Update and Feb 15th continuation

Hey all!

Hope you’re doing well :). It’s been a busy few weeks for me: in previous weeks we had the Tinder adventures (… so many stories. So many) and this last week I was on a mostly-UK-vacation with my friend Tiffany, who was visiting from the States after finishing her first year of med school (congrats Tiff!). We had a great time, with highlights including Oxford, tea in Grantchester, chocolates in Brussels, a play at the Shakespeare Globe, London Comicon, Harry Potter Studios, and massive amounts of eating and walking. I would put up photos except I’m far too lazy to sort through the hundreds currently on my hard drive, especially since iPhoto insists on putting them out of chronological order. (My very occasional photo posts on this blog are very occasional for exactly this reason. It takes ages.)

I am currently happy to be back in Cambridge and growing increasingly alarmed at how my dissertation is not done yet. Tomorrow’s a writing day—need to put the pedal to the metal :). But before I head to bed tonight, I was happily reminded of the fact that I have some writing in storage I was waiting to put up, so this will be a decently long update. I was waiting because this has some sensitive content; it was meant to be Part III of my Feb 15th post “Travel, Interviews, and Robots”.

Happy weekend all, and shout out to all my Wellesley Class of 2016 friends who graduated on Friday!

Best wishes,


Travel, Interviews, and Robots

Feb 15th, 2016


“So, did you have a good time at the party last night?” My graduate student host asked me, referring to the party the night before, where the prospectives and graduate students mingled with lots of alcohol after a dinner with the faculty. (This occurred in all of my interviews, and has been fun in all cases.)

My host had just been raving about one of the prospectives, who is apparently an excellent dancer especially when drunk. She’d had a great time with her friends as well.

I’d had a great time too. “Yeah, I talked to this other prospective for like three hours. It was great.”

Then everyone just kind of looked at me and remarked that three hours was a long time. And it was—usually I talked to a few more people at these things, but all of them have been fun because they involved having one on one conversations with prospectives and graduate students for long chunks of time. There are also people who danced, of course, or gathered in big groups, but it was so easy to just find people to talk to for minutes at a time.

(Today, in contrast, I’m staying with a friend and thought it’d be fun to go out with a group of her friends for dinner. I’ve never volunteered so readily to go to one of these before, and it’s because I’ve had such an easy time at these parties. It was fun too, but it made me realize that these grad school parties are kind of uniquely easy—the smoothness doesn’t apply to all group situations. You need to opportunity to be able to move around, have people want to talk to strangers, and nail down people to talk to individually. Plus you need a collection of interesting people. This is something I’m realizing is actually what my makes my life so charmed—I’m recently always surrounded by interesting and friendly people. I’ve disliked a total of one person in all of my trips.)

In this case, I’d gotten to talking with a guy for three hours at this graduate party… which was so funny to me because the day before I’d left for this interview in the States, I’d talked to another guy for three hours at a pub :). This is not really something that happens to me, because it’s so rare that I and another person have the time and the interest to talk to each other for so long. Sometimes I’m so happy not be in college anymore—college is where these types of conversations are supposed to happen, but I was just working 24/7 in college, and everyone was always busy. I’ve had more long late-night conversations with people since coming to Cambridge than I did at Wellesley :).

And it was really wonderful, talking with both of these guys. Very different though, so I’ll give them both letters. B is the prospective student. L was the guy who came and visited me in Cambridge beforehand—we’d been friends a while back, and he was in the area and so came and stayed with me for a night.

My conversation with L was a listening conversation. I’ve had quite a few of these with another friend in college, actually— when someone’s going through a hard time, and I do what I can by listening. I don’t know if it helps much in the end, because they have to continue to deal with that situation, and I don’t know that sharing it makes people feel better in a lasting way. I try to give advice within, but most of the time they’re not situations in which you can give advice—they’re just bad situations, and there’s not much you can do.

It does help me. I can’t help them in the same way it helps me, because it makes me conscious of the way things could be in my life that they’re not. There’s quite a few things I realized after my conversation with L that make my life so extraordinarily special. First, that I’m surrounded by intelligent, fascinating people all the time, and that there are innumerable opportunities to interact and meet them. Second, that I have this incredible support network—I’ve never done anything alone. Third, that I have an unconditionally supportive family. That one, I’m realizing, is exceedingly rare. Almost all of my friends have struggled with family acceptance in some way or another, and I’ve never had to. Fourth, I have a life goal. I already knew that not everyone had one, but I realize that I thought I understood drifting far more than I actually do, because even when I was unsure I was always fairly quick to put myself back on a track. Fifth, I’m in a position to realize my goals. In sum, I have past success, I have focus, I have skills, and I have so, so many people supporting me. And that, especially in combination, is rare.

