Thursday, December 18, 2014

Conveying your "voice" in writing.

Beginning when we learn to write our names, the way we write is dictated by a set of rules conjured up by "The Man."
  • Do not use contractions.
  • Do not write in the second person.
  • If you begin a paragraph with a number, you must write out the number.
  • The period goes inside the quotation marks (in America).
  • The full stop goes outside the quotation marks (in the United Kingdom).
  • Put a comma before a quotation mark if you're quoting someone, but not if you're using quotes to signify a theory, conjecture, or the name of a magazine, newspaper, or academic paper.
  • Never curse.
  • Do not use the following words: that, actually, get, got, great deal, big, small, really, very, or any sort of abbreviation.
  • Everyday is an adjective. Every day is an adjective (every) describing a noun (day) See also: Maybe/May be, awhile/a while.
Ok, I'll cut myself off.  You get the point. (I just broke rule #2.)

My issue with these never-ending rules is they erode our personalities in writing.  Young children enter school as rough diamonds and exit college thoroughly polished to the point they all look the same. Then, we stick them under a microscope to look for flaws.  That's why "grammar Nazis" exist and we have an ingrained fear of misspelling anything on a cover letter, resume, or, god forbid, Facebook. Life should not be a non-stop English exam.

I recently received an email from a friend of a friend who is looking to come work in Sihanoukville.  He's a lovely chap (as Lee would say), and he sent the most professional email I've seen in six years.  I replied, "Whoa. Calm down, Dwight Schrute. This isn't that kind of place."

Over the last few years, I've noticed job descriptions want candidates to have "strong" and "unique" voices in their writing. Some ask for a sense of humor, and others simply want applicants to "tell us about yourself."  

Tangent: interviewers who say, "So, tell me about yourself," is a very bad, inexperienced interviewer. Just walk out immediately.

How do we do this without 1) sounding like a machine or 2) sounding like a maniac?

The answer is language and anecdotes.


This is where reading books helps.  Granted, I found myself speaking like a Game of Thrones  character after powering through all five books in a month, so have self-awareness and reign-in the flowery language according to your audience.

I can't quote the article or time period, but at one point in my adult life I read a study saying women talk more than men because they have more expansive vocabularies. It's analogous to talented rappers. If they know more words, they're cleverer in their writing. It's easier to convey exactly what you're thinking if you know the right word to use. 

Here's a basic example:

He was really mean in that article.

That sentence isn't descriptive and you may be asked to elaborate.

His tone was caustic which alienated the readers.
 See? He wasn't necessarily "mean" like he pulled your hair and pushed you in the dirt.  Improving your vocabulary helps with specificity and shines a light on the opinion you want conveyed.

(Note: I had to Google the word "caustic" when my dad used it to describe my tone in an email. I didn't read it in a book.)

Additional tip: don't refer to yourself.  Just state something as fact so you don't create a passive statement with phrases like "In my opinion" or "I feel like."  Quite frankly, there's no reason why anyone should care about my or your opinion, and beginning a sentence with a personal sentiment detracts from the real point. Writing in the third person shouldn't take away your voice.  If anything, it will make it more authoritative.

I was sad to see her go.


It's difficult to cope when a friend moves away.


Storytelling is the most effective way to engage someone in both writing and conversation.  The only rules here are it must be 1) pertinent to the subject, 2) have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and 3) if you need to end it with, "and then I found $5" to make it more interesting, then just keep it to yourself.

This is a bad anecdote:

I worked in a museum for five years.

This is a good anecdote:

I was the "dinosaur lady" at the museum for five years. Children would recognize me on the street and ask for a selfie.

Not only does it tell people how long you worked at the museum, it insinuates you were good at your job because children remembered you and thought of you as a celebrity. 

I created a filing system.

Blah blah blah

I introduced Microsoft Access to the office, which my supervisor implemented company-wide.

If you must talk about something boring, at least turn it into an accomplishment.

I went to Thailand.

Bangkok is the most visited city in the world.  This is a non-story.
We went to Soi Cowboy in Bangkok and saw a ping pong show.  I thought it was a ping pong tournament, but it was definitely not.
Now this story is going somewhere. I can't write the rest of it, because it belongs to Lee and is horrendously inappropriate and shouldn't exist anywhere on the internet.
Look, I haven't made it my life's mission to fix the entire internet's writing.  I'm not Ira Glass, who delivers his words like he's been planning to say them since he spawned onto our planet. However, I'm a decent writer who has received at least one compliment from a non-relative who had no reason to flatter me.

Finally, I have the urge to tell you why this post even materialized.  I'm a big Pinterest user (or "pinner" to use the appropriate lingo).  There is a surprising number of fan fiction blurbs about celebrities like One Direction, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, and other men who can make a young lady's (or man's) heart palpatate with a low-res black and white photo.  Obviously, I googled more fan fiction. Some have chapters -- CHAPTERS! I had never read fan fiction until two weeks ago, and it opened up a new world, I soon realized, I don't like.

Here's why:
It's impossible to thoughtfully write about a real human being you don't actually know. If that human being is a celebrity, then you're writing about your personal perception of a person which could be different than someone else's, and open yourself to a lot of criticism.  It's one thing to declare your love at the top of your lungs from a mountain top, but the mountain doesn't yell back with the ferocity of teen Twitter.

You have a story.  You have pieced together, arguably, a work of literature that is sentimental and creative. It's easy to turn yourself into the protagonist and find the right language to convey your perspective because you're writing about the one subject in the world you know everything about. Keep that story, but replace the celebrity with your own character who you know inside and out.  The greatest part of making something up is you can eschew trite, non-descriptive language that keeps you safe from being wrong because you, simply, cannot be wrong. 
Instead of describing how Harry Styles was "clearly emotional when he walked his daughter down the aisle," maybe create Jonathan who...
...watched Stella affix her grandmother's veil to her hair, which she wore unstyled with her brown curls falling over her shoulders like a blanket -- a trait she inherited from Jonathan. She had spent her teenage years battling her hair with chemicals and a straightening iron, so for just a split-second, his heart jumped, pushing out all of the regrets and fears he had collected for the last twenty-eight years.  His eyes welled-up as she turned from the mirror to face him, smiled her mother's smile, and shrugged as she took her bouquet from the vase and looped her arm under his. She asked, "Ready?"
YEAH. I can turn on the cheese.  Maybe I should write fan fiction.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Layman's Carbon Cycle Infographic

With the crazy midterm elections over, and the sudden influx of  "not a scientist" party members deciding our laws, I've created my very first infographic.  I don't own Illustrator, but I DO own Photoshop and have an extensive background in Microsoft Paint from 20 years ago.

I learned this version of the Carbon Cycle from a CU class called "Extraterrestrial Life."  We studied how life here can exist to understand the conditions other planets would need to host alien life.  It was an introductory science class, which usually means we spend a few days covering stuff we learned in grade school.  There are people with Ph.Ds on this subject, so let me apologize to you guys for the simplicity, as well as to graphic designers for my aesthetics.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Fashion Blog, Delicious Burritos, and People who are Offended by Offended People.

First, let me apologize for the title of this post.  It's not eloquent, but I can't think of any other title.

Since my post on the word "exotic," there have been two stories that popped up on my newsfeed.  One is actual news from my home state, Colorado, and the other is an apology from one of my favorite fashion bloggers, Keiko Lynn.

Let's start with the latter.

Earlier this week, Keiko posted a Day of the Dead makeup tutorial, then promptly deleted it and posted this public apology:
I just wanted to sincerely apologize for my latest post, with the Día de los Muertos makeup. I hope you all know that I had no intention of offending, and deeply respect the tradition. It was meant to be an artistic expression of something I have long admired, and no harm was intended, but I removed all the images because I sincerely do not want to offend anyone and am deeply sorry that I did.
I went looking for a photo from her tutorial deep in Pinterest's cache of information, then Google images, then the comment section of her apology in hopes someone had saved them, but to no avail. It's gone, but plenty of other examples show up.

I'm not the purveyor of absolute truth about whether or not something should or shouldn't be offensive to a group of people. My usual way of handling a potentially politically incorrect subject is to not partake in the offense, just like Keiko did with deleting the pictures. Sometimes, people confuse being "politically correct" with just being nice. It takes very little effort to be nice, and our world won't explode if we give-in to the simple request of taking down a blog post to avoid further confrontation.

Besides, when your livelihood relies on people following your quirky fashion sense, it's only logical to not use it as a platform to lecture cultural appropriation and why or why not it's okay for a white girl to wear Dia de los Muertos make-up. She's not going to lose any followers because she chose to NOT offend someone.  What would that even look like? "YOU TUK DWN UR POST SOME1 COMPLANNED ABOUT SO I WONT LOOK @ ANY OF UR POSTS NOW >:-O"  Good riddance.  Read a book.

Conversely, Illegal Pete's is causing some controversy in Fort Collins, Colorado and the implications are much, much bigger. For those of you not  familiar with Illegal Pete's, it's a burrito chain I frequented while I went to school in Boulder because they wrap a hangover cure into a tortilla.

They have several locations throughout Colorado, and it seems like the owner is a pretty cool guy named Pete. I don't know him at all, but we're connected in two degrees within our Denver social circles. (the equivalent of saying a girl I knew in college is dating the drummer for The Epilogues.)

The controversy is people are threatening to protest their store opening in Fort Collins, which has a large Latino population. They're offended by the word "illegal" because it can be used as racial slur, similar to (forgive me, I feel disgusting even writing this) "wetback" [shudder]. 

The local response to this has been massive.  This Coloradoan article (it should be Coloradan, but I'm not one to split hairs (except in that previous sentence and this follow-up sentence)) covers a community meeting where about thirty Fort Collins residents ambushed Pete in the name of discourse with their life experiences and why he should change the name of his restaurant. Here's an excerpt:
Others likened the name to a racial slur directed at African-Americans, hanging a Confederate flag in the restaurant's window or calling a restaurant "Smoking Lynching BBQ."
I posted this story on Facebook and got this great response from a friend who is a dependable source of reason on hot-button issues:
They seem to be going a long way to find a little offense. Frankly, the most offensive part of this for me is their repeated attempts to conflate their struggle with what African Americans experienced in the south. There's a big difference there, and besides, "illegal" has many different meanings and connotations while most other racial slurs do not, saying that this particular instance of it is offensive seems very open to interpretation.
To which I responded:
I don't want to say these people have no grounds for being offended, but I DO want to say it's very clear that for someone to have a life experience which has made the word "illegal" hurtful toward them only solidifies Boulder rules and Fort Collins drools.
Rival college towns aside (Fort Collins is home to Colorado State University), CU Boulder is the second whitest university after BYU in Utah, so of course no one will be offended by it.  The Boulder Illegal Pete's customer base is mostly white college students who have never been on the receiving end of hate speech. This may or may not be the logic behind the following statement from the Coloradoan article:
...the audience discussion ranged from emotional past experiences with racial slurs to accusatory remarks toward Turner: "In a room full of people of color, this is probably a little uncomfortable for you," one woman said.
Whoa, whoa, whoa.  That's a bit blunt, lady. But you're probably not completely wrong or out of line.

The response from Illegal Pete's supporters has been outrage.  People from all backgrounds are calling those offended "overly-sensitive" and telling them they have no reason to be offended.  However, calling someone "overly-sensitive," emotional," or "dramatic" negates completely rational feelings because that person doesn't agree with you.  Every single female on Earth has probably been told they're being "too emotional" countless times in their life.  Those words question an individual's mental state, making his or her argument invalid.

Some are saying, "I'm Mexican, and this isn't offensive at all."  To you, dude, I say I hope you never have a reason to be offended by that term. White people, in droves, are then saying, "I'm not offended by Cracker Barrel."  Of course you're not. Not only are you not from the South, Colorado person, you are part of the country's ruling majority and have never been beaten up because of your skin color while the assailants shouted "CRACKER" at you over and over again.  Most of the time, the name "cracker" is used comically.

Do I think Illegal Pete's should change its name just like I agreed with Keiko Lynn she should take down her blog post? Nah. Will I demonize protestors if they succeed and Illegal Pete's is called "Pete's Burritos" or something as equally inoffensive? No way.

