Saturday, January 28, 2017

How does one fight with anxiety?

(Alice Donovan Rouse)
Yesterday sucked. Like, really really sucked. I went to bed feeling defeated. But I fell asleep anyway, because what else could I do?

Sometimes I feel so incredibly hopeless. Hopeless in my shyness. Hopeless in my inability to effect change. A single thought echoes in my brain: My world is so flawed and my impact is so small. Over and over just like that.

Maybe it is selfish to wonder, but I think about whether anyone else feels this way. This combination of a keen awareness of current events and the ensuing rampant anxiety.

Along the eternal carousel of misfortune that is the 24 hour news cycle, I become outraged, incensed, gobsmacked. My mind can't wrap itself around the reality that we live in such an unjust world, where equality is constantly disproven as an essential tenet of humanity. It is absurd, insulting to our intelligence as a species. I want to fight it, to rail against it.

And then I retreat.

I watch videos of protesters and I feel heartened, my faith leavened by their strength and commitment to the respectful challenging of authority. And then I am overwhelmed by a new thought: Why am I not there too?

FOMO is part of my daily routine, but it doesn't stop me from not doing things. I stagnate constantly due to a worse struggle: anxiety.

Where do the introverts and anxiety-ridden go to fight? I haven't found an answer to this yet. Even calling my senator is a step outside my comfort zone (though this graphic on how to call your representatives despite social anxiety really helped). Donating is one strategy, but can become challenging when you're a recent graduate without much expendable income. I have looked for volunteer roles at various organizations, but haven't followed through. Again, perhaps, out of some degree of anxiety.

How do I switch roles with anxiety, turning myself from its slave to its master? In what little or big ways can I make an impact and help motivate the change I want to see in my country and in the world? Can I go outside my comfort zone and not back down?

While many of my blogs are about finding answers on my own, I'm still looking for the solutions to these questions. I think I will continue to search and find them in the coming four years. I hope if you're like me, together we can funnel our dejection into finding purpose and making a difference. Fear should never keep us from speaking and acting out for what is right.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Every day is Holocaust Remembrance Day

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany.
There's a part of me that's always been missing. Sometimes it feels like there's a hole in my side. A small one, maybe just the size of the eraser on a pencil. But it's there. And I can't seem to get rid of it.

I grew up in several different worlds. One was Southern California, that sunny place of suburban neighborhoods, beach bums and Hollywood. Another was my Japanese grandmother's home, where I'd go to reconnect with my Asian identity, scooping up bits of language, culture and food. The other was my Jewish grandparents home in Florida, where I learned a smattering of Yiddish, tasted homemade latkes for the first time and was taught how to play Mahjong and Rummikub (which I swiftly forgot).

Little moments of family were the pieces of my life's puzzle, held together by quality time and self-reflection. So when I realized there was a missing piece, I just could not move past it.

Genealogy research can feel like digging through sand. You push past grain after grain to find a record that may be about your great-great-great-grandmother. Yet for all you know you could actually be building someone else's family sandcastle instead of your own (forgive me for the weak extended metaphor). Names are mis-transcribed, documents are lost and multiple people were named Sally Smith and born in 1909 (just an example).

I learned around 11 years old that one of my great-grandmothers immigrated to the United States from Europe. Unbeknownst to her, the timing of her relocation saved her from one of the largest mass genocides in known history. Her family's fate, however, neither she nor the rest of our family would ever know.

While it was unclear whether I would find anything, I set out to learn more about her and her family using my amateur sleuthing skills. Several years later, I have little to show for my efforts. Names of possible great-great-grandparents and great-great-aunts and uncles. Still, each of them is just a name on a page. Just a distant, ephemeral memory of a person.

Today (January 27th) is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, "the UN urges every member state to honor the victims of the Nazi era and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides." I was reminded of the fact this morning, when a series of names began popping up on my social feed:

The @Stl_Manifest Twitter account began posting remembrances of Holocaust victims this morning - specifically those who traveled on the St. Louis transatlantic liner and were "turned away at the doorstep of America in 1939." Though some were able to seek refuge in Europe and survive the war, many lost their lives over the next several years at the hands of the Nazis.

These people have names. They had lives and stories. The former we know. The latter are less certain. And for some, even a name is hard to find.

While we fancy ourselves intelligent and forward-thinking as a species, humans have a history of treating each other's lives as simply disposable. Seeing the young faces, the familiar names that could belong to a neighbor or a friend from school, how can we not see these people for what they were? Us. They were us.

Each one of them left a hole in someone's heart. They are missed even when they are forgotten, because they live in the void of lost history. Their stories cannot be told.

Though the Holocaust may be the most famous genocide in history, it is not the only we should be thinking about. The reality of genocide is it is an on-going crisis that plagues us at this very moment. Right now, stories are being destroyed with every lost life. Simultaneously, a loud and rampant xenophobic minority serves as a constant threat to the collective safety of men and women worldwide. These truths cannot be ignored.

This is a time to reflect on the past, to consider the shattered potential of every lost soul. If you're like me, that reflection will become a daily thought, even if it's just a small one in the recesses of your mind. Do I have a long lost cousin in Poland? Hungary? Austria? How did their grandparents survive? Is this all just a pipe dream?

We can't fall victim to this us vs. them way of thinking. If you're reading this, then you have eyes. You have ears. You have a nose and a mouth and a heart and lungs. You speak a language, you might even speak many. You write, you ride a bike, you make dinner, you sing in the shower. You are a person. You. And them as well.

I feel a little piece of myself is missing because the people I lost - though I may not have known them personally - mattered. Just like you matter. They inform my life like my friends do, like my family, my pets, my teachers, my coworkers, that person who smiles at me as I walk down the street does. In their own unique way, they create potential even in their absence. Their stories are a mystery, they're hope, they're compassion, they're what has not been but can be.

This is a day of remembrance, but it should not be the only one. Our equality, our humanity and our lives depend on remembering our past and taking that knowledge into the future. Listen to the stories of survivors. Read the names of those who were lost. Reflect. Repeat.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

What makes art matter?

Black on Maroon by Mark Rothko (Tate Modern)
Is the value of art in its creation or is it made to be consumed?

In college, I had to fulfill one philosophy class credit. I took the most seemingly interesting class I saw offered in the subject, simply titled "Philosophy of Art." Whereas I walked in hoping I'd have a chance to debate philosophies expressed through art, I must have misread the syllabus because from day one we were not asking "What does this artist mean?" but rather "Does what this artist means actually matter?"

The age of digital media has made artistic consumption like testing snack samples at Costco. We walk around mindlessly searching for something to taste. One small bite after one small bite, grabbing at will and without premeditation. We toss our used paper cups into trash bins, bypass the neatly stacked piles of the product we've just tried, and go about our day. It's the accumulation of the food samples that make for the experience, not the food itself.

Basing the value of art on a sampling audience is exhausting. The reality is that loyalty is not always guaranteed, and a captive and engaged audience is not so simple to come by in this age of infinite entertainment.

Given that, I have begun to ask myself more and more - "Does the audience actually matter?" The question brings me back to those days of discussing the true intent of art.

Value is not the only thing qualified by an audience, often intent is as well. All those books you read in high school and college? Do you think most of the authors were part of building the lesson plans around them? Were they able, once their work was out in the world, to dictate the interpretation so carefully that absolutely nothing was misunderstood in scholarly analysis?

I'm doubtful.

Every piece of art - of drawing, of writing, of song, of dance - is passed on like a message in the game Telephone (or Chinese Whispers, as it is referred to elsewhere). Once shared, it is run through mind after mind, changing at each step. Perhaps we succeed in understanding the artist's intent, the message being the same at the end of the game as it was in the beginning. Otherwise, we find ourselves drawing our own conclusions, our ideas no less valid yet somehow different than the original message.

When I think of my writing in these terms, it makes me hesitant to assess the quality of my work by the participation of an audience. Fame and success, or the ability to captivate people is a Costco snack, but not a whole meal.

The meal might just be the personal victory of making something in the first place.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Dear London, a vlog

Since my first trip in 2007, I have found myself repeatedly drawn back to London. On my most recent extended visit over a few months, I pulled out my camera whenever inspiration hit, and decided to write about that nagging desire to be and do everything in this beautiful city. This is my love letter to London.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Obamacare and the fear of uncertainty

Thank you, Covered California. (
EDIT (1/12/2017): The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is being swiftly dismantled by Congress, and it could mean you or people you love will be unable to pay for health insurance in the near future. Now is the time to speak up to your representatives in Congress. I just made a phone call to my rep and it took less than a minute to state my opinion in favor of ACA. Find your congressman's contact information here.

