It’s unclear why I would have a psychological barrier that stops me from taking baths when I live with roommates. I think if you started a timer, a long hot shower takes me about as long as a soak in the bath (at least it does these days). I still don’t like the idea that somebody could be waiting to use the bathroom whilst I’m wasting time in a bath, so I guess that’s why it never happened.

Now I can take baths instead of showers every night. In fact, my new weekend treat is to switch off the lights and enjoy a bath by candlelight. Maybe I’ve just been feeling guilty about the in-built decadence of baths.

My new apartment comes with plenty of wonderful freedoms – but also hidden restrictions. I have a balcony upon which I can drink my Sunday morning coffee during the height of summer (as you may recall, I love a good balcony) The greenery out the back in pleasant to look upon. Baths, etc. I can walk into town in less than 30 minutes.

The biggest restriction is the higher cost of rent, especially pronounced in the summer when I’m on a different (i.e. lower) monthly salary. For the past two years I’ve had the freedom to not worry about money and expenditure, now I’ve got to think about budgeting more tightly and checking my bank balance more frequently. It should work out fine, but will take adjustments.

The other restriction is on my freedom of movement. I can cycle to my office now. Although it takes a short space of time, it still takes much more time, planning and energy than the 5 minute walk I’ve grown used to. It looks like I can’t have everything: I can’t save money (cycling instead of driving, eating at home instead of on-campus/in restaurants), possess the full freedom of off-campus housing and have equivalent productivity in the lab.

Perhaps the best thing about my new apartment is that it gives me a greater sense of responsibility. It was hard to muster up enthusiasm to clean my on-campus quarters – it was shared, I didn’t spend much time there, the dirt wasn’t that much of an issue, yada yada. Now I have the free time on Sundays (since I can’t just wander into lab when I’m bored) I can do some dedicated cleaning of the space. I have a sense of ownership of my place, rather than just concluding that as the only occupant I can leave everything as filthy as I like.

I’m looking forward to my next couple of paycheques – decorating my rooms and concealing the dull whitewashed walls is my top priority.

Dreams of Never-ending Summer

aEverything has contracted. My life, my whole existence can barely get more compact. A pleasurable respite is when I sit in the car for an extra 30 minutes, listening to the radio. Or perhaps it is the American rain – warmer, heavier and more satisfying than the cold, biting kind you get back in the UK. The kind of rain that soaks you to the skin within seconds of stepping out into it. There isn’t enough rain at the moment – I’m waiting patiently for the thunderstorms.

Right now my challenge is to become a better person. Not a perfect person – there’s no way I can ever achieve that, and I’d rather not waste my energy beating myself up about the impossibility of it – just one that’s kinda better in some ways. There was a recent moment where I was forced to examine myself and my dredged up feelings of guilt. One of those times where sure I could just blame somebody else for their mistakes (100% non-self-blame)…but realistically I knew that there was some portion of blame that could be attributed to me and my behaviour. No excuse. If I can fix my behaviour, then I should. I’m focussing on one relationship right now – putting my energy into getting it right. If the small-scale project works then I need to incorporate more of my positive actions into the rest of my life.

As an introvert I try to conserve my energy. Interacting with people can be draining: if I don’t want interaction time then everybody within a 10 metre radius tends to be aware of that. If I’ve been in a high-interaction setting (such as teaching) for several hours then I will need to decompress for the best part of an hour before I feel socially-functional once more. Fighting against my default settings takes up most of my “personal development”. In an ideal world I think I’d be able to act like a charming extrovert for all of my working hours, then crash and decompress in the comfort of my own apartment in the evenings. Man, that will take some work.

***

In other news: my research project continues to go well. After a year of disappointment and circles it now looks as if I can wind it up soon. The disappointments and frustrating lack of progress has worn me down – I’m almost scared to run several key reactions, for fear that they won’t work and I’ll end up within another dead-end cycle of incremental improvements (that don’t ever become cumulative). However, I’m now at the point where I only need a handful of incremental improvements to pass over the finishing line. I feel excited at the thought of another publication to my name: the academic unit of currency is the publication, with it all our careers and sense of self-worth are tied up.

I’m hoping for a speedy breakthrough.

Home Alone

I make a bad roommate. There are folk out there who need company after a day at school/work, who enjoy sharing their personal downtime with a friend. That’s not me. I’m one of those people who needs a bubble of isolation in my down-time and finds roommates to be a disturbing intrusion into their private sphere.

So, good news. My application has been approved for a 1 bedroom apartment, starting in a couple of months! It is located in an apartment complex neighbouring, but (and this is the crucial detail) not actually on the university campus. In fact, it is comfortably closer to downtown.

Amidst the natural concern that I’m being shilled an over-priced dud (I’ve heard horror stories about other apartment complexes), I’m optimistic and excited. Here are some of the reasons why I’m glad to re-gain a 1 bed apartment after a 4 year hiatus.

A. Unlimited Bath Time.

When I’m sharing accommodation I stick to showers. I know it can be torturous when you desperately need the toilet and someone just. Won’t. Leave. The bathroom. Showers are quicker and more considerate of others. I really love my baths, however. I love the idea of taking baths without ever worrying if somebody else is outside waiting to get in.

B. Personal Decorations.

In most rented flats I’ve lived in, the living room, bathroom and kitchen have been a demilitarised zone. You don’t impose your individualistic aesthetic tastes upon the public areas because not everyone is gonna appreciate your decor. With the place all to myself, I can resurrect my National Geographic pin-up maps (most people in their university days put up posters of the Beatles on Abbey Road or sassy slogans about alcohol: my maps were commented upon). Except that now I’m an adult I think I have to frame my wall decorations, rather than stick them up with pins and blu-tack.

C. Noise At All Hours.

No more guilt about disturbing a slumbering roommate. If I want to swear vocally when my alarm goes off at 6am then I have that right.

D. Back In Reality.

I’ve complained about living on campus – how it shrinks your existence and traps you. When I come back from work late I will soon be able to head out the door again, either to unwind in a cafe or pop in to the local supermarket when I realise I’ve forgotten an important ingredient for dinner. The presence of civilisation is a grounding force.

 

The quest for furnishings and decorations that don’t break the bank will soon begin!

Gain-Loss

I’m on holiday. Or at least, I have been. At this stage I’m almost holiday-ed out. Too relaxed, or something. It will be good to board the plane home.

Scotland and the UK seem to be doing well for themselves. I notice that the rural countryside is sprinkled with wind turbines (which I approve of). The Tesco’s in town no longer offers plastic bags at the self-service checkout, I had to catch the attention of a staff member and indicate that I needed one. In fact, in a lot of shops I was asked “Do you need a bag?”, but most of them actually just assumed that I would have brought along a bag for my purchases anyway. If you contrast that with my average Shoprite (USA) experience where the cashiers will put only 2 or 3 items in each bag, and then double-pack the plastic bags. It’s ridiculous. I do my damnedest to remember to bring my own bags when I go grocery shopping, muscling the poor cashier out the way to ensure that I do the packing.

St Andrews and Edinburgh look to be on an economic upswing: shops have changed about in the past year (as usual), but now I’m seeing more artisanal cafes, gourmet delis/foodstuffs and chic clothes shops. Fewer charity and “poundsaver” shops.

Contrary to public opinion, the weather in the UK is actually great. It’s June, but I can walk around outside for minutes at a time without breaking into a horrific sweat and struggling to breathe through the humidity. Brits do their weather a disservice. When the Eastern Seaboard had these same temperatures a couple of months back everybody was in sandals, t-shirts and shorts, over here people classify the same weather conditions as “too cold” and bundle up in hoodies and full-length trousers.

I guess that you could describe the Scotland I’m returning to as “more Scandinavian/European”. I’m still a foreigner in this country, though. I can no longer remember my St Andrews Cafe Etiquette (in which cafes is there table service, in which cafes do you need to pay before eating, in which cafes must you go over the till yourself to pay). I’m the idiot in the queue fishing for loose change in a purse mixed with cents, pennies and pounds. I feel vaguely disappointed that there isn’t a proper hipster coffeeshop in bucolic St Andrews – none of the waxed facial hair and pretentious pour-over contraptions that makes wasting time in American coffeeshops so rewarding.

I got to see family again and take help out with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme – always something that I find rewarding. I got to cycle that wonderful 10 mile route along the coast. I got to look out of my window and see the ocean, passing through a hundred different colours as the time and weather change. I got to bring back those old UK memories, the ones that I neatly packed away in the back of my mind when I left the country, the stuff I just can’t seem to think about when I’m away from this place. In return, I got to forget about life in the USA and all my grad school dramas, then just focus on the immediate present.

Release

A ferocious thunderstorm is attacking us this evening. I knew it would have to happen. America, you tried so hard with your baking sunshine and humid warmth – it could only be sustained for so long. The humidity ratcheted up, now it broke.

Sunday is the day for cramming in chores. Laundry. Sweep clothes off bedroom floor. Get to the supermarket. I’m slowly pushing at my limits with the driving. The navigation challenges are getting a little more finicky (no sat nav, remember) and my radius of comfort is expanding. I made it to a swanky diner (kinda an oxymoron) for brunch-food the other day, this weekend I went off in search of a baked potato, which took me to an air-conditioned palatial mall just up Route 1. The elusive baked potato was consumed in the less illustrious food court setting, but was worth the excursion. A 20 minute distance by car equals 20 minutes of NPR. Although it may seem eccentric to claim that you enjoy driving because it gives you time to listen to the radio…my grad school brain is otherwise inundated and endlessly preoccupied with research project increments: it makes a refreshing change to put some other stuff into my brain, too.

Thunderstorms are a release. I love it when they arrive. Driving Saxon when the rain hit, I was amazed at how much rain can pour out of the sky at once to hit my windscreen. American roads don’t appear to have drains – those large, fast roads turned to rivers. Once I reached my apartment I killed the engine – even the radio – and stayed there. Waiting for a respite in the onslaught, watching the pattern of water coursing down the windscreen in near-darkness.

I have no work-life balance. Research is what I do. It’s what I doodle about in coffeeshops, it’s what sits on the edge of my mind whenever I am out of lab. “Oh, once you get back to the lab tomorrow you can do X” “Say, you should probably nip in the lab this afternoon just to sort out Y before Monday.” In industry you will find a disconnect – work is left at work. In academia…work is never left, because nobody really leaves work at the end of the day.

This is not something I mind. I made a pact with myself sometime back about those cursed 12 Hour Days in grad school: I would play that game, and I would play it well. If I wasn’t willing to play it well, I shouldn’t be in a PhD program.

I consider myself lucky. After nearly a year on a tough project, a semi-offshoot is yielding consistently good results. Only 3 or 4 months ago, I was on a knife edge. Developing a new reaction means you have to control a handful of parameters: regulate, understand and optimise them, then you’ve got yourself a publication. Except that I could never control all my parameters. Change A. Parameter B goes up (awesome). Parameter C crashes (blast). Change A and D. Parameter B and C crash. Etc. The main grad school struggle is not the work-hours or the smartness required, rather it is the mental strength to stop a fucking year filled with fucking set-backs and derailments from damaging me on the inside.

So I sweat the poisons from me in the sauna. Bracing against the heat until my body is slick with sweat and I rub the grey dead skin crap off my arms and legs. So I go to Starbucks at 8pm to sip their fruity iced tea drinks and inhale soothing espresso powder scents, just to escape my immediate surroundings. So I take the long way home, to let me push more radio into my head. So I grin and shriek when the thunder comes.

Surviving. Releasing. Surviving again.

Pilgrimages and Holy Sites

My wheels of steel, Saxon, has finally found his purpose.

There was a bit of reluctance on my part to drive on the motorway. Going at higher speeds is kinda risky, driving for several hours at a time becomes a feat of concentration and endurance. British motorways are organised: fastest cars keep in the centre lane, with slower traffic on the outside. You overtake by passing on the inner lanes only. In contrast, American motorways are freeways: free-for-all-ways. Drivers zigzag and weave in all directions, there is no strong correlation between your speed and which lane you feel entitled to. The whole thing looks rather intimidating. I have no smartphone or fancy GPS systems to guide me: if I got lost, I’d rapidly get really lost.

Yet unless I braved the motorways, even through ownership of Saxon I would still be trapped. The “safe” roads led me to nothing but suburban mall wastelands. Risks would need to be taken.

It would be a waste of my time driving to New York: tolls on the roads, bridges, tunnels, everywhere. The real pressing need I had was to drive South. By regional rail it would take me 90 minutes – up to 2.5h if I needed to access a suburb – to get to Philadelphia. In a car that time was shaved to an hour, and less if I only needed to reach a suburb.

I’ve now driven twice to Philly and back. To my surprise, the motorway part isn’t a big deal: people do drive like lunatics, but I guess that I’m a lunatic (New Jersian) driver myself now. I can certainly anticipate and react to their crazy slaloms across 4 lanes of heavy traffic. Navigation to Philly is really easy: follow Route 1, then switch to 95-South when it becomes available. Barely 30 min later and you can see the Philly skyline. My strategy for getting back is still evolving: twice I’ve pre-emptively exited  the freeway into the suburban idyll around New Brunswick, and stressed a bit in the hope I was on the correct road to get back to familiar territory. Next time I should have it figured.

It may seem over-sensitive for me to call my newly unlocked travelling ability as “empowering”…but it really does feel that way. Before, Philly was a hassle to get to – a long boring train ride away – and I would go months and months without visiting. Now, I can get there in barely an hour, have a full enough day there (long enough to see people, wander around, maybe waste time in a coffeeshop), then get back to New Brunswick with a late afternoon/early evening to spare. The nostalgia hasn’t felt as painful these last two visits: I may still be able to maintain a meaningful connection with the city after all.

***

The time, I invested a little time in a trip to the Swan Memorial Fountain. It was a glorious day – no-jacket weather – and I needed to walk off my lunch. Where else should I go?

The Swann Memorial Fountain

The Swann Memorial Fountain

Since 2010 I’ve visited this city at least once every year. Only the yearly trips when I flew in from other countries, other lives, I would always go back to this spot – to sit with my feet in a fountain and contemplate. There have been stresses and uncertainties, but those leave me at the fountain.

I’ve been struggling for my current research project for almost a year. It has worked, then failed when I thought it would work. It has progressed slowly – any slower and you could label it a dead end. If this project works, if it works in an efficient and reliable manner, then it could lead to some good publications for me. As yet I’ve not hit the benchmark that would prove such a thing, although I’m not far off. Running up dead ends, wasting time on countless side projects, spin-offs and new ideas is emotionally and physically draining. There is nothing else in my life besides grad school: my self-esteem and moods have become pegged onto my research, fluctuating with it on a daily basis. I can run from hope to despair in less than 24 hours. For the most part I am confident, but I’ve had a bad couple of weeks with disappointing experiments to process and bounce back from.

Right now a side project has given me cause for hope. I have a handful of results that are good and I’ve established are reliable. Yet I know that any experiment (and I have to run the important ‘killer’ experiments as soon as possible) has the power to crash my project and invalidate my good results. As yet, no failsafe benchmark has been reached.

Going to the Swann Memorial fountain helps me. Maybe the waters are holy. In any case, I was able to soothe the darker emotions and refocus myself. What needs to be done, what I mustn’t lose sight of. Calmed and empowered, I head for home.

Sunshine in my veins

Nobody on the road, nobody on the beach. I feel it in the air, summer’s back in reach…

 

It feels as like I am Dorothy; having just touched down on Oz, technicolour has suddenly been switched on to my world. I find myself walking about my usual business and spontaneously grinning. Why? Oh, no reason. Just that summer is coming.

There have been a number of years where I’ve felt distinct worry, unhappiness and despondency during the winter months. It’s happened often enough that I termed it the “winter darkness”. This year everything seemed to be fine…it was just when the sun started showing and the warmth  crept back that I realised just how much of a dulling effect the short nights and cold have on my mood.

Walking home at night last week there was a moment where I almost saw the fireflies. They aren’t here yet. Not for another few months. But I can sense their impending presence. And that too makes me happy.

Although I bitch about the snow, wet chills and biting winds, I think that I need winter weather in my life. I would struggle to live in Hawaii, Florida or California. Without winter darkness, I never truly appreciate the summer.

Summer is not just a time of warmth and light. Summer is when Things Change. My life is still tied to the academic calendar: degree programs, jobs and migrations all switch about then. Although many good things end, many good things begin, too. Even when the best things end, I’m reminded of the summers past when better things always began and when I survived the cycles of change.

I am all about summer.