Sunday, May 12, 2013

Is this thing on?

I'm back.  You're gone, dear reader - any readers I still had when I last posted 18 months ago - but I'm back.  I realized, just today, that I needed this outlet again, at least at this moment.  Something has happened, something good but something that threatens pretty much everything about who I am, and I don't know where to turn.  So I'm turning where I have, historically, always turned in my moments of confusion: to semi-anonymous writings on the internet, the comfort of an empty room where I can shout as loud as I want.  If you're out there, go easy on me.  It's been a while and I'm probably rusty.

What happened to me - what had already started to happen when I stopped posting here - is that I met someone.  A man.  I met him almost two years ago, on - of course - the internet, and we started dating, and we haven't stopped.  This man - I'll call him B for the purposes of this post - turns out to be perfect for me.  He's smart and funny and calm and kind, and I love him more than I thought I could love someone I hadn't invented myself.  Being adults in our thirties, we're both wary of commitment, but after two years of Wednesday and Saturday nights we've decided to move in together.  This summer.  We started looking at apartments yesterday.

If you're out there, reading this - I am imagining two erstwhile readers in particular, among the most sane people I've ever known (although one of them, I've never actually met), nodding their heads and smiling, because they are happy for me, because they hoped that someday this would happen - you are wondering what the problem is.  I haven't been able to explain what the problem is even halfway convincingly to anyone except B, and while it's great that we understand each other, he's not really the person I want to talk to about it.  The problem isn't anything concrete about him or about our relationship; the problem is all about me.  What it boils down to is - impressive dating resume aside - I had not ever really imagined myself ever finding the elusive One.  When I was very young I thought, vaguely, that this guy or that might sort of morph into being him - or, more precisely, that I might magically morph into the sort of woman who had a - apparently, this is what B says we are becoming - a life partner.  A Life Partner?  Really? Do you people know me?  If not, let me tell you - I am not the kind of girl who has a Life Partner.  I am Comic Relief Girl, Epic Screwup Girl, the Sassy Spinster.  In the movie of my life, I am played by Lizzie Caplan.

So in addition to being excited and happy, I'm confused and alarmed and afraid.  I never expected something like this to happen, not really.  While it seems like something I want - B makes me happy, our relationship is a strong one, and we've talked through pretty much every major issue - what if it isn't?  What if I'm on autopilot?  What if I only think I want to be in a relationship because it's what everyone else wants, what movies and novels teach me to want, what my parents and friends want me to want?  It's not that I'm worried B isn't the guy for me.  I'm worried there is no guy for me.  Maybe I'm someone who is better off alone.  Do you ever see Lizzie Caplan characters trotting off into the sunset with normal, stable, decent guys?  Maybe you do, I couldn't get to the end of Bachelorette because it annoyed me so much, but I can't imagine it.  I worry that if it happened, her character would stop being wise-cracking and weird and start being someone who knew how to crochet, which seems to be what happens to women when they meet men they can count on.  Am I going to magically going to learn to crochet if I move in with B?  Is it, like, a requirement?

Yes, I'm being silly.  But actually I have significant worries - worries that start to sound silly as soon as I type them - on these sorts of mundane lines.  Like, will I have to start eating proper meals with meat in them instead of yogurt and breakfast cereal?  Will I have to eat them at a table, on a plate, instead of on the couch while reading a book?  And what about these books - will I be able, when I am near the end of one, or 100 pages from the end of one, and it is almost bedtime, to stay up late to finish?  Or will I have to go to bed at a normal hour like a proper adult?  Which is what this all boils down to: the realization that, to some extent, moving in with B will force me to become an adult.  Of course he's not a dictator and I'm sure I'll stay up late reading plenty of nights, probably while eating popcorn for dinner on the sofa, but also probably living together will shift my default.  I'll actually have a dining room table, for the first time ever.  And a bedroom, for the first time in years.  Maybe it shouldn't be that settling down with another person pushes along the transition to sensible adulthood, but maybe I am one of those people for whom it is.  And maybe if that happens it isn't such a bad thing?

But still.  I don't want to be... nailed down.  Not in the sense of "I want to have date around" or even in the sense of "I want to move to Paris".  One benefit of my extended bachelorettehood was that I did date around, and I did move to Paris, if only for a month.  While there are still plenty of things I want to do, I've done a lot; of the obviously exciting, you-have-to-be-single stuff, I've done - at least, almost - enough.  

