Wall

As I type, six guys on the other side of my door are preparing to break down a wall. Country music is blasting beneath the hum of machinery, and I’m only halfway through my coffee. Halfway through my coffee but almost done with Somerville, which — much like my coffee — is bittersweet.

We’ve been through a lot together, Boston.

Summer.

Summer.

My year here began with Physics. I found myself spending an entire hard-earned summer slaving away over vector diagrams, circuit boards and optics in the many rooms of the Harvard Science Center. My mornings began with daily 3-hr lectures, and my afternoons were filled with hour upon hour of labs, small group study sessions, and homework that required more consecutive hours of brain power than I had ever needed to sustain in my life. When there was no time to relearn trigonometry (which I had learned 13 years prior to signing up for a course that required it), my high school-aged friend from Egypt helped me out. When the weekly midterm hit and the class average was below a 60, we commiserated as a class during our five-minute mid-lecture break in the sun before forcing ourselves to re-enter the classroom and start over with material for the next week’s midterm.

I wondered if I belonged in this program, in that Harvard Science building with the high school and college kids who were re-taking Physics just to get As for med school. There were many nights when I wanted to wrap myself under my sheet — an infinite sheet, if you will (PHYSICS joke! Err) — and not come out because my brain was just so exhausted. I had physics dreams. I saw physics in everything I did. It ruined rainbows (or, maybe made them more beautiful?) and it infiltrated my daily activities, from pondering car tires (hello static and kinetic friction) to thinking a little too deeply about air conditioning. My TF was studying “black holes.” I knew enough about them to feel like I was in one — a deep, dark, black hole of science where all physics both made perfect sense and none at all. And I was just over the halfway point in my two-year post-baccalaureate pre-med journey. The end felt painfully far away… and yet I never lost sight of it because it was the only way out.

Fall

Fall

Two days ago, I walked out of my last final exam as a post-baccalaureate pre-med student. I almost can’t believe it, but I FREAKIN’ DID IT. I’m DONE. Statistics, Developmental Psychology, Biology I, Biology II, Chemistry I, Chemistry II, Physics I, Physics II, Human Anatomy & Physiology I, Human Anatomy & Physiology II…. done done done done and DONE. I can’t tell you how equally crazy and thrilling it is to have gotten through all of those classes. Science (along with saying “no” to fun) has been my life for the last couple years. It hasn’t been very sexy, but it’s been an exciting ride in its own way. I went from adventures abroad to the classroom, cold-turkey. One second I was a travel writer in Ecuador, the next second I was doing titrations at NYU. I cannot believe what has been accomplished, and I say that with humility because I have never been so humbled in my life. I may have started in a place of total discomfort, asking question after question trying desperately to catch up to where I felt everyone else already was, but I can confidently say that I am finishing this post-bacc pre-med thing as the person answering those questions, finally comfortable in my stride and confident in what I know. But there is a whole lot left to learn.

And then there’s Boston. What a year, eh? It started with Hurricane Sandy, it was interrupted by Winter Storm Nemo, followed by the Boston Marathon Bombings and eventually wrapped up by an unforgettable, tense Manhunt. I feel like Boston and I have been through a lot together. We’ve bonded in the rain, in the snow, and in the apartment that I couldn’t leave. We’ve been teammates hunting for terrorists, and we’ve been buddies playing in the snow (Boston makes a mean snowball, lemme tell ya). Now, after all this bonding, I have to say goodbye to a great year here. I met some amazing people, I got into grad school, I lost a dear uncle, and I reconnected — in happy and in hard moments — with some of my best friends from college. Despite some recent losses, I definitely feel like I’m moving back to NYC with more than I left it with… And that’s all I could have asked of this year in Somerville.

Winter.

Winter.

This has been a special year. A special two years, in fact. Sometimes I was the wall getting knocked down, and sometimes I was the sledge hammer. I might be going back to NYC, a place that is as familiar to me as anywhere in the world, but there is new territory to be claimed.

Spring.

Spring.

Yesterday, I threw out all of my physics notes (ok ok, calm down — I recycled them!). As I threw them away, one lecture at a time, I thought about how far away this moment felt when I was scribbling those notes down, cramming for exams last summer. I thought about how hard the material was, and how challenging these two years have been. A part of me wanted to hold onto the pages as a reminder of what I have accomplished… and then I realized that throwing them out was another kind of accomplishment. What I learned is coming with me. The pages don’t have to.

