In Which Optimism Gets A Thorough Workout

27 February 2003

A couple of days ago, Shannon got me thinking about the last several years and how it's gone so far. The thing that did it is that he mentioned that being younger than his peers was a negative thing for him in college, one that he would change if he was doing it all over again. And for me, going to college a year early was one of the best things I ever did. I was just barely 17 when I went to college, and it was great. So...why did it turn out so well for me? And why have things in general gone pretty well so far, despite the way I've been fussing and stressing lately? Because, really, they have. My life has been good. (None of this is meant to say, "Shannon's, on the other hand, has sucked!" or to contrast directly with his experience or with anyone else's. Mostly it's just an exercise in optimism -- sorely needed after the last few bits of grumping, I think.)

When I decided to graduate early, I knew that if I'd stayed at RHS for a senior year, I'd have had one academic class left. Out of an eight-period day. If I'd had to, I suppose I could have immersed myself in debate or journalism or something, but...I didn't see why I should have to. I knew what I wanted to do (physics and writing). I didn't see any reason to wait to do it. But oh, the prophets of doom. Very, very few people believed that I would be okay if I graduated early. Some of them thought that only going to one Prom instead of two would scar me for life or something. Others were just convinced that four years of high school were necessary in some social way they couldn't put their finger on.

For me, it really wasn't. Unlike some geeks I've met, I had friends in high school, and I dated in high school. I won't say that I had the most fabulous high school dating experiences, but, you know, live and learn. I hated high school, but I didn't come out of it too horribly socially disfigured. I still keep in touch with some of the friends I have from high school, and I'm happy to see them. There are others I'd be happy to hear from again.

I jumped right into college and never looked back. (Well, I looked back enough to say "ha ha!" at my old high school when I passed it, which was a lot, because my folks live fairly near it. But I got over that within a couple of months. What I mean is, I never regretted my early graduation, not for a picosecond.) I was younger than a vast majority of my college classmates (I was on the young end of my class before I skipped a year, with my July birthday and all), and since I ended up making friends with a lot of people two classes ahead of me (the Crowd), I was a lot younger than a vast majority of my friends for awhile. It didn't matter. I mean, they were limited in their choice of alcohol-serving establishment if I was along -- had to be Ruttles, which was a restaurant as well. But this was not a big deal.

But why wasn't it? There were plenty of people on the Gustavus campus who would have made a big deal about me being "the baby," but my friends were mostly just a bit surprised when they found out, teased me a little occasionally, nothing mean or excessive. That may be because I was a geek in the right place. I had asked our tour guide all kinds of questions about dorms, and any Gustie can babble for hours about the differences in dorm personalities. North Side vs. South Side. Whether Wahllies are weirder than Rundies. The subtle differences between Sohre and Pittman or among the three facets of Complex. And so on. I pumped the tour guide and ranked the dorms on the housing request form in a total ordering, just in case. But I got my first-choice 6x10 closet: home sweet Wahlstrom. And if there was anywhere I would be guaranteed not to have to spend time with people obsessed with my age, it was Wahlstrom. Geeks, artists, and stoners. They had plenty of obsessions all their own already. Kicked ass. Makes me want to write love stories to that dorm even now -- not for its banging, erratic, uncontrollable heaters, its pastel walls closing in, its frozen-shut windows and sand-covered winter stairwells and total lack of hallways. But it was the only place I could have lived that would have had almost as high a percentage of freaks per capita as my parents' house.

I also chose a college with an automatic mentor -- D.C. Henry and I hit it off on my very first campus tour. He was excited about physics. He read science fiction. There was never any question who I would choose for an advisor (although in some ways, Tom would maybe have been a better fit for my theory/nuke interests -- but my class choices were obvious anyway, and I have no complaints). And my folks could always be confident that if I wasn't quite sure how to take care of myself, Dennis would help take care of me. I'm sure it helped them relax.

So both socially and academically, I was lucky with college, but I was lucky because I put a lot of time into finding out who and what would be lucky for me. I didn't choose a college where I wasn't jazzed about hanging out with the students or working with the professors I'd met. I didn't go to the schools where the professors seemed bored with their jobs or unconcerned with prospective students. I've complained about my distribution requirement classes being stupid, and they were, and if I had to change one thing about the Gustavus system, that would probably be #1 on my list, or at least in the top ten. But the physics department was the most important factor in making it a good place for me, regardless of that.

One of the other reasons things went pretty well was that it was an undergrad-only institution, so undergrads tutored and taught lab classes. It was a great experience for me to do both of those things (and I learned what not to do to avoid spooking the premeds), but having TAs who were also students was a really great institutional perq. Between Jason and Lars, I got advice on what was ahead of me whenever I wanted it. Every semester, Lars would ask what I was taking, and then he'd tell me how difficult it would be and how much I'd like it. (And I don't mean that in the sense that he would talk up its fun and its difficulty: he would give me a fairly accurate assessment of both, sometimes down to how many hours a week I would need to spend on things.) He was right every time. I didn't have to fly blind or rely upon professors having an accurate assessment of their colleagues from a student perspective, because the TA/office setup (and friendships I made) gave me more information to make good choices.

(I should say that I wondered, when I started talking to Shannon about all this, whether gender had anything to do with it. And I do think it's easier to be a younger girl than a younger guy, socially speaking. But Lars was almost exactly the same age for his class as I was for mine -- summer birthday, skipped a year -- and looked to have a pretty positive college experience, too. I think some of the same circumstances, or similar ones, probably contributed to that.)

There was a theme here somewhere...oh, right: why things have gone so well for me. I don't mean to say that none of it is due to pure chance. A lot of it is. Some of the people who made college decent for me could easily have chosen other colleges. (There were good reasons to choose Gustavus, though, in terms of financial aid and some departments and all, so I hate to ascribe that to pure chance.) I could have missed good profs at other schools, or something bad could have happened to one of my profs by chance -- in the tornado, for example. Oh. Yeah. We all could have been on campus for the tornado. That was a pretty big stroke of bad/good luck: bad luck that we had it, good luck that it was spring break. Stuff like that happens, and I know that I'm lucky that it hasn't happened in worse ways so far.

But then...well, there was grad school at UC-Davis, and that was terrible. But I found something better to do with myself and cut my losses relatively early. The people who love me were willing to encourage me to take a risk to make my life better, rather than sticking with a paycheck for taking physics classes that made me want to tear my hair (or, on some days, my eyes) out. And I had enough of a variety of skills/knowledge that I could be useful to people on a freelance basis. And, oh, I write a lot and send things out stubbornly, and I did the Asimov Award thing, and that was very good for me. So.

Morals of the story to date: find good people who are excited about the work you want to do. Make good friends who will counter some of your own tendencies when they hurt you (tendencies against risk-taking, for example, or for it, depending on who you are; tendencies for laziness or overwork; etc.). Know what you want to do, research what it'll take, and do it. (Even if the research looks hard.) If it turns out you were wrong about what you wanted to do, figure out something else you want to do, research, and do that.

Side note on this -- it seems like I always have at least a handful of friends telling me that it's easy for me, because I know what I want. I'm sure it's easier at the very least. But these people seem to forget that I have been wrong on at least three occasions about what I wanted to do. When I went to Gustavus, I was thinking Materials Science. Took two semesters of chemistry along with my physics major stuff. Hated it. So that next summer, the one after my freshman year, I was an intern at an actuarial firm, figuring I could double-major with math and get an actuarial job if it turned out I needed one. Hated that, too -- well, actually, I didn't hate it, per se, as most of my job consisted of reading, writing letters, or talking SF with my boss. But I certainly looked around the rest of the office and went, hmm, no, not me. And then there was that whole, oh, I don't know, nuclear physicist thing. So I try to be sympathetic when people I love whinge at me this way, but I hate that they bring me into it. If they want to say, "I'm afraid that I'll choose the wrong thing and hate what I do!", then I can be truly sympathetic. But the minute they burst out, "It's easy for you!", I want to smack them, hard.

Hmm. I guess what I'm saying is, I don't expect that I have the seven simple rules for being happy, because I think a lot of what makes me happy is not something other people can just adopt. "Oh, I'll just be able to focus on happy details, tra la!" I recognize that this is not as simple a decision for some personalities as for others. But it helps if you can do it. I see it as a basic job I have in life to love the people who show up in my life to be loved, regardless of whether there's a convenient spot/label for them. That makes me happy, too.

Also I really like tomatoes. Oh, and milk. I have a glass of milk several times a day, and it makes me happy every single time. Someday I will go back to the MN State Fair and have All I Can Drink Milk For Fifty Cents and ride on the double Ferris wheel. I may have a cream puff or cheese curds, but I may just leave more room for milk. And I will be happy then, too. But in the meantime, tomatoes, glass o' milk, all right.

Also, every time my grandma calls, she says, "Hi, Rissy!" And I say, "Hi, how ya doin'?" She says, "Good. This is Grandma." I just love that. It makes me happy every single time. My grandma doesn't sound like anyone else in the world, and she particularly doesn't sound like my grandpa, who is the only other person in the world allowed to call me Rissy. But still, every time: "This is Grandma." This is why I am happy.

Also, this makes me pretty happy, too.

And I have this pen, and it's a Waterman, and it writes so smoothly you wouldn't believe, and it's blue.

Also Mark is coming home. Most days, Mark is coming home. Most days, it's not from Denver, but that doesn't really matter so much.

And when I'm feeling whiny and mopey and lonely and sad, I can either go into the other room and get a quick hug from the Timprov, or I can use e-mail or post something on my journal, and people I can't hug for several months can talk to me instantaneously. Even people I have never met. People who, for all I know, could be aliens doing really good human impersonations, or fabulous AIs, or secretly engineered dolphins/chimps/etc., or anything else, really, can help cheer me up. That makes me so happy. (It would make me even happier if I actually believed some of you to be AIs or aliens or something, but sadly, I do not. Ah well. Not too sadly.)

Also, I'm on the home stretch with this book, and there are all kinds of things that feel as good as finishing a book, but none of them feel quite like it.

I think this has deteriorated, somewhere along the line, from "why things are more or less okay when they could have sucked" to "stuff I like." But I really have needed an exercise in optimism, so I think I'm going to go with it.

Oh, and shirts that don't need ironing. Clothes that don't need ironing, in fact. Yeah. That's good stuff.

Writing games. I like those. I should play some more of those when I'm done with this book.

Writing books -- that is, books about writing, although I also like the act of writing books. But I like books about writing, especially when they aren't very serious and I don't learn much about writing from them. It's not that I don't want to learn about writing, it's just that I think a page of rules is usually a terrible way to do it, and a fun anecdote from the author is not always much more instructive.

I think I have elevated my mood sufficiently that I can read the front page now. I'm sorry if I bored you in the process, but I think it's sometimes good to think about how things have gone right.

Back to Novel Gazing.

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