The 2018 Election: A Day as a Poll Worker


Image Credit: Casey Roberts/Unsplash

It is pitch black outside when I wake up. At 5:00 am, it is too early for this night owl to function, and yet I must, since I have to be at the polls in just over an hour to set up. It’s election day: November 6, 2018. I stumble in my groggy stupor to the bathroom, and realize I don’t have time to wash my hair, so me and my bed head will have to do. As we hop into the car, my dad, asks if I’ve brought any candy or snacks. I say that I’ve brought an apple for him. My dad just responds, “Maybe I’ll fast today.” I text our poll inspector that we’re running ten minutes late as we breeze through the dark, winding streets of our hometown of Lafayette and then the neighboring town of Moraga, where we’ll be volunteering as poll workers together. In a fortunate stroke, we got placed at the same polling location, so we carpool and prepare for a day of civic duty and father-daughter bonding.

We stroll into a school library with its colorful maps and computers and middle-grade novels, which has been repurposed today for arguably the most vital of our democratic processes: election day. We greet our fellow poll workers and get to work assembling one of the red-white-blue voting booths while our fellow workers ready the ballot scanning device, set up the check-in stations and display ballot translation guides in Spanish, Mandarin, Korean and other languages. Although I speak Spanish, I’m not sure how many of the other poll workers here are multilingual. I tack a voter’s bill of rights to the staid blue library door.

Two or three eager voters line up to vote early, and we advise them to patiently wait until the fast-approaching 7 am poll opening time. About 6:58, the poll workers assemble, right hands raised, to take the poll worker’s oath. I don’t remember the words, but the solemn nature of the process makes me feel like I’m back in elementary school reciting the pledge of allegiance. And then we take our designated places. Three of us (including me) check voter registration in alphabetical order by last name, one table each for A-F, G-O, and P-Z. One person staffs the eligibility review station where a clerk helps individuals who need provisional ballots if their name doesn’t appear on the voter rolls.  Another man sits at the final station where he hands out ballots in a dark green envelope to the voter, so they can fill out those ovals in privacy. Another clerk shuffles around supplies, and our last clerk stands by the ballot scanning device, waiting to assist people. And then, our inspector yells, “Polls open!”

I make a mental note every time I see a young twenty-something person or eighteen-year-old strolling up to the polls, but there are not nearly enough. A few, like the black first-time teenage voter with an easy-going smile, stand out from the pack of forty and fifty and sixty-something-year-olds. Other children, barely tall enough to see over the registration table, stare wide-eyed around them as their parents cast their ballots. They can’t vote, but we give ‘em the perks of an ‘I Voted’ sticker anyway. Their treat for coming to the polls and (mostly) not crying. Several voters appear to be English-language learners, and it warms my heart to see these older individuals (mostly Asian but also a few Middle Eastern and Hispanic individuals) show up to the polls this largely white suburb.

I check-in a young man and his mother on the voter rolls. The young man, possibly an individual with a learning disability, sits on the floor reading a library book as his mother completes the ballot on his behalf. But when I talk about it with my father afterwards, I realize it’s much the same as an individual who has a physical handicap authorizing someone else to fill out their ballot on their behalf. Another voter scoffs when the poll worker to my left, an older retired woman, tells her that we don’t require proof of ID in California. “I could say I was anyone!” the female voter says, astonished, as she returns her driver’s license to her wallet. Another blonde woman with an accent, possibly European, grows angry as we direct her to fill out a provisional ballot because she is a vote-by-mail voter and her name does not appear on the voter rolls. ”We should be making it easier [to vote],” she retorts. I’m generally inclined to agree with her, but I don’t say this aloud because that’s not my place. We make no talk of voter requirements, politics or party affiliation here.

Meanwhile, the scanner gets jammed as an impatient voter too hastily feeds her ballots into the scanner, and the waiting line grows long. One woman checking-in at my table wonders if she should come back later to vote. But, fortunately, the machines recovers and the tiny dings that indicate the machine’s functioning, continue unimpeded. My nametag falls off at some point during the day, but I’m too busy to replace it. A few poll watchers—or concerned citizens monitoring the electoral process—swing by, including a woman who wonders why our duplicate voter rosters are not presently available for public viewing. We’re still updating the duplicate voter rosters and checking off who has come to the polls to vote, so she says she’ll return later, which she does, coughing profusely as she runs her fingers through the roster.

The steady stream of voters throughout the day keeps us busy, but there are moments of respite, which allow us poll workers to interact with each other like normal human beings. The inspector running our polling place is a bearded fellow around my age, but among the clerks (AKA the rest of us poll workers), I’m the only person there under the age of 40, though I don’t realize this until my fellow poll workers comment on how young I am. Multiple times. My fellow poll workers are mostly retirees. Including me, there are three women. The rest are men. We get along, crack a few jokes and cover for each other during bathroom breaks. During the moments of downtime, we chat about the brisk morning weather and one poll worker’s easily excited Siberian husky who can’t be let off leash in public. Our inspector brings around a pastel-pink box filled with donuts, and another poll worker gives me hell for eating the one with sprinkles.

Although this is my first time working the polls, the other poll workers keep remarking what a great turnout this has been compared to previous midterms. And slowly, but surely, we fill out not one, but two blue bags bulging with vote-by-mail and provisional ballots. And the ticker on the ballot scanning device (where people voting in-person at the polls scan their ballots) creeps from 70 to 140 to 200 to 350 voters and beyond as people schlep straight from the office to the polls in the evening hours. But then the sun sets (too early—curse you, daylight savings time) and the swell of voters ebbs to a mere trickle. We run out of “I Voted” stickers, much to the chagrin of the dwindling voters. Two or three last stragglers complete their provisional ballots and we begin to take down the signage and close up shop. Then at the stroke of eight, the inspector yells, “Polls…are…closed!”

We begin to tally up the number of voters who have signed in on the voter rolls, which feels like a high-stakes grade-school arithmetic exercise, with the fate of democracy in our hands. Sort of. When we compare our count with the automatic results of the ballot scanning device, we’re only off by one signature/vote, which the inspector tells me isn’t bad. I tack the election results from the ballot scanning device, listed on a seemingly endless paper—like a CVS receipt—to the library’s front door as the inspector places the results of the days election in the all-important red security bag, which the county will use to report the night’s results to the media. The other clerks remove the ballots from the black scanning device and seal them up in lime-green boxes. I assist in packing and sorting the hundreds of provisional ballots and vote-by-mail (VBM) ballots into their own clear, plastic bags. Then we round everything into truck of their inspector’s car as we say our farewells in the now-empty school parking lot.

The inspector needs a clerk to accompany him to drop off the results and the completed ballot, which I do, while my dad follows in his car. And then the day is done. The election is over. At home, the headache of anticipating the results awaits. But as tiring as the day was, it was probably less stress-inducing than watching the results flicker in on CNN or Fox or your cable news station of choice. Would I do it again? I’d be open to it. I’m moving to LA in a few months, and if I do work the polls again there, I hope to see more diversity on all fronts—both in voters and in the poll workers. But for now, here’s a little slice of what it’s like from the other side of the registration table. For those who showed up to the polls or canvassed to turn out the vote: thank you. And please: thank your poll worker.

Watching ‘The Bachelor’ in the #MeToo era — and why I’m done with it.

The Bachelor: twenty-five or so women (largely blonde, most under the age of thirty) vie for a man who has as much personality as a Milk Dud (the least appealing of all the Halloween candies).


My love for The Bachelor franchise has been dwindling for some time now, and granted, the fact that Arie–a schmuck whose repertoire includes phrases such as “awesome,’ ‘like,’ ‘wow’ and ‘excitement’–helms this show doesn’t exactly help matters.


Awkward Arie above.

But there’s something else that’s preventing me from following-through beyond Arie’s robotic incantations. In the era of #MeToo, how can I justify watching a show premised on women throwing themselves (and other female contestants under the bus) at a man who quite frankly they might have swiped left on Tinder?  A show premised on marriage as the end-all-be-all of a woman’s ambitions, which feels so antiquated in this day and age. (And real talk: only like, what, five percent of the people who make it to the final rose end walking down the aisle with the Bachelor? There’s a full list from 2017 here of who’s still together. Though two of the couples on this list are no longer together, so…)

When I heard that Jacqueline, arguably the most refreshing contestant on this show, basically gave herself the boot so she could go home to complete her PhD and not have to resign herself to selling real estate in Scottsdale, Arizona with Arie, I cheered. The women on this show deserve better than what they signed up for. Sure, the majority probably came on for an expenses-free vacation and a shot at selling kitty litter on Instagram, but I’m not going to begrudge them for that.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get married, but we’re at a pivotal moment in which women are re-negotiating their worth in the workplace and in the home–well why not do it on reality TV too?

I’d be much more interested in a reality TV show that depicts, how say, women negotiate the reality of being single in a world where we’re expected to be in wedded bliss with a bun in the oven by the age of 30. How do they handle dating, sex, and the workplace in the age of the iPhone? Like Sex and the City, but you know, actually realistic. We’ll call it Single Ladies (once I obtain the copyright from Beyoncé).

So, I’m standing by my decision: I’m officially done with The Bachelor franchise (though I still hold out hope that my proposed single ladies TV show will one day become reality). From now on, instead of viewing fabricated villains and contrived romance onscreen, I’ll instead waste my spare time binge-watching the 550th season of Grey’s Anatomy and writing lowbrow young adult fiction. My parents will be thrilled.

But, even if I’m not watching The Bachelor, I’ll still probably still shame-read #TheBachelor tweets from time to time. After all, who can pass on tweets like these?

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I’m a Patriot: Here’s What That Means to Me (Plus Expectations for 2018)

Hello blogosphere!

It’s been far too long since I’ve posted. But let’s be real: most of you (except for my devoted parents) probably haven’t noted my absence or ardently pined for my hot takes on media criticism, pop culture and general life in Trumplandia. Journalism grad school life at NYU keeps me busy, and when I’m not procrastinating on one assignment, I’m drowning in thesis hell and/or commuting on the Staten Island ferry for said thesis (long story — hopefully I can share part of the thesis with you all in the future…once it gets done. UGH). True story: the Staten of Liberty gets REAL boring when you’ve seen it more than a dozen times on the ferry. And don’t even get me started about the incessant waves of tourists trying to snap the perfect selfie…

But 2018 is here, and I’m all about turning over a new leaf, putting the pessimism behind me, and changing the world one article at a time.


Okay, well, maybe some of that is a bit lofty. Here are some more realistic PERSONAL EXPECTATIONS (not goals, ugh, that word alone makes me feel like I’m going on a diet):

1) I promise to blog at least once more this semester! Totally doable, though not as often as I would like.

2) Eat healthier! Maybe lift those weights I bought once a week. Get sick less! Eat more fruit.

3) Survive this semester intact with completed thesis in hand come May. (Not really an expectation so much as a requirement of my degree, but I’ll stack this up here as a formality).

4) Publish 1-2 other longform nonfiction pieces that have been sitting in the ‘to-pitch’ pile. Editors: expect a flurry of pitches coming your way!

5) Post more photos on Instagram (just not selfies). Take better photos. Learn how to use my off-camera flash.

6) Shut up the voices in my head that won’t stop chattering and get some creative fiction published (or read by someone other than my dad). I still hope to continue working as a freelance journalist after my program, but I’m realizing more and more that the fever dreams, random shower thoughts and journaling frenzying won’t stop unless I put onto the page some of the the fictional broohaha that I can’t really tap into as a journalist/nonfiction writer. And plus, I might as well capitalize on my love of film and TV and instead of binge-watching Netflix on Sundays in my ugly, off-gray sweatpants, actually do something about it!

So will I move to LA tomorrow and become a wannabe screenwriter on Sunset Boulevard? Probably not quite that soon, but I’m trending more in that direction. So, my expectation is: apply to at least 1-2 screenwriting fellowships/contests, and finish and revise a screenplay. And complete a first draft of a novel and/or get a short story published. It may seem like I’m shooting for the moon here, but hey, I’m twenty-five, which is the new sixteen. And when I get that first screenplay or novel done, I will throw myself the sweet-sixteen birthday party I never had. Except it will be replete with champagne and other delightful bubblies I could not have legally consumed as a teenager.

7) Do more random acts of kindness. The world could do with more generosity. And call my parents and brother more often (hey guys! I still love you kthxbye).

POLITICAL/BIG WORLD REFLECTIONS: Personal woes aside, it’s been a pretty heavy start to 2018. The Golden Globes happened! With fewer people of color represented than I would have liked. I’m still reeling from the fact that Issa Rae did not win best actress for the black female-centric comedy Insecure, though I loved Sterling K. Brown winning for his role in the heartwrenching drama This is Us. But sexual harrassment was front and center, with many actors and actresses sporting Time’s Up pins and calling out a culture of sexual violence.

Though many of the men weirdly omitted any mention of sexual harrassment in their acceptances (not totally surprised), leaving the emotional labor of leading the #TimesUp movement to women like Natalie Portman, who boldly challenged the Globes’ failure to nominate any female directors. And Oprah! Oprah gave a rousing speech that led many to speculate she should be the next 2020 Democratic candidate. Ehh, as much as I adore Oprah, not sure I love this trend of celebrity candidates…can someone call the DNC and tell them to get their act together?


In other news: online outlet published an explosive account earlier in January. In the story, anonymous 23-year-old “Grace” accused Aziz Ansari of sexual misconduct on a date that they went on last year. Journalist Katie Way detailed that story in incisive — perhaps almost too literary(?)–detail. ( is loosely considered journalism, but its ethically questionable writing of Grace’s story leads me to debate its as a news source…) This story prompted every single writer and Internet commenter to simultaneously decry Grace’s story as both sexual assault and just a ‘bad date.’

My take: it’s somewhere in between the horrific acts of Harvey Weinstein and unwanted catcalls (both of which are unacceptable, by the way, just on opposite ends of the sexual violence spectrum). I think that there needs to be room in the #MeToo movement to encompass these gray areas where women’s consent is not necessarily respected but falls short of the legal definition of sexual assault. And more discussion of enthusiastic consent (YES MEANS YES x 1000), how men should pay more attention to the cues of their partners, and how women can better empower themselves in these kind of situations.

And also, more responsible reporting from journalistic outlets that can generate nuanced conversations on this issue. I’m looking at you, But I am glad that this piece has begun to surface those necessary discussions. Hopefully an outspoken ‘feminist’ like Ansari will treat future female partners with the respect that they deserve. You’d think a guy who wrote an entire book entitled Modern Romance would know more about enthusiastic consent, but I digress…

Other not-so-great news: The government also shut down on the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration. What an auspicious way to commemorate the first year in office! I was an intern in DC during the last government shutdown in 2013, and let me tell you, it was not a great time for those few weeks. It was a big media and national feeding frenzy. It’s so indicative of the very different times we live in that a government shutdown nowadays barely registers on the political/national consciousness (except for, hey, countless government workers and soldiers who won’t be getting paid, but that’s another story).

