Flying away from home

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Sadness is a cloak I’m wearing for a while. It’s heavy, not particularly warm, and it doesn’t bring out my eyes. Only fate will determine how long I must wear it. Unlike depression, which sneaks up on you slowly like a skiddish, black stray dog, sadness is a sudden plunge. It’s that part of the roller coaster where you know the drop is coming, but you have no way out of it, so you just scream. It’s panic. You’re able to survive the adrenaline of it because you know it will be short lived. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not the next day, but soon enough you’ll emerge from sadness and see sunshine. You will survive it, even if you’re a little stunned afterwards. That’s the implicit promise that cones with it. In this way, I think sadness is most certainly preferable to depression or grief. You almost wonder why you need to feel it at all, given that you know that there is an end to it. What’s the big deal? Why be so hysterical? Unfortunately with sadness, there is no choice about if and how long you will bear it. We’re all frightened children when it comes to sadness. It’s an uncomfortable cloak to wear. Almost unbearable at times. Now that I’ve been sad for a few days, I worry for myself. I don’t know if my eyelids can swell much bigger. I’m not sure if my normal, optimistic self will be waiting for me at the other side of this tunnel. It’s somewhere on the spectrum between unsettling and terrifying (I still can’t make up my mind where).

The Classic Christmas Gift: Self-Pity

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I came across this article on Psychology Today offering some potential explanations of why people get so depressed at Christmas time (http://m.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/200912/why-people-get-depressed-christmas). According to the article, this is the time of year with the highest incidence of depression. The explanations that I found interesting include, “Other[s] get depressed because Christmas appears to be a trigger to engage in excessive self-reflection and rumination about the inadequacies of life (and a “victim” mentality) in comparison with other people who seem to have more and do more…Other people report that they dread Christmas because of the expectations for social gatherings with family, friends and acquaintances that they’d rather not spend time with.”
It’s true. Self-pity or self-hate does tend to show up in nearly everyone’s stocking at Christmas. Expectations are high at Christmas, and no one seems to actually live up to the perfect holiday cards they send out (if you are even “good enough” to do that!). You’re bound to get lots of questions from distant relatives at family gatherings about your life, making you nervous about how’ll you’ll explain your latest failure/achievement without seeming pathetic/arrogant. Even though I’ve experienced a great deal of self-confidence over the past year, Christmas has a way of breaking me, making me wonder, “Am I actually weird for making these life choices?” and “What will people think of me?” I’m assuming that a lot of other people can empathize with these holiday-induced self-torture sessions. What do we do about it? The gift of self-pity is bound to show up now and then around Christmas, but this year my strategy is to simply not unwrap it. In other words, it’s to give my mind no time to reflect on anything which could make me feel down, including my usual box-office hits: “Just remember, family matters,” “You should probably contact some of your old childhood friends while in town,” “You’ve been enjoying life too much,” and “You should brush up on that German now that you have down time.” I’ll do anything it takes not to let myself run through these favorites, even if it means dropping right then and there to do 20 push ups (realistically, no). Maybe it’s okay to take a break from self-reflection for a few weeks if it means I’ll walk out the other side in one piece. Maybe I can choose how much of the holiday madness I’m willing to sign up for. Hmm, I’ll reflect on that and get back to you.

Leopold’s Big Journey

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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.

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.”

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.”