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.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

One of the things I don't like about New York is how people are always leaving it.  It's an exciting and dynamic place, and people are always moving here or coming to visit (one of the things I do like about New York is how frequently I see friends who don't live here, sometimes entirely by accident), but it's not the kind of place, for a lot of people, that is suitable as a permanent home.  It's a difficult city to put down roots in because the soil is always shifting.  This summer a good friend of mine will move away to begin a marriage and a master's degree in Kansas, and the tragedy and beauty of the city is that, although I'll hopefully stay in touch with her, her place in my life will quickly be filled.  Nothing stays empty here for long.

I've lost one friend already this year, and in a more upsetting way.  A woman I'd become friends with last spring, and become much closer to over the course of the fall, stopped speaking to me abruptly in January over my unwillingness to enter into a relationship with the IB.  I feel that this is unfair and a little bit ridiculous, but I'm still bothered by it.

My friend - ex-friend, I suppose - is an intelligent, vivacious, likable person.  Our lives were very different, but we used to get together once every week or two for lunch or a drink or a shopping expedition, and we became each other's sounding boards, in large part because our lives were so different.  Her husband and I always had plenty to say to each other, and we liked each other's other friends.  (Yes, it sounds like I'm talking about a guy I used to date, but the similarity of friendships to dating relationships is hardly accidental.)  I knew her friendship would change when she had her baby (which happened a couple weeks ago, according to Facebook, ever the go-between in these situations), that I'd see her less and that she'd always be preoccupied, but I didn't expect it to be so thorough, and I didn't expect it to start three months before the baby's birth.

I understand it, though.  She's not the first friend I've had whose gotten married or had a child, or for that matter taken another job or found an amazing hobby.  People's lives change, and their friendships ebb and flow.  New mothers have more in common with other new mothers - at least, in some ways - than with single women, and people who make lots of money have more fun going to fancy places with other people who make lots of money than eating stale pizza with postdocs.  People change when their lives change - but, also, people like to think they've changed.  They like to think they've outgrown or evolved past or transcended who they were, and sometimes that means outgrowing the people they were once friends with. If they didn't - if, while working their amazing job and living in their huge house and raising their three children, they still wasted their time with people who were important to them in college, people who don't have any of those things, well, that's a little bit threatening, isn't it?  Because if  you can still respect the people who don't have the things that you think make you respectable, maybe those aren't the respect-bestowing things after all.

It takes a lot of guts to be exactly who you are, even when other people are different, and that seems not to be less true at thirty-five than it was at fifteen.

I've almost-lost friends to this sort of thing before.  My best friend and I went through a rough patch - okay, we went through approximately two dozen rough patches, but I'm talking about one in particular - right about the time she got married.  There were a lot of components to it, involving all the expected bridesmaid/bride clashes plus my own unhappiness in my then-current relationship, as well as some more difficult stuff going on in both our lives.  But the part I remember most clearly is a comment she made to me over instant messenger that she was more interested in selecting the correct sofa for her apartment than in discussing my "non-committal relationship issues".  What stung so much was not that she was more interested in her life than in mine, but that she really did view the most emotional aspects of my life as less important in an objective sense than the decorating quandaries of her own.

Fortunately, time tends to even things out.  Eight years have passed, during which time I've bought two sofas and she's had two children and both of us have weathered plenty of ups and downs in all areas of our lives.  While we don't always understand each other's viewpoints, she's a good friend and an impartial one, it's been valuable to me to have her in my life if only to have a differing viewpoint as well as some idea of how a person with her life lives.  I can't imagine what our friendship would be like now if we'd followed similar paths in our twenties.

I'm sad that my ex-friend and I seem destined not to develop a friendship like this, but I know there's nothing that can be done.  It takes patience to tolerate your friends when they are living your lives in a way that seems blatantly wrong to you, and it takes a lot of honesty and humility - more than I have most of the time, anyway - to accept that maybe your choices aren't right inherently or for everyone, or even - possibly, some of the time - for you.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

vacation: a recap

I recently returned from a trip to Costa Rica.  Because I've been so intermittent about blogging lately, I'll save background information and generalized catchup for a future post (the sort of much-anticipated backwards-moving series of recaps that generally never gets written) and just tell you about this one trip.

I went on a group tour with Caravan, which is about as white-bread and cliche as it sounds, but it was mostly alright.  I wanted to go to Costa Rica because several of my friends had been there and had amazing photographs and stories, and I was overdue for a vacation, but I didn't have a lot of time to plan.  So I signed up for the "Costa Rica: Natural Paradise" tour, ordered binoculars and hiking boots and waterproof pants from L.L. Bean, tossed them in my bag along with a random assortment of clothing and more sunscreen and bug spray than could possibly be reasonable (no, really... my bag weighed 32 lbs when I checked in at Newark and I think around 8 lbs of that was bug-and-burn ointments) and headed off to San Jose.

It turns out, Costa Rica is super-bright - I was very glad to have my new prescription sunglasses - but not all that hot.  Even though the latitude is only about twelve degrees, there weren't a lot of times that I was too warm in pants and a t-shirt.  However, it is very very wet.  You know how they say, "it's not the heat, it's the humidity?"  Well, in Costa Rica, it's not the humidity, it's the fact that much of the time you are actually inside a cloud.

Quick itinerary (at least, what I can pick out from the blur of awesomeness):
  • Arrival in San Jose, the capital, where they were in the middle of a holiday that lasted - depending on whom and when you asked - a day, a weekend, a week, or a month.  I get the sense they have about thirteen such holidays per year. The primary celebration consisted of a daylong music festival in a park; the musicians were multinational despite the festival being about Costa Rican heritage.  The attendees were mostly very young and could have easily been Spanish or French.
  • Visit to a volcano, with actual steam coming out of it.  In some parts of the country, there is rainforest, and in some parts, there is "cloud forest", which is what they call it when you are so high in elevation that it cannot actually rain, but it is just wet in the air all the time.
  • Visit to a coffee plantation, with actual coffee samples (turns out, they are happy to give you free chocolate or coffee or whatever, almost everywhere, and the distribution center is usually the place where you can buy more of it to  take home)
  • In the same vein, but now largely departing from chronology, visit to a pineapple plantation, where I discovered that I like pineapple when it is not soggy, and also a visit to a banana plantation, where we learned about the bizarre and interesting lives of banana plants and the men who harvest them.
  • Visit to another volcano, mostly from a distance.  Visit to a "hot spring", which was more like a set of hotel swimming pools (except warm) than like I imagine a hot spring to be.
  • Stay in a rustic hotel reachable from civilization only via dirt road and 90-minute boat ride.  "Hotel" was actually a group of cabins separated by paths, kind of like girl scout camp.  The coolest parts of this were being inside my cabin and looking out at the trees, and seeing monkeys on the way to meals and iguanas by pool.  While we were there we went on a number of boat rides and such to view the more skittish wildlife.
  • Stay in a way-less-rustic resort by the beach on the Pacific side, where I went horseback riding.  This part of the country was much dryer, and looks a little like I would imagine the African savannah to look.
  • So much wildlife: monkeys, birds - including ibises, which I had thought were mythical, crocodiles and caymans, iguanas and other lizards.  Also so many plants, growing out of the soil and the water and each other.  
  • Probably some very important insights and conclusions and the like, but it is far too much after my bedtime to think of what they are now.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The comment on my last post still confuses me.  When I first read it, I felt like I should apologize for ending my post on a bit of a down note; later, I felt persecuted for not being cheery enough.  Now I feel like the comment is part of the point I am trying to make.