And DACA STILL hasn’t been renewed (where’s that Dream Act, Congress?), leaving hundreds of thousands of young immigrants in the lurch. Temporary Protected Status (TPS) has been revoked for many other immigrants, leaving countless Haitians and El Savadorans without legal status — effectively de-legalizing them after they’ve lived for years, even decades, in the U.S.

But on a more positive note: Yesterday, millions of women marched from Colorado Springs to New York in honor of another anniversary: the inaugural Women’s March. Last year, I wrote a long piece about the women’s march and my participation in it. I was fresh into my journalistic career, and despite the fear of what may unfold in 2017, I was buoyed by the resilience I saw around me.

This year, I opted not to join the march, and instead partake in quiet reflection of where the country stands (and me). Over the years, I’ve had many, many discussions of what it means to be an American. My parents left their home country — virtually, everything they knew and everyone they loved — and came to this country. They sacrificed a lot. The U.S since become their home. And mine, too. I don’t want to flee to Canada or settle down and marry a European boo (though I’d certainly love to travel more — eyeing those cheap Spirit Airlines tickets!). I want to stay, no matter how tough things get. Because this is my country. And it’s the country of countless Americans, many of whom were not born here, but contribute to its lifeblood and economy all the same. #HeretoStay

Yesterday, I realized, that in my own way, I am a PATRIOT. Not in the mainstream sense of the word, which prizes insularity, isolationism and American exceptionalism. Nor in the more militaristic sense of the word, which brings to mind the muscular, macho heroes of Independence Day and Die Hard. And yet, I’m a patriot all the same. Whether in my previous duties as a human rights activist or in my current line of work as a reporter-writer, I’ve always striven to better my country. To know its ugly history of oppression and modern-day reality of oppression. To work to bring it closer into existence with the words enshrined in the Declaration of Independence (amendment by me), while understanding the both privileges I hold and the challenges that face me:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

And here are the things I’ll do as a PATRIOT to make that happen:

1) Continue to engage with individuals I may personally disagree with, and truly see from their point-of-view (and represent it accurately on the page). This is essential not only in my work as a journalist, but also as a human being residing in a very polarized country.

2) Immerse myself in worlds other than the NYC literary milieu (it’s very easy to get sucked up in this bubble).

3) Donate to organizations working to aid struggling and under-served communities. For folks looking for suggestions, my former employer, The Leadership Conference is a great one. The ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center are also top-notch. But also consider donating to local charities, which oftentimes don’t do the hard work but don’t receive the kind of funding that their national counterparts do. A highly-respected nonprofit in the San Francisco Bay Area is the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, which provides legal and educational services to immigrants in need. I used to volunteer there, and can vouch that they’re lovely people who do essential work for their community.

4) Write both nonfiction and fiction that builds bridges between different communities, promotes greater equity and diverse representation, and elevates the voices of indigenous, disabled, female and people of color.

5) Watch lesser-known TV and films — especially ones that increase awareness of key human rights concerns. On my watch-list is the documentary On Her Shoulders about Yazidi activist Nadia Murad, who suffered horrific abuse at the hands of ISIS militants and now speaks out on behalf of her people.

And the latest adaption of White Fang! Okay, fewer relevant social justice issues there, but my roommates recently adopted a dog, and I cried reading Jack London’s book, so this is on the list.

6) In order to better understand my own country, it’s good to have some distance from my usual stomping ground. So I’d like to travel to one more new state or country before the year is up. Louisiana? Japan? Peru? North Dakota?

What are your expectations for 2018? Did you partake in the Women’s March? What’s on your reading/binge-watching/writing list for the upcoming year? Thoughts on the current media landscape? Do share!

With much love,


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Oh, My Sweet Summer Child (Tales from Maine and Boston)

Bonus points for anyone who gets the reference in the title! Hint: Game of Thrones…
“You know panhandling has gotten out of control when people are asking for weed.” The taxi driver, who has been rather taciturn for most of our drive so far from Bangor to Bar Harbor, Maine, points out a young, bedraggled man holding up a sign politely requesting donations in the form of marijuana. As a former resident of Berkeley, California, where the stench of pot and the sight of panhandlers was part of my daily walk to the UC Berkeley campus, this sort of thing doesn’t really faze me, but I am surprised to see it in this remote, northeastern corner of our country.
Welcome to Maine.
Views from the Cadillac North Ridge Trail.
Mount Desert Island (pronounced ‘Dessert’ by local ‘Mainiacs’) is a strange, breathtaking place. It is the sixth-largest island in the United States, and is home to Acadia National Park and quaint seaport towns like Bar Harbor (properly enunciated as ‘BAR HARBAH’) and Northeast Harbor. As I gather, apart from the peak summer and early fall months when tourists descend on the lush island.
Through National Park Service signs, local bookstores and museums, I learn that I am far from the first summer visitor to set foot on this island. Rusticators, as these summer tourists to Maine were called, first came to Mount Desert Island in the 1800s and built summer cottages and hotels. Over time, the major port, Bar Harbor, became known for rowdy corralling, while the more genteel residents settled in Northeast Harbor, Southwest Harbor and other areas of the island. Today, although there are only 10,000 or so permanent residents on Mount Desert Island, more than three million tourists visited Acadia National Park in 2016. Wow! For a smaller national park, Acadia does pretty well for itself.
Photos from the summit of Cadillac Mountain.
Blueberries. Blueberries. Blueberries. Unlike most folks who descend upon Maine to consume their body weight in the most infamous of crustaceans — the lobster — I have my sweet tooth set on a juicy berry.
It starts on my first day before setting out to hike on the trail. Instead of renting a car, I decide to take a risk and get by using Acadia’s Free Island Explorer Bus. It’s so nice to be able to soak in breathtaking views without having to also keep an eye on the road.
Anyway, when the friendly bus driver  points out a nice blueberry patch to passengers, I immediately form a game plan. A few seconds later as I get off at the Cadillac North-Ridge trail stop, I backpedal to pick up some blueberries to enjoy after I reach the summit of Cadillac Mountain, the highest peak on Mount Desert Island (and also, fun fact: the first place in the United States to see the sunrise).
Snapshots of Bubble Pond from the Cadillac South Ridge Trail
Now, I can just hear my father saying: “Why go to Maine and pick blueberries when you can come home and pick berries for free?” Oh Dad. (For context: my father has cultivated a large, lovely orchard over the years. But picking berries in the 95 degree California heat isn’t quite as pleasant as foraging for blueberries in the cool mountain air of Maine.)
Later on in my trip, I will consume a delectable blueberry crisp topped with ice cream, a dangerously intoxicating blueberry vodka drink, and a blueberry soaker (a carbonated blueberry beverage similar in texture to a root beer soda). Needless to say, I leave Maine satisfied with fruity delights.
I set off on the Cadillac North Ridge trail with fresh berries, my camera, tripod, clear skies, and the sun shining overhead. As it’s a moderate trail, I’m able to ascend without too much difficulty, and reaped the rewards. I set my camera up on the tripod, and click away at panoramic views of blue skies, majestic ponds, boats, green tree lines and rocky mountains.
After lunching on the summit, I make the foolish decision to set off on a different path down the mountain from the one I had climbed. I’m normally a moderate level trail hiker, so I pause momentarily when I see the ‘difficult’ marker on the trail. But this cute family with kids is climbing up the mountain, and I’m like, if they can do it, why not me?
WRONG. Going down a steep cliff side climb teeming with unstable rocks is way harder than going up. Sliding down a rock, I even tear a hole in the seam of my (admittedly cheap) pants, and am grateful that there was no one on the trail to see my undergarments peeking out! But after an hour and half went by without seeing another hiker on the trail, I started sweating bullets. Fortunately, the trail has markers to guide hikers. These markers are called cairns, which are really just piles of rock, but they really can make the difference between life and death.
But oh, are the views worth it! Tip: wear sturdy shoes — hiking shoes, preferably. And yes, I do make it off the trail alive to catch the last bus back to Bar Harbor and write this blog post.
My pants are still ripped, though.
I feel a lot of nostalgia and longing for California when I was here. Acadia combines a lot of the varied terrain of Northern California that I love (the still blue waters and forests of Lake Tahoe, the rocky cliffs and chilly beaches of Point Reyes…).
The next few days after that initial hike are replete with so many wonderful memories — mostly of achy joints…just kidding…well, semi-kidding.  It’s hard to encapsulate everything into a neat summary, but I’ll do my best. I am enthralled by the relatively moderate hike up the tiny Gorham Mountain (elevation 525 ft), which offers lovely panoramic views of Acadia National Park, including of Sand Beach (where I stop for a moment to soak my aching feet in the chilly water and photograph a posing crab).
Taken from atop Gorham Mountain and Cadillac Mountain.
Views from Sand Beach and Gorham Mountain.
The Bubble Rock trail features a large boulder that is seemingly precariously balancing on a precipice, making for fun photo-ops. When I ascend to the summit of the Bubble Rock trail head, I’m rewarded with the most scenic view of forests surrounding by ponds surrounded by the open ocean and numerous little islets.
Sights from the Bubble Rock trail.
I make mad dashes through verdant forests filled with delicately spongy moss and vibrant lichen, only to finally reach the ethereal Eagle Lake. Seriously, I felt like I was walking through a Hayao Miyazaki film half the time I was in the park. Beyond surreal.
Views from Eagle Lake and Bubble Rock.
Somewhere in between, I find time for a jaunt on the local mail ferry to the Cranberry Isles, which are smaller islands just off the coast of Mount Desert Island. The mail ferry is the only way to get items shipped to and from these little islands, and boy does the ferry carry everything! Including a full-sized refrigerator. Numerous boats (with some pretty memorable names) dock in the small harbors as we land at the two major islands (Great Cranberry Island and Little Cranberry Island) here. Along the way, we pass by the iconic lighthouse on Bear Island. Can’t stop by Maine without seeing a lighthouse.


