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Vacation Postcards!

18 May 2017

Ok no promises but if you want a postcard from my mystery vacation destination you can email (infactorium at the g mail server machine) your address and I will do my best to send you one.

If not, I’ll post some pics here when I return!

Vacation Now.

16 May 2017

I am on day two of four sitting like a blob at home on my two week vacation before I jet off with BB to parts unknown for 10 days. We tend to go on two trips a year, a long one and a short one, and this is the long one. We’ll be somewhere wonderful and fabulous, and because of my horrific flight home last fall American Airlines owed me $1,000, so our tickets were nearly free. Obviously, blogging will be light for the next two weeks.

Sitting at home, I’m planning to do a little training for my triathlon (today I have gym, bike, and run – if I can find the motivation.). And I’m composing a little chamber piece to be played at a fundraiser for music therapy services at MECMC. I was asked to play piano at it, but I feel uncomfortable playing for an audience that’s sitting and listening to me. I don’t ind playing in a public place, I do it all the time, but not for a seated and attentive crowd.

But writing a piece for professionals (or talented amateurs) to play? That’s gratifying. So I’m hopefully going to be able to put out a piece for flute and piano that people will like. I’m not a gifted composer, but I am also not shitty. Hopefully I can create something that will not leave everyone nauseated.

Mostly, I’m glad to be relaxing, off work, and I’m definitely feeling less stressed. I know it will all come back in a minute once I return. But for now… aahhhhhhh. I could get used to not having a job.

Final Approvals Secured.

12 May 2017

My boss and my VP have agreed and I will be joining the PHRG on a part-time basis as a Research Scientist. We’ll follow up and review how it’s going at quarterly intervals. My, my boss, and my new mentor. I will have to work a lot harder I think, but I will be getting to do far more exciting stuff than I’ve been doing in a much higher profile environment.

I will have an outward facing website and an excellent new title, and even a horrible fishbowl glass-walled office. It’s very exciting. I share the office, but I think it’s a time share not a concurrent thing. I’m not entirely sure. Those are the trappings. That’s the neat stuff that I’m glad to get instead of the basement cube I have now and for the foreseeable future.

But the really exciting stuff is I get to work on public health and epidemiology again. I get to apply computer simulation to policy and analysis and write blog posts and white papers and give talks and attend meetings where my ideas and innovations will hopefully be taken seriously by people who actually write policy and influence those who write legislation and regulations.

The kind of people, support services, and international credibility that the PHRG has will help my work find its way into better papers and may yield some new grant funding. They have that stuff locked in – it’s a funding machine. They secure millions of dollars a year for their work. I will be able to participate and hopefully benefit those efforts. I’m really excited. Apprehensive, naturally, but excited.

I hope to be able to do some good work.


Ownership and Addiction.

8 May 2017

Almost everyone in AA thinks that people outside AA could also benefit from working the program in their lives. Not giving up alcohol, but the core concepts of doing inventory, relinquishing control, accepting what we can’t change, changing what we can, and taking radical ownership for our problems. I’m not so sure.

AA works because the program allows me to address my deep issues. I have a disease that tries to convince me I don’t have a disease. That my problems are not my fault. That I am a victim. That the appropriate response to my troubles is to slug down as much alcohol as possible and tell the world to go fuck itself. I know other people aren’t like that.

I cannot confront my disease without taking hard personal responsibility for the outcome of my choices. Indeed, I cannot confront my disease without recognizing my choices. For example: my ex-wife spent an enormous amount of money which devastated me financially. But that wasn’t her fault. It was mine. Because I was making the money, I had exclusive access to it. I could have put an end to her spending easily.

It would have meant getting divorced much earlier. She was clear about that. Quite explicitly, she told me that if I “put her on an allowance” (a term which covered making a budget), she would leave me. So I didn’t. And so I ruined my finances. That was my choice. It was a terrible choice to have to make, but it was my choice.

But I own it. Does that ownership absolve her of anything? Nope. I have no idea how she feels about it now, as we don’t speak. I hope she’s happy and free of resentments. But if she does have any, those are her responsibility. But I do not get to blame her for the choices I made. I own my acts.

