Leaving Pratt & Whitney
Earlier this year, I climbed Mount Monadnock, a 400 million year old consequence of the collision between the North American and the African tectonic plates. I remember being astonished by the permanence of everything around me- of the quartzite and the schist, and of the evergreen red spruce, preserved as they had been for millenia. In that moment, I remember feeling particularly alien to the land beneath my feet. I was the only transient in an immortal plane, a raindrop being swallowed by the ocean. The mountain had always been there. It would always be there, and the leaves would always be green. Immobility was a leisure they could afford. As for me, there was a voice in my head.
I didn’t recognize it at first, but soon I knew it was Henry David Thoreau, who had visited this mountain 150 years before me, and who had immortalized himself in the human narrative but was dead nonetheless. Whether it was his spirit whispering to me, or my brain spontaneously recalling a passage that had resonated with me, I'll never know. But with a rhythmic pulsation, like the very pounding of my heart, one sentence from Walden echoed through the chambers of my soul:
“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me I had several more lives to live and could not spare any more time for that one”
I don’t think this line was meant to be inspirational or thought provoking, but against the backdrop of the boulder which had been in that very spot since before the dinosaurs, and in the context of my own mortality, this simple statement transformed into a call to action. The tongue always turns to the aching tooth, I suppose. On that windy summit, I kept hearing this poignant mantra. My aching tooth was my own complacency, and it was a timely reminder to get moving before I settle into a pattern and wake up 40 years later surrounded by the same mountains and the same trees. It was time for me to leave the woods.
Exactly one month later, I resigned from my job, took a few weeks off and moved 3,000 miles away to the west coast to work in an entirely new industry.
Ifthikar Muhammad Khan
Rest In Peace to an absolute legend.
My nana was the quintessential gentleman. He loved his car, his cricket, and his daily akhbaar. He wore pleated pants with a matching blazer and a golf cap. He exuded class. Iftikhar Muhammad Khan was the type of man that took a briefcase to work, the type that took the extra few minutes to make sure everything was perfect. He had travelled the world and filled our imaginations with tales from impossible lands with fairytale names like trafalgar and sharjah and sambhal. In my youthful ignorance, I had envisioned him making these voyages by ships and hot air balloons- until he chuckled and reminded me that no, he’s not THAT old.
When we visited in the blistering summers, Danyal and I would huddle in front of the old TV with our grandfather and watch Pakistan’s test matches, the 5 day marathon version of cricket that’s known to be mind numbingly boring and almost always ends in a draw. But somehow, in the shadow of the halogen glow, we bonded over Kamran Akmal’s dropped catches, Shahid Afridis temperamental batting, and Shoaib Akhtar- of whom I allowed no criticism. In the company of Nana, even this slow paced game took on a new life. And whenever I was back in the US, in comfortable air conditioned classrooms with no fear of load-shedding, I drifted through my daydreams to plastic chairs on the Askari Balcony with my grandparents, the UPS power generator humming in the background, the Karachi horns blaring from rickshaws and colorful trucks down below, and the crescent-topped minaret in the distance reminding me at every azaan, “this is home”. Reminding me that home is not a location, it is the people that you return to- the ones that calculate the time difference to call you at exactly 12:00 on your birthday every single year without fail. iA tonight I will get that call again, and this time it will fill me with sorrow.
He wasn’t excessively expressive of his love, not out of some macho bravado, but because he didn’t need to be. His love was often silent, always genuine- but silent only in the same way air is- so consistent and permanent that it doesn’t need to announce itself- its presence is never questioned. It was a love that radiated in his actions and permeated the people he cared about. My favorite example of this was when I began my job after college, and Nana came all the way to Connecticut to see me. Even my closest friends had not made the trip, but blood is thicker than water and I can’t explain the joy I felt to show him my apartment, my city, my new life. To see the pride he had, to know that I had a relentless supporter, always rooting for me from halfway across the globe- that made all the difference, you see.
He was a brilliantly well-travelled and well-read man who had two masters degrees and had seen every corner of the world but spoke nothing of it (unless to inspire us to accomplish more). To the very end, he took great pride in being a pillar of unwavering strength for this family.
