Friday, September 17, 2010

The Madonna/Mother Teresa Paradox

As some of you know, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out life, despite knowing that this is probably an exercise in futility. I think about things like fate and suffering and the difference between cultures while riding the bus or looking out on the water from the ferry. This makes me piss poor at small talk, a fact proven once again last Friday night when someone in a bar challenged me to make small talk for the duration of one beer. After 5 minutes, I lost interest in the conversation and wanted to go home.

Before my bar/bored experience, I was in Borders and flipping through an interesting book I spotted, Backwards in High Heels. It's basically a manual for any woman confused about life (which I assume a large majority of us are) but decidedly anti-self-help, which makes it actually useful. As the authors (whose names I forget) brazenly state, self-help is a lie. We don't all get what we deserve, and no matter how many affirmations, or how open you are to the Universe or Abundance or whatever, it's unlikely you'll win the Nobel Peace Prize or write a Pulitzer-Prize novel or whatever fantasy we all harbor about life. But we can cheer up a friend, be kind to our co-workers and strangers, and maybe help the PTA raise some money.

A few weeks before picking up said book, I saw Men Who Stare At Goats, and they also riff on this theme of dreams v. reality. George Clooney basically tells Ewan McGregor that we all have a destiny, but it may not be what we want. Little Anne Frank wants to go to prom? Too bad. But she can write a book that moves millions for generations to come.

Most "spiritual" people (and yes, in this instance, I am using that in a derogatory manner) like to preach that "all things are possible with God" or something like that. But it occurs to me that Mother Teresa could never have been a supermodel, no matter how tight she was with the Holy One.

The realists and cynics in the world say it's all about who you know and how many resources (i.e. how much money) you have at your disposal. But poor Madonna, Queen of Material Girls, sits in her castle with all the money, power, and influence at her disposal and will probably never get nominated for an Oscar.

Which brings me to my question: How does one tell the difference between fantasy and one's true calling?

These two women have irrevocably changed the face of our planet in their own unique ways, causing worldwide movements in charity and sexual attitudes. Yet they too are limited by something--is it fate? Circumstances? Talent? Purpose?

Most of us are not meant for either sacrificial poverty or decadent wealth; the large majority of us fall within a spectrum of middle-classedness. But what if the idea of owning a home and raising kids and fundraising through a bake sale makes you shudder and want to run screaming to a far off country just so you can feel somewhat alive? What if your biggest nightmare is that you're Pam from "The Office" and the biggest event at your place of work will be your wedding? What if you really want to help humanity without living in a hut in a war zone? What if you'd rather enter into a married partnership where your focus is each others' career goals and inner callings, not raising new people to be hurt and harmed by the world?

How does one have a dream that's outside the box but not outside reality?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Why Archie Panjabi's Emmy Win Makes My Heart Sing

The first chapter of Zadie Smith's most recent book "Changing My Mind" is an eloquent essay on Zora Neale Hurston's masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God. (The line that opens chapter three is probably one of the most memorable in literature -- "There are years that ask questions and years that answer." But I digress.)

Smith discusses how she was hesitant to read it when her mother presented her with a copy at fourteen:
"You'll like it," her mother said.
"Why? Because she's black?"
"No, because it's really good writing."

And it is, by Smith's account (and my own). But then Smith says something more profound:
"At fourteen, I couldn't find words (or words I liked) for the marvelous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of my speech. These forms of identification are so natural to white readers -- (Of course Rabbit Angstrom is like me! Of course Madame Bovary is like me!) -- that they believe themselves above personal identification, or at least believe that they are identifying only at the highest, existential levels (His soul is like my soul. He is human; I am human). White readers often believe they are colorblind."

But in reality, as Smith points out, they are just more characters written in their image, allowing them to harbor the illusion that their "like" or "dislike" of a novel is based on more esoteric factors, such as writing style, theme, or plot. They also have the benefit of white privilege, where every ethnic story is made relate-able to them (i.e., the rampant use of the word vermilion in South Asian fiction, a word I did not even know until I read it in a "New Yorker-approved" South Asian American book).

