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. I didn't know I was a realist until your optimism sent a shock through my system.

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.

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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 Kusama-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 has 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

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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 well off as pediatricians. Then we lived in Saudi, where mom and dad continued to financially strive, though freedom was quite the gamble. 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 being 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 pretended to have. 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.

The goodbyes were painful. The uncertainty unnerving. And not having you there? Just the worst.

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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 suburban 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 to find my niche. 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 fully 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 media law 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 get 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. On that note...

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 knew how much our family had been through and survived. And how much we loudly loved each other.

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.

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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, I can't even blame him for loving you so hard. Everything he treasures about you, I treasure about you. 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 college four years ago, I felt alone for the first time in a long time. It didn’t help that we parted on bitter terms, a culmination of that resentment and my unspoken frustrations. 

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 insignificant I often felt around you. I wanted you — no, needed you — to myself. But we were just on two different wavelengths. 

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. I wonder if you noticed. I hope not.

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There are very few people out there who still make me feel at home. Sitting in the car alongside you on one of your 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. The uncertainty. Many a time I’ve lost the will and want to live. But one thought about my baby brother’s crooked smile and magic dimple and I’m saved. 

I think back on my fondest memories and there you are. CLASP birthday parties, our strange Father's Day song and dance number, the garage-turned-playroom we'd spend hours in. Playing with birds Kelly and Katie in our Long Island basement, snacking on Parle-G biscuits and mango juice while watching reruns of Blue's Clues. The mixtapes and letters. Linkin Park. I think about the time we "ran away" from home in the middle of a gorgeous snowfall and ended up at a park down the street, where our worried parents eventually met us for a classic snowball fight. I remember running through the fountains of Stepping Stone Park, meeting Lupe Fiasco and baking NBA-themed cookies for Lakers games on Christmas Day. The night we drove up to Monterrey and a pigeon shit on my head.

I think about the times you've held my hand, wiped my tears or turned my bad days around. You sat with me as I cried after many a brutal heartbreak. And when mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. When I was afraid of being a disappointment, you made me feel respected. When I missed mom and dad during our year apart in Houston, you shared my pain. You defended my dreams before I could even envision them. You cheered for me when I felt there was nothing to cheer for. You made me realize I had an ally all along; My vision was just a little blurred.

You're going to move mountains, touch lives in ways you could never begin to imagine. You already have.

Things I've learned/advice I've heeded over the years:

  • 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.
  • Travel smart and travel often.
  • 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.
  • Fight for your country, yes, but more importantly, for our brothers and sisters all over the globe.
  • 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.
  • Take a public speaking class if you need to.
  • Take swimming classes if you need a refresher.
  • 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. That's OK.
  • 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.
  • When people tell you that you've hurt them, listen.
  • 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. Life's too short not be learning every step of the way.
  • Use your resources well. They're a privilege.
  • Smile at strangers, even if you look like a goof.
  • Go outside often.
  • 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."

Five 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

I failed at this. And I'm glad I did. Here's what I have to say about my #100daychallenge.

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When I first came up with this #100daychallenge, I hadn't been writing outside of the office for over two years, and I desperately needed to rekindle my reliance on self-expression through word.

I only completed 60 out of 100 days, and the longest daily streak I had was 15 or so days. This was not easy. And I've got a list of excuses/reasons for failing.

The biggest hurdle? It wasn't always something I was looking forward to doing. The challenge felt forced at times, and I became frustrated with having to write on these pre-selected prompts (I made my own rules!) instead of writing about what was going through my head or my life that day.

The other major obstacle was more of a doctor's recommendation. I type all day at work and if I'm not typing on my computer, I'm on my phone. There was a point where I had to go home early because menial tasks got to be so painful. I soon found out that I had early symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. I needed to make some changes. Now. 

About 10 days ago, I began wearing a cast overnight and now take several breaks throughout the day to give my hands (my right hand, specifically) a rest. 

But the real changes that I didn't expect would bring me so much physical and mental peace? I turned off all news alerts, deleted Facebook and Instagram from my phone and decided to give typing post-work a total rest. A lot more thought went into my deleting the apps and turning off alerts, but more on that later. 

If you know me at all, you know I've got too much pride to easily embrace my own failures, lol. But I know what I needed to do. I may return to this in the future, but still need to keep typing to a minimum after hours until I get the all-clear. In the meantime, however, I wanted to address this and remember what I did learn/get from this challenge.

The best part about this series is that it really did force me to commit to something creative, even if I didn't last all 100 consecutive days. Some of the prompts helped me dig into feelings I'd always kept locked in a box and others allowed me to share my family's story, which has always been incredibly healing for me. 

Failing at the challenge also had its benefits (aside from the mental escape from technology). I started really reading more. Hours and hours and hours every evening. I finished Hamilton: The Revolution in less than three days and am already halfway through Comey's new book. I haven't read this much in such little time since I had to cram in college.

Another benefit: With all the time and energy I seemed to have offline, I doubled down on my workouts and spent more time outdoors during the week. Then again, I started suffering some pretty severe allergies. So...a blessing and a curse.

Alright, my hand's starting to hurt now. Until next time.

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Day 60: Podcasts I'm listening to (this week) #100daychallenge

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What I'm listening to on any given week typically comes down to how much time and mental energy I have to give. But I need my podcast fix on the daily.

There are hundreds of shows I'm subscribed to, so I had to change to this prompt and limit my list to what I'm listening to this week in particular.

The Daily - The New York Times

There's a reason this podcast is as popular as it is. Averaging 20-25 minutes an episode, this daily brings the top news story to you through unique, relevant perspectives and ends with a breakdown summary of the other big stories of the day. 

Buried Truths - WABE

Aside from the fact that my former journalism professor (and Pulitzer-winning author/journalist) Hank Klibanoff is behind this production, these buried truths of civil rights injustices past are compelling, maddening and so worth the listen.

Caliphate - The New York Times

After reading journalist Rukmini Callimachi's INCREDIBLE coverage of the inner workings of ISIS's bureaucracy and the fall of Mosul, I cried when I heard she was coming out with an audio series. For now, the first episode is only available for subscribers (please subscribe to the news outlets you read). You can catch it on iTunes next week (I think).

This American Life - WBEZ

I'm crying, I'm laughing and I'm crying again. Listening to TAL is a weekly ritual for me. Ira Glass is my hero and some of these stories have honestly changed my life (and given me so many new perspectives).

Hidden Brain - NPR

TEACH ME EVERYTHING, Shankar Vedantam! Oh man. I just love the intersection of storytelling and science/psychology. And this podcast hits on all the things you've wondered about and so many more you never would've given the time of day. As someone who's always been hyper aware of body language and speech, I love learning the science behind what drives human behavior to do and say the things we do.

But like I said, there are so many more podcasts on my phone and this is by no means a full list. This is actually kind of a slow week. Others I often listen to: Pod Save America, accessAtlanta, Still Processing and See Something Say Something.

What are some of your favorites?

The #100daychallenge writing series is my way of holding my right brain accountable for all the brain fog in hopes that I'll learn to creatively organize my thoughts and learn something(s) new about myself in the process. The challenge includes prompts from the San Francisco Writers' Grotto's642 Things to Write About. You can also follow my #100daychallenge here.

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Day 59: How you're just like your mother #100daychallenge

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I've probably said this a hundred times already, but for much of my life, I've identified as my dad's "carbon copy." But I think I'm finally starting to notice some of my mom's qualities, most of which have always been aspirational and preferred (sorry dad).

My mom, unlike me, isn't the most stubborn gal on the planet. And she's never been the people-pleaser I once was. In fact, she's got this great zero-fucks-given attitude (excuse my French) that I've learned to adapt to situations that really aren't worth my mental energy. 

She's also got this great head for business management and knows when to get serious and when to show compassion. My dad jokes about how their employees know that if they want to have fun, they'll work with him. But truth is, she runs the ship and isn't afraid to call out people for being irresponsible or inappropriate. And that's something I'm really getting the hang of, though I've definitely got some work to do.

And I love my mom's ability to find contentment in the simple life. I want to show her the world and the magic of exploring the unknown, but I've learned that as you long for adventure, you've got to enjoy the little things. And now I really do.

I'm also like my mother in the way that I've never really identified with the status quo. Growing up, my mom was a total tomboy, often the only chick playing ball in the streets of Karachi. She grew up to become a physician and didn't care at all about marriage for years despite the constant pressure from the community. And she never felt the need to be some social butterfly, either. She did what she wanted to do when she wanted to do it. I think the constraints of eventual marriage and family got in the way for a long time, but she's relearning to prioritize herself and it's beautiful to see.

On my end, I struggled to feel comfortable in certain social circles for years before realizing I didn't have to fit in anywhere at all. My mom taught me to be my own person, and find comfort in that.

The #100daychallenge writing series is my way of holding my right brain accountable for all the brain fog in hopes that I'll learn to creatively organize my thoughts and learn something(s) new about myself in the process. The challenge includes prompts from the San Francisco Writers' Grotto's642 Things to Write About. You can also follow my #100daychallenge here.

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Day 58: Your favorite beach #100daychallenge

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Kaanapali Beach, Maui, Hawaii

During our time on Maui two years ago, we stayed at the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa in Lahaina, right on Kaanapali Beach. It's hands down the most magical place I've ever been. We'd wake up to this epic sunrise and watch the otherworldly clouds surround the majestic Haleakala crater in the distance. During the day, we'd laze on the soft sands with a mai-tai in hand or snorkel near the Black Rock until the skies turned purple and pink at sunset. What a dream. I can't wait to go back.

The #100daychallenge writing series is my way of holding my right brain accountable for all the brain fog in hopes that I'll learn to creatively organize my thoughts and learn something(s) new about myself in the process. The challenge includes prompts from the San Francisco Writers' Grotto's642 Things to Write About. You can also follow my #100daychallenge here.

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Day 57: The last chapter of the relationship #100daychallenge

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There have only been one or two endings in my life that have totally blindsided me. But for the most part, I can feel them coming. 

Assuming infidelity and abuse are out of the picture, the red flags typically begin with body language, something I've always paid excruciating attention to since I was a little girl. 

It starts with wandering eyes, shorter kisses, one-armed hugs. Little to no eye contact during intimacy. Less intimacy. A broadening lack of empathy when someone's venting. 

When you're out at a restaurant, you're more focused on the food or the people around you than each other's company. You start to feel the need to have some kind of activity planned to spend time together.

Silences stop feeling as comfortable as they once felt and you no longer feel it's appropriate to ask for favors. Pushing buttons even in a fun, flirty teasing manner seems to add to the tension.

The laughter kind of stops, too. You begin to overthink before you speak and second-guess each word, leading to inauthentic exchanges.

Self-esteems drop.

And then there's the realization that the elephant in the room has been around for too long. And neither of you have felt confident enough, or maybe even cared enough, to address it. To me, this is the most painful part.

Maybe someone finds the courage to finally speak up and risk a little pride and pain to save a once-good thing. Maybe someone actually manages to reignite a dying flame. Maybe not.

But the truth is, final chapters often end without a proper ending and without a fight. And that's a shame.

The #100daychallenge writing series is my way of holding my right brain accountable for all the brain fog in hopes that I'll learn to creatively organize my thoughts and learn something(s) new about myself in the process. The challenge includes prompts from the San Francisco Writers' Grotto's642 Things to Write About. You can also follow my #100daychallenge here.

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Day 56: A moment when you realized you were braver than you thought you could be #100daychallenge

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There were a few stories I was pitching, a series related to Muslims in America pegged around last Ramadan to give it a newsworthy edge. My boss pulled me aside and said the senior editor of my newsroom wanted to be convinced about some of my story ideas. So I was asked to put together some "points" and meet with him the next day. I'd never even spoken to him before.

I got home and was pretty anxious about the whole thing. I felt this need to defend myself and my religion, even though my editor made it pretty clear that he wasn't outright rejecting anything. He just wanted to better understand.

I felt like I needed some quantitative research to back some of my ideas. I needed to hear from more Muslims, people who might identify more with the religion than I ever did. Muslims of different backgrounds and sects and ideologies and spectrums. So I created an online survey and sent it around.

The survey contained a list of news headlines covering Muslims in a non-negative light. I wanted to understand which topics and words made them feel good and which rubbed them the wrong way. I sent it to my friends, acquaintances and posted it in some private Facebook groups, including American Muslims, CAIR and others. Everyone had 24 hours to complete it.

By the time I got to my meeting, I think I had nearly 300 (or 500?) responses. Some of the answers surprised me, but my pitches were on the right track.

I walked into the meeting with my heart beating out of my chest. When it was my turn to speak, I confidently explained that if we're going to cover Islam/Muslims at all, it can't just be when something terrible happens. That's not balanced coverage. I had participated in a Muslims & Media panel session moderated by AJC's EIC one week earlier and pulled some of the feedback from our community's Muslims into my argument. I talked about how Muslims are put into similar minority boxes as Latinx or African-Americans, and the volume of coverage other marginalized communities receive compared to Muslims.

I then brought out my survey results to show the senior editor what kinds of things work and don't and added that maybe I need to tweak some of my proposed language. 

By the time I finished, I was a little out of breath. And he said something along the lines of, "Well, OK then."

I remember feeling so...surprised by how I handled my nerves, by how much I really cared about the subject and how much I still do. It was a good day for me.

The #100daychallenge writing series is my way of holding my right brain accountable for all the brain fog in hopes that I'll learn to creatively organize my thoughts and learn something(s) new about myself in the process. The challenge includes prompts from the San Francisco Writers' Grotto's642 Things to Write About. You can also follow my #100daychallenge here.

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Day 55: How do you get yourself back to sleep in the middle of the night? #100daychallenge

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Photo: you me

We've all been there. You get to bed at a comfortable hour and something wakes you up in the middle of the night — a bad dream, your neighbor's dog, a police siren...mother nature. And now you can't get yourself to fall back to sleep. And the constant reminder that you have to be up in just a few hours isn't exactly helping.

Here's what's helped me in the past:

  • Progressive muscle relaxation: This is essentially a way to relax your body by isolating different muscle groups when you're feeling especially restless. From Everyday Health: "During progressive muscle relaxation, you will focus on each muscle group in your body, first tensing selected muscles for a few seconds and then slowly relaxing them over the course of 20 to 30 seconds." Learn more here.
  • Put on a podcast. I don't know why this always works for me, but it does. Maybe don't choose something under true crime, though.
  • Take a warm shower or bath. Yes, you'll waste some time being up, but a warm shower or bath always helps me get all sleepy.
  • Don't keep track of the time. This is only going to leave you anxious. Ignore your clock (but make sure you have your alarms set!)
  • Check out this wikiHow guide I have bookmarked on my iPhoneHow to Relax and Go to Sleep. It's really so helpful and has tons of smart ideas to ensure you get a good night's rest.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, chronic insomnia affects up to 20 percent of adults, many of whom don’t seek treatment for it. If you're consistently having trouble sleeping at night, consider reaching out to a sleep specialist.

I recently listened to Hidden Brain's eye-opening 2017 episode on why sleep is so damn important and what lack of it can do to the body and mind. Shankar Vedantam (the host) talks to Randy Gardner, a San Diego man who went 11 days without sleeping, breaking a world record. Below are Part I and Part II of the Eyes Wide Open episodes:

ALSO READ: Day 47: A beginner's guide to getting up in the morning #100daychallenge

The #100daychallenge writing series is my way of holding my right brain accountable for all the brain fog in hopes that I'll learn to creatively organize my thoughts and learn something(s) new about myself in the process. The challenge includes prompts from the San Francisco Writers' Grotto's642 Things to Write About. You can also follow my #100daychallenge here.

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza