Month: June 2015

Couchsurfing in Limbo

We begin production in just two weeks, arriving in Paris on July 9th. I’m nervous, of course, but I’m feeling ready to get started.

I’ve been in Europe for about a week now. Under the auspices of CMU’s School of Drama, I was just in the Czech Republic attending the Prague Quadrennial, the biggest international convention for theatrical design in the world. I’m currently in Oslo, Norway, staying with my friend’s extended family here. (Basically, I’m bumming around Europe wherever I can stay for free until we start filming in Paris.)

Yes, those are real. Welcome to the Czech Republic.

Yes, those are real. Welcome to the Czech Republic.

New friends, old traditions: Elin with her formal bunad

New friends, old traditions: Elin with her formal bunad

Before I left the states, Dr. Niang and I decided on how we would approach the interview process with our participants. We chose four diverse individuals to focus most of our time on. We’ll be following these characters throughout their daily routines, with both moving and stationary interviews. Each day will have a different theme of questions:

Day #1: Daily life, and what lies ahead

Day #2: Beauty/sexuality

Day #3: Identity

Day #4: Major events pertaining to religion and race (Charlie Hebdo, 2005 Riots, etc)

Day #5: Fears/struggles/obstacles

I’m excited to get to know these women, and I hope that through us, you can get to know them too.

For now, check out this series by Cecile Emeke, which is my current inspiration.

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I think it's going to eat me.

I think it’s going to eat me.

Do I look calm in this photo? Maybe I do, because I’m bad at taking pictures, and I don’t know what to do with my face, but in reality, this is cause for a little bit of freaking out.

The short stack of handwritten papers that you see on the right is all of the papers that, so far, I have read, typed, and categorized. I’ve come up with a process where I label individual sheets of paper with a number and label folders with a letter. Then I’m able to save them on my computer in the order that I read them, although they have yet to be sorted according to their order in the actual plot of the story. So far, I have over 300 full, single-spaced pages saved on my laptop. I was slightly in denial about how much this actually is before I realized that it’s basically the length of a full-sized novel already.
As you can probably guess, the stack that you see on the left is all of the pages that I haven’t read or typed yet. And good God, it’s huge.

I’m going to be honest here: at this point in the summer, I should be over a third of the way through these papers, and clearly that isn’t the case. So I’ve started looking at ways to cut back on the amount that I actually try to type. There’s a bit of a catch 22 in the fact that typing pages that are already written is almost ridiculously easy, but so much so that it’s hard to motivate myself to actually do it. I’ve told myself that even if I do manage to type every one of these sheets into my computer, it would only make my life harder, because I’ll have to wade through hundreds of files in the later stages of the process.

An additional consideration is the fact that my grandfather was always a little bit of a peculiar person, as they say, meaning that he tended to be a tad more uptight, methodical, and generally unusual than your average guy. When he developed brain cancer, a lot of these weird sorts of behaviors were intensified. This made him even more likely to, for example, write the same passage twenty or thirty times over, only changing a few words or only changing the style of handwriting. This makes it really difficult for me to figure out which drafts are the best or most important.

But as I’ve gotten more used to the process, I think it’s starting to become easier to come up with strategies for how to move through the material more effectively. My main strategy has been to tackle the longer and later drafts first. That way, if I come across earlier versions of those passages that aren’t as good, I can skip over them. It’s not completely foolproof, because originally, I convinced myself that I needed to go chronologically through the drafts in order to really understand my grandfather’s process. Unfortunately, even having the whole summer doesn’t give me enough time to do that, so I’ve had to compromise by reading the later drafts first.

To be honest, I’ve spent a little too much time with these papers, which I’m especially realizing now because of the fact that I’m pretty sure I could continue this conversation for several more pages. But that wouldn’t be enjoyable for anyone. So I believe it’s come time for me to go put all those folders back in their boxes–for now, I’ll say goodbye! Thanks for reading.

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Going Out in the Field…Literally

Hi again!

I come to you fresh(ly showered, finally) from my first true music festival adventure of this summer (Dover, Delaware’s Firefly Music Festival), and what an adventure it was! Through plenty of mud, sweat, and a few (happy) tears, I’d mark this weekend as a success.

We tried to pack light...but things were still a little stuffed in the back seat!

We tried to pack light…but things were still a little stuffed in the back seat!

We began the weekend with a car packed full of supplies. So many supplies, in fact, that after a 6 hour drive to the thoroughly rain-soaked camp ground we got stuck in the mud…twice. Despite this, and a second rainstorm which cancelled Saturday night’s headliners, Kings of Leon, and gave way to impromptu mud wrestling in our campground, the weekend was hot, sweaty, and sunny, a left me with many-an-awkward tan-line.

