Preserving the idealism of youth—and a new project

Been thinking again about that point in life when youthful idealism clashes with the harsh realities of the world. I’ve already written about Egan’s Invisible Circus and Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, but the most famous literary example of the disappointment of youth in the apathy and hypocrisy of adults is no doubt Holden Caulfield. As someone on the front lines of youth work, this period strikes me as particularly critical for a couple of reasons: On the one hand, my first impulse is to preserve as much of that idealism as possible so that it doesn’t lapse into cynicism or defeat. But on the other hand, it’s also important to ensure that our young people are conscious of the trade-offs involved in deciding if and to what extent they wish to play the game. What are the consequences of ignoring the rules? And, conversely, when does participating in the rat race come at the expense of the self?

I recently put this question to my friend Steph, who is so gifted with youth, and regularly faces these issues in a role where she has the dual responsibility of cultivating the individuality of her young people and getting them job-ready. I asked her how she handles the matter of professional appearance. She responded that she makes an effort to couch the conversation in non-judgmental terms, along the lines of: You go rock those tattoos, but understand that stereotyping could affect your success on the job market. It’s sad that we as humans (and not a one of us is exempt) make these kinds of snap judgments of people, and even sadder that we have to have frank conversations about this with our youth. But them’s the breaks. Steph describes this work as living in the gray when it comes to withholding judgment, but having to explain that sometimes situations must be regarded in black and white terms: If you show up to an interview wearing inappropriate clothing, you will not get the job.

I think it’s also important to give young people very concrete strategies for how to negotiate conventions without capitulating to them entirely. You might share stories of people who remove their piercings before going into an interview or make the decision to get tattoos in unexposed areas of their body. I remember reading a story in the paper about a high school teacher who doesn’t hide the fact that he has heavily tattooed shoulders and upper arms, but informs his students that this was deliberate on his part in order to maintain a professional appearance even in short-sleeved, buttoned-down shirts.

The aspect of this question that is less pragmatic, however, unsettles me significantly more because I haven’t found an easy formula for preventing frustration and disappointment—which children in foster care are intimately familiar with—from turning into a crippling sense of distrust and disillusionment. It really is nothing short of miraculous when young people age out of care with the generosity of spirit to better the society that has repeatedly betrayed them and improve the life outcomes of their younger peers. It speaks to their resiliency and heart and I believe we have a moral duty to do whatever we can to set them up for success. Their success—if we see ourselves as having a vested interest in true social change—is just as much ours.

I am fortunate to know a group of such youth. They call themselves Emerging Leaders and we’ve started meeting regularly at AlleyNYC. (I’ve been tweeting about them recently.) What I am trying to do is embrace these young people—most of whom have recently aged out of care—for a bit longer by giving them the space to share ideas for social impact, exchange business and professional resources, and build the skills and knowledge necessary to realize their dreams of running their own nonprofits and social enterprises. I know some of you have been waiting for a full report on this project, and I promise it’s forthcoming.


A three-strand theory of love and attraction

“You can be in love and still have a life, you know? You can build something.”

Jennifer Egan, The Invisible Circus

One of the really brilliant aspects of Egan’s treatment of her protagonist’s coming of age is its depiction of teenage watchfulness. At 18, Phoebe reads the world and the people around her for clues on how to build a life and make connections. Unsurprisingly, romantic relationships are a particular point of fascination for her. Here is Phoebe, spying on her sister’s former high school sweetheart and his fiancée as they hunt through apartment listings in the paper:

Carla exclaimed at something she’d found, set down her cigarette and circled the item with a stubby pencil, her other hand groping for Wolf as if for a pair of glasses or a cigarette pack, finding his wrist without lifting her eyes from the paper. The gesture transfixed Phoebe—the inadvertence of it, the thoughtlessness. Wolf rose from his chair and leaned over her, his chest to Carla’s back. He kissed her temple, breathing in her smell while his eyes perused whatever it was she’d found in the paper. The sheer ordinariness of it all confounded Phoebe, as if any one of these things might happen several times a day, with no one watching. They belong to each other, she thought, and found herself awed by the notion—knowing someone was there, just there, reaching for that person without a thought.

Phoebe, trying to wrap her head around the difference between this calm vision of domestic partnership and the wild, youthful romance she saw Wolf share with her sister, asks him how those two relationships compare. He answers, You can be in love and still have a life, you know?

Continue reading

Every woman should travel/live abroad alone

[For Autumn, on her current adventure] I’m in the middle of Jennifer Egan’s debut novel, The Invisible Circus, which is about an 18 year-old girl who takes off for Europe to search for the place her sister died. The account of her coming of age has gotten me reminiscing about my travels alone. I’ve already written about how finishing my dissertation and changing careers were two of the most significant rites of passage I’ve ever undergone. Prior to graduate school, however, traveling by myself and living abroad (not in the Philippines or the US) ranked highly on my list of transformative experiences. This is a story in four parts.

The US

To my mother’s great credit, she started instilling in me very early on the notion that I should go forth into the world intrepidly. Having seen how a sheltered childhood caused my sister to fear unfamiliar places and abhor being on her own, Mom took care to show me that traveling alone was nothing to be afraid of. Continue reading

The brief wondrous life…

[For Dale] OK, so perhaps I took my aversion to reading or watching anything that debuts to great fanfare too far by avoiding Oscar Wao for this long. I just wasn’t expecting it to be that great. I mean, Drown was a solid read, but I didn’t end up thinking about it all that much after finishing it. And to tell you the truth, I was half expecting Wao to be a mildly annoying throwback to nineties-style identity lit. But boy that first chapter is so darn charming. Diaz’s prose just swept me along, page after page. I’m pretty sure I read the beginning with a smile plastered on my face the entire time.

What struck me most about the novel is how its allusions draw from so many different fields of knowledge and experience, that I found myself constantly and alternately pulled in and pushed away by the text. Copious footnotes notwithstanding, so many of his references remained opaque to me (also: totally not motivated to look up all the nerdy sci-fi stuff). I suppose I can bump This is How You Lose Her farther up my reading list.

About a boy

“I am what I am, and intend to be it,” for which there will be no form in the world unless Jacob makes one for himself.

—Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (1922)

The Waves is no doubt the most singular book on friendship in the English language, but because my copy is part of a double edition, poor Jacob’s Room went unnoticed for years. How glad I am to have finally read it. Compared to the demands of The Waves, one can positively tear through Jacob’s story (though, really, one should never “tear through” Woolf’s prose—how beastly). It is a tender telling of a young man’s life. We witness him come into his own intellectually, travel the world, and attempt to decipher the differences between love, sex, and attraction. 

Jacob would have shared Woolf’s disdain for the middlebrow, though unlike Woolf, he is terribly earnest in his pretensions. As such, Jacob’s Room captures perfectly how the idealism of youth collides with the absurdity of adult life and the chaos of the world. Here is Jacob on the cusp of adulthood, still in formation, though already so much himself:

Insolent he was and inexperienced, but sure enough the cities which the elderly of the race have built upon the skyline showed like brick suburbs, barracks, and places of discipline against a red and yellow flame. He was impressionable, but the word is contradicted by the composure with which he hollowed his hand to screen a match. He was a young man of substance.

Anyhow, whether undergraduate or shop boy, man or woman, it must come as a shock about the age of twenty—the world of the elderly— thrown up in such black outline upon what we are; upon the reality; the moors and Byron; the sea and the lighthouse; the sheep’s jaw with the yellow teeth in it; upon the obstinate irrepressible conviction which makes youth so intolerably disagreeable—”I am what I am, and intend to be it,” for which there will be no form in the world unless Jacob makes one for himself.

And when you finish, I recommend you read through “Middlebrow” for a laugh.


This evening I took down a much-beloved book off the shelf after repeatedly failing to get past the first page of a depressing memoir. The well-read volume creases open onto In the Skin of a Lion, a novel I love so much that for a few years I kept an extra copy of it around just so that one day I could pass it on without the heartache of loss. It’s been a little over a decade since I last permitted myself the pleasure of rereading it, and still: how much finer it is than its more famous sequel (and the film! ugh, the film).

I find that I have a spotty memory for plot, so certain moments still have the capacity to surprise me.

— Look!

Walking on the bridge were five nuns.

And here I am, the dutiful reader, just as shocked as the characters to find them up there. This time around I catch myself laughing aloud every now and then. Was it funny back then as well, or have I gotten less serious with age?

Critics are wont to call Ondaatje’s prose ‘poetic’ or ‘lyrical,’ but how do I convey the way his words fill my chest? Although some plot points escape my recollection, certain phrases, sentences—even entire passages—return to me like old friends. His prose achieves the memorable quality of verse without resorting to the cheap trick of rhyme. Maybe this is because his writing also manages to evoke such vivid scenes in the reader’s mind. I am mostly haunted by the novel’s strange, quiet, and utterly spellbinding images: a boy and his father working a rope together to save a cow from drowning; loggers skating over a frozen river, holding flaming cattails to illuminate the night.

