Category Archives: Reflection
After spending a summer leading adventure camp trips for teens, I have a perplexing question: are there any hipster children out there?
Being immersed in the experience of a camp counselor for teenagers was an ethnographical experiment. What exactly, constitutes the life and thoughts of these strange creatures, the standard American teenager? My observations led me to an archetypical picture of what makes the average teenager tick; I found a thread of common interests and mannerisms highly influenced by mainstream popular culture. And then I began to think further: was I like that as a teenager? Though I’d like to look back and think that I was unique in my youth, that I was a fiercely independent thinker, I wonder if perhaps this was not the case. Does hipsterdom—that blatant and intentional disdain for all things considered mainstream—emerge later than childhood? And thus, is the dominant teenage culture not a choice of the teenager themselves, but rather a product of the consumerist culture they are bombarded with?
I’ve been pondering over the similarity of certain interests for the teen-aged demographic to which I’ve born witness. With the vast amount of driving campers around which I was required to do this summer, I acquired keen insights into their musical tastes. The music that is sure to please is easy to find; the campers all know the frequency and call letters by heart. The sure crowd-pleasers, the jams that get them all pumped up are the American Top 40 songs on the local pop station. AT40 songs are absolute earworms. Not only are those songs engineered to get stuck in your head and stay there, radio stations will play the same six songs at least once an hour, every hour to ensure that they do. Fortunately, just to keep things fresh every couple months, the old songs will be replaced by a batch of new, similar-enough sounding songs that will be all the craze for the next few months. For me to save my own sanity while driving at camp, I sometimes tried to introduce my underground indie jams from the local community radio stations. Vetoed right away—always. If music is just not similar enough to what they know already, they seem quickly repulsed by the musical difference.
And what about the shopping interests of teenagers? They are fascinated by chain stores and name brands. Driving, as we often do, down the busy suburban commercial strips, the kids will look out the windows with excitement as they shout out the chain-stores they see flying past in the Big-Box landscape. McDonalds, Taco Bell, Dunkin’ Donuts, 7-11, Cumberland Farms. They salivate at the chance to go to those stores and buy their products. Even though the campers haven’t been to this particular location before, they know nonetheless what every store on this commercial strip will offer. The cultural homogeneity of chain-retail stores leads to a predictability about the products each store sells. These teens know what they want—and not only are they entertained by the thought of visiting a chain-store to get it, they are in fact motivated at the chance to spend their money on it. And mostly what they buy is just junk food.
And then there’s the speculation that kids often offer about what profession they would like to do as adults. The teens I was with did have high aspirations; they talked of becoming doctors and lawyers and engineers when they grow up. But, they seldom noted that their motivation was a passion for the job duties or the desire to help others. Instead, the dominant motivation for these high-end jobs was to earn money—lots of it. They talked about how they want high-paying jobs so that they can afford to travel and to own nice things. I was disappointed by how seldom a teen would talk about desiring to enter a profession based on a sheer passion for it, no matter the pay. These teens are far from the hipster stereotype of following their dreams of doing what they love in a career path—even if the consequence for the hipsters is working for minimum wage at a coffee shop in spite of their fancy liberal arts degree.
Was I a hipster teenager? Even as a child, I was fiercely independent and more likely to do my own separate thing rather than follow the crowd. But did my tastes reflect my temperament at that age? Perhaps, but maturing is always a process of becoming. As I grew older, I began to develop some of the interests of hipsterdom: underground music, obscure foods, and a penchant to avoid commercialized mass-produced mainstream culture. Maybe I was a hipster child all along, but it only took a fair amount of time for this attribute to manifest itself in my behaviors.
To be fair to teenagers as a whole, there are a handful of teens who break the mold of the unquestioning follower of consumerist appetites and media-conceived notions of entertainment. There are those teens who loathe American Top 40, preferring instead classic rock or foreign instrumentals. There are teens who not only can pronounce the word ‘quinoa,’ but enjoy eating it as well. There were those teens who weren’t overjoyed at visiting a gas station convenience store to buy candy and soda. There was even a contingent of campers, I found, who were quite interested in learning more about my home-made sprouting jar and eating the ensuing vegetable sprouts. Actually, most of the teenagers at camp exhibited at least some form of cultural independence apart from the mainstream stereotype (albeit some more strongly than others).
