the cult of cruel: on duplicity + hate-reading

donuts at sidecar

In high school, Mike B. made it hard for me to get out of bed in the morning. There’s no logic to who gets chosen as the object of one’s vitriol, other than perhaps the fear of someone or something other–disgust toward a person who doesn’t conform or blend in. Mike B. was relentless. His friends vandalized my locker and all the girls on the kick team (think cheerleaders, only cooler because these were the kind of girls who smoked Newport Lights and swiveled their slim hips) called me “Fro” because my hair didn’t blend. My hair wasn’t fine and smooth and like Renee’s. Renee sat in front of me in A.P. Bio and she was a smart girl but she played dumb because she filled out in all the right places and with Renee you didn’t hit bases, you knocked her right out of the park. Boys didn’t like hot girls who were smart. It just didn’t make sense. But Renee was the only one who was nice to me–she didn’t ridicule me like her friends did, and when I tutored her in English and she helped me in Bio, she confided that none of these people matter. Mike B. was one of her best friends but on that afternoon in her bedroom, she rolled her eyes and said, Mike B.? Wait ten years. He’s going to be such a loser. Renee would tell me about the boys she slept with and the boys she didn’t want to sleep with but had to sleep with anyway because this was high school and she was Renee and she was popular and she didn’t want to be the girl who didn’t give guys a good time.

For two years I was the subject of Mike B.’s torment. I devised alternate routes home in fear of him driving beside me, yelling out his insults and taunts. I ate lunch alone in the senior lounge or in teachers’ offices because I was the kind of girl teachers trusted. Renee opened doors; I closed them. I was miserable but had a certain satisfaction when I received acceptance letters and scholarships to all the schools to which I applied–NYU, BU, UPenn, Fordham–and Renee confessed to me that Mike B. was going to community college if that.

Ten years later, a chorus of people from my high school somehow tracked me down and sent invitations for a reunion at a waffle joint in Long Island. I browsed the website they’d set up, which reminded me of a Geocities page, and it amazed me that the people who made my life miserable were intent to find out what I was up to. What ever happened to “Fro”, they probably wondered. Word had gotten out that I’d attended Fordham and Columbia, that my career was somewhat successful, and Mike B. still hadn’t left Valley Stream.

High school’s supposed to be terrible, right? Par for the course, right? But how is it that you can remember those days, hallways, and the places you hid, so vividly? We never remember the kind words, rather we feel old wounds opening up, raw and fresh as if you’re forever paying homage to that old hurt.

I can’t imagine high school and the internet because my only solace back then was the fact that there places Mike B. and his tormentors couldn’t reach. For brief periods of time, it was as if everyone in that school ceased to exist.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately–the ways in which people exact their minor and major hurts. People subtweet about their hate-follows and hate-reads. People talk smack behind other people’s backs to then kiss-kiss, hey how are you? to that person’s face. People leave hateful comments tearing apart someone’s appearance: well…if she didn’t want to hear how fat she was, she shouldn’t have posted that picture online, which reminds me of a similar refrain: if she hadn’t worn that short skirt or that tight top, she wouldn’t have gotten assaulted. Same country, different state. Groups exist on the internet devoted to the care and feeding of  hate.

Yesterday, I read two articles about trolling and hate, and saw a tearful Brianna Wu on SyFy’s new show, “The Internet Ruined My Life”. Brianna tweeted last night that she was afraid of her mentions, and amidst all of the support for her bravery, for not backing down against men who make it their business to “put women in their place”, there were articles and tweets calling her story a “great comedy”, lambasting her with cruel retorts. Just the other day, I tweeted a retort to an outspoken feminist friend who routinely gets trolled by men, and a self-proclaimed Neo-Nazi called me a cunt.

A cunt.

