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.
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.
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.
My flight landed in Prague. I was greeted by orange shirts and big smiles, pushed into a cab with a cabbie who had about as much information about where we were going as I did – namely an address. I spoke about ten sentences of Czech and he maybe twice as much English.
When we arrived at our destination, I recognized my host mother standing there from a picture she’d sent me. We wheeled my two giant bags into the apartment building, into the elevator, into the flat, into the room that would become my rom, and then ran out again. On the way out, I was informed that we were going to see Emma’s celebration of her first day at school. We got there, everything was in Czech, and I had no idea what was going on. But apparently the little girl with the blonde pigtails and the pink dress with the tutu would be my little sister for the next four, maybe nine months. If we’re being honest, I didn’t know what to make of it all. At least she was cute?
It’s been nine months. Emma has taught me Czech and I’ve taught her English. We play games and braid each other’s hair and color and do all the things sisters do. (Or at least all the things I think sisters do. I don’t really know. I once wanted a sister, but I got my amazing brother instead.)
But I was thinking about that day eariler today. About the first time I saw Emma, about how proud Anna clearly was of her. But to me, she was just another little girl. But not, I see her and I share that love and pride Anna has. Because I’ve seen her grow up, and I’ve watched her change, and I love her to bits. But then, how could you not love this face:
I think it is safe to say that a lot of people in college enjoy competing about this or that. We like to argue about which classes are the hardest, or who has the most reading, or which professor is the best. But it seems that people go abroad, and all of a sudden the competition is who had the easiest time academically while they were out of the country. Our new competition isn’t who has the hardest professor, it is who can get away with paying the least attention. We have new challenges: who can get to the most international destinations, the most museums/restaurants/pubs/clubs in our respective cities, who has the best pictures, who has the most outrageous cultural story, etc. etc.
I’ve just submitted my last assignment for the semester. I’ve just submitted my last assignment for the year. It isn’t the last assignment I’ll ever complete, but I’ve just submitted the last assignment I need to submit in Prague. Probably forever.
I didn’t play the “my-class-is-easier-than-yours” game. Because I did a lot of the work we were supposed to do over the course of the semester (year), in spite of the fact that you can pretty easily get away with not doing it. Don’t get me wrong, I probably did as much work over the course of the year that I would do before Fall midterms back at Tufts. I’m not pretending this year was particularly academically difficult. But while academic difficulty is proportional to how much you study, it isn’t representative of how much you learn.
I learned a lot this year.
I learned about myself, I learned about my friends even though they were thousands of miles away.
I learned what I value in new friends, and (perhaps more importantly) I learned about what I can’t stand in people.
I learned a lot about traveling smart. I learned that I thought I knew how to travel before I came to Europe and, though that may be true, I learned more in the last nine months and I learned that I will always be getting better at traveling.
I learned that I can study in a different environment, and that I can adapt to a different system where nothing happens all year and then all the tests and papers are compressed into one week. I learned that I can both plan for and deal with that stress. I learned that a lot of people can’t.
All that learning aside, there was only one class for which I studied. That was my Czech class. And I don’t know if I even call what I did for that class studying. It was more like practicing. I very rarely crammed vocabulary or grammar for a test, I never felt like I was forced to memorize something. I learned Czech not by studying it so much as I learned it by practicing with it and using it.
Seven years ago this month, I was in Japan. It was my first international trip without my parents. It was an opportunity full of learning, and exactly no studying. It was full of learning Japanese by using it. It changed my life, and I didn’t realize that until months, heck, maybe even years, after I got back. I still realize to this day skills that I have are skills I learned or honed on that trip oh so long ago.
I’m not going to pretend that I understand the impact that this year has had on me. I know I learned a lot, emotionally and intellectually. I absorbed waaay more about Czech history, politics, and history than I ever could have if I had taken an entire year of courses about it at Tufts. And I didn’t study it. I lived it.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Maybe, as I look back on this year, I just think its funny that this experience is called “Study Abroad“. “Learn Abroad” I could understand. “Be Abroad” I get. But Study? Hmmm…