Turning on the news this morning was an unwelcome wake up call. The night before was capped with an emotional farewell speech from President Barack Obama. Watching and hearing this man I helped elect in 2012 left me inspired as I arose from bed, only to have reality hit soon thereafter.

The transition from one president to the next is always a time of change, particularly when power transfers from one party (and thus one political ideology) to the next. After years of feeling represented by my government, I am acutely aware that my values are being and will continue to be compromised as we embark on the next four years together as a nation.

Usually I try to hold back these concerns in a public forum. Without a degree in Political Science and sans much of a background in reporting on political matters (save for a stint as an opinion writer on my high school newspaper), I don't always feel it is my place to voice my concerns about the future of the United States. I try to be an informed citizen. I read and watch the news on a daily basis. I make an honest effort to recognize my biased digital echo chamber, so I attempt to understand both sides by consuming news by those with whom I don't share the same ideology. Yet I am very aware that there are gaps in my knowledge and as a result I try to leave political reporting to political reporters.

However, in light of current circumstances, I cannot deny the feeling of dread and fear that is deeply held within me, and that I believe is no doubt felt by many of my fellow Americans - regardless of political affiliation. And I felt compelled to do what I do in moments of high stress and intense emotion: write.

I am one of many Americans who has benefitted from the Affordable Care Act - Obamacare, as it is known colloquially. Thanks to the subsidies provided by the ACA, I was finally able to adequately afford health insurance. My access to quality healthcare at a reasonable cost has given me the opportunity to access preventative care. Since signing up through Covered California, I have found a therapist who has helped me better understand my mental health. I have found an excellent women's health doctor who gave me tools to avoid the stroke and heart disease risk that run in my family. I have been able to see my primary care doctor at a low cost, meaning that a high deductible has ceased to be more scary than my health problems.

Obamacare, despite its many reported-on flaws (I, too, have struggled with increased rates in my renewed coverage), has been a savior for me in an uncertain time. Which is why the promise of repeal by the incoming administration without any stated viable alternative has become a constant source of anxiety.

My voice is one among many. I know I do not stand alone in my concerns. My fears are small against many who suffer from worse health conditions than I have experienced. They pale against those of individuals who have dealt with deeper dread at the thought of losing their coverage than I can even imagine.

It has become increasingly clear to me that I live in an unfair world. For part of this year, I had the benefit of gaining a global perspective on a long-term stay in London. The United Kingdom is a flawed country just like ours, but it is also a country that guarantees access to health care as a human right to all of its citizens in the form of the National Health Service (NHS). Yet somehow people who share my American citizenship do not deserve that same right. The reality is as simple as that.

To observe how Britons so fiercely fight to protect their access to single payer universal health care (labeled in our country as "socialized medicine"), was to see that this is an issue that crosses partisan lines. It is not red versus blue, Labour versus Tory (the colors are the reverse of the American parties'). We hear stories from American politicians defending our privatized health care stating that people complain constantly of long waiting periods for care in the UK, yet ask a British person if they'd prefer the American system and you'll get a speedy and blunt answer: "No."

Even if we disagree on how health insurance costs are handled, I think we can agree that the right to good health should be available to everyone, point-blank.

In the coming months, I will keep listening to this discussion on the national level. I will stay informed, as should we all, and voice my thoughts when I feel they need to be shared.

This is just one among many concerns that has become a constant source of unease in my day-to-day life. To cast it aside as another strictly political issue is to ignore the basic humanity that we all share, and I refuse to see it in anything less than black and white. We all deserve health care. There is no but.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Rank you for rating me

Sean MacEntee / Flickr
In the early 2000s, I caught a glimpse of the future. Not in the way you are thinking - this was no foreshadowing of the invention of shrink rays, teleportation, or flying cars. It was something altogether more all-consuming and sinister.

