Thoughts on the MFA: What I Did Wrong (and Right)

I graduated from the MFA program at Goucher College in Maryland, which focuses solely on creative nonfiction. The couple dozen writers in my 2007 graduating class were fierce, talented memoirists and narrative, investigative, and immersion journalists from all over the world: throughout the US, Europe, South Africa, and even a representative from McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

While I consider my MFA program as a learning stage in my writing life, and had some positive experiences, I wish I had done things differently.

What I Did Wrong

On Age. I started my MFA program when I was 25. I should have waited 10 years, at the minimum. In 2005, I had the material; I just didn’t have the perspective. (And I still don’t.) I learned from my workshops and lectures, and I was introduced to nonfiction I wouldn’t have found on my own, but my universe wasn’t, and still isn’t, big enough. (More on writing when I’m not ready.)

On the Limited Residency. I had to choose between Goucher’s limited-residency program and Sarah Lawrence’s graduate writing program, the other program that accepted me, full time. Eyeing flexibility, I chose Goucher: I flew to the east coast for three summers for multi-week residencies and was able to develop and write the bulk of my manuscript in California. I didn’t have to relocate or quit my job. (However, I did leave an editorial position at Skywalker Ranch, in the middle of my MFA program, to write in Montreal for a summer.)

While the limited residency was convenient, the option would have made more sense if I was married, or had children, or had responsibilities that didn’t allow an uprooting. (I wasn’t even in a relationship for most of my MFA program.) I could have moved to Brooklyn for a spell, as living in New York was an item on my To Do list I’d yet to cross off.

On Writing a Book. Perhaps I shouldn’t have attempted this; I could have been more productive crafting smaller, tighter pieces. But both inspiration and competition drove me, as most of my classmates had book ideas: on working in a funeral parlor, on the gun industry, on a murder in the South, on the life of farming in the Midwest. They would weave book-length stories, even though only 150 publishable manuscript pages were required to graduate. Somehow, in the midst of residency madness, I convinced myself I had to write a book. And I did. A story with a beginning, middle, and end.

It was simply the first draft.

But was this so terrible? It was the first major literary project I’d completed, and despite what the final product was, it felt good to finish—to trudge through the motions, the doubt, and the pain. I was reminded of crossing the finish line inside the Superdome in New Orleans after running my first marathon. Five hours, 50 minutes. Slow and sloppy, but I did it: 26.2 miles.

I remember the words of one of our faculty mentors, Suzannah Lessard, who likened writing to sailing. We could write essays, yes. But she urged my sailboat to drift away from land: To sail into sea so far until I could no longer see the coast. To get lost in the vast ocean of my mind. To come back to shore, with exports from abroad, even if these weren’t treasures I had been looking for, and if the shore to which I returned wasn’t the one I remembered.

She gave wonderful advice, but I’m still not sure about the whole book thing. Read by a select few, mine sits in a drawer, and is the only tangible evidence that I was in an MFA program. If I’d gone the other route and wrote shorter, focused pieces, would I have something to show for today?

What I Did Right

On Writing What I Know. My freelance reporting assignments aside, I’ve not written about things I don’t know. It may be a fault, and I should push the inquisitor in me much more, but there are so many things about myself, my life, and my universe that I don’t understand—and I could spent years musing and not be satisfied. I confidently state I was an expert—an active participant—in what I wrote about in my MFA manuscript; but while my lack of perspective is palpable, so is my curious, naïve voice that fumbles through it. If anything, the book captured what I saw, felt, and knew at that moment. And that is valuable.

On Voice. My third-semester mentor, Joe Mackall, called my book a memoir/literary journalism hybrid. Two voices emerged: one of a memoirist, and the other of a journalist and cultural commentator. I was technically able to do both, but switching between modes from chapter to chapter was a challenge, and it never really worked. It makes sense now, as I wasn’t ready to handle both at once, and the omniscient narrator in me never knew what the point was. (How embarrassing.) But the project was a successful exercise in voice: my teenage self narrated the journey, wide-eyed and fearless, while the older narrator interjected when she needed to.

It’s one thing to have a distinct literary voice; it’s quite another to conjure and control the many you have. I struggled. And I’m glad I tried.

On Vulnerability. I’ve written many blog posts (mainly brainstorms and mindclears), or pieces just for me that I’ll never publish—like the writing in my old journals. As I wrote the book, I convinced myself that no one would read it when I was done. But when I finished, I let it go. And after some distance, I realized that I released writing that was far from my best, and far from ripe. But perhaps that was the beauty in it: acknowledging the act of writing as a process, and my growth as a person and writer in front of those who know and read me.

On Worldviews, I: My Glass Jar

I find the key is to think of a day as units of time, each unit consisting of no more than thirty minutes.

—Will Freeman, About a Boy

In About a Boy, the main character, Will, measures his days in units.

  • Taking a bath: 1 unit.
  • Watching Countdown: 1 unit.
  • Exercising (aka playing pool): 3 units.
  • Having his hair carefully disheveled: 4 units.

And so on.

Similarly, I measure my life in parts. Or, more fittingly, moments.