A big part of your life, especially when you're youngish and especially when you're single, is how you tell it to other people.  People expect a certain script, or one of a small set of scripts, and when they meet someone who doesn't follow it, they can get a little bit confused and very inquisitive.  They want to know why:  Why did I leave academia?  Why did I choose my current career, and apply for the job at my current employer?  Why do I live in New York, and why do I like it?  Why am I single?  Why don't I have a closer relationship with my brother?  Why do I tell my mother so much?  Why did I stop being a vegetarian?  Why do I run?  Why do I write, or why don't I?  People are endlessly demanding that I explain myself, and the small variations in how I express myself at given times seem to lead everyone in my life to have totally different ideas about who I am.  Worse, sometimes I can't answer their questions, and the general response to that seems to be that if I can't explain who I am, then I must be wrong about it.  I feel like this is trying to begin with, and more so because people whose lives seem easier to understand don't seem to have to deal with this as much.  But I also feel like I should not take it personally, because probably people who I perceive as nosy and domineering just want to make sure I'm happy.

And I am happy, in general.  But more important than being happy, at least to me, is being real.  Sometimes I don't have an answer to "why are you single?"; worse, sometimes I have depressing answers (I can imagine the lists my exes would give, for example; "too awesome to settle down" does not top them).  Much of the time, I don't care what the answer is.  Single is what I have been for my entire adult life with only brief t interruptions, so it's kind of like wondering why I have eyebrows.  Sometimes, I'm very glad to be single; I truly don't know how or even if I would deal with having another person just around a lot of the time, and I'm frequently thankful that at the end of the day I don't belong to anybody else and nobody belongs to me.  I do have periodic pangs of wistfulness, on a quiet Sunday when it would be nice to have someone to read the paper with or on Valentine's Day when it would be nice to treated to a romantic surprise, but these pass when I find something else to do or think about.

Still, there are the occasional moments when I am struck by the magnitude of my potential for aloneness.  I guess to an extent I buy into the fairy-tale idea, where you meet Prince Pocket Protector and you fall in love and get married and then, well, that's sort of it.  You slot comfortably into place, and your life is just, from that point on, solved.  I know that isn't the case, that married people - which includes many of my friends - have plenty of confusions and dilemmas, some the same as single people and some different, but still.... it seems like your life is classified and constrained, maybe not in a way that would actually make me happy, but certainly it sounds comfortable.  And the thing is if you don't get married you just go on, and on, and on.  With more stories and more adventures, and every phase of your life has a different cast of characters and possibly a totally different scenery and of course that's all great, but sometimes - the hugeness of time, and the sheer magnitude of stuff in my life that nobody really experiences but me - it's just a little bit... daunting.  

There is a little part of me, about the same size as the part of me that believes in reincarnation, that thinks the right man for me is out there and that I will, still, someday, meet him.*  If he exists, he is probably exactly as anyone who knows me would imagine, and we would live the life together that anybody who knows me would expect, and othen the pieces of my life will start to look like they fit a little better because, anyway, there will be one bit that people can understand.  The reason my last blog post was a little bit sad - and I think the awesomeness that is my new life can stand up to a little bit of sad - is not that only a small part of me believes that this man exists.  It's that, even if my life would be easier - more friends, more money, possibly even better health - with the right man, even if my life would be happier with the right man, more and more of me knows that this easy, happy, pocket-protected life is not the right life for me.


* Now is as good a time as any to mention that, whoever this man might be, he is not the IB.  He came, I saw him, I experienced a rare moment of clarity in which I realized that he is a decent and reliable and trustworthy person who is offering me a perfectly reasonable kind of relationship - companionship and common interests and the security of having known someone for a decade and still not being totally sick of each other - and it is emphatically not enough.  I do not think he will return.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Today I had lunch with someone I went to high school with and haven't seen since; in fact, most of my interactions with him were probably in eighth grade.  He was in New York for a few days - one of the things I love about living in New York is that so many people come here to visit - and for whatever reason, after well over a decade, we decided to catch up.

The yentas among you are now assuming I am about to tell you how wonderfully he grew up, how intelligent and interesting and attractive he is, and also how interested in me.  In fact, he seems to have turned out reasonably well, although less geeky and more oily than I would have expected.  If he were single, we might both be interested enough to pursue further acquaintance.

In reality, of course, he is not single, because nobody my age is single.  Which is not a major loss since I barely know him and until a couple weeks ago hadn't thought of him in years, and all in all it was a nice lunch and, who knows, he might come back to New York sometime and we might have lunch again.

