I spent a large portion of yesterday writing a piece about data scientists and ethics. It was absurdly long, and I think I was too diffuse. It involved references to Poincaré, psychoanalysis, and the phrase "Minnesota weather can go to hell." As a result of the somewhat inchoate nature of my comments on the issues I see with data scientists, ethics, and social responsibility, I'm posting this piece instead which may or may not be more coherent.
I recently had a birthday. Birthdays are complex for me. There are many cultural variations and traditions involving birthdays. Most often it seems that birthdays are intended to be pleasant, happy events. This year, my birthday week was filled with a number of events and unexpected surprises. I had birthday coffee, birthday drinks, birthday dinner, birthday cards, birthday snow, birthday photos, birthday gifts, birthday wishes, birthday calls, and birthday recollections. Broadly speaking, it was a lovely week. Birthdays do have some less lovely aspects, however, and there were a few during my week.
One thing I find problematic throughout the year, but especially near my birthday because it is such a frequent occurrence, involves comments about my age. I find comments about my age to be equally offensive as comments on my sex, gender, or sexual orientation. Anyone who has met me knows I take those things very seriously. In a way, I think age comments offend me more. I can see numerous ways a person might develop a bias regarding gender or sexual orientation, even if it's stupid and irrational. I have a more difficult time, however, being understanding about myopic and patronizing comments about age. This particular birthday week, the comment that set things off was from a sort of classmate. Her comment in response to my answer regarding my age was, "Oh, you're just a baby." My response was the RLD (Rita Look of Death), and the statement, "Yeah, not so much."
My grandmother, who happens to be 93 years-old, can make a comment like that and I'm fine with it. Someone within 5 years of my age (like my classmate), however, can fuck off. Actually, comments from people within 10 years of my age are particularly infuriating. I think I have isolated what bothers me so much in these instances, aside from the sheer arrogance and low self-awareness involved. It is very dismissive and discounting to have my life brushed off or minimized by other people. Yes, I may "only" be approximately three decades old, but I had quite enough of "life" by the time I was 19 years-old. This is sort of an issue because women in my family, with one notable exception, tend to be quite long lived.
I started working when I was 14, sometimes two jobs. I moved out of my parent's house from 16-17, after we lost everything in a forest fire. I endured abuse of every kind, sometimes at the hand of family, sometimes by strangers. I had the privilege of helping raise my little sisters; they are younger than I am and dealt with very similar life events. Their strength and resilience continues to amaze me. I helped my mom plan her end of life care, wrote her obituary, and planned her funeral all within two weeks of starting my sophomore year in college; I was 19. I made my way through college and now grad school. I pay my mortgage and other living expenses. I try to send money home when I can so my father can stop working himself to death. If these things don't qualify as life experience, I'm not sure what does.
I don't feel "my age", I never have. For the past few years, I have felt quite old, if feeling old means being exhausted, cynical, and responsible. I don't know everything, and I have yet to meet someone who does. Comments about my age piss me off when they come from people who pretend they do know everything. There is more for me to do in the future, and I will learn and grow along the way. I expect that I will learn some of the things I've missed so far in life. For example, I'm not good at having fun. It happens, but I never really quite know how to fully enjoy things, with the exception of books. As I was recently reminded, however, I'm losing that source of joy and instead I'm being subsumed by academia and work. I'm also habituated to expecting the worst, or waiting for things to go bad. I have become much better at trusting that not everything will always suck, though, that's a very positive result of life beyond 19 so far. I expect my perspective to change, to become more nuanced, to be more informed as time passes. I sincerely hope I never develop the unfortunate, short-sighted notion that simply because someone is younger than myself, their experience is automatically less valid or that they are somehow automatically lacking in wisdom. I like to discriminate based on solid observation and inquiry, not by jumping to conclusions...
Despite the ageist comments, in a way, a birthday can be a very validating experience. So much of my life is focused on celebrating and sitting with other peoples' lives and stories that I sometimes forget about myself. I am lucky (and very grateful) that I have people in my life who will send me cards, indulge me in a discussion of my borderline obscene love of books and my dream library, share culturally diverse traditions like giving the gift of an orange so I have a "fruitful" and wealth-filled year, and people who make the time to be present in my life in general. I'm glad I'm here, even if it is complex. It's nice to know a few other people seem to agree.