On “Pretty Woman” Moments & Retail Judgment.

If you’re a Julia Roberts fan, you can vividly recall the scene of the Pretty Woman “shopping snubbing.”

Roberts’ character, Vivian, enters a shop on Rodeo Drive with $3,000 in cash and a few credit cards borrowed from Edward (Richard Gere). Three female associates give her the stink-eye the moment she enters, but she keeps to herself, nervously chewing on her fingernail, and begins browsing.

A young associate dressed in the store’s offerings approaches Vivian and inquires as to whether Vivian needs any help, which Vivian politely brushes off. When the associate remains by her side, Vivian amends her statement, admitting that she needs “something conservative.” The associate sarcastically responds “Yes,” eyeing Vivian’s streetwalker clothing, and follows her further into the store.

After Vivian’s compliments of the store’s clothing fail to draw out more courteous or helpful responses from the associate, Vivian inquires as to how much an outfit on a mannequin costs. Instead of stating a price, the associate says, “I don’t think this would fit you.”

When Vivian refuses to take that answer, another sales associate joins in and the two associates proceed to gang up on Vivian, saying arrogantly, “It’s very expensive” and “We don’t have anything for you. You’re obviously in the wrong place. Please leave.”

Embarrassed and seeing no further recourse, Vivian leaves the store upset and more than a little angry. There are no snappy comebacks or repercussions for the sales associates to offer viewers any comfort…at least, not yet.

Stylistically speaking, J. F. Lawton was a visionary to include such an emotionally charged yet simplistic scene in the Pretty Woman screenplay. It represents a major launching point for Vivian’s transformation from a mere dreamer to a dream seeker. But, culturally speaking, this scene represents so much more, something that happens every day in the consumer industry (not to mention every other sector of life): judgment.

Who among us has not felt ignored, insulted, or otherwise mistreated by the people who are paid specifically to treat us? Not one person can honestly proclaim that every shopping experience they’ve had in life has involved 100% positive relations with sales associates.

The reality of retail is that sales associates come to oversimplified conclusions about each and every potential customer the second they walk into the store. Determining each person’s economic status is the name of the game and, somehow, age, race, dress, physical form, body language, and a myriad of other purely visual details come into play.

Ladies and gentleman, sales associate are simultaneously the judge, jury, and executioner of each shopper that dares to enter the shopping world. Buyer, beware, indeed!

The fact that all of this is known about the shopping world, however, does little to quell the horrible feelings that sales associates can induce when they mistreat you.

It doesn’t matter where or how often it happens, it hurts and that pain resonates.

 What you need to understand about me is that I look much younger than I am.

A guy friend of mine frequently jokes that I was only six years old in high school. I still get carded for R-rated movies and a year ago I had to show ID to prove that I was old enough to be in the mall without a parent. When I turn 21 this year, I can only imagine the looks that waiters will send my way if I deign to order something a bit stronger than sweet tea.

In addition to being short and petite, I know that my face is youthful. As a result, I’m careful to dress my age, act maturely, behave professionally, walk with my head up, and strive to be a few steps ahead on the “growing up” scale—hello, college degree, thank you for being in my possession! All in all, I think I do a pretty good job of compensating for genetics.

Like Vivian, I appear quite young, even child-like at times, but we can both put on a few years if we try.

Yet, despite my best efforts, when I walked into the beauty and cosmetics section of Nordstrom in Tacoma, Washington, a few days ago, I was promptly treated like a child and ignored. You see, I knew precisely what I’d come to buy—Laura Mercier crème foundation in one shade darker than white crayon and (maybe) a few bits and bobs from the same line—and I only needed an associate to get it from behind the beauty counter.

Can we be quite quick? (That was Love Actually reference for the unfamiliar.) Apparently not, and apparently there cannot even be a “we.”

I approached not one, not two, but three sales associates and was met with only unpleasant looks and dismissals. Of course, that doesn’t even include the five unoccupied associates who simply ignored me as I meandered past them in search of the correct counter. I was watched, but not helped.

When asked directly for service, one associate even stated that she “couldn’t handle makeup from another person’s counter.” This quickly proved false as I witnessed three associate/customer pairs, including the associate I’d spoken with and the customer she’d approached after abruptly leaving me, moving between counters.

I waited patiently for the associate that worked the Laura Mercier counter to return from helping another customer—at another counter, might I add—but she never did. Upon inspection, I discovered her giggling with her fellow associates across the floor, sans-customer. I caught and held her eye, smiled, and turned pointedly back toward the counter.

Guess who still didn’t get any service? Guess who felt like a fool standing there waiting? Guess who walked out the store, upset and more than a little angry, without a single purchase made?

Oh, I kept my cool. I walked out with my head up, I smiled at the young associate who didn’t even smile at me, and I climbed into my parent’s car filled with righteous indignation.

This is why I hate the cosmetic counter, I kept thinking, this is why I avoid shopping. This is why I just shouldn’t try.

But, I had money to spend. I was courteous. I waited my turn. I was dressed well. I requested help. I was—joining a million people incensed over the same things happening in different places for only slightly different reasons, and none of us did anything wrong.

You see there is this thing called ageism and I experienced it along with, quite possibly, a bit of classism. Every day, other people experience the same thing I did, along with racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and heterosexism. Each of us has been or will be a victim of the “isms” at some point or another. While instances can vary in degree and frequency, all instances of an “ism” are as valid as our feelings about them. You feel, you are, you have been. It’s not a competition because we’re all caught up in the same emotional storm.

The truth about the “isms” in the retail industry is that associates, who are often paid on commission, take advantage of perceived patterns in customers in attempts to increase their sales and, as a result, income. They call it consumer profiling, but it can be a bit more convoluted, and even nefarious, than it at first seems.

