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Through the past 16 years

January 28th, 2013

In light of the recent NPR piece on one’s perception of one’s own change over time, I thought I’d pull together a gallery of my identification cards from the past 16 years.

Let’s start off by showing how nerdy I looked as a teenager. Perhaps you thought you looked nerdy, but I think I won this battle.

My 15-year-old self. What a nerd! Also, my adorably outdated signature; apparently, I still signed my name in a somewhat legible manner when I was 15.

It turns out that there was another option for the lede photo: my first high school ID. If anything, I look even dorkier there.

Time for high school.

You might expect that my first year of high school would have knocked some style or self-awareness into my head. Nope. Near the end of my sophomore year I got my driver’s license, and I was looking as nerdy as ever.

First driver’s license. If you look closely, you can tell that this is a different photo than was on my learner’s permit.


Or perhaps not. The first signs of a stylistic thaw emerged at the beginning of my junior year. I seem to have learned that the top button of a shirt should remain unbuttoned.

Slightly less nerdy? That said, I was wearing a polo shirt from Philmont, which wasn’t exactly the epitome of high-school cool.

Then it came time for senior year. My eyes were still squinty, but it seems that I was making an effort. No glasses (at least for the photo), a t-shirt under my polo shirt, and a chin-up pose that seemed to scream optimism.

My first ID without glasses, even though I was still wearing glasses at the time.

When I went off to college, 600 miles from home, I recognized it as an opportunity for reinvention. Nobody knew me at Rose-Hulman; I could be whomever I wanted to be. I resolved to be more outgoing, to challenge myself more, and to leave college with no regrets.

For the first time in any of my ID photos, the whites of my eyes are visible.

You can’t see it in this photo, because again I took my glasses off before sitting, but by the start of undergrad I had switched to less dorky frames.

Between the time I got my Rose-Hulman student ID and the time I got my next driver’s license, I gained about 15 lbs and then lost about 20 lbs.

A proper photo for my 21st birthday! No glasses anymore, just contact lenses. The signature on my ID is amusingly inaccurate, possibly because of a poor digitization.

My first passport was issued in the era where one could smile in one’s photos.  That was fine. The bigger problem with my first passport photo is that I took it myself by holding a digital camera at arm’s length. The resulting foreshortening distorted my face, giving me a big nose.

…and then we take a step backwards for my first passport.

As with my passport, I supplied my own photo for my Stanford student ID. A few things are notable. First, I was aware of foreshortening by that time, so I didn’t repeat the big-nose mistake. Second, I had been working on losing weight, so I weighed only 175 pounds at the time (March 2007). Finally, I kept taking photos until I ended up with one that I thought looked good rather than one that was a typical representation of myself.

Stanford allowed students to supply their own photos, so I did.

It’s easy to get carried away when taking one’s own photos. I had an internal perception of myself, and when my prospective Stanford ID photo didn’t reflect that, I decided that the photo needed fixing, not me. A few spots of acne? Easily cloned out. Spent too much time inside? Fiddle with the curves to grant a nice tan. Eyes too dark? Dodge them, and maybe make the whites whiter at the same time.

Although the person in the photo is recognizably me, I know from observing others who have resorted to similar trickery that the end result rings false to the outside world.  Self-perception is as we wish we were, not as we are.

I carried my Stanford ID until long after I should have done away with it. When faced with a profound life transition, we tend to hang on to the familiar past, even when we know we should be moving forward. I’ve watched myself do it numerous times, and I expect I will do the same in the future. I wonder if such transitions are more difficult for the younger generations, what with the rise of social networks, texting, and the like?

I had reason to be smiling in my next Minnesota driver’s license: I was about to leave for grad school in sunny California.

Sharp-eyed readers will notice that my claimed height dropped an inch for this license. I don’t think I ever really was 6’1″ — that was merely wishful thinking. I am, however, a full 6’0″ tall. I decided to own up to the deception in my new license.

Definitely getting a bit older for my 25th.

And then, there’s a long gap in new photos. I was a Minnesota resident for a while, and Minnesota takes new driver’s license photos only every five years. That meant that my photo from 2007 was automatically applied to the face of my renewed license in 2011.

Was that the end? No. I moved to Colorado in 2012, so there was another ID to get! Specifically, a rather fake-looking Colorado driver’s license.

Not a huge fan of this photo. C’est la vie.

I also had to replace my passport. Aware of the deficiencies in my Stanford ID photo, I settled on a journalistic aesthetic for my likeness on my new passport.

I stood in front of a wall and asked Tyler to snap a photo. The only light was supplied naturally through a large window.  Did I fix my cheeks, reddened from skiing? Did I enhance the blue in my eyes? Did I pull my hairline down my forehead a bit? No. Post-production consisted solely of snapping the background to white.

Photo for my new passport. Note my red wind-chapped cheeks from skiing.

Looking back through the photos, it’s clear that I’ve aged. What the photos don’t show is my evolution as a person. I went from not knowing how to skate to playing hockey all over the continent. I found my political ideals shifting towards the center, a transition hastened — strangely enough — by my time at Stanford. I learned that I, too, was mortal, after watching my cousin Nick, two years my junior, die in the line of duty.  And, of course, I’ve become comfortable enough with myself and the cultural climate to admit to the world that I’m gay.

Evolution as a person keeps one interesting to others. There is a balance to be maintained — become too different, and friends from the past might drift away — but stagnation serves nobody well.

It will be interesting to see how I continue to evolve in the next decade and a half. What interests will I develop? Who will I meet? Where will I live? What heartaches will I endure? There is certainty only insofar as there is uncertainty. I’m excited to see how the journey unfolds, into the unknown.


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