Chag Sameach

8 Mar

Once upon a time, in a land far away (also known as ancient Persia), there lived a king. This king decides that he wants a new wife, and he holds a search and lots of parties in order to find the fairest lady in all of the land. Meanwhile, Esther, a young girl living with her uncle Mordechai, is chosen from the far-off reaches of the nation to compete for his affection. She goes to the palace and her beauty wins the king’s heart.

In my Children’s Theater shows, this would make for a great stopping point. Typical fairy tale rags to riches affair, boy meets girl, boy carries girl into his palace on horseback while the sun is setting. But of course, the fact that I am taking the time to type this from my iPhone in the middle of Tel Aviv means that there is a little more to it than that. This story is not a fairy tale; it is a passage from the Book of Esther, and it is the tale behind the celebration of Purim, a Jewish holiday that I participated in for the first time last night.

In the Book of Esther, there are a few twists. Esther happens to be Jewish (shocker!) but under the recommendation of her uncle, decides to keep her identity hidden from the king. Also, there’s a villain: Haman. Haman is an advisor to the king who is trying to get the king to issue an edict to kill all of the Jews because of his deep hatred for Mordechai. To make a long story short, Esther ends up strategically revealing herself to the king and telling him about Haman’s plan, at which point the king puts a stop to the whole thing, and Purim celebrates the heroism of Esther and the survival of the Jewish people. As someone on my trip said, “Purim has the same theme as every Jewish holiday: someone tried to kill us, and they failed. Then we light candles and drink.”

But drinking is not the only thing we do on Purim (though our group did our best to carry on that tradition); we also dress up in costume to emphasize the discrepancy between what we see in someone’s appearance and their true self. Thus, yesterday in Tel Aviv looked an awful lot like Halloween in America, just with more adults dressed up during the day and more Hamantaschen (delicious cookies in honor of Purim). Exhibit A, though not visible halfway around the world, is my full and contented belly (wine and cookies do wonders for the soul). Exhibit b is below (and for those of you who are wondering, I was a cat. Appropriate, I thought, to help acknowledge the “cat”astrophe that was averted):

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Another Purim tradition, and the one that had the deepest impact on me, is audience participation. When the story is read from the Book of Esther, the entire audience (congregation?) participates with loud noises of disapproval whenever Haman appears, approval whenever Esther appears, and other charades for each of the remaining characters. So, the most striking moment of yesterday for me was when one of our tour leaders was up on the bus mic explaining the story to those of us who were unfamiliar, and the entire bus behind me erupted into one long, unsolicited BOOOOOOO! the moment that Haman appeared. The only equivalent I can give (and one that definitely gives away my interfaith upbringing) is when a group of near-strangers starts singing Christmas carols together unprompted; a collection of people with very different backgrounds and very different levels of commitment to their faith spontaneously sharing a tradition. And a very loud tradition, at that. Sitting at a reading last night (and dancing, and eating), I said to a friend, “The only time I hear yelling like this is during the Super Bowl.” (Yes, that’s another hint at my upbringing. Thanks, Dad.)

That could have been the end of our experience of Purim, and it almost was – we were on the bus leaving central Tel Aviv before learning this last fact. But during that ride, one of the Yale rabbis from our trip told us that the story doesn’t actually end the way that it seems from the kids’ services. Yes, Esther persuades the king to change his mind – but rather than reversing the edict, as we had thought, the king says that he is unable to take back an order that he has already given. Instead, he says that he will give advance warning to the Jews of the day that they are supposed to be attacked, so that they can defend themselves, and the story ends with the Jews killing a lot of Persians in order to stay alive.

This ending, though shocking to almost everyone on our bus, no matter how often they had celebrated Purim, felt somehow appropriate in our current setting. Jewish survival – and the survival of the Jewish state – is not always a win-win equation – it seems that there is always one side who must defeat the other in order to continue living their lives, and some kind of extra complication lying beneath what may at first appear to be a fairy tale ending. To be in the right, in Israel, rarely means that the other side is entirely wrong, and there is always a new version of the story to be told.

Chag Sameach (happy Purim) and good morning from Tel Aviv.

Borders and Belonging

6 Mar

“We’re still in a situation where we’re not sure where our borders are and we’re not sure who our citizens are, more than 60 years later.”
–A director of the Galilee Foundation, speaking in the Jewish settlement of Shorashim

Deep in the loose hills of the Golan Heights, both Israeli and Lebanese citizens live in the village of Ghajar. But the mix is not the result of deliberate cultural diversification; rather, it is an unintended consequence of an international peace-keeping border between the two nations that happens to run smack down the middle of Ghajar’s homes. This means that some members of the town began their lives as Syrian citizens, fell under Israeli control after Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war, and then found themselves in Lebanon as part of a truce facilitated by the United Nations in 2006. Over the course of one lifetime, the identity of this village has already shifted three times under three drastically different regimes.

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We saw Ghajar in the distance today (you can see its faint white houses in my photo above) as we looked across the valley into Lebanon and then again into the old border with Syria (see below) and the new, far-more-dramatic-in-its-altitude border with Syria since 1967 (also below – please ignore the Jess-sized figure blocking the important view.) And though the actual border shifting (or, in Ethan’s words, shapeshifting) of Israel through the years did not come as a surprise to me after my Middle Eastern studies courses, the extra oomph of seeing it so intimately did, because it instantly brought the political banter down to a personal level. These changing lines on a map, which in America we only really experience in the form of gerrymandering voting districts, mean so much more here: they can be the difference between being able to freely visit family members in a different country and never seeing them again, or between living in a democracy or a dictatorship. Three feet — or, more accurately, meters — in either direction drawn on an international map alters the course of many more lives than the average Model UN team (or, for that matter, the actual UN itself) can easily comprehend.

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And yet changing physical borders are such a norm here that every map that we have been given of Israel contains colored lines and dotted lines and explanations with asterisks in the margins. The realities of this physical instability only really became clear when I saw for the first time how SMALL Israel is. It’s about the size of New Jersey, and if you discount the disputed territories of Gaza and the West Bank, it is only about ten miles across at its narrowest point – for the record, that’s less than half of the distance that I used to drive to get to middle school each day and tiny enough for us to see from one end of the country to the other on a clear day. I mean no offense to the Jersey Shore fans when I share this, but I found myself agreeing with the person on our bus who wondered aloud: “How can an entire culture exist in something the size of New Jersey?” Now try and imagine if New Jersey kept ceding and reclaiming some of its land to and from New York on a regular basis and you can start to understand how crazy the border situation here really is.

The cultural boundaries in Israel, however, are even more mind-achingly complex than the physical ones, at least in my view. We spent the afternoon after today’s hike meeting with Israeli-Arabs of around our own age in the Jewish village of Shorashim and learning, through their stories, of the divisions that exist within Israeli society itself. Israeli-Arabs are Arabs who remained within the new state of Israel after its war of independence in 1948 and who became full Israeli citizens at that point (in contrast with the people whom we now refer to as Palestinians, who had a claim to the land that became Israel but who either fled or were driven out before the end of that war.) They make up about twenty percent of the country’s total population. Israeli-Arabs have the right to vote, to participate in Israel’s government and supreme court, to receive government services, etc. Yet even with their citizenship, they continue to live mostly separated from Jewish Israelis and most of them decide not to serve in the Israeli armed forces (they, unlike the remainder of the country with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox, are not required to enlist.) The majority of them attend different school systems and live in municipalities with smaller-than-average budgets. And some of them run into conflicts of allegiance almost daily. For example, for Arab-Israelis who are Muslim, it can be uncomfortable to salute a flag made up of Jewish symbols and to sing a national anthem proclaiming the glory of the Jewish people returning to Israel. It can also be difficult to avoid job discrimination (whether out and out discrimination by background or more obtuse discrimination by requiring certain levels of army achievement as part of professional qualifications), to achieve an equal education, and to be trusted as a day-to-day shopper in Jerusalem’s stores or a representative in the Knesset.

From Israel’s point of view, it is important to protect the rights of everyone in its democracy. Yet it needs to find a way to do so while still affirming its Jewish identity and catering its policies to prioritize Jewish success and growth, a goal that many politicians believe requires the maintenance of a Jewish majority within the entire state. Yet how can Israel laud its tolerant laws and approve extra support for Jewish settlement in the Galilee to equal out the growing number of Arab-Israeli living there, both at the same time? America has slowly repudiated the idea of “separate but equal”; can Israel find a way to do the same and still keep its legitimacy?

