February 28, 2013
And for tonight’s insomnia-fueled reflection…

It sometimes freaks me out when GDocs says someone else is looking at my doc … and that other person is me.

January 4, 2013
What It Is to Be American

When I lived in the US I thought I knew what it was to be American. I was comfortable with it; there were things I disdained and things I generally liked, things I rebuked — like having to drive everywhere — and things I knew I couldn’t live without — like how easy it is to get curly fries, anywhere, at any time of day or night. 


I once read that the Lost Generation, our fabled and beloved American writers of the ‘20s, were able to write so well about America — not because they were in Paris, but because their time outside taught them to see home with new eyes. I suppose that was one draw for leaving. I had a vague suspicion that would happen to me, but didn’t really see how it could. I thought, like an adolescent, that I knew who I was and how the world worked.

But I left anyway. January 12th will mark my fourth year in Paris. Some years flew by less quickly than others, and I often feared I’d lose my ties to the US: to friends, work opportunities, my culture and my family. But technology has sprung up around us to bind ties I thought I’d lose.

I changed a great deal. There are things about Paris, and about the French, that I had to embrace in order to do that. I sometimes worried I’d lose myself, then learned that if you open yourself to a place, and to being changed by it, you can’t lose yourself: you are simply transformed, richer in nuance and in depth than if you had fought yourself stagnant. You are more yourself than ever.

I know for certain that in the four years since I arrived in Paris I became a woman, and a very different one from the one I would have become in California or New York. It isn’t just a question of environment; it is also about what the culture passes along to you: how the people, the movies, and the media teach you to become an adult in this society. There were shaky moments: I sometimes wondered, while choosing a scarf or when foregoing rice in the interest of bread, whether I was nullifying some aspect of me that I needed to protect. There were misses: I still don’t get French comedians. And no matter how many movies or YouTube videos I watch, I’ll never fully grasp the nostalgic pop culture or other reverberations of recent past that colour the language, humour and identity of the Parisians of my generation.

And of course there were successes: I was incorporated into families and made friends. People started expecting me places. I was, as the French are so fond of saying, integrated. I learned, again, how to dress myself: what suits me best in the culture, how to integrate what I like with what makes sense here, and where to find that mix. (This is surprisingly one of the toughest nuts to crack when you move somewhere new for a long period of time.) I learned, all over again, how to buy shampoo, take care of my body, eat and sleep. The products are different here; the rhythm is, too. Having to stumble through all this again made me feel like a lost adolescent in the Personal Care aisle. I puzzled over what to take for a headache or a cough, what deodorants were best, and what to put in my hair. Because in this new climate, with its harder water and different kinds of food, everything I thought I knew about my body changed.

I changed inside, too. I noticed different things, began to think in different ways. Language isn’t just about being heard; it’s a framework for thought, with its own rhythm and history. In another language you are forced to think in a different way: the sentence constructions and rules of grammar are different, forcing your brain to perceive things twice: the way an Anglophone would, then the way a Francophone would. The logic behind each approach is different, sometimes diametrically opposed (a good example is how both cultures believe in the separation of church and state, but approach the problem in ways that are opposite in the extreme). Then, as you grow comfortable with manifesting words in your new tongue, you go back to perceiving things just once … and what becomes hard is remembering how you saw them in your native way.

I sometimes forget words, or how to turn a small, niggling phrase in English. Culture author Mark Tungate once told me he goes out of his way to read books in English for this reason. “We do it to protect our craft,” he emphasised. “If we lose our mastery of it, we lose our livelihood.” That’s something I never would have learned at home.

But I think most telling is what I’ve learned about being American. The French relationship to Americans is complicated, distinctly love/hate, and I’ve concluded it’s because we’re much too similar. As a much wiser person once said, “Americans have to win and the French hate to lose.”

