Archive for: August, 2004

Despair, then Insight (or is it instead, Insight, then Despair?)

Aug 28 2004 Published by under Uncategorized

I think the stress is getting to me. This morning, I was running from the "A" (express) subway line to transfer to the "C" (local) when the conductor for the "C" slammed the doors in my face. Literally. I later discovered a large smudge of dirt on my face. But instead of nestling down into the comfort of my latest "subway book" while I waited for the next train, I was surprised to find myself ranting up and down the platform issuing forth a firestorm of oaths, threats and curses. And gestures; I made a rude gesture at the subway security camera. I even kicked at the train as it raced away from the platform. Asshats.

This sudden tirade was worthy of an Academy Award nomination in the "Drama Queen" category. Unfortunately, it was early on Saturday morning, so there weren't many people present to appreciate the quality of my performance and dialogue. But my other, more circumspect, self was watching closely and wondering who IS this person? Why is she acting like such an ass?

Finally after a few minutes, I leaned against a steel support beam, opened my book and started to read, when a man walked up and tried to hand me an Awake! cult pamphlet. "Would you like something to read, ma'am?" He asked. I looked up from my book and stared at him for a long moment. Is there something wrong with what I am reading right now? I wondered.

"Go to hell." I snarled, wishing I could shoot scorching blue-white flames from my nipples at him. I could feel another explosive tirade about I-don't-even-know-what rising inside me, almost like bile rising in my throat, seeking expression. WOW! Who is this person? This is not, cannot, be ME!

"Okay .... " He caught my hint and disappeared. I turned my attention back to my book but I couldn't read any longer. I am truly disturbed by this person I am transforming into. My behavior is so out of character that I don't even know who I am anymore: I am a stranger unto myself. Right now, I try to imagine that I am possessed by an alien, a body snatcher or something, because this is preferable to worrying about my sanity. Maybe I have finally become a true New Yorker? I am metamorphosing into a person who responds better to threats of death, dismemberment and unemployment (my own), like most true New Yorkers I've met, than to the grand purity of my own aspirations and vision. I am a person who is simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by angry public outbursts, particularly my own. I am a "bug" under my own microscope and I don't like who I see.

Even though my little eruption occurred without any obvious warning -- it popped up out of the blue, one might say -- these things don't happen overnight and something similar did happen a few weeks ago. I was walking an inebriated friend across the street late one night when a black urban attack vehicle (otherwise known as an "SUV") that was larger than some apartments I've lived in suddenly turned onto the empty street and raced down upon us before we knew it. The driver had five empty lanes to drive in, but this jerk had to swerve into the lane we were in on the side of the road as we tried to walk between the parked cars and onto the sidewalk. I can still see that black-as-death SUV in slow motion, streetlights caressing its sleek hide as it shot towards us; I shoved my pal towards the parked cars as it came within inches of me, honking wildly. Suddenly, Xena, Warrior Princess, leapt into the street, ready for battle, swearing and cursing and threatening to kill the bastard while trying to kick a dent into his $10,000 driver's side door. The tirade ended with Xena standing in the middle of the street, fist jammed high in the air, calling the wrath of the gods down upon the fleeing vehicle. The tipsy boys at the nearby bars were impressed by my bravado and a few clapped.

But that outburst was okay because I was defending someone else's life, limb and right to get home at night in one piece. Nonetheless, it now appears that that outburst planted the seed of misbehavior into my aching soul. I sit here in my beloved office that looks out over Central Park and I wonder what am I going to do to regain my equilibrium without a job? How will I support myself without feeling like a prostitute? How am I going to deal gracefully with the loss of my career, which I love more than anything in my life? For once, I am without ideas, solutions, answers. Both my pragmatic and creative selves remain sorrowful and silent, withdrawn into smooth little orbs.

But just now, the morning stillness is broken. From my open window, I can hear the insistent begging calls of baby birds from across the street. They sound like chickadees, one of my 10,000 or so favorite species of birds. Why, why, oh why did their parents go to nest now? It's too late for successful breeding; most temperate zone birds stop nesting before the middle of July, particularly sedentary species such as chickadees who live in areas that experience harsh winters, such as NYC. These hungry little birds don't know it, but they were doomed before they were even born. It is such a terrible waste of effort and energy, as if these little birds have no inherent value at all. Hearing their hopeful hungry cries is so profoundly sad that I wish I could take them all home with me.

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The American Dream is a Broken-down Nag

Aug 27 2004 Published by under Uncategorized

Last week, after a particularly tiring day and just as I was getting ready to leave work, I got a phone call from a woman who found my CV on monster.com. For those of you who don't know, "monster" is one of many websites where people post their CVs and resumes so potential employers can browse for a new employee while chewing on bologna sandwiches. Or so they say. Until I received this call, I was convinced that posting my CV to monster was a mistake, that monster was only viewed by spammers seeking to stuff thousands of email boxes full of their numerous unsolicited ads for penis enlargements, pheromones and cheap viagra. Although I do occasionally wonder if I might be more employable if I had a penis of my very own, I find myself frequently wishing these spammers would email me something I could really use, something like ... ads for REAL JOBS that pay a living wage.

It turns out that job recruitment agencies scan each other's ads and one of those agencies is where the woman on the phone, Mary U., works. She was calling because she thought she had a job for me as a laboratory technician at a male infertility clinic.

"A male what?" I was momentarily confused. "oOooohhhh .... " The answer to my own query dawned on me slowly (well, it had been a long and draining day and besides, I research avian evolution, not human male infertility). Hrm. Well, that's ... different. Interesting. As in, it might be an interesting survival job that could generate a few entertaining stories that I could publish in The New Yorker, stories that might get me a few free drinks every now and again at my local watering hole. Oh, and speaking of amusing writerly opportunities for embellishing upon reality somewhat, it seems almost too good to be true that I earn extra money by cat sitting (cat ... pussy ... get it? Hee hee hee!). Not to beat a dead horse, but since I have the Ph.D., I am a doctor (Hey big boy, wanna play doctor? Ho ho ho!). Suddenly, it boggled my frazzled mind to contemplate all the witty tales I might possibly write and sell. Playboy pays very well, or so I am told.

But after closer questioning, I learned that the successful candidate would ostensibly be handling samples and filing papers. Mary U. also told me that the job is located in Westchester, so if I accepted the position, I would have to relocate and probably have to buy a car since the public transit there isn't very good but, oh, the good news is this job only requires a High School diploma.

"Oh ... what? Waitaminnit ... I have a Ph.D., so why would that be 'good news'?" I asked suspiciously, wondering if she had read my CV at all.

When Mary U. refused to tell me how much it paid, I realized this "job" -- if it was even real -- would require me to incur huge debt so I could relocate to a podunk town where I probably would be miserable and where I would definitely be enslaved by car insurance payments, rent AND taxes while earning something closely resembling minimum wage to work as a professional fluffer. Basically, it had every possibility of creating a debt that would last longer than the job itself.

So .. this is what it's come to, eh? Is this all that I have to look forward to? This is why I earned my Ph.D.? I feel insulted by that stupid non-job offer and its non-wages. I feel outraged at this entire outrageous situation, as a matter of fact. For gawd's sake, what is wrong with this country? What happened to the American Dream? Why aren't people rewarded for getting a good education, working hard and behaving themselves? Since when has a job that pays a living wage become a priviledge for the few? I do not deserve this. Not. At. All. I feel like I am a not-yet broken-down racehorse on my way to the glue factory.

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A Visit from Pale Male

Aug 25 2004 Published by under Uncategorized

I was sitting in my office that looks out over Central Park when Pale Male, the Central Park Red-tailed Hawk, landed on my window sill for a visit just now. I was sitting in front of my computer, which is located next to my open window, so I couldn't help it, I reeeeeached out slowly and touched his tail! He turned around and bobbed his head at me a couple times, taking my measure with fierce dark eyes, then turned his back on me after deciding I am too big to eat. He surveyed his territory from his lofty perch for a minute or so and then suddenly, he was gone.

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Taking that Leap of Faith

Aug 17 2004 Published by under Uncategorized

"You should be a writer."

I've heard this approximately five times each week for most of the weeks in my life. Although I am a writer, publishing pieces in a variety of minor publications while stringing together thousands of words each week for other purposes, I often don't feel like a writer because I have never in my entire life been paid even one slender dime for anything I've written. So I guess that people really mean "you should be paid to write" or "you should write a book" when they say, "you should be a writer."

