flame, past tense

It is not for the sake of worlds, my beloved, that worlds are loved, but for one's own sake that they are loved. It is not for the sake of gods, my beloved, that gods are loved, but for one’s own sake that they are loved. It is not for the sake of beings, my beloved, that beings are loved, but for one's own sake that they are loved.

When you were here, I knew that I was real. I had your warmth on my back, the sinew and callus of your hand in mine. Amamus ergo sum. Today I fled you, into my park of ice and concrete and green rivers. But you were there, and I was not there.

The eye is burning, forms are burning, perception is burning, also whatever is felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant that arises with perception, that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion.

I have no fire. They bring spices and wine to warm me, but I feel nothing. The words on a page should stir me, but I understand nothing. I watched for you to turn around and come back to me, but I knew I would see nothing. I saw nothing.

Flame has color. I liked it better when the world was burning.

There are only wishes: I wish we’d gone, I wish I’d known, I wish we hadn’t, I wish I’d given. I wish we had just one more day, to do and say it all. Amice, ave atque vale. But to what end? I saw the future on crisp printer paper. I always thought we’d hold a match to the corner, and watch it all go down in flames together. But you tenderly held the corner in the green river, and now (that you are gone, and perhaps I am here again) I wait and watch, hour by hour, as the water creeps up the page. Now the words are blurred. Later I will try to remember what they said. Tomorrow there will be nothing but wet, white printer paper, and it will come apart in my hands.

I am that I am, you are that you are, we were not that we had been. Every day with you was red, orange, gold, white and blue. Remember me in color. Remember me with fire. Remember me.

Cited, in order: Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, II.iv.5; The Buddha's Fire Sermon; as well as three distortions of well-known texts. First person who identifies them wins the prize of making me smile.


q+a: time management, toddlers and tiaras

Q: What are your thoughts about all the articles describing how inflated Harvard's grading system is?
A: If anyone complaining about Harvard’s grade inflation wants to write my 25-page paper deconstructing the moral frameworks of the Upanishads and the Pali Canon through the lens of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” be my guest.

Q: Is Lulu in college yet?
A: One more year. I'm recruiting hardcore. Doesn't hurt that we've won Harvard-Yale pretty much every year since she was a fetus. (However, she's a tough sell and not so easily swayed.)
no boozecats were harmed in the making of this picture

Q: Ancient Greek or Roman civilization? Please pick one, and tell me why. 
A: Yikes, that’s tough. When we say Greek, what are we talking here? Like, Athens or Sparta? Ultimately, though, I’d have to go with Roman. Idealistically, I like the imperial aspect – the promise of citizenship in exchange for service. What a great way to build allegiance and also benefit from the talents of different populations. Aesthetically, I have a thing for symmetry, aqueducts, and decadence. And personally, judging from his type, I think I would have had a pretty good shot with Julius Caesar. We could have had something really special.

Q: Did you lose weight?
A: Don’t even pretend like that’s a nice thing to say. And while I don’t own a scale anymore, I do own three jumbo bags of peanut M&Ms right now, so I’m going to hazard a no.

Q: Do you have good time management skills?
A: Look. Sometimes you forget that you agreed to host twenty people in your room and answer the door in sweatpants and a bandeau with your hair half curled. And sometimes it's four random dudes standing outside your door, so you try to make conversation by asking them who their dates are. And sometimes they say, "No idea, isn't this a blind date party?" and it's really awkward so you throw a bottle of tequila at them and hide in the bathroom for half an hour until the girls show up.

Q: Utterly irrelevant, but can you draw?
A: Short answer: no, I have no talent. Long answer: I’m a total doodler, and I fixate on a different subject every few months. I was really into eyes in high school, which led to noses for a while. Last semester was a combination of calligraphy Oms and pin-ups. I have no idea what my teachers must think of me. Also, I really can’t draw hands.

Q: What is your opinion on Toddlers and Tiaras? Honey Boo Boo? 
A: Toddlers and Tiaras: Horrible, no idea why you would ingrain such a messed-up conception of self-worth in a kid. Honey Boo Boo: AMAZING. That girl has mastered poise, self-deprecating humor, and irony at what, seven years old? More importantly, from what I can tell, they have a strong and supportive family. They have a conception of happiness and they are living it. They care deeply about one another, embrace their faults, and celebrate their values. They also collect like 5,000 toys for disadvantaged kids every Christmas. Remind me why we’re criticizing them when there are white-collar criminals and date rapists in the world?

Q: Are you a morning person? If so, can you PLEASE share some tips on how to be one? I am always exhausted the whole morning. I asked my (tiger) mom why, and she blamed it on my "pig-like laziness" and "poor time management skills". Then she gave me a hug. Figures. :)

A: “Pig-like laziness” is fantastic. Your mom sounds awesome. I’m the opposite of a morning person, but I have to wake up at 5:30 am three times a week. It is brutal. There is no way to make it not brutal. One time someone tried to be cheerful to me at a bus stop at 6 AM, and I almost stabbed them in the eye. Ways to make it better: lay out everything you need, and have a clockwork routine that you follow every morning. If it’s something you can look gross for, sleep in your clothes. Leave yourself as little to do as possible when you wake up. Nap later if you can; if not, eat a large breakfast at some point, preferably including eggs. Also, when you get to college, don’t schedule class before 11:00 a.m. You will understand when you get here.

These are all old questions! Give me some new ones to field while I procrastinate that paper.


Do Less, Read More: A Defense of School

It’s been said before, and it will be said again, but I’m going to say it now: Harvard students – students everywhere, really – need to do less.

What most voices of my generation mean by this is that we all ought to step back, gain some perspective, and enjoy the college experience. Your transcript doesn’t define you, so go run barefoot by the riverbank, or join a dance troupe, or protest something.

That’s not what I mean. Call me a tiger cub, but I think we college students need to remember what we’re here for in the first place: our education.

As students, we have become alienated from our choices outside the classroom. Extracurricular activities, once voluntarily pursued as a breath of fresh air from academia, now dictate our lives and academic choices. Your average Harvard student doesn’t pick up a Frisbee to unwind from Faraday or Foucault. More likely, he picked his Natural Disasters class because a) it doesn’t conflict with club lacrosse practices, Financial Analysts Club meetings, or Institute of Politics workshops; and b) while devoting his mental energy to those activities, he can still pull an A- on a quiz about earthquakes.

The pressure to participate in diverse and numerous extracurriculars is immense. Students self-identify in terms of allegiance to on-campus organizations. When first introduced, one classmate will often ask the other what they do at Harvard. If the second answers that she studies, say, Sanskrit philosophy, the inevitable response will be, “No, no. I meant: what do you do here at Harvard?” Intellectual depth is no longer a currency of self-worth.* Our studies have become a chore-like formality, facilitating the extracurriculars we do because we have to.

Harvard’s critics often point to academic pressure as a major problem on campus. I would argue that the pressure to be involved with (if not spearheading) extracurricular activities is far greater and more detrimental to the student psyche. Academic excellence – which has driven us all for at least twelve years of school – is no longer the metric of success. More importantly, to be fully immersed in a subject you are passionate about is no longer enough. If you’re not president of three organizations, keynote speaker at a summit on minorities in politics, and co-founding a start-up in your free time, you’re doing it wrong.

As a case in point, consider the infamous 2012 cheating scandal, where nearly a hundred Harvard students were forced to withdraw for plagiarism. If academic pressure was the problem, one might think that the class was an insurmountably difficult one – organic chemistry, maybe, or high-level economics. Nothing could be further from the truth. The class, Introduction to Congress, was famously a gut – a “gem” among rocks for jocks. No one needed to cheat to get an A on that exam. These kids weren't ruthless, unethical grade-grubbers. Nor were they unqualified, or in over their heads. The students in the class didn’t buckle under academic pressure; the stress they suffered was of a different kind. Between athletic schedules, musical theater productions, and internship applications, they simply didn’t have the mental energy to scribble out their easy A’s. Telling students they need to branch out and get involved isn’t the solution – it’s the problem.