Many of our cultural differences resonate in my workdays: the adoption of new technology is more rapid in the US; the French take their time, and I know we can’t always afford that luxury when opportunity arises. What the French are only coming to realise is that markets can no longer remain local, taking the time to grow in their bubbles, particularly online. You’re competing with everyone, catering to everyone, the moment you open your doors. It’s too easy to say Americans understand this intuitively; the truth is, we don’t have to. We speak the world’s business language and have one of the largest, most influential markets in existence: what flies in the US will likely fly globally, simply because we’re fortunate enough to have a culture that’s built to export. We also have a generous investment ecosystem that keeps ideas of merit in business for years before they turn a profit. This simply doesn’t exist in Europe.

As I struggled to keep sight of myself, even as I transformed, the French are struggling to maintain identity in a world that now threatens to leave them behind. Even its prime industries are suffering: luxury, fashion and wine are no longer an exclusively French export, and seldom now do we need a French name on a product in any of those three categories to feel sure about its quality. Simplicity, efficiency, and the importance of tight yet ever-evolving UX design are intuitive to a connected American; it is less so in a country that values deep reflection over immediacy, protectionism over autonomous action and tradition over an uncertain future.

French journalist Pascal Lechevallier of ZDNet.fr recently gave me a simplified description of the difference between Americans and the French. “In America you talk with ease about technology because it’s part of your education; in France we talk with ease about wine because it is part of our education. You can be French and talk about technology, and you can be American and talk about wine … but you will never be fluent.”

I don’t know yet if that’s true; I think it’s too early to be sure. I think the primary takeaway is that what we find is self-evident really comes down to the education our culture imparted to us. But I remain optimistic that, however painful this transition is, and however long it takes, France will change. It must, even if it makes terrible mistakes first. Here I demonstrate two distinctly American qualities that I love and deeply value: optimism and openness to failure.

Failure is instructive. It isn’t in my nature to face failure with relish, just as it isn’t in my nature to be gregarious and extroverted. These are things I learned were important, despite myself, because I grew up in the Bay Area. I don’t particularly care about the last two; France gave me a gift in showing me it isn’t wrong to be reserved, inside myself and slow to warm to others. (I often felt it was in the States.) But I do recognise that some qualities, however natural, are best tempered: I make an effort to be open to failure, because I have had to fail so much to get here. Early on, failure felt like condemnation; it is only recently that I’ve learned it’s just another wave in a wide ocean, and the trick is less to take waves personally than it is to learn to read them.

In Paris I’ve met creatives who believe in the industry and want to move their clients forward and embrace new technology, even though many large European clients still wave social media away. They call it trendy. Or, too often, they’ll give social media a cursory nod — start a Facebook page, say — but remind their agencies not to get too “crazy”: they don’t want to deal with users, they don’t want to change their products.

I’ve also met startup founders that know the European VC space is conservative and tight-fisted, that the market isn’t open to change right away, and that the French government is generally hostile to the entrepreneurial spirit — maybe, as Gerard Depardieu and Maurice Levy believe, hostile to success in general.

The dreamers are nonetheless here, ready to take risks and compress the fear that comes with fighting a tide so much larger than any I fought, having grown up near Silicon Valley — where societal condemnation comes not from being ambitious but from lacking the ambition to create something for yourself. That’s pressure I recognise. But it doesn’t compare to having to step outside your comfort zone and try dragging your country, kicking and screaming, into the new world order. Their jobs aren’t easy, and few can  blame them when they throw their hands up and leave France.

I’m often asked, “Why are you here when you could go back to where change happens so easily?”

It’s true I didn’t make life easy for myself by moving to France, and it certainly wasn’t the career move of the century (although it’s changing every day, and for the better). Things are easier, smoother and faster in the US, particularly if you’re young, hungry and talented. And I often miss the competence and certainty I felt at home, the optimism in the air, the positivity that radiates from Americans because, in the end, “complainers don’t win”.

But I stay because of the things that make me American. I’ve mentioned optimism, and having to face the fear of failure head-on. We’re also good at sharing, unafraid of losing what we put out into the open: our culture, even our language, is open-source. We want to impart our learnings, and we believe that the ecosystems we live and work in are better for it.

We try to stay positive, even against terrible opposition. As a small example, I’m often teased for calling a concert, a movie or a bloody web mockup “fantastic” or “awesome”.

