Monthly Archives: April 2013

One Week in Boston

It’s been an exhausting week. That’s how most of us here in Boston would describe it. Exhausting, because we’ve been trapped in a movie that we can’t get out of, and this movie isn’t a romantic comedy. It’s more like a really long episode of “Cops,” or a week-long version of “24” (“168?” Doesn’t have the same ring to it…), only more personal. This “movie” has come complete with villains and heroes, car chases and bizarre breaking news, love stories and heartbreak, close calls and sad coincidences. It’s been doused with losses and fanned by unpredictable violence. But most of all, it has left so many of us feeling on edge, unsafe where we are supposed to feel safest, and angry at the senseless destruction of human life that has occurred on our home turf — especially because, in a sense, it came from within the very place we retreat to when we’re scared. While the death toll isn’t particularly high compared to other attacks, the ripples of those few deaths and the many injured have felt more like tsunami waves here in this proud city. Everyone in Boston spent five days incredibly close to terrorists. Too close. And most of the time, we didn’t even know it.

Magnolia trees. Cambridge, MA. April 17, 2013.

Magnolia trees. Cambridge, MA. April 17, 2013.

In all honesty, this has also been a fascinating week. Not only have we been part of this developing storyline as its plot unfolds, but we have also, in a way, served as its directors. Thanks to the rapid (albeit sloppy) dissemination of shared images and information through every form of social media, we have been working as full-time investigators, only without the bulletproof vests. Every time a new license plate was announced on Friday, I found myself at my window trying to read the plates of every car that went down my street — JUST in case I could help (ok, so my roommates may have made fun of me for this). When the first photos of the suspects were released, I stared intently at them, trying to memorize every detail of their blurry faces while desperately trying to rack my memory for any clues I could offer. It was all of us v.s. them. All week long, we had to be on high alert as tidbits of information were shot out of our TVs and i-screens like rapid fire hitting and missing the facts. During a few brutal days of painfully slow progress, we were left sorting through three-day old casings to see if any evidence had been left behind long after the smoke had cleared, and where, if anywhere, all of it might lead us  — if we even wanted to know. Unfortunately, it lead us right to our own backyards (literally, for one family).

Wanted. Somerville, MA.

Wanted. Somerville, MA.

Really, what we wanted (well, needed) to know was: Are we safe? It’s a simple question that many Americans don’t usually have to ask themselves on a daily basis, or if they should, they usually don’t. It is a particularly exhausting question when you don’t have an answer, and you don’t know when you will. In some ways, it was that simple. We had to go five days without knowing where a couple mass murderers were sleeping. We had to go five days wondering if they wanted to kill again. We had to go five days knowing we were who they wanted to kill. That, my friends, is a horrible feeling. While we felt many other wonderful feelings as the city came together in beautiful, inspiring ways last week, that feeling lurked, despite my best attempts to pretend otherwise.

As we tip-toed around the city, the grotesque details and haunting images of lost limbs and shrapnel became part of our daily lives. As much as I don’t want to admit it (and trust me, I really don’t want to say this), terrorism won for a few days. It gave me that anxious feeling in my gut when I got on the T that I remember so well from the first weeks in Manhattan after September 11. It kept my eyes open a little wider and my heart beating a little faster at loud noises and sirens (ugh, the sirens — they were the constant, unsettling soundtrack to the week). I had my finger constantly seeking the story’s pulse, worried that the worst might not be behind us. I don’t want to admit it, but at times I was really a little scared… It all felt so out of our control. I wasn’t necessarily scared while I was awake, but it was in my gut at night, proven by the two nightmares I had, and the deflated sense of security that I woke up with knowing I was a little less sure of what each day might bring.

On Thursday, I met a friend for lunch near MIT. This is me walking out of the T station at Kendall/MIT, hours before a shootout would occur nearby. Cambridge, MA.

On Thursday, I met a friend for lunch near MIT. This is me walking out of the T station at Kendall/MIT, hours before a shootout would occur nearby. Cambridge, MA.

I won’t forget checking the news right before I went to bed Thursday night, only to find out there was a shootout a few blocks from where I had lunch that afternoon. Or waking up repeatedly in the middle of the night, as so many of my friends did, with a nagging need to keep checking the news and find out more as a dramatic confrontation unfolded. My roommate heard the shootout from our house. A couple of my best friends live right up the street from MIT. I eventually found out I had eaten ice cream across the street from the two suspects’ home that Wednesday. Everything was feeling a little too close. It reminded me of the coup attempt I experienced just before leaving Quito, complete with listening to machine gun fire for the first time (which you can read about, and listen to, here: Couped Up In Quito). It felt almost surreal, yet unavoidably real.

Waking up Friday morning to a massive manhunt, being told not to leave our homes, and spending the day glued to the news as emails, texts, and Facebook messages trickled in from friends near and far (and even some who have been completely MIA for years) is something I won’t forget.

As the story unfolded and the chase ensued, we watched with a perpetual anxiety that became incredibly draining. I had intense cabin fever, and while I didn’t necessarily want to go outside, I struggled with not knowing how long this manhunt-induced buzz would have to be sustained. As the world looked on, we sat trapped in our living rooms (an ENTIRE city off the streets — how crazy is that?!), hoping — at times, desperately — that the good guys would finally catch the bad guys, hoping that it wouldn’t take long, though the hours mounted and mounted, as did our snacking. Then came that final, perfectly unique and dramatic discovery of a bloody boy in a boat — a very “Life of Pi”-meets-the-OJ-Simpson-trial grand finale. And the heroes of this story? There were too many to count.

Captured. Somerville, MA.

Captured. Somerville, MA.

We really have been a part of this investigation from start to finish. Never in my life has the public played such a critical role in such a serious and dangerous real-time investigation. While we’re all still dealing with what has happened here in Boston, I cannot describe the sense of relief that I felt when I went to bed Friday night, and when I woke up Saturday morning. It is a relief, not just in knowing that the manhunt was over and the suspect had been captured, but in knowing that we live in a world surrounded by mostly GOOD people — people whose instincts lead them unflinchingly into the wake of destruction to help strangers, people who despite having their legs blown off awoke in a hospital bed determined to tell police that they looked into the eyes of the man who put them there, people who worked extra shifts in the hospitals and came together to help complete strangers with the precise coordination of a ballet during one of the most traumatic and chaotic moments of their lives. People offered their homes, their businesses, their BLOOD without even thinking twice. These are the people who surround us, not them.

Cherry blossoms in Cambridge, MA. April 16, 2013.

Cherry blossoms in Cambridge, MA. April 16, 2013.

While the fleeting sense of terror may linger in our bones, the faith that for every two bad guys, there is an entire city of good people around us — THAT is what I hope to take from this last week in Boston, and into the next four weeks I have here before moving back to New York City.

Thank you Boston, for reminding all of us that there are more good people in the world than bad. And, despite being a little mangled and beat down, for showing the world how strong you and the people in this city really are. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.

But, 40 degrees in April… Really?! Can we talk about this?


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Filed under Boston, September 11, Uncategorized, USA

The Boy from Dorchester

I woke up with a heavy heart this morning, thinking only about the 8 year old boy who was killed in yesterday’s Boston Marathon attack, and how his family must feel today. It’s all too familiar a feeling, after spending a day in the MGH ICU last week with one of my best friends and her family after her sister was killed suddenly and tragically in a head-on collision. Her 7-year-old nephew is doing remarkably well after breaking his back in the accident. There were many other victims in yesterday’s attack, but I can’t get the little boy and his unsuspecting innocence out of my head.

Maybe it took a deep sleep to really feel the weight of what happened here in Boston yesterday, but it’s hitting me more now than it did last night. This explosion was powerful, cutting through more than just flesh: it instantly severed limbs (two brothers who were standing side-by-side, next to the boy, each lost one leg), it shattered happy moments that had been built from determination and hard work (that little boy from Dorchester was killed just after hugging his father at the finish line — his sister lost a leg, his mother had to have brain surgery), and the piercing dagger of terrorism went right through the heart of so many others, without directly touching any of them — at least not physically. This was a horror that was both completely unexpected, yet eerily familiar (cannot help but be reminded of September 11). As a New Yorker, I walk around my city with an almost constant awareness that an attack could happen at any given moment. It doesn’t stop me from going anywhere and it by no means rules my life, but it doesn’t leave me either. I can’t say that I walk around Boston with that same awareness, but yesterday I had to.

I noticed a little spike in TwT hits yesterday afternoon, so for those of you who were trying to get a sense of where I was and what I experienced, here is my little inconsequential story.

