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Leopold’s Big Journey

Leo’s journey to Australia began over six months ago in Miami, Florida. Lying the air conditioning all day and hanging out with us at local happy hours wasn’t a bad life. He grew to adore the vet after being the center of attention on a raised examining table for multiple vaccinations and blood tests, which made the mounting vet and paperwork bills a little less painful for me. At the end of our year there, I packed all our stuff in the Jeep, most of which belonged to Leo. He went to say goodbye to the neighbor lady who would always spot him from blocks away and scream out, “Leopold!!!” He didn’t know where we were going, but wherever it was, he wanted to make sure he was in the Jeep when it took off. He slept the whole way to Kansas City, except when we stopped at gas stations to look up directions.

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When we got to Missouri, he recognized my family members, jumping on them and barking excitedly, and he quickly made himself at home. After a year of living in an apartment, he rediscovered his favorite pastime of rolling in the grass.  He especially enjoyed creeping into the neighbors’ grass. My mom spoiled him to death with all kinds of treats and attention after I left, and he became comfortable with life in Missouri. But after 10 weeks, he was uprooted again.

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One day his gigantic new kennel arrived in the mail. He hated it, and he ripped his new water and food bowls off the door in protest. He knew that something was up, and he didn’t like it. On the last Sunday morning of October, my parents took him to the airport cargo terminal, and that day he flew to Minneapolis and then to Los Angeles. In LA, a pet travel agency picked him up, gave him a bath, and kept him overnight. There he found a privileged spot from which to observe the other dogs.

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The next night Leo flew from LAX to Sydney, where the Australian government picked him up and took him straight to quarantine. He was there for the mandatory ten days, ten days in which I couldn’t think about anything else. We were excited when we flew down to Sydney to pick him up, having packed plenty of treats and bones for him (and his rubber chicken, of course). But at the same time we worried that he would come out shaken by the whole experience. When we went to the quarantine station, we discovered that it was out in the middle of nowhere. There were numerous wooden buildings that almost looked like military barracks and lots of dead grass but no dogs in sight. We walked into the facility and asked for Leopold, and as soon as we spoke we heard a familiar howl from another room. They had already put him in his kennel, and he was waiting to be picked up. We let him out and he went nuts, peeing out of excitement and jumping on us. The next minute we were on our way to the car. His happy prance out of there is a sight I will never forget.

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As a welcome down under, we took Leo to an iconic Australian spot: Bondi Beach. He loved the feel of the ocean breeze on his floppy ears. He walked along the cliffs with all of the other tourists looking at the “Sculpture by the Sea” exhibit. It was such a breathtaking view, but we couldn’t stop watching Leo.

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That night we stayed with friends in the country. I still don’t know if Leo realized he was somewhere completely different, but he was happy just to be with us again. The next evening we had to put him on yet another flight, this time back to Brisbane. He flipped out at the cargo terminal, whining and clawing at the kennel door. It was absolutely heartbreaking to watch, because we knew he thought he was being abandoned again. When we picked him up in Brisbane that night, he seemed okay, and he was relieved to see his kennel finally dismantled.

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Now Leo has been in his new home for a week and a half. He gets fairly anxious when we leave for work, but I think slowly he’ll figure out that we’re not going to abandon him again. He certainly has had no trouble getting comfortable on his new couch! I wish that he didn’t have to go through such intense changes and abandonment to get here. But I’d like to think that he’s happy he made the move to be with us. As I finished writing this, I heard a sleepy groan emerge from floor between the sofa and the coffee table. It’s still crazy to think that he’s here.
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The unsettling feeling of settling into a new city

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Photo taken by Katie Orlinsky, NYT