“Sorry,” my friends — sometimes even my clients! — will say to unacquainted companions. “She’s American.” In France you critique first and ask questions later. It’s easier to say something is not that great than it is to be wrong — or worse, in bad taste.

We seek friends in strangers. We tell the stories of our lives openly, trying earnestly to expand our positive connections in the world. I’m often told I ask too many personal questions or share too much. But I wouldn’t exchange discretion for the life’s wisdom I’ve accrued on plane rides, in cabs, from waiters or old women at the bus stop. They have given me life experience I didn’t have to sweat for — an immeasurable gift — and I am always trying to pay that back.

We try new things. Maybe a little too readily. Christophe Asselin, a native Frenchman who now leads ad:tech London, laughingly told me that the difference between the US and Europe lies in their attitudes toward the new. “Americans are always so quick to adopt. They rush into things, they make all the mistakes. We watch, we wait.” We may make all the mistakes, but that’s gold: those are where the best practices lie. You can make lots of money remaining just behind the cutting edge, but we crave the cutting edge itself. Like infants experiencing a world of new senses, we simply want to try.

We like solutions. One of the toughest things I had to do in France was adjust to how everyone complains all the time. It is literally the world’s most pessimistic country. They complain about the weather, about the upholstery, about the service … they complain to make conversation. “If you’re not complaining,” a colleague once told me, “you’re not alive.”

It wore me out in the first year, and with time I figured out why: Americans are taught, first not to complain, and secondly to find solutions. My brain was constantly at work, proposing solutions to problems that had none, because nobody wanted any. Once I understood this, it was easier to bear the barrage of complaints and to take them in good humour. But even today, when someone approaches me with a complex problem, I still relish in the work of gathering the variables, looking at all sides of it, trying to find the key.

Finally, we mean well. A favourite critique of Americans is that we barge into situations, disputes, societies, whole countries that aren’t our own, then start throwing money around and trying to “fix” things without first gathering sufficient information. There are often terrible consequences to this; I’ll be the first to make that concession. I have always been a fan of “information as artillery”. But I also know we do it out of some fundamental conviction that we can help lift a burden, or out of hope that we can provide an unexpected, never-before-considered solution. Even if I would change the approach, I wouldn’t change the spirit of the gesture: we like to be helpful.

If I remain here it isn’t because I love my home country less — although, as in the case of the Lost Generation, I do see it with more critical eyes, which I nonetheless associate with love. I’m here because I feel there’s still work to do connecting our two cultures, and because I still want to do it. It’s the challenge I accepted, and I’ll either succeed or fail. I’m here because I believe that my American perspective is useful to clients making baby steps in social engagement (we made the mistakes already!), and because I believe France will meet the changing world halfway. It has no choice. But it does need people who want to help carry the load.

I’m here because I’m American, and I want to give France what it gave me: openness to change, and the sense that if we surrender ourselves to the process, we’ll come out fuller, not less rich. If that sounds naive or arrogant, I’m okay with that: those, too, are American qualities.

September 19, 2012
"

They have willingly given the Islamists the right to speak in the name of Islam, and step on eggshells in order not to confront them, even though confronting them is fairly easy, and it starts with calling them out on their bullshit.

First of all, given that this is a Muslim country, one should call Egyptian “Islamists” on who they really are: a bunch of shrill, patriarchal, misogynistic, violent extremists who are using Islam as a cover for their behaviour. That in reality we don’t have “islamists” as much as people with unresolved sexual and personal issues that have found in certain Islamic schools an excuse to carry out their convoluted fantasies about sex, control and mental lock-down. That their so called fundamentalism is synthetic and created primarily to excuse their behaviour, and that their “back to basics” mantra that romanticises a time where they believe that their social rules, intellectual walls and sexual fantasies were part of society’s norm and wishes to bring it back is obviously a crock and wishful thinking.

Secondly, one should establish that calling them up on it doesn’t make someone less of a muslim, but rather a defender of Islam from those who are actually tarnishing its image, for what they are doing is more damaging to Islam’s reputation than a thousand so called “Islam –attacking films”.

"

- “A country of extremists”, by my good friend Mahmoud Salem. I admire him for continuing to write work like this, for powering on, against so much disappointment and opposition. It isn’t just because what is happening in the Middle East is incredibly important right now; it is also because this fight between religion and an ever-constricted culture is also an American problem.

We must take care that extremists not become American Christianity’s primary spokespeople — and that they not become the spokespeople for our nation. Their pressure is building on us: from the Democrats’ quiet decision to incorporate “God” and “faith” into the DNC talks, to the equality disputes over womens’ bodies and gay marriage which we still humour (as though they justify response!); to the “balanced debate” we insist on having about things that objectively do not have two sides: math, science, evolution, global warming.

And while all this is funny from a distance, it is also extremely dangerous. Extremists will rend what we’ve planted out of our soil by its roots, and they will catapult us so far backward that we won’t even recognise ourselves when their work is over.

We have no right to behave as though what is happening in Egypt, in the Muslim Nations at large, is too far from us to matter. Nervous about Sharia law? There are powerful politicians itching for us to hold to Biblical law. They call bare-armed girls whores and if you love someone they don’t like, they call you a cultural threat.

The Middle East’s fundamental problem is our own. And it is so terribly insidious that we must remind ourselves consciously. That is why I’m writing this: not just for you, but so I can remember too.

September 5, 2012
I don’t see Estée Lauder quoted very often, but the words resonate deeply with me.
I was raised to pursue what I wanted with conviction and commitment. Dreaming was only meant to be a springboard. But gathering the momentum to push off from it isn’t easy.
When I decided to quit a cushy marketing job and become a freelance journalist, a lot of people I trusted critiqued my choice. Near tears, I called my dad. He said, “There will be times when everyone treats you as if you’re crazy, and as a reasonable person you’ll wonder if they are right. When this happens, look at your results. If you’re accomplishing what you intended, you’re not the crazy one.”
What he meant was, up to this point had I gotten what I expected? Were the right kinds of people paying attention, and gravitating to me? This became a compass.
I haven’t stopped following it since. It’s grueling work that demands everything from you, but it is also satisfying. Things I’ve learned along the way:
There is never a reason to throw your hands up and say “It’s not fair.” Life doesn’t know our rules; you just get over it and keep getting up. This is character.
The right people do notice. They watch you from a distance and lend help if you ask. They don’t just become friends; they become useful constellations in the dark.
Pursuing your path doesn’t have to mean stepping on or demeaning other people. If you enrich and help those you come across, and surround yourself by the competent, the hungry and the loyal, the journey goes from being lonely to being incredibly rich. With few exceptions I’ve always felt taken care of and listened to in an industry that isn’t known for its nurturing qualities.
Being honest, with yourself and with others, pays the biggest long-term dividends. It is the hardest thing to do, and you have to decide to be that person every time you come across a point of ambiguity. This never gets easier, but it’s also a compass — one that shouldn’t be disregarded.
Cover your ass. My boss at Sunglass Hut taught me this and it’s another useful thing to remember. Never leave things to chance: save meticulously, be clear in your language, prepare for alternate outcomes. 
Success is arduous work. And in order to make it worth it for you, the first thing you have to do is define what success is. We have a lot of social cues but feedback from others — getting rich, private jets, corporate accounts — doesn’t really help you prepare your own yardstick.
It may take years before you’ve shaken off what you think you want and discovered what is really worth your trouble. I thought for the longest time that I needed to be a millionnaire by age 25; I know now that what I really need is a good quality of life, to live in a place that makes me feel whole, to do challenging things that force me to renew myself regularly, and to populate my life with people who are good, in all senses of the word.
Then there are the little things: that half-hour in the métro that I can read, time away from the ‘net and work, a new pair of beautiful shoes, Cleaning Day, a glass of wine alone in the sunshine, time to write, falling asleep on Romain’s shoulder, and that moment when I get home and our moody cat — who hates being touched — rolls over in righteous wait for his belly rub. These things mean so much more to me now than “millionnaire at 25,” and I would never have found them if I’d stayed where I was supposed to and done what was expected.
The road is harder, but the trade-off has been very good.

I don’t see Estée Lauder quoted very often, but the words resonate deeply with me.

I was raised to pursue what I wanted with conviction and commitment. Dreaming was only meant to be a springboard. But gathering the momentum to push off from it isn’t easy.

When I decided to quit a cushy marketing job and become a freelance journalist, a lot of people I trusted critiqued my choice. Near tears, I called my dad. He said, “There will be times when everyone treats you as if you’re crazy, and as a reasonable person you’ll wonder if they are right. When this happens, look at your results. If you’re accomplishing what you intended, you’re not the crazy one.”

What he meant was, up to this point had I gotten what I expected? Were the right kinds of people paying attention, and gravitating to me? This became a compass.

I haven’t stopped following it since. It’s grueling work that demands everything from you, but it is also satisfying. Things I’ve learned along the way:

  • There is never a reason to throw your hands up and say “It’s not fair.” Life doesn’t know our rules; you just get over it and keep getting up. This is character.
  • The right people do notice. They watch you from a distance and lend help if you ask. They don’t just become friends; they become useful constellations in the dark.
  • Pursuing your path doesn’t have to mean stepping on or demeaning other people. If you enrich and help those you come across, and surround yourself by the competent, the hungry and the loyal, the journey goes from being lonely to being incredibly rich. With few exceptions I’ve always felt taken care of and listened to in an industry that isn’t known for its nurturing qualities.
  • Being honest, with yourself and with others, pays the biggest long-term dividends. It is the hardest thing to do, and you have to decide to be that person every time you come across a point of ambiguity. This never gets easier, but it’s also a compass — one that shouldn’t be disregarded.
  • Cover your ass. My boss at Sunglass Hut taught me this and it’s another useful thing to remember. Never leave things to chance: save meticulously, be clear in your language, prepare for alternate outcomes.

Success is arduous work. And in order to make it worth it for you, the first thing you have to do is define what success is. We have a lot of social cues but feedback from others — getting rich, private jets, corporate accounts — doesn’t really help you prepare your own yardstick.

It may take years before you’ve shaken off what you think you want and discovered what is really worth your trouble. I thought for the longest time that I needed to be a millionnaire by age 25; I know now that what I really need is a good quality of life, to live in a place that makes me feel whole, to do challenging things that force me to renew myself regularly, and to populate my life with people who are good, in all senses of the word.

Then there are the little things: that half-hour in the métro that I can read, time away from the ‘net and work, a new pair of beautiful shoes, Cleaning Day, a glass of wine alone in the sunshine, time to write, falling asleep on Romain’s shoulder, and that moment when I get home and our moody cat — who hates being touched — rolls over in righteous wait for his belly rub. These things mean so much more to me now than “millionnaire at 25,” and I would never have found them if I’d stayed where I was supposed to and done what was expected.

The road is harder, but the trade-off has been very good.

September 4, 2012
On Meditation

No worries, wee monk, you’ll get there.


I have a client who’s gone away to meditate for a month in one of those countryside meditation places. To make conversation, I not-jokingly said, “I tried meditating last week, but I’m not sure if I did it right because I think I fell asleep.”

He gave me a smile of uncondescending sympathy and said, “The problem is, today, we’re just tired all the time. When you go away on a meditation retreat you basically spend the first week falling asleep. Then you get to the point where you’re actually rested. And that’s when you can really start working on stuff.”

I liked this and have been thinking about it ever since. It’s silly to say, but it never occurs to me that everyone else is just as tired as I am, that this is an epidemic, and that falling asleep while trying to meditate isn’t some expression of your inability to attain inner attunedness, it’s an expression of how goddamn dragged-across-the-cobblestones we feel all the livelong day.

Isn’t that reassuring? And doesn’t that make you want to get to the place where you’re rested, if only to see what you’re like once you arrive?

