truthfully, I wish I paid attention then

When do we start to care about democracy?

As a college freshman, I took a short study abroad in Hong Kong over the summer. I remember showing up to lectures hungover with my fellow American study abroad classmates, more focused on our plans for that night out than anything the professor had to say. The lecture was on democracy in Hong Kong, and she was passionate, and sadly, that’s all I remember.

Now it’s six years later and I know considerably more about what democracy is and is not, but more importantly, I care. Democracy in America wasn’t a perfect democracy even before the Trump election, but why did it take that for me to finally start looking into it?

First reason I think is that I grew up in a household that never talked about politics on any level – if we ate dinner together, our conversation was about our softball or basketball games. Next, and probably most important, is that I remember learning general history in school, but never anything specific to what it means to have a democracy, how it can dissolve, or what happens when it’s undermined. That being said, I did learn that explicit racism was bad and that it’s wrong to discriminate based on religion. So, when I saw this unfolding in front of me, coming from the highest office – I knew something was up. From there, I learned, read, and conversed my way through multiple essays, books (most recently: How Democracies Die), and conversations; I matched the insights against each other, compared my own thoughts, and held them up against what I was seeing clearly play out in the government (and on Trump’s Twitter).

Though, I still wonder, what does it take for a public to take an actionable interest in democracy, especially the people of Hong Kong against a Communist government? I listened to the New York Times’ The Daily podcast Inside Honk Kong’s Airport episode where they interviewed several Hong Kong protesters and Chinese mainlanders. The protesters filled up the Hong Kong airport, trying to reach mainland Chinese fliers about the importance of democracy, but felt they were at a standstill; as the NYT podcast portrays it, the mainland Chinese didn’t care as much about their lack of a democracy since the Communist Party had brought so much stability and prosperity in such a short time. **there’s more to learn for me here – my first questions: hasn’t the Hong Kong region been extremely prosperous as well? is it at all related to the British colonial history?

When it comes to the United States, I sometimes doubt our commitment to democracy – though, admittedly, I might be tainted by a skewed sample on my Facebook feed. Even so, when I hear something like Mayor Pete Buttigieg saying that his highest priority as President would be restoring democracy, I question: how sticky of a talking point is this? Even if America has been a democracy in theory for centuries, how many Americans really care or know how the threats to our democracy could lead to its ruin (i.e. lack of fair and secure elections, gerrymandering and a continuance of racial exclusion, etc.)? Then again, I care now – and the only leg up I might’ve had is the time and energy to educate myself on democracy and gain an awareness. Maybe Trump made a mistake in not quietly and slowly taking democracy back, and now, general people like me are woken up and hyper aware. Time (a.k.a. Nov 2020) will tell.

I now consider my University of Hong Kong lecturer: I wonder what she was thinking, seeing a bunch of American college students – America, the “symbol of democracy – not really giving a damn about democracy at all (especially while in a place that so desperately wanted it). If I could slide back into that lecture in Hong Kong from six years ago with the same knowledge I have now, I know I’d be on the edge of my seat. Though, truthfully, I wish I paid attention then.

weekends: my plan to plan

The only positive thing about being so drained from the work week is that I can sit outside and the mosquitoes don’t mess with me (nothin’ left here, boys). I work a remote job completely from my laptop, with full benefits, PTO, good pay, and a great team. It’s overall good gig and I’m real fortunate. The one thing it is not, particularly, is “my life’s passion” – which, no complaints here, but like adrenaline is to physical energy, inspiration/passion is to mental energy – without it, there’s a certain level until it’s depleted.

My responsibility for the weekends is to connect back to something I’m passionate about, or at the very least, disconnect from technology. A replenishing weekend for me is spent with friends or family, outdoors, or generally something enjoyable and consuming. I’ve learned that I have to plan these weekends in advance, because if I think it’s all going to come together Friday afternoon, when my metal tank is sputtering, then I’ll spend the whole weekend binge watching Silicon Valley for the fourth time and flipping through Reddit every 20 minutes. Not exactly “nourishing.” Maybe the best time to plan for a weekend is right after a great weekend. If I do this consistently, then I can avoid the Sunday Scaries because I’ll be full and ready for the work week ahead, instead of dreading it.

i’d pawn diamonds for sleep

Nothing is more luxurious than a full, deep night’s rest – waking up feeling, not like you have to somehow make it through the day, but instead, ready and pulling in the day with a lasso: the parts to enjoy and the challenges. I just slept eight and a half hours (diamonds on my neck). But no one will put any money into selling this idea of luxury to you. You can’t swipe a card and buy REM sleep. It’s one of the most elusive, priceless luxury goods not on the market. Known to some, but not all – available to some, but not many. The investment is time, energy, and focus on getting the most out of every night, both on an individual and societal level. For some of us, we’ve got to admit we’re prioritizing meaningless things over sleep and health – late night entertainment and overworking (recognition, achievement – for our corporate, late nights: do you ever just say, “hey, I gotta go – will start again tomorrow”?).