The heat didn’t deter many from taking full advantage of the festival’s 5+ stages, bouncing from show to show with seemingly boundless energy. Luckily for us, the festival did have a few air-conditioned brewery tents, and some shady umbrella stations dispersed throughout the grounds, as well as one pavilion stage. It was at this stage that my parents (yes, parents!) took refuge, listening to DJ after DJ, and only venturing to other stages for a few favorites like Paul McCartney (of Beatles’ mega-fame) and Snoop Dogg (or Snoop Lion, as he is rumored to prefer). In addition to broadening their musical horizons, riding behind the scenes on golf carts (my Dad received ADA access, so they got rides to platforms at each stage set aside for people with disabilities), and making friends with the some of the staff, they spent the festival making mental notes about what to buy to make a festival trip an annual occurrence!

My parents were all smiles for a lot of the festival, and definitely are looking forward to future ones. Who'd've thought!

My parents were all smiles for a lot of the festival, and definitely are looking forward to future ones. Who’d’ve thought!

As you know my research has been focused on young adults using festivals as a site for the formation of personal identity. While I took plenty of notes on this topic throughout the weekend, I also noticed a distinct and fairly sizable 30-and-older population enjoying the festival as well. Potentially the result of Paul McCartney’s appearance as Friday’s headliner, this trend has nevertheless caused me to consider the appeal of such events to an older audience, and in what ways festivals play a similar role in their lives. It’s a wide open question for now, but certainly something I’d like to keep in mind as I do more reading this summer.

Though there were a fair share of low moments, which reminded me that this festival is young and as such hasn’t quite worked out all of the kinks, Firefly was an amazing experience. Highlights for me include a beautiful acoustic set from old favorite, Andrew McMahon in the intimate “Coffehouse Stage” setting, a sweaty closing night set by the Killers, which had everyone shouting along with glowsticks flying through the air, and seeing newer favorites Hozier and Borns live.

Though there were plenty of remarkable moments, Paul McCartney’s show of course has to be at the top of the list, with an amazing 2 and a half hour extravaganza. Everyone, performers and fans alike were amazed to be at a festival featuring Paul McCartney, with many wishing him a happy birthday and commenting on his set throughout the weekend. My friend and festival partner Emily had camped out all day to get the center of the first row for Sir Paul, and my mom and I were broadcast (to about 80,000 people!) on the giant screens showcasing the crowd during an over five-minute-long rendition of Hey Jude, the chorus of which carried all the way back to our campsite, where my dad could hear it! Definitely a concert for the books, and for it to come as part of a weekend full of great shows makes it that much sweeter.

Clearly my foray into the field left me with plenty to say, and plenty of memories. That’s why I’m leaving a link to this website, Music Festival Junkies, which I have used to find a thorough list of festivals all over the US and the world. I would strongly encourage you all to find a festival that appeals to you, no matter your age. I bet you won’t regret it!

I’ll be back soon with another update, but for now enjoy this slightly awkward photo of me with the giant festival entry sign! Thanks for reading!


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Alternatives to the Guidebook

Another few weeks have passed and I’m almost to 75 pages! Which is almost to 100, which is almost to 150! Yes. Let’s go with that. Stay motivated.

I feel like my time has been flying by this summer. On one hand, I like that, because I can see that the writing I do everyday is coming together and building up. On the other hand, I want it to slow down so I can enjoy my experiences and savor the summer before I go out into the unknown world. The jump from the safety of college to the freedom (but also confusion) of the real world is a big transition for myself and for many of my fellow students.

Something I really appreciate about the fellowship is that it gives Dietrich students, students who don’t necessarily have a straight and narrow guidebook to what we will do after college, the opportunity to create a project that we are interested in and give it our all. This gives us the chance to figure out whether or not we want to be doing something similar once we graduate.

I really appreciate that I have been given the chance, within the safety of college, to attempt novel writing and see how I like it. One of my friends wrote a novel for her thesis last year and she came out of it knowing that she never wanted to write a novel again. College is the time to discover these things and learn about ourselves.

So far, I have loved the novel writing process. I have enjoyed sitting down, every morning, dreaming up new scenes and immersing myself in the world of my characters. It is a dream come true to be able to write my first novel and I hope to be doing it for many years to come.

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That Story about the Frog in the Well

Since finishing the linguistics textbook, I have embarked on a great hunt through the literature surrounding code-switching, bilingualism, language socialization, immigration studies, and oral histories. I’ve been ransacking libraries and combing through bibliographies to follow the trails of key readings and scholars. As I did this I come to the realization (again) that the more I read, the more I know what I don’t know and the more I understand the scope of how much more reading I will have to do. Every source I finish reading points to at least four more crucial texts I have to read that I didn’t even know about before. It reminds me of this Chinese fable my mother told me when I was small. I’d like to apologize ahead of time for any gross inaccuracies and invented details or plot points that occur in this retelling of the fable. To be fair, the last time I heard the story was a long time ago and it was in a different language. So here is the story:

Once upon a time, there was a frog who lived in a well. He had everything he ever wanted in his well. I guess for a frog, that would be flies to eat and water to swim in. I’m not too sure what else a frog might want. Anyhow he also knew everything about that well, knew which angle to sit at to bask in the sun and which rocks to jump on to climb up the sides of the well. He even learned to predict the weather based on looking at the clouds that he could see in the little slice of sky above his well. He was very happy and he thought he had the most fabulous lifestyle ever. He was pretty sure that he knew everything there was to know about the world.

One day, a sea turtle encountered his well. (I have no idea what a sea turtle was doing that could have led him to the frog’s well. Maybe the sea turtle was a traveling engineer who was investigating well construction in different areas of the world.) The frog told the sea turtle, “Yo, I know everything there is to know about the world. I know everything about water, and about walls, and about the sun and the sky.” The turtle was very wise and old and cool, as turtles tend to be (see Finding Nemo for evidence), and he had traveled around the whole world. The turtle took the frog out to see the ocean, the great wall of china, the desert, and the sunset on a beautiful beach. And the frog’s mind was blown by how much of the world he didn’t even know he didn’t know about.

I feel like that frog every time I read more.

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Time Out

At this point in the summer, working on my thesis feels like a full-time job. There, I said it. This is work. And a lot of it. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to be able to write for my “job,” but it has definitely shown me a side of the creative process that I had never before experienced. How lucky am I though, that I am able to figure this out over the summer, when I have infinitely more time than I would during the semester? Very lucky, indeed.

Last week, just when the task of writing all-day, every day, started to take its toll, I was fortunate enough to be able to take a break, to fly across the country, reunite with one of my dearest friends, and give myself a few blissful days of rest from the world of my own creative mind. And trust me, when you spend all day hatching plans for people who don’t really exist, getting out of your own mind is welcome change of pace.

Where was this carefree land I flew to, you might be asking? Seattle, Washington.

1st stop, Pike Place Market

1st stop, Pike Place Market

Before embarking on this trip, I really knew very little about Seattle. This summer one of my friends is interning there and invited me for a long weekend. And since I had never been to the West Coast, I was definitely on board. Back when I planned the trip, I never could have guessed that it would be the perfect time to shake up my writing routine, but it certainly was!

My goals for this visit were twofold: to soak up as much of the city and surrounding area as possible, and to take ALL of the pictures. I didn’t want to stress myself out with a million things to do, but I also knew it would be the perfect location for taking photos I would never be able to take anywhere else.

So, off I went. And let me tell you, friends, it was incredible.

Hellooo, Emerald City, amiright?

Hellooo, Emerald City, amiright?

There is something about being in a new city that has such a fantastic potential to breathe new life into your creative muscles.(Well, probably all of your muscles, as my calves would tell you. But I chose to focus on the creatives ones.) My trip lasted from Thursday afternoon to early-early Tuesday morning. And since my friend worked the Friday and Monday of my trip, I had those days to wander by myself. Those unscripted moments were so enriching.

Camera in-hand, I meandered through Pike Place Market, streets adorned with gorgeous homes, and the bustling retail core. I may have had one or two real destinations on these days, but I was more focused on the journey. I walked whenever I could, enjoying the new sights that being on-foot allowed me to see, and talking with people I bumped into along the way.

When can I move in?

When can I move in?

On the Sunday of my visit, we took possibly the most beautiful hike I have ever taken in my entire life. Granted, I don’t do hikes often, but I’m pretty sure that even if I did, this one would be tops.



And while it was definitely a physical challenge at times, I couldn’t help but to fall in love with every single step I took.

Lake Twenty Two

Lake Twenty Two

Too often, I find myself with my eyes narrowly focused on the end goal, the finished project, the top of the mountain, the final due date. And while it’s perfectly fine and advisable to be aware of where you are going, this trip to Seattle emphasized for me the importance of enjoying the moments along the way.

I wonder if perhaps some of my exhaustion in terms of my own work was that I never truly allowed myself to take pleasure in the individual stories. So far, each new narrative has just been one closer to the end. So of course it would feel monotonous. But the creative process shouldn’t feel that way. Life shouldn’t feel that way. I just had to step out of my routine to see that.

I’ll leave you now with this week’s inspiration:

For the Eyes: Nature. While the weather is nice, take an afternoon away from your screens, your social media, and your stresses. It’s amazing what a little time in the wilderness can do. (And this is coming from a true city-lover.)

For the Ears: Silence. Every once in a while, there is something so refreshing about turning off the music.

For the Soul: Generosity. Be generous with your time, with your affection, with your humor, and with yourself.


Til next time, friends.

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Goals, Update and Books. Oh my!

notebookHello friends!

I have so much to share with you.

Firstly, I have forgotten to update you on my change in novel topic. My first novel topic, about Pittsburgh during it’s industrial boom, required far more research and time in order to do the topic and the city justice, and I do not think I will be able provide that during my senior year. Therefore, I have decided to write my novel on a different subject. My novel is currently shaping up to be a coming of age story of a girl starting college. I have centered her world on college Emergency Medical Services (EMS) because I have some experience with that community and culture. We will have to see if I do it justice.


I was receiving the dispatch for my first EMS call. Obviously, I was terrified.

This week is very exciting. My goal for the summer is to have written 150 pages of the first draft. This means I will have more than half of the first draft finished by the start of the school year and will leave me ample time to revise the draft when I am done. I have reached my first milestone. I have completed 50 pages of my first draft, which means I have accomplished a third of my goal!

I have one last thing to share with you today: my reading list. These are books that my thesis advisor recommended I read in order to get inspiration and learn from the masters.

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

Bobcat by Rebecca Lee

Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken

Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Matthis

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

So far, I have read Birds of America, Bobcat, and Prep. I hope to start the Twelve Tribes of Hattie and Drinking Coffee Elsewhere soon. Each book I have read has inspired me or taught me something new about writing (but honestly, they were fun to read too).

The overall process has ups and downs, little joys and hiccups but it has so far been an enjoyable experience. I am happy to be moving forward with the novel.

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Unfortunate Sources of Inspiration, or Hometown Shame

Texans respond to police brutality in McKinney

Texans respond to police brutality in McKinney

The recent McKinney pool party incident, in which a white police officer physically and verbally abused several African American children, strikes close to home. My father works for this town, in the parks and recreation department. We were there just the other day, getting lunch. We went to choose a gift for my mother’s birthday. It rained, hard.

Never once did our waitress treat us less than kindly. Never once did the jewelry shopkeeper eye me as if I might steal something. And as my father, my brother, and I ran through the rain to get to the car, never once did we fear an officer might stop us, suspicious of our intent.

I can never understand what it is like to be Black in America, no less the American South. But I do understand that I can use my privilege to promote the voices of those who often go unheard.

This sort of racial injustice is not only endemic in the United States. While there are certainly differences between the situations of African Americans and Afro-French, their parallels remind me that this McKinney incident reflects a much greater, global strife for those of the African diaspora.

I hope that our documentary on the young Black women of the French banlieues (suburbs) can act as a platform for individuals of this demographic to speak out about the realities of their lives.

I’m wondering if this documentary can also act as a critical mirror, not only for French society but for Americans as well. Maybe because it is removed, because it is all taking place across the sea, Americans would be more inclined to look at the stories of these young women objectively, and without all their own cultural baggage.

And maybe that could inspire them to think about their own society, and question stigmas and entrenched beliefs about the Black communities of the US.

And maybe I’m being entirely too optimistic. But if we can raise at least a question, if we can make the foundation of racism and prejudice in our global culture tremble even slightly, I think we will have made progress.

“Even the largest avalanche is triggered by small things.” -Vernor Vinge

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The Method to My (Researching) Madness

Hey there, everyone!

So we are well into Week 2 of my thesis work, and I am pretty much up to my eyeballs in texts about Hezbollah and the IRA. In case you don’t know, my thesis will be a comparative look at the political structures of a Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah, and a separatist group, the Irish Republican Army. I’ve started with my focus on Hezbollah, and hopefully in a few weeks I’ll move on to the IRA.

This is my preliminary stack. Preliminary. *Sigh*.

This is my preliminary stack. Preliminary. *Sigh*.

My thesis advisor, Dr. Colin Clarke, has very kindly given me access to some of the materials he’s gathered throughout his career as an expert on terrorist organizations. Those are the articles in the green folders the photo above. While I joke about the amount of reading I have to do, the truth is that these documents will be invaluable in hitting the ground running on my thesis. Once I get through these texts, I will have a far better idea of where to look in the wide world of terrorist-organization research for more information. So, thanks, Dr. Clarke!

But of course, the secret to any successful academic campaign is strategic planning. To that end, I’ve laid the groundwork for my 2015-2016 thesis schedule, as well as established my various lines of inquiry. As a researcher, it’s always been important for me to figure out what I’m looking for in a particular topic. In a major research endeavor, the effectiveness of your work does not hinge on how much you know, but rather on if you know which are the important questions to ask. For me, establishing what I’m keeping an eye out for in my mountain of material also helps me organize my thoughts, but more importantly, it keeps me from forming an opinion too quickly. For the next few weeks, I will be doing my best not to form theories, but rather to gather as much information as I can and fit all those disparate pieces together.


This is the first page of my thesis notebook. I color-code when daunted by huge amounts of information.

I’ve established five major categories. First, how the group, be it Hezbollah or the IRA, views politics and participation, and what services it provides to the people in its territory. What does the group give that the official government can’t? Second, how community support and volunteering work. What encourages locals to move from providing things like safe houses or supplies to actually taking up arms and joining these militant groups? Third, leadership and structure. How does the group organize itself? Does it have outside support? Fourth, media and public relations. How does each group disseminate its message? More importantly, how does each group see itself? Fifth, and the most concrete of all: finances. Where are the group’s revenue streams coming from? How is that money distributed?

I’m a curious person by nature. One of the things I have always adored about academics is that it provides me with the opportunity to ask interesting questions. One question that keeps popping into my head as I comb through articles and books on Hezbollah is: What is the nature of territory? What does ‘territory’ even mean? Officially, the Lebanese army controls the nation’s southern border (the one it shares with Israel), but in reality, it hasn’t actually controlled that region for decades. Hezbollah has. So what does that mean for modern nation-states? If Lebanon does not control that territory, but Hezbollah does, does that mean that Hezbollah can be classified as a mere militant group? Or is it something more complex and nuanced?

(Hint: I think it might be something more complex and nuanced. One thing I have learned in my years as a Global Studies major is that when you’re studying human beings and the way they interact with the world, nothing is ever simple.)

Obviously, as my thesis goes on, I will have to narrow down my questions. But for now, I’m enjoying myself.

This thesis brought to you by Carnegie Mellon University. Also coffee.

This thesis brought to you by Carnegie Mellon University. Also coffee.

See you all in two weeks!

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Hello everyone!

It’s my second week back in Pittsburgh, which means I’ve been immersed in my project for nearly two weeks now.

What I’ve been up to…

  • Lots and lots of reading. Basically, every day, I start off with reading new material, reviewing old material, looking for information online, reading through textbooks, and repeat. I’ve spent the good majority of last and this week delving into the research on relationship jealousy and security priming. It’s not the most exciting task, but certainly an essential one.
Found a nice study spot in the Carnegie Library!

Found a nice study spot in the Carnegie Library!

  • For now, my work has been a solitary task, apart from these weekly meetings with my advisor and other Dietrich fellows. I don’t mind working alone, but it’s a good feeling to interact with people that understand and support my work.
  • The beginning stages of the IRB proposal. Writing this proposal is my first (and big!) assignment. As I started writing two days ago, I have noticed what a huge and complex task this will be. The IRB proposal requires you to attach and explain everything you will use in your study, from the flyers, informed consent form, questionnaires, script, method, debriefing form, to twenty other things I have not listed. This means I need all these things done. For each component, I have a solid idea of what it’ll look like, but it’ll certainly take some time to write it out in the diction and format I envision. The smallest element can affect a participant’s answer to a question, so I need to extremely careful when writing these things out so my study presents itself neutral and unbiased. Also, the description of my study needs to be as tactful as possible, since I am dealing with human subjects and arising potential negative feelings of jealousy.

In these past two weeks, I feel as though I’ve found more about the way I work. First of all, I’ve absolutely loved working on my own time, which is not something many students get to experience. Each day has been different from the one before, which is partly due to the fact that I get antsy when I’ve been doing the same thing for too long. For example, I find myself switching locations throughout the day instead of staying put in one place. Walking around and moving helps me take a break when I’m in a rut, and I find it much more helpful than sitting and waiting for inspiration to come. I’ve hit up the usual work locations (Starbucks, the library, my lab) as well as outdoor locations (in front of the Carnegie Museum, by the fountain in Schenley Plaza) if outdoor Wi-fi permits!

Progress is coming slowly but surely. I’m excited to tackle on this proposal for the next few weeks and get my study rolling.

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