Smith then goes on to explain how Hurston creates such a complex, layered character in Janie Crawford in Their Eyes that it leaves her speechless. The book "allows me to say things I wouldn't normally," Smith writes. "Things like 'She is my sister and I love her.'"

Which is exactly what my heart sang when Archie Panjabi won the Emmy for her role in The Good Wife.

It's probably not fair to draw any parallels between a television drama, no matter how good, and canonical American literature. I admit this is somewhat pretentious on my part. But Archie Panjabi speaks so eloquently backstage after her win about the true value of being able to play a character that is proud of her heritage without being defined by it.

When people say "you can do anything you put your mind to" or believe, or whatever New Age slogan is en vogue at the time, I often want to roll my eyes and say "if you're white." As Archie Panjabi and co-star in Bend It Like Beckham, Parminder Nagra, know, the brown girl doesn't get cast in Pirates of the Caribbean or Pride and Prejudice, like their co-star Keira Knightley did, no matter how good an actress you are. So it's refreshing to see a South Asian get to play a character that's as complex and layered as Elizabeth Bennett, albeit on the small screen. I am left without words to express the marvelous feeling of recognition that bubbles up inside me when a woman with my hair and eyes and skin plays it tough and guarded, but with wit and grace. All I can say is "She is my sister and I love her."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Nostalgia for intensity

Many of my friends know about my visceral dislike of Sex and the City. I mean, when did easy become synonymous with feminism? But I don't want to beat a dead horse (I'll simply refer you all to two of the best commentaries on the new SATC movie here and here.)

Instead, let me discuss the real culture-changing movie for those of us in our 30s: Pretty in Pink. OK, really I'm referring to any John Hughes movie. The whole Brat Pack series were pretty life-changing for anyone who wore a dress with puffed sleeves or Z Cavarichi pants (the latter may have been a Staten Island phenomenon). But Pretty in Pink was on VH1 this week, which left me nostalgic for intensity.

For those of you living under a rock and unfamiliar with the plot, here it is in a nutshell: Nice girl (Andie) is part of counter-culture element at public high school, ruled by rich, popular kids (demarcated by their choice of pastel shirts and white blazers). Rich, cool jackass (Steff) likes her. She turns him down. Rich, cool nice guy (Blane) likes her. She goes out with Blane. They have a bad first date, redeemed only when Blane asks her to the prom. They kiss. Andie shares excitement with father and says she thinks she's in love. Did you catch that--she thinks she's in love after ONE kiss!! Blane flakes out after Steff poisons his mind. Trouble. Andie makes her own prom dress and goes to prom solo. Blane apologizes. Tells her he loves her. Always. They kiss again. The End.

Now, perhaps I used movies as my handbook for negotiating American culture a little too much in my youth, but I'm still struck by how OK it was to fall in love after one kiss. If they'd try to make this movie with today's Millennial Generation, it would take months for the main characters to even admit to dating. Then someone would admit to commitment issues. Which begs the question, why would anyone have commitment issues in high school? What are you afraid of? Turning into your divorced parents? (OK, that may be legit). But still. The complete thrill of Pretty in Pink is the character's intensity. Nowadays, Andie would be the crazy girlfriend and Blane would be the sane, rational guy, appropriately afraid of committing to anyone he met in high school. And Andie would probably end up trying to adjust her needs to the desires of such men. Which I believe, would turn her into Carrie.

Crap, I think I just understood Carrie on a deeper level. I really didn't think she could have one.

Nevertheless, I still sympathize and root for Andie 25 years later. I get butterflies when Blane looks at her. I am vicariously thrilled at the whole sewing montage when she makes her own prom dress--it's like the A-Team's DIY montage for girls. Hell, every girl wants to be that fashion designer--the one that can create a new look that allows her to triumph over school bullies and insecurity. Not the fashionista that simply knew which name brands are the most hot. Puh-lease. Where's the triumph over adversity? Where's the counter-culture rebellion that ever teen identifies with? And most of all, where's the intensity?

