I’m taking a creative non-fiction writing class and we have two opportunities to submit writing for workshopping — I have never done this before. I have no in-progress memoir, so I just wrote this in the last couple of days. I guess it’d be considered a blog-style post. If you have time, please let me know what you think. I think it needs to be longer. Most importantly, would you still care if none of it was true?
I can’t remember the last time I didn’t scratch an itch. The song that licks at the back of your brain, tiers of ambition, making sure to skim every available opportunity if there’s no time to dunk your whole hand in. When I was ten — like everyone else at ten — I wanted to be an astronaut. I read Andrew Chaikin’s Man on the Moon, I hunted for vintage model rocket kits, a wad of superglue is permanently stuck to my child size 16 khakis; ripped video clips from The Right Stuff, styrofoam Spunik and Apollo rockets, “Get With The Program” says a navy blue polo post-Austin, Texas road trip (Cape Canaveral gets all the attention but Johnson is where they control the mission).
There was no doubt that I would become an engineer. My father is an engineer, and this is like the primary driver of my present life — all things tainted/tinted with graceless mathematical logic, NOT to say that these two things have to be treated separately, but the way in which they are presented in early childhood education, in distinct categories, quantitative analysis leaves no room for qualitative inquiry, and suddenly my priorities changed. That is, astronomy was not only about constellations and cold nights among the bright lights — it was navigation, calculations, things I struggled to get good at. What about the stories, the battles and gods and trickery? Stars were, okay, gas giants, millions of miles away, thousands of years behind us, but I only have ten fingers and ten toes and it only takes fifteen miles and twenty-five minutes to get to my grandmother’s house, and I have only been in school for ten years, and I can only care so much.
It’s different from restlessness. I have fidelity, towards values, home-grown themes. A thought which is nearly detestable is that nothing really matters, so to hell with everything, do what you love and only this. No, no. These are all fundamentally bound to improving as a person. I fight fires, I wield a chainsaw, I visit Geneva, I go see the orcas, I conquer my fears and satisfy my curiosity at the same time, I am so fucking efficient. I can say I’ve done this and by doing this I will be less afraid to help.
Astronauts, as it turns out, are engineers. Problem-solvers, but only by stuffing our brains with elemental science. Engineers are supposed to have ego, but I guess my whole personality is post-modern — I don’t know anything, and everyone else knows everything. Only after 100k of tuition and four years of mind numbed by machine systems do you realize that it’s just about sticking square pegs in round holes — easy! Shave down the corners — super easy. There’s no real need to understand anything beyond this, no need to understand why steel teeth can cut wood fiber, the difference in volume, the generated heat. Sometimes magnets attract — use that. You can make a square with a single piece of rope. In fact, you already know how to do it, so make it work. Done, pronto, and now you’re on the moon. Armstrong also went to Purdue — boiler the fuck up.
I get eczema about three months before I graduate. The severe, weeping kind — like in a full-length novel it would considered symbolic. That kind of itch you can’t help but scratch, the type of itch that jolts you awake, a flaring pain in the middle of the night. Symbolic because, all along, this didn’t quite fit: the machine language, the MathCAD logic strings, the chemical equations and discrete mathematics. There seemed to be no purpose except entrepreneurial-ship and efficiency. Later I would realize that efficiency – taking pieces out, streamlining the process, shaving down the corners, as it were – was really to save money. There was a bigger engine behind innovation and initiative in the so-called bubble of academic learning, and I had no idea, I had no idea. The first internship I ever applied to was for Monsanto, I had no idea. But they tell you about hungry people in other places, they tell you about cheap, miraculous seed, and you overlook the fact that no one chooses to go hungry. You’re given this clean, neat issue, something that should be steeped in culture and social studies and environment but instead is stripped, reduced to A-B-C logic, and then you are told, solve the problem. You have the tools, remember. Overlooking that if it were so easy, why is it still a problem.
But it worked! I came back down to earth, and I loved, love the earth. The eczema was recovering, and I was gaining insight on problem-solving, not for people but with people. Farmers need things, and cultivators need things, and pollinators need things, and contractors and conservationists and construction workers and women shelters and marginalized minorities in rural West coast cities. My job, I think, was to connect all of those needs, to feed a need by filling it with another. It’s never a win-win, of course. We spray poison and burn oil to kill invasives, to control nature, which is an absurd idea to permaculturists, because if it’s growing then it’s meant to grow. It’s a twisted logic if you were to apply the same idea to people — if they came then they were meant to conquer. I agree it’s nice to have peonies and palm trees when we’re weary of ash and maple, but fundamentally, it’s not very fair. So we interfere.
At the end of the day, it’s about food on the table. I can’t remember a time I went hungry. Numbing hunger, when your stomach shrinks to the size of a walnut. I don’t think I’ve ever starved. I chose not to eat, on several occasions, religious fasting, for a Lent volunteer sleepover bash at a Lutheran church, and for Ramadan, last year, with my roommate in Olympia. Our job required fieldwork, tramping through canary grass and prickly ash, blackberry bushes and stinging nettles — there was no way we wouldn’t be able to drink water, at least. But it was all voluntary; food was ample at our fingertips, and there was no danger of things tasting dusty or stale. This sort of mocking privilege and shakable ethics makes me very uncomfortable, and tired. All the while I’m trying to apply and circulate my expensive education to these experiences, to claim engineering as a type of expertise, to claim that I’ve suffered the schooling, so I should know about some things. Because my father is an engineer, and I am first generation Asian American, and others were brave so that I could be here, and practice this privilege, and analyze from afar, and want to help but always be disconnected, elevated, but the accompanying guilt cannot make me anything less because I have to honor both my family’s sacrifices and do right by people who are not so lucky as I.
There was one time, I can’t remember what city we were in, but I was younger, and fatter, and more frustrated at myself, and my father and I were trying to catch a bus. We missed it, because I refused to run. I remember him saying something like, man you kids nowadays. In Hong Kong, we always ran for the buses. No matter how ridiculous it looked; you’re letting opportunity slip away. At the very least, try. Now I always run for buses, no matter how ridiculous I look. Richard Feynman’s wife Arlene said, what do you care what other people think? Maybe it’s a science and engineering thing. Opportunities as itches, and I’ve had eczema, I know when to scratch.