Saturday, June 8, 2019

A Blazer Without A Spark

They sat there in a big pile, of seven or eight, all dark and overly serious for no good reason. Like a group of disappointed lawyers. No joy was to be sparked. In fact, they elicited a slow growing horror.

No one told me to wear only blue and black blazers to work for years. and years. some with shoulder pads to make me appear bigger (and subsequently more 80’s). some without. But all of them dark. and now mostly smelly from sweat from this or that situation where I was nervous.

Maybe a part of me was channeling my old high school principal, a Catholic nun, who wore only blue, and didn’t like anything but.

The thing is, I get cold. but I am also small. and I think I started wearing them because I wanted to be seen as an authority, on something, so blazers always felt like the perfect costume for that charade. Turns out, no one takes me seriously anyway, the armpits are sweaty, and scientists don’t dress like that. But whoever tells you that clothes are not important is not correct. Especially in New York. You could feel personally liberated from the tyranny of fashion, but you will still be judged. Your values hang from your shoulders, cover your butt, and show with every step—whether you intend it or not.

The conundrum is, my blazers do provide physical warmth, in a building where the temperature is set for a fat man. Which I am not. But what kind of warmth do they provide? Not like a warm comfy blanket, or a favorite soft sweater. The kind that comes out of an exhaust pipe, or a pile of burning tires.

And they end up signaling a kind of conservatism, a sheep-like following even, and respect for crusty old ways. A staying in your lane. They may have done more harm than good for me. I am afraid. What would have happened if I just wore a bunch of fuzzy sweaters or flowy ponchos instead? I would probably make less money, and be invited to fewer meetings and events. Which would be. just fine.

So, the blazers ended up being a kind of cotton-poly-tweed-blended armor. But they really only protected me from myself. They stifled a wildfire within me. a fire of irreverent ideas, personal warmth, and radical passions. Who would I be if I never wore another blazer again? I know exactly who I would be. I would be: me.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Loving, Leaving, and Losing my Science

I never anticipated writing this. And I never wanted to. But I have to.

I did a dramatic career change—like a take-the-wheel-of-the-sailboat-in-a-windstorm and turn it clear 180ยบ—change. You don’t do something like that, unless you feel very strongly. Which I did. It wasn’t easy, my new path. It fact, it almost downright broke me. But I finished what I set out to do, on that leg of the trip at least. I earned my Ph.D., I got a job, and I even published. And I was, for at least 15 years, drinking the Kool-Aid, as they say.

My new job was exciting, in a great place, and it allowed me to share my enthusiasm for science with large and diverse populations of students and visitors eager to engage and learn. It was an amazing opportunity. I still work where I did, but I no longer engage with visitors much. and I am mostly sitting in meetings talking about talking about science, and not actually even talking about science. For a while, that made me sad. Even though I know that, in some vague general sense, I am still doing what I set out to do, working towards educating people about the science that I love.

Until one day recently, I fell out of love. And I can’t tell if a cloud has lifted, or newly descended on me. But I feel different. A series of smaller events led to this, one of which was realizing that their are many people out there practicing science who are “in it ” in a way that I am just. not. anymore. no matter how hard I try. I am now a peripheral administrator, where my scientific skills are seen as a funny little quirk at best, and a nuisance at worst, to those around me in my department. But I am tired of fighting.

And more severely, I can’t remember what I am fighting for. Why is science, and exploring and understanding the natural world, so damn great anyway? Because some old British dude several centuries ago told us the world changes, and then species change, and we have been lionizing him for years? And really, why should we encourage anyone to be a natural scientist? So, you work your butt off, but then cannot get a decent job, and you are working as an adjunct with no health insurance? Where does your love of bats, birds and snakes leave you now? It’s hard to explore the natural world, when you have no money. And further, its just a goddamn privilege to do this kind of work. As in, you are privileged if you can. Extremely.

And what then, are we doing, guiding students and visitors into some kind of butterfly covered fantasyland where people can sit around and think and hike and collect specimens and write about it?  What false hope are we selling here? That doesn’t pay the bills. And more importantly, it is just a value system. One that I have been blindly following for years, because I thought it was beautiful, and virtuous, and I liked something of the romance of it. So it held meaning for me.

But it is not important for many people to know about these things, let alone care, or pursue natural science and evolution as a field of study. No matter how many times we say “learning about the past teaches us about the future”, or “evolution is happening all around us”, it still is just not a day-to-day necessity. It’s like a gorgeous painting. Something to esthetically enjoy, if you have the chance, and the luxury of doing so.

We worked with at-risk youth, they came to us, and we taught them about Neanderthals. They are struggling in high school. But what can Neanderthals teach them that they can use in their every day lives? Imagine that your grades are shitty, everyone is pissed at you, and your friends suck too -- but let’s learn about “what makes us human”, because that’s really going to save you. No. it’s not. It just isn’t. and I feel almost sick thinking that I thought it might “be good for them” in some way. It’s not even on their high school curriculum. Not even close.

But I suppose it’s just like anything, a benign distraction from the pain of every day life. A Neanderthal might as well be a blooming peony, or a glass of wine. It’s just something to pass the time and focus on, in between deciding what to eat, or where to sleep, or who to love.

And in the last few years, there is a big emphasis on attracting diverse and new audiences to science. I have two issues with this: one is that it is easy to say, but putting this into practice means letting go of old ways of doing things (which I am all in support of), but I am just not sure that science is ready for that, its all its manifestations. After all, it is a club (of sorts) with rules both written and unwritten. And I think people underestimate how much they cling to, and subscribe to these “club rules” as part of their identity as scientists. What about letting that all go? and letting people really do things and think things in entirely new ways?

And secondly, diverse audiences, who may be new to science as a career possibility—have we ever asked them, do you really want to be a part of this anyway? aren’t we making an assumption that people even want to be part of this nerdy, half-way-to-loser, club anyway. And, in all seriousness and peak blossom of my current crisis: what is the actual point of this anyway?

And now. just. like. that. I have nothing to love. and not Paranthropus, or Pan paniscus, or even a starling can save me now I am afraid. I am a shell where science-love formerly lived.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

My life with six legs

My first true experience was in Brooklyn, while I was an art school student. It visited me in my bathroom. I was stricken and horrified. I had never seen anything like it before. So large, and dark, and so quick, like an dirty uninvited wind-up-toy. So, I immediately grabbed Janson’s History of Art text book and dropped it on the poor bugger. I didn’t lift it up for weeks. Needless to say, I never studied.

Next, I was working in the genetics lab on a summer evening wearing a flowered skirt. Oh how I loved the zen of pipetting tiny amounts of clear liquid and counting the tubes. No one was around. And I was free to grandiosely imagine how my tedious work was making a big impact on the world. Or something. I felt a tickle on my leg. I thought it was nothing. I felt it again. Then I looked down and it was crawling on my bare leg. I screamed and jumped up and down many, many times. It eventually crawled away, and I was traumatized for the rest of the summer. Every beautiful summer breeze and happy tickle was now a giant (1.6 inch) American cockroach (Periplaneta americana)*. Why was I pipetting in the evening wearing a flowered skirt? That’s another story.

I do love working from home, and when I was writing up my dissertation I was at home a lot. Much cleaning and procrastinating and tea drinking occurred. Some writing did too. I had just washed a bunch of dishes, and I was boiling water for my second tea of the day. Then, I saw the two long elegant antennae slowly twisting and emerging on top of the mountain of my clean dishes. It perched its large pulsating body over a clean white bowl. The tea kettle screamed before I could. And I took the boiling water and dumped it on the proud invertebrate. It fell into the bowl and died. This was quite cruel, and although at the time this seemed like a clean way of killing it. I feel sorry for it now. I didn’t get much writing done that day. But eventually I did manage to finish my dissertation.

In the last few years, I have taken to doing yoga at home. It stresses me out to do yoga in a class with others, and to schlep to the class and back. So yoga at home is the perfect remedy for my twisted up and churning anxieties. I had just laid down my head on the blue foam mat, and started taking deep long breaths. Ready to begin my healing. from the stupid day. and all the ugliness that had crept in. And then it came. I watched it strolling, boldly, intently on to my mat. It was really big. Nothing zen about it. I gasped and jumped up. and I didn’t destress that day after all. I stressed.

I was lying on my blue velvety couch, sad. my hair was spilling onto the side pillows. and I felt a little flicker. and with that, perhaps the most vivid nightmare yet. I had almost convinced myself to calm down, and to silence my irrational fears. To live a better, calmer, life. and then I shot up and saw the giant roach on the pillow of my couch, one that had most certainly been caressing my hair seconds before. Anyway, I couldn’t focus on being sad anymore. because now I was just too disturbed.

One morning, I was riding a razors-edge of late-to-work-ness. As I closed my apartment door, I saw one. Dead. Under the kitchen table, where I don’t eat. It wasn’t going anywhere, so I decided to deal with it later. When I returned home, it was gone. utterly and completely. Swallowed up into the underbelly of a hidden apartment ecosystem. A feast to which I was not invited. Equal parts astonished, thankful and horrified. I just went on with my evening.

Yesterday, I saw one dead and upside-down in the bathroom at work. At my job, where we celebrate all species across the tree of life, with cool scientific eyes. I looked down at it intently, and inspected its plump legs. And it reminded me of all the weird and intense times that this species has waltzed into, and onto, my little life. I have come to expect their visits now, and somehow their frequency seems to punctuate important stages of my life. But I realized that I am no longer afraid in the same way I was in Brooklyn, or in the lab, or even on the yoga mat.

Their visits have taught me to trust my dark thoughts, because your fears can walk right up on to your bare leg, or rustle your hair—but eventually you can learn to look at them with a more objective gaze, see them in a new fluorescent light—and maybe even appreciate some aspects of their pesky and glorious resilience. They are, after all, always there with you.

* all cockroach individuals mentioned here were of the species Periplaneta americana and approximately 1.6 inches (4 cm) in length. The smaller species don’t quite have the same presence. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Invisible Woman

I have lived in my apartment building since March of 2002, it is now November 2018. No one my age in New York City stays in one place as long as I have. I am here because of the rent, and the warm morning light, and strong water pressure, and close proximity to my work. I am also here in spite of the two mice fighting and squeaking in the middle of my kitchen floor, and the giant cockroach that sauntered onto my yoga mat that one time I tried to meditate. My building as 5 floors, I am on the 4th. It has 4 apartments on each floor and no elevator. The further you go up, the tougher the people are for walking up the stairs day after every damn day with groceries, with laundry, with a new something silly but feel-good from Home Goods. It is not perfect. But sometimes it is.

I have had the same landlord for 16 years. George. He is someone I have known for a long time, but at the same time, not known. He has unclogged my tub with his bare hands. He has told me there is nothing he can do. He has probably saved me from things I don't even realize he did. This past week George sold our apartment building. He had owned it for 38 years. Now what?

George invited the people in the building out to dinner this week. I went to dinner and sat across from people who I have walked by in the tiny pre-war spiral hallways day after day after day. When they sat down for dinner, they asked me where I live. Then they told me they didn't recognize me. Three separate people told me this. It is so weird. It is so New York.

I love it here.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

in pursuit of peanut butter

“Welcome to a life of the mind”, were the words from our University President upon my entrance to graduate school, which felt both corny and inspiring.

During graduate school I knew that I would miss the days of sitting around thinking deeply about evolution. Days of scribbling down wild ideas, confusing myself, days of re-re-reading articles, and the gentle roiling angst that comes with doing/what-am-I-doing science. But I couldn’t appreciate it. 

Having earned your Ph.D. means a very specific thing. It means you have your Ph.D. It means you came up with an original idea, read the related literature carefully, collected new data (in some cases), wrote about it for more pages than will likely ever be read, and your scholarship was approved by experts in the field. But it also means something else. 

It means that throughout this process of idea generation and pursuit you have developed a habit of mind, that you cannot lose. You can never just read one article on a new topic again and purport to know about it, because behind each piece of knowledge lies a vastness and complexity and nuance that one cannot wholly grasp, unless one really, deeply, years-of-hard-work knows it. It is an intense humbling. In this depth lies confusion, conflicting information, mistakes, and doubt that you have to wade through in order to find your particle of, dare I say, truth. And finding something that no one has before does not typically feel anything like eureka, it feels more like dipping your toe in a freezing cold body of water in the pitch black night; a creepy shiver at best. 

I am acutely aware of not making others who don’t have this degree feel inadequate. People get weird about it honestly. Sometimes people immediately start telling me about their plans for graduate school, which feels less like a conversation, and more of a confession. Other times people puff up and pontificate in order to assert their knowledge. I didn’t ask for that. I do not want to make people uncomfortable. So, I have taken to not telling people most of the time, because I don’t want the weirdness. I believe that many minds have something to offer, and the quality of someone’s ideas is not equivalent to their schooling. The quality of ideas is equivalent to the quality of the ideas, whether it comes from a 5th grader, or a distinguished professor.

But in my hiding, I have lost something. It’s turned into something that feels more like shame. This is my doing entirely, no one asked me to behave this way. I work with many non-academics around me, so this has something to do with it. It’s like I learned how to swim, but now I pretend I don’t know how: why would anyone do that?  So, I am writing to remind myself that this degree is something. It is not nothing. It was transformative for me. And I am sorry if my own personal pursuit has scared you, or reminded you of your own failures, that was not my intention. I ate peanut butter for many years, and thought deeply about things most people don’t care about. And I am not sorry that I love both of those things. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

pools of coffee, waves of joy

It wasn’t raining. It also wasn’t sunny. It was an in-between blue-grey day.

I paid. They handed it to me. As they passed the paper cup over the counter, it felt like slow-motion glory. I could not imagine wanting something more than I wanted the contents of that cup. It had a beautiful only-ness to it. My brain was soup. It was a haze, under-motivated to even zip up my jacket all the way. My hair was combed, but it looked uncombed. I no longer hated everyone for not respecting me for all the things I had done that they had no way of knowing about. I was too weak to hate. I reached out and grabbed it like a warm ring of gold, the holy grail, to go.

I nodded and thanked them, more than they could know. I didn’t need my change. I apishly pulled that poorly-designed plastic tab. I pulled it so much. I pressed it back in its supposed divot. It popped up. I pressed it back again. Even though I knew things were uncertain, I went in for a sip. The plastic tab irreverently popped up again and scraped my eager lips. But I did not care. I could swear that I could feel it sparking and lighting through my brain like a trail of water through a desert dry for 1000 years.

It was imperfect, but still good. I instantly felt strong and what I imagine normal to be like.

My hand gripped the cup in earnest. So much so that a little empty spot above my wrist, framed by strained tendons, appeared because my hands are so bony. Into this space, the coffee pools. It jumps and sloshes while I walk. It pools in the temporary place in my hand that is only there because I am holding the cup. The cup and the space are a part of one another, dependents in a messy morning dance that I cannot hate, nor ever fully enjoy.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The First Bird


They arrived on a Wednesday, in a box labeled honey baked ham. I rushed around teaching, meeting, and answering emails. The box sat. I knew what was inside, but I needed time to open it. Time to carefully inspect the cold little bodies inside. Time to respect their terminated lives. And I wanted to be alone with them.

The box felt heavy and damp as I carried it. It was 12:14pm when I arrived in the lab to unpack my precious frozen gift. My hands trembled. I have been dreaming of their nuanced intraspecific diversity for many months. Subtle differences between individuals of the same species will tell us something new. It’s different than the great variation we see between wildly divergent species. It’s quieter. Newer.

I pulled through two tightly knotted plastic bags. There they were. In a heap, not a flock. In a pile, not a murmuration. One man’s trash. I lifted the first bird. It’s neck was crooked, it’s eyes gently closed. Dignified, even in death. Tawny brown head, it was a juvenile in its last autumn plumage. I set it down in the afternoon sun.