I’ve always had high expectations for myself. I’ve always set as my “someday goal” an upper level management position, or a significant government post, or a professor at a named institution. I’ve just always oscillated between these as I changed my interests and my ultimate destination. Many friends of mine never questioned what they were going to do with their lives. (High school friends who knew they were going to be doctors and just partook in their white coat ceremonies, for example.) But I’ve never really known. I took a windy path, one could say, to end up where I am now.
But I had a moment last week that reminded me that where I am now is exactly where I want to be. It was the weekend, I was reading for fun. I was reading Science (if that doesn’t tell you a bit about who I am becoming…) and came across an article about “Yellow Lights” in science – basically that the current stop & go regulatory frameworks that are commonplace make it incredibly difficult to innovate in expensive industries. The article focuses on the complex FDA requirements and high biomedical expenses and argues that more flexible regulations – a yellow light or “California Roll,” if you will – could allow new and safe products to get to market (and help patients) faster. (Interestingly, an earlier magazine (June 12) focused a lot on innovative spaces – primarily in Cambridge, MA and the SF Bay Area – that allow biomedical startups to share workspaces and expensive machinery to compensate for these difficulties.)
Remember, I was reading for fun.
And then I realized I was also reading for work. Because my current task is to analyze the FDA regulatory structures and attempt to find ways the NRC could potentially mimic successful FDA frameworks. And this yellow light idea is definitely one to steal, for it would allow reactor designs that are more efficient but differ significantly from those currently on line to be approved in stages. This would in turn allow the designers to find funding in stages, instead of looking for a couple billion dollars on day one.
And then I realized I was also reading for school. Because part of my research project this fall is to look at other industries – I had planned originally to focus on technologies that inspired a regulatory overhaul, but the FDA parallel structure briefly mentioned in the article (and which I’ve thoroughly researched since then) could also be a perfect case study for comparison. Oh wait, that’s what I’m to complete over the next two weeks at work! And then I’ll rewrite it for school. And the book I’m currently reading for fun is about the beginnings of computer science; I haven’t gotten to anything significant about regulations, but I’m only 1/3 of the way through the book. So maybe my fun reading will become school too. Less likely, but still possible, it might become work.
So work is becoming school is becoming play is becoming work is becoming …
And while I know my parents have discussions where they go back and forth – one is proud of what I’ve done and the experiences I’ve had, while the other is distinctly more aware of the incredibly accomplished people my age who knew what they wanted years ago and have a much more focused resume – I always remember what I’ve noticed about the CVs of the professors I’ve admired and the industrial professionals I’ve looked up to: they’re usually missing a few years. Their resumes and CVs list their undergraduate graduation date and, with only a couple exceptions, nearly nothing can be found within five years of that date in either direction. Maybe an internship with a particularly significant politician, or a summer job at a big name company. But usually, nothing.
I often remind my friends about this while they stress about finding the perfect job today that will set them up for their dreams tomorrow. I remind them that the people we dream to become did something, presumably, for those few years, but it didn’t hold enough importance, relevance, whatever. Even just ten years out, those few post-college years became professionally irrelevant.
Obviously, I don’t want to aimlessly wander for a few years on the assumption that I can take them off my resume when I become who I want to be. I’m not squandering my immediate future because the resumes of people I idolize don’t mention that part of their lives. But I am using this reality – because it is reality – to remind myself that this is the time of my life when I should be doing what I want to be doing. This is the time when I should pursue jobs where expectations at work and the things I’m passionate about align, because that’s how I’ll get to the dream jobs I’ve always seen myself in.
And with that, I’m off to read an article that’s long been on my list of things that sound interesting. My fun list, if you will. I just put it off until an hour when I could say I read it for work, because its relevant to that too. 😉
I’ve always felt like bookshelves say something about their owners. The various English teachers for whom I’ve babysat always had bookshelves filled with classics; friends who are “closeted history buffs” almost always have a shelf or two devoted to historical fiction and historical non-fiction; many of my scienc-y friends have (no longer) surprising quantities of fantasy on their shelves.
I distinctly remember visiting a family friend about a week after they’d moved. Very little was unpacked – a few boxes of clothes, about half the kitchen, a box labeled “bathroom” half empty in the hall. The bookshelves were empty save three books – one she was clearly reading, one that was obviously his, and What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Now it doesn’t take much of a genius to figure that one out, but they were nonetheless surprised when they told me a few months later and I said “I know.” Even an almost-empty bookshelf says something about its owner.
But I’ve felt for the past few years that my bookshelf didn’t say much about me. I fly across the country and essentially displace myself and my life four or more times every year, and I have for the last four years. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret my choice to live on the East coast, but it does make having a personal library a bit more difficult. All through college, I’ve felt like my bookshelf was nothing more than evidence of that semester’s (or that year’s) courses. More than half of my shelf was usually textbook, or books required for classes. Sure, there have always been a few books that were there for fun, but they never meant much – they were there for convenience, or because I happened to be reading one the last time I got on a plane.
Today, my book collection is, naturally, limited since I’ll be in this location for exactly six weeks and one day. And yet, when I look at it, I can’t help but think it does say something about me.
I’ve got two nuclear textbooks. (One chemistry, one physics) I’ve got a lab notebook and a chart of the nuclides handbook and the June edition of National Geographic. I’ve got a math book (Emmy Noether’s Wonderful Theorem) and two policy books – Arguments that Count (about missile defense systems) and The Politics of Nuclear Energy (I think you can figure that one out…) To round it out, there are two books for fun – the beautiful and thought-invoking Invisible Cities and the somewhat horrifying House of Leaves.
I glanced at my bookshelf this morning, looking for my notebook, and something hit me. It was as if I was looking at someone else’s bookshelf. I read the person to whom it belonged as easily as I read the pregnant-but-not-sharing-yet-couple’s bookshelf years ago. This person was obviously passionate about nuclear science and nuclear energy, with a bit of time – but maybe not as much as they’d like – to read something else as well.
I glanced at my bookshelf and I realized who I am. Until this morning, I thought of nuclear energy as maybe just another phase. Like all my other passions, I’ve spent the last six months or so expecting to grow out of it. But the reality is that the more I learn and the more I study, the more questions I have and the more desperately I want their answers. The more I hear about where the reality of nuclear energy is, the more I want to fix the problems, and the more I worry that I’m a naive twenty-two year old with impractical hopes, the more I realize that my hopes aren’t that far off from the experts’.
I glanced at my bookshelf and I think I’ve found my future.
I had an interesting conversation with one of my professors last night, who described some of her academic colleagues in a half-joking manner as “I am ‘X’, therefore I say ‘Y’.” The implication here, of course, is that some academics take a position early on in their careers and stick to it throughout. Interestingly, this is a conclusion I came to early in my Political Science education; while studying for my very first test, I realized that I didn’t actually need to know what a specific author said on each issue – if I knew how he approached any issue, I could work out for myself his probable stance on whatever issue(s) came up during the test. (This has served me well, both in grades and in sleep…) For some academics, the position they take is a new and unique one that eventually gets accepted by the wider community, and they become the famous academics we read in our introductory courses. The vast majority, however, don’t. They pick tangential positions that are neither new enough or bold enough to be interesting, which means they are both safe from significant push back and unlikely to be ground-breaking.
Of course, the politically cynical among us see the “I am ‘X’, therefore I say ‘Y'” idea as particularly prominent in political discourse. The particularly interesting thing about this is that academics and the most highly educated members of society not only engage in the same cognitive patterns that cause them to ignore countervailing information or narratives, but they actually engage in these patterns to a greater extent than the average American; highly educated people (like those that both teach the next generation and rule over it) are actually more likely to actively avoid information they don’t like – and thus remain ignorant of opposing arguments – than the public.
I asked my professor, “If you are ‘X,’ what is your ‘Y’?” She said she doesn’t have one, that she splits her time among many subjects and that she is actively seeking counter-narratives. In spite of the obvious self-serving nature of this comment, (She literally said “I’m the exception that proves the rule,” and though she said it with a smile, she wasn’t joking.) I’m inclined to believe her. Her research is fundamentally around the reality that factual information is biased, that history is just that – a story, and that literally every piece of information we collect in our lives is biased, either in the way it is presented or in the way it is interpreted. Considering that, I think it is likely she questions everything she reads, hears, and believes. Probably every day, all day.
I want to do that. I want to be the exception that proves the rule. I want to constantly question the information given to me, and I want to do that in an intelligent and non-threatening manner. If I go into academia, I don’t want to have a “Y.” If I work for the government, or even in the private sector, I want to be the person who is constantly questioning assumptions and constantly pushing back, because even if that means I don’t fall nicely into a undergrad’s summary box, it means I’m likely to be making intelligent, accurate, and well-informed decisions.
Tons of stuff is happening in the world and the truth of human attention spans is that we just don’t have the capacity to pay attention. But every so often, it frightens me that the media is just as bad at noticing ongoing trends that are important and ignored as the rest of the population. (I know, the population only knows what to think about because of what the media discusses. I guess I’m just saying that the media needs to get on it. Or we should find alternative news sources. Like, ASAP.)
These are the 3 things on my mind that the American media seems to be ignoring:
1. Enterovirus & Measles
Yes, Ebola made it to Texas. The world is exploding! Side note: the number of stupid tweets about Ebola is absurd (it isn’t a musical group or a politician, people.) But the reality is that Ebola in the United States is and will remain about as dangerous as the common cold. Less dangerous, actually. If you want to be worried about Ebola, keep your worries centered in the African nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Gambia, where the total infected is 7470 (as of Sept. 30). Where the growth remains exponential, and the totals are likely severely underreported.
But here’s the thing: there are other diseases WAY more frightening. In the United States. Infecting children and the elderly and people that haven’t been to West Africa recently.
It has similar symptoms to the first stages of Ebola – fever, weakness, muscle pain. Enterovirus is a respiratory disease, but also causes polio-like symptoms of limb numbness and paralysis. (Polio itself is another form of an enterovirus; enterovirus-D68 is one of the “non-polio enteroviruses”) Thus far this summer, 594 people in 43 states have been infected, and last week marked the fifth death in the US – a 4 year old boy in NJ.
The process to protect yourself from enterovirus is basically the same as protecting yourself from any other airborne flu/common cold, namely wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Drink out of your own cup. (All the things kids forget to do… hence they get infected more often and more easily.) And, with a mere 594 infections (0.00018% of the US population) and 5 deaths (a 0.8% death rate) we really shouldn’t be worried about enterovirus. But the math says we should be more worried about it than we are about Ebola.
If we want to listen to math, though, we should really be freaking out about the measles pockets popping up around the country.
I have no qualms with blaming this one on Jenny McCarthy and her anti-immunization following. Science is not an ideology. It creates advances that benefit your life, my life, and that infant’s life over there. When we ignore truths and encourage rampant speculation and falsehoods, we encourage things like local measles outbreaks that are completely preventable.
2. 60 Days of Air Strikes Against ISIS
This one might freak me out the most. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 was passed by Congress during the drawdown of the Vietnam War in an attempt to return the power to declare war to the Congress, where it originally sat. As time has progressed, however, presidents have slowly but surely degraded the WPR, until we have what happened today: President Obama’s 60 days are up, and he is ignoring that fact.
A lot of procedures have been employed by presidents in the past to get around the letter of the law. This time, the White House is submitting new declarations of strikes for each strike – arguing that each strike is, in effect, an individual act of war, completed the day it is undertaken and thus not subject to the 60 day limit. Back in September, Republican Representatives began the process of pushing through legislation declaring war against ISIS; Obama’s White House didn’t want it. Perhaps they didn’t want the specific restrictions that would be implicit in a declaration of war? Perhaps he doesn’t want to call it “war”? (Technically, the United States hasn’t officially declared war since WWII, although both the Iraq and Afghanistan “Wars” have Congressional authorization for the use of military force. In this manner, we’re currently involved in the neighborhood of 150 military engagements.) There is also the argument, made by others in government, but outside of the White House, that the strikes against ISIS in Iraq are still theoretically approved under the resolutions that created the approval for the Iraq War. Note that this war was/is not technically war. Not to be confusing or anything. But this rationale, using outdated and tabled language, wouldn’t cover our airstrikes in Syria. Even some of Obama’s closest allies are deserting him on this, and urging him to request formal Congressional approval or begin the reduction of troops required to be completed within another 30 days.
The bipartisan effort in 2011 to replace the War Powers Resolution with something stronger died a quiet death. Nothing is going to happen now, because we’re getting close to election time, and we can’t let governing get in the way of our democracy, now can we? It scares me that not a peep has been heard out of Congress and, with the exception of Fox News, not a peep has been heard from the larger news outlets. More and more, I’m realizing that we live in a nation of controlled media just like China, but our media operates under the assumption that it is free. But that’s a conversation for another day.
Sexual assault is getting a lot of attention around the country these days, and I totally support that. It is an important issue, especially on college campuses, but it isn’t the only thing on campus that needs attention. Hazing continues to be an omnipresent experience on campuses, students aren’t given proper methods to evade, escape, or otherwise deal with hazing, and it isn’t covered in the media until and unless someone tragically dies in a hazing event.
It isn’t just a college thing. It isn’t just an American thing. This is a photo a family friend took last week in Belgium:
Young men, on their knees in the street. Other men cheering. Outside a bar. It isn’t like these guys are getting arrested or anything. This is something they are “choosing” to do, but what we know is that it isn’t really a choice. In a world where there are so many issues students and youth deal with, where we are focusing incredibly societal energy on confronting online bullying, why don’t we address the very real issue of bullying under the guise of creating community?
Hazing in the military is a very real issue. It creates the opposite of what it is supposed to create – instead of fostering community, hazing in the South Korean military has caused at least 7 deaths, at least 4 of them suicides, in the last 3 months. Hazing in fraternities is a very real issue. Recent calls at Stanford to get rid of fraternity and sorority houses on campus make the argument that hazing is more easily performed when the frat has a house. Hazing in sororities is a real issue. I’ve seen pledging friends here at Tufts undergoing unnecessary stress for days, trying to impress all their future sisters, in order to join a band of sisterhood that could easily exist without the rituals.
Like the fundamental changes needed to change the American government’s approach to declarations of war, or the American public’s opinions on deadly diseases, perhaps hazing needs to be eliminated by instigating an about face in the way we view community and acceptance.
The media is, happily, covering the Nobel Prize, and I have a lot of things to say about the prizes thus far awarded. Basically, I think they’re awesome. But what are the other things you’re regularly thinking about that the media seems to be ignoring entirely?
Hillary got married today, which means I’ve been thinking about her all day long. And when I think of Hillary, I can’t help but think of the umbrella. I think of a lot of other things too, but my favorite story that involves her is definitely the story of the umbrella. It goes something like this:
First semester of my sophomore year (almost two years ago, now!!), I was pursuing a job in New York City. I was – and am – a poor college student, so I wasn’t exactly excited about the idea of spending lots of money on an expensive hotel room in an expensive city, so I sent Hills, as she is affectionately known to me, an email. A couple days later, I had a “free” hotel room – I promised to buy her and Matt, her then-boyfriend, now-husband dinner. (Which, of course, she ended up buying for me, in true kind-person fashion. But that is beside the point.)
I checked the weather before I left Boston. I did, I swear! The weather predicted a scant 10% chance of rain over the entirety of the weekend. By Sunday night, however, the rain clouds were pretty ominous. Hills and Matt are both teachers, which means they needed to be up and out at some ungodly hour (I believe it was 6am). I am a college student, which means I did not. They were super kind and left me behind with a key and instructions on how to get it back to them. In my half-awake state at 5:whatever, I noticed they were leaving not 1, not 2, but a selection of umbrellas out. I protested, but Hills told me to take one with me – don’t get soaked for no reason at all!
That day in New York was the first time the little blue umbrella kept me happy and dry.
Once I got back to Boston, I offered to send Hillary her umbrella back. But she laughed and told me to take it around the world with me. I remember that she told me to keep it, to love it, and to think of her whenever I use it.
And that is exactly what I do.
I try to take pictures with the umbrella wherever I use it. Sometimes, like when I was in Copenhagen, people think I’m strange. I mean, how often does someone come up to you in the pouring rain and say “Hi! Can you take a picture of me in the rain with my umbrella?” On the other hand, I’ve gotten to explain to an awesome number of people why I take pictures in the rain.
Every so often, if I have the time and the inclination, I print out a photo and write a letter to Hillary and send it to her. More often, I send a note via email. Mostly, I just think about her and then go stalking on facebook…
Hillary’s umbrella has travelled the world. It spent nine months in Prague (as you can see above), with side trips to another 10 European countries, where it (fortunately for me, less fortunately for this project) lived in my backpack. It did make an appearance in Italy, though!
And, of course, it has been well loved all over the USA, including Boston, SF, and Big Sur.
Maybe someday I’ll send Hillary her umbrella back. Maybe I’ll keep it. I’m just wishing her lots of luck and a happy day from me, and from our little blue umbrella.
One of the things I do at my internship is take photos to post on social media. Who I end up taking photos of is pretty arbitrary (usually I end up taking photos if we have time and they have time and Michael has time…), but getting to take them is pretty cool. And, even though I don’t need recognition of my work, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to get recognition for a bunch of publicity photos, it was nonetheless exciting to get a compliment from one of the producers on Tuesday – she told me she was impressed by my “eye” and “artistic sense.”
I will admit to feeling proud of the idea behind this photo, based on the quote that I heard during the interview. When it ended, I asked him which tattoo was his favorite and if I could take a picture to go with his quote. Then I feel like I had the ability to see a good angle for a cool second photo, but I don’t necessarily feel like it is anything special – the quality and lighting were pretty poor.
But the comment made me start thinking about the realities of practicing. They say practice makes perfect, right? And even though I don’t think you can ever be perfect at an art form like photography, I certainly think you can get better. That’s what I thought about waaay back last year when I first got my new camera, and I think that I’ve gotten better over time at seeing a good shot and also at actually taking a shot that shows what I actually see…
When I was in Malta, I saw this awesome photo I wanted to take. And then I took it and it wasn’t really awesome at all. In fact, it was kinda blah.
But then, I lay down on the ground, and took an awesome photo, which turned out to be almost exactly what I wanted.
I’ve also noticed, here and there, the difference between photos I take and photos my friends take. When we went to Italy, for example, Ashten and I wanted the same picture from the same place in Riomaggiore. I could say that she’s just fundamentally more beautiful than I am, and thus her gorgeous radiance makes everything around her look better. Or maybe I’m just better at photography.
Don’t get me wrong – there are still lots of things I can be better at. In the mosque photo from Malta, it would be a better picture if the mosque was centered between the plants at the bottom, instead of slightly blocked and over to the right. And the picture I took of Ashten would have been better if I’d had her take a half step to her left – she would be blocking that unslightly tree, and also more of the harbor would be visible.
Nonetheless, it is fun to notice that I’m getting better at photography. I know a number of phenomenal photographers (Sam Alavi, for one…), and I always compare my photos to theirs and feel inadequate. But I am learning things, and it is nice to know that other people notice that too. So thanks for the compliment, Irene! And I hope that I can continue to get better at photography!
I’m a bit more than a bit delayed in posting this. My sincere apologies; we’ll blame it on jet lag?
It hit me somewhere over Greenland. All of a sudden, I looked out the window and I started to cry. Honestly, I’m a little surprised the crying didn’t start as soon as the plane took off in Prague, but it could just be that I fell asleep.
It hit me that I was leaving. No, that I was gone.
That everything that has happened for the last nine months was over. That the family I had been living with was no longer my family, and that the kids I watched grow up every single day would keep growing up. That next time I see them, it will be in one, two, five, ten, who knows how many years, and they will be completely different.
That they will come home tonight (well, I suppose they’ve already gotten home, at this point) and they will realize that I’m not there. Because even though we explained to them, and I think Emma understood, I know Jachym had no idea. He saw my bags, but I’ve packed before. I went to France, and I went to Turkey, and I went to Italy, and every time I had a bag. Every time he watched me throw clothes all over my room and fold them and pack them and unpack them and refold them and repack them. And all of that happened again. Sure, this was the first time everything was getting packed, but what does that really mean to a four year old? I dropped him off at preschool today.
It will be the last time I ever do that.
I braided Emma’s hair this morning, and it’ll be the last time I ever do that. By the time I get back, she’ll have grown out of the desire to have someone do her hair every morning, or maybe she’ll have learned how to French braid her own hair.
I said goodbye to Filip yesterday like I do every morning, just a simple “Ahoj!” as I headed out the door. I didn’t know he was going on another business trip to Moscow, or that I wouldn’t see him again before I hopped on a plane. At least I got to say a proper goodbye to Anna. But how do you say a proper goodbye to someone who opened her home and her kitchen to you for nine months? How can you possibly thank her properly.
And I didn’t get to say goodbye to everyone at CIEE. I didn’t even see Veronika, who was the most stable, most helpful person I met over the entire nine months. She saw every single one of my breakdowns while I was in Prague – she is the only person who saw any of my breakdowns while I was in Prague. She may, in fact, have seen as many of my breakdowns as my mother has in my whole life. (Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration – I’ve had more than a couple breakdowns with my mom.)
But Veronika also went out for beer with me and went to the theater with me and is front and center of all my favorite lunches in Prague. She was the one I sent postcards when I went on vacation from my vacation, and she was the one I came to see when I got back. Needless to say, Veronika was a big part of my time in Prague and I didn’t even get to give her a hug goodbye.
Nor did I get to say goodbye to Martina. My very best Czech friend, even though she’s actually Slovak. We went our separate ways on Friday, with the expectation of hanging out Saturday night. But life intervened, and here I am. On a plane over Greenland, and I never said goodbye.
I tried telling Holly that it doesn’t matter. That you don’t have to say goodbye to everyone that mattered to you. If they were important to you over the time you were in Prague, then they know that. You’ll stay in touch, and that last goodbye won’t make or break the relationship you remember, or the relationship you’ll have in the future. And even if I think that’s true (and I don’t necessarily think that’s true), it doesn’t change the fact that it sucks to leave without saying goodbye.
At least I got to say goodbye to the city. I got to take a last wander through the streets, to smile at the tourists lost or drunk or simply confused by the mazes, to take a final walk along the river with my camera, to take a few final pictures of the castle I saw at least twice a day on my way to and from school.
I liked living in a city with a castle. That hit me somewhere over Greenland too.