Saturday, January 21, 2006

Work, Utah, religion, publicity

I wrote this post in a sort of meandering way, so expect the main topic to slide around a bit.

Three years ago plus about a month, Sarah and I got married in Maranatha Baptist Church here in Logan. About a week later, I started working for WestWords, a college textbook compositor. We designed typesetting and book layouts, then published them all the way from red-inked manuscript to the printer.

I was especially proud of working on The Feynman Lectures on Physics. This is sort of the Holy Grail of physics textbooks, by Richard Feynman, a very popular guy for a Nobel Prize winner. They hadn't been corrected for decades. We worked on the definitive edition. I designed the mathematics typesetting that we used to enter corrections.

I also worked as the customer service point person for our company's software, MathMonarch. It stretched me a lot to work out problems with customers, with no training in business writing and such. I tried to act like their advocate and see things from their point of view.

Anyway, yesterday was my last day. I felt very ambivalent about leaving this job, which completed my longest continuous stint at any one workplace. I got another job for roughly equal pay, to do research for one of my professors at USU. It was a good career move and it will give me good scientist experience.

But I'll miss all the people I made friends with. Since I went to part-time when I started school in June 2004, I've felt some disconnection from them.

To be honest, too, because I live here in Utah and 80-90% of my co-workers were LDS, I felt somewhat disconnected from the dominant thing in their lives. I didn't have much way to share what they saw.

I remember early in the job, one of the managers, not with the company now, came and talked to someone who'd started when I did, about all their personal connections in the valley. Around here, family is intimately connected to religion and I felt very isolated.

I'd been through a pretty bad set of months just before starting at WestWords where I worked in a bottle factory as a temp (bought by Nalgene when I left). I had gotten into arguments, and even one shouting match about religion, even at work. I didn't have any sense of what should be public and private. I was very gung ho about being in Utah and shining my lonely Protestant light, adrift on a raft of orthodoxy, floating above an endless ocean of darkness. It didn't take me long to see the inadequacy of this viewpoint.

So at WestWords, I turned the other direction. most of my discussions about religion began and ended with the fact that I wasn't Mormon. I found it hard to follow my co-workers into their religious territory, even couched in very broad terms. If any of them reads this, I would want them to understand that I didn't blame them for this and I had no hard feelings. They were fish swimming in their own water. I learned a lot by listening to them talk about what their religion meant to them.

Now that I'm working elsewhere, I get to decide how public or private religion should be with my professors. Sarah gave me a necklace with a cross on it for Christmas. I asked for it because I wanted, among other things, to have a sort of physical expression of my inward belief. Maybe there is some parallel here to the Sacraments. Or, like CS Lewis said in Screwtape or somewhere, there is something different about praying in your head and praying aloud on your knees, because humans are physical beings, and physical movement alters the mental, emotional, and spiritual.

But I wear it under my shirt because the cross is not socially acceptable in Utah. The long practice of the LDS people is to regard wearing the cross as somewhat morbid and concentrating on the suffering of Christ rather than the resurrection of Christ. If you Google "mormon cross" you will run across the explanations (from Mormons and non-Mormons alike). I'm not trying to make big waves because of something that's on my shirt, so it stays hidden, just for me.

[digression: Incidentally, there is an interesting thread at about making waves for Christ through the wearing of shirts, particularly shirts with quasi-Christian messages calculated to shock or offend. I wrote a comment there that probably makes more sense if you read the discussion it refers to.]

Still, by accident, I've had it out in front of both of my professors, and this is only the third week of the semester.

Starting Monday, I have one class-hour on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, a meeting for my research on Mondays, and a meeting for my independent-study class, meeting at, well, irregular intervals. Five hours are spoken for. The rest of my time is my own.

And so again, I'm ambivalent. It's a stunning opportunity to show what I'm made of, how responsibly I can manage my time, and what a career in research might feel like. But I don't have as much direction, nor a manager, nor insulation from bureaucracies, nor co-workers. I could get pretty stir-crazy in my cave. Time will tell, I guess.

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