Friday, June 24, 2011


For some reason, I've always found the idea of having limits to what I can do repugnant. Maybe it's just cultural conditioning, maybe there's something innate in me that despises it, but very few things make me angry as quickly as the implication that I'm not capable of accomplishing some task.

There's a whole litany of things that I can't do, or can't do better than a certain level, of course. I know that, but I also don't know what my limits are, so I test them relentlessly given the slightest chance. Can I understand modern mathematics to the point that I fully understand how to prove Fermat's Last Theorem, given the amount of time I'm willing to invest in studying math? Certainly not. But there's probably a lot of math I can understand, and, not knowing what that limit is, I do things like make an effort to understand perturbation theory and partial differential equations at the graduate level while I'm still an undergrad. I'm not happy about how I did in that class, but I passed, so I suppose that counts for something.

The willingness of challenge seems necessary to me if we're to understand how much we can truly accomplish. I'd like to know that, because I'd like to accomplish as much as I can in the finite amount of time I'll be alive. That seems like a reasonable idea to me. Sometimes I wonder, though, if there's a kind of bravado inherent in the attitude of the challenger. "I can handle anything," he says. Well, sometimes you can't. Denying that is to refuse to acknowledge reality, which never seems to work out well for anyone in the long run. If there's a reasonable way out of this impasse, I'm not sure what it is.

There are so many things I'd like to do in my life, and such limited resources with which to do them. There are things to build, people to meet, mountains to climb, places to fly to, and ideas to teach and learn. So many of all of those. It takes money to building things, though, and serendipity to meet the right people, and most wickedly of all it takes time to do everything, and that time is constantly running draining away. I know that I can't do everything that I want to, but that doesn't do much to keep the desire at bay. My hope is that I can actualize as much of this potential as possible, and learn to live with the losses when they happen. One more thing to add to my post-college list of learning objectives.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


The day that just ended in North America was the longest that 2011 will see. Everett is the second farthest north I've ever been on the June solstice (after Edinburgh, Scotland, and just a few minutes north of Kent, Washington), and the sunset and twilight moved in slow motion while a few scattered sheets of clouds coalesced and abated.

There's really too much going on in a sunset like the one Puget Sound saw an hour and a half ago to take it all in at once. You can focus for a moment on the pinkness of the coulds, the gentleness of the breeze, the tallness of the evergreens, but it all hits gridlock just past the optic nerve. I drove north after getting off work, because I can and because I wanted to see what was there, and I stopped to walk around a park in northern Everett. Later I drove toward Snohomish, the mountains by Boulder Creek rising and falling in great sighs of the landscape with each valley and peak on highway 2. It's a joy to be able to wander like this, so free, with so much to take in. Of course, the contemplation is only for a little while. I tell myself I'd love to just gaze at the waves on the sound and hear the crackle of the crows, but there's work tomorrow, and a bed I'm paying too much for on the other side of the Mukilteo freeway.

The beauty of it all is always there, though, even when it's foggy and raining and my mind is trudging through the muck of chores and criticism that always follows. It's a hollow thing to say that we should all try to just see this simple elegance in everything more often, but it's true. I still wonder how as the days begin to grow shorter.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Different Kind of Place

Since it hasn't actually been this clear yet, I defer to wikipedia for a decent image of downtown Seattle.

This weekend I visited my cousin in Capitol Hill while an uncle stopped by for Fathers' Day. It was as joyous as any reunion of long-separated relatives should be. She spends most of her time in Seattle, my uncle in Idaho, and myself in Texas, but for a couple of nights we all slept under the same roof. We wandered through the city and Green Lake Park, ate scallops fresh from Puget Sound, and drank Belgian ale while our conversations wandered from feminism to Marxism to space policy to particle physics. Not a bad way to cap my first week at Boeing.

One moment on Saturday I glanced at the books on her shelf in the living room. My cousin is very well read (as a PhD in English literature would lead one to expect), and there was wide menagerie of philosophies represented. Before I could ask about anything on the shelf, she quickly commented that the Bible was a gift, and not necessarily something to be taken seriously.

In College Station, it would be a rare bookshelf that didn't have a Bible somewhere in plain sight, but Seattle's a different kind of place in more ways than one. Most of the people I interact with on a casual basis in Texas probably assume that I'm at least nominally Christian unless I say otherwise. Here in the northwest the opposite is true: innocent of religion until proven guilty.