Mainly, I bask in the quiet, rustic nature of the islands,  walk along the rocky seashores strewn with the wreckage of lobster tails — like a gruesome battlefield — and marvel at not only the piles of lobster tackle boxes, but also the small town nature of the communities here. I wonder what it must be like for a kid to grow up and go to school on a small island where everyone knows everybody else, when you’re here long into the chilly winter months when all the summer rusticators are up and gone. The islands are beautiful, particularly a stretch along the rock beach at Great Cranberry Island which ends in the picturesque Coast Guard station.
Another day, another lighthouse: after missing my cruise and rescheduling for tomorrow, I spontaneously hop on a new Island Explorer bus route and make my way past stately homes in Southwest Harbor, and then hope off the bus to check out the Bass Harbor lighthouse. Pesky mosquitoes and the the ever-looming presence of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (I guess you can’t escape it, even in remote Maine) aside, the rocky cliffs by the lighthouse are are a stunning place to sit back and enjoy the view while gamboling in the tide pools below.
And although most of my breakfasts and lunches consist of trail snacks and mini croissants, I do stop for a regal lunch at Jordan Pond House, a must-visit spot for any visitor to Acadia National Park (but make reservations in advance if you go!). Its star item is the popover, a delicate pastry that is best described as a crossover between a roll and a croissant. You crack it open to its fluffy core and slather it with fruit preserves and butter. When doused down with a cold blueberry lemonade, it’s a damn near perfect summertime meal.
Finally learning how to use the self-timer on my camera, I take some selfies on the rocky red outcroppings near Thunder Hole, a geographic wonder in which you can see this cavern flush and drain with water at alarmingly fast rates. I don’t hear any thunderous noises, but you maybe you wil!
Thunder Hole
And although I don’t spot much wildlife, I do take in some remarkable birds. One of the most memorable is the peregrine falcon, whose nesting spot has actually shut down one of the park’s more popular trails. Luckily, some rangers are kind enough to point out the flying eagle soaring over the cliff side, and I get a neat view through their telescope.
The coolest avian species I encountered was probably the puffin though. For those of you Iceland buffs, this bird will be familiar, but it was the first time I had ever seen it. It is remarkably smaller than I expected, and it possesses a largely black body and vivid orange beak. I just wish I could have gotten closer to it, as I can only spot it through my telephoto lens while on a cruise around Acadia Park.
Puffins, falcons and other birds. 
I also catch a glimpse (but no photo, sadly) of the minke whale, a remarkably fast critter that never bobs its head up for more than a few seconds, but whose circular ‘footprint’ lingers behind in the water for some time afterward. All in all, I would highly recommend going on a cruise if you come to Acadia (again, book in advance, but be aware that they do cancel if the weather gets too bad), but I would suggest you do it on a day when you can be assured of relatively decent weather. On the day I went, it was pouring rain half the time, and the other half, while I was scouting for whales atop the ship, the wind threatened to rip my hood in half. It was an experience, to say the least!
More views from the cruise ship, primarily of islands off the coast of Mount Desert.
Actually, the day that I go on the cruise is the same day that I’m checking out of my sparse motel. As I have no car, I have to haul my luggage with me onto the boat. On my way in, one crew member just guffaws and says: “People don’t usually bring their entire hotel with them…” On the way out, he grins and notes sardonically: “Leaving so soon?”
You know, although the natural beauty of Acadia is clearly the highlight of the trip, some of the most poignant memories came from those that I shared with others.
I meet a family from South Carolina after ascending to the top of the Bubble Rock trail, and while enjoying the views, we chatted about the son’s work on a golf course in Hilton Head, South Carolina. When I mention I’m a journalist, the son replies: “Well, you can write about this” and gestures to beautiful scenery around us.
A jovial professor from DC (my former abode before New York) who teaches theater fills me in on all the latest political mishaps in the White House (which I had until then been avoiding with some degree of success on the trails).
A single woman who I meet on the ferry back from the Cranberry Isles tells me about how she was cleaning up the home of her elderly parents on Little Cranberry Island, and how she worries about the job prospects for her daughter, who is not much older than me and studies a form of creative writing. She recalls how she once worked for a Republican congressman in Maine, which she could no more see doing in today’s political climate than she could imagine jumping off the ferry and swimming back to the island.
A woman who hawks sports memorabilia spends a good twenty minutes chatting with me about the San Francisco Giants’ recent wins in the World Series and — after learning about my current and former professions — about the need for credible journalists and also the current dysfunction on Capitol Hill.
And of course, plenty of friendly locals, bus drivers and other tourists give me ample advice and friendly smiles.
The only thing I’d remark on is that I wish I saw more people of color in Acadia — the rate of attendance of people of color in the U.S. National Park System could definitely use some work, and I saw especially few in Acadia — but I hope as more people like myself tell their stories of their wonderful experiences, this will change.
People marvel when I tell tell them I’m traveling by myself, but really, I’m never alone.

