we need more gap years

A few days ago, I read Zuckerberg’s lofty manifesto and understood it as a relevant piece fighting to cast Facebook in a different post-election light than discussions of fake news and echo chambers. I found it interesting, value globalization, and appreciate the idea of removing arbitrary boundaries, but felt as though I was reading Facebook’s mission statement. Then, when perusing different podcasts after making it through all my favorites, I landed on one called Exponent. The title intrigued me; I’ve been reading Taleb’s The Black Swan & thinking quite a lot about the unpredictable nature of change. I also have a lot of concern about the growing disparity between different parts of society, one which will grow exponentially as technology improves, but is limited to those who can afford it.

Anyway, I listened to an episode called The Most Political & was struck by an observation Thompson & Allworth both landed on: that a whole lot of folks in the tech industry haven’t had enough experience with things other than the bubble of the valley. They discuss the way the idealism so often shown by tech companies is shown without recognition of its political nature. Now, there are a lot of very nuanced conversations to be had on those ideas (the disruption of traditional incentives, for example), but I’d especially like to say that I question the notion that a discussion about a sort of oneness of humanity is political. That said, something Thompson points out is that to assume that such large-scale change, even when it comes from broad intellectual intentions, fails to recognize that progress towards a peaceful and connected global society is not inevitable.

As someone interested in technology and the potential for positive change, I’ve found that recent events in my life have given me a lot to chew on, and hopefully a different understanding than others might have. I look forward to an exciting and well-paying internship this summer, one which very well may signal my journey into the idealistic bubble. I hope that my experiences during my gap year will provide me with an awareness of reality.

During my gap year, I discovered a lot of things about the world and myself, traveling to new and exciting places, having a ‘real job’ that forced me to keep my finances in check & required hard work, and living (sort of) independently (I was lucky enough to have a wonderful DC cousin with an empty basement room for lease & a whole lot of delicious breakfasts to share). The most formative experience for me was most likely my trip to Tanzania, where I realized that I am incredibly ignorant in most contexts, and that there is danger in failing to recognize that. I interned on the Hill, and became more steadfast in some beliefs while increasing my ambivalence on others. I’d hate to say that I lost my optimism, because I still do believe in an open, positive mindset, however have become much more of a pragmatist in recognizing the complexity of it all.

Most of us are drawn to categorization; I think we like tie multiplicity to normalcy, and therefore seek to group events or people or products in search of a sort of validation. I see a lot of danger in this as well, in political party affiliations that teach us a binary in beliefs that allows laziness in examination of our values and the issues at hand. I’ve also long been fascinated the things meant by the way we group others. I’m always a bit confused when I read headlines that use the word Africa but that are really only talking about one or two countries on the (massive) continent. The higher up the hierarchy of classification we go for certain groups, the less respect and understanding we have for their value and culture. We allow ourselves to overgeneralize, but also to take specific traits that may be common to a smaller subgroup and apply them to a much larger one. The most dangerous of these overgeneralization is the way a whole lot of white people (myself sometimes included) talk about Africa. I’m no expert on the continent, but even just having been to two countries off the East coast, I recognize that the people from those places have greatly different cultures, and histories that have shaped them in different ways. It becomes dangerous when we allow ourselves to take what little knowledge we have about a place and apply it to every subgroup. It allows us to oppress, and to view a continent as something undeserving of the same recognition and thought we give to members of the EU, countries on just about every other continent, and states in the US.

I write all of this in part because I’m not a coherent writer. I also write it because based on conversations and experiences during my gap year, I have come to find these nuggets of truth to be incredibly important and formative in my way of thinking about the world and the space I occupy in it. Gentrification, something I first learned existed during my time in DC, is a problem I am now incredibly cognizant of, and that will be on my mind wherever I live for the rest of my life. I’m not saying that I don’t contribute to problems that exist, or that I know how to fix them, but I am saying that because of the time I spent getting glimpses into the lives of those I would have never gotten otherwise, I hope to have perspective that shapes my actions and decisions for the better.

As far as gap years go, I’d like to think there’s no wrong way to take them. Spending a year working in the service industry (as I did for much of mine) has a lot of value. I learned to work hard, to respect those who know what they’re doing, and (relatively, of course), what it feels like to have your decisions restricted by your income (in part because I was saving much of mine to help pay for college). At the same time, I was able to travel some, and had some fascinating unpaid gigs as well. I know a lot of kids who take gap years wind up traveling or spending the year volunteering somewhere, options that also provide a whole lot of potential for thought and enrichment. Empathy is important, but providing meaning to it through actually experiencing that for which you have it is when it becomes powerful. As silly as it sounds, I can’t wait to have catered lunches brought in by some kind person from an area catering company and to thank them and tell my coworkers to wait until the caterers have setup to get their plates.

Of course, I don’t know what my path will look like as is the nature of things, but do hope that should I go from the comfort of college to a nice tech job, I’ll be able to think about how my decisions will affect people like some of those I got to know in DC.  I hope to one day be able to take the valuable skills I’m learning right now and make them more accessible to those with different backgrounds from me and many of my peers. I’m not trying to say that if everyone gentrifying San Fransisco right now had taken a gap year San Fransisco wouldn’t be gentrified, but having an understanding rooted in more than idealism matters. To share the words of James Baldwin “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” 

metaphors and morning runs

I love to run. Not fast, but far enough that I feel connected to my body in a different way. Recently, I’ve been drawing a lot of connections between the things I see on runs and issues discussed in the world around me, so I’d like to write them down.

I’ve had a lot of discussions the past few weeks about what it means to be a woman in a predominantly male field. The nature of competition is always part of it. I draw a lot of connections in what I expect from myself in computer science and running. When running on a trail with other people, I’ll always pick my speed up a bit if there’s another woman running near me, but if I’m passed by a man I keep my current pace. I recognize that in the realm of running, there are realities that exist in terms of average times by gender, but how many of those are self-imposed? At what point does the acceptance of a norm soak into our brains and self worth, and maybe at some point, our muscles too?

The divide that exists in computer science has absolutely nothing to do with innate ability. Why, then, do I compare myself differently to men versus women in my classes? I attribute it in large part to the notion that for women, there’s very little room at the top. On a subconscious level, I’ve been trained to believe that women have fewer spots than men, and therefore because I am a woman, I must work harder than the other women. The problem is that this mindset hurts everyone in the end, and maintains the thought that there isn’t a lot of room at the top. It forces us to fit into a mold to find success, when supporting one another is much more meaningful.

Something I’ve also noticed is the space people take up on sidewalks, and the way it might relate to the way those with power perpetuate the oppression of those without. I don’t know that there’s any correlation between how people walk and their identity, but even so there are a lot of interesting components. For instance, if I’m running past a group, I find it much more difficult to get around them, and that when I say “On your right!” it usually takes two or three shouts before one of them notices and tells the others to shift. The group mentality is one I’ve certainly been part of, and I think it represents the way comfort in ones surroundings removes concerns for those not part of the group. People seem to lose awareness of the space they’re taking up when they view themselves as only part of it. It turns into a sort of collective action problem.

Another trend I’ve picked up on is that of people not paying attention, distracted by their phones normally. Oftentimes they’ll be right in the middle of the sidewalk and leave little room for me to pass, caught up in their music or in the middle of a phone call (I have also most certainly done this). It doesn’t mean they have malicious intentions, just that their lack of awareness has the potential to affect others negatively.

I think both of these examples exist in different contexts, and converge to a larger problem of people who might not be intending to hurt or limit the potential of others. Complacency really does help the oppressor, in fact it may well be the oppressor. From what I’ve gathered, to be more cognizant is the first step in allowing others to have equal respect in the space you occupy. Also, listening is really really important. I will note that I am not a marginalized group in the broader sense or as a runner, just that these observations have made more clear to me a lot of conversations I’ve had in the past year about what it means to have privilege.

a love affair with an algorithm

About a year ago I got a spotify subscription. I loved poking around and clicking from artist to related artist and finding all kinds of great jams. I started subscribing to playlists too… Muted Jazz, Chill Party, Mellow Morning, among other ones with syllable names. Then, while perusing the main page, I saw a cool one called Discovery Weekly. I looked through the music on it (I was really into an Icelandic pop artist at the time) and saw some favorites and some that had album covers I would typically dig (fuzzy childhood photos, taxidermied animals) and subscribed. The playlist updated every Sunday night, so I always tried to save my most favorite songs before that happened. I was in awe each week and started to wonder who on earth was making this playlist. The creator’s name, simply ‘Spotify’. They had lots of playlists that I imagined to be created by someone at their schnazzy tech headquarters, which probably had kitchens full of free food and lots of couches. Also, probably headphones. I began to daydream about someone at the Spotify headquarters who wanted the world to discover this music, all of which I listened to on a near-infinite loop. I thought of them being some handsome dude, imagined us having a chance encounter ten years from now. He’d strike up a conversation, ask what I did. I’d be walking home from some award acceptance ceremony, nobel peace prize perhaps? I’d ask him what he did. Well, I’ve been at Spotify for about twelve years. I used to make their Discovery Weekly playlist, but now I’m in upper management. I’d look at him, say I loved that playlist. And we’d talk about that for the years to come as the start of our love that began twelve years earlier.

One Monday, I was frantic because I’d forgotten to save a glorious song; it had steel drums at the beginning. That’s all I really know. I searched to see if other people archived the Discovery Weekly playlist. Oh phew, I found one, I thought, as I clicked and scrolled to see effing heavy metal. I looked on some random message boards when it hit me like a brick hurled by a sassy little league baseball player: the playlist was generated based on my interests and was different for everyone. So much for the beautiful man at Spotify who had impeccable taste in music. So much for the steel drums song. Ugh.

Thelonious Monk

I’ve been playing Monk all morning. Thinking quite a lot about how well the name fits the music. I don’t know enough about music to understand the difference between homophone-esque words like melodious, harmonious, mellifluous and euphonious, but it seems to me that Monk’s music is all of those things, and that Thelonious should be one of those terms. According to his wikipedia page, his middle name is Sphere, which might fit into this argument as well, in that the warmth of his music is without the sharpness of corners, but pops of a baritone saxophone and bursts of the trumpet add the sort of corners needed to create something lifelike and whole. Middle names aside, there is something wonderfully monastic about much of Monk’s music. Think “Light Blue”, the lull of the mismatched chords running under the ups and downs of the saxophone feels like an intrinsic chant. The dissonance feels real, and adds depth that recognizes the pain of humanity, but the ever-growing variations throughout each song show resilience and light.

somebody

who am I if not a somebody, not
any less than anybody, but my
identity’s forsaken me, a spot
of blood on your pristine imported tie

a gift from your father so long ago
ugly, really, but your anger was blind
(I’m not kidding; hung well past your torso)
but I guess ugly ties are hard to find

the slice in your finger begged for a glance
you sat cursing over your ugly tie
& I realized I’d idolized romance
& the chance feelings might solidify

& that’s when I knew we weren’t somebody
guess we never were
now we’re nobodies