Recommended Reading: October 2018

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October was filled with more dread than anyone expected. From the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting to concerns around voter suppression, the UN’s dire climate report, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the attention on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. I read much more than what’s listed below, but here are some of my personal recommendations:

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

What's on my mind at 27

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I’ve never cared much for my own birthday or age or what have you. It’s just another year.

I don’t mean that to sound as blasé as it reads. There’s much to be grateful for, of course. But in all honesty, the future sounds a lot more bleak than bright.

At 27, I worry endlessly about disaster striking in and out of its historically assigned seasons, wiping hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of us out altogether. I worry about oxygen loss and having to wear allergen masks for a quick errand run and what happens to those of us with easily aggravated respiratory illness and the fact that some of the most developed countries are essentially letting those most at risk die. I feel shame for not sharing the outrage much earlier.

I don’t understand this hunger for more money and power especially if our money and power is quantifiably tenfold that of our brothers and sisters in poverty. I question what kinds of economic compromises I’m willing to make and wonder whether I’m part of the Western hypocrisy.

What’s up with this 24-hour news cycle and how do we contain it without losing journalism jobs?

What would Thoreau think?

“According to a recently released Pew Center survey, almost seven in ten Americans feel worn out by the amount of news that’s generated each day,” columnist Danny Heitman wrote for the National Endowment for the Humanities. “Henry David Thoreau complained of much the same thing in Walden, his celebrated account of a two-year experiment in simple living that he began on July 4, 1845.”

“Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap after dinner,” Thoreau wrote in Walden, “but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinel. . . . After a night’s sleep the news has become as indispensable as the breakfast.”

Heitman writes that Thoreau was lamenting the way “the sheer scale of news can commodify a tragedy, making its victims seem oddly interchangeable … He would not be surprised by today’s disasters, which can, by their magnitude, leave us numb.”

And that numbness, that’s what I’m afraid of.

In our newsroom, we use a tool called Chartbeat to access realtime and historical stats on our stories. Think pageviews, time readers spent on the page, whether the traffic is coming from social media, the website or search. Tracking such stats is imperative in a world where a sizable percentage of our profit comes directly from advertisers. The more pageviews, more time spent on a page, more autoplaying videos = more eyes on ads.

So, yes, that’s going to impact what’s covered and how often it’s covered. Reporters often feel reduced to cover certain topics, reduced to numbers. Unless you’re working on some potentially policy-changing investigative piece, how quantifiable is your work? What’s the viral potential?

Gross, right? Yes. But until someone drops some alternative, measurable solutions on us…

Let’s go back to a newspaper reporter’s mindset. To be reduced to numbers in an inescapable news cycle largely controlled by big-time TV networks and social media networks. You’re trapped, but carry that heavy purpose on your weakening shoulders. Save. Journalism.

But too much bad news can literally make you sick.

"Every time we experience or hear about a traumatic event, we go into stress mode. We might go numb or have an overactive fear response to the perceived threat. Our physiology is triggered to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline," Susanne Babbel, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma recovery, told CNN in June.

When we’re exposed to trauma, she said, our brains go into “fight, flight, freeze” mode before returning to a restful state.

If and when we return to a restful state.

“When we experience this process again and again, our adrenal glands can become fatigued. Adrenal fatigue can lead to being tired in the morning, lack of restful sleep, anxiety and depression, as well as a multitude of other symptoms," Babbel said.

Hi, that’s me. And I don’t even cover the most traumatic stories at my paper, not by a long shot.

Last year, I spiraled into my own bout and luckily cried out for help. That was the bravest I’ve ever been. Antidepressants have really helped keep me on track and strong since.

I’ve fixed some of my own issues. Kept my empathy, but constructed it into a megaphone instead of internalizing the pain. Turned off all news notifications, took breaks from social media, dedicated myself to reading print, not digital as often as possible. Here’s why:

The way we process words on screens, researchers have said, can impact how much empathy we feel toward characters or sources. Time and experience, too. “We need a certain amount of information about another person, accumulated over time, before we start sensing that crucial similarity between us,” according to a review of scientific research and literature on the topic published in the Columbia Journalism Review. “Once engaged and transported by a story, readers are more likely to change their beliefs about the world to match that narrative.”

Digital reading, however, lends itself to skimming and distraction. Print? Not so much.

Put in more effort, and you will process more information, Gavriel Salomon and Tamar Leigh found in 1984, long before the internet.

So I’m trying. I’ve read more books since January than I have since I was assigned lists in grade school. I renewed my The Atlantic membership and am making an effort to read my daily newspaper.

If I wanted to escape it all, I’d let ignorance take the reins and run away to my own Walden Pond. But that’s not my goal. I want to endure, understand, share. Research shows the brain on digital isn’t exactly doing the trick.

“Maryanne Wolf has shown that the human brain was never meant to read, but evolved alongside our growing use of signs and symbols. Maybe our brains will similarly adapt in some surprising way to digital reading, and our capacity for empathy will remain the same.” Maybe.