Browsing the internet and delving deep into its most pitiful depths, my mom discovered a website where you could rate user-submitted images on their subject's level of attractiveness. I, the ever-present lurker of the household, found myself peeking over her shoulder as she compulsively clicked through photos in a sort of prehistoric Tinder-esque manner. Crowding her screen were men in worn white tank tops and women making seductive eyes at the camera in photos that played ancestor to the modern day selfie. It was hard not to mindlessly judge-and-click, judge-and-click.

I could not have been older than 10 when I learned about this website, but I soon became captivated by it. Though I was still falling for the cutest boy actors on the Disney Channel, I browsed through this site with its unusual crop of 20 or 30-somethings. It was hard not to be titillated by the voyeuristic enjoyment of rating people who were somewhere between hopelessly narcissistic and completely self-loathing.

In hindsight, the idea of clicking a number between one and 10 on someone's looks is a vulgar and destructive preoccupation. Yet to this day we are taking part in a game not unlike the one those hopeful "hot" people played almost two decades ago. And we barely seem to notice it.

There has not been any lack of literature and pop culture attention paid to this subject. The damaging effect of reputations built on social media and cyberbullying has been fodder for everything from local newscasts to teen horror films as of late.

Still we turn a blind eye to how pervasive ratings and rankings are in every facet of our lives in the 21st century.

I walk down the street and see a beautiful sunset. I take a photo. Am I satisfied to enjoy it in that old classic way - be it a photo album or a slideshow - perhaps shared once or twice with close friends? No, that would be absurd. I must post it to Instagram, because nothing is experienced well when experienced alone.

I try out a new restaurant and the food tastes like it was dragged out of a trash bin. Do I mention it to the wait staff? Why go through the awkwardness when I can just write them a scathing review on Yelp. Maybe I will earn some virtual badge of honor for my valiant effort to eat out on a Saturday night.

While these aren't characteristics I covet, I struggle with them constantly. Living in the moment just does not provide that immediate and insatiable burst of excitement that getting the first like on a Facebook post might. There is no lack of scholarly analysis about the neurological effects that social media can have on us. But at what cost do we take these hits of dopamine?

A favorite passage of mine comes from Dave Eggers' novel The Circle in which the protagonist must contend with her results in a popularity vote. Her coworkers are asked to vote on whether or not they like her, and when a small percentage respond negatively she goes into a tailspin.
"...she knew she should feel good about 97 percent of the campus finding her awesome. But as she left the hall, and made her way across campus, she could only think of the 3 percent who did not find her awesome."
The longer the time to ruminate, the more destructive her thoughts become:
"She was being stabbed. She had been stabbed. Who were these people? What had she done to them? They didn’t know her. Or did they?"
Until eventually her anxiety turns to paranoia.
"She was hurt by them, by the 368 votes to kill her. Every one of them preferred her dead...To frown at her, to stick their fingers at that button, to shoot her that way, it was a kind of murder."
The sincerity of the narration - its unfettered belief in the cuckoo bananas notion that vocal dislike is akin to murder was all too ridiculous. At the same time, it rang true.

While the way we digitally interact with others is easy to dismiss, just because something is not tangible does not mean it is not real. Little slights on social media can feel as if they have happened in person due to their effect on the brain. Ambivalence or, even worse, apathy to one's online presence can send an all-too-obsessed mind into a downward spiral.

In another dystopian narrative, the "Nosedive" episode of Black Mirror, ratings become the basis for a stratification of a society. People who are able to capture the highest ratings are allotted exclusive perks and privileges while those who reject that system become society's outcasts.

Perhaps because fiction depicts these ideas with such outrageous results, it can be hard to take them seriously. But in little myriad ways, the harm done by quantifying our worth via positive reinforcement is making us less people and more machines. We can control our portrayal so systematically that we know exactly what we can and cannot express. Perhaps we hold back what we would like to share. And if we don't hold back, we do it with the understanding that we may end up ostracized for what seems like a trivial reason.

To put oneself in the line of fire for feedback used to seem crazy. It was too on the nose, too obvious, too scary. Asking someone if you're pretty has too destructive a spectrum of answers. We are skeptical of those who search for this kind of affirmation and worried for those who lack the confidence to feel good in their own skin.

On some level, though, we are all still asking to be told where we stand between one and 10.