What I’m Listening to: How I Built This with Guy Raz

I discovered this NPR podcast after hearing an interview with Guy Raz on Brené Brown’s podcast—very meta—and I just love it. Now that we’re in lockdown again I don’t get to listen to podcasts as much—it was my post-school-run routine, walking while the baby napped, listening to podcasts. This morning I ran errands alone and listened to the Chicken Salad Chick episode of How I Built This, and it was so good!

I love biographies and learning the stories behind companies we all know—one of my favourite Oprah Super Soul episodes was with Starbucks’ Howard Schultz. I was fascinated by the way his upbringing and life experiences shaped his views and, ultimately, shaped the company. How I Built This is like that episode but for dozens of different companies. The lovely thing about podcasts is that you can pick and choose which ones you want to listen to and skip the rest.

The show has taught me a lot about how our lives can quickly change direction, how businesses succeed and fail, how hard the system is for people who really do start with nothing. The Chicken Salad Chick is a great example—a recently divorced mom making chicken salad out of her kitchen and selling it door-to-door. She overcame the logistical challenges of earning money while taking care of her 3 kids, and her business was doing great—then the health department shut it down because she wasn’t using a commercial kitchen. Well who has the money to rent a commercial kitchen when they’re starting out? People with money or loans (which require collateral)—the system makes you “speculate to accumulate,” which means entrepreneurship is for the privileged.

This was posted on Lamebook as a joke, but I have actually been thinking about this for awhile—the concept of garage start-ups and the privilege of having access to an empty garage.

If you have a garage, you have a home and/or supportive home owners who let you use the space. You don’t hear about people starting a business in a studio apartment.

If it’s not full already, and there’s room for a startup (for inventory and communications equipment, for record keeping, etc.), then it’s a big enough home to store all of the usual garage stuff somewhere else (basement, attic, sheds, etc.).

That’s privileged. We need to stop holding up examples like Amazon and Apple as something attainable, if only we had the hustle that Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs had. It’s about more than a garage and entrepreneurial spirit.

The biggest takeaway from this podcast for me has been that the struggle is normal and it’s an essential part of the process. Every entrepreneur on the show has faced setbacks. I loved the Famous Dave’s Barbecue interview—Dave Anderson faced rejection from the company he created, and I can’t imagine how painful that would be. But it all worked out in the end (no spoilers!), and he’s happy. His attitude was inspiring and refreshing, not at all hokey.

The next episode on my list is Chipotle—I’m vicariously getting my fix of all the American foods I miss!

Thoughts on the MAGA insurrection

On Wednesday night, I watched the news of the attack on the US Capitol in disgust. Like everyone else, I’ve been trying to process it all and follow the news, and deal with living in a pandemic, and as of last week, do distance learning in lockdown again. So I’m writing this reaction fairly late, but that’s given the story time to develop–people have been arrested, impeachment charges have been presented, etc.

One of the (many) things that upset me was the way Trump supporters refused to believe their eyes and claimed that it was really antifa who were behind the attack. They had infiltrated the demonstration, supposedly, just to undermine the MAGA cause. Fox News perpetuated the claim, and I saw it in the comments on friends’ Facebook posts about the attack. How can you possibly reason with people who deny reality like that? It was very clearly a mob of Trump supporters, fully decked out in MAGA hats and t-shirts, waving Trump flags (and Confederate flags, and Back the Blue flags…). If they were antifa, they spent a lot of money on Trump merch. Another hint at their identity: they came from a Trump rally at the Ellipse, where Trump told them to march to the Capitol and fight. The people identified and arrested so far have all been Trump supporters, Q-Anon adherents, white supremacists, etc. I haven’t heard any follow-up from people who pushed those antifa claims, so I don’t know if those people have changed their mind, or just stopped talking about it now.

The more that comes out about the attack, the more obvious it is–this was planned, politically motivated violence, also known as terrorism. Rep. Espaillat just shared this piece from the New York Post that’s worth a quick read, highlighting black Capitol Police officers’ accounts.

Another officer, who is a newer recruit, described being forced to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the rioters, some of whom hurled Blue Lives Matter flags at them.

“We were telling them to back up and get away and stop, and they’re telling us, they are on our side, and they’re doing this for us, and they’re saying this as I’m getting punched in my face by one of them,” he told the outlet.

Jackie Salo, Black Capitol Police officers say DC rioters repeatedly used N-word, New York Post. 10 January 2021.

This is just incredible–but completely believable and unsurprising. “They’re doing this for us”–these rioters genuinely believe they are supporting police by fighting for Trump’s re-election, because they (wrongly) see the “Black Lives Matter” movement as anti-police. Even the “Defund the Police” sentiment is not anti-police–it’s simply saying that police are relied upon to do things they aren’t equipped to do, and that funding should be redirected to social workers, mental health professionals, etc.

It’s been a hard week. I hold some hope for the impeachment–whether it actually happens or not, it’s a part of accountability, like all of the arrests we’ve been seeing. It’s a clear statement that the mob didn’t get away with it, and neither will Trump.

One of the things I always think about in these moments is how it makes America look to the rest of the world. The U.S. exports democracy around the world, with its public diplomacy and traditional diplomacy, and these events undermine those efforts (to say the least…they reveal/highlight U.S. hypocrisy). On Wednesday night, I took screenshots of Spain’s El Mundo, France’s Le Monde, and Germany’s Der Spiegel.

El Mundo identified the mob as “followers of Trump”, and leads with the woman in critical condition after being shot, who became the first fatality of the attack.

These images are just disgusting–the beautiful U.S. Capitol building, a sacred space that most Americans will never get to see in person, a symbol of democracy, being overrun by a mob (wearing shorts that actually violate rules about displaying the U.S. flag). Many commentators picked up on the fact that these terrorists brought the Confederate flag into the U.S. Capitol, something that had never happened before–not even during the Civil War.

Le Monde also identified the mob as Trump supporters–“partisans”, adherents, supporters, partisans. They mention the rally in “the centre of the capital, to hear a speech from the Republican President at the moment when Congress began to certify the results of the election.” I think it was some hours before the media started talking about the rally, and it definitely wasn’t until the next day that we heard Trump’s rally speech, with its incitement to “never give up”, “go to the Capitol”, “fight”, “be strong”, etc.

The German term for a Trump supporter is by far my favourite–Anhänger is the word for follower or supporter, but it’s also pendant or tag–literally just like it sounds, “hanging on”. They’re “Trump-hangers-on”.

Let’s hope they will be quickly brought to justice, Trump and his hangers-on.

UK Erasmus Exchanges are the Latest Victim of Brexit

Brexit is in the news again, after months of being pushed aside by COVID-19. As of tomorrow, the UK is officially, for real this time, out of the European Union. The government has finally reached an agreement with the EU, and while we don’t fully know the implications of leaving, there was one bit of news that has special relevance for exchange diplomacy–the UK is leaving Erasmus+, the EU’s educational exchange programme. Founded in 1987, the programme has had over 10 million participants, across 4,000 institutions in 37 countries.

Despite the fact that we’ve all known Brexit was coming since 24 June 2016, this news was still a bit of a shock. As recently as this year, Boris Johnson was saying that international educational exchanges would be maintained and that Brexit wouldn’t interfere with Erasmus. But like many other aspects of leaving the European Union, this hasn’t quite turned out the way anyone expected.

Young people are obviously the hardest hit by the move, and that’s particularly unfair because today’s undergraduates were too young to vote in 2016. The much-cited “youth vote” (who are now 22-28, 4 years on) went overwhelmingly for remain in the EU referendum. It also has bigger impacts though, beyond just taking funding away from students who wanted to go abroad. Erasmus+ had opportunities for lecturers and researchers, for working abroad, for teacher training, for short-term exchanges–it was a comprehensive programme with a lot to offer the UK generally.

It’s not only going to impact people who wanted to go abroad themselves, either. As The New York Times points out, this move damages our universities and UK soft power, too.

The withdrawal is also a blow for Britain’s vaunted universities, a powerful symbol of its soft power in Europe and around the world, and an important source of income for the country. Britain remains second only to the United States as a destination for international students, but leaving Erasmus could deter many E.U. students who might have used the program as a pathway to a British education.

While this may not affect renowned institutions like Oxford or Cambridge, scores of lesser-known universities could suffer a blow.

Elian Peltier, Britain Mourns a Cherished Education Program Ended by Brexit, New York Times, 29 December 2020

The announcement of the UK’s “Brexiting” Erasmus+ came with the promise of a new funding scheme for exchanges, named after Alan Turing. The scheme is for UK students only (not lecturers/researchers or foreign participants like Erasmus+), and includes destination countries outside of Europe. It’s proposed to start in September 2021, and on a much smaller scale than Erasmus+ with just 35,000 participants.

In some ways, Brexit feels like old news–it was all that was talked about until the pandemic happened, all we heard about during Theresa May’s tenure, and all Boris Johnson campaigned on in the last election. But now that it’s happening, (again), and we’re seeing lorry drivers miss Christmas with their families in queues in Kent, and seeing young people lose funding to study abroad during a time when, to be honest, school and university experiences have been the worst ever, it all feels pretty miserable. I don’t know many people who voted to leave in 2016, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t vote for this.

What I’m Reading: Self-Compassion by Dr. Kristin Neff

I’m not even finished reading this book, but I’ve found it really helpful and wanted to share it now because I know it’s such a difficult time of year for so many people.

I found Kristin Neff’s work through another favourite author, Brené Brown. In The Gifts of Imperfection, which could be the topic of at least 10 blog posts (maybe a project for next year?), Brown directs her readers to Kristin Neff’s website for a Self-Compassion Test. I took it when I was reading Brown’s book, and my results were so low and sad, I immediately ordered Neff’s book.

Self-compassion is basically treating yourself with the same kind of compassion that you would treat other people. One of the early practical exercises in the book is to write a letter to yourself as if you were talking to a friend. Objectively, I can recognise that I would never be as critical or judgmental towards a friend as I am towards myself, but the letter exercise really did shift something in my perspective. I beat myself up so much about my career failures–my self-talk goes something like this: “I’m 35 and I’ve never had a full-time job. I apply to jobs and don’t even get shortlisted. My CV is apparently not marketable and nobody wants to hire me. Nobody thinks I have anything to contribute. I’ve wasted my entire adult life in grad school accumulating massive debts that I can never repay because I don’t have any marketable skills or experience.”

Now, if a friend came to me with news about getting yet another job rejection e-mail, I would not even think any of these things–much less say them out loud! I would say comforting things, tell them I’m sorry to hear it, remind them how lousy the job market is right now, buy them a coffee, remind them of all of the good things they have going on in their life, etc. I would be compassionate.

Before reading The Gifts of Imperfection, I wouldn’t have considered myself a perfectionist, but I actually am–it’s less about being “Type A” and more about fearing judgment and linking self-worth to accomplishments, which I 100% do. This past year of being unemployed has forced me to work through my perfectionism, because being unemployed is the most imperfect thing in my view. I would be more compassionate towards people with drug addiction, failed relationships, etc. than I would to myself and my situation. Getting a PhD and failing to get a job feels shameful. And I’m sharing this because as Brené Brown tells us, shame cannot survive being spoken.

Still working through things and trying to be more self-compassionate, but it feels good to have Neff’s tools as we go into the new year.

Thanksgiving in Lockdown: Advice from Abroad

For most Americans, Thanksgiving is going to be different this year –and PSA: if it’s not going to be different, maybe you should cancel your plans and make it different! Canada’s early Thanksgiving resulted in a big spike of COVID-19 cases–Americans should look at this example and opt to stay home (and Brits should learn from it re: Christmas gatherings, too, but Boris is trying to figure out a way to “save Christmas”–we shall see).

Source: Time

Airline travel figures are about half of what they were the weekend before Thanksgiving last year, so even though headlines (rightly) decry “Millions of Americans Traveling for Thanksgiving, Ignoring CDC advice“, it’s good to see that millions are also staying home and following CDC advice. The Macy’s Parade is going to be downsized to one block and only televised performances, with no spectators. Thanksgiving day football is still going ahead somehow–3 NFL games, yet we can’t actually meet up in person…

I’ve spent 12 out of the last 14 Thanksgivings in the UK–sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, sometimes just with my husband, and now with our kids (it’s Paul’s first Thanksgiving!). I know what it’s like to have a weird Thanksgiving, to miss home and friends and family, to miss certain foods you can’t get hold of, to miss the Macy’s Parade (the time difference means I’ve often watched previous years’ parades on YouTube while cooking!). These experiences have given me some brilliant coping skills that I want to share as some of you go through a weird Thanksgiving for the first time:

Modify your menu!

The best part about a scaled-down Thanksgiving is that you can make only what you want–no more, no less. Growing up, our Thanksgiving table was loaded with so much amazing food–enough to feed our whole extended family and still provide leftovers for weeks. When I started cooking Thanksgiving abroad, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to recreate that same menu. If something felt like more work than it was worth (yeast rolls from scratch), I could use store bought–or simply cut them out altogether! I don’t have them any more, and I really haven’t missed them.

This weird Thanksgiving is also an opportunity to try a new recipe–something you probably wouldn’t risk if you were feeding a big crowd. If you’re bored with mashed potatoes, there are a million other ways to prepare them. You can even leave them out entirely–I stopped making mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving because they’re not really special when you live in ‘pie & mash’ country. Growing up, I was not a fan of the marshmallow-topped sweet potato/yam/”hot dish”, so I don’t make that. I make sweet potatoes with a Paula Deen recipe that doesn’t have marshmallows but does include butter, brown sugar, and Jack Daniels. This author is making an all-side-dishes feast that sounds fabulous. Embrace the freedom to modify your menu!

You can make a meal for whatever dietary needs you have–gluten free, dairy free, vegan, nut free, etc. For some people, this might be the first Thanksgiving where they can finally relax and not have to worry about explaining their dietary requirements and fielding jokes about being an awkward dinner guest. For a vegan/vegetarian main dish option, I love a good chestnut-mushroom pie. This version is vegan, while this one has Gruyere cheese so it’s just vegetarian, not vegan. Don’t waste your time doing anything sad with roasted cauliflower or tofu in the shape of a turkey–Thanksgiving deserves better than that, and you deserve better than that.

For the traditional turkey eaters, I highly recommend getting a turkey crown instead of a whole turkey. It’s the breast meat, so you still get a beautiful centerpiece and the “look” of a roast turkey, without the excess of leftovers. I use Nigella’s method of brining my turkey crown and it’s always amazingly juicy and full of flavor, never dry and boring like most turkey breast. Another crucial tip is to leave it out and let the turkey come to room temperature before it goes in your preheated oven. This makes your cooking time more accurate, which reduces the risk of overcooking and drying it out. I don’t remember if I learned that one from Jamie Oliver or Paula Deen, but it’s key!

Enjoy Socially-distanced Togetherness with Video Chat and/or Texts

If Thanksgiving won’t feel like Thanksgiving without a certain loved one, there’s always video calling. I recreate cooking together by talking to my mom about making her cornbread dressing or her pie crust recipe, but you can do whatever helps you. Maybe your family always plays a board game together after Thanksgiving dinner–do it via zoom. Watch a film at the same time and text each other your inside jokes that you’d normally be saying out loud. Send each other memes! Every time a friend or family member sends me a meme, I know they were thinking of me, and it shortens the distance to laugh at the same things together.

Focus on the positives

Obviously, some people have been through hell this year, losing jobs and losing loved ones–I’m not pushing “toxic positivity” on them. But for the majority of Americans whose biggest frustration is having to wear a mask in a supermarket, I think it’s important to focus on gratitude–the actual meaning of the holiday!

There was a great Oprah quote about gratitude–if you’re breathing, be grateful that you’re breathing. And if you need a machine to breathe, be thankful that you’ve got the machine! Start with the basics and work your way up. We used to have to go around the table every year and name something we were grateful for–recreate that, and write your answers down in a diary or journal. Look back on them at times when you don’t feel like being grateful.

Feel the weirdness and do it anyway!

I know a lot of people won’t feel like celebrating this year. I’ve been there, too–in 2008 I had pizza for Thanksgiving dinner. But marking the day in some small way can help make this crazy year seem a little bit better. Maybe read Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation and think about the circumstances of its creation as an official holiday. America was even more divided then (during an actual civil war) than it is now! For a more lighthearted approach, watch a classic TV special like Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving or Garfield’s Thanksgiving, or start in on the Christmas movies–Miracle on 34th Street opens with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, making it a great choice for kicking off the holiday season on Thursday.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Little Pilgrim George at Thanksgiving 2016, one of my 2 spent in America over the past 14 years

Election Week 2020: Memes as Coping Mechanism

I was beating myself up for taking so long to write something about the election, but actually, it’s only been a week since the results were called–and Trump still hasn’t conceded, so I can’t be too far behind! Here are a few thoughts on the long election week we’ve been living in for the past 11 days:

Election night: This was my fourth US election night in the UK, and due to the time difference, we don’t really get any results until after midnight. I had originally planned to going to bed early and just watching the coverage when I was up with the baby, as he usually wakes me up around 3 am anyway. I ended up doing what I always do, and stayed up all night watching the results. I stayed up too late watching a movie and then the baby didn’t want to go to sleep, and I figured the polls would be closing soon anyway…Paul fell asleep around 1am, and George didn’t end up joining us as he’d wanted to–he slept through the night.

I knew about the “red mirage” prediction, but it was still a very concerning election night. When I gave up and went to bed after the 4am calls for the West coast, I was still vaguely confident about Biden’s chances but I was disappointed about the Senate results. I couldn’t believe Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham were re-elected–and even Susan Collins. It wasn’t the blue wave I’d hoped for, that much was already clear.

The next 3 days are a blur. I constantly checked my phone for updates and grew so tired of seeing the same electoral vote count every time I checked. On Saturday, we went for a walk and got takeaway Starbucks Christmas coffees as a little treat, and while I was taking a break from my phone, the election was finally called!

I was so relieved that it was over and that Biden had won. I don’t know how the US and the world would have faced four more years of a Trump presidency. I’m well aware of the criticisms people have of Biden & Harris, but one thing is certain–they are competent and experienced leaders.

Back in 2017, Joe Biden was interviewed on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. I remember listening to the podcast at the time and crying on my commute over his beautiful words about grief and loss. I watched it again this week (it was reposted by OWN on YouTube), and was reminded what a truly decent, empathetic person Biden is. It’s the greatest contrast with Trump–he has no sense of empathy. Narcissists can’t empathise.

My favorite part about the week has been the memes. They have been a form of self-medicating during the wait for results, offering a way to express ourselves and share our emotions with friends and family during this chaotic time.

Nevada being slow—it wouldn’t have mattered if the election hadn’t been so close! They only have 6 electoral votes!
“Stop the Count!”
So many amazing memes about the Four Seasons Total Landscaping press conference. I love that the company went with it, and every detail was just brilliant. Such a perfect moment to cap off a chaotic 4 years!
As long as he stays quiet, we can just assume this is what he’s doing. According to aides, he’s “watching even more television than usual”!

Pre-Election Anxiety

It’s the big day—the end of voting and the start of determining the results. I’m anxious for the outcome. I can’t fully trust the polls. Even if Biden wins by a landslide, Trump will contest the results and say it’s rigged. He’s already said he’s going to send lawyers in to stop the counting of ballots, which is crazy and unprecedented. I’m worried about the reaction of Trump supporters—I know they won’t be gracious in defeat or victory, and I fear for the safety of people who aren’t white, cis, straight men.

I’m worried about violence. We’ve already seen the MAGA crowd get violent many times over the past 4 years—at Charlottesville, in Portland, ambushing the Biden Harris convoy in Texas last weekend. Trump condones this behaviour—encourages it, praises it.

I’m also cautiously optimistic. Biden is unifying and people are engaged. The early voting turnout has been amazing. Young people have shown up and broken records. In Texas alone, 1.8 million more people have registered since the last election. There could be a landslide. It’s possible. I just have a hard time letting myself get excited about that possibility!

I’ve been reading about the March For Our Lives movement as part of my study on Parkland, and I was struck by this passage:

from Parkland: Birth of a Movement, Dave Cullen, 2019

Since 2016, we’ve been seeing each other as enemies, not adversaries. Sometimes, that’s for very good reasons–white supremacists are definitely enemies, rather than reasonable people you just happen to disagree with. I’ll readily admit that the tiki-torch-wielding mob in Charlottesville was evil, or at the very least, had evil intentions at that time. But in other cases, I’ve seen people treat each other as enemies when they really aren’t evil people. I hope we can get back to recognizing the difference between enemies and adversaries, between actual evil and just a dissenting viewpoint. I hope Biden, if he wins, can unify the country and get us back to acknowledging our common humanity.

Election countdown: 1 day

Wyoming is a solid red state— conservative and rural, with a total population that’s smaller than many cities. Trump carried the state in 2016 by a massive 47 points, but that translates to fewer than 120,000 votes. It’s also the home state of Vice President Dick Cheney and Representative Liz Cheney.

After the 2016 election, Wyoming was used as an example to illustrate inequalities within the electoral college system.

Wyoming has three electoral votes and a population of 586,107, while California has 55 electoral votes and 39,144,818 residents. Distributing the electoral vote evenly among each state’s residents suggests that individual votes from Wyoming carry 3.6 times more influence, or weight, than those from California.


The electoral college has taken the presidency away from the winners of the popular vote twice in just 16 years, and both were the same party—reform is long overdue.

Election countdown: 2 days

Wisconsin was consistently blue from 1988 until 2016, when Trump won by less than 1%. Along with Michigan, Wisconsin was seen as the key to Trump’s electoral college victory. It was a state that Democrats took for granted and overlooked—Hillary Clinton sent Biden there on her behalf, and she had just over half the number of campaign offices in the state that Obama had.

Biden currently has an average 8 point lead over Trump, and given the fact that Wisconsin elected a Democrat as Governor in 2018, I think it’s likely to flip back to blue this year.

Election countdown: 3 days

West Virginia is another special state for me, as it’s where my grandpa’s side of the family is from. It’s beautiful, and the people are the salt of the earth. It was the last state to get a case of covid-19, probably because so many of its communities are relatively rural and isolated, compared with the other states around it. I would call its natural beauty ‘unspoiled’ because there’s something relaxing and peaceful about it, but actually it has been spoiled—by mining and fracking. It ranks poorly on economic and health measures, much like its rust belt neighbors, and it went for Trump by 300,000 votes, a massive 41 points.

West Virginia is solidly red now, but that hasn’t always been the case. They’ve gone for Adelai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton. They’ve been fickle and have a strange habit of voting for an incumbent whom they initially rejected—voting against Eisenhower then for him, voting against Nixon then for him, voting against Reagan then for him. It doesn’t look like they’re going to turn on Trump—he’s leading by 35 points in recent polls.

My grandpa always said he voted for Democrats because poor people are better off when Democrats are in charge. That’s why West Virginia re-elected Democratic Senator Robert Byrd so many times—because he looked after them. That’s why they went for Trump—because he said the Democrats had failed to look after them, and he promised to do it better. I really do want the best for West Virginia, and I hope if Biden wins he can turn things around for them.