It's not about what I want to do, it's about who I want to be, and as always I don't know.  In my mid-twenties, I felt that my single status made me an outcast, not because of the actual lack of a man, but because it made me confusing.  When I had a boyfriend, people could see who I was: me-and-this-one, me-and-that-one.  It seemed to me like people could make sense of a couple, they could measure each partner against the other and size them up, but a person alone - she could be anyone.  She could be anyone.  Later on, my understanding of this shifted.  It was not that being in a couple helped other people understand your intrinsic self.  Being in a couple made you the person you were going to be.  Before you met the person who would be your mate, you were just a bunch of aspirations and confusions floating around.  After, you were crystallized, decided.  Immobile.  That was who you were, and while you could be shattered you could no longer flow.  

This understanding scares me.  I don't want to be frozen.  While I like who I am now, it's a recent development.  I haven't been this person for terribly long, and I'm not sure I want to be her forever.  In fact, I'm pretty sure I don't.  She's cool and all, but is she really me?  Is this look going to work in twenty years?  In two?  What if I want to change my metaphorical hair color, or scrap the whole thing - the city, the job, the hobbies - and start from scratch?  B is, of course, supportive and understanding, but still, with him in tow - with anyone in tow - the possibilities are limited.  We might move, I might change jobs.  But still, people will look at me and see me-and-B, me-and-B, me-and-B.  They will finally know me.  Who I am now is the person I will, it turns out, have been all along.  And maybe that's true, anyway, and maybe my reasonably low level of angst these days has been why this relationship has been able to work.  But, still.  Am I ready to be all figured out?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Nearly eighteen months after leaving academia, I'm still sorting out my feelings about it.  That will sound odd to you, maybe, because didn't I spend years trying to leave?  And wasn't leaving the breakout from nearly a decade of allowing inertia and other people to run my life?  And isn't everything so much better now?

Yes, absolutely, to all of them.  I don't wish I hadn't done it.  But academia is not like a regular job; it's like a relationship.  An abusive, miserable relationship in my case, but still a relationship.  And if you end a decade-long relationship, even if for very good reasons, you're going to experience some fallout.  I know that leaving was the right decision because I didn't experience any of the fallout right away; I was relieved and happy.  Really, I was thrilled.  It was like I'd gotten my life back - except more so, because actually I had gotten my life, period, for the very first time.

But I have flashes.  I talk to friends who are professors and grad students and postdocs.  Many of them are miserable, but still, they talk about their work, their grants, their conferences, and it feels bittersweet.  That life was home for me for so many years, and it's gone.  I helped a friend compose a letter to a professor I know well, asking for a postdoc, and the professor was interested, and the friend got excited, and I felt jealous that I don't have a promising scientific career ahead of me.  And just tonight, I was Facebook surfing and saw a not-really-a-friend's new photos of the dog he and his girlfriend just got, and I was a little bit jealous of the clearly-now-permanent girlfriend because I had a flirtation with the guy that I was more interested in than he was, and then I was a lot more jealous, of the guy, because I saw that he has recently become an assistant professor at a fairly prestigious school.

It's unclear whether I left academia or whether it left me.  There are at least two stories.  The first is that I wanted to get out for years but never had the guts, that my faculty applications were halfhearted and I turned down two semipermanent between-faculty-and-postdoc gigs because I wasn't willing to do what it took to get a permanent position, that everyone I worked with and for thought I would be a great professor one day but I couldn't be bothered.  The second story is that I sweated blood for nine years as a grad student and then a postdoc, that I gave up relationships and hobbies, that I thought about my work day and night, and it wasn't enough.  I applied for every faculty position in any department that resembled my field, even if the school was in Idaho.  I went to interviews where I was treated like dirt and nobody had the courtesy to email me and say they weren't going to hire me.

Usually the truth is between the two sides of the story, but in this case both sides were true.  I was a very good scientist, and I worked very hard, and it wasn't enough to succeed.  Perhaps if I'd been more persistent and less prideful, willing to take another temporary position, I'd have wormed my way into something.  Perhaps if I'd been smarter, if I'd made different choices about advisors, if I'd picked hotter research topics.  Maybe if government funding didn't keep getting cut, or if I could blend in with other scientists by being male.  Whatever it was, it was something I couldn't, or wouldn't do.  Looking at other people's interesting research and prestigious faculty positions and exciting conferences and being jealous is like looking at your ex-boyfriend with his new girlfriend and feeling that way: completely natural, but not a feeling that should necessarily be acted on.  My relationship with academia was messed up, and it needed to end.  Would it have been nice if the relationship could have been healthy and happy and successful? Sure.  But it wasn't, and whether that was because of our fundamental incompatibilities or particular mistakes, the relationship has been ruined.

