Thursday, July 31, 2008


As I looked up the flight requirements for my trip to Singapore, I was initially surprised by how welcoming the Singaporean government seemed to be toward visitors. All we would need was a valid passport, a return ticket, and proof of sufficient funds according to the first few lines of text. A Social Visit Pass would be provided upon arrival, allowing us to stay for 30 days free of charge, and this could even be extended up to 3 months under certain circumstances.

However, as I scrolled down the webpage to see if there was any “fine print” I may be missing, I stopped short. Right under the rule concerning minors’ inclusion in their parents’ passports was a statement reading “Entry may be refused to ‘hippy’ types.”

So does this mean if I go up to the customs officer barefoot, wearing raggedy bellbottoms, a tie-dyed tube top, and some drooping daisies in my unbrushed hair, he’ll put me on the next flight back to the U.S.? Are they really allowed to discriminate like that?

Then again, in a country where chewing gum was successfully outlawed, I suppose anything is possible. And don’t forget: drug trafficking is a federal offense. They make sure to remind you over the intercom when your plane lands. “Welcome to Singapore. And if you bring drugs into our country, we will kill you.” But if you’re a hippy, we’ll just send you home.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Three More Moments in NYC

On the subway

There are unspoken rules for riding the subway in NYC. I do not know if they are the same for every city—as I imagine they are probably very different in Tokyo, where everyone is herded on like cattle, and at least slightly different in London, where people must go up the left side of the stairs, rather than the right—but there are some basic tenets by which, if you do not abide, you are labelled either a tourist or an asshole.

The first is that when waiting to board the train, you should stand on either side of the opening subway doors and let those coming out get off of the train before you try to board. Don’t stand directly in front of the doors, or no one will be able to get past you. If no one gets off, there will never be space for you (or any of us behind you) to get on.

The second is that if there is an open seat and you want it, you sit in it. There is no polite, proper, “You first,” “On no, please, you first.” There is no such thing as calling “fives” if you have to get up and check the map farther down the car. If you didn’t find one upon entering the car, it’s one mad dash to be the first to squeeze your behind into any newly vacated seats at each stop. If you’re not quick, a woman with a shopping bag and a whiny kid will most likely beat you.

So I was riding the subway home from work, standing of course (since there seems to be a rush hour” from 4:45 until somewhere around 8pm), and we arrived at one of the many stops between 50th and 116th street. I was wrapped up in David Sedaris, so I wasn’t hunting for a free seat, nor was I paying much attention to the passengers standing around me. When the train started again, I happened to look up from my book. There was an black gentleman standing beside me, probably about 70 or so, with soft cheerful wrinkles beneath his eyes and taut grey curls around his ears. He caught my eye, and motioned to the empty seat that was in front of both of us.

“Would you…?” he inquired, asking the question more with his eyes than with his barely audible voice. I realized that he was offering me the seat.

“Oh, no.” I raised my book as if that was a sufficient explanation, and smiled grandly. “I’m fine.”

That elderly gentleman offered me a seat on the New York subway. That small action puts a smiling feeling in my chest every time I think of it.

Shame on women who do not appreciate chivalry.

Moreover, shame on anyone who does not appreciate small, kind gestures.

In the rain

I was walking back from Rite Aid, at 96th street. Having taken the subway, I discovered it was raining when I emerged and immediately put up my umbrella. It wasn’t raining very heavily, and I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps if I wasn’t carrying a bag that had bled black ink onto my pale blue tank top the last time I wore it outside (it was a hot day, and I sweat so much that both my shirt and the bag got wet), I might not even have bothered. It has been oppressively hot recently, and the rain spattering up against my legs was actually a cool relief.

As I entered Columbia’s campus through the black iron gates at Broadway and climbed the steps toward the library—and, consequently, my residence hall—I saw a guy sitting by himself on one of the stone benches partway up the steps. He had a bicycle propped up next to him and a brown paper bag was partially crumpled on the seat beside him. Right there in the rain, his head was thrown back, and he was gulping chocolate milk from a quart-sized carton. He wasn’t hurrying to finish his milk so he could hop on his bike and hurry away, out of the rain; he was just sitting there, enjoying the thick, sweet flavor of chocolate milk in the rain.

Then he sat up, and as I passed, our eyes met. I wished in that moment I could stop and redirect my steps in order to go over and express how contended he looked, how pleased it made me feel to see someone just sitting there in circumstances that happened to occur, enjoying them for what they were. Rain and chocolate milk—no reason to hurry, to run away. Instead I just smiled at him, and he smiled back. I like to imagine he interpreted my appreciation in that smile.

As I passed, he stood and lifted his arms in a V over his head. It was as though he was inviting the rain. Perhaps he was doing it for me, for his audience, for anyone watching, to give them a better spectacle. I prefer to think he was doing it for him. I prefer to believe he then sat down and finished his chocolate milk.

Back from the park

It is my understanding that most people in wheelchairs do not choose to be in them. I, for one, cannot imagine the awfulness of being confined to a sitting position twenty-four hours a day. I can’t even sit for two hours without squirming and stretching and wanting to run around the block once or twice. Therefore, when I see someone in a wheelchair, I immediately wonder if they were born with leg defects or if they were in an accident. If they are elderly, I also consider whether osteoporosis can deteriorate your bones to the point of being unable to support your bodyweight, and I immediately feel guilty about not drinking more milk. I certainly never question if people in wheelchairs need the devices or not.

A recent encounter may have changed my mind, however.

I was on my way back from Central Park, walking up the hill beside Morningside Park at 110th Street. My MP3 player was crooning Mariah Carey, and I was feeling very accomplished for having run all the way around the reservoir without feeling tired and—perhaps more importantly—without getting lost.

Suddenly, I heard the rickety sound of metal clattering against wheels. Looking up, I saw a unkempt, trampy-looking man careening down the sidewalk in a wheelchair. Ordinarily, this would seem very dangerous, as he would have little more than his hands clutching at the wheels to stop himself at the bottom. However, this particular man was making his way down the hill with his very health-looking legs spidering out in front of him, feet on the ground both propelling him forward and preventing the chair from speeding out of control.

What a scam! I could just imagine this man, seated in his chair along 6th Avenue, a scribbled cardboard sign asking for money for this unfortunate crippled war veteran. It made me want to go over and dump him out of his chair.

Of course, I didn’t. I am so heartless that I never put my change in those beggar’s cups, anyway.

Friday, July 25, 2008

I have been doing some thinking recently and come up with

Things I am grateful for:
  • Parents who are reasonable, supportive, autonomous, and unconditionally loving.
  • Parents who set good examples and taught me to take responsibility.
  • Parents who know how and when to set and relax boundaries.
  • Parents who stayed together.
  • A sister who loves me in spite of herself. Or myself. Or both.
  • An appreciation of vegetables, and an ability to cook them to my own satisfaction.
  • The ability to type—fast.
  • Lifelong friends.
  • Parents of friends who have turned into equally valued friends.
  • Books that can make me laugh. (Thank you David Sedaris.)
  • Google.
  • Cadbury chocolate.
  • Learning to swim at a young age.
  • The US Postal Service.
  • Opportunities to travel.

    Things I regret

  • Never learning a second (or third or fourth) language.
  • Not learning Photoshop in high school, when I had the chance.
  • Never swallowing my pride and asking out any guy I liked.
  • Never shaving my head when it wouldn’t have mattered.
  • Not being able to cook instinctively, like my grandmother.
  • Taking up the flute instead of the oboe.
  • Allowing the world’s technology to creep past me and leave me in its wake.
  • Not getting insurance on my cell phone.
  • Not having had all of my health issues cleaned up the thousands of times I went to the doctor’s when I was still covered by my parents’ health insurance.
  • Wednesday, July 16, 2008

    Stress Stuffing

    I honestly cannot imagine what my life is going to be like without the stresses of: finding a job, impressing people at my job so they will help to elevate me to the job I really want, figuring out where I’m going to live, finding an apartment there, paying for this apartment, deciding on a new computer, paying for said computer, keeping in contact with everyone, letting go of people who don’t want to keep in contact, prioritizing people who do, making new friends, and figuring out what I am really supposed to be doing. And of course, by “supposed to be doing,” I really mean “want to be doing.” What I will be happy doing. Or happiest doing.

