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.

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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 fucking 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.

 

Terminal Star

I inferred he died by stumbling upon a casual Facebook exchange between two acquaintances. They mentioned a first name, and commented upon how touching the funeral was. They were clearly talking about a teacher from Madras College (my secondary school): I had to search through all the teachers I knew who shared his first name – of which there were several – to find an obituary that confirmed we’d lost him.

Damn.

This happened last year. It was night and I was the last one in our office. When I stepped away from my laptop and wandered into the lab, the roar of the air handlers seemed louder and more jarring.

I wouldn’t be HERE. Not without him.

Back in 2003, I’d be 14. The age where you’re figuring out what you want to do with your life; but more importantly, the kind of person you want to be. What do you value? How do you define success? Who are you going to model yourself after?

Back in 2003, I was starting my Standard Grades at Madras. The first set of formal qualifications in the Scottish education system. You start to strategise. What are you good at? What do you enjoy? What are you interested in studying at university?

I was good at everything. The year before Standard Grades we all took “general science” – a mashup course. Our final grade would determine how many science Standard Grades we could take. A-grade? All three (Biology, Chemistry, Physics). B-grade? Two max. Etc. This was an intellectual challenge I gunned for: I wanted all three. It was more about points-scoring than long-term planning.

WK became my Standard Grade Chemistry teacher. What entranced 14-year old me was his array of interesting science facts and anecdotes. Chemistry could be linked to the wholesale retail in chip shops (via acetic acid – vinegar). Chemistry could be linked to Grangemouth. When egged on by other students he applied a distinctively scientific mind towards the French language and its verb tables. Or the democratic voting systems we were learning about in Modern Studies. No one else in my Madras College sphere of influence was that much of a generalist. WK was smart. Crucially, he was smart about a lot of things all at once.

That really impressed me.

From Standard Grade to Highers. To Advanced Highers. To university. I chose a degree in science even though I seemed more adept at English literature. But good textual analysis required a scientific sensibility. I chose a degree in Chemistry because I wanted to situate myself in the middle of Science. Biology on the left, Physics on the right – a chemist could grasp at them both.

I’m not the smartest or most talented Chemistry PhD out there. And that’s fine, because I still think I’d prefer to be a generalist. To have anecdotes and interesting facts.

WK died of pancreatic cancer, I found out. By the time he was ill enough to go to the doctor (maybe a week before the end of the school year) it was far too late. He died a couple of weeks after his diagnosis. While I kept in touch with some of my Madras teachers – had mini catch-up chats with others when I passed through the school buildings – I didn’t keep in touch with him. I’m not sure he knew I went for a Chemistry PhD (he stopped at a Masters degree). He certainly didn’t know I was modelling myself and my concepts of “success” and “intelligence” on him.

Damn.

WK wasn’t one of the cool or popular Madras teachers. He never had trouble keeping control in the classroom – he just had to quietly start talking and the students would silence themselves to listen. I’d argue he was one of the funnier ones. I feel like I was one of the few students listed him as a favourite teacher. But that’s fine.

Thank you, WK. I’ve now got a Chemistry PhD, and as far as I’m concerned I was right to follow you. I know you really liked Bob Dylan, Scottish country music and a bit of Classic FM. I also know you disliked Girls Aloud (“Can’t sing.”). I think maybe you’d like Karine Polwart and her song Terminal Star. It makes me think of you, in any case.

 

 

Curb Your Doctoral Enthusiasm

In early 2007, my secondary school Biology teacher predicted I’d “drop out of my PhD, go into stand-up, and have my own reality TV show.”

Now in December 2017 I can finally – definitively – say that he was totally wrong.

(Part of me wishes he wasn’t. My reality TV show would’ve been a cross between Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Big Bang Theory. It would have been excellent.)

Anyway. I defended my PhD this week and was met with approval. I still need to submit my paperwork to the Graduate School – forms, money, photocopies of everything – but the highest energy barrier has been vaulted.

For the rest of the week I’ve been working through the excess refreshments I brought to my defense, namely croissants and non-alcoholic eggnog. I took a day off to go into Manhattan and lounge around Aire Ancient Baths, which was the most decadent thing I could think of doing (Aire Ancient Baths actually featured in ‘John Wick Ch1’ as part of the ‘ultra-decadent nightclub’ scene, which raised my opinion of the locale). Then I returned to business as usual. Having drunk several gallons of eggnog, I still don’t understand its appeal…but I feel closer to understanding America in general.

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel after defending my PhD. Would I be disillusioned and depressed? Would I be indifferent? I ended up feeling happier than I expected. It definitely felt like I’d achieved something.

It’s been a weird academic year. Around this time last year my PhD timeline shifted forward by 6-12 months, and I had to adjust to a new reality. I’d be staying on the Eastern Seaboard while the rest of my lab moved South. I got the unusual privilege of a calm, research-lite Fall semester to focus on writing up my thesis. Most people finish their PhDs in a flurry of advancing deadlines and semi-realistic expectations. For the first time in several years I felt an acute absence of stress as I worked through my thesis chapters. It meant the ending was slightly anticlimactic.