After several hours of sitting in the Bar Harbor airport because apparently there is water on the runway at Logan International (which is apparently a load of bull, according to a fellow passenger who happens to be a pilot, but I digress), I finally make it to Boston. Apart from a conference a few months back, I haven’t been to Boston since I was a kid. My opinions of the city have been formed primarily through repeat viewings of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, which is a totally accurate depiction of the city, obviously.

Our close family friends, Prakash Uncle, Saila Aunty and their son, Neel,  pick me up at the airport and we head to Boston’s Chinatown for some delicious hot pot. Perhaps the only hot pot I’ve tried…ever? I feel wildly uncultured, but it makes a great first impression. I love dropping the slices of meat and veggies into the bubbling broth and having insta-made soup thirty seconds later.

We head to Uncle and Aunty’s home in a town some twenty minutes outside of Boston, which, apparently, is where Paul Revere held some sort of clandestine revolutionary meeting? I’m like, cool, but this is Boston, where every single building enormous historical significance. First town meeting hall, secret rendezvous spots in seventeenth-century churches…if you told me the first port-a-potty had been built in Boston, I would probably believe you.

Hanging out with Saila Aunty and Prakash Uncle in front of their home.

The next day, after a meal of homemade upma (a delightful South Indian breakfast dish), Uncle kindly plays tour guide and we drive around the downtown Boston, dodging parking tickets and generally having a blast.

You can’t see Boston without checking out the museum dedicated to the Boston Tea Party. I think we’re all fairly well versed on the incident (blah blah taxation without representation, screw King George III, etc etc), so I’ll skip the SparkNotes brief, but as a history nerd, Boston is a pretty exciting city! Tributes to Paul Revere are everywhere. Note to self: don’t diss Sam Adams — the beer, not the revolutionary hero — when you return to Boston. Bostonians do NOT approve.

Contrary to popular belief, Revere did not actually utter the famous quote “The British are coming” because at the time, the revolutionaries were still technically British, so that’d be like running through the streets of Boston today chanting ‘The Americans are coming!” There are ladies dressed in traditional colonial ware and , which is a little tacky, but I’ll forgive it. There’s a replica ship which I admire from afar, and a lot of ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ T-shirts in the gift shop.

Next, we hit Boston’s historic North End, a hodgepodge of Italian and Irish-American communities. Irish and Italian flags sail from the doorsteps. And cannolis — that delectable Italian fried dough filled with creamy goodness! Can’t forget the cannolis from the tourist trap Mike’s Pastry, best consumed with some Italian espresso from a shop down the streets.

Then it’s off to various other historic sites from the famous Freedom Trail in Boston, including the circle marking where the Boston Massacre occurred, the old State House of the legislature, the new State House of the legislature, the original bar that gave rise to the TV show Cheers, the first public garden in the U.S, and a cemetery where Paul Revere and some other less famous dudes are buried (with eerie skull and bones engraved into their tombstones…what’s up with that?). Along the way, my  Indian-made slipper breaks in half, and I hobble my way to a retail store where they sell sandals for the ungodly price of $4, which makes me seriously concerned for their labor standards.


And last, but certainly not least, we make it to THE iconic Boston institution: Fenway Park. The oldest of baseball stadiums in the country and an iconic American institution. Seats above the park’s Green Monster section — a 37-foot left field wall where home run balls regularly scatter — can go for up to $500. Wow!

The Red Sox: such a weird name, right?  Curious about the history, I  wound up Googling, and found this from Encyclopedia Britannica: “The team officially took the name Boston Red Sox (“BoSox” or “Sox” for short) in 1908, adapting it from the Boston Red Stockings, the original name of Boston’s first professional baseball team (now the Atlanta Braves).” Huh, it takes gall to name a major league baseball team after a pair of undergarments.

Anyway, the Red Sox end up miserably losing that game to Kansas City, but as one of those fair weather baseball fans, baseball games are for me less about the outcome and more about the atmosphere. I can’t get enough of the the ballpark franks, the camaraderie, and the shouts of ‘Peanuts, get yer peanuts!’

The next day, with Aunty accompanying us, Uncle and I head off to visit the Old North Church. The Old North Church is home to the storied steeple where a lantern was hung to let the revolutionaries know of the advance of the British Redcoats. The white pews look like office cubicles rather than the dour benches you see in most churches, and there’s a staircase leading to a stand several feet above the pews where the pastor presumably stands. This might be on of the coolest churches I’ve been to in the states (though Washington DC’s National Cathedral probably takes the #1 spot).

After touring the church, we watch a lady outfitted in colonial-era wear demonstrate how to make chocolate the traditional way by combining cacao beans with a bevy of colorful spices instead of the artificial sweeteners we use today. She strains the chocolate through a vessel into liquid form, which we promptly drink. Aunty is thrilled, and records the video, hoping to replicate it someday.

A replica chocolate maker’s work table along with scenes from Boston’s Old North Church. That’s a very old bust of George Washington!

Outside the chocolate shop near a large statue of Paul Revere , we come upon an older woman with a short, gray bob playing a glass harmonica. The glass harmonica was originally invented by (guess who?) Benjamin Franklin (who else?). As best as I can tell, in order to make music, one person must spin a handle at the end of the device, while the musician runs their fingers along various curves and rims of the harmonica.

Upon seeing my darker skin, the woman asks: “Where are you from?” Ahh, the dreaded question. “New York, but really California.” “No exotic heritage?” We concede that we are of Indian descent. She leaps at the chance to play a lovely melody, which I vaguely recognize as Jana Gana Mana, the Indian national anthem. The lady chides me for not singing along. I confess that I don’t know the words to the Indian national anthem. Whoops. I guess all those years as a South Asian Studies and Political Science double major really failed me, huh? This all seems very bizarre and random, but I’ll go with it, because, hey: ‘When in Boston’…


A replica of Benjamin Franklin’s glass harmonica.

Afterwards, we walk by the historic USS Constitution (I don’t really know anything at about this, but what a cool-looking boat!) and head uptown to Bunker Hill. Bunker Hill is the site of a famous battle between the British Redcoats and the ragtag New England forces. Although the British took the battlefield, they suffered a surprising number of losses, and the battle demonstrated the ability of the fledgling revolutionary soldiers to hold their own against the British army. A large obelisk monument stands there today to commemorate the battle.

And then, it’s off to visit the esteemed MIT and Harvard. I can’t help but feel like a doe-eyed seventeen-year-old attending a college tour and dreaming of the incredible things that I’ll do one day. (I never attended an Ivy League, for the record. I’m very happy with my alma mater, UC Berkeley. GO BEARS!)

Perhaps it’s a byproduct of being older, but I no longer stand in awe of these eminent universities, though I do appreciate the lovely architecture and design of Harvard Square.

We cap off the evening with a lovely meal at one of the Indian restaurants that Uncle owns in a town near Boston, and start by sampling some of the Chicken 65 (a classic spicy chicken appetizer), I’m taken back to some good old memories of when we would order Chicken 65 from the Eagle Bar, a local restaurant not too far from my dad’s hometown in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

The next day, I bid a warm farewell to Uncle and Aunty after numerous photos in their beautiful home, and schlepp onto the bus that will take me back to New York.

On the way to Maine, I had taken two buses and a taxi to get to Bar Harbor. I could have taken a train one leg of the way, but I decided not to.  In addition to saving a few bucks, I’ve always preferred riding the bus to the train. I feel like I really see a new side to my country while riding on the bus, whether it’s in witnessing the breathtaking greenery of Connecticut, or in striking up a friendly conversation with my seatmate.

That being said: screw Megabus. 3:45 estimated arrival time — no way. We pull into our stopping point in New York at 5:00 pm. Next time, I’m taking Greyhound.

Back at that Red Sox game in Fenway Park, a blonde singer takes to the microphone to sing one of the most quintessential American songs:
“Oh, beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!”
Katherine Lee Bates did not have Maine in mind when she penned “America the Beautiful” in the 1890s. And yet, as I watched purple and pink hues descend over ‘spacious skies’ and the Sommes Sound and plucked wild blueberries on steep mountainous climbs, for the first time, I understood the earthly beauty behind the lyrics that I had sung so many times as a schoolgirl.





Maspeth: a community in uproar over a homeless shelter exposes issues with New York City policies

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Note: I this article wrote some months ago regarding the dicey situation surrounding a rising homeless population in the city of New York, beleaguered state and city housing policies, and a homeless shelter that raised the ire of a community in Queens. Although I didn’t get around to publishing it at the time, I thoroughly enjoyed reporting on this story, and so I thought I would share it on this blog. For a more recent update on what’s going on in with the shelter in Maspeth, click here.

December 13, 2016

By Tara Yarlagadda

It’s a dreary day; rain floods the sidewalks and slides down the neon signs along Queens Boulevard. Yet, the gloomy weather does nothing to dampen the spirited cries of middle-class residents in Maspeth, Queens.

A heated community board meeting is underway at Our Lady of Hope Catholic Academy in Middle Village – a residential neighborhood bordering Maspeth, Queens. The topic of debate: a proposed homeless shelter that nearly made the town of Maspeth lose its mind, and in the process, underscored a city-wide crisis with policy failures at all levels of government.

According to Lauren Gray, Senior Advisor for Communication for the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS), the DHS notified Council Member Elizabeth Crowley in May regarding plans to convert the newly constructed Holiday Inn Express Queens–Maspeth into a homeless shelter for adult families. Council Member Crowley is the elected representative on the New York City Council for Community Board 5, which includes Maspeth.

Despite vociferous complaints from Maspeth residents, Gray insists that there has been ample community engagement in the process: “The Department of Homeless Services also hosted two community forums, which were attended by Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks to personally listen to community concerns and respond to questions.”

But those breadcrumbs were not enough to satisfy Maspeth. Residents protested in a nightly vigil at the Holiday Inn Express and even once outside of the home of Commissioner Banks, who heads the DHS. Protestors wielded posters with slogans like “Solutions not shelters” and images of Banks with the phrase: “Fire the liar.” For residents of Maspeth, this might as well be the controversy of the century.

The Juniper Park Civic Association in Middle Village criticizes Council Member Crowley for not being adequately supportive of the residents protesting the shelter. Manuel Caruana is a member of the Executive Board of the Juniper Park Civic Association. Of Crowley, Caruana says: She’s a liar. She should have been thrown out of office years ago. …This is her modus operandi. I’ve seen her do it over and over again. She’ll cut a deal and then she’ll make believe she’s fighting for you while her deal is cut.”

Still, Crowley’s Communications Director, Maggie Hayes, insists that Crowley has supported Maspeth’s opposition to the homeless shelter from the very beginning. Moreover, she states: “Elizabeth remains compassionate to the homeless…and is more concerned on creating a stable, productive environment to help them get back on their feet…”

Despite her tenuous support, Council Member Crowley, along with other elected officials, filed a lawsuit in August in the New York State Supreme Court, alleging that the proposed shelter violated New York City Administrative Code 21-124b. The code states that “no homeless shelter shall be established which does not provide…cooking facilities.” The Holiday Inn does not have cooking facilities.

The defendants, the city of New York and Commissioner Banks, quickly launched a counterattack, mounting a defense that only adult families will be placed in the Holiday Inn shelter, and cooking facilities are only required in shelters with families with children.

In addition to the lawsuit, concerns have erupted over the shelter potentially becoming what New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer referred to at the community board meeting as a “roach hotel.” The Comptroller’s office conducted a city audit in 2015 of homeless shelters for families with children, finding that conditions in many homeless shelters across the city were deplorable due to lax security and an utter lack of regulation on the part of the city.

Ironically, both homeless advocates and residents disapprove of the use of hotels for homeless shelters. Giselle Routhier is Policy Director for the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy organization and the court-appointed monitor of the single adult shelter system in New York. Routhier says that although the city has made use of hotels for shelters, hotels are “…definitely not the most optimal location,” stating that there are generally issues with providing services – such as mental health and employment assistance – in these facilities.

Caruano insists that his opposition to the shelter stems not from a hatred of homeless individuals, but rather, the moral quandary of housing families in a single hotel room, which he decries as “unconscionable.”

So, the ethics of housing individuals in hotels is indeed a dicey matter that raises broader policy questions for a city struggling to find sufficient space to shelter its homeless population. However, the actual conflict in Maspeth might be more primal: outsiders versus insiders.

While chatting about the people who might reside in the shelter, Caruana says something that belies his prior goodwill: “There’s no public transportation. There’s no way these people are going to go out and get jobs. There’s nothing to do but for them to wander through the streets of Maspeth causing problems. People don’t know who they are – this is a very tight-knit community. They see a stranger walking around the neighborhood, they’re going to get scared. Why are you scaring the community this way? There’s no need for that.”

In that sense, what’s going on in Maspeth is a time-old dilemma: residents that want to be left in peace, and outside forces that are determined to break their idyllic bubble for the greater good.

There are currently no homeless shelters in Community Board 5, where Maspeth is located, but the de Blasio administration is trying to change that, perhaps futilely so.

According to a press release by the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) in September, the de Blasio administration has “implemented an unprecedented array of programs designed to prevent homelessness and move adults and children out of shelter,” thereby preventing 7,000 New Yorkers from becoming homeless.

Among these new policies is a borough-based approach, in which homeless individuals and families should be given temporary shelter in their home boroughs, so as to better foster community ties and ease the transition into permanent housing.

As a result, Mayor de Blasio has made pronounced efforts to establish more homeless shelters in Queens, including the proposed shelter in Maspeth. Many Queens locals take issue with this new policy. Karla Leone, a resident of Jackson Heights, speaks to the increase in shelters:

“We already have two shelters and going on a third [in Jackson Heights]. It’s terrible. They’re like one hotel that my dad used to work in. They fired my dad, they fired a whole bunch of workers, and they opened a homeless shelter…Not only does it devalue the houses, but it makes our neighborhood dangerous.”

In spite of the glowing statistics published by the DHS, the situation is pretty bleak. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, as of August 2016, there were more than 60,000 homeless individuals in the shelter system. This is up from 38,000 individuals in 2010 – a shocking increase in just six years.

The average length of stay for a family with children also increased over the past decade to 412 days in August. And it seems the city is largely unable to meet the growing demands on the shelter system. During the week of September 5, according to a document filed by the city in the lawsuit, the vacancy rate in the city shelter system was below zero.

Yet, why is there such a growing demand for homeless shelter services? According to Caruana, the current situation is a result of New York State’s right to shelter policies, which require New York to provide emergency shelter to homeless individuals.

