Date of Manufacture: 26.10.1992

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The next post or two is going to be a one-sided conversation. All of blogging is a one-sided conversation, to some extent, but I want to take the opportunity of having an outlet on the internet to explain in full and excruciating detail some aspects of my life that people seem at once entirely engrossed in, begging to understand, and at the same time only asking because it’s a passing curiosity, not something they want to hear me pontificate on for minutes at a time. Next time, instead of sitting down to have these conversations for the 1293th time, I’ll just refer people to my blog.

So, part 1: My age.

I am, at the time of this writing, 17 years old. I was born on October 26, 1992, a Monday, in the Salt Lake City Holy Cross Hospital. It’s not a particularly interesting date, except that apparently Even James Ussher, the famous 17th century Irish archbishop who decided that the world was created in 4004 BC stated that while the world had begun on October 23, the Antichrist was born three days later. I’m actually rather proud of that kind of heritage, but other than that, the day is only important to me because of the way I track time with the sun and earth and moon and all that.

I lived a somewhat normal life for several years, growing up on Miami Beach, learning to swim at a very early age and falling in love with a Books and Books on Lincoln Road. When I was 4, I was placed into kindergarten. I don’t think my parents had their eyes set on a precocious future for me. They’re psychologists who study child development, especially learning and cognitive development. They know all of the studies that have demonstrated that slightly older children tend to do better and be overall more successful. I’ve never asked them, but I speculate that they felt, given that I could (and did, avidly and eagerly) read, that I was ready to enter formalized schooling.

The school wasn’t even all that formal; I went to Fairglade Elementary School, a gem in Southern Miami that is, unfortunately, no longer in existence. Its ideals were letting kids learn at their own pace, making sure they got outside, roughed around, played on the swings and learn in interesting and varied ways. I recall, for example, being given a math textbook for a grade higher than my own and learning long division in the grass outside. There was also an area with many trees and sticks and brush and bramble called “The Woods” which we just adored playing in.

But I digress. The point is, this school didn’t care that I was a little young. They took me right in. Then, at some point, I was in the kindergarten room, and I was asked by the teacher to go into the first grade room, where they were learning (and I may never forget this) about the layers of the earth using eggs. There was a chant, which was “Inner core, outer core, mantle, crust” which one said rhythmically and with glee. I began a motley schedule, taking some classes here and some there. I remember the next year, I took some classes with the first grade, some with the second, and naps with the kindergarten class.

I believe the reasoning of the school was that I was intellectually ready. One of my favorite teachers, Ms. Stacey, told me the story later that she had once encountered my four-year old self in the Quiet Room reading a Dr. Seuss book. Surprised, she asked me to read it to her. Once I did, she suspected that I’d memorized it, so she grabbed another book and asked me to read that one, too. As I recall, she was fairly impressed.

I never found out why my parents agreed to it, except that they probably were told by the school that it was in my best interest, and to be honest it probably was. I don’t recall elementary school being all that difficult. I wasn’t particularly mature, and was emotionally somewhat unstable, crying a fair bit. Then again, I was between four and eight.

It was middle school that was really difficult. I went to a small school, with all of thirty kids in my grade. I had told a girl named Grace Heisenbottle that I was nine years old the first day of class, because it hadn’t occurred to me that I shouldn’t. I had enough sense to ask her not to tell. As far as I can tell, she didn’t hate me until I started doing better than her in all of our classes (she had been the top of the class in the elementary school adjoining the middle school). At that point, she told some girl named Alex D. (we had so many Alex’s, they were differentiated by their last initials), and together they told everyone and allied the grade against me. I recall having all of two friends through 6th grade and 8th, with a blip of social success with some incoming students during seventh (who subsequently joined the popular crew the next year). I was fairly miserable for large portions of the time, but that definitely had less to do with my age than with my inability to comprehend why people would expend conscious and considerable effort making me unhappy.

Moving right along, high school was fine. I had a enough friends, and people didn’t really seem to care, except for a few bad apples (also known as a fourth of the male portion of my grade). They made fun of me, but by that time, I had accumulated a measurable amount of self-confidence, and I put it very much to use, making sure that they could hate me all they wanted, but I would always be an ambitious, intelligent, successful, quirky young girl I could be proud of. Looking back, of course, I realize that those qualities didn’t perhaps make me the most approachable of people, but I didn’t much care. I wouldn’t have traded that independent spirit for all the friends in the world.

