Checkpoint 30

I’m turning 30 today.

People who are younger than 30 (which I still am as of writing this) tend to feel immense dread at the thought of reaching that age. People who are older than 30, of course, find this laughable. Those people are wrong. They’re wrong because they have forgotten. Turning 30 is a Big Deal.

I recognize that despite writing this, I’ll probably forget the significance of turning 30 when I’m 45 or something. I’m sure I’ll laugh at 29-year-olds who think they’re old. Oh, hi 45-year-old me! How’s it going? Yeah, I know. I swear, it was a big deal at the time.

Whatever you think about turning 30, it is a milestone. And I felt it would be appropriate to write something symbolic for the occasion.

I’ve never written anything like an autobiography. Short anecdotes, sure. Random excerpts of the movie of my life. Yet a coherent narrative of my existence so far doesn’t exist. Maybe I never made one because it would have felt pretentious? Pointless? But I don’t think what I’m doing now is either of those things — because I’m writing it for myself. I’ll make it fun, so that others who are interested in my life story, for whatever reason, have a good time reading. But this is primarily for myself. For 45-year-old me, and for all the others.

Let’s call it Checkpoint 30.1A warning: it’s full of footnotes, like this one. Usually, my best bits of writing end up in the footnotes somehow, so I recommend you read them, although they definitely are tangential to the main narrative.

0-9: A Happy Childhood

I was born in Quebec City, Quebec, in 1991.2On Tuesday, March 19th, 1991 at 4:42 am, to be precise. I scheduled this post to be published on exactly the minute I turn 30.

My dad doesn’t like when I say I was born in Quebec City, because that’s just where the hospital was. We were living across the St. Lawrence river, in what is now the suburban city of Lévis, and where my dad would eventually hold local political office, which makes him sort of adorably chauvinistic about things like where I say I’m from.

But no one outside of Quebec knows about Lévis, and people may know about Quebec City, and since I was actually born there, I stand my ground: I’m from Quebec City. Sorry, dad.

The part of Lévis where we lived, and where I grew up, is probably the most rural place out of Quebec City’s suburbs. It’s still distinctively a suburb, though. A quiet, banal place, whose economic activity mainly consists of people commuting to the city for work (often government work; Quebec City is a city of public servants). Somehow, the most striking thing I remember from my childhood there is my… utter lack of class consciousness. It took me a long time to realize that social classes even exist. When I was a kid, people all felt the same in socioeconomic status.

I suppose that’s what it means to be middle-class. Or upper-middle-class. My parents are university-educated and earn(ed) much more than the average, though I had no idea at the time. I would wager a guess that being upper-middle-class in a quiet suburb is the ideal situation to avoid being class conscious — a rich or poor or urban kid would notice the differences far more than I did.

Now, of course, I know that there were many class markers. We watched public television (Radio-Canada) rather than the more popular, private network TVA. We shopped for groceries at the store that had the fancier “President’s Choice” brand. We (well, my parents) drank coffee out of bowls.

When I go back to that suburb as an adult, I find it incredibly ordinary. I think we can outgrow places, and I certainly outgrew that one. I have become an urban dweller and would never even consider moving to anywhere suburban. The rows of houses with mowed lawns, the complete separation of residential and commercial areas, the primacy of the car3despite the French, make no mistake: Quebecers are far more North American than European feel like a mild version of hell to 29-year-old me.

Yet my memories are of a happy childhood.

Like everyone, I remember nothing of my first few years. I can’t even tell what my first memory is, because it is blurred with photographs my parents took and kept in large albums, because this was the early 1990s and physical photo albums were still a thing.

So I don’t remember the birth of my younger brother when I was 3. I have no idea how I reacted. Let’s just assume I reacted very well. My brother and I always had a good relationship.4The anecdote that my brother loves to bring up to annoy me (he knows what I’m talking about) notwithstanding.

We grew up in a loving, unproblematic household. My grandmother, who used to earn a living as a nanny, served as a nanny for us too, and so we grew really close to her. Fun fact: she has a summer cottage that is actually a converted school bus. The cottage/bus is next to a lake that was single-handedly dug by my great-grandfather for reasons I have never been able to fathom. I guess he thought that diverting a river to create five artificial lakes was his idea of a cool project.

