Around the Bloc
1. What’s in your wallet right now?
My Brooklyn Public Library card, one debit card, a tube of Aveda’s Bixa (a shade I’ve been loyal to since 1993, back when it was Bixa Bixa), forty bucks, a little handkerchief to wipe my eyeglasses with, and various talismen, including a pendant of la Virgen de Guadalupe and a pebble from an Alaskan glacier.
2. What do you wish your parents taught you about money?
To establish an IRA account the first year I earned a paycheck. I didn’t get around to it until I turned 28!
3. What is your worst habit around finances?
I never make the time to research alternative ways to invest my money. I have kept my IRA in a money market account that barely nets $15 profit a year because I’m terrified of investing in “evil” companies. I know there are some socially responsible ones out there, but I can’t quite commit the time to finding them.
4. What makes you happy?
Sunshine, gerber daisies, hand-written letters, Middle Eastern music, my friends and family, story-telling, willow trees, words, cherries.
5. Personal philosophy around money?
As a firm believer in the “Live simply so that others may simply live” philosophy, I try to consume as little as possible. This is a rather fortunate mindset, given that I’m a writer and activist living in New York City (i.e. I barely scrape by). At least 15 percent of every check goes into my savings account, and I never buy anything on credit (only debit). I always take my lunch to work, cook dinner at home as much as possible, and order the cheapest dishes off the menu — no appetizers, no deserts. I sleep on a futon with my old college comforter, check out books and DVDs from the library rather than buying them, wash a lot of my laundry by hand, hardly ever buy clothes that don’t serve a specific purpose, and limit myself to one glass of wine when I go out at night (or cranberry juice, if the bar looks expensive).
6. Where does money come from?
Mine currently comes from four places: speaking events at universities, schools, and cultural organizations for my memoir Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana; the non-profit, anti-censorship youth activist organization I run part-time; the as-told-to biography I’m writing for a Latina motivational speaker from El Paso, Texas; and a couple of memoir-writing teaching gigs. I am also starting to dabble in literary consultancy. That boils down to about 75 hours of work a week, but because New York City is so expensive, it doesn’t amount to much income. My accountant actually patted me on the shoulder after completing my tax return this year and said “This one’s on me, kid” when I pulled out my checkbook.
7. What would you do with a million dollars?
Start my own foundation and cut fat checks to various Latino, Native American, youth, and refugee organizations and individuals committed to social justice. Either that, or build a fully-equipped media center somewhere in South Texas and turn it into an after-school program for low-income youth.
8. What is your most prized possession?
My bag of journals (two dozen volumes that span the past decade of my life) and my photographs.
9. Who is your role model?
I tend to admire actions and creations more than the people who actually accomplished them. I hold social activism, peace-making, teaching, and art in the highest esteem.
10. What is your greatest achievement?
Completing my first book Around The Bloc, My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana. If you start counting from the day I enrolled in Russian at the University of Texas at Austin, it took about 11 years to write: three years for language study, four years for traveling and research, and four years for writing and selling the manuscript. The last two years were the hardest: I redid the book proposal nine times, completely rewrote the manuscript four times, queried 33 agents and 31 publishers, and endured countless edits, revisions, split ends, and nervous breakdowns along the way. When I finally got to hold the just-published copy in my hands, I literally dropped to my knees and cried. After consuming a bottle of Soviet Champagne on Brighton Beach that night with a friend, I experienced the most blissful inner peace of my life.
11. What organizations do you support?
Through my “day-job,” I work with a number of organizations in the free speech and youth media communities. I also try to cut $10-30 checks once a month to organizations and individuals I believe in. At the moment, MoveOn.org and the Kerry campaign are the most frequent recipients, but I also try to support the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, United Farm Workers, Oglala Lakota College on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Human Rights Watch, and the Nation Institute at least once a year.
12. What contributions to society do you want to make?
I aspire to empower people with the telling of their stories — through my own writing and through teaching people how to write themselves.
13. If you could buy one thing right now what would it be?
Three months of intensive Spanish classes somewhere deep in interior Mexico.
14. Favorite activity that doesn’t cost a dime?
Dancing barefoot outdoors — preferably to a live band.
15. How do you indulge yourself?
Red wine over dinner, a granita at a coffee house, sleeping in an extra hour, a private belly dance class, buying strawberries AND blueberries at the farmer’s market….
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