But. And.

I remember learning about conjunctions in my second grade classroom.  After watching the famed Schoolhouse Rock classic, “Conjunction Junction,” my teacher passed out a list of conjunctions for us to memorize for an upcoming test.  This was back when tests and homework were exciting, when, to an eight year old nerd like me, any extra work to be done outside of the classroom was considered a major bonus.  Yes, I would cheer, I get to learn even more!  Those were the days before term papers and theses and annotated bibliographies and endlessly monotonous lectures only slightly more painful than a drip to the dentist.

But I digress. 

I learned my conjunctions quickly, and subsequently learned their uses.  A sentence could not start with and, or, or but.  That was forbidden.  To do so, would to be to break a grammar rule as old as my native language itself.  I remember feeling enlightened by this information.  I had never before thought about what words I had started my sentences with, and all of a sudden, there was this new rule by which I had to abide.  I took it very seriously. 

And then one day, I was disillusioned.  I was reading a book out of my favorite series during silent reading hour when I noticed a capital A followed by an n and a d. And.  At the beginning of the sentence?  Had no one edited this trash?  Had I been deceived in the second grade or had the author of The Babysitters’ Club merely neglected the formative rules of writing?  I rushed up to show my teacher the massive error, proud to have found something so important in published literature.  She shook her head and laughed. “Published authors can do that.” 

I was enraged.  How could they, adults, get away with writing improperly, when I, a little second grader, had to go through endless worksheets and identify the errors these

Similar to writing, we need to learn the rules of life in order to break them. 

And we can only break them by living. 

In your first relationship, you’re concerned with doing everything right.  Sending the right text message, arriving at your dates the appropriate amount of minutes late, holding hands at the right time and allowing the other person the right amount of space.  Everything is textbook.  Everything is learned via magazines or gossip or late night chats with best friends or by avoiding mistakes you’re too afraid to make.

In your first year of college you learn that you don't actually have to do all the reading, that something you've once done automatically is all at once unnecessary and nearly impossible.  

In your first apartment you're not always going to have back up toilet paper, a light is going to go out and you won't be able to fix the lightbulb.  You'll prop the door open even though you know it could be dangerous, but it's just for a second while you take out the trash, why bother finding the keys?  You'll scuff the wall and blame a previous tenant. 

And suddenly you’ve made mistakes, by attempting to do everything perfectly, and that once perfect thing doesn’t exist any more.   

And it’s all ok.

You learn.  You learn to put ands and buts and ors at the beginnings of sentences, at the beginning of paragraphs, essays even.  You learn that not everything has to be perfect, that it’s an impossible goal. 

You learn that you can text someone you just met four times in a row, and they probably won’t hate you, that’s not a real rule.

You learn that you can choose hanging out with your friends over going on a date, because they’re the ones that matter.

And ironically enough, while you're figuring it all out, you can write it all down, using whatever grammar pleases you best.  

You learn that you can be yourself, write your own rulebook, because at the end of the day, even if your eight-year-old self would criticize it, you’ve got to do you! 

I Throw My Hands Up In The Air Sometimes

I danced the role of Gingerbread in my dance studio’s production of “The Nutcracker” in 2002. All evidence of this performance has been destroyed, but the fond memories live on. I was much too old to be in the Sugar Plum Court, and as I tried on my one-piece, brown felt costume the week before the dress rehearsal, I broke down in tears.  I was supposed to be Prima Ballerina, what was I doing wearing a smelly old potato sack?  I had a solo, for goodness sake, bouréeing across the stage to give Clara her tiara.  It was humiliating.  My mom told me I could quit, I wasn’t contracted or anything, but I was too afraid to let the director down.  Not only was she terrifying, but without me, the performance clearly could not go on- Clara’s dream wouldn’t be complete without my vital participation! I was a star in my own right.
My dance career only took off from there! I joined my middle school’s pom-pom squad, show choir, and when I moved up to high school, I joined the step dancing team (this is a story for another time), performed in the spring dance concert, and sacrificed my lunch period for additional performance classes. I spent hours in dance class each week, traveled to Upstate New York for performing arts camp, took intensive pre-college workshops in Chicago.   I still know every word to Flashdance and Dirty Dancing.
I was told I was good, but not a star.  Ouch.  It never bothered me that I was usually placed in the back row during ensemble numbers—I’m tall!  When an instructor moved me from the head of the barre to the middle, I blamed it on the fact that I had a wandering mind and couldn’t always remember the precise combinations, no big deal, my technique was great. I still firmly believe this-- memorizing plie and tendue combinations is challenging!
I’m gangly and awkward.  There’s no way to get around it.  It took me about 17 years to embrace this.  I slowly phased out dance as a lifestyle and turned it into more of a hobby.  Which was totally fine, I didn’t need to be a triple threat, my other talents were suffice.
And while I may be gangly and awkward, I also have tons of energy.
Sophomore year of high school, I began taking yoga.  It was nice.  Sometimes we did downward facing dog to Corrine Bailey Rae.  Occasionally we’d breathe in rhythm with a gong.  I’d roll up my mat feeling restless.
Junior year, I began kickboxing.  It was awesome. I felt tough, I felt powerful, I felt so cool.  My friends and I would gear up for an hour of jumping around and punching to Michael Jackson and Britney Spears re-mixes while the instructor would call out directions.  Occasionally, she’d go for a sip of water or to change the track and I’d be left in front, trustworthy enough to lead the group in Uppercuts and Roundhouse kicks.  This was so much better than ballet!  I could follow the combinations.  I could envision fighting my enemies. My gangliness gave me that extra oomph in the double-time exercises. I’d leave every week feeling amazing!
Inevitably, the gym schedule changed and my weekly cardio kickboxing routine was replaced by Zumba. Zumba, what the hell was that?  And more importantly, why would I want to do anything any less badass than kickboxing?
But I needed something to do with my endless energy, as I had kicked my tap shoes, jazz sneakers, and ballet slippers far into the depths of my closet. After a week of monotonous repetitions with the Jackie Warner DVD in my living room, I begrudgingly agreed to try Zumba.  (This is not an insult to Jackie, I love her dearly, but something about counting to twenty with a recording while flexing my abs and waving my arms just wasn’t cutting it for me).
Zumba was unbelievable.  It was everything a gangly, ex-dancer, Latina-wannabe could ever wish for.  And more.  We shook our hips to Ricky Martin and Shakira and Michael Buble and the Hairspray soundtrack.  We grapevined across the floor and waved our arms to the music and shook our booties wildly.  Whatever we did, however badly we messed up, the teacher continued dishing out constant praise and smiles.  There was no one holding a cold pole to keep my knees straight, no one correcting me for pivoting to my left instead of my right.  It was just fun!
I love dancing, I love to dance, but I’m not a dancer.  And for this reason, Zumba has been my perfect solution to life.  I always leave feeling so alive, so free, so on top of the world.  I can move my body like a maniac, shout out affirmations with my fellow Zumba-ers (Yeah!  Wooo!), and just let go of all my worries.  I can only imagine how crazy I look, twisting my bony hips in a figure eight and throwing my long arms in the air, but it doesn’t matter!  Everyone is perfect in Zumba.
I may never be Prima Ballerina, my name will never be in lights at the New York City Ballet, but for an hour every week, I am the Dancing Queen, and that’s more than enough for me.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Travel is a funny thing.  You go somewhere, snap a few photos, eat some food, and take off.  Maybe you return to your destination another time, ensure your memories were as fond as they are in your mind; maybe you’re satisfied with just posting your vacation pics to Facebook/Twitter/Google; or maybe you even write about your experience for the world to see.  But that’s it.  It’s over.  It’s something to talk about at social gatherings and perhaps a way to collect trinkets for your desk, but the few days you spend abroad/a few miles from home/returning to your native country, and suddenly you’re back in real life.

On the Equator!

This past winter break I traveled. A lot.  I spent the first ten days in Puerto Rico, where I learned that even Taco Bell, Subway, Pizza Hut, and Burger King dominate this semi-exotic location, that Puerto Rican Spanish is unlike any other dialect in the world, and one should appreciate the sun on a beach vacation, as reading trashy novels on your kindle inside the hotel lobby just doesn’t offer the same experience as lying on the precious sand would.  I also learned how rum is made, perhaps a valuable skill for my future career as a pirate. 
New Year’s eve was spent with some of my precious Culties, sipping cider, ecstatically belting karaoke, and staying up into the wee hours of the morning reminiscing on the past 20 years of our lives together.  I enjoyed New Year’s brunch with my grandparents and before I knew it I was off again on a flight to JFK.
Culties bringing in the New Year.

From JFK I departed to Guayaquil, Ecuador, accompanied by a lovely group of twenty-three other women selected to participate in the international women’s leadership trip in which I was about to embark.  We arrived in Quito twelve hours after leaving New York, shocked by the free open bar on the plane to enhance the joys of watching one terrible Jenifer Aniston movie after another, and even more stunned by the insanely low food prices at the airport.  I kid you not: Cheap food- at an airport!  We knew we were in for something special. 
Planting trees in the Paramo, an extraterrestrial hot spot.
We arrived at the Hacienda Picalqui just after lunchtime.  We were served a feast of fresh tomato soup with popcorn to toss in, hot rice with vegetables, fresh salad, and pineapple juice.  For the ten days we stayed there, the three women in the kitchen, assisted by Gabriel, the toddler constantly stealing an enormous bread knife, causing a threat to the knees of our beloved chefs, never failed to cook us a delicious meal. We were constantly overwhelmed by the abundance of delicious vegetable soups, fresh breads, a little too much rice and potatoes, and even pasta!
Well-fed ladies exploring Ecuador... 
Our first full day on the hacienda was spent in the fields, pulling weeds from carrot, radish, onion, potato, and various other crops.  City girls who only had one definition of ho learned what it meant to de-weed columns upon columns of dirt (note my highly technical terms), to discover egg sacks from worms and spiders, and compost the leftovers from our labors.
Hard at work!
Throughout the week, we toured local organic farms, learning the ease with which these Ecuadorians create sustainability in their communities and reinforcing the ways in which factory farming is so detrimental to our capitalist society.  While I’ve been on eating sprees before, usually after reading a Michael Pollanbook, I finally saw- and felt- what it meant to live organically, and I vowed to eat more organic foods back in New York, a promise I’m still maintaining, although the noticeable price difference remains evident in my bank account…
Recovering after a steep hike!
Every moment in Ecuador proved equally challenging and inspirational.  We worked in the fields, met with female leaders throughout the province, visited Plaza de Ponchos, and hiked incredibly long distances at unimaginably high altitudes.  We played with children in schools, drank tin cups of aguardiente (fermented beverage made from agave, supposedly a drink of the Gods although it tastes more like dirty dish water) offered to us, and graciously accepted plates of food prepared by locals, never wasting even a kernel of corn, as we saw the intense labor necessary into producing each and every crop.
Two ears of corn, two potatoes, cheese... just a snack, right?
A girl at an infant center we visited.
Maria, a woman who had once worked in the rose plantations and went on to create a co-op for women affected by the damages caused by this industry, stood out to me.  Her eyes filled with tears as she explained that she missed the childhood of her two kids, as she worked from daybreak to well after midnight, and even longer before American celebrations like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.  The workers suffer from horrible health as they inhale the pesticides used in the plantations and even have dark stained mouths from the toxins, preventing them from finding better work elsewhere due to discrimination.  If the workers protest or demand better conditions, they get fired, as someone else will always be waiting for work for the unfairly low wages.  I sat there listening, incredulous at who could possibly be so greedy as to force these people into such horrendous lifestyles.  And while I have been deterred from buying roses ever again- unless they’re organic!- our team is diligently working on solutions for this problem, starting first and foremost by sharing what we witnessed in South America.
Maria, far right, telling her story.
Knitted roses, a safe alternative!

Our service trip was interrupted for a two-day vacation to Intag, where we bathed in hot springs, loaded up on sixty-cent ice cream cones, and drove through treacherous mudslides, terrified that we would never see the comfort of the hacienda again.  Our last day in Intag, we took a hike past the longest Zipline in South America, and learned that for a mere five dollars, we could enjoy the experience of a lifetime.  It seemed a little risky.  It also seemed kind of awesome.  I’ve been ziplining before, in Puerto Vallarta, but it was much more expensive and seemed much less dangerous.  And while I was slightly terrified to fly hundreds of feet above a deathly river- under no circumstance were we allowed to even touch the river behind our cabins due to the undertow- I was more terrified at missing out on the experience.  For fifty seconds, I zipped through the air, taking in the breathtaking sights surrounding me, and elating in the experience of freedom.  And finally on the other side I realized that perhaps FDR really knew what he was talking about, and by embracing my fear, not running away from it, I actually found so much happiness. 
I could go on and on about the lessons and memorable experiences from Ecuador.  And while they may certainly pop up here again, I’ll keep it short.  Well, as short as I can make this.  Journaling in Ecuador made me realize that the work I did, the sights I saw, the people with whom I interacted would not be forgotten, that I had a permanent memory of my impressions and my inspirations, and while I remain clueless as to when I will return to South America, if ever again, I can understand how much I gained from my ten days there in January, and how much I can use these experiences to better connect with the world around me.
Stopping for a snack of bizcochos and dulce de leche.

Smiling with My Eyes

While I used to be the type of person who read Perez Hilton religiously, talked about the celebrities on the cover of US Weekly as if they were my BFFS, and dream about stardom, these days have since passed. I’ve shifted my daily distractions to TFLN and FML and MLIA—you know, real life things—and aspire to become world famous for my incredible writing talent rather than my dramatic skills.

However, when presented with the occasion to meet the one and only Tyra Banks, I was not one to pass up this once-in a lifetime opportunity (until I win ANTM cycle 17, that is).

Tyra, for as long as I can remember, has been my favorite celebrity. Perhaps it’s her stunning beauty, her quirky phrases and outbursts, her mission to make all women feel gorgeous and perfect. Regardless, Tyra is quite beloved and dear to me. She’s been on locker posters, T-shirts, been there to chat with me after-school when all I wanted to do was stuff my face with pasta, taught me how to work the runway, smile with my eyes, and rock my natural hair without a weave. Maybe I don’t actually need a weave, but seriously, Tyra is my girl!

I probably shrieked for an hour when I learned I had the opportunity to breathe the same air as her. While Tyra may provide us with episodes like “10 women, 5 vaginas” and “Marijuana Moms,” I still wholeheartedly enjoy her hour-long afternoon talk show. After doing my makeup as well as she taught me, picking out a cute outfit, and downing a coffee, I felt ready for my day in her studio. I couldn’t contain my excitement as I cheered and clapped and screamed for my role model long before she even stepped on stage. I volunteered myself for all the diversions until filming began; I finally was called upon to stand onstage and answer Tyra trivia, and won a free t-shirt. My favorite t-shirt.

Tyra finally pranced down her runway, tall and glamorous and flawless, and I was unsure what to think. I don’t really remember thinking. I remember staring and shrieking more and doubting that Tyra Banks stood twenty feet away from me. The taping went by quickly, although the producers continuously paused to push Tyra’s curls around with a strange stick, I went home with more than enough Valentine’s day gifts from my lady and a never-ending smile on my face.

It seemed that everyone I saw that day needed to know that I saw Tyra, shared her space, seen the legend in person. Shockingly enough, people listened, or maybe they were just hoping for some of the two pounds of Godiva chocolate she gave me...

So here’s the thing: it may seem stupid to have a celebrity icon, to look up to someone you don’t know, aspire to be her, meet her, befriend her, there’s a specialness about this impossibility that makes our lives more interesting. While I never actually believed I would meet Tyra (I swear she waved at me after the taping!), seeing her in person reaffirmed my belief in the distant. Tyra, the first African American model for Sports Illustrated and Victoria’s Secret; the star of Lindsay Lohan’s television movie debut, Lifesize; a face in Michael Jackson’s iconic “Black or White” video has always been this distant superstar, a force so powerful and far away, she barely seemed real. And now, I’ve seen her. I believe in the things she’s done and the things I’m capable to do. Tyra encourages me to release my silly side, imitate the “Single Ladies” dance on national TV (is now a good time to drop that Beyoncé was on the show), feel beautiful and perfect and just be who I am.

And while my celebrity life may be far in my past, my hours spent with Tyra will keep me smiling with my eyes for a long, long time….