In Boston, when I worked as a journalist, I saw neighborhood organizations work closely with elected representatives to push through changes that were important. I saw it work.

And yet, I never really tried to contact my representatives myself. Partly, it was because I thought I’d go back into journalism, and I didn’t want to cross lines of advocating for certain things that would end up being a conflict of interest later. But maybe more than that, I trusted that other people out there were working on my issues for me, lobbying politicians, making calls. Someone else was fighting for my right to get an abortion if I needed one, for the environment so my future children would have clean water and safe air, for the refugees across the world whose only “mistake” was one they never had a choice in: being born within the borders of war and strife. And maybe also, the issues seemed to big, the causes too many, my impact too small. Where would I even begin to start?

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. ”

But over the last two months, as I’ve put the meditation retreat experience behind me, I’ve started to believe in my ability to make an impact, of being a small cog in a gigantic wheel, and of fighting directly for what I want, instead of trusting someone else to do it for me. The more foot soldiers we have on the ground, the less likely anyone like Trump will be able to come to power again, and the less power he will have while he occupies the presidency.

So, in case you were wondering too, about where to start when there are so many issues you care about and so little time and your impact seems so small, below are some quick tips that helped make it easier for me. Note that these tips are specific to federal leaders, but will also work for the state.

  1. Who represents you? Figure out who your representative in the House is and who your two senators are, and their contact information. Enter your zip code and this website will tell you. Keep their contact information handy: Write down their numbers and email addresses in your phone.
  2. Find out what your members of congress stand for. See how they’ve voted on past issues at VoteSmart.org.
  3. Find a group: Your state or your city or even your neighborhood probably already has a group that is fighting against Trump and his policies. Sign up for their email list and show up at any meetings you can to figure out where you can plug in. The Indivisible Team has a place where groups can register that they exist, making it easier for your to find one to get involved with. Find a group on the Indivisible website.
  4. Call your members of congress about issues that are important to you. You will likely NOT be able to call about everything you care about (since you likely have other things that fill up your day). Trust that other people are calling too. Pick a few topics (or one topic) you care about, and follow the news on it. Call to ask where your congressperson stands on an issue and let them know what you think: agree or disagree. Calls are tallied and shared with senators and representatives. You can email too. These calls can be awkward. But the person answering is just a person, just like you, so stick with it, get your point across, with a quick sentence, or a long story, and hang up. You got this.
  5. Show up at town halls: Your representatives and senators hold town hall meetings. Call them and ask when the next one is. Town halls can be long, and they can be contentious, but don’t let that scare you off: you don’t have to be contentious, you can stay as long or as little as you want, and you don’t have to talk. But, you can talk if you want: this is sometimes your only chance to see your elected official in person and ask them exactly what they plan to do about “x.” Showing up, asking questions, applauding positions you believe in, and demanding change: these things all matter and affect your representatives when they go back to capitol hill and wonder what their constituents want them to do. Whether you say anything or not, still show up, listen, and learn.
  6. Hold them accountable: You can help keep your congressperson in office or you can elect someone new who is more responsive. If you aren’t getting a response to your calls or questions, if they didn’t answer your question at a town hall, or if they are not doing what they said they would, make it known: post on their Facebook wall, .@reply to them on Twitter, connect with a reporter: make it known they are not listening when their constituents are feeling. It may feel awkward at first, and it may feel like you are butting in, but a representative’s/senator’s job is to serve: they answer to you, and the only way you’ll see the changes you want is if you demand answers and action.

I got all this from some very new experience (i’ve attended local meetings, called reps,  and emailed them, but no town hall yet), but also from this insanely helpful and simple guide to how to resist the trump administration. The guide talks about how the Tea Party revolted against Obama (and, it must be noted, won a lot), how we can now use the same methods they used but for a moral, reasonable cause, how members of congress operate, how to find or organize local groups and, how to locally advocate in ways that really work.

Happy #resisting. As Indivisible says, “we will win.”

a new president

“just to normalize this,” my doc said as i sat across from him, “i’ve had this same conversation eight time a day over the last week.” he smiled at me. “you’re not alone.”

it was november 17, 9 days after the election, 5 days after i left in the middle of my meditation course. i sat there in my therapist’s office, tears streaming down my face, heart ricocheting in my chest, panic coursing across my mind. there was no doubt about it — along with the rest of his patients,  i was breaking down.

on nov 8, i watched the results of the election come in at a friend’s house. there were several of us there, all certain our candidate would win, buoyed by the polls we’d seen, and by our belief that people just couldn’t find the man running against our candidate (who had all her own faults) presidential. We waited as the results came in, east to west, as the prediction on NYT \ went from an 85% chance for Hillary to win to 97% that Trump would. Each state that was announced, i grew more surprised, more heartbroken, more…confused.

that night, i stayed up to listen to trump’s acceptance speech, and I was honestly surprised by the tone and the content. I thought he sounded humbled. his voice had a new gravity. his words were kind and calm and rational. i went to bed thinking that, maybe, it wouldn’t be as bad as we all feared.

nov 9 dawned dark and dreary, which was how i felt. i had to pack for my meditation retreat, but i also wanted to see what the world was doing, what my friends were feeling. i went on Facebook to find that most of my friends were mourning their losses — maybe not even the loss of hillary herself, but out what she and her supporters stood for and what they stood against: for universal healthcare, for immigration reform, for helping refugees, for vaulting women and minorities forward, for cleaner air, for safety and respect; against bigotry and fear and hatred.

i mourned with them. i voted for hillary, and almost everyone I knew had as well (even though most had wished they could cast their vote for bernie instead).

I struggled to understand what had happened, how the people and news sources i trusted and relied on had been so incorrect. i wonder who these people were, who voted for a man who talked about grabbing pussy and who’s temper seemed always ready to erupt.

i knew that the loudest of his supporters were the most unsavory — the white supremacists, the alt-right, the fake newsers; those who had hate and violence in the deepest recesses of their hearts that. but i also know that trumps supporters were nothing like that. the parents of the kids i grew up with, who’d voted for him, they weren’t like that. maybe they hated hillary, and maybe it was for good reason. maybe they just didn’t want the same old, same old politics. maybe they truly thought america was failing and that trump could bring them wealth and prestige. it made sense to me that someone could vote for him, even with everything he’d said and done, if they really viewed the candidate i’d preferred as bought and paid for, unable to help them, unwilling to listen.

i posted something along those lines on Facebook, trying to mourn while still being hopeful, trying to, i guess, find forgiveness in my heart for people who had voted for a man that seemed to not respect women much – not respect me.

my cousin, who supported trump, posted a picture on his own wall that shocked me: a cartoon of a hillary supporter with a dozen penises shoved into their mouth. in a back and forth with him, he denied the fact that the post was horrifying and terrible. it was funny, he said.

then another cousin posted another meme. this one, though, went onto my wal. a fishbowl of blue water, with words saying something along the lines of “democrat or hillary support tears for sale.” when i told him i didn’t find that funny, either, he told me that because he found it funny, he wanted all my other friends on Facebook to get to see it.

they were both excited their candidate won. i would have been too. i would have posted videos and words of support, of how love had trumped hate, of how i knew that inclusiveness would always beat down exclusiveness. they were just doing the same, yet their words were jeering, of violence; they were ruthless and unyielding.

it was, in retrospect, two small moments.

but it was of those moments that my breakdown started brewing. my cousins, who i thought cared enough to show kindness (despite our different political beliefs) instead were the type of people who would find a cartoon depicting basically rape or sexual violence funny, as long as it was against a political opponent. they were the type of people who would rub salt in my wounds while laughing the whole time.

from the start, my time at the meditation course felt different than the first time. the first time, the course had felt like an oasis, a small, sometimes stressful oasis, but one where i just existed in and with myself, safe and sound, while the world spun softly by outside.


this time, though, i didn’t feel peaceful.

i felt unsettled. that small plot of land no longer felt safe; i felt trapped. in meditations and soon, in every moment, i started imagining that outside the meditation center’s walls, riots were raging. i started imagining that the future consisted only of people who would perpetrate violence against women, minorities, my friends.

I’d always trusted in people’s innate goodness — not that they will always do good, but that they always try to do good, or try to try to be good. at the meditation course, i began to feel that maybe i was wrong about people. my belief system broken down. i found myself imagining a gunman sneaking onto the property and shooting everyone while they sat in the meditation hall. i imagined acts of violence against people like me: a woman in a country that was now seemingly unfriendly to women. i imagined camps for muslims, like in the holocaust. i imagined white supremacy becoming the norm. i imagined losing my rights. i imagined women being stoned for getting needed or wanted abortions. i imagined a military or militia force keeping me in my place.

by day 2, i had a hard time closing my eyes in meditations, afraid that i would be the first one the gunman came for, that i wouldn’t hear them sneaking up behind me and putting a gun to my head and pulling the trigger.

if my cousins would rub salt in my wounds, would try to hurt me when i was down, why should i trust that strangers would do better? why should i ever feel safe again? why should anyone? what was this country we lived in? how did i get it all so wrong?

on day three of the course, i left. leaving a vipassana meditation course isn’t really a thing people do, at least not often, and never lightly. but i had spent the last 24 hours in a constant state of panic, my mind and heart racing, my chest tight, my throat closed, and my brain increasingly feeling like it would crack under the pressure. I literally felt like my mind might just break if i stayed, if i couldn’t get away from the thoughts, if i couldn’t get back to safety.

in the office with my therapist, we talked about what happened at the course, and after. how scared i was. how helpless i felt. how i felt like i was living in a different country than i thought i had been. how angry everyone seemed. how i was afraid for myself, but more for my fellow minorities, for muslims and those who practiced islam, for refugees who risk everything only to be vilified by their new american neighbors. i was afraid of violence. of hate. of not being able to do anything to fight it or fix it. i was terrified; i felt like i couldn’t trust the people around me to keep me safe.

we spent that sessions talking about the fact that it was ok to be scared. that it was no out of the norm, in this scenario, to panic. yet that it was possible to work and live through the panic. we talked about the fact that i was not helpless. that i could write letters to mosque’s with my support. i could show by example. i could get involved with an organization that helps refugees and women and minorities. i could help one person. or two people. or more. i could wear a safety pin to show i was a safe person to talk to. i could write about it. i could act and help and cause change. we talked about how there might be tons of people who rub salt, but that there were also tons of people who felt like me.  together, we could keep each other safe, we could stand up for each other.

i took some time off of media after that. i didn’t listen to NPR, or read the NYT, and i asked joe and his sister and my own family to not talk about anything political with me. as the world moved on and worked through the election and the aftermath, i retreated. i built a shell around myself to give me the space to build myself back up. my mom and sister instituted a no politics policy, and told everyone involved in the thanksgiving holiday that they were not to bring up either candidate, whether we were on the same side of not. they helped, and joe helped, to insulate me from the news, from disagreements and harsh words and scary premonitions.