Getting used to a new city is something that I always expect myself to be great at, since I should have acquired so much cultural sensitivity and flexibility from my life experiences so far (HA!). But I suck at it. No matter how long I distract myself by finding a place to live and decorating the place and figuring out basic things like where I’m going to buy groceries and how I’m going to get to and from work, there comes a time when it hits me that I’m here with no friends (except, of course, my loving boyfriend) and it’s going to take a long time before this city feels like it wants me to be here. The feeling of having all of my belongings in this new city but not belonging here myself is pretty unsettling. The only thing that makes it bearable is the knowledge that somehow life has a way of working out situations like this one, and before I know it (waiting, waiting…) I will feel a connection to this city. I’ll be sad to see its distinguishing features pass underneath me when I fly somewhere else, like I was every time I flew out of Miami and saw my college campus, the Biltmore Hotel, Latin Cafe on Le Jeune, and Miami Beach pass below me. I will get annoyed about the things that people here get annoyed about and I will revel in the little festivities that people here revel in. I won’t have to sheepishly look at Google Maps on my phone while on the bus to figure out if we’re near my stop. And I won’t feel particularly American or particularly new; I’ll just feel like everybody else who once moved here and now calls it home. Until then there are growing pains.

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Formal Education: PhD in flying by the seat of my hip waders

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This morning I finished the last of my comprehensive exams, which means (if my committee passes me), then soon I’ll be an “All But Dissertation” (ABD) PhD candidate, whereas before I was a PhD student. The promotion to “all but” sounds so nice, as if there’s just that one little piece left: the dissertation. No big deal. I’m practically done. 🙂

It’s a big “but” in “all but dissertation” status; however, unlike a year ago when I first started grad school, I’m not all that worried about it. This week I was out with a coworker wading in mangrove-filled swamps that had just been flooded by a high tide. I was slipping and sliding around in the muddy 10-inch water with nothing to grab onto besides the occasional mangrove (yes, protected habitat). I realized that if I were to fall, I would surely go down completely and get covered in mud from head to toe. The squishy sliding under my boots was both unsettling and amusing. Despite a year of formally studying mosquitoes, this was the first time I had waded out to collect mosquito larvae in such conditions. Yet I somehow thought I should maintain my composure, as if I were actually “good” at this, given that this is what I’m supposed to be “good” at.

This experience was not unlike every other experience in my PhD so far: flying by the seat of my pants, faking it until I make it. Don’t know how to do PCR? Google it. What’s a grant proposal? Download someone else’s and change it. Drive three hours to meet with one of the country’s best mosquito control programs and try to know what you’re talking about. It’s been one big adrenaline rush. I hardly ever know what I’m doing. But I guess that’s what a PhD is. If you have to plan, carry out, analyze, and publish research from A to Z on some topic you’re not an expert on using techniques you’ve never used before with people you haven’t met yet, nearly every day is a surprise. You would think it would get easier, that you would eventually become comfortable with the tasks at hand, but the tasks keep changing all the time, so you can’t ever put down roots. That little bit of terror that comes on a daily basis with pretending to be good at something I’ve never done before is what keeps me going. I hope that there’s a lot more of that rush, a lot more to figure out, in the “but.”

Body Image, Food, The Poetry of Life

Taking care of my belly

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Photo borrowed from https://hilldalehouse.wordpress.com/2012/05/

It’s always nice to let your belly out now and then. Growing up, probably as far back as first grade, I spent most of the time concentrating on “sucking it in” to look skinnier. Now this is second nature, and I don’t even have to think about keeping my tummy muscles tense. This morning I had a bowl of cereal with raisins (comically, we buy fruit-free muesli and then every morning I add the raisins back in to my bowl just to make it sweeter) and a cup of jasmine tea with milk. Afterwards, since this week I’m not going into the lab, I turned on the heater in my room, crawled into bed under the fluffy, white wool duvet and shut my eyes. Resting after eating always gives me a sense of bliss. Feeling full and happy, I rolled up my shirt half way and let my smooth belly balloon out to all of its glory, much as I’ve seen a few old Latino men do on hot days. Just to give my belly its own place. Just to say, “It’s okay, today you don’t have to suck it in. Today you’re good just how you are.”

