Cory Booker, failure, graduation, success, time

“Time is Galleons, little brother.” – J.K. Rowling

A few weeks ago, I attended my younger brother’s college graduation. As I watched him glide through the aisle of Old Campus cloaked in his cap and gown, I was swept over by the disbelief that comes with a mark of time passed: “Wow, is he done with college already? It feels like he just left!” While only somewhat unsettling in itself, the disbelief resulted in a more troublesome, existential worry for me: This means it’s been 3 years since I’ve graduated college. Where does the time go?

The final notes of Pomp and Circumstance were still floating like clouds above me when Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey ascended the stage for his Commencement Address (it was phenomenal, and if you have 48:44 to spare, I highly recommend you watch it). In a nutshell, the speech was about vision. Setting your sights on where you’re going and taking care to make sure you’re moving in the right direction, but also, and maybe more importantly, seeing where you are right now, in this moment. In addition to being good at talking about vision, Cory must also have supernatural eyesight. Because in this very speech, he read my mind (and transformed my thoughts into more eloquent ones): “In life the days go by so slowly,” he proclaimed, “In life the days go by so slowly, but the years fly by.”

In the foundational anecdote of his speech, Booker explains that he was once friends with a young, misguided boy who lived in his apartment building. While at first he mentored him and helped recalculate his route, Booker got busy with his election campaign and with becoming big and important. He toured around town and once back in his apartment each night, was too tired to do anything else. He passed the boy in his hallway every night. It was only when he was attending this boy’s funeral, only after this boy was killed in a gang-related incident, that Booker saw how plowing towards his grand success had only opened his door to failure. A failure that made him too ashamed to get out of bed in the morning. Something we all take for granted everyday. It’s the small acts of kindness in your everyday, he explains, not the vague pursuit of something big and important, that matters in the end.

The next time you start a new job, try a little experiment: Keep a journal to record every time someone tells you what day you’re on. My hypothesis is that your journal will get the most action on Day 1. “Wow! Day 1! Welcome,” they’ll say as your manager parades you around the office. “Still surviving Day 1?” someone will ask as you walk to lunch. And, just as you’re packing up to leave, you’ll get the obligatory, “We’re so happy to have you here. I hope you had a great first day.” You’ll probably fill up an entire page (especially if you’re handwriting is like mine) on Day 1. And then you’ll probably have a lot of action in Week 1. “Day 3, huh?” someone will ask in the kitchen. “Good ol’ day 4,” someone will say as she washes her hands at the sink next to you in the bathroom. And then, there will be the celebratory clink of Day 5. Maybe someone will recognize your first month, you’ll note your first year, and then, well, all bets are off. Until, Year 5 or something.

My brother’s graduation came a few days after I started a new job, making me that person who starts her new job then takes time off before she gets her first paycheck. While I wouldn’t have missed my brother’s college graduation for the world, I was extremely nervous about the number of days of work I would be missing when I had been there so few days to begin with. I tried to minimize them as much as possible. So much so that I woke up at 12 AM PST to catch a 4 AM PST flight to get back in to San Francisco at 1:30 PM and go straight into work. But it was only (lucky) Day 13 and I didn’t want it to slip away.

At the beginning of June, I was in a meeting when someone looked at me and said, “What is this? Week 4 for you?” I didn’t know off the top of my head. Weeks had already flown by.

Every morning, I throw a piece of bread in the toaster after going to the gym. While the bread gets toasty, I stop everything — my response to that email, unloading those last few dishes, reading riveting status updates — in order to prepare for the toast’s arrival into the world. While the bread is in the toaster I take out my peanut butter, a plate, and a butter knife and wait by the toaster so that the moment, the exact precise moment the toast enters the world, I can snatch it and start slathering on the peanut butter.

There is a certain art to being able to create a perfect slice of peanut butter toast. One which involves painting the peanut butter onto your toast while it holds maximum toaster heat. This is when most of the peanut butter will melt, but a thin layer will remain at room-temperature consistency. If you miss the window, the toast cools and the peanut butter doesn’t spread or stick as well. It’s kind of like this.

When I miss the peanutbuttertunity, it is typically for something that could have waited, something like typing one last sentence of an email. It’s never worth it. There’s nothing worse than poorly-spread, room-temperature peanut butter on a cold piece of toast, especially when you only allot yourself one chance a day, and the next opportunity isn’t for another twenty four hours. An eternity, if you ask a fruit-fly. I eat my peanut butter toast at 8:30 every morning, and I spend longer eating it than I do entire meals during the rest of the day.

I am not suggesting that my (really odd) guilty pleasure is a Cory-Booker-daily-small-act-of-kindness. It’s a metaphor. There is no reason why Day 1 should be any more important than Day 36 than Day 100. Or why the moments in each of those days should trudge by. It’s up to us to create the specific moments in each day that stand out to us, as banal as they might be to others. It’s when you give up the opportunity to create markers in your everyday that you admit defeat to time. That you wave goodbye as the years fly by. Find something small in your each of your days and transform it into something hugely, deeply, intrinsically rewarding. Not to fall too far into college mode, but as Keats so succinctly put it, “Life is but a day.”

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forever, friendship, graduation, literature, real world, technology

“We want a world where life is preserved.” -Isabel Allende

I started reading Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune last December. I had stumbled upon a quaint book store reminiscent of an attic (those are the best kind) on my way to a coffee shop in La Jolla and just had to purchase something. (I have this disease where, when I enter a book store, I can’t leave without buying a book. It’s genetic.) In what, to any onlooker, would have seemed like a decision between life and death, I carefully selected the book from a choice of several others for no particular reason in the world.

Between assigned reading for work and little time to read in general (and okay, I’m a pretty slow reader), I only completed the 400-page novel in June. Throughout the six month period, however, I could be assured that whenever I opened up the book, the heroine, Eliza, would be waiting for me right where I had left off.

It was some time in June that I truly got traction on the book. For a period of a couple days, I was completely entrenched in the world Allende had created with her writing. I found it difficult to tear myself apart to live my own life — I was constantly distracted and wanting to return to my book. Only after completing the book could I wholeheartedly continue onward.

If there’s one thing I absolutely cherish about fiction literature, it’s the stories are never a thing of the past. As my seventh grade English teacher once romanticized, every time you open up a fiction book, the world is recreated. The characters are reborn. The plot is reignited.

This notion is probably the sole distinguishing factor between fiction and reality. Reality, especially the fast-paced technological reality of today, is not contained between two pieces of cardboard, waiting for our attention whenever we have some time to spare.

Increasingly, likely due to the state and speed of technology and communication, we’re living in a world of fleeting fads. A world ruled by viral videos (Shit People Say), memes and games (Draw Something) where the lifespan of a fruit fly suddenly feels quite long.

In the early days of Facebook, a user could update a status which would then remain stuck at the top of the profile for about a week. Though seven days isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things, there was a sense of commitment to thought. At some point, probably in response to Twitter, Facebook statuses turned into something more fleeting. Scrolling to obsolescence, saturated by the information overload that is social media. If Facebook is a proxy for the way we as humans assess and process the world and our feelings, I am nervous about where this is taking us.

I am worried that we have begun to apply our love for fads, our newfound prowess at rapidly adopting, adapting, then advancing to our interpersonal relationships as well. I’ll be the first to admit, I sometimes have trouble placing some of my Facebook friends. I don’t remember who they are or where I met them.

I started getting to know one of my now good friends towards the end of my senior year of college. At a glance, it seems surprising that our friendship has continued to grow after graduation, especially given that we live on opposite ends of the globe. Upon deeper reflection, I realize that it is silly to be surprised. We segment time and our lives with random and arbitrary landmarks: college, new jobs, marriage. We collect friends along the way. But these relationships don’t need to be confined by the bookends of these landmarks.

Several months ago, a friend and I were at dinner discussing a plethora of existential topics. Those topics and thoughts you revel in as a child, but that, as you grow older, are construed as naive and silly. What does forever mean to you? he asked. I paused for a second, pretending to think, but really having thought about it frequently enough to already have my answer. I always imagine growing older and older with the world, but never dying. The people I love would stick around too. His image of forever was similar in that the people in his life would remain. Just, nobody would get any older. Most noteworthy was that both of us incorporated our interpersonal relationships in “forever.”

That we have started to treat people in our lives the way we treat fleeting Internet memes is a complete shame. I truly believe that now, more than ever, we must retrain ourselves as the human race to establish life-long relationships. Not frivolous social media connections. If you ask me, our relationships should be like fiction novels. Taking time to mature, ferment, and reignited. Ready to be dusted off and reread after years on the shelf. This isn’t exactly a crazy notion. In fact, some say that fiction is just life without the boring parts. I tend to agree.

 
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graduation, practice

All The Right Moves

During my final meeting with my thesis adviser, we got into a discussion of the numerous ceremonies in my near future, from one for the department to one for the entire University. She looked at me and smiled. You know, we don’t have anything like this in France. It’s such a nice tradition in the States. I never see students as happy as they are at their graduation ceremonies. Everyone wants me to take pictures with them…and with their parents too! It’s just such a happy day. I had never thought of it that way. Between furiously taking notes and panicking about an upcoming exam, there are few times we students have just sat back and smiled at our lecturing professors. At this “work-hard, play-hard” institution, professors saw the “work,” and fellow classmates saw the “play.” Professors must not see students smile very often.

Besides the cap and gown, my high school and college graduation ceremonies were completely different. We had three rehearsals for my high school ceremony. Play by play rehearsals to the point where we would drive 30 minutes to the mountain winery, practice processing, sit through the entire roll call, practice walking up to get a practice diploma, pause for the practice photographer to take our practice photograph, practice walking off the stage back to our seats, and finally, practice recessing. The rehearsals seemed to go on for an eternity. Practice makes perfect, right? But by the time the actual ceremony rolled around, there was a twinge of mundaneness.. I had already shook the Head of School’s hand. The day before. At the practice ceremony. The actual ceremony just flew by.

A couple days before our department ceremony, a friend and I were celebrating our imminent graduations. At one point, she looked at me, puzzled. Are we supposed to wear caps and gowns to this or is it more of a reception? She asked. I stared back blankly. I had no clue (We found the answer in the fine print of one of many emails we had received…crisis averted!). Upon entering the auditorium, we ran to the bathroom to put on our caps and gowns (the easy part) and the hood. If the hood was a language, it would be Greek. We stood there observing the way in which each student was sporting his or her hood in an effort to decide what was correct (that’s what psychologists do). How do people know how to do this?! We complained. We threw something together, and went to be seated. Do we have to sit in some sort of order? My thoughts were interrupted by an official who handed me an index card to write out my name phonetically for the announcer. Do I also write it orthographically?

The words of the keynote speaker were drowned out by the sound of my heavily beating heart. Why are you nervous? I scolded myself. I’m going to have to state the title of my thesis. Do I remember it? Speech by ears and eyes…Yes okay I do. I have to say thank-yous. I want to thank my adviser and my parents. Are other people thanking their parents? I have to go up, shake her hand, and walk across the stage. What if I trip? For a person who has been walking and talking since long before she can remember, I was pretty diffident about the tasks at hand.

I didn’t stutter or trip. But my hood was wrong. That was fixed at my College Graduation by a Graduation “Marshall” the next day. And by Monday’s Commencement ceremony, I was helping others (as I wrote on my family listserv earlier this month, by May 17, we’re going to be ceremonied out!). My College graduation and Commencement were filled with several questions and surprises as well. Do we move our tassels from right to left now? …Now?…. NOW?! Nothing was obvious, but nothing was impossible. I figured it out as the ceremony went on. It was kind of fun that way and the ceremony seemed longer and arguably more fulfilling than my high school ceremony (above and beyond the disparity in the actual accomplishment each was acknowledging. I mean, my high school graduation ceremony involved the releasing of doves).

Back home, I was regaling a close family friend on the weekend’s events. I didn’t even know when to move my tassel! I joked. She became kind of serious. Come on! You’ve been having graduation ceremonies since kindergarten! How much more practice do you need? She was right. When I start work in the fall, I’m going to be diving right in to the deep end. Gone are the days where the final exam poses problems that are just slightly tweaked from the practice problems on the homework. Gone are the days of practice handshakes and trial runs (except for those of you going into research…) But my life experiences thus far are my “practice runs.” And I’ll have many more, but they’ll all be life experiences in themselves (I’m blatantly overlooking wedding rehearsals, but weddings are like fairy tales and I’m talking about real life). The “practice” category is going to be sparse to nonexistent.

Howard Ogden once said, “Cab drivers are living proof that practice does not make perfect.” Go. Live life. Forget about whether or not you’ve done it before. Just give it your best shot, and who knows, you might surprise yourself.

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endowment effect, graduation, meaningfulness, relativity

One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor

When I was in the fifth grade, my school principal met Hillary Clinton. I’m not quite sure of the specifics, but the rendez-vous is the key takeaway. The day she returned, I saw her on the lawn during lunch recess. Ever since we had both dressed up as Dorothy for Halloween (twinsies!!), she and I were pretty good friends (insert joke about the beginnings of my bond with teacher-types that would eventually blossom into my emailing interesting articles to professors). I sprinted towards her. Did you meet Mrs. Clinton?! I chirped excitedly. Mrs. Barrett flashed a smile and stuck out her right hand. I shook her hand with this hand. Do you want to touch it? I was in disbelief; I was about to touch the very hand that had touched Hillary Clinton! I haven’t washed it since I shook her hand! She said with a grin. Really? I asked. This is why children are so naive — You adults just take us for a ride! But, I digress.

As a recent college graduate, I am obviously feeling very nostalgic. And though I have washed my hands many many times over the last four years, I will still be able to cherish the memories in other ways. Having attended a college 2,916 miles away from home at a time when checking in a suitcase may cost more than the total worth of its contents, packing up my room was the most difficult exam I’ve ever had to take. Format? Multiple choice. For each item I chose the best answer:

a. Useless – dispose
b. Salvageable – donate
c. Replaceable – dispose & purchase on the flip side
d. Sentimental – wear it, stuff it in your underwear, give it your plane ticket…

Don’t tell my mother, but I disposed of items that were pretty valuable money-wise. A printer (by the world leader, HP), for example.

While she was “helping” me, my mom pulled out a frayed tshirt from my already-packed suitcase (we’re a really productive team). Why are you taking this back. Please, throw it away. She said in her conclusive tone. No, I need that. Throw away that stationary. I offered. No, you can use it. What are you going to do with this shirt? Technically, she was right. There was nothing I could do with that tshirt. It was small and old and probably should not see the light of day. But it was a shirt from my freshman year dance show. It was a memory. Clearly it had experienced one too many trips through the crappy dorm washing machines, but it had a lifetime of memories associated with it.In psychology, the endowment effect explains how people place a higher value on objects they own than objects that they do not. Prized possession to me, trash to my mom.

For a school-sponsored event during our last week of college, Class Board sold $5 bright-yellow tshirts with a cheeky phrase based off Sesame Street. Cookie Monster, Big Bird, the gang’s all there. We all complained, but we also all bought it. And wore it proud. It was a bonding experience, walking around Center City and stopping to talk to yellow-shirt clad strangers. And that shirt, cut up and stained, never to be worn again, beat out my printer.

A lot of things sound good (valuable) on paper. A printer, a salary, acceptance to Harvard, an offer from Teach for America. But unless you care about it, unless you have an innate passion, it is meaningless to you. And quite frankly, a waste of time and effort.

At a final round interview, I was given a tshirt with the company logo. A couple weeks later, I found myself deciding between two offers, and as a test, I wore it to a rehearsal and late into the evening. It was when I pointed to the tshirt to a friend across the room that I realized I had made the right decision. A free tshirt told me that.

As you go through life, follow the yellow brick road. Just make sure it’s the road that you’ve paved for yourself. Find meaning in every step. In the end, what to your neighbor could just be a pair of red shoes, to you, could be the only ticket home.

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graduation, technology

Cupidtino

We’re all living tales of two, three, maybe four cities. Our friends and family are widespread across the country, and maybe even globe. But we’re all connected by a world-wide web. And that’s why, as the Dean of the Engineering School insisted at our University-wide Commencement, advanced technology is magic.

There are two camps when it comes to social networking: those for whom the revolution is the angel on the right shoulder, and those for whom it is the devil on the left. People are uninhibited when it comes to online social networking. They reach out to those who they might not contact in person. They provide raw, unedited emotion by means of updates, posts, and comments. There are few norms and restrictions. It is wonderful in the sense that networks are expanded and enriched. But it is awful for the very same reasons. Social networking sheds light on the dark shadow of the human character. The preconceived notions, the hangups, the insecurities, the lack of confidence, that prevent us from interacting with people in the flesh. We’re hindered, and for some reason, online social networking is one of the only ways to counteract our deficiency. How else can you explain the way in which people make open confessions on sites like YouTube, but not to a best friend?

During the roll call of my college graduation, I noted numerous names that I recognized, but whose owners I didn’t know on a personal level. “Probably because we all Facebook friended each other when we were accepted to college,” I mentioned to my friend next to me. I thought back to one girl with whom I had engaged in an extended Facebook message thread the summer before college. We bonded over several similar aspects of our lives, including our employer (Coldstone Creamery FTW). However, I never interacted with this girl in person once I arrived at college. Though, judging from our written interactions facilitated by the wonder that is technology (two things that are very near and dear to my heart), I am sure that we could have been good in-person friends as well.

After the initial friends-making period that accompanies the beginning of any endeavor, we become comfortable with the people in our lives and stop really “looking.” Perhaps we can blame the “seven friend-slots per person” rule of evolutionary psychology.

It’s interesting. The birth of sites like Facebook and Twitter might be the very tools to counteract the curse of limitation that evolutionary psychology has dealt to humans. Yes, it’s important to appreciate what we have, but there’s no such thing as too many friends (as our University President mentioned at our Baccalaureate ceremony, “I encourage you all to connect with your fellow colleagues.”) The wonders of technology can help us to stay together.

At Commencement, the speaker made a distinction between technology and emotion, with a “technology isn’t everything” theme. I’ll take that. But technology and emotion are not completely disconnected. In fact, technology may be the only weapon that breaks the emotional barriers that hinder our daily lives.

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