Anyway, back to the impending doom of climate change and evils of capitalism…

Until next time,
Fiza

P.S. I realize my thoughts are all over the place. Welcome to my brain.

Review: 'All the Light We Cannot See' by Anthony Doerr

 Photo: Barnes & Noble

Photo: Barnes & Noble

“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.” 

It’s taken me some time to review this book by Pulitzer-winning author Anthony Doerr, who earned the coveted award for this fictional novel inspired by the nightmare of World War II.

The imaginative tale poetically parallels two compelling story lines, climaxing with the anticipated 1944 meeting of the lovely Marie-Laure, a blind French girl who escapes Nazi-occupied Paris and flees with her father to the citadel of Saint-Malo to live with her reclusive great-uncle — and the German orphan Werner, who finds himself as a young boy genius among the Hitler Youth with a mission to hunt down the resistance.

Though it’s set nearly seven decades ago, Doerr puts technology and its role in a changing society, largely how the government controls and uses it, front and center. A quiet reminder of our own realities.

The German army used radio, the primary connection one had to the outside world at the time.

During the war, the Germans banned them all. Werner, who grew up in an orphanage enchanted by the technology and had a knack for building and fixing the instruments, was quickly recruited to use his expertise to track down all who continued to illegally broadcast information to aid the resistance. Like Etienne, Marie-Laure’s uncle.

Many times while reading this fast-paced, haunting novel, I furrowed my heavy brows as if to display the perfect caricature of anguish. The pain is felt, and Doerr makes sure of it.

“The brain is locked in total darkness of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”

Through Werner and his sister, Jutta, for example. Jutta, who embodies all that is right and good in the world, internally clashes with her brother’s role in Nazi Germany. She becomes “the moral constant against which Werner measures his own sins,” as Lit Charts points out. And while the pair remains close throughout the novel, their relationship waxes and wanes. What stung me most: The censored correspondence between the two, the delayed letters, the unsaid. To ache and hide your ache from the one person in the world you love most.

“Is it right,” Jutta says, “to do something only because everyone else is doing it?”

Another example: Marie-Laure’s relationship with her locksmith father, Daniel LeBlanc. The love is almost painstakingly beautiful. When she becomes blind, he creates scale models of the city for her to use in navigation, a symbol of their intimate connection. But Daniel’s presence is temporary. And his absence quickly strips away a part of Marie-Laure’s softness.

“You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history. We act in our own self-interest. Of course we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are.” 

My complaints:

While I connected with Doerr and his striking prose, I felt detached from or dissatisfied with Werner’s character. William T. Vollmann, who reviewed the book for the New York Times in 2014, said it well:

“Marie-Laure’s participation in the Resistance develops naturally out of who she is,” he wrote. “Werner’s life lacks context, at least during the important period when he has departed Schulpforta for the Eastern Front. As a child he was as appealingly drawn as Marie-Laure. But he now becomes somehow less knowable to us, less real.” I also struggle with Werner’s conscience compartmentalizing, despite his shadowing moral compass in Jutta. Perhaps it’s a testament to the power of Nazi propaganda.

I, like many, also wanted so much more for and from Jutta.

And then there’s the cursed Sea of Flames, at times a little too gimmicky for my taste. But at times the perfect symbol of tragedy, hope, and of what the war did to dreamers.

3.9/5 stars.

About the title:

"The title is a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant),” Doerr says. “It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility."

Other reviews:

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Recommended Reading: September 2018

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A little late gathering this compilation of must-reads, but here are some of the stories that have stuck with me since I read them last month:

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza


Recommended Reading: August 2018

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In August, we lost American icons John McCain and Aretha Franklin, inspiring hundreds of beautiful obits I couldn't get enough of. A Jimmy Carter feature in WaPo, the AJC's coverage of the New Mexico campground, where a Georgia man was found training young children to execute mass shootings. Here's a small taste of what I've had my eyes on this month:

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Review: 'The Overstory' by Richard Powers

 Credit: WBUR

Credit: WBUR

"The best arguments in the world won't change a person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story."

I was only ten pages in when I began fantasizing about the kinds of words I'd choose to illustrate the lingering pangs of Powers' hypnotizing prose. 

Dreading its end, I found myself constricting my own reading time to 20 or so pages in one sitting.

"This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end."

"It's a book about trees, but like, a lot more than that," I'd tell friends, shaming myself as the words slipped off my tongue. I know, I know. What's more than trees?

I'm no climate crusader, and that's an understatement. In fact, when we first moved from the concrete jungle of New York City to Georgia, I relentlessly complained about the majestic, towering oaks overwhelming the state, the only grievance I could muster up after leaving behind the multicultural home I'd grown to love for the South and its cunningly charming facade, as it's often viewed from up above.

And I didn't grow up in a home of sustainability ethics, either. One part of me still believes it's a luxury to be able to prioritize the Earth before your own kin, your own now. Today, I'm at war with myself, aghast by an ignorance I was too ignorant to embrace.

"People see better what looks like them,” Patricia Westerford, one of nine characters at the center of this epic, says. True. So, she shows us trees as human as ever. She tells us how trees, too, talk to each other. They trade, they have sex, experience pain, remember. They're highly aware, intelligent. Like the apex species humans believe they are, but aren't.

The nine cast members — not to be mistaken with the true heroes of the novel: trees — are each introduced with equally compelling storylines:  A Vietnam War Air Force vet turned eco-activist after a banyan tree saves his life; an impulsive college student who electrocutes herself and comes back to life with a renewed vision; an Indian immigrant scientist confined to his wheelchair inspired by the death of one world to become the master of another digital sphere; an Irish-Norwegian artist from a long line of farmers who inherits spellbinding photographic portraits of a beloved chestnut tree and a Chinese engineer, daughter of immigrants, who falls in love with her father's Mulberry bush, loses it to homicide and, then, loses her father to suicide. Then there's the couple who seemed lost, stuck and hopeless until they found their forest, and the forest found them. A psychologist who studies how humans only understand things that speak to them. And lastly, the tree-lover academic from birth, who tries, fails and tries again to convince us all to open our ears to the green gods around us, aching the way a grandmother yearns for her distant grandchild: "Listen. There's something you need to hear."

“Buddha’s words: A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it.” 

Five stars.

Take a look around, when you get a minute to spare. Inhale the exhales of Georgia's buckeyes, magnolias, its presidential oaks and, my personal favorite, the underrated, dependable trident maple that's withstood more pain than most.

Other reviews:
They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

How I've snagged cheap flights to Europe (France, Spain)

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Before I start off, a huge disclaimer: I'm in no way a travel expert and have zero career experience in the field. BUT I may be able to offer some tips and tricks to finding those $400 RT flight deals to Europe we're all itching for.

So far, I've been able to use some non-traditional methods to snag <$400 flights to Paris (2017) and Barcelona (2018). Here's how:

Know the basics, but know there are exceptions.

The overall best times to book your international flights (Sources: CheapAir.com, SkyScanner.com)

  • Prime booking window: 121 to 21 days before you leave (I personally choose the ~100-day mark)
  • For summer trips: 47 days in advance
  • For fall/winter trips: 69-62 days in advance 
  • For spring trips: 90 days in advance
  • Atlanta to Paris: 87-144 days in advance (When I booked: 229 days)
  • Atlanta to Barcelona: 75-320 days in advance (When I booked: 90 days)

Using Twitter to find great flight deals

Last year, a friend of mine sent me a $400 RT flight deal to Paris, which she found via one of the many Twitter accounts dedicated to cheap flights.

Here are some Twitter accounts I personally follow:

Note that unless you've got alerts on for all of them, however, it really does come down to how often you're on Twitter and how often you check the accounts. It's helpful to create your own Twitter list with all the airline accounts you follow. 

Tracking flights via apps

There are so many cheap flight deals you can uncover from the trove of mobile apps dedicated to just that. Kayak and Google have not offered the cheapest finds in my personal experience (Atlanta to Paris; Atlanta to Barcelona; Atlanta to Madrid). 

Some apps I've successfully used:

Refinery29 also has this killer list of app options worth checking out.

Sign up for cheap flights via Next Vacay

Naveen and Shaylee Dittakavi are behind this awesome email system, which automatically searches airfare sites to find the best personalized deals. It's only $25 per year to join (with a one month free trial) and it's definitely worth it. You'll get NextVacay emails alerting you instantly with the best deals to popular destinations (and how to book your ticket).  

Here are some sample deals I've recently received:

  • Atlanta to San Juan, Puerto Rico $225ish - Select Dates in Mid Jan 2019 to Late May 2019
  • Atlanta to Copenhagen (Denmark) $500ish - Mid September 2018 to Mid March 2019
  • Atlanta to Hawaii (Kona) $375ish R/T - Mid August to Early December
  • Atlanta to Madrid $400ish - Mid September to Early December

More about how Next Vacay works.

A little patience and a little spontaneity go a long way.

Traveling is good for the soul and usually horrendous for the bank account, but it doesn't have to be so damaging. Be patient with your search and avoid booking last minute flights. And when you do find one of those 24-hour deals, get. on. it. Or send it to me!

Good luck!

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Recommended Reading: July 2018

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This month, I read eye-opening pieces on the racial history of hot chicken, the power of positive friendships and the excruciatingly painful realities of migrant families separated by the U.S. government. 

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Recommended Reading: June 2018

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Children separated from their parents at the border, the changing media landscape and much more. In June, the national immigration crisis dominated my news consumption. I didn't get to read as many local news stories as I typically do, but The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published some must-reads (included in my roundup below).

See last month's list.

Do you have any favorite reads this month? Let me know in the comments.

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

To my baby brother on the day of your college graduation

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This letter was written over a span of three early L.A. mornings, late nights and afternoons, from the same black woven metal cutout coffee table outside the same commercial coffee shop on the same corner of the city (by the same person).

Dearest baby brother,

Friday

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A BruinBus just turned the corner of Westwood and Lindbrook, where I'm currently indulging in an overpriced iced latte and buttered croissant after a sunrise jog in the city you've called home for the past four years. On my route over from the Palomar, girls in wool beanies and double ply cashmere clutched onto their too-hot-to-sip-while-power-walking cups of coffee with one hand and tolerably cracked iPhones in the other. The temperature, by the way, is a bleak and bitter 63 degrees.

I always laugh at the drab eHarmony building towering over this college town whenever I visit. Muted brown brick doesn't make me optimistic about finding love, but it's especially amusing today; An ad for "The Affair" on Showtime is judiciously displayed on an adjacent billboard.

Your city and I had a bit of a rough start, I'll admit. For one, it stole you away from me. Picked you up from the comforts of our culturally deficient East Cobb neighborhood and threw you 2,218 miles west, to a land I only appreciated as a mid-2000s Lakers fan and as the kick-off point of our family's American Dream.

"The people here don't smile back," I remember saying on my first visit, perhaps trying to lure you back at a time I had already felt lost without you (As college was ending for me, it was only beginning for you).

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You eventually told me, months after you'd adjusted, that people here don't smile back because they don't need to prove anything to you. Kind of a clap at Southerners and their tendency to seem hospitable and inviting from the sidewalks only to strike you with a dagger in the back at the polls. You know, where it really matters.

I swallowed that quietly, understanding the ethos all too well. But compelled as a Libra to play devil's advocate, I also knew that a stranger's smile (or lack thereof), no matter its momentary intention, can make or break a day, a week, a year and even a life. A grocer's, pastor's, bus driver's, teacher's, stranger's smiles have undoubtedly saved me from myself one too many times. In these fleeting moments, I don't question political ideologies and choose instead to sip on the unfamiliar swig of Blissful American Ignorance™. 

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I've come to love Los Angeles over the years, often defending the city as if it were my own. I guess it's become an extension of me, holding you hostage for so long, and you permanently holding a piece of my heart.

But to credit Los Angeles for making you the man you've become would be part fiction. Everything you've accomplished, everything you've come to understand about yourself and the world around you has been a culmination of our parents' atypical sacrificial chess moves, this country's gift of bountiful opportunity (depending, it seems, on who's in the Room Where It Happens at any given time) and, most importantly, you are a product of your own zest for life, a gusto I have to admit always colored me confused.

In a couple of days, you'll be crossing the grand stage. In the moment, it all may feel anticlimactic. Perhaps even silly. You've said yourself that college graduation wasn't a goal or dream, but an expectation set before us as children of people who have moved mountains to plant our feet onto this questionably conquested haven of the free. The goal once we're here is to get into college in the first place; the expectation is to get out and do something about it. That's what you may feel, just like I did and just like many of our fellow immigrants, children of immigrants, people born either too close to the fruits of capitalism or far enough to really believe the grass is greener (and more bountiful) on the other side.

Let me give you some sisterly advice: Fuck that voice in your head.

The thing about milestones like college graduations...they're cliche for a reason. Annually lauded for a reason, respected for a reason, emblematic for a damn reason. Some of your classmates are first-generation graduates. Honor them. Some of your classmates are 10th-generation graduates. Honor them. Honor yourself. Not for earning a stiff sheet of paper worth more money than you'll have in your savings account for a long, long time, or for surviving the first stepping stone of many, but for the sheer persistence you've gained these past four years, the 100+ pounds you've literally shed, the self-awareness only time and experience can provide. Honor yourself for stepping off that stage and campus with dignity, integrity and that zest for life that over the past few years may have slightly dulled.

Know that your appetite for more will continue to fluctuate. Sometimes you'll find yourself unmotivated, starved but unable to eat. Give me a call. Other times, that joie de vivre will erupt like confetti-filled balloons at a Yayoi Kasuma-inspired fete, maybe after you've discovered the chords of a new artist or perhaps the ever-dependable "Two Cathedrals" episode of The West Wing will do the trick, as it tends to have done on your third, fourth and 50th watches. Even then, give me a call.

In the collegiate afterlife, the gutters and mountains will feel far more prominent. Also far more prominent: Family. Remember that, hold that dear, know we're here and don't ever forget it.

Saturday

 The classic Faiz stretch.

The classic Faiz stretch.

I don't remember much about the day you were born, but I do remember holding your tiny, fuzzy head. You were the most darling baby boy, fragile enough to convince us you'd always be gentle and kind; steady enough to assure us you'd mean it. 

Like any sibling relationship, ours has certainly had its ups and downs. Many of those jams have admittedly been my fault (I guess).

Though we grew up in the same homes, our childhoods often felt poles apart. I was born in India, where mom and dad were already successful. Then we lived in Saudi, where mom and dad continued to be financially well-off, though the loss of freedom wasn't worth it. But they were always around. Piles of my baby photos are boxed up in our parents' closet. We have only a few of you.

When you were born, our family made it to America, but we had it rough. And we continued to struggle for at least another decade. Mom and dad weren't around much because they had to get us fed and educated. I remember feeling upset about it. In Long Island, I wanted to be at every daycare activity or birthday party of yours because I knew they wouldn't always be able to make it. That's a guilt mom and dad still feel to this day, even though they know how much you appreciate them. 

Last night was your Commencement, not to be confused with your department graduation, where we'll get to scream at the top of our lungs at the mere sound of your name. (We're still pretty confused about all this). But last night was a much bigger deal than you let on and one day, I hope you look back and recognize that. 

Before you left the hotel to join friends for the pre-ceremonial procession, you asked me, "Did you ever feel...celebratory on Commencement Day?" 

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I remember watching as you adjusted your navy blue tie in front of the full-length mirror, looking as dashing as ever, your voice tainted by a speckle of cynicism and sadness. I wondered whether I should lie or not.

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The thing about being a big sister no one really talks about is that the role is akin to being a second mother-like figure. You know, without any of that authentic authority. I'm always torn between being real, like a best friend should be, or pulling out the shield I've molded for you over the years, its boss decorated with fables of my own mistakes and regrets, a weapon for you to use in battle with life's inevitable anguish — without having to feel it all for yourself.

No, I did not feel "celebratory" on Commencement Day. The months leading up to it, I was ready to leave. Weeks prior, I didn't know who I mattered to, who mattered to me and why I didn't do this or that during my time at this institution our parents broke tooth and nail to afford. Two days before the big day, I was honestly just overwhelmed. 

I don't remember much about the morning of. Just that it was pure pandemonium. Get ready, hop in the car, figure out where mom and dad are, drive over to campus in hopes of finding a coveted parking spot.

We found one on the roof of Peavine. I turned to my roommate for the past two years, both of us fully realizing we'd yet to address the big-boned elephant in the room. The night before, we had a few friends over for some quality cap-decorating time, and we poured our overwhelming anxiety/fear/sadness/confusion/what-have-you into our creations, one hot glue stick at a time.

"Well, let's do this shit," I said to her as I shifted my gear to park, taking a brief moment to study the soon-to-be graduates lining up like vigilant ants in my rearview mirror. We used to have so much trouble getting into single file.

She and I snapped a compulsory #gradselfie from the car and continued on to our respective places in line.

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My trek through college was nothing like yours. You've been the go-to political junkie in the family for years, the kid who showed up to our conservative suburbian high school wearing a makeshift Binders Full of Women costume on Halloween, the guy who made sure he had friends on all sides of the political spectrum to keep the conversation diverse and interesting. You're the one who still helps mom and dad understand obscure political policies and decisions so that they never feel jilted by a government notorious for twisting its words to conform to the agenda of the era. 

God, I love that about you. I remember wishing I'd be a go-to for something or someone someday, just like my little brother.

But it took a bit longer for me. I knew what I excelled at through high school: Science and English. Writing was in my blood, but as a "pastime" or "hobby," as our saving-lives-for-a-living doctor parents often reminded me, albeit unintentionally. I wanted to help people and write, but I had to be smart about this. We'd suffered the pains of poverty before, and I just had to be smart about this. Maybe I'd be a psychiatrist and write a bestselling novel or two on the side. Or go to med school, practice for a while and have enough money to retire early and just write. Right?

Like many in my freshman class, I walked onto campus as a Pre-Medicine student and left a student of...not that. I despised most of my courses while studying for the major, knowing full and well that I was disinterested but too proud to quit something I'd already commenced, too fearful of disappointing the unspoken expectations of our parents, expectations I'd falsely adopted as my own. 

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You were my guiding light through the fog. Go after your dreams, your maturing voice echoed. I'd hear it while studying Fischer Projections and alkene polymerization as I read every line of my organic chemistry textbook three or four times over, though the pages might as well have been blank. Your voice hit a crescendo.

The decision to declare a major was daunting for me, and probably wasn't for you. After one creative writing class and one journalism class, the quiet, analytical news junkie in me decided to heed her baby brother's advice. 

But even after graduating with concentrations in both Psychology and Journalism, I continued to hold myself back. Too afraid to jump without a safety net, despite growing up reading about dream-chasing risk-takers as heroes and heroines. Maybe law school will be my safety net. Maybe I'll become a lawyer, retire early and then write. Right?

My first day at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was Friday, June 26, 2015. At 10:07 a.m., the high court ruled that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marry. My boss at the time, a gay man with a penchant for homburg hats and human rights, stepped out of his office and stood a few feet away from us, his eyes glued to the Breaking News banner on CNN.

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A nanosecond of silence before the frenzy of urgency rippled through the newsroom. Gotta get this story out. Gotta get this angle. Gotta that angle. Gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta get get get.