The dichotomy between the primarily religious and primarily secular parts of America is fascinating to me, and reinforces my thinking that there isn't really any such thing as American culture. There's a broad marketplace of cultural ideas in the United States constantly vying for attention. Depending on the location, different sets of these ideas become mainstream. College Station and Seattle are both places that I'm happy to call home, but each must seem baffling to those native to the other, just as my cousin would probably be baffled by exploration of Catholicism.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Some Old Thing about Love

Image credit

Back in April, The New York Times held an essay contest asking for college students' perspectives on love. What they were really looking for was an account from someone who incorporated web 2.0 software into their relationships. At least, that's what I gather from the winning entry. I wrote a piece for the contest, since I had thoughts on my mind that seemed relevant to the prompt. I'll hold off editorializing until after the (slightly modified) essay...

You’re probably older than me, whoever you are. I wonder what you think of me. We’ve almost certainly never met, but you’ve already made a few assumptions about me. Maybe you think I find face-to-face communication obsolete, that I prefer tweeting and texting to a real human presence. Perhaps you think I’m unconcerned with the older grown-ups and the world around me, engaged in my personal bubble on facebook. Perhaps you think I’m baffled by dating and monogamy, that I prefer casual hook-ups to emotional attachment.

I hope you won’t be disappointed to learn that none of those things are true. Well, I am baffled by dating, but I doubt that’s uncommon among your generation. The truth is that I never text if I can call and I never call if I can talk. The real thing is better than the simulacrum. My experience is limited, and I won’t claim to know what typical life is like for my generation. What I do know is my own experience of what it’s like to be a Texan born in 1989. And if you want to know what love is like for me, I’ll have to tell you about her.

We met on the first day of September our freshman year, on the third deck of Kyle Field. It was hot and windy and mind-blowingly loud. She was so much shorter than me she kept hitting me in the face when she raised her hands at the end of the yells. She had no dinner plans after the game, and neither did I, so we did what college kids do and got pizza.

Our relationship wasn’t love at first sight. We just talked. We talked about high school and where we were from, our majors and our plans. When the words stopped one of us said some more words, or smiled, or asked a question, and the words kept going. We had enough pizza and went back to the dorm.

She didn’t want to date at first. She knew that it just wouldn’t work. We could see some contraindications in each other, most salient among them that she was Christian and I was agnostic. “How can I date someone with such different beliefs from me?” She would ask me that, frowning, and I didn’t have a response more articulate than “just do it anyway.” But we still talked, and laughed, and above all spent time next to each other, rambling at ever higher levels of detail about everything. One night in October we had one of our rambling conversations, and when I hugged her she didn’t push me away. I kissed her cheek and we held each other, and I was her boyfriend.

Our dating must sound so boring to you, who think the shows on MTV accurately characterize how my generation interacts. She’s a proper and devoutly chaste Christian. She wouldn’t even let me kiss her on the lips at first. She made it clear she intended to opt out of the culture of hook-ups and casual sex, and so I opted out, too. Sometimes I wondered if that was the right thing to do. Maybe I was missing out on the pleasure and gratification the media executives in LA promised I could have if I would stop being such a prude. I knew I’d have to leave her to do that, though, and I didn’t want to.

When a couple draws a sharp line on how far is too far, they come up with other ways to keep things interesting. And boy was she ever interesting. We became a pair of junkies, addicted to each other like lab rats on cocaine. Any time I could justify away from studying, and a lot of time I couldn’t, I sneaked down to her room and we’d lie there, holding each other and kissing and talking, until the clock wound past two or her roommate came back.

Sometimes I wonder if my memory is unreliable. Were things ever that good? I tell myself I indulge in nostalgia when I reminisce. When I really delve in, though, and place everything in the theater of my mind as it was on the theater of campus, it’s something beyond words. Holy is the best word I can find. Our lips touch and I feel joy percolating through my soul. Holy. I run my fingers through her hair and gaze into her eyes, black in blue in white. Holy world. I hold her close and she holds me back; I’m absorbed in sensing her her-ness. Holy world, and I share it with you. No, it was really that good.

Like all interesting people she’s a study in contrasts. She’s sweet and calm and kind, so kind I can barely comprehend it. She has a black belt in Karate. She’s profoundly humble, always wondering if the other side of the argument is right all along. She has a dazzlingly bright mind, making me see things as I never would’ve on my own. I became aware of these contrasts and how they beautifully composed her as we laid and talked. In the distance the clock tower chimed and the train whistles moaned, setting a mellow beat to our wanderings. We were young and in love, like ten thousand generations of couples before us.

We argued sometimes, as all couples do. We argued about whether math was a useful tool or a form of artistic expression. We argued about whether our school should have female yell leaders. Most of all we argued about religion. It hurt like a hundred paper cuts when we vivisected each other’s ideas about truth and reality, but we felt we had to. We wanted to be right. More than anything else she hates to see conflict, and here was an infinite source of conflict.

The little wounds this mental fencing opened healed after some time and gentle words. About two years after we started dating, though, she saw the writing on the wall. The arguments were too much, the joy too little, and I left that summer after our sophomore year for an internship in Seattle. I still loved her, but I told myself that too would pass.

I returned to College Station renewed, wiser for our time together and my time in Seattle. At least, I hoped so, since I was certainly older. Since that halfway point I’ve dabbled with others. There’s the girl as airplane-crazy as me, the girl from Texas State I met at a Stephen Hawking lecture, the girl who was half-Texan and half-Irish. We made out in the piney woods by the Louisiana border, in my dorm room while the air conditioner clacked and rumbled, on a hot June night in a park in Cave Creek. They’re all interesting people, and I wish I knew them better.

The truth is, though, that I don’t know anyone like I know that first love. Whether we knew it or not, we were still addicted to each other, and kept talking even though we didn’t kiss anymore. I gave her a book on epistemology and she gave me a book on theology. The line where my mind stopped and her mind started increasingly blurred as the lunches and socials marched on. The message formed and crystallized in clarity. I didn’t want to date anyone else. I wanted to be with her.

I pulled out all the stops and tried to express myself as articulately and plainly as possible. I explained to her how embedded her self was in mine. I was acutely aware of her faults, but I was used to them by now, and none of them were cloudy enough the dim the brilliance I could see through the cracks when she let me peek at her mind. The reality of her presence, her there-ness, her existence apart from yet intimate with me as someone uniquely wonderful lit my consciousness like a bonfire. At one point I told her that I was more certain I wanted to be hers for the rest of my life than I was sure that I had blood in my veins. I meant it. Maybe I’m a romantic.

Hopefully you’ve felt this emotion. It’s an alien concept from the idea of love as a commodity traded in some grotesque zero-sum game. For me, love is divorced from concepts like satisfaction or reassurance or gratification. It’s the act of knowing that the one I love is real, that she’s a gorgeous human composed of flaws and talents, and a churning desire to do all I can for her. I wonder what she meant when she said she loved me. Maybe it was something like this. She’s clarified her intention not to renew this intimacy, though, and so I move on.

So what is love in this postmodern age? I imagine about the same as it was when things were modern, and about the same as it was before that. The imitations of love abound, but the real thing is something consuming. Love isn’t a currency to be bartered; it’s a train that clicks and clacks and marches forward, a discovery of that holy kernel that lives in each human soul. Discovery is wicked and violent, and most people get hurt doing it. But to avoid it is to take a sedative and sit life out. I don’t want to do that.

If you understand what I’m getting at, you probably know all this already. If not, and I’m talking past you, my hope is that you at least see my generation as a little more human, a little more like people than like characters in a fiction. I hope you have love, or find it, in whatever form you’re tuned to express it. As for me, I wander on, a little bit older but still pretty young. It’s a numbers game, and I can be patient. You may find happiness hooking up or traipsing from lover to lover, but I know myself better after what I’ve been through. So I wander and wait for someone new, in hope of the day when I’ll tell her I’ll love her forever, and her voice will echo mine.

...Truth be told, I'm not happy about the way this turned out. My first draft was almost 50% overbudget on word count (the final draft came in exactly one word under the upper limit). I had to trim the essay mercilessly to fit the length limit and it shows. My prose also has a way of meandering between long chains of GRE study words with complex sentences structures and short sentences that look like they were written for the Simple English wikipedia. I'm not sure that's a good thing. Looking it over, I keep thinking the eternal lament of how much better it could've been if I'd just put more time into it.

I'll almost certainly write more about the person I reference in the essay here. It would not be an exaggeration to say that our relationship and its aftermath was the most significant event in my life during my college years. For ease of reference I'll call her Augustine from now on.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The End of the Beginning

When the Allied forces defeated Rommel's Afrika Corps at the Second Battle of El Alamein, Winston Churchill had this to say:

"This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

Such could also be said of my life the last two months. I haven't made a conscious effort to update regularly since last Spring Break or so, and it's showed. In that time a number of interesting things have happened. For example, the airplane my senior design team fabricated flew.

This was a wonderful moment after all the effort and time the seven of us devoted to the project. I couldn't have asked for a better team (I'm all the way on the right below).

I also graduated from college. My academic record as an undergraduate is complete. There will be no revisions. The list of addendums and flourishes on my degree are an embarrassment of riches. "Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering, Mathematics minor, Summa Cum Laude, Foundation Honors, University Honors, Honors in Aerospace Engineering," the reader said as I stood waiting to shake Dr. Loftin's hand and cross the stage.

It feels so different from graduating from high school, though. I felt triumphant after graduating from high school, as though I'd taken on some great evil foe and won, ready to move on to more worthy opponents. In a sense I suppose that was true. Now I mainly feel defeated, honorably or not. There's so much I don't know, and only so little I do, and I just hope I can keep tackling this monstrous unknown and come out better for the struggle. I suppose that's what grad school's for, and why I'll be heading back to College Station in the fall.

For now, though, I'll be in Seattle. It's a beautiful place, quite different from Phoenix or College Station, though it combines some elements of the two. Hilly like Arizona (but more so) and green like Texas (but taller, and deeper green), it's here I'll take stock of my time as an undergrad Aggie and prepare for my time as a grad student Aggie. In the meantime I'll have plenty to do between Boeing (where I start tomorrow), hiking in the evergreen hills, and generally doing those things that don't get done between September and May. Gradatim ferociter.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

In the Land of the Emerald Giants

There are two places in the world where twin-aisle commercial air transports are assembled. One is in Toulouse, just north of the Pyrenees and halfway between the Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean Sea. The other is two miles from my apartment in Everett, north of Seattle, the Emerald City. This afternoon I took my exercise walking through the second place after picking up my Boeing employee badge at orientation.

This summer I will work at Boeing's Everett site just south of the main plant. The final assembly building is the largest building by volume ever constructed by humans, but that's actually hard to realize from the inside. The eyes and the brain only comprehend so much horizontal distance before the numbers cease to mean anything and that airplane in the same building as me is just "over there" and not "a quarter of a mile away." Vertical distance is always more impressive, though not even the Burj Khalifa on its side would cover the distance east to west at the Everett plant.

So I roamed through the halls of the giant airplanes, their fuselages gleaming anti-corrosion green, their wings swept in repose, ready for a dash to the top of the troposphere. Each of these airplanes will carry millions of people more millions of miles before they finally slumber in a desert boneyard far south toward Mexico. Each will fly for decades in a terrifyingly hostile environment, frigidly cold, starved of oxygen, and miles above the solid comfort of Earth. Each will carry hundreds of people through this gauntlet every day so stoically the passengers will complain about legroom and cheap coffee while the neglected lethal world rages outside the fuselage. This is the drama of technology written in its boldest font.

I struggled to develop a sense of ownership of what I saw. I work here, I kept repeating over and over in my head, feeling like an intruder in a land of giants. My eyes ran back and forth along the beautiful curves of the unborn airliners and I tried to comprehend what contribution I might make here. It's a big place, Boeing Everett, with nearly 40,000 employees. Each new 777 that rolls off the assembly line has 40,000 mothers and fathers, and as of today I'm one of them. Incredible.

There is pride in this ownership, to be sure, but more than that I feel the correct response is gratitude. I needn't be working in Everett, for Boeing this summer. It's just a partnership that we both agreed would be good to try out. So no I'm here, in this incredible place, watching the gears that mesh all of global commerce together taking shape, and even helping to define that shape myself. Like David so many years ago, my cup runneth over. Sometimes it just takes a little walk to see.