Ahmed Faraz once wondered “kaun dayta hai umar bhar ka sahaara, aye Faraz? Log to janazay mein bhi kanday badaltay rehtay hain*”. To that, I have a very clear answer, and the grief that has rippled across khandaan-e-khanbahadur upon news of this tragedy bears testament to the fact that they do too.
Rest easy, nana. Your absence echoes through us
اللَّهُمَّ اغْفِرْ لَهُ الَّلهُمَّ ثَبِّتْهُ
Allahum-maghfir lahu allahumma thabbathu
*Who can support you your whole life? Even the pall-bearers take turns shouldering the coffin
Just completed my Masters in Aerospace Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology!
While I look forward to applying my education to technical challenges, I'm admittedly more excited about knowledge for knowledge's sake- for how much "magic" this privilege opens up in my world- how I can see robots for their underlying algorithms, how I can sit in window seats while flying and truly appreciate control surface actuation, and how everyday objects dissolve into mathematical relationships- free body diagrams, fluid flow equations, & electromechanical transductions- transforming the physical world around me into a mirage of constituent systems and their fragile symphony.
Maybe the world doesn't break down into math or physics for you. Maybe it breaks into sociology or chemistry or theology. But Emerson said "God reappears with all his parts in every moss and cobweb" so whatever your passion may be, pursue it to equip yourself with the tools to dissect those mosses and cobwebs; to let your world melt into the form of beauty you most readily appreciate.
Special thanks to my managers Craig, Fei, and Raji at Pratt & Whitney, and my command at the Rocky Hill Fire Department. Studying while working full-time is hard, but it would have been impossible without their support.
His name meant light- that resplendent energy which turns saplings into trees, which nourishes everything it touches, which brightens every room it enters.
Which guides us, and without which we feel lost.
He was the first friend I had when I arrived on Earth. And though it’s been ages since we last met, I often find myself reminiscing about those simpler times, on the marble floors in sector F-10 in Islamabad where we spent hours playing Ludo and talking about whatever it is that a four year old talks about. I remember how I used to cheat in those ludo games and pretend it was because I couldn’t count. How my grandmother would never let me get away with it, but you never said a word when she didn’t notice. Surely, Nur Muhammad, you saw right through my sly ways, but as always my antics were met with your trademark smile.
I remember sitting on your shoulders as you made parathas and the hens pecked outside in envy of our friendship. I was captivated, from my aerial vantage point, by the dexterity with which you crafted little cobras of dough, coiled them up so they were ready to strike, and dusted them in flour and oil before flattening them and throwing them on the tawa. Such an algorithmic and efficient process- one which I had committed to rote memory. It felt like sacrilege to interrupt this immaculate ritual, and so I watched, mesmerized, from my perch. Yet somehow whenever you noticed I was ready to try my hand at it- and you always did- my parathas ended up too square or too big or too small. But it was never about the parathas, and so in each batch of flawless flatbread that made it to the table as evidence of your culinary excellence, there was also an oblong, burnt testament to your kindheartedness.
I remember how I’d walk outside cowering behind you, my palms sweating into yours, because I was so scared of the roosters. How you would occasionally let go and cackle at my frightened screams, just long enough to enjoy your prank and just short enough that I knew I’d still be safe.
I remember the ruby-stained white marble of the stairs you scooped me up off of, blood gushing from my forehead, just weeks before I moved halfway across the globe with four stitches, one to commemorate each year we lived life to the fullest together. I remember my parents consoling me in a scarcely furnished room at the Schilletter University Village student apartments in Ames, Iowa when I couldn’t make any friends in this strange new country and just wished you could be there with me; just wished we could make parathas and watch the snow fall. I wondered if you’d ever seen snow like this. And I remember the goats, and the bicycle, and the Super Crisps and the Catty Chins. I remember all these things, and yet it pains me that this is the last time I’ll remember them in second person. I only wish I had taken the time to say this when I had the chance instead of writing it posthumously. I wish I had called you when I’d gotten older, after destiny separated our paths, because I also remember the calloused hands and the creaky knees. I remember the childhood you helped give me did not come for free, and I only wish I had tried to repay it while I had the chance, even if it meant just a call to tell you how much you mean.
It’s a hard name to live up to, Nur Muhammad, but you did it beautifully.
For looking after me when I was a sapling, for nourishing me with endless parathas, and for brightening my days with your sincerity- thank you for the memories.
Rest In Peace
إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعونَ
“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps… I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one,” I read out loud before slipping Thoreau back into the bookshelf between Huxley and Tolstoy.
A blue guitar sat in the corner of the cozy apartment. It was thanksgiving day, and I had plenty to be thankful for. I didn’t have many friends in Connecticut, but the ones I had were great to me. Today, Joe had invited me over for dinner, and it was just the two of us painting self-portraits while listening to a lecture about Jungian Archetypes in The Lion King. I glanced back at the guitar, thinking about all the tunes it could play, all the beautiful lives it could live. I wondered if, like me, that guitar was so torn between which song to play that it sat silent in the corner.
It's a curious fact that the strongest of friendships can begin with the most benign introductions. A few years ago I was working a corporate tuck-your-shirt-into-your-slacks and log all your hours into a timesheet type of job; A be-here-by-8:30 type of job. If we spent more than 6 minutes on a task it had to be recorded with the appropriate charge number. We ate $9 lunches in plastic cafeteria trays and were ecstatic when they announced we would be getting free coffee in the engineering offices. This workstyle of course didn’t quite suit my nature but I liked the job and the paycheck was good, and anyways- what else was I to do? The whole course of my life had been charted out for me up to this point- grade school, then junior high, then high school and college and a graduate degree, and now collared shirts and socks that matched my pants. Why couldn’t they match the shoes instead? You’re not allowed to ask, I guess.
It was okay.
I was okay.
I was content, I kept telling myself. but I took a LOT of coffee breaks. I walked over to the Keurig probably 5 times a day. Every time my eyes grew strained from looking at CAD graphics and FEA meshes, I took the routine stroll over to that Keurig, through the engineering aisle, past the windows, to the back. The coffee was shit. And besides that, I don’t even like coffee. But right behind the Keurig there was a big poster of the world map. I’d spend 4 or 5 minutes (but never 6, lest I have to find a charge number to bill it to) daydreaming about all the other lives I could be living. Id chart out all the paths I could trek, all the places I could live. I could see all my potential lives hanging before me like the fat purple figs on Sylvia Plath's fig tree. One was Danish taking a motorcycle trip across Europe, and one was ditching the corporate life to join a tiny startup, and one was falling in love and settling down in East Haven in a nice house on the shore. And just like Plath, I saw those figs dry up and drop to my feet with each passing moment.
But one day, as I was walking to the Keurig, through the engineering aisle; past the windows, to the back, something caught my eye. Amidst the buttons and the belts and the slacks, there was something that stuck out. A few desks out I saw a new face rocking a full man-bun, a gaudy shearling fur jacket, and a dress shirt with the top 3 buttons undone.
In the adjacent building, we manufactured hundreds of jet engines every year, with thousands of parts to an engine. Each part had to be exactly the same, or the system would break. In the engineering office, it felt we treated our workforce the same way. Each individual was molded into the same fit- clock in, work hard, clock out. Tuck your shirt in. Get the raise. Promotion to senior. Then staff. then management.
And then there was Joe. Joe didn’t give a damn what we were “supposed” to do. And this attitude permeated every aspect of his life. He was forever questioning the arbitrary constraints that shape so much of who we become. Most people work these 9 to 5’s. They get married. They have kids. And they hate themselves the whole way through. Joe thought about all of these things differently. Instead of letting fears define his route, he carved a path based on what he wanted- no matter how unacceptable it was to the societal palate.
