To my surprise, in a few days, it will have been two and a half months since I first step foot into Japan. Before my eyes, the hot humid summers, accompanied by shorts, a hand-held fan, and lots of water have quickly been replaced by the scent of fall, a crisp breeze, and a hot cup of tea. Just as I thought I had gotten used to buying water before going outside or bringing a towel wherever I go, I found myself scrambling to buy clothes and a heater to adjust to the new season.
With the heat having subsided, I’ve taken the last few weeks to try and explore Tokyo. At times I walk endlessly away from my sharehouse in an unfamiliar direction, hoping to find something interesting, while other times, I’ll take the train with a friend to a famous landmark or exhibit. On these many planned and unplanned trips, I’ve found many things. Whether it’s ramen and gyoza or a goat, it seems that Tokyo has it all.
I’ve also taken time to explore some of my passions from the United States. With my weekends being spent playing soccer on the roof (quite thrilling), or going to a park to fish, my days off from programming are starting to feel much like mini-adventures, at times busier than a normal workday.
As for my programming, in the coming weeks, I will start conducting trials of the application I am developing at small schools and facilities in Tokyo. It’s been a meaningful learning experience using my knowledge of programming to develop a service for those in the community around me. The project I started with five other students will also be holding another event in the next few days.
Though it seems that I won’t get an opportunity to find normality in life in Japan, I find the unpredictability of every day exciting. Whether expected or unexpected, I look forward to what awaits me next.
There it stood, arrogant and adamant, heedless of the shrill herald of impending peril.
I hastened my pace, smug in the certainty that the sudden acceleration would cow it into capitulation— but it hardly flinched in the face of the rapidly looming two-wheeled menace.
With disaster lurking a mere hair’s breadth away, complacency swiftly transmuted into panic. An artful swerve into an adjacent puddle sent murky water splashing wildly. Infuriated squawking ensued. I glanced over my shoulder to find the blustering rooster utterly drenched from crest to tail, its besmirched feathers a depressing shadow of their former grandeur.
Such was the first of what would be multiple stand-offs, our repeated encounters stemming from not so much coincidence as an embittered creature’s unwavering resolve to avenge its wounded pride.
When social distancing measures rendered many public spaces all but inaccessible, the park became my favourite haunt, a sacred sanctuary where I could seek temporary reprieve from suffocating confinement.
The feeling of escape arose from the very instant I rode down a narrow, winding slope and onto a dusky path tucked away beneath a bridge that extended into the lush green expanse of the park, not unlike a secret passageway to a hidden paradise. My attention swiveled from the squirrels foraging for food in the rich foliage of the sturdy rain trees to the exotic birds perched on the branches nearby to the saddled horses slurping from wooden troughs in Gallop Stable. The organic scent of damp earth, wood and animal dung intermingled with the crisp salty tang of the sea breeze as I ventured further.
I roved aimlessly, my mind a peaceful blank– until thoughts and emotions, hitherto divulged to my close confidantes but lately left to fester amid a dearth of social interaction, ambushed me in a deluge. To be forced to revisit and confront crippling anxieties and pent-up discontentment was strange, discomfiting, daunting even. But as I cycled round and round in endless loops, allowing the gently lapping waves to wash my troubles away each time they retreated into the sea, the tight knot in my chest gradually unravelled. Weaning myself off excessive emotional reliance on others and discovering an effective coping mechanism to keep myself sane and functioning was ineffably liberating and empowering.
Some cycling excursions were not quite as rejuvenating, blighted by their coincidence with peak after-work hours when the park was a hive of hectic frenzy. Young children ran amok with concerned parents trailing frantically behind. Joggers, rollerbladers and cyclists jostled for space on teeming paths, constantly on the qui vive for soccer balls kicked astray by frisky teens. Silver-haired regulars bore helpless witness to the onslaught of intruders, bemoaning the disruption of their daily routines. I navigated the obstacle course of humans (and occasional wandering creatures) with utmost vigilance, lest the slightest lapse in attention beget a catastrophe. The flimsy metal frame teetered precariously as I advanced inchmeal through the crowd, threatening to topple over if I slowed any further.
For all the chaos and frustration, I felt a palpable sense of connection to these strangers. We were all there for the same reason after all— to experience some semblance of normalcy in extraordinary times.
My adventures often ended with me pedaling furiously past the stable full of horses and the sturdy rain trees with their little inhabitants, onto the dusky path beneath the bridge and up the narrow winding slope, berating myself for losing track of time yet concomitantly lamenting the brevity of the getaway.