I compartmentalize. I sense and view in fragments. Not that I’m unable to step back and see an entire canvas, but over the years, I’ve become analytical in how I approach things, peering through a microscope at bits of my past to understand how they fit in the precious glass jar that holds my life. And even though my universe floats freely inside this jar—and I feel part of an airy, beautiful, haphazard world where I drift rhythmically—I am very precise in measuring and documenting my life.

I record my life as a wave on a graph, composed of dots signifying moments in time. Given the nature of a wave, the low moments sink to the troughs, while the others—the peaksrest on the crests.

My manuscript about the warehouse rave scene in the nineties was not what I hoped it’d be—and how could it have been with my unripe thoughts and all? A flat, linear story it was. Still, when I wrote it, I managed to pluck moments from the deepest crevices of my memory. The memories shapeshifted into scribbles in my notebook, and then—gasping for air—found their way into my Word document, immortalized. Although the book failed as a whole, particular moments ascend above the dry, soulless narrative. They pierce through the pages, as if the wave on my graph rises in the physical space in front of me.

A screenwriting professor once told me: “Enter the scene late, and exit the scene early.” I’ve taken his advice over the past decade, but to a fault. Because rarely do I know how to start a story, and almost never do I craft an ending. Instead, I am preoccupied with random, stand-alone moments that fill a script, each with their own climaxes.

I chase moments of my past, disregarding my life’s timeline. I scoop the elusive with my bare hands, tossing captured pieces into my glass jar:

  • An inaugural night of raving at the Homebase warehouse on Hegenberger Road in Oakland in May 1997.
  • An evening at the Full Moon Party on the sands of Haad Rin Nok, Thailand, with my brother and sister-in-law in August 2004.
  • A hot afternoon on Ile Ste-Hélène in Montreal, dancing under a massive Calder sculpture that resembled a futuristic antennae, in July 2006.
  • A reunion of my old-school crew at a night of drum & bass in Potrero Hill in January 2007.

And so on.

These are disjointed moments that float in my jar—dots placed randomly on a graph. And as the wave materializes, I keep a tally of how many times I’ve reached the zenith, whatever that is. Perhaps that’s what my book was really about: my obsession with capturing a split second, and my appreciation for encounters—inexplicable, accidental, magical—that come and go in what feels like a single blink.

This is how I love to write.

No beginning. No end.

And this is also how I view my life.

As moments, independent of anything else, that I collect like butterflies.

Street Art of Blu: Murals in Berlin and Lisbon

I stumbled upon Blu murals on my last two trips to Europe.

While I love Blu’s mind-blowing wall-painting animations like Big Bang Big Boom and Muto, it’s cool to come upon his still images—and remnants of his animations—on facades around the world. Especially when you’re not looking for them.

City: Berlin // Neighborhood: Friedrichshain

Mural from across a parking lot.
The first mural, across the River Spree, taken from the Oberbaumbrücke.
Wider shot showing an adjacent mural.
Closer view over a poster-strewn wall.
Massive pink man, made of many little men, hiding next to the Oberbaumbrücke.
The massive man of tiny men, up close.

Location: Lisbon // Metro Station: Picoas

Blu in Lisbon
Shot of a Blu-bombed building at Picoas Metro Station, on the yellow line, as part of a collaboration with OsGemeos for the Crono Festival.
Zooming in on the facade.
Straw detail.
Imagery along the curved corner of the building.
Shot from below. Details under ledges.

Musings on Monterey, Elusive Memory, and My “Aunt Flo”

A memory. It’s tricky, it’s slippery, it shapeshifts as the years pass.

I remember a moment from my childhood and inadvertently change its shape: recollection pushes the original moment deeper down the well. And even if I have evidence of a memory—a photograph, a video—the sensations and nuances have been lost.

My “favorite aunt” lived in my family’s house when I was a little girl. (I’ll call her “Aunt Flo,” which is an inside joke we have, and based on a character in a children’s book.) When I learned to play a song on the piano—a particularly irritating one that sounded like drum circle sounds at a Native American pow-wow—she listened at eight in the morning. When she drove me home from school, she taught me how to change the gears in her car, cupping her hand over mine as we shifted, together, from first to second and second to third. (Later, she let me shift all by myself.) When I was upset, I posted a sign on my bedroom door that read, “Anger Is In This Room,” and forbid anyone from entering—except her. And when I visited her after she moved to a house down the street, she served me small glasses of milk with ice and splashes of Bailey’s Irish Cream.

Lover’s Point, Pacific Grove.

Her mother—my grandmother—lived in Seaside, the town next to Monterey. I have many memories of strolling in Fisherman’s Wharf. Playing on the slides at Dennis the Menace Park. Eating cotton candy on the carousel at Cannery Row. And tidepooling in Pacific Grove, from Lover’s Point to the rocky shores of Asilomar State Beach.

My aunt and I designated a boulder among the tidepools as ours: a special place we could return to again and again, a spot on the beach symbolizing our relationship. Many rock formations were clustered along the water, but I was drawn to this one because part of its facade resembled a throne: I could sit down on a flat part of the stone and pretend I was a queen.

We created an address for this rock: 830 Love Lane. I was 8. My aunt was 30. After this inaugural visit, we returned periodically.

That is, until we could no longer find it.

* * *

Descent, Sobranes Canyon.