they helped to remind me of the love and kindness and safety that still existed. they gave me the space i needed so i could remember that i still believed that people were good, that i still believe everyone is trying to do their best.

a month and change later, trump is still president elect. he will be the president. his speeches have grown less kind. his off-the-cuff remarks may one day endanger the country. hate crimes, or the reporting of them, have increased. people like me still feel worried, watching who trump has chosen to take important posts in his new administration. i’m still afraid of trump’s presidency, of what it will mean and who it will hurt, and of where we’ll be, as a nation and a world, on the other side of it. but i do think that we will get there, and that those of us who are disenfranchised will find a way to fight back.

the world on a whole, at least the western one, is swinging right. country after country is electing or vaulting up other politicians who promise national unity, and greatness, but seem to feel okay getting those things by hurting others in the process. i believe that they will not win. i believe that there are rough times ahead, but that love and kindness and care and all the things all the great religions of the world preach will win, overall.

which is, perhaps, naive. it may just be that in order to not spend my life in a panic, that i *must* believe that things will be okay. I’m open to the fact that i may be very, very wrong, but i am hopeful that i’m not. i will fight to make sure i’m not.

I’m also heartened by a few things. like some republicans and democrats in congress are willing to work together, and at odds to trump’s positions. I’m interested and heartened by some of the information i’m seeing about those who voted for trump, who sound like they want a lot of the same things i do. I’m interested to see how the hearings in congress go for the cabinet positions, and who comes out for and against the different appointments. I’m interested to see the role President Obama plays after he officially leaves the white house — i think his role will continue to be important. I’m interested to see whether trump’s supporters continue to support the things he chooses to do, or not; whether they will stand up and oppose him when he goes to far.

nowadays, i feel calmer. my panic is much less frequent. I’m reading the news and listening to NPR daily. More information, now, is better, even when it sparks some anxiety in me. I plan to branch out to read more news sources soon, more conservative ones, which i’m sure will add some anxiety, but which i think is important, if i really want to understand the country i live in.

Before the election, I didn’t really want to. or really, i guess i thought i already knew the country. I thought I knew what people believed, what they cared about, and it turned out that I didn’t. I hadn’t been paying attention to the fact that people felt forgotten and empty and nervous about the future, and angry about their circumstances. those people matter. those people matter alongside women and minorities and muslims and refugees. we all matter.

i don’t know how you make a world where everyone gets to win, where everyone feels heard and respected and like they have a fair chance and are living a good life, but i think the first step is trying to understand where people are coming from.

i want to understand my fellow americans better. i want to understand my cousins better. not because i think i will agree with them or their political views, or them with mine, but because I don’t ever want those who disagree with me to become outlines, to be so simplified in my mind that i can just turn away from them without really seeing. i don’t want to forget that, even though we may disagree on much or most, that they are still trying to do their best, just like me.




“We’re here for justice”

Tonight, I listened to a 15-year-old Cambodian boy describe how over the summer this year, he was stopped by an officer on his walk home for “hustling down the street with his hood up.” By the end of the episode that night, this minor, who was denied the right to call a parent or guardian, was asked what gang he represented, had every one of his pockets emptied and every part of his body searched, and had 6-7 cop cars and 9-11 cops surrounding him.

I heard this story at a city council public hearing. The hearing, two years in the making, was about the Community Safety Act, an ordinance that a group called the STEP UP Coalition has been working on since June 2014. The ordinance is designed to reform the way police interact with the people of Providence.  It’s described on the STEP UP Coalition’s website as “a comprehensive city ordinance to ban racial profiling and change the way that police interact with members of our community, especially young people, immigrants, and people of color.” The ordinance covers what rights a minor has, how the so-called “gang list” that police create is created and managed and appealed, what a cop can and cannot stop a person for, and so much more. You can read the full-text version here (with all the ordinance-speak), or a summary below or the same summary on the Community Safety Act’s website.

The public hearing was the first step in terms of getting in front of the city councilors — though, much to everyone’s chagrin at the meeting, several of the city councilor’s who said they “don’t like” the bill didn’t show up to hear what anyone had to say. The next step is getting a vote, and a vote that allows the Community Safety Act to be passed. 

At the public hearing, I sat in the back and tried to show my support with clapping, cheers and, simply, my presence. The stories I heard, like the one above, were heartbreaking.

Another woman spoke about how she’d discovered, after watching police film protesters on their personal phones at an event, that the Providence Police Department has no policy on how and why videos or photos can be taken of the public, or what should be done with those videos or photos once their taken.

Another man explained that he was videotaping, from the living room in his home, an interaction between some cops and an individuals outside his house. The officers came to his house and asked for his ID. Then the officers jumped over his fence and entered his house to confront him. “You’re going to tell me I feel safe around police?” he asked. “I don’t feel safe. We’re not here to just make some noise. We’re here for justice.”

One gentleman explained that in 2014, the community coalition for peace planned a protest against the Iraq War, which they opposed. When the state found out about it, they posted those protester’s names in a terrorist database, a fact that didn’t come out until later, act a law suit caused the information to come out.

Then there was a boy who went with a group of friend’s to a friend’s house. This friend happened to be on house arrest. While the group was there, a police officer tried to force his way in, and the boy on house arrest was made to call his mother to come home so the cop could be let it. The cop alleged that the boy and his friends were “known gang members” and the mother was forced to ask them to leave. That could have been it, but the officer followed the group outside and told them they had to stand against the house to get their picture taken. The boy in question refused, saying he was a minor, and it wasn’t allowed, but when the cop said that he either had to take the photo or he was going to arrest his friend, the boy complied. Then the cop revealed that all of the group were going to be added to the “gang database.” There was nothing anyone in the group could do to stop it.

