Tuesday, August 9, 2016


This past weekend I turned twenty. To celebrate, I took myself up to the North Sea.



Sea Fog - Keane


The ocean (and I'm counting the North Sea as a part of the ocean because it's all connected anyways) holds a prominent place in my personal mythology. Chaos, the unknown, that which is eternal. I love the ocean best when it is overcast and windswept and cold, which it was on my birthday, because then it is perfect for thinking. "Winter is the best time to set your thoughts in order," ten-year-old me wrote in a poem about cold weather, and the North German summer feels fairly similar to California winter.

This summer has not been one of contentment. Or rather, it has, but I recognize that contentment is not satisfaction, contentment is not long-lasting growth and happiness. I go to work and I do tasks which do not require me to exercise the technical skills I am training, and I have a good time because my co-workers are nice, and I come home and I derp around on the Internet, and I plan fun weekend trips and cook for myself so as to be able to afford them, and it is a quiet, neat, small life and I am frustrated with it. I am frustrated because this work is not the work I will be doing for the rest of my life. I am frustrated because I leave at 1700 sharp some days because there's no sense of urgency, no need for me to push myself late. I am frustrated because I feel as though I am punching below my weight--I should be doing something more, something that is going to leave a stronger mark upon the world, something...

Well, I asked myself as I sat in the dunes the day I turned twenty, what do you want your contribution to the world to be?

I answered: I want to build useful and important structures. The big three are energy, water, and transportation infrastructure. I want to buck the trend of the technically competent engineer who has no sense of social responsibility, and I want to build things where they are needed. I want to leave things behind that will continue to create value for decades, for centuries, for millennia after I die. Projects that achieve progress on multiple fronts: correcting structural injustice, protecting the natural environment, and so on.

Beyond that, I also want to write stories that show people that magic exists, that you can create your own power, that the people who are overlooked are often the most important. That kindness and honor and treating other people like people matters and is powerful and that this way of interacting with the world will win.

My problem this summer is that I've found a nice, comfortable steady state. I've written before about wanting to find a routine, about longing for permanence, but what I've discovered now is that that's only half of it. Equilibrium of routine must be matched by a sense of trajectory--forward motion--progress--in the work the routine supports. The day-to-day has to add up to something, when you look back.

Sitting on the dunes, I realized that, of course, one of the big problems is that I've fallen out of my writing routine. Two years ago I spent a couple of hours every morning working on Ubermadchen and consequently racked up 100,000 words in a summer. I wrote Monday to Friday and took weekends off, and I remember when I mentioned that to people they were impressed. Because, in hindsight, it is a sign of dedication, of treating writing as a job and blocking out enough time to do it that you also have to block out time not to do it. Then college happened and I haven't had a real writing routine since, which is terrible, because I know and have known for years that when I write regularly, things are better.

I decided that although I have a lot of novel ideas, the priority is putting writing back on the schedule as a regular thing rather than pursuing a high-overhead project. They say that college is a four-year sprint and junior year I'm planning to go full tilt into my professional goals, so my writing plan going forward is what my writing plan for spring/summer was supposed to be: short stories (which, because I'm me, will probably end up running to 5,000-10,000 words) exploring various worlds and settings and styles. I had a period of such artistic exploration fall 2012 when I was between the Utopia Project revision and Orsolya, and that was very good for me, so even though it's a compromise, I am looking forward to this. Taking the long view, unless one of my novel ideas really starts calling out to me and I am motivated to put in good, solid effort into worldbuilding and plotting, I'm probably going to be writing short works for at least the next two years.

(What does it say about me that every opportunity to reflect just ends up producing more and more plans?)

I am twenty years old. At my age, Octavian Caesar was a consul of Rome. Since I've been working my way (very [very] slowly) through a German biography of Augustus that I purchased last month, I've been feeling the connection to Octavian even more strongly than usual. I catch myself thinking his famous phrase a lot--festina lente. Make haste slowly.

When I first heard that I thought it was dumb and wrong--why not do things fast but unhurriedly? But I think that growing older is really the factor that has made me appreciate more and more the truth of it. Change takes time. People's opinions don't change overnight, trajectories don't reverse instantaneously. You can work for years and years and things can look the same as they always have. It takes something out of the ordinary to maintain the needed level of intensity over years, to approach your work with urgency and care yet also have the patience to let the seeds grow.

I'm thinking about the policy platform of the Movement for Black Lives. Although I haven't read through the whole thing, I've looked through some of the major points and it takes my breath away how ambitious and thorough their policy demands are. This is what visionary means, not some d.school wonk designing a better damn widget.

For my own work (though if I am able to do what I want to do, there will definitely be overlap with the M4BL platform), I've been thinking more and more about what questions I haven't asked yet. That is, I've wanted to "build roads and sewage systems in places that need them!" for several years now, but I have neglected to ask why such things haven't been built when I am not the first wide-eyed idealist to go into civil engineering. In a lot of places the answer is: corruption and violence. What am I going to do to address these? Am I willing to live in a community that lacks basic resources--and if I'm not, how far removed am I going to be from my work? If I work for a big firm will we even pursue such projects, or will I end up building unnecessary things for wealthy regions and people?

The past decade took me a long way. Ten years ago: kid on the cusp of fifth grade, loved math and writing, really liked InuYasha and Maple Story and other stuff I don't even remember, wore their (retroactively "they"-ing me because even then I kind of knew I wasn't "actually" a girl) hair with an "emo fringe" in the front, played flute. I think my favorite color was purple, and that I wanted to be a technical writer. In the intervening decade I wrote/rewrote 3 novel-length stories, developed most of the worlds I am interested in writing in now, read a lot, grew very much mentally although not so much in height, finished my first two years at my childhood dream school, learned two languages, slowly came to the realization that the world outside of my head exists and is worth learning about and living in.

In ten more years I will be thirty. Done with formal education (although never done with education). Hopefully will have learned a few more languages (Spanish is next for sure [as in I'm redownloading Duolingo once I'm not in Germany anymore], then either Arabic or putting forth a concentrated effort to improving my Mandarin) and written a few more books. Building things. Forward motion. Will I have my Battle of Actium, my conquest of Egypt? I don't know. And although I have very conventional plans for the future, it is possible that something will come in and change everything.

The sea, I hope, will be a constant.

1 comment:

  1. I'll recommend you a chapter of a book I was forced to read in a class that I shouldn't have slacked on: "Globalization" in Key Concepts in Critical Theory: Ecology. Global capitalism, corruption, infrastructure, and the onset of neoliberalism and why engineering majors should care are all covered in the essays included in this chapter. You can probably find it at Stanford.

    Your forward movement is startling and your accomplishments, personal and in engineering, are many. I believe that you will do good in this world.