You can brag now. Thanks, Mom.

It’s 6:22 am. Steam billows over the top of my blueberry-adorned Maine coffee mug on the ledge of my balcony, the Earl Grey tea inside half-consumed. Gradually cooling to being drinkable, the tea pries my eyes open. The sun continues rising, shedding a plain of warm yellow light onto my face, forcing my eyes to squint. Car tires simmer on the street below, coming and going like ocean waves. Street trams and ambulance sirens join the symphony. The sputter of a motorcycle’s exhaust, now gone.

Ten years ago, all of my five alarm clocks would still be waiting to sound, waiting for my hand to begrudgingly reach and disarm. Thud. The floor interrupts the fall and finally triggers my brain awake. I crave more sleep, but time is up. A paper, two exams, a newspaper assignment… all due today. I dress myself, stagger across the chilly tile floor, and tap Mom awake.

“Will you proofread my essay,” I say, somewhere between a request and a statement. I needed her vote of confidence.

Despite knowing that I stood above my peers in schoolwork, I cringe. I’ve read that if you don’t cringe when you look at your past, you’re not improving. Advice that seems mildly wise – can cringing be good? – feels fully validating to acknowledge my parenting. Mom bragged about me, and I told her to stop. I needed comments that made me feel better, not stories that impressed adults. Change one comma. The essay is great. My heart slows.

Twenty-seven feels weird. I’m youthful but adult-like. I’m free to make my own choices, yet I still share them in search of agreement. I have my place in the world, and the world has many more places to offer me. I became, and I am becoming.

I smile when I look in the mirror, and it’s because I’m proud of who I see. Two brown eyes stare back, pried open by warm tea and forced closed by warm sunlight, ready to face the day. It’s 6:49 am. My mind spills off the balcony, thinking of my bike below. I know each day is mine.

You raised me, and I’m still growing up. You can brag now. Thanks, Mom.

Time and People

A note to my colleagues as I celebrated four years at Formlabs:

I’d like to have just two and half minutes of your time – rather, your awareness – to say thanks. I’ll do so by sharing what this occasion means to me.

Four years. Physics tells us that time is an illusion. The present moment is as real as the line on a beach that separates sand from water. The present is an illusory and transient concept between past and future. So, if time is theoretical, then what gives these four years any practical meaning?

You do. People create meaning of time. I cannot speak to everyone who matters to me simultaneously. Still, I can state with certainty that those of you who hear me have made a difference in my time at Formlabs. You and our interactions are the substances that separates the past from the future. I’ve had profound learning experiences at Formlabs, and I’m not at all the same person I was when I joined the start-up of 50-something people. I’m also not the same person I was when I moved to Berlin. I’ve changed, grown, transformed, struggled, succeeded, evolved, listened, learned. It wasn’t on my own. It was with your help.

Right now, you’re either listening to me or you’re not. If you’re not listening to me, that’s great. You’re thinking about something important and meaningful to you. It’s hard to pay attention when you have your own ideas. We hire smart people, so I trust that your thoughts are significant and their impact is imminent. Thinking is the personal economic process when we decisively construct meaning from experience. Maintain your focus. If you are actively listening to me, I want to recognize your voice and your impact, too. Four years hasn’t given me any more voice than what you can offer. If I’m special, you are, too. Again, this time is meaningless without the people. Chances are high that your thoughts and your opinions represent a meaningful customer or colleague’s sentiment, and they deserve to be heard. You deserve to be heard. Therefore, once your thought is complete, don’t wait to ask a question, to give feedback, or to initiate.

I’m thankful for your wisdom, your effort, your energy. I want you to speak up. Be honest. Own your ideas and your voice. Contribute. I want each and every one of you to know that you matter. I value you. I believe in you. You have made the past four years, four months, four days, four hours… matter to me, and you will make the future matter for all of us.

So, thank you for giving meaning to these four years. Without you, time would be incomplete and incomprehensible.

16 is 60: Celsius to Fahrenheit and Back Again

It’s cold. How cold? Well, it’s below freezing, but that’s not exactly a number, and usually when people talk about temperature, we talk numbers. Math might be a universal language, but my blood still flows at 98.6 °F, and I’m trying to get it to 37 °C.

There’s a big difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit. While, they’re both made up, one makes significantly more sense, except when you grew up most of your life in a numerically illogical measurement system. (Dear America: Canada and Australia switched from imperial to metric measurement nearly 50 years ago, and we can, too!)

When Europeans rave about their mid-winter getaway, it’s something like, “we had 28 degrees every day!” And this, to an American, doesn’t sound all that appealing. 28 Fahrenheit is the below-freezing-skeleton that I’m trying to stuff back into the closet in anticipation of warm spring days. The daylight hours are noticeably brighter and longer, but Berlin is fighting one final (I hope) cold front. 

