More Attempts to Solve The Problem

There’s a word in Danish, hygge, that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Hygge is one of those cool words that doesn’t actually have a direct English translation, but instead, describes some abstract and complex emotion or phenomenon. The closest translation of hygge that we can come up with is the feeling of coziness and warmth, usually with food and/or good friends. If I were a linguist, I might even venture as far as to say that the fact that the Danes have a word dedicated to this feeling is indicative of the value that they put on the so-called “Good Life.”

Linguistics aside, though, I am a big fan of this hygge thing. I think of drinking hot chocolate while reading a book in bed, or playing a board game with friends on a rainy day. In high school, I reflected often on the power of contentment and taking pleasure in simplicity. My senior year, I delivered an entire monologue to my English class about how my dreams hinged more on aesthetics than success. A New York City coffee shop, I claimed, would make me far happier than achievement and recognition.

In the year that followed, I graduated from high school, got straight As at Vanderbilt, joined as many student organizations as my schedule would allow, and hunted leadership positions like they were Pokemon and I had to catch ‘em all. Letting go of ambition, I found, was not as easy a task as it seemed.

It was a lesson that Alexander Hamilton apparently learned hundreds of years ago. After becoming a Revolutionary War hero, Hamilton went back to his wife, Eliza, and his firstborn son, Philip. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “I lose all taste for the pursuits of ambition. I sigh for nothing but the company of my wife and my baby.” Cue the collective swoon of American women in the 1780’s.

Hamilton’s biographer, Chernow, on the other hand, was quick to dismiss this as “poppycock,” as “his career would move forward with its own furious inner propulsion.”

Sometimes, I wonder if my high school classmates saw my plea for hygge as a similar breed of poppycock, like the athlete who says he’s retiring, but then can’t stay away from the game.

Objectively, I have to admit that for both Hamilton and myself, it was a bit over-the-top to suggest that we would give up our accomplishments in favor of hygge (not that my accomplishments are anywhere near the caliber of Hamilton’s). But I also think that it might be unfair and simplistic for history to reflect that ambitious people value success over the mythical Important Things.

In a lot of ways, it reminds me of The Great Problem of the Modern Woman, the tug-of-war between career and family that we keep trying to solve even though LITERALLY NO ONE EVER WINS. And when I think about the fact that Hamilton encountered this dilemma of balance, it makes me resentful that career vs. family is a feminist issue and not an everyone-in-all-of history-ever-needs-to-figure-out-a-balance-of-what’s-important-in-life problem. But that wasn’t even the point I was trying to make.

I think maybe what we could all consider is that hygge is not a lifestyle but a moment, and that the desire for success does not impair our ability to appreciate these moments. Spending every hour of every day in a coffee shop is incompatible with ambition, but spending a few hours there a week is not. If ambition and hygge share a common thread, it is that both fight complacency: they both urge us to not throw away our shot, whether it is our shot at success or our shot at contentment. Maybe together, they could be enough.

In Which I Meet Lots of Randos

The old man in the green jacket wipes the table down carefully, deliberately flicking away each piece of debris. There are already two people at the table next to his, deeply focused on their game of chess. The white pieces have crawled over the board, the game nearly at its close. In a few moves, it is finished; the two men shake hands, and one walks away. The other turns to watch the old man as he lays out a chessboard of his own.

A group gathers around the table–four other guys looking at the empty seat. The man in the green jacket waits, his back perfectly straight as he surveys the pieces laid out before him. The group surrounding him is tall, tan, and young, the kind of people you’d totally expect to see walking around Santa Monica. It’s rude to stare, I know, but I’m having a hard time looking away from something so out of the ordinary.

One of them finally sits down, and the game begins. They use a timer to play, slapping down a brass knob to begin the countdown for each move. The other three stand and watch the as the pieces slide back and forth. I don’t realize how obviously I’m watching until one of them smiles and nods at me.

He comes in a few minutes later to buy a bottle of water, and walks over to me on his way out. He’s in his mid-thirties, I think, still dressed like a college kid in jeans and a t-shirt and running shoes.

“You from the area?” he asks.

“Yeah, I go to UCLA. Are you?”

“Moved here from New York a few years back.”

