A gray day in late January and I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Mountain View, across the table from Dr. Anthony Colaprete, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, talking about the Moon. He’s here because he knows more about the lunar surface than maybe any other human being on Earth and, despite a nasty cold, has agreed to meet with me. I’m here because I’m writing a screenplay about the Moon. Part of me feels like I’m wasting his time — something akin to enlisting Ruth Bader Ginsburg for help on a high school civics essay. But another part of me has grown used to these sorts of interactions — in the few months I’ve been a JSK Affiliate, I’ve experienced more than a few of them.
When my wife, Kristen Muller, was selected as a JSK Fellow, I didn’t know what to expect. An academic year at Stanford felt like it could be any number of things. An interruption from my work. A series of arguments with my wife, watching her enjoy the high life of a fellow while I watched the kids. Sure, all the advisers and literature assured us that as an “affiliate” I’d have access to a lot of the same opportunities that she would, but seriously? I’m nearly 25 years removed from my own college experience and way too self-conscious not to be aware of the ridiculousness of wandering around campus with a backpack, a graying freeloader riding my wife’s good fortune.
One of the greatest shows on Earth
But what a campus! Stanford is currently enjoying its moment as arguably the most desirable school in the world — at least according to TV shows like “Billions,” where it’s quietly replaced Harvard as the de facto factory for producing brilliant people. Stanford also has an endowment that dwarfs many sovereign nations. And it’s a place of constant construction and destruction. Land-use agreements with local jurisdictions that limit growth make it seem as if every time a new building goes up another one comes down.
The construction is damn near constant — at times, the high-rise cranes seem to outnumber the trees. A potentially depressing state of affairs, if the changes didn’t happen so quickly — an old library comes down in September; by November, it’s a sun-soaked expanse of trees and native brush. There is an inescapable feeling of change, dynamism and rapid innovation, of a world that’s being perfected at a blistering pace.
Both fellows and affiliates receive student IDs, a backstage pass to one of the greatest shows on Earth. The card unlocks the door to Windhover, a gorgeous juxtaposition of wood, glass, and concrete, a dedicated haven for quiet introspection; entry to both swimming pools, bathtub warm without a whiff of chlorine, where you’ll share lanes with Olympic-caliber athletes and, occasionally, student-constructed robots; access to the golf course — a collection of stunning city, mountain, and ocean vistas where a guy named Tiger once worked out the kinks in his game — for a greens fee lower than most public courses.
A Who’s Who of access
There are on-campus events. One day it’s lunch (free!) with with Gen. Phillip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO’s European theater, talking global politics; the next a private lecture from Stelarc, an Australian performance artist whose work revolves around piercing his body with enormous fishing hooks and using them to suspend himself from very high places.
I’m taking classes. A perspective-shattering examination of the nature of human violence from Ian Morris, the guy who literally wrote the book on it. A twice-weekly colloquium on Space Policy with a guest list of visiting policy wonks, scientists, and even NASA’s current administrator, who spoke to us with the most mischievous candor I’ve ever seen from a public official. I dusted off the pages from my once-abandoned novel to workshop it in a 12-person seminar with Adam Johnson, the winner of last year’s National Book Award and a group of brilliant kids whose work will someday earn its own place in the firmament. I’m taking golf lessons, have learned a passable breast-stroke, and practiced mindful meditation in an eight-week program that culminated in a full-day silent retreat.
I’ve hardly mentioned the fellowship itself. Any notion I had of being a second-class citizen was washed away by the JSK program’s warm embrace — sure, it’s focused on the fellows, but every member of the staff knows me by name, and most of them routinely pester me with questions about my work, my family, and the quality of the experience. I’ve been a welcome invitee to dinners at their homes, family gathering-style meetings with industry leaders and innovators, on tours to San Francisco, Monterey, and virtual reality’s cutting edge.
Summer camp for adults
As for the other fellows and affiliates, it’s a little like summer camp, if summer camp were an international coterie of passionate, whip-smart super-achievers scrambling to milk as much as they can out of a year. We’ve organized barbecues, birthday parties, and Easter egg hunts for the kids, field trips to see supercolliders and breweries, and knocked back a few pitchers of beer with local legend Tobias Wolff.
There is, however, one significant divide between the fellows and affiliates — the Fellows are required to work on a journalism challenge that they identified when they applied. The affiliates are tasked with crafting their own experience, and many of them are having experiences similar to mine. They’re studying improvisational comedy, rhythmic dance, and Portuguese literature, turning into workout demons, writing short stories, and engaging in late-night debates with the campus Philosophy Club.
Part of me feels guilty for having so much fun. A midlife sabbatical. A yearlong escape from the real world. But another part of me recognizes the experience not as a turning away from life, but a reintroduction to its possibilities. A candy store where the treats are all (or at least mostly) healthy. A place for body, mind, and soul to go where they want to go, reacquainting me with aspects of myself that I’d forgotten, welcoming in a few that are new. Like the campus itself, I’m accelerating into the next stage of my life, a destination that will undoubtedly be richer because of my experience here, save for the part where the experience here has ended.