Lest I rob you of the pleasures of a virgin read, I won’t say any more. And please don’t look at any professional reviews beforehand, either. You may only be put off by silly descriptions of it as a ‘postmodern novel.’ Don’t get the wrong idea: In the Skin of a Lion is neither pretentious nor difficult to get through. It isn’t beach material, exactly, but it is perfect for a quiet weekend at home or away. I hope you read the stories as the character Hana hears them, “under six stars and a moon.”

Reading Out of the Silent Planet

Credit: Amazon

In the commencement speech given at Bard College at Simon’s Rock earlier this year, Ronan Farrow expounds on a passage in C.S. Lewis’s Out of a Silent Planet on the topic of experience and memory, and how they are one and the same. Farrow tells the audience that what he has learned from the novel is that every experience we have had accrues significance over the course of our lives, and that it is our mission to turn those experiences—both the positive and the negative—outward into the world as gifts to others. He adds,

That little passage is also a liberation from some of the obstacles to that mission. Because thinking of each experience we’ve had as a living breathing thing that evolves as it’s remembered inside us, as it shapes us, and as we turn it outward and teach it to the world, means it’s never too late. Means you’re never too much or too little of anything – because of who you are, or how old you are, or what your place in life is – to have an impact.

The novel—or the excerpt he cites—might be worth a read in the context of my Coming of Age program, since the moral that Farrow draws out resonates very well with my Finding Your Calling workshop.

You can read a transcript of the speech here, or view it for yourself below:

Reading “Some Say the World”

In my post on “The Shawl” I show how a somewhat bibliotherapeutic approach to the story can be facilitated by following a central image through close reading. We can take a similar approach to Susan Perabo’s “Some Say the World,” which originally appeared in TriQuarterly (sometime between 1994-1996, according to various sources), but which I am reading from Frosch’s Coming of Age in the 21st Century. I’m considering teaching this story in my Critical Approaches to the ‘Family’ Program because it tells the story from the perspective of a teenager living in a broken and dysfunctional family who ends up finding a family bond with a parental figure who is not her blood relation. The protagonist is a young, heavily-medicated pyromaniac stuck at home playing Parcheesi with her stepfather while her irresponsible, self-absorbed mother carries on a regular affair with her ex-husband, the protagonist’s estranged father. Predictably, the central image in the story is fire. Continue reading

Reading Yang’s American Born Chinese

Credit: Amazon

Even as it is told from the particular perspective of a Chinese-American boy, Gene Yang’s graphic novel has been lauded by readers and critics alike as a unique piece of young adult fiction that speaks to the universal teen problem of wanting to change something about yourself in order to “fit in.” I picked up the book last month with very high hopes but was left distinctly irritated by the time I got to the end of the work. I still can’t decide, however, whether and how I want to teach it.

To be sure, my discomfort with American Born Chinese is not uncommon. In an interview with Kartika Review, the author himself cites the Christian subtext of the plot as “the number two most controversial part” of the book (the first being the outrageous character Chin-Kee, who is an old Hollywood caricature come to life).

Credit: Acephalous

If we are honest with ourselves, the image is as funny as it is offensive, and I think that blogger and teacher Scott Eric Kaufman is right to warn educators that students may be very reluctant to dig into the taboo humor of the character because to do so would require confronting their own intimacy with the stereotype. But I also venture that by virtue of his exaggerations, Chin-Kee demands comment and can thus facilitate a provocative discussion on race.

What troubles me more than Chin-Kee is the racial subtext that is a bit more insidious, and which is directly related to the Christian subtext. To be clear, I don’t have a problem with the fact that there is a Christian subtext, but with how it informs the message on race/ethnicity. Continue reading

Reading “The Shawl”

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of coming of age narratives—mostly from Coming of Age in the 21st Century, an anthology I would recommend to anyone interested in the topic. One story that really stands out for me is “The Shawl” by Louise Erdrich (you can download a pdf of it here). I’m definitely including it in the Dealing with Parents and the Past workshop within my Coming of Age program and I’ll probably teach it in the Critical Approaches to the ‘Family’ program that I’m developing. What really struck me about the story was how the narrator (and the reader does not immediately know that he is also the protagonist) manages to turn a traumatic family story—one that carries the tremendous weight of myth—into a narrative of heroic martyrdom. In the process, the protagonist also succeeds in redefining his relationship to his abusive, alcoholic father, who is all but destroyed by that past. Continue reading