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When Trifles Take Over

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It’s nice to be back in the United States. It’s just as comforting and fulfilling as I hoped it would be. Life is easy at the moment. And that’s always a great feeling. I had one professional goal for the six weeks before classes, and that was to finish the paper I’m writing and submit it to a journal. But I’ve been here for three weeks now, and I’m still without a complete draft. I’ve fallen victim to the takeover of trifles. Now don’t get me wrong, I do derive pleasure from constantly worrying about nagging little tasks. In Germany I didn’t have anything concrete to worry about most of the time, and now that I’m back in the States I kind of love it that I have to look for health insurance, find a place to live, get things sorted for the semester that’s about to begin, etc. These things give me tiny bits of joy because the time has actually come to do them and I have the power to do them, unlike the many months in which I would have loved to get my life organized but had to wait patiently in limbo. I’ve spent three weeks running errands and making calls and sorting through boxes.  It’s been thrilling and pleasantly exhausting, but looking back on what I’ve actually accomplished, I realize that I have nothing to show for it. Sweating the small stuff got me nowhere. If I ticked off a few boxes in my ceaseless churning, they were boxes that probably didn’t need to be ticked in the first place. A long list of tasks remains. And worst of all, I didn’t dedicate time to the task that mattered most: writing my paper. I worried a lot and it was exciting, but now I feel like I just came off a sugar high and am in a depleted stupor.  So what? I procrastinated. Big deal, everyone does it… No, that’s not the point.

The point is that had I written my paper instead, I would feel whole and sure right now. There’s something so calming and fulfilling about getting words–just the right words, the words you want–on paper. You convey a message that wasn’t there before. You do something that matters, and that strengthens you from deep inside. It gives you meaning. On the other hand,  when, instead of doing what gives you meaning, you let life’s trifles take over and fuel your constant self-obsession and panic so that you can feel a momentary high, you end up with nothing. You “accomplish” things, but you get nowhere. You perfect your life, but you strip away your own power. Next time someone tells me, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” I will know that it doesn’t just mean, “No use in worrying so much.” It means that trifles will take you apart block by block; you have to fight this destruction of self by focusing on what matters most.

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Dismantling My Nest

Once June came, the sun finally started to shine in Germany. Now there are insects that fly, not just the helpless slugs on the sidewalks, which appeared during the cruel weeks of rain in May and which inevitably got squooshed into bike tire prints (one of the many reasons I don’t ride a bike). Now there are insects that buzz and swarm and fly into your mouth when you jog, all reminders that it’s time for Germany to wake up from awful winter. They’re also reminders that it’s almost time for me to go. Every day as I move about my room, from lying on the bed (my cloud) to sitting at the desk uncomfortably while my feet go numb to standing in front of the bookshelf staring at my cherished books to sitting on the bed with my laptop on my legs to exercising on the rug to meditating on the beanbag chair to lying on the bed before I fall asleep again, I look at the strange components of my nest and know that soon I will have to take them down one by one. I built my nest in a time of desperation. The winter was hard on me, and in my loneliness and heartache I added special items to my room to make myself feel more at home. Eventually these items came to surround me on all sides, creating a comforting nest. On the wall by the bed I have pictures of those dearest to me in picture frames and I have a physical map of Europe. On the nightstand I have macadamia body butter, a little decorative shoe holding my rings, and a stand with all of my special necklaces and bracelets. On the window sill I have three candles, which I lit on particularly lonely nights to make it feel like a special occasion. I also have little wire butterflies, which I brought back from Chile, stuck on the window frame. On the wall by the desk I have a political map of Africa to inspire my dreams, a board with loose pictures of my dog and my friends pinned on it, a map of the time zones of the world (to make long distance seem not so long), and a calendar with a different herb/spice for each month. On the desk I have a homemade frame with a picture of my boyfriend and me on the beach in Australia. On my bookshelf there is one shelf dedicated to nest pieces, including pictures, cards, gifts I’ve received (one of which is my stuffed monkey Arthur), and one of the small leather gloves that my mom gave me before I came to Germany (the other I sadly lost). Some of these items like the glove and my map of Africa and Arthur will come back to the USA with me, but most of them will stay or be discarded. As I think about taking down this nest piece by piece, it makes me sad, because I feel that for certain portions of this year the nest was so vital for me. Dismantling it now equates a loss of security yet again, something for which I’m not sure I’m ready. But in some ways I do feel ready to dismantle the nest. I won’t need the nest any more in the USA. I’ll be in my own country, surrounded by my friends and my family and my boyfriend. I’ll have a real support system instead of this makeshift one. As the time to dismantle my nest comes nearer, I remind myself that I can finally let go of the need to protect my lonely, scared, confused self.  Finally I know that everything is going to be alright soon, and maybe, just maybe, I’ve learned to trust myself a little more in the process.