Thursday, July 16, 2015

Mona Lisa Smile

Hello my 8 followers.

Yes, it's been a year.

Today I watched Mona Lisa Smile. It wasn't my first time. I think I saw it a couple times before this. However, this is the first time I have seen it since leaving Boston. Mona Lisa Smile takes place at Wellesley, which although not in Boston, is nearby, and is a place that I have many memories of.

Seeing that familiar scenery, I just missed it, you know? The lake that I walked around every fall with the Wellesley girls. The picturesque little shops lining the roads near the school. The way everything just looks like  . . . . New England. I even miss the bad parts. There is a point in the movie where Julia Robert's character is running to meet someone, and has had an upsetting day, and just slips and falls right in the snow.

I had that moment. I had that moment so many times. The way she just looks up at the sky, lying in the snow.

In some ways, this will be how I remember Boston. I will remember being stressed beyond belief, and upset, and then falling in the snow. I also remember the good parts, which are what earlier parts of this blog comment on, to some extent.

But that was Boston. It was good, it was bad, it was full. I was always working, always running through the rain, and hanging out with friends in every spare moment.

Now I am in Hawaii. Cue mandatory beach picture.

Yes, I am wearing a black tshirt and jeans at a beach. I still can't bring myself to wear flip flops/slippers for more than a couple hours (thanks Dad for instilling the fear that my feet will basically fall off or get eaten by bugs if I do), and there are still days when I simply can't put my black clothes away, no matter how oppressively hot they make me.

When you compare these two pictures, it looks like Hawaii is the better place to be. There is sun! I am smiling! I don't fall in the snow anymore! There is water and relaxation and peace abounding.

Back in April when I was trying to decide whether to attend school in Boston, Utah, or Hawaii, the decision was rather difficult. There were pros and cons to everything. I reached out to everyone I knew and even people I didn't for advice on my three options. I cried and I prayed and I cried some more. There wasn't anything that specifically pointed me to Hawaii. But when I think back on it, two things prompted my decision.

The first was the advice of a close and trusted friend who was religious, but not of my religion. She knew that I was a religious person, and when my acceptance letter came for Hawaii at the eleventh hour, she said "Doesn't it feel like a sign from God?" (My friends of my religion wouldn't dare every say anything like that. All of their advice was "Did you pray about it?" Of course I did you dolt, now I am coming to you for your advice so I can gather as much information as I can before making an informed decision and taking it to the Lord. Sorry, rant over.) This phrase stuck with me as I pored through my options again and again.

But at the end of the day, I didn't decide because a friend pointed out that the timing was miraculous. I decided because I wanted a challenge. I had grown comfortable, happy, in Boston. I had grown comfortable with the day to day struggle. I remember laughing the day I got stuck walking home for an hour in sleet whilst wearing ballet flats. I loved it, even when it seemed that everything was working against me. And we know that we cannot grow when we are comfortable. Hawaii seemed to be the antithesis of everything I knew in Boston. I figured that by adapting to the culture here I would grow more than I could anywhere else.

I also came for the telescopes. After spending a wonderful month at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, I developed an appreciation for these modern marvels that I can't describe. If you ever get a chance, please enter a telescope dome and just watch the telescope move from star to star. It's an experience you won't soon forget. Hawaii has some of the best telescopes in the world, located on Mauna Kea.

Back to the culture thing though. Watching Mona Lisa Smile reminded me about that part of my decision. The culture here in Hawaii has been the pinnacle of challenging for me. The culture of the astronomy department, of course, isn't very different at all from what I saw at other colleges on the mainland. Sure, the men wear Hawaiian shirts, and people get leis when they defend their thesis, but they still pump out papers and science just like everyone else.

But outside of that? It's so different I can't even begin to describe it. I didn't believe it would be this bad at first. During my first opportunity to speak in church, I was given the topic of Faith. The obvious source to draw my material from was of course the Lectures on Faith. I also included references to the Book of Mormon, Bible, and Children's Songbook to boot, but the core of my talk was centered around the principles and ideals one finds there in those lectures. After church I was kindly pulled aside by some leadership and was warned that I would find Hawaii much different than Boston, and that I would have a hard time finding anyone to talk with about those sorts of things. He offered to be there if I ever needed to talk about it. I brushed him off. Me? Need help adapting? Pshaw. This is what I came here to do.

Back in Boston I attended 2-3 Institute classes a week. It seemed the natural thing to do, as I loved all the things I learned there, and it really invigorated me. The classes were like those art history classes in Mona Lisa Smile. The students had insights, and the teachers encouraged us to share, and the discussions were useful and intriguing. Maybe not always, but often enough that I always went when time allowed. So of course when I moved to Hawaii, I signed up for 3 Institute classes, one with each of the instructors. I quickly discovered that these Institute classes were nothing like those in Boston. And in some ways it wears me down. Of course, I have adapted my techniques in how I approach these classes, and often come with the intent to share and help rather than looking for a new piece of knowledge I haven't seen before. And I still receive personal promptings as I attend that make it worthwhile as a place to grow. But there is something missing.

There is no place that this is more apparent than in my class "Women in the Scriptures." The three institute instructors are taking turns on this one, and I can tell they are putting all they can into it. However, they aren't teaching to Bostonites - they are teaching Hawaiians. And so we don't discuss the usage of the word 'prophetess' for Anna in a church culture that immediately ducks their heads when women and priesthood are mentioned in the same sentence. Instead, we focus on women's accomplishments as they relate to child rearing. Because these are the basis. And I agree. Because in Hawaii, they need that. Students come unprepared to class, often not even knowing basic stories from the scriptures. And so they have to teach there. Whereas in Boston, we would have accepted these base facts, moved forward, and discussed what we can learn from these women in the scriptures, and how it applies to our modern lives. We would have discussed exactly what the word prophetess meant, and while still dodging the touchy subject of women and the priesthood, we might have explained it.

