accountability, adulthood, camping, friendship, trust, truth

I Was Almost Suspended, But Instead I Learned An Unforgettable Life Lesson

I was seated one seat diagonally behind Jonathan that day. I remember it as if it was yesterday. It was a Monday. Nineteen years ago.

He reached into his backpack and then pulled his hand out, his fist clenched around something.

Click.

Now there was something silver protruding from the fist. He turned around and held it up. We made eye contact.

“I forgot I had this in my backpack,” he said without prompting, “I went camping this weekend.”

He turned back around and I went back to my in-class assignment. It was rare that Jonathan seemed to notice—let alone speak to—me when I wasn’t with one of my best friends, the girl he had a crush on.

Later that week, I was called into the principal’s office. I had been there a number of times previously, usually to help with admin work and once to bond with my principal about our matching Halloween costumes (we were both Dorothy that year).

I skipped in, but my gait became far less chipper at the sight of my principal’s face.

“Take a seat,” she said, “We’ve got something very serious to discuss.”

We weren’t in Kansas anymore.

“Jonathan and James have been suspended,” she stopped. I was confused. Not because they had been suspended (they had a knack for getting themselves into trouble). But because she was informing me. Why? If we were gossiping the least she could have done was offered me some tea.

“Do you know why?” She asked after a long pause.

“No.”

“Are you sure? Jonathan showed you something this week.”

The knife.

“Oh, the pocket knife?” I asked, still trying to piece together my presence in that room.

“As you know, we have a zero-tolerance policy with weapons. Why didn’t you tell anyone he had it at school?”

“He told me he accidentally left it in his backpack. He went camping last weekend.” I honestly didn’t think twice about the pocket knife, but even if I had, I still wouldn’t have told anyone. I had been let in to Jonathan’s circle, and he was one of the popular kids. I couldn’t gamble this high honor away.

“Zero-tolerance means it doesn’t matter why. What if he injured someone or himself? How would you have felt? You could have helped prevent that. The fact that you knew and didn’t tell anyone means I could suspend you too.” My eyes welled with tears. I wished Jonathan had never spoken to me in the first place. I wondered how my name had come up to our principal. “I’m not going to, but today I hope you learn a very important lesson: When you see something, and you don’t say something, you too are guilty.”

That day, I learned what it means to be a not-so-incident bystander.

Eight years later, in my AP Psychology class, I learned the story of Kitty Genovese, a twenty-eight-year old woman who was murdered to death outside her New York apartment in the 1960’s. Just under forty people witnessed the event without calling for help. This apathy was later coined the bystander effect. People are less likely to help someone in need when there are others present. To give people the benefit of the doubt, everyone thinks or hopes that someone else will help.

This is humankind’s most depraved quality.

Recently, I was inspired by two women who broke away from the bystanders. One, a friend of my mom, and the other, a mentor of a colleague. Both could have safely remained silent. But they took action by stepping away from their respective groups to bring positive change. In doing so, they did not care what others would say or think; they did not take or push blame; they did not ignore all the intricacies of the situation; they didn’t try to protect themselves or anyone else; they did not seek martyrdom. Instead, they spotted the metaphorical pocket knife, sensed its potential for harm, and did what they believed was right. My involvement was to witness the end result: My mom’s faith and friendship restored, my colleague’s renewed feelings of respect, support, and appreciation. In stepping up, my mom’s friend and the mentor broke silence. Silence that, as I learned in my principal’s cramped office so long ago, can sometimes be more damaging than an illicit act itself.

Unlike my fourth grade self, I no longer consider what it means to be well-liked by a group. These recent displays by strong women have reminded me of the power not in being popular, but in following our inner compass even when it detracts from the majority. Their acts demonstrated what it truly means to gain and maintain trust. To build strong relationships. To be true to others—and to yourself.

Each of us is equipped with an inner truth. This is our most powerful weapon. Use it to cut away the brush and forge the path that you believe in.

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2017, bias, friendship, learning, memory, museum

What A Cross-Country Flight Taught Me About Painting The World

I spent this past weekend with one of my best friends. We haven’t lived in the same city in eleven years, but we communicate in a multitude of ways and talk on the phone at least once a week.

Through our conversations, I’ve become intimately aware of her new routines, adventures, friends, and work. I’ve heard about her life in broad strokes and detailed marks. Knowing her, and using some general context, I painted a picture of her life in my mind, and applied each new story within its context. When I visited her this weekend, it was my first time visiting her in Philadelphia, where she has lived for the past two years.

Our time together was perfect — from a morning walk along the river to a spontaneous visit to the Philadelphia Art Museum to alone-together exercise time to a tour of her office, favorite grocery store, and go-to bars and restaurants — a testament to our compatibility despite any of our differences.

But this morning, as my friend drove me to the airport (at 4:30 AM!), I felt as if I was sitting next to two people: one who has stood by my side for twenty-six years and one that I had just met forty-eight hours prior. The second person made herself known not because my friend acted out of character, but because I had gotten a glimpse of her life from a perspective I’d never had before.

***

Last week, I started watching Abtract: The Art of Design, a Netflix documentary series that spotlights eight people responsible for common objects in our designed world. Episodes highlight people like a New Yorker cover illustrator, the mastermind behind the Air Jordan, and a designer of IKEA furniture. The episodes aren’t just about their designs or how they came to be, but instead about how they approach the world. How and why they think the way they do.

The “behind the scenes” approach wasn’t necessarily new to me. It is much like two of my favorite podcasts: Zach Lowe’s The Lowe Post for off-court basketball things and Alec Baldwin’s Here’s The Thing for unique perspective into the minds of artists, policy makers, and performers.

***

Of late, I’ve found myself increasingly interested in what’s invisible to the naked eye — the stories behind the spectacles. Perhaps because what is visible is sometimes so ludicrous that I am unable to take it at face value. This pursuit isn’t an easy one. Not because the information isn’t there, but because I have to travel the distance to find it.

This morning, what I recognized about my friend was only visible to me because I had given myself a new perspective. Much like her and my favorite Monets, the painting looked different up close than it did from afar.

If I am still adding to the story of this wonderful human who I have known since my brain started forming memories, I can only wonder what layers exist behind the rest of my vast world, in social spheres, in design, in entertainment, in government, in other countries—this, just a shortlist.

Hopefully, I am not alone in my wondering. Though it’s unlikely (impossible) for us to ever know it all, it is important now, maybe more than ever, that we approach what’s visible with the curiosity to learn and build rather than with the bias to judge and destruct.

And that we do so in the same loving way that we seek to learn more about a best friend.

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books, community, friendship, reading

How Books Form The Spine of Human Connection

IMG_1389“The most beautiful thing about a book is that you bring it to life — the characters, the emotions, the arc, the resolution — every single time you open it.”

Though it was nineteen years ago, I still remember the exact moment I heard this romantic notion. I was in my seventh grade classroom, second row from the front, and my English teacher, Mr. Gelineau, was lecturing from the left corner of the room. The same way we can relive any book by turning its cover, I can relive this particular moment of my life on demand.

There was something so striking about Mr. Gelineau’s words that I knew I should never forget them. As the years went on, I was able to pinpoint the reason for their power: the foreverness of literature softens the fleetingness of real life.

Though my appreciation for books hasn’t changed since school, the reason I read has.

Weekend Breakfast

During my academic life, my literary consumption was determined by a menu of required reading for my classes. This also meant that at any given point, my peers and I were reading the same section of the same books, typically in preparation for a mandatory class discussion. We would read the books cover to cover regardless of our interest in the subject matter, the author’s style, or the literary genre.

The books I read back in school said little about me as a person.

But today, I have free will over the books I read.

I read books that come recommended by friends, those that receive meaningful awards, those whose summaries and reviews intrigue me, and yes, those whose covers I judge to be good.

This makes for book discussions quite distinct from those of my academic life. Now, the books I discuss with other people are ones that we’ve both read voluntarily. And whether or not we agree on our favorite part or appreciation of the literary style, we are connected by the fact that we chose to read the book in the first place.

Shared reading experiences bind us as humans.

Used Book Store Finds

In early January, I started reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. It was irresistibly positioned on a used book cart downtown, and I couldn’t pass by without buying it. I had occasionally heard it referred to and I knew it was supposed to be a good book.

From the moment I brought the protagonist Okonkwo to life, my nose was buried in the book — on the bus, in restaurant lines, on the walk to work, and in parklets.

Reading on the bus one Saturday, I was torn from Umofia when a girl tapped me on the shoulder. “That’s a phenomenal book,” she said as she exited the bus. “Thanks, I’m loving it,” I responded, in a groggy haze similar to being unexpectedly awoken from a nap.

As I watched her walk away, I was struck by the fact that she had gone out of her way her way to talk to me, a complete stranger. She had broken the headphones-in-ear, nose-in-phone norm to engage with me about a book. She obviously decided the exchange would be meaningful enough to make the effort.

Later that week, I was pulled away from my computer by a colleague. Her eyes were alive as she looked at the copy of Things Fall Apart sitting next to me. “I loved that book. It is phenomenal.” Her enthusiasm was untamable. Having never exchanged anything more than pleasantries, we were now unstoppable in our conversation. Things Fall Apart put together the foundations of our friendship.

