My Mother, The Explorer.

My mother is an explorer.

Not of the hiking boots and rain-soaked maps–sort. Her adventures sought truth beyond what was directly stated.

A few years ago, I was writing my thesis, and she was completing her dissertation in parallel. We both wrote about Colombia, though I wrote about drug cartels and how they invested in political campaigns, whereas she focused on twentieth-century and contemporary Colombian artists and how they documented the violence of the drug wars.

We found that writing about Mexico, where I was born and she had lived for a quarter of her life, was too raw, too close to memories we weren’t ready to talk about, so we shifted our focus to Colombia.

She asked, “How do you sit down and focus? Help me remember what it’s like to be a student.”

I offered some notes on my study habits.

I asked, “Can I borrow your books from the artists?” Sometimes, they offered a perspective closer to the truth. She’d challenge me to go beyond the text.

We explored truth together.

I finished my thesis and graduated from Yale. A year later, she submitted her PhD dissertation to Harvard. Mine was to satisfy my burning questions about black markets in Latin America, an important step towards embracing myself wholeheartedly as an explorer of truth (a researcher). Hers was a project of love and defiance that shows it is never too late to chase your dreams.

Now, a few years after college, my mentors remind me that I should start my PhD now, if I want to sample all that life has to offer. They tell me the investment of my time and energy into a PhD has to happen now, if I want to have a family and a career. I left academia to try my hand at research inside industry, first for a think tank and then TED, and to try pursuing other people’s questions.

Sometimes, I am consumed by anxiety. And just when I wonder if my window of opportunity to return to my questions is closing, I remember my mother’s journey, and how she fearlessly pursued her degree while working and caring for her children. It would take fourteen years from start to finish for her to complete her PhD. It was interrupted with adventure: she left her program when she moved to Mexico City, had children, worked as an art critic, and taught art history, before she eventually returned to her PhD.

Timelines for the questions we pursue, she taught me, can be adapted, and sometimes a researcher requires different types of personal growth to reach her fullest potential.

My Mom is an explorer. My path (and my timeline) is my own to determine. With her as an example, I embrace my adventures.

Diana Enriquez is by day TED’s Content Researcher, and by night an informal economist. She loves experiment design, trying to answer difficult questions, unusual businesses, and the informal economy. She grew up in Mexico City and Boston and now lives in Brooklyn. 

This was originally published as an essay in a collection of essays here.

Grateful for… my grandfather and life’s questions

I’m out in Provincetown, in the woods, where my family likes to spend a quiet thanksgiving reflecting, reading, and enjoying thanksgiving dinner.

This year, I want to repost one of my interviews with my grandfather from August. I am working through the recordings to build a profile of him in his own words, but this was one of my favorite episodes from our interviews.

On Life’s Questions.

I hope you enjoy it!

What is the Extended Eulogy?

For me, growing up in a Mexican family meant that death was about curation.

See, in Mexico, we remember the dead regularly – to us, the line between living and dead is not so thick. In those moments, we are expected to interact directly with the person we are remembering.

Our communities created profiles of our loved ones … in their own words. On the Day of the Dead, We reread letters they wrote, quote them, relived our interactions and favorite meals… and because these people do not exist as a static, as they might in a formalize biography, they live on as a multi-faceted memory.

But I wondered, how did other people design these profiles? How often are we able to remember those that we love through their words?

I started a research project for my Learning Wednesday – I call it, The Extended Eulogy.

It started because I had a mentor figure from college who died in April after a long battle with cancer. We knew him as the Master of Saybrook College, my program at Yale. We remembered him through the events he hosted and the comforting words he offered when we needed them.

But to the rest of the world, Master Hudak as a super hacker. For the months that he was in the hospital, receiving treatment until the end of his life, he was as the subject of discussion within the top 10 hits on major hacker chat boards around the world.

I started thinking about the profiles that each of Master Hudak’s communities would build around his memory – how would they curate his profile?

To date, I have interviewed several curators for Extended Eulogies. The first was a friend who was a major curatorial voice behind the NYTimes Best Seller “The Opposite of Loneliness,” which is a collection of essays written by my former classmate Marina Keegan. Marina passed away tragically in a car crash in 2012. This book lives on as her legacy.

The second is an artist who was asked to grant three wishes by a friend of hers as he died of complications from AIDS in 90s. His Extended Eulogy was an exhibition of his photographs that she curated. As you walked through the collection, you walked through a timeline of his creative mind.

Both of these curators told me that when they reviewed the work by their friends… they could hear their voices in it.

I narrowed the scope of my research to three framing questions. Each time I asked them:

How did you remember this person?

How did the world know this person?

What questions did this person spend their life trying to answer?

Just a week or two after Master Hudak’s death, I learned that my grandfather had been diagnosed with cancer.

The Extended Eulogies research project started to morph… into a living profile.

I am on a mission to collect all of the memories for his profile that I can… but most importantly, I need to capture his memories in his own words.

What you need to know about my grandfather is I grew up allowed to believe in legends and heroes, because my grandfather was one of these heroes.

Orphaned twice by 19, he received a partial scholarship to play football for the University of Nebraska and put himself through college while supporting his young family by working nightshifts on the Lincoln, Nebraska Railroad. He was the designer and implementer for the first computer system in Kellogg’s supply chain.

My grandfather created everything he became.

I took a Monday off work to spend the day interviewing him with the StoryCorps app. For four hours, we talked about the future of work, family, and life’s questions big questions… adding dimensions to the man who lived in my memory as a series of family legends and humorous stories.

The difference now between this profile and a biography is that my grandfather has a hand in it.

He is not a writer or an artist, but I want to tell his story and remember him through his voice. His words.

This living profile and the Extended Eulogy is about breathing life into our memories. It is about giving the people we remember enough layers of complexity to remember and celebrate that they were human – that they struggled with questions, and saw themselves one way while the rest of the world may have seen them another way.

The richer the profile, the richer the memory that can live on with us, to interact with us on the Day of the Dead each year. I am grateful for this opportunity to build something full of life with my grandfather.

This is a talk I will give tomorrow at the TED Staff Retreat about my Wednesday Research work. This is a new experiment for me, and it exists largely as a conceptual art piece until I find the right ways to work with my research. 

Heartbreak in a single line.

From this week’s StoryCorps Interview with my grandfather:

Me: Have you ever felt helpless, Grampy?

Jay Schneider: Only in the last 10 minutes of your grandmother’s life. She was hemorrhaging and there was nothing any of us could do to stop it, we saw that it was the end. So I held her hand and said, I’m sorry, my love, I can’t help you.

[[I am trying to capture the beauty of his heart in something I need to write this week… and this line has been bouncing through my head and heart since Monday]]

A Time Capsule

For my next birthday, I am creating a time capsule. Not a traditional one that I will bury in the ground and dig up in 20 years… more like an internet tattoo to mark where I am right now.

I’ve had a few days to reflect on the StoryCorps interviews with my grandfather this week. He really loved the experience and my relatives have all reached out to me to ask for access to the recordings. They want to hear what he said about his childhood, which we all only knew a handful of stories about, and his first jobs, losing my grandmother, his parents… all of it.

What is cool is that his thoughts and the crossroads he encountered in his life will now be preserved and searchable for our generations of Schneiders well into the future.

I want to add to my internet tattoo so I can remember the friendships that have meant so much to me and have been part of shaping my years here in this chapter of my life. I am asking a handful of my close friends to do a StoryCorps interview with me, where we will talk about how we met, memories we celebrate together, and what the friendship has meant to us. It’s a project about love and celebrating the exploration process of being young and confused, as well as finding our way in new spaces.

I want this to be a time capsule for both of us. I suspect I wont live in the same cities forever, and though some of my friendships defy this, time and space are difficult to overcome for some friendships. At least we can preserve these moments, savor these memories, of when we were young.

Sidenote: I really loved this collection of very real conversations that took place in this project. I hope some of my conversations with my friends will be this honest.

Designing Memories: The Data Collection Stage

Holy Shit, this is hard.

Normally, my research offers me a clinical lens to consider some of the problems that trouble me most deeply. From this angle, the art of the interview is meant to capture memories of someone close to me. It’s about accepting the passage of time and how we age and the weight that our bodies carry… I am asking the questions that I’ve always been afraid to ask.

I’ve had to pace myself on the questions and background write ups for the Extended Eulogies work because every time I let myself delve into the content, to feel the questions and anticipate the answers, to gauge how the interview will likely flow, and where I want to go with it… I cry. Because unlike my usual work with survey design… this is about designing memories around my grandfather.

The categories broke into Memory, Love, Family, Life’s Questions, Work and Creative Outlets. Each one with a its own set of questions and moments I want to uncover and preserve.

