my senior year of college, "Dress Me Like A Clown" by Margot and the Nuclear So & Sos, on repeat: I am alive, I am alive, and that is the best that I can do...

But I AM alive. And, because today is my birthday, it seems useful to commemorate that occasion. For my survival, I can credit my parents: my father, the ultimate hustler, the immigrant who has pretty much single-handedly created every opportunity he's ever had, and my mother, who - by word and by example - has always reminded me that hustling doesn't mean you get to run everyone else over. I can credit my siblings, who understood better than anyone the weird (and, frankly, somewhat put-upon) place our family occupies in the universe. And I can credit my friends, who have offered innumerable couch cushions to hug, picked up more tabs than I care to count, and never quit asking how things were going.

The thing about being catapulted out into the universe without a net is that you have to get comfortable with yourself pretty quickly, because there's no longer a job or a company to define you. I hesitate to say that it was worth it, because it's very easy to look back and say that, and I'm not exactly clamoring for a repeat. But I feel stronger now. More myself - although, paradoxically, it's through the support of everyone else that I've gotten here. So here's to another year of being alive. And, hopefully, more than that.

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what we had and what we lost

I wasn't really planning on writing about Jordan Davis. Because it's not like my opinion differs from thousands of others (death --> bad --> injustice), and anyone who has ever met me, or read anything I've ever written, could probably have guessed my stance. Besides, while I do hit that sweet spot of being both famous and widely beloved,* I don't have quite the following necessary to inspire a mass peace 'n' justice movement. Maybe next year.

But then, in a Florida Times-Union article about the case, I came across the following line:

“We all wanted to live lavish,” [Davis' friend Floyd] Haynes said. “We all wanted to be successful. We all wanted to be successful, not rich, but powerful, like music as it moves through you.” 

This is a description that stopped me in my (reading) tracks - I actually went back and read through it again to make sure I understood it. It's a throwaway line in a regional newspaper on a case that still isn't receiving the attention that it should, and it comes from a seventeen-year-old. It's amazing - a perfect description of power and desire and teenage aspiration. And its speaker was a friend and a peer of this boy who got shot, a person who, by luck and by chance, still happens to be alive.

I was talking to a teacher the other day and we were complaining about how the great flaw in educator memoirs is that it fails to capture how funny and brilliant and alive children, in particular, can be. We get so caught up in the narrative of long hours and poverty and solitude that we forget to notice the rest. I know a sixth grader who, on paper, is a low-income minority at a public school who can't pronounce his Rs and reads at the level of an eight-year-old. He is also, and this is not an exaggeration, one of the smartest people I've ever met; his metaphors are boundless, he has a knack for teaching others that some adults I know could learn from, and his ability to improvise a story is unparalleled. He has an imaginary acquaintance named Baby D. The other day, we had the following exchange:

MISS EASON [Student], I know you were running out there. Baby D told me.

STUDENT (looks me straight in the eye) You are a fibber. Because yesterday I sat on Baby D, and now he's in the hospital.

I have known this kid for about three months, and even with that short period of time, I can tell you that my life is better - more entertaining, more colorful, grander - for having known him. And he's just one example; over the course of my (varied) career, I've known literally thousands of children, and I could give you ten more descriptions of ten equally amazing students right now off the top of my head. We're so accustomed to focusing on the struggle that we ignore the fact that these students have just as much capacity for magic as any other human. Which is why, issues of injustice aside, it physically hurts me to think that these are the children who will grow up to be targets, that the only thing that separates them from the fate of Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis or a hundred other unnamed victims is luck.

And this is what I wish we would talk about more, aside from the obvious issues of light and darkness: the fact that when someone - particularly a young person like Jordan Davis - dies, our world is dimmer. Naomi Shihab Nye says that "(a) man leaves the world/and the streets he lived on/grow a little bit shorter." We have no idea what or whom Jordan Davis could have become. We have no idea what words he could have spoken. Because the streets he would have walked on are shorter now.

Instead, we have the words of someone much like him, whose survival seems at this point to almost be a fluke, and the words of some girl who happened to read about it. So I guess that's why I changed my mind about writing this. Not because my own words are so eloquent or so deserved, but, because I am alive, I can at least use them to call attention to the ones we don't have anymore.

 

*joke

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(don't you know that it's) Christmas time again

There were three things I wanted to do in Los Cabos last week, when I was on vacation with my family. One was lay out next to the water, drinking a margarita and watching the ocean crash against the cliffs. The second was assist in a sea turtle rescue. (We were too late in the season.) The third was to visit Cacti Mundo.

Cacti Mundo is a botanical garden that, as one might guess, is devoted to members of the family Cactaceae. According to its website, it is a "magical oasis for cacti aficionados," one that "shimmers with a tropical aura of ecological majesty." Indeed, it is "as if all the greatest cacti species on the surface of the earth were gloriously imprisoned and given new life and freedom." (The cacti presumably do not mind their imprisonment.) 

We didn't make it to this magical oasis, unfortunately, but I still want to see it. Am I interested in the cacti? Empirically, yes. They have a magnificent self-defense system and can be eaten in a hundred different ways. (Although I still don't want one on my desk.) What I also want, though, is to meet the people so committed to these succulents that they refer to their garden as a "shining beacon of beauty."

I am telling you this to explain some things about the birth of Jesus, and why one of my favorite holiday songs of all time is Extreme's "Christmas Time Again."


When I think about Extreme, I think about my uncle, my father's youngest brother, who lived with us for a while when I was four or five. He was packed off to live with us by a family friend, Aunt (dì/chị) Phu, who wanted my father to make sure that his sibling stayed out of trouble and went to class. 

My uncle was probably in his late teens or early twenties when he lived with us, and in my memory, his aesthetic then was straight out of Wayne's World. I think he had a spiky mullet thing, and I'm pretty sure he wore shirts with the sleeves torn off. He smoked. I have a fairly vivid memory of some argument about beer cans, mostly because "my five year old daughter" (me!) was mentioned. In short, he was living with us for a reason.

I have no idea if my uncle was a fan of Extreme or not, but regardless, I think he fit the profile of their main fanbase. This is a band that titled its second album Extreme II: Pornograffiti. (It's even better when you say it out loud.) This is a band whose average hair length was six inches past the shoulder. It's a band that CALLED ITSELF EXTREME.*

It's also a band that, if their one holiday song is to be believed, feels really strongly about the meaning of Christmas.

Note the open shirts.

Note the open shirts.

"Christmas Time Again" is a song that can only be found on one of my very favorite Christmas albums, 1992's A Very Special Christmas 2I like it, first of all, because I think it's gorgeous - it starts off with this epic synthesizer/pipe organ thing, cuts away to a melancholy piano backing that somehow manages to be in a major key, and goes back to a chorus with a cappella-style harmonies. It also features the vocal stylings of (I think) Nuno Bettencourt, who a) has an amazing name and b) was kind of a fox back in the band's heyday.

But I also like it because of its unabashed, balls-to-the-wall commitment to the Christmas spirit. Nuno (or maybe it's Gary Cherone, I can't be sure) starts off by bemoaning the transience of those holiday warm fuzzies:

Christmas always goes too fast
It's up to us to make it last
And all I want for Christmas is love

Come that morning and I see you smile
It only lasts a little while
How come we seem to push it all aside?

As if to reinforce his point, the entire band joins in for the refrain: "Don't you know that it's Christmas time again?" Come on. How can you be the kind of person who abandons your festive cheer on the 26th? Don't you know that we're talking about CHRISTMAS? (To further support the idea and also engage the audience, the chorus contains handclaps.)

It only gets more intense from there. Because our narrator feels that this needs to happen sooner rather than later, and that someone has to step up, he offers to make a few modifications for us.

It's times like these we need a change 
A calendar to rearrange 
I'll make sure it'll last all year 

That's right. This man is so committed to retaining the Yuletide feeling that he offers to rearrange the way we perceive time.

This is a song that is both completely a product of its era (an era that included hair metal) and completely, utterly sincere. These are tough men, men whose band logo appeared to be hewn by a seventh grader with a pocketknife. They are men whose jeans are torn. And when it comes to the question of brotherly love, they will smash a guitar over your head if that's what it takes to convince you.


Hannibal Buress (again!) has a joke about how people will say that something is upsetting on "so many levels." He claims that this is overused, and to prove his point cites a bunch of different potential levels ("metaphysical level, eye level, Level Three, sea level"). 

I hate to say this, Hannibal, but there are different levels at which I like things, and they're all valid. (And none of them are sea level.) For example: I can like something for what it is. I like learning about cacti, and I like the idea of helping out with some sea turtles. I like this song because it's pretty and fun to sing. Those of us who celebrate Christmas from a religious perspective like it because it marks the birth of Jesus Christ, who, as the Son of God and an all-around good guy, is fairly important to the faith.

