Monday, September 11, 2006

What about you? Are you in the Physics Club?

Shortly after “The Night of the Drunken Lesbians” (as it shall forever be known), I returned to Texas and what I like to call reality. In summary, the couple days I spent in Seattle left me with an uneasy feeling for several reasons:

- I came to the realization that perhaps I had bitten off more than I could chew. I had been out of school for five years and most of the other prospective students sitting around me at orientation were still in their undergraduate programs. Many of my “contemporaries” (read- the other students that were applying/visiting UW) were physics and math nerds. Oceanography is applied physics. The typical oceanography grad student- apparently- comes from math or physics undergraduate programs and is looking for a real-world application to their vast understanding of those subjects in their graduate program. My undergraduate program, on the other hand, contained all of these subjects, but specialized in none. Put simply- I was surrounded by guys who enjoyed math, regularly discussed the laws of physics, spoke several computer languages (did you know computers have “languages”??? I didn’t!), had Star Wars posters on their dorm room walls and cardboard boxes full of comic books in sealed plastic bags. I was not like these people. I didn’t like math and I didn’t like physics. I liked science and was willing to tolerate those other subjects for the sake of my major. I didn’t discuss the laws of physics unless it applied to some bathroom function. I was laughed at when I asked if Microsoft Office was a computer language (I pointed out that I am quite proficient with Excel). And I never had a Star Wars poster (I had an Ewoks lunch box in 2nd grade. Does that count?). I asked one student why he had decided to major in physics. “I dunno,” he replied, “I guess I just wanted to be challenged. I wanted to learn about the things I didn’t understand. I suppose it bothered me that I didn’t know.” I snickered. “Heh, you’re joking… right?” No, in fact. He was not.

- There was a huge culture gap between me and my “contemporaries” (from here on out referred to as “them”). On the first day of orientation (the day after “The Night of the Drunken Lesbians”), I wore khaki slacks and a collared, button-down shirt. They wore fleece vests, t-shirts with what I can only assume is the name of some obscure band I’ve never heard of and sandals with jeans (which I later discovered to be quite comfortable, but would never admit it in front of “them”). I had my hair cut before I left Texas- high and tight, zero blade on the sides, tapered in back and just enough to lay down on top. They liked long, wild, unkempt hair with beards of many colors on their men and short boy-length hair with multiple visible piercing on their women. They were young, single and lived on hops and bong resin. I was older (note- I never claimed to be more mature), married and, even when I did live in the “dorms”, took regular meals in the galley. At one point the current grad students took us prospective students to lunch. Our guide announced that we would be partaking in a Tibetan buffet at a Himalayan restaurant. “Oh, and if you don’t eat meat- don’t worry,” she announced proudly, “it’s a vegetarian buffet”. I looked around at the rest of the group and was astonished to see they seemed to take comfort in the announcement. “What if you don’t eat vegetables,” I asked sheepishly, “do they have cheeseburgers?” They weren’t amused. I didn’t mind at that point because neither was I. Himalayan food? Come on- what the heck is that? Is Tibet even really a country? I heard they were a part of China or something. Maybe there would be some General Tso’s chicken. Chinese food is ok once you accept the fact that it’s just chicken nuggets prepared about twelve different ways. Besides, what makes some vegan Sherpa travel all the way to Seattle and decide to open a vegetarian buffet? Anyway… I went hungry that day.

- I was under the impression that I was going to Seattle to be wooed. It didn’t occur to me while I was at UW that this could be construed as some kind of interview. The email said this was a visit to see if the University met my needs. Why would they go through the time, money and trouble to fly me out there if I wasn’t right for them? I didn’t fully appreciate how costly a mistake that assumption was until several weeks later, but even by the time I got to the Seattle-Tacoma airport for my flight back to Texas, I was already having one of those “oh crap, I shouldn’t have said that” kind-of-moments. In retrospect, I was completely off base. I didn’t even feign interest in the research work of most of the professors I met with, I gave them only vague descriptions of where I was going with my own goals and regularly played the “my tab is being picked up by the government” card rather than trying to directly answer their questions. UW is one of the premier oceanographic research institutions in the world. I was surrounded by some of the most renowned oceanographers of our time and I may as well have asked them to play G. I. Joe with me. I imaged a group of professors sitting around a table reviewing our files in the weeks after we left. A burst of roaring laughter would come from the room as they got to my file. “… and get this,” one with a thick bushy moustache would say excitedly, “when I asked him what computer languages he spoke, he replied… (raises his voice to a nasally Urkle-like pitch) ‘you mean like Microsoft Office?’” And they would burst out laughing again while my file was tossed carelessly into the nearest recycle bin. My stupidity left me sick to my stomach.