I did what I could, listening. I’m terrible at comforting, in that if someone comes to me in tears, I’m going to back myself out of there as soon as possible. But if someone’s come to me with a situation they’ve thought about, is inevitable, and is making them feel terrible, I’m perfectly capable of sitting there and accepting. I wonder how many other people do this. These situations take quite a while to get into—a few hours with a stranger, and at least a half and hour one-on-one with a friend. And they last a long time too, and take a lot of attention, because you’re listening to them and you’re monitoring yourself and there are a lot of emotions to regulate on both sides. People do have close friends though for this reason. There must always be someone who listens.

My talk with B was largely about this, actually. B works for something similar to a suicide hotline. He does this—listening conversations— regularly. He says that more than anything else, it has taught him that you never know when someone is going through something tough, underneath everything they’re presenting to you, and needs someone to listen. People call the hotline, though. What if these people don’t have someone to listen?

B seems to practice this in every day life—I asked him at several points how you get better at it, and he had several strategies to share. People do come to you more when you’re good at it, he replied when I asked. He’s a giver—he expresses that he values sensitivity in people more than anyone I’ve met. Not to the point where he’s willing to devote huge chunks of time to anyone who comes to him—he says he’ll spend far more time on people he cares about than people he doesn’t like—but he’s a giver.

One of my traits that I know has frustrated at least one of my friends is that I’m happy to listen—on my schedule. I’m there for you, if we’ve scheduled off a block of time during which I’m hanging out with you. I’m very happy to schedule that time in. But I’m not going to answer my phone—that’s my whole point of not using a phone; I don’t want to be immediately accessible. And you can get mad at me all you like, about how you needed someone to talk to and I wasn’t there, but you’re kind of just enforcing why I don’t use a phone. Email me. Let’s talk about your emotions rationally and productively. If we’re going to rehash old points because they’re still bugging you, that’s fine, but if you want to talk about the same things again, show me that you’ve thought about it since.

I feel like… the reason people probably don’t come to me about this sort of thing is because I demand a depth of reflection that I’d expect out of myself if I were to talk to someone. B was telling me that people most often just want to hear you repeat back what they’re expressing. I told him—how am I supposed to know things like that? I treat others based on how I’d like to be treated, and when I’m expressing frustration to others, I hope that they validate my emotions, but then it rings very odd to me if they don’t alert me when I’m not being reasonable. This might be why the idea of picking up a phone when someone calls me in distress sounds like a horrifying idea—because you’re dealing with the immediate emotional backlash at that point, no reasoning at all, and those conversations last for such a long time and no one’s interested in listening anyway. I could be anyone; I could be an inanimate object; people just want someone to rant to, and you’re supposed to nod along.

I suppose this is where the selfishness—if you could call it that, and it doesn’t quite seem right—comes in. Because I want to get something out of it on my end, for my time. I want to get out of that you know you’re talking to me, you’re sharing something with me deliberately, you’re seeking comfort, but you’re also seeking validation knowing that I won’t give it to you unless I think what you’re saying is valid. I want you to come to me as a thinking being, not an automaton that’s going to nod along to what you say. I want you to expect me to listen open-mindedly, and expect responses open-mindedly. That’s kind of a lot to expect from someone who’s dealing with something terrible in the first place.

Given these constraints, it’s a miracle anyone finds talking to me useful at all. But I do think I’m useful if you’re looking for this specific type of thoughtful validation. Because I do have some good things on my side: I’m going to devote my full attention to you, I’ve had an charmed upbringing that lets me be accepting of pretty much anything, and I care. And, from what I understood from talking to B, those last three things will get you pretty far in talking to people even without any official training.

It does give me great admiration for the people who will do the listening without all the nice moral returns. I get to feel happy that the speaker and I deepened our connection, that I’ve learned something about their life and mine, that I’ve helped someone in some way. Those people in the world who will listen, who will give up some chunk of their busy and productive lives to listen even through that initial unthinking outpouring—they are the heroes, really. The givers. Who are there for the people they care about, whenever they need them.

… My best friend Tiffany and B are both like that. Highly productive individuals who regardless take the time to listen. And I worry that they’re getting run over, because they have so many things that they do and they’re taking the time—because that’s always what I feel like. But it must be different for them. Both of them expressed that they only do it for the people they care about, and they set boundaries even in those cases. Their boundaries are just a bit wider than mine.

Who are the people I respect the most in the world? Hard question, because I think of family and no rules apply. But if I think of strangers and friends, people who you evaluate before you choose them: high achievers who are givers. Always.

I was mentioning to B that I don’t often get to have deep conversations with people, and he asked why, and I said what I mentioned earlier about time and interest. He said he was honored. I started laughing. How it is so different, what people see in each other, and we think the other sees?

L expressed a similar sentiment, when I said he hits all of the “cool” buttons in my book—an international traveler, driven, huge network of friends, ability to express in writing powerful depth of thought. Not a giver, that one, but someone who has had to go his own way over and over, who pushes himself in all the domains I have struggled with and value for being difficult. It’s so interesting to see how everyone sees themselves, how they present themselves on paper and what they think about where they’re going; how we interpret their words and the selection of their mind they’re writing for public consumption and how there are so many dimensions to a person in so many different heads and they’re all, to some extent, true.

Sorry, the writing is going to be weird for a bit—B just sent me his website where he posts poetry, and that stuff is good, man. Normally we read the things our friends send us because we like our friends for some merits that aren’t things they sent us, but I’d read this poetry if I found it in a book somewhere. I feel my blog has the same kind of dichotomy—there are people who read it because they know me and they want to know what I’m thinking (the majority), but every once in a while I get people who’ve read the blog first, and who don’t have too much interest in getting to know my public self later. I was talking to B that evening, and at some point someone else inserted themselves into the conversation (I love that this can happen; that’s the best part about these parties) and I immediately backed onto lighter topics. Too light, actually, since B and the other guy moved onto science pretty quickly. (But I’ve stopped worrying about that, finally. I often feel insecure when I start a topic too light and then people move into more intellectual topics and I feel bad that I didn’t start there.) But the selves that we present to people initially—I’m talking about the first few hours with a conversation with a stranger, and the first half-hour to hour with a friend—is so different from everything underneath. People well trained in social interaction—which adults are—can talk about anything, and we spend most of our lives doing this. B asked me what I meant by “deep conversation”. It doesn’t have a good definition, or a roadmap to how you get there. I said: when you’re talking about things that you’d never bring up first. When you’re talking about things that are normally private, when you’re discussing something that requires some level of trust.

B said he’s had people who haven’t responded to his writing appropriately. I’ve never had that experience. I’ve been warned against it—that people will read what I’m writing, since it’s public, and use that information incorrectly, but no one has. And that fundamental difference is why I think I have no trouble getting into these conversations—I’m quite ready to get into deep conversations very soon after meeting people, because I trust people won’t do anything with my writing; I’ve never had an experience that made me cautious not to. (I used to be the same about people stealing things. You’re carefree until all your stuff gets stolen, and careful thereafter.) I go in the opposite direction—I’ve had to be taught all the social niceties to put on top of my thoughts, to come at people slowly. But most people, as B put it, are more shy about it. Sometimes I just want people to tell me something they care deeply about, because that’s the fascinating stuff that makes me feel more than, and exactly, human, but it can’t be forced. Fit and mutual interest, from both parties, and it takes hours because you have to make sure people will appreciate it, will appreciate it as the gift it is, and not judge, just accept and find it something valuable. I know it doesn’t work with everyone; it doesn’t work with most people, and even the people you click with it doesn’t happen that often. But B was just one prospective student out of the many at that party—I didn’t have him flagged in particular for anything before I started talking to him. How do you find these people? And how do you maintain the connection after those few hours are gone?

Such ephemeral experiences—beautiful when you’re in them, and you’re aware of it, trying to keep it going. From both sides, too—when I was talking with L, it was more one-sided, him expressing depth that I felt specifically chosen to accept. With B, it was more two-sided, but leaned toward one-sided in my direction (in that I was talking the most). Not that I have anything particularly deep to say—I haven’t really suffered at all, so I have to be interesting in other ways. Specifically, I have an odd natural structure of observing the world, especially socially, and people, as B mentioned, “get a kick out of that”. But B mentioned some things—hinted at them, mainly. The same way our two “blogs” are so different—he writes poetry, which hints at the abstract, and I write this, which aims to explain my thought processes in a way that makes them most comprehensible. But I just want to know. For everyone I meet, I want to hear what they think, I want to hear what makes them different, I want to know what they’ve gone through and how they’ve reflected upon it and how it fits into their stories about themselves and how they’ve changed and where they want to go and I want to know it. I want to know it especially for those people who are similar to me, who like how I think and want it reciprocated—I want to talk with them under I understand them, until I have a grasp of what they want—but I want to hear it from the people I don’t agree with as well, want to struggle to get it. Why don’t I read more books? If I want these distilled perspectives so much, why don’t I read them from the page? (Maybe because I only really want people who are just different enough from me. The people who’d never consider calling me on my cell phone, the people who do go through all the niceties, who wait to see how I’ll respond, before easing in.)

At this point I’ll close this section :). It’s so hard to keep control of the writing, sometimes, when I’m writing interrupted and figuring out what my messages are as I go along :). Difficult to not drift into poetry, as well, to force myself to explain my thoughts in a way that’s easily understood with concrete examples. But this section is about listening and perspectives: about figuring out what others want, what I want, what makes people good listeners, about why we don’t share these stories, about why we do. I’ll add one more addendum about these two late night conversations— then I’ll move back into safer territory, ease back into the light. The next time these topics will come up (and I see in my writing the same themes again and again) they’ll be cleaner.


I was thinking about what I wrote earlier, about writing requiring trust, about people using information appropriately. Specifically, about what B said to me—that everyone was well-meaning, but sometimes people assumed more about him from his writing than was true. I notice this oddness sometimes with the people I interact with as well—when I wrote about my “big adjustment” experience in my last blog posts, one of my lab members read the post and I could see it on her face when I was talking about it in person. Because I talk about things differently in person (the summary version, edited for even brighter optimism), and sometimes it’s hard to keep it consistent across the mediums. B’s writing circles a lot around loneliness, love. He says he takes inspiration from real life, but it’s not a direct reflection. I can see what he means about people assuming things, and trying to say things to him that they’d inferred from his writing, but getting it wrong.

L said that as well. Everyone’s well-meaning, but their comfort isn’t… right. It’s what they would have liked to hear, but it isn’t what he wants to hear. I wonder if we all just treat each other how we’d like to be treated, without trying to get into anyone else’s headspace, or maybe because we’re incapable of doing so. No wonder B mentions that silence, and just listening, not giving advice, is one of the best things to do when someone’s telling you something.

L talked a lot about “understanding”—B as well. L talked about how hard it is to find people who “get him”, who can empathize with his experiences. I confess I was sitting there thinking about whether I was one of those people who “get it”. And the thing is, I think I’m in between; one truth is that I don’t.

Because really, I don’t. I don’t think about whether people understand me; loneliness and love aren’t really on my mind. I’ve never dated or broken up with someone; I’ve not lost someone I was close to; I’ve never deeply lost a friend. I’ve encountered challenges, but they’re typical ones, and I felt supported throughout. I don’t want to read too much into B’s poetry—L told me these things himself, so I feel confident in saying this might be how he feels— but I really don’t understand the longing that they express.

On the other hand, I’m probably the next best thing. I’m open to what they’re telling me, and I’m not going to assume I know what’s best. I don’t trust my interpretation of other people, so I’m willing to listen to what they say. I’m interested in other perspectives, and I find it valuable to take the time to listen. B says that for everyone who works in the hotline room with him, you can find that experience that says why they’re there. I don’t have that experience, but I’d like to be there.

So that’s me, but I’m just one of the many of us humans bopping around interacting with each other, going back ages and ages. Do other people think about this? How do other people react? I don’t have enough data; can barely draw conclusions about myself. Where are my generalizations? How do other people act, how do they think about how they act; is this as important to them as it is to me; more important?

And then, of course, we have that nice little anecdote, the reply that B gave to me when I asked: “oh, I don’t think about this stuff that often. Most of the time I’m working.” And that there is a very true statement. What is the goal of life; what should we be thinking about; what does it mean to be human.

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