For example, a recent Harvard study published in the Journal of Consumer Research revealed that sales associates in luxury stores were more likely to assume that those individuals “willing to deviate” from social norms—such as dressing down in gym clothes while shopping—had the money to buy something.

So, if we want to be treated like human beings and helped in our endeavors, we must sacrifice our own style? It makes no sense.

Similar patterns or assumptions that are relied upon in retail include the notion that young people and people of color are more likely to be thieves with no “real” (read: large sums of) money to spend, leading them to be either ignored or followed. In the same way, the disabled and elderly are often infantilized based upon the idea that they are incapable or without means, making them either easy to oversell or not worth the time and effort. Plus-sized individuals are frequently considered difficult and unlikely to find anything that will fit, and effectively dismissed with the (only sometimes) silent message of “leave, change, and come back.”

When you lump in other assumptions about gender, sexuality, religion, and political affiliation, the list goes on so long that everyone becomes a perpetual victim. That’s the crux of the matter though: when one person is victimized, made to feel even the slightest bit of discomfort or embarrassment, we all lose out eventually.

It’s easy to try to “win” in the moment or shortly thereafter, it can even be incredibly satisfying, but it doesn’t solve everything.

In Pretty Woman, Vivian returned to the shop where she was snubbed, dressed in luxurious clothing with a collection of bags in hand. Ignoring the associate who approaches her as she comes in the door, she rounds on the associate who was disrespectful the day before. Vivian first asks, “Do you remember me?” to which the associate replies in the negative; however, after reminding the associate that she wouldn’t wait on Vivian, the associate comes to realize the woman she snubbed and the woman before her are one in the same.

As the associate stares at Vivian, shocked, Vivian hefts her designer bags in the air, declaring “Big mistake. Big. Huge. I have to go shopping now.” As Vivian flounces off, we see the associate look on in humiliation.

Of course, Vivian is pleased with herself—and what audience member wasn’t proud of her—but she doesn’t truly win against those who put her down in that store until much later on when she helps another streetwalker, her friend and former roommate, Kit, see that she can have a better life as well. People win together, not apart.

A few days ago, I wanted to demand service. I wanted to yell at a manager. I wanted to shove my true age, economic status, and resume in the associates’ faces. I wanted to pull a Gordon Ramsey and teach them how to do their job properly. I wanted to know what happened to a customer being a customer no matter how much they buy or spend.

I wanted vengeance.

But, what better to do than follow the Pretty Woman example and deny the judgmental, unhelpful employees an addition to their income AND tell others about the horrible experience? No snarky quip can hurt as much as a potential loss in customers and earnings.

Maybe I wasn’t wearing thigh high boots. Maybe I wasn’t showing my midriff. Maybe I wasn’t smacking gum. But, even if I had been, I would have deserved better service than I received. The fact that I look young—just like being a lower or middle class, a person of color, plus-sized, disabled, or so on and so forth—should not mean disrespect and being ignored.

We all deserve better. We deserve the fairy tale of retail, or at least some fulfillment of the basic promises businesses and their employees make.

It is important to remember that, as Edward says to Vivian in the movie, “Stores are never nice to people. They’re nice to credit cards.” And, that’s not good or right, but, it means that in the end sales associates are dependent upon you and I, my fine friends. We are the ones that can change them because we are their livelihood.

Whenever someone is mistreated due to the realities of retail, the associates and the companies they work for have made a “Big mistake. Big. Huge.” They need us, but we don’t need them, and that’s why we win out in the end.

(Disclaimer: Obviously, all sales associates at all stores are not terrible. Some of you are quite lovely and helpful.)

 

Accepting My Inner Hermione Granger.

From the very first time I picked up a Harry Potter book, I related to and adored the character of Hermione Granger. She’s intelligent, driven, focused, and dedicated, yet she is also awkward in social situations, fearful of failure, obsessive in her projects, and annoying in her relentless rule-following.

It seems that, for every reason she is likable, she is insufferable. There is a definite yin and yang within her personality. Just as she is someone you think you could be or already are, she is someone you wouldn’t necessarily want to know. Through these contradictions and complexities, Hermione became a stabilizer among characters like proud blood-traitor Ronald Weasley and fearless boy-who-lived Harry Potter.

In essence, Rowling wrote Hermione so profoundly that an intangible character became a finite human being that many of us can see ourselves in.

However, despite my genuine love of all things Hermione and continual defense of her necessity in the overall plot, I never before realized how thoroughly I connect with one particular aspect of her personality and practices: her incessant desire to learn, to know, and to understand.

While the boys wonder about the name “Nicholas Flamel,” Hermione pursues his record through the ancient tomes and dusty pages of a library that contains information well beyond her year.

When the pink toad known as Dolores Umbridge removes any trace of learning from Defense Against the Dark Arts curriculum, paving the way for the Dark Lord Voldemort, Hermione incites a desire to learn among her peers and, as a result, a full-fledged rebellion.

After horcrux-deluded Ron abandons she and Harry, Hermione reads and re-reads the only books available to her–Albus Dumbledore’s biography and The Tales of Beedle the Bard–until the next step on the quest becomes apparent.

Greater knowledge, man, it’s worth pursuing. Hermione proves it.

Academia and learning were where Hermione succeeded above all others. (We will just ignore the “Harry and the Half-Blood Prince’s perfectly annotated book” incidents.) Books and cleverness are dominant aspects of who she is and everyone knows it.

At every turn, it was Hermione’s intellect that helped herself, the boys, and her other classmates on their way, no matter how much they grumbled about her studying and hand-raising. Her intelligence and logic were as valuable as Harry’s heroism and Ron’s loyalty, if not more so in certain situations.

The truth of the matter though, is that while Hermione wanted to learn, she also desperately needed to learn. She was a young woman who woke up one day to a new world that, while beautiful and complex, did not wholeheartedly want her to exist within it. As such, Hermione sought to empower herself in the ways that seemed most natural to her: studying and learning.