I wasn’t sure if it was the people I met, the city or the university itself or my own reservations/misgivings about going back to school, but I returned to Texas more confused than excited about graduate school. I don’t mean to imply that I am an idiot, but people change as they progress through a career and start a family. On the one hand, I had lived in and enjoyed Seattle before (as a bachelor). On the other, I wasn’t sure how I could fit my family into a city of hippies. On the one hand, UW was known for its oceanography program. On the other, I wasn’t sure how I could fit into a campus of hippies. On the one hand, grad school is critical to the career path I desire. On the other, I don’t know if I’m really cut out for school this late in the game. One option that brought me some comfort was the Naval Postgraduate School, where my contemporaries would be a little more like me. At least they’d cut their hair and not judge me for eating a hamburger. The wife can vouch that I spent several sleepless nights pondering these issues. Bless her heart for waiting patiently while our future hung in the balance.

Then one Monday morning shortly thereafter, something happened that changed everything. I was pouring over the typical Monday morning email barrage with my cup of black coffee when I received a phone call from the assignment officer.

“Would you be interested in the Operations Officer job aboard the Cutter WOLVERINE?”

Who was he kidding? He knew I was interested. It was my first choice on the “dream sheet” I submitted after I found out I was an alternate for the graduate school program. At this point I was half-way through my graduate school applications, which I had devoted a lot of time and energy to. Despite my misgivings, I wasn’t about to give up an opportunity to get a master’s degree for free. Dad always said, “Education is something no one can ever take from you.”

“Yes,” I replied calmly, “I would ‘like’ to be Operations Officer on the WOLVERINE, but unfortunately I have been selected for grad school and am currently in the application process.”

I can not begin to describe to you the amount of pleasure it gave me to be in this most desirable position with the very same people who had jerked me around not more than a few months before. Assignment officers- two; Ben- two. The score’s now tied up folks.

“Hmm, yes…” He seemed to sense I was enjoying this. After a very brief and thoughtful moment he continued, “What if I could get you a two-year deferment?”

He was cool and calculated. He knew just where the fish were biting. But I was playing hard-to-get.

“By deferment you mean…?”

“Let me pencil you in for the WOLVERINE and, assuming there is no change in your performance, you can go to grad school after this assignment.”

I knew better than to take an assignment officer at their word. I couldn’t help but feel I was being lured into some devastating trap… but it all looked so inviting! I like to have my cake and eat it too!

“Can I get all this in writing?”

“Sure,” I could almost hear his sly smile, “send your deferment request paperwork into me and I’ll pencil you in.”

“Can I have a second to think about this?”

“Yes, but I have a slate to fill, so I need to know ASAP.”

I hung up the phone and spent the next few minutes mulling it over. My supervisors and crew were excited for me. They took the fact that I had been offered so many opportunities as a complement. I called the wife too, of course. Her response was much more subdued. She had mentally prepared herself for graduate school. This sudden and drastic switch from school to operational Coast Guard didn’t seem so complementary to her. She was more inclined to see assignments as a location with a distance from Pennsylvania rather than a career path. I had to explain to her that this would be more beneficial in the long run… and that Michigan is closer to Pennsylvania than Seattle. She consented. I called the assignment officer back and sold my soul.

So, graduate school will have to wait for two more years. Instead of facing my uneasiness, I chose to put it off. The answers to all my questions will have to wait. For now, as I sit aboard the WOLVERINE and type this, I can only hope that I made the right choice. I can only tell you that, where I am, there are no Tibetan vegan Sherpa buffets (though we do have a pretty good Chinese buffet with General Tso’s and that’s essentially the same thing, right?), people dress like me and Microsoft Office is the only computer language I need to know. …and, for now, I’m ok with that.

And that’s the news as it happens here in Michigan- my new home away from home.


At 9:52 PM, Blogger Heather Neely said...

Long time--missed your posts. Glad to hear you're doing well in Michigan. Give Sara my best!

At 9:52 PM, Blogger Heather Neely said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 1:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello! Keep up the great work, Cheers!
- z
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