Another way to like things is related to the common ground that comes with unexpected sincerity. I like this song, for example, because although I am a girl who wears tortoiseshell glasses and is an unabashed fan of The Mindy Project, I too feel strongly about the Christmas spirit, which gives me something to share with these men with denim vests. There's a specific type of delight that comes with finding an unexpected side to someone or something - the poetry- or pastry-loving bully, the tough grandmother. The holy boy, born in a barn. It's a reminder that we're not as different from each other as we might believe.** 

And, finally, there's something to be said for open effort. Most people probably do not like cacti. They're not exactly lovable, and they're associated with the kind of environment that kills a man in three days or less. But the people at Cacti Mundo not only love these plants, they proclaim their greatness to a degree that borders on absurd. Extreme doesn't just believe in loving one's fellow man at Christmastime; they created an arena rock chorus about it. In the Bible, God didn't just talk about his love for humanity; he came up with a plan that, on its face, sounds a little bizarre - impregnate a sinless virgin with a Messiah, have him start out as a borderline refugee, and give him roughly thirty years to get people on board with the idea of loving each other before setting him up for an inevitable death. Oh, and have him convince everyone of his divinity by having him come back from the dead, which was probably not at all creepy to the average Elihu or Hepzibah at the time. When we see others who are unafraid to commit to something we find strange, it's admirable, and a useful reminder that we may not know as much as we think. It keeps us humble.

 

*Apparently the name actually comes from the fact that two of the members were in a band called Dream, and "Extreme" comes from "Ex-Dream." This is ridiculous enough that I'll still give them credit.

**Another excellent example of this is Bob Seger's cover of "The Little Drummer Boy," which adds new meaning to the verses "I played my drums for him/I played my best for him." It accomplishes the feat of adding both softness to the idea of the Silver Bullet Band and a certain layer of grit to the Nativity. Joseph was blue-collar. Why wouldn't he have liked classic rock?

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following the signs

I love Sesame Street for a lot of reasons, but I think what might have triggered my initial infatuation was its song parodies. As has been previously documented, I was a super weird kid*, and I distinctly remember watching Patti LaBelle sing "How I Miss My X" and feeling delighted - not just because it was clever, but because I felt like I was getting the adults' joke. It was a secret club, and by virtue of being a nerd, I had found my way in.

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago as I finished reading the Hunger Games trilogy (yes, I just read them, yes, I am sorry I didn't listen to everyone who told me to read them four years ago). Around the same time, I came across a link for the Sesame Workshop version of book 2, "The Hungry Games: Catching Fur." First of all: awesome. Second of all: the very existence of this video inadvertently highlights one of the most overlooked and (I think) one of the most important aspects of the books.

Obviously, the Hunger Games, as an event, are a huge viewing event for the members of the Capital. Something Katniss mentions a few times, however, is that the Games really aren't for the elites; they're there to remind the Districts of their powerlessness. The whole shindig is ostensibly for one audience, but, under its surface, has a completely different purpose. 

This is a level of media analysis that I think is often missing from the coverage of so-called viral videos and other marketing tactics. Sesame Street's target audience (3-5 YO) probably doesn't care much about the cleverness of the takeoff, just as they don't really care about the borderline-Dada parody "Homelamb." (At least I hope they don't, because I'm pretty sure Homeland is not appropriate for children.) Sesame Workshop is a nonprofit that relies on the support of Viewers Like You. The whole point is to remain present and worthwhile in the minds of supporters, so that it ultimately has the resources to provide the educational programming that is targeted at children. Similarly, the amazing PBS remixes that came out last year are clearly focused on people who *used* to watch Reading Rainbow, and who would potentially donate to support the network if they felt that it would provide some sort of cachet.

(I'm going to embed one of the Mr. Rogers videos here, because it is required viewing. Be prepared to choke up a little bit.)

In my first gig out of grad school I was doing ICT consulting for governance projects, and I did a little bit of side reading on semiotics and the art of signaling. The intersection between these areas of study and international development seems to me to (also) be important and overlooked - don't we need to know what people want to say about themselves before we offer them something that allows them to speak, literally as well as metaphorically? Side note: if you have any recommended readings here, I'd love to hear about them.

At any rate, this is one of the many things that Suzanne Collins got right in her book, and it's one of the many approaches that Sesame Workshop has gotten right in their work. I'll be looking for more examples of the interaction between mission-driven work and semiotics (MAN, that sounds dry, but it's not). If you come across any, please let me know.

 

*I really wanted to find a clip from the 30 Rock episode with Carrie Fisher, where a preteen Liz Lemon watches Laugh-In (or its surrogate), looks at the camera, and says, "It's funny because it's true." I don't know if I've ever seen a more accurate representation of my childhood on television.

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many gods

Well. Where was I?

First of all, boringly, I'm still sick - not as overtly anymore, but enough that I take a lot of naps and still wake up feeling bushed. My failure to recover completely probably has something to do with the fact that, in addition to my freelance work, I've also started working part time at a charter school near my house. Miss Eason's immune system used to be made of Teflon, but apparently times have changed, although children have not.

Nonetheless, a few notes and recommendations.

  • My general concern about sites like A Mighty Girl is that they will a) take themselves too seriously, b) ultimately contain nothing but girl power slogans without substance, or c) preach to the choir. I think what alleviated my fears with this particular site was seeing its book collection, which is FILLED with my childhood favorites (Dicey's Song! The BFG! Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, otherwise known as the most underrated Judy Blume book of all time!). These are not stories written expressly to empower girls; they are written as though the starring role of interesting and smart and imperfect young women is totally normal. Because it is, in real life. That seems to be the site's overall perspective. And I like it.
  • "No one believes that O Brother, Where Art Thou taught you five valuable lessons about engineering": the Awl on what you should *not* write about on Medium. (Or a variety of other platforms, for that matter.)
  • And, despite what I just wrote, a rather interesting article on employment, one that happens to be hosted on the Medium platform. I like what he says w/r/t understanding how to make yourself useful for employers, particularly after some of the Billfold interviews I've conducted. The article itself also lacks the sense of self-aggrandizement that I've come to expect from pieces on this topic, which is refreshing. 

And there's one more thing I'd like to recommend, but it requires a bit more explanation. I've learned a lot over the course of a week and a half with sixth graders, including: why eleven-year-olds think Hinduism is a good religion (no need to limit yourself to just one god, if you were wondering); which historical sites and events are featured in Assassin's Creed;* and new insights into male youth hairstyles (cuts like the fade - and, dare I say it, even the flat-top - appear to be making a comeback). I've gotten to see an entire class, in response to one student's answer of "I don't know," yell "YET!" in unison. I'm not going to front, I've even gotten some hugs.

HOWEVER, the greatest thing by far that I've seen is this video that my friend Clark showed to her ELA class. It's an excerpt from a hip hop song cycle by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer of In the Heights. That song cycle is called The Hamilton Mixtape. As in Alexander Hamilton.

I love this because it circles back to the core beliefs I hold for all of my work, namely that you have to go to people (audiences, children) where they are, and that well-crafted communications allow us to find the elements of an idea that resonate with others. I know everyone's laughing here at the idea that A. Ham is hip hop, but you can see how seriously Miranda is taking this, and he should: nothing he's saying is wrong, and he's exploring this personality in a way that helps us gain a new perspective on the man. Whether you're on a stage or in a classroom or designing a user-centered, mass-market health education program for a country with high morbidity indicators, isn't that what we all want to do?

 

*I have mixed feelings about this.

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this song of freedom

We have a rule at the Museum that if a kid digs up a treasure from the Treasure Chest, he or she has to a) sing a song, b) tell a joke, or c) draw a picture. Earlier today, two fifth-grade regulars performed an off-key rendition of "Danny Boy" for me and my friend Maria, and I certainly thought that was going to be the musical highlight of the afternoon. A few minutes ago, however, two small hapa children, one of whom was wearing a shirt that said "I Like Trucks," sang Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." Including the verses. I am pretty sure that their performance represents at least one version of the American Dream.

I've been sick for most of the past week, a state that is doubly unfortunate given the near-constant renovations occurring in my apartment building. Because I couldn't leave, and because I also couldn't deal with the nonstop jackhammering, the only thing I've been able to do is lay on the couch and try to drown out the noise with Netflix. I've gotten through two and a half seasons of Parks and Recreation in the past four days, and I'm very proud of Leslie Knope for having been elected to Pawnee City Council. (Incidentally, the show's treatment of small-town life and/or strong women probably merits a separate post. When I am feeling better.) 

Hence, more or less, the absence of posts. But I think I've also been holding back a bit because of perfectionism, which is an issue that takes on unique dimensions in This Internet Age. On the one hand, the fact that a lot of the gatekeepers of content have fallen is incredibly liberating and democratizing - here I am, writing something you can read, and I didn't have to pitch it to anyone. Voices: diversified! But on the other, there are some things that require time to write about, that require reflection, that require patience. Which means that if you have something to say, but you take too long to say it, it's entirely possible that you'll miss the chance to join the conversation.

So I'm going to try to perfect less here and write more, with the knowledge that this is essentially my (open) sketchbook, on development and communications and health and culture and race. After all, the toddlers I heard this afternoon weren't exactly on key. But their performance had other merits. And I still wanted to hear them.