It wasn’t until last week, amid responding to an email from my new graduate studies advisor, that I realized that I have sought to empower myself in the same ways. Apparently, without realizing it, I’ve become, or quite possibly have always been, a Hermione Granger.

Of course, as moments of clarity are want to be, the whole situation felt a bit absurd at first. If you’ve ever been fitted for glasses and experienced the sudden realization that the world looks different from what your eyes alone have allowed you to see up to that point, then you understand my meaning. It’s the experience of finally seeing the clear image that has always existed before your own blurry eyes.

You see, I’m still on an extended RV trip with my family and I just wanted to have the “graduate advising hold” removed from my account so that I could register for classes later this year. But, being more than 2,000 miles from home means I’m not exactly available to do the whole “don a pretty dress, worry over finding a parking space, search out the office that I’ve somehow never noticed before, smile big, and make small talk” routine with an advisor.

Luckily, the advisor for my graduate program was kind enough to run me through the routine via email, minus all of the typical rigmarole. He began by covering all of the simple yet important details that I will probably forget and relearn at least twice before the semester starts. Then he set in with the questions. What is my educational background? What about professional? Why did I choose this program? Have I taken undergraduate statistics? Am I prepared for graduate school?

Oh. Oh goodness. There is a special kind of anxiety that is reserved for instances of simply not knowing quite how to answer questions. It’s awful and terribly disconcerting to say the very least.

I then found myself writing what quickly became less of an email and more of an unintentionally egotistical essay filled with “buts.”

Yes, I attended these universities, but I attended them in this order. I took these classes, but I studied these subjects in-depth as “a bit of light reading.” I feel this way, but I also feel like this. As I struggled to explain why a person with a B.A. in English would want to delve into criminal justice, why I had already begun to do so, a “but” slid into every too-long-and-too-detailed paragraph. For every stated fact there was some seemingly necessary addendum.

At the same time, every statement about myself felt absurd. I know that graduating two years early and studying extra subjects for fun sound like lies of the kiss-up, trying-to-impress variety. I know that purposely picking a foreign topic to study at the graduate level sounds incredibly ridiculous. Despite knowing those things, both notions are true in terms of who I am and what I’ve done.

Still, who is going to buy my truth when it smells strongly of baloney?

I had to question the entire situation. What do you do when the truth sounds like a series of lies, and you don’t want to lie to make the truth sound truthful? The only conclusion I’ve come to is that you just stop. You stop worrying. You throw caution to the wind. You let the admissions counselor judge you, critique you, and come to some half-arsed conclusion if it makes him feel good. You give up on appealing to others and fitting yourself into expectations, preconceived ideas. Maybe, just maybe, you realize the truth.

You realize that you’re a Hermione Granger, and that’s completely okay. Okay?

It’s perfectly fine to be something that sounds false as long as it isn’t actually. The truth is what matters, plain and simple, not how the truth sounds. Who you are and what you do are worthwhile and essential to a balanced world. There must be a Hermione for every Harry, Ron, Neville, Seamus, Luna, Severus, Minerva, Dumbledore, and so on and so forth.

It’s alright to be the brains, the student, the autodidact. Having knowledge is half the journey to understanding. Just don’t forget that there will always be something you don’t know or understand, and that is why you must keep trying, keep living. Learn, grow, and know as much as you like. Dismiss the “tone of surprise.”

Ron (by way of the wonderful HP Queen Jo) once commented on Hermione, saying her philosophy was “when in doubt, go to the library.” I’m come to realize that I believe and do the same thing because, as a much older man, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, once said, “the scholar and the world” are together in “the love of learning, the sequestered nooks, and all the sweet serenity of books.”

If you’re like me, if you’re a Hermione, embrace it. You’ll be glad you did.

Without further adieu, if you ever have to explain who you are, narrowing your whole being into one measly message, do not feel ashamed, fraudulent, or confused. All the words you’ve read will be insufficient to describe you. You’re just a Hermione Granger–one of a large community of insufferable know-it-alls–and there is nothing “just” or “merely” about any of us.

(“Hermione Reads Before Bed” by Lorena Garcia, fan artist)

 

Traveling Onward and Westward.

Right now, I’m in Monterey, California. One day ago, I was in San Luis Obispo (SLO), California. Last week, I was in Port Hueneme, California. The week before that I was in Seal Beach, California. And, sometime before that, I was rambling along the hot and bumpy interstates of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. 

In case it’s not quite clear yet, I’m currently on a westward journey from Texas to California, moving upward to Vancouver, British Columbia. So, I would like to share a little bit of my travel experience and perhaps help those who will set out on their own journey. Here are a few of my westward highlights:

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Killeen, TX

I’m not really “from” anywhere. Answering the question of “where you’re from” is a bit complicated for a military child. But, if I were ever to claim anywhere, I would probably claim Fort Hood and the cities surrounding it.

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Hurley, NM

From my experience, New Mexico is a state that likes to emphasize culture, particularly Native American and Mexican culture. The moment you cross from another state into New Mexico the atmosphere changes and, if you crossover near sunset like I did, you’re in for special and beautiful treat.

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San Simon & Dragoon, AZ

I’m not a fan of Arizona. It’s hot and dry, there isn’t a patch of grass to be found, and apparently you have to be over the age of 55 to be old enough for any of the respectable campgrounds. But, I will give the state credit for its photograph-ready rest areas and the fun of counting the train cars that run parallel to the interstate.

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Arizona Interstate 10

Who can complain about watercolor skies?

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Blythe, CA

Texas and California have quite a bit in common, at least in terms of geography and transportation–it takes forever to get in and even longer to get out. There is no better evidence of this than how long it takes to reach a full-fledged city after crossing the California state line from Arizona.