I’ve never met a man with more range than Joe Zoino. He’s the only person I've ever known that could fight in an MMA tournament on Friday, prepare roadkill squirrel for dinner during his wilderness course on Saturday, visit the botanical gardens with me on Sunday (musing about Orwell and Emerson and Hemingway while identifying every tree we came across), and be ready to engineer jet engines bright and early on Monday morning (without having even studied engineering in undergrad!)
If anyone had a right to arrogance, it was the guy that could kick your face in six ways to Sunday and also design aerospace turbomachinery. But Joe wasn’t arrogant. He was incredibly humble, hospitable, and caring. Every Saturday night, he’d invite me over to watch UFC and boxing. And invariably, between Canelo’s artistic footwork and Poirier’s calf kicks, our conversation would drift to existential romanticization. For at least the last 8 months I was in Connecticut, Joe and I would discuss the grand plans for our life. We would talk about what it means to be happy, and to experience the breadth of the human endeavor. We would dream up intricate schemes to slip off to Peruvian jungles to smoke ayahuasca with shamans or filter through busy Bangkok streets in tuktuks to learn muay thai or find some other excuse to shed the lives that were beginning to cocoon us. We would talk about what we wanted, and more importantly about who we wanted to become. I grew so much in the company of that speechless blue guitar, and it’s antithesis the ever-convivial Joseph Zoino.
The effect Joe had in my life is not quantifiable. He was a man of action and that rubbed off on everyone around him. He lifted up and improved anyone that he interacted with, from strangers to neighbors to coworkers, by showing us we don’t have to settle for good enough- that we can always go for what we really want. With this in mind, I resigned in June of last year to pursue an opportunity more closely aligned with my life’s mission. On my last day of work, Joe put his two weeks notice in as well, to begin bicycling across the United States.
And while I started a new life in California, we’d catch up every few days or every few weeks. He always had these grand stories about the people he’d met and the places he’d seen. I couldn’t wait to see Joe again when he finally made it to the west cost, so we could celebrate our respective futures and reflect on the times we had.
Unfortunately on November 11, when he was just 300 miles away from completing his journey, Joe died. His family transported his body to San Diego and held his funeral there, so he could symbolically complete the trip. But I wish things were different. I wish I could see him dip the front wheel of his bike into the pacific ocean. I wish I didn’t have to put a flower in his casket.
I miss you brother, but perhaps you have many more lives to live and could spare no more time for this one. Rest easy, Champ ❤️
Rocky Hill FD Recruiting Post
Thank you to the LBJ Fire Academy for preparing me for the fire service by providing me a world class education in firefighting, leadership, and emergency medicine- but most of all for connecting me to a cadre of incredible friends that I am still close to today. If you have any interest in community service, please consider joining your local fire department or ambulance.
Advice for New Engineers
I wrote this list after completing my first year of working full-time as an engineer:
1) BUY A CHEAP CAR AND AN EXPENSIVE TOOLBOX
2) GET A LIBRARY CARD (IT'S FREE). READ FICTION NOVELS
◆ They're not quite as exciting as ASTM standards, but if your employer wanted an uncreative math whiz, they would've bought a calculator.
3) ASK ALL YOUR QUESTIONS
◆ "Better to be a fool for a moment than a fool for a lifetime"
4) DON'T ASK YOUR BOSS ALL YOUR QUESTIONS
◆ Google » Coworker » Mentor » Boss » Technical Expert
5) NEVER LET YOUR COWORKERS KNOW WHAT PHONE YOU HAVE
◆ Keep it in your pocket except at lunch. Finish your work in 8 hours so you don't have to stay 10.
6) IT'S OKAY TO LEAVE WORK AT 5
◆ Bragging about sleep deprivation is tacky. Invest in your mental health.
7) IT'S NOT OKAY TO STOP WORKING AT 5
◆ Have passion projects and never stop learning. Develop skills in areas you have no experience in.
8) SET YOUR ALARM 2 HOURS EARLY. HIT THE GYM
◆ I'm not a morning person either (is anybody?), but would you fly in a plane designed by a sleepy engineer?
9) VOLUNTEER REGULARLY.
◆ Keep reminding yourself you chose this profession to make the world better.