You are Beautiful, You are Unique: The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman, a musical that tells the story of P.T. Barnum (the circus guy), is more than entertainment; it is somehow an image of both the way the world is and the way that it should be. Not since Titanic reentered theaters in 3-D in 2012 have I sat in a theater until after the credits ended, both questioning and affirming my life and the way in which I approach the world. This movie is a feat of music, dance, and art, and it is also a feat of the heart.

Here are a few things it taught me.

It is so hard to feel special. As a child Barnum is orphaned and homeless. He is not taught to dream, but he dreams anyway; he has the unshakeable feeling that he’s destined for something great. He uses charm and wit that, to the audience, are so clearly qualities of a remarkable person, and yet he doesn’t seem to see these qualities in himself. Even after he has success he finds it nearly impossible to be happy. Got a 500-pound man? Make him 750. Got a circus? You’re missing the European opera sensation. In reaching for bigger and better things, Barnum strays farther and farther away from his essence and from the people he loves. Coming from so little as a child, it is next to impossible for him to escape his lasting shame to feel proud of what he has done. Once he realizes what matters, though, it’s no coincidence that he makes his success with only the people he loves and a tent. Feeling special isn’t about having the best spot in Manhattan or the most famous star in the world; it’s about the intangibility of believing that your specialness is true.

What is most human about us has nothing to do with color or class. This almost feels too obvious to write, but a scan of any newspaper shows that this truth can’t be taken for granted. We see this truth throughout the movie: Zac Efron and Zendaya’s love; Barnum’s reception among the New York socialites; the tension between the circus “freaks” and the protestors who wanted them to stay away, to stay hidden. Even Barnum falls prey to this way of thinking at one of his lowest points, forbidding the circus performers from joining him at his recently earned cocktail hour with the social elites. In response, the circus performers stand up for their humanity and their right to exist just as much as the people who make up their audiences. They remind us through song that everyone is a person, no matter what you look like, whether you’re paying or getting paid.

“You are unique. You are beautiful.” In developing his venture, Barnum interviews people who have lived in the shadows: a bearded lady; Siamese twins; a man with a tattooed face. He delights in what makes each person unique, but he also acknowledges that the world shuns them. This is most apparent when he first calls at the home of the midget. At first he tries a bit of a harsh approach: “they’re laughing anyway, kid, so you might as well get paid.” When this argument flops, Barnum changes course, appealing to the man’s personal feelings and desires. That’s what does it. Upon finding the bearded lady, he says, “You are unique. You are beautiful,” to this woman who literally hides her face. After similar encouragement, the whole circus crew grows into a family strengthened by love and freedom from judgment, exhibiting a microcosm of what can happen in a society in which everyone puts the most unique part of themselves proudly on display.

Movies tell us what we want them to tell us. I strongly believe that the stories we tell both reflect and build our society. It is no surprise to me that this film, which has been in development since 2009, finally found its place in 2017. This year, far more than in the last eight, American citizens and artists have felt called to tell stories about people who questioned lines drawn between colors and classes, people who were celebrated for being different, people who found ways to feel special and to be true to themselves. The fact that this movie finally arrived this year shows how desperately our society is in need of these ideals and how hungry we are to see them fulfilled.

Let’s all promise to see each other’s uniqueness and beauty and to see our own, and to work toward a world that looks just a little bit more, in a good way, like a circus.

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PS: Honorable mentions to look out for in case you haven’t seen the movie yet:

  • Female empowerment: I got really nervous for a second that Zac was doing the classic rom-com male in pursuit, but Zendaya was a boss.
  • How to approach critics: president, I’m looking at you. Barnum actually becomes friends with his biggest critic. They don’t agree, but they both make each other better and force each other to see the world in new and different ways.
  • The way status is symbolized by hats: wearing them, not wearing them, switching them, sitting on them. It’s pretty awesome.
  • A range of musical styles and dance inspirations (I personally spotted MJ and Beyonce; what else did you see?), just another reflection of accepting all kinds of people and of this movie showing us exactly what we needed to see in 2017
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Six Months Later: Lessons from La La Land

“I’m always gonna love you.”

“I’m always gonna love you, too.”

This was the moment that broke me. It wasn’t right. Nobody should ever- ever– tell you they love you and then leave you anyway. That’s not love.

Word ArtLike all great art, La La Land reflected my life and infused it as well, and it’s impossible to share my thoughts about the movie without including the parallel story of what was happening in my life at each time I viewed the film. Three viewings, three totally different positions in life, and three unique lessons- who’d have thought I’d get so much from a modern-day musical? (Just kidding, nobody is surprised at all. But check it out anyway.)


The First Time

The first time I saw La La Land I was new to New York, pretty uncomfortable with my job, and trying to recover from the ends of some life-defining relationships. Things in real life were a bit tough and I was excited to see a good old-fashioned Hollywood happy ending.

Unfortunately, everything falls apart and Emma and Ryan don’t end up together. But not only do they not end up together- no, that would have been too easy. Instead we have to watch through their eyes every moment that might have gone differently and maybe could have saved it. It tore my heart out, because I can do that too. We all can tick off every single twitch that we believe caused somebody to leave when we think we might have had the power to get them to stay. Now I wanted the movie to end in the midst of this fantasy; I had no qualms suspending reality to ease the pain of loss.

But the movie doesn’t end a moment earlier to preserve our delicate emotions. It says, “Yep. That sucked and they know exactly why, but it doesn’t matter how much you can know or deduce or problem solve. Sometimes you just can’t fix it.”

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

La La Land dances back and forth between surreal romance and moments that are so real that they hurt. I’ve had that flashback. I’ve had that breakup. I want a movie to tell me I can go back and fix it, or to tell me that it didn’t matter because it wasn’t “the one” and when it is I will know and I will never let it go.

 

La La Land refuses to give me that peace. La La Land gave us romance and music and dance and art and what can only be described as the experience of falling in love through city and sound. And then it shows that love’s end. Not only does the love end, but we see very clearly that those who were once in it have a desire to somehow travel back and change the past in order to get their fairy tale ending.

 

Theirs isn’t the typical dramatic breakup, and yet it hurts so much more. It’s okay to be sad and angry when somebody does you wrong, but what about when somebody does you absolutely right? What about when somebody drives four hours and spends the night alone in a place he’s never been in order to force you to confront your dreams, and then afterward tells you that you should follow your dreams and not him, but that he’s still always going to love you? What are you supposed to be hurt about then?

In Ryan Gosling’s character I saw myself. I operated better in dreams than in reality and I would do anything for a person I cared about- especially pushing them toward their purpose. How could a person this passionate and giving deserve a love that doesn’t work out?

My bewildered lesson: just because something ends doesn’t mean that it wasn’t amazing.


The Second Time

The second time I watched La La Land I had just met somebody very special, somebody who made me not so bummed that my first love hadn’t worked out, somebody who got really really sad when I shared that I had wanted the fantasy ending to be real. This person was honest, supportive, kind- all the right things. Being with him made me realize what I’d been missing in the past.

This time around, I realized that Emma Stone’s character is kind of selfish. We spend most of the time centered on her, and when they break up it’s only after her play doesn’t go well. Having identified much more with Ryan to begin with, I started to feel a sense of vindication. Yes, she loves him, but she doesn’t always give him the treatment he deserves. Now I wasn’t so sad that the relationship didn’t work out. Instead, I saw it as a necessity for these two people to each follow their own path.

My liberated lesson: Emma Stone is selfish and Ryan Gosling is too good for her anyway.


The Third Time

The third time I saw La La Land, the somebody from before had become enormously important in my life. He had helped me to heal from past relationships and past losses. Also, we disagreed sometimes; we accidentally hurt each other by virtue of being two separate people meshing into one life together, and that’s how I learned that love doesn’t mean that everything goes perfectly. Love means that I will always forgive you.

That’s what Emma and Ryan mean when they say, “I’m always gonna love you.” They mean that, yeah, it hadn’t worked out. (The movie had been giving us clues the entire time: their relationship is best at night and in surreal places, and the first time they were together in daylight is when they break up.) But that doesn’t mean that their relationship wasn’t worth it.

If things had gone perfectly with all of our first loves we would have been spared from pain (that’s what I had at one point wanted). But being spared from that pain means that we wouldn’t be ready for life. As we learn in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain.

My final lesson: Maybe the best thing our first love can do for us is push us to our dreams and then kiss us goodbye.


So, what did I learn from La La Land? First: ending is not a failure. Ending is a sign that something happened, and then we grew. At the end of the movie, something even bigger is happening for each of our beloved characters (yeah, I’m not so mad at Emma Stone anymore). That’s the second lesson: not fitting into a relationship doesn’t mean that either partner is a bad person. There’s still an opportunity for learning and growth, and that is never a waste.

The final lesson is about the strength it takes to recognize that a person belongs in the past tense and that this doesn’t mean we can’t have love for them in the present. This movie demonstrates all of the different roles love can play for us: Love pushes, love excites, love challenges. Most poignantly, love hurts. But, the most important lesson of all: love heals.

32 Things I’ve Learned in New York City

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One year and four days ago today, I pulled a Rachel from the Glee Season 3 finale and stepped off a bus with a suitcase, officially New York City’s newest resident. I was not singing and there was no camera pan around me; in fact, I felt calm. This felt right.

A few things that happened in the next year: I started a job. I finished a job. I found an apartment. I found another apartment (I found a subletter; I found another subletter). I traveled to Boston and Philly and Chicago. I built a committed relationship with another person.

Something I didn’t do much of was writing blogs. I just couldn’t find my story. However, even though I haven’t written about much of it, I have learned so many things since I’ve moved to New York.

In honor of one full year in New York- and staying in one place for more than a year for the first time since college- here are the 32 things I’ve learned in New York.

  1. Everyone’s needs are important, but the person who’s the loudest usually gets theirs met first.
  2. One of the most important ways we can respond to all of the bad things that happen is having willingness to see other people as people and having willingness to truly forgive.
  3. Humility is essential if you ever want to like another person.
  4. The best leaders are not the ones who know how to be right. They’re the ones who will admit it when they’re wrong.
  5. It’s never too late to reconnect with a person or thing from the past.
  6. Don’t try to park a car on the Upper West Side 30 minutes before you have to leave for work on a street cleaning day.
  7. One of life’s great joys is harmonizing with other people (literally and figuratively).
  8. You really can’t come home again- but some things never change.
  9. Sometimes when you don’t plan and just go with it the end product is far better than something you could have come up with originally.
  10. People have much more in common than we realize, but we only find the similarities if we look.
  11. There is truly no queso in the world that compares to Tex Mex, although more restaurants could stand to start trying.
  12. It’s okay to admit that you’re having a hard time. People might even want to help.
  13. Pretty much anything can happen with a spirit of adventure and a Metro card (unless you’re trying to take the B train. Then nothing can happen.)
  14. Texas really is the place that people love to hate. That hasn’t changed anywhere I’ve been.
  15. Asking a person about their passion is an amazing way to connect and to see them for who they are.
  16. Taking your morning run through Central Park, past the Imagine circle, and back by the Met does not ever get old.
  17. Hope and possibility save lives.
  18. Managing people means questioning whether you’re a good person pretty much every day, but it also gives you a lot of perspective.
  19. Being right is way less important than being with the right person.
  20. Time is not what indicates whether a place feels like home.
  21. Things become astonishingly clear when you pause everything and just start writing stuff down.
  22. Everything changes. That includes people.
  23. It’s actually happening- we’re growing up. My friends have babies and I can no longer eat plain icing without getting a stomach ache.
  24. I have a weirdly good memory for event dates or what I ate for dinner on a random day in March, but if you ask me what my apartment building looks like I definitely couldn’t tell you. (We all have different abilities!)
  25. Categorizing people pretty much only makes things worse.
  26. Every place you go, you will find pockets of good.
  27. Tragedy always brings people together, and it always makes them go beyond the kindness they thought they had.
  28. Inspiration comes from feeling safe and valued; even the most creative person’s abilities can be totally stifled by a poor environment.
  29. Welcoming a person actively and immediately is one of the hugest ways to impact their entire experience.
  30. Never silence another person. Never silence yourself.
  31. Winter can actually be cool! But only if you see the Rockettes. Also, there is very little redeemable about the month of March.
  32. Turmeric lattes. Enough said.

That’s all at the moment- here’s to even more in the next year. As for now, it’s time for Round Two! Let’s do this, New York.


PS: This type of blog has become a bit of a tradition. See also what I learned in Boston and Austin.

Snowflakes

At some point in your life you’ve probably heard people equated with snowflakes. This is the metaphor we use to understand human uniqueness: each person has a set of totally individual traits and qualities in the same way that each snowflake has a completely new structure of crystals that never existed before.

I used to identify with this metaphor quite a bit. Whenever I felt like I didn’t fit in I would tell myself that it had to be because I was a beautiful snowflake. I was special and unique, and that was why I felt so alone. That’s the dream, right? You don’t fit in because you’re just too special. Everyone else is a standard, carbon copy drop of rain, but you- you are the snowflake.

I floated along on my snowflake theory until very recently when my incredibly wise boyfriend pointed out the fact that all snowflakes are different, not just one. In a flurry every snowflake is different from every other snowflake, which means that although they all are different, none of them are seen as particularly special in practice. They all have the same ingredients mixed around in different places and I don’t think that’s a great metaphor for humans at all. Humans are endlessly varied: some can see while others can’t; some can sing but not run while others can run but not sing; some read right to left, some read top to bottom, and some don’t read at all. Biologically we are made up of the same elements, but when it comes to what we do, think, see, experience, although I recognize that there are incredibly heartening similarities across centuries and across cultures, each individual is just that- an individual. We all have just a few out of zillions of attributes, unlike snowflakes, which include essentially all the same materials. So maybe this concept of humans as individuals doesn’t really jive with the snowflake idea after all.

Today I posed to my wise boyfriend an alternative metaphor, a chocolate chip cookie. Cookies are made up of all kinds of sweet and wonderful things like sugar and butter, and those all coalesce into one of our world’s great culinary gifts: cookie dough. But then you have these weirdo brown things that feel different and look different and taste a little more exotic- that’s the chocolate chips (and, in this metaphor, me). The chocolate chips are not like the other ingredients, and they don’t mesh in nicely. They stick out all lumpily and transform the whole thing into a totally different cookie. Isn’t it interesting that cookies are named after what makes them different, not what makes them the same?