How he got to be not-single is what gets to me.  Basically, he went to a foreign country for work, met a woman there, and brought her back.  As I understand it, she gave up her career and basically her life to be with him, and now she follows him around during his work-related travels.  Presumably this makes them both happy, but something about it bothers me.  I would like to say it is solely that such an existence would not appeal to me on either side, and therefore my narrow little mind doubts it can work for anyone else indefinitely, and that I worry that they will join the ranks of those who waste years or decades in a marriage that isn't working for them.

But it is also, of course, partly, the very old and very worn annoyance that in my simplistic mindset of beatific equality, intelligent, interesting, geeky men are supposed to end up with intelligent, interesting, geeky women, women who of course are not me but with whom I might feel some commonality, and of course they rarely do.  Intelligent, interesting, geeky men, like all other men, are not interested in intelligent, interesting, geeky women; they are interested in beautiful and nonthreatening women, and railing against this is somewhat like railing against dogs for playing in their own shit.  It's how they are, and it works for them, so while I might consider myself intellectually superior if only because I actually realize that physical beauty and human merit are not equal, at the end of the day it is still they who are playing happily in shit and me who is cleaning it miserably off my shoes, so who's really putting their brains to work here?

Overdone analogies in which I unfairly compare relationships to canine excrement aside, this is an old story and an annoying one, and it wouldn't go any further except it reminds me in a way of myself.


I'm still seeing my gentleman caller, the much-younger one who plays the guitar.  He continues to be wholly inappropriate for me. We had a conversation very recently in which basically we determined that (1) it does not seem to be running its course as quickly as either of us had expected, but (2) due to differences in age and lifestyle, there is a limit to how real it can become, which is rapidly being approached.  We also determined that (3) we each have some sense that we would be holding the other back and preventing the other from having the experiences we should be having if we continue seeing each other for too long, but also (4) neither of us wants to stop just yet.  So that is all wholly inconclusive, although in reality there is only one way for it to go, and it will go there pretty fast I think due to newly-relevant scheduling issues.

But I'm not sorry about it.  He's been good for me, in part because of the differences in our age and lifestyle and in part because of who he is.  He's made me happy.  He said, once, that he hoped he would renew my faith in love, which clearly he has not, but I think he's come as close as might reasonably be hoped in a few months of this sort of thing.

I've also learned a lot about the people in my life from being with him - or, rather, from seeing their reactions to my being with him.  Most people have been supportive; if I'm happy, even if I'm doing something silly, they're happy for me.  But a few people have been critical, and while I can't say I'm surprised at exactly who, I was surprised at the strength of some reactions.  Two people have cut off contact with me entirely, basically because they believe I should not be wasting my rapidly-waning moments of plausible appeal, in which I ought to be trying to attach someone more suitable for permanent capture, with someone who is clearly neither suitable nor desirable as a long-term partner.  Another is barely speaking to me, for basically the opposite reason - she thinks I should live a life of absolute solitude rather than pursue interactions with anyone who does not absolutely meet all my (read: her) most unattainable standards.  And none of these people, believe it or not, is my mother, whose heart I have refrained from breaking by telling her about this affair.

The real reasons, as usual, for these people being upset with me have very little to do with me.  They are trying to live their own lives in certain ways that they have decided are correct, and to the extent that it is a difficult or frustrating or regretful task they are taking it out on me.  But I have also noticed - from long, miserable experience - that there is no use bringing it up to them.  Some people will always disapprove of me, a list that is apparently growing to include not just most of my family but also some of my formerly-good friends, and if it is not because I am dating someone I am not going to marry, then it's because I'm dating at all, or because of my career or where I live or how much or little I work out, or my height or my weight or my shoe size, or what time I get up in the morning, or the order in which I eat my m&m's.  Nothing is too big or too small for people who are in the business of making themselves feel better by objecting to other people's lives.

Which of course brings us back to my objections to my former classmate.  If he's happy, and she's happy, then who am I - a person who doesn't really know either of them - to roll my eyes?  Even in the semi-privacy of my own blog?  Their relationship cannot possibly be any more doomed or self-destructive than mine.  And anyway, why should it bother me even a little bit that a person whom until now I never thought of has found happiness with a person whom I have still never met?

The obvious answer is the one I already alluded to, that men like him should be marrying women like me, but that begs that question, because how do I know this wife of his isn't actually an awful lot like me?  Which brings us to our answer: I know she is nothing like me because if a man - no matter how intelligent and interesting and geeky - appeared from a foreign country and wanted to take me away from my life and my career and marry me, I wouldn't go.  If a man appeared from next door and wanted to take me away from my studio apartment and marry me, I still probably wouldn't go.  Nobody marries women like me, because women like me do not get married.  Instead, we date the most inappropriate men we can find - men who can't deal with commitment, or with women, or with their own laundry - and when we accidentally, despite all our best efforts, find someone who might have a shred of potential, we start conversations about whether maybe we should break up because otherwise it might or might not turn into something.  

And so the moral of the story is what is rapidly becoming the obvious answer to what is rapidly becoming everyone's favorite annoying question to me: Why am I single?  I'm single because that's who I am, and I'm not interested in being the person I would be in order to attain, maintain, or retain a relationship.  Anyone who doesn't feel that way is, male or female, is fundamentally dissimilar to me, and I suppose there friendships that are simply not going to be able to span that gap.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Last year was a good year for me.  Not always a fun or easy year, but a year in which I accomplished a lot.  Most notably, I upgraded from a job I disliked and a career I was unhappy about to a job I enjoy and a career I'm excited about.  In addition, I had a unique travel experience, spending a month in France preceded by a few days in Iceland (truly awe-inspiring) and Frankfurt.  I also made significant strides in developing my local social circle in New York.

In 2011, I'm not looking for big changes.  A lot of what I want to do is consolidate my gains - learn the ropes at my job, make more friends.  But there are some areas in which I'm hoping for continued or renewed progress:

  • Running.  I ran a lot in the first half of 2010, but in the last six months other priorities (travel, the new job) have taken precedence.  I'm not completely out of shape, but I haven't been training with any seriousness.  Since I'll be running a marathon in November, this will need to change - and soon, as I'm running a half-marathon in three weeks.  (I'm giving myself permission now to wimp out on that, but hopefully it will kickstart things for the year.)
  • Travel.  I am planning a major trip in the next few months - a ten-day tour of Costa Rica.  I'm also hoping to take another major trip in the fall or early winter.  In addition, I'll be travelling to visit family and attend a couple of weddings.  This doesn't precisely count as travel, but I'd also like to join a hiking group and take a few days hikes (when it gets warmer) - I enjoy that sort of thing, but it's hard to organize by myself since I don't have a car or a ton of outdoor experience.
  • Social life.  A girl can never have too many friends!  Especially in New York, where they are endlessly reshuffling and moving away.  At the moment I find that I have plenty of people to do things with, but fewer people I consider "real friends".  Hopefully this is just a matter of time.
  • Clothing and other possessions.  I have noticed that I have slightly too much stuff, and that a lot of it does not make me happy.  There is resistance to getting rid of much of it because it is nominally useful, but it does not actually serve any positive purpose for me (i.e. I have some perfectly good clothes that I do not like, or that do not flatter me, or that I have been wearing twice a month for years and am sick of).  I am trying to gradually get rid of things, which is less stressful than doing a single massive purge, and to not buy anything that I don't love.  The idea is not primarily to have less stuff, but to have only stuff I really want to have.  
In the sense of making resolutions... well, of course I would like to get up at 5:45 a.m. every morning and go straight out of bed to the gym, and then eat nothing but whole grain flax seeds and unsweetened yogurt and go to bed at 10 p.m., but this is an ongoing effort.  More relevantly, I have noticed I have a tendency to avoid making decisions; this is a bad habit that stems from fear of making an uncorrectable mistake but often results in the even-less-correctable mistake of not deciding anything at all.  I am working on making decisions in small intervals to try to conquer this.