Before I end this post and its open-ended questions, I want to reiterate one more thing that was said today by our facilitator: “I am going to try to be objective, and fail.” I want to put out there in the open that I write these posts knowing that they are on sensitive topics and that I only know some of the facts. I write them knowing that my own opinions have been changing during each bus ride between destinations, and that there is often more power in what I don’t know yet than what I do. So excuse me for that, and please contribute your own knowledge and stories and opinions as they occur to you. Know that I am writing because I believe that something said and thought is better than nothing; that difficult and sometimes not politically-correct topics should not be abandoned merely for the discomfort that they can cause; and that I have a responsibility as a person who is getting a unique opportunity to see something “up close and personal” to, in turn, personalize that experience by offering up some of myself as I help to translate it for others.

Sweet dreams and open thoughts from a kibbutz in Galil,
J

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Israel and a time of return

5 Mar

Four months ago, I received a voicemail from an unknown number. “Hello, Jessica,” said a male voice on the other end of the line. “Please give me a call back. We have a few questions that we’d like to ask you about your Jewish affiliations.”

Despite the fact that I called him back while cooking bacon for my apartmentmates and just a few weeks before I hosted the giant Interfaith bash of Chrismahannakwanzaatheismadon, I felt defensive. Of course I am Jewish, I thought as something inside of me twisted with anxiety. My mother’s Jewish! I celebrate Hanukkah and Passover! And my grandma lives in New York City and knows how to curse in Yiddish!

“…And yet…” the voice on the phone reminded me, my father is Christian (“A priest?” I was asked); and yet, I went to more Sunday School lessons than Hebrew School ones; and yet, neither my brother nor I were ever bar or bat mitvah’d; and yet, I refused to renounce my upbringing in a fairly secular, though spiritual, family that was determined to be respectfully interfaith and to let both children choose their own religious identity at will. And yet…

This phone call, which came to verify my eligibility for the Taglit Birthright program, was not the first time that I have struggled with what it means to identify as “Jewish and…” Like many children with mixed heritage, I grew up thinking that I had a legitimate claim to multiple cultures, but slowly grew to realize that without true immersion, I would never have the kind of social currency to thrive in any of them. It’s a realization that drew me to take a course on the New Testament during my freshman year at Yale and that drove me to apply to Birthright to begin with. While for many people, Birthright is a journey to the home of their past, Birthright for me is one tool to help me to determine what I want for my own future, as well as that of my children. It is a return — both to my bloodline and to thoughts of my own religious and cultural identity, thoughts that I have mostly placed to the side during my time at Yale (with the exception of a few 3am deep life conversations) in favor of more intellectual or social inquiries. And it’s also a return to the kind of complicated, sometimes painful, sometimes delicious (see: Italian baker), travel that I have written about on this blog before.

And with that, I introduce you all to Israel. I am only about 24 hours in on this 10 day trip around the country and am doing my best to record as much of it as possible, in the hopes of expanding my thoughts now and my conclusions later (spoiler alert: there are no immediate, easy answers here. That became apparent before I even set foot on the plane.) I recognize that this trip is not the be-all, end-all – in fact, many of us on the trip packed a healthy dose of skepticism along with our clothes for Shabbat, and I have taken too many courses on the Middle East to ignore the larger geopolitical issues at stake – but it is, for me, a first step, albeit a first step large enough to carry me halfway around the world.

I’ll keep updating, but I’ll leave you with the same wish that Muriel, my grandma’s friend as well as my own, sent to me in card form: may you experience the best that life has to offer, and travel well:

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Their Way Home: Abraham’s Tent

28 Feb

Fifteen minutes away from my dorm room, the lights are about to go out in a parish house. In the Sunday School Room around the corner, Paul pores over his workbook, highlighter in hand. He is studying to be an EMT, and he highlights almost every line in his effort to commit it to memory. “So far the first five chapters have only been about airways. Airways, airways, airways,” he says to the girl next to him. “Who knew breathing was so difficult?”

Phil couldn’t care less about airways. His concerns are more immediate: vanilla, cinnamon, bacon grease, eggs, milk, challah bread, and the one frying pan that he meticulously washes and dries in between uses. He has been trained as a chef and is applying for grants to open a restaurant of his own one day. In the meantime, he keeps his skills strong by making us French toast. “You are all my grandchildren now,” he says. “Which means you’d better find me a job by Christmas, because I’m going to have a lot of presents to buy!” We laugh together, both of our hands dripping with egg yolks as we swirl the bread around to coat it, and I tell him that this is, indeed, the ritual I have with my grampa-by-blood. Maybe full bellies and kitchen conversation carry across family trees.

