Monday, February 04, 2008

Princeton (Interviews Part 1)

So I am back from Princeton (hooray! Elizabeth: 2, Chicago Weather: 0) (make that Elizabeth: 2, Chicago Weather: 2 since both my flights were delayed in a feat of blizzard). And, on top of that, I have a working computer. Put these two things together, and you get one mammoth blog post about Princeton (and about the trip there. The trip back was so horrid that I'm not thinking about it).

I. I entered the red line train car and sat down to the sadly familiar sound of what I thought was someone panhandling. He smiled and waved at a man wearing a Carhartt jacket who entered with me. I prepared to tune the beggar out, to stare blankly at the floor and not move very much, hoping he wouldn't notice me, acutely aware of the fact that I was the only white person in the car. I don't know why I notice that; I often wish that I wouldn't notice it, but it is increasingly the case that I will realize suddenly, standing on the platform or sitting down in the car, that I am in a way an outsider.

I realized, then, that he wasn't a beggar. He was speaking in the same tones and rhythms that panhandlers use to decry that they aren't out to get anyone, but they have some sob story or another and they're just down on their luck and they pray to Jesus every day and they know he'll look down kindly some day, but in the meantime couldn't somebody please just spare a dollar to get a sandwich. He was using that same affect of talking at people instead of to people; disregarding the fact that everyone in the car was doing exactly what I was doing, looking away sadly and pretending not to hear him. But he wasn't asking for money or giving us a story about how his younger brother just died and he was raising money for the funeral. He was advertising temporary employment opportunities for people who were down on their luck. For people with felonies on their record - it doesn't pay much, he said, but oatmeal is better than no meal, and if you put some sugar on it it tastes all right. For people over fifty, who are working on fixed incomes and have prescriptions to buy or grandchildren to take care of, who needed a little something extra. And he handed out little green tickets, green slips of paper with this information.

Then he talked about a show he was doing; he was a poet. I thought, okay, here's where it will become obvious to me why this man is standing on a train and reading his poems instead of sitting at home, snug and secure, or going to work at what middle class America calls "a real job". He'll read a bad poem and he'll "sell" it to someone, and I'll be able to go back to my cubby-hole definition of the real world. But I had to admit that it was unlikely; the man had proven himself unique already.

The poem he read was good; it would be the kind of rap I liked if I liked rap. Positive and self-affirming without being too trite and with a cadence and a rhythm to it that moves quickly from one rhyme to the next, emphasizing the beat and the sound and the shape your mouth makes when you say a word.

Really, it was exactly what I should have expected. He sold a copy of his poem for a dollar, and sat down to talk to the man in the Carhartt jacket. They talked about people they knew, upcoming shows, everything and anything.

In Ayn's latest issue of Paste, there's an article about Hip Hop as a nascent cultural artform, or at least as an artform and a culture unrecognized until now. One that is all about rags-to-riches stories, self-made men. I've always been skeptical about that, because I think so often its messages are more of misogyny and violence and materialism than good positive determination and success. So often it's performed by someone who is violent and angry and jealous and maybe doesn't even believe in the self-made idols he holds up. But the guy on the train was real, and good. Or at least, I could imagine it that way, and I have no reason to force myself to be so jaded.

II. O'hare was a blizzard. I couldn't see to the end of the runway because of the snow, and the flight monitor flashed CANCELLED in bright red for most flights. Orange delay times appeared beside most others. Please, I thought, let me get out of O'hare. I don't want to stay here. And, an island of white in a sea of red and orange, my flight to Newark was on time.

It wasn't until we were in the air and the plane was shocked by a crosswind that I realized I should perhaps have asked to get to Princeton rather than to leave O'hare. I laughed.

And I realized that my questioning, my pleading, was not a plea for mercy from the author but rather a plea of sympathy from the reader. I think it's odd that I can so calmly laugh at how ironic it would be if my plane crashed in a ball of fire (it's easier since I didn't think it would), and how I seek identification with a judge or an audience, given that I so strongly disavow the very existence of a higher being ala author. I can tell myself this is because future generations could hear or read my story, but they wouldn't know that I was laughing with them; they would never know any of my little pleas for sympathy.

III. Newark Liberty International Airport is like a vision of the future from the sixties: touch screens and chrome and a magnetic monorail called an "Airtrain" that comes every three minutes and talks to you cheerfully as you ride.

IV. The Nassau Inn is a colonial relic - It used to be a changing post for horses between Philadelphia and New York City. The elevators are tiny and jury-rigged and the walls would be crumbling down but instead they're remarkably well kempt. And in one room, "The Library Room", they've saved the money on bookshelves and books by simply painting a bookshelf and books on the wall.

The best part is that the pattern is on a short loop.

V. The graduate students here live in a dorm - a castle called "Graduate College" with a basement bar called the Debasement Bar, or D-Bar. I note that one doesn't actually want to go somewhere where one will be debased, and they look at me strangely as if they haven't heard the word debasement before outside of the context of their bar. I shrug.

VI. Fox advertises American Idol in the same breath as Super Tuesday Primary Coverage, tacitly equivocating the two. Because which teen gets a record deal is at least as important as who the next president is going to be. Or at least, it is for most Americans. Or maybe just most Americans who watch Fox.

VII. The outside of most of Princeton is granite, and paradigmatic, but the molecular biology program is new and exciting (perhaps in relative terms) and therefore has new buildings. All are connected by convenient tunnels. The inside is bold and bright and feels like something out of an animated movie, somehow younger than I expected. The tables and chairs are big matching sets in lightly varnished wood, the walls are white with trim to match the tables; it feels like an elementary school with an adult color palette. And, suitably, all the break rooms seem to have miniature, rather than adult-sized, furniture. Everything is big, bright, pretend colonial to as to be Classic. Like an old lady who only has one suit, in a 1950s cut, immaculate, adn looks stunning in it, but it's all she wears. Classic.

They're pouring money into the program; they guarantee funding for as long as you need it, and the money comes from the University, not individual labs or TA-ships, so in theory at least, you have complete freedom. Everything, it seems here, is handled by a benevolent God of Funding. In a climate where that is very much an issue, no one here seems much worried. Which is refreshing, but it makes it seem even more like a painting or a myth. Arcadia. Here we are, in the center of civilization, midway between New York and Philly, hidden in a picturesque suburb where you can see the stars at night, where everyone knows eachother and everyone likes eachother and strangers will talk to you in a coffee shop about David Hume's views on Religion. Everyone is happy, healthy, excited about work, and part of me is always looking over my shoulder for the real world, for death, for hardship and mortality, marring even this beautiful canvas. Part of me says that maybe these people really are just that good. Part of me wants to believe that money, and having the purse strings in friendly hands, really can change a lot. That this is what I always wanted academia to be and I should be happy to have found it. But part of me is reminded that this isn't every weekend, that real life likely comes even here, and that Death mars every canvas, no matter how lovely it is to look at. Here, I am in Arcadia, instead of Even in Arcadia, there am I.

Or, you know, not.

VIII. Two professors talk about research they're doing and I won't (can't, shouldn't) bore you with the details, except that it is so obvious from both talks the passion with which these people live. And they do it so differently, to boot. The one wants to change the world, she wants people to live forever, to have children without birth defects for as long as they care to, she wants to cure humanity of Death; or at least aging (which fits in so very well with my Arcadia metaphor, eh?). I talk to her later, and you can see it in her eyes when she talks about the therapeutic possibilities of her research. You can see it through the makeup she wears and in the wrinkles around her eyes. She has a young child, I learn later. I wonder if her passion, her mission, was selfishly motivated in that way. I think probably I'm imagining things. Creating characters. Writing stories, fictions that might not only be false but also offensive. I try to stop but my brain automatically makes connections. I cant' stop it.

The other, it is obvious, just gets such glee from the work that he can barely keep himself from jumping for joy. He loves the stories, the problems, the questions, the mysteries, the discoveries. He looks at a video he's seen so many times he must have memorized it, and still stares at it in awe, transported by its meaning to him. He giggles, his voice rising in a slow crescendo from a tantalizing whisper to a sanglante cry - how could someone not feel the emotion dripping from his voice when he talks about it? He is a child, still looking at the world with wonder, still gasping in delight at the sheer majesty of it, still stopping dead in his tracks when he thinks of the mysteries still in store for him.

I spoke to his wife, later, about my science and hers and science in general. She was attentive to my description and even asked me about the implications of my procedures on her work. I answered her quickly and correctly (I know that much) and didn't think about it until it was pointed out to me; a tenured professor had just asked me if I had any advice.

