Sunday, October 11, 2015

Falling for Fall All Over Again

trees turn from summer to fall
Summer is my favorite season. Everything is lush and green and sunny, and it’s beach time. I am most comfortable outside with summer air warming my skin. Fall spells the death of summer and the descent into the frigid months of winter, so why would I like it? I was having trouble articulating why I do.   
But I figured it out. It’s nostalgia. So many of my good memories are tied to the fall. I liked the first day of school better than the last day, despite my love of summer—the first day marked a fresh start and new possibilities, including new classmates and the start-up of sports. In my mind, fall is more about new starts than spring is. 
When I was a kid, fall in Massachusetts brought a whole new spectacle of color that my previous home in California didn’t have. In Massachusetts, I lived in a small beach town that was rich with history. There is something about all those historical signs and landmarks with bright autumn leaves as their backdrop--I don’t think they have the same force in the other seasons.
And, probably like most people, I love the changing colors of the fall. I was driving through windy, wooded roads in Connecticut a couple of weeks ago, in late September, and reddish orange colors had just begun to touch the tips of the green trees. It was beautiful, but I wished I could see what it would be like in a month or so, when it would be ablaze in reds, oranges, and yellows. When I lived in Connecticut, driving on the Merritt Parkway in the fall meant a tour through a tunnel of vivid color, leaving the leaves swirling behind you.

Fall is homecoming. In high school, fall was spending  mornings at cross country meets--running over grassy paths still cool and wet with dew, and seeing everyone's breath hanging in the air--and crisp afternoons at football games. The homecoming parade through the town, the floats and dresses and tiaras, and the locals coming out to cheer on the football team.
In college, September meant starting classes I had picked out and looked forward to, and the start of rowing season, reuniting with my teammates and anticipating all the rivers and lakes we’d drive to and row on in the coming months, before the ice forced us off the water in Michigan. We’d spend that in-between-warm-and-cold weather on the river, surrounded by trees changing their leaves into brighter colors. And the University of Michigan campus is prettiest in the fall—only in part because many of the leaves decorating it are maize.
In Ann Arbor, I always loved going to football games—in a gorgeous stadium that fits 112,000 people and whose steps I ran up and down countless times as part of crew practice—even though I’m not the biggest football fan. But after college, I married a devout Michigan football fan who used to attend those games as an infant, carried by his parents. Going to Ann Arbor for fall football games is now a family tradition that we are continuing with our kids.
The homecoming football game is my favorite, not so much because it’s my own homecoming as a Michigan grad and athlete but because, at the game, they make a big deal of recognizing much older former players, cheerleaders, and band members—some well into their elderly years. Sometimes, a little grandpa will do a backflip in the end zone.

300+ alumni band members at homecoming
At yesterday's homecoming game, the alumni band included someone who graduated in the 1940s.  In our corner of the end zone, one gray-haired alumni cheerleader who did not look like he was capable of acrobatics held another one over his head, upside down in a handstand. 

Fall also owns Halloween, which brings back memories of trick-or-treating with my brother--and rationing the candy for weeks  afterward--and carving pumpkins with my family. We'd dig through pumpkin guts, carve our masterpieces, and roast the seeds. And, here in Michigan, cider mills are a big thing. At the cider mill, the kids crunch through the leaves and marvel at the different sizes and shapes of pumpkins and gourds ("Mommy, look at THIS one!") before settling on pumpkins to take home and carve, and then everybody devours warm doughnuts and cider afterward.

Summer, I hope you don't mind my infatuation with fall. I'll always come back to you. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Connections That Last

This summer, since moving back to Michigan, I’ve been able to reconnect with several people I hadn’t seen since high school or college. Last weekend, I got to spend a day with a bunch of college rowing teammates, some of whom I see regularly and others whom I hadn’t seen since we graduated. It is always good to see old friends, but when they left, I felt uplifted in a way that is hard to articulate.

Only part of it is nostalgia and reliving the memories. Another part of it is that they are amazing people doing amazing things. One of them is training to swim across the Straits of Mackinac, next to a perfectly good bridge that normal people might run across. Another left her job to travel around the world with her husband for months, exploring new places and making up the itinerary as they go along.