With time I’ll reflect upon the PhD and my choices during grad school. Over the Christmas break, however, I’ll simply enjoy the sensation of being finished.

Demons Below The Skin

This blog post belongs to the “Mental Health In Grad School” genre.

Probably. 

Well, see what you think.

Winter 2015 I broke out in hives. It was a confusing experience: I’ve never suffered from hives before, and there’s no history of it in my immediate family. It just seemed like one day my skin turned red and itched like Hell.

They appeared at pressure points/joints, but covered my whole body. Raised welts popped then simmered down – here one hour, faded to a red mark the next. I have pretty good self-control when it comes to scratching, but they still hurt.

It took a while for me to link the symptoms to “hives”, at which point I Googled “anti-histamines” and went hunting in Rite Aid for bottles of pills. In the interim I had trouble sleeping because of the pain. As my bodies natural anti-histamines cycled down for the evening I had to rush out the lab, before my neck and face started to turn reddish purple.

I was given the option of prescription-grade anti-histamines, but settled on 2 brands of over the counter pills (Zyrtec in the daytime, Benadryl overnight). I figured out that really hot baths just before bed got rid of the pain, as did sleeping on the cool wooden floor if I was unlucky enough to wake at 2am. The hives went away in the summer…then came back a little while later. Going off the Zyrtec led to bad flare-ups, but eventually my body’s natural anti-histamines took control.

When first I went to the university health centre they asked me about any lifestyle changes that could have triggered my full-on allergic reaction (diet, laundry detergent, etc). I could only shake my head and smile faintly.

Stress was the blatant cause of my hives.

If I was allergic to anything, it was grad school.

***

I can handle deadlines, criticism and failed experiments. I managed 2 years of my PhD without a major auto-immune malfunction. When stress got too much for my body to handle was when a series of insidious, small problems piled up.

I moved into a new apartment off campus. I needed to live by myself, but the place I chose sucked up huge quantities of my salary. When home-to-lab was no longer a 5 min stroll but required a car journey or 20 minute bike ride, I had to change how I conducted research and structured my day.

Lab mates moved on. The individuals I’d been closest to – who in fact I’d relied on socially –  had to exit the picture; as the group social dynamics shifted they seemed to cut me out. I was now in charge of several big group responsibilities that had once been split across 3 people. It felt like I was doing 95% of the work of keeping the group functioning…but getting no “social rewards” for my effort. A piece of equipment was malfunctioning, the person designated responsible for maintenance pretended it wasn’t. It seemed I was the only person who cared enough to get it fixed. I became angry and resentful.

My project stalled. I’d been lucky to kick off my PhD with a short project that led to a 1st author paper quickly, and had made good progress with tricky projects after that. But when I finally got within the parameters of “publishable data” once more, I was told to go away and make the data even better. I couldn’t. Months passed.

From what friends have told me about their own experiences, when grad school goes wrong it is because of this kind of pile-up. It’s never just that you have a tough project, or are struggling with your home life, or have lab problems. It’s never one big disaster that throws you into misery. You probably don’t even realise how bad things have got for you until the demons force their way out.

***

For what it’s worth, I went for a session with the university’s counselling services shortly after the hives broke out. For me it didn’t work out: I never scheduled any follow-ups. Partly because recognising I could use counselling was simultaneous to (finally) recognising I had a serious problem I needed to address. I also didn’t connect with the counsellor I was assigned to: I wanted to get away from feeling upset and angry, not talk for 60 minutes about it.

[My “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” advice would be to try a second or third counsellor if the first one doesn’t work for you. And you probably aren’t going to solve everything (or even anything) in your first appointment.]

Things got better. I’m not sure I was super-proactive, more that I adjusted to the new circumstances and they stopped stressing me as much. Maybe it’s bad to write a “Mental health in grad school” post that argues “well, y’know, the best way to deal with problems is wait til they fade of their own accord”. But that’s sometimes just what happens.

…Well, a better way of saying that could be: “It’s not the circumstances, but how you react to them that matters”. I could focus on doing my group jobs as professionally as I could and decide that others dereliction of duty wasn’t my problem. When I fixed that piece of equipment I made it clear to my boss that I’d used my initiative to solve the problem, so got credit for that. Understanding that circumstantial set-backs weren’t permanent or a reflection of my personal qualities helped too.

Quitting is a valid choice if you experience this kind of mental/physical health misery. The friends who told me their stories left grad school (all of them, I believe) and were telling me about it 5-10 years down the line. They’re all successful adults whose professional trajectories and lives I admire. A PhD is never worth wrecking yourself over.

***

My hives are still there. They haven’t erupted in a long time, but they remain under my skin, waiting for the opportunity to flare back up. Next time though I’ll be ready.