I haven't looked back since. But if it weren't for you and your resounding voice in my head, I don't know that I'd ever gain the courage or imagination to look forward in the first place.

Sunday (morning)

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In less than two hours, you'll be making your way down to Pauley for the final hurrah with your fellow graduating political scientists. Warm croissants and cappuccinos coming your way! You better be ready to go.

Sunday (afternoon)

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Watching you march into the stadium this morning, beaming from ear to ear and maniacally waving at mom and dad as I snapped photo after photo after photo was such a joy. They woo!d and screamed your name and jumped to their feet anytime you looked over your left shoulder. Boy, do our parents adore you. But you already knew that.

Dad especially.

You know, I think I resented you at some point for taking my place as dad's “favorite” kid. I was once daddy's little girl, Dr. Pirani's rosy-cheeked Unaizah baby, the daughter that could do no wrong. Then suddenly I could.

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With teendom came an admittedly absurd attitude problem. I grew stubborn, highly opinionated, quickly agitated. This did not bode well with dad.

I remember fights between him and me tearing us apart. You'd often side with him, though I considered you my ally. Mom was typically neutral, and I always appreciated her sensitive approach even when I was in the wrong. I hated myself for feeling betrayed, because I know you well enough to know your intentions.

Over my four years in college, you and dad seemed to become even better buds. I distanced myself from religion, and in doing so, you outpaced me by another few miles. No matter the fact that you'd written religion off many years earlier.

I remember coming home on the weekends and feeling like a second-rate family member. You and I would have a disagreement and he'd blindly defend you no matter what. You were now the kid that could do no wrong. 

This could've torn us apart, because to this day, my relationship with dad is still quite fragile. We're often stronger under different roofs. A short two-minute phone call everyday temporarily rekindles our delicate bond. A short two-minute conversation at the dining table may break it.

But I have to admit, everything he loves about you, I love about you. I can't even blame him for loving you that hard. Though I've outgrown the teen angst, it's no secret that you've consistently been the sincere one, the unselfish one, the one they call when there's a problem. I still feel a little second-rate every now and then. But it seems any resentment for you has transfigured into pride and gratitude instead. I feel lucky to have you, even when you're a distant 2,218 miles away. I feel even luckier to keep you home for a little longer this year. 

When you went away to colleg four years ago, I felt alone for the first time in a long time. It didn’t help that we parted on bitter terms. 

It was after your second visit home during college that I nearly gave up on us. Despite my supposed ability to communicate through my words, I struggled to make you hear how your absence pained me, how insignicant I often felt around you. I wanted you — no, needed you — to myself. I think I just needed someone around.

I took a few steps back that year. It wasn’t easy, and I’d cry to Sehar or Sharmeen about it. But I think the physical and emotional distance fixed me. And fixed us.

There are very few people out there who make me feel at home. Sitting in the car alongside you on one of our long drives, silently jamming to The Beach Boys, Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone — it isn’t the music that soothes me. It’s you. 

The last couple of years have been heavy. The politics, the loss, the change. Many a time I’ve lost the will and want to live. But one thought about my baby brother’s crooked smile and I’m saved. 

I think back on my favorite memories, and there you are. CLASP, your 

I'm honestly rushing the end of this letter so we can make it to our dinner reservations, but before I go, I want to offer some of my loudest wake-up calls, epiphanies or learnings as an "adult" these past four years. Hope they help.

  • You have to show and tell people you care if you want them to know.  
  • Keep track of how much time you spend on your phone.
  • Read stories and books you wouldn't typically read to gain perspective and improve your writing.
  • Therapy is magical. And expensive. 
  • Family over everything, always.
  • Apple cider vinegar is a cure-all for pesky fruit flies.
  • It's okay to grow apart from friends you never thought you'd lose.
  • Unaddressed guilt can drive you down a dangerous path.
  • There isn't always a silver lining. Let yourself feel like shit. Negative emotions often serve as important motivators
  • Context is everything.
  • Never paint a person with a label. Most of us didn't choose the environments or families we grew up in. Remember that.
  • The only thing in life (and journalism) that's constant is change. 
  • Some people can compare themselves to others and it helps motivate them to do better. Others may feel worse about themselves and self-sabotage their own potential. Know where you stand (or fall). Research how to adjust your perspective if you need to.
  • Always keep a passion project on the side.
  • Ask people how things are really going in their lives, whether they're happy or not and what they hope for or dream about. It's daunting, uncomfortable, but I really believe it's necessary for human connection.
  • If someone shows excitement for something you don't understand, don't rain on their parade. 
  • Chill with the Amazon Prime purchases.
  • Don't go to graduate school for the sake of going to graduate school. 
  • Always keep an eye out for a good mentor.
  • Ask for help.
  • Throw a paper towel in with your romaine lettuce/leafy greens to make them last longer.
  • Your self-worth is not determined by how much you've suffered in comparison to anyone else.
  • Dogs are better than people.
  • Show your gratitude often.
  • It's all about who you know. Network, network, network.
  • Be careful which coworkers you choose to trust. 
  • Don't. Ever. Settle.
  • You don't have to wait for another milestone to make an impact. Start now.
  • Give social media a rest every now and then.
  • You might never feel like you truly belong.
  • Gut instincts are telling. Trust them. 
  • Don't just send out resumes and hope things will happen. Get hungry and find other ways in.
  • It's okay to change your mind.
  • Be smart about your money.
  • Keep your commitments. People will notice when you don't. 
  • People will also remember your punctuality.
  • Be an optimist, but be aware of how your optimism may affect the people around you. It can both inspire and isolate.
  • Always be open to constructive criticism. 
  • Don't waste your time on people who don't give you the time of day.
  • No one will ever truly understand you. That's why you have to learn to give yourself the advice you need.
  • Count your blessings often.
  • If you're not feeling challenged, let your boss or teacher know.
  • Use your resources well. They're a privilege.
  • Smile at strangers, even if you look like a goof.
  • If you go grocery shopping on the weekdays, you might be paying less.
"The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers." - Erich Fromm

And I'll leave you with this, a quote your Chancellor read on Commencement Day that really stuck with me. 

Congratulations baby brother. You grew up good.

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Unapologetically yours,  Fiza

Review: 'The Hate U Give' by Angie Thomas

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“Pac said Thug Life stood for The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. T-H-U-G-L-I-F-E. Meaning what society gives us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out. Get it?” - Angie Thomas, "The Hate U Give"

It was, unfortunately, relevance and timeliness that led me to this young adult novel by Angie Thomas, which tells the story of a 16-year-old girl grappling with police violence against black Americans.

I hadn't read a YA novel in years, and I'll admit, adjusting to the literary style was more challenging than I'd expected. But keeping the intended audience in mind (teens), I feel this is a masterpiece of a cultural novel, packed with raw realities, gut-punching one-liners, an overwhelming sense of grief and hopelessness — and glimmers of faith, silver linings you really, really have to want to see.

Like Chris. The perfect white ally. Or Maverick, who realizes his innate desire to protect his community may be putting his own children at risk. Or Maya, who could easily empathize with the experiences of a fellow person of color without living through them. Another silver lining: Young readers of this novel who may have never felt they could relate, will undoubtedly be pulled in through Starr's magnetic first-person perspective. It's impossible not to feel her ache, her strength, her anger and be completely inspired by her ability to continue to smile at the little things. The fight continues, and so must life.

Perhaps the most jarring element of this novel is its blatant reflection of reality. "I can't breathe." The ode to the too many young black men and women whose lives we only recently lost, names we used to shout in the streets, names that have now turned into whisper-chants. Names we can't afford to mute.

Four stars.

Other reviews:
- They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Will we be kinder?

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I love a lot about Twitter, but perhaps its most magical element is that rare breath of unfiltered honesty that seems to reverberate throughout the digital sphere. I’ve read hundreds of stories this week from colleagues, old friends, icons, strangers who have been on the brink of death, reveal the exactly moment that made them pull back. A friend’s unexpected text, a call from Mom, the curious tilt of a dog’s head, the sound of laughter outside the window, the simple kindness of a grocer, the simple kindness of a neighbor, the simple kindness of a coworker, kindness, kindness, kindness...

Many have shared tragic stories of loved ones lost to suicide, how that propelled a deeper understanding of depression/mental health and how inexplicably nonsensical a trapped mind can be. Depression knows no sense, knows no political or economic bounds and if you look at the stats, the rates of suicide inside the upper middle class specifically are on the rise. In addition to examining the misunderstood realm of mental health, survivors and families of lost beloved began to study the societal/economic barriers to pure happiness and confidence we’ve put in place for ourselves. The through-the-roof expectations of our children and of ourselves (vocal or not), socially constructed norms of hyper-masculinity and femininity, a need to have done this and that by this age, institutionally emphasized racial and ethnic prejudice, the pain of the oppressed and the ignorance or guilt of the oppressor. The suffering beyond the borders, the burdens that continue to weigh on us until we lose all strength to go on. And yes, even the 24-hour news cycle that reminds us of all the bad all too often.

Now that we know, now that we’re becoming more aware, will we change? Will we smile at strangers and choose to ask our friends the questions we’ve been too afraid to ask? Will we put mental health research and treatment accessibility at the forefront? Will we reach across the invisible lines and man-made borders dividing us? Will we prioritize empathy and understanding over material accomplishment? Will we be kinder? For the sake of each other, I really fucking hope so.

Threads to read:

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Recommended Reading: May 2018

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My May reads were filled with investigative journalism, unique perspective pieces from some of my favorite culture writers, coverage on global issues affecting our nation today and a variety of local news.

See: Last month's list

Do you have any favorite reads this month? Let me know in the comments.

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Review: 'They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us' by Hanif Abdurraqib

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I picked up this book on recommendation from a friend whose craft I've admired for years, and for years before that, whose perception I'd respected from a digital distance.