I am using the StoryCorps app that is part of the 2015 TED Prize. It makes it easy to build short survey blocks and record the conversation directly into an easy to upload format.

A handful of the interviews and questions I've organized for Monday
A handful of the interviews and questions I’ve organized for Monday

As I modified my notes into a short set of questions for each theme. We’ll get to 7-10 open ended questions in 40 minutes. This is a very new research format for me, since I am usually trying to capture missing information, not the pulse of someone’s thoughts and the ways that they organize and feel through their memories. I think this requires much more open-ended-ness and a willingness to be fully present to encourage the conversation to flow in the directions it can go.

In total, there will be 7 themes that we discuss. I am beginning with more concrete memories: Work & Family… and then moving into the abstract. What does Self Care mean to you? What are some of “Life’s Questions” worth asking?

We will work together for all of Monday August 31, 2015 to produce these interviews. Wish us luck! We’re both excited.

I found this RadioLab episode about memory… what we remember and what we forget. They are joined by the late Oliver Sacks, and it felt like it was an appropriate addition to this conversation. 

The German in my head

Until Thursday evening, I was in Germany, half of that time sleeping on trains trying to negotiate my rail pass with the conductors and the other half of the time dropping my things in a room I had rented before wandering off into the cities I visited with a map, my wits, and my brain as it transitioned from a week of French to a week of German.

Germany_Berlin_Wall
At the East Side Gallery 2015

I like to think about language structures. There was a brief period in college when I considered studying linguistics, because I think that the structure of language, how we form sentences and arrange “units of concepts” [by this I mean, in normal human language: words], shapes so much of how we think about, see, and record the “data” we collect from the world around us.

French was an easy transition for me, because I grew up speaking Spanish. The sentence structures were familiar. Where the language places emphasis felt like visiting a cousin I hadn’t seen in a while but quickly enjoyed talking to…

German, was for many reasons, an adventure. My mother’s family is Germanic in its roots. In high school, I declared to my parents that I was going to be an exchange student in Germany… without speaking a word of German… and I did it. I started teaching myself through online programs, then I found a teacher in my high school who secretly spoke German, and finally… I appeared in a classroom in Ulm with my host sister and began the slow process of learning through immersion.

When I first arrived in Germany for my program... doing the Tourist thing
When I first arrived in Germany for my program… doing the Tourist thing

It was clunky at best for a long time. The sentence structures I had assumed were “universal” were turned upside down. Adjectives suddenly had to be conjugated… and sometimes entire sentences were shoved between the subject and its actions… it was difficult to flow when I had been trained to write and listen for just the opposite.

Tea_salon_berlin
At my new favorite hideout in Berlin: P & T in Charlottenberg is a tea and stationary store with a very well designed space.

I started to see language different. What was so important to structure in English and Spanish and French… was different in German. Whereas I could begin speaking in the other three without the full concept of what I wanted/needed to say in my head, the option to edit as I continued was always present, German did not offer me the same luxury. Instead, I had to consider each word, each piece, in relation to the other concepts in my sentence. They had to negotiate their roles and placement relative to one another. Only then could I say what I was thinking.

It proved to be very difficult, until the day where suddenly the right neurons had connected and things start to make sense. I started remembering important phrases. I could negotiate prices. I could make small talk in the grocery store. I had made it!

Now, years later, my German is significantly better, but I was reminded of the importance of words and the selection of words by one of my visits in Germany.

We met when we both spoke about our respective projects at an event last year. I remembered our interactions over the course of the weekend very fondly — we were, by far, the youngest speakers, and had bonded over the excitement of the event. In American English terms, I thought of her as my “friend.” But when I called her that, she, with the straightforwardness that I admire both about German as a language and Germans more generally, told me, “I would not consider someone that I had met twice my friend… though I do feel very comfortable with you.”

After that, I thought a lot of about the weight I casually toss or take away from words in my own work in English. How often was I missing what I meant entirely, for the sake of creating a certain comfortableness for another person and strayed from the truth?

I’ve started sending my grandfather postcards, like time capsules, of the days where my adventures make me think of him. That evening I wrote a second postcard to my Grandfather and posted it before I left Berlin. He is now 85 years old and the age is becoming something that creeps into conversations with my parents, thoughts when I carefully save all of his emails with tags so I can find them again, and as a filter in my heart when memories of our adventures flick through my mind. Whereas my language choices could be casual before, my postcards are a commitment to being deliberate and savoring language. I’ve committed to this project of the curated profile for him. And part of that… means getting the language right.