We chat like old friends in the way that only total strangers can, the conversation flowing smoothly as we share the superficial details of our identities. He is retired already; worked in software development before that; has a mom who studied chemical engineering until she “did the homemaker thing.”

It’s the kind of conversation that you can have exactly once with a person, before you learn enough about them that an exchange of facts can no longer pass for conversation. When friends talk, there is an expectation of intimacy: if you already know the pieces that make up a person’s life–their job, their family, their hometown–all that remains is to get to know the pieces that make up the person themselves–their dreams, their passions, their fears; and these things are not so freely shared. Maybe this is why meeting people is so easy (“What’s your name? What’s your major? Where are you from?”) but quickly turns into me pulling aside someone else I know to introduce them as well, so that the whole thing can begin again.

He asks if I want to play chess with them. The last time I played was in fourth grade, sprawled out on the living room floor as I tried to think just a few steps ahead of my dad.

I accept, and find myself seated across from the old man in the green jacket.

“Have you ever read any books about chess?”

“No, I haven’t.”

In retrospect, this should’ve been a sign that I was going to lose even more spectacularly than I anticipated.

The game is over in five minutes, my king cornered and half my pieces removed from the board. I thank him, we shake hands, and I leave, for now finished trying to fit in. I am neither tall nor tan nor male; I am not a chess player, though not because I lack the qualities I just mentioned. I should not feel like I have failed some unfair initiation into a secret boys’ club simply because I am a girl–I am not a chess player because I know almost nothing about chess. That’s kind of how life works. But as I wait for the bus, I can’t shake off the feeling of failure, which makes no sense because to be honest setting up the pieces correctly was about as much as I could’ve hoped to accomplish. All too often, I find myself wanting to fit where I don’t belong, and sometimes it’s simple to change myself just enough to make it; but there are some things that can’t be faked. And chess, as I have been reminded, is one of them.

I Didn’t Finish Any of My Thoughts

It’s easy enough to look at a morning or an afternoon or even an entire day and to tell myself that I used it well–I’m not throwing away my shot–even if it wasn’t particularly memorable or daring or fun, because one of the many millions of things to which life could be analogized is a sum: of minutes, of days, of joy and pain and everything in between. And okay, maybe it’s oversimplifying things to say that the human condition = good stuff – bad stuff, because then that means figuring out what makes an experience good or bad or whether all of life falls completely into one category or the other (disclaimer: pretty sure it doesn’t). But the fact that we have memories and the ability to learn from experience means that on some level, we do experience life as a sum; perhaps a more sprawling and complex one than mine, but a sum nonetheless, as we collect months and years and memories in hopes of achieving that elusive critical mass required to swing and make an impact on some small piece of the world.

—-

As we roll past the city lights on the 405, I wonder what, exactly, we are. By definition, we are just friends–the “just” is very important. We enjoy spending time together; we get along well; we are comfortable. We have accepted a status quo. But as I watch the other side of the freeway fly by, headlights streaming past like beads falling from a string, I am not sure this particular state of being is meant to last. But right now, Ben Rector is singing about falling in love, and I look straight ahead because eye contact during love songs would most definitely upset the balance we are trying so hard not to.

By the time we find parking, we’re late. We order separately, and it’s not until after we’ve joined the rest of our group that I realize we’ve gotten the same damn drink.

The toilet overflowed the other night for no apparent reason, and I still don’t know what’s wrong with it. I check inside the tank, to make sure the chain connected to the little rubber flapper connected to I’m-not-quite-sure-what is still there, because that’s the only thing I know how to fix. Fortunately (or not), it’s present and working perfectly.

We have a plunger, so I find it–and realize that I don’t actually know how to use it. I understand the physics of creating negative pressure, but now there’s a plunger in my hand and I’m suddenly uncertain; do you just use it once? Do you keep plunging and hope for the best? I Google it. More than ever, it feels like I’m playing at adulthood.

Enzymes catalyze reactions by positioning substrates in a favorable configuration. This is typically illustrated by two models–lock and key, and induced fit. The lock and key model suggests that the enzyme’s active site is precisely shaped to accept its substrate, while the induced fit model instead suggests that the active site changes shape upon coming into contact with a substrate, in order to bind it securely. So basically, enzymes echo all my unanswered questions about identity and relationships–are relationships based on a lock and key model, in which two people click just so and are locked into place, or on an induced fit model, in which upon coming into contact, two people mold each other–pushing back and giving in just enough to create a perfect fit? I know that I have been bent and molded and grown by others, in the same way that I see scraps of my own identity woven into the people I love.

A common tumblr factoid (thanks, I think it’s a great source, too) says you are the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time. I imagine it as a giant Venn diagram–circles of five people intertwined and overlapping, life on life on life, pressing in just the right places to bind themselves together. 

 

I Don’t Even Like Running Though

Alright I pulled myself together and am actually going to write this now.

Every so often, I think about that paradox where if you move half of the distance between your location and your destination an infinite number of times, you’ll technically never make it to your destination. According to Google, it’s called “Zeno’s Paradox,” and it was created by some dude named Zeno who wanted to prove that motion is a complete and utter sham.

At first, it kind of trips you out because it makes sense, almost. But the truth of the matter is that when you test it out in real life, and you really put your mind to it, or even if you don’t, you can probably overcome the paradox and get to the other side of the room.

I refuse to diss math, so I’ve gotta tell you the truth first. The truth is that all infinite converging series eventually sum to a finite number; that is, ½ + ¼ +1/8 + 1/16 … = 1. For some people, that is enough. The jury is still out on whether or not it’s enough for me, but that may just be because it’s been over two years since I’ve touched a series.

Math never hurts, but for me, Zeno’s paradox will always be disproven by a simple act of magic – The Final Step.

Zeno’s paradox is visualized in many different ways, including the original Zeno’s impossible tortoise race, Daniel Tammet’s lamp posts, and Hazel Grace Lancaster’s some-infinities-are-bigger-that-other-infinities. Personally, I’ve always imagined a race – specifically, one of those big-league races where the winner gets to break the ribbon at the end. The runner gets closer and closer and closer to the finish line until suddenly, the ribbon is broken and he’s won the race. And before math and the Internet explained to me why this worked, I justified this convergence through the magic of The Final Step

It is an explanation full of logical fallacies, but I think I’m okay with it. The way I imagine it, the runner can get fractions of millimeters away from the finish line through pure physics, and he makes up the rest of the distance through some combination of determination, grit, and agency that allows him to break through that threshold. Imagine a literal breakthrough, complete with shattering glass.

I’m well aware that this explanation makes even less sense than this blog has so far, but the reason I’m telling you this is that The Final Step is a purely human contribution of agency. If distance between A and B were a variable, and I programmed a robot with an infinite loop to move according to Zeno’s paradox, it would just get closer and closer and closer until the software crashed, as is typical of programs written with poor programming style. And the reason this would happen is that the robot doesn’t know how to decide for itself when to take The Final Step and reach the destination.

As a human, on the other hand, I can choose to take The Final Step when I’m 1/32 away, or 1/164 away, or 1/656 away, or… The number is arbitrary, and it makes virtually no difference on my finishing time because it takes fractions of seconds to travel those distances, but I have to choose one of them. Only then do I break the glass, and only then do I win the race.

But the funny thing is, it’s not that decision that allows me to beat all of the other runners. The outcome of that was decided long ago, and it was based upon an entirely different variable – how long it takes me to move a certain amount of distance.

It’s a sad thing to think about, to have beat all of the other runners, and yet still be stuck in the limbo of infinity.

Death of the Love Letter

As a teacher-in-training, and a product of the public school system myself, I know that one of the questions that teachers must be most prepared to answer is this: “How is this relevant to me?”

The question takes several forms, including the classic, “When am I going to use this in real life?”, and my personal favorite, “Is this going to be on the test?” These are reasonable questions, and like the true teacher that I am, I have spent significant time crafting my answers. In math, problem solving skills and productive struggle train your brain, just like sit ups train your core. In science, organized inquiry is the key to answering both the greatest and the most minuscule questions of the universe.

History, though, has always eluded me.  Either by circumstance or by nature, history as a subject has always been at or near the bottom of my list. And yet thanks to the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the first thing I do when I get home from work these days is pick up an 800+ page biography on treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton.

I realize that this is not a revolutionary (ha ha) thing, being inspired to learn about history because of the Broadway phenomenon that is Hamilton. Countless people have beat me to reflecting on its brilliance as both an educational tool and an unparalleled cultural experience. Having made it through about 20% of the Hamilton biography and listened to the cast album upwards of 50 times, I have learned infinitely more about the first three decades of our nation’s history in the past three weeks than I expected to for the rest of my life when I left my final US History class in the 11th grade.

The most interesting part of my foray into history, however, has not been the lyrics I’ve memorized about the pros and cons of establishing a national bank, nor has it been the amount of the amount of kinship I feel with Hamilton when he refuses to throw away his shot.

Rather, I have been utterly baffled by the way that everyone, not just Hamilton, wrote like they were running out of time. In Miranda’s song, of course, it’s referring to the fact that Hamilton literally wrote 51 essays in 6 months, but as I read deeper into Hamilton’s biography, I am continually stunned by what friends, family, and lovers are willing to lay out on the line for each other in their letters.

At one point, Hamilton wrote a letter to his friend John Laurens that said, “I have written you five or six letters since you left Philadelphia and I should have written you more had you made proper return. But, like a jealous lover, when I thought you slighted my caresses, my affection was alarmed and my vanity piqued.” Basically, this is the late 1700s equivalent of “Why didn’t you text me back?”

But here’s the thing: if someone didn’t text me back after I sent them five or six texts, I would certainly not write, “Hey, I like you a lot and I wish you would text me back, because your lack of response makes it seem like you don’t care about me. That makes me feel really sad and insecure.” I will be the first to admit that the reason I have never sent that text is not a lack of truth, nor one of circumstance. It is something more akin to a lack of courage, or, more broadly, a lack of social acceptability.

Love letters have undergone a similar stigmatization. In Hamilton’s time, lovers wrote each other letters daily. Even Aaron Burr got a letter every damn day from Theodosia. And although Eliza unfortunately burned most of Alexander’s love letters in the process of writing herself out of the narrative (a shame, because love letters penned by arguably one of the best nonfiction writers in American history? Mmmmmmmmmm), we can allow ourselves to imagine that he poured his heart out to her in each. We get small glimpses of what these letters may have looked like when we read a letter to Eliza’s sister, Peggy, in which Alexander writes, “your sister has found out the secret of interesting me in everything that concerns her…She is most unmercifully handsome and so perverse that she has none of those pretty affectations which are the prerogatives of beauty.”

When I was in 4th grade in the early 2000s, however, things were different. When my friend and I were caught passing notes to each other in class, our punishment was for our teacher to ask us in front of the entire class, “Are you passing love letters?”, as if the sheer embarrassment of the notion were enough to deter us from engaging in this behavior in the future. The notes, by the way, were likely a riveting discussion about Green Day or Pokemon or some other romantic subject.

Maybe that wasn’t a perfect example, because anything regarding romance is inherently uncomfortable for an everyday 4th grader. But I also don’t think it’s too far a stretch to claim that if I were to write a love letter to a boy right now, it wouldn’t be as easily swallowed as it was in Hamilton’s time.

There are a couple of reasons why this might be the case. If we were to give our present selves the benefit of the doubt, we might say that perhaps the very form of writing letters with real pens and real paper is inherently more romantic, and thus drives us to express our truest emotions. I will admit that this has a sliver of validity – the few times I do write letters, I do feel more inclined to be a bit more sentimental than I am over text or email. But then again, maybe that’s just because it’s costing me almost 50 cents to send this note which is less efficient in both effort and time than a digital message. #technology

Or perhaps in an older age, especially in a time of war, people were more aware that this could very well be the last correspondence they would ever have with each other, and felt the need to live like they were dying. You know, like the Nickelback song. Or the Kris Allen song. Or the Ben Rector song. There are so many damn songs about this that you’d think that we’d get the message, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Maybe what we need to admit here is that we as a culture have become utterly terrified of letting each other know how we really feel. It reminds me of this article, Little House and the Art of Hiding Your Feelings, which basically says that Little House on the Prairie encourages kids to avoid expressing their emotions at all costs. I’ve been avoiding that entire book series ever since my mom tried to get me to read them in my elementary school days, so I don’t have much of a response to that claim, but of greater interest to me is a small section in the middle of the article, which remarks on the uncanny ability of contestants on The Bachelorette to turn on The Feelings whenever they are called upon to “be vulnerable” by a potential romantic partner.

I’m on my second season in Bachelor Nation, and I’ve gotta say that truer words have never been spoken. Every possible insecurity or neglect of feelings is confronted, and contestants who are unwilling to “open up” are given the boot. Words of affirmation are doled out like free Frisbees at promotional booths during a street fair. That’s not what real relationships are like, but maybe they’d be a little healthier if it were.

Now, let it be known that I do not, by any stretch of the imagination, believe that relationships on the Bachelorette are healthy. They are laughable, to the point where at least once an episode, I want to shake a few of them by the shoulders and send them to an isolated island to reflect on their life choices. The drama is staged, the romance is fleeting, and the fact that people are competing with each other for a relationship is deeply dysfunctional.

But maybe they’re on to something with this whole “if something bothers you, bring it up” and “if you like someone, tell them, because if you don’t someone else will LITERALLY swoop in within the next minute or two and you’ll be going home without a rose.” In a cutthroat world like that of the Bachelorette, there’s no time to hold your feelings in. The stakes are high, because if you lose her, you’re gone.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the show, the Bachelorette herself never has to open up or prove herself to anyone, because if she loses one of them, well, there are three more who literally have the exact same hair pouf and dreamy blue eyes. (No kidding they all look the same to me this season who did this casting.) It’s something similar to the way that online dating, especially apps like Tinder, takes away all of the stakes. If one person doesn’t like my pick up line, someone else will. Why put effort into a love letter if you have a solid 25% success rate with “Hey what’s up?” Statistically, someone’s willing to bite. Not only has it become enough to stand with one foot out the door, it has become strange and uncomfortable and scary to step all the way in. And as with any good uncomfortable social situation, the more we neglect to approach it, the more awkward it gets.

All this to say, it’s not necessarily easy or fun to talk about how we feel, especially when your ego is on the line. I of all people I hate confrontation, whether positive or negative, and require far too much build-up time to admit how I really feel. But Hamilton did it because he had to. We don’t have to, but maybe we should anyway.

The Same Thing I Wrote About in High School

(aka I haven’t blogged in two years and this was a struggle)

The last time I thought about a lot of the things I write (which was a really long time ago, because lol I never write any more), I realized they all tend to have the same structure: a story from when I was a little kid, an analysis of how I see the world differently now that I’m not a little kid, and some kind of pithy-for-a-high-school-senior-I-guess conclusion.

Yeah, let’s do that again.

Because the thing is, it’s not a surprise that I see the world differently now; I haven’t been a really little kid for over a decade now, and a decade is half of my life so far. And if there’s one thing time can be unfailingly trusted to do, it’s to bring about change. So while it makes sense that I might romanticize the way that I saw the world when I was someone else entirely–nostalgia is real, okay?–the inescapable truth is that every day, I will change just a little.

We fear the dark because we cannot see. If we cannot see, we cannot know what we are facing. And in the same way, this future of change before me is uncertain. At the core of it all should be the most central parts of my identity, and I want very badly to believe that these anchors of personality do indeed exist, constant despite age or hometown or career. But the truth is that I don’t know–and this uncertainty is (and has been, for as long as I can remember) the only thing about myself that I believe in for sure.

In middle school, I read a poem by Rudyard Kipling–“If.” It’s specifically intended as a model for guys to pursue, but apparently my reading comprehension skills didn’t pick that up, and so in sixth grade, this was who I wanted to be:

“…If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
[…]
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”

Okay yeah, I’m not really sure how I missed that last line. To be honest, I might’ve just ignored it, because as far as I’m concerned, this poem is about how to be a good person (which is a critical part of being a good man anyways). The concept of “grit” (of sticking with it, whatever it may be, until it’s finished) is not a new one; perseverance has been valued since the before people wrote words and essays and poems about it, because since when has doing anything worthwhile ever been easy? But there is a pride and independence in the kind of personhood that this poem describes that deeply appealed to my eleven-year-old self, perhaps because at eleven there is very little that is certain. If I can rely on myself, though, there is no need for the things around me to be certain; only me. And even if I continue to change–to become someone just a little bit different every day–I know that I am me, even if I might sometimes be unsure of who that really is.

Because We Haven’t Written a Feminist Post in a While

“Who’s watching the World Cup today?” asked one of the other coaches at summer league this morning. It was an innocent question; it really was. It’s the kind of question you can ask a group of seven- or eight-year-old girls just to get them excited, not because you actually want to know the answer. There was the usual mixed bag of responses:

“I am!”

“My family is rooting for Brazil!”

“What’s the World Cup?” (No, that actually wasn’t me.)

Then the girl next to me, Olivia with her dusty black cap and her short brunette pigtails, turns to me and says, “I’m waiting for the women’s World Cup.”

I smiled at her, and she continued.

“It’s always men’s everything. Men’s basketball, men’s baseball.”

“Men’s football,” I added.

“Yeah! And firemen.”

“And policemen.”

“One day,” she said very seriously. “There should be a women’s New York Yankees.”

She’s right. There really should be. Not a woman who fights her way up and plays for the regular New York Yankees. Not a feminist protest against the New York Yankees for discriminating against women. Simply a women’s New York Yankees.

It’s not that I’m against those other things at all. Far from it, really. But to me, feminism isn’t about all being extraordinary.

I spend a higher-than-average amount of my time reading feminist articles on the Internet, and, while obviously there are exceptions, many of them tell girls to fight for their rights and defy gender roles. There are stories about that one woman who was a rare success in the male-dominated world of business because she was a straight up badass and bitch-glared men into respecting her. The moral of the story is be assertive, even though you are a woman, which does not naturally lend itself to assertiveness.

In many ways, this is an empowering story, because hey look, a woman in power. We’d be stupid not to call that a victory. Unfortunately, though, not all women are natural-born, ENTJ business leaders. You know, the same way that not all men are meant to be leaders, either.

The struggle of a group with little power is that we see an extraordinary woman and we say all little girl should aspire to be her. Feminist articles often come with an implicit do and don’t list. Study this, say this, don’t say that, don’t act this way. Follow these simple steps and you can call yourself a feminist.

I’ve found, however, that being extraordinary is a lot harder than it looks. And so, a quiet woman is submissive while a quiet man is, well, quiet. And a woman who is not in-your-face-assertive simply cannot be a feminist role model. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: we attempt to shift away from gender roles by reaching for the other extreme.

Feminism does not mean destroy all men, and sometimes, it doesn’t even mean play with the boys. Feminism means that women are pretty cool. We can do cool stuff. That’s it. Running over the boys while you’re at it is fun, but optional. You don’t have to be extraordinary to simply do cool things. You don’t have to fit some mold of a feminist. Just do you, and do something cool.

Wait a Second

It’s putting things generously to say that I am a procrastinator. I put off the difficult, the unpleasant, and the confusing; I put off the things that scare me. I don’t know why I do this, because it seems like my life would be a lot simpler if I could just get the hard parts over with right away.

Actually I just proved my point by going on Facebook instead of working on this post. My bad.

Anyways, though–nearly everything worth having in life takes some effort. It’s unavoidable. And part of me is convinced that if I wait long enough, things will get easier or even just go away–and to be honest, sometimes they do. Procrastinating isn’t a purely bad thing. The problem is that it keeps me from being scared.

I’m not saying that waiting until the last minute to do my homework is going to stunt my personal growth or anything like that. But the problem is that I don’t just procrastinate on the small stuff (like homework or blogging or taking out the trash): I procrastinate on the big stuff, too. It’s like I’m a little kid, curled up under the covers with my eyes squeezed shut because nothing can hurt me if I can’t see it. Except this time, it works. I can put off things indefinitely and never have to deal with them.

The problem is that then I end up staying underneath the covers, forever a six-year-old afraid of the dark. I’m an involuntary Peter Pan–not just because I won’t grow up, but because I can’t.