Cots lined up across the parish house floor

From his cot (cot, in this situation, means one thin, long band of green fabric — think of a stretcher, and add a sleeping man to the top, his bare feet angling out from beneath a fleece blanket that can’t quite cover his long frame), Carlos pays no attention to the bacon’s sizzle. Instead, he is buried in “The Hotel New Hampshire,” a book that gives me a perfect excuse to interrupt his reading and introduce myself. “I’m from New Hampshire!” I offer, to start the conversation. He nods, looks at me, and looks back down at the book, the teardrop tattoos on the side of his face making every gesture look gruffer, and somehow more vulnerable. I keep pressing gently around the edges of the conversation, probing for favorite types of books (fiction) and getting only a handful of words in response until I, on a hunch, ask him if he writes. His sentences tumble out. Fiction. Two book-length manuscripts already, and he would share them with me if only his wife weren’t so mad at him that she wouldn’t send him anything left in the house, not even his boots; he’s spent his winter in tennis shoes. Stories based on his own life, on the people he met on a bus going back and forth to work every morning for years. “No one’s ever looked at them,” he says. “Not Simon & Schuster or anything like that. I think you have to have an ‘in’ or know somebody to be looked at like that.” I walk away a few minutes later and in place of his book, he has a legal pad on his lap, and his pen is moving in quick lines across the pages.

*

Carlos, Phil, and Paul, whose stories are real but whose names have been changed or switched to protect their privacy, are three of the eleven men with whom I had the honor of spending dinners and an all-nighter over the past week. They are welcoming, funny, and homeless. And while I spend my days giving tours, adding whipped cream to my sundaes in the dining hall, casually complaining about my lack of sleep, and weighing one summer travel option against another, they spend theirs trying not to get kicked out of Starbucks, applying for jobs with their case managers, and, above all, “staying on the right track.”

Their commitment to the right track is what brought us together to begin with. The eleven men (who were originally twelve, but one is currently in the hospital, from what I could gather) were hand-selected to participate in a program called Abraham’s Tent. It is an amazing initiative. AT started one year ago when the head of Columbus House, a large New Haven shelter, talked with the head of a local interfaith group about the overwhelming need for shelter beds during the winter months. Even with the overflow shelter, which fits an extra 125+ men, accommodations are scarce during the months when temperatures are lowest. The two leaders wondered how they could share the burden of housing these men, and Abraham’s Tent was born.

AT takes twelve of the men in Columbus House who are most committed to pulling themselves out of the situation and puts them in a sort of moving shelter. They are sober, cooperative with caseworkers, and hopeful. These twelve men spend every week of the winter with a different congregation — sleeping in churches, temples, and mosques. Columbus House buses the men to and from their destinations every day, while volunteers from the congregations arrange dinners and breakfasts and staff the shelter itself. Even now, after knowing about the program for two years, I am still blown away. Why? It works. It works to free up twelve extra beds in the shelter. It works to give these men the individual friendships, conversation, respect, and relaxation that they could never find in a traditional homeless shelter. It introduces surrounding towns and people who otherwise encounter homeless men as statistics or line items to be crossed off of a town budget to these twelve staggeringly human representatives to contradict their stereotypes. And it helps to get these men on their feet — according to our training session, ten of the twelve men from last year’s Abraham’s Tent are now housed. That is a huge success story.

Home base at the parish house

So this year, YHHAP officially became a part of it. Last year, we sent volunteers out to the surrounding towns to help them with staffing. This time around, we “borrowed” a parish house and ran an entirely student-staffed week of our own. Yale student groups bought the food for dinner and stayed to cook their favorite home recipes. Some enormously dedicated YHHAP Board members spent dozens of hours taking care of all of the logistics. Others, myself included, came to converse at dinner, play card games, and stay up for all or portions of a night to be on-duty as the men slept. At 615pm every night, the men arrived. 1030pm, the lights went out for them. 445am, we made breakfast (with the help of Phil’s French toast). 6am, we handed them packed lunch bags and waved to them as they pulled away in their van.