There was a woman who talked about how, as she stood wrapped in a window curtain outside her house after calling the cops for domestic abuse, a cop who’d answered the call told her that was what she got for marrying a [racial slur]. And that same woman whose non-white five-year-old granddaughter made sure no one walked outside with their hoods over their heads because “they would get them.”

There was a social worker said that she and her colleagues had seen a rise in clients who had nightmares about police. Police killing them, hurting them, hunting them, killing their families. Or flashbacks about when police did those same things.

There were so many stories, one after another. Heart breaking, terrible stories told by some immensely brave and eloquent people who ranged all sexes and races, from student to ACLU rep to activist to politician to community member to reverend.

I sat in the back and I felt all of my privilege. It hit me hard. I’ve never been scared of police. I’ve always looked to them for help. I’ve found them annoying and, sure, maybe some were power-hungry, but when I’ve been pulled over for speeding tickets (and that’s happened twice in my life), I’ve been treated with compassion. I’ve never been scared to walk home alone at night because of what the police might do; in fact, I sometimes walk home ready to dial 911 to call the police in case something bad happens and I need help. My privilege is my sex (female), my skin (white), my neighborhood (upper-middle class).

That there are children and adults who live in the same city I do, just down the street, who are scared of the police, and for good reason, it breaks my heart. So, I’m writing this to show my support in the way I can, and to ask you, any of you who live in Providence, or did once, or will again, or who want to help let Providence know that people are watching what choice they make and what they do next, here’s how you can show your support:

  • Keep up to date with what’s happening on the Providence Community Safety Act’s Facebook page.
  • Call your Providence councilperson and tell them you support the orginance and want them to voice yes.
  • Call the Providence Mayor’s office at 401.421.2489. Or use their website contact page.

Here are the supporters they already have, but they need more. They need you!


The ordinance itself has twelve main parts, which are listed below (and lifted from the CSA website). If you believe in the spirit and the specifics of this ordinance, please, lend your support.

Prohibition on racial profiling and other forms of profiling

Police cannot use race, ethnicity, color, national origin, language, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, political affiliation, religion, physical or mental disability, or serious medical condition as a reason to suspect someone of a crime.

Standardized Encounter Form

Every time police stop someone, they must fill out a card with race, gender, and age of the person stopped; reason for the stop; if there was a search, and the results of the search; how long the stop lasted; results of the stop (ticket, arrest, nothing); and officer’s name and badge number. They must provide a copy of the form to the person who was stopped.

Video Recording by Police

For dashboard cameras, body cameras, and any other devices, recording must start as soon as the officer tells someone to stop, or arrives at the scene where a person is stopped, and recording continues until the stop is ended or that officer leaves. On duty police CANNOT use their personal phones to record anyone unless they are subject to the same policies as department cameras.

Video Recording by People

Police cannot interfere with, harass, or intimidate members of the public who are recording audio or video of police activity in any place that person has a legal right to be.   Any officer who violates this section may be subject to a fine of up to $5,000 and/or a jail term of up to 15 days.

Traffic Stops

Police have to tell the driver why s/he was stopped before they ask ask for any documents and can only ask for driver’s license, car registration and proof of insurance, unless they have probable cause of a criminal offense. Police can’t ask passengers for ID without probable cause of a criminal offense. If the only criminal charge is driving without a license, police cannot arrest the person; they can only give the person a summons to appear in court. Traffic violations are not enough to arrest someone.


Police cannot ask for consent to search a person, his or her car, or belongings without probable cause of some criminal activity. Police must ask the person what gender officer is appropriate to search the person. No canine (dog) searches allowed without probable cause of criminal activity.

Surveillance and Privacy

Providence Police cannot collect or store information about individuals or groups, or engage in electronic or physical surveillance, or undercover infiltration, without reasonable suspicion that the activities they are monitoring relate to criminal activity.

Privacy – Youth and Immigrants

Police cannot ask youth for proof of identification beyond name and address and cannot photograph juveniles (except as part of the booking process if the youth is charged with a crime or through the automatic cameras, like the ones used in police cars).  Police may not inquire about an individual’s immigration status, and any identification issued by a government outside the U.S. like a consular ID, foreign driver’s license, or passport, will be accepted the same as an ID from a U.S. government agency.

“Gang” list

Police must have a written, public list of criteria or factors before they mark someone as a “gang” member on any list or database. “Associating” with someone else on the list cannot be one of the factors.   If police put someone on the “gang list” they must send that person a form to appeal. If the person denies being a gang member, the accusation may not be shared with anyone else including schools, courts, or prosecutors. If the person is not convicted of any crime within two years , his or her name must be removed. Every year, Providence Police must produce a report with the total number of people on the “gang list,” and a breakdown by age, race, ethnicity, and gender, and the number of people who have appealed being put on the “gang list.”

Language access

The Police Department will create a language access hotline. Officers who don’t speak a person’s language fluently, may not question that person until a qualified interpreter is present. Police may not use family members, friends or bystanders as interpreters except in emergency. No Police Department employee may serve as interpreter during interrogation. Miranda Warnings, and all other important written materials, will be available to a person in her or his primary language. At each police building signs must be posted in the most commonly spoken languages stating that interpreters are available free of charge.

Collaboration with other law enforcement agencies

Formal agreements between Providence Police and other law enforcement agencies must be approved by City Council and posted to the PPD website. The outside agency must comply with all the terms of this ordinance. No one acting on behalf of the City of Providence shall assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law or gather or disseminate information on the immigration status of individuals. The Providence Police Department will not honor requests by ICE to arrest or detain any individual.

Accountability and Enforcement

Quarterly reports of all violations of this ordinance will be posted on the Police Department website and provided to the City Council. The Providence External Review Authority (PERA)will have power to review and recommend that Public Safety and Police Department budgets be reapportioned toward youth recreation and job training programs for failure to enforce this ordinance.



the books that mattered

I’ve always been a reader.

Back when I was in elementary school and middle school and high school, it wouldn’t be surprising to find me, night after night, curled up under my covers with a flashlight, reading for hours past my bedtime. Holes. Angelina Ballerina. Mercer Mayer. The Fearless series. Harry Potter. Shel Silverstein. Ender’s Game. Star Wars Young Jedi Knights, Lurlene McDaniel. Anything. Everything. I read it all.

I read fiction then and I read fiction now, I think, because books allow me to escape in a unique and special way: when I read, I get to enter a person’s mind — a superpower I’ll never get in real life. And you might say that in fiction, those people whose minds I’m in are fake…and you’d be right, of course. But when I’m reading, they don’t feel fake. They feel immensely real. Their thoughts, their actions, their presence, their existence — it all opens up parts of my mind and my body and my heart that nothing else really does. Books and their characters envelop me and hold me close. It’s a gorgeous feeling.

Non-fiction has its place in my life too. I’d say my first foray into non-fiction was with A Child Called It and Chicken Soul for the (fill-in-the-blank) Soul. These were books that opened my eyes to new viewpoints of the world. Since then the non-fiction books that have stuck with me have done the same — taken rags to the windows in my world, wiped them clean, and allowed me to see in entirely new ways. They’ve opened doors, changed my perspectives, filled me with facts that have altered the way I interact with others and with myself.

Over the last 29 years, I’ve read a number of extraordinary books. But only a few have shifted me in ways I never would have expected — shifted me to make huge life choices, or to feel better and more confident in the choices I had made, in who I was, or that helped me get to where I am today.

Below, for me as much as for you, is a list of those books.

The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

“But you see,” said Roark quietly, “I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards—and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.”

–The Fountainhead

I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged when I was 21. It was the summer between my junior and senior year in college and I was working as an intern in the estimating office of a national construction company, Kiewit Building Group.

I was a little lost. I had gone into the University of Colorado at Boulder as an aerospace engineering major, intent on being apart of the commercial space industry that would send countless people into space in my lifetime (an industry that’s been in the news a lot lately for its incredible advances).

But soon after arriving at college, the idea of commercial space travel lost its luster. It’s not that I didn’t think it was cool — I did. It just felt very big, and it felt like the role I would play in it would be very small. Like I would be a cog in the wheel that turned the ride. I didn’t want to be the cog. I wanted to be the tide. It didn’t help that aerospace engineers at CU had quite a stereotype (Yep, even within engineering school, the different sub-specialties had their stereotypes.) for not having lives, for being quite a bit elitist, for being too specialized, and for having tough, tough classes. So, six months in, I switched into mechanical engineering. It was a more broad choice, but one that kept aerospace engineering in scope if I ever decided to go for it.

Nevertheless, by the end of junior year, I felt like I’d made a mistake. I did like my classes for the knowledge. There was something very awesome about being able to mathematically figure out how fluids would (ideally) react when faced with friction. It was very cool to be able to use a computer program to determine the answer to a logic problem. It was kinda mindbending to understand how, at the molecular level, materials in the world works. But there were a ton of things I didn’t like, most of which revolved around my peers. While I really enjoyed some of them, there was something crushing about being in a classroom of over 120 people, 110 of which were 20-year-old males. It didn’t help that a year before, my boyfriend and I (he was an ME as well) had broken up, and all my ME “friends” went to him. Some of the students were homophobic, sexist and racist, and it didn’t seem like anyone stood up to them when they were.

Moreover, I still had no idea what I wanted to DO. What did mechanical engineers do that sounded interesting to me? I’d been an intern for Kiewit on a construction site, and that was fun, but mostly because me and the people I worked for got along really well. And then I’d done some research in the ME department, which was okay, but kind of boring. And now I was working as an estimating intern at the same company, which meant I was calculating how much drywall and windows and flooring buildings were going to require to build to figure out how much a building would cost to build. At career fairs, places like Lockheed Martin looked interesting, but I didn’t want to work on things that would be used in war, since I was split on whether I felt moral or ethical about that. Same went for energy companies. And local engineering companies. Meanwhile, the bottom was falling out of the economy. It was 2008, and those jobs that engineers usually find so easy to get — they were drying up. It wasn’t a given that there would be a job offer, and I was going to have to work hard to get one. For a job I didn’t even know if I wanted.

Then along came Ayn Rand. I know now that she has a reputation for being, well, kind of a dick, but at the time, I didn’t. I knew nothing about her. I only knew that on my bookshelf was a book that I’d had there for several years and never picked up: The Fountainhead. I’d tried reading the first page a million times but one night, it stuck, and I didn’t stop reading for days until I’d devoured it. Next was Atlas Shrugged. I read it at my desk when no one was watching. I read it in the car on my lunch break, which always seemed to go long. I read it laying in bed at night even though I knew it meant I’d be exhausted the next day.

I don’t agree with almost any of her Ayn Rand’s philosophy or world view. Which is strange, because those books, at that moment in my life, they fed my soul. I drank them in like they were the like liquid courage I’d always needed. The book sunk into my skin, it become a part of me, it permeated everything and seemed so, completely and utterly, relevant. Those books were all about people trusting themselves, trusting their gut, doing what they believed was right, and following through, no matter the consequences, no matter who tried to stop them. They were about following in no one’s footsteps, forging your own path, and being strong.

At 21, when I was questioning everything, those books sparked in me the certainty that I could do anything. It was the nod and the okay I was desperately looking for that whatever choice I made would be the right one. That what mattered —  the only thing that mattered — was what I wanted, what I believed in, what I loved, what I needed. Those books helped me realize that I needed to stop fearing what might happen, stop feeling like I had to do something just because it would be easy, or expected or the obvious next step, and just do what I felt was right.

Following that book, I made the decision that, most likely, I didn’t want to do engineering. I started rock climbing more. I started to learn to slackline. I learned to skydive. It was the start of a whole era of my life that led to me finding two sports that I continue to care deeply about, and, of course, to me meeting Joe and moving to Boston to follow love and chase my new dream of being a writer and a journalist. It all started with those books.

“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists.. it is real.. it is possible.. it’s yours.”

–Atlas Shrugged

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Excerpt from the introduction:

Feeding my child is not like feeding myself: it matters more. It matters because food matters (his physical health matters, the pleasure of eating matters), and because the stories that are served with our food matter. These stories bind our family together, and bind our family to others. Stories about food are stories about us — our history and our values. Within my family’s Jewish tradition, I came to learn that food serves two parallel purposes: it nourishes and it helps you remember. Eating and storytelling are inseparable — the saltwater is also the tears; the honey not only tastes sweet, but makes us think of sweetness; the matzo is the bread of our affliction.

There are thousands of foods on the planet, and explaining why we eat the relatively small selection we do requires some words. We need to explain that the parsley on the plate is for decoration, that pasta is not a “breakfast food,” why we eat wings but not eyes, cows but not dogs. Stories establish narratives, and stories establish rules.

At many times in my life, I have forgotten that I have stories to tell about food. I just ate what was available or tasty, what seemed natural, sensible, or healthy — what was there to explain? But the kind of parenthood I always imagined practicing abhors such forgetfulness.

This story didn’t begin as a book. I simply what to know — for myself and for my family — what meat is. I wanted to know as completely as possible. Where does it come from? How is it produced? How are animals treated, and to what extent does that matter? What are the economic, social and environmental effects of eating animals? My personal quest didn’t stay that way for long. Through my efforts as a parent, I came face-to-face realities that as a citizen I couldn’t ignore, and as a writer I couldn’t keep to myself…

…[E]ating animals is one of those topics, like abortion, where it is impossible to definitively know some of the most important details (When is a fetus a person, as opposed to a potential person? What is animal experience really like?) and that cuts right to one’s deepest discomforts, often provoking defensiveness or aggressions. It’s a slippery, frustrating, and resonant subject. Each questions prompts another, and it’s easy to find yourself defending a position far more extreme than you actually believe in or could live by. Or worse, finding no position worth defending or living by.

Then there is the difficulty of discerning the difference between how something feels and what something is. Too often, arguments about eating animals aren’t arguments at all, but statements of taste. And where there are facts–this is how much pork we eat; these are how many mangrove swamps have been destroyed by aquaculture; this is how a cow is killed–there’s the question of what we can actually do with them. Should they be ethically compelling? Communally? Legally? Or just more information for each eater to digest as he sees fit?

While this book is the product of an enormous amount of research, and is as objective as any work of journalism can be — I used the most conservative statistics available (almost always from government, and peer-reviewed academic and industry sources) and hired two outside fact-checkers to corroborate them–I think of it as a story. There’s plenty of data to be found, but it is often thin and malleable. Facts are important, but they don’t, on their own, provide meaning–especially when they are so bound to linguistic choices. What does a precisely measured pain response in chickens mean? Does it mean pain? What does pain mean? No matter how much we learn about the physiology of pain–how long it persists, the symptoms it produces, and so forth–none of it will tell us anything definitive. But place facts in a story, a story of compassion or domination, or maybe both–place them in a story about the world we live in and who we are and who we want to be–and you can begin to speak meaningfully about eating animals.

I can’t remember what visit it was to Joe’s family’s place in Pittsburgh, but I do know it was early on in our relationship and that I was excited because I was having my first long, in-depth conversation with Joe’s dad. It happened to be about vegetarianism and veganism. Joe’s dad had recently gone vegan, and that fact had a lot to do with a book he’d just read, Eating Animals.

Vegetarianism hadn’t been a big part of my growing up. In high school, I’d gone vegetarian for a few months on a diet. In college, I went vegetarian in the hopes of saving some money. Neither episodes really stuck.

But I’d been considering vegetarianism again when Joe’s dad and I started talking. I’d watched a video on Facebook about the sexing of baby chicks for egg production and had stopped eating eggs (to my and Joe’s chagrin — it was one of our favorite ingredients!)  So when I talked to Joe’s dad and listened to a summary of this book, I was open to it.

I read it once, right when we got home from the trip. I read it again a year later. The first time I finished it, I went vegetarian. The second time, vegan.

Before reading Eating Animals, it was a burden to try to not eat meat, to avoid eggs, to find compassionately created food. How annoying, how difficult, how time-consuming! How unnecessary! Yet after reading this book, doing these things felt like relief, like it was easy, like it was the least I could do.