The analogy many pro-name change advocates are using is the movement to change Washington's insanely offensive football team name.  It's a flat-out, non-debatable racial slur. It should absolutely be changed. The reason why I don't think Illegal Pete's should change their name is because it will give a new connotation to the word "illegal," which is pretty common in the English vernacular (though, less common in Colorado since legalizing weed).   Eliminating it from a popular burrito chain will only give the word more power for racists who use the word to describe people of Latin decent and make it a taboo word. Those are the people who need a re-education -- the citizens of Ft. Collins who are tormenting immigrants -- not Pete with his delicious burritos.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I'm Not "Exotic"


  1. of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad, but not fully naturalized or acclimatized.
  2. strikingly unusual or strange in effect or appearance:
    (an exotic hairstyle."
Ever since puberty, the most frequent "compliment" I hear is, "You're so exotic."  Everyone who says that to me is well-meaning, so I never fly into a long-winded lecture in places like the train or bar, but I'm really annoyed by that word.

I  was born in Denver, raised in Littleton, and only spoke English.  I'm no more exotic than Keri Russell, and I've never had my own TV show.

People, of course, aren't referring to my acculturation (I have none. I grew up in Littleton for Christ's sake), they're just finding another way to tell me I'm brown.  I'll never understand the need to get a person's entire back-story because you can't pinpoint their ethnicity.  "Ethnicity" is one of those racially charged words that only applies to non-white people.  Who sees a Blake Lively and wonders what's her ethnicity? If a piece of jewelry or clothing is "ethnic," then it has traditional beading or patterns from a country that does not have a white majority.

The word "exotic" is an adjective white people use to describe others who don't fall into their standard definition of beauty.  Men who say their "type" is "exotic women" are just saying they they think Halle Berry, Zoe Saldana, and Lucy Liu are beautiful.  That just means they think beautiful women are beautiful.  All three of those women are American, but all three appear on lists of "exotic actresses" the geniuses of the internet keep compiling. Conversely, men will say they like "All-American" girls when they're referring to white women, because only racists say their "type" is white women.

I've been called overly sensitive for feeling this way about a word most people consider a compliment, but it's very, very rare that I have any sort of interaction that doesn't somehow end up on the topic of where my parents come from. Polite people will flat out say, "If you don't mind me asking, what's your ethnicity?" If I play along, the conversation always -- ALWAYS -- manages to progress to where my name comes from, how my parents met, if they're still together, if I have siblings, what languages I speak, why my mom didn't teach us Khmer, and any other question about my upbringing that isn't, at-all, appropriate for the first five minutes of a conversation. My [least] favorite is "I could sense a mix in you," like that person has a sixth sense to sniff out multi-racial individuals.

Is it my duty to educate people on American diversity? Am I supposed to sate someone else's curiosity because they can't work out why I speak like a character out of Clueless, but look Filipino, Hawaiian, Latina, or South American (which is very broad, but still grouped together by the word "exotic") What are my obligations in the name of politeness beyond saying please, thank you, and excuse me? And why do I always have to be Princess Jasmine and Scary Spice in group Halloween costumes?!

Those are not rhetorical questions, I'd really like to know the answers.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The "Disney World Mindset"

If you've ever worked in a monotonous job, then you know what it feels like to become jaded at work.  This feeling ranges from data entry to listening to the same playlist every night to working with short-term volunteers.

While I'm hard-pressed to use the proceeding explanation for office jobs, I've found some merit in a way of thinking I call the "Disney World Mindset." The origins of this idea came from Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, a really short book that, until plans for its theatrical release were announced, only saw the spotlight when its On Love chapter would be read at weddings.

Gibran spent twenty years writing the book to make sure it was perfect.  It manages to use flowery language, without being long-winded.  That's one reason it's ideal for reading out loud.

One of my favorite chapters (if I were forced to choose) is On Work.  My favorite quote from that chapter goes something like:
Bread baked without love leaves a man half full.
I interpret that to mean no matter what you're doing, put everything you have into it.  This was part of my pep talk to volunteers at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  We worked four straight months giving the exact same presentation several times a day, but never to the same group of people.  For all the students knew, it was the first time we had ever done it.  With that kind of expectation, how could we show how bored we were with the material?  There's no reason one person, in this case, likely a child, should have a bad experience because I'm having a bad day.

When his bag check line is not too long, he asks kids in costume for their autographs..
“Their face brightens up,” Wieczorek said of that moment when pint-size princesses and pirates realize they’re being mistaken for the real thing. “This is something so unbelievable for them. It gets them by surprise and they feel special." (via

This is how Disney World works. Every morning, it looks brand new, like it's its opening day. Mickey Mouse and the gang put on the same act for every child who passes through.  Perhaps more relatable --  is working in a bar and listening to the same playlist every single night.  Especially in a place like Sihanoukville, it's essential to remember that most tourists have never been here before.  Whether or not you're not in the mood to listen to the same Oasis song for the gazillionth time doesn't matter. A consistent atmosphere is necessary to not only keep your brand, but also your type of customer. 

Applying this to nonprofit, most volunteer coordinators who work in short-term programs have to facilitate the exact same training -- sometimes every week -- to a new batch of volunteers.  It can make anyone feel disenchanted, but each group of volunteers deserves the same level of enthusiasm as the one that came before them.

I'll offer a quick anecdote: two years ago, my co-worker and I were sitting at a restaurant, mulling over our computers.  A fresh-from-the-bus backpacker hopped off a moto and gave a friend of hers a big hug.  It was apparent this was her first stop in South East Asia.  My co-worker said she remembered that same feeling of excitement from five years ago -- getting on a moto for the first time, no helmet, no plans, sun shining, and a massive backpack sitting precariously in front of the driver.

It would be a tragedy if we only felt that excited once.  The Disney World mindset encourages you to see your boring old job from a new set of eyes every single day.

Friday, October 10, 2014

How to be a "rockstar" volunteer.

This will be one of my rare posts in which I offer some semblance of support for the voluntourism industry. For the last nine years, I've either been a volunteer or worked with volunteers in some capacity.  There are many times where volunteers are indispensable (hospitals, museums, hospices, animal shelters), and there are other times when they're completely pointless (gap year students, alternative spring breaks, any sort of short-term placement). 

(Photo from, #animalface from Easy Tiger Apps)
I'm realistic that I, alone, will never put an end to voluntourism with a blog that very few people read, so I'm going to talk a little about how you can be a "rockstar" volunteer when you travel abroad.
  • Think of how your presence will impact an organization.
    • Like any job, you should be able to look at your time there and see a distinction from when you started and after you've left.
    • This does not mean the impact the organization had on you as a person.  Only a robot could work in places that are subject to abject poverty and not leave humbled.  You're not the focus and your "expanded worldview" does little to help the people who use the charity's services.
    • If your answer to "what was my impact?" is something like, "I supported the day-to-day operations," then you're speaking professional jargon for "I paid a lot of money so I could get in the way of the full-time staff."  
    • Instead, wrack your brain and think about any skill you have that can be implemented during your placement.  Examples:
      • A financial analyst who sorted all of the financial data for an annual report.
      • A graphic designer who wrote a Photoshop curriculum and trained a teacher to implement it.
      • An urban farmer who built a community vegetable garden.
      • A plumber who built a drainage system to rid a village of standing water.
    • It should be easy to fill-in this sentence: "Before I was there, they didn't have _____.  After I left, they did.
  • Make a timeline and set milestones
    • Call it an agenda, or an outline. When you apply to be a volunteer (assuming it's competitive), present this to the Director.
    • More often than not, an organization is understaffed and under-resourced, so a volunteer with a set plan comes as a huge relief.
    • Remember you'll eventually have to follow through with this plan and it could depend on taking initiative.  
    • If you're really bold and have a solid vision, set up a fundraiser before you leave to help the organization buy the resources you need to complete the project.
  • Thoroughly research the organization
    • There are so many causes that, for wont of a more eloquent phrase, need "stuff." However, they don't all need the same things.
    • You might find that an organization is set in their ways and doesn't need an independent project, but they could have use for qualified medical staff.
    • Perhaps you find a place that needs money for overheads and their volunteer program is a vehicle for funding.  Simply donate the money and don't waste their precious time on training a new volunteer. (Remember, this is about them, not you and your need for "adventure".)
    • I know it's difficult, but just because you identify with a certain mission doesn't mean you, personally, belong there.  Keep searching until you find a place that can use your unique skills.
  • Don't jump into a volunteer post thinking you'll get direction from the management.
    • It's taken me nine years to figure this out, but I feel confident in this statement.
    • The only time I've ever seen volunteers with proper guidance was at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. They relied on volunteers to function, so it would've reflected poorly on the museum if there were dozens of volunteers wandering around aimlessly.
    • In most cases, you will have no idea what you're doing. If you don't like to work with little to no supervision, then perhaps volunteering isn't for you.
In no way am I saying this shouldn't be a life-changing experience for a volunteer, or that you shouldn't highlight it on your LinkedIn profile.  Believe me, you'll go back home and look at everything -- from shopping malls to traffic lights -- with a new perspective.  Things that once seemed important become quite petty on a grand scale.  I just ask that you don't make that new, personal perspective your ultimate goal.  In your next interview, of course talk about your experience, but step back and look at it from the charity's perspective. Did you make a lasting impact? Will the people you oh-so-briefly knew remember you among the sea of alternative spring breakers?

Despite my cynical facade, I honestly believe the world would be a better place if everyone could feel the same compassion as (almost) every volunteer I've ever met.  I only want to make sure that compassion isn't misplaced, and is channeled into something that lives on, long after the volunteer boards the plane to return home.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Spoonflower's Mythical "Eco" Canvas and the Polyester Problem

A few months ago, I finished Safia Minney's book, Naked Fashion: The New Sustainable Fashion Revolution. Safia is the founder and CEO of People Tree, a fair trade clothing line based in London and Tokyo.

The book was filled with profound insights on ethical fashion.  The whole thing was very short and concise, so each point, itself, could have easily been turned into an entire book.

Their point about polyester stuck with me.

To be truly fair trade, an item must have a low environmental impact through the entire supply chain. Fibers must be organic and harvested by hand, which eliminates carbon emissions from heavy machinery and employs more people.

Polyester is not organic.  It's touted as being "eco-friendly" because it's made from recycled plastic, but the process of breaking down plastic into fiber, then weaving it into fabric is done in a factory. It's the choice material for fast fashion because machines are quicker than people, but cheap clothing doesn't have a long shelf life. If a consumer rips a hole in a $10 blouse, they're not likely to spend another $10 on a tailor, so they throw it out, where it's artificial fibers spend the next thousand years in a landfill.

Organic cotton, on the other hand, is expensive because its production requires the human touch from seeding cotton plants to looming cotton fiber into bolts of material. It also breaks down quicker when it's thrown into a landfill.

So I must ask why -- WHY-- did one of my favorite websites, Spoonflower, unveil a new, 100% polyester product called "Eco-Canvas"? Because, it's made from 45% recycled material.  It's a common marketing ploy that flouts the "Green Movement" of our post-Inconvenient Truth society. I don't think the bosses at Spoonflower are conniving.  I think they're part of the ignorant majority who automatically associate the word "recycle" with "environmentally sound."

The words "eco" and "organic" don't have much clout in the United States. The same goes for Fair Trade. Fair Trade USA sells their seal of approval to corporate marketers because there's no governing body to oversee the supply chain.

If you own a Fair Trade business (or want to own one), you should look for certification from Fair Trade International (FLO), a nonprofit organization based in Bonn, Germany. They set fair trade labeling standards and to earn the FAIRTRADE Mark, you allow an in-person inspection, then monitored by FLO for as long as you keep the Mark.

Likewise, if you're a consumer and can't afford organic cotton, look to charity shops for cheap vintage clothing.  Donating, purchasing, and upcycling polyester keeps it from landfills for another generation, and there's no shortage of disco-era polyester.

Another option is to stop buying so much clothing.  On average, if you spend $50 every two weeks on a new item, you're spending $1200 per year on 24 items.  That's a considerable amount if we take into account most people regularly wear 20% of their wardrobe 80% of the time. That means 16% of your clothing gets regular usage (this is called fashion's 80/20 rule), or four pieces for every 25 you own. "Fast fashion" relies on this rule.  It relies on our need to be trendy and fill our closets with styles that won't be en vogue in six months.

Instead, we can invest in timeless wardrobe staples that will still be in fashion next year. If we budget $1200/year on clothing, instead of buying 2 items a month, spend $300 every three months on one item. 

Spend more, buy less. 

As for Spoonflower, I have a better product name: "Synthetic Upholstery Canvas." 

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...