It’s been two months since I successfully defended my Ph.D. I’ve been nagging myself to write some really insightful post giving meaning to my experience and encouraging others to pursue their dreams. I don’t know, something appreciative and pleasant that would tie together the last three and a half years. That way those heroes in my life who took up the nasty job of encouraging me along the way could find closure and receive my gratitude. I feel guilty, but I’ve been too tired for good insights. My memories are blurry, I guess because each minute of it was so charged with adrenaline, like my life was hanging from it. For three and a half years, it felt like I was on a treadmill, sweaty and gross, getting sharp pains in my side, looking down at the timer to see I had only been running for 8 minutes. It was suffocating. And at times I would trip and fall and bust my lip and be spit onto the floor. Like when my manuscript was sent to our competitors. Or our grant proposal was sent to our competitors. Or when I was told finishing on time would be a “tall order.” Or when I was told I needed to start over the experiment that had me coming into the lab around the clock like a zombie. Crying and dazed after these falls, I would look up to see the treadmill still zooming, and reluctantly I would pull myself up and start hobbling along again. The seconds seemed to expand beyond reason. Eventually I stopped hearing the supportive voices of those around me and could only hear the deafening fog horn of the fear of not finishing. After I finally reached what I considered to be enough, I slammed the red STOP button and slowed to a halt. Breathless. Lifeless. I still feel like the ground is moving below me. My steps feel artificial. Where am I? It doesn’t seem like I’ve arrived anywhere. But I guess it’s over. It is over, right?
Tonight at the bus station I watched two little girls doing their secret handshake. They were chanting a synchronous “B – F – F, best friends forever!” laughing wildly and smiling at each other with the sort of trust and glee that only little 9-year-old girls have. Their mothers, both young Middle Eastern women wearing hijab, were not far but were watching their other youngsters, all of whom appeared to have come from an evening school function. The two little girls did cartwheels in front of me, oblivious to my presence and to the presence of the people veering around them to get to their buses. Then they broke into a choreographed dance routine, pointing across the bus way to the beat and singing, “Ra Ra ra-ra-rah, La La ooh-la-la,” the opening of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” I couldn’t help but giggle at this. And then I was sad. There are some people in my country who believe that these little girls shouldn’t be allowed in because they are Muslim. Hopefully these girls are too young to realize the extent of this hatred against them. Hopefully by the time they’re older, these people will have come to their senses. For now, at least some innocent moments like these, moments of complete freedom, remain.
I’ve been taking samba dance classes for the past 6 months or so. And like most things I do for long enough, I’ve really started to hate it. Hehe. No…I don’t hate it, but things about it have really started to rub me the wrong way. I did the beginners’ level of for twelve weeks, and it was so much fun! Each week I would smile ear to ear as I rode the bus across the river reflecting all of the beautiful city lights, knowing I was on my way to the most enjoyable hour of my week. And after each class, I would catch the bus home with such satisfaction, glistening and radiant. I moved onto the second level, hoping I could keep learning new things. It was quite the leap in the skill level of the students to say the least. But I was okay with my skill level, remembering that I was mostly learning this style of dance because I love the music and it makes me feel relaxed and wonderful.
Recently, though, the other dancers have begun to bother me, how they seem to take this as a serious skill that must be mastered and perfected rather than what it is: a dance that people dance at parties, at festivals, at barbecues, mostly while at least a little tipsy if not completely intoxicated. It’s a sexy dance, a joyful dance. It proclaims the beauty and strength of a nation. It’s not an extension of ballet. So since I’m clearly soooo enlightened about this topic, hehe, why does the grace and precision of these other dancers in the class leave me feeling deflated and awkward now?
I didn’t dance when I was little, at least not in a formal instructional setting, but a lot of my friends did. I remember hanging out with the dance moms as they applied coat after coat of mascara on their daughters in hotel lobbies fumigated with hairspray just before dance competitions. I remember staying the weekend with friends and joining in on their ballet classes. I think I even tried out for some dance troupe with a friend once, just because she was trying out and I wanted to part of a real audition. I was always an outsider looking in on ballet, jazz, tap. Yet I never asked my parents if I could take dance classes. Instead I would put on a CD and dance in our living room at night with the lights on so that I could see my reflection in the three large windows. I would make up my own dance moves or copy ones I’d seen and choreograph whole songs. I did that for years. So I guess you could say even though I didn’t “do dance,” I’ve loved to dance my whole life. In college I became very “enthused” (as my dad would say jokingly) with salsa dancing, and over the five years I was in Miami I danced a LOT of salsa, some at the university or at parties, some out in dance clubs. It was a blast.
No one used to watch me when I was dancing. Sometimes I could pull my mom away from making beef stroganoff or spaghetti if I pleaded enough so that I could show her some new move I had made up. Even when I was older dancing salsa, I would mostly be colliding with other couples dancing on the tiny dance floor. With the whole room spinning, I lost track of the people standing outside the dance floor looking in. I still think that’s one of the best things about Cuban salsa. It’s like being a kid again, making yourself dizzy on purpose.
Now if my samba teacher watches me, I notice her cringe. She comes over and tries to help me improve my posture or the flow of my arms, but I know that I don’t look as graceful as the other girls. I still look very much like that girl dancing in front of the living room windows. But here’s the thing that I would really like to get off my chest: NO ONE is watching!!! NO ONE gives a shit!
In fact, no one is watching anything that you’re doing. No one cares that you run, that you bake things from Pinterest, that you eat at food trucks, that you spend your weekends at hipster bars, that you are a vegan or that you have gone sugar-free. No one cares how I dance, how you dance, or how great or stupid we look. And since no one cares, can’t we just put on a song and enjoy it? Are we allowed to do anything in our perfectly manicured lives anymore just for the hell of it?
When I was growing up, adults always told me how responsible I was. Some friends’ parents even told me that they preferred their daughters to hang out with me because I was so responsible. Which makes me wonder…what did their daughters do when I wasn’t around??? Hmmm…I never really knew what it meant to be responsible, but I assumed that if everyone says I’m responsible, then I must be. It wasn’t until recently that I realized I had never taken full responsibility for many aspects of my life. It’s not that one day everything went crashing to the ground and that I was left staring at my mess of a life. It’s just that for as long as I can remember, I would wake up, go into school or work, and walk home, always carrying around this feeling of pity for myself. If something didn’t go according to plan at work, I would feel wronged and frustrated, not at myself but at the lab environment or even at the riddles of nature itself. At home I would feel sorry for myself for not having enough time in the evening and for having to cook on a weeknight because Sunday had slipped through my fingers and so on. In psychology this is referred to as “victim mentality,” a learned personality trait in which a person tends to regard him or herself as a victim of the negative actions of others, and to think, speak and act as if that were the case — even in the absence of clear evidence (or so Wikipedia says). The thing is, it was never obvious to me that I had a victim mentality because I didn’t actually think that people were out to get me. It was more of a general “life’s not fair” attitude. I had these underlying beliefs — “There’s not enough time in the day,” “No matter how hard you try, you can’t get what you want,” “You’re not supposed to enjoy everyday life,” etc. — that would run in the background in my mind and make me feel grumpy and wronged. Yes, sometimes I would stop and remember that I actually had it pretty good and should feel grateful, but these moments of appreciation were not big enough to pull me out of the pity trap. Then I started researching victim mentality online. There isn’t a lot of information about how to get out of a victim mentality other than “Stop believing you’re the victim!” haha. But I did stumble across this good article, http://www.forbes.com/sites/annakupka/2012/10/03/5-steps-to-transform-your-life-step-5/. And I can say that the first three steps have transformed my life dramatically. The first step in particular “Take responsibility for your life,” made me finally understand what responsibility means. For me, it means that I’m the “conscious creator” of my life instead of the victim. Now I can see that things that happen to me are just like shifts in the wind or different combinations of cards dealt to me, situations to which I must creatively adjust my sails or my game and continue on an altered course. I don’t have to get frustrated and feel sorry for myself when things don’t go as I expect. In fact, it’s more fun to embrace the challenges presented by the unexpected twists in life. This may sound too chipper for this blog (right?), but hopefully it helps someone out there in cyberspace at some point, even if that person is me in the future. There’s nothing worse than feeling like a victim all of the time. But the good news is that it’s possible to change your victimhood just like it’s possible to change nearly everything in your life…once you’ve taken responsibility for it, that is.
Every few weeks I get the chance to make a new batch of granola. For a few hours in the evening the smell of Thanksgiving spices and a bright note of orange fill the air. I take a lot of comfort in preparing it (even though I sometimes wonder if this is the alarming start to a new trend of mine: making things at home that you can easily buy at the store). There isn’t a lot of science to my granola. None of it is measured. I can never remember the right oven temperature, so I guess. Although I may have been on my feet all day in the lab preparing things for experiments, I take the granola preparation as a welcome break from my norm. Because it’s not an experiment. It’s not science. It’s a relaxed ritual that is never carried just the same way twice. Like voodoo divination, it will turn out however the coconut shells land on the ground. I welcome this act of doing without thinking because some days science is draining. Some days I get lost running over the many details of the protocols. Some days scientists are not nice, not in it for the love of subject. And I absorb people’s bad attitudes and leave the lab with barely enough energy to walk home. With my optimism scorched and my feelings numb. But then there’s the granola, and we’re out of parchment paper and it doesn’t even matter. There’s such a thing as taking joy in the process of doing something just because you might as well. As the aromas rise from the oven, the day-to-day annoyances and panics of science disappear. The card-access doors beeping, the CO2 valve hissing, the centrifuge launching all fall silent. Gradually I become just a normal person at home making granola.
The opinions about Cairns that I had heard prior to visiting were “VERY small” and “backwards.” I found out that yes, it is small but not necessarily in a bad way. In fact, it’s small in a way that the city feels familiar even before you’ve seen it all. There are no daunting high rises, and glitz and glam are not priorities. As one of the local bus drivers explained it, “We didn’t want to look like the Gold Coast.” There’s something to be said for not looking like the Gold Coast. Many Australians hold a special contempt for the Gold Coast’s epicenter, Surfers Paradise, which tries to be some hybrid of Miami Beach and Las Vegas and attracts the same sort of crowd. In fact, it seems that many Australians dislike the urban feel (except for New York, of course!). About Brisbane, many locals like that “it doesn’t feel like a city.” It’s funny then that Cairns is considered too small. Cairns certainly feels suburban everywhere you go except the Esplanade, a 10-block stretch of bars, restaurants, and shops along the foreshore, ending at the pier and marina. The boardwalk is nice and modern, and there is even a fancy public swimming pool. There is every sort of venue you need: simple, down-to-earth pubs, fancier cocktail and tapas lounges, seafood restaurants, and importantly, a Bavarian Beerhouse. All just a stone’s throw from the ocean (at high tide). It was enough to keep me entertained.
Cairns: Far from a one-stoplight town. (Photo from http://www.cairnsplaza.com.au)
As far as “backwards” goes, I can only say that on average people were friendlier, more open to conversation, and less hurried than in Brisbane. Going around to several houses in the area for our fieldwork, my coworker and I were welcomed warmly by nearly everyone. I also noticed that most people had kempt yards with several beautiful gardens and planters. I’m not really sure where the “backwards” perception comes from, but maybe I didn’t spend enough time there to see it. (Note: Our hotel was in Manunda, which is not as bright and beautiful as other parts of Cairns. )
The most astounding part of Cairns is that it is surrounded by natural beauty. And I mean a huge serving of natural beauty. The Great Barrier Reef is what the city is best known for, but Cairns is also set against a backdrop of hills after hills of tropical rainforest. On the Skyrail trip over the rainforest canopy, I saw the Barron River spill over jagged rocks in a shocking display of rugged beauty. This city is really a gigantic natural playground.
Needless to say, I’m dying to return.
I’m coming up on the 6-month mark of my PhD research in Brisbane. And I have NOTHING to show for it. I can say that calmly now because I’ve spent a good month panicking about it already. I haven’t published any new papers. I don’t have any numbers to crunch or any points to plot. I have more holes on my coffee punch card from the cafe in our building than I have PCR gel images. And yet I’m done beating myself up about this perceived lack of achievement (or at least I flirt with the idea of being done with it, as I stare into my frothy coffee). Because I’m starting to appreciate research for what it is, and that’s a whole lot of activity even when there appears to be nothing happening. There is a reason that research is so slow. Looking over grant proposals in the past, I often wondered how it could possibly take a group of intelligent researchers so long and so much money to study what they’ve set out to study. But six months of nothing has made it obvious to me: for every mosquito experiment that is published, there were tens or hundreds of experiments before it that didn’t get published. There were mosquito colonies established, mosquito colonies killed, mosquitoes that failed to produce eggs, failed to mate–you name it. In research there are DNA primers that don’t bind, primers that bind to themselves, primers that bind at mysterious temperatures. There are plans to do field experiments and plans that literally get rained on. Or there is a cyclone (like last week). The amazing thing is that through all of these twists that most people would find terribly annoying, researchers persist. And the cool thing is, well, I’m starting to be able to identify as one of those researchers. Granted, there’s nothing to show for it. But I guess I’m finally okay with that.