Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Are you ready for some chaos?

Back to school time is my least favorite season of the year. There, I've said it. It's not that I don't like the approach of Fall. It's my favorite season. And I don't really hate the return of the academic year. I try to appreciate all of my days, valuing each as the gift from Bokonon that it is. Some days are easier than others, but generally I feel pretty good about the results.

But, being on a major college campus during the transition from summer tranquility to the busiest time of the year comes with no shortage of aggravations. Like the first cool breezes that foretell the arrival of autumn*, the precursors show up about a month in advance. Advanced orientation begins for incoming students, and one starts to see guides walking around campus holding large numbered placards, trailing several dozen lost looking former high schoolers, still sporting the latest styles of their home town.

By two weeks before school, college-sponsored camps and programs begin, and traffic around campus starts to pick up. The organized orientation groups are replaced by family groups, the parents regaling their kids with outdated wisdom and stories of past college glory. A short round woman and her short round son** stopped me in the student union a couple of weeks ago, and she demanded to know if there were anything to eat in the building besides McDonalds and Einstein Bagels.

Me: "Sure. If you go through that door there is a place where you can get a built-to-order salad or sushi."

Them: (blank stare)

Me: "Further on there are plate lunches, po-boys, and other sandwiches.


Me: "You will also find Panda Express, Chick-Fil-A, ..."


And they wandered off without another word. This is a pretty typical -- and thankfully not that common -- interaction. For the most part it's people meandering from one side of the sidewalk to the other, or stopping dead in a group in the middle of a hallway, squinting at their phones.

Next comes rush week, generating hordes of identically dressed hopeful Greeks-to-be. The surreality of the whole thing is evident in the array of Hawaiian shirts, jerseys, and whatever other ridiculous garments the participants are required to purchase and wear. This is also when it starts to get hard to get a meal or cup of coffee on campus.

The green flag drops on move-in day, when every street on campus is infested with bumper to bumper Suburbans and U-Haul trailers packed with more crap than will ever fit in a dorm room. Crosswalks become kill zones, and the exhaust from a thousand idling SUVs provides the little extra push to turn the humid August air into toxic steam you can breathe. On the plus side, I am thinking it could give me superpowers.

After a month of this, the actual start of classes is almost a relief. Almost. Traffic now backs up several miles from campus, and every sidewalk and passageway is filled with students in a great hurry, most going the wrong way. I won't leave my office for at least two weeks, and it will be a month or so before Thirsty Thursday infects the rest of the calendar, and attendance drops by a quarter or so. By the middle of October, enough students will have stopped going to class that I will be able to walk the campus again. I might even be able to get lunch if I don't go between 11:00 and 3:00. By February, many will be back in their home towns or working full time at Chili's, and I will be looking forward to summer.

*Which won't actually show up here for another two months.

** Seriously, I thought they might be Weebles.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Research Abides

Our Center hosts a two month research program every summer for thirty or so undergraduates, and a lesser number of high school students and teachers. It's a surprising amount of work for those of us who volunteer as mentors, but is also a fair amount of fun, and always satisfying. The students come from all over the country, from colleges of all descriptions.

My mentat this summer is a student from our school who just finished her freshman year. She is intelligent, ambitious, overprivileged (drives a nicer car than I do), and reminds me of my favorite philosophy professor's observation that, "no one on Earth knows more than a college sophomore." She had a great time and tied for first in the poster competition, but that's not important right now.*

I do all of the grocery shopping. Image from here.
We built a rapport, since she exudes the insecurity inherent to being nineteen and I am generally awesome. During one of her daily drop-ins to my office she mentioned that I had acquired a nickname among the summer students. She said something about her mentor, and several of the students replied, "You mean Jeff Bridges?" She is too young and normal to know which of his roles had likely inspired the comparison, but I knew immediately. I guess there are some things we really don't live down.

* And don't call me Shirley.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Finding your passion

This is commencement week at Large Southern University. Young people around campus are busy gluing glitter to their mortarboards, figuring out how to conceal booze under their gowns, planning their graduation blowouts, and realizing that they should have been looking for a job already.

The last time I cared about who was speaking at commencement was my own graduation, but I am sure whoever it is this year will exhort the new graduates to "follow your passion."  I remember a news story published last year that centered around this universal commencement advice. One new graduate, concerned that he had not yet found his one true calling, sought advice from an economist about what to do. As our young protagonist pointed out, some people find their passion early in life, while others search for decades, or forever. (Spoiler alert: this is another area where economists were sure they could provide an answer, but in the end were as clueless as the rest of us.)

Follow your dreams, no matter what others tell you. Now put on this identical garb and line up to receive a certificate of your worth as a person. Image from here.

I could have been the poster boy for the (vocationally) passionless. After abandoning uninspired attempts to live up to the potential that people constantly told me I possessed, I drifted through several careers, pursuing goals of the moment, and prone to fits of depression. I realized later that my problem was not that I didn't have a passion. The problem was (to quote a friend) that I felt like a raging failure because I didn't have a passion, and everyone else had one. Didn't they? A lot of my friends had Volvos and college degrees, so I assumed they had driving ambitions.

The first days of Spring of the worst year of my life found me unemployed, almost unmarried, far from friends and family, and an unwelcome guest in my own house. I loathed myself, my life, and my prospects more than I have at any time before or since.* By the time my birthday rolled around I had divorce papers,** a crappy apartment, a crappy sales job, a few pieces of donated furniture, and an old station wagon with a slow leak in the right rear tire.

By the Fall I was back in school, and working odd jobs to pay the bills. My apartment was still crappy, but I had a new tire, and designs on the hot girl at the opposite end of my building. I had also stopped worrying about finding my passion. I was so busy trying to survive, and working to accomplish my next objective, that I really had no time for self-absorption.  I was content with the satisfaction that came with learning something new, acquiring a new skill, or making a new friend. I learned to enjoy my own company again, and to appreciate the days as they passed.

Along the way, I fell in love with computer science. I realized that my passion had always been learning new things, understanding how the world works, and thinking hard. CS is a perfect fit. It's not that I only care about computer science because I stopped worrying about my passion, but I do believe that focusing on what I have and enjoying who I am, rather than what I wish I had or who I would rather be, has made it easier to stay committed and enthused. Corny, I know, but no worse than "follow your passion."

* Much better now, thanks for asking.

** Served on my actual birthday. The ex claimed it was an accident, but my lawyer was certain it was intentional.