This was all kind of cool, but still not perfect. Snowflakes didn’t work because if each snowflake is different then the fact of being a snowflake is not actually what makes us special. But chocolate chip cookies sort of don’t work either, because although I like the sound of it, it feels too elitist to say that others are the lowly, unexciting dough while I am the illustrious chocolate chip.

We put the metaphors aside and later, in the midst of a completely different conversation, the wise boyfriend struck again. “Isn’t it funny,” he said, “that human beings are totally symmetrical, but our hearts are on one side?”

Humans are made up of blood and tissues and bones and muscles and a few other things. These things are all pretty standard and although they’re very cool in what they can do and what they allow us to do, we generally all have the same ones and it’s really not all that exciting. In fact, in most humans our limbs are just copies of one another. But the heart- the heart is what gives life to the body. And the heart is off to the side.

The thing that makes us alive is off to the side. Even if you want to argue that the brain is more important, we can say the same thing there: the brain is all the way on the top, it has two totally asymmetrical hemispheres with completely different functions, and it makes our heads stick out in awkward places. The parts of us that are the most important, that give us life, that make us who we are, are not standard. They are extraordinary. They are off-center and they do not have duplicates, but they are meant to be that way.

Now I propose a different metaphor. I think I’ll see all of us as organs or cells within a body. Like different parts of the body, humans are all made of the same things but we each have different functions. In the same way that the body needs totally unique and off-centered brains and hearts, all humans are required by the universe to be in some way weird and imperfect. Otherwise our force of life would have no direction.

The coolest thing about this metaphor is that, as special as I am, it allows me to also have parts that are totally normal. We all have amazing gifts in addition to complete and utter banalities, just like every human body. It would be impossible to have only one or the other. Each body gets hundreds of bones, but only one heart, one brain.

So in a way the best metaphor for humans as individuals and as a collective is that we are exactly what we are. We are all duplicate mixtures of blood and tissues and bones and muscles, but what’s driving those? Our heart.

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PS: The wise boyfriend proofread this blog, and informed me that my conclusion has actually already been discovered by psychologists. It’s called group-level functionalism, and you can read about it in this book.

Guitar Strings

Once there was a kid. He was a middle child growing up in the Midwest at a time when some of the greatest musical influences in the world were at large. But while music was at one of its peaks, education wasn’t.

This kid was not particularly stellar in school. Sometimes letters swam around and didn’t do what they did in the brains of other kids; it was almost like his brain didn’t fit. That made school into a place where maybe this kid didn’t really want to be. Why read what feels like a foreign language when you could go home and listen to records?

One day the kid’s 8th grade science teacher told him to stay after class. The teacher sat the kid down, and he pulled out a guitar.

And that was his life.

Maybe the letters still swam around, but now they made chords, and those chords made music. And all of the stuff inside him that wasn’t right for school was right for this.

He wasn’t dumb. He wasn’t bad. His brain was made for music.

How lucky my dad was to have this kind of educator in his life: an educator who looks at a student and sees not his deficits but his potential. What if we all looked at the people in our lives that way? What if we all stopped judging people on what we think they should be good at and instead searched for the thing that they may not have yet discovered about themselves that could change the course of their life?

I believe we all have the same amount of intelligence, and all it really boils down to is how that intelligence is distributed and whether or not someone has made us believe that we are special enough to do something about it. It’s kind of like we’re all guitar strings: we all have the same importance, the same length, we just have the ability to play different notes. Maybe your intelligence is with words. Maybe it’s with sound. Maybe it’s with movement or people or plants or computers or colors. There is something at which you are so excellent and nobody in the world can do it like you. I promise you that this is true.

My dad didn’t like to read, but as a cousin once put it, he probably forgot more about guitar than any of us will ever know. To watch my dad pick up a guitar was to watch him find the other half of himself. He would draw it to himself like a magnet, tune it with no reference but his mind, and pluck away little nothings that just came from his brain, no matter how long it had been, because his brain could create music.

We all have that thing that, when we do it, it’s like a sigh. It’s a thing that comes from inside and makes its way out and maybe we don’t even realize how special we are at it but, truly, we are. The trouble is we have to be lucky enough to discover it. Otherwise it could stay hidden and we could live out one of the greatest personal tragedies, which is a life lived not knowing that we are special.

Do me and my dad a favor. Try to help the people around you to find their thing. Help them to recognize what it is that they can do that actually nobody else can: the thing inside them that changes the world. The thing that makes them feel like they are special, like they have a reason. Like they fit. How different might life be if we all discovered what it is that makes us feel that way? If we all felt like my dad’s guitar strings, tightened or loosened in exactly the way we needed in order to make the sweetest sounds and the most beautiful harmonies?

I’ll leave us all with that challenge. And to that 8th grade science teacher, thank you for doing what nobody said you had to do. Thank you for transforming a life. Rock on.

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This Week, I Found My Story.

This is the longest I have gone since starting my blog without posting anything, and there’s a simple reason: I have had nothing to say.

I thought that if I moved to an exciting place and started an exciting job, I would in no time have an exciting story. In reality, almost the opposite happened: I was so busy with my new move and my new work that I didn’t have the time to stop, to think deeply, to feel intensely. That was an issue, because the writing I do can only come out of moments of jarring realizations or perspective-giving comparisons. It turns out that moving “forward” doesn’t automatically make a person wiser… so what was I supposed to do now?

There’s a Ted Talk about how, to most effectively be alive, we should try often to be scared. The logic goes something like this: biologically, life is what happens when your heart is pumping, your blood is flowing, your brain is awake and your eyes are opened. Therefore, we need to put ourselves in situations that make us feel all of these things in order to do our best at being alive. It just so happens that these things come from moments that challenge and surprise and scare us.

This week, for the first time in a long time, my life was full of those moments. I allowed myself to hope that our country was sprinting toward positive change, and I allowed myself to cry and to hurt when we slammed straight into a wall. I allowed myself to grieve with people I didn’t know, to process with young people dedicating their lives to service. I reconnected with old friends and family and we allowed ourselves to share hopes and fears and dreams. This week has been light on work, heavy on hope and heart and fear and pain and love and love and love. That’s why this week I finally have something to say.

I have this thing where I believe that things are good. I believe that nobody would have created a world that didn’t have the capacity to be beautiful. I believe that there’s always a way to be better, to be stronger. I believe that love will win and fear will lose. These beliefs are the core of my being, my spiritual oxygen. And this week, when our country chose fear over love, that idealistic core was rocked. More than disappointment, more than fear, I felt devastating confusion; I didn’t know how to believe the things that make me want to be alive and also believe what’s happening in the world that I see with my wide-open eyes.

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As this happened, I was in a different city with a whole bunch of people who hadn’t expected such a blow. We were gathered for a conference and the entire group was so distraught that the day’s programming was canceled. Part of me wanted to disappear from sight and dissolve into my own confusion, but instead I accepted an invitation to travel with new acquaintances to high schools to hear about the day’s experiences there. In speaking with educators and idealists, I found my own voice. I found solace. I was surrounded by thoughtfulness, empathy, and hope. But most of all, I was welcomed by people I had never met simply because we all cared.

I don’t typically find it easy to forge connections but on that day it was effortless. I found that honesty and a true desire to understand another person’s experience are really all we need to open up with one another. I practiced those same principles when I reunited later with old friends: our ground rule was honesty, and we learned about pieces of each other that none of us had been able to share- or hear- before. I even achieved one of my 101 Goals: buy a meal for a homeless person and eat it with them. In a Philadelphia Dairy Queen, I connected with a 59-year-old woman over health and love and travel and surprise birthdays but mostly over the fact that we were simply two people trying to add a little bit of good to this world.

That’s why now I have something to say, and that’s why my heart is full. This week my world took blow after blow, but redirecting these hits into honesty and connection has made my heart pound, my brain awaken, my eyes open more than any job or any city ever could.

I may not have answers about all of the things I’d like to learn from life. I don’t even have answers for everything life threw at me this week. But one thing I know is that we cannot be equipped to take life’s punches without a sense of what kind of life we’re each fighting to lead in the first place. At least for me, it turns out that that life is not about where I am or what I do for a living. Life is about being scared and being pushed and turning challenge into change, turning fear into love. That’s where I find my life, and that’s where I find my story.

32 Things I’ve Learned in Austin

I was not happy to move back to Austin.

This is the city where I grew up, and when it came time for college I launched off like a rocket, whizzing back and forth across the country, pretty much set on the idea that I wouldn’t ever come back home. But life decided that it didn’t care whether I wanted to move on, so here I landed, six years later.

I officially lived in Austin for about 7 months, and in that time I worked 4 jobs, took 3 vacations, had 2 months of mono, and spent many hours working toward my 101 goals and spending time with family and friends. It was a sort of pause, a pivot, in between bouts of “real life,” and I had a lot of time to think. Here are some of the most important lessons I learned in my time back in Austin:

