Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Learning by doing

Today it is suddenly clear to me that living well is a skill that can only really be learned by doing, just like any other physical or mental skill.

I would never expect to learn how to tango, or weld, or write a speech just from reading a book (much less an article on the internet). I know that learning these skills takes practice, in order to learn all the parts that cannot be put into words and to commit the necessary reflexes and instincts to memory.

So why do I keep thinking that I can learn how to live by reading? That understanding a lesson on the page is the same as understanding it through experience? Why am I surprised that I keep coming back to the same lessons again and again, though I'd thought I'd understood them already?

Another lesson learned, and I hope that I've learned this one as a feeling in my bones, and not just as words in my head. And, as so many times before, I find myself coming back to one of the most basic lessons of all: patience.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Really, I am very scared

Sometimes, for a while, I forget, and everything is wonderful. I think anything is possible. I dream big dreams and believe in them. I see myself as capable, special, with something to offer.

And then a crack appears. Something feels off; I investigate; the floodgates open and all my fear crashes down on me at once. And it is a lot. It is overwhelming.

I fear I have made the wrong decisions and am making the wrong decisions now. I fear I will not reach any of my dreams, because they are unrealistic fantasies. I fear that I am useless, irredeemably flawed, pitiful and laughable and disappointing. I fear I will be judged and found unworthy, because I am.

And then, the worst of it passes, and I am left behind, washed up and exhausted. And I stand up again because, what else is there to do? And as the immediate memory passes, I start to forget my fear and dream again, setting myself up for the next fall.

Is there another way?

I could live a normal life, be an average member of society, seek the protection of familiarity and the group. In the past I did not understand the strength of protection offered by normalcy; safe on a path trod before me by many others, I scorned the idea of safety. Now that I am off any clear path, I understand the appeal of being normal; oh how I understand. But some stubbornness within me compels me forward. I will not go back to the safe path yet.

So I read about people who have led strange, different lives, and I look for hints on how they deal and have dealt with their fear. So far, I have found no secrets. Perhaps there aren't any. Perhaps there is no other way, and I will keep getting battered by my fear again and again. And yet, the stupidly hopeful part of me hopes otherwise: that I will get stronger and more armored over time, or that I will learn somehow to float above the fear, aware of it but not sinking down.

We shall see.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Seeing life as a journey, not a list of goals

Less than two weeks into the new year, and already I've screwed up on one of my goals: I didn't write anything on here last week. So what now?

My first instinct is to be disappointed in myself. The old me would have said, "I've failed! I'm rubbish! I had a clear metric of what I had to do to succeed, and I didn't do it. What's the point of a goal I don't accomplish? How can I be happy if I don't accomplish what I set out to do?"

But this is the kind of thinking that made me depressed, the kind of thinking that I've been trying to exchange for something more positive, that will help me up instead of grinding me down. So I took a moment to ask: what do I actually want from life?

What I realized is that I want to approach my life the way I approach a hike, or a trip: as a journey, an experience, much more than just a list of goals accomplished. Accomplishing a worthwhile goal is great, it is satisfying, and it is something to be proud of - but in between those moments there is so much good stuff, and so much that is unexpected! And so what I am after is a whole adventure, twists and turns and struggles and setbacks and all, not a tidy list of checked-off boxes.

So, from that perspective, what is the point of a goal?
     To give me a direction, a landmark to head towards.

And how can I be happy if I don't accomplish one of my goals?
    By realizing that the journey is more important than any single goal, and that my aim is fundamentally just to keep moving forward and learning.

In the context of my blog: the truth is, right now, a blog post per week is not a trivial goal. I am still scared of writing, and overwhelmed by it, and I still don't know what environment or routines best help me write. I still don't know where this blog is headed, what it should and shouldn't include, how often I want to post, or if I should have a blog at all! It's no surprise that I faltered. But I'm still here, still brainstorming ideas for posts, still learning, still doing my best to move forward. So I think I'm doing just fine, after all.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

For the first time in my life, new year's goals

For the first time in my life, I'm setting goals for the new year.

New Year's was always just another holiday for me: an excuse for a party, with a few traditions. Mostly it meant buying a new planner, and having trouble writing the correct year for a while. Sometimes I tried to make resolutions, halfheartedly, because it was something other people did, but I never really took them seriously.

Looking back now, I see that it was because school/work was always my highest priority, and so I always had a goal in my mind already: get good grades; get into a good university; be a good student; get into a good PhD program; get my PhD; get a postdoc position where I can do my own research; be a good scientist. Everything else was extra, low priority. (None of this was quite conscious - if you had asked me, I would have said something vague about wanting to be happy. But when I made decisions, school and work always won out over other things.) At the end of each year, I knew where I was headed next, I had a goal, and I wasn't really looking to change anything in how I lived my life.

This year is different! For the first time, I don't have much of a plan for what's coming next. I have no idea what I'll be doing in a year, or even where I'll live. It's scary and exciting. It's an actual new beginning. And for the first time, it feels right to me to set goals for the year to come.

So here goes.

Broad aims for this year:

1. Healing. I'm going to continue working on accepting myself, being kind to myself, and giving myself space and time to heal from years of telling myself what I should be and what I should be doing. By the end of the year, I would love to feel like I know and am proud of who I am.

2. Doing. I have a lot of dreams and ideas that have been sitting around and waiting because I've been scared of failure or unable to choose where to start. This year I'm going to stop dithering and do as much trying, failing, and learning as I can.

And some specific goals I'll try to follow:

1. Drawing every day. To improve technically, learn to deal with artistic insecurity, and figure out what my deal is with art (do I want to do it to earn money, be great, get recognition? or just for the pure enjoyment of it?).

2. A blog post every week. To improve technically, stop being scared, figure out if I really want to be a writer, and help myself learn and think.

3. One main project each month, and no more. With all those dreams and ideas, I get overwhelmed easily. I need to focus, but I also need to switch from project to project so I don't get bored. This is just another attempt to organize myself in a long line of (mostly failed) attempts, but I am still hopeful that it will work!

A new year, a new me. I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Online reading journal: The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz

The Art of Fermentation is a dictionary-sized orange tome with a friendly layout and 14 chapters bursting with information. I suppose it is meant as a reference, but I read it like a novel, alternating between feeling excited to try what I was reading, and feeling frustrated knowing that I will never try out everything that sounds interesting!

It was written by Sandor Ellix Katz, a fermentation revivalist. Check out his info-packed website Wild Fermentation!

Executive summary: This book is an overview of fermentation through history and around the world, covering what it is and how it can be used. Its tone is encouraging and personable - it's a field guide and manual, rather than a textbook. It's fermentation evangelism, in the best way possible.

Why I think this book is important: To begin with, I love Sandor's experimental approach to fermented foods and his constant encouragement to the reader to go out and try. It's so easy to be held back from trying something new by fear of doing something wrong, and I welcome the message that it's good to try and okay to fail.
I also see this book as an exploration of the creativity, ingenuity, enjoyment, and passion that make human culture so wonderful. It's evidence that we can make an art out of even the most ordinary aspects of living life - like preventing food spoilage! I found it truly inspiring to read about so many experts, researchers, and masters of fermentation - I can only hope to find my own niche in which to become an artful master.
Finally, this book is a manifesto, a call to arms, for a global culture that is more diverse, more conscious of its dependence on the environment, more appreciative of local traditions, and based more on community and creativity, and less on large-scale commercial systems. Sandor sees the revival of smaller-scale fermentation as a living example of this better global culture. Like him, I hope it continues to grow, spread, and diversify.

Also good: This book is a treasure trove for a foodie who likes to make stuff from scratch. It provides loads of practical information on how to ferment sugars, vegetables, milk, grains, beans, seeds, nuts, meat, fish, eggs and just about anything else you could think of eating, with instructions for well-known ferments like yogurt, wine, cheese, and beer, as well as lesser-known regional specialties, like kvass, mauby, viili, poi, merissa, and natto. Exciting stuff!
There's also a chapter for non-food applications of fermentation, and one with advice on starting up a fermentation based business.

Bits I especially like:

"If this book has an underlying agenda (and it assuredly does) it is to help us reconceive our relationship with what biologist Lynn Margulis calls the "microcosmos." Since Louis Pasteur discovered the role of microbes in disease more than a century ago, most of us have found ourselves on a war footing with respect to bacteria. . . . [And yet] we are discovering that one of the keys to our well-being is the well-being of the microflora with whom we share these bodies, and with whom we co-evolved. And it looks like they really, really like sauerkraut." - Michael Pollan, Foreword
"Reclaiming our food and our participation in cultivation is a means of cultural revival, taking action to break out of the confining and infantilizing dependency of the role of consumer (user), and taking back our dignity and power by becoming producers and creators." - Introduction
"Unfortunately, we have become increasingly isolated from the natural world, lacking awareness of and conscious interaction with animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria in our midst. Rather than continuing to distance ourselves from interaction with the larger web of life, we must reclaim these relationships. Fermentation is a tangible way of cultivating this consciousness and these relationships." - Ch. 1, Fermentation as a Coevolutionary Force
"Beyond sacred alcohol, fermentation has been valued throughout history primarily for its usefulness in preserving food. . . . Many people are becoming interested in fermentation for its nutritional and health benefits, which are considerable and can be quite dramatic. . . . Fermentation has also been used as a strategy for saving fuel, since fermentation digests certain nutrients that otherwise would require long cooking, and enables foods to remain stable at ambient temperatures without refrigeration. . . . Yet ultimately more compelling (at least for me) than preservation, health, or energy efficiency benefits are the complex edgy flavors of fermentation, which got me interested in all this in the first place. Food is not strictly utilitarian, after all." - Ch. 2, Practical Benefits of Fermentation
"The revival of fermentation at the local and regional scale goes hand in hand with the revival of local agriculture in the movement toward relocalization of our food and our economies. . . . This is economic development based on real production, real value, and real benefit, creating better choices for our communities by expanding the range of what is available as local food. We can revive local commercial production of ferments, as the revival of microbreweries, farmstead cheese production, and artisan bakeries demonstrate. And we do not need to wait for other people to do it. No less so than home fermentation, reviving fermentation in the form of local enterprise is a do-it-yourself venture." - Ch. 12, Considerations for Commercial Enterprises
"Self-sufficiency is a dangerous myth. We need each other. . . . Community is never perfect and takes hard work, because people have such varied visions, ideas, and values. But do the hard work of finding common ground, and build community with the people around you." - Epilogue: A Cultural Revivalist Manifesto
"Our growing awareness as individuals creating change in our own lives, and communities can (and must) build into galvanizing social movements. While reviving local food systems, we can also address inequitable access to resources by becoming part of existing movements for food justice and food sovereignty. While making use of indigenous wisdom in our cultural revival efforts, we can also acknowledge and act in solidarity with indigenous peoples struggling for survival. While trying to limit our own carbon footprints and environmental impact, we can also join social movements demanding the same of corporations and government policies. Personal actions can be powerful, but nothing like the force of collective action." - Epilogue: A Cultural Revivalist Manifesto
note: thanks to Martin for the illustration!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Golden memories and unreasonable expectations

Often, when I'm not feeling so great, I start to wish that I would have everything sorted out and under control, and that I could just be happy and content and everything would be easy.

And sometimes I think back to a time that, from my current vantage point, seems like it was like that. When I was in university, or when I worked in Utah for a few months, or when I went to Crete on holiday with friends. I remember the sunshine, the happy moments, the relaxed moments, and it's like a video or photo where the light is golden and everything looks beautiful and perfect.

And I think, I want that. I want to feel like that right now. And I feel frustrated, that instead I am lost in my todo lists and chores and weird dreams from the night before, and the sad drama we watched on TV last night, and all sorts of uncertainties and fears. 

I think what I need to remember is that those golden times must have been the same. When I try, I remember too the times of lovesick anguish, social awkwardness, exhaustion, boredom, fear, overwhelm, and frustration. My journals are full of them. It's easy to dwell on the lovely times and pass over the harder times.

So maybe I never will reach that golden time I hope for, "when I figure stuff out and start to be properly happy." Maybe there's just the here and now, with its ups and downs, pains and joys. It sounds sad, but it feels freeing to accept. Maybe if I stop being disappointed that life isn't easier, I'll find the contentment that I'm looking for.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A nice mentor is not necessarily a good mentor

Today I wanted to do a book review, but an innocent call from a member of my postdoc lab led to a small storm of emotion and I'm a bit too jumbled up to write about anything other than my postdoc.

I'm still working through how I feel about my postdoc. It's a mix of shame, frustration, anger, and exhaustion. It didn't go how I wanted. There's a lot more I could say. Today I just want to issue a small warning to young scientists looking for somewhere to do an MSc, PhD, or a postdoc, or anyone looking for a mentor.

It's simple: a nice mentor is not necessarily a good one.

A nice person can still be too overwhelmed by other responsibilities to remember you unless you remind them that you're there. A nice person can still support you in applying for a project that they will later show little interest in. A nice person can still promise to do things for you and then drop the ball, over and over again. A nice person can still consistently put their own priorities ahead of yours.

I understand that it's hard to lead a lab, hard to be a mentor, and hard to be an academic in this day and age. I empathize, and at the same time I am angry, at them for not trying harder and at myself for taking so long to understand this simple lesson.

So there we go. A vent for me and a warning for you.