Making the Cut

Walking down the icy streets of Georgetown one chilly winter evening, I made up my mind to finally take the plunge.

For the longest time, I had toyed with the idea of donating my hair to Locks of Love, a charity that made wigs for sick children – but had always lost the nerve to go through with it. The previous year, I had come close but chickened out when I saw the gleaming scissors hover precariously close to my ears.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had long hair. I’ll admit: I’ve always had a special attachment to it. For some reason, however, giving away something that was precious to me seemed … strangely gratifying.

Whoever said benevolence stemmed from altruistic motives?

Mine were purely selfish.

In November 2008, I took the plunge and cut off 14 inches of my hair. I slipped the ponytail into an envelope, said a little prayer for its recipient and shipped it to Locks of Love.

That was two years ago.

I’ve been growing my hair since then so that I can donate again. This year, I will be donating to Wigs for Kids. If you would like to join me and donate your hair for a cause, here are some options:

Locks of Love: Locks of Love is a non-profit organization that provides hair prosthesis to financially disadvantaged children under 21 suffering from long-term hair loss a result of an illness or medical condition, including cancer. Hair must be at least 10 inches long to donate to Locks of Love. You can send your hair donation by mail using Locks of Love’s online hair donation form.

Beautiful Lengths: Pantene Beautiful Lengths creates wigs for women who have lost their hair due to cancer treatments. Donated hair must be a minimum of 8 inches long. Here’s how you can make the cut.

Angel Hair for Kids This is a Canada-based organization that provides financially disadvantaged kids who have lost their hair due to a medical condition or treatment with hair prosthesis – with no cost to the child’s family. If a child is too ill to go for the wig fitting, the organization will arrange for a salon professional to come to them. Your hair must be at least 10 inches or more. Read more about their donation guidelines.

Wigs for Kids Wigs for Kids gives hairpieces to kids who suffer hair loss due to burns, chemotherapy, radiation treatments alopecia, and other medical problems. Wigs for Kids asks for at least 12 inches of hair. You can send your hair donation by mail by using the Wigs for Kids’ online hair donation form.

Hair can do wonders for the self esteem of these children and women. I hope you will consider donating your hair, too. It’s a simple way of making a small difference.

I will probably never know the recipient of my donation or if my hair was even used but I’d like to believe that there’s a little boy or girl out there – with a smile on their face.

And maybe – just maybe – I had a little something to do with it.

Through The Lens Of The Ordinary

While I’m not a  professional photographer, I love using my camera to capture life’s little moments – the seemingly ordinary, the unnoticed, the forgotten.

A deserted bench on a rainy Saturday evening.

The changing colors of Fall.

An abandoned roll of bubble wrap.

The magnificence of an open, blue sky.

Bright hues of a frayed rope, twisted in knots.

There’s something magical about being able to freeze a moment – immortalizing it forever.

If only life worked like that…

This I Believe

I believe in never holding back.

I found my belief in a weather-beaten envelope, brown and curled at its scalloped edges, waiting for me in my mailbox. I stared in disbelief at the faded handwriting scrawled across in smeared blue ink. It was from my best friend. I should have been elated. I would have – except she had been dead for over a year.

I ripped it open and read it. Again. And again. It was written a month before she died. The memories rushed back, bringing with it the heart-wrenching pain of losing someone you love.

She had chided me for not keeping in touch. And then she had said it. Simple advice to her 23-year-old lovelorn friend:

“Just tell him already. Don’t hold back. Remember, you have nothing to lose.
PS: Good luck. Love you lots.”

I read those words again, slowly, as I ran my fingers over the letters, now smudged with tears.

I thought about my last words to her. “I’ll call you back,” I had said.

I never did.

Yet, she had found a way to show me she loved me – even after she was gone. Her letter had made its way to me with a message simply too strong to ignore.

As I held the yellowing pages in my trembling hands, I learned what I have truly come to believe: Never hold back.

I thought about all the times I had left feelings unsaid and emotions unspoken.

Like the time I was 10. I had thrown a tantrum at home demanding a toy piano, oblivious to the fact that it probably meant a week’s worth of food. A few days later, my father brought one home, wrapped in a newspaper. I never asked him how many meals he had to skip to buy me one – although I suspect there were many.

I never showed him my appreciation or the delight I found in that tiny, red instrument that kept me busy for hours together.

I thought about the time I was too busy to return a friend’s call, putting it off for later and never finding the time.

She had died four days later. And she would never know how she had changed my life.

Or the time, a loved one had dropped everything and traveled across the country to comfort a terrified friend who had been robbed and injured the night before. He had been there – a pillar of strength and unconditional love.

I had let him go without telling him how much he means to me.

My best friend taught me that life is too short, too uncertain, to let your feelings go unspoken.

I believe in saying, ‘I love you,’ when you have the chance. For it may be your last.

Daddy, for all the times you worked yourself to the bone for your little girl – I thank you.

My friend, for all the times I promised to call you back – and didn’t – I am sorry.

For a lost love, for all the times I let my pride stop me from telling you how much you mean to me – I love you.

Life rarely hands you second chances. I believe in saying, ‘I love you,’ in the first.

This, I believe.

This one is for you, Ruch. Happy Birthday. Miss you.

Of Fathers, Mansions and Love

My father had built it for me, his little princess.

A double-storied mansion with pillars in the front and a courtyard that went all around the royal structure. It had a steepled roof that was painted a bright red: my favorite colour. He built me bedrooms, stairs and a kitchen. And four little white beds for the four bedrooms.

My father said they were all mine.

I watched in amazement as daddy built me my fortress. He took care of every detail, making sure it was perfect. It was the most beautiful mansion I had ever seen. He even got me a majestic car: My very own Rolls Royce. Painted black, its shiny brass and copper engine shimmered brilliantly in the sunlight as it adorned the lush green courtyard.

When he was done, he sat me down and said, “This is for you, princess. Just for you.”

I hugged him. It was the best gift he had ever given me: My very own mansion.

That was 23 years ago.

Today, I live in a small, rented apartment in a busy suburb. My double-storied mansion, red steeple and all, never survived the vagaries of time.

That aging shoebox had to give way someday.

Even the bright red paint that had dulled over the years, could not disguise the weathered shoebox that my father had magically transformed. The Rolls Royce — a freebie that came with the bright yellow noodle packets Mother made every Sunday night — had stopped running years ago, its shiny engine, rusted and disfigured.

Twenty-three years later, that ragged, old shoebox lies stashed away in some forgotten corner and I’m clueless about the whereabouts of the Rolls Royce. But the memories are still here — fresh as the first coat of red paint that cleverly concealed the scalloped edges of the shoebox.

I remember sitting cross-legged — across from daddy — as he carefully cut into the soft cardboard, carving out the windows. I watched as he painted the roof a fire-engine red, and taped a toothpick that was to become the ‘spire’. I was daddy’s very own helper, an eager five-year-old, handing him the scissors and tape whenever he needed it.

It was one of those epiphanous moments when I watched, open mouthed, as my father transformed an ordinary shoebox into a magnificent castle. An enchanting fairyland.

It was my very first experience with the magic of love.

Note: This post is in response to Blogadda’s Tribute to Dad contest, in partnership with PringOO.

Facebook’s Eroding Privacy Policy, Visualized

Much has been said about Facebook’s new personalization features, the growing privacy concerns of its users – and the social network’s apparent oblivion to them.

I came across an interesting post by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights advocacy group, which highlighted excerpts of Facebook’s privacy policy over five years to “illustrate Facebook’s shift away from privacy.”

Curious, I created word clouds of Facebook’s 2005 policy excerpt and its current version.

Facebook Privacy Policy (2005): Facebook Privacy Policy (2010):

The contrast is stark.

As Kurt Opsahl, Senior Staff Attorney with EFF, puts it:

“Facebook originally earned its core base of users by offering them simple and powerful controls over their personal information. As Facebook grew larger and became more important, it could have chosen to maintain or improve those controls. Instead, it’s slowly but surely helped itself — and its advertising and business partners — to more and more of its users’ information, while limiting the users’ options to control their own information.”

Privacy pullback

When users are left with little or no control over their personal data — and settings go from “user specified” to “everyone,” members are bound to feel betrayed.

Facebook’s repeated bait and switch tactics have left thousands outraged. The latest changes have even sparked Congressional objections with Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Mark Begich (D-AK), and Al Franken (D-MN) writing a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, asking Facebook to “stand by its goal of creating open and transparent communities by working to ensure that its policies protect the sensitive personal biographical data of its users and provide them with full control over their personal information.”

Will the social network comply or has Facebook really turned evil?

Writer’s block? Climb cabinets. Lie on the floor

A feral child. 

A storm chaser. 

A mowing mailman. 

I’ve always been an admirer of Lane DeGregory’s work – especially her knack of finding fascinating subjects. A features reporter at the St. Petersburg Times, she prefers writing about people in the shadows. 

So, when a narrative fiction class I took at Georgetown demanded that we analyze a piece which “gives voice to the voiceless,” the choice was a no-brainer. I zeroed in on Lane’s The Girl in the Window, a beautifully woven narrative describing the journey of an abandoned, feral child from a cockroach-infested room to a family who loved her unconditionally. The piece went on to win the 2009 Pulitzer for Feature Writing

I was awestruck by Lane’s compelling descriptions, her choice of words and attention to detail – all seamlessly woven into the narrative.

She paints vivid scenes with detailed descriptions of the characters and the settings she witnessed.  (Tattered curtains, yellow with cigarette smoke, dangling from bent metal rods. Trash blanketing the stained couch, the sticky counters.)

She uses sensory details and dramatic visualization to offer snapshots into the life of Danielle, of those whose hearts were broken by the condition of this girl – and of those who were inspired to try to help her.

Her sentences – short, simple and powerful – take the reader through a series of emotions, which range from initial disgust at the conditions that Danielle was forced to live in for years to the unbelievable, unconditional love that her adoptive parents bestowed on her.

She listens for dialogues and not quotes, which is what makes Lane a powerful and compelling storyteller.

Inspired by her writing, I wondered if she would respond if I wrote to her. I took a chance. I looked up her e-mail id and wrote to her on a whim – never really expecting to hear from her. 

Less than 24 hours later, I had an e-mail from her waiting for me in my inbox. Not only did she respond to my e-mail with advice, she was extremely encouraging and also shared some tips on finding interesting stories.

I’ve saved the exchange of e-mails, starred and tucked them away into little, yellow folders titled, Inspiration. She probably doesn’t know the influence she has had on my writing but if you’re reading this, Lane: Thank you for taking the time to write back to an unknown journalism student, aspiring to be half the writer you are.

Every time I need a little inspiration, a story idea or a fresh approach, I revisit her e-mails – and it never fails to inspire. Sifting through my inbox the other day, I chanced upon Lane’s treasure trove of ideas. 

I thought I’d share some of my favorite ones on my blog:

Talk to strangers
Be a nosey neighbor, sit by the old woman on the swing, everyone has a story.

Read the walls
Check bulletin boards at libraries and laundromats, buy bad papers, scour the classifieds.

Sit the bench
Be a fly on the wall, eavesdrop at beauty parlors, eat lunch alone.

Ignore important people
See who’s in their shadows, who’s holding their coattails, write around celebrities.

Celebrate losers
Dreams don’t always come true, ask people about their failures, lessons learned.

Take stories no one else wants
Make people care, write for other sections, find a way it hasn’t been done.

Lie on the floor, climb on the cabinets
See stories from a new angle, write from a different perspective, seek other stakeholders.  

Lane has a very unique approach to reporting. She is “always on duty” in search of the unique, the bizarre, or sometimes the sad experiences of everyday folks. She always checks the bathroom cabinet and the inside of someone’s fridge (Love this tip!). You just never know what you’ll find. 

Lane writes about 100 feature stories per year. Yet, she estimates that editors reject 30 to 40 percent of her story ideas. The 43-year-old journalist says editors tell her she has two flaws: She sees stories everywhere, and she likes “really strange, freaky people.” 

The result can be extraordinary copy. Or have an editor rolling his eyes. 

Her solution? 

Write those stories anyway. And always look inside the fridge.


Armed with my camera and a recorder, I set out to spend a day with Heidi Hess, a metalsmith in Georgetown, unsure of what to expect. I returned with an amazing story, a new friend — and a renewed zest for life.

I used Audacity to edit my audio track and Soundslides for the slideshow. This was my first attempt at audiovisual storytelling and I enjoyed putting this together. I hope you enjoy watching it, too. Feedback and comments are welcome.

Mobile Technology will Be Key In The Next Race To The White House

Barely six months into the new presidency and political strategists are already planning ahead for the 2012 elections. The 2008 elections saw technology and the Internet catapult a fairly unknown senator into the limelight  — and into the Oval Office.

“The game-changer in the Obama campaign…was that technology was not an add-on: It represented a carefully considered element of almost every critical campaign function,” says EchoDitto’s Michael Silberman.

According to an article on, new technologies by 2012 will only serve to level the playing field, regardless of the candidate’s resources.

“The availability of low-cost video devices, video websites with social networking features and even mobile devices with one-button upload capabilities will allow voters more engagement. Campaigns will have the capacity to act or react, respond, pinpoint and address the questions that specific voters care most about.”

While sophisticated technology and innovative social media tools will be pivotal to the next elections, advanced mobile technology will probably have the most significant impact on the race to the White House.

The tech-savvy Obama team used mobile technology extensively during the 2008 elections — from iPhone applications to geo-targeted text messages — to connect with voters. However, technological advancements in mobile technology will completely revolutionize political campaigning in the future. Smart phones will get cheaper and more sophisticated. Like Moore’s law suggests: Computation gets twice as fast and half as cheap every two years. Mobile networks and platforms, too, will be more robust and cost-effective.

phoneMobile giving —  donations through cellphones, now restricted mainly to charitable organizations — may become an integral fundraising tool  for the next elections. Mobile phone owners may even be able to use their handsets to cast votes within the next few years.  Recruiting volunteers, organizing rallies and monitoring elections through mobile services will not be uncommon, too.

Digital content, social networks in particular, will increasingly be accessed — and distributed — through mobile devices. eMarketer forecasts that over 800 million people worldwide will be participating in a social network via their mobile phones by 2012, up from 82 million in 2007 — allowing users to actively engage with digital content.

Accessibility, speed and cost-effective mobile technology will equip the common man with tools to influence opinion — and drive change in the 2012 presidential race.

As Jonathan Spalter, Chairman of Mobile Future, puts it:

“Anyone involved in political organizing should look at the growth of mobile communication as the next Holy Grail of American and grassroots advocacy.”


The Starbucks Experience

I’ve had my share of grumpy Starbucks baristas who bark orders across the store, refuse to translate the foreign language they call a menu, and God forbid, I ask for extra whipped cream with whole milk, and they look at me like I’ve committed blasphemy.

So when my classmate blogged about their poor customer service, I was tempted to agree. Except a friendly barista at the Starbucks cafe on the corner of 15th & K proved otherwise. starbucks_logo_01

After having a particularly awful day last December, I entered the Starbucks cafe opposite the Washington Post office, hoping to seek refuge in a mocha and a chocolate marble cake. I placed my order and reached for my wallet — only to find that I had left it at home. Embarrassed, I slowly whispered to the barista across the counter, asking him to cancel my order, half expecting him to reprimand me for wasting his time.

So I was completely taken aback when, instead of admonishing me in front of the serpentine queue of restless, caffeine-deprived customers, he smiled and handed me the mocha — insisting I take it.

“It’s alright,” he said. “You make sure you have a good day.”

A hot beverage and a random act of kindness? He just made sure I did.

Redefining Beauty

There has been an interesting discussion brewing among my classmates about the distorted perception of beauty, and I was reminded of a video that — for me — had served as a reality check.

Constantly barraged with ads that hold us to an impossible standard of  beauty, it’s no wonder that we never feel satisfied with the way we look. According to Newsweek, eight- to 12-year-olds in this country already spend more than $40 million a month on beauty products, and teens spend another $100 million.

“Body dissatisfaction can lead to very real consequences—and a hefty debt. A lifetime of manis and pedis could cover four years at a public university; hair and face treatments would pay for a private college.”

That’s serious money. For impossible standards.

There is a growing need to redefine beauty, which is why the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty came as a refreshing change amidst the airbrushed faces and photoshopped bodies.

dove-grey-gorgeouspreview1The Dove campaign challenged stereotypes and inspired women to embrace their own beauty. Using real women to promote its products and intent on widening the definition of beauty, the Dove Campaign distinguished itself from its competition.

Their efforts were met with an overwhelming response because it was more than just about selling beauty products. It was about stimulating debate and inspiring action. It persuaded opinion leaders to rethink stereotypes, positioned the campaign as a dialogue and used real people as brand ambassadors.

The campaign worked. For it challenged the norm. Redefined beauty.

And proved that grey can be gorgeous.

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