And that's what I need. Ever since I was 13 I have felt somewhat trapped within myself. Because I belong to a church that promotes motherhood and the importance of women staying in the home when possible. And yet I feel as if I was born to reach for the stars. In my teenage years my consolation and horror was that I would never be married, so the point was moot, and I could reach for the stars on my own and spoil my sisters' children in my spare time. In Boston, as I began to have discussions with other women who had strong faith and strong ambition like me, I began to see the middle path form. Where I could be a faithful woman who also did science. True, I would have to sacrifice some things. I probably wouldn't be the next Stephen Hawking (although to be honest, even if I dedicated all my time to astronomy, I probably wouldn't even have a shot at being the next Stephen Hawking.) I probably also wouldn't have 12 children (although, once again, to be honest I don't thing I could handle 12 pregnancies even if I was a 100% stay at home mom.) I could a be a wonderful woman who puts her children before her work, but still does excellent work. I saw women who were doing that, and other women who were planning on doing that. And that strengthened me.

Now I am alone in Hawaii. My church girlfriends here have jobs in construction, and childcare, and social work. They are not career driven, and in some ways not even passionate about their work. The intellectual differences and values of my friends at church are so different that some of my friends in my astronomy department can't even stand them. I still love them. I love them both - my friends at school who like me reach for the stars and code till their eyes bleed, and my friends at church who live for $6 movies on Tuesdays. But I miss that support of having women of faith and ambition standing right beside me.

That's not to say that ALL Hawaiians are like this and EVERYONE at church is without ambition and drive. I have been very fortunate to make a couple friends who share similar values and who have supported me in different ways.

But I still sometimes come home from my Institute classes with a heavy heart, feeling as if the questions I have as I ponder women's roles and purposes are still unanswered.

And I always come home feeling alone.

Being in Hawaii for the past 11 months has really stretched me in ways I didn't expect. I love it here, and hate it here, all at the same time. I love the way it's always raining. I learned to love inclement weather in Boston, and I certainly love it here. Walking 30 minutes in the rain to work is actually one of my favorite things about living here. But I hate the way it smells. Really, it smells awful here. Everywhere. I love the way I just bump into butterflies and rainbows, and hate how I always seem to bump into cockroaches and slippery patches of mud. I love all the different ways you can add pineapple to a dish, but hate that even pasta dishes are served with rice. I love the laid back attitude that leads to friends playing ukelele together and everyone singing along at the most random times, but I hate the laid back attitude that leads to visiting teaching lists that are never updated and are dysfunctional at best when they are updated.

You may have noticed that all of my talk about "Hawaiian Culture" is actually "Hawaiian LDS Culture in a particular branch." But that's what I am exposed to on a daily basis. The other culture I am exposed to frequently is one foreign to me, and one where I am the enemy. And that is that of those Hawaiians who believe that Mauna Kea is sacred, and/or that the Hawaiian Kingdom was taken over wrongfully by white America. I have often thought about posting about my reactions to their actions in protesting the TMT, but ultimately have decided against it each time. Because no matter where I stand, I will be viewed as an enemy or an apologist with no power. My words will be considered offensive. To them, I have no voice, at least not one worth listening to. In listening to these Hawaiians present their case at different public hearings I have felt hate in a way I never have before. Not all the protestors are like that. Most of them are nice people who are just trying to defend something they hold sacred (which I 100% sympathize with). But there are enough people that state that it's a denigration to even be in the same room with white people or scientists that I feel as if they are in some way protesting and rejecting me, not just a building.

My feelings, of course, are not the subject of their protests, nor should they be taken into account as to whether the protests should continue or not. But the fact remains that I feel adrift and unwanted in Hawaii, in a way I never could have expected that fateful day in Boston.

In Mona Lisa Smile, many of the woman protagonists face the same questions I am facing. What should they do with their lives? Should they focus on their families, or on their education? What does a healthy relationship with a man look like? How important is fitting in? How do I stay true to myself? 

I feel in some ways like Katherine (Julia Roberts), filled with new and radical ideas in a world that still stuck in the old. That the person I am somehow just doesn't belong in that world.

I feel in some ways like Joan (Julia Stiles), choosing between two wonderful things, with incredible pressure from both sides.

But when Joan's time comes to decide, she chooses what SHE wants. And when Katherine is told she has to conform, she decides to leave rather than give up what she wants.

In the end, that is what matters. I don't have to please my advisor, my best friend, the protestors, my branch, or even my family. I need to do what makes me happy. And then learn how to do that in my environment.

So I will become the woman I dreamed of in Boston. The one who has both. And I will learn how to do that here. Or maybe I won't. Maybe like Katherine, the person I am just isn't adaptable to a certain culture. I'd like to think that isn't true though. I'd like to think that the girl who reaches for the stars and feels passionately about her religion at the same time can live happily amongst the people of Hawaii.

But at the end of the day, I am going to do what I want.

Saturday, November 9, 2013


I really should go to bed and get some sleep.

But I have to document how awesome this night was. Because it definitely is one of my top ten nights at MIT. And that's saying a lot. I have been on some pretty crazy adventures and I LOVE the game nights that I have had throughout the years.

It all started a little more than a week ago, when I decided that we were going to strongly promote this dance, the Nerdherd, on Facebook. I hate it when people change their profile pictures to fliers- the purpose of a profile picture is to briefly remind me of what you look like just in case I know two Stephanie M's and looking at a picture helps me figure out which one much faster than trying to figure out which one belongs to which last name. Anyways, I still wanted all of us to have something in our profile picture that indicated the Nerdherd was coming up. So I decided that we would all take pictures dressed up as nerds holding a sign that said Nerdherd, and make that our profile picture.

Unfortunately, I was unable to make it to the night that we took all the pictures together as I had astronomy class. However, the results were magical. When I saw the picture below, it kind of hit me that this dance had the potential to be awesome. I LOVE this photo. It may partly be because I have connected so much with many of these people, and seeing them let loose and act ridiculous makes me really happy. Also, most of the props in this picture are mine. The people in this photo also took their own individual photos that they then made their profile picture. And those were also really, really amazing. When I was sent all of the photos, I couldn't stop flipping through them.

