Tagged: Schoolin’ Life

Schoolin’ Life: Gisele Jobateh

In the final installment of Schoolin’ Life, we meet illustrator Gisele Jobateh.

Gisele Jobateh

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?
Being a queer person of colour society left me feeling generally negative about myself. Add on to that a bunch of body image issues and it was a rough couple of decades for me. My skills were usually questioned or downplayed, as well as my intelligence. Thankfully, I did get to meet some people who helped me through these stigmas: high school teachers and the few long lasting friends that made sure I knew I was valued.

What was your first job like?
It was fast-paced and tiring. I worked as a camp assistant for local art summer camps for children. But this summer job did teach me patience, to an extent, as well as being around minds that engaged with things with complete earnestness and interest (if you could keep their attention on the task at hand, of course).

In what ways did your friendships change?
Over time, I stopped making friendships based on social survival and instead on actual common interests. The amount of abusive friends I had diminished greatly when I started to recognize my worth and dropped anyone who tried to diminish it in my eyes through “playful” bullying and name calling, especially of the racial kind.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?
I learned that I don’t like cis men, and that I am decidedly gay. Also, that I would rather be alone than with someone who I didn’t like out of some sort of romantic necessity.

How did your relationships with your family change?
I’ve become a little more open to understanding them and recognizing that they have their own private lives. As I grew up, I saw them more as individuals who are learning and growing themselves, instead of as a unit that I was also a part of. I am still close to my family, but there’s also a comfortable distance between us.

How do you feel society viewed you?
Generally negatively, considering the demographics I am a part of. I feel you can gauge your place in society based on how grating you find advertisements, and I’m pretty much the mirror image of the kind of customers most corporations want to appeal to, especially since I no longer desire to change myself to fit that image.

How do you feel you changed emotionally?
I think I’ve become calmer. I still have bad days where I get anxious, but it’s no longer to the point that I’m incapacitated by it. I also like to think I’ve matured emotionally.

How did you change intellectually?
I’ve shifted away from book smarts and more towards people smarts. I’ve gotten better at interacting with people socially, sometimes even volunteering to meet new people and even do public speaking. In the past, I’d much rather be the person doing the behind the scenes work, mainly research, or nothing at all, just watching and learning.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?
In many ways. I feel more self-confident, as much as the world around me tries to bring me down. I’ve gotten out of the habit of asking for permission to seek out my ambitions and happiness.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?
As much as my inner confidence has grown, my confidence with the outer world has diminished. I feel slightly more jaded than I did when I was in my late teens and early twenties. I still have some hope for the future, but it’s becoming more and more apparent to me that the people in power got their power by cheating, and they will keep it with more cheating. It’s frustrating to think about.

Who was your biggest influence and why?
There wasn’t just one influence on my life or my drive towards success. My mom is a big one, of course. I’ve known her all my life, and although we’ve had a couple of rough patches, I still see her as an inspiration.

My former Media Studies teacher from back in high school, who taught me the foundations of critical thinking, was also a big influence. Her classroom was always open and she let me hang out in it during lunch because I preferred quiet, secluded places to eat. She leant me a lot of books and even gave me a couple, believing in my intelligence. I would return most of them thoroughly read and we would have short book club meetings about them.

And then there was my high school English teacher, who was a black woman and helped me connect better with one half of my race. She taught me about the past and present civil rights movements, and although I didn’t understand the importance of these lessons at the time, looking back she gave me a very important foundation upon which I am now building myself up.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?
I often tweet about my regret of going to university at all and wasting all that money on tuition, considering that I’ve been developing a skill that can be self taught and is my main source of income. But even though I feel silly for sinking 30K and 5 years of my life into two degrees, I can’t fully regret it, considering it is what has made me the person I am today. I like what I had become.

Schoolin’ Life: Melissa Wong

In the latest edition of Schoolin’ Life, we chat with tech maven, yoga student, and side hustler Melissa Wong.

20151026_Melissa_26

Photo credit: Ren Yagolnitzer

Quick bio: who are you, what are you into, what do you spend your time doing?

I am a curious, inquisitive person. Whether it be a speaker series, workshop, or gathering with friends, I like to stay busy learning! Fortunately, living and working in Brooklyn lets me do just that.

I work for Kickstarter, just completed a 200 hour yoga teacher training, and am hungrily learning more about the art of facilitation. These days I wake up, eat, breathe and subway thinking about my passion project, Up Speak: an organization which facilitates intimate career support groups for women navigating similar professional terrain.

As someone still learning about what kind of work I find most meaningful, I created Up Speak to provide a collaborative space for kindred spirits to help hold each other inspired and accountable to their goals.

If you are interested in joining the first 2016 session, let me know here!

When you were in your 20s:

What expectations did you have for yourself in the decade?

I’m in my late 20s so I’m not in the clear yet!
I recently went to a Lady Boss event and was comforted by one of the speaker’s stories. She said she’s been working for 30 years: the first ten years she was just figuring out what she wanted to do; the second ten she spent getting good at it; and it has only been in the last ten years that she’s finally getting real traction. I hope that by the time I exit my 20s I will have passed that first milestone of refining what it is that I am not only good at but feel great doing.

What was your first job like?

My first real job was hostessing at my dad’s seafood restaurant in San Diego which was just up the street from my high school.  
Working at The Fish Merchant, I got my first taste of what it’s like trying to please people and the idea that “the customer is always right”. It was a formative job in that it spurred me to work part-time throughout college, building a resume in hospitality. It also allowed me to save enough money for backpacking travels during my summers. I have dedicated a large part of my 20s to traveling and eating!

What was your first apartment like?

My first time renting an apartment on my own was in a different country where I had to trust other people to translate what was going on. I was teaching English in a small city in Spain and was only going to be there for 9 months. It was admittedly a quirky, pretty hideous apartment but I still sought refuge there from a city that made me feel like an outsider.

That said, I just had dinner with the girl I lived with during that strange, transitional time and feel fortunate that I made a lasting friendship in the unlikeliest of places.

Did you experience any big life changes?

Yes! Let me try to count them… I’ve lived in many different cities in different countries. I’ve only had one 1 year lease, instead opting for sublets that don’t require rental agreements. I’ve had several serious relationships. My parents got divorced. I’ve had over 10 different jobs.

I realized along the way that it is harder for some people to brave moving outside their comfort zones and harder for others to stay put where they are.
I happened to fall into the latter group but felt a shift a few years ago from simply wanting to drink in the world, to wanting to have experiences that had more long term impact. Now I’d much rather travel to a new place and be involved in a project there, then just be an observer floating through. I’m happy to take on the challenge of finding newness in the everyday.

In what ways did your friendships change?

When you move around a lot, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold close everyone you care about. The tradeoff to having the freedom to move and experience new places is that it will never be possible to have all the people you love in one place. That has been a reality I’ve had to accept over the past decade.

Fortunately for me, my best friend and I have lived parallel lives. We haven’t gone very long without being in the same city and able to see each other on an everyday basis. She has been a grounding force for me through all of life’s changes, a constant that I feel incredibly grateful to have had during periods of growth and self-discovery.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

I think a lot of people today put so much pressure on their partner to be their everything — their best friend, their fiery lover, their roomie, their travel companion, and on and on. These shoes are too big for any one person to fill!
I’m still trying to be able to distinguish between these high expectations society has created for us and what my real hopes and needs are in a partnership. It’s a constant education. When it comes to what it means to grow with and alongside someone else, to understand how we as individuals and us as a couple can symbiotically flourish, I’m still very much a student.

How did your relationships with your family change?
I feel lucky that I’ve had strong family connections that have supported and anchored me throughout all of the fluxes in my 20s. After my parents divorced, my younger sister and I found a silver lining in really cultivating individual relationships with both our mom and dad. Now that we are all adults, we’ve had to navigate what it means to have these relationship ”2.0s”.  It’s a process but we’re getting better and better at it!

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

I like to think I’ve become both more self-aware and also self-assured. I’ve gotten clearer on what makes me feel like my authentic self and accepting of who I am. I have also had more practice at being attuned to what someone else is feeling or needs. Turns out, empathy grows with experience.

In high school, I remember feeling irritated once when my mom read a tragic headline in the newspaper and started to cry about it. I didn’t understand how just reading something about people she didn’t even know could elicit such an emotional response.

How did you change intellectually?

If college is there to help you “learn to think”, my 20s was about getting more “street smart”. Moving away from academia toward the workforce I wanted to do more and conjecture less.

I’ve learned the importance of presentation, confidence, and connections throughout my professional career. These are invaluable skills that they just don’t teach you in college.
More recently, I’ve shifted my thinking about the malleability of thought patterns themselves. I always thought that one’s propensity toward certain thoughts was largely inflexible. I’m coming around to the idea that your mind is like a muscle — you can actually train it to form different pathways, to choose alternate ways to view your reality. It’s an incredibly empowering feeling to know that we have more control over our thoughts than we think.

 

Welp, now I get it. After doing, seeing, and feeling more things, it’s easier for me to put myself in someone else’s shoes and really physically process what they must be going through. Just the other day I was fighting back tears after reading a news headline…

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?
After being a student for so long, it was difficult to emerge into the working world and find my footing. Without grades to validate my worth, I felt a palpable dip in self-confidence. I didn’t know how to market myself because I didn’t know what I had to offer aside from being a critical thinker who could write essays and talk about ideas. I was one of many educated young people trying to find the uniquely shaped hole in which I could curl into perfectly. The “How to Conquer Your Quarter-life Crisis” book that my mom gave me upon college graduation, unfortunately, didn’t help.

It was challenging to enter a workforce that seemed to only want to employ people who design or engineer products. I’ve had to work hard to identify and embrace the interpersonal, intangible skills that I possess and to find the best home for them. The good news is, I truly feel like I am just inches away from getting there. *Cough* Did I mention my project Up Speak?

Who was your biggest influence and why?
The person I consistently seek input and feedback from is my amazing best friend Elisa. We’ve been through so many stages of life together (ever since the 3rd grade!) that we know each other in a deep-rooted, historic way. Aside from sharing many values and interests, a strong element to our relationship is that we make decisions in different ways. If I am the “Why?”, she is the “How”. She is someone I look to when I need clarity about which way to move, as she’s a genius at breaking an issue down to its most important elements. She’s a crazy smart, modest, go-getter and someone who I plan on rocking my chair next to in retirement!

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

One of the most challenging things I’ve had to do is admit to myself that the life I was living didn’t feel like my own. I quit or changed my job and moved away from friends not once but twice in order to maintain romantic relationships. Separating myself from people I loved but who ultimately were not going to be my “forever guys” was incredibly difficult, but it was necessary to find a path that felt like my own.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

When I look back at my former selves, I feel empathy for them. I think this is the biggest reason why I don’t have regrets. If I’ve ever done something that didn’t have a net positive result, I can flip back to that time in my mind and still understand why I chose to do what I did.

Plus, I’m happy where I am now and I think there’s truth to acknowledging that all the little moments, even the false steps, contribute to where you currently stand.

Is there a story that you feel best sums up the decade?

I remember a night when Elisa and I had a most depressing dinner that ended in laughter. That night, we picked some greens from the house’s garden and took some eggs from the chicken in the front yard to frugally make dinner. I was crashing her house sitting gig in Berkeley after having returned from a year in Spain. I was jobless and she was working part-time. We were both single and feeling unlucky in love. We got quiet at one point, chewing in silence, and then lamented that we were feeling so pathetic and lost. Since the only other option was to cry, we just laughed really hard about it.

Yeah, that’s how I think I’ll remember my 20s — constantly trying to figure things out but having a lot of fun doing it!

Schoolin’ Life: Crystal Skillman

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we catch up with playwright and screenwriter Crystal Skillman.

crystal skillman

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

You know, as an artist I just thought I’d create the work and it would get done. But I also didn’t really know if I was a good artist. I thought I did, but in the 20s, you just have no confidence, you know? I mean, it’s hard enough to figure out how to make dinner on your own (I ate beans and rice for a loonnnngg time). So I’m not sure what kind of expectations I could form. I had a lot of surprises – I had no idea that the business side of being an artist would be that difficult. I’m a playwright (though I first studied photography at Parsons School of Design). It was hard to factor in just how much networking plays in all the decisions made in getting a “greenlight”. As well, the amount of sheer momentum it takes for anything to “lift” or “live on”. That said, if I met the 20-something me right after I came out of a time machine and was like – “Man, years from now you’ll get three great NY Times reviews – and have an awesome fan base – there’s an audience that wants to see your work and who think you’re a great writer!” I would have looked that time traveler me (and I assume I’d have a fabulous helmet) and have thought I was nuts.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

I’m an only child raised by a kooky set of parents from upstate NY who filled me with relentless humor and confidence. Which I needed … as I was a “geek” from when I was really young, I was pretty much made fun of until I went to college. So I learned very quickly at a young age that it was up to me to change society, and that much of society wasn’t geared to “do the right thing”. A good example is that I was made fun of on the bus in middle school. I returned home and said we have to find a solution – that wasn’t right and I wasn’t going back to school on those conditions. My mom, bless her heart, drove me to school each day. As I got older, I tried to demonstrate more as a leader by standing up for what I thought was right. Society is constructed around the idea that money is the most important thing – as artists we need money, but understand that isn’t true. I also knew that I had to stick to my guns of pursuing what I was passionate about, in order to actually make money from what I want to do. Most of society doesn’t understand that concept I’ve found! The harder part has been finding ways to make peace with reality (society). When to fight and when to be like – okay you want me to fill out this dumb form? I’ll just do that and move on. I finally have all the right forms of ID. That’s the best I can do for society…

What was your first job like?

OMG! Oh lord. This is the Way Back Machine here… I do believe it was the Just a A Buck store in the Poughkeepsie Gallery mall. I was terrible at math, so that was a job I could actually do.

What was your first apartment like?

It was a dream and the first with the love of my life, Fred Van Lente. It was in South Park Slope and had a red living room, a 50s looking kitchen, and I wrote in a little back room. We had a non-working brick fireplace. We got to fill it with crazy little things that made us happy and we had two kitties. Then a few years later, it became roach infested and a DJ moved below us who loved crystal meth so it later became Operation: Flee. Dreams only last for a moment; then you move on to the next dream!

Did you experience any big life changes?

The same as anyone else – the discovery of love, dreams coming true and being smashed and rebuilt, watching your parents grow older … learning that you can actually dress yourself to look good.

In what ways did your friendships change?

I have lots of creative friendships, as I’m always working with different teams on plays. I put my energy into those artistic friendships. I got a little traumatized by so many friends wanting “hang out” time or asking me to help them move all the time. I’m not great at hanging out. I like goals and fun! Also I like being there for important moments in people’s lives, but I’m not the friend-mover material. And I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings that I might not be into the same things they were. Now I feel like I’m friends with other driven, fun folk and we can return to some of those more deeper friendships. I’m kinda excited about that lately.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

I actually got the chance to write about this! In the upcoming book with incredible comic book creators and writers. It’s called The Secret Loves of Geek Girls

How did your relationships with your family change?

As I got older, my parents who were awesome to me but not so nice to each other, finally found happiness again, bizarrely after my dad had a brain aneurysm. I think in that case, tragedy brought them together. They grew closer as a unit and lovey dovey.

How do you feel society viewed you?

I think this is a dangerous question. I think the goal of life is to not have this question in your head. One must keep focused on that work at hand and not think so much about others perception of you – then you do things for the wrong reasons.  

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

I’m still a happy, bizarre, funny, blubbering mess! Depends on the day and who I meet. I used to wish I was a robot. I hated having emotions. But as I grow older I’m able to ask WHY am I feeling this way and break it down. I know I’m really sensitive and that truly no one MEANS to hurt you. I try to take this into account when I feel hurt and just look at what I can do.

How did you change intellectually?

I don’t make as many assumptions. I’m more open and try to listen more. That makes my work better and as well makes me able to understand so much more … Listening is hard work!

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

I feel pretty true to who I am actually. I hope I’m a little less defensive. I also realized that I was pretty in my 20s, and I now feel confident now about my looks.  I also used to feel that I could never be athletic and now I run.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

I learned that forgiveness is the hardest thing for people. And I’m happy that I’m a really big forgiver. I’m a mistake maker myself and I get it. People need kindness and to be heard. That is the greatest gift you can give. Good plays, theater, and art does that when the audience can see themselves in the work. But maybe really getting that everyone needs to be forgiven?

What was the most embarrassing moment?

SO MANY! I’ll pick the most amusing. In the 90s, I had to go for a job interview to be that pesky girl that would knock on your door and get you to support the environment. This was one summer when I was back from college. I got off in downtown Poughkeepsie, and while walking trying to find the address, looking up at the building numbers, I realized I was sinking. I had stepped into wet cement. The workers were all laughing at me. I had to come back onto the sidewalk and get hosed off. I went to the interview with DRIPPING WET SHOES. There was a PUDDLE behind me as I walked. I wondered if I should say anything. I thought, “Fuck it. I’m not saying anything.” They didn’t say anything either! I got the job.  When I realized that the job would drop you off in isolated neighborhoods by yourself for hours at a time and I almost got bitten by a dog, I decided that was not the job for me. I’m also still, happily so, a bit of a hypochondriac.

What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?

A theater that had commissioned me seemed to be moving me along to production. Or at least in my naïve eyes. But, the point is, I felt lied to. Like really betrayed. Much time and work had gone into rewrites, etc. When I realized they weren’t going to do the play I saw two roads open up: one where I was going to keep going and find a way to enjoy life at the same time (or try) and one was pretty dark – like real anger in my heart. Bitterness. And those dark thoughts of – well what if I wasn’t here? What if I end it and let go of this journey? A few years later, a friend of mine passed away. He was young. As we laid him in the ground, I promised him I’d never think those dark thoughts again. The gift of life was so clear to me. That experience and other ones like it have done for me is reaffirm that I know that I can make it. We all can. Keep running at your own pace. Basically I learned that you might not have the answer or solution right then and there, but it will come. Have faith in yourself and your work and others will too. People talk about big breaks and such, but I think of it in terms of things in this world that you can and can’t control. But that doesn’t mean you’re powerless. SHOW them who you are.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

My husband! Fred Van Lente. He’s my favorite writer in the whole world. And during our writing times while I’m writing away downstairs, he’s writing away upstairs!

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

For my generation, it was 9/11, particularly as a New Yorker. It changed me, not only because I was here and it affected people I knew, but because I had never seen a tragedy used for evil as the way Bush used this incident. I had never seen to that extent, in our country, that level of manipulation, and the despair at how the country went with it. Until then people operating on a mass level from fear I had read about, but not felt I was in the middle of. I saw that was literally the greatest thing to be afraid of – that kind of mob mentality.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?
I think this question is dangerous too, but a really interesting one. I think no one should truly regret, as the one thing they might have changed – you can’t know if it would help due to the variables around it. I wish I was a little less snotty about work that I thought was shitty (like movies, art) when I was younger. I wish I understood that takes just as much time to make those things and fail as it does to succeed. I know how hard it is to be an artist now, so I have that respect. But then again, I think the 20s is all about having the right to be snotty. I think you deserve to be a fuck up in your 20s.

Schoolin’ Life: Fiona Smyth

In today’s episode of Schoolin’ Life, we meet illustrator/painter/cartoonist Fiona Smyth.

fiona smyth at 24 and now

Quick bio: who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?

I’m a feminist artist whose practice includes drawing, painting, illustration, and cartooning. I’m into zine collecting, comics, and snacking! I teach illustration and cartooning at the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD U) and the Art Gallery of Ontario. I’m the illustrator in collaboration with writer and sex educator Cory Silverberg for the picture book What Makes A Baby and the newly released follow-up Sex Is A Funny Word from Seven Stories Press. My first graphic novel, The Never Weres, was published by Annick Press in 2011.

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

I graduated art school in 1986 but I was already exhibiting my paintings the year before. My expectations were to spread my work internationally and live off my art. I managed to establish myself as an artist, illustrator, and cartoonist in Toronto and get a bit of a reputation beyond Canada.  Sometimes there were day jobs and there was a brief stint on welfare.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

I was inspired by what was happening in New York City’s Lower East Side’s art scene- fast creators and ever present artists like Keith Haring. Toronto was a real boys’ club in art and comics. I knew as a woman artist (in Toronto and beyond) I was an exception and so was the content of my work/what I had to say. I was creating sexy, in your face, colourful work. I was driven to show my work often, and also outside the gallery system through posters, murals, clothing, and zines.

What was your first job like?

My very first job ever was when I was 15 at a deli/café named Sweet Gallery but later in my twenties my day job was working the candy counter and ticket sales at a repertory cinema. I was doing illustration commissions, painting clothes and murals, and making comics during the day. I worked with Reactor Art & Design for illustration, Vortex Comics, and Weller-Potovsky Gallery in Toronto.

What was your first apartment like?

I lived in the basement of a student rented house. There were at least 4 other roomies. I had a studio at the time that was shared with 3 other artists. At some point I decided to get a cat, which the roomies were not psyched about.

Did you experience any big life changes?

My family moved to Nova Scotia and I was on my own for the first time in Toronto. It was a much bigger adjustment than I realized- freedom but also dealing with emotional issues.

In what ways did your friendships change?

I knew a lot of people but had a handful of close friends. I got into a bad habit of finding “surrogate parent” friends, or troubled and depressed folks like myself. There were many bad decisions in relation to friends, living situations, and partying during those days.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

There weren’t romantic ones until I met my partner (of now 23 years) when I was 28.  Before Craig Daniels entered my life, it was drug addicts, alcoholics, and genuine jerks- territory that was familiar.

How did your relationships with your family change?

Distance and time helped me build healthier boundaries and self-esteem (plus the stability and support of my relationship with Craig, and therapy).