But even for the masses of teens leading indistinguishable lives, there is some hope. At the very tip of Cape Cod, away from the influence of mainstream America lies a place distinct from the popular culture known as Provincetown. Though not even remotely a hipster destination, Provincetown is a place and economy that revels in its unique, off-the-cuff identity. During the summer, most trips at camp include a visit to Provincetown. Often it’s a highlight for the campers. In Provincetown, the conventional teens can revel for a spell in a town like no other they’ve been to. There are no big box chains here. Instead, the main Commercial Street becomes a narrow pedestrian mall flooded with people milling about the business district perusing the town’s counter-cultural offerings. Here you’ll find Hippie stores and stores of the Occult. Tucked around the corner is a musty used book store, a palm reader, and a costume shop. Street performers, drag queens, and artists freely roam the streets. Even though in Provincetown the kids will still go for the junk food, at least they’ll buy it from the quirky Donut Experiment or the exclusively pink cupcake store. Maybe in a place unique as Provincetown, that tiny part of us that gets excited by difference can start to peek through. Maybe, after all, there is a little hipster in all of us, even the teenagers.
It should come as no big surprise to say that I am an introvert; by nature, I tend to keep to myself and be a generally private person. But my reservedness and hesitancy to join in on social situations does not equate to a dislike of spending time or sharing my life with others. Quite the opposite I’d say. Since socialization does not come easily to me, I tend to value the connections I’m able to forge all the much more. But as a rather shy and introverted person, forming those connections is often a monumental task. Though privacy is in my nature, it is a very obstinate part of me that is a challenge to overcome in order to know and being known by others.
But in regards to privacy, I’m not so much describing it as a physical need. I can easily do without a high level of physical privacy; I’ve lived with people in very close quarters in the past, and continue to do so unhesitatingly. Sharing bedrooms and bathrooms and kitchens (and maybe even a ship’s hold) is no big deal to me. In fact, I currently live with three others in a giant platform tent. As one could imagine, a tent does not provide much personal privacy from those you share it with; all my personal effects and all my daily actions are on display for my tent-mates to bear witness. Nor is the tent even sealed off from the outside world, as the sheer necessity of ventilation keeps the flaps of the tent open for any gazing eyes. And, since the tent is my living quarters at the place where I work (a camp for children going on summer adventure trips), my daily life is exposed by close contact with many pairs of inquisitive eyes who I must interact with on both a personal and professional level. For all the lack of physical privacy, I’m very comfortable with the lifestyle. Limited privacy is just the unavoidable reality of living in tight quarters.
So when I consider myself a private person, it’s not because I seek out physical privacy to a higher degree than others; more accurately, it’s that I tend to be an emotionally private person. It is difficult to get to know me, and to those I’ve just met I may come off as cold, aloof, or disinterested. Maybe my reserve is a defense mechanism, a way of protecting myself from the perceived judgement of unfamiliar others. In any new social situation, I’m continually testing the waters to see if the temperature is right to expose just a little bit more of my inner self. Even the act of declaring an interest in something is risky for me. Always looking for social approval (and unfortunately, burdened too much by the need for it), I take relations with other people slowly and gradually, building off of the trust garnered from their acceptance. If I don’t perceive a sense of solidarity or acceptance from a group of people when I expose my inner workings, then it’s a hasty retreat back to my own private world. I don’t feel like people need to like the same things as I do; they just need to not make me feel less of a person for it.
As part of my private nature, I don’t put all of myself out on the table all at once. For me, the best is always yet to come, being saved away for when the moment is right. I am always holding something back, always keeping some part of my inner personality hidden and safe. These inner workings may be shared with others when the personal relationship has matured to an appropriate level. But that doesn’t occur until after so much of the hard groundwork of forming a friendship has taken place. I hate the phrase ‘instant friends’. I’ve never become instant friends with anyone. Instead, individuals who talk too much and share too much of themselves immediately are off-putting to me. Few things cause me to retreat into myself quicker than being in situations with many loud outgoing people. In a very social culture such as ours, I’ve found ways to manage my personal reactions in order to join in. In crowded places, I’ll seek out the quiet corners on the periphery. When not feeling a connection with the culture of a group, I’ve mastered the art of the slipping away unnoticed. Even living in close quarters with others, I have a knack for finding out-of-the-way places that are just out of sight. With all these situations, I’m usually lingering around with the hopes of forming connections with people, but am only just waiting for the right conditions to arrive in order to act.
Although it is hard to get to know me, I understand the extreme value of knowing and being known by others. I crave that longing deep desire for meaningful relationships in life, of having a circle around you of those who you can trust. This is as essential to me as food and water—a requirement for my psychological well-being. Though I do not make close friends with many people, the friendships I do forge are unshakeable. Forming new friendships and deepening old ones is essential. But given my shyness, it is also an extremely difficult endeavor.
