Archive for the 'United States' Category

Writer-In-Residence: Risking Failure

Ann Arbor, MI USA

Chess in Christchurch

On Wednesday, May 12, I didn’t fly to Sydney.  Instead, I had an informational interview with the owners of a local publishing company and went to a yoga class.  In between the two, I scraped the side of my mother’s newly leased car against a cement pillar in a parking structure.  Spatial visualization is not my forte; that’s why I don’t play chess.

“What kind of mood are you in?” I asked my mother when I picked her up from work that afternoon.

“Why, what did you do?”  How do they always know when you’ve messed up? Amazingly, she took the news like a champ.  I, on the other hand, took it like a complete loser.

That scratch was a sign from the universe – I had made a mistake; I had missed my plane.   Except that I no longer believe in a universe that conspires against you or sends you messages disguised as minor car accidents that are clearly your fault.  I do, however, believe in irrational fears.

The incident was an indication of one thing only: I am not a very good driver.  (In my defense, it’s been five years since I owned a car.)  My reaction to it was an indication that I’m still afraid of the same thing: failing.

To most people, my proposal to live in Australia seemed brave.  Truthfully, it wasn’t.  It was gutless, because there was no risk involved.  I could have lain in the grass in a park for a year, staring at the sky through the leaves of the trees and I would have accomplished that goal.  It was a guaranteed win, bought for the price of a one-way airline ticket and an electronic work-holiday visa.

Coming home is the truly risky endeavor, because it means that I am finally going to try to realize my life dreams; and inherent in trying is the possibility of failure.   Many people want to write, very few actually become writers.  In Australia, I may have been lonely, unfulfilled, and bankrupt, but my fantasies would have remained safely enshrined in my mind.

My homecoming was supposed to have been strategic, to have set a plan in motion. But things haven’t fallen neatly into place and I seem to be in a state of stasis.  There have been some steps in the right direction – that meeting with the publishers, an all-day writer’s conference, and an interview for the position of Editorial Assistant for an academic journal.  I even wrote a short fiction story, coincidentally about a plane crash.

However, every step seemed to bring with it a warning to turn back.  The publishers reminded me that most writers don’t earn their living writing; at the conference, successful authors revealed that every day is a struggle against literary agents, book critics, and their own insecurities; and “Editorial Assistant” turned out to be a fancy title for Receptionist.  Compounding my frustration, disappointment, and regret was the fact that I miss New Zealand and Argentina far more than I anticipated, and that after six weeks, I still don’t feel adjusted to life in the States.

A few years ago, while I was still living in Argentina, I visited a friend in New York during a trip to the States.  When I finished moaning about how hard life was abroad, she smiled and asked, “Is having an easy life something you truly aspire to?”

“No, of course not,” I replied.  I lied.  My secret fantasy is that someday life will be ridiculously easy.  Oh, and that there will be world peace.

I thought the path ahead would be paved with gold.  Now I realize that I’ll have to bushwhack my way through a dense forest of stiff competition and self-doubt if I’m to get what I want. Faced with the truth – the overwhelming odds against me, and the undeniably hard work ahead – I didn’t recalibrate my game plan and strengthen my resolve.  I lost faith.  I lost the plot.

What if I don’t have what it takes?  What if I’m not good enough?  What if I can’t be it just because I dream it?  What if anything is not possible?  These questions, whether valid or absurd, made me question the point of even trying.

Fortunately, my parents don’t share these concerns, or at least they don’t state them aloud.  Instead, my parents, those perennial patrons of the arts, have agreed to sponsor a summer fellowship – they will cover my living expenses so that I can dedicate the majority of my time and energy to writing.  Being selected as the recipient of this generous award is an honor, but I’ve been having trouble rising to the challenge.

Frightened as I am that following my dreams will lead me to vocational school, a condo in the suburbs, and a mini-van, I am more concerned that my parents will evict me if I don’t get my act together.  Apparently, I’m no longer allowed to whine or cry or remain in my pajamas until bedtime.  Either I go for it or I get out of their house, hence this long overdue blog entry.  Thus, I am happy to announce that I, along with all the obnoxious, self-defeating voices in my head, am the new Writer-in-Residence at my parents’ house in Michigan.

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Quit Messin’ With Me, Texas: Ending the Odyssey, For Now

Dallas, Texas/Ann Arbor, Michigan

Fall Colors, Michigan

On April 12, my grandmother turned ninety-five. I have no scientific evidence to corroborate this theory, but I suspect her longevity is positively correlated to the distance she has traveled.  She has visited all seven continents. She was the one who took me to Greece when I was thirteen.  Granted, I spent most of the cruise through the Greek Isles plotting to throw her overboard; but my grandmother remains a major source of inspiration and encouragement for my globetrotting.

She is one of the most worldly, independent, and intelligent women I know; yet she insists on living in Dallas.  A few weeks ago, my liberal, Yankee family descended upon my grandmother’s retirement home in Texas to celebrate the momentous occasion with an ice cream social.  On our first day in Dallas, which also happened to be my first day back in the United States in over a year and a half, we went for lunch at a popular Tex-Mex restaurant.

As soon as we stepped inside, we were enveloped in a din as thick as the hot, humid Texan air.  Cacti and lizards decorated the walls; a black and white, life-size, cardboard replica of the owners stood above the fireplace.  Christmas lights twinkled while frenzied waiters served refills of salsa from oversized syrup jars.  The stimuli so deadened my senses that I couldn’t read the menu, let alone order or eat anything.  While my family ate chips and salsas, I had a giant helping of culture shock.

Of course, Michigan is quite different from Texas, and I assumed I would feel more at ease in Ann Arbor.  However, all alone in the house, I am shocked by the silence.  Birds chirping and the low rumble of a train in the distance are the only noises I hear.  Occasionally, I clear my throat to confirm that I have not lost my hearing.

Like aspic, everything appears suspended in a transparent gelatin.  The only thing that moves, other than me, is the sun.  I drift from room to room, staring at objects as if they were artifacts in an American Suburbia Museum.  I wonder if, when no one is home, the household objects come to life, make themselves a sandwich and have a smoke on the patio.  Maybe that’s why I find them in such ungainly positions – they froze mid-movement to avoid being caught.  They’re probably all waiting for me to leave.

When the phone rings, I am startled, as if the curator caught me mishandling a priceless relic or the homeowners walked in on me rifling through their medicine cabinet.  I hear a woman’s voice, but I can’t discern where it’s coming from or what it’s saying.  Fearing for my sanity, I run upstairs and search for flights to Malaysia.

I gave up the idea of moving abroad again, but not the idea of backpacking long-term.  I could travel between October and May, escaping the winter and returning in time for my brother’s wedding.  Perfect, right?  Except for one nagging question: then what?  In all likelihood, I would come back from traveling to and with absolutely nothing, other than a stack of notebooks full of anecdotes, and no one to publish or read them.

When I look at an atlas, I feel like a contestant on Temptation Island.  I want to be loyal to my literary aspirations, but it’s hard with all those countries trying to seduce me. At this point, going abroad seems more like a diversion than a step in the right direction. That is why I’ve decided to return to the States, work on my portfolio, and apply to MFA programs.  Unfortunately, this means renouncing one of the most valuable things to me: my identity as an expat.

I don’t know who I am without my passport.  Now that I am just another American living in America, I am nobody special. Maybe I wasn’t anything special in Argentina or New Zealand, but in those places I belonged to something – the expat community.  Fellow travelers are my true countrymen; can I achieve that same sense of belonging at home? Until I do, my mind and spirit will continue to roam the globe.  With all my strength, I am resisting the urge to chase after them, because staying here is for the best.

Does this mean the odyssey is over? Not entirely.  I’m not under house arrest or anything, and if I do become a student, I plan on writing lots of essays about “what I did on my summer vacation.” But effectively, the answer is yes.  I’m back in the States indefinitely.

So, old friends, great opportunities and cute boys, please take note – I have a cell phone and a permanent address and expect to hear from you all very soon.  Oh, and that voice I heard?  It wasn’t coming from inside my head.  It was the call waiting.

Agents of Change: Watching President Obama From Afar

Buenos Aires, ArgentinaObama Brownie

Domestic politics bore me.  The characters are always the same, the issues unchanging, and the scandals not particularly scandalous (or maybe I’m just desensitized to old white men doing salacious things in public spaces).  Above all, the United States is a functioning democracy that respects human rights and protects and serves its citizens, at least for the most part.  And there just isn’t much room for outrage or outcry.