At around 2:30, I left my apartment to head to Harvard Square, where I was planning to cram for a big 5:30pm midterm. It’s about a 20-25 minute walk to campus, so I was literally feet from the Harvard Science Center when the explosions occurred at 2:50pm. All around me, marathoners walked (or wobbled) with their families and friends, glowing with a palpable air of satisfaction and exhaustion. A friend messaged me asking if I knew what the explosions in Boston were all about. My heart sank just a little, so I quickly checked Twitter from my iPhone. The first Tweets about two explosions at the finish line had come through, but nobody knew anything. It must have been 2:52pm.


I headed right for the computer lab, where I was planning to quickly print out a study sheet I had made for my last-minute cram session. When I got to the computer lab, nobody was checking the news. I got on CNN, where bits of news were quickly being assembled. The guy next to me noticed my screen. He let out a quick “Oh my God… what the hell happened?” The woman next to me started receiving text after text. She later took me to her Facebook page to show me the picture she took an hour or so earlier at the finish line, in front of the Indian flag, right where the bomb exploded. Two other women in the 5-person media lab room began crying as the news trickled in. “It’s just so horrible!” one of the women said, between little outbursts of tears. The first images I saw were of actual limbs scattered across a bloody sidewalk. The photos were raw and unfiltered, un-described just simply posted and shared by people quickly trying to wrap their heads around what had happened, in its horrific brutality.

At around 3:30, I got an email from my professor that class, and our 20%-of-our-grade midterm, was still on. After what had happened to my friend’s family earlier in the week, I had had trouble focusing on the Respiratory, Urinary, and Digestive systems, but after serious studying over the weekend, I felt confident in what I knew. Suddenly, I looked at pictures of slides and pages of notes, and it all meant nothing. My mind was somewhere else completely. Everything I had crammed into my brain was suddenly gone, and replaced by an adrenalized need to understand what was happening, and make sure my friends were ok.

Boston, MA.

Boston, MA.

Earlier in the day, a friend called, inviting me to watch the Marathon with her and another friend. It was so incredibly tempting that I seriously considered it, but I knew I was really behind in my studying and needed that time. “Come on Tavel! We’re going to grab lunch, then get a couple beers, and then we’re going to sit and watch the runners go by! It’s Marathon Monday in Boston, you’ve gotta be there!” I looked at my notes, and I looked at the time (it was around 10:30am), and knew in my gut that I just had to keep studying…

Reluctantly, I turned the invitation down, wondering if I was being too responsible considering I had already gotten into grad school, but knowing I was being true to myself and what felt like the right thing to do. If I didn’t have a midterm last night, there is no doubt in my mind that I would have been there, at the Marathon, watching the runners go by.

At around 4pm, the sirens started swarming the area, and Tweets came in that there was a suspicious package and possible bomb found at the Harvard T stop, about 100 yards from where I was. Then, we heard on a loud-speaker that the police were shutting down Brattle Street, the street that intersected with Church Street (where I was) because of undisclosed suspicious activity. That’s when things felt a little more real, and for a moment, I worried that we might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Armored vehicles, ambulances and police motorcycles swarmed the area, but within 10 or 15 minutes, an announcement came through that, thankfully, these were all false alarms.

How was I supposed to take a 2.5 hour midterm after all this? My mind was in a million places, but not in the large intestine or alveoli, where perhaps it should have been. About 45 minutes before my midterm, we got the email that class had been cancelled. My class is full of nursing students and EMTs who were planning to work extra shifts because of the tragedy. Then, the email came from Harvard that all classes were cancelled. When T service is interrupted, life is interrupted.

Boston, MA.

Playing the guitar over The Charles River. Cambridge, MA.

By 5:20pm, the announcement came through that they were going to shut down the building I was in, and everyone had to go home. I met up with one of my classmates and we walked home together (I believe in the buddy-system), not through campus like we usually do, but around campus — the long route — just to be safe.

That awareness that I mentioned, when you have to walk around with the realization that you’re not as safe as you thought you were — that’s terrorism at work. Events like the one yesterday make us feel small, and somewhat helpless in a much bigger, more aggressive and complicated world. But today, despite the tragic reality of what happened yesterday, I will try not to allow that feeling in. That’s how terrorism wins. Terrorism takes away our shields, but it doesn’t take our swords.

Flag in Somerville. February, 2013.

Flag in Somerville. February, 2013.

Today, rather than focus on the terror and heartbreak of what happened yesterday, I will try to focus on how proud of his father that little boy must have been when he hugged him at the finish line yesterday. And how tragedies such as this bring so many people, from strangers to entire cities, together.


Filed under Boston

To Suzy Who (All) The Schools Rejected

It is rare for me to use TwT as a platform for responding to another article. For one thing, I don’t think my opinion is better than anyone else’s, so I try to avoid sounding like I do. Also, there are usually enough people discussing the things I want to discuss throughout social media, so I tend to just listen and keep my opinion to myself. However, this particular article, “To (All) the Schools That Rejected Me” written by Suzy Lee Weiss and published by the Wall Street Journal got my knickers in a twist. After all, I represent all that Suzy bemoans: I have volunteered at an orphanage in Costa Rica. I have taken photographs abroad with children in my lap, and yes — they actually affected my life. I was the captain of a couple sports teams in high school, I was a choreographer in a dance performance, and did I mention I played the flute for 10 years?! (Few people drive me to the point where I admit that last bit to the greater public — you win this round, Suzy!) I worked in admissions, I volunteered at a couple soup kitchens in Harlem, and I was a peer leader in high school. I also was a hard worker. While my high school offered very few AP classes, I took most of them, and I happened to have a very good GPA. To be honest, I freakin’ loved school. I ended up in a college full of people like me, only they were interested in totally different things. And I participated in these activities because I actually wanted to. Getting into a good college was a hopeful consequence of being true to myself.

In other words, Suzy might hate me.

I know, I know. This is not making me sound very likable… BUT WAIT! Before you think I am just using this as an opportunity to brag, would you believe me if I said that there is more to it all? Maybe I was a bit of an eager beaver, and maybe I wanted to try and do everything that I could because I loved people and loved how it felt to be able to help or make people comfortable or take on leadership roles when I was able to. I liked a challenge. I liked the feeling of running so hard I tasted blood in the back of my throat. It felt good to read a teacher’s positive comments on my essay and walk home with my gratification-tank completely full. I get it — the tasting blood and the self-cultivated desire to do well isn’t for everyone. Unlike Suzy, I have to give my parents some serious credit here. I actually applaud my parents for somehow never making me feel like I was doing this for anyone else but myself.

There were 57 people in my graduating class; my pond may have been small, but I wasn’t worried about what kind of fish I was trying to be — I just swam as hard as I could. Isn’t that what you do in ponds?

I have had the experience of being both the kid who got into her top choice colleges when I was in high school, and the adult who has gotten rejected by a grad school or two. But my finger doesn’t furiously point at the schools that rejected me. By now I know better than that. If anything, I felt incredibly lucky getting in anywhere this time around (although, I do believe I deserved it — don’t get me wrong!). Reading Suzy’s piece reminds me of what a privilege it is to be at any one of these competitive colleges or universities. Maybe Suzy is just missing the point.

If you haven’t read the article yet, go read it right now, and then come back to me.

[Obligatory pause.]

OK. Now that we have all read it…

Suzy begins her essay by stating that she has been lied to throughout her high school years. She thought all she had to do was be herself in order to get into college (what does that even mean to you, Suzy?!). Her interpretation of this advice is so far off and oversimplified that it seems almost unnecessary to break it down, but here we go. Suzy, let’s have a little chat…

Be yourself — assuming you are interesting. OK, so if you are a complete deadbeat with no aspirations, maybe being yourself isn’t the best strategy — but there is no alternative. Nobody should do things just to get into college. That said, hopefully you are doing interesting things (anything!) because you want to, and because you have the opportunity to do them — meaning you have interests, curiosities, passions. The high school years are when we first begin to really make choices about what we want to study and who we might want to become. Colleges are looking at your application for clues about the choices you make, the values you have, and the goals you are beginning to form. They want to see that you have a curiosity about the world, and a desire to explore what’s out there. In our teen years, we find ourselves fumbling around in a bigger world than we’re used to, awkwardly trying to place our hands and feet where they feel they might belong. We are finding our place, and sometimes finding that place involves exploration which, Suzy, you don’t seem to be doing much of.

