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Musings and Anxieties.

19 September 2014

I had a great final training run. 6.7 miles, 67 minutes. Dead on 10:01 minutes per mile. Makes me quite happy to be there. I’ll be aiming for a slightly slower pace for the half marathon Sunday. My goal is to get in between a 10:30 and 11:00 min/mi pace. That corresponds to a total time of about 2:25:00, or a little faster. I am excited for the race and I think I’ll be in good shape for it. I’ll post a post-race picture of the medal.

In general, of course, my real fitness goals haven’t changed. Don’t get diabetes. Don’t have a stroke in my late 50s like my dad. Look decent naked. Be able to go hiking and traveling in my 70s and 80s. Stay healthy and physically effective through middle age. Stay mentally sharp. The sorts of things that being physically active and moderately athletic allow a person to do. I’m on course. I’m doing the things that I have to do to get to where I want to be and that feels good.

But I am sitting on some anxiety today too. My mom will be meeting me in Philadelphia for the race. Which means she’ll be meeting BB. Introducing partners to parents is always nerve-wracking. This is no exception. But BB is kind and outgoing. Mom likes me. There’s every reason to think it will go well. But that doesn’t prevent my mind from worrying.

All things considered, all is well. The position description for my promotion is being sent to HR. I should find out hopefully by the end of October if I’m getting promoted. This would be an excellent thing, and even though it would not actually mean much in the way of financial benefits, it would be a remarkably positive development for my ego.

I’m taking Monday off of work and going to New York for a funeral. Then mom and I are meeting several old friends for dinner. And then I come back to ECC and crashing. I expect it to be a good, but full and emotionally tiring weekend. I think the long run will be just the thing I need to make it through. With my new and electrifying partner step-for-step at my side.

Running On – Thoughts on Mediocrity.

18 September 2014

Tonight I will run 10K as my last training run for the Philadelphia Rock and Roll Half-Marathon Sunday. This will be my second half-marathon and I’m very excited for it. When I ran Pittsburgh in May, I was not terribly well prepared. The longest run I had done leading up to it was 10 miles. The run was long and slow and difficult, but I did it. I also did it at the cost of a lingering foot “injury” that bothered me much of the early summer. Simple nerve fuckery, nothing serious or overly painful, and since resolved.

This time, I’m quite well prepped, I think. BB and I have been doing long runs every weekend, and I’ve been doing 2 or 3 other runs every week. I’ve run 130ish miles in the past 7 weeks. My longest run, last Saturday, was 11.3 miles. I feel fit for the half, and decidedly better than I was in May. This half should also be easier: Pittsburgh is hilly. Philadelphia is not. The weather should be about the same, I think. I don’t trust forecasts three days out, but such as it is, it’s a good one. As long as it isn’t 80+ and humid at 8am, I’ll be OK.

In some ways, I’m disappointed by where running half-marathons has gotten me. I am still 183 pounds, which is a bit overweight for my height. I am soft through the middle despite two months now also working out at the gym twice a week. I have never been in great shape, and I am not in great shape now. I am forced to conclude that running half-marathons is not that hard. It’s something that a human being in perfectly mediocre shape can accomplish. It’s unexceptional.

I do a lot of crowing about unexceptional things. I’m big on bluster. I exult in papers and grants when they get accepted and funded. But the truth is, I’ve never gotten an exceptional journal to publish me. I’ve never gotten an exceptional grant. I am not professionally exceptional. I’m mediocre. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m happy being mediocre. I’ve been operating at B+ level since I was six years old. And I’ll stay there, contentedly.

But I want you to think that I’m an A+. I want to do B+ work for A+ credit. I want to do B+ training for A+ results. I want to write B+ papers for A+ journals. And so sometimes, I crow about B+s to try to make people think they’re A+s. Sometimes it works. But then I feel hollow for knowing the truth, and additionally feeling like a liar. Or feeling like I rode purse-strings and coat-tails to a higher perch than I’ve earned.

I am not what I present myself as. Not really. I’m not as good as I want you to believe. And this isn’t Impostor Syndrome, though I have that too. I’m talking about a deliberate, conscious attempt to present myself in a better light than I’ve earned. I don’t work as hard as my bosses think I do. I’m not as accomplished or experienced with respect to research and grants as I think my tweeting and blogging suggests. I have published only 9 papers in journals that shouldn’t be used to line animal cages. I have won only four real grants, of which only three were accepted and completed. None were larger than an R03.

