Four years ago, I stumbled across my younger sister’s Tumblr. At the time, she was sixteen. Here are some things I learned about her:
+ She menstruates.
+ She doesn’t consider herself Asian because she doesn’t get straight A’s.
+ She does not like geometry.
+ She really likes Instagram.
+ She does not like Ke$ha or Rihanna.
+ She does like Katy Perry.
+ She buys CDs.
+ She likes to quote Radiohead.
+ Actually, she likes to quote “Creep” by Radiohead.
+ She went to a Michael Bublé concert with my parents.
+ She had her first date two months ago, which she described as “Just plain amazing :)”
+ She has two hundred friends who “liked” her first date post.
+ She believes in love at first sight.
+ She has told someone she’s loved them when she didn’t.
+ She been in love AT LEAST twice.
+ She is extraordinarily insecure because “she’s been hurt before” and is “not trying to get her hopes up” and there was “someone in her past who made her conscious of herself, made her feel like she wasn’t good enough.”
+ She has a boyfriend who blames her anger on PMS.
+ She should tell her older brother who this person is.
+ She should tell her older brother so he can kick the living shit out of him.
+ She should post his name/address/phone number on her Tumblr.
+ No, seriously, she should do that.
On some level, I felt like I had violated my sister’s privacy by following her Tumblr. I mean, she had linked it from Facebook, so it was fair game, but also she didn’t know I was checking it regularly. In a strange way though, her Tumblr, which was mostly reblogged landscapes and paintings, became a good way to keep up with how she was doing.
I was surprised when Olivia asked me to take her to a Belle and Sebastian concert for her birthday. It was a band I had always loved, but I’d never seen them show up on her Tumblr. She assured me that she liked them.
Olivia had convinced Dad to buy us a pair of scalped tickets. I was just thrilled that she was showing interest in music that wasn’t Owl City, whatever that was. Weeks before the concert, I emailed her illegal Mediafire links to my favorite Belle and Sebastian albums. I sent her a Facebook message the moment I found out the band’s newest album had leaked, although I probably fucked that up because I have no idea how to use Facebook messages. The scalped tickets, the sketchy download site, the bootlegged album—these were all outside my comfort zone, but I’d bend the rules for Olivia.
I asked my mother what else I could get Olivia for her birthday. “Just get her something that you would like,” she said. “You two are so similar, she’ll like anything that you get her.”
Which is true, to an extent. Olivia and I are alike, only she’s better than I was at everything I was good at when I was her age—writing, art, school, sports, even videogames. So I bought her a comic book I really liked, which she accepted with a hug and a polite thank you.
The comic might not have been a hit, but we would at least have a good time at the concert. We were seated in the front row of the mezzanine, looking out over the audience and the dozens of cell phones and digital cameras that were recording the show. I made a comment about how dumb it was that everyone was filming the show on their crappy phones. What do people even do with that footage anyway?
Then I turned and saw that Olivia was recording with her camera. She texted and took photos throughout the entire show. She seemed bored, but I figured that’s just how kids were these days. Always texting.
I tried to keep her attention throughout the show by saying really interesting things like “This is the third track on Tigermilk,” and “There aren’t usually drums on ‘Piazza New York Catcher.’”
I asked Olivia which songs she wanted to hear in particular. She named a few, but was really hoping to hear “If You Find Yourself Caught in Love.” I thought it would be unlikely, since it appears toward the tail end of Dear Catastrophe Waitress. I was surprised and grateful when the band played the first few piano notes of the song. Unfortunately, for the first minute, frontman Stuart Murdoch sang into a dead mic, unaware that the audience couldn’t hear him. I kept thinking, Don’t ruin my sister’s favorite song, but Olivia didn’t look the least bit disappointed. Even though we couldn’t hear Murdoch, she sang along anyway.
Belle and Sebastian closed the concert with “Sleep the Clock Around.”
“This is the second track off The Boy with the Arab Strap,” I said.
“This is probably my favorite song,” I added. “This song is really good. I’m glad they’re playing it.”
She started filming again.
After the concert, I asked Olivia if the show was better than the Fray concert she’d been to a few months before.
“Well, you can’t really compare them,” she said.
A week later, Olivia posted a thirty-second video of “Sleep the Clock Around” to Facebook. One of her friends left a comment asking how the show was. She replied, hahahaha the whole crowd were 20 to 30 year olds. the only person who knew [the band] was my AP world history teacher hahaha.
None of my sister’s friends knew who Belle and Sebastian were. And it became apparent that Olivia didn’t actually like Belle and Sebastian that much—but she knew I did. Among all those things my sister was better at than I was: being a thoughtful, unselfish sibling. In truth, I hadn’t taken her to the concert so much as she had taken me.
Olivia rarely ever posted anything to her Tumblr with text, which is why it caught my eye the day she reblogged a GIF from Arrested Development. It’s one of George Michael collapsing on the floor—and, if I recall correctly, it’s from the episode where he gets dumped by Anne. The caption my sister had added to the post was “college applying anxiety INITIATE.” Here is one thing I’ve learned about the college-admissions process from my sister’s Tumblr: it has somehow become even more Kafkaesque and humiliating since I was in her position eight years ago.
The most memorable thing about my college-admissions counselor was how he asked if my parents were “boat people,” after learning that I was of Vietnamese heritage (i.e., after seeing my last name). Once he assured me that serving in ’Nam gave him license to ask this, he wrote down a list of universities for me and scored them from one to three based on how hard it would be for me to get in with my middling SAT scores. He sent me on my way, and I applied to nine schools total, none of which had appeared on his list.
I wasn’t an ambitious college applicant, which is maybe why I had a hard time empathizing with my sister’s headaches. I was lazy and basically went by the ratings in The Princeton Review, which scores colleges unscientifically. I wasn’t surprised to learn that my sister was using a new, online equivalent called Naviance, which lets high-school students look up colleges and organize their applications online. It also encourages students to plug in their GPAs and test scores to calculate their likelihood of getting into specific schools, plotting them on a scattergram alongside former students from their high school.
I suggested Wesleyan College to my sister, since I have a close friend who does nothing but talk about how much he loved his time there. We looked up Wesleyan in Naviance, which reported that my sister’s ACTs were slightly lower than the school’s average for admission, and many students from her school with similar GPAs had been rejected. I explained that it was just a calculation, that it didn’t take into account the fact that she was a great writer, talented artist, varsity athlete, and soup-kitchen volunteer. But she seemed overwhelmed and defeated by what she was being told by an ugly graph.
I kept telling Olivia that everything would work out, that, in hindsight, she’d see that not getting into her first-choice school wasn’t the end of the world. The last thing a teenager wants, though, is for her distress to be treated with condescension. I could tell her everything would be okay, I could mansplain the college process, I could tell her to stop whining, but none of these things would be very helpful. I realized that I was a woefully inept older brother.
A few years ago, I saw John Green, an author of young-adult fiction, give a talk. He made an offhand comment about how teenagers were selfish, then backed up on the point. He explained that what he meant to say was that teenagers were rightfully selfish. In high school, it’s so overwhelming and difficult to figure out one’s identity and sense of place that teenagers have to be selfish. I think this is the smartest summation I’ve come across about adolescence. A teenager’s pain is unique and singular, and yet it must be understood by everyone around her.
That’s probably why Tumblr makes such a good outlet for teens. When she finally started applying to schools, Olivia renamed her Tumblr “and i fall, i fall, i falter”—all in lowercase letters. After some googling, I learned that these are lyrics to a song by City and Colour, which, after more googling, I learned is a band of some sort for young people.
As she got deeper into the college-application process, Olivia began posting fewer wistful, faraway landscapes and more images of cracked mountain ranges and crashing waves. She began reblogging more abstract art, moving away from the clarity of photographs to something more muddled and ambiguous. Maybe she was starting to see the beauty in uncertainty?
The next time she posted something on Tumblr with text, it was beneath a photo of a forest. She wrote: I have 18 days to finish this application for my dream school. This is happening.
I hearted the post. It seemed like the best way to show my support.
That fall, I visited Boston to help my sister move into her college dorm. She’d been accepted into Boston University, her first-choice school.
When I arrived, my sister told me that she had dumped her high-school boyfriend. It seemed like the smart decision to avoid the long-distance relationship thing in her freshman year of college. She also said things ended amicably, that they still talked and Snapchatted regularly. I told her that I wished I had made the same choice. I’d been in a similar situation when I was her age, and instead of breaking things off, I let the relationship drag out for a semester and half. I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming amount of pride in my sister for demonstrating so much more maturity than I could at her age.
It worked out that my dad had to be in New York after that weekend, so we drove back together. We took turns at the wheel, and when it was my turn, I put on an album of Belle and Sebastian B-sides that had come out a few weeks before.
“What is this?” my dad asked. “This sounds like your sister’s music.”