To be sure, extracurricular activities can be a valuable supplement to the academic experience. You can’t network, learn practical skills, or meet people of diverse backgrounds if you spend all day reading Kant. For full disclosure, I myself participate in Army ROTC, a sorority, and volunteer work. I’ve also done paid research and spent a summer abroad. These activities have given me role models, exposed me to different perspectives, and forced me to challenge myself – physically and mentally – in ways my studies could not. All this is true. But are these really once-in-a-lifetime opportunities? I have plenty of time in the real world ahead of me in which to gain “real-world experience.” I have the rest of my life to “find myself.” And I truly hope that I will continue to make meaningful connections with people and make an impact long after I receive my diploma.

What I only have four years to do is ponder Buddhist scriptures with the world’s leading experts. Knowing myself, if I don’t read Proust or Nietzsche in college, it’s possible that I never will (and certainly not with the same depth as I would here). Some people have the time, curiosity, and motivation to teach themselves the intricacies of string theory or Keynesian economics; I salute them. But most of us will get caught up in our real-world lives, putting off our intellectual bucket lists until we inevitably tell our children and grandchildren that we “wish we had read more.”

So, students of the moment: let’s do less. But let’s use our free time and psychological space to delve into learning. To do otherwise belittles both our education and our extracurricular pursuits. Study because you’re fascinated. Explore activities because you love them. Everything else is just glamorous clutter – don’t be afraid to clear the way for what really counts.

*Incidentally, I believe athletes find themselves in a similar plight. It’s no longer enough to be a starter on the Varsity team – in fact, to prove themselves the equals of their non-athletic regular-person peers, athletes may feel even more pressure to Save the Whales on their rest days.

Have I offended again? So curious to hear what all of you think. Students, do you feel unnecessary pressure to be involved in all kinds of activities? Or are my priorities all backwards? International readers -- do you see a similar phenomenon in your home countries? Unleash it in the comments below.


How To Stop Your Kids From Eating Their Halloween Candy (through the ages)

Courtesy of my genius parents.

First Grade: Convince child that the fun part of Halloween candy is waking up early the next day to sort it and trade with siblings. After said trades are complete, confiscate everyone's candy.

Fifth Grade: Casually mention razor blades in Snickers bars at the dinner table.

Eighth Grade: Demand that child pay tax on her Halloween candy by ceding all Reese's Cups to the state (i.e., Daddy). Because who wants to eat any of that other crap, anyway?

Tenth Grade: Point out to child that the benefits of distributing candy to her chemistry class (e.g., friends!!) outweigh the benefits of eating the candy by herself.

Freshman Year of College: Don't say anything. Let child eat all the candy, gain fifteen pounds, and learn the hard way.

Lolcats just kidding, I bought myself a giant bag of Reese's and could not be less sorry. HAPPY HALLOWEEN


don't want to die without a few scars

Ed. Note: This post has kind of exploded, and I need to clarify something very important. This post does not argue that my rejection was undeserved or unfair. It was neither. The person who ultimately received the job is an incredibly hard-working, passionate, and dedicated member of the organization. This person was just as or more qualified than I was on every relevant axis. There is no question that this person deserved and will excel in the position. To reiterate, I did not deserve this job any more than they did.

Rather, this post is intended to be an introspective analysis of what made the rejection painful. It's about the experience of trying (and struggling) to find worth in qualities beyond beauty. In a way, this has nothing to do with the event itself. Read as you will.

Readers, you have often asked to me to post about coping with disappointment. Forgive the hasty post, but I needed to write about this today. Here's why:

Last week, I applied for a leadership role in a student organization. The position is one I have worked incredibly hard for over the past year. The organization, whose members have taught me generosity, grace, and strength of character, has been an integral part of my college experience. This weekend, I got a phone call informing me that the position was given to someone else. They told me I was absolutely qualified for the job. Ultimately, though, "image and representation" were the tiebreaker this year. They then offered me a different position, because "the organization really needed" my skills. It was kindness on their part, but the message was clear: we want you doing the work behind the scenes, while the prettier girl smiles in the limelight.

I cried about six times last weekend. And the truth is, I wasn't crying because I didn't get the job -- I was crying because I was ashamed by how much it hurt. The thing is, they were right about me. I am what the world would call a behind-the-scenes person. But by a cruel act of the universe, I am a behind-the-scenes person who has always wanted nothing more than to take center stage. 

I am not naturally beautiful, thin, or pleasant (ever wonder why there are no candid photos of me on this blog...or anywhere else?). My state of equilibrium is frizzy hair, big arms hidden in a sweatshirt, looking for something to argue about. I have spent my life learning to find self-worth in other facets of my person: my thoughts, my boldness, my tenacity. In this regard, I was doubly lucky to have been an ugly child growing up in an academic home. My mom would try to spruce me up with a hair bow before piano recitals, but I was a lost cause. When the applause erupted or the medal hung around my neck, I knew I had earned it through my performance alone. Meanwhile, my parents were being evaluated on similar lines. It was only later in life that my mom and dad became glamorous -- as young professors trying to land tenured jobs, they were all substance over style. From what I gather, the process for becoming a tenured professor is the opposite of a normal job interview. It doesn't matter if you wear a great suit or leave a lovely impression on the Dean at dinner. Everything comes down to the creative contribution of your work. "A deep thinker," "brutally honest," "insightful" -- these were words of praise in our house. I didn't learn that "she's so put-together," or "he's so polite in conversation" were compliments until freshmen year of college.

Through the traits I developed, I earned my own self-respect and (perhaps I flatter myself) the respect of others. I wore it as a badge of pride that I was "so smart," rather than "so hot." Or at least I thought I did, until I got that phone call over the weekend.

I should have felt complimented -- they praised me for my competence and dedication, the qualities I value -- but instead, I felt like I'd been kicked to the ground. The rejection wasn't unfair or undeserved by any means. Much like being male and non-handicapped are legitimate criteria for being construction worker, so too "image and representation" are legitimate criteria for this position. But even for a girl who does not define herself through beauty, it is shockingly painful to be rejected because you aren't beautiful enough.

I have spent this whole week trying to pinpoint the source of the pain. At first I thought it was the fact that beauty is beyond my control -- I had done everything in my power, yet the deciding factor was out of my hands. But that isn't really the problem. The problem is that, deep down, I still put beauty on a pedestal, elevating it over all other virtues. And I think that's because, deep down, we all do.

Think about our so-called empowering messages to young girls. "You did a beautiful job on your science project." "You are beautiful in your own special way." "Every body is beautiful." We speak these cliches with the best intentions, but what we are proclaiming is that beauty, the ultimate virtue, must be aspired to. What we should be saying is, "you aren't beautiful, you're even better -- you are strong, smart, and funny." Strength, intelligence and wit are not valuable because they make you "beautiful on the inside." They are valuable in their own right. 

"Beautiful inside and out" -- that's my least favorite one. Not least because, I suspect, that's what my organization meant by "image and representation." I am not particularly beautiful on the inside; I am judgmental, cynical, and love controversy (or is that just another word for attention?). People have struggled to define "beauty" since the beginning of time. Whatever the true meaning may be, we can appeal to a cliche for a telling characteristic: "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Beauty is a nebulous concept, but it is a concept defined in relation to other people. To be beautiful on the outside is to be aesthetically pleasing to others. To be beautiful on the inside is to be pleasing to others in personality as well. 

When we tell girls it's important to be "beautiful on the inside," we're telling them to be nice. It's wonderful to be nice. But is it enough? Is "nice" sufficient for confidence, for achieving your goals, for self-respect? I think not. "Inner beauty" is simply being what other people want you to be. Your own values and standards become irrelevant. Try as we might, we ought to give up on reclaiming beauty for the nonbeautiful. For so long as beauty -- outer, inner, metaphorical -- is our highest praise, we will always be trying (in my case, failing) to meet external expectations.

I don't want to be pretty. I don't want to be nice. But I have not been able to extricate myself from this web of expectations: on the day the announcement was made public, I put on makeup and heels and did my hair. Come on, you don't wear sweatpants to your own open casket funeral. But seriously, I don't know if this is something I can escape. What I do know is that I need to spend some time looking inwards. I will take a good, long, look at my non-beautiful inner self, and determine whether I like what I see. I will remember why I am proud to be who I am. And, eventually, I'm going to be okay.

I didn't write this post for you guys to pat me on the back and tell me I'm cute or anything. I'm interested to know what disappointments you've dealt with lately, and whether you agree with my characterization of beauty as an insidious force in so-called empowerment these days. Comment below?


Q+A: Entertainment Edition

On a scale of 1-10, how much do you procrastinate?
Well, I started writing this post in August, so there’s that.

This is a dope and extremely misleading panoramic thing of my 14'x14' dorm room. I live in the orange box. I don't know how to use a camera
What are you taking this year?

Three philosophy classes: “Equality and Liberty,” “Rationality and Irrationality” (I’m all about the binaries, guys), and a seminar on Plato. Then I’m in a two-person tutorial where we read Hindu religious texts in translation, as well as Advanced Philosophical Sanskrit, where we’re currently reading a Buddhist philosophical treatise in the original Sanskrit. I also sit in on this class about Athens and Rome whenever I can, because I’m weird.

Where does Lulu go to college?
Slow down, my baby’s still in high school! She’s applying this year. You should ask her where she wants to go. Wherever she ends up, you better bet she'll be kicking ass and taking names. P.S. Lulu if you're reading this plz plz come to Harvard, we can snuggle and eat Cheez-its and fight about Shakespeare

What are some of your favorite contemporary songs? Did you ever have time to listen to music or has it always been a sidenote type of thing? Do you listen to old songs (80's or before) or more modern music?
Music is, and always will be, a central part of my life. From playing Christian hymns in nursing homes to learning Hindi Bollywood hits from Indian school children, music helps me connect with people with whom I might not otherwise find common ground. Even when I was most serious about piano, I never limited my listening to one genre of music. The more you listen, the more inspiration you get. I’ve gone through many music phases in my life (I’m looking at you, Dubstep), but there are some sounds I keep coming back to. The Who, The Doors, The Clash, St. Vincent, and Ben Folds are my eternal favorites. Plan B’s The Defamation of Strickland Banks is probably my favorite album from my lifetime. Nirvana’s Nevermind predated me by one year, but that’s right up there as well. I’m also unashamed to love country music – Darius Rucker, Kacey Musgraves, Little Big Town, and Blackberry Smoke are topping on my playlists right now. The first concert I ever saw was K’naan, so he also holds a special place in my heart. I’ve never heard a Daft Punk track I didn’t like. There are only two pieces of music that make me cry on cue. Those are “Three Wooden Crosses” by Randy Travis, and Beethoven’s Ninth. 

Tell me one thing you learned in Sanskrit class.
 If an early Buddhist monk felt tempted by a woman, he was instructed to meditate on the image of her as a putrefying, worm-filled corpse. Buzzkill much?

What were your favorite books as a teen?
Hemingway was my god. I especially loved A Moveable Feast and the mesmerizing, imperfect The Garden of Eden. I also couldn’t get enough of short stories by Oscar Wilde or Jorge Luis Borges. You’ve probably never heard of William Kennedy’s Albany Trio (Legs, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, Ironweed), but those were favorites too. When I was a bit younger, I was all about fantasy. Jonathon Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series, and of course Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials were some of my favorites – I was a huge sucker for the Europe-frozen-around-world-war-one-plus-magic thing. Around the same time, I became hideously depressed when I was forced to accept that Artemis Fowl was a fictional character. On that note, I learned the birds and the bees from Stephen King novels in my middle school library. I probably shouldn't share that.

Have you ever had alcohol before?
 Have I not told you guys the story about the day I got into college? My dad came home, sat me down, and poured me a tall brown drink. He said: “This is bourbon. This is what you will drink in college. When some disgusting frat boy offers you punch, this is what you will ask for instead. You will drink this because you can taste it, and you won’t go ripping ten shots of some fruity thing and end up dead in a basement. Now drink and learn.”  I learned.

Why haven't you posted lately?

formals!! (and dress recycling, anybody recognize?)
sporting events!!! just kidding, it's Harvard, didn't make it to the game
but let's be real, mostly
Nozick and the Bhagavad-gita on the same shelf. If you find that as funny as I do, congrats you're a nerd
Sorry, that was long awaited! Semester got busy. I love fall...Any post requests? And what are you listening to these days? I'm starved for some new music.


On Judaism

Yom Kippur is, bizarrely, my favorite Jewish holiday. This is probably because, while you're supposed to spend most of the day in synagogue, it's an intensely individual religious experience. For those of you who don't know, my religious upbringing was...unusual. As I understand it, my parents essentially signed a contract when I was born (classic lawyer power couple move) -- my dad insisting that I be raised Jewish, with my Catholic mother agreeing on the condition that I also grow up bilingual in Mandarin. That was the simple part. The thing is, my dad is a Jew in the most secular sense of the word. If I had to guess, I'd say the Jewish principle he most identifies with is the idea that one ought to do the right thing not for fear of God's wrath, or because of the incentive of a cushy spot in heaven, but purely for its own sake. This was confusing to me as a kid (probably because my mom inadvertently had me believing in a Catholic heaven for about 8 years, until I found out dead bees couldn't go to heaven and was crushed), but it's something I now strongly believe in as well.

This illustrates something I find distinctive about Judaism: it can still function as a moral code if you take spirituality out of the equation. A rabbi and historian I really respect put it well when he said, "Do I live by the Bible because I believe God handed it down to us on Mount Sinai? Not necessarily. I live by the Bible because these are the words of my ancestors, words that reveal what they thought it meant to live a good life." And, while the Torah is often characterized as rule-based, legalistic, and full of arbitrary commandments, what you take as your moral code is actually quite open-ended. The Rabbinic tradition encourages reflection, interpretation, and especially debate, even on passages that at first look like a hard and fast list of rules. The way I see it, being Jewish is less about making sure you avoid eating the wrong hoofed creatures, and more about forcing yourself to confront your internal contradictions. While Judaism is obviously concerned with what God expects from us, it is equally concerned with what we expect from ourselves.

That's what I like about Yom Kippur, particularly the haunting Kol Nidre. Calling this day a "day of atonement" is technically a misnomer, with intense historical implications. People used to point to Yom Kippur as evidence that Jews were untrustworthy, because they had a day each year where God forgave them for all their broken promises. That's wrong on two levels. First of all, on Yom Kippur, you don't get forgiven for your past sins. You are asking for advance forgiveness for promises you will break in the coming year. Furthermore, these aren't just any promises -- you are only forgiven for breaking promises you make to God himself. "Oh God, just let Grandma make it through the year, and I promise I'll start volunteering and writing thank you notes." "This is my year to turn things around -- I'm going to become healthy, compassionate, and stop gossiping." In a sense, these promises to God are also just promises you make and break with yourself. On Yom Kippur, you admit -- to God and to yourself -- that you are weaker, smaller, and more fallible than you think. But the point of acknowledging that you will inevitably disappoint is to achieve forgiveness -- divine forgiveness if you're a believer, and for everyone, self-forgiveness.

But for me, that's still not the most powerful part of Yom Kippur. The moment it really hits you is when you wake up the next morning, expecting to feel less burdened by guilt...and you don't. Because you realize that absolution from letting yourself down doesn't make you any less to blame for letting down other people. God will forgive you for personal shortcomings, but your mistakes that hurt others? Those are on you. The only way to make them right is by confronting them head-on, face-to-face with the one you wronged. You don't just get a spiritual clean slate for telling God you're sorry; you need to fix your mistakes right here in this messy, physical world.

I never had a congregation growing up (the local temples weren't too pleased about my mom not converting, at which point my dad may or may not have gotten into a physical altercation with a local rabbi, which may or may not have gotten us blacklisted from all local synagogues). Even my Jewish friends made it clear, intentionally or accidentally, that they didn't consider me part of the Chosen club ("That's so nice that you think you had a Bat Mitzvah. When you convert to real Judaism someday, you'll feel so much better about your childhood." "You get Christmas tree ornaments as your Hannukah presents? That's so messed up.").
 I only know a few prayers, and I sing them in our family's provincial, Polish-Hungarian Ashkenazi tune. But I love the weird, hybrid, introspective Judaism I grew up with in our home. It made me question, doubt, and negotiate my own terms with God; religion is something I have always taken into my own hands. And that, for me at least, is exactly what gets me through my ups and downs. Tsom Kal, y'all.

Did any of y'all have an unconventional religious upbringing? Was your religion mostly communal, or individual? And let me take this opportunity to apologize for the increase in snark, and for all the inevitable snark to come...