And this is where I’m going to stop calling sleep a luxury in a sense of what we all deserve. We have to demand a better economic system that doesn’t force people to sacrifice sleep at the expense of getting by. Sleep is a basic need to feel human – get your emotions right and find the answers. It doesn’t cost anything but stepping off the throats of the middle class and those in lower economic tiers (stifled by time & stress). The ability to take care of one’s health feels luxurious, but should not be reserved for a select few. Where health is wealth, this will be an America where we can all be rich.

by the lake, through the sand, and surrounded by trees

We need intuition to take us higher and intellect to articulate that intuition.

I’ve been in the mountains of Colorado for almost two weeks now, staying in a cabin with only the views of an alpine forest. Staring up at rows of pines, each shooting straight towards a sunny sky, I feel a sense of permanence – not of myself, or even of the the trees. I feel a permanence of truth, that even as we live in chaos, that truth has always and will always exist. It’s for the intuition to experience this truth, and the duty of the intellect to put it into understanding.

I live in Chicago. In the city, there’s not much uninterrupted nature – it’s more of an afterthought to human activity. For various reasons, the city is where intellect thrives – a never ending conversation between ideas and culture. The city is momentum, putting into words, and concrete action (and concrete in general). And yet, I’m beginning to think, in times that call us to a higher realm, our taking action within the same plane that delivered us is not going to meet the demand we face.

We must rise. I’m not sure it requires a cabin in the woods or likewise (it really might), but intellectualism alone is not going to save us. We can’t argue the finer points to a dark energy that’s formed a fog over our people. Rationalism is not end-all-be-all, rationalism doesn’t win elections alone. We need a new Age of Enlightenment that embraces the importance of the spirit – because, as humans, our hearts are not entirely made of reason, equations, and if-then statements. We have to speak to being human, instead of yelling our facts and figures. To not address the spirit is to ignore the human and address a machine (input, output) that does not and has never existed within us. We have more tools than words to speak with – music, art, and mostly importantly, we can speak with the energy we emit as individuals. Cultivating our own energy and intuition is half the battle, because it’s the foundation for whatever comes from us: activism, organizing, or simply our presence alone and how we represent the progressive movement. This is where the cabin in the woods comes in to play – where a walk on the beach might be required. Intuition will raise us, and from my experience, intuition is honed by the lake, through the sand, and surrounded by trees. We must cultivate a deeper intuition in order to reach above and give the intellect something higher to work with.

exactly what went down.

At every point in Ms. Pat’s autobiography, “Rabbit”, I’m thinking, “damn, this still ends well – even after this?” Patricia Williams, a comedian, grew up in the height of the crack epidemic as a black girl in 1980s Atlanta. Daughter to an alcoholic mother, with 2 kids of her own before 15, ‘Rabbit’ (Ms. Pat’s nickname as a child) turns to selling crack as a teenager before eventually turning her life around.

This book is a pure telling of events – Ms. Pat doesn’t cater to my or any outsider’s narrative of what it means to grow up poor and black in Atlanta. Want to validate a conservative talking point like people using welfare to buy drugs and booze? Sure, you can find that here. Want to lift the book as evidence of systematic racial inequality? You can, but then you’d be reading through a lens of knowledge you already have – Ms. Pat doesn’t steer her story towards any sociological conclusion outside of her experiences (which are are mostly tragic, yet somehow hilariously retold).

In fact, Ms. Pat doesn’t seem to steer the reader towards any definite conclusion – even about herself. Instead of persuading the reader how to feel, the book focuses more on the events themselves: at one point, she’s making considerable profits from selling crack cocaine to addicts, but then another turn and she’s taking in four kids that are not her’s while she is still a teenager herself (and more later on). I came away from this thinking, Ms. Pat did a lot of bad things and Ms. Pat did a lot of good things, with the context and understanding for both.

Ms. Pat tells the truth and crafts a hard life story into an engaging narrative. She writes, “Moving up in this world is not easy… I went from living in an illegal liquor house to running from the cops to living in the suburbs with a flock of ducks outside my window. The only way I can explain how it happened is to tell you exactly what went down.” And that she does.

goal setting: unambitious, but consistent

How to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Long, complicated projects, or drastic lifestyle changes, are at risk of never being achieved or attempted because the jump from now to that seems unfathomably far. I have a method, though, that involves breaking down a project into daily, seemingly inconsequential, but achievable tasks. Keeping with this theme, let me first break down the method I used:

  1. Envision
  2. Define
  3. Do

First, have a vision for what you’re looking to achieve – an actual picture in your mind of what that looks like. For me, I wanted the easy, minimalist home life of my favorite YouTuber, Jenny Mustard – not necessarily the clean/white aesthetic, but the void of clutter and the air of simplicity. I wanted to drink water from wine glasses on the couch next to folded blankets.

Second, define the breakdown. For my vision, I figured I could best achieve it by decluttering my living space (organizing, decorating, etc, would not be my primary focus). I first considered where I was starting: I was a functional hoarder who’d saved everything from my high school track shoes to 7-year-expired dried oregano. With this in mind, how did I want to break down this monumental decluttering project into achievable, daily tasks? The difficulty for me was not as much the time it’d take to declutter, but instead the finite emotional energy of wrestling my aversion to “wasting” or “getting rid of something I might need.” What do I think I could accomplish daily, even on my worst day, that would add up over time? In 2019, I set a New Year’s goal to get rid of one item a day, for a year.

Along the way, I learned the most important part of “Do” was keeping it simple: today, what item will go? Some really good days I got rid of more than one thing, but on the harder days I didn’t let myself get overwhelmed and discouraged by making the task an harder than it had to be. For example, I often saved the task of deciding what I should do with the item – sell, donate, or throw away – for another day. This helped me keep my momentum.

I’m now on my 9th month (started my NY resolution in December) and the daily task I defined at the beginning has become a daily habit. Even better, this one good habit has sparked other good habits related to my goal of maintaining a living space. For example, I buy far less, since I know very well that, one day, I will have to deal with this item in the back of the closet – so do I really need it? Even when the year is up, and I’m no longer getting rid of something daily, I’m confident that the habit will linger in some form. Because I did it over time, and thought about it every day (even if for only 2 minutes) this one daily habit has snowballed into a lifestyle change.

In short, the method is about choosing a task that is very unambitious day-to-day, but will create a drastic change over time because of it’s effect on other habits as well as pure addition. Other possibilities:

  • For a vision of a Instagram-healthy-diet, the task could be changing nothing else but eating one vegetable a day (i.e. some carrots with your cheeseburger)
  • If you imagine waking up every day feeling fit and energized, the task could be moving 15 minutes a day, whether that be walking around the block, a serious workout, or anything in between.

I’m going to try this out for future visions as well, always considering where I’m at and defining a daily task from there: one that is unambitious, but consistent.

“go high,” not complacent

“When they go low, we go high,” said Michelle Obama to the 2016 Democratic Convention. It was a rallying cry then, but what does this really mean for us now?

What does it really mean to “go high?” It feels like a rush of spirit to hear, but we’re left hanging – there’s no guidelines or pamphlet for what “going high” really entails. An indiscriminate giving of patience, understanding, and compassionate education has not moved the boat. For the millions of dinner table representatives of a progressive America, there’s no playbook what to focus on, what to give energy to, and mostly, how to communicate in a way that fully captures “going high” without “going complacent.”

Democrats will win in 2020 if there’s a plan we can take to our dinner tables, Facebook feeds, etc. We need to define what is not in scope to focus on as much as what is in scope. Educating a historically racist Aunt Jane at Thanksgiving when she’s never shown a single ounce of interest in seeking truth, should be out of scope – or otherwise, not worth finite emotional energy. Crafting a narrowed scope definition is not complacency – it’s strategy.

Why is a communications strategy important for every day progressives and not just those running for office? Because our every day interactions with people we know mean more than anything they watch on TV from a Democratic candidate. How we frame these conversations and the spirit we bring to them (a spirit we must consciously preserve) – over time, creates a ripple effect.

There’s just enough people hovering right on the edge of stepping onto the dance floor. How do we communicate safety, trust, and the emotional embodiment of “going high?” The answer is not to backtrack on progressive policy, but instead to understand people vote on feelings, energy, and spirit, and not policy alone. We need to rise to this understanding and, for the people on the edge, who sincerely want to live as good and just, answer for them “how does a progressive vision make me feel not only secure, but more alive, more human, and more connected to my community and the country?” We need an actionable strategy for what it means to “go high” in this political climate, in our every day lives, and our every day interactions. We need a “go high” communications pamphlet in every progressive’s back pocket.

looking for a word.

It might be meditation, though I don’t really like the synonyms if I Google it: contemplation, thought, thinking, musing, pondering, consideration, reflection. Instead, I’m looking for a word that encompasses the exact opposite of that.

Today, I hiked Mount Quandary in Colorado. I’ve only done one other *real* hike before and nothing over 14,000 feet. It was hard – at a certain point, my whole world was reduced to the step in front of me, one at a time. Even on the descent, though physically less exhausting, my only thought was, “what rock should I step on?” a thousand times over.

Meditation must not be my word it if it encompasses grandiose reflections or is something that can only be done with incense, folded legs, and absolute silence. Instead, I’m looking for a word that includes anything (healthy) that pulls us out of the routine, the productivity, the responsibilities, or the ambitions of life (i.e. cooking a chana masala (mostly) from scratch, playing fetch with a German Shepard, summiting Mount Quandry, etc.) The state of being immersed in one simple thing, breathing or otherwise – can this be meditation?