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Palm Springs, CA

This town/city/place is stunning because of both the way the valley casts the sunlight at sunset, as well as the sheer number of windmills that are stationed in neat rows like sentries. There is something decidedly and beautifully changeable about this place where the sky is painted and the wind is power.

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Seal Beach, CA

My family discovered Seal Beach two years ago when we ventured out on a very similar westward journey, and we couldn’t wait to come back. It is a darling town, particularly in the winter season when tourists are limited and the locals are a bit more settled in. Perhaps the best part of the whole town is the developed and thriving downtown area.

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Port Hueneme, CA

Port Hueneme, Oxnard, and Ventura, California, occupy relatively close quarters along the coast just west of Los Angeles, and that makes all three cities perfect in terms of accessibility and amenities. Plus, there is diversity in everything here–people, cuisine, entertainment, and so much more.

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U.S. Route 101

My family always jokes that we pack a drought to bring with us whenever we travel or move. While California has recently been experiencing drought conditions, our presence here seems to have brought the opposite effect. The last time I saw this much mist was when I was in Washington in 2012.

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El Capitan Beach, Goleta, CA

This “in the middle of nowhere” state park is just stunning. When we drove in, there were quite literally no other people or cars about and the ocean waves were the only noise. It’s a bit more suited for a “stop and go” visit, but it is lovely regardless of how long you choose to stay.

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U.S. Route 101

On the road again…

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Avila Beach, CA

Avila seems like it would be a bit of a tourist attraction during the summer, but during the winter and spring it is the perfect blend of off-duty tourism-based businesses and local favorites. The pier makes for the perfect place to stop and watch the sun set–or rise, at least, as much as you can see a sun rise from the west coast. Also, be sure to stop into Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab for some delicious hand-scooped ice cream.

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Pismo Beach, CA

We stumbled upon this beach overlook at the very back of a neighborhood and on the edge of a gated community. There’s not much to mention aside from the generally delightful view that “almost” outweighs the poor parking situation.

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Shell Beach, CA

I may have these pictures labeled incorrectly because the beaches seem to overlap quite a bit here, but it was a beautiful area regardless of the area name. My only complaints were the cliffs with nothing to guard from people falling off of them, and the children (and teenagers) running about that my inner summer camp counselor self kept wanting to snatch back from the edge.

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Pismo State Beach, CA

If you don’t mind walking approximately one-half of a mile to even see the beach then this is the campground and beach access point for you. We didn’t actually stay here overnight; however, we stopped in for the day and took in the sights. To the east, the view is quite similar to the cityscape of San Francisco with colorful homes climbing up into the hills overlooking the sea.

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Camp San Luis Obispo, San Luis Obispo, CA

When I lived on Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, I felt like I lived on the smallest military post in the world. I was convinced that something as powerful as the military simply couldn’t exist on or in a place so small. Well, the California Army National Guard exists on a much smaller installation in San Luis Obispo. There may not be much a PX/Exchange or Commissary to speak of, but the quiet and inactivity of the post is peaceful.

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San Luis Obispo, CA

Regretfully, I failed to take many pictures of downtown San Luis Obispo, but I assure you that it is absolutely wonderful. The downtown area is a successful combination of refurbished buildings and new construction with stores like Pottery Barn butted up against delights like Palazzo Guiseppe’s. Also, as a college town, the options for entertainment and food are endless, intelligent conversation isn’t hard to come by, and you can walk nearly everywhere.

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Estero Bluffs State Park, Cayucos, CA

It’s a state beach. Dogs, bikes, camping, and about 10 other activities are not allowed within the gate because of endangered birds called Snowy Plovers. That’s about it, really. The view is nice thought!

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California State Route 1/Pacific Coast Highway

On the road yet again…

(For the RVers that may read this, I feel obligated to note that driving North on CA-1 can be a bit difficult with longer rigs, and driving South is decidedly easier. Also, driving this route at night is not recommended because of limited lighting, resources, service stations, areas to pull off, and narrow roads with sharp turns.)

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Love, Marriage, and a Baby Carriage–or Not.

Last month, when the blog article 23 Things to Do Instead of Getting Engaged Before You’re 23 went viral, engaged, married, and otherwise committed individuals were quick to take offense. I don’t mean to cause any similar kind of uproar, but I do have something to say and I can only hope it won’t be taken the wrong way.

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Right now, my Facebook news feed is positively flooded with enthusiastic engagement party invitations, Instagram-worthy pregnancy announcements, and dazzling wedding pictures. I’ve seen enough posts about cakes, dresses, and baby showers on Facebook to make me question whether I’ve somehow mistakenly ended up on Pinterest.

But, despite my genuine happiness and the atrocious squealing sounds that come out of my mouth with each new announcement, I suddenly feel out of place amongst all of these couples and budding families that I used to know so well as individuals.

Statistically, the fact that quite a few of my friends are getting engaged, married, and having children isn’t that unusual.

December is the most popular month for engagements, June is most popular for weddings, and August continually fluctuates between the month with the first and second highest number of births. The United States’ average age of first marriage is 29.8 for men and 26.9 for women, while the average age of women at first birth is 25. Not to mention, ages at first marriage and birth tend to be slightly lower in Southern states–I live in Texas–and my friends are the slightest bit older than myself, spanning from 21 to 30.

By the numbers at least, my attached friends are pretty average, and my unattached friends are destined to be ever-dwindling. As someone who intends to stay single and childless for some time, I’m quickly becoming the odd man out, even among people in their early twenties and, presumably, just getting started in life.

While everyone else–excuse my hyperbole–is getting married or passing on their genetic material, I’m not.

I’m a student, a dreamer, a free spirit with very few ties to keep me in a single place. I have my undergraduate degree, I’m starting my graduate degree in 5 months, and I’m not keen on making any lifelong commitments to other human beings at this point. You’d be hard pressed to even get me to commit to even being a solo puppy parent at this point. My sights are set on conquering advanced coursework, traveling the world, and figuring out what to do with the experience garnered from both. And, I honestly don’t desire a new ring or birth certificate amid all of that.

For me, marriage and my own little family will happen much, much later…if ever.

I understand that:

And:

But, I don’t want any of that yet because my overall view is:

Or become engaged to pie, get married to pie, or give birth to pie, etc, etc, etc…

Relationships are lovely, marriage is a beautiful commitment, and I don’t know a single person who can’t appreciate tiny humans in at least a third-party way. I just personally don’t feel the need for any of it and I certainly lack the want.

So, as much as I love my friends and am happy for them, I cannot truly understand them, and that’s an easily driven wedge when you’re already being driven apart by other aspects of growing up.

I don’t feel superior for not being married or expecting. I’ll freely admit that my choices are no more or less correct/appropriate/right than my friends’ choices to get married or start families. But, our choices do place us in entirely different positions. Our launching pads for life are different from here on out.

The ties that used to bind us together, like common interests and shared responsibilities, have suddenly come loose and we’re drifting in opposite directions, whether we would like to or not.

Given that, when I read “23 Things to Do Instead of Getting Engaged You’re 23,” I could understand where Vanessa of Wander Onwards was coming from when she said that millennials deserve the opportunity to discover themselves. She’s finding herself, but at the same time she’s losing many others, and that’s a difficult position to be in.

I didn’t and still don’t agree with the 23 specific experiences that she recommended having or the way in which she entirely dismissed young couples, but I can understand her motivations. Like me, young commitment isn’t for Vanessa, but she mistakenly applied that notion to all people everywhere. In a way, she’s displaying a bit of ethnocentrism and/or collective narcissism, with uncommitted and meandering young adults as the group that she considers to be “normal” or otherwise socially superior.

The truth of the matter is that there are different strokes for different folks. What is right for me is not right for others, and we all have to trek our own path. As easy as it is to give in and sum up the natural decay of personal relationships as “others making the ‘wrong choices,’” it’s just not true. The moment we cast aside others’ choices is the very same moment that we’re making a wrong choice.

With all of that said, my dear engaged/married/expectant friends, I truly am excited for you and I wish you all the best in absolutely everything. I welcome the inundation of my news feed with your cute pictures and sappy love posts, and I will squeal over the pudgy cheeks of your children and like every photo I see of your wedding ceremony. Please don’t be dismayed by people who will dismiss your choices or lifestyle, but also respect those who make other choices and take different paths from your own.

And, just know that, if we do truly drift apart because of our diverging paths, you will be missed and I’ll always be happy for you.

American Exceptionalism (a.k.a. Special Snowflake Syndrome)

The United States of America ranks first in gross domestic product (GDP), second in military personnel and number of time zones, and third in population and total land mass. With numbers so high and in such diverse areas of interest, it is no wonder that Americans are a bit cocky about their global position.

In the Internet world, where memes are plentiful and a gif is worth a thousand words, this cultural cockiness might be called an extreme case of “special snowflake syndrome,” but political and social theorists are more keen on the term “American exceptionalism.”

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American exceptionalism is essentially the theory or belief that America is so “qualitatively different from all other countries” that feelings of uniqueness and desirability become inherent to the American national identity (Calabresi). This theory or belief depends upon “well-understood generalizations or norms” and “projects onto a nation [...] qualities that are envied” by all others and command attention (Appleby).

In layman’s terms, American exceptionalism is the idea that America is extraordinary and the rest of the world is just jealous of America’s sheer wealth of awesome.

National exceptionalism isn’t a new idea. In rhetoric alone (i.e., the persuasive language of literature, discourse, speeches, etc), exceptionalism can be traced back to ancient Greece. Among Greek philosophers like Gorgias, Isocrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the belief in some level of Greek superiority or exceptionalism was common and, over time, became intrinsic to the ancient Greek identity.

Rather than create entirely new systems of communication and government, the diverse collection of people who colonized early America called upon the ancient Greek methods and ideologies that had preserved the Greek culture, if not the Greek empire. This new employment of old techniques effectively allowed exceptionalism to cross the Atlantic and America to become regarded as “special” (Farrell).

Religious beliefs in manifest destiny,” or the divine obligation to stretch the boundaries of the new-found American nation, only reinforced the idea of America’s speciality and even superiority. One of the earliest examples of blatant American exceptionalism can be seen in Puritan John Winthrop’s Matthew 5:14-based sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” which portrayed the United States as a city upon a hill that is “the light of the world.”

Similar sentiments are apparent in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation writings about the special work of God’s providence that allowed the Pilgrims to settle America, as well as Thomas Paine’s comments in Common Sense that describe no country on the globe as being “so happily situated” as America.

The Declaration of Independence and Constitution also convey American exceptionalism through the overall declaration of the nation as being unique enough to be independent, as well as the capitalization of key words (e.g. “Fortunes” and “Providence in the Declaration,” or “People” and “Blessings of Liberty”). Such capitalization places the aforementioned concepts and people above the common world and identifies the writers or founders as acting according to a higher, exceptional authority.

American presidents use exceptionalism ideation quite frequently in their speeches and writings.

  • 1862: In an annual address to Congress, Abraham Lincoln depicted America as “the last best hope of earth” and somehow solely capable of taking actions that “the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”
  • 1941: During a fireside chat, Franklin D. Roosevelt justified American intervention following the attacks on Pearl Harbor that Americans, unlike other nations, “are not destroyers,” but are instead “builders” that can face and defeat the greatest and most immediate evils.
  • 1961: At the University of Washington Centennial Convocation, John F. Kennedy spoke, saying that “more than any other people on Earth,” Americans “bear burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and their duration, not for ourselves alone but for all.”
  • 1984: At a Spirit of America Rally in Atlanta, Georgia, Ronald Reagan asserted “that this blessed land was set apart in a special way [...] to be found by people [...] who had special love for freedom and the courage” to be great.
  • 1996: While explaining NATO intervention in Bosnia, Bill Clinton stated that “America remains the indispensable nation” that “must act and lead” because “America, and only America, can make a difference between war and peace, between freedom and repression, between hope and fear.”