International politics are where the real action is.  There are megalomaniacal leaders, coup d’états (both failed and successful), weapons of mass destruction (both real and imagined), balances of power, unions and break-ups, protocols and conventions, embargos and treaties, violations and trials.  Foreign affairs are the Mexican telenovela of political science.  Even the name evokes drama.

In college, I loved discussing theory, history, actors, issues, and most importantly, solutions in my Economics and International Studies classes.  Naturally, I imagined that living in South America would only heighten my passion for and awareness of these subjects.  However, since moving abroad, I’ve felt more cut off from the world than ever.

When I was still in school, people helped me to navigate through current events.  Teachers assigned readings, friends and family recited and debated headlines over dinner, and The New York Times and The Economist dictated what was worth knowing and had a monopoly on the facts.  On my own, I found myself drowning in the sea of information.

Suddenly, there were stories about conflicts in countries that I had never heard of between cultures and nations that I didn’t know existed, in languages I was just learning to speak.  I didn’t know which region of the world was worthy of attention, which crisis deserved the most time and energy, and which point of view to trust and respect.  Everything moved so quickly, it was hard to keep up.  Yet at the same time, nothing ever seemed to change or improve.  Frustrated and overwhelmed, I turned inwards, escaping from the ugliness and brutality in the world, and focusing on resolving my own issues and finding inner peace.

Before moving abroad, I at least absorbed important news through osmosis.  But in Argentina, if I don’t actively seek information about current events, I am totally out of the loop. It was during my headline news boycott that Barack Obama entered the scene.  Of course, I heard people about the Obama mania that was sweeping the nation, but I had no notion of the depth or importance of what was happening.  But then my parents started to fight, my mother almost reduced to tears when my father expressed doubts over Obama’s chances of winning.  “Your father is so cynical,” she would sigh when we spoke on the phone.
“I’m not cynical.  I’m realistic,” he would yell in the background.

When my friends began taking time off work to volunteer for the Obama campaign, I decided that this election was worthy of attention.  To get to know The Candidate better, I went online and read a transcript of Barack Obama’s nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.   I was moved by the power of his words, and saddened that I was missing out on an opportunity to be inspired.  I began to question my own political inaction, and to feel  guilty and selfish for having abandoned the fight, and for not contributing to the cause.  Until a friend helped me understand that disengaging is a strategy for change.

I read that when confronted with an unsatisfactory situation, you have three options: accept it, change it, or remove yourself from it.  More and more of my peers, it seems, are choosing option C: walk away.  We are not apathetic or disinterested.  We are just tired of waiting for the world to change.  Personally, I was bored of hearing the same rhetoric recycled and regurgitated.  I was tired of watching us turn in circles, applying the same ineffective strategies to persistent problems.  And I was disheartened by the fact that people are still killing and dying to protect or get things that aren’t theirs or aren’t necessary.  At some point I said, I don’t want to live under these conditions, not when I have a choice.  So I left home, hoping to create a microcosm that reflects my values, interests, and priorities.

Most of us are no longer looking for a temporary solution.  We demand fundamental changes, but we are bluffing.  There is no “or else.”  There are no ultimatums.  Paradigm shifts cannot be imposed from the top down.  Communities, local and international, are comprised of individuals.  And social values, norms, and institutions reflect, or should reflect, the beliefs, behaviors, and needs of the people. The world will change when a critical mass of individuals change the way they think, act, and live.

If enough people concerned about the environment move to big cities with public transportation or small towns where they can walk or ride a bike, maybe other cities will change in order to retain their residents.  If enough people worried about human rights and social justice refuse to buy products made in sweatshops or under inhumane conditions, maybe other manufacturers will change to appease their customers.  If enough socially conscious CEOs take pay cuts and invest profits in human resources, maybe other companies will change in order to compete for employees.  If enough of the best and brightest concerned with social welfare move to countries that offer universal healthcare, social security, and work-life balance, maybe their own countries will change in order to prevent brain drain.  And if enough politically active youths dedicate their vacation days to presidential campaigns, Barack Obama becomes President of the United States.

