Identity: Stories about figuring out who we are

This week, we’re presenting stories about identity, whether its an external sense of cultural identity or an internal sense of self.

Part 1: Mathematician and comic book writer Jason Rodriguez feels torn between separate cultural and professional identities.

Jason Rodriguez is a writer, editor, educator, and applied mathematician. Jason spends the first half of his day developing physiological models of human injury. In the evenings, Jason creates educational comic books about American history, systemic racism, and physics. On the weekends, Jason tends to visit conventions, museums, libraries, and festivals in order to talk about the unparalleled joy of comic books, and how that joy can spark a desire to learn and create in kids. Jason lives in Arlington, VA on the rare occasion when he’s home.  

Part 2: As a graduate student, Josh Silberg begins to question whether he's cut out for science.

Josh Silberg has researched everything from humpback whales to whale sharks to rockfish—he just couldn’t decide on one creature to study. After earning a Master’s of Resource and Environmental Management from Simon Fraser University, he joined the British Columbia-based Hakai Institute as the Science Communications Coordinator. Now, he gets to share all sorts of coastal science stories through blogs, videos, and the occasional poem. In his free time, he can be found photographing wildlife, hiking, or searching for creatures in tide pools. You can follow him on twitter @joshsilberg.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Jason Rodriguez

My name is Jason Rodriguez and I am a whole person, but I haven't always been. 

My elementary school was P.S. 58.  It was in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.  Carroll Gardens was a predominantly Irish and Italian neighborhood so, by extension, 58 was a predominantly Irish and Italian school.  You could imagine a kid with the last name Rodriguez going to a school like that will run into his fair share of problems. 

My problems were exasperated by the fact that I was also a giant nerd.  I was such a nerd that I was in the G&T program which stood for Gifted and Talented but the other kids called Garbage and Trash.  I was such a nerd that I was the valedictorian of my elementary school, which is just such a bonkers concept that a school would point to a kid and say, “This is this school’s biggest nerd.” 

But I was a nerd in a lot of other ways too because I liked a lot of things that most kids my age kind of moved away from.  I liked toys, I liked video games, I liked cartoons but, most of all, I loved comic books.  I loved the Amazing Spider-Man, I loved the Uncanny X-Men and I loved every single thing in between. 

Because of all these factors, 58s could have been a bit of a problem, but I was cautiously optimistic about junior high school.  Junior high school was going to be different.  I went to JHS 142.  42s, unlike 58s, was on the border of Carroll Gardens and Red Hook.  Red Hook, at the time, was a predominantly black and Latinx neighborhood and I was a Rodriguez. 

Additionally, I had deep roots in Red Hook.  My parents were raised in Red Hook.  All four of my grandparents were raised in Red Hook.  Every Friday, I would be in Red Hook on Dikeman Street in my grandma’s house sitting around the table with my mom, my dad, my dad’s six siblings, all the cousins.  We would eat our meal, we would tell jokes, we would sing songs, we would sometimes get up and dance.  I was confident at this setting in Red Hook. 

I was at my grandma’s house the Friday before I was supposed to start junior high school and I went outside and this kid I knew forever, Beto, he was outside playing basketball.  I knew Beto was also starting at 42 so I joined him.  We shot horse for a little bit, and I asked him if he was nervous about starting at 42s.  Beto said, “No, not at all.” 

I knew a lot of people there already.  A lot of my friends from his elementary school, which was 29s, was going to be there.  Beto was set.  And by extension, I thought I was a Rodriguez with deep roots in Red Hook, and I knew Beto and Beto knew people, and I was going to be set in junior high school. 

A couple of days into my junior high school experience, I’m walking home by myself and a group of kids come up to me and Beto was with them.  I don't know what I’m expecting but the kids walk right up to me and they say, “Yo, shorty.  Run your shit,” which basically means take everything out of your pockets and give it to them. 

I didn’t want to sell Beto out.  I kind of felt bad for Beto because Beto is trying to fit in too.  So I do the one thing that a true nerd would do.  I take out my wallet, pull out my junior high school ID, show it to these kids and say, “You don’t have to mug me.  My name is Jason Rodriguez.  Rodriguez.  There's plenty of other kids you can mug.  It’s fine.  We’re good.” 

Well, that didn’t work.  So I tried begging and pleading.  That didn’t work. 

Finally, I turn to Beto.  He's my trump card.  And I say, “I know that guy.  I know Beto.  We’re good.”

And Beto looks at me and he says, “I don't know you, white boy.” 

That’s when I realized that I was too white for the Puerto Rican kids and too Puerto Rican for the white kids.  It’s also when I realized that these were two very separate identities that I can put inside boxes and take them out whenever I needed them.  This was sort of the way I lived from the time I was mugged by Beto and his friends up until I learned about space cats.  And I'll get to that.

