IMG_0811

Hey Folks, just a quick note to let you know that the blog is officially going on sabbatical (after what has been a fairly protracted unofficial sabbatical). I should be back up and running in January with a new look and new (as in different type of) content. Thanks for your support!

MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN

Fuzzy HangHi guys, it’s been a while, so let’s just jump right in with this point of re-entry, from David Brooks’ February 9 Op-Ed column: “To hear Sanders or Trump, Cruz and Ben Carson campaign is to wallow in the pornography of pessimism, to conclude that this country is on the verge of complete collapse. That’s simply not true. We have problems, but they are less serious than those faced by just about any other nation on earth.”

Before you grow too baffled, rest assured that this blog is not being converted into a political forum. But given what I’ve been up to over the past seven months or so, I couldn’t help but feel a particular appreciation for Brooks calling out the fear/anger-mongering for the sake of mongering. Don’t get me wrong – questioning the status quo is an important and sacred part of a free society, but there’s a difference between intellectual discourse and baiting.

And you know who really resents the disingenuousness of the mongering? My 18-year-old clients. Regardless of their political persuasion, they don’t like to feel as though they’re getting played. Which brings me to: a) what I’ve been doing since we last spoke and b) what I’ve been reading. Hint: the answers to both questions are virtually the same and can be summed up in two words: college essays.

Both the beauty and the horror of 18-year olds is that (with some exceptions) they are innately optimistic. This isn’t to say they aren’t questioning everything that’s come before, but they tend to believe it will get better and they personally can be agents of change. Heck, one of my students wrote a whole essay about being an optimist and how such an outlook will serve him well as a scientist and entrepreneur.

Another of my kiddos described the moment when she knew she wanted to be a doctor. While lifeguarding at the local pool, one of her charges got a bloody nose and as my gal held a paper towel up to the little boy’s nose and tipped his head back, she realized the power of being able to use her hands to help someone.

Even the most mundane-seeming events in a young person’s life can be made meaningful through their sensitive and thoughtful perspective. Like my client who wrote about learning to make her often-grumpy Punjabi grandfather a cup of chai tea, a rite that wasn’t significant to her until she realized how much it meant to him.

And then there was an essay by one of my Chinese students that was so beautifully written, with a narrative voice so strong, I can’t do it justice trying to paraphrase it here. But I’ll just say this (as Senator Sanders often quips): at its heart, the essay was about his struggle to find his place somewhere between the two cultures he occupied as an international student in the U.S. Beyond his lovely writing, the part that slayed me was the raw vulnerability he displayed when describing the intense, to the point of agonizing, desire he initially felt to be American.

I work with a fair number of international students (and lots more who are their family’s first or second generation in the U.S.) and the essays that describe the agony and the ecstasy of this journey are a constant reminder that we’re doing something right over here. Even more encouraging is witnessing how so many of my students–regardless of their background–want to pay it forward. I can’t tell you how many kids want to develop renewable energy systems or businesses based in social entrepreneurship or organizations to address all those parts of the current system they don’t think are working. I’ve got young women who want to work with younger girls to encourage their love of math and science. I’ve even got someone brave enough to want to tackle big money in politics. Beyond their goals, the sheer magnitude of their energy is astounding. How could I possibly identify with the “pornography of pessimism” when this is my daily reading material? I think it’s pretty clear who is going to make America great again.

 

LOWERING THE BAR

Did you miss me? Aw, thanks, I missed you too. Why yes, I have had a nice summer. I’ve been eating a lot of fruit, reading a little and I went somewhere I haven’t been in twenty years: Paris.

Now usually a person doesn’t feel nervous and guilty anticipating a glamorous, upcoming vacation (unless of course that person happens to be my husband), but before the trip I had some concerns. The last time I’d been in Paris I was a college student doing her semester abroad and when I left in the summer of 1994, I assumed I’d be back soon, in the naïve, entitled way that a person does when they’re unable to realize how thoroughly they’re taking something for granted.

Trying to look cool = no smile

Trying to look cool = no smile

As the years went by and I traveled to other places but never back to the city that had embraced and challenged me, I began to wonder if perhaps I was still up for Paris – meaning mostly that I was terrified of speaking French again (which hadn’t exactly been my forte, even at my most immersed). If you are thinking, “well then just speak English,” you do not understand the solemnity with which the Parisians of my youth took their mother tongue. Rule #1: if you know any shred of French whatsoever, you speak it. It’s a sign of respect. We can get into the historical/socio-political context for this attitude another time. Just know that being the compulsive rule-follower that I am, respect I would show.

Cut to the summer of 2015. Paris is a significantly more diverse city than the one I left. It’s also cleaner, friendlier and generally younger (though maybe that last one has more to do with me being older). And pardon the abstraction, but it also feels more nuanced and layered in ways that are difficult to explain. Or were hard to explain until I reached a particular passage from our old friend Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose second volume of My Struggle I happened to be reading on the trip:

“When I was twenty what I had, what made me me, was so little. I didn’t know that, of course, because that was all there was at that time. But now that I’m thirty-five there’s more. Well, everything that existed in me when I was twenty is still there. But now it’s surrounded by so much more.”

I thought this was a great antidote to sentimentality – the idea that life becomes richer and more interesting as we get older because we are more enriched and interesting ourselves.

Does this mean j’ai parlé with the best of them? Let me put it this way. It’s amazing how fluent one can be in a language of 1,000 words. It turns out that just getting one’s point across, no matter how clumsy, can be a victory in and of itself. In fact, it can even be fun. Lowering the bar allows you to leap over it.

Le Metro I

Which brings me to this blog. During this past year, I wrote a post based on every book I read. The idea, as you’ve figured out by now, was to use the books as launching points for pithy little essays, rather than to write reviews (there are plenty of those out there).

This year there are new demands on the work and personal fronts—all good, but demanding nonetheless—so that both my time and mental energy are more occupied now.

So I’m going to lower the bar. I’m going to write in a language of 1,000 words, rather than 100,000. I’m going to post when I can but not freak out when I can’t. (The compulsive rule-follower in me has trouble changing rules, even when they’re self-imposed.) Hopefully the things I read will be inspiring enough that writing about them will be effortless, but I’m making no promises. I know, dear reader, at this point you’re shaking your fist at the screen and screaming out “WHY???” with a sense of bottomless grief. It’ll be a loss, I understand, but try to carry on as best you can during my absences. I’ll be back before you know it. I do, eventually, return.

Le Metro II

These were the books that rose to the top for me last year, meaning I was still thinking about them for some time after I’d finished reading them.

Americanah
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Life After Life
by Kate Atkinsonfloat

Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit & You Can Too
by Beth Terry

The Interestings
by Meg Wolitzer

Subversives
by Seth Rosenfeld

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
by Haruki Murakami

We Are Not Ourselves
by Matthew Thomas

All The Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr