Reflections

On hunger; or, an open letter to the Class of 2014

Dear Class of 2014,

Congrats! You’re a week out, and it probably feels pretty good. Now humor me: I want to tell you something, just like everyone else and their mother (and father, and brother, and cousin… We all just want to help!)

You’ve most likely already figured out your next step, but even so, here’s the deal: you have three choices about what you do post-grad. You can move to a place for a job. You can move to a place for the place itself. Or you can move to a place for the people, or to be near a person.

Choose wisely. Know yourself when you make the choice. Know what makes you tick. If you’re lucky, all three will come together, and it’ll be an obvious decision. If you’re not lucky, then it’s one of the first hard decisions you’ll have to make. Make it independently. Make a mistake, and a few months or a year or five from now, fix it.

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It was beautiful while it lasted, wasn’t it?

I don’t believe in a metric of “success” (it’s different for everyone, but the word has connotations that are a bit too cut-and-dried for me at the moment). I do believe in a metric of satisfaction. Your days are either full, or they are empty. It’s not about filling up your time, exactly; your time can be full, and your days can still be very, ruthlessly empty, as I’ve learned.

So choose to go to the place that will fill you up. God knows you’re hungry; we all are. Every day I’m hungry for more.

Then, use that hunger. Use it to learn more. Use it to work harder. Follow your taste buds, and follow your stomach. Let your hunger tell you how to balance work and play, and play more and harder (if that’s where your appetite leads you). Use it to recognize when you’re unhappy—and use it to revel in your happiest, most gluttonous moments. Use it to step out of your own expectations of yourself, and to disentangle from everyone else’s expectations. Don’t let others judge you for what you want to pile on your plate, and how you want to consume it. You are what you eat. Eat the good stuff. Do what’s delicious.

In college, we often complain of never having enough time. This is wrong, of course; we’ll never have more time. I let that fact bother me for a while after graduation. In my first year out, I wandered, trying to see what time would do with me when I didn’t have an agenda for it. The wandering bored me. That was the first lesson—for me. Find your own lesson.

As everyone else will also tell you, post-grad life is just… different. But the hunger is the same. On days I don’t satisfy my cravings—when I do less, when I am less, when I settle for less—I miss college in a way that almost hurts. I feel directionless; I feel lost; I feel alone. But on days when I expect more of myself, when I don’t let the mundane stuff—missing my subway, staying too late at work, cleaning the bathroom—get me down, when I find a great new song that makes me smile, when I let my curiosity drive the way I think: that’s when something clicks. I’m satisfied, if only for a moment.

As they say, happiness is fleeting. As they say, it’s worth chasing.

So 2014: chase it with me. It’s a marathon for sure, and it will last the rest of our lives, and I’m the last one to say I’m any closer to it than I was this time last year. But damn it if it isn’t an endlessly exciting game to play.

Love,

Raisa

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Come play with me.

On new jobs & killing the incompetence game

On Monday, I started an internship in an industry that is new to me. I was nervous, so I wore my favorite pants (you gotta take your confidence boost where you can get it).

On Tuesday, I submitted a completed Excel spreadsheet of social media marketing campaign analytics, listened in on a status call with a client, and formatted a slide pitch deck for a digital strategy plan. Sound a little too corporate to you? Don’t worry, my desk chair is an exercise ball and there’s beer on tap on Friday afternoons—not that it matters. Sometimes, a little bit of corporate, structured medicine (and an education in how to use a PC) is just what the doctor ordered.

Desk with a view.
Desk with a view.

At every job, internship, or activity I’ve participated in over the past five years, the constant has been a focus on writing, on understanding storytelling and news-gathering, and on building a better organization. But not now. Now I’m learning to tell the story of the numbers in a chart, to gather news about relative efficiency of dollars spent and keywords used, and to find where I fit in a large, well-functioning operation.

We forget how entrenched we’ve become in the ecosystems of the intellectual paths we choose early on. In liberal arts college, they call each major a “discipline” because you train your mind to think in certain ways—to approach problems with a particular toolkit, a template for coming to a conclusion. For me, the anthropological approach was a natural fit with the journalistic activities I pursued outside class. In brief, the process is (1) interrogate and investigate the accepted reality, (2) observe and collect in-depth information about the truth of the matter, and (3) present your findings with panache—and without judgment.

But in this industry I’m now exploring, the process—the one-two-three of approaching and attacking a problem—is new. The end goals are different. On an institutional level, the social structure of the place is complicated and foreign. The vocabulary that’s tossed around in the office leaves me slow on the uptake, too: what’s a project manager vs. a brand strategist vs. a media planner? What’s the difference in our partnerships between vendors, creative, and clients? And how is social different from digital different from mobile? I knew what ROI stood for, but CPC, CPE, CPV, DSP, KPI, RFP, and SOW are all brand-spanking-new. The two main things that remain the same across all my working experiences are snarky email exchanges and the expectation to stay late.

Here’s what happens when you step outside your comfort zone: you feel incompetent. You want to apologize for taking up people’s time by asking questions—but if you don’t ask the questions, then the work doesn’t get done (and you have to apologize for that, too). You sit at a meeting and frown, lost before it even started, trying to memorize faces and names. I haven’t felt so young and fish-out-of-water in years. Being a n00b happens to be pretty damn uncomfortable.

But I’m not going to apologize. I’m still convinced my youth is my best asset, and so is my inexperience. It’s early days for me yet, but I have a feeling—in fact, at the ripe old age of 22, I know—that my current (and hopefully just momentary) incompetence is actually a plus. I’m being forced to bend my ingrained ways of thinking into new paths.

So if you’re considering a career you know nothing about, here’s the takeaway: it never hurts to stretch.

It’s kind of like a yoga class. Worst case scenario, you enjoy some undisturbed meditation, take in the chill music vibes, and work on your flexibility. Best case, you kill at your headstand and warrior three and your crow—and you just fly outta that studio, dripping with sweat and ready to take on the world.

 

On the start-up experience

It’s so hot right now.

No, no, not the weather. Here in New York, it’s below freezing and I’m wearing three sweaters.

It’s all the rage though, and everybody’s doing it—everybody who’s anybody, that is. Or, if they aren’t doing it now, they plan to as soon as the timing’s right.

I’m not talking about spinning or zumba. Not Tinder, Grouper, or online dating (we can get to that later).

I’m talking about working at a tech start-up. (NOTE: This post is not a how-to guide for start-up success. If that’s your jam, go have fun at this blog instead.)

For a few months, I ran the media side of a small tech start-up called Mavrx. Mavrx provides critical image mapping and big-data analytics for agricultural operations. (Hit up our website for more info.) We were in Cape Town to work with South African vineyards and grape-growers during their growing season. While there, we tailored our tech product to best fit their needs. The next steps: expanding our market to other countries, other crops, and even other industries.

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Not a bad substitute for a cubicle…

Now, I’m back in the Big Apple—about as different in culture (and temperature) from Cape Town as possible. As I inevitably meet new people here, the same questions crop up: Oh, you were at a tech start-up? What did you do? Did you like it?

As the media & communications guru for Mavrx (a self-proclaimed title, I admit), it was my job to run the public image of our fledgling company. I designed a website, put together press and sales and pitch materials, blogged, Tweeted, Instagrammed, and generally managed what I call “brand development.” I had dabbled in all of these things before, but… it’s different in a start-up. Each task required me to muster up a full measure independence, self-confidence, and initiative.

Here’s the thing about working in a small company with no set structure and no guidelines to follow: you make it all up yourself. You learn a hell of a lot. You mess up. And you figure out, slowly, what makes you tick in a work environment. For someone who’s played by the rules all her life, I often felt that I’d suddenly been thrown into the deep end. The good part? I learned to swim.

 
Tasting fresh grapes on the vines was a serious perk of the South Africa job.
Tasting fresh grapes on the vines was a serious perk of the South Africa job.

I’ve always been worried about work-life balance; I’m not particularly skilled at doing anything in moderation. For me—and I think for many of us—it’s always all work or all play. Some of my internship experiences had left me thinking that a finite workday would be ideal; just clock out and sleep easy. But other internships reminded me how important it is to work towards the bigger picture—a place where, even at midnight on a Friday when your friends are texting you from the bar, you know you’re doing something meaningful.

And start-ups? No thanks, I used to think. It seemed to me the worst of two worlds: the 24-hour intensity of a job that never ends, matched with the questionable ethics of a get-rich-quick scheme. (No offense intended to those awesome people I know who have had the guts, wisdom, and self-confidence to be entrepreneurs from the start. I never said I was right about any of this.) Still, the appeal of the “tech” industry eluded me. I may be a nerd, I thought, but I’m no geek.

There’s a geek in all of us, though, and—as reporting has taught me all along—asking the right questions will make any subject, however seemingly mundane, totally fascinating. So even though I was clueless about NDVI imaging, precision agriculture, viticultural technology, and harvest planning, I asked questions in South Africa. This is what happens in a good start-up: the pieces begin to fall into place, and the vision becomes something worth working toward. It might even, if you’re lucky, come to consume you. Then the line between work and play is blurred, and you’re not trying to get rich quick or even get investors—you’re just trying to make something important happen, and you believe fundamentally in it.

From Cape Town to Brooklyn, I'm lucky to live on some very cool streets.
From Cape Town to Brooklyn, I’ve been lucky to live on some very cool streets lately.

My first tech start-up chapter has closed—for now. Once again I’m not certain of the next step. I’m also not sure if I’m much closer to figuring out that work-life balance thing. But for the first time, it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t scare me. There are only two things I want: to work with people who make me work harder, and to believe in what I’m building.

Sure, some people will always want to clock out at 5:00pm. The secret, though, is that everything’s more fun when the clock’s always ticking. Deadlines will make your heart beat faster, looming consequences will keep you focused, and that adrenaline rush? Time may pass, but it’ll keep you young.

 

 

 

On the anxiety of travel & the lives we could lead

When I’ve traveled over the last few years, I’ve found it harder and harder to happily play the tourist. Instead, I want to be the local.* So I make-believe that I’m setting up a life in whatever city I’m in. I’ll choose a cafe to haunt, a grocery store to run through, a club to dance at, a group of friends to call my crew.

Still life: Saturday afternoon at my favorite cafe in Cape Town.

Still life: Saturday afternoon at my favorite cafe in Cape Town.

But there’s always the sense of impermanence. Whatever life I’m setting up is bound to fall away—next week, next month, whenever the plane carries me off into the blue. Then back to the “real” thing, back home, see ya never new city and new friends.

That’s the challenge about travel, I think. It’s a tantalizing reminder of all the lives we can—could—live. It invites us to consider the possibilities of an alternate path, but never lets us fully commit to the change. It’s a desperate tease.

After two weeks in Cape Town, I’m feeling this stretch more than ever. I have my cafe, I have my routine, I even have my new friends. I can see—so easily!—the life I could lead here; it’s a city to fall in love with. But it’s not mine. Anxious, I have to ask myself: what’s the point of travel if we can’t grow roots? I’m an earth sign; I need that stability, that grounding in place and time.

The answer, of course, is that it’s a learning process. The more I shake up my idea of home, the more I push myself to consider the alternatives (another piercing? backpacking through Thailand? embracing California?), the more I know about what I need from the place where I will set down those roots. And, maybe most importantly, the more I can strip away the illusions I have about myself. (No, I will never be the backpacking-through-Thailand type. No, I am not a surfer girl. And no, that piercing is definitely a bad idea. As a friend here reminded me, I am not “chill,” however much I might like to think that I am. And that’s totally OK.)

It’s incredible to have the opportunity to meet new people and go new places. But sometimes, the best part of all that newness is recognizing just how the old stuff—home—is also full of the power to shape us.

*For my anthro/cultures-of-travel friends: I will be investigating the “local” complex and why that’s problematic in future, don’t worry. 

On 2013

FIRST, PLAY THIS. IT WILL GIVE YOU ALL THE FEELS:

For the sake of remembrances, please indulge me briefly.

Things I did in the second half of 2013 (because the first half is too long ago to remember): turned 22; graduated from college; read 35 books for pleasure; re-taught myself to play the piano; spent a lot of hours on the road; fell in love with One Direction; tasted a lot of wine; started running; slept; snorkeled with giant sea turtles; finished all five seasons of Friday Night Lights; galloped on horseback in the Andes; backed up my files to Cloud storage; went on a solo road trip and loved it; flossed; organized my closet; read all 5 Song of Ice & Fire books (those are 1000+ pages each, y’all!) and re-read all 7 Harry Potters; became an Instagram pro; ate a lot of vegetables; spent a good deal of time with family; soul-searched and self-actualized; figured out the kind of person I might like to be—for now, at least.

Things I’m still working on for 2014: completing a yoga handstand; finishing Moby-Dick; going to sleep regularly at a reasonable hour; learning how to properly use Pinterest; deciding where January will take me; brushing up on my Portuguese; finding employment; cleaning my desk; blogging more often.

I’ll end this with a favorite quote.

“Philosophers like to point out that ‘place’ is as much within us as without us. You can demarcate a place on a map, pinpoint its latitude and longitude with global positioning satellites, and kick the very real dirt of its very real ground. But that’s inevitably going to be only half the story.The other half of the story comes from us, from the stories we tell about a place and our experience of it. As the philosopher Edward Casey writes, ‘Stripping away cultural or linguistic accretions, we shall never find a pure place lying underneath.’ All we shall find instead are ‘continuous and changing qualifications of particular places.’ When we travel, we fix a place’s meaning in our minds. It is in the eyes of a pilgrim that a holy site becomes holiest. And in being there, he affirms not only the place’s significance but also his own. Our physical place helps us better know our psychic place — our identity.

—Andrew Blum, Tubes

Happy New Year y’all. Breathe deep, pop bottles, and play hard.

AND – most importantly – a big thank you to those of you who drop by this little smidgen of space on the interwebs & read what I have to say! You are golden.

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The road will take you wherever you want it to go, you know?

Six months later; or, on being young

It’s been six months since I left the East Coast for sunny southern California.

This evening I celebrated a childhood friend’s birthday with a picnic potluck in the public Santa Barbara rose garden. The roses, my namesake flower, were blooming in a big way. Behind us, the arcaded hall and facade of the old Mission, which dates back to 1820, glowed a buttery gold. My Catholic middle school held services there. As 8th graders in blue graduation robes, we posed for pictures out front after the Baccalaureate ceremony.

But there were no blue robes tonight. The sun set; the full moon rose; the candles were lit; and I met some of my generation’s version of hippies as we sprawled on picnic blankets in the gathering dew. They were creative and eclectic young people bedecked in unusual jewelry, flowing with talk of reiki healing and energy systems and the challenge of finding your way. Laugh all you want, but I love it.

That’s because I can relate to the challenge of finding your way. It’s been my primary life focus for the past half year. It’s driven me to seek solace and self-realization in endless yoga classes (and endless downward facing dogs); in long runs on the trails that crisscross my neighborhood’s citrus orchards and oak groves; in tall stacks of critically acclaimed novels; in hours spent mindlessly clicking through the wormhole of the Internet, jumping from food blogs to news sites to daunting job listings. It’s a challenge that has taught me the importance of talking things out with friends and family, and taking the time to ask for advice. It’s also taught me the importance of figuring things out for my self, and not letting the lives and opinions of others outweigh my own intuitions.

And the thing is, I’m pretty different in background and schooling from the alternative young people I hung out with tonight. But we all have this in common: We all worry about our futures. We all don’t know what America will look like for us anymore. We are open to so many different kinds of dreams.

Halfway through the night, in a lull in the conversation, my friend sidled up to me and asked: “What inspires you lately, Rais?” I was momentarily flustered. What inspires me? What a question! Who even asks that!

But it’s a good question. What does inspire each of us? Shouldn’t we be paying more attention to that on a daily basis?

After a minute of floundering for ideas, I started telling my friend about this NYT story on youth unemployment in Europe. The story is great, but it’s this multimedia feature that I found incredibly powerful, and that’s been haunting me ever since I read it. The Times introduces us to a slew of young people from southern and eastern Europe, all highly educated, all highly relatable, all trying hard to find their way. These were the kids I’d be friends with, had I been born in Milan or Dubrovnik. These are the young adults who I would have been. And they’re struggling: they see no future in their home countries; they see no future in the new ones they’ve adopted—for the time being—for the purpose of subsistence employment. They are a generation confused, depressed, uncertain of how to envision a long-term when the short-term is hard enough.

Laura, an Italian with two masters degrees, says:

“In general, the situation is quite depressing because young people don’t look at the future with hope. They see only a big black hole, and that’s it. It’s very scary. Sometimes I think it’s like the beginning of the last century, when people were forced to go to America because there was literally nothing here.”

Their quotes and stories haunt me, and, yes, inspire me. To do what? I don’t know. Maybe just to recognize the fairly universal experience of being a young person, of trying to figure out how to plan for a future you can’t fully envision. Of trying to decide what you want for yourself—and how you want to go about getting it. But unlike Laura, I am already in America; I am steeped in the privileges of health, family, citizenship, elite education—and rational hope. In this season of thanksgiving, cheesy as it is, their stories inspire me to appreciate my relative luck. American Millennials like me, despite a grim job market and grimmer economic prospects, are still fairly swimming in luck.

I’ve been lucky, over the past 6 months, to meet and interact with a motley collection of young people from outside of my college world—surf instructors, yoga addicts, artists, tutors, chefs, young professionals, students, waiters, organic farmers, tour guides—and it never ceases to amaze me how much we’re all the same: swaggering our way towards something, but (some secretly, others less so) second-guessing our decisions. It also amazes me how little it matters where we came from. College, with all of its pressures and concerns, seems pretty far away from where I sit.

I’m not sitting here for much longer, though. In fact, by next weekend, I’ll be in deep in the midst of college in all its Game weekend glory. I’ll be looking seriously at my future and career, and even considering making a more permanent life on that other, colder coast—or at least another, probably colder, city.

On one hand, I can’t wait.

On the other, I don’t think a 22-year-old (or anyone!) can ever be ready to plan for the future.

You just have to jump.

In grateful memory of Dean Woodard

We see our schools—our institutions—as timeless, unchanging. That’s often why we go to places lauded for their centuries of accumulated wisdom and architecture, after all.

And we see the authority figures within them as guiding, enduring points of reference, fixed as stars.

When we leave, we encase a place in memory just as it was for us. When we return, we expect it to be the same. And for the most part it will hold true: each courtyard just as manicured and green, each stone pile of a building always catching the golden afternoon light. When the physical fixtures change, it can be jarring—but the spirit of the place stays intact. Over time our memories sift away to hold less of the physical space than the community that kept us transfixed within it.

Screen Shot 2013-10-18 at 9.15.20 AMStudents are temporary inhabitants of a school; that we know. We move in and out in clockwork motion, making the place ours, defining its culture, and just as ceaselessly moving on, leaving it all behind for another class, another club, another culture.

But what of the professors and leaders? The dining hall staff who prepared our food and groundskeepers who cleaned our stairwells? It may seem callous to say, but they become fixtures too; part of the school that does not grow or leave with us, but is there to stay (or so we feel). We interact and when it’s time we say goodbye. They are a part of our remembered landscape, as permanent in our recollections as carved stones.

So the loss of a figure—the irreversible loss—cuts deep. It is the loss of a person, but much more than that; it is the loss of the sacredness of the place. It is the loss of potential, and the loss of a past we thought could not change. It is the loss of the greeting we expected upon our return. It is the loss of a brilliance that made our time (and that of others) glow.

Dean Leslie Woodard was many things to many people: teacher, friend, mentor, role model, disciplinarian, advisor, cheerleader, instructor. And those people have a great deal more to say about her than I ever could. But for the selfish sake of wanting to remember her a little better, and wanting to understand a little more fully the role she played in my Yale, in my memory, I have a few things I want to set down for me, for her, for anyone.

I.

First days of freshman year. Fall semester registration. We’re called into the dining hall, 90 giddy kids, to sign our registration cards and make ourselves officially known as students. Dean Woodard introduces herself and proceeds to deliver a pep talk. She’s lithe and ageless, her voice surprisingly loud and—when she wants it to be—high-pitched. Every word is long, drawn out, inflected. I wish, now, that I had a transcript of what she said because it was much wiser than I realized then, of course. But the gist—at that meeting and at the start of every semester to come—was always the same: Welcome. Breathe deep. “Frolic.” Make friends. Enjoy this place as best you can. That first freshman speech gave us a license to be excited about being there. It gave us the freedom to have fun.

II.

Crying. It’s dumb, but there I am, crying, in her office. It’s nearing the end of freshman year and this is the first time I’ve been to see her for anything other than a perfunctory, upbeat schedule signing. It’s also the first time I’ve cried all year. One more first: for the first time in my life, I’m failing a class. (It would also be the last time.) This isn’t supposed to happen to me, I think. I met with the professor, I’ve had meetings with the TA. I’m trying, really truly trying. But I’m still failing. I have barely sat down in the chair across for her desk when I break down. “Pull yourself together,” she says. “You don’t need to cry.” She’s tough, Dean Woodard, and when I ask her what to do—which means, please tell me what to do, tell me how to fix this mess I’m somehow in—she is all business: withdraw from the class. Take summer session courses to get the required credits. When I complain that I already have summer plans, she doesn’t waver. If I can’t pass the class, then let’s move on to Plan B. There is no miracle solution.

I leave her office angry, frustrated. I’m used to advisors helping me out, not telling me there isn’t any help to be had. I don’t want to drop the class. I don’t want to change my summer plans.

So I decide against her advice. Instead, I decide that failing is not an option. I work harder, and ultimately I pass the class.

III.

First week of classes, spring semester, senior year—and I have the flu. I can already taste the bittersweet tang of nostalgia when I look around campus; maybe that’s partly why I can’t get out of bed. But I’m also running a fever and too weak to walk to the seminar in which I plan to write my senior essay. The professors want a note from my dean to excuse my absence. No note, no spot in the class, no senior essay. I email Dean Woodard, but she won’t give a note: it’s not a family emergency and I’m not in the hospital. Dean Woodard doesn’t provide excuses for things like being sick. She sticks to the letter of the rulebook, which says you suck it up. I’m panicking.

In Dean’s office, sitting in that same chair across her desk, I once again fall into self-pitying tears. Again: “You don’t need to cry.” She instructs me to tell the professors the truth: that dean’s excuses aren’t allowed for illness, but that they can call or email her directly if needed. Again, I leave frustrated, still panicking.

A few hours later, everything is smoothed over. The professors are fine with it. When I pass the message on to Dean Woodard, she shoots back an mail: “See. No tears needed! Feel better!”

IV.

Graduation weekend. I don’t want to leave. My plans are vague. The arrival of my family is overwhelming. Every thing I pack up is another goodbye to a life I’m not ready to give up. In the Calhoun courtyard, we graduating students sit in the undiluted sun surrounded by dressed-up family and friends, our navy robes sticky against sweaty skin. Best friends to my right, my left, in front and behind. Blue skies above. Green grass below. Red brick all around.

Dean Woodard’s speech is perfect. I wonder a little, as she talks, how it’s possible for her to get it so completely. She has always told us to “frolic” (her trademark word), to have fun. Now she’s telling us to be bold people, unafraid of letting go of this place and finding something new beyond. Her voice carries.

“But whether you are intimidated or joyous,” she says of the way we will choose to present ourselves post-Yale, “this moment of introduction represents an opportunity for all of you to keep what you want of your identity and shed what you do not. It is a time of tremendous power but perhaps that’s the scariest thing of all.”

“Marianne Williamson said and was subsequently quoted by Nelson Mandela, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, ‘who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, famous?’ Who are you not to be? Playing it small does not serve the world. For as we are liberated from our own fear, so our presence liberates others.

“Powerful words, yes. But so very important, for this is your opportunity to introduce yourselves to the world entirely on your own terms, to be really, truly powerful, and to employ your presence for the empowerment others. So use the breadth of knowledge – both moral and intellectual — you have received at Yale and at Calhoun because by its virtue you are much better equipped than most and do not spend your energy trying to slip through life unnoticed. Let your mistakes be bold, your apologies sincere, remember that you and you alone are responsible for who you are and what you do.  Resist the urge to tiptoe through the world. I’m not suggesting you wear only your heaviest shoes, your spikiest stilettos. Journey through life in comfortable shoes that allow you to walk when you wish, run when you wish. And when it is warm and lovely, go barefoot, feel the cool grass beneath the soles of your feet, take long, confident strides, and never ever forget to frolic!”

And when she reads out each of our names in her signature baseball-announcer voice, drawing out each syllable with an extra flourish, and hands over our diplomas and shakes our hands and sends us off, it’s hard not to think: here’s a woman of incredible confidence, of humor, of power.

V.

Right after graduation, I check my inbox to find an email from her, apologizing for mispronouncing my name during the diploma ceremony. I respond to tell her not to worry, and also to request a copy of her speech. She sends it back as an attachment almost immediately. “I hope you enjoy it!” she wrote. And: “I wish you all the best for the future! Keep in touch!!!”

I’m not sure if I ever did say goodbye in person. But I want to think that’s OK, in the end.

When I arrived at Yale, I thought Dean Woodard was supposed to be something of a safeguard: the person to protect me from my mistakes, to build me up when I was low, to help me navigate the rougher terrain of college. I had always, after all, gone to small schools.

But Dean saw it differently. We were to succeed on our own terms—not because of her assistance. When crises struck, her approach was tough but unerringly realistic. She didn’t fix things; she simply directed us toward the way we could fix them ourselves. It’s hard to overestimate how important that kind of an approach was for someone like me, who had always been privileged with wonderful oversight, parents and teachers and coaches who ensured that failure was not an option.

So when failure was an option, Dean made it clear that it was something I was to face myself. As with all things in life, I had a choice: to pick myself up and figure it out; or to let despondency, self-pity, or self-limitations take me down. It was the same thing whenever I went to her to look over my classes or discuss my extracurriculars. She never told me to do one thing over another. Instead, she questioned my decisions, and made me justify them. And as long as I could do that—as long as it was clear that I had a reason, that I had confidence, and that I was going to take responsibility for whatever I got myself into—she was happy to sign off on my plans. So I learned to do just that.

I often think that more than anything, my four years at Yale taught me humility. I saw what it was to be incapable of doing it all, to be less than the best, and to be overshadowed by peers who were willing to work harder, study longer, focus more.

But with the little bit of time and distance the past few months have afforded me, I’ve realized that Yale also taught me how to make choices for myself, and how to commit to a path of action. Or: how to have the confidence to direct my future, rather than let it simply happen. A great deal of that confidence came from figuring out that I could decide that—for instance—failure was not an option. It was something I built slowly throughout my time in college, and carry with me now. That self-knowledge came to me first from Dean, who was almost intimidating in her own self-assurance.

She forced me to act for myself.

I don’t know if there is a more meaningful lesson anyone can teach you. For that, I thank her, and am deeply grateful for the brief time I spent as one of her students. And for that, I am profoundly saddened by her death. Calhoun—Yale—has lost one of its finest instructors; not just in the classroom, but especially in the rather important life lessons of self-confidence, responsibility, and resilience.

I am sure that others who were better acquainted with her as a professor and as a friend will write of her academic brilliance, her quirky humor, and her vibrant spirit. These 2000-odd words on this blog in my tiny, nearly invisible corner of the Internet are but a small, self-reflective tribute. Still, all memories have value, I think, and the ones I have of her are strong.

When I go back to Yale next month, it will be different. Calhoun—my home at Yale—will not feel quite the same. I’ll know why. No buildings will have changed; the red brick walls and stone façades will be there, timeless as ever. The difference will be in the spirit of the place. The warmth of my college memories comes not from the cold stone halls of the libraries, but from the people whose words and actions shaped that home.

“…What makes your goodbyes so difficult,” Dean said in that same commencement speech, “is that this place and the people beside you and around you now possess for you the quality of punctum, they have pierced you, they are a part of you and you cannot, will not forget them, for one can never lose that which pierces be it a place, an ethos, or a person.”

Thank you, Dean Woodard, for all that you did and were and continue to do, even—especially—after you are gone.

(If you would like to read Dean Leslie Woodard’s full commencement speech for the Calhoun College Class of 2013, please click here.)

On tortoises, iguanas, and humans

Nature, meet culture

Nature, meet culture

Most animals in the Galapagos Islands have no natural predators. There are no lions or tigers or bears, and for millions of years there weren’t any humans to make problems. No rats either. The birds eat the worms and the sea lions eat the fish and sometimes there are sharks that go after the sea lions, but that’s about it. A primarily vegetarian ecosystem. A pretty peaceful coexistence.

The most striking thing about seeing the animals in the Galapagos is how supremely unbothered they are by the human intruders around them. The marine iguanas go on sunbathing and slithering without concern. The sea lions go on lying there blissfully. The blue-footed boobies go on standing there with their, yes, blue feet. There’s no fear, not even curiosity: just bored dismissal. Whatever, they seem to say. Stare all you like. I’m not going anywhere. I have an egg to sit on. Or: I have seaweed to chew. Or: I have a lady friend to impress. 

That peaceful unconcern is, of course, why many of the endemic Galapagos species have evolved into oddities. When we look at the flightless cormorant, say, which developed an aptitude for swimming and retains only vestigial wings, we don’t think “survival of the fittest” but rather “survival of the weirdest.” It’s because of these incredibly specific adaptations that many Galapagos species are at such risk of survival today.

Tortoise crossing

Tortoise crossing

For instance: the tortoises are big and slow-moving, and over centuries some species lost the ability to retract fully into their carapaces. That kind of armored protection just wasn’t necessary. But then in the heyday of whaling, sailors discovered that the big, slow-moving tortoises were great to have on ships: they were easily caught and stored, stayed alive for up to a year without food or water, and provided an abundant meat supply. They stacked hundreds of tortoises in their holds, and decimated the populations. Meanwhile errant rats, tucked away belowdecks on whaling boats, disembarked into the islands and found they had a macabre taste for tortoise eggs and baby tortoises. The recovery work continues slowly today, as scientists work to re-engineer and re-introduce into the wild new offspring of tortoise species unique to each tiny island—while eradicating the problematic rats.

He's showing off

He’s showing off

Another instance: the land iguana, lazy and (again) fairly large and slow-moving. Native Galapagos iguanas were fine when they didn’t have competitors for food in the arid landscape they called home, but the introduction (by humans) of foraging goats, pigs, and donkeys destroyed the ready availability of low-lying vegetation, and the land iguana population on the island of Santa Cruz dwindled rapidly. Over the last few decades, aggressive anti-goat, anti-pig, and anti-donkey campaigns have restored the iguanas’ livelihood and numbers (and have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of wild pigs, goats, and donkeys).

This is the story of so many wilderness areas around the globe: a constant tug-of-war between destruction and preservation, unintended alteration and carefully considered rehabilitation. Humankind tends to be klutzy when we come to our environment. We can’t help it. We rarely realize what we’re doing while we’re doing it. And, perhaps most importantly, our cultural consciousness of what we’re doing and if it’s good, bad, or neutral is always in flux.

If you zoom out on a place like the Galapagos—zoom out millions of years—some big questions come into play. By protecting the land and animals, are we stopping the inevitable progress of time and evolutionary tough love—or just halting it? Is reversing what we see to be human damage to a pristine environment a smart move, or are we nearsighted by our own good intentions?

IMG_3228

Tagus Cove, a popular stopover for whaling ships

Blah blah. These are the philosophical debates around environmentalism, and I’m hardly the first person to articulate the questions. But I think I know what my answers are—for myself, anyway.

In the end, the value to me of stalling time is not to keep the animals around forever. That’s neither our place as fallible humans nor within our ability (again, fallible humans). The value to me of is in keeping us actively engaged in the process of awareness: of understanding how delicate and how changeable each element of our own environments can be. And I don’t mean environment as in just “nature” out “in the wild.” I mean environments in all their complexities of our everyday urban jungles: the relationships, the interactions, the fields of energy. (Yes, I’m going all new-age on you.)

If we are nostalgic for a past that we messed up, it can often be recuperated. It just takes time and effort (and there will inevitably be new consequences to the changes we make). The process of fixing what we’ve broken acts as a reminder that nothing—but nothing!—lasts for very long, if at all.

Here’s the thing: land iguanas have no idea how lucky they are to have ample food to graze on once more. The unusual part about being human is that we know just how good we have it, just how much we miss things we’ve lost, and just how lucky we are to get them back.

So yeah, it would be chill to be a land iguana, and it would be fun to splash around as a sea lion. But being a human? That might be the coolest animal of all.

Marine iguanas everywhere

Life’s a beach for the marine iguanas.

The First Not-First Day; or, Not Back-to-School

I should have gone on a social media hiatus this week.

Instead, I’m obsessively trawling my feeds, which are filled with snapshots and comments about the start of the academic year. For many of my friends (now college seniors), it’s the “Last First Day.” For me and my 2013 cohort, it’s the First Not-First Day.

Sure, some people took gap years, or semesters off, or had unusual academic schedules. Whatever. In the end we were bound to the biological clock of the classroom since age 5 (or younger), a solid 17 years of schooling in which summer came to a close at the end of August, marked by the annual trips to Staples for fresh mechanical pencils and the agonizing search for the perfect bookbag. (The phases were endless: classic Jansport backpack, nerdy rolling pack, utilitarian canvas messenger bag, glitzy leopard-print tote, hippie cross-body satchel, leather carryall…) And of course there was always the critical question: binders or notebooks? And in college: Mead Five-Stars or Moleskines? Followed by the equally grave transition from forgiving, erasable pencils to indelible—gasp!—pens. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I can trace my growing-up—my personal journey to adulthood (or some semblance of it)—through the materials I chose to carry with me to school, the things I decided were worthy receptacles for my accumulating knowledge.

WLHclassroomWhich is all just to say that I didn’t do that this year. For the first time in memory: no back-to-school. Just another day out here in California (I know, life is rough). There’s something oddly final about missing out on that annual ritual. This must be what it’s like to be born on a Leap Year, when everyone just skips over your birthday. Or to miss New Year’s Eve while traveling across time zones.

Because back-to-school was always more than just a day to show off some fresh kicks, your summer tan, and a Lisa Frank sticker collection. Back-to-school was, each and every time, that most glorious of things: a new start. The night before, sleepless, I would resort to envisioning my new self for the year, seeing with eager optimism the bright possibilities. This year, I thought, I would be friends with her. I would hang out with him. I would talk like that. I would look like this.

The comforting regularity of the opportunity for reinvention was what gave school its everlasting charm as we got older and jaded by the persistence of homework, studying, the mundane reality of the academic grind. Finish off a semester or a summer and then, no matter what had happened, the First Day was a blank slate.

Wise people will tell you that every day is a blank slate. Today, they’ll say, is the first day of the rest of your life… etc. etc. Whatever. I’m 22; I am not wise. I’m coming off of four years fueled by the energy of words like FOMO YOLO young-wild-free live-while-we’re-young we-can’t-stop ’til-the-world-ends. Those are powerful mantras for recklessness and immaturity, and they’re a hard habit to kick. It’s not cool to be wise. It’s hard to be wise. It’s hard to remember that not going back to school doesn’t mean nothing has to change. It’s hard to feel the fizzy butterflies of a fresh start without everyone around me doing the same thing.

On the flip side, though, there’s a dark glamour in now feeling personally responsible for any changes I might want to make to my life. (I’m hardly the first person to say this, but bear with me.) If this is the empowerment of adulthood, it’s scary but encouraging. As I go back through those social media feeds and see the kids these days having their back-to-school moments at Camp Yale, bringing in the year with a bang and plenty of booze, I’m not jealous of what I’m missing. I don’t envy them their fun. Instead I envy how easy it is for them to engage in an institutionally-mandated reinvention of self.

They remind me that if I want to feel that First-Day fervor again, no one is going to serve it up to me. Like everyone else before me, I have to find it.