My ambition to be a writer started early and was received like a lightning strike. One fine summer day shortly before starting first grade, I was at a church picnic when I remember responding to the typical adult question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"I want to be a writer." I replied. Maybe it was my boldness and childlike confidence, but the reaction was immediate and negative.

"What? You don't want to get married and have kids instead?" As if this was ever an either-or choice. In fact, if you'd been there, you might have thought I'd instead said that I wanted to be a card dealer in Vegas or the madam of the Mustang Ranch or, as I actually did realize and admit a few years later, that I wanted to be a scientist who studies evolution. Oddly, my parents shared this peculiar attitude with their church-going pals and confiscated my writings whenever they noticed me working on them. The reasons for this mystified me for many years, but in retrospect, I realize that devising ways to impede any and all of my interests was an interesting expression of their consuming need for control.

So I hid myself under my bedcovers at night while writing by flashlight, occasionally poking my head out for a fresh breath of air. I sometimes think of these early years of writing as my "turtle years". After my family moved into a new house when I was 10, I arranged my closet so it held a secret hideaway behind my dresser where I stretched out to write. Because I felt like I was hiding inside the wall itself and also for other reasons, I think of these years, which ended abruptly when I was 15, as my "Anne Frank years".

Every day, I could hardly wait to come home from school to resume writing, to spend time with my secret friends who populated my imagination, whose voices echoed through my dreams and whose continuing adventures distracted me from my personal miseries. I dreaded summer vacations away from school because my parents were often available to remind me of my many flaws, but they generally left me alone as long as I stayed out of their sight. So I found a variety of secret places that helped them forget about me and where I could immerse myself in my writing, drawing and reading.

But my parents' antagonism towards my writing grew. By the time I was 11 or 12, they found all the places in my bedroom where I hid my writings and drawings and they would take them away to punish me. Asking them to return "my book" after a day or two of "punishment" was fruitless, so I became a master thief, and I was particularly adept at picking the door lock of my father's office, borrowing my book long enough to replace written pages and drawings with blank paper.

Before it was finally confiscated, my stories and drawings lived in an old beat-up black 3-ring binder. I wrote on lined paper (college ruled was my favorite) or on plain white typing paper. In those days (before I fractured my wrist several times), my handwriting was lovely; a distinctive angular and precise printing (I disliked cursive and used it only when necessary). Because writing was an asthetic achievement as much as an imaginative one, I practiced my lettering skills and was able to accurately reproduce about a dozen different fonts freehand.

By the time I was 11 or 12, I realized that my parents and several other family members were secretly reading my diary and my writings. I was horrified. But my fondness for lettering came in handy because I quickly invented my first of several alphabets to encode all of my writings. For a time, inventing beautiful alphabets and intricate codes became more interesting than writing itself, especially when I began to share these alphabets and codes with my few school friends, who immediately adopted them so we could pass notes during class, notes that were indecipherable if intercepted.

In view of the obstacles that I overcame to actively pursue writing, you might wonder why I am not a famous writer now? Where are my works of art? Do I still keep them hidden away under my bedsheets? I spend a fair amount of time pondering these questions but my lack of reasonable answers has led me to conclude that I have not progressed much in my personal development throughout the years. In many ways, I am still that 12 year old kid, huddled behind my closeted dresser in semi-darkness, scratching out stories in an exotic alphabet of my own invention.

It would be so easy to say that my writing never received any recognition, that I just didn't have a clue that I might possess some raw talent, but this isn't true. In fact, I was first recognized as having real literary potential by my third grade teacher, who read my childish tales with interest and encouraged me to write for publication. Later, my high school english teacher, Mrs. McQ, a short stocky woman with raven-black hair and shocking red lips who treated me like a daughter, told me that I should write a book. Further, she went to extraordinary lengths to support me on my journey toward this, her vision of my destiny. Unfortunately, my unexpected detention in state reform school prevented me from taking advantage of her kind offer to stay in her cabin for the summer while I wrote, and I lost track of her by the time I had been released. Considering this positive and supportive feedback from my teachers, what happened?

Like all writers who think about making the transition from recreational to professional writing, I am insecure. I worry about the same things that all writers worry about; that I cannot write well or I will not be able to write consistently (despite evidence to the contrary), that I will either not have the time for recreational writing or that I will lose sight of the joy I find in writing. But more than anything else, there is one reason that stops me cold. The truth is that I am a capable enough verbal mechanic, a wordsmith of sorts, but I believe that I have nothing of value to say. I wrestle with this daily and my friends assure me this is not true. Unsurprisingly, facing a career/life crisis combined with impending unemployment has left me lost and unsure of myself, and unsure of everyone else, too. But if I do become unemployed, writing a book will certainly not take precious time and energy away from my research. At this critical point in my life, I have little to lose by writing and in fact, writing would challenge me while also satisfying my intense need to live a creative and productive life.

What am I waiting for? I am disgusted and frustrated with my habitual timidity, so I am working on changing that. I have a book topic that I am working on, I have a persistent editor who believes in me and in my proposed book, and I have a publisher who is willing to give me a small advance. If I become unemployed in a few weeks, writing a book will provide much-needed purpose and structure for my life and I will find myself with plenty of time to work on it. However, if I magically find a job in the next few weeks, I can still write this book on weekends and in the early mornings if I schedule my time carefully. It is time for me to grow up and to pursue the other part of my life's work; writing. So I am making my writing schedule. I am determined. I have the discipline. I have the ability. I am a scientist and this is an experiment I have never conducted before.

I am getting ready to take that leap of faith.

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'Virtually Unemployable' Scientist Slated to Sell Body to Fund Research

Aug 11 2004 Published by under Uncategorized

New York City (AP) - After an unsuccessful year-long search for funds to support two years of research and living expenses, a scientist and freelance writer has offered to fund her research by selling access to her internationally televised death by electrocution and by auctioning all body parts on ebay.

GrrlScientist, a molecular evolutionary biologist and ornithologist, and a freelance writer, researches and writes about speciation in birds and the evolution and historical geographic movements of parrots among the islands of the south Pacific Ocean. These islands encompass a large area that includes the politically and seismically fragile country, Indonesia, popular vacation get-aways Tahiti and Fiji as well as Australia, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. GrrlScientist earned her PhD in 2002 at [elided] and has conducted research on the speciation of parrots at [elided] as a Postdoctoral Fellow since September, 2002.

Funds raised from advance sales of electrocution videos, projected pay-for-view television revenues and from pre-auctioned body parts that will be collected after death will be used to finance a two-year research trip to the islands of the south Pacific Ocean, where GrrlScientist's research birds live. At the conclusion of this two-year research trip and after the resulting research papers have been published, GrrlScientist will be electrocuted on pay-for-view TV before all body parts are removed for redistribution to their respective purchasers.

Electrocution was chosen as a method to hasten death because it causes less tissue and organ damage than GrrlScientist's preferred methods of death, either alcohol poisoning or a sedative overdose. Unfortunately for excited pay-for-view TV executives, GrrlScientist expressed revulsion with beheading, another method of death that minimizes tissue and organ damage. Pay-for-view TV executives suggested beheading after market research predicted it would generate greater revenues than electrocution, particularly in view of the rampant internet popularity of Iraqi-hostage beheading videos.

After death, the process of organ removal will commence immediately and this process will be widely available on pay-for-view TV and can also be purchased as teaching videos. Already, these videos have generated great interest among medical and forensic schools throughout America and Europe, and the Lions' Eye Bank has reportedly purchased the eyeball removal segment. Lions' Eye Bank representatives were unavailable for comment.

GrrlScientist sent out more than 300 application packages throughout the world during the past 378 days in response to publically advertized academic, research and postdoctoral fellowship positions at well-known universities and research organizations. These application packages consisted of a cover letter, Curriculum Vitae or "CV", statements of Research Objectives and Teaching Philosophy and two or three letters of recommendation, one from each of GrrlScientist's academic advisors. To date, only 7.8% of GrrlScientist's applications generated a response of any type. This lack of response puzzles other scientists in the field.

"GrrlScientist's CV looks fine. It clearly shows her wide range of skills and experiences that make her a valuable member of the scientific research community," commented one source, who wishes to remain anonymous. When asked if the source's organization would offer GrrlScientist a position, the source responded with; "GrrlScientist applied to our institution several times for postdocs [postdoctoral fellowships] but they were not awarded to her because of internal politics, nothing more, nothing less."

"GrrlScientist's work is very important," states a highly-placed source who agreed to an interview under the condition of anonymity. "A lot of money has been invested into her research for this reason."

Six months after starting the original unsuccessful job search, GrrlScientist expanded her job search to include "anything, I was even rejected, rather rudely, might I add, by my neighborhood McDonald's to be a french fry chef! This is simply incredible because I've worked for fast food before." GrrlScientist worked for McDonald's chief competitor, Burger King, for six months in 1981. The manager for GrrlScientist's neighborhood McDonald's refused to comment.

"I haven't had even one interview," reports GrrlScientist. "Well, I did get one interview to teach part-time for Princeton Review, but I bombed that because I forgot how to tie my shoes." Princeton Review is a popular college test preparation agency. They require each interviewee to teach a 5-minute lesson on a topic suggested by the interview panel or on a topic of the interviewee's choice. The suggested topic for GrrlScientist's interview was a lesson on tying shoelaces.

After September 2004, GrrlScientist will join the growing ranks of the "virtually unemployable". The "virtually unemployable" category is a recent federal government classification for Americans who are incapable of being hired or keeping a paying job longer than 2 years. Generally, the "virtually unemployable" category includes individuals with IQs of less than 70, the criminally insane and comatose medical patients. GrrlScientist is the first PhD to be added to this new job category.

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Included with the Best of Me Symphony
Issue 98.

The Tangled Bank

Included with "The Best of Science, Nature and Medical Blog Writing"
Issue 23.

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The Power of One: comments on "True Notebooks" by Mark Salzman

Aug 07 2004 Published by under Uncategorized

True Notebooks by Pulitzer-prize nominee Mark Salzman is a powerful and delightful work that I devoured in one sitting. At the beginning, the author is struggling with writer's block while trying to finish writing "a bad novel" about a nun and a juvenile delinquent. A friend, Duane, who teaches writing to a group of juvenile delinquents, persuades Mark to speak to his students and Mark finally agrees after much soul-searching;

"What if Duane's students asked if I thought writing was worth the effort? If they were as cunning as their reputations suggested, they might sense how lost I felt as a writer and realize that I had nothing to offer them. Then I imagined, they would beat me up."

[True Notebooks, Mark Salzman, p. 13]

After much cajoling by Sister Janet, the nun who is the force of nature who started this volunteer program, Mark reluctantly starts his own writing class at this detention center and the story develops from there. This book details Mark's ongoing adventures as a volunteer writing teacher for his group of teenaged boys locked up in a juvenile detention center in southern California, awaiting sentencing for violent crimes, usually murder. The prose is graceful, elegant and witty, and the book includes generous samples of individual boys' writing, which is stark and often brilliant in its honesty. Particularly moving to me was one boy's account about one of his teachers taking him to visit the Museum of Science and Industry shortly after his parents died. He ends his essay by saying;

"... I know it wasn't a spectacular day, but I cherish that day because that was the only person that took time out of their life to help me make it through the death of my parents."

[quoted in True Notebooks, Mark Salzman, p. 44]

True Notebooks reminded me of my own troubled childhood, growing up in a small conservative farming community where I did not have access to anything wonderful like museums. Yet, even as a young child, I somehow knew I wanted to go to university to get my education, I knew I wanted to get my doctorate, and I knew I wanted to be a scientist and a writer. But I was surrounded by people who expected me to fail, demanded that I fail, in fact. They taunted me, ridiculed me and, when I refused to give up my dreams, they isolated me. Eventually, I fell silent and retreated completely to books and to my writing. Even though I gave up on my family and community, I never gave up on myself. Much of my childhood was spent wandering alone on foot or horseback through sweet-smelling fields, studying nature and animals like a book.

Even though I never found anything remarkable like a dinosaur bone, I loved dinosaurs and read about them often. But I never thought -- not even in my wildest imaginings -- that I would ever visit a world-famous natural history museum but today, I work here. Daily, I walk past one of the world's three complete Tyranosaurus rex skeletons on my way to my lab and office where I research the evolution of birds, and daily I handle meticulously prepared study skins of birds that are 100 or more years old and I clone DNA from them. I have watched my fellow scientists chipping the fossilized skeletons of long-dead baby triceratops from solid rock using dental tools and microscopes. I helped a colleague move the world's only (nearly) complete Dodo skeleton to a locked vault when its display case was repaired. Oddly, working among the shadows cast by bones and skins of the long (and not-so-long) dead fills me with a sense of childlike wonder and hope for the future and an intense longing for that childhood I never had.