But before we get there there was another fracturing that was kind of important to this story.  I went to college, Boston University, biomedical engineering student, and within the first couple of weeks my student adviser, faculty adviser, whatever they call it, invited me and a couple of other students to his house for dinner. 

So we go.  He has this gorgeous house in the Boylston neighborhood of Boston, which is the most hoity-toity neighborhood possible.  We go up to his apartment.  It’s on the top floor.  He has a wall that’s just like a window.  He has a globe.  He has a telescope.  Like this house, this apartment reminded me of the apartment from Frasier, and I’m only saying that because that was the only point of reference I had at that age of what a fancy apartment should look like. 

We had Indian food.  Even though I never had Indian food, I never knew they existed, and I was sitting there eating chicken tikka masala for the first time and I thought to myself, “Man, I want this life.” 

At the same time I started making comics.  They were dumb comics.  It was a comic about a string that was also a DJ.  It was called DJ Stringboy.  It was just…

But my college friends they really loved it.  They laughed and they wanted to see more of it and they wanted to spread it around. 

It was really exciting this thing that I've always read was now being created by me and I could share it and people liked it.  And I said, “Man, I really want this life.” 

But I never once said I want both of these lives at the same time.  For me, these were two very different lives.  So I went forward with my Puerto Rican box and my white box and my creative box and my professional box and I never used any one of those boxes at once.  I always took out whichever fit the moment. 

So with my professional box, I went, I got my tech job, I got business cards, I got a tie, I gave talks at conventions, I got another degree, I started getting into business development, I was doing great. 

With my creative job, I started doing small press zines and then small press books and then it’s mid press books and then large press books, conventions, totally different business card, that was going fine. 

But those two lives never crossed.  People from the creative side knew nothing about my technical side and people from my technical side new nothing about my creative side.  They were completely different identities. 

So one point, I started getting into doing comic book workshops for kids.  I loved doing it.  I loved working with kids, going into schools, all that stuff.  I had this friend Eric.  He was doing a science fiction and science comic book workshop at an elementary school in D.C. and he asked me if I wanted to join. 

I said, “This sounds great.  What we’ll do is we’ll go in, we’ll have a scientist with us, that scientist will teach the kids something and then we’ll teach them how to make that concept into a comic book.” 

And Eric goes, “Okay.  Well, I mean, you're the scientist in this situation, right?” 

I’m like, “Well, no.  I mean this is my comic book life.  This isn’t my science life.  I can’t do both.”

And he's like, “Well, honestly you're gonna be there already and you're free so…”

So I decided to give it a shot.  I go into this classroom, fifth grade class, and I tell the kids about NASA’s Rosetta Mission.  I say, “Check this out.  This is so cool.  We’re gonna land a probe on a comet which is like the most awesome thing you've ever heard, right?” 

And the class was like, “Yes.” 

Then I go, “And then that probe is gonna dig into this comet.  How awesome is that?” 

They're like, “Wow!” 

Then I’m like, “Then this is gonna like suck water out until it dies, and that’s kinda boring, right?” 

And the kids are like, “Yeah, it’s boring.” 

I’m like, “So why don’t you come up with a better fate for this comet?  Like take this and do something with it.” 

So there's one kid, his hand shoots up and doesn’t wait to be called on.  He just says, “I wanna do a comic about space cats,” and the whole class just laughs. 

The girl next to him she rolls her eyes and she goes, “That’s Timmy.  Timmy is always talking about space cats.” 

I’m just like, “Well, Timmy, tell me a little bit about these space cats.  Like what do they do?”

And Timmy says… he just gets so excited.  Timmy is just like, “Space cats they're flying around.  They're catching space mice.  And they have jet packs.  And they've got oxygen tanks and helmets and…”

I’m like, “Timmy, all right.  Let’s slow down.  Slow down.  Space is big.  Cats are small.  Big old oxygen tanks, right?  How do they get from Point A to Point B?” 

He goes, “Well, you know, they must‘ve refilled their tanks.”  And I wait for a second and Timmy goes, “You know what?  They dig into the comets, they pull out the water, they get the oxygen from the water and they refill their tanks.” 

And I had a transformative experience.  Because not only was I a scientist who taught Timmy something, and Timmy turned that into something creative and he took ownership of it, but at the same time Timmy was simultaneously a cartoonist and a scientist.  This fifth grader!  And I have never even thought of doing that. 

Photo by Michael Bonfigli.

Photo by Michael Bonfigli.

So I doubled down.  I already had this phase where I was doing these American History comics.  I started doing science comics.  I started doing science fiction comics.  I would go to comic conventions and be on a panel and I would introduce myself as a scientist and a comics creator, and it was just freeing. 

