A Windowsill Isn’t Quite A Tree

France Diary, Month One

Have you ever been woken up by someone and they asked you a question but you were still half asleep and couldn’t quite tell if it was a dream or reality? Welcome to my new permanent state of being.

After a month in France, I consider myself qualified to discuss what I consider to be “French Norms”, so I thought I would start this blog post by sharing a few of the strange little things I’ve noticed in France before I go and shower you with all my emotions and such.

1. French Hallways = Streets of Upper East Side New York

I honestly have so much fun getting dressed for school in the morning. In the US, there’s a sort of mutual understanding that you’ll dress nice one or two days during the week, but you won’t ever try too hard. Wearing a blazer, wedge boots, and nice jewelry would raise some eyebrows at my school back home, but here in France it’s 100% socially acceptable to look nice everyday simply because you want to.

2. Four way stops are for losers; roundabouts are the new Stan Smiths of traffic regulation

3. The fries at KFC are not potato wedges (I’ll wait a moment while that blows your mind)

4. School Sports aren’t a thing.

Exercising after school will probably be a logistical nightmare, but its worth looking up a gym or club to join online. I found a gym that offers a ton of classes and it’s really great!

5. Showers are not waterfalls

By this I mean that you have to manually maneuver the shower head to wash your hand and put it down while you put in shampoo or shave- Ugh, Life’s hard when you’re a lazy American that doesn’t enjoy the extra effort it takes to lift a shower head.

6. Nutella is the ultimate condiment

Baguettes, granola bars, rice cakes, waffles… if you need to jazz up a snack, Nutella is there in abundance

7. School is LONG

self explanatory

8. Tote Bags = Frenchie / Backpacks = Foreigner! Foreigner! RED ALERT!

9. Washing your hands isn’t so important here

You’ll be surprised how many toilette rooms don’t have a sink or don’t have soap. (Take advantage of Bath and Body Works and buy some hand sanitizer before coming to Europe, my friends.)

10. Yes, walking around a city or school yard means walking through clouds of cigarette smoke.

So, the question that only my friends and family really care about- How am I doing?

Well, I do really like France, and I find that it is both incredibly similar and extremely different from what I imagined. I’m beginning to fall into the rhythm of French life and I feel more and more comfortable every day.

I still may be terrible at navigating the bus system, but I can find my way across my school’s campus and have successfully ordered from a French Starbucks. They only messed up the names a little bit… 

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(btw… These are the cups of Lucie and Amanda)

I think that the one thing I miss the most about my home back in the States is the woods. This may sound strange to some people, but I spend a lot of time outdoors wandering through the woods or sitting on the golf course behind my house listening to music, and there just isn’t anywhere here for me to do that. I’ve recently discovered that sitting in my windowsill gives a similar effect, but it’s still not the same as being surrounded by trees and birds with nothing man-made visible in any direction.

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Here, there are a lot of fields and not so much forest.

Because of this, I’ve been forced to find beauty and serenity in other things here. Two weeks ago, my host family took me to Bruges, Belgium, a town known as the Venice of the North, and I finally felt the flutter in my chest that I get when I’m sitting outdoors with my headphones and the wind whips by.

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It was a cloudy, windy day, my favorite type of weather, and as I stood in front of the river looking at the willow trees drooping over the water, and looked at the old, beautiful buildings that lined the cobblestone streets, I realized that Europe’s charm is in its cities.

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History tells its story along the streets of cities like Bruges, just as the muffled whispers and chirps in New England Forests tell their own tales. I ate a Belgian Waffle instead of a granola bar, and listening to French conversations instead of Woodkid’s Run Boy Run, but the same shivers ran down my spine.

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I’ll find ways to enjoy the scenery, even if it looks a little different from home.

Mandy Signature

WARNING: There’s No Ice in the Water

France Diary; Week One 

Orientation, Boston MA –> Normandie, France

Before I left for France, I had been warned about this peculiar little sensation called “Culture Shock” that is seemingly unavoidable when traveling to another country. I was thinking that this “Culture Shock” was going to include things like weird meal times, school day differences and odd bathroom situations, but in truth, the biggest shock I felt my first few days in France was the lack of ice cold water.

In the US, we complain about too much ice in our beverages, and while it is true even I get frustrated when my iced coffee is really a cup of ice with a bit of coffee on the side, I never realized how accustomed I was to ice cold beverages until I got to France. That’s not to say that no restaurants will give you cold drinks, but the majority of water you’ll find at schools or public places is room temperature.

There are infinite differences between France and the United States, some I have already realized and some I have yet to notice, but for some reason, the ice water stuck with me, surprising since I didn’t even notice at first. It was one my fellow American exchange students who pointed out the difference. Afterwards, I just couldn’t get over it. That being said, there are so many things here that are so amazing and different and I couldn’t even begin to describe them all in a single blog post that isn’t 100 pages long. I will note however that the best thing about this trip so far has been the one thing that remains the same no matter where I travel: friendship.

Honfleur Pier

I don’t have the words to describe the amount of amazing people I met during the CIEE and STS program orientations, and it broke my heart to say goodbye to all my new friends as we headed off to our host families. You would think that a week is not a long enough time to form lasting bonds with anyone, but I’m here to tell you that there’s something about a mutual feeling of both absolute terror and extreme excitement that can really bring people together.

I experienced my first steps in Europe alongside these people, and there’s something about traveling with someone that gives you the perfect opportunity to open up and reminisce about home, which just so happens to be a great way to get to know someone.

All throughout this first week in France I’ve been waiting for it to sink in that I’m in France, and to be honest, it hasn’t yet. As I’m getting off the plane I think “This is it… I’m here!” And I wait for a whoosh of nervous jitters, but all I feel is a migraine because my poor brain is caffeine deprived. The bus rounds the corner into the heart of Paris, I see the Eiffel Tower, I walk up the staircases to Sacre Coeur… “Look around, Amanda, You’ve finally made it!” Again, I wait for the whoosh and end up squinting into the sun on a 97 degree day and really wanting a bottle of water.
I didn’t get it… Why wasn’t I feeling anything? I was in Paris! This was a city I had dreamed about for years, yet it didn’t feel magical, and I was disappointed. I thought maybe France wasn’t going to be that amazing city of my dreams, but then I arrived in Honfleur. 

Honfleur

This is Honfleur, a seaside town littered with cafés, soap shops and boulangeries with a slight salty scent that wafts up from the water. The minute our bus began to wind through the streets of this town I felt it – the whoosh of France.

Although Honfleur is definitely a tourist destination, the ambiance is a lot more like Cape Cod than a city like New York or Paris. I think that was my problem with Paris, everywhere I turned there was a sign in English or somebody trying to sell you cheap Eiffel Tower Keychains. That kind of stuff really can impede on your ability to immerse yourself in a city; that was my issue in Paris… why I didn’t believe I was even there.

It wasn’t until a group of friends and I decided to take a walk down a street in a slightly more remote part of the city of Honfleur that I really began to feel that pitter patter of thrill and truly realized I was in another country – a beautiful country. While walking down a street in some neighborhood, we arrived at a cemetery.

Cemetery, Honfleur

I don’t know if you know much about American cemeteries, but they certainly don’t look like this. Each grave was customized and constructed from marble or stone littered with flowers, photographs, messages and statues, and I can’t really explain why, but to me if seemed beautiful.

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I know what you’re thinking… “That girl’s traveled all around France and the thing she likes the most is a cemetery?” Well, yeah. Shockingly, I wasn’t the only one who thought this place was really cool; we spent quite a while meandering through the pathways and wondering who those people could possibly be, what their stories were, and marveling at the beauty that the French people had made from grief and sorrow.

I guess the point of this is to show you that a country is more than it’s greatest accomplishments. The Eiffel tower, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, are so familiar to us that sometimes we see them in person and it can feel like just another photograph. It’s when you stumble across something unique and authentic that you begin to feel a countries true culture,  and that’s exactly what I plan to do with the rest of my time here in France.

We cannot live with our agenda’s glued to our hands and use a guide book to lead us towards nothing but a city’s best and brightest. I once heard that the best way to learn about a city is to get lost and find your way home. Well, I can inform you that I’ve already been lost once so far, and I loved what I found.

Mandy Signature

Songs I’m Into

Current Playlist: September 2016

A little update → Straight from my Spotify

In no particular order: 

  1. Honest – Kodaline
  2. She’s American – The 1975
  3. What A Catch, Donnie – Fall Out Boy
  4. Sober – Broods
  5. Cancer – My Chemical Romance
  6. Broken – Lifehouse
  7. Singing Low – The Fray
  8. Fuel to Fire – Agnes Obel
  9. Closing Time – Semisonic
  10. The Anchor – Bastille

Stay tuned for an upcoming music themed Rainy Day Rant…

Mandy Signature

How Words Find Their Meaning

A Tissue is not Despair

Have you ever seen something or felt something and said to yourself “Dang, I wish there was a word for that?” The truth is that the word to describe whatever it is you want to name does exist, just not in your language.

A few months ago I purchased the most precious book that a foreign language nerd could ever find, “Lost In Translation” by Ella Francis Sanders. The concept behind this book is genius; a collection of words from around the world that don’t exist in English. This book contains everything from szimpatikus which is a hungarian adjective used to describe the feeling you get when you first meet someone and you can just feel that they are a good person, to a Malay word, pisanzapra, which gives a name to the amount of time it takes to eat a banana.

Flipping through the pages of this illustrated work of art, I realized that there are so many things that I see or feel everyday that I’ve never been able to name. This got me wondering, how does a word find its meaning?

We’ve all wondered who got to decide that a dog was a dog and a cat was a cat, but there are some words that couldn’t have been named by simply pointing at an animal and saying “I hereby declare you, animal that goes woof, a dog.” Take, for example, a word like happiness. This is such a common word that we use all the time, however the word has thousands of different meanings for different people. Sure, dictionary.com has defined happiness as “the state of being happy,” but who defined “happy,” or better yet, who decided that the happiness was a positive feeling?

From what I can tell, a word goes through several stages before it becomes integrated in our daily speech. First, someone has to identify a specific object, feeling, or concept and give it a title. Next, they give the word an definition; an outline for what can be classified as this word. Then the word is send out into the world where society puts it into context, thereby developing the word’s connotation through a cultural lens. At this point, the word may have been translated to another language or been spread across continents where more and more cultures decide their own meaning for that particular thing that guy over in some other country wanted to define.

I think the most fascinating thing about this entire process is that it’s really like one continuous game of intercontinental telephone: each time the word is used, the meaning is warped just a little bit.

Sometimes I wonder how we would feel about certain things if the telephone wire had been wound a little bit differently. What if the first person to define sadness didn’t think that it was such a bad thing? What if that person thought that sadness was something to celebrate, or that tears made eyes more beautiful? Or what if nobody ever gave sadness a name? Just because a feeling doesn’t have a name, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but without a name, we couldn’t develop connotation. If sadness wasn’t classified as a negative emotion, or laughter was thought of to be painful or annoying, how would our lives be changed?

Words are capable of doing damage and creating beauty because we’ve decided that they can. Language was built by humans to express ourselves and our thoughts to others through oral communication, grammar gave that communication guidelines, while cultural context built connotations to further develop the meanings behind each phrase we spoke. Language is fluid and alive and we have the ability to manipulate it; to mold it whichever way we choose. We can never go back in time and change the path of the telephone, but we can push it it a new direction by changing the meanings we associate with certain words.

Beauty doesn’t have to mean size 2 Victoria’s Secret models with flawless skin and perfect hair. A decade or so from now our generation will be in charge of passing on our language to our children, and when we do, we can teach them that beauty is a universal term used to describe a positive feeling one receives when looking at themselves or another person. If that’s the case, we all become beautiful simply by feeling happy when we look in the mirror. Next time somebody asks what equality means, we can express the term as mutual acceptance and shared opportunity for all people.

Let’s not further clarify words with exceptions and categorizations. Treat language as a tool and build whatever you want and make it mean whatever you wish; build yourself a new reality out of letters bound with feeling.

Mandy Signature

“Teachers don’t fail, only students do”

Here But Still Forgotten

An anticlimactic and disappointing article about Trump was why I first picked up the Boston Globe magazine sitting on my kitchen table, but it left me unsatisfied. To fulfill my want for a good morning read, I continued to flip through the magazine to find the cover story about the future of my state’s standardized test, MCAS. I discussed my opinions on standardized testing in the past so I wasn’t planning on writing this post, but a quote jumped out at me and I just had to respond.

Linda Hanson was introduced as a literacy tutor/teacher for the Arlington schools who applied to the state’s committee for redefining the test. In response to not being selected she offered up this quote “Teachers are the only ones who really can see how students react to the tasks that’s put in front of them. Why would you want to produce something that doesn’t have strong teacher input”? I wholeheartedly agree because this is something I have been saying for years, although I typically argue that students should have the input.

There is a lot of money, time, and effort spent on bettering schools and improving education. Tests are created and recreated constantly; new curriculum is introduced each year, but student input is never asked for. Us students are more aware of our needs than a committee of adults who attended school 30 years ago. Naturally they are stuck in the past, an era of less stress and less tests. A picture from the article shows test creators sitting around a table, 3 out of 6 have white hair. Yet here they are designing more tests because they are blissfully ignorant of the students’ reactions.

It’s almost as if the education board forgets that the students are living, breathing children who don’t want a state test every other month. Not only this, the test questions are scanned by adults who know the material better than the students. How is that fair? If a 59 year old man can answer this question, then surely an 8 year student can as well. It’s impractical and clearly not well thought out.

Yet despite being a test designed solely for children and teenagers, the article focuses primarily on how tests affect educators. But what about the students? A question I’m sure is never asked at these meetings. How are the people most negatively affected by testing forgotten? The students are the ones losing sleep, developing depression and anxiety, learning how to test rather than learning, not eating, becomingly dangerously stressed, and feeling the need to cheat.

Students continue to be forgotten and left behind although they are the ones most affected. It’s tragic.

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Like Versus Love

I love music.

Ask me 10 things I like and I’ll say things along the lines of: ice cream, the TV show Arrow, Avatar, swimming, running etc.

Ask me 10 things I love, and things become more complicated.

There are things that we are supposed to love, like our friends, family, or a sport we’ve played since we were still in the womb, but as time has gone on, I’ve been trying to distinguish the difference between liking and loving, and why exactly we all feel compelled to give often true but very similar answers when asked what it is we love most.

This whole train of ideas started a while back in my school’s advisory when my teacher asked the class whether we would rather be deaf or blind. Now for me, I have always wanted to learn sign language, so I’ve always chosen to be deaf. I’ve been asked this question numerous times and have always been pretty confident in my answer, but I have a friend who always chooses the opposite; she would take blindness any day over losing her ability to listen to music.  

At the time I said something along the lines of “Yeah, I feel that, but I mean, I still wanna see stuff.” (Yes, I know, my eloquence is outstanding, thanks for noticing.) When I think about that now, that I could never hear my favorite songs again, I feel something strange and empty that quite literally hurts my heart. I don’t think I’ve ever gone a day without listening to something, even now as I write this article I have Ludovico Einaudi’s slow, beautiful piano melodies streaming through the speakers on my laptop. Music has been a method of escape for as long as I can remember, whether it be blasting Novocaine by Fall Out Boy to drown out my mother’s lectures, or staring out the window on a rainy day imagining that I’m a character in some sad movie while I listen to Kodaline’s What It Is.

When it’s 1:00 in the morning on a Tuesday and I can’t turn off my brain, I’m listening to Tyler Joseph’s precious voice crack through my headphones. When I’m ready to punch a wall or an obnoxious sixth grader on my bus, my shock over Brendon Urie’s unbelievable vocal range keep my fists by my side.

I guess the point of all these examples is to illustrate that I don’t just like music because it sounds good or it’s fun to dance to, I live through lyrics and my heart beats to the rhythms hammered out on drum sets. Music is more than something to include on the “my interests” part of my profile, It’s something I’m passionate about- something I love.

Acknowledging this made me wonder- what else do I love? What else stirs up indescribable tremors in my chest? I thought about the things that I do that make me excited beyond reason when I talk about, things that are constantly on my mind, things that I can’t imagine living without.

I love writing, I love books, I love to travel and learn languages, I love adrenaline. There are more things to love in my life than I realized. If I’m ever feeling miserable and stressed and I can’t seem to find anything that I want to do- nothing left to do that I like- I picture that feeling of true ease and adoration that I get when I do things I love, and that’s enough of a distraction to pull myself out of that dark space.

I never want to undervalue the importance of ice cream, my favorite TV shows and other things I like, because those can be my little spurts of happiness as I go throughout my day, but it’s the consistency and solidity of those few things I truly love that keep me moving.

I’m still not sure whether I would prefer to be deaf or blind (that practical part of my brain makes choosing too difficult) but I’m glad that I can’t find an answer. There are things I love about my ears and my eyes. At the end of the day, that silly little question sparked an entire wave of ideas about the difference between appreciation and adoration, and I hope that something within this article ignited some thoughts in you. Go on, think, “ponder of something great”, search for that feeling, you’ll know it when you find it; it’s called love.

Mandy Signature

Grades Don’t Define Me, Personality Does

Character v. Grades

A couple weeks ago I got a quiz back in Algebra class. As I was flipping through and trying to understand where I went wrong, I noticed that my teacher had added up my points wrong. She accidentally gave me an extra point.

Naturally my first thought was to just leave it, this teacher is unpredictable, honesty might not be the best route. “Thanks for being honest, but I’m still going to subtract the point” is not an answer I wanted to hear. But the more I thought about it, the guiltier I was feeling. I pride myself on being an honest kid, I’ve even convinced myself I’m a bad liar to rid myself of the habit. I didn’t want to break my streak so to say, yet I also wanted to keep my score.

I asked my friend what I should do, because I can’t make decisions for myself, and she of course agreed that my teacher was unpredictable, but also said I should be a good person and be honest. The thing is, usually my grades aren’t my biggest concern, but I didn’t do so hot on my last quiz and it was near the end of the year so there wasn’t much room for second chances.

Now bless my good old friend sitting next to me because she said something that really stuck with me and I think is a great piece of advice. She said to me, “Jessie, you beautiful, wise, independent, generous, brilliant, funny, respectful fallen angel, would you rather have this moment define your character or your grade”? And I thought to myself, “Damn”. That’s a pretty damn good piece of advice especially considering I think grades and tests are worthless. So I stood up and told my teacher that my grade should really be one point lower, but she just whispered to me that it didn’t matter and that I could keep it. A very anticlimactic end to all my inner turmoil, but nonetheless I was thankful that my friend uttered those words.

I would rather be known as an honest and respectful person than the kid who got an A on her math quiz. Who I am as a person will always be more important to me than what I get as a grade in a class, and I hope that whoever reads this agrees.

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Just Promise Me You Won’t Tell…

The Nature of Secrets

A few weeks ago, I was binge-watching the TV show Reign, a drama on The CW network about the politics of Europe in the 16th century. Now, this show may be fictional, and the politics may be over exaggerated for the sake of entertainment, but there is not a doubt in my mind that some of the scandals that the show presents were real issues that people of that century had to deal with like the revulsion against women royalty leading without a King by their side. There is plenty to be said on the feminist topics cleverly woven throughout the show, but that is a discussion for another rainy day.

Today, I want to talk about secrets; the act of hiding a certain truth from somebody in order to protect oneself or one’s investments. Not everybody has to worry about tricking monarchs and hiding infidelity scandals, but despite what we might tell ourselves, we all have secrets. Whether it be a hidden love for One Direction fan fiction, or an affair with a protestant lord that wants to lead a coup against your husband, there are truths buried in all our hearts that we pray will never see the light of day. However, to a certain point, we all understand that our secrets will never truly remain hidden. An older sibling will someday find the journal that you used when you tried to write fan fiction of your own, or your husband will ultimately realize that there is an army camped at his door and you are across enemy lines holding the hand of a certain Prince of Navarre.  

Nobody can keep something hidden forever, as it is at great cost to ourselves if we attempt to do so. We weigh the costs of telling our secrets against the weight we bear and the torture we endure if we keep them locked away. Most of the time, we admit our secrets to somebody because we feel we need to tell somebody or else we might explode. Sometimes, they come out on their own, and we have no say in when our secrets are exposed. Whenever we have a secret, I think that deep down, we want somebody to find out.

Secrets are forged through guilt and panic- most of us only keep secrets because we fear the cost to ourselves if somebody were to discover that which we are hiding. Eventually, we look for sympathy- somebody who will understand why we did what we did, or feel what we feel, and we pray that that person will comfort us and forgive us. If we have the chance to expose our own secrets, there is hope of a lesser reckoning than if our secrets were revealed through a third party.

If a secret is exposed too soon, or to the wrong person, our lives can swiftly feel ruined. We will lose whatever advantages our secrets gave us, and we risk the consequences of keeping something from someone we care for. When you learn that somebody has kept something from you, lied to you, it is only natural to feel anger. As a secret bearer, that anger is directed straight at your heart and you must beg for forgiveness. Perhaps your secret endangered somebody else or prevented them from getting something they wanted. Perhaps keeping something hidden away made them feel as if you couldn’t trust them, and maybe now they don’t trust you.

Some secrets we need to keep, others we build up in our minds to be horrific weapons that are not, in truth, incredibly important. We think that since we have kept something a secret for some time, we have to keep the truth’s of our soul buried even longer. We are constantly compelled to create new secrets through our lies and omissions, so eventually our arsenal of cover-ups becomes so extensive that the secrets are buried to deep to ever be told.

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Comparing Transgender Bathroom Bill and the Day Care Hysteria of the 1980’s

It’s Not the Burnt Toast

Transgender rights are finally coming into the political discussion and public opinion is slowly shifting to be more liberal. The main topic of conversation in most states is the bathroom bill. The bathroom bill determines if transgender people can enter the bathroom they feel most comfortable in and what the criteria for them to enter is. At the moment the primary argument that conservatives use is that some creepy man will pretend to be trans in order to enter a women’s bathroom. Now of course, this situation isn’t outside of the range of possibilities, but how many more times does a trans woman walk into the bathroom without any complications than a man pretending to be transgender walks into the bathroom?

In the 1980’s and 1990’s there was a huge fear of sending children to day-care because there were many court cases of day-care workers sexually abusing the children and performing satanic rituals. There was a huge controversy over this sexual abuse scandal. Across the country, and even other countries such as New Zealand and Canada, stories began popping up that exposed day care workers. Most workers were indicted and found guilty. Recently their sentences are being overturned because the courts are discovering the evidence to be weak and insufficient and the children’s testimonies are falsified.

The nationwide panic turns out to be a response to the influx of women entering the workforce. Day-care services were in high demand because most middle class mothers were working to help bring in an income. The first case came from Judy Johnson, a single mother of her son who was attending the McMartin preschool in California. After her son had some bowel complications, Johnson accused the workers at the preschool of molesting her child. This sparked the country into a deep panic.

Many theorists studying this phenomenon were all coming to similar conclusions, the fear was stemming from women entering the workplace. In the 1980’s women were still beginning to build careers and not focus on housemaking. When rare stories, such as Johnson’s, were becoming international news, parents started to withdraw their kids from day-cares. The mothers would have to return home from work to care for their kids.

The paranoia fabricated more abuse stories. A few decades later, accounts of forced testimonies from children and inaccurate physical claims are being reviewed and retrials are occurring. Kids were asked confusing questions in order to elicit a desirable response, there is no real evidence, and the tests run by doctors have no validity to back them up. In other words, most of these cases were a result of fear and anxiety.

Now, transphobia is the new day-care sex abuse hysteria. Although transphobia isn’t a result of women entering the workplace, the following response is eerily similar.

The group of people who don’t want transgender men and women to chose their bathroom often turn to the argument that creepy men will take advantage of this and enter the girl’s bathroom. Yet as with a couple arguing over burnt toast, it isn’t really about the burnt toast. To these men and women, being transgender is an abnormal process that makes them uncomfortable. The creepy men argument is justification for their ignorance. As a result, the whole nation is falling under the spell that if we open up bathrooms to transgender men and women, boys and girls, then pedophiles will have a new way of exploiting children. These fears are not a reality yet, there are no accounts of a man posing as a woman entering a women’s bathroom; but our society is still convinced that it is going to happen.

But to the same people that are worried about this, are you not worried about your children being sexually assaulted by priests and parish men? Those cases may be rare, but are they not a reality? What about the thousands of underprivileged girls that are coerced into prostitution in the United States? Where are the laws and legislations designed to protect them? These bathroom bills aren’t about men entering women’s bathrooms, but about the irrational fear society has of transgender men and women.

Much like the child sex abuse scandals of the 1980’s that removed women from the workforce, bathroom bills are erasing the transgender community from our society.

 

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