Climbing Mountains

I called my dad. “Hi, Papa. I’m at the airport in Chicago.” I was on my way back from a weekend trip to the Bay Area, and during my layover, an email from Bank of America alerted me that there was less than $25 in my checking account. The taxi fare was something like $30 from Boston Logan to my dorm in Cambridge. “Would you be able to transfer money to my bank account?”

In many ways, this phone call marked the beginning of my adulthood. Three months out of college, two weeks into graduate school, one day before my first paycheck, I was returning to my new city after a weekend of wine at the first wedding that I would ever be invited to. I was 22, and my college classmates and I laughed about how broke and grown up we felt.

By the time I landed in Boston, my dad had transferred me money, and I took a taxi home. This happened before public transportation from the airport was free, before that one time they tried to extend T hours past 12:30 am, and before Uber. On the ride to Cambridge, I was going through a mental to-do list for the next day: prepare for recitation section, set up an appointment with the professor whose lab I was interested in joining, and respond to a message from a middle school friend who had also just moved to Boston and wanted to meet for dinner the following week. The MIT campus lights shimmer in the Charles River the brightest at 2 am.

Putting together furniture in my apartment in New York three months out of graduate school and, again, one day before my first paycheck, reminded me of the parallels lines and intertwining circles that decorate life. I still feel broke. Although, this time I spent the last of my graduate stipend traveling to Africa and Europe. I’ve gone to a few more weddings and still strive to drink as much wine as I can. And luckily, I now live in a city where there’s public transportation 24/7. And Uber.

New York has been a tremendous part of my life for the past four years. My middle school friend, who, perhaps out of mutual desperation to make friends in a new city, messaged me to have dinner when I first arrived in Boston, eventually became my roommate. Our first years there were filled with a hurricane, several blizzards, a terrorist bombing, and a citywide shutdown. And also discovering the Italian Maki sandwich at Fiore’s Bakery, dancing (Summer 2013 had the best music), and witnessing crowds of patriotic college students in Boston Common after the citywide shutdown was lifted where I ran into one of my own students. One night, my middle school friend and I were sitting on her bedroom floor, probably drinking a homemade sangria, and booked bus tickets for a weekend in New York. She had lived there for college and gave me a whirlwind tour of the city. Four years ago, I took my first trip to New York. (Fact check: As my mom will inevitably text me after she reads this to remind me, I went to New York when I was two years-old. But, a message to all young parents, it doesn’t count if the kid won’t remember it.) The New York lights that shimmered in the Hudson River mesmerized me, and since I first visited, I have celebrated my birthday in the city every year.

I moved to New York for my first job after 21 years of school, and the idea of growing up that we laughed about over wine at the wedding in 2012 now seems amateur. My middle school friend, who had since moved to New York, was offered a position in Singapore in the weeks leading up to my move here and, to be able to host a joint farewell/welcome party for her and me, delayed her start date by a day. Our 24-hour overlap in the city was bittersweet.

The past year has been punctuated by big transitions in the lives of my peers, and the comradery has made it easier for me to let go of good things and to welcome new and uncertain ones. For most of my friends who are starting new jobs or going back to school, the change is a logical one to ascend in a career path. However, sometimes transitions don’t feel like they’re moving upward.

My philosophy is this. All our lives, we’re climbing mountains. Graduate school was the taller mountain whose base was at the altitude that university lifted me to. Work in a corporate setting is a series of mountains that lead to higher positions, where you get to tell people climbing lower ones what to do. A career in social service may lead to a mountaintop like the one Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned.

I think people my age, especially with liberal arts backgrounds, carry with them a capital “R” Romantic perspective of the world, and I think I do, too. We climb a mountain and discover that maybe the top of that one wasn’t what we thought it was going to be like. We look around and see that a mountain nearby is actually the one we wanted to be on, and we get discouraged. Do we need to climb back down? Well, enjoy the view because you would have never seen the other mountain if you weren’t in the position you are in now.

In New York, I’m surrounded by people who have repeatedly climbed new mountains. For the next x number of years, I’m looking forward to a capital “R” Romantic life in this city. And hopefully some lowercase “r” romantic experiences, too.

New York is one of the most inspiring places in the world. Unless you’re ridiculously rich, which isn’t the case for most of the people in my circles, you sacrifice a little bit of comfort to live here. But you still choose to live here because there’s something that it offers that you might not be able to find anywhere else, and that’s a cool feeling.

I came to New York after visiting cities like Cape Town and Copenhagen, and compounded by how much political news consumes my daily life, I think about how drastically different humans across the world live. Interacting and finding common interests with working-class people in South Africa challenged my idea of what poverty looks like and made me appreciate the healthcare I have access to. Spending time with old work colleagues who are starting a family in Denmark forced me to think about comparisons with Scandinavian political models that US politicians sometimes make and why their arguments might fall short. Nevertheless, a unifying lesson from my travels was that education is an incredible equalizing force for humanity. I’m fortunate to have had access to it for the past 21 years, and as I grow up, I hope not lose sight of using my education for good.

The other day, I started a sentence with the phrase, “When I grow up,” and I probably said something about owning a vizsla or founding a furikake restaurant.

My friend corrected me, “Tosh, you’re already grown up.”

It’s true. By society’s standards, I am a grown-up. There are no age-based milestones ahead of me probably until retirement. But that’s not what I meant.

Growing up is becoming excited about learning something new. It’s finding reason in an opponent’s argument even after you’ve formulated your own. It’s making new rules once you’ve learned how to break the established ones. I think being a scientist has made me think in these terms, and I constantly feel like I haven’t grown up. Knowledge is indefinitely expansive, and like young children who don’t comprehend some fundamental principle about life, it’s the nature of my work that there’s always something that I don’t understand. That’s the feeling that motivates me. The older I get, the more OK I am with appearing naïve because that means I get to learn. As long as I manage to have more than $25 in my checking account, I’m excited to grow up. I'm excited to climb mountains in New York.