Personal Essay


The other day I was standing in line at a swank beauty spa to pay for a service when a total stranger walked up to me and commented, “What a nice tan you have!”

I didn’t know what to say. I’m not tanned. This is my color. I am a brown, dark featured Mexican American woman.

I looked around me in line and realized that I was the only brown-skinned person in the establishment. Still, why did she assume I was tanned? Is it because I dress nicely?

“Okay, Alicia,” I said to myself. “Don’t be so sensitive.” Maybe she wanted to make conversation, forge a connection. But why then comment on what a “nice tan” I have? Why not say, “What nice skin you have”? Besides, I find the whole idea a bit strange.

I have to wonder, though, is color, coloring the issue?

I recently dated a man who insisted to me I was Caucasian; a classification that the 2010 Census also endorses. Check the form – it asks you to distinguish your origin if of Hispanic descent but then right below leaves Hispanic off as a racial classification. One has to either check Caucasian or write in Hispanic under Other.

Though Hispanic is apparently not a race, I told my date, “No. I’m Mexican American.” He replied, “But I don’t see you as not White.” Poor English aside, I recognized the quagmire: color and race. Even in his response he confused the two.

I asked him if the people that worked on his ranch in Texas were Caucasian. I knew that he employed many Mexican Americans. “But you’re not like them,” he blurted. Then he paused, unsure of what to say. Finally, he continued, “So you mean, that when you’re in a room full of white people, you feel different?” He’s a Harvard Business School graduate.

Actually, when I enter a room I don’t immediately assess the color profile of the room. It usually doesn’t even occur to me. It’s the same sort of blur I experience when I’m in a room full of men at a business conference. It generally doesn’t matter for my purposes. But I would be lying if I said that it never occurs to me, because it does and sometimes it’s conveniently pointed out.

Because I have dark skin, I realize that I am often conspicuous among my fairer brethren. I’ve been taught that I am by women in tony shops asking me to hold their bags. Oh yes, I have all manner of stories like that – being asked at a charity event if I was So and So’s nanny, mistaken for the maid at a hotel, questioned for sitting in first class on a plane and forced to produce my ticket stub to prove I had purchased the ticket – I could go on.

I tend to think that the reason I encounter some of these experiences is because I operate in environments that are decidedly not diverse. Let’s face it; private equity and venture capital are not the normal stomping grounds of U.S. Hispanics.

Or are they? Here’s where it gets tricky for Hispanics. We’re not all brown. I once worked with a fair-skinned, hazel-eyed woman at Goldman Sachs & Co. in New York who confessed to me at lunch one day that she was “half-Mexican.” Her father was German and her mother Mexican American. She urged me to never tell a soul.

Sometimes I think the Census should give up race classification altogether and ask people to mark the shade of color they are. But it’s so much more than color, isn’t it?

Why do U.S. Hispanics have the highest high school dropout rates and second highest representation in state prisons? Those drop outs and jailbirds are not all brown-skinned. I can only speculate that the reason I have to ask these questions is the same reason people assume I am tanned.

The lady in the spa? I believe that not only did it not occur to her that my skin is actually brown and not merely tanned, but also that I could be a Mexican American. To me, to assume brown skin is tanned skin is the same thing as calling a Mexican American a Caucasian. It subsumes a whole swath of people - a race, if you will. A race, subsumed, I fear, keeps that race invisible and therefore powerless.

Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. Yet, from the attention we’re paid – from representation on television (no, we don’t all watch Univision – who by the way doesn’t do much to dispel the skin color issue) to the percentage of advertising dollars spent on the market, you’d be hard-pressed to guess that.

A subsumed race is also a denied race – its rich history, struggles, achievements and even its place are lost. Our place? Well, we can be found across conference room tables, at podiums, and even at ritzy spas. Just not as a racial classification on the U.S. Census form.

Oh, it happened again yesterday. A woman told me I had a nice tan. This time I said, “Thanks, I was born with it.”

How to Get Lucky

There are no direct flights from San Francisco to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Maybe it's a pre-trial, a sort of test to see if you can handle the unforgiving land you're about to visit. Perhaps, given its rugged terrain and pristine air, it's only right you should have to work for it.

I deluded myself into thinking that modern technology, like planes, would make it easier. I recently booked a flight to Jackson that connected in Denver. Long story short, my flight into Denver was delayed which caused me to miss my connection to Jackson at 7pm, the last flight to Jackson.

After a sprint to the gate and a cold rejection by the gate attendant, I took my place in the back of a very long line at United Airline's customer service. Apparently many flights were canceled or delayed due to that rarity called a thunderstorm in Denver.

I took up position and I could feel the tears starting to fill my eyes. I was tired - not only from the tedium of waiting so much of a day in an airport, and the sprint through the airport to my connecting gate, but also because these have been a long few weeks, months. Dare I say it? Year.

In that moment I felt utterly defeated. I surveyed my life and told myself I was single (therefore alone), without a fully-formed company or source of revenue - hell, a paycheck, running through my savings, utterly confused about what would come next in my life.

I almost hung my head and started to ball when an older gentleman next to me in line tried to engage me in conversation. I nodded without listening and at my first opportunity, turned away and started berating myself for wanting to cry.

Then I noticed something. I was not alone. I was in a line with a number of other people who had just gone through what I had and no doubt were experiencing the same feelings of frustration and anxiety. And yet, they were not crying, on the verge of a breakdown.

I took a breath and started to look around. Then I began to strategize. How do I solve this problem? How could I save my place in a very long customer service line but check other available flights? I turned to my phone.

I kept dialing customer service and finally reached an agent on the phone. He told me the next available flight wouldn't be for two more days - thus ruining my weekend trip and making the flight useless.

This sent me into yet another spiral of dark thoughts. I really needed this weekend. It was the only vacation I had allowed myself to have and I love Jackson. The outdoors and the peace it gives me are like nothing else. The nights are dark, the air is clear and crisp, the animals respected or they eat you. It's straightforward living at its finest.

I drew in a breath and said to myself, “Maybe Alicia, this is happening for a reason.” When I breathed out, I felt renewed. I surrendered to the situation. Instead of fighting it, I went with it and that’s when everything changed.

I struck up conversation with a young man in front of me and learned we were both headed to the same place. Together we strategized and hit on flying into Idaho Falls. Thankfully my frequent flyer miles bumped me up in line on the standby list and I was able to get on the flight.

While boarding the plane, I asked the gentleman boarding ahead of me if he was driving to Jackson and it turned out he was. We ended up sitting together and decided to drive together. This is something that I normally would never do. But it just felt right. I was calm and I knew with a certainty I haven't felt in a while that the universe was protecting me.

We didn’t get into Jackson until almost three in the morning and when he offered to let me stay with him and his wife at their place, I accepted. Again, I’ve never done anything like it in my life. But I just knew I’d be okay. So I said yes and texted my family his name.

They had a beautiful home on the Snake River and gave me a private room and bathroom that was gorgeous. “Who are these people?” I wondered as I fell asleep.

In the morning, they offered me breakfast and I came face to face with a moose peeking in their kitchen window. They then drove me several miles to my hotel. Their generosity was unparalleled. It was a beautiful day. I couldn’t believe my luck.

What started out as a potential nightmare turned out to be an invaluable lesson. I learned that people are inherently good and giving, and even more importantly, that I can trust myself to know who those people are. I also learned that sometimes, when everything seems lost, if you can just breathe and let go, what is supposed to happen will. And it can be a wonderful thing.

A Girl's Breast Friend

“Are you remembering to do regular breast exams?” she asked while washing her hands.

“Um, sometimes,” I paused, “Not really.” I decided to just come clean, this wasn’t a college final. This was an exam, but I was pretty sure the gynecologist wasn’t going to fail me.

Until she did.

“How long have you had this lump?” she inquired looking down at me with concern as her hands worked their way around my chest.

I was thinking about the celebrity gossip magazine I had just devoured in a paper gown waiting for her to enter the room. She was over forty minutes late. I almost went home.

I didn’t answer. She jerked me out of my stupor when she grabbed my hand and placed it on my right breast.

“Here. Do you feel that?”

I did. What was that? How did it get so large without me noticing? Still, strangely, I was calm. I don’t have cancer, I thought.

“You can sit up now,” she said and began to scribble on a blue piece of paper. “I want you to make an appointment to get a mammogram and an appointment with Dr. ____. She’s a surgeon.”

“Okay,” I said grabbing the blue form and clutching my paper gown.

She shook my hand and held it for a beat longer than necessary. Her concern hit the bottom of my stomach and threatened to send me into sobs. Instead, I jumped off the examining table and threw on my clothes. Better to face all this with jeans on, I thought.

I called the Breast Health Center and had an appointment the next day. That was my first inkling that this was serious. I had a baseline mammogram when I was 35 and that took weeks to schedule.