I’ve been taking dance classes at home since March, training in the kitchen and trying not to knock anything over. This month, I successfully built a floor for a better ballet experience at home. I had never built anything more daunting than an Ikea shelf, so it took several DIY Youtube videos and multiple trips to Lowe’s to complete the floor.
Many dance studios have sprung floors, which absorb shock to allow for safer dancing. Auditioning, performing, or training on an uncomfortable or hard floor isn’t ideal, and I wanted to create a somewhat comfortable floor for the year. For a home sprung floor, I decided to build a floor with a lower frame under it. With the spring from the 2 x 4 planks and the carpet, dancing on the home floor would be a little closer to dancing in a real studio.
Placing the 2 x 4 planks in a lattice formation was the first step. About 50 screws later, the lower frame was complete. Then, I placed and attached the wide wood planks on top, and laid down marley for a smooth floor.
Finishing this project was very satisfying. It took some time to figure out all of the measurements and purchases for the floor, and I felt successful completing a solid floor. This past year has brought quite a lot of change, and my new floor has allowed me to adjust to the new circumstances of my virtual ballet training.
While dancing at my old studio, I had watched the crew at my previous ballet studio build props in the back room for years, so I enjoyed working on the other side for this project. Building this floor was a new vantage point for me within the field of dance, and I hope to explore other facets like this in the future.
After a couple of weeks of strict quarantine, I’m all packed up and ready to go for the next part of my gap year!
I’ll set off early tomorrow morning for the first leg of my four-day drive–I’m going from my hometown of Alexandria, VA, to Knoxville, to Little Rock, to Abilene, and finally ending up in El Paso. From there I’ll meet up with my Outward Bound group, and we’ll drive together to Big Bend Ranch State Park. Then, from October 19 until December 7, I’ll be backpacking through the desert and canoeing up the Rio Grande.
I can’t wait–I’ve never spent 50 days away from home, let alone 50 days in the wilderness with only nine other people. My goals are to learn about surviving in the great outdoors, get stronger, and get close to the other students on this trip, all while experiencing one of the most beautiful corners of the United States.
It’s all seemed very abstract to me up until now–I’ve spent months looking for the right gear and breaking in boots, but it’s taken me a while to understand exactly what this trip will be. I think I’ve finally truly realized that all these layers of long underwear and extra rain jackets and nylon pants will actually be worn, by me, in a far away but very real place. I just can’t wait to be there!
It took a while to pull all the things that I’ll need together, but I’ve actually managed to pack pretty light–basically just a couple of pairs of pants, some t-shirts, a warm jacket, and plenty of socks and long underwear. Other than clothes, a toothbrush, journal, and camera are all I need. Hopefully I’ll come back with some great photos and stories to share!
We won’t have phones out there, or internet or TV or newspapers, so the never-ending stream of information that I’ve enjoyed for the past several years of my life will finally be interrupted. After three months interning with a firm that produces political campaign ads, it feels crazy to imagine being so separated from the world of politics and constant breaking news. I hope there will be a way for me to find out if the candidates who I helped make ads for won their races, and to hear about any other important things that happen. 50 days is a long time–I feel incredibly lucky to have this opportunity to get away, but also a bit worried to see what kind of a world I will come home to.
But for now, my most pressing concerns are simply making sure that I have all of the things I need and enough snacks for the long drive there. Best of luck to everyone else at Duke Gap Year Program in whatever you do for the next couple of months–I’ll talk to you guys again in December!
This is Ray, and welcome to my third blog. Some say, “shooters shoot;” to that I respond, “bloggers blog”.
Since my first blog, I have been working as an intern for Youth Transforming Justice – an organization based in Marin that focuses on restorative justice. I haven’t written about YTJ yet, so I thought I might focus on some restorative justice talk this blog post.
YTJ’s primary responsibility is serving as an alternative to the traditional adolescent judicial system in California. They primarily work with drug and alcohol cases at the local high schools. Rather than facing suspension and a legal trail, YTJ works with students to create a restorative solution. The goal of our current judicial system is to punish the respondent. so they will be disincentivized to break the law again. With a restorative approach to justice, the goal is to heal and strengthen the relationships that the respondent damaged. This might take the form of community service, risk reduction training, or serving as a mentor to teens in similar situations.
One big part of YTJ is the youth meeting (also known as a youth court). Rather than a hearing in the California Juvenile Court, respondents meet with 10 or so kids their age. The bailiff, jury, and the respondent’s advocate are all teenagers, but the meeting still has legal significance. It serves as an alternative to a trial in the California Juvenile Court. In order to take part in the meeting, respondents must accept responsibility for their actions; the meeting isn’t a place to decide guilt or innocence. Instead, it’s a place for respondents to explain themselves and reflect on their actions.
Members of the jury take turns asking questions to the respondent – questions about their drug/alcohol use, home-life, personal relationships, etc. After learning more about the respondent and their current position in life, the jury creates a restorative plan for the respondent. The restorative plan is a list of actions the respondent needs to take in order to heal the relationships they damaged. Most restorative plans include serving as a member of the jury and participating in community engagement.
Since the virus emerged in the US, YTJ has almost exclusively been hosted online. Moving online eliminated a transportation problem. In the past, kids would have to miss required meetings because they could not find a reliable form of transportation to our offices. This isn’t a problem anymore, but internet connectivity is. YTJ relies on communication to form bonds and build empathy. Unstable internet is a big roadblock to this – shaky wifi creates stilted conversations. Although I am excited for the day when YTJ works in person, I hope we can use Zoom to make a more equitable program.
As an intern, I’ve been participating in the jury and working as a case manager. I am also helping create a similar restorative system in San Mateo county. As a case manager, I help kids complete the entire restorative process. The youth meeting is a small part of the overall program, I facilitate conversations and help them navigate harm-reduction training and community engagement.
The work is internally fulfilling. I have the opportunity to work with many people I would normally not cross paths with. I am helping kids my age move past the mistakes they made in the past.
See you in the next blog!
The program I am on is called “Hevruta,” translating to ‘partners’ in Hebrew. As the only gap year program made half of North Americans and half of Israelis we are a bit of a social experiment. The Israeli Ministry of Health calls us an organic family because while we might not be a family, we are trying to live like one. In my apartment, we are seven girls all from different religious and cultural communities. My roommates are Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrachi Jews coming from homes in New York City and settlements of the West Bank. We are reconstructionist, conservative, orthodox, and secular. The only thing that binds us together is that we are all Jewish and that we now live together. Weekly, this results in challenges in figuring out what to cook and how to observe the sabbath in a way that makes everyone happy. At the same time, it’s an enriching experience. We all have different dreams of how we want to live in the future. Hearing my roommate’s dream to live on a farm in the middle of the desert inspires me to think about how I want to live in the future – not just what classes I want to take in college.
Israel is now under a national lockdown to reduce the number of coronavirus cases. This has meant that the Israelis on my program have had to spend over a month away from home instead of returning home every other weekend as expected. Ideally, the American participants would go home with them to experience Israeli culture more authentically. Many of us Americans came to Israel only expecting to see our families at the airport when we return home. Unlike American college students that often live on a college campus far from home, Israeli young adults see their families a few times a month during their mandatory military service. The pandemic has exposed many cultural differences between the American and Israeli participants. The organizers of the program have worked tirelessly to find a way to let the Israelis go home for a weekend while keeping everyone feeling safe. At the same time, these current challenges have forced us to lean on each other during difficult times and strengthened our bond.
In the last few weeks, we have been studying the relationship between American Jews and Israelis and questioning why we have chosen to be here, building relationships with people from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds. For many years what kept Jews together was a blood-relationship, shared belief, and shared hardship. Since the creation of the state of Israel, many of these ties have weakened. There is more inter-marriage among non-orthodox Jews, many Israeli Jews are secular, and anti-Semitism is something that many American Jews have never encountered. So what is the goal of strengthening a weakening bond between Israeli and American Jews? In the last few days, I’ve been thinking about the name of my program “Hevruta”, partners. At first, I thought the name was about learning in partners, something we will be doing throughout the year. Recently, I’ve been thinking that maybe it is the goal – to become partners in preserving a Judaism that is tolerating and accepting of different traditions. This is something that my roommates and I have been working towards by having a kosher kitchen and observing the sabbath in public spaces. While these efforts are small, I think they are the first steps towards us becoming partners and hopefully a family.
This last month I started an internship at Renegade, an NYC marketing agency. This was a huge opportunity for me that was realized by reaching out to a Duke alum. I began this process in August, contacting alumni who were working in fields that aligned with my interests. My more niche career aspirations are in the application of behavioral economics in marketing, so that helped narrow my field. However, I did not confine myself to the specifics of that field, instead, I simply looked for work that excited me and could eventually connect back to my interests. For me, the larger goal of a gap year internship was a hands-on experience, valuable networking, and a clarifying career insight. With this in mind, I reached out to someone whose career I admired, Drew Neisser the CEO of Renegade, to ask if he had any wisdom to share. I was surprised when he quickly took the time to respond warmly and enthusiastically. He mentioned that there was an open intern position at Renegade and helped me organize an interview. Not only was this exciting from a professional standpoint, but it made me feel like part of the Duke family even though I’m not attending this year.