Be Yourself? What this really means is that you should be true to yourself, to what you’re interested in, to your curiosities and your values. Most colleges aren’t just trying to choose the best — they are trying to find the best fit for their school, and not everyone is a fit. Don’t forget that there are also limited spots, so yes:  when you, Suzy-who-mocks-charity-and- those-of-us-with-a-desire-to-do-good, think that not doing anything makes you more eligible for one of the relatively small spots at a competitive college, remember that colleges are depending on the students they accept to facilitate learning environments both inside and outside of the classrooms; they are dependent on their students to become the life-blood of their campuses, and eventually a reflection of the establishment itself. Schools are taking a risk on you! Their reputations depend on their admitted students, both while they are attending the college/university and what those students do with their lives beyond college. No, these people are not better than you. However, the ones that are admitted have already proven that they are more likely to take full advantage of the opportunities a college may provide. If you are not participating in any of the activities you mentioned during high school, I think your article makes it safe to assume you are watching episodes of “The Real Housewives” instead. For that reason alone, those kids you speak of who are “doing it all” are a safer bet — perhaps a better investment. And believe it or not, they are “mere mortals” too — just the kind that actually care.

Sure, you absolutely must be yourself when you are applying to colleges. But don’t blame a school if “yourself” is someone who is completely uninterested in participating in the world beyond that “self.” You are simply doing each school a favor by taking the guesswork out of things. You did exactly what they needed you to do: you were yourself… and that’s your problem.

You are not likable. I hope there is a lot more to you than this article, Suzy, because you are not doing yourself any favors here. Did you really just ask for a closet to come out of and a head-dress to wear because you think either of those things may have bettered your chances of getting accepted? Could you be more offensive? The degree to which you degrade what other people value, struggle with, or are passionate about makes your sob story hard to relate to, and even harder to want to relate to. First of all, those things mean nothing to a college if they are not translated into action, self-reflection, learning or compassion. Sure, you’re making fun of me and people like me (or at least the high school version of me) for caring about others, for wanting to do well, and for trying our hardest to find some purpose in our little, perhaps privileged worlds… But worse than that (because, honestly, I am way too high on the goody-two-shoes meter to feel guilty about any of these things), you have successfully offended me by mocking the experiences of people I care about, and even those they have helped. Believe it or not, you can make a difference — even if it’s a small one. But if you don’t want to, that’s your M.O. I’m sure Kinto and his family would appreciate your spot at any college, by the way.

You might not like all the charities and volunteering, but can you imagine a world of Suzys? It would be pretty awful. Now scale that down to a college campus full of Suzys. BOOOORING.

I forgive you, because you are young. Here is the part when I feel a little bad for you — not because you didn’t get into your first choice schools, but because your strategy of “just being yourself” has led you to write this bitter, semi-toxic article that disregards the hard work and compassion that others are applauded for, and your words will be stuck with you for years. You are probably having the worst time of your life right now, but I take comfort in knowing that you are about to learn a LOT about life. If you ever do read this article, I can confirm that I don’t know anything about you beyond the one article I read, and I am totally open to you being great. You just have to work on presenting that side of yourself. The good news is: things will get better. The bad news is: they will also get worse — much worse. Welcome to the real world, baby.

I may have been a little hard on you. Afterall, you are in high school, and yes — it’s an extremely unforgiving and competitive world out there. I get it. I feel for you. Even though I disagree with just about every point you tried to make in that article, I think you are bold for writing it — and there is something to be said for that. Also, I do think it is unfair that so many deserving students (who, admittedly, haven’t faced much adversity, like you) don’t get into the colleges of their dreams, nor do those who lack the funding or even the opportunities to consider an education at one of the schools you may have applied to (one more shout-out to Kinto). But some of those people that got in this year were given a spot thanks to charities and gifts from do-gooders and volunteers like those kids you hate. And thanks to high school kids who decided not just to take, but to try and give a little, too — regardless of how much they had to give — those colleges you want to go to are better places.

Remind me, why should you have gotten accepted? While I sympathize with some of the points you made, despite a terrible delivery, one thing you failed to do is remind your readers why you should have been accepted. I know nothing about your grades or your ambitions, but I do know that if this is you being yourself, the responses to this article are an opportunity for you to re-evaluate who that is.

I suggest you get back in that swimming pool, and try going for that second lap. The first lap might be hard, but it’s in that second lap, when you decide you’re not getting out no matter how hard or uncomfortable it is, that you actually begin to learn who you really are. Maybe, after all, you still don’t know.


Filed under Life Stuff, Uncategorized