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Monday, April 21, 2014

Biographies

When I was in high school, my english teacher Jerry once said rather frantically:
"I can't stand biographies, I don't see the point. What you can learn from them? They're a waste of time!"

Recently, I've gone through quite a few biographies. Amy Winehouse, Coco Chanel, Henrietta Lacks, Barbara Walters, Mark Twain. There are many more that I want to read (or rather, listen to - I almost exclusively rent audiobooks now). Each one depicted unique struggles, illustrated the moral landscape at different times and places, and gave me perspective on the biases, laws, customs, fears, powers that influenced the way each of them lived. Wouldn't a better understanding of each other's environment promote compassion and tolerance? Wasn't that valuable enough to be worth publishing?

Additionally, I'm not sure how biographies differ from fiction. Many of the biographies are as sensational, if not more so, than made-up stories. The fact that they actually happened in real life should not take away from the fact that they recount fascinating stories of characters who have overcome great difficulties or achieved tremendous success or both. Real or not real, the story is inspiring, provokes thought, and is entertaining. How are they a waste of time?

This comment stuck with me for many years. I still don't understand it. Did he mean that identifying with the autobiographer and comparing our lives with theirs was futile and useless? Or that writing about oneself was a narcissistic activity in which only the entitled indulged? If I meet him when I go home next month, I will have to ask him.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This biography was fascinating. This woman's cells were the first to be successfully cultured. They were taken without her knowledge while she was undergoing a test at the hospital. After her death, they have contributed to countless scientific advances including the cure for polio. Hela cells would become a staple of all labs and yet, no one knew who Hela was. Meanwhile, her family received no compensation or recognition for her contribution to science, and was not properly informed until much later. Her daughter, tormented by the story her entire life, passed away in her fifties, shortly before the book was released. It's definitely worth reading, if only to honour this lady whose cells accelerated the advancement of medicine without even trying.

Also interesting were the legal intricacies. It was not legal to take tissues from a dead body without the family's consent, but it was legal to do so from a living human being. Lawsuits against the hospital failed because the jury deemed it more important to protect the advancement of science.

You can purchase this book on iBooksAmazonkobo.
If your library is a member of Overdrive, you can rent it for free on the Overdrive app. I rented the audiobook for free. Ask your library!

Jojo Tsai and overexposed teens

Someone posted a link to Jojo Tsai's suicide on facebook. It was all in Mandarin, but it wasn't hard to guess the story. In the post, I see a picture taken from a neighbouring building. A slim body in a red dress seems to be lying face down on the roof of a building next to a tall condominium complex. My heart breaks. I don't know this girl, but I can't help wondering how things could go so wrong so quickly. Her final instagram posts are worse than Amanda Byne's disturbing posts a while back. A bed lit on fire, a night time picture staring down a window. When I click on the photo, I realize it shows her thighs dangling off a ledge, probably a window sill. Could anyone change her mind at this point? Could her ex-bf have stopped her with just a message, if he had known? Could one of her thousands of followers have given her hope at the last minute, or was it game over by the time she was posting?

She was a very pretty girl with perfect skin, silky hair, dramatic, with several pictures of her adored ex-boyfriend and some half-naked selfies. Over 30 000 followers (now >50k), she was clearly popular. I wonder if her over-exposure aggravated her sense of loneliness since her boyfriend let her down? I remember being heartbroken before, and most of my friends could not find the right words to make me feel better. Every word made me feel more misunderstood, more hurt, craving to be left alone or otherwise relieved. Now imagine this support, magnified by a factor of 10 000. Could her followers' heartfelt but clumsy support have been overwhelming? I don't know. But I worry that if it is the case, we're helpless.

I have a few younger friends on Facebook. Most of them I don't know very well but I care about them nonetheless. One in particular has often posted similarly dramatic photo captions about love and loss. Some about being lonely, being deceived, or simply misunderstood. Some rebellious pictures. Many posts that I would consider a cry for attention. I've even reached out a few times just to say "hey if you ever need to talk, I'm all ears." You never know, it might save a life. The provoking pictures and lamenting posts get a lot of likes and comments. Many comments are encouraging and sincere, but do they really help? Are those interactions helping him/her move on, improve his/her self-esteem, feel better about life? Or are those comments and likes, no matter how well-intended, widening the perceived gap between them and the rest of the world where acceptance seems to reside?


Making friends

Children make friends much more effortlessly. Students make friends quite easily. Working adults overthink it.

Children:
You're a kid, i'm a kid, we're both here, let's be friends. The gain is clear: fun

Students:
You're in this class/program, so am I, we're both stuck on this assignment, let's be friends. The point of this connection is clear: getting through university/college.

Adults:
Not so clear. When I first moved to Canada, my cousin told me that making friends is much harder once you're out of school. He was right. He said it becomes weird to approach or be approached by random strangers once you're outside the context of education. Everyone you meet wants something from you and the same goes for you. So you wonder each time, why are you talking to me? At the time I didn't understand and thought maybe he was just being pessimistic. Now I get it.

School is almost synonymous to making friends. The workplace on the other hand, isn't. Sure, some colleagues become friends, but that is not an expectation. The expectation is that everyone has a life outside of work! And when you spend most of your time at work, there's not much time to be anywhere else long enough to make friends. So how do you make friends?

Moving to California has forced me to make new friends. I knew nobody here so I did what I did 6 years ago when I moved to Canada. I resisted the temptation to spend my time chatting with those back home all the time and forced myself to go out and meet people. I can be surprisingly shy as a person although not at all as a performer. The latter has led me to conversations with complete strangers who have almost nothing in common with me, but that's for another post on busking :)

It's easier to make friends with people who have something in common, so I made friends with people who were also new to the area, colleagues who also play music, Mauritians in the area, alumni of my alma mater, other techies living in the same complex. It's too early to tell how much these friendships will grow, but I'm thankful for them and glad that I met all those wonderful people. I've learned a lot from each person I've met here. So if you're the new kid on the block, go out there and make friends!