Eat the Damn Marshmallow

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The room is empty. Well, nearly empty, except for one wooden table in the center and the white, plastic chair sitting behind it. Five-year-old Anna opens the door, walks in, and sits down, her little feet not quite touching the floor. Mr. Mischel follows her and puts a plate on the table, with one marshmallow on top of it.

“You can eat this one now,” he tells her, “or if you can wait until I come back in 20 minutes to eat it, I’ll give you another marshmallow, and then you can have two. Okay?”

She nods. He closes the door behind him. Then, silence. 20. She pushes the marshmallow to the other side of the table. 19. She covers her eyes. 18. She tugs on her ponytail. 17. She smells the marshmallow. 16. Rolls it on the plate. 15. Closes eyes again. 14. Tugs ponytail again. 13. Sings to herself. 12. Bites her lip. 11. Covers her eyes with the ponytail. 10. 9. 8. 7. 6. 5. 4. 3. She counts to herself. 2. She groans. 1. Finally. Mr. Mischel knocks quietly, opens the door, and smiles, handing Anna her prize.

It’s 1971. Anna is a kindergartener at the Bing Nursery School in Palo Alto, California, one of 600 children who were studied in Prof. Walter Mischel’s Stanford Marshmallow Experiment on delayed gratification. Her ability to wait those twenty minutes didn’t just give her another marshmallow, it set her up for a lifetime of success. At 18, she became valedictorian at Gunn High School. At 21, she was elected Student Body President of Stanford University, where her office sat less than a mile from her former elementary school. She would become the first female partner at McKinsey Consulting’s New York City office, before winning a seat as state senator. In the real world, of course, there’s no need to stop at two marshmallows. If you keep waiting, you can get another, and another, and another…

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Anna is a compilation of the 28% of children who chose to wait for the second marshmallow during that 1970s experiment. She is, in some significant ways, a reflection of me and every person I go to school with. I have friends who worry they’ll have fertility issues because “I’ll be at least 37 by the time I’ll be established enough as a lawyer to have kids.” Another described his future like a game plan: “I’ll meet my wife in business school so I don’t have to worry about that now, then I’m looking to make partner by 30, and hopefully be a senator by 45.” I was at dinner with a friend last month who had an anxiety attack over pizza because he was worried he wouldn’t get a final-round consulting interview. A classmate once described Stanford’s culture like this, “Yes, we relax under palm trees some days, but we time ourselves.”

And it starts way before we get to college. I get eight-year-olds on my tours. Moms who ask me if their fifth graders should drop guitar, so it’s not a distraction from them becoming the best at piano by the time they’re in high school.

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high-strung baby kinsey before my tour of stanford in 2011.

 

This may sound judgmental, but I don’t mean it that way, because for most of my life, this was me, too. In my senior year of high school, I spent my entire winter break almost manically applying for scholarships and recognitions that I thought would help me go to Stanford. When this January, I decided I didn’t want to go to law school, I couldn’t sleep for days because it ruined my plan. That’s where I was going to meet my husband!! (Just kidding, sort of.)

And then, I got really sick. The life-threatening blood disorder I’d had as a kid (aplastic anemia) came back last spring -- not quite as severely as before, but my counts dropped low enough that my doctor warned me I might have to miss my senior year of college so I could get a bone-marrow transplant. A few months before, I’d been diagnosed with the BRCA1 gene, which drastically increases my risk of breast and ovarian cancer; my grandmother died from the latter at 44. Fortunately, my blood counts stabilized enough that as of now, I don’t need a transplant and get to graduate in June. There are preventative surgeries I could get in my 30s to lower the BRCA1 gene mutation risks. So I’m okay. I could still live to be 100, and plan to. ;)

But there’s not a single day when I don’t think about my own death; there’s not a single year of my future that I see as guaranteed. I have really low platelets (cells that stop bleeding) so my arms are constantly bruised, I always have to wear a helmet when I bike, and I’m particularly terrified of car accidents and mass shootings. I used to brag about how little I slept; now I have to get in eight hours of sleep, because I’ve seen even one all-nighter crash my immune system. I started CrossFit in June to improve my health (despite how clutzy you all KNOW I look doing a handstand push-up), and I dropped to 12 academic units this fall so I could spend more time with my friends. I missed them, and I'd learned that the strength of your relationships is the most important predictor of the length of your life. (The length!! Not just the quality! Isn’t that crazy? That gets its own post later.)

I don’t live like I’m dying -- if I did, I’d probably spend every day skydiving or cuddling my dog, and I’d eat nothing but ice cream. Instead, I still work really hard in school, still want an amazing career, still plan to get married and have kids and live a long life, and I have even bigger dreams now than I did when I started college.

But I do eat the damn marshmallow. I give myself actual free time. I work hard for the next thing, but as much as possible, only do the work that I truly enjoy, even when it’s difficult. And I try to do very little of it alone, even if that just means sitting next to a friend while we work without talking. I am ambitious, but I will no longer sacrifice my right now for my later, because none of us are promised a later. College is not our preparation for life. It is part of our life.

I write this to all my classmates, but especially seniors, because we only have seven months left here. We all worked our asses off for at least seven years to get to this point. So as much as we can, let’s stop getting ready for what comes after this, and let's start being where our feet are -- enjoying whatever it is we’ll miss next year. Because at every step of our lives, the real marshmallows aren’t the goals we’re dreaming of and working toward. They’re the people who are dreaming and working with us.

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At tour guide rollouts in 2015, the year after I was hired, with some of my marshmallows. :) ~such full circle, much destiny~

Whole & Whole

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I walked off the plane after finals week looking like a cross between a pack mule and a zombie when I saw it: our Starbucks had started selling beer. Only in Kentucky, I thought. I was home. Hobbling to the espresso-shop turned aspiring sports bar, I wondered for the 567th time that week if I was a hoarder, since my purple backpack looked a hell of a lot like Barney the Dinosaur. I ordered my drink, and then finally took a breath and looked around: I was the darkest person in the entire terminal. The man who had been in front of me in line tipped his cowboy hat, black coffee in hand, before pulling his carry-on towards baggage claim. In different circumstances, seeing him might have made me feel especially out of place, like a Latina liberal snowflake dropped into the South unprepared -- but actually, I felt relieved. Coffee cowboy was the first working class white person I had seen since I’d last been home from school two months before. Not talked to. Not hung out with. Seen.

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A few months ago, my friend told me about a startling conversation she’d heard on her first day of class. A guy had walked in, looking lost and exhausted, practically falling into his chair and said, “God, it’s been such a bad day I could kill myself.” The TA cut him off quickly, “Hey -- that’s not really something to joke about.”

“Geez, no, no, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that, I’m just so tired but seriously, I promise I didn’t mean that, I come from a place where suicide is an enormous problem.”

“Oh, um, where are you from?”

“Palo Alto, California.”

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I’m half-Mexican, half-very white Kentuckian. I’m a senior at Stanford, so I spend a little over half my year in California -- coincidentally, only six hours from where my biological father lives, though I’ve never met him. I spend the other half of the year with my two moms in Louisville; both of their families have been in the state for six generations (at least). Since I left for college three years ago, and especially since the election, I’ve felt out of place no matter which home I’m in. In Kentucky, I’m a brown, vegetarian, feminist, with gay parents and a dog named after a Broadway drag queen. At Stanford, I sometimes feel like white trash; the school has a $24 billion dollar endowment, and there are extraordinarily few poor or even middle-class white students here, let alone from the South. Many of my friends -- and professors -- cannot even put Kentucky on a map, and call it “flyover country.” When I tell people what state I’m from, their most common answer is, “I’m sorry.”

They’re sorry.

Don’t get me wrong, there are reasons to be sorry. I see confederate flags in the back of pickup trucks at least once every time I come home. My parents were afraid to hold hands in public when I was growing up. A 7-year-old boy was shot dead when a stray bullet blasted through his window and hit him -- while he was sitting at the kitchen table eating his birthday cake. (Yeah, take that in for a second. Damn.) The state is screwed up. And it’s true that those things rarely, if ever, happen in Palo Alto.

And yet it’s Palo Alto, where the hedges are manicured and the palm trees are insured, that has a teen suicide epidemic, and I’d say consistent mental health issues among even the most privileged high school and college students. Myself certainly included during parts of my time here. (Is Kentucky immune to that? Of course not, but we’re not famous for it.) At Stanford, students are often so stressed that from Week 3 to Week 10 in our quarter, just what week it is is an easily understood reason to be miserable. I’ve had hundreds of conversations that go like this: “Hey ____, how are you?” “*groans* Well, you know...it’s Week 4.” And, I usually say back, “Yeah, I know, you got this/hang in there/we’ll get through it.”

But what the hell? What are we “getting through”?? Being in the 5% of students who were accepted to one of the richest universities in the world, that will basically guarantee us stability and countless opportunities for the rest of our lives, where I live in a mansion with a personal chef (it’s insane), and take classes from Nobel Laureates? “But we’re happier than MIT!” is not the right answer. We should be the happiest people on Earth. We have no right not to be the happiest people on Earth. But we aren’t even close.

So, I’m sorry, too.

I spent November 8, 2016 in wracking sobs. I spent November 9, 2016, to my great surprise, talking about Kentucky, as my friends here struggled to understand “those people.” I have never felt so split as I did on that day. Furious at Kentucky, but also finally understanding how ignored and misunderstood people from my state often feel. Sad for the South and the immense problems we still face, but sad for Stanford and the bright red flags that we don’t even realize aren’t normal. I was half and half. If I will ever be whole and whole -- if our country will ever be whole and whole -- then my two homes must learn from each other. That takes cultural humility. That takes getting out of our bubbles, and talking to people who are truly different from us. That takes asking questions, instead of saying we're sorry. 

In Northern California, a Black trans woman with pink hair and a purple dog could walk down the sidewalk, and at least on the best days, people would be far more accepting here than in most of the rest of the country. That’s my favorite thing about my second home. In Kentucky, when you walk down the sidewalk, people know your name -- and your dog’s name -- and if they don’t, they’ll call a stranger “sweetheart.” They actually stop to talk to you. That’s my favorite thing about my first home.

After November 7, 2017, I am hopeful that one day, I will live in an America where both of those things can be true at once.

 A Bluegrass concert in front of the Humana Building with rainbow banners celebrating the Louisville Pride Festival. The New South, I hope. 

A Bluegrass concert in front of the Humana Building with rainbow banners celebrating the Louisville Pride Festival. The New South, I hope.