The hammering outside my door continues, but my coffee is all gone. As I mentioned earlier, sometimes you’re the sledge hammer, and sometimes you’re the wall crumbling to the ground. But either way, you get through it. I did. You can.

It’s time to begin packing. There will be plenty of new notes to take, soon enough. But first, I’m going to have a one person holy-crap-I-did-it dance party. I hope you all have one, too.

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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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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.

photo-167

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.

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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.

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The Right to Wed

As same-sex couples’ “right to wed” goes before the Supreme Court, I feel compelled to re-share the story of my sister’s wedding. Please read it, and share it: Two Brides, One Dress: The Story About Something Blue.

Because sometimes one dress just fits. And sometimes, two do.

Image

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Boston Bucket List

A few days ago, I received an email with details about my upcoming graduate school orientation, and it hit me: this grad school thing is really happening (soon!!), and my time in Boston is running out.

Winter Weeping Willow. Boston, MA.

Winter Weeping Willow. Boston, MA.

I’m not quite done with Boston yet. In some ways, I feel like I am still just getting started. So, it’s time for a bucket list. I need help putting together a list of things to do, places to see (museums? landmarks? parks?), and food to eat (restaurant suggestions? outdoor eats?). What does Boston have to offer in the Spring? Who wants to get outside and explore with me? As winter slowly takes off its chilly armor, I look forward to seeing what’s been hidden underneath.

Blue sky and buildings. Boston, MA.

Blue sky and buildings. Boston, MA.

But back to that orientation… My graduate school program is small. In a couple of weeks I am going to meet the 30 other people that I’ll be spending the next three years with, studying like I’ve never studied before and becoming a Doctor of something (whoa)… together. It’s going to be the very beginning of another adventure, one that will take me into a new decade of life. Sure, I wonder if I’m going to make new friends and who those friends are going to be, what we’ll go through together, how much this program is going to challenge me… But when you’re almost 30 and it’s your first day of school, you’re kind of past worrying about that stuff. At this point, I really just want to show up, kick the door down, walk in, and get this grad school party started. I spent nearly a decade waiting to get to this door — I sure as heck am not going to hesitate to walk in now!

Snow piles. Blizzard 2013. Somerville, MA.

Snow piles. Blizzard 2013. Somerville, MA.

Ahh. As you can see, my mind is stuck between Boston and what I imagine will definitely be a hard place… But let’s keep the focus back on savoring the last few months in Beantown. Please tell me what I need to do/see before I leave. Winter made me a little less adventurous than I’d like to admit, so let’s get this show on the road before I once again hit the road myself.

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Filed under Boston, Healthcare, Life Stuff, Massachusetts, New York City, Photography, School, Somerville, Uncategorized, Winter

Science and Shoes

It was the fall after I graduated college, and I was feeling lost in a corporate dream job that, rather than inspiring me, made me question myself and what I wanted. I tried to wear the pencil skirts and the pretty shoes that all the stylish women wore around me. I tried to play the part of the working twenty-something in the sexy NYC publishing job because, for many reasons, I actually thought I belonged there, in that role, in that chair, in that office, in that skirt… But the shoes felt awkward and, while I did feel sexy in my carefully selected business-casual ensembles, sitting at my desk made me feel like an extra in a mediocre movie. As grateful as I was to be there (and as cool as it often felt, don’t get me wrong!) I usually felt more lost in that chair than found. And I wasn’t the sort of girl who could stay sitting through that feeling.

Bird over Beach. Cancun, Mexico.

Bird over Beach. Cancun, Mexico.

Without telling anyone, I decided to attend an information session for a career I knew almost nothing about. I didn’t even know what schools offered the degree, so I googled “Top Physical Therapy Programs NYC” and ended up at the NYU Steinhardt School, listening intently as the Doctor of Physical Therapy curriculum and the future of the evolving field were explained to me. After spending the previous few months heartbroken and confused, the two hours I spent in that information session brought clarity I hadn’t had in a long time. But when I walked out, things went back to fuzzy.

As reality would have it, I was as far away as anyone could be from “qualified” for the program I wanted to attend. I had 1 out of 12 of the pre-requisites required, I had not taken the GRE, and I had absolutely no experience in the field of physical therapy. My only explanation for how I had “suddenly” gotten interested in PT was receiving treatment for a crew-related back injury my senior spring. But I think I had always been interested in the field, I just didn’t know it existed.

Serpent head. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

Serpent head. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

I walked out of that information session in 2005 excited, invigorated, hopeful and, yes, overwhelmed. Having to complete eleven pre-requisites, from Statistics to upper-level Biology courses, seemed like an impossible boulder I could not remove from my path (which was paved with Spanish, Art History, and Archaeology courses). I tried to talk myself out of the excitement I felt, and attempted to channel it into trips and adventures around the world. Science was like those fancy shoes I wore to work; it was uncomfortable, somewhat foreign, and even in my size I wasn’t sure it was the right fit.

Rainbow in the Yucatan. Mexico.

Rainbow in the Yucatan. Mexico.

Now, eight years later, I am about to walk back into that very same building where that information session took place. It is a crazy feeling to say that — eleven pre-requisites, 10 grad school applications, and many years later — I will be receiving my Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from that very school. Eight freakin’ years, a few broken hearts, a couple trips to the hospital, 14 different countries, an almost book deal, a lot of soul-searching, and some serious soul-finding later, I am now on the other side — of a decade, of a chapter, of a journey of some sort… And I am so ready to walk back in there! It’s going to be another challenge-and-a-half, but if I’ve learned anything in these last eight years, it’s that I can handle it.

The only remaining question is: what shoes will I wear?

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Filed under Healthcare, Life Stuff, Mexico, Photography, Ruins, School, Travel, Uncategorized, wanderlust

At the Mouth of the Well of the Itza

We approached the ancient city, with colorful dresses, hammocks and masks being sold all around us. The heat of the morning was beginning to gain power, but the approach felt easy and short compared to the 3.5 hr bus-ride from Cancun. My mouth felt suddenly dry, and I instantly regretted not taking a water with me. Nevertheless, we knew that just beyond the trees, pyramids from the Mayan city of Chichen Itza waited patiently, as they had been doing for over a thousand years.

Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

It felt particularly relevant to visit Chichen Itza now, so soon after the world was predicted to end. The world, like the structures within this city, still stands strong — although perhaps both are less strong than when they were originally “created,” many footprints ago.

Chichen Itza (its name meaning “at the mouth of the well of the Itza [people]”) was a major religious center on the Yucatan Peninsula from about 600-900 AD. It is now considered one of the 7 Wonders of the World, along with Machu Picchu in Peru, Petra in Jordan, and the Taj Mahal in India, to name a few. The city itself covers about 2 square miles, and is comprised of several large structures, the most famous of which being El Castillo (the Temple of Kukulkan), and also: the Great Ball Court, the Temple of the Warriors, and the Court of a Thousand Columns.

Ball Court. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

Ball Court. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

We emerged from a long dirt pathway shaded by large leafy trees to find ourselves in a giant clearing, with the largest and most impressive structures of the city glaring straight ahead of us. When you first see the giant pyramid, it doesn’t feel totally real. Initially, it just looks impressive and grand, like you’re on the set of an Indiana Jones movie (I hate myself a little for degrading an ancient ruin with an American movie reference — gah, so typical). And then it sinks in: this impressive structure was built hundreds of years ago, by the small hands of an ancient culture that was eventually conquered in the 1530s by the Spanish Conquistador, Francisco de Montejo. Many people lived and died on this turf. And along with them, many traditions.

Relief sculpture along the Ball Court walls. Chichen Itza.

Relief sculpture along the Ball Court walls. Chichen Itza.

El Castillo, or the Temple of Kukulkan, is named after the feathered serpent deity of the Mayan people. At 24 meters high, with 9 square terraces and 18 platforms, marking the 18 months in the Mayan calendar. There are a total of 365 steps, marking the 365 days of the year, and 52 panels, corresponding to the 52 years in the Mayan calendar cycle. (Unfortunately, access to the top of the pyramid was closed after a tourist fell to his death.) Chichen Itza is known for its many structural mysteries, some stemming from astrology and numbers. Among them is one that still draws thousands of people every year, when during the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow of a serpent slithering down the structure is formed to perfection. With the snake, Kukulkan, being a symbol of fertility pointed down at the earth, this effect is believed to suggest the fertilization and thus fruitfulness of the city. Like in Roman culture, the rulers of a city liked to boast. This was ancient advertising.

Serpent. Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza.

Serpent. Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza.