I think the biggest part of it is that all these people knew me well when I was growing up and growing into my adult self. My teammates and I shared the incredible experience of rowing and practicing together every day, pushing our own physical and mental limits, watching each other try and fail and succeed, and giving each other a gentle nudge (or a swift kick in the ass) when we thought it was appropriate. We often practiced early in the morning, which meant we were out rowing in the dark, slicing through the water as the sun rose above us.

It was not always perfect. I was closer to some teammates than others, and of course we fought and annoyed each other sometimes, much like family. But we always supported each other. And I think that’s why our little reunion was so comforting. It’s that the people who knew and believed in me years ago still do, and I still know and believe in them, even though it’s no longer about rowing.

In some life experiences, your character is laid bare, whether you like it or not. This is what I shared with my teammates. The people who see you through these experiences, especially if they experience these things with you, know you in ways other people don’t—like coworkers you see every day but have never seen you cry or laugh until you’re shaking. My teammates and other people who saw me through meaningful moments in my life, even the ones who annoyed me, had a large part in making me who I am.

My husband was on the men’s rowing team, and we all knew each other from competing around the country together. Recently, he caught up with one of his teammates, whom I hadn’t even talked to since college. When my husband told him what I did for a living, he said it was exactly what he envisioned me doing post-college. That was also strangely comforting—that someone who knew me back then thinks that what I’m doing now fits me.

This is not to say that I have a strong bond with everyone from my formative high school and college years. With some people I used to be friends with, we now have little left in common, and there isn’t much to say that’s not about the weather or how old our kids are. But with others, I’ve discovered that we have even more in common now than we used to, and there is some wavelength we connect on that wasn’t there before.

I am thankful for these connections—both the ones that have been sparked anew and the ones that were always strong, even if they went silent and unused for years. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Baltimore's Little Poland

Polish Flag with Coat of Arms. Photo by Orem

I never thought my family had any connection to Baltimore, Maryland. My dad's grandparents were born in Poland and settled in Michigan. My mom's grandparents also were born in Poland, but they settled in Pennsylvania. Even though I studied history in college, with a primary focus on 20th century United States History, I blindly assumed that all of my great-grandparents entered the United States through Ellis Island in New York.

Two years ago, I did some genealogical research about my great-grandparents, and I was lucky enough to find records from Poland about some of my great-great-grandparents. One of the discoveries that surprised me was that not all of my great-grandparents came to the United States through New York before settling in Michigan or Pennsylvania. My mom's paternal grandparents lived in Massachusetts, and were married there, before settling in Pennsylvania, and one of my dad's grandmothers and one of my mom's grandfathers entered the United States through Baltimore. 

I also learned that Baltimore has its own Polish neighborhood called Little Poland that Polish immigrants have called home since the 19th century. Little Poland has seen most of its second through fourth generation Polish-American families move to different neighborhoods and cities. They closed up their shops when they moved, leaving the neighborhood with a little less of a Polish feel than it probably had fifty to a hundred years ago.

Holy Rosary Church

Thanks to a recent Washington Post article about Little Poland, I knew where to find some of the Polish elements that remain. First, I visited Holy Rosary Church. I found a parking spot on the street about a block away. The church is beautiful. Like most old Roman Catholic churches, it is full of paintings and statues of saints. Despite its large interior, no columns support the ceilings towering above the pews, so views of the altar are unobstructed.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

No, Where Are You FROM?

A couple of days ago, someone I'd just met asked me, "Where are you from?"

It is about the millionth time I've been asked that question. Sometimes it is an innocent enough question, but my answer is complicated. I live in a northern Virginia suburb of D.C., and I have lived here longer than I have lived anywhere, so I consider myself from here. My dad was in the Navy while I was growing up, so my family moved every few years, and I am sort of from all of those places. I was born in San Diego. When I sense that the person asking the question is asking where I spent my childhood, I say California, because most of it was there. I am a little bit from Michigan, because I spent most of high school and college there, and those are the years I'd say I did the most growing up.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce

Sometimes, no matter which of these answers I give, the person responds with, "No, where are you from?"--with a dramatic emphasis on the "from." This emphasis is supposed to convey that they are asking about my ethnicity. Really, they are asking where my ancestors are from. (I just told them I was born in California, so they know I didn't actually come from another country.)

I have been getting this question, with the same heavy emphasis, since I was a teenager, if not before that. And it annoyed me then as much as it does now. If you are asking what my ethnic background is, ask what my ethnic background is. If you are asking where my parents are from, ask me that. But don't ask me where I'm from, as if it's some kind of code that allows you to ask about my personal ethnic identity without having to say the words. I won't answer until you come out and say what you actually want to know.

I am half Filipino and half white (various European countries), and it's not obvious to everyone that I'm half Asian (and usually, only Filipino people guess that I'm part Filipino). And I don't mind people's curiosity about that--I am equally curious about everyone else's background. But why not just use the words "race" or "ethnicity" or whatever it is that you mean? Because you're uncomfortable saying those words?

The worst is when the person asking the question is also a minority who probably gets the same question often enough. Jeff likes to remind me of the time an Asian girl asked me where I was from, and I responded, "You mean where did I grow up?" "No." "Where was I born?" "No." This went on and on until I asked her if she wanted to know what my ethnic background was.

The uglier version of this question is "What are you?" I've had my share of that one, and it has always made my blood boil. I certainly won't answer that one the way the person expects, because it is decidedly not an innocent question. I wrote about my anger over this question back in college--when a group of snickering guys clearly had been guessing about my background among themselves, and one turned to me and blurted out, "What are you?" This question also came from people whose racism was so strong their disgust was dripping off of them. What am I? Well, first, I'm a who, not a what--not an "other."

Another thing I've been called many times, sometimes by people who think they are complimenting me, is "exotic." Like I just busted out of the jungle? Like an exotic dancer? Like someone so strange and different that you can't even fathom me as part of your reality?

For similar reasons, I loathe the use of the word "Oriental," unless you are talking about rugs. It's "Asian," people. (This NPR story from back in 2009 explains why it's offensive.) I still have to correct some of my older Asian relatives who say it, because "Oriental" used to be acceptable, but it really has got to go. I'm sure we all have labels we hate because of their connotations--ones that have evolved over time.

Probably because my answers to these questions and others like them have never been simple, I am fascinated by everybody else's answers. (I love that show Who Do You Think You Are?) So I hope I don't offend you if I ask about your ethnicity without dancing around it. I hope you understand where I'm coming from.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

In the Name of Better Writing

We all know active voice is better than passive voice. But sometimes translating from one to the other isn't easy. Streamlining your writing to make it more active and less wordy helps you get to the point faster. Here are a few quick things to look for.

1. Take it easy on the prepositional phrases. 

A sentence full of them is difficult to read and might make your reader tune out. If a sentence is one long string of prepositional phrases, look for ways to get rid of some.

Example 1

The report is considered by many researchers to be of great importance for workers in that field. 
(4 prepositional phrases, passive construction)

Many researchers consider the report greatly important for workers in that field. 
(2 prepositional phrases, active construction)

Example 2
The effect of the announcement by the company on its stock price should not be underestimated by investors.
 (4 prepositional phrases, vague)

Investors should not underestimate how the company's announcement will affect its stock price.
 (no prepositional phrases)

2. Try to avoid "there is" and "it is."

Phrases like this signal lazy sentence construction. 

It is important for bicyclists to obey traffic laws at all times.
Bicyclists should always obey traffic laws.

There is disagreement among the authorities.
The authorities disagree.

3. Simplify wordy phrases and fussy words.

Many common words and phrases are more wordy or vague than they need to be. Everyone uses the words and phrases in this list on the left, but the options on the right are better and more specific.

Acceptable but wordy or vague  --  a better option
in order to  --  to
the majority of  --  most
Prior to  --  before
In advance of  --  before
A number of  --  numerous (or several, or a few)
Whether or not  --  whether
Subsequently  --  later
Upon  --  on 
Amidst  --  amid
Utilize  --  use
Effective  --  good (or something more specific, like efficient or persuasive)
In addition  --  also

4. Omit unnecessary words.

Do you need to say "in addition" or "as a result"? Maybe the context calls for it, but probably not. 

Example: Her car was totaled. As a result, she couldn't drive it.
Better: Her car was totaled, so she couldn't drive it.

It might be obvious that sentence 2 is a result of sentence 1.

Another phrase to watch for:
"In my opinion..."
If you're writing it, it's probably obvious that it's your opinion.