When I got to the Center they ushered me up to the second floor. I didn’t even know there was a second floor. Everyone was female and all soothing smiles. They offered me coffee. That was my second clue. I have never been offered coffee at the doctor’s office.

The environment was as comfortable as I suppose you can make a center focused on breasts. I was given a locker and a robe thicker than paper. There were plenty of women’s magazines. The older woman who contorted my breast and squeezed if flat between large moving plastic objects was delightful. I wanted her to be my grandmother.

The third clue was when grandma came back into the waiting room and said the radiologist wanted her to take a few more pictures. At the time I thought she had somehow messed up the slides, but I know now that more pictures means more questions and that generally isn’t good.

I was walking back to the main sitting area when I ran into my new grandmother talking to the doctor. “Has she been told, yet?” the doctor asked.  Grandma saw me out of the corner of her eye and tensed. I knew they were talking about me.

My suspicions were confirmed when the doctor called me into her office.

“We found something,” she said.

Turns out they found a mass (as opposed to a cyst) and it wasn’t what my gynecologist had discovered. The doctor told me that is often how it works; you come in looking for one thing and leave having found another.

I sat there and blinked hard. She was talking about a biopsy and minor surgery and I couldn’t take in any of it. I could feel tears starting to well up and felt foolish. They didn’t know if this was anything, yet. I didn’t know what this was, why the heck was I about to cry?

Finally, I realized I was fighting what I needed in the moment: acknowledgement of my feelings.

The doctor kept rattling on so I blurted out, “I’m trying not to freak out.”

She looked at me as if noticing me for the first time. “Oh,” she said.

“Yeah,” I nodded, as if urging myself on, “I’m trying not to.”

“Well, there’s nothing to worry about, yet,” she concluded and handed me paperwork for the biopsy. She wanted to have it done the next day.  I sucked down my tears and went home.

I didn’t tell anyone. I didn't want people to worry. I told myself I could soldier through it. My appointment with my gynecologist was on a Tuesday and the biopsy was three days later, Friday.

After a surgeon used what looked like a staple gun to extract the potentially nefarious blob, I spent the weekend tucked into my couch, unable to lift anything, nose running from a nasty cold, and waiting.

I also wondered. Is this how it goes from here on out? Is this just a part of aging? The ol’ breast cancer scare rite of passage? Or something more devastating?  I didn't cry.  Instead, I watched the last two seasons of The Wire that I had never gotten to.

The following Wednesday I had an appointment with the surgeon and was given good news. All was/is well.

When I left her office and drove away, a car cut me off on the road. I mumbled an expletive at the driver and my anger shook me awake.

I had been holding my breath and holding all my feelings at bay – again. Old habits die hard.  But in that moment, I was salty. A good sign, I told myself. That means I’m alive.


* Interesting discovery through this process: my initial gut reaction was correct.

**Interesting bit of research: most women don’t discover bumps in their self-exams.

Moral of the story: get someone to feel you up regularly!  (Literally and figuratively)


Learning to Swim

I learned how to swim by being thrown into a pool. I can’t remember if this coincided with taking a poop in the pool, but I remember doing that, too. It's possible that being left to sink or swim, literally scared the $%&^ out of me.

I’m thinking about this because I had the distinct pleasure of watching my four-year old nephew take his tentative first steps in a pool. He was supported by a loving father and the watchful eyes of extended family nearby. His father did not push him to do any more than he was comfortable doing and interestingly, while my nephew grew confident there was a decided limit to what he would do.

Lest you think my nephew a coward, he was pushing himself in subtle ways. You could read the frustration on his face while watching his older cousins diving about. He wanted to be doing what they were capable of but did not force himself. He seemed to know that he would get there – on his own schedule. And so seated in an inflatable boat, he worked hard at mastering the art of navigating the water; hugging it to go backward, parting it to go forward. He went at his own pace and his father validated his efforts by subtly allowing for any baby steps he might want to take.

Eventually wanting to do more, his father obliged him and switched my nephew’s vessel from an inflatable raft to a pool noodle which put him more in direct contact with the water. His father drew him across the water as if to demonstrate what he would be able to do on his own one day.

On the sidelines, my family debated whether a child should be forced to learn to swim. I came down on the side of not forcing the issue because even if you accomplish the goal – the child learns to swim - you may be sinking the child in other ways.

Nothing quite illustrates my point like that of a poem by Mary Oliver, The Swimming Lesson:

Feeling the icy kick, the endless waves
Reaching around my life, I moved my arms
And coughed, and in the end saw land.
Somebody, I suppose,
Remembering the medieval maxim,
Had tossed me in,
Had wanted me to learn to swim,
Not knowing that none of us, who ever came back
From that long lonely fall and frenzied rising,
Ever learned anything at all
About swimming, but only
How to put off, one by one,
Dreams and pity, love and grace, --
How to survive in any place.

I can safely say now as an adult, that I didn’t learn how to swim by being thrown into the pool. That skill actually required adult swim lessons where I learned for the first time the dynamics of making your way though the water. Instead, being thrown into the pool taught me how to survive. And learning through surviving tends to teach only that learning has to be hard and that growing requires suffering.

How would my experience now be different if I were allowed to believe that I didn’t have to survive to learn? That I could gently go at my own pace and that how I felt in the journey was worth validating?

My nephew’s example was informative – learning can be accomplished in far gentler ways.

Sink or Swim: A True Story

Most companies expect employees to sink or swim, the idea being that those who can swim as soon as they hit the water (enter an organization) are somehow better—the A players, the star performers. Swimmers rise to the top and only then do companies invest in them.

But this is a fallacy. Employees need training in order to glide through organizations. To become a “natural” swimmer, a young person needs professional development as soon as she joins a company—not just at the manager or executive level.

The “sink or swim” reference to workplace progress is a good analogy because it reflects the overall flaw in the system: learning to swim can be treacherous.

I learned to swim by being thrown into a pool at the age of seven. I never had swim lessons, and it wasn’t until I was a teen that I had enough experience to swim a full lap. Being thrown into a pool did teach me how to survive in the water—but learning through surviving tends to teach only that learning has to be hard.

This lesson was paralleled in my work life when I entered my first full-time job as a financial analyst for the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs & Co. I was wholly unprepared—surprising, given that I graduated from Stanford University and Goldman wasn’t my first job. I’d worked as a retail associate, a waitress, and a bookkeeper. Heck, I’d even delivered Donnelley Directories. But when I reached Goldman—and what’s worse, even after our analyst orientation—I had no sense of what was expected of me, how to navigate the organization, or even how to make the best first impression.

So I looked for guidance. I turned to my peers—an icy blonde woman from Connecticut who wore Escada at twenty-three and said I should just be grateful I had a job, and the salt-and-pepper-haired Vice President with a wife and two kids who mistook my questions for flirtation—to no avail. I was one of the only Latinas in my analyst class; there weren’t any executives who were looking down and saying, “She reminds me of me. I think I’ll watch out for her.”

My family was no help. My siblings had refused to even go to my college graduation because they thought attending college made me “stuck up.”

Most business books were on management, and because I wasn’t a manager I figured they didn’t pertain to me. Lacking training and guidance, I flailed.

Still, I was acutely aware that others were making progress, and it made me assume that the reason I was struggling had everything to do with me. My emotions swung from excited to dejected daily. I had no sense of how I was perceived by my peers. I tried to lay low, but would often pull attention with a misguided verbal hiccup. I tried to adopt the reserved, competent look of my colleagues, but mainly felt wild, frustrated, and disheveled. I seemed to be missing something—something that everyone else knew but me.

I thought initially I could try and fight my way through the murky social order of investment banking with hard work. Then I had my first performance review and it devastated me. I didn’t have the emotional regulation skills or perspective to take the feedback in stride. I soon found myself drowning, and, not understanding what to do, I grabbed onto the nearest life preserver I could: grad school.

Law school gave me some time, but it was merely a flotation device. When I left law school I knew how to dress the part of a professional and I could act the part largely by staying to myself, working long hours, and being nice, but ultimately I was getting nowhere. To hide that fact, I simply kept changing jobs.

It wasn’t until I became an entrepreneur that I was forced to face my lack of professional development. Ironically, around the same time, I signed up for a triathlon and had to confront the fact that I was a weak swimmer. To get help I purchased basic adult swimming lessons at a local club.

At my first lesson, the instructor asked me to swim the length of the pool so she could assess my skill. I swam vigorously to the other side of the pool. When I popped my head out of the water and looked at her, I saw that she was laughing.

“You do what most adult beginning swimmers do,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

“You think if you swim fast enough, you won’t drown.”

“Isn’t that true?” I asked.

“Quite the opposite,” she said.

In that swim across the pool I demonstrated all my bad habits and my mental model of what made for good swimming. I thought swimming fast would save me, much like I thought working hard would help me at work. But I was wrong.

Swimming fast can get you across the length of a pool, but will leave you gasping for air and completely unprepared for open-water swims, much less rough seas. Similarly, working hard will not in itself lead to success at work—or, if it does, it won’t leave you with the skills to fulfill a leadership role. My swim instructor taught me to slow down, to turn my body in certain ways to glide through the water. The result is that I learned to swim longer and more easily, and without the fear of drowning.

With the help of a CEO coach and professional development courses in things like effective communication, I eventually learned to swim in the workplace. As founder and CEO of my company, I learned firsthand that self-awareness, an ability to give and receive feedback, and an ability to manage conflict are necessary for success. But these skills are not often taught or practiced in the business world, especially in start-ups. Instead, many companies expect people to learn them by osmosis—which is like throwing someone into a pool and hoping they figure out how to swim. At best, you end up with someone who can dog paddle.

The “sink or swim” mentality of the business world needs to change. No matter their background, young people in every organization, small or large, need professional development—the type of training that is usually reserved for managers or executives. If more people are given access to professional development sooner, we’ll see fewer people drowning—something that will lead to stronger, happier people and organizations.

Who's to Blame

This is what unconcious racial bias looks like.

You are out for a long run on a Sunday afternoon.

You are running on a narrow sidewalk and up ahead are two young women, tall, with long blonde hair walking abreast. They are both looking at their phones.

You think they will see you coming but you are not sure. There is no room on the sidewalk for you to run by if they don't see you.

Your only option is to jump into the street on a blind corner into oncoming traffic.

You hope they see you. You are almost upon them.

The girl on the right, in the space you would use to pass, looks up. You think she sees you.

But she doesn't move to make room for you and instead bends her head back to her phone right as you try to run past.

Your shoulders hit. She is taller and heavier than you. You take the hit with your whole left side but keep going.

She grabs her shoulder and screams that you are a bitch. You keep running and hold up a middle finger to acknowledge her.

This is not the unconscious racial bias part.

You are running a few hundred feet down the road after this interaction when a white man on a road bike rides across the car lanes to approach you. He biles up to you and calls you a bitch for hitting the girls.

You think this can't be happening. He wasn't even around, you bumped into only one of them, and he's assumed you are the problem.

"She couldn't be bothered to look up from her iPhone!" you yell to him over your shoulder while running.  This gives him pause. You can see that he suddenly realizes he doesn't have the full story. He pedals away without comment.

You turn back to the road ahead.  The unfairness causes a surge of adrenaline through your whole body. You want to cry, but you do what you always do - you keep running.

The Wisdom in Socks

If you've seen me up close you know I'm brown. I'm so brown that in foggy San Francisco my skin absorbs even the tiniest bit of light and turns it into melanin. I could take a ten minute walk down the street in a short-sleeved shirt one cold but sunny day in January and have a farmer's tan. To wit - I tan easily.

I know this melanin magic for some might be appealing, but for me it has its downsides. Namely, tan lines. As I am also an avid runner I suffer specifically from sock tan lines. Any exposed leg above the sock but below running shorts or running pants is almost instantly turned to a toasty brown leaving my legs looking like a Neapolitan ice cream sandwich.

I cursed my sock tan lines for years and was always embarrassed by them when trying to sport a summer dress with wedges, say. Unfortunately, it took advice from a brother-in-law before I happened on the solution: socks that hit below the ankle.

So I ran right over to Sports Basement and bought five pairs of small, no show socks. I was elated.

Until I washed them and tried to run in them. They were too short and kept slipping down to my heel. Every run involved many stops to yank my socks back up. Still, I persisted. I figured that I'd eventually yank the socks into compliance. I would just make them work. After all, I had spent almost $100 on running socks.

But soon I began to dread the sock pulling ritual of my runs. I knew what the solution was - try another pair in a different size - but I couldn't get myself to go back to the store. I ran in ill-suited socks for over two months. I obviously couldn't return laundered socks, so my cost was sunk and that burned me. We humans tend to feel more pain from loss than we do joy from gain. Finally, two weeks ago, I had had enough and I went back to the store and bought new socks.

You may think me cheap, but the socks were really the manifestation of a bad habit I have - trying to make things work. I'm a survivor so I'm always trying to make lemonade out of lemons, but the reality is that's not always the best approach to life. Overdone it becomes more a way to repress one's true wants and needs which translates to a lack of respect for self, a lack of self-worth.

Alicia, I told myself, get yourself some new pairs of socks! And sure enough, when I took my new socks out for a whirl and they fit perfectly and stayed in place, I felt a relief I haven't experienced in a while. It was a revelation that I need to pay more attention to: when something isn't working, change it. It may cause you time and money and maybe even a little pain, but it's always worth it in the end to get exactly what you want - what fits.

As for my tan lines? Well, I hate to admit this, but I still have them! They are just lower on my feet. I guess there is just no getting around who I am. But at least now I know I can be me and be comfortable.

I’ll Have the Lobster

The universe started speaking to me before I even realized she was talking.  I was on my daily run and pleased to catch This American Life’s Ira Glass tell the story of visiting the MOMA in NYC to see an exhibit by Cindy Sherman.  While viewing the exhibit a woman came up to Mr. Glass and his friend and announced herself to be Cindy Sherman.  They’d never met Cindy Sherman so they weren’t sure if the woman was in fact the artist.  I won’t spoil it for you, but I remember slowing to a jog when I heard this:

“Well today on our program, Switcharoo, pretending to be somebody or something you are not. Sometimes that's perfectly fine, perfectly innocent, hurts no one. Sometimes it is not that at all. And sometimes it is really hard to tell.”

And sometimes it’s really hard to tell.  Don’t I know it.

A few months later, the Cindy Sherman exhibit came to the SF MOMA.  I was determined to check it out.

The first thing I noticed when I entered her exhibit on the top floor was how much the women (and it was mainly women) who were there to view the show looked like Cindy Sherman or rather what I thought she looked like: white, non-descript.

Cindy Sherman photographs herself as different women – the socialite, the movie actress, the Renaissance portrait subject.  In each photo Cindy disappears into what amounts to a superficial depiction, basically a woman who is so identifiable she’s without an identity.

As I ambled through her show I began to realize that my assessment of her was the essence of Cindy Sherman’s photographs and genius – a woman who knows herself so well, whose identity is so clear, that she’s unafraid of being white and non-descript.  And because she can embrace that about herself, she can explore it for its depths and come out with something very rich – pictures that beg the question, who are you?

I walked around and was convinced that whoever I was it wasn’t Cindy Sherman.  That is until I caught a glimpse of a woman in the glass reflection of a Cindy Sherman photo.  “She looks like Cindy Sherman,” I thought. Then realized in the same instance, it was a reflection of me.  I was bowled over.  That’s true art, I believe, when it literally causes you to see yourself in a new way.

I left the SF MOMA and didn’t give my experience another thought until a week later I was invited by friends to see a movie in the film archival space, Oddball Films.  The title of the movie?  Guest of Cindy Sherman.

The movie is by Paul H-O, Cindy’s former boyfriend, and starts by introducing Paul and his public access show Gallery Beat.  His show went nowhere but his love life did when he met Cindy Sherman. The movie follows the arc of their relationship from giddy beginnings to incidents where Paul feels nameless to its eventual demise when ironically Paul begins working on a movie about their relationship.

His decision to make a movie about their relationship seemed to upset the balance of their relationship, their unspoken agreement that their relationship would be about her.  His choice (whether he knew he was making it or not) to give up his identity in service of the relationship is something women do all the time and interestingly, is at the core of what a lot of Cindy Sherman’s work speaks to – identity.

Most people don’t blink an eye when the wife of a powerful man is snubbed or looked past.  It’s so common place for women that it’s a movie when it happens to a man.  But for me the movie only highlighted just what an epidemic identity is for women – if not defined by our men or our families, who are we?  It’s no accident Cindy Sherman's work started garnering attention in the 70s when the women’s movement really took flight.  And it’s no accident that she’s seeing a resurgence today – a time of great uncertainty.  When who you are is all you’ve got.

Shortly after the film started my fingers began to dance in their telling way – signing “I’m anxious” in the dark.  I chewed through half a pack of gum.  Uh, oh my subconscious seemed to be saying, this is cutting close to home.

You see, I’ve been struggling with how to carve my own identity.  So much of who I am, I’ve come to realize, has been repressed in the service of twinship (I’m a twin) and frankly, survival.  Growing up, often in violent and emotionally abusive homes, I went along to get along.  My thoughts and feelings safely tucked deep inside me.  So deeply that over time I ceased to access them anymore.  That’s the problem: when you press a leaf between two heavy books, it almost never regains its original shape.

That’s why I am here, late in the game, working to honor who Alicia really is.

But building an identity, of course, is more difficult than it seems.  Which Paul does not seem to understand.  His central lament in the movie is that everything is easy for Cindy.  Yet, he seems to miss the fact that she worked long and hard, often unrecognized and alone, on her art and Paul happened to meet her at a time when she was finally being noticed.  He doesn’t seem to recognize that building an identity takes work, unwavering commitment, and a good measure of courage.  Cindy’s grace is that she knew and accepted (key word accepted) who she was early on and stuck with it.  Paul might have accessed inklings of who he was with Gallery Beat, but he ultimately didn’t put in the work it takes to stay on one’s path.

So what happens when you lack an identity?  You don’t go after what you want.  Instead, you can get sucked into something that is not you or true to you.  Do that long enough and you won’t even know what you want. That’s the switcharoo – the times it’s really hard to tell…who you are.

The clarity of Cindy’s identity is demonstrated by one memorable anecdote from the movie.  A friend of Paul and Cindy recalls going to dinner with Cindy.  The friend notices lobster listed on the menu and hems and haws about actually ordering the lobster.  He listens to his “shoulds” – he shouldn’t eat it because it’s too expensive, etc.  Cindy, he marvels, doesn’t understand why he wouldn’t get the lobster.  Finally, the friend chooses something else and Cindy orders the lobster.

Towards the end of the movie, I leaned in hoping to understand how Paul reclaimed his identity after the break-up with Cindy.  But sadly, he only seemed lost.  Which after decades of putting your sense of self on hold is the only logical result.  Unfortunately, instead of turning to the hard work of figuring himself out, he seems to still be defining himself in relation to her – hence the title, Guest of Cindy Sherman.

The credits rolled, the lights came up and my throat was dry.  I felt sad.  I told myself I had just witnessed a cautionary tale and said a silent prayer that I don’t fall victim to the same fate while simultaneously worrying that I already had.

As we exited the Oddball Films building and walked to our cars, my friends and I discussed what we took away from the movie.  I hurried to voice my opinion that Cindy Sherman was a vortex.  To use another metaphor, she shined her light on him and he could no longer see.  As I said that out loud I pictured her personality in my mind as beast-like, ravenous.

And then it hit me.  If I continue to think that living your potential, stepping into all that you are makes you a beast, I’ll never do it.

I realize now that I want the lobster.  Scratch that.  I will have the lobster.  Which can mean only one thing: I am Cindy Sherman.

Why Women Don't Code

I recently wrote an essay for Women 2.0 about women and computer programming. It was based on a difficult experience I had trying to learn Ruby on Rails. I felt a little vulnerable sharing this story, but for the most part readers were very supportive. I'm happy to divulge the name of the boot camp I talk about below, but the real purpose of sharing this story is to help other women looking to learn to code. Be careful about where you choose to learn. There's nothing as precious, in my mind, as that developing desire. Make sure you work with other people who feel the same way.

The essay:

A few months ago when my new website was crashing, and my web developer wasn’t returning emails or answering his phone, I decided to learn to code myself. Fortunately, there’s been a recent explosion of programming courses. There are community college and online classes, as well as development boot camps, all boasting accessible learning.

Many of the boot camps are only for people who already know how to program, so I was encouraged when I found one that taught programming in ten weeks for $10K and was open to beginners. The course founder and instructor, a hot shot male programmer with a resume full of top technology names, called me for an interview after I applied:

Him: “Are you passionate about coding?”

Me: “I don’t know enough to answer that yet but I can tell you, when I’m doing an HTML CSS online tutorial, I stay up into the wee hours of the night trying to solve problems. I really love that. And I know I have a passion for learning.”

Him: “A passion for learning is one thing, but a passion for coding is another.”

He went on to say a woman had once dropped out half-way through his class and he didn’t want that to happen again. What did that have to do with me? I thought. I was so angry that I couldn’t even respond. He ended the call by suggesting I try another online tutorial.

In fact, I already had a long history with coding. In seventh grade my algebra teacher offered a short course in the programming language BASIC. I built a baseball game with a pitcher on a mound who threw pitches to a batter controlled by the user. The game kept score and it even had bleachers in the outfield. I was proud of my creation but when I showed it to my teacher she gave me a disapproving look and said, “That wasn’t the assignment.” I can still remember how dejected I felt.

Like many seventh-graders who don’t get attention for their work, I switched to other activities that garnered approval. It’s sad to look back and realize that’s all it took.

My belief that I was not a computer programmer eventually bloomed into a larger belief that I was not technical. Yet, as I grew older, I had a sneaking suspicion I actually was technical. I’m quick to grab on to concepts; I’m good at math. Heck, I even started an advertising technology company. But all along I had told myself I couldn’t code.

After the more recent blow to my programming curiosity, I tackled the first few chapters of the online tutorial recommended by the hot shot instructor. My anger powered me through until I was so upset I couldn’t see anymore. Was I resentful because he was right and I just wasn’t cut out for coding? Or was it because coding was a club I’d been prevented from joining?

I see my experience and resulting self-doubt as the reason why so many women don’t pursue programming. These barriers might seem incidental at first glance, but they represent an insidiousness that keeps us from entering the fields of computer science and engineering, much less staying.

It was only when I went back to the instructor’s website that it dawned on me why his program requires an application: his course advertises job placement. He gets paid more for placing a student in a programming job than he does from teaching her. I was only looking to learn and his class wasn’t meant for me. But he didn’t have the balls to tell me that. Instead, he discouraged me.

It took me a few weeks to shake my conversation with him and come up with a new plan. For $10K, I could continue learning on my own and pay a tutor to meet with me regularly. In fact, for $10K, I could pay for other women to meet with tutors, too.

I am a successful female entrepreneur and I can still get knocked down and locked out, but the difference between now and the seventh grade is this: I don’t need anybody’s approval to code.

What a Bubble Looks Like

I recently spoke about technology entrepreneurship at a San Francisco public high school’s career day. I co-presented with an engineer. In Silicon Valley, when you hear the term engineer you mostly likely think electrical engineer or someone who programs computers. In a public high school class of about forty mostly male Hispanic and Black students, even in San Francisco, engineer means something altogether different.

I didn’t realize this until I stopped talking and started listening. As the boys opened up and asked questions, I learned that to them engineer meant auto mechanic.

Of course, that makes all the sense in the world. Their lives don’t include people who work at computer technology companies – in any capacity. While almost all the students had cell phones, very few had laptops. Their parents, if they have both, work multiple jobs and names like Twitter, LinkedIn or Square are nowhere in their lexicon. What is so shocking about this is this is in San Francisco.

I did my best to expose them to the other world of Silicon Valley in my allotted twenty minutes, but clearly this will never do. These young people are already so behind. If they don’t come up in an environment where even the language of technology is discussed, how will they ever gain access?

And so you can see the socio-economic and skills gap widening. Even for those who want to be auto-mechanics. Why? Because even cars use computers.

Upon wrapping up my talk, I went out on a limb and asked the class if they knew who Mark Zuckerberg was. Not a single student raised their hand.

Not one student knew about a young privileged man who by age eighteen had a better education than most of the juniors and seniors in that career day class will ever have, had already learned to code and started a business.

Not one student knew he was the founder of Facebook and as a result, not one student knew that what Mr. Zuckerberg did was even remotely possible for them.

And how will they ever know?

The Candid Camera

I’m scowling in the picture. My twin sister and I are five and it’s Halloween. She is dressed up as a Hawaiian girl and I am stuck with the ugly yellow gypsy costume. She is standing with her hands spread out jazzercise style, her smile bright and her enthusiasm barely contained. My hair is tucked under a scarf, my lips are smeared with bright lipstick and my hands are in fists at my sides. My emotion is pretty clear in the picture. I’m pissed.

What is unclear is whether I’m upset about the dress I had to wear or the fact my picture was being taken. I suspect the latter.

In high school, only the yearbook editor was able to snap a pic of me as I shrank away from groups whenever someone inevitably decided to photo document the moment. An argument can be made I didn’t even attend college, as there are so few pictures in existence. In my early thirties, the advent of the camera phone became my personal hell. I obsessively de-tagged pictures of myself on Facebook sure I looked horrible and was saving the universe from the mar upon its beauty. When, a few years back, I had to have a head shot taken for work, I was so distraught I drank a beer beforehand. Trust me - it didn’t help the photo results.

Ironically, it was a photographer who hinted at the bigger picture. I was out on the town when a man I knew started up conversation by asking why I didn’t like having my picture taken. He had surmised this earlier in the evening when I put my hand up to shield my face from the camera he pointed my way.

I said, “Probably because growing up I rarely had my picture taken and it just isn’t anything I am used to, blah, blah, blah.” He batted away my excuse and proceeded to tell me the reason most people don’t like their pictures being taken is because they don’t love and accept themselves. Whoa, I thought, is he hitting on me?

Mind you, this was a first meeting and we were in a bar. I didn’t pose for a photo after he dropped that nugget, but it did get me thinking.

Is this why I shudder at the thought of taking pictures? And what does it mean anyway, to love yourself?

Fortunately, for me I met my nephew and quickly found out. The nephew to which I am referring is my twin sister's son and when she and her husband first brought him home, I fell in love. Hard.

I never understood the need to ceaselessly photograph until he came along. Suddenly, I had a camera at the ready at all times. I would snap photos of him and then moon over them at home on my computer later.

I loved his every gurgle, but I have to admit, as he grew, I was as much dismayed to discover parts of me in him. The proud looks on our faces when we accomplish something and think the world is watching – he learning how to snap a tree twig in half, me finishing strong after a three mile run. We have the same laugh when we’re over-tired – a sort of hyper hyena laugh and we both bounce up and down or shake our legs to get the energy out. We’re also both bossy and have advice for everyone.

The other day, while playing tennis with his parents, after I hit a ball into the net, my nephew, now four, stopped the game to tell me I had to hold my racket higher and then I’d be more successful getting it over the net.

As he’s gotten older, he’s less willing to be the subject of my photos. Recently, when I pulled out my camera at his house, he insisted on being able to take pictures with it. So I carefully placed the camera strap around his neck and showed him how to hold the camera. Then I put his little index finger on the shutter release and demonstrated how to press it down until he heard a click.

“Okay,” I asked, “What do you want to take a picture of?”

“I want to take one of you, Tia Alicia,” he said.

I didn’t hesitate. I struck a pose. He snapped away and examined the results in the viewfinder. I steered him to other objects.

“What about Dog and Rabbit?” I ventured and then arranged his stuffed animals in still life fashion on the couch. He snapped them. We walked around the house looking for things to photograph until his mother told us dinner was ready.

Later that night at home, I hooked up my camera to my computer and downloaded the photos. Most of them were blurry or random studies of dining room table legs and soccer shoes. But then there was one, of me.

In the picture, I was looking into the camera and smiling. My face looked like it normally did – I wasn’t wearing make-up, I hadn’t done my hair. Still, I didn’t have my usual hurry up and take it look or tight-lipped grin. My smile was wide. My eyes sparkled. For the first time, looking at the photo he snapped of me, I saw myself through love’s eyes, and I found I liked the results.

My nephew’s photography has helped me finally like my picture. All those personality traits of mine I thought were bad habits or neuroses, he showed up with at birth: his earnestness, his inner will, his urge to please and connect and even his instinct to withhold – all so human, all so lovely, and all a part of me. They look good on him and as a result, I’ve discovered they don’t look so bad on me.

I hate to admit it, but it seems the photographer was right. It’s difficult to stop and look at yourself – whether in the lens of a camera or a picture -- with compassion and love, until you know how to look at another with them. Loving yourself, it turns out, is wonderfully and hopelessly tied to loving another.

Today, I like my pictures, no matter what face I’m making. And when the camera is pointed at me, I turn towards it, I think of my nephew and I smile.

How to Feel

Did I think I was going to light the world on fire? Not exactly. But I couldn't help myself. I was seized with the notion that if people talked more openly about their emotions they could change their lives. My thesis was listening to your feelings helps you to understand yourself better and understanding yourself better means knowing what you want and knowing what you want leads to actually getting it.

I'm realizing, though, that I'm up against a big giant called hundreds of years of socialization, and with an iPhone app as my slingshot, it would seem I'm hopelessly over-matched.

There are a ton of "mental models" or beliefs about emotions or feelings (I use the terms interchangeably) circulating in our culture. Perhaps the most popular one is that feelings are positive or negative as opposed to just, well... feelings. Feelings don't make you a good or bad person, either.

Still, it's easy to see why we carry around these misguided notions - we are constantly bombarded with messages that it's not okay to feel. It's so pervasive it's often difficult to put your finger on. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish in their book How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk summarized the types of responses we're used to hearing when say trying to talk to a friend about a problem:

Denial of feelings: "You're over-reacting." or "Your probably just tired and not yourself."
The Philosophical Response: "Nobody's perfect - life doesn't always turn out."
Advice: "You know what you should do..."
Questions: "Has this ever happened before?" or "Why didn't you..."
Defense of the Other Person: "I can understand why that person reacted that way."
Pity: "That's terrible!" or "You poor thing!"
Amateur Psychoanalysis: "I think the real reason you are upset is..."

These responses are meant to be helpful, but instead often prevent us from dealing with our emotions and therefore our problems.

However we may deny it feelings underlie all of our interactions and everything we do. Yet, we walk around, stepping over the roots of the issues. Sometimes, I think I must be going crazy because I see how emotion affects children at school, adults at work and even our physical health, but no one actually talks about it.

I can empathize with just how difficult a topic feelings is. Emotions are numerous, complex, and facing them is challenging. Sometimes we even couch our feelings in the few feelings that we believe are okay to have like only women can be sad or only men can be angry.

Understanding emotions and how they affect our communication and behavior, are so important however, that one of the finest institutions in our country, the Stanford Graduate School of Business in a class called Interpersonal Dynamics (ironically dubbed Touchy Feely by students) teaches future business leaders emotional awareness skills. Which should be a sign that self-awareness skills differentiate leaders who rise to the top. And frankly, also makes me wonder why these skills aren't taught elsewhere.

Sure, we may have received a few lessons in feelings when we were children, but like a language left unused, if we don't continue to practice identifying, expressing, and managing our feelings, our skills deteriorate.

I suppose I'm so adamant about it all because for the longest time I didn't know how to feel. I'm well educated - I went to Stanford University and Stanford Law School, but the difficult truth is I didn't get what I could from these fine institutions. I didn't know how to extract the value the experiences yielded or what I needed from them, because I was too distracted by my emotions. I was having a lot of them but without the tools I couldn't manage them and I missed out on a lot.

I find myself catching up now. I don't think I'm alone in the effect mismanaged emotions have had on my life. But it does seem sometimes like I'm alone in seeing it as the cause. Still, as Patton and Heen in Have Your Feelings or They Will Have You put it, "Solving problems seems easier than talking about emotions."

I get that expressing our emotions feels risky. It feels scary because we think it makes us vulnerable. Yet, we have that turned on its head. Not saying what we feel or not accepting how we feel is what truly makes us vulnerable -it leaves us open to the decisions, whims, and judgments of others. We risk something alright - we risk losing ourselves; we risk forgetting how to feel.

Not If But When

I've been spending a lot of time lately thinking about education. Everything from new company ideas to following the recent turnover in the education chancellor ranks. Whenever I do, I think about teachers.

I realized, for as much schooling as I've had - all the way through Stanford Law School a combined 17 years - there were only a handful of teachers that I remember. And not all for their teaching.

There was Mrs. Valenzuela's assistant, technically not a teacher but taught me nonetheless. She found me crying with a sandwich in my hand. When I told her how the sandwich bread was filled with bugs, she wrapped an arm around my shoulder and explained those "bugs" were actually poppy seeds and the more you ate them the more beautiful you became. I looked up at her through my tears and a pretty young woman was looking at me. So I believed her. I sniffled and took tentative bites until I had finished my entire sandwich.

There was Mrs. Greenwade, a small woman who didn't impart any knowledge that I can remember, but demonstrated you didn't need to be big to be heard.

There was a biology professor in college who told me I had a special aptitude for science and should consider changing my major. I told her I had loans to pay back and needed to make money.

There was my property law professor's face when he related his surprise in discovering I had written one of the highest grade exams in his class.

But there is only one teacher who managed to shape my life view and I don't even remember her name. She was my world studies/geography teacher in high school.

She was notoriously strict. She taught us how to outline, requiring that we carry rulers, red pens and yellow highlighters everywhere we went. She instructed us in the fine art of writing down only what was essential.

Every week she lectured on a new country. And every lecture, throughout the lecture she would say, "Not if, but when."

"If I go to Singapore," a boy in class would start to say in response to a discussion, and she would interrupt him. "Not if, but when you go to Singapore, John." She'd wait until he restarted his point with the proper language.

She was relentless. Our language never slipped her attention and she was adamant about reshaping it and thus, what we saw as possible. She truly believed, for all of us, it was a matter of when.

I haven't been to Singapore, yet but I've traveled. My world opened up like she predicted and I know it will continue to because I know it's not if, but when.

When the Magic's Gone

My four year-old nephew was over recently and immediately drawn to the tower of books in my living room. He was amazed at how high the books were piled and his parents marveled at how sturdy the books seemed.

I said, "Hey let me show you something." I brought him over close to the tower and kneeled down to his level next to it. "Look, you can take a book out without the whole stack collapsing." He looked at me with wide eyes; even at age four he understands gravity.

I suggested he try and pull out a book. He leaned into the stack and slowly pulled out a thin blue volume, waiting for the books to tumble. They held their position, as if suspended in air.

"It's magic!" he screamed, "It's magic!"

He was so excited he did a little marching dance in place - his whole body shaking with delight. He was suspended momentarily, like the books, in the wonder.

He paused a beat and then his hungry little mind started to explore. He poked at the books, his eyes greedy for the cause. He wasn't content with the magic, he had to understand how it worked.

Within 30 seconds he figured out the stack of books was in fact a book shelf with metal sleeves that were shallow enough and spaced so it gave the illusion of a tower of books with no support.

"There's metal," he said. "That's how the books stay up."

He turned, his curiosity satisfied, and switched his attention to other matters.

I re-shelved the book he had extracted and smiled. Mystery solved. But in the weeks since, I keep visiting that moment in my mind. The moment he shrieked, "It's magic."

The purity of his belief, the surprise and wonderfulness of it - the possibilities. His pure joy at the idea of something magical. And my joy at witnessing his experience.

I long for that feeling myself. Not just the unexplainable, but the unexplainably good. Where has the magic gone?

The Netherlands

My first year in college I worked a stint as a waitress at Baxter’s, a local chain restaurant. It served your standard American fare outlined in sticky, glossy tri-fold menus. Next to the kitchen was a small faux wood parquet dance floor, dj booth and Karaoke machine. The dance floor was adjacent to a bar that floated in the middle of rubbery seafoam green booths.

The bar was meant to improve sales receipts by catering to the local college crowd at night. There were $1 well drinks on Mondays, Live Music on Wednesdays and Girls Night on Thursdays. I worked noon to closing. I waited tables until we stopped serving food at 8pm then I checked IDs at the front door.

Thursday Girl Nights were a bit of a misnomer. Every Thursday evening the manager imported 3 to 4 “girls” to strip down to skimpy bathing suits on the dance floor for the pleasure of men who watched and drank full-priced beer.

The ladies arrived every Thursday evening around 6pm. The girls would march resolutely into the restaurant in their street clothes and then change into their performing outfits in the women’s restroom. My job was to roust the women from the bathroom and prod them onto the dance floor.

I never spoke much with them. I figured there was a line between service professionals like myself and service professionals such as their selves. Though I did enjoy a bit of power when I would walk into the ladies’ room and announce in a loud voice, “Show time!”

The manager would get behind the dj booth and start up the stereo, signaling the girls lined up on the floor and the men standing around that the show was about to begin. Then, in a flurry of straps, sequins and strings the girls would slither to the floor and begin their strip tease. As the music pulsated and grew louder, men would emit a few cheers and then fall silent. The girls would shimmy down to their bikinis and contort so as to better demonstrate their wares. Technically, the women were not supposed to get fully nude but as bikini tops shifted and thong bottoms moved, the men got an eyeful. And so did I.

I had never seen women in this manner before. My girlfriends and I were the kind of girls who dressed for high school gym by changing underneath our clothes or in the stalls; the goal being, to show as little skin as humanly possible while changing. The only real live breasts I had seen up to that point were my own sorry buds. Except for those that 80s aerobic enthusiasts wore over their leotards, I had never even seen thongs before. For context, this was the early 90s.

What shocked me the most, however, was the dancers’ hairless bodies. They were like perfect seals out there dancing for $1 bills (this was a college town). How could they manage to bend over in thongs without exposing the tell tale signs of pubescence? Being of Mexican descent, I was in awe. I wasn’t allowed to shave my legs until I was sixteen. I hated my hairiness, but watching those dancers I began to feel a bit relieved. The only explanation to me at the time was that they were obviously born without hair and therefore predestined to lives as exotic dancers. Poor girls. At least with all my dark hair, I could be a scientist.

I didn’t learn until a few years later that there was such a thing as a bikini wax.

Stumbling on Pastry: Should I be a Pastry Chef?

Dan Gilbert in his book, Stumbling on Happiness, uses science to shed light on the human condition. His basic finding is that humans are terrible at predicting their futures. This happens because humans routinely mistake how they feel now with how they will feel when they are in the future they are imagining. In his words, “Imagination fails to recognize things will look different when they actually happen.”

So if humans are so terrible at predicting what will make them happy, how can one reliably look into the future? His solution is surrogacy. Find someone who is currently experiencing the future you imagine for yourself and ask that person how she is feeling.

Gilbert addresses the objection that leaps first to mind, “but they’re not me” with the news that we’re not so unique. Whatever you may feel about his contention, his research at Harvard does show that asking a random person having the experience you seek can better predict what it will feel like for you, better than your own imagination could.

So I took Gilbert’s advice to heart and decided to apply his surrogacy concept to a career idea I had been entertaining: becoming a pastry chef. It’s funny how when you focus on something suddenly that something seems to be everywhere. Turns out there are a number of pastry chefs in my social circle.

I called up one of my favorite, Mary. Growing up in Mary’s house, the rule was she could bake all she wanted but she had to clean up. These were rules she could follow, so she baked and learned she loved the process. Eventually, a catalytic event in her life: cancer, sent her back to this passion from a life as a doctor.

She started where common sense dictates – a bakery. She went into a bakery and filled out an application and because small bakeries are always looking for warm bodies (to hear her tell it) she was hired.

Eventually she went to New York and enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America. There she discovered that 80% of the students were right out of high school. She ended up switching to the French Culinary Institute and found the students more her speed: 80% of those students were career changers. She also tacked on an additional nine months to get a culinary management diploma. She’s an over-achiever.

One of the things she learned is that unless you’re in a high-end restaurant, the people you will encounter are likely not to be the Type A, star performers someone who works in Silicon Valley is used to. She said that management skills and work ethic are completely different from the white collar professional world.

She knows because after school she went on to intern at LeCirque, a renowned restaurant in New York, in pastry. There she said that when working you are flying. If you’re no fast, efficient and good, you’re gone. It was a sink or swim environment.
She explained that the kitchen is intense and fast moving because that’s one of the ways a restaurant can make a profit. The kitchens make trays and trays of food (volume) and they don’t make everything from scratch each day (timing). Understanding both is what allows restaurants to eke out very slim profit margins.

Something she realized herself when she left Le Cirque and started her own pastry catering business. She wanted to do high end pastry but that required technique and that means labor, a space to house the labor, etc. There were a million compromises she had to make for the business to work and she found that one of them was lifestyle. When you run a catering business or even work in a restaurant, you work weekends. Which also means it’s really hard to travel and take vacations. The cakes don’t bake themselves, so in pastry you are very much a part of the product.

Literally. Baking is also very physically demanding. She tried her culinary dream when she was in her 40s and now in her 50s she can’t believe how much her wrists hurt when she was working in pastry. She said there’s a lot of attrition with age.

She still loves baking. She finds it relaxing, it feeds her soul. But ultimately, she found the pastry business to be an uphill battle where the chances for a big success are slim. She wanted to go into something where she felt her ability to be successful in the end was more assured, so she went back to her medical career.

Her ultimate advice to me was to have the courage to follow a dream but realize it may not turn out as you planned.

Informed but not quite yet deterred, I rang up another baker, Robyn. She was an accounting and marketing major in college who went on to become a litigation consultant. She did that for five years and then decided at the age of 25 she needed to switch gears.

She, like Mary, had always baked to relax but she didn’t know the technical aspects of baking or the skills. She started researching the career move by walking into restaurants. She literally walked into a good restaurant in San Francisco and convinced the pastry chef there to sit down and talk to her. That pastry chef turned her on to Tante Marie's, a French cooking school in San Francisco. The school has a six month baking certificate that those who work full-time can take on evenings and weekends. She studied along-side 13 other women and had an amazing instructor with whom she still keeps in touch. Her first day of class she said to herself, “Yep. This is it.”

She had heard her share of horror stories about baking: the lack of money, how hard it was to make a career out of it, etc. But she was undaunted. When she finished the Tante Marie program she did an externship on Friday and Saturdays. At that point she was still making money because she had held onto her other job. Eventually, she married and her husband supported her jump to pursuing pastry full-time. She took a job as a baker.

Like Mary, she recounted the hard hours and lack of vacation. A pastry cook is usually hourly and given no over-time. Once you are a chef, however, you are salaried and then you’re abused, she said. You work 5-6 days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day. The job is both mental and physical and not at all like working 8 hours a day at the office.

She commented that pastry is just like any other industry – just a different game. There are those who get educations and those who don’t, but in the pastry industry, if you’re good you’ll go to the top.

When she first interviewed for the baker job it was a quick conversation. The real test was that many shops ask you to work 8 hours for them and that is what determines if you actually get a job.

She also noted that restaurants, bakeries, and catering are all very different environments from each other. One way to get to know these environments is through what is called “staging.” It’s when you request to work at a specific restaurant or bakery. You basically go in to observe, learn and work for free for a day, week or month. In Europe, many don’t even go to culinary school but apprentice on the job for three years instead.

Finally she added that pastry chefs tend to be overly organized and very anal. She found that savory cooks were messy and never planned much, while pastry chefs were immaculate in the kitchen.

Today, Robyn is no longer "on the line" and is doing recipe consulting for a woman opening up an ice cream shop. She's considered opening up her own bakery but admitted to being a bit intimidated by the obstacles: mainly the failure rate and the money required to start one.

Her parting advice was that you won’t always feel like doing everything, but she found she could not stay out of the kitchen. She highlighted that the pastry industry is a pretty small world. The people tend to be very friendly and open and most do it because they have a passion for it. “No one does it for the money,” she said.

After my conversations with Mary and Robyn and my first-hand experience at the San Francisco Baking Institute, I don't find myself rushing out to start a bakery or pastry business. I guess, that in and of itself, tells me something. Though I am still enamored with growing my baking skills.

In the end, I found Mr. Gilbert's advice useful. Getting some insight from those who have experienced or are experiencing what I'm interested in was very helpful. I learned I could make the switch to a career in pastry and probably do it well, but I'm not convinced it would make me happy.

I'm Looser

One of the interesting results of having a website is the email I receive from readers. I am always truly touched to hear from a reader, because, well, it indicates someone is actually reading what I write. Right?

I recently received an email with the subject line, “I feel like a looser.” The sender went on to tell his tale of woe and I read it and after wondered what to do about his email. I was tempted to reply and tell him that it’s actually “loser” not “looser,” but then I thought I might be reinforcing his feeling, as it were.

Grammar aside, I know how he feels. No matter the circumstances of our lives, there comes a time when everyone feels inadequate, stupid, unworthy. I’ve been feeling that way myself lately.

I’ve been working hard to figure myself out and I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere. Last night, feeling antsy, I decided to organize my writing files. I have been writing since the first grade and I have a number of word docs to demonstrate my effort.

While culling through my files, I happened upon one entitled The Struggle by Alicia Morga. I opened it up and found this:

I’m like one of those loser writers. You know those pseudo-intellectuals that tell you without prompting that they’re writing a book. They are forever writing something, never publishing anything. I fancy myself a writer but let’s face it, I can’t write to save my ass.

There is something wonderfully romantic about calling yourself a writer. It conjures up images of tortured intellectuals, soft souls. Writers understand grammar; have huge vocabularies. Now see, if I was actually a writer I would have used a word like ___ (god I can’t even think of the word – checking the thesaurus) to describe the size of such a vocabulary.

Whenever I meet someone who actually says he writes for a living, I am instantly in awe. How does he do that? Do thoughts and great ways to put them together flood his mind? How can he be prolific enough to be employed?

The words are so bottled up inside my head. My thoughts go in thousands of directions. If you’re thinking attention deficit disorder – don’t worry, I’m way ahead of you. But no. It’s that I’m not a very good writer. Isn’t the essence of a writer the ability to transform words into the human experience? To transcend the very paper on which those words are written? Did you like that? (I reworded the sentence so it didn’t end in a preposition.)

I, however, have a terrible time translating my thoughts to paper. It takes time and I have a hard time sitting still. It takes thought and I say anything that comes into my head. I’m not sure what else it takes, because – well because, I’m one of those loser writers.

I read it and laughed out loud. I wrote that in 2001. It seems the struggle never ends – you’ll constantly have times when you feel like a loser. But, the difference today from where I was in 2001, is I’m far more gentle with myself. I may have the feeling, but you won’t catch me using that word to describe myself anymore.

Words have power. I’ve always known that and I had always struggled with words people in my past used on me, until I read The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, A Toltec Wisdom Book by Don Miguel Ruiz. The first agreement he outlines is “Be impeccable with your word.” He reasons if you wouldn’t scream the horrible words you think at your child or a loved one, why do you do it to yourself? He points out you only strengthen the evil words others put in your head by accepting them into your lexicon. After years of struggling with the negative voices in my head, the Agreement finally helped me flip the switch in my brain.

It’s not like I never have a negative thought – they do come up – it’s that now I instantly battle them with positive thoughts; the sillier the better. Now that I realize I have control over how I treat myself, I treat myself well. I’ve found this has made room in my life to get on with my life. I’ve found I’ve become a bit looser.

Community Theater

A while back, a friend invited me to a matinee at the Masquers Playhouse. It’s a small community theater located in Richmond Point, a city better known for its toxins than its theater, but I thought it a good Sunday outing.

The feature performance was City of Angels. At thirty minutes before the musical began, we got there just in time. One rule of community theater: it’s first come, first served seating. After a brief tussle with an octogenarian about a seat, my friend and I sat down in separate seats (score 1 for the octogenarian) with plenty of time to thoroughly review the playbill.

The theater held about fifty people. The playbill was full of ads from such denizens of business as the local real estate agent and an ergonomics specialist. There was also a long list of theater patrons that included those who had donated in the range of $10-25 to the theater. I wondered if, at the $14 I paid for a ticket, I shouldn’t be listed.

In the minutes that stretched before me and the curtain call, I soldiered through the theater program. It was filled with upbeat descriptions of cast members, each of whom was playing multiple parts in the afternoon’s production. Some of the cast blurbs listed grateful mothers who thanked husbands and children for their support while “Mommy is on stage” while other blurbs gave shout outs to their dogs or cats.

Eventually, no curtain rose, but four people stepped out into the spotlight and began the musical. The Angel City Four, as the playbill called them, began to sing in a jazzy style that only 40s music will allow. They grooved to the melody with their bodies. The four of them were a perfect microcosm of what was to come.

There was a cherub-cheeked tall man who looked to be in his later twenties; a thin, more distinguished fellow who had to be in his sixties; a young round woman in her early thirties replete with forties hair and finally, a woman well into her sixties sporting a very bad blonde wig which didn’t move an inch in the jazzier moments of her hip shaking to the quartet’s number.

The musical progressed and after the initial shock to my aesthetic sense, I settled in to watch the story unfold and be carried away by the music.

The acting wasn’t half bad as musicals go. But the singing. It was the singing that disturbed me the most. Perhaps it’s because singing is the raw emotion – it’s impossible to hide behind. You either hit the high note or you don’t. Which sadly, in this particular case, every male cast member failed to do.

Alas, there is nothing more depressing than bad community theater. I glanced at the Act list to see what song the cast was on and therefore what time until my eventual freedom, and wondered why. Why was I depressed by this fantastic display of organization and free spirit?

Without an initial clue, I amused myself by making up stories about the cast.

There was the older player who no doubt spent a dutiful life toiling away at an office job, hating his boss, marrying, having kids, paying for college but never lost that spark to perform. So he indulged it at weeknight rehearsals and Sunday matinees, knowing full well there’s a lawn to be mowed before too long.

Then there was the truly talented older player. One of the many people who have talent that they might have pursued for some time but their talent never took them beyond small towns and small playhouses.

Right when I began to get bored with my analysis of the Angel City Four quartet, a man appeared, in drag. There was no explanation. It may very well have been a part of the musical, but in this theater it came off altogether differently. I couldn’t help but imagine that the male player convinced the director to let him indulge his fantasy of singing in drag. You can do that in community theater.

It wasn’t until the song, “It Needs Work,” that I finally got an inkling of what these players seemingly sought to capture. The blond woman who sang the song looked to be in her forties. She looked like a soccer mom, married for over ten years. There was muscle in her arms and her voice was of medium strength – the kind enjoyed around countless family pianos at Christmas-time. I flashed on what her life must be like and I realized it must be pretty interesting. Okay, granted she probably wasn't living a glamorous life, but it seemed she must have been living one other than ordinary.

Hell, maybe her husband came to see some of her performances or simply liked the fact that after the kids are shuttled, the bills are paid and dinner is served, his wife has something more to her – she sings. She does community theater. Maybe her husband fell in love with her husky voice and every time he hears it he is recaptured by a bit of that old feeling – the excitement when falling in love and learning something new about your beloved. I imagined all this while I watched her sing her heart out onstage and then it hit me. This display is about living.

I was humbled. While I related more to one of the main players who looked about as embarrassed to be doing theater in the community, as I was to be attending, I was also awed by his courage to get on stage.

Perhaps I was so quick to boredom and subsequent analysis because I am a bit of a coward – the one audience member who hadn’t admitted it to herself. I’m not sure I could get up there. Even if one can sing, it takes quite a lot of internal fortitude to admit, that first one wants to and second that one wants to in front of an audience. Singing, acting, whatever the artistic tool, it takes courage to express a desire but even more so to act on it.

I watched and was further educated by what the whole display revealed in me. I have secret desires and dreams but unlike those community theater players, I am afraid. I fear acknowledging them and I fear missing out on pursuing them. I couch my fear in a false fear that I too will end up in a community theater when I am 50, never having reached any pinnacle of artistic success.

When I was forced to step back yet again by a fiery performance of “All You Have To Do is Wait,” I realized that the thing I was so critical of – the community theater performance, is the thing life is made of. And to be afraid of it is to be afraid to live. That is to perform, let loose; sing out – no matter the setting, no matter the price of the seats. Success is not reaching a pinnacle but in the doing.

So in a small playhouse in a toxic city, I learned that life encompasses wants, desires, dreams. Some realize them, some don’t and somewhere in between, well, there’s community theater.

How to Change Your Life

I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage: the only thing you can count on is change. There was, in fact, a whole publishing frenzy around this realization about ten years back. There was “Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life”, “Who Made my Cheese?”, “Who Stole My Cheese” and even “Nobody Moved Your Cheese” (How to Ignore the Experts and Trust Your own Gut). It was a real cheese movement.

Most people get that change happens. The funny thing is that few folks seem able to affect it. The hardest part about changing, it seems, is where to start. Several years back, when everyone was moving their cheese, I was moving my stuff.

While I learned to be super organized and neat as a way to combat the chaos of my upbringing, I had never given much thought to my living environment until I moved to San Francisco. To commemorate the move, a friend gave me a book entitled, Move Your Stuff, Change Your Life : How to Use Feng Shui to Get Love, Money, Respect and Happiness.

From the title you might guess that it is not a great literary work. What it is, essentially, is a fun guide for using the principles of feng shui in your home. What is feng shui? It is the thoughtful placement of objects in your environment to get positive results. As much as your living environment affects you, you can affect your environment. In the book, Barry Gordon, a physicist, describes feng shui as “the intelligent use of intention through environmental metaphor.” I didn’t say it wasn’t deep.

Anyway, the idea is to take a look around and see what you are unconsciously saying in your life. Who or what are you letting in? Who or what are you keeping out? Your things, what you do with them, how you treat them and even where you place them are a physical manifestation of your conscious and often, sub-conscious.

Without getting too much into feng shui parlance, I’ll just say this: different parts of your home equate to different aspects of life, like relationships and love, career, prosperity, etc. The book recommends looking at each corner of your home to understand what areas of your life might be blocked – literally. For example, that treadmill in your bedroom just might be an outward manifestation of the treadmill your relationship is on. The cure is to move your things so that your environment begins to feel right. When you move your things you stir up energy and a change in energy, leads to a change in life.

So when I feel stuck, I get moving. I move my body: I try new routes to work in my car; I sleep on the “wrong” side of the bed. I move my clothes: I donate clothes I haven’t worn in over a year; I organize my sweaters by color. I move paper: I figure out which of my books have gone too long without being read and create a pile to work my way through; I clean out my office of old papers. You get the idea.

It all may sound silly but I am learning to believe that if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. That being said, because I just went through a major life change, I didn’t realize what else needed changing. That is until I recently took another look around my house. Here’s what I noticed: several framed Mexican movie posters. I like collecting them but for the first time I really looked at one of them.

Exhibit A:

Alicia Morga Mi Marido

Do you see it? The trouble with this picture is visible but I decided to look up the movie and understand its plot. I found this synopsis of the movie: a wealthy widow hires a marriage agency to find a man to pretend to be her husband so that suitors do not bother her. Oh, dear. Is it any wonder my love life has been in such a state? I’ve literally been keeping Mi Marido (my husband) out.

I can only guess at what you might be thinking. Maybe something along the lines of “Does she really believe this stuff?” Yes. I do. Energy can be harnessed through intention and I have been hopelessly unintentional. I decided to take action. I took down that Mexican movie poster and put this up instead.

Let’s see what kind of change that brings.

Siddhartha Said

I am a firm believer that books find me right when I need them.   After relating the story of Buddha, as presented to me by the Lama Mynak Tulku, to my good friend Beth, she suggested I borrow her old copy of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.  It had been on her reading list in junior high.  Mine?  Not so much.

Buddha was born an Indian prince or Brahman, named Siddhartha about 2,500 years ago.  Mr. Hesse’s tale of Buddha is a perhaps a more true-to-life version of the story of Buddha as it is more grounded in the realities of the time.  In Hesse’s story we follow Siddhartha’s journey from a boy to a father – his journey before enlightenment - which makes the Buddha all the more relatable.  I believe that to be the brilliance of Hesse’s version.  After all, Buddha was born a human.  He had an ego, desires, attachment, the works.  His humanity is meant to inspire and remind us that enlightenment is possible for us, too – we are no different than him.

Siddhartha’s pre-enlightenment journey is informative as it swings from asceticism to hedonism and then finally to its peace on the middle path.  But it was a struggle.

At the time of Siddhartha, there were many Buddhas.  In fact, Siddhartha or Shakyamuni, is thought to be the fourth of a thousand Buddhas.  Siddhartha, an intellectual and independent spirit, chafed at the teachings of his contemporary Buddha.  As an example of Siddhartha’s arrogance yet prescience, in Hesse’s story:  “What he [Siddhartha] said to the Buddha – that the Buddha’s wisdom and secret was not teachable, that it was inexpressible and incommunicable – and which he had once experienced in an hour of enlightenment, was just what he had now set off to experience, what he was now beginning to experience.  He must gain experience for himself.”

He’s even downright critical of the Buddha’s followers: “the Illustrious One, who preaches this gospel.  Thousands of young men hear his teachings every day and follow his instructions every hour, but they are all falling leaves; they have not the wisdom and guide within themselves.”

Siddhartha instead of also following the Buddha of the time decides to set out on his own path.  But he struggles.

He first tries the ascetic life and comes to the realization that he must listen to his inward voice and leaves his ascetic community, much to the dismay of its leader.  He emerges from the ascetic life only to be lured into a material life -by a woman, no less.  Her temptations require funding and he finds his way in through learning business.  At first he is able to keep a healthy remove, but soon enough he finds himself drowning:  “Slowly the soul sickness of the rich crept over him…Siddhartha did not notice it.  He only noticed that the bright and clear inward voice, that had once awakened in him and had always guided him in his finest hours, had become silent.”

So he leaves his woman (soon to be the mother of his child) and riches behind and finds himself on the banks of a river.  There he is reunited with an old man who had given him a ride across the river when he was young.  He decides to stay with the man and learn from the river.

Here, contemplating the many facets of the river, he learns he is a father and tries in vain to connect with his son.  His heart is broken and the wound leads to a great many realizations.

On his struggle to find his path, his center: “Siddhartha now realized why had struggled in vain with this Self…He had been full of arrogance; he had always been the cleverest, the most eager…Now he understood it and realized that the inward voice had been right, that no teacher could have brought him salvation.”

He tried to resist the path he simply had to take – he tried to deny his inward voice and this resistance caused him much suffering, but in essence, his struggle was perfectly necessary:  “Is it not true, that slowly and through many deviations I changed from a man into a child?  From a thinker into an ordinary person? … I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew.  But it was right that it should be so; my eyes and heart acclaim it.  I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace, to hear Om again, to sleep deeply again and to awaken refreshed again.  I had to become a fool again in order to find Atman in myself.  I had to sin in order to live again.  Whither will my path yet lead me?  This path is stupid, it goes in spirals, perhaps in circles, but whichever way it goes, I will follow it.”

When he finally stops fighting his path, what is, he experiences a rebirth, which also means that something has died:  “The bird, the clear spring and voice within him was still alive…If this bird within him had died, would he have perished?  No, something else in him had died, something that he had long desired should perish…. Was it not his Self, his small, fearful and proud Self, with which he had wrestled for so many years, but which had always conquered him again, which appeared each time again and again, which robbed him of happiness and filled him with fear? Was it not this which had finally died today in the wood by this delightful river?  Was it not because of its death that he was now like a child, so full of trust and happiness, without fear?”

In the end, Siddhartha’s pre-enlightenment journey is the embodiment of the message: there is a difference between knowledge and experience. Only experience teaches you wisdom and you get experience only by following your own path.  In Siddhartha’s words, “Wisdom is not communicable.  The wisdom which a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish. … Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom.”

Wisdom, however, is only one step towards transcendence.  When he begins, with the help of the river, to realize his connectedness to others (“He now regarded people in a different light than he had previously: not very clever, not very proud and therefore all the more warm, curious and sympathetic”) and the unity that exists beyond dichotomous words (“in every truth the opposite is equally true…. Everything that is thought and expressed in words is one-sided, only half the truth; it all lacks totality, completeness, unity“) enlightenment is within reach.

Which boils down to this:  “The sinner is not on the way to a Buddha-like state; he is not evolving, although our thinking cannot conceive things otherwise.  No, the potential Buddha already exists in the sinner; his future is already there.  The potential hidden Buddha must be recognized in him, in you, in everybody.  The world, … is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection.  No, it is perfect at every moment… It is not possible for one person to see how far another is on the way; the Buddha exists in the robber and dice player; the robber exists in the Brahman…Therefore, it seems to me that everything that exists is good – death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly.  Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me.  I learned though my body and soul that it was necessary for me to sin, that I needed lust, that I had to strive for property and experience nausea and the depths of despair in order to learn not to resist them, in order to learn to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it.”