We live in a country that espouses free speech, but many are forced into silence in fear of the hate avalanche. I’m in a private Facebook group, and many of the women who are writers talk about not reading the comments of their published articles out of sheer self-preservation. A few bloggers shared stories about strangers calling CPS based on their opinions of a blogger’s particular Instagram post, and their views on how a mother should/should not raise her child. Because, as you know, an online representation of one aspect of someone’s life is the complete story, the whole of someone’s life (/sarcasm). A few years ago, I was the subject of a man’s ire, someone whom I believe I knew (or at least had come into contact with during my agency career, which makes the whole situation that much more jarring), who essentially rambled on about how much he hated me, how I was a troll, etc, because I stood up for women who had been ridiculed because of their appearance. A decade ago, a small circle of literary bloggers posted cruel blind items about me and I remember being at work, in front of my computer, reading these posts and my whole body going numb.

While it’s unrealistic to expect that everyone will love you, what you do, or what you choose to put out into the world, that knowledge doesn’t remove the sting you feel when you saw yourself as the object of someone’s ridicule on the internet. While the taunts of the Mike B.s of the world in the early 90s have a limited shelf-life, words published online leave a permanent indelible mark. It’s public, made searchable by your family, colleagues, and friends. It’s a cruel reminder that always hovers, whispering, we don’t like you.

The spectrum of cruelty feels seemingly infinite–from the side-eyes and whispers behind one’s back to the full-blown doxing and harassment of women and minorities online, made that much more ubiquitous in today’s frightening political climate where people wear their hate as a badge of honor. And we’re all culpable, we may have talked shit behind someone’s back and played nice in front of their face, or we may hate-read someone’s blog or Instagram waiting for the object of our ire to stumble and fall. Or maybe we leave anonymous comments–words that burn and hurt. We’ve all been cruel in one way or another.

I’ve been guilty of double-talk and hate-reading, and I always felt dirty doing it because I know exactly what I was doing, felt horrible for doing it because I wouldn’t want someone to do this to me. But it was hard, especially when I was deep in my depression and sneered at everyone living their best life because, frankly, I was jealous and wanted that life too. In January, at the height of my depression, I read a post from Paul Graham that put me on pause. Life is short, and we’re literally giving away time in our life to others. He talks about arguing online with strangers. He writes:

But while some amount of bullshit is inevitably forced on you, the bullshit that sneaks into your life by tricking you is no one’s fault but your own. And yet the bullshit you choose may be harder to eliminate than the bullshit that’s forced on you. Things that lure you into wasting your time on them have to be really good at tricking you. An example that will be familiar to a lot of people is arguing online. When someone contradicts you, they’re in a sense attacking you. Sometimes pretty overtly. Your instinct when attacked is to defend yourself. But like a lot of instincts, this one wasn’t designed for the world we now live in. Counterintuitive as it feels, it’s better most of the time not to defend yourself. Otherwise these people are literally taking your life.

Hating people is exhausting. Perhaps it’s easier to hate than to be empathetic and kind because that requires us to be vulnerable and exposed. It forces us to ask that uncomfortable questions about ourselves. What about her bothers me so much that I have to leave that comment, say that thing behind her back? And hey, awful people who do awful, stupid things, exist, but we have a choice to devote our attention to them. We choose to give them our life in exchange for the privilege of hating them, publicly or privately.

The past six months have been the hardest I’ve ever known. I have to devote all of my energy to putting one foot in front of the other. I have to wake every day to this financial anxiety and devise ways in which I can get back to a place of stability. My time and energy are precious–they’re things I can’t ever get back–so I’ve made a conscious choice to lay down my anger, jealousy, annoyance, and fear. Years ago, a wise friend told me that crooks undo themselves, always, so there’s no need for us to contribute to their inevitable downfall. So why should I waste my time picking apart others when I can instead use those moments to put myself forward and spend time with people I do love. I don’t hate-read and while there are people in this world I do not like, I no longer devote my energy tending to that dislike.