I'm better off without it.  I haven't found a replacement, exactly.  I like my current job but don't love it the way some people love scientific research or even the way I sometimes loved scientific research.  But I'm a much better and happier person now.  My life has opened up in ways I never would have thought possible even two years ago.  I feel younger and freer; my days match better with how I imagine myself.  And best of all, I feel a sense of agency.  If I don't like something - my work, my apartment, my city, my hobbies, my friends - I have the ability to improve it.  It's easy to scoff at that, say that everyone controls their lives, but for years I didn't.  I ceded control of everything to the dysfunctional relationship that was my career, and I didn't understand that it was not going to voluntarily return my agency to me.

I'm still a work in progress, of course.  I haven't found my One True Career, and I don't know if I ever will.  I'm prone to occasional bitterness, as tonight, about the way my past career ended.  I feel jaded, used up, and a way behind.  Other people much younger than me have progressed much further in my current line of work.  But I don't think I came away from it empty-handed, and when I do find my True Career Love, I'll be a better worker because of what I learned from my first, horrible, marriage to academia.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

another training post: on relinquishing goals

Training has officially gotten rough, and I think I'm now at the point where I can expect to feel tired, sore, even slightly sick as often as not until the marathon is over.  Tuesday I made my first attempt at a run since Saturday's 16-miler - I believe I wrote about how short, slow, and unpleasant that was - and it left me feeling tired the whole day.  I postponed Wednesday's run to the evening, and by midafternoon I was feeling reasonably good. 
 
Last night's run went very well, in part because it was done an easy treadmill.  I ran seven miles, and although I cramped a bit around mile three, I slowed down briefly and then felt fine.  I took a break at 4.5 miles because the treadmills only let you run for 59 minutes so I'd need to take one at some point, and then I ran the last 2.5 miles faster.  The last mile of the run I felt extremely strong and fast (although I happened to be running next to a mirror, and I did not *look* very fast).  The worst part of the run was coming home to an exceptionally painful shower and difficulty sleeping due to friction burns.
 
I'm not sure if I'll run again before Saturday.  I could run tonight, although I would prefer to do yoga, and I dread aggravating my skin further.  I could run tomorrow morning, but my long run is Saturday.  I feel like it's kind of pathetic to not be getting in at least 3 weekday runs, though.
 
The biggest obstacle I'm having in my training this time around is my own expectations.  The first time I trained for a marathon, four years ago, I'd never done anything like it, and as long as I was able - somehow - to get through my longs runs, I felt like I was on track.  I was slow, but many of the other runners - and the only other marathoner - I knew were slow.  It was hard, but I was mostly just surprised that I could do it at all.
 
I'm much stronger now.  It's easy to forget that.  But my long runs involve more hills and much less walking.  I haven't been timing myself, and I didn't time myself last time, so I don't know if I'm faster.  But one of the most vivid memories I have of that training cycle was sitting down on the side of the road and crying twelve miles into my first fifteen-miler because I was so tired and in so much pain and had so far still to go - and I've now passed the fifteen-mile mark in this year's training with no such episode, so I'm at least mentally tougher.
 
But I keep comparing myself to other people, or to how I would like to be.  I read all these running blogs, written by people who are much stronger and faster than I am.  These people eat twenty miles for breakfast on Saturday and then run five miles on Sunday to "recover", and they don't seem to suffer from sore, weak, or tired legs in the days after their long run, or the inability to sleep through the night without waking up to eat, or anything else unpleasant.
 
Of course this comparison is unhelpful (except insofar as I can learn from their experiences).  I'm not running to be as fast and strong as other people, or even as fast and strong as an arbitrary measure of how I "should" be.  I don't know what I'm capable of at this time and on this course, since I haven't run a marathon recently or here.  And I'm not advanced enough as a marathoner to reasonably set a goal on this race, other than to run strong, do my best, and not let the race beat me.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I learn so much, sometimes, from reading my own blogs and journals and poems.  Or rather, I learn two things: how much I've changed, and how much I've stayed the same.

In so many ways, I've stayed the same.  For something like fifteen years - basically, the entirety of my reflective writing life - I've had the same doubts and worries and insecurities, the same moodiness, the same gallows humor.  Some of my closest and most challenging relationships have endured for a decade or longer.  Even the central issue of my twenties - whether and how to continue in academia - while resolved, still informs a large part of who I am and the decisions I make.

