My own version of The Blindside, yet without countenant skill

A new chapter has begun yet again.  I am the perpetual nomad.  From northern California to northern West Virginia, here I am at West Virginia University in Morgantown.  I’ve begun graduate school (in pursuit of that Master’s degree in Wildlife biology) and have been here since mid-August now.  The transition from a year out-of-school to a new year back-in-school has been smoother than expected.  Well, that’s good.  There’s only one real issue these days though:  for the first time in my educational career, I am having difficulty with the intellectual rigor involved in my pursuits.  Classes are fine; they are a real walk in the park.  It’s the demands of the research prior to experimentation that is so vexing.

The research concept is outstanding.  My focal species is the Golden eagle, and this fact alone gets me psyched.  As mentioned in previous posts, this is the bird that got me started in this circus act that I’m calling my career.  Back to the research concept: I’m being charged with developing a new computer model to map and predict eagle movements in the eastern U.S. during biannual migration events.  In addition to that, they want me to discover a new method to estimate the current population size in the region–a difficult task alone, in of itself.  Highly mobile, elusive populations are the most difficult to quantify.  These two research goals are indeed intriguing to a person like me, who’d like to make a good first impression in the field of raptor research.

Aspiring wildlife biologists, beware.  This stuff isn’t as simple as it sounds.  I’ve known this for quite awhile now, but only over the past month have the intellectual challenges really set in.  For me, this project is getting very technical and way too fast I might add.  Should I blame myself for not being more prepared?  Should I criticize the inconsistencies in my undergraduate program?  I’ll avoid doing either for now, but one thing still ways heavy on my mind–something that a past professor had wrote concerning my graduate pursuits.

During the second go around (of applying to graduate schools), I became a bit more conservative surprisingly.  Always thinking strategically, I gathered reference letters in clusters way before individual program applications were due.  I felt that this would be the most convenient for my recommenders (have them write all of their letters, collect the load, and prepare to send them in one group after application submissions).  After applying to the programs that I wanted to, I had a few groups of letters still left over.  Of the three recommenders, I was given explicit permission to read only one.  This professor was a real friend to me in undergraduate school, and with this special permission I felt that he showed his respect for me.

The other two professors, when compared to each other, were different polarities.  One was a simple mannered man, who was always cordial with me, so I never worried about his reference.  The other was a bit of an intimidator.  This professor liked to discourage me, often without intention I assumed–perhaps it is just his nature to come off like an elitist.  During my last two years at SIU, he assisted me with a small research project that really did not interest him; that much was obvious nearly every time we met.  Considering our proximity to working together, I asked him to write me a reference.

Now this is where things come together…

We recall that I had a few groups of recommendation letters left over that I hadn’t distributed to a few select programs (programs which disinterested me in the end).  I read the recommendation letter of the first “friend” professor long before this–it was simple, straightforward.  The letter of the “simple mannered, cordial” fellow was the first to be inspected–breaking that assumed student-mentor “rule” of letter confidentiality.  His letter was also what was to be expected; it was quite flattering really and quite the gesture from someone who had interacted with me rarely outside of the classroom.

Finally, the moment I had been waiting for had come.  I was about to have my chance at reading what the “discouraging” professor had to really say about me.  He obviously assumed that I would never read the letter (cf. the confidentiality convention).  His approach was acceptable, in my opinion (half of the letter highlights my strengths, the latter half touches on weaknesses).  That’s fine.  A well rounded discussion is welcomed, encouraged.  What made my jaw drop was what resided at the conclusion of the letter.

Concerning one of my weaknesses, he writes: “…this issue should disappear once he has to buckle down in a graduate program where real results become the currency of one’s merit.”

This single comment has been on my mind the most, recently.  In the pursuit of “real results,” I am feeling the stress from the intellectual demands of the science itself, the underlying statistical analyses, the anticipation of computational demands to come, and the descriptions of past works which form the supporting evidences for this research.  Due to the technicality involved with these past works (i.e. other scientific studies in the journals), they often seem written in a foreign language to me.  Am I really this dense?  Am I not intellectually strong enough to understand these methods, their results, and the implications of their findings?  The words of that professor just continue to plague my mind all the while.

I don’t know yet how I am going to meet these new challenges.  I just feel blindsided here.  “Oh, and by the way Andrew, your project proposal is due at the end of this semester, so you had better catch up quickly,” says that little voice of disillusionment in my head.  What a frustrating start this is proving to be.  I feel like my mind may explode at some point.  This could get messy…

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I went to the woods for my sanity, but I came back for the air conditioning

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Two weeks ago, I tried to go camping. I’ve been having an itch for the outdoors lately. I’m used to summer being an awesome time to get outside and get on the water — but it’s not so easy in Florida. It’s too damn hot in the summer to do anything in the direct sunlight for more than a couple hours, so camping is pretty much out.

But something told me it was a good idea to try. I haven’t slept in a tent since before I moved down here, and that makes me extremely sad. When I checked the weather, it told me there was a high of 93, so I risked it. I drove to Jacksonville and got set up in my campsite at Hanna Park. I was going to give myself a little writing/reading retreat in the woods.

I walked down to the beach to hang out and write for a while. While I was at the beach, I realized it was probably hotter than 93 degrees and checked my phone. It was 99. I’d been punk’d by the meteorologists, but I decided to stick it out anyway.

About 6 p.m., I decided to build a fire and cook my dinner. Just after I got the fire lit, I realized I wasn’t actually hungry. And I certainly didn’t want to stand over the fire and cook anything. So I put out my fire and when I did get hungry, I had cereal for dinner instead.

I climbed into my tent by 8 p.m. It was still hot, but I figured I’d entertain myself with my papers until it got cooler and I could go to sleep. I even managed to have a phone conversation with Jean (cell phone reception being one of the key advantages of going to a campground located in a city).

After I got off the phone with Jean, about 11, I put my phone down and tried to go to sleep. It wasn’t much cooler, but I was exhausted, and figured I’d suffer through the heat. As I was laying there, I began to hear some local wildlife walking nearby. I didn’t pay it too much attention until the creatures were walking in my campsite.

I figured the critters would pick up whatever scraps of food I’d left outside and then move along, but that wasn’t the case. After what must have been ten minutes of these animals walking around my campsite, one of them seemed to lay down beside my tent and started making this deep, guttural growling noise. I’m very familiar with the sounds raccoons make, so I guessed this must be an armadillo or something else we don’t have in the Midwest.

At this point, I decided it was time to clear the critters out. I sat up in my tent, it my arms against the walls so they’d puff out, and yelled “Git!” a few times. Normally, that’s enough to run off any critters unless there’s a lot of food they’re trying to get into. I’d locked all my food in the car a little bit away, so I knew they hadn’t found anything significant near my tent, but the animals didn’t move. They stopped walking for a moment, but resumed a few seconds after I stopped shouting.

I tried again, this time making even more noise and hitting the tent a lot more. And the animals stayed put. Which is freaky. The old adage that the animal is more scared of you than you are of it is always true. Except these animals were obviously not scared of me. The worst-case scenarios played out in my mind. Half-domesticated coyotes, fearless raccoons, or even an alligator. In my campsite and refusing to leave. I’ll admit I was at least a little bit scared. Or maybe a lot a bit. I’ve run off a lot of animals before, and I’d never found any so bold.

Brandishing my flashlight, I unzipped my tent door a little and shined into the campsite. It was cats. Feral cats like I’d seen wandering around the campground earlier that day. These cats are not somebody’s pet, but they also aren’t afraid of people. They stay at a healthy distance of 20 paces at all times. If you walk toward them, they walk an equal amount away. If you walk away, they follow you. It was an awful lot like an Alred Hitchcock movie.

And now they were in my campsite, frolicking around as if it was play time. Content that I wasn’t going to be eaten by an alligator, I tried to go back to sleep. But the cats kept frolicking. In the dry leaves. And didn’t stop. For almost an hour. Wasn’t it too hot to frolic?

Finally, I gave up. I broke camp and put my camping gear in the back seat. I was rolling out at about 12:15 for the drive home. The air conditioning in my car felt wonderful. Just before leaving camp, I check the weather on my phone one last time. It was 96 degrees, three higher than today’s predicted high. Meteorologists are dumb.

LINK: Uttered prayers for our uniformed youth

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http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/06/us/sept-11-reckoning/troops.html

These are a few stories of soldiers and sailors who have served since 9/11. The stories are honest and touching, and they highlight people who have contributed more than their fair share.

Ryan talked about how news organizations are treating this anniversary, and I’ve been living through those complex decisions. I work for The New York Times company and design under The New York Times banner, but our office is located in Gainesville, Fla., and my work is published internationally. It’s interesting because all of the articles and photos we are using come from people who lived and still are living the effects of the attacks in the most obvious way possible — people whose city came under attack.

I don’t know what that’s like, but I’ve been doing my best to empathize and communicate that feeling all week. It’s pieces like this, that I cry in the middle of reading, when I really understand the gravity of the post 9/11 world and how lucky I’ve been. None of my friends have been killed in Afghanistan or Iraq, but some of them are still there or will be going back. When I manage to utter prayers, they are always at the top of the list.

My brother, who is 20, has never had a friend go to war. He knew a lot of my friends who have gone, but he’s never had the same connection. He never had to face the idea that one of his friends would be killed in action. That changed this summer when one of his friends joined the Navy. That friend has since graduated basic and is in school at the base in Pensacola, Fla. My brother doesn’t like to talk about it, and I can tell from his uncharacteristic silence whenever I bring up the topic that it scares the shit out of him.

And honestly, it scares me a little, too. I’ve always known the the men and women who go to war are kids — young, inexperienced, and not consulted by the people who put them in danger — but it’s different now that there’s at least one sailor who I will always picture in a Cub Scout neckerchief, bouncing off the walls and playing video games with my brother.

9/11 changed my life and the world

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We’re less than a week away from the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. I expect to see special TV programming, and special issues of magazines and sections in newspapers. The media may choose to dwell on compelling images from 2001, or outlets may seek new and less controversial images for their audiences. I don’t know what to expect.

September 11 will be a strange day for me. It won’t be especially difficult, as I didn’t experience the loss of loved ones and I wasn’t directly affected by the actual attacks. Yet the day will be unique simply because I was coming of age just as the attacks happened and changed the world forever. I changed as the world did.

I was 14 at the time. I remember hopping out of the shower and rushing to my bedroom to gather my belongings for school, then stopping to see my mother glued to the TV in the living room. She was speechless. Images of an airplane flying into a World Trade Center tower were repeatedly playing on the television. Someone had called her only a few moments before I walked into the room to tell her about what happened.

We didn’t have any lessons during classes on that day. We all watched the news in every class; teachers and students alike. For some classes, we didn’t have any lesson plans for the week.

But lesson plans changed in other classes. For my geography class, we focused on a special section devoted to Middle Eastern conflicts, and the root of the formation of the Mujahideen and Al-Qaeda. These were topics never addressed in a Goreville High School classroom prior to the September 11 attacks.

The day also set the national dialogue for the next decade. The United States entered three wars with claims of improving national security. Presidents were elected or not elected because of those wars. Trillions of dollars have been spent to kill thousands (some estimates note hundreds of thousands) of people in the Middle East. The real aftermath of 9/11 continues to be defined and redefined each day the U.S. military operates in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

I also credit that day as the one that pushed me to become a journalist. My curiosity about the root of the attacks, and my desire to learn more, pushed me to pursue a career that let me constantly seek knowledge for a living. As I matured, my care for the political atmosphere grew. And the contrast, and my comprehension, of the real differences between life and death was amplified. 9/11 truly changed my life.

I wonder if other twentysomethings have similar stories to mine. How did 9/11 shape your life?

LINK: Have a mouse problem? And beer?

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A mouse is living in my home. He (or she?) is a smaller mouse that rarely shows his face, but when he does, it’s certainly an event for everyone involved.

Gwendolyn doesn’t like mousetraps. Why kill a living creature that’s simply trying to make the best of its life? She bought one of those $20 traps where we tactfully lure the mouse into a large box filled with peanut butter, but the doors quickly close and trap the mouse inside. And while our dogs certainly love the peanut butter, our mouse isn’t falling for the trick.

Perhaps beer is our solution. My bloodthirsty cousin, who is nearly appalled that we haven’t slain our mouse foe yet, suggested another idea: get the mouse drunk. All we need is a pale, ramp and a little leftover Schlafly Summer Lager from a fun Friday night.

And if the mouse doesn’t like Summer Lager? Then, in my opinion, he doesn’t deserve to share in the warmth of my home anyway.

On grad school and a new journey

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During the months leading up to my graduation from the Missouri School of Journalism in May 2010, one of my professors used a class period to remind us aspiring journalists that the industry wasn’t looking for just journalists. Sure, we could find a job as a reporter at a small-town daily newspaper or latch onto a TV station news crew, but our journalism careers would be short.

Instead, we should aspire to be individual entrepreneurs that excel at brand management. We must absolutely own the internet. In an industry that witnesses massive layoffs and buyouts each week, we had to develop survivors instincts to simply make it. Some of us, she hoped, would do more than make it — we would develop solutions to keep journalism profitable healthy and profitable for years to come.

Wow, that’s a lot of pressure. And it didn’t really hit me until a few months ago. The message is now clear: my days as a journalist could be limited unless I actually do something about it.

Much like any workaholic, I decided to enroll in nighttime grad school classes. A master of business administration degree from Washington University’s Olin Business School will, hopefully, help me make sense of the industry numbers. Maybe I’ll be inspired by innovation in my classmates’ industries, too.

Tuesday and Thursday nights will be filled with business classes for the next three years. I’ll learn about accounting, organizational behavior and business strategy while my social life dissipates to nothingness.

Please wish me luck, friends. It’ll be an interesting and rewarding journey.

The only thing I regret is the french fries

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Last evening was a night on the town. Nine of us went out for dinner and drinks and adventuring about the city into the morning hours, when the final four of us called it quits after eating at Steak ‘n’ Shake.

It was a normal night. We had dinner at a place downtown, then moved on to a bar. We swapped stories, took some shots, and eventually somebody started throwing garnish across the table.

I don’t remember exactly who started it, but karma suggests it was probably me since a thick lime slice collided into my eye, resting like a moisturizing cucumber. My friends expressed concern that I’d get lime juice in my eye, but that didn’t really hurt. What hurt was how hard the slice had collided with my socket, even leaving a bit of a shiner.

Today at work, while I was checking out said shiner by using Photobooth (because the mirror in the bathroom was too far away, obviously), Heather said she didn’t think I had a shiner. She might be right, because I found on further inspection that I have huge bags under my eyes just now from too little sleep. Though I maintain there’s a bruise hiding in there somewhere.

And that’s probably the last work memory I’ll ever have of Heather, our summer intern. She’s put up with us for 12 weeks and how she’s off to her real job. I wish her all the best and am sure she’ll do wonderful things in Pittsburgh.

It’s strange how familiar you can become with someone in 3 months. Maybe it’s not strange considering her desk is right next to mine and we share a love of overdramatic office gossip about the most mundane topics, but it will be strange to see the intern — and friend — leave.

LINK: One of the craziest stories I’ve ever heard

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http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/323/the-super

This week, while listening to the podcast of This American Life, I was amazed at the tale I heard. It’s a replay of a show from 2007, and it’s all about building superintendents.

The whole episode is very good, but Act 1 in particular is captivating and thrilling. That section comes in at 21 minutes, but it’s worth the listen. It will make you wonder about which people in your life have mysterious pasts or devious intentions. I’ll never look at my super the same again.

Smearing peanut butter on my face

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This is not a metaphor.

Earlier today, inspired by a post on the usually sage Lifehacker.com, I decided to use peanut butter to shave my face. I was a bit suspicious of the technique, but I thought it might be worth trying. After all, peanut butter is one of the most wonderful substances ever created.

To accomodate my choice in shaving assistant, I decided to change the order of my daily routine and shave before showing on this particular morning. Using my hand, I began to lather on my face some of my favorite peanut butter, JIF creamy (though my parents were too cheap to be choosy when I was growing up, I always go for the good stuff).

While trying to spread the PB, it was fighting me a little bit, so I applied a much thicker layer. That worked better and I managed to cover my right cheek and neck, about 1/3 of the total shaveable area. Next came the razor, with which I made a few passes of the entire area.

It didn’t really work.

The peanut butter did a good job of keeping the razor from cutting me, but it also seemed to keep the razor from cutting the hair very well. I’d say it got about half of them off my face in the target area. And it was almost nearly impossible to get the razor blade clean.

Calling the task a failure, I jumped in the shower to clean off and planned to resume shaving with normal shaving cream afterwords. No matter how hard I scrubbed, I couldn’t seem to get all of the peanut butter smell off of me in the shower. I’m not sure if maybe I got some in my nose or if I was just imagining it, but I smelled delicious all day.

For dinner — a shaving cream and jelly sandwich.

Absent-minded ranting

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My girlfriend came to visit this past weekend, Thursday through Tuesday. It was wonderful to see her and we had a lot of fun, even though most of our planned activities got rained out. It was also the first time she had seen me perform my poetry in front of an audience, which actually made me a little nervous at the Poetry Jam on Thursday.

On Tuesday, I dropped her off at the airport before driving to work. Once I parked my car, I cursed myself for leaving the airport 10 minutes sooner than I had to — 10 more minutes I could have spent with Jean. And then I cried, knowing I won’t be seeing Jean for another two months. That made me glad I gave myself 10 minutes before I had to go into work.

When she called me last night to tell me she was arrived safely, she said that even though she was sad while leaving, she never cried. Instead, she thinks she’s getting used to the distance and the time apart, which makes it easier when we say goodbye. I wish I felt the same.

The longer this goes on, the longer we live halfway across the country from each other, the harder it gets for me to say goodbye. Maybe it’s because I blame myself for taking this job. Maybe it’s because there is nothing I want more than to finally, actually live in the same city as her and not have to live like a bum. I’ve always wanted to be an independent person, but now that I’m living as independently as I can imagine, I want nothing more than to depend on her.

We see so many people who are getting married and getting pregnant and moving forward with their lives together — sometimes stupidly — that I hate what’s happened to us. Sure, we’re doing what’s best for our careers and sure, it’s going to be better in the long run, but at least half of me wishes I had the strength to throw all that away. I’d give anything to be less smart and closer to her.

Honestly, while she was here, I felt like we did almost nothing. We went a few places and we saw a few people, but I can’t account for most of the hours of the weekend, which were spent sitting on the couch or watching movies or talking about nothing in particular. But I guess that was all I wanted.