Tomorrow morning, we will watch them leave for good, on their way to their next destinations. Jim, who has a young son with grades good enough that Jim can’t stop bragging, will continue to study for his GED at night and work full time moving boxes for Schick during the day — he, and several of the other men, repeatedly talk about how much they regret not being able to get more education when they were younger. His dream job is landscaping. He likes how dirt smells and needs to be outside; even in the coldest blizzard of the winter, he left the shelter during the day to get some real air in his lungs. Buzz, on the other hand, would clean toilets all day if it allowed him to be self-employed instead of beholden to a big company. Bob, who plays a mean game of rummy, said over a three-hour game of checkers that his perfect day would be spent choreographing martial art scenes in Hollywood movies. He reads about stage combat techniques every time he goes to the library. And Chris, who says that he is thankful every time he wakes up for being able to get out of bed in the morning, can’t stop talking about the apartments that have been reserved for these men at the end of the program, provided they follow all of the rules. The units will be prepaid for three to six months to give the men a chance to get on their feet, and it’s an opportunity that Chris plans to seize with everything he has.

Tomorrow, these men will wake up together. They are a small group among many, but to dozens of Yale students, they are the faces – our faces – of what is often brushed aside as a chronic, anonymous societal ill. We don’t have the answers to any of this. Heck, we don’t even have long enough blankets to cover the feet of these sleeping men. But in a world where we say thank you for waking up safely every morning, we have beds, and volunteers, and some mighty good French toast — and that’s enough —  that’s what we can do — for right now.

Link Think: In Which The Internet Forces My Brain Wide Open

6 Nov

In Star Wars, there is always that scene of the one little, very important ship soaring off into space (when the audience is lucky, this mission is narrated by a robot with an extreme knack for sarcasm). Alone, it launches out into this network of stars and asteroids and, maybe, comes back having mapped out one more mission’s worth of discoveries about the galaxies.

While I am (unfortunately) not a space-cavorting commander, I do have that same sensation of being afloat in the wilderness every morning when I open my emails, Twitter stream, or journalistic digests. Faced with so much to explore around me, I grasp at what I can, and sometimes, I get lucky and stumble across something really extraordinary.

Here are a few links that made me think (forgive the rhyme) this week. They were worth all of the moments exchanged to read them.

“What Are You Going to Do With That?” a speech delivered by William Deresiewicz to the freshman class at Stanford University. College, jobs, the pressure to “get into” something…this speech puts a magnifying glass on what we work for, and then asks us if that’s what we want, after all. Click here to read it.

Adopt a Word — a project by the Oxford English Dictionary that is as endearing as it sounds. Go, logophiles, go!! (Also, could someone please consider this for my Chrismakkah stocking? Just saying.) Click here to check it out in all of its splendor.

“Speaking out on the problems within,” a Yale Herald article by Julia Lurie. Brave and eloquent, this article looks at the times when your flippant answer of “Nothing much, and good!” to “What’s up? How are you?” is false. Click here to read.

Wanderfly. Do you tend to organize your vacations by saying, “I want to go somewhere cool at some point over the course of my seven days off?” Me, too. (My mom, on the other hand, begins her vacation planning by sending us all emails saying, “We’re going on vacation!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” The exclamation points correspond roughly to the amount of hours that she will spend researching our destination.) Well, wanderfly is your answer, and my new favorite travel-daydreaming website. Check it out by clicking here.

The OpEd Project. I’ve known about this website for a while, but I visited it again to see how election coverage went. No, it’s not a political news site. It’s a project to get more female writers on the op-ed pages of the nation’s most-read and most-respected papers. One of those problems you may not have known existed, but that you should learn more about RIGHT NOW. Click here to check it out.

“Truth Lies Here,” an article in The Atlantic by Michael Hirschorn. The Internet may have given us more opportunities to share our voices. But how can we be sure that what we’re hearing isn’t just our own echo? Click here to read.

Yes, brain, I know you are stuffed-to-the-brim with food for thought, so I will end here. But if you have your own websites, articles, musings, or words for adoption for the week, send them along. Awkward Star Wars intros and all.

It’s Not Just the Girls. DKE’s Chants and the Real Message for All of Us.

4 Nov

Four forums and an avalanche of opinion pieces later, our campus is in danger of moving beyond the DKE incident without realizing what is truly at stake.

It is our public sphere, and the language that we use to shape it. In its most nuanced form, what we speak amongst ourselves goes beyond English; it is “Yale-English,” with phrases and definitions that we have, as a community, decided over time to institute and accept. These phrases vary from the mundane and convenient – L-Dub, Master’s Tea, shopping period – to the context-and-campus-history-charged – Chief Perroti emails, the Flower Lady, tap night – but we expect them all to be interpreted in a certain way upon utterance.

It is this belief in the meanings of our sentences that glues our social relationships together into some hodgepodge of connections that form Yale’s public sphere, and this belief that allows us to trust in dialogue, instead of violence, when we wish to be heard. We write, speak, and tweet to one another because we believe that being listened to means something, that if you hear my carefully-selected pattern of vowels and consonants over someone else’s, you might change your mind. The rise of personal computers has only served to reinforce this trend, and even Yale’s top administrators regularly craft emails as their way of communicating with students. Rather than God, Yale’s currency today might be printed as, “In language we trust.”

Now consider again this line of students, all male, as they march through Old Campus. “No means yes,” they scream into the darkness around them. “Yes means anal.”

It bears repeating. No means yes. Yes means anal. This is not a statement of fact, or even a mere fudging of them. This is a full redefinition of our Yale-English writ large into the night sky. And it takes away, not just from the women among us, but from all of us who might, at some point in our lives, choose to utter, “No,” that most sacred aspect of our public sphere: the right to be understood. What we say, the DKE brothers tell us from the safety of their group, is not what we mean. And what we mean (clearly!) is that we would like to be raped.

A public sphere exists because a group of people agrees to use language, not violence, to make decisions to achieve a common good. This, then, is DKE’s crime: endangering the very existence of our public sphere. Their destruction of the purpose of language leaves people with no option but to resort to brutality and deceit. For where our words carry no weight, we will use our fists. And where our verbal meaning will be twisted, we will lie and lie again to twist interpretations farther. If we listen to Gibbon in his “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” it is precisely the mockery made of language that caused that great empire to fall; no community can thrive if its titles are petty shams. And on the heels of crumbled public spheres come solitude, distrust, and – yes – violence.

It is worth noting that DKE brothers have turned to this same public sphere to offer their apologies in bits and pieces through various forums. Now that they – instead of the theoretical women of whom they were speaking during their chants – have something important to express, they turn right back to the very words that they hollowed of definitions. “No, we didn’t mean to imply that rape is okay. No, we weren’t out to offend anyone. No, no, no, we weren’t thinking.” But no means yes, remember? It is a tangled web that they weave when they attempt to take our voices from us; in the end, they also muzzle themselves.

I recognize as I write this that I know some wonderful people in DKE, as do many of us on campus; that they are not the only ones to take our words for granted and to use titles for corrosive purposes (“Yale Sluts” being just one ghost of history ready to be conjured up); and that they are not the first, nor will they be the last, who need to consider this message.

Language is powerful. Words matter. And changing the meaning of what any member of our community says without her or his permission is dangerous to our entire public sphere. So when we sit here and talk about “never again,” let’s all take a moment, think about what we are saying – and this time, let’s mean it.

A Note On Love

28 Oct

How much do I love spaghetti?

PESTO FACE. I love spaghetti almost as much as I love when you decide not to make fun of me for the giant bathing suit wet spots in this otherwise-choir-of-angels-worthy picture.

How much do I love jello wrestling?

So after giving it some thought, Jess isn't sure she should answer this question. After all, Jess's father reads this blog, too. (But if you really want to know -- I LOVE PIERSON JELLO WRESTLING. It's like the cause and effect lovefest of "If you give a mouse a cookie" but with "If you give a girl a handful of gooey gucky yellow jellow")

HOW MUCH DO I LOVE MY FAMILY, FRIENDS, AND THAT ONE RANDOM WAITER AT THE NEW YORK RESTAURANT WHO GAVE ME A SOMBRERO FOR MAKING MY 21st BIRTHDAY SO INCREDIBLE?!?!

Yeah, that’s right. I love that crew most of all.

A Strawberry Daiquiri, Scotch, and Cosmopolitan, in that order, at my "Costumed Cocktails" celebration. Don't all of your classy drinks usually start their evenings with a few giggles?

My childhood in pictures. Thank you, Grandma, for surprising me by digging these out! Thank you, dance competitions of my youth, for putting me in that fashionable delight of a purple tutu on the upper right!

P.S. In the upper right, there is something eating my mother's head as she cradles my baby self. I've heard rumors of it being one of her 80s-style perms. Not so sure I want those rumors confirmed. XOXO MOM I PROMISE I'M (MOSTLY) DONE MAKING FUN OF YOUR YOUTH NOW

(I don’t have a picture for this one, but THANK YOU Nana & Grampa for the card and for the advice on “not getting too sloshed”! One of the wisest – and most fun – things I have been told all year.)

Only the best dads take their daughters to celebrate a birthday in a restaurant where they make her wear a sombrero! In other news, yeah, that happened.

I can't even feign sarcasm for this one. I just love my family. Though I can add a shoutout to all of you who weren't present that evening -- I, and everyone else making thorough fools of ourselves, missed you in our conga line.

My friends made a scrapbook of 21 pages about me for my birthday?!?!?!?!! I know. Pinch me, please.

AND a surprise birthday chair in the dining hall?!?!?!

Feelin' like the luckiest gal on the planet. Or at least the luckiest gal on the planet wearing her very own giant "It's my birthday" button.

So, in sum:

I love spaghetti. I love jello-wrestling. And I LOVE YOU for making me feel, at 21 years old, that life is goofy, fun, and oh so good.

THANK YOU, CREW!

infinite xos

J

Quotes of the (Loosely Defined) Week

28 Oct

This week is a whirlwind of midterm papers, meetings, kicking about in piles of autumn leaves (yes, of course this merits as much time as my academics), and, as you may have noticed, an overabundance of Tweeting. But in the midst of my late night article-writing, I thought I would share a few quotes from the past week or so that made me stop and think.

It’s all the “who’s getting in the life raft?” kind of stuff.

–Ed Mattison, major advocate about homelessness issues in New Haven from the South Central Behavioral Health Network, referring to a phenomenon in which a lot of social service organizations in the city, many of whom have worked closely with one another in the past, are now having to compete for an extremely limited pool of available funding to run their programs and/or shelters this year. Overall, programs in New Haven have lost 8% of their normal budgets as well as laid off two caseworkers.

Compassion fatigue: You feel like you’re working harder than they are to turn their lives around.

–Pete, a street outreach worker for the homeless in New Haven. Pete was formerly homeless, too, and has since recovered, and he spoke about his struggles to continue trying to help some of his clients even as they fell once, twice, five times off of the recovery bandwagon.

I drive around wanting to know that I do everything that I can do [to help the people on the streets] before pulling into my driveway [at night].

–Pete, of why he stays out late at nights working even though his wife would like him home safe.

For some of them, it’s better to live on the street than in that situation.

–Ed, of the reasons for the sharp rise of women who are homeless over the past few years. Many of the women run away from home and into the streets to escape abuse.

We give ourselves the impression that cynicism is more widespread than it really is.

–Hakan Ayat, the Executive Director of Turkey’s Open Society Foundation and a former World Fellow at Yale. I had dinner with Hakan as part of a Pierson College Master’s Tea last week and he led our table through a workshop about global civics.

This armchair is very comfortable, but we won’t be able to do the rest of it from this armchair.

–Hakan, talking about the sacrifices necessary of the world in order to cooperate well enough to deal with climate change, resource constraints, and overpopulation.

Future generations are subsidizing us, and it’s hard to give up subsidies.

–Hakan, on why we refuse to plan for the crises ahead by planning and rationing what we have now. He also stated that one of the difficulties of preparing anyone for climate change (and/or convincing him or her that it exists in the first place) is that the fallout from our actions won’t be observable for another three decades. Our sense of cause and effect is separated by 30 years.

We need to be perfectly clear that the answer will not always be yes to the customer. Our job is to say, let me show you how to get to yes.

–Lynn Smith, Vice President of Business Development at Start Community Bank in New Haven, about the kind of culture that she wants to foster in her coworkers. I interviewed Smith and Start’s CEO, Bill Placke, today in preparation for an article that I am writing for one of my classes…more details to come.

This is what makes me get up in the morning. This is an entry from our Start art contest and…this young lady who is thirteen years old says, “This is a picture of a few garbage cans on the corner of Howe and Kimberly that represent what most upper class people think of us in New Haven. They think of us as garbage.”

–Lynn, same interview as above, talking about why she is so driven about her work at Start Community Development Bank. The bank is trying to engage the poorest sections of New Haven (primarily those who earn $20,000 or less a year) to help them learn how to use the banking industry to pull themselves up into a life of more wealth, whether that means receiving an extra $500 or $5,000 a year.

As our premise, let’s say that a cube is larger than a tet.

–My First Order Logic professor. Oh, wait, no. As much as I appreciate this class for my professor’s excellent teaching and wit and for the exercise of my mathematical muscles, the distance between this quote and the rest should be evidence enough in my personal case to be excused from my final Quantitative Reasoning requirement. Sorry, everyone in my family who is good at math. Shoulda shared the genetic jackpot.

Love and quotes,

J

Learning about Biz-ness

26 Oct

Biz Stone came to a Yale Master’s Tea today. For those who either don’t go to Yale or stick their fingers in their ears and sing loudly to avoid hearing about each new tech start-up, a quick refesher:

Biz Stone: co-founder of Twitter (and Xanga and lots of other cool things). Total baller.

Twitter: Twitter.com (I use it! My Twitter stream is to the right of this blog). A service that lets you send out thoughts, links, etc in 140-character chunks and “follow” the streams of other users. Biz calls it “an information network, not a social network,” and I would agree – I use it as my RSS feed and a way to find the pulse of what’s going on. And, yes, occasionally to thank my mother for doing my laundry. But only occasionally!

Master’s Tea: events where certain residential colleges at Yale invite luminaries from specific fields (or luminaries in general – think Hillary Clinton & Denzel Washington for starters) to sit down in a fairly low-key environment and “chat” with a group of Yale students.

So, today Biz came. I learned a lot and tweeted even more. But here are some of the real quotational gems; many of them made me think as I work with my own start-up this year, and I thought you might enjoy them, too:

  • If Twitter succeeds, “it’s not a triumph of technology, it’s a triumph of humanity.”
  • A great question he got about Twitter – “What do you want people to say about Twitter in five years? Ten years?”
  • “Opportunity can be manufactured”
  • “Creativity is a renewable resource.”
  • Mistakes cause you to show your integrity and character. You use them to explain what you did wrong, why, what happened, and why it won’t happen again. “Then you tuck it under your belt and move on.”
  • The movie “Wings of Desire” is, apparently, awesome.
  • “To succeed spectacularly, be ready to fail spectacularly.”

Twitter internal company culture quotes:

  • “We can change the world, build a business, and have fun.”
  • “We don’t always know what’s going to happen.” –> leave the door open to innovation in response to unexpected events/usages of your technology
  • “There is a creative answer to every problem.” and you should do something creative before you try the obvious solution
  • “There are more smart people outside of our company than inside of it.” 300 people at Twitter. 6+ billion in the world.
  • “We will win if we always do the right thing for our users.”
  • “The only deal worth doing is a win-win deal.” Treat business relationships like real relationships.
  • “Your coworkers are all smart and full of good intentions.” Give everyone the benefit of the doubt. If you think someone’s doing a bad job, introduce yourself and find out how you can help.

Another remark that hit home, especially after my course at the School of Management last year on corporate social responsibility and social ventures:

  • Start-ups have the unique ability to build into their business and culture the idea of doing good so that their altruism can have a kind of compound interest as they grow into bigger businesses. (fyi, Twitter has a non-profit wine brand called “Fledgling” that donates all profits to “Room to Read”)
  • The right business model should be either invisible to users or so useful that it is appreciated by them

Who knew that a little business named after chirping birds could end up saying (and enabling others to say) so much?

Now that’s one Rockin’ Robin.

Notebook Excerpt: Norma

26 Oct

Late this summer, a woman died. She was a best friend to my grandmother and a warm, warm presence in the lives of my entire family, and a former nun with a whole host of adventures to share as we laughed over pub tables. I know, as, I think, does everyone who felt her unwavering belief in the world ahead, that she is still sharing laughter with friends; she’s just sitting at a bit of a higher table now. Though I still have not written anything that does her justice (I would need a novel!), here is a very, very rough first draft of a poem that I wrote this August during FOCUS. The entirety of these stanzas are copied from scribbles I made during a panel about Yale and New Haven…at that moment, my mind (and pen) were elsewhere.

Norma

before, we sat in

three seats with teetering martinis

and laughter from the inside out

(she was a nun to none or one, at least, as me,

with stories of teaching and God and the life she led

since those foreign countries)

she traveled from my 20 years of life to her two weeks of dying in hospital beds

and I had a suddenly-whittled brain of words and hobbled tongue

 

now, it’s just one more conversation

I will not have,

breaking bread,

one more dinner, pseudo-grandma-adult-shaped

intersection of my nights

just one more

quick

surprise.

 

later, maybe

her absence will take the

shape of stiffened

permanence,

hungry hungry

evenings in my bed,

that thank you letter we never wrote

 

and in ten years,

I will be passing these names

tied with story

tied with heart string of

faded loyalty,

fear of time,

of love

 

Grateful.