I’m smart enough that I know the equation for converting temperatures: it’s roughly Celsius-times-2-plus-30-equals-Fahrenheit, and it’s precisely Celsius-times-9/5-plus-32-equals-Fahrenheit. I can do it in my head, but I don’t want to. I want to know the temperature when I step outside without feeling like my brain is doing foreign math, and to be able to answer without hesitating when a colleague asks me the temperature in Spain when I went swimming in February. Answer: the air hit 15 °C (58 °F) but the sunshine made it feel oh-so-much-warmer.

Every mobile weather application and website gives the option to switch between Celsius and Fahrenheit, so I can certainly check for myself – and feel incompetent. Initially, I ideated an app that showed two measurements side-by-side. With this, any time I checked the weather, I could know what it meant to me – which jacket, shoes, gloves, etc to wear – and also know the number that everyone else would chat about. I want to learn so that I simply know.

I found a better way. I’m learning to tell the temperature using references that mean something to me, and here are some examples:

  • Below freezing is below freezing. People usually stay indoors. I’ll add references if I go on any winter mountaineering adventures in the metric world.
  • 0 °C is 32 °F. This is the freezing point of water, of course.
  • 5 °C is 41 °F. It makes sense that 5 is half way between 0 and 10, and 41 is halfway between 32 and 50. Not all of the conversions are so sensible.
  • 10 °C is roughly when you can switch to a lighter jacket. This is 50 °F. 
  • 16 °C is 60 °F. Sixteen. Sixty. Easy to remember. I realized the ease of this conversion when we were surprised with a warm Sunday afternoon this past weekend. Tempelhof (Berlin’s abandoned-airport-turned-public-park) was swarming with post-winter-pedestrians.
  • 20 °C is 68 °F. Room temperature-ish! Also probably a comfortable temperature to consider wearing shorts.
  • 28 °C is 82 °F. I think that we can all agree above 80 is “warm,” so this is worth remembering. It’s also the temp from most of my days in Thailand, so easy to “feel” from recent memory.
  • 35 °C is 95 °C. That has a ring to it, no?
  • 37 °C is 98.6 °F. Feeling sick? Take your temperature. Average human body temperature is important to know, and relevant for the weather, too!
  • 175 °C is 347 °F. This is important for using an oven. It’s almost exactly half/twice, and the starting place for many recipes.
  • 200 °C is 392 °F. Also almost half/twice, and worth knowing in the kitchen.

Have you struggled with similar temperature conversations? Do you have another meaningful reference for me to know? Leave an idea in the comments below!

Are you traveling alone?

Two weeks ago was Cádiz and Málaga, in Spain. This past weekend was Nürnberg, in Germany. And this weekend, I’m off to Thailand for a “real” vacation. I promised myself someplace warm and sunny, where I could SCUBA dive and do yoga, and somehow that place ended up being Thailand. 

When I mention the trip, everyone wants to know who I’m going with and for how long. I’m going by myself for nine days. 

“By yourself?”

I’m not sure whether it’s my perception or their intonation, but I always hear a bit of shock in the fact that I’m traveling alone. I always think I’m okay with it – like, seriously, what’s the big deal – until someone suggests otherwise. Should I be concerned? What’s wrong with seeing a new place on your own? There will be people there, who I can meet. I always bring a camera and a journal. Lately, I travel with mini-Stephen. That, and most of the people I already know are just a message away. 

Safety? Sure! I’m a grown adult, and I will be careful and conscious, just like I am in places I’ve been before.

I ventured to Denmark for four months and made friends. (I’ll admit that my three days alone in Tromsø, Norway were some of the loneliest I’ve felt.) I’ve explored parts of Hawai’i and Spain on my own. I traveled to Tel Aviv, Eilat, and Petra on my own last August. I’ve spent the last four months living abroad, in a place where I don’t speak the language (still working on that!) Nine days will be comparably a long time by myself, but it’s not a new experience to go someplace foreign by myself.

I guess I get it. Going across the world by yourself isn’t an everyday concept. Most people travel with family or to see friends or something like that. The idea isn’t so jarring to me. I know there will be moments where I’ll wonder what-in-the-world I’ve gotten into. That’s kind of the point. To explore the world. To learn about myself in the process. I hesitate to think that I’ll ever be alone, anyway, because a friendship is usually one conversation away from another human stranger.

I’ve grown fond of academic Brené Brown’s work, and in a recent podcast (coincidentally published when I moved to Germany), she remarks: “I think people are afraid to be alone because they don’t belong to themselves. True belonging is not just about being a part of something, but also having the courage to stand alone. The thing about going into the wilderness and standing alone is those experiences mark your heart. I do find sacred being a part of something, but never at the cost of betraying myself.”

I appreciate her words, and I understand they hold a deeper-than-physical meaning. I will admit to holding fear of being alone for these nine days. I also accept that I want to travel. I want to see the world and to continue understanding my place in it. If the alternative to going alone is not exploring the world or doing it on someone else’s terms, traveling alone is the truest I can be to my desires.