You have one life. Why would you waste it hating people and acting on that hate? Where does it get you? Does it move you forward? Ask yourself why you might feel so satisfied in a feeling that’s so destructive?

Why not focus on yourself and moving your shit forward?


 

You might wonder why there’s a donut in this post. I had a crap day and decided to leave my house and treat myself to a donut. That’s why. 

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a woman in her own private Idaho

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Photo Credit: Unsplash

Male power, whether violently or delicately imposed, is still bent on subordinating us. Too many women are humiliated every day and not just on a symbolic level. And, in the real world, too many are punished, even with death, for their insubordination. —Elena Ferrante

As  a woman, I’ve been told to not kick up a fuss, not make a scene, not be so aggressive because it looks unseemly on you. I’ve been told to be collaborative, warm, kind, supportive, and a team player. I’ve been told to smile and play nice. Dial down the emotion–you care too much! I’ve been told that I won’t be successful with that attitude. I’ve been told to listen and smile when men pay you a compliment. I’ve been told that I’m pretty when I’m thin. You look so good–have you lost weight? I’ve been told, in a voice I’ve grown to hate, you really have opinions. I’ve been told to play the game, to not make waves. Don’t make such a big deal….Felicia. I’ve been told, you’re nearly 40 and you have considered getting a little work done? Not, a lot, mind you, but enough to look like you’re freshened up like a new bottle of milk in the fridge before its expiration date. I’ve been told I think a lot, I drink a lot, I’m a lot. I’ve been told, I like you because you’re pretty, but you sure do talk a lot. I’ve been told that I’m intimidating. I’ve been told to be quiet, shhh. I’ve been told you’re not this, you’re not that, in response to when I tell someone something about myself. I’ve been told that I’m angry when I tweet about rape, black men getting killed simply for the color of their skin, or that we live in a country filled with frightened, angry people who will do anything to hold onto their privilege. Why do you have to be so angry? What’s the point of getting angry because anger doesn’t change things. You tweeting doesn’t change things. You’re a feminazi, an SJW, or some other newfangled noun that seeks to put you in your rightful place.

Sometimes I think they’re right. Sometimes I wonder what’s the point in kicking up a fuss, but then I think of the alternative–doing nothing at all. Keeping mute and silent in all the ways many in this world, for one reason or another, want me to be.

Yesterday, I spent the day away from the internet and its opinions about women, and I felt happy. I deleted my Facebook profile because I couldn’t get it up for people anymore and I didn’t necessarily want to see them getting it up for me, and I missed being an active participant in my friend’s lives. Scrolling and collecting information about the goings-on of people I know felt false, it felt as if I was taking the easy way out in a friendship. That I didn’t necessarily have to put in the work to be present. And akin to this incisive post, the constant feed wasn’t doing much for my well-being. Ironically, people keep asking me if everything’s okay because I’m not on Facebook, and how do I explain that I got off the social network to get okay?

There they were, my glowing posts from Istanbul, Tokyo, and New York City, my tales of adventures in the West Bank and the Baltic Sea, the stories I’d written and magazines I’d edited, my clever commentary on current affairs, all rounded off by likes and comments from people I’d met (or not) at some point in my life — irrevocable proof that I’d once been successful, popular, joyful, happy even. —Kati Krause

I get most of my news and commentary from Twitter (I have a television and cable, but I mostly use my TV to stream movies since TV is exhausting), but I’ve started to notice that it’s making me enraged to a point beyond productivity. I became consumed with the James Deen rape allegations and a world seemingly filled with rape apologists and misogynists. That women have to be a certain kind of woman to be a victim. That a woman has to follow a specific kind of binary protocol in the event that she’s pillaged. A woman always has to be something acceptable while men are forever given free passes and pats on the head. A woman is forever at work to please, conform, and self-correct while a man kicks back in his incredulity. I read about my country, one built on the rape and pillage of others for white gain (because let’s be serious), humiliating itself with its hysteria and phobia against anyone not white and male, on a global magnitude. I watch white men consistently mass-murder children, women and innocent people…but let’s not rush to judgment and call them terrorists because they were misunderstood, lone wolves, and they were never held as a child. I watch people practice their fatalism and talk about judgments and afterlives while I fume because we’re in the here and now and money and power hold greater value than the lives of the innocents.

I read about my country, one built on the rape and pillage of others for white gain (because let’s be honest), humiliating itself with its hysteria and phobia against anyone not white and male, on a global magnitude. I watch white men consistently mass-murder children, women and innocent people…but let’s not rush to judgment and call them terrorists because they are misunderstood, lone wolves, and they were never held as children. I watch people practice their fatalism and talk about judgments and afterlives while I fume because we’re in the here and now and money and power hold greater value than the lives of the innocents.

In short, I want to be informed and participate in the world but the world is exhausting me to a point where I log on to the internet and wonder what kind of bullshit I’ll encounter on any particular day.

Not necessarily a healthy or balanced way to live–don’t think I haven’t recognized this.

On the flipside I see (and sometimes participate in) posturing. The refrain of this is my fabulous life! The thing from which I escaped on Facebook follows me on the blogs I read (where everyone tells me that I need to buy this and that because doing so will enable them to buy this and that), to what I experience on a daily basis (wouldn’t it be nice to Instagram that doughnut just to show everyone that I’m! So! Happy! because being blue is so passé and violently uncomfortable). I guess part of my anger comes from my obsession with consumption (and all its good and ills) and resentment that I sometimes play into it.

I’m trying to learn how to get information and opinions while practicing a degree of detachment toward it. Right now, I’m too sensitive and attached. I’m slowly learning to spend less time online and more time being present in the lives of people I know and love. Spending more time reading books that awaken me and films that make me laugh out loud. Spending more time eating donuts and trying to refrain from documenting it. Spending more time being in the world rather than scrolling through it. Spending more time realizing my anger won’t change the world. Spending less time thinking about what people wish for me to be. Work in progress. Work in progress.

the things we carry: rape + late-life feminism

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But the thing about remembering is that you don’t forget. ― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

When I was college, I knew two women who had been raped. One Sunday morning we woke to news cameras on campus and tears. A girl I’d known only slightly had been followed home, brutally beaten and assaulted in the basement of the building in which she lived, while her passed out roommates and neighbors lie sleeping. She was coming from a night out with a friend, and her friend watched her walk home for as long as she could, for as long as she could see, and as soon as the woman disappeared a man approached her. He made small talk, and I remembered hearing this woman had been kind. Later, after the woman woke from her coma not realizing what had happened, couldn’t remember the rape, she did recall the man, being scared, and talking in the hope that he might walk away.

But he didn’t.

I remember hearing this story during the second semester of our senior year, and the first thing my roommates and I said — safe in the on-campus apartment complex, guarded by a lone man who often read the paper and waved by drunken college kids flashing their IDs — was thank god we didn’t go through with off-campus housing. The severity with which this woman had been attacked was unimaginable, so much so that we couldn’t say her name without lowering our voices to a whisper. Shuttering our eyes. Maybe thinking, Thank god it wasn’t me. But it could have been me. How many times have I… When the woman returned triumphantly to campus {my god, how did I not tell her then just how fucking brave she was}, the only thing I could say was that I was so sorry. Why is that I waited until this kind woman was raped to talk to her? And even then — a pithy I’m so sorry? Seriously, Felicia? The woman wanted to go with her life, drink with the rest of us during Spring Weekend and be sized for her cap and gown, and I remember a lot of us feeling horrible for what had happened but for some reason we couldn’t separate the woman from the rape. We held her at a remove, and sometimes I think about this — seventeen years later — and wish we weren’t cowards.

