Tuesday, June 29, 2010

So I don't forget...

To be fully human, people ought to have as authentic a relationship as possible with others. They should know that in their deepest being they are intrinsically free to reconstruct and transform themselves, and they need to grant others the same powerful freedom.

David Spiegel, M.D

Monday, June 14, 2010

Epic Fail

Today, for what feels like the billionth time, I sent my advisors a redraft of a manuscript I'm working on. This process is so absolutely soul-crushing, it's difficult for me to justify why I keep doing it.

First, I spend weeks (months) working out the perfect data analysis plan, only to find that as soon as I run it past someone else, it's got about as many theoretical imperfections as Branch Dividianism for Dummies by David Koresh. I rework the plan, now it is less heinous, but only slightly, like Jabba the Hut when he's asleep. I go back to the drawing board, which is actually my highly unromantic desk, only made tolerable by the random pictures I've put up and a little piece of paper that says 'Beer is for Champions (aka Sarah)' made for me by my husband.  I sit and stare at the gross blue cubie dividers, wondering whether they're made out of the same material as the carpet on the floor, and if I were to rip the material off, drape it over myself and curl in a ball on the floor if perhaps I'd be camouflaged enough to have somebody else do my PhD. Then right at the end, I could pop up and say- "Oh wow! This looks really great! Nice work! I'm back though- I was here the whole time! You look exhausted, why don't you just crawl under this nice blue carpet and rest for a while. I'll take it from here."

Anyway, eventually my advisers feel enough pity for me that they allow me to move on from Analysis. Perhaps they can tell that I am having statistics nightmares (which actually scare me more than mass murderer nightmares. NOTHING and I mean NOTHING is as scary as a statistics nightmare. Not only are there all these greek letters, odd symbols and assumptions you've inadvertently violated, but the fact is that, if you're dreaming about them, statistics has invaded your subconscious. Is nothing sacred?!) or maybe they think that if I go down this path, I will see the err of my ways and then realize that I should just start all over. With Psychology 101.  Or maybe take up basket weaving.

After the Analysis is complete, the next step is to figure out What The Data Mean... the academic question is always "What story does it tell?" I think this is a really nice way to think about it. The problem is, even though I've been doing research as a living for 6 years now, I still can't always answer this question. My advisers or a fellow researcher will ask and I imagine myself to be a beautiful but dark criminal ingenue, who has finally been caught and is sitting in a small room in the heart of France, with a single 20 watt bulb hanging from the ceiling. 'I am not sure,' I say evocatively. 'What story do you think it tells?' Then I realize, I am quietly drooling on my cigarette, which has been transformed back into a ballpoint pen, and I actually haven't said anything at all. I might've grunted.

After putting together a story McGuyver-style (duct tape, potting soil, and a pig valve), then comes the writing-up. I tend to spend 2-3 days thinking about a particular paper. I write the easy part first, the method and the results (because goodness gracious, if I can't write that after all the previous hoo-ha, then it's back to the 'drawing board'- NOOOO!) Then I write why each one of the results is interesting. I actually ask myself 'why is this interesting? why should anyone, other than my mom and husband (xoxo) care about this?' Most of the time, the list that I come up with gets whittled down to a couple of key points, the rest are thrown away. I was heartened to learn that writers for The Onion actually come up with 600 headlines per week, for only 17 or 18 to be chosen. That's 583 throw aways, and those guys are geniuses.

Then I send the manuscript draft off to my advisors. This is the particularly ego-damaging point. Here is where completely valid, obvious, supremely helpful comments are made. Comments that basically make you hang your head in school-girl shame, mumble something about not knowing that Wikipedia isn't a reliable source, and go back and rewrite most of what you've done so far. I always have this moment where I am just shaking my head in disbelief... how in the world did I not think of that? Seriously, a 7 year old boy with a Buzz Lightyear t-shirt and an imaginary friend named Bucket could've thought of that.

So, today, I sent the manuscript off to my advisors. I now have between 24 hours and 1 week to build myself a strong foundation (mainly made of pinot grigio, After Eights and brownies) prior to impact.

The whole reason I started this particular entry was because I have been thinking a lot about failure lately. That sounds harsh... I've been thinking about the condition or act of not achieving a desired end or ends which I (and the princeton dictionary) define as a failure. How it feels to me to not do something to the standard that I know I can do it. And, more importantly, how awesome it feels to get it right, after seriously hard work. But how risky it is to actually try at something... I mean, to try, you are giving yourself the option to fail. As long as you don't try, you're safe. Or if you do try, but don't try as hard as you can, then you can write it off- 'I didn't try that hard. It's ok.' I've always believed that if I work hard enough, and seriously give things my all, that I will be successful. What I've realized, through these paper writing... exercizes... through running, through moving to a foreign country, and many other things, is that failure, really and truly, isn't that bad. When I feel that I've failed, I can't look at myself. I can't look myself in the eyes. But gradually, I begin to take the little failure lessons and gather them like pickup sticks. (Currently I have so many pickup sticks that I am going to soon begin work on a George Washington-esque log cabin.) I am becoming less and less afraid of dismal, never ending, failure. Because failure hasn't been like that for me. In my experience, it does end. And people who love you will continue to love you in spite or even because of it. In fact, I am beginning to think failure is, in some respects, imperative.

Enough waxing philosophical. I am going to go get Bucket and crawl under a piece of carpet with a brownie or two.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

I smelled a smell of time gone by...

It has been absolutely beautiful in Aberdeen this last week. Blue skies, birds chirping, beautiful green leaves and pink flowers blooming on the trees. And it's been warm. Not hot, not even warm enough to give you a light sheen of sweat. But its been a breezy cool warmness (nonsense sentence alert!). Because of this wonderful break in the weather, I have had the windows (and at times the doors) open most of the week, have been hanging laundry outdoors and have been spending loads of time outside.

I took a walk over lunch with a friend today in a beautiful park near school. As we rounded a bend, I was all of the sudden I was no longer in Duthie Park walking on this lovely tree lined path, but I was  at the Red Lane Swimming Pool, the pool of my childhood. (Sadly, I am realizing now that I can't remember if this is actually what it was called... Red Raquet Swim Club!!! That's it!!! That's what it was... maybe... I think... )Anyway, all I did was inhale, and I smelled the pungent aroma of chlorine and fertilizer and there I was, transported. In an instant, I recalled playing shark in the deep end, my first bikini, Dad throwing us what seemed like miles in the air into the pool, Matty complaining when he had to sit out of the water for half an hour after lunch. I remembered the lifeguards, signing in, when our favorite babysitter Stephanie would take us there in the evening, eating pizza AT THE POOL. I thought of cookouts and greased watermelons and attempting to play tennis with my friend Chandler when we got too cool for the pool. I remembered the horrible bathrooms, warm juiceboxes, waiting out thunderstorms, the nasty kiddie pool, how pretty my mom looked in her bathing suit lounging by the side of the pool, the first time I jumped off the diving board, and the slide, oh the slide!  Then, with an exhale, it was gone.

This happens to me all the time. Whenever I smell freshly cut wood or mud, I think of my Uncle Mark. He's a builder. I say 'builder' because he's not just an architect, a project manager, or a worker... no, he BUILDS stuff. He is one of those people that when you see him do his work, you realize, yes, he is doing exactly what he's meant to do. When I would get to visit his sites, or when he would come to dinner at Grandma's he always smelled like fresh cut wood and mud. Sometimes, if I am really homesick, I go to Lowes or Home Depot (B & Q over here) just to smell Uncle Mark.

Once, Mike bought Old Spice deoderant and aftershave. As soon as he put it on, I told him he couldn't wear it any more and immediately went out and bought him new stuff. I don't know if my grandpa wore Old Spice (I am very embarrassed that I don't know that) but when Mike put it on, he smelled exactly like Gramps, and I couldn't handle it. Every time I got near him, or he gave me a hug, all I could see was Grampa's big hands and tiny eyes. I would remember sitting next to Grampa and I could almost hear Jeopardy in the background, watching him doing the Roanoke Times crossword.

After college graduation, my friend Libby and I went on an epic European adventure. We backpacked across Europe, getting a taste of what life was really like after all those amazing insulated years at Witt. We went to a place in Italy called Sienna. It's the perfume capital of the world. We went into one of the perfumeries and I was attracted immediately to the rose scents. As I inhaled I was back in my grandmother's bathroom watching her put on her makeup and smooth lotion over her skin. I bought hardly anything on that trip, because all the money I had was spent on planes, trains and hotel rooms, but I bought a bottle of rose scented perfume. I hardly ever wear it because I don't want it to run out.

White Diamonds or CK Be take me alternatively to my first kiss, my aunt's house, or to college. I don't know why these three things, but it always happens. Charcoal on the grill reminds me of the 415 Stonewall Circle driveway, leather and sweat and cork remind me of my dad. There are so many little smells that have such big implications in my memory.

Because the olfactory bulb, or the cluster of nerve endings that makes up your sense of smell, is so close in proximity to the hippocampus (the part of the brain that deals with memory) and is part of the limbic system, memory is highly related to smell. The limbic system is responsible for things like homeostasis, feeling full, feeling hungry and sympathetic nervous system response. It is also the  center of emotion. Between the hippocampus and the amygdala (responsible for emotion generation), a human's entire basic response system is located here, in the very center part of the brain (if you cut the brain in half). So, it's not just some phantom thing that smell is so strongly associated with memory. Smell is PART of memory. Smell not only illicits memory, but emotional memory, almost instantly.

There are two things that facinate me about this. First, that the memories come back so quickly, so furiously, and absolutley simultaneously. It's almost overwhelming at times. The second is the combination of the biological, psychological, and the emotional and spiritual... all of which comes from the brain. This brings up so many questions... how can I better utilize my sense of smell? Should I start studying with a candle lit and then bring that candle to my viva? what smells are important? do certain emotions have smells (ie: pheremones, but on steroids)? Are there certain smells (ie: cholrine) that bring back similar memories for people across a culture? That'd be an interesting experiment...

For now, I will just be happy with my random, unexpected flashes and will welcome them whenever they ascent (PUN!)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

mmm... dinner...

Tonight I made delish vegetarian bean burgers. Before you non-veggies go 'ewwww' or 'booorrrrinnnggg' just know that my husband ate 2 of them without complaint. I got the recipe from Everybody likes sandwiches which is a great cooking blog my dear friend recommended. I really like the style of the blog and especially the style of the recipes. They're EASY.

So here's my take on her southwestern black bean burgers. The changes and substitutions were made mainly because I didn't have the ingredients or they weren't available in the UK (ie: black beans). Her recipe sounds amazing, so might want to do it her way first... or actually, do it my way first, and then do it her way and realize how much better her way is, rather than be disappointed by mine.

2 cans of kidney beans
 3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 T cumin
1 T chili powder
1/4 t paprika powder
1/4 t red pepper flakes
salt and pepper to taste
3 T greek yogurt
1/2 cup bran flake cereal
3 T corn or vegetable oil
 4 hamburger buns, toasted

In a blender or food processor, blend together 1 can of beans, garlic, yogurt and spices. When that’s blended, put into a big bowl and set aside. Blend the other can of beans with the bran flakes. Put into the bow. Stir everything with a wooden spoon until you reach a consistency that is enables you to form patties. Too soft? Add in more oat bran. Too stiff? Add in a bit of water. Shape patties into 8 burgers and refrigerate for 10 minutes.

Heat oil in a skillet over med-high heat and brown each side, about 3 minutes per side or until slightly crispy.

I threw extra strong cheddar on and put them into the oven with the buns for about 3 mins. Then I cut up some avocado and put it on top. I wish I'd had more condiments- tomatoes and mustard would've been ace, but oh well. We had fruit on the side. It was lovely.

Although, I have a feeling I'm going to be hungry again soon. Note to self: need more filling sides.