Thank You For Calling

I used to be elitist. I refused to download Facebook messenger, and I bookmarked the “secret” URL to check Facebook messages on their mobile webpage. I deleted Snapchat because it felt useless. And for a period of time, despite my being so visually-oriented, I disconnected from Instagram. I could be reached by text message, phone call, or email, and I would respond.

I remain convinced that we have too many ways to contact each other. Too many, because it can be disabling to the point of giving up to decide whether and how to contact someone. Have you felt that fear of thinking of a friend but not knowing when or how to reach them at the “right” moment? Despite the overwhelming selection of contact methods, I shed that attitude.

You can use standard mobile phone call and message features to call me or to text me on my American phone number or my German phone number. You can call or text me on WhatsApp with my American number. You can iMessage me at two phone numbers or via my email address. You can email me through work or personal. You can call or message me on Google Hangouts or Skype. You can contact me via FaceTime Audio or FaceTime Video. You can send me a message on Facebook Messenger. You can even call me with Facebook Messenger, though I think the audio quality is poor. You can send me a chat on Snapchat, and you can call me with audio or video on Snapchat. You can direct message me on Instagram. Or on Twitter. Or you can ring my doorbell.

Wondering how the whole phone thing works for me abroad? Is it going to cost you money to call me? Nope! At the moment, I have two working phones, and all of my messages are routed to one of them. I have an app called T-Mobile Digits installed on my primary iPhone, which uses a German SIM on the O2 network. I also have my American T-Mobile SIM at home in a secondary phone, and it has coverage through the T-Mobile Simple Global plan. While I could get by easily with just one, having the two SIM configuration ensures that calls, texts, Snapchats, emails, and other forms of communication reach me, usually on my primary phone. I’m most likely to answer a phone call to my American phone number when I’m on WiFi, but I can receive and place FaceTime calls at any time, on four different devices.

Contact me wherever, whenever. At this point, I don’t care. The world is (too) connected. If you want to reach me, I want to hear from you. Some friends and family know me to call at weird hours, when you would assume I’m sleeping. (Lately I have a very healthy relationship with sleep, but Berlin also has weird hours of nightlife and I am flexible.) Please don’t assume it’s a bad time. If I’m not available, I simply won’t answer. I’ll respond when I am available. If you are thinking of me or want to hear from me, I want to hear from you, too. And I will thank you for calling.

Still Here & Holidays

When I blogged in Denmark, I aimed to write a post every or every other week, and I succeeded. That’s the life of a student, I guess. You deal with assignments, and it’s easy to assign yourself one extra piece of prose, especially when the rest are optional engineering problem sets.

Fast forward six years, as a working man, the pace of life is a little different. I have plenty of writing and communication to do at work. With traveling and spending time with loved ones at Christmas, I don’t prioritize blogging, though it’s good for me. So, I figured I’d list a few discoveries through my life in Berlin at the holidays.

  1. Christmas pickles probably aren’t really German. Several years ago, my mom bought me and my siblings each a pickle-shaped ornament. Other than looking like a pickle, it’s a normal, beautiful ornament. Oh, and it was complete with a story about the tradition of German Christmas pickles. The parents hide it in the tree and the first kid to find it gets an extra gift. Years ago, I mentioned this to a German friend. He gave me a puzzled look, and a quick Google search led me to believe this is a fabricated tradition. I can confirm that it is perpetuated in Germany. You will find Christmas pickle ornaments in the German Christmas markets – Weinachtsmarkt or Cristkindlmarkt – but most Germans do not know about this German “tradition.”
  2. New Years Eve is not for the faint-of-fireworks. Berliners have permission to ignite fireworks on New Years Eve and New Years Day. Stores – including grocery stores – sell the pyrotechnics a few days beforehand, then the people light them off as much as they please. New Years Eve was on a Sunday. I heard the first firework on Friday evening. They were steadily lit starting midday Sunday. At midnight on my balcony, the sky was illuminated in every direction. I went for a run on Monday afternoon, still saw or heard several going off and the sidewalks were littered with debris. One site suggests that the tradition of fireworks on New Years Eve goes back to the medieval ages, when they wanted to ward off evil spirits. Assuming this is true, with the number of fireworks in Berlin, it will be a long time before Trump’s spirit reaches Germany. 😉 (His behavior is understood to be both childish and inhumane by the general populous that I’ve witnessed.)
  3. Christmas trees are for the curbs. In the days following Christmas, especially after Epiphany / Three Kings’ Day “Dreikönigstag,” everyone tosses their pine trees to the streets. Eventually, the trees disappear. I guess they get picked up by the city. (I’m not sure why, but I also noticed that my own Christmas tree lasted longer without needles dropping, even once it was on the street without water.)

Now that you’ve enjoyed my memories from last month, please enjoy some semi-related photos of my life in the Christmas season: