Sunday, May 31, 2009

And always remember to wear sunscreen

To Erin (age 24)

This morning you are trying on your graduation dress and freaking out about being a size 6 instead of a size 4. Just like you did when you went from size 2 to 4 and from size 0 to 2. I wish I could convince you to save yourself the trouble and tell you it's a waste of time. First of all, you're still too thin. You can't see that now, but someday you'll look back on the pictures taken today and you will. Second of all, it's going to get so much worse. You're about to embark on a weight battle that will see you reach 250 lbs. You will come back from that, too, and one day you'll be normal. And one day you'll be able to look in the mirror and see 'normal' instead of 'fat'. And you'll wish you'd been able to see it back when you were normal the first time, before you let yourself get this thin.

That guy you're with is a total douchebag. He's not malicious, he's just clinically narcissistic, in that he is incapable of envisioning a world that does not revolve around him. He's arrogant and self-centered and he's just not able to appreciate you. But it's not because of you, it's because he's so busy appreciating himself. All of your friends see it - and so did your mother the minute she met him, but they're all humoring you because they know you won't make the mistake of marrying him. You will try long distance but it will slowly fizzle out when he realizes that it's harder to bask in his own superiority when you're not there every day to remind him of the ways you don't measure up. And the more time away you get, the more you will realize the ways in which you do. He'll eventually take a career that gets him all of the fawning admirers he needs to feed his ego, but thankfully you will not be one of them.

You haven't spoken to your Dad in over two months because he forgot your birthday. You should get over yourself even though he's not going to remember to call you today either. Call him. He really is sick and none of you know how bad yet, but you only have a matter of months before he stops being able to remember you at all. Please talk to him now while you still can. And stop being so angry at him because it's not his fault.

You're really patting yourself on the back for graduating so young. You shouldn't. It was a mistake sacrificing everything just to get here on an artificial timeline. Ten years from now you won't regret it, necessarily, but you'll wish that you had taken more time. You'll wish you went to Paris after college when you were still so fluent you dreamt in French. You know that now, even, but you're too distracted to see it - or that it's not too late.

You worked that hard, though, and started this journey because you wanted to be Atticus Finch. You're thinking about that even today, and about your choice to go in the other direction. You're scared, having spent a year as a baby Public Defender, that you're not strong enough, emotionally, to do criminal defense day in and day out, and so you're taking the easier choice and the bigger paycheck. What you don't know is that you are strong enough. And the choice you are making is not the easy road. You are taking a job that will eat away a part of your soul.

Right now you live to work, and in some ways always have, but you will get worse. You'll soon start a job in an environment where the sole measure of your worth will be how much more you can sacrifice for work and how much more of yourself you will give. And because this is how you measure your own worth, you will keep sacrificing until is almost breaks you. You'll spend years in a life that revolves around work until, one day, you'll wake up and start working to live instead of the other way around. And believe me, it'll be worth the wait because in so many ways, the day you make that decision is when your life will really begin.

You will travel around the world, literally, to live in the tiniest country no one has ever heard of. There, you will have some of your greatest professional achievements. You will recapture your inner Atticus Finch. More than that, you will reclaim your life and start living it. You will learn what it feels like to be hooked into a reef at 70 feet and watch sharks and devil rays swim right before your eyes. You will see the Golden Palace in Bangkok and fight against the hordes of pedestrians on the crowded streets of Manila. You will photograph the famous orchid gardens outside Nadi, Fiji, and you will swim with whales in Tonga. You will never be rich in dollars, but you will finally learn what it means to be rich in the ways that count.

You see today as an end. And as a beginning. But you do not see it as a now, which you should. And revel in it.

Oh, and the best decision you will make today will be to take off your dress and graduate semi nude under your velvet gown. It is going to be seriously hot and you and Carol will be the only ones at all the graduation parties without pit stains. Besides, no one will notice. Except your mother....


Erin (age 34)

Friday, May 15, 2009

What so proudly we hailed in the twilight's last gleaming

The Human Rights Film Festival has come once again to Wellington, and since my entire job revolves around human rights (it's even in my title), I think I'm pretty much duty bound to go. More than once.

The first film was about the restriction of free speech among journalists in Belarus after the 1994 elections, which is an awesome topic, but was told from a biased point of view, never found its message and came complete with subtitles brought to you by google translator. Which if you have never used it before, is downright hysterical. In fact, I think it's where Sasha Baran Cohen's whole act comes from.

I'm always interested in the artistic choices people make when they are engaging in their chosen medium. This film featured a close up of a dripping faucet and panned in on a bottle of dishwashing liquid. For, like, thirty seconds. Why? Unknown. What did this do to advance the story? Nothing.

Ironically, the film on the whole (even though it was not produced by New Zealand journalists) evinced everything I find faulty in New Zealand journalism. Which is to say that it left me with far more questions than it answered.

The second film, Tattooed Under Fire was the perfect bookend to the first film, because it was everything that the first one was not. It was beautifully shot, wonderfully told, thought-provoking and emotive and has left me still thinking about how to talk about it 24 hours later.

Tattooed Under Fire is set in a seedy tattoo parlour in Fort Hood, Texas, and tells the story of soldiers who are getting ready to be deployed to Iraq and picks up their stories once they get back. It is told through the confessions made to tattoo artists.

It was, quite simply, brilliant.

I've been trying to find the words for why it is so hard to talk about. Which, naturally, is a difficult exercise. But I can start here.

I remember sitting in the theatre full of Kiwis, and feeling one million emotions at once, and listening to the Kiwis around me chuckle. When, among the one million emotions I felt, none of them was humour. I think there were aspects of the film that looked to the outsider like a caricature. When I knew, having grown up in Texas, that those aspects were simply the reality of life in a small town in the South in the US.

And I guess what struck me in that moment, and in the moments that have followed as I've tried to explain the movie to other Kiwis, is how very "other" I sometimes feel here. There are ways in which, even if I go back to America, I will never be able to go back to America entirely. Because I've looked at it from the outside and seen it through a new lens.

In so many ways, my country is no longer the country in which I grew up. I think I have a new perspective having not only been overseas but worked for foreign governments, but what I see is a country inextricably divided. With two factions clinging with white fingertips to a single document, based on their own varying interpretations of it, but who no longer agree on the fundamental principles that underpin it. And I worry that that division cannot be overcome. That much is evident to me as it is to the rest of the world, to those who would seek to tear us down and to those who look upon us cautiously hoping we survive.

And yet, there remain the ties that bind. I felt such a kinship with the men and women in that movie. Such a sorrow to be a part of the machine called America that keeps sending them over there. And such a genuine need to comfort them. For no other reason than, like me, they are American. We share the same homeland and there is a bond there that probably will never be broken.

You see, I am not and will never be truly home here in New Zealand. Every time I open my mouth, my accent creates an impression that carries with it all of the stereotypes and preconceived notions that go with an outsider's view of America. Beyond that, though, there are what I will call environmental differences. I was, as my grandma would say, just brought up different. I have views about community and country that don't necessarily jive here.

But still, as they say, you just can't go home again.

And, I think, that's the nut of it. I felt a profound sense of sadness coming out of Tattooed Under Fire. And most of that was the subject matter. But more than that, it was the pervasive feeling that there isn't a single person I could talk to about it who would understand this feeling of "otherness". No one here who will get the patriotic ties that continue to link me to America and, more importantly, to Americans. And no one there who will understand the perspective of someone who's taken a step back to look at the whole mess from the outside.

This is the point in any entry where I would try to bring it all back home, and hopefully with something positive to say. I fear I haven't thought this topic through enough to do that, or maybe there just is no clean finish to it. I will say that I'm glad to be an immigrant and an emigrant and think the decision has added to my life and perspective. It is not without it difficulties, but then again, nothing in life worth doing is.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

I feel pretty, oh so pretty

Today I had to go down to get some passport photos taken to lodge yet another immigration application in my ongoing saga. And of course, like most things in New Zealand, this was not a straightforward process and I ended up having to kill time for 35 minutes (!!) waiting for my passport photos.

So, I did what I do and went to the local department store to collect things that I "need". You know, life's necessities like over the knee socks and new tights. And, being low on old lady eye cream, I had occasion to visit my favourite person in the world, the lady at the Lancome counter. Seriously, I love this woman.

You see, there are two accepted practices for selling facial products to women. The first, and most common, involves heavy criticism and fear, whereby the buyer is scared into believing that (a) she looks like Imogene Coca and (b) the only way to fix this is through buying their miracle skin products. There is a lot of very frank discussion of pores, broken capillaries and wrinkles and the process ends with you feeling like you're pretty much the least desirable person in the world. Which, in return, results in spending one million dollars.

The second practice involves telling the buyer that she is beautiful and that she could be even that much more beautiful through using these magnificent products that will not change her but only enhance the beauty that she is currently radiating from every pore.

The lady at the Lancome counter subscribes to the second method. And this is why I keep giving her my credit card. Today, she told me not only that I look young for my age, but also that I show remarkably few signs of aging and that I could be a model for the Lancomme line for as well as it is clearly working for me. Cha-ching. Every time a credit card gets swiped, a Lancome lady gets her wings.

So, I left that experience feeling like my stock was exceedingly high and basically strutting all over the place. And then I went to pick up my passport photos, which can only be described as the worst pictures taken of anybody ever. It's not just that the pictures look like my mother, because my mother is beautiful and the pictures would therefore be an insult to her. It's that the pictures look like somebody's mother who's been through a train wreck followed by a tornado followed by a sand storm followed by a bankruptcy followed by a death in the family. In other words, they are no bueno.

And thus I will do the only thing I can do, which is to take out my new Lancome purchase, apply liberally, and hope for the best.