A yeast geneticist showed me amazing data about nucleosome rearrangement and transcriptional control, which is an interesting outgrowth of my current niche. And some more common stuff about reversible DNA-DNA interactions. I felt almost guilty I didn't have more questions to ask, but he e-mailed me this morning saying he enjoyed talking to me and hoped my return home was not too bad (it's Chicago in the Wintertime, so hoping it's good is hoping for the impossible, I guess). And if I have any questions, I should call him.

I'm on cloud nine.

A bacteriologist talked me through a recent discovery; it's part review of basic genetics and molecular biology (Bacteria have operons, where genes that are similar in function are clustered for co-regulation) and part theory of science (you can screen based on decreased viability, but you can't select based on it), and part joy of discovery and a cool story.

With all of the professors, I talked about the weather in Chicago and the programs and where else I'm interviewing. It's fun, but part of me wants to spend more time with a single person, to really get down to the nitty-gritty of a project or the program, rather than a whirlwind tour of the offices of five professors.

And that's how I feel about a lot of the people here; I want to sit down and have a real conversation, unlimited time, just get to know one person really well rather than meeting twenty.

IX. The graduate students give a "panel" discussion. I ask, if they're living in a dormitory and eating in a dining hall, if this wasn't just "College 2: This time we mean it" or if it didn't feel that way. They say that it's different because you're older (why, yes; well spotted) and people are more mature, and there aren't crazy parties all the time. And besides, it's awesome to live in a castle and eat in the Great Hall of Hogwarts. I smile. I have lived in a castle, eaten in the great hall, and had mature beer nights where no one gets drunk rather than crazy frat parties. And I decided that, rather than than that, I wanted my own kitchen and my own living room. The more I think about it, the more significant it feels - I want a place to call my own, I want my own space above all, I don't want a randomly assigned roommate and I do want my own kitchen. But the people here say no, it's better for you to do it our way so you don't turn into a hermit. When all I can think of it the fact that really I want a kitchen where I can throw a dinner party and no randomly-assigned roommate to be stuck with. I don't want to clean up other peoples' messes, and I don't want someone else cleaning up my messes, and I don't want to get into arguments about it. And they will happen, I know. They just do.

I guess part of my problem is that Duff and Ryan went to Graduate School and got single bedroom apartments; it felt like they were beginning their adult lives. TO me. Or something. There's something so nice about Yotom's studio or Christian's place; I have created a dream surrounding it that's hard to let go.

X. The campus is beautiful, old colonial brick buildings and lawns with big trees and a picturesque style. Everything tastefully arranged. The chapel is Rockefeller only bigger, and the Graduate College is BJ only nicer kept, the grounds are Snitchcock Quad without the divet and the concrete path. It's what we would build if we had unlimited money. I find out they have the largest endowment per student in the world and it doesn't surprise me. Everything here is well cared for, in a way that makes University of Chicago look old, dank, crumbling, or tacky. It's amazing. Almost unbelievable. But it is certainly for real.

XI. Chicago wants to make its undergraduates into graduate students; Princeton seems to want to turn its graduate students into undergraduates. They push heavily for graduate involvement in undergraduate student organizations. They create a new post: resident graduate student, who is simply a grad student living with undergrads and holding social events every couple weeks with no disciplinarian aspect to it. To me, it feels a little bit backwards.

XII. At dinner at a professor's house, we talk about hacks. A kid from MIT is there who was involved in a plan to steal the cannon from Caltech. They took it cross-country, put an MIT class ring around it, and replaced it right in time for Caltech's prospie weekend. I told a couple stories about Scav. The professor, not to be outdone, told a wonderful story. He used to be dean, and have an office overlooking Cannon Yard. He walked into his office and looked out of the window to see a huge hole in the ground and a pile of dirt. The cannon, having a history of forced transitions between Princeton and Rutgers, was liable to theft, and so had to be buried in the center of the quad. He called various administrators to tell them. They came down to the square and poked around, appalled, until the then-Dean noticed something else; the hole was off-center. Someone had dug a hole and, with the dirt, buried the cannon. They never figured out who did it.

And that's it for Princeton; Harvard and MIT are next so more on them next week.

Now for studying. So much to do!

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