It spans nearly 300 pages of essays from poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib. The Village Voice's Greil Marcus says, "Not a day has sounded the same since I read him." And I must echo his sentiments, for Abdurraqib's perspective, at times both nuanced and familiar, adds electricity to ink. Power to prose. The sting lingers long after his final word.

I think of Carly Rae Jepson and want to fall in love, yet I can't name you any of her songs. I spin my only Nina Simone record and ache for American blackness. I pridefully smirk at the sound of Fleetwood Mac and the currency of heartbreak. I play "Hurt Me Soul" by Lupe Fiasco and breathe a burden of religion without feeling rightfully religious. I revel in the dominance of Serena Williams, "the woman who buried a sister with the same hands she uses to bury opponents." I commiserate with Pete Wentz and Patrick Stump and scream #FallOutBoyForever as I battle my own war with depression, examining myself from the inside, from the outside and from the inside again. I know what it means when "a place to belong" only fits on a sliding scale and how ingenuine public mourning can feel. I see that some are taught to run toward guns for survival, yet you and I have been taught to run from them. I think of the Paris attacks and feel a dagger through my chest, and trace over that permanent stamp on my forehead. My activism, too, is at its best when it takes time to laugh over FaceTime with a beloved friend the morning after a massacre, "because it allows me, even briefly, to imagine a world where that happiness can still freely and comfortably exist."

Some of the pages where Abdurraqib's "Fear in Two Winters" and "On Paris" are printed are now slightly crisped with teardrops. I had been waiting some hundred pages for the mention of Islam.

"There are few things like being feared simply due to having a body. There is no way to easily come to terms with this."

Excerpts from "Fear in Two Winters," "On Paris" and "They Will Speak Loudest of You After You've Gone":

"The distance between curiosity and fear is tragically short. They are, like sleep and death, within the same family, a quick nudge pushing one directly into the other. Because it has been so long, what people maybe don't remember about Muslims before September 11 is that there was always curiosity that felt like it could take a sharp turn into fear at any time."

"By the time I got to college, I had largely stopped practicing Islam...I was making the curious parts of myself invisible in the hopes that curiosity never turned to fear. When I look back now, I find it amazing that I didn't imagine the path that the September 11 attacks would set us down, and how that path would open up the door to global violences against Muslims. The greatest emotional impact on Americans toward American Muslims is that it took curiosity out of the timeline. There was now only fear, turning rapidly to anger."

"The U.S. ignored the Geneva Convention, raping, sodomizing, and torturing prisoners of war at their black site bases around the world. The military bombed wedding parties consisting mostly of women and children in Iraq at Mukaradeeb, and in Afghanistan at Wech Baghtu and Deh Bala. Here, we are saying that we will tear your country apart, we will give birth to the terror within, and then we will leave you to drown in it."

"I glimpsed, for a small moment, what it might be like to consider someone I didn't know as less valuable living. And the impossible weight of it all."

Four stars.

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Homeland

I watch as the people of Egypt spill into Cairo’s Tahrir Square — Muslims, Christians and immigrants alike — devouring the streets in the name of Revolution, shouting البلد الام, “Homeland!” Calling for the fall of Mubarak, bleeding for a democratic society and in the process, falling in unanticipated love with their fellow revolutionaries, groups that have been separated by ideology for far too long. Young men in tightly-woven fabrics and women with and without hijabs throw their arms in the air, signaling for peace with their middle and index fingers. On the verge of Revolution.

I realize in this moment how foreign the concept of a homeland is to me. And I wonder if I owe my home country much more.

Unapologetically yours,

Fiza

50 books I'm reading in 2018: A growing list

I kicked off 2018 with a commitment to read 100 books as part of my Goodreads 2018 Reading Challenge. But with a new writing challenge and dedicated podcasts, I’ve realized I’ll need to tone it down a bit. So: 50 books! Here's the beginning of my list, which I'll be updating every now and then. 

Books I've completed are in bolded links. You can see I'm a bit behind...

50 books I'm reading in 2018

  1. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  2. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  3. Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff
  4. Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
  5. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng 
  6. Nejma by Nayyirah Waheed
  7. The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts,  Hank Klibanoff
  8. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  9. A Higher Loyalty by James Comey
  10. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  11. Currently reading: They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
  12. Currently reading: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  13. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  14. Beartown by Fredrik Backman
  15. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  16. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  17. The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish
  18. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
  19. The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
  20. Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick  
  21. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
  22. Sea Prayer by Khalid Hosseini
  23. Sold by Patricia McCormick
  24. Wallbanger by Alice Clayton
  25. through 100: TBA

Let me know if you have any suggestions! And feel free to add me on Goodreads.

Recommended Reading: April 2018

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Wanted to share some of the stories I came across this month. A collection of poignant cultural storytelling, compelling investigate journalism, an informative, interactive news game (!) and more. 

Do you have any favorite reads this month? Let me know in the comments.

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza