I’m on American Airlines flight 1329 headed back out to LA for the first time since leaving a little over a year ago. Consequently, the title of my blog finally bears some actual relevance to my life for the first time in recent memory. The grad program I started in a year ago has been kind enough to consider my returning, to the same advisor in fact, and if everything goes according to plan, I’ll be headed out in January to resume my work for them, after a year and a half hiatus.
I can’t seem to escape the rumblings of my mind (and stomach; I didn’t really eat lunch…) about how this time is actually different than last time. That isn’t what I actually want to talk about. I really intend this post to be about airplanes. I’ll get there hopefully.
People keep asking me about how things are different this time, and if I’m really interested in going back and so on and so forth. I don’t quite know how to answer that question truthfully. When I left, I wasn't being dishonest about my reasons for leaving: I wasn’t being challenged, I wasn’t happy with the work I saw myself doing, and I wasn’t thrilled with the future that I saw myself falling into. Well, in truth, it wasn’t that I wasn’t happy with the future I foresaw, it’s that it wasn’t particularly romantic. It didn’t have that air of artistry and flair that I envisioned in my life. Medical physics is a very pragmatic and specialized field. It pays well, affords boatloads of job opportunities in locations all over the world, and people are impressed when you tell them what you do.
I’ll betray my inner nerd: Medical physics isn’t sexy like general relativity, or string theory, or quantum, which ride on a wave of imagination far beyond what most people can comprehend. They exist at the precipice of human understanding and reason and challenge all intuition we have about the universe. Theoretical physics or math is to my world what a poet is to the world of literature: elegant, free, beautiful and profound. I guess, after a year of my path shifting from what I had always envisioned it being, I kinda got scared that I would lose my sense of who I am and what I care about.
I was losing it in a way: I had lost all sense of what I cared about doing. I was drinking more than I care to, Netflix became a ubiquitous part of my life, I didn’t feel like I had any real friends, I was apart from the people I truly care about, I didn’t feel excited to do anything, and I had no sense of what I wanted to do with the boatloads of free time that I had. I, literally, had forgotten what having fun really was. The schoolwork was my whole life, and when I admitted to myself that I wasn’t all that thrilled with it, and then realized that I had nothing else to turn to in my life, it felt like the only decision that I could make at the time.
Without taking you, lovely reader, through all of the details of the past year (honestly, if you’re reading this, you were probably there for at least a part of it), I’ve been kind of jarred back into a reality a least a little similar to where I was coming out of high school. I’ve found that I can still have fun, that there are still at least a few things that I enjoy, and that my tolerance for working in a deli is really quite low.
A less glib way to phrase that last one: the work I want be doing is best reached through pathways that already been on.
A pragmatic day job is not the end of the world despite what I was feeling. I have interests again in electronics and building things and creating; rock climbing and hiking are always near me in California. I think it took that year away and quite literally having to rediscover what it felt like to have fun and be interested in things, for me to arrive in the right place to attempt to return to the work I had previously begun.
Perhaps the biggest shift to all of it is that fact that I no longer have a significant other on the other side of the country. It makes me equal parts sad and happy that such a serious relationship is no longer at the center of my life. Happy because I energy and time once put into that is now available for the projects and work I wasn’t able to do. Sad because this wonderful amazing person who knows me better than anyone in the world is no longer a daily part of my life. What I’m coming to appreciate now is that the projects and the work that I love to do, such as building a microcomputer, and having hours of undistracted free time every day are deeply important to my identity and my happiness. It’s something I would always tell people, but fail to realize and act on.
I wrote this long essay on duality and people whose core beliefs are based on something that is inconsistent (in the way Godel would understand it: someone accepts both C and ~C to be true at the same time) but it got deleted accidentally and I never did rewrite it. I think I’m at a point where this whole return to grad school is a bit of a duality for me. I both want to be back and also feel that I will find many of the same things to be true that I did a year ago. I think I’m ok with that. I think that can exist for me, but I don’t tell people that because I’m afraid of having to explain it to them.
This may not be exactly what I want to be doing with every second of my day, but it could be a pathway, it could be the thing that occupies me and funds the projects I really want to be doing in my free time. And, I know that there was plenty of down time in the work that I was previously doing. I can also appreciate that a little bit of financial security is a bit of a must for me to feel at peace with where I am in my life. I’m just a little bit too high strung to work well in the starving artist role. I’m ok with that now in a way that I really wasn’t a while back.
One of the things that in the last little bit that I’ve discovered is that the work that I really lose myself in largely involves building things. Specifically mechanical or electrical things. At least right now. Which brings me around to the place that I wanted this post to really be: planes. Jets. The jet that I’m on now. It blows my mind to think about the complexity of something like a jet turbine with thousands of parts working in nearly perfect concert to produce the net effect of thrust that it does. Couple that with the design, physics, and engineering of the body of the aircraft around it to produce flight, then consider the onboard computers that handle keeping the plane on course in autopilot, controlling the flaps during landing, actuating the landing gear, the inflight entertainment system, and the amount of shielding that it all has around it to allow me to use my computer while onboard. It’s really truly marvelous. I think about all of the hours that went into this, the clever design and engineering tricks that one person sat with to try and figure out one little detail. And then someone comes along behind them, and builds on that detail, and then another, and then another, until ultimately, through minimal, incremental steps, you arrive where we are today.
I think of the same thing when I look a car engine, or even just a carburetor or a distributor, all mechanical, all fantastically cleverly complex: if the jet needle is tapered a couple thousandths of an inch differently it will produce difference acceleration profiles, or if the spring is a hair tighter, we’ll see different behavior again. It has all taken so much thought and care to arrive where we are today. We have come to expect so much quality and perfection through everything that we use, and I wish we could all just totally appreciate the magnitude of what it is that goes on around us on a second by second basis.
Anyways, I guess what I’m saying is PLANES. WOW. I’m flying through the air, in a chair, in a metal tube, six miles above the surface of the earth. I’m relying on fuel lines, tempered metal, electrical wires, brass couplings, hydraulics, computers, rubber and so many other things to work together to produce what this is. It’s almost overwhelming to try and imagine it all, and then imagine it all working properly. I can’t help but even think about the machining of threads on every bolt and fitting in this thing. Do you know how hard it is to tap threads properly?! And someone invented a machine that punches bolts out, properly tempered, with a certain length, specific thread spacing, and with specific diameter. Ah the complexity. It’s both beautiful and terrifying.
As humans we have created these systems that are so far beyond the understanding of one person. Is it bad that I want to understand them all?
No. I guess not.
P.S. I find it hilarious to watch people frustratedly try to connect to the internet repeatedly when it’s not working for them. What is so important that you can’t wait to be connected to it for another four hours? I both love and hate the internet. Look at that. Another duality.