Monday, April 6, 2020

The Longest Curve

Coronavirus is currently ripping through our dear city. And all I can hear are emergency vehicles, cathedral bells—and a deep and eerie silence. I am one of the lucky ones. But my Great Grandfather wasn’t.

It was 1918. My Great Grandfather died in November in the second, more virulent, wave of the influenza pandemic. He was 54 years old. He left behind a son who was 14 years old. That fourteen year old son was my grandfather; my father’s father. And though this was over 100 years ago now, my own father recounts this story of intergenerational grief like it was yesterday.

My Great Grandfather came to the United States from Lacedonia, Italy in 1900. He lived in East Harlem and worked digging the subway tunnels for the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT). Then, he opened up a small grocery store, which I imagine felt like an above ground wonderland of opportunity.

Today, epidemiologists are able to make predictions about infectious disease dynamics based on viral transmission rates, environmental variables and underlying host genetics. But what they cannot predict, with a mathematical model, is the magnitude of personal loss that this will cause. And the time it will take to heal. These invisible organisms, not even classified as living, are tearing us apart. Again. And emotional recovery is not simply a flattened curve.

If I approach the current and emerging coronavirus data with a cool scientific head, it is scary. And when I don’t, it is immensely heartbreaking. Because numbers are people here, bar graphs are grandmothers and uncles and loved ones. Exponential curves are weeks of growing fear and anxiety followed by, well, we don’t know what yet.

They couldn’t supply enough coffins, they tell me. My grandfather was a good student and when his father died in 1918 he had to leave school to work in his father’s grocery store. This was sad for him. And then, by some combination of smarts and grit that I cannot fathom, he went to night school, eventually went on to pharmacy school, then had a second career in law and became a Judge for the City of New York. And when he had his own family, he intensely over-protected them, because he never wanted them to feel left alone, like he felt.

Now I live in Manhattan, ten blocks south and a few avenues over from where the grocery store was. What am I doing here? I ask myself at least once a week. But lately, almost daily. The truth is, I have nowhere else to go. This is, by all measures, my home. And although this is an incredibly surreal and difficult time, I feel especially tied to this city through a lineage of grit and grief and almost-but-not-quite, glory.

So, what can past pandemics can teach us? Is it that with enough time, grief can mutate into something else, like resilience? And how do we ready ourselves for the destabilizing days ahead that they tell us will come? For now: we wash our hands. We tell people we love them. We appreciate the rising of the sun and of the dough. We narrow our focus to the hours in one precious day. And we keep going, just like grandpa did.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

There is More To Admire Than to Despise

almost want to hear something explode. Instead, I hear a hollow distant air in this usually bustling Manhattan neighborhood. But the quiet is not peace, because I know that everything is coming apart. Fear is ravenously enveloping us, while a profound despair slowly descends. It’s like an invisible storm that will steal our months, our work, our loved ones, and even ourselves. It is a darkness we have had the privilege to never know. We have read books about trying times—wars, diseases, heartaches—only to put the book down and have another cookie. Only now, we cannot put the book down, and there are no cookies left because we ate them all yesterday.

As recent as the beginning of last week, we were collectively innocent, going about our days sighing, joking, complaining, loving. Taking for granted the daily workings of our normal little lives. Now, the only thing most of us can do is stay inside and go on existing, puttering around our homes pretending the world as-we-knew-it is not ending.

So, in an effort to extract out the particulates of hope, here’s to the simple things that bring a new kind of joy now:

Here’s to the glorious morning sunshine which resets us to the mode of irrational hope, to the hard wringing of the mop, to very long warm showers and voraciously blooming houseplants. To the rising dough, and the swirl of milk in our teas and coffees. To music, which is almost as good as the sun. Here’s to the dust which gave me something to clean for days, to the recipes that rose from the dead, to my oven that works despite years of neglect, to the half-read books calling around me, to the friends that always make me laugh. Hell, here’s to lying awake at night with anxious half-headed epiphanies. Here’s to the 7 lemons I am hoarding in my fridge to make things seem fresh, even when they are canned. Here’s to the birds that chirp and fly around without knowing anything of the darkness. Here’s to email and FaceTime and texting and social media. Here’s to all the Words-With-Friends games I am losing. Here’s to hand soap and hummus and the many hugs that will come again some day. I love it all, with a new kind of love which is standing just as tall as pain.

What we learn in time of pestilence: there are more things to admire in people than to despise” -- Albert Camus, “The Plague”

Sunday, March 1, 2020

I Aloe New York

It sat at the back of the design studio, just after the row of computers but before the kitchen. Right were it could be ignored most. It was as dry as a tumbleweed, but it never went anywhere. I always assumed someone else was taking care of it. Everyone thought that.

This large and leggy light green aloe plant was crunchy dry dead-as-a-doornail in the center, but miraculously green and turgid at the tips. It grew in a way where it threw out little versions of itself fully formed, but separate. It was not one plant. It was a collective. And it never seemed to really need the soil very much.

I worked in this design studio for six years. With the plant. It was my first real job out of college. And because of that, and my particular personality, my coworkers became like a surrogate family for me. And we all ignored the plant together. Over coffee.

At some point I became interested in something else entirely. I didn’t leave design right away, but I started volunteering at a genetics lab. One day I brought a small piece of the aloe plant to the lab. My scientist boss and I spread out newspaper on the ground and repotted this smaller piece in a very large pot. It had a lot of room, which signaled the great hope we had for it. And grow it did. It flourished and multiplied and practically burst into song. It eventually outgrew the pot. I haven’t seen it in many years now. But I still wonder how it is doing.

After the lab, I worked at a museum. When I first started working at the museum I remember telling people that I wanted to bring in a piece of my aloe to keep us company. to give us something living and green around us. But I never had an office with a window. And I never quite had the time, or the heart, to bring it there then. So I didn’t.

I also brought many pieces of the plant home and today they are still growing in 5 different pots in my kitchen. I have given pieces to dear friends. One friend broke it while traveling back on the subway with it. Another friend had a too curious cat so she moved it far away from him. One piece is even making the best of it in Boston and growing steadily at a friend’s home there. It is the epitome of resilient, but it isn’t terribly attractive. And sometimes its sections grow awkwardly like several offset green hands with more than five fingers. It takes well to neglect. And it never asks for anything. ever.

The building where the design studio was located has just been sold. Everyone we love is moving out or already gone. I went back this week—almost 20 years after I started working there—to say goodbye. I looked for the plant. I asked about the plant. It was nowhere to be found. And no one knew or recalled absolutely anything about it. If I didn’t have the evidence still growing in my kitchen I may have wondered if it ever even existed.

I love this plant as a symbol of growth, of movement, of resilience and for being a backdrop to continuous professional and personal change. It is a living trail of human connections, and many little green futures. Where will it grow next I wonder?

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Cooped up and Loving it

Now I spend most of my days at home, putting the finishing touches on Power Point lectures about Homo erectus or population genetics. It’s pretty wonderful. But some days my aloneness starts to mutate and I get a little freaked out about odd noises I hear outside, or when someone calls my secret landline in the middle of the day. But then...

It usually starts with a soft scratch-rattle on metal sound. Then I see their gently bobbing silhouettes. The pigeons love to spend time on top of my air conditioner. This explains the downy feather or two I sometimes find on my apartment floor. I am fully blossoming into a cooped up half-crazy New Yorker now - loving and appreciating the pigeons in a new light.

I am thankful for their visits, which punctuate days upon days spent in my head. I act surprised every time I see them, even though I know they come regularly. And they are so beautiful. Some with white streaks of tail feathers among the grey, others that indescribable mauve color combination which seems like a painter’s muddy palette that accidentally turned out gorgeous. They are so damn dirty and humble, and I bet they have no idea how pretty their own tail feathers look to the world. They shuffle and coo and fly back and forth between my air conditioner and the building across the street.

Yesterday, a few not-quite-spectacular clouds streaked the sky, and the sun cast an incredibly slight orangey-pink on them. Not an Instragam-worthy sunset, just one of those everyday skies. And against that sky, two pigeons perched on the top edge of a building, little grey beating hearts, investigating, resting, marching and then resting again. 

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.