About Me

In A Nutshell

Hi I’m Phil. Currently I help run the ABCD Study in Vermont.

Prior I worked in a mental health and addiction treatment center, a Title I elementary school in New Hampshire, and an 8-week overnight summer camp in Maine.

Books, people, nature, and learning bring me joy.

California native turned New England enthusiast.

The Site

‘Phil in the Blank’ is my ongoing attempt at making sense of the world, in Figuring with the help of data.

What I’m Doing Now

Right now I’m focused on a few things:

Last updated: 12/24/2018

This is me

The Long Version

I was born and raised in the sunny suburbs of Southern California.

I spent most of my childhood immersed in the digital landscape of video games, meaning I didn’t spend much time thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Luckily, in my last year of high school, the enthusiasm of a cheery psychology teacher lead me to develop an interest in the inner landscapes of the human mind. If I learned how the mind worked, I thought, then I would discover what it was that I wanted to be when I grew up.

Of course, while studying psychology in college, I soon realized that learning about the mind and brain wasn’t going to answer my existential questions. Having no clear path or compass to guide me, I threw myself further into the only arena where I felt at home: League of Legends. Eventually I became one of the top 0.1% of players in the game, though the glory was temporary and short-lived. While I felt like a winner on Summoner’s Rift, life was a game I had yet dared to approach. It was a game I was ultimately losing in.

Eventually I quit during the summer of my 4th year of college, and shortly after, I enrolled in a 6-week study that taught me how to meditate, among other things. Meditation changed the way I perceived myself and the world. It helped me come to the fact that I wasn’t fully subject to the natural whims of my environment and emotions. I could choose what part of my experience to attend to. This was key in steering myself away from the allure of my pixelated past, and into a more meaningful future.

After graduating from college I worked at an intensive outpatient center focused on treating drug addiction and mental health problems. Mainly I dealt with the insurance side of things, but I also had the opportunity to interact with and listen to the stories of our patients on a daily basis. They taught me that the road to recovery was long, but never out of reach.

Despite having a full-time job and living in the beautful Santa Barbara, I was constantly plagued by an undertone of existential distress. I had spent most of my life learning how to excel in school, a place where the expectations are predefined and the objectives clear. This was no longer the case, and I was suffering the consequences: aimlessness, despondence, a lack of meaning. Eventually I left and moved back in with my parents to begin a six month soul-search.

I then took a year-long position as an AmeriCorps member with the educational nonprofit, City Year in Manchester, New Hampshire. I worked as a student mentor in a 4th and 5th grade Title I classroom lead by a young and passionate teacher. Many of our students were performaing several levels below state standards, and I was there to change that. As the year progressed, I grew more interested in the circumstances surrounding my students. Most of them lived in a state of constant disarray, stress, and poverty, factors that severely degraded their academic performance and any prospect of a better future. After all, how could they focus on learning how to read and write when their words had little impact on their circumstances outside of school?

Still, school was all they had. It was a place where they could play and be with friends, to express themselves and their grand ideas, to experiment and be full-blooded kids. I couldn’t change much about their circumstances outside of school, but for 6 hours a day, they had me. I brought in fresh fruit for them; I helped them build and program robots; I taught them how to meditate. And they taught me how to love.

Two weeks before City Year ended, I was accepted into a graduate program for Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Boston University, but both the price tag and the career prospects made me reconsider. Ultimately it didn’t feel like a good fit for me, so I decided not to take the offer. With no clear plan in sight and an apartment lease coming to its end, I took a job as a camp counselor in Maine.

In many ways Gem, the camp director, was right when he said, “This will be the hardest job you’ll ever love!” At all hours of the clock, you were responsible for the well-being of your assigned campers, as well as that of others. Solitude came only in stolen moments; every free thought and action was dedicated toward creating a $14,000 camp experience. Regardless, I was often able to find the space and time to apply to a few post-camp jobs. I heard back from only one and was later rejected by them.

In response, I bought a one-way ticket to Europe to walk the Camino de Santiago, a month-long pilgrimage in Northern Spain. I had promised myself when I was in New Hampshire that I’d walk it at some later point in my life, but the situation could be no more perfect. With no job secured and a lack of formal obligations, I was free to trot across foreign lands.

After camp ended, I took a roadtrip through Canada with a dear Hungarian friend. It was a glorious two days filled with adventure, tears, and vulnerability. We parted ways in Toronto, she to Mexico and I to couchsurf across the east coast before my journey across Spain.

The Camino is a magical place. It challenged me to grow and feel emotions I had only glimpsed before - love beyond bounds, interconnectedness, awe, gratitude, joy. In part this was due to a girl I met. We met on the second day of my journey. She was a medical student from Belgium, walking the Camino in search of clarity. We exchanged stories and taught each other about life over the next 14 days. Then she was gone. She returned to Belgium and resumed her medical studies while I continued the walk to Santiago.

I made some more friends along the way, but most days I was accompanied only by the echoes of nature and the beautiful vistas of Galicia and the Meseta. In my many bouts of solitude, I often thought about what life would be like back home. Career-wise I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I knew I enjoyed the act of teaching, storytelling, and showing people the beauty of the world. I also remembered how fascinated I was by psychology and the brain before I was tossed into the post-college world.

Upon arriving in Santiago de Compostela, the official end destination of the Camino, I felt a profound sense of connection with the world. My sense of self slipped away. I felt an incredible lightness, a powerful joy and peaceful contentment I had never experienced before. For what may have been the first time in my life, it didn’t matter who I was, what I was doing, or how the future would unfold. I felt free.

I stayed a few extra days in the city before finishing the last leg of my journey. I said my goodbyes to the many walkers and friends I had made at the start of my Camino, and then I was off to Belgium. I had to go see about a girl.

Coming home was difficult. It was all the same, yet I felt completely displaced. It was hard to relate my stories to friends and family. I had trouble sleeping, and life slowly lost its color. My mind and body yearned for foreign roads.

After weeks of mulling around without any direction, I decided to write about the experience. It gave me a sense of purpose, a reason to wake up and move forward. At the same time, I felt more able to consider career options. I applied to a couple of research assistant jobs related to psychology. I also began the long process of enabling myself to teach English abroad.

The Hungarian school I interviewed with offered me a position. Physical exams and logistics were taken care of. I had finished writing my story. Nothing was holding me back. But some days later, I received a request to interview with a group of researchers in Vermont. At that point, my mind was already set on moving to Hungary, but I decided to interview anyways. As I got to know the team, I realized how big of a deal the project was, and how much I liked the people working on it. I didn’t expect to be offered the position, but there it was sitting in my inbox one week later.

It was a tough decision to make: to continue exploring the world, or to hunker down and build a career. Each day my mind settled on something different. One morning I’d feel ecstatic about the prospect of learning a new language, of living and teaching in a foreign country. The next my excitement swayed toward more practical ambitions on the homefront. I eventually settled on Vermont, reasoning that 1) it would still be a new adventure in many ways, 2) if I was truly pursuing a challenge, then I would choose to grow some roots instead of continuing to fly, and 3) if I didn’t like it, I could always go teach abroad.

The decision was made. I packed my life into three bags and moved to Vermont.

Living in Vermont turned out to be much lovelier than I had anticipated. We have seasons, for one, unlike California. From the color and radiance of the New England leaves to the anticipation of a winter turned Spring, the seasons remind me of the everchanging, cyclical nature of life. Until life’s currents takes me elsewhere, I am happy to call the green mountain state my home.

I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. But right now, I’m ok with that.