August 27, 2012

Brands in My Newsfeed

Just a snapshot of the brands that popped up in my newsfeed yesterday afternoon. They practically hit me one after the other. My responses to them:

  • I read the Obama one pretty closely, as I found the photo compelling and relatable — two things Obama happens to be good at in the social space.
  • I usually peep Good but didn’t this time; I’m kinda over the existential humans vs chimpanzees ruminating, and the infographic had that ugly, hard-to-read background colour.
  • Method I read because I’m a hardcore fangirl. Usually the imagery is more interesting but I did go through all the comments out of curiosity. I identified with the people who were like “My Target doesn’t carry all that” and noticed Method didn’t really reply, which vaguely embarrassed me because HEY, FANGIRL.
  • YSL — I read the text because the photo was cute and wanted to know the story behind it. And then I got kind of weirded out by this whole “the most Amazonian of Parisians” description. Did I find her Amazonian? Not sure.
  • The champagne ad: I looked at it because the colours were pretty but didn’t feel it particularly spoke to me. This guy is maybe two shares away from me de-newsfeeding him, actually.
  • LOVED the Game of Thrones share. Even though this group’s English is horrible they often find shareable GoT stuff that I end up sharing with other people. And what girl doesn’t love Daenarys? I ask you, what girl? If you find one, I don’t want to be friends with her because ew, she probably likes Sansa.

Off-topic social impulse buy: so as a result of seeing talk about it so often on my Tumblr dashboard, I bought a Clarisonic. It’s been two days and I love it, but my boyfriend is not convinced that I’m actually feeling a difference and is pretty sure it’s actually a vibrator. *shrug*

July 29, 2012

Frames from the Edge

Last week a friend invited me to see the Helmut Newton exposition at the Grand Palais. It was a huge treat. Above you’ll find Frames from the Edge, a documentary about Newton’s work.

Newton in many ways defines the photography of fashion: he captured its whimsy, semi-debauched fantasy and fairy tale demeanour. He was utterly unafraid of vulnerability, strength, ugliness or beauty, the blatantly commercial or the grittily banal; you have to be courageous to capture these things, to keep watching until you find them instead of blinking and pretending you didn’t see. 

His celebrity portraits are also terribly revealing; in one shot he can capture the entire universe of a person, their allure or their insanity or their unexpected forged strength. There is something kind and non judgmental about his camera eye; in front of it, the burlesque becomes a game of dress-up, naked women like little girls in Mummy’s enormous fur coat, with shameless parading faces.

A handful of photos I snapped at the exhibition:


The top photo is of his wife June. I love the intimacy of it, the crass casualness. It’s like spying on a naked cowboy. The middle shot is a classic YSL the way I still think of YSL: that woman, untouchable and so pristine that the fact of her existence, the very angles of her body seem to cut through space/time. And that last commercial photograph, with the man who reaches from outside of the screen to light a TV model’s cigarette! I love that kind of play, its implications about our ongoing conversation, our own intimacy with media (and its stubborn insistence on protecting its space).

July 21, 2012

I’ve decided that of all the fictional callings I would like to pursue, perhaps the one with the strongest and most persistent pull is the desire to become a Pokemon trainer. And I feel this gopher, with his apathy toward rockets, investigative skills, talents for camouflage and capacity to entertain me for hours on end, would be the perfect starter Pokemon. We’d be fast friends and of course I’d go on traveling the world catchin’ them all, but none would match Gophery, who’d have filled a deep void in my heart.

July 17, 2012
A Fear

I sometimes fear that if I look away from Tumblr too long, time will pass with cruel vitesse and when finally I look back it will be Xanga, that piece of shit wasteland. The thought scares me so much that I sometimes find myself sitting up at 5 in the morning, swallowing everything Tumblr gives me with plied-open eyes, the better to fully experience this fleeting golden age of rebloggable delights.

June 2, 2012
The Gods Must Be Crazy

Back in CA for a wee while, and have just passed my drivers license renewal test. This is mainly of importance because it means I can finally shelf my NY drivers license, whose photo is so sphincter-clenchy that the woman who took my order an hour ago looked at it and choked while laughing.

12:14am  |   URL: http://tmblr.co/Z2HAZyMZZAAx
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