  1. It’s true what they say- you can’t come home again.
  2. There are important differences between a taco and a burrito.
  3. Where you are absolutely affects your way of life. It’s worth seeing other places to understand how your own place shapes you.
  4. Friendship is not defined by the amount of time between conversations.
  5. Perspective: any problem can look huge or small, depending on what you put next to it.
  6. Sometimes the right answer is that there is no answer.
  7. That said, when you can’t find the answer, you get to make up your own.
  8. There is no universal rule for when it’s the right time to date, to get married, get a job, or anything else. The right time is when you’re ready.
  9. Treat your life like more than a list of boxes that need to be checked.
  10. It’s okay to have strong feelings; feeling them makes life more vibrant.
  11. Life doesn’t move on for you. Sometimes you’ve got to make the push.
  12. We have no idea what will happen next, so all we can do now is make ourselves and each other happy.
  13. Everybody has some fear that runs their lives. Knowing what that fear is can really help you to understand someone.
  14. There is a special kind of bonding that happens over a bowl of chips and queso.
  15. Everyone has different priorities. Yours are not more right that someone else’s.
  16. Any two people can form a connection. Differences and commonalities are only as important as we make them.
  17. It’s much harder than it might seem to simply do what makes you happy.
  18. No matter how rarely you might talk, there is nothing in the world like old friends who knew you- and your parents- way back when.
  19. You are in control of how your mistakes change you.
  20. The people with whom we surround ourselves define who we are.
  21. Giving advice- and love- to others is a lot easier than giving it to yourself.
  22. Asking for help is so, so hard, but people are often much more willing to help than we give them credit for.
  23. Following your heart is easier said than done.
  24. Fear is sneaky and it likes to disguise itself as logic or sense.
  25. Sometimes you just have to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.
  26. We do not have control over anyone but ourselves.
  27. People are too complex to be defined. Never fancy yourself an expert on any person, including yourself.
  28. Bad weather really brings people together.
  29. A good long walk works wonders on a tough day.
  30. The art of conversation is real, and it takes work to be good at it.
  31. It’s not arrogant or selfish to be proud of yourself or to want support from others.
  32. We are all lost without human connection.

Austin helped me to redefine what it means to have goals in life, to understand ourselves, and to be worthwhile friends. My biggest take away? We can’t put anything in boxes. There’s no rule for anything we do in life, whether we’re talking people, relationships, food, or anything else; there will always be an exception, it will always depend. The most important thing we can do in this life in which all we can expect is the unexpected is to invest in ourselves and in each other, and to brace ourselves for whatever might come.

So, I owe an enormous thank you to one of the greatest cities in America, to the place that- like it or not- will always have been my home. Here’s to keeping these lessons in our minds and hearts. And here’s to the next adventure.

Pretty Woman is Not About Hookers

Things are not always what they seem to be.

Land is flat, but the world is round. Stoplights are way bigger than they appear from the driver’s seat. Time travels at the same pace whether you’re sitting in a boring meeting or watching Netflix all day, and Pretty Woman is not about hookers.

(If you haven’t seen the film, check out the trailer so you know what it’s all about.)

In fact, I would argue that Pretty Woman is one of the most realistic stories out there. It’s like, remember when you read Animal Farm and at some point realized that the story was not about an animal farm but instead an allegory for the Russian Revolution of 1917 (thanks, 9th grade English)? Pretty Woman is that. Except it’s not using hookers and businessmen to tell the story of a war or a revolution. It’s using them to tell us the story of the fight that every single human goes through, which is the fight we all have with ourselves about whether or not we deserve a good life.

For starters, let’s talk about what makes our two main characters so realistic.

Whenever Vivian (Julia Roberts) got punished as a kid, she was locked in the attic, where she dreamed of a knight in shining armor whisking her away. So when a less-than-knightly guy came along during her teens and offered to whisk her away from Georgia, of course she accepted. But “away” was LA, and the guy peaced out, leaving Vivian to fend for herself. Vivian needed a way to make ends meet and she hadn’t graduated high school, so she became a hooker. But part of her still waits for that fairytale, not believing that this could be all she was meant for in life. She protects herself from getting stuck by not falling in love, by never kissing anybody on the mouth.

Edward (Richard Gere) also tries to protect himself by keeping the rest of the world at a distance. His father left his mother and screwed her over, so Edward has learned that love is a dangerous risk. Edward controls his life by planning and working and screwing other people over the way his father did. He has relationships because that’s what one does, but like Vivian, he keeps from ever emotionally connecting; he rarely spends time with his girlfriends, and  he never kisses them on the mouth.

Edward and Vivian meet when Edward gets lost on Hollywood Boulevard and needs directions. He’s obsessed with utility and she can offer him a service; she needs to make ends meet and knows that she has nothing to lose because this cannot possibly be her endgame. That’s what gets them both into a car. Of course this doesn’t happen every day. But I don’t think it’s so hard to believe in a girl who is searching for something more and a guy who’s been burned and is just staying frozen so it doesn’t happen again.

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Once Vivian and Edward get together, we have a little fun at casual places like Rodeo Drive and the opera. But things stay real; he has trouble connecting, admitting what he wants. She has trouble trusting him when he does offer her a “fairytale.” Here is my paraphrasing of Edward’s and Vivian’s thoughts throughout the movie, if they were in touch with their emotions enough to identify them:

“I want my life to be amazing, but so far the people in it have made me believe I don’t deserve that. I care about other people, so I believe them. That’s why it’s so hard for me to let go of what I know to take a risk and do anything that could make me really happy. I’ve spent so long thinking I don’t deserve it that, now it’s in front of me, I’m not even sure I know what it is. I want my dreams to come true, but life has taught me to stop dreaming.

The point of this movie is not that ladies should expect a man to come along and save us, or that men should solve their problems with money and sex. The point of this movie is two people who feel alone and worthless, who for all the world appear as though they do not have hearts. They protect themselves by toughening up, but that toughening up necessarily means giving in to the harshness of the world and believing that maybe they are heartless after all.

But that’s not so. Edward is kind, Vivian is honest. They both have goals and fears and things that make them angry. They both have hearts. They both try to protect those hearts, because they’ve been broken, but they both also take little steps toward finding what they want once they feel comfortable and brave enough to take that risk.

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We all try to protect ourselves. We put up a tough front. We have dreams that we are too tough or terrified to realize. But sometimes if we open ourselves up to something a little crazy, we can find the bravery to accept our dreams- and ourselves. The romance in Pretty Woman is wonderful, but it’s not what has made this film a classic. Pretty Woman is a powerful movie because it portrays fear and insecurity and the exorbitant amount of courage it takes to dream.

So, things are not as they seem. Pretty Woman isn’t about hookers, and I’ll give you a few others too: Legally Blonde isn’t about law school. Top Gun isn’t about planes. Grease isn’t about grease (okay, that one was a gimme). The point is that if you look closely you can find a way to connect any story to the things we all go through in real life; movies are just a way for our fears to take the form of dreams.

After all, “This is Hollywood. What’s your dream?”

All I Ask For is Your Consideration

Here it is, my very first guest post! This is written by the highly intelligent, highly talented Mr. Chris Dennis. Thanks for trusting me with your words, Chris.


I do not want your sympathy, nor do I want your hair-trigger reaction in an attempt to defend a belief that was never attacked. I don’t want your praise and I don’t want your claims of allyship and empathy that primarily serve to validate your “greatness” and to make you look “cool” among your peers. I don’t want your arguments that only have the way you have been treated in this lifetime as a source. I don’t want to be written off because my opinion differs from yours. I don’t need your rebuttals that are laced with insults and elusive quotations from your religious leader that lack evidence and relevance to the situation at hand.

All I ask for is your consideration.

I do not sit here typing this out to insult or to cause harm. I sit here because every day I wake up and I read comment after comment and tweet after tweet of people carelessly preaching their opinions to all who will listen without taking a moment, just a second, to think. I sit here because I hope that even just one person will read this and will be inspired to make a change, no matter how small. I was not always aware of all the hurt my words and actions caused and I never fully will be, but I’ll be damned if I don’t try. Treating others with respect, or even just treating them as fellow human beings, takes nothing from you and it does a whole lot more good than being hateful and malicious.

All I ask for is your consideration.

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Yes, I am angry. I am outraged that every day there seem to be more and more people who have fallen victim to injustice than I even have time to mourn for. That it does not matter if we scream or we whisper, our voices just don’t seem to be heard. That my family and friends and their friends’ and families’ lives are at risk of becoming another means of getting ratings, attention, or laws passed. Are at risk of joining the ever rising body count because of their existence. Are at risk of losing someone dear to them because an assumption was made.

All I ask for is your consideration.

When you developed your opinions on certain topics, did consider the facts and statistics and then draw conclusions from an objective point of view? When you made jabs at a person because their thoughts differ from yours, did you take the time to consider where their viewpoint came from?

When you talked to your family about your love interest, did you consider that a conversation about their gender never occurred? When you watched movies did you ever consider that the majority, if not all, of the cast looks just like you? When you went to a friend’s house did you ever consider that that friend’s parents didn’t prevent you from coming over because of the color of your skin? When you told people of your dreams and aspirations did you consider that no ever one told you people of your gender can’t do that?

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When you attempted to make your skin darker or make your lips bigger did you ever consider that those very traits were first popular as insults used to belittle an entire race? When you forced yourself on that person because they didn’t give you what you wanted, did you ever consider that they had wants too, wants that did not involve you? When you continued to go to school and told others to stop complaining did you consider that your life was not threatened if you attended, solely because of the way you were born? When you said that racism doesn’t exist did you use your own life as an example, or did you consider the millions of people who face racism every day?

When you made a blanket statement about an entire group of people did you consider that you yourself differ in many ways from people who share resemblances to you? When you spoke out on that issue did you consider that what you saw on the news is not the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? When you took action did you stop and consider that the life you were given is not the same as everyone else’s? When you felt a little better after a stranger sent kindness your way, did you ever consider that you could easily do the same for someone else too?

All I ask for is your consideration.

Did you ever stop and consider that you might be wrong and that changing your opinion IS a possibility? Did you ever consider that you too can make mistakes? Did you ever consider that you might be right, but that changing someone’s opposing opinion would be easier if you refrained from insults and had an intelligent conversation? Did you ever consider that not every battle is yours to fight? Did you consider that no matter how much you think you know you’ll never know it all?

All I ask for is your consideration.

I could be anyone. You mother, your brother, your friend, your teacher, a stranger on the street, or a follower on the internet. It does not matter who I am in your eyes; rash and inconsiderate actions will get us nowhere fast.

All I ask for is your consideration.

How A Stranger’s Death Changed My Life

This is a story about the life lessons we can all take from any tragedy, whether it’s close by or far away. This is a story about one person’s ripples becoming another’s tidal waves. This is a story about people connecting with each other. This is a story about how a stranger’s death changed my life.

In 2009, a friend fatefully introduced me to the TV show Glee, and from the beginning I was hooked. I made my friends watch it, I quoted it in my public speaking, I used it to connect with students when I worked in a school, I wrote about it in my blogmultiple times. There were so many aspects of Glee that touched me, but one of the most important was that I loved Finn.

Finn was The Quarterback. He was the good guy, the leader, the one who was willing to admit his mistakes, who treated everyone with decency and honesty. And the actor who played him, Cory Monteith, was like that too. In 2011 Cory came to my college for a show and I had the opportunity to meet him. Overcome by emotion, unsure of what to say, I simply asked, “Can I hug you?” “Come here,” was his answer.

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Meeting Cory Monteith – 2011

Two years later- and three years ago today- on July 13, 2013, Cory Monteith died of a drug overdose in a hotel in Canada, not a week after graduating from rehab.

My world was rocked. Although I didn’t know Cory, somehow he was this incredibly important figure in my life. In many ways he had been my hero: the one who made me believe, above all else, that every person mattered- and, by extension, that mattered.

Friends I hadn’t spoken to in years sent me messages to ask whether I was alright; one housemate even drove me to a candlelight vigil outside Paramount Studios. At the vigil fans took turns sharing their experiences about meeting Cory. When it was my turn, I said that all I could think to do in the face of this tragedy was find a way to inject into our future lives what I saw as Cory’s ultimate lesson: every person matters. Whether you like them or not, whether you agree with them or not, whether they have broken laws or hurt themselves or even hurt you- they are a human being, and every human being matters.

The day Cory died, the internet was alight with words from people who were deeply, genuinely affected. I had never felt so connected to people all over the globe who were feeling the same loss that I was, although it touched each of us in different ways. I imagined how modest Cory would be if he could see to how many people saw him as a hero- and then I wondered whether that could be the case with all of us. Maybe we haven’t all touched millions of people, but we have all been there for a friend, smiled at a stranger, offered a kind word when somebody seemed down- and to those people our actions may have meant the world. In some way, we are all heroes.

In the days following Cory’s death, I was forced to make a career decision; a few days earlier I had been offered an internship at an education nonprofit in New York City, and I didn’t have long to decide whether to uproot and go. Simply put, I was scared. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this decision would affect the rest of my life. Overwhelmed, confused, and frozen, I asked a friend for advice. “What if you went to New York,” she said, “and you helped one student, and because of you, that student didn’t become involved in drugs like Cory?”

Life isn’t quite that simple, but the meaning was clear: I could change a life. My tiny action could lead to another tiny action that, some day, could save somebody’s hero. In that universal way in which we are all connected, it almost felt like saving Cory.

So I went to New York City, visiting Boston along the way. One thing led to another, and a year later, I found myself moving to Boston to work at an education nonprofit. Right before we began working in schools, we each stood up in front of the entire corps and all of the organization’s employees to dedicate our year of service.

When it was my turn, my hand shook as I took the microphone. “I want to dedicate my year of a service to a guy who taught me that every person, no matter what, matters. Whether they think they do or not. And that guy’s name is Cory Monteith.”

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Cory taught me how interconnected people really are, how we care about the same things and how we want to help each other. Cory inspired me to take chances- from moving to New York to starting my lofty 101 Goals in 1001 Days (which I began on July 13, 2015, the anniversary of the day Cory’s death began to change my life). Most importantly, though, Cory taught me that one person’s actions can shape another’s life.

You don’t have to be a famous actor. You don’t have to preach. If we live life in a way that aligns with our own personal truths, we will touch and inspire others. Cory taught me that it’s possible to change a person’s path simply by existing. Cory taught me that everyone has the power to make change. Cory taught me that I can make change.

Cory taught me that, if we’re open to exploring the world and trying to understand our place in it, we open ourselves to experiences and lessons and being swept away in a tidal wave of life’s richness that began with a single ripple. Cory taught me that, if we allow it, even a stranger’s death can change our lives.