Over the course of the Bush and Obama administrations, Americans and their political leaders have taken exceptionalism a step further, frequently employing it to maintain a national identity steeped in the belief in America as “the unifier and leader of the (so-called) civilized world against the barbarian one” (Asirvatham).

On September 11, 2001, in the aftermath of four coordinated terrorist attacks on American soil, George W. Bush addressed the nation, saying “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world, and no one will keep that light from shining.”

In his second inaugural address in 2005, Bush similarly expressed the belief that America possesses and is beholden to the exceptional moral mission to “break the reign of hatred and resentment,” “expose the pretensions of tyrants,” and “proclaim liberty throughout all the world and to all the inhabitants thereof.”

Although public opinion regarding Obama’s own belief in American exceptionalism seems to place Obama as less inclined toward exceptionalism, the truth is that American exceptionalism has become more overt and publicly discussed since Obama’s election in 2008.

In his first inaugural address on January 20, 2009, Obama stated that “we remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth,” whose founding principles are the ideals that “still light the world.” Obama went on to say that it is “the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny” that “is the source of our confidence” and “duties to ourselves, our nation and the world.”

Continuing along this line thought, Obama asserted at the Ohio State University Commencement on May 5, 2013 that “there is not another country on Earth that would not gladly change places with the United States of America” even though “things will be uncertain” and “change will be a constant.”

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Despite such political leaders frequently proclaiming and reinforcing American exceptionalism, the belief and theory does not just exist within the government.

A 2010 USA Today and Gallup took a poll regarding American exceptionalism found that, when American exceptionalism was defined, the idea was accepted by the majority of Americans. That is, when people actually understood what was being addressed, most people within the polling pool admitted to believing that America is the greatest.

In a separate but related study in 2011, Pew Research Center studied exceptional ideation within the United States, as well as America’s Western European allies–Germany, Spain, Britain, and France. Pew ultimately found that Americans were more likely to believe that “our people are not perfect but our culture is superior” than those from the allied nations.

This data seems to disagree with the notion that all nations inherently depend upon exceptionalism to form or maintain a national identity, something Obama is known for having suggested in 2009 in an interview in Strasbourg, France. Responding to direct questions about American exceptionalism, Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

It is interesting to note that the USA Today/Gallup and Pew surveys also seem to prove that feelings of national superiority are less common among younger individuals than older individuals. Yet, most studies are, as of yet, unclear as to whether belief in exceptionalism itself is truly increasing or decreasing over time in any given country.

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This idea that America is somehow extra, super-duper, special is absolutely everywhere–if only people look at and listen to precisely what is being written and said. In actuality, it is a wonder that all Americans aren’t deaf for how loudly our voices are screaming “Me, me, me!” and “We’re number one!”

Our national identity, our sense of collective self, is wholly ground in the notion of being special in some way that is above and beyond the specialness of every other entity. So, what are we if we aren’t actually special?

If we aren’t truly exceptional then America is simply a nation with a chronic case of special snowflake syndrome and a stubborn unwillingness to admit international equality. If that’s true, America is no better than a modern-day 10-year-old that wants a trophy merely for existing.

But, as Todd Leopold of CNN asserted, the “third rail of American politics is acknowledging we may not be the greatest country in the world.” We’re not likely to admit our true lack of supreme awesome any time soon, despite the fact that we know our awesomeness is questionable.

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Obama’s September 10, 2013, speech regarding violence in Syria is a prime example of American exceptionalism and the current questions surrounding it.

Within the speech, Obama blatantly asserted that America’s ability and desire to prevent/stop “terrible things [...] across the globe” is what “makes Americans different [and] what makes us exceptional.” By saying this, Obama attempted to convince Americans that America has extraordinary abilities and, as a result, extraordinary responsibility to prevent violence abroad and create a better world overall.

Ironically, Obama was quick to assert that “America is not the world’s policeman” while blatantly employing rhetoric that speaks of America as divinely endowed and divinely responsible throughout the world. This is contradictory because “the idea of a nation having a mission” is common, if controversial, and “the fact that so many Americans persist in thinking in terms of a mission [is] an example of exceptionalism” (Ceasar).

So, while Obama may object to the title of “world’s policeman,” his references to unique American abilities and national desire to halt evil essentially position the country as an authority over the rest of the world.

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All-in-all, such ideas about America and American exceptionalism, as well as the use of the theory and belief as a political playing card, aren’t that original; however, international reactions to Obama’s comments were quite interesting, if not unique.

Russian President Vladimir Putin especially put Obama on the spot with his rebuttal of Obama’s remarks about exceptionalism. Taking perhaps the most conspicuous and personable approach, Putin simply submitted his opinion to The New York Times, saying “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

Putin went on to describe all of Earth’s nations as “different”–”big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way”–yet all “created [...] equal.” In essence, Putin called BS on Obama’s special snowflake claims.

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It is important to note that, much like Plato renouncing rhetoric while employing rhetoric himself, Putin renounced American exceptionalism and exceptionalism overall in spite of referring to and frequently employing the notion of Russian exceptionalism. In fact, Cathy Young of Newsday claims that the “Putin-era Russian anthem hails Russia as ‘one in the world, one of a kind–our land kept safe by God.”

Another key example of Russian exceptionalism can be seen in Putin’s speech on the Defenders of the Fatherland Day on February 23, 2012, wherein Putin stated, ” We are a victorious people! It is in our genes and in our genetic code!” In effect, Putin claimed that the very blood and flesh of Russians is special and unique, therefore allowing Russia to explore, conquer, and prosper. This is quite similar to Americans’ claims, which often call upon our history of intermixing nationalities (i.e. mixing blood/genetic traits) as evidence of our uniqueness.

Given that exceptionalism ideation is not inherent to national identity but evident in two of the world’s most dominant and controversial countries, exceptionalism demands consideration.

After all, if we are supposed to be so special, surely we–Americans, Russians, and other nations alike–can find some true evidence of our uniqueness or at least admit that we’re not superior as exceptionalism seems to imply.   

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thank You for Teaching Me to Learn.

When you graduate from university several things happen at once.

First, you realize that it all went by–primary, secondary, university–much faster than you thought when you were 5 years old and dreaming of going to “big kid school” with a grown-up backpack and fancy pens of your very own.

Second, you start to miss things that don’t make sense like the person with the cool jacket that you never got to know, laying on the concrete while waiting for your ride, and the feeling the first day of your last semester.

Third, you suddenly don’t know what to do next, not really.

When you’re a month out of university and you aren’t starting graduate school until you’re moved across the country, you start to look back because the future is too uncertain to contemplate. You start to wonder what you did right and what you did wrong. You start to see what the grey area of your education contains.

That’s where I am today. I’m floating, weightless, in the grey area between what I did and didn’t do to get to where I am today, and for some reason one phrase keeps coming back to me: “thank you.”

Obviously I’m thankful for having graduated, especially without any debt, but there’s something, or rather a collection of someones, that I’m also thankful for–the teachers and professors that helped me get to this point. This post is dedicated to them and all the “thank you’s” I should have said before now.

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“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit (John Steinbeck).”

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Mrs. Thornton,

You were the first teacher I ever had. You were the image that I had, from fall of 1999 onward, of what a dedicated teacher was, and every other educational figure was internally scored on a scale based on you. You taught me to write beautifully in cursive, read books like they are going out of style, and create anything and everything whenever possible. You were the last teacher who ever had to tell me to stop chatting with my friends and the first to tell me that not talking to my friends during class didn’t mean I should ever let anyone stop me outside of it. You awarded me a trophy for “citizenship” and taught me to sing Spanish. It is because of you that I have penmanship that others still compliment and bookshelves full of journeys I can take at any moment, as well as a voice and a desire to learn and create, that no one can ever stifle. Thank you.

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Ms. (who may now be Mrs.) Nawrocki,

You were the youngest teacher at the school that year and still relatively new to that all-girls Catholic convent school, just like me. You encouraged me to read, even when it meant that I spent all three breaks each day sitting at a picnic table with my face buried in pages. You coaxed me into making friends, even when I was ready to stay off to the side and prepare for the next class. You made me talk things out with those friends, even when we made each other cry at recess because none of us knew how to handle multiple friendships. And, when I wasn’t in your class or grade level anymore, you still said “hello” in the courtyard and asked about my family. When everything else made me feel like a misplaced and awkward child–and even as you interviewed me for your thesis–you made me feel better, normal. Thank you.

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Ms. Person,

When I walked into your class the first day of sophomore year, I was exhausted, nervous, and more than a little skittish. So, all in all, it was a pretty normal day for me. Throughout the fall of 2008 semester, I don’t think I said more than 10 words that didn’t relate to presentations and other assignments, but you taught me so much about writing and the world of nonfiction. Then, the spring semester happened, we talked about my book reviewing, and suddenly I was applying to be on the yearbook staff and being grouped with the students that were doing the same. Everything seems to have passed in a whirlwind after that: I was writing in styles that I didn’t even know how to do before you, I was using a camera that you put in my hands, and I was learning to love a school that you made me see differently. It’s because of you that I learned to enjoy the microcosm of society that is high school and I didn’t simply retreat into my neon-sock-wearing, review-writing, antisocial, pessimistic, sophomoric self. You helped me grow into myself and truly appreciate those around me; you’re a large part of the reason I see and love the world the way I do. I sincerely hope that I know you for many years to come. Thank you.

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Mrs. Ramirez,

I think that everyone, at some point, has that teacher that they desperately want to impress for reasons that they don’t even understand. For me, that teacher was you. I walked into your class with my heart set on enjoying my best subject and I was hoping against all hope that I would have a teacher that loved English and writing instead of merely teaching either subject. You did. To my 16/17 year-old self, who thought about everything in terms of lyrics, you personified the notion of a “heart so big it hurts like hell.” Feeling and caring positively exuded from you, and your assignments made me care and feel too, and that was an incredibly scary thing for a teenager. Sometimes I would put off your weekly essays just because I was scared that I would feel too little or too much and my writing abilities just wouldn’t be able to match the emotions and ideas I was supposed to convey. You made me tiptoe a careful line between comfortably loving writing on my own and the abrupt realization that there was a lot about the literary world that I had left to explore. It’s because of that I realized there is no end in sight when you love something, there is only the passion of the process. Thank you.

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Dr. Dumas,

The first day of class, you admitted that students and other professors called you Doctor Doom. You told us that your British Literature II course would be hard and that people typically failed or just barely passed. I think your speech was supposed to scare us, but I don’t remember being scared. As the weeks ticked on, you threatened us with bad grades, put us in our place with hard questions, and generally tried to personify Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. It was exciting because you truly made me work for my grades. You made me run across campus to buy a test scoring sheet and defile a textbook by making notes in the margins. You made me discuss the works we read and admit my opinions before others could give theirs. You made me speak out when you saw my nose crinkle up at other students’ comments. You made me live up to my choice of a front row seat, and you didn’t allow me to be an insignificant 17-year-old among 21-year-olds. I usually hated any grade below an A, but I was incredibly proud of the B I got in your class because it was by the cramps of my hand and sweat of my brow that I earned it. When I dropped off my final paper at your office, I had never felt more accomplished. Thank you.

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Professor Bayless,

If I had to point out a teacher or professor that I would most like to emulate, I would point to you. It’s not because I adored your lesson plans or got to know you personally, but because you love the material you teach. When I was in your courses, there wasn’t a single day that I felt as if you didn’t want to be there or that you resented what you were doing. Despite teaching being your job and a job being necessary to pay for all aspects of life, you didn’t seem to resent it like some professors do. Yet, you also didn’t settle and allow your job to become your life. When you spoke about your poetry, your wife, and the degree in creative writing that you got in spite of societal protestations, I couldn’t help but to feel encouraged in my own endeavors. If nothing else, your brand of optimism and insight was contagious. While I was only lucky enough to be able to take two fine arts courses during my degree, those two courses and you forever changed the way I look at art. You may not have taught me the quote, but you taught me the lesson: “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul” (Oscar Wilde). Thank you.

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Dr. Redmon,

For a while, I felt as if you were my only professor. That is to say, how often does a student have the same professor as their advisor and for two or three classes for three semesters in a row? But, I think the feeling spawned from more than just the frequency of our interactions–your courses contained such poignant material that I couldn’t help but to think about the courses even when I wasn’t in them. You taught me about literature and films in such a way that the lessons resonated outside of the classroom and discussion boards. You taught me how one discussion or one piece of material can transcend that physical experience or existence. When I completed the assignments for your class, I felt like I was doing so much more. As I wrote about religious, historical, and literary modes of early American literature, simulation in films, and the sexualization of female characters, you made me realize putting pen to paper or fingers to keys was only the first step in changing life and society. You made me see how vital my education is to the world I live in and that, despite frequent dismissals of an English degree, skill with words and the ability to see beyond the obvious may be precisely what makes life worthwhile. Thank you.

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I’m Walking On Sunshine, Whoa, and Don’t It Feel Good!

Hello, everyone, I’m incredibly excited to announce that I’ve been nominated for the Sunshine Award, which allows bloggers to recognize other bloggers that bring a bit of sunshine to the blogosphere! It’s such a sweet award and, as you can tell, I’m really quite honored.

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First of all, I was nominated by the lovely blogger behind Break the Mold (http://my37.wordpress.com/), a blog that I only recently discovered but am already addicted to reading. Marina apparently began the blog for a college course several years back, but over time her posts have transformed and come to be about finding and defining yourself in the world you live in. Just yesterday she posted a wonderful tidbit about remembering to breathe in both the literal and figurative senses. I really encourage everyone to give her delightful blog a shot. Thank you so much for the nomination, dear!

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Here are 11 (probably not-so-interesting) facts about me:

  1. I grew up as a U.S. Army brat and lived in several different places, which means that I attended 10 different schools before graduating from high school. I honestly loved moving and switching schools so often.
  2. I will be moving across the country in about 4 months time, but I’m not entirely sure which coast I will be moving to, so this free semester before my master’s will be devoted to travel and finding one specific area to stay.
  3. My favorite painting is “The School of Athens” (Scuola di Atene) by Raphael. I am a complete fool for frescoes.
  4. I am a shameless Draco/Hermione and Snape/Hermione shipper, and I read much too much fanfiction involving those two pairings. A dearie I met last semester at an honor society meeting described fanfiction as the dark alley and black market of the literary world, and I must agree.
  5. I frequently go on research frenzies about topics that strike my fancy. I currently have a folder on my laptop that is filled with completed research papers of 2000+ words each that I did outside of class. (Is my inner nerd showing again?)
  6. I have made it my personal (and, I suppose, professional) goal to be at least semi-fluent in French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, and German by 2025. I would also love to know more American Sign Language, but I think I’m already being a bit linguistically ambitious.
  7. I tend to be a blog lurker. You know those views/viewers you see on your stats page that seem to pop up about once a month and read 20 articles at a time but they never comment? That’s me. Commenting makes me nervous because I use the app a lot to read and autocorrect is a post killer.
  8. My sophomore year of high school I was featured in the yearbook (which I become editor of a year later) because I did book reviews and had this blog. Well, technically it was my old blogger blog. Anyways, the day that my picture was taken for the article, I looked completely horrible because, ironically, I’d been up (almost) all night blogging/reviewing.
  9. I can’t pick a favorite band because I almost never look at band names or song titles when I listen to music. As a result, I usually only know songs by their lyrics and even have them listed by snippets of their lyrics in my iPod. So, when I make people mix CDs, I actually have to google the lyrics to write down titles and bands.
  10. If I could be anything, I would be a renaissance woman so that I could embrace my broad collection of interests without people casting aside those interests as merely being indecisive.
  11. I love grocery shopping. No, really, I do. If I’m stressed, bored, or upset, I’ll volunteer to get the groceries, put together a list, and shop away. I’ve effectively been doing the grocery shopping all of my life because I always went with my parents as a child, made my brother escort me when I was 10, and started doing it completely on my own at 15 or 16.

My nominees for the award are as follows:

  1. Kristi of The Story Siren (http://www.thestorysiren.com/)
  2. Rachel of The Book Muncher (http://thebookmuncher.blogspot.com/)
  3. Janine of There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. (http://sitdownatatypewriterandbleed.wordpress.com/)
  4. Miss Anderson of The Librarian Who Doesn’t Say Shhh! (http://busyteacher.wordpress.com/)
  5. Eevika of Postcards from Conscience (http://eevika.wordpress.com/)
  6. Mandy of Momma Said There’d Be Days Like This (http://mandyblake95.wordpress.com/)
  7. Jennifer of Waiting Outside of Parnassus (http://outsideofparnassus.wordpress.com/)
  8. Siobhan of Classroom as Microcosm (http://siobhancurious.com/)
  9. Hannah of Hannah B. (http://hannahbrencher.com/)
  10. Hanna of Be Like Aslan (http://likeaslan.wordpress.com/)