As a child, I was a "throw away": After yet another argument with my parents when I was 15 years old, my verbally and physically abusive father told me, "GET OUT! If I ever see your ugly face again, I'll kill you!" In view of my life experiences with both parents, I knew this was a credible threat so ... I left. But this wasn't the first time I had been thrown out of the house. In fact, I was first locked out of the house one summer night before I even started kindergarten. Not knowing what to do, I slept in a horse's stall that night. When I was older, I usually traded sleep-overs with horses for sleep-overs with a nearby friend, while I waited until my parents permitted me return to the house.

But unfortunately for me, my parents reported me as a runaway this time, so a few days later, the sheriff arrested me at my friend's house, despite her mother's pleadings to allow me to stay. A couple days after that, I sat in a courtroom in front of a judge who decided my fate while refusing to listen to anything I had to say on the matter. In a final act of supreme cruelty, my parents used the court system to declare me a hopeless "incorrigible" and I was made a ward of the state court system. As a hopeless incorrigible, I was not permitted into the foster care system, so a week or so later, I was locked up with girls who had committed all sorts of crimes, including murder. I was informed that unless something changed dramatically, I would remain locked up until my 18th birthday.

Hopelessness and helplessness, despair, loneliness, fear, anger, betrayal; I felt it all. Like a fly immobilized on fly paper, there was nothing I could do to save myself, no one to whom I could appeal, to beg for mercy. I was isolated. But unlike the boys in Mark's book, I never had a writing teacher who cared about me when I was locked up, even for several hours per week. But like the author's boys, writing did save me, in a way. After I was behind bars, I daily poured my agonized soul out onto paper, transforming my sorrow and anger into hundreds of writings and drawings even while I remained remote and unreachable, protecting my shattered self from everyone, convinced that no one cared.

But one person did care. Throughout this ordeal, there was one person who somehow managed -- I still don't know how -- to visit me in my caged hell. This one remarkable person was my saviour, my Guardian Angel. When I was weak, he was strong: he protected and cherished my almost forgotten dream that I would attend university one day, he nurtured and encouraged my dwindling artistic voice as if cultivating a dying plant, he would not let me forget my dream when the despair of my small corner of the universe threatened to overwhelm me. Because my Guardian Angel was a tiny but compellingly bright flame in an otherwise darkened world, he reminded me of that priceless gift that everyone sought to steal from me: Hope. Without my Guardian Angel, I certainly would have died.

After surviving months of this hell, I would like to report that my parents finally came to their senses, or that the state finally came to its senses, and that I was released after a rational discussion about the extravagant silliness of the entire situation, but this was not the case. Instead, I was called out of class one day, much to everyone's surprise, and escorted to the reform school's social worker's office. The state social worker was a perverted and twisted little man named Fabian Napolsky, whose idea of "therapy" was to read each girl's physical exam reports aloud to them while they nervously counted the minutes remaining until their escape from his office. Needless to say, he was universally despised and feared by the girls. The reason I name him here is because I want him to know that I will not keep his secrets safe and I want the world to know that he was the one person who committed the unforgivable sin of introducing me to true hate, that fierce steely knife edge that alternately lacerates and freezes your soul, and it was he who taught me to embrace the power of hatred, at least momentarily.

On this particular day, he wanted to talk to me because a few days prior to this, he had intercepted the only letter I had written and sent to my Guardian Angel from reform school. He of course, read my soul-searching and despair and h
e of course, had plenty to say about it. I was horrified beyond all words, the whispers of that new-found hatred in my soul rose to a crescendo. Feeling absolutely violated, I was unable to speak. He then ended our little chat by "regretfully" informing me that the recidivism rate was very high for particular teen aged girls and according to everything he knew, he was certain I would spend most or all of my adult life behind bars.

"For being a 'throw away'??" I suddenly found my tongue. I don't recall his precise response but it was certainly negative because shortly after I was returned to my unit, I sought permission to call my Guardian Angel but was denied. In despair, I somehow managed to obtain permission to make a 5 minute call to my parents. I apologized repeatedly to them for being a terrible daughter and begged them to reclaim me. They refused.