I really didn’t understand why people disliked me so much. I hated being called annoying in middle school. It was such an easy way to dismiss the whole of who someone was, which felt absolutely awful. In all fairness, though, as someone who came from an unconventional primary schooling and was young, I probably was. Adults always told me that everyone else was jealous. As a child of low self-esteem, I couldn’t understand why anyone could possibly be jealous of me. It seemed the height of absurdity, not to mention arrogance, to think that I was ostracized because of something good about myself. Even as my self-assuredness grew, it was never really something I got my head around. But it continued nonetheless.

So, after a high school experience that was adequate, but left much to be desired, that gave me the notion of people who would love me for who I was but without fully fulfilling on the promise, I got to the University of Chicago. And I made a decision. I wasn’t going to tell a soul how old I was. I value truth, clarity, transparency and honesty, but not at the cost of my emotional well-being, especially as the knowledge wasn’t exceptionally important to anyone but myself. I realized, of course, that anyone who cared wasn’t someone I would want to be friends with, but the first weeks in a new state, school and life stage aren’t exactly the time to be going through the torture of applying a litmus test to the population.

Anyway, it worked. No one knew, no one treated me differently. I made a name for myself as a loud, opinionated, argumentative, intelligent student who could hold her own or better with anyone, cared a great deal about the world, politics and deep thinking. When the news came out and got around, it was gradually, slowly, without any of the excitement of gossip. I could play nonchalant, showing by example that if it didn’t matter to me, it shouldn’t matter to anyone else, and that I would accept no change in attitude towards me. Of course, people hated me anyway. But now I knew; they couldn’t handle me, regardless of my date of manufacture. Admittedly, it’s difficult to have someone who’s present and takes up space and wants to talk about interesting, complicated things all. The. Time. And who just never lets up and who, by the way, is an easy target because she’s two years younger than you. But I finally understood that that really wasn’t my problem. Eventually, it became old news, something to joke about in lightness and jest, and something I could finally be completely proud of, without the tinge of social and emotional stress.

So the next year, I did it again. The age I am has affected my life in many ways, has given me a different perspective and vantage point. In that way, it is and will always be a part of me. But of the things people could know about me, it is one of least important and least interesting parts of me. So I decided if it was that irrelevant, I wouldn’t let people judge me for it. I expect a certain amount of respect from my peers, whether they like me or not, and if this was they way I was going to ensure the life that I wanted, then I was damn well going to do it. At this point, most people know, but again, it’s not important, it just happens to be the case. By the way, my birthday’s coming up.

And that is the story of my age, what it means to me and why I don’t tell people even though I am totally and completely proud of it.

I think I’m awesome, and I will never apologize for my birth certificate.

Subcultures and What It Means to be Human

The question of what it means to be human is a common one. One of my favorite vloggers, John Green, once said that humans were the only animal that didn’t know how to be itself. Dogs, he claimed, know how to be dogs; at the very least, they don’t seem to worry about it in any outwardly apparent way. Whether or not dogs know they know how to be dogs is another question entirely. Anyway, I obviously don’t have the answer, but I have some ideas.

My first thought is that the question is wrong. Admittedly, this is often my first thought when I don’t know the answer to a question. But it seems that the question of what it means to be human is often conflated with what makes humans unique, which is completely different. I’ll leave that one to the evolutionary psychologists, biologists, sociologists, anthropologists and all manner of other scientists, who come up with a new wrong idea every few years or so.

So one idea is that what it means to be human is tautological. We are human. By definition, we’re experts at it; certainly no one else does it better. So whatever it is we do with our lives is what makes us human. One might even argue that the sheer fact of living is so incredible that it doesn’t take much else to make living meaningful.

An easy way to understand what it means to be human is to find the very question meaningful. We can start with the fact that the sheer miracle of our existence is mindblowing. As Carl Sagan says, we are bits of star matter gone cold by accident. This planet, life, sentience, each individual human life – all of these are deeply, only barely calculably improbable events, and they’re fantastic. We can also use this reasoning to appreciate the multitudinous opportunities available to us, and perhaps begin to siphon through them to decide which of these should occupy our time.