While the Facebook promotion was my idea, a lot of the success of this dance had nothing to do with me. Another boy in our LDSSA took this project under his wing. He might be one of the coolest kids at MIT. He is part of a frat here, and was able to hook us up with some speakers. He also put together a huge music playlist, which I then whittled down by throwing out anything inappropriate. The results were pretty good. He also bought the necessary snacks, and made an effort to invite a bunch of people.

During the week leading up to it, we did two things to prep. The first was more Facebook promotion. We had a nerd of the day who was featured along with the reason they wanted to go to the Nerdherd. Throughout the week we also had some practices where we learned a dance choreographed specifically for us to the song "White and Nerdy." It was pretty good.

On the night of, we had a lot of fun setting up. There were Christmas lights lining the floors near the walls, and then lamps with green, red, and blacklight bulbs. In the front of the room behind the DJ we had a huge sign.

Then we practiced our dance. It looked really awesome. Except for the part where I kept running into people. But we got a lot better as a whole, and people naturally sorted themselves into the front and back.

At 8 PM, the dance started. And we actually had some people show up. As we went on into the night more and more people showed up. By 9:00 we had at least 60 or 70 people. At the height of the dance there were a good 100. Possibly more. And a lot of them I didn't know. People really made an effort to invite their friends, and it worked. It was so awesome. The music was great, and we were all actively dancing for the most part.

Occasionally there were songs I didn't know that well. Let's get real, the only music that I really keep track of nowadays is soundtrack music (Which, by the way, the Ender's Game soundtrack is AWESOME). Then I would restock the cookies and water. We went through water pretty fast. I seemed to always be filling up pitchers. However, this gave me a chance to talk to people in the halls. They all loved the party as much as I did, and were enjoying themselves.

Then at 9:30, the moment of truth arrived. The music stopped, and the lights came on. Everyone looked a bit confused, and then someone started pushing everyone to the back as White and Nerdy came on. Then all those who had learned the dance swaggered on up to the front and performed. It was awesome. People loved it. There was some filming, but I don't have access to the video just yet.

The rest of the dance went just as before the big number. One part I especially liked was the slow songs. It used to be that the slow songs were the bane of my existence in high school. No one would ever ask me and I would bum out and shrink into the wall for the entirety of the song. However, tonight I was asked to dance every time. Including when I came in halfway through the song because I had been restocking the water.

One boy who asked me is my very best friend. He and I can talk about anything, and we have a blast. We laughed for most of the dance, and tried to dance as 'nerdily' as possible. Also, earlier in the night there had been a brief mix in of a 30 second dubstep version of the Star Wars theme. We had a force battle during which he force choked me and I fell to the ground. Don't worry, I put up a good fight. I'll get him back next time I see him.

Another time I loved was during my favorite slow song ever, "So Close" from Enchanted. I am also really good friends with the boy who asked me for this dance. He also knows how to spin girls really well. So while I was dancing to my favorite song I was twirling back and forth. It was so happy.

And surprise surprise, I even got asked for the awkward salsa and swing dances that seem to be mandatory at every church dance. Typically there are only 3 or 4 couples who actually dance those, so I felt pretty lucky tonight.

It was just so . . .  happy! And it is definitely the biggest party the MIT LDSSA has thrown while I have been here at MIT, and quite possibly the biggest we have ever thrown. I am really sad I don't have more pictures. I realized at the end of the night that I hadn't taken any. Here is one of the people who stayed behind to clean up.

Afterwards a small group of people went home with me to watch an episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender. A larger chunk of people went out to party some more. But lets face it: after three and a half hours of intense dancing, I was done partying.

However, I had two observations tonight.

The first: This was one of my top nights at MIT. It was crazy fun and awesome. And guess what? It didn't involve drugs, alcohol, sex, or even swearing. Not that my nights ever involve any of those. However, this party was awesome, and I bet most people who came agreed. And we will all be able to remember it tomorrow, and won't have regrets (well, except for the homework that didn't get done because of the party . . . ). I am so so SO glad that I have been raised in such a way that this is how I have fun. And that I have been able to make friends at MIT who also think it is fun to dress up like nerds and dance to clean music. Or rather, want to have fun without getting drunk or getting high.

The second: I'm too comfortable here. And its causing a problem. Right now I am trying to apply to grad schools. However, every time I sit down to work on my apps, I seem to get nowhere. Part of me was worried that I wasn't making the right decision - maybe I need to look at jobs in the private sector. Or take a year off and explore the world. However, I can't seem to get started on those either. Tonight I realized what my block is. It's not senioritis. It's not that I am making the wrong decision. Grad school has been my dream ever since I realized I needed it to do all the cool astrophysics stuff I want to do.

The problem is that I am too comfortable here. I now have a group of 20 friends who I trust with my secrets, my feelings, my hopes, my dreams. Really. They are like my family. But in a way it is different than a family. The thing with being at MIT is that you are still a human, and have to deal with all your normal human problems, while working nearly 24/7 to get all of your work done. If you have free time at MIT, you probably are forgetting something. Going through that with other people causes you to bond. You learn to support each other and love each other as pretty much everyone is having a rough time. MIT is hard.

Over the past four years I have learned to depend on people in a way I never understood in high school. Don't get me wrong. Being a teenager was pretty rough. But when I came to MIT, I was stretched in ways that I didn't realize were possible. And I have needed help from others to get through it. I can't even begin to enumerate the number of times that I have relied on the people in the pictures above, and in so many other pictures of my MIT family, to help me get through the rough patches. I have learned to trust these people with some of my weaknesses. In return, I have been able to help many of them with their struggles.

These experiences have helped strengthen my relationships with my family back home. I am a lot more open with my mother, and talk to her more often. Same with my closest sister.

When I left for MIT, I wasn't really worried about losing my family. I figured Skype would cover me missing them, especially since I would probably see them around every 6 months.

However, I am scared to leave MIT. I am scared to lose this family that I have developed here. I don't know if I will ever find a group to bond with like this again. Sure, there are Mormons all over, with similar standards to mine, who also will make really good friends. But suffering through MIT together- it changes that relationship. It makes it better. And I don't want to lose that. I don't want to go back to square one in developing my friendships.

That's exactly why I need to leave. I need to figure out how to make new friends again. How to bond with people who don't have the same experiences I do. I have figured out how to be happy at MIT. In order to grow as a person, I have to move on.

Which is scary.

Therefore, my grad apps are scary. And I haven't been willing to admit that to myself till now.

Hopefully it will be a little easier to do that now.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Soundtrack Music

Let's face it. If you are under 30 and working, chances are your headphones are a pretty necessary accessory.

But I have a problem. I like to sing along and dance in my seat. Evidence: Driving around in high school. Driving around now. Last summer I tried to listen to my typical mixes. But every once and a while I would find myself enjoying my music too much, and not enjoying my research. I had to find a solution. Because silence wasn't an option. Especially with all the spiders under my desk. The part of my brain not working on my problem seemed to always be thinking about them unless I was distracting myself with music.

And then I found it. Soundtrack music. No words to sing along to. More engaging than classical music- no sleeping! They don't want you to sleep during a movie. But very few songs have an engaging enough beat that you want to get up and dance.

But I wasn't going to turn over 100s of dollars to iTunes so I could have a good mix of soundtrack music. I did own a couple soundtracks at the time. My Star Wars III soundtrack and I have been inseparable since the day I had it. I think I also owned the Prince of Egypt, the Lion King, and possibly Inception. And that was it.

So I turned to Spotify and Pandora. And since then I have found many wonderful tracks. Some of them I would like to share with you. Some I have loved so much that I went ahead and invested in them on iTunes so I can listen to them on the go, without commercials.

All links are to YouTube, but most of these can be easily found on Spotify. I can even share my playlist with you if you like. :D

We will go by CD/movie. For some I love the entire song, and for some it is simply a particular moment. Enjoy.

Star Wars III
This was my first soundtrack CD. And it will always be my favorite. I have every song memorized down to the last detail. But there is one that particularly stands out.

Anakin's Betrayal. It is from the part of the movie where ALL THE JEDI DIE. Including the part where Anakin approaches the younglings. It may be some of the most tragic and heartbreaking music from the entire saga. And I eat it up every time.

My favorite seconds are probably 0:22 through 1:07. But honestly, of all of the soundtracks I listen to, this is the one where I literally enjoy every second.

Before we leave Star Wars III though, a brief comment on John Williams. I concur, he is one of the best movie composers of all time. His works are some of the best out there. But for listening to, whether in the car or at work, they sort of fall flat. They focus a bit too much on melody and a 'big band' sort of feel for me. I prefer my soundtrack music to give me an undercurrent of epic, instead of a blaring awesomeness. The one exception is really some of the Star Wars tracks- and that's probably only because I love Star Wars so much.

Lord of the Rings
There is almost too much to love about Lord of the Rings. There are some very beautiful moments, wrapped up in the intense epicness of it all. The prime example of this is A Storm is Coming.

At 0:33 and 1:39, we hear the typical LOTR mystical, minor theme. Mixed in between the two is the song of the shire. And finally, at the end, we have some very dark, moody stuff. And it all forms one cohesive unit. It's beautiful.

This is Minas Tirith. I particularly love 2:02.

At 1:08, The White Tree has this wonderful sort of beat in the strings. I love it. The rest of the song is beautiful too.

Skip straight to 2:28 on this one:

Typically I don't like people singing on my soundtrack, but this song Pippin sings is beyond gripping.

At about 2:30, The Grey Havens transitions into a beautiful, sweet piece, that eventually transitions into the Shire song. Can't beat that.

Alright. I already put too much LOTR on here, and I only did songs from the 3rd movie (which is the best one, but still). As you can see, Lord of the Rings soundtrack music is beautiful and amazing, and wonderful and life changing. The only reason I haven't bought any is because there is so much! And I am not going to spend all the money it would require to buy them all, nor can I differentiate. Thus, I Spotify my LOTR.

One more:

This is the one exception to the "soundtrack music doesn't make you want to dance in your seat." Tron is one of the CDs I bought. Definitely worth it. I love every single song on the soundtrack. I can't really pick a favorite. I could talk about all of them. So I will share the one with you that I most recently rocked out to.

This piece is called Disc Wars. It has a really strong beat all the way through. I love trying to pick out a different line every time I listen to this song. The at 1:24, the big beats come in. I LOVE THESE. No matter what I am doing, I must hit some object or clap my hands or fist pump with the big beats.

Which is why I don't listen to Tron at work.

Harry Potter
Hopefully the reader of my blog knows all of the main themes of Harry Potter. If you don't, please check out this song for a quick reminder:

I could go on for hours about the beautiful themes weaving through all the movies. But I won't. Instead I will just focus on my favorite. Which is Harry Potter 5. This is another CD I just decided to buy. I wouldn't say I love every song on there, but I certainly enjoy most of them.

This track is entitled "Dumbledore's Army." At 1:08, my favorite theme of all Harry Potter themes begins. It is beautiful, and HAPPY. The problem with most HP themes is that they are all SAD! But not in the way I want them to be.

But my all time favorite moment is in a track called "Possession."

At From 1:52 to 2:34, there is this feeling as if something inside of me just wants to come out and burst.  I don't know how Nicholas Hooper did it, but it's amazing.

There are many more themes I could comment on, but I still have many more CDs to get through.

Thankfully my little brother bought this one. I am in love with the Inception soundtrack. There is one song that stands above all the others, head and shoulders. This is my close second favorite soundtrack ever.

This soundtrack is entitled "Time." It really only plays off one simple theme that becomes more and more complex as you move forward. Don't turn up your speakers too much at the beginning- it get's louder! This is one of the songs that I like to blast in my car. It is also one of the few that is fun to harmonize to, as it has a definable melody that is consistent throughout.

I don't listen to this one at work either.

There is just something about Hans Zimmer though. The music he writes is always really gripping. Examples?: Lion King, Prince of Egypt, Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean. And that's only a small tip of the ice berg.

Batman Begins
This soundtrack was written by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer- and they did a pretty good job. My one problem with the soundtrack for all three recent Batman movies is that a large part of it is very quiet- with interspersed epicness. This isn't the best for casual listening. You can sometimes get caught a bit off guard.

But honestly, they did an amazing job. Here is my evidence:

After you listen to this, try to imagine Batman without this. YOU CAN'T. This theme has irrevocably, undeniably come to define the new Batman series as much as Batman's new gravelly voice. It's amazing. And I love this theme.

Of course, I am a sucker for the sad songs.

This piece is entitled "Macrotus." I love 1:00 to 2:00, especially the theme at 1:28. Beautifully tragic.

The Dark Knight soundtrack is of a similar caliber- with more of a crashy, harsh timbre to it. And I don't like the Dark Knight Rises soundtrack. Except the parts with the classic Batman theme, of course.

Hunger Games
Another soundtrack my little brother bought. I was not a big fan of this until I had listened to it a couple times. Then it grew on me. There are only a couple songs I really enjoy though. My all time favorite:

This song is Rue's farewell. Yes, I am once again a sucker for the sad song.

Star Trek
This one wasn't available on Spotify for the LONGEST time. So I just bought it. And I have never regretted it. Of particular note:

"Labor of Love"- the sad song. It is beautifully sweet.

This is the defining song of the Star Trek soundtrack for me. It captures many of the major themes of the movie, and is gripping all the way through. It is entitled "Enterprising Young Men." I could listen to this on repeat for a while. Literally.

The Chronicles of Narnia
This is the next one on my 'buy' list. There is nothing quite as epic as this soundtrack. Really. If you come away from listening to this next song without feeling like you rule the world, there is something wrong with you.


I could go on longer, but you are probably tired of me. Plus it probably took you a couple hours to thoroughly listen to all that music. If you even bothered. If you only come away having listened to 5 songs, here are the ones I hope you did:

1. Anakin's Betrayal- Star Wars III
2. Time- Inception
3. The Battle- The Chronicles of Narnia
4. Disc Wars- Tron
5. Enterprising Young Men- Star Trek

For those of you who I just converted, here are some of my favorite 'filler' soundtracks so that I have more variety in my soundtrack listening:

Captain America
Finding Nemo
Pride and Prejudice
X-Men: First Class

There are actually some really amazing pieces in these that I would like to talk about. But you are bored. I can tell.

And just so you know I am discerning, here are some soundtracks I DON'T like:

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Superman Returns
Sorcerer's Apprentice (not even sure why I tried this one)

And just a general piece of advice: Pixar soundtracks are amazing. Not good for listening to at work though.

There. Now you know what the multi-tasking half of my brain is doing at work. If you want to know about my research, you are going to have to talk to me. In real life. :D

Thursday, July 25, 2013

My Summer is Boring

Yes. This is a thought I have had several times. I am bored. Funny thing is, most people would be enthralled to have my summer.

MIT has pushed my expectations a little high. No one is asking me to stretch my brain power. My most challenging problem today? Figuring out how to transfer a large amount of data from one Excel file to another.

But rarely do they ask interns to do anything fantastic, right? They expect us to have a horrible learning curve. I have had many of the mentors at JPL tell me that they rarely expect their interns to produce anything useful.

That is the antithesis of what I want to do with my summer. Granted, I have produced a couple useful things at work. And what I am working on overall could be considered useful. But a monkey could do it.

Well, no. Not a monkey. But I feel sort of- wasted.

But that means my job is easy. And I am in California. And I have a car.

I am almost 21. Guess what 21 year olds do?

Not me. And it seems like a lot of the social life here revolves around this.

But you know what, here I am whining, and honestly, I still am having an amazing summer. Let me show you.

1. I am working at the place where America built it's first satellite. Where multiple Mars missions are planned, built, and operated. With people who have worked on everything from Voyager to DAWN to Curiosity.

And I am not even stuck in a cubicle. I have already been on multiple tours. The spectroscopy laboratory. Where they make cryocoolers for all sorts of missions. Where they test all materials that go on the spacecraft. The drop tower where they test what a hard landing does to spacecraft.

I have gone to multiple talks on a variety of topics. I won't lie. I miss MIT professors. These people are talking for a general audience- there are business majors in the audience. Sometimes I just want to see the math. Please?

I get to walk by some really cool stuff. I visited the working model of Curiosity the other day (minus the nuclear reactor- they just plug it in). She was moving around and testing out some parts. I decided she was waving at me. For those of you who knew me in high school, she is not the only machine that waved at me. RIP to my wonderful best friend. (I had considered writing him a eulogy on this blog earlier today. Maybe some other time.)

2. I have a car.

I have been carless for 3 years now. I definitely missed the mobility. Although I would loathe to have one in Boston. But here in California where everyone has one, I rather enjoy being able to decide that I want to go to the movie theater, museum, or Disneyland, and not have to chart out what buses I need to take.

But I do miss walking. They have a little shuttle that goes around JPL. I avoid it, unless it is hot enough that I am worried that I will get sick. That helps me get in around a quarter mile every day- and its usually a pretty hilly quarter mile. Hopefully my muscles won't have completely atrophied when I go back to Boston and want to walk the 2.2 miles to church. Or the 2.2 miles to the movie theater. Because let's admit- November is going to be AWESOME. And I plan to be at the movie theater multiple times.

3. I went to Disneyland.

I have been dreaming of the Little Mermaid ride since I was four.

Literally. Since I first went to Disneyland, a long, long time ago. It never made sense to me that they had a ride for Snow White, Pinnochio, Alice and Wonderland, and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, when these are obviously inferior to the Little Mermaid. Let's be honest. Nothing will ever supersede the Peter Pan ride, of course. But I feel like the other four need some serious help. And the Winnie the Pooh ride they built is probably the closest I will ever be to being on acid. The brief mention the Little Mermaid got in the Storybook Land Canal Boats really just didn't cut it for me. They had made plans to build a Little Mermaid ride a long time ago, but then left it alone. I found this out from my special anniversary copy of the Little Mermaid. It was so sad. I rode the virtual ride- but it wasn't the same.

