Old Haunts

It’s been four years and I’m not quite sure that I remember the way to the cafeteria. But I feel my way. I make it. No problem.

I do remember that the food is bad, and expensive. But this time, I can afford it. I don’t have to get the soup and stack up on the free bread. I’ll get the special.

I eat alone today. Don’t worry, it’s by choice. It most often is. Attributed to something in between my own laziness and my grand appreciation for solitude in the midst of the blur.

It’s finally sunny. So I sit in the sunroom. I hear people’s conversations. There are a few distinctive types – the one happy for some superficial social interaction for their lunch break, the other discussing family details like they’ve lived amongst each other for years, another in what seems to be obligatory work discussion – just to have someone to sit with. With others, I see the plain-faced boredom – they look up to watch me eventually put my tray away. Longer than normal. Curiosity mixed with the interest of something new.

I start walking back to my office – my office for the day, anyway. The elevator is small, but I get in with two other people. Something, or really – someone makes it inevitably awkward. The first gets off at the second floor. “Bonne après-midi,” mumbled, just barely discernible. There’s no room for a response. The next elevator ding is mine and the other person gets off with me, clearly confused at who I am and why I’m on his floor, but no questions asked.

This isn’t the first time I’ve returned to old stomping grounds. And I suspect that it’s going to happen more and more often. I can’t remember if I ever really meant to be back here – I think I hadn’t exactly planned on it in the way that one doesn’t when one doesn’t think about it. It forces me to reflect on the ways I’ve changed and what I’ve done between now and then to cause that change, for better or worse.

I was young – fresh out of college. I’d never worked the 9 to 5. And I was eager, so insufferably excited. So sure that this is where I wanted and needed to be, that this was the only logical decision for me, because this is what you do, and what people want. That all dropped off somewhere in the first or second quarter of graduate school, scattered and windswept over the streets of Baltimore. By February, I’d had enough. I wondered where I’d gotten so mesmerized by all of it. It was time for something real. Two years later, I’m still finding that that’s a hard thing to pin down.

So, what’s the difference between being here then and being here now? Basically that I walk around like I own the place. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But in comparison to what my demeanor was before, that description is pretty accurate. There was confidence before. But that confidence seems to have taken root and blossomed, somehow escaping my watchful inward gaze. Or perhaps, I simply give zero fucks. I take in the looks and stares like they were self-evidently meant for me. And they’re thoroughly amusing.

Now, I’m left wondering where that change began. Was it becoming thoroughly jaded with the work and the world? Did it start with a need for more tangible impact, right now? Or realizing so much of the perpetual, tangible frustration are problems of the system? Or was it simply a byproduct of aging and more practice, if only four years of it? Whatever it was, I’d venture to say that the transformation hasn’t ended there. All I’m left with at this moment is sheer amazement at the magnitude of the change.

In some way, it gives me more confidence of the things that, in my head, I can’t do now simply because of “how I am” or what skills I may or may not have, I’ll be able to do only a short time from now. Perhaps I can now if only given the opportunity. But why leave it to so much circumstance? Maybe, I need to create my own opportunity.

To Do: Merge Worlds

I recently took a trip back to New York City. The trip had multiple purposes. One, I missed New York. I missed my friends and the life that I had there, however brief it was. Two, I wanted to maintain connections with my former organization and maybe make some new ones. Three, I wanted needed a vacation.

For the past nine months, I’d lived in San Francisco. It’s become one of my favorite cities. It’s often compared to New York. Apart from the fact that they make up opposite metropolitan centers on each coast, I’m not entirely sure why they’re so often compared. To me, the comparison isn’t justifiable.

I was there for a week. I fell easily back into the routine of long hours, post-work drinks, late-night trains, date nights, and bottomless brunch. Days were long. I was moving forward, getting relevant work done, and on the whole, a productive member of society that also had a rich social life. Yay, me. Perhaps these were the feelings that I’d missed.

I loved my trip back, but it also highlighted how much I’ve changed in only a year. It highlighted the extremes to which one’s environment shapes one’s thoughts and way of thinking. Maybe it’s the barrage of data and technology in San Francisco and what money and success means here compared to New York that makes the distinction so palpable.

In San Francisco, the conversation revolves around technology: engineering, coding, machine learning; data: data systems, integration, visualization; startup culture: entrepreneurship, innovation, connections, capital. Now, I realize that a life in New York means many different things to many different people, but mine is and was about being part of an international city. My world turned for global policy and world politics, the goings-on of the United Nations, who was coming to the US, and what it meant in the world. Relevant issues were defined as what we were doing about the refugee crisis, what was happening in the Congo, Syria, Lebanon, and the Ukraine, what you thought about it, what should be done, and the role you and others played. It’s not that these issues are forgotten in San Francisco. It’s just that discussion of them is often diminished by news of the most recent Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and what that means for society and private companies. And while these happenings too are important, the inherent differences between them are compelling.

I went back to New York with a mindset dominated by the accepted importance of data, tech, and startup culture. In New York, I encountered my old self – one for which the significance of these concepts were only peripheral. For that time, I forgot everything I was aiming to pursue in San Francisco. But the San Francisco influence clearly affected the way that I thought about and responded to old friends’ conversation around the usual international development issues.

What alarmed me the most is that I only realized these changes when I returned to the West Coast. It wasn’t until I pulled myself out of that environment that I realized its impact, that other places are consumed by different worlds. It highlighted and re-emphasized a few things for me.

  1. Make conscious choices about your environment – friends, work, and culture – because it will shape you and your life.
  2. Your world is small. Don’t forget that your present and its concerns are often only small elements of others’ worlds.
  3. Seek out new experiences and new places, but revisit the old ones. Don’t forget to reflect on them and recognize how you’ve changed as a result.

My task now is to effectively integrate and balance these perspectives for innovation and impact. These are experiences that make each of our views unique and relevant. So how do I make mine tangibly relevant? That still remains to be seen.

Something Borrowed

It’s an old pastime of young girls to imagine their future selves, embodied in a future name – written and signed. Using the last name of a crush, perhaps, just to see how it all fits together, and the vibrations through the air as it rolls off the tongue. It sounds just perfect, and so does the imagined pride of having this new identity, to be this new someone that matters to a particular someone. This pastime is learned at a young age and continues into adulthood. Don’t even try to deny it now. It is learned at a young age that we, as girls, take our husband’s surname – because we will marry. Most girls learn this from their mother and their own family. Mom took dad’s name – and that is how the world works.

There has been a lot of chatter around whether a woman should take the name of her husband’s. And a lot of judgment. It isn’t a new discussion. There are a number of ways that this could go.

  • The traditionalist: a woman changes her family name to her husband’s upon marriage.
  • The relegation: adding the new name last, demoting her name to a middle name that is really never used, let’s be honest.
  • The egalitarian: the abhorred hyphen.
  • The keeper: no change. You modern woman, you.
  • The feminist: man takes her name – I know, rare. It happens. So for completeness, humor me here.

There are issues with each of these options, as there are issues with the concept and act of committing to sharing your entire life forever with a single, often dynamic, person in an unstable world of circumstance. But, that is a discussion for another time.

Now, a necessary aside: this is coming from the perspective of a straight, (partially) white, educated, middle-class female and in the context of getting married, though there are plenty of other reasons to be changing your name. Changing names with the added attachment of another person, however, brings about these particular complex and curious ruminations.

Judgment is always passed on our choices. This choice in particular puts a label on an identity. This change is out in the open, on exhibition to the public. This change brands a shiny new scarlet A – there to be recognized and acknowledged, and judged. She’s anti-feminist. She’s lost herself. She’s attached. She’s no longer her own individual. She doesn’t care about her career and what this will do to her professional life. The hyphen is so unattractive. It makes your name too long, how inconvenient. The name no longer speaks to a pure heritage. It’s a jumbled mess. She doesn’t want to be attached to him. She doesn’t want to label herself. She doesn’t love him enough. And, how emasculating.

Why the judgment? Why is so much physical and virtual brain space dedicated to this choice?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

But names carry so much, even if all they hold is a mental construct to which we are unwillingly subjugated by the perceptions of others. It’s the first experience of labeling and identity about which we usually have little choice in today’s Western society. And it follows you around. It is a label, that once attached, is to encapsulate a personality, career, self-image, judgment, and social experience – and the choice is so seemingly arbitrary. So what does it mean to change it, when it’s been established and when, say, things like marriage maybe come along? Well, with all of the hullabaloo about it, we seem to think it means a lot.

Much of this discussion has been built around the rise of the “career woman” and how we must lean in to get ahead in this world. In the relatively new professional world of females, keeping one’s name has become an indicator of an independent, ambition-driven woman, entrenched in circumstances where her own brand carries weight enough to warrant breaking tradition and forever attaching her label to her past, current, and future achievements. Alternatively, she could simply like her name, just the way it is.

Still, there are long lists of how-tos that in themselves reflect the impending judgment and re-evaluation. You’re urged to introduce it in the right way to soften the blow: “How to Change Your Name and Keep Your Professional Identity,” “Changing Your Name? Tips for the Workplace,” how to write that first email. Regardless of how it’s done, you can hear it already, “Oh…, she got married. And this makes it different from before. She has concerns and obligations to someone else, and relationships and character facets that I can’t discern from over here.” When taking marriage and a changed surname as public announcement of a woman’s capacity for care and empathy but also dependence, this change can be perceived as weakness. This decidedly does not pair well with the image of the career woman.

So, here it is. The public discussion and judgment and professional & social reception and identity and brand, all laid out in various spaces of physical and virtual reality. So, how does one choose?

I consider myself independent, a feminist. My career is important to me. My name is attached to things. Regardless of whether or not I get married, it’s a choice that captures identity and forces greater understanding of its facets and veiled values. So…would I change my name?

The conclusion that I’ve come upon is that this choice is a deeply personal one, which means high variation for different kinds of people and different circumstances. Anti-climactic, I know. I’m sorry to disappoint. I never claim to have these answers. I’m better at the questions. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll share my thoughts of the moment on the matter and how others might start to think through this choice.

To begin with, it’s simple. Based on my most primitive fancies, what do I want? Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t particularly like my name – its appearance, spelling, sound. I’m not attached to it in the way I find that many are – by their family life and experiences. My last name has never carried the label feature, characteristic of my identity in the same way as my first name. Instead, it floats in my wake, as if connected by a shimmering string of a spider web, easily severed.

Names seem to fit others, while I’ve always had a hard time saying and explaining my own. It’s something I’ve been working on getting used to and I’d say it’s been growing on me for nearly 25 years now. Based on this, my choice seems moderately straightforward: welcome a change that may be more fitting. However, I work in a space where keeping your published name is ideal, if only for the sake of convenience, historic record, respect, and recognition. This is the challenge. What is to be weighed?

Again, my primordial inclination is to say fuck others’ perceptions and judgments and do what you feel. But then, years of socialization force some level of rationalized discussion. These changes induce perceptions and judgments that affect, if only by a smidgeon, respect, recognition, and experience. And experience shapes your life. Or maybe I’m making a bigger deal of this whole thing than it really is.

Luckily or not, I still have time to make my choice. Or I think I do. All I can say if it comes to it is that I hope that I will be the one to shape the name and what it means as applied to me in my past, present, and future – and not all the rest of it.

Razor Blades

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Yes. It boggles my mind. It boggles my mind that an entire industry can be created and designed and financed and consumed based on a socially constructed desire. Seemingly inconsequential, these 1- or 3- or 4- or…5-(?!?!)bladed configurations presumably do not save lives or better humanity (except for apparently, in the realm of a larger social construct, increasing the potential for copulation among its subscribers – but then, depending on how you look at it, this could also be argued not to better mankind’s existence in any sense – but I digress).

Yet, as I stand in Walgreens, I am forced to make a resolute selection between number of curve-hugging blades, pre-determined “feminine” colors, ribbons of moisture and conditioning strips, titanium coats, and micro-fine combs, between the Embrace and the Swirl, Slim, Hydro, and Xtreme. And it occurs to me, as these things often do – so…this is someone’s job, possibly life’s work, to design this simple device, and offer all of this choice diversity in the product, for my consumption? Made to cut the little hairs and peel the skin from my legs. To make it acceptable for me to walk about in society barelegged. To make me desirable to touch and feel. And are they…satisfied? Did they grow up dreaming of coming to work everyday pouring over design tables, plastic parts, sketches to design and manufacture…razors? This is significant to this person…?

Probably not. I’d venture to guess that more often then not, it’s a job. It pays bills and provides. Or if it is passion, it’s not for the final product of the hailed razor. It is difficult for me to imagine for various reasons: One, the inconsequence of the product. Again, presumably. In the grand scheme of life – I would hope – for all of our sakes. Two, how this feeds into individuals’ satisfaction with their work and life. After all, so much of our lives have become defined by our work, i.e. what is your legacy? And that is their LIFE’S WORK, or some part of it. I hope they find it thrilling. I truly do. Three, you’re telling me that this industry creates and sways its own market based on the insecurities promulgated by a strategic narrative of what is pleasing and what should be, a fabricated ideal. Interesting.

And, of course, the questions amass. How many other products out there would encourage the same thoughts? What does it mean to be consequential in the convoluted, awkward, hypercritical realm of social constructs that we’ve created for ourselves? When do people settle? Where do they find their satisfaction instead, accepting that they will spend 40 or more hours a week doing just this? In a society and alleged social structure where we are told that we always have a choice, do we really? In job, career, impact? Especially when time is only shorter. Really, I only have questions. No answers for this one.

Standing awkwardly in the aisle for these two full minutes, I finally press the button to call the attendant to open the case – because yes, in this city, they lock up the razors. And yes, this makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

“That one,” I point.

She hands it to me – green, four blades, all the gadgets and gizmos.

“Thanks.”