If we allow, perhaps, that the goal is then to find those activities that give us happiness, that give us meaning, ignoring for now the possible differences between these goals and the difficult in achieving them, then we have found a possible purpose for human life, a goal of being human. And the best example I’ve ever found of people doing this, doing it passionately and well, is the preponderance of subcultures.

I’m a biker, and biking has played, in part, a political role in my life. When I lived in Miami full-time, my father and I would do critical mass the second Saturday of every month, and that was really fun. It was a group of socially minded people who live out their values and enjoy spending time with others who feel the same. They also just happened to be fun people. Anyway, so my dad and I decided to do a critical mass this last weekend, but it was on Friday. I thought maybe it was just a different version of the usual ride, which they sometimes do. Instead it was the actual Miami Critical Mass, whose formula is traditionally the last Friday of every month. And it was huge! There were at least 200 people there, maybe more.

I’ve been a part of a lot of groups, and sometimes it’s incredible to share a great deal of values and interests with the people around you, but in this case, we were all brought together by one thing: we were bikers. That was it. And seeing the diversity within that subculture was absolutely amazing. There were hipsters with their fixies, parents getting their kids into biking, tricksters doing wheelies, semi-professionals in all their gear, mountain bikes, hybrids, road bikes, people with and without helmets, in and out of athletic clothing. There was a teacher from my high school, and a guy playing the uke while biking. We were a real critical mass, blocking the roads, riding through red lights, and having a wonderful time being part of a grassroots, almost flash community. It got better, too, with the reactions we received. Some people were angry, obviously, as we were blocking the roads (or, one could claim, they were), but most people were shockingly supportive. They yelled, hollered, hooted, honked and generally showed their appreciation for the way we had decided to live, or just spend an evening.

We went through Viscaya, Allapattah, Midtown and Little Haiti, and everywhere, people came out on the streets to watch us go by, ask us what we were doing, and cheer us on. Kids bunched up and waved at us. I think my favorite part was a guy standing outside of his restaurant just holding up a thumbs up as we passed. But these weren’t one sided interactions, either. We all responded, certainly, and the people who were blocking the cars were talking to the drivers, explaining what we were all about.

That connection with people, the bikers, the people of the community, the people who I share this earth with, has always been the most meaningful experience I’ve ever found, and I was so glad to have it on the Friday. It reminded me that subcultures are a way of immersing yourself fully in some of the beautiful things that life has to offer, with other people who feel similarly, and that they are conduits through which to connect to the rest of humanity.

There are lots of other reasons I like subcultures, but having them teach me about what it means to be human isn’t a bad start.

The Intensity of Interaction: What does it mean to connect?

Ok, I’m done with those worldview posts, thank goodness. They’re interesting as far as they go, but I think about that sort of thing all the time and have for years, so I want to move on to something else.

Human interactions are complex. They’re often difficult to manage or understand, and there’s always room for more misunderstanding. One of the least understood aspects, in my opinion, is what the point is. This struck me in particular when I was spending time with some friends and opened a completely unrelated story with my definition of the purpose of language. I had said communication, which didn’t seem to me a particular contentious opinion, but they instantly disagreed with me. Granted, I have very opinionated friends, but it was certainly interesting. The same applies to conversations. What is the point? To argue? To be right? To convince, persuade? To agitate? To connect? To understand? To have fun? Obviously, there’s no right answer except that the answer is different under different circumstances, and this becomes an issue.

I am a fairly contentious sort of person. I have interests I hold very dear to my heart, and I delve into them with a great deal of energy. As such, I get loud and excited when talking about things I’m interested in, and I can be sort of aggressive with the information I have at my disposal. I feel that my opinionated nature is justifiable, given all the effort I’ve put into deeply understanding that which is important to me and the importance I place on making my judgments subject to change as new arguments and evidence come forth. When I’m with other people like that, there’s no problem. We all get completely enraptured by an engaging conversation, and trade data, arguments, quips and witty banter as if it were our job. That kind of experience is a greatly rewarding one, that blend of learning, teaching, understanding and taking sheer joy in the feeling of doing so together.

However, not everyone is like that, which is, of course, fine. Because I have no intention of writing those people off, though, I face some challenges. Do I argue my point as eloquently as I can? Do I tone myself down in order to place the making of a connection over winning the argument? Putting the latter question this way makes the answer seem clear, but in point of fact it’s not at all. Allowing myself to not declare my opinions or arguments can feel intellectually dishonest, like I’m not contributing to the conversation the way the social contract might demand. I am in some way portraying myself as other than I am in order to learn from and about someone, something that could be described as respectful or a form of information extraction. I wish I could just state my opinion, get it out there, and then have us have our conversation, but it’s not always that simple. That declaration can change the entire nature of the conversation, and make it impossible to be as meaningful as I would otherwise like it to be. Also, I don’t always like to argue from “my side.” In fact, I happen to greatly enjoy suspending my opinions and taking on an entirely new set of assumptions to see where they lead.

I recently got a fortune in a fortune cookie that said, “Develop some flexibility in your point of view.” It’s one of those things that sounds perfect and sensible but is so much more complicated than that. If I try to be flexible, humble, to learn from everyone, then I am only taking rather than giving. And if I give of myself, I risk giving my opinion and teachings where they’re not wanted. Simply declaring that one must be on the lookout to understand what is appropriate when is not rigorous enough for me. I’m still figuring it out, especially because I don’t think that being an assertive person who likes to learn is in any way a bad thing, but here’s one idea:

First, there’s this, for the common sense approach: http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2009/05/is-it-okay-to-mock-religion.html

My one addendum is that even with all this, even with the concern and tolerance and respect due other people, even if all the information is out there, intellectual honesty accounted for, I think it is a good thing to Take Up Space, to be a powerful force, in the world and in a room. Obviously, that doesn’t mean steamrollering, and it doesn’t mean that other people shouldn’t, or that more than one person in a room can’t do that. In fact, exactly the opposite. It means valuing it and appreciating it in other people and turning that shared power into a powerful connection. Which brings us back to the original point, which is, what about the people who aren’t that way, who you can’t form that sort of a connection with? In that case, I think the answer is, and this is very very subtle, to not make yourself less, less powerful, less meaningful, less intense, but rather to have that manifest not as an imposing, intimidating presence, but as a quiet force to be reckoned with. It’s the difference between ‘bothering’, ‘deigning’ to talk to someone about their religious/political/athletic/gastronomic beliefs and employing the intensity of your feelings about it to really, powerfully, intensely listen. Because if there’s one thing I can do, it’s be intense about things. And that should mean not limiting those things to talking.

I’ve noticed in other people how great of a solution this is. Sometimes, when I’ve been complaining to someone close to me about what they’re doing I can watch the gears shift in their head as they consciously decide not to yell or scream or walk out, but to sit down, look me in the eye and ask me what’s up. And I’ll admit that it’s not a perfect solution, because sometimes they’re still intimidating and frightening when they do that, but I think that’s good. I think it’s a good thing to live life intensely, and this is a great way to do it. When they do that, I know they’re really listening.

In some ways, bothering to argue, to engage, is a way of respecting that person’s beliefs, especially because you’re putting your ideas out there to be criticized as well. But that doesn’t always come across, and if it doesn’t, it defeats the purpose of that communiqué, if you will, of that attempt at a connection. So instead I want to tell them I’m listening and then do it, and listen hard.

What’s also great is that it’s entirely possible that this intense, intimidating form of listening will force people to really listen to themselves, too, to their own arguments, and make them better, think about them more, more than arguing would.

Caveat 1: There’s a point at which intelligent, interesting, engaged, awesome people will always be intimidating, and I fail to see the issue here.

Caveat 2: I think that in this exploration of the issue we should be careful not to imagine that there is one way of being (whether assertive or not) that is objectively better. Beyond the fact that different attitudes are appropriate at different times, caveat 1 comes into play when we think about the fact that different people have different roles to play, and they are all important, and perhaps equally so. Or not, depending.

Confession: Maybe one reason I like blogging to much is it doesn’t require listening to other people’s opinions, although of course the only way I come to these conclusions is by bouncing my ideas off of people, among other techniques. Which is like information extraction? And now we’ve come full circle.