President Obama promises change, but he doesn’t necessarily promise to be the one to make those changes.  Let’s be honest, the new President has inherited a mess, and will likely spend the next four years trying to relieve the disaster left by his predecessors. One of the sentiments from Obama’s nomination acceptance speech that most inspired me was reiterated in his inauguration address:

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon  which this nation relies. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly….  This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

When Barack Obama accepted the presidency, he didn’t just give people hope. He gave them a mandate.  One man cannot manufacture a miracle, but we’ve seen what can happen when the interests of a nation of disaffected individuals align. Perhaps President Obama’s greatest legacy will not be the policies he implements, but the responsibility and authority he delegates to his people.

Please, May I Have a Little Less?: America’s Consumer Culture

Peanut butter and jelly on a pumpkin bagel

Peanut butter and jelly on a pumpkin bagel

I was recently in the States for the first time in almost a year. Now, a year may be long enough for my parents to redo the landscaping, but it is hardly long enough for me to feel like a stranger in my own home. Yet this trip found me in tears in the snack food aisle.

“Do I want barbeque or sour cream and onion? Baked or fried? Do I even like potato chips?” What had started as a simple trip to the supermarket had turned into an identity crisis. Aisles later, I realized that my problem wasn’t that I couldn’t pick a flavor, it was that I couldn’t find the right product. Back to my senses, I returned the box of chocolate chip cookie cereal to the shelf, and as I left the store empty handed I wondered: if America is the land of plenty, why doesn’t it have anything to offer me?

Groceries come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and colors but they all belong to the same category: artificial. I don’t want to microwave it or just add water. While I appreciate convenience and efficiency, I prefer to have the time, energy, and materials to cook it myself. But Americans don’t create, they consume. This cultural phenomenon, reflected in the supermarket, was the true cause of my culture shock.

Americans, it seems to me, are in a never-ending pursuit of products, because “stuff” has become synonymous with happiness. Money dictates moods. People are defined by what they have and they are haunted by what they have not. Because new and improved products constantly enter the market, there is a lingering sense of dissatisfaction and relative deprivation.

Perhaps worst of all, the availability and accessibility of top end consumer goods has caused Americans to lose perspective and to miscalculate their own quality of life. Some of the wealthiest people in the world believe themselves to be poor. Clothes purchased at Target are often better than those found at top stores in Argentina. Luxury has become the new basic. Yet Americans go into credit card debt over Louis Vuitton purses.

My preferences and priorities are somewhat simpler. This is not to say that I don’t like pretty things or that I don’t miss certain products from the States. Garbage disposals, tampons with applicators, and pumpkin bagels all spring to mind. However, I am not defined or motivated by them. And for me, the cost of living in a society that offers those products is too high. I don’t want to trade my interests, passions, talents, and health for purchasing power. Houses, cars, clothes, and iPhones are not worth my soul.

Personally, I would rather pay less and receive less. There are even times when I would be willing to pay the same and receive less. One night while in the States, I went to the mall to treat myself to frozen yogurt. The boy behind the counter grabbed what looked to be a venti frappuccino cup stolen from the neighboring Starbucks. “Is that really the smallest size there is?” I asked in disbelief. He assured me that it was. Before he had finished filling the cup, I shouted to him in desperation, “That’s enough!” I wanted dessert, not Thanksgiving dinner. In the end, I had to throw most of it away anyways.

25% more free is wasted on me. I don’t have the space to store it and I can’t possibly consume it before it goes bad. What I want is moderation. But that option is now obsolete.

Finding balance in the States is it not impossible. But when the pervasive culture is to always strive for more, you have to fight if you want less. Or if not fight, at the very least defend. You have to defend your lifestyle from the judgment of others and from the temptation to keep up with the Jone’s.

When I explain to people that I would rather enjoy my life now than spend it collecting objects, they look at me like I’m lazy, crazy, or a Socialist. If you ask me, lazy is letting a machine do all the work for you. And crazy is starting to save for retirement the day you graduate from college, saddling yourself with debts and loans so that you can buy things that you can’t afford, wasting your days inside chained to a desk, and looking for fulfillment in material possessions.

Ultimately, this is not about ideology. I’m not trying to start a revolution. And I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong with having expensive tastes. I just don’t want to live in a place where comfort kills creativity, where salvation is found in shopping, and where fear of financial insecurity in the future prevents people from living the present. Personally, I don’t want to have to be rich to be happy.

For more on the paradox of choice, check out Barry Schwartz’s Ted Talk


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