The 9th Level

God, I hate meetings.  Somewhere in the pits of Hell lies an oversized board room for the world’s biggest assholes arguing for eternity over what to have for lunch or who gets the check.  Honestly, I think that sums up most people’s vision of Hell actually.

Today in school I sat in on our school’s DAC (Dance-Activities Council) and we spent twenty minutes discussing whether the girls could wear goofy socks during Spirit week.  Twenty minutes.  This is the hazard of working at a girl school: over-thinking pointless details and fashion accesories.  It’s like watching CSPAN and losing the remote.

I swear the council head, an older woman dressed in perennial purple and drowned — perhaps to complete the metaphor — in lavender perfume, was fishing for a problem with this particular issue, constantly asking the vice principal: “Do you have any issues with this?  Are you sure?  Because you know . . . some teachers might . . . have a problem with the socks if they have bells on them.”

Socks.  With.  Bells.

God. Help. Me.

It’s a little bit of everything.

“. . . its not really instruction.  That’s what most people forget.  They imagine I hurl lectures and books at kids brains and somehow the words get stuck inside.  For some — the bright ones maybe — the facts’ll attach themselves somehow, but mostly the kids will end up bruised and angry.”

I paused to take a sip of coffee, allowing the caffeine to infect my words, driving my passion forward like Ben Hur in a chariot.

“Good teachers are more akin to magicians or used car salesmen, only I’m sellin’ history and science, Napoleon and Einstein.  The trick is in the sleight of hand.  The kids know its work; how could they forget it?  But they have to want to be fooled: read Poe’s ‘Raven’ like Christopher Walken on LSD and they’ll remember the effects even if they forget who wrote it.”

Continue reading

The rumors concerning our sanity have been greatly exaggerated.

Coffee cup

The motivation behind all scientific discovery begins here . . .

October found me eager and excited, brimming with confidence and creativity for my work . . . at least during weekends. However, Monday mornings broke with the din of a funeral march, disturbing those few early morning dreams and ushering me upstairs upon the family couch while reruns of Law and Order painted visions of murder and desperation before sleep-filled eyes.  Waiting to leave the house proved the most trying, as my imagination, planting visions of screaming children and growling soccer moms, tried its damnedest to wrack my body with anxiety, upset my stomach and basically ruin the whole of my week.

Thankfully, I had Dunkin Donuts and their wonderful battalion of iced coffees to attack my flagging spirit and sleep deprivation.  Truly, the smell alone had a soothing effect; the extra-large galleon-sized container of liquid energy, a balm to my worries.  My imagination, drowning in legal stimulants, learned to behave, and I drove to school, happily contemplating Thanksgiving and Christmas break, only three months away.

The fallout from the field trip befell us the following Monday when Dr. T took us in the conference room for lunch. Slowly Ms. P spilled the story, downplaying our absence at the deli (a little) and deleting the abusive pot-smoker entirely (to be fair, the kids were not involved at all). Continue reading

A Year Teaching: The Good

So I should probably mention that I detest public speaking.  Had I chosen to enlist as a coal miner, model, or French mime this phobia would not be a problem and in the case of uh . . .  mime-ery an attribute; yet teaching necessitates standing before a class of over-stimulated youth and – unfortunately – talking.

Fancying myself Sherlock Holmes (seriously for ten consecutive years, I donned a hunting cap, pipe, and syringe – I was nothing if not authentic) I approached society with a polite but friendly reticence, preferring the company of a few close friends and family to crowded bars and orgies.  The rest of the family were more extroverted: Dad and Katie could find themselves stranded amid the snow-capped wastes of, say . . . . Siberia and make fifty new friends within the hour.  They’re born on stage.  I always chose to work behind the curtain, making others look good while hoisting props and managing the fires; to paraphrase Prufrock, no Prince Hamlet, am I, indeed.

This is not to suggest that I possessed no skills whatsoever in the profession.  Somehow my own inherent nervousness in the classroom seasoned my lessons with an honest excitement that cannot be duplicated by an 80-year old professor who recites his lessons with the same enthusiasm a twelve-year-old recites the Code of Conduct.

Moreover, it helped that my level of maturity synched well with the kids.  My lessons on chemistry were peppered with references to alchemy, talks of wizardry, potion-making, philosopher’s stones, and turning lead into gold.  I compared the strategies of the British army in the Revolutionary War to turn-based RPGs like Final Fantasy VI.  Wanted posters in Assassin’s Creed formed a good foundation for ‘memory’ in the immune system:  “The more posters around, the easier it is for white blood cells to find culprits.”  Nearly every lesson on photons, force, and philosophy referenced films:  “Back to the Future,” “Star Wars,” or Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Continue reading

Haunted

My teacher walked into the classroom and frowned at me while I typed.  Apparently my focus while writing is such that I seem angry or upset, as if contemplating a bad exam grade or a disparaging letter to Microsoft for recently mind-wiping my Xbox (The company is sin incarnate.  Seeing the RLoD (Red Lights of Death) twice in the last year, my feelings were such that I considered tossing the box into the nearby pond.  Then I recalled that Gears of War 2 will arrive shortly and thus promptly recinded my Micro-cidal thoughts . . . for now at least.).

“Murph,” he asked.  “Are you ok?  You look a little . . . ?”

“Haunted?” I responded with a smile.  Thinking about Microsoft will do that to you, like contemplating an impending root canal.

“Sure,” he said with a laugh.  “That’s it.  Hey how were your comprehensive exams a few weeks ago?”

“Ok,” I said with a shrug.  The test went relatively well in that I finished ahead of time and felt relatively confident of success.  The residual doubt circulating about my brain questions whether I remembered to type my name on the last three essays or whether it was folly to suggest that Google “lighted fools the way to dusty death.”

My teacher assured me that everything will be fine and strode back out of the computer lab.  In truth, my real worry rested in the job market.  Yeah, I mounted the hurdle of final exams, but now that I (hopefully) have my degree what do I do with it?  Foolishly no potential plans appear before me, nor is it a priority — though it should be.  My difficulty lies not in finding a job, but choosing a good one, one to love and enjoy forever and ever.  Yet I am abysmally slow at making important decisions, and in order to build up my courage on deciding my life’s pursuits, I seek refuge within books, comics, and immersing videogames.

Questions flit hurriedly as I sit there.  Where should I go?  What should I do?  Do I work solely for the money or should I seek out an occupation that stirs my interest and passion?  Should I move away from my family and friends for work?  Or do I continue my present residency?  Dreams or responsibilities?  Fidelity or adventure?  Maturity or childhood?  My head began to twirl.

Halfway through class my head began to spin a little.  My imagination manifested rainbow confetti pouring from light sockets, green M&M’s bubbling from the ceiling, and ice cream sprinkles dribbling under the door like water from an unwatched bathtub.  My professor did not seem to notice and continued his lecture, slowly expounding on program testing, quality calculations, job performance, and other mindless terminology.  The heat in the room failed to abate; the sight of wind-bent trees through the windows nearly drove me insane.  At 6:40 the class ended and I calmly walked to the door as quickly as humanly possible.  An autumn breeze embraced me at the door, as a friend-long lost readily missed.  Yet though released, my mind continued to spin.  Walking to the Metro, the cement tiles of the sidewalk glowed at my step like a disco dance floor or three-dimensional Q*bert pyramid.

At the Metro I unsheathed my latest tome from my backpack as a knight would a claymore.  There I stood and relaxed, immersing myself in other’s dreams and battles, allowing the words to wash away the heat and the stress like the voices of old friends.  The memory of jobs, tests, and homework fade from mind with each passing word.  Like a man haunted by a vision not his own.

Winter Wizardry

I used to work as a scientist, did you know that?  Arguably I still am.  A few years ago – or so it feels – my life revolved around biochemistry specifically the structure of proteins.  There are details, but I doubt anyone would care to hear much about the science.  My explanations probably would only add to the confusion anyway.  Needless to say, the work was good and interesting, but fraught with politics.  Progressing projects halted half-way to fruition, shifting to the latest or newest research and then changing again within months.  Structural biology experiments under ideal conditions take months to complete; some researchers never got around to finishing or publishing any research.   

Choosing an appropriate journal was also a touchy subject.  While some researchers would seek publication from any respectable journal; others usually lab heads would only be satisfied with high-ranking journals.  An article chosen in Nature or Science certainly would be a feather in your cap, but the time needed to perform the necessary experiments required for acceptance was often underrated.  Thus, your work would sit gathering dust until your boss condescended to a more “mediocre” journal (which was not likely) or these publishing titans felt that you had jumped through enough hoops to garner their pages (which again took many months).  

In the end, drawn by my bibliophilia, the advice of my co-workers (“When you win the lotto, then and only then come back to science.  This is a rich man’s game.”), and a mounting indifference, I left.  Like the portrayal of war in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, I had grown tired of the business and institute of science than the craft itself.  

“History did not demand Yossarian’s premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war.” (Catch-22. chap 8, pg 78) 

“. . . that’s the way things go when you elevate mediocre people to positions of authority.” (chap 29, p 335)

Thus, my path to the Nobel Prize was sundered (ha!), and as Robert Frost said “it has made all the difference.”  Yet both writing and science share a mutual respect for the world and its numerous observations.  After all you do not always need a microscope or a beaker full of bacteria, to uncover wonders and make discoveries.  The world brims with secrets that lie undiscovered the more we ignore them, bypassing the unusual or wonderful in favor of the marketable.   

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The world truly is an extraordinary place.  Walking through the parking lot at Walmart earlier today, I spied shards of ice forming in a muddy sunken puddle.  The tire of a parked Forerunner rose from the center like black obelisk, unaware of the harmless miniature knives weaving frozen nets around it.  Above the tattered clouds strove with glittering spears of light, while torrents of red and violet shone on the horizon like great bonfires.  Still the gluttonous clouds marched forward swallowing the calm of blue and gold in its wake.  Sun-spears break, retreating to the upper stratosphere; sun fades and blue sky blanches.  We wait for the white curtain to peel and flake to earth.  I walk to my car, fumbling with my keys, which of course are in the other pocket.  My car engine roars, and my packages and I drive home.   

Winter mornings always welcome the scientist or artist with something extraordinary.  Perhaps amidst all the cold weather, dying leaves, and skeletal fingers of tree limbs, my eyes dilate like a cat’s at midnight, sensitive to the unnoticed yet luminous morsels of life in the world.  The flicker of a small candle stretches far in a dark world, they say.  Evidence of life in the barren winter has that same effect, like the tangible air of magic in the throes of a cynical world.