In any case, it created a nice quiet spot down in the Beauce region, where my brother and I would spend a few weeks each summer. We would sleep in the bus or in a tent; catch frogs and loaches; throw ourselves in a lake from a swing tied to a towering tree. We also used to go wild blueberry picking. We could never pick them as fast as my grandma could. She was amazing at it, and the freezer back at home was full of wild blueberries year-long.

a view from inside the school bus-turned-cottage

Most of my extended family used to live in the same area as we did in Lévis. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins — some of whom had far more tumultuous childhoods than my brother or I did. Oh, also, no one ever died. Even as of writing this, the only close family member who died is my paternal grandfather, in 2015. For most of my life I had no experience of mortality or grief. I still have had very little.

This is boring, isn’t it? Sorry for having basically no family drama to tell.

School was similarly uneventful. I was probably the smartest student. In grade 1, I was offered to skip to grade 2, since I had somehow learned to read on my own before, but I refused. I’m not sure why; today it feels a bit cowardly.

In any case, school was easy, and I was that earnest, bright kid who would volunteer to do more than necessary, or to help the other kids. I was a nerd, I guess. I was very interested in plants at some point. In the solar system at another. In the water cycle. In mushrooms. In video games — the first two I played were Pokémon Snap and Zelda: Ocarina of Time, when my parents bought a Nintendo 64. I spent so much time being stuck in the forest area at the beginning of the Zelda game because I was too afraid of the big boss from the first dungeon. I would talk multiple times to every single character and go ask my parents for a translation — back then, games weren’t translated into French for the Quebec market. That’s how I started learning English.

Good times.

And then at some point, soon after the beginning of the third millennium, I turned 10.

10-19: Teen Turmoils

Nothing special happened for a couple years, at least for me. I guess things did happen, like the 9/11 attacks, which I don’t remember much. I believe I was mostly wondering what the fuss was all about. Evidently I had no grasp yet of what mortality truly means.5I have memories of thinking ecological crises should be solved by simply removing many humans from the Earth. This is a horrible thought and I am appalled to have even considered something like that, but it’s not something unusual. It takes some learning to see the inherent value in all human lives — or, more generally, in all self-aware lives — and properly recoil at events like 9/11 or natural disasters. Some people haven’t understood this even as adults, and this occasionally leads to moral catastrophes.

Eventually primary school was over and my parents sent me to a secondary school in Quebec City that had an international education program. As one of my teachers would put it, it was “a private school for cheap parents,” because it was as selective and skewed toward high achievers as a private school is, but, unlike private schools, didn’t cost anything.6Social class, Scott Alexander writes, isn’t really about money, but about culture. This was a school for the upper-middle-class, but those who couldn’t or didn’t want to spend on an expensive private school.

It was an excellent school and I’m glad my parents (who are certainly not cheap) sent me there.

In Quebec, secondary school lasts five years, from ages 12 to 17. In other words, the exact period in which one discovers one’s sexuality and love. A few months into my first year, I fell in love. Ah, the extreme feeling of having a crush at age 12! I lost my appetite for days. This was December, so I had to endure a very lonely Christmas vacation away from her. I couldn’t wait to go back to school and… do nothing except hope that she would be my teammate in a group project or something.

It feels so bizarre to write this today, because, as I was very soon to discover, I am not and was not sexually attracted to girls at all.

Which led to about five years of utmost confusion. It became unquestionable that I was gay around age 14, although I couldn’t accept it — in large part because it was unquestionable that I had been in love with that girl! Over time, I stopped denying reality, but then it was 100% clear I was never going to tell anyone. I knew with high confidence that everyone around me would have no problems accepting my orientation. My parents had said so explicitly. That didn’t change a thing. I kept the secret for the rest of my teen years. Oh, I never did tell that girl I had loved her, either.

What a disaster, in retrospect. So much time lost.

