A Waste of Time

Recently I heard a conversation that made me think, Aaggghhhh.

Man to woman as they both came out of the subway station: “Tests are set up for you to fail. That’s why studying for it is a waste of time.”

Woman: “Not if it’s something I want to do.”

She changed the subject and said she was tired, and he tried to get her to go to Starbucks with him.

I thought, at least she sounded resolute. But I hope she has other people around her who encourage her and motivate her. Who is this guy, and why is she spending time with him?

I had written down their conversation on a scrap of paper, as I sometimes do when I see or hear something that strikes me. I realized that while my parents would not have made all the choices I’ve made, they never told me I couldn’t do something. People around me didn’t actively discourage from pursuing my goals (or if they did, I didn’t hear them).

A few days later, I came across my note, which I happened to be using as a bookmark in the latest book I was reading, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.

How easy it is to believe certain false ideas if it’s all you hear. People who care about you should want you to succeed.

Maybe the guy I overheard puts down everyone around him, not only women. In any case, clearly he’s not someone who strives or works hard to go farther and thus belittled this woman’s efforts instead of being motivated by her ambition. I hope she finds better company.

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We All Got Our Own Thing Going On (And We Find People to Share Them With)

A few weeks ago I saw in the morning on my way to work:

A bunch of people in the bus station looking up, mouths slightly agape. They were watching a huge TV screen that had been temporarily set up in the bus station to show the World Cup. A guy energetically said to people who passed by, “Koozie koozie koozie,” offering free foam cup holders from the TV channel that sponsored the viewing.

A large group of people in the park listening to someone praying over a microphone. People were dressed up, milling around, and some were carrying platters of food. They were Muslims celebrating Eid, the end of Ramadan.

A woman walking two dogs whose back halves were paralyzed and were walking with dog wheelchairs. An older man bent down to pet them. A woman with two dogs of her own stopped to talk to her, and they chatted about their dogs. The first woman described the disabled dogs’ different personalities.

Glimpses of different worlds and the important things happening in each of them. I loved coming in contact with them in the span of twenty minutes.

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Nature’s Sparkles

A few months ago a friend and I went to the Museum of the City of New York, which is on the northeast edge of the vast Central Park. Since I was early, I took my time walking through the park to the museum. It was cold—cold enough that there was still ice on the lake. Part of it had melted to create these shapes of water with sparkling edges from the bright sun. I realized that whomever invented glitter must have taken his or her inspiration from nature.

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I came across a garden that I don’t remember having visited before—the Conservatory Garden. It was bare, but I could see how regal and beautiful it must be in the springtime. Time to go back. And the gate to enter it was surprising, almost random next to the New York city street, yet I can see how it matched the garden.

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Right next to the museum was this tree. Do you have yarnbombing where you live?

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The foyer of the museum was cool.

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We visited the exhibit on Martin Luther King, Jr., which was a small gallery but jam-packed with interesting photos and captions. It brought up conversation about what’s going on today.

The exhibit “Mod New York” featured over seventy outfits from the 1960s. It was groovy.

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Lastly, we looked at a room of items about the history of ice skating, fitting since the last time we were in this neighborhood together was when we went ice skating in Central Park last year, on what must have been the last weekend one could skate outside—the rink was covered with a layer of water. Obviously it was much warmer than today.

I like museums and have spent a lot of time in New York, and still sometimes a museum that is new to me will come up on my radar, like the Museum of the City of New York. Many times, I discover a place and love it and think, So this has always been here.

After, we took the subway down to the East Village where she got a bite to eat and I bought a hot chocolate from next door to bring over and sip while she ate and we talked.

Our next stop was a café where she bought two macarons and I got a doughnut. There was no seating, and it was too cold outside to linger, so we went to another café, where she got a drink and we sat and chatted some more over our sweets.

When the weather is beautiful outside, sometimes I forget what I ever did during the cold months. Here’s one example—hopping from place to place on a Saturday afternoon into the evening.

An American Baby Shower

Earlier this year, while it was still winter, I went to a close friend’s baby shower. It was her and her husband’s first baby, and my first time attending a baby shower.

The weekend included:

  • A hawk killing one of their chickens… while my pregnant friend was trying to chase it away… and the eight of us at her party sat around the table inside, chatting without a care in the world. Some friends we are, I know.
  • Detailed discussion about how to pump and store breastmilk and assemble reusable diapers
  • A list of due date guesses- one woman declared that the winner would get to name the second child
  • Love- it’s lovely to see someone surrounded by people who love them
  • Lots of food
  • Dog cuddles
  • Post-shower, a cold but refreshing walk with just my friend and her other friend who like me, wasn’t local and was staying overnight

It did not include:

  • A game where we smelled different kinds of chocolate in diapers and guessed what kind they were
  • A game where we tasted baby food, including meat-flavored ones, and guessed what flavors they were
  • Tossing a baby bouquet to predict who would be next to have a baby

The first two are real games that my friend witnessed at other baby showers and that initially made her not want to have one. It was her husband who ultimately convinced her to take her sister and friends up on their offers to throw one (though she ended up doing the hosting and organizing, really). The third does not exist, as far as I know, but please give me credit if you incorporate it in the next baby shower you attend.

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Staying Sweet

Today I was thinking about how easy it could be to become cynical. I think I tend towards a positive outlook here, but that doesn’t mean I see the world as rosy. I see that people around me are in pain, and I think about it. People have experienced struggles and somehow continue.

In the past few days I heard and saw on the subway:

– 3 young gay guys, maybe teenagers, talking about their past drug use and how they started. Two of them said that their boyfriends at the time, who were seven to nine years older than them, introduced them to cocaine. The three friends agreed that they might have been offered drugs, but it was their choice to take it, and they could have said no. One of them referenced the “Shame on you, shame on me” quote, saying that the first time, shame on the other person, but the second, third, fourth, and fifth times, shame on you. I was struck by how young they were and yet how they had been through things and come out the other side already. Kind of heartening. I also thought about how great it was that they could talk about their experiences with each other and reflect on them. They may have had bad influences, but they are good influences on each other.

– An adult man telling a woman who was a bit older than him that his first memory of his dad was his dad throwing his mom on the kitchen floor. As their conversation continued, the woman told him about how her brother was committed to the state. I just thought, geez, everyone has something! We just don’t talk about it with everyone.

– Heavily armed police with black helmets in the station, and not far from them, a young Asian man singing and playing peaceful songs on his guitar with a handwritten sign in front of him that read, “Music is my passion.” He is there often, and I find his presence encouraging for multiple reasons—he is a young person pursuing his dream; he is an Asian person performing in public, a public that is not exposed to enough Asian artists; and his music is nice. As for the police, there are usually police in this main subway and bus station, but not outfitted in such gear. I wondered if it had to do with…

– A white powder scare in the bus station the other day. I arrived at the station in the morning, and a large area leading to the main exit was blocked off with yellow caution tape and four military men standing in a line. (Military personnel are usually present, but they always stand on the side.) I later learned that an unknown substance found in the station was the reason for the investigation. The powder was a cleaning agent, non-hazardous.

This is life. This is a normal day.

“J’ai tant d’admiration pour ceux qui se relèvent. …la plupart des hommes et des femmes que je croisais dans la rue me semblaient admirables… je ne les connaissais pas mais je devinais en eux des blessures, une fatigue, des failles qui me bouleversaient. Leur capacité de résistance m’épatait… »
– Olivier Adam, Le cœur régulier

This morning I was thinking about how in spite of all this, I am glad I am not cynical. I hope it never happens. You get older, you get hurt, you see how awful people can act. It will happen again and again. Yet I believe most people are good and are trying their best. They’re also utterly surprising in the best way.

Sunset

Sunset in summer in Paris was late, at 9 or 10 sometimes. On nice days, I stay out as long as possible (I think this comes from growing up in a place where the cold months outnumber the warm). However, in Paris if I aimed to be outside as long as it was light outside, it meant that I went home quite late.

It’s like that in other parts of the world too, of course, even in my own country, like in Chicago. Paris was the first time I had lived somewhere where the sun set so late, though, and so the first summer I was there, I was surprised. It was easy to lose track of time in the evening. Not for too long, though—I could always count on the guard at Luxembourg Gardens to jolt me out of my reverie with a whistle blow and a bellowed “Ferrrrrrmature!”

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Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, 9:15pm

via Photo Challenge: Rise/Set

Italian with Français

This winter I had lunch with a new French friend (my dad met her during a plane ride last fall) and her husband at Il Cantinori during Restaurant Week, a period that, contrary to its name, takes place over two weeks. Oodles of pricey restaurants offer prix fixe menus, making it more affordable for those who wouldn’t usually dine there. Restaurants of all cuisines offer several choices of appetizer, entrée, and dessert. (After several years of eating in France, I still sometimes confuse what an ‘entrée’ is.)