While the Temple of Kukulkan may be the first structure to draw one’s attention, it is the Great Ball Court that becomes the most relatable structure for tourists. Spanning 150 meters and flanked by the slanted relief sculptures of ball teams playing is a giant court where a ritual Mesoamerican game was played. Although the rules of the game are still not known for certain, it seems that players — wearing pads of some sort on their thighs and arms and possibly holding large sticks — fought to keep a 7 lb ball in play, hitting it around like racquetball or field hockey while trying to get the heavy ball through a relatively small hoop 8 meters above the ground. According to my tour guide, the game could last anywhere from hours to days, and ended with sacrificing the captain of the winning team (not very good incentive, if you ask me). There were two teams of 2 to 4 players. Headdresses, gloves, and even capes may have been worn during the games, which often ended in brutal injuries, both inflicted upon by the opposite team and by the solid, heavy ball itself.

King's throne over the ball court. Chichen Itza.

King’s throne over the ball court. Chichen Itza.

The king, sitting at a throne perched over one end of the ball court, would watch the honored players who had trained their whole lives to participate in this ceremonial sport. According to the Popol Vuh and sculptures lining the sides of the ball court, it is believed that the captain of the winning team would receive the honor of being decapitated by the king, thus allowing him a direct passage to heaven. There was even speculation that these heads would end up being used as the ball for future games. (Gotta love ancient cultures — so resourceful!)

Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza.

Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza.

Despite the excitement about all the gore, one of the most interesting things about this ball court (and the rest of the Mayan city) is the acoustics. Someone whispering at one end of the ball court can be heard loud and clear by a person at the other end of the ball court, more than a football field apart. These acoustics were studied and later used in theater construction by Europeans. In addition, the mysterious “chirping” echo created by clapping at the base of El Castillo was believed to mimic the call of the Quetzal bird… But it is hard to know whether or not these things are just archaeological coincidences designed to get tourists really excited.

Ball court "hoop." Chichen Itza.

Ball court “hoop.” Chichen Itza.

When standing anywhere near the Temple of Kukulkan, the Temple of the Warriors cannot be ignored. The structure, surrounded by the Court of a Thousand Columns, houses Chac Mool (“Red Tiger”), who lies in an uncomfortable position at the top of the steps looking out over the rest of the city. His position allowed for offerings (this wouldn’t be a post about the Mayans if I didn’t acknowledge that many of these sacrifices were indeed human, echem), which were made in the flat section across his midsection. Relief sculptures of Toltec warriors surround the perpetually reclined Chac Mool. Feathered serpent heads with open jaws, and even elephant tusks emerge from the walls of the temple, which housed tombs in addition to being used for religious ceremonies. The many columns spanning out from beneath this structure were extremely simple in their structure, but allowed for a tented area that was used as a giant marketplace in the city. Yes, folks: Chichen Itza was quite the happening place to be at the time. It still is.

Chac Mool. Temple of the Warriors. Chichen Itza.

Chac Mool. Temple of the Warriors. Chichen Itza.

There is plenty more to say about the details in the architecture of this city, and about the history of the Mayan people, but that is for the historians and the archaeologists to tell you (I shall refrain from pretending I know more than I do). What I can say is that visiting Chichen Itza as an ex-Spanish and archaeology major just taking the opportunity to make a quick trip to Mexico before returning to pre0med class was — unlike being the winning captain of the ball team — well, super worth it.

Columns. Chichen Itza.

Columns. Chichen Itza.

In college, I was a humanities girl. I spent years looking at art and architecture from the stance of someone trying to interpret and understand another culture through symbolism and relics. Now, I am a science student, looking at an ancient culture and trying to understand what they knew about the world long before we ever thought we could. Chichen Itza is one of those places where art, architecture, history, science (in particular, biology and physics) converge. It is a beautiful, fascinating thing when — despite our thorough understanding of the world at many different levels — so much is still unknown.

I’m glad the world didn’t end — there is still too much left to learn.

Kukulkan sculptures. Chichen Itza.

Kukulkan sculptures. Chichen Itza.

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Filed under Archaeology, Mexico, Ruins, Travel, Uncategorized

Revisiting Mexico, Yucatan-Style

The week before I left, three heads had been found on one of the beach where I was planning to stay. A few weeks earlier, a Canadian tourist had been shot in the lobby of her hotel by the crossfire of gang-related violence. That was the last time I was in Mexico, in 2006. I was 22 and headed to Acapulco, where I would embark on my first assignment as a travel writer. It was the first time I would have to travel alone and I was nervous, but more excited than anything. A dream-job was coming true for me. At the time, nothing could have been better than that.