I started talking to people at my day job and I started telling them about the stuff I was doing, and they were really into it.  My company actually did a full-page feature on me on the company magazine and it was just all this stress off my body just by taking these two boxes, creator and professional, and putting them together. 

I had two more boxes to deal with and I wondered if I can reconcile them.  So late last year I started talking to Shout Mouse Press.  They're a local publisher.  They work with first time teen authors and they wanted to do their very first comic book.  We started talking to the Latin American Youth Center and we applied for a grant through the DC Council of Art and Humanities with three other cartoonists and we won the grant. 

The idea was we were going to spend a month teaching these first generation Latinx teenagers how to make comics.  Then we were going to publish their memoirs in 2018.  We’re still doing that.  So I was very excited about this. 

I show up to the first day of workshops and the whole group of kids, 16 or so teenagers, a couple of adults sitting in a circle, we have to get up and tell everyone about ourselves and what we want to do with this workshop, we expect to get out of it, and it takes me about two seconds to realize I am the only person in this room who doesn’t speak Spanish.  And additionally, I’m pretty sure most of the kids don’t speak English.  I felt like such an impostor.  I just felt like this was a terrible idea. 

But I pushed on because I believe in the program, I believe in the kids.  So many weeks as we rolled on, we would sit around tables with markers and pens and papers and the kids would tell their stories about their fears, about this current environment, about what it’s doing to them and what they want to do to it.  Not violent stuff but how they want to change it and it was inspiring.  It reminded me so much of these confident moments when I was a kid sitting at my grandma’s house and listening to my titis and my tios and my sister and all these people just talk about who they are and never try to hide it. 

We finished up the workshop.  The kids turn in their pages.  They were beautiful.  On the last day we got to all sit in a circle again and talk about what we learned, what we’re thankful for, all that stuff. 

Everyone gets up and it’s my turn.  My plan was to tell them what I just told you, about how I saw my family.  I maybe got two sentences out because I was crying so hard.  I’m pretty sure the kids knew what I was trying to say but, for me, I was standing there and I realized that, yeah, I helped these kids find their voice and find a way to tell their story but these kids helped me so much because, for the first time in like forever, I was a Puerto Rican, I was a white kid, I was a scientist, and I was a comics artist.  For the first time in a long time, my name was Jason Rodriguez and I was whole. 

Thank you.


Part 2: Josh Silberg

University bureaucracy has a cruel sense of timing.  I was 25, I was standing in my apartment in Vancouver the first year of my master’s degree, and I just picked up my mail and tossed it onto my IKEA table, that black IKEA coffee table that every single university student has.  I noticed peeking out from the stack of flyers was a letter.  I had a feeling I knew what was in that letter. 

So I picked it up and I opened the envelope.  I ripped it open really, really slowly.  Inside was a single piece of paper.  The Simon Fraser University logo was on top. 

I opened it up really slowly and I read it and it was my worst nightmare.  I'd been accepted to the PhD program. 

I cried, and not because I was happy but because I couldn’t even decide in less than an hour what I could eat for lunch at that point in time.  I didn’t know how I could make such an important life decision.  I wasn’t even sure I wanted to finish my master’s let alone a PhD.

I just threw that congratulatory letter on the ground and I retreated under the covers of my bed and I just holed up. 

A few months prior, I was on cloud nine.  I had started a master’s program and I couldn’t imagine why anybody wouldn’t want to do this to the point where I didn’t even want to do it for two years.  I wanted to do it for five or more.  I wanted to stay there forever. 

I whizzed through the first two semesters of classes and I found myself on a tiny float plane heading up to one of the most beautiful places in the world, the Great Bear Rainforest on the central coast of British Columbia.  I sat on a driftwood log looking out over the Pacific Ocean.  The moon was lighting it.  Everyone else had gone to bed.  No one else was around. 

There were calm waves lapping up at the shore.  It was an idyllic, almost tropical-looking white sand beach stretching out for a quarter mile on both directions.  And I shivered and I didn’t know what to do.  This was my childhood dream and I was terrified. 

So when you wake up in the morning, when you're up there, typical day starts at about 6:00 a.m.  You get your stuff onto the boat, you put it on there, we go out to our next research site which is a towering forest of kelp. 

The three other researchers would pick up their fishing rods and they’d tie a lure onto there and they’d toss it into the ocean.  And plunk, plunk, plunk, whiz, whiz, whiz, you let the line go out.  It goes slack.  It hits the bottom. 

I just winged it.  I had actually never been fishing before in my life, before starting a master’s that had to do with fish.  I just thought it was a cool project.  I didn’t even have time to second-guess.  I just kept going.  And that’s a really, really tough place to be.  But, you know what?  Your instincts sort of you have the fight-or-flight.  It just kicks in and you just do. 

By the end of each day just before dinner, we’d come home and we’d have a cooler full of fish to dissect.  Things were sort of getting worse and worse for me and there was one particular day where I realized I had a big problem. 

