Spring Cleaning

For Persian New Year ("Nowrooz") we celebrate the first day of spring.  This involves a thorough house cleaning that one might suspect was invented by tricky parents to get kids to clean their rooms worldwide.  But apparently it really is a thing.  So this year I put aside the laptop and my neverending stack of work and got to it.

My Top 10 Spring Cleaning Finds, 2012:

1) A tee shirt from a "graffiti party" Sigma Kappa sorority bar crawl. What this means is that 72+ sorority women were given white tee shirts and permanent markers, set on a course working their way through a row of college bars, writing on each other all the while.  It was both horrifying and hilarious to read this shirt.  While I am impressed that my friends could still spell at a time like this, I am horrified that I have kept it.  On one piece of cotton there were so many memories that made me laugh out loud, then shudder, then roll the shirt up and squish it back in the box.

2) Letters from summer camp.  I didn't remember who had written to me, but there was the evidence of people who cared about me way more than I've ever given them credit for.  There was also a pretty hilarious letter from my dad on massive GASTROINTESTINAL RADIOLOGY journal stationery.  Clearly that was kept.  The only thing better would be if I could find a stockpile of the blank stationery itself...

3) French camp song list.  Just in case I ever need to sing in French about rowing, I'm all set. Phew.

4) A love letter.  I've been reading For The Love Of Letters by Samara O'Shea and had just read the chapter where she talks about how to write a love letter.  She talks about the variations it can take, and gives examples. I sighed, feeling all sorry for myself as I read a letter Keats had written.  I wanted a love letter! I wanted someone to pour their heart out on the page.  Fast forward one day, and what pops out of the box but a letter in such detail and emotion that I'm floored I forgot it was ever sent to me. It wasn't written on a scroll as I'd hoped and imagined for, but it was in an oversized thank you card and included an insert grading the aspects of what a great tour guide and companion I was on the visit.

Years later I read it with different eyes than the lovesick girl who would have received it then. It was really quite sweet. I kept it.

5) My sister's childhood drawings. Saved those for eBay. (I kid, Susie, I kid! Or do I?...)

6) My own drawings. I liked drawing the Guns n Roses logo. Over and over and over again.  Some people got their edge by drinking Nighttrain or wailing on their guitar. Rebel that I am... I sharpened my pencil.

7) Postcard from my brother, when he was just learning to write, approx 4 yrs old. I heart you was the main messaging.  I miss when he was little and had such an easy time telling me that.

8) Stories upon stories upon stories. I used to love writing fiction and wrote all the time; it just poured out of me.  Somehow after college I stopped writing completely. I blame this on the spirit-thrashing that is the law school experience. I found a script I had begun writing with a friend in high school.  He's no longer with us, and I will keep those yellow papers forever if for that reason only.  And to remind myself that once upon a time I thought it was appropriate to include Soul Asylum as the lead track in our movie.

9) College essays offering clear evidence that I was more intelligent and articulate in my late teens than I am now.
I wondered why I would possibly hand in a medieval English paper called "Let's Talk About Sex" and then remembered a friend and I challenged each another to incorporate totally off the wall phrasing into our boring papers.  "Handsome young buck" was one I threw him.

10) A signed and dated document by my dad regretting a certain Presidential vote. A personal treasure.

The point of spring cleaning is to clear things out, to wipe off the dust, to throw things away.  What I found myself doing was spring cleaning my memories. I pulled them out of the box one by one, dusting them off, holding them up to the light, and putting them right back in the box they had come from.

I can't wait to find all of this all over again.

The Lions of Little Rock. And me.

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine (book #11 for fiftyfifty.me!) is a stellar Young Adult novel that was recommended to me by a friend. But recommendations can really be hit or miss. After its never-ending series of critical kudos, I was relieved to be assured I was in for a good read. What I did not realize was that it would also stir something very personal in me.

The story takes place in 1958 Arkansas, after the Little Rock Nine, and during a time when local schools inexplicably continued to struggle with whether to stay open if they had to be integrated. More specifically, it is the tale of two young girls, Marlee and Liz. Marlee, who has been shy her whole life, finds reason to open up to Liz, the new kid. But no sooner have they forged this important friendship than Liz disappears from her school.  We learn immediately that she was "passing" as a white, and has been found out. These plots points set the backdrop for a fascinating, educational story of a time where you were white or black, period, and where the category you fell in very strictly delineated your opportunities and social circles.

This novel also gives readers - or hey, me - an opportunity to consider what it might feel like to be forced into a category. Worse yet: what it might be like to be notified that you don't fall into the "appreciated" categories; to know deep down that you are an outsider and yet not want to call attention to that fact.

As the new magnum opus stupidus Shahs of Sunset prepares to air on Bravo TV and humiliate me, desecrating all that's holy about my centuries-old culture (thank you, Ryan Seacrest), I am forced to think about whether we've really come all that far from the days of segregation. Supposedly, the show will showcase a different side of Persians. The pitch amounts to: Iranians aren't all  bearded anti-American freaks! No! They party and sell real estate -- they're just like us!

Horrifying, really.

Yet the recent addition of this show to America's cultural lineup proves a fact I often comment upon: Middle Easterners are the last minority you can be openly racist about. Under the guise of railing against the sliver of the population that behaves violently, people post hatred and spit vitriol left and right. To add a little insult to injury, they do so generally. I have yet to meet more than 5 Americans who realize Iranians aren't Arab. They don't bother having to know because it doesn't matter to them. But we all know Chinese people aren't Japanese. You don't need to know much about the nuances of Middle Eastern culture or country boundaries here, because they're all clumped together as evil.

Recently, while reading the comments section of a news article about the tensions between Iran and other nations, my jaw dropped as I read what people had written.  It's not ok to do this with blacks, Latinos, or Asians - if someone wrote about blasting another race off the earth, my guess is the news outlet would have moderated the comment (read: edited it out). But it's open season (since the 1970s) on anyone of Middle Eastern heritage. Born and raised here, I have actually professionally vowed to uphold American law, which is more than I can say for a lot of other citizens, and yet I'm the outsider? Because my hair is black or my grandparents lived on a different continent?

To be clear, I do not mean to say that the level of segregation, racism, or torment even remotely approaches that of African Americans in the 1950s (or before. or after), but simply to say that perhaps we shouldn't pat ourselves on the back just yet. That maybe American still has some lessons to learn about equality and acceptance and entitlement -- and kindness.

Turning the pages of Kristin Levine's novel, I was reminded of my time at law school; the Towers had just fallen and, out of concern for the heightened tension in the corridors and violent commentary, a group of Near Eastern students requested a meeting with the then-Dean. At a time when people who even looked Middle Eastern were being attacked nationwide and when his own students who wore hejab (a scarf to cover a woman's hair, which some believe is required by the religion) required escorts for safety, it took him over a week to take the meeting.

When we finally sat down, we began telling him our tales- vicious and worrying comments made in the student lounge, or in one case, aimed at a prominent Middle Eastern professor. Our concerns were met by his dismissal- he quickly reminded us that he considered himself a First Amendment scholar and felt that people had a blanket right to freedom of speech (any scholar will tell you freedom of speech isn't that cut and dry, but I don't pretend this gentleman was a scholar of that sort.)

IN ANY CASE, he sat back and said:

 "I had no idea there were so many of you here."

He spoke as if, unbeknownst to him, we had "passed"; we had been admitted and walked the halls -- as if we didn't deserve to be there. There were one million things he could have said, or should have said, and yet this was what he used his breath to utter.  A case of one person absentmindedly speaking his mind, but he's certainly not the only one who thinks that way. I daresay he wouldn't have taken this same liberty with La Raza in the room or any other ethnic student group. But Middle Easterners aren't so popular these days, so looser lips abound.

I read The Lions of Little Rock as I filled out an application that required me to fill in the bubble for race. It is something I always struggle with - to me, the options seem limited.  We can identify as White, Latino, African-American, Asian, Native American, or Unwilling to Disclose.  And so this becomes my cultural identity: Unwilling to Disclose. No one in this country treats me as if they think I'm white (as if white is still the prize or necessity to contribute to and participate in the community), and I hesitate to fill it in every time, so I don't.

The Lions of Little Rock is a powerful book for so many reasons. On the surface it is a sweet, thoughtful tale, and one might mistakenly file it away as historical fiction and believe that the lessons end there.  But the point is that the story is important to us today, and will be every day until we properly square away our racial issues. One can only hope that a unique book like this contributes to a gentler younger generation, one that approaches each and every member of their classroom with more interest and understanding.  Not just the black children- all children who look a little bit different than them, or act a little bit different. It is a tale of acceptance that I guess I wish more adults would read and learn from.

As much as I loved this story and its message of hope, the author couldn't understand me more than when she writes her final words and reminds us: we still have a long way to go.