And that’s not how things are supposed to be. Equilibrium is artificial because the Earth is spinning slowly into chaos and there is nothing that we can do to stop it. Entropy is a fact of life, and that means that when I procrastinate–when I keep myself from being scared and growing up–I’m artificially maintaining my sameness. I’m Gatsby, trying to repeat the past again and again and again; I’m Joe Kavalier, forever haunted by the ghosts of the same people and the same problems but refusing to deal with any of them. And let’s be honest, things really don’t end too well for Gatsby. Joe Kavalier gets a happy ending eventually, but he has to grow up first. If I want any kind of happy ending, then, the message I’m getting is that it’s time to grow up–it’s time to be a little scared. Procrastinating might work forever, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for me.

I want to change, but I want to not be afraid. The two, however, seem to be more or less mutually exclusive. Doing things that scare me makes me grow up a little bit every time.

I know that courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to act despite it, etc. etc. etc.; but I have a tendency to keep myself in a bubble where there is no need for courage, because I never need to be afraid. To me, that is a purely bad thing. If I’m never afraid, then I never need to grow or change. That scares me, more than any of the other things that I’ve put off. There’s beautiful stuff waiting out there–I just know it. All I have to do is go find it.

Oh look, a Facebook notification.

Just hang on a second, life, I’ll be right with you.

My Side of the Sharpie

The pull-down map on the wall squeals  as one of the kids yanks it down.

“That’s my country!” she says, stabbing a finger right on top of the Philippines. “Where’s yours?”

My friend points easily at China. “I lived there until I was ten.”

I hesitate, partly because I can’t make decisions anyways, and partly because I have no idea where to point. It’s true that I am Chinese and Japanese, but I’ve never really been comfortable saying that I definitively identify as either one. And trying to say that either China or Japan is “my country” is even worse.

After a couple of seconds I decide that I’m American, darn it all, and so I tap the big orange United States of America.

The kid shakes her head. “No, I meant which country is yours!”

I quickly tap both Japan and China, because it’s easier than explaining to a ten year old that I don’t really identify with any country that isn’t America and that I’ve lived here for my entire life and that I use chopsticks less skillfully than my aunt’s white ex-boyfriend and that I couldn’t speak Chinese if my life literally depended on it. And honestly, non-explanation is usually what I do. I would feel so pretentious if someone asked me something innocuous like, “Are you Japanese?” and I answered with a drawn-out spiel about how I don’t actually identify as Asian, even though I technically am.

“Where are you from?” is (occasionally) a big deal in America. At one point in my life it was a really big deal to me that I wasn’t sure how to answer. Did being born here and being good at English and watching cartoons make me an American? Did taking Japanese classes or eating dim sum or folding origami make me Asian?

Who knows; who cares?

(Just kidding, I didn’t actually say that. I wanted to be cool enough to answer that nonchalantly, but that is definitely not how I actually answered. I wanted to be able to stand firmly on one side of the line that I imagined divided Asian me and American me; I can still see it, dark and Sharpie-thick, splitting me into little pieces.)

In all of the books I read in middle and elementary school about Asian-American kids trying to come to terms with being the product of two cultures, the kid would usually decide one of two things: either that it’s possible to straddle the line between Asian and American because duh, people are called Asian-Americans for a reason; or that being Asian and doing Asian things is important while still being an American because (insert reason here, typically family or a personal value of culture and diversity). Actually, those are kind of the same thing. These kids all magically figured out how to balance being Asian and being American, without losing any sense of self–their sense of self was actually probably even stronger because they weren’t wasting a ton of time trying to pick between Asian and American. And for the longest time, I wanted to figure out how to be one of those kids, because I hate making decisions.

I wasn’t sure if I was too American to be Asian, or too Asian to be American, but now I joke all the time about how white I am, and I think that that was my solution–to throw out as many of the stereotypically Asian things about me as I possibly could. I point at America instead of Asia; I fold paper airplanes instead of cranes. It’s not a bad thing, or at least I don’t think so–I picked a side of the Sharpie line in my brain. Maybe in a few years I’ll pick another side, or maybe I’ll figure out how to straddle the line, but for now, this is me. It’s okay not to know, because I’m never going to totally nail down my identity. It’s constantly changing, whether I want it to or not. For now, though, I choose America; and that, more than anything else, makes me an American.