Paul and I had a long talk after Mysore last week. I can’t give you any anecdotes about my history with Paul because, until about a month ago, I thought of him as “the tall guy who’s good at handstands.” He recently took some time off to recover from knee surgery. When he returned, his practice was still graceful and strong. I wondered what was going on behind-the-scenes. Here’s Part One of our talk, the non-yoga part. The next entry will get into his experience with yoga.
What extra-curricular activities did you do in high school?
Very few. I was a chubby little kid until I discovered rock climbing. I realized that [being overweight] wasn’t working very well. So I went on a crash diet and became reasonably fit. That was the first experience I had with athletic endeavors. I obsessively pursued that for several years, became decently competent at it, and then lost interest and starting skiing when I went to college. So other than climbing, really nothing. I was massively introverted. I was the little geek (or more like the big chubby geek) in the corner who didn’t talk to people and didn’t know how to interact with people. I figured out the social interaction sometime in grad school.
What did you study in grad school?
Aeronautical and mechanical engineering. But my PhD ended up being more in applied math and numerical methods. Socials in my department in grad school were a room full of people eating pizza and drinking beer and staring at their shoes. I’m not exaggerating. It was every bad stereotype of engineering that you can possibly imagine.
You were 25 when you finished your PhD. Does that make you a prodigy?
Everyone always thinks that I’m really smart but I’ve never felt innately gifted at anything in my life. So maybe I am smart and I just don’t realize it or maybe I’m just really good at not quitting things. I skipped two grades really early on, 2nd grade and 7th grade. It was fairly unremarkable. My dad’s a professor and my parents are academics. I learned to read early on and I was bored in class. So they said, “Let’s just push him to the next grade and he’ll be socially retarded for the rest of his life.”
I think they made fantastic choices. Maybe the social thing is just me, honestly. So I went to college when I was a little bit younger than everybody else and I spent four years in college just like everybody, then five years in grad school just like everybody. So I think that I’m pretty middle-of-the-road smart. Not too special.
Where do your parents live and how often do you see them?
My dad lives in Oregon. I go up there several times a year. It’s a quick flight. I climb with my dad and so, several times a year, he’ll fly to Vegas and I’ll drive out and we’ll go climbing. Or we’ll go climbing in the Sierra in the summer. We take two big trips per year (like four days to a week long) and two or three weekend trips per year. It’s a good time.
I had a falling out with my mom and haven’t talked to her in about nine years. She lives in, I wanna say, Nebraska?
The falling out was that I have a sister who’s a year and a half older than me. When she hit her early teens, she went a little bit crazy and stayed that way. She had a profound impact on my family. And so my parents ended up getting a divorce and my mom ran off with her lover. I had a hard time getting over that. Her personality shifted. I felt like I didn’t know her any more, which was hard to deal with. Now she contacts me in a Hallmark/postcard sorta way. I get an email two or three times a year with a “Hope you’re doing well, but I don’t really care about you” message. (laughs.) I could rebuild a relationship with her but it wouldn’t be nearly as meaningful as the relationship that I once had with her.
Did you consider any other careers?
Oh man, I’m a rebel without a cause. I’m a conformist. My dad’s a professor of physics. Education was highly valued in my family. So I kept pretending that I could rebel if I wanted to. But I thought, “I’ll go to college and then I can go be a climbing bum.” Then after college I thought, “I should probably get school out of the way while I’m used to it. So I’ll go to grad school. Then I can do whatever I want.” And then five years later I thought, “I really hate academia. I should go look for a job because I don’t have any money.”
Then I got a job that I like. The 9-5 thing really has a lot going for it. Especially with the degree of flexibility that I have. It’s not something that I would do if I didn’t get paid for it. But they pay me a lot and, as far as jobs go, it’s pretty damn awesome. The company treats us well because it’s hard to find people who are qualified to do these sorts of things. The company makes dna sequencers, so they decode genomes. I work on the team that turns the optical data from the instrument into acgt bases. It’s large scale software engineering combined with some very cool numerical algorithms. So they just lock up all the technical people in a separate building and keep us segregated from the rest of the company and it works out okay. (laughs.)
I’d probably bank it and take a vacation after quitting my job. The problem is that I like my job. So the idea of quitting my job and not working for a while is entirely feasible, but afterwards I would have to find a job that I like less. So I’m disinclined to do that. I rather like my life the way it is now so I don’t think there are too many things I’d want to change.
No, I find that a minivan fits my personality far better than a Porsche. I have dogs. I drove a Civic for a long time [when I had only CJ]. Then I got Norman. So I had 160 pounds of dog in my back seat and I was trying to drive out to Joshua Tree to go climbing for the day. The dogs were just not having it. CJ was squished in the corner and Norman was sprawled out across the entire back seat. So I started thinking that I should buy a new car. I was thinking, “SUV? Large Sedan? Ugh.” The thing that made the most sense was a van because if you rip out the middle seats there’s a giant space in the middle. The dogs could lie down there or you could put surfboards or climbing gear. I drove to Joshua Tree one Saturday with three people, two dogs and climbing gear for all of us. These things are rad! Everyone should drive a van. Plus it lets me indulge my rebellious nature in that I can subvert the dominant paradigm by firmly embracing it. I’m a minivan hipster. I drove one before it was cool.
Check back in a couple days for the yoga portion of our talk.