Chichen Itza. Mexico.

Chichen Itza. Mexico.

With absolutely no training whatsoever and one month to get the job done, I was going to have to pretend (pretty well, considering it would be published) that I was an expert on four different beach resort towns  —  their hotels, bars, restaurants, music scenes, art scenes, ecotourism options, gay scenes, weekend excursions, piña coladas (this part was particularly difficult), and the exhausting list of transportation options (to name a few categories). I had been to Ixtapa as a kid, which was partially how I got the job, but upon my arrival it became very clear very quickly that one week at a Club Med in fourth grade was probably not going to help me with this assignment. I was on my own — really on my own, for the first time — and it was as terrifying as it was thrilling. But so was being 22.

That was seven years ago. When I think back, I realize I wasn’t really alone on that trip: Mexico was with me. When you travel alone in another country, you meet a lot of people (many of whom you don’t want to meet, particularly if you’re a female traveling alone), but you also spend a lot of time hanging out with yourself.  At times, the only other companion you have is the country you’re in.

During that solo trip to Mexico in the summer of 2006, I felt like I bonded with Mexico in a way I hadn’t bonded with another country before. It was my silent friend throughout a month-long journey. It shook during a brief earthquake, letting me know we were both there together, and it warmed my back during long days strolling through markets and side-streets while sampling different ice cream shops.

During that trip, I explored my own character as much as I explored Mexico’s. I had to push myself to do things on a daily basis that felt totally uncomfortable, and I had to convince myself that I was an authority on so many subjects when I couldn’t have felt more like a freshly hatched chick in a foreign world. I grew up a lot during that trip around the state of Guerrero (now a major hot spot for drug war activity). I also formed a special connection with Mexico, the friend I spent every day with for four and a half weeks. When I left, I swore that someday I’d be back.

Making a hammock. Yucatan, Mexico.

Making a hammock. Yucatan, Mexico.

That “someday” was last week. A lot has changed for both me and Mexico, but one thing hasn’t: it’s still one of my favorite countries. Maybe it’s all the bonding time we’ve had together, but I find it misunderstood. When people think of traveling to Mexico these days, they immediately think “dangerous” and “drug wars.” Yes, these two things are a large piece of Mexico’s current reality, and you do have to be careful where you go and how adventurous you get. But — and this was my third trip to Mexico — I can honestly say that I never, at any point, felt unsafe or threatened by anyone around me. The Mexican culture, history, food and landscapes are really complex and beautiful beyond the surface. Granted, I spent most of this trip at a luxurious resort, but it is still worth mentioning that there are so many layers to Mexico worth exploring.

I am guilty of misunderstanding Cancun. It was my first time in the Yucatan region, and I was hesitant to head this direction. Considering it has some of the best deals right now, I would have been silly to ignore it as an option. I am glad I didn’t.

This time around, I was one of the “other” people — the vacationers, not the guidebook writer. I had every right to sit around and do nothing on the beach of a beautiful hotel that someone else had written about, but I tried to squeeze in some culture and history too. And this time around, my career has totally changed. I am now a few months away from beginning grad school to become a Doctor of Physical Therapy. In some ways, I am unrecognizable. But what about Mexico? Who had Mexico become since we last explored each other?

Skulls. Chichen Itza burial site. Mexico.

Skulls. Chichen Itza burial site. Mexico.

Before I left, I imagined Cancun would be seedy, dirty, run-down, full of bars with names like Señor Frog’s and Coco-Bongo, and with drunk American tourists to match.  What I found was pristine, white sandy beaches with the most stunning gradient of blue water. Along with relatively responsibly-tipsy Americans, I encountered Brazilian, European and Mexican tourists lining the not-overly-crowded pool and beach areas, and gorgeous landscaping at every turn. It was clearly the off-season, and with much construction (brand new hotels and malls cropping up every 100 feet), I could see how crazy this island could get (did you know Cancun is an island?). But, thankfully, crazy wasn’t what I got during my trip. Words I’d use to describe Cancun based on my recent experience would be peaceful, beautiful, refreshing… and misunderstood, by me at least. Except for the unexpected cold rain during my first two days down there, I was happily surprised by most of it. Maybe Mexico was surprised with me this time around, too.

