Tuesday, August 22, 2017

And Still I Waited

Outside the iron gate
We parted ways
I, to the oceans
You, to the peaks
Promising to return, one day
Amid smiles and fond farewells
To this same portal
And meet again in the shade of these trees
Where a soft cinnamon wind blew
Carrying with it the scents of hope and youth
With goodbyes said
I watched you shoulder your burdens
And carry on, alone, down an old road
As I made my way to the shores
Thinking already of a day to come
When we would meet again
And so, eyes on the horizon
And mind already adrift
I sat, and I waited

Days were not always kind
Though the world was not always so fierce, either
I carried rich tunes through sad days
And sang sad melodies through summers so fierce
And beautiful
That the world seemed cast in gold
Upon distant shores I found love
And in dark seas
Lost and aimless, thirsting for revival 
I faced the void
There were monsters there
And storms that promised to smash our ships apart
Days when I thought I would be adrift forever, alone
And forget simpler days
Near green trees and that black iron gate
Where we met, and played
All those years of our childhood
Still, I had made a promise, and it would be fulfilled
But not yet
Not until I had seen my fill of the world
And so, I waited

Many moons ago
With clear skies and clear eyes
I rested a weary hand on a black iron latch
But you were not there
Your adventure not yet ended
So I stood, staring at the ghosts of my past
Alone, with my memories
Watching the burning leaves of autumn 
Fall like the promise of snow
And still I waited

Frost kissed rusted hinges
As bare wooden skeletons reached to gray skies
As if stretching towards the green life they had left behind
My eyes turned towards snow-capped peaks
Bleeding their whiteness down into the hills
No thought to the cold
As I imagined tracing your footsteps
But that was your path, not mine
And I could not follow you to the mountains
No more than you could follow me to the sea
Our stories had parted ways beside the gate
Where we had promised to come back together
And still I waited

Garish colors broke the silence of winter
Vibrant blooms born of green life
A shifting sea of hope rising from the mud
Arranged so prettily among other memories
Fragrant blooms and pouring rain gracing the days that passed
Beneath the white blossoms of the trees
I stared out at the gate
And to the deep oceans beyond
Where I had not found any answers
But where I had made myself
Alive in my remembrance
While trying my best to remember your face
And all of my promises
And still I waited

In the still of one gray morning
With a shriek of protest
The gate opened
And you came back to me
Tired, and old
Much older than I had left you
With worry and pain etched into the lines of your face
A road map to the stories you had yet to tell
Your eyes gazed slowly
Until they found me
And you stood still
With no smile to light your features
As I had once remembered
Your hand rested on the rough bark of the tree
Where we had carved our names as children
Silently you turned and walked away
And still, I waited

When you finally came
You came slowly
Solemn and serious
Sad, stormy orbs looking down as you sat beside me
Regaling me, in soft whispers
Of your time spent among the mountains
And a life well-lived, in triumph and tragedy
You asked me about the seas
Without pausing for an answer
Too intent on loosing the torrent of time lost
To listen
And so, patiently, I waited

Among the crashing waves and falling stars
It is easy to learn patience
Recalling storms and restless days
With lands unknown spread before us
On maps marked with dragons
I had so much wonder to share
Before life had claimed its due
Stories on stone tongues
For no ears to hear
And I'm sorry they came to carry me through the gates
Before you could return
Beyond rusted iron and towering oak
Where we had promised to wait
But among the earth and stone
It is easy to learn patience
As I'm sure you know, from your time in the mountains
And they lay me here, in this old place
With a spot beside me
As open as my heart, for you
Though I know you have mountains left to climb
And storms left to weather
Before you can rest beside me
For whatever passes for forever
And still, I'll be waiting

Sunday, July 30, 2017

He Looks How I Feel

He looks how I feel
The remains of the ghost
Of a man whose dreams
Hang as slack
As his feet do now
Almost tracing the ground
A gentle twist
Grim, grinning chimes
Dancing through forces; uncontrolled
A resigned, ceaseless smile
Plastered, unfeeling
Twisted under the weight
Of a world only interested
In what his last few pieces have to offer
Torn open
Laid bare

The dry limbs rattling in the wind
Settled with always-open eyes
A reminder of what we are all destined to become
A lovely future to aspire to
Stripped of the trappings of existence
Revealed inner recesses
Stripped of life and love
Where memories no longer rest
A world experienced, now snuffed
An empty cage where a heart once beat
Pinned up on display
Like a butterfly
A curious reminder
Of life lost, left
Remembered for nothing it was before
Held together
By cold pins and wires

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Shipwrecks and Sailors

Endlessly amazed
That we can exist in the same world
Without the twisting contradictions of us
Tearing the fragile fabric
Of this uncaring universe
Adrift on tired wings
Eyes closed to the possibilities that danced around us
Like a choir of ghosts

Demons deeply entrenched
In the twisting labyrinth of a miserly mind
As impossible dragons soar overhead
And monsters stalk the edges of our hopes
Blurring the edges of a map
Clutched in sad, determined hands
We have walked in these forbidden lands
Supping on the exotic tastes
Of a life so far out of reach

Upon a desk, beside blank pages
A single candle burns brightly
Casting long shadows across pristine paper
The untold story an unknown adventure
With the only X marking any treasure
Carved deep across lonely hearts
So that you can know where to find me

Tomorrow lay before us
Uncharted, unknown
Faced silently, through the fear
Because there is some knowledge in us
That together, we can brave the dark places and open seas
Fearing no dragons
We set sail for new days that rise like a phoenix from the ashes
Of yesterdays that now seem so wasted and wanting
I have found solace in the maelstrom
Storms breaking overhead, as we are doomed to break upon the rocks

We brave strange times, not in spite of the monsters
But so that we can face the fears as they come
The intangible grasp of slick serendipity
Rising from the depths 
Like some great beast
Something deeper and darker
Pulling us down where we belong
Like shipwrecks and sailors

Monday, July 10, 2017

Small Talk, Big World

A warm grey morning
Spent on sunny hills
Where flowers bloom in the back of a mind
Settled over a view
Distinguished by its indistinguishable nature
We met at the apex
Of the tallest hill
Exactly where we had agreed
As the Dreamscape's skies
Fluttered like butterflies
With smoke curling in pink fingers
To caress the green clouds
We walked, together
As you nursed the poison
Coursing through tired veins
Fighting what eats away at you
Like a swarm of insects
While I resigned myself to the poison
Curled like a sleeping cat
Inside my frantic mind
Clinging to normalcy
Like a child clings to their favorite toy

You took my arm then, with a smile
Apologizing for the weight
As if friendship could be a burden
We made small talk
About a big world
Or so you say
Shrouded in gentle currents of timelessness
The conversation turned to life
Or maybe books
But probably just about how much we both like cats
I did my best to ignore the elephant in the room
And you did your best to stomach my concerns
With so many unknowns
And undesirables
You sat, talking to a stranger
About missing the ocean
The smell of freedom in salt winds
The crash of surf on stoic rocks
Singing a song of a sort of freedom 
Vaguely remembered
As we did our best to ignore
The reality flooding in around us
Where we draw straws
To see which of us gets to play the optimist
And since it is your mind
I use the short straw to draw silly pictures
In the shifting sands of an old shore
Where waves crash with longing
On warm sands
Below a sunny hill
Carpeted with flowers
Where we had walked
In the back of a tired mind

Friday, May 19, 2017

An Academic Journey: A Premature End

It was my intent with this blog to catalog and describe my experiences with my doctoral studies. The first year was weird and kind of great. At the same time, it was also kind of disappointing and frustrating.

To that end, with the academic year coming to a close and my future entirely up in the air, that I made the decision to leave the program.

The doctoral program was maybe not as rough as I had expected. The academic work was easier than what I went through during my masters program. Rotations were great; every project I worked on went smoothly and got successful results. My fellow students, both senior graduate students and those in my cohort were pleasant, and even friendly at times. Some were even helpful, which was nice. The non-faculty staff were amazingly helpful, despite a few hiccups in paperwork and stuff throughout the experience. The faculty were... a mixed bag. 

The classes we took were all over the place, as far as difficulty. Of the 8 professors that taught the two core classes, and the two that taught ethics and conduct, most were at least acceptable. Having classes focus on specific research interests rather than useful knowledge was frustrating, as I believe that that type of directed learning is the purpose of journal clubs. A few professors took time to tell us how stupid we were, and how bad our institution was as far as quality of education. Those moments were a little off-putting, as a student. Furthermore, it sometimes felt like the classwork was simplified, and existed merely as a formality. I excelled at it, and I did not expect that. Rotations were undirected and in my experience there was no real way to address the absence of expectations or direction of the work. Rotation students weren't treated like potential graduate students, we were just treated as 8-10 weeks of free extra labor. In one rather awful case, I was belittled and insulted daily by a PI, to a point where other graduate students and faculty began to take notice. Nothing was done about it, because such behavior seems to casually condoned: everyone else had it rough, why should the new people get a break?

To sound a little bitter, this exposure to academia made it seem like they were all nothing but fragile egos living in this awkward bubble of unrealistic ideas of the world. They didn't seem to know how to treat people properly. It's like they have no understanding of the portion of their job that requires them to teach and mentor. A building full of intelligent people, who have a history of success, and yet are so far removed from common human interaction that it would be laughable if it wasn't so bad for the people who rely on them to do their job. It was a frustrating experience to be treated poorly while simultaneously doing well in most facets of the program. 

My experience is likely not a unique one. It wasn't even unique in this department: half of my cohort left the program; the three at the top of the class academically, with the most experience outside of academia.. in the real world, so to speak. I'm just glad that I was at a point in my life where being treated poorly and being miserable for six years was not something I wanted. I'm sure there are other places - institutions, labs, what have you - where I would have been happy, and done even better. None of that was present here, and rather than make a commitment to destroy my mental health, I made a choice for my dignity and well-being. Academia, especially in the sciences, is a bloated, draconian institution which has yet to address growing problems with how it functions. Postdocs and graduate students are often poorly treated, and definitely under paid. The time it takes to obtain the degree is slowly growing. Many professors are hired only for their research background, and have no business being around students, or being responsible for training and mentoring the next generation of scientists... some few grew into the position, but it isn't encouraged or examined because it isn't seen as important by administrations which see research only as a vehicle for money. Curiosity and creativity take a back seat to pushing whatever gets funding. At second and third rate universities, trying to emulate larger, more successful institutions is a recipe for disaster, because the resources and infrastructure don't exist. In my experience, academia attracts a very specific type of person, and from those experiences it isn't the kind of person I want to be. It isn't the life I want to lead.

I know that sounds a little more bitter than I really mean it. There are a lot of great scientists who have inspired me. I had to try to do this, and I truly believe that in other circumstances, in another place, I would have been able to keep going and accomplished this. Fortunately, I also don't regret this as much as I thought I would, despite having spent so much time and effort working towards getting into a program. I think I did what was best for me, given all the factors. That is the thing I want you all to take away from this: don't force yourself to be miserable. Don't force yourself to settle for things that are less than you expected, and don't let yourself be treated like garbage by 2nd rate academics at 2nd rate institutions. That one may be a little specific, but it still applies. If you're thinking of graduate school, please remember that it is okay to walk away. By no means does leaving a program mean that you're stupid, incompetent, or incapable. Sometimes things just aren't a good fit, or you're not in the right place or state of mind. Don't be ashamed to choose yourself in these situations. If you find your mental health being compromised, or your physical health, you really need to take steps to rectify the situation. To anyone struggling with their graduate school issues, please just tackle the problems. Step on toes. Take nobody's shit, even a miserable PI. Temper it with as much patience as you can, when you need to. Play it smart, but don't lose sight of your humanity. 

Now as I enter this weird new phase of uncertainty, I feel nothing but relief about my decision. I miss the science, but I don't miss the bullshit, or the bad people. Maybe some day I'll get back into it. Maybe I'm just going to be an outside observer, and that's alright too, right now. If things change, we'll see.

Good luck!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

An Academic Journey: Musings on the Academic Profession

Scientists have the benefit of being a group comprised of essentially every other subgroup of humanity. Their backgrounds, experiences, and lives are diverse... that sort of perspective difference has a lot to offer finding a good way to approach questions. Many pairs of eyes is good; many pairs of trained eyes with different perspectives is better. 

To speak to this diversity among academics would be to ramble on endlessly. There is too much variation, and they're only really tied together by one common thread: passion for a field of knowledge. The fields may be different, the approaches may be widely varied, and the reasons their passion developed and why they followed it are as diverse as the people involved in academia. Outside of academia, it can be easy to fall into this trap of perhaps expecting more from what some may see as the (over?)educated elite. It is easy to forget that they are people too, subject to the same flaws, faults, and failures as anyone else. In some senses, many academics don't seem to quite have caught on that they aren't infallible paragons of pure truth. Knowledge can easily lead to arrogance, and I'll admit that even my limited scope has given me an inflated ego a time or two when areas of my interest and knowledge come up around people who haven't spent years studying it. I can see how easy it could be for professional academics to retroactively smooth over their struggles when they were in the shoes of their graduate and undergraduate students, because these folks are sort of in a special place, even within their fields. 

The thing is, from the student perspective, you can see where the system of hiring academics for academic positions ignores many facets of their responsibilities as educators and mentors. Every STEM student has had professors (maybe the majority of their professors) who are likely very good at what they do in their lab, and not so great at pedigogy. It's unfortunate, because the universities sees these folks as money machines, rather than educators. They hire for exemplary research backgrounds, and just assume that mentoring and educating come easy to people who can design complex experiments to answer even more complex questions. In my experience, this is hardly ever the case. There is something to be said for people who understand that part of their job is to educate and mentor students. I've had enough good professors to know that there are some who take their role as educator, mentor, and trainer just as seriously as they take their role as a research scientist. However, these are too few and too far between. These highly educated, ostensibly highly intelligent and capable people, can be blinded by that success to the fact that they can be insufferably bad at other facets of the job they are supposed to be doing. 

Teaching is hard. Teaching is probably the hardest thing I've ever done, and I don't envy people who do it for a living at any educational level. In a perfect world you could recognize your own biases, and get constant feedback both from students, colleagues, and your supervisors / department chairs/ etc. about your performance, and integrate that into your approaches. In this perfect educational utopia, frustration with a student being slow on the uptake, or working at their own pace, shouldn't factor into your response. As a student, I'm already frustrated when i make mistakes. I'm already frustrated at the things I don't know... more so as a graduate student because I'm beginning to see the scope of all of the things that I don't know. The last thing I need, when I'm already in that state, is to be treated like an idiot because my mentor has knowledge garnered for 2 decades of experience and training which they take for granted as common knowledge. Nothing we do in science is exactly "common knowledge" in the sense that I can walk in here and be able to lecture on the subtleties and nuances of whatever weird niche you work on. In practice, often it is merely a sink or swim mentality, and things that could be turned into teachable moments are overshadowed by the frustration of a professional who seems to forget that mistakes are part of learning, and helping students learn from their mistakes is part of being a teacher. It's almost as if they are denying their own past mistakes when they were in similar circumstances.

We get it, nobody is perfect. That includes lofty academics with their PhDs and years of experience. The thing is, you don't train the next generation (and your future colleagues) by belittling, browbeating, shaming, or otherwise doing everything a teacher isn't supposed to do. Part of being a professor is sharing your knowledge. Part of training graduate students is helping them to not make mistakes twice. While it certainly sticks in our heads when we're berated for small errors or inconsequential things, it also tends to undermine our self-esteem and self-efficacy. The reasoning that there are things we should know is almost laughably over-simplified given the diversity of backgrounds. For example, in my cohort, there are students who had never taken a molecular biology course. Two of us have masters degrees in related fields already. I've never taken a developmental biology or cell physiology course. There are things we were never taught, and things we've probably forgotten. In no sense does it help us learn (or want to learn) to tell us that we're stupid for not knowing things that we were never taught or told were important, especially if they pertain to things we've never done before, or fields we have little experience in. This is compounded by the tendency for academics to take their work so seriously that they take errors as personal slights. I'm not trying to derail a decade of work; I'm trying to find my own way as a budding scientist who must, through necessity, rely on the training and mentoring of academics in order to succeed. When that support is minimal, non-existent, or takes the form of unnecessary bullying (for any reason) it does not help anyone involved. 

Having said this, I understand that students are just as much a part of this system. You have to want it. You have to make it clear that you're involved, and you have to keep your head in the game as much as you possibly can. You're not just a student, you're also an employee of sorts, and your success or failure is a direct reflection of the work your mentors and trainers put into you. We're all diamonds in the rough, and mentoring, educating, and training are there to polish us to a high sheen so that they can brag about how effective they are.

...I understand that the diamond analogy falls apart when we examine it further, because stones get polished by coarse, abrasive materials. This would suggest that coarse, abrasive training would be equally adept at polishing humans. It isn't. Academics need to know how to teach. They needed to know how to mentor. Not so many of them seem to be motivated to develop those skills on their own, because they are not things which are strongly emphasized in hiring or training. I get it: a competitive CV is more about the work you've done than the work you've helped others do. The thing is, system that persists isn't necessarily good because it has persisted. Not having the skills to handle the educational requirements of the academic profession doesn't reflect poorly on students who are unable or unwilling to tolerate negligence, verbal and emotional abuse, or whatever obtuse, unpersonable nonsense gets thrown at them. The best scientists shouldn't be the people who can get the most work done while also being treated like garbage. We shouldn't be forcing people who are intelligent, capable, and passionate to give up on their dreams because we don't care if they get treated well or taught properly so long as they get results. Graduate students are already underpaid, under-appreciated, and looking at shriveling future job prospects. There is no reason to add shitty mentoring to the list of things that can make grad school suck. The hardest part of graduate school should be immersing yourself entirely into something; the hardest part should be doing and designing your research. It shouldn't be all the stupid bullshit that comes with volunteering to follow your dreams. 

Of course, this is written at the most tense moment of my first year, trying to finalize a permanent position (which seems unlikely given the rotations I've done) and preparing for my qualifying exams (which will be the topic of another blog, I'm sure). I'm already stressed, and frustrated. I'm probably more frustrated than the professors seem to be these days. I don't know if I will stay in here; or if I'll even be able to stay. It's hard to be treated poorly and keep your mouth shut because you're replaceable and have no real avenue for recourse. It's hard to have to feign complacency because your other option is walking away from a year of your life spent already being miserable and working hard. It's bad enough that coming in every day makes me feel the kind of anxiety I haven't felt in a long time. My base assumption is that I'm going to be treated like crap, and so my motivation has suffered. Shit rolls down hill, sure, but that is kind of a bad excuse for being treated like crap, because there are plenty of graduate students who have and have had positive experiences with PIs and rotations. Maybe I really am just kind of shitty. Maybe I just was really unfortunate with my rotation selections. It may be somewhere in between, with a healthy dose of it being a stressful time of year for everyone involved.

I can say this, though: my experiences here, regardless of whether or not I stay to finish my PhD, have entirely soured any thoughts of becoming an academic. The road leading to it, the lifestyle, and the way I see interactions occurring here aren't enough to sell it as an attractive goal. The numbers are already against an academic career, and the reality is that my experiences are already starting to ruin science for me... that is enough of a reason to avoid it. I get that people are the same everywhere... maybe I'm guilty of wearing rose-colored glasses when examining how I think academics would want to approach teaching, training, and mentoring. You'd think that they'd want to treat the people they're responsible for well enough to maintain productivity and be able to recruit students, but the joke is on me because there will always be people willing to get treated like shit to follow their dreams. 

Personally, I'm not sure yet if I'm that kind of person, or if that would really be worth it.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Burning, Alive, For You

Fading lines blurred
Edges bleeding as memories pale
Things you left, scattered about
And here and there
I find your hair on my clothes
Or in my blankets
Sweet reminders, caught at the periphery of our senses
Like the faint whiff of perfume
Fading at the edges of passion
As it burns inside
Like an eternal flame
Bearing the heat within
That lingering shock
At the tips of my fingers
The memory of lines traced
Down the warm landscape
Of soft, sweet skin

There are photographs
Behind glass
Cradled memories
Of the wisp of smiles
That lay dormant under the cold ice
Of days and times before
Where the darkness was more a part of me
Than I knew how to be comfortable with
Emboldened, embrightened
The little flame melted away walls
Placed by the cold, dead hands
Of undying demons, writhing inside of me
Snakes in a pit
Singing siren songs with poisoned lips

I sit, under old trees
Where your name is not carved beside mine\
But under whose leaves, our hearts reside
As if a phone call would be enough
To make up for soft words
Whispered directly into ears
Curling through the cold
Warmed from within
By the same heat I feel
From your hand, pressed to my chest
Heart pulsing, pounding
Like a monster created
By mad science
Finding life at last
Sweet, cinnamon kisses lingering like smoke
As if my memory would sustain me
Past the long days without
While you sit
Not alone at all
But merely apart, for now

Throwing petals to the wind
Tossing them aside like overwrought cliches
To drift away 
On cold beaches, where the sun shines
On your face
While the moon shines on mine
In slumber, a world away from you
Though not alone
As you are the fire now
A sort of artificial, eternal dawn
Melting the ice I'd bound around my heart
To hold me in the darkness
Where the snakes and demons once resides
To dance and be merry
A darkness which no longer feels like home