Beginning’s End – Good Morning Sun

Like many of my Ramah friends, I elected to spend my summer preceding college as a junior counselor. The administrative powers-that-be assigned me to Ilanot, the youngest true age group (8/9/10 yr) for the camp. Although I had initially wanted a slightly older group, I could not have been happier with my experience, and elected to return to that edah for the following summer.

It’s about to be four years since that amazing summer, as I prepare go through yet another graduation. In many ways, my first summer on staff at Ramah began the college journey that I am about to finish, and I certainly mentally consider it more a part of this stage of my life than the prior one. Because it has been so long, I have now lost most of the day to day memories. That in its own right is sad; I can remember that it was a truly amazing and transformative summer, but not much more than that. I constantly worry that my more recent memories will one day go the same route.

Ironically, I will never be able to forget one tiny and arguably inconsequential detail from that summer. It was during staff week, the seven-ish day period preceding camp that we spend preparing as best we can for the rest of the summer. In between all of the official activity planning, my co-counselor and I took a few minutes one day to make a very important decision: what song would we be using to wake up our bunk every morning? After some discussion, we settled on Still Fighting It, by Ben Folds. (For the first few weeks I was absolutely convinced the song was called Good Morning Sun, as was everyone aside from my Co. Our bunk plaque depicted a sun with a bird above it. I’m only now realizing that it’s “Son” and not “Sun”. Whoops.)

Here are the full lyrics, for those who don’t know it. I highly recommend listening to the song as you read the lyrics, especially if you haven’t heard it before.

Good morning, son.
I am a bird
Wearing a brown polyester shirt
You want a coke?
Maybe some fries?
The roast beef combo’s only $9.95
It’s okay, you don’t have to pay
I’ve got all the change

Everybody knows
It hurts to grow up
And everybody does
It’s so weird to be back here
Let me tell you what
The years go on and
We’re still fighting it, we’re still fighting it
And you’re so much like me
I’m sorry

Good morning, son
In twenty years from now
Maybe we’ll both sit down and have a few beers
And I can tell you ’bout today
And how I picked you up and everything changed
It was pain
Sunny days and rain
I knew you’d feel the same things

Everybody knows
It sucks to grow up
And everybody does
It’s so weird to be back here.
Let me tell you what
The years go on and
We’re still fighting it, we’re still fighting it
You’ll try and try and one day you’ll fly
Away from me

Good morning, son
I am a bird

It was pain
Sunny days and rain
I knew you’d feel the same things

Everybody knows
It hurts to grow up
And everybody does
It’s so weird to be back here.
Let me tell you what
The years go on and
We’re still fighting it, we’re still fighting it
Oh, we’re still fighting it, we’re still fighting it

And you’re so much like me
I’m sorry

It’s a very unorthodox pick, to be sure. We could only get away with it because our kids were young and thus didn’t think about the words very hard as they went about brushing their teeth and putting on clothes. My co and I thought about it every morning, though. We watched with sad smiles as our campers rushed around the room, trying to remember what it was like when we were in their shoes. Our hope, I believe, was that they would remember a line or two of the song, someday far in the future. In order to sate their curiosity, they would have to find it on the internet, causing them to indulge in a brief recollection of the carefree summer days that dominated their younger years. I can see their faces now, bearing small smiles.

To me, the song embodies the struggle of getting older. It taps into the sadness that can only come from the end of something so filled with happiness. The experiences were finite, but they left happy memories that will be with me as long as I am able to recall them. Even though we know that the unstoppable advance of time is natural and unavoidable, we nevertheless fight against it with everything we have.

I’ve been humming through the lyrics a lot over the past few days, now that I find myself in essentially the same position as my campers on the last day of summer. Packing up my room has been especially hard (which is why I’m currently not doing it), as I have to go through each ticket stub and empty bottle of wine and decide if it is meaningful enough to hold on to. I know that I am heading towards a new and exciting phase of my life, but that doesn’t mean I will simply flush the past four years away.

If there’s a lesson to be learned here, I think it is one that comes directly from the lyrics of Still Fighting It. It hurts to grow up. Almost every happy thing that happens to you will eventually end. That’s simply an occupational hazard of living, and one you can do very little about. Because of that, however, there’s nothing wrong with sadly reminiscing on those good times. Keep on living, doing new things and meeting new people, but don’t beat yourself up for taking a moment every so often to remember what used to be. It would be a shame if I locked away my happy memories simply because they are now in the past.

I really should get back to packing, but instead I’m going to go plan my trip for the summer to Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand! I’ll continue sadly reminiscing later, for the moment it’s time to plan ahead for new happy memories.

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Beginning’s End – Everyone Should Learn Computer Science (Yes, Everyone)

A few days ago my mom sent me an article from the Daily Progress, Charlottesville’s local paper. The article (here it is in full) states that Computer Science will be added to the SOL [Standards of Learning], Virginia’s standardized testing program. They claim that this will make students more prepared to enter the job market, but from the wording of the article (and without doing further research into the change),  I am somewhat dubious. In particular, the fact that “The new standards do not add additional requirements to the curriculum or replace any subjects” makes me doubt that the new material will be sufficient to accomplish much of anything. That doesn’t really worry me, though. Standardized testing is enough of a complex and touchy topic without talking about what subjects deserve to be tested.

The part that really worries and upsets me, however, is a direct quote from Virginia’s governor. At a ceremony announcing the change, Governor McAuliffe said that, “We will be sending a clear message…to all the businesses around the globe that we’re very serious about this, computer science, and what we need to do to build those skill sets of the future…” On the surface, McAuliffe shows a refreshing practicality for a government official – the economy seems to be moving towards tech, so why not give our students a head start? The problem is that he is pushing for computer science because those skills will be valuable in the job market. It’s not just McAuliffe making this small but fatal mistake of motivation – even President Obama’s pushes for coding and computer science always have an employability and national status underpinning to them.

This heavily implies that the only reason we value computer science so heavily right now is that the economy demands more coders. Were the economy to shift back away from programming, it means we would drop computer science from the national curriculum like leftover food left out all night. It restricts computer science to a skill, coding, useful only for the function it provides. Contrast this with the way (and the reason that) we teach history. Every high school student learns at least two, usually three or four years of history. Yet we do not demand that more of those students become historians or enter other related disciplines. Rather, we require our students to work though multiple years of history because we as a society believe that they become better people by that work. That the true value of an education in history is not the direct skills or knowledge that it grants you, but the increased ability to understand and interact with life as it continues to flow as a continuation of that same history. No matter the fluctuations of the economy, learning history will always be valuable towards our current understanding of an educated person.

Coding is the vital skill at the center of computer science, but computer science has so much more to offer, such that the difference between someone who simply knows how to code and someone with a full computer science education is akin to the difference between a historian and someone who has read some history textbooks. Perhaps it is possible that they know the same facts, at least on the surface. The way that they would go about solving problems, however, is entirely different.

The true value of computer science is the resilience and humility it requires. Never have I been told that I’m wrong so often and so quickly as when I am coding. Nearly every time you run a program you are in the process of writing, it will end in angry red text spit back at you through the console. You don’t get to argue your point, as in English or History. You don’t even get to argue over which interpretation of objective truth is correct, as in Math or Chem. If the computer says you’re wrong, you’re wrong. Every single time. Here’s a conversation I’ve had more times than I can count with students who come into my office hours:

Them: It’s giving me a null pointer exception!

Me: Ok. So at some point you are trying to call a method or reference a field on an object that isn’t actually there. It’s like trying to shuffle the deck that’s inside of an empty box.

Them: But that’s not possible. None of my references are null.

Me: Well, you’re wrong. It must be possible, because it’s currently happening.

Repeat the above and modify slightly for: concurrent modification exception, class cast exception, arithmetic exception, stack overflow error, etc etc etc…

While the failures are delivered in a safe and private environment (i.e. your computer), this is nonetheless a really tough pill for some introductory computer science students to swallow. It’s hard to learn that something you were so sure of is actually incorrect, especially in such a blunt and unforgiving manner. It’s one of the reasons that computer science has a problem with retention, especially among women and certain minorities. When you get told that you’re wrong so often, it’s only natural to wonder if you aren’t cut out for the subject. What’s wrong, however, is thinking that everyone else is getting it right on the first try while you’re up at three AM debugging the same stupid error. Everyone in a class (literally, everyone) hits roughly the same number of snags in completing a given project. This should be intuitive – everyone received the same project to begin with, and everyone has roughly the same knowledge base going into it. Of course everyone will get tripped up in essentially the same spots along the way.

The difference between those who struggle through computer science and those who seem like wizards, then, is how long each of those errors take to fix. The better students don’t avoid failure, they get better at failing. They learn to have no problem admitting that something is wrong, because that is the first absolutely necessary step towards fixing it. They learn that one failure or even a multitude of failures does not reflect on them negatively, neither as a coder nor as a person, as long as they acknowledge that something is wrong and retain the desire to improve. They learn that it is not the multitude of your failures, but the magnitude of your successes, that truly matter. Computer science forces you to fail so often that you become immune to the mental damage it would cause. Rather than dwelling on your failure by getting angry or giving up, it forces you to move past it by searching for understanding, because that is the only way you will ever succeed.