I’ll write more about my visit to Chichen Itza in a later post. For now, I just wanted to quickly tip my hat to the Mexico I revisited. On my trip home the other day, a song came on the radio. The song was one that played all the time when I was in Mexico seven years earlier, alone and uncertain but thrilled to be doing what I was doing. I was on an adventure, if nothing else. This time around, as I listened to the song, I couldn’t help but smile: There I was — the same me, on a completely different trip to Mexico, awash in another adventure, but so much has changed. So many lessons have been learned and so many trips have occurred in-between. I couldn’t help but think about everything that had happened between that song then and that song now, like two book ends neatly holding together a collection of very different stories.

Ocean blues. Cancun, Mexico.

Ocean blues. Cancun, Mexico.

When the song ended, a new one came on. It had no direct association to a memory of any kind, so I just listened. While the nostalgia from the previous song retreated into my mind like a giant, swirling wave, it left behind some fresh, untouched sand. I thought about switching stations, but instead I just let the new song play. As I listened, the first few footprints were made in the freshly cleared sand.

I smiled to myself as I sat alone, with a crisp new tan already beginning to fade, feeling anything but alone this time around.

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Filed under Mexico, Solo Travel, Travel, Uncategorized, wanderlust

Tourist in my Hometown

New York City can be a lot of things — cold, frustrating, exhausting, lonely, grey — but it never gets old, even to a native New Yorker. After spending decades living in Manhattan, a visit to my hometown can still feel exciting, invigorating, new, and perhaps above all, inspiring.

Over the past few weeks, during an unusually long break between classes, I have had the opportunity to explore my hometown in a new way. This time, I have been the visitor (complete with having to crash in other people’s apartments due to a renovation project at my parents’ place), and in many ways, I have felt like a tourist. When new opportunities enter your life in an old city, things get shaken up — it’s a good thing. A great thing, actually.

This shaken-up (not stirred) version of NYC that I am seeing is particularly well-timed, as I am pretty sure that I will be returning to Manhattan for graduate school this summer. I have mixed feelings about going home. As is usually the case, there are pros and cons to this move (I am really enjoying life in Boston! Maybe I’ll be back some day…). But, in the end, after evaluating the logistics and the life goals, attending this particular program in New York just feels like the right decision. All we can do is make “right” decisions to the best of our ability as we go, so that’s what I’m trying to do. Eventually, you just have to make them turn into right decisions.

While I want to list all the awesome new places I got to explore (including a bar built into an old NYC carriage house where I sampled the best Manhattan I have ever had — when in Rome, right?), and the cool things I have been doing during my visit (listening to The Moth storytelling in Williamsburg, and attending a five-course chef tastings in Soho, to name a couple highlights), I thought I’d just share a few images of NYC from my trip. Over the last few weeks, this uptown girl spent a lot of time in a downtown world, complete with multiple walks around the WTC site, sky-high views of the entire city, and an early morning stroll by the Hudson River, with the pink of a new day bouncing off a surprisingly pretty NJ backdrop.

My relationship with New York City has been long, and it has had its ups and downs. But I feel like we are now moving into a new phase of life together; we’ve both grown up a lot, survived our own trials and tribulations, weathered our own storms, and risen up from the wreckage of lessons-learned. NYC is an old friend — one I know so well that it sometimes frustrates me, but one that also knows exactly how to make me smile when I need it. And no matter how many times I go to New York, or how many years I live there, it still manages to take my breath away. So NYC, I guess you could say we’re still going strong. This post is for you.

Upper West Side Street

Upper West Side Street

Manhattan view looking north from downtown.

Manhattan view looking north from downtown.

Skyscrapers. NY, NY.

Skyscrapers. NY, NY.

Southern tip of Manhattan, Freedom Tower to the right.

Southern tip of Manhattan, Freedom Tower to the right.

Freedom Tower up close. NY, NY.

Freedom Tower up close. NY, NY.

Totally Normal. West Village, NY.

Totally Normal. West Village, NY.

Spices. Chelsea Market, NYC.

Spices. Chelsea Market, NYC.

One Star and Sky. Time Warner Center window.

One Star and Sky. Time Warner Center window.

Columbus Circle. NY, NY.

Columbus Circle. NY, NY.

South Street Seaport, post-Hurricane Sandy. NY, NY.

South Street Seaport, post-Hurricane Sandy. NY, NY.

Early Morning Walk along the Hudson River.

Early Morning Walk along the Hudson River.

Foggy Night in Downtown NYC.

Foggy Night in Downtown NYC.

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Filed under Life Stuff, New York City, Photography, Uncategorized, Winter