Tuesday, May 27, 2008


I just handed in my thesis to the school! One down, one to go. I have my defense next Friday--I'm expecting it will go fine. I'm good at giving talks and find them very energizing, which means I tend to sail through the questions in a haze of that natural high we get when doing something we're good at.

But it's been a long haul for me, getting this done. I wrote the following post about a month ago, in the depths of the misery:

Writing my thesis has been a semi-nightmarish process for me. It's strange, because in other contexts I like writing. But this is an endless stream of the particular part of my job that I hate. It's like that one chore you just totally, unreasonably, can't stand. For me, that's taking out the trash. Seriously, I will let the bags pile up for weeks, garbage juice leaking out all over the floor. Dishes? No problem. I could wash dishes all day long. But the garbage? Nope, just can't deal.

Scientific writing is like that for me.

It's not so much that I have that much work to do, although there is quite a bit. It's more that I sit at my desk, unable to concentrate, yet totally stressed that I have to try to keep working. I normally have pretty high levels of self discipline, so when that breaks down for me, I sit there, paralyzed, unable to work and unable to convince myself to work. Sometimes I'm tired and can't really think straight, but it's more often that I'm just bored by the detail of it all, or I simply don't want to do it. Then comes a flood of low-key panic: how am I going to get this all done if I can't actually get myself to work on it? How can I force myself to do something I hate? I've been sitting here for an hour trying to convince myself to work and it's not succeeding--the jig's up. This time I'm going to fail.

A Jungian friend of mine talks about our "inferior functions", and how when we have to perform an action that relies on that part of us, we trigger these bizarre, unreasonable, out of proportion doom emotions. Sometimes I think I'm going to die from sitting here trying to do this work. Not "think I'm going to die" like a panic attack, but this deeper sort of "I'm literally going to vaporize with the strain of this becoming-not-me that this task requires". I know the Jungian typology is a bit controversial, but what my friend says really captures my experience with these things. In this case, an attention to obsessively small points of detail is not one of my strengths, but is exactly what scientific writing is all about.

I tend to be pretty highly somatic, as in, when I get stressed out, all my little strange aches and pains flare up to remind me that part of me doesn't like what I'm doing, as though I didn't already know that. Pretty much every single mystery pain I've ever had in my life has flared up in the past couple months! I'm sure that some of my health problems are psychosomatic. That doesn't mean I've made them up--the physical symptoms are real. It's just that some of the underlying cause might be stress or frustration or unhappiness rather than a virus or a mechanical defect. Everyone has this to some degree--asthmatics can have an attack brought on by stress, for example. It can be pretty maladaptive, though--feeling crappy just makes the icky task last longer because I can't work as efficiently when I'm in pain.

I recently had some bloodwork done for one of my semi-psychosomatic things. The technician drew my blood without wearing gloves. Then, because my pathetic little veins collapse and no one can ever get much blood out of them, she wound up using about 4 little vials. Then she popped those little colorcoded rubber caps off the vials she'd used and poured all the blood into one. All without gloves. My eyes about bulged out of my head. Anyway, it turned out to not be what I feared (rheumatoid arthritis) Instead I discovered by accident that my swollen joints (and night sweats and mood swings) were from eating soy--I went on vacation and ate differently for a few weeks and everything cleared up. Got home, hit the soy latte, and they all came back.

Edit:date fix

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Blind Man's Bluff

I had dinner last night at The Blindekuh (Blind man's Bluff), a somewhat famous restaurant here in Zurich where you dine in total darkness. I was planning to have my post-defense celebration dinner there but one of my close friends won't be here in June, so we decided to have a "rehearsal dinner" before she leaves!

I was pretty excited about eating there, as it's actually really difficult to find complete darkness in the modern world. I've been in it before, at the south pole, although not for very long, so I wasn't totally sure how it would be. Apparently it's not unusual for people to freak out and find the darkness claustrophobic. One of the aims of the restaurant (aside from serving excellent food!) is to let people with full vision get a glimpse of life as a person with a visual impairment. I have to admit I was curious about the people who freak out in the total darkness of the restaurant--presumably if they lost their vision they would learn to deal with the darkness?

I found the meal itself really fun--I got to eat with my hands and no one looked at me strangely. There was a knife and fork, but to be honest I'm not that good at using those tools even when I can see (I eat nearly everything with a spoon, actually), so I didn't even bother with them. I also felt free to hunch up over the plate to avoid spilling food on my shirt. I spill food on my clothes all the time, partly because I'm naturally endowed with quite a "shelf" but also because I've never really figured out the trick of getting food from plate to mouth without some of it jumping off the fork/spoon. It's kind of sad that at this age I'm still really not adept at using cutlery, but I guess if I haven't learned by now I'm not likely to. So at home, I like to just hunch up over the bowl (why yes, those spoons generally come with bowls) and avoid the whole issue, but when I eat out I always feel compelled to pretend I'm a civilized adult and sit up.