We laid out the fish one by one on this wooden table and there were fillet knives, there were tweezers.  I put on my impostor mask and I gave instructions to the other people.  We needed backbones, we needed ear bones and we needed some muscle tissue.  Each one of those would go into a little vial and that glass vial was about half the size of your pinky.  Each one would have a label on it for each fish that I would have assigned it. 

By about 9:00, we finish that up.  We hose down the table and everyone else went off to the beach to catch the last of the sunset.  I hung back and all I could think about was them commiserating around the fire about how incompetent I was.  “Who was that guy that they let into university and the university probably regrets that.” 

Then I went about my nightly routine back in the laboratory.  Each vial had to go into the freezer and I would put it into a box, and each box had about a hundred vials that could go in there.  I put each one into the box one by one and I thought, “Okay, I'll organize this by what species of fish are there.  No, that’s not right.  I'll do it by what site they're at.  Uh-uh.  No.”

I second-guessed, I third-guessed and then, “No, my first guess was right.  No, maybe not.”  I just got totally lost in the fog inside of my head. 

And I faffed about and I faffed about and I just didn’t know where I was or what I was doing.  Untold hours went by of me switching these back and forth and back and forth.  I remember staring at this cream colored lab bench and just zoning out for I don't know how long. 

I snapped out of it and only one thought came through the fog.  I slunk down on the chair and that was, “I don’t think I’m cut out for this.  At some point, everyone’s gonna see me for the fraud that I am.  All my previous successes, chalk that up to fluke and privilege.  They're gonna figure it out sometime and there's gonna be some repercussions.” 

I finally went to bed around midnight.  I was too exhausted to even dream.  Pretty much the second my head hit the pillow it seemed like my alarm went off and, at 6:00 a.m., it was time to do it all over again. 

For about five minutes I lay there and I thought, “You know, I could feign a physical illness.  No one would get mad at me for not doing a day of research because I had the flu.” 

But I was sick, I just didn’t know it yet. 

So flashback to my apartment and I’m holding that letter, that letter that I dreaded the most.  At that moment, I read those two sentences over and over again. 

“Dear Joshua,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted to the Doctor of Philosophy Program in the fall term.  On behalf of the committee, I wish you continued success at the university.” 

Continued success?  Who was that person that applied to do a PhD?  That was so unfathomable to me.  I don’t even know if I should be here at all, let alone excelling and moving on in this. 

I hid this from almost everybody.  To me, I was failing my family, my supervisor, myself.  But outwardly, I was getting straight As.  That downward spiral was completely silent and that fog is invisible.  Except to my girlfriend, because when you live in a one-bedroom apartment you can’t really hide. 

So she started noticing I was changing, that I was different.  I was oversleeping, I had stacks and stacks of sticky notes with task lists that were completely… nothing was crossed off on them.  And I cried, I cried a lot.  Every night I cried which is not very typical for me. 

At some point, I still didn’t realize anything was wrong, but that PhD letter that was the breaking point because I knew the university was going to need an answer and I couldn’t hide anymore. 

Josh SIlberg shares his story at Scicomm Camp in November 2016.

Josh SIlberg shares his story at Scicomm Camp in November 2016.

At that point, I called my parents back in Calgary.  I happened to be going back there for my best friend’s wedding.  She was getting married near there and we’d already booked our flights.  I sat on the couch, my family home that I grew up in, and I just broke down. 

I spilled everything.  My feeling of failure that I was just letting everybody down.  I still didn’t really understand what was going on.  How was I going to tell my supervisor I couldn’t do a PhD?  That was my biggest fear. 

It was at that point that I went and got help.  I went and talked to a doctor and therapist and I exhaled for the first time in months.  Because it had a name, I was depressed.  When you put a name on something, there's a power to it.  When I was playing around with those vials back in that room, I didn’t understand that at all, not in that moment.  I still don’t understand what I was doing there but all those irrational thoughts, when you give it a name, there's a power to that and there's a catharsis that came over me. 

So I immediately thought, “Okay, now, I can get better.” 

How do you get better?  You take a pill and you talk to somebody in therapy, and then you're better.  Right?  That’s how it works.  No, that’s not how it works.  That’s, unfortunately, not how it works.  Even when you know what it is, you still don’t get better. 

So through a combination of all of these different things over the next few months, slowly, slowly that fog started to dissipate and I could think a little bit clearly, a little bit more clearly. 

I’m really lucky because none of my worst fears came true.  Everyone around me was super supportive and empathetic.  The stigma that I had heard about before, which still exists, I didn’t experience personally. 

I still read that letter every so often and I've underlined the words ‘I wish you success at the university’.  I realized it wasn’t the right time for me to do a PhD, but I've never second-guessed that decision. 

Thank you.