I'm a graduate student of high energy experimental physics. I've also written one novella, Fountain, which came out in November, 2014. I'm working on another.
I spent two years in kindergarten. My mother told me it was the normal thing to do; later I would find that this tradition was, in fact, quite uncharacteristic of other children in my neighborhood.
But, my kindergarten teacher was excellent and praised my proficiency with "small manipulatables," such as buttons and round stones. A year later, I would find peace in jigsaw puzzles, for which I showed enormous promise. It was the natural progression; I have yet to throw off the burden of a fascination for big collections of small things.
There was a wonderfully big collection of small candies in my second grade classroom. It was kept in a cardboard box decorated as a pirate's chest, and my teacher would offer items from its contents as rewards for certain achievements. One day at recess, a friend was chewing gum.
"How'd you get that gum?!" I asked him.
He was one of those kids that grew up in a household with a television and a sport utility vehicle. His mother would chew gum and give him pieces as they drove around stocking up on boxes of sugary cereal. My mother only started chewing gum when I was in high school. Even now, I still can't chew gum without going through the entire pack in one go. The skills of civilization are fostered at a young age. My friend chewed his gum with a confidence I could never have dreamt of.
"I took it from the chest," he replied nonchalantly, momentarily pushing the little wad of gum to the side with his tongue.
"From the treasure chest? Is that allowed?"
"Of course. Just go into the classroom at lunch time, and take whatever you want."
Well, that sounded reasonable. I took five handfuls of candy over the course of the week. Then, on Friday morning, my friend and his mother picked me up for school. My friend was sulking in the back seat.
"The jig's up," his mother said to me through the window. "Go in and get that candy. You have to return it."
"The candy you stole," she replied without feeling.
Oh, I realized, so that's what stealing was. I had been stealing candy.
"I ate it all," I said quite truthfully.
"See?" my friend's mother said, looking over her shoulder to my friend in the back of the car, "That's exactly what I would have done."
After my time as a criminal, I decided to turn my attention to nobler pursuits of small manipulatables. In third grade, my class was tasked with creating an economy. We designed a currency, which I convinced everyone should prominently sport an illustration of a penguin, and then we all created shops. One girl made little snowmen from cotton balls and sold them for five Penguin Dollars each. Five Penguin Dollars! I needed to get some cash, but my shop of unremarkable tissue squares was not bringing in the necessary income. So, I hired myself out as an unskilled laborer. Soon, I had five small slips of paper with a cool penguin drawing on each one, and I thought to myself, Tote, do you really want to exchange these five cool penguins for a little snowman? And I answered, Of course not, I need to get more pieces of paper with penguin drawings on them. I began hording my wages. Before long, I had all of the money and the economy stagnated.
In the summer, we would bike to the park and collect seeds and put them in boxes. One day, we found a man sitting against a dumpster, his bike lay on the pavement before him.
"Please help me," he said.
"What's wrong?" we asked.
"I've crashed into this dumpster. Please get help."
Then we noticed the red liquid on the pavement around him. It looked like cranberry juice.
We rode to the museum and threw down our bikes at the entrance. My friends began to run in, but I stopped them.
"Who's going to watch our bikes?" I demanded.
"It doesn't matter!" they yelled.
"Fine, then I'll do it," I said and sat down on the sidewalk.
Shortly, they came back out and reported that no one would listen to them; no one would believe them. We rode back to the man sitting against the dumpster and apologized.
"We tried!" we told him. "We really tried. But they thought we were lying."
"Okay", he said and coughed. He spat blood to the side and closed his eyes.
Eventually an ambulance came; presumably, he didn't die.
Another manifestation of my primitive interest in collections of little things arose at the end of elementary school when I became fully conscious of ants. They were the subject of my first intentionally scientific observations, members of a colony I found living in the concrete border of a sandpit at a local playground.
In middle school, my father would tell us the news every morning when he came to our room to wake us up for school. One morning, he told us about a man who liked fig newtons and going to Madagascar to study ants. Wow, I said to myself, I like fig newtons and ants, maybe he'll take me to Madagascar with him. And so, I emailed this man, and he emailed me back and invited me to spend three weeks of the summer learning about ants with him at the California Academy Of Sciences.
"So, are you an undergraduate or a graduate student?" the man's assistant asked me on the first day.
We were walking past row after row of rolling specimen cabinets.
"I'm an undergraduate," I said; I planned to graduate middle school the next year.
[A work in progress.]
From a dear friend of my grandmother, Elena Surak:
I do not think a Physicist should be called Tote, I think it is OK as a child, but a Physicist and especially who wrote a book, the name Tote is demeaning. So I just let you know that I do like the name Elliot a very dignified name for a future famous man.