We arrived at 1830 when it was totally deserted. Not too many early bird specials here! We were there for about three hours (typical length of time one spends eating out here in Switzerland) and only left because the noise level got quite high. When we got to the dimly lit "re-entry" corridor, I got really dizzy at first--it was like my brain had forgotten how to process visual input! It only lasted a minute, but it was a bizarre feeling.

I think the most difficult thing my friend and I experienced was keeping our conversation smoothly on track. The couple next to us was also speaking english, and there were several times when one of us thought they (or the waitron) was speaking to us and it kind of derailed us. And when we actually did have a little aside with them once or twice, it was hard for us and them to tell when it was quite finished and thus go back to our private conversations. It's one thing to talk on the phone to someone and miss out on visual cues, but normally there's just one conversation going on. I guess what happened in the restaurant is like when someone on the phone starts talking to someone near them in person without moving the receiver away from their mouth. I did continue to make a fair number of hand gestures and nods, although I do that on the phone too. I did enjoy the freedom from worrying about people scrutinizing my body language (or cretinous eating posture...). I hadn't realized quite how much pressure I feel about that (all surely from inside my own head) and how nice it was to hunch up weirdly against the wall and fiddle with the knife and fork to keep my hands busy.

The biggest thing I noticed was how sad I was to be back outside. In retrospect, I had found it incredibly restful being in the dark for two reasons. The obvious one is just the vast amount of visual stimulus that I didn't have to deal with for a few hours. Apparently my brain spends a lot of time filtering all that stuff out (or maybe that's the problem--that my brain isn't filtering it out very well) and it was nice to not have to do that for a while. The other is that I naturally moved much more slowly in the dark to avoid knocking my water glass over, and moving slowly and mindfully is, of course, extremely calming but is something I'm rarely able to manage to do in my daily life.

I was reminded of a section in the book They Severed the Earth from the Sky by Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul Barber where they discuss the vast amount of cosmological information that has been packed into myths over the years. The idea at first strikes a modern reader as preposterous--how could normal Joes possibly collect and collate vast amounts of astronomical data? But they raise the point that before the invention of both artificial lighting and the written word, people would have had a lot of time on their hands after sunset, which would (in warm climates and seasons) naturally be spent sitting around, perhaps gazing at stars.

That isn't exactly the same thing as being in total darkness, but it does get at the same idea, which is the ability to look away from the shiny. I find that hard to do. I already live a more, shall we say, contemplative life than many people I know. I don't get out much, and I'm aware of having to consciously choose what to do with my limited amount of time every day, but I guess I'm still feeling the rub of frenetic modern life. I have my hand in the cookie jar and I can't get it out because I don't want to let go of any of my activities. I would love to find some non-eye-dependent activities so I could give my eyes more of a rest, but I haven't been able to come up with much. I have trouble focusing on audiobooks (although I keep trying) and of course I'm always tempted to knit when I have one on, reintroducing the eyes and some shiny (multi-tasking). I guess I could try having "dark hour" with the book playing and see how that goes?

I'm in the home stretch of things at work--my thesis is due to the department in 8 days, and then I have 2 weeks to get my defense presentation together. I get only 20 minutes to present three years (and about 100 pages worth) of work. Good thing I talk really fast!


Saturday, May 03, 2008

Flower of flowers

I took a little trip out to Insel Mainau, an island in the Bodensee about an hour from Zurich. The entire island is a botanical garden! I took a ton of pictures; here are a few of the more interesting ones:


Thursday, May 01, 2008

where'd you meet?

There's a fun discussion thread over on Ravelry (registration required) about where people met their partner. Being the nerd that I am, I couldn't help but take notes as I read, allowing me to create this interesting plot (click for a larger version):

As I plan to jump back into the dating pool when I'm settled back in the US, I thought this was actually extremely helpful data points for myself!

Some elaborations:

random includes:
  • state fair
  • airplane
  • concert
  • street corner
  • literally bumping into a stranger
  • baseball game
  • commuter bus buddy
  • skating rink
  • testifying at court
  • restaurant
  • ???

IRL (in real life) "club" examples:
  • dining club
  • Toastmasters
  • church
  • SCA
  • AA
  • scuba class
  • dance class
  • climbing
  • skiing
  • parents at a kids activity
  • running group
  • knitting club
  • sports fan club
  • member of another local band
  • early music festival

Yes, I am a data taking nerd. I once collected data about outdoor temperature, wind speed, my furnace setting and indoor temperature in the hopes of understanding the relationship. My furnace just had 1 to 10 on the knob, no temperatures, and I was spending US$300 per month to heat a tiny (clearly leaky) cabin. Alas I was never able to grasp the relationship between the variables....