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Minerva Week 3: Gimme Shelter

September 20, 2014

What does it mean to settle in? What does it mean to feel at home? This week was about finding my places. This week, I realized how fun it was to stay at the… YMCA!


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The Chinatown YMCA is right across from the First Chinese Baptist Church, a striking building that has been standing since 1888. I remember taking a picture of it on my first trip to San Francisco. Now, every time I come out of a class (spin! cardio yoga! pilates! Aquafit!) or from swimming laps in the salt-water pool, it greets me.


I fell into a rhythm of gym-class-study-eat, punctuated by a talk from one of our Deans. Dr. Dan Levitin has just finished writing a book about information overload called “The Organized Mind.” He offered to share some wisdom about being a highly effective person while still being highly human.



I learned re-acquainted myself with the properties of complex systems and learned about scientific models and theories.


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Then, on Friday, Minerva held an academic picnic in manicured Yerba Buena Gardens (Yerba Buena was the name of the settlement that became SF). We had the floor to share thoughts about the courses so far. Many of us felt that the flipped classroom model was being implemented without proper feedback. We wanted to know when we were correct or not correct. Some of us (myself included) were frustrated with the student-run sessions that take up 2h20min of highly precious time on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. We knew vaguely that we were supposed to teach each other, but without much more guidance, in many of the sessions we felt like independent reflection time could help us learn better. Faced with an onslaught of grievances (which is generally what comes out when you ask for feedback, it’s strange that we are so quick to jump to problems), the Academic team held firm. “We hear you, but we won’t make changes without a lot more data. We put a lot of time and thought into this framework, and while we can do a few of the things you asked, we aren’t going to remove the sessions. You have to remember that you are building out a system that will be used for hundreds of people next year.” I respected the integrity Rena and Kara showed, but still left feeling a little frustrated about the format of the session (trying to talk over each other in a noisy park wasn’t the best way to go about getting all of our concerns recorded and shared). I am sure it will improve next time.

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We had a session about extra-curriculars and fear elimination (doing things you are afraid of), that ended up evolving into a deep discussion about what internal barriers we feel are holding us back. Shane and I talked about the tension between being a “successful” person without a lot of depth or being a person who works and lives deeply. I can feel the San Francisco tech culture whispering to me, “Speed up, want more, do, do, do.” I am in a land of possibility, I know. I’m also aware that sometimes the most important battles aren’t the sexy ones that offer short-term payoffs.

Then, I went to an aerial dance performance about the plight of homeless older women.


Dancers were suspended from an 80-foot wall. Some of the performance involved weaving sounds with words taken from interviews. I heard, “I was born and raised in San Francisco. I am sixty-four years old.” “It’s hard to leave your stuff.” “It’s dangerous sleeping outside at night in this city.” “My boss knows. Everyone knows, they can see it. They’re not stupid. But you have to put aside a lot of pride to say “I’m homeless.”

All the while, I was thinking, “I travelled to the other side of the continent and I found that I needed to make a home. Someone who was born here, has lived a hard, good life and paid her dues simply couldn’t do that.” I watched the dancers chasing after broken umbrellas – shelter that wasn’t really shelter. I wondered about how I am connected to and supporting the systems that force people onto the streets, fighting gravity (as the performance in thin air emphasized).

After the performance, the friendliest of us started talking to three interesting-looking people in the audience, one of whom was carrying a wire-art tree. One was a linguist working to create automated call-center software, another was a writer, and the third was a carpenter. They were shockingly friendly, and pumped us full of knowledge about the local poetry scene, a naked street festival taking place this weekend, and great restaurants. My favourite of their offerings, though, was when Ben (the linguist) told us some San Francisco folk history. One was about Joshua Abraham Norton, a rich heir who fell from grace when his investments in Peruvian rice went south. “You might expect a man to go crazy after that,” Ben said, “but Norton went a special kind of crazy. He proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. He had a uniform made for himself and submitted a proclamation of his title to the SF Chronicle.” That in itself is not extraordinary. People went mad before Norton, and have gone mad since. But, incredibly, many San Franciscans embraced his new identity as a benign form of eccentricity. Some helped him print his own money. Many greeted him by his new name. Once, when a racist and angry mob was about to attack China town, Norton went in front of all of them and said the Lord’s Prayer. They were ashamed and left.


There was something crucial in that story, something about embracing the eccentric rather than ignoring or even tolerating them. I thought again about the broken umbrellas, and the many homeless people I had avoided on my way to and from the dance. I am so glad we’ll be studying homelessness in San Francisco as part of our Complex Systems class. I have been triggered by these experiences and I want to stitch them together into something meaningful.

Be safe and be well!


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Gabriel permalink
    September 22, 2014 12:56 pm

    Very nice website.
    Thanks for the diagram on Daniel levitin’s talk. is the talk available on the web to view or listen to?

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