This weekend, I drove down to Monterey to stay with my aunt. (She relocated to the area years ago.) These days, I see her at family gatherings, but these occasions don’t give us the opportunity to really spend time together. On Sunday morning, we cruised Highway 1 toward Big Sur, just past Carmel Highlands, to trek in Sobranes Canyon. We hiked a challenging three-hour loop through the canyon, into a lush forest, and up and down a mountain. The views of the Pacific, the fog rolling in, and the Big Sur coast were spectacular.

As we drove back to Monterey, achy and fatigued, she asked me what else I wanted to do. I could only think of one thing.

“I’d like to find our rock,” I said. After my middle school years, I’d been unable to locate the boulder on my own. When I was in town with ex-boyfriends or friends, I’d drag them to the waterfront to hunt for it, only to fail each time.

Pacific Grove.

And so, we cruised the bay along Ocean View Boulevard later that day—from Lover’s Point to the golf courses of Asilomar—just as we had done when I was little. I looked out the window as she drove slowly, scanning the boulders in the distance.

They all looked the same.

After one pass along the coast, we U-turned and studied the rocks from the opposite direction. From what I recalled, the boulder wasn’t close to the road, but further into the water, past a section of tidepools. I also remembered my throne, so was on the lookout for oddly shaped “seats” within these jagged formations.

Over there!

Rocky Coastline, Pacific Grove.

We thought we saw something, so we parked the car and went exploring to get a closer look at one rocky cluster.

We stepped over pools of water, hopping from rock to rock.

“I’m not quite sure I know what I’m looking for,” I said. My aunt said she remembered distinct lines on our rock, like the ones pictured below. But she, too, was uncertain of what she was looking for.

Rock Facade, Pacific Grove.

I gathered I’d recognize it when I saw it: The sight of this childhood throne would conjure the memory. The blurred visual skipping like a record in my mind, after more than 20 years, would freeze and sharpen. But this rock we climbed? It wasn’t the one.

We continued on, combing the beach, climbing more boulders, studying the facades. None of these rocks spoke to us. Were we looking in the wrong section of the beach? Did the boulder erode after all these years? Or were we staring right at it but didn’t recognize it? We navigated around dark moss-covered rocks to climb yet another boulder that wasn’t the one. 

I shrugged.

We stood atop the rock, staring at a seagull perched on the edge of what I’d thought was the “seatback” of my throne from afar.

“If we don’t find it, we can baptize a new one,” my aunt said.

At first, I wasn’t satisfied with this. What about the rock? The symbol of us! The marker of our past adventures! Surely we couldn’t give up so easily. But I stared off into sea, the fog thickening over Pacific Grove.

I realized I needed to let go of my 20-year search for this rock—and understand that it was okay to stop chasing the memory, to stop luring it to the surface. Because the memory’s elusiveness makes it precious. And because it was a perfect day for my aunt and me to create a new memory, and to select a new spot—just for us—for the next decades to come.

And our updated address? 3153 Love Lane.

3153 Love Lane, Pacific Grove.

The Blog Queue: On Writing When You’re Not Ready

At 25, I started writing a book. Thailand lured me in one direction; the rave scene pulled me in another. My four mentors were kind and gentle, willing to read my fragments, my ramblings, my shit. At the core, I knew what I needed to write about: the dance underground; the music that had so moved me and my friends; the dancing as a tribe; the carnal, soulful quality of sound made by machines; and the recollection of haze and excess, of enlightenment and repulsion. Of being part of an epic moment.

I lived a quarter of a lifetime, and I thought I knew everything.

Given my background in journalism and screenwriting, and being undisciplined, I had a tough time balancing and controlling two voices: my 17-year-old self, discovering a world for the first time; and my omniscient “older” self, a 27-year-old narrator reflecting on and dissecting what it all meant.

The manuscript was called Ten Years in a Trance.

Do the math.

* * *

I once said my collection of unfinished pieces is my greatest accomplishment so far. And another impressive list? My blog post queue: ideas that have that eeked through the brainstorming process and now live in limbo as bullet points, waiting patiently like puppies behind a pane of glass. Pick me! I’m ready to go home with you! Mold me! Give me life!

Examples in the queue:

  • Why Writing a Memoir Before 30 Was a Terrible Idea
  • Musings on “The Constant” (and Why I Named My iMac Desmond)
  • Updated Rules for Mogwai in the Digital Age*
  • Will Homeownership Kill my Nomadic Spirit?
  • Music and Memory: Notes on Serotonin Release, 10 Years Later
  • Exit Planet Dust: The Trip, Materialized Through Sound
  • Fleeting Love in the Time of Ambiguous Cinema, Part III (The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Edition)
  • Breakups and the LOST Finale: A Comparison*
  • Why Wanderlust Has Not Led Me to the Philippines
  • Reflections on Winning the 2010 World Series**
  • The Anatomy of a Techno Mix (with Special Attention to Tracks 1, 2, 4, and the Next-to-Final and Final Tracks)***
  • The Raver as Hunter-Gatherer; The Crew as the Tribe; The Warehouse as the Wild***
  • The Speaker as Monolith***
  • Entering the War Zone: The Drum & Bass Dance Floor***

*These ideas are fresh out of the oven: one born on Twitter last week, and the other in an email chain from yesterday. I do appreciate how ideas emerge from randomness.

** I love baseball but fear I may never tackle this. (My only other attempt on writing about baseball—Bonds’ metaphorical asterisk—sucked balls.) Can I write a piece on the Giants 2010 playoffs, relying largely on emotion?

***I’ve mused on these topics in juvenile form, with authority I did not have. The excerpts linked to were in chapters removed from my book.

Some ideas joined the queue in graduate school. The desperate, lonely ones have lingered since freshman year in college, nearly 15 years ago. Some ideas are not yet ripe: They simmer. They change shape. Others become irrelevant and no longer mean anything.

Sometimes, not writing isn’t about laziness. Or lack of inspiration. Most of the time, I am not ready.

* * *

An excerpt of an evaluation from a mentor—an inspiring woman—in spring 2006:

She need not wait. . . . She has an opportunity that is a window that will soon close, because she will grow older, she will become cynical and doubt her certainties, and before she does, her skills can be brought to bear upon understanding that in-between-ness we all seek as writers, or I hope we do, where you can make a universe available by sympathy, and having been in its stomach, you can also see—and yes, analyze—its place in the larger picture—of a century, a culture.

She can both translate the magic, AND sympathetically, decently engage its limitations, can in short see her historical moment’s ideology for all that it contributes, and all that it lacks. And I do mean it when I say this is a time-limited thing. She has to write the rest of this now—but it’s a long now, by which I mean within the next five years of her writing life.

I received this at the midpoint of my MFA program, in my most prolific period of writing ever. The source of the surge? This compassionate, curious professor—a noted essayist and poet—combined with a growing invincibility as a writer. A confidence grew from within. And then there was a therapeutic release.

Oh, dear.

City Hall
LovEvolution, City Hall, San Francisco.

The second half of my MFA experience pushed me in a direction that made me uncomfortable. Upon entering my final semester, I had over 400 pages of material: Some of it tight and focused, but most of it raw, rambling, but honest. And some of it fragments of memoir, but most of it a mix of literary journalism and reportage.

In the final stretch, I was urged to kill the omniscient voice, almost entirely—to ditch the dissection of the culture I was hoping to understand, and to focus instead on developing the 17-year-old narrator: to follow her descent into a (literally) dark underground, and to use her to document moments that had floated vividly in my memory.

And I trusted my mentor and all the writers around me; I vomited hundreds and hundreds of new pages: scenes I didn’t want to recreate, nor did I think were important. But I wrote, hoping sequences would add up, wishing for a truth to emerge, praying I could latch on to something concrete, a glorious AHA! to validate not only my MFA experience, but my past.

Today, I cannot read the manuscript. I cringe when I (try to) read it with editorial eyes: its embarrassingly linear narrative, the succession of one-note moments eliciting little sympathy, the overarching emptiness.

It sits in a drawer, collecting dust.

Dirty Bird Party
Dirty Bird Records Party, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.

But is collecting dust so bad? The more dust that settles, the more perspective I gain. In the year after my program, I resented the entire experience: a waste of time and money, exclusion from the book proposal and contract race. And the main thing: the meaning of the world I explored was more elusive than when I began. But now, that window my mentor spoke of has indeed closed. And I no longer identify with the narrator in those pages. I used to know her: Her acceptance. Her lack of judgment. Her innocence. I think of her fondly, but she is gone.

Yet before the window closed, I captured that moment—a long moment of 10 years—independent of a conclusion. Observations made with wide eyes; recordings of sensations I can no longer hear, smell, and touch; a journal of our collective recklessness.

* * *

She has to write the rest of this now—but it’s a long now.

I get it. And I’m beginning to understand why my final mentor pushed me to work on the scenes I didn’t want to revisit.

Why do I have this blog queue? I wait for the right moment. Some stories become rich with age, like wine. But I also realize some moments must be recorded, perhaps in haste, no matter how raw, unripe, and slippery they are.

It may be another 5 or 30 years until they’re mature, but the posts in my queue—and that larger story I had attempted—continue to simmer. A favorite part of the writing process is figuring out when they’re ready.

And if some of them never are? That’s okay. A beauty in that, certainly.

Jarring & Juxtaposed: Digesting the Twitter Stream

Yesterday, I had multiple CoTweet and HootSuite dashboards open on numerous browsers,  scanning the streams of 40+ Twitter accounts at once. I was the operator of the Nebuchadnezzar, sifting through the code.

On my primary and personal account, although I’ve hand-picked each Twitter handle to follow, there is unavoidable noise. Promoted and top tweets. Hashtags. Retweets of those I don’t follow. Trending topics. But ultimately, I shape this world; it is mine. I control what I see in my stream as much as I can. (I have qualms about this, certainly.) But what I’m currently trying to grasp is how the world materializes on my screen, bit by bit—a news link from here, a blog post from there, a photo essay from her, a video clip from him.

A patchwork of memes.

Like the never-ending bits of data streaming down the Matrix, tweets flow every second. Strangely beautiful, it is. A waterfall of information, rich and raw, ready for me to consume, digest, disseminate. I absorb what I can, I overlook the rest.

As a whole, this world makes sense; it is both logical and emotional.

But sometimes it surprises me. I read a serious or thoughtful tweet on the tsunami destruction in Japan, followed by an irrelevant or untimely one: A complaint about someone’s workday? An LOL reply to a tweet about getting drunk on St. Paddy’s? My reaction to such juxtaposition is similar to this . . .

https://twitter.com/#!/eugenephoto/status/47647415678935041

. . . and I find the untimely tweet offensive. And that makes no sense; surely these tweets are not strategic and intentionally insensitive.

And don’t I do the same, when I tweet about beer and baseball, about loud dance music that most people hate, about trivial moments of my day? What is fascinating to me may be useless to another. And should I be more mindful of what I tweet in times of war? Revolution? Natural disaster?

For those of us who mingle virtually with avatars in the same room, and who embrace Twitter as meaningful and three-dimensional, I wonder: If one is not interested in Libya, or Wisconsin, or the Superbowl, or Egypt, or Planned Parenthood, or the Grammys, how do we whisper about something else? How do we tweet politely about our day when others are distraught, angry, or in need? (Or do we unfollow when we feel momentarily alienated?)

Or would such courtesy, even silence, skew the stream? Perhaps the unwanted noise and jarring moments are what keep this virtual world complex—and human.

Fleeting Love in the Time of Ambiguous Cinema, Part II

In January 2007, I found the one.

Physical attraction. Mutual creativity. A shared passion for travel. And the quality you cannot fake: chemistry. In the beginning, the relationship was light and airy. Playful and curious. Effortless.

Summertime.

That’s what it felt like.

But here, on this earth, the seasons change. And somewhere along the way, I lost him. To this day, I don’t know how, I don’t know where, I don’t know to whom, and I don’t know why.

But all that is irrelevant, as two more summers have come and gone. The only thing important to note: He was not the one.

Perceptions.

Then, reality.

* * *

I finally watched 500 Days of Summer, the quirky anti-love tale of Tom and Summer, two people who meet while working at a greeting card company. I’d been itching to watch it after a conversation with my one ex who remains a dear friend. He mentioned the movie was about a relationship in which one of the partners realizes he is just a stepping stone to someone else—someone permanent.

In the beginning, when Tom and Summer are getting acquainted at a work party at a karaoke bar, we learn that Tom, once an aspiring architect, is an idealist and a romantic. He believes in love, intangible and elusive, and is determined to find it. But Summer is skeptical.

“There’s no such thing as love,” she says. “It’s fantasy.”

“I think you know when you feel it,” says Tom.

He loves her smile. He loves her hair. He loves the sound of her laugh. He has found her. But she, in turn, doesn’t give herself fully. Her wall never falls.

The movie does not unfold chronologically—the first sequence starts at day 290, when Tom’s precocious younger sister rushes over to console him, post-breakup. The film jumps back and forth in time: Tom is blissful. Tom is distraught. Tom sings and dances in the streets. Tom drowns himself in alcohol. Scenes of bliss and torture, plucked from a timeline. Yet while these moments are relative to one another—A led to B, B led to C—none of it matters.

Love, when pure and true and mutual, is not measured by days, nor seasons. It simply exists, and even consumes. There are no walls; you are not left wondering. But for Tom, this was not so. As time passes, the features he had initially loved about Summer become irritations: He grew to hate her crooked teeth. He hated her 1960s haircut. He hated the way she sounded when she laughed.

Illusions.

Then, reality.

* * *

For us, there were some good things: laughter and inside jokes, an appreciation for dining together, exploring new places, supporting one another’s creative and professional endeavors. But looking back, there wasn’t any of the stuff that really mattered.

I built him up to be someone he wasn’t—and never would be. And, like Tom, I always wondered.

Was I the one?

Did he feel the same?

Toward the end of the film, Tom heads to a party at Summer’s. The split-screen sequence shows two paths: On the left, what he hopes will happen. And on the right, what actually happens.

Expectations.

Then, reality.

* * *

Perception.

Illusion.

Expectation.

Layers between me and reality, states where love isn’t love. Whatever love may be.

* * *

Much later, Tom and Summer find themselves reunited, for a few poignant moments, on a bench overlooking the city: a spot where Tom gazed at skyscrapers, felt inspired, and dreamed big.

Summer is freshly married. And Tom still wonders.

“It just happened,” says Summer.

“What just happened?” asks Tom.

“I just woke up one day and I knew.”

“Knew what?”

“What I was never sure of with you.”

* * *

I always wondered. But I never asked questions. Deep down, I knew the answers.

Unlike Tom, I never heard those harsh words, which I wanted to hear. But I came to reality on my own—separating what I wanted to see from what actually was.

Notes on Social Media, Egypt, and My Pseudo-Activism

I’m an outsider looking in on all that’s happening in Egypt.

Since January 25, I’ve been overwhelmed, amazed, and inspired by the Egyptian people protesting on the streets of Cairo and throughout the nation, following #jan25 and #egypt tweets on Twitter, watching the live stream and coverage on Al Jazeera English, and keeping up with blogs like The Arabist and the Guardian UK’s news blog. (This Mother Jones page, “What’s Happening in Egypt Explained,” is a helpful resource of compiled sources and multimedia from the past week, too.)

After reading a protest-related New Yorker piece from today, “A Policeman’s Engagement,” I stumbled upon Malcolm Gladwell’s October 2010 essay, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted,” which has made me think about the incredible power and role of social media, namely Twitter and Facebook, in the Egyptian people’s fight for freedom and change, and the resulting pseudo-activism—of those not directly affected by what happens in Egypt, like me—that Gladwell discusses in his piece.

In “Small Change,” Gladwell notes several events in American history that exemplify “high-risk activism,” notably an afternoon in February 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, when four black college students sit at a lunch counter reserved for whites. The waitress says they “don’t serve Negroes,” but for the rest of the day, they don’t move from their seats. The small crowd that forms outside swells to hundreds and hundreds of protesters over the next few days. People throughout the South hear what is happening and want to be a part of it. By the end of the month, protests are reported as far as Texas. Some 70,000 students participate.

This, says Gladwell, is true social activism.

I spend more time online than not—not just because the nature of my work requires it, but because I value the information and connections I have built online, both professionally and personally. If you don’t feel social media networks like Twitter and Facebook add value to your life, that’s fine; after my own experimentation with these tools, I have learned how to use them effectively—to connect and collaborate with likeminded media professionals and travelers, to promote my writing and photography, and to curate news and trends on ideas and issues that matter to me, all in one place.

Says Gladwell on social media: “The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution.” I have always been amazed by the Internet: what it teaches me, who I meet, how it inspires me. This week in particular, the influx of media and information about the protests in Egypt—in the form of tweets, YouTube videos, blog posts of fragmented thoughts and Twitpics, ground-level audio clips—is so powerful, so constant, and so raw that it’s paralyzing at times to absorb it all. But it’s a good kind of frozen—to have access to all this information, to watch these images and real-time streams from the Middle East.

I’m on-the-fence about Malcolm Gladwell in general—I think his books (from The Tipping Point to Outliers) are more of the same. (Amusing digression: Seen this?) I’ll admit I dove into this piece irritated, especially given the title and subtitle. Small change? The revolution will not be tweeted?

Whatever, asshole. I’m part of this social media generation you imply is powerless, and I am certainly not insignificant.

After reading his piece, however, I agreed with him.

Social media connects us, pushes us to collaborate, enables innovation, and celebrates equal participation (think Wikipedia). But Gladwell asserts that social media networks are “built around weak ties” that “seldom lead to high-risk activism.” On a Facebook page, I am asked to donate funds to a friend who is walking in an event for breast cancer awareness. Or on Twitter, someone asks me to donate money to a project that will build a school in India or provide supplies to students in Honduras. And I participate in such things, because why not? I have the time and the money to do so—it takes little effort.

This passive activism is the result of these kinds of social media efforts. We are not asked to do too much, Gladwell says—”That’s the only way you can get someone you don’t really know to do something on your behalf.” Whether I’m running an AIDS marathon (which I did in New Orleans in 2004) or visiting the hospital for a bone marrow testing (which I did for a high school friend who had leukemia), these acts don’t require me to do much: No challenge of the status quo. No physical danger.

I have never risked my life in the way those four students did, in North Carolina in the volatile sixties.

I have never protested on the streets and demanded that my president step down from his 30-year-rule and prayed for basic freedoms and the ability to vote for my leaders.

What have I done? Or the current question: what am I doing now? I read the passionate, desperate tweets from brave protesters on my computer screen. I am deeply inspired, I comment on other’s tweets, I share articles on Facebook. I feel like I’m participating.

But, I am not.

“Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice,” writes Gladwell.

These words stunned me at first. But after thinking about it, in regard to my own actions, I realize he is on point. I wish he wasn’t.

An Outline of My Parallel Universes

1. My mother and father, both born in the Philippines, move to the United States and meet one another, or

2. My mother (or father) moves to the United States, but my father (or mother) does not, or

3. Both my mother and father don’t leave the Philippines, but still meet each other, or

4. My mother and father never meet one another.

* * *

1. My mother and father have a son, born in 1971, and later give birth to me, in 1979, or

2. My mother and father have a son, born in 1971, and decide not to have any more children, or

3. My mother and father have a son, born in 1971, and later give birth to another son, in 1979.

* * *

1. At 14, after a bit of kicking and screaming, I attend the Catholic, all-girls Notre Dame High School, and am later inspired to pursue writing, thanks to my freshman and sophomore English teachers, AP US history teacher, and AP art history instructor. I focus on writing, film, and art history, or

2. At 14, I win my adolescent battle against my parents and attend the public high school down the street and am influenced by a different path: math, or science, or sports, or

3. At 14, I go to a small school in the Philippines and learn English, my second language.

* * *

1. In August 1997, I move to Los Angeles to attend Loyola Marymount University, enroll as a screenwriting major, and meet friends named Bing, Leah, Lisa, Brian, Kevin, Aki, and others in a coed dorm, McKay Hall, on campus. We drink a lot, bond quickly, and experience an eventful first year of college together, or

2. In August 1997, I move to New York City, overjoyed to be accepted into the dramatic writing program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I live in the Village, and never meet people named Bing, Leah, Lisa, Brian, Kevin, Aki, and others, or

3. In August 1997, I decide to stay on the San Francisco Peninsula and attend nearby Santa Clara University. I continue to hang out with various high school cliques, as well as coworkers from my jobs.

* * *

1. From 1997 to 2001, I have  enlightening, entertaining, and inspiring experiences with friends in Los Angeles. I settle into a young yet serious relationship with my first boyfriend, study abroad in Cannes, graduate from LMU’s School of Film and Television, and develop a passion for traveling the world, or

2. From 1997 to 2001, I live in New York City and become a cynical city girl, dating writers and artists and settling in Brooklyn, or

3. From 1997 to 2001, I live comfortably with my parents on the Peninsula, work a few jobs and grow my savings account, and don’t experience the wanderlust itch.

* * *

1. In 2000, I live at a college across the street from the Mediterranean on the French Riviera, study French in the morning, eat cheese on the beach in the afternoon, and sip wine through the night with friends Robin, Elise, and Maggie, or

2. In 2000, I study abroad in Florence instead of Southern France, study sculptures at the Duomo, and never meet Robin, Elise, and Maggie, or

3. In 2000, I don’t study abroad because I’m too afraid to part from my boyfriend, or

4. In 2000, I win a screenwriting scholarship and spend my junior year in New York polishing a feature-length script, snagging an agent, and pitching to producers, or

5. In 2000, I enter a nursing program in the Philippines, inspired by what my mother had done when she was younger.

* * *

1. In 2002, I return to Montreal for a summer, brush up on my French, and enroll in an intensive public relations certificate program, or

2. In 2002, I meet a guy in San Francisco, decide not to quit my job at the local bookstore to move to Montreal, and get serious with him, or

3. In 2002, I continue to live in New York City, while my family wonders if I’ll ever return to the West Coast, or

4. In 2002, my 22-year-old self, living in Manila, wonders what it’d be like to finally visit the United States.

* * *

1. When I’m 24, I move to Thailand to teach English and explore Southeast Asia solo, or

2. When I’m 24, I move to Costa Rica (my second choice for teaching abroad), and love Central America so much that I decide to linger for a few years, or

3. When I’m 24, after working full-time for several years, I use the money I’ve saved up to buy a condo in the Bay Area.

* * *

1. In 2005, while working at Job #1 (a reading clinic in Palo Alto), I am offered an editorial internship at the George Lucas Educational Foundation, its office located two hours away from Job #1. While the pay is shitty (about $5 an hour), it’s an opportunity to work at Skywalker Ranch. I accept the offer, or

2. In 2005, I choose not to take the internship at Skywalker Ranch and seek more hours (and better pay) at the reading clinic instead, or

3. In 2005, I apply to and am accepted into the intensive journalism program at Northwestern, quit the reading clinic job, and move to Chicago.

* * *

1. At 25, I apply to numerous graduate programs in writing, at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Goucher College. Rejected from Columbia and accepted to the other two, I enroll in Goucher’s MFA program in creative nonfiction and spend two years drafting a manuscript on raves, techno, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Thailand, and subculture, or

2. At 25, I apply to numerous graduate programs in writing and decide to enroll in Sarah Lawrence’s MFA program. I move into an apartment with my ex-college roommates from Loyola Marymount, Lara and Irene, who already live in Brooklyn, or

3. At 25, I still live in Thailand—as I had agreed to stay another semester—and write a book independently on my adventures in Southeast Asia, or

4. At 25, I continue to live in Central America, and now live and work in an open-air hostel on a beach in Belize.

* * *

1. In 2008, I stumble upon a Craigslist post for a “marketing assistant” position at a women’s college in Oakland. Even though I have a steady, well-paying job at a local school district, and initially think nothing of the job post, I nonchalantly email my resume. I land the job and move forward, or

2. In 2008, I stumble upon a Craigslist post for a “marketing assistant” position at a women’s college in Oakland and ignore it, or

3. In 2008, after a decade of drafting scripts, I finally sell a screenplay, or

4. In 2008, I sell my one-bedroom condo on the Peninsula so I can move into a bigger place with my current fiance, or

5. In 2008, after several years wandering and writing in Southeast Asia, I finally come home, or

6. In 2008, after visiting the United States numerous times over the years, I hope that I’ll marry a nice American man so I can remain in the country.

* * *

1. At the start of 2011, I live in San Francisco, work in travel and higher ed, explore the world as often as possible, and am so busy that I forget I am single, or

2. At the start of 2011, I live in Brooklyn, work in publishing and bartend on the side, and date periodically, or

3. At the start of 2011, I live in Montreal, am married to a French Canadian, and have returned to the Bay Area a few times per year since 2002, or

4. At the start of 2011, my 31-year-old self does not exist.

Fleeting Love in the Time of Ambiguous Cinema, Part I

I moved to Montreal on a hot day in May. I felt summer in the air, saw it on the streets. Gorgeous women in sundresses. Blocks of Boulevard St. Laurent closed to traffic so food carts, funky clothing vendors, and DJ booths could set up on the sidewalk.

I didn’t know anyone.

The first Friday night that came around, I met Eric at Sona. I danced all night, emerging from the club in the wee hours, sweaty and satisfied. My calves got the workout they longed for; my muscles were raw, ripe for soreness.

As we said goodbye outside, I learned that Eric was a waiter at a restaurant in Old Montreal. I agreed to meet him again. The next time I saw him, we drank and played pool at Bar St. Sulpice. A professional pool player, he pretty much kicked my ass, but let me win a few games. Another night, we explored parts of the Latin Quarter I had not yet seen, then hung out at his apartment, watching his roommates play video games and looking through old photographs in his room. He was French; he told me about where he was from, and chatted about his ex-girlfriend when photo booth pictures surfaced. I shared my stories, too—I had ended my first relationship the year before, and had been dating someone that spring.

And now I was in Montreal. I was 22.

A few weeks had passed, and I acclimated to dorm life on the McGill campus—the university rented rooms to long-term travelers over the summer. On another night, Eric took me to the movies; we watched Star Wars: Episode II. He admitted he had never watched the Star Wars films, so I said we should see something else. But he noticed I really wanted to watch it, so he said it was fine. Charming, he was.

As the night progressed, I sensed a magnetism—sitting next to one another in the theater, hands awkwardly not touching, then sort of touching, then not touching. When the movie was over, we walked to the metro station, stopping at the escalator leading to the platform. He looked at me, and I knew.

I remember his face, his accent. He looked young, but his voice was mature and deep. When he said my name, I had to stop myself from giggling. A Frenchman calling me cherie? Really, Cheri. This is too much.

I knew he was about to say something that would end our summer before it even started.

“I would really like to kiss you,” he said. He inched closer.

“I like you,” I answered. “But can we hang out as friends?”

He looked disappointed. “I don’t know if I can do that, Cheri. When I look at you, I just want to kiss you.”

Couples walked past, heading down to the train. His eyes locked on me. I looked away, staring down the street, to Rue Sherbrooke—toward my dormitory, my escape.

“I really just got here,” I said. “I’ve got my French classes, then when those are done I’ll start my other program. I like you, but can’t we just be friends?”

He took my hand and kissed it. “I cannot just be friends with you.” He smiled, kissed my cheek, and stepped onto the escalator. He didn’t look back.

And so I walked home. Part of me had wanted to say I did yearn for a summer love affair. But if I was to have a true love affair, it was going to be with Montreal, not a man.

* * *

I was leaving for Thailand in several weeks.

I met him one night, after-party style, chilling at my friend Jesse’s house in Hayes Valley. There was a computer in the room, so we logged onto Friendster and showed each other our profiles. First name, last name. Noted.

He was an artist—a famous one, I was told. A Google search the next morning confirmed this. The first night we met on our own, we drank at an art gallery in downtown San Francisco. Another night, we met at a dive on Polk and played a bit of pool. On yet another evening, we wandered in North Beach; he wanted to show me a few spots—up the Peter Macchiarini Steps off Broadway, then to a random peephole in a wall that, when looked through, had a cool view of the Transamerica Pyramid.

Another time, he presented me with a tiny canvas: a painting of me, wispy bangs and black-rimmed glasses and all, morphed into one of his signature characters with closed eyes and enlarged hands. I had told him I used to play the violin, so he painted me playing one.

We hung out for less than a month, but I got an ample dose of his intriguing, impulsive life: parties, shows, painting, mingling. Nights out with him let the endorphins loose. Even though we were in San Francisco, his spontaneity made it seem as if we were somewhere else: somewhere unfamiliar, someplace whimsical. In those weeks, anything was possible.

And then I moved to Southeast Asia.

* * *

I have a complex relationship with Lost in Translation.

How beautiful, I think—a film about a girl, coming of age, finding her place in the world, understanding how to be with another. How wonderful, I think—a story of a woman in Tokyo, exploration at her fingertips, with all the time in the world to wander in Shibuya, to contemplate at shrines, to learn the precise art of Ikebana, to get blissfully lost. How sweet, I think—a tale of a young woman and an older man at very different points in their lives, who bond over karaoke with new Japanese friends, over vintage films and sake in a swanky high-rise hotel, over random evenings in the electric landscape of Shinjuku. Two people who connect in a foreign country, who understand each other despite the absence of context, of anything concrete.

How poetic the final scene is, I think, when Bill Murray hops out of a cab to say goodbye to Scarlett Johansson on a crowded street, to whisper in her ear that he adores the young woman he sees before him, that he wishes her only the best, that they will always have this time in Tokyo in their memory.

Precious. Whimsy. That’s what I thought about the film.

And then I entered the world of adult relationships.

How harsh, I begin to think—this poor girl stuck in a hotel room, ditched every day by her hipster photographer husband, locked in an emotional prison where staring off is the easiest way to pass time. How horrible, I begin to think—a bright woman who is lost career-wise, married too young, too cynical for her age. How sad, I begin to think—two people have found each other amid the chaos and elusiveness of an unfamiliar culture, stuck in stagnant marriages, making sense together in a place where everything else is lost in translation—and knowing “they” will dissolve as soon as one leaves.

They can run away and start a jazz band, she says. Yet how unfair that such thoughts, once uttered aloud, lose their magic.

How lustful, I begin to think—this weathered middle-aged man jumps out of a cab to lose himself in a kiss with a naive girl he met on a business trip.

I used to love the fleetingness of Charlotte and Bob’s situation—the creation of something solid, pure, and solely theirs in a lapse with no real beginning and no end. My encounters with the Frenchman and the artist were swift and sweet—woven from thin air and pure adventure.

Today, my response to these ephemeral connections grows increasingly fickle, even sour. At some point, I realize something won’t last for whatever reason—two unsynched wavelengths, an issue of geography, an ill-timed encounter—and Sophia Coppola isn’t there to soften the experience with her rose-colored lens.

These aren’t romantic, poetic connections, are they? Take away the fanciful cinematographer, and all that is left is a harsh reality.

Parts II and III: