A quarterly print and digital magazine dedicated to reshaping society’s ideas of what “women’s things” are. We are interested in stories that never get told: educational, emotional and inspirational. We are finding and highlighting the women who are making history today.
JULIA GAMOLINA. PHOTO COURTESY OF SYLVIE ROSOKOFF.
Woman to Woman: Conversations Across Boys’ Clubs—An Introduction
Working in architecture and having interviewed over 70 of the women who advance the profession, I’ve often wondered about women in other male-dominated fields. My conversations in architecture have inevitably touched on what it’s like to be a woman paving her way in a man’s world, and the world is abuzz with similar conversations happening in Hollywood, in tech, and in politics. There are, however, a large number of other industries that share a lot of similarities and that we don’t hear about as much. After meeting many incredible women in such fields—at The Wing, through friends, and even through Madame Architect—I decided that it was time to write about and talk to them too.
With Madame Architect, I didn’t approach the interviews looking for a certain story or a certain angle—their core is that they are just conversations between two women on the challenges and highlights of our profession. With this spirit, I introduce “Woman to Woman: Conversations Across Boys’ Clubs,” where I speak to comedians, sommeliers, poker players, public defenders—all of whom happen to be women. My hope is that in covering more professions, I can bring back to architecture that which has worked for women in other male-dominated fields, and vice versa, and that in sharing stories across industries, professions, and focuses, women all over will support each other and encourage each other to build a new and different world.
Ally Hord is currently a writer for “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” A graduate of Northwestern University, she began her path in comedy in the UCB LA community as a writer on a house sketch team. Ally served as an executive producer at the website Funny or Die, where she was able to work on shows like “Billy on the Street,” contribute to the development of @midnight, and write, direct, and act in celebrity sketches as well.
For the 2012 election, she launched Funny or Die’s political content page “Live Funny or Die” which became a Webby honoree for humor. She also produced two full-length Funny or Die features: “iSteve” and “The Art of the Deal”. In 2018, she sold a half-hour comedy pilot to NBC with Seth Meyers’ company Sethmaker Shoemeyers.
In her conversation with Madame Architect’s Julia Gamolina, Ally talks about her persistence in becoming a writer in the world of comedy and the diversity in today’s writing rooms— advising young women to ask for what they want and to be open about their experiences.
ALLY HORD, AMBER RUFFIN, AND SETH MEYERS DURING A 2018 SKETCH “POINT, COUNTERPOINT.” IMAGE COURTESY OF ALLY HORD.
Julia Gamolina: When did your interest in all things writing and comedy first develop?
Ally Hord: I grew up doing theatre, taking improv classes, and watching SNL, so acting, TV, and comedy were always interests from the get-go. I went to college for film, putting a pause on comedy and not getting back into it until I graduated and was an audience page for “The David Letterman Show” as one of my first jobs. I got to be in the theatre and see the warm-up and watch the show, and that solidified it for me—I knew I had to work in this world.
What was it about comedy?
I just love that you can digest any life situation or difficult news headline, and send it back out into the world in a way that reframes it as: “It’s not all bad, or at least, here’s another way you could look at this,” in a smart way that catches people off guard and makes them laugh. I always loved that about “Weekend Update” growing up.
“Do you want to be a writer or not? Say no.”
How did you get from film school to “Late Night”?
I’m an elder millennial at 36, so I’m part of a generation that doesn’t really hold a job for ten years at a time—it was very much a freelance existence. I moved to LA, but did so during the 2008 writers’ strike, so I took a job in TV development for a couple of years. At the same time, I was starting to take classes at UCB, I got on a house sketch team, and then eventually started working at Funny or Die shortly after the company had just started.
While I did this, I wrote pilots and TV shows on spec—meaning just writing my own work so that one day when someone does ask for a writing sample, you have good material ready to go that really shows your voice. I did that for about eight years in LA, being in the comedy scene, building a resume through Funny or Die, and freelancing on the side. I submitted writing packets to shows for years, and then one day I submitted a packet to “Late Night” and that was it!
Tell me about your time at Funny or Die.
I was there right after YouTube started and the internet was this wild frontier of comedy videos. The level of production was quick and dirty, so we could churn out videos easily. I was there for four years, first as a producer, and then an executive producer. Funny or Die was one of these exciting places where you could wear many hats, and if you got all of your homework done, you got to write or even direct a celebrity video.
And that’s what I really wanted to do: write. But I was a producer, and also it was a bit of a boys’ club at the time. After years where it seemed like they would never see me as a proper writer, I quit and ended up freelancing over the next two years. Unfortunately, I still had to take jobs producing to pay the bills, but all the while I was doing UCB monthly shows and writing pilots and packets to submit.
AMBER RUFFIN, JENNY HAGEL, AND ALLY HORD AFTER A SKETCH FOR THE 2017 WOMEN’S MARCH FOR LATE NIGHT. IMAGE COURTESY OF ALLY HORD.
ALLY HORD WITH HER LATE NIGHT COWORKERS AT THE 2017 EMMYS. IMAGE COURTESY OF ALLY HORD.
How did Late Night happen in this period of freelancing?
I finally got my big break writing on a pilot for Moshe Kasher’s Comedy Central show “Problematic”. It was a non-airing pilot, but it was exciting to be in the room as a writer, and not the one sitting down taking notes as a producer.
During this time, a head producer for an HBO talk show called and said, “You came highly recommended—we have a three-year contract for a producer, and it would start in two weeks.” I went back in the writers’ room and said, “Guys, I really want to be a writer, but this is a three-year gig on an HBO show.” I was expecting them to be like, “Talk about job security, take the HBO gig!” but instead they said, “Do you want to be a writer or not? Say no.” I called the guy back and turned down the job, and three weeks later, I got an interview with “Late Night” to be a writer.
I mean, it was the best advice I could have gotten. NBC liked my writing packet and flew me out to New York for an interview, offering me the job just days later.
You’ve been there for three years—how has it been?
It’s a dream job, truly check marking all of the boxes that I had hoped to—being paid well, paying off my debt, and being in a union with great health insurance, great work-life balance, fair hours, and great vacation time.
We tape at 6:30 p.m., but since Trump tends to drop a lot of news after 6:30 p.m., we put in a lot of last-minute jokes.
What is your role and your day-to-day like?
Every writer here is strong at writing a topical monologue joke, or they’re very good at distilling a topic issue or cultural theme into a sketch. We have a sketch team and a monologue team, and I’m on the monologue team but also write sketches when I have time. For example, for Mother’s Day I wrote and starred in a sketch that was about Hallmark inventing cards for “dog moms.”
In terms of our literal day-to-day, the monologue team gets in a little bit earlier to start writing jokes. We then have three joke deadlines throughout the day, after which we gather with Seth and he reads and highlights the ones he likes. We then have a rehearsal where we gather tourists, bring them into the studio, and Seth reads them all the jokes or sketches or pre-tapes, just to gauge what the audience responds to. We tape at 6:30 p.m., but since Trump tends to drop a lot of news after 6:30 p.m., we put in a lot of last-minute jokes.
This is fascinating—in architecture, the “cycle” of a work product, if you see the work product as a building as opposed to a drawing set, could be something like two to 10 years, but yours is one day! Every day, you prepare for a nightly show.
I would say that’s the best part. If this is your first job in comedy, it is a crash course in how to accept failure gracefully. I could write seven to nine pages of jokes a day, and only get one joke into the show. Ninety percent of our work goes in the trash every day, because if no one laughs at it, Seth kills it. It’s not personal, at all—we have to create a good show, today and every day, and if your material didn’t make it in today, tomorrow is a new chance, and so you move on.
It’s the complete opposite of development in Hollywood, since a TV show, much like a building, can be in development for eight years, and a movie even longer.
Looking back, what have been some of your biggest challenges?
Having the courage and the savings or resources, to step away from a consistent job that was not right for me, or when I was on the wrong “ladder.” Having to take smaller freelance gigs in producing so I could be available for a writing job when the opportunity came was tough because you have to pay the rent! Creative fields are very hard to navigate because of that, and many people don’t have the luxury to take time off to wait for their dream job.
What’s been interesting to me hearing you talk about writing versus producing is that it reminds me of the gender bias we have in architecture, where men are the creative designers that envision and sketch, and women are the project managers, sort of “managing the household.”
Yes, it’s the same gender split. Granted, our writers’ room has a high percentage of women and all writers’ rooms are getting better—but if you go into our bullpen of coordinators, researchers, and producers, there are a lot of women. It was certainly that way at Funny or Die too. I don’t know if women tend towards those roles because of their skills of always being on top of everything, or people just hired them for non-creative positions, but that is how it was. I wore the producer hat for 10 years before getting a writing job.
You had mentioned that Funny or Die was a boys’ club. Tell me about that.
I’m not saying everyone there was exclusionary by any means, but all the people at the top were men—the CEO, CFO, the president, development exec, etc. I think the culture was just that of a group of male friends that had built a company together, and that trickled down. We did have writers that were women, but not many.
Funny or Die wasn’t the only institution guilty of that, in production, and in Hollywood, obviously. I’m lucky to be working at a place now that has adjusted for way more female representation in the writers’ room, and the show is better for it. We have so many different viewpoints about news stories from the women in our room—a gay Latina single mother, an African-American Midwesterner, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, a Korean-American Gen Z’er just out of college—there’s so much more comedy to be distilled from those perspectives than if Seth makes a joke just from his perspective.
ALLY HORD DIRECTING CHARLIZE THERON FOR FUNNY OR DIE IN 2012. IMAGE COURTESY OF ALLY HORD.
On the flip side, what have been some of the biggest highlights?
Getting to work with all of my comedy heroes. The whole business model of Funny or Die was that people could just come and play. People would often tell us, “My film is stuck in development hell, and you’re telling me I can make a 3-4 minute video, and it’ll go live on Monday?!”
We did this April Fools sketch with Charlize Theron, where we pretended that she left her phone at our studio, and we hacked into it and saw that she had recorded a video where she was practicing for a fake Oscars acceptance speech [laughs]. I got to write and direct her in that. Having Charlize Theron turn to you and go, “How do you want me to do this?” is pretty unreal.
Also, I was lucky to sell a pilot this year! Seth and our producer Mike Shoemaker started a production company to develop projects on the side, and the amazing thing about being on their staff is that they offer you a first-look deal. It’s very generous, what they’re doing for their writers.
We live in a world where one of the benefits of social media is that women can be more open about their experiences.
What advice do you have for women just starting their careers?
If there is a boys’ club vibe at your office, just know that that’s a red flag for getting ahead on your merits. I once had a man who was my intern promoted to a position above me just because he was older than me, and my boss said that it would be “embarrassing” for him to continue holding a low position at his age.
A lot of these industries are now correcting for their decades of sexist behavior, but you would be surprised by the things that still come out of people’s mouths in fields you think are more “woke”, especially when they think no one is listening. I have learned to start speaking out against that when I hear it instead of just keeping my mouth shut to not rock the boat. In general, we live in a world where one of the benefits of social media is that women can be more open about their experiences, so I’d like to think that the up and coming Generation Z can speak up for themselves better in the workplace without repercussions.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when first starting out?
I wish I knew to ask for what I want earlier on. When I’ve told people what I’ve wanted, so many people have gone, “Oh! I didn’t know you wanted that! Let me see how I can help you.” For the most part, people want to help if they like working with you—I just didn’t know that I had to ask for it.
Finally, big picture, what do you want to do in and for the world? What’s the impact you’d like to have?
I would love to be a part of moving conversations forward politically where people can laugh but still absorb an important message. I want to be able to look back on my life and know that I was on the right side of history, which is sometimes tricky in comedy, because comedy pushes the envelope.
I also don’t want to regret or feel like I’ve wasted any opportunity I’ve been given. My boss is the head of a production company that wants ideas from us and if I go one year without coming up with ideas to pitch, I will have, in a way, let myself down. People would kill for the opportunity to have studios hear their ideas. I’d be crazy not to take advantage of that, because every opportunity is a gift!
MR. SPLITFOOT BY SAMANTHA HUNT 352 PP. HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT.
Samantha Hunt’s haunting novel “Mr. Splitfoot” tells the story of 17-year-olds Ruth and Nat, orphans raised at the “Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission” in Upstate New York. Ruth and Nat have been Heathcliff-and-Cathy close for almost their whole lives, ever since Ruth’s older sister aged out of the home and disappeared. Led by an abusive man who calls himself Father Arthur, the “Love of Christ!” is a back-to-the-earth endeavor without the bounty, a neo-evangelical commune without the love. When the enigmatic con man Mr. Bell appears on the home’s doorstep with a proposition for Nat and Ruth, the teenagers see a potential way out.
What follows is an upstate gothic complete with anguished ghosts and a haunted mansion. Chapters alternate between two narratives: In the first, the teenaged Ruth and Nat are led into a beautiful but hazardous outside world by the charming Mr. Bell, who teaches them the powers and pitfalls of belief but who has ulterior motives for befriending them. In the second narrative—set 14 years after Nat and Ruth leave “The Love of Christ!”—Ruth visits her niece Cora. With a compelling urgency, Ruth (now mysteriously mute) leads Cora away from the life she knows and onto a strange and difficult journey. Pragmatic Cora struggles with her own crises while traversing New York state on foot, toward a destination known only to Ruth (and of course, the adult Ruth isn’t talking). In shifting between these two perspectives, the reader gradually uncovers mysteries—both natural and supernatural—that have defined the trajectory of these characters’ lives.
Readers will care less about the end of the road than about keeping company with Ruth, who is the story’s luminous heart. And that is plenty.
Though set between the early aughts and our present time, the novel has a decidedly 60s and 70s feel. In one scene, characters dance to records by the Bee Gees, Francoise Hardy, and Linda Thompson. And like the open-mindedness of that time, the universe of “Mr. Splitfoot” is a magnet for self-appointed prophets. Father Arthur espouses a quasi-evangelical doctrine of hard work and self-discipline while indulging in his own alcoholism and his wife’s drug habits. Along her journey Cora meets Sheresa, a self-described “ghost activist,” who explains that the dead are “a totally underrepresented population.” Then there’s Mardellion, a shadowy cult leader whose obsession with the scar covering half of Ruth’s face provides the most compelling reason for flight into the mountains.
Nat and Ruth attract their own share of followers: During basement seances, the other foster children pay five dollars for Nat to summon the spirit of Mr. Splitfoot, who brings word from both dead and absent mothers. Nat channels banal details—“I see your mom roasting a chicken in her pajamas,” or “She’s brushing her teeth while talking on the phone,”—and always ends with the magic words: “She says she’d be with you if she could.” When the past and memory can’t supply meaning for the children’s present, belief wells up to provide an alternate map to the future. Belief in Mr. Splitfoot means believing that a mother would return if she could, that a mother didn’t desert her child willingly, as Nat knows his own mother did.
While Hunt spins a haunting tale, “Mr. Splitfoot” isn’t without its flaws: Too many ghosts and ghost stories are introduced, to the point that the road is littered with portent. A slightly clunky climactic scene slots major puzzle pieces into place while leaving lesser mysteries unresolved. But like Cora, readers will care less about the end of the road than about keeping company with Ruth, who is the story’s luminous heart. And that is plenty.
WOMEN IN SPACES: PAST/PRESENT PANEL DISCUSSION AT FXCOLLABORATIVE, APRIL 2019. FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: MORGAN EVERHART, EILEEN JENG LYNCH, ANGIE LEE, ANNE-BRIGITTE SIROIS, YASSANA CROIZAT-GLAZER
Women are now present in more spaces than ever before—in physical space, representation, and public perception. As diversity increases in the art and architectural worlds, we support and celebrate the work of women in these fields, and question if this presence is enough. On April 29, 2019, a panel discussion “Women in Spaces: Past/Present,” organized by FXCollaborative and A Women’s Thing, brought together women from different but related fields—two-dimensional and three-dimensional, creators and promoters—to explore the rise and future of women in spaces both visual and conceptual.
PANEL DISCUSSION “WOMEN IN SPACES.” PHOTO COURTESY OF BONNY YAU.
Yassana Croizat-Glazer: Why is it important to place women at the heart of what we do? What are some of the ways you have sought in your professional lives to increase women’s visibility?
Morgan Everhart: It’s important to understand who you are, what makes you the way you are, and what matters to you. Some of the best parts of our character come from qualities that are currently identified as female. There are also many significant struggles that come from being women in our contemporary society. We impact our communities by sharing and developing our strengths and opportunities.
Eileen Jeng Lynch: When gender inequality still exists, it is important to highlight the accomplishments and initiatives of those who identify as women. Through my curatorial projects, I have sought to be inclusive and increase the visibility of women. The “Give Voice” Postcard Project provides a platform for all of us of all ages—whether we identify as female, male, or non-binary—to voice our concerns to Congress about issues that matter most. My recent and upcoming exhibitions at The Yard: City Hall Park feature women artists, as do the two exhibitions currently on view at Wave Hill.
“GIVE VOICE” POSTCARD PROJECT BY EILEEN JENG LYNCH. The “Give Voice” Postcard Project is a grassroots, multi-state, advocacy initiative organized by Eileen Jeng Lynch. It’s about making your voice heard by writing to Congress at their district addresses. Using 38 artist-designed postcards, you can help advocate for the issues that matter to you: protection of civil liberties; rights of immigrants, women, and the LGBTQ community; the arts; health care; environment; natural disaster relief; and gun control regulation, to name a few. Stamps and federal officials’ district addresses are included with the cards.
Croizat-Glazer: In one form or another, each of us is preoccupied in our professions with creating visual statements. Because of color’s power to elicit emotion and the fact that it so often operates on a semiotic level in our culture (e.g. red = stop), it can play a huge role in the messages we seek to convey. Could you please talk about the function of color in your work, and how you may deal with the issue of color and gender bias?
Everhart: When painting, you begin with color and end with an image. Most painters, including myself, build their work by color. Color structure determines the expansion or compression of each artwork. There are historically gendered connotations to the form and content each artist explores, such as color, but we aim to intervene on these perceptions.
MORGAN EVERHART LEFT: AS IT SEEMS MIDDLE: THE TWO OF US RIGHT: NEED YOU EVERYDAY.
In our exhibition at FXCollaborative, I showed a triptych of paintings that started with a curved gesture of white and orange paint. I thought that the curve of orange and white in each painting could be interpreted as a landscape or the curve of a figure. When I pushed this idea differently in each of the three paintings, I started to dissect how landscape, florals, and the body are visually depicted. Somewhere between those three subjects, the judgment of the viewer and their understanding of nature and sexuality is questioned.
The question of sexuality often relates to visual representation, which relies more on the subjectivity of the viewer than the content of what is seen. Consequently, a principal drive in art today addresses the sexual in representation—exposing the historically fixed nature of sexuality by breaking apart our visual field. In our exhibition at FXCollaborative, we selected a group of artists who candidly share their perception of self and their surroundings through blending imagined, personal, and appropriated spaces.
LEFT: MARYBETH CHEW, MINISERIES MIDDLE: XIAOFU WANG, HANGING LAKE RIGHT: JULIA GARCIA, CRASH STUDY.
LEFT: XIAOFU WANG, CROONING RIGHT: ANNA PARK, EXPECTATIONS.
Croizat-Glazer: We live in a world where we frequently move in physical spaces that have traditionally underscored and strengthened social inequality—such as medical facilities, mothers’ rooms, bathrooms, and workplaces. What are some of the ways that you have sought to make such spaces more inclusive? Given its divisive potential, what role does art have in these environments?
Angie Lee: In my role as a design director, I provide strategic vision and creative oversight for interior environments across a wide range of scales and project types. I believe there is powerful inspiration in the stories that have silently defined us in the past, so I seek untapped sources for storytelling to expand the range of transformative design thinking. It’s important to recognize, understand, and advocate for the individuality and diversity of needs and desires. As an interior designer and architect, I craft environments that celebrate the multiplicities of human experiences.
PHOTO BY FRANK LINDEMANN, COURTESY OF FXCOLLABORATIVE
“BATHROOMS FOR HUMANS” IS A STUDY THAT EXAMINES COMMON ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT ACCESS, INCLUSION, AND THE GENDERING OF SPACE. DEVELOPED BY CATHERINE JOSEPH AND WHITNEY ODELL, FXCOLLABORATIVE.
Others at FXCollaborative have further explored this as it specifically relates to bathrooms, examining common assumptions about access, inclusion, and the gendering of space. The white paper “Bathrooms for Humans” is an effort to restore dignity to the mundane but necessary tasks of everyday living by bringing bathrooms out of the stranglehold of politics, and back into the realm of public interest and design. Restructuring existing practices and building new paradigms lets us embrace new terrain for the power of good design to take hold and positively catalyze the next generation. Art can fuel and amplify the range of emotions we as designers may not capture within our purview. Color, texture, and content should live in both the art and the design of spaces and loosen the boundaries that too often serve as limitations reinforcing the status quo. I look to art often as an equalizer that sets the table for the unconventional and messy details that we must address to uncover innovation in design.
Croizat-Glazer: What does the word “vulnerability” mean to you? What place does it have in your work?
Everhart: Making art is the most honest thing I can do. If you don’t wholeheartedly believe in what you’re making, people can see and feel that. You must learn more about who you are from what you make so you can establish genuine meaning.
Croizat-Glazer: With vulnerability, the key is getting the dosage right. Show too much and you’re burdening others—show too little and you’ll never really gain anyone’s trust. When you sell art for a living, which is all about creating bonds, people deserve to see a snippet of your soul before they commit to you. One of the ways I most enjoy establishing connections is through YCG Fine Art’s Artist in Residence Program, which allows me to showcase regularly on my website the work and career of different artists, most recently the New York-based painter, Jane Banks.
JANE BANKS NEIN – NINE ACRYLIC ON PANEL, 2006, 8 ¾ X 8 INCHES. IMAGE COURTESY OF YCG FINE ART.
Croizat-Glazer: Who is your audience, and to what degree do they steer your creative process?
Anne-Brigitte Sirois: It’s all about art making. What I mean by this is first and foremost, in anything I do, no matter what the field or the objective, I believe it is always best to follow the process of art-making. As I see it, the path leading to any undertaking is to layer each brush stroke one at a time and feel how it affects the whole until the “painting” is done. And so, in this way, I have to please myself...
Anna Akhmatova is one of Russia’s most revered poets. Her work often criticized Stalin’s Russia by lending a voice to victims of the regime. Like many of her friends and family in intellectual circles, she was considered a threat to the country. Fearing arrest, she and other poets started memorizing each other’s work so it could be spread orally, instead of keeping a written record. Her most well-known poem, “Requiem,” depicts the horrors and suffering that occurred under Stalin. She spent 20 years of her life on “Poem Without a Hero,” which she dedicated to the memory of those lost during the siege on Leningrad from 1941 to 1944.
Hokyoung Kim is an illustrator from South Korea living in New York. hokyoungkim.com
Photo of Nicole Skibola by Cayce Clifford (@cayceclifford)
Life as an entrepreneur is difficult. Life as a cannabis entrepreneur is brutal. In addition to the normal uphill climb of building a customer base, developing a product, finding retailers and scaling, there are the compounded issues of over-regulation, a race to grow (accompanied by a race to the bottom on pricing), and the wild uncertainty that only accompanies a brand new industry. In short, it’s a complete circus.
I was at a dinner party recently with several entrepreneurs who work at Facebook. One was pondering leaving to begin his fifth startup. I watched his face, his incredulous expression intensifying as I described the cannabis market and regulatory “system” (“system” in quotes, because, well there isn’t really a system yet) after he attempted to shrug off my agony as typical startup woes.
Since beginning as a company two years ago, we have had to throw into the garbage thousands of dollars of packaging (thanks to the state changing its mind on packaging requirements again and again). We’ve learned that we have almost zero tax write-offs, (yep, we’re a federally illegal company, yet the IRS is more than happy to take our tax money—IN CASH since there’s no banking yet, either) and we’re first-hand witnessing the “extinction event” of small farmers and craft family brands who are unable to survive the influx of venture capital money and market uncertainty. I can’t tell you the number of times I have sobbed uncontrollably at the steering wheel on my commute to or from work, saddened by the rampant capitalism destroying the spirit of this industry and the looming prospect of my own failure as a small business.
I have learned to give myself space to enjoy them and find bliss in small achievements. These are critical for sanity and survival.
How am I surviving you ask? Here are a few ways that I get through what feels like the most difficult feat of my life:
1. Find your friends.
Befriending other manufacturers (or similar players in your segment) is critical to deciphering obscure regulations, identifying the least horrible legally-mandated distributor or sharing supply chain tips and contacts. Being generous with your knowledge and contacts invites others to do the same. Plus, you have an opportunity to share gossip or snarkily poo poo the latest VC acquisition, together.
2. Know what makes your heart swell.
The golden rule I’ve learned is to never start a company with the sole objective of making money, especially in a very difficult industry. Rather, identify the rewarding moments that come from solving a problem for someone else. For me, hearing from a patient who has found relief from seizures, anxiety, chemo symptoms, or menstrual cramping makes my day. If you are in it for the long haul, you have to find meaning in what you do. If you don’t have that, then, well, you have a decent amount of existential suffering ahead of you.
3. Find joy.
Believe me when I tell you that this one is not easy (conjure again the image of me sobbing, wailing to Frank Ocean at the wheel of my Jetta). There are small moments that come—an award, an email from a patient, a bit of great press. I have learned to give myself space to enjoy them and find bliss in small achievements. These are critical for sanity and survival.
4. Limit fits of IG insanity / jealousy.
I periodically just delete the Instagram app from my phone so as to spare myself the inevitable rabbit hole of unworthiness any creative falls down several times a day. Taking a breather from the scroll of what everyone else is doing and achieving that I am not is seriously important for some perspective. Because after all, how much does it really matter that Kim Kardashian didn’t choose your product for her CBD-themed baby shower?
5. Know that you are more than your company.
This is a big one. Build confidence and a sense of accomplishment in diverse ways. Work on playing that guitar you put down two years ago, learn to surf, take a pottery class. Make the time to remember that you are so much greater than this thing that is consuming all of your time, emotional energy and bandwidth.
At the heart of being an entrepreneur is having the courage to make something that you’d like to see in the world, knowing that you may fail miserably. It’s a huge act of creation and just as important as the final product or service is how you get there and the values you are able to hold close to your heart. Hold onto those for dear life. And don’t forget to laugh at every possible opportunity.
UNTITLED (WOMAN AND FOX) IRIS SCHOMAKER WATERCOLOR AND PAINT ON PAPER 67 × 47.66 INCHES, 2017. PRIVATE COLLECTION. COURTESY OF REFLEX GALLERY, AMSTERDAM, GALERIE THOMAS SCHULTE, BERLIN
Female empowerment. Gender parity. Women’s advancement in the workplace. The topics du jour that dominate both media headlines and the hallways of corporate America are an equally common thread in the daily dialogue of enterprising women across Asia.
The continent accounts for 60 percent of the world’s population (4.4 billion people), and is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, namely China and India, boasting an average growth rate of approximately seven percent.
According to the International Monetary Fund, Asia currently contributes 40 percent of global GDP and will generate nearly two-thirds of global growth in the next few years. Its steady economic ascent for the past 50 years has outpaced North America and Western Europe. China, on average, grew more than seven percent a year with India clocking in growth at more than five percent annually.
For decades, women in major global financial hubs like Dubai, Mumbai, and Hong Kong have been hard at work, often hustling behind the scenes.
Amidst this heady growth narrative, communities across the continent are undergoing seismic shifts in the ways its women contribute to economic development. Nowhere is this visceral transformation more apparent than in Asia’s major urban centers and financial hubs, where the emphasis on women’s ascension into leadership roles and their increasing participation in the labor force is especially pronounced. Hong Kong welcomed its first female Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, this year on the 20th anniversary of the former British colony’s handover to China. In February 2016, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE Vice President and Ruler of Dubai (arguably the Middle East’s most cosmopolitan city), appointed seven women to his 29 member cabinet, placing them as high-ranking ministers leading some of the most critical city-state initiatives, such as the World Expo 2020.
For decades, women in major global financial hubs like Dubai, Mumbai, and Hong Kong have been hard at work, often hustling behind the scenes. They have taught in schools, performed surgeries, crunched the numbers, answered phones, and often pitched in with family business.
My mother, all of 19, landed in the “desert” that was Dubai in 1977 soon after marrying my father, and just as quickly entered the workforce with her first “foreign” job at an international French bank, where she worked for nearly 40 years. As jobs go, it was a huge opportunity back then for a small-town girl. My parents, both from Mangalore in India’s coastal southwestern belt, were among the hundreds of expatriate Indians that migrated to high-wage economies after India’s independence, mostly to the Arab Gulf countries flush with the discovery of oil, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.
She was the first mom on our block to cut her hair short and learn how to drive.
The seventh of eight siblings, Mom pursued a path entirely her own, making the most of the cards she was dealt. Unlike virtually all of her other siblings who chose to become teachers like my maternal grandfather; my mother, faced with the knowledge that my grandmother (then widowed) was unable to afford her college tuition, opted for short courses in typing and secretarial training after graduating from high school, practical lessons that would help her get her foot in the door for that coveted “office job.”
I remember when I was very young, my mother stood out in stark contrast to the mothers of other children I knew. While she was pregnant with me, she took Arabic lessons and cultivated a deft skill with the language that she maintains to this day. She was the first mom on our block to cut her hair short and learn how to drive.
For thousands of women from that baby-boomer generation, entering the workforce was less about pursuing your passion and seeking personal independence, and more about establishing a path to financial security and family stability. It’s a lesson that’s embedded among countless urban Asian women from Generation X and the newly dubbed “Xennials.”
For Hong Kong-born-and-raised Athena Ng, growing up with both parents working in the 1980s was the norm. Her father was a corporate lawyer while her mother worked in hospitality, and from an early age, she knew she would one day be a working woman too.
LEFT: UNTITLED 13.25 × 7.25 INCHES, 2017. RIGHT: UNTITLED (READING) 61.5 × 34.25 INCHES, 2016. IRIS SCHOMAKER WATERCOLOR AND PAINT ON PAPER
Professional opportunities for women, who now outnumber men in Hong Kong, continue to be plentiful in the Asian metropolis, buoyed by a resilient economy and the easy availability of affordable nannies and daycare. Hong Kong in many ways epitomizes the words of China’s revolutionary godfather Mao Zedong, who once proclaimed that women held up half the sky.
“I loved to read as a child and was incredibly talkative. They called me ‘Miss Dictionary,’” recalls Ng. “I thought I’d follow in my father’s footsteps and become a lawyer, but since my mom worked in finance, from an early age she influenced me towards pursuing mathematics.” Despite not having a natural aptitude for numbers, Ng credits her excellent teachers for helping her cultivate her skill in the subject, one that proved vital in her corporate finance career.
For both Ng and myself, as is the case for most young Asian children growing up, our education was of paramount importance. Academic excellence was expected and encouraged (although not necessarily demanded). My natural affinity for literature and the arts was lovingly cultivated, and even my extended family fawned over my fledgling talents, having never known anyone in the D’Souza clan with a love for writing poems, acting, and painting. This unflinching support inspired me to apply to some of the best journalism schools in America in the hopes of becoming the next Christiane Amanpour.
Ng, who eventually attended the University of Virginia, recalls her parents being quite understanding of her wishes to experiment with her major, although it was a short-lived endeavor. “I knew I had to come back to Hong Kong after university, so after two weeks of trying a philosophy major, and realizing how much writing was involved, it was finance for me!” She graduated from UVA’s School of Commerce in just three years, knowing that her parents needed to save every penny of tuition money that they could.
Like many other women raised by working moms, our notion of money and financial independence is deeply rooted in the words and ways of our matriarchs.
Ng briefly worked in the U.S. before returning to Hong Kong to try her luck in investment banking, where she found ample opportunities to make her mark. “It was a case of good timing,” she recalls. It was the mid-2000s, soon after the U.K. handed Hong Kong’s sovereignty back to China, and Chinese companies were eager to get listed on the Hang Seng index and secure growth capital. At this nascent stage, Ng also began making savvy property investments in the lucrative Hong Kong market. She credits her mother with inculcating this financial wisdom in her.
Like many other women raised by working moms, our notion of money and financial independence is deeply rooted in the words and ways of our matriarchs. “Even if you don’t want to work full-time, you must always do something that keeps you busy in a good way and makes you some money”: the line my mother repeated to me over the years. “Don’t depend on anyone to finance you and your life, not even your husband if you’re married one day. It’s too much pressure in today’s world for a man to be responsible for making all the money. What if he meets with an accident or, God forbid, dies? You can’t just find a job overnight, and you may find there’s no one to help you, not even family or friends. At the end of the day, you can only depend on yourself.”
It’s a lesson that rang true in my mother’s case, when my father met with a serious car accident that derailed our plans to emigrate to the United States and kept him bedridden for six months. I was around three years old at the time and my brother, all of one. It was Mom who kept things feeling normal at home, despite attending to both her job and her convalescing husband. At the time, I was simply happy to have my father at home, understanding little of the pressure that our mother must have felt.
On the occasional trips my parents make back to Mangalore, their conversations with old friends always turn to their amazement at how the India they left in search of economic opportunity has changed so dramatically. The IMF has predicted that India will overtake Germany as the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2022, aided by economic reforms and a substantial young population.
Ironically, while female literacy, educational enrollment, and career opportunities are rising for urban Asian women, many women are choosing to shift their career focus or step out of the rat race altogether in favor of raising their families. A March 2017 report by the World Bank reveals that rising income levels and stability in families are disincentivizing Indian women from joining the labor force. India today has lower levels of female workforce participation than many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, ranking 127th on the gender inequality index and 108th on the global gender gap index. As many as 19.6 million women—equivalent to the population of Romania—dropped out of the workforce between 2004 and 2012, of which rural women accounted for 53 percent, the report said.
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the facts are anything but rosy. Research reveals that if women’s participation in labor markets in the MENA equaled that of men’s, the regional GDP could rise by 47 percent over the next decade, and MENA could realize $600 billion in economic impact annually ($2.7 trillion by 2025).
Alternative aspirations, ambitions, and visions for the Asian female identity are typically either criticized or marginalized, although the narrative is slowly changing.
Another factor impacting female workforce participation and acceptance of leadership roles is the pervasive cultural expectation of what “success” as a woman equates to: typically a state of being based on marriage and motherhood. “I feel my mother could have achieved a lot more in her career if she wasn’t also obliged to take care of her children and the home,” shares Ng. “She had a job just like my father, but the difference was that the onus of taking care of the kids’ homework and making sure things at home ran smoothly fell on her, which is the norm in Chinese culture even today,” shares Ng. She believes that even many of her peers today will leave their top-shelf degrees and ambitious early careers behind to have children, or at the very least will settle for jobs that don’t intrude on their domestic life.
Alternative aspirations, ambitions, and visions for the Asian female identity are typically either criticized or marginalized, although the narrative is slowly changing. Never in recent memory has the focus on female inclusion in every aspect of the economy been more pronounced and urgent. And on trend. In February 2017, Nike launched a campaign that spread like wildfire across the Middle East, championing women athletes from throughout the Arab world who are blazing their own trails and even making waves globally, like Zahra Lari, a UAE figure skater who will be the first Arab woman to participate in the Winter Olympics. Portrayals of Asian and Middle Eastern women thriving in fields traditionally considered “unfeminine” have clearly struck a chord.
Politically, several governments are putting money where their mouth is. In May 2017, both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—two leading economies in the Arabian Gulf—pledged a combined $100 million to a World Bank billion-dollar fund for women entrepreneurs that was the brainchild of Ivanka Trump.
In the Middle East, women in STEM, gender diversity, and the gender pay gap in the workforce remain hot-button subjects in the mainstream media narrative. The intention to change is widely discussed and some initiatives have already borne success.The Saudi Ministry of Labor launched a special program to increase the number of Saudi women in the workforce “to 28 percent by 2020,” and some studies show positive signs for female workforce inclusion, with the number of women in the private sector increasing by 145 percent between December 2012 and October 2016.
Research widely emphasizes the importance of female entrepreneurship in unlocking exponential gains in sustainable socio-economic development in the developing world. And many urban Asian women for whom joining the workforce may have once been a de-facto route a few decades earlier are bravely venturing into new terrain. One in five startups in Asia is female-led, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“I’ve started to ask myself whether I’m settling for the safe path,” says Ng. “In Hong Kong, I see so many more women than men, especially millennial women, foregoing family expectations of landing a stable job and trying their luck at entrepreneurship. I’m beginning to think of taking my career in a different direction too.”
The future indicates an uphill yet rewarding journey. As generations of working women take inspiration from the likes of Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi and Apple’s newly appointed Managing Director of China, Isabel Ge Mahe, entrepreneurial self-starters are also founding businesses with guts and gusto. In fact, preconceived cultural expectations can actually be a blessing in disguise. “Chinese society places such heavy expectations on men to be financially sound that it gives women the leeway to fail,” says Ng. “And we are taking advantage of that and proving them wrong!”
UNTITLED IRIS SCHOMAKER WATERCOLOR AND PAINT ON PAPER 15.25 × 9.33 INCHES, 2017.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Iris Schomaker explores motifs that have a strong iconic or archetypical power: certain animals, like foxes, cats, or horses, as well as mountains and waterfalls. Her work is figurative with an abstract aspect, achieved through precise composition and reduction of form and color. Among her inspirations are Chinese and Japanese ink drawings and wood prints as well as graphic novels and jazz from the 30s to the 60s.
GIRL IN PRINT DRESS IRMA STERN OIL ON CANVAS, 1938. ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF THE TRUSTEES OF THE IRMA STERN ESTATE & THE UNIVERSITY OF CAPE TOWN IRMA STERN MUSEUM PHOTOGRAPHY: SEAN WILSON
Denigrated by the Nazis, lauded by black intellectuals, embraced by the apartheid-era government, and fitting in everywhere and nowhere, the essence of the noted South African artist is hard to distill—and she’d probably like it that way.
She found her 18 years ago in the stacks of the Lilly Library on Duke University’s East Campus. While leafing through obscure South African auction catalogs for a class assignment, Dr. LaNitra Berger, then a doctoral student in art history, stumbled upon “Pondo Woman,” a painting by Irma Stern. Captivated by the brushwork and struck by the artist’s unusual name, Berger’s accidental discovery turned into a mission spanning nearly 20 years aimed at introducing Stern’s work to a broader audience and reaffirming her importance in larger debates about Modernism in the 20th century.
Now finalizing edits on a manuscript about Stern’s life, Berger spoke with A Women’s Thing about what makes Stern so memorable. There’s no shortage of answers: her legacy is mired in controversy. Though she was a white woman painting the black community at a time when South African artists were not drawing on it for inspiration, her modernist style has been read as both empowering and demeaning by critics of different persuasions. Her own actions were equally complex. She is quoted making objectively racist statements while associating with and providing material resources to the anti-apartheid community.
AWT: Irma Stern! She has a museum. Her work has set a record for South African art sold at auction. So why is she so interesting?
Dr. LaNitra Berger: Where to start? She was both insider and outsider. She lived an almost futuristic life. When you look at how she lived, she lived like a Millennial. She was traveling to all these different countries. Borders meant less to her than to a lot of other people. She’d go back and forth between Germany, South Africa, Europe—she traveled all throughout Africa by herself. She was [in] correspondence with lots of people around the world. She felt comfortable switching between different cultures. But she was also a woman artist trying to make a living in Cape Town in the 1920s, which was a very conservative place. It was definitely not open to a woman being a successful artist.
Maybe she didn’t want to be seen as a radical pro-black artist or pro-establishment artist. Maybe she wanted to be someone who was in the maelstrom.
She was an insider in the Jewish community, but very much an outsider in the Cape Town community. She didn’t look like most Capetonians. She was overweight and had frizzy hair—the community identified her as Jewish and therefore different, so she was an outsider from that perspective. She spent her early years in Berlin as a young artist. Her family had money and she had access to intellectual circles where she met Max Pechstein, a prominent German expressionist artist who immediately saw the value in her work and pulled her into his community. She was an outsider at first but then became an insider in that community. Then somehow she crossed paths with Alain Locke, the African-American philosopher and Rhodes Scholar, who argued that Stern’s work should be emulated by black artists in America. She gets pulled into this discussion about Modernism in black art in the United States. Throughout her life, she was viewed as both an insider and an outsider. And I think that in some ways, very few of us are only insiders or outsiders. But in her case, because of the global nature of her lifestyle, she interacted in these circles where this was very common.
AWT: Wow, so there’s no canonical Stern, so to speak?
Berger: I think that who she was really depends on the moment. When she was very famous in the 1950s during the apartheid era, she received a lot of government support for her work. She went from being considered this radical modern artist in a bad way in South Africa to being considered a modern artist with a European background— as in, European equalling white. Suddenly, she became a real insider. Then in the apartheid system, where everybody’s status was connected to their race, being Jewish put her many rungs above colored and black South Africans. She [moved] in and out constantly. It tells us a lot about how everybody makes this journey. For someone who was born in 1894, she lived through all the most pivotal moments of the 20th century. If you track her through time you can see how she was pulled in and out of these major political moments in Africa, Europe, and the United States.
Irma Stern is not someone you can fall head-over-heels in love with and then forget to be critical.
Maybe she foresaw where she really wanted to be. Maybe she didn’t want to be seen as a radical pro-black artist or pro-establishment artist. Maybe she wanted to be someone who was in the maelstrom. To an extent, her personality was big. She was a very flamboyant woman who loved good food, extravagant meals, beautiful furniture— all the trappings of a wealthy and successful artist. She, in some ways, wanted people to be combative and talk about her and her work, and how she fit in. If you were to resurrect her, she would probably say that this is exactly what she’d want.
AWT: How do you use Stern’s life in your teaching?
Berger: We all have these internal contradictions in some way, shape, or form. Sometimes it’s hardest to admit to ourselves that these things lie within us, and it’s easy for us to judge someone like Stern and say she’s a racist because of what she said. Others say she did people a favor by painting minorities. She’s even criticized for how she fit in with the Jewish community. These types of contradictions are in all of us. I’m glad I picked this topic because Irma Stern is not someone you can fall head-over-heels in love with and then forget to be critical. I’ve enjoyed reading about her life and thinking about her life because it helps me to constantly remember that I have these contradictions too—and that it’s important for me to not judge other people without peeling back the layers.
That’s something I’ve carried with me personally into life, having worked on this topic for so long and as an instructor. It’s how I teach my classes. When I mentor my students, I talk to them about how difficult it is to reach across the aisle, to sit next to someone different, to move to a neighborhood where not everyone looks like you. These are really hard things to do even though they’re tiny steps. They’re difficult! If we can acknowledge that and push ourselves, while living with these contradictions and accepting them, I think that we would see that people could at least acknowledge other people’s humanity a bit more.
CONGOLESE WOMAN IRMA STERN OIL ON CANVAS, 1942.
THREE SWAZI GIRLS IRMA STERN OIL ON CANVAS, 1925.
When you look at someone like Stern, see the paintings of these women, they’re just stunning. You can see that she just felt something when she went out to these areas and painted them. There’s some kind of emotional connection there. Regardless of what she said publicly, she felt a sense of belonging when she went and painted these subjects. That’s moving. They gave her something she felt she wasn’t getting in the white community in Cape Town. That means a lot to me when I think about her and how she fits into the canon of South African art and the canon of women artists.
It doesn’t excuse the statements she made. I’m not making excuses. She made choices and participated in a system that horribly discriminated against women, oppressed women, murdered women, tortured women, and contributed to decades—if not centuries—worth of racial inequality. That’s just not acceptable. But for one person, an artist who was living in a difficult time and was trying to make sense of one particular thing—in this case, race and gender during apartheid—Irma Stern did some very complex work in her paintings.
AWT: Tell me how you think memory plays into the work of Stern.
Berger: Memory is a convenient way and inconvenient way to think about Stern. Where and who you are in the world will affect how you see Irma Stern. She fits no easy narrative.
LEFT: DISORIENTATION II RIGHT: DISORIENTATION I MARIA NORDIN WATERCOLOR ON PAPER, 2016.
Anxious kids turn into anxious adults. Behavioral neuroscientist Dr. Jee Hyun Kim explains how treating early fear-based anxiety in children can change that.
Recently my nephew David was born. Anticipating how stressful it may be for my sister and her husband, I flew to Sydney as David turned three weeks.
My desire was to feed and care for the new parents; I have never been maternal nor a “baby person.” I like mature people. Many signs of “maturity” largely involve experience, learning, and memory, so it’s not surprising that younger people tend not to be mature (of course there are always exceptions, like my husband, who is six years younger than me). For example, my younger students tend to struggle with delay of gratification. They often miss deadlines or take months to submit a piece of work, and often the latest of the lot expect feedback the day after they submit. As I give them more responsibility and they start training their own research interns, they experience this aggravation firsthand, and many learn to change their own habits as a result.
When such learning can be accessed later, it is referred to as memory. Memory is a past that becomes a part of oneself. Memory is pervasive. From riding a bicycle to loving our friends and family, memory may be what makes us who we are.
Childhood onset of anxiety disorders is a strong predictor for other mental disorders later in life.
Three days after meeting David, I was able to change his diaper and help him release gas from his mom’s milk by holding him against my body. More surprising was the change that came over me. The first time I held him for more than 10 minutes, I wept as I promised to love him unconditionally. I told him that we’d have our disagreements, but that I would accept him and be his auntie no matter what. As the tears streaming down my face hit David’s plump red cheeks, his face broke out into a smile. He knew my heart.
I was an anxious child, living in fear that I had to do something or be someone to deserve love. I do not want David to grow up with the same fear.
Anxiety disorders are neurodevelopmental disorders. While the median age of their onset is 10 to 11 years, they can be diagnosed in children as young as three.1 What’s more, childhood onset of anxiety disorders is a strong predictor for other mental disorders later in life.
Despite the significant implications of childhood anxiety, developmental research represents only 5–15% of anxiety studies in the last three decades. This may explain why we lack effective treatments, and why only 20–30% of afflicted children receive mental health services.2 The brain develops dramatically during childhood, which may explain the occurrence of many mental disorders, including anxiety. However, our lack of knowledge about the biology underlying childhood anxiety makes it difficult to reduce and prevent.
In 1893, Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer first suggested that hysteria (the term they used to refer to an anxiety disorder) is a previously experienced fearful event that remains in one’s memory, triggering anxious thoughts and maladaptive behaviors— what we may refer to as “coping mechanisms,” like substance abuse.3 All these years have indeed shown that fearful experiences, over and above an “anxious personality,” form a critical facet of clinical anxiety.
LEFT: DISORIENTATION VI RIGHT: DISORIENTATION IV MARIA NORDIN WATERCOLOR ON PAPER, 2016.
The most widely accepted model for studying such fear experience in the context of anxiety is Pavlovian fear conditioning. Pairing an initially neutral cue (like a sound) with an aversive stimulus (like a shock or a very loud noise) later allows the neutral cue to trigger physiological fear responses without the aversive stimulus. But the fear-conditioned response can later be forgotten or reversed by repeated exposure to the cue without any bad consequences. This process is referred to as “extinction,” and forms the basis of exposure therapies in the clinic.
Anxiety disorder patients do not forget fear after extinction compared to healthy controls. “Renewal” refers to the return of fear in a physical context other than where extinction occurred. In these cases, patients may feel fine after exposure therapy in the clinic, but feel anxious at home or work.
“Reinstatement” refers to cases where an extinguished fear returns when the patient is reminded of the initial event. For example, you may have been in a huge car accident that made you too afraid to drive. After therapy, you kick your fear and drive just fine—until you get into a smaller accident, which triggers the original memory of the huge accident and brings back the paralyzing fear of driving.
Lastly, “spontaneous recovery” is when the patient becomes increasingly likely to relapse as time passes since exposure therapy. For example, you may have had a dog phobia that was treated. The day after treatment you are unafraid of dogs and feel great. One month later, however, you may suddenly feel too afraid to leave the house in case you run into a dog.
These types of relapses following successful exposure therapy show that “extinction” is really a matter of replacing an old memory with a new one. Thus, the new “safety” memory directly competes with the old, traumatic memory—leaving the door open for relapse when the fear memory triumphs.
Remarkably, studies of juvenile rodents show that exposure therapy may erase the original fear memory and permanently prevent relapse early in life. Specifically, juvenile rodents do not display renewal, reinstatement, or spontaneous recovery, whereas all three relapse phenomena are observed as rodents approach the adolescent age.4 It is now widely accepted in the scientific community that extinction erases conditioned fear memory in juvenile rodents.
However, a question remains—do these rodent findings translate to humans? Recent findings indicate the answer is yes. While studies that overtly examine fear learning and extinction in children (defined here as eight years old or younger) are scarce, some studies examine how an anxiety disorder changes as kids get older. For example, dental phobia, a common anxiety in children, is acquired from past experiences rather than from having a fearful personality. In previously dental-phobic children, the earlier the painful dental experience, the more likely their dental phobia will decrease over time.5 In other words, the earlier traumatic experiences occur, the more likely it may be for neutral experience to “dampen” the fear memory.
Although fear is readily acquired early in development, fear may also be easily treated during this period as young brains develop.
Perhaps the best indicator of extinction permanently reducing fear in children is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT focuses on developing personal coping strategies such as meditation and changing unhelpful belief, thought, and memory patterns. Extinction is the fundamental process underlying exposure therapies (confronting fear-eliciting cues in a safe environment), which often form a component of CBT. As with rodents, younger age predicts a better outcome following CBT for children suffering from generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, and separation anxiety disorders.6, 7 The same holds true for children consistently suffering from PTSD: They reliably show more effective and long-lasting CBT outcomes, compared to control groups and other types of therapy (e.g. relaxation, supportive therapy, and client-centered therapy).8, 9
To summarize, although fear is readily acquired early in development, fear may also be easily treated during this period as young brains develop—changing the nature of extinction from something that competes with the fear to something that erases it.
It’s widely recognized that anxiety disorders occur more commonly in women compared to men. But what many might not realize is that this divide emerges early in life: By six years of age, girls are twice as likely as boys to have a clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder.10
Many rodent studies have historically pooled males and females during the juvenile period, perhaps on the assumption that without psychosocial factors (which we expect rodents not to experience), sex differences are not a factor before puberty. Interestingly, all the rodent studies that observed no relapse following extinction exclusively used males. Therefore, when my laboratory explicitly investigated sex differences in juvenile rats, female rats readily relapsed their fear following extinction, whereas male rats did not.
This suggests that genetic factors, such as sex, may play a role in anxiety disorders in children. This doesn’t necessarily suggest “predisposition” to anxiety disorders due to your X or Y chromosome, though. A recent important discovery termed “epigenetics” has shown that while our genes remain the same throughout life, how the component of each gene is expressed is affected significantly by the environment and our lifestyle. This is why identical twins can start to look different as they grow. And epigenetic changes to our gene expression are mediated differently depending on our sex, with females showing higher pools of chemicals promoting epigenetic changes.
By six years of age, girls are twice as likely as boys to have a clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder.
In addition, recent human studies show differences in gray matter volume and gray matter mass based on sex starting from eight years of age. In 1,189 children and adolescents aged 8–23 years, females reached the more mature level before their male counterparts in every single measure (gray matter density, volume, mass, and cortical thickness).11 Additionally, regardless of actual age, social anxiety is elevated in girls who show biological signs of puberty early, though the exact reasons why aren’t understood.12
Could this earlier maturation explain why girls are more prone to relapse into anxiety, much like adults? If we continue to paint anxiety disorders with a broad brush, rather than researching differences based on age and sex, we can never expect to adequately treat it.
HOW WE CAN
The good news is that taken together, the evidence indicates that treating anxiety disorders early in life may permanently reduce fear and prevent subsequent relapse. Yet despite the availability of treatment facilities, only 20–30% of afflicted children and youth receive mental health services.
The easiest way to reduce persistent anxiety disorders in children would be to encourage the use of these services, whether through marketing campaigns, mandatory screenings at school, or other initiatives. Ideal public policies would remove barriers to receiving mental health services, such as accessibility, cost, and lack of research.
For example, government support could mandate resident therapists with CBT training in each pre-, primary, and high school (or groups of schools). In the U.S., only one school psychologist serves roughly 1,500 primary and high school students.13 The U.S. has an enormously high lifetime prevalence of anxiety disorders, at around 30%, which is much higher than other countries, such as Israel (around 5%) and Spain (around 10%). Notably, Israel has one school psychologist for every 600 primary/high school students.
School psychologists should be present in preschools, such as the one my nephew will attend in a few short years. A randomized clinical trial demonstrated that CBT was effective for early childhood post-traumatic stress disorder for children three to six years old. Those researchers recommend that all adaptations of CBT for preschoolers involve parents, age-adjusted metaphors, and imagery through cartoons and drawings, as well as other approaches that adopt the child’s worldview.
Anxiety is predominantly observed in childhood and adolescence, thus funding bodies should challenge studies that exclusively examine adults to include younger cohorts. If we do not shift our focus to anxious and fearful children, we have no reason to expect significant breakthroughs in identifying effective treatments for this prevalent but preventable mental disorder.14 I grew up with anxiety, and still have to combat relapse into thinking that I need to work hard to earn love—but I hope that David won’t have to.
LEFT: DISORIENTATION V RIGHT: DISORIENTATION III MARIA NORDIN WATERCOLOR ON PAPER, 2016.
ABOUT THE ARTIST: Maria Nordin lives and works in Stockholm, Sweden. She studied at the Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm in 2010 and has since received the Beckers Art Award and had a solo exhibition at Färgfabriken in Stockholm.
1 Kessler, R. C., Angermeyer, M., Anthony, J. C., de Graaf, R., Demyttenaere, K., Gasquet, I., & de Girolamo, G. (2007). Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of mental disorders in the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health Survey Initiative. World …, 6(3), 168–176.
2 Merikangas, K. R., He, J., Burstein, M., Swendsen, J., Avenevoli, S., Case, B., et al. (2011). Service Utilization for Lifetime Mental Disorders in U.S. Adolescents: Results of the National Comorbidity Survey–Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A). Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 50(1), 32–45.
3 Breuer, J., & Freud, S. (1956). On the psychical mechanism of hysterical phenomena (1893). The International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 37: 1–13.
4 Ganella, D. E., & Kim, J. H. (2014). Developmental rodent models of fear and anxiety: from neurobiology to pharmacology. British Journal of Pharmacology, 171(20), 4556–4574.
5 Davey, G. C. (1989). Dental phobias and anxieties: evidence for conditioning processes in the acquisition and modulation of a learned fear. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 27(1), 51–58.
6 Ginsburg, G. S., Kendall, P. C., Sakolsky, D., Compton, S. N., Piacentini, J., Albano, A. M., et al. (2011). Remission after acute treatment in children and adolescents with anxiety disorders: Findings from the CAMS. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 79(6), 806–813.
7 Thirlwall, K., Cooper, P., & Creswell, C. (2016). Guided parent-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy for childhood anxiety: Predictors of treatment response. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 45, 43–48.
8 Deblinger, E., Stauffer, L. B., & Steer, R. A. (2001). Comparative efficacies of supportive and cognitive behavioral group therapies for young children who have been sexually abused and their nonoffending mothers. Child Maltreatment, 6(4), 332–343.
9 Scheeringa, M. S., Weems, C. F., Cohen, J. A., Amaya-Jackson, L., & Guthrie, D. (2010). Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder in three-through six year-old children: a randomized clinical trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52(8), 853–860.
10 Lewinsohn, P. M., Gotlib, I. H., Lewinsohn, M., Seeley, J. R., & Allen, N. B. (1998). Gender differences in anxiety disorders and anxiety symptoms in adolescents. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 107(1), 109–117. http://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.107.1.109
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THE BLUE ARTIST (CROPPED) BLUE SERIES ANITA YAN WONG, 2019.
The answer is yes—and she must, says clinical psychologist Cecilia Dintino.
As a psychologist, I have been dealing with change in women’s lives for decades. Recently, I noticed that the process can be a bit more challenging for women over 50, myself included.
The other day I was sitting in a session with Lucy,* a woman in her mid-50s. She cried as she told me that her husband had recently left her. She felt alone and confused, she said, with her kids grown up and her job failing to provide meaning. “My whole life before, I knew who I was and what I was doing. I had a vision for my future self that made sense. Now I feel like I have no map. I close my eyes and all I see is a black hole.”
There we sat, two middle-aged women, each with perhaps 40 years left to live, lost in a visionless void.
She wasn’t the only one. It seems I keep hearing multiple versions of this story—women who reach a point in their lives when they feel anchorless. Women over 50 experience multiple transitions: divorce, death of loved ones, illness, menopause, and job loss, to name a few. And, like my client, in the crux of these changes, they all report a crisis of vision. They can’t imagine themselves moving into the future.
BLUE BIRD BLUE SERIES TOP: ONE HOUR AFTER SUN PRINTING BOTTOM: ONE DAY AFTER SUN PRINTING ANITA YAN WONG, 2019.
As I sat in my therapist’s chair listening to Lucy talk about her black hole, I briefly took a quick scan of my own internal future-self map. I too drew a blank. There we sat, two middle-aged women, each with perhaps 40 years left to live, lost in a visionless void.
My research on women over 50 highlights invisibility as the number one complaint. It seems the disappearing act starts with the outside world. We notice that we stop feeling the gaze of others. Things that we say go unheard, or are dismissed as irrelevant. Overall, our resonant vibe has dulled. But the real trouble starts when we go invisible to ourselves. Where we were once creating identities with a pictured life trajectory, we now stare at the empty canvas of our future.
Sadly, the popular cultural narrative that tells us to cling to youth and to dread aging confirms this flawed premise. But the creation of our identities doesn’t have to end just because we have fewer decades left to live. Transformation is still possible—but only if we push ourselves to be our most experimental.
My clients felt unmoored by their absence of imagination about themselves. When they looked to me, they were greeted with more smoke and mirrors. I had to find a way to define who I was becoming and fill the hole in my own vision. How does one begin to make something from nothing?
The truth is, we are always creating something new from nothing. We are re-creators by nature.
In “Homo Prospectus,” psychologists Martin Seligman, Peter Railton, Roy Baumeister, and Chandra Sripada suggest that everything we are, and everything we do, is birthed by the extraordinary act of envisioning future possibilities that cannot be seen, felt, or smelled. We use our minds to make them up.
As humans, we possess the unparalleled gift of visionary change. We actually create our futures by dreaming up possibilities that have never been before. Our evolution owes it all to the ongoing and multiple creative innovations of our ancestors. Without the force of imagination, we would still be wearing fur skins and chasing wild boars with a dull spear. Thankfully, someone, somewhere, somehow, envisioned it otherwise. The talent to imagine our possible prospects is our magic.
It was clear that in order to fill my own nothingness, I needed to conjure some possible women to become. Consider Enid. She walks with a springy bounce. Her energy is contagious. I decide that I have a button inside of me that can turn Enid on when I need a lift. Then consider Shawn. She is fierce and outspoken, with a strong sense of wisdom. She is not afraid to speak her truth.
My creation of Enid and Shawn started to fill the space of my becoming. Then I asked Lucy to start to materialize her visions of her future self. This proved harder for Lucy than she expected. “It’s not easy,” she said. “I feel so invisible, I disappeared almost. How do I re-imagine myself?”
“Here’s how,” I answered, “I discovered a secret potion.”
It’s called intuition.
Dr. Laura King, of the University of Missouri, describes intuition as knowing without knowing why or how one knows. The Latin root for intuition translates as “seeing within.” We have this super fast search engine inside each of us that can scan decades of experience, sift through loads of information, and simultaneously combine and recombine patterns until eventually pulling a surprise from our big black hat. Even the most rational of thoughts and most scientific of all knowing is birthed first from intuitive thought.
Without even realizing it, and without question, we start to believe the messages that tell us we are all washed up. Imagine the wizard who doesn’t believe in her own magic.
Intuition is the engine for the amazing trick of creating a persona within one’s mind. We intuitively know who we are, what we want, and what we need to do. This magic trick may seem challenging. It is not something we are schooled in. And it requires openness and flexibility of mind. But this craft need not be out of reach. We simply must recognize what stands in our way.
By the time we are in our 50s, there are two evil fiends to combat: implicit biases and expertise. Social psychologist Becca Levy, of Yale University, cautions us about implicit bias, most specifically ageism. Her research warns that decades of ageist lore have made their way underground into our psyches, where they eat away at our confidence and core belief systems. Without even realizing it, and without question, we start to believe the messages that tell us we are all washed up. Imagine the wizard who doesn’t believe in her own magic.
One of the popular ways women attempt to combat ageism is by trying not to age. While this may seem like quite the magic act, it doesn’t work. Restricting our transformation only blocks us from letting something new emerge. Instead, we need to reveal the biases, and then get busy countering them with alternatives that inspire and pull us forward.
Then there is the expert trap. Of course we all have worked hard to earn our stripes and become who we are today. We are experts at what we do. But, if we admit it, we are also a little threatened by the youth behind us, close at our heels and breathing their hot breath of energy and innovation in our ears. So we cling to our posts, announcing our authority and claiming our thrones. All good, but dangerous if we sit there too long and don’t move.
If we are expert at anything, we need to be expert at change.
I have so many clients who have climbed the corporate ladder only to face that proverbial ceiling. And the ceiling forms a sort of mirror reflecting back on you, sitting and waiting. One of my clients told me her neck hurts from trying to see through to something new. Only then did she began to realize: “Maybe it’s not up there; maybe it’s inside of me somewhere.”
Lucy realized she also had been sitting too long. She was coasting on the narrative that said she had achieved her goals and so was fully formed. Then, poof, the divorce shook her awake. Now, rubbing her eyes in disbelief, she realizes she has to find more lives to live. If we are expert at anything, we need to be expert at change. We all need to let go of certainty and embrace learning and discovery. If we want new jobs, new titles, and new positions, we have to get busy making them up.
Lucy started to think about a career. She imagined becoming Justine, a social activist and world traveler. She even dallied with the image of Cora, a community organizer who loved many, and gathered circles of people around her.
I muse over my creation of Benedict. She has super-powered listening receptors in her heart, and she loves to hear stories and the stories behind the stories. I started to listen to the intuitive becomings of Lucy and the others. We can’t do it alone; we never could. No single imaginative mind has ever changed the world by itself. We are social animals and we are biologically designed for the collective experience. This is the most magic of all magical truths. All of our inventions and creations are birthed from our own imaginations, but our imaginings are derived from our cultural inheritance. We create something new by dipping into the pool of centuries-old becoming. And further, all of our new input requires the cooperation of others in order to take hold and become manifest.
Enid, Benedict, Shawn, Justine, and Cora are the seeds of an ever-fluid becoming we can all grow into. They personify not only what Lucy and I want to do, but who we want to be as women moving onto a yet-to-be-defined path.
Let’s get busy, get out the scraps of material, scissors, glue, patterns, and spices and start making it up. Let’s use our minds to create new roles, new careers, and fresh visions of ourselves moving forward into our futures. Let’s create and then re-create out of our own intuitive imagination what it looks like to be a woman over 50. Let’s change the collective face of longevity as we embrace it.
As for Lucy, she has started to talk to other women about forming an organization to serve refugees. She has travel plans ahead and an idea for a book. Our sessions no longer take place in a void. There are many of us in the room now.
*All names have been changed
BLUE BIRD 2 BLUE SERIES TOP: ONE HOUR AFTER SUN PRINTING BOTTOM: ONE DAY AFTER SUN PRINTING ANITA YAN WONG, 2019.
Anita Yan Wong is an American Chinese Impressionist painter best known for her distinct dynamic brush works and unique style of Contemporary Traditional paintings that defies tradition and modernity. To learn more about the art of Chinese brush painting, take a look at the artist’s YouTube channel Joy Brush or follow her on Instagram @anitayanwong.
About the series: “Blue” is a Contemporary Traditional photography series in form of a collection of sun prints from Wong’s original paintings. Sun prints, or blue photographs, are photographs without the use of a camera. The series title reflects the emotions the artist faces as less and less young viewers appreciate and practice traditional painting in the digital age. The project is a performance act of the artist creating photo negatives of her traditional paintings (darkness) and bringing sunlight into the art form (hope).
Amina Blacksher. Photo courtesy of A. Blacksher / Madame Architect.
Amina Blacksher is an architectural designer based in New York City and the founder of Atelier Amina. She has a decade of experience working across a wide range of scales and building typologies as a designer for Bjarke Ingels Group, Ennead Architects, and G TECTS. Prior to joining the design faculty at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Amina taught architecture studios at Yale School of Architecture, where she was a presidential visiting fellow and has served as a guest critic on design juries at Sci-Arc, Princeton School of Architecture, University of Pennsylvania Design, Tulane School of Architecture, Pratt Institute, Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture – City College, and New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Blacksher holds a Master of Architecture degree from Yale School of Architecture, where she was named the Robert Leon Combs Scholar. In her interview with Julia Gamolina, founder of Madame Architect, Amina speaks about building a foundation and gaining the most out of every experience, advising young architects to just take that first step and never second guess.
Madame Architect: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
Amina Blacksher: The interest developed the summer after my junior year in college. I majored in government and minored in dance, and was doing an independent study fellowship in Spain where I was writing, from a government perspective, about one of the last dynasties of the Moorish Empire.
At the same time, I had an internship at the Archaeological Museum of Sevilla, and through traveling to Seville, Granada, and Cordova, I was overcome by the architecture. It had a huge impact on me to feel the history of civilizations through physical and non-physical culture, even the rhythm of the day, but mostly the way culture was communicated through buildings – definitely, an “aha” moment for me, noticing the creative and the analytical coming together.
When did you officially decide to go to architecture school?
While my realization percolated, I finished my undergrad, traveled, and took some time to find my way. I modeled and worked for a hotel for a bit, and serendipitously met my now mentor, Gordon Kipping. I was complaining that I didn’t have time to work on my portfolio for graduate school for architecture, and he was teaching at Columbia and gave me his card.
I called him the next morning and ended up working for his practice in New York. His firm G Tects is a small office with very capable people, so I had the opportunity to learn and be exposed to everything, and after a year and a half, I finally decided it was time to apply.
As a young designer, it was super valuable to always be part of the meetings and seeing the client respond to the work.
Why Yale and what did you learn about yourself there?
From visiting, I could tell that there was a range of studios and a good cross-section of faculty who were all active. The proximity to New York also made New Haven the perfect working environment – you could immerse yourself but when you needed a breath, New York was accessible.
I had a few professors who taught me a lot. Arianne Lourie Harrison had us propose our own individual manifesto by the time we graduated. That sets you up, even if you work for offices, to know what you value. My last year, I took two studios with Lise Anne Couture and Mark Gage to Berlin and Monaco, respectively. That was an opportunity to throw myself into a new software – we each had to be experts by the end of the semester in a certain area of Maya. I was able to really unpack this interest in surface that I’ve had from the very beginning, and looking at form as an event-based process.
The main thing I learned though came from a plaque in Sterling library, for the first black Ph.D. graduate in the mid-1800s. He earned a Ph.D. in physics within two years! How does one do that! So, whenever there is a perceived limitation in something, I just think, “No, no – you have the capacity.”
Amina Blacksher reviewing one of her first year M.Arch student’s models at Yale School of Architecture, 2017. Photo courtesy of A. Blacksher / Madame Architect.
Where did you work after Yale?
In transitioning, I came back to New York to work for Gordon again, and coming back to the firm, having project designer experience, was a good start. Then I worked at Ennead for four years and that was really foundational. I understood the importance of design through to the details – that was a good office to learn about putting together a drawing set. As a young designer, it was super valuable to always be part of the meetings and seeing the client respond to the work. There’s a lot of people at Ennead with 10, 20, 30 years of experience that were so available as a resource. Then I worked for Bjarke Ingels for three years.
It was really empowering to come from a big firm of experienced people and then become someone who was viewed as an expert in the field.
What did you learn there?
BIG was a great model of fearless leadership. I learned that you must always say yes, and with exuberance. Everything there is done with such passion and zeal, which really made an impact – you should be doing everything with passion.
The office maintained a climate of a start-up, so everyone did everything no matter how old you were. If there was a meeting with a mayor, you went. You didn’t let anything hold you back because you were young and everyone assumed pivotal responsibilities. That motto of, yes, you can do it and hit it out of the park. It’s really key to architecture to not have to feel like you need the experience to go after something. It was really empowering to come from a big firm of experienced people and then become someone who was viewed as an expert in the field.
What did you do next?
At that point, I had been really engaged in design reviews and thoughts about teaching. It was through being on a panel about women in architecture put on by the students and sharing my experience, that I was really excited to engage another aspect of my career, this one-on-one contact with students, directly engaging ideas. There are so many different pockets of a project or of an architecture firm, and I had been in the pocket of drawing and computers, so it was great to come back to thinking about basic concepts, like what an envelope is and can be. I find an immediacy in engaging with really creative minds a back and forth that keeps the design process active.
The opportunity to come back to my alma mater to teach was pivotal. That was when Deborah Berke was in her second year of Deanship. She’s a big champion, so that was another “you can do it” moment.
What else are you doing now apart from teaching?
The strongest act of will I’ve ever done is to found my practice, Atelier Amina. It operates as a design and research practice, with a component of a physical experimental lab. I’ve also taken on film as a medium for discourse which is a part of articulating and expressing ideas. I just got the platform up and running and am excited to take on what’s next.
When did you decide to launch?
After my first semester of teaching at Columbia. The Dean made it very clear from the beginning that she believes in supporting the next generation. Hearing from icons on how they started out with their own practices and teaching and how things balance, I dove right in. I was teaching a lot the first year so now in my second and third year have taken a little bit more space to focus on the practice.
I didn’t leave the large offices seeking to start my own but I see what a crucial outlet it is to have a platform and framework to consistently develop a conceptual vocabulary, and how designing syllabi and the engagement and feedback from my students can actively feed one into another.
Where do you feel like you’re in your career today?
I feel like I’m on the ledge, in a good way, of self-determination. I’m at the beginning of a decisive and exciting step. Starting the firm really got everything together, because I kept asking myself the reason for its forming. That has been a great process of reflection – literally just holding up a mirror, which I never do. I’m always in motion. So this stillness and reflection is something new and really deep. It feels like there’s a silence, belief, and discipline in the beginning, to the launch of expression.
I’m drawing a web of what the work goals look like and who I’m in contact with – it’s the initial setting up of collaborations and exchanges.
Looking back, what have been some of the biggest challenges?
The current challenge is starting small, as a one-woman team, and from there building a team of collaborators. I benefit from a dialogue – even to unpack an idea, to execute a whole host of tasks, from designing to managing, and to establish what the structure of work is – I find engaging with other architects and artists to workshop is so productive. I’m drawing a web of what the work goals look like and who I’m in contact with – it’s the initial setting up of collaborations and exchanges.
Looking back, the M. Arch was challenging in realizing how many things have to get done in a certain time. Then working in offices, the challenge was anticipating how I wanted to use each situation. When I was a student and hosted talks with women in architecture, there was a lot of talk about getting to a skill and experience level and then leaving without being recognized as a VP or another similar title.
I found that it wasn’t just the architecture and design process that I had to fit into, but a way that work gets done. In architecture, there’s a part that’s the cerebral and creative and then a part that’s almost like how a kid has to learn how to go to school and thrive within a system of people. It’s good to learn tactics, skills, and strategies for how to work with the people of the system you’re fitting into. I’m constantly developing skills and strategies to rise to the top.
I’ve been shaped by working side by side with various people that I really admire and realizing, “Oh, that’s what it’s like, you can just be yourself.”
What have been the biggest highlights?
I’ve had pretty incredible training. Seeing how Bjarke Ingels works was amazing – I really am like a master-apprentice type of learner. I’ve been shaped by working side by side with various people that I really admire and realizing, “Oh, that’s what it’s like, you can just be yourself.” It was a model of being your own light. This new stage of speaking my voice in form and practice has been a huge gift to step up to.
What has been your general approach to your career?
The way I found what I wanted to be was through an internal realization. It felt like, “Oh, this is who I am.” I’m starting to be more self-aware and in tune with my purpose, and that’s an approach, a state of being.
Being able to be a mentor to other people is also part of my approach – I gave a talk to a college in Maryland as part of recruiting for Yale, and my message was to find a mentor but to also be a mentor; you’re never too inexperienced or too young, because if you’re in high school you can mentor a middle schooler. Being able to give and realizing that you have something to give is my motto. Use yourself as a conduit of expression. That idea has transformed me.
What advice do you have for those just starting out?
Any step is the right step. Even if the first couple of steps turn out unexpected, go forth boldly and never second guess. Architecture is an industry and a career that requires boldness – you’re always going to be trying and striving. To develop the conviction for people to get behind an idea enough to build it, you first and foremost have to believe you can do it yourself.
Amina Blacksher between teaching sessions in her “outdoor office,” at Yale. Photo courtesy of A. Blacksher / Madame Architect.