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Capturing Lightning in a Bottle, Jeff Nunokawa

“The famous line is- my mother first moved, when she first moved to Hawaii she just HATED it- she used to say her line was, ‘another goddamn day in paradise, because the weather was always the same.’ Another goddamn day in paradise. I think that’s an old, you know, saw. Karen! The phrase is another ‘goddamn day in paradise’- is that an old phrase?”

Unlike lightning, you almost always hear Jeff Nunokawa before you see him. Residents of Rockefeller College will attest, usually with a laugh, how he flies in without hesitation, a sentient human pinball (if pinballs could earn a Ph.D. at Cornell), grabbing some food or your shoulder and calling, “Hey! How are you?” across the dining hall.

Like lightning, he branches: a conversation with Jeff arcs to its final destination with many false starts and discursive spurs, until his point finally strikes home. When he talks, he gesticulates with his entire body  — often implicating those within a ten meter radius of him, which is close enough to put you in the danger zone. Once you can hear Jeff, you’re close enough to get hit by his electric personality.

As crazy as it seems, Jeff makes a point to try to learn every Rockyite’s name. Crazier still, he succeeds. Despite his erratic rants, sometimes the best part of talking to Jeff is the experience itself, bursting with creativity, spontaneity, and vigor. When you pass by Jeff, it’s best to be on your toes, as he often prompts passerbys to answer life’s questions. He loves to see how students manage “to correct for him” year after year, such that his antics relate a casual game of brinksmanship with undergraduates.

A few serious notes on Jeff: he grew up in Oregon and Honolulu and went to Yale for his undergraduate education. It was at Yale that one charismatic English professor told him, “Nunokawa, you’ve done well. You should go to graduate school.” So, naturally, he did. After graduating with his doctorate, Jeff began his teaching career at Princeton in 1988 and hasn’t left since. He became Head of Rockefeller College in 2006, on the advice of former Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel. “She saw what I could do, and I’m grateful for that,” Jeff said. Since 2007, Jeff has written a daily essay on his Facebook page: ruminations on life sandwiched by poetry quotes. Though you can check these essays out and follow his page, don’t expect to send a friend request — he’s reached the limit (one can only have 5,000 friends, according to Facebook).

When asked about his views on life, Jeff sums up his philosophy saying, “what an incredible miracle it is that people make it through.” To him, we live in such a fragile system, and yet somehow get through each day — “a thing that amazes us far too little.” The mortality each of us faces requires us to see every day for what it is and accept life’s ups and downs.

Jeff elaborates this point through the example of the George Lucas 1973 film, “American Graffiti,” which he cites as being one of the movies he enjoys the most. As Jeff explains, in the final scene, John races against Bob Falfa, a pre-Han Solo Harrison Ford. The race takes place along Paradise Road, where at at one point, a car swerves off mid-race and crashes into the desert. At the end, John wins, but as Jeff notes, only by error. If the other driver hadn’t swerved off, John wouldn’t have won, and he knows it. In that moment, John “sees his own mortality,” and as Jeff notes, that’s supposed to be us; live it up kids, because everyone reaches a downturn and someone new is always coming up in the ranks.

This is Jeff’s last year as Head of Rockefeller College as he will return to teaching full time next fall. He says that he teaches each day to “remind you of what everyone knows, but frequently forgets.” He teaches to convince students to “beat them down to a truce,” to consider that the “meaning he is proposing might be interesting,” perhaps even “a nontrivial might!”

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