Both in the case of a momentary connection with a fellow bus passenger or a deeper one with a colleague, the book as an entity, outside of its plot-line, brought us together.

What’s beautiful about a book is that anyone who wants to can read it can do so (unless the book has been banned by her country, as is the case with Things Fall Apart in Malaysia). Unlike many life situations and experiences that are open to some and not others, a book can be opened by anyone who chooses to experience it. This is the power of literature.

Handwritten Letters

After finishing Things Fall Apart, I read Tiny Beautiful Things (recommended by a mentor), followed by Boys In The Boat (as part of a book exchange with a friend), Girl with a Pearl Earring (a used bookstore find), reread Charlotte’s Web (nostalgic for my childhood), and am now reading The Language Instinct (loaned to me by my brother).

Some I wished would never end and others I worried never would. But each elicited some reaction from me in the context of my life at the time. They are now a part of my life experience and serve as a vehicle for connecting with others who have or will read any of these books.

While the eternity of book plots may serve as the antithesis to our transient life plots, there’s a beauty in the way books establish bonds between people, both in the form of personal connection and global community. Though we may not be on the same page at the same time, we, at some point, experienced the same page.

And sometimes, that is enough.

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communication, friendship, language, life lessons, Lincoln, linguistics, real world, US Presidents, writing

What Abraham Lincoln Can Teach Us About Choosing (And Keeping) Our Words

There is an adorable elderly man with an ice cream parlor in San Francisco’s Western Addition. His eyes sparkle with authenticity; his smile glows with friendliness. He is the kind of the ice cream server you stop to see, even when your lactose intolerance says you shouldn’t. He is the kind of man who, when he meets your parents, will tell them that he enjoys your visits, but that you don’t visit too often.

No matter how my life changes, this man and his ice cream parlor have been my constant. His eyes and smile always the same. The flavors always the same (but always requiring pre-decision tastes).

Two weeks ago, as I was walked past the parlor on my way to dinner, some thoughtless impulse drove me to stop inside. There was no time, and it was not the time, for ice cream.

“Hello lovely lady. What will it be for you today?”

I immediately recognized the awkwardness of my having entered this sixteen-square-foot parlor with no plans to purchase ice cream.

“Oh, well, I’m just passing by on my way to dinner.” He was unsure how to respond, and looking for ways to fill the silence, I continued.

“What time do you close?”

“Today? Oh! I say, about, 9:30.”

“Okay, maybe I’ll come by after dinner,” I said reflexively.

Somewhat fatefully, I made it back to his parlor shortly before 9:30 PM. As he handed me a napkin, the old man looked me in the eye. “You are a good one, you know. Most people say they will come back but they never do. You stuck to your word.”

“I try,” I said, feeling a twinge of guilt for the fact that my reason for returning was not necessarily because I said I would.

In the days after our encounter, I found myself thinking about the importance of words, and keeping our word, in today’s world.

From texts to email to pings to phone calls to in-person run-ins, most of us are inundated with messages requiring some response. While we may aspire to craft genuine responses back, at some point, for me at least, the queue becomes unmanageable and the ultimate goal becomes inbox zero.

Whether it’s the let’s get together sometime‘s or the miss you‘s I send and receive, I sometimes wonder if we place more value on giving and getting some response, rather than the content of the response itself — in both our digital and physical lives. Are we as deliberate in our word choice in social settings as we are in work email or professional meetings? Or do we just say whatever is simplest in the given moment? “I’ll come back later,” to the man at the ice cream parlor or worse, “We should do coffee sometime!” to that acquaintance on the sidewalk.

It is often said that San Franciscans are flaky. The man at the ice cream parlor has me thinking that perhaps we are not flaky. Perhaps we are just well-intentioned liars. It has come to a point where I, much like him, am somewhat pleasantly surprised when people keep their word.

Like ice cream taster spoons, words are so easy to give away, after all.

Abraham Lincoln on ReligionEarlier this weekend, I read this New Yorker article which describes how language has become a “central subject in Lincoln studies.” Over one hundred years after his death, the words used by and about Lincoln are being explicated and analyzed to help us better understand him as a person. The article’s author argues that “rhetoric and writing were as essential to [Lincoln’s] career as acts and orders and elections.” For example, in the hotly debated arena of his faith, we look to his utterances: “Yet, undeniably, as the war and his Presidency progressed, Lincoln spoke increasingly of God—inserted God, as it seems, into the Gettysburg Address—and evidently had some kind of complicated and rich sense of “necessity” and a supernatural presiding power.”

The article inspired me to think about the words I use in my modern-day exchanges.

When am I using words just to use them? How often am I “maybe after dinner”-ing people? (“I’ll try my best,” when really I won’t or “I’d love to do this again soon,” when really I don’t. “LOL when I’m not laughing at all.)

What do they say about me? Do they say what I intend for them to say? How do they come across to others? Are they authentically me?

This is not to say that I would ever err toward more “truthful” words that could harm another person. It is to say that by being more discerning in my word choice, I can effectively transform these otherwise overused phrases into rare, but meaningful ones (“I miss you like crazy,” when my heart truly aches, or “I would love to see you soon,” when I’m actively searching for a date and time to coordinate).

Though I am certainly not fool enough to believe that my words will still exist — let alone be explicated and debated — in the way that Lincoln’s are today, I am motivated to put more thought into the words I throw around today. To celebrate the words I choose, rather than the fact that I chose words in the first place.

And given the necessity of reciprocity in communication, I would love, it would be wonderful wouldn’t it be nice if I implore you to consider doing the same for yourself.

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design, experiencing, friendship, humans, psychology, trust

What Product Design Can Teach Us About Designing Ourselves

Under My Umbrella Ella EllaWhen Rihanna released an award-winning song whose catchiest word was “umbrella,” I was perplexed. Not only is the word ugly, but it also refers to a boring utilitarian item that is associated with bad weather.

Living in Philadelphia at the time, I had a miserable relationship with umbrellas. They literally turned on me when I needed them most. During the wet seasons, I resolved myself to a monthly cycle of disposing and purchasing umbrellas. I never spent more than twenty dollars on an umbrella and never expected it to last longer than a few windy rainstorms.

I moved back to California five years ago, and given the drought, hadn’t quite needed to use an umbrella until this winter. In mid-December, my existing umbrella mysteriously disappeared from my doorstep. “Here we go again,” I told myself as I logged on to Amazon, “Back to the umbrella-buying loop.”

My complaints were quickly put to rest when I found that one of the highest rated umbrellas also met my twentyish dollar budget. But I was more surprised by the fact that it claimed to be “unbreakable” and came with a lifetime guarantee. Lifetime. I always thought that the entire umbrella industry relies on untamable weather.

Dubious, I purchased the Kolumbo on Amazon. The worst that would happen was that it would break and I would need to buy a new one. The worst case scenario was my status quo.

Four days after my purchase, I got a personal email from a customer service representative from Kolumbo. Though I’m by no means an Amazon power-user, I’ve never received a message from anyone other than Amazon regarding and Amazon purchase or shipment:

From Greg

This, from an umbrella manufacturer. My heart flooded with positive feelings. Already, I was a fan. A few days later, I received my umbrella and thankfully (both for the drought and for my eagerness to use the umbrella), it rained the day after. The only thing more magical than pressing the button for it to open was pressing the button for it to close.

This umbrella is phenomenal.

It quickly became a conversation topic for me and I even made one sale.

And while I’ve only had the umbrella for a few weeks, I’m almost confident that should this unbreakable umbrella break for, I can replace it through my trusty friend Greg.

After my umbrella purchase, I started thinking about all the long-term products in my life — That denim jacket I’ve had since I was in elementary school, the years-old hand-me-down espresso maker, a gifted journal  — and what makes them special.

What makes them special is that they are always there for me, no matter what, whether it’s while standing on the windy Golden Gate Bridge on my fifteenth birthday, after waking up feeling like I need another night’s sleep, or when in search of a silent listener. Our bond is unconditional. In some, anthropomorphic way, they are my trusted friends.

Which brings me to real humans.

In the hustle of our everyday responsibilities, it’s easy to take the people in our life for granted. Sometimes I feel that I don’t even have enough time for myself, let alone other people. Other times I’ve also been left out to dry when I’ve needed a friend the most. Life has a climate of its own and at times we find ourselves basking in sunlight with an umbrella to spare, while at others we’re caught in a storm with no umbrella at all.

While product design can take great inspiration from interpersonal relationships, the opposite is also true. We can learn from good products. There’s something comforting about knowing from Day 1 that you are interacting with a product you can trust. Something grounding about knowing from the get-go that a product will shield you through even the gustiest of winds. Something heartwarming about realizing that in its company, you are the priority.

We humans are nothing but products designed to share beautiful moments with one another.

Consider the version of yourself that’s out in the world right now. Are you the product you want to be? Are you the product you expect others to be? If so, shine on. If not, simply take some time to close up, flip around, and open up a different way. You, like my new umbrella, have impressive power instilled in you. And more importantly, you, like my new umbrella, have a lifetime guarantee.

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