    But what will I do when these questions are answered? When some of my stars finally align themselves and quit catapulting across the sky? Then what?

    Surely I will find some new project, some new “stressful” endeavor to take up my time and energy. Because right now, I imagine that if someone took these projects away from me, if someone were to hand me the perfect editorial assistant job at small book publishing company and the most affordable apartment in New York City right beside Central Park, near Manhattan, I might just collapse into one big noodle-y mess on the floor. I would have nothing left holding me up! Seriously, some days I think that stress is the only motivating factor driving me out of bed and on to the miserable task of resume-submitting and craigslist-scouring. Sometimes, I feel as though I may be on the brink of exhaustion, but then I wonder if it is just my imagination. After all, didn’t I engage in plenty more activities during high school and college? It just seems that the stresses are more Life Sized, now, however, and therefore more wearying. An end of a day now truly feels like The End of The Day. And weekends are for everything that couldn’t get done during the week.

    No wonder my parents always did yardwork on Saturdays. I never could understand why they didn’t just do it some weekday evening. Now I know.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008

    Learning Experiences

    I hate to keep comparing New York City to England, but in the ways each experience has forced me to grow and to face myself and discover who I am and what I am capable of, they are proving to be very similar experiences. In both places, I am being forced to navigate new areas, to meet new people, and to establish new routines. I am forced to buy my own food, to cook extensively for myself, and to live amongst people whom I never met and will probably never see again after our short time being together.

    Also, in both places, I am very out of my element: in England, I was literally a foreigner; in New York City, I am only metaphorically so. However, I oftentimes feel more foreign here than I ever did in England. When I flew across the Atlantic Ocean, at least I expected a few language barriers. Who knew I would have to learn a different vocabulary not only to work for a specialized magazine, but just to speak with my pop-culturized, fashion-savvy peers in the most popular city in America?

    Meanwhile, in order to keep from going crazy, I am doing my best to chalk everything up to a “learning experience.” Looking for an apartment isn’t about finding one or else ending up curbside at Columbia University on August 2nd with no home, it’s about learning how to look for an apartment. I’ve never done this before, and it’s something I will certainly need to be able to do, pretty much for the rest of my life, so I may as well start now. Going to a job interview shouldn’t be a life-or-death experience, it should be another trial run, another way to be better prepared for my next interview, whether or not this particular company hires me. I’m not going to be “perfect,” and I don’t even know what a “perfect” candidate would look like to them, so all I can do is practice being prepared, professional, and as much “myself” as possible. Then, I can use the experience to build my interviewing skills for the next one while crossing my fingers and hoping for the best when I shake the HR representative’s hand and walk out that door.

    Of course, I don’t always manage to think this way. Just yesterday, I was suffering from the “What am I doing” “I don’t know where I’m going to end up” “What if the end of July comes and I still have nowhere to live and no job” “Or worse, what if I have one and not the other because then I can’t even surrender and go home” panic attacks. As I have told many people recently: I feel like I am living in a never-ending finals week, only this time it’s Real Life.

    But I’m trying my best to be level-headed and to just plow ahead and do what needs to be done. Really, what other choice do I have?

    Sunday, July 13, 2008

    Stuff Awareness

    I never would have known I had so much stuff if I hadn’t gone to England.

    At the time of my departure, fitting six months worth of belongings into two suitcases seemed an impossible task. Simply cutting down my things from what I “needed” to live in a house to what I would be able to fit in a college dorm had been a chore, and then I had even purchased more items to make my life “easier”; therefore I owned essentially even more stuff. Now, I had to take everything and compact it into two pieces of luggage each weighing less than 50lbs. I remember standing in front of the open, overflowing suitcases, wondering how in the world I would pare down my belongings to that size. This was not optional, however, so I managed. And do you know what? I don’t remember feeling as though I lacked a thing.

    That being said, you would think I would have learned to be perfectly content with fewer things. Initially, I was certainly overwhelmed by how much I owned: a humongous bedroom full of stuff, plus a fully equipped kitchen with a persistently stuffed refrigerator, plus a living room with my own personal desk and filing system containing papers I saved for goodness-knows what reason…. I had completely forgotten I owned all of these things. What was I saving them for?

    My immediate reaction was to “clean house”—start selling and giving away everything that seemed superfluous. However, I eventually convinced myself that I “might need this in the future,” or that “that might come in handy for such-and-such a reason.” Soon, all I had managed to do was move a few boxes out of my bedroom closet and into our basement. I had re-acclimated to my very suburban American, hord-ish, settled way of life.

    Now I’m on the move again. This time, I have moved into another “dorm,” only I’m not in college anymore, and I have to think about moving this van full of stuff into an apartment elsewhere in New York City at the end of July. The more I think about packing and re-locating all of my belongings after only two months, the more I abhor owning so many things. I don’t really need computer speakers. I don’t really need a desktop pencil holder, or a stackable paper tray, or a bulletin board, or even a good number of the clothing and jewelry I brought with me. I could get by with less.

    Still, what really takes up an increasing amount of space in my moving materials is cookware. I love cooking, and I don’t even have all of my cooking-related appliances with me. My Magic Bullet and Hot Pot are sitting in my room in Pittsburgh, just waiting for a new home where they can be used. Until I don’t have to transport them around the country multiple times a year, though, I feel forced to leave them there. They are two items that I certainly don’t need. I certainly can make do without ever making hummus or smoothies in my Magic Bullet, and I can always boil water in a pot on the stove. Likewise, however, I could easily get rid of at least one of my frying pans and almost all of my spices and still be able to eat palatable meals with ease. I bring these things with me, though, because I enjoy having a box full of spices and being able to cook multiple dishes in pans on the stovetop at once. I just purchased a baking sheet, and I am actually very excited at the versatility it is already bringing to my cooking capabilities. Part of me cannot help but think, “Oh dear—one more thing to transport to the new living abode,” but right now, when I make cookies with friends who visit from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, I am so grateful to have it!

    The bottom line is, I cannot see belongings in-and-of-themselves as bad. I look at a minimalist like my cousin, and I definitely admire her. There are huge advantages to living as sparsely as she does: namely, the ability to get up and move any time the need or desire arises. Even without owning what I would consider a disproportionate amount of clothing/furniture/etc., I still suffer from the apprehensive feeling of, “But all my stuff is already in place here.” On the other hand, I simply need good lighting too much to get rid of either of my dorm room lamps, and I enjoy cooking too much to get rid of any of my cookware (and am usually in the process of acquiring more).

    It’s a tough line to walk: the consumerist-driven feeling of “too little; buy more” and the often-neglected reality of Too Much; Throw/Give Away. I only hope that in this city of neon lights and house-sized billboards, I do not becoming tied down to all of my stuff.

    Thursday, July 3, 2008

    June Book Review

    My recent reads (or, as in the case of the first book listed, “almost-reads”) have been fairly eclectic. I know one job position at People magazine is that of book reviewer, so here I will indulge myself and do a little book reviewing online. In chronological order of what I have read, here is what I have to say about the novels I have finished (or at least attempted to finish) since coming to New York City.

    The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

    This is the second time I have read this book cover-to-cover. I don’t know what made me return to it; perhaps because I own it and because I recalled it striking me as a bit bizarre and quirky the first time around. After finishing it this second time, I fully understand why I would have found it so bizarre the first time I read it. I was initially given the book by my friend, who is a middle-aged librarian. At that time, I was still in junior high school.

    This book is about a boy who has just entered high school as a freshman and makes friends with high school seniors. His conservative typical-American home life is contrasted with the rebel/hippie nature of his older friends. What I loved most about returning to this book is how familiar everything was. The drugs and alcohol and love affairs of the narrator’s older friends did seem rebellious and therefore desirious, and yet the suburban setting tempered everything in a way I could immediately recognize and which also explained why the novel has such a “safe” and realistic feel to it. These kids could be perceived as “hippies,” yet they weren’t, because they are the wrong generation. They’re closer to my generation; they’re not about to wear bell-bottoms and put flowers in their hair and tent camp across America to attend Woodstock. The time frame feels just on the brink of inventing cell phones.

