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