Heart Happy

Your daily dose of Christmas spirit. This is the conversation I've had via Facebook Messages with this girl, over the course of a few days. I have loved each dose of innocence and cuteness I get everyday as an emissary for Santa. Nothing like having a conversation with a kid who truly believes you're an elf.  

heart happy

A few commandments of happiness

For writer Gretchen Rubin's happiness project, she started a blog as one of her work goals, to expand her identity as a writer and connect with a new community. On this blog, over the course of the project, she shared her own Twelve Commandments for Happiness, and many readers shared some of their own. A great list of them is in the book. I wanted to share. The ones in italics are my favorites.

  • Forget the past.
  • Do stuff.
  • Talk to strangers.
  • Stay in touch.
  • Stop the venting and complaining. 
  • Go outside.
  • Spread joy.
  • Never bother with people you hate.
  • Don't expect it to last forever. Everything ends and that's okay.
  • Stop buying useless crap.
  • Make mistakes.
  • Give thanks: for the ordinary and the extraordinary. 
  • Create something that wasn't there before. 
  • Notice the color purple.
  • Make footprints: "I was here."
  • Be silly. Be light.
  • Be the kind of woman I want my daughters to be.
  • Shit happens--count on it.
  • Friends are more important than sex.
  • Choose not to take things personally.
  • Be loving and love will find you.
  • Soak it in.
  • This too shall pass.
  • "Be still, and know that I am God."
  • Remember, everyone's doing their best all the time.
  • Expect a miracle.
  • I am already enough. 
  • Let it go, man.
  • Light a candle or STFU.
  • Recognize my ghosts.
  • What do I really, really, really want?
  • Help is everywhere.
  • What would I do if I weren't scared?
  • If you can't get out of it, get into it. 
  • Keep it simple.
  • Give without limits, give without expectations.
  • React to the situation.
  • Feel the danger (many dangers--saturated fats, drunk driving, not making deadlines, law school--don't feel dangerous).
  • Start where you are.
  • People give what they have to give.
  • Be specific about my needs.
  • Let go, let God.
  • If you're not now here, you're nowhere.
  • Play the hand I'm dealt.
  • Own less, love more.
  • One is too many; a hundred aren't enough. 
  • Nothing too much.
  • Only connect.
  • Be a haven.

My Pop Art Series

This is part of the Living Atlanta street art series that was done by local artists in 2011, but I have only recently discovered this piece, very close to my office at 34 Peachtree Street. I absolutely love it. So I played with it in Lightroom to my heart's content, and this is the result. I can't have enough versions of this picture, it seems.

Grace Bonney and me

In the few spare moments I sometimes have to peruse something that is not project- or homework-related readings, I have been absorbing Grace Bonney's wonderful new home and DIY and all-around inspirational book, based off the blog she created and edits, Design*Sponge.

I told her I love the headboard she made for her own room, and that I wish to make my own as soon as I can afford to put more money into my own bed/frame/headboard situation, and she said, "Oh, if I can make it, you certainly can, I'm not that crafty." Uh, ma'am? You created Design*Sponge. There's at least a little crafty in you.

Bossy lady

I loved Tina Fey's memoir Bossypants. Her thoughts on being a woman in society, laughing at her own childhood, recounting the sagas of SNL writing days and Sarah Palin sketches, talk of her father, 30 Rock writing and development, motherhood, and in the intersection of all these things, was fantastic. I laughed all the way through it, especially because I listened to the audiobook, read by Ms. Fey herself! (The fact that I used an exclamation point means I'm serious. Those are rare.) It was like spending nine or so hours with her, laughing about life and being very real. Wanted to share one funny little quip, in which she is reflecting on her several-month escapade back in the fall of 2008, when she made a series of guest appearances on Saturday Night Live as Sarah Palin during the months leading up to the election. She's talking about how the vice presidential debates sketch was her favorite, and why.


One, I felt like I contributed a lot of jokes to this one, so my writer ego likes it best.

Two, Queen Latifah was there.

Three, I thought the speeches that Jim Downey wrote for Jason Sudeikis as Joe Biden were brilliant. Especially the stuff where Biden is trying to prove that he's not some Washington elite by talking about how he's from Scranton, Pennsylvania, "the most godforsaken place on earth." I thought that was ingenious, becuase not only was the ad hominem attack on Scranton a hilarious comedy left turn, it also exemplified what the election had become. Instead of talking about issues, everybody was trying to prove how "down-home" they were. "I'm just like you" was the subtext of every speech.

Politics and prostitution have to be the only jobs where inexperience is considered a virtue. In what other profession would you brag about not knowing stuff? "I'm not one of those fancy Harvard heart surgeons. I'm just an unlicensed plumber with a dream and I'd like to cut your chest open." The crowd cheers.

That continues to strike a cord these days...

I recommend her book highly--mostly to women, I might add, but many men will get some laughs as well. You can skip over the parts about stages of being fat and skinny in her life, and some of the motherhood bits--although those are some of the very best bits.


Summer... oh, sweet summer.

Man, this summer is turning me, and my world, on our heads. I, who usually starts on research pretty earlier in the semester for papers, have not even settled on topics for my two papers I have to write about Cuba. If you know me at all, you know that I am the complete opposite of a procrastinator; I don't even remember the last time I didn't have a paper done a good five days in advance to its due date. But I have been feeling that summer laziness, where I'd rather sit and daydream on my porch in the middle of the night, and watch foreign movies on Netflix Instant, rather than focus on writing or scholarly stuff. (And I can actually pay full attention to a movie, with free time like this!) I'm feeling like this is going to be the summer of papers written the day before they're due. Oh, Lordy. I can see it coming. I have also started in on priming my whole apartment, which I painted in its near entirety last summer, when I anticipated staying here for two years at least. Rent increases have made that impossible, and I am fully feeling the pain right now, in the time it takes to return these walls to white. I've decided that my energy and determination to paint a new space is directly related to whether or not I have recently had to paint a room, since last summer I didn't have to repaint anything when I moved out of my previous townhouse. This summer, I am taking a much simpler approach to my new apartment: beige walls, no work required. I'll take my mom's advice: just cover it with so much art, it feels like home anyway. Perfection.

Maybe the most indicative hint that it is summer (and the most fun) is the vast increase in alcohol intake compared to my regular, super busy semester life. Spending two weeks in Cuba, where the mojitos are the same price as a bottle of water (and you got to have something with lunch, right?) certainly helped kick that off right away. Since I've been back though, I have had time to visit lots of friends, and have taken a new approach to dinner: why not have a beer with that? In fact, why not just have beer for dinner instead?

Only working, and not having class, has been truly joyful. Relaxing. Only ONE thing to focus on in my life. Is this how real people live? It's so much fun!

I've also been absolutely obsessed, all of a sudden, with M.I.A. and Dengue Fever, two artists I've long known, but they are seriously hitting the spot right now. Exactly my mood. A bit rebellious, no?


Did I say, also, that since I'm moving, I am really excited about shaking up the way all my stuff is arranged, and in further simplifying my space. Might get rid of a bunch of stuff. Might put the bookshelves in the dining room. Maybe put my art/fabric/inspiration board right out in the living room. Why not?

I pretty much just want to pay homage to summer:

to having a tan and wearing a skirt to show it off,

to last year's dirty, broken-in flip flops,

to pleasure reading (YES!),

to no make-up,

to keeping the frig stocked with good beer,

to the pool,

and cook-outs,

to margaritas with great friends,

to MOVING (even though it's a lot of work),

to less stress in the classroom (and if you're really lucky, no class at all--jealous),

to the windows down!,

and the heat suffocating you (I do kind of love Georgia heat the way it does that),

to sweating so much at my job, I don't feel guilty about not going to the gym,

and to spending too much time watching TV shows.

Among other things.

Ode to a great movie, in Kathleen Kelly's tangent on books

Nora Ephron is exceedingly talented, and she writes some of the most charming movies in existence. Even when they aren't box office hits, or even critically well-received, I usually enjoy them enormously. Of these, I have seen You've Got Mail hundreds of times, literally. Even though it involved dial-up modems and circa-1998 technology as the basis of its plot, the themes and story are timeless. Thirteen years after its release, it is one of the best chick flicks ever. Somehow she got the conversation and characters just perfectly, so that they transcend the very timely material at the plot's center (internet romance via AOL e-mail and chat rooms). Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is the son of the wealthy CEO of the "big bad Fox Books superstore," and Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) is the owner of the independent children's bookstore Shop Around the Corner. His newly-opened location just up the street from hers forces her out of business, but little do they know that these real-life enemies are each other's online crush. As I've gotten older, I've understood elements and little quips that I had missed in years prior. Kathleen's boyfriend Frank (played by Greg Kinnear) fully supports a neo-Luddite movement, for example, a term I learned once I got to college. He hates technology with a quirky vengeance.

Anyway, it is one of my all-time favorite movies. And I wanted to share a lovely quotation from Miss Kathleen Kelly herself, that really rings true in my own life and my memories of childhood and books. Beyond her comment, though, I think the same holds true in a life-long reader's experience; each book I read becomes a part of me, in some way making me the person I am. Those of my childhood hold particular warm spots in my heart, as images and stories from them can bring back a rush of emotions and memories when they resurface in my world sometimes. My love of books as a child has translated into the same kinds of emotion with and while reading today, though I can't say whether it was the chicken or the egg that lies at the start. (As in, Do I like to read because I had and read books, or did I keep reading because of my own interest?)

Kathleen's rant comes over her frustration with the newly-opened Fox Books, and her insistence that it won't affect her negatively. But she wanders from there in her characteristically charming way...

You know, the world is not driven by discounts, believe me. I have been in business forever. I mean, I started helping my mother after school here when I was six years old, and I used to watch her. And it wasn't that she was just selling books. It was that she was helping people become whoever it was they were going to turn out to be. Because when you read a book as a child, it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does and I... I've gotten carried away.

Recalling tropical oases...

Today we had our warmest day in awhile in old Atlanta, and the snow by my house is slowly but surely melting away. I am not tired of the winter, in fact I am enjoying it a lot. I soak up the cold season while we have it, because the summer heat is enough to stick in my memory--and it will be here again in the blink of an eye. But I was missing the suntan I got this summer in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I was craving the amazing stuffed poblano peppers and spicy chorizo tacos they served at the thatched-roof restaurant next to the pool, and of course, the happy hour margaritas and strawberry daiquiris. I felt so glamorous sitting by a pool that melted down several layers, which was right next to the ocean, which gave way to the mountains, and then to the sky. So I just had to look back at my pictures and remind myself that the heat will return soon enough, and with any luck, a suntan too. But I doubt I'll be here again any time soon, and I'm feeling a little bit spoiled that I even have a place like this to miss.

Snow & solitude, a walk through the woods

I took an extra long walk today, walking cautiously along the sidewalks where I encountered some civilization in the form of other bundled-up walkers. But the bulk of my walk was alone, through the woods between my apartment complex and the downtown area of Vinings. The train tracks that pass right by my home hold a special spot in my heart, as the soothing sound of trains passing throughout the day has become a comforting sound. The nearness and charm of the train (which never honks, by the way, making all the difference) has fostered a kind of fascination that I've never had before with trains. I was not crazy for them as a child, as is more common for little boys (including my brother Neil) than little girls. The only thing I can blame for my new found interest might be my time at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, but even that doesn't quite explain it. I've lived here since June and have had a back-of-the-mind kind of goal to find the train track someday, because it is obviously close to my building but not at all visible.

Along my 3.5-hour walk today, I finally found the spot where the train passes my home. This seems strange, maybe, but it's extremely hilly around here, and the steep cliffs where the trains pass are for serious hikers or crazy people, only. I have always wanted to go exploring off the concrete and previously-trodden tracks through the woods, but they seem to be untouched for intelligent reasons--for keeping bones intact and not looking like a 5-year-old crawling up a steep edge. Somehow the snow makes all that OK, so I was literally on my hands and knees, shoving my boots firmly in the snow and using the spare limbs to pull myself up this high spot without slipping. I was rewarded with what I expected might be at the top of that cliff: the tracks! The place where that phantom train I always hear but never see crosses into my neighborhood.

I used the tracks as my guide into historic Vinings, where I found an open CVS that had some Dunkin Donuts ground coffee on sale, which was the one thing that seemed to be ailing me--I'd run out, and that's not good when I'm stuck in my house for days. It felt nice to be out in the world, but relatively safe on my own two feet, in my trusty old white snow boots. I hadn't actually had to pull those boots out since I'd visited Upper Michigan in December a few years ago, so it was fun to have something ready to stomp around in, and climb up steep cliffs.

It was a bit surreal as I was following the tracks back home to see only one other set of footprints--the ones I had left earlier that day. I love the fact that in metro Atlanta, I was the only person who enjoyed this stretch of the city on this day, during the crazy snowfall of 2011.

The unexpected extra free time has allowed me to finish a duvet cover for my bed that I had long been planning to put together, and also gave me no excuse not to clean up the whole apartment. I also organized months of backed-up paperwork, loan and bank statements, grad school stuff, old classwork, things I'd pulled out of magazines, and everything else that had seemed to pile up in drawers and corners near my two desks. I've also started to watch the second season of Modern Family; what a great show.

"You're a wizard, Harry."

Very few people get to experience their favorite fairy tale world in real life. Unless you happen to be in a movie made by Tim Burton or your imagination is made in the physical world at an amusement park, there's little chance of stepping into a place that had previously only existed in your mind, stemming from the pages of a book or the visions created by a story.

Leaving no opportunity to capitalize on my generation untapped, Warner Brothers and Universal Studios created The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to make the snow-capped shops of Hogsmeade and the flavor of Butterbeer quite real. I waited six months after its opening to make the trip down to Orlando to see Hogwarts castle for myself, giving the crazies enough time to see it first. This had the added benefit of wintertime, which meant the fake snow looked much more believable than I imagine it did to those July visitors, cursing the heat and peering wistfully at the white stuff. When I dipped into the Three Broomsticks for some shepherd's pie, it was an unusually chilly day in Florida, and I was grateful for the warmth of the fire and the cozy, dark pub atmosphere.

I devoured the first three books in the Harry Potter series in a matter of weeks, checking them out in succession from the Shuman Middle School library (Savannah, Georgia). I was twelve. When Tom Riddle reveals his true identity to Harry inside the Chamber of Secrets, I was absolutely blown away. I have a vivid memory of laying on my bed, flipping the page over and back again, taking in the revelation that Tom Riddle was the younger version, the memory, of the man who would become Lord Voldemort. I had never in my life read such literature, with so many wonderful twists.

Fast forward to 2007, when the seventh and final book was published, and we Harry Potter kids knew much more about the arch-villain of the series. We knew he and Harry shared a strange connection, and we were about to find out just how big. I recall feeling so anxious imagining how J. K. Rowling would end the series, as pundits predicted both Harry's death and survival. Harry Potter's death would be the better literary ending, and would certainly solidify his place as hero and martyr. But I honestly didn't know if she could do that and survive (maybe literally) the angry fan backlash. Yet the option of Harry surviving seemed much too... fairy tale, and depressingly "happy ending," kids' story cop-out.

I won't spoil the ending, but Rowling blew me away. In the midst of some very, very high expectations, as well as many anticipating a let-down, she wrote an ending that went so far beyond anything I could have imagined, I almost couldn't believe it. At the end of it all, I loved the series even more, more than I thought was possible. Even with some of the predictions spoiling certain aspects, and with all of the speculation surrounding it, she managed to surprise and entertain, and bring plenty of tears. She certainly proved Severus Snape to be one of the most interesting literary characters in the modern era.

Without dragging this too far into a nerdy tangent, I simply felt awed and blessed to be able to walk through a city that had existed only in my imagination since that twelve-year-old girl laid on her bed and was transported. Eating one of Hagrid's rock cakes and visiting Zonko's Joke Shop were utterly blissful, and I was an unabashedly happy consumer of the created worlds that thrive on imagination in Orlando.


"Jimmy Fallon’s late-night house of joy," and why he's the best on TV

The other day on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy performed a Christmas tune with Dee Snider (of Twisted Sister fame) and his Late Night band, which just happens to be the fabulous Roots. He sang and played his guitar alongside some amazing talent, and did just what he seems to do flawlessly every night: have a genuinely good time with his guests, his show crew, and his audience. I've been watching for about six or eight months, around the time I decided he deserved a second chance. When his show debuted in March of 2009, I watched intermittently for a few weeks, and the poor guy was just getting into the role. He was, well, nervous. Still in the experimental phase. Barely in the existence phase, so I don't blame him, but I just couldn't watch. Give the guy a year, and he has revolutionized what I expect from a late night talk show.

Jimmy performing music numbers and stand-alone skits has done far more than give him a niche with the younger, Youtube-watching crowd who can tune in to those nuggets days and weeks later; he has made Late Night a place for his larger collection of talents. Jay Leno singing the "original lyrics" to "Yesterday" by the Beatles with Paul McCartney himself? Never. Jimmy pulled it off with giddiness and pure joy in his performance.

He does country music, he does classic Neil Young, he does Canadian soap operas. He has brought simple things like charades and other silly games onto the set, as well as newer things like Twitter hashtags (that often trend nationally and sometimes worldwide when he starts them) and "Slow Jammin' the News" with the Roots, in which the news is done, yes, slow-jam style. Brilliant.

Besides Jimmy's wide array of comedic, musical, and acting talents that he uses to infuse the show with his personality, he is refreshingly candid and relaxed with guests. And most of all, he laughs, so much that it is clear he is just darn enjoying himself. He knows his time slot, he knows its late, and he enjoys giving people irreverent and fresh stuff. He's also the first to admit that if people want to see the show, they'll watch it online or TiVo it (which gave him a neutral position in the feud that erupted at NBC when Conan was given the ultimatum to push the Tonight Show to 12:05 or leave it). With the things he's doing on Late Night, I rarely miss an episode now, especially in an era when I am tired of the same stale acts on other late night television, with the predictable victims who take it on the chin for the sake of comedy.

With my addiction in fairly advanced stages, New York magazine published an article on Jimmy Fallon and the show he has molded into his own, whose title summed up much of my sentiment on the whole late night matter: "Mr. Sunshine: Jimmy Fallon's Good Humor," by Adam Sternbergh (November 7, 2010). What Sternbergh points out is that Fallon's humor doesn't have the victims that even bits like Jaywalking have on the Tonight Show. He's not snarky, and doesn't harp on the negative or tell jokes  condescendingly. He takes a sillier approach, and that has made all the difference.

[Michael] Shoemaker [Late Night's producer] remembers an early struggle, in the first months, to figure out exactly how to joke about the then-ubiquitous Susan Boyle. “Everyone else was talking about how she looked or her fifteen minutes of fame,” he says. Letterman, for example, did a top-ten list of “Worst Summer Jobs,” which included “Susan Boyle’s groomer.” Jon Stewart joked that Boyle looked like Labour’s Gordon Brown in drag. “But I really liked her video,” says Fallon, and Shoemaker points out, “People were watching it in our office with tears in their eyes.” So instead, they wrote a sketch in which watching Boyle’s video could salve any affliction, including Fallon’s grumpy mood, a cancellation by Brangelina, news of an unwanted pregnancy, a zombie attack, roaches, snakes, and a bloody arm amputated by a broken copy machine. It was funny, inventive, and left Boyle unscathed. “We watched it and said, That’s it,” Shoemaker says. “That’s what our show is about.”

This is exactly what I have been craving in my late night television companion, a person who spends weeknights with me as I'm finishing homework or working on a project or heading off to bed. It's important that I giggle, and I can only laugh at crude sex jokes a few times before I turn the channel. (And I only have about ten to chose from.) Jimmy's show takes cues from many comedic inspirations, coming together in totally its own marvelous concoction, not only keeping it victimless but keeping the viewer guessing each night what will happen on the show. And the Roots is by far the best late night band out there, just classic. Perfect combination, all around. Says the article:

Late Night owes as much to the antic energy of The Muppet Show as it does to Johnny Carson. A lot of Fallon’s in-studio bits—like one called “Models & Buckets,” in which audience members have mystery substances poured onto their heads by models—wouldn’t feel out of place on Nickelodeon. “I’m on so late I’m definitely the last seconds of anyone’s attention,” says Fallon. “So I just want to give them something dumb to laugh at, so they go, ‘That’s funny,’ then fall asleep.”

Sternbergh's article brought home for me how many things Fallon is doing right, and while he was a surprise choice for the chair back in 2008, he's adapted brilliantly to the position and continues to impress me, and give me those deep-belly outbursts. I, for one, would absolutely love to see him take over Leno's chair someday, the sooner the better. I cannot begin to describe how many more ways he is plugged into the twenty-somthings than anyone else. (Well, Craig Ferguson is another great one. Shame they're on at the same time.) And really, what age group isn't in the mood for some light-hearted comedy and games and musical performances these days? Yes, please, Jimmy.

Update: In 2013, GQ published this article, giving Fallon the title of "King of Late Night Television." I totally agreed, back in 2010. I still agree, in March 2013.

Year 1: babies illustrating humanity and, of course, themselves

The Babies didn't need many words; but I do. Anyone who knows me could diagnose the documentary film Babies (Bébés, Focus Features, 2010) as a Jessie-must-see: four babies from four different countries and cultures spend their first year in front of a camera, illustrating what is similar and what is different about their simultaneous childhoods. The moment I saw the Mongolian infant sitting in a water basin while a cow poked its head in to investigate, I was sold. And the whole layered story, which ultimately tells one story--that of the first year of life--is told without dialogue or narration; the babies speak for themselves with their expressions, exclamations, cries, and babble.

This lack of adult voice immediately makes the story a universal human tale, removing language entirely and making it a tale of existence and survival, learning and growing. The things these babies are seeing for the first time were once seen by each of us for the first time as well. And the film makes that point again with its lack of dialogue, because babies don't use explanations or chatter to experience this wondrous place; what random conversations can be heard go over your head anyway, unless you speak all four of the languages surrounding these tiny children, so the story becomes even more about the babies, not the adults who have brought them here.

Ponijao lives in rural Namibia. Bayar lives in pastoral Mongolia. Hattie lives in free-spirited San Francisco, California. Mari lives in bustling Tokyo, Japan. Ponijao is not born in a hospital, while the latter three are. Ponijao also toddles around in a loin-cloth-like outfit, in direct contrast to Hattie, who wears a onesie; Ponijao regularly encounters flies and her head is dusted and smoothed with a coppery pigment, while Hattie rolls on the floor with the vacuum cleaner and encounters the lint roller first-hand. Hattie and Mari go to the doctor regularly; Bayar goes less frequently and Ponijao never does. The experiences of each child echoes the society into which they were born, illustrating the vivid contrasts in lifestyles worldwide.

But within this is the more significant point: the variation in location and custom does not change the essential experience of these four babies. Each one eats, poops, bathes, laughs, cries. Each one discovers the feeling of water. Each one bonds with his parents. Bayar and Ponijao bond with their older siblings just the same way I bonded with my younger ones. Ponijao plays with stones, puts them in her mouth. Bayar wanders around with baby goats. Bayar, Mari, and Hattie all play with their pet cats, in a particularly charming series of scenes. As a very young infant, Bayar meets a rooster, who jumps right up on the cot with him; Bayar's eyes are wide with the glow of seeing something enchanting for the first time. Mari is driven through the insane consumerism of the developed world in her stroller, and we watch her take it all in. As all four start moving--crawling, standing, falling, walking--we share their wonder as they push further, watching their worlds expand. Hattie seems to intuit how to eat a banana, carefully peeling each section of the peel away and handing them off to her dad. Panijao has a knack for dancing, to the delight of her mother.

The romp through human life, year one, reminds the older audience of the sheer amount of things there are to absorb in this world, and how, for the most part, these things do not depend much on where you live, or whether your family lives in a hut, an apartment, or a house. There are animals; there is grass; there is music, and fruit, and older brothers. There are grandmothers' fingers, and buckets of water, and Legos--whether made of plastic or stone. And yes, there are mothers. We watch the babies struggle to get their point across with no words to use towards expressing it. This is the life of a baby, regardless of space or time. The differentiation between Ponijao, Mari, Bayar, and Hattie allows us to revel in diversity and appreciate the many ways motherhood and childhood are experienced around the world, but it also reminds us that there are certain essential parts of being human--and that babies can still survive, and thrive, without home nurseries, SUVs, and antibacterial hand sanitizer.

Food and, after all, friends

Four days before I wave goodbye to the last semester of my undergraduate degree, I ate dinner at the house of one of my professors. It is a rather strange idea, and perhaps a little bit awkward--unless the class is South Asian politics and she's having everyone over for some of her homemade Indian food. Seven students showed up, and so we rearranged the furniture and pulled out two leaves to add to her dining room table; in true South Asian style, it was an improvised and cozy set-up, and we spent nearly five hours tucked away in her home laughing and sharing stories over tons of food and a little bit of wine. It was as if we had been together much longer than a semester, I thought, except that last night we learned so much about each other that we'd never gotten to in our political discussions in class.

We talked about family backgrounds, origin countries (I'm the only one whose parents were born in the U.S.), childhoods, vacations, politics and current events, sports, cultural oddities-- you name it. Oh, and a good portion of the night also went to discussing some of the overall concepts and questions regarding South Asia in terms of its political, social, and economic systems throughout each country. To round out the night, we critiqued many of the articles and scholars that we had read throughout the course, and talked through ways of improving the course for future terms.

It really got me thinking about how lucky I am to know these people, my professor and my seven peers, and how I would have gone through my whole life not knowing what I learned about them had we not eaten dinner together. How many other amazing classmates have I missed knowing throughout my college experience? Regardless of missed opportunities, I am fortunate to have had this night now, at the very end of my undergraduate years, to segue into the new relationship I will share with these people: that of colleagues. I left with such great respect for the lives of all of them, and excitement for what our lives hold ahead of us.

A snowman comes to Georgia

On Friday, February 12, 2010, Metro Atlanta got a little bit of the weather that the northeast has been experiencing; a couple of inches of snow was just enough to cover the entire landscape, painting the world a beautiful black and white. I got off work early because campus was closing, and I took the opportunity to stroll through several shops in downtown Woodstock that I'd never been in before. I bought something for each of my parents, for their upcoming birthdays, and relished every moment against the backdrop of a thick snowfall outside. The local bookstore, Foxtale Book Shoppe, was particularly charming; I couldn't help but think of You've Got Mail, with Meg Ryan and her independent children's bookstore. When I got home, I took a lovely walk, breathed in the white wonderland, and took a few pictures. We made a snowman when I got home, and frolicked around the backyard a bit more. By Sunday afternoon, most of the snow had already melted, and I must admit I was sad to see it go. My parents moved us from Michigan in 1998, partly due to a search for better weather (read: no snow). I can't say I've missed it this past decade. But this weekend, it was a true snowfall, thick and gorgeous, and I found myself wishing it snowed here more often. (However, I know my Dad is still grateful he lives a few hours south of me, where the snow was melted within a few hours.)




哈利 波特 or, a way to improve my Mandarin

"Harry Potter" in Chinese is one of those transliterations that is necessary when translating names across languages; and the sounds are nearly perfect-- jokes aside regarding Chinese natives' English pronunciation. Harry Potter's antics retold in Chinese

哈利 波特 literally sounds like "ha li po te," with the "r" sound coming out like an "l." In fact, when I say those syllables out loud, I am tickled by my own Chinese accent. English-speaking Asians who have been in the U.S. for years can still laugh at themselves and refer to their form of communication as "Engrish."

There is a difference between translation and transliteration, and Chinese and other Asian languages in particular do much of the latter. Translation is taking the word "cat" and saying it in Mandarin as mao. Transliteration is taking my name, Jessie, and creating its Chinese form, Jie Xi. Hence the term, it is a literal translation of the sounds made to form the word. This second practice allows words that have foreign origin to become part of Chinese vocabulary, oftentimes necessary when there is no Chinese equivalent. Coca-Cola is a good example, as there was nothing similar to it in the Chinese language. In the 1920s, Coke was transliterated by store owners as ke kou ke la, sounding similar, but meaning literally "bite the wax tadpole" (as I learned from self-described language addict and writer Elizabeth Little). Anytime a foreign name or term is transliterated into Chinese characters, a new sort of nonsense phrase is created, like the Coca-Cola phrase. Chinese doesn't have an alphabet, like English, so "you don't have a script that is independent of meaning," says Little. Any translation encounters this problem, and so speakers simply ignore the literal meanings of foreign and western names, and things that clearly come from foreign terminology. Little illustrates with Bill Clinton's name: Co lin den, meaning, literally, in Mandarin, "repress forest pause." A Chinese person would know right away that this is a western name.

It should be noted that Coca-Cola had been searching for a better transliteration of their product's name in the years after its introduction in China, and eventually came to a satisfying decision. The current ke kou ke le translates in Chinese to mean "happiness in the mouth." Quite fitting.

When a word like "cell phone" must be added to the language, Chinese speakers do not transliterate such terms. This is an element of delight the foreign student of Mandarin runs in to; the Chinese term is shou ji, shou meaning "hand" and ji meaning "machine." So, the foreigner thinks, this is a "hand machine," and a laugh follows. But terms like this are not to be taken to mean quite such a literal thing when translated. A student must simply absorb the term to mean "cell phone," even while the parts of the translation do not individually mean "cell" and "phone." That would be nearly impossible to achieve, and makes the nuances of languages and the mysteries of learning a new one that more challenging and exciting.

Elizabeth Little, who I discovered within my favorite podcast, The World in Words, has been featured in two separate episodes in regards to her obsession with learning languages, fiddling with modern and even ancient languages (she reads ancient Chinese and Greek both), and in particular for her experience with the Chinese language. She has written a book about her life as a language addict, which I have not read yet-- but it is on my list. She sounds like a person I would love to invite to a dinner party. And why does she come up here? For two reasons: first, she taught me about the brilliant "bite the wax tadpole" transliteration.

Secondly, and to bring this back around to the start of the post, she encourages taking language learning beyond textbook- or CD-style repetition. She says she enjoys watching movies or reading books that she loves (and therefore knows well) in your subject language. I took this to heart, and bought myself a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in Mandarin Chinese. Side by side, the reading is slow and tedious, but in the sort of exhilarating way of figuring out a difficult puzzle. I am surprised how many characters I recognize, considering my level of comprehension, and by looking at the context, I am able to build new meanings onto words I have already learned. New words are still hard to learn based only on character, because looking a word up in a Chinese dictionary is a lot harder than it may seem at first (remember... there is no alphabetizing going on...). But the internet is there to help me, for some words. Reading in Chinese is also rewarding for its grammar lessons, as Chinese grammar still makes very little sense to me.

It was great advice, which I must pass on. It is not the most original suggestion, people have been reading books in foreign languages forever, but it has been a useful nudge. I remember being in China and searching for something to read besides our textbooks for class, and feeling utterly overwhelmed by the idea of picking up a book in Chinese. My roommate Stacey, who had taken some Chinese previous to the trip, bought a book of poetry. I bought an audio book online, desperate for some English. (Granted, most books I would have even attempted that were available were older, and rather boring ones-- things I don't prefer, even in English.) I think the connection I was missing was tackling the language barrier through a book that I love. 哈利 波特 is the answer to that.

Jessie's pensieve: @ start of summer

In an effort to compile several small things that are on my mind, this will serve as small list of blog-worthy things happening now, that maybe work better when merely mentioned, and not stretched out for content's sake (and therefore, in the danger zone "boring." This is more of a personal blog than I usually have or like, but I really want to jot down the things going on right now, and love updating my site. The solution is that you get to read my thoughts in bullet-point format. Ashley and I have found a place to live. This is relieving and exciting; the downside is that now I must wait two more months until I can mount this huge item on the "to do" list. I am itching to start packing boxes. At the same time, I'm not quite ready to enter that phase of interminable chaos yet. Once I start, it will be messy and unorganized, and I like that even less. So, it remains on the list.

Got a new phone! My sleek, shiny, skinny new Nokia Intrigue is like a new friend that I like immediately.

Reading now: Who Owns History, but Eric Foner, for my Themes in History class. The whole subject of the book is interesting to me, and is something I've talked about before-- historical context. The book deals with questions about whose histories are included in "history," and how the groups being included has been so fundamentally rearranged in the last half century. "Historical interpretation both reflects and helps to shape current politics," the author says. Perspective can largely change the entire story. He discusses the vast span separating how academics approach history versus the public, and the relationship between them. This will be a feast for me, as context is possibly my favorite debate within historical theory, and history as a practice. Good stuff.