When did being intense become undesirable? Was is around the same time that being easy became synonymous with feminism?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Top 10 Questions Still Not Answered by Lost

Assuming the survivors were not dead on the island...

1. How come Shannon (and Sayid) were able to see Walt right before Shannon died even though Walt wasn't dead? And why was he speaking backwards (I believe he was saying push the button)?

2. Likewise, how did Ben make Goodwin's wife appear to Juliet in order to guilt her to carry out his orders? (Goodwin's wife wasn't dead.)

3. How come women couldn't give birth on the island in 2004 onwards, but clearly were capable before (i.e., Jacob and his brother).

4. What's with the smoke monster taking pictures/flashing light at certain survivors, like Kate and Juliet when they were in the jungle? Was Juliet ever a candidate?

5. How come the survivors couldn't see Hydra island at first - remember Sawyer was shocked to see the island from the hilltop with Ben - but then had no problem later on?

6. What was the "loophole" Jacob mentioned when Locke/The Man in Black showed up with Ben and Ben killed him? Was Ben a candidate? And if Ben was always able to kill Jacob, why did the Man in Black need to take Locke's form? Couldn't he just appear as Ben's dead mother, as he did before, to get Ben to do whatever he wanted? And really, it took 2000 years to come up with that plan?

7. If the sideways was purgatory, then why did Desmond black out when he met Penny and seem to travel in time to his Island consciousness if all he really needed to do in purgatory was "remember"?

8. Why did the smoke monster kill so indiscriminately? Or if it was with discretion, then what was the rule? Why did he spare the Mr. Echo's life at first only to kill him later?

9. What were the rules??!! It seems rather convenient to never explain them so the writers could then do whatever they pleased and not have to worry about consistency. I mean, really, this is just lazy sci-fi writing. If you're going to expect us to suspend belief in an alternate universe, then you have to give us some rules to make sense of things!

10. If the man in black was inhabiting all the dead bodies, including Jack's father, then how can he claim he can't leave the island when he clearly did to spook Jack?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

You, Inc.

A timely discussion on branding yourself, not only for job hunting or entrepreneurial purposes, but also so that you stay focused in life.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bouncing Back: The Challenges of Being a Woman Business Owner

The guest was a little late calling in, so Sky and Candace ended up interviewing me a bit about my decision to leave MediaGlobal. Unfortunate circumstance but good life lesson.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A nice complement to the last Tears to Triumph show

NPR seems to be on the same train of thought that Tears to Triumph was last week. Listen to On the Media and their recent coverage of the paltry number of women at NPR and in other news outlets.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Cyber-stalking: A cautionary tale and tips to keep you safe

Today's show featured Milani Rose, a model and incredible woman who has fought hard to defend her name and image from a cyber-stalker. Milani discusses her ordeal, which is also featured in the upcoming book Souls of My Young Sisters (out in June, pre-order now), while Dr. Elisa gives sound counsel and I offer some tips on how young women can stay safe.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Women, the media, and depression

I had the opportunity of being a guest on Tears to Triumph on blog talk radio as a media consultant discussing images of women in the media and depression, thanks to Candace Sandy of Souls of My Sisters. Have a listen and share your thoughts.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

How to Date a Feminist (Redux)

I recently read an eHow article titled "How to Date a Feminist" and I have to say, it's probably the worst How-to article I've ever read, mainly because I wouldn't follow their steps to date a feminist and I am one! So here's my suggested How-to guide to dating a feminist:

1. Don't assume that because she's a feminist she either hates men or is trying to be like one. Instead, ask her what that term means to her. You'll get to know her and she'll think you're smart for asking.

2. On the first date, avoid misogynistic humor. This usually entails not repeating anything from a Vince Vaughn movie. Or your ideas for a Vince Vaughn movie. Don't worry--eventually you can probably get her to watch Wedding Crashers with you (although I can't guarantee she'll enjoy it), but don't expect that to win her over on the first date.

3. If she mentions working for women's rights in any way, do not disparage her efforts. Be open to seeing her perspective, even if you respectfully disagree. The key word here is respectfully. While you may think that date rape statistics are inflated, commenting that she works with liars if she's a rape crisis counselor is not respectful (this is a true story that happened to me).

4. Read an article about women's issues. Just one. Really, one is enough to open your eyes. It can be about anything, and chances are, there's probably some way women's issues combines with your profession, even if you're in finance or construction. Plus, by reading one article, it'll give you good date talk, which might then lead to good pillow talk.

5. While I wouldn't expect any guy to read the entire syllabus from a women's studies course (even I skipped out on some of those readings), it may behoove you to think about what you would put on a men studies course. The greatest shame in college campuses nowadays is that women are challenged to think about their roles in the world and how to break out of stereotypes while men are not. Tell her that and it might get you laid.

6. Support her career aspirations. No wise woman is going to be all about her career. Most of them just want to enjoy family and career the way men have been for years. But being a supportive man who thinks about her career strategically and gives her sound counsel makes you a true catch and can also lead to some really great intellectual foreplay.

7. Support her personal growth. This is just sound relationship advice and not specific to feminists, or women for that matter. The key is not to be self-absorbed and to understand that there are just as many women as men aspiring for greatness--help her be the better version of yourself and she'll probably help you do the same.

Now the only trick in all this is paying the bill. I still have no idea what the rules are on that one, and even my own preferences change. I always offer because I don't think men should always pay, but I also think more highly of the guy who argues a bit to pay for me, not out of some antiquated notion of gender roles, but just out of kindness, the way my friend Jenna and I argued about the bill today. But that's me. I know other feminists differ on this. The one thing I do know is that a feminist is unlikely to be the type of woman who puts out on the third date simply because you paid for 3 dinners--you're going to have to work a bit harder than that.

Your thoughts?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

"The little dictator"

In 2007, I attended a conference where Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel peace prize winner and human rights lawyer from Iran, was supposed to speak. Unfortunately, her visa got held up and she couldn't make.

Last night, after two and a half years of following Dr. Ebadi's activities and reading her compelling autobiography, I finally got to see her speak at Asia Society. Jody Williams, the Nobel peace laureate from the US, once described Dr. Ebadi as "the little dictator," a reference to both her short stature and impassioned way of speaking, and I can now confirm it's an accurate description. Despite the use of a translator (which always dilutes one's speech), anyone privileged to see Dr. Ebadi speak will know she speaks with every fiber of her being (the only other person I've seen come close is Elizabeth Warren, head of the TARP oversight, on consumer protection).

Because I didn't go in my professional capacity as a member of the press and didn't record the event or take notes, I don't want to reiterate what Dr. Ebadi said last night lest I get my facts wrong. But since I also didn't get to thank her, I would like to do so here and share with readers my favorite story about her that I read in her autobiography, Iran Awakening.

When one of Dr. Ebadi's friends decided to flee Iran (some years after the Revolution), Dr. Ebadi went to her friend's apartment. The friend was trying to sell her things and had placed price tags on much of her furniture. Dr. Ebadi went around pulling the price tags off just as her friend was putting them on, trying to convince her friend to stay in Iran. She explains, 'if everyone goes, who will be left?'

This may seem like an innocuous story, but I always remember it on the days when I'm tired or frustrated with the lack of progress in some area. Clearly, that's how much you have to love a country and a culture and your cause to stay and fight against all odds. And how can I ever be tired when Dr. Ebadi is fighting so tirelessly at an age when most people are contented to retire in an easy chair and play with their grandchildren?

So thank you, Dr. Ebadi. The world needs more dictators like you.