The book follows the animals we eat — cows, pigs, chickens, turkey’s, fish, shellfish — from birth to death. It looks at how our demand for meat, at every meal, all the time, has transformed the industry. It looks at how prevalent the issues are and about what checks and balance are — or, more commonly, aren’t in place to help protect the animals, the earth, and us.

It’s impossible to calculate the impact that this book had on my heart and mind. This book — poetic, painful, devastating and inspirational — it shifted something inside me. I had always been sensitive to others: empathetic, sympathetic, maybe a good listener. This book tuned me in to a whole world I knew nothing about, and once I did know of, couldn’t justify being a part of.

I used to be pretty militant about veganism. I’m still rather militant about my own veganism (though when I travel, I do often eat eggs), but I no longer believe that my way is the only way. I believe there are lots of reasons that people eat what they do, and I think a lot of people view the world and animals through a different lens than me.

I also think that a lot of people don’t know how exactly animals do arrive on their plate, and what the invisible cost is to us and our earth to have them there. For that reason, and for those people, I can up with a plan to, at least, educate. After reading Eating Animals about 6 years ago, I have kept on hand a supply of them (five currently sit on my bookshelf) and i give them away, for free, to anyone who expresses any interest. My goal is to give people knowledge so that they can make informed choices about what they eat, whatever those choices are.

And hey, if they decided to go vegan, or vegetarian, or eat meat one less meal a week, or pick the better quality meat at the store because of it, well, then, that’s great too.

P.S. If you want a free copy of Eating Animals, let me know. I’ll give and/or mail it to you. The exchange/payment is that you read it and, if you want to, you pass it on.

About chickens (warning: graphic)

…Next the birds are inspected by a USDA official, whose ostensible function is to keep the consumer safe. The inspector has approximately two seconds to examine each bird inside and out, both the carcass and the organs, for more than a dozen different diseases and suspect abnormalities. He or she looks at about 25,000 birds a day. Journalist Scott Bronstein wrote a remarkable series for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about poultry inspection, which should be required reading for anyone considering eating chicken. He conducted interviews with nearly a hundred USDA poultry inspectors from thirty-seven plants. “Every week,” he reports, “millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors, or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers.”

Next the chickens go to a massive refrigerated tank of water, where thousands of birds are communally cooled. Tom Devine, from the Government Accountability Project, has said that “water in these tanks has been aptly named ‘fecal soup’ for all the filter and bacteria floating around. By immersing clean, healthy birds in the same tank with dirty ones, you’re practically assuring cross-contamination.”

While a significant number of European and Canadian poultry processors employ air-chilling systems, 99 percent of US poultry producers have stayed with water-immersion systems and fought lawsuits from both consumers and the beef industry to continue the outmoded use of water-chilling. It’s not hard to figure out why. Air-chilling reduces the weight of a bird’s carcass, but water-chilling causes a dead bird to soap up water (the same water known as “fecal soup”). One study has shown that simply placing check carcasses in seal plastic bags during the chilling stage would eliminate cross contamination. But the would also eliminate and opportunity for the industry to turn water into tens of millions of dollars worth of additional weight in poultry products.

Not too long ago there was an 8 percent limit set by the USDA on just how much absorbed liquid one could sell consumers at chicken meat prices before the government took action. Then this became public knowledge in the 1990s, there was an understandable outcry. Consumers sued over the practice, which sounded to them not only repulsive, but like adulteration. The courts threw out the 8 percent rule as “arbitrary and capricious.”

Ironically, though, the USDA’s interpretation of the court ruling allowed the chicken industry to do its own research to evaluate what percentage of chicken meat should be composed of the fouled, chlorinated water. (This is an all-to-familiar outcome when challenging the agribusiness industry. After industry consultation, the new law of the land allows slightly more than 11 percent liquid absorption (the exact percentage is indicated in small print on packaging–have a look next time). As soon as the public’s attention move elsewhere, the poultry industry turned regulations meant to protect consumers to its own advantage.

US poultry consumers now gift massive poultry producers millions of additional dollars every year as a result of this added liquid. The USDA knows this and defends the practice — after all, the poultry processors are,a s so many factory farmers like to say, simply doing their best to “feed the world.”

…The vastness of the poultry industry means that if there is anything wrong with the system, there is something terribly wrong in our world…All told, there are fifty billion (and country) factory-farmed birds worldwide…Fifty billions. Every year, fifty billion birds are made to live and die like this.

It cannot be overstated how revolutionary and relatively new this reality is–the number of factory-farmed birds was zero before Celia Steele’s 1923 experiment. And we’re not just raising chickens differently; we’re eating more chickens: Americans eat 150 times as many chickens as we did only eighty years ago.


The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

Gram raises her hands to her face in distress, and I go back to scribbling a poem in the margin of Wuthering Heights.I’m huddled into a corner of the couch. I’ve no use for talking, would just as soon store paper clips in my mouth.

“But the plant’s always recovered before, Big, like when Lennie broke her arm, for instance.”

“That time the leaves had white spots.”

“Or just last fall when she auditioned for lead clarinet but had to be second chair again.

“Brown spots”

“Or when–”

“This time it’s different.”

I glance up. They’re still peering at me, a tall duet of sorrow and concern.

Gram is Clover’s Garden Guru. She has the most extraordinary flower garden in Northern California. Her roses burst with more color than a year of sunsets, and their fragrance is so intoxicating that town lore claims breathing in their scent can cause you to fall in love on the spot. But despite her nurturing and renowned green thumb, this plant seems to follow the trajectory of my life, independent of her efforts or its own vegetal sensibility.