Hosted my first baby shower. Almost one month ago, I played co-hostess for my friend Brandie's baby shower. Brandie has been my roommate for the last three years, and this will mark a new era in our life. But simply said, the baby shower was a lot of work and even more fun, when it was all said and done. It felt nice at the end of the day to think of what we accomplished, pulling it off. I'm not naturally attracted to the idea of  hosting events, so I was surprised how much I really did enjoy the experience. Considering it was on a college budget, it came out lovely and ran smoothly. It is a small something that is part of a much larger ordeal, but I was honored to participate in one little piece.

MAKING MY FIRST QUILT! I will have to post pictures later on this summer, but I am making my first large-size quilt as a Christmas present for Ben. The design is pretty advanced, and I had to create the pattern myself, based on a picture of the quilt in one of my Mom's Masterclass quilting books. Ben picked out the design, and it is modern and graphic. It is an excellent learning experience, as each square seems to bring new quilting techniques my way. My Mom is my mentor and helper, really giving me the confidence to see it come to fruition-- it would have already been a scrapped project were it not for her.

Summer classes have begun. Ben is feeling really good about his, and I am very much going to enjoy mine. My professor is funny and a new perspective to learn from, and my classmates and the material we will be covering are going to provide thought-provoking classes (not to mention more blogs on history and new discoveries I make).

Don't forget, I want thoughts and questions about Guo Jingming, the young Chinese author who is the subject of my previous blog. What do you make of him?

A great summer is abreast. Hehe.

Wile E. Coyote and Apollo in space: eras past and future

I’ve just read the perfect illustration of what has happened to the United States; it came from the April 6, 2009 issue of Time magazine, and it was written by novelist and radio personality Kurt Anderson. “During the ‘80s and ‘90s,” he says, “we were Wile E. Coyote racing heedlessly across the American landscape at maximum speed and then spent the beginning of the 21st century suspended in midair just past the end of the cliff; gravity reasserted itself, and we plummeted.” I can picture Mr. Coyote vividly in my head, legs still moving to propel him further, but hovering dangerously in the air, until, in seemingly slow motion, he looks down and realizes he’s in for an inevitable plunge.

Anderson points out that just like the Road Runner, we’ll get scuffed up but make it through (however, more chastised).

I look at this era and see both a truly new path before me. A retracted world, bruised and still not over the bout (not even close, really), is staring me in the face. In a way, this is the most frightening of worlds to step into, after four years in college living off student loans and working for minimum wage, hovering between dependency and full responsibility. A brutal employment arena awaits, every company and non-profit retracting spending and freezing their hiring, and get-rich-fast plans nonexistent. I have spent years accumulating a base of knowledge and experience so that I could face the real world with confidence. I’m still confident, knowledgeable, and capable—but the world I am going to enter next May looks very different.

I never wanted to be rich though, really. And reminding a new generation where the definition of “needs” distinguishes itself from “wants” is really the only thing that could happen—the Dow Jones’ seemingly endless climb upward was a false reassurance for nearly three decades. Did we really think it could never end?

For my lifestyle, I embrace this shift gladly. I already rather like having less, and I’m making it my personal goal to really, really, cut my belongings down by a large chunk this summer. (Bless moving to a new place for keeping us real like that.) Thinking on a smaller scale is more appealing to me in terms of belongings, living space, clothing, and even beauty care (painting your own nails in the front yard, how lovely).

The disconcerting thing is who will hire me, and how I will afford health care. I’ve recently been looking deeper at the inefficiencies of health care systems (U.S. and others, too), and the whole thing is a huge cumbersome mess. That topic is for another blog, that I’m mulling over right now. But the thought of embracing any clunky system that exists currently is frightening. We are scared stiff about the calamitous costs that can get dumped on us without medical coverage. It is real, and it is scary. Not to get too far off topic though, the best I can do is equip myself with all the things I know, love, and have seen, and keep in mind all the things I will continue to add to my arsenal over time, and hope for the best. I will always work hard. I will always keep learning. And in tough times, I think the ones who most eagerly embrace the new, redefined world are the ones who can best lead it towards its more sustainable future.

Anderson provided another gem of an illustration of this uncertain, but certainly global, situation that we face, one that I find perfectly juxtaposes the excitement and fear of those huge seismic shifts that come our way sometimes. He says: “The meltdown amounts to a spectacular moment of global consciousness, this generation’s version of the Apollo astronauts’ iconic 1968 photograph of the earth from the moon—an unforgettable reminder that all 6.7 billion of us are in this together, profoundly and inextricably interdependent. (The sublime always had a bit of terror mixed in.)”

Now, what kind of immense picture does that conjure up, of this great, big planet? I can see billions of faces, mine included, staring boldly towards the future.