I’ve found a way to combat my own shyness and reserve, though. Since I am a private person, the basis of my strategy is to structure my life so as to naturally reduce the level of personal privacy in my daily happenings. What I’ve found that breaks down the social barriers is living closely with other people, forgoing traditional ideas of privacy in order to form a communal life. It takes a long time for me to develop comfort around new people, and even so much longer for friendships to form to the level of depth that I desire. The formation of friendships is not by chance and not by chemistry alone, but rather as the result of the long-term accumulation of all the small, insignificant interactions shared between two people. Daily life may not in and of itself provoke the most meaningful interactions, but it does provide the framework for it to take place. I’m bad at small talk, but I’m great at sharing space. Doing so helps break down the barriers I have with getting to be known by others. Every time I interact with someone in a positive way, no matter how small, I begin to develop a deeper sense of trust with that person. The interaction can be as trivial as making breakfast at the same time in the kitchen—it doesn’t even really matter if we are making our own separate meals either—the important part is that I know you’re there with me and accepting of my presence just by being in the room. Seeing others act out their quotidian lives—making food in the kitchen, cleaning the bathroom, reading a book—helps me feel more trustful of them. Those daily interactions, fostered by the lack of personal privacy, form the basis of what is needed for me to open up to others.
It’s not that I don’t trust strangers—it’s just more natural to place confidence in the people I know well instead. Once that level of trust begins being reached in any relationship, then I’ll feel more comfortable offering up more of myself to them. My layers will be peeled back and I’ll begin to share more of my inner thoughts and past experiences, my embarrassments and insecurities as well. For me, my sharings are offered up as a valuable gift. If I don’t feel like these gifts of myself are well-received, then I will become more reserved and less likely to share again in the future. I do not like to talk about myself freely; it is only to those who have shown enough acceptance and fraternity who I feel comfortable enough around. There are only a few people in my life with who I feel I have reached that deep level of personal honesty. To me, being known in that manner is an incredible form of intimacy.
And it’s all so hard to achieve that level of intimacy in private. For me to reach that level, a lack of privacy is often needed. Hence, I enjoy (and probably require) living with people so closely, and it’s why I find it so beneficial to put myself in situations where there is a lack of physical privacy. With less physical privacy, the inner-lives of those around you (and yours as well) cannot be so well hidden. Those who I know best are the ones whom I’ve shared situations where personal privacy was lacking—roommates, housemates, camping buddies. I’ve also found that being in compromising situations—in the right circumstances—also helps friendships to grow rather quickly. Since I desire and yearn for being known both emotionally and intellectually, yet I am so shy and reserved, I have found that I require this lack of physical privacy to boost me along in my relationships. Otherwise, I’ve found, it takes years for such a deep level of friendship to develop—if it ever develops at all. So, I’ll gladly take the trade-off of having limited physical privacy. I don’t need that much of it anyway—especially when what is gained in return is being known at a deeper interpersonal level.
It all changed after a series of bad days. Especially after one particularly tough day where I ended up reaching a turning point. It started, innocently enough, in a kindergarten classroom. Within the first 20 minutes of class, one troublesome boy raised both his middle fingers and yelled ‘fuck you’ to a classmate. Accepting his correction, but not changing his behavior, he continued to harass and hit other students throughout the morning. Later on, a tardy student walked into the class, promptly stealing some chapstick from another student. After refusing to correct her actions and to make amends with that student, she became defiant. “Make me, motherfuckin’ bitches,” she called out as she ran around the room, “Go ahead—call the principle. She’s a bitch!”
The afternoon, unfortunately, got worse. Instead of kindergarten, I was switched to a second-grade classroom. Older kids did not mean more mature behavior. Instead, when the students came in from lunch recess, they immediately proceeded to physically fight with one another. One student raised a chair above his head and threatened to throw it. The principle had to be summoned—the quarrelling students had to be removed. While waiting for backup to arrive, I held the most intent student back by the shoulders. He had been insulted by another student and was now deadest on pummeling him. I got down on the student’s level to reason with him. He made no eye contact, he spoke nothing. All I could see was the glazed, glowering expression of a young boy narrowly focused on physical atonement on those who he felt had wronged him.
Both classrooms ended in chaos. That school was not a safe learning environment. It was a place where physical and emotional violence was dripping at the seams. Driving home that day, I reflected on what I had just experienced. It was a lot to process. Once back to the safety inside my house, I plopped down on a chair in the living room. A visceral sense of relief finally settled over me. As I debriefed my day with my housemate, my body started to physically tremble, sympathetically, autonomically. While at school, my adrenaline was flowing in the moment as my attention was focused on the extreme behavioral challenges in the classroom. Once fully removed from the situation, my body was left quaking from the trauma of the day.
That was the turning point for me. At my third week of substitute teaching, I came to a crossroads. It was either get tough or get out. I knew I couldn’t continue in the teaching position with my idealistic attitudes of kindness and compassion. So I got tough. Instead of focusing on nurturing the development of the students, it became more imperative just to control them. It was an unfortunate reality, but this change of focus was a move for my own survival as a teacher. The situation had devolved to a point where basic jungle survival instincts kicked in.
As an idealist, I came into the job soft and compassionate, motivated by the belief that I could make a profound impact upon the youth. I wanted to look favorably upon children as kind and innocent. I wanted to run the classroom with fairness and generosity, giving the students the benefit of the doubt in all situations. Fundamentally, I wanted to foster holistic personal growth in the students—all within the short day-long duration of my stints as a sub.
Instead, I shockingly found what could become a very corrosive environment inside the classroom. These kids don’t know you, and they don’t respect you because of it. They aren’t of the upbringing where they learned to respectfully listen and obey adults or authority. To them, you are a stranger with no weight or consequence to their lives. They see you and think they don’t have to follow because “Man, I don’t even know you,” or “You’re not a real teacher.” The relationship I developed with the students never reached my idealized version of youth mentorship; instead, what organically developed was a predicament of antagonistic adversaries. As a substitute, you have to be stern and assert your authority, lest you quickly lose control of the class. You budge an inch, the kids take a mile. Eventually, you begin to develop the mentality of a prison guard controlling your wards. Your task as a sub is to force your prisoners to follow the lesson plans no matter how much they try to derail your efforts.
In the end, I became a much more callous person. My patience shortened. Authority and control became my goals—not out of a desire for control itself, but out of sheer necessity. Each morning, I had to prepare for battle with the mindset that these kids are out to tear me down. In a behaviorally troublesome classroom, I had to enter drill sergeant mode quite frequently, barking the students into a terrified submission. Often, I had to publicly shame certain students in front of the classroom just to make an example of them. Teaching was not an uplifting experience—for me or for the students.
For all those reasons, I had to quit being a substitute teacher. The person I feel that I am and the person I feel like I want to be did not line up with who I was becoming as a substitute. So I had to quit while I was ahead, before my integrity became corrupted by the corrosive classroom environment. I honestly enjoy working with children, but how did teaching become a position where children are viewed as the enemy? I’m not that kind of person. I don’t want to be that kind of person. But I am as much a product of my environment, and those toxic classrooms created a menace in me. I never wanted to yell at kids. I didn’t enter education to yell at children. But nevertheless I found myself slipping into the mire of the circumstances.
More than anything else, I was appalled by what I witnessed as the toxic learning environments that predominated in many school classrooms. It started with a culture of disrespect for the teacher and for the learning process, then broadened to include a disrespect for any students interested in learning. In my classrooms, there were numerous fights and countless episodes of crying. There were times where I as a teacher did not feel safe in the classroom. No doubt that my students, young and vulnerable as they are, felt any safer. Instead of becoming an opportunity for inquiry, learning became the punishment for misbehavior. How, then, can you expect anyone to value or invest in the educational process? Thus, I had to remove myself from the situation once I felt myself contributing to the culture of school as a penal system.
In stark contrast, life was much easier in the suburbs. I found I could be more relaxed and compassionate towards the students, reaching closer to my idealized vision of classroom flourishing. Instead of being a punisher and enforcer, I could be a friend, mentor, and teacher. But even though the suburbs are easier, I couldn’t allow myself to stay there. I could never feel right about selling out to the suburban school districts and contributing to the flight that attracts resources away from the already under-resourced districts. I felt it more important to be in the urban school districts where the behavioral issues were most pressing and the impact of a teacher is most needed. But I also found that I couldn’t survive there—at least, I found I couldn’t survive there while being the type of person I was striving to be. Being in the inner-city classroom for too long reverts one back to primitive survival instincts. Values like kindness and compassion take a backseat when your main goal becomes surviving the day.
I didn’t make New Year’s resolutions for 2016. I haven’t started on New Year’s resolutions for 2017 either. Although I sometimes I do make resolutions for myself, it’s far from an annual tradition; whatever goals I do make tend to be more abstract and less definable in regards to their accomplishment. Previous resolutions of mine have included ‘being more spontaneous’ and ‘defying societal expectations’. To that extent, I have been slack in thinking of lofty goals for the upcoming year.
When midnight comes tonight, time will continue to pass just as it always has (disregarding the added leap second, necessarily). The infinite clock of universal time takes no notice of our mere Gregorian calendar and its arbitrary initiation of a new year. But for what tonight lacks in realness, it makes up greatly with symbolism—scribbling down a different digit when writing out the date could just be the needed break that some need to feel emboldened to make a change in their lives. Or, for those more cynical, waiting until the New Year is a great excuse to put off difficult change until later.
For me, I aim to live a life of continual improvement and thus don’t often use the method of making resolutions for a certain date in time. If change is to be had, ideally it should happen as soon as it is possible. Still, over the course of a year we do tend to stray from our ideals, and the prospect of a new calendar offers the chance to pause and reevaluate what kind of person we are and if that aligns with who we desire to be. If we’ve run astray of our intentions, the New Year might just be the catalyst to prompt the change.
But instead of focusing more on changes to come on the eve of 2017, I’d rather focus on what the outgoing year brought. Admittedly, I’d say 2016 was not my best year ever. The first half of the year saw the unraveling of my Australian adventure and with it the confidence that many of my ideas are not foolproof. Back at home, the health of some family members began to dramatically decline. Additionally, the downward spiral of American politics and the direction of the national discourse did not help in giving 2016 a good aura.
But 2016 had its peaks as well. For starters, I ended up traveling quite a lot, and to many new places. I also had the opportunity to try out a couple of jobs I’ve always wanted to try—leading outdoor trips and working on a wooden sailboat. This year was the one where I finally got a good taste of long-distance bike-riding and found I want even more of it. I even kept up my blog through the whole year. These experiences I’ve had, and many more, will be rooted in the year 2016; I’m grateful for 2016 because they happened.
And through it all, I’m grateful that I’m still well-adjusted and here to appreciate what happened. Making it to another year is not a given—it’s a gift and should be celebrated as such. Making it in good health and in good spirits is another thing to celebrate.
Thinking ahead to 2017, I don’t have many goals of what to do. Unlike 2016, 2017 will be less of a mystery upfront—I do, after all, already have my next two jobs lined up through October. I know I’ll be substitute teaching for a bit in Michigan before doing more environmental education in Massachusetts. The greater challenge of this New Year is instead what to be. Am I the kind of person I want to be? If I met myself as a stranger, would I want to interact with this person?
For me, the less frenetic pace of change upcoming in 2017 may lead to some more time for introspection than 2016 allowed for. A less uncertain lifestyle may also lead to the development of habits—either good or bad. Among habits, I’d love to meditate and do yoga more regularly. And 2017 will also present the challenges of existing within the changing context of our society. I foresee 2017 presenting challenges for tolerance and openness in civic life. As we look to our goals for the New Year, we can all look to ourselves and ask if we are the kind and generous and accepting people we would like to be; we can make a resolution to defy prejudice and stamp out hate.
Here’s to a better 2017
Happy New Year!
On my last day in New York City, I made sure to venture to Manhattan’s downtown financial district on a pilgrimage to Ground Zero—the site of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It’s been over fifteen years now since that fateful September morning, but I can still recall witnessing the events live on television. The attacks of that day shook America and signaled the beginning of a different era. The events that took place in those city blocks in lower Manhattan are likely to be the defining event of my generation’s lifetime. I had to visit.
As I walked south to the 9/11 memorial, I stopped at a small park between Broadway and Greenwich Streets. Here, in this small triangle of land, an office building once stood that was destroyed in the attacks. Having already taken my first glimpses of the immense Freedom Tower and the other hi-rise redevelopments along the way, I stopped in the park to have lunch. The scene I witnessed at the park was something that could have come nearly anywhere out of New York City. People in business casual rushed about, tourists ambled around cameras in hand, stop-and-go traffic rolled by.
My attention was drawn to a group of students eating lunch in the park. The students were young, maybe fourth grade, but around the same age I was when the attacks happened. These students sat energetically on the benches, chatting and frolicking as they ate the way you’d expect any group of elementary students to do. The gravity which I felt at visiting the memorial was not shared by these students. Theirs was a normal day—better yet, a field trip day to be excited about.
When I was an 11 year-old fifth grader in 2001, I could sense the seriousness of the situation that was unfolding. I was old enough to know that a national tragedy was in progress. I could know enough that this day more so than others would shape the character of the future.
Yet do the grade-schoolers in the triangular park know what that day had changed? Their entire lives have occurred after that day. Have they grown up knowing that there was ever anything different?
Then I thought about what September 11 had changed for me. I was a child then. I did not know the world as I know it now. But I can tell that our culture has shifted to place a much higher value on security than freedom. Visiting the 9/11 Museum, I expected nothing less than a full security screening—symbolic of how our standard cultural expectations of what’s acceptable have changed. But I don’t expect such intense security measures to get into the visitor center of the Charlestown Naval Yard in Boston. Fifteen years later and our culture still clings to quixotic measures of security. As a culture, we’ve taken a default of viewing people as a threat. On that September day, a part of our liberty died that has never recovered.
As I continued to eat my lunch in the park, I kept thinking of those students. The normalcy of their interactions struck me. Their daily life didn’t seem much to be directly affected by the attacks. Elsewhere, the resilient people of New York have recovered and continue hurriedly about their business. Ground Zero, once devastated, has been rebuilt with gleaming towers beaming into the sky. Large promotional posters gawk about the experience of going up to the observatory at the top of the Freedom Tower. The cultural and economic powerhouse that is New York City lets no opportunity for commerce go to waste due to an air of sentimentality. The hum of city life honors the living while the nearby memorial pays tribute to the dead.
The dark cloud lingering over the national election is passing, but even darker clouds loom on the late-January horizon. The future of the nation seems to be a spiral of uncertainty. Gains in social progress and human rights hard-fought for over the decades seem to be at risk to an ideology of fear and distrust. How could America stoop so low to have this happen?
It’s easy to get cynical about national elections. Being registered to vote in a deeply red state (Idaho), I knew a vote either way wouldn’t change the national outcome. The Electoral College masks the voice of the people, instead turning the power of the popular vote into a pundit’s game. But with extra hope for democracy, I made sure to cast my absentee ballot. In the end, my suspicions were proven; my presidential vote far from mattered, with the winning candidate leading by 31 percentage points in my state regardless.
I watched the outcome on election night with my shipmates in New York, hovering over a smartphone below decks as the results trickled in. Hopes for a promising outcome were initially high. An air of disbelief gradually set in as key states on the east coast began to turn solidly red. Optimism gradually dampened. Late into the night, the tone turned somber and morose as the reality of the outcome sunk in.
There would have been no other place I’d rather be to watch the results than on the Clearwater. The ship is meant to be a safe place. It is meant to be an inclusive community, free from the hate and bigotry that have marred recent national politics. Individuals from all walks of life find themselves aboard the Clearwater. Whether you like the people you end up around on the ship often becomes irrelevant when you must cooperate with each other to form a functioning environment (though I’d say we really do actually like each other aboard the Clearwater). We’re all we have on the ship; we have to look out and take care of each other no matter who we may be.
I wish the ship could serve as a model for how our nation ought to operate. America is a vast mosaic of cultures and ideas and values that has been functioning continuously for over 260 years. The social narrative of this nation has been one of gradually recognizing that the inalienable rights originally granted in the Constitution are inherent to every human being—rights for women, ethnic minorities, indigenous people, religious groups, refugees, gender identities, sexual orientations, disabilities, immigrants, the impoverished and beyond. At the large national scale, it’s easy to become afraid of those groups of people who are different than you. We preferentially segregate ourselves to be with others similar to us. The outsiders—they are unknown, impersonal, different. They might try and change our comfortable status quo, we reason. When relations with the alien other remain impersonal, it’s easy to slip into stereotyping and generalizing fear and distrust. But if instead we were to know our neighbors—to actually learn who we are in community with—how different could things be? In the words of Clearwater’s founder Pete Seeger, “I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.” If only our nation could behave like a small village, knowing and understanding our neighbors, then maybe cooperation and compassion could win out over fear.
Personally, I’d hate to slip into the cynicism that I have no control in how the nation goes. We’re the second largest democracy in the world, holder of the largest worldwide economy, and home to 320 million people. America is an immense nation; an individual can easily feel overwhelmed by changes in national politics. But the future of our society, I believe, must be won at the level of the individual. Grassroots efforts at change in this nation have and will continue to bubble up and will ultimately succeed in crafting a society of equality and fraternity. These efforts will face many setbacks along the way. But keep on. Don’t get disheartened. As grassroots activist Pete Seeger believed, “the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” Though cynical about politics on a national and even a state level, I know voting still remains a fundamental act of resistance. Be part of your community. Go and vote in local elections.
The people’s voice may not have been heard this time, but we will be heard in the future. In the meantime, there is work to be done in the village. Bigotry and hate start locally, even within oneself. This must be stamped out. But it won’t be easy.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
One year ago I was a new arrival in Sydney, Australia, at the advent of my Australian adventure and my project of greater explorations into a meaningful life path. The launch of this blog, In All Directions, shortly preceded my departure and was intended as a chronicle of my travels in Australia—and also an experimental method of reflection and self-discovery along the way.
When I arrived in Australia in late October 2015, I had intentions of staying well over a year. My grandiose scheme had me finishing up a year of fruit picking at about this time and preparing to go on a circumnavigational road trip of the Australian continent as a way to spend my heaps of fruit picking money. A year later, instead of tramping in a van Down Under, I find myself living aboard a sailboat on New York’s Hudson River. Ending up at this particular spot wasn’t even on my radar one year ago, but due to the course of time, it simply ended up being the most reasonable next step to pursue. It’s intriguing the way that the passage of time makes one think about different possibilities with fresh attitudes. Nonetheless, through all my itinerant travels, this blog stuck to chronicle the journey.
One year into the In All Directions project and I can’t come up with any defining conclusions although I can still say it’s been worth the while to continue the exploration. In the past year, I’m more than happy at having tried three different directions: fruit picking in Australia, leading canoe trips in Wisconsin, and working aboard a tall ship in New York. Each of these directions had their individual benefits and drawbacks, but more importantly they have taught me lessons about myself and my proclivities. I can’t say that I’m close to a final discovery, or that I even believe there will ultimately be a final discovery; what I can say is that I have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t work for me. Anecdotally, Thomas Edison failed to make a working lightbulb after over 1,000 prototypes, but each failed trial led him closer to eventual success. When asked by a reporter about how it felt to fail so many times, Edison wisely replied that he didn’t fail at all—making a lightbulb was just a project with 1,000 steps. Like Edison, I’m not classifying things that didn’t quite work out as failures; I’m just refining what works for me and what doesn’t.
In everyday life, we all learn from our past experiences. But in order to gain those experiences, we must travel further down the one-way road of time. And to travel that road means going into an unknown future. Along the way you’ll encounter forks and decisions that will affect your route. You can’t travel back and do it all over again; the best you can do is trust yourself that what path you’re going down is heading towards the best outcome. This isn’t a Panglossian philosophy that all things ultimately work out in the best of all possible ways. More simply this is saying that no matter how life unravels itself, there is some measure of good to be made of the situation.
As I continue to try out different career paths and play with different ideas about my future, each direction I try out could lead me down a different path. One year ago I didn’t anticipate that I’d be writing a retrospective blog from Kingston, New York. But that’s what ended up happening anyway. The way life works is that it can only be viewed in retrospect. The future remains an intriguing mystery. One will never know what each path will look like until it’s been traveled.
Unlike my well-laid out Australian plans, life is not something you can plan out meticulously; life is something that you have to live through to understand where the experience is taking you. To get where I ended up right now, I could have taken many a multitude of paths. But on each of those infinite possible journeys, the lessons learned along the way would have been different; a slightly different person would arrive at each destination. Each journey undertaken is unique; chose to embrace the passages that add to the depth of your character.
There are many directions left to be explored, and I too look forward to seeing where they lead.
My bicycle hobbled over the pavement for the final stretch, rims wobbling, bearings creaking at every turn. One thousand miles of loaded travel puts a great deal of wear on a bicycle. Tires bald, brakes worn down, dozens of new scratches in the bright yellow paint. I rode with baited breath my final day, hoping that my emergency tube patch job would hold after blowing my last spare on a particularly aggressive Indiana pothole the night before. Braking for the last time on my parent’s uphill driveway, I came to my final stop. 19 days. 1,234.63 miles.
It was a rather uneventful end for such a long trip. Arriving at my destination felt no more different than returning from a short evening ride. The cheering spectators, the paparazzi that I’d expected were absent. I had thought that my trip would deserve an epic fanfare, a grandiose welcome after such a long physical exertion. What I got instead was a simple welcome home from my parents. Soon enough thoughts of riding drifted away from my mind as I integrated myself into my parent’s nightly television routine. Coming back from three weeks of biking felt little different that coming back from a day at the office
I ended up cutting my trip short by a day. Camping in Indiana on what would be my final night, I made the decision to push through and make it all the way to my destination instead. To myself I had already proven my capability to endure the journey; all I needed to do was complete the trip. Instead of leisure and sightseeing on my final day, I just put my head down and rode. Peddle after peddle, mile after mile kept adding up until I amassed 113 in one day. With goal in site, no time to relax—just time to ride.
The most intense feeling I had on my final push was one of relief. Biking north out of Michigan City, I caught glance of the giant blue “Welcome to Pure Michigan” road sign. After so long away, finally back in my home state. A lump grew in my throat and my eyes teared up as I crossed the state border.
Later on, coming into the outskirts of Holland, that same emotional relief came over me; ‘I recognize this place now’, I thought to myself, ‘I know where I am. From here it’s only 4 miles, 3 miles, 2 miles…’ To the onlookers curious at why the overburdened cyclist was sobbing, there is only one simple response:
I had made it
What difference does it make now that such an arduous trek is behind me? Already the memories of the toil are fading. The afterglow was short-lived. A few hours after arrival I found myself showered, rested, and unpacked from the journey. No time to bask in remembrance, and only a few people to recount the adventure for. Instead I had pressing work to prepare for my upcoming job.
But already I feel nostalgia for the journey. The lactic acid has since drained from my legs and I’ve forgotten how sore I felt on the expedition. Rosy retrospection smiles kindly upon the difficulties, and I find myself yearning for more. A journey of one thousand miles, and I had chosen to stop in the middle of America when more road lay yet before me.
After such a long journey, after such a feeling of relief when I finally made my destination and could rest, I realized one thing:
I could have still kept biking on.
On the road to North Star Camp for Boys, one passes a somewhat whimsical sign in the shape of a yellow caution diamond: CAUTION: Future World and Local Leaders at Work and Play.
Though I find the sign amusing, I also understand the truth behind it. The campers who attend North Star are, indeed, likely to become leaders of their communities and beyond. North Star is not a representative sample of children nationwide, and though these campers come from privileged backgrounds, they also face high pressure to lead and succeed. Families of North Star campers care enough about their children’s development to send them to an 8-week residential camp, and also have the means to afford it. Hailing from these types of environments, the campers at North Star tend to be more precocious and generally well-behaved—future leaders in training.
But, right now they are still kids. They aren’t fully aware of the significance of their background or how that affects their behaviors or expectations for the future. However, someday, like each successive generation has before, these kids will grow up and realize that it is now up to them to run the society they want to live in.
Whether or not we raise children of our own, we still all share in the same future of the world, and we all ought to share in that responsibility of raising the next generation. At age 26, having children of my own is a distant speculation—but though I don’t feel the evolutionary impulse to pass on my own DNA, I nonetheless feel the societal impulse to raise and nurture. Regardless of whether I procreate, I still have a future in the world to come: I still have that collective responsibility to invest in the future of humanity.
Maybe working with children shows that you are an optimist about the world. In a time of global turmoil, with pressing political, social, and environmental problems, you’ve got to have faith that the world is going to continue in order to devote time to the youth. If there is going to be no future, then why invest in the next generation at all? For me, I still have faith in social progress, that my generation can resolve some of the issues unresolved by earlier generations, and that the generation after will continue with the work left undone by mine.
My own generation—the millennials—is still up-and-coming. We have not risen to prominence yet. Nevertheless we are beginning to see the ways that we can lead and are learning about the power of our collective choice. But we are still learning. We still need the guidance from generations before, seeking advice from parents and getting mentored by those older and wiser than us. In a similar way, we’re already influencing the generation under us.
I’m not sure if the campers at North Star are part of the same generation as me. Even the oldest campers I’m more than a decade senior. These are kids whose entire lives exist only after the year 2000. Though I can relate to them in many ways, the world they are native to is ever so slightly different than the one I grew up in.
For as much as I may paint a picture of working with kids as some deeply-contrived social obligation, I don’t do it for any external philosophical reason. I do it because I have found that I enjoy working with children.
As someone who commonly feels socially awkward amongst peers, it has been energizing to work with children. Just because you are bigger and older, children give you a lot of undue credit right from the start. They look up to adults who want to spend time with them. They find you interesting as a person, and because of that they become attentive for what you have to teach. To a kid, the world beyond their parent’s home is a vast unexplored horizon. Already I’ve done many things with my life that kids find interesting to hear about; I can regale them with stories from the other side of adolescence, about adventure and exploration, about amazing things from this world. Sharing things that have become mundane and commonplace to me could be the first experience a child has with it—and that exuberance a child has when experiencing something for the first time is ever-encouraging.
The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow. But it’s not just for the campers at North Star—it’s children everywhere who are the future.