Wednesday, October 27, 2010

how do you live with yourself?

Once in a while I need to reaffirm my purpose in life, or at least the purpose of my career in life.  Maybe it's because I don't want children so I can't count on someone else continuing to validate my existence or finish my work.  There are days when I feel like I am actually doing something that makes a blip of difference to someone else's existence and other times I feel like I am running in a hamster wheel, basically just taking up valuable space and oxygen.  I wonder what would happen if some authority began running an audit on how much oxygen one should be allowed based on their contribution to existence.

I am fortunate in many ways because on the career front I have actual tangible results for my efforts that can be measured.  My job is nowhere near perfect and I have many days when I arrive home late at night, exhausted and frustrated from spinning my wheels.  I also have days when I am energized and excited that I can contribute something positive to the built environment.  I would say that my work can be divided into three categories:
  1. Wow, I am doing something useful and beautiful that will hopefully benefit someone: my swimming pool project makes me feel this way.  It is being built on a brownfield site so no wilderness was cut down, it is going to achieve at least a gold BEAM rating (hopefully platinum), it provides a service to the community and it is attractive in appearance;
  2. Well, this is the best of the situation: I am working on a ridiculously expensive residential tower on a new site but if we didn't provide the building someone else would have.  What we have done is ensured minimum adverse environmental impact (no podium and smallest footprint achievable), platinum BEAM rating and it looks really, really nice and blends into the hillside.
  3. This really sucks and I hate my life and hate my job: I began working on a project that seemed perfect as it was closely related to both of my graduate degrees as well as similar to my thesis topic but the problem was that I was uninterested in master planning for a site that had great ecological and heritage value.  Yes, someone would have developed it anyway, but I was appalled.  I only got as far as setting up a framework of what to consider for a viable, new community but then begged off from the project and irritated my boss.  At least I can sleep with myself.
In the end, someone will live with what I have done and I hope that I can live with it also.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

tolerance comes in all forms

I had an interesting discussion this weekend with a fellow American in regard to my two adopted homes in the United States - College Station, Texas and Ithaca, New York.   The person who I was talking to hailed from Chicago so he had limited experience in either state but that didn't stop him from forming strong opinions.  His daughter was a couple of years from high school graduation and we were discussing my two universities (actually I went to three but who's counting).  He was very interested in Cornell but not so much in Texas A&M.  That did not surprise me.  One is an Ivy and the other is a massive state school with a very strong military presence and he was obviously and proudly an elitist.  Well, so am I in a lot of ways. 

I tried to give him the facts as I knew them about both schools and answer his queries as honestly as I could but eventually I felt the need to correct him on a few of his assumptions.  He correctly assumed that Texas is a much more conservative state than New York and that Texas A&M is a conservative university while Cornell like all of the Ivies is liberal; but then he commented that I must have been very relieved to get out of Texas when I went to Cornell.  Actually, no.  Cornell presented a whole new set of problems.

At Texas A&M I was treated to my fair share of conservative rhetoric.  There were things that frustrated me such as the protests against affirmative action or the huge presence of religious organizations that exerted a great deal of influence on the students.  On the other hand, when I realized that I was being proselytized I was able to have a mature conversation with my would-be saviors about how I was uncomfortable with having those discussions in the classroom.  This ended up being a very useful conversation for them because once I sensed that they were listening and not being defensive I also kindly pointed out that United States common law recognized that there was a difference between them approaching me in the quad where I could walk away if I chose and them approaching me in a classroom where I could not necessarily walk away.  One of my classmates later told me that he actually looked up the Bill of Rights after our conversation.  In my opinion, this was very tolerant behavior even if the beliefs were not as tolerant. 

In Cornell I was in for a shock.  Some of my shock was due to my own assumptions of what it would be like to finally live in a place that was similarly open minded - much like how when I was little I thought that I would grow up to some magic age and all lying and bullying would stop because all adults seemed to be so good compared to me (boy was I wrong) or how I thought in high school that when I went to college there would be no more stupid people (nope, there were just as many losers who sit in the back of the class and make fun of everyone).  I thought liberals, due to being more open minded and aware of social and environmental issues, would be kinder and wiser by virtue of their awareness.  One semester of listening to some of my classmates look down their noses at all the people who were more ignorant than they were cleared up that misconception.  Funnily enough, in one of my planning classes we watched a video about racism that I had seen previously in a communications class at Texas A&M.  In the Texas version of the class discussion we all talked about ways that we held prejudices and displayed prejudicial behavior.  It was an eye opening experience for me to hear from students who didn't get looked in the eye all day or were expected to be athletically gifted.  In the New York version of the class discussion I watched a room full of Ivy League educated, future decision makers pat themselves on their backs and talk about how the situations in the video would never happen at Cornell.  Oh, really?  Then the instructor led a discussion of how we could help others become aware of subtle and institutional racism.  I finally spoke up and pointed out that if we had nothing to learn from the video's examples, why were all the white students sitting at the discussion table while all the minority students were sitting in the outer circle?  That did not get a good response. 

Tolerant is not just a state of mind but is exhibited in behavior.  Bigots wear all sorts of hats and many are far sighted.  Yes, those classmates from Texas very probably think that I am going to hell but that won't stop them from treating me in a kind way as prescribed by their religion.  My time at Cornell was 98% freaking wonderful but 2% of the time I dealt with breathtaking close-mindedness despite our open-minded beliefs.  But I least I learned from it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Another one for the shelf

Halloween is my favorite holiday.  I love candy and when I was a child this was the only time of the year that my spartan parents would allow me a few pieces.  Being a clever little sugar addict I would squirrel away some of my booty before presenting the bag to my parents for them to pick out a few measly pieces for me.

As I grew older it only got more fun.  I was very good at sewing and would craft my own costumes.  The transformer costume was probably my best although it involved less sewing and more gluing and painting.  In university I amended a starfish costume from spongebob squarepants into a giant vagina suit.  And then I wore it to a party that was attended by several dozen women who were all dressed as naughty schoolgirls or naughty angels.

This week I came up with the idea that SB, A and I would dress up as the three most famous Kims.  I was on the hunt for the perfect tan jumpsuit for my Kim Jong-il while SB would only need a Mickey Mouse hat for Kim Jong-nam .  When A was told to gain some weight for Kim Jong-un the plan was permanently shelved.  Some people just don't have what it takes.

So my dear readers, my loss may be your gain.  I hope one, or actually three, of you take up the mantle. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

punk rock girl

SB knows that I like punk rock.  It is the largest genre on my ipod- or more accurately, genres.  I have it divided into punk, hardcore, ska, rockabilly and pop punk.  Tonight was the first time we have discussed just how influential punk was for me.  I don't quite remember how the conversation began but as we were eating dinner our discussion progressed to how things that are so big lose meaning over time.  In particular I talked to him about the straight edge movement in punk rock.  It's funny how he had no idea of something that took up a big portion of my life.

I won't describe much about the history of punk rock because you can Google it and learn more than I know and discover a history that began before I was born.  I began to listen when I was 13 years old and began high school in central Florida, where my parents had moved me from Hong Kong.  Life was good to me.  I joined the IB program, successfully tried out for a couple of sports teams and met my best friend, Tobin. It was during the second half of the school year when I met Zed in my art class.  He was a very quiet student but when he did speak it was clear that he had a strange sense of humor as well as mild disdain for my best friend and me.  I spent most of my time chatting about sports with a lacrosse player while Zed kept to himself.  Then something changed.  Our teacher let us bring CDs to class and we were allowed to take turns playing music.  The classroom was filled with a lot of Nine Inch Nails (by the girls who only wore black) or whatever was popular but not so popular that you ran the risk of being mainstream (after all, this was art class).  One day the stereo started playing something fast, short, simple and angry sounding.  I asked what we were listening to and Zed slowly spoke up.  "It's my band."

Over the next few weeks I began to ask Zed more about his band, mostly out of curiosity rather than enjoyment of his music.  Punk rock and his band were basically the only two subjects he wasn't shy about and through the music I learned a lot about him.  I learned that through his music he was more politically aware than I was.  He learned about me as well through our debates over the message of his songs.  He wasn't the dumb outcast that I perceived him to be and I wasn't quite as shallow or silly as he thought.  He invited me to his band's next performance which was in seedy bar.  They were opening for a heavy metal band.  The night ended with me hiding under a table as a bona fide, chair smashing, broken beer bottle wielding, bloody brawl broke out amongst the metal fans.  Holy sh*t!  Was this how he spent his weekends?!  As it turned out, this was not how Zed spent his weekends.  He explained that his band's lead singer's brother was in the metal band and the two couldn't be more different.  Zed was straight edge.  It meant that he didn't drink, didn't do drugs and didn't have casual sex.  That night as he drove me home in his Chevy Nova I realized that I wouldn't have to be quick thinking to avoid the back seat because his lifestyle meant that he would respect me.

He also didn't judge me if I wasn't interested in the straight edge lifestyle.  Straight edge was a big deal to him throughout his youth but it never was a prerequisite for our friendship. As time went by he was less committed to being straight edge although he still doesn't drink or use drugs.  Technically he "sold out" but I think that straight edge served its purpose by giving him an identity while he was undergoing his own cognitive process of discovering what he believed in.  I can look back at some of the mantras of the movement with a bit of a smile as I recall what a big deal it all was at the time but I am glad that it existed for me. 

On the flip side, in 1995 while I was attending the Warped tour I experienced the extreme side of straight edge when a militant fan of Orange 9mm, a straight edge band, attacked the lead singer of Guttermouth because he was intolerant of Guttermouth poking fun of straight edge as only for the under-21 age group (21 is the US legal drinking age).  The lead singer of Orange 9mm had to come up on stage to calm down the straight edge goons and explain that everyone should be tolerant of each other.  Yes, I learned a lot about the world through the lens of punk rock.  Though not so big in my life now, it has left its mark.  I identify as a third wave feminist like the riot grrrls of the 90's who accepted women expressing themselves in a multitude of ways.  I recommend reading Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant,detailing conversations between Bad Religion's Greg Graffin and conservative university professor Preston Jones.  Punk rock- it's not so big anymore but it still matters to me.  I don't know why it has taken me this long to talk about with SB but our punk rock conversations have just begun.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Skin deep

About a year ago I came to the horrifying realization that I was no longer immune to aging.  I consider myself pretty lucky that I made it into my 30s without a wrinkle in sight.  I credit good genes, somewhat healthy living and the weight gain I experienced in the past couple of years (maybe it stretched out my would be wrinkles!).

When I noticed some very light wrinkles forming at the corners of my eyes where they crinkle when I laugh I immediately knew who to call: my friend S.  S is a professional model.  She is a hard drinking, chain smoking, veggie hating model and she had once told me that with her lifestyle it was necessary to know all the beauty secrets of the trade. She sent me an email of her ritual.  I immediately had to cross out her first trick, which is botox, and her second trick, which involves going to a pricey spa so that someone can pour acid all over your face and sand it down.

So here's what was doable to me and how I do it:

Microderm abrasion: The thought behind this is that if you buff the stratum corneum (top layer of epidermis), the body interprets that as a mild injury and begins the healing process to replace the lost skin cells.  Some imperfections like wrinkles, sun damage or spots  are removed.  Skin is also more receptive to moisturizers without the barrier of dead cells.  I just started trying this out.  I don't trust the spa "professionals" to not buff off too much of my face so I do it at home.  I am currently using the Olay Regenerist Micro Dermabrasion Kit because it is less abrasive than some of the others but I suspect that it is more of a glorified facial scrub.  I have read good reviews of the Neutrogena kit but I can't find it in HK.  In fact, the Olay kit was bought stateside because I couldn't get it here.  Hmm...I'm really helpful so far, aren't I?

Must-do skin care: lots of water and sun protection.  I don't think I need to explain too much about this.

Cleanser: I use Cetaphil.  It is inexpensive, dermatologist recommended and available at the Watson's that I go to (near Times Square).  It is very gentle for my skin.  Sometimes I use it with a facial brush for extra cleansing.