She and her husband had been to New York many times on vacation, but this was their first time living in this region, and they were about a month into their three-month stay.

Highlights of our lunch:

– Telling them that Carrie Bradshaw had her 30th birthday dinner there. You feel for her in that scene. She sits at a large table, and one by one her friends call the restaurant (there were no cell phones) and say they’re running late or ran into some problem preventing them from getting there, but they cheerily wish her a happy birthday.

– Watching the Italian waiter’s face when my friend asked what a cannoli was (and she is of Italian descent). Are they less common in France? Do I only know them because there were so many Italian Americans where I grew up?

– She and her husband lamenting that they couldn’t watch Jimmy Kimmel live like the rest of Americans because they don’t have a TV. I explained that it’s taped in the afternoon, so no one but the studio audience is watching it live, and also that many Americans, at least in the city, don’t have TVs and so watch it online anyway. They were surprised. Also, did you know Kimmel is popular in France? Several French people have mentioned him to me; I would have thought Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon would be the most well-known American talk show hosts abroad.

– She said a lot of people react when they hear they have foreign accents, or don’t understand what she and husband are saying, which I found weird since everyone has an accent here. Plus, her English is really good. I thought all of us in New York were used to hearing accents all the time. However, she also said the people were friendly and interested in where they came from.

– In her experience, people are very nice—a stranger took initiative to help them when they were confused on the bus in New Jersey, for example.

– She and their daughter visited Santa Claus in December (he lives in Finland, apparently). She asked if I had received gifts, and when I said yes, she leaned over and said she knew that because she had reminded him to deliver them to me.

When I spend time with newcomers in my region, it feels like I’m still traveling.

“Norm!”

Recently a friend in New York City told me that for ten years, almost every Friday night she would have mussels, raw oysters, strawberries, and champagne at the same restaurant. That was thirty years ago.

It sounded like the kind of ritual the word ‘fabulous’ was invented for.

I’ve always liked the idea of being a regular at a place, but there are only a couple of times I’ve had that experience, usually associated with activity groups that meet at the same bar weekly. Food-wise, I love variety and so don’t frequent the same place every week. Same goes for ambiance—during lunch I sit at different spots in the park.

But I remember, one evening, walking into the bar in Paris that my fellow volunteers and I gathered at every week after serving meals outside, and the bartender said to me, “Thé au vert?” It felt like I had arrived.

We just want to be known, don’t we?

Happy ______ Day

I am a big fan of ceremony and tradition—this is what happens when you have a Catholic and Chinese upbringing—they are so steeped in both that even if you don’t observe all practices or hold all beliefs, you end up absorbing some of their essence.

I don’t speak for everyone; some people reject or simply aren’t interested in the faith or the culture they were brought up with. I know people who would say that that aspect, though ingrained in them as children, no longer has a place within them. I perhaps have just come to my roots as a reason for why I gain fulfillment from celebrating every holiday, observing birthdays and anniversaries, and continuing traditions universal, familial, and individual. That is an age-old aspect of humanity as a whole, but I know a number of people who don’t value any of that.

I think I just love an excuse to celebrate. Sure, we should give thanks outside of Thanksgiving, express our love outside of Valentine’s Day, and renew outside of New Year’s. But there are a lot of things we should do every day. Humans are always trying to simultaneously balance difference priorities and aspects of life.

Holidays and anniversaries serve as reminders to focus on one of these things.

It also adds novelty to a day. I remember hearing about someone who liked to dress in the theme of the movie he was going to watch in the theater. I am that way with holidays. A few years ago I wore bunny ears to a picnic with friends during Easter weekend in Paris. Yes, I am a grown woman who acts seriously at work and pays her taxes on time.

Holidays and events have the value that we assign to them. I choose to value a number of them. Two birthdays, two New Years. Christmas, Halloween. And if a person in my life celebrates a holiday that I do not and invites me to their gathering, all the better to observe someone else’s traditions. Passover, Galentine’s Day, Armenian Easter. I say oui.

Note: I wrote the first half of this post a full two years ago. It sat patiently in my drafts until the day I’d be “unblocked” and find the rest. It must have flowed out today because it’s Valentine’s Day, a holiday beloved, reviled, and dismissed. You can guess where I stand on this.