Caruana alleges that this has caused thousands from across the country to flock to New York, overwhelming the city’s homeless shelters: He says: “New York taxpayers are carrying the burden for all the states in this country that are sending their homeless to us. Prior administrations gave them a bus ticket back to where they came from. [Mayor de Blasio] is welcoming them…I tell you what: my grandson could do a better job.”

It’s a common myth, and one that the Coalition for the Homeless roundly disputes. According to the Coalition, less than one-half of one percent of all families placed in the New York City shelter system is from out-of-town. Many of them are from neighboring Long Island or New Jersey.

Routhier offers a more nuanced explanation, rooted in city policies and state and federal disinvestment from affordable housing over the past decade. It starts with then-Mayor Bloomberg’s slashing of priority affordable housing for the homeless in 2005, and becomes more pronounced when the state cuts funding for the Advantage program – which provides subsidies for up to two years to assist people in renting housing – in 2011. Routhier adds: “…. there was essentially no way for families to move out of the shelter system. A huge spike in homelessness followed.”

There are some positives: Routhier lauds the de Blasio administration for reinstating priority access for homeless individuals to section 8 public housing, which provides assistance to low-income families to rent in the private housing market. She also praises the administration for introducing “city-initiated periods of rent subsidies that have thus far been absent” among previous administration’s homeless policies.

The city could allocate a larger portion of public housing for homeless individuals. Yet the blame doesn’t rest solely on the city’s shoulders, said Routhier: “Both the state and federal [government] also need to step up” in providing resources for homeless services and affordable housing. According to Routhier, two billion dollars allocated for affordable housing have been left unused in Governor Cuomo’s budget.

In this citywide housing crisis, advocates on both sides pressure the city for the need to transition people out of the shelter system and into permanent, more affordable housing. The culmination of these policies ties back to Maspeth.

Ultimately, the initial legal fight over the proposed shelter has seemingly ended in a stalemate with a press statement from Commissioner Banks in October: “The owner of the Maspeth Holiday Inn refused to allow the city to convert the hotel into a shelter. Instead, the hotel owner agreed to rent rooms to help keep homeless New Yorkers off the street, and the city has done so.”

But wrinkles continued to develop as reports emerge that the proposed homeless shelter is under attack by a second lawsuit – this time by the holding company that owns the land on which the Holiday Inn Express sits – which could hinder the city’s efforts to house homeless individuals there.

Still, without conversion into a formal homeless shelter, the social services that such a hotel could provide to the homeless individuals that it houses is undoubtedly limited. And so, no one wins – the administration, Maspeth, and especially not the homeless.

Real Talk Book Review: Why Wuthering Heights is one of the most messed up books I’ve read…ever. But it’s worse in this political climate.

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Happy 200th death-i-versary, Jane Austen! I feel my high school erred in adequately prepping me to become a Jane-ite. I read not one, not two, but FIVE Shakespeare plays in the course of my high school education, yet not a single Austen or Brontë novel. Come to think of it, most of the other esteemed, literary books I read in K-12 (with a few exceptions, like the iconic Toni Morrison) were written by old and/or dead white men. Hopefully high school curriculum has diversified since then, though I wouldn’t hold my breath. Anyway, I came to love Austen in my early twenties, in addition to other fantastic writers of the 1800s such as Charlotte Brontë, the well-regarded author of Jane Eyre.

Having long been a Jane Eyre fan, I thought it only fair that I give the other famous Brontë sister, Emily, a chance and read her most famous (and only novel) to-date: Wuthering Heights.

Oh boy. I’m not sure I regret reading Wuthering Heights, but this might be one of the most messed-up books I’ve read of all time. Upon finishing the book, I actually sat silent in bed for several minutes, trying to process the gravity of all that I’d read.

Heathcliff, the leading male character and “love interest” of leading lady Catherine Earnshaw, AKA Cathy, is one of the most disturbing characters I’ve ever glimpsed on the page. And I’m a fan of the true crime genre and have read up on the likes of H.H Holmes (read Devil in the White City), so I know what I’m talking about. He is evil embodied in human form. Sure, he was abused severely as a child, and I know Brontë is trying to make a point about how our environment molds us into the terrifying adults we grow up to be, yada, yada, yada but that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable to read. Take a look at the quote below, when Heathcliff refers to his new wife, Isabella Linton, a woman he not only does not love, but hates with an intensity that shocks the senses.

“The first thing she saw me do, on coming out of the Grange, was to hang up her little dog; and when she pleaded for it, the first words I uttered were a wish that I had the hanging of every being belonging to her, except one: possibly she took that exception for herself. But no brutality disgusted her: I suppose she has an innate admiration of it, if only her precious person were secure from injury!…If she desired to go, she might: the nuisance of her presence outweighs the gratification to be derived from tormenting her!”

Now, Heathcliff hates Isabella primarily because she has the misfortune of being the wrong person. Her only crime is that she is not the only person he has ever cared about or desired in this world: his supposed soulmate and once-upon-a-time childhood friend, Catherine. Catherine similarly loves Heathcliff, for reasons I cannot fathom other than he is apparently her ‘soulmate.’ God. Now I get why all the Twilight kids used to love Wuthering Heights. Edward and Bella are the modern day version of Heathcliff and Catherine, though unfortunately, unlike their English predecessors, they do not meet an untimely death. Young adult literature would be so much better for it if they had.

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Normally, my motto is that truth is stranger than fiction, but in the case of Wuthering Heights, I’m prepared to throw that slogan out the window. How Brontë, a sheltered clergyman’s daughter, came up with this shockingly abusive, demented character is beyond me. Moreover, she decided to pair him with Catherine, a wholly selfish young woman who had little regard for anyone’s feelings but her own. Despite loving Heathcliff, she says that marrying him would bring her status down in society, causing him to run away for three years before he returns to her — at which point, she is already married to her other childhood friend, Edward Linton (and also pregnant with his child). Most of the time she regards her husband as a nuisance, if an unfailingly kind one. Here is how she speaks to him after he rightfully criticizes his wife for receiving Heathcliff into their home:

“Have you been listening at the door, Edgar?” asked the mistress, in a tone particularly calculated to provoke her husband, implying both carelessness and contempt of his irritation.

Catherine was not merely someone who had no hope of inspiring Heathcliff to better himself, but also someone who would only impel him to give in to his most violent vices. It was a match made in hell. See how Heathcliff refers to his ‘beloved’ after he’s gotten into an altercation with her “lamb” of a husband:

“I wish you joy of the milk-blooded coward, Cathy!” said her friend. ‘I compliment you on your taste. And that is the slavering, shivering, thing you preferred to me! I would not strike him my fist, but I’d kick him with my foot, and experience considerable satisfaction. Is he weeping, or is he going to faint for fear?”

I digress. There are too many ‘Heathcliff is a sadistic asshole’ quotes for me to list them all for you.

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But I have to give Bronte credit for creating incredibly unlikeable characters and sticking to her guns in following their miserable stories through to the end. As an aspiring novelist, I’m definitely taking notes. I mean, can you imagine the kind of shocked reception this book must have received in seventeenth-century England? I’m sure the editing world was shocked and scandalized by the “immoral” nature of the book and its inhabitants. I figure that Brontë imagined such a reaction, and so she actually initially published the book under a male pseudonym (though a lot of that was probably because discrimination against female authors was still very prevalent at the time — and still is to this day, in some literary circles).

