I'm back in New York for April, and am experiencing the full throttle of "home" confusion. Familiar to any international student or diplomat children, I'm asking all the usual questions... Have I gone back home? Or do I have a new home? Where do I belong? But as my lovely friend Hannah Owens once said, I'm confused about my earthly home, but not my eternal one. But maybe my various earthly homes have something to say about the eternal one. In fact, I've been thinking a lot about why I love city-life, so here are some things that living in cities (both New York and London) have taught me about Heaven. In fear for making any specific theological claims about what Heaven physically (or spiritually is), I'll give you my basic thoughts and leave a lot open for interpretation.
One: Humans were created to live in community
As I get ready to leave my house for the day, I close the door behind me and am met with scenes from my childhood. I see me and my block friends, young and full of energy, running through the street to catch a baseball, riding our bicycles with one of the girls enforcing traffic, towering umbrellas over each other in the rain for a tent safe from the storm. Across the street from my house, a group of middle-aged men and women sit on one of the porches, drinking beer around a small barbecue. They’re loud, but we don’t mind. Their volume enables our own. The teenagers are walking down the block, on their way to practice for their Green Day cover band. My older brother walks to the end of the block to visit Angie and Rose, an elderly pair of sisters with whom he had become close.
I step out onto the sidewalk and walk to Metropolitan Avenue, the main street in this New York neighborhood that stretches across Brooklyn and Queens. I have my earbuds in (listening to some rockin' Chance the Rapper) but keep having to take them out when someone greets me with a hello. My friend Lisa’s dad Richard, he knows everyone in town. He’s surprised to see me, I guess Lisa didn’t tell him I was back for Easter. We have a short conversation, he updates me on the situation of the Queens’ drivers getting increasingly crazy, tells me to be careful on my way to the subway. I nod smiling, and continue my way. I barely have time to put back in my earbuds before I get a quick shout from the UPS driver. He pulls up next to me and drives slowly (annoying the other drivers on this busy road). Roland has been our UPS delivery guy for the longest time. He’s lived in New York for over a decade but still retains a strong German accent. He’s heard I went to Berlin while studying in England. He asks me how I liked it, asks me if I speak German now, and tells me to learn it if I can (will do Roland :) ). The drivers behind him are getting upset now, so he lets me along on my way. I’ll surely see him tomorrow when he delivers our amazon packages.
People have this picture of a busy New York. Surely it’s too busy and crowded to know anyone. People move here and leave with the impression that it’s a lonely place, but that’s mostly because they’re moving into a new place they didn’t grow up in. The real New York, or at least the one I grew up in, is basically a collection of real people in real neighbourhoods. People who are living densely on each other’s doorsteps. We know all of our neighbours for good or for worse. The walls are thin, if someone has a fight, we all know. This isn’t the hidden, private life of the suburbs, or even that perhaps of the Upper East Side. It’s real people living together, with access to people of all ages and backgrounds, living life together.
I live in a neighborhood, not a house. My room is where I sleep, but we play outside. Central Park is the backyard for everyone and the Greek diner down the road is the dining room. My life is not my own, and although I retain a lot of my own self and individuality, that individuality seeks ultimately to enhance the community around me. There’s a picture in a block party- all of our different interests and gifts coming together for something more. One family does a presentation in Mixed Martial Arts, another shows everyone how to salsa dance. The Green Day cover band does a live concert, the 5th graders show everyone how to do the East Coast Swing.
"In that way, the parts of the body will not takes sides. All of them will take care of one another. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honoured, every part shares in its joy. You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it." - 1 Corinthians 12:25-27
Two: Culture flows naturally out of creation
The first time recently 18-year old friend Katie ordered a beer, we went to Wetherspoons (of course we did). If you don't live in England, Wetherspoons (or just Spoons) is a chain of pubs throughout the country known for being relatively inexpensive. As we walked in, it was about 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon. I looked around. Gathered around tables were businessmen and construction worker alike; brokers on their break and students doing revision for exams. Everyone comes to the pub for a beer at the end of a hard day of work.
Art movements and ideological revolution alike all started in a similar place. This is where ideas flourish, this is where art is made. At the queue for the bar, everyone becomes equal in the fair exchange of ideas. It's where you can put forth your ideas, wait for someone to argue with them, and start cultural revolutions.
It doesn't matter where you live, humans were created to create. That creation will naturally come out no matter rural, suburb, or urban life. But there's something to be said for a group of densely populated individuals that creates an environment for the exchange of ideas and influence of people to become something greater than a Tuesday afternoon. In moments of communion, we realise what makes our minds different than the person next to us. We can build off each other and see what is missing from life. And we can create it, for the glory of something greater than our own selves.
"For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." - Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)
Three: The Good things of this life are only a small picture of the one to Come
But, I’m reminded that as much as I loved my childhood in New York and as much as I cherish my time in London, this life we live in and thus the cities we live in are inherently flawed. This isn't hard to see, so I'll keep the illustration short. Walking around New York or London can really feel like a Tale of Two Cities. Next to big buildings of enterprise, the homeless hope for enough for a place to stay for the night. You can walk from the Google Building to the Bowery Mission. On the streets of the Strand, the hungry line up for groceries near the embassy. If the idea of a perfect city is one where everyone is taken care of, we have failed, and I think we know this.
But in the good news of Christ is the knowledge and assurance that this life is only a small part of eternity. All of the good things of this life are merely shadows of the one to come; so we can look at Queens neighbourhoods and London pubs and rejoice in what they show about God and his Kingdom, but all of those earthly institutions are at least in part, corrupted by the greed and selfishness of man. The British broker may not listen to what the construction worker has to say, and as much as block parties are fun, the next day I still might hear neighbours fight through the thin walls of our home. Cities are great. But the Kingdom of God is a place the mind can only dream of.
Heaven is going to be awesome. There will be people living in wondrous community. There will be art being made and a continuation of perfect culture. But the most amazing thing about Heaven will be that we get to live in the presence of God himself, in his perfect loving kindness and grace.
"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Look, God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."" - Revelations 21:1-4
For further reading:
Sidewalks in the Kingdom (Eric Jacobsen)
Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life (Makoto Fujimura)
The Book of Revelation (The Bible LOL)
Sitting at a Pret across the street from the Victoria Underground Station, i took a sip of my latte and looked up, squealing in excitement. We had just finished going to mass at Westminster Cathedral, as I often tag along on Sundays with my Catholic friend Katie before we go to our Protestant church in the evening. This morning, Hannah had also joined us for the 9am mass. Uni life, am I right?
"I know we didn't know what we were gonna do between mass and church... there is a service at Westminster Abbey in 30 minutes?" I smile, somewhere between a joke and a serious curiosity. "Let's do it," Hannah replied without missing a beat. My kinda girl, that Hannah.
So that's when an already abnormal English Sunday turned into a full on "church-crawl." We figured on the way across town to Parliament Square that we could probably fit one more church service in after the High Anglican Eucharist mass. And sure enough, Hillsong's London campus had a service at 1:15pm. A perfect recipe for some cross-denominational study: Catholic, High Anglican, charismatic evangelical, and a recently church planted "low" church of England. Not inclusive of everything for sure, but an interesting anthropological opportunity nevertheless.
So what happened when we went to these four services throughout the day?
Church #1: Westminster Cathedral (Catholic Mass)
At this point in the day, we didn't know mass was going to turn into a whole-day affair, so I have very limited photos from the Cathedral. So, you're going to have to take my word for it that Westminster Cathedral is simply beautiful. The facade has immeasurable presence, a feat when you remember the building stands in competition with a host of famous places right near by that brings tourists flocking like swans. The inside is no different. I've said it before and I'll say it again- the Catholics sure know how to erect a Cathedral.
United by a common calendar and liturgy from Rome, Catholic Mass doesn't change drastically (or really, at all) wherever you are in the world. We did opt for the 9am unsung mass, which I later regretted. Love me a good organ sounding from the heavens above. Catholic mass can be a bit intimidating if you weren't raised in that tradition. Everyone pretty much knows when to stand, when to kneel, what to say, and when to say it. Of course, Katie was on top of each prayer and recitation like she had been born with the Apostles Creed flowing through her bones. I myself know a little bit of the mass- the Lord's Prayer is the same and I can get through most of the main creeds with just a bit of fumbling.
As a Protestant myself (though my mom always says 'why are we still calling ourselves that, what are we protesting? I'm not protesting anything'), some of the elements of the mass I have theological disagreements with. I don't take the Eucharist (Communion, Lord's Supper), since the Catholic belief of transubstantiation rejects my belief in salvation by grace alone. I don't do any of the prayers to Mary, because I don't feel a need to pray through someone else when I can just pray to God himself. But I have to say there is a certain amount of orderly magic in the cohesiveness of the Catholic mass. Saying the same words that you've grown up saying with a community of people around you who profess the same beliefs can be a wonderful reminder of the church as a body. I did, also, continually think of John Mulaney's bit about how the mass changed the liturgy to "And with your spirit." (Side note, if you haven't seen the Comeback Kid on Netflix yet, what are you doing?).
My biggest complaint with this service was just how short the homily was. The passage from the gospel was from Luke 13. The priest covered about 24 verses in under 7 minutes, which really just means I wasn't able to get as much out of it as I would have liked to. I know this was unusually short for a message, but in general I do believe the Catholic mass does tend to emphasise the readings and responses over the teaching of the passage itself. It's just very different from what I'm used to.
Church #2: Westminster Abbey (High anglican)
Westminster Abbey is directly right next door to Parliament, which means the three of us weaving through groups of confused tourists to try for the entrance for the 11:15am Eucharist service. I have to be upfront and tell you what my first thought was walking in through the doors to the church... WOW, those Anglicans really know how to design some robes. I mean seriously, there were a few variations (presumably depending on the role of the given person, but it just seemed like a line of some religious clothing to me), and each one was as epically magical as the next.
On a more serious note, the first difference I noticed immediately after coming from Catholic mass is the arrangement of the chapel area. At Westminster Abbey, congregants sit in two sections facing the other, rather than the typical seating/stage design of most places. The Boy's Choir as well was next to us rather than in front of anyone. I think this stems from a similar reason to why organs are usually out of sight- the emphasis on God being worshipped rather than the people involved in the ceremony. I did begrudgingly notice the 'better' reserved seats near the choir and made a joke about how our seats were for the common subjects. "What you're saying is you think you belong with the aristocracy up there," Katie bantered. Bit of truth to every joke...
I'm sure I don't have to tell you that the music at Westminster Abbey is more than lovely. The boys' angelic voices cry out the words in Latin and we could read the translations in our programs in front of us. I'm a sucker for some Gregorian chant, and a boys' choir singing ecclesiastical Latin in harmonious tones is my idea of a fun Tuesday night. We did remark how the compositions always seemed to turn one line of text into a six minute song, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. In a similar way to the Catholic mass, the calls and responses, and corporate singing of the hymns really did make me feel like I was part of a bigger community of Christians worshipping together. There's something really great I think people forget about the comfort and wonder simultaneously allowed for in an order of service.
Again, similar to the Catholic mass, there was an Old Testament Reading, Epistle Reading, and gospel reading. Believe it or not, the priests homily was on Luke 13 again! The similarity between these two services confused all of us. Makes me wonder what all this fighting between the Church of England and Catholics were about. The teaching priest surprised me with his message; not only was he an amazing speaker, but his words about the darkness of judgement but the wonder of grace was really compelling.
Hannah and I took communion here, while Katie went up for a blessing. "The body of Christ," the priest said. "Amen," I would reply before moving along in the line to the wine. Before leaving the service, we got to take a quick look at the cloisters next to the chapel. (It helps if you tell them you have to use the toilets, they'll direct you to a different exit and you get to see a bit more of the Abbey).
We left Westminster heading for Hillsong, discussing the history of the Church of England and the changes it went through with Queen Elizabeth the first. (As one does on the way to their third church service of the day).
Church #3: Hillsong (Australian Charistmatic evangelical)
If the events of Catholic and Anglican mass were surprisingly similar, nothing could have compared us for the drastic change as we walked into service at Hillsong. Hannah and I were a bit more familiar with the variety that exists within the Protestant church, and both of us have been to services more similar to the contemporary feel of Hillsong. But even we were a bit caught off guard with how different everything was. So you can only imagine how our resident Catholic felt.
For one thing, Hillsong isn't in a normal church building- it's in a West End theatre off Tottenham Court Road that has hosted shows such as Grease, An American Paris, and White Christmas. Katie's expression showed nothing but confusion as we walked into the 1:15pm service, where we greeted in darkness by the light, fog, and blaring guitar solo of the band on stage, who looked to be an early 2000s singing group complete with jean jackets, hoodies, baseball caps, and the energy of Justin Timberlake himself.
Far from the Westminster Abbey Boys' Choir, this band belted out pop-based harmonies like it was the X Factor. There was a certain amount of energy and genuine joy that you could not quite compare to a more traditional service. Around us, a wide-ranging generation of Londoners were dancing, putting their arms up into the air, and singing out about the love and grace of God. No one was worried about doing the 'right' thing or saying words wrong; there's no liturgy to get incorrect and all the words of the songs are flashed up on the screen behind the band. If I could describe the difference in religious 'effect' between the first two services and this third one- I think I would say the first two had a spirituality of "reverence" whereas Hillsong had a spirituality of "joy." I don't know if one is necessarily better than the other; surely God is big enough to handle both.
The biggest sadness for me in the Hillsong service was this: whereas in the first two I felt a sense of church community as the church responded together in unison or sang hymns echoing through the church building, the audio system of this theatre is so loud that I could barely hear myself sing, let alone the people around me. It was really an individual experience. You could do what you like and dance how you like, but in the darkness you can't completely see how the people around you are reacting and feel like you're part of something bigger with them communally.
The Hillsong service was mostly music- even in sections where someone came up to pray or when the pastor came up to preach, everything was sandwiched in between long songs of repeating choruses and bridges. It was also the longest service- about an hour and forty-five minutes.
Church #4: Euston Church (local, 'low' church of england)
I have to be pretty upfront about my particular bias towards Euston. It is my church, after all. But after a day of unfamiliar church orders and experiences, you wouldn't believe the comfort of home I felt walking into Euston's 5pm service in the middle of Bloomsbury.
Euston is somewhere between the ordered liturgy of a Catholic/High Anglican mass and the no-liturgy of the charismatic church. There's always pretty much a set amount of songs, a punctual time in which to offer greetings to your neighbor, a bit of call and response during communion and prayers. The music is less traditional than the hymns of Westminster Abbey; there's a guitar, keyboard, and box drum, but I can promise you, our music leaders don't seem to be planning on jumping around on stage anytime soon. It was really lovely after coming from Hillsong that I realised how much you can actually hear the congregation sing around you- a group of mostly students and young workers in this central London area.
And hey, believe it or not, for the third service in the day, the sermon was on Luke 13! (I'd actually love to do a blog post about how the three different sermons all approached the same passage pretty differently. Let me know if you'd be interested in that!).
Most of the University College London students had already left for holiday a few days ago, so the church wasn't as packed as usual. But, as usual, after the service ended, Hannah, Katie, and I grabbed food in the back (there's dinner after the evening service) and went to go tell all of our pastor friends about how crazy of a day we had visiting so many churches. We had had an exhaustingly long day, but ended up loitering around the church until about 8 or 9pm going around and remembering more people we had to talk to. We actually ended up being some of the last to leave at 9pm. 12 hours after we had begun at Westminster Cathedral in the morning.
After all, a church isn't really about what kind of songs you sing or what the facade of the building looks like. A church is the people, the community of people in the body of Christ that you get to interact with and grow in your faith with. Whether you subscribe to a particular faith or not, there's something to be said for people gathering together to share in life together. And when we get to do that with the joy we find in the hope of our Saviour, it makes our "church-crawl" an exhausting day with a redeeming premise.
Before I end this blog post, let me leave you with one thing. I think it's so wonderful how even within the very limited scope of these London churches, how I was able to see the diversity of tradition and plurality in how people relate to their beliefs differently. We were made differently and come from different cultures, surely it makes sense that the way we worship could be different too! Katie, Hannah, and I have already started planning our next #churchcrawl for May when we get back from break. What churches do you think we should include? Let me know!
Also feel free to check out Katie's blog www.theamericaninlondon!
Disclaimer: I chose to focus mostly on the services themselves rather than my theological interpretation of the services and the scriptural content of their messages. That blog post would be a separate, and probably way more controversial one, but I'm happy to do it if people are curious!
“Oh, you live in Queens? So not in the city city, not really.”
This is something I get a lot when I tell people I’m from New York City. Not from New Yorkers mind you, but from a selection of people who have vacationed to midtown and now feel like they know the essence of the “Empire State.” It’s something I’ve struggled with for my teenage years. Do I really live in New York? Are the other boroughs really just overrated suburbs? What does it mean to live in the city? Do I make the cut?
As I’ve grown up, I’ve experienced a few different versions of city lives. I went to elementary school in my own neighborhood, where we might go to Central Park or Broadway on a day off, but most of life is lived locally. I mean there’s no reason not to- in easy reach we have our grocery store, the library, the butcher, and the post office. My school is just a few blocks away and kids are able to start walking there by themselves at a fairly young age. We play outside on our block with kids who live right nextdoor. These are the local neighborhood years.
Then, I went to middle school in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Central Park became less a monthly retreat and more an extension of the classroom- we read books there, walked through it to get to field trips at Lincoln Center, it was part of the everyday life. I took the subway on the daily, learned how to navigate the map and began to understand the different neighbourhoods.
My high school years were spent in Brooklyn. Here’s really where my horizons expand- students flocked from all five boroughs to my school and so the beginnings of learning of the subway map were solidified across the entire city. Until then, Brooklyn was just the place my ancestors were from. Now it was real, I saw the hipsters arise in the spring with their matching poodles toddling next to them. I spent a lot more time in Manhattan- it was easier to get home if my friends were from the Bronx and I from Queens. We studied at the 42nd street library, got to know the bubble tea places of the East Village. I learned I was supposed to resent NYU for ruining the village, call Staten Island a suburb, be wary of Park Slope moms, roll my eyes at the millennial middle Americans moving in for their start up.
I think when most outsiders think of city living they think of my middle school years. I call this the Gossip Girl picture of city life. Sitting on the stairs of the MET, going to Serendipity for an after school ice cream snack, walking by people urgently hailing yellow cabs. And that’s not an invalid view of city life, certainly people live that way- some of my friends from middle school have only lived that way.
But it’s certainly a restricted view of city living- I would even go far as to say a classist view of city life. The world I described in my high school years is a better picture of how many New Yorkers live. Manhattan as a central square, a good meeting spot, but only really the beginnings of understanding the city. Living with a commute meant we had to explore more of the city. It wasn’t at our doorstep so we ventured out boldly. But still, I think most people would agree with that picture of life as verified, city living.
What about that first picture? Here lies the radical claim- that Queens way of life, the local neighborhood borough life- that’s the purest form of city living.
You see, our modern and popular conception of city life is urbanist theory- - great public transit, walkable cities with everything close enough to get to without driving. (The type of stuff you see on websites like NUMTOTS on facebook). Controlled dense living. Museums and parks all in easy reach. Cafes on every corner.
But then there’s the historic city. And there’s really a variety of lives here: maybe the part of your city is poor and the government doesn't really care about it's access to public transit, immigrants often living in dense quarters out of necessity. Everything's in walking distance because you can't afford to go out any further. It’s a city of characters- old Dickens characters on every block who sit out on the porch and say hi to passerbys. No cafes on the corner- but bodegas and no frills food that could compete with the largest Michelin star restaurant. When my mother tells me of her childhood days growing up in Brooklyn, she speaks with a New York accent that becomes more intense with every passionate word. She hardly ventured out of her neighborhood- everything was there, why would they leave?
The localized view of urban life is overlooked but important. I mean, really, that’s the whole point of a city. You don’t need to drive far to get what you need. You should have everything in close quarters. People live in a cultural sphere of characters- it’s not planned, not predictable, full of characters and full of messes.
As I moved away from New York to live in England for university, I started to get the ‘question’ more and more. If I’m the New York representative, people want to know. What’s it like to live in New York? Is it like the movies? Is it really that fast-paced? How do you survive?
I’m still working on some of my answers to these questions. But one thing’s for sure, I am a New Yorker. And that may mean a few different things to people. But no matter the paradigm- local, commuter, or gossip girl, I’ve always had the city in the palm of my hand, and I think that’s really what it’s all about.
- Alexandra Kytka
"Oh, you're from New York? You must be LOVING the tube!"
The amount of times I've heard this in the month that I've been living in London is unbelievable. And most of the time from Californians (might I remind them, L.A. barely has a transportation system, but I digress).
But is there any truth to it? In a battle of metro/subway systems, who comes out on top?
Here's my hot take.
*A quick sidenote, this has to do all with the actual experience of taking the train, rather than an analysis of the routes and effectiveness of the system. If you're looking for that, I'm sure it's somewhere online with loads of statistics.
1. The Tube has a shorter learning curve once you're underground.
I've lived in New York City for most of my life, and I still sometimes don't know where I'm supposed to go. But the Tube's signage is outstanding- there's always information for where each line takes you as you're waiting for the train, always signs telling you the "way out," where to catch another line, etc. There's the ease of contactless payment that avoids the awkward watching-tourists-swipe-twelve-times-in-a-row thing, and the speakers even tell you what side of the train (left/right) the next station will be on! (Although counterpoint, transfers may take longer because of the extensive corridors you may have to go through.)
That being said, the tube better have good signage, because
2. The Tube doesn't have Wifi or service in most stations and that is FRUSTRATING.
It's the 21st Century. We are more than capable in creating underground service. And yet, in London, unless you're on a line that operates in stations above ground, you probably won't ever have service.
Now, service on the subway in NYC is spotty and not perfect, but in recent years, I've had the assurance that at some point on my train ride, I'll have service at various points. So, I'm not usually stressed out about how to get to where I'm going because I can look it up again once I get closer. Ah, the wonders of Citimapper alerting me to get up before my stop.
3. They're both? Kind of? Gross?
The key point that most of these aforementioned people have queue'ed me in on, was that the subway is disgusting. I can't fully argue with this. Although I think Europeans take the pizza rat meme too seriously, there's a point to the image of a hairy rodent sliming along the stairway of a global cities' streets.
That having been said, the Tube isn't so great either. I will say, generally, I've found the NYC traincars to be cleaner. Most of them are fairly new, and made out of metal/plastic, which is easily cleaned. On the other hand, the tube's trains really depend on which line you're on. The Circle and District Lines are pretty clean, while the Picadally and Jubilee Line sort of break down. They're also pretty cramped and have fabric-lined seats, which I can't imagine are harsh to incoming germs in the area.
On the other hand, the tube's stations are much cleaner. It also depends where you are in London, but I haven't witnessed anything close to the unadulterated stench of the Lexington Avenue and 53rd street station.
4. The Subway is such a cultural experience.
There's a simultaineous annoyance and endurance about the street performers who enter the trains. I usually roll my eyes at the dancers flinging themselves over the metal bars, but there's a few singing groups on the F train I really appreciate and even take off my ear buds for. I've seen a few performers in the stations of London, but nothing close to the amount of performers in the NYC subway. Entering Union Square will surely have you in awe at the level of talent that is so clearly apparant in this city.
Some of you may see this as a negative, but I love it. Point to NYC for me.
5. The Subway is FLOODED with delays.
You knew this. I knew this. Bill DeBlasio knows this (or has at least, been told). And yes, the Brits seem to be on strike every few days, which causes more crowds on the working trains, but that only turns into a slighly longer commute than usual. One time in New York delays turned a 20 minute journey into an hour one. That's miserable (I'm looking at you, 1 train).
So, which one's better?
In terms of getting you where you need to go, I might have to go with the Tube. It's seemingly more reliable and gets the job done. (I'm not even including double decker buses in this analysis, those are really where it's at, excitement-wise).
But NYC is my home, and there's a certain weight of culture and iconicity that would seem to boost up the subway's rep. If you're in for an experience, the subway's music and access to wifi might be a better option
So, I guess the anwer is it depends. Do you prize a metro-system for its effectiveness or its other more 'fun' qualities. Or do you just care about how clean it is? In that case, which one is 'less-worse' may actually be a better question.
And here's an extra flick of me on the subway with my bestie just for fun.
I have such a profound respect for what comedians are capable of. Anyone can make people laugh in a conversational, casual dinner party type way, and everyone has an anecdote or two sure to make their friends giggle. But to stand in front of an audience you don't know who come from different backgrounds and talk at them for an hour hoping they won't completely hate you is a feat only known to comedians and pastors.
I've been really getting into comedy recently. And because of Netflix's thorough assortment of comedy specials, I've been able to watch quite a few recently. So, without further adieu, here is my list (unordered) of my favorite comedy specials. Please note, this is only my particular comedic taste and I haven't watched everything available. But, if someone were to ask me for a suggestion, this is the direction I would point them in.
1. Colin Quinn's New York Story
My parents make everyone who walk into our living room watch this. That is not an exaggeration. Quinn's portrayal of the history of New York City through comedy is poignant, hilarious, and education (somewhat) as he goes from the time of Native Americans to the Dutch all the way through immigration waves of Italians, Puerto Ricans, Chinese and more. You probably won't understand all of this show if you're not from here. Some of my friends who live in the city but aren't FROM the city (meaning they moved here as kids, their parents didn't grow up here) don't necessarily get it. That being said, if you are from New York, this piece is a spectacular cultural immersion. (And it's funny too).
2. John Mulaney's Comeback Kid
From the Catholic Church to Bill Clinton, marriage to Real Estate, the 80s and dog training, Mulaney has effortlessly crafted a juxtaposition of the wholesome and obscene. He has this childish energy about him that makes me smile watching him over and over. I've watched all of the John Mulaney comedy specials, and this is by far my favorite. If you want to feel metaphorically hugged with laughter, to feel safe and smiley, the Comeback Kid is a must.
3. Hasan Minaj's Homecoming King
This one I can't watch over and over. Minaj's comedy style is reminiscent of the original definition of comedy by Aristotle himself. It's not just about making people laugh in a senseless void- it's about being able to artfully manipulate the audience's emotions; to make them cry and then laugh and then cry again. Hasan tells the story of his life as an Indian American growing up in California. He makes us hate the girl who stands him up for prom, appreciate his supportive parents, and laugh at racism as a bizarre, irrational hatred that doesn't make any sense. So this one isn't a go-to for background noise or a quick laugh- but it is gorgeous nevertheless.
4. Ryan Hamilton's Happy Face
"Happy Face" is similar to a John Mulaney style of comedy in that Ryan Hamilton comes off as such a wholesome, happy person. In fact, he makes fun of the fact that his resting face is one of a ecstatic bright eyed boy from Idaho (yes, he's from Idaho). Covering such topics as cocaine on the New York City subway, growing up in a small town, and hot air balloons (I kid you not, there's about 15 minutes of hot air balloons), you won't regret clicking on this one.
5. Jen Kirkman's I'm Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine)
Jen Kirkman is the first female comedian whose style I really vibe with. I have to venture into more female comedians, but some of the mainstream ones I have watched (including Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman) just don't strike the comedy chord in my bones. Kirkman's style reminds me of the fictional Marvelous Mrs. Maisel from the Amazon series of that name. She can be crude at times but on the whole she is clever, relatable, and you really get the sense that she's truly being herself through her comedy.
6. Trevor Noah's Afraid of the Dark
Maybe I'm just a sucker for a good honest mixture of historical education and a good laugh, but Trevor Noah's Afraid of the Dark is fantastic. It didn't make me cry like Homecoming King, but it's definitely along a similar vein of recounting his experience as a person of color (or, as you learn in the special, a way more complex way of viewing race in South Africa). Trevor Noah does a great impersonation of Nelson Mandela and really challenges the American understanding of race and culture.
So those are the objective BEST comedy specials on Netflix. The end.
I am kidding, of course, but I do want to leave you with one last thing. This list isn't perfect. In fact, making this list of my favorite comedies made me realize that I would really love to get immersed in a more diverse group of comedians including those from other countries and cultures. If you have any comedians you would recommend, please do! Although I'm starting uni soon and won't have as much time to binge, I could always use a little laughter. :)
PS- In the process of this post, I also came up with a list of comedy specials I absolutely can't stand. Let me know if you would be interested in hearing some of that tea.
Across the United States, I hear choirs of juniors and seniors (maybe even a few anxious sophomores) groaning in union about the dreaded college process. Between SATs that seem to determine the future, college essays that seem to make no sense, and trauamtic stories about perfect 4.0, 1600 students getting rejected by Harvard or Stanford, the country seems united under their preparatory grief. How did I avoid the anxiety? I turned on my laptop and hopped across the pond.
Granted, this is an over simplified explanation of what actually happened when I decided to apply to university (Brits don't say college to speak about undergraduate years) in the UK. Any process includes a certain amount of stress and applying to Oxbridge (the term used to designate Oxford and Cambridge) brings with it an added layer of stress. But, having applied to schools both in the US and the UK, I feel as if I have a pretty solid understanding of the differences between the two, and possibly which one is better (read until the end to find out).
1. Everything's a lot more transparent.
In the US, it has become pretty commonplace to hear of a student with extremely high grades and SAT scores to get rejected from an elite school or for a mediocre student with insignificant grades to get wholeheartedly accepted. This is because of the focus most schools have on a so-called "wholistic application." In theory, this means admissions officers consider not only your grades, but also all of the context surrounding them, including your family background, extra-curriculars, common app essay, supplemental essays, and more. This sounds great! Even if you don't have the best grades, it is possible that the rest of your application could make up for that!
In practice, however, I believe it causes a lot of unnecessary stress for students. In the UK (and most of Europe, I believe), universities publish the scores a student must get in order to be considered for their program. Students are encouraged to only apply to universities within the range of the grades they accept and the grades (or predicted scores) they have received. (I should note that there is still a way for students from underprivileged schools to be viewed in the context of their school, just like in America). When I applied to 5 British universities, I had strong confidence I would get accepted into 4 out of 5 of them because my scores were at the level or greater than the ones called for in that particular university (the 5th was Oxford, which has a more complicated process). When looking at my American list, I could only say with confidence that I would make two of the schools, even though the range of my scores fit into the 'averages' of many of the other schools as well.
Furthermore, I believe the wholistic process leaves opportunity for more individual prejudice in the application process. A friend told me a story of how a Stanford student found out they only got accepted because they mentioned a book that was a favorite of the particular admissions officer that read their college essay. That's terrific for that student, but I think of how the wholistic process can easily become an excuse in the opposite direction to accept a student based on their beliefs, convictions, or trivial interests on the premise that they did not have a good 'wholistic' application.
2. You have to know what you want.
On the UCAS application form, you can only apply to 5 schools in the UK. You also have to apply for a certain degree (such as "Asian Studies" or "Mathematics") and have some level of interest and experience demonstrated in that particular field. This is in stark contrast to the American process which doesn't require you to pick a major until often your second year of school unless attempting to be in specialized departments like engineering. Some schools ask for your intended majors, but you are not accepted based on your fulfillment of experience for those majors.
This is a controversial point of divide. For students like me, who have known for a long time what they wanted to study, the British system is favorable, since I can be awarded for my focused time reading and creating with respect to that particular course. Most American students, however, have not been trained to choose an area of study in their high school careers and thus would not be ready to switch to a system where they could only study one subject. British students have an advantage here, since they have selected only three or four subjects to study during 6th form (the last two years of high school).
3. You may not have to decide now.
From my experience in the US, the term 'gap year' is usually saved for the children of wealthy parents who choose to defer their enrollment and travel the world and find themselves. In the UK, gap years are much more common. Although university enrollment is looked favorably upon, many students know ahead of time they are going to take a year for a particular program or internship or even to work in order to pay for university tuition. Many students even take a few extra years to retake A Level exams until they receive the scores they need to attend a particular university. I haven't seen much of this in America. Even though tuition is extraordinarily higher in the US, most students are encouraged to enter right into college and use a combination of working during the four years and private loans to make up the difference. I'm not sure which system is better since I have only experienced one, but I do think this is something worth considering.
So, which system is better? Should you drop your star-spangled flags now, exit chrome without saving your Common App, and book the next flight to Great Britain? Or should you keep chanting, buy more SAT prep books, and find the best moment to define your life for your college essay?
I would perhaps suggest neither. Both systems have their pros and cons, and much of it depends entirely on the student. However, I do highly recommend Americans (and Brits for that matter) take some time to look at the other system and see if it might be the right fit. Applying to 5 schools on the UCAS form only costs about $30 after all, which is less than half of the cost to apply to just Harvard. After all, this is a big life decision, and you might as well have some extra biscuits on the platter to choose from. (That was my attempt at a metaphor).
If you like this kind of blog post, let me know! I'm extremely interested in comparing different cultures and systems and may soon have the opportunity to do more of it. :)
I imagined the Dalai Lama amidst the winds of a meadow, seated in an upright, lotus flower position as hummingbirds sing through the trees. But it’s possible he’s in the driver’s seat in front of me, taking me across Midtown Manhattan to Queens under surging Uber prices.
December 30: Over the winter break, I read “The Art Of Happiness,” a narrative-style book delving into the thoughts and meditations of the fourteenth Dalai Lama Lhamo Dondrub through interviews with Dr. Howard Cutler, MD. And although I can admit to not being fully on board with his array of pre-suppositions, evaluations, and conclusions, I found myself gleaming much from his insights into human nature, the meaning of life, and the causes of suffering. The Dalai Lama posited a life of pure compassion and reflection. By reflecting on one’s self and considering the backgrounds of the people around oneself, true compassion and therefore true happiness could be in store. True happiness was not about one’s situation in life, nor the big hinderances or accomplishments, but in the small moments, and the ways in which one deals with those small everyday moments. In fact, after my reading was complete, I could not help but sit in silence for a few minutes to consider the seeming wisdom of the man in his clearly explained methods for achieving a life of compassion, joy, and presence. But I hadn’t met Antonio yet.
January 1: As I hustled my way through the crowd of tuxes and fur coats leaving the Metropolitan Opera House, I glimpsed down at my phone. The car would arrive in 3 minutes on Columbus Avenue and 63rd St. I shivered in the cold, anxious to get into a warm car and arrive home to get some sleep before the early day I had the next morning. “Alexandra?” I nodded, shoving my bags into the car and sitting abruptly as I shut the door. I small-talked, remarking about the weather and my hopes for the cold to not be so cold. When he asked me what I did, I replied student, instantly fabricating a story slightly in order to avoid the fact of my minor/high school self and instead spoke of being on break from university, studying what I hope to study, philosophy and theology.
“Really?” He offered, excitedly. “I too am a philosopher!” I smiled. Everyone thinks they are a philosopher I guess. He continued. “Do you have a life philosophy?” I rambled for a bit, explaining my core beliefs and whatnot, and then allowed for a small gap of silence as he considered my speech.
“I have a life philosophy.” He replied, “Enjoy life.” Thoughts of that Bobby McFerrin song “Don’t Worry Be Happy” immediately came to mind as he explained in his rich, milk and honey Caribbean accent how happiness was found not in the big situations of life but in the small things of the present, and how one reacts to them. He said we must have an awareness of the self and be rooted in something in order to learn how to improve aspects of one’s life and relationships and be truly happy. Huh I thought to myself. This sounds remarkably familiar.
We give a lot of power to figureheads. Their words can sell millions of books and be quoted at weddings, funerals, and everything in between. My respect for the Dalai Lama and his words is great, but in some sense my Uber driver Antonio’s words spoke more powerfully. His evaluation life, as he explained to me, of work and reflection, music and art, rang true to me in a way that made the Dalai Lama, in his daily schedule of speaking events and meditation, just could not. On the half an hour ride back home, we discussed whether humans could really achieve this sort of happiness on their own, what God’s role should be in our life, the relationship between the intellectual side of humanity and the creative side; we remarked at the serendipity of us meeting and being able to discuss such things on a Monday night car ride. He questioned me and my beliefs and I always went back to God, using the CS Lewis quote about believing in God like the sun in order to see the world more clearly, claiming that I was not able to do this sort of thoughtful meditation and evaluation of myself by myself. “I like that you have an anchor,” he said to my answer. “Before I said I was a philosopher because I like diving into the dive, but sometimes if you dive too deeply you get lost without an anchor”. “And the ocean is deep,” I offered.
And when he pulled up to the middle of my block he left me with one thing. “There is a saying in my language, in Creole, ‘deye mon, gen mon,’ which means, ‘beyond mountains, there are more mountains.’” Indeed, I smiled. And probably more mountains behind those ones. I stepped out of the car. We think people like the Dalai Lama are in the heavens, on top of the mountain, looking down upon us in the Valleys. But maybe they’re also in the valleys, looking up at the stars just like us, and wondering what might be.
- Alexandra G. Kytka
“They say the streets of heaven are paved with gold. But they’ve forgotten to pave the sidewalks at all.”
Any New Yorker knows that there are distinctly different types of concrete comprising the sidewalks of the city. Of course you have the basic, white, slabs stationed all the way from Williamsburg to the Upper East Side, but the closer you get to Bushwick the more dark gum spots stain the floor beneath and the dirt from your shoes seem to have permanently sunk into the pavement. I mean yes, the Vanderbilt's could transport the yellow brick road from Oz itself if they really wanted to and I’m sure the Rothschild’s have purchased the London Bridge at some point, but when you step out of the subway onto Park Avenue the dichotomy is almost as clear as the marble.
Take a walk downtown and you’ll see how the early rockers carved their names into the streets by its resemblance to the alleys of Europe. Cobblestone, bricks, and pebbles lead the way to Electric Lady Studios on West 8th. Abbey Road is in Camden but it could just as well be in Greenwich Village. Until NYU moved into town, at which point much of the original cobble dripping with pigeon droppings was replaced with new cobble, cobble made somewhere in China as a red-carpet for the piles of Midwestern kids moving in to discover their inner Clapton.
If you can bear to be on the train for so long, take the E and transfer to the M into middle of nowhere Middle Village, Queens, where you’ll be greeted by a roller coaster of stone, brown rocky-mountain slush-turned concrete placed in squares too small for their size.
And when you can’t take it anymore, when you want uniformity and less disparity, you’re perfectly free to take a PATH or LIRR train out of the city. Go to New Jersey or Long Island and you won’t have any more problems. Complete neighborhoods have selected their ground in a zoning meeting somewhere and so everywhere it’s the same. Or maybe there is no sidewalk at all- after all, why walk past the homeless man and be forced into making eye contact with him when you can drive by the mall on your way to soccer practice? In New York, even the Vanderbilt's have to step out onto the pavement on their way to the Opera.
- Alexandra G. Kytka
As I’m lounging on my couch sick at home, John William’s brilliant soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back resounds across the living room as Luke Skywalker grapples with his potential origins in the dark side of the force. Boxes of tissues are scattered across the room so that with very little effort I can keep lounging and blowing my red nose, but luckily, my mind is more focused on thee grammatical patterns of Yoda’s endearing speech.
If I had to pick a religion that most echoes the world of Star Wars, I might pick Hinduism. And in fact, many sources suggest George Lucas holds Hindu beliefs, and so many other before me have made the same connection, pointing especially to the “Force” as a reflection of Brahman.
But if the Force is an echo of Hindu beliefs, it is a very diluted one. For one thing, although the Force apparently is in all (and can be used for either good or bad), the Force is not all. There is nothing to suggest beings themselves (for example Darth Vader and Princess Leia) are anything but distinct, lacking the monism of Hindu cosmology. Furthermore, such an extreme dichotomy between good and evil (the dark side and the light) is more representative of a Judeo-Christian ethos than a Hindu one, in which destruction is necessary for recreation and morality is dependent on dharma and the maintenance of the social order.
Chewbacca seems to be making fun of me as I have these thoughts. Perhaps having missed school today (and subsequently my World Religions class), I am trying to make up from it by referencing my class material. Of course, George Lucas was not tied down to perfectly recreating a Hindu worldview in his filmmaking and I’m certainly not suggesting he was trying to at all. But there is an interesting note to be made in how Western pop-culture uses belief systems and cultures, especially that of different cultures. It has gotten to the point where words like karma and reincarnation are more likely to remind me of an twenty-something year old hippie playing guitar in Washington Square Park than an actual Hindu practitioner of Indian descent. But it’s hard to truly engage in conversations of comparative religion and worldview when our conception of belief systems are so far removed from their original culture. The reason Star Wars can’t perfectly replicate a Hindu cosmos is partially because that Hindu cosmos is intricately intertwined with the geographical, social, economic, and political history of its people.
I don’t really know where I’m going with this particular post. Maybe it’s the consistent sinus pressure or the fact that Han Solo has just been encased in carbonite. I guess I’m trying to say that although connections between films and religion/philosophy are fascinating and worth a thought or two, we cannot rely only on the plots of Hollywood blockbusters to critically analyze the implications of world views. Simply put, The Empire Strikes Back may end in a victory for the Rebel Alliance but the cyclical universe of Hinduism doesn’t include an ending at all.
- Alexandra Kytka
“All men are ordinary men; the extraordinary men are the ones who know it,”
John Green’s latest novel sounds like a mystery inside of a drama, the story of a girl who reunites with her billionaire friend as his father disappears, but reads like a raw human-interest story. The story revolves around Aza, an anxiety-run junior whose mind quickly becomes preoccupied with what she calls “invasives,” hypochondriac-like thoughts that prevent her from living life as a normal teen.
Turtles All the Way Down was certainly an enjoyable read. I finished it within the day and found myself wanting to read more fiction afterwards. I wanted more from secondary characters like Daisy, however, her relationship with Aza, riddled with complexities and insecurities on either side, was enlightening as a representation of what it is like to be involved with someone who struggles with mental illness.
As a lover of philosophy myself, I appreciate John Green’s incorporation of themes and tropes such as infinite regress (i.e. the title) that he seems to be establishing as a characteristic of his writing style. Although it can seem like an unnatural leap at times (why is everyone suddenly talking about spirals), you can clearly tell he is trying to be educational on more than one front.
I have been critical in the past of authors like Green for exploiting the “YA demographic” and writing within a marketing category rather than a genre. And to a certain extent this still rings true for Turtles All the Way Down, with references to obscure fan-fiction worlds and complaints about the cost of tuition that are sure to be quoted and used over and again by students across America. However, while it was clear in my reading of this novel that it was written for “people like me” (that is, American teenage girls and the generation right after the Millennials), the novel was genuinely interesting and was even able to broaden my horizons past my demographic, especially when it came to my understanding of anxiety and mental illness.
And of course this is the point of fiction- to use something familiar, whether that be archetypes, plot-lines, or pop-culture, to bring a reader into consider a perspective or an idea they may not have had the opportunity to have otherwise.
Although it is not my usual go-to novel, I still would recommend it as a gift, a casual holiday read, or as rainy day entertainment. Turtles All the Way Down was a book written for the masses, but sometimes even pop-culture gets it right.
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