After the interview, I was hired as Renegade’s youngest intern ever. I couldn’t be happier with this opportunity! I was grateful to find that this was not just a coffee run position (although, there wouldn’t be much coffee to run with a virtual internship anyway), I was welcomed into the work-family and given tasks of actual substance. I work on transcribing episodes of Drew’s podcast, Renegade Thinker Unite, which is a bit secretarial but allows me to listen in depth to interviews with top CMOs. These podcasts give me a unique opportunity to learn about a diverse array of marketing skills. With this I find myself learning new things every day that will give me a leg up in the future. Additionally, it keeps my grammar skills sharp. Recently, I have also be enlisted to co-produce a new LinkedIn live series. I am particularly excited about this. While I could go on about everything I have learned so far I will likely save that for my next blog post. I am very grateful and excited about this internship, in my current tasks and future prospects.
As my family checked in at the front gates of Yosemite National Park, I began to realize that this was the start of a trip of a lifetime- an odd thing to say in the middle of a global pandemic that has practically shut down the travel industry. Assuming that we were entering the park early in the morning for day use, the ranger was happily surprised when my dad produced the confirmation papers for our camping reservation.
“You won the lottery!” she exclaimed, explaining that due to COVID-19, only the Upper Pines campground was open, and only at half capacity. That meant that out of the hundreds of campsites spread throughout the park, only 119 families were able to keep their reservations. At that moment, it did feel as though we had won the lottery.
In the absence of the congestion that 20,000 daily visitors usually cause, I felt like I was experiencing my own private park. Most of the time, masks and social distancing weren’t even required on the trails because the nearest person was out of sight. Parking lots that are normally full by 10am still had spots open late into the afternoon. Even the wildlife could tell that something was different this year, as we heard reports of bears walking around vacant buildings, searching for the people that normally inhabit them.
On our second day there, we drove up a long, steep road to Glacier Point, an area of high elevation with trails that offer sweeping views of the park. On the recommendation of a ranger, we chose to hike to Sentinel Dome, a large, rocky peak that offers a 360-degree view of the Yosemite Valley, Half-Dome, Yosemite Falls, and El Capitan. At the peak, we encountered a ranger who urged us to close our eyes and listen to the wind rustling the leaves on the trees around us. She explained that this was a result of the park’s pandemic restrictions on the amount of people allowed to enter each day. Under normal circumstances, the constant clatter of the diesel busses trekking tourists around the park could be heard, but the pandemic had brought silence to the park. Standing on that dome, breathing in the fresh mountain air, I knew that this was a special opportunity. A chance to experience a Yosemite of the past, devoid of the marks of a bustling tourist industry.
Later on, I learned that this was not the first time Yosemite has been touched by disease. The famous nature photographer Ansel Adams reportedly recovered from the 1919 Spanish Flu amongst Yosemite’s imposing mountains and towering trees. So while societal upheaval of this magnitude is new to us, it is certainly not new to this Earth.
Standing on a bridge over the Merced River, I attempted to recreate one of Adams’ famous shots of Half Dome reflected in the clear stream below. Comparing the two versions of the same scenery, the landscape appears relatively unchanged. The park has survived one pandemic, and it will survive another, and probably many more after this one. As excited as I am for life to return back to “normal”, I do wish that Yosemite would remain as I experienced it this fall.
An integral part of life is conversing with new people, making first impressions, and forming relationships. While meeting people is always exciting, after bursting out of a two-week strict quarantine into a crowd of 300 Americans, Latin Americans, and Israelis, we were all a bit overwhelmed. Conversations were a bit slow to start.
“Great weather we’re having!”
“Thanks, you too. Ah…I mean…yeah.”
“Hi I’m Chicago from Sammy… Crap.”
However, we overcame our initial shock and soon, we were leaping to meet one another. Hebrew, Spanish, and English resounded in my ears as I introduced myself to new people, forgot their names, and reintroduced myself five minutes later. My roommates and I headed back to our room after our first late night on campus, fascinated about the diversity on the campus. After conversing with native-speakers in their languages, learning about other cultures, and exploring the campus, I knew that this was going to be a unique semester.
Lockdown was tough at first. Right after the quarantine, Israel went on a nation-wide lockdown, restricting us to the campus of the Machon L’Madrichim. The institution is home to numerous youth groups and movements from around the world, offering various classes, fabulous teachers, and real-life application from tours throughout Israel. However, as all the major Jewish holidays were back-to-back during September-October, classes didn’t start for the first two weeks, and we could not leave the campus. While the area was better than my cramped room, I was itching to explore the streets of Jerusalem. Yet all of the participants on our program had a remarkably positive outlook. Being stuck on campus allowed everyone to come together as a group, instead of going out each night in our own cliques. Often, the first couple weeks with a new group are filled with surface-level conversations, simple questions, and friendly small talk; however, I immediately started talking with others about our perspectives on life, challenges we’ve faced, and hopes for the future. During the day we participated in bonding programs and had various lectures about Israeli topics (culture, cinema, wars). Disappointed by the lack of organized services for the High Holidays, my friends and I coordinated with the Latin Americans to run powerful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. After services in the day, the nights consisted of competitive soccer games between the Latin Americans and the “gringos.”
Yet I was still missing a feeling of independence, of freedom in a way. As a new friend explained to me, “I took a gap year so that I can fall down and learn to pick myself up.” While grateful to be among such an interesting group, I felt enclosed in the gates, missing out on the independence I expected to have every night out in the city. Thus, when I heard we were traveling down south to Kibbutz Ketura for a couple days, I was elated. Kibbutzim are collective, socialist communities throughout Israel, with a focus on agricultural production. Living on the Kibbutz among the tight-knit community, surrounded by mountains in the deep desert, I felt my first real sense of freedom in Israel.
With new experiences and new settings, people grow closer. During the day at the Kibbutz, we worked the fields, volunteering to help pick nuts and dates. At night, we wandered around the Kibbutz and in the various surrounding areas, breathed in the fresh desert air, and looked at the countless stars in an unpolluted sky.
Classes began upon returning from the Kibbutz, and I was met with an intense schedule full of courses unlike anything I’d seen (I’ll save the details for another blog). On one excursion, we traveled to this area that overlooks all of Jerusalem. Looking over the entire city among new friends, I was filled with excitement and hope for the year: diverse friends, undiscovered places, distinct classes, and a unique sense of freedom and self-care that I had not yet encountered.
This year will be undoubtedly unique and, with the independence I’m given, entirely in my hands. It’ll be what I make of it—who I meet, where I’ll go, and what I’ll push myself to learn.
I’ve come to the realization – as have most people for whom it is the first pandemic – that it is extremely handy to have a hobby to keep yourself entertained within the constricting 4 walls of your house. In my case, however, the problem was not having a hobby; it was having one too many. For the longest time, I have wanted to learn how to play the guitar. Yet, I also tried to follow in the footsteps of John Fish, trying to go through one book per week. But wait, I’m just as eager to improve my skills in chess. And of course, there’s always the New York Times Crossword and sudoku puzzles by ‘Cracking the Cryptic’ on YouTube. Oh, but how will I ever get around to speaking French fluently? Where do I even begin?
In this sea of hobbies and fascinations, I found myself confused. What direction should I swim in? The grass always looks greener on the other side (or, in this analogy, I guess the sea looks bluer). This all is, obviously, nothing new. A frequently known phenomena to someone who has worked in marketing, overchoice or choice overload can occur when one is presented with too many choices, all or most of which may seem equally appealing. Making a conscious decision under such circumstances can become infinitely harder than if your choice were restricted to, say, only two courses of action. What if I end up making the wrong choice, pursuing a hobby that may not be as worthwhile? In this haphazard labyrinth, I did what came to me most naturally. I swam everywhere. Mornings got kicked off with the NYT Crossword, and the rest of the day was interlaced with habitually picking up my guitar, sitting at the chessboard, getting through Le Petit Prince, or solving Sudokus. And as the day came to an end, my midnight routine involved a health dose of my trusty Kindle (which is, till date, my most valuable purchase).
But, this unstructured and whimsical attitude, albeit entertaining, was not really helping me develop any of my hobbies in a meaningful way. It was merely a surface level exploration of all the areas. I was around 3 weeks behind on my readings; my guitar skills were subpar, at best; I was still somehow getting fool’s mated in chess, and so on. But I realized, with an entire year’s worth of activities to look forward to, I could easily split my time between these activities. Instead of trying to get everything done at once, I could quite easily pick up one, or two, work on those first, and then move on to greener pastures (or rather, bluer seas). Therefore, I have decided to put a few things on the backburner for now, focusing primarily on keeping up with my resolution of one book a week, and improving my guitar skills, with a hint of chess every now and then.
Almost three months into the gap year, it is still difficult to fully appreciate the true freedom that a year off from formal education can provide. It is an exercise in self-exploration and reinvention, and I hope to make the most out of it in the remainder of my time off.