And also, Bronte perfected the literary device of using weather and geography to mirror the turbulent human condition. Pretty sure they teach Brontë in all those fancy creative writing classes in college that I never took. Check out the great paragraph below:

“It was a very dark evening for summer: the clouds appeared inclined to thunder, and I said we had better all sit down; the approaching rain would be certain to bring him home without further trouble. However, Catherine would not be persuaded into tranquility. She kept wandering to and fro, from the gate to the door, in a state of agitation which permitted no repose; and at length took up a permanent situation on one side of the wall, near the road: where, heedless of my expostulations and the growling thunder, and the great drops that began to plash around her, she remained, calling at intervals, and then listening, and then crying outright.”

But more than the actual story, I find it interesting to read Wuthering Heights during this political climate. I know, eyeroll. “You can’t link everything to Trump!” I know you can’t, but I’m sure going to try.

Seriously though, it’s hard not to find parallels everywhere. We have a man that openly bragged about sexual assault who is now our president. Heathcliff, a violently abusive blowhard (and likely rapist), is considered in some circles to be merely a tormented, tragically romantic soul. Give me a break. There is a whole set of characters in Wuthering Heights, too many characters with the same first and last names, and a very confusing family tree that may or may bear some traces of incest (?). I’ll spare you all that, but just to know that pretty much every single one of these characters is mercilessly tormented by Heathcliff throughout the course of the book, including his own beloved’s daughter, who is also named Catherine. Heathcliff forces her to marry his son under a series of very spurious, and most likely, illegal conditions. Thankfully, Heathcliff ultimately passes into the netherworld to join his dear Cathy in death, leaving some semblance of peace for the souls who he tortured for so long on these dark and gloomy moors.

Beyond the fact that misogynistic men can rise to influential positions, whether those be in the White House or in the moors of rural England, violence against women is nothing new.  But it seems like every day, I see articles on my Facebook newsfeed about women being stalked, raped, bludgeoned and killed, often by their spouses or partners. The summer before I moved to New York, three female joggers were killed in the span of a few weeks while running near their homes. I read just an article today about a woman whose ex-boyfriend progressively stalked her before hiring a third party to dump toxic acid all over her body, leaving her permanently scarred. It’s enough to make a modern lady dump all dating apps in the garbage and live the life of a solitary hermit.

Normally, I don’t mind bleak literature. Hell, the darker, the better. I’m a Game of Thrones fan, after all. But when I’m reminded day in and day out of how being a woman in this world is a frightening thing, sometimes I just need a respite from that in my literature and television. True, Heathcliff torments men and women alike. But in Wuthering Heights, the women are held captive — in one case, literally — to particularly violent fates at the hands of this tormentor. With all this being said, I’d sooner place Wuthering Heights in the horror category than the romance aisle.

For that reason — and also, because to be honest I find Emily Bronte’s writing style exhausting and dull — I’m not sure if I’ll pick up Wuthering Heights anytime soon. But what the story reveals about the depravity of the human condition — that will stick me for a long time. The soulmate thing? Ehh, not so much.

Review: 3/5 stars

Real Talk Book Review: ‘Hunger’ made me think deeply about the world as Roxane Gay lives in it – and about my own fatphobia

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“I do not know why I turned to food. Or I do. I was lonely and scared and food offered an immediate satisfaction. Food offered comfort when I needed to be comforted and did not know how to ask for what I needed from those who loved me. Food tasted good and made me feel better. Food was the one thing within my reach.”

There was a lot I couldn’t relate to in renowned author Roxane Gay’s new book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. As it well should be.  I have never lived in Gay’s body. Only she has. But the paragraph above hit the nail on the head for me–in a way that I didn’t expect.

I have been fat on and off for the better part of my life, and I still struggle with my weight to this day. As a child, I would gaze down at my thunder thighs with their running lines of cellulite, and imagine what it would be like if a meat cleaver could somehow bloodlessly slice my jiggling fat away. I would huff and puff as I struggled to finish the standard one mile run in fifth grade gym class, clocking in at eleven minutes or more when most classmates finished around eight minutes or fewer. I would be tormented endlessly for my weight, sometimes by other schoolkids, sometimes by friends, and oftentimes by my own relatives.  I loved food, and it loved me back. But it was (some days, still is) also my worst enemy.

And please note, when I’m using the term ‘fat’ here, it’s not as a pejorative. I think of it as classification of one’s body type, and should be no more considered an insult than words like thin, skinny, tall, short, etc. Although I realize that that’s far from the case in the real world, though movements centered around fat positivity are trying to re-embrace the word.

Anyway, this book review is more than just a critical analysis of Hunger: it’s also a time for me to take stock of my own internalized fatphobia.

I think the latter half of the book’s title (A Memoir of [My] Body) is so key. My Body. Because Gay’s perspective truly is her own. She doesn’t represent all fat people — nor does she claim to do so. I’ve never been deemed ‘morbidly obese’ by the medical community. I’ve never sat in a chair and worried that it would break under my weight. And although I’ve ridden on planes as a child with my now-deceased, obese grandmother, and witnessed the ridicule she bore when she required seat belt extensions, I’ve never borne the brunt of that gaze myself. All of these are the small, everyday humiliations that Gay endures and speaks to in Hunger.

And when I put aside my own reflections, I was able to see Gay’s perspective as one that was totally separate, heartbreaking and utterly unrelatable to my own. I was able to see how different someone’s relationship to food could be from my own. Although Gay and I both sought comfort in food, mine was borne primarily of a hearty appetite and perhaps, earlier on in my life, some low self-esteem issues. I had never thought about how a deep-seated trauma like that Gay endured — she was gang-raped by her boyfriend and his friends at the age of twelve and kept that secret close to her chest — could lead someone to seek solace in food. She associated being pretty with being thin, and thus, being susceptible to the unwanted advance of young men like those who sexually assaulted her. And so, she built a cage out of her body in order to keep the touch of men like those who raped her far, far away.

I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe. I buried the girl I was because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. . . . I was trapped in my body, one that I barely recognized or understood, but at least I was safe.

She writes poignantly about the sexual assault in a way that makes your heart ache and want to hug teenage Gay. But really,  it’s the aftereffects of the rape and everything that followed which makes Hunger so powerful.

And part of its power was in forcing me to resist my own impulses as a (formerly) fat person to talk back when Gay narrates parts of her experience that are foreign to me. When she mentions doctors who dismiss her other valid health concerns and just tell her to lose weight. When she mentions strangers taking items out of her grocery cart. When she talks about how chairs with arm rests painfully constrict her form. When she rolls her eyes at women like me who are have only ever been twenty or thirty pounds overweight. When she mentions that staff at Housing Works — a local New York nonprofit bookstore where I occasionally volunteer, in full disclosure — failed to take into account her physical needs for an event at which she was speaking. Gay struggled to climb onto a stage and then hover above a chair that could not accommodate her body for the entire event.

I learn to bite my tongue. I learn to listen. I learn to accept that the narratives of other fat people are different from my own. I understand my own internalized fatphobia and reluctance to embrace the fat-positive movement better.

But most importantly, I understand Roxane Gay’s story.  She has made her readership — which I presume is includes many thin women who have never known what it is like to be mocked for their body weight — understand what it means to be large in a society that deems her to be the Other. A thing to be ridiculed and mocked. She does this through sparse writing that sings. And that’s a powerful thing.

Book Review: 4/5 stars