Observer: Musings

Dec. 1, 2022, 7:23 p.m.

Benjamin Midler’s column “Observer” seeks the long view. It sometimes comes up short.

Musings are bite-sized vignettes of the almost-was and the could-have-been. As the quarter comes to a close and The Daily begins to transition to a new volume, these are reflections — the sparks that were candidates for their own columns — but weren’t quite.

There’s a purpose to collecting them here. Beyond the points they make and the thoughts they capture, there’s worth in ensuring that what otherwise would have remained unfinished sees the light of day. Ideas, even those that didn’t quite make the cut, can still be catalysts.

Stanford is a place rife with genius ideas — with seemingly immaculate intellectual conceptions that reverberate around the world. For each of those, there’s a trove of ideas that will never be known, that die this early death.

I wonder whether these ideas can be given new life, if only they find their way to the right hands. These are the ideas that would otherwise have perished in my desk drawer. Perhaps they’ll thrive in yours.

Why do we hold on to relics — to those aging and sometimes decrepit tokens of something past? Maybe there’s something in the memory, a lesson, for instance, whose teachings are reaffirmed by a concrete reminder.

Or the relic is a byproduct of selective memory. We often tune out the bad and accentuate the good of memories, meaning the things onto which we hold from these times share in that favorable perspective.

Neither explains the weirdness of our habit of keeping mementos. I have a green sweater in the corner of my closet. It’s a misshapen, disgusting thing that was a poor fashion statement when it was new and is even less so now. I haven’t carbon dated it, but it may as well be older than I am.

Yet I keep it because, wrapped in its mottled fabric, in addition to decades of dust, are memories of trips to a windswept beach with my parents and brother, 17 years ago. The ocean, sand and sky would all be variations of a beautiful gray, with the coolness of the air a constant presence. I would trundle about, falling over and chasing the dog.

What if the speck of dust on the sleeve is actually a grain of sand from that day?

*

I found a Daily article from 2017 about the start of President Tessier-Lavigne’s tenure. It sets a cautious and bleak stage — one characterized by unprecedented animosity between students and the outgoing administration — calling student trust in the University at a trough. A new alcohol policy had been implemented contrary to student feedback, academic diversity was threatened by skewed enrollment in CS classes and there were widespread concerns over Title IX and the sexual assault reporting process.

Beyond these challenges, the article emphasized reasons for hope: the incoming administration’s aptitude and enthusiasm for listening and soliciting feedback, explicitly citing their interest in building more inclusive decision making processes.

Almost five years later, on-campus issues with sexual assault have become exacerbated and student and Greek life groups report bureaucratic mazes that hamstring event planning. Students shun unappealing University alternatives, and this all comes on the back of a change to the alcohol policy implemented last year, one panned by not just students, but also employees of the Office of Substance Use Programs Education & Resources, who called it “absolute s**t.”

In the 2017 article, President Tessier-Lavigne worried that students often don’t understand the University’s decisions are made with the best intentions. In the words of author and Stanford alumnus Jim Collins ’80, ’83: “bad decisions made with good intentions are still bad decisions.”

There’s a standard roster of dream jobs for five year olds. Back when I was five, superheroes and astronauts were featured heavily. Nowadays, all the toddlers want to be a YouTuber or something mercurial. 

My own objective rotated between scientist, architect and race car driver. These weren’t controversial or uncommon choices by any means — I would take a poll during nap-time — but I’ve since become disillusioned with the standard means of expressing our goals for the future.

Someone’s occupation has such a negligible impact on their personality that I’m loath to even ask at parties and social events. This leaves my small-talk repertoire dangerously short staffed, but I’ll roll those dice.

As a consequence, I’ve given up trying to nail down a career path for myself — at least insofar as maintaining pleasant conversation is concerned. Sure, I’m in the process of applying to graduate school — a decision that inclines me towards some paths more than others — but there’s still reticence to place a stake in the ground. I fear doing so will make it harder for that ground to shift.

My abstaining from this question is unfortunate as I’m about to graduate — an event that necessarily prompts questions of career paths. People can’t help but ask.

“I have no idea,” I say in response, clearly disappointing them. Maybe I’ll start saying I want to be a superhero.

A chronic anachronism, Ben enjoys well-punctuated texts and oatmeal cookies. He's also majoring in psychology, so he knows how many fingers you're thinking of holding up. Spam him at bmidler 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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