Archive for: September, 2004

Warblers from the Sky

Sep 30 2004 Published by under Uncategorized

Today is the last day of my fellowship funding, so I had a difficult time dragging myself out of bed and in to work today. I stood in the shower, wondering what my graduate advisor must think of me and what my postdoctoral advisor must think of me because of this situation. I mentally sorted through the fates of everyone I know from grad school and none of them had ever been completely unable to find a job. Except me. Aren't I special?

But I have paperwork from HR that my postdoctoral advisor must sign, so I had to come in. I had to be presentable. I had to finish this thing the best way I know how. Fortunately, my advisor is here today and tomorrow before jetting off to Paris, France, so I can do this. After we spoke for a few minutes, it became apparent that the person I was dealing with yesterday in HR was making my life difficult, but now that my supervisor is back, well, things will be taken care of so I do NOT have to surrender my badge, nor my keys, and I can continue my building access, continue using the internet (thank gawd!), the computers and the library. These are all good things for reasons that shall become obvious to you as time progresses (I hope).

To gather my courage, I started my last day of work by reading and responding to email from some of my friends who, despite having their own lives and problems to deal with, despite being scattered all over the globe, they took time to send words of advice and cheer, precious words of hope. I am so lucky to have you. Even though I love my career more than anything in life, I have to work very hard every day to keep it alive, whereas my friends are the gift that ... happens to me. Unbidden, you appear. Unknown to me, you are there. You warm my soul when my own fire begins to fail. My friends rain down upon me like migrating warblers from the sky, like a feathered blessing, like radiant angels, having just crossed the Gulf of Mexico on your northward journey in springtime; lovely, brilliant, filling the world with your sweet songs, I do nothing and yet you arrive and provide rapturous joy and pleasure that are beyond words. How did I get so lucky ?

I received another unexpected gift today: My supervisor told me it is easier to end someone's employment at the end of a pay period (it IS??), so he wants me to continue on the payroll until the end of the next week. So today is NOT my last day of work, afterall! I am so grateful, so happy! SIX MORE DAYS in my beloved museum! Halleluiah! A reprieve! I have been snatched from the jaws of financial bewilderment. I have a few more days to save money. A few more days to think, to wait for something good to happen.

I think this demands celebration.

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Four Days Until ... ?

Sep 27 2004 Published by under Uncategorized

I knew this would happen, I could feel it coming but I tried to pretend it away, soft dark owl wings of depression enshroud my soul. I don't want to face this, this nothingness; I want to hide myself away forever, but there is nowhere to hide. The executioner's ax is poised, friends and colleagues alike hold their collective breath, will I make this easy for them? Will I gracefully accept my unmitigated worthlessness? Will I quietly relinquish myself to that passionless cringed existence whose long spidery hag's fingers have already sunk cold bloody claws into my still beating heart? I wonder what I will think of when that glittering blade falls, forcing my life transition? Will I think of my distant friends and colleagues? Will I think of my birds, scattered across the country? Will I think of my special soul-bird-companion, who loved me as no living thing ever has before or since and in doing so, led me to this precipice?

I am so fatigued, I can barely move, I can barely think. Gotta work hard during these next four days, gotta work as if these are my last days to make a difference, gotta work as if I will never work again at anything worthwhile. No guarantees. No future. Work/love, fly away. Dust. Whispers. Shadows.

Gone.

Silence.

Isolation.

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Hedwig the Owl: Unintentional Blogger

Sep 26 2004 Published by under Uncategorized

Today, I was browsing through my blog stats collected by a new counter and for the first time, it dawned on me that lots of people are actually reading what I have to say. And more surprising (to me), some of you are returning to read more. I know this sounds silly because at least a few of you leave comments behind, but I thought you were floating around the web like dandelion puffs, that you tumbled onto my little blog, felt compelled to comment by something I wrote, then vanished, never to return. Isn't this the way life happens?

But, according to this new counter, it appears that some of you, my little dandelion puffs, are taking root in my lawn and greeting me with your bright sunny faces: I am developing a regular readership consisting of more than one (me)! I am complimented. Pleased. Suddenly shy. My words are not disappearing down an electronic drainpipe, as I suspected. But having a readership means that I feel obligated to be especially intelligent and funny and insightful so your time with me is well-spent. I certainly don't want to disappoint you. Must. Be. Funny. I don't want to waste your time. Must. Be. Interesting. Predictably, I have no idea what to say, so I will warm up my writing neurons by telling you about the string of events that gave birth to my blog.

Long ago and far away, when dinosaurs still roamed the planet, when the internet was very young and most people did not regularly use email nor look at the web, I went to university with several of the very first "bloggers" -- literary types who also happened to be my good friends. These people were true essayists and their musings were my first real exposure to the fine art of the personal essay in all of its alluring disguises. Unfortunately, after a few years, one of my blogging friends suffered a dramatic emotional breakdown that not only displaced her from the blogging world but from the world of reality as most of us know it to be. At that point, I stopped reading all blogs. In fact, I had deliberately not read a blog for nearly a decade when I started mine on 4 August 2004.

My blog started innocently enough. I have kept a journal throughout my entire life, but most was lost as the result of numerous relocations and other unpleasant life events. After I relocated to NYC from Seattle, I started emailing "little vignettes" to my beloved friends each week as a way to keep in touch with them. Because my employment (and email account) end soon, I was seeking an electronic archive to store two years' accumulation of "little vignettes" along with my many published articles. Since I have experienced enough computer and zip disc failures to give even the healthiest person a stroke, I was seeking electronic storage -- preferably free -- somewhere outside my sphere of bad karma. Coincidentally, at this same time and possibly inspired by my frequent windy messages on the Craigslist Forums, a member of Craigslist suggested I start a public blog. At that moment, I was not interested in a public blog, but a private blog seemed to be the perfect solution for archiving my writings.

After moving my essays and articles to my private blog, temptation occurred. A public blog could be a lot of fun for a semi-closeted writer such as myself, I thought. It would provide a forum for me to get feedback from the public and to gain confidence in my writing abilities and productivity because I do have a few good books in me, yearning after publication. I also realized that I could use a blog to reach out to a curious public by allowing you to peek into the life and mind of one (struggling) scientist/writer. The semi-anonymity was also appealing. It seemed to be an interesting experiment, so I took the plunge and a blogger was born.

When I started this blog, I certainly had no intention that it would chronicle my repeated failures to find a job. I had instead hoped to share with you all the amazing things I do and experience daily as a research scientist. But apparently, employment issues are also part of being a scientist in academics (for me, anyway), despite my intense embarassment, humiliation and frustration about them. Worrying about unemployment consumes a large amount of my time and energy, particularly between the hours of 11pm or midnight, when I fall asleep in the pages of whatever book I am reading, and 500am, when I finally crawl out of bed, utterly exhausted, my hair standing at attention at the horrifying possibilities stalking my dream world. Nonetheless, I try to keep my rantings about job rejections and unemployment to a minimum and I cling to the hope that things will improve (hopefully soon!).

In the interim, I hope that blogging will prevent me from slipping into that well of depression that hungrily awaits me and that writing will keep me connected to the world. I hope that writing helps me find the correct way to deal with this sometimes overwhelming fear that I will lose everything. And I look forward to that happy happy day, my little dandelion puffs, when we all dance together on gentle breezes under a brilliant sky while I share with you the story of my successful slaying of this fire-breathing dragon. It will be the end of this story, and the beginning of my next adventure. It will be glorious.

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A Visit from Hurricane Ivan

Sep 18 2004 Published by under Uncategorized

The remnants of Hurricane Ivan hit town with a vengeance early this morning. Because I like to tempt cooling breezes into my apartment, I keep my windows wide open, so within mere minutes of Ivan's arrival, the curtains were muddied and the expansive sills and wood floors puddled and gleamed dangerously under gallons of filthy rainwater. But, being a Seattle native and because Seattle has a rainy reputation (undeserved, in my opinion), I was undaunted by Ivan's furious introduction to my home in New York City.

After closing the stubborn windows and mopping the floors, I bravely waded into the storm in search of this week's groceries while the darkened sky defibrillated around me, waters raced through the streets and rain bounced off my umbrella like thousands of arrows. By the time I squished my way into the nearly empty 99 cent store one block away, I was soaked but exhilarated.

Exhilaration. It felt good to stand in the downpour, rejoicing at the thunder and the rain and the wind until unexpectedly, I felt water leaking through the long-forgotten holes in the bottoms of my shoes.

Up and down the street, I could see my neighbors snuggled into their cozy apartments with their pets and kids, watching cartoons on TV. A few peeked out their windows at the rain or maybe at me, a lone and eccentric spectre passing nearly unnoticed through the chaotic landscape.

Oddly, while standing in the rain, I suddenly remembered that two years ago today and three thousand miles away, I was similarly exhilarated because I had successfully defended my dissertation. Even though that day also started out rainy, things were so different then! On that day, the rain was more of a fond farewell than the left-over tantrums of a hurricane. On that day, I was looking forward to the rest of my life; eager, happy, and full of pride that the culmination of all my efforts, all my sacrifices, all my heart-wrenching losses had finally paid off. I had beaten the odds.

Could triumph ever taste so sweet? For the first time in my life, I had accomplished something worthwhile, I'd attained what I'd always desired and worked so hard towards for my entire life. Now, I thought, nothing could possibly keep me from my promising future. My feeling that day was almost visceral, I was shedding that hated old skin of my terrible childhood and beginning anew, as a glorious butterfly emerges from a battered and ugly cocoon. In doing this, I changed myself forever, soaring out of the reach of the grasping fingers of my past that sought to reclaim me, to drag me down. I had defined myself with a respectable and respected career by pursuing my passions: science, birds and writing. Suddenly, my life was complete and I was an acceptable person.

Only ten days after I defended my dissertation, I packed my books and possessions into a single moving crate and I left the warm embrace of my many friends and my beloved birds, said goodbye to my lush home and boarded an airplane. I flew through night and into a New York City sunrise where, six hours after leaving the ground, I stepped into a golden September morning. I came, not knowing where I would live, not knowing a soul here, having never been east of the Rocky Mountains. I came to pursue my life's dream.

But today, unbelievably, I am contemplating the loss of everything I worked so hard for. Again. But now, most of my friends have moved on to house-buying, raising families and pursuing other interests and friendships. My beloved flock of birds that I dedicated so many years to is perpetually beyond my reach, redistributed two years ago to new homes all over the country, while some individual birds have now taken their place as part of the research collections at my museum. Now, I am selling the few birds that still live with me and soon they all will be gone forever. Volare.

When the last of my birds finally depart, my home will fly away with them and will be lost forever too, for my birds are the heart of my home. After they are gone, any place I reside will only be a temporary place to sleep at night, to keep a few clothes and books, to take a shower in the mornings before spending the day wandering or working aimlessly. Contemplating this sad existence makes me feel old.

Is aging is like this? Is aging an inexorable whittling away of all that is precious in life until nothing remains? Do people finally realize they are old when all that makes their lives worthwhile has vanished? If so, do those of us with a rich spiritual life live longer than those who do not? How do we exist when all that remains of us is an empty husk, a shadow self? Does food taste differently? Does a warm shower bring as much pleasure as it did before, when we were still fully alive? Can we ever again find joy in the springtime song of birds? In our shadow lives, can music and art speak to our absent souls?

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Conformity: Outside, Looking In

Sep 14 2004 Published by under Uncategorized

It was so beautiful last night when I left for home that I paused outside the museum to admire the sky and to enjoy the chorus of cicadas. It was a rare, perfect evening in NYC. The velvety sky contrasted with the private party taking place inside the planetarium, heralded by bright lights, loud music and delicious smells that traveled throughout the museum, making my heart quicken and my tummy rumble expectantly as I walked down the broad staircases from my office. I peered over the railing at the party in the Hall of the Universe below. Oddly, this was the gloomiest group of people I've ever seen in the museum, none smiled but all were impeccably dressed in nearly identical clothing and shoes. It was obvious that my garb would betray me immediately to this crowd if I tried to crash the party. My stomach grumbled again. I moved on.

Last night's party was part of New York City's "Fashion Week" and was attended by many big names in the fashion and entertainment worlds. Fashion Week in New York City is an eight-day event where the best American and even a few European designers show off next spring's clothing collections. Based on what I saw last night, next spring's fashions are limited to either black super-mini stretch dresses or ruffled chiffon dresses made from bright but headache-inducing color combinations such as fuschia, orange and teal, accompanied by life-threateningly high spiked heels and puffy red lips.