I put my book and pen down on the table. Gram leans in close to the plant, whispers to it about the importance of joie de vivre, then lumbers over to the couch, sitting down next to me. Then Big joins us, plopping his enormous frame down beside Gram.

We three, each with the same unruly hair that sits on our heads like a bustle of shiny black crows, stay like this, staring at nothing, for the rest of the afternoon.

This is us since my sister Bailey collapsed one most ago from a fatal arrhythmia while in rehearsal for a local production of Romeo & Juliet. It’s as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way.

This book was a little more subtle in its effect on me. I read it in Scotland last year while traveling around the country. I read a LOT of books on that trip (20!), which I did solo, but The Sky is Everywhere was so unbelievably, incredibly poetic and beautiful and raw that I think I could read it a 100 times and not be tired of it. I’ve already read it four times in not even a year and each time, I’m blown away.

There are books I’ve read where the characters just come alive, become a part of me and my mind and my life. But this book so so so far surpasses that. This book not only became a part of my life because of the characters, but the writing in it, my god, the writing in it is so epic and beautiful and perfect and unrestrained and deep, it embedded in me in a way that no book ever really has. The depth of feeling it is able to convey is astounding. It made me fall in love over and over and over again with reading and young adult books and the art and craft of writing.

At the time, I’d been struggling with the “right” way to write. How do I get my point across? How much do I give away? How should my characters talk to each other? To themselves? What kind of things mattered? What topic was “worth” writing about?

Nelson’s book helped me shift fully into the realm of writing Young Adult stories and helped me feel more comfortable with my voice. I’ve always found something powerful in young adult stories. Maybe it’s because my own young adult experience was so raw. Maybe it’s because kids are more open with their feelings and actions and thoughts. Everything they feel is the first time they’ve felt it and so they feel it deeper, rawer, than an adult’s does. Though this isn’t always true, adult fiction is often more composed, whereas young adult writing at least seems like it can have a little more latitude for grandeur.

Nelson’s writing defies a good descriptor. It’s like a tornado, a hurricane of thought, all whipped into a frenzy and poured into your soul like hot soup. The book flies, the characters flipping from scene to scene and moment to moment with an immediacy that makes you catch your breath.

The scenery is beautiful, the people complex and heartbroken and joyful and real. Everything about her book feels raw and perfect, and it inspired me to stay true to my form of writing, and my voice and my ideas and to trust that there isn’t a “right” way to write, there’s only your way of writing, and your way of getting the truth across. And when I participated in NaNoWrimo a few months later, I wrote with Nelson as my guide.

“Have you seen him yet?”

I have seen him, because when I return to my band seat, the one I’ve occupied for the last year, he’s in it. Even in the stun of grief, my eyes roam from the black boots, up the miles of legs covered in denim, over the endless torso, and finally settle on a face so animated I wonder if I’ve interrupted a conversation between him and my music stand.

“Hi” he says, and jumps up. He’s treetop tall. “You must be Lennon.” He points to my name on the chair. “I heard about–I’m sorry.” I notice the way he holds his clarinet, not precious with it, tight fist around the neck, like a sword.

“Thank you,” I say, and every available inch of his face bursts into a smile–whoa. Has he blown into our school on a gust of wind from another world? The guy looks unabashedly jack-o’-lantern happy, which couldn’t be more foreign to the sullen demeanor most of us strove to perfect. He has scores of messy brown curls that flop every which way and eyelashes so spider-leg long and thick that when he blinks he looks like he’s batting his bright green eyes right at you. His face is more open than an open book, like a wall of graffiti really. I realize I’m writing wow on my thigh with my finger, decide I better open my mouth and snap us out of this impromptu staring contest.

“Everyone calls me Lennie,” I say. Not very original, but better than guh, which was the alternative, and it does the trick. He looks down at his feet for a second and I take a breath and regroup for Round Two.

So that’s them! the books, the few, that shifted me, made me the me I am today. Which books have affected you?

P.S.Because i couldnt help myself, here’s a list of books that didn’t particularly cause a shift in me, but did create an immense feeling of wonder  in me when I was reading them. Read them! :)

  • The Ender’s Game series, especially Speaker for the Dead, which was so incredibly touching and deep, and taught me that science fiction and philosophy are not mutually exclusive. of all the books I’ve read, the characters in this series are some of the most complex, developed and beautiful of them all. If you read one book in your life (OK, two, because you should absolutely start with the stunning masterpiece that is Ender’s Game, the first book in the series) let it be this one. It is unreal in its perfection.
  • Eleanor & Park: Rainbow Rowell is the master of creating characters so real, so perfect, so authentic that you just know that they were based on you, or your friends, or the people you god-damn wish had been your friends. The sentimentality, the maturity in her books, and especially this one, are spot on and genuine. You don’t feel because she tries to make you. You feel because this book is perfect, from start to finish, in every way. These characters will crawl under your skin and become a part of you and you’ll never, ever, want to let them go.
  • The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough: It doesn’t sound like a super fun book, does it? But, my god, it is. I read it because I was reviewing it for the Christian Science Monitor. It was the beginning of Joe and I’s relationship and we were struggling. We were babies, looking back, focusing on only ourselves and unsure of how to have an honest, healthy relationship with each other. This book helped me learn how to enjoy the amazing things about my partner and not wallow about all the ways we weren’t perfect. Lots of people know that stuff in this book already, and lots don’t. I recommend it to all of you, just in case :).