And then they started to actually build it.

Of course, it wasn't finished the last time I went to Disneyland. They were finishing it later that summer.

I have patiently waited until I got back on the West coast- and it has paid off. I loved the ride. I loved sitting in my pink shell and experiencing all the wonder of my favorite Disney movie come to life. Of course there were some flaws- slight changes to the story, etc. But my four year old self would have loved it unconditionally. And I hope that my future children will love it. Because they are going to Disneyland.

I also got to go on the newly revamped Star Tours ride. I definitely approve. I need to go back and ride it a gazillion and two times. Literally. They did a fantastic job. I enjoyed the decorations in the store at the ride's exit too:

And of course, I had my Disney treats. First pictured here is the classic Dole Pineapple Float. Pretty much nothing compares to this.

And then I had my classic churro. No picture- we ate and walked.

At the end of the night I had my first item from the new Ghiradelli shop they have in California Adventure (although I will miss those free tortillas- so delicious!). Dark chocolate and mint sundae. So amazing.

And of course, I went to World of Color. I love that show. I might have cried. I am not a fan of the Merida sequence though. Hopefully when I see it for the third time they will have something new.

Some other Disney Pictures:

Although my favorite movie is the Little Mermaid, my favorite princess is Belle. I was super excited to see that she was the character at the gates when I walked in. But not excited enough to wait in that line.

Classic Splash Mountain. Really the only way you can effectively prove you had fun at Disneyland.

4. I went to the Toyota Car Museum. Open only by appointment.

One of the many perks of my scholarship. They also had Mexican food.

Some of my favorite cars:

Possible future paint job.

If Janet Toller drove a racecar, it would be this one.

This is effectively a limo on steroids. There is a table in there. I am all for playing Nertz in a moving vehicle.

Apparently this car is featured in Minority Report. Never seen it. But the car looks kind of cool. Although it seems like the back fender is the epitome of drag.

Another possible paint job.

At this scholarship reception, I also felt a little guilty. All of these new students stood up and talked about how grateful they are for this scholarship- how it was making it easier for them to pay for college, and removing a burden from their family.

My scholarship literally disappears. MIT doesn't even say thank you. They just decrease my financial aid by the amount of my scholarship and move onto the next victim. The money I use every year could definitely be better spent.

5. I saw the Griffith Observatory.

It was actually kind of frustrating at first. I knew EVERYTHING on those walls. No surprises, no small tidbits of new information. I guess taking all the astronomy classes at MIT has the downside of the removing the wonder of a public observatory. I did enjoy the solar section, however. Previous to coming to my internship this summer, I wouldn't have been able to comment on what was being displayed. But I now have a small store of knowledge about the Sun, and what it does. And what spacecraft are watching it, and what kind of images they take. The history of people who have studied the Sun.

If you want to learn about something interesting, go read about the Maunder Minimum.

But then I got to see a movie made by Leonard Nimoy, who happens to love the Griffith Observatory. So that made it all better. I love Leonard Nimoy. A lot. (I also watched the entire Original Series this summer. One of the better decisions I have made.)

6. I went to the beach.

Yes, Elizabeth spent time outside doing outside things. Calm down.

I failed at boogie boarding. But I really enjoyed wading out to where the water was a little bit above my waist- and then jumping straight at the waves. It was exhausting, but there was something exhilarating about directly challenging these feats of nature.

Although I didn't like the random pieces of plant life washing by my legs.

On the beach there were two 'parkish' type areas that were right next to each other. One was muscle beach:

And the other was the chess park:

I enjoyed the opposition.

I can't believe you are actually still reading this. But we will continue.

7. I decided Caltech really isn't all that horrible of a place. When I originally visited 4 years ago, I wasn't really impressed. But having spent some time in California, I think I could learn to love the campus. As to the people- well I don't think I would really know unless I spent some time here during the school year. I certainly like the astrophysics building.

It was a little weird walking by it, and realizing that I could have spent a lot of my time over the past three years there. Instead of the 6 story concrete structure with the incredibly awesome elevators at MIT. I wonder how I would be a different person. Because I certainly have changed over the past 3 years, and a lot of that I would attribute to the people and experiences I have had at MIT.

8. There is good Mexican food here. Something I certainly miss in Boston. Especially good salsa. Whenever I get 'hot' there, it is rather disappointing. Here, I have to be careful not to go too far out. They don't really sell chocolate milk at these little places for those of weak tongue.

And of course, there is a nice little Mexican grocery store that is super cheap. Of course, the only thing I took a picture of that I bought there isn't Mexican, but oh well. They are still delicious:

I also had my Mexican soda. Thanks to a friend who had a bottle opener. Something I never really thought I would need.

9. I made my yearly trip to Utah. Now that I am an adult, I can buy my own plane ticket and plan my own vacation. Novel concept. I had a blast. I got to reconnect with a lot of old friends from Boston and spend some quality time with my relatives.

I also got to work in the nursery with my grandmother. There was a child there in legit lederhosen. That made my life. If you would like to see a picture, text me.

10. All the other amazing little wonders I have experienced.

Breakfast at a little cafe.

The light switch in my office.

Indian Fry Bread. One of the most delicious things known to man.

I get to do and see all of these things related to Curiosity. But let's be honest- Phoenix is where it's at.

I drive by this on my way to church. Maybe one day I will go inside.

It's not often that Hubble hangs out with you while you wait for something to load.

Or that Voyager helps you study for the GRE.

They have parking spots specifically for long cars. I am not big enough to park there.

This is LAX. It's huge. This was my first time being outside of it, instead of just switching planes inside.

DEER. I see them about every other day at work. And they are so cute!

More deer.

Probably the fanciest Chipotle I have ever seen.

So, my summer really isn't all bad. But believe me, I am ready to get back to MIT. One last year of going and never stopping. One more year of learning so many things I can't possibly hold it all at once. One more year of being able to discuss physics with anybody I pass in the hall. One more year of feeling like I fit in. One more year of being average. One more year of having a very specific defined purpose.

I don't want to grow up. Because let's be honest. Having a 40 hr a week job is kind of boring. No matter what you do to fill your weekends.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

I live in Boston

It's been 22 hours, and I still hear sirens every 10 minutes or so.

Yet all in all, it would seem I am rather unaffected by the bombings. None of my friends were harmed. Not even any of my acquaintances were harmed. I have heard whispers of friends of friends possibly being hospitalized- but nothing definite.

But being affected doesn't just involve knowing the victims. Being affected means that initial hour when you aren't sure whether your friends are okay. Knowing that a street you once walked down to 'experience Boston' and buy some girl scout cookies will never look or feel the same. Hearing rumors that there have been bomb threats in areas all around Boston- some that you are sure are just made up in the hype, but that still cause that slight pit of fear to form in your stomach. Searching the web for any update, but knowing there probably won't be anything.

As I scroll through my Facebook, there is a distinct divide between my friends. There are those who live or used to live in Boston. These posts are filled with compassion and love, hope and prayers. Earlier there were posts to ask for help finding friends, and to assure others they were okay. The second group of friends reside elsewhere in the country. While some of these posts contain hopes and prayers, a great majority of them discuss whether this was a 'terrorist' attack, who possibly could have done it, and what an outrage this all is.

I promise you, that when I was first notified about the bomb, I wasn't even slightly concerned about who did it. My first reaction was a sort of denial- there have been a lot of crazy things that have 'happened' in Boston lately. There was a gunman reported to be on campus that kept us all inside for a couple hours- that never actually existed. There was a hurricane that ravaged other parts of the nation- but barely raised the wind factor outside my dorm. There was the blizzard that kept cars off the street, but didn't stop us MIT kids from having fun. All of these things were reported to us as 'horrible' and we were warned to stay inside. But really, they didn't turn out all that bad. Surely this was just another one of those overreactions.

Only after sitting there for a couple minutes did it really hit me. People probably died. Within walking distance from me. This wasn't going to simmer down like all the other 'horrible' things that happened. I started immediately checking on friends. I was lucky. I am not sure whether it was the MIT internet, or just plain dumb luck, but I never had any trouble getting out my text messages, emails, or Facebook posts to check on people. And thankfully they all got back to me rather quickly- or even notified me before I had a chance to ask them. I returned the favor by posting that I was safe on my Facebook. 

After I established that my friends were safe, I tried to ignore that nagging voice in the back of my head by continuing on with my Star Wars Marathon that I have had every Marathon Monday since I moved to Boston. It didn't quite work. As the events unfolded, I was continually on my phone looking for updates. I still wasn't looking for the perpetrator. Instead, I was trying to be more aware of the potential dangers- of the chances of a bomb going off anywhere near me. Or any of my friends located all across Boston. As I watched the death and injury toll climb, my heart grew more and more heavy. No, these people weren't my friends. But they could have been. None of these people had even suspected that there was any danger. I certainly wouldn't have if I had been cheering on people at the Boston Marathon.

After having slept on it, there are some in Boston who are beginning to point fingers. I won't be one of them. What  good does it do? How will it help those families who have lost lives and limbs? However, what I will commit to doing is remembering.

In some of the articles about the marathon bombing, they compare it to other bombing incidents around the country. Most of these happened during my lifetime- but I don't really remember them. We have a tendency as a nation to be immediately outraged- and then to sweep these things under the rug. We forget that terrible things have happened, and will continue to happen. We forget that we are vulnerable at all times. That all it takes is one mistake, one angry person, one structural flaw to severely change the course of a person's life. This doesn't mean we should live in fear, but rather that we should live in gratitude. To be grateful for each moment that we have with those we love and cherish. To be kinder to others. To find joy in every moment.

America may debate what we can do to prevent bombings. They will debate how to bring true justice to whomever the perpetrator is. But these debates will die down, until the bombings are just a faded memory, just a small fact some will remember when it is convenient to a point they are making. But to the people in Boston, I hope it never will be just a faded memory. It certainly won't be for me. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


"Profanity is the Effort of a Feeble Brain to Express Itself Forcibly." - Spencer W Kimball

This quote is printed on a small placard in the room the grandkids usually slept in at my Grandma Johnson's house. The room theoretically was the sleeping place of many of my uncles and aunts, and the placard existed when they slept there.

Because of it's placement, this is certainly the first quote I ever memorized from a modern day prophet. And it is probably the first scripture I memorized of my own volition- and not because it was scripture mastery or we recited it at family scripture every night. And because of that, I have thought about it a lot.

When we talk about profanity at church, it always seems like it is a really short conversation. Don't use the no-no words. Simple as that. Occasionally they go on to say that when you do so, people will take you more seriously and treat you better.

It seems like one of those no-duh commandments along with not smoking- if you start, it's hard to give up. But if you never even try it, then you never have to worry. And so many children raised in the church are taught this that you rarely meet a lifetime member who has a problem with swearing.

But I would suggest that profanity is more than just using the no-no words- although that certainly is part of it. Profanity is about letting words escape out of your mouth just to prove the strength of your emotion- using words with no meaning but force.

When I was little, I was intrigued by swear words. I hardly ever heard them, and so when I did, the shock was intense. And then the mild thrill of knowing a new bad word. Not that I really ever used them. I could probably count the times I have said one of those 'bad words' on one hand. Once my cousin told me that they could spell the F word. I was all ears. The F word was the big one- the one that I knew could get me grounded for forever. I couldn't imagine that there was anything bigger than the F word- it was the ultimate swear word.

While my mother was disappointed when I used a swear word during the couple super intense fights with my sisters, my mother also shaped my use of profanity in a much simpler, and more effective way. Like every Mormon kid, I knew that using any of the big words was going to get me into big trouble. But I wanted to be like everyone else. So like most of the other kids, I used substitutes, like dang, shoot, and crap. My mother typically didn't punish me for using those words- I wasn't doing anything wrong persay. But she would give me one of those looks- the ones that kids are scared to death of, because it means their parents are disappointed in them. It made me more aware of those words. As I grew older and learned the value of language, I realized they were just placeholders. What do dang, crap and shoot mean? Well, the second means a bunch of trash, and the third means to aim and fire something. I honestly don't know if the first has any real meaning. But when I used them, I wasn't using their meanings- I was using them to help vent my frustration that I had dropped something, forgotten something, or something wasn't going my way.

And that is what profanity really is- letting words become a funnel of pure emotion, and with absolutely zero reason. Which is why it's okay to use the D word when you are reading the scriptures- because you are using it's literal meaning. And why it is okay to read the B word in old books talking about dogs. Although I really don't like to do the second. I usually just say dog where possible.

When you look at profanity with that mindset, it turns out it really isn't one of those easy, don't start, don't worry commandments. Profanity represents something much more- the ability to have enough self control such that every word that leaves your mouth has a determined meaning. And that you use logic, reason, and similar methods to build your arguments- not simply brute force. Essentially, avoiding profanity in speech is akin to avoiding pushing in arguments. And the world would definitely be a better place if we all avoided being physical when fighting. If you can stop yourself from letting words slip from your mouth, shouldn't you be able to stop yourself from using your hands?

Many people have noticed my choice not to swear. One girl I knew decided she wanted to give up swearing. We weren't bffs, but she came to me and told me about it, and gave me her progress updates. This is just one of many instances that have shown me that my language use can have an impression on others. Several of my other friends would point out to others that Toller didn't like it when you swore. Occasionally when someone does it for long periods of time, I will point it out and ask them to please stop. There was one situation where I should have done so, but did not. During the year at MIT, I worked in a very public area, between all the offices for the grad students and professors in astrophysics at MIT. One day two grad students were outside, using the whiteboard near my computer to discuss one of the problems they had been having. One of the grad students was very reasonable. To the other, every single galaxy was f-ing, and all the d-- stars were in his way. I think he swore over 200 times in a half hour. And each time he swore, it honestly felt like something was cutting away at me. I thought about those examples they always give of the prophet kindly prodding someone about swearing, and they immediately stop. But I felt like I had no jurisdiction- it was a public area, and there is a good chance that I will work for this grad student in the future (MIT's astrophysics department really isn't that big). So I just did my best to focus on my work, but of course, I didn't even do a fourth of the work I usually do.

And while the swearing hurt me, and made it hard for me to focus on my work (and feel the Spirit, for that matter), I more feel guilty that I didn't tell him because it would have benefited him. Hands down, you are more likely to be taken seriously at an astronomical conference when you refer to stars by their IAU designated names than by expletives. And the other grad student in the conversation seemed to contributing just as much, in fewer words, towards them solving the problem. Maybe everyone who has ever been around him has been too nervous to say that his swearing bothered them- that they wanted their professional environment to feel professional. And his swearing revealed a littleness of mind- that the only way he could attack his problem was by using expletives- not his brain.

As I have worked in many different places, I have met people who have a wide range of vocabularies. But I immediately respect those who avoid using swear words casually. While it would seem to make you more 'manly' or more 'natural' or more 'at ease', what it really communicates to me is that you don't have enough control not to use them. Because the fact is, once you get into college and beyond, you know most of the swear words. So the fact that you can use them is not impressive, like it is when you are young and aren't as aware. You aren't 'breaking out of the mold', you are just proving the point of why the mold was there in the first place. People don't swear in professional environments because it isn't professional. It's also why you don't pick your nose or go skipping through the halls at work. And just because you are big enough to do it without your mom giving you that look doesn't mean you should.

With that being said, I have a long way to go. I have become better about not using the placeholder words- but there are still many things I say that have little to no meaning. And there are many times where I use biting, awful comments when I argue with someone- just to make my argument more forceful, and not to build my point. But I am glad for the practice and guidance I have had- and how they have helped me think about my language, and how I use it.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Are you a genius?

How do you answer this question? I have been asked it a couple times- most recently yesterday. I honestly don't know the answer- how do you define a genius? Are they the 10 people who could outwit everyone else on the planet, or is a genius just someone who is smart enough to go to MIT?

At the NASA Poster Session, where I was last asked this question

Here is how it usually goes. Well, there are a couple reactions-
Me: I go to MIT.
-Is that that college on TV?
-Is that in Michigan?
-You must be really smart
-Stunned silence

The first two really only happen out West. The second two are the ones I struggle with. When I first moved to Maryland, I didn't want to tell anyone that I went to MIT. Because the thing is, everyone treats you differently. Immediately. Instead of just being the new, awkward person, you become the new, incredibly smart I probably shouldn't make a fool of myself in front of them person. And that's hard. When I went to EFY, I often avoided talking about academics. Of course, when my sister came with me, I forgot to tell her this, and so she told everyone that I worked for NASA. Guess who was always last to be escorted?

Not that I am complaining about the blessings I have been given. I am so grateful for the many opportunities I have to expand my intellect- from my summer internships to the grueling work at MIT. And I am also grateful for the friends who gave the smart, shy girl a chance.

I was so excited to go to MIT. I was coming to be among my people. I knew that there were very few places in the world where I wouldn't be introduced as 'This is Elizabeth. She is really smart.' And I was going to spend four years being able to define myself by the things that I love and enjoy to do- not by my physical characteristics. During my first year my world revolved around game nights- social events where I wasn't in the corner, wishing someone would come talk to me. And that's what people associated me with. I was introduced to people as the game girl- and new people were super open to me. There was no unnatural shyness on either side. Playing games is one of the things I can do confidently, and in which I can be friendly without effort. Through game night, I had an element to be in, and it wasn't an intimidating one.

I didn't completely escape the stigma though. It probably didn't help that I chose physics, one of the majors that gets stereotyped as being 'hard.' To be quite honest, my major isn't any harder than my roommate's, or most of the other people at MIT. It's just different. And sometimes I still get introduced as the smart girl.

Which brings us back to the original question. Are you a genius? I guess that's for you to decide. But whatever you decide, I hope that when you think of me, you think about something beyond just my school and my chosen occupation.