The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Tristate Area

My evening flight up to New Jersey was delayed in increments. Text messages at intervals eventually told me it would be 3 hrs late. I couldn’t even try to scrape onto the last train from the airport – we were arriving way too late for that. By 8.30am I’d need to be at Rutgers University for my PhD convocation.

Don’t panic. As the saying goes. It wasn’t worth paying for a hotel room near the airport that I’d only reside in for 4 hrs – I’d get to sleep in an airport terminal the night before the culminating, crowning event of my advanced degree (duration: 4.5 years).

The symbolism seems obvious enough.

Anyway, this is why I always travel with a pashmina. Those things almost as important as  towels. Throw ’em over your head when attempting to drift off under glaring LED lights; wrap ’em around your body when an unexpected chill breeze strikes up; cover your bare shoulders to reduce sunburn. Pashminas are amazing. It’s why I managed to get ~60 mins of sleep within a 4 hr time span crammed onto an airport “sleep proof” bench next to a massive widescreen TV blaring 24 hr entertainment drivel, with AC blasting me. I got to my Convocation early.

If a PhD teaches you anything, it’s how to operate under stressful conditions with limited resources.

***

Memory functions like a strip of paper. You can fold two distant pieces so they fit together. It was weird to disembark in New Brunswick…and everything felt exactly the same. It was like I’d never left. But the disquieting bit was I forgot what Atlanta was like as soon as I returned to New Brunswick. Memories and emotions are stained into the fabric of places. When people ask if I miss the UK I tend to shrug and say I don’t really think about it. And that’s totally true: it’s impossible for me to conjour up the memories and sensations of a place when I’m living somewhere else. But those memories and feelings will come flooding back if I return.

It means that there are feelings I can only access in one city. The feelings experienced when floating down the Rhein on a lazy summer weekend in Basel? Yeah, I’d need to fly to Switzerland for an August holiday. Cycling over the Thames to the backdrop of a vivid purple & yellow sunset? Can’t recreate it ever again.

As I wander around New Brunswick and Rutgers taking this in, I feel heartbreak. Because I was glad to leave the wilderness of New Jersey and plunge back into a massive city…but I can’t recreate to this sense of place. It was unique.

On my last day at Novartis – a couple of days before I’d fly out of Switzerland permanently – I sat crying on the banks of the Rhein for an hour. It didn’t matter how I’d struggled in such a foreign country, or the frustrations of education plans thwarted long-distance…it hurt to leave. I still catch myself yearning for those tranquil walks through Basel’s old city, dawdling beside quiet fountains in empty squares.

A city will break your heart. Although your heart will heal…it’ll never re-form how it was before.

And you won’t want it to.

***

Graduation isn’t really about the ceremony itself. It’s about closure on an experience that can be fuzzily-defined. I defended my PhD in early December in a low-key fashion (bought 2 bags of croissants for my defense catering, the leftovers lasted a week), then loitered around the area until early January in much the same manner as pre-defense. Hanging around the school gymnasium for a couple of hours just to walk across the (small) stage and get “hooded” with something that WOULD NOT function as a hood in a rainstorm is as good an end point as any. You Walked, you’re 100% done. Send official photographs to your parents – everyone’s happy.

On the subject of location-specific memories…I spent a bit of time in New Brunswick and went down to Philly for several social engagements. Some of the highlights of my trip included:

  • Thai food that wasn’t sickly sweet.
  • Sleeping at the 24 hr swanky Korean spa. Cheaper than a hotel, I was out like a light for 9 hours AND I got sauna/hot-tub time thrown in for the price of admission.
  • Coppery espressos drunk slowly in view of Independence Hall.
  • Hanging out with friends I’ve known for almost a decade, sharing plates of Sichuan grub and having stupid conversations. Then going to a dessert bar to eat ice cream in a torrential thunderstorm.
  • Brunch in Manayunk. It tastes better there.

I’ll get on a flight to Atlanta. These sensations will fade out as others fade back in. I’ll taste the humid Georgian air and remember my martial arts, Emory, and all the writing. I won’t remember what it really felt like to be a doctoral student, or to live it up in Philadelphia.

At least, not until the next time.

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Word Play. Part 1

When asked the “What is your background and where are you going?” question recently, I realised my answer had shifted.

Usually I begin my story in 2010 within the cubicle maze of corporate American pharma. Walking through silky air-conditioned corridors listening to the metallic whirr of coffee machines and the deep glug of water coolers. Still a chemistry undergrad, I realised I wanted this: the trappings of white-collar life and the stimulation of industrial research projects. I would get a PhD in Organic Chemistry, then angle after an industry position. Watching the company spasm through a site-closure and mass layoffs while I interned there didn’t kill my desire, but I knew I’d have to be careful if I followed this plan. That career narrative followed a sensible path (who wouldn’t want a well-paid, stimulating job?!) and had compelling logic (me needing a PhD for an industrial position was an reasonable statement).

Except this time I answered the question a different way. I shifted my narrative back 5 years. Back to grubby linoleum, the faint tang of lemon disinfectant blending into stale urns of instant coffee sealed behind staffroom doors. Back to the time when I was arguable better-dressed, albeit in a far more flamboyant way. Back to secondary school.

“It was assumed I’d go and study English literature or writing rather than chemistry, because I was so good at it…” I began.

I feel dubious about pitching my origin story back to my secondary school days. This all happened a decade ago. Did my life peak before university?! Haven’t I done anything significant since then? But as already discussed in ‘Terminal Star‘ – secondary school was when my adult identity formed, and I first articulated my values.  I was good at all my classes. But people saw how I went about writing.

Bonus material time! The following is my contribution to the December 2006 student magazine. The school had just endured a government audit that sharply criticised its facilities, drawing ire in the local newspapers. In a tone influenced by The Onion, I decided to defend my prized school.

3

4.jpg5.jpgOne line of my piece was censored: I originally wrote “lessons are an ‘Open Mike’ session against the teachers.” Which was a reference to an incident involving a teacher named Mike that local newspapers & tabloids feasted on…and I’m still annoyed my line was mangled. Let this be a correction to the record.

I wouldn’t want to put my secondary school writing up for scholarly critique. Plenty of the in-jokes and references won’t make sense to the casual reader. Yet I’m still proud of it. I didn’t agonise over its composition, in fact I recall clacking it out in a one-r and barely revising. I toyed around with which mundane school group to gift a “militant wing” – I went with the Chamber Orchestra as the funniest. If I had to rewrite the article today…I’m not sure I could make many improvements.  It’s still recognisable as my “voice”. I comes across as confident in a way I’m never confident in the flesh. It’s clear I relished writing the takedown.

**

The point is that from 2006 to present my writing often took a back seat or was actively suppressed. But if science was my expertise…writing was my instinct. I don’t believe I was wrong to care about white-collar science, or that my logic had holes in it. I just think that I should listen more closely to what drives me.

In my next post I’ll bring the narrative up to the present day, explaining why Alexander Hamilton has become my historical homeboy.

Dawn in the Chem Lab of Good and Evil

Rolling a Halloween party into my postdoc interview travel plans worked out great. One of the airlines I used charged for carry-on bags and my finances were crunching pretty badly…so I went to the Halloween party as Elle Driver (minus her sword). Saved money. Saved myself from wheeling a suitcase across sweaty Atlanta. Got the job.

You can propose your own moral to this story.

Anyway, my first point of call in Atlanta was en route to my hotel: Soul Vegetarian Restaurant. Discovering new cuisine can be akin to discovering a new colour – suddenly you are tasting the world in an extra dimension. I’d almost finished my late lunch when a customer stopped by my table and laid her hand on my shoulder. “Baby, you don’t need to eat it so fast – we know it’s good!”

I was suitably embarrassed, but the encounter showcased the two greatest things about Atlanta: the quality of its food and the sass of its inhabitants.

Sold.

***

On the Eastern Seaboard I was “Miss” or “M’am”. Below the Mason-Dixon line I’m “Miss Claire”. I’ve decided not to push the doctoral degree too hard in everyday social interactions (would “Doctor Claire” be a Workable Thing down here?). Aside from that, I’ve not had to overcome any major culture shocks. There’s so much migratory influx, gentrification and development that Atlanta feels geographically unmoored. In the spring cool I could be anywhere in the United States: mall wastelands, grimy downtown highrises, crammed hipster coffeeshops, tranquil parkland where only the faintest grind of cars can reach you. I like it.

***

Aside from the martial arts renaissance, I’m indulging in word play. Heavy word play. Emory has a Postdoctoral Association Science Writers Committee – an email call for participants went out within weeks of me moving to the area. Before I even had my employment authorisation documents processed by USCIS I was at the committee meeting, explaining awkwardly that I wasn’t YET a postdoc..but hoped I’d be one soon. I’m trying to take my writing more seriously, getting experience and using the many springboards that a university setting offers. If you haven’t noticed, I created a new blog page to staple my writing in one place.

I feel slightly uncomfortable about being “out” as an aspiring science writer. Ninety-eight percent of the time when scientists ask me where I plan to take my career, their exact question is: “Academia or industry?”. Telling them that NEITHER is really my plan is too much of a hassle in casual conversation, it feels like I’m giving them a wrong answer. But I’m at the stage in my career where I need to move into “my career”, and if nobody knows I want to be a science writer…how can I expect to become one? So I’m trying to raise my voice a bit. Will see how it goes.

 

Don’t Beat Up 12-Year Olds – They’re Too Damn Springy

In primary school it became obvious I was different from the other children. Much more introverted. In the playground I’d take my skipping rope and use the wooden handles to enthusiastically beat out tunes on the metal railings. It wasn’t until secondary school when the fact I was different became a problem.

I didn’t have the social tools to deal with bullies. My response was to shut down: keep silent, look away and pretend they weren’t there. This wasn’t a good strategy – it just meant the little bitches kept needling. So I did what many nerdy, introverted, targeted kids do, and requested to my parents I be enrolled in martial arts.

The hoes faded into other classes, and I learned to use humour as a social tool. Taekwon-do remained a committed part of my life for 5-6 years, until my 1st year of university. Then it was out-competed by all the other sports and societies I jumped in to. After black belt I stopped.

***

This is a long preamble to the news that I’ve returned to martial arts. I cycle my hobbies: long-distance running was a part of my life in secondary school & university…then again several years later when I was in Basel. Ballroom dancing was “in” for a couple of years, starting from when I lived in Philly. Now I’m back to fighting.

I switched from Taekwon-do (TKD) to Karate & Ju-jitsu. TKD comes from Korea – it was originally designed for peasants fighting against horsemen, so it features a lot of jumping /flying kicks. They are hella fun to practice…but I wouldn’t be able to dismount a horseman with my kicks. Maybe somebody sitting on a small pony, or perhaps a cyclist that was stopped at a traffic light. I’m not naturally graceful, strong or flexible.

Karate isn’t wildly different from TKD. You learn patterns, do a bit of sparring, practice punch & kick sequences against partners. I remember enough TKD to do all the Karate moves wrong: stance too long, fists turned sideways when they should be down, etc. But most of the underlying principles are the same, and getting comfortable with Karate isn’t going to be a tough.

You can’t even say Ju-jitsu is in another ballpark. It’s in a seedy back alley late at night with two guys who’ll stab you and run off with your iPhone. Ju-jitsu is what I’d call “dirty fighting”: choke your opponent, throw them to the ground, then break their arm for good measure. In TKD and Karate you practice these clean technical punches aimed at the chest, and a knee to the stomach is as close as you get to your opponent. Ju-jitsu involves wriggly grabs/locks, learning how to fall diplomatically and jumping on people’s backs. Part of me is horrified when learning the mechanism of a neck break…but I admit I’m intrigued too. Here’s an opportunity to learn something totally new.

Because I’m a beginner I often don’t get placed with full-sized adult dudes, but rather the pre-teens. I would be morally-conflicted about trying to dislocate the arms of kids half my age…if it weren’t for the fact that 12-year old boys are 70% elastic. They only ask me to stop the move out of pity, after I’ve been twisting their limbs for several minutes without anything happening.

I’m still processing the ~4.5 years of my PhD, and will blog about it more when I’m at a safer distance. For now I’ll say that it’s been ~4.5 years since I invested myself in a challenging sport or hobby, gunning to master it. Now I’m waking up several times per week with aches and pain in my body. I’ve got conversation-piece bruises that morph through a tasteful spectrum of dark blues, greens and browns and are always diverting to look at. It feels like I’m pushing myself. And that feels good.

My Unpopular Movie Opinions

I’ve been trying to expand my cultural vocabulary over the past year or so by watching more movies. The Regal Cinema in Piscataway has over-sized leather reclining chairs installed in all its cinemas, so I leaned in to the over-priced fizzy drinks as a new weekend relaxation. I also accessed a variety of older movies via my laptop, hoping I could get a more educated understanding of film art.

Or not. I’ve compiled a list of all my movie beliefs & opinions, formed within the past ~12 months, that I show my self-cultivation hasn’t exactly led to intellectual betterment.

  • Kingsman 2 (The Golden Circle) was superior to Kingsman 1 (The Secret Service). Both were mainly an excuse for me to mutter repeatedly at the screen: “Colin Firth…Goddamn. GOD-DAMN!”
  • Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was better than it had any right to be. In fact I’d totally rewatch it and recommend it to others.
  • I’ve watched almost no Marvel Movies, so was surprised to learn the first time The Immigrant Song had been played in a Thor movie was in Thor Ragnarok. After learning that I decided not to bother playing catch-up.
  • PS. I’m also now a Loki apologist.
  • The fight scene in Atomic Blonde where Charlize Theron beats up the Polizei to the tune of Father Figure by George Michael was the cinematic highpoint of the 2017 summer movie season (and superior to her later stairwell fight).
  • Logan Lucky contained the best movie depiction of chemistry I’ve ever witnessed – featured in the scene where Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) wrote out a chemical equation and angrily yelled about it.
  • Watching Kiss Kiss Bang Bang I was reminded of my preteen/early teen opinion that Val Kilmer was the sexiest Batman. Seeing him make out with Robert Downey Jr…did not overturn my prior conviction.
  • You can safely conclude that I like action movies, so you may suppose I like John Wick. In fact I had trouble watching the first movie. I played it on my laptop….and it was too dark to see what was going on.
  • Come to think of it…Edgar Wright could successfully direct a Kingsman film. He has a good understanding of the British class system/male psyche, and shoots fun, unconventional action comedies. However I found his Scott Pilgrim vs. The World to be too Wright-style heavy: he’s funnier with a touch of subtlety.

Fear and Loathing in Atlanta

“We can’t stop here – this is biscuits and gravy country!”

I’ve been moulded into a product of New Jersey. By which I mean I love diners, drive like  a lunatic and don’t know how to re-fill my petrol tank. I learned to drive in the States, and have done one 4-hr road trip during my time as a PhD student. As you can imagine, driving from NJ to Atlanta sounded like a challenge. It’s over 800 miles (14-hrs according to Google Maps). At one point I was stupid enough to consider making the trek in a U-Haul with my car clipped on the back. After some reflection I realised that was idiotic – I’d overtake a lorry at 80 mph and forget I was towing a car behind me, or something like that.

Therefore. A two-day road trip in Saxon (aka my ‘Wheels of Steel’). I’d been told that the journey was (i) really scenic and iconic, a fun experience you had to try at least once (ii) an awful soul-destroying grind that you’d never want to repeat again. It was the same person who told me those two things, before then after they actually did the trip. I decided to stop over in Burlington NC (just over halfway there). Armed with 4 pages of Google Map printouts and several bottles of water I prepared myself for an early start.

The key to long-distance driving is the radio. “Adult variety” is my first choice, but I’m not too fussy. The Top Hits stations are too repetitive: I must have heard the opening to “Havana” by Camila Cabello at least ten times over 2 days, and I kept switching stations. RnB/Hip-hop is fine, but I cry to 70% of country songs (it’s embarrassing – I was even tearing up at the overblown ones about two alcoholic lovers shooting themselves). Conversely, when I started my engine at 6.30am and heard Solisbury Hill blasting over the speakers it had a better awakening effect than coffee ever could.

Which is just as well, because I was severely under-caffeinated for the whole trip. I bid farewell to NJ with breakfast at a 24-hr diner. I was reminded why I don’t eat breakfast there more often: omelette was greasy, the coffee was brown water. Says a lot that my last hours in NJ were spent eating bad diner-food.

I decided that under-caffeination and mild dehydration was preferable to bladder discomfort and restroom hunting at high speeds. By the time I got to my sleazy motel (if you’re after a proper road trip experience of course you need to stay in sleazy motels) I was too exhausted to drive out and look for food/coffee. When I set out on a walk around the neighbouring strip malls, people in the car parks gave me weird looks (what’s that chick doing walking around HERE?), and after making note of my surroundings I could understand why. Following greasy diner food I was craving a salad or some fresh fruit, but perusing the local southern eateries I could see that wish was impossible. It was all “biscuits” (which as a British person I can assure you aren’t what I’d call biscuits) and waffles. So I crashed asleep at 7pm, vaguely hoping no one would try and break into my room. They probably could, if they wanted to. Only 30% of the electrical sockets in my room worked and despite its Non-Smoking designation…it smelt of smoke.

By Day 2 I was on the home strait. Despite exceeding the speed limit by an average of 20mph I made it into Atlanta without getting pulled over once. There was a steady scattering of busted cars in motorway ditches along the American coast, I suspect left there as a warning to cocky drivers such as myself. Still…faster speed = better fuel efficiency, right?

I made it to Atlanta. As soon as I pulled off I-85 I stumbled into an Ethiopian restaurant only a couple of miles from new apartment. Veggies and strong coffee – I demolished everything. Part of my sadness of leaving NJ involved parting with things I couldn’t replace. Knowing there’s stellar Ethiopian food in the Atlanta metro area had an instantly reassuring effect.

 

Midnight in the Chem Lab of Good and Evil

Back in 2009 I told a friend I’d be spending a year in America, interning at a pharma company. Her response was to insist I read one of her favourite books – “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt. She hoped I’d check out Savannah, GA while I was in the US. I did. And in 2018 that book is still on my shelf. Along with American Gods (Neil Gaiman), The Devil In The White City (Erik Larson), Alexander Hamilton (Ron Chernow) and Evicted (Matthew Desmond) it provides me with an atlas for navigating this vast country.

Setting out to that internship, I viewed the American South with the same level of trepidation and beady curiosity as I viewed West Philadelphia. It was unknowable and dangerous. After my first exposure I stopped fretting about the ‘hoods of Philly, but I never got comfortable with the American South. My Scottish East Coast values templated onto American East Coast values to the point where I barely felt a culture shock. This part of the States is viewed as rude and uppity by fellow Americans: I decided that therefore made me rude and uppity…and I was OK with it.

Now I’m moving to Atlanta, GA.

(Which is 3-4 hours drive away from Savannah. I checked that out pretty early in the process.)

I find it easier to move to a new place than back to an old one. I get a kick from re-activating my Meetup account and trawling local interest groups. Going to a place where I know no one forces me to socialise and meet people. I get to re-roll the dice and correct past mistakes. You miss dancing? Well, Google ‘ballroom dance Atlanta’ and start checking out studios! New location – new habits. Any pre-move jitters are soothed by putting events into my Moleskine Calendar to fill up my time.

Even if the South turns out to be as alien as I once feared…I can make the experience meaningful. I left Basel, Switzerland with a strong feeling of relief, but because I’d thrown myself into the new location I never felt like I’d wasted a year. Quite the opposite!

You can find opportunities for good and evil in the same place, at the same time. That’s what I love about this country.