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Ya’ll Come Back Now, Hear?

Well, I think I’ve waxed sufficiently philosophic for now.

I’ve been in Oak Ridge for almost two weeks now, long enough to have formed some impressions but not long enough to have them bitch-slapped out of my head by the cold, hard hand of reality.

Impression the First: When I visited New Orleans, I was inclined to chalk the driving habits of people in the Big Easy up to the fact that it was Mardi Gras weekend and people were hot, impatient, drunk, tourists, or all of the above. During my drive to Tennessee, however, I noticed that the overall quality of driving began to drop not long after I crossed the Illinois-Kentucky border and dropped precipitously for the rest of the trip. Attention, all those who live south of the Mason-Dixon Line: learn how to drive. Now. Put the beer down, duct-tape a rearview mirror to your pickup, get the gun rack out of the rear window, and clearly label the accelerator and brake pedals so that you will no longer be confused. This will largely obviate the need for me to pass you, and the ensuing activation of whatever mechanism it is that allows you to accelerate at the expense of converting leaded gasoline, which you use because it is available at the local gas station for slightly less than that unleaded crap that’s basically just water anyway, directly into atmospheric hydrocarbons so that you can keep pace, leering at me with seventeen, plus or minus six, teeth. Just knock that shit the fuck off.

Impression the Second: East Tennessee is incredibly, shockingly beautiful. I have some serious hikes planned, and I’ll try to get some pictures. Driving more than twenty miles from Oak Ridge in any direction entails a vertical climb of at least a thousand feet. The route I’ve taken to running in the mornings takes me along the axis of the Tennessee Valley for about a mile, then up a cross street that climbs five hundred feet in about half a mile to Outer Road, which was the fenceline when the Army was running the show. Apparently if I kept going through the forest to the top of that ridge I would come across a trail that runs along the ridgeline for about thirteen miles and which I think is part of the Appalachian Trail, which I am advised it is not possible to hike in a weekend. I said forest, which brings me to

Impression the Third: “Forest” means very different things in different parts of the world. It can, for example, refer to a rain forest, which has comparatively little ground cover but a lot of action going on in the canopy. In eastern Arizona a forest is a place where the aspen grow so close together that they make walking a challenge. In the Missouri of my Boy Scout days a forest was an expansive, mostly flat region with a substrate of dead leaves and pine needles, inhabited mostly by old-growth trees: oaks, hickories, elms and the like. In East Tennessee (I use “East” in lieu of the more grammatically correct “Eastern” out of respect for those locals I’ve met who appreciate the beauty of this place), the forests take the form of shorter, more densely packed trees supported by a network of rhododendrons and various smaller plants. In mathematical terms, the forests of Missouri are anisotropic, and the forests of East Tennessee are isotropic – they do not tend in a single direction, i.e. upward. In this respect they have more in common with forests I associate with South America and Asia – they are, in other words, jungles.

Impression the Fourth: The fireflies of East Tennessee are some bizarre species that synchronizes its blinking. I first noticed this last Friday night, which is a decent segue into a pretty good story. Friday night I went to see a play (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which was great) at the Oak Ridge Playhouse, which is now in its 62nd season and where I may have a part in the upcoming production of Bye Bye Birdie. At any rate, my mentor’s wife and daughter were part of the production and afterwards I was invited to a combination cast/graduation/birthday party for his daughter, at their house. I followed my mentor home, and by the time we arrived the party was in full swing, owing in no small part to the fact that we had stopped en route to pick up a keg at Wal-Mart (be still, my beating heart). To make a long story short, I wound up staying until about 4:30 AM, during which time my mentor’s son, Christian, and I twice had occasion to climb the hill opposite his house, discuss firefly synchronicity, forest isotropy, the works of Neal Stephenson, and marijuana, of which I did not partake, owing to sense of filial piety to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, managed by the University of Tennessee at Battelle for the Department of Energy.

Observations the Fifth and Higher, or, those related to ORNL: There are a number of inflationary effects that take place once you pass through the security checkpoint on Bethel Valley Road, which did not exist three years ago. Some of these are to be expected, such as the IQ inflation effect, the consequent ego inflation effect, and the guys-in-camo-fatigues-with-assault-rifles inflation effect. One that caught me by surprise is the display-size inflation effect. Apparently, with the taxpayers footing the bill, no display is too large. A 17″ LCD is the status quo for secretaries and engineers alike, with those who have been there longer or who have larger expense accounts being able to justify 19″ or even 21″ LCDs. My 21″ CRT marks me as an engineer at the low end of the totem pole; my office mate, a high school grad on an accounting internship, must make do with a 19″ CRT. The Mac user down the hall from me has a dual 2 GHz G5 with a 23″ Apple LCD. Drool.

The campus, or reservation, those being the two most common names for the facility, is also surprisingly disorganized. My office is is a brand-spanking new building on the west end, where all the new construction is taking place. The building is EMP-hardened: in the event of a nuclear war, this would mean that I could keep using my computer. In the context of my day-to-day job, however, it just means that my cell phone doesn’t work inside. At any rate, trying to find someone or something at ORNL is frequently an exercise in futility; I’m still getting lost in my own building, which is not only asymmetric, but joined at various seemingly random points on two of its three floors to two other asymmetric buildings. This disorganization extends into the mental realm as well: on several occasions during my eight-day tenure at the Lab, I’ve spent hours tracking down a particular piece of information, which is to say, the only person who knows that information. Working on a project involving a forty-year-old reactor doesn’t help, but still. Your tax dollars at work.


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