I Want It All

OK, with a title like that, I know I’ve created some expectations. So here it is, for your enjoyment:

Now on to the real content. I’ve realized something: I am Jay Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby has been one of my favorite books for years. I first read it, like so many other Americans, in high school, in my junior year English class, and I fell in love with the lushness of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose, the elegiac plot, the picture-perfect depiction of the American Dream.

So I’ve read the book. I am the proud owner of a T-shirt printed with its text. I rushed to the theater when, last month, the new Baz Luhrmann version of the film came out, and I read the book again after, just to see how the two compared.

But it wasn’t til recently that I realized why, exactly, I loved The Great Gatsby — and, for all my English major-ing over the years, I have to say it wasn’t why I thought.

It was because I completely, 100% refuse to accept the ending as an ending. Because, optimist that I am, I saw the epic failure of the American Dream presented in the book as a failure, yes — but only for Gatsby. Of course I saw his personal failings; of course I saw the shallow opulence he so blindly followed after; of course I saw that what he was doing was wrong, and could never, and should never, succeed.

For him, that is. But for me? For me, it would be a completely different story.

I still believe in the American Dream. I still picture my future all in rosy hues, with me living the dream of the modern, educated woman in the post-feminist era: married, with kids, and flourishing at the top in my career. I, like so many others in my generation, have grown up being told that I could do anything I wanted, if I just tried.

And I have tried, and so far, it has seemed true. I sailed through college. I found rewarding (though unpaid) internships in my field. I landed a Fulbright scholarship. I  traveled. I  found at least a steady trickle of paid work in my field. I formed meaningful and loving relationships with some absolutely incredible people.

But the more I look around, the more discouraged I get about the future of my American Dream. I read articles like this one, which bring to my mind my college sociology professor, telling the class that women today absolutely cannot have it all — they always take a cut, either in family life or in professional life. It worried me then, but I pushed it to the side. But if, as recent studies show, even women in “liberal academia” get marginalized for having a family, how much worse must it be in the business community I hope to join?

Because, of course, I must join the business community. I am passionate about the publishing world, to begin with, and want nothing more than to join in; beyond that, though, it is equally important to me to have a career that I love as it is to be able afford to live the life of having a career and a family.

And being able to afford it is the trick: to have it all in today’s society, it’s generally accepted that traditional domestic roles will be, at least in part, hired out to others. Nannies will help with the kids; gardeners will help with the yard work; housecleaners will help with the chores; restaurants will help with the meals. I don’t want to be affluent for affluence’s sake; I want to be affluent so I can have a family as well as a career. As Nancy Folbre put it in her recent article in The New York Times:

Affluent couples are more likely to marry than other Americans, perhaps because they don’t need to renegotiate gender roles; they can purchase substitutes for wives’ traditional domestic work in the form of restaurant meals, child care and cleaning services.

The stakes, for women, are high. The choice is this: Have an incredible career which can support your desire for a family, or forget the idea of a career altogether. All or nothing. No pressure.

This is, I’ve realized, is one of the reasons I love Seattle so deeply: It shows me what my life could look like, if I get it right. I have spent the majority of my time in this city in some of its richest neighborhoods, working as a nanny, providing one of the many services that make it possible for the women here to have everything.

Here I see the rebuttal to the claim that women can’t have everything; here I see women who are succeeding in their careers and in their family. As a nanny, I have seen what a household looks like where both spouses have careers they enjoy and that pay well; I have even had the privilege of seeing families who manage to do that without sacrificing their children’s wellbeing. I’ve seen those who make it into that exclusive club; I’ve seen that it is possible for a woman to have it all.

And I want in. That is my Daisy Buchanon, with money in its voice, ever beckoning me on to an imaginary future. But will it be imaginary? Or will I make it in; find that elusive job that will allow me to work in an industry I love and succeed, even as I, eventually, have a family, too?

Am I as blind as Jay Gatsby, chasing an illusion that can never be caught? Or will I, as I have always chosen to believe, succeed in my pursuit?

Can the American Dream be caught? Is it possible, in today’s society, for a woman to have it all? It is; I have seen it — but will it be possible for me?

These are unanswerable questions, I know. The only way to answer them is to stride forward, pursuing my dreams in the best way I know how — and hope there is no Nick Carraway lurking around the corner, ready to document my hopeless chase.

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Being Present

Everyone’s been there. You’re in the room, but you’re not really there. Your friends are around, but nobody’s talking. Instead, you’re all staring into little, colored screens.

I’ve been thinking of getting a smartphone for a long time, now. It’s been on the top of my to-buy list since early 2011, and my contract’s been up for nearly that long, too. So why haven’t I bought one?

There are dozens of reasons for me to buy a smart phone. They’re convenient. They give directions. They make it so you never have to plan ahead again. They settle any argument in a heartbeat. And with them, you never make real, human contact again.

Because, after a full year spent as one of the only ones in my friend group without a smartphone, that’s what I’ve seem the most of: smartphones, not faces. When you’re immersed in updating your status and posting your meal to Instagram, it seems like the most natural thing in the world. When you’re the one in the room with just an average intelligence phone, though, seeing everyone else glued to their phones is just plain strange.

I’ve been learning a lot in the last couple years about living in the moment, even without the distraction of a smartphone. See, naturally, I’m a planner. I think things out way in advance, and set in place any number of plans to get me from A to Z.

But, when you plan your life eons in advance, a couple of things happen:

  1. You get fixated on your plans, and suddenly any variation from them is terrifying and world-shattering, whether it should be or not.
  2. You live in your dreams, and forget about what’s happening right now.
  3. You put important things like friendships and relationships on the back burner in favor of where you want to be in 5 years.

That last one is what killed it for me. I love people, and I have a very high value for relationships. If you’re my friend, I will defend you to the death. And oh, if you’re not sure if you fall in that category or not, because we used to be friends back in the day but it’s been so long and I just don’t know–STOP. I will still defend you to the death. Just TRY to shake my loyalty. It won’t work.

And so I’ve been learning. Learning how to put people first; how to put first the people I am with, in this moment, right now, and how to put my goals on the back burner when necessary. My friends this year may still describe me as a workaholic, but the truth is, over the last 10 months, I’ve chosen friends over future more times than I can count.

I’ve learned to healthily compartmentalize my life: over here, friends. Over there, goals. To the side, things that must be done immediately. And yes, those do still get done immediately; I am not describing my slow descent into lethargy and a poor work ethic. Instead, I am finally learning what can be described as a good work-life balance, one in which there actually is a balance, instead of a weird overemphasis on the work/school/goals bit.

I’m learning to be present in the moment, rather than get a jumpstart on the future. If I’m working, I’m working. If I’m with friends, though, I am with friends. They are more important to me than anything else that could come creeping into my mind. Being there and fully experiencing our time together matters more than any thoughts I would have been giving to the project I have sitting on my desk at home, or the email in my inbox, or the blog post in my drafts, or the text on my phone.

And when you make it a goal to be fully present in every situation, you suddenly realize just how disconnected our connectedness has made us. It’s amazing to me that, in our world of immense connectivity, we so often lose track of the person in front of us. Nothing is official until it’s been Facebooked and Tweeted and Instagrammed, and everyone ends up crowded around phones, too busy documenting their lives to live them. 

Now that I’ve begun to kick the habit of living in the future, do I dare to tempt myself by living in the uber-present, the present of media at your fingertips with such ease that you can’t tear yourself from it long enough to be present with the people you are with? I might. But it’s tempting not to. The present is here for a reason. Why shouldn’t we live it?

The Weight of a Quarter

“If you have one quarter, two dimes, four nickels and seven pennies, how much money do you have?”

My European teammates looked at me, determined, dependent on my expertise. My brain reeled–I hadn’t thought about money in terms of American coins for almost a year. Maybe more–who used coins anymore? It was July, and I was on vacation in Cairns, Australia, one of the only Americans there—and here, in my hostel-wide trivia contest, I was the only one. Sweet.

I double-checked my math, nodded, and announced my result: “72 cents.” They scribbled down my answer and we moved on to the next question. Thank goodness my knowledge of the absurdity of American coinage hadn’t completely left me. Actually, if anything, it’d gotten stronger.

Roaming about the world this last year, I have come to realize that America has a strange sort of relationship with cash. We use it less and less, and yet we go into conniption fits if someone suggests that, say, we eliminate the scarcely-used and cost-inefficient penny.

As a traveler, I’d go to a country, exchange some money, and then go about paying for everything in cash–20 NTD here, 30 baht there, with $1.50 AUD and ¥ 200 spent along the way. Sure, I had a credit card–and a debit card, in Taiwan, where I was living–but I used them only as a last resort. Coins jingled wherever I went, and I got well-used to knowing how much money I had handy based on the weight of my wallet.

In Taiwan, there was the hefty brass 50 coin, which could always be counted on to buy a nice tea, or a meal at Chialing’s or Ali’s, and the slick silver 10 coin, two of which could usually snag a nice 7-11-brand drink, or more, if paired with a few of the smaller 5 coins or penny-lookalike 1 coins. A vast number of my purchases revolved around some combination of these four, and my daily routine included rooting around in my coin purse trying to make exact change, or else wondering where all of my coins had gone and reluctantly handing over a bill. Money had a sound, and a weight, that I knew.

Then I came home. I knew, academically, of course, that I had been using cash much, much more abroad than I ever had in America. (Because, again who uses cash in America??) What I hadn’t realized was how that fact would skew my new image of American coins.

In essence, they’re puny. And insignificant. Out of Taiwan-born habit, I’ve handled a fair amount of cash since coming home, and every time I go for my coins, I have a mini heart attack as I pick up a quarter and nearly fling it off the table for its sheer lightness. Money is supposed to weigh more than this! My subconscious screams at me, assuring me that the piece in my hand cannot possibly be worth more than one or two cents. It’s jarring, and unpleasant, and just plain weird–did American coins decide to go on a starvation diet while I was gone? Or have they really always been this small?

Here’s the basic American coin set: quarter, dime, nickel, penny. (And, while we’re on the subject, why the names? Just to favor lone American citizens in hostel trivia contests?)

Quarter, dime, nickel, penny….oh, flimsy American coinage…

Already, we’ve got strangeness issues. The quarter’s worth the most, and it’s biggest. So far, so good. But then there’s the dime, and–hold on a sec, why is it so tiny? Then we jump up in thickness and size for the nickel, for some reason, and then there’s the penny, which is just bigger than the dime. (Which, again, makes sense how?)

By way of comparison, here’s an (admittedly incomplete) set of Taiwanese coins–50, 10, and 1:

I seem to have spent all my 5s before leaving the country…see, usable coins!

Now let’s take a look at it in relation to a few other currencies I happen to have picked up this year. Here’s the difference I can’t seem to get my head around–the quarter vs. the 50 NT coin.

Out. Classed.

And MASSIVELY outweighed.

And, of course, the other American coins compared to other Taiwanese currency:

EVERY SINGLE TAIWANESE COIN (bottom) is bigger than EVERY SINGLE AMERICAN COIN (top)

10s…which do YOU want to carry?

…not to mention Australian coins:

These coins are worth nearly identical sums–25 cents American and 20 cents Australian. So why is one dwarfing the other???

L-R, Australian $2, $1 and US 25 cents. To be fair, the US *does* have $1 coins, but they are almost never used…

…or Japanese:

OK, so American money may have more heft here. But Japanese money has more useable amounts, AND they have holes in the middle. Pretty cool.

…or even Thai:

5s…

The punyness is not my imagination.

And, size aside, it’s no wonder no one uses them, because they have next to no useability. In Taiwan, it made sense to pay for a snack purchase with coins, because you could usually do so with, say, a 50 and a 10. Assuming roughly equivalent prices (which is a pretty accurate assumption, if you’re talking about imported junk food) and an exchange rate of 30NT to $1 US (which is also pretty accurate), the smallest number of widely-circulated American coins that could be used to pay for the same purchase is eight. And who feels anything less than awkward and juvenile when you reach into your wallet to pay for your peanut M&Ms and can of soda, only to come up with a handful of quarters?

No. Just walk away, my friend, just walk away. Your coins are no good here, 6-year-old-kid with sticky hands and glasses. Go get your mother to pay for your gluttony–or whip out a credit card to hide your junk food shame under the protection of an ‘adult’ payment method.

In Australia and Japan, I was bemused and charmed by the larger-valued coins in common use. (Until I went to exchange money, that is, and was reminded that almost no one will change coins, no matter their worth. Incidentally, if anyone wants to buy a ¥ 500 coin…) Australians commonly use $1 and $2 coins–and while I would point out here the strangeness of a $2 coin being smaller than the $1 one, both weigh significantly more than the smaller values or than American coins in general, so I’m going to have to give them a pass. After all, at least they do have useable coin values in common circulation–American lawmakers wish they could say the same.

Sigh. If only American coins made sense, and came in ordinary, useable amounts, maybe people would go back to using cash. And, call me a Luddite, but there’s something special about feeling the physical weight of your money before you spend it–it makes the whole ritual seem a bit more real than the facile swipe of a card. If the weight of a quarter were just a bit heavier, maybe Americans would take just a moment more before flinging it across the counter for a load of trash.

Although, if American coins were easier, my group might not have won second place in that trivia contest…