Being a computer scientist, therefore, is much more than knowing how to code. It’s the long nights of futile search for the single remaining bug, and wanting to throw your computer out the window. It’s the sleep-deprived haze under which you finally stumble upon and correct the unbelievably stupid mistake you made three months ago. It’s the utter elation you get when the damn thing finally runs. Finally, it’s the warm glow you feel when a friend complains about an error subtly similar to yours, which you find and fix in five minutes instead of three weeks. It is all this and more, because in that moment your friend is not silently judging you, that it took three weeks to find this silly, simple bug. They know all too well what that frustrating search feels like, and you, you wonderful human being, were able to save them that effort. In that moment, you are not defined by your weeks of inadequacy, but by your perseverance, your empathy, and your humility.

That is a lesson everyone, regardless of age, gender, race or profession, needs to learn. It’s nice that the economy is tilting towards coding right now, and that computer science is in the public spotlight. Even if that were not the case, I truly believe that we all would be more resilient, more humble, more empathetic people if we all spent a few years learning computer science.

Beginning’s End – Dear Cornell Freshman

My semester ended with both a whimper (classes) and a bang (slope day), so I suppose I hit all of the right notes. Now we begin the slow march towards the finish line, with little to occupy our days but procrastinating on studying and spending time with friends before they leave campus. More bitter than sweet, at this point.

It seems that the recollective bug has bitten many seniors this spring – I was asked by a good friend of mine (and future roommate?? TBD) if I would write a short piece addressing both myself of four years ago, and the incoming class of Cornell Freshmen. The goal is to let them know what they’re in for and to put them in the right mindset for what lies ahead. Below is my fictional time traveling letter, titled “They go too fast”.


Dear Freshman Michael,

Welcome to the fastest, most stressful and most exhilarating four years of your life. Four years may seem like forever when you first arrive on campus. Now that I’m standing on the finish line, trust me it goes by all too quickly. You owe it yourself to get the most out of every day, because you don’t get any of them back.

There’s a lot I could say in terms of advice. What I did and didn’t do, what I regret and what I don’t regret. As I’ve written and re-written this letter, all of it sounds preachy and very anecdotal. I’m still going to give opinions on my time here, but take it all with a grain of salt. This is a bit of my story, and yours will certainly be different.

You’ll have some up days and some down days. Sometimes you’ll coast to a good grade in a class, while in others you’ll work harder than you thought possible just to get the mean, or worse. Some weekends you will want to party across campus, soles sticky with beer residue, while others you’ll live in libraries and make the Olin to Uris 2AM transfer. More than anything else, college is made up of choices that shape your time here. Some are small, some big, some smart and others fun. But you control every single one. Not your parents, not your friends, not significant other. Only you.

If I had to sell Cornell to prospective students based on a single tag line, I’d go with “the place for intelligent and dedicated students who don’t care to prove to you exactly how intelligent and dedicated they are.” It’s a bit wordy (note to self – edit this), but it still sums up the overall attitude on campus. Just about everyone you meet on campus is secretly absolutely brilliant. More importantly, no one is just skating by. The more dedicated the person, the harder they are working, because they want to accomplish even more in their four years. Cornell encourages students to learn as much as possible, to make an impact on campus, and to squeeze every drop out of every day, because to do less would be a waste of your time here. You define your own success. You never need to prove that you deserve your spot more than the person next to you.    

It’s your undergraduate career. Strive to defeat every challenge and exceed every expectation that you set for yourself. However, know that it’s ok to strike out after giving something your all. There will be times that you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, and that you may pass out from mental exhaustion simply from working too hard. You know what? That’s okay. College teaches you more than the material that makes up your major, it teaches you resilience. Cornell will throw more at you than you can possibly handle. Part of life, the part you get to learn here, is how to keep on pushing through the most stressful of weeks. While working as hard as you can to produce top quality work, don’t evaluate yourself too strongly by the results. You are not a bad test score, or a poorly researched philosophy paper written the night before it is due. You are the optimistic and intelligent student who acknowledges that failure, makes amends and turns that grade into a distant memory.

Cornell is your next great challenge, and one you can’t handle alone. The fastest way to make your life a living hell is to view your classmates and friends as opponents, not to be trusted with tiny grade-boosting details. I urge you, though this may go against your natural future-Ivy-leaguer inclination, to view your classmates as teammates, working together as fully as you can (of course respecting the academic integrity guidelines). Remember that this is a place for staggeringly intelligent yet humble people. You never know which random friend will be the one to pull you through Linear Algebra. More importantly, however, trust your friends enough to truly talk to them. No real friend of yours wants you to suffer in silence. When you are at your weakest, have the strength to ask for help. When it comes your turn, be there for your friends. Give them a patient ear, a steady shoulder, and non-judgmental advice. Together, there is nothing you cannot accomplish.

One part of college that comes as a shock to some is how quickly your social scene may change. An extra-large shift comes after freshman year, as your tightest-knit group of friends suddenly dissipates across North Campus, West Campus, and Collegetown. It’s easy to view this as downside of college or a trial to overcome. You can attempt to keep track of everyone you meet during your four years, but I would urge you in the opposite direction. Focus on making lifelong friends, not simply collecting acquaintances. It could be the friends you meet on your freshman floor, but it could be an entirely different group. Of course it is important to have less serious friends to have a good time with, but as you near the end of your time here, the ones that really count will be the ones you’ll stay in touch with for the rest of your life. So long as you treat everyone you meet with respect and actively push newly formed friendships beyond their superficial beginnings, I have no doubt that you will meet lifelong friends during your time here.

In the end, I would give anything to be in your position once again. I survived the classes, I partied hard, and I got the job, but I would gladly throw that all up in the air again to do it all over.  As the Glee Club sometimes sings, “But oh, to be twenty, and back at Cornell.”

Holy shit, you’re in for a wild ride.

P.S. Just go with Shnik. People here will flip for it, and the pun opportunities are endless.

Beginning’s End – Go Boldly

It didn’t really hit me until I woke up three days ago. Seeing May 1st on my phone made me remember that within the month I will be graduating, that my time on the hill is nearly at an end. I knew I had very little time left, but suddenly that amount was measured in weeks and days, not months.

I’ve had many “lasts” in the past few months. My last concert with The Chai Notes, my last return to campus as a student, my last prelim. Today (yesterday at this point), I taught my last recitation as a Java TA. Soon I’ll have my last class, and not long after my last final. As each one passed, I couldn’t help but think about the corresponding “first”, the event that began the series I was now ending. Each and every one has been extremely bittersweet in remembrance. When I began as a singer, a TA, a student, and every other role I took on during my four years here, I couldn’t possibly have known how important they would become. I can only appreciate in retrospect how much I loved every bit of my time, and how sad I am to see it end.

In an attempt to bottle these memories, I’m going to spend the next month reflecting on what I’ve learned over the last four years. Perhaps now I can make good on the topics I promised to cover way back when I started this blog. More importantly, I hope that you can glean something of use, or at minimum savor a little bit of the warmth of reliving happy memories.


The funny and sad part in this reflection is that so many of my most important decisions in college began as accidents. I first saw The Chai Notes at the first shabbat dinner of my freshman year, which I attended on a whim. I initially wanted to be a Matlab TA, but they weren’t taking applications in the spring so I ended up being a Java TA. I had planned on living on west campus my sophomore year, but I and most of my floor didn’t get a good time slot so I pleaded my way into the CJL annex. Despite the randomness of these three decisions, all played a central role in my college experience. I feel so lucky to have have lived the amazing past four years, given how little planning went into it all.

But on the other hand, maybe that’s always how it goes. The morning of the most important day of your life is like any other morning. You can’t possibly know that your life will change at approximately 8:15PM when the performing group sings Nachamu. Moreover, even at the time it’s impossible to tell. Most life events aren’t so impactful and sudden that you know right in that instant that you are now heading down a different path. You can only trace back where it all changed, for better or worse, in retrospect.

The takeaway here, for college and for life beyond, is that you should simply try everything you have any desire to do. I stood alone outside of 104West that Friday night worrying that it would be awkward not knowing anyone. I decided to go in because I might meet my best friends there, and I couldn’t pass up the chance. I had no way of knowing then, but I was exactly right. Every time you get that little thought of “this could be amazing”, opposed by the little nagging doubts about practicality, perceived coolness, and required effort, I urge you to just give that new endeavor a shot. So long as you keep your whits about you and stay attentive, you can always bail if it turns out not to your liking. But if you never try, you’ll never know what you’re missing. I truly believe that a life lived fully is a life lived well.

College is only four (plus/minus) years. There’s really no time to waste being timid, in worrying and delaying. So go boldly forward where you have not gone before. Spend these years forging new paths and trying new things. Some things won’t work out, and that’s ok, but the things that do will so profoundly affect you that you won’t understand who you were before.

When I look back, those are the things that I remember. Those happy accidents that I only achieved because I took a risk, chose the mystery option. They are quirks of fate that I can only appreciate now that my time at Cornell is ending. But in placing such importance on chance, I have to wonder,

What will tomorrow bring?