Saturday, March 24, 2012

Letters to past (and future) selves

 This painting is inspired by my mom
Today I read a cool letter that my former grad school colleague at Cornell, Ann Martin, wrote to her 14 year old self. Other letters to past selves are available on that site, too. All were interesting, and they inspired me to write this post where I answer questions from my former self. I will perhaps redo this in a few years to see how my opinions change as I grow older. 

Most of the letters I read sounded like everyone knew roughly what they wanted to do and did it in the end. My aspirations changed as I grew. I first wanted to become a lumberjack, later a forest engineer, and eventually professor AND a doctor. I have decided I liked physics in college.

The main message passed by all the letters is, however, very timely.   It is an encouragement that in the end everything will be well. Teenagers are, in general, more insecure than adults. Yet many of us still need to hear that message today. So, in some sense, these are timeless letters to our current and future selves as well as to today's children who relate to the insecurity.

Me at 16, my great aunt - Tusa Tavi -, and Ciupi.
When I was in middle school many of my friends (only the girls) had notebooks in which they would ask their classmates questions - starting from "What is your favorite color?" to "What do you think you'll become when you grow up?" to "How many children do you want to have?" and "At what age do you want to get married?".  While owning such a notebook and gathering memories was considered a girly pursuit, all children would write in the notebooks. This included the boys, the girls and me.  Even though I thought they were a good idea, I did not have such a notebook myself because I was shy. However, before writing down my aspirations, I would read what the other children wrote. I remember how enthusiastic they were in their writings. All the girls wanted to have careers and families. They wanted to marry by 21 or 22 years of age, and yet become doctors, engineers, and teachers. Somehow children have an innate knowledge on how to live life more fully than adults. This knowledge gets lost in time due to repeated discouragements from the world around us. Time passes so quickly that it does not make sense to over-analyze every aspect of life so much. It would instead be better to have courage to take decisions, and live more of it. 

The pictures in this post are from when I was in 10th grade - about 16.  The dresses I was wearing had been worn by my mother on her wedding day  (although in some of the pictures with Ciupi I wear a long skirt that is tied up be dress-like). I was excited that they had just started to fit me. My grandmother and Tusa Tavi (my great aunt) were taking pictures of me "all dressed up" and, of course, Ciupi, who was a very important member of the family at the time, had to join. The picture below also included Motzi - my favorite hen - but I cut her out of the picture because I wanted to look serious and all grown-up. Because I know she was there, I can still see a bit of her feathers in the lower right corner.

Below I answer some sample questions from my former self.

"If you could meet your past self, what advice would you give her?"
I would tell her to hug grandma and my great aunt, Tusa Tavi, again, and again for me and spend more time with the people around her because many of these people will soon be gone. The time spent with them will be cherished later much more than other activities thought to be so important at the moment. I would tell her that it's good to have fun, to be outside, to spend time with family and play with pets. There is no need to feel guilty about this.

Also, do not feel guilty when you have  courage. This courage is part of what will make you successful in the future.  In the incident this year where you turned around at the beauty contest and grabbed the microphone from the presenter to say you wanted to be both a doctor and a professor you were brave. It is not something to be ashamed of - while you were not demure and lady-like, your statement has likely been what people remembered at the end of the day. You are a doctor now (although not a medical doctor), and you might still become a professor.  It is important to have big dreams even if they often seem as far as the Moon, and to be brave enough to fight for those dreams.

"Did you succeed in becoming both a mathematician and a medical doctor?" No, few people (if any) would be able to do both in the same time and I remember people telling me this even then. However, I now think there was some deeper thought in this - I liked science, but also wanted to do something useful that helps people. I am still working at finding a way to merge such ambitions. I am not a mathematician, but my work is theoretical and abstract. However, it is by far not as abstract as mathematics. I now find aspects of science that are somewhat practical more interesting than abstract thoughts.

"In addition to a successful career, are you married to someone you love? do you have five children?"
No, No and No or at least not yet.  I have a career and I still love children and my family very much, though. I have one child whom I love dearly, and I plan to have more if possible. I also spend significant time with David, who is Mihai's son.

"Do you own a horse or at least lots of pets?" No, and No. I still love animals, but horses are big and difficult to care for just like mom says. Animals, in general, are a big responsibility without grandma (or potentially someone else) to care for them. It's fun for a few days, but afterwards it's work and the proper people and "infrastructure" have to be in place so that they are cared for property. I know this sounds boring and unreasonable to you, but it is true and pets do not fit well with someone who is most of their time at work.
With my best friends from highschool

"Do you understand everything or close to everything at least in some area of science?" No, many times when I read an article in astrophysics I feel I do not understand much. I have to read it many times and also look at related ideas/papers/books to truly understand it. Talking to people who have more experience and a deeper understanding of science can also make a tremendous difference in improving my understanding. However, I often do not have the time or the patience to read so much in random directions anymore. I read when I find articles and books that I think are important to understand or directly relevant to projects I work on. The reading I do in random directions is when I read to my children, which often happens to be my most interesting and memorable reading of the day even when it is in German.

"Did you continue to feel like the weird one among your classmates and friends/colleagues?" 
Yes, I did and I still do. Only now I understand that each person is special and feels their individuality, which is the "I am weird" feeling. However, scientists are sometimes weirder than other people. It is a problem that is richly described in the "The Big Bang Theory" show - abet in an extreme fashion. The main difference between me now and me as a teenager/you is that I can understand better that all people are human (including me) and make mistakes. I accept that occasional imperfect behavior as a natural part of life and of social interactions, and I am getting closer to my goal of being pleasant most of the times if not all the time. I know now that the latter is impossible. I also know now that a one-time mistake does not and should not brand people for life. I understand how lucky I am in so many ways.  I have an amazing family that has always supported me 100% in everything I did or tried to do. Professionally, I have had advisors I respected and loved as an undergraduate, as a graduate student and afterwards as a postdoc - and I felt this way about them at all times - even when I disagreed and disobeyed just like I feel about my parents.

"Are you more responsible than me?"
Perhaps a little. I understand the things I can and cannot do better, but I still try to push my boundaries beyond what seems possible. Sometimes that works and sometimes it does not. However, I try to be responsible with things I define as important and I think I always did - even as a teenager. So, you should give yourself some credit for that, too.

"Who are the most important people in your life now?"
While I have met quite a few amazing people who have influenced my life and my career, the most important people in my life are still my family. I did have a period when I thought friends were close to everything, but I think I am passed that. When I had my son, I realized that (1) the only person I can count 100% on is my mother, (2) I am very lucky to have her, and (3) her love for me deserves credit even though she will be there for me as long as she lives independent of such credit or of what I do or do not do.  Of course, other people have very special places in my life/heart just like in yours. However, you should not lose sleep over their dependability because some selfishness is natural for most of us and it does not make people 'bad'. It's just something that we all deal with. Also, people will come in and go out of your life. This is normal and it's part of growing up (and of moving a lot & no stable job/home/etc).

"Are you much smarter than me?"
While you still have a lot to learn and that will be true for as long as you live, you are already very smart. So, continue to make the best of it. Your interests and your list of priorities will change.  You will learn a lot in the next 15 years and perhaps even more later on. You will invariably need to learn how little you know of the vast mass of knowledge that's out there. However, remember that Mihai once told us that there are things that make you smart and things that make you appear smart.  In the end it all amounts to having the courage to do many things, guessing what needs to be done, and doing the work as well as possible and sometimes better than it initially seemed possible. This courage is something you already have as a built-in feature. Some of the shine and enthusiasm does go away with age, and so it's important to enjoy it while it lasts and to live in your present. You will succeed in many ways, but just like up to now you will also fail sometimes, and you will learn to make the most of both successes and failures without getting to disappointed. Things will always work out and often for the best.

"Do you finally know what you favorite color is?"
No. I prefer bright, happy colors. I like contrast. However, I still do not have a favorite color. I now think all colors can be beautiful in the right light/tone just like people.

Disclaimer 1. I did not live on a farm. Although I think I would have liked farm-life. Most children would love it as long as the animals are treated well. My grandparents lived in a Victorian house with high ceilings and huge doors in Lugoj.  They did have a small yard and a small garden. We had a few pets including chickens, some pigeons, Ciupi the lamb, a cat, and a dog. In Timisoara, we only had a cat.

Disclaimer 2. I did not look like a nerd - at least not in pictures. I have never considered myself a nerd. I was not into computers games, science fiction books or into breaking & fixing things. I liked being outside, and I loved my family, most animals, swimming, and, of course, reading all sorts of books, and doing math. I did believe being smart AND beautiful was a valid option, and I have worked hard all my life to become smarter.  Beauty was something that happened to be there. I wanted people to like me, but I never worried too much about my manners or my looks. I did not typically wear make-up or stuff like that, but somehow I did want to be a model as well as a doctor and mathematician. Of course, I did not end up joining any of those professions.