The turmoils of my inner life didn’t really impact the rest, though. I kept being a very good student. In fact I was objectively the best student in my year, as my Governor General’s Academic Medal can vouch for. It was given to me at graduation time as a reward for having the best grade average out of the 400 or so students. When I received it, there were some puzzled looks in the crowd, because I wasn’t very well known among the class of 2008, especially the half who weren’t in the international program. There had been a poll where we could vote for various superlatives in the last year, and I wasn’t even included among the choices for “the next Einstein”! Can you imagine!

The reason I wasn’t very well known among my schoolmates is that over time, the earnest and outgoing kid had become shy and introverted. This is a development I don’t quite understand yet — it really seems that I underwent a personality shift. But why? My best hypothesis is that it was a defence mechanism against potential bullying. If so, it worked. I was never bullied, despite clearly being one of the biggest nerds around.

But sometimes I wonder if this protective aura of keeping to myself made me lose more than I gained. Today I realize how much wealth is in the connections we make with the people around us. Although I’ve never been isolated, my shyness made me miss out on many of those connections. I’m trying to redefine myself now; I am slowly shedding the introvert identity. It feels strange, but healthy.

But that is about who I am today — let’s go back to who I was as a teenager.

Around age 16, I grew annoyed at teachers who always asked us to limit our writing assignments to 750 words or so. That was my motivation to start writing my first novel. It was science fiction, set in an Ancient Greece-inspired fictional universe, and using various sources of energy (fire, light, dark matter) as a basis for a magic system. That would have been quite something if I had finished it, which of course never happened. Nevertheless, it was a milestone in the sense that I first realized I could write whatever I wanted.

My first complete novel manuscript was written over the month of November 2009, during NaNoWriMo. It was about an albino kid in 19th century southern Africa and London and it dealt with issues such as skin color and yes I cringe at the very thought of a 18-year-old Quebecer writing a novel about any of those things (the 19th century, southern Africa, Victorian London, or skin color). But I proved to myself I could write an entire book! My next goal would be to write one that would be good enough to be published. Still working on that.

At the end of high school came the time to make Life Choices. The Quebec education system has a step before university called college or cégep.7which for Americans and English Canadians would be equivalent to grade 12 of high school plus the freshman year of university. I had to pick my course of study. Good students studied the sciences, so I chose that. Also I had been into plants and planets and so on, so it made sense.

But, to shake things up a bit, I applied to a double cégep diploma that combined science with music. Music classes in school — I was a saxophonist — had been among my favorite experiences, and since I felt I would never play any music again if I didn’t study it, I decided to make things harder for myself and commit to practicing a lot of saxophone in addition to studying musical theory, basic physics, calculus, and (ugh) chemistry.

I was right: not studying music meant quitting playing altogether. I abandoned the music part of my program after one semester, and never played the saxophone again. I sold my tenor sax last summer after 10 years of letting it collect dust.

I did well in the science part, though, and then Life Choices knocked to my door again. What should I study at university? The obvious choice was medicine — I had the necessary grades, without having tried hard — but the convoluted admission process sounded like a pain, and I wasn’t really into it anyway, so I rebelled and decided I would be a [solemn voice] scientist [/solemn voice] instead. Which science? I hesitated between physics and biology. I also hesitated between the local Laval University in Quebec City or McGill in Montreal. In the end I didn’t like math enough to do physics, and McGill offered a slightly larger entry scholarship, so I picked biology there.

The summer before university I had my first real summer job. It was pretty cool, as summer jobs go. I worked at a small observatory about an hour’s drive south of Quebec City. My task was to operate the telescope and show visitors around. There were barely any visitors, so it was pretty chill. On clear nights, me and the other guy would basically just watch the sky — the cloud bands on Jupiter, the bichromatic stars of Albireo, various star clusters of all shapes.

the Mont-Cosmos observatory — a nice concrete tower in the middle of nowhere built by the local university, and almost immediately abandoned because they built a better one 100 km from there

And then I moved to the big city. Or, more accurately, to a suburb of it. Yeah. Longueuil is the Lévis of Montreal. I lived close to public transport, but I was still living a life of commuting rather than the full urban experience.