Toner: I don't use it.  My cleanser gets off the oil and dirt from the day.  That is toner's only real purpose.

Facial Moisturizer:  I have tried a lot of different lotions and potions.  My mother used plain old Oil of Olay and she has great skin but I wasn't satisfied with the lack of hype.  I admit it- I am a victim of shameless advertising. I used Patricia Wexler's MMPi Skin Regenerating Serum for a while because SB saw me once after I had put it on and commented that my face looked smooth.  It took me a while to realize that this stuff made me look smooth because it was basically a heavy coat of gunk.  It was so thick that I couldn't wear makeup with it and it sometimes clumped up on my face. Next I bought the Clinique system and liked it, especially the Clinique Moisture Surge Extended Thirst Relief.  It was non-greasy and really hydrated my face, plumping up the skin.

I have since moved on to another line that I love: Olay Regenerist.  I use the Regenerist lotion with UV protection during the day and the Regenerist micro-sculpting serum at night.  Regenerist gained quite a following after a Consumer Reports study found that it performed the best out of brands including StriVectin-SD and La Prarie which also cost a lot more.  It has antioxidants, which give the skin cells ample protection against the destructiveness of free radicals and increase your skin's ability to protect and heal.  I couldn't find it for the longest time here although I could find Olay's Total Effects line which isn't as good but recently I have been able to find almost the entire line at Mannings.

Other stuff I was recommended that is not part of my daily routine but occasionally included:

Retinol: otherwise known as vitamin A's active metabolite. Retinol, retinyl palmitate or retinaldehyde is thought to increase the the amount of retinoic acid in the cells, thus encouraging skin renewal. It can also cause irritation.  I use it in the Roc Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream that was given to me by someone who worked for Johnson & Johnson.  It smells like laundry detergent, which is weird, but has not irritated my skin.  I don't know if there is a better brand out there so I have no strong feelings on the brand. What I do know is that it does seem to work on the fine dehydration and laugh wrinkles on my face that sprout up from time to time.

Glycolic or Lactic Acids (Alpha Hydroxy): it exfoliates the surface layers of skin and  increase cell reproduction by removing the built-up top layers of skin, allowing healthier cells to come to the surface. Exfoliation helps reduce skin discolorations, gives skin a smoother texture, and improves how skin functions. Glycolic and lactic acids also have water-binding properties, making them beneficial for improving dry skin. There also is a good deal of research showing that use of a well-formulated AHA product can increase collagen production. I use Neutrogena Healthy Skin Face Lotion.

Salicylic Acid (Beta Hydroxy): it is similar to glycolic and lactic acid but is better for dealing with blackheads and acne because it not only exfoliates the skin surface but it can penetrate through the oil in the pore and exfoliate the lining of the pore, it is antibacterial  and it has anti-inflammatory properties. You can find it in a lot of acne products at the pharmacy.

Vitamin C: often in the form of ascorbic acid, it is an antioxidant that reduces signs of aging by increasing collagen production, reducing skin discoloration, strengthening the skin's barrier response, enhancing the skin's repair process, reducing inflammation, and helping skin deal with exposure to sunlight.  I haven't tried to apply it yet.

Vitamin E: often in the form of alpha tocopherol, tocopheryl linoleate, tocotrienols, alpha tocopherol, and tocopheryl succinate, it protects skin cell membranes from oxidative damage. It reduces the formation of free radicals when skin is exposed to UVA rays, protects the top layers of skin from early stages of sun damage, reduces water loss from skin and prevents the peroxidation of fats (a leading source of cell membrane damage in the body).  I use Kiehl's Light Nourishing Eye Cream but not in combination with my retinol.

Niacinamide (vitamin B3): it increases ceramide and free fatty acid levels in skin, prevents skin from losing water content, stimulates microcirculation in the dermis and can improve skin's elasticity.  This is found in most of the Olay line, including my Regenerist.

Well, I hope this is useful to someone.  If you have any skincare secrets, please pass them along.  And no, I do not want to hear of anything involving wiping baby parts across your face or eating endangered animal penis.