We’re told, for as long as we can remember, Don’t make a big deal out of it. Don’t make a scene. Don’t make it a thing. Don’t attract attention. We’re told to travel in groups, to look out for one another, to call one another when we made it home to ensure we arrived in-tact, in one piece. We’re given rape whistles, emergency numbers to call, and in the 90s we purchased mace and pepper spray in record numbers. We’re told to hold our keys, look around, don’t walk down dark streets, take alternate routes, calculate the time from the subway to our home and also time the alternate routes. I thought of Tim O’Brien today because, in a way, it feels as if we are constantly strategizing; we are the victims of an endless, unseen and unspoken war, a war in which we know we’ll never be the victor. Instead, we cast our armor, we plot, we devise, we take self-defense classes and vary our routine — we live our lives in perpetual fear and constant defense.

You may shake your head as you’re reading this, you might even say that this is dramatic, that this is an extreme, but I ask you: How many times have you said, without thinking, Get home safe. It only occured to me last night that I say this all the time. It’s an accepted phrase, commonplace, and there’s nothing alarmist about the behavior until we pause for a moment and consider: Safe from what? From whom?

The second rape was tricky. During our freshman year my good friend told me about a rough night she’d had with her boyfriend. They’d be drinking and he forced himself on her. She told me she had said, stop. She told me she had said, No. And I remember shaking. I remember telling her that this was rape. There was no grey area {is there even a grey area? No.}. No confusion. No misunderstanding. She was raped by her boyfriend, and all our other friends told me to shut up.

Because this man was her boyfriend and boyfriends don’t rape their girlfriends.

I ignored them and became vigilant. I confronted him, drunk {not my finest hour}, in public, and called him a date rapist. He played the role of the victim beautifully, so much so that my friends {WOMEN} snapped at me, told me that I was making a fucking scene, and if my friend didn’t think it was an issue who was I, boyfriend-less, virgin Felicia, to “stir up the pot?”

How dare I?

Women shamed me into silence and I was a coward for caving. A semester later, my friend returned to the country from which she’d come, and the man found a girlfriend. It was as if nothing had happened. Looking back, I wish I would have been braver, said something, reported it, shouted louder.

Feminism came late for me. For three years I was one of the very few women working in an investment bank, and amidst the sea of boys and commonplace sexual harassment, women were relegated to two roles: whore and one of the boys. I was slated in the latter, subjected to their just kidding, wink, wink jokes and late nights at strip clubs and bosses who asked me whether I was a virgin, and if I was currently sleeping with anyone. I tacitly accepted this because I was the only woman. Why should I make a scene? How could I raise my voice? For years I worked for, and was mentored by, men {many of whom were great and brilliant and kind}, and I played into the misogyny, rolled my eyes and talked about crazy, dramatic women, and wouldn’t it be easier if I had worked with only men. So much less drama, you know.

I’m not going to talk about the confluence of events that attributed to my awakening, or subject matter with which I’ve found closure in my memoir, but here I am, 38, a loud and unapologetic feminist. A woman who has to endure an endless tirade of concerns after I booked a trip to India {You can’t go to India, they joked. You’ll get raped!}, to which I respond, quite plainly, Do you honestly believe I’m any safer here? A woman who knows a lot of insanely brilliant and beautiful women who DM me on Twitter because they’re afraid of being outspoken, they’re frightened {sadly, and rightly, so} of the consequences they’d face, personally and professionally, if they speak out against everyday sexism. If they talk about their everyday assaults. If they report their rapes. A woman who knows other women who won’t even touch these issues with a ten-foot pole because they have a fancy job in New York, they’re surrounded by great guys, and might even have an amazing, loving boyfriend, so how do these issues affect me again?

Make no mistake, we are not equal.

There’s that distance, that remove, that illusion of equality. I am a woman who actually told a bunch of appalled friends that a former boss who sometimes unbuttoned his shirt in front of me to tuck in his pants, didn’t mean anything by it. I am a woman amongst a sea of senior men who was forced to get a career coach because I had to “harden up,” and not be so emotional {read: compassionate and empathetic} in business. I am a woman who has to mentor other women because they need strong, feminist role models to believe in their self-worth, to speak out against injustice, to know that I’ve got their back. I am a woman who has to constantly think of escape routes, alternate routes, etc, when I walk home alone at night. That’s a lot, A LOT, to carry.

I don’t know what the end of the story is, or how I even arrived at this place, but I do know, and wish for for, this: a day when I can walk through this thicket, alone, without fear. It would be nice to go through it instead of photographing it.

Some recent, incredible reads: A Drop in the Ocean: #YesAllWomen Have Stories Like Mine, You Are Not Defined By Your Tragedy, and To Men Who Ask “What Can *I* Do to Fight Sexism and Misogyny?

old delhi, india: day one {the beauty + the unheimlich}

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A man at the mosque told me I was beautiful, but there was something about the way he said it that made me feel anything but, a sweet blonde tells me. In India, we’re reminded that we are women. We’re reminded of our skin, pale pieces of parchment, and about our limbs, which we unconsciously keep covering. A few of us talk about the airport in Dubai where men don’t see who you are, rather they see parts of you — a stack of limbs, a face that elicits desire. We speak softly as we weave through alleyways in Old Delhi about how that experience unnerved us — so much so that we paid for the privilege of sitting in a lounge, of closing our eyes to quiet. On the plane ride to Delhi I watched a man kiss his two wives and it made me shudder, but I turned away because this was not my country. This was not my way.

In all fairness, we don’t feel this sense of unheimlich in Old Delhi, but we do recognize that we are foreign. We see it in the clothes that we wear and even how we walk. Women here {the few that we saw in Old Delhi, which seemed mostly occupied by male proprietors and male shoppers} shop in pairs, and the small percentage of women who wear the full chador are lead around by their husbands — they are lead by the arm, not by the hand. Funny what a difference in perception of a few inches above the wrist bone makes.

At a mosque, two small boys with Samsung phones ask if they can take my picture. I acquiesce, although I’m curious. I ask why they’re so interested in a photo of a sweaty tourist? They laugh and tell me that it’s a thing to meet tourists; my photo is souvenier that they’ll share with their family and friends. I think that this isn’t too strange considering here I am photographing rickshaws and storefronts — places that are common to those who live here. But I digress.

After, seven of us {6 of whom are women} take to the winding streets and men gawk, and this puts me to thinking about the time when I was in the bathhouses in Taiwan, and a cadre of old women approached me and started touching my hair. I was startled until my friend explained that they’d never seen curly hair before. Where would they? How could they? These are people who would never leave Taiwan, never know a world where women have textured hair such as mine. For them my hair is beauty, a sight to see. I think about this as men in Old Delhi stare. I smile, but many don’t smile back. I ask a few of the women about this and they nod and say they feel the same way too. My very kind tour guide parrots back a version of what my friend in Taiwan told me all those years ago, but I don’t know. I don’t know. Everyone I meet is incredibly kind and helpful, but there’s this remove I can’t describe. I’m trying to unravel this even now, even as I type this from my hotel room watching fog and thunder sweep past my window.

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When I initially told people I was traveling to India, the first thing every single person said was: OH MY GOD. YOU’RE NOT TRAVELING ALONE, ARE YOU? DID YOU READ ABOUT ALL THE RAPES IN DELHI? As if I’m 5 rather than 38. As if I’m a woman who doesn’t read the paper or listen to the news. As if I lead a myopic life. After they’re somewhat assuaged by the fact that I’ll be in a tour group, I reminded them that how could one judge a country of 1.2 billion based on a slew of truly horrific acts, which have been brought to light simply for the ease in which we now have access to information. I may not agree with, or respect how, many cultures view women, but that won’t stop me from visiting places that give me a slight feeling of discomfort. I refuse to close my eyes even if there are things I sometimes don’t want to see.

There is real beauty in Delhi. Look at these pictures, really look at them. Notice the cacophony that is the thoroughfare. It’s nothing short of an overture watching everyone maneuver their battery-operated rickshaws {80K rupees}, old-school rickshaws, motorbikes, cars, carts — all the while passersby expertly weave through the crowds as if they’re thread. The food is exceptional: from grilled pineapples roasted in the spiciest herbs {hot!} to fried cheese, and cottage cheese fried and cooked with vegetables to the chicken biryani, which I’m about to eat when I finish this post, Indians take such care in the preparation and presentation of food that one can’t help but be in awe of it. I purchased chai from an old man in an alleyway who took time to prepare my brew, and I procured packages of mixed spices {It’s easier for the women now! They don’t have to worry about all the mixing of spices! The convenience!} for cooking at home. The food in Delhi is spicy, hot and utterly delicious.

CONTINUE TO BRING A WOMAN ALL OF THE NAAN.

We spent the rest of the day touring mosques, Gandhi’s burial site, the Imperial City, and oceans of architectural landmarks {separate post to come on all the jazz before I head to Agra tomorrow}, and I came back to my hotel and settled into bed.

I’m also strangely reminded of my privilege. The fact that my lovely hotel is in the middle of nowhere and is surrounded by armed guards and metal detectors doesn’t escape me. I’ve been thinking a lot about awareness and abundance lately — taking inventory of all the non-material greatness in my life, and realizing that material pursuits only serve to be a constant interruption of being present. The fact that I wasn’t staring at my iPhone for ten hours and instead really looked at people, really spoke to them, really was acutely aware of every movement made by myself and others around me, and I’m wondering how I can bottle some of this when I return home.

Although it took me a while to get here, I’m finally glad I’ve arrived. While there are parts of India that unsettle me, there are a great many beautiful things worth making the trek for.

NOTE: I’ll be taking a great deal of pictures while I’m in India. While I realize that posting all of them here will give your computer a coronary page, you can follow my visual exploits on Pinterest.

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what would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?

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As Gloria Steinem observed, “Whoever has power takes over the noun–and the norm–while the less powerful get an adjective.” Since no one wants to be perceived as less powerful, a lot of women reject the gender identification and insist, “I don’t see myself as a woman; I see myself as a novelist/athlete/professional/fill-in-the-blank.” They are right to do so. No one wants her achievements modified. We all just want to be the noun. — Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

Today I was reminded, albeit in a roundabout way, that I am a changed woman. Gone are the days of swallowing voice, of sitting on the fringe, of not settling for anything less than extraordinary.

In 1997, I was one of the very few women accepted into the Chase Global Bank program, an MBA in miniature. It was implicit that acceptance ensured you were recruited by the top investment banks –– Morgan, Goldman, Lehman. There were rumors on the Street that the Glass-Steagall Act would soon be repealed, and a merchant banking background was considered lucrative since future profitability was predicated on managing and understanding all phases of the deal process. While I found gender parity in college, where I majored in Finance and Marketing, the program was an old boys’ club –– you were rarely the girl they studied with; rather, you were the girl they slept with. This was a time when women had their choice of three colored suits: navy blue, black, or a very somber burgundy. Skirts always cut at the knee, hose were required, and makeup was kept to a minimum. One had to look the part of a lady without drawing too much attention to the fact that one was a lady.

All of these rules started to annoy me to no end.

From birth I was a woman who would never take no for an answer. A woman who would not bend to bias or bullshit. After the nine-month program came to a close, I graduated number three in a class of ninety, was recruited by Morgan Stanley, and won approval from the boys. Until I stepped into the WASP-y hallways of Morgan Stanley, where Managing Directors routinely slept with Associates and it was commonplace for a man to rest his hand on a woman’s thigh, inching up. Although I managed to artfully dodge sexual overtures (save the one time my belligerent, married boss asked for my virginity after a night of client entertainment), I felt protective of the women who didn’t want to make waves, who just wanted to blend in. Our generation of women banded together against the boys and the older women who seemed determined to press their expensive heels down on our heads. After threatening a coworker with genital mutilation should he inch his hand up another thigh, I was labeled the difficult one. The smart one with the big mouth. I lasted two years at Morgan before I would trash my suits, enroll in Columbia’s MFA program, and start a job at a burgeoning luxury goods dot.com.

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Whether I was working at a luxury company that went bust, a Fortune 500 cable giant, or a publishing mecca, men have always been my champions, while women were the ones to be feared. My whip-smart, ambitious, collaborative generation –– one that didn’t trade on their sex, dole out favors, or accept fingers inching up the thigh –– served as a threat to the old guard rather than a triumph. I repeatedly endured catty queen bees and ladies who rumor at lunch. Frustrated, I longed for a professional mentor who was maternal, smart, strong, and supportive. I wanted to learn from a woman who lead with confidence, who understood that one shines not because she desires to glare but because she allows others to ferret out her greatness. As I shifted into my thirties, I was determined to be this woman. Maybe it was because my mother was such a heartbreaking disappointment, but I felt a maternal instinct that was not one of procreation, but of cultivating and grooming strong, passionate young women in the workplace.

In 2010, I was given the extraordinary opportunity to manage 22 accounts and oversee a team of 19 women at social media marketing agency. To say that the challenge was overwhelming was an understatement, but perhaps the most gratifying part of my job –– beyond growing topline revenue, diversifying my portfolio, and implementing innovation and efficiency –– was the impact I had on a team of mostly millennial women. When it came to salary negotiation, I taught them to fight for what they deserved. While I encouraged them to bind together as a team, I also made them celebrate their individual strengths. From the straight-out-of-college associate to the seasoned director, every team member had a voice, and I taught them how to shout. I made them sit at the table. I told them they were equal to any man in the room.

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In 2011, when my two male bosses, my great champions, elevated me to partner status, there was a fever in the office. At the time, the agency employed a considerable amount of women, but I was the first to hold peer status in executive leadership; I now owned a percentage of the company. When my partnership was announced and I had to stand up and talk about my new role, my voice shook and my body was nerve-wracked. But then the thunderous applause. All the women I’d supported were my mentors; they buoyed me, proud that I’d earned this role because of my talent, ambition, confidence and compassion. When I look at my life, I can say with certainty that that day was one worth photographing. One worth remembering, always.

Recently I learned of a staggering statistic: 3% of executive positions in agencies are held by women. Hearing this coincided with my resignation, and as I made the rounds of catch-ups and lunches, some women joked, your leaving changes that number. Those words resonated with me over the past two months as I’ve been thinking about the things I carry. I think about my ability to see the world differently and write about it in the most magical of ways. I think about how I’ve been in a passionate, lifelong affair with food. And then I think about that day when I made partner, and I was proud that I had the power to lift other women up.

Today I spent the day with my best friend, a great woman with a heart that could blanket an ocean. A patient mother of two children, a devoted wife, a fantastic cook, a brilliant contract lawyer in a Fortune 500 company — she reminds me of our capacity to be fearless. Imagine what we could do if we knew we couldn’t fail? Some would have children, run a home, and find flexibility in a career they love. Others would break ranks and find their love in their work, their art, and in mentoring all of their adopted children in the office. Barefoot, we’d run through the garden at night. We’d get our feet wet; we’d tumble, we’d fall and skin our knees in the gloaming. But here’s the thing –– we’d get up and keep running. Keep at it until the sun stretches across the horizon.

Today my friend reminded me of the greatness in myself, and slowly my next chapter begins to write itself. I’m meant to lead. I’m meant to buoy great women. I’m meant to run, run, run wild.

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Chowing at Potlikker in Williamsburg + Little Cupcake Bakeshop in Noho.

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