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what it means to be 25 today

Since this sort of goes with my recent writing, I'm going to republish an essay I wrote last year about being a Young Person Trying To Make It that serves as a sort of precursor to that work. (Full disclosure: I'm not 26 anymore.) It was on my old site, the one that was hacked, so longtime readers should recognize it.

Don’t Call Me A Millennial. My Name is Hillary.

1.

I think about the South on some days more than others. There are a million ways to forget it in this city, the District of Columbia, which isn’t even really a city at all compared to New York or London or Beijing but is, for our purposes, an urban hub: I can take public transit to a pupuseria or a pub, go to a poetry reading and not see the same people I saw last time, chat with the security guard who mans the entrance to my building. None of these things were even in the vocabulary of my childhood self, for whom a visit to the Chinese grocery store was a semiannual treat that required an hour-long drive to Tampa. But sometimes I’ll take the train out to Virginia, or ride my bike past Meridian Hill Park, a flash of green bounded by cement, and be reminded of how far I am from where I used to be.

I’m a half-white, half-Asian girl who grew up in Florida, went to high school and college in Kentucky, moved out to DC, and worked with what the bourgeoisie of the city politely refer to as “disadvantaged children” before leaving for grad school and then coming back. Growing up, I was told sometimes that this clash of cultures and ethnicities would make me more beautiful and stronger, like two plants bred together: heterosis, or hybrid vigor. This didn't make it any less strange that my grandmother watched war documentaries and wept quietly into the sofa, or that I spent my Saturday mornings learning long division, or that no one in my family had an opinion about Florida versus Florida State football. 

Which is to say that I have a profound appreciation for the consequences of assuming that my experience is universal. This was developed through thousands of hours of having to explain Vietnamese food and why it smells like garlic and fish, reading books no one else in the class had time for, and realizing that none of my employees or coworkers understood or cared that I was too conservative for my ex-boyfriend, I hated my psychiatrist, and that my friends back home all thought I was uppity for living in a place where people infused their cocktails. And which is also to say that every time I read an article that purports to somehow describe or speak for “Millennials,” “Gen Y,” or “my generation,” I want to throw my computer out the window. 

But I don’t. I post angry Facebook comments, or badger my friends via Gchat into talking about it instead of filing expense reports, or go on extended, tipsy rants at bars I can afford, most of which do not infuse their cocktails with anything but grime. Because I am an upper-middle-class professional in a not-very-lucrative field living in a city, and this is our way. I’m not ashamed of it. But I embrace it knowing that this person I am is not the person I always was, and that it’s not who we all are, and that anyone who tries to pretend otherwise is a liar.

2.

Joan Didion, in “Goodbye to All That,” says of New York that

I am not sure that it is possible for anyone brought up in the East to appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South. To an Eastern child…New York is just a city, albeit the city, a plausible place for people to live. But to those of us who came from places where no one had heard of Lester Lanin and Grand Central Station was a Saturday radio program, where Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions (“Money,” and “High Fashion,” and “The Hucksters”), New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of “living” there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not “live” at Xanadu.

Returning to the idea of our background influencing the signposts we embrace, I am a female English major from a liberal arts college who stays up on Saturday nights writing essays for fun, which makes Didion more or less my patron saint. (See also: Rachel Wetzsteon, Louise Gluck, Madeleine l'Engle.) But every time I ride the metro home from work and hear tourists loudly discussing how not to get robbed, I am reminded that there are many people for whom my everyday is foreign and a little scary. And as I write this, I am watching the mouse that apparently now lives in my apartment and remembering that sometimes I feel the same way.

When I was sixteen I lived in Louisville, and I attended a summer camp called Governor’s Scholars for which I was not really the target audience. The point of the program was to get smart kids from across Kentucky to a) keep on keepin’ on w/r/t education and employment and b) do so in the Bluegrass State. I was always going to leave eventually, and everybody knew it. But I had fun, and it was there that I first met people who thought that Louisville, despite its abundance of freeways and chain restaurants, wasn’t really “part” of the rest of the state, being too urban and separate: it was New York or California, and the remainder of Kentucky was the Real America. The girls on my dorm floor that summer referred to their hometowns by county, because it was assumed that those towns, unless they were one of maybe five or six known quantities (Louisville, Lexington, Owensboro, Bowling Green, Frankfort, Paducah), were too small for anyone to recognize. 

These girls were not stupid or naive. Many of them were, and are, smarter than me, they had more experience with boys and drugs, and we had the same taste and interests. But they also had different choices, and different options, than I did: sometimes their parents were professors and they wanted to go to Duke, and sometimes their boyfriend was 24 and living at home with his parents, working at the Valvoline. Later, when I was in college, I was the orientation assistant for a girl who had had to convince her friends of the relative merit of leaving for college instead of sticking around and getting a job. She told us the story of how she’d had to sell her friends on the idea of her leaving: “People who go to Centre," she said firmly, "don’t draw checks." What she meant, if you’ve never heard that phrase, is that our college was a good way to sidestep the prospect of being on welfare. Which was not a conversation it had ever occurred to me to have.

So I didn’t really fit in there, but when you live somewhere it becomes part of your fabric, whether or not you plan for it. When I moved to the city, at 23, neither I nor my parents knew a damn thing about grocery shopping without a car, or finding roommates who wouldn’t kill me in my sleep. I distinctly remember my family discussing this: “Yeah, she’s going to move in with people she doesn’t know that she found on the Internet. I guess it’s something you do? Yeah, I don’t get it either.” Because why would you move in with people when you could just get an apartment on your own? Because a one-bedroom apartment costs how much? Well, why would you move to a place like that in the first place? Don’t you like having money? (Yes. Yes, I do.)

And so what I’ve found myself doing, in grad school classes and at farmers’ markets and in long dinner-party discussions, is creating a sort of informal, downlow network of others who understand that our world is not the only one: people whose friends and high-school classmates stayed in the suburbs, work in human resources, got married right after college and own a two-bedroom house whose mortgage is roughly half of our monthly grocery bill. And who still like those friends and value them, despite the fact that they don’t know how to use Craigslist or follow the Malian elections. “Oh,” they’ll say, “you’re from Tennessee? I’m from Ohio,” and I can see a flash of recognition in their eyes that says, I went to public high school. And I know that as soon as someone else starts railing about the Rest of the Country and the doomed elections, or debating the relative merits of attending Princeton versus Columbia, there is a person nearby who understands.

3.

The impetus of all this is an article I read in the Huffington Post (of course that’s where I read it), by a writer named Sarah Shanfield, called What It Means to be 25 Today.” You can probably guess where this is going. Sarah Shanfield lives in New York City, where she moved to make it, Mary Tyler Moore-style, after school. She’s trying to find her way as a young, professional woman whose options are very different from those her parents and grandparents faced. And the funny thing is that I completely identify with it; the things that she thinks and/or worries about - relationships, happy hours, whether or not she’ll ever be an adult - are the exact same things I think about all the time. But, for lack of a better description, it still makes me angry.

Poor Sarah Shanfield’s piece is just the latest iteration of a trend I like to call Hearing Youth Voices - the problem, of course, being that the people who have the access and resources to speak (present company included) tend to have more in common with each other than not, which creates this sort of Idea of Youth that’s too small to have any real utility. There’s a shorthand we use in talking about the children: we’re Connected, and use Social Media; we’re Tech Savvy; we Want to Make A Difference, unless we’re having trouble figuring out what our job should be, in which case we’re living in our parents’ basements in unprecedented numbers; we Travel More, Settle Down Later, and our parents probably told us We Were Special, which may or may not have had a detrimental effect. It’s an easy way for the adults of this world to quantify how a generation with access to a whole truckload of future alien technology is going to be different.

And when these words describe us, we play into it, adopting these identifiers as our own. This is a particular problem in DC, a city that is very fond of celebrating young people to watch, which has the effect of making the rest of us feel as though we’re doing something wrong. The day before I read the Shanfield article, I had had a long come-to-Jesus with the 23-year-old intern in my office, who is incredibly smart (and adorable to boot), on whyit’s okay that she doesn’t have everything figured out just yet. Then and later, I was reminded of a political magazine for which I used to edit, one that was ostensibly by and for the youth. Our founder spoke often on television and in the papers for the young people of America, despite the fact that he had gone to Andover and I went to a high school where the biggest scandal involved people attacking each other with pushpins. There wasn't much to his narrative, all things considered: he talked a lot about how we were more engaged than our predecessors, and how we used the Internet, and how youth as a voting bloc could not be ignored. None of it addressed, for example, the issue of youth who didn't care because their neighborhoods never, ever improved, regardless of who was in office. But his message was relatively inoffensive and easy to understand, and he was well-connected, and he gained traction. And it became clear very quickly that if you understood at all the story he was selling, it would be easy enough to find yourself in there, locate people who wanted to listen, and forget about the rest.

To understand the problem with assigning generational voices, let’s employ the strategy of Gamification, which is also something that is apparently popular among people of my age. (I freely admit that I cribbed this from people who are cooler and/or more famous than me.) Gamification in this context means making something a game in order to make it more usable and easier to understand, and since Shanfield's article is all about the goals you did or didn't achieve, this should set up a pretty straightforward analogy for us.

If you are my age, imagine you are in Blockbuster. If you are younger, imagine you are on Netflix, or at Best Buy, or something. If you've never had access to technology like that, forgive my imperialism, and I'll try to make this as clear as possible.

There’s a section in the video game area, next to first-person shooters and underneath MMORPGs, called Being 25 Simulators. These are platform games, where the ultimate objective is to get your protagonist from one end of the game to the other.

If we accept the idea that Sarah Shanfield’s piece is the universal depiction of being 25 today that its title suggests, we can assume that it’s maybe the only title on the shelf. “But wait!” you say. “Part of the point of that essay was that there are lots of different choices you can make, and that’s okay!” Bear with me here. 

When you turn on Shanfield's game, you see a map of different levels and worlds you can choose from, and presumably they'll all let you win somehow, despite what you may think about them needing to all be achieved or to go in a certain order. These levels include Staying With Your College Boyfriend (and also Leaving Your College Boyfriend) and Taking Yet Another Internship.  You pass through them successfully by doing whatever is in the title. Maybe you get bonus points when you open a savings account.

Brooklyn.jpg

 But let’s say you live in Johnson City, Tennessee, where my parents live - a university town of 63,000 in the heart of Appalachia. In the Johnson City area, there are two rival high schools named Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. My sister's best friend's mother, Juanita, once refused to move to town on the grounds that it's "just too big." Johnson City has a mall, but it's not a very good one.

In that case, your game is probably different, and should also be on the shelf, in a different box. And a map of that game might look like this:

Johnson City.jpg

Or perhaps you live in Trinidad, in northeast DC, the last neighborhood I worked in before leaving to go back to school. Trinidad has made significant strides since 2008, when it was cordoned off by the police because of all the murders, and during my time there I grew very friendly with the uncles and aunts of my students, and with the guy at the liquor store who sold me VitaminWater and candy. But it's still the neighborhood where I brought a Dutch friend a month ago, and he looked around and said, with visible relish, "Ah! Now this looks like medium crime."

If you live in Trinidad, a lot of people outside of the neighborhood prefer to forget that your game exists. But that's a mistake, because not only does it exist, but its stakes are a good deal higher.

Trinidad.jpg

The point is that playing any of these games shouldn't be judged, per se, because you probably don't have a lot of say in the matter. But it would be pretty foolish of us to assume that there’s only one game, and if we did, we wouldn’t learn much about how games work. Or how we ultimately make it to that castle and save the princess.

Because that’s what we all want to do, in the end. Sarah Shanfield isn’t wrong in that people who are 25, or 26, or 27, do have something in common, regardless of where they are: we’re roughly a quarter of the way through our lives, and starting to feel like what happens from here on out is maybe a little bit more up to us than we realized. We start to get the idea, if we haven’t already, that we’re not the children we used to be, and suddenly we have to do something with that information. I’m going to pull another demographic-specific trope out here and quote Rilo Kiley, one of my favorite bands when I was in college:

I've felt the wind on my cheek
Coming down from the east
And thought about how we are all
As numerous as leaves on trees
And maybe ours is the cause of all mankind
Get loved, make more
Try to stay alive

“Well, we obviously know that we’re not the only ones living this life,” someone’s probably huffing somewhere. Of course you do. But there’s a difference between knowing it and saying it. And in a world where the show Girls is described as depicting “true-to-life Gen Y losers” and Lena Dunham is “plain” and “unshapely” (she’s not, and if you don’t follow this sort of thing, the show is only true-to-life if you live in a city and have a college degree), is it any wonder that people outside of the rarefied echelons of the east coast latch on to descriptions of the “real America”? It’s a toxic divide, to be sure, but it’s also not a surprising one. When someone tries to sell you a false reality, it’s going to make you angry.

We all have a right to tell our story, and the beauty of our voice - and the only thing that will ever help us learn to live with each other - is that it’s collective. A lot of the pushback on Sarah Shanfield’s article came in the form of comments calling her “overprivileged” and telling her to “get out and volunteer,” which is unnecessarily shaming and also misses the point. There’s nothing wrong with her telling her story (which, again, is also pretty much my story) as long as we acknowledge that it’s only one of many.

So I would like to try to expand upon the idea of what it means to be 25. From the perspective of an overeducated, mixed-race girl who’s now 26, and who has finally realized that she - like everyone else - doesn't need to fit in.

4.

It’s okay to be 25.

If you’ve been described as a “voice of your generation” or a “young person to watch,” you probably know that you’re doing all right, but in case you need reassuring, it’s okay to be hot stuff at 25. But it’s also okay if you’re waiting tables or selling office equipment and trying to figure out what your next step is. Maybe you went to a small college and your career services office never told anyone to leave the state. Maybe you have a baby, and it needs food. You will now have empathy for everyone else whose career pathways were not straight or smooth, and you will know to be nice to the receptionist.

It’s okay to send out Tumblrs on the Internet, gossip about some trend you and your friends have invented, and live with roommates. It’s also okay to have bought a house and sought out married-people friends who don't have time for memes anymore. Some people get married earlier, and some get married later, and it’s only a bad thing if you married the wrong person at the wrong time for you. Otherwise, congratulations, you’re in love, or you’re single and learning from every new heartbreak.

It’s okay to try online dating, and also okay to have mixed feelings about OKCupid because even though you can’t seem to find anyone decent in real life you really prefer meeting people in person. It’s even okay to hand over your iPod on the first date and let that be a factor in how things progress, as long as you recognize that it’s not super important and also a little obnoxious.

And it’s okay to not have strong taste in music. Some people don’t. You probably have opinions about baseball players or luxury goods, which I do not.

It’s okay to want to talk about books with people who think Dan Brown is a moron. It’s also okay if you like Dan Brown, because people can agree to disagree and then decide to talk about other things for a while. 

It’s okay to have faith. Or to leave your religion. 

It’s okay to not want to leave where you’re from, although it might not hurt you to do so. Maybe think about why you don’t want to leave, at least. But you probably have a lot of reasons for feeling like that, and they’re probably complicated, and that’s okay too.

It’s okay to not know what you want or why. But it’s not okay to not want to know what you want, because you deserve to want things, just like everyone else. (And the “why” tends to be helpful in finding things to want that are sustainable and healthy.)

And finally, it’s okay to tell your story, to toss your tile into our collective mosaic. Because we’re never going to have one if people don’t take part. And maybe your tile is foggy with the humidity of a south Florida summer, or shiny and sharp and focused, or maybe it has a lot of other tiles attached to it. Hybrid vigor, my friends. Hybrid vigor.

 

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as you walk on by

So first of all, housekeeping: I just had my first two pieces published in The Billfold, if you want to read them. (I'd be flattered.) And while I could write more about that/elaborate on what I wrote, I actually had something more time-sensitive to discuss, sort of.

Because I am lucky and have met a lot of very nice people in my life, I've had a tremendous amount of support during the past month or two. I've gotten sweet calls and emails from far-off friends, lots of hugs, etc.; one person even brought me dinner one night, which was awesome. And something I've heard pretty frequently is, "Let me know if there's anything I can do." 

And there is, in fact, one thing you can do, and it's so easy that it sounds kind of stupid:

Don't forget me.

I'm totally serious. I don't need food or beer (though I will take them). I don't usually need to talk about it, and if I do I'll let you know; in fact, there were many times when I didn't want to talk about it, because my brain needed a break. But I know that this is a temporary stage, and that eventually things will return to normal. And at that point, having to restart everything - relationships, extracurriculars, habits - is going to be yet another source of stress. 

Which is why I've been so grateful to hear from my friends, even when I'm not there and haven't been in contact. My schedule is not regular right now, and my attention is pulled several different ways most of the time, which means that I might not text you back immediately and that I probably can't go to your party (particularly if your party is in another state). But sometime, in the near future, I will be able to call you and talk to you and have dinner with you. And knowing that I can do it, without having to worry about people being mad at me because I've been MIA, is enormously helpful.  

I don't want to speak for everyone in this type of situation, because I'm sure that some people need casseroles more. I'd venture to guess, though, that most people don't want a stressful episode to define their lives, that they'll eventually want to return to the things that made them happy before. So if you want to help, keep them tied to their outside lives, even if the connections are tenuous and seemingly one-sided. And a million thanks to all of my friends. Leave a message at the beep; I promise I'll call you back soon. 

(Also, life update. Mom is doing really well, and as weird as it sounds, I'm enjoying myself here despite the circumstances: we've made barley scones, learned to play Uno while keeping score [it dramatically changes gameplay], and taught my grandmother how to play Dominion, which she enjoyed. Things could be a lot worse.)

 

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sometimes I honestly do love east Tennessee

Quote from an obituary in the Johnson City Press :

"She was preceded in death by her loving husband, Marion (Hot Shot) Ramsey."


MOM And after that he brought out a whole crate of moonshine, and he said, "This is from Popcorn."

HILLARY They figured out a way to distill moonshine from popcorn?

MOM No, no. That's the name of the guy who made it.*

 

*"In 1999, Sutton published Me and My Likker, an autobiography and guide to moonshine production. "

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