Curious, I stood among the Paparazzi (some of whom looked rather unsavory) and the gossip columnists behind the roped-off entryway and watched the hullabaloo. The spectacle and the energy were truly amazing. I missed Kate Moss's grand entrance into the building by mere minutes, but I did see Richie-Rich, Fabian (50s singer and teen-age heart throb) who wrapped an arm around a woman named Gillian (no idea what her last name is), Deborah Cox (rhythm and blues singer), Kenneth Cole (designer), Linda Wells (editor of Allure), Jemma Kidd (former model, now famous make-up artist), Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (aka; the Olsen Twins, who don't look like twins), Serena and Venus Williams (who also don't look like twins), Jennifer Lopez (whom the Paparazzi never referred to as "J-Lo") and her boytoy-of-the-month, Mark Anthony, and a flock of sleek and gorgeous women with names like Skye, Isabella, Tama, and Iman. Oh, and Lisa. I can't forget to mention Lisa.

I don't follow fashion or Hollywood trends so I didn't know what most of these famous people look like, but the Paparazzi were surprisingly generous about filling in my gaping cultural deficiencies. But even the most casual observer knew when a star and her entourage arrived because they were invariably greeted by a vast shout, accompanied by an exploding supernova of lights, as they walked into the building. Despite being nearly blinded by flashbulbs, the stars nearly always acquiesced to the photographers' shouted requests to "look to my voice" or "over the shoulder" or "just one more". Some stars looked bored (J-Lo) or cranky (Linda Wells) or indifferent (Kenneth Cole) while others were gracious (Venus and Serena Williams) and a few engaged in playful banter with the photographers (Deborah Cox).

I was surprised at the number and variety of beautiful people who entered the building, unappreciated, unseen. Many were comparably attractive, or even moreso, than the stars themselves. These were the fashionistas, I was told. Obviously, an invited guest of any fashion week show must possess either money or beauty, preferably both, and this is particularly true of the women. Even though most people have little problem identifying wealth, beauty is more difficult to define, unless confronted with Donald Trump, the epitome of physical and spiritual repulsiveness and decrepitude.

But if one believes the premise that fashion is serious art that simultaneously reflects and challenges current social values, what does this Fashion Week event reveal about us as a society? According to the old saying, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" -- unless of course, you attended Fashion Week. In that case, beauty, like fashion, conforms to a rigid standard dictated by the industry. Even designer Steven Cox commented on this phenomenon recently in a New York Times interview when he observed that "there are lots of beautiful people out there and people who are stunning in a variety of ways ... but for some reason, the marketplace is narrowed so completely that they [fashion models, and presumably everyone else] are all beautiful in exactly the same way."

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Anamnesis

Sep 12 2004 Published by under Uncategorized

Aaaargh! I am still thinking about the amazing cheeseburger that I ate on friday evening! And to think that I like nachos so much more than cheeseburgers ... just imagine what would have happened if I ate nachos instead.

Okay, don't think about it; it's too scary.

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A Friday Night Out

Sep 11 2004 Published by under Uncategorized

Last night, I met a friend from work, F, at his favorite bar on the upper east side to hang out for a few hours. While I was there, I ate a real "home made" medium-rare hamburger perched on top of a thick slab of fresh tomato and with jack cheese melted delicately over the top. It was so yummy I thought I was having another one of my food dreams, but no, I opened my eyes and found the cheeseburger still sitting there, along with a lovely golden heap of fries, looking and tasting absolutely delicious. With every magical bite, I could barely restrain myself from repeating "Oh my gawd, this is so so soooo good!" I felt like a pig. The fries were so fabulous that I just had to share some with F and a few other people sitting nearby at the bar.

During these moments of pure delight, I resolved to stop hoarding every dime that I have to support myself in the future and instead, go out once in awhile, even if only for a cheeseburger, fries and um, half a dozen drinks. Ahem.

While I was at F's favorite watering hole, a dog walked in, stood up, put his paws on my lap and introduced himself. I am always surprised that certain pubs in NYC allow animals inside (either that, or they look the other way when an animal, usually a dog, enters), but it turned out that this golden retriever was no ordinary dog; this was Theodore, the talented son of the famous Bear, the police officer who rescued the few survivors trapped in the rubble from the World Trade Towers that collapsed three years ago today. Unfortunately, Bear died a year later from injuries sustained from that work, a loss that his handler still feels very keenly. Like his famous father, Theodore is a search and rescue dog for the NYPD, but he was off-duty last night, so he only wore his police badge and ID tag and left his red vest at home for the night.

I caressed Theodore's silken fur that glowed like burnished gold in the gloom of the pub as I met and spoke with Theodore's handler, Scott Shields. Later, Scott gave me an embroidered arm patch advertizing the Bear Search and Rescue Foundation and a copy of the book about Bear's life. While we were talking, Theodore grabbed the napkin from my lap, ate it and then coughed it up on the floor, as if to remind us that he is, after all, a dog. Scott picked up the soggy remains and ruffled Theodore's fuzzy head.

As I was leaving several hours later, I just had to say goodbye to Theodore, even though I was probably breaking some unwritten NYC rule about invading famous people's (and dogs'!) privacy when they are out in public. I tried to kneel down unobtrusively to stroke Theodore's soft head while looking into his chestnut colored eyes, but he had other plans. He pushed me over so I landed on my butt while he snuffled and slobbered all over my face. Everyone, even Scott and his guests, laughed good-naturedly.

Suddenly, layer upon layer of worry and stress cracked and melted away. I felt like myself again. Thank you all for your kindness, Theodore and Scott and my pal, F. It was a lovely and much-needed evening that I will hold close to my heart.

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To Pray is to Work, to Work is to Pray.

Sep 07 2004 Published by under Uncategorized

Orare est laborare, laborare est orare.
(To pray is to work, to work is to pray.)
- Benedictine Order Motto.

What would you do for a living if you could do anything at all? Do you like your work? What does your job mean to you? A clean and dry place to live? Food on the table? A car? Cable TV, a new couch, books, high-tech gadgets, travel, Yankees game tickets, weekends at the beach, concerts, movies with popcorn? Or maybe your work is a vital part of your identity?

I have been wrestling with these questions and more during the past few months as I face unemployment in a few weeks. Unless one of the many potential employers whom I've applied to decide to hire me or fund my research very soon, this will be the first time in my life that I've ever been unemployed -- truly unemployed. And I am scared: I have nowhere to go, no one to "crash" with if I am still jobless in six months when my unemployment insurance benefits run out. Because I have been aggressively searching for a job for 13 months and 6 days without any luck, I have no faith that my "luck" will change anytime soon. The only scenario I can think of is that I will end up in a homeless shelter or on a park bench.

Throughout my life, I've always managed to scrounge some sort of "survival job", although the search has often been daunting and I've sometimes had to be creative about what consititutes a job. I was on my own from the age of 15 onward, so I have worked many low-wage blue-collar jobs to support myself and to pay my way through school, but regardless of how awful the position (and many were truly awful), I always accepted the job and worked hard because, I reminded myself, doing so would get me closer to my dream career that I had pursued my entire life -- a profession that gave my life purpose, dignity and respect, where I would never again have to beg for a job or risk being unemployed.

But now that I have achieved my educational goals and supposedly am well on my way career-wise, I find myself trapped in a blind alley, without any real employment possibilities. After two wonderful years working on a research project of my own design as a postdoctoral fellow, my funding stops at the end of this month. Now, I am routinely rejected for employment by blue-collar and managerial jobs, many that I have worked in the past, because I am "overqualified" or "not qualified", two terms that apparently do not mean the same things. On the rare occasions when someone even speaks to me, I find myself being lectured by cranky managers who claim I am wasting their valuable time with my application because they cannot believe I am serious about working for them.

As if I am not seriously trying to avoid unemployment and impeding homelessness.

Mid-level jobs in my field that I have applied for, such as lab managers, also reject me for many of the same reasons. For example, I answered the telephone about four months ago and spoke with a scientist calling from a major university in London, England. I applied a month or so earlier to his DNA sequencing facility for his advertized lab manager position. After a brief "interview", he suddenly demanded in an accusing voice, "Don't you think this job is beneath you?"

"I think unemployment is beneath me." I replied quietly, surprised and hurt by the vehemence of his question. Obviously, this was the wrong response because I did not get the job. Even though these rejections sting, being hired for some of these positions, particularly the blue-collar jobs, would pose big problems because the wages are low enough or the hours irregular enough that I would barely be able afford my rent if I accepted the job. So if I was hired, I would have to (somehow) find a second job to cover my other living expenses, such as food, power and cell phone.

But with every day that passes, I am still astonished that I cannot find a job in my field! What happened? I work very hard at the research that I love, I have devoted myself completely to its demands, willingly made huge personal and financial sacrifices, yet this apparently is not good enough. I am loathe to switch scientific fields, but this is what I am being forced to consider if I wish to avoid eating out of public garbage cans in the not-too-distant future. Unfortunately, I have discovered that I cannot easily switch fields either because I am competing for the same limited job pool against people with more experience in these other fields.

So I don't know what to do. The only advice I can give myself right now is don't panic! Sometimes I repeat this under my breath like a mantra. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to remain calm as my time here slips through my fingers ever more quickly. I have not been able to get a good night's sleep for months, I have trouble eating, I am tense and easily aggravated, and I just cannot deal with any more pressure.

In addition to the practical worries of how to support myself, I have other worries: My profession is a huge part of my self identity. Perhaps this wrong, as some people tell me (although I think it's fortunate) but the simple truth is that I genuinely like and admire who I am because of my work. Without the guiding purpose of my work and my birds in my life, I would not be the person I am now. The brilliant Vincent van Gogh movingly described his own work, also capturing my devotion to mine, when he observed so long ago, "Your profession is not what brings home your paycheck. Your profession is what you were put on earth to do, with such passion and such intensity that it becomes spiritual in calling."

So I worry incessantly about how I will survive this loss. I already know I will be devastated because I nearly immobilized by despair when I do ponder, however briefly, the loss of my profession. I try to prevent myself from becoming overwhelmed by downplaying the importance of this event in my life, but my spirit is not fooled. Life without my profession feels like a cheap consolation prize, a shadow existence, a marking of time's passage. I am neither emotionally nor financially nor socially equipped to deal with this loss. It's simply beyond my comprehension. So what will I do? How will I survive the loss of all that I've loved and dreamed of achieving, can I survive the loss of this dazzling hope that got me through so many dark and terrible days throughout my life? What sort of person will I transform into after I've been stripped of all that I cherish? Will I become hollow and defeated for the remainder of my days?

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The Long Goodbye

Sep 06 2004 Published by under Uncategorized

I finished my work in the lab for the day so I am relaxing as Garrison Keillor spins his tales on National Public Radio while the evening sighs softly outside my office window. Garrison's baritone voice echoes through my soon-to-be-deserted office and out into the great hall where thousands of bird study skins are housed in steel cabinets. The echoes reveal that my ongoing moving efforts are effective, even though I have been carrying my books and papers home a little every day, like an oversized ant, packing only as much as I can haul on the subway each night. But I still have a mountain of junk waiting to be moved. I think I have more papers waiting than I have days remaining. Sigh, another thing to think about.

I like my office. It's the second office I've ever had, and the first I haven't had to share. It's big, bigger than many apartments I've lived in, with high ceilings, a heavy wood door on one side and two very tall windows on the other side. My office windows face east, catching the morning sun as it rises over Central Park. Because several of my Manhattan apartments only provided close-up views of the neighbor's brick walls, I routinely came in to work early every morning to see the sunrises and so I could throw open the windows to hear the dawn chorus of singing birds and insects. In winter, I would sit in my office, bundled up in a fleece jacket with the window open until my fingers froze on the keyboard, watching and listening to the falling snow. On some mornings, Pale Male, the famous Central Park Red-tailed Hawk, would keep me company on the window sill or the air conditioner, leaving his footprints behind in the snow as a silent testimony to his visit. Just after sunup, I can hear the hot dog vendors shouting as they set up their carts on the sidewalks for the day's business, snow, rain or shine.

I clearly remember my first day in this office two years ago. I called my dissertation advisor to tell him about the dark brown woodgrain plaque on the door with my title etched on it in big white letters, [Xxxxxxx] Fellow. It made me feel humbled and awed that I am part of this long fine tradition of research, that I was chosen to be included in this illustrious group of talented people. My dissertation advisor chuckled and said, "They are really pretentious on the east coast, aren't they?"

"But I like it!" I protested, my laughter echoing through my empty office, just as it could now if only I had a reason to laugh.

A ladybug flies into my office, no doubt attracted by the light, and almost crashes into my nose. A few minutes later, I notice her re-folding her gossamer wings under her spotted red shell while standing upside down on the vaulted ceiling, far out of my reach, even if I stood on my desk to reach her. Cicadas click outside my window, too cold (or so I guess) to rev up into full song. Several other insect species sing in high-pitched voices in the distance. I need to ask someone in the entomology department to walk with me into Central Park one night to identify them by song. Why haven't I done that already? Time flies.

I hear the hollow clopping of horses on the avenue beneath my window just now. Like a ghostly vision from Cinderella's story, two white horses with snowy ostrich feathers perched atop their heads appear in the pale yellow circle of a street lamp, pulling a translucent bubble carriage. I can see two people sitting inside the bubble, immobile, like dolls. It's truly amazing, the things that one sees in Manhattan.

One horse tosses his head as he prances along, straining to burst free. Then the gathering gloom swallows the horses and their carriage and the sound of their hooves dies away quickly. A gently fleeing dream.

It is nighttime now. I watched the boxy grey skyscrapers of Manhattan reflect the orange, then pink, rays of the dying sun. Except for red lights blinking in the darkness, many buildings are nearly invisible now, although some are exposed by square yellow suns glowing from their depths, defining an impossibly orderly universe. The skateboarders arrive as they do almost every summer night to thunder across the pavement in front of the museum, banging loudly as they leap up and down the concrete steps. Occasionally one will fall, and then a hush settles down for a few minutes while the victim's companions help him assess his injuries. Some nights, they leave early, after only 20 minutes or so.

And so another day is done. Have I accomplished enough today? Should I work just a little bit longer, try to get one more experiment done? Was it worth it to be in the lab on this fine day? Should I have instead wandered Central Park and looked for birds and bugs and things, or maybe visited the masterpieces in the Met?

I don't know; I only have questions. Lots of questions. I heave my bag of books over my shoulder and pull the door closed behind me. I don't glance over my shoulder at the plaque as I walk away. I need a drink.

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Sweet Democracy

Sep 01 2004 Published by under Uncategorized

The morning dawned bright and clear and without the excessive humidity that has cupped us all in the sweaty palm of the city during the past few days. Birds sang cheerfully and cicadas buzzed from trees in Central Park and a cooling breeze tickled streets and avenues throughout Manhattan. Unexpectedly, this delightful day was perfect for a protest.

NYCPinkSlipProtest

To celebrate the first day of my 13th month of unrelenting rejection for employment both by the academic and research communities and by the general job market, I went protesting. I was one of many thousands who formed a 3 mile long symbolic unemployment line that stretched from Wall Street to Madison Square Garden, where I was located. We stood silently in single-file, holding a neon pink piece of paper in our hands that stated "The next pink slip might be yours!" We glowed garishly, visible for many blocks.

Most of us were unemployed or soon to be so (as I am) while others stood with us in solidarity. After enduring months of isolation and crushing worry, it felt odd to be surrounded by so many other people who shared the same terrible situation. I wanted to ask them how they are doing, how they are coping, how they pay their bills after their six months of unemployment insurance runs out.

But I never got the chance because after only 16 minutes of holding our pink slips overhead, our little protest was over and we dispersed. Because we were so quiet and orderly, and because we cleaned up after ourselves before we left, I assumed we had not been noticed in the vast smorgasbord of protests in New York City, but I was wrong. Our protest was the lead news story today on the radio, and supposedly CNN has devoted a fair amount of TV coverage to it (although I wouldn't know because I don't have a TV). Perhaps it was the stark contrast we presented with yesterday's protests that turned ugly, leaving somewhere between eight hundred and one thousand people detained by police in a filthy warehouse on Pier 57, cut off from their lawyers, families and everyone else. But regardless of why we were noticed, the unemployment situation was the topic of the day and for that reason alone, this seemingly simple act of protest was worth it.

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