All of the talk last week about the New Horizons’ mission past Pluto has reminded me of of one of my most embarrassing college memories. Possibly one of my all-time most embarrassing moments, but I can’t say for certain. There is a lot of competition for that title.
It was my senior year and Vin (my ex-husband) and I were newlyweds. I was never an easy riser and I had this alarm clock that I bought specifically for the obnoxiousness of its buzzer. Vin, however, preferred to change it to the radio setting so that he could gently wake up to NPR and then get the headlines as he went through his morning routine. I tried to explain that the lulling voices of the Morning Edition folks simply were never going to be able to drag me by the hair out of sopping wet sleep and onto the shores of consciousness the way my alarm did, but I lost the argument. Vin was always the first to get up and prepare for the day, as he had to get to work an hour before my first class. My choices were A.) get up with him or B.) let him choose his wake-up sound.
This was back in the 90s before smart phones were saving marriages with customizable programing designed to suit their owners, even if two people shared a bedroom. This was also back when Pluto was still a planet. The highly controversial debate over its status was ongoing, but nothing had been decided.
One morning, when Vin was getting ready for work and I was still in bed – floating back and forth between different depths of sleep states – there was a short piece on NPR on the official reclassification of Pluto as not the ninth planet, but as a dwarf planet. Thereby illegitimatizing the elementary school science education of all Gen Xers, everywhere.
I took the information in as I slipped back down an oceanic-sleep level, where I incorporated the news into an elaborate dream about NASA and the Clinton administration. In the dream, it was announced that Pluto had become a nuisance, and the military had decided to launch a missile into space to blow it to gravelly smithereens. I – like NASA – was against it and I tried to stop it, but the military had some master plan to throw us off the trail. We (me in a ball gown and a bunch of NASA people in pilot’s jump suits – arrived too late. The missile had been launched and Pluto was done for. It was so long ago, I don’t remember much else about the dream. It probably involved some other random elements, like Mount Rushmore and/or zoo animals.
It just so happens that my first class that day was Physics, 101. I needed a class that would give me a math credit so that I could graduate, and I had put it off until the last semester of my final year of college. My friend Demetria suggested the physics course which she had registered for, and I signed up when I couldn’t find a less “mathy” alternative. There were some statistics, but it was mostly about space things, like the parallax effect, Fermi’s Paradox, and “the payload problem” of space travel (the heavier your space ship is, the more fuel you need, the more fuel you need, the heavier your space ship becomes, which ultimately limits the distance you can travel through space because there comes a point where your entire ship is basically a fuel tank). It ended up being one of my favorite courses that I took in college (and – apparently – one of the ones I remember the best; I kinda just impressed myself just now!) so it worked out well for me.
It was also the only class I ever took in college that was taught in one of those giant stadium-like lecture halls that seat hundreds of students. I loved that because, as an acting major that spent most of those four years learning to project my voice, memorizing Shakespearean monologues and rolling around on the floor with the same ten people, it was one of the few times that actually felt like I was going to college.
Okay – enough back story. On the day of the dream, I over slept and got to class a little late and a little asleep (probably still wearing pajamas, as I did 80 to 90% of the time in college, because I was a theatre major and we got away with anything), and I drug my groggy ass into the first seat I could find in the back of the room. I don’t know why Demetria isn’t in this memory; we usually sat next to each other in that class. But she must have missed class that day. What I do remember was Dr. Cassiday, who was writing an equation on the chalk board way down on his little stage at the bottom of the room, suddenly interrupted his lecture to face the class to say with a ‘pop-quiz’ gleam in his eye, “Oh, by the way, can anyone tell me why Pluto was in the news today?”
The professor had barely got out the end of the sentence when someone who sounded exactly like me yelled (and I mean YELLED, like she really excited that for once, she knew the answer,) “WE BLEW IT UP!!!”
When about two hundred spines twisted in their seats to stare back with four hundred eyes to find which of the two hundred students was the weirdo who said something so completely idiotic, I started to realize something. I realized that the voice had come out of my head, by way of my voice-box, thrust out in full force by every muscle fiber of my diaphragm, (Damn those vocal projecting lessons! Damn them to hell!)
As soon as I said it a series of thoughts ran through my mind with alarming speed, and I reasoned (for lack of a better word), “wait… that’s not possible… we just barely launched that missile this morning… even though I tried to stop it… and Bill Clinton told me to cheer up and gave me an Oreo cookie before riding off toward Mount Rushmore on a hippopotamus. I remember an explosion… but the missile should take, like, 20 years before it gets to Pluto… Right? There may be a chance I’m remembering that NPR piece inaccurately.”
I suddenly felt very awake, and my ears were burning. I tried to cover for my blunder by looking around the room with the same incredulous, ‘who said that?’ look on my face. I think I fooled three or four people.
Dr. Cassiday couldn’t really see us very well with all the lights focused on the stage. So he just looked out at the sea of us – his chalk still in his hand – and slowly said, as if he didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, “Um… Noooo. Any other guesses?”
I still cringe when I think about it. But it also cracks me up. It’s just too bad that Demetria missed it.
We blew it up! Priceless!