How do you feel society viewed you?

As a woman artist society tends to judge your work in relation to what you look like in a way that doesn’t happen to male artists. When I was younger, folks were often surprised by my demeanour in relation to the sexy, violent, outrageous content of my work and they also made assumptions because I was a punk rocker. I find now as an older artist, folks are surprised I don’t look like a punk rocker. I can’t win!

Also you can be pigeonholed as a particular kind of artist- for example for years I’d have art directors say something like: “We love your work but we don’t want erect penises or flaming vaginas in this kids’ illustration” –well, duh!

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

At the time I was making bad decisions and acting out in ways I wouldn’t understand until years later. I’ve gained understanding and empathy for my younger self since then.

How did you change intellectually?

When I first made a name for myself as an artist I was afraid of the F word. I would call myself a humanist. That didn’t last long, I am a feminist artist and fiercer about that stance the older I get. Personal experience and feminism opened my eyes.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

I discovered my art acted like an alter ego and that was an okay way to deal with being in the world.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

My worldview was becoming more and more fatalistic, especially with the occurrence of family illness.

What was the most embarrassing moment?

Apart from not calling myself a feminist for a time? Being 15 minutes late for a friend’s wedding for which I was the “best man”.

What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?

There was a chance I might have gone to NYC as part of a studio residency. For many years an established artist teacher/mentor of mine would bemoan the fact I hadn’t gone but in retrospect I often think of it as missing a bullet not an opportunity. I needed the stability and slowness of Toronto to discover my healthiest self and my visual voice. I think I would have been burnt out on drugs and the fast pace of NYC, I don’t think my 20’s self would’ve survived.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

Punk rock and hip hop DIY culture (this was pre-Riot Grrrl and Queercore) which taught me to be wary of the establishment, not give a fuck, and promote and disseminate my work outside the gallery system. Keith Haring showed the way in creating populist iconic work fast and effectively, and including social justice themes. He taught me the personal is political, and can be accessible and universal.

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

The murder of 14 women at École Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989: I remember hearing the news, being in denial thinking they were murdered because they were engineering students- and having the nauseating realization they were murdered because they were women.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

I wish I’d done more comics- I pursued art more fervently but comics travel in the world better.

Is there a story that you feel best sums up the decade?

I had some adventures in Detroit- showing art, and visiting with Craig and his band, The Leather Uppers. The grit and rawness of this dystopic American city was juxtaposed with an amazing music scene (The Gories). This culture was at its most punk and resilient, grounded by broken glass and burning cars.

Schoolin’ Life: Duretti Hirpa

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we catch up with senior software engineer Duretti Hirpa.

Duretti Hirpa

Who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?

My name is Duretti Hirpa, and I’m a senior software engineer at Slack. I’m unabashedly into people, Beyoncé, snacks, and the ever changing role of technology in our lives. I spend my days making Slack better, working on my snack podcast (snackoverflow), as well as trying to make the tech industry a more welcoming and equitable place for lady-identified and/or marginalized people.

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

Growing up, I was inordinately obsessed with being an “adult”. Now that I’m here, I realize we’re mostly winging it. Additionally, my expectations were really normative – spouse, baby, house, but conversely, I told myself my twenties were for me, that I get every year in my twenties to myself, to figure out what it was I wanted and how to get there.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

I come from a family of immigrants (shout out to East Africa), and as such, I had a lot of dissonant societal views coming at me: women should have a career, but being married with babies is your most crucial function. It took me a long time to see myself separate and apart from my family, or as something more than a potential wife and mother.

What was your first job like?

I moved to the Bay Area in 2008, at the very beginning of the recession. I had just graduated from university, and had approximately $500 to my name. I found a contract position at an educational startup and I felt so lucky to have found something that I could live on (years later, I’d find out that it wasn’t that much, and I was supposed to be withholding taxes from my paycheck. Tax season 2009 was rough). The job itself was mostly scut work, but I felt so thrilled to be earning money at something I truly liked. I couldn’t help but feel I getting away with something.

What was your first apartment like?

My family is quite a large one, and we have always loved the hustle and bustle of living with others; as such I’ve never lived alone. After graduating, I lived with a friend from university who had done all the leg work – she found the apartment, she got the lease sorted, all of the adult unpleasantries that go with finding a place to live (shout out to Kristen). It was a two-bedroom, one bath apartment. It was carpeted and homey. We hung our handmade crafts on the walls. It was located in a huge complex with lots of children, and a tiny, tiny dive bar in the parking lot.

Did you experience any big life changes?

Not really. Worked, paid student loans; rinse, repeat. (I don’t really have an answer for this one!)

In what ways did your friendships change?

Growing up, I believed that the friends you made in college were your “forever friends”, and as such, I had a hard time leaving university and learning to put down roots elsewhere. Eventually, I learned that the people who really care about you figure out ways to keep in touch, conversely, it’s possible to feel intensely lonely while you make friends in your new city. It gets better, though.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

That we all play at intimacy, and embodying true vulnerability and acceptance is the hardest thing we do as people. In the words of Rilke:

“For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”

How did your relationships with your family change?

I grew closer to my siblings, and learned to humanize instead of idealize my parents. We’re all human people trying to make it as best we can.

How do you feel society viewed you?

I’m not sure! What I do think is that I stopped caring how it viewed me. I think if I concentrate too long on how I’m viewed by others, I wouldn’t done the things I’ve done (talk about your classic extrovert’s dilemma: act first, question later). I think I spend a far greater amount of time struggling with how I view myself.

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

I think I got better at self-regulation. That being said, there’s something to being unregulated. When I was younger, I made decisions with a lighter heart. I’d like to still have the wisdom that comes from making those choices and the bravery to do so.

How did you change intellectually?

I think I wanted to see the receipts more. I still pretty much believe everything I read in books though.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

It’s like the title of the David Lipsky book about David Foster Wallace – “Although of course you end up becoming yourself”. I was always me, things just settled more into place.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

I think got WOKE. Most of my early and mid twenties were spent trying to answer the question, “How should a person be?” I wrote lists and lists of admirable qualities, and tried to become the kind of person that embodies those qualities. I became more accepting of the humanity in others, but more skeptical of the systems we put in place.

What was the most embarrassing moment?

Urnmf. I’m not sure! They probably have to do with being interested in someone and being shot down? You get over the intensity of that, too.

What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?

Yikes. I’m an intensely positive person. I don’t tend to dwell on disappointments (and I’m having trouble recalling one now). I’m of the attitude that if there’s a set back, that’s fine: there’s always gonna be setbacks. You can’t let it derail you. Ever forward, and all that. Ultimately, I’m stubborn, and once I truly make up my mind about a thing I want to accomplish, there’s very little that can stand in my way.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

It’s lonely being The Only One in the Room. I think the younger kids are more woke, they have this catchphrase, “you can’t be what you can’t see” – professionally, I don’t know of anyone that’s been my biggest influence. I guess my answer will be Beyoncé. The answer is always Beyoncé.

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

Michael Jackson died, and with it, a bit of my childhood. There’s a passage from Nick Hornby’s About a Boy that sums it up perfectly:

He hadn’t been shocked by the death of a pop star since Marvin Gaye died. He had been… how old? He thought back. the first of April 1984… Jesus, ten years ago, nearly to the day. So he had been twenty-six, and still of an age when things like that meant something: he probably sang Marvin Gaye songs with his eyes closed when he was twenty-six. Now he knew pop stars committing suicide were all grist to the mill, and the only consequence of Kurt Cobain’s death as far as he was concerned was that Nevermind would sound a lot cooler. Ellie and Marcus weren’t old enough to understand that, though. They would think it all meant something, and that worried him.

I was 23 the summer Michael died.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

Of course – that’s thing about moving linearly through time: you never know if the decisions you make are the right ones. I cheer myself up by thinking about the multiverse version of Duretti, who has made the choice that I ultimately didn’t go with. It helps me be less indecisive, strangely, to think that some other version of myself is doing the other thing I’m waffling on.

Is there a story that you feel best sums up the decade?

Not really..! Maybe a montage of increasingly vigorous eye-rolls at people telling dad jokes?

Schoolin’ Life: Colter Jackson

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we meet illustrator and writer Colter Jackson.

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When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

In my 20s I had this agonizing, paralyzing ambition to “become a writer.” Hell or high water, I wanted to publish before 30. Guess what? I failed. But I needed that failure. It taught me a lot. I started having fun in my writing. I started drawing again. Letting myself play and pursue fun side projects – that’s when I started getting published and I think that’s not a coincidence.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

Society shrank my expectations of myself. I grew up in a very small town in Missouri (500 people or so). In that culture, girls were encouraged to be pretty but not interesting, defiant or smart.  Also, art was not valued. It was considered something the weird kids were good at. And I was good at it and worked hard at it, so I guess I was a weird kid. Creative pursuits were unheard of and I’d never met an author or an illustrator so I didn’t understand that these were things you could be. Even though I’ve made a career of it, my family still refers to my artistic inclination as ‘artsy fartsy’.

What was your first job like?

I was a waitress at a diner and I got fired. They said it was for my terrible handwriting. I was devastated. I thought it meant I was destined for a life of failure.

What was your first apartment like?

I was 15 when I moved out of my mother’s house. It was a small one-bedroom subsidized by the government. My English teacher had to write a note for me explaining that I was a responsible kid and would pay the rent. I hated the apartment then – the dingy carpets, the dark rooms, the leaky faucet, but I love it now. The idea of it. I can see myself up late at night at the kitchen table working my ass off on my college applications. Doing everything to get myself out of that little town.

Did you experience any big life changes?

I had a health scare that really transformed my life. I was working in advertising as a writer but I had always dreamed of writing books and pursuing my illustration more seriously. Then I got sick and realized I didn’t have all the time in the world to squander at happy hours and late-nights at the agency. After they let me out of the hospital, I quit my job, went freelance and started making things (novels, comics, illustrations, kids books) furiously and with absolute abandon.

In what ways did your friendships change?

In my 20s, it seemed like I had a million friends. But a lot of those friendships were shallow and based on nothing more than shared space. I have fewer friends now in my 30s but life feels so much richer because the connection to those friends runs very deep. I feel so fortunate to have found a tribe of people who all really love and respect each other and want good things for each other.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

I learned life is too short to put up with shenanigans. Find someone awesome and wake up and love them with all you have every day.

How did your relationships with your family change?

Family is so complicated. I’m the baby of five, so I think I had to get far away in order to carve out my own version of myself. Being the youngest child, I had a bit of hero worship for my older siblings. I had to grow up and realize they are just humans and their approval of me doesn’t make or break my life. Their beliefs about the world, don’t have to be my beliefs. That was very freeing. I stopped trying to make everybody happy with my choices. The strange result of that was deeper, more authentic relationships with my family. I enjoy most of them. I’m friends with them.

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

In two large ways. I let go of the reins and this constant feeling of wanting to control the direction of my life because there is so much out of our control. And I let go of the crippling desire to make everyone happy. I realized people would still love me if I made choices they didn’t approve of and if they stopped loving me – they weren’t the kind of person I wanted in my life, were they?

How did you change intellectually?

I’ve always been a reader but I think I started to understand the value of reading books that are really challenging and not just entertaining. That books actually get inside of you and make you bigger and better in a lot of ways, opening your eyes and opening your heart.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

The adjectives changed. I went from striving to be pleasant and pretty to striving to be interesting, tenacious, brave, intelligent and kind.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

I grew up so insular. Travelling and reading really opened my eyes to how connected we are as human beings. How we should do everything we can to minimize the suffering of others.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

My high school English teacher had a profound affect on my life. She was always so fiercely intelligent and well-read. I grew up in a cultural desert and she was this magical oasis of knowledge and poetry. She encouraged me in my outlying interests and it’s the only encouragement I can find when I look back.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?
The things I regret aren’t really missteps or mistakes – I think those are valuable. I regret time wasted and I regret anytime I’ve ever hurt anyone.

Schoolin’ LIfe: Katie Goldman Macdonald

In today’s episode of Schoolin’ Life, we meet fashion designer Katie Goldman Macdonald.

Katie Goldman Macdonald

Give us a quick bio: who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?

I was born in Northern California and grew up in a small coastal town called Half Moon Bay. I’ve been drawing from the time I could hold a pen. In my childhood home, all of the closet walls are covered in drawings of “ladies in fashions.” Now I’m a clothing designer designing womenswear, so I’ve stayed pretty true to my initial career inclinations. I’ve worked in fashion for 8 years and am starting my own line this year. I live at the very top of Manhattan in a tree-filled neighborhood called Inwood with my boyfriend, Ben.

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

In my early twenties, I thought I’d be living in New York and designing for a fancy fashion house. I thought it would be glamorous.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

I think that my family more than anything shaped my expectations of myself. As a child I thought that I would follow in the footsteps of many of my family members and go to college and then get a Master’s Degree or Ph.D and become very educated. For me to become a clothing designer was a very different path than anyone in my family had taken, so I felt a bit frivolous for picking something that was not necessarily an intellectual career and was more about aesthetics and consumerism.

What was your first job like?

My first job was at a “paint your own pottery” studio when I was 14. I was running a studio by myself at a pretty young age, operating a kiln and getting paid irregularly by an absentee entrepreneur. Sometimes she would give me used makeup as an added bonus. It was a strange situation.

What was your first apartment like?

My first apartment after college was on Larkin Street in Lower Nob Hill in San Francisco. I lived with my best friend from college and we did most things together. We spent a lot of time and energy designing the space and making sure it reflected how “interesting and cool” we were. In our hallway, we curated a “wall of disasters” which showcased shadow boxes holding things like shattered teacups and burned out lightbulbs. We also did things like get super dressed up to go to the local Whole Foods to go grocery shopping because we had crushes on boys who worked there.

In what ways did your friendships change?

I’ve always had high expectations for both myself and the people around me. I think in my twenties these expectations sometimes made me a rigid and judgmental friend. This is not to say I wasn’t supportive; I’ve always been a very loyal friend. However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to see the grey areas of friendship a bit more and have begun to understand that people are complex and don’t always have the same ideas about what it means to be a good friend. I’ve learned that people are who they are and accepting them for it makes friendship easier.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

I’ve learned so much in all of my relationships! I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned over time, is that when I know something is over, my mind isn’t going to change. I’ve often let relationships drag on for a long time because I was scared to end things, hurt my partner’s feelings or just deal with all of the sadness and anger that goes along with breaking up. I feel like I have gotten better at being honest with myself and my partners about knowing when things aren’t working out.

How did your relationships with your family change?

Recently I’ve felt like my relationship with my parents has changed a great deal. As my family collectively ages, I’ve become more of a caretaker than I was when I was younger. My dad has had cancer twice now and my mom has had a lot of orthopedic issues so I’ve been really involved in their care. Since I’m an only child, it’s been hard to deal with, but it’s also taught me that I can handle a lot and am very competent when it comes to dealing with difficult family situations.

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

I think the older I get, the less scared I get. I’m getting better at things that scared me a lot as a younger woman, like quitting jobs. I think that one of my biggest fears has always been disappointing people and I am beginning to realize that the more I focus on pleasing others, the more I end up disappointing myself. Even though I still agonize over letting other people down, I think I get a little bit braver every time I take a risk and do something that might “disappoint” someone. I’ve come to realize that, as long as I am a kind and honest person, I can disappoint others if it means pursuing what I want, and the world will not collapse around me.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

I think I automatically adopted most of my mother’s opinions as a kid and teen. Throughout my twenties, I noticed that as I grew up and separated emotionally a little bit from from mom, I started to form more of my own world view. It was both difficult and refreshing. I grew to understand that I could still love my mom and value her opinions while forming my own. It felt both painful and liberating. It’s always kind of a blow when you realize your parents are just people and not everything they think and do is right.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

One of the most influential people in my life was one of my professors, Sue Sutton Palmer. She taught my first design course in college and I was completely impressed by the precision and perfection that she demanded from her students. I loved that she expected us to file the sides of our foam boards so there were no rough or uneven edges and use a special eraser to clean up any errant rubber cement that might have crept out of place. I think she inspired me to use my obsessive tendencies toward creating beautiful things and I liked that. She also always wore a uniform- a button-up collared shirt, a high-waisted skirt and Birkenstock sandals. We are still friends and I still admire her deeply.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

I regret spending so much time feeling extremely anxious in my twenties. I had a hard time dealing with success and fear of failure. I had a business making terrariums for a while and I let it stress me out so much that I stopped enjoying making terrariums at all. After a while, instead of deriving any pleasure from the process of making them, I started seeing terrariums more as vessels full of anxiety rather than pretty arrangements of plants. It sounds really crazy (and it objectively was pretty crazy), but I’m trying to use that experience as an example of what not to do as I work on my own clothing line.

Schoolin’ Life: Vanessa Uhlig

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we get to know filmmaker and graduate student Vanessa Uhlig.

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Give us a quick bio: who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?

I’m a 30 year-old film production graduate student at University of Texas at Austin. It’s my first year of graduate school so I am still adjusting to an intensive program of writing, shooting, and editing my own work and that of my other classmates. I’ve been watching a lot of films in my free time and have been revisiting one of my favorite genres, heist/crime thrillers, and have recently started learning jiu jitsu. This is also the first time I’ve been living back in the US in about four years, and it feels great to be getting to know the great city of Austin for the first time while being able to relax back in my home culture.

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

Adventure. Around the time I graduated from undergrad at 22, I could feel my legs needing to stretch and get moving. After my first day at my first job out of college – an office job at a Bay Area solar start-up – I came home and cried. I was afraid that this was where I’d end up in life and there weren’t any more adventures to be had. I made a conscious decision over the next year to do whatever was in my power to fight against that kind of lifestyle and explore as much as I possibly could in the world while I was young. And for the most part I was successful at that; I spent the rest of my 20s living in foreign environments, learning new skills and languages, and eventually finding my calling as an artist.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

I come from a lower-middle class family. I was lucky to have the support of my parents creatively, but I always knew that out of college I needed to be able to support myself with a full-time job. My family didn’t necessarily disparage art, but they did remind me to have an income and look for ways to monetize whatever I was interested in pursuing.

What was your first job like?

I can’t remember which of these I held first, but when I was 15 and 16 I had a few jobs: serving coffee at Starbucks, working the insurance desk at an autobody repair shop, and working the retail counter at a local perfume shop. I also did a lot of babysitting. It was exciting to have a job and a paycheck as a young person, and even though the jobs pretty much sucked, I still felt beholden to them with a strong sense of responsibility. I had to wake up at 3 am to open Starbucks at 4 am most days that I worked there, and it was rough, but there was something magic about being the first person that some customers would talk to each day and about starting the day that early in the morning. I think I also gained more of an appreciation for school since being at work was so much less interesting.

What was your first apartment like?

I shared an apartment with a girlfriend after college in Oakland, California. We both had boyfriends and all four of us had gone to the same college so we were all friends. We cooked a lot and drank a lot of wine, and there was always music or NPR on in the background. Strangely, a neighbor gave us a huge flatscreen TV, and much to my roommate’s dismay, my boyfriend and I watched a lot of Lost. It was my first time living in a more urban neighborhood, which was exciting – I could walk a block to the coffee shop or grocery store, and people came by campaigning for various political issues. One night, a girl was canvassing and I invited her inside. We ended up talking for an hour at my dinner table, just because I was so excited to meet someone this way.

Did you experience any big life changes?

Of course. I moved around a lot in my 20s – every few years at least. I felt like I had to reinvent myself each time, just to adapt to the new situation – I went from a small town in the Sacramento Valley to Oakland, then to Bangkok, Thailand for a year, then San Francisco for a few years, and finally a few years in a rural town in Guatemala. Each place had its own unique flavor and drew out a different kind of inspiration in me. And each time I think I recognized that I don’t really change much in the end, for better or for worse – wherever you go, there you are. By the time I hit 30, I could finally embrace that, which gave me the freedom to move back to the US for good and create the kind of life I want right here at home.

In what ways did your friendships change?

I think the general trend is/was from friendships that deal a lot with personal vulnerabilities to friendships that are grounded in love and respect. I’m fortunate to have maintained strong friendships over the past ten years. Even though we’re all busy and all living in different places, I consider these friendships one of the greatest gifts and accomplishments of my adult life. I try to stick to gratitude and respect to guide me in friendships rather than getting caught up in little daily annoyances or gripes. The little stuff goes away, and at the end of the day I’m still amazed and honored to have such great friends.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

Let it go! Relationships are WEIRD and how they manage to stay alive can sometimes be an amazing mystery. It takes so much love and trust to be with someone else – give them the benefit of the doubt and move on. I have learned this, but I still make this mistake and have to relearn it about once a week.

How did your relationships with your family change?

My relationship with my mother evolved to be completely different in my 20s than it had when I was younger. I don’t feel like we have ever had as strong a relationship as we do now that I’m older. I think she and I are very similar and used to butt heads a lot, but now that we’re both older and have fewer opportunities to be in each other’s daily lives, we tend to let the smaller stuff go. We can laugh about each other’s neuroses more.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

It’s definitely had ups and downs as I’ve moved between areas of very extreme wealth and very extreme poverty, “progressive” versus “traditional” cultures, etc. I think at this point I have an appreciation for the many different cultural textures that I’ve been exposed to, but I feel also more urgency to equalize the playing field. There used to be a novelty for me in the “developing world” – things like real people collecting your bus fare or making homemade ice cream on a three-wheeled cart in the afternoons on the city street, to sell for ten cents. More direct, pedestrian-oriented lifestyles. I still see the charm in that but I see also the way that technology and globalization is causing unbearable economic disparity and making it hard for people to have enough to eat, which is so much more important than how picturesque a culture is on a postcard or in a few months’ travel journal entries. Unfortunately, it seems the more I learn the more I feel like an outsider in other cultures, or the more aware of those disparities I become.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

I regret having ever doubted myself. I do it every day, as we all do, but it’s a waste. There really just isn’t enough time in life to wrestle with your own doubt. If you’re thinking about something, just do it. Don’t overthink it.

Schoolin’ Life: Mildred Louis

In today’s Schoolin’ Life column, we catch up with illustrator and sequential artist Mildred Louis.

Mildred Louis

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

I was fully expecting to have my whole game together! I think growing up there was this idea that once you’re 20, you’re an official adult, and being an adult meant that everything was going to fall into place. Definitely didn’t work out that way though, hahaha.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

I think I had a lot of skewed expectations of myself growing up. It took a whole lot of effort and work to rework how I saw myself and to detach the weird expectations I had being a WoC growing up in this society.

What was your first job like?

I worked at a bakery in a slightly well off part of the city. It was okay. In terms of first jobs, it was about as predictable as you can get. Getting by on tips with below minimum wage pay, a lot of intense people who want their coffee a very specific way and/or their cakes made immediately even though they put in the order last minute. It was… a learning experience for sure, hahaha.

What was your first apartment like?

My first apartment was at college and I didn’t even have a door for my bedroom! It was a complete stereotypical experience with three other roommates in a two-bedroom (and one office) apartment. We eventually became one of the party apartments on campus which was pretty cool and made for a lot of entertaining memories.

Did you experience any big life changes?

I feel like the answer to this question is kind of complicated. I did in some ways but not like as if there were any major moments that suddenly happened to trigger these changes. It was more like a number of things happening, me learning from them and subsequently growing and changing from them.

In what ways did your friendships change?

Being at the end of my 20s,my friendships have changed a lot. I used to be friends with a lot of people who just kind of fed off of my insecurities. I spent a lot of time trying to feel accepted by people that I ended up letting myself become attached to, people who, at the end of the day, really weren’t that good for me. On a brighter note, I have some of the absolute best friendships I could have ever imagined now in my life, so that was a major plus side!

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

I learned to definitely not settle, hahahah! I thought I had incredibly high expectations for a very long time and dated some people who weren’t quite up to par. When you’re in college, there’s a lot of expectation and pressure to date and hook up with people, so you end up rolling into whatever to keep up with people around you.

How did your relationships with your family change?

We talk a whole lot more now than we used to. I think now that everyone’s grown up and doing their own thing, it’s easier for us to connect since we have a greater sense of independence.

How do you feel society viewed you?

In a lot of ways I felt invisible. It always seemed like there were a lot of attempts at erasing myself or my identities because I wasn’t packaged in the way that society was saying I should.

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

I’ve become significantly more secure in myself! I feel less like I need to go looking for someone to help fill a hole in me or to help reinforce how I feel.

How did you change intellectually?

I became a lot more aware of the things going on around me and even more aware of just how much I do not know.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

It became more secure and defined. I feel more like I’m me instead of being someone that I think a lot of people around me thought I was or expected me to be.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

It’s become in a lot of ways more cynical but also weirdly stubbornly optimistic. Being so connected into the internet means that it’s hard to not be aware of the things going on not just in your own country but internationally as well. It’s hard not to feel like things are getting worse and worse because of it, but I think in a lot of ways, it’s caused me to feel very steadfast in holding on to hope that things can get better.

What was the most embarrassing moment?

Hahaha… I’ve had a lot of those but I’m not sure if I’m over them enough to share!

What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?

I don’t know if I had one singular experience was the biggest disappointment. But I think overall, they just taught me how to avoid being in those situations again

Who was your biggest influence and why?

I didn’t discover her until my slightly mid 20s but ever since then and to this day, it’s probably Janelle Monae. I just really admire how true to herself and her vision she is, as well as how incredibly aware of what kind of impact she can have on her surroundings she is. It’s something that I really hope to embody as I develop my career further.

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

I think there’s been a lot of moments that have happened. It’s like the world is finally at this point where we can’t actively sit and deny a lot of the travesties that are happening. The internet has made it hard to ignore and there’s active dialogue happening to hopefully try and change the current state of things.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently? You know, I was a person full of so much regret for so much of my life but I’ve finally gotten to this point where I’ve accepted the things that have happened and, in some really weird way, am grateful that I went through them. I don’t know how things could have been any different but I do know that what I went through got me to where I am today.

Is there a story that you feel best sums up the decade?

Oh boy… I feel like there are a lot of things that have defined the last decade. I mean, the decade has had events spanning from the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement to the Curiosity landing. This decade has been full of incredibly impactful events that I’m not sure you could boil it down to one single story.

Schoolin’ Life: Ayun Halliday

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we check in with illustrator, author, and performer Ayun Halliday.

Ayun Halliday

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of The East Village Inky zine, a freelance illustrator and the author of seven books, including No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late and the graphic novel, Peanut. She wrote and performed in over 500 short plays and several full-length solo performances as a member of the Neo-Futurists and has a bottomless appetite for creating theater with teenagers. She will be performing in the world premiere of her play, Fawnbook in New York City this fall. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Greg Kotis and their son, Milo. Her daughter, India Kotis, just headed off to college in Chicago, and will turn 20 in less than 2 years.

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

In my early 20s, I thought I’d be doing a lot of theater, but despite a degree in it from Northwestern University, I wasn’t quite sure how. Shortly my 25th birthday, I was cast in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, the NeoFuturist’s long-running, late-night attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes. Being an ensemble member gave me plenty of opportunities to write and perform, as well as a professional identity that I took with me into my 30s.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

My expectations were forged in opposition to society’s expectations. In my teens, I learned – to my surprise – that I was a bit of a misfit, at least at the preppy school I’d attended since 2nd grade. Generally speaking, it led me to developed a distaste – some would call it a chip on my shoulder – for anything society deemed popular.

What was your first job like?

My very first paycheck job was extraordinarily undefined. I had just turned 16. It was at Ralf’s Deli in Indianapolis. I think I was a hostess – I didn’t get an apron or a paper hat –  but I also had to clean all the gunk out of the sink traps, which created a phobia I have to this day. A meat slicer in his 20s named Yuri thought I was cute and called me at home, which freaked me out. I knew my mom would not be down with that. I didn’t know that a hostess or whatever the hell I was wouldn’t be allowed to take two weeks off to go on a long planned family vacation, three months after she started work. That was the end of that. What a ding dong I was. I have since made it a policy to try to really train people in what they’re helping me do… I was at such loose, loose ends!

Sad to say, my 20s were full of jobs like this – impermanent, poorly conceived, a bit . I wrote about them in my third book, Job Hopper.

I guess the defining job of my 20s was waiting tables at Dave’s Italian Kitchen, just because the place itself had such an identity. I was proud to be considered worthy of slinging spaghetti there. It was definitely the best waitressing job I ever had, and I had a lot of those in my 20s.

What was your first apartment like?

Wonderful! I shared half a house in Evanston, Illinois, with two guys from the theater department. It had a big front porch, a backyard, a big kitchen for all my hippie cooking experiments, and my giant bedroom had a king size bed left behind by the previous tenant.

Did you experience any big life changes?

Yes. I traveled to Europe, Africa, and Asia on a shoestring budget. I went to massage school. I moved to New York City nine months before turning 30. I got engaged to my friend and fellow NeoFuturist, Greg Kotis —married him just a few months into my 30s.

In what ways did your friendships change?

Mostly they deepened. Many of us who’d been together at college remained in Chicago, and joining the NeoFuturists provided me with significant links to several other ragtag theater crews, notably Theater Oobleck, Cardiff Giant, and the Curious Theater Branch. We would go to each other’s’ shows and parties. I kept in touch with many of those who moved by writing letters – I just unearthed 100s of the ones I received in reply in shoeboxes under my bed. It’s a true time capsule. I encourage those of you in your 20s to print out some of your favorite emails and text conversations. Is it possible to print out texts? Clearly, I’m not in my 20s anymore.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

I came out of my 20s with the understanding that my pattern of skipping out on relationships that weren’t officially over, to revel in a new love, was not the way to go. From the inside, it was quite easy to view myself as a victim of circumstance, gripped in the jaws of a desire I was powerless to deny… From the outside, it’s pretty tawdry…petty, not sweeping.

How do you feel society viewed you?

I doubt it was much interested in me. I was not a threat, just kind of an oddball. If society stopped to consider me, it probably thought, “She should lose ten pounds, cut her hair, wear makeup, shave her legs…” Actually my boyfriend’s agent told me that when I was 23, kindly adding, “But I don’t think you want to do that just so we can send you out for young mommy roles.”  That was the death knell for my commercial career.

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

Gosh, did I? I gained experience, but I think the emotional make up remains the same. Keep reading, maybe it doesn’t. I’ve got no perspective here…

How did you change intellectually?

I had to stay abreast of the news to pull my weight with the NeoFuturists. George H.W. Bush was president, and there was a real sense that women might lose their right to safe, legal abortions. I wrote a lot of plays about that. I listened to NPR and read the Utne Reader, read the newspaper every day.

I was much better informed in my 20s than I am now – then I was only responsible for myself (and the world). Now I have a family and the Internet blowing big holes in my attention span.

I also lived in fear that I might be called upon to do improv, and I would be too ill informed to act intelligently upon an audience member’s suggestion. Actually, that happened to me just last winter. My audience member’s suggestion was “Bernie Madoff” and internally, I was like…hmmm…uh…oh yeah, that guy who screwed people out of their investments…I think he maybe went to prison…hmm…he was in the news a lot but the financial industry is so boring to me. Needless to say, hilarity did not ensue.

I think you meet a lot of people in your 20s, who’ve gone to different colleges, and have this whole other set of references than you do. I began to get a feel for what they were teaching over at Oberlin, the University of Chicago, etc.

I was a voracious reader, then, as now. Lately I’ve taken to rereading some of the books I loved in my 20s to see how they hold up. Grapes of Wrath and Ship of Fools definitely do. Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, not so much…

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

My ongoing work with the NeoFuturists let me claim to be a professional, without the need to behave like one. Since we almost always played ourselves,  people who recognized me in the subway, felt comfortable coming up and starting conversations, a recognition I enjoyed for the most part. I liked feeling accessible, and sought after. My 20s definitely gave birth to my voice, even though my first book didn’t appear ’til I was in my 30s.

I also got a lot less guarded. I was shy when I was little, and didn’t know much beyond the conventional expectations. I would rather hold my pee for hours than have someone see me walk into the bathroom, because then they might know that I – gasp!- actually used the bathroom. Menstruation was kind of a horrorshow of embarrassment.

Interestingly, I was pretty uninhibited when it came to romance, but I think that was because I was so down to be loved and cherished. I still didn’t want those guys knowing I peed! Even when we lived together! I think a combination of massage school, the NeoFuturists, and global travel on a shoestring are to thank for that… I realized there’s little profit in being uptight, particularly when the people who gave you these hang ups in the first place aren’t part of your daily life anymore.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

You can’t travel the way I did without expanding your worldview. Obviously, I was very familiar with the Save the Children, Concert for Bangladesh, South Asian, and Southeast Asian countries before leaving home, but traveling, I met many happy, multigenerational families, living in the equivalent of an American garage. Really. They’d roll the door down at night, then roll it up again in the morning, their lives exposed to the street for most of the day. I was impressed by the way the entire family would coalesce around the baby. The baby was always king. The furniture might consist of a couple of plastic stools and a plastic bag of mangoes hanging on a nail, but there would be this giant, blown up photo of the baby hanging in a place of honor. And the baby was invariably so well behaved!

My college sweetheart was the youngest of eleven children – he always said that his feet never touched the floor. Those babies were like that – so adored that their feet never touched the floor.

I saw that people were able to live and be very happy without a lot of stuff. I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly materialistic in the designer handbag / pristine interior decoration sense, but I do have a lot of things…souvenirs, books, little indicators of personality. Traveling, I saw a model in which personalities could exist free of stuff.

And it’s definitely an experience to travel around a place like Rwanda a year before civil war or some other catastrophe befalls it. It makes you appreciate what you have, and also come to the sobering realization that knowing your complaints are comparatively petty does not necessarily mean you’ll stop making them. I’d be scribbling in my journal about how someone hurt my feelings… meanwhile, back in Rwanda, neighbors are slicing each other to ribbons with machetes.

This is probably how I arrived at my conviction that very few people would have actually stuck their necks out for Anne Frank, the way the heroic Miep Geis did when she was barely out of her 20s. All children get a pass from me, if they say they would save Anne Frank. Most adults do not. I think most adults are like me…horrified when they read the news, quick to express that horror over social media or cocktails, but just as quick to post a photo of our dinner or our vacation. We’re most of us in a position that makes it very unlikely to disrupt our lives, to take the risk that might save someone else. But I think, even if we were to strip away those responsibilities to job and family, we’d still find a reason to steer clear.

It gives me respect for what others go through, and respect for the people who do move mountains to help strangers.  It also makes me a bit impatient with certain American anarchist acquaintances’ knee-jerk “Fuck America” rhetoric. A lot of us, myself included, are guilty of inaction. Send money or give time. I guess I better send some money somewhere tonight.

What was the most embarrassing moment?

So many to choose from! Most of them wound up in my first four books. Fortunately there is a difference between “embarrassing” and “shameful”.

What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?

Hmm…there was no one crushing one, more a number of small lumps in the throat, mostly having to do with being passed over for some part or another, prior to the NeoFuturists. That probably contributed to me not pursuing auditions very vigorously…thought it could also be a temperamental thing. Either way, I wound up making a lot of opportunities for myself, a thing I continue to do, though these days I like to include others.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

The late performance artist Spalding Gray. Something he said in an interview in Tricycle magazine really resonated with me, that the reason he started performing his autobiographical monologues was because he got “sick of waiting for the big infernal machine to make up its mind” about him. It’s become a personal motto.

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

I did have the distinction of answering the phone at an alternative newspaper in Chicago when some random person called to report that Kurt Cobain had died…I ran into Editiorial to break the news to the music editor and the rest of the staff. That was my big scoop. That said, that event defined others’ decades much more than my own.

(Let it also be said that I, a 20-something receptionist, put the great Art Spiegelman on hold for like, 5 minutes, while I finished my salad, or whatever the hell it was I was doing. I fell all over myself when I finally got back on the horn and he told me his name. The arrogance of youth!)

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

Of course! See all of the above! But to quote Don Marquis’ alley cat, Mehitabel, “Wot the hell, Archie, toujours gai!”