Sometimes, it’s not Impostor Syndrome. Sometimes, we’re just not as good as we wish we were. That’s me. I’m a mediocre engineer and middling scientist. But I’ve found the right place for me. Where my B+ is seen as high performing. I’m happy there. I wish I were the kind of person who knew how to give A+ effort. But I’m not. I never have been. And the same is true with fitness. I run half marathons because they’re easy, not because they’re hard. I can do that, and people seem impressed.

I need that validation. I hunger for social credit. But I also know that my time here is limited. I like being the inspirational figure: I’m an alcoholic and I’m an ex-smoker and I was obese and now I don’t drink and I don’t smoke and I’m only sort-of fat and I run miles and miles and isn’t it all so goddamned inspirational? Aren’t you impressed with me? You should be! I’m very impressive!

At some point though, I slide off that pedestal I like to be on. And then I’m just this dude who expects lavish attention for ordinary feats of humanity. And that’s dull, trending towards repugnant. I need to find ways to be me, and be ordinary, and accept that about myself. To relent from my iron-grip throttling of praise and just be a normal person doing normal things among friends. I don’t know how to do that right now. I don’t really know what that looks like or feels like.

It’s a journey that takes me to many ports of call. I’ve been at this one a long time.

What Makes a Scientist?

17 September 2014

I had an interesting conversation with a friend yesterday about “what makes a scientist”. Now, I’ve written here that I’m not really a scientist, and that’s true. I’m an engineer. While I use scientific principles to test hypotheses, my real job is about designing and building computer simulations and using them to make predictions. The scientific process gets entangled there, but I don’t generally, really have to apply academic rigor and scientific reductionism to the work that I do. I’m a holistic engineer, as it were. I look at broad systems through a coarse lens.

However, from the perspective of using repeatable methods to observe, study, and understand the world, and then encapsulating that understanding to be disseminated to others, of course I’m a scientist. I am generating knowledge about human-interactive hybrid dynamic systems and how they behave, how we study them, and how we can intervene in them to make them behave in more useful ways. That’s science.

My friend and I were talking about grants and papers, and my friend asserted that no one who is awful at writing grants and papers can be a “fine scientist”, essentially by definition. At least, not in the modern world’s structure for producing science. Such a person cannot be an effective independent investigator. If you can’t write grants, and you can’t get papers out, then you might be great at designing experiments, taking and interpreting data, and testing hypotheses, but you won’t be able to do much science because you won’t have resources. Without grants you can’t do experiments, without experiments you can’t write papers, without papers, you can’t get grants.

So the ancillary aspects of “science”, the administrative business of lab budgeting and grantsmanship and paper writing are parceled with being a good scientist, de facto even if not philosophically. Some people will lament this, I suppose. But in the system we’ve built, I think it’s true. In order to be a decent scientist, for the most part, you need to be a decent writer of grants and papers. Mostly.

So, what makes a scientist? What’s the definition you use?

____________________

*UPDATE: This is focused on “being a PI”. Grad students, postdocs, technicians, etc., are all obviously scientists.

Isn’t Hurting Ourselves Enough?

15 September 2014

We alcoholics hurt people. Over and over again. We do terrible things and we victimize people over and over again. We take advantage. We behave boorishly, vilely. And we don’t seem to care about the damage we do. After all, if we cared, why would we keep repeating it?

A friend asked me recently why we alcoholics have to hurt others before we can recover. Why, I was asked, isn’t hurting ourselves enough? I wish I had a different answer than the one I have. Because the answer I have is uglier than I want to be. We alcoholics often have to take everything and everyone around us down before we approach recovery, if we ever do at all.

But it isn’t hurting others that makes us, that made me, recover. It was hurting myself. The answer is: hurting ourselves is the only thing that matters at all. We hurt others because they simply don’t matter to us. It is when we get hurt too that we have hope of recovery.

Most of the injury I did to others in my drinking career, I think, was the result of not giving a single thought to anything but how those people could help me get what I needed and wanted. Or how to maneuver them out of the way of what I desired. People were tools, obstacles, and mannequins. They were not people. So hurting them didn’t matter.

It was when I began to lose the things that I wanted. When I began to be unable to see myself as successful. When I became crushingly aware of the waste I’d made of myself and the people I loved (Yes, I loved them. I just didn’t care about them.), that was when I began to have hope of recovery. Because the sting of my venom had turned against me.

I did not, of course, realize this at the time. It took me a while, and some uncompromising therapy and sponsorship, to see it. To accept it. To understand it. To lament it and want to amend it. To emerge from narcissism to rectitude (such as I have). Alcoholics are users. I was a user. I still struggle against my inclination and aptitude to use people to get to my desired ends. It’s something I learned well, and became good at. I needed to, to drink like I drank.

Why isn’t hurting ourselves enough? It is. It’s the only thing that’s enough. Other people may enable us, they may thwart us. We may want something from them. But when we are active in our drinking, they do not matter as people. And so hurting them is unimportant. Yes we can recognize it. We may feel bad about it. But usually, we feel badly because we have disrupted a relationship that was enabling us.

And when we have ruined enough of those relationships, when we lose the things we love: our comfort, our stability, our self-respect, our ability to be in denial, our support; when we start to feel the pain of our alcoholism directly, then we may have hope of recovery. When alcohol won’t give us what we need, and no one will give us alcohol. Maybe we can recover.

If an alcoholic in your life is hurting you, you have the right to disengage with us. This is true whether we are sober or not. We alcoholics may, in sobriety, recover or discover our empathy. I believe I have, mostly. But while we drink, people are simply objects we consume to get what we want. Hurting you only matters if it hurts us too.

Externalizing Responsibility.

8 September 2014

In my work as a systems engineer in a hospital, I have a regular challenge that I face. Once I am called in to examine and model a system, I am almost invariably told that the true problem lies outside that system’s boundaries. The OR can’t fix its own turn-around time, because the real problem is down in decontamination, who aren’t getting the instruments cleaned fast enough. The real problem is in the PACU, who doesn’t prep the patients for surgery on time. Etc. Dealing with this is difficult. In part because there is almost always some truth to it. Environmental could do the decontamination faster. The PACU could be more efficient.

But that simply offloads the responsibility for change. If I were to agree, and decide to go try to work with the PACU, surprise surprise, someone else would be the problem. This is a pretty common human behavior, I think. I know I do it. Whenever I am confronted with a challenge in my life, my first instinct is to cast about: whose fault is this? Because surely, sure as hell, it isn’t my fault. Except that it is usually my fault. And even when others had parts to play (which is often enough), I had a part as well. I contributed to my own difficulties.

I find myself thinking about how men in the gaming industry, and in response to the celebrity cloud-hacking scandal, and in general in response to issues of violence against women, are reacting with such vitriol right now. So many men are collectively seeking to externalize responsibility. To claim that women are responsible for these acts against themselves. Or to claim that the real perpetrators are a mysterious class of “other” men, which they deny belonging to (“Not all men!”). When a woman is assaulted or attacked, the chorus goes up, “Was she drunk? Was she clad suggestively?”

What this means, of course, is “Did she step out of line?” Did this victim transgress the role we men have prescribed for her in society? Did she deserve it? And I think it’s self-protective for men. I think for many of us, if we can assign some blame to the woman for her victimhood, then we can relieve ourselves. We can say, “I’m not the problem. I don’t have to change.” Change is hard. Change is really hard. Especially when we enjoy the thing we’re suddenly trying to change about ourselves. Really especially then.

Now, in the abstract, it is not victim-blaming to hold that people should be careful in the world. That getting drunk around strangers is a risky activity. That not carefully securing your online data increases the chances for exploitation. These are risks for everyone, though the stakes are not even close to evenly distributed. But men, stop for a moment. We need to consider the implication, and consider where we stand in the priority of those tasked with giving… let’s say “wise counsel” rather charitably.

Why is it dangerous for women to drink around strangers? Because many of us are predators. Why do those personal photos need to be so rigidly protected? Because many men are criminals who will exploit them for prurience and profit. So, when you hear of an attack, and you exhort women to protect themselves, who do you think you are, exactly? Do you think women haven’t been told this hundreds of times by their mothers, their teachers, their fathers, their friends? By every responsible woman in their lives? Do you think women just never thought of personal safety? Maybe it just never sunk in until you said it?

Telling adult women to protect themselves is an attack. It says, “You are not obeying the rules we’ve determined for you.” And it is a defense mechanism. It says, “I don’t have to change.” And finally, it’s a threat. It says, “You’d better be careful. You don’t know what could happen to you.”

It is an act of defiance for women to simply go out and enjoy the freedoms we men take for granted. A real act of courage. And I know that men are capable of seeing it, because I know the fear we feel when women we love go out alone at night. We fear for them. Because we know there are predators out there, there are predators among us. Among our own cohort of friends and family. Whatever trepidation we feel for the women in our lives, I cannot imagine how much more it must be for them.

It is well past time for us, we men, to stop placing responsibility for protection from harm on those who are at risk. The blandishments that not all men are predators and that women have some role to play in their own security are facile. No one has ever disputed such things. These are obvious facts which do not excuse men – yes, all men – from culpability when we participate in a societal structure which routinely victimizes vulnerable members. Which looks the other way when atrocities are committed. Which consumes the fruits of criminal invasions of privacy.

In AA, one of the hardest things to do is to look at our own part in the resentments we have. But we have to, to recover. I believe that men, collectively, need to look closely at our own part in the habitual, relentless victimization and exploitation of women in our midst. For our society to recover from this sickness, we men must be willing to look first at how we contribute. How we participate. It is ongoing, and lifelong. It is something we men must teach boys. Look at ourselves first. The problem is within our sphere. My sphere.

I have written many times that there are women who deserved better than I’ve given them. Even in sobriety, I regret some of my behaviors. I’ve been far from perfect. And I had strong and effective women teaching me from boyhood. It takes more than that. It takes willingness, and I believe it takes adult men teaching boys hard truths about our gender: many of us are predators. It is all of our responsibility to change that. And it is each of our responsibility to change ourselves. Uttering vague platitudes about personal security are simply the vapor by which we excuse the malefaction of our kin, so that we may deny our personal stake in it.

Memory and the Lack Thereof.

5 September 2014

This past week, back in St. Louis, I attended two of my old meetings, my Sunday mixed and my Wednesday men’s. It was an interesting experience. I had a good time in St. Louis. I was able to see many old friends and show BB around my old haunts, and the home I still own there that I’m renting out. It was especially nice to talk to a friend with whom I’d had a bit of a falling out and set things right. I saw my old marriage counselor. And I found myself confronting memory in a strange way.

My Sunday mixed group had changed a lot. There were some familiar faces, but the room had largely turned over. I recognized about five people. After the meeting, several of my friends and BB and I went to lunch. We had an excellent and wide-ranging conversation. It felt like old times. My Wednesday group was the same as it’s ever been. Of the roughly 20 men in the room, I knew all but two.

I love that men’s meeting. Glen spoke, about how to get out of funks. When it was my turn to share, I talked about how I try to manage them by staying ahead. When something big is going on in my life, I up my meeting schedule preemptively. And when I do get in a funk, I try to focus on how my decisions are my decisions. I am responsible for my emotional state, my spiritual state. I have to take authority over my own aspect. Learning acceptance and surrender helps me ascend from deep troughs.

And I was reminded of my drunken past in another way. When I bought my home, I originally bought it with my then-partner. When we split, she signed a quit claim. I kept it, so that when I go to sell the home, I will have clear title. But I never had it recorded. And now it’s been years. Or so I thought. I went to the City Hall, and to my surprise, it had been recorded only days after it was signed. I have no memory of this.

I was a drunk. I doubt I actually went to City Hall and had a quit claim recorded while I was intoxicated, but I might have been badly hungover. I might have gone drinking immediately thereafter. Or maybe she did it. Or a lawyer. I simply don’t remember. You’d think I would. You’d think I’d remember something as important as changing the deed of a home I own. But I don’t. Because I’m an alcoholic. I sat in my rented car and I cried.

I talk about losing a decade to alcohol. In many ways it’s literally true. I don’t remember many things that happened while I drank. I rarely had blackouts. But as time has gone on, I simply don’t have access to a full complement of recall from those times. In some ways, this allows me to silence the railing hailstorm of humiliation. I am mortified by what I was, who I was, who I am inside. The things I did. The things I said. The injury and insult I incurred. I remain ashamed of my past.

But being ashamed is not the same as regret. I do not really regret my past. Sure, I wish I hadn’t poured whiskey over a decade of my life and career. I wish I hadn’t made terrible romantic decisions. I wish I hadn’t squandered a young fortune. But I did. And I don’t really regret it. That’s what it took to make a man of me. To grow into an effective adult in the world. And I got here. I am a man now. I am finally beginning to feel like a man, rather than a boy. I grew into my life older than most.

But I am not ashamed of who I am. I am not ashamed that it took me harder lessons than many to achieve what I’ve achieved. That I’ve had to hurdle obstacles many haven’t. We all have our own paths. And others have must negotiate blockages worse than I’ve had to face, and overcome more than I’ve overcome. It’s not a contest. It’s not a race. I have my journey. I’ve been buoyed by privilege, and beset by disease and self-sabotage. I am the protagonist in the story of my life, and I am also the villain.

I am the me in my life. I am the one who must live with me. I continue to make bad choices from time to time. I continue to err and falter. Sometimes, I do wrong on purpose. But it’s less now. Punctuation among the long sentences of my attempts at decency. I may never be well. But I can work at kindness.

A Strange Turn into Research Policy.

28 August 2014

Twitter is a fascinating, self-contradictory place for scientists. A huge and robust community. By turns enlightened and enlightening, ruthlessly orthodox, whimsical and humorless, unified and fragmented, quixotic and hypocritical, absolutist and relativist. Just as it is impossible to pin down any individual to a label-board, so the community of scientists and academics on twitter defies any description. But it is a fertile soil for planting and harvesting ideas.

And it has led my own research in directions it never would have gone if not for my interaction there. Including things that are not part of my job, I’ll get no credit for from work, and will not help me advance any currently conceivable career path. I have two papers currently under review which fall under the broad category of “research policy”. I’m not trained in research policy any more than any PI who is required to receive basic ethics and policy instruction. But a couple of things that came out of interactions on twitter led me to conduct (or assist in conducting) a few interesting experiments, and now I’m trying to publish the results.

If I were a professor, this would probably help me, career-wise. One of them involves simulation, and the other is a really cool result that may have broad implications for research ethics. And neither of them would ever have happened except for twitter. In the latter case because it is the result of a collaboration with better researchers than I am that I met on twitter, and in the former because it is a topic I had little interest in until I discovered the impact is has on people through my interactions on twitter. As a professor, I could let these ideas take me where they take me.

But as a hospital engineer, I have this whole other job to do, which has nothing to do with these topics. I’m working on publishing there too, and on developing a position for myself where publishing matters, and I am rewarded for putting papers out there. I’m building a (mostly) hard-money quality-improvement research program here where none has existed before. And doing it in a mildly-clandestine manner, in the sense that I want to establish it, and make it robust and integrated with my department’s QI activities, without exposing myself to the risk of becoming a soft-money researcher. I don’t want my bosses to decide I’m doing so much research that I should be grant-supported.

It just goes to show the strange paths a career can take. I have no training in policy, and yet now I am poised to (hopefully) publish two papers with policy findings. One of which at least ostensibly relates to my professional expertise, in that it involves a computer-simulated thought experiment. In the event I am ever truly aiming for a professorship, these publications, and the ones from my job, will provide evidence of my academic acumen and ambition. That’s important. Hopefully, in about 8 weeks, I’ll have a good grant score to report too.

I don’t know, exactly, how much twitter has influenced my career. I know it supported my willingness to change cities when my funding was running out at my last job. I know that it has helped me develop new lines in inquiry. It’s a strange, wonderful, maddening place. And it’s helped position me to make a contribution to a field I never imagined having anything to contribute to. That’s gratifying. Or, it will be, if the papers get published.

What an odd place this world is. I don’t know if I’m doing it right. But I’m doing something. And it feels like I’m moving forward.

 

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