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.