"You made your bed, now you lie in it," my mother said before the phone receiver was yanked away from me by the staff counselor. In that moment, a part of me shattered and died inside, that part of me that belonged to my parents and my family. Broken, I wept, truly wept, for the first time in my life. Beyond the reach of my Guardian Angel, even hope abandoned me. I would rather die than languish behind bars for the rest of my days.

I stole a secret, forbidden bottle of Midol that I knew was hidden in another girl's underwear drawer. I choked down every last pill, all 42 of them. I almost barfed but I was determined that I would not fail at this one thing, spurred on by pure hatred and outrage at my predicted fate, I was determined this would be the one thing I would do right and it would be the one right thing that I had ever done in my short but miserable life.

I remember opening my eyes while I flew, as if on a magic carpet, under bright lights, blazing like a thousand suns. "This doesn't look like heaven," I remember saying in disappointment.

I saw a man's lovely dark eyes looking closely into mine. He was sitting on my chest. Get off, what's your problem anyway?

I saw resplendent quetzals, glimmering metallic green flashing blood-red against a soft velvet green rainforest.

I almost died. According to the emergency room staff and doctors who visited me after I had regained consciousness a day later, if I had arrived ten minutes later or had taken two more pills, I would not have survived. I suppose I should have felt lucky or scared, but I didn't. I was furious. Outraged. Everyone was meddling and interfering, first to keep me from realizing my dream and then to keep me from fixing this mess by extricating myself from a worthless and miserable existence. Who in the HELL do all these arrogant freaks think they are?

As soon as I was conscious, my Guardian Angel was there. He was my first and only visitor. He was pale and rumpled and looked as though he hadn't slept in a couple nights. In fact, he looked like hell. Again, I wanted to die, but for different reasons entirely. As soon as I saw him, my outrage evaporated and was replaced with shame. For the first time in my life, I had truly hurt someone: I had deeply hurt my precious Guardian Angel, I could see it in his face, in his eyes. My Guardian Angel was the only one who cared, who took time out of HIS busy life and HIS busy schedule to provide comfort to someone else's unwanted kid, he even managed to visit me when no one else could, and I repaid him by stupidly believing the poisonous lies uttered by one evil person and allowed this false belief to undo all the good that he was trying to do. How could I? How could I so easily lose my faith in all that is good and right and true? How could I have been so weak? This was my unpleasant introduction to having and (mis)using personal power.

Surprisingly, things did eventually work out. I was placed in a mental hospital while I recovered. While there, I met many wonderful people, both staff and patients (and I will probably tell their stories later) and then, I returned for awhile to reform school but was released -- not long before my 17th birthday. This decision was made by a reasonable judge who understood how ludicrous and capricious it was to lock up a "throw away" in a state reform school, particularly because I had never committed any violent or criminal behaviors.

Sadly, I have not spoken to my Guardian Angel since shortly after I started college. I was told he changed careers and relocated to Seattle. We lost touch. But even years later, I think of him and wonder how he is doing and wish that I could somehow let him know that I am alright, that I have succeeded beyond even my wildest dreams. I know he would be surprised and proud of what I have achieved so far in my life, even though every step on my path was incredibly difficult. If there was one wish I could have granted right now, it would be to see my Guardian Angel again, to take him on a tour through my museum, to show him my research birds, so he would know how precious he was and still is to me.

Are you out there, John S.? I know you are not famous, you are not rich and you are not beautiful but you are all these things to me and, oh, so much more. Can you hear my thoughts whispering to you as you sleep? I hope that you know that you are the one who mattered when I needed someone the most. I owe you my life and because I love my life, I love you, sweet Guardian Angel.

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New York City Blues

Aug 05 2004 Published by under Uncategorized

The NYC summer alternates between moody, angry and depressed. This morning's weather reflects my mood well; the restless grey-blue clouds reach longingly towards the sharp edges of the city as they are blown away to an unknown fate, dropping rain like tears along the way.

Time rushes by me with increasing speed -- how does this happen? It seems not so long ago when I started my job search, full of hope and excited anticipation for the next chapter of my life, what I might find and where I might live. But this morning, 370 days later, I woke up, faced with impending unemployment, knowing that seven weeks from today is my first day of ... what? I don't know. I am shocked: How could this happen? After sending out more than 300 application packages for academic and research positions, after applying for countless other jobs, I am confronted with the fact that I have failed miserably. I have not only failed to find a job in my field, I have also failed to find a job in any related fields and I have, in fact, failed to find ANY job, doing ANYTHING at all.

Polite, impersonal rejection letters fill my mailbox and emailboxes. WTF? I worked hard my entire life, working at odd jobs ranging from a nurse's aid, waitress, raspberry picker during the stifling heat of summer, and I was a nanny to fractious race horses worth tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, to a manager of a pet store, owner of my own small business, a science writer, and a research technician at a world-famous cancer research center. I postponed almost every material reward that anyone could reasonably expect as a result for hard work, so much so that in fact, after a lifetime of accumulation, every item I own can be packed into a single moving crate. I worked this varied and unusual hodgpodge of jobs on vacations and holidays and weekends in my relentless pursuit of my educational goals and dreams. Sacrificing real, tangible rewards in favor of my quest for future accomplishments, as if I couldn't do both at the same time. But what do I have to show for all this? Well, nothing, nothing at all, not even the priviledge of a job.

Sometimes I think I am crazy. Not cross-eyed drooling and paranoid crazy, but pie-in-the-sky dreamer crazy. I have sacrificed everything to my vision to be an academic research scientist in my wish to raise the veil of confusion that obscures our understanding of evolution. Where on earth did a white-trash country girl like me ever get such a weird, high falutin' idea like that? And whatever made me believe I could actually succeed? It's no wonder that everyone laughed at me, I must have been crazy!

But the fact is, if I won the lottery today and could do anything, literally anything, with the rest of my life, I would do exactly what I am doing right now. The past two years have been the best of my life, I have lived two years of breathtaking, dizzying joy, knowing that I am alive, truly alive, for the first time in my life as I dig in to the mysteries surrounding the origins of my beloved birds, as I seek answers to questions that whispered to me during the wee hours when I was a child. Where did we come from? Why and how did we become the way we are? What makes us distinct, our own species? What is a species? What makes closely-related species different from each other? What is a subspecies (is there even such a thing)? Because I love birds, I ask these questions about birds, about parrots, specifically. I am just beginning to understand my birds' story of how they came to be and how their particular part of the world came about. This is my life's work, my passion.

Because my love for my career is a rare and beautiful gift that few people on this earth have ever had the pleasure of experiencing, I should find joy in recollections of this, right? Memories of this short happy time should satisfy me as I plod along the downward spiralling path to death, right? Well, I can't live my life like that. In some ways, I am a very selfish person, I worked hard and paid my dues -- in fact, I have paid dues for several other people, too -- so I deserve more! I've worked for it! I deserve more time with my birds, more time with my research, more success, more money, more happiness! I deserve a job in my chosen field of research! But right now, I can't even find a job as a fast food "chef", a waitress, a bartender, a sales clerk, a shelf stocker, a hotel maid, a janitor, not even as an escort, for gawd's sake.

My colleagues say that my CV looks great and my friendly competitors/collaborators agree. Several potential employers claimed that my accomplishments are impressive, that I have a broad base of experiences and skills that would serve any employer well, but if this is true, then where is my job? Why can't I even be assured of a roof over my head and food in my belly and basic health insurance? No one has offered me a job, and in fact, no one has even offered me an interview (well, no one except Princeton Review, and I bombed that rather spectacularly, remember?).

I feel absolutely betrayed by my misplaced faith in the supposed power of a good education, and I am ashamed to know what a complete failure I truly am, ashamed that I reflect so poorly on my advisors and my university, ashamed that I dishonor my birds by failing them, ashamed that so many people invested their time and resources and knowledge in me so I could dishonor them by ending up on the streets, homeless, hungry and an embarassment to all who pass me by on their way to their work or to their cozy Manhattan apartments.

"GET A JOB, BITCH!"

But worst of all, I feel absolutely ridiculous when I realize I sacrificed everything only to discover that this vision that I thought was my calling might really belong to someone else, that I may be an unwelcome interloper on someone else's dream. I feel utterly, incredibly empty to think I will be denied access to my life's work, the very core of my being, to think that my entire life was merely the pursuit of a mirage.

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