There was, of course, a reason for this: my pseudo-great-grandmother,8pseudo because she was the second spouse of my great-grandfather, so we’re not actually related. Also she was too young to be a great-grandma — 80 years old when I lived there in 2010-2011. virtually the only family member I had in the area, let me live in her place for free. A great deal, financially speaking. And my pseudo-great-grandma is a lovely woman. But in hindsight, living in the suburban apartment of an octogenarian wasn’t a very good choice. It made it hard to make friends.

Studying at McGill also meant living mostly in English. McGill is a very weird place to be for a French-speaking person because you feel like a minority (French-speaking students) within a minority (the English-speaking community in Montreal) within a minority (French Canada). I had a perfectly sufficient grasp of English to study in the language, but it compounded my shyness and stunted the growth of my social life.

Overall, my first year there was awful. I escaped to my parent’s house most weekends.

I turned 20 towards the end of my first year of university, full of uncertainty about whether I was in the right place at all.

20-29: The Meandering Life of a Twentysomething

By this point I had still never come out as gay to anyone. It was eating me from the inside. I thought about it every day. I knew I had to burst the secret open, I even knew no one would really care, and yet I didn’t do anything for years.

I can only imagine how gay kids in non-supportive environment feel. It’s hard even when it’s easy.9Although, I wonder if the huge rise of positive media representations of LGBT people, in recent years, has made it easier for the kids of today. I hope so.

I finally mustered the courage and told a friend over a messaging app in November of 2011. She was totally cool with it (and relieved the “important thing I need to tell you” wasn’t that I had a crush on her). A few days later, I told my brother. The next day, my parents. They were mildly surprised, but only because I had told them exactly the opposite thing some years prior.

After that it became quite easy, even fun to come out. There was a little thrill to it — you never know exactly how people will react — but I was confident I was safe with pretty much everyone in my social circles.10I didn’t really need to come out to any of my extended family members, because my parents told everyone while I was busy studying in Montreal. I am lucky that I’ve never actually felt unsafe due to my sexual orientation.

It was the first semester of my second year at McGill, and at that point I was starting to make friends at last. I came out to the closest of those new friends. He reacted much like my other friends — he thanked me for trusting him, and didn’t press the subject.

But that was all a façade: little did I know that he was gay, too. He didn’t use my coming out as an opportunity to come out, however, because he came from a triply conservative background — African, Chinese, and Catholic — and had decided to never tell anyone. (I’ll admit that his reasons were stronger than mine).

So we just became closer and closer friends over the next few months, until it was clear that I was in love. I told him so one June morning, despite having no idea (except vague hints) whether he was gay too. Did he come out then? No! That took another (very soul-crushing) week. But then he did (the vague hints had been correct) and now we’ve been together for close to nine years.11Minus a five-month episode of breakup in 2018-2019 which I will keep quiet about.

I quickly moved in with him in the stereotypically wealthy neighborhood of Westmount, in an apartment that wasn’t wealthy by any standards. This change provided me with roommates and an actual social life. Life in Montreal became much better. At school, I dropped my French literature minor to take computer science classes instead, which I turned out to like more than my biology major. After I graduated, I took more classes to qualify for a master’s degree in CS. But I still wanted to be a [solemn voice] scientist [/solemn voice], so I applied to a master’s degree in Europe to study evolutionary biology, got it with a full two-year scholarship,12€48,000, if you must know; thanks, European Union taxpayers! and decided it was time to experience life abroad.

What followed were two years of living in Sweden, France, and the US, learning how to deal with a long-distance relationship, trying hard to convince myself that trying to be a [solemn voice] scientist [/solemn voice] was still the right path for me, learning and doing some actual science, meeting lots of awesome people (many of whom are still close friends) and travelling all over the European continent.

one of my favorite pictures from my time in Uppsala, Sweden

though actually my daily life looked more like this

My master’s program — called MEME, by the way, as a nod to Richard Dawkins — was very much geared towards academic research. I was finding out that I wasn’t geared towards academic research at all. In the last semester, as I was having fun discovering the vibrant intellectual culture of Cambridge, Massachusetts as a Harvard research-intern-not-quite-student, I finally decided not to apply to any PhD programs.

So I returned to Montreal with… no clear goals at all.