But in other ways, I've changed.  Reading my writing from five and ten years ago, seeing how agitated and terror-stricken I was, is almost painful.  Of course this is an unfair sampling - this spring marks roughly the fifth and tenth anniversaries of my graduation from college and my completion of grad school, and many people find such transitions overwhelming.  Three years ago, when I was moving to New York, I was almost equally overwhelmed (although in a more beaten-down way).

Still, I feel a lot more equilibrium these days (yes, really, the last year or so is what passes for calmness with me).  Somehow in the last few years I've grown into myself more.  I wouldn't say that I have a better handle on my life, exactly - I still couldn't say, with any kind of definiteness, what I want to be doing or where I want to be doing it, in ten or even five years - but I do have a better handle on myself.  Ten years ago, I didn't really know who I was, or even who there was to be.  Five years ago, I knew who I was, but everything in my experience suggested that I was aberrantly deficient in every way that mattered.  Now, I have more sense of what my strengths are and how to deal with my weaknesses, and I'm comfortable enough with the whole package not to focus (most of the time) on why I'm not exactly like what I imagine the median person must be.

The bigger evolution,has not been in how I see myself, but in how I see my life.  For so long, I viewed my life as something that happened to me, a set of tests that I could pass or fail, with each performance dictating the next leg of the path.  I rarely thought of it in terms of my own choices.  Circumstance and the people around me and my own lack of gumption kept me from really making most of the major decisions about my life in my early twenties, and it was a habit that became more and more ingrained even as I struggled to shed it.  

But that has been, really, the story of the last few years - somehow, after I had resigned myself to it never happen, I took control of my own life.  I took up hobbies nobody had ever imagined for me.  I made unlikely friends.  I traveled to places I never really thought I'd see.  I escaped what had begun to feel like a life sentence in a modestly comfortable cage (that would be academia).  And now, after almost three years here, I find myself with a totally different life than I'd ever allowed myself to imagine.  A life full of evenings with friends and excursions to the theater and international travel, with a good but stressful job and a tiny, overheated apartment, the kind of adult life I would have imagined hopefully at the age of twelve and probably never afterwards.  It is a life I really, really enjoy.

Five years ago, dreading leaving the town that I hated and that had become home, I wrote that I loved travel because it was so anonymous.  On a bus or a plane or a train, nobody knew anything about me.  They didn't know me as the grad student with tons of papers and no job offers, or the disappointing daughter, or the weird ex-roommate.  I was just a girl reading a book or drinking a coffee.  And that's how I've felt in New York, as well. Nobody knows me here; all the friends I could make in a lifetime are a vanishingly small fraction of the people I see in one commute to work.  To all the people around me, I'm just a girl with a kindle.  I could be smart or stupid, disappointing or exemplary, weird or normal.

I could be anyone at all.  Even, somehow, after all this time, myself.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

I was at a dinner the other night where people were telling horror stories about emergency rooms and paramedics.  A girl who'd had food poisoning talked about being ignored for six hours as she lay on a cot throwing up into a bucket, not given an IV or any fluids, because they thought she was just a kid strung out on drugs.  She'd ended up at a hospital in a bad neighborhood, apparently, and - according to another girl at the dinner - most of the people in the emergency room would have been kids strung out on drugs.  Still, I pointed out, they would have been kids strung out on drugs who needed help, and everyone nodded but they weren't really listening.  They kept talking about how incompetent and mean paramedics are, how emergency rooms don't help anyone.  And maybe they're right, for the most part.  But I had to leave the room for a minute, because it reminded me of my only experience with paramedics and emergency rooms.  

I would have been twenty-four.  It was springtime, probably just this time of year.  I was asleep and my phone kept ringing and I kept getting up and ignoring the call.  It was four in the morning and the call was from my close friend and former boyfriend, who was having trouble in his relationship with another woman.  But he kept calling back, and finally I answered it.  I think you'd better come over, he said.  So I got my car keys and, still in my pajamas, drove to his apartment less than a mile away.  When I got there, I could tell right away that he was drunk, but we talked for fifteen or twenty minutes - about the girl, how she'd left him for good, how he'd tried to stop her by force and scared himself with his own violence - before he told me about the pills he'd taken.  I told him we had to go to the hospital but he refused.  I pleaded, and argued, and bargained, but he kept saying no.  He went into his bedroom and I called 911 from my cell phone.  I couldn't give his address, though - he lived in a big apartment complex and, while I knew the name of the complex and his apartment number and exactly how to get there, they couldn't dispatch an ambulance without the exact street address.  I'd have to call back from the landline, I was told.  

My friend had taken his phone with him into his bedroom, and I was afraid of him, but I was more afraid of what would happen if I didn't do anything.  So I stormed the bedroom and wrestled the phone out of his hands.  I think he must have been fading then, or afraid of hurting me, because he was trying to fight me off and I wouldn't have been able to get it away from him if he'd been more coherent.  I ran back to the living room with the phone, dialing, and talked to the same dispatcher - this was a small town, a small emergency service area - and with the landline she could pinpoint my location, and then my friend came out of his room and was fighting for the phone back.

The paramedics came.  I don't remember how long it took.  My friend had gone back into his room and I was afraid to go back there.  There were men, it seemed like a lot of them, in heavy boots.  They went into his room and brought him out.  They all seemed much too big for the apartment.  I was sitting on the couch then, not really awake, and there were policemen who told me they needed a statement.  They needed to know who I was, why the drinking had started, who the other woman was.  His life - my life - our lives - seemed tawdry when I was telling it to an officer of the law at four-thirty in the morning.  I didn't have proof of anything.  I just knew what my friend had told me, which was that there had been a lot of alcohol and a lot of different kinds of pills.  I was afraid it wasn't really anything meriting an ambulance, that I'd wasted their time.

I hadn't wasted their time.  Outside - this must have been only a few minutes later - they were loading my friend's stretcher into an ambulance.  They asked him which hospital he wanted to go to and of course he didn't know.  I wouldn't have known either, and I wasn't nearly unconscious with an almost-lethal cocktail of drugs.  One of the paramedics took me aside and told me that he wasn't allowed to give advice, but if it was his friend lying on the stretcher, he'd want them to go to a particular clinic.  So I told my friend to request that clinic, and he did, and that's where the ambulance went.

I followed the ambulance.  I sat in the waiting room.  It was clean and quiet.  It wasn't like an emergency room on television, because this wasn't New York or Los Angeles.  It was the middle of nowhere in Illinois, and my friend was the only person there who was close to dying that night.  I used the restroom, which was a single room like you'd find in a midpriced restaurant, except with specimen jars.  At five-thirty I called my mother.  Is everything okay?  she asked me. The last time I'd called her in the middle of the night, my best friend from college had died in a car crash very late on her fifty-fourth birthday.  Of course everything's not okay.  

A lot of time passed.  I saw my friend; he seemed really cheerful.  They'd pumped his stomach and he was going to be fine.  I called his other close friend, who came to the hospital.  They decided to transfer my friend to another hospital fifty miles away, where his veteren's benefits would pay for a longer stay.  He'd be in a psych ward.  He seemed happy about this.

What I remember about that night is mostly two moments - in the apartment, talking to the policeman who had seen so many lives as wrong-headed as mine, and outside, with the paramedic, who put himself in our shoes and told me what to say to help.  I don't know what the other hospitals in town were like, but I know that the one we went to was nearby, and clean, and saved my friend's life, and maybe if he'd ended up somewhere else the night would have spiralled into even deeper horrors.

My friend lived another six years.  He got over the girl, eventually.  He met someone else and they were together for a long time, and frequently they were happy.  That relationship ended, as relationships do.  He moved to another city and took another job.  He had other friends, other joys and sadnesses.  Last summer I went to Paris for a month, and he was going to be there too during that month, and look me up.  I worried - with what now seems like an inane self-centeredness - that his intermittent desire to rekindle our long-ended relationship had returned. 

I remembered the last time we were in a French-speaking city together - Montreal, six months after our breakup, for a conference.  He'd sent pastries to my hotel room.  It was the kind of romantic gesture women, stereotypically, dream about, and he knew I was no exception.  If the right man had done that for me, if a random man had done that for me, I would have been swept off my feet.  But he wasn't the right man, he was worse than a random man, and the gesture meant nothing good to me.  I hated myself for not being able to love him, for being the sort of person who hurt someone so thoughtful.  The pastries were obviously expensive and well-made, but in my mouth they tasted like sawdust, and I couldn't bear to eat them.

I needn't have worried about a repeat of this, because he never made it to Paris.  He died at the end of June.  I was in Reykjavik, and I learned it from Facebook.  It never gets dark, at that time of year, and nothing about the trip seemed real.  He died of an overdose, it appeared, and nobody was specifying how, or how intentional.  It was in the early hours of his thirty-seventh birthday.

So his life is over.  Has been over, for nine months.  He was a person with problems long before I met him.  But he was also a person with so much sweetness.  When he and I were together, he did everything he could to keep me from feeling pain.  He watched stupid television shows on Lifetime with me and made chocolate-chip pancakes.  He came to my best friend's wedding halfway across the country even though he knew I was about to break up with him.  One time, in the heat of summer, when I was in a bad mood, he put on all his old army gear, including a giant heavy backpack, and hopped across his living room like a rabbit in order to make me laugh.  I don't think he really loved me - I don't think he really saw me - and I know I didn't love him, but he was good to me, always, even when I wasn't very good to him.  He deserved better than he got, better than he set himself up for.  I think most of us do.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Everyone is Being Cool Without Me

Nothing good ever happens on a Tuesday, and yesterday was no exception.  After a particularly frustrating day at work and the umpteenth consecutive day of being ignored by my office crush, I decided that it was time to treat myself and use the Leonidas gift certificate my parents gave me for Valentine's Day.  (Oh, you are thinking, how sweet!  Her parents gave her chocolate for Valentine's Day!  You are thinking this because you do not know my mother.  This was Guilt Chocolate; it was Why Don't You Have A Boyfriend, Preferably a Jewish Lawyer Boyfriend, To Buy You Chocolate So Your Parents Don't Have To Get You a Gift Certificate Chocolate.  But I figured it would still taste good, once I actually went and purchased it.)

So I set out from the office to Leonidas, except it is not, as my mother told me, "right next door"; it is about fifteen blocks away.  Three blocks into my walk it started to mist, and by the time I got to the shop it was definitely raining, and I definitely did not have an umbrella.  Plus, due to my eternal-yet-irrational optimism, I had convinced myself that something good would happen that day and so was dressed nicely, which is to say not-waterproofly.  Plus-plus, I arrived at the store on the stroke of seven, which turns out to be when they close.

So, no chocolate.  I set off for the subway station, which was another fifteen blocks (Midtown is not evenly tiled with subway stations, and half the ones it does have only seem to go to Brooklyn).  This was a really fun walk, because the rain intensified and became a thunderstorm - a really loud, kind of scary one.  By the time I got to the train station, I was drenched, and the first train that came was too full to get onto.  On the second train, I ended up standing right next to a woman I know vaguely and spent a few hours with last weekend - and she didn't recognize me.  When I smiled at her, she looked at me like I was a crazy person (which is exactly what I must have looked like) and moved away.

So, crappy evening, and nothing about its crappiness was specific to my personality or circumstances.  Bad days at work, bad weather, commuting woes, the failure of chocolate to simply materialize in one's apartment - these are pretty much universal annoyances.  But the way they all coalesced into a perfect storm of crap was, I think, uniquely enabled by New York.  You live here long enough and you forget that it is not, actually, a regular feature of life everywhere to be pushed and shoved and squashed, to climb a ladder or unfold your couch when you're ready to go to bed, to be constantly competing with nine million other people for every square inch of space and every penny of rent money and every iota of attention or interest or humanity.  You forget that a concrete path between a road and a river does not constitute nature and that dog poop on the sidewalks is not evidence that you live in a great neighborhood.  You also forget that you could survive without ballet and Broadway and access to every amazing thing ever created.  Or you don't forget, and you know that eventually you'll have to leave.

Sometimes I think about where I'll go when I leave the city.  Seattle, maybe?  San Francisco?  Boston?  I know I prefer cold to warm, and I want to be near mountains or water or both.  It should be a real city, or close to a real city, but also close to somewhere with space.  And I have to be able to find a job there, and there has to be a decent population of single people over 30 for me to hang out with.  It would be nice, too, if I could afford to buy a smallish house with a yard big enough for dogs.

But, really, those are not my criteria.  They're considerations (and having a job is indispensable), but they don't rule much out.  Everywhere has some sort of nature or culture and most places have both, there aren't too many places where real estate is more expensive than here.  No, the real consideration is the type of people who live there, the attitude of the place.

What I want is related to - is the antithesis of - the latest manufactured buzz of the New York Times: FOMO (available online here, although because I am a New Yorker I read it in print, a definite benefit of residency).  This stands for Fear Of Missing Out, and it refers to the sense, when you look at your friends' Facebook posts, that they are all happier and cooler and more interesting than you.  They are at the latest gallery opening or the hottest nightclub; you are in your pajamas watching reruns of The Office.  They have an adorable baby in a pink snowsuit with its own ears; you have a four hundred dollar cell phone that nobody except your parents ever calls.  They are reading interesting books and making new friends and taking vacations to France; you are going to work and playing sudoku and eating leftovers with your roommate.  Whoever you are, whatever you are doing, at this moment somebody - and probably somebody you met once, at a bar or your sister's high school reunion - is doing something infinitely better.

This feeling may be familiar to all users of Facebook or even all people, but I think it's particularly strong in people who live in New York.  New York is a city run by people who have to have the best, do the best, and be the best, and the rest of us either go along for the ride or settle in for a long haul of being told we're not good enough.  (See: Penelope Trunk here and elsewhere on her blog.  Also, a lovely and talented (erstwhile?) reader once said, either here on her own blog, that part of the reason she left the city was that dating was difficult because men were always looking over her shoulder for the woman who might be just a little more... whatever... than she was.  I had no idea what she was talking about at the time, but in the years since I have thought of this comment always and it seems more and more true with every man I date.)  New York is a place where - yes, I have become ones of those people who says this, and believes it - you can see and do and be amazing things, more so than possibly anywhere else, and consequently it is a place where there is a lot of pressure to see and do and be amazing things all the time.  

The thing is, I don't want to see and do and be amazing things all the time.  Sure, sometimes I want to see a great performance or visit a world-famous museum or experience an outstanding restaurant or do some other of the things that New Yorkers think you can only do in New York and in reality you can do in any major city and a lot of minor ones.  And sometimes I want to hang out with friends, and sometimes I want to practice yoga alone in my apartment.  This is obvious to you, if you live anywhere but New York, because you probably have an apartment big enough to lay down a yoga mat in.  

There's nothing stopping me from living my life the way I want to here, and I mostly do, but this isn't the best place for it.  This is a city made of crazy aspirations and driven by the fear of missing out, where just the thought that someone else might, somewhere, somehow, be doing something a little more awesome drives people to deprive themselves of sleep for years on end, inhale a pack of cigarettes' worth of pollution every day, and work and party themselves into a frenzy just to stay a little ahead of the curve on some hybrid skinniness/wealth/hipness scale, and wake up ten years later wondering where the time went and why they haven't figured out, much less accomplished, anything they really care about.  This is a city composed almost entirely of a profound insecurity that nothing - no salary, no party, no apartment - will ever be enough to mark its bearer as a success and that all of it, the money and the women and night after night of awesomeness, will not keep one single filmmaker or investment banker or trust fund artist from eventually, and at the exact same rate as his peers in tiny towns in Wisconsin or possibly faster, getting old.

When I leave New York, in two or five or ten years, it will be to go somewhere that isn't driven by fear.  It will, hopefully, be somewhere with good weather and good public transportation and a decent feeling of community - but more importantly, it will be somewhere that isn't about being beautiful or successful or awesome.  It will be somewhere that's about being happy and healthy and helpful and yourself.  And when I go, I'll still have Facebook, and I'll still have all my Facebook friends, in New York and San Francisco and Pennsylvania and Japan, and when I log on I'll see their status updates, and I'll know that everyone I've ever known, plus the nine million total strangers who live in New York City, is being cool without me, and I won't care at all. 

Saturday, April 2, 2011

People occasionally ask why I left academia.  Actually, people ask frequently, but most of the time they are satisfied with the answers I give first - that I'd been doing it for ten years and was ready for a change, that I was tired of living in tiny towns and working all the time and getting paid next to nothing, that I wanted a job that was interesting and absorbing but that could sometimes be just a job.

All of those are true answers, but they're not really the answer.  I'm a passive person; I don't make big life changes out of boredom.  I knew I was giving up a lot in the way of excitement and material comforts, but most of the time I simply didn't care; even now that I have access to them, I'm not a big one for excitement or material comforts.  And academia wasn't as much work as it could have been; as a theorist, I could do less work by being smart, and I always had other things in my life.  So, while those things are all true, in the sense that I appreciate those benefits of being out of academia, they're not the reason that I left.

I was talking to a younger colleague today; after a couple years in the workforce, he's considering going to grad school for a PhD and wanted my take.  I told him, honestly, that it's not always an easy life, even if it looks like one; that it requires dedication and focus and that your advisor has much more power over you than any supervisor in a regular job, and much less incentive not to abuse that power.  I also told him that I though he's someone who would enjoy it, because he really is dedicated, and he's very good at what he does.

He asked me why I left, and I gave him the standard answers, and he didn't buy it.  "You gave up doing research just so you wouldn't have to live in Idaho?" he asked, incredulous.  This is a guy who should be getting a PhD, because to most people in this city, being able to live in New York instead of a tiny town in northern Idaho is reason enough to change careers.  But then again, he's right, because when you love something, you follow it wherever it takes you, even to the middle of nowhere.

And then he told me what got him thinking about grad school: he was watching a documentary about waste disposal, and saw the marine biologists talking about the effect of trash on the ocean ecosystem.  And he was thinking, these guys just get to be out there, on a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, enjoying the sun, and they're improving the world.  And meanwhile I'm a desk all day, trying to write better code so the company can make a little more money.

And he's right.  Kind of.  Those guys get to be out there on a boat, but they also have to be out there.  They don't get to go home every night; instead they sleep in bunk beds and eat dehydrated meals.  They don't get to see their spouses and children every day; if they're single, they have a hard time dating.  They can't run five miles every day after work, as my colleague does now, and they're probably always smelly and wet.

But, sure, they're improving the world.  Maybe, a little bit, sometimes.  Not as much as they wish they were, and not as much as my colleague thinks  Because that's the thing about academia, and maybe about all science - progress is slow, and frequently there is no progress.  At a corporation, there are incentives to always be doing more, getting better, staying ahead of the game - even if those incentives are just money.  But in academia, for everyone not working directly towards tenure, the incentives are fuzzier.  Sure, yes, there's the drive to contribute to the world, to make a difference, to make it better.  But that contribution will come in years, maybe a lot of years, maybe too many years for you to be around for, and it's a pitiful counterweight against the desire to go home, watch television, get some sleep.  For really good scientists, the love of learning and exploration is the animating factor.  For others, it's the desire for renown, or a sense that science is fun, or simply inertia.  Or there simply is no motivation at all.

I had a difficult relationship with my work throughout my academic career.  I was never as devoted to it as most people start out.  I liked it, and I was good at it, and I have anything else I really wanted to do, and frequently that was enough.  I liked learning new things that nobody else had ever learned.  I liked assembling my work and discussing it with others.  I liked reading papers and attending conferences.  I had bad days, band months, even bad years, but so did everyone else.  Whenever I got close to leaving, I told myself that I was doing something important, that I was making new knowledge, and that compared to this no job as a keyboard-presser was ever going to measure up, and that the joy of discovery outweighed the hassle.

After grad school, I spent two years as a postdoc in each of two groups.  In the first group, I performed research with applications to drug delivery (how do we get drug molecules to the parts of the body - the cells, or the parts of the cell - that need them?) and separation mechanisms and the general area of nanofluidics.  It's not a super-hot field, but it's an area of active research.  The work I did had two distinct parts, and before I left I wrote up two papers, which - in accordance with standard practice - were to be revised and submitted in the next few months, while I ramped up work on my next project.

Except the papers didn't get revised and published.  My former boss ignored them, and he ignored my emails asking about them, until after a year I submitted one paper without his assistance or approval and dropped the other.  This wasn't just one bad experience; it happens all the time.  Work isn't published because the student can't write, or the advisor is too busy or dislikes the researcher or has too many grants to write.  During my nine-year career I spent at least four years doing research that was never published (that's four papers that I actually wrote, and a couple other papers' worth of research that never got written up) for reasons mostly unrelated to its quality.

In this case, the problem with my papers was that they were mundane; interesting and relevant work, but not exciting.  My former advisor already had tenure and didn't need any more bread-and-butter papers.  If he was going to be famous - which was the only place there was for him to go - he needed revolutions, and my work wasn't revolutionary.  Most work isn't revolutionary.  And most revolutionary work isn't as revolutionary as it sounds, either.  Most of it is built on years or decades of small, quiet, incremental ideas and experiments and calculations that lead to a cataclysmic insight - or maybe just to a buildup of small, quiet, incremental ideas and experiments that are, as a whole, very important.  But when those incremental findings don't see the light of day, when they're not published and not discussed, other scientists can't build on them.  Nobody can do different or more specific work based on those findings, nobody can develop a theory to explain them or an experiment to test them, nobody can be inspired about a whole new line of thought.  It's as if that work - that year or two years or four years of labor - never happened.

Work goes down the drain everywhere.  My company could pull the plug on a project I'm doing that I think is useful and cool, and that would kind of suck, but I would accept it more easily.  My job is fun and satisfying and remunerative, and if sometimes my work doesn't lead anywhere, well, eh.  But in academia was job was less fun and less satisfying and way less remunerative; it was usually a slog, and it was frequently hellish in a variety of ways, and the payoff was knowing that I was doing something that really mattered.  And when suddenly, because someone I used to work for was busy and absent-minded and not terribly fond of me, I realized that a lot of the work I had done was not going to matter at all, it was hard to accept the bargain I'd made.  

I may not be improving the world now at my job, but at least I don't hate the world anymore, which is probably an improvement for the people around me, at any rate.