    I also loved the epistolary style of the novel—it is written as a series of anonymous letters to the reader, who is also perceived by the narrator as an anonymous recipient, but also as a “friend.” Why aren’t more novels written this way (that is, as letters)? It inspires me to write one, just because I like the style.

    The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

    This is the one novel which I declined to finish. I say “declined” because I could have—it was not unreadable. However, I read to about the middle of the book—page 361—and still felt no sense of compulsion to continue. Except for what I knew from the excerpt on the back of the book, I felt no sense of guidance telling me what this book was about. Two men had fallen from an hijacked airplane; one was potentially becoming an angel, one potentially a demon; they might or might not still be on earth; both had been in the acting business; one had previously been trying to escape his Indian heritage by becoming as British as possible; several supposedly allegorical tales had been told (but to what end I could not determine—they seemed pretty arbitrary in content and particularly in placement to me); and Rushdie particularly loves using esoteric vocabulary words almost as much as he loves making up his own.

    Needless to say, I attended a book fair during this reading jaunt and eventually decided to move on to more enjoyable summer (or lifelong? I no longer have to consider myself confined to “summer”) reading.

    Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

    This is not the sort of book I would ordinarily pick up of my own accord. The back jacket is filled with praises such as “Magical and outlandish,” and “wildly inventive,” all of which are not at all inaccurate. This author plays with the boundaries between the real and the surreal, bordering right on that point of being artistic for the sake of being artistic. He’s not the kind of abstract artist who splashes paint across a white canvas and expects you to derive meaning, but more like Salvador Dali, where everything is so overly complex and convoluted that you are liable to miss the meaning, anyhow.

    The novel is structured around a very realistic plot, which is what kept me going: a fifteen-year-old-boy runs away from home to escape his father and, in theory, find his mother and sister, who abandoned him as a young child. It turns out that his father cast a very ominous prophecy about the boy—who adopts the name Kafka—and he has run away to avoid fulfilling this prophecy, but like Oedipus, he is fulfilling it in spite of himself. Meanwhile, a parallel plot is occurring involving an elderly man who can speak to cats and becomes implicated in a murder, and a third storyline, involving a woman paralyzed in time by the loss of her lover, intersects the two. However, in spite of the intersections of these storylines, they never seem to truly come together.

    For someone like me, who grew up connecting the dots between evidence in Nancy Drew novels, I tend to prefer tidy endings that have everything “make sense.” However, when I finished this book, I felt that it wasn’t that sort of story. I was supposed to feel content with each story hanging in its own sort of limo. I am not sure if I would call Murakami’s writing its own sort of “fantasy” genre, but it is certainly a style I have never encountered before.

    The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld

    Although I would recommend Prep before I would recommend this novel, The Man of My Dreams was no disappointment. Sittenfeld did a good job of spanning time and making Hannah—the main character—mature over time, which can be tricky. I particularly love the fact that the novel starts out in Pittsburgh (!!!), and the last romantic encounter depicted in the novel (which is then analyzed in a letter by Hannah herself) eerily reminds me of my memoir and the pieces I have left to write. I now own this book—having purchased it at the fair second-hand—so if anyone wants to borrow it, just say the word!

    The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

    I feel like this memoir succeeded by slotting itself into two of the memoir categories I have found most popular: bizarre childhoods and trouble/struggle-filled childhoods. This combination, it seems, is a guaranteed seller. I do not mean to come across negatively Walls’ memoir. Had this been one of the first memoirs I ever read, I would likely be raving about it right now, announcing that it as one of the best ever. However, after having read through childhood poverty struggles in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and witnessing one of the most bizarre upbringings ever in Augusten Burroughs’ “Running with Scissors,” the gist of the material presented in The Glass Castle isn’t really new to me. It’s more wacky, drunken, immature parents who impose hunger and raggedy clothing upon their tag-along children.

    Nevertheless, the bottom line is: I am enjoying this book. I am compelled to continue reading; it’s a fast read in spite of its length; and the writing (such as character development, particularly of the narrator Jeanette and of her brother Brian) is solid. Certainly worth reading; I guess I was just looking for something more “innovative” in the genre.