The autumn of 2016 wasn’t very enjoyable. By a cruel twist of fate, just a month after I came back from the exotic lands of Europe and the northeastern US, my partner had to move to Western Canada for job training in weather forecasting. So we kept the long-distance relationship going for another 7 months. Meanwhile I was looking for work, which isn’t easy when all you’ve done is scientific research in such a useless discipline as evolutionary biology.13useless for industries, anyway

I finally found a job as a data analyst for a McGill-affiliated organization that sought to improve cancer care. Basically, I was an Excel specialist. Once, I learned (after about 45 seconds of googling) how to lock Excel data columns to prevent other people from editing them. Then my colleagues would always send me their Excel spreadsheets so that I could lock columns for them.

The job was… okay. The people were nice. The conditions were good. The offices were very, very gray.

Work aside, I kept writing. I published a short story in a literary magazine. The magazine had a special collaboration with some independent filmmakers to adapt some of the stories into short films, and mine was selected. So even though I had published a grand total of two short stories by that point, I could now brag that my work had been made into a movie, which is pretty cool.

This is also around when I started blogging. I had the vague goal of writing the French-language counterpart to smart, generalist blogs such as Wait But Why or Slate Star Codex. But I never quite got there. I had very few readers, and I fell into the lack-of-motivation trap. So I wrote on and off, and that blog never led anywhere, sadly.

snapshot of what my life looked like back in early 2018

After some time (not that much), I grew bored from work and decided to relearn computer science. I went back to McGill, quit my job, and patched up another degree in a little more than a year. This was during the AI boom, and I was going to follow the trend. I had a research internship in machine learning one summer. At the end of 2018, I was done, and looked for work in a more directed way than ever before.14While simultaneously dealing with a breakup, having to move away from the place my ex and I had bought together into a smaller apartment with a roommate, and exploring the strange and foreign universe of dating apps.

I got a job at Druide, a company making the software Antidote, which I have described as “fancy Grammarly for French and English.” It was good! It was the first time I was working a job I felt fit me, with a clear, exciting goal — improving Antidote, a piece of software that I use daily and which is quite well-known in French Canada. I was also working with linguists. I enjoyed working with linguists.

Then, just as I was thinking I should maybe grow more ambitious than working as a programmer for a mid-size company in Montreal, the pandemic swept the world, ruined everything, and made me hate my work.

I first escaped in getting more serious in my writing. I switched to English, something I had resisted for years. I started using Twitter more. I joined online communities, most notably Interintellect. I began casting away my identity as a shy and introverted person and making a real effort to meet more people.

And here we are, at the beginning of 2021, and at the end of my third decade in the world.

The obvious question now is: What’s next?

I don’t know for sure. I know whatever comes is going to be somewhat messy.15coincidentally, Paul Graham also wrote an autobiography of sorts last month, and I must credit it for inspiration. A key quote, related to mess: “I wrote an essay for myself to answer that question, and I was surprised how long and messy the answer turned out to be. If this surprised me, who’d lived it, then I thought perhaps it would be interesting to other people, and encouraging to those with similarly messy lives.” I don’t think I’m cut out for simple, linear career paths and life paths. I want some chaos. Chaos is more fun, as long as it’s not excessive.

A chaotic life requires some self-confidence, however. And somehow, over the past six months or so, I’ve improved a lot in this regard. This is what allowed me to quit my job last month with no precise plans, something that two years ago would have sounded insane. Now I intend to work on some freelance stuff, write more, accelerate my efforts to meet people and expose myself to the serendipity of human connections.

And so, in this atmosphere of desired chaos, I’m turning 30. That feels both young and old.

Old because I already lived through a lot of stuff, as the exercise of summarizing my entire lifetime has made obvious.16And there’s so much that I had to completely leave out!

And young because I still feel that my life is really just beginning.

where I’m sitting on March 6th, 2021, just as I finish writing the first draft of this essay. Yes, that’s a pumpkin from last October. It’s probably all rotten inside by now


Thanks to Gregory Yang Kam Wing, Kushaan Shah, Rishi Dhanaraj, Tamara Scott, and Alicia Kenworthy for their feedback!