I’ve had people tell me that my thinking on this is warped, and that I should blame her. But what would that get me? It would leave me resentful, embittered, and not a dollar wealthier. As it is, I’m free from this, because I can look at my own decisions, separate them from hers, and release her from my regrets about my financial decisions. I had a choice, I made a choice, I live with the results. It’s about me, not her.

I’ve adopted this severe framework of ownership because it works for me. It allows me to be sober, to be happy, and to learn from mistakes and make different choices moving forward. I’m sure I’ll make bad decisions again from time to time. But I have changed my relationship to money and now I have some savings and good credit. And I don’t drink about it.

For most people, the consequences of not taking this kind of radical ownership (a phrase a friend in recovery introduced me to) are not nearly so dire. Most people can tolerate resentment (or manage it a different way) without it risking a cumulative cascade ending in an cataract of ethanol. My framework was established to help people like me, who do not do well when we think other people are the causes of our problems.

I live pretty high on the privilege scale, but I have seen this framework function well for people from as low on the yardstick as it is possible to be. I’ve seen non-gender comforming persons of color with felony convictions and multiple mental health diagnoses use the program of AA to rise from squalor and establish happy and successful lives.

Much of how we live in the world is how we choose to see the world around us. If we think we don’t have choices, then we don’t. If we think we can’t make changes, then we can’t. But if we’re willing to look at ourselves and search for the choices we have, the ones we had, and the way we allowed ourselves to get into a situation we wish we hadn’t? If we take ownership of that? We can start seeing the way out.

That doesn’t absolve the world. The world really does do us wrong in many ways (and does far worse to some than others). Some people are victims of acts and systems that they do not deserve to be subject to. But we all still have choices of act and attitude that we can make to change what we do and how we live, and how we choose to see the world.

But maybe that doesn’t work for normal people. Maybe my alcoholism really is a gift, and advantage, rather than a liability. Because my brush with terminal mental illness has given me a perspective and a set of tools that other people just don’t need, or can’t use. I have a life preserver. But other people, maybe, just swim. The tool I have isn’t necessary for them. It would be a hindrance, not a help.

I like to think the world would be a better place if everyone used the program. Most of us in AA do. But maybe it doesn’t work like that. Nevertheless, if a person is overwhelmed, unhappy, and can’t see a way out? Look for your choices. The ones you made. The ones you can still make. They’re there. You have more power than you think you do.

Big Bricks.

5 May 2017

Yesterday I did my second or third bike/run brick of the training season. Those are the hard ones. Mondays I do a run/swim brick, and now Tuesdays I do strength/bike. I was supposed to just run Wednesday and bike Thursday, but work got complicated and blah blah, so I made it up on Thursday. Which is long-bike day. So it was a big day.

I’m working hard at picking up pace on the bike. I was moving pretty rapidly a lot of the time yesterday. I even did a whole mile at 21 mph, and it was on flat ground without a sympathetic wind. Just me and my legs and my bike, churning out a sub-3 minute mile. Overall I averaged 15.55 miles per hour for 25 miles. That included a stop to pee and multiple traffic stops, slow rides over cobblestones and gravel and boardwalks, path congestion in places, etc..

It took me an hour and thirty-seven minutes. That’s a solid ride. I was especially gratified that I wasn’t quite as saddle-sore as my prior long ride, and my hands didn’t go numb at all. I still have a lot of endurance to build. It’s different on the bike than running, where it’s all about fitness. On the bike, I just have to train my body to accept the insult of the position and seat for long durations. It’s challenging.

After the bike, I planned to go right out on my run, but I had to chat with my boss for a half an hour on the phone. So I ran after a short break. Which is fine. I think on race day a nice sit for ten minutes or so at the bike-run transition might well be called for. To let my back muscles ease up and relent from the hunched-over grip they assume after a long time on two wheels.

I was able to go out and run a hard 4 miles, at a 9:11 pace, which is fast for me, and for now. I’ve been running fewer miles lately due to the pick-up in other exercises and also due to me skipping a couple of long runs that I didn’t feel up to. That’s a bad plan, but I have the right to rest my mind as well as my body when I feel like I need to. If it makes me hurt more on race day? Well, race day was always gonna hurt.

My heart rate was way up on the run. Up in the 175-180 range for a lot of it. That’s too high. But I felt fine. I was able to turn in one of my miles at an 8:40 pace. It was cool and dry, and I don’t expect to be able to make anything like that pace even for the Olympic triathlon in June. Which is fine. I know my June Olympic will be slower than last year’s triathlon, because the bike course is about 6 miles longer.

My only goal with triathlons is to crawl across the finish line with one second to spare. June will be hot. September will be hot. Both might be humid. It will be difficult and painful. But I think I can get there. I hope I can get there.

Curriculum Vitae.

27 April 2017

My career path has been a weird winding one which I would recommend no one emulate. Starting back at the beginning, back in high school, everyone thought I had a lot of potential and put me in all the accelerated classes. For whatever reason, scholastic mastery was never really important to me though. I didn’t work very hard. I worked hard enough to get B+’s. Parents and teachers were often vexed. But my understanding of the material seemed strong.

I got into a reasonably fancy college on the strength of those grades, pretty good test scores (I got a 1310 on the SAT back when there were only two sections and 1600 was perfect). Not great scores. Pretty good. Not great grades. Pretty good. But amazing recommendations. Everyone agreed that I had big potential, it seemed. Also, I wasn’t asking for financial aid (thanks, Grandpa!).

In college I did the same as in high school. I got B+’s, mostly. A’s in my major, for the most part. C’s in some breadth classes. Overall, I averaged a B+. But my mastery of the material seemed good, and a few professors took a shine to me. I also tried to circulate with the smarter kids. I had several friends, like LawnBoy and PanurgeJr, who were there on full merit-based academic scholarships.

My advisor thought he saw something in me and offered me a fully-funded graduate assistantship. I was also offered a position in the school of engineering at Columbia. I stayed where I was out of fear and depression. And it was probably the right decision. In graduate school I got B+’s. That’s less acceptable in graduate school, but B+ is as hard as I’m willing to work. I’ve never discovered a diligence inside that lets me do better than that.

In graduate school I discovered alcohol, and I spent 10 years “studying” and doing engineering research while drinking a bottle of whiskey a day, basically. My advisor eventually pulled my stipend to force me to finish. It still took two years. Then I did nothing for two years. I was trying to start a business, but I was failing. I participated in a health care advisory board without compensation. But basically, I was unemployed, floundering, and useless. And drunk every day.

It was around this time, February of 2008, that I went to an inpatient rehab, sobered up, and was offered a job through that advisory board. It was at the VHA, and paid about like a postdoc, though I was a staff employee. I worked for the chief of staff of a hospital who was also a full professor of both engineering and medicine. Like so many others have (but I never did) he saw something in me.

Sober now, I worked more effectively. But really, still, at the B+ level. That has never changed. I helped my boss write grants and publish. I wrote a small grant of my own and won it, under his guidance. Eighteen months later, I got promoted. Still technically staff, I was a principal investigator now. My salary almost doubled. I wrote and won another grant, about an R03. I was in negotiations to join the faculty part time at a local research university.

Then my boss quit. The new hospital leadership did not give the first fuck about research. I was told to cover my salary with grant fund instantly or I would be let go. There was no way to do it. I started looking for jobs. The part time faculty position was approved, but hung up in funding limbo. It wasn’t going to start in time for me to avoid unemployment.

I reached out through my vendors and found that MECMC – my current employer – was looking for someone to do what I do, in a 100% operational context. I interveiwed and was offered the position. It meant moving a thousand miles from home. Overplaying my hand, I told them I wanted to keep 10% of my time protected to write manuscripts of the work I was doing. They agreed.

And so I joined the staff at MECMC. It’s an academic hospital but I was far from the research apparatus. The faculty saw me as what I was: a low-level administrative functionary with unique technical skills. But gradually I moved up. Promoted twice, on a managerial track, in three years. I petitioned for and was given permission to hire an underling engineer. A young man with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Sort of like a student.

I also wrote tiny little grants and won them. I petitioned the IRB for principal investigator privileges. I wrote manuscripts of nearly every project I worked on. I published my operational work as research in medical journals. The 10% protected time vanished by fact if not by intent: I had too much to do. But I managed expectations well. And so while publishing and grant-writing were not part of my job, I did them anyway.

I reached out to the faculty here, and at VFU. I made friends with professors. I did side projects with academics I met on twitter. I did side projects alone. I published them because they interested me, and because I wanted to be able to return to the world of academics one day. I wanted to create something that everyone says doesn’t exist: a position on hard money that allows me to pick my projects, write grants and papers at leisure, and make a difference in my local environment.

Now I’ve met the leader of the PHRG. He loved my work and methods. He invited me to become a Research Scientist in his group. Still a staff position, not faculty. But a principal investigator and a nearly-academic title. Hard money. And a champion to find me that faculty title soon. It is happening.

My CV has gaps and embarrassing inclusions and omissions. It only has a little grant money won. No major journals in my bibliography. I have a good school there, but my prior institution is not fancy or prestigious. MECMC is. I am 42 years old and I made a mess of my 20s and early 30s. I’ve had to claw back from unemployment and alcoholism to a place, almost a decade later, where I am within striking distance of academia again.

From something I once didn’t even know I wanted – an academic legacy – to thinking it was lost, to now being on the cusp of it again. I’ve scratched and scraped and made wrong turns and been thwarted. I’ve had people advance me without my having earned it, and I’ve had people dispose of me despite obvious merit. This pathway is not in any of the manuals. This is not how anyone would tell you to build an academic career.

But this is how I’ve done it. This is how I’m doing it. One stupid mistake at a time. One audacious request. One unsupportable demand. One side project. One manuscript. One little grant application. One little extra thing. Telling the people who employ me what I want. What I want more than money.

I want to make a difference. I want to have a legacy. I want to have a retirement ceremony where people expect a speech. And I want to be the proof: it’s not impossible. There’s always another way. You don’t have to follow the path they say you have to follow. Bad luck doesn’t have to end your dreams.

Once lost in a labyrinth of depression and addiction, underperforming and constantly making bad decisions, I finally and slowly turned. In the past 9 years, I have mazily progressed toward the thing I have coveted. I’m not there yet. But it is happening.

Never give up.

Lesson Learned.

26 April 2017

As my triathlon training ramps up, I’m doing “bricks” (or two different sport workouts in a single day, back-to-back) two to three times a week. Mondays are run/swim bricks, and Tuesdays are strength/bike. Others occur with haphazard periodicity. This week though, the weather Tuesday was garbage, so Monday, in anticipation, I decided to switch up the swim and the bike, so as to take advantage of the indoorsness of the gym and pool.

So Monday I did a 12.5 mile ride in 49 minutes and then a 4.1 mile run in 42. A great little brick with satisfying speed. I felt strong and fast. I’m getting close to goal paces on everything. My hope is to do the Philadelphia triathlon in reasonably close to three hours, depending on the weather. 3:10 to 3:15 would be fabulous.

The half-Ironman is only a little bit longer than double the Olympic distance, and so if I turn in a 3:15, I’ll be very happy. That would indicate that an 8 hour half-Ironman is within reach. I’m in pretty good cardiovascular shape right now, my heart rate is behaving and I’m hitting really good paces on my speed intervals.

But I did learn a big lesson yesterday. Since I’d done my bike/run brick on Monday, I had gym/swim on Tuesday. So I lifted heavy metal things for an hour, including two honest-to-god hands-forward pull-ups, a bunch of chin-ups, and several sets of TRX rows. Basically, I completely thrashed my lats. Then I got in the pool.

I was supposed to do 1500 meters. That’s 0.93 miles, and the length of the swim of an Olympic triathlon. My half-Ironman is 1900 meters, or 1.18 miles. I did not have 1500 meters. I swim freestyle (what I grew up hearing called “the Australian crawl”). It places big demands on the lats to pull the arms through the water. Mine were sore and tired.

I felt like I was lying low in the water. Breathing felt like a challenge getting my head up high enough out of the water to make it safe. Everything was about three times the effort, and I was swimming significantly slower than I had a week ago. I cut the workout short to 1000 meters.

Regardless, I’m doing reasonably well and I feel ready to do the Olympic distance tomorrow if the race were tomorrow. I’d be slower than I expect to be by the time the actual race day comes around. But I can do the distances now. The big race? Well, it was always going to be a stretch. I’ll see what I’ve got when the time comes.